Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Life in the Outer Suburbs

I found this book in the library called The Bogan Delusion by David Nichols.  I took it home purely because of the title.  I found that it was not so much a book as a rant, but very entertaining and at times even enlightening.

Mr Nichols is an urban planner, teaching at the University of Melbourne.  A few years ago he moved from inner city Melbourne to outer suburban Broadmeadows, one of Melbourne's best known public housing estates and supposed Bogan Central.  With the zeal of the convert, he launches a defence of all things outer suburban against all things inner suburban.  His chief target is the notion of the "bogan", the stereotypical uncultured, hard-drinking, mullett-wearing, uneducated outer suburban Australian, for whom Broadmeadows is supposed to be the natural habitat.

His idea is that there is really no such thing as a bogan.  From his description it would be hard to tell because he never really describes clearly what a bogan is, despite his visit to the town of Bogan in rural New South Wales where he took a photo of one.  This is part of his point - the definition of a bogan changes constantly and rapidly to suit the prejudices of its user.  Unfortunately his chief way of combating the bogan stereotype is to create an alternative stereotype, the "anti-bogan", the hypocritical inner city dweller who professes to be socially and environmentally progressive while chewing up more than their share of the ecosystem and avoiding contact with the great unwashed.

It's all good fun but in fact not what the book seems to be really about, which is a solid defence of outer-suburban living and the planners who envisaged it and created the various suburbs we now like to vilify.  Outer suburban living is more environmentally responsible, he says, the suburbs are better planned, the housing is better quality and the people who live there are no worse than those of the inner city.  Even where this is not the case, if people are forced for financial reasons to live in a place with few services, limited access to employment and poor transport, is this their fault, or is the fault of the planners and public servants who created these places then forgot them?  By his telling, of course, these are univerally from the inner city and never visit the places they designed.

In the midst of all this leaping about and stomping on toes he referred to another book, The Lowest Rung by social historian Mark Peel.  It's amazing that I haven't read this book before now because I met the author back in about 1995 while he was researching it, and my name appears in the acknowledgements.  It's in amongst a very long list and all I really did was to provide him with a few phone numbers, but I was very impressed with him.  It's a shame that he took until 2003 to get the book published because by then I had lost track and I've just now read it for the first time.

The Lowest Rung is about three outer suburban public housing estates - Broadmeadows in Melbourne, Mt Druitt in Sydney and Inala in Brisbane.  It is as careful and thoughtful as The Bogan Delusion  is cavalier and slipshod.  Peel interviewed over 250 residents and community workers in these three highly disadvantaged suburbs, inviting them to talk freely about their lives, their histories, their feelings about their community and their hopes and fears for the future.  He handles their views respectfully but not with undue reverence.  Their words are sprinkled liberally throughout the book and their voices come through loud and clear, but he is also not afraid to gently question and challenge them - first of all to their faces in various interviews, and later in his evaluation of what they say.

It can't be doubted that life is hard in these suburbs.  Unemployment is high, poverty is a constant foe and many of those he interviewed were losing hope and running out of steam as the welfare cuts and punitive regimes of the Howard years began to take their toll.   Peel is clear it is not people's fault they are poor, and poverty will not be solved by punishing or reforming them.  If there are no jobs, how can they find work?  Nor does he have any truck with the media obsession with crisis and violence, allowing his interviewees to poke wicked fun at portrayals of rioting and racial warfare through their tales of the way the media staged bits of the events and encouraged people to show aggression for the camera.

Yet these are stories of hope and resilience. People in Mt Druitt, Broadmeadows and Inala have long histories of local activism, aided by sympathetic welfare and church workers, and have created lasting social infrastructure by their own efforts.  Women in particular learn the skills to survive.  While people may sometimes speak in racist terms, in practice the level of tolerance is high in these most multi-cultural of Australian communities.  Women in particular have found ways to reach across racial barriers and share their survival skills and their cultural knowledge.  Even the men, struggling with unemployment and not knowing what to do instead of work, struggle towards ways to rebuild their lives and create meaningful roles for themselves in family and community life.

They don't need charity or punitive "earning or learning" regimes.  What they need, says Peel, is for people to listen to them, take them seriously, and help them to meet their own needs.  They need to be treated not as passive recipients but as active makers of their own destiny.  In the end they don't ask for a lot.  As one of his informants says: "You put up with the struggle, you know, just get by, if you get respect and if you're treated right."  Another responds: "That's right.  It's not being treated like an idiot, like you're a criminal."

No too much to ask, surely.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

25 Years of Queensland Shelter

Tomorrow evening is a function celebrating the 25th anniversary of the creation of Queensland Shelter, the State's peak housing organisation.  I helped create it back in 1987, so I get to say a few words.  Here they are, or at least some of them.


1987 was famous in Queensland history as the year the Tony Fitzgerald was commissioned to conduct a 6-week inquiry into police corruption in Queensland.  Less famously, it was also International Year of Shelter for the Homeless.  A few of us formed a State committee, got some money from Brotherhood of St Laurence, did roadshows around the State on housing and homelessness issues. 

At the end of 1987 we were quite happy with what we had acheived, but we realised we were still a little short of our objective - ending homelessness in Queensland - so we decided to keep going.  We reconstituted ourselves as Queensland Shelter so we could be part of the nationwide network of Shelter organisations.  Helen Wallace, who is now my business partner, even designed us a logo based on the National Shelter one .  Theirs showed two human figures in a tiny house.  Helen carefully whited them out and replaced them with two tiny pineapples. 

Obviously we were operating on a shoestring.  People dropped away early in the next year and at one stage I remember us having 4 people at a meeting at Rosemary Grundy’s house – Rosemary herself, Ross Wiseman, Helen (by then pregnant with Grace, who is now 24!) and myself.  We gradually rebuilt from there thanks to the enthusiasm of some new people, particularly Deidre Coghlan, who replaced Helen at the Catholic Social Welfare Commission, a number of people who worked in Brisbane's homelessness sector, and a young architecture student who became our treasurer and took care of our bank account which steadily rose to the heady sum of $600.

In the late 1980s Queensland was very definitely the poor cousin amongst Australian states when it came to housing and homelessness services.  In 1988 a small group piled into the minibus which belonged to the Maryborough Housing Action Group where I worked, skirted carefully around the Expo 88 traffic and drove down to the National Shelter conference at the University of Wollongong.  We stayed in the student quarters and in the evening we sat in front of the big TV in the student common room, watching news updates on the Fitzgerald Inquiry which was well into its second year and working its way through the ranks of senior police and politicians.  NSW had a new government and the conference was dominated by their angst over cuts to various housing programs.  We were less sympathetic than perhaps we should have been because as they listed the things being cut we were going “never had that”, “never had any of those” “never had that” and we realised that even post-cut they were much better serviced than we were.

“Success has many parents, failure is an orphan”, as they say.  There has been a huge improvement in housing and homelessness services in Queensland since 1987 and many people can share credit for that, but Queensland Shelter has been at the centre of that change, lobbying, bringing people together, developing solutions and promoting good ideas.  It has been continuously funded since 1990 and these days it has 9 or 10 full-time staff and a Statewide network of branches, as well as being the main driver for National Shelter.  In that time the organisation has had three outstanding and long-serving executive officers - Eleri Morgan-Thomas, Roksana Khan and the current incumbent Adrian Pisarski - who have kept the wheels on the track in good times and bad.

However, despite all this we still haven’t eliminated homelessness. Not time to give up yet!

Monday, 22 October 2012

Fall of the Evangelical Nation

When I was writing about John Shelby Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious I concluded that he had misread the mood of the times, and that "the growing churches of our time are not the intellectual, post-theistic churches of the likes of Spong and his fellow progressives. They are the booming fundamentalist megachurches of the pentecostal movement, and the bastions of conservative Catholicism promoted by John Paul II and his followers."

Then I read Christine Wicker's The Fall of the Evangelical Nation.  Wicker is a religious affairs reporter who spent 17 years writing for the Dallas Morning News, during which she wrote this book.  It was published in 2008, conceived in the wake of George W Bush's re-election as US President supposedly on the votes of evangelical Christians who made up 25% of the US population.

These figures are Wicker's first target.  Using data published by evangelical churches themselves, she finds that the true number of active evangelicals in the USA is closer to 7% than the widely publicised 25%, and even fewer are highly committed.  Many more people claim allegiance to evangelical religion in surveys and censuses, but are not actually active members of any church.

Nor are evangelical churches growing, she says.  Their growth lags behind population growth, and they struggle to make new adult converts .  The fastest growing religious group in the USA, she says, is those who say they have no religion.

You might be forgiven for thinking at this point that we are dealing with a hostile foe intent on tearing the church down, but this is not so.  Wicker is clearly a former evangelical rather than a current one, but she is a highly sympathetic observer. 

As part of her research she embedded herself in an evangelical megachurch in Dallas, and spent time interviewing evanglicals from other parts of the country.  She came away with a collection of positive stories, a sample of which she presents to us in highly sympathetic pen portraits.  There is Van Grubbs, the man in charge of Lake Pointe Church's relief fund, who deals compassionately all day with people in need.  Or Mike and Michelle Tauzin, victims of Hurricane Katrina who found new comfort and purpose as well as a loving community through their conversion.  There are many others like them whose lives were transformed and given meaning by their faith.

So if this is a faith that changes lives and builds communities, she asks, why are so few people accepting it?  Why are churches struggling to make converts when the message and its ambassadors are so attractive?  Why are megachurches under threat when they seem so strong and do so much good?

Some of the problems, she says, are within the church.  The mega-church model, built around large debts and charismatic leaders, is vulnerable as the first generation of leaders pass on and as their communities change from growing urban fringes to established suburbs.  Many evangelicals are seeking a deeper, more personal style of faith and moving beyond the institutional church to independent house churches that quickly depart from orthodoxy.  Worst of all, evangelical churches have a wide "back door" with people leaving the faith in large numbers.  She tells these stories with as much sympathy as those of conversion.  Like Amy, who abandoned evangelical faith after her devout husband came out of the closet.  Or Cathy, whose deconversion started when her son said he didn't believe in hell and she discovered she was not at all shocked.  Or Helen, who in the midst of a strident campaign to expose heresy in a weight loss program promoted by conservative churches suddenly realised just how un-Christian she was being.

These threats from inside the church combine with threats from without.  These are mainly a result of a growing gap between the attitudes of evangelicals and those of non-evangelical Americans.  The "fundamentals" of evangelical Chrsitianity - the literal truth of the Bible, the seven day creation from nothing, the miracles - are increasingly hard for secular Americans to adopt in the face of scientific and historical knowledge.  While evangelicalism relies on acceptance of authority, non-evangelical parents consistently teach their children to question, think for themselves and challenge accepted wisdom.  Americans, including Christians, increasingly accept "golden rule" morality in preference to obedience to detailed biblical commands.  The gap between unbelief and belief, or between liberal and conservative belief, has become so much greater than it used to be, and conversion so much harder.

I enjoyed Wicker's nuanced description of the state of evangelicalism, her sympathetic portrayal of the benefits of belief alongside her hard-nosed realism about how these churches are performing.  Yet the thing I enjoyed the most was her final chapter, where she described a kind of second conversion of her own.  Having abandoned her childhood faith and been through a divorce, she got to a point in her mid-30s where she took a look in the mirror and didn't like what she saw.  She was an unfeeling person who strung men along to meet her own needs but gave nothing, brushing them off when they became inconvenient.  She was needy and unloving, flirtatious and cruel. 

She realised she wanted to change but didn't know how.  So she prayed, something she hadn't done for years.  She asked God, even though she didn't quite know who God was, to help her to genuinely love.  Then she went home from an interstate assignment to the man she was dating and planning to brush off and found the love she prayed for growing.  She married him, and has continued her life of love, faith and prayer - not evangelical faith, not even conventional Christianity, but God is nonetheless real to her, and she has seen his power.

Perhaps this is a practical, everyday example of what Spong and his forerunners Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind.  For Wicker the trappings of religion - the doctrines, the church structures, the rigid expectations - were stripped away, and when they were well and truly gone she found within herself the thing that remained, the thing she could not live without.  Being Itself, perhaps, and Tillich's Courage to Be.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Spong on Atheism

Following on from my review of John Shelby Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious, here's something more.  I had always thought that atheism and Christianity were incompatible belief systems but  Spong has confounded me by proclaiming himself to be both an atheist and a Christian. 

He cites three arguments in support of his atheism, each of which would be worthy of our most radical 21st century atheists.  First of all,  he asserts that science has disproved theism.  The evidence of cosmology shows that there is no God above the sky.  The evidence of paleontology shows that life on earth developed gradually by natural processes.  Our understanding of science in general shows that the processes of physics, chemistry and biology are driven by natural laws which are not amenable to random divine intervention.  Richard Dawkins would certainly be pleased to read such a clear statement of his own views, although a large number of other scientists would not necessarily agree and some of the dissenters would also be atheists.

Secondly, he describes the evolution of the religious impulse itself, through the emergence of consciousness, the development of language and symbol systems, the awareness of our own mortality and our need for security in the face of this fear.  Religion, he says, was a survival strategy which kept death at bay and bound together groups of people around a common belief and ethos.  However, the tribalism and neurosis at its base are now becoming dangerous, placing humanity at risk.  I think perhaps Daniel Dennett would read his own arguments with a smile.

Finally, he protests the extreme cruelty and barbarism perpetrated in the name of religion, citing in particular the medieval torturors and the white Americans who cited the Bible in support of the oppression of their African-American neighbours.  Religion, he says, is part of the problem, not part of the solution.  I can hear Sam Harris and Michel Onfray cheering.  This argument is the most surprising of the three to read from the pen of a former bishop, not so much for its irreligion as for its silliness.  Surely Spong is aware that the medieval torturers were persecuting fervent believers, while the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were just as Christian as the segregationists, if not more so.  Perhaps something other than religion explains this problem?

Be that as it may, just when our favourite militant atheists are beginning to urge him down the home straight and claim a prize scalp in their quest for converts, he punctures their bubble and exposes the weak underbelly of their own position - that they know nothing of theology beyond its crudest, most popularistic manifestations.

The word "atheist", for starters, does not mean, as many people assume, one who asserts that there is no such thing as God.  It means, rather, that one rejects the theistic definition of God.  It is quite possible, therefore, to reject theism without rejecting God....I am a God-intoxicated human being, but I no longer define my God experience inside the boundaries of a theistic definition of God.

...So our experience of Jesus must shift in a revolutionary new direction. What was the experience that his disciples were trying to articulate when they declared in a thousand different ways that in the human Jesus, the theistic God had been revealed? Is a dying theism the only way to make sense out of the God experience? Can we remove the theistic concept of God from our understanding of God and still be worshippers? Can we lift the theistic God overlay from the life of Jesus and still be Christians? I believe we can. Indeed, I believe there is no other alternative if we want to live as Christians in this twenty-first century.

This is how Spong maintains his Christian faith alongside his version of atheism.  The problem, he says, is that God is ultimately indescribable.  Humans have to fall back on whatever resources we can use in our own world to describe him.  The ancient Hebrews and the early Christians operated within a scientific framework in which the earth was the centre of the universe, the events of nature were random occurrences directed by God and the spirits, and everything beyond was a mystery.  So they placed God above the sky, and prayed for his benevolent intervention in their dangerous, unpredictable world.  Jesus then became for them the manifestation of this God from beyond the sky.

With the passing of this scientific world view and its replacement with our own, it no longer makes sense to talk of God in this way.  This does not mean there is no God, only that the old ways of describing divinity have now become outdated and need to be replaced.  So how does Spong propose to replace them?

...I came to perceive that Jesus had become for me primarily the familiar but nonetheless the human face of the ultimate reality I called God. My spiritual life, I now came to recognise, was destined to be an endless journey into that mystery. One of my shaping theological teachers, Paul Tillich, referred to this God as "Being Itself", which meant to me that my search for God would be identical with my search for my own identity.

Tillich's idea of God as "Being Itself" or the "Ground of Being" is hardly new, but it continues to be profound and hugely influential more than 50 years after he first coined the term.  Its meaning is hard to grasp, slippery and elusive as an eel.  But then, how else could finite humans talk about the infinite God?  How is it possible that such a god could be simply explained?

I think what this shows is that for all his controversy and his tendency to hyperbole, for all that conservative Christians see him as irreligious and as a destroyer of the faith, Spong is at heart a bridge-builder.  To Christians he says "take a look at these arguments against your faith, and be honest - don't you think they have merit?".  Because he is a bishop, perhaps they will listen to him.  But then he says to the atheists, "sure, your arguments are persuasive, but have a think about this."

No doubt Harris dismisses Spong as one of those dangerous moderate religious people who mask the deeply pernicious nature of religion.  Harris would be wrong.  Spong hates injustice as much as Harris, perhaps more so.  He just refuses to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

More Lives of Jesus 7: John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong retired as Episcopalian (Anglican, for us Aussies) Bishop of Newark in 2001 after 24 years in the role, and has since worked as a freelance author and speaker.  Over the past three decades he has become the most outspoken and controversial advocate for progressive Christianity, reviled by conservative Christians and admired by fellow progressives.  He has taken unorthodox stands on a range of issues, including human sexuality, the status of the Bible and the role of women.  His stance is summed up in the title of another of his books - Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

He has written a lot about Jesus over the years but Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human, published in 2007, is his most comprehensive treatment of the historical person at the heart of the Christian faith.  After leading off with his devotion to Jesus, he follows with this.

The other (motivation) driving me into this study is my conviction that I am living at the end of the Christian era.  I believe that I am witnessing the death of Christianity, as it has been historically understood....Many of the things historically said about Jesus I, as one who yearns to be a believer, can no longer hold with credibility....

What this signals is that Spong has enormous ambitions for this book, and for his work as a whole.  Never one for understatement, Spong believes his mission is to rescue Christianity from itself.  He believes that the traditional formulations of Christianity can't stand the light of 21st century scientific knowledge, and that the resulting defensiveness and aggression seen in American fundamentalism is in any case not worth saving.  Pushed by this belief he declares himself to be an atheist, although he doesn't mean quite what other people mean by this term.  I'll leave the details of that question for another post, but the salient point is that having abandoned old-fashioned theism he still remains devoted to Jesus and is determined to fashion a post-theistic form of Christianity.

His book is broken into three parts.  In the first he strips away the things he can no longer believe about Jesus.  Unsurprisingly, these are mostly the miraculous elements of the Gospels.

I still read regularly the biblical stories about Jesus, but I am repelled again and again by the imposed assumptions we seem to think undergird those narratives, none of which I, as a twenty-first-century person, could ever make. I do not believe that food can be expanded by anyone from five literal loaves to a volume sufficient to feed a multitude....I do not believe that anyone can, with supernatural power, cause the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the mute to sing and the lame to walk in any literal way....Storms are understood today to be the result of moving, impersonal weather fronts. They serve no ulterior or divine motive. They can, therefore, not be stilled by any person's command.

Dead people...do not in our time rise from their graves to take their places in the life of society for a second time. We know death to be a permanent state, and to be so total a shutdown of bodily functions that the brain is irreversibly destroyed if it is without oxygen for a very few minutes....Certainly a crucified man, executed and buried on Friday, cannot walk out of his tomb resuscitated and alive on Sunday, nor can a body defy gravity in order to ascend into the sky as a way to return to the God who was once believed to dwell above the clouds.

Hence, these various miraculous stories are dismissed as mythologising, as later additions used to illustrate some core truths about Jesus which his followers struggled to put into words.

Throughout the 20th century, those who took this approach to the life of Jesus ended up at the bedrock of his words.  Once his miracles, his virgin birth and his bodily resurrection were swept away, what was left was a charismatic, groundbreaking teacher.  At the beginning of the century, Schweitzer and Bultmann found a prophet of the Kingdom of God.  By its end Funk, Borg and their fellow Jesus Seminar participants had uncovered a teacher of startling, unexpected wisdom. 

Spong, however, confronts this challenge in a completely different way.  His touchstone is that while he doesn't believe in a literal bodily resurrection, it is clear that something happened to Jesus' disciples after he died.  While he dismisses many of the Gospel stories as later additions, he accepts as genuine the assertion that when Jesus was arrested, all his disciples fled.  After all, why would later Christians make up such a shameful story about the founders of their movement?  Yet within a short period these same disciples were risking their own lives to spread his message. 

In the end he doesn't explain what he thinks happened at the point, and I suspect he doesn't know.  However, what this leads him to is a sense that in Jesus the disciples experienced the presence of God in a way they never had before.  Since God is ultimately indescribable and inexpressible in human language, they searched for images in their religious culture - that of first century Judaism - and used them to describe their experience.

This is the launching pad for the second, and to me most fascinating and illuminating, section of the book.  His contention is that the first Christians were, and remained after Jesus' death, active members of the Jewish religious community.  They attended the synagogue each sabbath, and over time they came to see Jesus in terms of the annual cycle of synagogue worship.  To Spong's eye, then, the ordering and thematic arrangement of the four canonical Gospels reflects their use by Christian Jews reworking and embellishing the stories of Jesus into the Jewish ecclesiastical calendar.

We are all familiar with two of these associations - the association of Jesus's death with the Passover feast in which he is seen as the new passover lamb, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in which he is seen as the lamb or ram on whom is laid the sins of the people.  We are also familiar with the idea in Luke's writings of the connection of Pentecost (celebrating the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai) with the coming of the Spirit on the disciples.  We may be less familiar with its association in the other Gospels with the Transfiguration, in which Jesus ascends the mountain with his closest disciples, speaks directly with God and is physically transformed in a way reminiscent of Moses' glowing face. 

From here, Spong traces the pattern first of all in Mark's gospel, which he says covers only the six months leading up to Passover, and then in the way the later writers built on Mark to extend the series of stories to the full year.  Jesus' stories of the Kingdom of God are arranged to be told around the feast of Rosh Hashane when Jews came together to pray for the coming of this very Kingdom.  His various uses of the harvest metaphor are arranged to coincide with the feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish harvest festival.  There are special cycles of readings for the great festivals themselves - for instance, Mark's crucifixion narrative describes a twenty-four hour series of events, neatly divided into eight segments of three hours each, which Spong believes would have been read as part of a 24 hour Chrisitian passover liturgy.

His analysis is impressive and persuasive, because once he reveals the pattern, the correspondences are too close and too detailed to be simply coincidental.  Nor should conservative readers be frightened by this.  Christians of all stripes have long acknowledged the strong connections between the stories of Jesus and those of the Old Testament.  What fundamentalist does not believe they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and had their sins laid on Jesus?  Spong's analysis can serve as a resource for any believer.

In reading this part of the book, I gradually realised that despite his own immersion in the Church and in Christian scholarship, the writer Spong reminded me of most was John Carroll, an admirer of Jesus from far outside the pale of the church.  Carroll sees the gospels as a kind of midrash, a creative reading of the stories aimed at helping the listener to deal with pressing events in their life and times.  The point of the midrash, he says, is not to report a literal, historical truth, it is to interpret an event in a way that illuminates and guides the listener.  Although he doesn't use the term, this is what Spong is saying too.  The writers of the gospels and their oral precursors created a series of midrashes in which the stories of Jewish history and the life of Jesus were combined to help their followers understand the incomprehensible mystery of God.

Like Carroll, Spong also sees a pressing need to create a new midrash which allows the 21st century church to rescue the stories from irrelevence and help a new generation of people experience God in a way that makes sense in our culture.  Hence in the third part of the book, he outlines how he believes we should see Jesus in our day.  He does this under four headings.

 As the "Breaker of Tribal Boundaries" Jesus is seen as overturning our historical enmities and our distrust of the other, our tendency to war and to appropriate God for our own national interest.  In his reaching out to Samaritans and Roman soldiers, his cleansing of the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple, and his refusal to cry war on the Romans, he is seen as saying that God is the God of all people everywhere. 

As the "Breaker of Prejudices and Stereotypes" Jesus is seen as breaking down our negative perceptions of women, of people of other races, of the ill and disfigured, and of finding the common humanity in all of us. 

As the "The Breaker of Religious Boundaries" he is seen as standing against the forms of religion that oppress and exclude - the Sabbath regulations that prevent the feeding of the hungry or the healing of the sick, the regulations of cleanliness that exclude the crippled and lame, the gender boundaries that condemn women to subordination.

Finally in the stories of the Cross he sees Jesus exemplifying God's love in his willingness to die rather than to kill, his willingness to continue his mission no matter what the cost.

What's interesting about all this is that, like the second part of the book, you don't need to throw over theism to believe these things.  Indeed, long before I had read Spong I found similar insights in the thoroughly theistic writings of the likes of Albert Nolan, Jim Wallis, John Smith or Brian McLaren.

Indeed, there are a lot more correspondences between Spong and conservative evangelicals than he would perhaps like to admit - although having grown up among fundamentalists himself he must surely be aware of them.  Apart from the imagery of sacrifice which they use so readily, the very notion of non-religious Christianity which forms the title and theme of this book is one I first heard from fundamentalists.  In the early 1980s gospel singer Chuck Girard sang "I'm not religious, I just love the Lord."  His contemporary, Randy Miller, explained that he was very religious about brushing his teeth - he cleaned them once very three weeks whether they needed it our not.

Which brings me to my final point.  Spong believes that without his post-theistic makeover Christianity will die.  It seems to me that this death, like Mark Twain's, is greatly exaggerated.  The growing churches of our time are not the intellectual, post-theistic churches of the likes of Spong and his fellow progressives.  They are the booming fundamentalist megachurches of the pentecostal movement, and the bastions of conservative Catholicism promoted by John Paul II and his followers. 

Spong's problem is that this kind of Christianity frightens him, as does its Islamic equivalent.  He sees it as a religion of hate, bigotry and insecurity.  It's part of the problem, not part of the solution.  He may be exaggerating - he often does - but he has a point.  Although this book is written for people like me who struggle with the same kind of doubts Spong does, fundamentalists should read it too.  They should do so lovingly, resisting the urge to send the author abusive letters, and see themselves as others see them.  Then they should examine the Jesus who appears in these pages, and see if perhaps he has something new to teach them.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Mister Bruce Springsteen

Back in the late 70's and early 80's, when Bruce Springsteen was busy becoming one of the biggest rock'n'roll acts on the planet, I didn't really get it.  The biggest problem for me was that the music was such a mess - a noisy, loose band, chaotic arrangements and not a single sign of a prog-rock inspired solo.  I heard the occasional song I liked - like The River with its lovely harmonica and earthy story-telling.  But when I listened to the whole album, the mess got to me again and I gave up.


The first hint I got that maybe I was missing something was when someone I respect arrived at a meeting in 2002 full of excitement at just having bought a copy of his new album, The Rising.  Then I read an article about how in each city he visited, he would meet a local community organisation, then promote their work during his show.  Finally I gave myself another listen and bought a cheap copy of The Essential Bruce Springsteen.

I was right, there was a lot of mess, but I'd grown up enough that I didn't need prog solos any more, and I could hear the horns and the singers doing their thing with a more trained ear.  In the end, though, there were two things that drew me in.

The first was that simple word, "Mister".  He uses it a lot.  Tom Waits says every song should have a town, a street name and the name of a girl.  What he might have been trying to say is you have to make it real.  Springsteen does it with just that one word.

All those things that seemed so important,
Well, Mister, they just vanish right into the air
Now I act like I don't remember
Mary acts like she don't care.

He's not singing a song on stage to ten thousand people, he's talking to you, or someone like you, leaning on the back of his old beat-up car in the main street of an American rust-belt town.  You can feel the rust and smell the smoke, you can see the stubble on his chin and the checks on the flanellette shirt.  It's personal.

The other thing that got me was this beautiful performance of American Skin (41 Shots).


In 1999 New York City police fired 41 shots at a man named Amadou Diallo as he reached for his wallet.  They swore they thought he was drawing a gun, and were acquitted of murder.  Springsteen doesn't need to preach, he tells you this story.

41 shots and
Lena gets her son ready for school
She says "on these streets, Charles
You've got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you
Promise me you'll always be polite,
that you'll never ever run away
Promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight"

Is it a gun? Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet? This is your life
It ain't no secret
It ain't no secret
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in
Your American skin