Easter, Notre Dame, and Climate Change

Today is a joyful day – Jesus is risen – Alleluia! His resurrection brings hope and promise in so many ways. Today is a joyful day because of the promise of resurrection in the future – death is not the end. Alleluia! Today is a joyful day because of the hope of new life now – it gives us hope to those suffering in this life – the grieving, the oppressed, the anxious, the ill, the imprisoned. Alleluia! Today is a joyful day because it holds new hope for the whole of creation – there will come a day when creation itself will be renewed and transformed. Today is a joyful day because it brings hope and promise for new life now for God’s magnificent creation. Alleluia!

We are often reminded at our churches about the hope that Easter brings to humankind, both in the future and the present. Rarely, though, do we hear about the hope that Easter brings to the whole of creation. Yet the biblical narrative insists this is the case and our Easter traditions are littered with reminders of this fact. In Jesus’s first appearance, he is even mistaken for a gardener, and Christians have long used imagery from nature to remind us of his promise of new life – eggs, lambs, bunnies, and chicks. And that is before we consider the New Testament’s insistence that, in Christ, the natural world finds its completion. “Behold I make all things new”, as Revelation puts it (21:5). In other words, the most important moment in our faith, the resurrection, speaks directly into the most pressing challenge to our generation – climate change.

It was inspiring this week to see the reaction to the tragedy of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. In the flames that we all witnessed in our screens, we had a symbol of helplessness, loss and sorrow – a crucifixion, if you like. On the streets of Paris, there were tears and lamentation, with the realisation that something sacred was about to be lost to future generations. The horror and the disbelief, however, was soon transformed into something very different – a refusal to consign beauty to ashes and a desire to rebuild and give life to the smouldering, sacred ruins. It may take many years, but the cathedral will again became a symbol of hope, new life, and resurrection. Notre Dame will rise again. “Behold, I make all things new!”

But, of course, one majestic Cathedral is not “all things”. Many other things are still broken in the world, and many other things are being destroyed daily, not in accidental fire, but through greed, exploitation, and avarice. These things are being lost at a rate that is staggering and heartbreaking – rainforests, glaciers, whole species of insects, animals, fish, and birds. And the crisis, in changing our world’s climate, is now also threatening human life across the world. My wife recounts the words of an RE teacher in her school in Germany: “we say to our grandparents “why didn’t you do any thing when the holocaust was happening?”, but our grandchildren will say to us “why didn’t you do any thing when the environment was dying?”” As in the burning Notre Dame, God’s groaning, suffocating creation is another symbol of tragedy, loss, and sadness – another crucifixion. Something sacred is again about to be lost to future generations.

A few days ago, my 5-year-old son came to me and, out of nowhere, said: “when I grow up, daddy, and you die, can I have your grey bath towel?” I’m not sure about my bath towel, but it did get me thinking – what will we leave him and his generation? In the distant future, I would love to be able to say to them and their children and grandchildren:

“Yes, we rebuilt the wonderful Notre Dame for you, so you can visit to be filled with the grandeur of God’s glory. But we also did much, much more to show you the meaning of Easter Sunday and the resurrection. We fed the hungry, we freed the oppressed, we defeated racism, xenophobia, and all forms of discrimination and hatred, we brought comfort and hope to those who mourn, we offered peace to those who suffer, we gifted good news to those who feel despairing and hopeless, and we lived out the Easter promise of new life for all creation… and so we left for you clean seas full of fish not plastic, clean air for you to breathe, clean water for you to drink, and green and healthy forests brimming with foliage, animals, insects and birds.”

I’d love to be able to say to them that our world became a symbol of hope, new life, and resurrection – that our planet has risen again. “Behold, I make all things new!”” But will we be able to say this to future generations?

Today is all about good news, and there is good news here – it is not too late and resurrection is hardwired into nature. Plant a tree and things already start to change and be renewed. Yes, we desperately need wholesale changes by businesses and governments to combat climate change. But we also need to remember that our own little acts make a difference. As Pope Francis put it, in an encyclical on climate change that he presented as a gift to a visiting President Trump: “an integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness”. He then lists some of those little acts that can make a difference, that can help bring new life, hope, and resurrection to the natural world – using public transport, car-pooling, planting trees, turning off lights, recycling, and so on. As the activist Howard Zinn wrote: “we don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change – small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world”. This is the mustard seed principle (Mark 4:39-32) – small acts can lead to big change. After all, a snowflake never feels responsible for an avalanche, but every snowflake is making a difference.

Today is Easter Day, tomorrow will be Earth Day, as it is every April 22nd. Both days speak of new life and new hope. A BBC News report earlier this week said of Notre Dame: “this gift to all humanity will rise again”. And that is true. Within a decade, that wonderful cathedral’s bells will ring again, worship and praise will again resound from its pews, and its art and architecture will again speak to people of God’s glory. But we are called to ensure that creation, God’s ultimate gift to humanity, will also rise again. That is our mission, that is our challenge. By acting as God’s hands and feet, even in our smallest actions, we can affirm that all things will be made new. As Eric Liddell, who won gold in the Paris Olympics in 1924, detailed in the Oscar-Winning film Chariots of Fire, wrote: “God is not helpless among the ruins… God’s love is still working. He comes in and takes the calamity and uses it victoriously, working out his wonderful plan of love”. Behold God makes all things new. He is risen. Alleluia!

Storms of Life: Finding Hope in our Suffering

Since I underwent spinal surgery 12 years ago, I have had to face daily pain, but, through exercise and pain management, I have been able to manage its intensity. Eight weeks ago, though, only a day after I finished a 135-mile pilgrimage, I felt a level of pain I had not experienced in a decade. In the following few weeks, the pain got increasingly worse and I have had to endure numerous medical appointments and scans. Alongside the physical pain, there has also been the accompanying mental angst. These worries about the future have torn me away from the present and are invariably worse in the dead of night, when I’ve had no distractions to keep negative thoughts polluting my mind.

bear huntWe live in a society that attempts, as best it can, to avoid pain and suffering. Sometimes, though, the storms of life are inescapable. Last week, someone visited me as I lay on my sofa. “You need to face your pain like the great Bear Hunt”, they said, rather cryptically. It was only when my four-year-old son chose “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” as his bedtime story a few nights later that I understood something of what she meant. In this classic children’s book, we join a family as they search for a bear by facing various challenging terrains – forest, mud, long grass, and snow. With each different environment, we are told that “We can’t go over it; We can’t go under it; Oh no, we have to go through it!”

Sometimes we have to face the reality that our times of pain, hurt, affliction, or grief are unavoidable. At those times, we have to “gird up our loins”, as the Bible puts it (Job 40:7; 1 Peter 1:13), and face the misery of suffering head on. At those times, we cannot be like rugby players, skilfully sidestepping opponents. Instead, we are forced to be like American football players, confronting opposite numbers head-on by crashing into them. Each of us will face, in the words of St Paul, a “thorn in our flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), and sometimes there is no other path other than to “take up our cross”, as Jesus told his disciples (Luke 9:23).

IMG_2964On my long pilgrimage which followed the coastline of North Wales, I spent many hours gazing out at the Irish Sea as I rested with my lunch or my trusty flask of tea. During those three weeks of walking, I noticed how the sea was brimming with life and activity – seals, porpoise, puffins, gannets, boats, fishermen, surfers. But I also observed how quickly the sea could be transformed, sometimes slowly from day-to-day, but other times in a matter of hours. When my four-year-old son is drawing the sea, he will immediately reach for the blue crayon. By spending a length of time staring out to the changeable sea, though, a plethora of beautiful colours emerge. These are often related to the sea’s condition – sometimes threatening and disturbingly dark, but, on other occasions, calm and crystal clear. One day, as I sat on a rock on the edge of a clifftop, I wrote in my notepad that the waves were like rolling, unforgiving white juggernauts crashing against the headland. The very next day, by now on a sandy beach, I jotted down that the sea was a serene stillness gently caressing the golden shoreline.

IMG_2845Like the changeable sea, our life journey is ever-changing. Sometimes all seems tranquil – we are blessed with times of joy, times of pleasure, and times of celebration. But sometimes storms rage around us – we have to face times of pain, times of anxiety, and times of grief. “There is a time for everything,” ponders Ecclesiastes (3:1), “and a season for every activity under the heavens”.

At those seasons of suffering in my own life, it has helped to remind myself that, like the rolling waves of the tide, our lives have a natural ebb and flow. Life is not a straight line, from birth to death, emerging from darkness and returning to darkness, or, indeed, from light to light. Rather, life is cyclical. The winters of our suffering can certainly be dark, long, cold, and painful, but spring will always burst forth. We wait for the snowdrops, because we know the daffodils will soon follow. We trust the nature of the seasons that this will happen, just as those of us who are Christians learn to trust that God will lead us out of our wait, however long and painful. The sixth-century theologian Boethius describes life as a wheel: “we rise up on the spokes, but we’re soon cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Change is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away”.

daffodilsThis thought, and this way of viewing the world, is helping me face the difficult wait of my own recuperation. As such, it is gradually transforming my anxious thoughts by giving me the strength to notice and value those little signs of spring breaking through the harshness of winter – to notice and value those daily moments of joy and grace that break through my continuing pain and frustration. This is as powerful a healing as any physical healing could offer. As an old proverb puts it: “Sometimes God calms the storm, but sometimes God calms the sailor”.

Why Christians should be the first to stand alongside Muslim brothers and sisters

 

abdullah-al-mulla-at-inter-faith-weekGrowing up in North Wales did not introduce me to a plethora of different faiths and nationalities. Three times a year, though, my family travelled down to the big smoke – Cardiff – to visit my grandparents. While we were there, we’d travel into the city centre, and there we would see people of different races and nationalities, women wearing hijab, and men in long flowing gowns. It all fascinated small-town Trystan and I remember asking my mum whether these people who looked so different from me were Christian. She told me that some of them were, but some were of other faiths, and she added, “but whether they’re Christian or not, God loves them and he wants us to love everyone, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their faith”. “But mum,” I retorted, “didn’t Jesus say that no one comes to God, except through him?” To my surprise, my mum answered, “no, Trystan, he didn’t say that”. Before I could rush to my bookcase to show her John 14:6 in my children’s Bible, she explained – “Jesus did not say that no one comes to God except through him, Jesus said no one comes to the Father except through him”.

By seeing God as our “father”, we Christians hold that we are brought into a particular type of relationship with God – a relationship of trust, of forgiveness, of unconditional love. This is a relationship that reflects a human relationship between father and a daughter or son. This personal relationship is one of the amazing things that I, as a Christian, believe makes my faith unique. Jesus came to show us how to attain that relationship, because that relationship reflects who and what God really is – a God of love, a God of forgiveness, a God of compassion.

img_2255We Christians believe that Jesus offers us that unique relationship, but the consequence of that belief is not that other faiths should be disparaged or dismissed – quite the opposite. Our belief doesn’t mean that we Christians own God and that we should box him up as our special property. It doesn’t mean that those of other faiths, and even those of no faith, don’t connect and engage with God. It doesn’t even mean that people of other faiths don’t have their own relationship with God. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love, laugh with, learn from, and stand up for people of other faiths. This is perhaps something of what Desmond Tutu meant when he said: “God is not a Christian”.

Part of my ministry involves journeying with people who are themselves called to Christian ministry. In my first meeting with a candidate, I ask them who has helped them on their Christian journey – who, down the years, have helped them to connect with God, to see God in different places. Sometimes they mention friends, sometimes family members, sometimes someone in church. When I ask myself that same question there are so many people that come to mind – my mum and dad, my old school chaplain, a lecturer at university, a close friend of mine in my first job, a number of Christian writers whose books I have read but I have never met, and my wife Sandra.

img_0658But I would also add another name to that list. And that is the name of a man called Sameh Otri.  Sameh is now a lecturer in the Middle East, but he was, a few years ack, my fellow chaplain in Cardiff University. Sameh is a humble person, a deeply spiritual person, a compassionate person, an inspirational person. But what makes him different from many of the people on my list is that Sameh is a Syrian Muslim – he was the Muslim chaplain to the University. Yet I learnt so much about God, about faith, about prayer, about love, through Sameh.

img_1927I remember meeting up with Sameh for coffee one spring morning, for example. As we sat down in a Cardiff café that serves just the best cakes, Sameh said to me “oh no! I just remembered, it’s Lent for you, so you must be fasting and can’t eat anything!” I explained to him that actually, for Christians, fasting during Lent was very different to fasting during Ramadan, and that Christians usually give up something specific, like chocolate or cakes. “Ah I understand now”, he said as he chose a big slice of cake, “so what did you give up?” “Oh no”, I quickly replied, “what I meant was that other Christians give up something during Lent, but I haven’t given up anything and so can eat as much cake as I want!” This led to a lengthy conversation on why fasting is important, why self-discipline and self-control are helpful, and how fasting can bring us closer to God. I must admit, and not for the first time with Sameh, I went away with my faith challenged and, in some little way, changed.

img_1899Sameh taught me so much during my time as chaplain and it would be nice to think that he is now chatting to friends in his local mosque in Buraydah, telling them that he also learnt something about God through me. Our call is to both teach others and learn from others, whoever they are. It would be good if all of us could open our eyes, our ears, and our minds to allow people of other faiths to teach us something about God and about our faith. In the gospels, there are gentiles who are learning about God through Christ and his disciples, but it is clear that Jesus wanted his followers to also learn something about God and faith through them – “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”, he said to his disciples about a centurion (Luke 7:9). We live in a world that’s increasingly obsessed with differences, and with trying to encourage us to fear and distrust those who are different from us and those who have different views from us. But that’s not how Jesus worked. He didn’t want to make people the same as him so he could engage with them. He simply reached out to all people, and encouraged his followers both to love others and to learn from others, whoever they are, however different they may be to them.

Worry may not kill you, but it can stop you living

St Paul's TalkIt’s been a busy summer of giving talks, sermons, and radio thoughts-for-the-day. This hectic time is not over, as I am due to visit London in a few weeks time to speak at St Paul’s Cathedral (1pm Sunday 5 October), St Mary’s Ealing (6pm 5 October), and on Premier Christian Radio (11.10am Monday 6 October). Time has not allowed me to write many blog posts recently, so I thought I’d share some of the talks I’ve given, in churches, conferences, and on radio. The first talk is on fear and worry:

 

child-with-toy-airplaneTwo weeks ago, my eight-month old son did something that I hadn’t done until I was 25 years old – he flew in an aeroplane for the very first time, as we visited his grandma in Germany. Perhaps it’s because I had not flown as a child, but I’m not a good passenger on an aeroplane. I can just about cope once we’re in the air, but during take-off I am a nightmare. I remember once travelling to Malta with my sister and the take-off was so bumpy that my nail marks remained in her hand for days afterwards. A few years later, I was travelling to Lourdes in France with a friend of mine. He still recounts the story, describing me praying the Lord’s Prayer as we took off. The problem was that I was praying it out loud. And, to top it off, I was wearing my dog collar at the time, so all the other passengers started panicking, seeing a vicar sweating buckets and loudly praying as we took off! But two weeks ago, as the fear started building up in me during take-off, I looked across at my baby son who was on his mum’s lap. He didn’t know what was happening, and so had no fear in him whatsoever – he was smiling away, chewing the seat belt and flirting with the woman who was sitting next to him. At that moment it suddenly dawned on me that my fear was stopping me being fully alive, it was stopping me really enjoying the moment.

worry-notThe experience also led me to reflect on how I have in the past allowed fear to rule my life. When I wrote my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering, most people presumed that it was about coping with pain, because of the degenerate back condition that I have. It was, however, actually about the suffering that we all go through in our minds when things go wrong – when we are ill, when we are grieving, when we are lonely, and we are depressed, when we are anxious. Fear is like a worm that gets in your mind and stays there wriggling around. Of course fear doesn’t kill you, but it certainly can stop you living. And the real irony is that our worries most often never come to fruition. ‘Who says worry doesn’t help?’ I once overheard someone quip, ‘It certainly does help – every time I worry about something it doesn’t happen!’ A recent film called About Time put it another way: “the real troubles in your life will always be the things that never crossed your worried mind”. And isn’t that just true – we’ve got enough to worry about in real life without worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. The problem is, of course, that letting our fears and worries go is not an easy thing.

MtSinaiBut, as a Christian, I know there’s good news in all this. That good news is that my faith, and my God, is not in the business of stopping people living, but is rather in the business of bringing life, of bringing joy, of bringing love into our lives. I picked up my Bible yesterday and read the story of Elijah searching for God when his life was threatened and he faced fear and hopelessness. When he finds God (1 Kings 19:11-13), it is not in a powerful earthquake or the swirling wind, as we might expect to find an almighty, transcendent being, but rather in stillness and in the “sound of sheer silence”. In other words, when we’re facing fear and worry, God can seem distant, but we’re challenged to listen for him in the very ordinariness of our everyday lives.

let-go-let-godPerhaps like Elijah, we need stillness and calm to help us connect with God and combat our worries and fears. But God can come and touch our hearts in all sorts of ways in our day-to-day lives – meeting up with a friend, listening to music, spending time in prayer, reading a good novel, a walk in the beautiful countryside, doing a good deed for somebody, and so on. When we connect with God in any of these ways, our hearts can be lifted, if only for a brief moment, and then slowly but surely he helps us let go of our worries and he carries us through our anxieties.

“We don’t do God”: A call for faith to inspire politics

Religion-and-PoliticsIt has become popular in recent years to divorce faith and politics, and to treat them as if they are separate domains that don’t have any bearing on one another. When the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair attempted to talk about his Christian faith in an interview with the magazine Vanity Fair, his communications manager Alistair Campbell immediately stopped the interviewer’s questions. ‘We don’t do God’, was Campbell’s now famous retort. However, I believe that the attempt to separate faith and politics is not only unhelpful and unrealistic, but can also ultimately be dangerous and have grave consequences.

While there are certainly examples of where faith has been, and is still being, misused in the political sphere, this should certainly not mask the amazing social and political reform that has been inspired by faith. It could even be argued that the majority of great political reformers down the centuries have been motivated by faith, and many have even used religious language to express their views. In the UK, we have had a long tradition of faith inspiring political and social action – not least William Wilberforce’s stand against slavery in the eighteenth century, the faith-based leadership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1970s, and the profound Christian influence on the main political parties down the centuries. As former Prime Minister Harold Wilson put it, even the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism. The picture is the same worldwide, with faith motivating individuals (like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mikhail Gorbachov, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) to bravely challenge corruption and prejudice.

Believing in the Dignity of All: Desmond M. TutuIt is, of course, not surprising that so many people are inspired through their faith to engage either directly or indirectly in the political sphere. In the Christian tradition, the Bible brims full of social justice, peace, equality, and freedom. As Desmond Tutu once famously stated: “When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading”. In all his tireless campaigning, in South Africa and beyond, Tutu has always maintained that poverty, sexism, homophobia, and racism are not merely political problems, they are spiritual and moral issues. “The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person,” he asserted. “When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you’. Because the good news to a hungry person is bread”.

Jesus’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ has especially inspired countless political leaders, not least Gandhi (“when your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world”) and Barack Obama (“a passage so radical that it’s doubtful that our Defence Department would survive its application”). Yet Jesus’s social and political influence went far beyond one sermon.  Jesus’ very presence, along with his teachings in general, were regarded as such a threat to the political powers of Rome and Jerusalem that they conspired to rid themselves of this first-century Palestinian rebel rouser.

obama prayingIf Jesus was concerned with engaging practically and compassionately with society and the world around us, surely it is only natural that Christians allow their relationship with him to do likewise. Barack Obama, for example, was not raised in a religious household, but he was moved to his baptism as an adult precisely because he saw in faith a vehicle for social change.  In his autobiography he talks about politics leading him to faith and faith leading him to politics. On the one hand, it was his work as a community organiser for churches in Chicago that led him to be drawn towards a political life. The pastors and other Christians who worked with the unemployed, drug addicted, and poverty stricken in the city “confirmed my belief in the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things”. On the other hand, it was the power of religious traditions to spur social change that drew him to faith. The African-American religious tradition, as he put it, “understood in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities”.

However, Obama, like other Christians involved in social and political change, emphasizes that bringing his faith into politics certainly does not mean losing respect for those with different beliefs. In fact, the Christian faith teaches that all life is sacred, and so faith should actually lead to more respect and reverence for the world around us – for the environment, for animals, and for all other people, whether they share our beliefs or not. In other words, yes, our faith should inform and inspire our political views, but these views should also be transformed into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.

Keith Hebden protest drone warfareBy doing this, people of faith should echo the prophets of the Old Testament by being the first to speak out and protest against corrupt governments, greed-obsessed corporations, ethically-blind companies, and environmentally-damaging activities. A friend of mine, who is a Church of England vicar (and author of Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus), regards his tireless work for ethical and social justice as absolutely integral to his faith, and, as a result, he has even been arrested on numerous occasions while campaigning against drone warfare, nuclear weapons, and hate preaching. Other Christians, of course, work from the inside of the political systems to effect change, just as Daniel did in the Old Testament. Either way, the faith of each individual could contribute so much to the important issues of poverty, welfare cuts, economic debt (personal and national), the environment, asylum seekers, international aid, and so on.

Wall faith politics

For the Christian, God is connected to every single aspect of our lives and of the life of the world. Church does not start and finish on Sunday, but continues in whichever community God has placed us. I would argue that it is a duty for Christians, along with people of other faiths, to bring their faith into the political and social realm. If we do not, we run the danger of ending up with what Barack Obama calls “bad politics”, where the only people who bring their faith into the social and political sphere are those who want to misuse both politics and faith. By leaving our own faith out of our politics, we leave a vacuum in politics for those with insular and hateful beliefs, or for those who cynically use faith for their own means.

I once heard it said that religion is like water poured on our hearts. We all have either thorns or flowers growing in the garden of our hearts. If we pour water on thorns, they will grow. And so religion can make the thorns grow and choke the goodness in our hearts. This will then engender hatred, prejudice, and disunity. On the other hand, if we pour water on flowers, they will also grow. And so faith has the potential to make the flowers in our hearts flourish and thus bring so much love, joy, and peace to the world. Our aim should not be to stop faith being involved in politics. Rather, our aim should be to make sure that people have flowers, and not thorns, growing in their hearts, so that a loving, compassionate, and liberating faith can inspire politics and bring hope and new life to individuals, communities, and societies.

politics and faith

  • The above was a talk I gave to over 100 sixth formers at the Sixth Form Faith Day on Faith and Politics at St Teilo’s High School, Cardiff. In an exciting project, the sixth form students are starting their own “faith blog”, dealing with issues surrounding faith and society. In due course, I will provide the link.

Rock of Ages: Pop music, faith, and the challenge to the Church today

Nick Cave stained glassTen years ago, I taught a University module on pop music and the Christian faith, which was the first such course to be taught in the UK. One of the essays I would give the students was on Australian rock star Nick Cave’s perspective that pop music expresses our desire to reach out to the sacred. “Ultimately,” he writes, “the love song exists to fill, with language, the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine”. This viewpoint inspired me to write a later article in Anvil: The Journal for Theology and Mission, which argued that a conversational approach to pop music should be an integral part of the Church’s outreach, especially in connecting with younger generations. The article is still available online: ‘Pop Music and the Church’s Mission’.

one republicMy thoughts on this subject have not changed. In fact, when I hear the lyrics of the music that my children play, I am more convinced than ever that pop music holds both a great challenge and a wonderful opportunity for Christians today. Our pop charts continue to be full of spiritual searching, with many songs suffused with direct religious imagery and references. “Baby, I’ve been, I’ve been praying hard… Seek it out and you shall find”, sing One Republic on ‘Counting Stars’, presently at number 3 in the UK charts (compare Matthew 7:7-8). Other recent songs have been even more direct with matters of faith. “When food is gone you are my daily meal; When friends are gone I know my saviour’s love is real”, sung Florence and the Machine on their 2009 hit single ‘You’ve got the Love’.

madonna like a prayerNone of this is new, of course. Faith and spirituality have always had an intimate relationship with pop and rock music, from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones (just listen to ‘Shine a Light’ and ‘I Just Want to See His Face’ on 1972’s seminal album ‘Exile on Main Street’), through to Madonna, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, and U2 (whose songs are even used in some churches to form the structure of a communion service, cleverly entitled the ‘U2charist’).

Avril LavigneFor most songs, however, it is not their direct rooting in theology or Christian imagery that encourages those of faith to take note of them. Rather, it is the fact that they deal specifically, if often unwittingly, with key Christian themes such as sin, salvation, love, responsibility to one’s neighbours, hope, loss of innocence, compassion and redemption. In so many songs, there is an implicit, rather than an overt, sense of transcendence, which accompanies a real search for hope and meaning in a seemingly cold and uncaring world. “I don’t know who you are, but I’m, I’m with you”, sung Avril Lavigne on her 2003 award-winning song.

moby - jesusWith such a deep spirituality within much of today’s popular music, engagement and dialogue is essential, especially if the Church is to understand generations that are largely lost to its fold. Christians are called to a dynamic relationship with popular culture, in the same way that St Paul considered, and engaged with, the cultural and social make-up of the people to whom he was preaching (Acts 14:1-20). After all, both music and poetry harbour, to use Karl Rahner’s phrase, ‘the eternal marvel and silent mystery of God’ and so it is absolutely imperative that the Church takes seriously their contemporary forms. As William Romanowski puts it: “We need a different kind of Christian approach – an engaged, critical, and productive involvement with the popular arts – grounded in a faith vision that encompasses all of life and culture”.

Zombies and Thomas Merton: Waking from a dream of separateness

I’m writing this blog post from deep in the Bavarian countryside. I love visiting my wife’s family here in Germany – the weather is as warm as the welcome, the food is delicious, and I get to write this blog while looking out at deer grazing in a beautiful garden. Despite all this, I still feel rather disconnected with those around me, as I speak almost no German and many people in this small village speak almost no English. Last night I even found myself speaking Welsh to my mother-in-law, thinking that would get me understood better. It didn’t work, of course!

Quadrophenia Who

In reality, of course, disconnection with the world around us is something with which we all struggle at different times of our lives. We do speak the same language as our family, friends and neighbours, but whether they truly understand us is another question. “Can you see the real me?” screamed Roger Daltry at his doctor, mother, and priest on The Who’s 1973 Quadrophenia album.


Warm BodiesQuadrophenia, later made into a successful film, is a rock opera about a disenchanted young person. Teenagers, of course, often feel misunderstood and alone, as they try to make a connection with an often unforgiving world. The film Warm Bodies [2012] recently became a huge hit with young people. On the surface, it is surprising that a film about zombies would prove so popular with teenagers. In the first 100 words of the film, though, the film-makers make an immediate connection with twenty-first century teenagers through the narration of a teenage zombie, named “R” (played by Nicholas Hoult), who is himself one of the ‘undead’:

“What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because I’m dead. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I mean, we’re all dead.”

science connectednessThis is not a condition that is unique to teenagers, of course. This sense of disconnect with each other and with the world around us is something we all feel at different times in our lives. In my book The Compassion Quest I argue that, while disconnection is a frequent feeling for us humans, freedom and redemption can be found in recognising that we are all, in fact, intimately related to each other and to the world around us. Even scientists are moving from a paradigm that sees the universe as a mechanical system, made up of a disconnected collection of parts, to a paradigm that regards the world as an integrated whole. With approaches such as systems thinking and quantum theory, contemporary science offers a shift from an emphasis on ‘objects’ to the recognition that ‘relationship’ is integral to the world around us.

Likewise, Christian theology teaches that relationship is also what God is really about. God is relationship in his very core, which is what the complicated doctrine of the Trinity is all about, and he wants us to enter relationship too – with him, with each other, and with the natural world around us.

Warm Bodies LoveBoth our faith and contemporary science, then, suggest that relationship and oneness are at the heart of the created order; by ignoring this we miss not only the reality of existence but also the richness of life. In the film Warm Bodies, the teenage zombie “R” is brought to life, quite literally, when he makes a deep-seated connection with a human being. Love brings him out of his sleepy, lifeless cocoon. For Christians, love is also integral to rebirth and new life – God’s love for us, the love shown to us by others, and the love with which we bless others.

Thomas Merton“Why can’t we connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because we’re dead. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, though. I mean, we’re all dead”. The next time we feel that way, we need to remind ourselves that our alienation from God’s world and from the people around us is something from which we can break free. By doing so, we are born again – viewing the world and everything in it with fresh eyes. As Thomas Merton wrote, when he himself came to this liberating realisation as he walked down a street in Louisville, Kentucky: “I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realisation that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another, even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.”