2017 in review

In which I write about the best cultural and educational things I have done in the past year.

Hull, HU9 —

Exhibition

Image of Giacometti's work at the Tate Modern

I developed an appreciation of spindly sculptures at the Giacometti retrospective at the Tate Modern. I confess to not understanding the significance of some of the works (and to finding it strange that they crammed so many items in, when being able to see fewer pieces properly would have been preferable). However, everything was made worthwhile by the inclusion of  Disagreeable Object (1931). I doubt a piece of art has ever been given a more apt name.

Photo of the white dome and black wall of the Shrine of the Book

I also saw lots of ancient goodies while on a tour of Israel / Palestine this autumn. Some of the historical and archaeological sites are truly stunning. But of the exhibitions, the most striking must be the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The entire book of Isaiah forms the centrepiece, but lots of fragments of these ancient scrolls are on show. Above ground the themes of light and darkness, so important to the Qumran community,  are represented by a white dome and a black wall. There’s a lot more to say about the trip, which I took with Oak Hall Expeditions – I have written up four highlights from Israel / Palestine on the Oak Hall blog.

Film

I’ve had more cinema trips than normal this year. But nothing to write home about. La La Land? Overhyped. Lego Batman Movie? Fun but not earth-shattering. Murder on the Orient Express? Weirdly self-indulgent of Kenneth Branagh to put himself in every single scene. Beauty and the Beast? Stick to the cartoon.

However, I do have one reason to be grateful for the Beauty and the Beast remake: it gave me one of my day-out highlights of the year. The Kensington Hotel created an afternoon tea dedicated to all things Beauty and the Beast, and I spent a very happy afternoon there back in May. Tale as Old as Time afternoon tea was much more enjoyable than the film itself.

Photo of Tale as Old as Time afternoon tea

TV

This was the year that I got Netflix. My TV habits have totally changed. I’m no longer working my way through bad teen dramas one episode a week… now I can watch them all in one go! (At this point, my review of the year becomes more of a public confession.)

My stand-out series was Playful Kiss, a Korean rom-com that runs to an impressive 16 hour-long episodes. Based on a Japanese manga, It’s a will-they/won’t-they love story where the girl is an extraordinary ditz and the boy is a cold-hearted, emotionally manipulative genius. It sounds unpromising; it’s absolute gold. I loved so much about this – mainly the fact that you kind of hate the guy but are totally rooting for the relationship to work out. Under the surface, though, it’s got a lot to say about friendship and family relationships. It’s bizarre but brilliant.

I watched 13 Reasons Why, which was rightly controversial but exactly the kind of provocative programming Netflix is doing so well at the moment. Riverdale seemed to lose its soul for the 2nd series. If you think you might like a crude spoof true-crime programme, you’ll love American Vandal. I caught up with Arrested Development, which really was ahead of its time when it was new. I binge-watched 3 seasons of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and absolutely loved the sparky dialogue despite being bored by what passed for plot. Frankly, I’d watch 3 seasons of this back-to-back just to hear the amazing Songify theme song:

While I was still subscribing to the BBC (i.e. had a TV licence) I enjoyed the third and final series of Uncle. It’s a massively underrated sitcom about a deadbeat uncle who bonds with his socially awkward teenage nephew. Really, it’s a programme about friendship. A lovely line at the end of the series helps to wrap it up as a quirky coming-of-age story: “You’re my best friend and that will never change, but I’ve got some friends my own age now. And I might need to start hanging out with them more. For sociological reasons.”

Music

The world has been waiting for what a post- One Direction world would sound like. More miss than hit from the other four, but Harry Styles has put out a genuinely good album. It’s called Harry Styles.

I also discovered some other albums that I shouldn’t like but do. Fragile by Frankie & The Heartstrings has some really powerful moments alongside a generally good-to-listen-to set of songs. It’s cheesy, but Hope by the Strumbellas is packed with big sounds that I haven’t been able to get out of my head all year. And finally, even more low-brow but possibly all the better for it, I discovered 5 Seconds of Summer. Sounds Good Feels Good is a good album, whatever the critics said.

Sport

I watched Le Tour de France and La Vuelta a España. Nothing much to add, except that it’s sad how cycling is still focused on pharmaceuticals rather than the sport itself.

Fiction

Three times in its history (1966, 1945 & 1943) the Carnegie Medal was not awarded because the judges felt no book published that year was worthy of the honour. I am sure many fiction books are worthy of mention here, but I haven’t read any of them this year.

Non-Fiction

The most gripping non-fiction book I read this year was the Most Human Human by Brian Christian. In essence it’s a book about what it means to be human, but it’s framed around artificial intelligence. It provoked me to think more deeply about the nature of humanity than any Christian or theological book I read this year.

Of those theological books, though, I’d have to pick John Stott’s The Contemporary Christian. To my shame, I’d absorbed its influence without actually reading it. It’s subtitled “an urgent plea for double listening” and I feel it needs to be heard afresh at this present moment. One quote sums up so much of what is good here:

I often say to our students at the Institute for Contemporary Christianity in London [nowadays, LICC] that we are not in the business of ‘breeding tadpoles.’ A tadpole is a little creature with a huge head and nothing else besides. Certainly there are some Christian tadpoles around. Their heads are bulging with sound theology, but that is all there is to them. No, we are concerned to help people to develop not only a Christian mind, but also a Christian heart, a Christian spirit, a Christian conscience and a Christian will, in fact to become whole Christian persons, thoroughly integrated under the lordship of Christ.


See also: 2013 in review2014 in review2015 in review and 2016 in review.

2016 in review

In which I write about the best cultural and educational things I have done in the past year.

London, NW2 —

Exhibition

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 exhibition was my favourite of the year. (I went in early January, so it counts as a 2016 visit.) The photos were amazing, as you would expect, and made even more stunning by the way they were backlit in a darkened exhibition space. Sadly for the organisers, this meant that the souvenir reproductions in the gift shop looked dull by comparison. I’ll be going back next year.

Film

Another slow years for cinema trips. My highlight was Finding Dory, which was fairly entertaining even if it didn’t add much to general vibe of Finding Nemo. My lowlight was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which wasn’t very entertaining. I think those were my only trips to the cinema. Which says more about me than it does about the films I saw.

TV

There are only a handful of things that I keep up with on TV, a fact which I feel impoverishes me in many ways. For instance, I didn’t watch the highly-rated Planet Earth II so I’ll have to wait for the DVD.

Of the things I did catch, by far the most arresting was Fleabag. It was billed as a comedy, but if it is then it’s of the bleakest-outer-darkness kind. It’s not for the faint-hearted, partly because it’s devoid of hope, and partly because it’s self-consciously depraved. Yet in the mire, it’s a passionate and poignant depiction of the emptiness of life. It’s one of the bravest, most innovative things I’ve seen in years.

On a similar vein, I watched Barracuda last week. It’s a slow-burner to begin with, but really packs a punch by the end of the final episode. This is the sports anti-hero story: the story of all the promising sportspeople of the future whose careers stall and are forced to come to terms with normal life. Danny, our ‘hero’ is relentlessly self-obsessed. He expects heaven and earth to move around him. And yet he, like everyone else, ends up a failure. There are consequences. It’s tragic. But it makes you feel things.

On a sunnier note, children’s TV is having something of a renaissance. I have really enjoyed the second season of So Awkward. It’s like Some Girls for 10-year-olds. It’s a classic kid’s TV depiction of school: the headteacher is completely mad, the form tutor is completely desperate, and the kids are two-dimensional. Martha is nerdish and meticulous about everything. Lilly is slightly less clever and easily embarrassed. Jas is clumsy. They are supported by Olly, a sort of boy-version of Martha whose cast notes may as well have said “young Stephen Fry,” and Matt, who has a will-they-won’t-they relationship with Lily. Matt is the only one to have undergone any kind of character development, from sportsman-who’s-stupid-but-far-too-good-looking-to-care-about-that to sportsman-who’s-stupid-but-willing-to-learn-and-surprisingly-sensitive-and-also-good-looking. A real catch, then. Oh to fathom the mysteries of the mind of a tweenage girl. Anyway, it’s really well done for what it is and I can’t help but keep watching.

My guilty pleasure this year was Canadian teen-trash reality-drama series Lost & Found Music Studios. Don’t judge me. It’s the perfect blend of predictable storylines, irritating characters and tween marketability. The only reason to watch this is to consider why it works when it so obviously shouldn’t. Why can’t I help coming back for more? It’s formulaic, the characters are all brats, and their songs don’t even sound good. I think its brilliance is in the editing, the constant cut-aways to the characters explaining the events of the narrative through straight-to-camera monologues shouldn’t work but they do. I hate myself for saying it, but I really love this programme.

Music

This autumn, I discovered the solo work of Brandon Flowers. I have a very selective list of albums I can listen to all the way through again and again without getting bored, and The Desired Effect is the only one to make the list this year. In its best places, if feels like Flowers has found Bruce Springsteen and moved him forwards by three decades.

Not new to me this year, but worth a mention is my rekindling of affection for Paul Simon’s Graceland. I’ve been listening to it a lot recently, and it’s still growing on me. Simon reckons that Graceland (the song) is the best thing he ever wrote, and I am beginning to agree.

Because it’s Christmas time, honourable mention must go to Paul Baloche for his bizarre-yet-brilliant mashups between well-known Christmas carols and worship songs. It shouldn’t work but it sort of does.

Sport

I tried to watch the first race of the Formula 1 season this year, but the adverts on Channel 4 drove me mad and I gave up. I watched a few minutes of the Olympics here and there, but nothing more than that. The only consistent sporting occasion I tuned in for was the Tour de France, which was excellent fun. Chris Froome’s unexpected attack on the final descent of Stage 8 was a brilliant moment.

Fiction

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift was, at times, difficult to read. But it was worth the effort for a tightly told story about power and manipulation. It’s only short, but has more to say than most books of five times the length. I had the pleasure of hearing the author speak about the book, its inspirations, and possible meanings. This is exactly the sort of thing that Peirene Press excels at: publishing things that need to be read by those who don’t happen to speak languages other than English.

More downmarket but also translated from a European language was The Circle by Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren. I’m not a connoisseur of Swedish teen fiction or stories about witches so I can’t make relative judgments about it. On its own terms, though, it’s a lively depiction of high school and all the social complexities of that time of life. And there are witches.

Non-Fiction

My life changed forever when I read To Hell and Back, Meat Loaf’s autobiography. It’s the most extraordinary story, told with such wit and warmth that you almost forget the tragic sadness behind it all. I never knew biography could be written so well.

Mark Forsyth has filled a gap in the market brilliantly with The Elements of Eloquence: How to turn the perfect english phrase. He runs through 39 ‘tricks’ of good writing, explaining why they work and why alternatives don’t work. His use of examples is broad, from the obvious (the Bible and Shakespeare) to the surprising (Katy Perry and Dolly Parton). I’m setting myself the challenge of upping my game with memorable phrases this coming year.

By far and away the best Christian book I’ve read this year was Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A biblical theology of the book of Leviticus by L Michael Morales. I saw more clearly, and had new light shed on, more things from the Pentateuch than I could mention. More importantly, it excited me with the Bible’s vision of where creation has come from and where it is going, and what God is doing in the world to take us from the one to the other. It sent me into scripture, into praise and into prayer more than anything I’ve read in the past few years.


See also: 2013 in review2014 in review and 2015 in review.

2015 in review

In which I write about the best cultural and educational things I have done in the past year.

London, NW2 —

Exhibition

For the second year in a row, I haven’t made it to an exhibition. There’s a ready-made New Year’s Resolution.

Film

Two Three cinema trips this year. The Martian was far funnier than most comedies, and despite the ludicrous set-up I was rooting for Matt Damon right the way through.

I also saw Spectre. I’ve missed most of the recent Bond films, but given that they’re not really about the plot I didn’t have any trouble following events. Come to think of it, I bet Bond could survive on Mars on his own without all the fuss it seemed to cause Matt Damon.

Technically last year but too late to make my review was Exodus: Gods and Kings. The less said the better.

*Update 30/12/15*
Amazingly, I forgot my cinematic highlight of the year. Pitch Perfect 2 might not have reached the dizzying heights of the first film, but those were some heights. What a film. The real wonder is how this escaped my memory given the otherwise mediocre material I had to draw on. I take it all back. 2015 was an excellent year for cinema.

TV

The second run of Inside No. 9 was very good, although it naturally felt less significant than the first because it’d been done before.

London Spy was artistically beautiful, showing off some very familiar parts of London in a way that few TV programmes manage. The story itself had nothing to reward the loyalty of five spent hours, but I admire the brave decision to pace a TV drama entirely through monologues and awkwardly long silences. That could really work on a story worth telling. And the pictures were brilliant.

Doctor Who was more daring than it has been in recent times, and that really paid off. Capaldi is a classic.

Music

New albums from One Direction, Justin Bieber and the Vamps. Surely a high water mark for western music.

I enjoyed hearing Lang Lang play Rachmaninoff and watching him make eyes with the people on the front row.

Sport

Sundays have been busier recently, but I’ve managed to catch up on Formula 1 highlights. There’s been some real gold this season. One benefit of not watching all the build-up every time is that you focus on the racing rather than the commentary. The racing is much more interesting.

Channel 4 have taken over the BBC’s contract for free-to-air broadcast, so we’ll see how much I’m able to follow in the new year.

Fiction

At long last, I worked through Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s remarkably readable, and the sort of book that I know I’ll want to come back to every so often to discover more of the deeply-drawn characters.

I re-read Generation X in the summer. I was quitting my job in marketing to go and work for a church, so it seemed somehow appropriate. It’s brilliant.

Non-Fiction

I’m very late to the game with this, but Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything is probably the most memorable non-fiction book I’ve read this year. I’ve been more focused on Christian literature this year, but this was a very secular reminder that the world is far bigger than I normally imagine it to be.

Of the Christian books I’ve read this year, the most lasting impression has been that left by God’s Unfaithful Wife by Raymond C Ortlund Jr. It’s a biblical-theological study of the theme of spiritual adultery and it makes for pretty powerful reading. It’s academic in style but pastoral in purpose, and is a vital contribution to a neglected area of Christian teaching.


See also: 2013 in review and 2014 in review

2014 in review

In which I write about the best cultural and educational things I have done in the past year.

London, NW2 —

Exhibition

No exhibition grabbed my attention this year as much as a single painting in the National Gallery. I must have walked past it many times before without a second glance, but early in the year I looked up at just the right moment and allowed it to grab my attention.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is an extraordinary painting by Diego Velázquez. It depicts a maid hard at work in the kitchen, with an elderly woman pointing her attention towards a scene on the back wall in which Jesus is seen speaking with the sisters Martha and Mary. In the biblical story, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to him while Martha faffed about with the household chores. Martha complains that Mary isn’t pulling her weight, but Jesus replies that Mary has chosen what is better.

The painting is brilliant because it’s unclear whether the scene in the background is a painting, so that a contemporary maid is being chastised for her begrudging labour, or a hatch to an adjacent room, so that the maid could be Martha herself. The first understanding is the more natural one. It’s pleasing to think that a Baroque painter went to the effort of showing, through the example of a biblical story, that work for its own sake is never more important than honouring Christ. I’m glad I noticed it.

Film

The only film I saw in the cinema this year was The Fault in Our Stars. The tone of voice in John Green’s first-person narrative is the outstanding feature of the book, but sadly doesn’t make the transition to screen well. In its place is an emotional intensity on an even greater scale than the book, which, while I was never going to appreciate it, really did seem overcooked.

On DVD, I saw the Lego Movie. I was sort of enjoying it until it got all post-modern in the real-life sequences. I rapidly changed my opinion of it at that point.

Having sat through Frozen, I want 102 minutes of my life back. With compensation.

The only other film I recall watching this year was Troy, the 2004 ‘adaptation’ of the Iliad starring Brad Pitt as Achilles and Orlando Bloom as Paris, among others. One reviewer called the acting ‘as wooden as the horse’ and I found that to be a generous understatement.

Clearly I need to watch better films next year.

TV

Generally, I only watch TV with online catch-up, and I don’t catch up on much. For comedy, the outstanding programme of the year was Inside No. 9 by  Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. It was was seriously dark and often very strange, but it made for compelling viewing.

There have been a few good music documentaries on BBC4. (In fact, these are just about the only things BBC4 seems to produce nowadays.) The history of rock is a well-worn path for these programmes, so it was good to see a divergence from the big-picture overview (The Joy of the Guitar Riff) to more niche themes (Play it Loud: The Story of the Marshall Amp).

Music

I didn’t pick up on any stand-out albums this year. But then again, I didn’t listen to any of the top-selling or most critically-acclaimed new releases. Nobody to blame but myself.

I went to a couple of concerts, however. The absolute highlight for me was hearing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 (known as the ‘Emperor,’ apparently, because one of Napoleon’s officers heard it and remarked that it was an emperor of a concerto). Quite right, too. I also enjoyed Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, which I had never fully appreciated for its outstanding quality in every movement. Bach’s Magnificat recently got me in the mood for Christmas but, if I’m honest, I was underwhelmed by it. I might stick to symphonies for a while.

Sport

I followed the Formula 1 season again this year. It takes a sizeable chunk of time out of a weekend, but at least it enforces a few hours’ down-time every couple of weeks. Everything changed this year: where the talk recently had been all about the tyres, this time it was all about the power units. They’re not called engines any more, apparently.

The finances are stacked firmly in favour of the bigger and more established teams, meaning that the two smallest and slowest teams went bust. Others could go the same way. I think all this is a terrible shame because the drivers further down the field tend to be less predictable and therefore add more spice to the races. But business is business and, hand on heart, if I was looking to invest somewhere it wouldn’t be one of the little F1 teams. All this aside, the racing was more exciting than it has been for the few years I’ve watched F1.

Jules Bianchi nearly died after colliding with a crane that was recovering another car, reminding everyone that throwing yourself around a race track at 240 miles per hour carries with it inherent dangers.

Fiction

I have read more books this year than any other previously. I’ve aimed for a mix of classics and contemporary across genres. I read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I expected to find heavy-going but really enjoyed. I finally read Albert Camus’ The Outsider (or The Stranger; L’Étranger). It’s an effecting story that I expect I’ll want to revisit often.

The most challenging thing I read this year was A Clockwork Orange. Challenging because Burgess uses an invented slang throughout and it requires a good deal of decoding, and challenging also because of the nasty stuff that the delinquent protagonist does. It’s a brave treatment of the theological tug-of-war between the Pelagian and Augustinian positions on free will and original sin. I was worried that it might change forever how I hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony, but it hasn’t. A forceful book, no question, and not for the faint-hearted, but an excellent one nonetheless.

I enjoyed the wit of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, even though they are so sparsely plotted. Of more recent fiction, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall gripped me completely.

Non-Fiction

I have very recently read Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. Henry Marsh is a consultant neurosurgeon and this is his memoir (of sorts) telling the stories of some of his memorable cases. He is oddly likeable: pompously self-important but totally aware of it; grouchy but for all the right reasons. Beneath the arrogance you get a sense of a man who rides the waves of successes and failures with a genuine respect for his patients and their brains. The format works brilliantly.

Of the Christian books I’ve read this year, the most helpful was Equipped to Serve by Richard Bewes. He wants everyone to think about how they can serve the church and to encourage them in that work. He does it with great warmth and enthusiasm, drawing on a lifetime’s experience of ordinary people stepping up and stepping out. It’s a real gem.


See also: 2013 in review

2013 in review

In which I write about the best cultural and educational things I have done in the past year.

London, N7 —

Exhibition

Banner for Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

My exhibition of the year was Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum. Billed as one of the most significant exhibitions for years, it didn’t disappoint. Two things struck me while bustling through the halls of the mock-villa. Firstly, we are incredibly lucky that Vesuvius preserved so much of the Pompeian culture – the Pompeians weren’t so lucky, of course. Secondly, the sheer bawdiness of the Pompeian art and household paraphernalia is almost embarrassing. We like to think that we live in an era of unprecedented sexual liberation but it’s nothing of the sort.

I also enjoyed Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at the Tate. I bought the calendar, so I’ll be enjoying Lowry’s bleak depictions of urban life throughout the coming year.

Film

I didn’t go to the cinema this year. The most memorable film I watched on DVD was The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s not fair to compare the film with the book… but… well… read the book.

TV

Movie poster for The Day of the DoctorI don’t watch much TV – I’d happily live without one. I actually think I’d be happy without catch-up services, too. I do catch things on iPlayer from time to time but there’s very little I would actually miss. Doctor Who continues to be a great series, though: the format is absolute genius for a TV show, allowing for any kind of story set in any kind of place with any kind of characters – and your lead cast changes completely every few years. Moreover, the “rules” by which it operates can continually be bent and broken, and as the 50th anniversary programme demonstrated its own history can be rewritten. It can be almost anything it wants to be from one week to the next: for that reason alone, it will endure in one form or another for a very long time indeed.

Music

Unexpectedly, my album of the year was Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend. It’s the album I’ve listened to most times. I’m not bored of it yet.

I recently saw Handel’s Messiah in concert – something I really should have done much sooner. The atmosphere adds to the occasion, but the power of Handel’s storytelling would captivate in almost any setting.

Sport

The only sport I follow is Formula One. All the talk this year was about how it was becoming all about the tyres. Which meant that it became all about talking about tyres. What was fascinating was how the narrative shifted towards the end of the season, from “oh no! Sebastian Vettel keeps winning and it’s getting boring” to “ooh! Sebastian Vettel will break more records if he keeps winning!” Apparently boring becomes interesting when trivia is at stake. I’m very tempted to watch the whole 2014 season with the commentary muted, only David Coulthard’s voice is so very nice to listen to. Does he narrate audio books?

I like close racing, but I also like to watch utter domination. If it’s masterful, it’s not going to bore me. And Vettel has been masterful this year.

Fiction

One of the perks of my job is exposure to some of the best (and, admittedly, the worst) of literature for children and young people. The stand-out highlight this year has been The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud. It is a modern ghost story, deeply evocative of the Victorian golden age of the genre. The first in a new series, it establishes Lockwood & Co. as the Psychic Investigation Agency that will take on the trickiest cases. It’s excellent.

I finally got round to reading The Lord of the Rings this year. I tried to read them at least a decade ago and got stuck with Tom Bombadil, who seemed to bumble on endlessly about nothing of note for page after page. It was quite a different experience this time. If nothing much else has changed in the last ten or so years, at least my tolerance for reading has substantially increased. Nothing dragged this time. In fact, Tolkein’s world is so comprehensive that The Lord of the Rings seems almost like a highlights package. I wish there was more of it.

I also read Holes by Louis Sachar. Everyone is right: it’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before. In a good way.

Non-fiction

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is the first book I’ve read in a long while were I struggled to understand everything. It’s a great book, but I have far too many gaps in my knowledge to appreciate it fully.

Don Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is the most important Christian book I’ve read this year. If Christians value the authority of the Bible as the word of God, they should treat it with consistent integrity. Too many sleights of hand and fallacies slip their way into books and sermons; it’s concerning for those who don’t realise they’re doing it and highly irresponsible for those who do. Christians need to be much clearer about what we don’t know, what we do know, and why. This book is more of a manifesto than a comprehensive guide, but it’s essential reading all the same.

Photo of box set of Penguin Underground Lines books
Penguin Underground Lines
9781846147821

My little box of surprises for the year was Penguin Underground Lines, twelve books celebrating the London Underground’s 150th anniversary. Each book takes a Tube line as its theme, some as fiction and others as non-fiction. It’s an eclectic mix of drawing, biography, stream-of-consciousness, demography, and some more between. It’s a pot luck of styles and subjects that only mis-fires a couple of times. They are quintessentially London: not just because of the Tube theme, these books couldn’t have emerged from any other city on Earth.

Digital phylacteries: applying the Shema in the digital age

An article for the Big Bible Project in which I explore the idea of faithfulness and witness to the Lord Jesus on the Internet.

London, N19 —

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

– Deuteronomy 6:4-9

One of the first essays I wrote as a Theology undergraduate was titled ‘How best should the Shema be understood?’ These verses from Deuteronomy are known as the ‘Shema’, from the Hebrew for the word ‘to hear’ which opens verse 4. Jesus referred to the Shema as the greatest commandment (Mk 12:29-30), reflecting the central importance of these verses to Jewish worship. Sadly they are less well known among Christians.

By all accounts the Shema is an extremely important part of the Bible for Christians, but it poses a question of interpretation that needs to be addressed in each and every situation in which we find ourselves: what does this look like in practice? More specifically, what does it mean to keep God’s commandments on our hearts? What does it look like to tie them on our hands and bind them on our foreheads; to write them on our doorframes and gates?

Through the centuries, Jews and Christians have answered these questions in all sorts of ways. Some Jews keep these and other verses on parchment in tiny boxes called phylacteries (or Tefillin in Hebrew) which are literally bound around the head and hand each morning. Others have answered them more metaphorically, recognising the need to be bold in religious observance at home and in public, but have stopped short of etching anything into their doorframes!

I wonder how we Digital Disciples should answer these questions. As I read the Shema, I cannot help but think of our smartphones and tablets and laptops. I think of verse 7: ‘Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.’ I think that these are exactly the places we use our digital devices – unless I am the only one to check Twitter in bed!

Clearly, the main importance of these verses is in the opening line: God is God, and we are to love him totally with everything it is in our capacity to love with. And we are to carry them with us ‘on our hearts’, as it were, implicit and ever-present in all our thoughts and deeds. We are to speak about them in the home and out in public; at rest and at work; at the start and end of the day – and in between times, too! That surely includes our digital communities as well as our ‘analogue’ ones, and those times when communicating online as well as face-to-face.

The last couple of verses are trickier to apply to the digital sphere. Perhaps our ‘digital phylacteries’ are our online profiles, where we are conscious of being guided by God’s character and commandments. Perhaps our ‘digital doorposts’ are our blog landing pages or sidebars, where we have an opportunity to display what kind of website our visitors are entering.

This does not mean, of course, that every Christian’s profiles and websites should ‘wear’ the digital equivalent of WWJD wristbands. The challenge of the Shema is far less prescriptive but infinitely stronger than that. In effect, it is saying, ‘let everything you do be thoroughly motivated by and grounded in the character of God and his word, such that it is obvious in every area of your life all the time’.


This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.

 

Doing a Boney M. online

An article for the Big Bible Project in which I argue that we need to be careful not to allow our online conversations to communicate the wrong tone.

London, N19 —

I recently listened to Boney M.’s catchy 70s hit Rivers of Babylon. It is an infectious sing-along song, which helps to explain why it’s the 5th most sold single of all time in the UK, but there is something unnerving about their version. The tone is all wrong. The song features words from Psalm 137 which is a bitter lament at a brutal foreign conquest and exile, but the tune bounces along with all the joy of daffodils in a breeze on a spring day. The whole point of the psalm is that they cannot sing – they have hung up their harps (v.2) – because of the sadness of their condition.

In one of the most difficult verses of the Bible for us to hear, the writer goes on to call for retribution for the people’s oppressors:

…happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. (v. 8b-9)

This isn’t the stuff of jovial bestselling singles. In context, the lament is tragic. Out of context, the sentiment of the song just seems cheap.

‘Doing a Boney M.’

I fear that Christians too often fall into this trap when speaking about our faith online. When we communicate God-revealed, life-giving truths in 140 characters or less, we necessarily lose some of the context or nuance of what we want to say. Without realising it, the way we say things often communicates something quite unlike what we hope people will hear.

  • Blanket bombing your friends and followers with Bible verses can come across as preachy.
  • Pithy comments like ‘Jesus loves you’ can come across as trite or tacky.
    Using ‘Christianese’ language can come across as haughty and can erect cultural barriers between Christians and non-Christians.
  • Halves of Bible verses, roughly quoted, are easily divorced from their meaning in the context of the passage.
  • Constant complaints about PCC meetings or legislation making its way to General Synod can prompt questions about the value of the church when it seems to cause endless bother to its members. (And it’s not just Anglicans who are guilty of this kind of thing.)

If your Twitter feed is anything like mine, you will probably see examples of these every day. They are almost always meant well and almost always say something worthwhile and true – but they are often poorly-received. The problem is that the context that the ‘sharer’ has in mind while tweeting or commenting online is rarely met by the context of the ‘hearer’.

A real-life example

I saw this in action last month on Facebook. A friend of mine (who works for a church) posted a quote from Thomas Cranmer, the leading English Reformer and author of the Book of Common Prayer. Somebody commented along the lines of ‘how many ordinary people are able to understand that language?’ The context of the ‘sharer’ here was completely different to that of the ‘hearer’, so the quote was received very differently to the way it had been intended. My friend had been studying one of Cranmer’s sermons on justification and shared a line which he found particularly striking. Meanwhile, the person commenting had just come back, frustrated, from a very ‘churchy’ meeting only to be met with 16th Century jargon about justification on Facebook.

To his credit my friend was gracious about the complaint and very grateful for the challenge about using Christian jargon. Once they had both explained the context to their comments, they both understood where the other was coming from and appreciated what he had to say. A ‘Boney M. situation’ of context clash turned into an opportunity to encourage and challenge one another, itself a fantastic lesson in digital discipleship. Few of us are mature enough or thoughtful enough to discuss things like that, so it is all the more important that we think before we share things online.

Some questions to ask before sharing

Is this comment designed to build people up or knock them down? Can I say it with integrity, or would it not stand up to scrutiny? Will people understand it or will they be puzzled by its impenetrable language? How would I feel if I read this at the end of a difficult day or the start of a brand new one? What would I add if I had the space or time to say more?


This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.