HOLDING THEOLOGY GENTLY

Bullying3

I recently came across a Wendell Berry quotation that poked my surmising. Berry said, “Some Christian spokesmen give the impression that the highest Christian bliss would be to get to Heaven and find that you are the only one there -- that you were right, and all the others wrong.”

Sadly, in the Northern Ireland churches there are so many such spokesmen. There seem to be those who find the joy of their ministries in seeking error in the theology of their brothers and sisters in Christ and then going after them publicly.

I have brothers and sisters in the faith who hold to a range of theological opinion. Many are much more liberal in their views than me and many others are way more conservative. I value both. My own understanding of Scripture and lived out discipleship benefits from honing my own theology off both sides.

So, I am not against church leaders holding more conservative or liberal views. My concern is the posture by which they hold that theology. 

I have always been suspicious of those who attempt as hard as they can to exclude others from the community of faith. When they go seeking reasons to count people out.

Jesus never considered our theological understanding, never mind purity, as a means of salvation. Grace through faith in a following of Jesus is the call to be a Christian. Theological knowledge is a constant quest and there is nowhere where a theological error outweighs and therefore negates the work of Jesus incarnation, death, resurrection of ascension. 

Someone else’s theological position never concerns me. The posture by which people hold their theological views concerns me greatly as I watch the spiritual damage that it has done. 

When someone believes that their theological position is infallible the arrogance that comes with that will cause them to become judgemental causing the discord, dissensions and factions that Paul describes as the acts of the flesh in Galatians 5. 

Theology held by grace and the fruit of the Spirit, on the other hand, can become a very helpful resource for spiritual formation and theological understanding. A deep love for a brother or sister has to be the only Jesus’ way to share theological difference, holding the body of Christ together at every cost.

As I put it in this benediction, carrying our faith needs the Jesus posture, a posture of gentleness and humility in its courageous conviction. 

Lord, save me from a heaven where I am isolated with a few others who believe exactly like me!

 

God, give us a confidence in you

But let grace keep us from arrogance

God, give us a strength of conviction

But let us share it humbly

God may we believe courageously

But help us carry it gently

Lord, may we go forward with vision

But help us to be careful that we do not abuse your grace to feed our own self righteousness

But use your grace to feed the world’s deepest needs.

AMEN


TONY MACAULEY - LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PEACE LINE

Macauley Peace Line

I asked Tony Macauley why he republished Little House On The Peace Line now. He replied, “Of all my books this is the one that speaks most clearly on my hopes for Northern Ireland. With our continued failure to achieve political stability and reconciliation, and the forthcoming 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I felt the time was right for a new edit of the original memoir.”

If you don’t know about Tony Macauley’s first three memoirs then start with Paperboy. That hilarious description of being a boy on Belfast’s Shankill Road in the 70s was followed by the equally laugh out loud Breadboy and then his University days in All Growed Up. All three are witty gems strewn through with the astute social, cultural and political of growing up in a divided community. 

Little House On The Peace Line is the phase of his life where I best knew the name Tony Macauley. Yes, he was known in his Christian Union days at University of Ulster Coleraine but when he took a job at 174 in the New Lodge his reputation soared. 174 was a brand new cutting edge Christian Outreach and Tony was the Christian talk of the town!

In Little House On The Peace Line Macauley is beyond All Growed Up and is a mature work of a young, almost naive, man taking on almost more than he can chew.

This memoir is darker than the other three. It still makes you laugh out loud but not as often. For a young Protestant to work in a Youth Club in the Catholic New Lodge is a courageous thing. At that time, pioneering. That during this first job Tony should get married and buy a house in this part of the city would be enough to deal with. That one of his young people, Billy, would get shot dead adds even more to the emotional trauma. The book is touchingly dedicated to Billy. Beyond that Tony’s own father commits suicide in this season of his life too. It is harrowing stuff.

Macauley does not make himself out to be a hero but tells his tale in the most honest way. The books starts with feeling of being able to change the world. It ends with feelings of burnt out and moving on. There is a warmth about Tony’s love for the New Lodge, a real passion for peace in his city and passion for the young people that he attempts in his stumbling way to bring hope and a purpose to.

Since Paperboy, the first instalment, Tony has been taking the identity of a pacifist in a war torn city. Early on he had little understanding of what a pacifist was. In Little House On The Peace Line he is a practitioner. It might be why one of his two hardest critiques is therefore the paramilitaries. Was violence, death and mayhem the only way to put forward their cause.

The Church also receives Macauley’s ire! He speaks of the influence of the late 80’s movie Witness starring Harrison Ford and through that discovering the pacifism of the Amish community. Then a Mennonite arrived to work with him and suddenly he realise that there were Churches who believed what he did - “I suppose pacifist Christianity was never too popular in these parts”. That reality is a huge frustration to him and sadly I imagine continues to be. 

174 is a story that needs to be told. Protestants moving into Catholic areas during The Troubles to bring social justice and reconciliation is quite something. Catholic communities allowing them too, is quite something too. 

I have already reviewed another book on these same times in the very same place - Philip Orr - An Ordinary Kind Of Miracle. This is the subjective angle. One young man, following his faith no matter the cost, getting married, setting up home, losing his father in tragic circumstances and somehow in the midst of it all being a particle of God’s light across a dark part of a city in shadows. This is as much of a challenge and inspiration now as it was then. Fair play to you Tony Macauley!


MARCUS MUMFORD - (self-titled)

(self-titled)

Mumford & Sons fans might debate whether the time is right for a Marcus Mumford solo record but the content of (self-titled) tells it own tale. This is not a communal piece of writing though collaborations arrive in its working out. This is the work of a man talking about himself, dealing with his own personal pain, and finding some solace in the trauma. 

This is Marcus Mumford’s Blood On The Tracks. His Blue. No, these songs are not about romantic break up or divorce but they are the art of a human being wearing a damaged heart on his sleeve, baring his very bruised soul.

The opening Cannibal lays it out with the minimalist menace of the music and lyrics that forced the paternal warning etched on the front sleeve. It’s X-rated in lyric and content and feel. One human is preying upon another, using and abusing their preciousness and innocence.

The final track is my favourite in every way. It’s a crafted songwriter song with an early 70’s naked acoustic strum. it has Brandi Carlile singing harmonies. Beautiful. I have never known a reprise of a last song on the first song but How’s chorus had already been sneaked into Cannibal. 

How reaches for the spiritual healing in the release that forgiveness brings. Forgiveness is a controversial word and concept. Do we add to a victim’s trauma by suggesting that they have to forgive or is forgiveness the victim’s key to redemption? Books have and are being written. Mumford believes it is a positive force though asks all the how questions.

In between these two song-ends Marcus Mumford deals with his experience and attempts to make sense of how it has impacted his mental, spiritual, emotional and relational life. He’s honest. You feel his pain and you can hear him reaching deep into his spiritual heritage for grace and hope and new beginnings.

You sense that he has had many companions who have walked with him, helped him face the brokenness and help him walk towards light. He dedicates the record to his wife. The need for others on such a journey is illustrated in the musical collaborations here.

I’ve mentioned the wonderful Brandi Carlile but there is also Clairo, Monica Martin and the genius that is Phoebe Bridgers on my other favourite track Stonecatcher. On this latter Mumford digs into the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery and the religious leaders want to stone her. Jesus suggests that he who is perfect should cast the first stone. They drop the stones. Here, Mumford wants to catch the stones thrown in judgement rather than throw them.

(self-titled) is certainly an album worth returning to in every aspect but for those who love to find theology and Bible stories in their songs there are a good few lyrics to get you excited here. 

Time will tell whether (self-titled) is seen as one of the best or most successful albums of 2022. Whatever, I would suggest that it is one of the most important and hopefully most helpful to any who have suffered the abuse that Marcus Mumford has. We should thank him and pray for his on going healing.


AMOR TOWLES - THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY

Lincoln Highway

“In your time you shall do wrong to others and others shall do wrong unto you. And these opposing wrongs will become your chains. The wrongs you have done unto others will be bound to you in the form of guilt, and the wrongs that others have done to you in the form of indignation. The teachings of Jesus Christ Our Saviour are there to free you from both. To free you from guilt through atonement and from your indignation through forgiveness. Only once you have freed yourself from both of these chains may you begin to live your life with love in your heart and serenity in your step.”

This is the very kind of thing that makes up a Amor Towles novel. Towles uses his work to drop in huge dollops of wisdom for living. I have been using this particular dollop as a way to look back through the spine of the entire novel.

The Lincoln Highway is a very different beast to A Gentleman In Moscow, the Towles novel that gained him much critical acclaim and commercial success. A Gentleman In Moscow is confined to a hotel whereas The Lincoln Highway has, at least in mind, the entire breadth of America from New York to San Francisco. Now that blows the possibilities wide open.

My only spoiler will be that I am not sure about the novel’s title. I guess it gives a sense of that breadth but most of our main characters spend little time on it. Perhaps there will be a Volume 2.

The breadth of Lincoln Highway is not so much about the road itself. The breadth comes in the different kinds of rooms or places where the story works itself out. We are in farm houses, a correction centre, wealthy mansions, a box car, a famous author’s study and a homeless encampment to name a few. These places and the references within takes us into 1950’s America.

If Towles can create locations he is even better at developing characters, characters that you love for their strengths and make you feel nervous in their weaknesses. Towles makes you love most of them and want the best for them but he is very rounded in his understanding of different human psyches, maybe his greatest strength.

I found soft spots in my soul for all the main players, the mainly upstanding Emmett, his wee lovable and gifted brother Billy as well as the wide boy Duchess and his buddy the tender souled Woolly. Sally is the mother figure trying desperately to hold them all together! 

Living in a world where everyone needs to be perfect and the slightest flaw or sin is dragged up and overdosed on social media here is a book that blends humanity’s brokenness and potential for good perfectly or should I say imperfectly. Bible characters like David or Moses or Peter or Paul would fit in well. 

In essence the book is about Sister Agnes’s quotation at the top of the blog. People doing good and bad to each other and getting caught up in consequences or trying to escape them. Towles is kinda an old school novelist with a modern way with his script. Lincoln Highway leans heavily on Professor Abacus Abernathy’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers but other texts and as we have seen the Bible make their mark. Abacus Abernethy actually appears in the story.

All in all I enjoyed Lincoln Highway more than A Gentleman In Moscow. Towles has places to take us and wisdom to share. I will be honest there were moments when I felt we were trudging not feeling any freedom of the open road but by its end there was a sense that I had gotten a good return on my investment. Satisfying.


SACK IAN BARACLOUGH? - I SURMISE

Baraclough

It was predictable that Northern Ireland soccer team manager Ian Baraclough's head would be dangerously close to the chopping block this morning. 

It was a dismal display from Northern Ireland  in Greece last night. Bleak.  After a wonderful comeback against Kosovo at Windsor Par, at the weekend, hopes were high but that was as lethargic a performance as I have ever seen from a Northern Ireland in a while. Even our quality players like Stevie Davis and Jonny Evans seemed out of sorts.

BUT wait... before we sack Baraclough let us understand this Nations League thing. Or maybe understand how little we understand it! 

This relatively new competition came into the football calendar to give some meaning to friendly matches. If truth be told it was so that in becoming more competitive international games would perhaps gain a bigger TV audience. A competitive match between Northern Ireland and Kosovo might gain more interest than just a friendly. Understood.

What we then need to do is to understand what this does to the development of a team. 

The big two international competitions are the World Cup and the Euros. Both of these are played over two years. Just six years ago Northern Ireland reached the Round 16 of the Euros. It was obvious after that tournament that a rebuild was in order.

Now... this is where the Nations League becomes a distraction. In the pre Nations League days there would have been ample friendlies to blood young players, try different formations, developing and blending a team together. 

I think that Ian Baraclough has used the Nations League to do that because he had no other friendly options and is feeling the grief from fans because suddenly they haven't just lost a friendly to Greece in a time of transition and experimentation but almost got relegated from a division in a tournament that hasn't really caught anyone's imagination.

So, maybe go easy on Baraclough until the real Euros begin. That is where he should be judged.

I will be honest. It doesn't look good. Players like Saville, McCann and Whyte haven't maybe developed as well as we had hoped. Steven Davis cannot have long left and it is hard to see who fills that gap. Jonny Evans too though defensively we seem stronger. Conor Bradley is surely the brightest light in a while.

It is not Ian Baraclough's fault that Northern Irish parents haven't birthed many great footballers in the last 25 years. It might be that there is someone who can get more out of what we might have or not have than Baraclough. However, to make bad results in the Nations League as a reason for change might be wrong, in my surmising.