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July 2009


Images Shirky 1  

Douglas Coupland once asked what the world would be like once everyone alive had been brought up always having a television. For sure that will change the world and we need to be flexible with the changes. Here is a book about the arrival of the Internet that is without doubt even more revolutionary and its already significant impact. 

Shirky is a captivating writer who can grip you with specific stories of the internet’s scope of influence and also reveal the technological history of the net’s development, its main movers, successes and failures. From the meticulous and drawn out campaign to find a phone lost on a taxi seat in New York to how the news of the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake reached those inside and outside of China he has practical examples of how the world has fundamentally changed. He shows the great advantage for community building and political advocacy and protest but doesn’t diminish the dangers of these social tools in the wrong hands. As well as a short history of the internet I found myself learning things about the political situation in Belarus, the obstacles now removed to the implementation of Vatican 2 and how small groups connect, among many other things, as well as a fascinating history of Wikipedia. On the downside he doesn’t touch on the internet and music and entertainment. iTunes, U Tube and the revolution at work in the entertainment industry is needing a good book too.

In essence Shirky lays out a detailed social history of the last fifteen years. If you are in any line of work or thought that needs to know where our society is at in order to respond to that place and change your thinking accordingly then this book is well essential.

U2 Live at Croke Park July 24, 2009


Perhaps my most quoted quote to my students is Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation; “The place where your deepest gladness and the world’s greatest hunger meet.”  I spend a lot of time pastoring students to that point where they find out what they were created to be and how that can penetrate the needs of the social order.  Four songs into U2’s first of three homecoming Croke Park gigs Bono is singing about how he was born to sing and was given songs to sing.  Nearing the end of Magnificent the fourth song in a row from the new album No Line On The Horizon, Bono stand arms open and declares “I surrender.”  It is a surrendering to his God; it is a surrendering to the people (the fans) whose hard earned money put him on this stage, in one of the biggest stadiums in Europe, literally one or two miles from where he grew up; it is a surrendering to his place in the world, where with three chords and the truth, as he once said, he could meet some of the world’s deepest hunger.  And as I watch I am thinking that this is where I hope all of my students get to, because that man and his three mates are without doubt right on the vortex of their place in the cosmos.

There is a deepest gladness about this particular gig.  Is there some relief that the first of three 82,000 capacity gigs is jammered?  Is there relief that after the criticisms about their music and even tax decisions they are back in the arms of their own; their families and fans and familiar streets of home?  Is it that they are just happy in their own skin, doing what they do best?  Whatever there is a looseness, even in the tightest of sounds, that makes the gig seem all the more uplifting; yes, a trademark but sharper than ever.  The first half hour is just full on rock n roll of a stadium shrinking kind that perhaps only Springsteen could hope to emulate.  As I said the splendid Breathe kicks off into four more from the new record.  No Line On The Horizon is rockier than on the album and Get On Your Boots finally proves itself as a U2 banker, all hard core Edge riff and communal chant.  After Magnificent it is Beautiful Day and Elevation and you wonder how these almost fifty year olds can keep it up.

The first breather gives the band a chance to shake it up.  On acoustic guitar Desire seems more alive than in years and then the reinvigorated Stuck in A Moment gets served up with American grit.  A wee shout out to a gloomy recession hit Ireland was full of pride and inspiration as well as a welcome to the hordes of visitors who had come to see U2 where U2 need to be experienced.  An impromptu stab at Brendan Behan’s classic Irish folk song The Auld Triangle was stumbled over with some fun and laughter and a band in their very deepest gladness enjoying the night as much as the crowd.

They weren’t finished with the new arrangements.  One got an Adam Clayton bass groove that prevented any danger of diminishing returns but most surprising of all was the complete reinvention of I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight with Larry out front with a drum round his neck and Bono interweaving the party and spiritual side of the song to maximum effect.  Unforgettable Fire sounded refreshingly familiar and its inclusion along with MLK and a set ending Bad, as well as of course the mainstay Pride, might suggest a commercial eye on the Remaster Edition due for release in October but whatever the reason the effect was brilliant.  Likewise Ultraviolet as the first encore was another reminder of the goodness of songs not tried for years.

All of it was a rat-a-tat-tat of great tunes from band holding the crowd in the palm of their hand for two hours and twenty four songs.  The sense of celebration and Beuchner’s gladness was palpable.  Opening act Damien Dempsey had said how great it was to be alive and I thought about his words as I simply revelled in the spiritual celebration that this band was giving out.  If you want a great rock n roll show no one gets close but if you are looking for another dimension the theology is deep and poetic.

Of course as well as deep gladness these guys also meet the world’s deep hunger and tonight the build up from Bloody Sunday to Pride brought us to a Martin Luther King for 2009 and Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi in house arrest for almost twenty years.  MLK was a prayer sent up for her and of course Walk On was originally about her anyway so at the crescendo of that there was a parade of people on stage wearing Suu Kyi masks in solidarity, to keep her face in the conscience of the world.  Later Bono handed over to the Archbishop of the U2360 Tour and a film preach by Desmond Tutu encouraged us to keep children suffering from AIDS and Malaria alive so that they would become doctors, teachers and scientists.  This is not just good music but music that is trying to be good for something.

You can’t help but wonder if that person in U2’s Christian fellowship way back in 1981 who told them that God had said they should give the music up because it was not spiritually useful was in Croke Park?  If so, what would they have thought?  Had U2 believed them and become teachers and whatever they might have become would these four men have affected the world in anywhere near the way that they have?  And what about within themselves?  Would they be doing whatever with the same deep gladness and celebration that you could see tonight?  Thank God they ignored it and found their vocation.

To the end and a stroke of typical confidence and courage had U2 close the night with Moment of Surrender, a seven minute slow burner from the new, critically and commercially questioned, record.  U2 have never said goodnight with a throwaway hit.  From 40 to Yahweh there has been a spiritual blessing before the journey home and this is their theological masterpiece. Of course we are back to that endless theme in their catalogue and that moment at the outset of this show – surrender.  As we watch on those big screens these four men, just four ordinary looking men, leave the stage you become aware how incredible it is that they can achieve the astounding impact that they have just made.  And we are back to finding that place where deep gladness and world hunger meet.  These men are perfectly in their reason for existence.  They say they have found grace inside a sound and you simply want them to let you into that sound.  They are a force of nature !




Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock has always resonated with me theologically. “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden” was her hippy dream at a time when she admitted having a born again Christian experience and believed songwriters were the new prophets from God. Yes. We do need to get back to where it was once good, before it all got tainted by Adam and Eve’s fall.

I spoke about this during a lecture last year and afterwards Desi Alexander (curator of the said lecture) spoke to me of the idea that we shouldn’t be going back to the Garden but heading forward to the New Jerusalem. The theory is that the project God set up in the first chapters of Genesis are fulfilled in spite of the fall in the last chapters of Revelation. The New Jerusalem is what God intended all along, what he set humans in Eden to cultivate as he asks them to do.  Interesting I thought, and then Desi gave me his book From Eden To The New Jerusalem (under the name T Desmond Alexander for Amazon searching) and I got to look closer at his thoughts.

I found the book an excellent read. As someone who always needs to know more about The Old Testament there were insights a plenty. Indeed, when brings Christ into the meta-story he even shows his New Testament prowess which might be just a little bit of showing off. I always wish experts would confine themselves to one thing! Desi brings his academia down to a very easy read, well laid out arguments and no unnecessary theological jargon to look good at the Conferences! He delivers a lot of knowledge in very little reading time. Particularly interesting is the dwelling places of God from Eden to The Tabernacle, to the Temple to The Church to ultimately the great hoped for Garden City. Humans redeemed and restored to royal priesthood in that process is fascinating and inspirational.

My only fault would be in some ways a positive. Too rarely does Desi go for modern application. When he does as in his critique of consumerism late in the book, the downsides of capitalism are exposed with plain-speak and challenge. More of the preaching Desi; it cut through!

Christians, for too long, have been caught up in the minutiae and failed to grasp the panoramic perspective of God’s big picture. My students as they graduate wrestle with which job, which Church and which spouse. If they could see the project that as believers they are invited, no commanded to be involved in, the Eden-New Jerusalem blue print would give them the framework to make all those decisions not for momentary selfish Babylonian reasons but for the good of the eternal Kingdom. Guess which book will be found influencing my teaching in the first term of the next academic year.


West Wing 6

It is one of the many defining moments of the Ged Bartlett’s Presidency in West Wing, the series that is perhaps God’s reason for giving humans the ability to create moving pictures.  Congressmen have been killed in Gaza and the American people (over 80% a poll is telling us) are demanding revengeful justice.  It is of course a echo of 9/11 but Bartlett aint no Bush and so he is thinking the slower burn of peace that will bring security on a more long term basis than the fast knee jerk feel better response that perhaps makes people feel safer in the short term but leads to larger body counts.  He sets out to find peace, the peace he read about when reciting the Beatitudes at the funeral of his great friend and naval expert Fitzwallace, killed in the same attack.  When a joint delegation of Washington’s most powerful politicians arrive behind the speaker of the house to demand immediate military response and tell The President he is going to go on television to announce such a strike he turns and says, “I am trying to find a way to make peace... and when I do you can go on television and explain why you were against it.”

It is an argument stopping phrase; like the simplicity of epiphany.  What else would we be ambitious to do?  The Old Testament was built around the idea of bringing shalom to earth.  Shalom is a peacefulness that is also a wholeness, a harmonious relationship between human and human, human and the earth and human and the Creator.  It is about a restoration of all that was lost in the Garden of Eden.  It is the redemption and salvation Jesus came to bring, tearing the curtain in two and breaking down the dividing walls (Ephesians 2).  It is all about peace which is why it is so important to Jesus that he should say that peacemakers are children of God.  Yet for so long Northern Irish evangelical Christians actually disdained the peace makers calling them liberal heretics.  Perhaps on the day of judgement we will have an opportunity to hear before the living God why they were so much against it.

Speaking of judgement, I hear you ask about justice.  Justice is what the heavy politicians and American people wanted in West Wing.  It is an important player in the Scriptures too.  It has a role to play and perhaps its difficult but vital marriage with mercy will actually be an avenue to the peace that is sought.  Yet, when we stop to think about it, there will be no need for justice in the New Jerusalem that John sees in his vision that we get to read about it in Revelation.  It is not justice that will fill the air of a new heaven and earth; it will be peace.  Peace is God’s goal and if we are about his business then we are going to be called children of God in heaven even if we get called more disparaging vulgar names, by the so called people of God, on earth.

The past fifteen years has seen blessed changes in Northern Ireland.  It has been a real period of Divine intervention and grace.  And yes, when grace plays its part then we have to experience some very uncomfortable relationships.  Another scene in the same episode of West Wing has Ged awake in the night pondering his dilemma.  His wife joins him and as he is telling her that it would be so much easier to please the people and authorise a military attack of vengeance and justice, leading to pictures of bombings on CNN and a few charred bodies, his wife responds, “Do you want easy?!”  Easy is not a word that takes up much space in a Bible Concordance.  Jesus never did easy.  Jesus never mentioned easy when he was describing what it would be like to follow him.  Peacemaking is never easy.  For the people of Jesus’ day it was not easy to live with the forgiveness granted to tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman centurions and a convicted criminal hanging on a cross.  Peacemaking comes with some pain.  There is a lot of work still to be done to reconcile the people of my country.  The next twenty years needs sons and daughters of God to step up and boldly attempt peacemaking.  And when the vicious vitriol comes, then paraphrase Ged Bartlett, “I am trying to help God to make peace and when there is peace I want you to stand before God and explain why you were against it!”


Strange Flowers 

I have waxed lyrical about James Grant before. He is one of the many maturing Glaswegian songwriters who are the legacy of that golden time when Glasgow was centre of the British music scene and Scottish at the tail end of the eighties, before Manchester shifted emphasis from song craft to baggy trousers that eventually led us into to the abyss of Oasis. While the Gallagher boys have blatantly plagiarised The Beatles sound, emptying them of anything worth pondering about, the flotsam of those Glasgow days (Ricky Ross from Deacon Blue, Steven Lindsay from The Big Dish, Justin Currie from Del Amitri et al) release mature records that go relatively unnoticed. This is Grant’s first release since 2005’s Holy Love and might just stand as the best release by the class entire of Cut magazine (remember it – glory days!) to date.

Grant’s deep throated croon gives his work the sound of weight and importance. He uses a lot of religious words too; holy, hallowed, belief, faith and sin are sprinkled liberally across his text. This usage is no preacher’s Creedal Confession but it reveals Grant’s intention that his art should be involved with what is lying underneath. This is soul music of a literary kind; there is hope in the dark, sacred in the mundane. Grant is not a million miles from a Glaswegian Van Morrison.

Strange Flowers is Grant’s most accessible album since Love and Money’s Strange Kind Of Love with enough Dogs In The Traffic to keep me happy! After Holy Love’s sparseness we find a fuller sound here. From the chirpy strings of the opening This Could Be The Day everything is much more accessible. The jauntiness of Lake Louise makes it the most single sounding thing since those distant Love and Money days and Beat The Music the most funky. Monica Queen and Karen Matheson’s harmonies are another delicious feature throughout but particularly on the title track and the gorgeous Hallowing Ground. Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the nine minute epic, My Father’s Coat, with its gentle catchy early riff and then the Neil Youngesque guitar solo that it soars out to, never mind the amazing harmonica atmospherics.

Particularly special!


Houstie Eleven songs from the birth canal of rock n roll. Brian Houston has written and recorded a set of songs that Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley would have loved had Houston been hanging round Sun Studios in the mid fifties. Presley and Cash came to producer Sam Phillips from their mothers’ hymn books and Gospel songs and would have loved to have got their chops around some of these. Lead Me To The Rock would have been a perfect song for Elvis, I Will Trust In My Lord sounds straight off the King’s Hymns record and it is a shame Cash isn’t still around to cover I Will Trust in My Lord.  As well as that you can hear The Temptations doing the a cappella God Don’t Worry and Sweet Jesus is a traditional hymn in the most traditional sense proving Belfast rock critic Stuart Bailie absolutely right when he has spoken of East Belfast writers like Houston, Duke Special and Van the Man having the cadences of the Wesley brothers (John and Charles) as much as they have Lennon and McCartney.

Houston speaks of writing Lead Me To The Rock by accident and surprise; it just spilled out. It didn’t fit the work he was doing in Three Feet From Gold or Sugar Queen and he had left the “worship” music behind him. There was nothing he could see himself doing with it... and then another one appeared... Glory, Glory... and then an album!  A look across Houston’s fifteen year recording career and it doesn’t seem so strange. He has always had this ability to bring Jesus and the odd snippet of hymns and large smidgen of Gospel into his pub and club gigs and on the other hand he could add a good dab of Springsteen, Earle or Emmylou to his worship. His last album Three Feet from Gold had studied early pop recordings and was thus short and hit the melodies early. It also contained his finest moment on the black spiritual influenced Sister of Mine. Gospel Road is like putting everything previous into the blender and loving the result.

But it is a fusion. There are prayers, psalms, creeds, commitments and celebration but it is rock n roll meets Gospel meet R&B For those who know Houston’s history, this record sits much easier beside Three Fields Of Gold than Rollercoaster. This is not a worship album and it would be important not to market it as such. Indeed, my fear would be that the twenty years of the Christian worship industry’s formulaic blandness has so damaged the ears, souls and minds of Christians that they will not know what to do with this artistic imaginative revivalist work. If only the Church could match Houston’s imagination, there are songs here that would change Sunday mornings into a piece of art that would more honour God that the repeated recipes of cliché shuffle.

BUT IT IS NOT A WORSHIP ALBUM. File it with Houston’s Northern Irish peers The Priests in HMV; God drenched, major label and mainstream success!  


Martyn Joseph’s song Kiss The World Beautiful is a beautifully crafted song about loving the world. As Bono later shouted “the future needs a big kiss.” It is about hope and change and good and right and a shalom-like balance to the way everything that is turns out. Though an overall success, some of the lines seem to find Joseph groping for the poetry, the direction to meet the huge ambition of the idea. There is for me one couplet that is a dog-at-my-heels line that touches the depths of my psyche and shapes my every day. After he has addressed the world and went for a chat with God, Joseph brings it all back down to loving the one he’s with. As he turns to that loved one and longs to kiss her lips he finds a truth that is explosive particularly in the religious world that Joseph and I have been weaned, damaged and healed in: -

“Sometimes it’s just more important to love

Than to always have it right...”


There can be little question that this is a cannonball aimed at the fundamentalism and arrogant Christianity that in a recent interview Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong said that all good Christians would be critical of. It is a line that Jesus might have used against the Pharisees. In the conservative Christian world that Martyn Joseph and I grew up in, there is an over emphasis on being right and an unloving damning dismissal and demonizing of those who don’t think exactly and correctly, as we do; the Pharisees were as much about conformity as legalism! It portrays an image of God that is far from a loving. Indeed I remember at college coming back from hearing one of the popular preachers of the day and someone saying with a condemning sneer, “I suppose it was all about love, love, love?!” I was young and a little naive and thus very confused!

Jesus seemed to be all about “love, love, love” from what I read in my Bible. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath they told him it wasn’t right; he thought it was more important to love the man with the withered hand. When they wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery and Jesus got them to drop the stones, they had the law on their side; but Jesus thought it more important to reach out in grace and forgive the woman. When he touched the leper it was not the right thing to do; but Jesus thought it important to show tangible love to the outcast. Loving God and your neighbour as yourself, never mind your enemies seemed more crucial to the soul of Christian spirituality than knowing all the theology of legal manoeuvres.

To bring it down to something personal, I am currently hearing very critical and nasty accusations on how I have acted towards someone. I understand the circumstances by which they come and that the person throwing out the malice has a condition that confuses their perspective and it is therefore not their fault. At the same time my soul’s sensitivity is bruised by hurtful lies. I want to defend myself and deny the rumours even though all those who know the truth, know the truth. Then this line of Kiss The World Beautiful, that I happen to wear on a t-shirt, stops me short. I don’t need to clear my name and prove that I am right. It is more important in this particular case where my accuser cannot help their actions to love and not always be right. In the choice of loving this person as Jesus does or vindicating my own character, by what I didn’t do and actually cataloguing all the care I gave, I need to forget my need to be proven right and simply go on loving. Lord help me to kiss this world beautiful!



A few thoughts as I prepare for SU Family Camp Week 3 (August 2-8), Ovoca Manor, Avoca, Co. Wicklow.

I have ambition to be Secretary or President of the Christmas For All The Year Round Society. It doesn’t exist yet, as far as I know; that is an ambition too! And I don’t mean like Wizzard’s great Christmas single I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, though how I love that song. No, I’m talking about Christmas, the story, the theology, the knocking-the-cosmos-out-of-kilter shifting act of God’s appearing among us in the guise of a tiny baby, snuggled in our filth and germs to start a revolution. I have always felt that we have demeaned such a mind blowing truth by hiding it behind tinsel, sparkle and stuffing or, in our Churches, behind nativity plays and their drying cloth clad shepherds in particular. Whereas on my first Christmas Sunday service as a minister I sat in the pulpit and wondered how many of these services would I have to churn out the same old Christmas thought I have since become consumed by the truths that the first chapters of Matthew and Luke in particular reveal.

So here I am, at the beginning of July preparing five talks for the beginning of August on the truths and lessons of the first days of incarnation. It is of course the hope that talking about concepts, usually trapped in the cold short days of December, at a time of the year that should be more pleasant and warm that it might awaken souls to this story anew. So, I am finding the secret to world evangelism and God’s trump card to post modernity right there in the manger; everything Jesus would ever teach visualised in this nativity scene, before he got to utter a word; and that this heavenly meteorite, that hurtled through the cosmos to land seemingly quietly and softly in straw, actually crashed the entire world out of kilter to never be the same again.

As I do so and I ask the worship leaders to play O Holy Night or Little Town of Bethlehem I am sensing that there will be raised eye brows. As they in turn put the words on the screen for all to sing, I sense people not being able to sing with conviction a little confused by the context. Yet, when did we ever say When I Survey The Wondrous Cross was only for Easter. What has caused this seasonal imprisonment to so much of our theology; our ecclesiastical habit or something more sinister? I am looking forward to eyeballing whichever one it is and bringing the truth of Christmas in the middle of the summer.

(I understand that the seasonal issues above are from a northern hemisphere perspective...)