Archive for April, 2009

// in praise of silence, and TIME magazine

globeI could just have easily have spent this afternoon, my day off, playing Pro Evolution Soccer in the lounge – but I didn’t. Instead I spent it on my own in a Caffe Nero reading TIME magazine. Pretty much the same thing goes for Armando Iannucci’s brilliant satire, In the Loop, which I saw on Tuesday night – I could have gone to see 17 Again instead (the offer was there), but I’m still confident that I made the right choice. These two things were easily two of the most relaxing experiences of my week, even as, in some respects, they were two of the most terrifying.

TIME is this week writing soberly about Obama’s first 100 days in office, the electoral situation in India and the drug gangs in Juarez, Mexico; all of which paints a picture of a world that is in very great need of stability and solidity in a period where that kind of stability is conspicuously absent. Balanced a magazine as it is, it’s nonetheless still a scary read; it leaves you in a situation where you are forced to consider these things without the comfort of easy solutions, and uncomfortably aware that even the people supposedly in control of these circumstances don’t have any easy answers.

The same is true, if not more so, for Iannucci’s satire – for most of the film, it functions as a fairly savage expose of New Labour’s spin tactics, until the moment, about two-thirds of the way through, when it becomes painfully clear that this is far, far less than a joke. Specifically, when the focus shifts onto events which parallel the invasion of Iraq and the audience is forced to consider how the actions of our political leaders have made the world into an infinitely more terrifying place to live. It’s a brilliant piece of defamiliarisation, and horrifying though it is, I loved it precisely because it reminds me firstly that we are not separate from this world, and secondly, that we are not powerless within it…

The danger of Oxford at the best of times, and especially during exam season, is that it encourages you to think as though your whole purpose in life, at least while you’re there, is just to work. There’s nothing more – the goal and aim of this time is to work as best you can, so that then you can get into a job where, guess what, you work as best you can until you retire. That’s the pattern, and it’s a brilliant ‘wool-over-the-eyes’ trick, but it’s a lie; three years in you start to realise that all those deadlines, all that competition, week-on-week, to prove yourself, is just part of this system that you’ve found yourself within, and then you realise that in about a month that’s all going to be over. And maybe you should have worked slightly less hard and gotten engaged with this amazing, vibrant place slightly more… Of course, the comparison goes beyond just Oxford, but you know what I mean, right?

That’s why I’m enjoying sitting here with my copy of TIME magazine quite so much, i think, as it reminds me that my world doesn’t stop with the Oxford Ring-Road. That there is a world out there that is bigger than the Oxford Union, the week-to-week essays, the ‘re-imagined’ plays and the stupid gossip. In short, it reminds me that I am a human being, in a world filled with other human beings, and not just some essay-writing machine, only useful for what I can produce at the end of this degree. And it also encourages me to think bigger. As, make no mistake, this world is a scary place, in a lot of ways, and that’s a lot more evidently recently than it has been in a while. But we are not just a people of a pious, impotent rage. Pieces of art like “In the Loop” remind me of the sheer power of art, the power of response – point out that accepting that ‘this is just the way things are’ isn’t the only answer, and we could all do to remember that, too.

A passage in the Bible that still amazes me is Isaiah’s address to the people of Israel, when he declares:

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
‘In repentance and rest is your salvation,
In quietness and trust is your strength,
But you would have none of it…”

*
I don’t know about you, but I can identify with that; that implicit rejection of the need to be still, to stand in ‘quietness and trust’, especially there’s so much that I need to do. Even today, I have a large number of things that really, desperately need doing, and in the midst of that I still need to carve out space to ‘relax’ at some point. But all that said, though, it’s the spaces this week where I’ve stopped, carved out that time for quietness, rest, space, to remember that I’m a human being and my life is bigger than just the next essay, those that have been the valuable times. Everyone knows that verse, “be still, and know that I am God”, but when was the last time any of us did it? Saw our God in context, not as an ‘Oxford-God’, but as God of the nations; ‘First and Last’; God, full stop?

That’s surely where any kind of true perspective of God comes from, with being still, looking to something bigger, remembering that the world doesn’t stop with our immediate sphere of influence. Recalling that we are called to be a part of this whole world, by the God of this whole world. And daunting though that is, don’t you agree that’s also an exciting thought to carry into a Monday morning?

“He’s got the whole world in His hands…”

// Tim Hughes plus Nike+ equals awesome / David Crowder’s awkward moment

Wow, second post today! This was originally going to be a short one, but then i came across something astonishing on the internet which just demands to be flagged up. First things first, though:

(1)  A couple of years back, Nike released “Nike +“, which effectively amounts to being a chip that you put in your shoe/Nike armband, which then syncs with your ipod and measures how far you’ve run. You can then set up contests on the internet or with your family to see who ran the most, or the farthest, or so on. They also released some music to go with these – LCD Soundsystem and a bunch of other people put together tracks tailored to the ‘running experience’, designed to facilitate your workout through its various stages (by the way, the LCD Soundsytem is called “45.33”, and it really works). Still with me?

Well, y’see, i bought Tim Hughes’ new live worship album earlier today – it’s called “Happy Day” – and since this afternoon, i’ve got this theory that Tim Hughes must be in league with Nike+. Seriously, the way in which the album rises and falls, it makes for the perfect soundtrack to a workout, and my run this afternoon accompanied by Tim was one of the best i’ve had in months. If you also own the album and are also a runner, could you try this out and see if i’m going crazy? I’ll admit, i was pretty amazed why i tried it…

It’s also well worth buying generally, but i’ll post more about that some other time.

But, and arguably much more exciting:

(2) A couple of days ago there was a story about Miss America being forced to step down from her position because she publicly spoke about how she doesn’t support gay marriage. I’m not going to debate this issue here, by the way. But David Crowder’s account of how he accidentally came to be pictured across the world’s news networks giving her a standing ovation is hysterically, hysterically funny, not least because of Dave’s writing style. Give it a look.

Poor guy.

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I will still post a substantive post tomorrow, by the way, rather than just posting web-trivia and conspiracy theories. Honestly.

// your love is strong (unplugged)

I’ve been listening to Jon Foreman’s worship-flavoured “Your Love is Strong” recently – it’s an amazing re-imagining of the Lord’s Prayer, taken from his acoustic EP’s (Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer – it’s on the “Spring EP”) and his album, “Limbs and Branches”. Check out a live unplugged version below. Try to ignore him citing both Radiohead and U2 in his “influences”, though; that’s just a little embarrassing:

***

***

(our God in heaven, hallowed be

thy name above all names

your kingdom come, your will be done

on earth as it is in heaven,

give us today our daily bread

forgive us weary sinners

keep us far from our vices and

deliver us from these prisons…)

***

I’ll post a more substantive post tomorrow, but for the moment, enjoy.

[PS. You’ll notice, by the way – he’s playing in a coffee shop]

// twitter and the danger of simultaneous world domination

twitter-bird-blackWhilst i think Al Gordon makes some good observations on the way in which Twitter is changing church culture, i think he’s wrong to limit it to the church itself (admittedly, though, he is a worship leader so he’s writing from his own particular standpoint). Arguably it’s something much more exciting that that, as exciting though Al’s model for church is – it’s a suggestion that Christianity is moving outwards, moving out of its subculture and into… well, a much wider subculture, the ‘blogosphere’, admittedly, but that in itself is a start…

The beauty of Christians existing within blogging culture is the sheer variety that it allows; nothing is necessarily limited to a particular category, and it’s easy enough to engage with things from a ‘Christian perspective’ without being limited to being a solely ‘Christian’ blog. How do you like that? It’s like Christian rehabilitation; we’re being treated like actual human beings again. That’s something worth holding on to, incidentally – for a short while, the world might actually see Christians as sane, reasonable individuals, with a reason for their faith and the perspectives they hold, rather than just people who listen to, and act upon, voices from ‘the invisible man in the sky’.

With that in mind, then, surely it makes a lot of sense to avoid being pigeonholed. To not just let our blogs, our outputs, be ‘Christian blogs’, but rather ‘blogs by Christians’. A place where you can find out, for example, that i don’t just listen to Tim Hughes on repeat all day, but have in fact in the past week been listening to Paramore and James Taylor on Spotify as, yes, i apparently am a fifteen-year old girl.

It’s at this point that i realise that i haven’t specified that i am not actually a fifteen-year old girl. I am not. I am a twenty-one year old man, studying an English degree here in Oxford.

But i still listen to Paramore.

(I blame Guitar Hero: World Tour for this, by the way, if you’re interested. You’ve been warned.)

Anyway, i digress. But the value of Twitter comes from the same standpoint. Posting at sporadic intervals throughout the day in less than 160 characters gives us a chance to show the world that, hey, we have thoughts, just like everyone else! We also like it, for example, when the sun shines. We also like talking about the latest film, or book, or album, that we saw/read/heard (by the way, if you haven’t done so yet, i still recommend “It’s Blitz!” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs – especially “skeletons”). And we also like  telling the world about our inane thoughts. It proves that we are human beings too, and so as much as an evangelistic tool as a Twitter feed can undoubtedly be, i’d urge you to use caution before posting solely Christian stuff on it – unless you’re a professional Christian author, like Gerard Kelly, of course, but even then, i’m sceptical…

Yes, Gerard Kelly, that’s a message – stop clogging up my Twitter feed or i’ll do to you what Al Gordon did to John Mayer and Stephen Fry,

This is a great tool, and crucially, it’s also fun. It would – will – become a lot less fun if we all instantaneously decide to use it as a sort of worldwide Christian messaging service, and nothing else, so let’s be careful, eh?

Otherwise you, too, might face my blog-based wrath, and this is 2009, and news travels fast…

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http://twitter.com/tjcarlisle (my Twitter feed)

http://twitter.com/gordonalexander (Al Gordon’s twitter feed)

// law, grace and running

There’s a particular Christian acronym, that’s been around for a while, which keeps rearing its head from time to time. It did so this morning, in fact, while i was talking to a friend of mine about this blog post. “What should i say about grace?” i asked him. I’m not a systematic theologian, and i can’t hope to compete with some scholars, whilst he, instead, is in his final year of an Oxford theology degree. “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense”, he dutifully answered. (That’s the acronym, by the way. Look again.)

There it was, then. One of the most astonishing concepts of the Christian faith reduced to a pithy, five-word statement. And that, i think, is what gets me about that phrase – not that it’s not useful as an exposition, not that it’s not concise, but that it reduces one of the most truly amazing facts of all time into a soundbite. It sucks the poetry and depth out of grace. It has appeared, verbatim, in worship songs. It is, from the outside of the Christian sub-culture, virtually impenetrable (if there are any non-Christians out there reading this, by the way – do you have any idea what “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense” actually means? Christians, do ask them…). And, most frustrating of all, it treats grace as something that is over, a formulae outworked 2000 years ago into which equation we simply have to find our place. Bear with me a second on this, as i’m going somewhere.

What does grace actually mean? Not just in a, ‘let’s practically outwork this theological concept’ sort of way, but really, how would you explain this central part of the Christian faith?

Think about that, now. Please, do take the time to do so. See if you can. It’s not easy, is it? It’s certainly not easily reducible.

Grace starts with God, not us. Yes, it starts with Jesus dying on a cross. With God making a way for us to draw near to Him, forgiving us from our failures to be able to follow Him. But that is His choice, not ours. When Paul writes to the Ephesians, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God,” he reminds us that it is God’s choice to allow us to draw near, God’s choice to choose forgiveness, and to keep choosing forgiveness. It’s not just a theological formulae that He’s ‘locked into’, it’s a consistent decision on the part of God, born out of His particular motivation, and we need to stop thinking that we have earned it. All of this, the chance to draw near at all, comes from Him. Still with me?

Given that we have been set free and are being set free, then, maybe the reason behind my dislike of “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense” becomes clearer. It makes it seem like grace is simply a done thing, which we accept and then get on with living morally, as yes, we were saved undeservedly, but now that’s done. The theologian Karl Barth saw it differently. He claimed that “God’s free grace is God Himself in His most inner and essential nature, God Himself as He is…” – that God keeps choosing, by his very nature, to have grace; to draw near and allow us, a broken, battered, sinful people to draw near to Him. “We never have it,” he said of grace, “it can only be shared with us ever anew… and we must plead, pray, and give thanks as though it were ever totally new and quite foreign to us…” Grace is God’s continuing and consistent decision to look on us with no condemnation (see Romans 8:1), to accept the sacrifice made by Jesus on that cross.

The best i can come up with in any definition of grace is this, then: “totally undeserved action, motivated by love”. Less catchy acronym, i’ll admit, but with that same dimension of active grace. And we need that dimension if we’re to be any kind of graceful Christians at all. If grace is just a state, a formula, then it doesn’t require us to modify the way we act or relate at all… But if we see grace as God’s active choosing, then we see a sense of how we are called to live that grace, too:

Loving those who the world sees as totally undeserving of love.

Going the extra mile for those who will never reciprocate.

Choosing to serve, even if we are never appreciated or rewarded for it.

This is not ‘cheap grace’, this is immensely costly grace. But it is life. Pete Greig tells the story of falling in love with his now-wife, Samie, on a year-long training program run by the Pioneer church network, moments after signing a contract prohibiting dating relationships for the duration of that year. When she went to her mentor to talk about ‘Section Six’, the paragraph prohibiting such relationships, she was met with the response, “forget it! What do you and Pete want?” She then found herself discussing the pros and cons of entering a relationship in that period and deciding against it, seeing the value of that law as a way of life apart from the binding condition to follow it.

This is “the moment where the ‘should’ of law becomes the ‘could’ of grace”, as Pete puts it. When you start to accept that you have been forgiven, and you will continue to be forgiven, because of that ‘totally undeserved action, motivated by love’ (aka. “grace”), then you start asking questions. Like, what is the best way to live this life? What value is there in not having sex before marriage? What is the rationale behind blessing those who persecute you, loving those who hate you? If you can freely do the opposite to the law, then what is the motivation that set out those laws in the first place?

And if you investigate that motivation, i’m fairly sure you’ll find that it’s a good one.

I was thinking about this as i went running the other day. I’m currently revising for my final exams, and since i started i’ve resolved to do eight hours work a day. As a result, i’ve not been running since i started, about a month ago, as there’s just not been time – i get home, decide to run and then am too tired, or too stressed, and end up doing an extra hour at my desk instead. It wasn’t until i asked myself what the motivation behind that eight-hour rule was that i really saw how mad my perspective was. It’s to make sure that i do enough work to prepare for what those exams throw at me. But my rules made that a brutal, mechanical grind. I was exhausted, but rigidly keeping to my eight hours a day, at least.

It was remembering that nothing is owed; that working to that extent is good, but not the final end of my life; and that there is freedom to choose – it was all of those things that made me evaluate whether or not to run, and in the end it was a good decision, even if it meant that i only did seven hours work by the end of the day. Running round Christ Church meadows felt like freedom, a remembrance of the value both of work and of relaxation…

Much as i hate twee Christian analogies, it was that which made me think. Nothing is owed. But nothing is owed because of the choice of a God to keep forgiving, to keep acting in grace, motivated by love, in order to allow us the freedom to see that it is Him who saves, to choose to choose Him.

I don’t know that what i just wrote answers any questions at all, even the ones i originally posed; doubtless i just violated a number of major theological doctrines. If i did, or even if i didn’t, i’d appreciate your thoughts on how we express this vital fact. But i hope it provides a fresh appreciation of grace, if nothing else, as i know one thing – i’m still in awe.

I hope that you are too.

// words fail me…

I’m not usually a fan of hip-hop, and Christian hip-hop even less so, but this is one thing i honestly never expected to see – the words of John Piper set to a hip-hop beat:

It’s actually remarkably good…

// March/April round-up

So. It’s mid-April now – the end of the first Quarter, by American standards – and subsequently time for a few awards and honourable mentions. Please note – not all of these have been released in March/April, they’re just what’s on my ipod/cultural radar recently. If you disagree or have further suggestions for any categories, please post a comment – I’d love to hear them.

*

// CULTURE

BEST VIOLATION OF CIVIL LIBERTIES/OVER-REACTION (I’ll let you decide:)

(this is, undeniably, incredibly famous, but still a terrifying piece of real-life footage. See if you can find the full version to see just how unjustified this beating is. “Don’t taze me bro’!”)

BEST QUESTIONING OF PAPAL INFALLIBILITY:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7987566.stm – “Blair questions Papal gay policy”

(uh, that’s not really how Papal infallibility works…)

BEST UNNECCESSARY SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1169788/Twitter-make-immoral-claim-scientists.html

(also, “Best Unjustified Hate Campaign”)

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// FILM

BEST SUMMARY OF AN ACTOR’S FILM CAREER:
http://www.inquisitr.com/wp-content/nicolas-cage-movie-plot-generator.jpg

(a link that is WELL worth following)

BEST FILM:
“Let the Right One in” (Sweden 2009)

(apart from the beautiful central love story (-ish), it also has an astonishing scene involving a woman and some cats. Highly recommended for anyone who saw Pan’s Labyrinth, the Orphanage, et al., it’s a truly stunning film…)

HONOURABLE MENTION:

“Knowing” (starring Nicholas Cage; need I say more)

(if only for the moment an hour and a half in where the entire film falls apart in such spectacular fashion as to leave you gaping. “We must save the children!” “The radiation will penetrate UP TO A MILE UNDERGROUND! Our only hope is TO GO WHERE THE NUMBERS ARE LEADING US!” Just amazing)

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// MUSIC

BEST INDIE TIP:
“It’s blitz!” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

(check this out on Spotify, especially “Skeletons” – it’s been creeping inside my head and I’m very impressed. For relevant context, “Maps”, from their first album, “Fever to Tell”, is also indispensable)

HONOURABLE MENTION:

“The Earth is not a Cold Dead Place” – Explosions in the Sky

(I just rediscovered Explosions in the Sky in all their amazing, heart-stopping, magnificent glory, and I’m not going anywhere again anytime soon. Have a look at “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean” if you don’t believe me and see if you ever go back…)

BEST POP SINGLE:
“Embers” – Just Jack

(this is a brilliant pop tune, and I don’t care what anybody says)

GUILTY PLEASURES:
// “Love Story” – Taylor Swift
(wow, this is maddeningly catchy. It sounds like pop-Springsteen crossed with Dire Straits via. Avril Lavigne. If that hasn’t sold you, then I don’t know what will.)

// “My Life would Suck Without You” – Kelly Clarkson
(if this doesn’t make you want to put your ams in the air, you are clinically dead)

// “Naked”, “Complicated”, “Things I’ll Never Say” – Avril Lavigne

(if you have not yet rediscovered the wistful and bratty charms of Avril Lavigne’s first album, now is the time to do so. Seriously, I guarantee that you won’t regret it.)

// “Starz in their Eyez” – Just Jack
(everything in me cries out that I should hate this, the faux-Cockney accent and the lyrics, with their Mike Skinner earnestness, but I don’t…)

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// WEBSTUFF

BEST WEBCAM:
http://www.dcb02.com/churchmusic/cams.php4

(don’t get excited, it’s just David Crowder band filming their new album. But it is oddly addictive)

BEST WEBCOMIC:
http://www.samandfuzzy.com

(you’re just in time to catch the latest story, and Sam and Fuzzy are on form at the moment. XKCD is also well worth plugging – see www.xkcd.com)

BEST IDEA:
http://www.demotix.com/

(this is brilliant; it’s like youtube for journalists, apart from news agencies such as Reuters, and it’s well worth looking at to get a different angle on what is happening around the world. A demotix reporter had the photo for the Guardian front page this week, and they recently won a major media award – this model is going somewhere. Check out http://www.demotix.com/news/evangelicals-brazil for some amazing photographs of the Brazilian church…)

BEST TWITTER FEED:
Gerard Kelly, at http://twitter.com/twitturgies – both deep and concise, well worth following.

HONOURABLE MENTION:
Bono’s twitter feed (http://twitter.com/paul_hewson) was shut down today for not actually being Bono at all. Brilliantly, nobody noticed this far.

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// GOD

BEST CHRISTIAN BOOK:
I’ve been re-reading Pete Greig’s “The Vision and the Vow” – check out a sample chapter at http://www.kingsway.co.uk/Shop/Sections/Items/Item.aspx?item_id=87295. It’s well worth reading, if not quite as good as “God on Mute”.

BEST NEW WORSHIP:
A cheat, but Tim Hughes’s “Happy Day”, whilst not being strictly *new* (it has “Beautiful One” on, for goodness sake…), is really excellent, and the version of “When I Survey…” is literally breathtaking. http://worshipcentral.createsend5.com/t/r/l/tyhtw/suiidjd/j to listen.

BEST WORSHIP SONG THAT IS NOT A WORSHIP SONG:
If you have not listened to Switchfoot’s “Twenty-Four” yet, rectify this by clicking here:

you won’t regret it.

(i want to see miracles
to see the world change
i wrestled the angel
for more than a name
for more than a feeling
for more than a cause
i’m singing, Spirit take me up in arms with You…)

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I think that’s enough for the moment, although feel free to comment or add anything as you see fit.

Normal blog service will resume on Sunday, but for the moment that’s enough to be going on with!