Sunday 2 August 2009

Life, Jim, but not as we know it...

The Telegraph carries an interview with Archbishop Vincent Nicholls in which he is represented as suggesting Social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace can lead children to commit suicide. I am not sure whether this was the main point, or indeed any point he was trying to make, but we can only go on what we’ve got. My first reaction is that this piece belongs in the noble company of newspaper pieces since John Robinson’s “Our Image of God must go” (1963), where the subeditor’s racy headline stood out clearer than the author’s deeper intention.

What is there to say? Well, for a start, if the Archbishop had his own blog of course, we could see what he had to say, without having to try and figure it out through the refracting lens of the Telegraph, with its own agenda. We could dialogue with him directly and come to a clearer understanding of his perception and discuss it until we had teased out its most constructive use. As it is, all we’ve got is the Telegraph.

As to the moral, human and social values underlying Archbishop Nicholls’ reported words, I am completely in agreement. A clear sense comes over that the Archbishop, like any instructed Christian, believes people should be decent, respectful, nurturing and constructive in their dealings with one another. Christianity teaches love, strong as death, as self-giving — our highest human purpose is to love God and love our neighbour as ourself. This applies to all ages, but as every pastor knows, each of the seven ages of humanity has its own particular challenges and stumbling blocks, from the innocence of childhood to the gnarled cynicism of old age.

Where do social media fit into this landscape? One might be tempted to cross out “Facebook and MySpace” and substitute “letters and telephone” or even “communication and miscommunication.” I don’t know how many young people have been driven to despair by either a love letter, or lack of it, or as a result of a telephone conversation, but I’d guess there have been a few down the years. I agree strongly with the Archbishop, too, when he implies that the family provides a holding framework within which people can most easily live together and grow up safely and fruitfully. Playing fast and loose with that personal and social capital, however fashionable among the chattering classes, does nobody any favours.

The problem, like the joy, isn’t the media, but the human beings. Bullying is bullying, whatever the medium. There are people whose would say their quality of life has been spoiled, with zero accountability, by, say, the activities of Daily Mail reporters. Do teenagers pile up superficial relationships only to become devastated when they let them down? I’m not so sure this problem is getting worse. My children are considerably better socialised than I was, as a middle class boy the same age. They generally care far more about relationships and humanity, and the time they spend MSN-ing or whatever is time I would have spent with my nose in a book — not exactly the best way to build nourishing relationships, either.

I don’t believe our young peoples’ interest in people is waning. It seems unstoppable. What I fear for is their understanding of the concept of privacy, and, like any parent, their ability to protect themselves. I wonder if people of my generation sometimes remember what our parents said to us when they rationed our TV, and somehow transfer the warning to any screen based media? This ignores the fact that today’s screens offer interactive, rather than entirely predigested experience. TV is wallpaper not the Boob tube and Oracle it used to be.

Young people I meet around have often developed a very sharp critical nose about the information they see around them. That’s why they don’t usually go anywhere near newspapers — partly because the print comes off, but mainly because they reject the tyranny of relying on one, once-a-day, source. They are often fascinated by the concept of Truth, but for them it is emergent, rather than inductive. That raises serious difficulties for anyone with a message to sell, whether Church or Media Mogul.

What do Churches have to offer?
  1. interactive localised community, rooted in a place and tradition which is not, at its best, synthetic, but organic, growing naturally from experience of God and people.

  2. a pooled range of ages, cultures and expectations which has always been genuinely globalised and transcultural. I am frequently moved, even in small congregations, by the wide variety of people present, one of everyone, from babes in arms to nonagenarians.

  3. a shared framework of stories and narratives within which to set personal perceptions, connected to ancient wisdom and transcendent morality.

  4. an open offer to participate in sacred liturgy, ritual, music, poetry and dance, whereby people enter into spiritual experience for themselves with increasing confidence, connecting with possibilities way beyond ego, individualism or mere ideas.

  5. a connected spirituality, contemplation, silence and rest; call it “sanctuary.” The sabbath principle privileges offline downtime. It also sets a perspective around immediate experience, from which it can be critiqued.

  6. the challenge to trascend ego and consumerism, and live for others, wrapped up in the teaching of Jesus.
Unfortunately, if local church communities themselves does not particularly enjoy, ceebrate and share these things, there’s a problem — the salt has lost its savour. The problem, however is not Facebook, but with the Church failing to be what it is called t be.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this I agree our young people are generally well developed and level headed, probably the same number are not as were not in my youth 40 years ago. Your analysis of the Church too I like and the final conclusion challenging. Indeed since finding your blog about 3 weeks ago I am a regular and a fan - thank you
Stephen Pare Llansantffraid Diocese of Llandaff

David Keen said...

Excellent piece. Like you say, the media headlines make it quite difficult to engage with what Vincent Nichols actually says.

Social networking sites work well as extensions of existing face-to-face relationships (as did the phone and letter before them), and work poorly as replacements for them. I'm much happier with Twitters 'followers' than Facebooks 'friends', as a term for how these sites connect us to people we've never met.

Agree with Stephen - if the church lived out clearly what we're called to be, then critiques like this would be much more likely to be taken seriously.

Nick Baines said...

This is so 'spot on' that it saves me doing a similar piece! Well said, Alan.

JohnG said...

Great piece which allowed me to link to my blog of the Digital Space event at St Johns Durham last month where Bishop Tom Wright said much the same thing but not as articulately(!). The danger of course in critiquing the once a day perorations of a priestly caste of journalists is that of course they may counter that the faith community seems overly dependent on the once a week perorations of its own priestly caste - the inaccessibility of the Primate isn't because he doesn't have a blog or a facebook account but because he is institutionally inaccessible.

Thanks also for the insight ref inductive versus discovered truth - I am trying to rethink/reinvent the theoretical model for market research and discovery seems to be an alternative worth abandoning induction for!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Alan,

Sorry that this isn't very relevant to the blog, but I put this to Bishop Nick Baines and he directed me towards you:

I've been thinking a bit more about apologetics and liberal theology recently. I've just come off a Christian camp for 11-14 year olds where I ran an apologetics/big questions seminar with a few other leaders. Some were fairly conservative, and I disagreed with quite a lot they said. I wanted to recommend a few books with a liberal perspective, but I couldn't really think of any. For example, I would have liked to recommend something like "God, Faith and the New Millenium" by Keith Ward, but I imagine it would be a bit heavy for 11-14 year olds. The kids were offered a "Journey into life" booklet too, which I disagreed with a fair bit. It struck me that there doesn't seem to be much literature out there for a younger audience, advocating liberal Christianity. Most literature, be it pamphlets or books, for younger people seems to come from a pretty (sometimes scarily so) evangelical, conservative background, and they don't seem to have many other views put to them. As a result, young Christians tend to be brought up with views that are somewhat awkward, and often in tension with the Bible.
I was wondering if you had any thoughts about this, or if there ought to be anything to complement the ideas out there, from a more liberal perspective.



Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for kind words, all. Bit of a silly season story, really, but it's interesting how it's caught on in the UK papers (I speak as someone now 6,000 miles away!). The best source for people my age trying to become less bemused (especially if they don't want to try social media for themselves) is probably still Don Truscott — Growing up Digital and Grown up digital.

Calum, I do see the problem. I'm currently doing the Willow Creek thing in Chicago, and will look round for sources which might be more coherent with real life/ less patronising for young people. It might not be a booklet but a facebook group? or website like, er, like Dove theology?

The journey into life thang was good enough for me, but I've often reflected on why it isn't for my children. It's partly that I came to it with a sense of inadequacy and guilt you got in 60's schools, where people educated since are told much more that they're pretty cool, so they just don't formulate their needs in life with guilt as the lead need. It would be good to buzz around the lead angle to come from now. I've wondered whether it's the Shane Claiborne one, but have never had an opportunity to formulate or workshop such an approach.

As I say, I'll take a look out over here in various sources, and perhaps blog something later in the month. Good to talk it through in the light of your experience sometime?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

PS, Calum, I had a fascinating conversation a few years ago with a great OT scholar about how Genesis is not about juridical guilt, though you can make it that if you want, so much as shame and loss of innocence. Perhaps the thought isn't relevant, but it's a tease...

Calum Miller said...

Regards the main article, I think that most of it is probably correct. However, I would want to maintain that young people seem devastatingly uncritical in attitudes towards Theology. Among most young people, there doesn't seem to be a sense of critical engagement with Christian doctrine, philosophy of religion, the methodology of historical inquiry (ie how to make sense of the New Testament as historical evidence) etc. I've spoken to Bishop Nick about it, and I'm hoping to have an article published in 'RE Today' about the theological illiteracy in England today.
You know there's a problem when an RS revision guide's main summary of the afterlife in Christianity is, "Christianity teaches that the soul lives on after death... After death, your soul will go either to Heaven, or to Hell - depending on how you lived your life on Earth." Is reinforcing these stereotypical beliefs not the most counter-productive approach when considering the job of RS is to *educate*? Unfortunately, I find that these conceptions are incredibly prominent among the youth today, and devastatingly common even among Christians. I can't even count the amount of times I've had to point out that parts of Genesis have been interpreted metaphorically (in Christianity) since Augustine and Origen! Religious education is one area I'm particularly passionate about, and one where young people seem to simply adopt any belief that suits their life.

Which Willow Creek thing is this? The problem with Dove Theology is that I like to read a lot about a topic before I write something on it (probably pride and fear of being wrong), and my articles tend to be quite long. I don't really get much time to put much on it, though I've written a couple of articles and at least made a start. Ideally, I'd like to at least just have something tangible which doesn't insist that you're not a Christian if you believe that
i) The Bible may have errors
ii) Large parts of the Bible may be taken metaphorically
iii) You don't necessarily have to believe in Jesus during Earthly life to be resurrected into the new creation (I try to stay away from language of 'heaven'; I'm particularly drawn to Tom Wright's eschatology)
iv) Christian soteriology ought to be focused more on a dedication to the Kingdom of God (whether articulated through revealed theology or not), rather than a Gnostic, epistemic theory of salvation.
Yet apart from a brief mention of theistic evolution in some textbooks, young people don't seem to be taught much different.

I'd be delighted to have a conversation on it; I can give my email, talk on the blog, or you could pop over to Dove Theology if you like. Alternatively, I'm hopefully moving to Oxford in October, so could do something later on in the year.

I read a book recently which looked quite a bit at the hamartiology of Genesis. I thought it's an interesting theme, and I didn't necessarily realise there was much more to it than the typical idea which tends to focus on guilt. The idea of original guilt seems harsh to many, myself included, so it was interesting to look at the other facets of original sin (given a historical Fall, which is debatable among many). Perhaps we do need to emphasise a distinction between original guilt and the rest of original sin. Most people don't think they need forgiveness for the sin of their ancestors these days, and I can see why- one could even draw Biblical reasoning as to why not. What is clear, though, is that we do need some sort of redemption- if not because we are guilty of something from birth, but because we are disposed to selfish attitudes towards birth, and we are undoubtedly subject to corruption and decay. It's an interesting area.

Sorry if you get this message a few times, I'm not used to leaving a comment on blogspot.

Unknown said...

We do need to sort out the difference between true and truth, accounts - biblical - may not be true but share truth, perhaps we could use the same approach to some new front pages, may be the 'gossip'is not true but contains truth!

Unknown said...

It does also occur to me that many of the young are interested in things spiritual but does the Church connect with that or have we in fact made the most spiritual and exciting man who ever lived dull if not boring!

Pam Smith said...

I think there's a danger in mixing up religious education - what is taught about religion in schools - and faith education - what faiths teach their adherents. It isn't really the job of a school to teach people about their own faith but to give a breadth of knowledge - sacrificing some depth in the process.

The view you describe of Christianity's teaching about the after life is IMO a reasonable summary for someone who isn't a Christian, set against the beliefs of other religions - which is the context of RE. It isn't what I believe, but it is in fact what a lot of Christians believe - and since Jesus does talk about people being cast into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth there is some Biblical justification for it.

(My take is that it's only ever people who have demonstrated a lack of mercy or who are judgemental of others whom Jesus says will similarly not receive mercy from God - but that is quite a nuanced view and not everyone would agree with that either!)

I doubt many young people have ever been terrifically theologically sophisticated, any more than they are politically sophisticated - I think that comes with age and experience and learning that things are not always easy to categorise and pin down.

You do need to start somewhere - and in many subjects what is taught early on is simplistic compared with what you learn if you engage with the subject at a higher level.

Maybe if we could encourage more mature Christians to continue to learn about and explore their faith it would model the kind of engagement which would produce a more rounded understanding among younger Christians?

Unknown said...

I agree Pam and if we had not left religious education to schools but got on with faith education we might not be in the present pickle. We do need to find other ways of connecting with the young as doing what we have always done means we will get what we always got - and that is not looking too good at presnet in too many places!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, although it should maybe have been made clearer that it is the view of some/many Christians, not that it is "Christian teaching", as if you are departing from Christianity (or belong to a fringe-sect) if you believe something different.

Still, though, I would take issue. Firstly, it seems to advocate some sort of dualism (Hellenic influence?), perhaps of soul and body, rather than emphasise/suggest the psychosomatic unity of Hebraic thought. Rather than highlighting the differences between Judeo-Christian conceptions of the human person and traditional Greek philosophy (and perhaps some hints of Eastern philosophy), it only encourages the idea that Christianity ought to be set in that context- nothing to do with resurrection. Fair enough, a fair few (eg Crossan) may argue for a spiritual interpretation of resurrection, and I'm a fan of Crossan, but the idea is barely even presented.
Secondly, the dichotomy of heaven or hell. There's nothing about the Kingdom of God, new creation, or anything like that. It just seems to portray heaven as some sort of future reality, or an end-point. There's nothing about Sheol or Abraham's Bosom, and again, it seems to be reinforcing the stereotypical beliefs that aren't necessarily accurate to the faith's adherents.
Thirdly, the qualifications for 'heaven'. According to the revision guide, one may 'get to heaven' depending on how one lives one's life. Of course, in a way this may be true, but I think it would suggest to most that morality and works are primary. This is probably the distortion I have most problem with. Of course, we can argue about what 'faith' is, how faith is expressed through actions, that faith is a full involvement rather than intellectual assent, but most Christians I know (granted, Protestants) would emphasise that salvation is through God's grace, and faith, rather than merit. Like I said, we can debate the extent of that and what we mean by faith, but I think the guide gives the wrong image.

Perhaps, as you say, it is the duty of the education system to educate about pop-Christianity, but I take issue where this is confused with genuine Christianity. Going back to the example of a metaphorical creation narrative, it is fair that, if most Christians believed in a literal Genesis, it could be taught as the most common Christian belief. My problem is that this is presented as the genuine, orthodox and original Christian belief, giving the impression that those who take it metaphorically are 'picking and choosing', or that they are nominal Christians, who are apathetic, and will adjust their beliefs so long as they appease the general public.

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