Shopping Mall as Cathedral

Imagine that we are alien researchers from Mars who have come to the strange world of Planet Earth to study the rituals and religious habits of its inhabitants. Imagine that we are going to visit one of our 21st century culture’s most common religious sites. This is what James K. A. (Jamie) Smith invites readers of his book, Desiring the Kingdom,[1] to do. Let’s accompany him as he approaches the site. It is not a church or temple … and yet it is!

As we approach, we notice that the site is very popular. It is “throbbing with pilgrims every day of the week”. The entrances to the site are “framed by banners and flags, familiar texts and symbols” and just inside there is “a large map – a kind of worship aid” to help the novice to find the “various spiritual offerings”.  The “regulars” don’t need the maps because they are “the faithful, who enter the space with a sense of achieved familiarity, who know the rhythms by heart because of habit-forming repetition”.

We notice the design of the interior of the site. There are windows on the high ceiling but none on the walls. This “conveys a sense of vertical and transcendent openness that at the same time shuts off the clamor and distractions of the horizontal, mundane world …(and) offers a feeling of sanctuary, retreat, and escape”. We find that it “almost seems as if … we lose consciousness of time’s passing and so lose ourselves in the rituals for which we’ve come”.

Like medieval cathedrals, the mall has “mammoth religious spaces … alongside of which are innumerable chapels devoted to various saints”. Instead of stained-glass windows, there is “an array of three-dimensional icons adorned in garb that—as with all iconography—inspires us to be imitators of these exemplars”. They embody for us “concrete images of ‘the good life’ …embodied pictures of the redeemed that invite us to imagine ourselves in their shoes”.

As we enter a side chapel, we are “greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms”. After a time spent browsing among the racks, “with our newfound holy object in hand, we proceed to the altar, which is the consummation of worship” where we find “the priest who presides over the consummating transaction … of exchange and communion”.

We leave “this transformative experience … with newly minted relics, as it were, that are themselves the means to the good life … something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season”.

Like all good teachers, Jamie Smith is concerned to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. He wants us to see the experience of the shopping mall with new eyes “in order for us to recognize the charged, religious nature of cultural institutions that we all tend to inhabit as if they were neutral sites”. Our desires are being shaped, our hearts are being formed, by the mall and “its ‘parachurch’ extensions in television and advertising”.

The point that he is trying to make is that human beings are worshippers. The question is not whether or not we worship but who or what we worship, who or what we love in our hearts. We have to have gods if God is missing from our lives.

Neil Postman says that consumerism is one of these gods. (He lists others, including nationalism, reason, science, and technology.) He says that the basic moral axiom of consumerism is expressed in the slogan “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”.[2] You are what you accumulate.

One of the most famous works of photographic artist Barbara Kruger proclaimed “I shop therefore I am”.

The god of reason says, “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). The god of consumerism says, “Tesco ergo sum”!

The God and Father of the Lord Jesus says that we are because he is.

Gracious loving Father, God who is love, please help us to always have the desires of our hearts shaped by you so that we may worship, serve and love you above all and we may help others to come to you and love you too above all. Amen.

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[1] Desiring the Kingdom, pp. 19ff. See also here.

[2] The End of Education, p. 33.

Missing God

‘Missing God’ is a very moving poem by Dennis O’Driscoll. I’m going to quote it in full and then I’ll link it with a recent very surprising statement by Richard Dawkins, the well-known evangelist for atheism.

It was in a book by an Englishman who has made his home in Scotland that I first came across this poem. It was by an Irishman of whom I had never heard even though he was from Thurles which is less than twenty five miles from where I was brought up. (The book was David Smith’s Moving Towards Emmaus.) O’Driscoll was a friend of Seamus Heaney and one of his books is a set of interviews with Heaney entitled Stepping Stones. (You can see and hear them in conversation here.) Following O’Driscoll’s sudden death in 2012, Heaney entitled a tribute to him ‘My Hero: Dennis O’Driscoll’.

Here is the poem, Missing God:

His grace is no longer called for
before meals: farmed fish multiply
without His intercession.
Bread production rises through
disease-resistant grains devised
scientifically to mitigate His faults.

Yet, though we rebelled against Him
like adolescents, uplifted to see
an oppressive father banished –
a bearded hermit – to the desert,
we confess to missing Him at times.

Miss Him during the civil wedding
when, at the blossomy altar
of the registrar’s desk, we wait in vain
to be fed a line containing words
like “everlasting” and “divine”.

Miss Him when the TV scientist
explains the cosmos through equations,
leaving our planet to revolve on its axis
aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow.

Miss Him when the radio catches a snatch
of plainchant from some echoey priory;
when the gospel choir raises its collective voice
to ask Shall We Gather at the River?
or the forces of the oratorio converge
on I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
and our contracted hearts lose a beat.

Miss Him when a choked voice
at the crematorium recites the poem
about fearing no more the heat of the sun.

Miss Him when we stand in judgment
on a lank Crucifixion in an art museum,
its stripe-like ribs testifying to rank.

Miss Him when the gamma-rays
recorded on the satellite graph
seem arranged into a celestial score,
the music of the spheres,
the Ave Verum Corpus of the observatory lab.

Miss Him when we stumble on the breast lump
for the first time and an involuntary prayer
escapes our lips; when a shadow crosses
our bodies on an x-ray screen; when we receive
a transfusion of foaming blood
sacrificed anonymously to save life.

Miss Him when we call out His name
spontaneously in awe or anger
as a woman in the birth ward bawls
her long-dead mother’s name.

Miss Him when the linen-covered
dining table holds warm bread rolls,
shiny glasses of red wine.

Miss Him when a dove swoops
from the orange grove in a tourist village
just as the monastery bell begins to take its toll.

Miss Him when our journey leads us under
leaves of Gothic tracery, an arch
of overlapping branches that meet
like hands in Michelangelo’s creation.

Miss Him when, trudging past a church,
we catch a residual blast of incense,
a perfume on par with the fresh-baked loaf
which Milosz compared to happiness.

Miss Him when our newly-decorated kitchen
comes in Shaker-style and we order
a matching set of Mother Ann Lee chairs.

Miss Him when we listen to the prophecy
of astronomers that the visible galaxies
will recede as the universe expands.

Miss Him the way an uncoupled glider
riding the evening thermals misses its tug.

Miss Him, as the lovers shrugging
shoulders outside the cheap hotel
ponder what their next move should be.

Even feel nostalgic, odd days,
for His Second Coming,
like standing in the brick
dome of a dovecote
after the birds have flown.

In his book, after quoting this poem, David Smith writes, “Here, surely, is the authentic language of the Emmaus road experience, of those who tread a path from which God has gone missing, and yet confess that as the sky darkens and the air grows cold, they are missing God” (p. 29).

Richard Dawkins was recently reported as saying he feared that if religion were abolished it would “give people a licence to do really bad things”. He said that security camera surveillance of customers in shops did appear to deter shoplifting, adding that people might feel free to do wrong without a “divine spy camera in the sky reading their every thought”. He went on, “People may feel free to do bad things because they feel God is no longer watching them”.[1]

By the entrance to our local Morrisons store there is a life-sized picture of a policeman looking at you and smiling, albeit with handcuffs visible hanging by his side. It certainly makes one feel that one is being watched!

The policeman has a friendly and welcoming smile. I think the God of Dennis O’Driscoll’s poem has a welcoming smile but the god of Richard Dawkin’s writings doesn’t. In a book of over 400 pages, The God Delusion, Dawkins devotes just three to the subject of love (pp. 184-186). Yes, there is a lot of evil and suffering in our world (and, as Dawkins frequently points out, people who profess to believe in God have contributed and do contribute their share to it!) but isn’t it amazing that we can also find love everywhere and often in the most surprising places? Is there any other possible source of it all but the God and Father of Jesus Christ?

Jesus cried from the cross with what Dennis O’Driscoll calls “stripe-like ribs” saying, “Father, forgive them”. Risen from the grave, he stands with open arms and a welcoming smile saying, ““Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.” (Matthew 11:28, The Message)

Gracious loving Father, God who is love, please forgive us when so often we go off on our own and you go missing from our lives. May those who are missing you find you and your love in us. Amen.

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[1] ‘Ending religion is a bad idea, says Richard Dawkins’, The Times, 5 October 2019.

Working Together in Synergy

Paddy and Bartley were two horses behind whom my father would plough the fields on the home farm in Ireland. Paddy was an old and disciplined animal but Bartley was young and headstrong. When my father was ploughing, Bartley sometimes wanted to pull the plough in a different direction from Paddy. When this happened, my father had to work very hard to get them to pull together in the same direction. At other times, Paddy and Bartley worked happily together and progress with the ploughing was so much easier then.

Synergy is a combined effect which is greater than the sum of individual effects. Two horses working together can pull rather more than twice what one horse can pull alone. My father sometimes enjoyed the effect of synergy between his horses but all too often it was lacking and he would come home exhausted by his efforts to promote it.

The Greek word ‘sunergeo’ is used several times in the New Testament in verses that talk about ‘fellow-workers’, “co-workers” and ‘working together’. For example, 1 Corinthians 3:9 reads “We are co-workers in God’s service”. Some of these verses even suggest that we can be co-workers with God himself, we can work synergistically with him and he with us!

An oft-quoted verse in Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29, NIV). The image here is probably not of horses but of oxen yoked together to work together.

Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases the verse this way: “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

This has implications for us in our daily lives in our work-places. We need to walk with him and learn from him. We also need to walk and work with others. Those of us who teach easily come to see ourselves as queens and kings in our own classrooms and I expect the same kind of thing is true in other workplaces. We do not like to have others observing our work closely. We may be having problems but we tend to pretend to others that everything is all right at our desk or in our classroom.

A partner relationship with another colleague can be very helpful to both. We can commit ourselves to share the highs and the lows, to observe one another’s ways of working and expose our own practice to the scrutiny of the other, to work together to find new and better ways of doing things. We are not really self-sufficient, we need one another. Why pretend to be perfect?! Why not be vulnerable? What have we to lose except our pride?!

O God of all might and energy, as workers together with you and you with us, we ask that you will help us to admit our need of others and to work better together with them and that we will help those with whom we work to discover more synergy in working together too. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please email me through the contact address on this website or message me if you have come here via a link that I posted on Facebook.

He is my brother!

“Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” (Hebrews 2:11, NIV)

One of my favourite tracks to play and sing along to in the car is an adaptation by Carey Langtry of the hymn ‘Peace is Flowing like a River’. (In fact, it was thinking about it that led me to ‘Rivers in the Badlands’ as a title for this website.) After singing a couple of verses, he pauses to say a prayer that begins “Dear Father, Brother Jesus”.  We often pray “Lord Jesus” but to address him as brother somehow feels daring and yet the verse above from Hebrews and other Bible verses encourage us to regard Jesus as our brother! Wow!

I’ll come back to this but, first, I want to say a little about the popular hobby of family history research. It has been one of my hobbies for many years and so I enjoy watching TV programmes like the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ or ‘Heir Hunters’.

What motivates people like me to give time to such research? I have to admit that it may be pride because we want to be able to tell people how far back our family records go or how many people of high status feature in our tree. (A second cousin of mine is an eighth cousin of Barack Obama. The relationship is through his mother rather than his Shortt father so, sadly, I can’t claim blood relationship!) Perhaps, on the other hand, pride in our ancestry takes the form of showing that we have come from ‘humble origins’ and have ‘made something of ourselves’.

Perhaps we are motivated by an interest in the people themselves who have, to some extent, shaped us to become the people we are. What were they like, our grandparents and our more distant ancestors? What were their lives like? We want to understand them better and, in doing so, to come to a better understanding of ourselves.

Perhaps we are motivated by a concern to create and preserve historical records for future generations. In former times, we used to record family births, marriages and deaths in what we referred to as the ‘family Bible’. We wanted these to be there for the future.

This concern is linked with a logical desire for completeness and accuracy of detail. We are constructing a jigsaw that has no edges and is multi-dimensional. We hunt for pieces to fit. We try to put together assorted pieces of evidence. We are detectives looking for clues that will solve the puzzle. Finding one missing piece can change the whole picture.

This concern is linked with a desire for a bigger perspective that puts our lives into context. Generations come and generations go. The children are born, the parents have great hopes, sometimes fulfilled but sometimes things turn out so differently. Family history study reminds us that we too must die one day.

However, I’m talking as if the pleasures of constructing a family tree are open to everybody and I am deeply aware that is not the case. I have friends who were adopted as infants and who do not know the names of one or even both their biological parents. Indeed, I have tried to help them in their searches.

A recent blog on the website of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity entitled ‘Inherited Identities’ puts all this into context as it concludes with these wise words:

“Although we are shaped by our ancestors, we are not destined to follow in their footsteps; nor can we inherit the glory or guilt that comes from their actions. For ultimately the important question is not where you are descended from. It is not how you will be remembered. It is not even: who do you think you are? Rather, it is: who does he say you are?”

Our human families are important, very important. But if we have come to a personal faith in Christ, we are adopted into a new family! We are all brothers and sisters to one another in the family of God. We come from all generations and all nations into his family.

The Bible nowhere says that we should not care for and care about those to whom we are naturally related, our human kinsfolk.  I say again, our human families are very important but this is even more important. We are in the family of God. Our identity and our standing before God is not ultimately in our human lineage, it is in our relationship to God our Father through Jesus his Son.

He is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.  We can therefore pray with Carey Landry, “Dear Father, brother Jesus”! Wow!

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please email me through the contact address on this website or message me if you have come here via a link that I posted on Facebook.

Green Spaces in Time

At the start of a new year, the writings of three friends of mine have come together to make me think about green spaces in towns and cities and our need for metaphorical green spaces in the busy ebbs and flows of our lives.

David Smith posted a blog on New Year’s Eve in which he quoted Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, from his book The Sabbath, pointing out that “in the Bible time is not just a succession of intervals. Rather it is shaped into significant ebbs and flows that shape experience of the world”. Heschel put it this way:

“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious…Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.”[1]

The phrase ‘architecture of time’ intrigued David and it leaped out from the page to me too. I had been reading Curriculum Planning with Design Language, a great new book by Ken Badley. It is written for teachers but I think it has implications for all the projects that we plan in the workplace or home. Ken takes the design philosophy of architect Christopher Alexander as his starting-point and he proposes ten design principles for our projects. They include ‘centres’, ‘boundaries’, ‘entrances and exits’, ‘coherence and connections’, … but the one that Heschel’s talk of ‘architecture of time’ made me think about was Ken’s seventh principle – ‘green spaces’.

Ken talks about the quiet backs of Oxford colleges as paradigm examples of the breathing spaces that cities and towns need and goes on to define green spaces in our working lives as “activities people engage in that are very likely different from work”. Heschel encourages us to think of time not as something that simply and remorselessly flows by but as something that we shape just as architects shape buildings and their environments … and he does it in a book entitled The Sabbath! The green spaces that we should design into our work projects (or our plans for 2020) are the sabbaths, the jubilees, the resting-places, the coffee-breaks that give us opportunity to breathe in the stillness, the greenery, the sounds of the metaphorical park or garden!

The third friend is actually a student of mine from Dublin who is presently writing an essay for a module on the theology of work. He it was who a few weeks ago introduced me to Heschel’s ideas and he has effectively convinced me that any such module should have at its heart a theology of rest. My curriculum for the module needs not only the breaks that I provide for in classroom sessions but also a focus on the importance of green spaces in our architecture of our time.

My thanks to my three friends for forcing me to face up to the fact that my tendency to workaholic-ism is not a good thing!  I need to shape my time differently.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Company, 1951), p. 8.