Sunday, 28 December 2014

Anger is An Energy by John Lydon Reviewed

With only a small number of children there the adults in the Christmas morning service were turned to and asked what they got if they'd already opened their presents. As I answered I had a decision to make whether to give the correct title of the book I'd been given or use the name which some of the older members of the congregation might be familiar with. So it was I went with the latter and told them I got the Johnny Rotten autobiography. Thing is the book isn't that Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored is the autobiography of John Lydon and there is way more to that than the Sex Pistols and the Rotten persona.

The book is like the recent Morrissey Autobiography in that after a fairly in-depth discussion of his early years there is plenty of content relating to being let down by record companies and fellow band members but there is more to it than that, and Lydon's is far the better of the two.

There is a fair amount of discussion of the Pistols, and of course one would expect that.  This is Lydon telling it as he experienced it but with a clear awareness that Malcolm McLaren is now dead. As you read the part focused around the mid-late 1970's it feels like he is saying this is my side of the story but can we move on from that and focus on PiL (Public Image Limited). The music of both and relationship with other members of the two bands is central to the book.

He slips in odd comments about his relationship with and/ or view on certain other groups and celebrities too along with the odd bit of social commentary. One interesting point he brings up on more than one occasion is how he believes the history of that era has been miswritten in a way which is largely misogynist. He had far more time for the punk bands which contained a female voice (e.g The Slits) than those which he regarded as too socialist and/ or following a formula (i.e. the Clash).

The book also clearly explains why he believes certain drugs, such as heroin, should be avoided. Whilst standing against censorship he is clearly not against boundaries or the importance of good education. The book itself provides a sensible discussion of drugs which should act as a warning about the dangers of them as well as the impact on creativity.  

Another thread running through the book is the negative views which Lydon has on religion. He addresses both formal religion and new age spirituality and has no time for either. Whilst I disagree with his end conclusion I think he makes some important points which are worth consideration. He could be argued to be taking a fairly traditionally Marxist view regarding the manipulative nature of religion and the way it lets people down. Yet it is clear this negativity comes from observation and experience rather than an ideological analysis. Personally, I would agree with him that organised religion has often been manipulative and in some cases abusive yet that is not what I believe the bible actually teaches. I would argue what he doesn't allow for is the way in which whilst it might have been abused and corrupted by some it is that misuse which has been wrong rather than the teachings it is based upon and the religion itself.

Also sprinkled in are various comments which underline his commitment to inclusivity but also a desire to address some of the very real problems which the UK is currently facing. He very intentionally talks of the way he values the LGBT community, multi-culturalism and the white working class culture from which he comes. Towards the end of the book he then speaks out against health tourism and the surveillance culture. Yet he is clear and explicit that he does not agree with UKIP and their vision of the future.

Whilst I didn't agree with everything he wrote this book did make me think and question and that is and has always been the point about Lydon and his words, whether spoken, written or sung.

It also made me smile and laugh at times too and that is important. The biggest smile came as I read about the 2002 Chrystal Palace gig. He writes, "Still, we flooded the place with all the alleged villains and hardcore Sex Pistols fans Britain had to offer, and no trouble was had. We were friends amongst each other." (p425)

The last part of that sums up much of what I remember about that day. The Drop Kick Murphys were great and the crowd loved them. There was a serious pit that day and then it dissipated as the Libertines came on and I don't think I was alone in being seriously underwhelmed by them. Then came the Pistols and it was one massive sing a-long party before we all squashed onto the trains going back into London. Yes it was possibly pastiche and pantomime in places but in amongst the fun it was still bringing the weirdo's and the freaks together with their subversive view of the world.  

Punk did get incorporated just as Hebdige claimed but within it all, as the book shows, Lydon has sought to maintain his own path.

So is it worth a read? Yes if you're a fan of Lydon in whatever guise or if you are generally interested in popular culture. Yes too if you want to be made to think quite deeply. Otherwise perhaps not. I've also read Paul O'Grady's Still Standing (the third volume of his autobiography) this Christmas and I have to say O'Grady was far the more entertaining read of the two.

Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored by John Lydon, (2014), Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4711-3719-8

Friday, 26 December 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings & Five Stones and a Burnt Stick Reviewed

Boxing Day was spent exploring the story of Moses using two different forms of art. The first was the film Exodus: Gods and Kings and the second was the book Five Stones and a Burnt Stick: Wisdom Stories about Intimacy by Ernesto Lozada-Uzuriaga Steele. In this review I intend to look at each individually, but also how engaging with both together provides an interesting new look at Moses.

Exodus: Gods and Kings from director Ridley Scott which was released in the UK today is in many ways a retro movie; a large scale biblical epic with more than a feel of a bygone era to it. Christian Bale plays Moses in a way which has depth but it is Joel Edgerton as Ramses, the Pharaoh in the latter part of the film, who has the type of intensity which one associated with the classic actors of the 50's and 60's. He would have fitted in perfectly alongside Richard Burton of Charlton Heston and the scenes with him and his baby son, (both when alive and dead), were particularly moving.

Whilst employing some dramatic licence it was reasonably near to the Judeo-Christian narrative apart a couple of key things. The first problematic movement away from the text was the fact in the film Moses had no problem with speech and thus his brother Aaron was not required to speak for him. The second was when he left to go back to Egypt his wife and son did not join him in the film. Neither was a problem in itself but was slightly annoying. It was also not made clear in the film that Moses would not see the promised land and rather it would be Joshua who would lead them into Canaan. That said it was far better than Noah, the other recent biblical narrative. Whilst not the best film I have seen this year it was certainly not the worst and if you have a couple of hours to spare it is certainly worth a trip to see.

As I indicated in the introduction I also read Five Stones and a Burnt Stick today. It is a short book, a mere 90 pages, which uses Moses to explore the theme of intimacy in its various forms. The six chapters, sandwiched between the prologue and epilogue, alternate between looking at intimacy with God, self, a sexual partner, (in this case Moses' wife Zipporah), and one's children.

This is a creative piece of theological writing which imaginatively uses Moses as a springboard. Whilst it does contain reference to the biblical narrative, like the film, it veers from it to explore the emotions and intimate relationships Moses had. This means one is forced to move away from the common problem one has when reading the bible of reading in a way which makes the key characters somewhat one dimensional.  Rather you engage with the character as a person who had emotions, relationships and a whole lot more going on in the background than the biblical narrative might tell you.

The strength of this approach is that it challenges the reader to re-engage with the patriarch and what can be learnt from him. We are encouraged through this to think about our own intimacy and relationships. Three chapters do this particularly well, these are entitled The First Stone: Demarcation, The Forth Stone: Disclosure and The Fifth Stone: Discovery.

The first of these briefly explores the importance of having our own boundaries, which contains our "own sacred space". Through this we protect ourselves but also ensure that we respect others and allow them their own freedom.

The middle uses the concept of the Leviathan to explore the way in which fear exists within each of us and is the biggest curse resulting from man's sin. Yet, as this chapter proclaims, fear can be overcome if we understand we cannot fight it but rather through disclosing it, confronting it, naming it and eventually taming it.

The final of these chapters, the one on discovery explores vocation. It links finding one's true vocation to freeing the soul and so it is possible to look "beyond the interests of money, power and lust". It is interesting that Steel is not only a writer but also an artist and Anglican priest and as such should know much about the topic of following ones vocation(s). Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that this was probably the most profound part of the book.

These were the strengths, yet there is a major weakness and it is one in some way shared with the film. There was an awkwardness in the romantic, more sexual scenes between Moses and Zipporah. Such scenes are notoriously difficult to write and it has to be said that whilst the screen writers handled them better than Steel in both they were slightly awkward and made one relieved to have got past them. The intensity of the relationship between Zipporah and Moses and the sexual nature of it was important but could have been portrayed equally well implicitly.

I would recommend the book, but with the caveat that you may wish to skip quickly over parts of Chapter III Welcome Home and Chapter VI The Last Night where the awkward prose weakens the generally imaginative narrative.

I would also recommend the approach of reading the book and watching the film in a close time frame. I found they did complement each other and having watched the film I was able to picture the dialogue between God and Moses in a way I hadn't previously. In Exodus: Gods and Men God (Yahweh) is portrayed as a child, who looks somewhat like a young Buddhist monk and in both book and film the dialogue between them was strong and complex. This portrayal of their relationship was a strength of both.

Both the book and film are worth giving time to I think because they help the reader engage anew with the biblical narrative in Exodus but also to think beyond it. The nature of the two gives the reader an invitation to bring their own imagination to the text and allow God, through the Holy Spirit, to speak to them through this.
Five Stones & a Burnt Stick by Ernesto Lozada-Uzuriaga Steele, (2014), Whispering Tree Original Books, ISBN: 978-0-9927363-1-6

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A Magpie Teaches Secularisation Theory

I am a magpie, a scavenger constantly surveying what I see around to identify what I can snatch and use. Oh, it's not anything physical that I'm on the lookout for it's things which I can use as teaching resources.  I do the same, to a lesser extent, with worship resources too.

Teaching secularisation to my A2 students this week I have been particularly aware of how knowing what is out there makes such a difference in teaching. I share this post to give encouragement to those doing the studies and producing such resources - they are being gratefully used. I also want to encourage some of them to perhaps produce resources specifically for Sociology, rather than just RE.
I also put this post up to try and encourage other teachers who may be wondering how to get good quality resources for their students without having to break the department budget.
Finally, I share the following to provide a guide to those who might be interested in exploring the topic but don't have the resources to invest in a range of texts and don't have access to an academic library. It relates only to one area of the syllabus and Sociology of Religion but it illustrates the vast array of resources available if you know where to look.

To give an outline of the secularisation thesis I used a 2012 Religious Studies Project podcast from Linda Woodhead. It didn't take that long to produce a set of questions to go with this and it took them through the debate.

I have also been using the material from the Church Growth Research Project with them to help them identify how things may be more complicated than some would argue.

With regards to getting them thinking about how the churches and denominations have been responding to secularisation I have referred to the Fresh Expressions movement. Cook @ Chapel is a Fresh Expression fairly local to where we are and so I was able to use their film as a resource which related to where the area they knew. This enabled me to refer back to our work on types of religious organisation and get them to think more about the problems with some of the definitions and categorisations of religion whilst helping them see what is going on locally.

The Office for National Statistics You Tube video relating to the 2011 Census Data on Religion in England and Wales is something else which provides excellent information and which the students can use to find information from.

To think about whether we have moved from being religious to being spiritual I have gotten them to explore the Kendal Project website. The Spiritual Revolution is a key text which the text books talk about and students can be guided to this website to do their own notes about the methodology of the research and key findings.

With regard to evidence to support Grace Davie and the Belief Without Belonging thesis I have been able to refer them to Guest et al; Christianity and the University Experience.

One of the resources which I am keeping a key eye on is the Westminster Faith Debates website. They produce some excellent teaching resources for RE via RE:Online and I hope they might consider expanding these teaching resources to also provide materials for the teaching of Belief in Society/ Religion modules in Sociology.
With regard to thinking about the changes which are occurring linked to immigration I am able to refer to them to a local example I am aware of. Whilst I do this on a worksheet for the students I am aware readers of this post may be interested in the example and so I refer them to two posts I have referred to it in (a) and (b).
Of course I know this is ethnocentric and I do get them to think about what is going on in other parts of the world too, taking the exam board point that many of what we do with our students is too Christocentric. However, the point I'm making here is there are some really great resources out there and they are enabling teachers to provide good quality resources to their students with the most up to date information.

We might complain sometimes about the current age and the move to technology but when I compare it to teaching the same topic a decade or so ago I am aware exactly how far we have come and how well resourced we are now compared to back then. So hurrah for the technology but greater thanks to those theorists who are taking public engagement seriously and giving us those resources in the first place.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Lovebombed with Online Care

This week my partner and I have been love bombed. We have experienced what love, support and pastoral care looks like in the digital age, as Karl has had his chest surgery. In this brief post I want to make comment on what our experience has been because I think it shows the benefits of the digital age in providing pastoral care and the way in which the on line / off line divide is to some extent irrelevant.

To give some context Karl has been in St. Georges, London receiving outstanding care. The surgery he has had is reconstructive chest surgery (involving a double mastectomy and nipple graft as part of his female to male gender reassignment). Whilst he has been undergoing this I have been the proverbial blue ended fly shuttling between the hospital and my job in Milton Keynes and have been trying to get my marking done in between.

My mobile has been the main source of interaction with the outside world. Whilst sitting on trains between the marking I have been able to pick up messages and comments of support and love. Over the last couple of days there has been a stream of love flowing over us via FB and I have been able to tap into that at the times which have suited me. I have been able to access the messages and comments and respond to them without having to use too much energy engaging in proper conversation or feeling guilty about taking up other people's times. Also it has enabled us to receive support from people all over the country (and indeed from people around the world). As people who have moved around a lot and know people all over the place this has been particularly important.  

Karl and I have also been able to keep people updated via Facebook and give mass thanks in a way which has worked for us.

In terms of how this has worked with relation to traditional forms of pastoral care it has been interesting. Facebook and email have both been used effectively meaning I have not had to field phone calls when that would have actually been more of a stress on me. We have known there is physical support there and it will kick in more when Karl comes home this weekend but it has not felt overwhelming.

What I want to draw from this is the way in which social media and the internet really can be a useful tool for pastoral care and support when used well. It won't be the right way to support everybody but for us it has been amazing this week. So thank you to all of you who have supported us this week and liked, commented, or messaged. Taking the time to press that button, give a few words or send a specific message has really made a huge difference to us and the love and support was felt in a very real way.