Why Christians should celebrate the summer solstice

stones07-solsticeThis week the summer solstice rolls around – on June 21st we will have the longest day and shortest night of the year. On June 22nd we begin the countdown to winter once again.

As part of Oasis Church Grimsby we’ll be celebrating the summer solstice with a forest church gathering. Very informal, as all of our gatherings are, and marked no doubt by the familiar sound of children tearing around and having fun, we’ll get together in a small piece of woodland and share some life and friendship together. If the weather is kind to us, we will bake some bread on a barbeque or open fire.

Fire has been part of solstice celebrations for many many years, since before the development of Christianity in fact, the primal force of the flame reflecting something of the power of the sun – offerings made into the fire whisked upwards towards the heavens on a thermal draft. Back in those times, clever people built stone structures which were perfectly aligned to the light of the sun on these special occasions, and the day itself was believed to have a propitious magic.

The solstice was also seen as a new year, and celebrated as such. As a time of transition, offerings were made to thank or appease relevant spirits who might be able to affect harvests, water supplies and the welfare of animals. In our more ‘rational’ age such spirits have largely been forgotten, with solstice celebrations being left to those perceived as oddballs and refuseniks.

But I think that more of us should celebrate the solstice. In particular I think that Christians should celebrate the summer, and winter solstices.

One reason for that is that I think its a very good thing to reconnect ourselves with the ancient patterns of the world, it’s healthy for us to find ways of making a connection with the earth.

Everything we do and interact with these days is alienated from the earth, we buy bread that comes neatly wrapped in a plastic bag, we buy clean vegetables and packaged meat from supermarkets. We clean our teeth with a mysterious paste that comes out of a tube, our clothes although often made from plant fibres, bear no resemblance to the raw materials they contain.

Our alienation is almost complete, were it not for walks in the country, gardening, and so on, the only way we would experience the natural world would be through our televisions. I generalise of course, lots of us are much more connected to nature than this, but you get my drift.

The word ‘solstice’ is a compound of two Latin words, ‘sol’ meaning ‘sun’ and ‘sistere’ meaning to ‘stand’ or ‘halt’. It’s a time when the sun seems to stand still, to hang in the heavens for an unusual amount of time. And its a time when we humans can be still too – when we take time out of our alienated lives to be thankful for the  world we live in. To be thankful for the fruitfulness of the earth, and the life that comes from the sun. Some say all life comes from the sun, and that’s more or less true – plants have life because of photosynthesis, creatures have life because they consume plants, or consume creatures that consume plants. More or less all life is viable only because of the sun.

So yes, I believe it’s a good thing to celebrate the solstice. Christians in particular should celebrate the summer solstice and give thanks to the great spirit who they understand as the maker of all things, including the massive ball of incandescent gas which we know as ‘the sun’.

But lets not make it exclusive, non Christians should celebrate the summer solstice too, indeed we should all do it. The mid point of summer has arrived, it’s a special time. Give thanks to God, the universe or whatever you believe in, or if you prefer, just think happy thoughts. The sun gives us life, and this is it’s high point, we should celebrate it.

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God and the dualist imagination part 4: God beyond dualism

file0002028828893Having previously outlined how evangelical thinking has dualism at it’s heart, how this has caused a problem, and how it impacts the way evangelicals typically understand ‘God’, I want to turn now to my own reflections on this issue.

Over some period of time, I have moved from a classically dualistic transcendent view of the Divine towards a way of thinking called panentheism. I perceive this way of thinking as being a much more helpful way of seeing God.

According to panentheist thinking, God is both transcendent in the dualist sense, but also immanent. God is simultaneously both here and there. He or she is, to use a traditional term, omnipresent.

This adoption of panentheism removes the issue of seeing through an entirely dualistic lens: we can recognise God as ever present, allowing us to see God in those who we might otherwise have seen as ‘others’. But it doesn’t necessarily entirely rid us of concepts such as ‘right and wrong’ or ‘good and evil’ for instance. What it does is put them into perspective.

Panentheism as a stance is well expressed by Marcus Borg who said: “God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, the Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us. God is more than the universe, yet the universe is in God. Thus, in a spatial sense, God is not “somewhere else” but “right here.”…” (Borg, The God We Never Knew, 1998, 11 – 12)

A panentheist approach is, I believe, much more inclusive than dualism which I think is problematic and exclusive. A panentheist can more readily overcome the barriers between us and others, by recognising that those barriers are irrelevant, and illusory. That being the case, a panentheist approach drives us towards re-engagement, as we recognise that whilst we are apart, whilst we are separate, we are not whole.

This view of God and people changes the way we must look at everything. It calls for a radical re-engagement with the other as we begin to recognise that ‘God dwells and is present substantially in every soul…’ (Julian of Norwich)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: ‘God’s dream is that all of us will realize we are family – we are made for togetherness. In God’s family, there are no outsiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist – all belong’… ‘God’s love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict or to any one religion.’ (Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s Recipe For Peace, 2004)

From my perspective, Tutu’s point about conflict is very helpful. My own reflections on this has helped me understand that I have certain underlying assumptions about (for instance) politics, and crime. But Tutu points out that God is simultaneously with both offender, and offended against. God sits across differing sides of disputes, he/she is not on ‘my side’ no matter how much I might demonise the other in my mind.

Although I don’t feel the need to dispense entirely with dualistic notions of justice and injustice, good and evil etc, I need to locate them in the idea of Shalom  the holistic love and peace of God. Christ as ‘saviour’ in this sense is the one who restores us, who brings us back to that wholeness. The verb ‘sozo’ which we translate as ‘save’ also means to heal or make whole.

God then is simultaneously with us, in us and around us. Others too are the same as us, our separation although real in one sense is also illusion. We are all family – discrete yet the same.

The problem we face then, obviously enough is that we are so manifestly physical, and God is so manifestly not, making it extremely difficult to understand that wholeness. But Jesus, who we can at last understand as the incarnation of God, or God in human form (not part of God, or a separate person, but fully God and fully human) comes to restore us to wholeness, to demonstrate to us the Shalom of God, the holistic peace and love which is freely available to us, and which is surely our destiny.

As the manifestation of this holy wholeness, the personification of eternal love, as fully God and fully human he is clear – ‘I am the way, the truth, the life…. no man comes to the father but through me.’ This is not a statement of dualistic separation, an ‘I am better then the others’ boast, it’s a statement of reality – Jesus lives and calls us to live the reality of Shalom in the here and now – love God, and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s the beginning and the end of it.

Read the previous posts to this one: 1, 2, 3.

God and the dualist imagination part 3: Us & God

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving already stated that evangelical thinking uses a dualistic lens to create a divide between ‘us’ and ‘others’; I now want to consider the other way that dualism has infected the way evangelicals think, namely the ‘othering’ of God.

Not only are people ‘other’ to ‘us’, but so is ‘God’.

Language of transcendence is often used to speak of the Divine, I use it quite frequently myself. But while it can be helpful in talking about aspects of the nature of God, when God becomes solely transcendent as in the ‘Theist’ or ‘Supernatural Theist’ way of thinking, we have a problem.

When God is entirely transcendent, there seem to be places where he or she is not present, essentially places where God does not exist. These places may be in people, in the hearts and minds of those who we feel are evil or wrong; physical locations; or objects.

For some this is manifest in power relationships – God cannot be present in ‘their’ building, instead it is a haunt for ‘demons’ – their building may of course variously be: Mosque, temple, house of ill repute, anyone else’s church…

Often what lies at the heart of that is straightforwardly a power struggle, but underlying it, I want to suggest, is this kind of thinking about God.

Indeed I believe this lies at the heart of the problems with the way we conceive of all types of others. It can allow us to see ‘others’ as more distant from God than we are; just as it also allows us to conceive of certain places as ‘god forsaken’ or ‘god less’.

On a global/geo political scale of course, it allows us to consign our planet to environmental catastrophe by believing that God is transcendent from his/her creation. By living in this thinking we can justify not only environmental damage on an extraordinary scale, but also be ambivalent about the death and destruction of massive amounts of people.

On a local scale, and one that is very obvious in any kind of missional role, it allows us to abandon sections of society to sink or swim as church bails out and heads for a nicer place to live.

Tomorrow I will explain how this thinking has made me move into a new way of understanding God altogether. New for me that is.

Previous posts are here: 1, 2.

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God and the dualist imagination part 2: Jesus & dualism

In post 1 of this series, I said that I believe dualism is inherent in the way that evangelical Christians have come to conceive of ‘others’ – those of different belief systems or lifestyles to the standards deemed ‘acceptable’ by the prevailing evangelical thinking.

I want to go to say that I believe this to be a deeply flawed approach, and one which seems contrary to the way of approaching otherness modelled by Jesus.

Jesus approach to those of other faiths, other lifestyles and other social classes is profoundly open and egalitarian. The gospels include stories of an encounter with non-Jewish astrologers and times spent with tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars and centurions.

He was a friend of sinners, and was condemned as a glutton and a drunkard for the way that he ate and supped with others as though he were part of their community. Jesus does not model a dualistic way of living, nor does he model a dualistic model of ministry – his encounters with those other to his own way of life are gentle, peaceful and respectful.

Various people have critiqued dualistic thinking, Julian of Norwich noted that ‘The fullness of Joy is to behold God in everything’; and Bede Griffiths advocated an approach which drew on the teachings of both Thomas Aquinas and Sankara – in believing that in God there is “no division, or ‘composition’ of any kind. He is ‘without duality’.” (Griffiths, Return to the Centre, 1978, 24)

When considering the otherness of different faith traditions, the former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sachs expresses similar views in ‘The Dignity of difference’ where he talks of religion as being “the translation of God into a particular language and thus into the life of a group, a nation, a community of faith.” (Sachs, The Dignity of Difference, 2002, 55)

Read more tomorrow in Part 3.

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God and the dualist imagination part 1: Us & Others

I presented a paper at a conference recently, where I outed myself as a ‘recovering dualist’.

By this I meant that I find it very hard not to think about God with a classic dualist point of view – you know that idea of God as a person out there somewhere, with a Santa type ‘naughty and nice’ pair of lists? Yeah that. I find it a bit hard not to think like that.

I am by background an evangelical, and although I haven’t used that term to describe myself for some time, it has played an important part in forming the way I think about things.

So in a short series of blog posts, I want to look at the issue of dualism as a way of thinking about God.

My first point then, is that I believe underlying the evangelical understanding of God and ‘others’ is a deep seated dualism.

I suggested that this dualism leads to a colonial attitude towards the way the evangelical church approaches ‘others’. While I recognise that there are significant exceptions to this generalisation, it’s useful as a starting point.

My belief is that the majority of evangelicals operate in a kind of Platonic conception of the world as Ideal and Real. There is a separation for instance between concepts such as ‘science and faith’, ‘Christian and secular’, ‘heaven and earth’ and of course, ‘saved and unsaved’. According to this well ingrained way of thinking, all earthly things are intrinsically inferior to the unseen spiritual.

So there is, for instance, a very dualistic way of distinguishing between the evangelical/Christian ‘us’, (saved, sanctified, believers); and ‘them’ – (the unsaved, those of other faiths, the sinners). This dichotomy of salvation has traditionally been part of a sovereignty paradigm. The threat of exclusion from the company of the sanctified, puts ‘us’ in to a position of power, of declaring the orthodoxy.

This runs, however, contrary to the gospel idea of giving up power, as modeled by Jesus in the Kenotic cross ‘event’, and to what Roger Mitchell has described as ‘Kenarchy’ – the emptying out of power on the behalf of others. (Mitchell, The Fall of the Church, 2013)

A dualistic mind-set is conveniently easy: with a clear us and them divide, ‘we’ know who ‘we’ are, and where ‘we’ are. It’s also very much a warfare mentality which not only appropriates violent imagery for the way it approaches discussion of the issues, but also posits the idea of opposing sides in a battle, ranged against one another. ‘Powers of darkness’ almost equal to, and diametrically opposed to ‘powers of good’ – God and Satan juxtaposed against one another as opposing commanders, and this played out on earth between people of faith and the heathen.

It may be easy, it may even be ‘encouraging’ at times of difficulty, but I believe it is deeply problematic.

Read more tomorrow in Part 2.

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The practicalities of a 40 day fast

look north cropOn Shrove Tuesday 2014 I had my final meal before giving up food entirely for 40 days. I am fasting to help raise awareness of the issue of food poverty in our country, as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign. I am doing so along side Keith Hebden and Scott Albrecht, who are doing the same fast, and thousands of others who fasted for a day, on April 4th. Many others have chosen to fast for single days each week in Lent. They have my sincere respect, gratitude, and admiration. I’m also grateful to the journalists and media channels who have helped to publicise this.

I have previously written a couple of posts about my reasons for doing this, but this post is about the practicalities, arising from the innumerable questions I’ve been asked by all sorts of people about the process.

There’s perhaps a chance of being presumptuous in writing this on day 32 of my 40 day fast. But I can at least share the story so far.

I did quite a bit of research before undertaking this fast, which included lots of reading and also speaking with people who have accomplished 40 day fasts in the past. In some cases, they have done it a few times.

So what I got was basically what I was expecting.

The most important thing to know is that, so long as you are a person who is in good health, this is a primarily a mental challenge. The body is actually equipped to go for relatively long periods without food if necessary, and has internal mechanisms to deal with it.

The key thing you must do, is ensure you are properly hydrated. And that means in particular that you need to drink lots of water. In my case I have not restricted myself to water, I have drunk fruit juice daily, I have also drunk green tea daily. With these three and the occasional addition of things like carrot juice, carrot and orange juice, V5 vegetable juice (bleugh) and similar I have kept myself feeling pretty well nourished. I have also accepted the occasional black tea when given one, or when there was no other option.

I have also maintained a regular supplemental vitamin intake, I take a multivitamin & mineral tablet every morning, and an effervescent vitamin C tablet most lunch times.

In this way, I have kept up what I think is a reasonable supply of essential nutrients into my system.

I was also advised to consider supplementing the fast with a ‘very thin soup’ such as a vegetable stock, or water from boiled vegetables. I thought about this a lot, and decided I would keep this as a reserve option for a late stage of the fast. So far I have not bothered with doing so, and I suspect I will not resort to it. I dont feel particularly tempted by the idea, and am not sure it would add much at this point.

“Are you hungry all the time?”

The answer is basically no, I’m not. After the first few days in which the body detoxes and deals with its food addictions, you go into ketosis, and the the body begins to break down fats to provide the sugars it needs. Because I have maintained some sugar intake with fruit juices I have managed to sustain ketosis until now. I am hopeful that it will continue until day 40. If it does not, then my body will begin to consume muscle, which will be unpleasant.

“Are you tempted by food all the time?”

Again the answer is no, I have cooked for the children from time to time, and sometimes sit at the table for meals. That doesn’t always work for me, so I’m not religious about it. But so far as I have been able, I’ve attempted to carry on as normal. I must admit that at times when I’ve been in the house on my own, and I’ve known all the nice food we have in our cupboards and fridge, I’ve thought: ‘nobody need ever know…’ but happily I have managed not to go down that route, I’ve eaten nothing.

“How much weight have you lost?”

I went into the fast expecting to lose a stone and a half over the forty days, an amount I felt I could afford to lose reasonably well. I had actually let myself eat a bit more in advance of the fast, so that I had a bit more in reserve. Unfortunately this was an underestimation, and I had lost a stone and a half with two weeks to spare. I think that this week I may have lost another half stone, which means I have gone from just over 13 stone to just over 11. I think it’s roughly 15% of my total body weight, maybe about an arm’s worth. It’s now quite evident that I have shed weight, and my face in particular looks quite different.

“Are you still ‘well’?”

In general I remain in good health. I’ve continued to work all the way through the fast, at times I’ve worn myself out, which was unwise. In general the main problem has been lack of energy, I have certainly suffered from a loss of energy, and at times I just feel weak. I have deliberately cut down the amount of exercise I do, and have tried to be sensible about that. I needed this fast to be sustainable in the midst of what can be a pretty busy life. Internally my body continues to function well, although bowel movements have certainly slowed, and possibly now stopped – you cant blame the bowels for not moving if there’s nothing in them I guess.

The other issues I’ve had are sleep and temperature – I’ve slept less, at least an hour less per night which is a bit of a drag, and my sleep is more broken which is also annoying. It adds to my overall feeling of tiredness. And body temperature has been an issue at times, mostly I’ve been fine but sometimes I’ve just felt very shivery, and I have to wear more in bed in order to be warm enough. I’ve thanked God for the lovely warm jacket which I got just before the fast began, it’s been a real boon.

The one health issue I do have is that I have a slight problem if I get too hot, my blood pressure drops a lot and I am prone to passing out – I have noticed an increase in light headedness at times during the fast, and I think my blood pressure has gone down a bit, so I have to be extra careful about that generally, and about not getting too hot in particular, so no hot baths anymore.

Has it made you grumpy?”

In general no, I don’t think so, but from time to time it probably has. I think in some ways it’s made me a bit more manic, and I suspect there’s some survival instinct going on meaning that I will take decisions faster, think more clearly and be less tolerant of shilly shallying. I have a feeling that this has not made me the easiest person to live with at times, and I owe my family an awful lot for supporting me in this.

“Has it been a ‘spiritual experience’?”

Unlike other fasts which I have done (much shorter) for specifically ‘spiritual’ reasons, this was never intended as an exercise in prayerful asceticism.  This was always a practical thing, but to divorce those two concepts entirely would be wrong. So I would say that this hasn’t been the kind of transcendent experience one might expect if doing it as a time of concentrated prayer and meditation, but the spirituality of the mundane is not to be undervalued, and in that sense it has been a deeply spiritual experience. The focus of this fast has been (essentially) justice and peace – and the spirit of God is justice and peace – there is a clear link.

“What are you going to eat first when you stop?”

It will have to be a gentle soup diet to begin with, I don’t eat meat anyway, so that’s not an issue, but I’ll have to have vegetable soup for the first few days at least until my internal organs can handle being filled again, then it will be simple things like a bit of scrambled egg, and stuff with plenty of fibre in. My first real meal will probably be a Mung bean soup, which is a traditional way to break a fast in certain Indian cultures, as it has particular restorative qualities.

“What has kept you motivated?”

Knowing that this is a much bigger issue than some temporary discomfort of my own, and that in doing this I am helping to raise the general awareness of that issue. The support and encouragement of family, friends, colleagues and strangers has been really great too. A consistent prayerful approach has helped me stay focused for the most part, and also a bit of sheer bloody mindedness hasn’t hindered me, nor has a latent competitive instinct if I’m really honest.

Overall the main thing to understand is that this is entirely achievable with the relevant preparation and motivation. One needs to understand that there are periods when it is hard, and periods when it is really quite easy. The idea in my mind is not to pay too much attention to either of these two things, and just to be present in the moment that I am in. I liken it to climbing a cliff, or walking a ledge – just don’t look down. If you do then it scares the living daylights out of you. I occasionally catch a glimpse of the fact that I have not eaten anything for a month, and that seems extraordinary to me, then I remember just to continue the fast. It’s a lot like meditation actually, just be there in a meditative state, retain no thought, resist no thought, resent no thought. I use meditation as part of my personal spiritual practice and perhaps that discipline has been a help.

“What has been the hardest thing about it?”

The hardest thing about this whole fast has been the impact it has had at home – no more date night meals for Kelly and I, no special meal for our wedding anniversary which fell on day 31, fewer family meals around the table and so on. I have felt that loss keenly, and I know Kelly has too. That has felt at times selfish and unfair, and I don’t feel good about it.

However, there is a much bigger issue at stake, an issue of justice, and I focus on that, knowing we will be able to make up for some lost time afterwards.

So there you have it, I think there was only once when I seriously doubted I would complete this fast, in the main I’ve just managed to plod along. I’m still not ruling out introducing some thin vegetable soup, or Miso soup or something in the last few days if I grow very weak, but I can see the finish line and I’m plodding towards it. See you on the other side!

 

 

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Noah – film review

Warning this review contains spoilers of the sort that go beyond a basic knowledge of the bible story.

Russell Crowe as NoahSo let me start with a preface: I think this is the most Biblical film I have seen in a very long time, perhaps ever. It is a two hour long meditation on the nature of God and the nature of humanity.

All good myths require imagination and the power to suspend disbelief, and the Noah story is no different to that. In its original Biblical form its a retelling of some kind of universal near eastern story of a time when a great flood came. You find different versions of the same story in other texts too.

But the Hebrews used this story to not just deal with some half forgotten history, but to add to the conversation around two questions – who is God? And is humanity worth saving from itself?

That is what this new version of the old story does too.

Using plenty of imagination, as befits the telling of a myth director Darren Aronofsky conjures up an antediluvian world of almost surreal proportions. He gives the drama a dreamlike quality, in the same way that a memory highlights certain colours and textures, and fades other detail into obscurity.

He deals cleverly and subtly with the notion of how God speaks to Noah, using a combination of dream and psychotropic experiences to reveal the creator’s plans. This will surely disappoint those who prefer the Sunday school idea of such communication. However, despite its grotesque proportions, it is all the more real for that.

Another piece of re imagining comes in the casting of the Nephilim as rock bound creatures, difficult for those of us who prefer to imagine them as models of muscle bound masculinity. However, the really wonderful thing about his re imagining of these ‘Watchers’ (a term taken directly from the extra/non/orthodox canonical) text of Enoch is the way he uses them to tell their own story of love and redemption.

The great problem for those of us who read the story through an understanding of a God who is love, is the prevalence of the myth of redemptive violence. I thought that this would be a problem in the film too, that we would still have to deal with a vengeful God who wants to visit death and destruction on evil humans.

But actually the story overcomes this, and this is the great ‘arc’ of this myth, it’s Noah’s great realisation that his mission is not to see humans wiped out for their sin, and thereby to recreate the garden in its virginal purity. Instead his mission is fulfilled when he realises that the love he has in his heart is what God wants.

Aronofsky uses some license to get there, the device of the babies is his key interjection into the story, should Noah kill the children to fulfill his mission from God? When he finds he cant do so, he feels that he has failed, he becomes deeply depressed, he fears the the love he has in his heart for his grandchildren makes him weak, and of no use to God.

His epiphany comes as he realises eventually that love is his mission, his broken, loving and weak heart is what God wants. It is then that the new covenant comes into place.

Another clever addition to the story is the incorporation of Tubal Cain into the tale, he is recast not as Naameh’s brother as in the original text, but as the king, or ‘chief of the baddies’.

What he wants is to seize equality with God by force, he wants to take it – this is the fall story still in place. That man can be equal with God by eating the fruit. Tubal Cain is the antithesis to the eventual ideal type Noah.

Tubal Cain wants to recreate paradise too, but another sort of paradise, he wants to see the power of humanity dominant over nature – and this is the other great arc, the environmental theme of stewardship over dominance. Aronofsky seems to play on this heavily, and he’s right to do so, it’s a contemporary addition to the story, but one which has all the more relevance for that.

The way this works out is in Noah’s killing of Tubal Cain, another part of his supposed ‘duty’.

One final addition to the story is that of Methuselah, played as a wise ancient Shaman who has a fascination with finding berries before he dies. For all his powers, he cannot find the berry he wants, until his last moment, when God in a gift of small amounts but epic proportions reveals a berry to him, just before he meets his death.

So yes, this is a meditation on the nature of God, revealing eventually a God who is loving, who doesn’t command death and destruction, but who is misunderstood and disobeyed (obey comes from the Latin and has a close association with the word listen) by all but a few. It’s a God who grants small kindnesses, who sees into the hearts of humanity, and loves them.

And it’s a meditation on the nature of humanity, for from earth (humus) they came. It recognises humans as capable of great wickedness and of great love.

Acting wise I was impressed by everyone, except perhaps Emma Watson, who I found unconvincing. I didn’t desperately like the fight scenes, but I don’t like them usually anyway – they were however a necessary dramatic device.

It was both massively divergent from the original text, and simultaneously totally faithful to the spirit of it, and that is what makes it very very Biblical. Those who want more Biblical literalism will hate it no doubt. I thought it was excellent.

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How Grimsby really went to war with Channel 4 over Skint

This blog is a response to the article in the Guardian on Tuesday 1st of April, by the journalist Helen Pidd.

Helen is a good journalist, and while I’m glad she wrote the piece, there are a few things which I think need to be addressed – apart from a couple of factual inaccuracies there are also some wider points made in the balanced article which could do with some attention.

Firstly to set the scene, for some months some of us in Grimsby have been working hard to prevent KEO films, a  production company that prides itself on an apparently ‘ethical’ stance, from making a new series of the ‘documentary’ Skint in Grimsby.

The first series of Skint was set in Scunthorpe, and while the talk was of documentary, the reality was much more about tabloid style journalism. Individuals felt they had been misrepresented and lied to by producers, communities felt let down by empty promises. And the whole country got to have a chuckle about the ridiculous behaviour of the benefit class preceriat who inhabit ‘the town with a swear word in its name. A whopping 2.8 million viewers got to see the residents of the Westcliff estate as they went about the daily lives of the urban underclass.

Reviews were mixed, and confusing: “It’s funny, fair, frank.” Said Sam Wollaston of the Guardian, while in the Telegraph Neil Midgely warned: “Presenting difficult topics on TV is one thing – presenting them as soap opera is quite another.”

But on one thing we can agree, that Channel 4 had a hit on their hands, the likes of which they hadn’t had since Kirsty and Phil engaged in a campaign to raise the property price bubble to breaking point.

The main Grimsby resident that Helen quotes is the Rev John Ellis, a man who has a hard won reputation for tenacity and drive, and whose Shalom youth project is a beacon of what real urban ministry among the dispossessed can look like. John is a friend who I admire greatly, and whose opinion on this I dispute totally.

He has spent almost as long as I have been alive working in this area, and it would be foolish to discount his experience and insight, but nonetheless I believe he has fallen for the spin of producers who are full of talk of ‘giving people their voice’ and allowing them to ‘tell their story’. What I know as a former hack myself is that this is tabloid 101. This is exactly what you say to get over the doorstep in any difficult situation – it’s precisely how I myself got over many a doorstep, although I hope I never exploited that opportunity as some do.

The truth is that the story is not going to be told just how the individuals want them to be told, they are not going to be in on the editorial decision making – they are the raw material, they are Foucault’s ‘bio power’ for the media machine. It’s their antics which are going to get Channel 4’s next ratings hit, not their grimy back story.

John says that his community is more ‘oppressed’ than deprived, he’s right – although the former is actually a consequence of the latter. He also says that he doesn’t think his community members are best described as ‘vulnerable': “You keep hearing them being called ‘vulnerable’, but believe me, many are as vulnerable as a Sherman tank. They’re no shrinking violets by any means. They want their stories told.”

I’m one of those who do think many of these individuals are vulnerable, vulnerable precisely because they have been oppressed, vulnerable because they are addicted, vulnerable because they are poor, vulnerable because they are hungry. They are vulnerable because for many people, their whole lives have been lived under the shadow of domination by others, whether it’s an abusive or neglectful parent, a violent partner, a government (series of actually) who have chosen to ignore them or just didn’t know how to help them. They have had little or no recourse to self determination, and then along comes a media company keen to find another ratings winner in austerity Britain, which offers them a chance to ‘tell their story’.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the real story has to be told about this area, about towns and cities and village all across the country where people are living in squalor and poverty – about how people in the seventh richest country in the world can be going hungry, and about how children are growing up in environments where they are neglected and left with no aspiration or hope for the future and turn instead to the easy comforts and short term solutions of drugs, alcohol and crime.

Grimsby is a town which has certainly suffered as it has de-industrialised. Many parts of it are tired and run down, many parts of it are deprived or oppressed. On my own estate (Nunsthorpe) some houses are boarded up or derelict, and crime stats are depressing at times. This is a place at the sharp end of savage government cuts, and a place where thanks to cheap housing, people often move to – although not so often because they are in hope of a job. It’s also a place which is at the forefront of some emerging industries, particularly the renewables sector, and parts of the catering sector too, there are many exciting creative projects,and some wonderful creative people. There are good points about living here, and there are bad ones. A real documentary series might demonstrate that, and it might demonstrate the fact that some people do feel so desperate about the oppression they under that they make very poor choices indeed. They are a minority of the population, but they are real.

But lets be clear, that is not what Skint is going to do, to extend the Sherman tank metaphor a little, the very facade of strength and impenetrability that the oppressed and vulnerable build up to defend themselves against further attack will be used against them. The Sherman’s nickname of ‘Tommy Cooker’ for the way that they could be set on fire is apposite.

Now it could be that in the aftermath of the huge media fallout that followed ‘Benefit’s Street’ the next series of Skint takes a different tack, and actually does try to tackle some of the real issues, and tells some genuine stories – that is what I hope it will do. But to expect it is far too much. It’s narrated by an actor with a stereotypical ‘Northern’ voice, not by John Pilger.

The inaccuracies in Helen Pidd’s article are to do with the involvement of Steve Chalke in the public meeting which Helen attended. She cites Katie Buchanan of KEO Films as saying that “The Nunsthorpe public meeting had been convened by Steve Chalke, a charismatic Anglican pastor who runs over 40 schools under the Oasis banner, including one on James Turner Street.”

Perhaps this is Ms Buchanan’s misapprehension rather than Ms Pidd’s, but it’s quite wrong. Firstly the meeting was convened by Grimsby residents, I know for I am one of them. In fact I invited Steve, who is also my boss, and arranged the meeting at a school in which I work.

Secondly Chalke is not an Anglican pastor, he is a Baptist minister, and he doesn’t run any schools, he founded a charity under which an arm operates which does. Perhaps these are insignificant – but I don’t think so entirely, it shows me that Ms Buchanan at least, and perhaps Helen Pidd, haven’t been paying attention to my own correspondence with them, a particular shame with regard to Ms Buchanan whom I invited to the meeting personally, and explained the context fully. If she cant even get my story right in one paragraph when it was spelt out clearly in black and white, what hope do the residents of the oppressed areas of Grimsby have in a ratings chasing televised series?

Personally I strive to be even handed in this debate, I don’t try to pit one side against another, I haven’t backed calls for road signs with ‘get out channel 4′ or anything else. I believe in a free press, I believe in a society where people should be able to express themselves. But I don’t believe that is what is on offer here, and nor do many others, which is why I and others are at a kind of war with Channel 4.

But as it happens I don’t like using the rhetoric of warfare, I don’t really approve of the use of war as a metaphor in this way, it helps to embed an idea of war as normality in our thinking.

And in reality there is not one voice about this issue in our town, there are a large and vocal group of people who oppose the series, there are a smaller and vocal group who welcome it, and there are the vast majority who don’t much care – in reality it will be them who make the running.

The fallout from Skint will be something that I have to live with and work amongst, as it will be for John Ellis and others of us who have committed ourselves to the betterment of our communities. Ours will be the legacy of children who are kept off school, or ‘good’ families who move away from stigmatised areas, or families at war with themselves, or neighbours who never speak again. Long after Channel 4 have gone, and empty promises from local politicians with no money or mandate to deliver them are blown away like sand, there will remain those of us who don’t believe that its right to blame the symptoms for the causes, or to set up targets to be knocked down to spare the blushes of a political class living in times of austerity.

(Edited 4/4/14 to remove typo from line one where it read ‘Kidd’ instead of ‘Pidd’ which will teach me to wear my glasses while writing.)

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Food and money

raspberriesI am almost at the halfway point of the fast, after tomorrow there will be fewer days to do that have already been done, and the golden moment when I can eat again will be approaching rapidly.

Of course there is still some way to go, twenty days is not a short amount of time to fast.

But yet again this highlights to me the immense privilege I have in such a defined period of not eating.

I was able to prepare for it, take it on as a mental and physical challenge, and then look forward to a definite ending point.

I am also able to reassure people that: ‘If I get ill, I will stop’. All the while knowing that the likelihood of me falling ill is remote in the extreme.

As I have noted previously, those who go without food for reasons of poverty have none of these advantages. And the likelihood of them falling ill is significantly higher.

Another startling thing I have noted during this fast is the link between food poverty and crime. It is obvious when you think about it – we’re existing in a place of plenty, where window displays scream ‘consume consume’ and most people’s cupboards groan with edible things from all around the world.

For the hungry man or woman it must seem incredibly tempting to pocket something.

And that is happening – to a much greater extent than before. In North East Lincs the rate of shop thefts which are just food, has gone up to a massive 46%. In my book, that is as close as it needs to be to half of all shop thefts.

The police say that the vast majority of these crimes are due directly to food poverty.

And it’s not just here, a quick web search throws up stories from around the country about people who have been arrested for shoplifting food, often petty things like the man from South Shields who stole a pot noodle and a chocolate bar after a relationship breakdown left him homeless and broke. Or the down-on-his-luck teenager from Galashiels who stole muffins worth £2.00 from Asda. While the first was let off, the second received a four month sentence.

It’s not quite Jean Valjean territory – but we’re heading in the right direction.

Police have now been warning some time, of the rise in shoplifting from first time female offenders, all the more notable given that shoplifting is a male dominated crime.

One study in an area of Northern England showed that officers had stopped 26 first-time shoplifters, compared with five the previous year. Twenty of the people arrested were women, and 11 of the 26 incidents were low-value, food-related thefts.

A nationwide crime survey revealed a 4% rise in shoplifting, amid an overall 10% drop in crime.

For all the talk of economic recovery and budget giveaways, there is still little sign of any let up in the hardship faced by an increasing number of single people and families who are finding a way of scratching an existence amid the empty cupboards and grumbling stomachs of austerity Britain.

And that means that more and more desperate people will commit criminal acts, often while operating on low blood sugar and going through difficult and deeply unpleasant withdrawal symptoms from food.

I certainly accept that until the financial problems in our country are sorted out, there will be no end to this crisis, but whatever one’s approach to this matter, it is obvious that many people need help now, and they aren’t getting it.

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How are you not dead?

waterBreaking away from my reflections on hunger and poverty for a moment, I’d like to answer a question that lots of people seem fascinated by – essentially the practicalities of doing a long fast, or as my friend George put it: ‘how are you not dead?’

Obviously at the moment I’m only about a quarter of the way through this fast, so it may seem a bit precipitate to talk about how to do long fasts, but at the same time this is something which I had to read up on quite a bit before starting, so I feel like I’m reasonably well equipped to give a basic overview.

Long fasts are something that many people do. Fasting is common across the faith traditions, and long fasts are often undertaken by ascetics seeking some form of enlightenment or spiritual clarity. Likewise people often fast as part of a health regime, people even go on fasting holidays, so they can feel hungry in a group.

Fasting itself is claimed to have many health benefits, from the detoxification of the system to reducing internal fat stores.

But of course, fasting isn’t for everyone, and for many people – especially children – it can be quite dangerous and harmful. It’s not something to be undertaken lightly or without careful thought. If you’re not sure, seek medical advice.

The fact is though that lack of food is something humans have had to deal with for millenia. Abundance of resources is only a relatively recent phenomena, and the human body is designed in such a way that it can go for some time without food without dying.

What it cant do is go for long without water, so I drink lots of that every day, along with a bit of juice, I also take vitamin supplements. The juice gives me a bit of extra energy, but in the main my body finds the energy I need elsewhere.

In case anyone isn’t aware of the basic biology of how that works, let me give a brief and probably slightly inaccurate explanation. We eat various kinds of things, one of the sorts of things we eat is carbohydrate, its found in potatoes, grains, and numerous other forms. We often consume it in the form of rice, pasta, or bread. Carbohydrate is broken down by the body into sugars and either used up as energy or stored as fat, so that when the body doesn’t get the energy it needs from food, it can break down the fat to get more energy. The less energy one uses, the more the carbohydrate is stored as fat.

I used to be more active than I am today, and as a legacy of that previous more active lifestyle I still tend to eat a lot of carbs, that means that I have a reasonable amount of fat stored in my body, which gives me something to rely on during this fast.

Now, the body doesn’t particularly like breaking its fat down into energy, it prefers to take on new energy through food, so when the fast begins there is some difficulty persuading it that you’re not going to eat. This is much more about a mental battle than a physical one – you have to fight the cravings for food that your system throws at you. The battle can be quite intense, and one can require a fair amount of resolve to get through it, but having a cause to fight for very much helps.

I am fortunate in that I am a vegetarian with a pretty healthy diet (my over consumption of carbs notwithstanding) I don’t drink alcohol or coffee (not because I’m a saint, but because I don’t like the taste) and I drink a lot of green tea, which is very good for you. All this means that my body is quite healthy, and I don’t have many food addictions, this made the detox process of the first three days somewhat easier. For those with a lot of food addictions, the detox process can be quite a bit harder, and can go on for longer – which is why its better to wean yourself off things before beginning a fast.

After those first few days, the body settles down into a rhythm of living of its reserves – that’s where I am now, and that will continue until all those reserves have gone – which I am hoping will not be for some time. When they have gone, I will go through another period of mental battle as the body begins to apply the brakes – the only energy it can get then is from my muscles, and it will begin the unpleasant task of consuming some of my muscle to create energy.

As things stand I am living off my fat, and that should remain the case for quite a while yet – the only difference I feel is a slight lack of energy, which I am managing reasonably well. I have made a pledge that should I become unwell, I will stop the fast, but at the moment well – I aint dead yet.

To read my previous reflections on the fast see previous posts here and here, and to learn more about the End Hunger Fast campaign and how you can get involved, go here.

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