Thursday, June 30, 2005

Star Wars, War of the Worlds, and our Humanity

One of the great pleasures of a vacation is time to do some of the things that usually get squeezed out of the schedule when working -- and going to the movies is one of those delights. Just before leaving for England I saw the latest Star Wars blockbuster, and today we took in a matinee performance of "War of the Worlds," Spielberg's remake of the classic sci-fi story by H. G. Wells -- hoping that it might hurry our granddaughter into the light of day.

This last of the "Star Wars" pieces was better than its two predecessors, although my complaint was that they went on a little too long showing off just how clever they were with special effects. As is usually the case with a Spielberg production, the visual effects of "War of the Worlds" were brilliant, but alas the subtleties of Wells's story were missing. I enjoyed it, and there were times when it got my adrenalin pumping nicely, but as is so often the case with a an over-hyped production, it promised far more than it was ever able to deliver.

What you have got in the last paragraph I wrote is neither a thumbs up nor a thumbs down on either of these movies, something more of a neutral judgement. Seeing these movies wouldn't be right up the top of my priority list of summer activities unless you are looking for somewhere cool to beat the heat, or (as here in England) avoid the showers.

As I sat this afternoon mulling over these two films, I came up with a commonality that intrigued me -- each in its own way is about the superiority of the human being, even in our weaknesses, over other ways there might be of existing. In "Star Wars" we are treated to Anakin Skywalker being transformed from a loving husband and loyal Jedi knight into the cyber-being Darth Vader, the Emperor's loyal lieutenant. In "War of the Worlds," the story is more about alien invaders who are felled by their immunity to the various bacteria and tiny organisms that are part and parcel of life on this planet.

In the former we watch a warm caring human lose his humanity and become a part-machine monster, in the latter we see humans, seemingly out-gunned and out-powered by these ghastly creatures in their tripod-legged war machines eventually beaten by the kind of germs that batter you and me every day. Coming from different directions, each movie is saying something affirmative about humanity while minimizing the alternatives.

Darth Vader seems so much stronger, so much more commanding when he ceases to be Skywalker, but actually he is diminished. All the characteristics that have made us delight in him, especially his love for his wife in her pregnancy, have been wiped from his character and something far less attractive has taken their place. When the Dark Side takes control of a being, and when he is so damaged that he needs to be rebuilt in a cross between a laboratory and an operating room, the outcome is not something greater but something far less. In a way we are being warned.

In Spielberg's work, from the moment that the aliens with their moving war platforms break from the ground in the New Jersey suburbs of New York, we are rooting for the humans not for the invaders. The director does all in his power to affirm their weakness when compared to the might of their enemy, and also how desirable it is that the human race is saved. Indeed, it is the flaws that make up their humanity that is so endearing -- as an aside, this is just about the first Tom Cruise movie I can remember seeing in which the man actually breaks down and cries.

The question that I have found myself turning over is if we so much appreciate all that it is that makes us human -- and weak humans at that -- then why is our culture so ambivalent about this? I want a long life, but I don't wish to live for ever, and I certainly have no desire that my body or brain should be enhanced, yet in a society that is confused about what comes next, we are constantly being prodded to want something like this.

I have believed for a long time that science fiction is often the very best "pre-evangelism" because it forces people to ask questions about themselves, their origins, and their destinies, that they might not have been willing to look squarely in the face until this point.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Birmingham, England

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Often we do things because we know they are right and only after we have done them do we gradually recognize the reasons behind our actions. Several years ago I intuitively knew the time had come for me to step back into parish ministry, and I knew it was right to go somewhere or take on something that was "obscure," maybe to take on a challenge that no one else would be willing to accept.

Thus I ended up pastoring a disspirited handful of people whose brand new congregation had experienced a tragedy of vast proportions -- and which almost everyone believed was doomed. The for the congregation's survival got even longer when the Episcopal Church exploded in 2003, and then there were further ricochets that had us tottering in despair in 2004. The only thing I have been certain of in the midst of all this has been that God called me to be the pastor of the Church of the Apostles, although there have been times when it has felt as if the work
was destroying me.

Yet even as I had done the job, the objective reasons for my presence in this congregation have clearly presented themselves, and amidst so much thanklessness there has been stellar moments of great joy. Today, as I sit in a midsummer English garden and assess from a distance progress and failures, delights and disappointments, I have a growing list of good reasons why God called Rosemary and myself to that particular place for this particular season.

We have gone around some horrendous corners in the last few years, and we are still extremely vulnerable. I am already waking up in the night and worrying about the fallout from the General Convention in 2006, whose likely decisions seem almost certain to do further crippling damage to the mission to which God has called us, and we have the election of a new bishop in the midst of all this to worry about too.
If we get the wrong person (or if the General Convention refuses to confirm the bishop elected), then the fallout will be even more horrible.

It is tragic that most of the clouds on the horizon come not from the obvious enemies of a fallen world, but from our own denomination and its corporate blindness, and a folly that seems bent on self-destruction. Yet there must be meaning in even this mystery if we could but recognize it. As the old saying goes, God is good at drawing straight lines with a crooked stick.

As pastor of the Church of the Apostles, I feel as if I am on a high wire without a safety net. I feel as if every decision we make could have both painful personal consequences, as well as enriching or threatening the life of my small (but slowly growing) congregation. Yet one of the reasons I believe the Lord put us there is that we have spent much of the last 30 years in this mode, because most of the ministries in which we have been engaged have lived on the edge. The result is
that our spiritual muscles and sinew have been trained up for such a time as this.

My companion-in-book-form on this sunny English afternoon has been my old friend and mentor, Eugene Peterson, and in his most recent book he speaks of Israel at the time of the Exodus as having had "generations of slave-identity bred into them." Breaking that self-recognition "was not going to be easy, and certainly not quick -- no easier and certainly not faster for them than it is for us" (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, page 113).

What happened at Sinai was that a blue print for feedom was laid out for Israel, yet before Moses could even get to them with instructions from the Lord they had already swapped God's extraordinary hope for the golden calf. Their worship of the golden calf was "self-defining and self-serving" (p.114), and it nearly destroyed them.

I found myself as I read this musing that this was possibly a description of the emerging post-Christendom church situation. Israel would not shed the slave-image that had shaped its identity overnight, and nor shall we be released from our yearning for the Christendom years or the "good old days of ECUSA" in the twinkling of an eye. Yet is is on the fringes, in unlikely places like the Church of the Apostles in South Williamson County, Tennessee, that something new is happening.

Which brings me to Peterson's musings on the resurrection narratives, that things "start emerging with clarity that are significant for us as we ponder our cultivation of the wonder that is inherent in living well in creation" (p. 120).

One of the significant things about all this is that "marginal people... play a prominent role in perception and resposne" -- and the first resurrection appearance was to the most marginal of all Jesus's followers, none other than Mary Magdalene. As Peterson points out, we live in an age of media attention and celebrity endorsement where "fear-of-the-Lord wonder" is most likely to be cultivated by those on the edge of things.

"Bright light and amplification are not accessories to the cultivation of wonder" (p. 121), and I have learned this anew in a little congregation that meets in a worn out factory that once distributed boots around the world. We have no endowments to cushion and protect us from the harsh realities, we possess no glorious builing in which to perform magnificent liturgy, all we have is the Gospel, and discovering
how to speak that Gospel meaningfully into the chaos of an urban area being born, in the midst of the cultural chaos of these postmodern times.

Perhaps it is in congregation's like ours from which the tomorrow of American Anglicanism will emerge. We are on the fringe, and have nothing but the Word to speak, and the Spirit to guide and protect us.

Many of the gurus of the last 20 years have repeated the mantra that change comes from the periphery, and I believe there is some truth to that. But I also believe James Davidson Hunter's assertion that it is only by recovering the center and the structures of influence that change is enabled. I think that Hunter's position has a great deal of rightness about it, but it is at the periphery, on the edge, that we
experiment what it means to be fear-of-the-Lord believers attempting to witness to Christ meaningfully in a world and a denomination that finds us embarrassing, narrow-minded, believes we are unreflective, dense, thoughtless, unwilling to change with the times, or whatever other accusations that get thrown at us.

I confess as I sit here in the English sunshine that I have not enjoyed much of the last couple of years of ministry, for like St. Paul, the care of the churches, and my own church in particular, has rested heavily upon me (2 Cor. 11.29).

Yet I do feel as if we have been doing some momentous things, and setting out upon a momentous (and agonizingly burdensome) journey. With others we have, in effect, been re-designing and beginning to make the tools that will break the rocks of blindness and intransigence, and will lead us (as well as our successors) into the business of remaking the tired, corrupted, ethically compromised, Christendom-trapped church into something God can use in a different kind of world.

Even as I sit scribbling in the garden I can hear in the distance the shape of that world, for on this English Sunday an Islamic festival is in full swing in the park not a thousand yards away from where I sit. Meanwhile, the secularized English population goes about their lives thinking little of the needs of their souls, much like many Americans. In this multicultural city it appears that the Christian faith is struggling to keep its head above water.

However, this world craves to wonder at the risen Christ as much as any age before it, whether it is prepared to realize it or not. Being marginalized in my denomination I am now much more able to identity with the out-of-the-wayness of Mary Magdalene and accept her as a model in postmodernity.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

A Letter to the Authors of "Understanding the Windsor Report"

TO: Ian Douglas and Paul Zahl

Dear Ian and Paul,

I read "Understanding the Windsor Report" on a transatlantic flight, on my way to England to meet my first grandchild, who is stubbornly refusing to be born anywhere close to her due date! The personal significance of the months of my daughter's pregnancy have taken me by surprise, a chapter change that has been further accentuated by the fact that I am on the verge of my 60th birthday.

Like both of you I am a lifelong Anglican, having been baptized in December 1945 in a parish church built on a spot where Romans had baptized their children. Despite my Church of England roots, three decades of my ordained life have been usefully spent in the Episcopal Church, but the period since GC2003 has been exquisitely painful as any I have endured.

More heat than light has been generated during this time, and it seems we have descended into an uncontainable kind of corporate lunacy. I have known each of you for a long time, and we have labored at times alongside one another, so it is a delight in the midst of such discomfort to see two men who I respect engaged in a conversation that is both readable, and which sheds some light into our unhappy state.

I bought "Understanding the Windsor Report" because I felt it my duty to do so, and reckoned I would scan it quickly, find a few some bon mots to squirrel away for future use, then shelve it. Instead I found myself treated to an erudite but accessible rehearsal of our present state of affairs following the publication of the Windsor Report, that is been both engaging and edifying. In the contributions that each of you makes I have been educated and challenged, and if there were nothing else of any substance, we would be beneficiaries because you have given us is an example of how to engage in debate forthrightly and with grace. Yet
there is a lot more to the book than this.

One of the horrors of these last two years has been the venom with which we have fought our way through these difficulties. Friendships have been severed forever, and I find myself regularly close to tears as faithful pastors and laity, men and women who have loved the Episcopal Church, have been forced to decide that they can no longer remain here. Some friends have left for AMiA, others have left for Rome, others for other traditions, taking with them both talent and some of the wholeness
of the Episcopal Church -- as well as breaking lines of communication with those of us they now consider part of their past.

Like Paul Zahl, I feel totally marginalized in ECUSA -- sometimes with anguish, and sometimes with relief. I once engaged in the wider life of ECUSA, but for several years now that has been impossible for my voice is not valued by those who hold power because although a mainstream Anglican being obedient to his ordination vows, I represent a theological viewpoint considered either dinosauric and objectionable.
Needless to say, because we evangelicals, charismatics, and catholics have been on the perimeter for such a long time, as Paul points out (page 124), we have become increasingly angular, grouchy, and difficult to live with. "The church has essentially said to us, de facto, Depart for me, I never knew thee" (page 125). Yet for many of us there is nowhere else to go.

While your conversation does not solve this problem, Ian to his credit does not dismiss the discomfort in which so many of us orthodox types find ourselves in the cavalier manner we have been treated to by so many others. For this I am profoundly grateful. I wonder whether this is because Ian is a global Christian, not entirely trapped in the cultural Americocentricity of the "left wing" of the Episcopal Church.

Probably the greatest contribution the pair of you have made in discussing the Windsor Report is to model a way of relating to one another in the midst of so much distress. In terms of my own reception of Windsor, I have found myself somewhere between Paul and Ian. I am not as negative about the Report as Paul, but I do not see all the positives that Ian seems to believe are there.

Each of you make a strong case, I believe, against the creeping prelacy that mars contemporary Anglicanism, and I agree with you that bolstering the episcopate in a more "catholic" manner is not the solution to this problem, what Paul describes as "the parts of the report that want to depict bishops as God's utter gift to the cosmos" (Page52).

Both the weaknesses and the strengths of the Windsor Report and its various suggested courses of action are nicely unwrapped in your conversation, especially its failure to represent theological and ecclesiastical heritage of Anglicanism summarized by the Lambeth-Chicago Quadrilateral. While it was inevitable that the product of such a diverse group of commissioners was not going to be acceptable in its entirity to any of us, you have done an admirable job finding weaknesses in their handling of Scripture, their structural and canonical attempts to fill the breaches, and their failure to address the presenting issue of homosexuality with the honestly and openness that one would have liked.

Ian rightly speaks in a reconciliatory mode, calling upon us to see how much we belong to one another in relation to the Father in the family of God, and that if we are to experience the fullness that God desires for us, then we must recogize that there are treasures that we all bring to the table. The problem with this is that Ian seems to expect more from the maintaining of relationships than relationships are able to deliver.

I would also add that despite his own drenching in the history and substance of Anglicanism, he does not seem eager to accept the given boundaries of faith that are there within the Holy Scriptures and the manner in which the church has historically handled them. While confessing that he is not a biblical scholar, he does little to justify his unwillingness to take seriously the prohibitions of the Scriptures when it comes to sexuality, and he is strangely willing to draw upon extraneous contemporary "findings," in order to justify his position.

This sits uncomfortably for me when viewed alongside his enthusiastic affirmation of the missiological imperative that is at the heart of being believers. While the raison d'etre of the church might be the fulfilling of the missio Dei, I am baffled by his willingness to then support an understanding of humanity that has wrought such strife within the church. Not only has the missiological component of Anglicanism been lost amidst the internecine feuding that is tearing us apart, but
by adhering inflexibly to a highly questionable agenda, this has done terrible damage in the short, medium, and long-term to the mission of the church, doing irreparable harm to the Gospel around the world and the Communion he loves.

While I accept that one of the challenges before Anglicans worldwide, as it is before others, is how to be faithful and welcoming among the vast diversity of cultures, the puzzle is why this contemporary tolerance of what Ian admits Scripture regards as questionable sexuality should be accepted as a diverse culture that is appropriately tolerated in the heartland of the church. Ian raises the question that Windsor, I think, challenges us to answer as to what are the limits of acceptable
diversity within the church? It is not only an issues of biblical hermeneutics, but of anthropological understanding, and where truth draws boundaries.

What is interesting is that I find myself more in Ian's comfort zone about the Windsor Reports approach to Scripture than Paul. Paul has misgivings. Having pondered his assertion that the report is unwilling to listen to the clarity of the Scriptural message, I think that he is more right than I might have earlier accepted, especially regarding what the Bible teaches about the nature and practice of our sexuality. This is not something I had properly picked up on my reading of the Report. I agree with him, although I do share with him and Ian that hermeneutics
and the place of the Holy Spirit in the reading and interpretation of God's will must be major items on the agenda in the days ahead.

Paul is right to assert that "the burden of proof is on the people who wish to change the inherited teaching" (Page 37), and I can only say that Ian displays lamentable weakness in responding to such a challenge as do most he make the case for the position he holds. For several years now I have been looking in vain for those on the "revisionist" side of this issue to come up with an approach that really holds water in light of the whole array of evidence, and so far they have failed to do so. The case is based, as Paul points out, on an almost uncritical
acceptance of the drift of postmodern culture.

Ian, who can be so astute, drifts with his EDS colleagues in this matter. While he admits that there is no case for same-sex elationships and the leadership of actively homosexual persons in the church, it just will not do to say that we now know better than they did in the past, or that the sort of homosexuality that we talk about today is not addressed in the Bible.

What I brought away from reading this delightful conversation is a shared sense with you both of distrust for creeping prelacy, and also a willingness to accept that we need to go back and rethink what we mean by "Instruments of Unity," and how these relate to our historic doctrinal and ecclesial heritage. It also has me thinking afresh about whether I like the gradual centralizing of Anglicanism that is taking
place, although while with Ian I affirm the individual identities of each province, I wonder whether the folks on "his side" who have pressed their agenda to the point where they are the ones who have compromised this.

Yes, you have given me lots to think about and I am profoundly grateful. Thank you both for writing this book, it is a real blessing.

In Christ,

Richard Kew

Sunday, June 19, 2005

A Historic Appointment Considered

I was peddling hard on my exercise bike early on Friday morning and watching the news on BBC America, when it was announced that John Sentamu had been appointed the new Archbishop of York. Since then I have been keeping my eyes open for comment -- and have heard very little, especially in the American church where our fixation on sexuality is distressing, pathetic, and complete.

Sentamu's predecessor was the godly and gracious David Hope, one of the last of the pious old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic prelates of the Church of England -- a godly man deeply rooted in Word and Sacraments. Bishop Hope has returned to his first love, which is parish ministry, believing that his active years should end where they began.

Following Hope you might say with the Monty Pythons, "And now for something completely different..."

John Sentamu is in his mid-fifties and is the only Ugandan in the English House of Bishops. I met him ten years ago when he was vicar of a South London parish, introduced to him by our mutual friend, Cyril Okorocha, now Bishop of Owerri, Nigeria. Our meeting was brief, and I suspect Sentamu would not remember it, but he made an impression on me. Since then he has gone from parish ministry to the suffragan post of Stephney in the Diocese of London, to Bishop of Birmingham. And now he moves to York where he will lead the northern province of the Church of England.

While there have been a number of leaders in the history of the English church who were not born in England, I find myself wondering if it is unprecendented since the Reformation for both the archbishops of the church to have been born outside of England -- and never has there been an African in one of these posts. That, I think, is what makes the Sentamu appointment so fascinating, for it says something about the way in which a church planted by the C. of E. is now providing leadership for it.

At the press conference that followed the surprise announcement of John Sentamu's appointment to York, the archbishop-elect said that those missionaries who risked their lives to go to Uganda, "brought a gospel of God's forgiveness for the past, new life for the present, and, indeed, hope for the future... Like those missionaries and martyrs who brought the gospel to my native Uganda, encouraged by their prayers and example, I hope that we can create a Church and a culture which is more relaxed and open to take risks and be more creative, so that the Church of England is once again a spiritual home for all English men and women - as the Elizabethan Settlement actually had hoped."

This attitude is something that makes Sentamu's presence in York so fascinating. Not only does he break a certain inherited mold, but he also illustrates that the funny old Church of England is committed to upholding its global heritage as a mission-sending and -receiving church, and as part of the worldwide Communion. John Sentamu is an intelligent and highly able man, so it would be patronizing and diminishing to suggest that his appointment is symbolic. There is no doubt he is there because of grace and ability, but having said that it is highly significant that an African now presides over the second province of the Mother Church.

The Archbishop-elect is likely to become familiar with the angst of the Anglican province in North America, as he is a member of the Panel of Reference established to examine issues related to alternative episcopal oversight in the USA. While I suspect that he will be fair in that position, I also suspect that as a straight-talker with a passion for human dignity, he will not necessarily be a comfort to either side of this divisive issue.

What John Sentamu really seems to be energized by is evangelism, and that has me jumping up and down and throwing my hat in the air. I met him at a Communion-wide evangelism conference, and he was a member of the steering group for the Decade of Evangelism, as well as being a board member of the Archbishops' Springboard initiative for evangelism. Unless we take seriously the business of conversion then we may as well surrender the church to every force in this troubled world, so this is the kind of leadership that is to be applauded.

One man in his fifties is unlikely to be able make a colossal difference in 10-15 years, unless he is someone like John Paul II, but I suspect that the vision and passion of John Sentamu can do something significant to change the trajectory of the Church of England, and this will be a blessing to all of Anglicanism. The tragedy is, having read the recent vacuous statement of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and seen the unrepresentative melange of people he has taken with him to address the Anglican Consultative Council, that we totally lack such imaginative and Gospel-driven leadership in the USA.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Feeding the Imagination

This is the time of the year when I tend to add signficant amounts of fiction to my diet of reading, because it is at the end of a busy program schedule that I realize that my imagination is starved and needs reawakening. Pastoral ministry is a vocation that demands creativity from its practitioners, but most of us do not either cultivate it or even exercise it because we have sapped our imaginations of all their content and energy. Remember the great scientists like Einstein credit their imagations for their discoveries, just as much as their research.

I don't get a chance to listen to a lot of my colleagues' preaching these days, but one observation of what I hear now (and what I have heard in the past) is how ho-hum it often is. Not only is preaching usually poorly prepared with Scripture used in a vacuous or wooden manner, but it is also unimaginative, and therefore does not engage the heart and the mind. My own fiercest critic, my wife, knows when my batteries are beginning to run down because my preaching starts to become bland and colorless. I would have to say that as far as I am concerned, yesterday's preaching fitted into that category, reminding me that the time is here for refreshment.

It really doesn't matter what novels you pick up and read, as long as they engage you and feed you. Right now I am reading quite a long recently-published book that is both fascinating and wryly funny called "The Time Traveler's Wife," by Audrey Niffenagger. I have been fascinated for a long time by stories and ideas that seek to find their way around our captivity to the sequentiality of time. Here is one about a guy who has this chronological instability disorder and goes to and fro between past and present, during which time he becomes a friend during her childhood of the woman he will marry and, as it were, helps to raise her!

I have never been much into westerns or mysteries, but I love good science fiction, as well as books that explore characters and their identities. From time to time I will pick up a classic like a Jane Austen or something like that, but always what I am looking for is something that will engage me, entertain me, enrich me, and nourish that part of me that gets drained dry by the daily round and the common task. Perhaps in the summer I will read 10-12 novels, whereas for all the rest of the year the total might be half that number.

Novel-reading has so many benefits. Firstly, it introduces us into another's universe -- the way they think, what they believe, how they react to changing circumstances, and so forth. When we can see the world through someone else's eyes, then we are usually given fascinating raw materials for health and growth. Secondly, it allows our mind to escape into a world that is not ours. For example, I always find it particularly fascinating, as at the moment, to read materials written by women because the female perception of reality is significantly and often subtly different from the male. I would confess, however, that 75% of what I read is usually written by men.

A third good reason to read novels is that they are often a fine window into the mindset and worldview of the age in which they are written, and the way in which authors looks out on all that is around them -- whether they are setting the book in the present, the past, or the future. The Canadian, Robert J. Sawyer, is one of my favorite science fiction writers, who seems to have a pretty good grasp on the science of what he is writing about. He is someone who has opened my eyes to the implications of some of the things being explored in labs and research facilities today, as well as the yearning for the eternal that haunts postmodernity.

I have also developed a habit of reading the books upon which movies I might have seen are based. A few weeks ago I watched "Somewhere in Time," a movie that is something of a minor cult classic starring Christopher Reeve before his riding accident. It is a time traveler story with a twist, but on the screen is rather one-dimensional. So, I got hold of the book on which it was based, written 35 years ago by Richard Matheson. Reading the book was like being at that moment where Dorothy enters Oz and everything goes from black and white to color!

Some time in the winter, on one of the Encore channels we get with our satellite package, I saw the movie "Eniga," based on Robert Harris's book set at Bletchley Park, England, in the Second World War, and built around the encoding an encryption made possible by the Enigma machine the Germans used. The movie wasn't bad, but the book was a thousand times better. The characters had greater depth, and the interplay between them was so much richer.

I try each year to read a balanced diet -- plenty of theology, philosophy, and church history, but coupled with it is some stuff on management, a lot of history and biography, as well as some of the latest stuff that comes out on trends and the life of the church. I have to say that a lot of church-related how-to books I find pretty boring -- and only once in the while are they constructive and creative. However, I do read them (or scan them).

The preacher is called to be faithful to Scripture, and what God reveals of himself within it. But being sound does not mean being indigestible and unengaging. Novel-reading shines new light into our imaginations, but it also gives us models of ways in which we can use the English language. It helps us to see the world from a different viewpoint, one that we can then chew on and mull over in those spare moments we have driving the car, walking the dog, working out, or sitting with a cold drink on a beach staring into space.

So, if you are a physician of souls let me encourage you this summer to take on board some novels.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Lessons from the European Worm Turning

The other Sunday I was desperate to find news of the outcome of the referendum on the European Union constitution in France. Apart from the Internet, all news outlets on this side of the Atlantic did not seem to know that a world existed outside these United States -- and what news was being reported was who won what golf tournament.

I was eager to know if the French had done what I had suspected they would do, and turn down this thoroughly indigestible constitution that their political masters in Brussels and Paris were foisting on them. It was a resounding "Non!" Three days later the Dutch outdid the French with 62% of them turning their thumbs down to something that might have further integrated Europe, and made it a significant political counter-weight to the USA and the rising of China.

Since then there has been a welter of analysis of what happened. Clearly, there were significant French and Dutch issues, particularly discontent with their governments that led to this rejection by two of the original members of what was then known as the Common Market. Their leaders coaxed and cajoled them not to do what they were obviously going to do, but they refused to listen. It was clear to everyone that they were rejecting their national political elites, as well as the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.

But something else was going on. There was a religous component to this, particularly in Holland where there have been massive in-migrations of Muslims in recent years. Now the folks who had given them this constitution, were talking to Turkey about joining the EU, which would further flood millions of Muslims into the European market place. The Dutch response was "Nee."

It is perhaps too early to say what all the implications are of this. I predict a ton of learned papers in the next year or two dissecting this situation, but maybe, just maybe, Europeans are waking up to the difficulties facing them in the years ahead if they continue to wind down their population creating a vacuum for millions of poor Muslims to come looking for work.

But this religious component is only part of an even bigger picture that we should look at -- for at the root of this is the issue of identity. One of the reasons the French rejected this constitution was that they did not like what they believed was too much Anglo-Saxon liberal market talk in it. Translated this means the French want to do things their way, much as the British want to do things their way, and the Italians have no desire to lose their Italian identity.

It is hardly surprising that there are Dutch and Italian voices who are now saying that they want their own currencies back and to abandon the Euro, reclaiming one of the distinctives of their national identity that was lost. The British, some of the most recalcitrant Europeans, have already breathed a huge sigh of relief, and have abandoned the notion of a referendum to confirm the constitution, and I suspect the Danes and others will follow suit.

Identity is something vital, and when it is attacked, from deep down inside comes the growl that affirms who I truly am. I know this from personal experience. In terms of nationality, I am a citizen of the USA. But that is more a legal reality than an issue of identity, for at heart I shall always remain not so much British as English -- and I make no effort to hide it. With distinctions between the various nationalities in Europe being blurred, folks are kicking back and claiming their true identity, beginning with nationality.

Identity is a huge issue in the 21st Century, and I believe it is one of the great channels along which we can take the gospel into people's hearts and lives. Consuming goods and services, the crass western approach to affirming identity, is no longer enough. The rise of the New Age and the other plethora of spiritual alternatives is evidence of this.

The young emergent Christians who are hungry for roots are tapping into this search for identity and a sense of belonging. They see their Christian identity as being more long-lasting and profound than anything anything nativist North American Christianity can come up with.

While I recognize that some who are leaving the wreck that is the Episcopal Church for Rome do so for reasons of theological conviction, I wonder whether there is within their transfer a sense of affiliating with a tradition that still seems committed to its identity more or less intact, when we have squandered ours in favor of something that we make up as we go along?

For a long time I have thought that enabling people to grasp their true identity is going to be very important. My hope is that we will help them form their identity in Christ, but also that an emergent faithful Anglicanism will be an identity-developing place for them to be.

Monday, June 06, 2005

A Review of Jared Diamond's book, "Collapse"

"Collapse -- How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" by Jared Diamond
(New York: Viking, 2005) US$29.95 ($19.77

Review by Richard Kew

I bought Jared Diamond's latest book because, as you know, I am a bit of an eco-nut, but didn't get from it what I had expected. Diamond is a gifted polymath who teaches geography at UCLA, has won the Pulitzer Prize, and seems to know everything about the world. He is also one of those talented individuals who can gather a huge quantity of information and organize it in a manner that is digestible to ordinary mortals like you and me.

I was intrigued that someone had even thought that societies might succeed and societies might fail, and I have been gradually working through this 515-page piece for several months now. I have found myself chewing on a host of fascinating chunks of information about everything from the Norse settlement of Iceland and Greenland, to the problems of mining in Montana, to the felling of trees on Easter Island, and the perillous delicacy of the Australian ecosystem, and the effect of current agricultural practices and mining upon it.

What Diamond does is provide a huge array of case studies of societies that have gotten themselves into trouble and have either declined precipitously or have disappeared altogether. He has concentrated on how they have used and abused their environment. This is not a book written by a tree-hugger on a crusade, but a meticulous scholar who wants us to consider what there is to learn from failing societies, as we put unprecedented strains on our own ecosystem at a time when the fabric of the whole world is increasingly interwoven.

However he opens with a caveat that "we shouldn't be so naive as to think that study of the past will yield simple solutions, directly transferable to our societies today. We differ from past societies in some respects that put us at lower risk than them... we also differ from past societies in some respects that put us at greater risk than them..." (Page 8). Yet it is wise to understand past collapses because we are prone to do the same kind of things, and follow the same kind of ideas that contributed to the demise of earlier peoples.

I said as I launched into this review that I did not get from this book what I had expected. I went looking for further insights into my understanding of the environment, and came away with a much better understanding of the nature of decision-making. These societies got into trouble because they were situated within fragile ecosystems, and over long or short periods there were significant failures in group decison-making with the result that problems accumulated until they were insurmountable.

It was as I pondered his insights into decison-making while I mowed my lawn on Saturday afternoon, that I realized that the continuous thread running through the last thirty years of my ministry has been that I have worked in fragile church or church-related ecosystems. My "speciality," if there is such a thing, has been start-up and clean-up. In the one you are working with nothing to make something, and with the other you are working with the outcome of an accumulation of failures in and effort to turn around what surely is (or looks like becoming) a disaster before it gives up the ghost completely.

Unlike a significant proportion of other Anglican clergy I have not spent much of my ministry living in a world of established budgets, buildings that are paid for or have been there for generations, and in some cases endowment monies that pay well and help cushion blows. My ministry has been in successive circumstances to define what the task is that needs to be done, then to chart a course to get there. This process requires gathering and weighing information and the careful making of decisions. It also requires the willingness to take calculated risks with the realization that if we make too many wrong moves then the whole enterprise could be in jeopardy.

In the sort of work I have done there have been very few safety nets. Money has always been in short supply, and we have been very much at the mercy of the external "climate." I recognize that the sort of ministry I have had has been very much the exception in the last 30-40 years, but in these present unsettled times, and with the secularization, moral, and spiritual ferment taking place in society, in the days ahead this is going to be very much the norm. Thus Diamond has a lot to say to us.

One of the points that shines clearly from the pages of Diamond's book is that the more fragile the ecosystem in which a society is established, the more dependent it is on appropriate decision-making. Diamond recognizes that there are four basic areas in which decision-making fails:

* The failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives.
* The failure to perceive a problem when it has arrived.
* That having become aware of the problem, the failure to try and solve it.
* That they might set out to solve the problem -- but because of inadequate information, wrong approaches, etc., they fail.

A classic example of failure to anticipate was the introduction of rabbits and foxes by British settlers in Australia. "These rate as two of the most disasterous examples of impacts of alien species on an environment to which they are not native" (page 421), and Diamond spends a number of pages spelling out the expense to environment and in dollars to the Australian people of these critters within such a dry and fragile setting as that continent.

In the category of failure to perceive a problem when it has arrived, Diamond comes up with two concepts that are particularly helpful. One is what he describes as "creeping normalcy" and the other is "landscape amnesia." The first is slow trends that get missed because they are concealed within noisy fluctuations so that year-to-year change is so gradual that we miss what actually is going on.

"Landscape amnesia" is illustrated by his experience of spending summers in the Big Hole Basin in Montana as a teenager and remembering the backdrop of glaciers and snowfields on the tops of the surrounding mountains. He returned 42 years later and that white crown of snow and ice was gone. Those who had lived there had been so conditioned by this gradual dwindling of the summer snow that they hardly noticed it, but not someone who had been away for more than four decades. Here was more evidence of global warming.

Then there are a whole variety of ways in which problems are not dealt with when they are perceived, from the sense that someone is crying "Wolf!" to a crowd psychology that blinds people to realities, and then to outright psychological denial. Added to this is delay and footdragging. Take the example of Dusky Seaside Sparrow in Florida, a species whose habitat dwindled to such an extent that in the 1980s it faced extinction. By buying the remaining habitat the US Fish and Wildlife Service could have guaranteed it continuity and developed a breeding program. By the time the political dickering was over, it was too late, so a species was lost forever and ecological diversity further threatened.

Then, "Throughout recorded history, actions or inactions by self-absorbed kinds, chiefs, and politicians have been a regular cause of society collapse... As (Barbara) Tuchman put it succinctly, 'Chielf among the forces affecting political folloy is lust for power, named by Tacitus as "the most flagrant of all passions."'" (Page 431).

A couple of pages later Diamond suggests that "Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change... Societies and individuals that succeed may be those that have the courage to take those difficult decisions, and that have the luck to win their gamples" (Page 433-434).

Yet even if a society or culture has "anticipated, perceived, or tried to solve a problem, it may still fail for obvious possible reasons: the problem may be beyond our present capacity to solve, a solution may exist but be prohibitatively expensive, or our efforts may be too little and too late" (Page 436).

I have merely hop, skipped, and jumped around some of the most helpful material I have read for a long time about decision-making, because of lack of space. However, it does not require the brains of a rocket scientist to transfer what Diamond is teaching about the environment into the life of a congregation, a Christian organization, a seminary, a new ministry, a failing parish, a new mission, or a denomination that is in trouble. I have found myself as a result of reading Diamond looking back on the various successes and failures of my ministry and asking what part decision-making contributed to the outcomes.

If you are up for some meaty summer reading outside the realm of church-related subjects, then "Collapse" by Jared Diamond is a good buy. I noticed yesterday that it is still on the New York Times Best Seller list for Non-Fiction.