Monday, August 28, 2006

"Bend It Like Beckham" -- A Movie Review

Bend It Like Beckham -- A Review by Richard Kew

Say the name Beckham in most circles in the United States are you are met with a blank stare, unless the person you are talking to kept up with the 1990s music scene and remembers, "Wasn't he the guy who married Posh Spice of the erstwhile Spice Girls?" Say the name elsewhere in the world where soccer reigns supreme and there is a certain awe and reverence for the Real Madrid striker, although England fans may turn their noses up a little at the moment because his captaining of the England team did not bring home the World Cup in 2006.

Several years ago there was a sort of Bollywood-come-to-London movie made entitled Bend it like Beckham that has started showing up on various of the movie channels of late in the USA. I suspect it is not being watched by a lot of people, which is a pity because it is a charming little film focusing around the lives of two soccer-crazy teenage girls.

If you have got that far and have just read my last sentence then you are probably wondering if my brain is turning to mush, but I implore you to give me a couple more paragraphs to explain myself.

Set in the West London suburb of Hounslow, this is the tale of two young women who belong to a local women's soccer team, the one from a prosperous blue collar English home and the other from an upwardly mobile Indian background. Of course, Indian girls don't normally don shorts and cleats to kick a ball around a field, but Jessinda (or Jess) slips out of the house behind her parents' backs to indulge in her passion for the beautiful game. And, of course, when it comes to kicking the ball she can bend it into the goal just like David Beckham, who is, quite naturally, her hero. Her best friend, the English girl, is Juliet (or Jules), who has some of the same skills when faced with the delghtful prospect of an open goalmouth.

Yet in a way the story of the two girls and their passion for what the rest of the world calls football is almost incidental to the subplot of the movie, which is the interrelationship two diverse cultural communities living alongside one another in the melting pot that is the sprawling suburbs around London's Heathrow Airport. But this is not another one of those angry multicultural movies, rather it is a delightful insight into the way people of differing backgrounds can relate to one another, as well as the puzzling world of an English kid trying to straddle the world in which she has grown up and mores of the Sikh household in which she is reared.

Directed, produced, and written by Gurinder Chadha, who used to work for the BBC, the movie comes from inside the British Indian community from which we can then look out into the weird world of the English with their strange perceptions and values. Ms Chandha makes creative use of comedy, and clearly has a delightful sense of humor that peeks out from every corner of this movie. On top of that it has a delightful musical score that blends traditional Indian music with Western styles -- I have actually watched it a couple of times just to enjoy the music.

After all sorts of joys and sorrows, a Sikh wedding and fascinating misunderstandings, the two girls win soccer scholarships to the University of California at Santa Clara, and the story ends with them heading through the gate at Heathrow Airport for their new life on the West Coast -- but not without first getting a glimpse of David Beckham walking along an upper hallways with his wife, surrounded by their handlers. The final puzzler is the realization at the very end that Jess has fallen for Joe, the coach of the Hounslow women's team, setting up yet another of those difficult challenges facing Indians living in Britain and trying to hold onto their cultural roots.

Because the movie is such a delight, you come away from it warmed and encouraged about the possibilities and challenges for radically different groups of people to be able to live cheek-by-jowl, and to develop warm and lasting relationships with one another. There is also the message that perhaps soccer can help with all of this. What is a pity is that the only religious piety shown in the movie is that of Jess's superstitiously Sikh mother -- although the way in which she prays is very much like the manner in which so many Christians pray when they bring their shopping list of requests to God.

So, if you get the chance while Bend It Like Beckham cycles through the movie channels, watch and enjoy it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Looking Back and Looking Forward

It is Sunday evening and I am sitting in my favorite chair with a long cold drink beside me. There is gentle music in the background, and my wife has gone to her small group so I have some time on my own. Each year on August 27th I try to take an hour or two to meditate, assess the last twelve months, and prayerfully wonder what the next twelve months will bring forth. This is the last day of my sixty-first year on this planet, tomorrow is my birthday and I begin voyaging into my sixty-second.

I have been doing something like this either on my birthday or the eve of my birthday for many years now. One birthday morning I rose early and climbed a mountain hillside in the rugged heart of Corsica to consider what lay ahead, as I watched the camp of teenagers who I was chaplaining as we trekked across that wilderness gradually awaken and come to life. There were many miles ahead for our blistered feet that day -- but I was only in my mid-twenties at that point and it seemed nothing. Now I'm moving rapidly into senior citizen territory and whereas in the early 1970s the hugest chunk of life stretched out before me, now the developmental tasks before me are somewhat different.

For us as a family the year past has been kind. My younger daughter's marriage was, perhaps, its highlight, but nothing can take away my delight at spending several mornings in the spring with my then not-yet-one-year-old granddaughter perched on my lap. Gone are the days when I could scramble up a rock face like a mountain goat, but I keep myself pretty fit and my mind seems in some ways to be in better shape than ever it was, while family means a huge amount.

It is amazing how time puts realities into perspective. Yes, it is true I am deeply anxious about the state of the church, especially our very own dysfunctional corner of it, but the focus of my concern is moving away from the pitiful fractiousness of ecclesiastical politics to a deepening sense that whatever label we put upon ourselves, we have to a greater or lesser extent missed the point of the Gospel. Would we really prefer to swim around on the surface and be nasty to one another, or are we prepared to consider the depths of discipleship to which we are called, and from which the endless wrangling seems to keep us?

Once sixty-one was considered old, and while today it is possible to pretend that this age is merely an apprenticeship before true eldership, it is impossible to reach this stage in life without giving serious (and persistent) thought to what comes next when this earthly journey ends. During the last year I have watched several friends and contemporaries leave time for eternity, and while I make my plans like everybody else, it is increasingly obvious that I must make all plans in the light of all eternity.

It is from within the context of my consciousness of this that I recognize how we in our time have become so caught up with the challenges of the here that we have overlooked the hope and expectation of the hereafter which puts this life into perspective. When I signed up for service in Christ's Kingdom it was not to endlessly fight over sexuality, but because not only had my life been transformed by Jesus Christ, but by coming as King he promised that we would be partners together in the transformation of the whole of creation - and that is huge.

Pondering the vastness of the Good News, then bickering over the husk of a once-great denomination seems a somewhat pathetic diversion. With so much of eternal and cosmic significance hanging on how I spend the remainder of my life on earth, do I really want to waste my time haggling over the ruins that have been created by what I perceive to be the consistent watering down of the church's message over the last forty, fifty, sixty years or so?

I guess that this has been turning over in the back of my mind as I have made decisions in the last few months that will profoundly influence the rest of my life. Today I said goodbye to the congregation in which I have ministered since early 2002, and next week I will become interim rector of a congregation on the other side of town for a year, as Rosemary and I explore a huge ministry opportunity that has borne down upon us during the last few months, and which could keep us busy for most (and perhaps all) of the rest of our active lives.

We certainly won't be material winners if we follow this course that seems to be opening up, but an eternity-shaped mindset puts material things in far clearer perspective. So, as this year ends for me I look forward to the next year with expectation and a certain degree of anxiety. It is hard to see where the Lord is leading, but what we do know is that he is leading -- and our responsibility is to follow, regardless of cost, for only in that way can we be faithful to the Kingdom into which we have been called.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Reformational Times Require Rational Debate

What passes for debate in these tragic times is a sorry business. Indeed, if my experience of the last months and years is anything to go by, there is almost nothing going on that could be called a meeting of minds as we wrestle with substantial ideas and their inevitable consequences. There are, no doubt, many reasons for this, among them the reality that we live in a polarized culture where screaming at one another without listening to what the other side of an argument (or a worldview) is saying is now normative. To a greater or lesser extent, it sometimes seems, Jerry Springer's approach to a meeting of minds has won.

Just listen to the puerile contentiousness that passes for political dialogue in the secular arena, for abundant evidence of this. We no longer are prepared to cut our minds on one another, testing ideas for their veracity and ultimate acceptance, instead we cling tenaciously to our position and seek a strategy and the resources to impose it on the whole. This means that debate of crucial notions is essentially stillborn, and surrenders to the task of gaining power and influence so that our notions, whether true, false, or somewhere in between, win the day.

The outcome of such a mentality is that groups within the culture or institutions that are part of that culture bristle at one another from behind their heavily defended positions, exchanging blows, insults, or soundbites, but never attempting to get inside the head of the other in order to discover whether any of their ideas are good, or the manner in which they are flawed. The fact is that we have all fallen in love with the prejucides and preconceptions that we have come to treasure, and woe betide if anyone comes up with solid evidence that questions or deflates our illusions. While I do not see the present generation able to reach beyond these polarizations, I sincerely hope and pray that the rising generations finds a creative way beyond this for if they do not, we are all in trouble.

Within this environment is not only an unwillingness and inability to hear and listen to the other, but more worrying still, an absence of the capacity to understand the basic principles of intellectual engagement. Whether these have been abandoned, forgotten, or never taught, is hard to tell, possibly a mixture of all three, but their absence intensifies our problems. In western culture down through the centuries, building upon the philosophical and rhetorical insights that have come down from antiquity, there has been an engagement of minds that has borne rich fruit. In our present climate this does not (and possibly cannot) happen.

I have noticed increasingly when I try to engage in debate with others over the issues that have divided the church, seldom do I receive a response that actually answers questions I have raised or points at issue that I have drawn attention to. Now I understand the game of diversion in discussion or argument because I have done it myself, but it appears that much of the responses I receive at the moment are more diversion than actually answering what I have put on the table for discussion. Sometimes I wonder if my opponent knows how to answer me.

In addition, as I have stated so many times before, the basic principles of reason and elementary logic are nowhere to be seen in the discussion that is rending the church, and while both sides of the divide are guilty of such abandonment, it does seem that reason and logical process are a total mystery to those on the reappraising side of the ethical and ecclesiastical equation.

The outcome is that conjecture is presented as fact, and objections to what then is perceived to be "fact" are brushed impatiently aside. When, as is sometimes the case, I press the issue the person with whom I am in discussion flies off at a tangent with a whole trail of red herrings that have little or nothing to do with the item in hand.

This is often where story is brought in to make the point the other person thinks they are pressing, believing that story is the trump card up their sleeve. In wider forums where the basic principles of discussion and argument seem lost forever story is the trump, but, for example, it never seems to cross anyone's mind that it is irrational and illogical to argue from the particular to the general. Special cases are neither now nor ever have been a good basis governing principles.

All of this frustrates because eventually it seems as if we are wrestling with an eel rather than attempting to explore together the realities and how the People of God should respond to those realities in a manner that is worthy of their calling. We are, I believe, at a reformational moment in the development of western Christianity, and it could well be that if we are determined to wallow in this intellectual and spiritual mudbath which lacks any hope of discovering clarity, the benefits of this moment will be lost.

The time is well past, I believe, for all engaged in the discussion first to know the facts, and this means attempting to master the viewpoint and mindset of those with whom we disagree. Woefully, neither side seems willing to do this. The second is to be prepared to grasp, understand, and use the basic principles of rational debate, which means learning a little fundamental logic. The third is to begin to find ways of respecting those with whom we disagree, because a genuine interchange of ideas cannot take place without decency, civility, and respect. The fourth is to be willing to listen to what is being said by our adversary and respond to what they are saying rather than resorting to personal inuendo, diversionary tactics, or story as trump card rather than illustration.

While there is more to careful conversation and debate than this, just to put these simple rules in place would make a tremendous difference.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Something About Rowan Williams

When Rowan Williams, then Bishop of Monmouth and Archbishop of Wales, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury I was among those who were profoundly disappointed. I confess that I did not know much about the man, but his arrival in the mother diocese of Anglicanism was about as bad news to me as the election of his American counterpart had been in 1997. I wondered what now stood between our worldwide church and the deluge!

In the years since he ascended Augustine's chair, I have had time to reassess this man, hear him speak, correspond with him, spend time alone with him, read some of the things he has written, and discover that I had badly misjudged him. This is not to say that I would dot ever "i" that Rowan does, nor would I cross every "t," but I find him to be as fascinating and holy a man who bestrides the Christian scene as has been there for a long time.

One of the lessons I have had to relearn as I have begun to get to know the Archbishop of Canterbury is that like so many other evangelicals I am prone to rush to judgment on the basis of what I perceive to be a person's ideology, rather than allowing a person's fruit to mark them out. Rowan Williams is a godly man whose life bears of the traces of the kind of fruit that I would long to see in my own life. He is a humble, faithful, gentle man, whose self-effacing personality belies a gargantuan intellect and a spiritual shrewdness.

The amazing thing about this individual is that, like his friend and colleague, Tom Wright, he has read and digested everything. In his early ministry he taught in a couple of English seminaries, and while still in his twenties one of his senior colleagues pointed out that Rowan could readily have taught every subject on the curriculum -- with the exception of liturgics! He taught theology on the faculty of Cambridge while being unpaid assistant in an unfashionable working-class parish, before becoming Lady Margaret Professor of Theology at Oxford at the ripe old age of 32.

He is married to a bishop's daughter, who is no mean theologian herself, and the joy of his life are his daughter and son, born to the couple after a series of miscarriages. While his writing can often be turgid, to say the least, he has a reputation for preaching wonderful children's sermons. As Rudyard Kipling put it, he can talk with crowds and not lose his virtue, and walk with kings without losing the common touch. The day I saw him at Lambeth Palace in May, our lunch date was slotted between a British cabinet minister and the production of video resources in which he was to "star." Despite such a hectic schedule, as we ate our sandwiches and chatted he seemed able to eliminate from his mind the other concerns that pressed in upon him.

Every contact I have had with Dr. Williams has always been affirming, even when he has been nudging me to rethink an idea, or pressing me to see that there are other viewpoints than my own. One of the problems that those of us who are firmly part of one particular ecclesial tradition have is that we tend to interpret a person through the limited grid of our own presuppositions. While it is clear that the Archbishop comes out of an Anglo-Catholic stable, I would say that he is one of the few people I know who really does stand outside and above the various competing streams of tradition in the church.

The earlier error I made about Archbishop Williams was that my perception was so colored by what I thought was his mind on human sexuality that I was not able to hear anything else. Yet while he continues to maintain an open mind on items which I believe Scripture and the catholic faith to be more clear, he is more a communitarian than a individualist, and is not going to step outside the understanding of the Anglican Communion on maleness, femaleness, marriage, and human sexual relations. However, this does not preventing him like many an academic to give theoretical consideration to notions that are on the periphery.

I first heard Rowan Williams speak in September 2003, when he opened the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in England. There was a touch of bellicose distrust in the crowd of several thousand who greeted him in Blackpool, but far from being intimidated he spoke briefly and to the point, unselfconsciously holy in the message that he brought. He spoke with clarity and a conviction that, in effect, asked evangelicals to share their own particular strengths and giftedness with the church. Williams is enthusiastic about Alpha, for example, and his wife, Jane, teaches in the theology school that has been set up by Holy Trinity, Brompton.

There is in the Archbishop's theology a deep trinitarian instinct, and comprehension of the redemptive and transformatory work of the Cross and Resurrection. Raised in Welsh nonconformity it was as he was entering adolescence that he discovered the local Church in Wales parish, where he was nurtured by a gifted priest whose door seemed always open to him. A brilliant degree in theology at Cambridge was followed by a DPhil from Oxford, but during this time Williams was considering what his life's vocation might be -- and the setting in which he should exercise it.

His trinitarian bias (and straggly beard!) demonstrates how drawn he was to Orthodoxy, a particular Russian theologian being the subject of his doctoral work, before settling back into the tradition in which he had thrived. Yet what has enriched his Anglicanism has been a profound appreciation for the spirituality and theological discipline of Orthodoxy. He has written movingly about the place of icons in the Christian's relationship with God, as well as seeking to understand the nature of our own discipleship and spiritual growth as invitees into the community of the Godhead that is the Holy Trinity.

The reason I think many misunderstand, (some deliberately), Rowan Williams is that as with almost every individual of huge intellect, his approach is more nuanced than most of us properly appreciate. This is not that he deliberately sets out to be fuzzy or inconclusive, but that he sees facets of the panorama that most of us tend to overlook. I, for one, am grateful that this is so for a lesser leader would perhaps have had trouble guiding us through the complexities of this present quagmire.

Rowan Williams is a man not only of significant spirituality, but of genuine sensitivity. He confessed to me that while there are encouraging signs in the life of the Church of England, it is the Communion that weighs heavily upon him, keeping him awake at night. His task is hardly enviable, yet he is determined to keep all the parties talking to one another as long as possible, although as far as he is concerned the content of the Windsor Report can neither be dodged or disposed of. He longs to hold the Communion together, but recognizes that this is an uphill battle.

Just as I misunderstood Rowan Williams because I wanted to read him through my own color of glasses, I would suggest that others at the more liberal end of the spectrum have misunderstood him because they have sought to read him through their own particular set of lenses. The point really is that he cannot be so readily pinned down by anyone whose viewpoint is governed by a particular agenda.

Once in a while you meet someone who you really want to know better, moving beyond acquaintanceship to something more significant. That is how I have come to feel about the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. I know that such a relationship would be challenging, and given our differences of station, as it were, I don't know whether it will ever be possible, but at the very least I can make this man who is in the bullseye of the Anglican Communion and its worldwide mission, the subject of my prayers and the object of my respect and admiration.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Cuckoo Theology

I am not a fanatical birder, but have spent most of my life watching birds, enjoying them, and learning their habits. The other evening as cliques of swallows swooped and dived over me as I took our dog on his evening walk around the neighboring field, I realized that they will soon be gathering on the power lines and beginning their journey southward to warmer climes. Thoughts of their migration got me thinking about the Cuckoo, a bird that is almost a national institution in Britain, the first of which will already have started for the warmer south.

The Cuckoo is Britain's only parasitic bird. It arrives in April from its wintering grounds in North Africa, and it is the male bird's cry of "cuckoo" that is so distinctive and is said to be the sign that spring has begun. Once a breeding pair have established a territory, the female will scout out the other species of bird that are nesting there and when there is a clutch of eggs in a nest she will come along, remove one of them, and replace it with one of her own that mimics in color and size the eggs that are already there. She will do this with as many as a
dozen nests in her territory.

Eventually, the young cuckoo hatches, usually a little ahead of the rest of the brood, turfs the natural youngsters out of the nest, and then is raised to adulthood by the sparrow, warbler, linnet, or whatever it is that is the host bird. Cuckoo fledglings are not small creatures and grow fast, so it is not unusual for the smaller host parents to be standing on the baby Cuckoo's back to stuff its mouth with worms, grubs, and whatever else they find to feed it.

The North American equivalents of Cuckoos are Cowbirds and Grackles, and there are more than seventy other species of parasitic birds around the world who get up to the same kind of tricks, with their own variants on the theme. It is an unfortunate bird, indeed, that ends up being the host to a Cuckoo, Cowbird, or Grackle, because that is the end of that breeding pair's ability to advance its own gene line that particular season, and their energies will go into nurturing this foster child that
is foisted upon them, and who has happily destroyed their own young.

It has seemed to me for a while now that as you look at the history of the church, and its efforts to make known the apostolic faith down through the centuries, there have been major episodes when what I will describe as a Cuckoo Theology has, somehow, landed in the nest and caused great difficulties. Gnosticism, Arianism, the aridity of Rationalism, and various other -isms, have played a significant role in elbowing their way to center stage and intimidating or even seeking to destroy the legitimate offspring.

I believe we live at just such a time today. The deconstructionist theologies that are now prevailing in so many Christian settings, and which are the source of fragmentation in the Episcopal Church, are, as far as I can see, Cuckoo Theologies. They have been laid in the nest of the churches, have grown fat and strong on the generosity that has been shown to them, and are now in the process of levering out the legitimate apostolically-driven offspring.

While the offending Cuckoo Theologies have various flavorings, at their heart seem to lie a surrender to the incipient relativism of the culture, and a determination to think of the church in terms of rights rather than grace. It is the cry about rights that seems to have been one of the most persistent in the thirty years that I have ministered in the Episcopal Church. We have been asked, or so it seems, to be sensitive to the rights of every group that perceives itself not to have been given a fair deal -- and sometimes this has been necessary and true. But ultimately this gets taken to unacceptable extremes.

Bishop Tom Wright comments when writing about Paul and rights in 1 Corinthians 8, "But, in any case, talking about 'rights' as a way of making the point has its own problems. It can be a way of standing up for the weak; but it can also be a way of asserting all kinds of other things about people being independent, being able to do what they like or want in every sphere of life... in fact, having the 'right' to be arrogant, selfish, greedy or whatever" (Tom Wright. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians page 106). It seems to me that we have been seeing a lot of this, but in 1 Corinthians Paul is asking us to think seriously about sitting much looser to our so-called rights.

During the last three decades I have watched as groups claiming victimization have come cap in hand pleading for a place at the table. However, once at the table like the cuckoo and its fellow-nestlings, they have set about elbowing the rest of us out of the way. I remember how shaken I was when one particularly radical bishop made it very clear in something she wrote that if the likes of me did not like what was
going on in the church to which I belong then I should leave and go somewhere else.

Yet this particular bishop's pronouncement was only part of a continuum that I have observed or been on the receiving end of during the last three decades. At the very first clergy conference I attended in October 1976 I was rounded upon by a group of priests, none of whom I had ever met before, who told me to go back to where I came from -- not because of my nationality, but because they found my theology offensive. Similar kinds of slights have followed me through most of the rest of my ministry in the USA, and they usually come from those whose belief system has been somewhat eccentric when compared to apostolic Christianity as understood by the broad mainstream of world Anglicanism.

The question is how do faithful Anglicans counter this? If the recent General Convention is anything to go by, Cuckoo Theology now thinks it has cleared the nest of challenges to its predominance and is now ready to push its agenda to their logical conclusions. As tragic as such a mentality is, I find myself thinking in the long term and I also know that in order to survive Cuckoo Theologies need a host upon which they can foist themselves -- when that host is gone, then their very survival is at stake.

The English Cuckoo would have no future if there were not these other trusting nesting birds on whom they could palm off the tedious business of raising their offspring. The truth is that if mainstream Anglicans are thrust from ECUSA (or whatever we are now calling it), then so-called progressives, radicals, or whatever, are going to find that they have actually done damage to themselves that could well be terminal. I sense this will be discovered sooner rather than later.

The task, therefore, of faithful people is to be just that -- faithful. I suspect that reconfiguration is going to be a significant part of that, painful and difficult as it will be. Meanwhile, in ECUSA there will remain a small minority, a remnant, (probably much despised) and from that remnant new life is likely to spring. How that remnant works with those Anglicans in the USA who are now outside ECUSA, I do not know, but some kind of networked reality will emerge out of the trial
and error of the moment.

Meanwhile, we have a lot of hard theological work to do. Knee jerk reactions and heroic acts of defiance are hardly likely to bear the fruit that we expect them to. Yet, if church history is anything to go by, God stands by those who bear witness to apostolic truth. Athanasius is a prime example of just such an individual, and it is to this kind of witness that I cling at times like this.

I find myself thinking of those host pairs of birds who find themselves with a Cuckoo in the nest, for they don't give up. Instead, they are back again next year and this time are likely to rear a brood of babies that are very much part of their gene stream.