Friday Fun with Ikea and God

After a bit of an absence, Friday Fun is back and with it, an eclectic range of weird and wonderful things to make the last working day of the week a brighter place.

To start, here’s the obligatory London Transport reference. Some clever person has put together an animation that allows you to switch between the London Underground map of today; what it looks like in ‘real’ geography; and Beck’s original design. You can happily spend several minutes clicking between the three.

Real underground map

The reason so many people are obsessed with this map is simply because it’s a fabulous piece of design. It’s simple, colourful, clear and helps you get where you need to go. Talking of simple and lovely design, I’ve recently discovered The Minimum Bible – who have designed a cover for each of the books of the Bible, both Old and New. It’s clever stuff, after all, what should the cover of the book in which God created the world look like? Or one that’s about the end of days?

GenesisRevelationLove this symmetry between Genesis & Revelation. 

Talking of diagrams and God, may many blessings fall upon the clever and funny people at Theologygrams! Handy venn diagrams, pie charts, and graphs illustrating various theological arguments. Thanks to my many weeks of angst over a 5,000 word exegesis of Galatians earlier this year, this depiction of Paul’s ‘wrath-o-meter’ caused me to chuckle:

galatians

My father, the systematic theologian and Barth fan, will appreciate these:

trinity

washing-line-2

Moving on from theology and on to more sensible, weekend activities – specifically, heading to Ikea and the movies. In fact, why not combine them? Current box office #1 Gravity is a little intense, as is a Saturday or Sunday spent in the environs of Swedish furniture. Thus, some clever person has thought to combine them:

Finally, everyone loves a Friday quiz and what better than a game of Ikea or Death? Is the Scandinavian sounding word an item in the Ikea catalogue or a death metal band? Try your luck… (I scored a fairly respectable 14/20, which owes more to my studious memorisation of Ikea furniture names than my knowledge of obscure and weird looking bands.)

IKEA_or_DEATH_avatar

The Thessalonians & Social Media

Last Friday (the stunningly beautiful day in Westminster), I was at Church House Westminster for a gathering of church types who have some level of experience/expertise in the field of social media. I’m not entirely sure how I managed to find myself within such a group, given that, unlike my neighbour to one side, I’ve not written a PhD on church websites; or have a Twitter following of nearly 34,000 like the person on my left. However, having now been to two of these meetings, I can say that I’m glad to be there and hope that I manage to contribute something of worth.

[At my first meeting, I distinguished myself for seconding a proposed Easter hashtag on the basis that it was a Take That song. I then leapt to the defence of Take That fans everywhere, insisting that it wasn’t just middle aged women who had a thing for Gary Barlow…]

One of my contributions last week was in response to a question on how we, particularly as Christians, can remain authentic in our online presences. Should we have multiple presences? [A question posed by Vicky Beeching last week, in response to which Rosemary Lain-Priestly has blogged brilliantly.] Is it enough to simply tweet platitudes? [Short answer: no.] Does being ‘authentic’ mean sharing every last detail? [In my opinion: definitely not!] How do those of us in positions of responsibility maintain suitable boundaries? Should everything we post online effectively be evangelistic?

Holy Bible FacebookLiking the Bible helps… (Credit.)

It was as part of a conversation on this last question that I got involved, sharing a tiny bit of a sermon I’d preached over a year ago on the Thessalonians and social media. A couple of people asked me if I’d ever blogged it – and I realised I hadn’t. [I preached it 24 hours before flying to Texas, I guess that probably put it out of my mind. That, and I don’t think I’ve ever blogged a sermon!] Part of the sermon was based on some thoughts I’d shared here on digital discipleship, but that was it. So here, for those who asked, are some of my thoughts (only the ones about social media – the rest was on contextual mission!) on 1 Thessalonians 1. Some of it is a direct copy & paste job from the sermon, so it’s tone isn’t quite blog-like, but you should get the idea…

The first letter to the Thessalonians is effectively a progress report from Paul on how the church had developed since his last visit – and it’s a good one. This small group of Christians was already having a massive impact, as verse 8 tells us:

“The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere.”

Paul didn’t need to ask how the Thessalonians were doing, because he was hearing stories about them from all over the place. In verse 7, the word ‘model’ is used, but it could be better translated from the Greek as ‘imprint’, kind of like stamping your seal into melted wax, or embossing something. The Thessalonians weren’t just acting in a certain way, they were impacting upon the people around them – they were imprinting the gospel upon their lives. Which basically, is where the connection with social media comes in.

The Thessalonians had a massive impact upon Christian communities that were forming fairly close to where they were, geographically. It wasn’t too hard for news of their conversion and their faithfulness to spread to Macedonia and Archaia, but bear in mind that the ideas they were sharing – of Christ and the gospel – were still almost brand new and totally alien to the culture in which they lived. Sharing was a risk, but they did it. For the Thessalonians the mission field was nearby provinces, I’d like to suggest that today, for many of us, it’s the online world of social media. The Thessalonians were counter-cultural in the way in which they turned from pagan idols to God, it’s not difficult to see how raising God above society’s idols of today would be counter-cultural in our own society.

In the UK, there are 7 million regular church goers, yet there are 30 million regular users of Facebook. The possibilities of reaching friends, friends of friends and total strangers via share on Facebook, retweets on Twitter and attention grabbing blogposts are almost endless. When you share something on Facebook or Twitter it’s not just your circle of friends who can see it, it can go viral – as we’ve seen when people’s use of social media has gone wrong. Yes, we need to be careful, but this is also a powerful tool that can be used to do a lot of good.

I’ve been thinking about how we can do both our imitating and our modelling in the world of social networking for a little while now. I love social media – I write a blog, I tweet, I love Facebook a little less, but I can deny that it’s incredibly useful to life. But it’s very easy to make your online life a lot more sanitised than your real, offline life. That photo you’ve detagged? The tweet you posted in error and deleted? The erudite blogposts you spend days composing? Again, when I say ‘you’, I obviously mean ‘me’ – I’ve definitely done all of those things.

What followed were the digital discipleship tips I’d already blogged about – the last of which was ‘be inspirational’. It’s that last point which I think particularly relates to Paul’s commendation to the Thessalonians for the way in which they had imitated Christ and the apostles, and how they were now modelling this for others. The Thessalonians shared their news joyfully, inspiring others – how could you do the same?

I really want to challenge you all on this. If you’re not into social media, that’s ok – consider this a challenge to reach outside of your comfort zone. But if you are, then think about how you use it and your interactions with people there. If we are living lives that are incarnational – imitating Christ and the apostles and aiming to imprint the gospel upon others – what does this look like digitally and in the real world?

If we as Christians are being authentic in our social media presences, then the gospel ought to be ringing out of us in all that we do – whether that’s quoting something spiritually inspiring, behaving in a way that bemuses society, or live-tweeting the Great British Bake Off. The point is, present yourself as you really are – don’t have one account for your Christian followers and one where you share your secular interests. You are one, single person, with a wealth of passions – be honest and authentic in all of them!

Mission and Musicals

So, this happened:

Mormon joySummer frizz, right there. (In a moment of vanity I released my hair from its bun for the photo.) 

Rather optimistically, my July bucket list included mention of The Book of Mormon – a musical I’ve tried to see four times in the last couple of months, but as yet, had not managed to. (The soundtrack has been played so many times I’m pretty much word perfect.) The thing is, it’s the most popular musical in the West End. It’s instigated airline pricing (tickets go up in price as demand increases) and you need to book months and months in advance. A while ago, a friend offered me a spare ticket – the catch? Its £95 price tag.

However, it has brought with it from Broadway the tradition of holding a lottery prior to every performance, with the front row up for grabs for the very reasonable price of £20. [Keen readers and friends may remember that only Legally Blonde has done this in the West End. I got lucky with that show on my first attempt.] I’d entered the draw four times previously, to no avail (although the process is a fun one), but on my fifth attempt got lucky – very lucky.

For the uninitiated, The Book of Mormon was the work of the creators of South Park (and in turn, two of my favourite soundtracks – South Park: The Movie and Team America) and the co-writer/composer of Avenue Q. If you know anything about any of those TV programmes/movies/musicals, you’ll begin to understand what the nature of the show is. It is not an advert for the Mormon church, or really, any church that does what’s viewed by the secular world as ‘mission’. Two young Mormon men head out on their two year mission, finding themselves in a Ugandan village where no one cares about God or Mormonism…

The opening number of The Book of Mormon as the opening number at the 2012 Tony Awards

I loved it. The front row didn’t mean an obscured view or neck craning – it meant being so close to the cast that their sweat practically dripped on you. The staging wasn’t quite what I’d assumed from the soundtrack; the plot was slightly different than I’d figured out; the costumes and dancing were awesome; the missionaries were hot… I could go on. I knew (even though I couldn’t see them) that every member of the full house audience was having a whale of a time.

I loved it, and yet at times, I had a strange sense of misgiving. Should a trainee vicar really be enjoying a musical that pokes fun at religion? [Basically, yes. I’ve just written a piece on Threads about this.] What about people I have a lot of respect for who happen to be Mormon – like favourite blogger Courtney – would they be offended that I’d seen it and enjoyed it? [Interestingly, the Mormon church has used it as an opportunity to promote itself. Any interest in Mormons is good interest, apparently, and a campaign to ‘ask a Mormon’ appeared on the escalators of Piccadilly station when the show opened.] Then there was its depiction of Uganda which was inaccurate and stereotypical – shouldn’t the producers have known better? [Probably, but I guess it’s a plot device.]

But I came up with a theory. Yes, the show poked fun at Mormon missionary methods – ringing doorbells and speaking from the same script – but in doing this, it became a fascinating exploration of how to do mission contextually. In many ways, the things the missionaries get up to reminded me of Barbara Kingslover’s The Poisonwood Bible which tells the tale of a missionary family in 1960’s Congo doing things that would make modern day missiologists’ hair stand on end! Adapting to context? I don’t think so! There’s a brilliant scene just after the Elders reach Uganda, where they try to go door to door, ringing doorbells to speak to people – only to discover that Ugandan huts don’t have doorbells.

It’s only when Elder Cunningham begins to adapt the Book of Mormon to the villagers’ concerns that they start to come alongside the Mormons. They are threatened by a local war lord who wants all the women of the village circumcised; people believe sex with virgins will cure AIDS; and they are all threatened by disease – quite reasonably, the Ugandans ask what Joseph Smith has to say about all these things. Of course, FGM and AIDS aren’t mentioned in the scriptures, so Elder Cunningham (who’s a self-confessed fantasist) makes things up so that it does – throwing in some Star Trek and Star Wars references along the way. He lies, but in doing so, is actually beginning to contextualise the gospel he’s trying to share.

Obviously, lying in order to make a message relevant isn’t right and that’s not what I’m suggesting mission ought to be. But, we do know that Jesus would – for example – have spoken out on how to prevent dysentery, had he known how and had it been a major issue in 1st century Palestine. [For all I know, it might have been!] Basically, if we’re to learn one important theological lesson from this musical, it’s that we should approach mission not like clean-cut, try-hard Elder Price, but like short, fat and geeky Elder Cunningham – only with less of the fantastical fusion of scripture with sci-fi. [Oh, and there are always theological lessons to be learnt from musicals, seriously.]

Ultimately, we just need to truly believe…

You *need* to watch this – you’ll laugh, I promise. (Again, from the Tonys, this time in 2011.)

Great theologians of the past, present and future

This past weekend saw the last Vicar Weekend of the academic year and with it, a day of assessed presentations on great theologians for the first years. It was somewhat stressful – how do you condense a mighty mind’s work into a 30 minute presentation and 15 minute discussion? And, more importantly, how do you make it interesting?

Some groups tried food – the Kierkegaard crew brought in Danish pastries, but sadly we weren’t presenting in the same room as them. However, I think our room was even more creative. The day began with ‘Teresa of Avila, This is Your Life…’, complete with nuns, monks and excellent acting and ended with a John Wesley themed Songs of Praise, involving compulsory hymn singing.

But the highlight – without a doubt – was the group presenting Martin Luther. For a start, there was an abundance of monk outfits; then there was a particularly gross Horrible Histories video clip of Luther’s toilet habits [his fascination with poo was news to me, so I definitely learnt something]; an enthusiastic baptism of a doll; a Luther inspired rap video; a spurious rap reference that only two of us appreciated (“I’ve got 95 theses but the pope ain’t one…”); and finally, and most gloriously, a live performance of the Reformation Polka. Obviously, I had to film it:

That guy with the guitar can be seen leading worship at Soul Survivor this summer. 
I can’t guarantee he’ll perform this number though.

And what of our performance? Well, we’d been allocated Barth, possibly the trickiest of all theologians to present in half an hour – and with the college’s Barth specialist marking us. Even my father, a Barth aficionado, says that reading his work is like walking through the forests of the Bavarian mountains – every so often you find a clearing and a beautiful view, but soon afterwards you’re lost in the forest again. We went with a court room setting and put Barth on the witness stand – I’m eternally grateful that my group consisted of me and two enthusiastic, competent actors. I’m also grateful that my Dad went to a Barth symposium with the excitement of a teenage boy at a rock concert and returned home with a Barth t-shirt (and a poster for his study) meaning that I had an excellent costume for my role as ‘super-geek Barth fan’. I’m kind of disappointed that I didn’t get to dress up in a dress though…

That’s Teresa of Avila and Alex the judge watching Alex as Karl Barth…

I could also include our video interview with Karl Barth, but it’s not very exciting (apart from a brilliant papal infallibility joke), so instead I’ll close this post in the same way we closed our presentation:

Barth may have a reputation for being complicated and difficult to understand, but when stripped down to a basic ethos for doing theology, it is as simple as his summary of Church Dogmatics when visiting Princeton in 1962:  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

And here is Barth’s Sunday School memory combined with another great 20th Century theologian, Whitney Houston… 

Friday Fun with Philosophers

Apologies for the lapses on the Friday Fun front – I blame last week’s absence on curate visitations and vicar weekends. However, the later has managed to provide two gems with which to kick off this week’s edition…

As I mentioned on Monday, much of the weekend was spent learning various key theological arguments/ideas and having our minds bent with flying horses and beautiful islands. Much respect was given to the lecturer who taught us Aquinas for beginning and ending with amusing YouTube videos. The first is part of the ‘3 Minute Philosophy’ series, which includes summaries of Kant, Aristotle, Locke and others – including Aquinas. So here’s a short, fun way to have your mind bent on a Friday:

Some people find that the best way of learning information is via the means of song – I think they may have a point, given the quantity of pointless song lyrics I have stored in my brain. Therefore I’m very grateful to the utterly inspired people who had the idea of putting Aquinas’ life and theology to the tune of Banarama’s Venus. Yes, bizarre, but it works. In fact, it worked so well that there’s a whole series of historic events/individuals to the tunes of classic pop songs – check out the History Teachers’ channel. (I’m particularly enthralled by Luther sung to Manic Monday, featuring the lovely Joseph Fiennes.)

That’s about as edifying as it will get this morning.

As it’s February 3rd, we’re hurtling towards that which is possibly one of the most depressing dates in the calendar – February 14th. However, fear not! I have several things that should help you feel warm and squishy inside, regardless of whether anyone is likely to send you a card or flowers. Firstly, a place that is useful on many an occasion: The Nicest Place on the Internet. Ok, so it’s potentially a little bizarre and creepy, but it’s a lovely idea! (I’m not saying what happens when you follow that link – it would spoil it – just go there.) Secondly, possibly the best thing I’ve seen all week – a way of making a hot, bearded man, sing a song that’s all about you! It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing, made all the more amusing by the fact that it’s an apology from a tampon company in the US for discontinuing one of their products. I wish I could save my video from this, but sadly I couldn’t work out how.

If neither of those things sound particularly fun/cheery to you (potentially because you might be male), how about some musical fun to round off the week? First up, is a little piece of brilliance in the form of a Lady Gaga Fugue, which is simply stunning. Secondly, a rare case of me finding a musical gem courtesy of Gizmodo – though it is a version of The Simpsons’ theme tune, which perhaps explains it:

Friday Fun always loves a good multi-tracked YouTube video and this one is quite simply wonderful. It must have taken hours and hours to do. I stand in awe of its brilliance.