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Mediocrity and the Death of Imagination

When we think of the word mediocrity it easily conjures other words in our minds too…

Dull, boring, banal, unimaginative, humdrum. Mediocrity speaks of thoughtlessness, of expediency, ‘necessary evils’ compromised ethics, maybe even bureaucracy?

The poet, the artist, the rebel, the dreamer within us wants to resist mediocrity yet we also (slowly) come to realise that mediocrity is part of the picture. The human condition has its share of highs, lows, passions and sufferings, and residing somewhere in the middle.. the mediocre; the long commute to work, the financial struggle to make ends meet, the moments of utter boredom and tedium, call-centre frustrations, and the challenges of illness or grief.

Within dull blandness, (and maybe because of it), a more sinister seed of totalitarian is may be planted. In the horrific stories of genocide, such as the Stalinist purges, Nazi death camps and the SL21 Execution Centre of Cambodia, are symptoms of a lack of imagination, compassion and ultimately boredom. Violence, it appears can come from the most mediocre places; In these horrific histories we see over and over the banality, the mechanisation, the industrialisation of death, destruction, and terror.. we might think of climate change here too. The suffering bought upon individuals is all too real; families traumatised; victims forever changed. But the process of destruction is often banal, often mediocre. This is the perverse imagination of power; destroying human imagination destroys people and destroys reverence – it numbs people, it is truly an existential threat.

If this idea of mediocrity is about banality, crushing imagination, and disposing of inconvenience. We may ask once more, ‘why was Jesus killed on Good Friday? Did Pilate have Jesus killed through passion, anger or rage; or was it simply a mundane political expediency, (a trouble-maker, a rabble-rouser, a pretender to the throne?
Note for example the ‘satire’ of riding a donkey triumphantly through a small gate into Jerusalem, when Pilate would have – probably only recently – done something grand on a white Stallion trumpets and flags and high pomp through the main gates. Would that imaginative, challenging and usurping satire have gone unnoticed?

At that seems to be Jesus all over; as he walked and talked, laughed and challenged, he freed the human imagination. To this day he sets our thoughts on new possibilities. opens up a world of wonder.. announces/evokes/alludes to the arrival of God’s kingdom. Like the disciples on Palm Sunday, we are asked ‘do we dare see this holy imagination?’  and if we cannot will even the stones see it?

Totalitarian regimes still to this day oppress the artists, musicians, comedians, poets and writers first; those who conjure new worlds, these are the tricksters the un-tameable; and this might be a way to think about the crushing weight brought against this beguiling Jewish teacher from Nazareth.

“The Christ that emerges from Mark, tramping through the haphazard events of His life, had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist. Christ spoke to me through His isolation, through the burden of His death, through His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow. Christ, it seemed to me was the victim of humanity’s lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity”. Nick Cave.

From this perspective it makes perfect sense for Jesus to be executed… who needs this kind of stirring of the imagination. And if that was so then, is it still the same today? Who wants to listen to climate change protesters, or women’s rights campaigners, who wants to see their privilege and power toppled? Who wants the status-quo to be upset? ‘Evil is banal’ wrote Hannah Arendt in her appraisal of the Nazi occupation.

And so what is the cross if not the final subversion? A resistance to numbness, a final unforeseeable act of the imagination, ‘a deeper magic before the dawn of time’ CS Lewis says…the old magic is powerful, but not as powerful as the deeper, holy magic of love. The cross resists power – it overcomes with love, solidarity, it speaks of a hope beyond hope.

And for us….? Where do we go with this?

Our lent film series was all about people’s dealings with mediocrity. Sometimes it was explicitly shown, like Lady Bird’s teenage angst and naive desire to leave a stifling home-town and to ’live through something’. More often the theme of mediocrity was subtle because mediocrity is ‘our world’; we all have to deal with the mediocre, the mundane, the humdrum. Many of the characters we met existed on the fringes of mediocrity, trying to resist, or at least compromise with it. They showed that something about imagination keeps us all free…like the dissidents, poets and writers in Gulags. In The Breadwinner, the mediocrity (and terror) are found within religious fascism – telling story becomes an escape route, a way to process horror and grief. In Leave no Trace, the father and daughter wanted to live outside, on the edge; to form identity beyond community. Yet community still calls, reaches out, both good and bad. For the Shoplifters we witnessed a different, alternate community (family), made of misfits and chancers, (like the church?), they lived beyond mainstream society, and yet something beautiful, loving and tender held them together. Mediocrity was never mentioned but always there, looming, until it broke into their world. And in Cold War we witness the machinations of political powers beyond our control, (hence the film framing characters low down in each view, like some giant presence looming above them). The political mediocrity labels, divides, terrorises and kills, yet small lives, small stories which try to live and love through these times. We are left to ask what survives, what gets broken?

The work of fostering this holy imagination is left to artists, mystics, poets and prophets, and in whose company the Church finds itself.
It is signified in the Eucharistic exchange, it is the source of our ‘mission poise’. Imagination offers a new reverence, and funds compassion, awe, wonder, the possibility of impossibility… Christ may have been killed through a lack of imagination, a resistance to what he showed people. His passion was simply too much to allow to continue… but Easter shows us that this imagination is always calling to us. In the final moments of ‘The Last Temptation’ Nikos Kazantzakis writes,

‘He uttered a triumphant cry: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED
And it was as though he had said: Everything is begun.’

 

GS Collins, Easter 2019

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Engaging the Powers – Hamish Preston

Hamish Preston’s mammoth project is complete!
Committed to ‘Engaging the Powers’ and to discern and resist the violence and domination in political, economic and social structures, Hamish began a task of condensing and summarising key academic texts. The summary papers take the big ideas and lay them out clearly in a few pages.

The work now exists on his own website Engaging the Powers and all the short summary papers can be found there.

If you want to think deeply about the spirituality and interiority of what is going on in the world, then these papers provide an excellent introduction.

Hamish is a respected member of this congregation and has bought many insights and gifts to us over the years, we are glad and thankful for all his work and passion.

Image taken from Walter Wink’s seminal book ‘Engaging the Powers’

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Not the Superhero we Imagine.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among[b] you.”
22 Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. 24 For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 25 But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Luke 17:20-25

This week we heard of the sad loss of Stan Lee, the creator of the Marvel Comics and The Marvel Universe.
Stan Lee is a unique figure in the comic book, a legend really.. who helped revive a flagging comic book industry in the 1960s into a strong and culturally significant force through the last 40/50 years.. His comic book heroes, Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Spider Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-men etc, etc, etc  enliven the minds and imaginations of children, youth and adults alike… and the growing film franchises only continue that powerful unleashing of imagination and wonder….

But there is more to Stan Lee’s superheroes than spandex suits and ‘Wahm, Kapow and Klunk!’…
they are flawed.. all of them.

In fact it is now widely recognised that the very thing that made Stan Lee’s characters so convincing and awe-inspiring was the subtle depiction of their broken lives… Stan Lee’s characters had as many problems as they had powers; they argued with each other, had fallouts, had ego-issues, were often scared, reluctant, and .. like us were very human. It was the humanisation of these superheroes which made them far more appealing… that turned comic-books into art!

His most famous character of all, Spider Man, (true identity – Peter Parker) would regularly save New York city from ghastly and destructive foes. Yet Peter Parker was scared to ask Mary-Jane on a date, and struggled to balance work and school, and to fix his acne! Spiderman was very human.

Stan Lee was also keen to explore difference within his stories; he opposed bigotry and racism.. showed the damage that comes from excluding others who are different. The X-men are all ‘mutants’ whose fight is as much against prejudice and fear, as it is with nefarious forces.

Which brings me to Jesus …

The Marvel Superheroes show us a world where people could achieve great things, but often with and in spite of their flaws and inconsistencies. They open the possibility of wonder and awe found within the present day and the humdrum. Where dreams dance with depression.

Jesus seems to be point the same way too..’don’t be looking out there.. don’t be looking for the next big thing, the next revival.. it’s not there’. This kingdom, will turn your lives upside down, will transform the entire world .. but you cannot define it, or hold it. It’s not about a superero rising above this life; it is found within it.. within you.’ God is not outside but inside our very human lives.. stirring, inspiring, cajoling and comforting.

The kingdom – and the God – Jesus is speaking of is far more elusive, and cannot be pinned down to doctrine, tradition; we too cannot say ‘look there it is…!’
This God defies all we expect of her … and yet surprises us with the possible in impossibility, with silence and thought and art and friendship, and in the ‘suffering and rejection’ which must come..

The God Jesus speaks of – the God he reveals – excites the wonder in the everyday; the good and the bad, the mess and the magic.. This God turns up in unexpected places – walks beside us… within us.. knows us flaws and all.. and still calls us Super.

GS Collins. Cafe Eucharist. Nov 18

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Staying Afloat

During the Soviet era in Russia many churches were put to alternative uses.  One that particularly stood out for me was a church that was converted into a swimming pool.  The dim lighting, the pictures of saints on the walls, the deep blue of a ceiling painted with stars, all contributed to an atmospheric swim.  The water in the pool was pleasantly warm.  Those swimming there commented on how rested and refreshed they felt after leaving.  Although I would not be pressing for our churches to become swimming pools (and that church in Russia has now been restored to its original use) I think that the image of the church as swimming pool is surprisingly apt.  At its best it’s a place where we can let go of some of our protective layers and take delight in allowing God’s love to bear our weight, just as water does when we swim.  Peace can seep into our hearts and minds, melting our worries and putting us in touch with a bigger picture where not everything depends on us.

Floating in God’s love requires practice in letting go.  We don’t necessarily trust the water to bear our weight.  We have to test it.  Someone may have to help us.  In the same way the church can encourage us to try out God’s love and to practise trusting in him as someone who loves us.  Our songs and prayers, our receiving bread and wine all encourage this.  They can lead us to experiment with bringing our whole selves to God, warts and all, trusting that he welcomes us as we are.

We can join with one of the saints, who addressed God as follows; ‘Dear Lord, you are a deep sea, into which the deeper I enter, the more I find, and the more I find, the more I seek…my soul delights in you, Eternal Trinity, Sea of Peace’.  Catherine of Siena

May we, like St Catherine, discover that ocean of God’s love and learn to revel in it.

 

Christine Bainbridge

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Lent Film Series begins

Once again the Lent Film Series will explore the power and challenge of great film-making. This year our films all speak to the theme of dreams… what dreams drive us as humans? What dreams disapoint? Are dreams messages from the
soul or the unconcious? How do we exist within our own dreams?

Five excellent films are showing;

Loving Vincent    February 22

On Body and Soul    (snowed off)  now re-scheduled for 12 April

The Death of Stalin    March 8

God’s Own Country    March 15

The Florida Project     March 22

All showings in the Church Gallery.
7.30 Doors open  8.00pm Start
Entrance Free

Film Discussion Meal   April 19th

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Zygmunt Bauman

 

A fascinating thinker died this week, the man who left us the term ‘Liquid Modernity’

” things which are plural in the postmodern world cannot be arranged in an evolutionary sequence, or be seen as each other’s inferior or superior stages; neither can they be classified as “right” or “wrong” solutions to common problems. No knowledge can be assessed outside the context of the culture, tradition, language game, etc. which makes it possible and endows it with meaning. ”

Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity, p. 102.

 

Quite how we learn to hold this ‘Liquidity’ in an era now cynically known as ‘Post-Truth’ might be the next big challenge for both church and society.