Sunday, 5 March 2017

Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in The Obama White Houseabout the Future of Faith in America is the new book from Michael Wear. It was the title of the a lecture he recently gave at the University of Birmingham, where he is a Honorary Research Fellow in the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion.

I must admit I was wondering, after the lecture where Wear was clearly jet lagged, what the book would be like. I found it an easy but thought provoking read and not at all the academic text I was perhaps expecting.

This book can be described as part memoir, part political and social analysis and part reflection on Obama. It might be best described as thoughts from a reflective practitioner. 
The relationship between evangelicals, Catholics, staff in the Office of Faith Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships and more secular staff in other parts of the Obama team is examined here from the perspective an insider located in a particular place.

He is an evangelical and by virtue of his Democratic involvement, clearly a more progressive one. He also has a Catholic background coming from an Italian Heritage background. These aspects of identity which he outlines in the book clearly shape his perspective on a range of issues he looks at, particularly those which might be described as moral issues.

As an English reader I found this book useful to highlight where similarities and differences lie between our two cultures and the political and religious landscapes within them. Some like the way in which our welfare system means some of the debates have been dealt with and put to bed for many years (such as on the funding for contraception) are widely known and discussed.

Others like the similarities between the place Obama found himself on with regard to same sex marriage in his initial campaign and where many in the British system are now were enlightening. This latter issue is one where my analysis differs from the conclusions which Wear came from and perhaps also stem from the fact we appear to have different positions on the issue.

For Wear the fact that Obama appears to have had a different personal and professional position on same sex marriage during the first election campaign and part of that candidacy and then appears to reverse it when advocating the legitimacy of same sex marriage is very problematic. It is, he argues, an example of why we might then find ourselves questioning what is said by Obama on other issues. I want to argue that whilst there is some truth in that it is actually emblematic of how many evangelicals (and others) have behaved on this issue. It also illustrates how some of the problems that Bishops in the CofE (following synod’s decision not to take note face).

If we go back to 2008 there were known to be many people, including some cis het national evangelical leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, who were privately of the view that same sex marriage in monogamous, loving relationships was ok, but none had broken ranks. Publicly, they towed the line they were opposed to these and so Obama was simply taking the standard line. He wasn’t lying as such….rather he was separating his private and public view on it.

Coming back to 2017, this tension between the private and the public view does not hold in the way it did. However, in some groups such as the CofE there has been a tacit approval of this being the way to hold consensus on an apparently controversial issue.
Whilst I don’t agree this is ideal it is why I don’t condemn Obama on this in the way Wear appears to. For those who might fall into this category of having “private” and contradicting “professional” views reading Wear’s analysis may be useful in seeing exactly what the problems with this are.

With regard to the subject of Hope, Wear ends with some thoughts regarding where we have come to. Within this section he talks about how in an increasingly secularised world we have put hope into politics which becomes problematic and turns politics itself into a religion. Within this thinking he gives an indication of how we have reached our current polarised situation with regard to politics and how we might move on from this.

Is this a book I would recommend? The answer is yes as a quite interesting book which can be quickly consumed by somebody with a general interest in politics and or religion. For those who might be looking at this in light of his work at Birmingham University and expecting something meaty, probably not. I enjoyed the book and learnt some things from it but it did not give the depth I hoped it would. 
*Note this post is going on both my blog sites.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Bringing in the Sheaves by Rev Richard Coles - Reviewed

It took me a couple of chapters to work out that Richard Coles was going through the year in his book Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and Chaff from My Years as a Priest. To be honest I have to admit part of the reason it took the first three chapters was he starts with Petertide rather than advent or January. As with a lot of things in this book there is reason for this and explanation given, (for the strange churchy words as well as the structure). The structure of the book is this version of the liturgical year – with hatching, matching and dispatching, thrown in there too.

It also took me a few chapters to get a hang of what type of book this was. The style of writing is quite different to his first volume of his autobiography Fathomless Riches or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit. Where as that is based around anecdote and self-reflection with a bit of education mixed in this is a much more focused book. It has the clear purpose of raising religious literacy amongst its readers whilst giving the stories and titbits of gossip which keep it interesting for those whose tastes might generally be a bit more low brow.

Besides an unpacking of the meaning of different parts of the church year and the anecdotes there is also a rich seam of history running through this book. Coles looks at the lives of a range of saints too and demonstrates his pure passion for as well as in-depth knowledge for church history.

Having read the first books reflections on his time at Mirfield I was surprised that it got mentioned so often in this volume, as somewhere he had chosen to revisit.

He is still the wonderful camp guy making the point that he is determined to be open about his sexuality, yet he is also the happily “married” (legally civil partnered) guy who shares his life with the man he loves and their dogs.

The broadcasting career is in there but more interesting are his anecdotes relating to “ordinary” folk he comes across in the course of his ministry which has been to the very rich, the very poor and the standardly middle class.

So is it worth the read? Definitely but be prepared that this is much more Guardian Review than the Saturday Guardian Guide in style.

It is touching in places, particularly when he talks of his dad’s Parkinson’s, hilarious in others and overall enlightening. You learn lots without feeling that you are being hit over the head with it.

The overall feeling of this book is it is the one which Coles wanted to write. The one which enables him to write a theology book for the masses. Thus the biggest feeling I came away with was this guy has integrity. He’s not playing games, he’s writing the book he wants to. He is not worried it’s probably too faith based for some people outside the church and too honest for some in it. That’s what makes it so good, in my opinion – it’s an honest book written by a clever bloke who got famous through low culture but really has a heart for high culture.

 Note: I have also posted this on my Learning from Hagar blog

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

This is My Body...Reviewed

This is my body: Hearing the theology of transgender Christians edited by Christina Beardsley and Michelle O’Brien is a collection of contributions by people connected with the Christian trans group Sibyls.

The introduction to the book acknowledges the lack of voices from trans men and younger people. I think the lack of a voice from cis partners of trans people is also a loss in a book like this which is not exclusively trans, containing the voices of allies as well.

The book is a hybrid of academic articles and personal stories. This works to some extent, as does the decision to include all contributions to the stories, however brief. However, I do think that the disjuncture between academic or pseudo-academic articles and many of the stories is such that a book and a pamphlet would have been more helpful. Additionally a couple of the contributions are so brief one does wonder if it would have been more helpful not to include them if something more could not have been coaxed out of the writers.

The first main chapter by the editors talking about The Sybils Gender, Sexuality and Spirituality workshop was particularly strong. Within it there was interesting use of labelling theory and it’s bringing into focus of intersectionality.
The next chapter; Acting like a man-playing the woman: gender in performance which is solely authored by Beardsley uses historical analysis of theatre and performance in order to rebuff some of the assertions made by Oliver O’Donovan (a theologian whose work has put forward a range of unhelpful and incorrect notions regarding gender). This was one of the parts of the book which appealed to the social historian within me.

Jasmine Wooley put together a chapter on the social construct of gender which was useful in the way it explained the way that people’s understanding of being trans is often linked to their role as social actors. This is not to suggest that being trans is a choice, rather it highlights as the symbolic interactionists do the way in which we “perform” in relation to the “other” and form our identities around what is expected of us and the fears of what will happen if we deviate from that. Whilst the discussion around legislation was helpful and positive I was disappointed that the discussion of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act (2013) did not acknowledge the negative aspect of that legislation for trans people and their partners who are within a civil partnership. There was a really interesting short section towards the end of this chapter on the challenges presented by the medical model, I was disappointed this had not been slightly longer. However, the chapter covered a lot of ground.

Michelle O’Brien’s chapter on Intersex was particularly interesting and moving. It wove together personal testimony with research. This was the chapter I learnt most from.

This first part of the book for me was the strongest. The chapters became more academic as they moved onto the Theology and Trans chapters. Mercia McMahon sought to reflect on the way in which queer and feminist theologies can help in developing a trans theology.

Beardsley put together a second solely authored chapter which engaged with the Church of England document “Some Issues in Human Sexuality”. It was a useful update of an earlier article and was interesting in that it gave some of the background to where the current discussions are coming from. This was followed by a chapter looking at a group discussion on the issues within the paper on Issues in Human Sexuality. It ended with some useful recommendations for churches.

Section Three was Scientific and Other Perspectives. This part of the book was the one which I found most difficult to engage with, particularly as a non-scientist. The first chapter by Terry Reed of GIRES was interesting and I was able to follow it. It dealt particularly well with non-binary identity.

Then came Chris Dowd’s chapter Five things cis folk don’t know about Trans folk because it isn’t on trashy TV – my right of reply. Now, I have to admit a lot of my reaction to this chapter came from the persistent use of the word “folk” which annoys me.
Susan Gilchrist’s paper sought to mix history, science and theology in what was essentially a psychology paper. As a non-scientist I found it overly academic and the least helpful chapter within the first part of this book.

The second part of the book, as I say contained personal stories. The historical ones of these were enjoyable and informative. It was interesting reading these to reflect upon how they were from a particular generation and I did wonder how they would contrast with younger people’s stories had they been in there.

Cross dressing was discussed and I think the most interesting and useful was a self-interview with Elaine Sommers.

The saddest chapter came from well-known trans activist Helen Belcher whose story told of her move to atheism, in part as a result of the awful treatment she had received from the church.

These stories were the most important part of the book to me in many ways because they highlighted what bad practice in the church can look like, as well as what better practice is like. The stories of partners were also touched upon, although as I say I think it would be useful for them to have been told by the partners themselves.

So would I recommend the book? Yes, if you want to understand more about the experience about older trans people or if you want to explore some of the historical or theological issues involved. If you want a quicker and easier read that just tells you about somebody’s experience of being trans and Christian I would recommend Rachel Mann’s Dazzling Darkness.


This is my body: Hearing the theology of transgender Christians, (2016), Edited by Christina Beardsley and Michelle O’Brien is published by Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest Reviewed

The wordsmith who is so versatile that they can approach poetry, music, plays and novels with equal quality and success is rare. Yet, Kate Tempest has that ability. For those not aware of her achievements they are many. She is a Mercury Music Prize nominee, Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry winner and so much more. The Bricks that Built the Houses is her first novel and was recently released, published by Bloomsbury.

The novel tells the story of a range of inter-connected characters particularly Harry, Becky and Pete. It takes an unusual form of starting with an event and then moving one year previous before jumping one year ahead.
The book is written in language which will date it to a particular period in history through its references to particular technologies and so on. Yet, I doubt it will date as a book because it is a really good read.

As I read it I was prepared to be let down by it but I wasn’t. It was well written and as with so much of Tempest’s work has an almost ethnographic quality to it.

There is sex, violence and drugs crime in this book – but none of it gratuitous. There is also love and pure ambition within it. This book through its portrayal of the drugs world, the low level sex workers world, the alcoholic’s world and the suburban couple who came together through an affair are all showing the complexities of situations which many people face.

In this book nobody can be seen as pure and blameless everybody has something going on which makes them very human and fallible. Yet, in their own way they are all really likeable.

There are descriptions of the reality of bisexuality and lesbianism, gender fluidity and straight relationships mixed in with accounts of shattered dreams and dead end jobs.

It might all sound a bit grim and sensational but the point is it isn’t overall. This book describes much of the world we live in, but just don’t recognise being there around us. It describes the world that many of our lives touch upon in one form or another but we don’t know we encounter because we don’t know much of the detail of each other’s lives.

If you want satisfactory rounded endings this may not be the book for you because like so much of life it doesn’t end neatly. In many ways you seem to just stop observing it and wander away, like you’re at the end of an ethnographic project not knowing what’s going to happen in the future.

Did I enjoy reading it? Very much so. It was the sort of book which saw itself wandering around with me for a few days as I grabbed a few pages here and a few pages there in coffee shops, trains, on the sofa and in the common room where I live. It looks like a long book but isn’t really. I devoured it in 4 days and will be more than ready to read a follow up when and if one comes.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Wonder Stuff - 30 Goes Around the Sun Reviewed

Saturday saw a bunch of men and women in their mid 40’s fill the 02 Academy in Birmingham and relive something of their youth as TheWonder Stuff celebrated their 30th Anniversary. They had two support groups the main one being The Wedding Present, another indie group of the time. This 30th celebration has also seen the launch of a new album by The Wonder Stuff 30 Goes Around the Sun.

It was interesting listening to their early material alongside the new album. The material from Hup particularly shows the influence that sharing a flat with Clint Mansell  of Pop Will Eat Itself (the band who encouraged you to sample it, loop it, f**k it and eat it) had on the early sound of The Wonder Stuff and there was plenty of that early material being played on Saturday night.

Yet The Wonder Stuff were always more of a pop band than PWEI and this was reflected in those hits which got the crowd of grown up indie kids jumping up and down like it was sometime around 1990 again. The whole set had people moving but the room literally exploded into one mass of bodies moving up and down during The Size of a Cow. From then on it was like everybody had lost quarter of a century. I was so glad I was still wearing DM’s, appreciating how good their souls were for that type of dancing.

Welcome to the Cheap Seats was a particularly moving number as it was dedicated to those who had been lost in the intervening years.

There was some material from the new album, which was introduced with characteristic pantomime banter by lead singer Miles Hunt who was very much on form during this birthday homecoming gig. As one witty guy standing nearby put it there seems a direct correlation between the length of Miles’ hair and the quality of the performance. He currently has amazing hair and this was reflected in the quality of the set.
Listening at home to the new CD which has the potential to be their first top forty album in over 20 years I was struck by how the sound remains distinctive but shows the maturity of being part of a middle aged generation. There is a lot of the reflectiveness one finds once you start to reach a certain point of your life in the lyrics here, particularly on tracks which bookend the album. It begins on Don’t You Ever which is a spiritual but not religious number. In the sleeve notes Miles explains he is an atheist but just sometimes he gets the feeling there might be someone there. Then it ends with 30 Goes Around the Sun which is a track where Hunt tells his younger self it’s all about the ride not the destination.
The influence of the PWEI can still be found in Last Days of the Feast but with the fiddle playing of Erica Nockalls there is a touch of Levellers in their as well. This is no bad thing as these are both influences which The Wonder Stuff core audience spent their uni years dancing to as well. One of the stand out pure Wonder Stuff tracks is Misunderstanding Burton Heel which is apparently about the protagonist in a novel Miles intends to write.

This is not a stand out album but it is one which is highly listenable to and which has a comfortable feel to it. The lyrics are strong and the tunes are pleasant and it has the feel of meeting up with an old friend, of the same generation, for an evening of drinking and chatting, which is no bad thing.  So do I recommend it? Definitely…..particularly if you are a 40 something who hasn’t outgrown your DM’s. 

Monday, 29 February 2016

Crescent Theatre Folkin' Great Festival Review

Yesterday the Crescent Theatre in Brum had an excellent day festival Folkin’ Good. It was a new festival of folk and acoustic music which had two stages, one in the bar and one in the main stage.

The music kicked off in the bar with a 20 minute set from The Velvet Underarm who are The Crescent’s acoustic house band. They were played a great set which ended with a good cover of Wagon Wheel.

At the end of that set began an afternoon of shuttling between the bar and the theatre. I really liked the system of putting the sets in the bar on to cover the change between acts on the main theatre stage.

The first act on the main stage was The Empty Can an indie folk band who mixed covers by the Verve and Elbow amongst others with their own material. A lot of their own material came from their second album Sonic Boom.

As the bar had limited seating the crowd in the theatre sat on the ends of rows ready to leg it through at the end of the main set. As we entered the bar we heard Ruth, Jimmy and Sue playing. The name was a little confusing as all three were women. They played some excellent Americana and our favourite number was Jilted which was a comedy number which seemed very fitting for three women of a certain age looking like they were rocking three very different looks from M&S. They were probably my favourite act on the bar stage all day.

A programme of music is not something you normally find at a folk gig but it was what Soundboard provided for their mix of instrumental and folky numbers. I have to say I found some of their set a bit pretentious but the music was excellent and the trio were incredibly proficient.

Then it was back to the bar for Ashland. This was a duo which saw Kathryn Marsh and David Sutherland (who is also in Kim Lowings and the Greenwood) playing some excellent numbers. This was my husbands favourite bar group and we bought the EP which says something about how we felt about it.

Part of what this event was doing was showcasing local up and coming acts. One of these was ChrisCleverley. He is a growing name on the national scene but comes from Brum and it was clear that in some ways this event saw him coming home to part of the folk family who had nurtured him. His music was good if generally a bit on the dark side but occasionally there was real humour there. Most of his material was his own but there were some covers in there.

We made our final venture in to the bar for Twenty B& H a duo who are very much new additions to the scene. They played well and were great but by this point the bar area was too small for the crowd and so it seemed like time to stay in the theatre between acts.

The next act on the main stage was my favourite of the evening. Kim Lowings and the Greenwood were an amazing foursome. Kim has an incredible voice and song writing talent as well as being really musically versatile and amongst the instruments she was playing was an Appalachian mountain dulcimer. Among those in the band supporting her was the immensely talented David Sutherland who was on double bass this time. Cuckoo was one of the songs I loved in her set. She reminded me very much of a young Eliza Carthy and I look forward to hearing much more from her.

The penultimate act on the theatre stage was Edwina Hayes who I think can best be described as a northern Joan Baez. She again played a good mix of her own material and covers (including numbers by Richard Thompson and Barbara Dixon). I really liked this singer with a captivating voice and a good stage presence. She would have made a good headliner.

Now, before I go into the real headliner I have to caveat what I am going to say with a few things. Firstly, the sound crew at the Crescent had put in a cracking effort all day and worked really hard. Secondly Francis Mallon who put this together had done an amazing job and the day had all worked really well. Thirdly I had seen Duke Special a couple of times at Greenbelt and he is a good musician who can really take a crowd with him. Unfortunately last night was not his night.

I think there are a few reasons for this. The first is there were some microphone and sound issues as he prepared to go on stage. The second was he didn’t really fit the event. Now, I know this is a difficult balance to get but often (not always) putting something more contemporary on after proper folk without some decent fiddle in it doesn’t work. I remember the same thing happening a few years ago at Cambridge Folk Festival when Divine Comedy played. People left because they just seemed weak in comparison to so much talented musicianship and they were somehow out of place. This is part of what was going on last night.

Also, the Duke is very good act in a festival field or a crowded small venue. This was not how it was working. To his credit he did move the crowd forward and invite them on stage to get some intimacy. I don’t know what then happened because we chose to leave because it was to be honest getting painful to watch. We were both of the feeling we wish we had chosen to leave straight after Edwina Hayes.

A great day though and really good value. We got 7 hours of music and a large number of acts for just £15 each.

There are a few things that I think could have improved it slightly:

1)    More seating in the bar area. This could have been achieved if the stalls had been located elsewhere (perhaps in the foyer of the building)

2)    More food options and something selling more “normal” food

3)    A more folky headliner


As I say though we had a wonderful day and heard some amazing music and will certainly be seeking out some of the music again. Looking to returning to The Crescent Theatre in a fortnight to enjoy their free acoustic night when I suspect we may hear some of the voices from the bar again.



Friday, 26 February 2016

Museum and Gallery Memberships - Money Saving or Money Draining?

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is an exhibition on until 20th April at the Royal Academy. It is a stunning exhibition that I caught a couple of weeks ago. Whilst the two artists mentioned are key features of the exhibition, particularly Monet it is so much more than that. There are works by a range of major names of late 19th and early 20th century art world on display.

The show features some of the documents involved in planning Monet’s garden at Giverny and so is much more than your standard exhibition of pictures. It also gives the some of the specific background to what you see.

If you can’t get to Paris to see the art there this is almost as good, particularly as there is one of three part giant murals on display.

I can highly recommend this exhibition to two distinct groups of people: those interested in art and those interested in horticulture.

The price for the exhibition is £17.60 with donation, £16 without. Whilst I can understand why these type of prices are necessary they always remind me of why, where possible, I get a year’s friends membership of somewhere and try to make the most of it if I am going to see one of the big exhibitions. And so it was I have become a friend of the Royal Academy for the year (having worked out I could just about afford it). Aside from the fact I may well (if in London again before it closes) want to see this exhibition again & with my husband I am aware I have never been to a Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and it’s something I fancy doing. Then there is the clinch factor for me…Two:23 has moved from a location near the Tate Modern to a location not too far from the Royal Academy. To me when looking at these things one has to be practical, and the reality is on a day when I am going for the soul food that the worship at Two:23 provides I do like to start at a gallery in order to chill and connect with God in that way first. For me wandering round a gallery getting lost in beauty or challenged by social comment is a spiritual experience. Taking into account the likelihood of going with Karl too it works out more economical over the year.

This is not the only reason I like having a membership though. In addition of allowing you to queue jump (which was a real asset for this exhibition) there is the member’s tea room. Now, these are interesting places where the yummy mummies meet with the genteelly old and artistic third agers who seem to have something of Peter Pan about them.  My favourite was the Tate Modern when you used to be able to lounge about and sun bathe on the terrace roof (going back to just after the millennium).

The Tate Britain realised the benefit of this and in a recent renovation opened a gorgeous one replacing the rather quaint one they used to have.

I was not prepared for the Royal Academy’s version though. They don’t have a friends room they have the Keepers Cottage which is a whole building on the other side of a door. There was something of a feel about Alice in Wonderland in this one.

Then there are the magazines you get as a friend/ member. The Royal Academy (RA) one arrived today and I have to say that whilst I like it I do prefer the typeset of the Tate Magazine. There is less of a coffee table feel to the RA one compared to the Tate but then again you do feel you are reading something very grown up rather than pretentious with the RA one. I have to say I love both because they both actually contain excellent articles which make art even more accessible to the enthusiastic yet untrained visitor (or at least that’s my experience) and widen my knowledge. One thing the RA magazine did have the edge on was the book reviews within it.

Finally you get a 10% discount on most items at the shop and whilst this may not seem to make much of a difference if you add up the odd bits that comes to (through buying things like fridge magnets) together with the exhibitions it makes you realise that this really is a cost effective way to do things.

It’s not just the London Galleries which make membership worthwhile though. As I have previously mentioned one of my first purchases in Birmingham was membership of the Birmingham Museums membership scheme.

This one does not give you a magazine but it does give access to all the main exhibitions at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery together with access to a range of other heritage sites. You also get 10% off in the Edwardian Tea Rooms. Four months in and I think this membership has already paid for itself through multiple visits to the main exhibition (some alone and some with Karl), a couple of meals at the Edwardian Tea Rooms and a visit to the Jewellery Museum for the two of us recently.

Whilst the visit to the Jewellery Museum was a spur of the moment thing and we missed a tour we know we can go and do that again and that to a certain extent we are sorted for the year on local trips out especially when the warmer weather comes and some of the heritage sites closed in winter open again.

So museum and gallery memberships are they worth it or are they a bit like gym memberships where you end up paying over the odds for each visit. Well, in my experienced definitely the former. They can end up providing excellent value for money is used well and provide an excellent form of escape for people who have limited spare time they need to use well.