Friday, 25 July 2014

Is Britain Christian? ITV Tonight review 24th July 2014


The heat has driven me into becoming a precious whinger again. 

Last night's ITV Tonight programme on the state of modern-day Christianity in Britain was interesting but could have been made ten years ago.

The programme discussed David Cameron's much debated claim that what remains of Britain is still a Christian country and his call for people of faith to share that faith (just so long as you don't work in the NHS... or a whole range of other occupations).

And maybe reporters will just look at the next census figures and rehash a similar report in ten years time. The established churches perpetually waning and some of the charismatic and evangelical churches perpetually growing. Food banks and secular alternatives to faith made a brief mention, but that is all that they were.

The conclusions were the same as were expressed in 2004 and this is partly because the British media now have very few journalists who have either the skill, expertise or inclination to understand the state of Christianity in the UK today.

Despite a tradition of journalists covering both the ebb and the flow of faith in this country it seems that mainstream editors do not, on the whole, think that faith is newsworthy. It is a constant complaint that the only news that Christianity gets is negative. We can't all be precious whingers.

So, with the last specialist faith reporter in the established media losing her job a matter of months ago is it any wonder that the resulting reports are largely rehashed and superficial? Or is it simply a mirroring of a tide which is still going out?

The conclusion of the Tonight programme was this: Christianity is on the wane. And this is an ebb which is predicted to continue. One expert even forecasted that this trend would continue into the future. It was almost a prophesy. And they can be misleading.

Actually, the program wasn't entirely unfair. At least there were none of the outrageous generalisations which have characterized too much output relating to Christianity. But again, these generalisations and inaccuracies are partly due to a dearth of specialist faith reporters. Again I whinge.

The conclusion of 'Tonight' was the same as ten years ago. Remember, this is a report on the state of faith in the nation now and according to this report Christianity is largely on the wane.

But it is so much more complicated than this.

Perhaps anyone with any sense would have spent the evening watching the tide from a beach.

Think happy thoughts.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Parable of the Over-Competitive Fisherman


In the following parable I use a number of techniques, many of which are particular to parables. Firstly, I deliberately reject the ‘show don’t tell’ command. Historically parables have contained elements of telling. I also deliberately keep the writing style simplistic because this is how parables work – parables contain depth yet seem deceptively simple at first glance.

So, obviously the fish, the fisherfolk, the king, his army and the over-competitive fisherman are counterparts to other things. This is an internal puzzle which is not hard to solve for those familiar with the genre. The woodland and the boy are harder to parallel. The king going away on a long journey is also a traditional theme. The ‘intrusive’ narrative voice is deliberate and is here used to divert the reader towards a ‘parable teller’. This is a character in himself. The narrator is not necessarily the author.

It is not a difficult parable to unravel and one feature of most parables is that they are not usually explained by the teller. They are left for the listener or reader to figure out. But here I have deliberately broken the second rule of the parable – which is to present a spiritual message. My first draft did conform to the norms of parables and contain the spiritual message but I changed the ending for it to work better in terms of story. The original ending stopped before the last few paragraphs and it is obvious that this changes the story significantly. Above all I wanted to adhere to the first rule of parable which is that it is supposed to be a story and an escape...

The parable of the over-competitive fisherman

A king once owned a vast lake in which all kinds of fish lived.

The king went away on a long journey with his army, telling his servants to fish the lake for him. He was a very kind king even though he was immensely powerful.

But as soon as he left, the servants began to argue with each other. They started to call themselves ‘the king’s fisherfolk’ (men, women and children) and they formed two groups, one on the West side, then one on the East. But even these groups split so that there were eventually fisherfolk on three sides of the lake. One side of the lake protested against another side and the third side just shrugged and said that they were the true fisherfolk anyway. The only other side of the lake was covered in woodland and no-one could fish from it.

There were intense arguments between the fisherfolk about the best way to catch fish. The fisherfolk on the Western side tended to have the better equipment and conditions. The sun seemed to shine on them although the fishing conditions were challenging in some ways. Mostly they had problems because they tripped over their equipment. Some of them had rods and equipment which was so expensive and sophisticated that it was easier for them to catch the fish. The equipment sometimes got in the way or distracted them.

The Western fisherfolk argued among themselves about the best way to catch fish and please their master. Many of them had fist fights or wouldn’t speak to each other. Others didn’t see the point in fishing and went off to do something they were more interested in. Perhaps they were the wisest.

There were all kinds of disputes. The fisherfolk on the West always looked down on the fisherfolk on the other sides of the lake. They were only united in this. They would often accuse each other of cheating or of scaring the fish away. One of the fisherfolk on the East was just a boy who only had a line which he baited with a worm and dangled into the water from the branch of a tree. He couldn’t even afford a rod.

There was also one particular fisherman on the Western side who was rich and had better equipment than many of the others. There were a lot of fisherfolk in the team which he led. But he would condescend towards the poorer fisherfolk and remain aloof and over-competitive. He would even toss grenades from his survival belt into the lake. Whenever he did this he would kill a lot of the fish and set his team to scoop them up in huge nets. He caught countless fish this way. But others noticed that he scared away most of the life within the lake.

Not content with lobbing grenades, this fisherman would also go out onto the lake in a trawler and dredge to the bottom with huge nets. All of the other fisherfolk were so scared of him because he said that he was pleasing the king more than them as he had caught so many more fish than they had.

The boy was very sad when he saw and heard all this. He went out every day to fish the lake but could never catch any fish, the fisherfolk on his side had so little equipment and, truth be told, some of the fisherfolk had made the fish very wary. A lot of the time the boy would just talk to the other fisherfolk and the rich fisherman would watch him in the distance and think he was lazy.

The rich fisherman announced from a loudspeaker: “When the king gets back from his journey he will let me relax with him in the best room of his palace because I’ve caught the most fish. I win.”

He even sometimes said that the king had sent him secret messages which told him he was his best fisherman and that he was very pleased with him. “The king is with me, me, me...” he sang. Many of the others became discouraged because of all this and gave up fishing.

For many years this was simply the way things were. But one day, as suddenly as a thief might break into a house, the king came back from his journey. He appeared, with his army at his lakeside and called all his servants together from every side. The woodland watched on silently, breathing in the wild wind. He asked each of his servants in turn one simple question:

“Did you catch any fish in my lake?”

Many of the fisherfolk had somehow caught fish and the king sent them off to relax in his palace. When he came to the boy he asked him the same question.

The boy replied: “No, I’m sorry, not one.”

The king was surprised at this, but when he saw that the boy only had a line with a hook and that the fishing conditions were so challenging he understood what had happened.

So the king told the boy that he could stop fishing and go and play in the best part of his palace.
The rich fisherman also went before the king. He had freezers stocked full of fish. He had caught so many and stocked them with salt in vast refrigerated warehouses which he had built. He had also secretly eaten and sold on a number of the fish himself. I suppose that is what happens when you are over-competitive.

“How many fish did you catch?” asked the king.
“153,000” replied the fisherman, his chest swelling in pride.
“Pretty impressive,” said the king, “you have worked very hard haven’t you? Are you tired?”
“That wasn’t on the agenda,” replied the fisherman. “But I would like to point out once again that I have caught the most fish. You like fish don’t you?”
“Love them,” replied the king. But he was very depressed by the over-competitive fisherman as he had never wanted fish to be captured quite in the way that they were. The strange, kind king didn’t want to send the fisherman out of his kingdom into the burning heat of exile where he wouldn’t survive.
“I thought I could have a sabbatical?” said the fisherman, “Where do you want me to rest in the palace?”
“You really are very efficient and shrewd,” said the king, “so you can go and carry on working for my fisherfolk there. They will need someone to cook for them.”

And it all would have ended there if the over-competitive fisherman hadn’t been quite so shrewd (as the king had so accurately perceived).

The rich fisherman could see that he was facing a menial role as a lowly servant in the palace. Although he was relieved not to be sent into the burning heat of exile he did keenly realize that he had very little to lose at this point.

“I’ve just spent my adult career working for you despite the fact that you have been entirely absent and despite your inane request for fish,” blurted the fisherman.
The king seemed momentarily taken aback.
“I am not going to carry on being your lacky in your palace, serving fools who have been unable to fish effectively. So I utterly refuse to play your game.”

The king nodded, smiled to himself. As if unsurprised. As if nothing could surprise him. As if he knew the future. 

And then he said, “I’m afraid you have no choice. You put the 'tit' into 'competitive'. Even now my army is coming to take you to your place. No value judgement intended, you understand.”

It was too much for the fisherman. Reaching towards his survival belt he unclipped a spare grenade and rolled it towards the king. The grenade landed at the king’s feet. He paused to look down and then smiled.

“But that’s not a fish,” he said (momentarily confused).
“You’re damned right,” replied the fisherman, turning and running away as fast as a ridiculous thought.

The inevitable explosion blasted the kind king into a thousand and one bloody pieces.
A few of the pieces landed in the lake where hungry, confused fish devoured them and then returned to the freedom of the water.

It was, some may say, ironic that the fish should win out in the end. Others may say it was meaningless, without rhyme or reason.

But I’m simply trying to tell you what happened. The over-competitive fisherman won, along with the fish and the trees of the hungry, watching woods which swayed and clapped their hands in a mad Westerly wind.

Thursday, 3 July 2014


A preacher, arriving in a small town to speak at a local church wanted to post a letter to his family back home. He stopped a small boy and asked him where the post office was. The boy gave him directions.
Then the preacher said: “If you come to church this evening, I’ll tell you how to get to heaven.”
“I don’t think I’ll be there,” replied the boy, “You don’t even know your way to the post office.”

I’ve been a Christian for over 20 years and have been seeking directions to the fabled land of the Victorious Christian Life (the VCL) for all that time. Call me a jaded old-timer if you want, I don't mind. I have been called worse.

This blog entry is mainly intended to help the Christians out there. But feel free to read on whoever you are.

Firstly, I do not live the VCL. And I'm unable to offer anyone directions on how to get there. I know this is a bad start, but what I am able to do is to give you some directions showing where this fabled land is not to be found (based on 20 years of bitter experience).

The 'fabled' land of the VCL is well known to exist by Christians. For a start Christ lived it. St Paul lived it. There are countless biographies of Christians who live it. I've met Christians who say they live it. The VCL involves miracles and a success in everything that you do. If something goes wrong then a supernatural event makes it go right again. Things don’t fall apart and everyone there gets healed and prayers answered.

This blog entry is not for Christians who have already discovered that secret elixir – the hidden fountain of VCL living.

In fact, I have come to the conclusion that Christians who do live the VCL are unable or unwilling to share directions. Actually, to be fair, they do share directions, but the directions always turn out to be wrong, as if blurred by some subtle irony, or some mystical force. As if it is a spiritual law that the way to the VCL can never be shared. They will say 'just reach out and receive' or 'you can't do anything to find it - you simply have to accept it as a child will accept a present'. The fact that the present is invisible and they never actually tell you how they have arrived is, surely, part of the subtle spell which blurs any kind of meaningful communication.

So it is just as well that all I am doing is sharing with you the places in which the VCL is not found - to spare my remaining readers a lot of trouble.

Anyone who is anyone knows that the VCL is self-evidently to be found via a ‘heal-all’. This is obvious. There is one single act, one single change in direction, one single change which will result in the VCL. Some of these single acts can change things for the better but they do not result in the fabled VCL.

So here we go patient readers!...

Heal-all number 1: The VCL is not found by becoming a Christian.

Becoming a Christian is a huge change. Some of us old timers still remember how intense the experience was. There are huge, often unpleasant, changes which are made. Friends are lost. Lifestyles change. It is the one significant act that a human being can make to side with good. A kind of vote for Christ, made through prayer. It is immense and it is usually hard, like relocating to a new country. But it isn’t a heal-all. Everyone knows that. It can make things better (sometimes it makes things worse), but it doesn’t automatically lead to the VCL.

Heal-all number 2: Go to church.

For us jaded old-timers there are often periods of non-churchgoing for one reason or the other. When you are in church you are told: “Coming to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a cup of McDonalds coffee with a free buy six get one free sticker.” Sad to say, in my experience, going to church does not result in the VCL. It is no heal-all. Some people there claim to have found the land (but once again, their directions get blurred in the spell which prevents the way ever being shared). Damn you, foul spell!

Heal-all number 3: Pray for an hour every morning.

I’d be losing my cool if I said I did this for any great length of time. But I have tested this theory (albeit briefly). I don’t regret the relatively small amount of time I’ve spent in prayer but I have discovered that having quiet time every morning does not result in the VCL. I hate to say it, but for the devoted, praying can get out of hand. I know that everything will conspire to keep people from prayer and I believe in prayer, but there comes a time when praying ‘without-ceasing’ is a kind of addiction. And when you fail, you will feel vile. Please be balanced in this. I’m not the devil, tempting you not to pray, I’m someone who has learned that quantity does not equal quality.

Heal-all number 4: Get rid of that dubious stuff!

This is the most attractive heal-all road to the VCL. It's a beauty. It's simple. All you have to do is scourge your house or flat from everything that some Christians say is dodgy. For Christians this goes beyond the obvious of getting rid of hard drugs and firearms (and that secret two foot high idol we all have in the cupboard (?)). To perform this heal-all we need to get rid of those 'bad' DVDs and Blu-ray discs. We need to delete any ‘doubtful’ music from our iPods. Then you can delete all the ebooks which are clearly too racy or too horrific. Don’t burn those books, though, take them to a charity shop. Purge the house, purge the garden, purge the TV and radio!... Except it doesn’t work. Sad to say I’ve had at least two 'Christian purges' on my happy, happy VCL-less journey and they simply don’t work.

Heal-all number 5: Tithe.

I don’t tithe. I may or may not have done so in the past. If I said I did it may or may not make me want to look good. I don’t tithe and I very much doubt that it leads to the VCL – it may make things better because giving enriches us in many ways. You can test God in this and you discover for youself whether it leads to the VCL or not. My guess is that it makes some things better but I bet you it doesn’t result in the VCL.

Heal-all number 6: Support Israel. Publically.

This is a fun and happy aspect of certain circles within the Christian community. Those of us in the know understand that all those who bless Israel will be blessed (and vice-versa (oh happy religion!)). Another simple road to the VCL! Simply be supportive of Israel and never say anything critical of the Jews. Bonus! A blessing on both their houses? (Well, that could work). How can this fail!? It can fail and it does. This is an esoteric heal-all so be careful with this one. Also, people get obsessed about Israel one way or the other.

Heal-all number 7: Fill in your own option to the VCL here.

I know - there must be a lovely easy, instant way to enter the land of the Victorious Christian Life!
It may involve saying a particular prayer with just the right words. It may involve performing a great deed. It may involve doing one particular thing. People, you all know what that thing is supposed to be – so insert it here! (just not in the comments please - this was once a respectable blog). Maybe it is the true way to the VCL. I don’t know, I’ve never lived the VCL. How would I know? I'm mad as a box of frogs having a bad trip.

And maybe even these non-directions will get blurred by some spell over the land. Some cruel irony which prevents all meaningful communication from occurring. But as we all know, failing to live the VCL is user-error. Has to be. Because if we are not to blame, it just doesn’t look good for some people does it?

One possible way to the VCL...

We can strain at gnats all our lives but I would say that I believe the VCL is to be found by making gradual shifts towards love and mercy. But as I say - even that doesn't work (especially if you are a grinch like me). In fact, it's just possible that I'm not doing even that very well (it would explain a lot). But my guess is that if the VCL exists then love is the way.

So, busy reader, be careful that the anti-VCL spell doesn’t make even this blog sound like gobbledegook. And in the meantime, while you’re searching – try to get up one more time than you are knocked down.

Think happy thoughts.