Seeing the Good News in our culture

One skill they tried to teach me at Vicar Factory was to read our culture. What are the norms and values represented by, say, that new movie you’ve just been to see? What are the underlying messages about life in our music and books? And how do these relate to the good news about Jesus? So I try to answer these questions regularly about the works I’m consuming.
Me by Elton John
I do love a good biography, not necessarily about someone I’m passionate about, but who’s interesting. Elton John’s autobiography is every bit as compelling as the reviews would have you believe. It’s all here: sex, drugs and rock’n’roll in liberal quantities, rendered in Elton’s trademark, chatty style. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it provides a no-holds-barred account of his addiction to cocaine, as well as the stark reality of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. What are the norms and values at play here? Being honest with yourself about your life and the state you’re in – if you’re familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and its twelve steps then you’ll recognise some of Elton’s approach. If you’re easily shocked, it’s not for you. Making a difference for good; Elton’s journey from watching, terrified and drug-addled, as many friends died of AIDS to being a leading fundraiser and campaigner for sufferers, is not straightforward. I wonder if a key message here is ‘deal with your demons and then you can make a difference’; not a difficult one to relate to the gospel.
Kiwanuka by Michael Kiwanuka
Kiwanuka’s third album is absolutely brilliant. Here he really comes into his retro-yet-modern funk style, still sounding not unlike Marvin Gaye and yet with songs that have a spiritual edge. Some musicians get famous and then struggle to write songs about real life – after all, life recording music and on tour is very far from most people’s everyday reality; but here is someone with both feet on the ground, who speaks to our multicultural society: raised in leafy north London by Ugandan parents. What are the values? Again, looking at yourself, but also thinking about how harsh our society can feel for those who are in a minority. Kiwanuka is certainly carving out a niche for himself; if you haven’t heard of him then treat yourself!
Come from Away at the Phoenix Theatre, London
Perhaps you need an antidote to the winter blues: this is the show for you! It is anything but a cheap ‘sing-your-problems-away’ show though. It’s a true story that got lost after 9/11: what happened to all the planes that were flying over the Atlantic when the attacks began? Well, 38 of them made emergency landings at Gander, Newfoundland. Here, then, is the story of what happens when a remote community of 9,000 almost doubles in size overnight. It is expertly told by an ensemble cast of twelve on a simple set: a revolving stage, twelve chairs and not much else. And yet you will not see a piece of theatre more brilliantly put together – each actor playing many different parts, but you always know where you are and what’s happening. It is a tribute to kindness and humanity, and how we often find out who we truly are when faced with a crisis. Again, not hard to relate to the gospel. And it has the most unforgettable scene in church (I won’t spoil it for you – just take a hanky!). The music is great too.
His Dark Materials
The BBC’s lavish adaptation has proved a big hit with audiences and will return later this year. Philip Pullman’s original trilogy of books is a tough one to adapt, but, with the help of some excellent actors and a lot of CGI, the compelling storytelling survives the transition to the small screen. Young Lyra Belacqua finds herself plucked from a protected life in an Oxford college in an alternative reality, as the viewer realises that there are connections with our own reality and another teen: Will Parry. Can Lyra escape the dangers all around her, including the pastiche of the church, the sinister, power-wielding Magesterium, and find the truth about existence? Here, writ large, is a conspiracy thriller: the truth is being hidden from you by those who want to keep control of your life. Break free and don’t listen to them! I expect the next two instalments to be much more openly anti-Christian (as they’re sure not to stray from the source material), and no less interesting.
Can I encourage you to consume culture critically – ask questions about it, probe at its values, and talk to people about them. An event like the new Star Wars or James Bond film is still pretty universal, and you can trace a conversation about society through the decades with them. Ask who is Jesus in this production, what is seen as good and bad? And feel free to recommend, especially to your local clergy!
Coming soon: a break
The news is steadily getting out there that I will be taking three months’ Extended Ministerial Development Leave over this summer. In the Church of England, ministers qualify for this after around ten years of ordained ministry. I will be away from SMOB from the end of June to the beginning of October, in which time I will take a break from frontline ministry. I hope to visit friends (weekends away are something you sacrifice in this job), do some writing (several projects both Christian and secular are in front of me) and generally have a change of pace. The church will be in the capable hands of the staff team, led by our new Associate Vicar Bekah Clark (who joins us in March), Curate Sarah Tapp and Youth Minister Dave Doran.

Mark Wallace, 07/01/2020