Saturday, 30 August 2014

Wither socialism?

I have just finished reading a couple of the classic texts on socialism - The ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel and The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell. What struck me about these - worrying - is how contemporary these descriptions and assessments are.

So Tressel points out that those in work are still in a state of poverty, that simply being in work does not lift them out from this state (contra what George Osborne is constantly saying).

His workers are also on zero-hours contracts - when there is work, they get paid, when there isn't, they don't. He raises the challenges that this makes to their situation, in particular, that when they are working, they are usually paying their debts from when they weren't, meaning any attempts to climb out of poverty is thwarted.

The discussion of how the management insist of skimping on work to save money (that is, to increase the profit the management are making on it) is very familiar.

The comments about how the working people would rather vote for and support the status quo, despite the fact that it oppresses them, rather than change, because they are deliberately uneducated, and the fear-mongers do their work, reflect very strongly why right-wing and fascist groups often do well (UKIP, for example).

The question or challenge is, against this background, how can political groups that genuinely represent socialist attitudes can get some traction?

One route is the way the Labour party has taken, which is to abandon most socialist principles in order to keep votes and obtain power. That is not a route that I consider reasonable or viable, because it dilutes the core principles.

It does seem that, as with the Philanthropists, the workers - however you want to define them - are aspirational, and so will support the conservative political groups, because they hope to improve their lot, become more affluent, and they don't want to damage the class that they aspire to be in.

The problem is that socialism has a bad rep. At the more radical end, the groups who are communist in essence have a real issue, because the essence of a communist approach (according to The Communist Manifesto) is the nationalisation of property. For people in the UK, where property owning is a very important part of our culture, this is not something that we will accept readily. This is not a political objection, a problem with this approach from idealism, it is a cultural issue.

In the UK, we have a distinct cultural approach to life. We are passionate about our island nation, and maintaining the distinction we have - sometimes amounting to racism, but often simply national pride. We also have a tradition of "a mans house is his castle" - the idea, very deeply rooted in our psyche, that there is some piece of land that is for us and our family. However we claim the place, this is important, which can be shown from the tendency for people to make their properties different, distinct, personal.

But a cultural rejection of communism does not mean that socialism cannot win ground. It does mean that it is far harder. However, we are, I believe, also a generous, caring and supportative people. If you move into any rural community, you will find a natural distrust of strangers. However, for those who have been for a time, these communities will help, support and care for their own. In essence, this is the core of socialism.

So I want to leave with a question - how can socialism be re-inspired, re-enabled in the UK? Maybe the answer is a more localised form of socialism - it is also a cultural facet that we don't trust other people to look after us, especially if they are all the way down in London. Maybe the answer is education?

The worry is that, if we don't restore a socialist political force in the country, we will end up in the same situation shown in Philanthropists and Wigan Pier, where the choices are between two conservative parties, there is no voice for change. Because change is something we need, in a country that is suffering and struggling.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

A paean to Mary Ann Hobbs

As some of you may know, I am a huge fan of Mary Ann Hobbs who is a presenter on BBC 6 music, and who is, in my opinion, the best radio presenter across any of the stations. There are two reasons for this, primarily.

Firstly, she has a perfect radio voice - smooth and silky, listening to her is like been hugged, and have her talk to you personally, individually. What is more, she never gets flustered, or at least, it never shows. Actually, I first saw her at Sonar last year, where she did get flustered because her headphones broke, but on air, she never shows any signs of being disturbed. She is a really calming voice on the radio.

But the real reason that she is always worth listening to is that her selection and range of music is quite astounding.She is probably the only person who could get away with playing Sonn 0)) on generalist, national radio. However, she also played, in the same show, near-classical piano pieces, and fairly well-know commercial music.

It was most interesting to hear her on Radio 3 - where she used her style, her knowledge, her understanding of music within a very different style and form of music. Even though I may not listen to radio 3 for anything else, she was superb in the first episode, and will, I am sure, be also superb in the second. It is all relevant, whatever your style of music, because it is all music, some of which is good, some of which is not.

The thing is, so many people have such a limited range of music - church people are probably the worst. This is the Pandora approach to music - the make-it-yourself radio site, where you entered your favorite song (or a typical or enjoyable piece), and the system would select other pieces that were similar in style and sound. Then you could mark up or down the tunes based on whether they had picked up on the right aspects of your selection, meaning that you could tailor your music selection to be just right. You could narrow down the selection to be just what you like.

The problem is that you can end up with very bland, very samey music.This is the process that seems to affect most churches with musical selection - the most vocal people vote up or down, and you end up with the bland, the inoffensive, effectively one sound repeated endlessly.

Mary Ann does not suffer from this. I might not like every piece played, but that is fine - someone does. And it will change again, and something I really relate to will probably be on next. She also treats each piece with huge respect - it is not about music being the chance to relax between the important talkie bits. The music is the crucial pieces, and the talking, the introductions are about helping people to appreciate the selection better. She does not just pick the most well known version of song - she constantly amazes me by knowing a John Peel session version of a piece that is different and (often) better than the well known version. It is a careful selection, done with passion and belief, and presented with excitement and care. It shows huge respect for both the music and the listeners.

The respect for her listeners is also shown in that she never patronises us. There is an assumption that we will know all of the musicians and groups that she talks about (or that we can go and find out). She never explains stuff that is easy to find out, or that we should know. She does explain stuff that is not easy or obvious. So I, as a listener, feel respected.

In the end, that is what I appreciate about her shows. She cares about the music, and she cares about her listeners, but expects them to appreciate the selections. She demands, calmly, that you listen, and try to appreciate - that you have an open mind, appreciate the music for what it is.

Much of my experience of church music, on the contrary, is of people who want a good sing-along session, with little appreciation of music for itself, little open-mindedness about styles. It is sad, to me, that so many musicians give so much for so little appreciation.

So on Sunday mornings, I prefer Mary Ann, and her musical appreciation.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Vicky Beeching

This week, @VickyBeeching came out as gay, which was a surprise, but, if I am honest, my main reaction was to yawn.

That is not to dismiss the courage it took, or the significance of this for Vicky. It is simply because I have no interest in her sexuality. It doesn't bother me, it doesn't interest me, her sexuality does not impact on me in the slightest. There are only two situations where a persons sexuality is of concern to me:

1. If I or my children are dating them. Given that I am married and expecting to stay that way, and my children are old enough to make their own decisions, that does not seem a likely situation.

2. If I am offering counseling or similar, and your sexuality is an issue for you.

Outside of these, it is not something I need to be concerned about. Lets be clear, nobody comes out as being heterosexual. Or liking anal sex, or being tied to the bed. You sexual attractions, likes and dislikes are your business.

The point is that what Vicky says, does, talks about is exactly the same now as last week. She is intelligent, confident and capable. I am not a great fan of her songs, but that is a musical difference. I am a fan of her speaking out for oppressed women and exploring faith and technology.

To anyone who decides not to use her songs anymore - an I have absolutely no doubt there will be many groups who will make that decisions - remember that she was a lesbian when she wrote those songs, that you enjoyed in past weeks. Those songs that you said helped you to engage with God - she was a lesbian when she wrote them, and when you sang them. Vicky has not changed.

I am sick of this obsession with sexuality in some parts of the church. Vicky is not the only one. I applaud her courage in coming out, but I despair at the fact that it takes courage. Vicky - in truth, nobody who matters cares about your sexuality. You are still the same wonderful person you always were.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Why the church is still Gnostic

One of the most robust of the early church "heresies" was Gnosticism, a complex set of ideas that centered around the idea of a Secret Knowledge that was only available to the Chosen Few. There is more to it than that, but this is the aspect that I want to explore here.

Now you may have noticed that I put scare quotes around the word heresies. The only reason is that I struggle with the idea of some doctrines being defined as heretical, rather than just "wrong". If something is wrong, they it is open for discussion and debate, aspects that may be valid and useful, while not necessarily accepting the core principles. Heresy simply means that someone who holds views that sound like this is dismissed. It seems that the church today has dismissed the formal idea of heresy, while some parts at least retain the concept.

I define Gnosticism as robust because it still exists - there is still a gnostic society, and, as I hope to explore in this post, many of the ideas are still prevalent in Church teaching. Of course, other heretical ideas do also pop up, but few as commonly as variations on gnosticism. When Christian leaders dismiss the physical world, because the important thing is the spiritual, the important thing is heaven, not the earth, then they are influenced by gnosticism. When people talk of the divine spark in people that needs to be released/enabled then they may be meaning the imagio dei - the image of God in all humans - but they may also be expounding gnostic teaching

However the aspect of gnosticism that struck me was the idea of the special knowledge of initiates.This is something that seems to be endemic within church groups and church leaders. Now rarely will you hear anyone explain it as such, but it is there - appearing differently, depending on the church style.

For the leader dominated churches, the idea that the leader has the truth, which is disseminated to the congregation is distinctly Gnostic in concept. These  places often have a coterie of others around the leader who will be "initiates" of some sort. This can be as creepy and obvious as it sounds, or subtly done, in ways that are less than obvious. But wherever the "initiates" are seen to have understanding that others don't have, there is a risk of a Gnostic approach.

For community/social churches, there is often a message of "come and join us, spend some time with us, and see what we are like". This is a form of the same thing - everyone is an initiate, but you need to be a part of us to understand what our faith really means.

For anglo-catholic churches, the problem is often clear and explicit - only the initiates know when to sit, stand, kneel etc. This is a form of "initiate knowledge", which can exclude people. I should point out that a similar thing often happens in charismatic/lively/unstructured churches too.

Do I need to go on? So often the church gives the message that the "initiates" have the Inner Knowledge that leads to Truth, and everyone else has to seek to be initiated. And it is wrong, because it is totally agaisnt what Jesus was trying to do.

Lets be clear, the religious leaders of Jesus day did the same. In fact, throughout history, there has been this level of division between those who can read and those who can't - the readers being the ones who hold the truth, because they can read it.

And Jesus came to say that God was accessible to all. Today, literacy rates are far higher, so access to the Biblical material is more widespread (but there is still a barrier against those who cannot read - have you ever considered how your church service looks to those who cannot read?), so it is "interpretation" that is used as the secret knowledge. Those who simplistically read the Bible, expecting the church to follow these ideas do not fully understand the context, the history, the appropriate interpretation.

Except they probably do. The Christian message is simple: God wants us in a relationship with him, and did everything he could to make it possible. Now it is our turn.

When we make that complex, confusing, obscure, rule-laden or anything else, we keep people from God. We give them extra burdens to carry, and do not lift a finger to help them.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Drone Metal

I have recently - and with thanks to @MaryAnneHobbs - discovered and enjoyed a style of music known as drone metal, epitomised by a group called Sunn 0))) - pronounced sun - when she played a piece of theirs on 6 music.

I suspect that this may be the first time they have been played on a national radio station, or at least one with anything like the BBC. They are, I think it is fair to say, a niche market in terms of listeners. There are others who also play drone metal like Earth, but none who take it to the purest form.

The music is defined very well by the title. There are two aspects: firstly, drone, because most of it consists of very long notes and chords played through distortion which helps to prolong the sound; secondly metal, because it is played loud. Very loud.

Having looked around the internet a little to find out about this style, there are two comments that constantly come up. People say "This isn't music" and then they say "They are not musicians", so I want to address both of these, not least because so many of the criticisms are common ones from people who don't like a particular style of music - and there are similar comments from church groups as to why certain music is "satanic" or at least not suitable for church.

I should point out that I am not arguing that drone metal is suitable for church. But this is not because it is "wrong" or "demonic", it is because there are probably only a few thousand people in the world who actually like and appreciate this style of music, and so imposing it on others would be wrong. It is an acquired taste, and not everyone wants to acquire it. If you do want to see them performing live, and get some idea of their musical style, you can watch them here.

1. This isn't music. I suppose it depends on how you define music, doesn't it? It doesn't have melody, or rhythm, which makes it harder to engage with. Having said that, it does have rhythm, just not a solid beat to it, so not a standard idea of rhythm.

But then we do listen to music with odd rhythmic structures at times - from Pink Floyd's Money to Dave Brubeck and Take Five, we accept some peculiar time signatures in our music, if the musicians can play it (these two pieces are in 7/8 and 5/4 time respectively, which are not the usual time signatures of 3/4 and 4/4). What is more, some performers like Bjork can produce pieces with the most peculiar rhythms (she seems to favour 17/8, according to wikipedia), but they are quite listenable to.

Having said that, most of the music we listen to is rhythmic, to an extent. But it doesn't need to be. Sonn 0))) produce "sonic landscapes" - which means they use their instruments to produce something different, something that invites - or insists - that you engage with it. It isn't for everyone, but if you don't like it, listen to something else.

There are also few words -where there are spoken pieces, they are part of the sonic landscape, not the song. There is a lot of focus on "words" being so important (yes, especially by church people), but in truth, that is so disparaging to the music. The words, and the singer, are not the only or most important part of songs or music. Where there are words, they are part of it, but the music is also crucial.

Music - most of it, at least, and that part that is not produced by the Cowell Money Factory - is artistry. If you don't like Jackson Pollack, that is your opinion, but you cannot say that it isn't art. Your style might be more Thomas Kinkade, which personally makes me puke, but it is art. I guess - it fails utterly to challenge me, which is what I expect art to do.

So you may not like drone metal music, but that doesn't mean you can condemn it as not being music. I don't like Hillsongs-style worship music, but I accept that it is music.

2. They are not musicians. Well watching them, it would appear that they do not need a huge amount of skill on their instruments to produce their music.

Which assumes that most of the skill in playing comes from technique on an instrument, which is doubtful. Many songs have been produced with musically very simple structures, that are not complex to master on any instrument. However to make them something else requires more than just being able to play the notes or chords - it involves being able to perform the music, to bring something of yourself into it, and to make the piece as a whole into something that is more than the sum of the parts.

I can point you to all sorts of musicians that I enjoy who are masters of their instruments, who have a technical skill level way beyond mine. But that is not why I like them - I enjoy them because I like the sounds they make. It does take a set of skills to produce sounds that I like - or sounds that are engaging.

I might try to produce and record some drone metal. This is not because I think it requires a limited musical ability, but because I believe that I have some musical talent, and I probably have the equipment to put something together. I have no idea how it will go, but it will be an interesting challenge for me!

We can be very snobby about music. For some people, it has to be of the absolute highest technical excellence possible. For others, it has to have positive words (and not engage the emotions at all). For me, music works best when it engages the emotions, irrespective of other things. But then I like Pollack and I hate Kinkade, so what do I know?