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Archive for August, 2004

All Souls, Langham Place – 08/22/2004

Thought for the Week

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the Lord helped us.” (1 Samuel 7:12). A good deal of our lives is made up of landmarks; the first day at school, the time in hospital, the wedding day. We mark such occasions with an entry in the diary.- A ring on the finger. A photograph.

They have never been short of stones in Israel, and a stone was Samuel’s choice. It had been a dangerous period for God?s people. The ark of the covenant – the very emblem of God?s presence with them – had been recovered, after being in enemy hands, and the Philistine hordes had been routed.

Ebenezer – “Stone of help” – such monuments or landmarks bring a three-fold reminder to us:

When it was that we received help. “Thus far” pointed the people backwards to past blessings and help received. They could not forget.

Who it was who helped us. “The Lord” is identified as the source of Israel’s protection in a time of danger. The credit is always His!

The pledge of help in the future. Thus far (Hitherto KJV) – the implication is that if God helped us in the past, He will do so again.

THOUGHT: Identify your own landmarks of the past twelve months.

LICC – Connecting with Culture – The road less travelled

connecting with culture – the road less travelled

In a local paper last week, one advertisement in particular – for a 4×4 – caught my eye:

‘The new model combines legendary off-road performance with distinctive styling. Perfect for style-conscious drivers, it features eye-catching alloy wheels, a CD player, and metallic paint as standard. Drivers will also benefit from the hill descent and electronic traction control technologies when the going gets tough.’

Christians can sometimes sound like grumpy old men, but in this case, it seems fair to ask: What use is off-road technology to anyone (other than a farmer) who drives a car in 2004? The advert encourages an unacceptable and unsustainable myth about motoring – something the Mayor of London believed when he told GMTV, “When you see someone trying to maneuver [a 4×4] round the school gates, you have to think, you are a complete idiot.”

On 20th July, the Government unveiled a White Paper called ‘The Future of Transport’, setting out how it plans to maximise ‘the benefits of transport while minimising the negative impact on people and the environment’. Car journeys, it says, have risen in relation to other forms of transport from 79 per cent in 1980 to 85 per cent in 2002. Transport accounts for a quarter of all CO2 emissions in the UK, and cars churn out 80 per cent of that quarter. Meanwhile, the cost of motoring has gone down as GDP has gone up – for all we complain about petrol prices.

Cars threaten our health (through lack of exercise as well as climate change), our town centres (with out-of-town shopping), our countryside, our lives (3,508 people died in road accidents in 2003) and our wild-life (if global warming means that the great-crested newt has to move north, how will it cross the M4, without joining 100,000 squashed foxes?).

However, it’s hard for politicians who face regular elections to take any kind of mildly draconian action against a car-loving nation. We need an all-party consensus on uncomfortable but essential policies, especially if

designed to end our love affair with motoring.

If we are to love our neighbours as ourselves, then Christians must change the way we think about our cars, before there is legal compulsion. We should ask basic questions about our priorities not only when we buy them, but every time we use them – as an automatic act of discipleship. But will we take the road less travelled?

Margaret Killingray

LICC – Parable of the Sewer

The Parable of the Sewer – Mark Greene reflects on bangers and trash and poikilothermia.

No more Mr Nice Guy.

In my case, it wasn’t the straw but the sausage that broke the camel’s back.

But first I need to tell you that I’ve been reading a book about how and why some ideas, some products, some trends catch on in society and others don’t. The conclusion is that little things really can make a big difference. The knack is working out which little things. So, for example, if you want to stamp out violent crime in a rough neighbourhood in a city like New York, you fix the broken windows and focus your policing not on the violent crime but on petty crimes like pickpocketing. The surprising logic goes like this: environment makes a subliminal but powerful effect on behaviour. If a potential criminal thinks that this looks like an a neighbourhood that nobody cares about because the windows don’t get fixed, then they will conclude that no one is likely to care much if they mug a middle-aged man in broad daylight. Subliminally, the environment sends a signal… you can get away with this. Or alternatively you might not.

The book is called Tipping Point and it’s written by Malcolm Gladwell. The term ‘tipping point’ describes the moment at which some idea, product or behaviour ‘tips’ from a minority interest into an epidemic. Now obviously, this make interesting reading for people who would like to find a way to make Christianity ‘tip’ again in Britain. In fact, the book doesn’t present an overall theory of social change or Seven Steps to Marketing Success but the case histories provide much grist for the strategic thinker’s mill.

Well, in one area Britain has ‘tipped’.

And so have I. And, as I mentioned, it took a sausage to do it.

I’m driving along in my car and up there on a billboard is a 48-sheet poster of a couple of Walls sausages and a couple of frying eggs in a pan. The whites of the egg are extending finger-like towards the sausages. The caption reads “Why eggs want to get laid.” Well, we’ve become used to seeing pornographic images to sell perfume but, oh, Lord, now we’re using sex to sell simple family food like sausages.

So I write to the Chairman of Bird’s Eye-Walls:

Chairman, Bird’s Eye-Walls

Vice-President

Unilever PLC

London

PO Box 68

London EC4P 4BQ

Dear Chairman

Bangers & Trash

Your recent poster campaign for your sausages, “Why eggs want to get laid” is a small-minded, strategically flawed, tawdry little concept which has no coherent role for a company selling ‘family’ foods and is entirely out of line with your perceived company values. Furthermore, it is one more nasty little addition to the pollution of public space with messages that not only demean sex but increasingly rob children of their innocence. How do you suggest I explain this ad to my 5, 7 and 10 year olds as we drive along in our car?

Of course, you might say that in the grand scheme of things this smutty little pun is not the end of the world. And besides, isn’t everyone doing it? Of course they are. Like unrestrained dogs round lampposts. In advertising terms, the sheer commonness of the approach might be deemed reason enough not to pursue it. After all, if there are all kinds of ways to skin a cat there are surely just as many approaches to sell a pig. Your agency hasn’t updated your company’s image, they’ve smeared it in pigswill.

As a former Management Supervisor in the New York office of the fourth largest ad agency in the world I am only too familiar with all the rhetorical acrobatics that might have gone into the selling of such a creatively predictable approach to your marketing team: “Contemporary image, repositioning sausages for a new generation, blah, blah, macho creative humbug.” And all this followed perhaps by self-congratulatory drinks back at the agency. “Ah,” goes the burble, “People will write in about this one. The Grocer will give us some column inches.”

Well, maybe you got some PR. Maybe you’re selling a few more sausages but truly great companies find socially positive ways to sell their products..

I hope you’ll do something about this.

And I’d like to know what you think.

Wishing you all wisdom in all you do.

Yours sincerely

Mark Greene

Executive Director

Well, so much for sausages.

But sausages were just the tip of the smut-mountain.

I’m watching the tele and on comes an ad for Alpen. There’s a normal looking woman having breakfast in bed extolling the virtues of Alpen. “Does it taste like cat litter? No. Is it worth giving up a Sunday morning roll for? No,” she says as her semi-comatose man emerges from under the duvet. “Come here then,” she says. The commercial cuts to a pack shot as we hear her say, “Is that it then?”

Was any of this necessary or even helpful? Why does sex have to be introduced into the sale of a breakfast cereal? Why does the direct allusion to a disappointing male sexual performance have to be part of the ad at all? And before the 9 o’clock watershed. Well, you could write to the manufacturer of a well-known snack food and ask them. They, in an attempt to illustrate just how little time it takes to prepare one of their products, compare it directly to the length of time a man takes to make love to his wife/girlfriend/mistress/partner.

But this isn’t just about ads.

It’s about the whole tone of popular culture.

Far, far too much is sexualised and, as such, the cultural guardians themselves become de-sensitised to the nature of the material they are presenting. So, at the Jubilee Pop Concert Tom Jones chose to sing Sex Bomb at 7.30 at night in front of a mass family audience. My three under elevens were much amused by the constant repetition of the ‘s’ word but what kind of total insensitivity leads to the choice of such explicitly sexual material at such a concert at such an hour of the evening. Later Jones and Blue sang the Full Monty pre-coital song “You can leave your hat on” whilst Ben Elton talked about “farts” and “pubic hair in the bath plughole of a student bedsit” Yah, well that’s nice.

And then I’m listening to daytime radio and there’s a croony little tune called ‘Insatiable’ which is clearly, explicitly about endless copulation. Well, now, I do want my 5 year old daughter singing along to that one. Then an ad comes on for Hamlet cigars. Now, Hamlet TV and cinema advertising was once marked by great wit and insight into a whole range of human disappointments and disasters. In this ad, the characters recount memories of their teen years but the gaff before the famous Bach air begins was about ‘Remember dressing up in your mother’s bra and knickers to discover what it would feel like to be a girl.” In a second ad a man is telling his wife/girlfriend/mistress/partner/potential lover that her knickers are wrinkling up and making her look somewhat corrugated. To which the reply comes, “I’m not wearing any knickers.” Well, do we really need this in daytime radio?

And, by this time, you might well ask do we really need all this in the pages of Christianity and Renewal?

Well, indeed. The main point is that the obsession with human sexuality has become the default mode for much of popular culture. If you can’t think of anything interesting to ask a celebrity in an interview, ask about their private lives; if you can’t get a way of getting people to watch your programme, get members of the general public to talk about their sexual experiences; if you can’t think of a way of selling a product, add smut.

I know I’m sounding as if I’m one blue rinse away from turning into Mary Whitehouse but there are worse fates and she did turn out to be right about a great many things. The problem about the ubiquity of smut is that pretty soon we don’t notice it. We shrug our shoulders and move on. Life is too short. But Tipping Point reveals that one of the ways to clean up the neighbourhood is to go for the little things. So perhaps we shouldn’t let companies and broadcasters carry on adding to the smut-mountain because, quite apart from anything else, if we do, things will only get worse. And they have, haven’t they?

Still, this is not just about tutting at smut, it’s about the wider question of what those in authority permit in public space, on air and in the cinema. It’s clear that commercial interests increasingly seem to rule. On what other grounds could The Lord of the Rings have possibly been given a PG 8 Certificate? Indeed, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has seen that very fine film who thinks it would be suitable for young children on the big screen. And when the British Board of Film Censors do give a film like Spiderman a 12 Certificate, their recommendation is promptly overruled by local authorities. In whose interest was such a decision? Warner Brothers? Odeon Cinemas? Not my kids, for sure. One 20-something friend even called me on the day after the opening to advise me not to take my kids to it. Can we trust those who give films certificates any more? Can we trust daytime radio stations? Can we trust the BBC? Can we trust the Advertising Standards Authority? They are reeds swaying in the prevailing fumes. Britain has tipped. Britain is a tip.

You probably know this.

And you probably also know this: the nervous systems of frogs doesn’t register slow increases in temperature very well. This accounts for the fact that you can pop a frog in a pot of cold water , turn on the gas and it will happily sit there not noticing that it’s being boiled to death. The condition is called poikilothermia.

We’re boiling to death.

Oh, and we don’t live in a pond we live in a sewer.

Mark Greene

LICC – Britney Cheered

Britney Cheered? – Mark Greene considers the rise and fall of the most googled girl in the world

Britney is the most googled girl in the world. In fact, she is the most googled topic in the world – with more hits than anyone or anything else in 2003. And she’s in the top 10 not just in Western nations but in a whole host of other countries. It would be easy to assume that what drives this interest is merely ‘the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh’ but that would be to overlook her enormous appeal – at least until recently to girls of 6 and over – and not incidentally her considerable talent. For Britney is far more than an American Atomic Kitten or Sugababe – she has a strong voice able to cross over a number of styles, outstanding diction, and superior phrasing. Furthermore, it is very hard to think of any artist, apart from Michael Jackson, who comes close to matching her ability to dance or indeed her ability to move on stage. She has also sold some 40 million records.

Britney was after all the Queen of Pop, the precocious teen star of the 90s who was able to communicate not only with those older than herself but to people her own age. A sixteen year-old didn’t have to look to a 30 year old Madonna to find a singer to connect with because there was Britney who was sexually alluring but also remained a virgin for quite a lot longer than the average girl … though not as long apparently as her publicity suggested. Nevertheless, little girls could admire the style, big girls could admire the get up and go, boys could dream, and parents could approve, whilst older men apparently leered. Britney’s appeal, like beauty, was in the eye of the beholder.

Still, this doesn’t fully explain why she’s the undisputed queen of cyberhits – there are plenty of other beautiful celebrity girls to ogle. Is it perhaps that she is so quintessentially an American girl and that the interest in her reflects a yearning for the fruits of the American dream? In the early days, much of her material tracked with her own rites of passage – ‘not a girl, not yet a woman’, as the song went, and if she herself wasn’t sitting in a classroom in a uniform, most of her peers were, so the famous school corridor dance video found a connection in her age group’s every day reality. Similarly, her much maligned but actually rather convincing film Crossroads traced her growing independence from her father and her decision to lose her virginity to a considerate, somewhat older boy. Alas.

Even then, however, it was clear that the battle for the portrayal of her body would be won by those who wanted to turn her into more than a pretty girl who could dance into a sexual tigress who could cavort. When my kids innocently played the video that accompanied the ‘I love Rock ‘n Roll’ single, they all instinctively knew, at 6, 8 and 10, that this material was not meant for them. Britney lost some fans. Me included.

Now, Britney has grown up, or at least thrown off the remaining shackles of her wholesome growing up girl image. Her music has shifted from pop to a grittier, clipped R & B, her lyrics are all too sexually knowing and explicit and her videos have to be shown after the watershed. Of course, she had to develop a repertoire that reflected her transition into adulthood but there is no particular reason why it had to be so unoriginally prurient. Popular culture critics call this process ‘re-inventing yourself’ – a phrase I first heard in relation to Madonna about whom it reflected an inaccurate understanding of the consistency of her approach to art and life – Madonna was growing and evolving. In Britney’s case the ‘re-invention’ looks more like a distinctly unoriginal desperation of soul as well as artistic imagination. Alongside that, her personal life looks a mess. Her quickie Las Vegas marriage and rapid annulment seems to express a lostness that ought to make our hearts break. Britney, the star, it seems to me, is destined to fade. Lets hope Britney the person can find her sparkle.

Mark Greene

All Souls, Langham Place – 08/15/2004

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever.(1 Corinthians 9:25)

Here is a sentence that fills our minds with images from the Olympics – Eric Liddell, Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Emil Zatopek or Kip Keino. ‘Strict training’ the Greek word is agonizomai, from which we get the word agony!

The apostle Paul is evidently encouraging his Christian readers to see themselves as people in training – in an altogether bigger arena and for a lasting crown. But how does the Christian disciple train? Check yourself!

– Are you out on the track early?

– Are you meeting with the team?

– Are you obeying your coach? See Christ as the great goal-setter; in fact see him as the goal for the whole of your life.

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