Friday, 18 February 2011

should the Daily Mail come with a mental health warning?

An enterprising young man wants to persuade his mother to stop reading the Daily Mail, so has set up a group on Facebook which lists all the paper's cancer scare stories over the last few years. It is an astonishing list, painstakingly linked to each article on the Mail's website - almost 150 carcinogens from flip-flops and hugging, to talcum powder and till receipts. Smoking isn't mentioned.

I remember Mike Yaconelli once saying that good satire doesn't always need to provide witty commentary. Sometimes it is simply enough to hold up a mirror to what someone has said or done. The Facebook list does just that, and speaks for a news agenda that plays on our fears and anxieties.

It is a little unfair, I suppose, to single out one newspaper. The front pages of papers are dominated by bad news, and can leave one gasping for hope amidst the litany of woes that are the headlines. What does our exposure to all this news of greed, violence, and catastrophe do to our state of mind?

Michael Moore's conclusion, in his film Bowling for Columbine, is that the anxiety created by the news agenda in the USA is responsible for the number of people who own - and consequently discharge - guns.

Others have suggested that levels of anxiety, depression, panic attacks and social withdrawal are linked to fear stoked by the news.

But it is not all bad news, of course. The media is limbering up for the overboard coverage they are sure to give the royal wedding. Sometimes a good news story can spread itself across a dozen pages of a tabloid newspaper. And remember the coverage given to the remarkable rescue of the Chilean miners?

There is another argument. We don't actually get enough bad news, because our diet of reality is diluted by celebrity gossip, political commentary or those feel-good 'And finally...' stories. Editors know that it is hard for us to swallow too much depressing reality and must leaven the mix to keep readers engaged. Attention-grabbing headlines, that draw us in by playing on our fears, give way to cheering human interest stories to remind us that everything is fine really.

Writing in the Church Times (£) a few months ago, Giles Fraser suggested that the instinct to tone down the news might have something to do with how we wish to see ourselves.
I wonder why it is women who write best about evil: Mary Midgley, Gitta Sereny, Gillian Rose, Hannah Arendt. Perhaps it is because, unlike men, they do not so readily refocus their distress at hearing [stories of human atrocities] into some passionate expression of retributive anger. This allows time and space for a more disturbing reality to dawn: that we might have more in common with the perpetrators than we are comfortable acknowledging.

News of inhuman treatment towards others is appalling to read. Part of that shock is realising the capacity of some people to do things we would never dream of. And yet perhaps within us is an understanding that what drives people to commit acts of terror, assault, abuse or murder is the same sorry collection of fears, insecurities, shame and hatred that we all have to confront within ourselves. We may not be driven to the same extremes, but which of us hasn't had moments when we could have cheerfully throttled a colleague or family member? Or fantasised about the 'disappearance' of a difficult person from a challenging situation?

Reading the paper may or may not be bad for our mental health. But perhaps it should prompt us to examine closely the state of our spiritual well-being.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

there are never enough second-person pronouns around when you need them

The trouble with the English language these days is that we only have one word for 'you.' Even my rudimentary grasp of schoolboy French remembers that our nearest neighbours can distinguish between you, the individual, and you, a whole bunch of people (as well as you, a chum, and you, someone dead important).

That is has taken me this long to notice our deficiency in second-person pronouns suggests that it has not been the greatest obstacle to communication. Mostly we can figure out whether it is one person being addressed or a group of people from the context in which you appears. (While any good Glaswegian will helpfully get round the problem by using the plural youse - as in, "Are any of youse goin' doon the chip shop?")

Difficulties can occur when translating from a language with more than one form of you, into modern English. Sometimes the meaning is lost in translation.

Both Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of our scriptures, distinguish between singular and plural second-person pronouns. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes:
"My Greek professor at college was from Oklahoma. He liked to say that most of the you's in scripture are y'all's. That is, almost all of the second-person pronouns are plural in the New Testament. Same is true with the Hebrew. The Bible isn't addressed to a person but to a people."

Along with a wider cultural shift towards individualism, Christians too easily personalise their faith to something that is between God and them. Society often prefers it that way. "Religion is something that should be kept private," is a line columnists trot out whenever a public demonstration of faith makes the headlines.

We should be wary of too much emphasis on me. It is easy to see how the gospel of personal salvation so often preached can lead to a distorted faith that is self-centred rather than focused on one's place in a community as it relates to God.

God calls us to be part of his people, his community of the faithful, through whom we become partners in his mission. From the story of Israel to the emergence of the New Testament Church, the Bible is an account of the way that God is shaping his people to be a force for salvation to the nations.

Our personal faith, then, has to find its place and expression within the context of God's people. When somebody says, "I don't need the church to be a Christian," they are removing themselves from the very body through which God shapes their journey - and that of the world - towards wholeness.

This is why so much of scripture dwells on how we relate to each other. In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ sets out a blueprint for how we should live as part of the family of God. You (plural) are the salt of the earth. You (plural) are the light of the world. In today's gospel reading (Matthew 5.21-37) Jesus spells out how we must resolve disagreements and manage our anger towards each other before it destroys us.

His message, as pressing today as it was when he preached it, is, "Sort yourselves out. God has work for you to do. Together."

Sunday, 6 February 2011

John O'Donohue on Prayer

I was looking for something appropriate to include in the parish news sheet, and found the following extract from John O'Donohue's book Eternal Echoes. There is a notion in Celtic Spirituality that some places are 'thin places' where the membrane separating heaven and earth feels like it could just break open. Places like Holy Island and Iona are popular with pilgrims because that sense of holiness feels stronger.

I find that same quality in John O'Donohue's writing, such as this passage about prayer:

One of the most tender images is the human person at prayer. When the body gathers itself before the Divine, a stillness deepens. The blaring din of distraction ceases and the deeper tranquillity within the heart envelops the body. To see someone at prayer is a touching sight. For a while they have become unmoored from the grip of society, work and role. It is as if they have chosen to enter into a secret belonging carried within the soul; they rest in that inner temple impervious to outer control or claiming. A person at prayer also evokes the sense of vulnerability and fragility. Their prayer reminds us that we are mere guests of the earth, pilgrims who always walk on unsteady ground, carrying in earthen vessels multitudes of longing.
To sit or kneel in prayer is visually our most appropriate physical presence. There is something right about this. It coheres with the secret structure of existence and reality, namely that we have a right to nothing. Everything that we are, think, feel and have is a gift. We have received everything, even the opportunity to come to the earth and walk awake in this wondrous universe. There are many people who have worked harder than us, people who have done more kind and holy things and yet they have received nothing. The human body gathered in prayer mirrors our fragility and inner poverty and it makes a statement recognizing the divine generosity that is always blessing us. To be gathered in prayer is appropriate. It is a gracious, reverential and receptive gesture. It states that, at the threshold of each moment, the gift of breath and blessing comes across to embrace us.