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“Something Good in Everything I See”: Taylor Carey



‘Abba’. No, not the cherished name of the God which Jesus Christ invites us so boldly to call out to in the institution of the Lord’s Prayer. No, I’m talking about Mamma Mia, Super Trooper and Money, Money, Money, to name but three songs of a band that formed much of the parentally-dictated soundscape of my youth. The rule was simple enough: if we were in a car, and the journey was long, there was Abba. So let me say all these years later, from the depths of somewhere deep, ‘Thank you for the music’.

Thank you for the music indeed, because, as the Revd Dr Ian Bradley reminded us some weeks ago, it is in our singing to the Lord that we affirm the tenets of our faith, find ourselves in a Christ-oriented community, and raise our eyes to the ‘spacious firmament on high’. Who could fail to be awed by the loving devotion of a Charles Wesley, an Isaac Watts or a Joseph Addison? Or, moving from the congregational to the choral, the tangible faith of a James MacMillan or a John Tavener? Sacred music, in its broadest sense, articulates the basic human desire to be lifted above the everyday, and provides fleeting glimpses, perhaps, of those shards of transparency connecting and sustaining humankind, made in the image of an all-loving God. As ever, Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it rather better:

‘Charged with the grandeur of God
It will flame out like shining from shook foil’.

But music is bestowed with an even greater significance if we consider its place in the narratives of creation and redemption. The Book of Job furnishes us with a musical metaphor bound up in a prolonged examination of the nature of God: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy?’ (Job 38:7). The act of singing is, at its most fundamental, an act of communication. And it is this that sits at the heart of the Christian understanding of creation; a communicative self-giving of a Trinitarian God; a gratuitous overflowing of love which is poured out as if in song. This is at once the beginning and the constant now of creation, for it is in this communicative act that we find the cradle of authentic Christian spirituality. Far from being a parsimonious category of mystical experience which seems increasingly threatened by advances in scientific explanation; spirituality, in the words of Rowan William’s profoundly challenging book The Wound of Knowledge, ‘must now touch every area’ of our lives, so that we might gain ‘an acceptance of this complicated and muddled bundle of experiences as a possible theatre for God’s creative work’ (p.2). That bestows upon us, I think, a commitment to openness and contemplation, a commitment to always straining an ear for that quiet cosmic note, so subtle and yet so powerfully present at the absolute centre of things. We are charged with echoing that divine self-communication, with being caught up in and harmoniously joining our voices with the resounding chorus of the heavens. That is the authentic spiritual vision of Christianity, and it is liberal, it is open and it is stunningly gracious.

So much,then, for music. But I didn’t write this sermon to lounge around solely in the spirituality of Scandinavian pop groups – fruitful though I’m sure it would be. I want to come back to the agreement we reached on what an authentic conception of Christian spirituality demands – openness, contemplation, humility, linguistic tentativeness, liberalism – in just a moment. But I wrote this address with a keen sense of crisis. Theology, I am increasingly concerned, is going wrong. Global trends in the world’s major faiths, and certainly the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, show an unmistakable drift towards a narrow-minded conservatism, and a repressive, judgemental fundamentalism which is exclusive, divisive, and, I am convinced, utterly limiting. We are slipping back into old ways, and discovering new ways, of condemning and cursing when we should be encouraging and blessing. But underpinning it all is the basic problem of language: our communication has failed, and communities of faith and within faiths increasingly find themselves shouting past one another in what are highly fragile, delicate debates. As Rudyard Kipling might lament equally well in this context, ‘Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’.

The debate over homosexuality crystallises these concerns. It has sapped the energies of all major religions, particularly in their dialogue with the secular world, and – sadly – fuelled the growth of reactionary, bigoted and fundamentalist factions within Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Our greatest obstacle to having a meaningful dialogue on this issue remains a fundamental problem of language. Here we return to the theme of spirituality and the song. Music begins at the cross-roads of the communicable and the incommunicable. It lifts us beyond the rhyme and rhythm, metre and tempo of our everyday speech, and inverts the speech-act relationship. Music acts out our speech, constituting and framing our language by its broader, more sweeping movements. Our language is always evolving, always getting to grips with what lies just a few inches off the page – that’s why we have our Wordsworths and our Coleridges, our Constables and our Turners, our Sullivans and our Elgars. Musicians, poets, artists and imaginative writers exist because we can’t parsimoniously circumscribe that ‘muddled bundle of experiences’ which constitute our lives, and, as Williams reminds us, can and must be seen as a potential theatre for God’s divine action. Of course, that which more than anything else we so utterly fail to linguistically circumscribe is God Himself – and quite right too, says St Thomas Aquinas. God in a box is not God at all.

But this is a far cry from modern conservative fundamentalism, which despises linguistic humility as weak, tepid and spineless. It is equally loathing of any notion of ‘mystery’ – except when it wants to obscure an ugly truth – and it scorns talk of the limits of prescription and doctrine. ‘My God is a great God’ is a commonly expressed sentiment – you’ll find it said often enough amongst student Christian groups here, and not least those fond of giving out toasties – and it sounds pretty harmless. But it actually doesn’t take all that much to add on a second phrase: ‘…and I know his mind, I know his will and I know exactly what he despises and loves’. Or perhaps you might prefer the slightly nauseating: ‘Jesus loves me! This I know / For the Bible tells me so’. OK, so that was an unfair attack on an otherwise benign hymn by the utterly benign Anna B. Warner – but that sentiment is, I believe, where so many of the narratives of biblical inerrancy, textual literalism and plain ignorance feed into an increasingly entrenched, fanaticised and hostile fundamentalist Christianity. To bring it back to one specific point of contention: my issue with the current state of affairs within my own Church and many others is not that some Christians in all conscience have cause to doubt the moral legitimacy of my sexual orientation, or to doubt my salvation; but that there is a complete tone-deafness to diverse perspectives and an automatic dismissal of anything daring to present a messy, nuanced picture of the ‘muddled bundle of experiences’ that we call human life. Returning to music, conservative fundamentalism has quite forgotten the obligation to strain the ear for the divine cosmic chord. Heads are buried in the sand, and meanwhile the hating goes on.

And that hatred is singularly illogical, singularly hypocritical and singularly blasphemous for a people wedded to the notion of an all-loving God. And when that heretical hostility is combined with a total lack of humility and a conception of God so limited, so much a projection of our own transitory needs and desires, fears and shortcomings, we are left with nothing but hard-headed intolerance and bigotry. The mind of God becomes another weapon in the arsenal of things which we can throw at the enemy in a debate, even as that disarming acceptance of God screams back at us to stop – return to the Book of Job: ‘Where we you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ Who are you to dare think you can be so much of a judge, so self-sufficient in your administration of justice? Have we learnt nothing from a Christ who is crucified so scandalously and so tragically by God’s own people under God’s own law? (cf. Rom. 9.30-3, Matt.23.13, John 8.41).

Certainly, this isn’t a call for ‘anything goes’. We are furnished by the Gospel with a clear ethical understanding and moral landscape; this is given direction by, and finds its fulfilment in, the Christ we meet at the foot of the Cross. But far from shoe-horning our culturally inherited prejudices into fundamentalist deployments of highly ambiguous biblical texts, this involves at root a commitment to openness, to radical diversity and to a humility in our ‘feeling out’ of a Christ-oriented life. In fact, of course, that is what St. Paul is at least in part discussing in Romans 3: is something like sexuality simply a satisfaction of private emotional needs or a series of decisions about what we want our bodily selves to mean?  Does anyone need reminding – and perhaps we all have times when we do – of the consequences of treating sexuality like a drug to be administered free of moral danger? I remain deeply hurt by the prevalence of promiscuity within heterosexual and homosexual communities, and the readiness with which such behaviour perpetuates a dehumanising cycle of ‘uninhabited flesh’, as Paul would recognise. Bodily meaning – making human sense of our bodies and using them as part of our communication – is not some virtuous optional extra to be tagged onto our normal throw-away routines. The reality of the pain and suffering caused by our willingness to shut down from echoing God’s loving music through our own corporal lives stares us all in the face. Sexual licentiousness causes gross unhappiness and emotional tumult, as perhaps we can all admit we know. Refraining from the narrow-minded judgementalism of fundamentalist religion doesn’t mean establishing carte blanche for us to smear our own preferences and transitory needs all over the world.

What then, is the solution? Here, we return to Abba – still in the sense of the Scandinavian pop group. You probably all know the song: ‘I have a dream’ – it opens the West End musical Mamma Mia! Once again, theologians can only hope to catch up with where God is already working amidst 1970s musicians. Here’s the line that grabs me: ‘I believe in angels, Something good in everything I see’. Forget the angels bit for now: ‘something good in everything I see’. That to me speaks of a fundamental orientation towards the inherent goodness of creation, the commitment to seeing no one thing as wholly irredeemable or evil. That, to me, sounds not too distant from the Christian conception of grace. I echoed Ian Bradley’s excellent recent book near the beginning of this sermon in saying that we have slipped from a language of encouragement and blessing to a language of condemnation and cursing. We are perpetuating a fundamentally blasphemous hatred at the heart of our theology when it comes to so many issues of contention: sexuality, gender, leadership, the use of force, education and economics. We need to rediscover a posture of humility, rooted in the notion that we must always ‘strain an ear’ for that subtle call of a God that escapes the bounds of parsimonious conceptualisation; a God that constantly escapes and unsettles our categories, upsets our convenient judgements and challenges our settled assumptions. And we need a reorientation towards seeing the inherent goodness of creation as a gift of God, the product of gratuitous love – even amidst the most taxing questions of suffering and evil. Once we have laid that sure foundation – to be found in Christ’s unconditional outpouring of love upon the Cross – and once we can commit to something good in everything we see, then we can begin to establish a meaningful, gracious discussion on issues that remain difficult for us all. In an age when all the signs in theology are pointing the wrong way, towards narrow-mindedness, towards arrogance and heretical self-sufficiency, and towards the triumph of destructive hatred over disarming love, it is my hope and prayer that we rediscover that commitment to openness, to that consciousness of authentic spirituality and our own humility, not just for people like myself, but for the glory of God and His creation, that heaven and earth might yet abound in His harmonious chord of love.


  The illustration is: A Revival Band covering ABBA at the LGBT event Europride 2008 in Stockholm from Wikimedia: ABBA 2008,7,30 Reprint from Flickr by Bengt Nyman



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