Cafe culture in the Northwest

Think of cafe culture and I rather suspect that Bury will not be the first town to spring to mind. However, Mrs Tree and I went there for a visit to the East Lancashire Railway earlier today and missed the train we had planned to catch. So a brief excursion into the town centre brought us to @utomatic, a restaurant on the main street. As it was a sunny day we took coffee outside and very continental it felt. Espresso, decaf cappucino and the service all recommended. A great day to watch the world go by.

Later in the day we went for a meal with our friends and on the way back stopped by the coastal erosion at Blundellsands between Liverpool and Formby to witness this scene.

Kindness: can it be taught?

Today the UK media are, rightly, exercised by a report into the care of the elderly produced by Ann Abraham, the National Health Service Obudsman (find the Guardian’s newspaper report here).

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (starts at around 2 hours 10 minutes of the whole programme) included an interview with a man whose mother died in hospital of dehydration, despite there being a glass and a jug of water beside the bed. Nursing staff did not think  to help her to drink. Subsequent interviews with Jo Webber, Policy Director of the NHS Confederation and Professor Raymond Tallis, former Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester, focussed on the “lessons to be learned” and how it was that this and other cases demonstrated a failure of “basic compassion.”

What was striking to me about Prof. Tallis’s contribution was his acknowledgement that this was a matter of ethos, not only within the NHS but within society at large. He pointed to a culture whose priorities value what can be counted and measured, which uses a business model which often undermines professional considerations, and which values glamour at the expense of the distinctly unglamorous need to provide care to the most vulnerable. Referring to trying to change the ethos within hospital to ensure that compassion was paramount, the interviewer, John Humphries, asked, “Can you teach that? You can’t can you?”

Well, I think you can – but not as a classroom exercise.  Compassion and kindness can be taught, but only in an environment where it is being consistently modelled and valued from the top down as well as from the bottom up. It cannot be taught as a kind of add-on extra. One of the joys of my job is visiting one of the primary schools within my benefice. As soon as you walk in the door you can feel that this is a place where kindness and care are valued. It is consistently modelled by the head teacher and the staff, it is consistently reinforced by positive messages and action and the children quickly catch on. It is part of the ethos of the place. If all the NHS do is to include the above case, along with others, in a classroom syllabus it will be forgotten once on the wards. Change in ethos will only be achieved by consistent leadership by example.

And this, I think, is a major issue with the government’s agenda to promote the Big Society. I find it rather ironic that the same political party whose leader told us over 20 years ago that the was “no such thing as society” now recognises the falsity of that statement. In the intervening period, volunteering has decreased seriously owing to a number of factors, including legislation that had good intentions but is felt to be burdensome, increasing other demands on time and energy, population mobility and a decreasing sense of commitment to a geographical location. If progress towards the vision of a Big Society is to be made it will require a considerable and widespread change in our culture to re-establish caring and compassion as genuine values. This needs to take place not only in the outlook of individuals but in the wider social environment. If volunteering is increase it needs a society which values this, employers who will not seek to wring the last drop of time and energy from their employees, but who will encourage them to give some of that time and energy be involved in civic and social good.

This will only come about if it is consistently modelled by our leaders, starting with our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and Members of Parliament, but including leaders of business and other walks and institutions of life. And it will take time and patience. It cannot be pushed through if it is to bring about truly radical and lasting change in our society. If David Cameron is as passionately committed to the Big Society as he claims, than he and his colleagues need to do more than simply talk and legislate. They must be the change they seek.

Tales of new media (1): oral tradition and writing

Long, long ago humans began to form small groups and tribes. As well as providing physical protection for one another, the groups had other advantages. Knowledge could be pooled. No longer did each generation need to find out for themselves which plants would kill you or make you seriously ill, where the best places were to find water or different species of animals and birds, how to make fire and so on. Instead, those with good memories could pass on their wisdom and knowledge to a younger generation, or to peers who may be less knowledgeable about certain matters. Stories about what happened in the past could also be passed on for both instruction and entertainment. Group identity could be forged.

Thus began what we now call oral tradition or oral culture. Members of the tribe could function collectively as repositories of knowledge and tradition, though individuals (especially the elderly who had spent a lifetime acquiring skils and knowledge) might have their specialist roles within this economy. Accurate memory was highly prized, and since the tribe’s members relied on it, it was cultivated as a skill. Various “tricks” to aid memory helped ensure that the tradition was corrupted as little as possible – repetitive phrasing in story-telling, word associations and so on.

One day, the tribe hear of an invention called writing. This is marvellous! By making a series of symbols on a cave wall, or on clay or wax tablets, or even on animal hides or processed plant fibres, information can be preserved almost indefinitely. And if the medium is portable, it means that messages and information can be transported accurately from place to place. Both time and geographical distance become less of an inhibition to the carrying of information. Of course, it needs people with special skills make the writing in the first place, and then to read it back. Information transmission becomes the preserve of these specially trained individuals, who hold considerable power over the other members of the tribe.

But some are rather sceptical. Others are in awe of those who have these special powers. Still others are a bit worried about where this is all going to lead (Plato.for example). After all, if you can go to a piece of writing to get the information you need, doesn’t this mean that you don’t need to remember for yourself any more? And perhaps the elders aren’t so important in this new world order. Oral tradition doesn’t die out. After all, it is quite expensive to produce a text. Even if you have the skill needed to read and write, the pens and inks and writing surface are all quite expensive to produce and also require specialist labour. Writing and Oral tradition co-exist. But it is true that writing changes the need for accurate memory, once you have a permanent record to refer to.

A little more on usury and the sexuality debate

I’ve just been trying to find out a little more about how it was that the Christian view on charging interest came to change so radically between the medieval period and the Enlightenment. Things are a little murky, but several online articles, including this one, seem to lay the blame at Calvin’s door. The main plank of his argument appears to have been the difference in conditions between the times and culture of ancient Israel and that of sixteenth century Europe.

Well, knock me down with a feather! I need to check this out, because if this is true then it sheds quite a different light on the current sexuality debates that are rocking the Anglican Communion. It rather begs the question as to what makes the difference between financial sins, in which social differences make definition changes OK, and sexual ones, which many seem to want to see as set in stone? Hmmm.

Can anyone point me in the direction of any recent work on this?

Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish? (2)

In my previous post I outlined the sad story of the separation of Rabbinic Judaism and Gentile Christianity, and the resulting Christian anti-semitism.

Messianic Judaism revolves around the issue of religious identity. The question “who is a Jew?” has a variety of answers, with both ethnic and religious aspects. Ethnically, Jewish identity may be considered in the same way as other ethnic identities, regardless of religious affiliation. For religious purposes, however, one is a Jew if one has been born to a Jewish mother (fathers alone don’t count here) or has undergone a process of conversion, circumcision (for males, obviously) and reception into the Jewish faith. The process includes instruction in Torah, not just as an intellectual exercise but as a basis for living and making the hundreds of decisions we encounter each day. For universal acceptance, this must be done by a recognised orthodox rabbi – liberal and progressive conversions are not recognised by orthodox Jewish communities or the State of Israel. Those who complete the stages of this process are understood to be included and incorporated into the covenant with God inaugurated through Moses at Mount Sinai.

Christian identity, of course, revolves around following the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth, with baptism as the outward sign of initiation, although a few groups, such as the Salvation Army, dispense with this. Christians, too, understand themselves to be covenant people of God – in this instance mediated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus refers to this new covenant at the Last Supper, and the Letter to the Hebrews can be regarded as an attempt to work out the implications of this.

The question then arises as to whether it is possible to be both Jewish AND Christian. The answer to this will depend very much on how one views the identity and purpose of Jesus and on the view one takes of the relationship between the two covenants. What does it mean when we talk about a “new” covenant? Does this imply that the “old” covenant is completely superseded or is there any sense in which it could still be said to be valid?

To be continued…

Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish?

A few days ago I became involved in an exchange with clayboy (Doug Chaplin) in which the subject of Messianic Judaism came up. In a comment, he stated

“And I share with most Jews and most Christians the view that most Messianic Judaism that differentiates itself from Christianity is a theological sectarian mistake, over-influenced by American fundamentalism. That sweeping generalisation (to which I certainly think there are some exceptions) is a topic for another post.”

Rather than wait for Doug’s post, I decided to take up his suggestion and offer some of my own thoughts on the subject of Messianic Judaism. However, as I thought more about it, I began to realise that it would be difficult to do justice to this topic in one blog post, nor do I have time to deal with the issue comprehensively at one sitting. So this will be the first of a number of posts.

The first thing to acknowledge is that Doug is right to say that for most Jews and most Christians, Messianic Judaism is regarded as a theological sectarian mistake. As is well known, the history of relations between Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity is, for the most part, not a happy one. From the second generation of the church onwards, Christianity has been a largely Gentile phenomenon, rejected by the vast majority of Jewish people. Since then the church has attempted to exert pressure of various kinds to “encourage” conversion – from the medieval “disputes”, often heavily rigged by Christian rulers to demonstrate the superior claims of Christianity, to the horrors of the Inquisition which threatened torture and death to those who refused to submit. Sometimes conversions happened, but these were frequently either in response to overt pressure just mentioned, or in order to better an individual’s or family’s social, financial or political standing in a Gentile Christian world.

At the heart of much of the Christian response to Judaism has been an assumption of the superiority of Christian faith over against that of Judaism. In this view the life, death and resurrection of Christ abolished almost everything that makes the Jewish faith so distinctive. A supersessionist, or replacement, theology taught that God had now finished with the Jewish people, that the first covenant had effectively been anulled and that the Church had replaced Israel (indeed now WAS Israel) in God’s scheme of things. In such a view, the only way in which Jewish people could have a part in God’s plan of salvation was to renounce their former faith and join the (Gentile) Church. At the Reformation, Martin Luther began with high hopes that the removal of Catholic “errors” would see Jews flocking to a reformed Christianity. When these hopes proved to be unfounded, he then spewed forth some notoriously anti-semitic invective.

With this history, it is hardly surprising that the name of Christ, and almost everything the Christian church stood for, became an object of fear and loathing to Jewish communities and individuals across Europe. As Christian thinking and practice developed, so did that of Judaism, frequently in response to the other. The result of this, almost inevitably, was that an individual converting from one religion to the other (mostly in the Jewish – Christian direction) was ostracised by their original community. The faiths were regarded by both communities as being mutually exclusive. Converting Jews were expected to live in exactly the same way and adopt the same cultural and religious practices as their gentile neighbours.

Having set the scene in this post, I intend in future posts to consider why Messianic Judaism has arisen during the last few decades, what are its influences and to what extent it might or might not have validity in terms of both Judaism and Christianity. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Welcome to the Forest

Greetings from the heart of the National Forest in the English Midlands. “A Tree in the Forest” plans to blog on a assortment of topics, but focussed on those related to Christian Life, Mission and Faith in the early twenty-first century. Tree is interested particularly in how new media and technologies will affect our culture and our understanding of the Christian gospel, also in how we relate to the changing society around us, especially those who may have a different faith. Other topics will appear from time to time. I look forward to the conversation.