Just a song

In 1969 short-lived supergroup Blind Faith released their first and only album. Keyboards and vocals: Steve Winwood, formerly of Traffic and the Spencer Davis Group. Unique voice, very soulful but liable to crack and skid off the note. He would later become the organist of a parish church in England when he wasn’t busy touring and recording. Guitarist: Eric Clapton, still with years of drug and alcohol problems ahead of him, not to mention a hugely successful solo career. He wrote this song. Drummer: Ginger Baker. Like Clapton, he was formerly in Cream, and is my favourite rock drummer. Bass: Ric Grech, formerly of Family. I don’t know why they called themselves Blind Faith or how they managed to smuggle such an obviously Christian song onto an album of blistering rock and soul. I certainly didn’t think about it at the time.

Like many addicts, Clapton’s search for the something-missing took him down a variety of blind alleys and it wasn’t until he cleaned up for good in 1987 that he became serious about God. Although he doesn’t make a big thing of it in public, he has been quoted as saying this:

I had found a place to turn to… From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do.

The Blind Faith album cover was controversial and was prohibited in the US. According to the art director who came up with the idea, there was not supposed to be anything erotic or suggestive about it, but they certainly wouldn’t get away with it now.

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Just a song

I don’t think Stephen Stills, best known as part of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, is religious, but he wasn’t afraid of mentioning Jesus on this song, which sounds like a love song for a Christian girl. Incidentally, the Dallas Taylor whose name appears on the cover was not the Christian musician of that name. He was a drummer who played on both CSN and Deja Vu, had problems with alcohol and drugs, had a liver transplant, started working with young addicts and died last year, aged 66.

Old, old stories – Jacob’s cousins

The Bible reimagined

Bible

Jacob’s cousins

There was always some sort of intrigue going on in Jacob’s family. He had had trouble with his older brother, Esau, which was part of the reason he had left the family home and gone looking for his uncle, Laban, Jacob’s mother Rebecca’s brother.

All he knew was that Laban lived in a small farming town, so he had gone there with no particular plan but to get way while his brother cooled down about the event that had caused them trouble.

Jacob sat in the town’s only bar and had drunk a few beers and moved on to whisky when the man on the next stool started to engage him in conversation.

“Not from around these parts?”

“Nope,” said Jacob, not really wanting company.

“You’re far away in your thoughts,” the man said.

“Yep.” The man just kept looking at him, waiting for a continuation, so Jacob reluctantly obliged. “Just thinking about home,” he said. “Long story.”

“Want to tell me about it?” the man pursued. “Nothing much ever happens in this place and I’d be glad of a fresh story to listen to. Heard just about everything everyone around here has to tell a hundred times.”

Jacob’s city-boy suspicious nature had been checking the man out since he opened his mouth, and he had concluded this wasn’t the local gay man trying his luck.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve been considering my future lately and came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to get a good deal at home in the family business. My Dad set up a haulage firm and now he’s getting on a bit and his body’s failing him he’s decided to retire. And he was going to leave it to my older brother, because he’s always favoured him. They’re similar people: big strong working men, and I’m the arty one, the one with an enquiring mind. They both think I’m kind of a lesser breed from my mother’s side. To cut a long story short, there was a bit of smoke and mirrors went on and I nearly managed to get the old man  to sign it over to me, but Esau found out at the last minute and it all got pretty unpleasant.

“So I decided to come out here till it blew over and maybe work for my uncle Laban.”

“Laban Crossley?” the man said with a surprised smile.

“You know him,” Jacob mumbled, determined to play down his excitement.

“Laban’s a big noise around here,” the man said. “Biggest producer of potatoes in the county. Big house, big cars, beautiful daughters. Here comes one now.”

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The door opened and in walked a cross between Cameron Diaz and a young Sophia Loren.

“Hey, Rachel,” the man said loudly, waving her over to where he and Jacob sat. She seemed pleased, on entering the bar alone, to find herself in safe company.

“I guess you don’t know who this is,” the man said, enjoying himself hugely and gesturing towards Jacob.

“Looks kind of familiar,” Rachel said.

“Only your goddam cousin,” the man said triumphantly.

Rachel looked at Jacob and said hesitantly, “Esau?”

“The other one,” said Jacob, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“Jake… ah, Jacob?” Rachel fumbled. They beamed at each other and allowed themselves a daring little hug. The man made his excuses and left discreetly.

It turned out that Rachel had been due to meet her boyfriend that night, but he hadn’t shown up, so she had gone into town, maybe to look for him and maybe to find some other way to spend the evening. She and Jacob hit it off straightaway and she had been sorely tempted to stay the night in his hotel room, but the reaction of her father would have been nuclear even without the family complication, so she had gone home late, smiling dreamily. That was Saturday night.

“I invited somebody for dinner,” she announced the following day.

“Not that bum again,” Laban said. With his wife long dead, he was extra protective with his daughters, Rachel and her sister Leah.

Rachel decided the best course of action was to tell her father about Bobby not showing up and use it to contrast him with Jacob. But she didn’t tell Laban who this knight in shining armour was.

“We’ll let him get to know you,” she told Jacob. “Then we’ll tell him.”

Sunday dinner, a cherished tradition in the household, was prepared these days by Leah, a tall, slim girl two years older than Rachel, and attractive in her way but with a lazy eye, and without the younger one’s charm.

The wine flowed and the four of them made merry, and eventually Rachel deemed it safe to spring the surprise. Laban was stunned. He poured a whole glass of red down his throat as the realization sank in. He could see how well-suited Jacob and Rachel seemed to be, and cousins getting together was no longer illegal in those parts.

Later on, while the girls were in the kitchen washing up, which Jacob thought old fashioned and wrong, he and Laban sat and drank brandy and discussed the potato farming business. Jacob obviously knew nothing about it, but he knew he could streamline it and bring it up to date. Laban was a good farmer, a hard worker, but there was something naïve about him in a business sense. Jacob could greatly increase the profits.

“I couldn’t pay you very much,” Laban said. “Not until you proved your worth to the company. The figures will decide your salary. And you’ll live here in this house, rent free. Damn, I always wanted to put & Son on the letterhead. Maybe & Nephew’s a bit of a mouthful, but… damn!”

“I’ll do it for not very much money,” Jacob said in a conspiratorial tone. “As long as you don’t object to me and your daughter.”

“Object?’ said Laban. “You shall have a girl in your bed tonight.”

Tired from his travels, Jacob turned in soon after 10pm. Laban showed him to a guest room that was warm and dusty and must have been furnished by Laban’s late wife. The soft furnishings were feminine, but not in a modern way. It was a conservative older woman’s style. The curtains were thick and blacked the room out completely. Jacob was grateful for that as he turned off the light and his weary body and brain headed immediately for shutdown.

He wasn’t fully awake even when the door opened and the figure of a woman entered and slid into bed beside him. Jacob was cocooned in warmth and femininity and when a gentle flurry of activity had subsided, he slept soundly.

When he awoke in the morning it was to see the same woman enter with a breakfast tray.

She pulled back the curtains and light flooded in from a glorious day. It was Leah.

Leah was happy as could be as the girls went off to do their jobs in the company office. Laban stayed at home, where he had a study in which he could work. He invited Jacob in and the young man was appalled at the old, boxy computer, huge photocopier and primitive fax machine. His uncle certainly needed his help, but first he needed to get personal matters sorted out.

“Have a good time last night?” Laban asked with a surprising little leer. It seemed like a different world out there in the sticks and that was another thing Jacob intended to change if everything went the way he hoped.

“Yeah,” Jacob said. “But that was the wrong one. It’s Rachel I like.”

“Can’t be done,” Laban said, shaking his head. “There’s a certain order to things around here that you don’t understand. I can’t have little Rachel having a good adult time while her big sister’s still waiting. Just how it is.”

The two men discussed it for a few minutes, but neither was for changing his mind.

“Tell you what I’ll do,” Laban said eventually. “I didn’t hear no complaints from Leah about you, and Rachel’s just plain jealous, which is not a good quality. I don’t see why you can’t have both of them. It’s going to extend your period of poor financial reward, mind.”

“How would that work, legally?” Jacob asked.

“Don’t got to be nothing legal about it,” Laban explained. “As long as you only marry one of them, what you do with the other is nobody’s business. Happens all the time, don’t it? It’s only bigamy if you marry both of them.”

“You think they’ll go for that?” Jacob asked, incredulous.

“Both crazy about you,” Laban said. “Ain’t too many eligible bachelors in this corner of the planet. You’re a lucky man, Jacob.”

The original version of this story can be found in The Old Testament, Genesis 29.

Jesus is not on Facebook – yet

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

That is from Matthew 7, and just writing that leads right into what I want to talk about. Matthew 7 sounds like a username. It could be someone on Facebook or an unsolicited email that finds its way to your inbox.

It is easier than ever these days for people to express their opinions and in doing so, to influence others. It is sadly tempting to think this is always a bad thing. We hear about youngsters being “groomed” online, lulled into a false sense of security by someone with bad intentions.

The same thing happens with religion; we hear about people being radicalised, lured into the murky, deadly world of extremism and violence.

As that verse from the Bible shows, the bad guys were at it thousands of years ago, in an era when communications hadn’t yet reached the sophistication of carrier pigeons. If they were worried about it then, and Jesus felt strongly enough about it to give that warning, how concerned must he feel now, observing a world which mankind has all but ruined?

But if Jesus were to return at this point in time, how would he go about letting us know and turning us into a peaceful army, a global force for good?

Would he hire a public relations firm? I don’t think so. PR is all about accentuating the positive and taking the focus off the negative. If there is no negative, what is there for a spin doctor to do?

Jesus would be on Facebook and he would have more FB friends than anyone in its history (if 12 years can be called history). He would be on Twitter, producing the most (perhaps the only) worthwhile series of tweets there has ever been. He would have a TV channel and his radio show would be syndicated to every country in the world. And he would tour relentlessly, indefatigably. He would fill conference centers and sports stadiums, and all his personal appearances would be free of charge.

Does that mean the Bible would become obsolete? No. The New Testament would stand the test of time because it is a historical record of Jesus’s life.

It’s the Old Testament that would struggle, as it has struggled increasingly in recent years. It is full of stories; some beautiful, some inspiring, some terrifying. And some… just seem  so much of their time rather than our time. It’s a book full of significance and there is a huge amount we can learn from it. But it’s also full of violence and ideas of morality that seem wrong to us. It reflects a time when the glorious age was in the future at an unknown time. Much like now, really.

No such thing as the perfect Christian – part 1 of 1,000

To be a Christian means one basic thing: to believe not only in God but in his son Jesus Christ – hence the name. It is not the only religion in the world, and that means there is an element of competition that is innate in human beings: the ‘my Dad is bigger than your Dad’ attitude. But if our way is supposed to be leading by example, we have to put aside the temptation to argue our opponents into agreement.

Yes, wars have been caused by religion, and not surprisingly when you look at the Old Testament, which is full of war, skullduggery and bloodshed. It is full of people doing their best within the limitations of their knowledge  and experience, and with the prevailing attitudes their time and place

History can teach us a lot in terms of  what works and what doesn’t, but it has to be filtered through more recent experience. There is a fundamental difference between ‘an eye for an eye’ and  ‘turn the other cheek’. The former is basic human instinct, the automatic decision to gain revenge, and it has been a key component of fiction and drama ever since our ancestors started writing stories. It is based on our need for self-respect, in which standing up for ourselves is fundamental.

It pervades politics, as the current race for the US  Presidency demonstrates. Donald Trump is Old Testament.

The ‘turn the other cheek’ viewpoint is much harder, not only to sell to other people but to carry out ourselves when it involves others. If someone attacks us and we choose not to fight back, that’s our problem. But if someone attacks people we care about, people who rely on us, how can we turn the other cheek then? Jesus was an utterly peaceful man, but he threw the mney-changers out of the temple.

In the US Presidential context, while Trump falls squarely into one category, it would be completely wrong to put Hillary Clinton in the other. Whoever is running a country cannot stand by and talk in platitudes – expressing thoughts that are easy to say and have been said countless times but never had any effect – bleating that in a perfect world there shouldn’t be this problem. Ours is not a perfect world and platitudes won’t get us anywhere.

The Labour party in the UK is in danger of splitting at the moment because of a leader who has the interests of the world at heart. Jeremy Corbyn knows all the theoretical answers and is in many ways the politician that this politically correct world has been breeding. He has been standing on the sidelines for decades, deploring the actions of those in power without having to get his own hands dirty. He says the right things, just as Donald Trump has a habit of saying the wrong things.

But if one of these people is your Dad, is he going to look after you in times of trouble or is he going to stand by and say nice, conciliatory things while your little world falls apart?

The vast majority of us – religious and non-religious – want peace and harmony. But while there are forces of evil in the world, we’re not going to get it without standing up for ourselves, which sometimes involves a fight. If we go along with that, does it make us Christians bad Christians?

Terrible secrets of the songwriters

Believing in God is so unfashionable that sometimes it is hard to discover if someone does or doesn’t, because they cover it up. In the 1960s, pop stars would go to great lengths to conceal the fact that they were married or even that they had a serious girlfriend – or if they were gay.

Declaring that you are a Christian, then, is a bit like “coming out”.

But let’s face it, putting the word God in a song title is a bit of a giveaway if it is done in a positive way. So when I happened to think of the old Coldplay song God Put a Smile On Your Face I had to dig quite deep into lyricist Chris Martin’s biographical details to reach the reference to his religious beliefs. And what it amounted to is that he believed in “a” God, but he wasn’t sure if it was the Christian one or not. “I don’t know if it’s Allah or Jesus or Mohammed or Zeus. But I’d go for Zeus,” he said, in a frankly PR-orientated attempt to stay cool and not alienate anyone.

Okay, Chris, your secret is safe with us. At least you’re looking in the right general direction.

And then there’s Russ Ballard, a songwriter still best known for his time with Argent in the late 60s/early 70s, and who wrote God Gave Rock’n’Roll To You. The trouble with checking him out is that firstly there is an American religious person of the same name, and secondly the musician Russ Ballard isn’t all that famous in his own right, so there is less written about him. But it’s a fact: God did give rock’n’roll to us. He also gave us reggae and country music. And rap, so there’s something for everyone.

Anyway, this is great song and was even covered by Kiss, if that gives it credibility in your book. I like the Argent version:

Why are churches full of old people?

This is a question that used to flit, smirking, through my mind in my days as a religious sceptic. I wouldn’t say I was ever an atheist, but I certainly had no belief in any sort of religious higher power. Some superior force out there somewhere, perhaps, but not something or someone to be worshipped or praised or relied on.

St Bridget's
Our small but happy crowd at St Bridget’s Anglican church, Paramaribo, Suriname. But who is missing?

How could there be a father figure I didn’t know about? And why would I need one when I was so clever and powerful myself?

If you had asked me then why churches were full of old people, I would have said it was because they had more time on their hands and they were closer to death, so they were covering themselves in case the grim reaper came calling and found them unprepared. Like dodgy businessmen and their accountants getting their story straight before going to see the bank manager, they were making sure they had answers for any awkward questions.

Now, I see that it’s not so much that the old people are there, but that the younger ones aren’t. As children, we might be taken to church, partly to expose us to the possibility of God and partly because if we were there, we weren’t somewhere else, getting up to no good.

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I’m pretty sure that was my own parents’ rationale. It was a safe environment. Okay, you can get into trouble anywhere, but you’re less likely to do it during a service or at choir practice than hanging around on street corners.

So that put – and still puts – a few young people in church. And with them are their parents, young adults still in the early stages of building their lives. Their mothers, anyway. The fathers might still believe they were in charge, despite having played such a small and simple role in the creation of a child.

And the old people were there.

What you didn’t see were the 20 to 35-year-old single people, because they were too busy recovering from working hard and playing hard. And they didn’t  feel the need to be there, anyway, because when you’re in the prime of life you feel in control. Motivational speakers fill us with the notion of  doing everything ourselves. We have to make it happen. We are responsible for our own destiny. There is no such word as  can’t.

Admirable sentiments, in many ways. And “driven” people are often successful. What are they driven by? Financial security, perhaps. But it’s more likely to be ambition, desire for material things, and once they’ve got them, that can turn to greed.

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Pic courtesy of Pixabay, the free online photo resource. Credit:betticohen

But one thing such people are not doing is thanking God. They may be congratulating themselves, but that is widely regarded as a bad thing that leads to complacency, so they are urged to put that achievement in the bank and set off in pursuit of the next.

Have you ever wondered why professional footballers don’t always smile after scoring a goal? It’s because they (or their coaches) are afraid that enjoying the moment will lead to relaxation and switching off, leaving the team vulnerable. So, they score, they punch the air and they snarl “Come on!” as if they had just conceded a goal rather than gained one.

Such people are, in short, not humble enough to believe in God, because if they do that, they are not believing in themselves, and they are taught that that way lies failure.

As we get older, the vast majority of us will suffer setbacks, tragedies or health problems. And such things teach us that it is not all in our control.

That is why the church population is as it is. Churches are not full of weak people: they are full of people who do their best but are humble enough to understand that their strengths and talents alone – they alone – are not enough.

Tyson Fury’s appointment with God

While the boxing world got all emotional about Muhammad Ali and forgot that their sport is all about one human being inflicting physical damage on another, the less admirable side of it all was alive and well and living England. If Ali represented all that was good about boxing – much of it based, strangely, on the man’s intelligence – Tyson Fury has shown what sheer brute strength can achieve, and it’s not a pretty picture.

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That is not to say that Fury is unintelligent; he has a way with words that can make the most idiotic pronouncements sound almost credible. He may be prejudiced, bigoted, small-minded and dumb enough not to notice until it is pointed out to him, but he has things to say. And in this quote-hungry world, to some observers that is better than silence.

Disregarding the emerging story of a dodgy drug test, what Fury has done to bring the sport into disrepute is to declare that becoming world heavyweight champion has made him rich and that’s what it was all about. Now he feels he has nothing to prove, nothing left to achieve. He is happy to sit in front of the media and grab rolls of fat around his middle to demonstrate that he is in fact an overweight slob rather than a finely-honed athlete. And he uses this to laugh at Wladimir Klitschko, whom he beat in the contest to become the world’s most fearsome man. But if he laughs at Klitschko, he laughs at the world; he laughs at all of us for being naïve enough to think he was a sportsman.

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The rematch with Klitschko has been delayed, supposedly because of an ankle injury, but what that is doing is robbing us of the pleasure of seeing Fury humiliated by the former champion, whose mojo will hopefully have been restored by his sudden casting as the hero. Only the most blinkered and leaden of thinkers can be rooting for Fury now. Lovers of sport in all its many forms are willing Klitschko on, desperate for him to shut Fury up once and for all. Not that that is going to happen, of course. Because Fury has an answer for everything, and the perfect excuse for losing this time: he’s done it, achieved what he set out to achieve, and no one can take it away from him. His name is in the record books. The monolith from an Irish traveller background, son of a bare-knuckle fighter, has scaled the only peak available to him and if he is knocked off it straightaway, so what? The money is still in his bank and the title that defines him just gains one word: former heavyweight champion of the world.

If it seems uncharitable to hold views such as these, let’s just say it is the only language Fury currently speaks. To look into his future is to imagine a spiral of decline, where the money disappears, the friends and family fall away and he hits rock bottom with only his wit and bravado functioning. And then he can reinvent himself, perhaps as a man dedicated to helping unfortunates such as himself to make a living with their fists. Or perhaps religion will present itself as a secondary career, because someone with such a huge ego couldn’t keep it to himself.

A far more admirable fighter, former middleweight champion Nigel Benn, found God once his boxing days were over, albeit without the drama that somehow seems inevitable in Fury’s hypothetical demise and rebirth.

So let’s get on with it. Over to you, Mr Klitschko, to set the ball rolling.