A few weeks ago I attended the 4th Youthwork Summit, this year in West Bromich. If you’ve never heard of the youthwork summit click here for more info.
This is the 3rd Summit I’ve been to and my expectations were high, not least because we travelled to Scotland on Friday night to drop our son off before heading down to Birmingham and then had to leave the event early on the Saturday to return to Scotland to pick up said son. The two previous Summits I attended were both engaging and dymanic and on both occasions I came away with a head full of thoughts and ideas.
I say all of this because I want to make it clear how much baggage I brought to the event. We had sacrificed a lot of time and mileage to attend. And I guess its a way of me explaining why I found this years one a little, well…underwhelming.
It’s taken me a few weeks of thinking and talking to work out exactly why I left the event rather disappointed and I want to share that with you now. I’ll outline what I liked and didn’t like about each of the sessions and then give a brief summary at the end. These are just my own opinions and as I’ve made clear above, they are subjective. There are many factors that contribute to how someone evaluates an event and the fact that we travelled so far to get there does play a part in that.
What was clear from the start was that Martin Saunders, Matt Summerfield and Chris Curtis (the organisers) wanted more of a flow to the event talks and they achieved this. In previous years the talks have felt more disjointed but this year each talk was connected to the one before. For me, by doing this it meant that many of the talks seemed to repeat themselves. What I loved about the Summit in Manchester was that you didn’t know what would be said from each talk to the next. It was a wild flurry of ideas. It hurt my brain but I loved it. I didn’t feel that this year.
Highlights in the first session “He is Greater” were ‘apologetic for the apathetic’ by Ruth McGarahan and ‘Disrupting Chaos’ by Dr Kate Middleton. Both of these talks had something important to say and they were both full of information and practical advice. Ruth explained how important it is that our youth work seeks to unlock the head issues to that people can open their hearts and to keep asking questions as they make people think, get rid of assumptions, expose faulty logic, expose motivesand show we care. She left us with the a challenge from 1 Peter 3:5: Does the kind of life we are living provoke people to ask questions? “The gospel should be simple enough for a child to understand but deep enough for scholar to spend their life discussing”.
Dr Middeton shared how as teenagers are literally learning who they are through their teenage years, they can appear to be completely different people from one day to the next. She also made us aware that young people struggle to think about the consequences to their actions and so there is a need to communicate with teenagers in a very different way.
Both of the speakers used their ten minutes to communicate a number of ideas and it didn’t feel repetitive. I also thoroughly enjoyed ‘Slam Theology’ by Conrad Gempf and Harry Baker as it was something fresh and unique in an event which became increasingly stale as it went on. A mash up of theology and poetry that was challenging and inspiring.
It seemed odd to me to get the futurist Dr Patrick Dixon to talk about ‘future proofing your youth work‘ instead of actually talking about future technology and what we should be aware of (although his powerpoint was very good), ‘Let Muslims change you’ by Tim Fawssett was good but nothing I haven’t heard before and ‘Broken Sex’ by Beth Stout felt a bit like a re-run of Ruth Cordon’s talk from last year.
The talk I was most looking forward to in session 1, Dr Maureen Funkle talking about why ‘Harry Potter is Evil’, turned out to be a joke talk and I was quite angry about that. The last two Summits had talks that I strongly disagreed with and they provoked me to think. What concerned me this year was that I didn’t disagree with what anyone said. The voices were all from the same ‘pot’ and there was nothing particularly controversial from either side of the theological or cultural spectrum.
Session 2 “You will do greater things” started brilliantly with more ‘slam theology’ and was the most consistent in terms of its quality of talks. Dave Sharples heartfelt speech about ‘meet the parents’ brought a lump to my throat and Oliver Wests talk about ‘how the other half learn’ was interesting but was frustratingly short and I don’t think he really had the time to communicate what he needed to. It was also ironic that his talk was on visual thinkers and the video didn’t work.
Camila Batmanghelidjh talked about ‘hope in the inner city’ and the power that love has on the brain. It felt like she waffled a little but her talk was inspiring and gave practical evidence to the power of good that the concept of God can have on the brain. “The greatest gift you can show a person is your ability to love” Amen. ‘Growing up Poor’ by Lille Jenkins took a little while to get going but the lunch charity is an incredible project.
Sadly the session ended on a whimper with ‘your youth group can raise Lazarus’ by Lydia Corbett. I believe miracles can happen and that we should expect them and clearly God is doing some incredible things through her youth work but I found her talk to be a little naive as it didn’t address the issue of what happens when a miracle doesn’t happen? What happens when someone’s gran gets healed but then someone else’s gran doesn’t? We need to manage expectations and help our young people grapple with these issues but I felt Lydia’s talk was too simplistic.
The next session was titled “the takeover” and consisted of young people leading, speaking and singing. I’m not going to evaluate this session as I don’t think that’s right but what I will say is that the presenter of this session, who I think was 24 so not technically a young person, came from, what I title as, the patronising youth work factory.Now that probably seems rather judgemental and I’ll take that because it is. One of my ‘buttons’, the things that really anger me is when it appears that youth workers are talking down to young people. Now this youth worker probably wasn’t doing that but it definitely appeared that way to me.
“He must become greater” was the final session I was able to attend (I’ll watch the videos I missed online once they’re up) and again the talks were pretty inconsistent.
Jill Garrett’s talk on “Followship” really puzzled me. It was billed as a talk about being a good follower but it seemed to me that it was really a talk about what a good leader should be like and how a leader should manager their ‘followers’ so it was really a talk on leadership. Again maybe it’s just me.
I’d pretty much heard the talk ‘Faith in Crisis’ by Gavin and Anne Calver before but it was still engaging. Less could be said, and will be, about ‘Dealing with your dark side’ by Rachael Costa. I found the talk lifeless and, at times, bordering on parody. She didn’t really appear to know what she was talking about and just kept talking until the time was up. As founder of Think Twice I believe rachael has some important things to say but none of them were said in this talk.
‘Prayer without ceasing’ by Celia Apeagyei-Collins wins the award for most awkward moment at the Summit when she asked people to pray for Satan to come. It was a lively and passionate talk but I left without any real practical application.
Unfortunately we left during Danny Curtin’s talk on ‘it’s not your ministry anyway’ as our little girl was fed up so I’ll review that when I see the videos later.
Reading back over this post, I do appear to be incredibly negative about the summit this year. I still think it’s a great event but the format may becoming a little stale. Or it may be that the ideas around the talks have become a little stale. The concept comes from TED talks where people are given ten minutes to give the talk of their lives. Out of the 14 talks I heard, I’d only consider three of them to meet that standard. There seemed to be a lot of filler which is odd when people only get ten minutes.
The organisers wanted more theology in the event and that was partly successful but the problem was that the theology that was spoken about was very shallow. There wasn’t much depth to the talks or to the ideas being presented. Much of what was said seemed almost superficial.
The best talk at the event that had a good depth of theology wasn’t even in the main session. Conrad Gempf talking about his new book about Paul, during one of the afternoon breaks was engaging and challenging and highlighted what was missing from the main sessions.
Also, I felt there wasn’t much engagement with culture. Film, music, drama, art, design, sport. Young people are immersed in this culture and no one really talked much about it.
Again, these are just the thoughts of one person and there is no doubt that I’ll attend the next event (especially since it’s half an hour from my house) but I want more than I got this year. I want to grapple more. I want to disagree more. I want to hear from the best that youth work has to offer.
Were you at youthwork summit this year? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
“Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Matthew 5:37
Odd words I’ve always thought. Until recently.
Here is our three year old (four tomorrow!) son, Owen. He, like I imagine most pre-schoolers is incredibly inquisitive.
Yesterday he asked me if he could play the PS3. I told him that maybe he could play it after lunch. He replied, “Yes or no daddy. Yes or no?“.
Maybe is not a word he understands. Or perhaps its a word he doesn’t want to understand. He wants a yes or no answer. He wants assurance either way. It made me realize that I use ‘maybe’ a lot.
For me, using the word ‘maybe’ is a way of saying ‘no’ without actually saying it. It’s like I dance around the word ‘no’ but feel better because I’m not actually telling my son that he can’t do something. Even though that’s what I am really getting at.
Saying ‘maybe’ is not telling the truth. Jesus declares the devil to be the father of lies. So saying anything other than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ does come from him.
We beat around the bush too often. We’re not honest with people enough. About anything.
My son has taught me that I should be. If I’m not going to let him do something, I need to tell him that. I need to show him that being honest is important. That being honest is a virtue we should all ascribe to.
In the youth work I do, I should be honest when young people ask me if we’re going to do this or that. I shouldn’t say ‘maybe’. Because ‘maybe’ isn’t really saying anything to them. It might make me feel better but I that’s not what it’s about.
Let’s get rid of the maybes in this world and start saying what we really mean. Let our yes mean yes and our no mean no.
I watched “Alien” for the first time on Monday night. I really enjoyed it.
I had tried to watch it a few years ago but, from what I remember, it was pretty late and I got bored and decided to go to bed instead.
Our enjoyment of a film is entirely relative. It is based on a whole number of factors: time of day, how the day has been, how we’re feeling etc. The first time I attempted to watch “Alien” it was late and I was tired so I found the film boring. When I watched it this week, I didn’t find it boring. There is no objective way to watch “Alien”. It is based entirely on our subjective viewing of it.
There are many films that i can watch at one time or another and not enjoy, then watch it at another time and really enjoy.
I would argue that most of our life is based on our subjective readings. I don’t think that’s a new or radical idea. But I think to be aware of it, changes everything.
As a christian, my experience of God, the bible and faith in its entirety is subjective. I believe that God is an objective reality but I view God subjectively. The writers of the bible wrote subjectively about an objective God. We read the bible subjectively. We cannot read it objectively. Our reading of the bible is affected by how we are feeling that day, where we are born, our personality type etc etc.
Again, this is nothing new but I find it amazing how quickly many of us are to forget this.
The 5th commandment given to Moses on Sinai was:
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” or “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. A valid interpretation of the original hebrew would be “do not carry lightly the Lords name“.
When I was a child my view of God was affected by the boring church I was dragged to every Sunday morning and the boring talks of our school chaplain. They carried Gods name lightly. They told boring stories that bored all of us. Their theology may have been ‘right’ but it certainly was not captivating. As Christians, how we act and speak will influence the subjective viewing of God for others.
As a church youth worker, I may be the only ‘voice’ of God to the young people I encounter. How I speak of God will influence their view of God. How I treat them will influence their view of God. How I “carry Gods name” will affect how they view God. That’s a big responsibility.
Now we can hope and trust that God will use others to speak subjectively about the objective reality of God but that only helps to cleanse our conscience. That’s a ‘get out jail’ free card to make us feel better. We are the church. We are the hands and feet of Jesus. We are the walking embodiment of the Eucharist.
How we carry the name of God, in word and actions, matter.
At a holiday club meeting a couple of weeks ago, one of the volunteers got really annoyed because the club would be running at the same time as her group (it also meets in the church) and she hadn’t been told about this. She was adamant that her group couldn’t be moved (even though it was still 3 months until the club).
Three weeks ago my wife went to speak to someone else in the church who had wronged her. the person got very defensive and started hurling insults.
At the Youthwork Summit in London on Saturday, Professor William Struthers talked about pornography. He stated that people who turn to pornography are trying to fill an area of intimacy that is currently not been fulfilled.
This is always about that. We do not act in a vacuum. Our actions are always linked to something. The issue staring at you is often not the real issue. There is always something else. This is always about that.
The volunteer was annoyed because for years her group has not been recognized by the leaders in the church. She got angry, not because of us, but because of years of hurt. This ‘issue’ is actually about that ‘issue’.
The person who went off the handle at my wife wasn’t annoyed at my wife. They were annoyed that someone had told my wife what they had done. Their issue was not about the fact that my wife came to speak to them. It was that someone had told my wife. This is always about that.
Pornography is not the issue. It’s about what has led someone to it that is the issue.
Behind ever action is a reason; a story; a life.
Sometimes we see the action and ask: “why are they reacting like that?” “Why are they over-reacting?”
Because all we sometimes see is the action, the conclusion. More often than not, we do not see what has led up to this. We try to solve the issue. But the issue we are trying to solve isn’t really the issue. It’s the issue behind the issue that we need to look.
We need to take a step back and realise that
Last weekend I, along with my colleague Marc Williamson, spoke at the Youthwork Summit in London on “The Kingdom of God in 5 films”. I really enjoyed the talk and speaking to folks afterwards (those who agreed and disagreed). I’ll be blogging about the whole event soon and also replying to a few of the comments that people share about our talk specifically.
We are keen for dialogue in film. We want to discuss and explore ideas together. Both with those who agree and disagree with our opinions.
A full transcript of our talk (including the bits we had to cut out for time) is now up online on our film site. please take a look at it here and let me know what you think.
In the film, each of the five teenagers who head to the cabin become the horror movie archetypes: geek, slut, jock, nerd and dope-head. That is not who they really are but they are manipulated by the directors (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) into becoming these characters.
Goddard, in the podcast, shared that it was the objectification and stereotyping of young people that he wanted to address in the film and I think it’s a great way of showing the injustice.
In the media, young people are being stereotyped all the time. The coverage of the riots last Summer demonstrated this point. What the film is trying to show is that young people are far more complicated and multi-faceted than we believe and we have to subvert the system that attempts to pigeonhole them.
I think the film is a great way of opening up a conversation about stereotypes and judgement calls.
Where do we make judgements about people and how does that affect what we ‘do’ with them?
What can we do to subvert this system?
This is now my fourth post dissecting the film, “Cabin in the Woods“.
For a film I rated three stars, it really has taken up a lot of my time. And I always knew that would be the case.
What the film tries to do is be a dissertation on horror movies whilst still being a horror movie itself. I think Joss Whedon (co-writer) and Drew Goddard (co-writer/director) do an amiable job and I praise them for taking a shot at something really different but like a dissertation paper, it all feels a little too academic.
In my previous posts I discussed the connection between the film and the concept of the atonement and its connection with ‘the hunger games’. In this post I wish to discuss the film and its connect with the theology of ‘thin places’. Like all the previous posts, this will contain SPOILERS.
A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.
There are numerous accounts in the Old Testament where Heaven seems to invade earth. One of the most famous is when Moses encounters God in a bush in Exodus chapter 3. In the Jewish tradition, Moses built a tabernacle that claimed to hold the very presence of God. Later, King Solomon built a Temple (a large scale tabernacle) where it was believed that, in the very centre of the temple (the holy of holies), Heaven invaded earth. The Priest could enter through the curtain and come face to face with the living God. When Jesus was crucified, the gospels record that the curtain was torn in two as a sign that Heaven has now broken out on earth.
There have been times in my own life, where like Moses, it felt like the ground I stood on was holy. That in that moment I encountered another world; that for a brief second i was able to, as Paul wrote to the church in Corinth,
“fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
I believe that the mythology of “Cabin in the Woods” also includes this concept. The cabin is the ‘thin place’ where the physical world and the spiritual world collide. It is where the doors open and the creatures and beasts of the spiritual world are unleashed into the physical world. The film conveys that there are ‘thin places’ all over the world where these two worlds collide.
In the film, only ‘Marty’ realises that the cabin is a ‘thin place’. The rest are oblivious. I believe that in our own lives, we can be so focused on the day to day things that we miss the thin places in our lives. Jesus talk his disciples to pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”.
In that simple prayer, he was showing the disciples that they need to take their eyes off of their lives and open themselves up to the bigger picture. It’s the same with us. If we focus all our attention on our own lives then we miss out on what God is doing, and in some way prevent the Kingdom of Heaven from expanding. There are times when instead of advancing the Kingdom of Heaven, through our words and actions we actually advance the dominion of Hell. When we lie, cheat, steal, horde and oppress, we force the Kingdom of Heaven to retreat.
Here are some questions to explore with the young people you work with who have seen the film?
1) Have you ever encountered a ‘thin place’ where there seemed to be more going on that what you could see? Where things felt differently?
2) What stops you encountering these places more often?
3) What can we do practically to see the Kingdom of Heaven spread wider?
It’s holy week. It is the time of the year when Christians enter into the story of Jesus’ last days. It is the time of year when Christians think about sacrifice.
It’s funny then that in the space of 24 hours, I watched two films at the cinema that both deal with the theme of sacrifice: ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ and ‘The Hunger Games‘.
I have already written a post detailing my initial thoughts of “cabin’ here but Ill summarise the plot here: (spoilers)
The film follows five college students who spend the weekend at a cabin and are killed off one by one. What soon becomes clear to the survivors is that they are part of a worldwide sacrificial system to appease the Gods who live underneath the ground.
For many the story of ‘Hunger Games’ is more familiar but here is a quick summary courtesy of IMDB:
Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place for the latest match.
The Hunger Games, the annual event where the young people kill each other, was established after some of the inhabitants staged an uprising. The Games are a reminder of what the people did and why they should never try it again. In some way the fighters are living sacrifices, killed to appease the President.
Both films deal with a worldwide sacrificial system, involving young people, that is set up to appease and entertain. In “cabin’ the young people do not know that they are part of it, whereas in ‘Games’ they do. Both films also end with the survivors choosing to turn against the system.
But there are key differences that mark out the films.
In ‘Cabin’ the Gods are angry. They want death and destruction and so the sacrificial system is set up to entertain them and take their minds off of killing everyone. It is a barter system. If they do not get their sacrifices, their will be bloodshed on a colossal level. Millions will die. What the film seems to suggest is that this is a continuation of the sacrificial system that has taken place since before the Old Testament was written and their are glimpses of Old Testament scenes in the opening credits. To sum it up, this systems primary function is to appease the God’s wrath.
In ‘Games’ the primary function of the sacrificial system is to remind the people of their guilt and through that, subdue them. It is not about appeasing a God or Gods but instead, it is a symbol of oppressive power and authority.
As I reflect on these movies and there sacrificial structures I see some similarities between them and the atonement (the crucifixion of Jesus) as well as some key differences.
In the next post I’ll explore this a little further.
Last night, I saw a preview of the horror film, “The Cabin In The Woods” with fellow reel faith contributor Marc Williamson. It’s a film I was intrigued to see as the trailer sets up all sorts of WTF moments and it has been compared to “the Truman Show” and “Scream” in its task of trying to subvert and breathe fresh life into the slasher genre of horror.
As a film, I think it’s patchy. Story and twists takes centre stage at the expense of engaging characters and ‘heart’. It’s all a bit too ‘intellectual’ and you miss having a grounded character that you can empathise with.
But the film has stayed with me because although it fails on being a coherent and satisfying movie, it wrestles with so many themes in its short running time.
If you haven’t seen it and intend to I would suggest you read no further as there are detailed spoilers before.
The main crux of the film is this. There are Gods under the earth. Gods from the old world. And they are angry Gods that need to be subdued. The only way to do this is through ritual sacrifice. But the Gods are sick of the old ‘put a person on a table and cut them open’. They want spectacle. They crave entertainment. And so a ‘company’ is set up to provide entertainment by killing young people in horror movie conventions. The story then follows a group of five young people as they go to a cabin in the woods and become sacrifices to the Gods. The company personnel orchestrate the events so that they play out like a typical slasher film (eg have the characters become slasher movie archetypes: the jock, the whore, the geek etc) All over the world different horror scenarios are set up to offer sacrifices to the Gods (we see a group of Japanese children being terrorised by a vengeful female ghost with hair covering her face).
So the film deals with a whole host of themes such as free will, sacrifice, murder, meta-narratives, truth, reality, redemptive violence, horror films, entertainment and I’ll hopefully put together a few different group resources over the next few weeks dealing with some of these as I think this is a film ripe for discussion.
This is definitely one to watch.
- Joss Whedon Talks The Cabin in the Woods (dreadcentral.com)
I want to pick up on a couple of the themes of the film that may be worth exploring with the young people you work with (if they’ve seen it). As always I would suggest using the reel faith template of questions when creating a discussion.
Justice and Forgiveness
These two themes run throughout the film and can make for a very lively discussion. After learning that the woman in black is killing children because she is still angry about the death of her son, Kipps takes matters into his own hands and believes that if he can reunite the mother and child then the mother will finally be able to rest. She will be able to find peace and the horror will end.
He finds the body of her son in the marsh and carries him back to the house. The woman in back turns up to reclaim him and Kipp believes that peace has been found. But things are not that simple. We hear the ghostly voice of the woman say “I will never forgive” and in the climax of the film, she leads Kipps son on to the railway tracks as an oncoming train approaches. Kipps runs to save him and both are killed.
The woman in black is driven by vengeance and a twisted view of justice. Because her child was taken from her, she believes that every child should be taken away. She believes that every parent should feel the same pain that she did. It was her lack of forgiveness that killed her and it is that unforgiveness that will torment the village for eternity.
Anger is a serious thing. Unforgiveness is a serious thing. What does it take to forgive someone? Are there people that we are unwilling to forgive?
The woman in black sought vengeance and anger and she found it. It destroyed her life and the countless other lives of the villagers.
What motivates us and leads our lives? Is it anger? A thirst for revenge? Is there another way? Does Jesus offer something different?
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Half way through the film, Daily (played by Ciaran Hinds) says to Arthur Kipps (Randliffe), “if we open the door to superstition, where does that lead?” Daily plays the rational character of the story. He is well aware that many of his neighbours have said they have seen the ‘woman in black’ and in fact his own wife has been driven insane by her but he chooses not to believe it. The world is a rational place and everything can be explained. He urges Kipps not to pursue this line of enquiry as who knows where it will lead.
I find this whole idea fascinating. Both characters, Daily and Kipps have a specific worldview. They filter everything they see and hear through those particular lenses. Daily rationalises the occurrences away as nothing more than brain trickery. Kipps sees the same things but chooses to believe that the woman in black is real and both of those worldviews have particular consequences.
For Daily, it results in him not getting the right care for his wife and ignoring her ‘eccentric’ actions. Their marriage is damaged as a result. For Kipps, it ultimately results in the death of both his son and him.
These words of Jesus’ are recorded in the gospels:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Whatever we seek, we will find. I believe that to be true. If we choose to see the world through a particular lens, then we will filter everything through that lens and it will be a self fulfilling prophecy. There is nothing inherently wrong with that but what is vital is that each of us are aware of the lenses that we wear and that others may not have the same ones.
What lenses do your young people wear? How do they believe the world works? How do you work with people who have a different worldview than yours?