Pentecost: A Time for Telling Stories

I haven’t written here for far too long. Life has been crowded, anxious, a hamster-wheel slalom. But today is Pentecost, a day when the wind should howl and the fire burn bright. Two thousand years ago and the Spirit moved and all who were present heard God speak in their own language. Nowadays? Now speaking is easy. What we don’t do is listen.

We don’t listen because we don’t want to hear. To listen is to be receptive to the humanity in another, the humanity in those we’ve been taught to despise. Far easier to rob the Other of their humanity, and that’s why so often the language used is animalistic, demonic, militaristic. There aren’t groups of immigrants approaching our borders, there are ‘hordes’, there are ‘swarms’. We weaponise language so we don’t have to listen.

Violence comes later. It starts with the words we use, and the words we refuse to hear.

So maybe Pentecost is a time for telling stories. Technology can help us translate and disseminate, but we still need to make space to hear the stories and the voices of those who are on our margins. In hearing we see humanity, similarities, and behind them all catch a glimpse of the divine. When the Spirit moved, unity and diversity began to dance and pilgrims from around the world began to understand each other anew.

And because the Spirit is an artist, we need to celebrate the way in which words and image and music and sculpture can help us hear other languages, other perspectives, other stories, all told through the unique language and grammar of each medium; art is a better vehicle for Pentecost than Google Translate. It can grow empathy, issue challenge, demand justice; embody truth and raise up a platform. And when the Spirit’s fire falls we can gather round it, tell our stories and see ourselves and the Image of God reflected back in each other’s eyes.

Black Panther, and why it’s sometimes good not to see yourself on screen

Black_Panther_film_posterSo Youngest and I finally got to see Black Panther, and it lives up to the hype. Beautifully made with a lot of meat in the storyline, it brings something new to the table when a glut of superhero movies runs the risk of the genre becoming a homogeneous cookie-cutter mechanistically making money out of some valuable intellectual property.

Writing that, I can’t help but pause at the word ‘homogeneous’. Because as much as my son and I loved the movie, we didn’t engage with it in the way many people did around the world. Like Wonder Woman before it, Black Panther means something. It means that suddenly people of colour are centred in a superhero narrative – more than that, Africa is centred. We get to see what a superhero movie looks like when it’s influenced by African design, African history, African culture. And people engage with this, they respond to this, they celebrate seeing themselves on screen. A whole generation gets to be the kid in a rundown basketball court in Oakland, California at the end of the movie, looking up at a black superhero and seeing himself reflected in a new mythos.

Now that means that, for once, I wasn’t represented on screen. I mean, there’s a token 40-something white guy in there, but the most important thing Ross does is shut up and do what a group of black women tell him to do. And you know what? That’s fantastic. Because I sat next to my 10 year old and he was whispering questions about lip plates and the amount of snow there was in a generally hot continent like Africa. And we weren’t up there on screen, and that doesn’t matter, because representation is important to everyone, and that’s why we need to see Diana Prince and T’Challa saving the world. There’s a reason we’ve seen so much Black Panther cosplay over the last few weeks.

And it’s important for my kids to see superhero movies where the heroes aren’t white guys. I want my children to grow up with fictional heroes who look like Chadwick Boseman or Danai Gurira. I want them to realise that the smartest person in the world can be a young woman from Africa played by Letitia Wright rather than assume a genius will always look like Robert Downey Jr.

And as much as I can say this about my kids, it’s just as much about me and a need to confront my preconceptions and internalised prejudices and the unspoken narratives that make up my mental operating system. It’s easy to get so used to seeing yourself up there on the screen that it becomes the default, pop culture getting colonised because guys like me assume it should automatically look like us and anyone who suggests otherwise is an SJW.

I think we know what Killmonger would say about that.

And as I write this, I’m struck by how this is equally as relevant to the Church, how there are too many conference lineups made up of middle-aged white guys, how a vast and diverse continent like Africa is often reduced in the imagination to a blighted mission field that needs to be saved by European Christendom, how white churches don’t spend enough time looking for the beauty of the image of God in the diversity of a global church. And as the credits roll, we’re left with the responsibility to do something about all this, as the voices of prophets echo through the streets of Wakanda.

The Stories We Live By: Abuse


We’re a storytelling species; we gather together to tell tales around fires, we paint pictures on cave walls to shape the world beyonderland.  And these stories grow and spread their roots, they accrete and mutate and become memes and mirrors, become the rivers and the topsoil of our cultures. Often these stories are beautiful.

Other times? Other times these stories are toxic.

Silence has a weight all of its own; it creates its own gravity, a crushing absence. Sometimes rumours break through this forcefield, sometimes facts escape to become open secrets, and yet still the silence exerts its power. Everyone knows but no-one says anything.

Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile. Household names who abused women and girls for years under a silence purchased with popularity and power and cold hard cash; men standing on top of a pyramid with an altar and a knife. But while these might be the celebrity illuminati of sex offenders, they’re not the only ones. Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow and, heck, Terry Crews were assaulted, but so were waitresses and cheerleaders and office workers and students.

Because we’re living in a world that says “no” means “yes”, that clothing is consent, that gloating about groping is just the talk of locker rooms, that men get to take what they want and that women should keep quiet about it or suffer the consequences, that sometimes rape is ‘legitimate’. These things are said so many times that they take on their own twisted reality; society itself is groomed. We tell stories that empower abuse, we whisper stories that promote silence and strangle justice. Because this is about intimidation and fear and power that says everyone’s there for the taking.

We’ve got to allow different stories to be told, and in doing so, start putting rape culture to death. Men have to start calling out sexual harassment and objectification and raising our sons and daughters to get out of the shadow of a culture of abuse; men also have to stop assaulting women. That’s where everything starts. Masculinity needs detoxifying.

And with the telling, listening and believing. Because the diesel powering all this is disbelief and inaction; our cynicism and apathy fuels a culture of abuse.

And we have to exorcise our institutions: our churches, our sports clubs, our film studios, our politics, our schools, our homes. Because too many women are too scared to come forward, too many have been denied justice, too many live with the trauma of assault. That’s unacceptable, no matter what our darker stories tell us. Too many rumors turn out to be true, too many scandals end up forgotten. Everything needs to change.