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.

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.

Art and Healing: Medicine

For 28 years, Tilda Shalof worked as a nurse in Toronto General Hospital’s ICU. During that time she collected tiny ‘souvenirs’ of the patients she treated, the stories of which she was a part: caps from medicine bottles, plastice syringe covers, equipment connectors… Shalof collected these for years, not knowing what to do with them but knowing they were important somehow, transitory reminders of something greater, disposable bits of trash that together served as a testimony to a career and memories of life and death.
Eventually all this waste was upcycled into a 9ft mural that now hangs in Toronto General Hospital. Created with artist Vanessa Herman-Landau, the mural is a vibrant, colourful piece that uses the detritus of a hospital to express something of the hope and healing that takes place there. Shalof can point to any of the 10,000 bits of plastic embedded in resin and explain what it was used for, how it helped her patents. Through that, she also remembers those she helped, those who recovered, those she lost.

I’ve written before about how healing and art are more closely linked than we imagine. This mural reminds us of the science that makes the work of hospitals and their staff possible: the medicine, the equipment, the fluids, the drips, the needles. Bezalel’s legacy stretches across disciplines, it informs science and engineering and with them creates something beautiful.

We may be thinking of the miraculous when we pray for healing, but we’re also praying for nurses and researchers, doctors and paramedics, cleaners and receptionists. Our prayers for healing are also a blessing of medicine and MRI scanners, blood pressure machines and prosthetics. These are creativity in action; the Spirit works through science as well. And we can be reminded of that by 10,000 bottle tops and all those that use them.

The Grace of Mobile Libraries

A few years ago I read The Library Book, edited by the Reading Agency; borrowed it from a library, funnily enough. This is an anthology of writing on libraries by a number of well-known authors, but the piece that got me thinking was the forward, in which a librarian tells of her mobile library’s encounters with the homeless.

It’s moving to read of how lending a book to someone on the streets is more than just a nice public service – it’s an act of trust. After all, when your clientele is itinerant, you’re not going to get all of your books back.

And yet books were returned – kept dry when their reader himself was soaking wet, and acting as a catalyst for conversations other than homeless shelters. One man, having got back on his feet, became a librarian himself. Lending books became a humanising event, an act of grace almost. It changed people’s lives.

The same thing is happening in Greece. Laura Naude and Esther ten Zijthoff have converted an old minibus into a mobile library for refugees. Born out of the realisation that people in refugee camps need more than simple food and shelter, the library has become a safe space for people wanting to learn other languages, for scholars who want to translate their work, for kids who just want to read.

A library in an old minibus can serve as an agent of grace, and this grace can lead to transformation, if we accept it. It’s given freely, a thing of beauty that can help transform someone’s surroundings, even if circumstances are difficult. We shouldn’t simply reduce people to consumers of food and electricity and a welfare bill – ultimately that’sort dehumanising. Working to nourish souls, communities and hope is just as important: it’seems mazing what can grow from books in a bus.

Representation is Important

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So Jodie Whittaker has been announced as the 13th Doctor. For those of you unfamiliar with the greatest TV show of all time, Whittaker will be the first woman to play what has traditionally been a male role and so, unsurprisingly, the bottom half of the internet has exploded with equal parts joy and vitriol.

This post isn’t altogether about Doctor Who (although for the record I’m all for a female Doctor and have nothing but good vibes towards Jodie Whittaker and the production team. Go for it!). However, reaction to the casting highlights something very important: representation is important. The last couple of years has seen a lot of controversies around representation: controversies over women-only showings of Wonder Woman, over a black Storm Trooper, over there not being enough white dudes in the trailer for a new Star Trek show. All of these stem from a status quo that’s overwhelmingly white, male and straight. While some of this is due to the age in which major entertainment franchises were born, the fact is pop culture has a representation problem.

Imagine what it’s like to never see yourself on the screen, or to always be the sidekick or the comic relief or the first person to be eaten by the zombie. Imagine all the leads being ripped white guys. Imagine being told that films starring heroes that look like you wouldn’t sell. Imagine characters that look like you always being sexualised. Imagine characters that look like you being killed just to drive forward the hero’s journey, imagine characters that look like you being omitted from playsets because someone somewhere figured that little boys wouldn’t play with a girl action figure.

Imagine being cast as the new Doctor and seeing someone comment that the show should be renamed Nurse Who.

Some are quick to write this stuff off as the stuff of ‘political correctness’, but it sends a message, a message that women aren’t important, that LGBTQ people aren’t important, that people with disabilities and people who aren’t white aren’t important, aren’t interesting enough, aren’t lucrative enough.

Imagine if Jesus kept getting portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes.

Imagine all that, and think about what’s being erased.

These are the messages that are filtering through to children, and that’s heart-breaking. You’ve only got to see the reaction of kids to meeting their heroes, or even just meeting cosplayers, to see what it means to have an awesome character that looks like you. This isn’t just disposable, meaningless entertainment, this is pop culture mythology, this is the building blocks of imagination, this is a reflection of our world, both in reality and in potentia. That’s why Leia kept showing up on placards at the Women’s March on Washington. That’s why people were crying as they got to see Wonder Woman. It’s why I want both kids and Jodie Whittaker to read this post by Susie Day.

It’s not just about representation either. It’s about seeing the heroic, the aspirational, the awesomeness of someone who doesn’t look like you. As a kid I always thought Han was the coolest; now I’m glad that Leia’s been established as a general and a leader. I’m glad that my kids can watch The Force Awakens and not comment on how none of the three new heroes are white men. I’m glad the Doctor is regenerating into a woman because the things that make the Doctor – intelligence, compassion, eccentricity and bravery – aren’t male qualities, they’re human qualities that can be embodied by anyone.

And this isn’t just about what’s on the page, on the screen. It’s about who gets to create. We need more diversity among writers and directors and actors and producers and artists. We need more perspectives to be turned into stories, we need more experiences to be documented, we need talent from all quarters to enrich the culture around us, and we need avenues to make that happen (check out Arts Emergency and We Need Diverse Books). We’re all in this together, so let’s see that echoed in our stories.

We’re the product of the stories we tell. And we need to see ourselves in those stories, and I hope a new Doctor can be another step in a journey that’s already been too hard and too long. But let’s keep working at making our stories bigger, more expansive, more diverse, more human.

Learn From The Stories Of Those Who Flee

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It’s July, and writers and storytellers walk across south-east England, telling the tales of those who fled to this country to escape war and persecution and tyranny. A journey about journeys, Refugee Tales is a pilgrimage of sorts, all about migration and detention, a welcome mat laid at every stop, a salt-circle safe-space established against tabloid hysteria in which people can sit and listen to the stories of refugees and those who work with them, can sit and think about movement.

Because we need to think about movement. As long as the bombs fall and the tyrants rage and the planet warms, we need to think about movement.

Storytelling is at once a spiritual and a tangible practice. How we use words and language and sentences and punctuation shapes our narratives and defines and moulds the stories we live by. There are ‘big’ stories that drive nations for good or ill, manifest destinies or cries of ‘two world wars and one world cup’; there are also smaller stories, quieter stories, stories that emerges from the margins to supplement our uber-narratives, or to challenge them, David standing before Goliath armed only with a sling and the hope of justice.

Sometimes those quieter, rarely heard stories are an inoculation against terrible things and furious words. That’s why we need to listen to them. That’s why we need organisations like Migrant Voice, an organisation that helps promote the voice of refugees and migrants, or the Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields.

Wait, an inoculation? Maybe, or a shield:

“At the core, what we’re involved in when we’re trying to make positive changes in our communities and in the world is a battle of narratives or a battle of stories, and that the corporations and different parts of the government tell us are stories that they use to cement their power and legitimise their power. Those of us who are angling for positive change need to tell another story rooted in our lives, and that’s the core of social change movements, it’s fighting between stories.”

So said organiser and writer David Solnit on the Iconoclast podcast in June, and he’s got a pretty good idea of what’s going on. That’s why it’s important to leverage whatever influence we’ve got to allow refugee tales to be heard, and to make the time to sit and listen to those tales.

But how we listen is important too; we should first listen not to fix but to understand. It’s through understanding that we will be formed by these stories, and recognise the humanity of those behind them; that’s not to be underestimated in a media landscape that routinely uses words like ‘swarm’ and ‘horde’ to describe refuges or migrants. Through listening we also learn, and one of the most important lessons we can learn is that we’re not so different.

A while back, the New Yorker published a piece entitled ‘The Refugee as Cassandra in the Shining City’, which highlighted the importance of hearing the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers because they can see and recognise things that the rest of us often can’t. We like to think that It Can’t Happen Here; refugees know that it can happen here, and by the way, here are all the warning signs you’re missing.

(So often Western countries see themselves as cities on a hill to which people flee to, but we can’t picture ourselves as places people could end up fleeing from. That’s a failure of imagination that leaves us vulnerable to authoritarianism.)

(Maybe this is also why people who leave, say, Pakistan or Mexico are called ‘immigrants’, while people who leave the UK are called ‘ex pats’.)

But perhaps most important, refugee stories are an assertion not just of humanity but of identity and individuality.

And amidst all these unique stories, there will be shared experiences and flashes of recognition, and through those moments of familiarity relationships can start to emerge, and with them community and appreciation; through moments like this, we make ourselves neighbours, find ourselves family.

Enchanting the World Through Cosplay

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I was eating lunch outside Derby Comic Con a couple of weeks ago, sun shining on a college car park as conventioneers and Stormtroopers. In a doorway stands a young woman dressed as Harley Quinn from DC Comics. Suddenly, an ecstatic squeal rings out; another, much shorter Harley, probably about seven years old looks at the young woman and shouts “YOU’RE SO COOL!”

“You’re so cool too!” replies older Harley, making the little girl’s day. And meanwhile, just around the corner, a toddler is giving the biggest hug ever to someone dressed as Olaf the Snowman from Disney’s Frozen.

Cosplay has seen a massive growth over the last couple of decades, expanding alongside geek culture from being a niche hobby to becoming, well, a niche hobby that’s a lot more recognised. On its surface we see people dressing as characters from movies and comics and anime, a Halloween fancy dress party that’s broken its boundaries, but dig deeper and cosplay reveals itself to be so much more.

In some ways cosplay is creativity in its purest form – no-one needs to dress up as Batman – but it fires the imagination, it encourages problem-solving, it promotes the development of skills – dressmaking and textiles and model making and make-up and prop design. Cosplay’s about learning through creativity – learning in community, or developing self-taught skills through trial and error. Say what you want about its immediate practical application but the world’s a little smarter because someone figured out how to make a replica Ghostbusters proton pack.

But it’s not just about the nuts and bolts, the needle and thread of it all. Adam Savage, in a TED Talk covering his love of cosplay, talks about clothing as a narrative, an expression of the story we want to tell about ourselves. Cosplay is a step beyond that – it’s a way of interacting with our wider narratives, the modern myths and stories we tell each other and watch on flickering screens, communicating our love for these characters and their adventures. And then those stories are brought to life, momentarily; the world is re-enchanted. Walk past a member of the 501st Legion in a car park outside a convention and, for a second, you’re transported to Tatooine or Coruscant; you laugh but you’re a bit intimidated, and then you laugh some more.

Some might deride this as escapism, but as Tolkien once said “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?” It’s easy to get imprisoned by the world – to watch dreams fade, to imperceptibly transition to being an anonymous work unit, to lock away the attic the stories you wrote and the doodles you drew.

Cosplay can be a momentary escape from that. It gives the shy the chance to be extrovert, it gives reserved the chance to pose, it makes fixed identities malleable, it embodies the fundamental transformation of comic books – the ordinary throwing on a costume and, for a while at least, being extraordinary. The picture above? It was taken when a little boy got lost at a comic convention. He knew he’d be okay though, because Wonder Woman and the Flash were there to keep an eye on him.

Meanwhile, outside Derby Comic Con, a toddler is leading a member of the 501st around by his hand. The grey of the car park seems a little lighter; the colours of cosplay brighten up the world.

The Battle For Our Stories Will Be Won Through Our Art

Back in 2012, before I was married and before the world didn’t end, a group of us got together to watch the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. It was an expansive, unexpected event, weaving together a patchwork of Britain’s paradoxes. Two parts stick in my imagination even today: the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter with James Bond (because, well, it’s the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter with James Bond), and the moment in which Mary Poppins does battle with Lord Voldemort for the soul of the NHS. It was a strange mosaic of pop culture and social justice and political reality, and because of the imagery and the resonance it took things we take for granted and turned them into something mythological, perhaps even apocalyptic – not in the everyone’s-going-to-die sense, but in the sense of an unveiling of deeper realities.

And all of this is important, because as a society our stories are failing. We’ve seen, even in the course of the last few weeks, darker narratives take hold and dominate – stories tanked up on racism and prejudice and violence and exclusion. They take hold and people get shot and shops get firebombed.

The Church can’t stay silent in the face of this toxic storytelling, especially as we’ve told a few horror stories around the campfire ourselves. We can’t rely on people stumbling into our sermons, can’t rely on the fact that we get a bishop to say a quick prayer before an important occasion. We have to get out there and tell better stories, and while we’re doing that, ask forgiveness for all the times we’ve weaponised our own stories.

That’s where the gift of creativity comes in. We need to empower and encourage and unleash the artists and the poets and the song writers and the film makers among us; we’ve got good at doctrine and theology and apologetics,  and yhey’re important, but never forget that, when Jesus wanted to talk about the love of God he told the story of a boy who ran away from home, and when he wanted to talk about our love for each other, he told the story of a guy who got mugged.

So we have to pray that the Holy Spirit will bless and anoint those doing this work, because the world and the church need them out there on the frontlines. The Holy Spirit is our inspiration; let’s reclaim and remix and reimagine the Psalms and the parables and the lamentations and the testimonies. Maybe the time has come to be prophetic and apocalyptic, because that doesn’t mean that everything has to burn but it does mean that everything had to change.

There’s someone in the pews near to you that has a paintbrush. Someone has a digital camera and an eye for composition. Someone has a maker workshop in their garage, someone has a pen and a notebook full of ideas. And they also have the Holy Spirit.

Our job, as the church, is to help them present and reveal and embody a greater vision; our job, as the church, is to help them heal our broken narratives and to tell better stories.

Stories as Resistance

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We walk this world, millions upon millions of us, billions of lives intersecting in cities and villages, deserts and tundra. We build cities and machines, form relationships and communities, make art and make babies, each one of us an individual interacting with all the other individuals. We flirt and fight, sing and dance, fall in and out of love, and all the time we talk and write and sing and paint, all in an effort to understand ourselves and each other, and in doing so we give birth to stories.

Sometimes that becomes history, the stories of the past, the acts of kings and prophets, builders and farmers and scientists, the conquerors and the conquered. We pass these stories down through the generations, sometimes forming identity and bonds, sometimes resuscitating old grievances, resurrecting in the present. And when times are bad, we can find hope in those stories of the past, inspiration, strategy, inoculations against atrocity. In those times, we tell those stories to forge a shield, to assert the humanity of those around us.

Sometimes we tell stories of the future, or sidestep somewhere else entirely, we transplant our world into another to gain a different perspective, to issue a warning, to paint metaphors and symbols and to use them as a vaccination against toxic memes and seductive propaganda. We create heroes who can battle the things we think we can’t, and in doing so learn how to fight, to learn how to help, to learn how to stand.

Sometimes we tell stories of the present, we report, we blog, we photograph, we preach, we check facts and dig dirt and bring the truth out into the light. We do this and we start to break the power of lies and falsehood and their corrosion.

Sometimes we tell the stories of the voiceless, we repeat and we amplify, we yield the mic and make sure everyone gets heard, and that stops the marginalised being ignored or forgotten, even when that’s deliberate, especially when that’s deliberate. And that reminds us that of our shared personhood, we rehumanise the world because the tales of those around us can make us into their neighbours.

Sometimes we tell stories of darkness and despair, descent into the direst of circumstances, the depravity of abuse, the deepest of addictions. We do that because there’s encouragement, even in these testimonies, a shared experience, a spark of hope to light the way out. Life is hell, at times at least, but telling tales of conquering hell is an act of scarred defiance.

So tell stories – tell them whenever you can, tell them as if your life’s depending on it, or someone else’s. Tell them because they’re often the only weapon we have to push back the dark, tell them because it’s harder to force someone to their knees when you’ve looked them in the eyes and heard where they come from. Tell them before we’re silenced, write them across the Internet and in notebooks and on walls and in songs.

There are many ways to fight; if you don’t know how to do so, maybe it’s time to seek the words and let stories be your resistance.