The annual autumnal display of colours is drawing to close in Perth. 450m south of here, in my parents garden, it is still in full swing.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
On Saturday night, Perth City Centre had a carnival atmosphere with fairground rides, foodstalls, music, fireworks and the obligatory "celebrity" (of whom I had never heard) switching on the Christmas Lights. All this is designed to get us in the Christmas 'spirit', and draw us in with open wallets to rejuvinate the fortunes of the flagging High Street.
And I would love to oblige. There are many things, in many shops, for many people I would like to buy.
Sadly however, someone has decided that Scottish Gas can help themselves to a another inflation-busting helping from my bank account. This rather rules out extra discretionary spending for a while, even if that means that local businesses suffer, the town's economy suffers and the decline of the town centre continues unabated.
The Christmas lights are lovely. The spectacle on Saturday was impressive. Not really the point though, is it?
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Monday, November 18, 2013
Wednesday, November 06, 2013
Saturday, November 02, 2013
Friday, November 01, 2013
In Wayne Grudem's book, "Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?" he identifies four views on the Cessationist/Continuationist debate about the charismata displayed in the New Testament. They are (i) Cessationist; the sign gifts ceased with the death of The Apostles, (ii) Open but Cautious; the Biblical case for cessationism is poor, but concerns about the Charismatic movement remain, (iii) Third Wave; 1960s charismatics, both those in house churches and those within older denominations, (iv) Pentecostals, in their own denominations, emphasising a distinctive post-conversion Spirit-baptism evidenced by glossolalia. Detailed descriptions of these positions and helpful debate between them can be found in the book.
This short article has one aim, which is to suggest how someone from the "Open but Cautious" perspective might respond to John Macarthur's recent "Strange Fire" cessationism conference. Strange Fire attacked "The Charismatic Movement" (sic), as being essentially bogus, the result not of any genuine desire to follow the Bible's teaching, but merely a response to post 60s culture, resulting in a toxic mixture of self and demonic deception.
The talks from the conference are available online, and can be listened to. Along with those talks, there has been a lot of discussion about the claims made at Strange Fire, and Macarthur's spokesman Phil Johnson, has sought to address much of the criticism generated.
In addition to much of what has been said, I would like to offer the following:
1. The discussion has become far too polarised. This is not to say that there should not be robust debate, or that truth should be downplayed, or that being "nice" is the only Christian virtue. The problem is that when you line up a Macarthurite against a Pentecostal, you are by default excluding moderating positions which while no doubt producing a lot of good feisty media - presents a view of the Christian landscape which is far more polarised than the reality on the ground. Sometimes, it is possible to find that one has more in common with a 'moderate' on the other side of an argument, than with an extremist on your own side.
2. "Open but Cautious" Christians would want to identify with Macarthur's rejection of abuses, scandals, fraudsters, and heretics within the Charismatic Churches and on TV channels. There are showmen, holy snake-oil salesmen, showbiz freaks, and nutters to be found, exploiting the weak, gullible, and vulnerable; peddling dubious faith-cures, and promoting dangerously bad theology. John Stott famously called Prosperity Theology a "virus" within the church, J.I. Packer called the "name it and claim it" school of Word-of-Faith teachers the "gab it grab it" lot. Christians in the Open but Cautious camp typically cannot stand watching the likes of GODTV, as it is so often a platform for the weird, the dangerous, and the downright Todd Bentley.
3. However, while Open but Cautious Christians will stand resolutely with Macarthur's criticism of specific errors and abuses; they do not accept that these examples of error make the case for complete cessationism. The case that the final, and complete ending of the operation of the genuine gifts of The Holy Spirit ceased with the death of the Apostles and the completion of the Canon of Scripture is ill-founded in their view; and cannot be proven by demonstrating the existence of oddballs with TV shows. The biblical case for cessationism (however well articulated as at Strange Fire) is unbelievably thin. It is a very great weight suspended on the slenderest of threads. In Cessationist thought, the possibility of any form of extra-scriptural information being given to believers by The Holy Spirit, is an assault on the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture. Now, Open but Cautious believers (along with many Charismatics) would agree that any doctrinal disclosures, or any which were thought to be of equal authority to scripture, would indeed undermine a healthy view of sufficiency. However, the other extreme danger here needs to be identified as well. Cessationism supposes a massive change in the nature and practise of the church, after the likes of 1 Corinthians was written. It supposes that a gifted multi-member ministry is replaced with a preacher-centred ministry centred on one man who is trained to teach the Bible. It assumes that the way The Holy Spirit works in the church underwent a sea-change, after the Bible was written. Strict Cessationism, is then (in the Open but Cautious view), a major attack on the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture, as it bases its ministry model on post-Biblical developments; not on the text. In fact, it seeks to sideline the major texts on the subject of the Spirit's work in the church as being not relevant for this dispensation.
4. Thankfully, scripture is sufficient to answer the problems the church faces throughout its many ages. 1 Corinthians contains a masterclass from the Apostle Paul in dealing with charismatic excess and abuses. It looks very different from the approach taken at Strange Fire and Open but Cautious believers would wish to see the urgent correction of Charismatic abuses; but done in the manner the New Testament provides, not the Macarthur approach. The Corinthians were running a disastrous church, in which there was undignified chaotic worship, excess wine consumption, abuse of the gifts of the Spirit (especially tongues), and it was so bad that Paul told them their meetings did more harm than good. Open but Cautious believers who have watched Charismatic TV, or visited a more extreme Charismatic fellowship will have similarly recoiled at some of what we have experienced there. There are clearly some events which do more harm than good, like Corinth. However, Paul's grace-based understanding of salvation and incorporation into Christ's body controls the way he responds to the wayward Corinthians. He does not seem to suggest (as Macarthur gets dangerously close to doing on repeated occasions), that salvation depends on faith in Christ plus wisdom, discernment and becoming error-free. Rather, he assumes that people with faith in Christ are both genuinely Christian, but whose errors hamper their maturing, and distorts the church's witness. Paul seeks to firmly Reform the Corinthians as a matter of great urgency, while all the time remaining in fellowship with them and affirming their place in the body of Christ. He specifically does not, take their pneumatalogical enthusiasms as being the definitive test-case to demonstrate their true conversion or otherwise. Macarthur would do well to follow Paul's model here.
5. Open but Cautious believers seek to maintain discerning fellowship with our fellow believers on both sides of this discussion. As such many of those in this group are grieved on one side by the spurious claims of the bogus faith healers, as we are by Macarthur's harsh words about all Charismatics. Macarthur frequently uses the term "The Charismatic Movement" as if it were a monolith which stands or falls together. Looking more sympathetically into Charismatic Churches from the outside, - Open but Cautious believers do not see a "Charismatic Movement", but rather many, many "Charismatic Movements" which cannot possibly be lumped together as if they were one. In fact, it seems to many people that it would be as unwise to talk about "Charismatic Christianity" in these terms as it would be to speak about "Non-Charismatic Christianity" as if it were one movement. I can't imagine how upset Macarthur would be if we were to lump him in with the likes of Bishop John Selby Spong, and argue that his cessationism is simply the modern outworking of liberalisms anti-supernaturalist presupposition! The fact is that Charismatic believers I know, have virtually nothing in common with the abuses, and excesses paraded on "Christian" TV. To suggest otherwise is simply a category error, and a massive logical fallacy in argument. Perhaps there are good reasons for Macarthur's position here. Perhaps he thinks that to present a nuanced and accurate view of this would take the heat off those who must be called to repentance and reformation. There would be nothing better than if some charlatan was to read these conference manuscripts and publicly repent of his evil, or if some prosperity teacher was to re-cast his message in biblical terms. Macarthur is no doubt in accord with that, but thinks that the danger would be that a nuanced approach would enable a bogus healer to merely add some bible-studies to his performance to add a veneer of orthodoxy to his fundamental deception; not actually repenting but merely making his error more complex. This is a real danger. However, the reality is that most Charismatics will never even consider the good points that Strange Fire makes, as they will instinctively know from the outset that they are being inaccurately maligned. A more gracious, fair and accurate approach might actually persuade more Charismatics about his legitimate concerns.
If Macarthur is wrong in failing to see the diversity in these movements, he is also very wrong to make broad brushed assessments of Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. He makes five major denunciations in the transcripts and recordings I have read and heard. These are (i) the movement contains false teachers who have departed from biblical truth, (ii) biblically orthodox Charismatics do not practice adequate separation from the wayward and all are guilty by association, (iii) Charismatics have made no contribution to the worship of the church (iv) Charismatics have made no contribution towards social concern and the relief of poverty, (v) There is no useful Charismatic contribution to Christian theology.
What would Open but Cautious believers have to say about these five accusations about all Charismatics? Let us consider them in turn.
5i. The Charismatic Movement(s) do contain false teachers. Mention has already been made of the flawed health and wealth movement. In fact, one of the strangest phenomenon I have experienced is of the type of Charismatic teacher who says almost nothing at all! Christian TV channels are full of talking heads who as Churchill once quipped are remarkably adept at "compressing few thoughts into very many words". There is, I suggest, an urgent need for Reformation of swathes of this movement who have lost all biblical moorings and seem adrift in a sea of subjectivity, entertainment and thrill seeking. But, let's be clear, the non-Charismatic world has its headbangers too! However, Open but Cautious believers would pretty much accept Macarthur's criticisms of the specific abuses he cites here.
5ii. Phil Johnson's debate with Mike Brown on the subject of separation from error was a fascinating listen. Johnson argued that Macarthur was correct to distance himself from, to break fellowship with, Charismatics who have not said, or done anything wrong themselves; but who are in fellowship with others who have! This is the old fundamentalist doctrine of double-separation, re-worked for today's issues. So the orthodox preacher and church leader Sam Storms is attacked because he is in fellowship with Mike Bickle, who in turn is in fellowship with some wayward discredited leaders, for example. The Open but Cautious Christian would tend not to want to embrace this kind of thinking, as it goes beyond the New Testaments requirements to separate from error, and looks more like the establishment of a command and control system in which powerful individuals assume for themselves the right to draw the boundaries of the church. To deny fellowship to a fellow believer, because they have some dubious connections, is beyond the biblical mandate. Macarthur's cessationist assumptions make him see orthodox Charismatics as merely being a 'front' for the extremes. Open but Cautious believers will want to be in fellowship with sound Charismatics, sifting and searching for the valid and authentic work of the Holy Spirit.
5iii. Macarthur claimed that Charismatics have made no helpful contribution to Christian worship. Open but Cautious Christians, would wish to point out two things here. Firstly, the Christian TV channels pour out a stream of the weird and the irrelevant which they bill as worship. I remember clearly watching a 'Christian' band leading 'worship', but the only lyrics being sung were a bizarre chant of the word "push". There are extremes of flippancy, biblical illiteracy and showbiz, which are truly dreadful. Macarthur is right to point out that such things are not what the New Testament church gathered to do. However, to use that as a basis for dismissing all worship offered to God by Charismatics is so wrong, as to be actually a sinful slander of fellow-believers. Amusingly, I have heard that at the Strange Fire conference they unwittingly used songs like In Christ Alone, by Stuart Townend of the decidedly Charismatic New Frontiers group of churches! Yes, in sung worship there is a lot of dross - but so is there in non-Charismatic hymnody. The truth is that most decades probably only produce a couple of songs which will be in common currency in a Century, songs which are recognised by the whole church as being rich in truth and helpful vehicles for singing God's praise. (Oh for a thousand Tongues to Sing!). Charismatics have contributed handsomely to the great songs of our age, and to pretend otherwise is simply erroneous, ill-informed and seems to me to be almost spiteful. Having worshipped with Continuationists, as Cessationists, I have experienced the poor and inept on both sides; and been led to a deeper appreciation of the Holiness, Majesty and Love of God by both too. Macarthur, I think owes several apologies on this score.
5iv. Macarthur alleged that Charismatics have made no contribution to social concern or relief of poverty. It is firstly very helpful that Macarthur correctly identifies social concern as one of the hallmarks of authentic historic Christianity which he wishes to encourage and promote. There have been those from his dispensationalist school who have seen it as a distraction from propagation of the gospel, and have stimulated the so-called 'great-reversal' of evangelical abandonment of social concern. Open but Cautious Christians who have taken the time to live in close fellowship with their Charismatic friends will be aware that this accusation is blatantly false. For a start there are many mercy ministries (like Mercy Ships) which were born from charismatic ministries. More significantly though, the existing social concern agencies are packed full of Charismatics, who not only staff these charities in great numbers but in my experience give to them too. The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund (TEARFund) is the largest evangelical relief organisation in the UK, and has enormous support from amongst Charismatic Churches. Likewise, you could visit countless MAF bases around the world, and find Charismatics and non-Charismatics serving together bringing medicines, aid or Bibles to the physically and spiritually hungry. No doubt the prosperity teachers invest in their mansions and private jets - but these figures which loom so large in the mind Macarthur are a total irrelevance to the ordinary Christian. As a Open but Cautious believer, I want to stand with my Charismatic friends and tell them that while I might dispute some of their claims, I cannot allow them to be so falsely maligned as they are here.
5v. The final claim to be looked at here is Macarthur's claim, made at the Strange Fire conference that Charismatics have made no valid contribution to Christian Theology. The fact that there are a lot of superb Bible commentators and theologians who do not endorse cessationism seems to have escaped Macarthur's attention, and suggests that he is not actually an expert on the Charismatic Movement(s), so much as on TV Evangelists and their foibles. Macarthur has said he is OK with continuationists such as Piper and Grudem, except that their lack of cessationism is their blind-spot. This leaves Macarthur with a circular argument in that he starts with cessationism as an assumption with which to filter 'good' and 'bad' theology. Therefore he excludes any Charismatic theology from being good by his own definitions. He is therefore saying little more than "I disagree" but trying to do so using absolute moral categories. This is highly manipulative and rather unfair. As Adrian Warnock has pointed out in his blogs on Strange Fire, it doesn't seem to have occurred to Macarthur that it is the biblically grounded theology of people like Grudem which actually drives their continuationalism. Open but Cautious believers would want to stress that there is some bad theology on both sides of this debate at the extremes. "Word of faith" teachers end up instructing God "You Must..", while cessationists unwittingly find themselves saying to The Lord, "You May Not!.." Here is theology at both ends of the spectrum to decisively avoid.
The Open but Cautious believer would want to endorse many of Macarthur's criticisms of excess, bad theology and odd-ball distractions from the gospel. However, such believers take great exception to some of Dr Macarthurs erroneous and ill-informed, slanderous accusations against our Charismatic brothers and sisters; and to ask serious questions about the spirit in which they have been made. Frankly, if you are Open but Cautious towards the Charismatic movement, you will find yourself being Open but Cautious towards John Macarthur too.
When I was young, my pastor Derek Swann was a cessationist, who believed that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit occurred at conversion. Yet, he was a man who knew what it was to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and to encounter the presence of God in remarkable ways. On one occasion he recalled being with his great friend Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, when a number of the pastors pressed Lloyd-Jones on his view of the Baptism of the Spirit being a definitive post-conversion experience. They persuasively expounded the relevant New Testament texts which indicate the reception of the Spirit occurring at conversion and looked to "The Doctor" for a response. According to Mr Swann's recollection, Lloyd-Jones quoted 1 Peter 1 and asked which of them knew "joy unspeakable" and were "full of glory". The lack of response indicated that those whose exegesis was so sure, knew that in the experience of God described and expected in the New Testament they lacked.
Open but Cautious believers would finally wish to point out that there are dangers which lie in two directions. To the right there is the danger of Charismatic excess, of false prophets, charlatans and bogus healers on which Macarthur is the expert. We should be warned there are indeed great dangers here. However, there is another terrible danger to the left; and that is of settling for an arid, sterile academic faith only of the mind that doesn't seek the life, fire and power of God. There is a danger that in assuming that 'we got it all at conversion' we settle for knowing God less than we should, of experiencing Him less than we should, of worshipping Him more meanly and superficially than we should and becoming the dullest people on earth. One of Jesus' most stinging rebukes to the teachers of the law was this, "You are in error for you do not know the scriptures, or the power of God". The profound experiential knowledge of both these things are surely the hallmarks of authentic biblical faith.
Book Notes: An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain (or 60 years of making the same stupid mistakes) by John O' Farrell
"Margaret Thatcher was a non-conformist in every sense of the word. There was Methodism in her madness", writes John O'Farrell as he reaches 1979 in his witty, wry look at British postwar history.
O'Farrell doesn't write history in the Horrible Histories school of "Ooh weren't people in the past gross, and stupid", but more like an edition of Private Eye covering six decades rather than just a fortnight. O'Farrell is really a satirist, whose acidic asides at the newsmakers of the day are most often read on his website www.newsbiscuit.com .
This "Utterly Exasperated History" contains a lot of good history, a bombardment of jokes and the humorous intermingling of the factual and the absurd. All this is mixed together with a solid dose of O'Farrell's personal left-of-centre political opinions which he lobs into the mix for good measure.
The book begins with Germany and Italy falling under the allure of the Fascist dictators with straight arm salutes, while when Oswald Moseley tried the same in England - everyone laughed at his sweaty armpits; he ends the bod saying, "And so a story that began with Britain almost crippled by war loans in 1945 ends with the country even deeper in debt six decades later..." In between, all the great events are covered, Macmillan, Suez, The NHS, Profumo, The Sixties, Ted Heath, The Oil Crisis, The Cold War, Wilson, Callaghan, Major etc etc.
Not a book to be taken to seriously (despite the vein of sensible observation running through it), but definitely one with plenty of laughs.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
After a break from recording for almost fifteen years veteran English rock band Barclay James Harvest have returned with a fine collection of songs, which band leader John Lees hinted might be their final album. Since BJH began working in the late 1960s, they have moved through several creative periods, drawing in different stages of their careers on orchestral work, folk, prog, pop, in the 70s before re-launching themselves as European stadium rock band in the 80s, while the 90s were dominated by creative tensions between the different songwriters and their favoured styles - culminating in the dissolution of the original band in 1997. John Lees' version of the band have sought to continue the classic rock sound of the band earlier, most creatively fertile period, while Les Holroyd's band favour the 80s sound on the European gig circuit to this day.
North is a distinctively Barclay James Harvest album with all the trademarks of that name; great melodies, interesting arrangements, lyrical intrigue, lush vocal harmonies, solid rhythms, moody keyboards and soaring guitar lines; constructed with a delicacy which is often described as 'pastoral'. Barclay James Harvest has a large and unusual devoted following, and there is plenty here for their traditional fans to enjoy. There are however a few surprises in store as there are new departures to be found on North as well as the band explore new territory is several of the songs.
The album opens with what to my mind is its weakest song, "If You Were Here Now", a light radio-friendly pop ballad. Although Craig Fletcher sings very well elsewhere on the album, the opening vocals are fragile and sound unfinished. John Lees' finely crafted guitar lines, and the catchy chorus certainly lift the latter half of the song - but I was initially disappointed.
That disappointment didn't last long however. Ancient Waves is a classic John Lees' song invoking their great anti-war anthems of the 70s, such as Summer Soldier. Written about the Iraq War, the song imagines that voices of the souls of soldiers killed in conflict past are heard in the waves - pleading for us not to send more soldiers to kill and die. Already performed live successfully many times, this song is bound to be a favourite amongst long-time fans.
If, at the conclusion to Ancient Waves, listeners to "North", were to settle back and assume that they were in for a nostalgia-fest of songs which could have sat on BJH records like Octoberon or Time Honoured Ghosts, then "In Wonderland" would come as something of a surprise! Apparently the band nicknamed the song Steely-John in the studio, as the light but deceptively complex jazz-pop so invokes the sound of Becker and Fagen. Alongside the quirky lyrics, this is a new departure for the band, perhaps taking the trajectory Lees' hinted at in 1997's "Pool of Tears" and following through to its natural conclusion. These are the first recording from this line up of the band, following the tragic death keyboard player Woolly Wolstenholme in 2010 - and this track demonstrates the extent to which they are a good creative unit doing different things.
The up-beat and jokey mood of "In Wonderland" crumbles with the first few notes of the sombre, "On Leave", written about the debilitating depression suffered by their friend and fellow-musician Woolly Wolstenholme, which culminated in his suicide in 2010. This is a beautiful poignant and heartfelt love-song, presented as a requiem for a fallen brother. John Lees' guitar almost seems to weep as it lays down its opening lament, before the opens up into a ballad section which simple tells the story of his decline and fall from the perspective of a helpless observer. This would have been a simple but profound memorial if left there - but the band have much more to say about Woolly both lyrically and musically. To the sound of storms and falling rain they shift gear into 5/8 for a sung/chanted section which documents much about Woollys state of mind, before another gear change into alternating bars of 5/8, 6/8 for a complex guitar solo, followed by a 6/8 keyboard solo. This is a dramatic, compelling and musically interesting section of which Woolly (who had always wanted to push the bands musical boundaries) would surely have approved. The song ends with a bolder, more majestic re-statement of the opening guitar lament. The combination of the blunt, but heartfelt lyrics, and the power and beauty of this music make listening to it an emotional experience. I suspect that people who knew Woolly personally will have found this especially so. Little embellishments demonstrate how much love and care went into this song, while John Lees' sings of Woolly, "haunted by the old; hounded by the new", keyboard player Jez Smith underlays his words with trademark Woolly Mellotron sounds from the bands early albums. On Leave is a tremendous tribute to a much missed friend and colleague.
The mood and the rhythm doesn't remain static for long on this album however, as the next song, "The Real Deal" is a driving up-tempo rocker. Criticised by some fans for being too derivative of other 70s hard rock bands, my judgement is that this is hard rock song that John Lees has been striving towards for some time, with mixed results until now. In the original Barclay James Harvest John recorded a few songs which were straightforward rockers like Panic or the much derided Spud-U-like, which failed to impress because they lacked the aggressive intent which their genre and shape required. I suspect that Polydor's determination to push BJH in a MOR direction had much to do with the 'teeth' being pulled from these songs - something which I am sure Craig Fletcher (bass/vox) and Kev Whitehead (drums) were not going to allow to happen here. My one criticism is that the songs is too long, the chorus repeated too many times, without any musical changes to sustain interest, but the Kevin Peek like guitar solo soars over the song, and Whitehead gives it some real welly on the kit (he also drums for Dare), while Craig's vocals work especially well on this type of song.
The next surprise for BJH fans is "On Top of The World". Many of the songs on this album relate to aspects of life in the North of England where the band are all from, and where it was written, and recorded. This song is about the loss of the mining industry and the effect it had on the families of the miners, left with little but the friendships and music forged in working days. The surprise is that Fletchers vocals are laid over a brass band, with only a little piano to add variety. John Lees' love of brass is well documented, as are his son's skills as a cornet player. A little flourish of a cornet solo added to the structure of a regular song from the four members of the band would have been pleasant but unsurprising; the "Frugal Horns"! in all their glory is a wonderful sound however. The fact that (just as with Real Deal) the band have had the confidence to go all the way with their musical ideas, rather than just blending in a hint of this or that into their traditional sound is what sets North apart as an album. It may be too varied an album as a result, but I think John Lees has always been at his best when pushing himself, taking risks and not reigning in his musical and creative ideas.
Unreservedly Yours is the one recording on the album I already owned before I got the CD, as it had already been released as a downloadable single earlier in the year. It's a jaunty little piece of 6/8, celebrating the joy of lifelong love and one of only two weaker songs on the album. It wouldn't have been my choice as a single to take from it to promote the CD.
"North", the album's title track in contrast is magnificent, which along with Ancient Waves and the wonderful On Leave form a trio of latter-day BJH classics. The song begins by lyrically and musically describing images of the North; of bleak moors, ice on windows, abandoned factories, and children playing in the streets. John Lees' half-whispered vocal is a nice creative flourish; before the song lifts with some great playing, and change of vocals and a lyrical shift present a different picture, the other side of The North. This is brilliant writing, and very good performance - a really, really good song.
John Lees Barclay James Harvest complete this album with a final surprise, and another departure from the expected formula. Over music they have especially composed, Lees recites a poem by Ammon Wrigley, a noted early 20th colloquial poet from the bands own Saddleworth neighbourhoods. Surely, Lees has Wolstenholme in view when he intones:
Two gods watched o'er a young Norse birth
The god of ale, and the god of mirth.
Says mellow ale, "This child's my own"
"No, no", says mirth, "Not thine alone".
So each agreed to take a part,
Ale seized his throat, and Mirth his heart.
And made him together what people may ken
The best of cronies and the straightest of men
The best of cronies and the straightest of men.
North is a really good, album which I have played and played since its release. It is an essential purchase for fans of Barclay James Harvest, which stands firmly in the tradition of the great albums that band made between 1968 and 1979; with enough new twists and turns to make it full of surprises. The band take to the road in November, I'm hoping to catch them in Edinburgh,
Sunday, October 20, 2013
The collapse of The Soviet Block of Eastern European Marxist-Leninist states was probably the most major geo-political shift in my lifetime. Such realignments in world politics maybe only occur once or twice a century, and to have watched the process of the decline and fall of Stalin's Empire as a teenager was thrilling. It was so intriguing in fact, that I went on to study it at University in the mid-90s. From that tumultuous historical period there is an image which seems to summarise so much of what occurred - which is of Berliner's smashing down the Berlin Wall, which had divided their city into Capitalist and Communist zones since 1961.
This revolution was observed by the Australian journalist Anna Funder who had lived in Berlin for several years. While the collapse of the wall meant freedom for many on the GDR, looking eastwards Funder was intrigued by what the GDR had meant and set out to explore it. She did this during a period in which there was much pressure to airbrush the GDR from history in a mass exercise in forgetting which Funder likens to the de-Nazification programme of the late 40s. The wall itself she notes is a symbol of this, which apart from one rebuilt 'museum' section has been completely hidden and it is now impossible to trace much of its route without a map.
Funder's exploration of life in the East German state focussed on the Stasi, the men from the Ministry of State Security whose grip on the lives of ordinary East Germans was almost absolute. In her travels and interviews she met many victims of Stasi persecution, those kept apart from loved ones over the wall, those who tried to escape and became enemies of the State, those denied careers and jobs because of their unfortunate capacity for independent thought, those who were tortured, or who lost loved ones to prison brutality. The stories are moving, chilling, and cripplingly sad, especially as the psychological torture of victims continues. She also talks to those who are struggling not to be forgotten in the new Germany which seemed too busy with the massive process of reunification to really bother with their calls for justice, or even simply for access to Stasi files to find out what really happened to their husbands, brothers, children..
While that alone would have made an interesting book, Funder went further. In the years after German reunification, she placed adverts in the press asking former Stasi men to come and speak to her. Maybe surprisingly many of them responded to her request. They proved to be a varied and complex group of old men. Some were still ideologically committed, militant in their Stalinism, and unrepentant about Stasi crimes, which they still defended in the old redundant language of the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat to seize power and defend the constructing of a perfect workers state from constant infiltration of western bourgeoise and fascist ideas, and products. Old propogandists like Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler are pictured in their East Berlin apartments, still angrily denouncing the west, beneath their busts of Marx and Stalin. Others, though were less nostalgic for the old days, and looked back regretfully on mistakes made. One for instance has nothing but contempt for the society which painted and decorated its public buildings - but only on the first floor which Erich Honecker could see from his car window - but which further up rotted and decayed; the society in which the state set impossible agricultural targets, which they knew farms could never meet, but then gave out medals to those who fabricated results most extravagantly.
Funder is a very sensitive writer, who embeds the stories she tells and observations she offers inside some finely crafted sentences. She is able to capture, quite powerfully, the relentless loss of hope which so many experienced at the hands of the Stasi; as well as so many of the absurdities of the East German state system - which makes for compelling reading. Finally she probes at the growing movement of GDR nostalgia from younger people, who feel trapped between the gross disparities of wealth which occur under capitalism, and the gross loss of freedom and abuses of power which seem to be the inevitable outcome of attempts at communism.
I hope one day to visit Berlin. If I manage to do that, Funder's book will immeasurably enhance the experience. I will look for example for the old Stasi headquarters, and note how this most feared building became almost overnight, a museum. I could search for where the shredded Stasi files are being painstakingly stitched back together so that relatives can find out what actually happened to their family members who died in custody. Or hunt for where the people she interviewed tried to climb the wall, and make their way to freedom, where the killing zones, and gun-emplacements were.
This is a tremendous read, very informative, and moving with it too. It is a telling portrait of people whose stories and lives have too often been forgotten.