Every month, one of my favourite hours is the one I spend listening to the Small Voice podcast. It never fails to make me think, often makes me smile or even laugh, occasionally rubs me up the wrong way, and more often than not resonates with things I have been contemplating myself. This month's edition was no exception, and is well worth a listen.
There were three elements of the podcast that, for me, prompted deeper thought - the media review of the film 'The Shack', the 'Small Voice of the Month', 'No-one Dies Alone' project, and the moral mixdown which offered a response to the flurry of allegatrions of historic sexual abuse/hasrrassment. This reflection - public, so has to keep that in mind - is my response to to that podcast, and specifically these three elements.
I have never read the book, 'The Shack', which was highly popular when I was a 'baby minister', but I do recall that it divided people into those who loved it and those who hated it. By the sound of things, the film has the potential to do much the same. As part of the review, an observation was made that one of the reviewers had misunderstood the genre of the film, and had therefore responded based on a wrong assumption. There is a lot I could probably have reflected on just from that, but my thoughts relate more to literary theory than anything else.
If we accept that the genre of the film was indeed 'fantasy' then we have to know how to 'read' that genre, not just the mechanics, but the nuances that are implied by that genre. Crudely, you wouldn't read a maths text book in the same way that you'd read a novel about a mathemetician, knowing how to read the book, what expectations to bring to it, what perspective to take is key to understanding or discovering the writer's intent. The 'ideal reader' (or viewer) gets what isintended and repsonds appropriately; writer and reader have a shared perspective.
But life isn't like that. Once a book (or film) is set free in to the public domain, the creator relinquishes control over how it is received or perceived. If I misunderstand your intent, and so perceive your offering differently, does that mean I'm wrong? Modernist thinking would probably say that I was, but Post Modern thinking would say otherwise, it would say that my perception was one valid option among many (or even an infinity). I guess the truth is that some perceptions are 'better' than others, more consistent with the creator's intent, more useful to reflect upon... but others may also be valid too.
It got me thinking, quite a lot, about the knowledge and the ignorance that I bring to anything I read or watch... I'm not a great fan of 'fantasy' or 'science fiction', though I have huge respect for the creativity and complexity of such works, and this inevitably impacts how I perceive them. My background in science and in theology, my work and life experience also combine to give me a unique, and partial viewpoint. No rocket science there, but lots to be aware of.
A Small Voice
'No-one dies alone' is a great project, compassionate, creative, simple and effective. It recognises an important reality that too many people end their lives all alone, probably in a hopsital or hospice bed, with no-one to travel with them to that final doorway into eternity. The project is one I admire deeply, would love to see flourish and spread, and yet it also raise questions for me.
Whilst at Vicar School, I had the privielge of accompanying a former colleague through his final months. Even when he was technically 'end of life' he did not die, and his wife more or less moved into the hospice to be with him. It was evident to the staff, and to me, that he wasn't going to die with her present - he would somehow keep going until he was given space to slip away. Sure enough, a day came when she had to leave the hospice for a few hours, and in that time, peacefully and quietly he died. I don't know whether he was alone, or whether a member of hospice staff sat with him, what I do know is that he didn't want to die in front of his wife.
It's not for me to question that enacted choice, but it does inform my thinking about 'no-one dies alone' and the reality, however small, that for some people this may not, afterall, be what they need, and that they may be unable to express that view should it arise.
My perception, again shaped by my experience of sitting with people who are dying, some of whom have wanted me to hold their hand and comfort them, others who have told me to go away - either is valid and either is healthy.
Should the past be left in the past, or must it be dug up and raked over? How should historical offences be handled? And in particular when those relate to physical or sexual abuse, harrassment etc.
As I listened to the discussion - naunced, careful, respectful - I was very aware of how my own repsonse is shaped by experience. Both as an engineer and as a minister I have experienced inappropriate actions and comments of a sexual nature, ranging from the 'pinched bottom' to lewd suggestions and even being propositioned by a married Baptist minister. I like to think that I can distinguish between playful flirting and inappropriate suggestion, between what was wrong-but-accepted in the 1980s and what is illegal now. I have no inclination to drag up the past, name or shame those whose actions affected my confidence and self-esteem, let alone resort to legal action - but I totally understand why others might and do. I have - in so far as it is in my gift - forgiven those whose actions to which I have alluded (and some that were far worse) and have seen how lives can be transformed by forgiveness, education and so on. I have also seen lives so damaged and people so deeply hurt that this is impossible; and I have seen peopple who were not remorseful and pentitent, even if they said the right thing. I would never tell the victims of sexual abuse I have supported (and there have been some in every church I've been part of) how to respond, because their response is their response, and is as valid as mine.
I believe in forgiveness, I believe in transformation, I believe in redemption, I believe all sin is sin... and I believe those things shaped by my experience, personal and professional. Which is perhaps why I found myself thinking 'yes but no but yes' to each commentater on this complex topic.
It's not rocket science, but this podcast reminded me quite forcibly that my perspective is partial, that my perception is informed by my own story. It reminded me, if I needed to be reminded, that nothing is ever 'back and wihite' but always 'shades of grey'. It reminded me that generalisatons are just that. It reminded me that no one answer suits every circumstance. It reminded me my own worth and my own limits - in a good way.
So, that's my stream of consciousness reflection on the podcast. It made me think. It resonated with ideas I was already playing with. And by engaging with it, some new understanding emerged. That's all good, and for that I am grateful.