The amazing Shane Claiborne

I’ve just watched at my youth group a DVD of a talk by Shane Claiborne, an amazing guy, a radical Christian who believes in actually doing stuff, actually living as a Christian. I saw only about the last fifteen minutes of his speech at the Greenbelt festival last week, but that was enough to know that this was a person who makes the kind of speeches that are challenging and discomforting in a good way – that really make you think about yourself and your place in the world.

He’s from Tennessee and, you might agree if you watch the clip below,  he looks and sounds a bit like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. He’s also pretty funny. But far more than that, his speeches are so impassioned and insightful, filled not just with thought-provoking ideas to make you ponder but with the kind of things that really make you feel like you should act, like you should actually change your life as a result of hearing them.

He draws on a lot of his personal experiences from working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, in Baghdad during the Iraq War and against the outrageous laws against feeding the homeless in Philadelphia, and some of  the things he said were really humbling and eye-opening. About how the more you have, the less you are. About how, when a house was donated to Mother Teresa, she told them to immediately get rid of all the hot water, because the poor don’t have hot water, so she wouldn’t either. Or her deformed feet, after years of always choosing the worst of the shoes donated to the family, so that no-one was stuck with the worst pair. With her deformed feet, she bore the mark of years of loving her neighbour, of putting other people before herself.

But clearly not all Christians are like Mother Teresa. According to Claiborne, a Gallup poll in the US showed that the 3 words that most young non-Christians in America associated with Christians were: 1. anti-gay 2. judgemental and 3. hypocritical. That’s disturbing. The fact that it’s not really a surprise makes it even more disturbing. And though people’s perceptions of Christians and what Christians are actually like are not always the same thing, they must have got these ideas from somewhere. And it might not be quite so bad here in the UK, but it’s still not great.

The Bible tells us that love is the most important quality for a Christian to have.  Whatever the top result would be in a similar survey here, it wouldn’t be love.  But Claiborne’s call is for us Christians to rise up, to be how we were made to be and to be a proper reflection of God’s love to the world. This is what Jesus is going to judge us on, as in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats – “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” It’s the people who truly love God and their neighbour who do these things, and it’s these kinds of people who will inherit God’s kingdom.

Anyway, here’s a video of Claiborne speaking, so you can hear for yourself. I haven’t watched it myself, but with the title “Another Way of Doing Life”,  it’s hopefully quite similar to the two (or one and a bit) speeches I’ve seen.


Will there be nations in heaven? Different languages?

Firstly, sorry for not posting since April. That commitment to blog regularly didn’t last very long, did it? But anyway, here I am again and after getting back into reading other WordPress blogs recently, I’m hoping to now get back into my own blog too.

I like languages. I do French and Spanish at school and after having been on two exchange trips this summer (one in France, one in Spain), I have a renewed interested in linguistics. I have started randomly translating song lyrics into French and Spanish in my head, reading up on Esperanto and Greenlandic, editing foreign-language Wikipedias and I’ve now actually started to invent my own language, called Negrapinut (which means “language of the black country” in case you’re interested). Sounds nerdy, right? But hey.

Like many others, I do also have a certain sense of pride in being British. Much has been said about how the royal wedding last year combined with the Jubilee and Olympics/Paralympics this year have renewed a sense of patriotism in Britain that perhaps we were lacking before. And you only have to look at Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and the DR Congo to see that proper nations where people have a shared identity are stronger than man-made unions or countries made up of loads of different tribes.  (Ok, the Soviet Union was pretty strong while it lasted, but it inevitably collapsed eventually, just as Yugoslavia inevitably split up into its original nations.)

However, I have in the past actually wondered whether nationhood (if that’s a word) and different languages are things that we should actually thank God for, given that they were meant to be a curse put on us because of the Tower of Babel. My conclusion is to thank God for all the good things that have resulted from them, the shared identity that they give people and the pleasure that different cultures and languages give me and many others, while acknowledging their origin and that, though we might have them in heaven, we might not do because we won’t need them.

Will there be different languages, and different nations and cultures, in heaven? I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible. The diversity of the different cultures and languages in the world bring a lot of pleasure to people. Patriotism often brings people together with a shared identity, and allegiance to one’s nation can be a force for good if people are inspired to serve their country. And as there will be no sin in heaven, the idolatry and the bad things that can result from nationalism wouldn’t happen.

However, I’m slightly leaning towards the no side. The fact that these things were meant to be a curse as a result of us building the Tower of Babel kind of makes me think that there would be no languages or cultures in a perfect world. And if everyone in heaven will be part of a perfect family of God’s children, what extra kind of shared identity will we need? Once we are with God and are fully experiencing his love together, will we really need the pleasure of the different cultures and languages we have now? And once we have fully matured as Christians and become wise, will we really need to find wisdom in other cultures?

What do you think? Any comments would be welcome.

5 songs I like at the moment

(in no particular order)

1. R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts

This classic song is #1 on the PRS Music list of songs that make real men cry. It’s one of the best ballads I have ever listened to (I can’t think of a better one). Just listen.

2. Coldplay – Brothers and Sisters

A lesser-known but really good song from an otherwise (very) well-known band. This was their début single in 1999, and could have fit in on either of their first two albums. Some commenters on YouTube have understandably accused it of being a rip-off of Radiohead’s song ‘You’ (from their debut album Pablo Honey). But what’s wrong with using a song as inspiration and making it your own? In fact, ‘Brothers & Sisters’ does well as a more subtle version of ‘You’ and arguably rivals it in quality – and though Martin’s voice isn’t as good as Thom Yorke’s, it’s still deep and sombre enough to fit with the atmospheric nature of the song.

3. Radiohead – Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Great song from one of the most acclaimed bands of all time, on their seventh album In Rainbows (2007). Brilliantly atmospheric, the song starts with a beautiful minor chord progression on acoustic guitar and gradually grows in intensity as the song goes on. I haven’t got In Rainbows yet; in fact so far I’ve only got three of their albums – The Bends (1995), OK Computer (1997) and Kid A (2000) – all of which I’d highly recommend. But I’m hoping to own all eight of them at some point.

4. John Legend – Ordinary People

As I said in my previous post, genres like soul and jazz have a direct warming effect on the soul and this piano ballad by a guy with a fragile but excellently fitting voice for the song (and its subject manner) is no exception.

5. Extreme – More than Words

The fact that this song is by an otherwise heavy metal band makes its stripped down nature all the more astonishing. With just an acoustic guitar, using a percussive tap on the strings on the offbeat in the place of drums, and two voices, it is as acoustic as any rock band gets. A great song, though, and good enough to fill in its time of over five and half minutes without overstaying its welcome, despite the lack of instrumentation. ‘Hole Hearted‘, the other ballad on their 1991 album Pornograffiti (and the only other song I know by them) is also well worth listening to.

Extreme – More than Words


Meditative music

Certain music really does have a meditative quality. For example, I recently bought the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. It’s the first jazz album I’ve bought.

This evening I was just listening to the album in the living room in front of a warm fire, almost as warm as the music itself, and there were candles beside the fireplace. I can honestly say that listening to the music in such a way really did have a spiritual effect on me. The longer you listen to music like that, the deeper it penetrates your being. It’s a form of meditation. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something specifically about the sound of the genres of jazz and soul that has a spiritual effect on one’s being.

Not to say that this effect is limited to those genres. Just now I listened to the 3rd Movement of ‘Electric Counterpoint’ by Steve Reich, a 20th century minimalist classical piece, and to ‘Planet Telex’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ by Radiohead on YouTube, and they are all continuing that spiritual effect in me. Coldplay’s music, not their rather disappointing new stuff but in particular their second and third albums, also has that ambience to it.

That’s it, really. It’s ambient, atmospheric music – particularly jazz and soul, I think I’ll find as I listen to more of it – that moves me. Also anything that is just so melodic that it strikes an emotional chord. ‘Something’ by the Beatles is one of my favourite ones of those…   

The joys of songwriting

Others know it, I am just discovering it.

I have come up with two musical ideas in the past 24 hours.

The first one came when I was tinkering about on the piano yesterday evening and came up with a tune to a Dm/C7 chord progression. I suddenly started to imagine this on an electric piano with an elaborate bassline, then a possibly electronic drum kit, then a synth, then an acoustic rhythm guitar part coming in one by one. I began to imagine a repetitive but very atmospheric bassy electronic song coming into being. I wrote it down on some manuscript.

Today I had a music lesson (I do music GCSE) at school. We had a practical lesson, so I used the computer program Sibelius to write what I’d learnt down, and I added a bass part. I didn’t get much done, but I really loved the sound of it.

Sorry if this all seems like self-glorification; it’s just – though I’ve often enjoyed improvising on the piano and have often had tunes popping in my head, either through improvising or at random times – I’ve, perhaps at my peril, not usually bothered to record them or write them down. But as soon as I played this one, I felt utterly committed to it. I couldn’t go back on the piano until the next day at school, but I felt really frustrated that night that I couldn’t.

By the time I got home from school today, my feelings of near-ecstasy had died down, but I still got back on my piano and the lower four strings of my acoustic guitar, trying to add to the bass part. I then (on the guitar) came up with a different bassline that sounded more rock than the other one, which I also wrote down.

It could be played on a guitar or on a bass, though I’m inclined to writing it as a bass part. I think it’s more of a hook than what I had come up with on the piano, but it didn’t provoke us much feeling in me. It’s actually in a different key to the electro piano tune and it will definitely be a different song.

I have always enjoyed improvising on the piano, much less so the guitar (as I’m not very good at it and have only recently started really enjoying it) and I have written some stuff down. I’ve recorded (on paper) several piano and one orchestral idea but only developed one of them, into a classical piano piece which I was quite proud of.

On the guitar, my teacher once asked me to write a song, but I came up with very little over three weeks so we dropped the project – although shortly after, I got the GarageBand app for my iPod Touch and came up with a guitar-based tune I quite liked.

None of it compares to my electro piano tune, though. Although I might well have forgotten it if I hadn’t written it down then, I was still humming it when I got home from school this afternoon. I’m actually slowly beginning to get bored with it now. It’s too catchy. It’s gone through my head so many times now that it’s annoying.

Sorry! I know it’s sounds like I’m too big for my boots, like I think I’ve concocted a masterpiece, the catchiest tune ever, up with the Beatles. But I’m just being honest. I doubt it’s up there with what professional songwriters/bands can achieve, it’s just that I personally seem to love it. I’m experiencing the kind of happiness that I’m sure any songwriter will feel when he comes up with something that means a lot to him, for whatever reason.

This, I’m sure, will be the first thing I’ve come up with and actually made into a proper song with different parts – an electric piano part, a bass part, a(n electronic) drums part, a rhythm acoustic guitar part, a vocal part, probably a synth part, possibly a lead electric guitar part near the end, I don’t know yet. However, the only obstacle that’s getting my way is being able to get everything that’s in my head onto paper. I feel that worrying about the correct rhythms and all that stuff is getting in my way. Sibelius, especially, is fiddly. And, paradoxically, my excitement is making me a bit too hyper to concentrate on it.

I also still need to come up with the lyrics, though that shouldn’t be hard.

I’ve been interested in songwriting for quite a long time, and I have the book Songwriting for Dummies. But I am only beginning to discover why my favourite writers love their jobs so much. The deadlines, the pressures and anxieties of bands must get in the way of enjoying it, but to me it doesn’t seem like a bad part of a career. Not that I’m setting my heart on that kind of career, mind you. I’m not sure I’d even want a job like that, having to spend such long periods of time touring with very little rest.

But anyway, if nothing else, I might have discovered a new hobby. And to any other people who want to write music but don’t feel inspired enough to turn their ideas into songs, don’t give up hope! One day you’ll come up with something you’ll just have to work on!

Keane Night Train review

Night Train coverBack in 2004, Keane first broke into the spotlight with the 9x Platinum Hopes and Fears. This was a fairly predictable piano pop album that was albeit infectious and gorgeous, also producing some excellent stand-out tracks (“Somewhere Only We Know”, “Untitled 1”, “Bedshaped”).

Two years later, their sophomore album, Under the Iron Sea, had more synth-based tracks and a lot more variation, from rock songs with fake guitars (“Is It Any Wonder?”) to genuinely moving ballads (“Try Again”). Perfect Symmetry (2008) definitely marked a big change in direction, with proper guitars in some tracks, an overall move towards ’80s-style pop and even a musical saw in one track (the excellent “You Haven’t Told Me Anything”).

Night Train, an eight-track EP they released May 2010, carried on from the departure of Symmetry, still following the band’s ethos of never retreating old ground. With a strange percussion-based instrumental intro, the aggressive synth riff of “Back in Time” (which was actually first written years ago) and the catchy guitars and vibraphone in “Clear Skies”, it’s pretty good considering that, being an EP, it was only really a between-albums stop-gap.

The highlight was single “Stop for a Minute”, a duet with Somali-Canadian worldbeat rapper/singer K’naan – the idea of which might have made many fans think “This is going to sound really bad.” But it’s an infectious combination of styles that genuinely works, while still being piano-led and not losing Keane’s unique sound.

It wasn’t all particularly special. The cover of the Japanese Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Ishin Denshin” (featuring Japanese singer Tigarah) had little to say for it. “Looking Back”, also featuring K’naan and a sample of the Rocky theme tune, sounded pretty awkward compared with the very well-done genre-busting of “Stop for a Minute”. “My Shadow” is fine but feels like you’ve heard it somewhere before.

However, the one thing you can’t accuse Night Train of is having a lack of variety. Keane may still not be the most creative band around, but despite the album’s 30-minute running time, its tracks range from the charming ’80s-flavoured synthpop of “Your Love” (featuring a rare lead vocal from keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley) to guitar-based rock to terrifically catchy R&B.

Night Train is far from a classic, but as an EP it is interesting, enjoyable and gives very high hopes for the quality of Keane’s fourth full-length album.

3½ out of 5

One free trip to space or free international travel for life?

One free trip to space.

This is a difficult one. You have all the safety issues to take into account and I love international travel, being fortunate enough to have been abroad most years of my young life. But just being able to go anywhere whenever I want for my whole life would make it boring and not as special. One free trip to space would be enormously special.

It’s funny though, isn’t it, how small we are. We are literally a fly in a cathedral (well, literally in terms of size comparison) in our solar system alone which is a couple of light years wide, let alone the observable universe which is billions of light years wide – and who knows how much is out there that we can’t see?

And yet, >0.01% of people have ventured off our little fibre in a carpet universe. Because I am so small, I think that a trip to space would be special. And it would. And if it’s free then wow – who could say no to that just because they’d rather spend a lifetime exploring the different microscopic features of our tiny carpet fibre? And of course I’d get to experience what astronauts mean when they say you can’t tell up from down, when they talk about the awe of seeing the Earth as a beautiful ball floating in a black sea.

I would not give up that opportunity.

However, I have to say that when I think of places I’d like to visit I think more of Greenland, Canada, the French Polynesia, Scandinavia and South America than space. Maybe there’s a good reason for that. Of course, Earth-bound travel is fine and probably nicer, more hospitable, perhaps even more beautiful than space. Few other planets we know of are as dynamic and none are as geologically active or fertile as ours. Because we have people, we have so many different cultures and towns and cities to explore.

Still, I could not give up the opportunity to go where so few others have gone before and conquer my fears, free or not free. And I know it never will be free, but who knows, it might even be affordable in my lifetime. The world’s first commercial spaceport is already being constructed.