Category: Consumerism


My Homily Given Today on the Feast of the Epiphany 

CHRISTMAS_SHOPPERS1_1AMDG  I am going to let you into a secret – one of the things I like about being a priest at Christmas is that I don’t have to buy a lot of presents.  It’s not that I am means spirited – or stingy …….. honestly …….. but I am very happy that being a priest it allows me to concentrate on what is really important at Christmas.  But even I can’t get totally out of it – I went over to see my sister in Nottingham last week and two of my beautiful nieces, Charlotte and Emily.  Now they are only 4 and 6 so I don’t think they would understand if I turned up without presents – so briefly I had to join the crowds in the Arndale Centre – looking for presents – and it was stressful! Too many people – some very rude people pushing you out the way – and all just to get a couple of presents (they both love Barbie and Moshi Monsters) that I know were made in China – and probably will be forgotten about in a few week and thrown out when my sister decides there are too many toys cluttering up their bedroom.

Does that sound familiar to you?

Let’s contrast that experience with the presents given to Jesus by the wise men at the feast of the Epiphany. Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh – Gold – which represents the Kingship of Christ.  Isn’t it interesting that when there is a period of political or financial instability the price of Gold soars.  People buy Gold when they don’t trust their rulers or their economy – just look at what is happening in India now with such a frustration with corruption.  Gold has a value that lasts – its not another throwaway consumerist trinket.  In this baby in Bethlehem we see that if you invest your hopes and your dreams in his kingship it will bear dividends – not of more money but of peace, of joy, of love.   Frankincense – the gift of priesthood – like the incense that we use at mass to consecrate the altar, which I have just you to consecrate this book of the Gospels.  In this child born into poverty we have what Saint Paul was the ultimate high priest – whose sacrifice on our behalf brings us back into the loving orbit of God our creator.  And in Myrhh – we have an analgesic – a pain killer – something that we still use in dentistry and when we gargle mouthwash. This a prophetic gift which indicates the wise man forsee the suffering that this new king-priest will have to endure suffering to fulfill his Messiahship.

downloadGold, Frankincense and Myrrh – three prophetic, wise gifts laid at the feet of Jesus in the dirt, smell, damp and darkness of the stable in Bethlehem.

Lets compare the vision of the three kings to the that of King Herod.  Herod is the consummate political survivor – even being prepared to kill his own children to maintain his own power. He is ruthless and will do anything to consolidate his power.  That is the extent of his vision – raw power – and anyone or anything that gets in his way will be ruthlessly eliminated. If you read the historians of this time he was notorious for executing three of his own sons – Caesar Augustus even commented ‘It is better to be Herod’s dog rather than one of his sons’   What type of man is that?

We think that the magi came from Persia (Iran), India and Arabia and their exotic caravan would certainly have been noticed even in a bustling Jerusalem,  So Herod assembles his own wise man and discovers the prophecy of the messiah.  The Magi were looking for truth – seeking the star – and their gifts show how deeply they understood the prophecy.  The best gifts we receive come from people who understand us.  Herod – in his ego and his paranoia is seeking for threats to his power and as we will see is ruthless in his reaction.

King-Herod-300x300We all know that we can be like Herod in our lives and relationships – bearing grudges, playing games, manipulating people.  Ok we may not resort to murder or even physical violence – but so many of us like another form of assassination – gossiping, undermining someone’s reputation.  We become so obsessed with maintaining our own comfort that we stop seeking the truth. If you are seeking the truth, if you are seeking Christ, than expect opposition from the Herods of this world.  Expect to be scorned, to be laughed at.  But keep seeking – look for the gifts of the spirit – look for the gifts that will never grow stale – or be thrown away.  Truth, Freedom (and real freedom is spiritual – it is detachment), Peace and Joy.  They are gifts that come from kneeling and adoring – they are gifts that come from following those things that produce wonder in your heart.  You won’t find that Peace and Joy in the Arndale Centre – you may find it at the Holy Name.

 

 

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Happy Easter – Christus surrexit vere! Alleluia!

The headquarters of eBay in San Jose, Californ...

The headquarters of eBay in San Jose, California. Photographed on August 5, 2006 by user Coolcaesar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was fascinated to read that Ebay has recently banned the selling of spells, curses, hexes, magic, prayers, potions and healing sessions from its website.  Ebay – the virtual marketplace – is a capitalists dream.  Never has there been a market place with so many dimensions, with millions of items for sale worldwide.  The range of ‘ items are’grouped into more than 40,000 main and sub-categories, and cover everything for instance, a finger painting in real chocolate pudding by two-year-old Corbin, who is hoping to raise enough pocket money to visit Disney’s Magic Kingdom or a nifty black Ferrari 360 (starting at $150,000). Never before has there been a market with such abundant dimensions.  But it seems that even the free market has limits!

I think it is foolish to dismiss the paranormal, but also wise to protect the vulnerable from crass exploitation. There is a fine line between this type of exploitation and that of more reputable mainstream religions.  A slightly alarming development in Christianity over recent years has been the rise of the ‘Gospel of Prosperity’ mainly in Pentecostalist circles.  Something that impresses me about Pentecostalism is its ability to help people who are struggling ‘sort their lives out’ particularly in a poor urban context, and the creative ways many Pentecostalists put their faith into practical action and help transform communities and add to the common good. However what is a distortion of the Gospel is this idea that God will bless you financially if you donate generously to the pastor. Apart from obviously being open to corruption, it is this fusion of personal empowerment / self help which I think ultimately leads to a consumerist narcissism as opposed to the radical self-giving which is at the climax of the Gospels, and Jesus’s stress on servant leadership.  This distortion of Christianity is proving very popular in Asia, especially in South Korea which now has the biggest ‘church’ in the world in Seoul.

Interestingly eBay’s simple online system relies to an extent on the fact that most people are basically honest. But as the market grows in value, it inevitably attracts more rogues.  The first line of defence in online trading is eBay’s feedback profile, which is in effect the online reputation of both buyers and sellers. When any transaction is completed, both buyers and sellers are invited to rate how successful it has been, and leave a review. These reviews can be read by all users.  Many of the traders on eBay have come to value their reputations greatly, and those with enough positive-feedback scores are allowed to participate in buyer-protection schemes, which offer refunds. As far as religion goes – reputations are forged or destroyed at a much slower rate, over thousands of years.

AMDG

Many of the Catholic parishes in the Highlands of Scotland were also ‘crofts’ – which allowed the priest to support himself and the parish by living off the land. A croft is a small free-hold of land which allows sustainable living. As communities have got wealthier, the need for the parish to sustain a croft has diminished. However I now in many places the vestiges continue. I have had the joy the last few years to go to the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist for a few weeks supply in the summer at this parish click here.  The priest still has his own flock of sheep, real not metaphorical, and last summer I was presented with my own lamb, butchered and prepared by the parish shepherd!  Here in Arisaig  the priest keeps over 40 chickens, and ably assisted by the wonderful Winnie (left) we have a regular supply of ‘holy eggs’ which parishoners pick up and are enjoyed at breakfast. I have really enjoyed feeding the chickens with Winnie and learning about poultry-care.

Even better of course is enjoying the fruits of their labour. The parish house is equipped with a magnificent double egg-cup – first time I have seen one!  Not only does it allow you to be greedy – but also to compare tastes. Today I tried the light blue shelled egg along side a Polish chickens classic brown colour egg.  The Pole edged it slightly – with one of the richest yolks I have every enjoyed. It is true that free-range tastes much nicer.

There is a serious point – the growing movement of eating locally sourced and in-season products. Not only does it support the local economy, the food is healthier and tastier!  Scotland seems to be leading the way with this and the influential Fife Diet.  Asking local people to sign-up to eating food from the region of Fife, for a year,  and to monitor their progress and share their experience. The project has developed from a voluntary network into a funded body and in its development has changed from a small amount of people dedicated to eating ‘from Fife’ for a year, to a much larger network of people trying to re-localise more generally and to explore what sustainable food might be. It has won awards for ethical consumption.  Seeing the parishioners donate money and pick up their eggs  on Sunday was very inspiring – particularly as the younger contribute a bit more so the older folk can get their eggs very cheaply.  This could be a great idea for other parishes to take up!

Limit to what money can buy

AMDG

Hotel Klosterbrau – former monastery turned 5-star hotel

A great story yesterday about the richest football team in the world, Manchester City being thwarted by a priest!  The club, the newly crowned English Champions, are bank rolled by their owner Sheik Mansour the emir of Abu Dhabi.  They have spent around £250,000  on their pre-season high-altitude training camp in the Austrian village of Seefeld.  They are staying in a five-star hotel which is a former monastery. There has been three months’ preparation to make sure everything on the trip is perfect. The players, management and staff have taken over the top three floors of the hotel with their own private dining room, gym and massage area. They have even asked for specific high-density mattresses and summer duvets in all of their 54 double suites. The hotel had the mattresses hand-made and imported from an expert in Rome at a cost of around €1,000 per room!  They have also brought in its own chefs to prepare the food, with fresh fish flown in every two days from the Atlantic and North Sea.

The former monastery still has an active Catholic Church attached to it.  But here City found out that their spending power has limits!  The Hotel Manager said: “They wanted to ask the priest to switch off the bells of the church attached to the hotel. “The bells are ringing at 7 in the morning, 8 in the morning, and 9 in the morning.” Quite rightly the priest said No! ….. and he’s not even a United fan!!  So City can buy the Premier League Trophy but even they have found there are limits to what their money can buy.  As the Mastercard advert  might have said….

Pre Season Training Camp…..  £250,000

Hand Made Mattresses ………       £54,ooo

Fresh Fish flown in ……………       £ 28,ooo

Waking up to bells calling the faithful to mass as it has done for 500 years ….. Priceless !

AMDG

About a year ago I bought a rucksack (backpack)  from one of the excellent chain of stores called Go-Camping that are popping up all over the UK.  It has been a  great bag to have, although three of the zip-handles snapped when I was in the mountains of Northern Philippines.  I took the bag along to the Edinburgh branch to be fixed this morning and was amazed when they just replaced it with a new bag on the spot, simply and quickly.  I was very impressed with their service but slightly puzzled. The best I was hoping for was that they would be able to fix them in-house and I would pick it up in a few days, or give me new zip handles to fix myself.  I asked the guy who was serving me what are you going to do with the old bag? ‘We’ll send it back to the suppliers’ he said, without batting an eyelid.  Of course the rucksack had been made in China, but excluding the zips, I think it is of very reasonable quality. Consumers in the West have experienced the drop in prices of many mass-produced goods from China. Made in China once meant cheap and bad quality, but I think the quality is getting better.  Modern China may not be a great innovator, may not respect intellectual property rights or encourage creativity and entrepreneurship but they are good copiers and getting better.

Something has been nagging at me though.  On reflection, I would have preferred to have my old bag fixed.  I remember in India having a problem with a small speaker I had bought to amplify music and one of the members of the community was competent enough and skilled enough to fix it with some screwdrivers and a bit of glue. I confessed that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to have opened it up (even though it was only cheap) and he said to me ‘Well if anything breaks in Europe you throw it away and just by a new one!’.  How right he is! I also remember being amazed in Manila when I went to a market full of guys who could fix electrical equipment and watching the skill of the guy who fixed my phone for me.  So I have come to the conclusion that our hyper-consumerism is not just wasteful but it is also de-skilling. Marx talked about the ‘alienation’ of producers (often factory workers) from what they produced because they didn’t own the means of production, a theme also picked up in the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum. Could there be a new form of alienation of consumers in late-capitalism.  You get a great sense of satisfaction from repairing something rather than just chucking it away, however often in order to repair something you need to be provided with the tools/parts to do the job  and sometimes the training to. Nowadays domestic appliances come with forbidding labels such as ‘Disassembly voids warranty’ .  This sense of consumer alienation can be experienced by an impotent fury when confronted tamper proof seals. Now we are presented with shiny new replacement products in all their packaging whilst the old object, with its history, scuffs and stains, each one  which tells its own story is discarded.  There is something about the human soul that delights in being creative, there is something in the human vocation to be a co-creator …. however a throw-away culture stifles that.

Reverse Culture Shock

The clock tower of Big Ben at dusk. The north ...

AMDG

So I am back in London having left India with a heavy heart.  I seem to have stumbled into a weird collective hangover after a the 4-day holiday inspired by the Queens Jubilee. After an unforgettable farewell from the students and the community in Manvi I am mulling over the last few months.  On Sunday there was a nice ‘bridge’ to coming home – I was able to show some of the children the incredible scenes on the Thames of the BBC’s live footage of the Queens flotilla.  These kids from the villages were amazed at the sights and sounds coming from the UK, the colours of the boats, the Queen, the flags and the pageantry, their eyes were popping out of their heads! For me it was two very different worlds colliding, something I am now experiencing, reverse culture shock is an interesting phenomena. Being home again, surrounded by the familiar but slightly disconnected, I am enjoying a certain anonymity as I walk around, after having been stared at in many places in India and Philippines, although all of the attention was very friendly particularly from young women!  I will miss that but on the whole I prefer anonymity!

I hear the grass is greener in Aberystwyth…..

I have been chuckling to myself as today’s news headlines includes a story about the return of  traffic wardens to Aberyswyth after a year of absence. Their return has been welcomed after a year of ‘chaos’ resulting from bad parking!  – Aberyswyth has nothing on Manila or Bangalore!  I haven’t seen a double-yellow line for a long time and at least there are no cows wandering down the middle of the street. The temperature of 12 degrees has come as a bit of a shock after a year of above 30.  Although give me the choice of 45°C and 12°C, I’ll take chilly drizzly Britain any time! Something that always makes a big impact on me whenever I return home is how green the UK is, the plus side of so much rain! Luxuriating in a warm shower for the first time in 9 months is a wonderful feeling to be savoured slowly, but I will soon be taking that for granted.  It is amazing how quickly we take for granted the many luxuries that are not shared by the majority of the world. Broadband, reliable electricity, power showers, indoor carpets, it is amazing how quickly these luxuries become perceived as necessities, as the Pew Foundation recently researched.  Perhaps consumerism relies on that transition, so we need to be tied into buying and replacing or upgrading various bits of tech.

My experience over the last ten years of taking adolescents and university students to India and Africa is that reverse culture shock is a significant problem for some of them.  Coupled with the dynamic idealisms of the young and the limited amount of interest shared by their friends and family about ‘their’ incredible experience, it is wise to try and prepare them for the re-entry to their own culture. We always have a ‘debriefing’ session and a day of reflection to prepare for this. A useful resource for them is the novel You Can’t Go Home Again  by Thomas Wolfe published posthumously in 1940. Although the context is different, going back to small town America during the depression, the ideas are useful for getting young people to prepare themselves. The title comes from the denouement of the novel in which Webber realises: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” The phrase “you can’t go home again” has entered American speech to mean that once you have left your country town or provincial backwater city for a sophisticated metropolis you can’t return to the narrow confines of your previous way of life and, more generally, attempts to relive youthful memories will always fail. It has been suggested that the phrase is sometimes spoken to mean that you can’t return to your place of origin without being deemed a failure.   

I tell the youngsters You can Go home again, in fact you must go home again, but understand that you  have changed. Be patient, try to understand why and when you get angry, but most importantly put into practice the things you have discovered about yourself and the world.  When you are in your mid thirties the reverse culture shock is not so strong – but it is still there. So I hope my life will become more simple, my patience more robust and my compassion deeper now I am back…… a stupid and dangerous thing to write on a blog, please don’t throw it back in my face when I fail!! 

Cricket and Scandals

AMDG

A photo of a match between Chennai SuperKings ...

A photo of a match between Chennai SuperKings and Kolkata Knightriders during the DLF IPL T20 tournament (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Indian Premier League (IPL),  the most lucrative form of domestic cricket in the world, is reaching its climax.  Its stars are ubiquitous on advertising hoardings, its games have been watched every night for the last six weeks, with people crowding round televisions in dusty villages, by the side of the road, in cafes, houses everywhere.  I have become used the incongruous sight of simple shacks with a satellite dish precariously balanced on the roof at the back.  It may be coincidental that the timing of the 6 week long tournament seems to fit nicely with the school holidays.  So India is full of boys trying to emulate their local heroes.  Here in Manvi the hero is the Jamaican Chris Gayle who has hit an incredible 56 ‘super sixes’ during the tournament for the local team, Bangalore Royal Challenges, putting them on the threshold of the semi-finals.

But in a clever marketing strategy the IPL is not just about sport it is also glamour.  Remarkably, around 45% of viewers are women attracted not only to the IPL’s breathless sort of cricket but also to the glamour that attends it.  Teams owned by Bollywood Stars, cheerleaders (mainly caucasian) cheering every boundary,  much of the crowds are dominated by young, middle-class city-dwellers,  India’s most free-spending consumers.As the season is coming to a climax I confess that I am being caught up in the enthusiasm (football has definately taken the back seat after a miserable season….Chelsea who? )  But apart from the cricket I am fascinated by what the IPL reveals about India. The last three nights news has been dominated by off-field scandals.  Five minor players being suspended for match-fixing, a megastar owner being banned from Mumbais Cricket ground after a brawl and the arrest of an Australian Cricketer after an alledged molestation incident in an after-match party.  These scandals have off course sidelined more important news, like the two Italian marines in Indian custody after shooting  Keralan Fisherman, droughts and regular shocking incidents of the infanticide of young girls.  I think the IPL also encapsulates a tension and a fissure that runs right down the middle of India.  The fast growing minority of wealthy middle class, urbane and western, who wield the power and influence. And the majority who are impoverished, rural, but still obsessed by cricket.

The Megastar owner – Mr Shah Rukh Kahn, is the King of Bollywood.  One of the few Indian film stars who has cross-over potential, presenting Golden Globes, , charity campaigner, owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders (my favourite team name – Bangalores Royal Challengers are named after a brand of whisky belonging to their owner in a way to get around a strict advertising ban!).  He is also a great actor, in a recent film he played an autistic Muslim in America  and won plaudits from the Autistic Society. He is also guilty of bewildering levels of hubris, which is not surprising when you see how he is deified here.  He was shocked at having been frisked at an American airport, obviously celebrities are above the security concerns of us mere mortals and he is the first celebrity to register a tattoo in his name. It seems that the hubris hit again when he tried to enter the pitch in Mumbai to celebrate a famous victory, he drunkenly brawled with security earning him a five year ban from the stadium. This has had political repercussions already, as he did last year when he asked why no Pakastani Cricketers had been signed up for the IPL.  A soap opera that will no doubt continue as India struggles in a transition to a consumerist and liberal society.  There is a lot of unease in this transition, and so there should be, there are many values that are being pushed aside and being replaced by ….. nothing really, just a soul-destroying celebrity hedonism .  So for celebrity hubris Mr Kahn has suprised even a jaded Englishmen.  It maybe a good time to remind him on the feast of the Ascension that only one man, who really was God, is able to ascend to heaven, and he was drawn up by the love of the Father not ephemeral fame.

AMDG

What did the big firework say to the little firework? 'My pop is bigger than your pop!'

I spent most of New Years day in Cebu airport waiting for a delayed flight.  The cause for the delay….. Snow? – no,  Erupting Volcanoes? – no.   Believe it or not it was because of smog caused by the clouds of smoke from the NewYear fireworks in Manila !  New Year is celebrated in style here in the Phillipines – but unlike in the UK where a lot of people will go to shared displays organised by local govt, or other bodies here they are all ‘private’ displays ( if you can ever call a firework display private).

After the simple joys of Christmas in the Mountains I enjoyed a few days of wonderful hospitality with fellow Brit Prov Jesuit Stefan Garcia’s family in Cebu.   New Years Eve was marked by a sumptuous meal and celebration with the extended family in the hills outside Cebu.  The fireworks were truly impressive – as different families were trying to outdo each other.  Stefans father, who owns the Visayan Electricity Company, explained to me that you can tell who has had a good year by their firework display – this year it seemed to be the lawyers and doctors with the biggest displays!  Instead of conspicuous consumption – this was a case of  conspicuous combustion!

As always those with less resources join in with their own (less safe) fireworks.  Very popular is the ‘judas belt’ which is are essentialy firecrackers arranged sequentially along a common fuse. . As the fuse burns, it ignites each of the explosives in turn at a rate of up to 1000 rounds per minute. The noise produced is similar to that of a machine gun, but slightly irregular due to the inherent differences between the rounds.  Due to the proximity of the individual rounds, it is possible (and common) for an unexploded round to be thrown some distance by the explosive force of the adjacent one, before exploding itself. This unpredictable nature makes the Judas belt more dangerous than it seems. This year there were only476 victims of firecracker accidents in ‘one of the world’s most raucous and dangerous New Year celebrations’.

Happy New-Year to all – good luck with all those resolutions.

Catholic Consumerism

AMDG

It was a surprise going down to our local mall, Riverbanks in Manila, as they are already playing Christmas songs (and we are not even out of September).  The songs are mostly American, I had to tolerate Mariah Carey screeching All I want for Christmas is you as I patiently waited in line to pay for three lemons. I am sure that the last – ‘you’ that came from the divas mouth lasted at least 2 min’.  Shopping malls are a big part of Phillipino culture – every city has a couple of these huge shopping centres, with seemingly one around every corner in Manila.  People slock thre at the weekends to socialise, eat, drink, browse and occasionaly actually buy things!  The richest guy here, a Chinese immigrant called Henry Sy, started the SM chain of malls from nothing – according to the Phillipino blog People he started off selling smuggled shoes on the pavement, he business is no worth $7 billion.  Going to the shopping mall on Sunday you will be in for a big suprise. In many malls Mass is celebrated before they switch on the escalators and open the shops.

Disclaimer – I am not responsible for the shaky camera work this time !  Clip taken off youtube.

These popular masses in malls were sanctioned by the Archbishop of Manila in 2007.  This could be seen as a visionary and creative attempt to literally bring religion into the marketplace, and these masses are well attended. Mass attendance seems strong to me here, but I have been told that in a population that recently surpassed 100million, only about 15% regularly partipate in the sacraments. The churches seem full because there are relatively few churches for such a large Catholic population.  So maybe it is necessary to bring mass to the people in the form of these mall masses –  but I have reservations.  Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Eucharist was celebrated only in churches and other places of worship – too restrictive – and starting in the 1950s, Church authorities began allowing Eucharistic celebrations in schools, to get children to participate. Now mass in shopping malls has arrived in the Philippines because on week-ends and statutory holidays these places are literally invaded by hundreds of thousands of people.

Good idea or not? Again I can see both sides of the argument, bringing it to the people versus the banalasation of a sacred and dignified rite. I think a crucial role for the Church is in offering a critical stance on consumerism. In fact this maybe more focused and helpful than just ranting against the evils of secularism.  The recent General Congregation of the Jesuits stated that the consumerist cultures in which people live today do not foster passion, but rather addiction and compulsion. They demand resistance (GC35 decree 2/21).  – and  a compassionate response. My own country – Britain – has a real problem with child well-being and unhappiness, so much so that UNICEF has just released a report  on the affects of consumerism on family life – basically expressing concern over patterns of ‘obsessive consumerism’ and how they affect children :

The Government must now show strong leadership in order to support families to fight back against the ways in which the UK’s materialistic culture embeds inequality in our society, affects family time and relationships, and has a negative impact on children’s well-being.  UNICEF  Child Well Being in the Spain, Uk & Sweden

So Mass in malls? commercialisation of Christmas ?  what do you think……

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