The Heresy of Western Leadership

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-13-39-54

I am grateful to Justin Lewis-Anthony’s scepticism about leadership. The same day that America was going to the polls to elect Donald Trump I was exploring leadership in ministry with friends and colleagues in the Diocese of Chester including Helen Scarisbrick and Jenny Bridgman. Lewis-Anthony suggests that the leadership bandwagon started rolling in the early 90’s (he blames George Carey), and since then leadership programmes in the church have been proliferating. The Diocese of Chester was quick onto the bandwagon and I was involved in one of their first courses. (I don’t understand why we haven’t given as much attention to other ships which have a more legitimate claim to be part of the fleet – we never hear of friendship, fellowship or companionship training programmes do we, even though there is more theological justification for them?)

Where do our ideas of leadership come from, and why are we so bothered about leadership anyway?

Justin Lewis-Anthony’s book has the clever title You are the Messiah and I Should Know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and Probably a Heresy)He traces our thinking about leadership to the double headed Emersonian “ur-myth” of “the frontier” and “the American Adam”. For Lewis-Anthony “there is a layer of mythology which is omnipresent, omnipotent and omni-transparent, pervading and influencing every part of our understanding of the world. Our knowledge of leadership comes from believing in and living under the power of the myth of leadership”.

There is a reminder here that we can’t escape mythology in ideology. Drawing on the work of Levi-Strauss, Lewis-Anthony reminds us that ideology develop in an unconscious process shaped by the stories which we tell ourselves. He quotes Kelton Cobb (p.99):

Our myths feed us our scripts. We imitate the quests and struggles of the dominant figures in the myths and rehearse our lives informed by mythic plots. We awaken to a set of sacred stories, and then proceed to apprehend the world and express ourselves in terms of these stories. They shape us secretly at a formative age and remain with us, informing the ongoing narrative constructions of our experience. They teach us to perceive the world as we order our outlooks and choices in terms of their patterns and plots.

In other words, we are caught in a bubble – a bind. Once the myth making took place round the camp-fire. Since the 1950’s it’s been on-screen through film making. One nation has dominated the film industry, and consequently the unconscious formation of our ideology. For a long time we have been subjected to the only films available which have relentlessly had the same story to tell. They have fed us our scripts.

Lewis-Anthony quotes German film maker, Wim Wenders: “No other country in the world has sold itself so much and sent its images, its self-image, with such power into every corner of the world. For 70 or 80 years, since the existence o cinema, American films – or better, this ONE American film has been preaching the dream … of the Promised Land.” (p.75).

The frontier is not about place, but about defining experience. It is to the frontier that the American intellect, according to Turner, owes its striking characteristics. “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are the traits of the frontier.” (p.81).

The American Adam myth breeds the individualism that Turner talks about and which is such a modern phenomenon. The frontier depend the sense of individualism to the extent that Americans told themselves, according to Billington, that “every man was a self dependent individual, fully capable of caring for himself without the aid of society.” (p.93).

The journey to the frontier is essentially westwards. The journey spawned a genre of film which took over our screens, the “Western”. The western myths of the Western have shaped a leadership that is essentially masculine and white. The films show how the west was won and defended and how the wild was tamed and controlled. Typically the hero is a man “in the middle, between civilisation and savagery”. Lawrence and Jewett describe the Myth: “A community in harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradise condition: the superhero then tends to recede into obscurity.” (p.210).

The American Adam is a man, and a man with a gun. Lewis-Anthony is quite right to point out that in carrying out the redemptive task, the American Adam becomes the American Cain. But it is with the status of hero and leader that this American Cain is expelled, rather than with a curse.

For Lewis-Anthony any leadership based on this Myth is fundamentally violent, and therefore wrong. “Under the American mono myth of redemptive violence, to be a leader/hero means to be prepared to use violence. To be a disciple/follower means to accept, in turn, an invitation to use and be thrilled by violence.” (p.213). Leadership in our society is “fatally flawed by its roots in violence, the will to power and destruction”.

Tom Wright asks the question about “what any of this has to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword”. Lewis-Anthony continues: “Wright reminds those within the church, the ‘religious admirers of leadership’ that there is a basic problem in this admiration of North American society. With its roots in the mythic use of violence by the outsider, the extra-societal Adam, what can we find in the scriptural tradition to counteract, or set aside, this cult of violence? Surely we can find some ways in which the crucified Jesus of Nazareth rescues leadership from both Marduk and John Wayne.”(p.213).

starwarsrallypng

Why are we bothered about leadership? It matters to those who are the victims of leadership violence. It matters to those of us whose minds have been made up by a myth of leadership. It matters to those who are excluded by such a myth – anyone who is not a white, male, rooting’ tooting’ son of a gun. It matters to God’s mission. The Washington Free Beacon has put these two images together, a Nazi rally – which inspired a scene in Star Wars. It all looks frighteningly ecclesiastical, except there’s more people.

The Bishop of Digne: dropping keys for prisoners

The Bishop of Digne

The Bishop of Digne is a key character of Les MiserablesHe is the one who offers Jean Valjean refuge, who treats him as an “honoured guest” and a shelter from the rules which allows Valjean to change his mind to the question which echoes through the story: the question of “who am I?” Valjean, or, rather, Prisoner 24601 conforms to type when he abuses the hospitality. He runs off with the silver and is captured by the law enforcers. They deliver Prisoner 24601 to the Bishop. The Bishop seizes the moment (what had he done to be prepared to react with such imaginative compassion?) and lyingly claims he had given the silver to Valjean, dismisses the police, commending them for their duty, and gives Valjean his chance.

Digne is in south-eastern France. I don’t know whether the name Digne had significance for Victor Hugo, but surely some association with dignity was intended. The Bishop of Digne was a steward (another word for “bishop”) of dignity. The Bishop is only a marginal character but according to Theresa Malcolm “he is the soul of the novel, he who sowed love where there was hatred, light where there was darkness”. Bishop Myriel (as was the name of the then Bishop of Digne) was also known as “Monseigneur Bienvenu” for his spirit of generosity and welcome.

Victor Hugo dwells on the character of the Bishop of Digne at great length. He describes how he moved out of his episcopal palace so that it could be used as a hospital. He describes how he gave 90% of his stipend to charity, and how he simply lived for the poor. He spent his life for them matching deed to word. He spent time with prisoners. Hugo described how Myriel went with one prisoner, standing side by side with him on the scaffold, having spent the previous day with him, sharing with him “the best truths, which are also the most simple. He was father, brother, friend; he was bishop only to bless.” It was through such a lifestyle that people came to refer to the Bishop as “Monseigneur Bienvenu” – a bishop most welcome and welcoming.

This key character brings freedom. He unlocks Valjean’s soul and “gives him back his life”. Fourteenth century poet Hafiz comments on such great people who “drop keys all night long”:

The small person
builds cages for everyone
he
sees.

Instead, the sage,
who needs to duck his head,
when the moon is low
can be found dropping keys, all night long
for the beautiful
rowdy,
prisoners.

Valjean sums his situation up with these words:

For I had come to hate this world
This world which had always hated me
Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!
One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom,
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit came to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!

The engraving by Gustave Brion shows the Bishop of Digne prepared for the first edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in 1886.

Hope springs …

We celebrated our wedding anniversary by going to watch the film Hope springs … It is a touching story about a couple who have been married nearly as long as we have. Their relationship has become stale. The couple have lost touch with each other. There is no contact apart from the mindless peck on the cheek. They sleep in separate rooms. The film follows Kay’s (played by Meryl Streep) attempt to reconnect with her husband (played by Tommy Lee Jones).

It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination – (74% on the tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes) but this (non) touching story reminds me that there needs to be routines and structures for us to keep in touch with each other. This is true of marriage and any community. There comes a time when we can no longer say that we are in touch if our relationships are starved of physical expression.

I love  The Touching Place  by John Bell and Graham Maule. It is a beautiful song set to the tune Dream Angus.

Christ’s is the world in which we move.
Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love,
Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,
and Christ is the One who meets us here.

To the lost Christ shows his face;
to the unloved He gives His embrace;
to those who cry in pain or disgrace,
Christ, makes, with His friends, a touching place.

Feel for the people we most avoid.
Strange or bereaved or never employed;
Feel for the women, and feel for the men
who hear that their living is all in vain.

Feel for the parents who lost their child,
feel for the woman whom men have defiled.
Feel for the baby for whom there’s no breast,
and feel for the weary who find no rest.

Feel for the lives by life confused.
Riddled with doubt, in loving abused;
Feel for the lonely heart, conscious of sin,
which longs to be pure but fears to begin.

Without physical expression feelings become empty. Our feelings get blown away with the wind without physical routines and structures. Community is made of touching places.

I have posted a reflection on the importance of touch by John Hull from his account of the onset of his blindness.

Clocking Hugo

On the one hand there are clocks like this.

On the second hand there are clocks like this – click on it. It’s worth it.

Clocks and clockmakers have featured as metaphors in theological understandings down the centuries. Hugo is a lovely film based on the book by Brian Selznick which gets the metaphor of the clock ticking again. 12 year old Hugo Cabret lives in the huge clock at the Gare du Nord in Paris. Clocks are the family business. His father was a clockmaker, his inebriated uncle is the clockkeeper at the Paris station.
A present from my ValentineHugo is fascinated by the workings of the clock and how the parts all fit together. He knows that there are never any spare parts, so anything left over has to fit somewhere, and has a vital part to play in working the clock. (Flatpack furniture is packed along similar lines – it’s a sign that the assembly has gone wrong if there is anything left over).
Not only does Hugo apply this principle to the art of clockmaking, he also applies it to people. Georges Méliès was a pioneering film maker who found his skills not wanted as technology moved on. His life disintegrated and Hugo helps put George’s life together again – working like clockwork.
What if there are no spare parts? What if every part of our biodiversified universe has its part to play? What if nothing or no-one is redundant? While our human drives are shaped by the principles of the “survival of the fitting” our organisational thinking should be challenged by working out the role of the square peg, and not just the round peg for the round hole. Neither round pegs or square pegs are spare parts.There are no misfits. Even the orphan in his secret hideaway in the clock tower is no misfit, but has his vital part to play.


>Up North

>
We were able to see two films while up north in Edinburgh.
Michelle Yeoh, Sean Bean and Michelle Krusiec star in Far North – a tragedy for the three main characters with a particular focus on Saiva, played by Michelle Yeoh. With lavish photography of the far north, minimal dialogue and a beautiful pace, the film portrays what happens in the wild, beyond the reach of law – particularly when one knows she is cursed.