Brand New Ancients

Katherine_avatar-96x96I have the privilege to work with some very talented and very interesting people, who share a lot of interesting things with me. A lot of them are very engaged in the arts: taking inspiration and challenges from artists, poets and writers as they work out how they live and share their faith and hope in Christ. This is a guest post from one of them, Katherine Maxwell-Cook, who is an editor for the Rhythms website.  She recently went to see a show called Brand New Ancients: this is her response.

‘You were born for greatness;
believe it. Know it.
Take it from the tears of the poets.’

Some might call me sentimental or overly romantic but these days I catch myself weeping much more than I ever used to. (In fact, this is not the first time I have written about it. I’m sorry if it makes you feel uncomfortable). Half-way through the extraordinary poet, Kate Tempest’s performance of Brand New Ancients (currently touring), it began and it continued. Tempest’s mastery of rap, spoken word, poetry and narrative edged with fierce social commentary is nothing short of prophetic. As a writer and activist, you can maybe understand why every word began to resonate, making my heart beat a little faster and filling my eyes with tears. In her own unique and brilliant way, she was expressing something I feel very deeply.

Brand New Ancients follows the story of everyday people getting caught up in a tangled web of relationships, work and survival in the inner city, who ultimately could have become so much more. It is, at once, specific and universal, like an episode of Eastenders and a Greek tragedy rolled into one. Her intense, compelling story is interspersed with a lament on the unearthed potential that lies on every street corner. Tempest describes it as ‘a call to arms for the modern day hero’, slamming ‘the permatanned God of our Age’ who with one shake of the head decides who gets to be famous, who gets to ‘be more than just this.’ Her point is we can all be more, we can all get to be the hero if we’re brave enough, and we don’t need X-Factor to tell us.

‘I want the people to speak for themselves.
And love, and be peaceful. Or if not
then incensed to anger, barbarity:
I want humanity.
I don’t want this vacuous cavity
ripping the bowels out of our capacity
for quietly excellent acts.
Small heroics. Everyday epics.’

Prophetically, the challenge rising out of Tempest’s groaning is twofold: can we see the godly potential in others and in ourselves?

Let me introduce you to some people I know who might at first seem pretty godless to you.

The man drunk for so long he can barely speak, skin yellow and saggy with liver failure, begging me for a few pennies so he can get his cider fix.

Someone who has sat in my house drinking tea who now sleeps locked up in jail with no date yet set for his release.

The stressed out management consultant, posted to an office hundreds of miles from home; the only thing driving her, the chance of promotion complete with a six-figure salary.

A man I admired and looked up to, who committed adultery against his wife.

The kids smoking dope outside my house, taking turns on a scooter round the block and laughing about their upcoming court appearances.

Could something pure and holy be found among these people? Can God be found within them? Is there a chance for them to turn* and become remarkable?

The gospel is truly scandalous. In fact, Peter describes how God ‘doesn’t want anyone lost. He’s giving everyone space and time to change. (2 Peter 3 v 9 The Message)

If we believe in this outrageous gospel which offers endless grace and mercy to all, this means that God can be found in everyone. Everyone.

Jesus looked for the holy in every person he met; searching for the possibility before the disappointment. And he met some people who from the outside looked pretty godless. A man full of demons who lived among tombs stark naked, a woman with a string of husbands and another caught in an adulterous act, a corrupt tax collector, traitors, hypocrites, beggars, and a thief breathing his last breaths. No-one was written off; everyone had the opportunity to be in paradise with him.

What does this mean when we look out of our window, watch the news and begin to really engage with our communities? It means, beautifully, profoundly, that there is hope. And that we as the paradise builders need to look at the world through a hope-filled lens.

And what about me? What potential do I hold? Was I also born for greatness, even though I feel so ordinary? Kate Tempest’s poem is about the possible stories inside all of us; the narratives not yet written, decisions not yet made, the words we could speak and actions we could take. We are powerful; adventures can be awoken from inside of us. It is up to us how we choose to write the story. If I am to look at the world with my new hopefulness glasses, I must accept those same mercies for myself.

What could you do today to be a modern-day hero?

*The greek word ‘metanoia’ which is often translated as repentance can also be understood to mean a turning, a complete change of mind.