God is a DJ

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation.

(Click on any photo at the end of this piece to enlarge it) 

Reginald John Campbell (1867–1956) was a British Congregationalist minister who espoused what became known as the “New Theology” following publication, in 1907, of a highly influential and controversial book with the same name (Chapman & Hall, London, 1907). The “New Theology,” he said, “is Christianity stripped of its mischievous dogmatic accretions” (“New Theology Sermons” Williams & Norgate, London, 1907, p. vii) and, in both his book and preaching, he introduced to his eager congregants a heady, mix of modern Biblical criticism, British Idealist philosophy, liberal Protestant theology and Fabian socialist politics.

Although he went up to Oxford in 1892 to Christ Church with the intention of becoming an Anglican clergyman, by the time he graduated in 1895, Campbell had become a Congregationalist and, on leaving Oxford, he immediately accepted a call to the Congregational Church in Union Street, Brighton. Within a year Campbell was filling the church, which necessitated a merger with another Congregational Church, now demolished, in Queens’ Square. His increasing popularity eventually resulted in him being invited in 1902, firstly, to help with the preaching at, and then, in 1903 to lead, the famous Congregational Church known as City Temple found on Holborn Viaduct, London. However, for various personal reasons, which I won’t explore here, his reforming energy and commitment to liberal nonconformity ran out, and he ended his days quietly, in relative obscurity as a liberal Catholic cleric in the Church of England.

I became interested in Campbell in the late 1990s because, given my interest in Idealist philosophy, coupled with the fact that I was by then training for the ministry in a liberal Protestant tradition, my College Principle and Christian Theology tutor encouraged me to write a paper on the New Theology. Interesting, important and thrilling as I found aspects of it to be, I quickly discovered that, as a whole, it ran into, what seemed to me, to be too many dead ends. And so, once I finished my paper, although I kept a couple of Campbell’s books, by and large his theology ceased to occupy my thoughts.  

Now, why do I tell you all this? Well, it’s because a couple of weeks ago, my wife, Susanna, and I spent four nights in Brighton and, on our first evening in town, I suggested to Susanna that we head over to Union Street to visit Campbell’s old chapel. This is because, today, it, like many fine urban places of worship, has been turned into a pub, at the moment called, “The Font.” I had gone there a few years earlier, so I knew more or less what to expect, but despite this, I still found our visit, at least initially, quite dispiriting. Not least of all because it’s a striking reminder of how easy it has always been for small, once successful and vibrant churches, suddenly to cease to exist. In our own, increasingly secular times, it’s even easier for this to happen than it was a century ago and, let’s be honest about it, the church I serve in Cambridge would make a great pub. Consequently, it’s always a bit of an existential shock to my system when I first walk into a pub that was once a church.

Union Street Chapel’s formally plain and restrained interior is now aglow with different coloured lights and the balcony is decorated with scenes of Brighton, all done in what one might call “graffiti” style. Scattered upon its walls are to be found half a dozen framed pictures of a text reading, “Water To Wine,” a large cross made out of neon tubing (turned off during our visit) and a pair of large, glowing, praying hands, again rendered in neon tubing. (See photos at the end of this post.)

After a few minutes acclimatizing ourselves to the decidedly unchurchy vibe, we headed towards the bar which stood where the reading desk and communion table would once have been, when, suddenly, I noticed above the various bottles of spirit on the back wall, what must surely be the pub’s pièce de résistance in terms of signage, namely, another neon-tube rendered text that reads, “God is a DJ” (see photo at the head of this post). I immediately said to myself, and then out loud to Susanna and the bartender as she came over to take our food and drink order, “My, that’s an interesting theological thought to play with.”

Having placed our order, Susanna and I decided to make our way up to the balcony and find a table that looked down on the pulpit from where Campbell once preached his New Theology to a packed and attentive congregation. At that point the relevance of the text, “God is a DJ,” became apparent because we could now see that the pulpit contains the decks and various other bits of computer kit that are the tools of the modern DJ.

The question that immediately began to form in my mind, and which I have thought about a lot since, is, could the neon-rendered statement, “God is a DJ,” stand up as a serious, meaningful theological claim, or was it only an ironic, kitsch, vaguely edgy and, perhaps, even anti-religious decoration put up by the owners, Mitchell & Butlers, a London Stock Exchange listed company on the FTSE 250 Index.

I don’t know, of course, but I suspect that, initially, it was the latter. But, let me be clear, as far as I’m concerned, per se, there’s nothing wrong with this because it seems to me the ability and right to have a laugh at the expense of religion is an essential part of any decent, modern civilized society.

However, it has slowly dawned upon me that, whatever Mitchell & Butlers’ own intentions were, the joke, “God is a DJ,” oddly, and wholly unexpectedly, opened me up, in a new way, to an ancient religious insight that, as a theologian profoundly influenced by Hegel’s idealist philosophy, Campbell preached from that very pulpit 128 years ago. But, to access this ancient, yet modern insight, firstly, you need to know that a modern DJ is not what the first generation of DJs once were.

The term “disc jockey,” now nearly always shortened to “DJ”, was possibly coined in 1935 by an American radio commentator called Walter Winchell, and it first appears in print in Variety magazine in 1941. Naturally, in those early days the word “disc” referred to actual shellac and then vinyl records, actual discs, and all the first DJs did was play these records interspersed with some commentary or general chit-chat. But, as the years have gone by, and physical discs have been replaced with digital memory sticks and hard drives, DJs have become ever more creative and today, they not only seamlessly mix together — hold on to this idea of mixing together — consecutive tracks, but they often also create new music by mixing in percussion tracks, basslines and other musical material that they have sampled, that is to say, borrowed, from other records. To experience a set by one of the great modern, creative DJs is, I have to say, a thrilling experience and I admit to being a big, big fan of the Cercle YouTube channel which contains many wonderful DJ sets and live performances recorded in some truly spectacular and unusual places. It’s highly recommended.

OK, knowing this, to conclude, let me very briefly unpack the possibility that, in a loose, metaphorical way, we might be able to say, and mean, “God a DJ.”

If we take the word “God” to be referring in some fashion to “reality,” then we can say “God” is a phenomenally complex, multifarious, interpenetrating phenomena. It’s not a thing or supernatural being — unlike the God of theism — but, instead, it’s an ongoing, energetic event in which “this” material seamlessly elides with “that” material, ceaselessly, endlessly. All is in motion, all is always-already a mixture.

The first person we know of who intuited that mixture might be a fundamental feature of reality was the Greek, pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras (c. 500 – c. 428 BC) who once memorably said “everything is in everything” (pan en panti). In recent years, this ancient idea has been taken up rather beautifully and poetically by the Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia, for example, in his recent book “The Life of Plants — a Metaphysics of Mixture” (Polity, 2019) where he notes:

“For there to be a world, the particular and the universal, the singular and the whole have to interpenetrate, mutually and completely: the world is the space of a universal mixture in which each thing contains and is contained by all things” (p. 67).

The best DJs today not only mix all the material they have available in ways that constantly create new music and new mixes of music but, in bringing together people on the dance floor, they also help to create new social mixtures out of which new loves, passions, friendships, meanings, values and the sheer thrill of life can spontaneously emerge.

Isn’t this, in a more cosmic and all-encompassing fashion, exactly what God/reality has always-already been doing for ever and ever? It seems likely, and so why not say, without a hint of irony, that, metaphorically speaking, yes, “God is a DJ.”