Category Archives: books

wolf tide

Wolf Tide

The latest novel discussed in our book club was an accomplished first foray into fantasy fiction from established author Catherine Fox.

Anabara Nolio is a young private investigator in the city of Larrity trying to make her way in business, life and love. The world she inhabits is one filled with sub-species of humans each with their own attributes and traditions. Anabara is half Gull, half-Galen which means she can fly, although she isn’t supposed to within the confines of the city. It is also a world filled with charms, magic, faith and fairies – only these fairies are not ones you’ve ever dreamed of. Less Tinkerbell and a little more vampire.

When Anabara is appointed to investigate the disappearance of books from the university library and to report on the broken charms in the stained glass windows, she makes a solid start. But as she delves deeper she discovers layers of deception, corruption and injustice, even by those she loves.

I’ll not say any more as that would give the plot away.

This is a new style of fiction for Catherine Fox. I first was alerted to her when I was an undergraduate at Durham, and I was told that there was this new author, a former student, who had written a novel about theological students in Durham, and if you knew the place you could actually pinpoint where in the colleges the characters were. I didn’t really read novels at the time, but I gave Angels and Men a go and loved it. Her next two novels were in the same style mixing keen observations of faith, strong characters, humour and love together  – this time following female vicars as they took their first steps into ministry. Wolf Tide is quite different but doesn’t disappoint. Anabara is a well rounded female lead character. She is good at her job, she obviously is looking for love but is not overly obsessed with make-up or appearance, yet there is enough that is vulnerable or uncertain about her 17-year old self which makes her quite believable. She relies day to day on St. Pelago, who is key to the organised religion of the town, and he usually comes through for her.

This is certainly a good addition to this genre. I was able to imagine the world quite well and I liked the central characters – always important to keep you reading. And in the plot Fox keeps the pages turning too. If I was being really picky, i might have liked a little more distinction between the human sub-species – Gull, Galen, Tressy, Zaarzuk. Their difference in character between the groups were described well but I had a little difficulty imagining their general differences in appearance. But that is being picky. Despite, I think, not being the intended demographic of readership, I enjoyed it a lot. I hope there is a sequel and I will certainly read it if there is.

On it’s release Catherine Fox told the Greenbelt Blog a little about how she came us with the idea.

 

(Photo from Greenbelt)

 

Be filled with the Spirit.

John Stott from his Commentary on Ephesians.

When Paul says to us, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’, he uses a present imperative implying that we are to go on being filled. For the fulness of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience which we can never lose, but a privilege to be renewed continuously by continuous believing and obedient appropriation….

To the defeated Paul would say, ‘Be filled with the Spirit, and he will give you a new love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control.’ To the complacent Paul would say ‘go on being filled with the Spirit. Thank God for what he has given you thus far. But do not say you have arrived. For there is more, much more, yet to come.’

 

photo

Neighbouring

photoWhen asked by one of the teachers of the day which of God’s commandments was the greatest, Jesus gave this answer which silenced them.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-40)

Few today would argue that there are any better commandments than this. It emphasises a love for God with every fibre of our being, heart, mind and will, and a love for all those around us, even those we may disagree with, as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates. Implicit in the two commandments is a love for oneself.

The question, “but who is my neighbour?” is a good one. If we are supposed to love our neighbours, who are they? In one sense everyone is our neighbour – people of different nationalities, creeds, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and ages. This is true, but sometimes an answer like this is not practically useful to those wanting to live out a life of “loving their neighbours”. If we are to love everyone, where specifically do we start?

This is where Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon’s book, The Art of Neighbouring, can come in useful. Looking at American suburban society in particular (the book is not limited to this setting but is primarily written from this point of view), they saw that, in fact, people often don’t know those who live immediately around them. I think this is true in the UK too, especially in new-build developments which don’t have a lot of history or long-term residents. Their answer to “where do you start?” is to look at other residents of your area.

They begin by asking you to think of the people who live immediately around you. Can you picture them? Beyond that, what kind of relationship do you have with them? Do you know their names? What sort of person are they? What do they like doing or talking about? Do you know what their desires or concerns are? With this in mind, Runyon and Pathak saw the great potential for impacting community cohesion, security, and general welfare of society for the better, simply if Christians took this command seriously with their literal neighbours. The idea is not to set out with a mission to convert them, but simply to share something of God’s kingdom-goodness with the world by creating loving and peaceful communities. Think about it, how much of your town would be impacted if every member of your church made a commitment to get to know, befriend, and be involved in the lives of those who live around them? I also have no doubt that a side-effect of this will be to open up opportunities for people to find out about and discover faith. When people are confronted with God’s goodness, some will respond.

It is an easy read, with that one central point running through it, and full of suggestions of how to out the greatest commandments into practice, but as always, it will need some adjustment to the individual context. It is a simple premise which, if a number of churches in one city commit to, could have a big impact.

greek island view

The Magus

greek island viewAs this 1966 novel was chosen as the latest offering in our book club, one of our members exclaimed, “I’ll talk about it but I’m not reading that again!”. This didn’t bode well for the The Magus, by John Fowles. But I was willing to give it a go and to get to the end. It isn’t often I don’t finish books and this one was no exception, but 656 pages later I was more than a little frustrated.

It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford educated public school teacher in his early twenties. After a year teaching at an English public school and a short but intense affair with a young Australian air hostess in London, he decides to travel to Greece to take up the post of English Master at an exclusive boarding school on the tiny island of Phraxos. Initially bored, due to the lack of company of his own age, he soon finds himself in the company of a wealthy elderly gentleman, Conchis, one of the few English speaking people on the island. He is invited to visit most weekends, during which he begins to hear the story of Conchis’ own personal history. Soon though, he realises that he is caught in an intricate psychological, mythological, and emotionally perverse game – the godgame. Over the course of the year, he is introduced to a bizarre cast of characters, including beautiful English twins, also in their early twenties. He begins to fall for one of them. Questioning everything he is told and experiences, caught inside an ever increasingly bizarre situation, he is overcome with curiosity, anger and the search for truth and cannot bring himself simply to walk away and has to see this macabre game out until the end.

Immediately after finishing the book I tweeted this:

Some spoilers follow from this point

That is the level of frustration that this book left me with. Whilst it is undoubtedly well-written, and the description of the Greek island is beautiful and idyllic, at no point do we get a reason or explanation for the weird sequence of events that Urfe endures. There is a meanness to the game that his played. Urfe’s letters are intercepted. Things are made up and evidence fabricated to make him believe that certain things are happening outside of the island in order to guarantee his participation in the game on it. Conchis and his friends even, somehow, persuade the Australian ex-girlfriend to be a part of it (although we are never told how they persuade her) and they convince him that she has committed suicide, just at the moment that he realises his true and deep feelings for her. He is distraught but the effect of this is simply to entice him further into the trap.

The final straw for me was the ending. Urfe returns to London to try and piece together parts of the story he has been told, and finds even more people who are in on it. When he eventually discovers that his Australian friend is alive, he realises he simply has to wait. He will not find her until they allow him to. The last section is written very well and, in the spirit of a detective novel, leaves you wanting to turn to pages to find out the resolution. you want Urfe and the air hostess to get back together. Sadly you never find out. The book ends with them meeting and arguing, both quite justified in the hurt and confusion that has preceded. Both want answers, as does the reader, but Fowles doesn’t give them. He simple ends the book before it is really finished.

I imagine this is the type of book that lots of people start but never finish. One of those that looks intelligent but sits on lots of bookshelves unread. Six hundred pages, albeit of well-written prose, but culminating in no clear ending or message is severely disappointing. I can’t say I understood it, but it seems that Fowles doesn’t really want us to, and no other reviews I’ve seen can shed much more light than that.

I did come across this letter, reportedly from the author himself shortly after the novel was first published. It seems that he is being deliberately baffling, trying to deconstruct freedom which, he says, results in the rejection of everything except human reason.

fowles letter

Whilst I cannot disagree with the conclusion of the letter – acting humanely to all humans is simple a rephrasing of Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves – however, “reason alone” is an argument that the new atheists still try to peddle today, and it is flawed. I think that modernism has shown that reason alone cannot help us in everything, and leaves vast areas of life untouched. The Christian would argue that true freedom is only found in God – growing into the people that he has created us to be.

Credit to Fowles for his writing – The Magus certainly leaves plenty to ponder on, but I can’t say I recommend this. It is simple too random, unexplained, and frustrating. And it doesn’t have a proper ending.

 

Keith-Gillespie

How not to be a football millionaire.

how not to be a football millionarie gillespieI don’t usually read football biographies. I do like the odd biography from a notable figure – Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, or someone of interest. I was sent a copy of Keith Gillespie’s autobiography and was pleasantly surprised. He was part of the Newcastle United team during one of the most exciting times in recent history, during the first management of Kevin Keegan and shortly afterwards. I remember that fantastic European night when Gillespie and Asprilla teamed up and everything clicked in a memorable 3-2 victory over the mighty Barcelona.  Gillespie is famous not only for being a footballer, but for being one of a few who has managed to be declared bankrupt. On the inside flap of the dust jacket he lists the money he has earned, and lost, over his career. Over £7million. It is sobering reading.

Here’s why I liked the book.

  • He’s not boasting as his career is the wrong way round. He began at Man Utd and finished at Gletoran (N. Ireland) and came via Newcastle, Blackburn, Sheffield Utd and a short spell at Bradford. This is no rise to stardom story.
  • It is very down to earth. He does not shy away from talking about the times when he did or said something stupid. There is no cover-up here. He describes all his relationships and how they went wrong. He talks openly about his depression and the support he is getting. It is brutally honest.
  • He is open about the fact that he earned and lost a huge amount of money gambling, and in ill-judged business ventures.
  • He doesn’t pretend to have it all together or to know where he is going. At the end of the book, with his football career behind him, he is unsure what to do next. This takes guts to admit to.

Admittedly, it is not the best-written book you will ever read, but there is something compelling and admirable about a man who comes clean and says, in front of the world “I messed up, I made mistakes, and now I’m trying to put my life back together”.

communion

Communion

communionA wonderful (lengthy) quote from Unapologetic on the meaning and importance of communion (probably my last quote from the book). And as it’s quite difficult to quote Francis Spufford in small chunks, here’s the lot:

“Every Sunday morning, in all the church’s human niches, from downtown Isfahan to downtown Manhattan, in places of great wealth and comfort and in cities under bombardment, on every continent including Antarctica and once, I believe, on the moon, we hold again a stylised version of the original Passover meal in Jerusalem. There is bread, there is wine. We bless them using one of the Passover prayers. We break the bread, we pour the wine into a cup. We repeat Jesus’ words from the story. This is my body. This is my blood. And then for us the bread, made unmysteriously from wheat, and the wine, made unmysteriously from grapes, are different. There has been a change in their meaning. For some of us, the material bread and material wine have altered (on a tiny domestic scale, with crumbs and dregs and washing-up) in the same way that the material world was altered by having its creator within it. Right there on the table, the set of the world once more contains itself as a member; once more, a peculiar knot has been tied in the fabric of existence. For others of us, the change of meaning is made by the material world aligning itself to form a sign of what began happening once in Jerusalem long ago, and (the sign reminds us) is still happening now. Either way, the change puts the same strange burden on our imagination and our understanding when we do what we do next, and eat the bread and drink the wine. We’re eating God. We’re eating Jesus. The body [of Christ - the people of the Church] that wants to the a body is eating the body it wants to be. The pun multiplies. ‘O taste and see’, the choir may be singing, if it’s the altar of a cathedral we’re filing towards to take our bite and our swallow of the meal. The tasting is literal: tongues, teeth, gullet and intestines are all involved. The God of everything is demonstrating again his gross indifference to good taste in the other, polite, little-finger-extended sense. Because it’s inescapable: this is an act of sacred cannibalism, in symbolic form. The Romans, used to temples where the literal blood of animals flowed, passed round rumours of the vile stuff Christians got up to on a Sunday, and perhaps it’s too easy for us now to soothe away into familiarity the language we use. Perhaps there ought to be a hint of repulsion, of taboos overridden, when we sup the red stuff in the chalice, to keep us reminded of where our sign is pointing: which is towards Skull Hill, and the human body on the cross there. We aren’t just eating Jesus. We’re eating his death. We eat and we drink because we desire monstrosity’s end, but the sacrament carries us into the monstrous, through the monstrous, to get us there, just as the story we tell only arrives at hope by way of tragedy. The meanings of the bread and the wine line up along a bloody corridor, as barbarous as the barbarous world God is working on, and at the end of the corridor, once we have accepted the strange and frightening gift we are being given, there is forgiveness, We eat the bread, we drink the wine, to be joined to the act by which forgiveness came. We eat the end of cruelty and shame. We eat amnesty for whatever the particular load of the HPtFtU* was that we brought to the dinner table. We eat the rejoicing that this one time, in spite of all sorrow, the world’s weight was flipped over and turned to joy. We eat grace.

And that’s what the church is for. Forget about saints, popes, bishops, monks, nuns, processions, statues, music, art, architecture, vicarage tea parties, telethons, snake-handling, speaking in tongues, special hats. All of that stuff (OK, I’m not sure about the snake-handling) can be functional in its time and its place, can do things sometimes to inch forward the work of love, but it’s all secondary, it’s all flummery, it’s all essentially decorative compared to this. We eat the bread. We drink the wine. We feel ourselves forgiven. And, feeling that, we turn from the table to try to love the world, and ourselves, and each other.”

* HPtFtU – The Human Propensity to F*ck things Up is Spufford’s way of describing the brokenness of the world, sin.

Square brackets are mine, round brackets are Spufford’s own footnotes.

suffering barbed wire crown of thorns

Suffering

suffering barbed wire crown of thorns

Another quote from Francis Spufford’s book, Unapologetic.

How do Christians deal with suffering? There are many theories, and arguments about how a Holy God can allow it. After speaking them out and detailing their deficiencies, Spufford cuts past the intellectual theories and comes at it via the practical lens of experience.

It is quite hard to quote Spufford in small chunks, but this is worth quoting, so I’ve written it all out.

How do we resolve the contradiction between cruel world and loving God? The short answer is that we don’t. We don’t even try to, mostly. Most Christian believers don’t spend their time and their emotional energy stuck at this point of contradiction. For most of us, worrying about it turns out to have been a phase in the early history of our belief. The questions of suffering process to be one of these questions which is replaced by other questions, rather than being answered. We move on from it, without abolishing the mystery, or seeing clear conceptual ground under out feet… We take the cruelties of the world as a given, as the known and familiar data of experience, and instead of anguishing about why the world is as it is, we look for comfort in coping with it as it is. We don’t ask for a creator who can explain Himself. We ask for a friend in time of grief, a true judge in time of despair. If your child is dying, there is no reason that can ease your sorrow. Even if, impossibly, some true and sufficient explanation could be given to you, it wouldn’t help, any more than the inadequate and defective explanations help you, whether they are picture book simple or inscrutably contorted. The only comfort that can do anything – and probably the most it can do is to help you to endure, or if you cannot endure to fail and fold without wholly hating yourself – is the comfort of feeling yourself loved. Given the cruel world, its’ the love song we need, to help us bear what we must; and , if we can, to go on loving. (p104-5)

[/snip]

We say; all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story. (p107)

 

photo 2

Unapologetic

photo 2Francis Spufford has succeeded in describing Christian faith from a practical angle.  As the title, Unapologetic, suggests, it is not an apologia of the Christian faith, as prominent writers have done in the past (CS Lewis and NT Wright to name but two). There is a place for these, but Spufford has decided not to counter the new atheists arguments on the same terms, but to set out an emotional response. There is so much more to living than what we can prove or intellectually argue, and this is the angle he attempts to make with this book. (There are some more traditional apologetic responses to certain questions, but these are mostly dealt with through the footnotes).

The centrepiece of the book is a wonderful, engaging prose on the life of Jesus, taking the essence of the gospels and attempting to help us to hear Jesus afresh in them. For many of us, the gospel accounts have become so familiar that it takes a bit of work to hear them as they would have at the time. Spufford’s chapter on Yeshua (Jesus) gets beneath this, and made me marvel at Jesus all over again.

This is the centrepiece, but there are many other notable parts. His description of human brokenness (sin), which he calls HPtFtU – the Human Propensity to F*ck things Up – is so cutting that anyone can identify with it. It is a human experience after all. And he succeeds in getting away from the contemporary understanding of sin as ‘just a little bit excitingly naughty’. (I’ve already been influenced by some parts of it here, and there will be a couple more quotes to come).  The section on communion is so beautiful too.

If you can cope with his writing style, which is rather like stream of consciousness, then this is an excellent book. But then the style adds to the emotional angle he is writing from. It is one that is sure to annoy new atheists as it argues in a way that many are not used to engaging with. For those who are open to the idea of faith, or who are already believers, Unapologetic is sure to assure you that it is ok, it is ‘reasonable’ to believe the Christian story. And it works.

Joan of Arc enlarged

More on Beauty

BASTIEN-LEPAGE Joan of ArcOne thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.

For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock. (Ps 27:4-5)

This is a psalm written by someone who is facing struggles. The Psalm begins with an assertion that God is the one to be trusted despite ‘the wicked advancing’ and ‘an army besieging’. (v2-3)

What comes next is interesting. The Psalmist expresses a desire to ‘dwell in the house of the LORD’ and to ‘’gaze on the beauty of the LORD’. What doe sit mean to gaze on his beauty?

One commentator interprets this as ‘looking upon his holiness’. God’s holiness is his character, justice, mercy, purity, light. But even this is ambiguous. How is one to ‘gaze upon his beauty’?

An important detail is the location in which the psalmist is intending to do this. He wants to ‘dwell in the house of the LORD’ and to ‘gaze upon his beauty and to seek him in his temple’. Here the beauty comes together with the temple in Jerusalem.

We must remember here that the temple wasn’t just a big synagogue to the Jews, it was the House of the LORD, the most holy place where he was, where his presence was said to be most there as it was the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. All Jews were expected at the temple, not every week (as weekly worship took place in families and local synagogues, where the scrolls of scripture were kept and read), but at least a major festivals. This would be when their knowledge of God came together with the rituals of cleansing and sacrifice performed in the presence of God. In short, the temple was their location of worship.

How does the temple relate to our places of worship today? We no longer confine God’s presence to a specific location, however, our churches echo the combined roles that the synagogue and temple served in Old Testament days. They are places where the reading of scripture occurs. But we also perform the remembrance rituals of the eucharist, which draw on and bring to completion the sacrificial rituals of the OT temple.

To clarify, in order to ‘dwell in the house of the LORD’ and ‘gaze upon his beauty’, I do not mean we have to sit in church buildings all day. But the act of dwelling and gazing is where the head and the heart, the remembrance and ritual, the word and the Spirit come together.

CS Lewis called this ‘the appetite for God’, and perhaps this links to the beauty and curiosity connection I was thinking about last week. To gaze upon his beauty is to continue to seek him in his word, in the sacraments, in whatever style of worship suits you. But this is done for the artistic beauty of the ritual, words or music, but to get beyond to the character of God himself. In Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis writes:

I have rather – thought the expression may seem harsh to some – call this the ‘appetite for God’ than the ‘love of God’. The ‘love of God’ too easily suggests the works ‘spiritual’ in all those negative or restrictive senses which it has unhappily acquired… [The appetite for God] has all the cheerful spontaneity of a natural, even a spherical desire. It is gay and jocund. They are glad and rejoice (Ps 9:2). Their fingers itch for the harp (43:4), for the lute and the harp – wake up, lute and harp! (57:9); lets and a song, bring the tambourine, bring the “merry harp with the lute” we’re going to sing merrily and make a cheerful noise (81:1-2). Noise, you may well say. Mere noise is not enough. Let everyone, even the benighted gentiles clap their hands (47:1)

Gazing on the beauty of God leads to worship. And the beauty is that we can be ourselves in this, not constrained by the expectations of the day (I’m thinking particularly of British decorum). Even King David was criticised by his wife for dancing in worship, and he is considered one of the closest to God who ever lived.

compassion-quest-the

The Compassion Quest

compassion-quest-the

Having just finished Trystan Hughes’ book, The Compassion Quest, (and a series of blog posts inspired by the same), I thought I’d share a couple of quotes from the epilogue which sum the whole book up.

The thesis of the book is that  God’s compassion is integral to the world. We are all much more interconnected, to our environment and to each other, than we often realise. Recognising the extent of our interconnectedness is to see God’s image in one another, and God’s hand in the world. Often, we, as Christians, either get hung up on trying to convince others of our beliefs or attempt to live them out in a vacuum, whereas the imperative that comes out of the greatest commandments is to live a life of compassion.

The challenge in our often cynical wold is not to concentrate on persuading people about ‘the truth’ or our dogmas, but to live out that very truth in our everyday lives.

We need, then, to cultivate an awareness and an attentiveness to the world around us, by opening our eyes, ears and hearts to opportunities where we can bring compassion to events and situations – to feed the hungry, visit the sick or imprisoned, sit and talk with the lonely, speak for those with no voice, defend the defenceless and care for our surroundings.