America City, by Chris Beckett

america cityIt’s a long time since I’ve written a blog on this site, let alone a book review, but I thought this book was worth reviewing.

Chris Beckett rose to prominence with his excellent fiction debut Dark Eden, which eventually became a trilogy. (I have reviewed it here). The beauty of his writing is not only in the imagination of the world, and the clarity of his writing, but the depth of thought. He engages with what really makes worlds tick. An emphasis of his in on the power of stories to share events and identity.  Since then he has had a few other books: Holy Machine about a sentient robot, and recently Beneath the World, A Sea, a surreal imagined sub-world of this earth in which human subconscious and internal fears are bought to the fore through contact with strange living beings called Duendes who seem to exacerbate and feed off these inner thoughts.

All of his work so far has presented something that required an imaginative leap, be they a distant planet, sentient robots, or his surreal sub-world. What is most apparent, and most chilling, about America City is that the world described is entirely plausible. Set a couple of hundred years in the future, Beckett imagines an America which is struggling due to severe climate change. His main character is a British analyst, Holly Peacock who can manipulate the whisperstream, the futuristic and all encompassing version of social media. When she teams up with a charismatic leader, Senator Slaymaker as he runs for president, they set off political consequences across the continent which appear to be unstoppable.

He demonstrates once again the power of stories. Once they find purchase in a groups imagination, it doesn’t matter whether they are true or not. History started to be read through the lens of these stories. Competing (more moderate, nuanced), narratives cannot cope. What we see is the manipulation of reality and emotions for political and nationalistic gain, the spreading of lies and fake news.

It is chilling, because all the elements are there in our society for this reality to come about. We are already seeing fake news – narratives that do not stand up to the scrutiny of facts but which are spread and embraced because they appeal to popular fears. Fragmentation of news sources and social media circles mean that we do not necessarily hear opinions and viewpoints that challenge our own preconceptions. Climate change warnings are all around us and we are hearing stark predictions about its future effects. So far, as activists claim, we are doing too little too slowly. Beckett’s world of America City doesn’t seem so far away.  This is why it is so chilling, and disturbing. I do not want to live in the world like that.

This is thoroughly engaging and I highly recommend it.

Out of Nothing: A Cross-shaped Approach to Fresh Expressions

Out of Nothing fc1Those of you who follow me on twitter or follow my other blog will know that I am shortly to have my first book published. In Out of Nothing: A Cross Shaped Approach to Fresh Expressions, I tell the story of my pioneering ministry on a new-build housing development on the edge of Northampton. As I write, I highlight and investigate ecclesiological questions that arose along the way that are pertinent to fresh expressions of church. In the end I attempt to answer the question ‘what is success?’ by proposing a theological foundation by which to understand fresh expressions of church. This foundation is Christ-centred and is based on the action of God in the world, and takes in understandings of atonement origins from Karl Barth and Eberhard Jüngel.

Out of Nothing is published by SCM Press at the end of this month (June 2018). You can pre-roder your copy here.

Cobblers Column: Thanksgiving

From the NTFC vs Stevenage programme on 22nd November.

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In the last couple of weeks we’ve had some things to be thankful for at Northampton Town. The victory over Wimbledon saw us end a five match winless run in the league, and added to that we witnessed Alex Nichols’  first Cobblers goal since his return from that awful career-threatening injury sustained in a win over Port Vale in October 2012. Being out with injury is always difficult, and the extent of Alex’s injury must have put doubts in his mind as to whether he would ever play agin. But thankfully, after a 21-month rehabilitation, we are all delighted to see Alex back on the pitch and scoring goals.

For the Americans among us, this week is an important one. On Thursday they celebrate Thanksgiving, a national holiday which they regard as almost as important as Christmas. All over the country, people make plans to get home to enjoy family time over a turkey lunch, usually served with roast potatoes, green bean casserole and with pumpkin pie to finish. Some supplement their main course with something called Sweet Potato Casserole – sweet potatoes, mashed with cream and sugar and topped with marshmallows. Yuk.

The very first thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 between the first white settlers and the Wampanoag Tribe in the new settlement of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The previous winter had been very hard for the settlers, unused to such temperatures and without the knowledge of farming in that new climate. Many had died the previous winter, but during 1621, the Native Americans had shown the new settlers what to grow and how to cultivate the soil. Following an abundant harvest, the two groups celebrated together and gave thanks for the produce that would see them through the next winter. After the previous year, thankfulness was the only appropriate response.

Being married to an American, Thanksgiving has been a part of my life for the last ten years. This year we’ll be celebrating with our church community and others from the neighbourhood, enjoying the company and food. We’ve made it a tradition that we each go around the table and name one thing from the previous year that they are thankful for, however big or small. Sometimes people are thankful for a new job, new friends, relationships, or family.

In our culture, we often find it quite easy to find something to complain about. But, constantly dwelling on what doesn’t go well can lead to stress and unhappiness. When we start taking even a short time to remember the good things in our lives, we can find this immensely freeing, as we realise how many of the things we enjoy we do so out of an act of grace. I’m sure we can all list quite a number things – family, children, partners, experiences we may have shared – that we are extremely grateful for, and, when we think about it, these are often the things that we have not had too much direct influence over in the first place. The birth of a child is a prime example. When that little life is introduced to us for the first time, we are bound to think beyond ourselves, to the bigger picture and Source from where that life came.

GK Chesterton wrote “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.’ ~ GK Chesterton”. We all need happiness in our lives. And we all need wonder. In sort, gratitude helps us realise that life truly is worth living.

Cobblers Column: Who are they?

For today’s match day programme for the game against Accrington Stanley
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I can’t be the only one who, on hearing the words “Accrington Stanley”, immediately associates it with a Scouse accent and an advert for milk. Milk, as the advert informs us, is what Ian Rush drinks, and, according to one little boy in the advert, without drinking milk he wouldn’t have been good enough to play for Accrington Stanley. “Who are they?” exclaims the other little boy. “Exactly!” comes the reply.

At the time the advertisement came out, in 1989, the club were in the Northern Premier League, and there is no reason to assume that I, as a young boy growing up in the North East, would have heard of Accrington at all but for that campaign from the Milk Marketing board. The club finally gained promotion to League Two after becoming Conference Champions in 2006, 44 years after a previously dissolved club with the same name (the predecessor to the current club) was forced to resign from The Football League due to bad debts.

“Who are they?” is not a question you would ask of Accrington Stanley today, having maintained a solid position in the division for each of the last seven seasons. In fact, you will not find many in football who will write off the chances of their opponents, whoever they are playing. Just as you should not judge a book by it’s cover, we cannot look at the history of a club and infer anything about the result on a given day, especially given two clubs in the same league. I’m sure Chris Wilder and the squad are approaching this game as any other, with the greatest of respect for the opponents.

Most of us remember the moment when an unemployed 50-year-old amateur singer from West Lothian, shy, bullied as a child, and diagnosed with Asperges Syndrome, took to the stage of Britain’s Got Talent and blew the judges away. What was so powerful about her performance, apart from her excellent singing voice, was that it overcame the misconceptions and initial judgements of people watching. Susan Boyle didn’t look like she should be able to sing, so most of us had written her off before she opened her mouth. Many of us didn’t respect her as a person until she had proven what she could do. Boy, were we wrong about that!

I’ve been guilty of this too, as a student teacher during my PCGE course when I was struggling to teach my subject to disinterested secondary school children (I never did get the hang of teaching). I remember being surprised as I saw someone I had graduated ahead of the previous year doing much better than me. He was someone who looked about 16 and whom, I’d judged, lacked confidence, yet there he was controlling a class and inspiring the pupils. I didn’t expect it. I had written him off and at the time, I’m ashamed to say, showed a lack of respect for him.

Respecting others in football begins with respect for people – for each person we come across day by day. Each person is an amazing creation of God, and when we take the time to look, we can discover that too.

Go on, watch it. You know you want to:

Cobblers Column: Persistence

For the Matchday programme for tonights game against Hartlepool United.
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It was certainly an exciting end to our last home game, against Exeter, ten days ago. The second half performance was, in my opinion, excellent, and but for a good performance by the 19-year-old Exeter goalkeeper, Christy Pym, the winning margin could have been a lot more. But credit to our lads who stuck at it, and wave after wave of attacking pressure finally paid off with Marc Richards’ acrobatic winner. This was the third last-minute goal we have scored so far in this campaign and has been followed up by an excellent away win at Dagenham.

I’m sure this sort of persistence will stand the team in good stead as the season progresses. But this makes we wonder: What might this attitude look like in other aspects of our lives? If we want to be good at something, clearly we need to put the time in to practice and keep the effort up. When we see an amazing piece of skill on show on the pitch, like Marc’s bicycle kick, it is certainly the result of talent, but it is also the result of a lot of behind-the scenes hard work. Practice makes perfect, as they say. And in sport, the results of practicing are there to see. But what about at work, at home, or in our relationships?

For things that matter, it is worth stopping every so often to assess whether what we are putting in to them is giving us the result we want. And if not, what do we want to change? For many of us the question will come down to where we spend our time – does this accurately represent the priorities we have in our lives?

In our church this autumn, a few couples are committing to set aside time to talk to their partners about a different aspect of their relationship each week for seven weeks – like an MOT for relationships. At it’s core, it is simply an investment of time into the most important relationship of their lives – a distinct period set aside to listen and talk to one another. Participants would like their relationships to last the distance, and are therefore being persistent in their efforts along the way. Looking at couples who have been happy in their relationships for many years, it is safe to assume that they have put the work in over the years – to overcome obstacles, re-evaluate expectations and make some new common priorities.

There may be a similar analogy in our work lives too. Where do we want to go? In this case, being persistent may mean looking at the long game. It may result in re-prioritising aspects of our work, or even stopping to analyse what we want out of our careers. Do we need to change jobs, retrain in another field. In either, persistence is key.

Against Exeter the persistence of the players paid off. Today I’m hoping it will do the same – but before the 89th minute please, to save all of our nerves!

Cobblers Column: Busy

For the Northampton Town vs Exeter game today.
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The season is only three weeks old and already the Cobblers are facing their seventh match this afternoon against Exeter. Since the beginning of preseason, it’s been a busy time of hard work by all, with not much chance for a break. Stuart, Craig and the team of fitness coaches and physios have had to make sure that everything is paced correctly for the players to be in peak condition – and not overtired – come match days.

There have been times in my working life when I feel that I’m staggering through a mountain of tasks with hardly a chance to sit down. I’m sure that is the case with many people. Keeping fresh in the midst of a heavy workload is tough. If you scour the internet there is plenty of advice available, some better than others, but these are a few things which can help us during busy periods.

1. Get enough sleep. Whilst it can be fun to have a late night out from time to time, as we get older, it seems to take longer and longer to recover the next day. I find I need about eight hours sleep per night to function well, but for each person this is different. Shortly after our second child was born, I was noticeably struggling to stay alert during important meetings! Skimping on sleep makes us less focussed, more grumpy, and can be unproductive in the long run.

2. Take time off each week. In the early days of the Soviet empire they experimented with different lengths of working week in order to boost productivity. They failed, and in 1940 returned to seven days, like the rest of the world. The principle of taking at least one day off per week to rest and spend time with family is a Biblical one. The story of creation (whether you read it literarily or metaphorically) describes God working for six days and resting on the seventh. Hence, we seem to have been created with the need to rest for at least one day per week. My day off cannot be at a weekend (Sunday services!) but I always aim to take one full 24 hour period off each week.

3. Schedule me-time during the day. As little as 30 minutes of quiet thought per day can have a significant effect on our wellbeing. I start each day by reading a passage from Bible and praying for people, issues and situations on my mind, which sets me up for the day ahead. Others I know make time to be with their thoughts or contemplate the day by walking the dog on their own, or taking time out over lunch.

4. Say ‘no’. If there is an important task to be completed, prioritising it above less urgent issues or distractions can be highly liberating. I’ll admit I’m terrible at this, but I am learning the art of saying “No”, which doesn’t always go down well, but can be valuable in the long run in reducing stress and achieving what you set out to do!

Cobblers Column: Character

Today’s match day column for the game against Shrewsbury

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I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who watched with amazement last season as Liverpool, spearheaded by the deadly duo of Suarez and Sturridge, got within an inch of the Premiership title. Suarez was in the form of his life and was pulling defences apart on an almost weekly basis. After the controversies of the season before, he was finally making headlines for the right reasons.

And then we watched this summer as an innocuous challenge turned into something ugly during a World Cup group match. For the third time in his career he sank his teeth into an opposition player. On the one hand, I couldn’t believe he’d bitten someone again. On the other, it didn’t surprise me at all.

I recently read an article by an author who summed up our public lives like this: Character is King.

Our character – the traits and qualities that determine how we think of and treat others – can be our biggest strength or our greatest weakness. All of us have positive aspects to our character as well as negative. Unfortunately, in pressure situations it is often the negative characteristics that come out. We can all think of the “otherwise good bloke” who loses his head from time to time, or the office manager who loves putting others down. Left unchecked, these negative aspects can destroy us. They are worth working on to ensure that they aren’t what people remember us for.

Sixteen years ago, another young footballer was punished after an act of petulance on the pitch on the world stage. Afterwards, he received death threats, was booed at every away game up and down the country for the rest of the season, and was vilified by the press. But four years later, his reputation had completely transformed. He had gone from being seen as the cocky young kid who’d been sent off and had got his celebrity girlfriend pregnant, to a devoted husband and father, and a man who always worked 100% for the team. Earlier this year David Beckham spoke about it like this: “That sending off made me as a person”. It was quite clear to see in the years following the incident how he buckled down and attempted to change his ways.

Sadly we won’t be seeing the silky skills of Louis Suarez in the Premiership this season. He’ll be sitting out this weekend, serving his suspension, as his new teammates in Barcelona kick off in La Liga again. But I do hope he works on that biting thing. It would be nice to remember him not just as a great player, but one who achieves success after reforming from his very public mistakes.

Best of luck to all the lads out there today against Shrewsbury. May they demonstrate their very positive characteristics of determination, discipline, and teamwork in order to take all three points!

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