On the Sun, space vessels and our place in the universe

By , 25 May 2007 5:25 pm

By accident I came across a remarkable image this week. It is a photograph of the Sun taken from earth by a French amateur astronomer using a big telescope, a good camera and various other bits and pieces. I would post the image on my blog but there are pretty strong legal warnings about doing so.

Before I give you the URL, let me describe it. Probably 99.99% of the photograph is pretty unremarkable. The enormous golden yellow disc of the Sun covers most of the image and there is a narrow frame provided by the blackness of space. Yet it is the tiny remainder of the photograph that is striking. Against the disc of the Sun you can see two miniscule objects: one a single small line; the other a tiny agglomeration of microscopic black rectangles. They are so small that you might feel it could just be dust on the screen of your monitor. But when you stare closer you realise that they are a space shuttle (in fact, Atlantis) and the International Space Station, caught as silhouettes as they transited the Sun. Anyway, either now, or after reading this blog, do take a look at it.

I refer to this not just because it is an awesome and utterly unforgettable image, but because it seems to me to sum up in a single image one of the great paradoxes of the human race. On the one hand, we see a record of our astonishing triumph in creating a lasting structure in space and regularly supplying it from earth. Let’s raise a cheer for Homo sapiens! But on the other hand, when you look at the picture in its entirety and you realise that behind these almost infinitesimally small creations is the overwhelming vastness of the solar disc, the overriding emotion generated is that of humility. After all, the Sun is still 93,000,000 miles away and it is but one of an almost infinite number of stars in the cosmos. Yes, we have done awesome things, but on the scale of the Cosmos we are still the tiniest of creatures.

I sometimes think that there is a curious parallelism with the growth of human knowledge and our awareness of the size of the cosmos. When the only astronomical tools the human race had were our own unaided eyes, the universe seemed awfully vast and almost overwhelming. Now, we know so much more, yet somehow with the Hubble telescope and similar instruments, we have found the universe to be no smaller. It is as if the further up the technological and cultural ladder we climb, so the horizon retreats to keep pace. The stars kept our ancestors humble before God, they still do.

Chronicles of wasted time?

By , 18 May 2007 6:33 pm

I have had a couple of busy weeks in which it has been very hard to snatch time away from the real world for writing; teaching, marking, preaching, elders’ meeting, church weekend away, writing for Speculative Faith: all have eaten into my time. It’s not as though I’ve been doing other things: I think I have watched an hour of television and seen a single DVD in that time.

Now as an amateur writer it is tempting to lament this. It’s all too easy to say, if I could have had this time for writing I could have done so much more. I could have deepened the quality of my writing (and even my blogs).

This raises many issues. For instance, would I have used the time, if I had had it? In fact, in my experience even if you have an entire day free for writing, you don’t use it all. I find that even under pressure I just can’t keep going. Writing drains me and after a while I need to do something else. I think creative writing is particularly draining. Here, writers seem to conjure up the images and pictures and tales from nowhere. It is tempting to assume that because they bring them from nowhere they come at no cost. But all creativity costs. At the risk of sounding blasphemous I am reminded that even God took a break after six days (and no I’m not going to debate how long the days were).

Of course, I would like to have the writer’s life that we all dream of: a year made up of three months research, six months writing and three months holiday. If anyone wants to fund me on this I can provide bank account details. But in reality I am far from sure that the best way to write is to be at the computer or the notepad all day, every day. In fact, I am inclined to think that is actually a good discipline to be with people and away from writing for at least some of the time. If we are to write about people, we need to be with people. If you are isolated from the world I would suspect that your characters and plots tend to acquire an artificial nature. Like many other pursuits, writing needs to be earthed in reality. The danger of self-absorption is certainly true of academia, where many scientists devote themselves to the minutiae of rare academic details to such an extent that they become neither employable nor understandable.

This separation from reality is particularly dangerous in theology. I have, on one or two sad occasions, known keen Christians who have gone on to theological training and come out as real (or pseudo) intellectuals dedicated to proposing questions none of us are asking and then giving us answers that we do not understand.

When we read in Acts 18:3 that the apostle Paul paid his way as a missionary by making tents, commentators say that his motives were entirely financial: he was simply trying to spare the local church from having to fund him. I wonder if there might have been something else; I wonder if he realized that work kept him anchored in reality. If that is the case, then I feel I am in better company.

On writing, and the difference between pragmatism and lack of faith

By , 10 May 2007 8:32 pm

It’s been an odd week. After about six weeks in which spring has pretended to be summer, our early summer is pretending to be spring. So we are back to rain and pullovers and having the central heating on.

Anyway, some small but significant progress on the book this week. I had an e-mail last week from someone who is promoting the film rights for the books, saying there was some interest and could I provide a synopsis of the last book? So on Monday, a bank holiday, I blasted off a ten-page summary and in the process resolved the three or four little niggling points that were still outstanding. So I now know what happens to X, Y and Z, where and how. And that, frankly, as far as I’m concerned is a major achievement. The land ahead now lies plain before me; I just have to walk across it.

I did however also have the second e-mail of a curious genre, which runs along the following lines. ‘Chris, I love your books. I am doing a project on writers for ABC High School, can I ask you some questions?’ And they trot out at least five or six questions all of which require answering. I presume that She-Who-Need-Not- Be-Named has a team of people who do it for her and a battery of stock answers. Anyway kids, I don’t really mind. Better to write about a live dog than a dead lion as the Good Book nearly says but doesn’t.

Of course you may say, isn’t that exciting Chris about the possibility of film rights? Well yes, except that I am increasingly cautious about such things. Is it cynicism? Is it experience? Is it the righteous and patient faith of a godly man in an evil age? (No, I don’t think it’s the latter.) I have had experience of Christian publishing from around 1987, which makes it nearly 20 years in the business. And in that time I’ve had several encouragements that, had I taken them at face value, I’d have gone out and bought a new car. But they all came to nought; or near enough.

The trouble is, I am nagged by the possibility that my cool view on success is actually spiritually defective. Perhaps I should be anxiously and fervently praying without ceasing for the books’ triumph. It’s not so much that I want to subscribe to the prosperity gospel; it’s that I’m worried I hold to the austerity gospel in which you believe in the self-fulfilling prophecy that you personally will never obtain success. I guess we always need to pray (and never more than when we are about to pray) that God would give us a right view of ourselves and our actions.

Must dash. We have a church weekend away in the wilds of Wales and guess what, it’s going to be wet. Oh joy….

In which an old friend turns up and reminds me of the problem with the contemporary thriller

By , 4 May 2007 7:54 pm

Twice in the last couple of weeks I have been reminded of something that I felt was almost entirely history. In fact, it was so entirely history that when I received a very nice e-mail entitled “Thank you for inventing Henry”, I almost put it in the spam bin straight away. There are no Henrys in the Lamb among the Stars (actually, there is a reference to Heinrich Schütz in Book 1, but I will let that pass). The writer, a charming lady from India, had read the two thriller novels I had written many years ago under the pseudonym of John Haworth – Heart of Stone and Rock of Refuge – and wanted to thank me for them. A nice illustration, if ever you wanted one, that books can have an influence far removed in both time and space from their making.

The letter writer expressed some curiosity as to why I was no longer writing thrillers but had moved to fantasy fiction. A good question. Someone even more cynically minded than me once said, “Always remember that your life may be a warning for someone else.” In the spirit of that gloomy advice let me give you two reasons why you shouldn’t write in such a genre. But please note, here I am talking of the contemporary thriller; in other words, a book that by its very nature seeks to thrill through its treatment of contemporary or near future events. The rules for epic romance or literary novels of war and peace set in the near future are very different. Here we are talking about books whose chief reason for existence is that of telling a thrilling tale soon to be realised in a universe near you.

Now, bearing this in mind, there are two main reasons why such a genre is problematic. The first is that reality has acquired a nasty habit of trumping fiction. The collapse of Communism was one case where God’s plotline superseded anything in literature. The death knell to the genre came, I think, just over a decade later. Utterly overshadowed by the human and financial losses of the day, one overlooked casualty of 9/11 was the contemporary thriller. Do you remember those countless books in which evil Arabs threatened to hijack a single plane and kill a hundred people? How unambitious – even trivial – they now seem in comparison to what really happened!

And the second reason? It is that today, events move very fast. So for instance, it would be perfectly possible to write of a major war between Iran and the West. The trouble is that by the time you finish writing, it’s perfectly likely that a) the economic or political reasons you postulate for the cause of the war will have changed, b) some newer and more troubling enemy will be on the horizon, and c) the dreadful deed will be done and our boys and girls in camouflage will already be trying to get themselves out of the latest military quagmire. (You will have gathered that I am no fan of George and Tony’s Big Adventure in Iraq.) This concept was first brought home to me when suddenly, without warning, the entire Communist world disintegrated and almost overnight that great menacing bulwark of contemporary fiction, the Berlin Wall, disappeared. With its crumbling, a hundred spy novels perished.

The fact is that what is contemporary today all too soon becomes passé and a short shelf-life is bad for sales. It is worth remembering that this rule does not simply apply to books. Preachers and writers of theology books should realise they are faced with a similar problem. What is brave and dashing today and oh so contemporary, all too suddenly becomes retro. As one British theologian said nearly 100 years ago, “He who marries the spirit of the age today will be a widower tomorrow.” C. S. Lewis, talking of much the same thing, made the converse and more positive point: “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”

And with that, good friends, I turn to writing a sermon for Sunday.

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