Blogs, criticism and abuse of words

By , 29 February 2008 7:28 pm

First all some further feedback from the blog tour. I have had some nice e-mails from Marcus Goodyear, who is involved with a website/organisation called The High Calling. The ‘High Calling’ of the title turns out to be the workplace and he is very much involved with helping Christians to live out our lives in the workplace to which God has called us. I rather like this as I have been fed up for many years with that particular view which creates a hierarchy which has ministers and missionaries at the top and those of us who teach or manage pretty much at the bottom. Anyway, I have enjoyed their very sane daily mailings and I commend the website to you.

No less than three separate blogs were devoted to the Shadow and Night by Steve on the Back to the Mountains blog. The first two were very positive indeed and the third dwelt with what he perceived as weaknesses. Two he picked out were that I had failed to understand quantum entanglement and also that there were issues with my angelology. On quantum entanglement he writes ‘There is one place, however, that is just plain wrong: the invocation of quantum entanglement as a means of instantaneous interstellar communication. It doesn’t work that way.’ I have to say I am puzzled at his confidence in a field in which certainty is a rare beast. A physics researcher who is a friend of mine, and who regularly travels to Los Alamos to work on anti-hydrogen had no problems with it. Anyway I am gratified in achieving a unique literary status: I do not imagine any other author has been criticised for their handling of both angelology and quantum entanglement. Do read the site; he has some interesting things to say.

Finally, let me make an observation on words. I was at a Bible study this week, where we looked at the celebrated passage in James on the misuse of the tongue. We all dutifully lamented our wayward words, cynicism and gossip. Then, as we came to a time of prayer, someone mentioned a relative who had been badly mishandled by the government program/ initiative called ‘Care in the Community’ which is responsible for those who are psychologically vulnerable. It has resulted in the closing a lot of specialist care units and sheltered facilities. The motives are of course saving money, and the whole thing was so desperate that instead of ‘care in the community’ it is widely named ‘neglect in the neighbourhood’. Anyway, it struck me that that here was a whole new dimension of abuse of language: the concealment of evil by the language of good. What would James have said?

Have a good week,

Surviving the blog tour

By , 22 February 2008 7:36 pm

Well the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour on The Shadow and Night is coming to an end and I seem to have had a vast number of reviews. First things first; I would like to thank all of you who read the book, particularly those of you who seem to have found it, as we Brits would say, ‘not my cup of tea’. Had I time I would individually answer some of these reviews, particularly those that have raised helpful or challenging points. But you can’t do everything.

I will try to compile some of what I consider to be the more insightful reviews and post them on my blog. Yes, there were some negative ones but the general tone was surprisingly positive. One or two people – apparently sane too – praised my books with adjectives that went beyond those I would personally have used. I loved being a ‘fabulous Welsh author’; the word fabulous of course has a double meaning: ‘excellent’ and ‘mythical’. Anyway I need to go over all these reviews and think about them. I actually find reading reviews difficult: bad ones nag me and good ones make me feel vaguely guilty of pride. But I am very grateful to all who have been involved; it’s been a very helpful exercise.

Let me make a few comments. Some people consider the books have been misclassified and one or two clearly felt disappointed that the books didn’t fit in their definition of ‘fantasy’. Well, I have secular colleagues who plainly felt that the books are fantasy simply by dint of their invoking a God who acts. Perhaps we had better call them ‘genre-breaking’ or ‘speculative fiction’. (I have discussed this more at length on my monthly speculative faith blog). A few others felt that the tagline, ‘a fantasy in the tradition of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien’ was misleading because (surprise, surprise) I don’t write as well as they did. I am surprised anybody thought that such a phrase was a claim to quality.

One of two people frankly found the books rather hard going. Fair enough. Are there any books that everybody likes? Well, to this day I agonise over as to whether I should have speeded things up in Book 1. Yet, on balance, I think I made the right decision. Tall buildings need deep foundations and what I was doing in the first hundred pages was laying the foundation for the remaining 1,600. One theme which recurs on almost every page of the books is that of innocent men and women grappling with the novelty of evil. I do not see how this could have been remotely effective had I not, perhaps clumsily, tried to draw something of the world of innocence first.

One slightly curious point was that I expected two objections, but failed to get either. The first was that, unless I am mistaken, no one was terribly upset that I had deviated from standard North American imminent pre-millennialism. I also don’t recollect anyone getting terribly upset that I seemed to be happy with an old age of the universe. I suspect they made allowances for me being a Brit. and therefore de facto theologically suspect. Incidentally, a number of people were clearly struck by the accompanying letter I wrote, which talked about what I felt it meant to be a Welsh author. At some point, I really ought to post this on my website.

And now I better get back to my college work! With every blessing.

Blog Tour

By , 19 February 2008 4:19 pm

Yes, I know it isn’t Friday, but The Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour, as I’ve already mentioned in a few blogs, is on now until Wednesday.

CSSF Blog Tour

Check the links to find reviews and see what people are saying. Thanks to all who are participating!

Brandon Barr
Jim Black
Justin Boyer
Grace Bridges
Jackie Castle
Carol Bruce Collett
Valerie Comer
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Janey DeMeo
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Marcus Goodyear
Rebecca Grabill
Jill Hart
Katie Hart
Michael Heald
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Heather R. Hunt
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Mike Lynch
Rachel Marks
Shannon McNear
Melissa Meeks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Mirtika or Mir’s Here
Pamela Morrisson
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Deena Peterson
Steve Rice
Ashley Rutherford
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Rachelle Sperling
Donna Swanson
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Robert Treskillard
Jason Waguespac
Laura Williams
Timothy Wise

Two ways of writing a book

By , 15 February 2008 8:40 pm

Some news first. I am away in the Midlands at the moment at the end of half-term and so am somewhat technologically isolated. Let’s hope then that this blog makes it out into cyberspace. Secondly, next week, there is a concerted series of reviews on Shadow and Night by various reviewers associated with the Christian Science Fiction and fantasy group. So all sorts of people will be visiting my blog and hopefully saying nice things. So regulars, please be on your best behaviour!

Anyway I am busy with an editing project at the moment which, in addition to my normal job (the one that pays the salary) is keeping me pretty busy. I’m also finding myself preaching fairly regularly and am standing in for someone this Sunday; your prayers would be welcome. Nevertheless in my spare moments my thoughts are turning to the next sequence of books: provisionally entitled the Seventh Ship trilogy. At this stage, all I’m doing is putting thoughts and ideas together. Yet as I do this I have noticed that I am proceeding along a double track and think it worth sharing this.

One of the things I’m doing is factual. I am creating a world. What is the geography? What is the climate? What is the economic system? Who speaks what language? What is the level of technology? I am writing all those things that would be included if the CIA factbook or Wikipedia had articles on my imagined world (and know I don’t have a name for it yet). This sort of thing is very intellectual, very logical and in one sense a long way removed from writing narrative. It is also frankly very dull; if you don’t know how dull such things can be you have never read Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Much, perhaps most, of the information will never make it into print but will hopefully lurk in the background giving some sense of depth and reality.

Yet the second thing I’m doing is much more disorganised. It is, as it were, seeing pictures. I am imagining, or perhaps being, given images – snapshots – clips, if you like, of people, places and events. So for instance the other day I came up with a long line of steep-sided volcanoes rising up out of the sea and the fading away into the cloudy distance. I have pictures of a dispute in a dusty library, of a warm and sweaty night in reedbeds with something nameless lurking in the rippling waters nearby, I have seen people looking up to a distant range of mountains with fear in their eyes. These images are all largely disconnected. I had no idea how they fit together, if they do fit. Frankly, I do not really know whether I will use them all.

What is interesting is how contrasted these two strands are. The first is clearly much more cerebral and surely factual; it comes from the head. The second is much more intuitive and it emotional, sometimes it defies rationality. It clearly come from the heart or whatever organ it is that is genuinely creative. Both however are essential. I presume that readers want lively events in a living world and it is hard to see how one could write a long series of novels without doing both the creating the background situation and the dreaming up of the tale. Even in fantasy worlds, facts must be matched with experiences.

Normally I try and end my blog with some sort of meaningful theological observation. I’m not sure I have one here. But it does seem to me to demonstrate the intricacy both of writing and what we are as human beings. There’s a complexity to us, my friends, which speaks to me more of us being made in the Master’s image than being the product of blind chance over however many million years you want.

The Archbishop makes people think

By , 8 February 2008 8:37 pm

Well, the winter’s monsoon seems to have ended and we’ve finally had some dry weather. Yet it remains very mild and today as I drove back from College in sunlight, spring didn’t seem far away. Hurrah! Increasingly winters seem to pass us by in the UK. Oh yes, every so often a cold flurry will blast down out of what is left of the Arctic and rampage across Britain, depositing a few inches of snow, but within hours it’s all gone. Down here in the moist southwest of Great Britain we have had nothing remotely approaching snow all winter.

But enough of the weather: there were lots of things I was thinking of talking about this week but then yesterday the sort of the big story blew up that I cannot really resist commenting on. I’m not sure whether it has made it over to where some of you dwell, but it’s not the sort of purely local news that you good citizens of Tallahassee, Des Moines or even Brisbane can dismiss with a shrug of the shoulders. On the contrary, here we may just be a few steps ahead of the rest of the world.

Basically, in case you missed it, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said, in as many words, that he felt that some form of Sharia law in Britain was probably inevitable. The result has been an enormous row, and for the first time that anyone can remember, people are seriously asking for the resignation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Now as someone who has lived abroad in the more or less Muslim world of West Beirut for eight years I have some interest – and experience – in this matter. I have also, frankly, an interest in the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is not just that he is a Swansea man and a poet of some repute, (we Welsh writers need to stick together) it is because about seven years ago, before he was promoted to being head of the entire Anglican Church, I actually had quite a long chat with him. In his capacity as Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Wales he had been speaking at a Swansea Christian leaders meeting and at the meal that followed I found myself, quite inadvertently, sitting opposite him. We chatted about all sorts of things, the longer ending of Mark, Christianity and the environment, N. T. Wright and various other things. I remember asking him what he was reading at the moment. He then waxed lyrical about an obscure (and, I gathered, not just to me) Eastern European theologian from the Orthodox church. I came away with the impression of a man with a brilliant mind (he had held a distinguished post at Oxford) but one who was only questionably Anglican. I felt that, given half a chance, he’d quite happily have defected to the Orthodox.

Anyway, shortly afterwards, he got promoted to the big job. Several things have marked out his primacy, and both the sympathies with the Eastern Church and the intelligence I had been struck with have been a dominant feature. But as yesterday showed intelligence and wisdom are actually separate things and as innumerable commentators pointed out, he showed a great lack of wisdom in suggesting that some form of Sharia might be inevitable in the UK. One of the problems with Dr Williams is that he doesn’t do clear, concise sentences. His language is rich, wordy, multi-layered and nuanced. Even people with a high level of English have to reread his articles to be sure of what he is saying. Try this for an example: “The rule of law is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity as such, independent of membership in any specific human community or tradition, so that when specific communities or traditions are in danger of claiming finality for their own boundaries of practice and understanding, they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity – and that the only way of doing this is to acknowledge the category of ‘human dignity as such’ – a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations) could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a human group.” Welcome back!

Anyway he seems to have meant that Sharia was, in some way inevitable. There is a lot I could say about this. After all, we have a large, diverse and troubled Muslim community, and how Muslims relate to traditional UK values is unclear. It’s not of course helped by the fact that, notoriously, we British have no constitution and suffer from a mindset which could be summed up as ‘we’re sure it will work out somehow’. Anyway, as many people have rushed to comment, this opens up all manner of problems. For one, Sharia varies across differing Islamic communities and in some cases seems to be little more than a formalised way of preserving traditional culture. No one really seems to know exactly what it means and what are its limits. For another, if Islam is allowed exemptions from the law why should not Judaism, Rastafarianism (with its dedication to hashish) or even Chris-ianity – my own personal form of hedonistic religion – also be granted exemption?

Three points, I think can be made. The first is that quite simply, the Archbishop could have been much clearer. There are constant claims by his office that he is being misquoted, but given his style of language it’s hard not to misunderstand what is happening. Words and phrasing that would work very well in an Oxford common room are inappropriate for today’s world. It is clear the man needs the discipline of writing a blog every week.

Secondly, Archbishop seems to have the sort of rosy view of Islam and Sharia that is commonly found amongst academics who deal only with highly educated representatives of other faiths who are on their best behaviour. The reality on the ground is, as many have pointed out, very different. So for instance, for all the fine words about the rights of women under Islam, their lot is not a happy one. Equally, the fact is that the blasphemy laws within Sharia can clearly be used to take down any critic of the system. Islam is not really a religion in the sense that Christianity is. I recall an interesting conversation with a very bright, ex-Muslim-but-not-yet-Christian, who said to me “Chris, you know, I don’t see Islam as a religion.” “You’d better explain that,” I replied, nonplussed. The answer was memorable: “Chris, I see it as a social structure, a system of organising society. It is that much more than a religion.” It’s a fair point. In short, the Archbishop needs to paid more attention to the harsh reality rather than the benign dream. To make a literary point; maybe he should have read less philosophy and theology and more tales of genuine experience.

The third point is that he has, at least, raised the matter to the level where it must be discussed. Presumably by accident – he seems genuinely surprised at being either understood (or misunderstood) – he has made the point that multiculturalism does not work. After all, if we are going to let different communities go their own separate way then it is surely inevitable that the most legalistic of those religions will demand that its legalism is enforceable. That is probably a ray of silver in the cloud of the dispute.

Another and brighter gleam of silver is this. Atheists and their kind may not like Christianity, but it is now plainer than it ever was that to remove Christianity from Western society creates a vacuum. That vacuum is clearly unsustainable and there is one obvious major contender to fill its void. Today, my atheist friends were only too happy to agree that the Christian faith might perhaps have something in its favour. You could tell from the way they phrased things that they clearly felt that there were far worse possible systems to live under. Indeed, there are.

On badges

By , 1 February 2008 7:45 pm

About 18 months ago, suddenly, without any warning, the college where I work issued us all with name badges, complete with barcode and not terribly good picture. We hang them around our necks with a ribbon with a special easy snap link so that, should students wish to do us harm, we cannot be throttled by our own name badges. I hasten to add this is an extremely rare and even unlikely occurrence; we count ourselves fortunate (I hope we do) because it is very rare indeed for students even to shout at members of staff.

I have decided that I am distinctly ambiguous about my badge. On the one hand, it gives me a sense of belonging. We dress very informally so this is the only thing we have that’s like a uniform. It says to anyone who comes in that I am a member of the college and not a parent, a tradesman or workman. In troubled times it is also a useful security measure and I suppose, in a small way, it gives us some sort of esprit de corps. It is also useful with a number of new teachers who frankly look so young that I might otherwise be tempted to mistake them for students.

And yet, I am also uneasy about my name badge. This was brought home to me this evening when coming in, laden with marking, at a quarter to five I found that almost the first thing I did was go upstairs and take my badge off. I found this interesting: Monday to Thursday evenings, I don’t seem to have too much of a problem with a badge and sometimes my wife has to remind me to take it off before a Bible study. But on Friday nights, even if I have to work in the evening, I feel it is essential to get rid of the badge. I have no doubt there have been deep and penetrating studies done on badges and their significance but my feeling is that we see such a badge as a mark of ownership branded on us by someone else. The weekends I see as my own, and so here I reject any subliminal claims that I belong to my employer during this time. I would imagine those people who wear uniforms must feel something similar; the need to get out of them. There is something proprietorial about wearing the badge of one’s employer.

My difficulty is that I cannot decide whether, spiritually (and surely this is the key point) my unease about the badge is a good thing or a bad thing. Is my wish to separate myself from my employer a good thing (a measure of the freedom I have in Christ? an unease about anything hinting at the Mark of the Beast?) or a bad one (my selfish and sinful desire for independence rearing its ugly head?)? How can I tell the difference?

Quickly, some other news. During February, a Christian fiction site is running me as the blog author of the month and we are hoping that this is the little push that will start the snowball rolling on the slope of fame. Mind you, things are already moving, my Facebook Lamb among the Stars fan group now has 96 names on it (and most look sane! :-) ). This week alone, I have had a request for a website interview and a separately blog site asking for review copies of the books. Well, we will see: I have been in the writing game too long to build my hopes up too much. Indeed, the measure of fame and following that I currently enjoy is probably more than I might have expected.

Blessings one and all.

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