Books, BigDogs and Wetlands

By , 28 March 2008 7:01 pm

This has been a particularly cold Easter in the UK and even down here in Swansea we have had flurries of hail and chill winds. I’ve been busy despite being on holiday, but some sun would have been nice.

Two items of news first. First, Tyndale have kindly let me post the typeset first chapter of the Infinite Day so if you want to read it try this link. Whether it is related or not but the pre-orders for the book are looking quite nice on Amazon. Secondly, I came across some fascinating video of a large mechanical/robotic dog (the BigDog project) on the web this week, an impressive feat of engineering and electronics. It’s some way away from my Krallen but not that far. I note that they are talking about these things carrying ammunition on their backs to the battlefield. That’ll be the first generation; the second generation will use the ammunition; the third won’t need it.

What else is news? Well, we have an joint churches initiative in the UK this year called Hope 08 and I have been getting involved with the environmental project side of this in Swansea. The planning is that on the May Bank holiday we will gather as many volunteers as we can from our churches and go down and try and tidy up a very unloved cycle path and sports ground next to a rather fine wetland. It’s in an area of Swansea that is distinctly post industrial and some of the rubbish/trash is dreadful. I thought this would be cue to put in a couple of photographs; so let’s see whether this works.

I don’t talk as much about the environment on this blog as I ought to as it is something that I am very interested in. There is a new book by the head of A Rocha, Peter Harris, called Kingfisher’s Fire: A Story of Hope for God’s Earth which I intend reading when I get the time. It updates the history of A Rocha and gives a lot of thought to the basic of Christian environmental involvement. It includes a chapter on the Lebanon project that I was involved in starting up. Peter gives a not entirely flattering picture of me but, hey, I guess he has to be honest.

Anyway there is a major role to be had by Evangelicals in environment for all sorts of reasons, some of which I may develop in other blogs. It is often assumed that it’s New Agers who dominate the environmental world. Actually, I think that is an utter misrepresentation. In my experience, New Agers love the countryside and nature and have a deep sense of its mystery and beauty but they do not have the doctrine of incarnation or a model of servanthood that Christians have. The problem is that an awful lot of environmental work is actually not very mystical or spiritually uplifting; for example, we are going to be doing a lot of picking up of plastic, scrap metal and worse. Anyway it needs doing and it will be a great witness for the evangelical churches in this town if we can get a couple of hundred people out to help tidy things up. Mind you, a pack of those BigDogs with panniers wouldn’t go amiss.

Every blessing.

Figures in a darkened landscape

By , 21 March 2008 9:32 pm

It’s been a busy week. I have been desperately trying to finish off all the critical teaching before the Easter break and doing various other things too. I also wrote – in some haste – my monthly blog for Speculative Faith; called Clarke’s Blind Spot it addressed the late (and genuinely lamented by me) death of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The blind spot, I said, was his failure to recognize the propensity of the human race to sin. In the course of writing the blog the following sentence came to me. “To make a Holy Week link, there is far more of the range and diversity of human sin in the few chapters of the passion story (think Caiaphas, Judas, Peter, Pilate, the crowd, the unrepentant thief, the callous soldiers) than there is in the hundred plus books that Clarke wrote.”

Thinking about this subsequently I have come to the conclusion that this is actually a very remarkable feature of the passion narratives. It is not just that here one or two people do things that are disastrously and tragically evil. It is that, with the exception of Jesus, almost everybody does evil but in different ways and from different motives. I feel I could write a book of seven chapters on the different but wrong (albeit to varying degrees) reactions of the protagonists. Let me then, as part of an Easter contribution, briefly sketch some of them here.

  • To me, Caiaphas represents religion gone wrong. He is a man who is so zealous for the externals of a faith that he is prepared to rip out its moral core. If you don’t take this in the wrong way, I can honestly say as an elder in Baptist Church I now have a much greater understanding of Caiaphas’ decisions. The system must survive…
  • About the motives of Judas much has been written and much of that is contradictory. I almost wonder whether his real motivation is deliberately left blank lest we pat ourselves on the back and say that we have avoided his sin. Whatever the precise trigger for his betrayal I think we can be fairly confident about the soil in which the betrayal sprouted; he was disaffected and disappointed and any spiritual affection he had for Jesus had clearly grown cold.
  • Peter’s near fatal over-confidence is surely that of a man who sees courage and dedication in himself but fails to recognise that it is only a thin veneer over a great hole.
  • In Pilate, I sense a weariness with things that ultimately dulls any scruples. He is out of his depth and in survival mode. I see him going back to the villa and smashing a bitter fist down on the table in sheer frustration at the way things have frustrated him.
  • Time does not allow me to treat the jaded, bitter crowd, the brutally efficient soldiery and the snarling unrepentant thief. But I – and you – recognise them.

Three thoughts:

  1. If the gospels are the human invention that some claim, then to have this menagerie of human evil so briefly yet finely drawn is one of the wonders of ancient writing.
  2. The failings here are all too scarily human. Let us pray, reader, that neither you nor I ever see them in the mirror.
  3. In the almost total moral gloom of the crucifixion there are small flickering lights, notably the women and John, but all around the scene is darkness. The state of the human heart portrayed here serves not just to point up the nature of mankind but to highlight the Jesus who is at the centre of it all. Nowhere in the Gospels does the Light of the World shine more brightly than when the darkness in deepest.

Unholy alliances

By , 14 March 2008 6:25 pm

Last weekend Alison and I went to see There Must be Blood, the Oscar-winning film dominated by Daniel Day-Lewis who gives a performance of such conviction that his character Daniel Plainview seems more real than some living people I know. I enjoyed it, although it’s somewhat depressing, and rather long. In being centred on California and focused on the very unhealthy interaction of oil with a bizarre charismatism it is rather too American for most Brits. But it made for interesting viewing and there is some interesting religious symbolism.

I mentioned a vaguely parallel instance in my classes a few weeks ago. To understand it, you need to be aware that any traveller in Britain knows that he or she is in Wales when they see place names such as Llandovery, Llandudno and Llanelli. A llan was a clearing in the woods and was traditionally named after a saint or holy person; so we get Llansteffan after St Stephen or Llandeilo after St Teilo. Now the history of the modern Middle East is often dated to the moment when, almost exactly a hundred years ago, William Knox D’Arcy found oil at Masjid-i-Sulaiman in Iran. He subsequently became the founder of what is now British Petroleum and achieved a dubious immortality near Swansea when in the 1920s BP was setting up a new refinery in the area; casting about for a name they created Llandarcy. The oil finder was thus beatified.

Now let me indulge in a segue to bring us into Passion week. One very much overlooked aspect of the whole sorry business of the last week is the nature of the opposition to Jesus. The Jewish writer Josephus helps by claiming that, at one Passover alone, the number of animal sacrifices offered at the Temple was 256,500. Let us assume that here, as elsewhere, he exaggerates and that in Jesus day the figure was a mere hundred thousand lambs. Using modern day values, let’s say each sacrifice cost $100 or £50. So it is quite probable that over three or four days transactions of the equivalent of many millions of dollars were conducted in Jerusalem. My feeling (and remember I have lived in this part of the world) is that this was a very ‘nice little earner’ for all concerned. During the Lebanese civil war the bitterest of enemies collaborated when it came to hashish growing and transportation; I am pretty certain the same applied here. There would have been a cut for the Roman leadership, a cut for the military and very healthy backhanders for priests and administrators. Is it any wonder when Jesus of Nazareth threatened to undermine the entire Temple system that the bitterest of enemies collaborated to destroy him? Money can bring out the worst in people; religious enthusiasm can do the same. But marry the two together and you have something spectacularly appalling.

Perhaps we should pray that God should keep us and our churches poor.

Have a good week,


Welsh author

By , 7 March 2008 8:01 pm

As part of the blog tour I was asked to write a letter to accompany the book. So I did and what follows is the part of it which deals with who I am. You may find it of interest.

A sleepless student of mine started a Wikipedia article on me and I refer you to that for factual details. Theologically, I am in British terms, a conservative Baptist with Puritan sympathies. In terms of nationality, I see myself as Welsh; I am Welsh by name (family legend gives me a twelfth century ancestor, one de Walys “of Wales”) I was born – and born again – in Wales – and am now a Welsh resident. There are Welsh distinctives in writing and they are there in my books. We Welsh are a people who have a fondness for their land, fields and trees; we prefer villages and fields to towns and streets. We are marginal folk; a little people whose fate has long been determined by others. We are sceptical of empires and suspicious of kings; our sad monuments record the names of too many who left our villages to fight and never returned. When we lift our eyes up from these wet, stony soils our thoughts rarely turn to the practicalities of rule or wealth; instead we dream. We dream of the past, preferring epics that look back to when we were a mighty people and – more rarely – we dream of the future. Above all we dream of things beyond this world: for us – as for all Celts – the boundary between the natural and the supernatural is thin and often breaks. We are well aware of sin and evil and, sometimes, grace. We are emotional, given to laughter, tears and the impulsive gesture but have a weakness for nostalgia: we are a people happiest – if that is the word – with twilight rather than dawn. We have a love of tales of many words and a great liking for music although we are perhaps too fond of slow, mournful tunes but then we have much to mourn. Yet for all our frailties, we produce heroes and we endure. Such things you may find echoed in my books.

Have a good week


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