Category: Uncategorized

E-book promotions

By , 23 October 2015 1:24 pm

Tyndale House, publishers of The Lamb Among the Stars trilogy, have decided on “an updated and comprehensive strategy for pricing and promoting backlist e-book titles”. Does that sound business-speak? Maybe. But this is where it becomes a reality:

“We have selected The Shadow and Night #1: The Lamb among the Stars for our next eBook promotion. It will be promoted for 35 days from 11/29/2015 – 1/2/2016 through all our e-retailers including Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, ChristianBook.com, BookShout! and Kobo at $0.99.  “

I don’t know how many people are still following this blog, but if you’re a fan, please tell your friends. Let’s hope people will read, enjoy, get the other books and spread the word! Thanks!

 

Happy Christmas

By , 20 December 2010 5:03 pm

And all best wishes for 2011 too.

No, I haven’t started blogging again, I just thought I’d take the opportunity of a time when we normally send cards and news to friends to thank all of you who still keep contacting me. It’s good to know that there are many people still reading or finding the Lamb Among the Stars for the first time.

As for more of the same, I am afraid I am too busy with teaching, some other writing projects, and other things such as church involvement. But one day…..

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Every blessing

Chris

Dear Readers

By , 28 May 2010 5:10 pm

It’s half term and I have just finished teaching and frankly I’m shattered. I also really want to try to get started on a new book. Actually ‘not get started’; I have already done that. What I feel about writing books is that they are rather like getting a plane into the air. You have to belt along the runway for an awful long time before the thing will actually take off and fly. At the moment I am accelerating along the runway (three maybe four chapters done) but I’m not convinced that I have reached takeoff speed yet. So what I want to do is stand back from the blog for a couple of weeks or so while I try and get the thing off the ground!

But you are not forgotten

every blessing

Chris

Planes: who needs them?

By , 16 April 2010 6:34 pm

I think many people in Britain, particularly if they were half asleep, did a double-take at hearing the news on Thursday morning. UK airspace completely closed? Due to what? An Icelandic volcano? Surely some mistake! There must have been more than a few who checked to see whether there had been some timewarp and we were back to April 1st. Yet indeed it was true and 36 hours later there are still no planes flying over the UK. I spotted a low-flying Cessna today but that’s about it.

I confess I’ve actually rather enjoyed it, although I do feel sympathy with those who are stuck at the airport waiting to leave. (I have less sympathy with those who are trapped on desert islands and tropical beaches because they cannot return.) Let me suggest three good things about this bizarre and remarkable incident.

The first is that it has given my geological profession some real street cred. There are geologists appearing on the television who I don’t think have ever been in front of a camera. You can almost sense their astonishment that someone from the media is asking them a question about volcanoes or Icelandic geology.

The second thing is the particular challenge for the media in pronouncing the name of the volcano. Do they dare to try to say Eyjafjallajökull? Wikipedia helpfully tells us that this is pronounced ˈɛɪjaˌfjatlaˌjœːkʏtl̥’ ( which I’m sure makes things much clearer, especially as WordPress/HTML doesn’t seem to render it properly) but then just to confuse you provides a sound clip which appears to bear absolutely no resemblance to the letters and is clearly no more than a drunken Icelander with a speech defect attempting to portray the sound a glacier makes when a volcano erupts underneath it. So I now realise the contrary to their reputation, Welsh place names are actually very user-friendly indeed.

The third good thing is that the sky is free of the vapour trails. And as the weather is pleasantly dry and cloud free you can stare skywards into the perfect blue sky unmarked by the celestial graffiti of the human race. The sky belongs to the birds. It is actually quite thought-provoking. We have come to take for granted our right to fly through the air and leave vapour trails behind. Yet as you stare upwards at the unmarked blue you do feel that there has been an element of arrogance about our conquest of the air. It is surely significant that in so many languages the word for heaven and the sky is the same. And being unsoiled by aircraft, the sky does indeed look in every sense much more heavenly.

The whole thing raises the question as to whether or not we really do need so many aircraft. We pay a very heavy price for air travel. It would be fascinating to create a balance sheet of good and bad and see whether we had really benefited from cheap air travel. It has certainly set me thinking. If air flight was ruled out on a permanent basis we would have to upgrade ferries and railways. We would have to grow more crops ourselves and we might have to put up with the fact that for the considerable portions of the year some kinds of fruit and vegetable might actually be unavailable. We might have to holiday closer to home. Foreign trips would not be taken lightly. We might actually have to make things in the UK rather than simply buy them in cheaply from China where they can be produced by what is little more than slave labour. And of course we would reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and lower the complex but undoubtedly major climatic effects of putting so much dust, pollutants and moisture high in the atmosphere. We might even actually slow down. You know I think I could live with those things. Indeed I am almost tempted to propose a toast to our Icelandic volcano. It’s just a pity I can’t pronounce it.

On the weakening of theology amongst friend and foe

By , 2 April 2010 7:31 pm

As often the case what I’m stimulated to write on today comes from a couple of things coming together.

The first is some interesting research in the States from the Barna Group on public perceptions of Easter. Their conclusions include this. “The results indicated that most Americans consider Easter to be a religious holiday, but fewer identify the resurrection of Jesus as the underlying meaning.” Actually, I worry about the definition of Easter being about the resurrection; I always thought it was the cross and resurrection. But it fits with my own perception that in many churches the underlying framework of theology is slowly weakening. We worship and we celebrate and we rejoice but please don’t ask us why. I’m afraid I am irresistibly and troublingly reminded of 9/11 when for a long time the Twin Towers apparently resisted the effects of flame and blast before their heat-weakened steel framework suddenly and unexpectedly gave way.

The second was that I have bought the latest Philip Pullman book: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This is his reworking (I think a stronger word than ‘reworking’ is needed) of the Gospel accounts in a somewhat bizarre fashion. Mary has two children Jesus and Christ. Jesus is good (in a rather weak and wishy-washy liberal late-20th century Anglican fashion) whereas Christ increasingly comes to represent the worst aspects of formal religion. Jesus becomes an atheist and dies on the cross whereupon Christ effectively forms the church. Needless to say the supernatural is absent.

The reason for getting it was that there had been some discussion with a publisher about whether to write a rebuttal. The moment I saw the book on the shelf I realised that we didn’t really need to write a response. Why? It was already reduced to half price. Anyway it is fundamentally a revisiting of the oft repeated, old old lie of the noble peasant preacher Jesus full of homilies and non-judgemental good sense who is made divine only by the early church, in particular Paul. It’s not actually a very good book in any sense and I really wouldn’t advise you to buy it because it’ll probably turn up in a second-hand bookshop very quickly and if whoever read it had grubby fingers I bet you won’t find the mark of their prints much beyond page thirty.

Now what is relevant here is that Pullman has incorporated elements of the Gospel accounts but he too is theologically light. Somehow the entire history of Judaism, the sacrificial system of the temple, the establishment of Passover, the priestly castes, the great division between Jew and Gentile and a hundred other things are all mysteriously missing.

So I suppose I am vaguely comforted that if the church is undergoing theological amnesia so are our enemies. Just as well really….

Anyway have a blessed and theological Easter.

Property boom and educational bust

By , 26 March 2010 7:03 pm

Anyone hoping to acquire news of scandals for the basis of some novel or play would, I fear, be sadly disappointed by the college that I work at. Unless I am extraordinarily blind and deaf, the worst I can come up with is a little bit of lax timekeeping and rumours of slight indiscretions after excessive alcohol indulgence at Christmas parties. The gossip is astonishingly, even mind-numbingly, bland. (And that is no bad thing.) Yet what does surface during coffee and lunch breaks on a recurrent basis are the loud grumbles and moans about the falling abilities and reluctance to learn of many of our students. Now this is a most difficult and debatable matter but it is undeniable, as I’m sure I have commented before, that reading – that most fundamental of skills – is in an astonishing and almost terrifying decline. Indeed, we may only be a few years away from the end of the book age.

It is interesting to try and tease out what has happened with our once literate culture. It is undeniable that there have been major cultural and technological changes so that among the young those oh so dull and boring books have been replaced by the far more enticing matters of texting, the web and DVDs. And the less you read, the less you want to read. Yet there is more than this and we have had some interesting discussions in our office about how you could reverse the trend. There has been general agreement that one very helpful thing would be for young children to be regularly read to at home. Yet here we come to a significant problem; children do not get read to because many households are either single parent or (more commonly) there is no spare time for the parent to actually read to the child. And why is there no spare time? The answer is that both mummy and daddy have to work in order to pay the mortgage. And here friends, as elsewhere in the mess that is modern Britain, we come to what is surely the most iniquitous thing to have happened for a long time; the ‘boom in housing’.

Somehow, during the 60s (maybe earlier) domestic property in Britain no longer became a roof over your head but a commodity to be bought and traded. House prices rose and those who had bought houses were happy because they made money out of what is surely a human right. And as the prices rose, people bought houses for no other reason than it was a good investment. And with an increasing demand for houses, some of which were never fully occupied, house prices were inevitably pushed up. Of course, in order for anybody to afford houses meant that the wages had to rise so that British goods somehow became more expensive and other nations managed to steal our markets. It became financially almost ruinous for a wife to spend too long looking after the children so, as lamented above, both ended up working with a resultant stress on family and children. I suspect that the phenomenon of booze-fuelled British youth, now, one gathers, as widely feared across the continent, as our armies under Marlborough and Wellington once were, is largely attributable to this cause. Now we find that the average house price in Britain is well over £100,000 and we have a son and daughter-in-law in central London paying nearly one and a half thousand pounds a month just in rent. Our Chancellor has just announced the easing of the tax duty for first-time buyers on properties over £250,000!

The law of unintended consequences has once more worked to terrible effect. Interestingly, no one seems to have any idea of how to put the genie back in the bottle. Yet I cannot believe that they were not those, and no doubt a number of them were Christians, who quietly said when this whole process started that ‘this will lead to no good’. Were we silent because we felt we were naïve? Or were we silent because, at least in the short term, we saw profit for ourselves? And perhaps more worryingly, what other disastrous social trends are we quietly and dully allowing to happen that will give the next generation some more pieces to pick up?

On church music

By , 19 March 2010 7:00 pm

There are many indicators that you are getting old, or at least older. I suspect one of them is that you increasingly find yourself grumbling about church music. So at the risk of alienating some of my few friends let me make some comments. I should say though that they are not entirely directed at my own church but elsewhere.

This reflection was triggered curiously enough by an interview in a paper with a fireworks expert (there’s probably a special term for them) who do these wonderful firework displays that accompany music. His comment – I forget the precise words – was that he preferred working with classical musicians because they didn’t put themselves forward. The point was that with rock groups he found that he had personalities to deal with and they apparently wanted the limelight over his fireworks. Well the application to church music is pretty straightforward.

Mind you I don’t entirely blame our musicians, most of whom are under thirty. I suspect previous generations, by and large, held to classical music as the supreme model of musicianship. And there even the most extrovert of pianists or violinists is still bound by the score and, at least hopefully, the conductor. Of course there has been a trend as cult of personality with the conductor for which we have, I imagine, very little parallel in church music; though some of you may worship in churches where music groups are large enough to require a conductor. But in general classical musicianship centres on humility and reticence and the art of not getting in the way of letting the music speak. The problem now is I think that we have seen the replacement of this classical model by a newer model based around the musician as rock star. Here it is the performer, not the music, that comes to the front. This of course flies in the face of the idea that all the contributors to a worship service (and here I include the preacher) are servants. So I think there is a need to remind musicians that they serve the service and do not rule it.

The second problem I think is the rise of amplification. Now we need amplification; and some musicians need it badly. Here I am particularly thinking of the more light-voiced singers. The problem is that it is all too easy to end up with some sort of ceaseless arms race; the bass guitarist has to be heard over the drums so he or she is miked and amped, then the lead guitarist has to be given a few more watts of power so that he or she can be heard and this means that vocal amplification has to be increased. By this time, the overall balance generally has been thrown out and everybody cranks up the volume one more notch. The resulting problem is not just a volume level that is far too loud. It is that balancing the resulting rapidly changing melange of amplified sounds to create a clear and harmonious whole is beyond the ability of the average church PA kit and the average church PA person.

Let me add one final point which I have never heard anybody propound in church, which is rather a pity because it’s important. While it is commonly assumed that the older people get the deafer they become; it is probably truer to say that what actually happens is the range of frequencies over which they hear becomes narrower. The result is that the more senior members of the congregation can actually find noise levels more irritating than young people because it is swamping some of the few frequencies they have left.

There are other things that I can add. The key is surely that we are to serve each other and put others first. And that is, of course, the key not just to the success of church music.

Book news and on the tick-box syndrome

By , 12 March 2010 6:54 pm

I found out today (courtesy of the remarkable  Google Alerts option which tells you when you have been cited on the web) that there is a brief podcast on the poetry of Shadow and Night by no less than Mark Goodyear, Senior Editor for TheHighCalling.org and HighCallingBlogs.com.  (Gabcast! GoodWordEditing.com #11 – The Poetry of Shadow and Night — also available on iTunes)  That, and a couple of nice e-mails and blogs about people rereading my books for the third time, encourages me to persevere with the writing.

And now for something completely different. There have been a number of high profile cases recently in the UK of failures in teaching, policing health and social services. You know the sort of thing: some much harassed pupil commits suicide, the police overlook the fact that a mass murderer has been reported to them, a multitude of doctors fail to notice that someone is a chronic diabetic and scores of social workers overlook the fact that some child is being bullied to death by their parents. Shortage of time prevents me from citing tragic and gory details but there are many of these cases. Now there is something not just tragic, but fascinating (in the most worrying sense) about these. You see in every case we know that the organisation concerned must have been going through some apparently fairly rigid annual scrutiny. Again, you know the sort of thing: multipage forms either filled in by you or a supervisor which detail what you are doing, where you are doing it, how you are doing it. We call it ‘filling in the tick boxes’. Significantly, every time there is some sort of scandal or public outrage new tick boxes are added.  Now much of this is good and necessary; I have just had my annual ‘self assessment’ as a teacher and appear to have passed with flying colours.

And yet. The whole thing troubles me. It troubles me for several reasons, some fairly clear to me and some that I cannot quite put a finger on (but maybe you can). For a start it seems to encourage the wrong attitude to what we do. Real or imagined, the tick box list is ever before you and you measure yourself either by the criteria listed on it.  Yet to do this is to have freedom and creativity stifled; I suppose it might be possible to have a marriage which operated on a basis of Am I doing this? or Am I not doing this? But I’m not convinced that the marriage would last very long.

My second concern is that precisely because it is so selective and specific it hides the fact that appalling errors may take place. For instance I could easily select 30 places in Wales that would convince you it was the most idyllic place on the face of the earth. I would be overlooking potentially as large number of places which would convince you there were some very serious problems indeed. Under the guise of quality control ‘Tickboxing’ breeds security and therefore complacency. I tell my students of the alleged case of the statistician who drowned in a river whose average depth was less than a metre. Management by tick box can equally conceal massive holes within it.

Now you say, what is the relationship to Christianity? Well first of all we need to be sure in our work and our society we look beyond this tick-box mentality. There is more to a job and life generally than having done certain specifics. Secondly, this surely applies to the spiritual world. We can basically look over our life defining key spiritual parameters and then fill in those little boxes. Yet even with every box filled there can be a void beneath. If this sounds vaguely familiar to I suggest you that the whole process of tick-boxing in the spiritual world was exactly what was the problem with the Pharisees.

Have a great week.

On “Up” and high art

By , 5 March 2010 7:11 pm

The other weekend we managed to watch two DVDs at home. On the Friday night we went grand opera – very grand in this case – Puccini’s last work Turandot, which has a lot more going for it than the great football-fest aria Nessun dorma. It was pretty much a star-studded cast with Placido Domingo on fine form and the lavish sets by Zefirelli depicting the brutal China of the emperors.

Saturday night was meant to be the ridiculous rather than the sublime; the Pixar/Disney film Up which we had somehow missed at the cinema. Yet it didn’t turn out to be quite as ridiculous as I had expected. If you haven’t seen the film it’s well worth seeing for the first 10 minutes which seem to inhabit a different world from the humorous, action-packed sequence that follows. Without giving too much of the plot away, this first section is a muted (there is almost no dialogue) yet astonishingly tightly drawn account of a married life where, let’s say, not everything works out.

Yet somehow, despite – or because of – the economy of words it is a remarkably moving portrayal of ordinary life as we all too often experience it. If it doesn’t bring you close to tears you may want to check your pulse. A glance at some of the reviews suggest that my reaction is not untypical: several reviewers suggest that this opening section may be the finest piece of ‘cartoon work’ (one feels the word cartoon does it injustice) ever created and there are several comments of vast snufflings and sobs in cinemas. The rest of the film is fine if you don’t mind talking dogs and the like but it really cannot live up to its awesome beginning.

Now the point is that I found this section of Up a far more moving and emotionally challenging piece of work than Turandot. If we take it that one of the definitions of art is ‘a created work that moves us’ then this scant 10 minutes of Up triumphs over one of the great masterpieces of Italian opera.

From this I draw a few tentative conclusions which may be worth considering.

  • Great art can be achieved in the most improbable of media. Wonders can be worked with the humble cartoon.
  • Great art can be achieved with a minimum of means. You don’t need a full orchestra, fine singers and 2½ hours duration to achieve a great effect.
  • The ordinary can sometimes be more moving than the extraordinary.

All in all I find it pretty encouraging; here as elsewhere, the little can sometimes beat the large.

Earthquakes: theodicy and theological idiocy

By , 15 January 2010 7:33 pm

Naturally enough I have had a considerable interest in the dreadful Haiti earthquake.  In Lebanon I worked and published on precisely the same type of tectonic boundary that gave us such tragic losses this week, and most of my classes cover earthquakes at some point.  Interestingly, the quality of material being pasted on Google Earth is now so good that I was able to overlay photographs of the devastation within 30 hours for my classes to look at. It is slightly unnerving (or ought to be) to look down at a wrecked building knowing that certainly the dead and possibly the living are underneath.

Anyway any unease about my use of the data pales into insignificance compared with Pat Robertson’s monumental monstrosity of a statement to the effect the Haitians are to blame for the earthquake because they made a pact with the devil long ago. As it was fortunately not extensively covered in the UK I need to repeat what he said in a radio interview:  “[S]omething happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. Napoleon the Third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you get us free from the prince.’ True story. And so the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ They kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle, on the one side is Haiti, on the other side is the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island.”

Now Pat’s comments have been leapt on and rejected by almost everybody for all sorts of reasons. (For a start his geography and history is completely and utterly wrong.) Had he talked about the fact that apparently up to 50% of the population practice Voodoo, I might have had more sympathy. But sometimes erroneous comments can actually make you think. Let me make several observations.

1) It is always terribly tempting to try and justify God’s workings in catastrophic natural events. This is a form of what is called theodicy.  To do this has several benefits. One benefit is that you have the opportunity to do what all humans like to do, which is to find meaning in the apparently meaningless. And one reason why many of us would like to be prophets (come on now admit it!) is we would like to be those who wield the power to unlock mysteries. I’m sure we would love to hear people say ‘Thank you pastor/preacher/writer/my friend, I now understand what is going on in the Balkans/with Israel/with the money markets etc.”

2) There is no more attractive form of shedding light on a natural disaster by explaining it in terms of God’s judgement.  Something as seemingly random as an earthquake raises an obvious theological problem; why does God slay the apparently innocent? Explaining this in terms of judgement on sin is a neat trick. It doesn’t simply remove the problem of God causing pain on the guiltless; it turns a vice into a virtue by making the disaster a just judgement.

3) Another advantage of pontificating on disasters is that it subtly set you up as being privy to the mind of the Almighty. You alone have been able to eavesdrop at the door of the chamber of heaven where decisions are made.

4) I can’t help but think that Pat fell into the old trap of talking the Devil up; always a good way to get your audience’s attention. The notion of an entire nation cursed with generations of disaster as a result of a satanic pact has the makings of a wonderful novel; a heady mixture of Stephen King and dodgy theology.

5) One or two people have made the comment that Pat clearly can’t distinguish an act of God from an act of plate tectonics. This of course conveys very poor understanding of theology; there is no inherent problem for Calvinists at least, with God acting through his own mechanism of plate tectonics.

6) One of the things that puzzles me most is that this seems to represent a very Old Testament view of things. There Israel was told that failure to keep the covenant would result in natural disasters. (Mind you even in the Old Testament earthquakes can get treated as natural events without any attempt to invest them with moral or judgemental significance.) Yet I can think of no such teaching on cause-and-effect in the New Testament. The nearest I can come to it is Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 11 that individuals who have treated communion frivolously have died. Certainly Jewish culture in Jesus day believed in a very tightly linkage between sin and disaster.  In Luke 13:1-5 we read: ‘Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”’  Or John 9:1-4: ‘As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”’  A parallel example are famines which are mentioned frequently in the Bible but sometimes with no reference whatsoever to them being an act of judgement (for example Genesis 12:10; 26:1; Acts 11:28).

No; I’m afraid we must resort to the uncomfortable truth that on many matters God keeps his own counsel and resist the temptation to explain. We tend to consider the book of Job as being about individual suffering; but its lessons also apply to universal suffering. At times we simply do not know why these events happen and all we can do is keep our mouths closed (and our wallets open).

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