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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).

On the ‘coming Evangelical collapse’ and the Welsh experience

By , 1 January 2010 8:12 pm

First of all happy New Year to you and I hope you were blessed by the Christmas season. I did a lot of college work, got some plot ideas together and read a lot.

Following through a mention on the Christianity Today review of the year I came across some much discussed blogs by Michael Spencer  on the ‘coming Evangelical collapse’.  There is a similar sort of treatment on this website as well and I gather the matter has been discussed widely elsewhere. The basic thesis of these authors is that Christianity in the United States (and it is distressing that a number of authors fail to distinguish between the United States and the rest of the world) is, for all its apparent strength, in deep trouble and a massive decline or even collapse looms in the next few decades. Now being on the other side of the Atlantic I do not feel able to make any serious comment on this thesis as it applies to the United States. Ignorance is not a good basis for opinion. However, I do think it is worthwhile pointing out the experience of Wales in the last hundred years and suggesting that anybody who is interested might find it very profitable to do a detailed sociological and theological comparison.

The basic situation is thus. One hundred years ago, buoyed by the 1904 revival (itself the last of a number of great revival events) Welsh nonconformity of an essentially evangelical hue was the dominant cultural feature of Wales. Chapels of every size and shape dominated the landscape and in any sort of urban area you would often find chapels every few hundred yards. On my five-mile drive to work I pass seven buildings that were chapels 100 years ago and I could easily adjust my route to pass nine. Welsh culture was dominated by the hymn singing and choral tradition of the Church: hymns were sung at rugby matches; they still are but no one knows what the words mean. The Welsh churches were sufficiently powerful that they were regularly consulted by administrative authorities at every level. Chapel culture dominated the moral, cultural and spiritual landscape. Deacons ruled the world.

And then slowly at first but soon at an appalling rate the tide went out. Chapel culture was still lingering on in the 70s when I came to South Wales and was converted. There were still parts of Wales where you could not buy alcohol on the Sunday, the Saturday evening paper had a full page advertisement for church services for the following day and on Sunday itself people (true, mostly by now old women) could be seen regularly filing to church from 10 o’clock onwards. Every year began in Swansea with a civic ceremony in which some chapel or other hosted civic leaders. But these were the twilight years and all these phenomena  have now gone. Indeed my own church is held to be one of the largest in Swansea (population 250,000 ) and we barely get 150 people on a Sunday morning. The percentage of people attending church regularly in Wales is now less than 3%, which means that you can put every churchgoer in Wales in the great Millennium stadium in Cardiff and still have space.

There are certainly some striking parallels between Welsh nonconformity a hundred years ago and American evangelicalism today. There was an emphasis on controlling culture and setting the moral tone, there was a glorification of big-name preachers, an encouragement of peripheral activities such as male voice choirs which, although church sponsored, were somehow not really Christian.  There was the often sycophantic wooing of politicians which was heartily reciprocated by the vote-hungry politicians themselves. There was an emphasis on music and events and on novelty and status. There were weighty rulings on such vital matters as what one wore and what one said. There were the massive building programs which saw chapels rise up like mushrooms.

Now don’t get me wrong – there were giants in those days; great missionaries, great preachers and great scholars. Yet seemingly, all that they laboured for vanished within a few decades.  Many of the bright young men were lured into liberalism or ecclesiastical showmanship; others perished in the trenches of the First World War. Many others found the heady politics of the 1920s far more attractive than churchgoing. Nevertheless the scale and speed of the collapse is extraordinary. I think I remember reading that Martyn Lloyd-Jones found himself the only evangelical minister in the sizeable urban sprawl of Port Talbot in the late 1920s.

Quite simply and I’m sorry it is such a sober thought at the start of the year, it is worth bearing in mind that even the most apparently solid church culture can collapse within decades. In one sense that’s a scary thought. On the other it’s an encouragement to put our trust not in denominations or programmes but in the living God.


Rethinking the Internet

By , 13 November 2009 6:32 pm

If you remember my Lamb among the Stars books you will remember something called the Technology Protocols where the Assembly critically and carefully evaluated any technology before adopting it. This, of course, is in total contrast to our own dear world where we blunder in first and only worry later. Anyway this week I have been thinking about the Internet. My meditations were triggered by references to comments by Eugene Kaspersky, the eponymous Russian CEO of Kaspersky Labs, who wants the abolition of net anonymity and for us all to access a newer faster and cleaner web through a digital passport.

My ponderings were heightened when, having received an e-mail from the DXO Labs saying that version six of their excellent (if slightly expensive) photo processing software was now available I checked on the Internet for reviews on it. To my astonishment, I found that within two days of the software being launched six or seven sites were already claiming to offer cracked downloads. (Incidentally, don’t even think about it; there is an awful lot of evidence that most – if not all – of such sites are teaming with viruses.) So what are we to do with the Internet?

There’s certainly a lot morally wrong with the web. There is cracked software with viruses, porn, Facebook bullying, slander, an awful lot of lunacy as well as an almost infinite number of ways to separate you from your money. (We had a missionary friend staying with us last week who, while checking his e-mail, found that he had an apparently authentic message from an old friend saying that he was in Nigeria and had been robbed and urgently needed some money to get his passport replaced. It was merely the latest twist on an old, old scam.) I suppose too, if you want to look for them, there are also terrorists and paedophiles.

And yet…. I was talking at length recently with someone who has worked an awful lot with the cults and he said how difficult they are finding the Internet. In the ‘good old days’ the cults specialised in restricting information to members. Knowledge was trickled down on a need-to-know basis and very heavily censored. If a Jehovah’s Witness, say, wanted to find out any alternative view on their religion he or she had to find a Christian or secular bookshop and openly purchase a book. Now though, a few keystrokes will reveal websites of ex-members, lurid details of scandals and very good arguments against what is being taught. In short, in the age of Google it’s hard to hide dirty washing, whether it be intellectual or moral. And the best argument against Kaspersky’s dream of the new, passport-only Internet is that it would be a bad day for truth if it ever came to be. I have no doubt that there are those in Beijing, Saudi Arabia and say it not too loudly, the Kremlin, who would love to see such a tamed, controlled and neutered Internet.

So what do we do about the Internet? Quite simply I don’t know. The problem in evaluating the problem from a Christian point of view is that here several competing concerns come together. A first is the Christian commitment to the publishing the truth: for nearly three hundred years Christianity grew as an underground organisation. And I am old enough to have helped smuggle Bibles across the Iron Curtain. A second concern is that we wish to protect the weak; I may have seen through that Nigerian scam but would everybody? A third concern is that we know that there is a spirit of corruption in the world which ruins even good things so that, in hindsight, the corruption of the Internet was almost inevitable. ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is a profoundly Christian saying. That applies very well to the awesome transnational potential of the Internet.

Yet even if I have no specific remedy I have no doubt that we need to do some thinking about what is happening. The temptation is that because of the very complexity of the problem we simply shrug our shoulders in despair. I think Eugene Kaspersky is wrong but he is right to open the debate.

A variety of things

By , 6 November 2009 6:39 pm

Thank you all for considering my mystery word last week. I think in the end I probably decided that it needs a combination of words: ‘unsensational-but-satisfying’, ‘delivers-the-goods’, ‘excellent-and-unflashy.’ I suspect that this sort of thing works much better in German than English.

I have just about recovered from my cold/flu. I have no idea whether it was the swine flu but I can’t remember ever having been knocked out so long. It’s a useful reminder not to take good health for granted!

I have started to run a series of lunchtime classes on what is called Critical Thinking. Critical thinking is the semi-formal process of analysing arguments to identify reasons and conclusions and whether the evidence fully justifies the claims. It’s an odd sort of subject; I suspect in the old days you probably did it as part of English GCSE. Nowadays it seems to have gone missing but our higher-level universities, notably Oxford and Cambridge, are increasingly setting test papers which require a fairly sophisticated analysis of arguments using this sort of approach. Anyway it was rather gratifying that my geology room was crammed full with 30+ students today, many of whom have a reasonable chance of being interviewed at least for Oxford and Cambridge. It is actually good because it encourages me to think logically.

I spoke at Swansea University Christian Union this week (it’s been a busy week) on God’s Omniscience, Omnipresence and Omnipotence. Phew! There were a hundred or so students and a good atmosphere. The one thing that somewhat perturbed me was that although I touched on all sorts of important and useful things the only questions I got afterwards were all to do with the creation and evolution debate; something that I had alluded to in the briefest possible manner. I find it somewhat disturbing that what is, by any account, a rather peripheral debate (we are all creationists in some sense  has taken centre stage.

What else? Without saying too much I have had a rather intriguing series of e-mails from someone (let’s just call him M.) from the Middle East who knows me as a professional geologist and who has been asking some interesting and penetrating questions about my Christian faith in a very friendly and open way. He has just asked me to explain the doctrine of the Trinity and how Christians can pray to Jesus without committing the sin of polytheism. Well that’s going to be an easy one isn’t it? (Is there an emoticon for irony?). That’s my next task this evening and I would value prayer.

Finally, for those of you who are fans of technology, Mr. Google has given us a nice new present which so far has not been widely publicised. If you use Google Earth (and I use it at least once or twice a day in teaching) turn on 3-D Buildings and Photorealistic on the side panel and take a look at New York, Birmingham, Cardiff or Dublin. All being well if you have a reasonably fast modem connection and a tolerable graphics card you should see the landscape slowly spring alive with wonderful 3-D buildings which really look realistic. (Two tricks for Google Earth that not everybody knows: 1. set vertical exaggeration to around 1.7 in order to make landscape look realistic and 2. use a mouse with a scroll wheel in the middle and press down on it. ) To say it’s awesome is an understatement: I showed it to our head of IT who one presumes has seen everything and twenty minutes later he was still playing with it  like a happy child. On a slightly reflective note, I’m actually wondering whether one of the side-effects of being made in the image of God is that we like to see things as he sees them. But that apart, it’s pretty awesome to swoop and wheel around the skyscrapers. I’m wondering if I do it enough whether it will cure my vertigo.

3D google

3D google

top-down skyscrapers

top-down skyscrapers

Have a good week!

On fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism

By , 23 October 2009 7:34 pm

There were a number of possible topics to write on this week but I am disinclined to touch them. In part it is that I am a bit drained because I have just had flu and also because I have just upgraded my computer to Windows 7. (Very nice, thank you, but it’s really just Vista working as it ought to have done.) Instead I think I will look at one or two of the issues raised in the blog two weeks ago on ‘K’s Argument’. K, very kindly, has come out fighting in defence of fundamentalism as being at least logically consistent. This of course raises the interesting question ‘What is fundamentalism?’ I remember a member of our church coming to me at the end of one service with a worried look and asking me in that quiet ‘I-do-not-wish-to-be-overheard’ tone of voice, ‘Chris, am I a fundamentalist?’

You could of course try and define fundamentalism in terms of specific creedal beliefs; such as believing in a creation in a literal six days, holding to the authorship of Isaiah by a single person, not doubting a single miracle in Scripture, belief in an imminent Rapture, etc. I think however this is very difficult on all sorts of grounds. Let’s say you came up with ten criteria, what you do? Give a ‘Fundamentalism Index? ‘He’s a 10 out of 10 fundamentalist.’ It all seems rather mechanical. Besides how do we know which fundamentals are truly fundamental?

It also seems to overlook the fact that we vaguely know that there is more to fundamentalism than simply holding to a tight creedal confession.  Now please don’t get me wrong, creeds are vitally important but I would hazard a guess that there is something else going on here. In fact I think that Catherine (who I don’t always agree with!) is close to the mark when she describes fundamentalism as easy. There is indeed a simplicity to fundamentalism; it is a religion that shuns questioning. And when you get rid of questions life becomes really quite simple. You are all singing from the same hymn sheet because there is no other hymn sheet (and if there is, those who sing from it are going to hell). Yet I think behind that is something else and I think it is fear.

A nice image I came across a number of years ago and I wish I could remember who coined it said that the difference between fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism is something like the difference in mediaeval times between a walled city and a market town. Fundamentalism is a religion of barriers, battlements and, just occasionally, burning oil. It is haunted by the fear of the enemy (and isn’t there always an enemy?). The enemy may be Catholics, New-Agers or – most dangerous of all because they are wolves in sheep’s clothing – Liberals. There is no engagement with the enemy, no dialogue. All there is survival and conflict. As the Rev Ian Paisley used to shout with his all too imitable Ulster accent: ‘No Surrender!’

Here Conservative Evangelicalism is very different. (I’m sorry about the clunky term but I think it’s best used here because it’s the faith that on the surface can appear to be most similar to fundamentalism.) At the heart of Conservative Evangelicalism is the relationship with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. That affects everything, not least how we view others. With them there is (or ought to be) a courteous engagement, an open debating, a confident discussion. But to go back to the imagery; the gates are flung open. Yes it’s risky, but that’s the way it ought to be. You can’t do evangelism from behind the ramparts.

Anyway that’s my take on it. But I’m open for further discussions. Now if you excuse me I’ll go and  take my cough medicine…

K’s argument

By , 9 October 2009 6:00 pm

Let’s call him K. He is an American ex-Christian of some sort who follows these blogs and has written to me courteously at some length about my books. I have replied back, answering his questions as best I can and challenging him on his current agnosticism and the debate sporadically continues. K has an interesting take on Christianity which I think is worth sharing even if I think it is flawed.

Most of us are familiar with the standard kind of anti-Christian argument which begins “I can’t believe in Christianity because…” and then goes on to talk about our alleged views on women, science, homosexuality and so on. A major problem with this sort of argument is that it is extraordinarily naive. K’s argument is – at least on the surface – somewhat more sophisticated. To simplify his position somewhat, he claims that there are two major groups within Christianity: the hard-edged fundamentalists with their strident and uncompromising gospel and the fluffy seeker-centred ‘mainstream evangelicals’ (my term not his) with their gentle, winsome and somewhat soft-edged preaching. What K says is that he actually admires the fundamentalists more than the ‘mainstream evangelicals’. According to him they at least have intellectual consistency and some measure of honesty in their understanding of Scripture: they also are prepared to confront the world not to conform to it. For him although they adopt an unbelievable creed, the fundamentalists score in the area of integrity and ethics. In contrast, in a search for bridge building and populism the soft evangelicals have actually become so close to the world that they have lost any real integrity. Compromise has undone them.

First, I want to say that I think that there is something in his critique of seeker-sensitive Christianity that is worth considering. Let me give you one example: an old friend of mine does quite a bit of speaking on the troubled matter of ‘origins’ from a contemporary evangelical perspective that is rather sympathetic to evolution. I recently read a review of a debate he was in and the non-Christian commentator was actually quite dismissive; he detected nothing in any way distinctive in what my friend said and found it almost impossible to separate his position from that of his atheist opponent. Examples can be multiplied; for instance, it is hard for instance to separate the modern evangelical’s view of Sunday from that of anyone else. I think there is a real danger that in the interests of evangelism (or is it cowardice?) evangelicals try to blend into the world in such a way that we lose the radical difference that is perhaps Christianity’s most appealing feature. There is a tragic irony here: in an effort to preach the gospel effectively we somehow lose the gospel.

However I also want to point out that K has engaged in a clever sleight of hand. By splitting Christianity into two poles he has created two artificial positions. On the one hand are the manic fundamentalists who hold to an unbelievable creed but who are at least intellectually consistent. On the other are the jelly-like mainstream evangelicals who hold to a more believable creed but who suffer from the fatal intellectual flaw of compromise. He can’t follow the first party because they believe in manifest nonsense: he can’t follow the second because of their intellectual inconsistencies. His head prevents him from joining the fundamentalists, his conscience from joining the evangelicals. Thus doubly protected, K’s agnosticism is safe.

K’s perspective is no doubt shared widely. It is not enough to simply critique it. We have to admit that the churches are flawed; after all, they are made up of flawed people like me. Yet it is not the church that draws men and women to God, it is Christ. It sometimes seems to me that the greatest proof of the gospel is that, despite the church, men and women continue to come to God through Jesus Christ.

Have a good week.


By , 2 October 2009 7:24 pm

First of all, welcome to the new blog site which you’ll see is attached to my own website. There are lots of reasons for this but it ought to make things a lot easier. I presume you’ve got here from the old site, so please adjust your favourites accordingly.

This is one of those catching-up type of blogs. It’s been good, if busy, week here. After the ceaseless grey skies and endless rains of July and August, September has been almost totally dry here. Even if I haven’t been able to enjoy it most of the time, it’s still been pleasant. This week I had a really great field trip with 35 students to the south coast of Wales where we looked at the Carboniferous, Triassic and Jurassic rocks. The sun shone, the rocks were revealing and I was reduced to wearing a T-shirt on the last day of September. This is the Jurassic.


I’m afraid I don’t possibly engage with the responses that I get to my blog in the way I ought to. Writing the blog has become a regular Friday evening task which I (largely) enjoy and I don’t try and do too much during the week to it. We all know stories of writers whose writing suffered because they spent too much time dealing with the fan mail. Well I’m afraid I don’t have that much fan mail but this blog could preoccupy me. However that is not to neglect your contributions: I am not deliberately flattering you in saying that you almost all raise stimulating and challenging points.

Last week was no exception: I was fascinated by the feedback on Thomas Kinkade. Kirsty said effectively that she didn’t mind his paintings but they were ‘twee’. That raises an absolutely fascinating question as to whether in a world of suffering, woe and potential redemption we actually ought to do ‘twee.’ Mind you, I’ll take tweeness over in-your-face brutality and gratuitous ugliness any day. Boaz said some nice things and wondered quite provokingly about the nature of heaven and set me thinking about whether there will be any shadows there. Surely light needs some measure of darkness to emphasise it? Could you ever create a picture without some darkness? Taking the subject less metaphorically, could goodness be seen as goodness in the absence of evil? Well I’m reluctant to meditate on the nature of heaven (I have already done more than any man ought to do on that subject) but I wonder if it is worth considering that, although evil will be gone, the memory of it will be allowed to linger? There are at least hints in the book of Revelation that the redeemed will praise God because of what they were rescued from. In heaven, evil will be without power and threat but I’m pretty certain that we will not all be amnesiacs in that area. I wonder if in some way evil be will be preserved; like some sort of stuffed animal in a museum or as tales in books to remind us what the world once suffered. As others have said, perhaps what are wounds now will be merely scars there.

Zoomie added the revelation (or should I say ‘allegation’?) that the paintings were in fact mass produced by a team of copyists. While I cannot say that this is true or false, the sheer number of different paintings using common elements but done in an identical style is rather striking. Frankly, the thought had crossed my mind but I didn’t dare utter it. Of course, many great artists working to deadlines got their pupils to do various elements such as the sky and background and then filled in the foreground themselves. I read somewhere that Arthur Sullivan (the composer half of Gilbert and Sullivan) got his students to write many of his overtures using themes from the operettas. Nevertheless the suggestion here is of something on a much larger and more outrageous scale. When I mentioned the possibility to someone he said ‘I’m not surprised given the sort of painting he produces’. I think what he meant was poor art goes together with poor ethics. I think there is some truth in this but I’m still thinking it through. (Some great artists were utter rats). My take on this would be something along the following: If an artist is determined to create original and valued works of art, he or she is unlikely to get someone else to do that for them. Conversely, if they produce works of art that are neither original nor which they value, then it is hardly surprising that they might get others to do it for them. So its a broad, but not perfect, correlation. Anonymous (I think) defended poor old Kinkade but referred to a website presumably of their own work. The interesting thing was that I felt that the images on that site had precisely the freshness, newness and excitement that the tired old Kinkade images didn’t have.

Aranel made an interesting comment about an ailing friend who took comfort from the paintings. Now here, friends, is the problem with being a Christian critic. Faced with a brother or sister being comforted by some work of art that we dislike intensely, what can we do? I would say that if we are certain that it is actually doing no theological harm surely all we can do is mutter ‘bless you’ and tiptoe away as quietly as possible.

Have a really good week.

Every blessing


On time and events

By , 24 April 2009 6:57 pm

What’s happened this past week?

  • We’ve had really very pleasant weather, warm to almost hot, without any rain. After a long cold winter, Spring has, well, sprung upon us, and indeed we have had some days that have seemed on the verge of summer. Given the rather damp nature of our climate such times are indeed welcome. Last Saturday Alison and I had a great walk around a nearby peninsula marred only by the fact that the footpaths on the map were not duplicated by anything remotely similar in reality.
  • I preached last Sunday night on the principles of evangelism from Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian church. The congregation stayed awake (they are good like that) and some people told me they found it helpful.
  • Monday to Friday I’ve been back at college teaching, although the proximity of the exams (our first one is an unhappily close on 12th May) means that we are now in revision mode. I finished marking and grading 58 pieces of coursework. Some were of a quality that was arrestingly good and made me feel good about teaching, while some were so pathetic that I wonder what I have been doing.
  • On Monday night, I gave the first (and as it turned out last) lecture in a series of evening classes that had been planned with a biologist friend on Life through Time at the Welsh Botanic Gardens. It’s a great place but very much out in the wilds so the fact that we only had three attendees was hardly surprisingly. We may redo it next year in Swansea.
  • We started a week of prayer at church: so far I have not managed to go to much but should be there tonight.
  • Alison and I watched the Coen Brothers’ film ‘No Country for Old Men’ and both agreed that despite rave critical reviews it was only memorable for the thoroughly irritating way in which it arrogantly trampled over those unwritten rules that good storytellers make (and keep) with their listeners. I will say no more but, for my money, if you haven’t seen it you’re not missing anything.
  • I finished (Hurrah! Hurrah!) the book for Hodder that I have written with J. John; it looks almost certain that it will be called The Return: Grace and the Prodigal. As you may surmise from its title it is a fairly detailed study of the great parable of the prodigal son and its implications for how we live.
  • We heard from our older son John that our grandson Simeon who gave us such concern earlier on is now greatly enjoying life and clearly possessed of a happy and intelligent temperament.
  • We had a truly appalling (in every sense of the word) budget speech this week which a) made plain the extent of the economic devastation and b) manifestly failed to come up with any truly coherent solution for solving it. We are however promised that there will be a massive recovery next year with astonishing rates of growth. The response to this has been levels of mocking laughter normally associated with protestations of innocence from the villain in the pantomime. The truly curious feature on the national scene is that while everyone is really pretty angry about the financial situation the anger so far has been confined to a few protests. We Brits are a pretty placid folk, it seems. Nevertheless everybody has spent a disproportionate amount of time this week talking about the economy.
  • I have a lovely letter of thanks for the books from Kentucky (thank you Debbie) and a nice comment from Canada. Thanks one and all.

There is a lot more than I could add but even so you might well ask: what is the point of listing all this activity? There is nothing particularly new, striking or even probably important in this. Indeed, I suspect your own lives are just as complex. Yet the busyness has preoccupied me: it has been a week quite literally of ‘one darn thing after another’. And yet, as I now look back, I see that somehow the gift of seven whole God-given days have vanished.

Did I use them wisely? Most effectively? Did I consider what I was doing in the light of eternity? Psalm 90:12 says “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” It is easy to see that in terms of a quantitative factor: ‘how many days have I got left?’ It may be better to see it in qualitative terms: on those blank sheets of time God gave me, have I written what was worthwhile?



The problem of proximity

By , 14 November 2008 9:04 pm

Well last week’s blog raised a real storm didn’t it? What to me seemed fairly cautious comments on Obama-mania appeared to have annoyed the man’s supporters and detractors alike. The fact that either you (or I) so badly misjudged things is actually profoundly revealing; there are major cultural differences between Britain and the States. It has occurred to me that over the next few weeks I might explore something of these differences, that have been exacerbated by the election of Barrack Obama. But before I do, I want to lay some groundwork by pointing out that a peculiar problem exists when you get two very different things that appear the same.

When you compare two organisations or countries it is tempting to be lazy and look merely at the surface. So for instance the alien might wander into both a Catholic church and an evangelical Protestant church and assume that the cleric leading the service was functionally identical and that any differences between a priest and a pastor were merely a matter of words. Now I suspect most readers of this blog will not need me to point out that actually any similarities conceal fundamental differences. A classic example which I hope will not offend is that it is all too tempting to look at Islam and Christianity and see in both cases a central figure, Jesus/Mohammed, and a holy book, the Bible/Quran. What more natural than to assume they are functionally the same? Yet in reality this is profoundly misleading. The Christian view of Jesus as the perfect revelation of God and the Eternal Word is actually far closer to how the Moslem sees the Quran. (Incidentally, some Moslems say the Quran was uncreated; a view disputed by others because it comes perilously close to the blasphemous attribution of the properties of God to something else.) Conversely, in Islam Mohammed (the earthly vessel through whom God reveals his word to mankind) is far closer in functional terms to the Bible (the earthly vessel through whom… well, you get the idea). Appearances can be deceptive.

Now I mention these cases (and I’m sure you could multiply them) because it is all too easy to see parallels and similarities within the British and American system that, at depth, do not actually exist. And this is often the source of some friction. For instance Americans often assume that, in contrast to the extraordinary reverence for the Stars and Stripes in the USA, the British are culpably careless about their own national flag. (Readers across the Atlantic may be interested to know that I have not the slightest idea where I could purchase a Union Jack even if I wanted to.) The fact is that the national flag in Britain and the States represents something totally different. In functional terms, the British equivalent of the Stars and Stripes is actually her Majesty the Queen. She, not the flag, is the emblem of ultimate authority, historical tradition and the validity of the British state. Even at the most basic level we are very different. Someone repeated the old quip that we are ‘two nations divided by a common language’. That is never truer than when we think we are talking about the same thing.

This is very much a precursor to a blog in which – if courage has not failed me – I will try to point out why the British, as a whole, are somewhat uneasy with the Republican Party. Stay tuned…

So where did half term go?

By , 31 October 2008 9:03 pm

One of the great blessings of the teacher’s life (apart from a salary that does not depend on the state of international finance) is the holidays. Given that much of the teaching week is basically a non-stop theatrical performance for six hours each day you do need the breaks. Yet on this Friday night as I look back over the half term just ending I wonder where it all went. What actually did I do?

Well, we went up to stay with my mother-in-law in the Midlands for the first part of the week and that means we spent a total of six hours driving. It was a good time and we had the first snow of what promises to be a cold winter. What was especially valuable was that we were able to catch up with relatives. So we met up with my brother-in-law’s and sister-in-law’s families, but we were also able to see our elder son and his wife and young Simeon. I am pleased to be able to report that Simeon is doing well and now looks (and sounds) like the average ten-week-old baby. His parents seem to have come to terms with his CAH well and are handling the need to dose him regularly with saline and steroids with commendable skill and diligence. So there’s an answer to prayer. Thank you all!

What else did I do? I attended a funeral of a dear saint in our church. I did a solid day and a half’s work on writing a whole lot of new notes for the new environmental studies syllabus. I put various programs on my iPhone and digitally processed a number of photographs. I also wrote a rather difficult sermon on the stark subject of ‘Sin’. It is one of those topics that on the surface seems fairly easy but which has all manner of trickiness in depth; original sin, total depravity and (not least) the fact that you don’t want to make everybody feel utterly gloomy. So that took time.

I’ve also been waiting for word from a British publisher on a collaborative non-fiction project which should take up much of my spare time over the next six months. I was due to hear this week but that seems to have slipped away. Linked with this apparently is an interest in a possible fiction project so I have also been accumulating a very large number of notes on a new book. Yes, I have a lot on the epic fantasy trilogy of the ‘Seventh Ship’ but frankly I’m not ready to start that and I’m not sure it’s that attractive for a publisher at this stage. So I have been putting ideas together for a standalone volume that will grab the reader from the first line, involving theology, the supernatural and a fair amount of violence. I’m afraid there is a need for pragmatism!

So with all these things the week has slipped by so fast that now it is in the rear view mirror of life. Did I use it wisely? As I look back at it before much of it disappears entirely from memory I am reminded that the Psalmist wrote: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12). Hmm.

Some time I need to spend time thinking about how I use time.

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