12 December 2007

After Idealist

For years (more than a decade, in fact) I have kept all my notes in a free-form textual database called Idealist. Originally developed by a division of Blackwells, the program was sold on to an outfit called Bekon, which produced an impossibly buggy version before disappearing without trace. At the time, the lack of any upgrade route didn’t matter very much to me since Idealist was for a long time simply the fastest, most flexible and most stable database I could find that actually did the job I needed it to do.

Sadly, Idealist has been showing its age for some time now. While its flexibility (including the ability to modify fields and record types on the fly) and its very efficient automatic keyword indexing remain superb, it suffers from its inability to handle rich text, its lack of Unicode support and its virtual lack in internet connectivity.

So, reluctantly and after a long period of examining possible alternatives, I have finally abandoned it in favour of Ultra Recall by Kinook Software. First impressions are very positive. I have been able to import several hundred story ideas and my entire bibliographical database without much difficulty. The next step is to import more than 20,000 notes and quotations! (If I have read the Ultra Recall manual correctly, it should then be possible to link those notes and quotations with the relevant references in my bibliography much more easily than was the case in Idealist.)

07 December 2007

Now that’s what I call a mountain

I’m editing a book on eclipses of the Sun, which happened to mention Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia. What they said about it intriqued me enough to make me do a web search for images of it. It may be small by Himalayan standards but those rock faces look quite formidable: a truly Tolkien-esque mountain.

27 November 2007

Belshazzar’s Feast

Last weekend saw the first major outing of the RSNO Chorus for the 2007–08 season. We performed William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in Dundee and Glasgow under the baton of Richard Hickox. There are good reviews of the Glasgow performance in the Scotsman and The Herald. Ironically, I felt the Dundee performance was the better of the two (perhaps helped by the fact that the Caird Hall is a much better place to sing in than the Royal Concert Hall). It was certainly an exhilarating (if, sometimes, scary) experience to take part in the piece.

Apparently, the piece was banned from English cathedrals and the Three Choirs Festival for a quarter of a century. The original review in The Times complained that it was starkly Jewish and culminated ‘in ecstatic gloating over the fallen enemy, the utter negation of Christianity’. Had the reviewer known his Bible even a little, he would have realized that the passages he was complaining about come not from Daniel but from Revelation 18.

The point, of course, is that Belshazzar’s Feast is no more a hymn of praise for the destruction of historical Babylon than is Revelation 18. The Babylon depicted in both Revelation and Belshazzar’s Feast is a symbol for any society founded upon what Walter Wink has called the myth of redemptive violence. In short, it is a celebration of the inevitable destruction of any society that believes social order can be maintained by violence or coercive force (whether against its own citizens or against rival societies). To be fair to The Times’ reviewer this is a profoundly Jewish insight (in Genesis 1 order is achieved by the divine word of promise and blessing in contrast to the murder of the old gods in the Enuma Elish), but it is just as much a profoundly Christian insight.

17 November 2007

Daniel W Hardy (1930–2007)

Dan Hardy died last Thursday. Dan was probably one of the finest Anglican theologians of the twentieth century. I didn’t know him as well as I knew Colin Gunton or Lesslie Newbigin, but I still considered him one of my ‘authoritative others’ – someone whose views I always took very seriously – and Jubilate: Theology in Praise, the book he wrote with his son-in-law David Ford, is one of my favourite pieces of theology.

I first encountered Dan at meetings of the Society for the Study of Theology in the early 1980s. For someone who was just embarking on theological research listening to him speak was fascinating, challenging and often daunting (the theological equivalent of a keen amateur hillwalker watching a world-class mountaineer scrambling up a hitherto unclimbed route).

A single question from Dan during my first attempt to deliver a theological paper (during one of the Durham theological research consultations) unravelled my early research efforts and forced me to rethink what I was doing. Three years later I was privileged to have him as external examiner for my PhD thesis.

Yes, Dan could be intellectually daunting, but he was also a very fine preacher (see, for example, his 2005 sermon on ‘A Future for the Church’). And, above all, unlike some academics he was, at heart, someone who cared passionately for the well-being of others. Indeed, the Jewish philosopher Peter Ochs once described him as ‘a pastor's pastor – seeing light in the other, light as attractiveness in and with the other’.

31 October 2007

Retreat 2007: Pluscarden Abbey

For my annual retreat this year, I went to Pluscarden Abbey in rural Morayshire a few miles inland from from Forres (and/or Elgin). I chose Pluscarden because I visited it briefly about fifteen years ago. Truth to tell, I couldn't remember much about the place beyond the fact that it seemed very peaceful.

It is certainly well hidden in the hills of Morayshire: a secret oasis of medieval monastic existence where the Benedictine monks still sing the hours.

I confess I didn’t make it to Vigils, Lauds or even Prime while I was there. The first three services of the day are all over by 7.00 a.m. (with Vigils starting at 4.45 a.m.). The daily conventual Mass (with Terce tacked on at the end) happens mid-morning. Sext is sung immediately before lunch with Nones in the early afternoon. Then Vespers is at 6.00 p.m. before supper. Compline at 8.00 p.m. completes the daily round of services.

It makes for a nice rhythm to the day: work/study punctuated by regular breaks for prayer. Apparently the monks grow a good deal of their own food. They also keep bees (I returned home with a pot of their honey). Relying on home-grown produce does tend to make the meals fairly simple. The diet at Pluscarden seems to be relatively meat free (more a matter of simplicity than vegetarianism). I can’t recall ever being offered porridge as a dessert anywhere else.

It is very much a male environment, with the guesthouse for women visitors being located just outside the entrance to the Abbey grounds. That segregation extends to meals, with male visitors to the Abbey being invited to eat lunch and supper with the monks in the refectory while the women cater for themselves in their guesthouse.

This year for my retreat I set myself the task of putting my thoughts on Church in some sort of order (with the help of Miroslav Volf’s study of ecclesiology). Volf sets out to develop a Free Church ecclesiology in dialogue with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. In the end, I found myself gravitating to a more episcopalian outlook than Volf would advocate. Having walked away from the Scottish Episcopal Church about a year ago, I have been trying (and failing) to make myself at home in the Church of Scotland. My real sticking point is the Eucharist, which as far as I am concerned is about the real presence of Christ in the congregation.

29 October 2007

Madrid highlights

I have recently returned from a very relaxing week in Madrid. The weather was wonderful – warm and sunny every day (once or twice reaching the upper twenties).

One of the main reasons for visiting Madrid must, of course, be the amazing accumulation of fine art in the city’s galleries. Of those galleries my favourite has to be the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza: a complete history of Western art in a single gallery. Particularly striking among the early paintings was an almost surrealist portrayal of the risen Christ by Bramantino. It is an amazingly rich collection. My one reservation about it was that the strictly chronological layout left me with a sense of anti-climax; it created the impression that Western art had finally dissolved in the acids of high modernity. Or perhaps I was just suffering from an art overdose.

The Prado is compulsory viewing for anyone visiting Madrid. Lots of amazing paintings, but embedded in an even larger number of indifferent ones. Highlights included Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I hadn't realized that it was a triptych. Usually reproductions show the three panels separately. But taken together they become a morality tale beginning with Eden, depicting humankind's fall into sensuous pleasures in the central tableau, and culminating in his vision of hell. There were Goyas in profusion, including some of his most iconic works and some of his most horrific. Court painter and recorder of the darker recesses of the human imagination, Goya seems to use such different styles that he might have been two people. And is it my imagination or could Picasso have taken some inspiration from some of Goya's later works?

Of the big three, the one I enjoyed least was the Reina Sofia. I’m not a great fan of contemporary art and I hated the external glass lift, which seemed to be the only way in and out of the building, but the visit was worth just to see Picasso’s Guernica in the flesh.

Another gallery I enjoyed was the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (which was conveniently just round the corner from our hotel). The downside is that the layout is confusing and there is no detailed English guide. The gallery includes some excellent Goyas – including one of his madhouse paintings and his painting of the inquisition (placed side by side so the structural similarity of the two is unmistakable). But perhaps the most interesting was a sequence of little paintings of children playing.

Apart from the galleries we just wandered about, relaxing and absorbing the atmosphere. There was the compulsory visit to the Royal Palace (for me the highlights of that were the armoury and the reconstructed alchemist’s laboratory), plenty of parks (including one containing an entire Egyptian temple) and interesting shops. The food was generally good (though I didn’t get used to the Spanish habit of eating late in the evening) and I really enjoyed the Madrileno tradition of chocolat con churros. Last but not least, the holiday benefited from a really nice hotel (the Maria Elena Palace).

16 October 2007

Bizarre quote of the week

The Health Secretary Alan Johnson is reported to have said that obesity in the UK is a ‘potential crisis on the scale of climate change’. I imagine he used the analogy as a way of underlining how seriously the government takes the problem of obesity. However, given Labour’s rather dubious green credentials, it merely serves to underline their lack of seriousness about climate change.

Praise where praise is due

I am no great fan of the American goverment and its policies, so it is only fair to acknowledge when a branch of that government actually gets something right. In this case, a congressional committee has voted to recognize that the massacre of about a million Armenians by the Ottomans during the First World War was an act of genocide. Better late than never!

05 October 2007

Infinity Plus, R.I.P.

Infinity Plus was ten years old in August. Over the past decade it has become probably the best website devoted to science fiction and fantasy. There you can find hundreds of original short stories, extracts from novels, interviews with authors and thousands of book reviews (to which I have had the pleasure of contributing).

Sadly Keith Brooke has decided that the time has come to stop maintaining the site. Instead he will be spending more time on his own writing.

But the website will remain online. And Keith has signed off with a flourish: a 70,000-word update of the site and the publication of the Infinity Plus anthology by Solaris. (The anthology is a really good read. I should know: I copy-edited it.)

24 September 2007


All of us have pet hates. Writers are no exception. In fact, they may even be the paradigm example of people with pet hates. One writer friend of mine cannot bear vampire stories or stories written in the first person. I must admit I’m not wild about vampire stories myself (too many of them are simply an excuse for the author to indulge in soft porn). As for first-person narrative, it is very effective when it is done well, but it is very hard to do well and the bad stuff can be really cringe-making.

Having said that, I have just discovered the exception that may or may not prove the rule. Robin McKinley's 2003 novel Sunshine is a (sort of) vampire story and it is unquestionably written (very well) in the first person. I picked the book up from a second-hand book stall simply on the strength of the author’s name. McKinley has written some seriously good fantasy of a fairly traditional kind.

The novel is set in . . . well, at first, I thought it was a post-apocalyptic America, but after a few pages I realized that it couldn’t be our world at all. For a start, magic is openly used. And the world is populated by other sentient beings besides humankind: the Others include various kinds of demon and, of course, vampires. The human race appears to be recovering from a catastrophic conflict known as the Voodoo Wars. However, as one of the characters reveals midway through the book, there is an ongoing conflict between vampires and humankind, and the vampires are winning.

The central character of the novel is a young woman called Rae (‘Sunshine’ to her friends). At the beginning of the novel she wants nothing more than to continue enjoying her quiet life, working in her step-father’s coffee shop alongside her boyfriend, an ex-biker called Mel. The idyll is shattered when she is captured by a band of vampires. Remarkably they don’t kill her immediately: she is intended as food for a vampire they are holding captive. Even more remarkably she manages to escape (and release the captive vampire) by tapping into the magical power she has inherited from her long-vanished biological father. The novel follows her as she tries to come to terms with her dubious gift and forges an unlikely alliance with the vampire she freed.

There are hints of Buffy the Vampire Slayer here – but only hints. Yes, there is action and adventure but there is also really good characterization and excellent description. In particular, the magical systems that operate in this alternate earth are well thought out and lovingly described. Likewise with the vampires: instead of being just another take on an increasingly cliched monster, McKinley’s vampires are unhuman in a number of new ways (not least their spatial perception and the way they move from place to place).

Neil Gaiman thinks very highly of it; so I’m in good company. If you want to find out more, you can read a sample on Robin McKinley’s website.

15 August 2007

Set the Seas on Fire

The nice people at Solaris have just sent me a copy of Chris Roberson’s Set the Seas on Fire, which I edited for them some months ago. It is a swashbuckling tale set in the Napoleonic era. The crew of HMS Fortitude find themselves lost in the South Pacific where they come across an idyllic Polynesian island and a Lovecraftian horror.

24 July 2007

So many books . . .

. . . so little time!

And one of the first things that gets squeezed out when I am busy is the blog. The frequency of blog entries is probably a pretty good indicator of just how much work has piled up on my desk recently. In the past few weeks I have dealt with, in no particular order, a 600-page monograph on quantum mechanics, a treatise on the sociology of plastic surgery, a collection of papers on liberation theology, memoirs of a Highland childhood, an undergraduate textbook in Christian doctrine and a study of holocaust museums. My next big editorial project is really rather exciting: OUP have asked me to copy-edit Professor Steven Weinberg’s new book on cosmology!

16 June 2007

In praise of great literature

There is an interesting article by SF author John Wright on the online journal Implications (here). He offers seven reasons for admitting that certain books do, indeed, count as great works of literature. For example, ‘reading great books increases the pleasure one gets from merely good books.’ Or again:
it takes humility to be an elitist . . . An elitist, someone who likes great books because they are great, not because he likes them, is as humble as a mountaineer standing before a titanic, mysterious, unclimbed peak. To climb that mountain is work, at least at first, we all agree. But once you have achieved the summit, and all the world is under your heel, how far you can see! . . . The humility of a mountaineer is this: he does not think of himself as he climbs, he thinks of the rock under this fingers and toes. He did not make the mountain; he is not the one who piled it up.
My main reservation is the question of who decides which books should be regarded as ‘great literature’. I am very wary of ‘authoritative others’ creating literary canons (whether they be ‘the classics of English literature’ or ‘the hundred greatest SF books’). What purpose do such lists serve? Why are certain books chosen? Because of internal literary qualities? Or because they reinforce a particular worldview? So, while I would tend to agree with Wright’s reasons for reading great literature, I think a degree of scepticism is needed whenever someone tries to insist that I really must read this particular book because it is ‘great literature’.

12 June 2007

New from Solaris

Mark Newton from Solaris has kindly sent me copies of a couple of books I edited for them a few months ago: Eric Brown’s Helix and The Infinity Plus Anthology. Both books are really good reads.

Helix is a straightforward space opera in the Ringworld mould, but far better. In spite of the awards it won, I never really warmed to Ringworld – probably because the rather unlikeable characters in the novel are comprehensively upstaged by the Ringworld itself. Brown’s Helix is as imposing an artefact as Niven’s Ringworld but the characterization in his novel is much stronger – even the two-foot-tall ballooning rat!

The Infinity Plus Anthology is a fascinating collection of fantasy and SF shorts by many well-known authors. The rationale behind the collection is that these stories have been chosen by their authors as works that are particularly dear them and deserving to be republished.

And here is something else to watch out for from Solaris: I have just finished copy-editing their New Book of Fantasy (compiled by George Mann). It offers a comprehensive overview of the state of fantasy at the moment, from sword and sorcery to magical realism. My particular favourites are: ‘Grander than the Sea’ by Tim Pratt (not just comic fantasy, but well-structured comic fantasy); ‘Prince of End Times’ by Hal Duncan (I never cease to be amazed by the sheer amount of poetry he can squeeze in to a piece of prose), ‘The Song Her Heart Sang’ by Steven Savile (this is the sort of story that inspires me to get on with my own writing); and ‘Chinandega’ by Lucius Shephard (a searing piece of dystopian magical realism).

11 June 2007

Thunderbird is gone

I have been happily using Thunderbird to deal with my email for the past year or so. However, a couple of weeks ago I discovered that it sometimes loses emails when I move them from one folder to another. A bit of investigation with a text editor revealed that the emails are, in fact, still there. The problem seems to be that Thunderbird's indexing system has lost track of them.

That would be no more than a nuisance if I were simply dealing with personal emails, but a lot of my work comes to me via email so reliability is essential. Clearly Thunderbird is not absolutely reliable, so it had to go.

I really don't have time to learn how to use a completely new email program, so my choice of alternatives was limited to those I have used in the past: Outlook, Outlook Express and Opera. Since I had several thousand emails to export from Thunderbird, Outlook and Outlook Express ruled themselves out by having very inadequate import facilities.

So Thunderbird is gone, and Opera is go. The fact that it also offers an extremely fast web browser, a newsreader, IRC client and BitTorrent client makes Opera almost irresistible. My only niggle is that it is not very good at displaying web pages that have been sloppily coded (i.e. optimized for Internet Explorer).

07 June 2007

An eighth of a million

We took a few days off last week to explore Galloway, particularly the Machars and the Mull. Apart from a spot of rain on the Sunday, we had good weather for the visit, which was just as well: the Machars would be a really bleak spot in bad weather.

The highlight of the visit was certainly our trip to Logan Gardens. Nestled behind an extensive shelter belt, they are exotic sub-tropical gardens containing some really spectacular specimens. One of the most amazing sights there is the Gunnera bog: Gunnera looks vaguely like rhubarb, but much bigger. Even in spring, the plants are a good seven feet tall!

I took the laptop with me in the hope that I would be able to make some progress on the novel. In fact, I did rather well: I managed to add about 6,000 words to my total, taking me over 125,000 words. More importantly, I seem to have broken through the block that has been preventing me from making progress for the past several months. I had been banging my head over how to make a description of a long winter journey interests. The secret was the realization that it would never be interesting and probably wasn’t necessary anyway, so it could simply be omitted. Instead I shifted my attention to the action in a parallel subplot.

30 April 2007

Solveig: A Christian voice in Ibsen?

Before I took part in last week’s performance of Peer Gynt my knowledge of Ibsen was shaped entirely by Hedda Gabler and The Doll’s House. So I came to Peer Gynt expecting more of the same. Imagine my surprise when the climax of the play refused to live up (or down) to my expectations. Instead of the curtain closing on a scene of hopelessness and despair, Solveig’s response to Peer manages to infuse it with a sense of hope and (dare I say it?) redemption.

Peer himself approaches the final scene of the play in despair. All his dreams of worldly success have turned to dust and ashes. He returns at last to Solveig hoping that she will condemn him. When she refuses to do so, he asks her a riddle: ‘Where has Peer Gynt been since last we met? . . . Where was I? Myself – complete and whole?’

Solveig’s answer takes him completely by surprise. ‘In my faith, in my hope, and in my love.’

Her answer took me by surprise as well because of the way it resonates with certain fundamental aspects of a Christian world-view. We are only truly ourselves in our relationships with others. To be human is to be a nexus of personal relationships. ‘We relate, therefore I am.’

Granted this is not an immediately obvious element of Christian thought. Rather it arises out of a relational view of the Trinity such as that developed by the Cappadocian fathers when juxtaposed with the idea that we are made in the image of God (thus made in the image of a God who is one by virtue of being three in relationship).

But in spite of being less than obvious it turns up in some interesting places. For example, Luther defined sin as a state of being incurvatus in se, i.e. being turned in upon oneself. Real life is the opposite of this: a state of being turned outwards towards others, of being in relationship. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?' asked Cain. And, for a Christian like Solveig, the correct answer can only be ‘Yes, I am.’

Or one might think of C. S. Lewis’s reflections on the death of Charles Williams. Lewis felt that it deprived him not only of Williams himself but also of aspects of Tolkien, Barfield, etc. that were only brought out by their relationship with Williams. We are not isolated individuals who can realize our identity apart from others, but social beings who only find our identity in our relationships.

Or again the seventh-century Orthodox theologian Maximus the Confessor built an entire theory of redemption upon the notion that it is about the restoration of broken relationships. To be precise, a fivefold restoration of the relationship between God and humankind, between humankind and nature, between man and man, between man and woman, and between man and himself (and with that last point, possibly anticipating modern psychoanalysis by more than a millennium).

25 April 2007

Peer Gynt

Last Saturday was the RSNO Chorus’s final concert of the 2006–7 season: a performance of Grieg’s complete incidental music for Ibsen’s poem/play Peer Gynt. What set this apart was that the music was performed in the context of an abridged production of the play itself by actors from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

I found the orchestra’s contribution to the evening quite enthralling: no mean feat given the overexposure of so much of the music. Stephane was conducting and as usual his presence seemed to have an inspirational effect on the rest of us. I am reliably informed that the chorus was also very effective (particularly our dramatic appearance for the first time during the scene in the hall of the Mountain King). Much of what we had to do sounded deceptively simple – ascending and descending scales in unison – but the difficulty lay in the relatively complex rhythms and the fact that we were singing in Norwegian (it took us weeks to get the music for the night scene right). To make up for that, we also got to sing one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the entire piece: an unaccompanied Whitsun psalm.

Sitting behind the orchestra meant that we didn’t get the best view of the actors. My impression was that they did pretty well given the difficulty of staging this work. The result was quite pantomime like in places and yet very moving elsewhere. Some aspects of the production did not work particularly well; for example, the silly voices and a mysterious decision to have two actors play the part of Peer.

But those are just quibbles, the evening as a whole was memorable (and the reviewer from The Herald seems to agree (here)).

23 April 2007

Impossible Stories

Another book review of mine has just gone online. This one is of Zoran Zivkovic’s remarkable collection of story cycles, Impossible Stories. You can find it here on the Infinity Plus website.

20 April 2007

A new displacement activity

For various reasons, I have moved my desk from our spare room to our living room. Surprisingly the move has actually turned both rooms into better spaces. However, the living room has much bigger windows than the spare room: windows that look out onto trees that to some extent screen our block of flats from the rest of the city.

Watching the feathered inhabitants of those trees is the new displacement activity of the title. I can resist the temptation well enough when I am working (i.e. meeting deadlines and my obligations to my clients) but the temptation seems stronger when I am trying to make progress on the novel.

Mostly we get the usual garden birds, though the trees do seem to attract the odd treecreeper. And, for some reason, we seem to have more than our fair share of magpies. But the real temptation is to keep an eye open for the most recent residents of the trees on the hillside below us: a pair of sparrowhawks! I didn’t believe it at first, but the other day I got a very clear view of the male, perching on a branch just a few yards away. The female is not so easy to spot – she seems to keep more to the undergrowth – though I did see her just miss a very lucky pigeon a couple of hours after I had definitely identified the male.

06 March 2007

Saturday night

The RSNO was on good form on Saturday night under the baton of Roberto Abbado. A fine performance of Haydn’s 93rd Symphony set the tone for the evening. It was followed by a good rendering of Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto (though I did find myself wondering about the soloist’s tuning once or twice). But the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Purists might complain that because it was orchestrated by Ravel this is not authentic Mussorgsky. But as far as I am concerned it is none the worse for that. In fact, I think Ravel’s orchestration enriches Mussorgsky’s rather austere original. And Abbado’s conducting seemed to bring out every little detail, making it even livelier and more visual than usual. Wonderful!

As a kind of bonus, the skies were clear enough to see the eclipse of the moon on the way home. Not as spectacular as a solar eclipse but still an awe-inspiring event in its own quiet way.

28 February 2007

Too much Christmas pudding

The RSNO’s concert at the Royal Concert Hall last Saturday was rather heavy going. It got off to a good start with a fine performance of Sibelius’s Valse Triste. After that it rapidly went downhill. The next item was Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, which is one of my favourite pieces of music. Unfortunately the conductor (Alexander Lazarev) and soloist (Boris Belkin) failed to do the piece justice. Belkin didn’t so much play his instrument as savage it with his bow. More lyrical virtuosity and less aggression would have suited me better. Interestingly, I am not alone in that assessment. Michael Tumelty, writing in The Herald, suggests that Sibelius’s ghost could be heard wailing over the mistreatment of his music.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Elgar’s Second Symphony. I didn’t know the piece and I didn’t warm to it. For some reason, the phrase ‘overblown Edwardian romanticism’ comes to mind. Someone suggested to me that it was like eating ‘an over-rich Christmas pudding served up with too much double cream’ and we certainly left the concert hall with precisely that feeling of satiation verging on discomfort rather than pleasure.

08 February 2007


Solaris is the new kid in British speculative fiction and from what I’ve seen so far they are set to become a major player in the market. Their first books should be in the bookshops this month and include The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction as a kind of calling card.

I’ve been fortunate enough to get a preview of some of the other books on their schedule. Being a copy-editor does have its compensations – and editing for Solaris is an ideal combination of work and pleasure. So far, I have worked on:

Deadstock by Jeffrey Thomas (due March 2007) is an edgy mixture of cyberpunk, noir thriller and Lovecraftian horror leavened with nice touches of irony and self-referential humour. You can read the first chapter here.

Splinter by Adam Roberts (due September 2007) is a carefully crafted piece of literary science fiction taking Jules Verne’s Off on a Comet as its inspiration. Its three sections are written in past, present and future tenses respectively. I know it sounds unpromising, perhaps even too pretentious for its own good, but Roberts has produced a masterpiece.

Infinity Plus: The Anthology (due August 2007) is a collection of stories chosen by major contributors to the infinity plus website including Stephen Baxter, Mary Gentle, Ian McDonald, Michael Moorcock, Kim Newman, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lucius Shepard, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick and Jeff VanderMeer. I particularly enjoyed Paul Macauley’s ‘The Rift’ and Charlie Stross’s ‘The Bear Trap’ but there is something for everyone here.

Helix by Eric Brown (due June 2007) is a gripping space opera, which begins on an Earth facing runaway global warming and ends on a spiral of interconnected planetoids about 500 light-years away. In their search for a new home the crew of the Lovelock encounter a number of alien species and, on one of the planetoids, find themselves drawn into a confrontation between an oppressive church and individuals seeking rational enlightenment.

The art of complaining

Anyone who has ever had anything to with choirs will know that choir members complain about everything: other choir members, the chorus master, the choice of repertoire, the soloists, the venue, etc. Now a choir from Helsinki has taken complaining to new heights and turned it into an art form:

Lemon-scented sticky bat

In his most recent blog entry (here), Neil Gaiman asks how to get a bat off fly-paper. The answer and the reason for the question are well worth reading (well, I found them amusing!).

24 January 2007

String theory put to the test

I’ve just spotted an interesting piece of physics news. String theory, an esoteric and hitherto untestable attempt to unify the four fundamental forces in physics, may soon become a real scientific theory (in the Popperian sense of being open to falsification). American physicists have used the basic mathematical assumptions in string theory to make some predictions about W boson scattering. This is significant because when the Large Hadron Collider at CERN starts up in the Autumn scientists will be able to test those predictions. We will at last have a better idea of whether or not the current favourite contender as a theory of everything actually works.

Cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of words!

If you’re at a loose end this evening, Word Dogs, the exhibitionist wing of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle will be showing off at The 13th Note, 50–60 King Street from 8.30 p.m. Admission £2 (£1 concessions). As the title suggests, the theme for the evening is havoc. Contributors include Eliza Chan, Michael Collins, Hal Duncan, Mike Gallagher, Mark Harding, Richard Mosses, Phil Raines and Neil Williamson.

Sadly, I won’t be there. Tonight is RSNO Chorus rehearsal night and our next performance is less than a fortnight away, so I have to concentrate on getting my tongue round the Russian text. If you’re interested, the piece we are doing is Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky: Usher Hall, Edinburgh (Friday 2nd February) and Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow (Saturday 3rd February). The Friday night performance is being recorded by the BBC, so if you can’t make it to either venue, you can still hear us on Radio 3 (at some future date).

11 January 2007

Creation but not creationism

A Glasgow branch of Christians in Science is in the process of getting off the ground. Inevitably because of my academic history (astronomy, theology and post-doctoral work on time in theology and physics) I am a part of the process.

Apparently our first task is to put together some kind of position paper on intelligent design. My own take on the subject is that most of the ink spilled in the dispute between creationists and theistic evolutionists has missed the point. The Genesis stories are not a miniature history of the cosmos and the Christian doctrine of creation has more to do with our (and the universe’s) relationship with God than with how we got here. Since I am a theologian rather than a biologist I suspect my role in the discussion will be to remind folk of what the doctrine of creation is actually about.

As it happens, I summarized my take on creation in an article for the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: IVP, 2000):

Introduction: The biblical doctrine of creation at the end of the twentieth century

In the early centuries of Christianity, theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons made extensive use of the doctrine of creation to distinguish orthodox Christianity from various forms of gnosticism. Their success justifies Florovsky's comment that 'an adequate idea of Creation is the distinctive test of the integrity of Christian mind and faith. An inadequate conception of Creation, on the contrary, is inevitably subversive of the whole fabric of Christian beliefs' (Eastern Churches Quarterly 8, p. 54). With the doctrine of the Trinity, creation was a fundamental element in the self-identification of Christians in the religiously plural milieu of the Roman Empire.

However the secular success of Christianity following the conversion of Constantine and the eventual emergence of Christendom meant that creation suffered a similar fate to the doctrine of the Trinity. For much of the past two thousand years, western theologians have tended to regard the doctrine of creation as relatively uncontroversial. Natural theology developed in such a way that creation came to be seen not as a distinctively Christian doctrine but as a commonsense belief that Christians share with others.

Now at the end of the twentieth century, creation is once again high on the theological agenda. Several factors are responsible for the new urgency with which it is treated.

Profound cultural changes have transformed the West since the eighteenth century. The universe as portrayed by modern science is far larger, older and more dynamic than anything that could have been imagined by educated men or women of the sixteenth century. New ways of perceiving the natural world have swept away the older forms of natural theology and have forced theologians to revise their understanding of God's relationship with the world.

The need for renewed attention to the doctrine of creation has been given far greater urgency by the growing awareness of a global environmental crisis. Various explanations have been offered for this crisis. However, many environmentalists regard the biblical doctrine of creation as the ultimate source of Western environmental irresponsibility. Such accusations demand that we look once again at the way we have interpreted the biblical doctrine of creation.

A third factor is the increasing multiculturalism and religious pluralism of Western societies at the end of the twentieth century. The large-scale migrations of different peoples following the end of the Second World War have led to a rapid increase in the cultural and religious diversity of the West. Western Christians once again find themselves in a pluralistic society akin to that of the Roman Empire. And the renewed need to locate Christianity with respect to these other faiths and worldviews suggests that we turn once again to the doctrine of creation as an element in maintaining the distinctiveness of the Christian faith.

Creation in the Old Testament

Inevitably the early chapters of Genesis dominate the biblical doctrine of creation simply by virtue of their location. However, it is certainly not restricted to these chapters. Belief in creation is implicit in many parts of the Old Testament. It informs the concern for the environment demonstrated in parts of the Pentateuch. It underlies the creation imagery used in the Psalms and, indeed, becomes a major theme in several psalms (notably Pss 8, 19, 104, 139, 148). It is assumed in important prophetic passages. And it appears at several points in the wisdom literature (e.g. Job 38-41).

Creation by Word

At eight points in Genesis 1 God speaks creatively: 'And God said, "Let . . ."' (vv. 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). By using speech as a metaphor the biblical authors are indicating that the divine activity of creation is voluntary, effortless and rational. This is in marked contrast to the creation myths of neighbouring cultures, which tended to characterize creation as a process of inevitable struggle and conflict.

God commands and it is so. The very effortlessness of the fulfilment is indicative of God's sovereignty. God is presented as a king issuing broad injunctions rather than as an architect issuing detailed instructions (the favoured image of God as creator in recent centuries). Thus the Genesis account of creation possesses a degree of openness that is missing from the more deterministic readings that have been common in Christian theology.

Creation from Nothing?

It has to be admitted that the Old Testament is less than explicit in its support for the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. The Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1-2 is much less clear than is suggested by most English translations. There is scope for interpreting these verses as speaking of uncreated raw material from which God moulded the heavens and the earth.

Against this view, it is worth noting that the translators of the LXX avoided the use of demiourgos when referring to God as creator. Further, the majority of contemporary Old Testament scholars interpret verse 1 as a principal sentence prefixed to the chapter as a whole (C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11, pp. 94-97). Thus the first verse of the Bible makes an assertion quite unprecedented in ancient Near Eastern literature: it ascribes the entire work of creation exclusively to the one God. While this does not amount to an explicit statement that God created all things from nothing, it does lend support for the later development of such a doctrine as a means of defending divine sovereignty against Hellenistic insistence on the eternity of matter.

Creation, Time and History

Another striking feature of the Genesis account of creation is the priority given to the category of time. Light and darkness are the first of all God's creations because from their alternation flows the temporal succession which is the fundamental context of created reality. That time is, indeed, fundamental to creation is demonstrated by the fact that the activity of creation is placed within a clear temporal sequence.

The pervasive temporality of the biblical doctrine of creation clearly distinguishes it from the cosmological myths of the ancient Near East. In contrast to the essentially atemporal (hence mythological) creation accounts of their contemporaries, the Hebrews worked with an account of God creating the world over a period of seven days, which was clearly intended to be related to subsequent history.

This need not imply that the text be taken literally. Since Augustine, commentators have recognized that the pattern of days in Genesis 1 is a literary device. The number seven occurs repeatedly in the passage – e.g. seven days, seven fulfilment formulae, seven approval formulae – drawing upon its symbolic significance to indicate the completeness, the perfection, of God's creative activity. Nor are the days defined as 24-hour periods.

The effect of this temporal framework is to bind creation and temporality together. God creates time but also creates over a period of time. Creation becomes a process moving towards a goal in time. Thus creation is transferred from the mythological realm of transcendent realities, integrated into history (or, more precisely, pre-history) and the way opened for creation to be seen as continuing in history - justifying the conception of continuing creation that was already an important part of Israelite worship and wisdom.

Creation, Order and Goodness

Again in contrast to the elaborate cosmogonies of the ancient Near East, the Old Testament paints a stark picture of creation as a process of ordering by separation. Creation is thus presented as a differentiated totality (H. Blocher, In The Beginning, p. 71) – its very diversity is part of the process that God declares good. Seven times in the course of Genesis 1 God declares this process of differentiation in response the divine command to be good (vv 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25 and 31). This does not mean that creation is good in itself. Rather, it is a divine judgement about creation. The creature is good by virtue of its standing in appropriate relationship to its creator. Thus the divine sight that enables God to make this judgement is not detached contemplation but active engagement. Bonhoeffer rightly relates this divine act of seeing to the preservation of creation: 'It does not sink back again into the moment of becoming, God sees that it is good and his eye resting upon the work preserves the work in being. . . . The world is preserved not for its own sake but for the sake of the sight of God' (D. Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3 (ET, London, 1959), p. 23).

Belief in this divinely ordained order in creation pervades the Old Testament. While rarely explicit, it was one of the assumptions on which faith in the social order of the Hebrew monarchy was founded. Thus creation imagery is invoked as a guarantee for the social order in Psalms 74, 77 and 89. The prophetic use of creation imagery offers even more striking examples, e.g. in many parts of Isaiah 40—55, the prophetic promise to the exiles is built upon reminders of God's creative activity – if God can bring this cosmic order to be, God can certainly restore order to Judah. The correspondence between cosmic order and social order is also implicit in the Old Testament concept of shalom.

Two often-overlooked features of this judgement are worth noting. In contrast to the anthropocentrism of much of the Christian tradition, the biblical story of creation unequivocally declares non-human creatures to be good without reference to humankind – they have their own place in God's good creation and were not created merely for our benefit. Secondly, the temporal framework of creation is part of that which God judges to be very good. The change, decay and death that are integral to temporal finitude are part of God's good creation and not the consequence of human disobedience. Furthermore, this implies that the divine purpose for creation is worked out in time.

The Pivotal Role of Humankind in the Created Order

Traditional readings of the primeval history stress the special status it appears to confer on humankind. The creation of humankind is seen as the climax of Genesis 1 and this is reinforced by the prior creation of Adam in Genesis 2. God appears to give us a special blessing; we are portrayed as made in the image of God (in contrast to other creatures); and we are given a dominion over the other creatures which is shown to have disastrous implications for them in the Flood story.

The primeval history clearly distinguishes and elevates humankind over the rest of creation. However, several features also stress the intimacy of the relationship between humans and the non-human creation.

First, humankind is created on the same day as the land animals: suggesting a certain kinship. Second, it is simply wrong to regard the creation of humankind as the climax of Genesis 1: that privilege is accorded not to humankind but to the establishment of God's Sabbath communion with creation as a whole. Third, the very fact that the creation of humankind appears in the same passage as the creation of the non-human contrasts with the ancient Near Eastern tendency to separate accounts of cosmic and human origins. Finally, it is not clear that the divine blessing of verse 28a by itself distinguishes humans from the non-human. God has already pronounced a similar blessing upon sea creatures and birds (v. 22) and it is arguable that the blessing of verse 28a is actually inclusive of the land animals created in verses 24 and 25.

This impression of interdependence is further reinforced by the more detailed account of the creation of humankind in Genesis 2. Adam is placed in the garden in order to maintain it. Elsewhere this role is used to distinguish humankind from the rest of creation. For example, Psalm 104 contrasts God's direct provision for non-human creatures with our God-given responsibility to provide for our own needs. However, this distinction is placed in the larger context of a common dependence on God's providential care.

The command to have dominion is closely related to the divine blessing: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ (Gen. 1:28). Many environmentalists see this command as a mandate to trample nature underfoot. However, it is not a carte blanche to exploit the environment. The human race is permitted to subdue the earth, but this is a warrant for agriculture and nothing more. We are given the fruit of the earth to be our food. In Genesis 1, dominion does not even extend to the killing of animals for food (or clothing). The command has the effect of qualifying the divine blessing, transforming it (at least as far as humankind is concerned) into a divine vocation. And that vocation to dominion over nature must be interpreted in terms of the concept of kingship familiar to the ancient Israelites – not absolute monarchy but responsibility for one's subjects.

Judgement and the Reversal of Creation

Adam’s disobedience in Genesis 3 and its ecological consequences highlight the ambivalence of nature that was experienced by the Hebrews (and which is shared by country people to this day). It is to be received gladly as a gift of God, but it is also a place of thorns and thistles, of stinging insects and predatory animals. Above all, it threatens us with personal extinction through disease and natural disaster. Remarkably, this ambivalence is explained not in terms of the recalcitrance of matter but in terms of human disobedience. The disobedience of Adam consisted in his rejection of the divine boundaries placed upon his dominion of the earth. It was thus a rebellion against the good order of creation established by God in Genesis 1.

The result, expressed in terms of divine judgement, is the disruption of the relationships established by God (specifically between God and humankind, between man and woman, and humankind and other creatures). Adam no longer has a harmonious relationship with God, Eve or nature: he has lost his dominion over the earth. Furthermore, there is no way in which he can regain that dominion for himself: he is barred from Eden by the cherubim.

The environmental implications of human disobedience are further highlighted by the Flood narrative. It portrays a world in which the vocation of humankind to be stewards of creation has been supplanted by the quest for autonomy. This quest is characterized by the spread of human violence. However, the unique status of humankind means that this violence corrupts the whole of creation.

Since humans have denied the good order of creation in their quest for self-deification, the form of judgement is appropriately a temporary suspension of that order. There is a virtual return to the initial ‘waste and void’ brought about by the temporary withdrawal of the active divine care implicit in Genesis 1. Indeed the Flood narrative consciously parallels the creation story of Genesis 1, presenting God's judgement as the mirror image of his creative activity.

At the same time, the faithful Noah is called to exercise human dominion over creation precisely in the preservation of representative animals from the judgement that is about to overwhelm the world. However, there is no suggestion that God has abdicated responsibility for the earth to humankind. Although Noah cooperates willingly with the divine plan, the initiative remains firmly with God.

Similar imagery is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to portray divine judgement. It is particularly prominent amongst the pre-exilic prophets. God is presented as revoking or suspending the harmonious order of creation as an act of judgement upon a faithless Israel. This usage reflects the Wisdom tradition of a correspondence between the moral and the natural: disharmony in the former is presented as having serious consequences for the latter. A stark example of this is Isaiah 24:1–13. The prophet envisages the judgement of the Lord in terms of an ecological catastrophe. Similarly Hosea presents a picture of desolation as a direct consequence of human sinfulness: ‘Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying’ (Hos. 4:3). The same theme appears in Zephaniah and frequently in Jeremiah.

The Continuation and Renewal of Creation

The Flood narrative concludes with the establishment of an everlasting covenant between God and the inhabitants of the ark: Noah and his descendants and every living creature. Covenants that include the non-human are a recurring theme in the Old Testament, particularly amongst the prophets (e.g. Hos. 2:18; Jer. 33:20–25; Ezek. 34:25). It is symptomatic of the pervasive anthropocentrism of our culture that so many commentators simply overlook this fact.

What is the content of this covenant? Generally speaking, covenants are ceremonies that give binding expression to relationships that already exist between the covenant partners. Here the relationships that receive formal expression are those that endured through the Flood, including Noah’s care for the animals. The wording of the covenant recalls the divine blessing of chapter 1. But, in addition to the blessing, God now gives an unconditional promise to maintain for all time the basic conditions of order which are a precondition for being able to respond to the blessing.
The Noahic covenant institutionalizes humankind’s alienation from nature by granting us permission to eat flesh. However, it does not constitute a charter to exploit the non-human. On the contrary, the divine prohibition on the drinking of blood may be taken as a reminder that humankind has not been given arbitrary power over other living creatures.

Finally, it should be noted that the issues raised in the primeval history are not settled there. The reality of human violence and the ambivalence of nature carry forward into the patriarchal history and, thence, to the present. What the primeval history leaves us with is the promise residing in the covenant with Noah. The covenant has redemptive implications, which concern not only humankind but the whole of God's creation. It is an everlasting covenant with the non-human as well. The clear implication is that the final consummation of all things concerns the non-human as well as the human.

The covenant with nature instituted at the end of the Flood narrative is echoed elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example, it appears as the positive corollary to prophetic use of the reversal of creation. It reminds the reader that judgement does not result in final destruction. On the contrary, a faithful remnant will be preserved. And, says Yahweh to that remnant, ‘I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground’ (Hos. 2:18, RSV). For Jeremiah the certainty of such promises is based upon the reality of God's prior covenant with the forces of nature (Jer. 33:25). Once again we see how the Israelites interrelated social, moral and ecological orders. The relationships between God and humankind, within humankind, and between humankind and the non-human creation cannot be separated. A failure in any one of these areas implies a breakdown elsewhere.
Perhaps the best-known creation passages in the entire prophetic tradition occur in Isaiah 40—55. There creation imagery is used to express God's promise of redemption to the captives in Babylon. The less certain is guaranteed by the more certain. The very use of such imagery implies an existing faith in a God who created and sustains the natural world. Without such a faith, Isaiah's promises of redemption would be incomprehensible.

But the Old Testament indicates a redemption for the non-human creation as well as the faithful remnant. The writers of the Old Testament simply cannot envisage an immaterial eschaton. Thus creation figures clearly in their eschatological vision. The remnant share the eschatological Sabbath with the non-human – and that sharing is prefigured in the respect for the non-human displayed by the sabbatical laws (Exod. 20:8–11, 23:10–13; Lev. 25:8–55; Jub. 2:19–24).

Creation in the New Testament

By and large, the New Testament inherits and reaffirms the view of creation presented by the Old Testament. Thus at several points we are reminded that creation took place by the will and word of God (e.g. Rom. 4:17; Heb. 1:3, 11:3; Rev. 4:11). However, much of the evidence for New Testament perspectives on creation is implicit rather than explicit. Thus, for example, Jesus illustrates his admonition not to worry with reference to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (Mt. 7:25–34). This is not an assertion of God’s care for creation but it is built upon the assumption that God cares even for the lowliest sparrow (Lk. 12:6).

Christ and Creation

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament’s view of creation is thoroughly theocentric. But this very theocentricity entails a transformation of the Old Testament doctrine. That Jesus Christ is the centre of history implies that he is also the centre of creation. The biblical texts do not recognize the modern distinction that separates history from nature. His significance for creation is implicit in the creative power demonstrated in many of his miracles. Healing the sick, raising the dead, stilling storms – all these show Jesus restoring order and harmony to human bodies or natural systems that have become disordered.

Christ’s significance for creation becomes explicit in the Prologue to John’s Gospel. It is none other than the word by which God created that has become incarnate as Jesus Christ (Jn 1:14). He is the agent of creation and the source of life (Jn 1:4) and thus involved not only in the original creative act but intimately associated with God's continuing providential care for creation.

Perhaps the most explicit statement of this Christological transformation of creation is the hymn fragment cited in Colossians 1. It begins by claiming that Jesus Christ ‘is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ (v. 15). Both titles offer us perspectives on the relationship between creation and redemption.

As the image of God, Jesus Christ is the point of contact between the Creator and his creation. He is the one who reveals God to creation and, as such, is naturally associated with the creator rather than the creation. Any suggestion that he is in some respect inferior to the creator (e.g. merely the visible image of God) is ruled out by the synonymous parallelism with ‘firstborn’. The latter term, which expresses the concept of pre-existence, is characteristically Jewish and ascribes to Jesus Christ the role reserved in pre-Christian Judaism for divine wisdom (e.g. Wisd. 9:4,9; Prov. 8:22; Sir. 1:4, 24:9).

Since Jesus Christ is the image of God, the restoration of the image of God in humankind becomes part of the Christian vocation: we are called to be conformed to Christ, the paradigmatic image of God. At the same time the close connection made in the Old Testament between the divine image and humankind’s dominion over the material creation means that the latter concept must undergo a similar transformation – the only dominion open to the Christian is that exercised by Christ, a dominion consisting of humble service. Thus the New Testament radicalizes the servanthood already implicit in the Old Testament notion of dominion.

In expounding ‘firstborn’, the subsequent verses present Christ as the agent of God’s creative activity – all things were created through him. Furthermore, they present Christ as the frame of reference for creation – all things were created in him, i.e. with reference to or in relation to him. In other words, Christ is the context of creation.

The passage goes on to refer not only the origins of the cosmos but also its goal to Christ. All things were created for him, i.e. to be subject to and to glorify him. The cosmos is envisaged as in movement towards its eschatological end, namely, Jesus Christ.

In expanding on the creative agency of Christ, verse 17 adds that ‘in him all things hold together’. The use of the perfect tense here makes it clear that a reference to a continuing activity is meant. Put another way, all things continue and cohere in Christ. He is the sole basis of unity and purpose in the cosmos. Again the hymn has substituted Jesus Christ for divine wisdom: he becomes the personal basis of unity which allowed the Hebrews to discern a real correspondence between the moral and natural orders. He is the foundation upon which God has established the earth. Indeed for Christian theology the very notion of ‘cosmos’ must be Christocentric (i.e. it must be defined with reference to Christ as its basis). By thus making Christ the basis of the order of nature this passage appropriates to Christ the creative activity of ordering the cosmos which we noted in both the primeval history and Psalm 104. In other words his role in creation is by no means limited to creatio ex nihilo but includes the continuing maintenance of the cosmic order. Thus Christ is also presented as the divine agent of the preservation of the cosmos.

The Christocentric nature of the New Testament view of creation has important implications for any contemporary theology of creation. It provides a theological rationale for once again treating creation as a central and distinctively Christian doctrine. Thus it leaves no place for an autonomous natural theology within the framework of Christian dogmatics.

Creation and Renewal

As the centre of history, Christ holds out the promise of a new future. Thus, since he is also the centre of creation, it is natural for New Testament writers to express this a promise of a new creation. Because they associate this new creation closely with the life of the believer, both individually and in community, It is tempting to interpret this New Testament promise in purely anthropocentric terms. However, the cosmic scope of Christ's renewing activity is further underlined by a well-known passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans – Rom 8:18–25.

Paul’s use of ‘creation’ in this passage has been interpreted in many different ways. However, the involuntary nature of the bondage to which he refers (v. 20) suggests that any interpretation including the angelic and/or human dimensions of creation must be ruled out. We must conclude that ktisis is intended to denote the nonhuman created order.

This interpretation of ktisis leads to the strange image of nature suffering. Even more bizarre, nature itself is looking forward eagerly to an eschaton which will, amongst other things, mark an end to its bondage.

What does Paul mean when he speaks of the subjection of nature to ‘futility’? Mataiotes stands in contrast to telos and means emptiness, futility, meaninglessness, lack of purpose. It is the Septuagint’s translation of hebel or vanity (e.g. Ecc. 1:2). Here, it appears to be synonymous with ‘bondage to decay’ (v. 21). With its reference to ‘groaning and travailing’, the passage clearly points us to Genesis 3 for an explanation of this term. Thus it seems likely that creation’s inability to achieve its telos, to fulfil the purpose of its existence is a direct result of the disorder envisaged in Gen. 3:17.

If this is the case, the one who subjected it in hope must be God. However, the responsibility for this state lies firmly with humankind: our place in the created order is such that our disobedience brings with it ecological consequences. Paul does not teach that nature is in itself fallen, rather its telos is inextricably bound up with the destiny of humankind. Our disobedience prevents the natural order from achieving its goal: creation ‘is cheated of its true fulfilment so long as man, the chief actor in the drama of God's praise, fails to contribute his rational part’ (C. E. B. Cranfield, ‘Some Observations on Romans 8.19-21’ in R. Banks (ed.), Reconciliation and Hope: The Leon Morris Festschrift (Exeter, 1974), p. 227).

In spite of this assessment of the cosmic repercussions of evil, Paul emphasizes that this divine subjection does not exclude hope from creation. On the contrary, the subhuman creation was subjected ‘in hope’. The present suffering of creation is a ‘groaning and travailing’: it represents the birth pangs that will ultimately give way to joy and fulfilment. Paul sees Christ’s redemptive activity as effecting not just the reconciliation of humanity with God but, through that, also the consummation of the entire created order. The non-human part of creation is not merely a backdrop to the human drama of salvation history but is itself able to share in the ‘glorious liberty’ which Paul envisages for the covenant community. What we have here is a Christological and pneumatological (and, hence Trinitarian) transformation of the Old Testament concept of the dominium terrae.

This hope for the whole of creation is graphically portrayed by the apocalyptic vision of the Book of Revelation. Rather than a spiritual eschaton, John promises a new heaven and a new earth. This typically Jewish idiom clearly indicates that the transformation and renewal of creation as a whole is intended. Even when he changes his imagery to that of a city, the non-human creation is still represented. The heavenly Jerusalem is no work of humankind standing over against an alien wilderness. Rather his portrayal of the city as having a garden at its centre (a renewed Eden once again open to human kind) reveals it is a divine city reconciling the human and the natural.


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