30 December 2008

Through 2009 with John Calvin

Next year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin and to mark the occasion Princeton Theological Seminary is inviting Christians around the world to read through his Institutes of the Christian Religion in the course of the year. And to make the challenge a little bit easier, they will be dividing the standard English translation into daily portions, which will be available by RSS feed. (More information here.)

I have to confess that I have never read The Institutes in their entirety in spite of the fact that one of the chapters of my PhD thesis focused on Calvin. So I am looking forward to adding this to my daily routine.

24 December 2008

Ero cras

O Emmanuel
O Rex gentium
O Oriens

O Clavis David
O Radix Jesse
O Adonai
O Sapientia
Ero cras: Tomorrow, I will come.

23 December 2008

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel our King and law-giver, for whom the nations wait, O Saviour of all people: Come, Lord our God, and save us.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Psalm 46.7)

the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.14)
Emmanuel – God with us – the radical fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament: a divine Messiah. Though the promises all refer to and fit Jesus, the Messiah expected by the Israelites was not divine; a great human general, yes and in some traditions a supernatural angelic being, but not God himself. In their view, no one could be literally divine, really the Son of God. Their expectation of a saving ruler did not assume that God would share His very nature and essence with the Anointed One.

Emmanuel means something entirely new and unexpected: incarnation, God with us, sharing every hardship of humanity in His own flesh, dwelling not in a Temple spiritually, but as flesh and blood among humanity, wishing to remain with us until the end of time. This is a dramatic contrast to the affection, yet distance with which the Lord was regarded in the Old Testament.

In the prayer, we ask him to save us. In Greek and Latin the word for salvation is closely related to the word for health. When Jesus says to the woman with the haemmorhage, ‘your faith has made you whole’, it could equally well be translated ‘your faith has saved you’. When we ask for salvation we are not just looking for pie in the sky when we die. It also involves a measure of healing and wholeness now – greater well-being of body, mind, and spirit – leading ultimately to being made perfect, fully whole and sound: something only God can do!

Lastly, the prayer and thus the entire set of antiphons closes by directly calling Jesus ‘our Lord and our God’: the crowning acclamation of faith after a long season of expectation.
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us, Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

22 December 2008

O Rex gentium

O King of all nations, Lord for whom they long, O Cornerstone that binds in one Jew and Gentile: Come and save mankind, save the men and women you have moulded from the earth.
To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7.14)

you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2.19, 20)
Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed. (Revelation 15.3, 4)
Just as Christ has broken down the walls dividing us from the Father, so is He also the cause and source of our unity with all humanity. This is a very Pauline view, expressed for example in Galatians 3.29: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female; for all of you one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, you are the issue of Abraham and so heirs by promise.’ Here we see not only the wall dividing Jew and Gentile torn down, but even the customary way of becoming Jews and heirs to the promise overthrown. No Jewish male could confer membership in Israel. It travelled through the mother. But now instead it is Jesus who makes us heirs of the promise. He unites all in a new dispensation, one which supersedes the old.

The Church, in its delight that the Messiah has come, often forgets that it, too, must wait for the fulfilment of the promise and that the waiting is terrible, painful frustration. One of the points of Advent is precisely to remind us that we are still on the way. No one can read that quotation from Galatians and smugly assume that we have arrived. Anti-Semitism, racism of all kinds, religious intolerance, misogyny, unthinking hatred of sexual minorities too often colour our world and our Church.

On the other hand, all that we need for the fulfilment of the promise is already in place. These changes have already been effected, perfectly, in Christ. Christ has already broken down these barriers on the cross. That is the reality. All that stands in the way of its fulfilment is our unbelief.
O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

21 December 2008

O Oriens

O Morning Star, O radiance of the everlasting Light, O sun of righteousness: Come, shed your light on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58.8)

for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. (Malachi 4.2)
It is surely no coincidence that this antiphon was appointed to be sung at evensong on 21st December. What better day than the winter solstice to focus on the image of Christ as the rising sun? As the natural sun is setting on the shortest day of the year, the Sun of righteousness, who will never diminish, is proclaimed.

The message today is the end of darkness, the end of shadow, the end of death. The Messiah, the Sun of Righteousness, the Second Person of the Trinity who is truly ‘Light from Light’ has dispelled them all.

Those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death are not just a group of outsiders. There are many dark shadows in our own souls. With this prayer we invite the Sun to illuminate even those recesses, to leave us no place to hide from Him in the damp and chill of selfishness.
Paradiso XXX:61
First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced
The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.
Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace
In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream
For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”

20 December 2008

O Clavis David

O Key of David, Sceptre of the House of Israel, what you close none shall open, what you open none shall close: Come, lead forth from prison those who lie in chains, who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9.6)

I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. (Isaiah 22.22)

These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens: ‘I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.’ (Revelation 3.7, 8)

As the Key of David, Jesus has the authority to open the door for us to infinite possibilities. Thus this antiphon asks him to open the door of our self-made prisons of darkness and unlock the chains of sin and death that bind us still. And if he opens, none may close. Once he has freed us from sin and death, from the various prisons of darkness we languish in, none may send us back there, save ourselves alone.

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key;
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard.
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free.

19 December 2008

O Radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse, standing like a banner before the nations, in whose presence kings fall silent, whose praise all peoples shall sing: Come, set us free, do not delay.

In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit. (Isaiah 27.6)

The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope. (Romans 15.12)

Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ (Revelation 5.5)
The Root of Jesse: all that remained of the once-powerful Kingdom of Judah; a promise nurtured by the hopes of the Israelites during centuries of oppression. They expected a new Davidic king, a charismatic general who would lead them to victory over their oppressors.

Enter Jesus: child of an unmarried mother engaged to a carpenter, born in a stable, soon to be a refugee in Egypt, destined to become an itinerant preacher and be executed for blasphemy and treason. Hardly the victorious leader expected by the Jews of his day, but this is the paradox of the gospel: the apparent weakness, smallness and vulnerability of a new shoot is the embodiment of the greatest power imaginable.
All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.


The latest version of yWriter has gone public at last. For anyone who doesn’t know it, this is a free outlining program for novelists written by an Australian SF author and computer programmer. I have been using earlier versions of it for a couple of years now and have been looking forward to its latest incarnation for some time. (For my initial impressions of yWriter, see this entry.)

18 December 2008

O Adonai

O Adonai, O Prince of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and delivered to him the law on Sinai: Come, deliver us with outstretched arm.

the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us. (Isaiah 33.22)

I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. (Isaiah 42.8)

Adonai is the Hebrew word meaning ‘Lord’, which Jews traditionally substitute for the divine name when reading the Old Testament. Here it is applied to Jesus, implying that Jesus is the God of the Covenant. In Greek, Adonai became Kurios: a title with great political significance in first-century Palestine. Only Caesar was Kurios. To say, ‘No. Jesus is Kurios, is Lord’ is to say both that he is God and that none of the powers of this world are worthy of our ultimate allegiance. It is to say that our allegiance to him takes priority over our allegiance to any nation, ethnic group, political party or cause.

According to the antiphon, it was this Adonai – Jesus – who spoke to Moses in the burning bush, and who gave the Law on Mt Sinai.

Finally the image of the outstretched arm again identifies the Messiah with God. St Irenaeus spoke of Jesus and the Holy Spirit as the two hands of God, but the image goes back to the Old Testament. With ‘outstretched arm’ God showed his power and might, led his people out of Egypt, and delivered them from dangers.
Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue
Unseeable, you gave yourself away,
The Adonai, the Tetragrammaton
Grew by a wayside in the light of day.
O you who dared to be a tribal God,
To own a language, people and a place,
Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,
If so you might be met with face to face,
Come to us here, who would not find you there,
Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,
Who heard no more than thunder in the air,
Who marked the mere events and not the myth.
Touch the bare branches of our unbelief
And blaze again like fire in every leaf.

17 December 2008

O Sapientia

O Wisdom coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, and stretching from end to end of creation, setting all things in order with strong and gentle hand: Come and teach us the path of true judgement.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.(Proverbs 1.7)

He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ (1 Corinthians 1.30, 31)

In the Old Testament Wisdom is presented as a divine attribute, often personified as the beloved daughter who was with God before creation. She is the breath of God’s power; the shining of God’s (transforming) glory: images that are often applied to the Holy Spirit.

By addressing Jesus in these terms, this antiphon recalls the opening of John’s Gospel where he is presented as the divine Logos, the Word/thought/reason of God, who is intimately involved in creation; the one who sets ‘all things in order with strong and gentle hand’. If God can be said to have had a blueprint for creation, that blueprint was Christ.

And in response to this affirmation of Christ as the Wisdom of God, the antiphon concludes with the petition, ‘Come and teach us the path of true judgement.’ It recognizes that genuine human wisdom is rooted in the terrifying but fascinating mystery of God.

I cannot think unless I have been thought
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken
I cannot teach except as I am taught
Or break the bread except as I am broken.
O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O Light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me
O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me
O Memory of time, reminding me
My Ground of Being, always grounding me
My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring
Come to me now, disguised as everything.

The O antiphons

The O antiphons are a set of short prayers traditionally sung before and after the Magnificat during the week before Christmas. The antiphons are based on seven scriptural titles of the Messiah and gradually build up a picture of the one who is to come.

This year they were the theme of our diocesan Advent quiet day and it occurred to me that I could use this blog to make some of my notes for the quiet day available during the period when the antiphons would normally be in use. If time permits, I plan to post one each day between now and Christmas Eve.

It is also an opportunity to share a series of thought-provoking poems written by Malcolm Guite reflecting on the antiphons. Malcolm is Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge. He is also a poet, rock musician, biker and expert on Dante. You can find out more about him and his work at his website.

12 December 2008

New look

As you can see, I have given the blog a bit of a makeover. I finally got fed up with the old template’s apparent inability to display numbered lists properly. Anyway, I hope you like the new minimalist look.

11 December 2008

Theology in the twenty-first century

Yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of the death of Karl Barth, arguably the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. Since his death, there has grown up an enormous ‘Barth studies’ industry among systematic theologians. Precisely what Barth himself would have made of that is summed up nicely in the following: ‘The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. . . . and they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.’

As it happens, I started reading David Ford’s Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love last night. In his introduction, he offers a list of twelve theses outlining the main elements of what theology should be like today:
  1. God is the One who blesses and loves in wisdom.
  2. Theology is done for God’s sake and for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
  3. Prayer is the beginning, accompaniment and end of theology: Come, Holy Spirit! Hallelujah! and Maranatha!
  4. Study of scripture is at the heart of theology.
  5. Describing reality in the light of God is a basic theological discipline.
  6. Theology hopes in and seeks God’s purposes while immersed in the contingencies, complexities and ambiguities of creation and history.
  7. Theological wisdom seeks to do justice to many contexts, levels, voices, moods, genres, systems and responsibilities.
  8. Theology is practised collegially, in conversation and, best of all, in friendship; and, through the communion of saints, it is simultaneously premodern, modern and postmodern.
  9. Theology is a broker of the arts, humanities, sciences and common sense for the sake of a wisdom that affirms, critiques and transforms each of them.
  10. Our religious and secular world needs theology with religious studies in its schools and universities.
  11. Conversation around scriptures is at the heart of interfaith relations.
  12. Theology is for all who desire to think about God and about reality in relation to God.
I think ‘old Karl’ would have approved.

03 December 2008

Some classic insults

One of my fellow editors has just posted a list of classic insults on SfEPLine (the Yahoo Group for professional editors and proofreaders). Some of them are pretty good:

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." - William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway).

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?" - Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it." - Moses Hadas

The exchange between Churchill & Lady Astor: She said, "If you were my husband I'd give you poison," and he said, "If you were my wife, I'd drink it."

A member of Parliament to Disraeli: "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease." "That depends, Sir," said Disraeli, "on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

"He had delusions of adequacy." - Walter Kerr

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." - Winston Churchill

"A modest little person, with much to be modest about." - Winston Churchill

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure." Clarence Darrow

"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know." - Abraham Lincoln

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." - Mark Twain

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends." - Oscar Wilde

"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend.... if you have one." - George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill
"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is one." - Winston Churchill, in response.

"I feel so miserable without you; it's almost like having you here." - Stephen Bishop

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator." - John Bright

"He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others." - Samuel Johnson

"There's nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won't cure." Jack E. Leonard

"He has the attention span of a lightning bolt." - Robert Redford

"In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily." - Charles, Count Talleyrand

"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?" - Mark Twain

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork." - Mae West

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go." - Oscar Wilde

"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts... for support rather than illumination." - Andrew Lang (1844-1912)

"He has Van Gogh's ear for music." - Billy Wilder

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening but this wasn't it." - Groucho Marx

01 December 2008

Word Dogs VI

Word Dogs will be biting the hand that feeds it again on Wednesday 3rd December. The sixth outing of the Glasgow spoken word writers event begins at 8 p.m. in the 13th Note (opposite King Street car park in Glasgow city centre).

The theme this time is Invasion and the line-up will include Michael Collins, Ian Hunter, Gavin Inglis, Duncan Lunan, Kevin McCabe, Richard Mosses, and Phil Raines. Sounds like fun.

20 November 2008

How to win a Nobel Prize

Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics, has some interesting advice on his website for anyone embarking on a piece of research.
  1. Listen to the Gentiles: Read outside your discipline. In his own words, ‘Pay attention to what intelligent people are saying, even if they do not have your customs or speak your analytical language.’
  2. Question the question: The questions asked in any academic discipline are theory laden. There is no such thing as a bare fact in any subject. Everything is affected by the presuppositions of the discipline, so Krugman quite rightly advocates paying critical attention to those presuppositions.
  3. Dare to be silly: Don’t be content with the safe and the familiar. Dare to strike out into uncharted territory.
  4. Simplify, simplify: Keep shaving with Ockham’s razor. Personally, I like A.N. Whitehead’s approach: ‘seek simplicity, but distrust it’. Or, to paraphrase Einstein, theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

18 November 2008


The New Scientist has a special feature on science fiction. Marcus Chown asks the inevitable question: Does science fiction have a future? And gives the inevitable answer. The feature also includes short pieces by major SF authors including Bill Gibson, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson on the future of SF and a series of short books reviews. Some tasters:

Ursula Le Guin:
‘The distinction between science fiction and realism was never as clear as the genre snobs wanted it to be. I rejoice to think that both terms are already largely historical; they are moulds from which literature is breaking free, as it always does, to find new forms.’

Bill Gibson:
‘“Earth is the alien planet”, . . . the future is pretty much now. Outer space (as far as science fiction went) became metaphorical. Became inner space.’

03 November 2008

World Fantasy Awards 2008

The World Fantasy Awards 2008 have just been announced (results here). Sadly none of the Glasgow SF writers have been honoured (this time). However, I was pleased to see one of my favourite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, win the best novel category with Ysabel. And Pete Crowther won a well-deserved special award for PS Publishing.

28 October 2008

Career Novelist

I have just downloaded Career Novelist by the literary agent Donald Maass from his agency’s website. My first impression is that it is probably essential reading for would-be novelists. Thanks to Gary Gibson for pointing me in the right direction.

The Canadian SF author Robert Sawyer reckons this book is one of four must-read books for fiction writers. I would certainly agree about the two Orson Scott Card books he mentions and I would add a fifth: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande is an inspirational book, which never fails to enthuse me about writing whenever I re-read it.

22 October 2008

New Scientist; old news

The New Scientist has a special report this week on how our economy is destroying the earth. In their own words:
Consumption of resources is rising rapidly, biodiversity is plummeting and just about every measure shows humans affecting Earth on a vast scale. Most of us accept the need for a more sustainable way to live, by reducing carbon emissions, developing renewable technology and increasing energy efficiency.
But are these efforts to save the planet doomed? A growing band of experts are looking at figures like these and arguing that personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is built on the assumption of growth.

So what’s new? More than three decades ago, the Club of Rome report Limits to Growth pointed out very clearly that an economic system based on the assumption of growth is ultimately unsustainable in a finite world.

20 October 2008

Half a civilization

The International Journal of Astrobiology has just accepted an interesting paper entitled ‘A Numerical Testbed for Hypotheses of Extraterrestrial Life and Intelligence’ by Duncan Forgan of the Institute for Astronomy in Edinburgh. In the paper, Forgan applies modern estimates to the parameters in the Drake Equation and uses a Monte Carlo method to simulate many times over the number of civilizations that may have appeared in the galaxy. Using the resulting statistics, he has calculated an average value and a standard deviation for the number of advanced civilisations in our galaxy. What is more, he has been able to compare results for three different models of civilisation creation:
  1. Panspermia: Life evolves on one planet, but is able to spread to others in a system. Forgan’s method predicts 37964.97 advanced civilisations in our galaxy with a standard deviation of 20 for this hypothesis.

  2. The rare-life hypothesis: Earth-like planets are rare, but intelligent life is quite likely to emerge on them: 361.2 advanced civilisations with a standard deviation of 2.

  3. The tortoise and hare hypothesis: Earth-like planets are common, but the emergence of intelligent life is unlikely: 31573.52 with a standard deviation of 20.
Interesting results, but as Forgan points out in the conclusion to his paper, this method still suffers from the ‘garbage in—garbage out’ problem.

16 October 2008

Non-violence is the new terrorism

As far as the State of Maryland is concerned, this is the new face of terrorism.

According to The Washington Times:

BALTIMORE | For decades, Sister Carol Gilbert and Sister Ardeth Platte have practiced their Roman Catholic faith with an unwavering focus on world peace. Their antiwar activities even landed them in federal prison earlier this decade for trespassing onto a military base and pouring blood onto a nuclear missile silo.

Now they face fresh infamy as two nuns secretly branded by Maryland State Police as terrorists and placed on a national watch list.

"This term terrorist is a really serious accusation," Sister Ardeth, a nun for 54 years, told The Washington Times on Thursday in the first interview that the women have given since being informed they were among 53 people added to a terrorist watch list in conjunction with an extensive Maryland surveillance effort of antiwar activists.

"There is no way that we ever want to be identified as terrorists. We are nonviolent. We are faith-based," she said. . . .

What kind of society regards non-violent protest as terrorism?

07 October 2008

Testing for many worlds

Some interesting news from the physics arXiv blog: Frank Tipler has suggested a simple experiment to distinguish between the many-worlds and the Copenhagen interpretations of quantum mechanics. He argues that the interference pattern created when photons are fired one by one at a simple double slit should form more quickly if the many-worlds interpretation is correct. If his reasoning is correct, one of the most intractable problems of twentieth-century physics could soon have a clear answer.

02 October 2008


Eamonn’s comment on my last entry got me thinking about speed. Far from allowing us to take the time to do things properly, much of modern life (even the academic life) is conducted at breakneck speed dictated by others. You know you’re not in control when someone hands you a tight deadline; or that hospital appointment you’ve been waiting for turns up and forces you to rearrange your week; or you are forced to queue for hours to go through passport control or speak to a bureaucrat; or someone cancels your train/plane.

In our society, the ones with the power are the ones who can force you to slow down or speed up. More generally, power belongs to those who control the speed at which things happen.

By a happy coincidence, an article I was editing this morning contained the following quotation from Paul Virilio:

‘Every society is founded on a relation of speed. Every society is dromocratic. If you take Athenian society, you’ll notice that at the top there’s the hierarch, in other words the one who can charter a trireme. Then there’s the horseman—the one who can charter a horse, to use naval language. After that, there’s the hoplite, who can get ready for war, “arm himself”—in the odd sense that the word armament has both a naval and a martial connotation—with his spears and his shield as a vector of combat. And finally, there’s the free man and the slave who only have the possibilities of hiring themselves out or being enlisted as energy in the war-machine—the rowers. In this system (which also existed in Rome with the cavalry), he who has the speed has the power. And he has the power because he is able to acquire the means, the money. The Roman horsemen were the bankers of Roman society. The one who goes the fastest possesses the ability to collect taxes, the ability to conquer, and through that to inherit the right of exploiting society.’ (Virilio and Lotringer, Pure War. Translated by M. Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e). 1997, pp. 49-50)

30 September 2008

Words of comfort

Neil Gaiman has recently been interviewed over at Goodreads. Among other things, he says the following about his most recent book:

I had that idea when I was 24 years old. I sat down and tried writing it and thought, "This is a really good idea, and this isn't very good writing. I'm not good enough for this yet, and I will put it off until I'm better."

And I'm glad I waited. I think it's a better book than I set out to write 23 years ago, and I feel like the gods smiled on me, and I got very lucky. Normally, in anything I do, I'm fairly miserable. I do it, and I get grumpy because there is a huge, vast gulf, this aching disparity, between the platonic ideal of the project that was living in my head, and the small, sad, wizened, shaking, squeaking thing that I actually produce. And then there is The Graveyard Book, which is, I think, the first time I've felt really satisfied.

Having spent the best part of a decade trying to write a novel that would do some justice to the idea that inspired it, I found those words very comforting. Contrary to one of the central myths of our society, some things take time. The book written to the publisher's deadline is more likely to be a 'small, sad, wizened, shaking, squeaking thing' than the book that is allowed to come to birth naturally.

20 September 2008

Meanwhile . . . some humour

The past two or three weeks seem to have gone by in a blur of activity. Perhaps more on that later . . . meanwhile here is a piece of theological humour from Theommentary:

The Ultimate Comprehensive Exam in Theology (may also be used as a General Ordination Exam)

1. Summarize Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae in three succinct sentences. You may use your Bible.

2. Irenaeus, Pope Clement VII and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not contemporaries. Had they known each other, how might the history of the Reformation have turned out differently?

3. Devise an ethical system that would satisfy Anabaptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Fundamentalists, and the entire population of Ancient Rome, ca. 3rd century BC.

4. Memorize the Greek NT according to the NA27 and the Textus Receptus texts, recite both, and provide an apologetic for the superiority of one version over the other.

5. Imagine you have the stigmata. Would it affect your productivity in sermon preparation? Would you still be admitted into fine restaurants? Would it be covered by your medical insurance, or should it constitute a pre-existent condition?

6. What would it mean to be eternal, co-eternal, and non-existent all at once?

7. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo decide to rob a bank. The note to the teller is 1,200 pages long, not counting footnotes, complete with a promise of damnation if the teller does not accept immediate Baptism. In the middle of the heist, they engage in an extended debate as to whether or not the money really exists. Are they committing a mortal or a venial sin?

8. Speculate on what the current status of salvation history might have been if Abraham had just stayed in Ur. You have 2 pages.

9. Define God. Use examples if necessary.

10. Provide a compelling resolution to the infralapsarian/supralapsarian debate. You may use your Bible, but not Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Bonus question

11. Hymns or choruses? Provide an answer that will persuade all parties and all generations.

04 September 2008

Engaging Deconstructive Theology: a review

A review of Ronald Michener’s Engaging Deconstructive Theology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007) for ESSSAT News:

‘If Christians are to continue to communicate and incarnate the gospel in a world with postmodern assumptions, then they must seek to understand their culture and seek relevancy’ (p. 7). This is Ronald Michener’s starting point for an exploration of what he calls deconstructive theology with a view to developing insights that might make Christian apologetics more relevant to postmodern culture.

In his introduction Michener acknowledges the intellectual and cultural diversity of the postmodern phenomenon. Clearly it would be impossible to treat the entire spectrum of postmodernism adequately in a single volume. Michener opts instead to focus on what he sees as the most radical intellectual strand of postmodernism: deconstructionism. Having set the boundaries of his study, he proceeds in Chapter 2 to offer a very sketchy outline of the historical context of deconstructionism, focusing on its intellectual forebears from Francis Bacon to Claude Lévi-Strauss, before offering a brief introduction to the deconstructionist programme.

Part II of the book offers an account of the ‘holy trinity’ of deconstructionism: Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault. The three chapters in this part provide useful but inevitably brief introductions to their thought. Michener’s main aim here is to identify themes in their work that are relevant to the task he has set himself. Among the themes he highlights are Lyotard’s scepticism with respect to metanarratives and Foucault’s rejection of the Enlightenment self. Most of the space in this part is devoted to Derrida. Picking up on hints in Derrida’s work, Michener suggests that deconstruction does not amount to the destruction of theology. Rather Derrida’s goal is destabilize or subvert the traditional metaphysics that is so closely wedded to Western theology. Thus deconstruction can be seen as a new via negativa. Michener is even prepared to recontextualize Derrida’s notion of the ‘messianic’.

Parts III and IV turn to the effect of this on two American academics (Mark Taylor and Richard Rorty) and one British theologian (Don Cupitt) whose writings have had an impact on recent theology in the English-speaking world. These chapters follow the same pattern as those in Part II: a brief introduction to their thought followed by a teasing out of various themes that are relevant to the challenge of developing a Christian apologetic for a postmodern context. Again he finds concepts that can be appropriated by a postmodern Christian theology, for example, Taylor’s notion of ‘mazing grace’ and Cupitt’s ‘solar living’ and ‘poetical theology’.

With Part V we arrive at the real heart of the book: the development of an apologetic methodology in view of the deconstructionist concerns highlighted in Parts II to IV. Chapter 9 deals with some methodological preliminaries, highlighting the inadequacy of some current apologetic methodologies and indicating what those deconstructionist concerns require of a postmodern apologetic. Specifically, such an apologetic must be post-individualistic, post-rationalistic, post-dualistic and post-noeticentric (by which he means shifting away from knowledge to wisdom). In the next chapter he turns to Scripture, with an examination of the beginnings of Christianity in the book of Acts in the light of deconstructionist concerns. Michener is concerned to present the gospel as a non-totalizing metanarrative (i.e. one that does not fall foul of postmodern scepticism). The early Christian community as it appears in Acts is heterogeneous: open, multicultural and pluralistic. And St Paul provides us with an apologetic model that majors on listening and dialogue.

That last point is developed further in Chapter 11, ‘Apologetic Engagement and Dialogue’. Michener stresses the importance of being a good listener. He is even prepared to speak of atheism as being ‘prophetic’ for those prepared to listen well. This leads him in to a discussion of what is involved in a critical reappropriation of deconstructionist concerns, providing the theoretical underpinning for the examples of reappropriation earlier in the book.

If Michener were to stop at this point, his contribution would be just one more rationalistic approach to apologetics. However, he is not content to leave it here and moves on in Chapter 12 to explore the ‘Apologetic Imagination’. It is his contention that imagination, myth and story have a powerful role to play in apologetic dialogue. His role model for this change in apologetic strategy is the literary scholar and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, perhaps a surprising choice given his intention to engage with deconstructionism/postmodernity. In this chapter, Michener also explores the place of hope in Christian apologetics.

Finally Michener takes up the question of foundationalism. Postmodernism is notoriously resistant to any suggestion that our beliefs can have any indubitable grounding. By contrast, much Christian apologetics (at least since the Enlightenment) has taken such foundations for granted. Is it possible to develop a Christian apologetic that can engage constructively with the anti-foundationalism of the deconstructionists? Michener proposes what he describes as a soft foundationalism: he accepts the postmodern critique of classical foundationalism but does not want to give in to complete scepticism. Certainty about religious beliefs is not possible, but neither is it necessary. He wants to speak instead of provisional beliefs, which cohere together into a ‘belief mosaic’ that is open to continual testing, reinterpretation and recontextualization. Furthermore, this gathering of truth is eschatologically based, rather than foundationally based.

I must admit that, as I read through the book, I could not shake off the nagging question of whether the French deconstructionists were the most appropriate dialogue partners for a Christian apologist seeking to engage with postmodern culture. Nevertheless, there is a lot of interesting and thought-provoking material here, and, for the most part, it is presented in a clear and approachable manner.

03 September 2008

Et in Arcadia ego

Last weekend we went to Pitlochry to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. It was a very enjoyable day out. The theatre is modern, well designed and quite comfortable. As for the cast, they were excellent – not a single weak link in the performance.

The play was new to me. On the surface, it is a very entertaining comedy alternating between a pair of contemporary researchers studying a nineteenth-century literary mystery and the incident itself. But beneath the glitter, the brilliant word play and the humour lies something much bleaker.

Lady Croom is trying to turn the gardens of Sidley Hall into a latter-day Arcadia with the assistance of landscape gardener Culpability Noakes. But all is not well in Arcadia as rivalries and jealousies flare between the house guests (including Lord Byron, who never appears on stage). In the midst of all this, the precocious Thomasina presents her tutor with an essay anticipating the Second Law of Thermodynamics and foreshadowing her own premature death in a fire at Sidley Hall (tragic accident or suicide after being spurned by her tutor?). In the end all must come to dust. Even in Arcadia, I (death) am present.

Meanwhile in the present day Hannah is investigating the Hermit of Sidley. Her rival Bernard is trying to establish Byron’s connection to Sidley Hall. Valentine is studying grouse populations using Sidley Hall’s game book. And all of this worthy academic activity comes across as utterly trivial – a meaningless dance we indulge in as move ever closer to death.

29 August 2008

Weird physics

Here’s an interesting snippet from the physics arXiv blog. It is usually assumed that nuclear decay rates are constant, but re-examination of some data from the 1980s seems to suggest that the decay rates of silicon-32 and radium-226 vary on an annual cycle. What is more, the variations are synchronized with each other and with the Earth’s distance from the Sun. The folk who have re-analysed the data have suggested two possible explanations:

First, they say a theory developed by John Barrow at the University of Cambridge in the UK and Douglas Shaw at the University of London, suggests that the sun produces a field that changes the value of the fine structure constant on Earth as its distance from the sun varies during each orbit. Such an effect would certainly cause the kind of an annual variation in decay rates that Jenkins and co highlight.

Another idea is that the effect is caused by some kind of interaction with the neutrino flux from the sun’s interior, which could be tested by carrying out the measurements close to a nuclear reactor (which would generate its own powerful neutrino flux).

For more on this, see Do nuclear decay rates depend on our distance from the sun?

07 August 2008

Stanislaw Lem: turning grass into milk

Stanislaw Lem offers an interesting metaphor for the creative process (h/t: Taking Note):

‘A cow produces milk—that is certain—and the milk doesn't come from nothing. Just as a cow must eat grass in order to produce milk, I have to read large amounts of genuine scientific literature of all kinds—i.e. literature not invented by me—and the final product, my writing, is as unlike the intellectual food as milk is unlike grass.’ (Microworlds, p. 25)

I like this image. It is a useful reminder that creativity is rarely a matter of plucking ideas from the air. In its light my compulsive reading and note-taking becomes a matter of grazing: gathering the essential raw materials for the creative process. And the image also highlights the fact that writing of any value is never merely the regurgitation of what you have grazed. It is always about creating a new synthesis of the raw materials (milk rather than partially digested grass).

06 August 2008

The meaning of life

A few words from Pope Benedict’s recent speech in Australia:

‘Life is not just a succession of events or experiences, helpful though many of them are. It is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we exercise our freedom; it is in this – in truth, in goodness, and in beauty – that we find happiness and joy. Do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth. Christ offers more. Indeed, he offers everything. Only he who is the Truth can be the Way and hence also the Life.’

05 August 2008

After Lambeth: Where do we go from here?

So the Lambeth Conference is over and I am sure I am not alone among Anglicans in wondering, where we go from here.

That question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ reminded me of an anecdote Lesslie Newbigin used to tell about the conference at which the World Council of Churches was constituted. Here is the story as it appeared in a letter to his wife:

‘Karl Barth gave us a tremendous oration on the fundamental theme of the conference. It was real prophecy and compelled everyone, I think, to look beyond our plans and self-importance to the living God. Some people were very annoyed by it, but I more and more feel that it was needed. In the evening at the reception Pierre Maury asked me what I thought of it. I said, “It was magnificent, but where do we go from there?” Just at that moment Barth appeared, so Maury repeated my question to him. He said, “Into the next room of course”, and went! Which was the right answer; I mean that Barth demolishes all one’s plans with his terrific prophetic words, and one is left wondering what to do next; and his answer always is, Just get on with the next plain duty.’ (Lesslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda, 110f)

In the face of all the anxieties over the future of the Anglican Communion, ‘Just get on with the next plain duty’ seems like wise advice for us all.

24 July 2008

Vonnegut on good writing

I’ve just come across a helpful article by Kurt Vonnegut on ‘How to Write with Style’. A couple of excerpts:

Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.

If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Hans Küng revisited

Over at Living Wittily, Jim Gordon of the Scottish Baptist College has just finished an interesting series on the second volume of Hans Küng’s memoirs, Disputed Truth. Such a warm endorsement from someone who stands in a very different theological tradition from Küng makes me think I should go back and re-read him. (I have to confess that I was put off Küng by my attempt to read On Being a Christian many years ago before I had sufficient grounding in theology to be able appreciate him.)

21 July 2008

Back to the grind

No blog entries for over a fortnight for the very good reason that I was away on a silent retreat for a week and then had to catch up with work, etc.

I have just finished editing another book for Solaris: The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Vol. 3. It is another fine collection of short stories including contributions from Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, John Meaney and Paul di Filippo.

Interestingly, ‘finishing’ the novel seems to have been the catalyst for fresh inspiration. I am beginning to make notes for a science fiction thriller set in the asteroid belt in the relatively near future. The heroine doesn’t know it but she holds the key to a discovery that will transform human technology (and ultimately open the way to the stars).

05 July 2008

Winter is over

Within the past five minutes I have actually reached the end of Winter (the working title of my novel). This draft weighs in at just over 144,000 words, which is too long (but I intend to take Stephen King’s advice and cut between 10 and 15 per cent during the revision).

I realized the other day that I have been working on this novel in one form or another for almost exactly ten years! At least, the first glimmerings of the idea which became the novel began to form during the summer of 1998.

The next step is to export it from yWriter to Word and tidy it up a little before submitting it to the tender mercies of the Writers’ Circle.

03 July 2008

The average Anglican

Contrary to popular belief (at least in the UK), the average Anglican is not middle-aged, middle-class and white. According to Canon Gregory Cameron:

‘The average Anglican is a black woman under the age of 30, who earns two dollars a day, has a family of at least three children, has lost two close relatives to AIDs, and who will walk four miles to Church for a three hour service on a Sunday.’
Canon Cameron's entire lecture can be downloaded from here.

02 July 2008

Franciscan spirituality

I have been pondering the distinctive features of Franciscan spirituality recently. Benedictine spirituality has lectio divina and, of course, Ignatian spirituality has the Examen and the Spiritual Exercises. What is it about Franciscan spirituality that makes it distinctively Franciscan?

The first thing to come to mind is that Franciscans are concerned for the well-being of God’s good creation (particularly since Francis was proclaimed patron saint of ecology). Franciscans also tend to take life less seriously than the followers of some other Christian traditions. Since creation is seen as good, it is something to be enjoyed (although that doesn’t exclude self-discipline).

More fundamental to the Franciscan tradition (but perhaps rather neglected in recent decades) is an emphasis on building up the Church. This is rooted in Francis’s own experience: his vision of Christ on the cross, calling him to ‘build my church’ (which, at first, he took very literally indeed). So the Franciscan way will include encouraging our fellow Christian to grow in the faith, but on a larger scale it will also include working for the unity and the (continual) reform of the Church.

But there is also something unashamedly personal and relational about the Franciscan way. If you pick up a book on Franciscan spirituality you will not find a set of techniques enabling you to live the Principles of the Order. Instead, typically, you will be introduced to Franciscan principles and ideals by way of anecdotes from the lives of Franciscan saints (from Francis himself to the contemporary Franciscans).

I have very slowly come to realize that Franciscan spirituality is learned by example – from the great Franciscan saints of the past, from our First and Second Order brothers and sisters, but most importantly from each other with all our flaws and shortcomings. This is important because modern society is obsessed with technique and the impact of that obsession on spiritual traditions has tended to depersonalize them (think of all those books on how to pray/meditate in ten easy steps).

Peak oil

I’ve just come across a useful overview of the notion of peak oil (here). It makes for scary reading and is vaguely reminiscent of the Club of Rome report, The Limits to Growth, which terrified me when I was an undergraduate. Unlike Limits to Growth and the more apocalyptic versions of peak oil theory (e.g. Olduvai theory), this overview does recognize that technological development is working to mitigate the effects of declining oil production. But the picture it paints is of a race between declining oil production (and rising food and fuel prices) and the development of new energy technologies. Lose the race and the price paid by humankind is likely to be a catastrophic Malthusian die-back.

13 June 2008

Email apocalypse

I upgraded to the release version of Opera 9.50 last night. All seemed to go smoothly: it imported my bookmarks, contacts and email account details without difficulty. Then it imported all my emails . . . and promptly zapped the email bodies. I am now the proud owner of several years of email subject lines! Aaaargh!!!

Actually it's not quite that bad. The original emails are still there on the hard disk. But when I reverted to the beta version the message bodies had disappeared there as well. I can still read them with a file viewer I happen to have. My problem is finding anything. I have spent more time than I can really afford trying to find some way of indexing the old emails so I can access anything I need to refer to.

Meanwhile the disaster has forced me to migrate to Gmail. My email addresses haven't changed but they now point to my Gmail accoint.

Update: With a bit of tweaking, Copernic can be made to index Opera .mbs files. So now I can read my old emails. And a handy little base64 decoder I happen to have even allows me to retrieve any email attachments. So life has returned to normal . . . except that my faith in Opera as a browser/email program has taken quite a battering. The new version of Firefox is released next week. Perhaps I'll take a look at that.

12 June 2008

Deadstock and the Campbell Award

Jeffrey Thomas’s Deadstock was the first book I edited for Solaris. I heard today that it is one of the finalists for the 2008 John W. Campbell Award (one of the ‘big three’ international SF awards). In my opinion, it thoroughly deserves its place on the short list. As I mentioned a long time ago on this blog, it is an edgy mixture of cyberpunk, noir thriller and Lovecraftian horror leavened with nice touches of irony and self-referential humour. If you are interested in reading it for yourself, the nice people at Solaris have made it available as a free download here.

27 May 2008

Some online Orthodox theology

I have been interested in Orthodox theology and spirituality since my days as a PhD student (perhaps not surprising with a strongly Trinitarian supervisor like Colin Gunton), so it was pleasing to come across an online treasure trove of contemporary Orthodox theology the other day. The archive is part of John Burnett’s website, and it contains extensive extracts from, among others, Evdokimov, Florovsky, Lossky and Yannaras. Of course, being one of Colin’s former students, I was a bit disappointed that there was nothing by John Zizioulas on the site.

26 May 2008

The real cost of the Iraq War

Charlie Stross has put some scary reflections on the real cost of the Iraq War on his blog. So far the direct cost to the USA is more than $500 billion (with the indirect cost to the global economy perhaps as high as $3 trillion). Charlie points out for the amount of money the USA has spent they could have had a fully funded manned mission to Mars  Alternatively, the USA could have used the money to more than meet the Kyoto Protocols. He concludes by asking, ‘And what isn't going to happen now, because we pissed it all away on the desert sands?’

One answer to his question: It costs about $5 per person to provide basic water purification facilities. About 1.1 billion people currently have no access to clean drinking water. For about 1% of the money so far spent on the war, the USA could have met their need for clean water (thus saving the lives of about 30,000 people per week).

Update: Cosmic Variance has a short post on the amount of money lost/embezzled in the course of reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Apparently the figure currently stands at about $14.9 billion (or nearly three times the annual budget of NASA).

21 May 2008

Angela Hewitt and the Forty-Eight

‘In order to discover a true understanding of the infinite variations of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, the performer and listener must open both ears and spirit to infinite possibilities of form, harmony, counterpoint, character and mood, rather than limit this vast spectrum of music to the demands of one’s own circumscribed outlook and experience’ (Rosalyn Tureck).

Angela Hewitt was in Glasgow over the weekend, playing Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-Tempered Klavier) at the City Halls. Both concerts were superb examples of a pianist doing just what Rosalyn Tureck recommended. Judging by his reviews in The Herald (here and here), Conrad Wilson would probably agree.

09 May 2008

Going round in circles to reach the end

About three months ago I suggested that I had taken a wrong turning in the novel and had somehow let it reach a climax about 25,000 words short of the projected end. At the time I thought I could tweak what I had already written to shift the climax towards the end. Since then I have struggled to make any progress at all on the final chapters.

My failure to get anywhere makes me think I was wrong to stick with the novel outline in the face of compelling evidence that I had actually reached the natural endpoint of the story. So I have decided simply to discard the final part. I still have some tweaking to do, of course. In particular, the chapters that now end the story were not written as a conclusion, so I need to rewrite them to tie up loose ends properly. I also need to give one of the minor characters, who turns out to play a crucial role in the climax, a voice of his own, which will involve slipping into the story several scenes from his point of view.

This means that I have more or less finished the novel!

06 May 2008

Some articles on science and religion

The Jesuit website Thinking Faith has an interesting series of articles by Guy Consolmagno SJ of the Vatican Observatory. So far they have published ‘Astronomy, God and the Search for Elegance’, ‘God and the Mystery of the Universe’ and ‘Couldn’t God have designed a gentler universe?’ Definitely worth reading.

In addition to being a professional astronomer and a theologian, Brother Guy is something of a science fiction fan. I met him during the 2005 Worldcon in Glasgow, where he was appearing on one or two of the panel discussions.

Update (9 May): The fourth and final article in the series (‘Heaven or Heat Death?’) has just been posted on the site.

30 April 2008

Love and being

I have just finished editing an interesting article on ‘St Thomas Aquinas on Eucharistic Ecstasy’. At one point the author quotes Dom Sebastian Moore thus: ‘“I am” equals “I love”. “I love” is the only way to say “I am”.’

From there it is just a short step to a Christian counterstatement to Descartes’ Cogito. In contrast to the rationalistic individualism of ‘I think, therefore I am’, the Christian says ‘I am loved, therefore I am’ (therefore I love).

We are not ‘the good guys’

Some words attributed to George Bell, Bishop of Chichester during the Second World War and fierce opponent of the Allied policy of area bombing civilian targets:

‘No Nation, no Church, no Individual is guiltless. Without Repentance, and without forgiveness, there can be no regeneration.’

18 April 2008

My kind of vegetarian

A comment from an email I received this morning:
‘I’m a vegetarian, but I regard the pig as an honorary vegetable.’

Now that’s what I call vegetarianism!

08 April 2008

Philosophy as slow thinking

According to the French philosopher Alain Badiou,
Our world is marked by its speed: the speed of historical change; the speed of technical change; the speed of communications; of transmissions; and even the speed with which human beings establish connections with one another. . . . Philosophy must propose a retardation process. It must construct a time for thought, which, in the face of the injunction to speed, will constitute a time of its own. I consider this a singularity of philosophy; that its thinking is leisurely, because today revolt requires leisureliness and not speed.
Infinite Thought, p. 38

I like the idea that the refusal to react to the latest news with a superficial soundbite is a revolutionary (or, at least, subversive) action.

27 March 2008

The art of scribbling in books

I recently came across an interesting article by Mortimer Adler entitled ‘How to Mark a Book’, which amounts to a useful summary of the art of active reading. He suggests there are three kinds of book owner:
The first has all the standard sets and best sellers – unread, untouched. (This deluded individual owns woodpulp and ink, not books.) The second has a great many books – a few of them read through, most of them dipped into, but all of them as clean and shiny as the day they were bought. (This person would probably like to make books his own, but is restrained by a false respect for their physical appearance.) The third has a few books or many – every one of them dog-eared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked and scribbled in from front to back. (This man owns books.)

I probably fall between categories two and three: I have a great many books, all of them dipped into, many of them read through, and the important ones (OK, the ones that have most influenced my own thinking) marked and scribbled in throughout (though I hope I never reduce a book to the kind of mess Adler seems so proud of).

But why is marking up a book an important part of active reading? According to Adler,
First, it keeps you awake. (And I don't mean merely conscious; I mean awake.) In the second place; reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The marked book is usually the thought-through book. Finally, writing helps you remember the thoughts you had, or the thoughts the author expressed.

He goes on to describe one way of marking books, which sounds like a slightly more complex version of my own approach. My own version of marginal notations is:
  • Vertical line – important passage (2 lines indicates very important)
  • * – quotable remark
  • ! – surprising statement
  • ? – something I don’t understand
  • !? – doubtful statement
  • × – statement I disagree with
And, of course, I make any additional notes necessary to explain the marks. One idea of Adler’s that I will probably add to my system is his use of the front and back fly leafs to create a summary and personal index of the book.

Finally Adler replies to the objection that this kind of annotation will force you to read more slowly.
It probably will. That's one of the reasons for doing it. Most of us have been taken in by the notion that speed of reading is a measure of our intelligence. . . . The sign of intelligence in reading is the ability to read different things differently according to their worth. In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through you -- how many you can make your own. A few friends are better than a thousand acquaintances.
In other words, writing in your books is an aid to the art of slow reading, which ties in with my blog entry some months ago on reading aloud.

23 March 2008

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed, alleluia!

I got me flowers to straw thy way,
I got me boughs off many a tree;
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, and the East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.
(George Herbert, Easter)

04 March 2008

Centauri Dreams

I have just discovered an interesting blog called Centauri Dreams. It looks like a useful one-stop source of information about deep space (and interstellar) exploration. Some nice science and a lot of helpful background material for anyone writing fairly traditional science fiction, e.g. recent entries on generation ships, planets in the Centauri system and the emergence of an Anthropocene era.

22 February 2008

Classic Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is always good for a thought-provoking/outrageous comment or two. Here is a classic example from a lecture published in a recent edition of the Princeton Seminary Bulletin (thanks to Inhabitatio Dei for pointing it out):
I assume most of you are here because you think you are Christians, but it is not at all clear to me that the Christianity that has made you Christians is Christianity. For example:
  • How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
  • How many of you worship in a church in which the fourth of July is celebrated? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
  • How many of you worship in a church that recognizes Thanksgiving? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
  • How many of you worship in a church that celebrates January 1 as the “New Year”? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
  • How many of you worship in a church that recognizes “Mother’s Day”? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
Of course the point he is making is that a lot of what passes for Christianity in America today is nothing more than thinly veiled worship of contemporary American values. A similar point might have been made in reply to the fury that greeted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent speech on the relation of religion to the law in modern society.

16 February 2008

Wrong turning

I’ve been struggling to make progress on the novel recently. After trying to blame the usual suspects (overtiredness, overwork, etc.), I have come to the conclusion that I took a wrong turning a few thousand words ago. Looking back over what I have written in the past month, it is fairly clear that I have revealed too much, too early. As a result, I find myself becoming bored with what I am now writing – a 25,000-word anticlimax is no way to end a novel! So I need to backtrack and hide one or two crucial pieces of information from the reader.

13 February 2008

The joys of machine translation

Mark Newton over at Solaris has just posted a review of the Solaris Book of New SF, Vol. 1, which he found on a Brazilian website. Not trusting his Portuguese to be up to the job, he used Google to translate it. The result is a classic piece of machine English. Here, for example, are a few kind words about Solaris:
A publisher small but pujante, which has already begun in the best style kung-fu-shaw-brothers-tarantino: Walking in the door and attitude, will face?
Yes, indeed! You can read the entire piece here.

Not another comment on the Archbishop’s speech

There seems little point in adding to the torrent of words already spilt in response to Archbishop Rowan’s recent speech on ‘Civil and Religious Law in England’. Instead I would simply recommend that anyone who wants to engage with what he was actually saying would be well advised to read the excellent analyses by Andrew Goddard and Mike Higton.

Hopefully when the present furore has died down some serious thought will be given to the very important questions raised by his lecture. For example, how should a modern pluralistic society accommodate the religious believers in its midst? Is there any place for conscientious objection to aspects of our public culture? What limits should the state impose upon religious communities to ensure that their members both enjoy the rights and fulfil the responsibilities of citizenship in the wider society?

And, of course, the way sections of the media and some politicians reacted to his call for a carefully reasoned debate on these matters says some disturbing things about the nature of British society at the beginning of twenty-first century, which need to be teased out.

Addendum: Mike Higton continues his analysis of the Archbishop’s speech with a piece entitled ‘What is Enlightenment?’ The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, has issued a statement, which offers a very lucid summary of the Archbishop’s main points. And The Tablet offers an interesting take on what Rowan Williams was trying to do.

07 February 2008

Hell does freeze over!

I was amused by this photograph, which I spotted just now on the RealClimate blog. As you can see, Hell really does freeze over. Since it is in Norway, this is probably not very surprising.

The sign shown in the photograph had me thinking about the harrowing of hell for a few moments. Sadly the reality is more prosaic: apparently Gods Expedition means ‘cargo shipment’ in an old Norwegian dialect (think, the expediting of goods).

06 February 2008

Ash Wednesday

Today is the first day of Lent, forty days that have traditionally been set aside by Christians for fasting, self-examination and prayer. In the popular imagination, Lent has long been reduced to that time of year when we temporarily give up chocolate, alcohol, tobacco or some other little luxury. Contrast that with the far more radical understanding of fasting offered by Isaiah in the Old Testament reading for this morning’s Eucharist:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58.6–7)

04 February 2008

Is the Anglican Communion worth fighting for?

According to a recent blog entry, Bishop Idris asked this question at the end of a recent Regional Council meeting. Having spent a year or so trying to find an alternative where I would feel at home, my short answer is a definite ‘yes’. Of course, being a notorious pedant, I can’t resist giving a longer answer, beginning with the observation, ‘It depends on what you mean by “this Anglican Communion”’.

What it means to me is an international network of churches who broadly share the same approach to Christian worship. In my year of wandering, I (re)discovered that the Eucharist was an essential part of my personal spirituality. I find the worship of churches that marginalize the Eucharist (i.e. most Reformed and Protestant churches) simply unsatisfying. On a more theological note, I think the marginalization of the Eucharist calls into question the apostolicity of those churches.

After a central emphasis on the Eucharist, what I expect to find in a church/network of churches is an openness to diversity. I think that is implicit in another of the classical marks of the church, namely, catholicity: universality in the sense that it is able to embrace all human cultures and all human experience. No one is excluded simply because of the colour of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, their politics or their taste in music. Conversely, everyone is challenged to work out for themselves what it means to live a Christ-like life.

Given those emphases, my return to Anglicanism was a simple process of elimination. The only churches that meet the first criterion are Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Lutheranism. Roman Catholicism is simply too centralized and monolithic. The various Orthodox churches in Scotland mostly seem to be trapped in ethnic ghettoes of their own making (I’m not Greek so I can’t see myself ever being fully at home in the Greek Orthodox Church, and I have no wish to commute all the way to Dunblane for English-language services in the Russian Orthodox Church). There is one Lutheran congregation in Scotland. They are a very welcoming bunch of people and, if I lived in East Kilbride, I might be tempted to align myself with them were it not for the fact that their form of Lutheranism takes an exclusive approach to the Eucharist – only Lutherans in communion with the Missouri Synod may receive the bread and the wine. I couldn’t in good conscience belong to a church that puts a wall between me and my fellow believers in other parts of the body of Christ. And so I am once more part of the Anglican Church (specifically, St Ninian’s, Pollokshields).

24 January 2008

‘Us and Them’

The Word Dogs have been loosed again. Their next hunt is scheduled for Wednesday 6th February, at 7.30 p.m. in the 13th Note on King Street, Glasgow (£2 on the door). The theme for the evening is ‘Us and Them’:
Are you with Us? Or are you one of Them.

Differences abound everywhere: political, sexual, economic, racial, religious, cultural, sporting. Entertain Us with the rivalries of siblings, cities, countries, worlds. Shed light on what They are really like, because, frankly, We just don’t understand Them at all. Who is that beautiful stranger? A threat, a rival, an ally, a saviour?

Transhumans vs White Trash, Criminals vs Politicos, Aliens vs The Dead. Aren’t we all the same under the skin anyway? Well we know We are, but They’re not.

By the way, Word Dogs has a nice new website, courtesy of Richard Mosses. I particularly like the subtitle: ‘Biting the hand that feeds Lit’. You can find it here.

21 January 2008

‘Don’t get it right, . . .’

‘. . . just get it written.’ (James Thurber)

After a long period of inactivity (more than six months, in fact), I have once again started making progress on the novel. This weekend I completed another chapter and the end is in sight. All I have to do is keep going. And at the moment I am so fed up with this story that I just intend to plough on regardless until the thing is finished. Hence the quotation from Thurber. Once I have a draft of the entire novel, there will be plenty of time to tidy it up.

I am still using yWriter (mentioned here) to draft the novel and it is proving to be an immensely useful writing aid. The current incarnation is version 4. It now allows rich text editing and it can store all kinds of notes on characters, locations, scenes, etc. This has to be one of the best free pieces of software I have ever come across. I can’t wait for version 5! In addition to yWriter, the program’s author has also created a handy submission tracking utility (Sonar) and a useful project timer (Track-a-minute) that I would probably use if this facility were not already built into my PIM.

11 January 2008


During my Christmas break I did quite a bit of reading, including Liz Williams’s 2006 novel, Darkland (Tor). I have read one or two of her previous novels but not enough to go looking for more. This book, found in one of my local charity shops, has changed all that.

It is set in the far future; a future of very rapid interstellar transport with a human diaspora spread across the galaxy on many different colony worlds. But the main focus of the novel is on the extensive genetic manipulation that the human race has used to adapt itself and other terrestrial species to these very different environments. As the opening scenes of the novel reveal, genetic manipulation has also been used to create and reinforce a range of novel human societies.

Darkland has the scope and drama of a space opera but is sharply focused on the experience of one woman, Vali, an assassin for an all-female organization called the Skald. The story is largely about the chance she is given to take revenge on a former mentor and lover who is now working for the enemy. I enjoyed Williams’s characterization and the way she developed the complex motives driving her central character.

The story reads like a standalone novel and, apart from the inevitable handful of minor loose ends, Williams ties everything up neatly by the end of the final chapter. Then she unravels everything again with a classic cliffhanger of an epilogue. Normally I don’t like novels that end on a cliffhanger, forcing me to buy the sequel in order to finish the story. But I thought this approach worked really well: a satisfying ending followed by the realization that there is more to follow.

Williams’s feminism is perhaps more obvious here than in other things of hers I have read. At times it is clumsily obvious. For example, was it really necessary to call an evil patriarchal society ‘Nhem’?

I did find myself wondering at times whether this was science fiction or fantasy. According to Clarke’s Third Law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Reading Darkland made me think there should be a corollary to that law: ‘Any piece of science fiction built around sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from fantasy.’ That is certainly the case for those sections of Darkland set on Mondhile, a backward colony planet, and even the parts of the novel set in more ‘civilized’ locations are filled with fantastical moments.

07 January 2008

Theological zoology?

I have been asking myself what kind of theologian I am. (As Tillich pointed out many years ago, the fact that I don’t earn my living directly from doing theology is irrelevant.) This particular piece of self-analysis was provoked partly by insomnia brought on by the bug that has finally caught up with me and partly by the consideration that I really don’t enjoy much of what passes for academic theology. In particular, I find abstract discussion of the nature of God and/or Christ uninteresting and detailed analysis of the writings of other theologians tedious.

The kind of theology that interests me tends to be in response to the question ‘how should we then live?’ This was the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer, a conservative evangelical theologian whose work was an early influence on me. It is many years since I read anything by him, but his question remains with me. How should we live in light of the promises and challenges of the Christian gospel? How should we live as Christians faced with this or that contemporary challenge (whether social, political, environmental, or personal)?

What sort of theology is this? As I thought about this, I recalled a distinction made in Greek Orthodox theology between bios (nature red in tooth and claw) and zoe (life transformed by the Holy Spirit). The kind of theology that interests me is theology that maps out the contours of life transformed by the Spirit. Hence the rather tongue-in-cheek title for this entry.

04 January 2008

Messiah again

I managed to struggle against my annual Christmas cold long enough to take part in the RSNO’s performance of Messiah on Wednesday afternoon. This year it was conducted by Roy Goodman who brought his expertise in baroque music and his usual lightness of touch to the performance. The other factor that distinguished it from most other performances was that we did it without any of the usual cuts. I suspect that there will have been many in the audience for whom at least some of the arias and choruses were completely new.

So far I haven’t come across any reviews of the performance, but Michael Tumelty gave it a very positive preview in The Herald on Wednesday morning (here).

A new look for 2008

As you will notice, I have decided to revamp my blog. This is a response to my relative neglect of the blog over the past several months and a promise to myself that I’ll pay more attention to it in the coming year.

Besides the new layout, the main difference so far is the updated and improved list of links. Coming soon (once I’ve decided on the best method): some way of keeping track of visits to the blog (to reassure myself that people do read it occasionally).