24 December 2009

Christmas greetings


Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav'n to earth.

15 December 2009

Shock, horror . . .

According to the headline on the BBC News website, ‘Popular carols “have folks roots”’, and it goes on to ‘reveal’ that until the eighteenth century Christmas carols were considered too secular to be sung in church. The report implies that these revelations are the result of recent research by a Durham academic. In fact, these are not revelations but common knowledge among churchgoers and singers. If you want ample evidence of the folk roots of carols, you merely have to take a casual glance inside the Oxford Book of Carols.

At a stroke the BBC newshounds display their ignorance of the religious history of their own country and present what was probably a perfectly reasonable piece of research as vaguely ridiculous

08 December 2009

Lesslie Newbigin (1909–1998)


Today is the centenary of the birth of Lesslie Newbigin. I had the privilege of working with Lesslie during the last few years of his life, and here – by way of celebrating his life and achievement – is a piece I wrote about him some years ago.

Mission to Western Culture:
the Contribution of Lesslie Newbigin

In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded the apostles and, by implication, the entire Christian Church to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28.19). Contrary to modern individualistic readings, this is a clear call to disciple the nations rather than isolated individuals within them. Thus the Church has traditionally been concerned not only with calling individuals to salvation but also entire cultures to walk in the ways of God. Of course Christians have interpreted this in many different ways. For some it has meant a rejection of a secular culture in favour of a Christian alternative: ‘What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ Others have used it unthinkingly to baptize entire cultures: ‘Of course this is a Christian culture! Just look at how many of its members are Christians!’ Between these extremes, Christian missionaries and theologians have conceived a range of ways in which the gracious judgement of the gospel can bring transformation to human cultures.

Our own century has seen great changes in the relationship between the Christian faith and human cultures worldwide. In 1900 many Europeans still identified Christianity with European civilization and regarded Christian mission as another device for furthering imperialistic foreign policies. If we go by sheer numbers of believers, Christianity today is predominantly a phenomenon of the southern hemisphere (particularly Sub-Saharan Africa and South America). Although Western Christians still exert a disproportionate influence upon global Christianity because of their material wealth, the emphasis in world mission is beginning to shift. For example, Christian missionaries from the two-thirds world are now injecting new spiritual vigour into British congregations. Instead of assuming that Western culture (the public culture of Europe and North America) is loosely Christian, there is increasing recognition that we live in a post-Christian era. The question of how we should be relating the gospel to this culture, of mission to Western culture, is now firmly on the agenda of Western churches.

One man who lived through many of these changes in mission strategy and who did much to put the question of mission to Western culture back on the churches’ agenda was Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. He was born in the North of England in 1909, the son of a devout Christian businessman. Having abandoned the Christian assumptions of his parents as a teenager, he went to Cambridge University in 1928 to read geography and economics. During his first year as an undergraduate he drifted back towards Christianity under the influence of friends in the Student Christian Movement. That drift culminated in a dramatic conversion experience while working with a Quaker service programme in South Wales. He found himself unable to cope with despair of the unemployed men among whom he was working. In his own words,
As I lay awake a vision came to my mind . . . It was a vision of the cross, but it was the cross spanning the space between heaven and earth, between ideals and present realities, and with arms that embraced the whole world. I saw it as something which reached down to the most hopeless and sordid of human misery and yet promised life and victory. I was sure that night, in a way I had never been before, that this was the clue that I must follow if I were to make any kind of sense of the world. From that moment I would always know how to take bearings when I was lost. I would know where to begin again when I had come to the end of all my own resources of understanding or courage. (Unfinished Agenda, p. 11f)
This did not have any immediate repercussions on his sense of vocation. He still believed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, applying Christian principles in the world of commerce. However, God had other plans – a clear call to ordination and the mission field. Lesslie left England in 1936 with his wife Helen bound for India as a Presbyterian missionary.

India: Christian Unity in a Culture of Diversity
His missionary service in India reflects one of his major concerns. Since his student days the scandal of Christian disunity had disturbed him. This had nothing to do with a desire for a centralized church bureaucracy to make global Christianity more efficient or present a united front to a secular world. Rather it was a sense of outrage that men and women who share in the saving death and resurrection of our Lord should be unable to pray together, share the sacraments or even cooperate in mission.

That sense of outrage enabled him to become a moving force behind the creation of the Church of South India (a union of Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian churches) in 1947. One unexpected (and, for a Presbyterian, ironical) outcome of that union was his subsequent consecration as Bishop of Madurai.

His involvement in that very successful union of churches opened the way for him to work towards Christian unity on a larger scale. From 1959 to 1961 he was General Secretary of the International Missionary Council during which time he oversaw its integration into the World Council of Churches. He then served with the WCC for three years before returning to India to become Bishop of Madras.

‘Retirement’ and Mission to Western Culture
In a sense the story of Lesslie’s contribution to the question of mission to Western culture really began with his retirement in 1974. His return to England brought him face to face with a culture in despair. He often contrasted the pervasive optimism of people in the slums of Madras with the nihilism he experienced on his return.
To make matters worse, he found a Church still geared largely to the pastoral care of a predominantly Christian society. It seemed quite unable to cope with the missionary demands of the new situation. Many Christians seemed unable even to put into words what the gospel might be for our own culture. He often spoke of being horrified by the timidity of the Church in the West – its doubts about the meaning and truth of the gospel, the way it had lost sight of the centrality of mission (or even rejected it as theological racism) and, above all, its passive acceptance of many assumptions of secular society.

Having been a missionary for four decades, he brought a missionary’s eye to the situation. Clearly he had returned to a pagan culture. The pressing question was how could he be a missionary for Christ in this culture? More important, how could the Church become again a missionary force in this culture? The Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham gave him the chance to begin working out his response by appointing him to teach the theology of mission.

An opportunity to share some of his ideas with a wider audience came when he was elected Moderator of the United Reformed Church for 1978–79. A recurring theme of his year as Moderator was ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel’ (Romans 1.16). Then in 1982 a committee of the British Council of Churches invited him to join them in planning a conference on the relationship between the gospel and modern culture.

Had the conference organizers known in advance what effect he would have on their plans they might not have invited him to take part! He was so unhappy about the proposed agenda that he suggested the postponement of the conference to allow for a more careful consideration of the underlying issues. The committee countered by inviting him to write a short book to initiate the study process. This was subsequently published as The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the churches and the conference was postponed for eight years. That deceptively simple little book evoked an international response. It challenged Christians in many countries to take a critical look at modernity from the perspective of the Christian gospel. Today there are thriving networks in Europe, North America and Australasia tackling the issues he raised.

A Culture Divided
Lesslie’s analysis of Western culture was broadly historical. He traced many of its distinguishing features back to the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was, largely, a reaction against the religious wars that ravaged Europe in the wake of the Reformation. For the generations immediately following, those wars were a clear sign of the failure of public religion. If religion could not provide an adequate foundation for public life, what could? The intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment thought they had found a more satisfactory basis in human reason and the scientific method. This, they believed, could sweep away the old superstitions that kept humankind imprisoned within authoritarian religious and political structures. The unfettered application of reason would lead inevitably to an ideal human society – a purely secular version of the kingdom of heaven.

Perhaps the most striking effect of this elevation of reason (and one that Lesslie stressed in his analyses) is the split it creates between a public sphere and a private one. We simply take for granted the division between a public world (the world of work, of politics and economics, of science, of truth and reason) and a private world (the world of leisure, of family life and personal relationships, of morality and religion, of opinion and superstition). Yet it is a distinction with few parallels in other cultures.

This basic division has had all kinds of implications. The association of science and reason with the public sphere is an important basis for the tremendous material progress that has taken place in Western culture over the past two centuries. However, this progress has had its price – the privatization of all that humanizes us and a corresponding atrophying of the human spirit. Small wonder that the majority view among late twentieth-century intellectuals is some form of nihilism.

The Gospel and the Church
Lesslie’s challenge to Christians to look at their culture from the perspective of the gospel often met with the retort, ‘But what is the gospel?’

His answer to this question was deceptively simple. The Christian gospel, the good news, is quite simply the story of Jesus Christ – an itinerant Jewish teacher and miracle worker whose death and resurrection reveal him to be the Son of God and set us free from our bondage to sin. Accordingly, for Lesslie, the basis of Christian mission was ‘Friendship – sharing the Good News with neighbours.’

However, the good news cannot be merely personal truth; it cannot be merely true for me. Lesslie insisted that it is public truth, i.e. either the events in this story happened or they did not happen. If they did not happen – if Jesus did not rise from the dead – then Christianity is a delusion. If they did happen, then God is real and has manifested himself at a particular time and in a particular culture. Thus, the story of Jesus is the key to human history as well as personal existence. God’s judgement and grace as revealed in the cross and resurrection are not to be limited to our private lives but apply to the whole of human existence.

Yet ‘how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?’ (Romans 10.14f). To be effective as judgement and grace, we must faithfully retell the gospel in meaningful ways.

The church is an immediate implication of this need for communication. It is what we have made of the gospel in the process of retelling it. This is not to suggest that it is merely an optional human response to the gospel. On the contrary, the church is rooted in the fact that Jesus called into being a body of disciples to bear witness to the gospel – to proclaim the good news in terms that their hearers could understand, and to interpret that proclamation through their own lives. The biblical model for evangelism and mission is a human community, not a loose network of isolated evangelistic entrepreneurs.

Lesslie’s insistence on the importance of the local church for the communication of the gospel was not merely a theoretical stance. Rather than allow his denomination to close an ailing church in a run-down part of Birmingham, he volunteered to become its pastor at an age when most of us would be looking forward to a well-earned retirement. This experience of inner-city ministry is what grounded much of his thinking about mission to Western culture. His comments about the experience are striking:
It is much harder than anything I met in India. There is a cold contempt for the Gospel which is harder to face than opposition. . . . I have been forced to recognize that the most difficult missionary frontier in the contemporary world is the one of which the Churches have been – on the whole – so little conscious, the frontier that divides the world of biblical faith from the world whose values and beliefs are ceaselessly fed into every home on the television screen. (Unfinished Agenda, p. 235)
Lesslie’s stress on the Church as an implication of the gospel was one reason for his lifelong insistence on the importance of Christian unity. If we reject the popular view that religion is essentially a matter of private opinion, the divisions between Christians become a very serious matter. Because we have divided the body of Christ, we have confused the gospel of Christ. We deny Christ when we refuse to have fellowship with men and women whose lives have been altered by the gospel.

Of course, this does not mean that we should be uncritical of each other. On the contrary, the lordship of Christ is the basis for a vigorous criticism of teaching or behaviour that departs from the standards of the gospel. However, we criticize them as brothers and sisters. Similarly, we must listen seriously to their criticisms of us. Lesslie sometimes pointed to the example of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church as a model of this approach. There is room for the sharpest possible theological and ethical criticism within the wider context of unity in Christ. Whatever one’s views of the World Council of Churches – and Lesslie frequently voiced his disappointment at its abandonment of its original missionary emphasis – one is not absolved from the obligation to pray and work for the unity of the people of Christ.

Crossing the Divide
Recognizing that the gospel is public truth implies a recognition that Christian mission is more than personal evangelism. Sharing our faith with our family, friends and colleagues is an essential part of mission. However, beyond this we are called to interpret the gospel by living responsibly as Christians within the wider culture. At one level, this means allowing our Christian beliefs to govern our political actions and business decisions.
At another level, it requires us to debate the basic practices and assumptions of our culture from the perspective of the gospel. Every human culture contains elements that are contrary to the good news of Jesus Christ and which we must therefore challenge. For the early Church, the pervasive idolatry of the Roman Empire was such an element and their response varied from a refusal to eat meat to a refusal to serve in the army. Lesslie used to cite the caste system and the practice of widow burning as examples from India. Contemporary Western examples might be our materialism and conspicuous consumption.

However, if the gospel requires us to challenge aspects of the culture in which we live, we also have a duty to affirm those aspects of the culture that are consistent with the gospel. Lesslie highlighted various aspects of our own public culture that we can and should affirm in this way.

A fundamental feature of the Enlightenment that left a lasting mark on Western culture was its belief in the rationality of the universe. Similarly the Christian doctrine of creation affirms that the universe is rational and orderly. Thus the gospel offers a basis for a continued commitment to science and technology that is lacking in the wider culture – as witness the emergence of a new irrationalism with the New Age.

The Enlightenment also put great emphasis on respect for human life. This was usually expressed in terms of the inalienable human rights of every individual. Erosion of that respect has in recent decades led to the increasing acceptance of abortion and euthanasia. Again the gospel, with its emphasis on the value of human life, gives us a basis for affirming this aspect of Enlightenment culture.

A third area highlighted by Lesslie is the Enlightenment’s rejection of the territorial principle. This principle, which Christendom had inherited from Imperial Rome, asserted the divine right of monarchs, i.e. it gave religious legitimization to political absolutism. The Enlightenment proposed a new basis for political authority – the will of the people rather than the will of God. The US Constitution was the first fruit of this new basis and with the birth of the United States came the emergence of modern liberal democracy. By ending the fusion of Christianity and the state, it enabled us to recognize that being a Christian is a matter of personal commitment to Jesus Christ rather than citizenship of a Christian country. However, he also warned that it is ultimately only within a Christian context that a stable relationship between human rights and the will of the people can be maintained. Unless those rights are based upon our being made in the divine image and unless the lordship of Christ ultimately takes priority over the will of the people, democracy lapses into the tyranny of the majority. Without Christ, the American political experiment is more likely to end in anarchy or dictatorship than democracy.

Christians are called not merely to affirm the status quo nor to take the easy option of rejecting wider society in favour of a Christian ghetto. Rather we are called, as individuals and church communities, to be salt and light at every level in a complex pluralistic society. Salt enhances flavours as well as acting as a preservative. Light shows off the good as well as showing up the bad.

Some critics have accused Lesslie of calling for a return to medieval Christendom or advocating a social gospel. However, this dual stance of challenge and affirmation is not about creating the kingdom of God by our own unaided efforts. On the contrary, it is about bearing witness to God’s sovereignty. Recalling a former clarion call of the ecumenical movement – ‘let the Church be the Church!’ – Lesslie summarized his own position by adding ‘Yes, and therefore let it be the faithful and confident witness to God’s rightful rule over the world!’

Lesslie Newbigin: A Personal Sketch
The thing that struck me most forcefully about Lesslie when I first began to work with him was his tremendous energy. In the years following his ‘retirement’, he was successively a lecturer in missiology, pastor of an inner-city church, moderator of his denomination and the inspiration for an international movement whose aim is nothing less than a radical revitalization of mission to Western culture. On top of all that, he maintained a busy schedule of national and international speaking engagements and wrote prolifically on missiology.

Many people (including many Christians) who achieve positions of prominence or influence are only too conscious of their own importance – not so, Lesslie. For me he epitomized intellectual humility. He was always very open about the dependence of his ideas on others, always willing to listen seriously to criticism, always ready to encourage younger men and women who were struggling with aspects of the relationship between the gospel and our culture.

A less obvious personal characteristic – but one that became clear as one got to know him – was his gentle sense of humour. At times this could be slightly self-deprecating, e.g. when he commented that old ecumenists are only really at home in airport departure lounges. Or he could be gently ironical. However, his favourite form of humour was the limerick; he admitted that he used to relieve the boredom of ecclesiastical committee meetings by writing limericks about his colleagues.

The energy, humility and sense of humour together serve to obscure another important characteristic, namely, his courage. His autobiography gives scant mention to an accident during his first term in India. That accident led to ten operations on his leg, the very real prospect of amputation and more than a year spent on crutches. When I knew him, half a century later, he was still suffering the after-effects. However, he could say ‘God did indeed turn that accident into a source of manifold blessing for which I cannot cease to give thanks’ (Unfinished Agenda, p. 44). Towards the end of his life he also had to cope with failing eyesight. I think many of those who read his final works would be surprised to discover that by the time he wrote them he was no longer able to read. His humour and his courage come together in a typical remark: ‘You don’t have to be able to see to use a typewriter!’

References
Newbigin, Lesslie (1983) The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the churches (Geneva: WCC).
Newbigin, Lesslie (1985) Unfinished Agenda: An autobiography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

30 November 2009

Robert Holdstock (1948–2009)

I was saddened to hear of the death yesterday of Rob Holdstock. Apparently he suffered a heart attack while in intensive care after contracting an E. coli infection.

Reading his novel Mythago Wood (1984) transformed my understanding of what fantasy might be (before that I had defined it more or less in terms of The Lord of the Rings).

He will be sorely missed by both fans and writers of fantasy.

26 November 2009

Against biblical literalism

Here is an interesting assertion from John Calvin. Commenting on the literal interpretation of the Bible, he says:
Once this principle is accepted, a boundless barbarism will overwhelm the whole light of faith. For what monstrous absurdities will these fanatical men not draw forth from Scripture if they be allowed to raise in objection every tittle to establish what they please! (Institutes 4.17.23)
Admittedly this occurs in the context of his discussion of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. But he clearly intends his criticism of biblical literalism to apply more broadly since he also takes a swipe at an early Christian heresy completely unrelated to the issue at hand.

19 November 2009

The glory of the creature

It is a serious thing...to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities...that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal.... But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. (C.S. Lewis, They Asked for a Paper, London: Bles, 1962, p. 210)
That passage from C.S. Lewis has always struck me as a particularly powerful statement of the Christian vision of human nature. It is also one that resonates very strongly with the Franciscan tradition. In Franciscan terms, every person – no, every creature – is potentially a little brother or sister of Christ. Every aspect of creation contains within it traces that reveal it to be the handiwork of the Creator.

18 November 2009

Big sister has her eye on our blogs

According to Ian Burrell of the The Independent:
Baroness Buscombe, the new chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, has ambitions for her organisation that go beyond the traditional newspaper companies.

She wants to examine the possibility that the PCC's role should be extended to cover the blogosphere, which is becoming an increasing source of breaking news and boasts some of the media's highest-profile commentators, such as the political bloggers Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes. . . .

She said that after a review of the governance structures of the PCC, she would want the organisation to "consider" whether it should seek to extend its remit to the blogosphere, a process that would involve discussion with the press industry, the public and bloggers . . .
I find that very disturbing, particularly as Baroness Buscombe is a Tory peer, so that kind of thinking might well be echoed by our next government.

09 November 2009

Judgement

Many years ago Fergus Bannon, one of the members of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, wrote a near future SF thriller. Unfortunately before he managed to place it with a publisher, it was overtaken by events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and he decided to shelve it.

Now, with his permission, Gary Gibson has updated it and made it available on Smashwords for the very reasonable sum of $2.00. You can buy it here.

04 November 2009

Celebrating Wallace and Gromit


Google are celebrating Wallace and Gromit’s twentieth anniversary today. People who can come up with something as clever as this should really be forgiven their plans for world domination!

27 October 2009

Consorts of Heaven

Here is a review I wrote for Interzone 223:

Jaine Fenn, Consorts of Heaven, Gollancz, 2009. ISBN: 978 0 575 08322 6 (hbk), 978 0 575 08323 3 (trade pbk)

Consorts of Heaven is Jaine Fenn’s second science fiction novel. However, readers might be forgiven for thinking they had picked up a fantasy by mistake, since much of the novel’s action takes place in the most backward, rural parts of a pre-modern society which is governed by an oppressive theocracy.

The novel opens with Kerin finding an amnesiac stranger (subsequently known as Sais) near the mere above the village of Dangwern. Kerin’s position in village society is already ambiguous – her mother was accursed, but her son Damaru is ‘sky-touched’ (a kind of holy fool with possibly magical telekinetic powers) and she is tolerated for his sake. The coming of the stranger into her life is to change it forever.

The bulk of the story is taken up with the quest to restore Sais’s memory. This is eventually achieved with the aid of a priest. But the recovery of his memory reveals the horrifying truth about Kerin’s world and forces him into a confrontation with the real powers behind the religion that dominates the world.

The story is full of well-worn tropes: an amnesiac stranger whose memory contains secrets that will rock society to its foundations, an oppressive theocracy governed by apparently benign but covertly malicious powers, a quest, a space elevator. Fenn even manages to slip in the need for people with special (in this case, telekinetic) powers to make interstellar travel possible. However, she has woven together these familiar themes to create an original and very enjoyable story.

But it wasn’t just her handling of familiar themes that I enjoyed. Her characterization is very good, and she is sympathetic to all her (human) characters so that readers will find themselves warming to characters that lesser authors might have left as stock villains. Description, too, is generally very good. Here, Sais’s perspective as an outsider is very helpful in allowing Fenn to describe things that the natives take for granted (for example, the disgusting latrines in Dangwern). Oddly (for what is meant to be a science fiction novel), I felt the descriptions became less clear once the action moved into space (perhaps because now Sais was familiar with his surroundings but Kerin didn’t have the necessary background to make sense of them). Finally, the story is well paced, with the action (and revelations about Sais and the world he finds himself in) coming at just the right rate to keep me turning the pages.

Unfortunately my enjoyment of the story was slightly tarnished by weaknesses in the world-building. As I understood more about Kerin’s world I became increasingly sceptical about Sais’s ability to communicate as soon as he regained consciousness. This is a society that has been cut off from the rest of the human race for at least 1,000 years and yet there has been virtually no linguistic drift! Nor was I entirely clear about the relationship between the villains (the Sidhe) and the human race. The fact that the people of Kerin’s world carry Sidhe genes suggests a very close relationship indeed, but at times Fenn seems to present them as an alien race. Finally, the raison d’etre of this world struck me as wildly extravagant and unconvincing. (Why use an entire world when a sufficiently advanced genetics laboratory would do?)

Nevertheless, in spite of a few weaknesses, this is a very enjoyable piece of writing from a promising new SF writer. Jaine Fenn is definitely a name to look out for in future.

Idealist discussion group

Judging by the number of comments received, the most popular entries on this blog have been my comments about Idealist, an ancient free text database originally developed by Blackwell. Since I find I am not alone in thinking that it has never been surpassed, I have now set up a Google group for users of Blackwell/Bekon Idealist. If you are interested in taking part, please pop over to its home page and sign up.

26 October 2009

Wear a cross for Christmas?

Jonathan Gledhill, the bishop of Lichfield, must have been surprised to discover that his latest pastoral letter was in the national news over the weekend. According to the BBC, for example, he had created a stir by calling upon Christians to wear crosses for Christmas.

Like so much reporting about religion, this turned out to be a misleading half-truth. In fact, what he said was:
Sometimes I think it wouldn’t be a bad thing if in December we all wore a fish badge or cross necklace and sent out a loud message that Christians aren’t going to disappear quietly from the market place or put away our crib figures in a hurry

But the real point of his letter was:
What I have discovered afresh this month is that the mark of a real Christian community is not so much the lapel badges and crosses we wear as the spontaneous, generous and practical love we show to the world. Christians should not be intimidated into putting away their neck crosses or lapel badges, but in the end these are not the badges that matter. The mark that matters is far more challenging.


I shall certainly continue to wear my cross – and not just for Christmas, since it is a constant reminder to me of my commitment to Christ.

06 October 2009

GSFWC news

The Glasgow SF Writers Circle is meeting tonight to vivisect another short story.

Recent news about group members includes the fact that Ian Hunter has received two honourable mentions in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Vol. 1 and (H)al Duncan has been shortlisted for yet another award (this time for his contribution to expanding our vocabulary).

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, one of our semi-detached members, Gary Gibson, now has a regular column on BSC Review. You can read his first piece, on the eternal war between SF and mainstream fiction here.

05 October 2009

Francistide and penitence

The weekend just past has been something of a Francis fest. On Saturday I attended a gathering of Franciscans from across the west of Scotland for a commemoration of the transitus of St Francis at Blessed John Duns Scotus Church in the Gorbals. Although primarily a Roman Catholic event, the organizers kindly invited members of the TSSF to take part. And yesterday the TSSF held its own Francistide service at St Mary’s, Hamilton. In different ways, both events reminded me very strongly that when Francis founded the Order of Friars Minor and, later, the Third Order, he saw them as orders of penitents.

Penitence must be one of the most unfashionable words in the vocabulary of the Christian Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It conjures up images of people who dwell morbidly upon real or imagined wrongdoing in their past, who indulge in guilt trips or in self-flagellation (literal or metaphorical).

But genuine Christian penitence does not dwell on the past. On the contrary, it looks to the future; it focuses on the vision of God’s peaceable kingdom as presented by Jesus (and, for Franciscans, echoed in the life of Francis). And the penitent’s approach to that vision is neatly summed up by Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

11 September 2009

Going up in the world

I have just received a letter informing me that my application to become an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders has been successful. What it means is that the society's Admission Panel is satisfied that I have demonstrated a high level of competence and substantial experience as a copy-editor.

09 September 2009

Unsolicited submissions

I am busy editing the next issue of Cultural Politics for Berg. There are some interesting things in it. Here, for example, is a paragraph from an article by the American artist David Levine, which I found myself taking personally (because the first 50 pages of my baby novel are currently in the hands of a literary agent):

I can relate intimately to the many excruciating aspects of this procedure: the humiliation of having to credit your own work, the bluff confidence required in a cover letter, the endless fiddling with the language of that cover letter, unsure what pose to strike because you’re unsure what the cultural gatekeeper on the other end wants from you, (which of course is a way of protecting yourself from the fact that they don’t want anything from you); the humiliation of knowing that you don’t know the right people, so this probably isn’t going to work; the humiliation of knowing you’re one of those people who doesn’t know the right people, and so has to blind-submit; the humiliation of pretending to believe that maybe it will work, even though you know better; and of swallowing your disgust while “making sure you cover every base.” The exhaustion and nervous fatigue occasioned by such forced optimism; the bitter, bitter, steeliness of learning not care that your stuff will probably be thrown out; of regarding your work—reproductions of your work—as frontline soldiers in a war of attrition, cannon-fodder, whose sheer numbers will eventually—hopefully— overwhelm the opposition and swarm its walls. And there is the awful taste of complicity in acknowledging that it will be thrown away, and of trying to game that.

08 September 2009

Freelance National Anthem

And now a little musical interlude in praise of being freelance (to be sung with gusto at the SfEP Annual Conference next week):

03 September 2009

Come and sing



If you live within reach of Glasgow and fancy the challenge of singing in a first-rate choir, the RSNO Chorus is currently looking for new members. Come and join us for an open rehearsal of Fauré’s Requiem on Wednesday evening. For further information, contact the chorus manager Christine Walker (0141 225 3553; christine[dot]walker[at]rsno[dot]org[dot]uk).

27 August 2009

Back to the Chorus

Last night was the RSNO Chorus’s first rehearsal of the new season, and I was there for the first time in over a year. I had to take some time off for health reasons, but thanks to a specialist physiotherapist at my local hospital I am once again well enough to cope with some strenuous singing. It was good to be back and catch up with folk I haven’t seen for a while.

The Chorus programme for the coming season certainly looks interesting. We will be performing Rachmaninov’s The Bells in November; then there are the the usual Christmas concerts and the New Year performance of Messiah (this year conducted by Roy Goodman); Fauré’s Requiem in January (at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam); and we conclude the season with Britten’s War Requiem at the end of March.

20 August 2009

Idealist lives (and Linux may be the future)

The most commented about entries on this blog seem to be the ones about the venerable database program Idealist (see After Idealist and Idealist: an update). Just the other day, Reg Kennedy commented that he is happily using a 15-year-old version of the program on a Linux system (Ubuntu with Wine, to be precise).

As it happens, I have experimented with Idealist on Linux myself and found that it works – though not perfectly – with Linux Mint 6 and a trial version of Crossover Linux. The experiment was enlightening but not satisfying enough to make me abandon Windows in favour of Linux . . . yet. However, in the past three months, in the course of ‘updating’ Windows XP, Microsoft have changed my browser homepage from BBC to MSN (more than once), installed a Firefox add-on without my permission, and changed the update settings from ‘ask me’ to ‘install automatically’. Much more of this and I am more likely to switch to Linux than look at Windows 7.

18 August 2009

All quiet on the virtual front

It has been more than a month since I added anything to this blog. My excuses? I have been working (amongst other things on a nightmarish project – a very large multi-author academic text including foreign contributions which in the end had to be sent back for retranslation, contributions from academics who are either too busy or too important to respond to queries from mere editors, and – oh, by the way – ‘we’d like to add another chapter to it’ . . . the saga continueth!); I have been away on retreat (a few days of quiet reflection at Alnmouth Friary); and I have been madly revising the novel (spurred on by the vague possibility that an agent might be interested in it).

09 July 2009

A feast of libraries

Curious Expeditions has posted a series of photographs of some of the world’s greatest libraries here (h/t Manfred Kuehn of Taking Note).

For sentimental reasons my personal favourite is still the old British Library Reading Room (memories of many hours spent working on my PhD). One striking omission is Cosin’s Library, Durham (another library which I remember with affection).

08 July 2009

The last mile

You may have noticed that I am blogging even less frequently than usual. At the moment I am making an all-out effort to get the novel into a fit state to send out to publishers. It has been hanging over me for far too long. My target is to get it finished by the middle of August. Then I can ‘forget’ about it and concentrate on some of the other things I want to write.

29 June 2009

‘I was there’

Just over a week ago I took part in my first serious sing for nearly a year. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra organized a morning workshop on Haydn’s Creation. We had a chance to sing several of the choruses from Creation with members of the BBC Singers leading some of the rehearsals and then singing the solo parts.

Great fun was had by all. On a personal level, it persuaded me that I am once again well enough to cope with singing seriously again on a regular basis. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that my sightreading hadn’t degenerated as much as I had feared.

To get a taste of what the morning was like, go to this page on the BBC website for a video of how the morning ended.

The Tunguska Event was probably caused by a comet

The Tunguska Event of 1908 has fascinated astronomers, UFO hunters and many others for the past century. What caused the explosion that flattened over 800 square miles of Siberian forest?
Was it a meteorite impact? Or was it an exploding alien spaceship?

Personally I have always favoured the cometary hypothesis: that the explosion was caused as the nucleus of a comet collided with the earth and broke up in the atmosphere. Recently Michael Kelley et al. of Cornell have offered further evidence in favour of this hypothesis. They argue that the noctilucent clouds visible for several nights after the event and as far away as Britain are consistent with the presence of water vapour due to the break up of a comet. (See ‘A Mystery Solved’.)

22 June 2009

The City and the City

Some weeks have passed since I last added anything to my blog. But I have been silent for the best possible reasons: lots of interesting work (including a couple of big volumes of essays from folk more or less all aligned with Radical Orthodoxy) and getting started at last on the revision of the novel.

Since my last entry, I have also found time to read the book mentioned there (The City and the City by China Miéville), which I found among the new books at my local library the other day.

Ostensibly the story is a murder mystery, but what really maintained my interest was the setting, which provides the story with all the strangeness that one could wish for. Located somewhere in a liminal space between Europe and the Middle East, the city states of Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same physical space. But their inhabitants are separated by centuries of cultural conditioning – a kind of internalized apartheid which means that the citizens of one city habitually ‘unsee’ those of the other. The deepest social taboo is breach: any action that causes someone in one city to interact with the people or artefacts of the other.

The murder at the beginning of the story sets the narrator (the detective Tyador Borlú) on a quest that takes him from one city to the other (there are legitimate ways of making the crossing) and ultimately into the ranks of Breach, the shadowy organization that polices the taboo.

Characterization is about what you would expect for a murder mystery. But the descriptions are superb, particularly the way Miéville has managed to get inside the heads of people living with this peculiar cultural conditioning. As you read, he manages to draw you into a culture that in some ways is far more alien than many of the alien cultures found in science fiction. And for me the climax was his description of the foreigner who having carefully studied Besźel and Ul Qoma for many years has perfected the art of dressing and moving ambiguously so that those looking at him cannot tell which city he is in.

Definitely worth reading more than once!

27 May 2009

An interesting review

Adam Roberts has just posted a fascinating review of China Miéville’s new novel The City and the City over at Punkadiddle. Quite apart from whetting my appetite for the book, the review itself is a work of art. Go and read it.

On being a slow thinker

Over on Taking Note, Manfred Kuehn quotes R. G. Collingwood as follows:
I know that I have always been a slow and painful thinker, in whom thought in its formative stages will not be hurried by effort, nor clarified by argument, that most dangerous enemy to immature thoughts, but grows obscurely through a long and oppressive period of gestation, and only after birth can be licked by its parent into presentable shape.

I can certainly identify with his description of the struggle to formulate one’s thoughts. And gestation is a good metaphor for a process that can take months or even years. (Actually I have come across that metaphor somewhere else – in something Buber wrote, I think.)

22 May 2009

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves

Here’s a review I wrote for Interzone a few months ago:

Stephen Hunt, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, HarperVoyager, 2008. ISBN 13: 978 0 00 723220 8

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves opens with the central character, Amelia Harsh, engaging in an Indiana Jones style piece of tomb robbery. She is an archaeologist obsessed with discovering the legendary city of Camlantis (once the utopian home of a race of pacifists) and she hopes the tomb will furnish evidence for her theories. Barely escaping with her life, Amelia returns empty-handed to the Kingdom of Jackals only to discover that she has been dismissed from her college post. However, the mysterious philanthropist Abraham Quest offers to fund an expedition to locate Camlantis. Although she blames him for her father’s bankruptcy and subsequent suicide, Amelia accepts his offer.

Amelia’s search for the key to the location of Camlantis takes her by submarine into the dark heart of the continent of Liongeli. On their way to the submerged ruins that contain the key, she and her companions (a motley crew of ex-convicts and Quest’s female mercenaries, with a half-demented steamman as their guide) have to face a mind-boggling array of threats. However, she succeeds in finding the key, and the search for Camlantis can really begin.

Amelia and Quest both hope that the discovery of Camlantis will usher in a new utopian age. But they have very different visions of how that is to be achieved, and one of those visions could be very bad news for those condemned to live in the present age. The stage is set for a climactic confrontation.

To say that this book is action packed is almost an understatement. There is something unremitting about the intensity of the action and the frequency with which dramatic moments arise. In keeping with the ripping yarn levels of action, the characters in the book are generally larger than life. In Amelia’s case, this is literally so: she has been magically enhanced into a cross between Lara Croft and a Soviet-era woman shot-putter. Abraham Quest combines the genius of an Einstein with the entrepreneurship of a Bill Gates. But I think my personal favourite is Cornelius Fortune: a shape-shifter who uses his powers to free political prisoners from the clutches of a crazed revolutionary regime. While Hunt’s characters tend to be larger than life, they are also all flawed in some way: Amelia’s obsession with Camlantis, Commander Black’s selfishness, Cornelius Fortune’s inner demons, Abraham Quest’s fanaticism. This is very much a postmodern take on heroism. Perhaps in keeping with their larger-than-life nature, Hunt’s characters are generally interesting and engaging but none of them is particularly deep or complex. The complexity in this novel definitely lies in the action and plotting rather than the characterization.

My first reading of The Kingdom Beyond the Waves managed to turn several hours in the departure lounge at Stansted Airport and a flight with Ryanair into enjoyable experiences! But what for me lifted this book above the level of airport escapism was Hunt’s vivid descriptions allied with a strong vein of anarchic imagination reminiscent of China Mieville at his best. Hunt has created some remarkable characters and races, from craynarbians (a race of crab-like humanoids) to the lashlites (a race of flying lizard-like beings with remarkable powers of prophecy), and set them in a world of remarkable natural phenomena, such as the floatquake (in which large tracts of land occasionally break off and float away).

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves has no literary pretensions. It is quite simply a wonderful escapist yarn with some nice satirical touches and a mass of literary and media allusions to tease the reader. Definitely a book to take with you on a long flight.

20 May 2009

More software for writers

Scrivener is widely regarded by creative writers as an indispensable tool for bringing order to the chaos of multiple files that seems to be an inescapable part of writing with a computer. As Gary Gibson points out, ‘Using the Mac-only Scrivener software has helped a lot for organising the manuscript and giving me a better overall sense of the book's structure than I've previously managed to get using more standard software like Microsoft Word’. Unfortunately it is only available for Macs and the developer has made it clear that he has no intention of developing a Windows version.

Now it looks as though PC users’ dream of a Scrivener-like outliner are about to be fulfilled. Rob Oakes, who blogs at Apolitically Incorrect, has just unveiled an early alpha version of an outliner for LyX. For anyone who has not heard of it, LyX is a graphical front-end for the legendary document processing system LaTeX (effectively a LaTeX-based word processor). At the moment, LyX-Outliner is little more than a demonstration, but it promises much for the future.

This post was originally going to be about LyX-Outliner on its own but I have just come across another piece of software for writers that looks really interesting. Storybook is a piece of Java-based freeware which offers writers a way of outlining their stories based on storyboards. Java-based programs have a reputation for being slow, but I am tempted to try Storybook out while awaiting developments on the LyX-Outliner front.

19 May 2009

Climate Stewards

I’ve just come across a new environmental venture organized by the Christian nature conservation organization A Rocha. It is called Climate Stewards and comes with an endorsement from Sir John Houghton (former director of the Met Office). Looks like a good thing.

05 May 2009

Some management speak weirdness

I recently came across the following piece of wierdness among the core values of a local lifestyle consultancy firm:
We will always look further than what is possible to ensure we are truly inspirational.
Inspiring their clients to do the impossible?

01 May 2009

Idealist: an update

In spite of being tempted from time to time to try out alternatives, I keep coming back to Idealist as my main tool for storing information. It is incredibly simple to use and yet surprisingly powerful. My main Idealist database currently contains about 7,000 references and 15,000 notes and yet searches are virtually instantaneous because of its full-text indexing. If the existing record types are not to your taste you can create new field and record types very easily (and you can do this on the fly in existing databases). Each database can hold up to a million records and each record can be up to 8Mb (though there is a 64K limit on the length of an individual field). Its search ability is very well thought out, enabling you to drill down quickly to precisely the records you need. In addition, simply highlighting a word or phrase in a record and pressing the Stack button will take you to a new hit list containing all the records in which that word or phrase appears. And, if you like, you can set up kinship (parent–child) relations between records. If you want to try it out, I have just discovered that it can be downloaded from here.

The owners of Idealist, Bekon, may have disappeared, but a recent flurry of comments on my earlier post gives me some faint hope that Idealist might not be dead. In particular, one of the commenters admitted to having a copy of the source code and another suggested that he might be in a position to run that source code past a developer. So perhaps it would be possible to bring Idealist into the twenty-first century (always assuming issues about ownership of the code could be sorted out).

If that were possible, I already have a wish list of things I would like to see. Top of the list would be Unicode support closely followed by RTF fields. Then, in no particular order, easy insertion of hypertext links into fields, better implementation of the kinship system, and much improved import and export.

30 April 2009

76 questions to ask about any technology

I recently came across the following list of critical questions to be asked of any technology, which has been doing the rounds in the blogosphere. Folk seem to be attributing it to Jacques Ellul but, while it certainly feels like the kind of thing he would have written, I can’t trace it back to one of his writings.

Ecological
  • What are its effects on the health of the planet and of the person?
  • Does it preserve or destroy biodiversity?
  • Does it preserve or reduce ecosystem integrity?
  • What are its effects on the land?
  • What are its effects on wildlife?
  • How much, and what kind of waste does it generate?
  • Does it incorporate the principles of ecological design?
  • Does it break the bond of renewal between humans and nature?
  • Does it preserve or reduce cultural diversity?
  • What is the totality of its effects, its “ecology”?

Social

  • Does it serve community?
  • Does it empower community members?
  • How does it affect our perception of our needs?
  • Is it consistent with the creation of a communal, human economy?
  • What are its effects on relationships?
  • Does it undermine conviviality?
  • Does it undermine traditional forms of community?
  • How does it affect our way of seeing and experiencing the world?
  • Does it foster a diversity of forms of knowledge?
  • Does it build on, or contribute to, the renewal of traditional forms of knowledge?
  • Does it serve to commodify knowledge or relationships?
  • To what extent does it redefine reality?
  • Does it erase a sense of time and history?
  • What is its potential to become addictive?

Practical

  • What does it make?
  • Who does it benefit?
  • What is its purpose?
  • Where was it produced?
  • Where is it used?
  • Where must it go when it’s broken or obsolete?
  • How expensive is it?
  • Can it be repaired?
  • By an ordinary person?

Moral

  • What values does its use foster?
  • What is gained by its use?
  • What are its effects beyond its utility to the individual?
  • What is lost in using it?
  • What are its effects on the least advantaged in society?

Ethical

  • How complicated is it?
  • What does it allow us to ignore?
  • To what extent does it distance agent from effect?
  • Can we assume personal, or communal responsibility for its effects?
  • Can its effects be directly apprehended?
  • What ancillary technologies does it require?
  • What behavior might it make possible in the future?
  • What other technologies might it make possible?
  • Does it alter our sense of time and relationships in ways conducive to nihilism?

Vocational

  • What is its impact on craft?
  • Does it reduce, deaden, or enhance human creativity?
  • Is it the least imposing technology available for the task?
  • Does it replace, or does it aid human hands and human beings?
  • Can it be responsive to organic circumstance?
  • Does it depress or enhance the quality of goods?
  • Does it depress or enhance the meaning of work?

Metaphysical

  • What aspect of the inner self does it reflect?
  • Does it express love?
  • Does it express rage?
  • What aspect of our past does it reflect?
  • Does it reflect cyclical or linear thinking?

Political

  • Does it concentrate or equalize power?
  • Does it require, or institute a knowledge elite?
  • Is it totalitarian?
  • Does it require a bureaucracy for its perpetuation?
  • What legal empowerments does it require?
  • Does it undermine traditional moral authority?
  • Does it require military defense?
  • Does it enhance, or serve military purposes?
  • How does it affect warfare?
  • Is it massifying?
  • Is it consistent with the creation of a global economy?
  • Does it empower transnational corporations?
  • What kind of capital does it require?

Aesthetic

  • Is it ugly?
  • Does it cause ugliness?
  • What noise does it make?
  • What pace does it set?
  • How does it affect the quality of life (as distinct from the standard of living)?
It strikes me as an interesting and potentially very useful list for anyone debating the implementation of a new piece of technology. And, with a bit of adaptation, it should also work as an examen for anyone trying to make their lifestyle technologically simpler.

More on hybridity

Charlie Stross is blogging at Tor.com this month and has just posted an answer to the question ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ which ties in nicely with my recent post quoting Orhan Pamuk. Says Charlie:

Unlike Roger Zelazny I don’t leave a glass of milk and a plate of cookies out by the door; unlike Harlan Ellison I don’t use a mail order supplier in Poughkeepsie. (Or is it the other way around?) I don’t invent invent neat new ideas at all. Instead, I trip over them—because they’re lying around in heaps. The trick is to pick several up at the same time and smush them together until some of them stick to each other—creating something new and interesting.

But, lest anyone think that the art of writing speculative fiction is no more than being able to create interesting new hybrid constellations of ideas, he concludes with the warning:

Ideas, hah. The real challenge in this line of work is being able to weed the productive ones from the chaff, to decide which you’re going to spend the next six to nine months turning into something that people will pay for.

28 April 2009

Doing God’s will

From time to time I find myself asking what God wants me to be doing with my life. It’s the kind of question that surfaces at moments of uncertainty or when I begin to suspect that the things I am doing are largely meaningless. I have just been going through one of those phases and, once again, found myself asking what work God really wants me to be doing.

This time the answer (or, at least, a response) came through the unlikely medium of a blog entry. Country Contemplative recently posted a quotation from Thomas Merton, which reminded me that

If you want to know what is meant by “God’s will”, this is one way to get a good idea of it. “God’s will” is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. …Everything that is demanded of me, in order that I may treat every other person effectively as a human being, “is willed for me by God under the natural law.” …I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when those who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice. (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 76–7)

The point for me is that asking what work, what thing(s), God wants me to do is the wrong question. God is really much more interested in our relationships than in our work. What is God’s will for our lives? Jesus answered the question definitively when he said,

The first [commandment] is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12.29–31)

23 April 2009

Free software for writers

I am something of a sucker for new pieces of software, particularly programs that promise to make the writing process easier and don’t cost anything. So here for your edification are some notes on some free programs that I have come across in my continuing search for the perfect piece of novel writing software.

My current favourite is yWriter. I have already said a bit about it in previous blog entries (here and here). It is now into version 5 and just keeps getting better and better.

Chapter by Chapter is an interesting alternative for folk who really must work in Word. Essentially it is an add-on for Word, which does much the same as Word’s Master Document feature but does it better and far more reliably. Very useful if you want to keep track of a project that consists of multiple Word documents. In fact, I may start using it for journal editing.

Celtx describes itself as ‘the most complete media pre-production software program available anywhere’. It probably does more than the average writer will want, but if you are interested in screenwriting this is definitely a program to look at seriously.

At the other extreme, for people who like a simple text editor without any bells or whistles to distract them from their writing, there is Q10. I seem to recall Gary Gibson recommending this program a couple of years ago. Not really my thing.

I have recently come across a piece of writing software that takes quite a different tack from the above. It is called Papel and works with a really intriguing visual metaphor. Essentially the various elements of your story are represented by icons that can be shuffled around on a storyboard and organized in a variety of ways. I am very tempted to give it a try (perhaps because I’m an inveterate mindmapper). It seems like quite a mature product, which is just as well as the author seems to have stopped developing it in 2006.

21 April 2009

On creative impurity

In one of his books, the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk makes the following comment:

Nothing is pure . . . In the realm of the book arts, whenever a masterpiece is made, whenever a splendid picture makes my eyes water out of joy and causes a chill to run down my spine, I can be certain of the following: Two styles heretofore never brought together have come together to create something new and wondrous. (My Name is Red, p. 194)

When I read this, it certainly rang bells with me. (I would be inclined to speak of ‘hybridity’ rather than ‘impurity’, but the latter would be anachronistic for Pamuk’s character.) The books (or passages) that have had most impact on me are those that have taken two (or more) ideas or genres or spheres of life that hitherto I have not connected and fuse them together in a creative manner. One recent example would be Ursula Le Guin’s new novel, Lavinia (of which more later).

20 April 2009

Against theological hubris

A recent blog post by Michael Jensen reminded me of an article in First Things, in which the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart makes the following comments about theology:

theology is actually a pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, medieval, and early modern worlds. Even if one entirely avoids considering what metaphysical content one should attach to the word ‘God,’ one can still plausibly argue that theology is no more lacking in a substantial field of inquiry than are history, philosophy, the study of literature, or any of the other genuinely respectable university disciplines.

Moreover, theology requires far greater scholarly range. The properly trained Christian theologian should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the liturgies, texts, and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should have a thorough philosophical training, should possess considerable knowledge of the fine arts, should have an intelligent interest in such areas as law or economics, and so on. This is not to say that one cannot practice theology without all these attainments, but such an education remains the scholarly ideal of the guild. And . . . the absence or near-absence of theology from the general curriculum has done incalculable harm to students’ ability to understand their own fields. This is perhaps especially—or at least most obviously—true in the case of literary studies; but, in fact, it would be hard to name a discipline outside the hard sciences or mathematics that can be mastered adequately without some degree of theological literacy.

This is an impossible standard to meet and any theologian who thinks it is achievable is guilty of the most appalling hubris. In light of such a standard, even something as monumental as Barth’s Church Dogmatics is only the stumblings of a relative beginner. In light of such a standard, theology can only be, as Barth put it ‘an act of repentant humility’ (God in Action, p. 44).

12 April 2009

Easter Sunday: resurrection and real presence

A quotation for Easter from Timothy Radcliffe:
To encounter the risen Christ . . . is to be present to the one in whom lies, cowardice, misunderstanding and even death are defeated. He is thus really present, more present than we are to each other, more bodily. The Eucharist is the sacrament of the ‘real presence’ of Jesus. On Easter Sunday he overcame all the absences – the distances, silences, misunderstandings, disloyalties – by which we are separate from one another and from God. He is truly the embodied Word of God which breaks through every barrier. That is what it means for him to say, ‘Peace be with you.’ For him to be risen is, then, not just to be alive once more: it is to be the place of peace in which we meet. (Why Go To Church?, p. 166)

09 April 2009

The Winnieagram: A note on Pooh and sexism

A Note on Pooh and Sexism

Some critics have accused the Pooh corpus of being incorrigibly sexist (see, for example, Germaine Bear’s Pooh and Patriarchy). However, in spite of the great erudition and scholarship shown by Ms Bear and her colleagues, I find their arguments unsatisfactory and essentially superficial, based as they are upon the predominance of the masculine pronoun in Milne’s books.

Against this it is sufficient to point out that, while formally addressed as males (excepting, of course, Kanga), all the characters are in fact soft toys. As is well known soft toys do not, as a rule, display sexual differentiation. They are, therefore, better thought of as androgynous and their social relations, as portrayed in the Pooh corpus, clearly transcend the sexual politics of patriarchy and matriarchy. This Ursinian androgyny again highlights the psychological significance of the Pooh corpus, anticipating as it does Jung’s insights into the androgynous nature of the fully individuated self (see, for example, his Mysterium Coniunctionis).

Another possible line of argument would be to accept the view of some radical feminists that men and women are essentially two different species. If this is granted, then sexism may be understood as a special case of speciesism. And, as Tyerman Williams has pointed out, a charge of speciesism cannot be sustained against Winnie the Pooh.

08 April 2009

The Winnieagram: Christopher Robin and personal growth

Christopher Robin and Personal Growth

The eight ‘Poohsonalities’ are essentially eight different ways in which we respond to the problems and challenges of everyday life. To the extent that we tend to rely on one of these responses to the exclusion of others, we become unbalanced, less than fully human.

The most positive aspect of the Winnieagram is its strong affirmation that every one of us contains all of these ‘Poohsonalities’. Inside every Tigger there is an Eeyore struggling to get out (and vice versa). As we exercise our neglected ‘Poohsonalities’ we become more balanced, better integrated individuals. And the end result of that process? In addition to the individual ‘Poohsonalities’, the Pooh corpus also gives us a picture of the well-integrated, fully rounded human being – that picture is Christopher Robin.

In common with Jung, the Pooh corpus sees a deeper significance in this individuated self. Here the self is identified as Christopher, literally the Christ bearer. Similarly Jung identifies the archetype of the self as the divine image in the human psyche.

However, the process of individuation is fraught with difficulties. Jung and Pooh agree that anyone who embarks on the process confronts a wide range of dangers. In the Pooh corpus these dangers are represented by a variety of metaphors, ranging from Pooh’s often frustrated searches for ‘hunny’ to the disastrous heffalump hunt. As the outcome of the latter reveals, in such circumstances only the guidance of someone who has already reached the Christopher Robin state can enable the individual to move forward (escape from the heffalump trap). Thus, just as Jung insisted that analysis of the unconscious should not attempted without the assistance of a qualified depth psychologist, so Ursinian psychology stresses that development towards the Christopher Robin state requires the guidance of an accredited Winnieagram counsellor.

07 April 2009

The Winnieagram: The eight types

The Eight Types

The Winnieagram is based upon a set of eight distinct personality (or, ‘Poohsonality’) types, which derive their names from the characters that represent them in the books.


Pooh

Pooh types are sociable, down-to-earth and caring. Like Winnie the Pooh, they allow their feelings to guide their actions. This sometimes has disastrous consequences (as, for example, when Pooh decided that Eeyore needed a house to protect him from the snow). They tend to be materialistic with an overdeveloped sensitivity to their own physical well-being (a trait well illustrated by Pooh’s constant awareness of the state of his stomach).


Piglet

Piglet types are quiet, reliable and faithful. They tend to be followers rather than leaders. However, they are capable of great acts of courage and self-sacrifice (it was Piglet who went for Christopher Robin when a flood threatened the Hundred Acre Wood; and it was Piglet who gave up his own home when Owl’s was blown down). They are also people of deep faith – as witness: ‘If Christopher Robin’s coming’, said Piglet, ‘I don’t mind anything.’ and ‘It’s Christopher Robin,’ said Piglet. ‘He’ll know what to do.’ (In both citations, Christopher Robin is clearly symbolic of the divine.)

Theirs is a future-oriented spirituality as revealed by the following dialogue:
‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh, what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’
‘What’s for breakfast?’, said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’
‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet.

Tigger

Tigger types are the archetypal creative personalities. This is illustrated in the Pooh corpus by Tigger’s experimental approach to language in such phrases as ‘Worraworraworraworraworra!’ They tend to be bouncy and manic-depressive, characteristics that combine with their native creativity to make them appear larger than life. Or, as Pooh puts it
Whatever his weight
in pounds, shillings, and ounces.
He always seems bigger
because of his bounces.

Rabbit

Rabbits are unusually complex. They are very conscious of their connectedness to others (they tend to think in terms of friends and relations) and yet are also aware of their own uniqueness. They are more intellectual than most (in the Hundred Acre Wood only Owl and Rabbit can read) but combine this with much common sense. This combination marks them out as natural leaders, able to see clearly what needs to be done and how to achieve that goal and able also to direct others to that end. As you would expect, it was Rabbit who took the lead in the unbouncing of Tigger.


Kanga

Kanga is the only explicitly female character in the Hundred Acre Wood (the author hopes, in a future paper, to explore fully the implications of this fact for an Ursinian perspective on sexuality). She thus represents the essentially maternal type of person. Kanga types tend to be enthusiasts for rules and regulations. They can also be fiercely protective of those in their care. At times this combination can make them seem rather authoritarian. Many Kanga types find their way into the caring professions (particularly social work and the priesthood).


Roo

For every Kanga there must be a Roo. Roo types are the necessary complement for Kanga types – they are the type Kanga exists to serve. The Roo type tends to be childlike, dependent on others and irresponsible. He or she exists entirely for present experience.


Owl

Owls are the most intellectual of the types. They are somewhat aloof and, in their conversation, may fly over the heads of others.


Eeyore

Eeyore represents the need of every human being for solitude and quiet reflection. However, taken to extremes he becomes the archetypal recluse and misanthrope. Eeyore types tend to be cynical and pessimistic. They often have intellectual pretensions but this is merely a thin veneer over a deep anti-intellectualism. For example, Eeyore’s response to his discovery that Rabbit could read was as follows:
‘Clever’, said Eeyore scornfully, putting a foot heavily on his three sticks. ‘Education!’ said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. ‘What is learning?’ asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks in the air. ‘A thing Rabbit knows! Ha!’

The Winnieagram: An Introduction

Some years ago I attended an enneagram workshop for reasons that now elude me. I’m afraid my experiences that weekend simply confirmed my suspicions that that approach to personality types simply did not cohere with my worldview.

One thing did emerge from that weekend: I wrote a little parody of the enneagram based on Winnie-the-Pooh. And, since I’m feeling a bit frivolous at the moment, I’ve decided to post it on my blog. Here’s the introduction:


The Winnieagram: An Introduction

Ursinian scholarship has advanced rapidly since the publication in 1979 of Frederick Crews’ seminal The Pooh Perplex. One has only to think of Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh (1982) and The Te of Piglet (1992) to realise that Winnie-the-Pooh is no mere children’s classic but rather a text that encapsulates a wealth of human wisdom. That insight has been fruitfully applied to theology (in Christopher Idle’s influential sequence of papers ‘An Ongoing Theology of Winnie the Pooh’) and philosophy (notably in John Tyerman Williams’s Pooh and the Philosophers (1995)). However, as far as the author is aware, no one has previously noted Winnie the Pooh’s crucial role in the history of psychology. And yet there can be little doubt that Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner deserve to be treated as seminal psychology texts on a par with Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life or Jung’s Symbols of Transformation. The present paper seeks to address in a modest way this unfortunate lacuna in Ursinian studies.

The task of giving a detailed exposition of the wealth of psychological insight to be gleaned from Winnie the Pooh and his friends is beyond the scope of a single paper. Instead I propose to outline a typology of human personality inspired by the Ursinian tradition. Known as the Winnieagram, the history of this typology is shrouded in mystery. However the clear dependence of other psychological typologies (such as the classical Hellenistic doctrine of temperaments and the Sufi-inspired Enneagram) upon the Winnieagram bears witness to its ancient origins.

One tradition traces the usual graphical representation of the Winnieagram (an eight-pointed star arranged around a ninth central point) to the layout of a Neolithic stone circle that once stood at the heart of what is now the Hundred Acre Wood. Sadly all traces of this circle have long since vanished and it is now quite impossible to confirm this suggestion.

An alternative history, favoured by the neo-theosophical school of Ursinian Studies, relies upon the hypothesis that Winnie the Pooh is, in fact, a Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos). Thus, it is argued, Winnie the Pooh’s psychological insights may traced to Tibet, that home of so much mystical wisdom.

The Kingdom of Nature

I recently discovered that my PhD thesis is available online via EthOS, the British Library’s Electronic Theses Online Service. You have to register to use the service, but that is a fairly painless procedure and then you can search for my thesis, The Kingdom of Nature: God’s Providential Care for the Non-Human or, indeed, any other thesis you would rather read. My thesis has already been digitized and is available free of charge as a 15Mb pdf file. If what you are looking for hasn’t yet been digitized there may be some delay in getting hold of it, and some institutions make a charge for downloading a thesis.

03 April 2009

Good news from Westminster

No, not the city but the Roman Catholic archdiocese. I’ve just heard that Vincent Nichols, currently Archbishop of Birmingham, is to be the new Archbishop of Westminster. This has got to be a good thing for Roman Catholicism in England and Wales. I got to know him slightly at the end of the 1980s when he was Secretary to the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales and I was working for The Gospel and Our Culture.

Sections of the media have tried to portray him as ambitious and divisive, perhaps because he has had the courage to speak out against some of the shibboleths of contemporary secularism. By contrast, my memories of him are of a good listener, someone who is thoughtful, someone who has a gift for chairing difficult meetings and somehow bringing them to a constructive conclusion.

30 March 2009

Vampire maths

A few days ago the maths blog Punk Rock Operations Research posted an item entitled ‘On vampires and stochastic processes’. The article suggests that vampires of the kind portrayed in Western literature would inevitably undergo a massive population explosion with catastrophic results (both for them and, presumably, their human prey). However, comments on the original article and on the New Scientist’s report offer various mechanisms which would allow vampire populations to remain small. Perhaps slayers are an essential part of the vampire ecosystem!

26 March 2009

The Mystery of Grace

The new edition of Interzone is now in the shops, so I thought I’d share my contribution with you – a review of Charles de Lint’s new novel, The Mystery of Grace:

Charles de Lint is a master of the art of finding the magic in the everyday, specifically, in the everyday life of urban North America. Many of his previous novels have been set in and around the city of Newford, but in The Mystery of Grace he begins to explore a new setting in the American south-west: a town called Santo del Vado Viejo with a rich ethnic mix that allows him to draw on European, Mexican and Indian magical and mythical traditions.

One of the reasons I always enjoy de Lint’s writing is his very strong characterization and this novel is no exception. The Mystery of Grace is built around two main characters: Grace, a Latina motor mechanic, and John Burns, an Anglo graphic designer and would-be artist. At the beginning of the novel, Grace is slowly coming to terms with the recent death of her grandfather while, years after the event, John still feels guilty about the death of his kid brother. De Lint has the gift of being able to take us to the very heart of a character’s passions – in the case of Grace, her passion for classic cars, rockabilly and tattoos. His description of the relationships between characters is also excellent; for example, he sketches a convincing portrayal of Grace’s relationship with her grandfather entirely through her memories. More important for the development of the book is the way he traces the gradual development of the relationship between Grace and John, and particularly the healing it brings about in John’s life. But his gift for characterization extends beyond the central characters; I think it is because he genuinely likes his characters that he enables the reader to sympathize with a character, to feel that you would want them as friends.

De Lint’s world building is as strong as ever. This time, he has created a pocket universe inhabited by those who have died within a few blocks of the Alverson Arms – the apartment building where Grace lives. The rules of this world have been carefully thought through and dovetail with those of the otherworldly realms of his other novels and short stories. But unlike those, this is a closed claustrophobic realm and its inhabitants are condemned to mere existence enlivened only by the opportunity for twice-yearly visits to the world they have left behind.

And so to the plot, which sadly is very difficult to describe without spoilers. It contains two main story lines. One is a romance: John and Grace meet at a Halloween party. Unfortunately one of them died a fortnight earlier and is only allowed to return to this world twice a year. In spite of that restriction, their relationship flourishes. There is a resolution (at least implicitly) to their problem about two-thirds of the way into the story, but it is by no means as straightforward as you might expect.

The other plot strand is the mystery of the Alverson Arms world. Who created it? And why? And what can the souls trapped in this world do? Inevitably there is a villain behind it, but once again de Lint’s gift for characterization comes to the fore and gives the reader some insight into what has driven her to do this. Less satisfactory is the religious dimension that creeps into the resolution of this aspect of the plot. In most of his novels, the central character finds the inner strength to overcome the problem that confronts them. However, in this case, a kind of quasi-religious faith is invoked by the inhabitants of the Alverson Arms world as they struggle against the woman who has trapped them there.

For me, his treatment of faith (and particularly veneration of Our Lady of Altagracia) is a significant flaw. But even a flawed de Lint novel is essential reading because of the way he brings his world and his characters to life and the way he imbues the ordinary with a patina of magic.

07 March 2009

Advice on arguing with geeks

Over at Notes from the Geek Show, (H)al has been entertaining his readers with a series of short articles on arguing with geeks. Some of the highlights so far include ‘philosophistication’, ‘sophistic monosensicalism’ and ‘the inarticulacy imperative’. Imagine a weird fiction version of Straight and Crooked Thinking!

25 February 2009

Stringfellow on Christian witness in a secular world

I have recently discovered the American lay theologian William Stringfellow and what little I have read so far seems to resonate with the writings of a couple of thinkers I admire, Jacques Ellul and Walter Wink. Here is a sample of what Stringfellow has to say on approaching the contemporary world from a Christian perspective:
In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst babel, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and falsehood of death with truth and potency and the efficacy of the Word of God. Know the Word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word, define the Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word. And more than that, in the Word of God, expose death and all death's works and wiles, rebuke lies, cast out demons, exorcise, cleanse the possessed, raise those who are dead in mind and conscience. (from A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow, ed. Bill Wylie Kellerman, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994, p. 354)

18 February 2009

Spiritual direction: beyond professionalism

The other day a friend told me that she would be reluctant to recommend someone to ‘a spiritual director who had not completed some sort of training course’.

Why am I uncomfortable with this?
  • I think of training courses in spiritual direction as resources rather than qualifications. There is no way a training course can qualify you to be a spiritual director.
  • It smacks of the professionalization of spiritual direction: spiritual directors become a specially trained elite; if you haven’t been through the training, you can’t join the elite.
  • Professionalization narrows the range of spiritual direction that is available to us by excluding those who for whatever reason are unable to do the training: those who can’t afford the cost of training; those who can’t spare the time; those who lack the educational ability to do the training; those who are deemed not to fit because of their personality type or other emotional or psychological factors. Thus some of the finest spiritual directors of the past would have been disqualified.
  • Most of the formal training in spiritual direction in the UK appears to be Ignatian in orientation, perhaps because Ignatian spirituality lends itself more easily to a formal structured approach than, say, Franciscan spirituality. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear this can leave directors who have completed such courses ill at ease with directees seeking something less structured.
  • But, ultimately, competence in spiritual direction has little to do with a paper qualification. On the contrary, it is about quality of relationships: the relationship between the director and God and the relationship between director and directee.