29 January 2009

John Updike on writing

John Updike was, by all accounts, an outstanding novelist of the Protestant middle class of small-town America. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever managed to get into his prose (in spite of the links some people make between him and Karl Barth (e.g. see this article)) but one of his poems, ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’, has stayed with me. And I was struck by this quotation from Updike, which comes from one of the many obituaries that have appeared this week:
From earliest childhood I was charmed by the materials of my craft, by pencils and paper and, later, by the typewriter and the entire apparatus of printing. To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me, after nearly 30 years concerned with the making of books, a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.

I think this is a wonderful summary of the fascination of writing (and, indeed, of the entire publishing process).

26 January 2009

Scientific gaffe of the month

Earlier this month, the Daily Mirror ran a story about rising sea levels under the headline ‘Sea will rise to levels of last Ice Age’. That would be a rise of as much as . . . –120 metres!

24 January 2009

Taking a stand against Big Brother

No, I don’t mean the television series. The British Government is planning to create a centralized database to maintain records of all our phone calls, emails and web activity. To set our minds at rest, the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has promised that they won't store the content of our messages and calls. All they are interested in is the times, dates, duration and locations of phone calls, numbers called, websites visited and addresses emailed. The potential for creating a vast web of guilt by association is only too obvious.

But is there anything we can do to register our displeasure? As it happens, the Bishop of Buckingham has recently blogged about one possibility. He mentions a Facebook group called “cc all your private emails to Jacqui Smith Day.” The idea is that on a given day every member of the group will blind copy all their emails to the Home Secretary. And then we’ll see just how much of a decrease there is in crime and international terrorism thanks to all that information!

22 January 2009

Daily routines

Alan Campbell has just posted a blog entry about his (multiple) daily routines inspired by an entire blog devoted to the daily routines of creative people (Daily Routines: How writers, artists and other interesting people organize their day). Some of them (not least Alan’s) are truly terrifying; others are quite fascinating – definitely worth browsing through the site some time.

And what of my own routine, you might well ask. Quite simply, the computer tells me what to do. No, seriously; I have a program called TimeTo into which I put details of all my projects (how long I expect them to take, deadline, relative importance). The program then juggles all that information, fits it into the working time in my week and tells me what I should be doing next. It warns me when I try to fit too much into my schedule and, conversely, I can tell simply by glancing at the monthly overview whether I can fit in that extra last-minute project for client X.

21 January 2009

And now for something completely different

I have just discovered that the Monty Python team have their own official channel on YouTube (here). Yet another wonderful displacement activity brought to us by the Internet.

09 January 2009

SCP 06F6: A cosmic mystery

I do like a good mystery, so here is one courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope:

In 2006, while looking for supernovae, the Hubble detected an optical transient unlike anything that has ever been seen before.


The object in the right-hand screen was first spotted in February 2006. It brightened steadily for 100 days and then dimmed at roughly the same rate, which makes it unlike any supernova ever seen. It also means it is unlikely to have been some kind of gravitational lensing event. There is no known object at that location in space. And spectral analysis has been frustratingly inconclusive (although there may be redshifted molecular carbon lines in the spectrum, in which case the object is about a billion light-years away).

For more details, see the HubbleSite press release.

08 January 2009

What makes a good systematic theology?

John Webster (once described by Rowan Williams as the finest Anglican theologian of his generation) makes the following observations in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology:

The most illuminating systematic theologies are often characterized by (1) conceptual ingenuity, resourcefulness, and suppleness, which enable a projection of Christian claims suitable to draw attention to their richness and complexity; (2) conceptual transparency, which enables a more penetrating understanding of the primary modes of Christian articulation of the gospel; and (3) broad knowledge and sensitive and creative deployment of concepts inherited from the Christian theological tradition. By contrast, systematic theologies are less successful if they are conceptually monotonous or stiff, if concepts threaten to overwhelm or replace that which they are intended to represent, or if the concepts do not have a discernable relation to well-seated theological usage. (p. 10)

(h/t: Der Evangelische Theologe)

So John, when are we going to see your systematic theology?

05 January 2009

How to read scripture

One of the central elements of any form of Christian spirituality is the continual reading and rereading of the Christian scriptures. But how should we read these texts? As historical artefacts? As pieces of literature? As the very words of God? Should we try to reconstruct the author(s) intention(s) in writing the text? Or should we attend instead to our own response?

In Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (pp. 81–89), David Ford offers ten maxims for interpreting scripture:

Maxim 1. Read and reread scripture above all for God and God’s purposes; hear it as God the Creator, Judge and saviour crying out to humanity; respond to it in cries, worship, life and thought, with love for God and the world God loves.
Maxim 2. Read scripture guided by the wisdom of the church’s rule of faith, participating in its ongoing drama of God’s engagement with humanity.
Maxim 3. Read the Old and New Testaments together in the Spirit of the risen Jesus Christ; be alert to their mutual illumination and to the figural potential between and beyond them; be in dialogue especially with Jewish readings.
Maxim 4. Seek first the plain sense of scripture in all its literal and metaphorical richness and also be alert for other senses.
Maxim 5. Learn who Jesus Christ is for God and for us through following the testimony to his life, death and resurrection, in conversation with all four Gospels, with the diverse voices of the rest of the Bible, and with all truth and wisdom.
Maxim 6. Read scripture as part of the church (past, present and future) in worship and meditation, in study and conversation around the text, and alert to the realities and cries of the world.

Maxim 7. Become apprenticed to past and present wise readers of scripture who have lived their lives in response to its message.
Maxim 8. Let conversations around scripture be open to all people, religions, cultures, arts, disciplines, media and spheres of life.
Maxim 9. Read scripture in the Spirit, immersed in life, desiring God’s future, and open to continually fresh rereadings in new situations.
Maxim 10. Let us reread in love!
And to leave his readers in doubt about the meaning of these maxims, the next two chapters are devoted to the book of Job as a worked example, read in dialogue with post-Holocaust Jewish readings and Micheal O’Siadhail’s poetry cycle The Gossamer Wall.

I think this theocentric approach with its emphasis on love for the other is a very useful corrective, on the one hand, to self-serving liberal readings that merely use scripture to justify positions arrived at on other grounds (notably subjective experience) and, on the other hand, to self-righteous conservative readings that use scripture as a weapon to defend entrenched positions and attack those who think/believe differently.