Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My books of the year

Easy choice:

Brian Mclaren: a generous orthdoxy
Lesslie Newbiggin: The open secret
Lesslie Newbiggin: The gospel in a pluralist society

Evangelicalism can easily decay into Phariseeism: all about personal conversion, nothing about the world at large and as a whole. These books are the remedy.

That would be the Librivox recording of
William Makepeace Thackery: Vanity Fair

which I listened to by a swimming pool in Nice, during rainstorms in the Soul Survivor Christian festival (which was mostly rainstorms) and through many long insomniac nights.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Sinclair C5 spotted!

I spotted a Sinclair C5 on the road today -- that Cambridge-designed battery-powered personal transportation device that flopped in the 1980s. Like many of Sir Clive Sinclair's ideas, it was both way ahead of its time and of a slightly dodgy build quality.

It looked as vulnerable on the open road as it ever did in the 1980s. But it also looked absolutely perfect for a cycle path. I think the last 20 years in the UK has seen a huge expansion of cycle paths, and I couldn't help thinking of the parallel with the Internet.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (whom I heard speak two days ago, incidentally), built a wonderful open infrastructure and a whole exotic ecosystem of products developed to run on it -- google and amazon and ebay and all the rest. Surely if we really systematically built a network of cycle paths in this country, that linked everything up, a similar exotic ecosystem would also arise: electric bikes and Segways and those wierd things Honda are making. And maybe some veteran C5s, rescued from garages, chugging along with their lead-acid batteries to the railway station, just as Sir Clive originally dreamt.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A chinese Christian analyses the West

Technological optimism and literary pessimism' is the conclusion of Carver T Yu.

The guy's Amazon sales rank is 2 million and something, even below that of Gordon's Brown's latest book, so rally round.

Not that I read him, of course: he was quoted in Lesslie Newbiggin

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I'm really sorry, but I liked 'the Shack'. Eventually.


Robotic dialogue
Minimal characterization
Really a work of theology, not fiction (though the same could be said for Pilgrim's Progress)
'Like the sort of Christian leaflet I get shoved through my letterbox', said one shocked and unimpressed member of our book club. (None of the self-professed non-Christians in our group liked it at all. They hated it. One looked at the Amazon reviews and couldn't believe them.)

Worst, a cloying schlockiness that keeps trying to suck you in and swallow you forever.

This book is as easy to criticise as George W Bush.

But then you get to this artful picture of God and redemption, and the way sets off all kinds of chords in your heart. You note its nice pace, its filmic quality. You feel its freshness. You find yourself thinking about what it said long after you put the book down. You love the way the sheer volume of its sales has forced it into Borders and onto the bestseller lists. And it deserved to, not by being a literary masterpiece but by that insight and power that makes people choose it above better-written books and spend time with it. And you conclude ... OK, I liked it too. Eventually and partially.

Patient revolutionaries

Newbiggin calls Christians 'patient revolutionaries'.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Darcy, Lizzie, two ways of knowing, and the meaning of life

This is complicated but worth it.

I've been reading that theological polymath Leslie Newbiggin who reads so widely himself that you get an instant, distilled education into all sorts of hard books that you aren't brainy enough to pick up yourself.

He talks about two ways of knowing: 'I-it' and 'I-thou'. I-it is about knowing things; I-thou is about knowing persons.

You learn I-it stuff by reading, research, analyzing.

You learn I-thou stuff by humbling yourself, listening, being vulnerable.

What a deep principle this is, running right through the world and the heavenlies.

So (for example) in Pride and Prejudice Mr Darcy is a master of I-it. Rich, educated, powerful. He knows everything. But none of it works with Lizzie. She's only interested in I-thou. And of course, so, deep down, is Darcy. She meets a deep need of his heart, a need that no amount of I-it can satisfy. And so the story is about how he has to humble himself, listen, be vulnerable, and get launched into the exotic, tender world of I-thou knowing.

Here (to take a second example) is where the materialist comes unstuck. I have not read all of Richard Dawkins but I have read enough to know that his whole approach is I-it. Brilliantly argued, wonderfully convincing, construe it how you like, it's still I-it. But the God of the Christians is I-thou. All I-it pathways will bypass him.

Look (to take a third example) at how it splits up the world's religions:

Mainstream Islam? It's the straight path, the rules: I-it
Sufism? That's I-thou, but it's a counter-trend in Islam.

Christianity: where it's I-thou it lives, even if it's very deficient. Where it's I-it, 'even what you have will be taken from you'

Thursday, October 16, 2008

If you want to know about truth, ask a quantum physicist

Physicists are, of course, rarely asked for sensible comments about anything. They make cameo appearances in the media where they are asked silly questions by journos who spend the time boasting about how little they understand science.

A pity. Here's the world according to the very quotable Neils Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics.

You will note (this is an aside) how many of these quotes are actually statements of faith -- you need a lot of faith to get anywhere in quantum physics.

'Prediction is very difficult, especially concerning the future.'

'How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress. '

'The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth. '

'You are not thinking. You are merely being logical. '

I borrowed these quotes from here.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Spinning the Kingdom in new directions

I've really enjoyed this article, of which this is an extract:

There are no copies in creation, no cheap imitations. And this is not because God micromanages the world, but because God apparently loves freedom. God loves watching things grow. Is it any wonder that God enjoys cooperating with you and me to do his moral and spiritual work? Our choices, good and bad, constantly spin the Kingdom of Heaven in new and unforeseen directions. We are creative coworkers with the Almighty.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The drugs scandal

Some figures out today:

  • 202,000 people had therapy for drug use in England last year from 150,000 tax-payer-funded employers in 'drug action teams'
  • 7,300 people were discharged drug-free.
  • This is a policy with a 96% failure rate.
  • We have 20 full-time members of a drug action team for every one person freed from drugs each year.
The UK's policy on drugs is so-called harm-reduction by parking heroin users (especially) on methodone prescriptions. The UK spends £250m a year on methodone and other similar drugs. Methodone is widely sold by methodone users.

Betel, the drug charity associated with the mission I work for, uses abstinence therapy rather than Methodone. In the UK, the tax payer only contributes Housing Benefit (which we are paying anyway). Betel currently has 0ver 1900 recovering addicts in communities in 75 cities across the world.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Look for your calling in the place "where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
(Frederick Buechner).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Nominative determinism

The head of discipline in my son's school is Miss Playfair

The head of sport in the same school is Mr Ball

Now I just heard that a senior manager at the supermarket Waitrose, the one they always interview when they want to do a piece on the rising cost of living, is Mark Price.

It's silly and it should be stopped.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

In praise of Librivox

Have just discovered Librivox, which is doing for audio recordings of classic books what Project Gutenberg is doing for text files. Making them free and universally available, that is.

You can dripfeed your ipod with them chapter by chapter (not unlike how many of them were first written, in installments) or download the whole book at once. It's amateur and it's great. What a fantastic project.

What's not to like?

Well, American accents mostly. I'm listening to Vanity Fair at the moment and in the hands of the readers it suddenly transforms into an early American novel. Chiswick Mall is pronounced Chis-wick. I know, I know. But perhaps since the whole project is likely sustained by American generosity at many levels it's churlish to complain.

It's free, you don't have to use your eyes, and in the insomniac small hours it doesn't even bear comparison with Up All Night or the perpetually miserable Farming Today.

Pilgrim's Progress
is even better, and the reader's accent smooth and soothing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see. Brigands on the high road, pirates on the seas, in the amphitheatres men murdered to please the crowds, under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is a really bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world.

Yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasures of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians ... and I am one of them.

(St Cyprian to Donatus, 3rd Century AD).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Rough sleeping: it wasn't zero

There was a person sleeping in the doorway of Arbury Rd Baptist Church (see previous post).

But it was nearly zero.

Poverty: fighting the banana wars

Have just enjoyed Fighting the Banana Wars by Harriet Lamb, executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation. You actually do have to use the dread word 'inspirational' about this. It really is about small people, many wearing both beards and sandals, taking on the multinationationals for the sake of justice for the world's poor.

They're seeing a huge stride, from the days when Fairtrade coffee didn't even taste like coffee, to Sainsbury's fresh fruit buyer saying recently, 'I see Fairtrade as the gold standard for global sourcing from developing countries -- our preferred option wherever possible.' (p155)

Here's Bruce Crowther, Quaker, Oxfam campaigner, and the person who got his local town, Garstang, to become the world's first 'Fairtrade town', one of thousands of little actions that has moved the world, on why he campaigns:

'I don't think you can give up. Our children will look back and ask us how we can live in prosperity while over a billion children live in abject poverty -- including many who produce things we use every day. How could we know this and not do what we could to stop it?' (p44)

Harriet Lamb has some great stories -- a little kid discarding his football shirt because the people who grew the cotton didn't get a fair price. And the time they tried to sell the first-ever fair-trade branded chocolate -- Green & Black's Maya Gold -- to Tesco's. The Tesco buyer had sent the Green & Black's founder, the unlikely-named Jo Fairley, away, saying that he wasn't going to 'list a product just because it's backed by a bunch of Christians'!

'But it wasn't long before he changed his tune and was back on the phone saying, "You'd better get over here, we're being bombarded by telephone calls. From vicars!"' (p61)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sustainability: the shape of things to come?

Wired Magazine on sustainability is (predictably) concerned with techno-fixes rather than banning polythene bags, which is a lot more fun.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Rebuilding Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral is ten miles or so up the road from our home. When it was built in the 14th century, towering among the hovels around it, it stood as a kind of metaphor of the medieval consensus.

In the Church were all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Here was where you found the best art, architecture, technology, music, thought, learning, creativity and skill.

The call on the Church today is not to increase its market share a bit but to have the ambition to build more cathedrals. How about, for starters:

  • art that isn't ugly and nihilistic

  • economics that is fair and compassionate as well as efficient

  • science and technology tamed and embraced as the gifts of a good God.

  • families rebuilt

  • justice flowing

  • fun that is innocent

... and all centred around worshipping communities.

Just conceivably, that's slightly too ambitious. Unless you read the Hebrew prophets, that is, who would tell you you aren't going nearly far enough ...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tear fund: telling porkies?

Much as I am a fan of Tear Fund (and they've sold lots of my books), have they been caught telling porkies about climate change? They put out publicity in 2006 about a man who caught malaria in the Ethiopian Highlands because of climate change. Careful research showed that over the time they suggested, the mean temperature hadn't risen at all and the natural variability of temperature hadn't changed at all. Have a listen to this.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Rough sleeping: the day it was zero

Our free newspaper reported that as at the last count the number of rough sleepers in Cambridge was: zero -- down from 30 in 1997 and something that has not happened in living memory.

It seems to me this is:
* Mostly due to Zion Baptist Church, who opened Jimmy's Night Shelter in their basement
* Partly due to the (Liberal Democrat) council who helped join together different bits of homeless provision. (The person who takes the lead on this, interestingly, is a colleague of mine and a churchgoer.)
* Somewhat due to the Labour government, providing money for rough sleeper initiatives.

Politics is enjoyable at the moment. In scenes reminiscent of 65 million years ago, New Labour mastodons bellow to each other across the cooling swamps saying, 'We must listen and learn from that giant meteorite.'

Gordon Brown, like some giant wounded herbivore, topples over, mouth fixed in a last, glassy smile, pursued through the TV studios by raptors eager for his corpse. One raptor wants to go back to good old New Labour; the other wants a New Old Labour. Such is the quality of debate in his party as they all head for their future life as a peat bog.

I do believe, though, that (laying aside the 10p tax thing for a moment) no currently working UK politician has done more for the poor than Gordon Brown. Some of the money he provided, thanks to the churches, took every single one of the rough sleepers from Cambridge's streets. Some more bought bed-nets and forgave debts and upped the UK's international aid to about the best in the world. As he crashes into the swamp, never to rise, there are worse legacies.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mission: the fringe is the centre

Took our youth group to a youth worship meeting last Sunday. It was organized by 16-year-olds, the band was more 16-year-olds, and the main speaker wasn't much older. They also showed one of Rob Bell's nooma videos, trendy post-modern talks set in a diner. About eighty people were present. At the back were a few grizzled youth workers, the usual suspects, old friends from small churches on the edges of Cambridge. (The big central churches tend to be more self-sufficient.)

I think God likes hanging round the fringes. I certainly do. I remember feeling similar when, years ago, I went to interview the leaders of Viva Network, which is an agency that tries to network together the different Christian groups working among children in crisis. They, too, were young, few, new, on the fringes of things, with a large vision.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Theology: So good we can hardly speak

Please be warned that this blog post has a high theological radiation count so feel free to skip it.

OK, it is a bit geekish and perhaps even a little sad to combine 'theology' and 'so good we can hardly speak' in one heading.

It's even more worrying that this blog recently has been all about stuff I've read, ie things going on in my head. Should I not get out more, meet people, do things?

Anyway. I've just finished reading
  • A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren (modish theologian in the emerging church movement) and rereading

  • The Open Secret by Lesslie Newbigin (whom I saw once, as a very old man, here in Cambridge).

Along with E Stanley Jones' book mentioned earlier, I can't imagine a better popular theological introduction to what the church should be doing in the world and how it should be doing it. These guys--I may say in a desperate attempt to show that I did get out more once, about a decade ago--rock.

The last few weeks I have heard the grind and creak of heavy furniture being moved around in my head.

The best thing I've learnt is that, through Christ, everything matters. Bednets in Africa matter. Fun and play matters. Adoring Jesus in a quiet room on your own matters. Dinner with my kids matters. Everything matters. Body and soul and community and creation all matter. I need to discard the Phariseeism that I have been schooled in (which says only spiritual stuff really matters). Body, soul, community, creation all die -- and are all raised, so they all matter, and they are indispensable parts of a whole.

What fun.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Famous for ten more minutes

Modesty almost forbids me, ahem, from putting in this link to this writing competition in Singapore. We were lucky enough to be named among the winners. We had to write about reasons to visit Singapore, and the prize was a trip there, wrapped up in Business Class flights and being filmed and photographed.

My singapore experience

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C Clarke is dead

What a sad week: Terry Pratchett is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. No-one comes close as an F&SF comic writer and inspiration -- a pole star who says to me that (at least once) it can be done. Someone can write fantasy that's funny, shrewd, happy, with developed characters and crafted plots. The covers of his books lead you to expect some naff swords-and-sorcery romp; the insides persuade you are in the presence of a fine comic novelist. He too, by the way, like Clarke (and like me) trained as a physicist first.

Then Arthur C Clarke, aged 90, finally gives up his struggle with gravity and decay and leaves the planet by the conventional route. I read everything of his I could lay my hands on when I was a teenager. Like P G Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, and (to a lesser extent because I read him later in life) Terry Pratchett, his ghostly presence shapes what I do and how I think about how writing should be.

If not from him, where else did I get this:

  • Studied physics at King's College London and then became a writer
  • Was passionate about good, hard, accurate science and maths
  • Was fundamentally optimistic about human beings and the future and the galaxy
  • Saw technology as a navigable route to magic and wonder and aspiration

Clarke has left instructions for a strictly secular funeral. As a younger man he had a correspondence with CS Lewis which resulted eventually in a meeting in a pub. Each brought along a companion (Lewis brought J R R Tolkien). Lewis was the better theologian; Clarke the better scientist. Each adorned the worlds of fiction and popular apologetic. Each is so close to my heart. I am so privileged and enriched to have been able to drink deeply of them.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Mission: E Stanley Jones

Am rereading E Stanley Jones, missionary to India, friend of Gandhi and I believe several times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. What a genius. Writing in the 1920s he anticipated, and answered, all the modern critiques of missions. And his book is soul food.

Are missionaries 'international meddlers, creed mongers to the East, feverish ecclesiastics compassing land and sea to gain another proselyte?' Or are we satisfying some 'racial superiority complex' (as many democracy and environment activists surely are today)? Is there 'spiritual impertinence to come to a nation that can produce a Gandhi or a [Rabindrath] Tagore?'

Jones replies that both East and West need three things: 'an adequate goal for character'; 'a free, full life'; 'God'. Christlikeness is the supreme goal for every character. Christ is life realized, not theorized. And Jesus is what God is like. Hence we speak.

Here are some of his juicier quotes:

'Jesus appeals to the soul as light appeals to the eye, as truth fits the conscience, as beauty speaks to the aesthetic nature. For Christ and the soul are made for one another, and when they are brought together deep speaks to deep and wounds answer wounds.'

'Religion is the life of God in the soul issuing in the kingdom of God on earth.'

The quotes are from THE CHRIST OF INDIAN ROAD

Monday, February 11, 2008

William Booth: who being dead, yet speaketh

Have been looking up some quotes from the 19th century reformer and founder of the Salvation Army, Gen William Booth:

While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now, I'll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight, I'll fight to the very end!”

“To get a man soundly saved it is not enough to put on him a pair of new breeches, to give him regular work, or even to give him a University education. These things are all outside a man, and if the inside remains unchanged you have wasted your labour. You must in some way or other graft upon the man's nature a new nature, which has in it the element of the Divine.”

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Reading Tolstoy and improving my domestic relations

Am enjoying Anna Karenina and going occasionally weak-kneed at the range and depth of the old boy's characterizations. That's what keeps the pages turning, even during the bits on new theories of Russian agricultural productivity. He even tells you what the dog's feeling on at least two occasions.

Am struck by two other things:
1) If the character Levin really is a portrait of Leo himself, he can't have been an easy bloke to live with.

2) I rather like the Russian habit of referring to people by Christian name and patronymic. It seems to add a certain old-fashioned dignity to conversation. Suggested it to my wife as a way of boosting her domestic performance:

'Could you put the samovar on, Cordelia Paulova?'

But alas I feel I would get the reply

'Do it yourself, Glenn Michaelovich.'

Anna Karenina (Wordsworth Classics)

Monday, February 04, 2008

Poverty: Bono demostrates why rock stars are the new prophets

We are supposed to have a war on something, but it isn't 'terror'.

Bono at the NAACP awards

Monday, January 28, 2008

The emmaus community, and social entrepreneurship

Talked recently with the founder of Emmaus Cambridge, who has just been awarded a CBE. Emmaus is a community that offers work and accommodation for single men. Many of them are people who, otherwise, would be washed in and out of the Magistrates' Courts as regularly as if carried on the tides.

1.When Emmaus was being set up, apparently a junior planner was handling the application and made a long list of every planning reason why it should be turned down: they proposed to handle scrap metal on the site. It was on the flight path of Cambridge airport. A senior planner, however, apparently took the case over and was determined to use planning law positively and find every reason why it could be allowed. The plans were passed by a single vote.

2. Emmaus Cambridge cost £2m to set up but careful research has suggested it saves the government £600,000 a year.

3. Government is extremely weak at letting social entrepreneurs experiment with government cash. Only Northern Rock directors get to do that, and they took it all. Otherwise, perhaps, there could be an Emmaus in every town.

Writing: Not a normal life

1. Got the latest royalty statement from my publisher. Books sold in the last period: approaching 1,000. They're good books, too. Royalties paid: Not even near to £100. Cue half-hearted rant: wish I had an agent, what am I doing wrong, etc.

2. Yesterday got a phone call on a satellite-delayed line from Singapore. I entered a competition before Christmas organized by the Singapore Govt and they were telling me I'd won: one A4 piece of paper with marks on it translates into two business-class roundtrip tickets to Singapore plus a stay in a five-star hotel. It's all here

It partially makes up for being roughed up by publishers. I still want to get them back, though, by publishing a best-seller.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Poverty: Those wonderful funds

'Major global health financiers, such as the Global fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation are showing returns on their investments. In less than four years, financing through the Global Fund alone has resulted in more than 1.1m people receiving treatment for AIDS. Now, overall, more than 2m people receive AIDS treatment-- a tenfold increase in four years ...

'And more than 30m insecticide-treated bed nets have been distributed to protect families from malaria. The number of people saved from early death through these interventions is already 2m, and this increases by 100,000 ever month.

Michel Kazatchkine, executive director, Global Fund to fight AIDS, HIV and Malaria in The Economist publication The World in 2008. My italics.