Friday, November 19, 2010

J K and faith

Been googling 'J K Rowling and faith', where you can find articles describing the more explicitly Christian inspiration to her books, including the Biblical references she puts on tombstones (death is swallowed up in victory; where your treasure is, there your heart is also), which for her 'sum up, almost epitomise the whole series.'

A church of Scotland churchgoer, she quotes approvingly Graham Greene, 'my faith is sometimes that my faith will return.'(See for example this article from the Daily Telegraph).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A year ago

One year ago I was lying in a bed in an acute cardiac ward in London, with my major organs starting to fail. For the best part of four years I had been trying to sell my novel.

Today I came off my heart medication, and this same day I received notification of my first payment from Amazon from sales of my novel.

My enthusiasms this month are pacemakers, ablation therapy, the drug amiodarone, the new world of publishing, and the goodness of God.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Physics in need of a revolution

It's a staple of the history of physics that:
(a) in around 1895 the subjects seemed almost complete, apart from the Michaelson-Morley experiment (speed of light is constant) and the peculiar phenomena provisionally called X-rays.
(b) The following quarter century was a golden age of fresh discovery: relativity and quantum theory arrived in a glorious rush.

Michael Brooks' book hints at a further explosion-to-come:
(a) We have no idea what 96% of the universe is made of
(b) The two Pioneer spacecraft, launched in 1976 and 1977 are being slowed down and no-one knows why
(c) The constants of physics might not be constant
(d) The universe is fit for life only because a certain constant (called omega) is exactly the size it is, not a thousand billionth more or less.

So we either are, or aren't in for an exciting time in physics, assuming someone has the cranial capacity to think round this stuff.

A further interesting message in light of current debates about faith and science is that science is a little more rickety, and less sure, than the aggressive atheists might totally wish. Great book.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Not a tame lion

Einstein to Neils Bohr at one of the solvay conferences of physicists (famously:)

'God does not play dice'

Neils Bohr to Einstein:

'Einstein, stop telling God what to do'

From: 13 things that don't make sense an enjoyable romp around the baffling edges of science by Michael Brooks.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tell me something new: predictable newspapers

The day after the government spending review:

Axe Falls on Poor (Guardian headline)

Middle Classes to Lose £10,000 (Telegraph headline)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

World population clock

Watch people be born and die, use oil, and increase the CO2 in the atmosphere:

Friday, September 24, 2010

The spirit of Tetzel lives on

Am reading an American Christian book.

While enjoyable and helpful in its way, so far it has mostly failed to deliver on its promise that 'I'll get' a thought-provoking look at God's heart and 'even better, you'll gain wisdom and tools for drawing closer to others in powerful, impactful ways.' Perhaps I should ask the (remaining) members of my family. Have you noticed me drawing closer to you in one or more powerful, impactful ways?

Inside I have opportunity to invest plenty more money in the church's resources. I can buy a series of 'transforming' Bible study guides that are 'filled with prayer, insight, intimacy and action' (according to the publisher), or better still, for a fee, ensure my church 'reaches its redemptive potential'. Does anyone believe this stuff? Does anyone, believing this stuff, buy this stuff? And why, if it's so good and helpful to the church, and has its origins in a rich local congregation, why don't they just give it away on the internet?

Empty nesting 101 (part 2)

So we drove her down to university, having offloaded the dog for the day. She had spent two days emptying her room and loading up the car. We clambered in among the pots, pans, books, clothes,  clutching her laptop and netbook. She's only an hour and a half away, for goodness sake.

We found the hall of residence and along with 500 others unloaded our stuff. I looked at all these parents around me. Were they all feeling the same thing? We walked to the high street and had a lovely farewell meal in a French restaurant. Our last meal. We looked in at her boyfriend's place in the same hall of residence and then went to the car. 'Let's just do this quickly,' said my wife, so I hugged this brand new student and we drove home. Just about the saddest, sweetest day of my life.

Empty nesting 101 (part 1)

This is an anti enthusiasm of the month.

We had known it was coming for a long time, and occasionally felt a little weight in the pit of the stomach. We had asked friends about it. 'It's like a bereavement', they told us. Sometimes I had noticed the passing milestones: her last school year with us, her final summer, her final month. Finally today, the final day. My wife cooked all our favourite stuff: dim sum, char siew pau, chicken rice, ice cream. We played a game of cluedo, then a couple of games of table football. (We have a table football table in our lounge.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Now we can use the word 'riffola'

Commentary on new words added to the Oxford English Dictionary

'One surprise of this range was the fecundity of riff n.5 (and riff v.1) in producing new nouns referring to the playing of catchy musical phrases. Besides riffage, this update also includes new entries for the whimsical riffola n. and the retro rifferama n. These words entered the English language amid an explosion of popular music journalism in the second half of the twentieth century, coined by critics who apparently felt limited by the staid predictability of riffing n. The three new entries are only the tip of a neologistic iceberg: OED's files also contain examples of riffery, riffdom, riffmongery, and riffology, among others which may eventually be considered for inclusion in future updates. (The OED)

Monday, September 13, 2010

The prodigal who didn't quite make it home

Rembrandt's Parable of the Prodigal Son  has the returnee resting his young, shaved head on his father's chest while the father's great rich cloak covers him -- an anguished baby, sleeping at last.  Marilynne Robinson's returning prodigal comes home to his father, is welcomed and loved, wants to love back, tries to love back, but never yet settles his head on his father's breast.

We try to love -- we fail to love -- we lose hope of ever loving -- yet in the trying and failing and losing hope love itself arrives: a hesitant presence. Nothing happens in this book: two letters, plenty of meals, a lot of gardening, a couple of visits to church, some games of scrabble.Yet breathing gets a little hard in the final few pages.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reading Marilynne Robinson (#2)

Interesting to compare Mariilynne Robinson's Home and  Gilead with Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible.

Both are:
  • Set in the 1950s or early 1960s
  • Feature an American preacher and his large family
  • Prizewinning, acclaimed books

The Poisonwood Bible has an evil, bigotted missionary, shattering the lives of wife, dysfunctional children, and society around him. This, it seems to me, is the default view of Christian ministers in modern thought.

Home and Gilead are more ambitious, and more startlingly fresh. They trace the puzzles and struggles and imponderables faced by good people, people who love and are loved -- funnily enough, a lot nearer 'truth' than the mad bully of Poisonwood.

Reading Marilynne Robinson (#1)

'For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God's good world, with God's good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church.' Home, p 52.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Shirley, a Victorian novel to avoid

I grew up about a mile from the 'Fieldhead House' of this novel and a mile in another direction from 'Briarmains'. The local council, in a fit of local pride, had called the local council estate 'Shirley', a fact that never struck me as odd until this moment. Equally odd is the truth that Shirley never was a girl's name until this novel.

You can strain out some nourishment. As a social history it reminds us that the past was just like the present, only more extreme (the unwashed Methodists,  holding prayer meetings; the mill owner shooting a rioter dead and then getting the ringleaders sent to Australia, magistrates taking a robust view of law-breaking among the lower classes in those days; the genteel women stitching for the Missionary Basket, designed to raise funds for overseas missions). Proto-feminism stirs: the book includes a discussion over a garden fence between two neighbours about the First Letter of Timothy, Chapter 2, for example.

There ought to be rules, however, that even Victorian novels should follow. Finely chisel your characters as you must, and you must. But don't show off your French. Don't write a chapter when a page will do. Don't have the plotting of a melodrama or a farce. (Gosh, my best friend's companion turns out to be my estranged mother! The male protagonist has a dishy brother! He's staying in the same house as the estranged mother! Now both girls can get married!) And don't, whatever you do, create a heroine whose main problem is that she sits around bored all day. It can give Victorian novels, not to mention housing estates, a bad name.

Friday, August 06, 2010

A Romanian bookshop

Eastern Europeans have a bit more of a reputation for things cerebral than the rest of us, hence families of chess-players like the Polgar sisters and playwrights-turned-president like Vaclav Havel and universities that turn out doctors and engineers rather than graduates in film studies.

Three days ago I visited a Romanian bookshop in the western town of Timosoara, home of the Romanian counter-revolution, and with buildings that still bear the scars from Ceaucescu's tanks back in Christmas 1989.

The first two books I saw were a collection of the writings of Schopenhauer and a box-set of criticisms of Freud. Edging past those with some trepidation, I found a happy sprinkling of the modern stuff modern stuff (Steig Larsson for example), but a larger collection of classics, 19th and 20th century, some in Romanian, some in English. The shop held only perhaps 2000 titles, plus a cafe where you could presumably discuss the absurdity of life and shrug a lot, though sadly not while smoking. Almost every title was worth taking the time to read (though the winter nights in Romania would have to be both very long and very cold for me to pick up the Schopenhauer.) 

Compare with a chain bookstore in  England where you squeeze past a front table piled with 3-for 2  biographies of Colleen Rooney and waspish memoirs by out-of-luck politicians plunging their heads one last time in the feeding trough.   We are victims of publishers' bribery and hype. Romania teaches me that bookshops should filter for greatness. Among our local fare only the great Topping and Co of Ely comes close.

Thursday, July 01, 2010


My family didn't get this at all when I enthusiastically shared how I now had access to the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the definitive guide to the largest language in the known universe,  one of the great achievements of the librarian instinct that lurks inside human beings, and it hides behind a paywall. But I found I can access it for free by using my library card -- our local library subscribes to it.

So now when I want to look up:




as I needed to two days ago or discover whether the word 'luck' is derived from the word 'Lucifer,' I can. (It isn't).

It's like getting the keys to the linguistic universe. What a resource. What a discovery. So why do my family look at me so strangely?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

A world of their own

Owl-eyed theologians, pale from too much time in the library, people who get pushed aside in bus queues, tell their students of 'wrestling' with theological texts.

Now a review of a history book from a history don in Cambridge:

'Experts are likely to be dissatisfied with what might seem too brief a treatment of their specialist period. But these are risks worth taking.' (BBC History magazine, June 2010, p 70.)

Raw courage, it seems--daring risk-taking, hazarding everything on a wild gamble--still thrives in Britain.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Definitely too many

There are 1.4 million books in print.

Reading one every three days would take you eleven and a half thousand years.

Thursday, May 06, 2010


I appreciate politicians -- doing a job I don't want to do -- and I love elections. I could wish they had national ones every year.

There's an amateur core at their heart: a friend of mine was talking about how she and her 4 months pregnant friend, were once struggling to carry a polling booth downstairs ready for a 7:00am start, and then wedging it desperately against chairs to make it stand up. I love the way that we, the governed, get to speak back after four or five years of being spoken to. I'm grateful that I live in a country where leaders come and go because of the silent voice of a million pencil crosses, scratched in draughty village halls and chapels. I love the freedom of standing in that rickety polling booth, and in perfect confidentiality, voting for who the heck I like. 'Surely God was in that place, and we knew it not.'

Monday, April 26, 2010


'The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals. That doesn't mean that God doesn't love heterosexuals. It's just that they need more supervision.'

--Lynn Lavner, comedian and musician

(Quoted in Just Sex?,a helpful but rather slow moving and over-footnoted appeal for Christian values, published by the Relationships Foundation.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

A mostly nice feeling

Have just been holding the first copies of my book Life Lessons: life changing stories for Christian growth. It didn’t take long to find the Great Big Hairy Audacious Mistake that publishers take pride in inserting, either on the cover or the opening page.

(This one? missions spelt mission’s on the back cover. Written, it says subliminally, by a greengrocer who also sells banana’s. Nice.)

Each of the nine contributors, friends and colleagues of mine from the mission agency WEC International, describe lessons that changed their lives for ever.

The idea is that learning from someone else’s mistakes is less painful than learning from your own. I edited this and also wrote a chapter, about what near-death experiences can teach about time management.

You can find it in Christian bookstores, order from any bookshop, or follow the Amazon link.

Published by Christian Focus Publications

ISBN 978-1-84550-555-4

Saturday, March 27, 2010

God and John Polkinghorne

The physicist turned priest is a welcome voice of rationality in a subject dominated by the extreme and second-rate thinking of the creationists and the Dawkins-ists.

A general approach:

A belief in God offers a way of making sense of the broadest possible band of human experience, of uniting in a single account the rich and many-layered encounter that we have with the way things are (p 24).

The metaphysical net offered by science is insufficient to explain the whole range of human encounter. So: The impersonal is not to be preferred to the personal, the objective to the subjective, the quantifiable to the symbolic, the repeatable to the unique. All are part of the one world of our experience (p24).

Some strange, deep things about the fabric of the universe that are beautifully explained by a theistic faith, and much less elegantly explained by atheism:

1. Rational beauty: why is it that in fundamental physics, pure maths, developed or discovered with no eye on the universe, turns out to describe the universe beautifully? Why is it that the physicist's pursuit of the elegant has repeatedly uncovered truth? Why is the universe (to the eye of the physicist) so rational, so beautiful?

2. Finely tuned fruitfulness. This is the so-called anthropic argument. The constants of nature (gravitation, speed of light, strong and weak nuclear forces and on and on) more or less have to have the value they have. Change any of them in a tiny way, and you produce a sterile cosmos. Why then do we live in this finely-tuned universe that produces life? Is it because there are a near-infinite number of universes, so that at least one works properly?

Or is it because the cosmos is like those equations that are set in Maths exams -- carefully selected out of an infinite set of possible exam questions to suit that author's higher purpose.

3.A value-laden world. 'From the practice of science to the acknowledgment of moral duty, on to aesthetic delight and religious experience, we live in a world which is the carrier of value at all levels of our meeting with it'


'all these truly human experiences are at the centre of our encounter with reality and are not to be dismissed as epiphenomenal froth on the surface of a universe whose true nature is impersonal and lifeless' (p 19) (he claims).

4. The mystery of hope. We have a 'deep intuition of hope' that instinctively looks to meaning beyond our lives, life after death, hope of a new day and a new universe. Christian faith explains this; there may be other explanations too, but Christian faith is a compelling one.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vision statement of the month

'Engineering excellence in waste container technology'

Spotted on a van in Central London, from a wheely bin manufacturer.

I think it's wheely good.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fresh Expressions

Bishop Graham Cray gave the missiology lectures at Fuller Seminary last year. He provides a summary of the Fresh Expressions movement in the UK. For example:
  • They know of about 3,000 fresh expressions of church in the UK. 90% of them have started since 2004
  • The Church of England this year will do church planting training in 40 locations. No-one in the country will be more than an hour's drive from a thorough course in cross-cultural mission.
  • A third of the UK population have never had any connection with a church and 'while we were busy doing church, the culture changed'. Reaching these is now cross-cultural ministry, pure and simple.
Absolutely fascinating way of whiling away a long journey or (as in my case) a sleepless night. Downloadable from the ITunes Store (for free): search for 'Graham Cray' or navigate to Fuller Seminary in I Tunes U.

Monday, January 04, 2010

FA cup third round

After six years of pain.

Good afternoon Man U.

It's important.