Monday, December 19, 2011

F B Meyer on 'the great silence' of waiting for God

I am reading a series of devotional books by F B Meyer (1847 - 1929), one page on each chapter of the Bible.  From an entry on Psalm 62:

'[Abraham] was left waiting till nature was spent... till all that knew him pitied him for clinging to an impossible dream. But as this great silence fell on him, the evidence of utter helplessness and despair, there arose within his soul an ever-accumulating faith in the power of God...

'This is why God keeps you waiting.'

Monday, October 10, 2011

The West's 'killer apps' and the ending of poverty

Around 1800 the wealth of Europe,  then the whole of the West, suddenly began to grow faster than that of the rest of the world. Apparently economic historians call this 'the great divergence'. Historian Niall Ferguson, in his TED talk suggests 6 'Killer apps' of prosperity:

  1. Competition
  2. The Scientific Revolution
  3. Property Rights
  4. Modern Medicine
  5. The Consumer Society
  6. The Work ethic

He calls them 'apps' because they look simple, are complex, but are universally applicable -- a universally applicable solution to poverty. As they are taken up around the world, the great divergence ends; mothers and babies live, nobody starves, life gets easier. Nice.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Conflicting stories of creation

The scientific account is of destruction, extinction and re-creation or recycling-- true of stars, elements and species. Finally this story of death and physical suffering reaches the point where humanity arrives on the earth; and suffering and death continues.

The Christian account is of an ideal world and perfect humans subsequently corrupted as a result of human rebellion against God: through sin, death entered the world.

How can both accounts be true?

School level maths shows us how to measure complicated things by resolving them into two dimensions. The kicked football rises in the air and then falls as gravity pulls it down; it also moves horizontally towards the goal. You can arrive at the true account of its path by studying it in its two dimensions, and then putting the two together.

Perhaps the same is true with these stories of our origins. These complementary accounts can both be true, each filling out the gaps in the other.

The book of Jonah as an example of 'Christian Storytelling'

Park for a moment the question of whether Jonah is a novel or a true account. How does it do as a story?
1) It talks about God, but it does so in a consistent way. God isn't jammed in as an afterthought. He is part of Jonah's worldview from the beginning.
2) Jonah is a plausible human character. The comedy of this book comes from the humanity of Jonah trying to cope with the determined mercy of God.
3) The book is open-ended, leaving Jonah sulking even while God appeals to him. It doesn't see the need to press home the moral lesson.
4) The book is quirky and unexpected.

How does it do as a model of 'Christian' storytelling?

1) You don't have to believe in God to enjoy it. All that's needed is that you believe in Jonah: Jonah the human being who believes in and has to cope with, his God.
2) It's a lot of fun.
3) It's fresh, not the predictable re-telling of a morality tale.
4) It does pose the reader big questions: what if God is like this? What if he spoke to me? What am I to make of this story?

Update: Interesting though this may be, it believing it can kill you. In 2014 an Iranian psychologist called Mohan Amir Aslani was hanged by the state. His offence? Teaching that the story of Jonah in the Qur'an may have been symbolic, not literal.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why stories? A summary

  • Awakening longing
  • Goes with the grain of the culture
  • It's how we learn
  • 75% of the Bible is story, narrative.
  • It appeals to heart rather than head; story is a person's 'heart language'
  • We learn how our story intersects with the story we're reading, and the story we're part of.
  • Story-lessons can sneak up on us
  • Stories are concrete, not abstract. A lot of people have problems with abstract; I don't know anyone who has problems with the concrete.
  • Stories (esp. parables) are capable of moulding themselves in multiple ways to our stories; they are fractal in that sense, universal and local
  • They are personal, under the skin, where we really are at.
  • Engaging in beauty is engaging in the Kingdom


Jesus taught, awaken longings, scatter seed, wait and see what happens
This is exactly what he did

Every myth is 'a splintered fragment of the true light' (Tolkien to C S Lewis, reportedly)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tom Wright: Surprised by Hope

Suprised by HopeSuprised by Hope by N.T. Wright

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book examines Christian hope for the future. The former Bishop of Durham robustly defends the bodily resurrection and from it works out a useful and useable theology. He emphasizes 'life after life after death', a new heavens and earth to which Jesus returns, and helpfully criticizes the fuzzy and low-res views of heaven and hell that most of us Christians default to. A renewed Universe in actual bodies is our future, and there's continuity with the present earth as well discontinuity with it. This has consequences for how we live now: nothing we do here is wasted. In justice, in beauty, in evangelism, in everything, we can build for the coming Kingdom.

This is a remarkable, radical, and eye-opening restatement of Christian hope, post-modern in the sense of criticizing modernism, and it makes me go back to the Bible to find out if what he is saying is true. Mostly I found him persuasive, and his fresh statement has many consequences. A simple gospel is one: A new Lord, Christ, has been installed in the world. His new rule is already among us. You can join in or not. What are you going to do?

As well as inaugurating a new creation, Wright claims the resurrection inaugurates a new way of knowing. Thomas starts by asking 'show me the evidence' but after encountering the risen Christ says 'My lord and my God'. Wright calls this 'an epistomology of love': science and history can get us a long way, but the resurrection breaks out of these categories of knowing and demands a new one. It's heady stuff, to my mind building upon the work of Leslie Newbiggin. Taken to heart, I can see it revitalizing the Christian message.

The downsides of this book?

The editors at SPCK appear to have gone AWOL and could have usefully been employed crossing out unnecessary sub-clauses, querying the odd tone of intellectual arrogance, and delousing the MS of tics like 'This won't do' and 'No, it's not' which grate when repeated as often as they are. It's a shame: Wright is brilliant, original, relevant and groundbreaking; he has written 50 books; but no-one has the editorial cojones to tell him he could write a lot better than he does. The more excited he gets, the more he over-writes and the worse it is to read.

But it's still worth it.

A smaller niggle is, unusually for such a carefully researched book, Wright makes the unverifiable statement that half of the human race is alive today. There is a lively debate about how many people have ever lived, and the estimates I see guess around 100 billion; so only 7% of the total population are alive today. In any case the book would be better without unthought-out asides like this.

Still. This is a landmark book that I think will change the way I think and act. Praise God for it.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 25, 2011

The gospel in Sufi poetry?

Here are some excerpts from a devotional manual popular among South Asian Muslims, picked out by the Christian scholar Kenneth Cragg.

Lo, I am Thy servant at Thy door ...
O Thou Helper of them that seek for help.
Thine anxious one is at Thy door,
O Thou Who dost lift away the care of all the careworn.
And I, Thy rebel, O Thou Who seekest for penitents, Thy rebel who acknowledges his faults is at Thy door.
O Thou Who forgivest sinners,
One who confesses his sin is at Thy door.
O most merciful, he who has erred is at Thy door
O Lord of the worlds, he who has wronged is at Thy door
Have mercy upon me, my Lord.

I have nought but my destitution to plead with Thee for me.
And in my poverty I put forward that destitution as my plea.
I have no power save to knock at Thy door.
And if I be turned away, at what door shall I knock?

--> Kenneth Cragg and Marston Speight, Islam from Within (2000: Belmont, CA,

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Shaping a story by the 'rule of three'

Here's an article on writing novels that I found extremely helpful.

It's a way to combat an over-active creativity by keeping a novel focussed on the simple progress of its story, rather than on fun and interesting side-alleys. The three things to steer by are simply (1) a protagonist (2) a conflict and (3) a setting.

It's interesting to see how this plays out in giving books unity and narrative force. For example:

The entire Harry Potter series: (1) Harry (2) Voldemort's struggle to take over the earth (3) the magical world.

The Bible: (1) God (2) Reconciling himself to his errant creation (3) the whole canvas of heaven, the universe and eternity.

I think some stories break this rule by doubling it. So:

Pride and Prejudice: (1) Elizabeth Bennet (2) Overcoming pride and prejudice to marry Darcy (3) Eighteenth-century aristocratic England

(1) Mr Darcy (2) overcoming pride and prejudice to marry Elizabeth (3) as above

Similarly the parable of the prodigal son has two rules of three:

(1) Younger son (2) Returning to the Father (3) the Father's farm

--and --

(1) Older son  (2) Becoming further estranged from the Father (3) the Father's farm.

Either way, sticking to these simple outlines has to give a story narrative energy and stop it wandering off...

Monday, July 18, 2011

The railway man: Eric Lomax

'If I'd never been able to put a name to the face of of one of the men who had harmed me, and never discovered that behind that face there was also a damaged life, the nightmares would always have come from a past without meaning. And I had proved for myself that remembering is not enough, if it simply hardens hate. (last page).

A quietly-spoken true story of astonishing suffering and scarring, taken to another level by the attempts of two old men to bridge their mutual wounds through forgiveness. Lovely, moving book.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 15, 2011

A candidate for the Pretentious Persiflage award

The builders adding a new classroom block to the school outside our house labour under this mission statement: 'Developing high quality education facilities so that children and young people achieve their potential'.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Polkinghorne on miracles

Quoted by Francis Collins in The Language of God:

'Miracles are not to be interpreted as divine acts against the laws of nature (for these laws are themselves expressions of God's will) but as more profound revelations of the character of the divine relationship to creation.'

The embarrassment of the big bang

Francis Collins (the language of God) quotes astrophysicist Robert Jastrow in 'God and the Astronomers' (1992, p107):
'At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.'

Christian faith among research scientists

Francis Collins (The language of God) reports:
In 1916, researchers asked biologists, physicists and mathematicians whether they believed in a God who actively communicates with humankind and to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer. About 40 percent answered in the affirmative. In 1997 the same survey was repeated verbatim-- and to the surprised of the researchers, the answer was very nearly the same' p 4

More about the Anthropic principle

The 'Anthropic principle' is the theory that our Universe was finely tuned and designed for human beings to appear. There are billions of possible combinations of notes, but only Beethoven 9th Symphony. Something similar appears to be happening in creation.

Francis Collins in his book (the language of Godp 144) quotes Stephen Hawking:

'If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in 100 thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size.' ('Brief History..., p138)

Collins also recommends JD Barrow and FJ Tipler, 'the Anthropic Cosmological Principle' (1986), and reproduces a quote from Freeman Dyson in that book:

'The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.' (quoted in Barrow and Tipler, p318)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why I tell stories to tell the truth

This is a guest post I wrote for the Christian Booksellers Blog

Friday, June 17, 2011

The West Wing

We don't have a TV, so we are discovering the joys of all seven series of the West Wing, for the first time, one episode per night. Fizzing dialogue, passionate characters, just a slight tendency to slip into Democrat-lust-fantasy; wonderful stuff.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The laughter and longings of C S Lewis

Well-documented article about the role that yearning for joy, and finding it in books, drove C S Lewis into the arms of God.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

'Teach them to yearn'

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Antoine de St Exupery

Read more:
at Internet Evangelism Day
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution


This is an excellent article that describes how important 'story' is, and what I am trying to do with my comic fiction...

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

(some more) awe

For me, the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship. (Francis Collins, Head of
the Human Genome Project)


If this universe is but a flower on the meadows of God's life, what must not God himself be!
F B Meyer

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Polkinghorne on the soul and where my comic fiction fits in

(See previous two posts for the context to this)
John Polkinghorne dismisses the idea of the soul as a late divine addition to the evolving human primate. I think he thinks that idea inelegant. He notes the psychosomatic unity of body and soul, and the way that changes in the physical brain seem to affect the soul. He prefers to see this psychosomatic nature as having evolved.

However he still thinks we can use the word 'soul' coherently as the 'information-bearing pattern' or in Greek terms the 'form' of the body. (Aquinas developed this idea of the soul as the 'form' of the person; cf. the body as the 'matter'. The Greek words are eidos (form) and hyle (matter).) This pattern remains and develops through life and gives our lives a unity, even though the atoms in our bodies are forever being exchanged for others. He claims this soul as such is not immortal but after death it is held and even nurtured in the mind of God, until such time as God brings about resurrection. Thus in Polkinghorne's thinking, immortality rests not on a supposed nature of the soul, but on the faithfulness of God.

It is an interesting idea in fiction to see what this 'information-bearing pattern' would look like if incarnated in a completely different body. What would I look like if my soul were given the body of, say, a computer, or a car, or a colony of ants, or a tree or a planet?

My book Paradise - a divine comedy
and its upcoming sequel of course illustrate the 'information-bearing pattern' as landscapes.

Polkinghorne on the future

When we start applying Polkinghorne's idea of science and theology conversing, how does such a conversation apply to the future of people and the universe? Some notes.

Q. What is the Anthropic Principle?
A. This states that the Universe was set up in such a way that, though simple in its start, it was pregnant with the possibility of intelligent life. If the relations between gravity and electromagnetism were slightly different in any direction, stars would not burn long enough for life to arise. If nuclear forces had slightly different values, complex atoms would never have been created. Most presumed initial conditions for the Universe lead to sterile universes. Hence the Universe looks extremely finely-tuned in its initial conditions -- 'primed for life'.

Q. How does this then lead us to a paradox?

Science cannot offer hope, finally, in the light of what is going to happen to the Universe. However brightly the spark of intelligence shines, it must be extinguished eventually as the the stars burn out.

This is a paradox: 'a finely tuned and fruitful universe which is condemned to ultimate futility' (p27).

Q. How can theology help resolve this paradox?
By positing both continuity and discontinuity in the future of people and of the universe, modelled on Christ's resurrection. He got his body back (continuity: people knew it was him); but it was a resurrected body, never to die again (discontinuity, radically different from the old). A seed contains the genetic essence of the future plant (continuity) but it has to fall into the ground and die (discontinuity). So with people and with the whole Universe.

What distinguishes eschatology from secular futurology is this expectation of discontinuity, of resurrection. Science can only extrapolate, it cannot suggest something entirely new. This can only come from theology. Only theology can argue for discontinuity.

Theology can teach us that, though our existence is as temporary as chalk on a blackboard, our essence can be retained in the mind of the one reading the blackboard long after the board has been wiped clean; and whatever was written can have a further existence in quite other, and greater, realms. It is not that the soul is immortal so much that the faithfulness of God is entire.

Q. What might be areas of continuity between this universe and the next?
I suggest:
- diversity
- beauty
- a balance between change and changelessness; as in many parts of the world, seasons change but the fact of changing seasons never changes.
- laughter, joy, creativity, worship, conversation; all these relational joys.

Polkinghorne suggests:
-- process. Creation started simple but pregnant with possibilities and was free to develop under God's hand. It took time. Might New Creation be the same?

-- Relational: everything is part of everything else: matter, time, space; body, soul, community, mind, culture. We might expect New Creation to be similarly holistic.

-- Polkinghorne makes the point that the universe is mathematical. Yet maths (prime numbers for example) exist whether or not anyone has discovered them. Does maths exist in some 'extra noetic dimension' that is 'beyond the flux of time' (p20,21)? If so, what about other things that we humans feel exist beyond us imagining them: goodness, beauty, purity even.

Q. What might the end of the world and the 'four last things' (death, judgement, hell, heaven) look like?

A. Both Polkinghorne and Christopher Wright (who wrote 'The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative, excerpted in 'Perspectives on the World Christian Movement' (2009, p 27-33)) quote works by Richard J Bauckham. Bauckham understands 2 Peter 3:10 to mean 'the earth will be laid bare' i.e. exposed, purged, cleansed, stripped down of its evil; but not a completely new creation from nothing.

As for death: Science teaches us that death/rebirth has been going on since the beginning of time. So how does death enter the world due to sin? And when did the Fall of Man happen? Polkinghorne's answer is that the Bible is referring to spiritual death. He asserts that self-consciousness and God-concsciousness grew up among proto-humans, and that there was a turning from the God-consciousness (hence a historic Fall) which led to spiritual death.

Another answer to this might be that the Fall account is a kind of summary of the Christ-less behaviour of the entire 100bn-strong human species, all integrated together into one account.

Heaven: is much as Polkinghorne has already talked about in the sense of a new heavens and earth. As for the 'intermediate state' Polkinghorne speculates that disembodied souls can exist, and even develop, in a sense in the mind of God between physical death and the eschaton.

Judgement, Hell: In view of the long time scales, and slow development, and refining suggested by the original creation, Polkinghorne is unwilling to see judgement as a one-off moment or hell as a permanent state. He is attracted by the idea of further refinement/redemption after the eschaton.

John Polkinghorne on Science and Theology

Just making notes for my own reference.

Polkinghorne is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a priest and theologian, and winner of the Templeton Prize.

Q. How does he compare and contrast physics and theology?
A. He takes a 'critical realist' view of both. So, both disciplines are dealing with truth. (That's the 'realist' bit, and it's a faith stance.)  Both are integrating a way of knowing things: the scientific method is powerful but limited only to that knowledge which can be measured and repeated. Theology deals with a wider range of human inputs and experiences but (I would emphasize, though Polkinhorne doesn't) especially I-thou knowing, relational knowing, which is different kind of knowing from the I-it knowing of science.

Both science and theology posit unobservable things. Physics has confined quarks, never seen but assumed to exist; theology has an invisible God. Each is an invisible keystone in an arch of more accessible knowledge. Postulating the invisible helps us make sense of the visible.

Both science and theology can inform and shape each other, bringing as they do different aspects of the totality of human knowing.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hand-picked book lists

Since there are around 8 million books capable of being catalogued and read, I appreciate some help. This site is rather snooty and exclusive, and all the better for it. It re-introduces what we lose when independent bookshops go the wall: the booklover's loving selection of the best.

Their lists are hand-picked and carefully scrutinized.  I think it will be useful as a source of further reading, or ideas for presents. Among the lists:

Barack Obama's favourite books
A journey through Asian stories
Funniest novels according to the British users of Abe books

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why I write novels

An article by James A Herrick in Christianity Today got me very excited. It's about how science fiction produces myths that supplant the (true) 'Christian myth.'

An executive summary
'Pop-culture fiction, not academic nonfiction, is now the cutting edge of public discourse on spirituality.'

Juicy bits from the article
'The culture-shaping force of science fiction storytellers may be more significant and more widespread than we imagine. That's because they trade in myth. By myth, I mean a transcendent story that helps us make sense of our place in the cosmos. This common definition makes the Christian gospel, as C. S. Lewis suggested, "God's myth"—not because it is fiction, but because it is a story that gives ultimate meaning. We live in an age in which new myths, born mostly of science-fueled imaginations, are crafted and propagated at an unprecedented rate...

'Ironically, the universe that science stripped of the supernatural is being resupplied with deities and redemptive purposes by science fiction writers and moviemakers. Apparently, we cannot do without myths...

'A discerning student of culture, Lewis answered modern scientific myths with daring retellings of the Christian story that integrated the patterns and language of the new myths. His science fiction trilogy provides an admirable model of storytelling that intelligently and artfully incorporates foundational truths from a Christian worldview...

'Human spiritual well-being, and thus the humaneness of civilization, depends in large measure on which narratives hold sway in our souls.'

Another reason, if I may suggest it, to buy my book. You know it makes sense.

The value of a college education

Well how super. My daughter tells me that in her first year geography course at her Russell Group university (total fee income for geography department, approx £1m per year), she will receive a princely total of 26 hours of total contact time between today (Feb 18) and Sept 26 2011.

Twenty-six hours' teaching in the next seven months. Become a lecturer.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In the bestseller list!

Amazon have a finally found a category so small that my book ranks as one of the best sellers in it.

Check out 'books -> fiction -> religious and inspirational -> classics'. Not far down from Screwtape Letters and Pilgrim's Progress ... (actually at No. 21) is Paradise. Look it up quick before it disappears...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Artists and theologians: What the Byzantines knew

The Eastern church famously enjoyed a couple of centuries of furious split as they tried to work out the place of images in worship. The argument was won in favour of the icons. The result of all the debate was that 'Greek theologians... raised the status of the work of art to that of theology and the status of the artist to that of the theologian.'

(C Barber Figure and Likeness, on the limits of representation in Byzantine iconoclasm, quoted in Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, p453)

Old ideas come back in new cultures, in new forms. Wonder if this will?