Friday, November 22, 2013

A N Wilson, C S Lewis and conversion

On the day that C S Lewis gets his own stone in Westminster Abbey, fifty years to the day since he died, it was interesting to read of A N Wilson's conversion back to the Christian faith, which he wrote about in 2009.

Wilson wrote a biography of Lewis when Wilson was converting the other way. I have not read this biography but according to Amazon reviews, it seems to have been spoilt by Wilson's dislike of Lewis, his desire to undo the hagiographical accounts, and his enthusiastic conversion  to Atheism.

But in an engaging article, Wilson confesses he didn't make a good swivel-eyed atheist and offers this suggestion as to why he turned back to Christianity:

The existence of language is one of the many phenomena - of which love and music are the two strongest - which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Worth remembering

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people

can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

-- Margaret Mead.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Tom Wright: Virtue Reborn

How to be good?
How to live a good life?

Tom Wright's book interrogates both the New Testament and the classical Greek understanding of virtue to come up with what he presents as the Christian vision of virtue. Roughly it's this (I think). Being good means 'developing character traits whose radical novelty is generated from within the life, vision, achievement, death, and resurrection of Jesus himself.' (p222) We develop these traits not by our own efforts only, but renewed and guided by the Holy Spirit as we freely choose to build new habits.

This gives us all this:
- We become truly human and fruitful
- The classical virtues are taken through a kind of death and resurrection, and reborn. So there's both a discontinuiy and a continuity with them.
- Goodness is not attained through rule-keeping, or through just following your (new) instinct, but by repeated decisions to build new habits

Wright suggests that the way we nourish this practice of building good habits which slowly coalesce into virtue, into 'second nature', is through scripture, stories (which can teach us wisdom), examples, community, and action or practices. In other words, stuff we do corporately and individually as Christians.

This is a good book, the sort that stirs all kinds of prayerful and devotional impulses as you read it.

If you were being critical, you might say that, in his keenness to dialogue with the classical tradition, and with other ethicists, he makes his subject a little more complex than it actually is. And us ordinary joes who just want to be good, and, sad to say, have gone through life without being troubled what dead Greeks thought about the matter (just as Wright has gone through life unworried evidently about what dead Chinese like Confucius, say, thought about the matter) -- possibly find a bit more detail than we really need. Maybe. But Wright's thinking is stimulating throughout the book.

The book is better edited than some others of his, though he repeats the large error that he's also documented elsewhere, that there are more people alive than those who have already lived. It does't matter all that much, but look it up, Tom, you're wrong. The dead outnumber the living by by about 11 to 1, half of them were children, and I have yet to find a serious theologian who has thought about that. But I'm nitpicking.

I like having a thoughtful, stretching, devotional book on the go and this latest Tom Wright outing was excellent.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

'An undevout astronomer is mad'

'An undevout astronomer is mad.' Edward Young, Night Thoughts, line 771. He also wrote the more famous line, 'procrastination is the thief of time' (Night Thoughts I)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why we should give up our nuclear weapons

We should scrap our Trident submarine defences. It's easy to see why. Using them in any circumstances is immoral.

Suppose Bad Country A has done the dreaded thing and left Britain flat, black and glow-in-the-dark. What would our sign-off as a nation be? With what act would we close our day on the stage? Launch Trident from a secret submarine. Turn the children in a thousand playgrounds in Bad Country A into overdone french fries. The senseless evil done to us, we would do back.  To the fried children of either country we would look just the same as Bad Country A. We would have become Bad Country B.

I suppose there are many other arguments.

Canada, Australia, Switzerland, the Scandanavian lands: none of these have nuclear weapons and yet they seem to manage without having to spend their days cowering in a bunker. We, like Canada say, have plenty of ways of defending ourselves and even projecting power abroad without these cursed weapons.

Who are we frightened of anyway? Is Russia going to bomb the people it sells its gas to? North Korea's nuke is apparently so small that you could let if off in Hyde Park and no windows would be broken. Pakistan's mighty army can't even protect its own cricket team: perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking that no nuclear missile launched from Pakistan would land anywhere other than, well, Pakistan. And I would love to see the faces of the Ayatollahs when we told them how immoral and decadcant and un-Islamic they were to build a weapon of mass destruction. How medieval. The truly righteous nations have got rid of them, just as they did with chemical weapons and landmines. O ye of little faith, come join the civilised world.

When you've got stuff in the attic that you realize you are never going to use, you throw it out, especially if it's going to cost you £20 billion to keep for another few years.

We are the country that unilaterally abolished slavery, shaming the world into doing the same. Even the US caught on eventually, fifty years late. Let's do it again with Trident.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Hacking through the rainforest -- beautifully

This book manages to be both a beautiful coffee-table book and an insightful, well-written exploration of the rainforest, taking a machete to the simplistic diagnoses we find in the popular press. Fred Pearce, environment correspondent for New Scientist, has done some proper science writing here. 

So the book is full of surprises. 
1. Wind back the clock a thousand years, and jungles were the home of sophisticated civilisations. This is not just true of modern-day tourist honeypots like Ankor Wat or the Mayans. Nigeria's jungles hosted cities and empires; so did the Amazon. Fred Pearce cites linguistic studies, the beginnings of jungle archeology, and the nature of the soil and the  trees planted, to show that people were working this land, despite the Western world not knowing about them. 

2. These civilisations  collapsed, perhaps because of the encounter with Europeans and their diseases. Remnants went off into the forest. So the standard Western model of the jungle -- 'pristine' rainforest and 'stone-age tribes untouched since the dawn of civilisation' -- is wrong. People have gardened, or farmed, or still better, stewarded, the jungle for centuries, and with rather more success than we managed in the 20th century.

3. Much of what is going on today thanks to the chain-saw and the hunt for ever-more-scarce bush-meat is economically rational for the people doing it.

4. Many of the suggested solutions to deforestation haven't worked. Selling traditional remedies to drug corporations is good, even vital for the future of humanity, but has tended not to benefit indigenous people, or stop rainforest destruction. National parks are hard to enforce. Even when jungle products are found that can only be produced on site, they have been victims to sudden boom and bust: everyone starts growing them, the price drops, everyone loses. 

5. Fred Pearce does find some case studies that encourage optimism. He reports on Cameroonian cocoa farmers who plant their trees in the jungle, rather than clearing it. They also plant other fruit trees. In another model, a Central African government, I forget which, supports agriculture on the edges of a national park, to relieve the economic pressures. He even suggests that under some circumstances, drilling for oil in the rainforest can save the rainforest by improving the economy for everyone. 

All these case studies point to a somewhat heretical conclusion, which Pearce doesn't quite enforce in the book. One way of saying it is that you have to consider people as well as chainsaws or bushmeat. Concentrate on a single issue, bushmeat for example, and you're doomed, as many well-meaning charities have discovered.  The other way of saying it is this: rainforests need people to manage them. Remember the old joke of the vicar talking to a gardener: 'What a wonderful thing you and God have created,' says the vicar. The gardener thinks for a moment and then replies, 'Yes, and you should see what a mess it was when God had it to himself.' Humans are destroying the rainforest, bad people and good people together, but in the end we are also its only hope. 

This book is slightly dated, published 2006, and a little too affected by the economic crash in Indonesia in the early 2000s: you wonder what has happened since. It's also repetitious in places; you will be often told there are only 15,000 Orang Utangs in the wild, living in Borneo and Sumatra. But you can pick it up for a penny on Amazon and it will adorn any naked coffee-tables you have about the place and help us all think through this major issue of our times. Super book.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell: one of the best bits of SF writing in the past 30 years

This is a gem.

It's a novel first, a science-fiction novel second: in other words, it has rich characters, a compelling plot, and leaves you with much to think about. The SF element is done seamlessly well with good hard science and coherent thinking about another world and how it might work.

The plot is all about a Jesuit mission to another culture, what happened there, and how it affected the hero, a Jesuit priest and translator. I suspect Mary Doria Russell gave her story an SF context only because on earth, most of the strange tribes have already been encountered, if not by Jesuits then by their Protestant missionary cousins, or by Western pagan neo-colonialists (aka loggers and drillers).

Underlying the whole tale all are deep questions about God, about faith, redemption, surrender and devotion.
It really is a wonderful book, and shows perhaps how hollow much of the rest of the SF universe really is. (Not that that stops me enjoying it: it's just that this book is so much richer.)

It rightly won prizes. This is the only SF book I would recommend my wife should ever read. It's a wonderful novel, not to be missed.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The story of Christianity (David Bentley-Hart)

The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian FaithThe Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith by David Bentley Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A happy mix between the church histories that overdo the lavish at the expense of the comprehensive, and those that overdo the comprehensive at the expense of your eyesight. David Bentley Hart appears to have read everyone, from all the Gnostics, through Nietzsche, to the Russian devotional mystics, and that, and his own Eastern Orthodox faith means that his church history isn't skewed just to the Western (heard of St Herman of Alaska? Me neither). I found hardly a misstep in the book. His hobby of unravelling the myths and fairy tales that New Atheists tell to their children at bedtime (for a fuller account of which, see his 'Atheist Delusions') informs some of his chapters, notably those about the early modern period. My favourite of all the church histories I have read. Get someone to give you this book for Christmas.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 08, 2013

Eglantyne Jebb

The founder of the Save the Children Fund was a single woman from a relatively privileged background, an early graduate of Oxford university. After spending many years in charitable work and looking after her elderly mother, she finally found her real galvanizing purpose towards the end of the First World War and shortly afterwards. First she campaigned against press censorship by publishing translated excerpts from the foreign press. After the war she started campaigning against the continuing blockade of Germany, and raising funds for starving German children, including getting herself arrested in the process. She is credited with helping shift British attitudes from one of vindictiveness after the first war to a humanitarian and internationalist one. Some quotes: 'Every generation of children... offers mankind anew the possibility of rebuilding his ruin of a world'Eglantyne Jebb, founder of the Save The Children Fund. (From her biography by Clare Mulley, The Woman Who Saved The Children, p249) 'Nobody can indeed be a real patriot at the present day unless his deepest wish for his country is that it should worthily play its part in the wider service of humanity.' p275 Her biorgrapher records stages in her life when Jebb may have overstepped a line in showing love to a dear female friend, and another when she was involved, somewhere between imagination and encounter involving letters with a dead male colleague. But more orthodox Anglicans recognized her faith and Jebb herself testified to a life-changing ecounter with Christ in 1900. Much later, around 1920 she wrote: 'In these tragic days so full of darkness and terror -- what happiness and peace can neverthless be ours if we can realize Christ in our midst. He, here with us now ... giving us directions day by day as to the ways in which we are to undertake practical service for his Kingdom.' (p 298)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Even Sherlock Holmes couldn't do it.

"It is as impossible for man to demonstrate the existence of God as it would be for even Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle.” Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking - A Theological ABC

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Sources for church statistics

I recently compiled a short list of the best statistics on religion in the UK for a visiting scholar who was at our church. I put it here so I don't lose it.

1. British religion in numbers
This site, run by academics at the University of Manchester, seeks to gather, analyse and publish statistics on religion from a large variety of sources.

2. Office for National Statistics is the government data office. They are still publishing fresh data from the 2011 Census. But here is some of what they have:

This blog is a summary of some of the religious data:

3. Peter Brierley is a highly respected church researcher, now in semi-retirement, but his website is full of interest.

4. Global statistics. There are many sources for these. One of the most recent, and most respected, and easiest accessed can be found at America’s Pew Research Centre:

Sources for church statistics

Monday, January 21, 2013

What the middle ages did for science

Here's a list of gifts that came down from the Middle Ages (or from 'the age of faith' in the language of those who like to contrast it with a 'age of reason' than followed it) - gifts on whose necessary foundations science is built: All these intellectual achievements were worked out in the so-called pre-Enlightenment times:
  • There is a distinction between a primary cause (God did it) and a natural secondary cause (the machinery of the world has enough vitality and flexibility for things to happen naturally, as a consequence of laws of nature)
  • Nature is intelligible because it has a rational and loving creator
  • Natural philosophy is the study of the ordinary course of nature
  • Nature can be understood through the language of mathematics
  • God freely created the universe so we must observe his work to understand it. 
(From Dr James Hannam , Science and Christianity: An Historical Sketch. This is a Faraday Institute lecture, available from iTunes U.)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Faith and the dying: deathbed repentance is still popular

Am enjoying the British Religion in Numbers website ( One 2012 figure is at least amusing in the midst of the falling numbers of Christian affiliation elsewhere. Less than 60% of the living claim to be Christians in the UK but this rises to to 83% among the dying. (See Part of this is to do with the fact that the older a person is in the UK, the more likely they are to profess Christianity. But part of it...