Thursday, November 20, 2014

'i came not to call the righteous, but sinners'

'...God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life only to the dead, sanctifies only the sinners, gives wisdom only to the unwise. In short, He has mercy only on those who are wretched.' Luther, Luther's works, volume 29, Lectures on Titus, Philemon and Hebrews, ed Jaruslav Pelikan (Concordia,1968) p 189.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Wanna start a new charity? Here's one we actiually need

Have just been exploring an American site called Charity Navigator. A charity itself,  it looks at the financial efficiency, governance and transparency of charities in the USA, providing a star rating and all kinds of information. 

What a good idea. It highlights total clunkers. For example, the Autism Disorder Spectrum Organization (in the US) which raised $3.8m but spent $3.4m of it on fundraising.

It has top ten lists. Worst in all America for paying professional fundraisers? Stand up, Cancer Survivors' Fund which pays 90% of its income out in fundraising. Yet it claims to provide 'scholarships for young cancer survivors, give them a new purpose and meaning in life and enable them to continue their college education.' Actually, it mostly gives professional fundraisers a new purpose and meaning in life.

However, try the '10 best charities everyone has heard of' list and take a bow, Samaritan's Purse and Compassion International. Samaritan's Purse puts just a shade under 90% of every dollar it receives into its charitable programs. (Though it still manages to pay Franklin Graham a to my mind eye-popping annual salary of $437,000. Compassion International's Wesley Stafford gets by on $130,000 less.)

Others are still good but not quite so good: Oxfam America burns through nearly 14% of its income in fundraising and pays its main guy more than half a million dollars a year. (Its revenue is a mere $65m.) World Vision raises over a billion dollars a year (a billion!), pays its guy $400,000 (perhaps decent value), but still blows through $100m )(a hundred million dollars!) each year in fundraising. WV only gets three stars out of a possible four from the good burghers of Charity Navigator.

Here in the UK I know of no similar charity. Does anyone? Instead, we are assailed by various groups in various ways with no very easy way to figure out whether we are dealing with the gruesome UK equivalent of the Cancer Survivor's Fund or the more uplifting examples like Compassion International and Samaritan's Purse. Of course those two have UK arms, which is probably reassuring.

What we need, clearly, is not (yet) another fund in aid of a dead soldier's memory (well-intentioned and cathartic though that may be for people who have suffered an awful loss) but a bit of robust accounting and analysis.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Wish fulfilment

Stephen Hawking: 'religion is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.'

John Lennox: 'atheism is a fairy story for people afraid of the light.'

(And as Lennox points out, each statement sounds good but means nothing. The truth of either depends on whether or not God really does exist. )

Thursday, October 02, 2014

A spiritual North Korea

The cruel death of Mohan Amir Aslani: this Iranian psyschologist was hanged--hanged--eight days ago for teaching that the story of Jonah in the Qur'an may have been symbolic, not literal. He may have been collateral damage in a wider war within Iran of extremists trying to de-stablise Iran's reforming President Rouhani. But he is another martyr to the way radical Islamists make Islam a spiritual North Korea: it's paradise here, and we'll kill you if you try to leave.

And the Qur'an needs some fresh interpreting. Without it, radical Islam, unbending, will continue to bang and smash violently around in the world. God have mercy on his soul, and his family.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

A tale of two cathedrals

On Ascension Day 1573, just after the congregation had filed out of the building, the cathedral tower at Beauvais in Northern France fell through the roof. A monument to mediaeval hubris (it was, for a few short years, the tallest building in Europe), it  has never been finished. But at least nobody died.

On All Saints' Day 1755 the Great Lisbon Earthquake struck, while the churches and Lisbon cathedral were packed with worshippers. Thousands died. Meanwhile the non-worshippers, walking or picnicking away from the city, survived the quake and also the following fire and tsunami.

Christians 1, Atheists 1.

(Beauvais Cathedral reference: James Hannam God's Philosophers (Icon Books 2009), p 106-7

Friday, April 25, 2014

Fantasy therapy for distressed Americans

ReamdeReamde by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He is my favourite writer of the several thousand authors I have read in my life, so you can't complain. And yet. Reamde mostly lacks the pilates-for-the-mind that is Stephenson's special skill and hallmark. This is much simpler, a thriller. It's great fun, but in the end is just one more on the pile of a world full of 'action' and 'adventure' novels and films. You can only take so many taxis or boats hijacked at gunpoint, or shootouts around mountains, before yawning. Without giving too much away, jihadis -- conveniently monochrome baddies -- hijack the book and turn it into fantasy therapy for traumatized Americans.

The genius who wrote Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Trilogy is, like his war-game character Egdod in Reamde, mostly slumbering as he strolls across the landscape followed by eager acolytes.

Of course it's not a bad book. But unlike those titles, you don't feel obliged to compare it with War and Peace or Barchester Towers, greatest novels that have ever been written. Worth reading? Definitely. Worth forgetting? Sadly.

View all my reviews

Monday, March 31, 2014

Neal Stephenson, it's been too long

Two nice fat books for my holidays, William Hague's biography of William Wilberforce, and Neal Stephenson's 2011 offering, Reamde, which itself takes up more than 10% of my baggage allowance on Monarch Air. Stephenson is not, like so many UK-based literati, gloomy, nihilistic, pretentious, obscene and technophobic and his writing is just such a delight.

Here's a random sentence:

'Richard's ex-girlfriends were long gone, but their voices followed him all the time and spoke to him, like Muses or Furies. It was like having seven superegos arranged in a firing squad before a single beleagured id, making sure he didn't enjoy that last cigarette.'

See you in 1042 pages.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Board games

It started when prospective son-in-law bought us Carcassonne, a game about building cities and occupying farmland in medieval France. His family is half German and it seems the Germans are big into board games. (Or, perhaps, into occupying France. Some habits die hard...)

After that came 10 Days Across Asia (competitively plan travel itineraries), and then the start of a board games evening in church where I learnt Ra (gain in political influence over successive Egyptian Dynasties) and The Hunt for Red November (play collaboratively to keep your submarine afloat while it is hit by multiple disasters).

I bought my wife Lost Cities, a game for two based on the simple unfolding of a deck of cards, to while away our evenings as empty-nesters.

And two nights ago we played Puerto Rico (colonize a country by owning plantations and factories) as part of a social evening organized by a club my son is in. Slightly geeky (they are all strategy games), less class-bound than bridge, and very sociable, at least, very sociable for the slightly geeky.

Updates: since writing that post in late 2014, we've discovered Catan (which, like Carcassonne is described as a 'gateway drug' of board games), Rivals of Catan (a fiendish two-player version of this settle-rob-and-trade game) Splendor (jewel-trading), Pandemic (work collaboratively to prevent Armageddon) among others. Some fabulous evenings, new friends, new groups, a bit of an addiction, in the holidays at least. And not a computer screen in sight.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Alister McGrath on C S Lewis

I wanted to write a detached, cool-headed evaluation of this book and even had thought of some suitably ironic ways of describing it: 'ostrich prose', for example (covering a lot of ground with great enthusiasm but never quite taking off). 

Unfortunately, I can't do it. I shamelessly and unapologetically absolutely loved this book. I have to confess some shared interests. Alister McGrath is a professor at my old college. He's a scientist and atheist who turned to Christ. In some of his other writings, he has discovered the loveable pinata-like qualities of Professor Dawkins. So I was predisposed to like this book and therefore quite determined not to.

I don't know if it's a masterpiece or not but I found it an entirely satisfying retelling and re-evaluation of the man that I will treasure for a long time. They even got A N Wilson, big-beast among Lewis biographers and newly -returned-to-the-faith-Christian, to say something mildly pleasant about McGrath's work. So, perhaps, it must be good. It's not just me. Generally I prefer reading Lewis to reading books about Lewis but this is the business.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The publishing business

2013 figures in the Bookseller describe an unusual industry. They are for print titles, hardback and softback for the UK. I've rounded them.

Total sales appryearox £1.5 billion

Total titles sold (ie the number of new books now on the nation's bookshelves) approx 200m.


If Amazon offers around 6m books for sale, the mean sales of any single title in a year is around 30.

If a typical author has three books on the market, a total guess, mean total sales are likely to be 90/year

If each book sells for approx £7, the mean annual income of the average author is of the order of £60.

Anecdotally: you are about as likely to earn a living from writing books as you are to play on the professional tennis circuit.