Friday, 28 December 2007

Christmas and "The Children of Men"

Well, I hope you all had a good Christmas. Ours was pretty uneventful. For the first time for 26 years we had just the two of us for Christmas Day lunch, and I’m almost afraid to confess that we thoroughly enjoyed the break. Mind you, I made up for it on Boxing Day, where I spent literally twelve hours at church, helping manage Swansea’s Chinese Christian Fellowship in their big Christmas celebration. It was very impressive: I think in the end, they had over 200 people there. Well done guys!

What else to report? My article on Pullman on the Speculative Faith website aroused the attention of a very earnest atheist who wrote a long response. Unfortunately, this sort of site is not ideally suited for this sort of thing and actually, I don’t think most of the readership are terribly interested in apologetics. Equally, as someone pointed out to me, I believe we haven’t really worked out a proper way of doing debates on the Internet. Certainly not on blogs. Anyway, this thing got more and more sprawling as every time I answered the point he would retaliate with a response of greater length. As I have a life to lead, I curtailed it rather hoping that someone else would weigh in. It was a pity actually as he came up with the usual rather feeble comments about Jesus at the end. You know the sort of thing: if anything in the Gospels is challenging and striking it’s borrowed from Judaism or made up by the early church. The problem with this sort of thing is that it fails to explain how the church got started in the first place, least of all on that pretty improbable claim that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.

Anyway, we got the DVD of the film Children of Men and watched it last night. If you haven’t seen it it’s worth borrowing, although the language is pretty strong. I suppose you could describe it as the curious offspring of the high Anglican English novelist P. D. James and the Mexican ex-catholic Alfonso Cuarón, but actually it’s more a loose meditation by Cuarón on themes from James’s novel than an adaptation. It’s an compelling dystopic tale of a near future where childlessness prevails, although a very major (and added) theme in the film is immigration. There’s a lot of catholic imagery too. Perhaps the most impressive thing is the compelling look and feel of an England that has fallen very much to nasty pieces. The urban fighting scenes seemed to me to be excellently done; there was an authentic and visceral (in every sense of the word) feel of places like Civil War Beirut. The interesting thing is although the film ends on a positive note, it is very open ended. From the relevant Wikipedia article this seems to be deliberate. In other words, it is the sort of typical post-modern offering in which it is the viewer's task to make sense of what is happening.

I would dearly like to know what P. D. James thought of it all. I think I shall have to insert a clause in my will that I do not allow my books to be creatively reinterpreted in this fashion. I’m afraid I am old-fashioned; I feel that in writing the text the way I did, I imposed my meaning on it at birth. I feel almost inclined to say 'dear reader, if you want another version that tells another story, then go away and write a tale of your own'. I hope that doesn’t sound grumpy!

Happy New Year to one and all. And Alfonso Cuarón, don't call me; I'll call you.


Friday, 21 December 2007

A Christmas story

I thought I would tell you a true story of the most memorable Christmas I ever had. Twenty five years ago exactly, we were living in Beirut in a very fine apartment overlooking the Mediterranean on the campus of the American University. Now, by way of background, you need to know that 1982 was the year the Israelis invaded Lebanon, pounded their way up to Beirut, besieged it and drove the PLO out. I was a helpless and rather scared bystander of the first part of that episode; it was horrendous (it is now generally admitted to have resulted in 17,000 plus deaths). It was also ultimately futile; the war was planned and a success, the subsequent peace unplanned and a failure. (Sound familiar?) Towards the end of the fighting, a thousand plus Palestinian civilians were massacred at Sabra and Chatila by “Christian” militiamen: to what extent the supervising Israeli army knew – or even approved of it – is debated. The upshot was that a horrified West sent in a peacekeeping force, a large component of which were US marines. By the end of ‘82 the peace was still holding, although fighting in the mountains was beginning as various parties tried to settle old scores. But that December, a quarter of century ago, US troops were still driving around the city without body armour and weapons.

Through the Southern Baptist church that we attended, we invited three US marines for Christmas lunch. They arrived at church in their battledress, took part in the service and then walked down with us through the protected greenery of the campus to where we lived. They were polite and reserved but glad to be away from barracks; we ate good food and talked of all sorts of things. In the afternoon, we walked around the campus; it was a dry, cool day and the sun shone on the snows of the mountains above Beirut. We came back for more food and we have a photo of our eldest, John – just eight months at the time – sitting on a Marine’s lap, all smiles, his head almost buried by a forage cap. At some point, we would have made the inevitable observation that if there wasn't a heavily defended border in the way, we could have driven down to Bethlehem in a couple of hours. As night fell I prepared to take them back to their barracks and before they left they signed our visitor’s book. I have it before me now and their names were: Walter T. Kennedy of Duxbury, Mass, William H. Bowman of Marlow Heights, Maryland and Hector Colon of Vieqeus, Puerto Rico.

I drove them the five miles or so back along unlit, ruined roads and between wrecked buildings. On the way we passed Sabra and Chatila and the mass graves: we fell silent. Evil was about us and you could believe that in the dense shadows by the roadside, ghosts lurked. At the barracks – an ugly, four-storey building on the edge of the airport – we said farewell.

Yet if there were the ghosts of the past that day, there were also ghosts of the future. Almost exactly ten months later, on 23 0ctober, 1983, just after six on a quiet Sunday morning, a driver with a truck full of explosives drove into those Marine barracks and detonated a massive amount of explosives (5,400 kg of TNT; “the largest non-nuclear blast ever detonated on the face of the earth” ). 240 Marines were killed as the building was instantly turned to rubble. The blast woke me; a second blast, minutes later, that hit the French contingent, kept me awake. Looking at the list of the killed years later on the web I found that none of our guests had been slain; presumably their tour of duty was long over and they had been rotated out.

Now this point I hear the protests. Chris, you promised us a Christmas story. This is not one. It is awkward, it is troubling and doesn't have the happy glow, the chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire factor that we like. No, it doesn't. But let me turn this round: who said that this sort of Christmas – the one promoted by Dickens, Hollywood and a billion Christmas cards – is authentic? Haven't we created – and connived in – (for all for the best reasons, of course) something that goes against the Christmas story? Read the biblical narrative again; isn't it all set in dark times? Do you see much cosiness in the stable? Much seasonal joy In Herod? (He would have understood Sabra and Chatila!). Have we erased the greedy brutality of the Roman occupation? What has happened to the warning of Simeon in Luke 2: 35 “And a sword will pierce your own soul too”?

Isn't Christmas all about God intervening in a thoroughly messed up and horrid world? Isn’t celebrating Christmas itself a declaration of faith – sometimes proclaimed in darkness – that despite the reign of evil, good wins in the end. In fact, and here’s a theologically worded thought: have we gutted Christmas by taking eschatology out of it? Doesn’t the mess that is this sad world only make sense in the light, not just of the first coming of Christ, but the Second?

Anyway, whether at peace or war, have the best of Christmases.


Friday, 14 December 2007

Philip Pullman: an odd letter

Using similar methods to those alluded to by C. S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters I have recovered the following recent letter from a senior devil to his nephew.

My dear Sneerpate,

Rumour has reached me that you are delighted that your patient’s son has started to read Philip Pullman and is going to see the film the Golden Compass. I am appalled at your enthusiasm. I see this as yet another indicator of the declining standards of the Tempters College. I suppose it is inevitable that, after generations of persuading humans that idiocy is a desirable state of mind – with some startling results – junior tempters are stupid themselves.

Do you really believe that these books or this film will ensure this child stays out of the Enemy’s hands? Oh, I can hear your pathetic answer, “Please Uncle Gnawbone, in the last book God is killed off.” And so he is. But do you really think that even the most naïve human child would recognise in that feeble caricature the dreadful reality about whom we can barely think without terror?

However, that is not the real issue. That is simply this; what is the price we pay for them to be tempted by such works? Oh yes, ’god’ is cast down, but those who read these books are expected to put their faith in all manner of things that human scepticism or what is called ‘rationality’ denies: magic, daemons, witches, wizards! You see what you are encouraging? Far from leading this child into the barren deserts of atheism with its insistence that the only things that exist are those that can be seen and felt, you are running the risk that this boy will develop a hunger for fantasy. Do you really not understand the danger? He may acquire a hunger for the supernatural, a longing for that which his everyday world will never provide. Fantasie is a perilous land for us. In those realms, it is all too easy for the Enemy to appear. Weren’t you strictly instructed that the safest route to the flames of our Father’s house is that wide, well populated path that shuns any hint of magic? Indeed so perilous is fantasy even when it is marketed as ‘atheistic’ that there are those amongst us who suggest that under all his many words (how these humans talk!) this Pullman is in fact an agent of the Enemy.

No, Sneerpate, keep the child from all fantasy. Indeed, better still, from reading. The Internet, with its encouragement of disorganised and incoherent knowledge and its promise of instant gratification of every whim is far, far safer. If the child must read, then let it be magazines or catalogues. A healthy taste in materialism can’t be started too early.

Your affectionate uncle


Friday, 7 December 2007

The teddy bear affair

I said I would comment on the case of the lady teacher in Sudan who unfortunately let her pupils call a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’. Although the affair has apparently now blown over some points seem worth making. While there was a lot about it in the British press, it seemed to me that most comments missed the mark.

Anyway, as someone who has taught in this sort of culture for eight years (some time l must tell you about the unfortunate incident to do with Thomas Aquinas) let me give you my take on it. Obviously, there was a lot of politics involved, no doubt related to the appalling business of Darfur where the government of Khartoum must take the lot of the blame. But then politicking is pretty much standard in this region. I think there are three things that are worth considering.

Firstly there is the issue of shame and honour. As in almost every part of the Islamic world, life in Sudan revolves around honour. From my experience in Lebanon and elsewhere, most people spend most of their time trying to gain honour and avoid shame. Honour ranks above fortune and pleasure and to bring honour on one's family is perhaps the greatest good that you can do. Shame must be avoided at all costs. There is a famous story from the Lebanese Civil War of a journalist interviewing a sniper who was being paid to kill people from another community on a per-body basis. The journalist asked him, ‘How does your boss know that you have really killed the number of people that you claim you have?’ The sniper turned furiously on the journalist. ‘Are you saying that I might not be an honourable man?’ Incidentally if you think this is bizarre, you need to read the gospels again. So many of the issues there revolve around matters of honour: the ‘shame of the cross’ is a real matter. Anyway, my first point is that the issue was not really that of blasphemy but bringing dishonour on the name of Mohammed.

A second issue is that animals have a much lower value in this part of the world. It is a pretty deadly thing to suggest in the Arab world that anybody is like an animal: they don’t do the cuddly creature thing. So to say that he is ‘a mule’ or she is ‘a kitten’ is asking for trouble. Here incidentally, it may be us rather than them that are odd; the British in particular, seem to rate animals above humans.

The third issue – and here I have to choose my words delicately – is that there is a real concern over the status of Mohammed. Islam prides itself on being a later – and better – revelation than Christianity. Linked with that but rarely expressed is the need that their prophet be on at least equal terms with the Christian’s Jesus. And here there is a problem. It has been pointed out by many people that if all that had to be done was to rate Mohammed against many of the Old Testament’s kings of Israel then he could indeed be accorded a place of honour. But he must be rated against the character, teaching and works of Jesus of Nazareth and compared to him, who can stand? The result is, I think, that there is almost a collective inferiority complex. And that makes matters sensitive.

So my take on the whole matter is that putting aside the evident politicking involved this was something of a perfect storm. Three things came together: the failure to recognize the high value of honour; the assumption that everybody thinks bears are cuddly; and the perpetual unease about the status of Mohammed.

Finally, there is a relevant comment to be made here about the role of fantasy. One of the key points of fantasy is that it forces us to engage with very different cultures and the values. As such it is an excellent preparation for being able to put ourselves in other people's shoes; something that didn’t happen here. Don't believe me about fantasy? Well, if you try and explain the concept of living by honour to people of a particular age and background you all too frequently hear them say, ‘So it's a little bit like the Klingons?’ I suppose so.

Have a good week.

Friday, 30 November 2007

On pride

This week I was going to write something about teddy bears and the need to understand the mindset of very different cultures. Having taught for eight years in a culture which was at least partially Islamic I think I have something to offer in the current dispute. However these are sensitive times and I think it will probably wait. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind having my books publicly burnt in Khartoum, particularly if a) they had paid for them and b) I had good press coverage.

The real reason for the shift of topic is that I had a nice surprise this morning which has made me consider an old concern: the topic of pride. I was in early at college this morning but really was not feeling very excited about life; the weather was grey, the sky thick with clouds full of rain and I felt certain I was about to come down with ‘flu. Then I was suddenly summoned to the Principal’s office. I should explain that we don’t see an awful lot of the Principal, largely because he spends a lot of his time dealing with the impenetrable Welsh educational bureaucracy 60 miles away in Cardiff; so it was not a trivial summons. I won’t say my entire life flashed before me but it did cross my mind that December was not a good time to be made redundant.

I had no need to be concerned. On the contrary, it soon emerged that a student I had taught for the last two years had got the highest mark nationally at A-level in Geology. He got a book prize, and as his teacher, I got a Fellowship of the Geological Society for a year. Anyway, Chris Jones, currently at Emanuel College Cambridge reading Natural Sciences, is a great lad who probably could have got it just by reading the syllabus and teaching himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if he occasionally reads this blog (he was very nice about the Lamb Among the Stars books even if he doesn’t share the Christian viewpoint) and he utterly deserves the award.

Now I mention this here because it raises a question that a member of church raised with me the other week: when if ever is it right to be proud? Frankly, I found this a difficult question then and I find it difficult now. When I first became a Christian I imbibed greatly of the truth that I was a miserable worm and that pride was the greatest of all sins. I developed remarkable skills at understating natural abilities and perfecting what I now think is probably a superficial humility. But ought we treat all awards as worthless baubles, as empty and vain gestures in this brief life? I have no doubt the Puritans would have said so. I don’t need them to know that there is a great deal of pride that is clearly wrong. Any sort of superiority that tries to demonstrate you are better than someone else is sinful. But is it totally wrong for instance for a parent to take pleasure in a son’s musical achievement or a daughter’s sporting triumph? Is it utterly appalling to take pleasure in some event that vindicates a tough or painful decision you have made?

It seems to me that these are difficult areas. Obviously, all that we have is by grace and we need to realise that in one sense we have nothing to be proud of. But beyond this isn't there a sense in which we can take pride in an achievement? I wonder whether part of the problem is that the English word pride is very broad and covers a range of things extending all the way from innocent pleasure in a football team’s performance to wholesale and unacceptable boasting. I have to say I was jolly pleased about this morning’s news but my main pleasure lay in the regions of relief and possibly vindication. In the three years that I have been teaching, I have not found it very easy and have frequently felt I was something of a fraud. I guess this morning I finally felt that actually I might be doing a decent job.

Anyway I’m sure I’m not alone with the problem of pride. What I’d love is a simple memorable and permanently usable rule to distinguish ‘good pride’ from ‘bad pride’. Any ideas? In the meantime, I shall with, thanks to God, quietly stick FGS after my name!

Have a good week,

Friday, 23 November 2007

On youth fiction

In a blog response last week, someone mentioned that my books were still being marketed as children’s books and asked for comment. Let me give an explanation here, and then pass along to briefly discuss the whole issue of children’s fiction.

My books were originally written for adults, and still are written for adults. I don’t get a lot of criticism, but certainly no one has said that they are too simplistic or shallow to be considered as adult fiction. On the contrary, many comments have been on the lines that, by the standards of Christian fiction, these are actually deep and thoughtful books. (I fear that this reflects much more on the parlous state of Christian writing than on my writing skills.) Quite simply, the issues I grapple with in the books are those that interest me. I am an adult (albeit with a stubborn streak of adolescence), therefore, the books are adult.

The problem arose when what is now the first volume ended up on Tyndale’s desk: they wanted it but didn’t do fantasy fiction. (You may feel this to be a slightly curious statement given that their biggest seller has been the Left Behind series but I couldn’t possibly comment.) They did however have a youth imprint that they were about to launch and threw me in it. I didn’t object: I was glad to get published in the States. (Of course, in those days the dollar was actually worth something :-)). Since then I have been relocated to the adult category as Tyndale’s first fantasy author. However, there is a bit of a lag time and some people evidently still think of me as a youth author. So if you get the chance please do promote me as adult author.

All this has made me think about what actually makes up youth/children’s fiction. I have no easy answer and I found it easier to define children’s fiction, not by what it is, but by what it isn’t. I decided, in the traditional manner of a Welsh preacher, that there are three things that mark writing for children: a constraint on style, substance and sophistication. By a constrained style, I mean that the writer shuns a heavy and complex prose style full of long words and sentences. By a constrained substance I mean that certain topics are not touched on, or only alluded to in passing. I think these would not simply be the obvious ones of sex and extreme violence, but also include the cynicism, bitterness and despair that characterise much adult fiction. By a constrained sophistication, I mean that we shun the cleverness of allusions, quotes, word games and the like that would go over the head of a young person. Let me give you a non-literary example. The other day, one of our papers had a wordless and well done cartoon of Sarkozy, dressed as Napoleon, riding a donkey alone along a wintery vastness of railway lines. The cartoon required both a knowledge of the present French industrial strife and awareness of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. The verbal equivalents of this are best avoided in youth writing.

But is there anything else? Is there any particular positive feature that marks out youth fiction? A youthful hero perhaps? Maybe, but that is not essential. An optimistic view of the future? I think that is naiveté. A sense of innocence? No way! But I am open to comments. For what it is worth, I have no intention of trying to write youth fiction as such. What I do intend writing is accessible adult fiction, and it seems to me that that will do.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Villains and covers

This is one of those Friday evenings when I am not going to cover anything momentous. I have just posted an article on Speculative Faith about villains in Christian fiction and that has drained a few of the creative juices.

Actually, it’s been a tiring week. I was back teaching on Monday morning, still full of cold, and kept going well into our open evening where we recruited for next year. I left at five to nine in the evening, after what amounted to 12 hours of solid bouncing around and trying to be enthusiastic. Anyway, thank you those who showed concern, the cold is now more or less gone.

On the book front, there have been some little bits of news. I popped over to the Lamb Among the Stars wall on Facebook and was delighted to find that it is alive and well and that there are some very interesting comments. I also perused to find that The Shadow and Night has managed to now accumulate 10 reviews, every single one of which is five stars. It's just a pity that the sales rank is so low. The main news though was that I received the covers for The Infinite Day – you’ll find the picture on my website.

I have to say I like it. Those desperate to know what is about to happen will I’m afraid derive little enlightenment from it as it was deliberately chosen not to give anything away. I still do not have a publication date, but presume will get one very soon.

Have a good week.

Friday, 9 November 2007

The blessing of blogs

It’s a Friday evening after a busy week and a long day’s teaching and I’m getting my first cold of winter. Reader, I do not feel like writing a blog. Not at all. Yet, I’m going to do it. The reason is not simply out of a sense of duty to the probably very small number of people who actually read this regularly. The fact is, I have actually found it to be quite a blessing. Quite simply, it forces me at the end of a long week to write something vaguely sensible and vaguely coherent. It is the verbal equivalent of making yourself go to the gym. You do reap benefits. So for instance, this week I had to rewrite a statement a student had made about himself for university. His comment about the result was effectively unprintable in its gratitude for how I utterly rewritten his statement. So it is worthwhile.

Anyway what’s new? Well, I have been truly outed as a writer in a couple of my classes and the kids want to talk a lot about the books. The trouble is, you can never be quite sure whether they are genuinely interested or whether anything is preferable to geology, geography, or environmental science. I tend to answer one or two quick questions and then move back to where we were. I’m not paid to promote myself. However, I do sometimes wonder if my reluctance to be drawn on the books is taken as an indication that I am embarrassed about them. If I ever was, I am not now. I have had enough fan mail to realise that most people actually enjoy them to some degree and some people enjoy them a lot. And no one has publicly said they are garbage. (If you think that they are, please don’t ruin my otherwise perfect record and move along quickly to someone else’s website. Please!)

But there are still questions I find difficult. For instance making the right response to ‘I hear you write books!’ For one thing, there is the question of humility; if you shrug your shoulders, look embarrassed and make some comment like ‘we all have our secret vice’, they tend to assume that what you write is utter garbage and you are ashamed of it. When they ask ‘what sort of thing do you write?’ and you answer ‘Christian fiction’ that, of course, seems to confirm the matter. Christian seems to be taken as code for ‘so poorly written that no one except someone with a preoccupation with the faith would want to buy it’. As a result I’m afraid I often leave the reference to Christianity to some sort of supplementary follow up.

‘Do you make a lot of money out of it?’ is another question, which often (too often) produces the tart retort from me “Do you really think I would be teaching you, if I did?” You have to point out that well although the sales are reasonable what writers actually earn after all the deductions is not that wonderful. The trouble is they do the equation: 10,000 books or whatever times say eight pounds and come up with £80,000 and assume that you have pocketed the lot. Chance would be a fine thing, particularly these days, when most of my sales are in the green and sickly dollar. Then they say ‘what are the books about?’ There is no easy answer to that, or none that I have found. I’m tempted to reply ‘these are profound meditations on the problem of evil in the world’ but that may not be a vote winner with 16-year-olds. ‘What’s your best selling book?’ is actually quite easy and quite a good question, because I am able to say it’s The Life, a book about Jesus, and I have sold around 70,000 copies. 70,000 copies gets people interested. But as I said, I’m not paid to talk about myself or to do evangelism and actually there is the student-pupil relationship which you don’t really want to breach. But they do borrow the books from the library and some actually seem to enjoy them. Who knows, perhaps I am doing some good after all.

Cough, sneeze etc.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Segues, spaceships and Suzuki

This is an early blog this week as I am away over the weekend. For new readers and others, I try to post weekly, Friday evening, UK time. And those interested in commenting on the books may wish to know that there is a rather fun Lamb among the Stars Facebook group.

I have always been a fan of the segue: the art of seamlessly moving from one section or theme to another. (Mind you, it took me a long time before I realised it was pronounced seg-way.) Anyway, there are a couple of instances below.

I seem to have survived last week’s posting on JKR and the outing of Dumbledore. I was worried I would either get damned or praised for being anti-gay. One comment I made last week did though come back to haunt me: my criticism of her ladyship for tinkering with the plot post-publication. The reason was that I have been finishing the final edits on the Infinite Day (it is half-term: I get to work at home and drink my own coffee) and I realised that if I was to make any changes, now is my last chance. One change I would like to make but alas, it is in the first book and beyond recall, is where I mention a spacecraft named after Shih Li-Chen, someone who Merral recollects “was poet, church leader and unsurprisingly for early twenty-first century China, martyr.” In hindsight, I think it would have been more daring (and conceivably more prophetic) to hint that the martyrdoms for the faith had been in the West rather than the East.

The fact is that Christianity is alive and well in the East. If you wanted proof of that it was very audible this week with the long-awaited (and not just by me) release of J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass under the conductor Maasaki Suzuki. For those outside the blessed elect of Bach fandom, let me explain. Although elements of the B Minor mass were written earlier, Bach compiled the whole work in in his final years. Two hours long and in Latin, it was quite unperformable in any church context, least of all in Bach’s own Lutheranism and seems to have been intended as a monument for posterity, summing up all that he could do. Anyway, it is one of the most perfect masterpieces of Western music and Maasaki Suzuki does it proud.

Suzuki, a Japanese Christian, and a very considerable musician, has been working his way for years through the vast canon of Bach cantatas (36 CDs so far and about 24 to go) to growing acclaim. What distinguishes his work is a polished musicianship plus – and here is the key – a sensitivity to what the text is saying. Apparently, he makes sure that his singers fully understand the meaning of Scripture. (There is a fascinating article on him and the growing Japanese interest in Bach here.) Anyway, they’ve just released his version of the B Minor and I downloaded it off eMusic for a very reasonable cost. It seems to me that he gets it wonderfully right; reverent without being slow; dramatic without being too theatrical and everywhere beautifully played and sung. It's an awesome piece of music, and in his hands you can happily believe that no one has written anything finer. Even if it seems imperilled in the West, Christianity is alive and well in the East

And now ladies and gentlemen (roll of drums) for that rarity: the return segue. When the Voyager spacecraft was launched in 1977 – by now it’s about 9.5 billion miles away – it bore a golden disc with sounds and musical items on it. Bach was the most represented composer with three tracks. In discussing the choice of music, the biologist Lewis Thomas said: “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach . . . but that would be boasting.”

Just so.

Friday, 26 October 2007

I wish she hadn’t done it! On the outing of Dumbledore

It seems impossible this week not to make some sort of comment on the fact that She-Who-Need-Not-Be-Named has outed Dumbldore as gay. This is one of those events, relatively minor in itself, which I fear will no doubt have major repercussions, some of which are as yet unsuspected.

I have some difficulty in writing about homosexuality. I have very little empathy for it, which makes treating the subject with sympathy difficult. I am also aware it is a subject of enormously strong feelings. Being gay is such a core feature of homosexual people that to be negative about it is seen as a personal attack. It is also a subject of such complexity that it needs careful unpacking; for example are we to endorse even the most promiscuous sort of homosexuality? A blog is hardly an appropriate location for a discussion. Nevertheless I feel that some comment must be made, so here goes.

I wish she hadn’t done it for many reasons. Let me begin with the literary problem. She has effectively added an amendment to the books which now, for better or worse, require their re-evaluation. The pivotal Dumbledore-Harry relationship must surely be now be reconsidered. It is a wise rule that once a book is written, authors leave their finished work to the readers. This has an unfortunate air of ‘Harry Potter: The Author’s Cut.’

Secondly, she has chosen to throw her considerable weight on one side of what is perhaps the biggest and most painful cultural battle of our time: whether homosexual relationships are as equally valid as heterosexual ones. I remind you that this is no light issue: to accept such a legitimisation is basically to reject the Bible’s authority in matters of sexuality. And if the Bible is kicked out of the bedroom, then it will soon be kicked out of the boardroom and the schoolroom. Its authority will be utterly undermined, and all we will have left is some edifying stories and some pious promises. I feel that she has done this because she is a modern Western woman and it’s the thing to do.

Thirdly, and most worryingly of all, she has bought this pained and complex battle into children’s literature. When I taught in Beirut in the early 1980s there was a universal (and generally held) agreement amongst the trigger-happy thugs of the warring militias that the campus of the American University of Beirut was off-limits. In the same way, I think there has been something of an unspoken consensus that it was not right to wage this battle in the presence of children. But at a stroke JKR has brought the war into the school library. I regret this, not because I think the gay rights issue cannot be countered at this level, but because I believe in an endangered thing called childhood in which such matters remain over the horizon. The all too vulnerable area of childhood, long eroded by commercialism, is now threatened by warfare over sexual orientation. (Incidentally, had it been the evil Voldemort who had been outed, then I trust I would have been just as irritated.)

Finally, I regret it for a selfish reason. It makes our lives difficult as writers. Do we now have to declare some sort of affidavit that ‘no character of ours will be subsequently outed’? Let me pre-empt that. Let me say here, for the benefit of my readers and for posterity that no character good or evil I have written of in the Lamb among the Stars books is gay. But I wish I hadn’t had to say it.

Friday, 19 October 2007

A question without an easy answer

This would have been a nice normal teaching week, except that I was summoned for jury service. It is the first time I have been part of a court procedure and I don’t wish to say anything specific, but let me offer an observation.

I was struck by the enormous sense of respect – bordering on awe – that the court seemed to invoke in all of us gathered for the jury service. Particularly when we were assembled in an anteroom next to the court chamber, you could almost feel the mutual unease. Voices were hushed, jokes ebbed away, people seem to look at each other as if seeking reassurance that we were part of the process of judgment and not its object. Oddly enough, it reminded me of a funeral. There are similarities, of course: for those sentenced to prison, lives are shattered and families torn apart in a way that only death exceeds. Anyway, I think we all felt we were in the presence of something of solemn power.

The sense of being in the presence of judgment, perhaps even justice, raised a question. Should we not, at least some time, and in some measure, feel this in church? Of course, we are forgiven in Christ; of course, we come before God not as judge, but as heavenly Father. But have we forgotten the wrath that would have been ours outside Christ? Have we totally forgotten that we have been spared the justice of God?

The question, which inevitably follows is, if that is the case (and I feel that there must be the time and place for such emotions), how do we try and it invoke them? An older generation would have had sermons on God's wrath and judgment. We however, being 21st-century Christians, merely allude to such things in passing, and then, aided and abetted by a worship team, move swiftly on into the happy sunlight of blessings, promise and hope. Something to think about surely?

Incidentally, I have posted a long discussion of allegory on the Speculative Faith website. Have a good weekend,


Friday, 12 October 2007

Technology, Tools and Traps

I have been busy this week, partly with getting hold of the new car. (Very nice, thank you.) But doesn’t everything take so much of an effort these days? The Octavia manual runs to 200 pages and that’s only the English; you are aware how far computers have made inroads into the world of the car.

One other thing that has occupied me this week has been trying to find an online calendar and To Do program that I can access from any computer at home or work and also from my Windows Mobile phone. As you may or may not be aware, there are some very fine products, such as Yahoo Calendar, Google Calendar and a few other things that are great for managing dates and appointments. There are also some very good pieces of task management software, and the one I have got the most mileage out of so far is the splendidly named Remember The Milk. Hitherto I have used Microsoft’s Outlook, but find that it has all sorts of limitations. Currently Google Calendar and Remember The Milk seemed to be the best combination, but transferring dates and times from Outlook into the online Google calendar is far from easy.

Why have I been so anxious to do this? It’s actually a very good question. The first answer is that I want to be able to organise my life, wherever I am. I want to be able to know what I have to do and when I have to do it. I want to be able to click on any computer and be told I have this marking, and this preparation to do. And, I would add, because I am not the most organised of people, this is vital. The reality is, I suspect something far deeper. It is a forlorn, doomed hope that I will find some wonderful piece of software that will actually do the work for me. I live in hope that there will be something that, with a few mouse clicks, will write those references on students, mark those papers and prepare those lectures. I acknowledge the full force of the curse on Adam in Genesis chapter 3, paraphrased from memory thus: ‘from now on, you will only earn a living by the sweat of your brow’. But I live in hope that somehow, somewhere I will find an exception to this rule. Incidentally, this is not why I write books. I write books for the same reason that I scratch my body; it’s an itch that needs attention. But yes, I’d love to write full-time.

This leads me to an intensely valuable piece of advice that I read over 20 years ago, which I share with you gladly in the hope that someone else might find it equally helpful. It was so striking that I can still remember where I read it: it was in an imported computer magazine (yes, they did have them in those days) in Antananarivo, Madagascar. It was a summary of some early work on two sets of managers: one IT literate, and the other IT illiterate. They had followed them for a couple of years to see how they progressed. To everyone’s surprise, the IT illiterates actually advanced faster up the corporate ladder than their colleagues. The reason, the writer concluded, was that the computer literates spent far too much of their time tweaking the software, learning tricks and helping other people sort out computer problems. The IT illiterates simply got on with their job.

Two decades and three or four jobs later, I can only say that this strikes me as being a very profound observation for writers, educators and everybody else. What technology gives with the one hand, it takes away with the other. Somewhere Stephen King talks about he calls ‘the world’s finest word processor: the Waterman fountain pen’. In an age when cars come with 200 page manuals, I know exactly where he is coming from.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Two Problems

Two loose ends this week, neither of which really merits full-blown blog treatment.

The first is that we are finally changing a very ancient number two car for a much more recent Skoda Octavia, which is really rather nice. The Skoda story is interesting. A famous Czech car firm before the Second World War, they became infamous under Communism for creating cars that were legendary for their appalling design and quality. They were so bad that they spawned a whole library of jokes. A sample: ‘How do you double the value of a Skoda?’ Answer: ‘Fill it with petrol.’

In 1991, after the unlamented departure of the Communist government, Skoda was taken over by the Volkswagen group and subjected to a root and branch overhaul. This was stunningly effective, so that now, 16 years later, in Britain at least, Skoda are high on the league tables for innovative, reliable and desirable vehicles. Embarrassingly Skodas have proved to be more reliable vehicles than Audis and Volkswagens.

I mention this here because it seems to me that it would make a wonderful children’s talk in church. Do we not here have a very real pattern of conversion, redemption and New Birth? The worthless delinquent, the butt of endless jokes, taken over and given a brand new life of value? It’s great. But my problem is this: how on earth do I make a talk of it that doesn’t sound like an advertisement?

I have also been thinking this week about fictional characters. Without revealing too much, the reason is that this year I have found myself with a student who genuinely does merit, without any sense of hyperbole, the word genius. His history is that he is exiled from a war-torn Middle Eastern state, passes through Pakistan and ends up in Russia where he learns to play the piano and high-level chess, and masters his fourth language. With his family he somehow ends up in a tiny flat in Swansea, where despite arriving with no English, he soon passes five A-levels with stunning grades. He is now with me cruising through geology with a polite effortlessness as he waits till he can apply to university at 17. He is rarely seen without some learned tome and spends any remaining spare time helping other immigrants. The problem is this. If he were a character in a manuscript, the editor would no doubt observe ‘tone him down, too good to be true’. We must respond: despite being ‘too good to be true’, some things (grace included) are indeed true.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Issues with committees revisited

Two weeks ago I expounded on the way that writers and readers of fiction overlook the way that major events are often made not by epic acts of heroism but by seemingly boring committee meetings. There were some suggestions that I might consider this theme further and so here we are.

It is often said that committees acquire a life of their own, as if the very process of half a dozen human beings gathering together creates a new and monstrous psychological and spiritual organisation. At one level this is true, but we need to be a little more rigorous in our analysis. Why is this the case? Let me make some observations.

The first is that committees are able to allow evil to occur because they give the participants the illusion that they are no longer personally responsible for what happens. It strikes me that when we personally are asked to take a decision then, if we are people of principle, we carefully consider the outcomes in the light of our own morality and only then do we proceed. In some shape or form we know that we as individuals will be held accountable. And whether we fear God, man or the verdict of history we tread warily.

However as a committee member all is changed: we feel absolved from all this. We are now part of a collective organism and our responsibility ends the moment we sit down round the table. The result is that men and women who would willingly shed their own blood to help someone now feel an extraordinary freedom to condemn innocents to a life of suffering. We need reminding that while there may be strength in numbers there is no exception from judgment.

A second observation is that committees are oddly open to manipulation. I’m sure a number of my readers have been in some sort of committee meeting and suddenly found themselves surprised at the way the decision was going. The theory of committees is that because everybody has a say then a committee should come to the wisest decision. The reality is that often – perhaps because people assume that it can’t happen – committees can be gently and discreetly managed by those with agendas. It’s easy to assume that such people must inevitably be the chairman or chairperson; in practice it might easily be someone else, possibly someone who merely makes a few minimal comments but who with quiet steady suggestions pushes an otherwise unpalatable decision to its conclusion.

A third observation is that because in any group of human beings there will be some sort of clash of personalities then dynamics are set up in a committee which may easily affect what happens. Consider a fairly simple case. Young Charlotte, recently appointed to the committee against the wishes of one or two of the senior gentlemen, comes up with a jolly good proposal. The senior gentlemen consider it not simply on its merits but with other factors in view. Might agreeing to this proposal encourage this young lady to go further and possibly tread on their own territory? Might it perhaps be appropriate to teach her a cautionary lesson? It may even be that they vote against the proposal just because they don’t like her. The upshot is that a decent proposal might not be approved simply because it was, in that dreadful word, politic for it to be rejected. The results of the committee’s deliberations have produced nonsense. And lest I be accused here of inverted sexism, let me suggest that when the committee meets again Charlotte deliberately vetoes one of the elderly gentlemen’s proposals on the grounds that some degree of retribution is valid. Very soon the committee becomes a battleground of egos rather than a method of resolving problems. All too often what is at stake in committee meetings is not success or failure or truth or falsehood but one’s own personal prestige.

There was much that was wrong with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. One of the worst things was the portrayal of the Sanhedrin as exotic, woolly wild Jews alien to all that we are. It would have been far more telling (and far less anti-Semitic) to have portrayed them (as the gospels hint they were) as men who when they came together in committee, let the strange dynamics of collective decision meeting push them into the most terrible of deeds.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Dismissed, Derided and Distorted

A double apology. One, I promised to write more on committees (and I will) and two, this is largely a repeat of the monthly Speculative Faith blog which I wrote this week. I have my reasons for repeating it.

One of the greatest masterpieces of art is the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is an oratorio for soloists, two choirs and, for those days, a reasonably sized orchestra. It was written for what must have been a very long Good Friday church service in 1727. In length (well over two hours) and in musical style it broke new ground and is one of the towering peaks of music. It is also explicitly evangelical. Through the use of hymns and choruses listeners are deliberately drawn into the events surrounding our Lord’s trial and death. Bach clearly makes the point; it is we who crucified Christ. Even when your German is minimal (as mine is) it is still a moving experience. (Unfortunately there is only really one version in English, and that is rather old-fashioned.)

Now this summer the St Matthew was presented as an opera at the UK’s famous Glyndebourne Festival. In itself, an opera version is not a bad idea; the music is dramatic and you do wonder whether Bach did not dream of something far less static than an oratorio in which men and – just possibly – women stood up and sung. I should say here that I didn’t see the performance but followed the reviews with interest. What happened is that the director set the work in an unspecified modern community (Beslan?) that had been affected by the violent deaths of children, so that the entire work became about counselling the bereaved. Let me quote from the Guardian: “the Passion story is a project that they are led through by four therapists, who form the central quartet of soloists. Every so often, one of the participants gets spooked and makes a run for it; seeing how any genuine emotion from the chorus members is immediately damped down by the insufferably sincere therapists, you can’t blame them.” The Passion was thus interpreted as a prolonged meditation on grief, suffering and loss; presumably with the intention of making it ‘more relevant’. Readers will probably not be surprised to know that the audiences were not impressed: one headline simply read ‘Crime of Passion’. Even non-Christian reviewers sensed that this was not at all what Bach was about.

Now here, long-suffering readers, let us turn to fiction. You see, it seems to me that the unbelieving world has three possible strategies in dealing with Christian art. Firstly, it can be dismissed. So it is a genre that is ‘insignificant’ and ‘not worthy of comment’. The writing of gay and lesbian authors is worth critical comment but not that of Christians: their books go unreviewed. Secondly, it can be derided. We all know the words: ‘old-fashioned’, ‘conservative’, ‘puerile’, etc., etc. Now consider the problem faced by someone hostile to Christianity when they come across a piece of such surpassing excellence that it cannot be dismissed or derided. The St Matthew Passion (one of Richard Dawkins’ Desert Island discs, by the way; there’s hope for him yet) is such a work. Here a third strategy is opted for: distortion.

So despite everything the St Matthew Passion is presented as not being not fundamentally about Christ and the cross but about the universal experience of suffering and loss. And haven’t we seen this elsewhere? No matter how explicit we make our Christian statements, what is written is twisted into something far less spiritual and ultimately, far less significant. Of course, in an age of postmodernism, when the reader, not the writer, makes the decision on meaning, there is even a justification for this: ‘I do not really care what you meant to say; I am only interested in what it does for me.’

It seems to me that because of its use of images and the unusual, speculative fiction is very prone to this re-reading. Remember how Tolkien had to make it plain in the foreword to Lord of the Rings that the book wasn’t about European politics? The voices continue: that lion isn’t Jesus, it’s a universal symbol of hope. And so on.

So how we are to respond? One way is that somewhere, probably outside the books themselves, we need make it absolutely plain that our meaning is not negotiable. It perhaps needs to be written down somewhere for posterity that this writing is not about politics, sexual shenanigans or environmental issues, but about higher matters.

I have no idea whether my own Lamb among the Stars series (I am uneasy mentioning it in the same article as the St Matthew Passion!) will have any sort of long-term success. Equally, I have no idea whether future researchers will have access to what we now write on the Internet. But if, in the providence of God, both happen, let me say something to you who read this (and this is why I have repeated myself in two blogs). It is this. These books are only indirectly about the current political situation or anything else as ephemeral; they are ultimately about the very Christian matters of sin and redemption, hope and courage, judgement and eternity. At the end of the St Matthew Passion Bach appended three letters: S.D.G. Soli Deo Gloria. I have done the same. Readers, producers, directors: take note and please, spare me from your distortions.

Friday, 14 September 2007

A subtle peril of fiction

I was at a church elders meeting last night, when I was struck by a totally irrelevant thought: how rarely fiction represents committee meetings. The chief reason of course is not hard to find: they are really pretty boring. (Another reason, incidentally, is that meetings where more than three people are present are very hard to portray; you end up saying, X said this, Y said that, Z commented, and so on.) Fiction, especially the sort that I write, and I suspect most of my readers read, is about action and events. If committee meetings do occur in such works, then we are generally taken straight to some climactic moment of decision: all else is dispatched in a few sentences.

Now thinking about this further, I think this is very misleading in an artistic sense. You see it is in such quiet committee meetings where great decisions are made. The fate of individuals, organisations, and even nations, is decided in slow rounds of often undramatic argument and discussion. It is in these rather low-key exchanges of views that destinies are forged for good or ill. Fiction, because it tends to concentrate on dramatic, emotionally charged events or confrontations, misleads us. The apparently still waters of a big river in fact move far faster than the turbulent bubbling of an alpine stream. In the same way momentous events often happen quietly.

From the Christian point of view there is something very significant here. We prepare ourselves to do the right thing at a great moment of crisis. Here, we say to ourselves, we will not fail! Yet actually what happens is that the pivotal battle is conducted somewhere else, often in a far less dramatic matter. And here, unexpectant and ill-prepared, we fail. We need to be prepared for moments of crisis in life, but we also need to beware of being ambushed by some subtle danger on what we expect to be a quiet stretch. I suspect many souls have been damned in those quiet committee meetings when the chairman has said, with no great fanfare, ‘So then. I take it we are all agreed?’ And unable to resist, a man or woman agrees to something terribly wrong.

Having just written this I have remembered what C. S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape say: “The safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Exactly so.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Of iPods and eels

It’s been a busy week. I went back to college to find my geology class is incredibly over subscribed (and that’s before they realise I have a Facebook fan club). As a result, they are going to give me an extra group, but it’s really rather awkward to fit it in the timetable, particularly as it will mean that I have to get taken off teaching geography and be replaced by someone else.

And on the Infinite Day front I had my first contact with my new editor and the good news is that they don’t want much in the way of major changes. One of the most useful comments I received from my previous editor was to consider broadening out the scope of the books to bring in other viewpoints. It was however, also one of the most time-consuming as it meant a major rewrite and made for much a longer, if better final volume. Anyway, I hope this means the editing process will be reasonably straightforward.

Two items of news caught my attention this week and are worth commenting on. Two days ago, Apple announced their latest line-up of iPods. I was reminded in reviews of the slick and polished presentation when in June Steve Jobs revealed the iPhone. One commentator, who I’d take to be otherwise reasonably sane, said, as he saw it revealed, how he found himself weeping.
‘For heavens sake, man, it’s only a phone,’ I wanted to shout. It came as close as anything I have seen to actually saying this technology is now my god. As my present iPod is getting rather full I am attracted by the idea of one with twice the space and three times the battery life at two-thirds the price of my old one. But please God, may I never weep over a techno-toy announcement.

The second piece of news may have slipped you by. It was that certain types of Moray eel have been shown to have a second set of jaws to help them grasp food. What was interesting about this is that almost every coverage of the story has referred to the film ‘Alien’ and its eponymous (and anonymous) double-jawed creature. It is a measure of the triumph of a film that its imagery is used as currency to explain something. When I mentioned the news to a teaching friend who has a background in fish genetics, he was gobsmacked. ‘How have they managed to evolve that?’ he exclaimed in near indignation. ‘That’s your problem, not mine,’ I replied. As someone has said, the problem with Darwinism is not the survival of the fittest; it’s the arrival of the fittest.

Friday, 31 August 2007

The failure of 'Sunshine' and why Dawkins hates us

Some time in spring I heard that there was this science-fiction film coming out called Sunshine. The plot was interesting, if far-fetched; let me quote: “In the not-too-distant future, the sun is about to smoke out. A crew is sent to re-ignite it with a nuclear bomb; when they fail, a new team sets out to finish the job. But they find that flying to the least hospitable place in the solar system and staying sane and alive is no simple matter.”

The director had a good track record, what I could pick up of early reviews sounded very promising (it got over 70 odd percent on the indispensable ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ scale and the British press mostly gave it four out of five stars). Yet somehow (rather like the real sunshine this year) it never materialised in Swansea. Well, maybe it did but it must have come and gone very quickly because until yesterday, I was still waiting for it. However, in the supermarket yesterday evening, I saw that it had already come out on DVD. I checked up on Wikipedia (careful to avoid plot spoilers), and found out that it really hadn't done very well and certainly can’t have recouped the cost of the special effects. Sad. Okay, it didn’t have alien battle fleets by all accounts, but it sounded pretty worthwhile.

Now I find the demise of Sunshine very significant. It is yet another indicator that actually we do not find science very interesting. We pay lip service to science: we give scientists awards, we let them have their breakthroughs on the news (albeit mostly slotted in at the end) and we say, ‘Isn’t science wonderful?’ Yet, on the whole, increasinglywe find science uninteresting. In my own field of geology there are only a handful of areas that will arouse general interest: dinosaurs, earthquake or volcano prevention, meteorite impact, finding more oil, and that’s about it. If you don’t believe me take a look at the science section in the average bookshop and compare it in size to the sections devoted to history, politics, travel and tourism, and even pets, and you will see how low the interest in straight science really is. (Interestingly enough, many of the science books that do sell are frankly over-the-top in their chatty popularity.)

There is, I think, an extraordinary paradox here. The scientific method has been enormously successful and for, all its problems, delivered stunning results. (The fact that this blog can be read worldwide not the least of them.) Yet increasingly, it has failed to grasp the heart and the imagination. We find almost anything, including pseudoscience, more interesting than science itself. Sometime I may go into why I think this is, but here, I simply want to note the fact that most people find science, even scary science like the Sun dying, desperately unexciting.

And here I bring in Professor Richard Dawkins, with his well established loathing of faith. The cause of his extraordinary animosity to the faith community has often been speculated on. (I prefer the view that as an infant he was dropped on the way to the font.) But I feel sure that one thing that is driving him is the knowledge that, for all its vast achievements, science is unloved. It is like some distinguished uncle in a family: respected, honoured but not liked; someone we prefer not to spend time with. As a result, Dawkins lashes out at those he thinks are responsible and Christianity gets it. Well, isn’t that simple, and if the good professor knew a little more history, he would know that Christianity provided both the seedbed and the nutrients for the blooming of science in the 17th and 18th centuries. If he is indeed driven by a fear that a dark and superstitious pre-science era is returning, I, and most other scientists who are Christians, share his concern. We just think that in trying to blast the culprits, he has woefully misaimed.

On a separate note, for those wanting to know news about The Infinite Day, the manuscript has been well-received at Tyndale and I have been allocated someone who, is by all accounts, an excellent editor. Very soon, I ought to be able to give you a publication date.

Have a good week.

Friday, 24 August 2007

On facing death and disaster

I hope this blog doesn’t sound too intellectual, but after last week’s mean swipe at the Irish weather, perhaps a little bit of seriousness won’t hurt.

On the way back from college today I was listening to the famous American minimalist composer John Adams talking about his work commemorating 9/11, called On the Transmigration of Souls. It’s an interesting piece (it won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in music), but it was evident in his comment on it that Adams was distancing himself from anything like a requiem. It was, he said, ‘a “memory space” where each listener can find a personal response to the events’. It struck me that by saying this he was actually admitting that he had very little to say. What he seemed to be expressing in the piece itself was something along the lines of: ‘This was awful but these things happen and we need to accept that fact.’

Further thought suggested that in Western civilisation a response to tragedy, whether natural or man-made, has gone through four phases.

Phase 1 was common during the Christian period. Here the response was simply, ‘Help me, O God, to understand and come to terms with this tragedy that you as an all-wise and all-loving heavenly Father have inflicted on me.’ This is firm faith.

Phase 2, which occurs later at the end of the Christian period has a very different note. ‘Why O God, are you doing this to me? What are the reasons for this action?’ (This response neglects the well known fact that God generally does not give justification for his actions.) Here faith has been replaced by questioning. This is faith mixed with doubt.

Phase 3, which I think dates from the start of the Enlightenment (around 1750), expresses a deeper question: ‘Is there anybody up there all or are these events simply random?’ This is scepticism.

Phase 4, which really comes in the latter part of the 20th century, takes the absence of God as much for granted as the first phase took his presence. The best we can hope for is a sad resignation to this tragedy that a blind and unthinking fate has inflicted on me. A non-musical illustration of this would be the epitaph on the poet W. B. Yeats’ gravestone at the church at Drumcliff, County Sligo, with its chilling lines ‘Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman ride by’. It is this sort of attitude (long the standard viewpoint in the East) that Adams and others seem to hold. This is a sort of post-Christian faith: we have returned to acceptance, but it is now without God.

For Christian writers this poses a challenge: we agree with our contemporaries that death and suffering should be accepted; but for very different reasons. Their faith and our faith are two very different things. I know which I prefer.

These are difficult matters, but they are worth thinking about. As someone wise or good probably said ‘nothing in life so concentrates our minds as death’.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Back from holidays

Just arrived back from two weeks in Ireland to find a small cheque for book royalties and about half a dozen encouraging e-mails and blog entries. Thanks for both! Our time in Ireland was largely centred around a big family reunion, which went well.

Two things relevant to writing emerged. One was that two young men had a chance to read the manuscript of The Infinite Day and were embarrassing in their praise. It seems to work. The other thing was that I began to put down a lot of notes for a new series, which is a sort of spin-off from the Lamb among the Stars. It is tentatively called the Seventh Ship series and as I envisage it, it will run to three volumes. What was happening when I was writing notes was that characters and situations seem to be popping into my mind saying ‘Could you use me?’ or ‘Would I be able to play a part?’ This was very encouraging because I felt I had covered so much ground in the Lamb among the Stars that I was worried I had exhausted interesting scenarios and people. Anyway, it doesn’t look like it: there’s any number of fun plots, heroes and villains. However, I have too much on at the moment to do very much with it other than make odd sketches and outlines. But I am open to offers.

Now back to Ireland. I’m afraid we got badly hit by the weather. The trouble is, we live in a cool, wet, Celtic coastal region and found that we had traded it for something very similar. Having lived in a Mediterranean country, and got used to the warmth of France on previous holidays, we felt the cold dampness didn't help. I was moved, therefore to come up with a few tongue-in-cheek rules on how to know that you are in the wrong place for a holiday if you like the sun. So with apologies to the Irish tourist board (and I’m told last year was lovely), here we go.

You know you are in the wrong place for a holiday when:
  • Shops sell more insect repellent than suntan lotion.
  • Picture postcards major on waves breaking violently against cliffs.
  • Sports outlets are full of wetsuits.
  • The area you are in is covered by more lakes and bogs than dry land.
  • The guidebooks talk about ‘the luminous light’ and the ‘clean air’.
  • Shops sell scarves and waterproofs in August.
  • The traditional architecture is low buildings huddled behind hills and stone walls.
  • The area has been a centre of emigration throughout history (ever asked what drove them to leave?).
  • There seems to be no indigenous word for air conditioner.
  • You arrive at a bed and breakfast to find that the heating is on in mid summer.
  • Reptiles have given up the unequal struggle and become extinct.
  • There are no ‘help us to conserve water’ signs.
  • The sheep, plants (or people) are described as hardy.
  • Trees lie at an angle to the vertical.
  • The tourist brochures describe the landscape ‘cut by the waves, lashed by the wind and washed by the rain.’ Hmmm.
  • Notices on beaches talk about the danger of exposure, rather than sunburn.

Friday, 27 July 2007

My take on Harry Potter (and I’m sure JKR is really worried)

That’s it, I’ve had enough. I’m going to retaliate. She-Who-Need-Not-Be-Named made £1 million an hour on Saturday. I have held off on the HP series waiting for the dénouement but now, as my final blog before going on holiday, I shall give my take on HP7 and the series.

Now I have to make a confession. I gave up on the series two books earlier but I was so intrigued by the hype over the last one that I read the Wikipedia summary and then speed-read the last 50 or so pages of the HP7. Sorry guys, but life is short (and art is long and HP7 isn’t the latter). Anyway, if there are great plot spoilers below I apologise for offending the faithful.

Let’s get the praise out of the way first. JKR is imaginative, celebrates some good values, has some clever ideas and err… looks good on pictures.

1) Rowling was never a particularly good stylist, but she appears to have actually got worse. Perhaps now she is a megastar, she thinks she can dispense with editors. The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) review described her writing as ‘barely adequate’. And that’s generous. I know good writing when I read it, and this isn’t it.

2) Linked to this, is the fact that JKR she has no sense of what is best called ‘architecture’. We are running to the climax of an epic series so all the energy should be building up to be released in some final climactic confrontation. Instead, we get … well, she doesn’t deliver.

3) The plot is labyrinthine and often downright confusing. And no, I don’t think it’s because I had skipped about 1,800 pages. The websites seem abuzz with unresolved issues, and possible contradictions and superfluous characters.

4) I’m old-fashioned, but she is too ambiguous. The big question before the book came out was ‘Will Harry die?’ The big question now is ‘Did Harry die?’ I think she wanted to kill him off but couldn’t stomach it.

5) The book is pitched at an odd level. There are signs that Rowling is (sad to say) taking herself seriously and even aspiring to literature. So we get the portentous quotes at the start of the book. Yet the book inhabits two worlds simultaneously; the children’s story of sweets and spells and the black Gothic fantasy possibly saying something meaningful about life are uneasily intermingled.

6) There is an epilogue of unspeakable Middle-Class tweeness. ‘Nuff said.

7) The weaknesses in Rowling’s worldview are now exposed. There were those in the Christian camp who believed she was a Christian writer, albeit a very subtle one. I think that view is now impossible to hold. Those atheists who feared that God was going to walk on stage in the last book are doubtless relieved. He doesn’t: he’s gone missing. It seems plain that if Christianity exists for JKR as a writer, it exists as a set of ethical ideas and images merely to be ransacked for effect. For all the ‘superstition’ in the books, there is no overruling deity or divine powers. Despite the magic (which in most cases is little more than an alternative technology) it’s a bleak atheistic world out there. It’s sad. I had hoped for a clear redemptive death or the ‘Deeper Magic’ but no, it’s not there. Ironically, I think the American religious right were correct, but for the wrong reasons. The books are problematic, not because they promote Satanism but because they promote secularism.

Anyway, I’m on holiday for two weeks in Ireland. I will try and access the web, but I can’t guarantee it. For those who pray, do pray that when the manuscript of The Infinite Day reaches Tyndale on Monday it will be greeted with pleasure and a determination to push the book and the now finished series with all possible power.


Friday, 20 July 2007

Finished off!

I hope you aren't expecting any great words of wisdom from me today. I am written out – or is it written off? I have just finished the first decent draft of The Infinite Day and my good wife is anxiously reading it as fast as she can. So far, I am encouraged by the way that she tried to read it and eat breakfast cereal at the same time. Anyway, all being well, she will say that it works and that there are no major failings in continuity. And then with a few words here and there and a general tidy up it should be on its way to Tyndale very soon. I have also just written something for Speculative Faith.

I was tempted to write something on Harry Potter this week. You can't seem to escape from him at the moment and I am constantly reminded that I have currently earned about one half millionth of She-Who-Need-Not-Be-Named. (At least in earthly terms; as a Christian I am paid into a bank elsewhere.) I would however mention an interesting article in a Time magazine piece on the books. It is called ‘Who Dies in Harry Potter? God’ by Lev Grossman.

In it, Grossman makes the point that Rowling has broken new ground by having God utterly absent in these books. Someone might point out that Tolkien never uses the word God in ‘Lord of the Rings’. True, but his active presence in events is assumed. It’s an interesting article.

Anyway I am off to clear my desk and find out where the rest of my life has gone.

Have a good week.

Friday, 13 July 2007

The three Cs of rewriting

The good news for my fans is that I have now finished the first draft of The Infinite Day, and with college now over for the summer I am now working full-time on tidying it up. What does this involve? Well as a lay preacher, I tend to see things in threes, all beginning with the same letter. And here I am aiming for the three Cs.

1) Concision

Although we use concise a lot, the noun concision is not an everyday word, which is a pity because it is a useful one. The dictionary defines concision ‘as terseness and economy in writing and speaking achieved by expressing a great deal in just a few words’. Just so: in other words, it is the art of summarising something very complicated in such a way that the reader grasps it in a paragraph instead of having to wade through six pages. In writing things down for the first time you tend to be profligate with words. In rewriting, you try and boil your descriptions and dialogue down to the bare minimum. Sometimes concision requires that a prized bit of writing gets the axe!

2) Clarity

There are all sorts of things here. So, if you are describing a meeting, clarity involves making it absolutely obvious who is saying what. Or, if it’s an action sequence, where more or less everybody is and who does what to whom. The last thing you want is readers to pause with furrowed brow and backtrack for a couple of paragraphs until they are absolutely certain what is going on. (Incidentally, this is the real problem with experimental writing: it’s just too much like hard work.) Fairly obviously, clarity and concision can work against each other. Concision demands that something be described briefly, whereas clarity may require lots of words.

3) Consistency

I could use the more filmic word ‘continuity’. At one level, consistency is very easy, if hard work. It is to make sure that the facts match throughout the book. So at a simple level, it is to ensure that a character who has dark hair at the start still has dark hair at the end. But it gets more complicated. Do people speak in a particular voice? Is that consistent throughout? Or do they have similar mannerisms, likes and dislikes throughout? Or imagine A meets B briefly in chapter 1: the astute reader will spot the mistake if when they meet again, twenty chapters later, they have to be introduced. Needless to say in an epic trilogy such as mine, which must be heading for 650,000 words total, the question is not whether there will be continuity errors but how many will there be. (As another aside, my recollection is that there were a large number of continuity errors in the first version of Lord of the Rings, which were only tightened up in later editions.)

That’s all for this week. Hopefully, the manuscript will be in a fit state to print out and give it to my wife on Monday, who is anxiously awaiting it. Fortunately, or otherwise, the weather is so appalling at the moment that there is no temptation to hanker for the great outdoors!

Friday, 6 July 2007

A reality check

I suspect one of the dangers that professional authors face is of living in the worlds they have created. This is probably a particular problem for those deeply immersive, all-embracing worlds that we fantasists love to conjure up. Has J K Rowling ever been in such a tight spot herself that her first reaction was to try to come up with the right spell? One of the things that authors really ought to do, particularly those who do not get out much from behind the keyboard, is keep an eye on the real world and what happens to real people.

There was a salutary lesson for us in Britain last weekend, with three possible terrorist incidents; none of which occurred and two of which degenerated into farce. In one case, the bomb car was towed away by that most mocked British figure, the traffic warden (eat your heart out, Bruce Willis!). In the other the villains raced their jeep at an airport terminal entrance, only to find that it wouldn’t go through the doors. The end result there was one badly burned bomber and a Glaswegian who has become a folk hero for doing what Glaswegians are so frequently condemned for: kicking the heck out of a stranger. The whole affair was so ludicrous that one paper, in a reference to a long remembered series of British farcical films, called it ‘Carry On up the Jihad’!

What has been interesting, though, has been the reaction to the revelation that the bombers were mostly medical people with intelligence and above average education. This leads to the problem of motivation. In secular Britain, the idea that people can have a religious motivation for acts that will lead to their own death and in the case of terrorism, the deaths of others, is beyond all fathoming. We are so much in love with sex, sport and shopping that we cannot imagine a higher motivation. The prosperity of these people: doctors, hospital registrars and the like, has thrown them. Good heavens, these people could even afford to buy a iPhone!

This undercuts the common socio-economic model for terrorism. You know the sort of thing: they had lost everything and so had nothing to lose by death; they had been so badly treated in life, that they decided to mete out death in revenge. Of course, it doesn’t work. By all accounts, they had been treated well by their host country. I even came across one desperate analysis which suggested that their anger might have been fuelled by the manifest monstrosity of the British NHS which takes doctors from poor countries, and gives them a living here and so deprives less developed countries of skilled medical labour. Frankly, anyone who has worked in the Middle East and seen the way that vast armies of Filipinos, Ethiopians and Sri Lankans are dragooned into what is little more than slavery will find that idea quite ludicrous.

You could of course invoke the brainwashing thesis but no one seems terribly happy about that. Maybe people are just going to have to seriously consider the idea that out of genuine religious reasons, men and women might decide that blowing up people was a good thing.

If the wealth of the would-be perpetrators has thrown some commentators so has as their evident intelligence. Many people believe the thesis of the Blessed Dawkins (who one gathers, would be very tempted to declare himself the ‘Messiah of Atheism’ and ‘God’s gift to the Sceptic’ were there not a few logical problems involved), that you have to be really stupid to believe in God. It ain’t so.

But these events in the real world are a reminder to us all, especially writers, that some of the deepest motivation in the human heart come from the very mixed world of religion. For good and bad.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Tony Blair: a personal reflection on his downfall

My blogs of late have been rather theoretical, related to the fact that I have been preoccupied with finishing The Infinite Day which, God willing, I look as though I’m going to do by the deadline of end July.

As I have commented before in these pages, the problem with writing fiction is that fantasy is often a pale shadow of reality. There could be no greater evidence of this sad truth than the fact that our former prime minister, who must be held in large measure responsible for the bloody fiasco of Iraq, is now some sort of envoy to the Middle East. Anyway, I thought I would brighten things up by telling a true and Blair-related story about how for, the briefest of periods, I worked for the Syrian secret police.

While running a geology field trip for some Americans through the Middle East in 2001, I left Lebanon at one of the more obscure border checkpoints with Syria. Despite its rather agricultural status it had nevertheless more than its fair share of men in military uniform. It fell to me as a partial Arabic speaker to take all the passports and try and get them stamped. They were dutifully taken but some ten minutes later it was obvious that processing them was extremely slow. The problem was plain; the secret policeman (actually, he wasn’t very secret) was inputting the names into the computer but obviously had no real knowledge of a QWERTY keyboard, or I suspect, any language other than Arabic. With the benign lunacy that comes over me at such points in life I asked him if he’d like me to do the typing. I was expecting a brush off but instead he was profoundly grateful.

So within moments, I found myself seated at a terminal whose wires no doubt ended up somewhere in the datafiles of the Syrian secret service. (Actually, that is an oversimplification: there are eight known branches of the Syrian secret service and a presumed ninth branch to watch over the other eight.) Now if my name was Bruce Willis or Matt Damon, I would tell you how I instantly got to the root directory and locked down the entire missile system. Instead, I simply and dutifully (but see footnote) keyed in the passport names. Very soon, I was surrounded by an admiring branch of men in somewhat disreputable camouflage who clearly thought this was wonderful and plainly wanted a foreigner of their own to do their typing. The conversation turned, as it inevitably does when bored secret policeman find themselves in possession of a non-local, to politics. ‘What,’ I was asked, ‘did I think of Blair and Bush?’

You will of course realise that I had now got myself into a difficult position. Conducting political debate in one’s native tongue is hard enough but in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by people who, however apparently charming as individuals, have a professional reputation for sticking sharp objects into orifices, is tricky indeed. One slight mispronunciation of an obscure Arabic verb could mean you have insulted the Syrian president and are going to be eating sand for the rest of your truncated lifespan.

However, seized with an adrenaline-induced inspiration, I grabbed a piece of paper and drew a stick man with a stick dog on a lead. ‘This,’ I said, rising to my feet with the air of a man who has a car to catch, ‘is Bush, and this is Blair.’ And amid universal hilarity and the pinning of the paper on the notice board (where for all I know, it still is), I left with the shaking of hands and expressions of universal and probably genuine goodwill.

And incidentally (here's the footnote) those of you who are concerned about such things may be interested to know that either due to my cunning or my poor typing ability not a single name ended up in the computer without being misspelt. For all I know Syrian intelligence is still looking for a Doctor Chris Malley who entered its territory six years ago and has not yet apparently left.

Good luck guys. With Blair around you’ll need it.

Friday, 22 June 2007

On issues of progress and ugliness

It’s all supposed to be downhill at this point in writing a book. Writers are supposed to surge forwards on a great, liberating rush of words to the finish and enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the loose ends tied up and right restored to the world(s). Well, I’m not sure that I have ever found it to be so, and certainly not with The Infinite Day. It’s a little bit like when you drive a long distance and finally, you can see your destination and rejoice because it is so close. Then suddenly the road bends and you realise there are many turns and diversions before you really reach where you are going. Anyway, we will get there, but it’s a long tiring haul.

One other thing is that this week I have posted again on the Speculative Faith website, which frequently has some very interesting articles; not all mine I have to say.

The one I have done this week includes one of the few discussions that I am aware of as to which parts of Lord of the Rings Adolf Hitler would have liked. It also raises the vexed issue of why we tend to link evil and ugliness. This is actually a tricky one because here the atheistic evolutionists have a neat explanation. They say that it is an essential part of evolution that we seek out mates who are in good shape. In other words, beauty is good and to be sought because it indicates good genes. Ugliness is to be shunned, because it indicates suspect genetic material. I feel there should be a good knockdown argument against this but it eludes me. There are certainly a lot of pretty women married to some jolly ugly men.

Anyway, so the argument goes, it is only a short step for the boundary to be blurred between the physically good and the morally good. You know the devastatingly simple equation: good people are pretty; bad people are ugly. What is more worrying (and really does deserve an act of Parliament to ban it but no one dare propose it), is to assume that all pretty people are good and all ugly people are evil.

One observation here would simply be that this is not an argument the Bible makes. The only real indications we have of Satan’s form are that he can appear as an angel of light. There are no references to Christ’s physical form, only the prophetic hint in Isaiah that he would be disfigured by suffering. God, we are reliably informed, looks on the inside. Would that popular culture did the same.

And now back to The Infinite Day.

Friday, 15 June 2007

On epic battles

Let me tell you a secret about the plot of The Infinite Day. It's this: there is a big battle at the end.

I can't imagine too many of my readers being surprised by that. But it’s worth considering why this is such an unsurprising statement and why I am not guilty of that greatest of sins, spoiling the plot. You see, I have come to realise that it is totally expected – indeed, it is a given – that the final part of the final book of an epic trilogy will have a big battle, in which good beats the living daylights out of evil. I carried out a mental experiment the other day trying to think of what would happen if, in my novel, all the gathering forces simply vanished quietly, without coming together in a great and violent confrontation. I realised I couldn't find a way of doing it that would not lead to a profound sense of anti-climax, and possibly even cries of ‘we want our money back’. The great and final crescendo of violence seems to be more than a cliché; it seems to be something that has to be there.

But where does this demand for a no-holds-barred, final battle in which good triumphs come from? Is it perhaps built into the genre? I suppose you could have epic fantasy without a big battle at the end, but would it still be epic? It’s a little bit like imagining a long and involving account of climbing a mountain that didn't actually have the climbers reaching the summit. That would most definitely be an anti-climax. Does this battle fulfill the same role as that famous and much abused scene at the end of detective novels where the great detective reveals the killer to some assembled group?

You could even argue that it is because in our hearts we know that one day, evil will, in reality, be confronted and overturned. Is it more than coincidence that the book of books, the Bible itself, ends with a climactic battle?

Frankly, I don't know the answer. And actually, my most pressing issue at the moment is not theorising on the origins of such battles or their significance, it is actually describing them in a way that is credible and believable.

But it would be nice to know why everybody expects that, in the penultimate chapter, swords will be drawn, guns will be fired, blood will be shed and good will win.

Friday, 8 June 2007

The shadow of the near future

As I come to the end of writing The Infinite Day I find myself in some ways in the most difficult part of the book. Some of the issues I do not want to go into here because they involve plot spoilers. But there are other things.

One is that I am forced to discuss the near future, rather than the far-future in which the book is set. This is largely because of something introduced in Book 1 and alluded to ever since; the great intervention of God's Spirit in the 2050s and the subsequent rebellion four decades later. This raises a well-known paradox of science fiction; it is far easier to write of a hundred years hence than ten years.

Why this should be is worth exploring. It is not simply that it is safer to write of the far future. You know the sort of thing: “All being well, many of my readers will live to see 2050; none will see the 13th millennium AD so I can happily write anything about it.” (By the way, it also gives you a longer period of time for your work to become a ‘prophetic classic’.)

A hundred years is also a long enough time for technologies to a) be invented, b) be tested, and c) become widespread plagues on society (see, for example, cars, television and the Internet) whereas ten years doesn't really bring too many changes. The result is that we are prepared to believe all manner of strange things may have occurred in a hundred years time; we are less convinced that such things may have happened within a decade.

There is another reason why the near future is problematic. It is that a decade from now things will, no doubt, be a mixture of the predictable and unexpected. So on the predictable: there will be overcrowding, culture wars, environmental disasters. Culturally, there will be Pirates of the Caribbean 14 and Oceans 24 available for digital download in our home cinemas and the Rolling Stones will still be performing gigs somewhere. But it’s the unexpected that concerns us: the world can change very rapidly in a very short period of time and that is hard to get right.

Imagine if, in 1997, Chris Walley had written a book set in 2007. Some things he might have got right: for example, there were growing concerns about the environment, and the unstoppable rise of the digital economy was already pretty much taken for granted ten years ago. But what about the unexpected events? 9/11 for instance exceeded the imagination of the most bizarre fantasist. And who, ten years ago, could have had seen British and American armies mired in Iraq and the widespread dismissal of the fundamental values of justice in Guantanamo Bay and the ‘extraordinary rendition’ procedures? Surely, a dark fantasy, critics would have said. Truly, truth is stranger than fiction.

Friday, 1 June 2007

How to finish a big book

It has been half term this week, and I have been able to really have a good long go at The Infinite Day. And as I come to the end of the week, I’m able to report that the end is literally in sight. Perhaps another 30 pages to go and lots of notes to work from. However my deadline for manuscript delivery is the last day of July and the fact is that I need to go back to the beginning and tidy up the manuscript. So there is still a lot to be done. If you pray, pray on!

For any would-be writers, I offer a couple of thoughts on this matter of finishing books. The first is that you really do need determination. Writing is hard work, and it’s easy to put it to one side and go for a walk, read a book or surf the web. You have to stick at it.

The second is an odd characteristic; it is ruthlessness. I have a cast of many characters, each of whom have their own foibles, problems and concerns. The temptation to pursue all of these fascinating characters and try to deal with their individual fates has to be resisted. If you’re not careful, you end up creating an infinite world, which of course, requires a book of infinite length. So I have had to curtail all sorts of fascinating matter which has to become the literary equivalent of ‘the road not travelled’. Readers will just have to use their own imaginations to decide what X said to Y after three months absence or what exactly lies behind the terse comment on some minor character ‘he was killed on the battlefield’. (I made that up, but you know what I mean.)

Anyway I must press on and get back to the book. Even blogs can be a diversion.

Have a good week.

Friday, 25 May 2007

On the Sun, space vessels and our place in the universe

By accident I came across a remarkable image this week. It is a photograph of the Sun taken from earth by a French amateur astronomer using a big telescope, a good camera and various other bits and pieces. I would post the image on my blog but there are pretty strong legal warnings about doing so.

Before I give you the URL, let me describe it. Probably 99.99% of the photograph is pretty unremarkable. The enormous golden yellow disc of the Sun covers most of the image and there is a narrow frame provided by the blackness of space. Yet it is the tiny remainder of the photograph that is striking. Against the disc of the Sun you can see two miniscule objects: one a single small line; the other a tiny agglomeration of microscopic black rectangles. They are so small that you might feel it could just be dust on the screen of your monitor. But when you stare closer you realise that they are a space shuttle (in fact, Atlantis) and the International Space Station, caught as silhouettes as they transited the Sun. Anyway, either now, or after reading this blog, do take a look at it.

I refer to this not just because it is an awesome and utterly unforgettable image, but because it seems to me to sum up in a single image one of the great paradoxes of the human race. On the one hand, we see a record of our astonishing triumph in creating a lasting structure in space and regularly supplying it from earth. Let's raise a cheer for Homo sapiens! But on the other hand, when you look at the picture in its entirety and you realise that behind these almost infinitesimally small creations is the overwhelming vastness of the solar disc, the overriding emotion generated is that of humility. After all, the Sun is still 93,000,000 miles away and it is but one of an almost infinite number of stars in the cosmos. Yes, we have done awesome things, but on the scale of the Cosmos we are still the tiniest of creatures.

I sometimes think that there is a curious parallelism with the growth of human knowledge and our awareness of the size of the cosmos. When the only astronomical tools the human race had were our own unaided eyes, the universe seemed awfully vast and almost overwhelming. Now, we know so much more, yet somehow with the Hubble telescope and similar instruments, we have found the universe to be no smaller. It is as if the further up the technological and cultural ladder we climb, so the horizon retreats to keep pace. The stars kept our ancestors humble before God, they still do.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Chronicles of wasted time?

I have had a couple of busy weeks in which it has been very hard to snatch time away from the real world for writing; teaching, marking, preaching, elders’ meeting, church weekend away, writing for Speculative Faith: all have eaten into my time. It's not as though I've been doing other things: I think I have watched an hour of television and seen a single DVD in that time.

Now as an amateur writer it is tempting to lament this. It's all too easy to say, if I could have had this time for writing I could have done so much more. I could have deepened the quality of my writing (and even my blogs).

This raises many issues. For instance, would I have used the time, if I had had it? In fact, in my experience even if you have an entire day free for writing, you don't use it all. I find that even under pressure I just can't keep going. Writing drains me and after a while I need to do something else. I think creative writing is particularly draining. Here, writers seem to conjure up the images and pictures and tales from nowhere. It is tempting to assume that because they bring them from nowhere they come at no cost. But all creativity costs. At the risk of sounding blasphemous I am reminded that even God took a break after six days (and no I'm not going to debate how long the days were).

Of course, I would like to have the writer’s life that we all dream of: a year made up of three months research, six months writing and three months holiday. If anyone wants to fund me on this I can provide bank account details. But in reality I am far from sure that the best way to write is to be at the computer or the notepad all day, every day. In fact, I am inclined to think that is actually a good discipline to be with people and away from writing for at least some of the time. If we are to write about people, we need to be with people. If you are isolated from the world I would suspect that your characters and plots tend to acquire an artificial nature. Like many other pursuits, writing needs to be earthed in reality. The danger of self-absorption is certainly true of academia, where many scientists devote themselves to the minutiae of rare academic details to such an extent that they become neither employable nor understandable.

This separation from reality is particularly dangerous in theology. I have, on one or two sad occasions, known keen Christians who have gone on to theological training and come out as real (or pseudo) intellectuals dedicated to proposing questions none of us are asking and then giving us answers that we do not understand.

When we read in Acts 18:3 that the apostle Paul paid his way as a missionary by making tents, commentators say that his motives were entirely financial: he was simply trying to spare the local church from having to fund him. I wonder if there might have been something else; I wonder if he realized that work kept him anchored in reality. If that is the case, then I feel I am in better company.