Saturday, 27 December 2008

On dinosaurs, hens and translations

I suppose I could be seasonal and entitle this blog ‘three French hens…’ as in that most cryptic of Christmas songs, the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. The general background is that I have sitting on my desk two fat volumes: the NLT Study Bible (thanks, Tyndale) and the ESV Study Bible (I bought this one myself). At some point I will talk about their respective merits but not today: simply note that I have been reading both and have therefore been exposed in an inescapable way to the curiosities and difficulties of Bible translation.

The more specific background is that I was reading the French newspaper La Monde on my iPhone last week (as one does) and there was an interesting article on some new dinosaur discovery which suggested that far from being vicious carnivores they may have been papas-poules. (‘Des dinosaures d’avantage papas poules que les mammifères’). ‘Papas-poules’ makes no sense whatsoever in English; it is almost literally translated as ‘Father Hens’. With it being Christmas and me having nothing else to do but write a book or two I did a little bit of reading around. What emerged was that the French and English clearly had very different ideas about what hens represent so that translating almost anything to do with poultry is extraordinarily complex. (And possibly dangerous; I am still unclear whether to call a woman a poule is to show affection, infer that she is a prostitute, or both.)

In English, the hen may mean either the domestic fowl as a genus, or the female of the species in particular. (I'm not going to discuss the male for fear that the diminutive of cockerel may trigger your adult-site-warning software.) The young are generally known for cowardice: as in ‘you chicken!’ however female hens are allowed a certain protective bravery. Yet mysteriously only 20 miles away across the Channel the species morphs. Thoroughly aggressive and very macho French football teams happily display the chicken as a logo; indeed it is even an approved symbol for the French state. Let me quote from the website Gallic Rooster:

History of Le Coq
The Gallic Rooster (Coq Gaulois), or cockerel, is the French national emblem, as symbolic as the stylised French Lily. From the very roots of French history, the Latin word Gallus means both ‘rooster’ and ‘inhabitant of Gaul’. The French rooster emblem adorned the French flag during the revolution. With the success of the Revolution in 1848, the rooster was made part of the seal of the Republic. In 1899, it was embossed on a more widespread device, the French 20 franc gold coins. The Coq Gaulois has often been the symbol on French stamps over the years, although now (in 2006) the generic French stamp depicts a stylised ‘Marianne’.

Anyway, it seems to be the consensus that the only real way of translating papa-poule is by using something like ‘devoted father’ or ‘doting father’ but by doing so you lose all the imagery that was present.

It is faced with something like this that you realise the real difficulty of translation: if we can't easily translate hen-speak from French to English how on earth can we do anything serious? I have no doubt that there are those people who would argue on such a basis that translating the Word of God is impossible. (Islam, of course, gets round it by saying that the Qur'an is untranslatable and you must learn seventh-century Arabic. At the risk of courting controversy I refer them to the three letters Alif, Lam, Mim, which occur widely as a heading to the suras and point out that no one knows what they mean.) The Christian answer lies a) in God’s sovereign superintendence of all things so that he controls even translations and b) the Holy Spirit who can speak through even a poor translation. But I refer you to textbooks on theology to work that one through further.

Anyway whatever Bible translation you use, have a happy and blessed New Year. And be careful when you talk about chickens to the French.


Friday, 19 December 2008

In which our blogger confesses himself bemused

One of the things about being a blog writer is the implicit assumption that you know what you’re talking about. Ideally, one likes to come over as something of a guru, a discerning and reliable guide to a confusing and perplexing world. I live in hope that, around coffee tables and water coolers the world over people are saying ‘You know the British and Americans are different; I’ve been reading some really excellent blogs on this by Chris Walley.’ What follows therefore is something of an embarrassing revelation and I hope you will forgive me.

The fact is I was in our local W H Smith (a big British newsagents/booksellers) the other day when I came across something that stopped me dead in my tracks and which frankly dear reader, I do not understand. It was an entire section simply labelled ‘Tragic Life Stories’. I should at this point have taken out my iPhone and taken a photograph for myself. However just to show you that it isn’t a delusion I have borrowed a photo from Flickr from someone else who was obviously as stunned as me.

Notice the exploitative titles such as Please Daddy No! and He Sold Me For A Few Cigarettes. Note too the extraordinary similarities of titling and imagery. Apparently this sort of thing is called ‘Grief Porn’ and it is quite obviously very big indeed.

Readers, I find myself doubly troubled. I think – no, I know – there is something very badly wrong here. But I am equally troubled because I don’t quite understand exactly what’s going on. Who reads this sort of thing? What is the motivation? Do readers enjoy feeling sympathy with the victims? Or – heaven forbid – do they take some deep (and possibly unacknowledged) vicarious pleasure in the acts that are perpetrated? Isn’t there enough real misery in the world that we need to read about it? (Perhaps that’s the point: we can close the book at the end and put it all behind us.) And isn’t there something grotesquely immoral about people making money out of misery? Oh and, incidentally, why are all the children white? Well if anyone has any clear answers or biblical insights I’d be interested in hearing them.

You may well say this is a miserable thought in the run-up to Christmas. In one sense it is; but isn’t this precisely the point about Christmas? That in the darkness of a very dark world, the Light shone? ‘The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5).

Wherever you are and in however deep a darkness, may you know Christ’s love at Christmas .


Friday, 12 December 2008

Why we loved Obama

I really ought to leave American politics alone and I promise this will be my last post for sometime, but someone did ask why Europe was so fond of Barack Obama. Well without endorsing either him or McCain, let me offer some suggestions.
  1. Obama appealed to what most Europeans consider to be core values. As most Americans are aware (they certainly should be), Europe is somewhat to the left of the USA. Even at their most liberal your Democrats are often to the right of our socialist parties. Obama was presented over here as enlightened, tolerant and flexible. He certainly came over as literate, fluent and cosmopolitan. (The other week I failed to mention that one point about Sarah Palin which alarmed everybody here was the fact that she had only had a passport for two years.) He sounded sensible on issues such as the environment and global trade.
  2. Obama looked good and sounded good and I’m prepared to concede that in Europe image trumps any amount of character and track record. Certainly the President-Elect is not deficient in the area of image. He was portrayed as what we in Britain would call ‘a decent bloke’; a label which, if you can get it applied to you, covers over a multitude of sins. For us Evangelicals, his preparedness to talk of having a living faith in Christ allayed any concerns we might have had over his liberal social agenda. That was barely covered by our media anyway.
  3. If he wooed us by what he affirmed, Obama eased our fears by what he shunned. So we heard nothing of America triumphant, there was minimal flag-waving and references to God’s own country, there were no half-baked plans for imposing global democracy and no clumsy and Russian-irritating references to missile shields. (American readers should note that over here there is a widespread belief that missile shields might work for America but not Europe: we are too close to their most likely points of origin.) In fact, for most of the time Obama sounded like a European. (Actually the thing that concerns me and others is his resemblance to Blair, a man who had a total mastery over words but who was utterly defeated by reality.)
  4. In a world in crisis, Obama came over as the man most likely to fix the mess. He was portrayed here as a man of intellect, vision and discernment and someone who, if the 21st-century demanded them, was prepared to take new paths.
  5. Quite simply, Obama was depicted as the man who was not George W Bush. He was (quite definitely) someone who could string a sentence together and (quite probably) someone smart enough not to be lured into an Iraq style quagmire.
One minor point. Race is a very different issue here than in the States. We have no all-too recent struggle for equality and no ‘Civil Rights’ back story here. Oh yes there are racial and cultural issues here aplenty but they are quite dissimilar to those across the Atlantic. In other words, I do not think his racial background was of note in Europe.

Anyway, I titled this blog ‘Why we loved Obama’: the choice of the past tense was deliberate. You should also have noted how frequently I have used the terms ‘depicted as’, ‘came over as’ and so on. We must now see how the man bears up in the reality of office. It would be an unpleasant (and, dare I say, rather un-Christian) attitude to wish and pray for him anything other than success. In these dark days (and they may easily get darker still) no one needs a failure for American president.

Friday, 5 December 2008

On the American right

In a moment of folly some weeks ago I promised that I would try to deal with the vexed issue of why British evangelicals are wary of the American Republican Party. I am aware that for many American Christians this seems like a stab in the back. Aren’t Republicans the true upholders of the faith? Isn’t it a given that to be a conservative evangelical means you must support Republicans? Aren’t British evangelicals concerned about the way that the Democrats seem hellbent (possibly literally) on legalising gay ‘marriage’ and unfettered abortion. I tried to tease out some of the issues for you weeks ago and now want to make some general comments on the problem. I warn you though, it would, in reality, require a book and at least a year of research to truly do justice to the issues.

As I reminded you, for all the similarities of language, Britain and the States are very different countries. And although there is much that resonates favourably with us about the Republican Party (personal freedom and family values to take but two) there are many other things that are a turnoff. As I hinted we are very uneasy about appeals to religion in politics. There are very few American churches without the Stars and Stripes at the front; there are very few British churches with the Union Jack even visible. (If it is present at all, it will be somewhat mournfully draped over a memorial plaque to the fallen.) God may be little honoured in the UK but we do our best to make sure that what slender glory he has is not shared with Caesar. In fact, we prefer to keep the Almighty at arm’s length when it comes to politics. A number of people have commented that, in the manner of claiming divine support, some American politicians seem to imagine that God somehow transferred the Old Testament covenant with Israel to the United States of America. Perhaps. Of course it is perfectly possible to go the other way and not invoke the support of God for even the most necessary and blameless military action. Here, I think we in Britain, plead guilty.

Part of the problems is that republicanism seeks to press buttons which, in the British psyche, are not wired up. So appeals to frontier/homestead/’Little house on the Prairie’ ideals fall on deaf ears here. It is probably half a millennium since we had any sort of frontier in the UK. Equally the right to bear arms worries us a lot. It is probably no accident that the lethal range of the average military rifle is probably considerably greater than the distance between the average British village. Ever since we killed the last wolf, around 250 years ago, the only dangerous animal roaming the British countryside has been Homo sapiens and we would prefer not to see him armed. Appeals to defending the constitution also arouse only apathy here: we have no constitution, only conventions and concessions. Given these things, it is no surprise that, whatever her undoubted virtues, Sarah Palin aroused only two attitudes in the UK: amusement and unease.

We also rather wary of republicanism’s claims that the private sector should be involved in everything. There are very few things in Britain that we are in any way proud of, but one of them is the National Health Service. The fact that no British hospital (yet) demands that you open your wallet the moment you enter Accident and Emergency is generally held to be a very good thing. Since Mrs Thatcher privatised as much as she could nearly 30 years ago, the results have not frankly been very impressive. We have railways that would shame a developing nation, a power system that could easily fall over given a week of cold weather and a secondary education system that is probably inferior to that of urban China.

To be honest, if you are an American Christian of a right-wing political persuasion I really wouldn’t let it worry you. I see it all as being like some tense stand-off in a saloon bar of the old West. Grey-haired Great Britain, propping up the bar, watches on, with air of sceptical world-weariness, while our younger nephew takes his turn to challenge the bar’s unruly inhabitants. In short, we wish you well, but don’t ask us to join in the fight.

Have a good week. And if you must burn my books, do it in front of TV cameras!  

Friday, 28 November 2008

A miscellany of topics

This week, I was intending to take a brief break from discussing cultural matters to share some local news. However I cannot resist making the point that it seems that no American president will be elected unless he (or she) talks openly and comfortably about God, while no British Prime Minister will be elected if he (or she) does. I would like to think that there has been progress in this area but I’m afraid Tony Blair has rather ruined this because he did bring God into matters and now his stock is very low indeed. I think it will be some time before any politician here has the courage even to say ‘God bless you’ at the end of any talk to the nation. By the way, here is another difference: Americans clearly have not the slightest problem in confidently asking the Almighty to look favourably upon America. Indeed their tone is sometimes so confident that one is inclined to suspect that a certain overlap exists in their minds between the Kingdom of Heaven and the United States of America. In contrast, Britons of the 21st century would never dream of invoking the Almighty in the political arena. Americans get embarrassed when, in the context of politics people do not mention God; we get embarrassed when they do.

And now to family news. The first item of news is that two weeks ago our younger son Mark got married to a delightful young lady called Alice in central London where they both work. I don’t think they would mind if I attached a photograph.

So we travelled up from the provinces and stayed a couple of nights in London in order to attend. It was a great time and the Christian witness took centre stage. In fact the sermon was outspokenly and unashamedly evangelistic and took as its basis the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (‘bridesmaids’? there are hard issues of cultural equivalence here). The fact that both our sons are happily married raises the interesting question as to whether ‘parenting’ is now over for us. In one sense the answer is ‘yes’ but I suppose we probably continue in an advisory role until such time as we are senile. Oh yes, and young Simeon turned up to the wedding looking every bit the normal three-month-old baby. He seems to be responding well to the daily hormonal supplements.

The second piece of news is to do with books. No, I haven’t sold the film rights to Lamb among the Stars; I think that may be a longer haul than I had expected. But I am signing a contract with Hodders to co-write a short book with the British evangelist J. John centred on the parable of Prodigal Son. Of course a lot has already been written on this but we are hoping to come at it from a fresh but authentic angle. I have a lot of Lebanese anecdotes which clarify matters and bring some of the issues into sharper focus. Anyway the nice thing about Hodders is that they get their books out into the secular market; here they differ from the specifically Christian book companies who seem to be fishing in the ever smaller pond of Christian book readers. Once I get this out of the way, all being well in May, I want to talk to them about future fiction projects. So it’s no television for me for the next five months.

Anyway I have a sermon to finish for our Chinese Fellowship in Swansea so must dash. The problem is that I feel it incumbent upon me to e-mail the text to the translator beforehand; she is very good but I think it’s helpful that she has a chance to read it all through first.

Every blessing


Friday, 21 November 2008

On why this small island is so very odd

It would seem self-evident that Americans (and here I mean inhabitants of the United States; Canadians are somewhat different creatures) and Brits are very close to each other. We share a common heritage, seem to have similar aspirations and (for the most part) possess a common language. It would seem equally self-evident that such links ought to be even closer between evangelicals. After all, we are all children of a heavenly kingdom and have a shared unity in Christ. Yet in my 30-odd years as a Christian I have come across frequent occasions where there has been substantial confusion and disappointment as both sides trip up over very real differences. One reason for these confrontations is something I touched on last week; each side misreads the other as being its mirror image when the reality is otherwise.

Now I promised that I would tackle the troubled issue of why British evangelicals are extremely uneasy with American Republicanism/conservatism. I cannot here explore all of this. Indeed today I want to simply point out some of the things that make Britain what it is. Now I am no social scientist and this is a fairly hastily constructed blog so please forgive me if I make some major oversimplifications. Equally can I make it absolutely plain that I’m not in the business of saying we Brits are better than Americans? All I am saying is that there are some very deep differences and it probably is a good idea for all sides to appreciate them.

Anyway let me suggest there are at least four major factors that make us different from Americans.

1) The British are fundamentally wary of radical politics, whether of the left or the right
One part of this is ecclesiastical and reflects the fact that the Church of England ended up occupying the uneasy middle ground between the Reformed and the Catholic churches. Another part is no doubt due to the fact that the fairly regular upheavals over on the continent (with the resultant dismal trickle of refugees arriving on our shores) have constantly reminded us that most political revolutions come with a very high price tag. We have been badly scared by (on the left) the notorious French Revolutionary experiment of the 18th century and (on the on the right) by Hitler’s rise and demise. The result is a deep cultural caution which generates the irony that in some ways we are actually more conservative than most US Republicans.

2) In the UK evangelicals do not possess any large-scale idealism
It is widely noted that when American Christians start becoming lyrical about their great schemes for the improvement of the world, bringing progress to all and ensuring global godliness, any Brits can generally be seen quietly tiptoeing out of the room. There are many reasons for this. One is that in the 17th century what we might class as biblical Christians did indeed have large-scale political aspirations and in a revolution undergirded by theology seized power in the English Civil War. Yet the Puritan Republic that was the Commonwealth was not a success and within 20 years Britain’s experiment with radical nonconformism was at an end. We have long memories and no one since has really wanted to repeat Cromwell’s great adventure. It is probably also true that at this point anyone with what we might today call a politically directed evangelicalism faith headed over to America. We lost our visionaries. The result is that in Britain evangelicals do not fantasise of building a city on a hill shedding light on a dark world. If we dream of anything, it is sitting round a warm fire with the curtains drawn while outside the storm rages. Indeed sometimes, far from dreaming, we are merely content not to have nightmares.

3) Our lack of space forces social survival strategies.
I think there are important issues to do with Britain’s small and rather overcrowded nature. In the States there has been until recently enough space that if you don’t get along with someone you could simply harness up the wagon and head west. We have no such luxury here. We have to coexist. I am convinced that this not just encourages us to seek toleration rather than confrontation but also to see things in terms of shades of grey rather than black and white. It may even be that the famous British humour is in fact a defence mechanism to handle the fact that we must live with those whom we dislike.

4) We are both somewhat weary and wary of Empire.
We have had our time as a global superpower; it was good while it lasted but we are still counting the cost in every sense. As with my comment on idealism, we hold no large-scale aspirations other than a) to survive and b) pay the bills.

These are generalities that I throw out as debating points. Next week I want to talk about some family news and then I will do my best to discuss more specifically some of the problems that we have with American republicanism. But I hope this has helped you understand a little bit where we come from.

Have a good week


Friday, 14 November 2008

The problem of proximity

Well last week’s blog raised a real storm didn’t it? What to me seemed fairly cautious comments on Obama-mania appeared to have annoyed the man’s supporters and detractors alike. The fact that either you (or I) so badly misjudged things is actually profoundly revealing; there are major cultural differences between Britain and the States. It has occurred to me that over the next few weeks I might explore something of these differences, that have been exacerbated by the election of Barrack Obama. But before I do, I want to lay some groundwork by pointing out that a peculiar problem exists when you get two very different things that appear the same.

When you compare two organisations or countries it is tempting to be lazy and look merely at the surface. So for instance the alien might wander into both a Catholic church and an evangelical Protestant church and assume that the cleric leading the service was functionally identical and that any differences between a priest and a pastor were merely a matter of words. Now I suspect most readers of this blog will not need me to point out that actually any similarities conceal fundamental differences. A classic example which I hope will not offend is that it is all too tempting to look at Islam and Christianity and see in both cases a central figure, Jesus/Mohammed, and a holy book, the Bible/Quran. What more natural than to assume they are functionally the same? Yet in reality this is profoundly misleading. The Christian view of Jesus as the perfect revelation of God and the Eternal Word is actually far closer to how the Moslem sees the Quran. (Incidentally, some Moslems say the Quran was uncreated; a view disputed by others because it comes perilously close to the blasphemous attribution of the properties of God to something else.) Conversely, in Islam Mohammed (the earthly vessel through whom God reveals his word to mankind) is far closer in functional terms to the Bible (the earthly vessel through whom… well, you get the idea). Appearances can be deceptive.

Now I mention these cases (and I’m sure you could multiply them) because it is all too easy to see parallels and similarities within the British and American system that, at depth, do not actually exist. And this is often the source of some friction. For instance Americans often assume that, in contrast to the extraordinary reverence for the Stars and Stripes in the USA, the British are culpably careless about their own national flag. (Readers across the Atlantic may be interested to know that I have not the slightest idea where I could purchase a Union Jack even if I wanted to.) The fact is that the national flag in Britain and the States represents something totally different. In functional terms, the British equivalent of the Stars and Stripes is actually her Majesty the Queen. She, not the flag, is the emblem of ultimate authority, historical tradition and the validity of the British state. Even at the most basic level we are very different. Someone repeated the old quip that we are ‘two nations divided by a common language’. That is never truer than when we think we are talking about the same thing.

This is very much a precursor to a blog in which – if courage has not failed me – I will try to point out why the British, as a whole, are somewhat uneasy with the Republican Party. Stay tuned...

Friday, 7 November 2008

And so victory was won…

Even over here the event of the week has been the election of the new American president. I’m aware that many of my readers will have voted for the other side and quite a few will be sick to death of the whole thing. It certainly seems to have been going on for ever.

Like most people in the UK I was happy to see Obama elected, partly on account of his personal qualities and partly to draw a line under the dreadful Bush years. I must also say that many of the much touted virtues of the Republican pair (being either a Vietnam War veteran or adept at shooting large furry mammals) did not cross the Atlantic with the same attraction that they have in the States. Yet I have to say on Wednesday morning I was not ecstatic. The fact is I remembered Blair’s equally stunning victory in 1997 over a similarly entrenched and dilapidated Conservative party. There was then a golden dawn of hope filled with an extraordinary euphoria; yet before long the style had evaporated away revealing a minimal substance and the result has been a bitter aftertaste. Now barely ten years on Blair is now one of the most despised figures on the British political scene. (Actually he is rarely here; it is not just prophets who are without honour in their own country.) So time will tell with Barak Obama, but the good book is wise: ‘Put not your trust in Princes’ (Psalm 146:3, AV).

Indeed I feel the first shadow has already fallen with the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff. I am tempted to comment on the unease already emanating from those parts of the Middle East that had been most positive about Obama’s election, about Rahm Emanuel’s links with Zionism and the way he is being acclaimed in Israel as ‘their man in the White House’. It is certainly clear that he has strong loyalties towards the preservation and expansion of the State of Israel; you can read Wikipedia for all the details. I do not want to say much more on the subject. One problem is that even to make the slightest comment on such matters is to run the risk of being considered anti-Semitic. Of course, it is not his Jewishness that is the issue but his Zionism. Another problem is that it is to run the risk of encouraging the numerous lunatics (and there are many on the web) who blame Israel for all the world’s evils, from a ‘Holocaust that never happened’ to 9/11 itself. Excuse me if I distance myself from that lot. However, I do hope that when Rahm Emanuel’s duty to the United States conflicts with his duty to the State of Israel (as it will), it is the former, not the latter, that wins out.

Yet even if we lay this aside there are issues. If you read the commentators – and I have read many – Rahm Emanuel is variously described as ‘scary‘, ‘ferocious’, ‘profane’, ‘vicious’, ‘an attack dog’ and ‘out of a Mafia movie’. This all seems at odds with the image of a gentle, vaguely Christian, consensus politics that Barack Obama set out as his target in the campaign. Or did he? Or was that me reading into Obama what I wanted to see? Perhaps it is here that the real ability of a modern politician lies. They know – as we know – that in the information age you can’t really become all things to all people. But perhaps you can become something of a mirror or a projection screen onto which people throw the image that they want. Perhaps the master trick of the modern politicians is to make us, not them, the agent of deception.

To end let me reportedly the comment of a delightful colleague who is a saintly but slightly otherworldly Christian. On the morning of November 5 she came to get some coffee, and said with wide-eyed genuine surprise. ‘I’ve just seen a photo of this Obama fellow. And do you know? He’s black.’

Have a good week.

Friday, 31 October 2008

So where did half term go?

One of the great blessings of the teacher’s life (apart from a salary that does not depend on the state of international finance) is the holidays. Given that much of the teaching week is basically a non-stop theatrical performance for six hours each day you do need the breaks. Yet on this Friday night as I look back over the half term just ending I wonder where it all went. What actually did I do?

Well, we went up to stay with my mother-in-law in the Midlands for the first part of the week and that means we spent a total of six hours driving. It was a good time and we had the first snow of what promises to be a cold winter. What was especially valuable was that we were able to catch up with relatives. So we met up with my brother-in-law’s and sister-in-law’s families, but we were also able to see our elder son and his wife and young Simeon. I am pleased to be able to report that Simeon is doing well and now looks (and sounds) like the average ten-week-old baby. His parents seem to have come to terms with his CAH well and are handling the need to dose him regularly with saline and steroids with commendable skill and diligence. So there’s an answer to prayer. Thank you all!

What else did I do? I attended a funeral of a dear saint in our church. I did a solid day and a half’s work on writing a whole lot of new notes for the new environmental studies syllabus. I put various programs on my iPhone and digitally processed a number of photographs. I also wrote a rather difficult sermon on the stark subject of ‘Sin’. It is one of those topics that on the surface seems fairly easy but which has all manner of trickiness in depth; original sin, total depravity and (not least) the fact that you don’t want to make everybody feel utterly gloomy. So that took time.

I’ve also been waiting for word from a British publisher on a collaborative non-fiction project which should take up much of my spare time over the next six months. I was due to hear this week but that seems to have slipped away. Linked with this apparently is an interest in a possible fiction project so I have also been accumulating a very large number of notes on a new book. Yes, I have a lot on the epic fantasy trilogy of the ‘Seventh Ship’ but frankly I’m not ready to start that and I’m not sure it’s that attractive for a publisher at this stage. So I have been putting ideas together for a standalone volume that will grab the reader from the first line, involving theology, the supernatural and a fair amount of violence. I’m afraid there is a need for pragmatism!

So with all these things the week has slipped by so fast that now it is in the rear view mirror of life. Did I use it wisely? As I look back at it before much of it disappears entirely from memory I am reminded that the Psalmist wrote: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12). Hmm.

Some time I need to spend time thinking about how I use time.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Confessions of a failed evangelist

A colleague with whom I share an office and all sorts of things (including probably his cold) has just decided that he’s going to buy an iPhone. Curiously enough this news makes me depressed.

How so? Well he’s buying an iPhone on my recommendation; I’ve talked a lot about it, expressed how pleased I am with it and let him have a play with it. He loves it. So even though he already has some time left on his old phone contract he is going to get one. So why am I depressed? It is that I seem to be better at selling iPhones than the gospel. We’ve talked a lot about Christianity and he’s made some interesting comments, but he’s buying into the phone and not, as yet, into the faith.

Of course it’s easier to talk about a mobile phone than it is to talk about faith. Phones are everywhere, everyone has them and everyone is using them. Phones come up naturally in conversation. These days faith is not anywhere near so frequent a topic of discussion. To talk about it can actually seem rather forced and unnatural. Phones also somehow a much more concrete topic; it’s much easier to say to someone – as I did today – ‘have a play with this’. It is much less easy to say to someone ‘here, try my Christian faith’. And of course it’s easier for people to risk getting involved with phones than with faith. An unhappy experience with a phone will, at worst, leave you a few hundred pounds or dollars out of pocket. An unhappy experience with faith could be far more costly and open you to considerable embarrassment. Nevertheless I’m sure you understand my unease; shouldn’t it be much easier to talk about a faith that means everything and a phone which, however nice, means very little?

And yet. A year or so ago I extolled the virtues of C S Lewis to my colleague who greatly enjoyed Surprised by Joy. The other week he said that he'd picked up a copy of the Screwtape Letters and here his tone grew pensive, he ‘found it very thought-provoking’. Well maybe the dead Lewis can do better than the living me. Actually from what I’ve heard, the living Lewis wasn’t that great an evangelist. Maybe death will improve me, but I’m in no hurry to try the experiment.

Incidentally I had some lovely fan mail from Ghana this week. These nice comments count, they really do.

Have a good week


Friday, 17 October 2008

On admitting guilt and offering forgiveness

There’s a lot to be said for a careful reading of the popular press and a careful listening to what people say on the TV and radio. Getting dressed this morning, I listened to the excellent Today programme on BBC Radio Four where the redoubtable editor John Humphrys was interviewing Angela Knight, head of the British Bankers’ Association. Towards the end of the interview he said it was an awful pity that the head of one of these banks would not come onto his programme and admit they had made dreadful mistakes and offer to make it up. The smooth answer came back: ‘John, let me tell you that there is not a single person in the banking industry who is not extremely concerned about the state of things.’ And despite further pressure that was as far it went: no admission of guilt, no confession, only an expression of that wonderfully ambiguous concern. Concern about what one wondered – loss of reputation? loss of earnings? Who knows?

And of course isn’t that the way of the world today? Admission of guilt is extremely rare. We try not to even say sorry. There has been a recent and rather sordid case involving the head of Formula One and what was claimed to be a Nazi-themed orgy. What has emerged in the legal cases (and, friends, I have not followed it closely) is that there is no question that this married man was involved in the orgy; only the Nazi theme is disputed. The upshot though is striking: far from admitting any wrongdoing, the man concerned is now brazenly trying to implement legal measures to prevent newspapers reporting anything that infringes on an individual’s privacy without consulting them first.

I’m reminded of my conversations with the number of Lebanese in the 1990s about what history calls the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-88, in which some appalling events took place. (I know: I was there for some of it). ‘Oh it wasn’t our war,’ they would say dismissively with a shrug of the shoulders, ‘it was the others. The Israelis and the Syrians (or the Palestinians) fought each other on our territory. We were innocent bystanders.’ Well, of course that is a big, bold lie; many Lebanese were active participants. But denial is easier than admission of guilt.

Let me make one obvious, and one less obvious, point. The obvious point is this: although denial of guilt is attractive, it is not a wise strategy. To deny that you are ill is one of the few things that utterly rules out any possibility of healing and to reject guilt is to completely eliminate the possibility of forgiveness. The less obvious point is this: admission of guilt is only really likely where there is a culture of forgiveness. The problem is that we are now in a post-Christian culture where any idea of forgiveness has largely been overlooked. The result is a vicious circle: to admit guilt is to invite a merciless punishment so we don’t admit guilt. We have no culture of forgiveness so we do not dare to seek forgiveness.

I have no idea which comes first: the readiness to forgive or the readiness to admit guilt but we need desperately to bring back both.


Friday, 10 October 2008

Finance, faith and fantasy

I thought it was time I made some comment, however brief, on the world’s financial state. So far for many of us it appears to be like thunder on the edge of the horizon, something of a dramatic novelty but not a matter that directly affects us. Of course very soon it is going to be having a direct effect and not a benign one. In fact in our church it looks as though we are going to create a finance subcommittee whose brief will be to offer aid and assistance to those who will have been affected. At least that’s the plan.

Let me make two other observations.

The first is that I find myself troubled by absence of any prophetic Christian response; not to this present crisis (which may come) but to the bizarre and reckless boom we saw over the last ten or twenty years. Where were the prophetic voices saying that ‘it’s not going to last’, ‘it’s a house built on sand’ and ‘what goes up must come down’? I am happy to include myself in this critique. Frankly, even those of us who were not avid supporters of the prosperity gospel seem to have been content to receive the benefits of a financial situation that we now realise was based largely on irresponsible property speculation. I wish somewhere there was some prophetic figure who could say ‘I told you this would all end in tears’. Perhaps there is and I will be glad to hear of him or her.

The second observation is this. If there was a failure of the prophetic nerve there was also it seems to me a failure in the area of imagination. Quite simply no one seems to have been able to conceive of the scale of the pending disaster. It is almost as if an assembled mass of lemmings had peered over the cliff before them only to mutter ‘Well, it certainly looks a long way down, but I don’t suppose it can really hurt.’ Perhaps everybody should have read a few more fantasy books and a few fewer property magazines.

Other news quickly. Simeon continues to do well and gain weight and has survived his first cold. There are also some developments occurring with my writing career that I am not at liberty to discuss but which sound promising. Your prayers are welcome on both counts.

Whatever happens to the markets, have a good week.


Friday, 3 October 2008

Field trips in a wet climate and the problem of unresolved gratitude

I don’t often write about my job on this blog, which is just as well as I found out today that at least one student regularly reads it. Hi Ioan! Teaching geology has one slight problem attached to it: the need to do fieldwork. In theory this is fine, as in South Wales we live in an area where, within a day’s drive, we can see some very fine geology. But when am I supposed to take my students out? Term starts in early September, but for the first few weeks my first-year students know very little geology and fieldwork presupposes at they have least some knowledge. And by the first week in October temperatures have started to drop and the autumnal gales and rain are upon us. So should I leave it and do it all in late spring? That is hardly acceptable from the teaching point of view and anyway, in some years the weather doesn’t really improve until mid-April. But as our exams start in mid-May we are already in revision mode by then and my colleagues are less than happy at losing students from their classes. So my habit is to try to get the fieldwork in at the very end of September.

Yet here matters are made even more complex by the fact that almost all our best rock sequences are on coastal sections. ‘So what?’ you say. Well, we live in a part of the world that has the second highest tidal range in the world (9-10 metre tides are perfectly common) and the omnipresent health and safety legislation means that I can only really work on a falling tide. So the dates of my field trips are more or less chosen for me and this week was the week: I had three full-day trips. The weather was bad on one day but good on the other two; by the miserable standards of 2008 a very good result. In fact even the field trip on the wet day went well and I actually had some pleasing feedback. I’ve been very glad to get them out of the way because the temperature today has really dropped and there is a feel of late autumn in the air. We also had on the radio that message which is for Brits the first harbinger of true winter: a warning of snow on the Scottish Highlands.

Anyway I’m very grateful for the good weather and am happy to attribute it to answered prayer. I am well aware of this raises lots of problems (what about those who, for whatever reason, prayed for bad weather?) but I’m content to let my praise sound out. This whole issue raises for me one of the most telling arguments against atheism and one which I think is insufficiently discussed. It is this: when faced with some potentially disastrous situation that, in the event, goes right, we all – atheist and believer alike – feel the urge to give thanks. Yet for the atheist this is the most frustrating of all desires: there is simply no one to give thanks to. It may be that if the problem of pain is the strongest objection to Christian belief, the problem of pleasure is atheism’s Achilles heel. The atheist cannot admit for a moment the existence of ‘blessing’; that would require the existence of a Blesser.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Sermon illustrations and a nice letter

Another week flies by. I will treat physicists far more seriously when they can account for a) the missing 80% of the mass of the universe and b) why time goes by so much faster than it used to.

Young Simeon continues to do well and is now – six weeks after his birth – back to his birth weight. That is progress. Thanks for praying.

Searching for a sermon illustration this week I came across the following: “Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett received great recognition for his work — but not every one savored his accomplishments. Beckett’s marriage, in fact, was soured by his wife’s jealousy of his growing fame and success as a writer. One day in 1969 his wife Suzanne answered the telephone, listened for a moment, spoke briefly, and hung up. She then turned to Beckett and with a stricken look whispered, “What a catastrophe!” Was it a devastating personal tragedy? No, she had just learned that Beckett had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature!”

It is a fine illustration of how jealousy works and as it focuses on a man who was pretty anti-Christian, quite a satisfying one. But when I read the story something about it didn’t quite ring true and I did some homework. The reality it seems is thus: In October 1969, Beckett, on holiday in Tunis with Suzanne, learned he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Suzanne, who saw that her intensely private husband would be, from that moment forth, saddled with fame, called the award a ‘catastrophe’. On this basis, far from being an expression of jealousy, Suzanne’s comment seems to have been a sensitive statement of concern for her husband. (What is beyond doubt is that it seems to have been a fairly stable marriage, continuing until her death twenty years later.)

I suspect the sermon illustration is at fault; partly because I have heard all too many exaggerated statements from the pulpit, particularly where non-Christians are concerned. Exaggeration in the case of unbelievers seems legitimate. Hmm. Can I make a plea that if you do preach or write you check your sources? In the age of the World Wide Web and Google it’s not hard. Honestly is important.

Finally, yes I know the books aren’t doing very well and most people have never seen a copy let alone heard of them. But even in the darkness I get the odd ray of light. I had the following this week.

“Thank you. I just finished reading The Infinite Day tonight. I wrote you about 9 months ago. I read aloud all three of your books to my children, age 10 and 6, as a bedtime story. We spent some time discussing the characters, reading perhaps a half chapter per night. I tried to relate the moral decisions the characters face to biblical characters as well as our own temptations and opportunities to serve Christ. I never thought we would read a book series that we would enjoy as much as the Chronicles of Narnia, but I must say, you proved me wrong. I hope your works will become as timeless as those of C S Lewis.

“Although no eye can see, no ear can hear, nor any heart imagine what God has planned for us, I was brought to tears by those last pages of your work. I can not wait to see and experience even more than what you have imagined. The picture painted by your hand is an encouragement to me and my children to live every day for our Lord because of his great love for us. I know we will lean on the memories of your books for support when we are facing the trials of life. Thank you Chris. If not in this life, we look forward to giving you a big hug when we are together in ‘above space’.”

It makes it all worthwhile.

Have a good week

Friday, 19 September 2008


Here’s a question for you. Is routine a good thing or a bad thing?

I ask because, as happens in a teacher’s life about this time of the year, routine has settled in. Last week, I had an entire change of timetable and five new students. This week I have had merely one change of room and two new students. Next week I suspect neither rooms nor students will change. I even vaguely know where I ought to be at any one moment and without consulting my colour-coded timetable. Looking ahead over the next nine months or so which is all that the teaching year realistically is, I can broadly sketch out the highs and lows ahead. After four years full-time in my college I pretty much know what is going to be on my desk every week or so. Routine has set in.

Now don’t get me wrong: there is a lot to be said for routine. The regular cycle of the week, without crises and changes, is surely good for us. To be honest, as I get older, I find I can manage without crises. All the medical evidence seems to be that it really isn’t very good for us either. And who doesn’t ultimately like that monthly pay packet? You could even argue that the institution of the Sabbath in the Bible sanctifies routine with its call for ‘six days work and one day off’. Repeat ad infinitum.

And yet... isn’t there something rather soporific about it? Something terribly, worryingly, deadeningly numbing? Doesn’t routine force us to stare at the road immediately ahead of us and to neglect that distant (but perhaps not that distant) horizon where this world ends and eternity begins. I suspect we need to be wary of routine and its accompanying myopia. Forgive me, incidentally, if you are in finance; this has not been a routine week. Yet one of the curious effects of routine, it seems to me, is that it deadens us not just to our own relentless march to heaven or hell but to the trials of others. We stay locked in the furrow of our daily labours. Perhaps the words of the writer to the Hebrews ought to come to mind: ‘For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14) Just so.

Simeon continues to make good progress by the way; thanks for all your prayers. The books alas, need something to generate more interest, but I know not what.

Have a good week


Friday, 12 September 2008

Latest news

First of all many thanks to those who prayed, because things are now a lot better with young Simeon, our young and somewhat ailing grandson. On Monday the diagnosis of CAH (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia) was confirmed (although there are various different types). Anyway Simeon will have to be on steroids for the rest of his life, but the specialist is quite encouraged and encouraging and it sounds like he should be able to live a normal life. His parents will however have to do quite a bit of chemical juggling early on and there will be some fairly regular blood tests. At the moment he is still in hospital but merely to see his weight built up. But the outlook is good. Thank you Lord.

What else is news in this part of the world? Well, today was something of a small but significant landmark for me. I taught nothing but geology today in all four 1.5 hour teaching slots. In other words I have enough students who want to do geology that I now have two groups at AS level (year 12) and two at A2 (year 13). In fact my total student numbers are now around 70 which is a college record. Clearly I must be doing something right. This, of course, feeds into the whole issue to do with writing. Yes, I would love to do nothing but full-time writing but teaching provides a regular salary and frankly this year I am probably going to make nothing whatsoever from my fiction books. Not only that: I am apparently quite good at what I do as a teacher. My college is also actually a pretty good place to work; a fact brought out by the kindness and sympathy of my colleagues in the last week. So I really don't know when you're going to get this promised Seventh Ship manuscript. I also seem to be preaching almost every Sunday for the next couple of months as well. I really must learn to say ‘no’!

A good friend and sometime reader of this blog sent me an article from the British newspaper The Guardian pointing out that in a recent survey of nearly a quarter of a million university students geology achieved the highest satisfaction level with 95% of students being happy with the subject. Why this should be the case is not immediately clear but I suspect several factors contribute to it. Geology is very varied and you never stick with one topic too long, we do lots of nice field trips and at the moment there are lots of jobs available at the end of the course. There is one other factor and it is this; geology has resolutely resisted postmodernism and almost all of types of modern philosophical outlook. It is something of – to use an apposite phrase – a dinosaur. Unlike some geography departments (on whom be peace) we do not do such things as ‘Concepts of Lesbian Space’ and ‘Masculinity and Maps’. Geology departments are much more prosaic, and again to use an apposite phrase, are ‘down to earth’. They centre on facts and the training to use those facts in life outside the campus. I suspect there are implications here for Christian ministry but at the end of the first full week of teaching I am too tired to draw them out.

Blessings on you all.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

A family crisis

I suppose it takes me around ten steps to get from our bed to the phone in the hall. So when, around three o’clock on Thursday morning it rang, I was already partly awake and prepared for something unpleasant by the time I picked it up. No one except Swansea drunks getting a wrong number calls at that hour unless it’s an emergency. And emergency it was: our grandson Simeon, 15 days old, was in intensive care, anaesthetised and ventilated, with something unknown, but serious, wrong with him. Three hours drive away, all we could do was pray and lie awake hoping that there would not be a second phone call.

Thursday was the first proper day of teaching for me and I can assure you it was not a good one. However I do have to say my colleagues were universally superb in their sympathy and support. Bit by bit during the day the details came out and a tentative diagnosis (still not fully confirmed at the moment) made of what is called CAH or Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia: courtesy of the web you can read all about it. But over the last couple of days Simeon has gradually recovered, being shifted first to high dependency and then to a normal ward while he recovers some weight and, I presume, more tests are done. If it is CAH the prognosis is reasonably good although with current technology he will have a lifetime of being dependent on replacement steroids. Which, as someone said, means that he will probably be ruled out from ever competing in the Olympics.

Let me make three cautious observations. The first is that we have come to take for granted the wonder of childbirth and healthy children. When you think about it, it’s a pretty amazing for a baby to shift from being effectively a parasitic creature taking food and oxygen from the mother to being a (more or less) self-sustaining and self-regulating organism. Somehow we have come to consider it to be a right that this proceeds automatically and without trouble. We shouldn’t do so. Two of my colleagues have had neo-natal fatalities recently.

The second observation was that things like this make you realise the true importance of family, friends and the faith. As I lay in bed my thoughts turned to last week’s blog on the iPhone and the whole topic seemed pathetically insignificant. Perhaps being reminded of one’s true priorities is no bad thing.

The third observation is that contrary to what you might expect I don’t think I ever once rounded on God and angrily demanded ‘Why Simeon?’. I suppose if things had turned out worse (and of course he is not out of the woods yet) I might have done so. I think – intellectually at least – I have come round to the view that being a child of God does not exempt you from suffering. I think I would almost be embarrassed to be in a situation in which I was granted immunity from the world’s woes. No one respects those who dodge military service or jury duty through family influence. In a world full of wounded people perhaps we need to have scars.

Anyway I will keep you in touch. Have a good week.

Friday, 29 August 2008

New additions to the family: Part 2

First things first: many thanks to all of you who congratulated me, and by extension, my son and daughter-in-law on their new offspring. We went to see them at the weekend along with Alison’s mother and it was a great moment to have all four generations present. (Although, for those of you who have forgotten, four-day-old babies do very little.) The significance of the event was enhanced by a newspaper report the day before saying that Britain now has more elderly people than children. I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly the statistics and how they defined ‘elderly’ but you get my point. We are an ageing population; babies are getting to be an endangered species.

Anyway, the other new addition I promised I would talk about is my new iPhone 3G. As readers of my books will know, my protagonists in the Lamb Among The Stars use a ‘Diary’, something so close in shape and size to the iPhone that if we do come to filming (and thanks for those suggestions, by the way) there will have to be some clever work done to stop people from saying ‘oh look he’s just copied the iPhone’. My diaries have vastly superior facilities: most notably a ten-year battery, which is clearly fantasy; you’d be pushed to get an iPhone 3G to last 10 hours. Anyway when I started writing the books, this type of thing was very much science fiction; laptop computers were weighing in at 20lbs and had coarse green-on-black screens, and mobile phones were brick-sized. Is it any wonder people write about swords and sorcery rather than technology?

The reason I got one was that my old phone had come to the end of its contract and I felt that an iPhone would save me having to fire up a computer quite as frequently. So, after two weeks use, what do I make of it?

Well, I’m pretty impressed. I have been using Windows Mobile/Pocket PC organisers and phones ever since they came out around eight years ago and have amassed a considerable expertise in handheld computing. And you know what is the best thing about the iPhone? I don’t need to use any of it. The thing just works. One of the most damning things about the Pocket PC was that you never saw a woman using one. This isn’t sexism: women, of course, are far more sensible than men and shun any sort of technology that is far more trouble than it’s worth. They took one look at the tiny screen and saw that they had to poke around with a toothpick on it and decided that it really wasn’t worth it. The iPhone however is very different. Not only do you not need to know anything about computers, you are positively discouraged from fiddling around with the insides. You can only get applications (for the most part sensibly priced at a dollar or less) from Apple. This means that your phone is never contaminated by poorly written bits of software which you can never completely uninstall but which gradually accumulate, slowing your phone down. Towards the end I used almost every day to have to reset my Windows mobile phone and each time it took three or four minutes before the thing would boot up properly. I don’t even know how to do a reset for the iPhone; it doesn’t seem to need them.

No, in almost every way it’s a super piece of work and I’m looking forward to some of the applications that we are promised. One slight negative is that so far there is no real word processing software, probably because Apple, in their wisdom, have not yet got round to creating a cut and paste facility. So you don’t get to write a book on it. Yet.

But everything else just works. Ultimately, in terms of operation, it’s made not for geeks, but for users. And the beauty of that is that the iPhone itself rather retreats into the background. In that respect it’s a little bit like a good writer; the tale – not the teller – is what engages our attention.

Have a good week


Saturday, 23 August 2008

On seeing the next generation

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that our elder son and his wife were expecting their first baby. Well, on Tuesday, after some delay, Simeon John finally emerged into the world. He is doing very well and we hope to see him and his family this weekend.

Inevitably one’s first grandchild brings back memories of his parent’s birth.
John, Simeon’s father, was born in Beirut in the spring of ’82. It was a jumpy, uneasy time as we were expecting an Israeli invasion any day. After seeing the new baby, I remember heading off through the badly lit streets of West Beirut where PLO gunmen lingered nervously in doorways, up to the bright lights of Commodore Hotel which was one of the few places where you could guarantee getting a phone line out of Lebanon. The place was full of journalists trying to file stories about the war brewing in the south. Eventually, at what seemed an enormous expense, I managed to have a few minutes on a crackly, distant line and passed on the good news. The next day I took some photographs and got a roll of film developed (some of you youngsters may not remember this process), had duplicate photos printed and sent them off by airmail to the grandparents. I think it must have been two weeks after the birth when the photos arrived in the UK. With Simeon’s birth, the happy father (who has inherited an interest in photography from both sides of the family) e-mailed us some good digital images within hours. Technologically the world has changed a lot.

Incidentally, six weeks after John was born the long predicted war erupted with appalling violence and where we lived and the hospital came under sustained artillery and aerial bombardment by the Israelis. We fled an already encircled West Beirut and then Alison and John were evacuated courtesy of the French Navy while I stayed on for another few days. We were out of all contact for the next week or so. One would like to think that the technological changes over the last quarter of a century have been matched by political progress and the Middle East is now a saner and safer place. Oh well….

Anyway Simeon’s arrival means of course that we are grandparents; we will by agreement be ‘Grandma’ and ‘Grandpa’. Frankly, I’m still coming to terms with this. I only just seem to have got out of adolescence and now I am a grandfather? Well I can live with it. The main thing is that it is a great blessing. To have children is a blessing and to see them have children is doubly so.

Anyway next week I hope to talk about the other new addition to our family, my new iPhone 3G, which currently carries on it – amongst other things – yes you guessed it, pictures of Simeon John.

Have a good week.

Friday, 15 August 2008

A sign of the times?

There are lots of things I feel inclined to comment about at the moment; including the great topic of British conversation: what happened to the weather? We seem to have seamlessly slipped from a wet and windy spring into a wet and windy autumn. Hang on, isn’t there supposed to be something in between? I’ve also got an iPhone 3G which I think is fantastic and I want to make some observations on it coupled with some damning comparisons with Microsoft’s offering in this area. But that can wait. And no, the phone hasn’t yet rung to say ‘you’re a grandfather’. Mind you given the weather, I can understand why the baby is staying inside as long as possible.

Curiously enough, the topic this week is that of Hamlet, that most curious of plays. Having watched the excellent Kenneth Branagh version recently I felt that it is really one of those southern European Catholic revenge dramas which has mysteriously (and not terribly convincingly) been transposed to a Protestant Denmark. Anyway, as you may or may not know depending on which part of the globe (no literary pun intended) you’re in, a new production of Hamlet has opened at Stratford starring David Tennant as dithering hero. That is of course the David Tennant, the current Doctor Who. To round things off nicely, the villain of the piece, Claudius, is played by no less than Patrick Stewart. That is, of course, the Patrick Stewart, formerly Captain Picard of Star Trek. And the reviews have been very good indeed. The reviewers have, however, all gone out of their way to remind us that both are highly trained actors and had good credentials well before they became famous in science fiction.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Does it indicate that, in order to make the fantastic credible today you need to get the best possible actor or actress you can? Or does it indicate that fantasy/science fiction is now coming in out of the cold and is something that no longer blights an acting career? Frankly I rather hope it’s the latter. Indeed, I hope that Hollywood will realise one of the advantages of filming epic fantasy is that actors are prepared to fight for what is a proven career-building privilege. If they want an epic fantasy to test this theory then I suppose I can think of a trilogy that might be suitable.

Have a good week


Sunday, 10 August 2008

The problem of encountering excellence

As previous posts have explained, we have just had a great holiday in France which was also something of a stimulus in many areas. Yes, I did get some notes jotted down towards new books but frankly, dear reader, I am still recovering from having produced The Infinite Day and am reluctant to commit myself to the vast number of hours of labour necessary to write the sequence I want to. (An attractive offer of a publishing company/wealthy fan/visionary could change all that.)

Anyway, while we were in France we got the chance to look at two sites in the Dordogne, that vast area of dissected limestone plateaux that drape onto the western edge of the Massif Central. The two sites were the village of Rocamadour and the small town of Sarlat and both feature highly in any tourist guide.

Rocamadour is a suite of ancient churches and chapels spilling down the steepest of slopes. It is all steps, spires and dizzying vistas down on to red roofs. At times you feel you could be in some mediaeval romance.

Even if you have very little sympathy with much of the religious elements (and I am too good a Protestant to be fond of the multitude of statues and icons) it is an awesome place. Allegedly it is the number two tourist site in France and understandably so.

Sarlat is supposed to be France’s best preserved mediaeval town. When you finally get in past the traffic you are soon in lost a tumbling maze of ancient buildings. Winding streets present a constant succession of half timbered and honeyed stone buildings with the steepest of roofs pressed together with endless and varied doorways, courtyards and arches. It is one of those places that that it belongs more on the film set than in reality.

Having visited both of these places a problem emerged. We went to what we would have once considered an attractive French town a few days later with some lovely old buildings and both concluded that sadly ‘it wasn’t Sarlat’. In other words the good had been spoilt for us by our glimpse of the excellent.

It is a phenomena I have come across before. There are three sites in the Near East of global stature: Lebanon’s Roman temple of Baalbek, Syria’s sprawling Crusader fort of Krak des Chevalier and the jawdropping city carved into rock that is Jordan’s Petra. Baalbek is the greatest Roman temple preserved anywhere; Krak the greatest castle anywhere; and Petra the greatest… well, ‘city-carved-into-rock’ anywhere.

I am grateful that having seen these things, and especially, this summer, Sarlat and Rocamadour. But they expose the danger of focusing on excellence to the point that we overlook that which is merely good. I suspect there is a spiritual lesson here. Maybe we need sometimes to turn our eyes away from superstar excellence (which, in all probability, is utterly unattainable) and focus instead on a more down-to-earth ordinary kind of goodness.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

On living in France

Anyone who travels to France cannot fail to be astonished at the number of British people there. We visited one small town where in the centre literally one in three people seemed to be British. It wasn’t just holidaymakers either: the cafes were run by Brits and there was even a fish and chip shop. Many shops had either advertisements that were either bilingual or in English alone.

Which raises the question: what is so attractive about France to Brits? The answer seems to be that it is no single thing. An almost universal attraction is that the weather is so much better. And here one can sympathise: for instance in Swansea we have had heavy rain for the last two days with not a glimpse of the sun. Other people like the food and the cheap wine.

Still others relish the fact that you can buy a large property relatively cheaply. Certainly it seems to be a cheaper place to live than the UK. There are other things: for people of my age and older it is the still largely rural nature of France that is attractive. It has widely scattered, quiet villages, rustic hamlets, hedgerows, tree-lined lanes, vast rolling woodlands, abundant wildlife, dark starlit night skies and the absence of the eternal roar of roads that is almost universal in most of Britain. The irony here is that the attraction of France is not because it is France but because it is like a long lost Britain.

I haven’t heard that many people go to France because they like the French. In fact the quite revealing fact is that most Britons buy up country properties out of the towns. They say it’s because they want the peace and quiet; I have a niggling suspicion that, in some cases at least, it’s so that they don’t have to deal with the locals. In some places the Brits were trying to create an alternative community of English-speaking shops, hairdressers, electricians and plumbers so that you wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of a) learning French b) having to be nice to Pierre and Sylvie. Once or twice we had to insist that people spoke to us in French rather than English. They seemed grateful for our efforts.

Let me hear make two Christian points. After all I suspect that something equivalent to France occurs in most countries. From what I gather, California or Florida often seems to have the same role in the northern US.

The first point is that there is a real danger that you see in this France or its equivalent, paradise. It is the place where, finally, everything will go right; the place where joy will be yours eternally. And of course expressed like that, you see the fallacy of the argument: there is no paradise other than God’s paradise and we are separated from that by more than the English Channel. (Indeed from passing comments, we heard much of France can often be bitterly cold in winter. The bureaucracy is often impenetrable. The inner cities have dreadful problems. The state is bankrupt. And in the rural areas over winter you find large numbers of people traipsing around blasting little birds to bits in the course of la chasse. I get the impression from a few of the expats we talked to that disillusionment can set in very quickly.)

The second point is that we cannot – and should not – divorce ourselves from people. There is probably a whole theology that centres on the incarnation about getting involved with local life.

Anyway I’ll make no bones about it. If I could sell the film rights I would very seriously and prayerfully consider moving to France where I would continue to write and my wife would continue editing by e-mail. With the fast rail and plane links we properly wouldn’t be too far away from aged parents. But on the one hand we would be under no expectation of paradise and on the other, we would make every effort to get involved with the local community and especially that rarest things, a French evangelical fellowship. Anyway, it’s all a fancy at the moment. But cannot a man dream? Especially a fantasy writer?

I hope to get back to a regular Friday pattern as soon as possible. Oh, and no news on the baby front yet.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Back from France

Dear readers, you have probably noticed that posting of comments, etc., has been a bit delayed the last couple of weeks. The reason was, as I partly hinted, that we were actually on holiday in France. And of course, where a little bit of detective work will reveal where you actually live, you have to be an utter nincompoop to announce to the world that you will be vacating your premises for a few weeks! On the other topic I mentioned, our daughter-in-law is still pregnant but the due date is coming up early next week.

Anyway we had a great time. For us holidays are not so much a time of doing nothing as a time of being stimulated by seeing new and different things. I have just been glancing at some of the 800 or so photographs I took and they include a vast numbers of chateaux, mediaeval towns, rocks, flowers, dragonflies, battlefields and landscapes: all that sort of thing. It keeps the brain working and makes you realise that actually the rest of the world operates on a different basis. Which is no bad thing.

Last year we went to Ireland and it was pretty cold and wet and the rest of the summer in Wales was much the same. So this year it was very pleasant to be able to say again things we haven’t really been able to say for two years (when we were last in France). Some of the things we enjoyed saying were:
‘I seem to have run out of short-sleeved shirts.’
‘I think I’ve caught the sun.’
‘The tarmac is melting.’
‘Can we park the car in the shade?’
‘Look at the lizards.’
‘Have we brought enough water?’
‘I really ought to get some prescription sunglasses.’

Anyway, I will write more about books and writing soon.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Reflections on history

I was a small boy by the end of the 50s and a somewhat bigger boy in the 60s. In those dimly remembered days, the Second World War loomed large, not just as a great event, but as a recent one. At my first school we had big earth air raid shelters in the grounds that were frustratingly (but sensibly) sealed off from our attentions. When we played soldiers it was always as British and Germans. My father worked in the aerospace industry and many of his colleagues had been in the war: one had flown in Lancaster bombers; another, a Pole with an impossible surname, had flown with the Polish Air Force element of the RAF. It is possible that the proximity of the war was heightened by the fact that in Britain rationing did not end until something like 1953. Well into the 60s no one ever wasted food.

All this came to mind because in our church there is a small bronze plaque to the memory of Lieutenant Fred G. Beeny, East Lancashire Regiment, killed at Caen, France, 29th July 1944. As we will be passing through Caen later this summer I thought I would find where the grave was and make a visit. So I have been doing some very basic research on the lieutenant. Apart from the wonderfully efficient Commonwealth War Graves Commission website which pinpointed the grave within seconds, I have largely drawn a blank. If I had a spare day I could trawl through the microfiche records of the local paper and probably come up with more information but I don’t have that luxury. The trouble is, as you are probably aware (or ought to be), the D-Day casualty figures were so horrendous that they seem to have overwhelmed the system. For example, The London Gazette (which is in digital format and hence easy to search) only records Fred’s death in November 1944. However the local library has archives that include the minutes of our church, so I may unearth something there.

What was interesting was asking even the oldest members of our church and finding that none of them knew anything about Fred or his family. Part of the reason is that most of our very old members joined the church after the war. But another element is simply this; what was once so close to me has now been removed into the far distance by time’s remorseless march. The lieutenant himself was 25 and so would have been born in 1919. In other words, any of his contemporaries will now be thinking about their 90th birthday celebrations next year. It will not be long before we hear someone described as being the ‘last surviving combatant’ of this or that Second World War battle.

I suppose at this point I should shift to discussing how vital it is that God is eternal. Well that’s true. But I am more struck, I think, by the other side of the coin: the sheer brevity of human life. Not just this one life cut short at the quarter century, but the fact that an epic struggle will soon have passed from the realm where it is discussed by living witnesses, to that faraway state testified to only by cold, flat, written records. History is like a leisurely treadmill whose pace is so slow that you do not think it moves at all. Events like this remind you that time does pass and all too soon the greatest of events slips over the horizon of knowledge into mists of history.

Paraphrasing Psalm 90 Isaac Watts wrote:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the op'ning day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower's hand
Lie with'ring ere 'tis night.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
Just so.


Saturday, 12 July 2008

Soli Deo Gloria

When I finished writing the final sentence of The Infinite Day I signed off with three letters SDG. Since then one or two people have asked me what it means and I am left wondering if it was a bit of an affectation. I think I thought its meaning could easily be found through Google: but having tried it that is not as easy as I had thought. So here you are.

SDG stands for Soli Deo Gloria: the Latin for ‘Glory to God alone’. The background to it is that during the Protestant Reformation the theology of the Reformers came to be summarised in the five solas. These are:
  • Sola Scriptura - Scripture Alone
  • Solus Christus - Christ Alone
  • Sola Gratia - Grace Alone
  • Sola Fide - Faith Alone
  • Soli Deo Gloria - The Glory of God Alone
The ‘alone’ bit refers to the fact that the Reformers felt that the church of their time had added to these truths and so it was important to ‘get back to basics’. I would have thought the meaning of all five were reasonably obvious but there are a number of websites that will give you text and verse on all of them. The last of the five – Soli Deo Gloria – was I suppose a bit of a dig against the medieval church’s glorying in ceremonies, the priesthood and the Pope. (Lest I be accused of anti-Catholicism here, let me point out that since the time of the Reformation a number of Protestants have managed to very successfully swing the spotlight off the glory of God and onto themselves. But I name no names; I don’t want to be preached against on the God Channel.)

Anyway it’s a rich phrase. In fact, my younger son so likes it he has it tattooed on his arm. (It’s his body not mine.)

I have a soft spot for it because the great Johann Sebastian Bach signed off almost all his own works with the same three letter motif.

So I am in good company. Of course, by adding SDG, not simply as a motto but as something that is meant, I was of course asking that God be praised, not me. That’s a bit tricky as I am no different from anybody else and actually rather like praise. But I suppose it was also, in a sense, a commending of the whole artistic enterprise into the divine hands. In effect, over to you Lord. Amen.

Have a good week.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Software I use

Just occasionally I get asked various things about the technicalities of writing and what software I use. Unsurprisingly, I do the final editing of anything in Word, which seems to have become the universal format for documents. But for what it’s worth – and it isn’t a lot – let me tell you about a couple of favourites for writing.

The first of these is the flawed-but-when-it-works-absolutely-wonderful Dragon Naturally Speaking speech recognition program by Nuance software. Once you have trained the software, you put on the microphone and click the little icon on the desktop and then speak away. And after an initial pause your words start to appear on the screen with the barest minimum of delay. I’d say the accuracy is around 95%, maybe 98%. Or at least for me. I have a fairly deep voice and speak standard English: for higher frequency voices and people with pronounced accents I don’t know what the rate would be. But it gives me the ability to input text as fast as the best typist and allows me to keep going for several hours if I need to.

It is not perfect: for some obscure reason it really doesn’t like the word 'because'; it is resource intensive and for me only works well with 3 Gb of RAM and even here I try to close down most other background programs. But it’s the only way I can manage to do a blog at the end of a long and wearying week. One curiosity is that unlike dictating to a human, the most satisfactory results are to be had by speaking in a slow, deliberate, monotone. So if you are writing something thrilling you have to not reveal the excitement in your voice or the computer will get confused. Weird! Anyway I recommend it, but I’m hoping that the next version will be better.

A second software package is probably less well-known and one that I have only just acquired. It is a program called PageFour by the splendidly named Bad Wolf Software. Let me simply repeat how it describes itself: “PageFour is a tabbed word processor and outliner for creative writers. Where other word processors were designed with the business user in mind, PageFour aims to meet the needs of a different class of writer. It does not improve your prose or make you a better writer – only you can do that, but PageFour does make your job just that little bit easier.”

That’s pretty much it. It’s a fairly basic and pared down word processor coupled with a fine outlining/card file element. So if I’m writing a book and I want to access information on a place or a person I shift the mouse over a mini-directory in the corner and call up the relevant note. This database type of thing is of course something that Word manifestly fails to do. The PageFour program is not terribly expensive and if you’re thinking about writing a novel you could do far worse. There is a programme for the Mac called Scrivener which does pretty much the same thing, but in a slightly more stylish fashion. The problem is, these wonderful tools notwithstanding, at the end of the day you still have to get down and write.

Now a word of warning. Our elder son and his dear wife are due to have their first baby very soon. When the event happens we will head on up to see them, and as a result, dear reader, this blog may hang fire for several days. We have also got some holiday occurring at some point and – trusting soul that I am – I am not going to announce the dates on the blog. So over the next six weeks or so this blog may be slightly interrupted and posting your comments may be delayed. Never mind: all being well I will be back.

Have a good week.

Friday, 27 June 2008

A curious communication

Well it’s been a quiet week on the book front but I did get one fascinating communication. It was an e-mail from a PhD student in New York, who we will simply call John, saying that he was including a chapter on my series in his doctoral dissertation and asking me some questions.

As far as I can make out John’s thesis is on the attitude of evangelicals writing fiction to technology. He has sent me the chapter, which I have so far merely skimmed over at great speed. My initial response is that he’s got some things about my books right and some things badly wrong but I hope to spend an hour or so putting together some comments. But it’s a strange feeling to have yourself written about. I have read a fair amount of literary criticism and it’s very odd to be involved as the subject rather than as spectator.

I confess to having any slightly jaded view of literary criticism. A formative experience was when in 1982 the American University of Beirut, where I was an assistant professor, had a centennial conference on James Joyce. Having read a fair amount of the old man (I gave up on Finnegan’s Wake but finished Ulysses) I attended. One speaker, becoming extraordinarily esoteric, began to discuss the significance of the coinage that Leopold Bloom had on him when he took the bus journey recounted in Ulysses. We strained to concentrate and as we did, heard no more than a few miles away, the deep boom of artillery fire between East and West Beirut. Somehow, as the air in the room began to gently vibrate and our thoughts drifted to death and destruction, the importance of literary criticism faded away.

Anyway what makes this review particularly interesting is that John is not an evangelical: he says that he is a ‘secularist, though I grew up in the evangelical church and still consider myself at least “culturally” evangelical, if that is possible’. Hmm.

Well I guess I’m flattered. I normally consider this sort of thing to be the prerogative of the dead author but I have checked my pulse and I appear to be alive. It’s nice to be taken seriously.

Have a good week.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Reviews and news

The Infinite Day has been out now for best part of three weeks and so I am more or less able to take stock of where things are going. The good news is the reviews (all Amazon, my Facebook site or e-mailed to me) are excellent. Let me share three with you from last week alone.

From email
This is some more random fan-mail ;-) I’ve just finished reading The Infinite Day, and wanted to say a big thanks to you for writing the Lamb Among the Stars series. It’s been the most enjoyable series of novels I’ve read in the last 10 years. Not only did I enjoy the story and the characters, but their world, faith and technology was well done, intrigued me and kept me hooked.
You’ve managed to write novels where the story revolves entirely around the Christian faith, yet kept subjects of the faith very natural and integrated, and without any of our modern day jargon. As a Christian, I found it quite thought provoking. I felt you did a great job of presenting the essentials of our faith and how it works out and yet without dogmatically presenting a fixed view of the end times etc.
Please keep writing!
Oh, and – good ending to The Infinite Day! Certainly not what I expected by the time I got there.


5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant finish! June 13, 2008
By E. M. Tennessen (The Windy City)
The Infinite Day is the concluding book in the Lamb Among the Stars series by Chris Walley. The book brilliantly finishes the adventures of Merral D’Avanos and his friends as they battle the return of evil to the universe. Chris Walley is adept at combining science fiction with Christianity. While the Christian worldview is mostly Protestant, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian I found much that resonated with me about how God is and how much He loves us. The Assembly was a wonderful preview of how the Kingdom of God may be acted out. And Jorgio is very much a “fool for Christ.” While the book deals with the evil one and his minions, the story is more about how the characters battle the growing evil and corruption within themselves, how they throw that off, and how they continue to struggle to be like Christ. The ending had definite C.S. Lewis overtones--resembling the ending in The Last Battle (Narnia)--where all is revealed and beyond imagining. It was thrilling and brought tears to my eyes. If you enjoy a good tale about the triumph of good over evil with characters that will touch your soul and heart, this series is for you. And it’s superb science fiction, too! Highly recommended.

Bravo Chris Walley! June 19, 2008
By Patricia Cummings “dogs5” (Maryville, MO USA)
The final book in this series was not only well worth the wait ... it shows the author’s growth as a writer throughout the series. The first book was a slow read, but the profound concept of a sinless world once again having to battle evil made it worth the effort. The pacing picks up in the next and the theology deepens. The final book is a masterpiece of Christian fiction. The author balances multiple plot points, a host of believable characters, and never loses the reader’s interest. The battle against evil occurs on many fronts ... there’s a real enemy to be fought externally but it must be done in community and within each individual human heart. It’s beautifully done. Add to that mix the dimensionality of heaven and hell and probably the most satisfying ending in modern fiction... wow. Well done, Mr. Walley! May the REAL force be with you!

It’s hard to complain about things like that. I find it particularly satisfying that I am praised for effects I have tried to achieve.

Anyway that’s the good news. What however is less good is that sales figures are not particularly high. The most obvious source of information on how the books are actually doing is Here I find a slightly worrying phenomenon: while the final book is doing okay-ish, the first two books have shown no pickup in sales. In other words, it seems that people who have started the series are happily reading the conclusion but the final book is not lifting the series as a whole. As you can imagine I find this all rather frustrating; had the series being critically damned I would have shrugged my shoulders and said ‘well I guess I deserve low sales’. But to get praise and low sales seems perverse. But then perhaps the whole point is that the universe is indeed just that; perverse. Short of that rather naive theological reflection has anybody got any bright ideas what we do about sales, promotion and the rest?


Friday, 13 June 2008

Of church constitutions and global evil

I thought I would take a short break from talking about my books this week. We writers need to remember that there is a real world out site there! However, to the curious, let me say that the books seem to be going reasonably well with some obviously very happy readers. But I would still like to get some really good serious reviews that would have people ordering them from their libraries, buying them from their shops and denouncing them from their pulpits!

And so to something else. I was doing freelance writing in September 2001 and on that fateful day clearly remember seeing in a glance at the BBC web news a garbled newsflash about ‘a plane hitting the World Trade Center’. It wasn’t long before I found myself glued to the television. Had I not been in the middle of a book project, I might have suggested to the reasonably big name evangelical I was working with at the time that we do something fast on the event and its implications. After all, I could with some justification claim to talk knowledgeably about the Middle East and terrorism. Anyway I’m glad I didn’t; much of what has happened in the seven years since would have confounded my predictions.

Some things I would have got right. I would have guessed at George and Tony’s Big Adventure in the Middle East but would, I think, have assumed that Afghanistan was going to be its sole target. Even then I was never convinced of Saddam being a fan of Al Qaeda. I would have guessed that we would be increasingly nice to many very horrible people in the Middle East as long as they were ‘our sort’ of horrible people. That sadly has proved to be true: we don’t talk much about human rights in the Arab world now. I would have foreseen the rise of the security culture but not I think its scary extent: I doubt I would have predicted the way in which Brazilian plumbers can be executed by the police on the Tube, the way that we now lock people up without trial or the extent to which torture is now allowed.

There are many other things that I would probably either have not seen or got badly wrong. I would have predicted that Islam would become very unpopular. What I did not foresee is that Christianity, a much softer target, seems to have suffered a great deal of abuse in its place. Indeed there is an unfortunate irony (which the British government came close to admitting earlier this week), that the past few years have – at least on the surface – been good for Islam because the state has actually invested much in working with Muslims at the expense of Christianity in order to try to neutralise radical Islam. I don’t think either I would have seen the breathtaking audacity of some within the Islamic community in blaming us in the West for causing 9/11 through heavy-handed and partisan involvement in the Middle East.

The one major thing that I probably would not have predicted is how far ranging the repercussions of 9/11 would actually be. This was brought home to me last night in the seemingly unrelated context of a church leaders meeting to discuss our new constitution. The British Charities Commission has come up with various new rules on what constitutes a charity; this has been refined by the Baptist Union and we have been looking at implementing it for our church constitution. The extraordinary fact is that much of the wording is clearly designed primarily to keep mosques out of the hands of fanatics. Charitable religious organisations now need to have detailed published accounts, a defined quorum for meetings, transparent administrative structures and measures in place to stop sudden shifts of power. You almost expected to come across a clause which said ‘all documents need to be submitted to the Security Services’. Truly, in falling, the Twin Towers cast a long, dark shadow across the world

Which brings us back to literature. Those who read the final book in the Lamb Among the Stars series will realise that the matter of evil and the way in which it can contaminate those who seek to battle against it is a major theme. It is always hard to keep your hands clean: the more deadly the evil the more likely that we will be contaminated ourselves.

PS: My website should be up shortly with a new design. Let me know what you think.