Archive for the ‘ books ’ Category

// clarity, commentary and a Belle & Sebastian graphic novel

Last weekend I went to visit a friend in Bristol, and one of his housemates had this Belle and Sebastian graphic novel called “Put the Book Back on the Shelf”. It was incredible – a bunch of artists had sat down with some of my favourite songs and reimagined them, bringing out themes and lyrics that were there beneath the surface. Belle and Sebastian were, I think, the first band I ever loved, and so seeing somebody else’s vision of the words I knew so well gave them a fresh clarity and brightness. It was like hearing them for the first time again.

I feel like I need that pretty often; new angles or new presentations of the same thing. I get easily bored, or numb to things, and the quest for the new and the fresh is a strong desire. But I’m not sure where that leaves me when it comes to faith. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing these days.

You look at the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 11 or Romans 12 and you see a whole load of different roles in the church, according to the gifts that God has given people. And if I’m honest, I always thought of myself as a teacher, thought that giving people new angles to see things from was a valuable skill, but ever since this furore with Rob Bell over the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on it again.

What I admired about Rob in the first place wasn’t so much the conclusions that he drew but the attitude – the willingness to ask questions and see things from slightly sidelong angles, as well as his ability to see the end results of our actions and heart-attitudes. Paul did something similar in Romans 3, reflecting on the broken nature of humanity, and it seems to me like Jesus did too – pointed out exactly where we’d end up if we were left to our own devices and weren’t reliant on God. That seemed valuable, and I thought that kind of discussion would get us somewhere, that the questions were headed towards something.

But over the past few weeks people have raised some good points and now I’m stuck. I think that the best teachers are the people who have wrestled with the material, thrashed it out and got to a place where they feel like they can teach it adequately, but getting there necessarily takes a lot of wrestling and probably a few mistakes in the process. At the same time, I think that teachers have to know what they’re teaching, too, or at least what they’re teaching for – what the point of it all is.

Because what use is perpetually questioning unless it leads you somewhere? And on the same note, what use is tweaking your theology unless it’s going to lead you to worship – real, active, whole-life, heart-changing worship?

See, like with my Belle & Sebastian graphic novel, there is value in a new presentation of a thing provided it sends you back to a fresh appreciation of the original. But when it doesn’t, it’s just commentary for commentary’s sake, and that’s going to get us nowhere.

Last week I wrote briefly about paralysis, and I did that because I don’t know that any of this is really achieving much. I know we have to wrestle, but we also have to pick a point when we’re going to go out and live it, too, and I don’t know how we get past this debate (or this kind of debate, at least).

“We are justified by faith apart from the works of the law”, as Paul writes in Romans 3:28, and the faith that he’s talking about there is a real, active faith, a Hebrews 11 faith. It’s a case of believing the truth of what Christ says about us and then being willing to let that reshape everything in us, from the inside out.

Sure, being justified by faith might start with a decision to trust, but it also implies a continual decision to trust, to keep trusting and to keep going out – going in Christ.

I wonder if I got stuck in commentary, and have been for a while. Too much talking and not enough living, especially sad because the living is, in its own way, pretty straightforward (if not easy).

And I wonder too who – or what – it is that I really love. Whether it is God, or whether it is the philosophical complexity or literary power of this age-old faith tradition. I want it to be God, and I want to want Him more, but I feel like He might be getting lost beneath the noise, and the commentary might be getting detached from the original.

Oh God, that You would direct me back to Yourself. As the old hymn puts it,

“Be Thou my vision, O lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light…

Be Thou and Thou only the first in my heart:
High king of heaven, my treasure Thou art.”

God, let that be my prayer – and all of ours.


// saturday round-up (08/01)

Okay, time for this week’s saturday round-up. I’ve included a few music videos this week too, partly because they’ve stuck out in my times with God over the past few days, and they’re well worth checking out. Let me know your thoughts as ever:

* * *

// dry bones – I posted about Gungor‘s album “Beautiful Things” a while back, but I was playing it in the background earlier when this song came on and sent shivers down my spine. Stunning:

// boys adrift – This is a link to a review by Tim Challies of a book by Leonard Sax about the growing trend of young men who simply don’t know how to be men. It’s quite a lengthy review with some great thoughts on perpetual adolescence, and I highly recommend it, whether you work with young people or you’re just trying to work out how to grow up!

// accordance for Iphone – The popular Bible correspondence software Accordance is now available free for apple devices. This is a starter package and you can buy supplements, but it looks excellent for a free app, and accordance has long been a market leader for people who like this sort of thing. You can get it here.

// the wrong type of fishing – I can identify with a lot of what Jon Acuff has to say in this week’s Serious Wednesday post. Check it out his thoughts on what it means to cast all your burdens on Christ here.

// wrestling for Jesus – This trailer for the movie “wrestling for Jesus” popped up at Jesus Needs New PR earlier in the week, but I actually think it looks rather good. Is that wrong?

// comparing our situations to Job – A guest post at Stuff Christians Like by a man called John Crist, this was far and away the funniest thing I read this week. Go here.

// the altar call’s greatest hits – A great piece of satire here, again courtesy of Tim Challies.

// only You – I’ve been listening to David Crowder Band’s incredible second album Illuminate this week, probably my favourite worship album of all time, and this song is a beautiful, beautiful prayer.

The lyrics that stuck out to me in particular are these, from the second verse:

“Take my fright, take my fear

All I have, I’m leaving here;

Be all my hopes, be all my dreams

Be all my delight – be my everything.”

* * *

And that’s the saturday round-up for this week!

Thanks for reading, and if you missed yesterday’s post “you can’t always get what you want”, do check it out.

Hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow for sunday music, where I’m considering doing a countdown of the top worship albums of the past decade, although whether that actually happens may be a different matter…

// saturday round-up (11/12)

Lots of stuff that made me laugh this week, with a couple of folks who have really been on fire. That means a decent showing for the usual suspects too, and some end-of-year lists that were striking both in their similarities and their differences to one another. If anyone has any tips for decent non-Christian blogs that it’s worth following can you pass them on to me? I’m looking to expand what I read at the moment.

Here goes:

* * *

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK – why Christians go postal over facebook, Jay-Z, Yoga, Avatar and culture in general – This week Mark Driscoll tweeted that he was in awe at Jay-Z’s skill as a rapper. Bad move. The backlash was swift and it came from a variety of angles, hence this epic piece posted at the resurgence explaining Driscoll’s role as a “missionary to culture”. It’s a very, very good article indeed, in spite of the circumstances that necessitated it – well-reasoned, hard-edged and comprehensive. It’s also very long, so you’ve been warned!

// “As I didn’t say to the Archbishop…” Victoria Coren‘s column in the Guardian this week did the rounds on facebook and Twitter predictably quickly, so you’ve probably been passed it on by a number of people so far already. However, it’s very good – thoughtful and balanced, as well as putting Frank Skinner on the same intellectual level as Rowan Williams, which i think he’d probably appreciate. Victoria Coren’s blog looks pretty good too, and the comment thread on her article is well worth a look.

// Christmas on Ipad – The wonderful North Point Baptist Church came up with an eccentric Christmas service this week, with their band playing whole Christmas carols solely on Ipad and Iphone. The video is here, and it’s a profoundly strange experience, but also kind of sweet. On another note, their Christmas album is tremendous, especially Eddie Kirkland’s version of Hark! the Herald Angels Sing – you can listen to it on grooveshark here. Search for “North Point Christmas” and you’ll find the rest:

// a Wikileaks society – Tim Challies’ thoughts on how Wikileaks (for all of its flaws) may well have changed everything are certainly worth checking out, whether or not you agree with him. There’s a part of me that thinks that his view is slightly idealistic, even in spite of the caveats he offers in this article, but I certainly see where he’s coming from, and it’s a thought-provoking reflection.

// the dangerous worlds of analog parents with digital teens – Courtesy of Al Mohler, some thoughts on how difficult it is to police – or mentor/support, for that matter – young people who move along an entirely different virtual trajectory to their parents. Best read alongside Tim Challies and a cup of coffee, but definitely worth a look if you are involved with youth work or have kids.

// we NEVER do this – Thanks to Jesus Needs New PR, we have one of the most disturbing videos I have ever seen – some parents apparently trying to trick their child into accepting Christ. It’s sad, it’s pretty warped and it comes from a very distinct theological perspective (just pray the prayer and nothing else matters), but if you think you can handle it, it’s worth seeing what we’re up against. It’s here.

// the sex and the city – Another marvellous Anne Jackson essay about a conversation with a cab driver which turns into a reflection on what it means to be a modern-day missionary in a crazy world. Nobody writes like that woman does.

// best of 2010 – Krish Kandiah and The Church of No People‘s “Best of 2010” lists are striking both for their similarities and their differences. Who would have thought the Christian world would have such love for The Book of Eli? That said, I can’t believe Krish’s love for SALT or Matt’s claim that Shutter Island is one of his movies of the year – seriously boys? On a different note, Drowned in Sound’s albums of the year (in three parts, here, here and here) are great if you want some real indie tips for music.

* * *

I’m going to leave it there for today, as that’s a lot to take in. If you’re still looking for things to read, though, go and check out “You Must Be Born Again… Or Else!” at the excellent Church of No People or watch Jon Acuff’s video of a camel falling over in the middle of a church service.

I presume by now that you should have subscribed to both of them, though.

See you tomorrow for sunday music.

// thursday theologian: soren kierkegaard

Taken from Kierkegaard’s “Speech in Praise of Abraham” in Fear and Trembling:

But Abraham had faith, and had faith for this life. Yes, had his faith only been for a future life it would indeed have been easier to cast everything aside in order to hasten out of this world to which he did not belong. But Abraham’s faith was not of that kind, if there is such, for a faith like that is not really faith but only its remotest possibility, a faith that has some inkling of its object at the very edge of the field of vision but remains separated from it by a yawning abyss in which despair plays its pranks. But it was for this life that Abraham believed, he believed he would become old in his land, honoured among his people, blessed in his kin, eternally remembered in Isaac, the dearest in his life, whom he embraced with a love for which it was but a poor expression to say that he faithfully fulfilled the fathers duty to love the son, as indeed the summons put it: ‘the son whom thou lovest.’ Jacob had twelve sons and he loved one; Abraham had just one, the son whom he loved.

But Abraham had faith and did not doubt. He believed the ridiculous. If Abraham had doubted – then he would have done something else, something great and glorious; for how could Abraham have done other than what is great and glorious? He would have marched out to the mountain at Moriah, chopped the firewood, set light to the fire, drawn the knife – he would have cried out to God: “do not scorn this sacrifice, it is not the best I possess, that I well know; for what is an old man compared with the child of promise, but it is the best I can give. Let Isaac never come to know, that he may comfort himself in his young years.’ He would have thrust the knife into his own breast. He would have been admired in the world and his name never forgotten; but it is one thing to be admired, another to be a guiding star that saves the anguished.

But Abraham had faith. He did not beg for himself in hope of moving the Lord…


// C. S. Lewis

One of C.S. Lewis’ best passages in the classic The Screwtape Letters today, focussing chiefly on time, perspective and eternity. In the event that you don’t know, the book is written from the perspective of a senior demon, and so any references to “the Enemy” refer to God…

He wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present – either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.

Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present…

To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the Future too – just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present. This is now straw splitting. He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do. His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future – haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth – ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by doing so we make him think he can attain the one or the other – dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap on the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present…

What are your thoughts? Do you recognise yourself in that?

// hospitality

Somebody pointed out that Nigel Slater made an appearance on yesterday’s blog, and slightly unexpectedly at that. Part of the reasoning behind that is the fact that I have just discovered his cookbooks, and the philosophy behind them appeals to me more generally, in a way that seems to tie in with the general themes of this blog. Previously I’ve tended to swear loyalty to Jamie Oliver when it comes to cookbooks, but when I cook from Jamie I often feel like I’m trying to impress somebody, even if I’m alone in the kitchen at the time. In contrast, what I respect about Nigel Slater is his ability to communicate the evocative power of food and also the pleasure of good food with good friends. He manages to do it in such a way that it reminds you why food is a gift in the first place, and that’s a real skill.

I’ve often wondered what it is about cooking that makes it so pleasurable, to me at least. It’s one of those activities that consistently succeeds in turning off my brain (and those are activities that I am always grateful for, as there aren’t nearly enough of them). Lately a couple of friends told me in a couple of different contexts that they think I am, in their words, “too intelligent” to deal with, or that I think too deeply about things for them to be able to understand where I’m coming from (there’s a backhanded compliment if you ever heard one). Occasionally I have been tempted to believe that this is true, that my personality is simply such that normal social interaction is impossible for me, but if anything it is the purity of good food, oddly, that serves to counteract that.

There is just something so simple about it. Good food stands on its own. You don’t make it taste good, you just combine it in such a way in such a way as to accentuate certain flavours and textures. And you don’t always need to have a full meat and two veg planned out each night, just something that reminds you of how food is a blessing as well as a necessity. Nigel Slater lists a number of occasions in The Kitchen Diaries where dinner consists of nothing more than a tomato and some good bread, and there is a glorious simplicity right there. It is only pressure, or habit, that compels you to do things in a certain way.

I like that as a philosophy, because it keeps cooking from being a chore and it also keeps you deeply appreciative of what you have been given. It is consistently amazing to me that God does provide for us in the way He does, but the regular and mundane trips to the clinical aisles of the local Tesco don’t half strip away any sense of His provision (or wonder, for that matter). The way Slater sees things, though, you can simply focus on how amazing it is to have been given anything at all, let alone food that is as good as we have it, and to have been given the capacity to appreciate it too. Too often we forget to give thanks for what we have, whether or not we say grace before meals. In my eyes, home should be the place to stop and to rest – to appreciate things as they really are, which is good. Too often I make it manic and exhausting instead, and so in the midst of that the rhythm that is offered by cooking properly is joyous, in itself a gift.

But it’s something to be shared, too. By instinct I am both an introvert and something of a depressive, and so my tendency in the evenings is towards comfort food, and to simply eating alone. There is arguably little that is so disheartening as eating good food on your own and, conversely, there is little that is as pleasurable as sharing your table with good friends – irrespective of what you’re eating. Every culture on earth recognises that, and it pays to do so, as well. It’s a place to remember that life doesn’t revolve around you, no matter how often it feels like it – that the food you eat is given by God, that the home in which you prepare it is a gift from God and that the context in which you can enjoy what you have been given is always, and only, God. It is all about Him.

I want my home to be a place of hospitality and appreciation, a place where I use what I have been given to honour God, and it’s not at present, for the most part – at least for me (to be fair, though, my housemates are doing noticeably better than I am).

Instead it’s currently a place of Bird’s Eye Chicken Dippers in front of the TV and dammit, even if I have to fight to change that – and, no doubt, I will – I am determined to.

So – who wants to come for dinner?

// R. S. Thomas

Another couple of poems today, courtesy of R.S. Thomas, a Welsh poet who writes in moving fashion about love, faith, technology and death. In “Residues” (2002) he wrote that “Poetry is that | which arrives at the intellect | by way of the heart”.

He has also written on what is known as ‘negative theology’, around the idea of God and the absences experienced by His followers in daily life. For example in Via Negativa:

Why no! I never thought other than

That God is that great absence

In our lives, the empty silence

Within, the place where we go

Seeking, not in hope to

Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices

In our knowledge, the darkness

Between stars. His are the echoes

We follow, the footprints he has just

Left. We put our hands in

His side hoping to find

It warm. We look at people

And places as though he had looked

At them too; but miss the reflection.

Pete Greig mentioned R. S. Thomas in passing in his recent (excellent) post God of the Possible, and dwells on Via Negativa at greater length in “God on Mute”. There are obviously limits to negative theology, and it doesn’t wholly stand up in my view, but it’s certainly an interesting perspective from which to come at things.

I also love the reflection on the transcendence of God – and on some level His unknowability – in a poem called The Absence:

It is this great absence

that is like a presence, that compels

me to address it without hope

of a reply. It is a room I enter


from which someone has just

gone, the vestibule for the arrival

of one who has not yet come.

I modernise the anachronism


of my language, but he is no more here

than before. Genes and molecules

have no more power to call

him up than the incense of the Hebrews


at their altars. My equations fail

as my words do. What resource have I

other than the emptiness without him of my whole

being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

You have to love that final stanza. “What resource have I | other than the emptiness without him of my whole | being…”

Well, as the disciples once put it, “where would we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.”

I have also recently discovered Nigel Slater, and have been enjoying the space to cook properly again. As it drags towards winter, there is something gloriously comforting both about good food and the experience of cooking it. More on that later.