Thursday, 29 October 2009

Reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

One book I'm enjoying at the moment is The Book Thief - a rich, warm but at times uncomfortable novel about the life of a girl Liesel and how she lives through many adventures in Nazi Germany, suffering after her mother leaves her and her brother dies, growing up with a new family, fighting, living in poverty, having to march along with the Hitler Youth, learning how to read and steal and keep secrets from the Fuhrer.

Although it has taken me some pages to get into it, I am now appreciating how it works on lots of levels. The book is told from the point of view of Death, which is ominous, but this version of Death is almost child-like in his curiousity. Like the children in the book, Death is uncomprehending of the true import of some of the episodes in the book. But we well know the barbarities of the time.

At other times Death is very perceptive and shows he does know the world, having walked its paths and seen how people have acted. It makes you see how bizarre and painful the Jewish persecutions were, coming from men and women who used to live next door to Jews, speak with them, visit their businesses. And Zusak is keen to show the great levellers - our interest in one another, our personality, our appreciation of art and music, the things that go beyond mere tribe or race to the very heart of man, woman and child.

All this makes the book one which is eager to explore good and evil, where men and women are detailed with strange but likeable characteristics and stubborn, wilful natures. The potential to be destructive is there right on the edge of the characters - and their anger, as it develops, is an excellent way to express the outrage we all feel at the way people were treated and killed by Nazis. (There is definitely some similarity with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, especially in Liesel's relationship with her "papa" Hans, who is upright and wise like Atticus Finch - although The Book Thief is more focused on private struggles and the effects of trauma on a young girl, and on Death as well.)

Here is an interview with the author about the book - he refers to humanity being part "pure beauty" and part "pure destruction" - a pretty astute observation. I think the Bible (and so God) would agree with that.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Where is our love? And how we can relate to God

Check out this interview with a fellow worker from my time with UCCF. It's pretty encouraging - and one of several things which have been reminding me how little I do for God and how I must not try to approach him on the basis that I am "so good" - because I'm really not! He is the one who rules and is good - and He is the one who provides a way wide open for us to know Him - through Jesus.

This also links with these excellent talks which cover what the Reformation was about, and Song of Songs (the only part of the Bible that comes totally under the genre of love poetry).

Here's an Isaac Watts hymn that picks up on some of the things Phil talks about in the interview. We had it read out to us at church at the end of an emotional, challenging talk, and it showed us just how worthy God is of our praise. Our devotion is so small, so quickly exhausted, but He is love. Jesus came from God, God as man, willing even to go to death to win us to Him. Such amazing grace!

Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,
With all Thy quick’ning powers;
Kindle a flame of sacred love
In these cold hearts of ours.

Look how we grovel here below,
Fond of these trifling toys;
Our souls can neither fly nor go
To reach eternal joys.

In vain we tune our formal songs,
In vain we strive to rise;
Hosannas languish on our tongues,
And our devotion dies.

Dear Lord! and shall we ever live
At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee,
And Thine to us so great!

Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,
With all Thy quick’ning powers;
Come, shed abroad the Savior’s love
And that shall kindle ours.

A poem about knowing God and other thoughts

With all that's going on with everyone looking for work, finding the best deals, hearing the latest blame game on the news and keeping up with the latest entertainment releases, it can be easy to totally miss the bigger questions in life that are actually the important ones. What kind of politics do we want? What would make things better? Or, bigger than that, what am I living for?

This is one reason I like poetry which, in a few phrases, can provoke and suggest big things for us to ponder on. Here's a poem I wrote today:

A watch in my pocket-
A tension or two-
Elaborate curving traffic queue

A stifle and a shout-
Lions running free-
Huge encouragement to turn about

Too far to travel-
High ends and aims-
Categorizing nameless days

Protests escape-
What's in it for me-
Affection seizes up all my duty

Washing hangs up-
Curtains tear apart-
The feeling of being plunged in light.

This is a poem basically about getting things wrong in the Christian life, and is at least partly inspired by some ideas I've been hearing about about what it really means to be united to Jesus. But I didn't want it to sound too religion-y either. It reflects more on our frustrations and sense of ambition in religion, which really show we are (most likely) failing to start at the most central part of Christianity - seeing Jesus in his glorious goodness, his power and his saving grace, and having our hearts changed in love towards Him.

Incredibly, believers and followers of Jesus are given a totally new status in Jesus, one we don't earn, or try to conjure up from our own effort. We are forgiven, made right with God, as a gift of God's loving kindness. We only must receive this gift, to be able to stand secure and right before Him, in Him, with Him. How great is this! As one speaker puts it - "Getting this gives massive happy boldness to the believer. And it removes the terror and the religiosity of a false gospel".

As Martin Luther put it: 

"When the devil throws our sins up at us and says we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: I admit that I deserve death and hell – what of it? Does that mean I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means! For I know one who has suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf – his name is Jesus Christ the Son of God. Where he is I shall be also."

Both quotes came from the first of these helpful talks from the always-passionate UCCF worker Mike Reeves.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Authors' websites

As I continue my quest to track down (and capture) that most elusive of phenomenon: a job in publishing, I occasionally come across an author's website that is so wildly different, you want to share it around. Try this weird one, from Colin Cotterill, a well-travelled writer and cartoonist, now living in Thailand - and evidently enjoying riding his bike up the Doi Suthep mountain. He has some strange thoughts.

Anyone else know a good author's website they want to recommend?

Book reviews (and perhaps a new poem) to come soon on this blog - so keep checking back!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Pixar's Up - a brief review

Here's the thing about Up: It is, I think, a fantasy-slash-drama, rather than a kid's film - and its subject? Moving on after a bereavement, escaping into the clouds and finding true freedom in the process.

The main two characters, brilliantly animated, are put in situations which somehow show us emotions which people struggle with every day. Loss, bitterness, bewilderment, a sense of being left behind, acceptance, empowerment, joy, hope, victory. It's pretty powerful stuff, tied up in a story perhaps as symbolic as Finding Nemo seems to be.

It is a tour de force for Pixar, who are showing Hollywood what worthwhile cinema is. As my first experience of the new 3-D film technology, it did impress on that score too, with a few stand-out effects.

Up is also exciting, surreal, and laugh-out-loud funny, especially when it involves the dog Kevin, or the tracker dogs who come after Karl and his floating house. This one ranks as an unmissable film, and one of Pixar's best.

A new look at Vincent van Gogh

I picked up an Observer on the train yesterday which had an intriguing article discussing some newly published letters from van Gogh, who apparently was concerned not only with the beauty he found in ordinary and plain scenery and people, and how to represent this in new ways, but who was also very religious. The article maintains this was a factor in making him a great artist, and argues that he wanted to celebrate life and inspire the joy that he took in the world, as well as to evoke angst and sorrow. Anyway, Click here to read it.

The painting The Bedroom and his various portraits inspired me to strive to create emotion/alienation by pulling at perspective and working at colour in big acrylic paintings at GCSE and A Level. I still can't understand how van Gogh never sold a single painting in his lifetime.

When was the last time you found joy in the everyday? Do you see this to be linked with God? Fire off your comments below!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The feeling behind the words.... and seeing the heart of Jesus

Been meaning to post this insightful exploration of John chapter 13. (Not entirely sure about the points made after the creative "story" bit, but still...)

I've been finding it more and more helpful to read or hear creative pieces like this - which imagine what it was like to be with the historical figures in the Bible, to hear what was said and feel what was felt, and particularly to focus on how messages were delivered, human to human.

Understanding, as Christians do, that the Lord Jesus really bore out dishonour, by dying in our place, so we do not have to die, the carefully phrased words he said to Peter really are incredible. They show his intention to serve sinners by setting them free from sin, making them "clean" (at the time Jewish cleanness meant being right with God, while being unclean meant being unfit to approach God).

Can it be that He would do this in love for us? Astoundingly, the rest of the Bible tells us it's not just for those following Him then, but for all who trust Him and seek to obey Him today. He went to death as a criminal, bruised and broken, and took onto Himself all the wrong we have done against God. What amazing love!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Good art, design, wit and character

Check out this artist who is doing some really detailed and crazy comics and graphics for various websites, promotional material and actual published work too. I love the layout of this one. Also, having tried playing Dungeons & Dragons at uni, and in the end not really having the patience, this image is fun too.

Without going into much detail, I wanted to give Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-men another mention (which I've already written about here). Cassaday has to be one of the 2 or 3 best comic book artists out there, tied with someone like Frank Quitely. Cassaday doesn't just draw what happens, he draws us into a scene so we are positioned close to the iconic characters, masterfully pulling away again for bigger movie-like shots of the action, whether that's so we can see the insanity and power of a loyal warrior jump into the vacuum of space to escape his captors, new X-girl Armour beating the odds in a scrappy fight in the mansion, or X-man Colossus heaving a wall across the ground to block out a rampaging crowd.

Whedon has a very special connection to these characters, especially Shadowcat (Kitty Pride), Emma Frost and Cyclops, and the while the 3rd arc "Torn" focuses on Emma, the fourth (and connected) story "Unstoppable" is more well-rounded, and surprised me by bringing to light a new side of Cyclops. It is a wonderfully conceived finale to a consistently impressive series of comics. I'm not looking forward to seeing the following issues, created by a different writer/artist team, who have not received the same sort of praise...