Thursday, 23 December 2010

Recovering Realism and Optimism – inspired by Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights”

If the music industry is anything to go by, it seems that Christmas is the time of year for optimism, a kind of hope against the odds. We hear songs of peace and joy for those in need, songs proclaiming an end to war, songs about all our dreams coming true.

Which, in the UK, is quite an odd thing for us. We are used to brushing off any news of new education or health schemes with a good dose of cynicism; we are used to being sceptics that the wars we fight do any good or that they will end; we are used to accepting the prevailing attitude that “Life is a bitch and then you meet one”.

So how far do we accept all these songs of hope and joy and fulfilment? Do we let them wash over us and never get our hopes up too much? Or are we required to take some action to work at loving others and bringing peace?

And here’s the “heart issue”: For Christians, who have hope, how should my attitude be different to my cynical work colleagues?

Let me be clear – I’m not saying would should hold back when critically assessing politics or our leaders in war, or the messages of the media or entertainment industry. Far from it! I’m just saying: Shouldn’t the Christian’s attitude to life be distinctive? Shouldn’t our hope be evident, so people ask us for the reason for the hope that I have? And not just at Christmas!

What got me thinking about this again was Coldplay’s excellent new song “Christmas Lights”. The band can be incredibly soulful, but also very uplifting, and in the new song it’s the mix of realism and optimism that struck me.

Chris Martin paints the picture of a man alone, walking the streets at Christmas, with a longing for something better – his feelings don’t match up with his expectations: “You’re still waiting for the snow to fall/ it doesn’t really feel like Christmas at all”. The reason is a very down-to-earth one: Despite it being “Christmas night” he and his partner have had “another fight”.

The lyrics encompass the loneliness and the ache of fresh pain, and a sense of disorientation: What will Christmas mean for him now? He needs fresh markers, he needs new meaning and he seeks it in the streets of London (“I took my feet/ to Oxford Street”).

But the song turns to optimism as well, as the man sings to the Christmas lights “Keep shining on” and hopes that they will “bring her back to me”. There’s a sense of anticipation as if his longing and his singing will bring her back. They hold on to festive "chandeliers of hope".

A brief look elsewhere...

Other Coldplay tracks similarly show a strong hope amid the uncertainty of the ‘now’. In “X&Y” we hear that something’s broken and they are trying to repair it “any way they can”. Even though they are both floating “on a tidal wave”, they are there “together”, which seems to be the point of the song.

In “White Shadows” although even sound “is breaking up” – the song suggests “Maybe you’ll get what you wanted/ Maybe you’ll stumble upon it/ Everything you ever wanted/ In a permanent space” but it seems to depend on something: “Maybe if you say it you’ll mean it/ Maybe if you find it you’ll keep it”. A message about pursuing a dream and finding it can become a reality, if we really want it?

And one of the most positive songs they’ve written “Strawberry Swing” talks of not being able to wait for “tomorrow”, to be with someone, and that day being “a perfect day”. In the heady way of love, he proclaims “The sky could be blue/ I don’t mind/ Without you it’s a waste of time”. The joy he holds is completed and validated by his being able to share it. And in “Life in Technicolor II” the idea of being released from gravity is an expression, I think, of freedom. What a great track record of celebrating positive things in song!

What it all boils down to

This year I’ve read lots of articles and books (and heard plenty of opinions elsewhere) which are cynical about truth claims or religion, cynical about people or society changing, cynical about there being a purpose of life, or even fairly despairing about achieving a goal they have in mind. Some people look at the world and have a pretty gloomy view of where things are going.

But as Christians, there’s much more going on for us. There’s not just human things to be concerned about. There are the things of God, growing, often unseen, in this world. There is a realm of perfect peace which is coming which we get a taste of now. So let’s act like hope and joy are real things, that we can have in Christ and his Kingdom. It’s not something idyllic that will never happen. It’s not just a fairy tale – it’s real and so is our real Christmas Light – the light of the world.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Analysis of hell from Sandman issue 25 (part of graphic novel "Seasons of Mists")

I had the pleasure of borrowing two more volumes of The Sandman recently from the library and I want to talk a bit about Sandman #25 (which is Episode 4 of the storyline “Season of Mists”).

It's an interesting episode in a series that isn't afraid of tackling such subjects as
  • what is really real and what is imaginary
  • the various prisons we make for ourselves, especially through fear about our appearance
  • the perversions that, say, greedy men, serial killers or ancient faeries or forgotten Greek gods enjoy
  • where real genius comes from
  • and, here, the nature of hell.

Sandman 25 is a story which stands apart from the main storyline about Morpheus, otherwise known as Dream, or the King of Dreams. Instead, it's a parable about letting go of an evil past, which follows a English school-boy who is unwanted by his teachers, left behind at his boarding school by his only surviving parent. This character comes to epitomise the unwanted person who is oppressed and made to fit into boxes for convenience, or bullied for the pleasure of evil-doers.
As he meets the ghosts of past students and teachers he sees them meaninglessly reliving their past unhappy lives, and his eventual “escape” from the school seems to me to be an exploration of leaving behind a history of psychologically damaging abuse.

Wonderfully, in the end, the pattern of others' damaging behaviour does not have to control this boy; he is individual – in a sense, when he leaves the school, he triumphs over the system. Although they have taken a lot from him, the boy is still able to become a man, responsible and engaging in the world more-or-less in a way of his choosing.

The story cleverly shows us the implication of what has recently happened to Dream, who has been duped by Lucifer, the king of hell – because it shows the reversal of nature as the dead haunt the living as damned (or unlucky?) souls are released from hell. As the school-boy and his oppressed (un?)dead companion leave, they talk about whether hell is something we make for ourselves and whether hell is a place or not. They conclude by suggesting that hell is a place (ie. the school) but “you don't have to stay anywhere for ever”.

The positive event of the two companions leaving the evil characters in the school behind faintly recalls the unsettling events of Sandman 23. Here, the Sandman version of Lucifer shows he can leave hell, turfing the demons and evil men and women out into limbo or the world, saying they have suffered enough in hell. This kind of liberation seems wonderful at first, but appears sinister when souls start returning to haunt the world and proud psychopaths, who know they should be punished, are freed.

The role of God in people's lives

The school-boy, Charles Rowland, teaches us about experiencing life and taking action to prevent falling into becoming a victim of depraved patterns of living. But where is God in this story? He acts at points later on to deal with the problems caused by Lucifer. But he isn't shown to take care of the victims, to care for people's souls, to care for the individuals in the story. Here, he is less than invisible: he is absent from the lives of ordinary people!

Instead we have the liberal myth rearing its head saying that expressing oneself and defying authority brings true liberation in life. OK, so I agree that where authority groups are evil they need to be opposed fiercely, and the comic is right that liberation is needed, and broken lives can really be helped by others' love and care and a good environment for healing.

But as a Christian I know that God's role is more. He loves us! And he is good. And we are to mimic and follow him. It's his role to oppose evil, to liberate people from evil through his Son, to work in power to bring justice one day by judging the living and the dead. God holds the key to hell and God says who goes there because of their sin. God goes out of his way to call people into his kingdom of light, to be able to enjoy eternity with him in heaven and ultimately in a new perfect, brilliant creation. God loves the marvellous people he has made and acts in the lives of the broken or oppressed people who make up his church – granting true comfort, peace, joy, relief, material help and a caring community which becomes a family and a help to those who are lost.

People do evil things and that's a problem. But God cares about us and brings help and freedom from sin for those who ask. Amen to that.

My painting - in progress

Here's a taster of a painting (in acrylics) I'm working on - I was determined to at least START something creative during the week I have given myself off "between jobs" (more on the publishing job search another time). What do you think so far? Below are some images I created for reference from a picture I took in a summer of mixed weather.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Poem: The aftermath

It's a while since I have posted a poem, but I hope you enjoy it - please let me know how you found it.


As I look at the frightened creature sweltering in my hand
I realise some would call it an insect.

There are words to describe that kind of folly.
As alive as I am, as on edge, as apprehensive, as difficult:
As anxious for the other, we peer across a divide
filled with nothing.


As every desire peaks, each word sticks
in the back of my overburdened skull.
We agree to write the vocals in our gaze.

There’s a look that comes from within,
isn’t there? –I say, and screw up my eyes, small.

But it sighs.


The being will stare on and on
as if reading my quandary in the wind.
Certain as a heartbeat in its own mind.


What will follow?
One of us will be stung, or crushed,
will fling the other away, will exult.

Maybe, after all,
neither of us is being genuine.
Maybe it is more than an insect
and scorns my blundering eyes
Maybe it'll never tell what it knows.

But I thought there was something
There in the gaze.

© Richard Townrow

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Green Lantern: Secret Origin review

If you didn’t know already, comics involving Green Lantern are going to take over the world when the new film comes out next year, but if they are anything like Secret Origin and the rest of writer Geoff Johns’ series we are in for an exhilarating ride. This volume actually works well as a standalone story, catching us up with some defining moments in pilot Hal Jordan’s life: how he grew up enraged at the needless death of his father, how he was called to become a member of the Green Lantern Corps when a dying alien crash-landed during a mysterious fact-finding mission (building interestingly on a 1980s Green Lantern Corps story by Alan Moore), and how this led to his first meeting with the powerful Sinestro.

Here’s the best news: It’s from the writer/artist team that brought us the superlative re-launch Green Lantern: Rebirth a few years ago – yes, the one with the eye-popping art (and the return of Hal Jordan from, uh, wherever the hell he was). Secret Origin continues that quality with more jazzy, cinematic art from Ivan Reis, which bursts off the page, in what is, once again, a personal story: Yes, there’s even room here to find out a little more about Hal, in some well-realised moments where he comes close to destroying his own personal life by cutting off his family, perhaps provoking us to consider what obligations we have to those around us – and this is all wrapped up in the intrigue of the wider fate of the Green Lantern Corps.

Writer Geoff Johns effortlessly updates the character’s past by delving into Hal’s relationships with his family and co-workers, and purists will note he tweaks a few things here and there – mainly by upping the action. Johns even takes the opportunity to sow the seeds of a new threat which appeared in the huge comics event Blackest Night recently. And, considering Sinestro’s villain status in the current DCU, it’s fascinating to see him teaching Hal the ropes as they take on various perverse evils – enemies which seem to be linked through a chain of events to that noble, dying alien.

Although fans might wonder why superstar writer Johns is spending so much time on the past, this story is one that deserves to be so expertly updated. If you’re a fan of superheroes you’ll lap this one up.

(You can pick this up monthly now in a UK Collector's Edition magazine from Titan called "DC Universe Presents". It's bundled with the Geoff Johns' 2010 re-launch of the Flash and also a classic JLA story called Earth 2 from one of my favourite writers, Grant Morrison. Seeing Batman meet his parallel universe counterpart is a highlight. If this doesn't tempt you, nothing will!)

Monday, 11 October 2010

Book Review: Super Sad True Love Story

How can I describe what has been one of the most true-to-life, craziness-of-life-encompassing reading experiences I’ve read for a while in a short post like this? How can I describe this American disaster novel whose flavour of George Orwell’s 1984 is mixed with probable future medical elitism to create a world where the rich and young aim to live forever, to achieve nothing much, and death is feared and hated, and where America’s myth that they are special is totally deconstructed and spat upon by the rest of the world? How can I describe what is a totally over-the-top look at the world today and yet also a scary prediction of the world to come?

Perhaps we can use the title.

Super Sad True Love Story is not always focused on its own “love story”. Somewhat like the lyrics of White Blank Page by Mumford and Sons, our gormless protagonist Lenny Abramov wants to follow his Eunice Park “with his whole life” while she “desires his attentions” but often “denies his affections”. Warning: There is a LOT of explicitly-described sex, but, contrasting this, as Lenny tries to win Eunice, actual love is weak and doesn’t always last the run, only a kind of dependency is achieved – healthy or unhealthy depending on your point of view.

Perhaps this love story can best be described as the struggle between real affections and the forces which efficiently and seemingly inevitably defeat and repress them. Whether it’s the desire to help the people classed as Low Net Worth Individuals who are casually gunned down in Central Park, New York, or the desire to live for something worthwhile, the characters are teased with answers only for a nightmarish reality to break in on them. It is pure satire, laced with some fleeting observations about how we run from what we can’t cope with, how we settle for less than what is right, and end up contributing to the problem. It is certainly “sad”.

So how “true” is this strange work of fiction?
Well, while one shooting takes place, only across the city, Lenny describes the sentiments in a crowded bar of people: “We absorbed the Images and as a group of like-incomed people felt the short bursts of existential fear (…) Finally the fear and the empathy was replaced by a different knowledge. The knowledge that it wouldn’t happen to us. That what we were witnessing was not terrorism. That we were of good stock. That these bullets would discriminate” (p.155, Granta Books edition). These words, like much of the novel, eerily hold up a mirror to affluent Western society and how we can be totally disconnected from other people’s pain and injustice, even if it is happening close to us.

The language is eccentric and brilliant, at times joyful, as in one early section in which Lenny tells his diary he will live forever, his whole hope rooted in this goal, his drive to share the world with Eunice, despite the futility of the collapsing America around him:
“I just have to be good and I have to believe in myself. I just have to stay off the trans fats and the hooch. I just have to drink plenty of green tea and alkalinized water and submit my genome to the right people. I will need to re-grow my melting liver, replace the entire circulatory system with “smart blood” and find somewhere safe and warm (but not too warm) to while away the angry seasons and the holocausts. And when the earth expires, as it surely must, I will leave it for a new earth, greener still but with fewer allergens; and in the flowering of my own intelligence some 10³² years hence, when our universe decides to fold in on itself, my personality will jump through a black hole and surf into a dimension of unthinkable wonders, where the thing that sustained me on Earth 1.0 – tortelli lucchese, pistachio ice cream, the early works of the Velvet Underground, [sexual reference] – will seem as laughable and infantile as building blocks, baby formula, a game of ‘Simon says do this’” (p.3-4).
This is the new religion, at least for Lenny, who sets himself to believe in something, at times somewhat desperately. This is a world where everything is screwed – family relationships are full of abuse, churches are large, recruiting people to meaningless surface changes of behaviour without dealing with people’s real problems (the opposite of what I believe true Christian communities should be), the ineffectual and bullied US government uses a version of Orwell’s “double speak” to deny their own citizens of their human rights with their own implicit consent, and friendships are about one-upmanship while the young prey on the old. Above all, the inane and useless reigns, and is used, while (we can guess from various clues) political powers get to pursue their unknown agendas behind the scenes. Could this be a world we are in danger of becoming, a world in love with itself and distracting itself from what’s really important? A world of conflicting agendas and power games, a world without any ultimate hope, clinging on to what it can get where it can get it, where good democratic relations are impossible? A world where other people are reduced to a series of ratings about what they can give me? Where we have forgotten people’s inherent worth altogether?

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Movies: No 3-D, but good stories

Here's a few films I've enjoyed recently. Also be sure to check out my review of Moon, one of the more thought-provoking films to come out last year.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World: Awesomely silly. Brilliantly smile-inducing odd-ball characters in a crazy old-school-copmputer-game style situation, where Scott must overcome the sinister exes of his love Ramona Flowers in order to date her. Also, I couldn't help slightly relating to Scott's geeky awkwardness or his off-on-another-planet moments. Set to become a cult classic?

The Soloist: Good but not excellent film which dares to explore the real challenges of homelessness and mental health problems. Jamie Fox's character shows us how there are sometimes multiple factors warring against some needy people. Even Robert Downey Jr is brought down a peg or two through his unlikely commitment to a man on the street.

Girl, Interrupted: In what could have been a very depressing story about jailbirds in a psychiatric institution, assured direction and a good story make this a film about struggling to live as decent and "whole" person in society. Winona Ryder's performance is brilliant (more so than Angelina Jolie), but so is the rest of the cast. It's a sometimes disturbing, sometimes hopeful film which raises questions about how we judge what is acceptable behaviour and how we best gives ourselves a chance in life. Not sure it always answers all those questions, but then that's life - which sometimes can be muddled.

Toy Story 3: The series has grown up, in my view, as a more dread-laden universe threatens the classic characters. Still manages to get us anxious as the toys head on several new journeys. Also: very funny.

Inception: Not sure what else can be said about this. Wait, yes I do. I'd love to hear someone's thoughts on the pyschology of the team trying to turn someone against an idea through using their feelings about their parents. Is this actually quite bad (or simplistic) psychology, assuming that the way we think is that much a product of our relationships with our parents? I'm not denying that we are influenced by our family, consciously or sub-consciously, but it seemed a little neat in the film, now that I think about it...

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

So - smile! and forget all about it....

Sometimes I despair about communicating the serious message of the gospel in a world which loves and seeks out the flippant, the tearing down, the joke. Of course, we seek a joke to make a social situation more comfortable – and I understand this: There’s skill in making others feel at ease through humour. But what I’m talking about is the way we hear something serious and twist it into something to laugh at or make light of, totally missing the point that was being made.

I’ve been listening to the preaching of John Piper on Romans lately. Now, he can use absurd or humorous language to make a point. But he is is passionate big-time in speaking about God. One thing I’ve particularly noticed is how he urges his congregation to consider and dwell on the seriousness of God’s teaching. Here’s some examples:

  • Piper is urgent about spreading the good news of the gospel to make known the magnificent name of Jesus Christ. He is deathly serious about the situation that many are heading towards hell, settling for the things of this world and never turning back to their Maker. Like Solomon's serious words in Proverbs 1, or Jesus’ words in Jerusalem when he called people to come to the way of rescue in Him, that leads to true, lasting life – let’s be serious about this. So that people do not go down to a death without God, for lack of knowledge or because of the foolishness of how they treat the subject.

  • Piper is serious about being thankful and glad towards God and to others, making a point of showing his gratefulness for others’ gifts on a Sunday, for instance, or to his wife or others. I both love this and can learn from it

  • He is serious about getting people to understand that God is glorious in holiness and sovereignty over the whole earth, but also that he specially chooses a people for himself - people who do not deserve his love and forgiveness and holy righteousness. (How wonderful it is to see this so clearly!)

What’s more, Piper wants us to look hard at ourselves and our motivations – the things of the heart which only God sees. For instance, why do we do good things? What is the manner in which we do them? Is it with an awareness of the rescue plan God has put into place for us? Is it with an awareness of the rebellion that is in us, still close to our hearts? Do we recognise that He has done all and we are the recipients of wonderful grace?

Piper is earnest about the need to “get our knees” (or humble ourselves) in prayer and in love of God and in dependence on him. Nothing qualifies us for heaven except Jesus’ blood shed in sacrifice, if we accept it – so as Christians we are dependent on God. We are centred on Jesus, the source of our salvation. And we couldn’t do true good at all except for the influence of God on the world – so nothing we bring qualifies us for leadership or to help or teach others, it’s only the strength, gifts, good skills and opportunities which God brings us. Our very service and worship is enabled by God. So let’s attribute it all to him!

There’s much to be serious about. And much to grow in. Let’s determine to grow this week, even today, and take God seriously. Let’s heed his call to “listen” and see his work in our lives as significant. And let’s lead people with our words to greater subjects than the latest internet fad or the latest largely insignificant news story.

Image rights: ({{Information |Description=A smile a day keeps the pain and the doctor away |Source=[ :: A smile a day keeps the pain and the doctor away. ::] |Date=2009-04-03 15:55 |Author=[

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Comics: politics in Avengers: Initiative and Waren Ellis' Thunderbolts

The US government places blame on the reckless behaviour of unlicensed individuals and groups, but tries to remedy this by empowering government-approved and sanctioned groups to combat the rest. Who is right? How do you best navigate or utilise the chaos that ensues?

This is the situation created in the aftermath of Marvel's hugely popular Civil War storyline, which divided allied heroes such as Iron Man and Mr Fantastic from Spiderman, Captain America or Luke Cage in a seemingly permanent way.

The question is: what overpowered forces can be allowed to be active day-to-day? What is the role of the unregulated do-gooder in the community, and can such role models be allowed without some kind of formalisation?

The question of the media is sometimes touched on as well, as government-endorsed heroes must be made to appear victorious,despite the facts. When the government's “Avengers: Initiative” is launched to train or re-train B-list heroes at boot camp, in order to provide a super-powered force in every US state, the “superman-controlled state” seems close – closer when you appreciate how the truth about their missions is kept from the public, and their enemies, once captured, are carted off to the negative zone without trial for the foreseeable future. In this new world, everyone seems to be grasping for the final say on how these teams should be run, and the motivations are more than suspect. For instance, old foes like Norman Osborn (the Green Goblin) and Taskmaster (who trained several major villains) are given influential positions in the new order, whether for the money, the freedom or the power it is unclear. So we are left to ask: when does peace-keeping become oppression? And when does education become political indoctrination? How should communities interact with their policing?

The New Avengers comics following Civil War show an outlawed group of former Avengers being attacked by a group organised by the Hood, who sees the chaos amongst superheroes as an opportunity. The Hood's promises to his villains are better than what the government offers – so that out in society, greed can not be relied on to procure loyalty.

Another method of control explored is electronic implants used on villains, temporarily paralysing them if they disobey orders. Take the new, darker Thunderbolts comics, where, somehow, Norman Osborn has been given oversight of a team of some of the most sadistic characters in the Marvel universe – or at least that's how they are portrayed by writer Warren Ellis in the first two volumes: Faith in Monsters and Caged Angels. Super-violent at points, it's hard not to be on the side of those trying to pull the team apart, and although assassin Bullseye is not a convincing psychopath here, Ellis has brilliant fun playing with Norman's bipolar manic depression and insanity, and the attempts of the team to undermine him, as well as the arrogant Swordsman, and he even writes some of the craziest Venom sequences I've seen for a long time in volume two. Yes, even Venom is on this team. It's an example of a comic where just when you think things could get better for the unregistered heroes which the Thunderbolts are out to “contain”, it just gets worse.

Ultimately, in Thunderbolts we see that tough security can be broken or manipulated. You have to feel sorry for the security guards who tend to get killed off by the more dangerous Thunderbolts on the team.

The afore-mentioned Avengers: Initiative comic is almost as dark in content, and violent, despite a colourful, manga or TV-inspired design. It also happens to be one of the best Marvel books I have read recently, more shocking and bigger in scope than some of the recent Iron Man stories or the impressive espionage-focused Captain America series. In Avengers: Initiative the concept of having leaders with dubious moral fibre running a boot camp for heroes with a variety of strange powers is a perfect way to get inexperienced teenagers into terrifying danger. And as we see them get confident with their powers, or traumatised and disillusioned, we worry about the personal motivations of some to be part of the programme. The first volume ends with a neat whodunit, for instance, where many on the training base are suspects and which only the reader finally finds out the real solution to. The first two volumes pour in shock after shock and well-define some interesting characters, but so far the third, which links with an alien invasion, is less punchy due to there now being too many characters to follow. I wish we could have stayed mainly with the batch of heroes from volume two.
And whether the questions raised in the Marvel universe get resolved or not, we can guarantee whatever happens will provide more action. Hopefully we can think more carefully about these issues of who runs society, the role of business in politics, what kind of policing is effective and the importance of role models, including the importance of supporting good leaders which we have the opportunity to elect and involve in our communities.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The hope of the Christian

Just read this fantastic outline of the message of the book of 1 Peter! Find the book towards the back of the Bible, and read below to get a sense of what it's about.
Facing impending assaults on the gospel, Peter witnesses to the grace of God, the overwhelming reality of what God has done in Jesus Christ. The apostle knows that Jesus rose from the dead; he saw him ascend to heaven. He knows, too, why Jesus died, and what his death accomplished, as he writes: ‘Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed’ (2:24).

The reality of what Christ has done makes sure the hope of the Christian ‘brotherhood’. Christians can not only endure suffering for Christ’s sake; they can rejoice, for in their agony they are joined to Jesus who suffered for them. Their very sufferings become a sign of hope, for, as Christ suffered and entered into his glory, so will they. The Spirit of glory and of God rests on them (4:14).

Whether their neighbours attack or respect them, they can bear witness to the grace of God by their Christian lifestyle. Quietly and humbly they can live holy lives, not seeking to claim their own rights, but honouring others. Such humble living is in no way servile or demeaning, for Christians know themselves to be the royal people of God’s own possession, the chosen heirs of the new creation. They need not avenge themselves, nor need they claim for themselves what is their due; their trust is in the judgment of God. Christians are ‘resident aliens’ in [their towns and cities], but they are members of God’s own household.
The gift of God’s love, the blood of Jesus Christ, has redeemed Christians from the corrupt and empty lifestyle of their God-less past; that grace now unites them in fervent love for one another. They serve and help one another, using the rich spiritual gifts with which God’s grace equips them, ... [Jesus watching over them].
By the victory of Jesus Christ over all the powers of darkness they are freed from the power of Satan. They can repulse the roaring lion; in the fires of trial their faith will not be destroyed but purified like gold in the furnace. They may cast all their cares on God, knowing that he cares for them.
The grace that already fills Christians with joy will be brought to them fully at the appearing of Jesus Christ. The Lord, whom they love but have not seen, they will see and adore. Knowing well the doom and darkness from which they were delivered, the new people of God sing forth his praises. Their hallelujahs ring from their assemblies, their homes, even from the prison cells where their fear of God has set them free from the fear of man. Their witness is a witness of praise. Nourished by the unfailing Word of God, they taste already the goodness of their Saviour. The true grace of God has called them to his glory: everything, even their sufferings, will serve his purpose who redeemed them at such a price.
Some may scorn the comfort and triumph of Peter’s letter as unpractical theology. His answers are answers of faith. But Peter knows that his witness is true, that Jesus Christ is real. He has tasted that the Lord is good, and that his goodness will not fail. ‘This is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it’ (5:12).

Clowney, Edmund P.: The Message of 1 Peter : The Way of the Cross. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA : Inter-Varsity Press, 1988 (The Bible Speaks Today), S. 23

Praise the Lord! Praise Him for Peter's witness to us and for the certain hope of being saved by Christ, if we ally ourselves with him and his people on earth. Amen.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

What materialism is good materialism?

According to Philip Johnson, through school, college or university many in the West have been given “maps of understanding” where God has been “left off” the map. There is no place for the spiritual in academia (and little in the media). This is what Os Guinness found, who said his education “gave no place to the faith that was vital to him”. So today many, like Os Guinness, may be unsatisfied with us, really searching for meaning which is not found in their place of study/work or in their culture.

For Christians the danger is that we too easily fit in to our society and leave God off the map. We are tempted to do things without investing their true, and highest, meaning in them – studying, working, politics, economics, technology, writing, reading, having fun – it all ought to be done in worship, as we know an inner joy in God through Christ, and seek to live in God’s world God’s way, in response to the gift of Jesus Christ.

In short, here’s the challenge: Godless materialism can not have its way. Its goals and its various manifestations must not become our idols. Only God-worshipping materialism is right – a celebration of the true physical blessings God has given us, turning these blessings into worship. Yes, worship: whether this means sharing physical things, putting them to use for God, not simply for man, or finding satisfaction in using or enjoying them, knowing God is the giver of all good things, and will provide even more satisfying and joyful physical things in heaven.

If you sympathise with this point of view (or do not) it would be useful to hear your thoughts, and perhaps how you have rallied your body to worship of God in your work/play/social life/family life/etc.

Quotes from The Right Questions: Truth, Meaning & Public Debate by Phillip E Johnson, which I don't always agree with, but is usefully thought-provoking.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Manga: Black Jack - Volume 1

A mixture of the unsettling and bizarre combined with the imaginative and philosophical make this classic manga (Japanese comic) a memorable read. It started running in 1973 and finished in 1983.

What I liked:
- The character of Black Jack – cold and mysterious, but able to save lives, Jack seems to always have a handle on the situation. He keeps people at arm’s length at times by charging the rich exorbitant prices for various made-up reasons – this is a nice touch.
- Each story is self-contained (which means you can dip in and out of the book) and tackles a different problem for the brilliant but unlicensed surgeon to try to counter. Sometimes it might be a demonic boil from Japanese folklore, other times it could be trying to save the amazing ability of a chef when her arms have had to be amputated. Pretty wierd and wonderful. Even the importance of psychological healing is shown in a couple of stories.
- My favourite story comes towards the end and has an artificial intelligence requesting to be treated as a patient rather than being switched off and replaced. It seems to be touching on the idea that the creator has a responsibility to the A.I. being she has given birth to, and rather than rejecting her creation, she ought to have invested in it and tried to help it. The problems of a high abortion rate in Asia due to the sex/disability of a child spring to mind, and this issue is touched on elsewhere. But also the idea of treating a patient with respect is highlighted here and elsewhere, as in one story in which we find out that terminal cancer patients were often lied to back then in Japan about their conditions by their doctors and families. It's quite illuminating to read a manga that wants you to think about ethical issues in the world of medicine and surgery.

What I wasn't sure about:
- Although the art is still praised on the internet for the way it draws your eye across the page into the action, the sensation of reading the story was slightly affected by the small panels and plainness of the drawings and character designs in places compared to modern manga.
- Also the way the book plays around with the human body I found a little perverse, although I stress that the book does not play up the horror of the bizarre situations. But in doing so it makes us consider the amazing nature of the human body as well as elements of the supernatural and fantastic which make this a very unusual world that Black Jack is living in.

Also check out: Monster - a more modern manga series about a brilliant surgeon whose own misfortune and character flaws leads him to have a hand in creating a pyschopath. I only read the first part, but it was a compelling opening, setting up some intriguing characters and showing the pressure to be political in the hospital rather than serving every patient equally, and how the stress of pressure from the bosses can have a bad effect on the individual doctor, pushed to his limit. Go read it, if you can find it.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

An open book

Having started as an intern on Monday at Granta Books with Granta/Portobello I have been inspired by some of the great writing I've come across there, and surprised by the amount of poor or unsuitable manuscripts they are sent. If you want to check out some good writing, the Granta magazine on "Work" seemed really interesting, and the new one on the theme of "Going Back" has a moving piece about one reporter's feelings towards Sarajevo recalling the awful seige there, which is titled The Book of the Dead. Each of the magazines is like a small book, and contains fiction, non -fiction and occasional poems.

Meanwhile I came up with this opening to a story. Here's my idea: Why don't you finish it? Enjoy the challenge.

"Don't just leave me here, then!"
The sky was fast melding into a blue so deep it didn't seem real, but I couldn't tell you if this was just what creation was doing then or whether it was due to the knock I had taken in the fall.
The sky has funny way of capturing my attention like that. Even then, when I had no idea where Misha had gone. The sky continued to turn itself over as I tried to make out what had happened to the blurry figures who had left me.
Misha's words stank in my ear. Hoarse, they troubled me, like a poison. I felt the guilt he wanted me to feel, and I knew I felt and understood his hurt now. But right now I needed to get up and out, in case he came back.
I'd known he hated me. But I could not have forseen today, in a million years.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Poem: On denying self & paralysing guilt

Bad poetry:

Here am I
The monster in my own life
Grace and art gone to the wind
Because I am languishing
The monster

Good poetry,
Showing signs of improvement:

Where am I
What rod can I branch off
Making the angle required
To support this tree, standing,
And these people?

Ties made or re-made,
With terms of possibility:
Weakness to weakness
To strength that is vital.

For music-lovers, here are 3 playlists of great tunes I have found on Spotify, which I really love. Just click on the links below to bring up the playlist. Finding a band called Band of Horses has been great, also I am enjoying hearing some great Creed songs, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Fleetwood Mac, Vampire Weekend, some top, little-heard Athlete tracks, Owl City, John Mayer, The Pigeon Detectives, Marina & the Diamonds, Katrina and the Waves or even tunes from Seether, Jimmy Eat World, Mighty Mouse or The Cat Empire.

Brand New Day
Spring leftovers
Spring picks 2

To check out my analysis/reviews of a few excellent tracks and albums, start by clicking here or click the "music-related" tag on my blog.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Mini- review of bestseller The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008)

Mr Whicher was a famous detective from the first stock of detectives ever produced, back in London in 1842. This non-fiction book mainly deals with a murder case he investigated, that of young Saville Kent, who was less than four, but it also covers most of his life with fascinating detail, especially the parts about his first successes.

The details bring it alive. For instance, he tricked a crook into handing back a stolen diamond shirt-pin in a bar, by knowing exactly how the crook worked with an accomplice. Another time he and two fellow officers got into a scuffle with some thieves, trying to recover some stolen jewels, and we read that Mr Whicher was set upon by a man with a red hot poker.

The details of the murder of Saville in his own house at Road Hill are shocking and by the end of this well-researched book much has been revealed about the need for morality and love in the household and in the family. Other fascinating themes and questions are raised as well as the whole country became obsessed with the case in the 1860s and were not satisfied when they could not see justice done. So the need for public justice is shown, but so is the foolhardiness of many who had little to do with the case writing to Scotland Yard with their own theories about what was done, and by whom. Even Charles Dickens had a theory!

Finally the question of madness interested a casual fan of classic Gothic/sensation literature like me. It really makes you wonder what madness is. Is it getting things in the wrong perspective, like a sociopath who does not see that a certain human life has value? Is it not having the proper feelings there? Is it doing something horrendous, out of character, or out of spite or anger (yet surely this definition isn't too far from things any of us have done). What is madness and what is just plain evil, after all?

The book, which perhaps could have been shorter, brings out all the ways this case became politically and socially important, and finally the sentence is passed and we know who did the terrible deed. Author Kate Summerscale reminds us in the last few pages that we must not allow the tragic loss of a human life to become lost in the intellectual game of finding out "whodunit", which is a brilliant sentiment to end on, and the whole thing is an illuminating and really interesting read.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Seeing and believing

On Wednesday night I went to my house group (a Bible study group that meets in someone's house). As we were looking at John 9 it struck me how easy it easy to get everything totally wrong. Let me explain.

The Jewish Pharisees were so sure their rules of religion were right that when God showed up among them, they discounted him - and worse, opposed him. His work amongst people did not fit into their ideas about what kind of activities could be carried out on the Sabbath - and some held this against him, seeing his new way as undermining what they "knew" to be God's way.

Their desperation with the situation and growing hatred of Jesus is apparent, yet He is the one they must wake up and see is God.

The contrast in the chapter is of course with the man whom Jesus has freed from blindness, who answers their questions plainly and as best he can. His words start to point out the Pharisees' spiritual blindness!

There's a whole lot here to learn about how we must relate to God: humbly, coming to Him for salvation. The gospel comes and it offers a message which is bitter to someone who is confident in their own righteousness. It points us to the ways we have all failed God's standards because it's the inward thoughts and intentions of the heart towards God and others which matter most.

The sweet good news of salvation comes though God's free gift. He initiates rescue, and the Pharisee or the self-righteous can't do a thing to save themselves - we all must only accept this gift by accepting the great Saviour Jesus and coming under his rule. He achieves our salvation by the cross - we merely throw ourselves at his feet and receive this work of grace into our lives.

May I never NEVER never forget this Lord of love and his gift of grace. As I see what He has done, my desire increases for Him. And so I try hard to follow Him in my life.


The sequel to thoughts like this is living this out in reality. Sadly in reality, my desire for and love of God is far too weak. At times I will serve God forgetting that I rely on him and, as Tim Keller describes in his excellent book The Prodigal God, I'll try to control God by doing things I think should please him. And I'll get frustrated when things go wrong.

There's much work still to be done on my heart. I need to tell myself that I need Jesus. Above all else. I need Him as He is my only salvation.

Another thing that spins out of this is how we show this message to others. How do we show people that while being good is important, it's the inner life towards God and others that matters the most? How do we model grace (as Ed Moll recently described it in a talk at my church)? How do we show the love of God instead of dishing out approval or disapproval based on outward behaviour, like the Pharisees would have done? How do we show that God accepts us when we have broken all the rules - when I have broken all the rules? Can we be as accepting of others as He is, and yet, of course, never saying that evil behaviour is right in any way.

I think the way I relate to others rarely shows this. I'm sure that people around me still get the impression that the way I relate to them will depend on their behaviour towards me - this will determine whether I give my approval. Surely God's way is far better! I should love and keep loving whether I approve or not, whether I am treated well or not! I should be patient, generous, giving, listening, bearing with others, when it's far too easy to fit in with the expected culture which shows either that it does not care about a person and their lifestyle, or that the lifestyle ought to be of a certain standard in order for me to pay attention to the the person in question.

If anyone has done some further thinking about how to model grace in relationships, let me know!

Monday, 28 June 2010

American History X

Brutal and horrible, but totally compelling, I wanted to mention this film for a couple of reasons:

1. It's unusual to find a film that deals so convincingly with the human psyche. It shows how one man in American suburbia realises that the militant white power cause he's been living for is foolish and destructive. He sees that the movement has begun to manipulate him, making him a figure to revere because of the two murders he carried out - while he serves a tough prison sentence, alone and friendless.

At the beginning of the story Derek (played brilliantly by Edward Norton) is a neo-Nazi, full of hate, totally unpleasant, power-hungry, manipulative, clever but arrogant, full of testosterone and turning everything into protecting his family from who he sees as the enemy: foreigners and outsiders. But in light of the way he's humiliated in prison (a horrible section) he gets out of that life, which he tells his younger brother Danny is no good for him. He becomes a man determined to change, and to stop Danny following the same rebellious, anti-social path.

Some of the issues this raises are very interesting. For instance - why is it we tend to desire what is best for close family, even if we have given up on ourselves? This rings true.

And it highlights how, without something life-changing snapping us out of it, we tend to believe what is most convenient, what fits with the ideas that have influenced us in the past. This is how prejudices work I think eg. against immigrants. We can become trapped by ideas, which are actually lies, thinking we know all the facts. We weild the "facts" as weapons, or to stir us on.

And such "facts" can be power - a way to put down others and assert oneself or "succeed" in life. Feelings of injustice and resentment find a target. Responsibility is avoided, and so are responsible solutions, as the system is "against us" - let's just take it into our own hands.

The trouble is - when we want to be angry and take things for ourselves: the nonsense "facts" that we want to hear can sound so reasonable. Whether it's anger at local government for making things difficult, or anger at institutions or communities, it can simmer away in us, and we must be aware of this evil in us. It's true what the (supposedly out-of-date) Bible says: the heart is hopelessly corrupt.

2. The focus on inner-city poverty and the lack of opportunities for the poor is interesting too. Despite the bad patterns of family life passed on through the generations, this is a community that will not give up on its characters. And it's refreshing to see this in a film. Especially the bond between the two brothers, where frustration is met with patience, and respect is fostered. Even the teacher, an outsider, Dr Sweeney (a superb performance by Avery Brooks) won't give up on Danny, while Derek talks to his girlfriend (who seems to delight in being near chaos) to try and convince her to leave the movement with him, and others too haven't given up on the loved ones they have lost. Society matters in this movie - life is not throwaway, like the bad guys dying in old James Bond films. People are precious, especially when you don't have much.

The question is what will emerge at the disturbing end of the film? Will the violence cease? What legacy will these two brothers leave on their families, the next genration growing up in the schools, the world around? What lessons will be learnt about the fruitlessness of holding on to a destructive, angry cause?

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Mere Anarchy: Bizarre short stories

I happened to pick up this strange collection of stories from Woody Allen recently, and although I wasn't sure if I'd like it, I'm glad I checked it out. he has a knack for coming up with absurd situations (a little like some of Roald Dahl's adult stories) and they are very funny too!

Particulary amusing was the hubris of one two-bit, no-good supporting actor who gets captured by terrorists in the most bizarre cutting-edge film set-up in a developing country. This has me laughing out loud. The actor tells the story as if the whole thing was a "jaunt" over to the studio, rather than the trying ordeal it evidently was. Once you get used to the strange use of language, you'll enjopy the neuroses of the characters, and the cleverly hidden put-downs they use - which show what they are really after, or their real characters.

I was also loving the first story, with biting satire about a get-successful-quick scheme run through a manipulative new-age "prophetess" who has grown men in groveling in her service as they seek to escape their current mid-life crisis. And although some of the stories do mis-fire, one story called "Above the Law, Below the Box Springs" really cracked me up with a running gag about mattress tags, of all things, and another supremely silly story had me trying to imagine a dispute between Michael Eisner and the Disney character Goofy about screen time.

So take a look if you intrigued by something as daft as a man trying to buy a modern suit with built-in gadgets, or a couple whose nanny must be silenced before she publishes a book exposing what they are really like behind closed doors, or parents threatening legal action against the leaders of a ramshackle mountain summer camp who are demanding a stake in the rights deal for a movie sold to Hollywood.... some of these concepts bring out the pathetic, the ridiculous or the downright dirty in the modern Westerner, and it's funny while being kind of true.

This week I should be writing about some other books, including The Prodigal God by Tim Keller and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. What are your summer top reads, and why?

Friday, 4 June 2010

Film review: The Lost Boys (1987)

Fans of this film at work got me to watch this 1980s classic. So here are some thoughts:

Here is an adventure/horror film which transcends its simple storyline of “kill the vampires to rescue Michael and his family from an evil fate” to deliver something more. This is the birth of “cool” teen vampire, complete with the spirit of rebellious youth, recalling the anti-society and cult-like teen gangs of American suburbia, with their strange initiation rituals.

The film also builds on the idea that everything can take on a sinister implication in a strange new town, and some of the biggest scenes are set within the bounds of the new family home, where trust between child and parent is hard to find. The children are pushed into a strange new world, and as you watch you become gripped by both the seductive quality of the vampires and some thrilling set-pieces, where you are not quite sure what is going to happen to Michael or his brother Sam next. It doesn't hurt that the comic relief of junior vampire “experts” the Frog brothers is pretty good, and they round off an impressive cast of characters, almost creating the illusion this is a family film, which is nearly is. But the themes of transgressing natural boundaries, the mystery surrounding the girl “Star” who rides with the vampires, and the exciting final scenes, are aimed more at the teen or young adult audience, and the horror of the monsters the children face is a focus of the film. You might even feel scared for the characters at a couple of points.

The soundtrack features a strong and memorable rock ballad theme “Cry Little Sister” which captures well the dark struggle that Michael, Sam and Star go through. The only thing I had against the film was some of the cinematography is dated and quite irritating – there's one scene where we zoom in on the faces of the two brothers so many times as they gaze at each other in horror.... it's just too cheesy. But minor slips like this won't stop me recommending this fun, well-produced teen vampire film, which excels in encouraging you to invest in its characters and their precarious situation as they hold out against their supernatural enemy.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Comics: Daredevil: The Man Without Fear - and the cat burglar with her eyes on the prize

Today I want to mention some great graphic novels I’ve read, such as the first massive Daredevil Omnibus by Alex Maleev and Brian Michael Bendis. (If I know you and you want to borrow this, just ask - you won’t be disappointed.)

The first story in the volume, Wake Up, has to have some of the best, most emotional and expressionist comic art I have ever seen, and is very well suited to this interesting mystery about just what a child has witnessed Daredevil doing. It shows up the moral grey areas in Daredevil’s violent war on crime. As for the rest: Bendis takes the well-known rivalry between our vigilante hero and Kingpin to an interesting place, when an ambitious young gangster starts on the scene and orders a hit on both of them, in a classic moment of betrayal. Watching Kingpin being cut down in such an underhanded way is like the people turning on their “Caesar” of crime. Where will it lead?

Daredevil lurches from one crisis to another and his reaction to his law partner Foggy when things start to throw their futures into uncertainty is very memorable. What an excellent piece of character-driven crime fiction this is! Towards the end, when Daredevil faces the new Yakuza, it seems to become more than a book should be, movie-like, yet different to a neatly-tied-up movie, perhaps like a carefully plotted TV series - always building on what has been set up and surprising you by revealing has been going on in the hero’s personal life. There is a further volume by this creative team, so I look forward to getting hold of that one in the future.

And now for something stylistically very different to the realism of Daredevil: Selina’s Big Score – This is a great heist story, following all the traditions of that genre, keeping us guessing about whether the criminals will make it out alive. The idea is for Selina Kyle (having a break from being famous burglar Catwoman) has to make some money quickly – and masterminds a plot to steal from Gotham’s gangsters from a train heading in from out of town. Darwyn Cooke, who worked on both the story and the art, shows he can use multiple character narratives well to grab our attention, to show the character’s conflicting desires, and to raise the stakes – they all need this job to come though – and the tension ratchets up towards the finale.

Cooke’s art is at his best here, infusing everything with his unique mood and style – I love it! The story is collected with some of his other comics work in a collection called Batman: Ego and Other Tails – but while Batman: Ego is a fairly interesting look at Bruce Wayne’s war on crime, Selina’s Big Score is better told and paced, and full of energy. So forget Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen and go for something a little more dangerous, but just as colourful and fun.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Book Review: The Ballad of Halo Jones

Why is this acclaimed graphic novel worthy of such high distinction? Perhaps it’s because it is one of the few *true* science fiction epics in that form, which has a beginning, middle and an end? Perhaps it’s the crazy concepts, from the haunting tale of the person whose gender has been erased, to the “forever” time-altered charge into battle in the Crush (on a planet with dangerously high gravity levels). Perhaps it’s the satire about our lives that gets us, and the way writer Alan Moore has thought up a world with a ring of truth about it, down to the details of the way people gossip and use slang. Perhaps it’s due to the strong female protagonist, as it was unusual in 1984 for a comic book to have a female hero – and one whose heroism is highly relatable, as she tries to escape the structures and characters which hem her in and want her to “fit in” and degrade her. You see, this future “Ballad” is, like all ballads, about a journey – and the toil along the way.

The plot of the three books

The story starts in the Hoop – a hi-tech slum floating near Manhattan – where Halo Jones (pictured right) lives with her friend Rodice, and are caught up in poverty and unrest. The people seem enslaved either to the various gangs and factions in the Hoop or to a materialistic code of values, which fools them into accepting the way things are – in fact they have ways of altering themselves to forget and fit in (the “safest” way in the crime- ridden area). When disaster strikes, Halo confronts the world outside the hoop (at the end of book one), and boards a space cruiser. She now is working as a waitress for the rich to pay her way out of poverty and gain control of her life – and a measure of freedom seems in her grasp. But by the end of book two she finds herself battling some more everyday problems that threaten to enslave her: the dullness of unemployment and purposelessness – and alcoholism.

Looking for an adventure, Halo Jones then joins the army – and this final book shines the most for me. It is a scathing attack on the inequality of war, the evil of it and how it can brainwash the soldier, and make them unfit for normal life. In a few pages we can sweep the galaxy, or focus on the significance (or not) of one battleground and one fallen enemy. As we begin to respond to the ideas here, it evokes disturbing and uncomfortable images from today’s wars – what anguish should we feel over the need for our young men and women to go to war and to live that different kind of life – that “necessary evil”? Have we forgotten that these wars (necessary though they may be) have a devastating impact on the lives of the people of the countries where the fighting is going on? Finally (spoiler warning), the folly of war stares at us from the final pages, when it is deemed that the war was carried out in an illegal way. What was all the fighting for after all? It should never have been allowed. What does man fight man for anyway? What purpose does it serve?

Letting the book raise some questions

Told in short black-and-white chapters, this impressive tale starts slowly but ends up with some short episodes that say more than whole novels, in terms of the way they mimic the real world and confront us. How can we escape a mindset of materialism and avoid settling for the entertainment culture that surrounds us? Is that what life is really about? And can we really have control of our lives, in the final analysis, or are there limits we come up against?

Where do we look for real freedom, and the ability to live full lives of purpose and joy?

On that last one: I know to whom I am looking – the one who came to offer just this to us if we accept his verdict on our lives and turn to follow Him. Receiving what Jesus offers does not require being brainwashed, made to "fit in" to an oppressive system, or dragged through hell, or in fact any kind of work on our part. His gift to us of reconciliation with God is free, and simply must be accepted.

But knowing Him and all he's done changes us, and soon we will be unhappy with the way we have been living, we will be stretched mentally, emotionally and physically to live the kind of full life of joy and hard work and pain and love that Jesus lived. To live in community, doing the will of the one who rules this world and who actually does know best for us - and cared enough to come to die for us. Let's not throw our brains away and live passively following the world.  Let's engage with him and what he is really offering us. Let's go to the places Jesus wants us to go to.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Poem: "How to handle it"

I've been reading a book called How to Write Poetry from Bloodaxe Books. I'm not clear how helpful it's been, but at least after a few weeks of having to get on with life stuff, I've had a chance to get writing again. Here's a poem I wrote last night called "How to handle it", though I'm not that happy with the title...

Still in the bedroom
Standing taut,
Blinkers put paid to
Anything much.

Ought to sit down,
Organise it.
Push off to town,
Carry out this

Open-ended exchange.
Meet the people,
Book the car,
See what's gathered

There on each shelf,
Where I see them
Ready for my study,
Grasping topics

One by one now,
Actual limbs moving
In a mind's eye
On a spot,

Feeling about
For the handles,
Carrying out
What I forgot.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Living in relationship with God - more from New Word Alive 2010

I seem to have some impressions still to post about New Word Alive this year. Here's a taster on the teaching from the Psalms, hope you find it useful to think through/pray through. You can order copies of the talks to listen to in various formats from NWA's website.
  • From Nigel Stiles in one of the main meetings – we learned from Psalm 42 and 43 (all one poem/song really) that we will need to be pushy with ourselves in difficult times telling our souls, right as they struggle, what we know about God, what we have to base our lives on. So much has been revealed to us about God’s character in the Bible, in history, most of all in Jesus who rose from death. 
  • Feelings of pain needn’t be a taboo subject in the church – they mustn’t be if we are to be real with each other and honestly help each other look to our Rock, God. And we know Jesus suffered taunts against His perfect nature, he suffered huge humiliation being stripped and hung up on the cross, total abandonment by men and even by his loving Father on the cross as he bore the curse of sin, and a crushing of his very soul. He knows pain. As he had hope of being with his Father again, so can we – he will bring us with him to a perfect kingdom where love will last and life will be strong, and funerals and mourning will be something "we used to do" in the old days. What a great hope we have! What a spur to our souls in the midst of hurt.

  • Richard Cunningham and Richard Coekin were excellent on Psalms 90 and 103 (now 2 of my favourites) – showing us the great magnificence of God: let’s stir up ourselves to praise Him with all of our beings, and also let’s ask Him for true wisdom in this mixed-up world.

  • And here is the fourth and final video interview I took this year:

    Monday, 10 May 2010

    Our God is an awesome God

    Recently I preached on Psalm 21 and was challenged to the heart to consider the power of God, and all the many benefits of knowing Him.

    • He brings salvation to those who trust him.
    • He deals with our greatest enemies for us - those of death and sin.
    • He is our life. Out of his generosity he goes before us to bless us and gives us eternal life.
    • Like the king in the psalm, God has won us incredible riches in heaven (see Ephesians 1 for instance). This is the weight of glory to look forward to.
    • He works with his hand of power to protect and preserve his people. Even if things are tough and we struggle or are in pain in this life - our souls are secure with Him.
    • He is the Most High, and the Lord of the promises of the Bible - and so we will not be overcome by any other power if we are safe in Him. There is no-one higher. It's entirely by his help that we are secure. He is so strong one day all who oppose him will know him acting against them to destroy them. This is a holy God of power and might - power for his people and against his enemies. This is THE God of the world and it's good to know him and his work for us.
    • Our struggles are not purposeless, but part of God's plan for his people to see him better and glorify him. God wants the Israelites in this situation to see all that God has done for them - so they trust and have confidence in Him, the only one who is a true, secure Rock for humanity. The pattern is that the king has great joy in God's power and in all he has received from God.
    • God intervenes in our lives to position us in places where we will glorify him and know his benefits and his work in our lives. He is our strength to do good and he is behind every success. We must depend on Him!

    I also love the joy we see in this song, which the people of Israel would sing, and specifically their joy about their king's relationship with God (see pic above). There's a kind of pride about it: "Our king trusts in God and will never be overthrown!" Their security comes from their King's relationship with the LORD God.

    Likewise for us as Christian believers today. We know our security lies in having a king, King Jesus, who has the best relationship of all kings with the Lord his Father in heaven, and who has made us his people, a people of privilege, sharing in his blessings now and in the knowledge of the secure eternity we have to look forward to. Let's go praise our Father and our King!

    The talk in full should be added to Solent Evangelical Church's website soon for you to download. It's a little bit technical and could definitely have used more illustrations!

    What worked in Iron Man 2?

    So I went to see Iron Man 2. I really liked it, despite some obvious problems with the narrative, and over-reliance on CGI near the end.

    Here are some brief impressions: 

    - It's great fun I think, and I like how it picks up on some of the history of the character of Tony Stark. They have got an interesting mix of his large ego and self-destructive behaviour in there.
    - Some of the action is pretty thrilling, eg. the chaotic bit on the Monaco race track.
    - This sequel has kept the sense of humour from the first film, which is a definite plus. The humour didn't edge too much into "dumb" for me, though that's a matter of personal opinion. Particularly the parts with Black Widow provided some well-timed gags in the middle of some cool martial arts.
    - Overall the sequel tries to add in too many ideas and doesn't develop some of the subplots satisfactorily in the second half eg the idea that Tony is going to benefit the world by carrying on his father's legacy. The way they deal with the new enemy Whiplash at the end is pretty disappointing - he goes from having the upper hand as a resentful genius to being beat up far too easily.
    - I like the way they are continuing to develop Tony Stark's relationship with his secretary Pepper Potts - this is an aspect that really adds to the humanity of the film. 
    Verdict: 7 or 7.5 out of 10 because it's a good Iron Man film. Now I'm looking forward to Thor!

    Tuesday, 27 April 2010

    New Word Alive 2010 - building courage to speak for Jesus

    Here's some more thoughts from sessions at New Word Alive. If you were there, how did it affect you?

    4) An evening with David Robertson – author of “The Dawkins Letters” and who has developed a great outreach to atheists (and curious people of all kinds in the UK). He inspired me that although our message is a hard pill to swallow for many brought up to believe they are in charge of their lives or those confused (or hurt) by the impressions of Christianity they have received – despite all this: Now is the time to speak out, when the debate about belief in God is still on the agenda, and issues of faith are becoming more controversial and more talked about. We must come with integrity, a robust clear answer to the questions people have. Let's tackle the questions head on: Why do we believe? Why don’t we believe what the atheists argue?

    We need to have huge honesty and care deeply for people, and show we are real people of emotion. We have the full technicolour truth, which so many people haven’t even begun to taste yet to see what it’s like (as one former dogged atheist put it, who recently became a Christian through reading some of the arguments for and against atheism and through talking online with David.)

    5) Becky Manly-Pippert (wasn't able to get an interview with her, but UCCF did) – through a helpful evening of discussion we saw the importance of prayerful dependence on God, asking Him for help to be his light in the world, and help to speak to our friends and those around us about God. And we must be ourselves with people, aware of the ways in which we are understandably afraid to freak people out by blurting out our message! We must be real with people and see them as people God loves, eternal beings with eternal destinies.

    Great to hear these encouragements to be the people God called us to be.

    Monday, 26 April 2010

    New Word Alive 2010 - solid teaching as God worked on our hearts

    At New Word Alive, as well as taking video interviews, worshiping God in meetings with around 4000 other people, and enjoying the amazing scenery, there was significant time for some great teaching from gifted teachers. Over the next couple of days I will post on some of the sessions and what lines of thought particularly affected me.

    1) Hugh Palmer stirred us to action by preaching through 1 Thessalonians. Let’s follow the authentic model of being a worker in God's kingdom that we see in Paul and the Thessalonians. Are we a people of repentance who turn from idols to the living God? Is it plain to others that we have done that? DO we love Him and have great joy in Him? God’s kind of ministry means having great patience with others. It means there is a need to tell the truth, and to not be afraid of that. It is a burden of care, as we don’t want people to drift away from God in the church. It can be scary, making us vulnerable, as we share our lives.

    Also the fact that Jesus is returning should change how we view death, and also life – we live in light of that future day which will show up how we have used our time, that future day of light, when the future will belong to God and to us who believe in him – we ought to remind each other of this day as believers!

    2) Jerry Bridges spoke on holiness and I got to the last 2 sessions: Saw how we need the gospel every day to survive as a Christian, and that being made like Christ in our lives is plainly an amazing thing.

    Working at texts like Ephesians 4:17-32 he raised our view of what it means to become godly. There’s no wrong in God at all, and there is fruitfulness, peace, joy, and selflessness and much more – and we are called to be like Him in everything. We saw something of what it means to cut out the evil in our malicious thoughts, our tendency to assume people are doing bad stuff – and we saw how our harsh or misplaced words can grieve God – yes, he cares about the details of what we say as well. May I make this a major area to pray over!

    3) Here's my friend Dave Anthony on what he was learning during a seminar track I didn't attend:

    Friday, 23 April 2010

    NWA 2010 - Caring for people in debt or with burdens

    It's been a busy week since New Word Alive finished and we all trekked back from Pwhelli, North Wales, to our homes. But it's essential to learn from what God was teaching us during the week, and I hope to post on some of the things I learned in the next couple of days.

    Meanwhile, here's a second interview to get you thinking. This time, it's Jonny Joslin, who works for Christians Against Poverty. How can we show others the kind of hard practical love Christ showed by coming to earth as a man to meet with us, and to die to save us? How can we give ourselves to others?

    Monday, 19 April 2010

    Wayne Grudem @ New Word Alive 2010

    This year I wanted to use my new tiny HD camera to record some interviews with people at New Word Alive... and I will be posting the results here, so you get a taste of what was going on, and what was being taught or thought about over the week.

    Here's the first: the highly-respected Bible scholar, Wayne Grudem. Sorry for the shaky camera!

    Monday, 12 April 2010

    The Bourne Identity - and how words can create the feeling of being out of control

    It's a while since I posted on any books, though I have just started A Short History Of Nearly Everything, which is bascially the most important discoveries/theories in science wonderfully explained and told in lots of brilliantly amusing asides about eccentric or exceptional human beings.

    On a different note I have been meaning to post about 1980 novel The Bourne Identity. Here are some quick points about the kind of fiction the thriller delves into, and ways I noticed the brilliant use of language:
    • Plot: To me, the idea of this thriller is instantly fascinating - a black ops-trained soldier with amnesia having to investigate himself while protecting himself from unknown killers.
    • Mystery & character: The opening chapters are curious, as the unnamed “patient” recovers from his wounds, and begins to suspect his involvement in something violent. Who was he? And where has he got his skills in deception, combat and his (vital) self-protective instinct, which helps him see (sometimes desperate) ways out of the various situations he gets into? Wouldn’t it be better for others if he didn’t keep impacting their lives and causing them danger? What about the money he finds in a Swiss bank account belonging to him? These sort of questions give “Bourne” a huge guilt complex, and a strand which runs throughout is the danger of him flipping and ending it all in one more suicidal mission.
    • Differences to the films: Writer Robert Ludlum connects “Bourne” with an objective that at times becomes his obsession: he is “Cain” an incredibly last-ditch effort by various CIA groups to bring to an end one man’s stranglehold on Europe. We learn why Bourne has been living a dangerous life mixed with assassination – his part in a larger game-plan… wildly different to his purpose in the films, and giving a new meaning to the “mark of Cain”.
    • Creating emotional and physical chaos in language: Ludlum throughout seems to be at his best in those rare moments when he draws us into the mind of the man known as Bourne, who often tries to keep people shut out and is described simply doing things. But in the midst of chaos or personal confusion we hear his internal voice: "For God's sake. I don't know you! I don't know me! Help me! Please, help me!" (p.50) Or his view is melded with the action, as he is gunned for, cornered, seeing no way out. 
    Take this section, showing both Bourne’s heightened ‘war-zone’ senses and his madness, as the situation becomes merged with a conflict from the past, in the Vietnam province of “unremembered Tam Quan” (p.554).
    “Bourne rose to his feet, his back pressing against the wall, with flare in his left hand, the exploding weapon in his right. He plunged down into the carpeted underbrush, kicking the door in front of him open, shattering silver frames and trophies that flew off tables and shelves into the air. Into the trees. He stopped; there was no-one in that quiet, sound-proof elegant room. No-one in the jungle path.

    He spun around and lurched back into the hall, puncturing the walls with a prolonged burst of gun-fire. No-one.

    The door at the end of the narrow, dark corridor. Beyond was the room where Cain was born. Where Cain would die, but not alone.” (p.556)
    Surroundings become scenery as on a set, tools which can be “punctured” with bullets, unimportant. Bourne is on a mission. Fierce intention drives him. He will die, but so will his enemy – Cain will not die alone. And this will bring everything to an end. This mahogany jungle will witness a resolution to the war began by men in suits in the ‘elegance’ of organised and secure offices. This chaos is erupting into the world where it was unleashed. Moments like this mix hyper-reality (the gun in the left hand, the doors opening, the detail of the rooms) with the surreal of Bourne’s imagination – and they are the payoff from the long build-up. Will Cain ever escape this world of tension, and constant danger? Who else will bear his mark, his mark of death, and no guarantee of safety wherever he goes?

    Saturday, 3 April 2010

    Two intelligent sci-fis - highly recommended

    Just a quick post to point out 2 impressive films using science-fiction to explore aspects of 21st century life:

    Moon (2009)- which has been widely acclaimed - uses the isolated setting of a moon base to examine the effects of technology and big business on the individual. Sam Rockwell is brilliant in a physically demanding role, and the direction is very assured for Duncan Jones' debut film. But I'd be interested in hearing what you think about the movie, which I found to be very sad at times, humorous in others - and is definitely not traditional Hollywood. It deals with aspects of what is needed to actually care for a human being in space, or anywhere. Let's not underestimate the value of human beings and interaction with a community, or things might end up like they do here. Won't say any more, or I'll spoil it!

    Sunshine (2007), on the other hand, is a more traditional popcorn movie, with astronauts in the near future on a quest to reignite the dying Sun. Cue angst and electric tension as the crew face various setbacks along the way, and a few fatalies - but before the story veers totally into "horror" territory, I was hooked by the fascinating (and morbid) reinterpretation of the Sun, as the one who gives us life and (it is suggested) has the right to take it away. Themes of sun-worship recur many times, as our Sun is suggested to be a marvel, a killer, a hope for humanity, or even a way to a euphoric experience of death. It's this way of looking things, and a strong cast, that intrigues throughout, and I genuinely wasn't quite sure what would happen when they finally got to the Sun. Can they blow up the heart of this star, this huge powerful machine which powers so much on earth, and which has been the whole purpose and focus of their lives for the past three years?
    Also you have to love the last scene, which is quite a subtle way to end the movie.