In which I (finally) write about ‘liturgy of the ordinary’

On the first Monday in July I sat at my desk, and looked at my diary and to do list to plan out my week, and I spotted something weird. There was black space in my diary. I blinked. And then I spent about half an hour remember what my job looked like what when there was space to do more than engage with the urgent, important, and the incoming email.

All this is by way of explaining why I’m writing about a book I read in February in August. It’s been a very good few months, I just haven’t the hugest amount of time for sitting and processing. I’ve been reading (a lot) for breathing space, but I’ve not spent time bringing the subconscious brain stuff to the conscious level by writing about it. I just found a half-written blog post about Wonder Woman in my files…

Anyway I read Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary back in February, and (spoiler) I really really liked it. It looks at elements of the traditional church liturgy through the lens of every day activities like teeth-brushing, cooking and eating, fighting and making up, and getting stuck in traffic in order to explore what it means to live faithfully in the here and now.

I want to do the big work of the kingdom, but I have to live it out in the small tasks before me – the missio Dei in the daily grind.

It’s a real-world meditation on many of the ideas in James KA Smith’s recent books on cultural liturgies (which, if you didn’t know, I think are great) and I found it helpful, as a person who trades in big ideas and bookishness and sometimes casually flies by the mundane or skips them entirely in busy periods (oh the dishes in the sink some weeks). I’ve been trying to do better this year at not doing that. I started getting up half an hour earlier in May, using that time to water the plants and sit with my coffee for a little bit of quiet time while my brain wakes up, and I have great plans to spend more of my not at work or erranding time not running around doing quite so much. I’m tired of being Little Miss ‘Oh I can’t make that, because I booked something in six months ago’ all the time.

This book helped provoke and settle some of that in me, even if it’s still shaking out in practice.

There were two chapters I particularly liked. Eating Leftovers: word, sacrament and overlooked nourishment, and Sitting in Traffic: liturgical time and an unhurried God. Given that I like food and am fascinated by time, this is perhaps not surprising. But they’re related too.

In the food chapter, she talks (amng other things) about relearning to want slow, healthy food rather than the immediate kick (taste and energy) of something speedy (in her case, ramen, in mine, usually cheese toasties), and about how not paying attention to our food and its sources – which is easier to do when living at speed – leads to injustice. It connected with me in part because we’ve been doing a lot on this topic at work and in part because I love to cook but do it less and less when I’m running around doing more and more other things.

Which brings us to time. What is it? How dos it work? Is it a straight line? Isn’t it? how does God see it? Chronology is helpful, because it creates sense, a narrative, or a rhythm – but also unhelpful because it seems to demand clear patterns of cause-and-effect and divides time into blocks that are used up. I am the worst for wishing time away. To the weekend, the next time I’m seeing certain friends, the next holiday. For someone who likes sitting on the sofa reading an awful lot, I have a strong need to be moving. If I’m trying to get from a to b and there’s something in the way, be it a traffic jam or a delay on a train, I’ll always choose going around it in order to keep moving, even if it would take less time to stay still and wait for the blockage to clear.

The reality is that time is a stream we are swept into. Time is a gift from God, a means of worship. I need the church to remind me of reality: time is not a commodity that I control, manage or consume.”

This line made me laugh, because I occasionally get cranky in church if the service feels like it’s lagging. But the shape of the church service will not be rushed. Harrison Warren talks about how the fact that the Christian faith centres around a long-term ultimate hope demands patience – and hopefully forms it in us. I wish it would hurry up forming in me.

(Sorry, too obvious a line to resist)

I had my garden redone over the winter, putting in big planters because I wanted to be able to grow things beyond my small pots and the occasional grow bag. I’ve gotten into gardening this year, and it’s really winding me down. I either water the plants in the morning before heading for the station, or first thing when I get in from work in the evening. It’s soothing, opening the back doors onto the patio and unwinding the hose. I love spotting how the plants are growing: are there sweet peas to pick, do the mangetout need training to their stakes – and how do I stop the little green worm bug things from living in my cabbages? I ate a lot of broad beans earlier in the summer. I discovered that the potatoes I’d planted (and whose type I’d forgotten) made the best baked chips. If you follow me on instagram, you’ll have experienced the take over of the corner of my garden by triffid-tomatoes. They’re green now, turning red, and I’m continually checking them for eating-ness or blight. If I spot the latter, I’m making a vat of green tomato chutney STAT.

The whole process is giving me an experience of food and time that I haven’t had since I took my Brownie gardener badge. It turns out that there’s nothing better than eating food that’s you’ve watched and waited for, and there a no amount of broad beans that I will not eat rather than waste things that I have invested money, time and garden space in. And the whole experience gives me a great deal of joy. Even fighting the green bugs off the cabbages.

In which I wrap up July

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
The season of Novels Inspired by Greek Myths continued. First up was Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, based on the stories of the Oresteia. I liked the middle section (primarily the story of Orestes) best, because it was the bit that Tóibín seemed to be trying to invest least with hefty poetic meaning. Then I (finally) got around to Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, which I enjoyed much more than I was expecting – but is definitely still a light holiday read. Next was Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial, a variation on the Illiad, which bears reading out loud to oneself. Finally, I read Bright Air Black by David Vann, a telling of the Medea story. This was gloriously bonkers, and definitely my favourite of the Greek Myth Novels so far. All the others try and bring the world of the Greek myths closer by drawing out human similarities, but Vann embraces the difference and the weird, and so the novel works better than the others – even though it is harder work.

I also read End of Days for Jenny Erpenbeck, for book club, which I really enjoyed. I like the way the story slips from variation to variation, and the tone and atmosphere have stayed with me. I do like reading books that focus on the ideas and the feel they evoke as much or more than the story – as long as they are not monumentlaly pretentious, and this wasn’t.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
* Baby Driver – I really liked Edgar Wright’s latest. I think you really have to go with the idea Ansel Elgort has charisma, and I’m almost mad at myself for how much I buy into it. At times I thought Kevin Spacey was playing it too close to parody while everyone else was playing it straight, and it broke the fourth wall a bit for me. But apart from that, I totally rolled with the car chases and the soundtrack.
* Song to Song – In complete contrast, Terence Malick’s latest, which I really liked. I think I liked it more than Knight of Cups, and given that about five people liked that, I’m definitely in a minority here. But while I couldn’t really emotionally engage with Knight of Cups’ male mid-life crisis, I could with Song to Song’s questions about what it is to really experience life.
* Dunkirk – Sweet baby zeus, theis film is great. I really was not expecting it to be so great, and it’s not a perfect account of Dunkirk, but I really really love the way it trusts you to identify with people because they’re people. Everyone’s talking about how Tom Hardy can act with about a third of his face, but more people should be talking about how Kenneth Branagh can convey hope and make you cry with a twitch of his lips (and mayyyyybe a little help from Nimrod.
* The Big Sick – This was totally charming. I was charmed. It was quirky without being sickening, and hello, Holly Hunter is a great Rom-Com-Mom.

I saw Angels in America at the National Theatre, which was really enjoyable, though I’m not convinced it actually needs angels. I could see what Kushner was getting at – but for me it didn’t fly, and I don’t think it needed it to get where it was going – at least, it doesn’t now. Maybe that is a sign of how things have changed.

(3) Things which I wrote
Hahaha, nope. I have a couple of pieces lurking in the back of my brain.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
A very nice gin and tonic from a pub in Putney that does 2-for–1 G&Ts on Thursdays. Would recommend.

(5) In the pile for July
I’m currently reading The Clocks in this House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks and In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Pádraig Ó’Tuama, both of which I am very much enjoying in very different ways. The TBR pile includes Neal Stephenson and Nicola Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, Jhumper Lahiri’s In Other Words and Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industries.

in which I wrap up June

Half the year is gone, I don’t quite know where…

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
June was a good reading month. I finally finished off two collections that I’ve been working through for a while, The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, both of which are immense and kinda visionary. If you want to be thinking about the way the world is, you should read both.

Also on the list:
* The Dark Circle by Linda Grant, which was a Bailey’s Prize nominee and which I enjoyed a surprisingly large amount. I didn’t expect a social-history-novel about TB and class in the 50s to work for me, but it really really did.
* The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which I hadn’t read for years but wanted to re-read as the TV series started up. It was a very important book for me, and I’m delighted that it still holds up. I recognise different things about it now, though, and the impact it has on my as a 36 year old woman is different than the impact it had on me at 17.
* The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid was this month’s London Book Club book, and it was nice to have a little slip of a book. I really liked the style of it and the way the gaps or blanks in the story being told asked you to use your imagination.
* Release by Patrick Ness, which was as much of a joy as usual. I don’t think either of his last two quite live up to More Than This, but then that was remarkable. In this case, I’m not quite sure how well the two stories interconnect, but I really like the primary story – which feels very real to me.
* The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes. I am Team All These Novels Based on Classical Myths Are A Great Thing, and Colm Toibin’s latest is in my TBR pile. In this one, Haynes looks at the Oedipus story through Jocasta (mother-wife) and Iseme (daughter-sister) – and for me, the Ismene story was the strongest. What I really liked, though, was the way Haynes has felt free to carry on myth-making with these characters and create a new variation on the tale. At one point I went, ‘Wait, but that’s not what happens!’ and then I lolled, because it’s A MYTH, FOLKS.
* The First Day by Phil Harrison, which was leant to me by a friend I stayed with in Belfast who knows the author. It’s a first novel, and I liked it but didn’t adore it. The mood and tone have stayed with me and it’s got a clear voice – I found myself reading it in a northern Irish accent. At the same time, it’s about Ideas (which I am pro) but it does more expressing of the ideas than it does embodying of the ideas in the characters and story. If it had been much longer than its 300 pages, I probably would have laid it aside, but fortunately it wasn’t.

 

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Three cinematic goodies this month: Wonder Woman, My Cousin Rachel and Gifted.
I had a ball watching Wonder Woman and I really like the theology/philosophy that underpins its closing – though I could have lived without the Final Inspirational Words of Steve Trevor.
Gifted was utterly charming, which was nice because it could have been tooth-rotting garbage. The perfomances were great, the story was allowed to be a little bit complex, and none of it overstayed its welcome.
My Cousin Rachel has stayed with me – in its frustrations and its genius, which are the same thing. I had the same reaction to the book – a strong cry of Just tell me if she did it!!!. Clearly my need for emotional satisfaction and neatly tied up ends has a possibly stronger pull than my intellectual delight in the fact that neither the story nor this film will give you that answer. It’s very cleverly done.

 

(3) Things which I wrote
I wrote a short review of Justin Thacker’s book *Global Poverty: A Theological Guide.* Spoiler, I liked it.
I also wrote short piece trying to untangle my thoughts about Ted Chiang’s short story, *’Hell is the absence of God.’* It involved re-reading the end of The Last Battle and dragging my copy of The Great Divorce of the shelves (finally). Further (non C. S. Lewis) recommended reading on ideas of heaven and hell desired.

Finally, over at the day job, we (finally) released a collection of essays called Made in the Image of God, which is about the relationship of the imago dei to the ways we think about and do aid and development work.

 

(4) A photo from the month gone by

Giant’s Causeway, while on a work trip to Northern Ireland.

 

(5) In the pile for July
I’ve just started reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s End of Days for our next book club. Then I’m on to Toibin’s House of Names and Xan Brooks’ The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times before digging into the large numbers of unread books on my shelves. I’m hoping to snag a copy of the new Arundhati Roy, as well, courtesy of a friend.

The Proms kick off halfway through the month, and while I’m not promming with a season pass this year, I’m going a whole bunch, so there will be much reading in queues again, I hope. Plus, this month brings Nicola Benedetti, the Rach 2, Monteverdi’s Vespers and and Beethoven’s Ninth.

Can you feel the absence of something you don’t believe exists?

Over the past few months I’ve been slowly reading Stories of Your Lives and Others by Ted Chiang (it’s the collection that contains the story that became Arrival). Today, I reached Hell is the Absence of God, a story about a world in which the existence of God is established fact and the question that humans face is whether or not they’re going to express devotion – not belief. It’s the story of a man who is not devout, whose devout wife dies and whose soul ascends in to heaven, and who is struggling to work out how he can possibly get to heaven to be reunited with her when he has no inclination to become devout.

The best stories make you think and feel. Ted Chiang’s short stories seem to make me think and then feel – and often the feeling is of a punch to the solar plexus leaving me breathless. This was the sucker punch in Hell is the Absence of God:

For most of it inhabitants, Hell is not that different from Earth; its principal punishment is the regret of not having loved God enough when alive, and for many that’s easily endured. For Neil, however, Hell bears no resemblence whatsoever to the mortal plane…. Just as seeing Heaven’s light gave him an awareness of God’s presence in all things in in the mortal plane, so it has made him aware of God’s absence in all things in Hell. Everything Neil sees, hears, or touches causes him distress, and unlike in the mortal plane is pain is not a form of God’s love, but a consequence of His absence.

My brain went into something of a tailspin. I was flying along quite nicely, reading a story and then BAM, the story unexpectedly hit a bundle of my assumptions about heaven and hell. And now here’s me spinning around feeling a little out of control.

Somehow, in some way, through some combination of teaching and reading over the course of my life and the way that met the reality of conversations with people that ended up in the awkward, ’So, do you think I’m going to burn in hell then?’ place I seem to have established some things in my thoughts for myself about heaven and hell.
* Heaven isn’t a space bubble or land in the clouds.
* I’m fairly solid on the new heaven and the new earth and the belief that in the new creation God’s dwelling place will be among the people (aka, Revelation 21).
* I really do not, seriously, have strongly formed ideas about the nature of hell.
* In general, I don’t think I think it’s a physical space, and I’m not sure about the possibility of flames if there’s not a physical space, but beyond that…

If I was pushed I would probably have said that hell was being apart from God for all eternity – and that, if I was honest, I don’t quite know what the last call is for making a decision about God and Jesus (in the story, Neil ‘decides’ – effectively – before he dies). However, I realised today that I have absolutely zero idea what that might be like.

As a child, I had all of The Chronicles of Narnia on tape. These are stories I’ve known as long as I’ve known the Bible, stories that shaped me before I understood that they were related to the Christian story that I was learning at church or in doing my ‘bible time’ with my mum. I remember – though I don’t remember how old I was – a moment when I consciously worked out what the Aslan stuff in the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was all about. As a small, The Last Battle was my favourite. It was the tape that stretched first. In particular, I loved the final battle, the end of Narnia and then the new Narnia and the return of all of my very favourite characters, together, in the garden.

I first heard The Last Battle when I was five or six years old. That means that the end of The Last Battle has been shaping my understanding of death and the experience of entering heaven since before my understanding of Christianity went any further than the acceptance of the idea that there was a heaven (good, God there) and a hell (bad, God not there – maybe flamey, but my childhood church was not hung up on flames).

This is the section in which Aslan returns and is dealing with all those who are inside the stable: first with Tirian (who worships), and then with the group of dwarfs who have support

“Aslan,” said Lucy through her tears, “could you – will you – do something for these poor Dwarfs?”
“Dearest,” said Aslan, “I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.” He came close to the Dwarfs and gave a low growl: low, but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, “Hear that? That’s the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again!”

“You see, ” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”

The others who don’t enter the ‘heaven’ of Aslan’s country, as Narnia comes to an end, look into Aslan’s face and then disappear into his shadow. The narrator explicitly says, “The children never saw them again. I don’t know what became of them.”

The story moves on, and the dwarfs are left where they are, experiencing the world inside the shed as the inside of a shed. What happens to them as everyone else goes ‘further up and further in’ is unclear. But they don’t experience not recognising Aslan as a lack. They don’t believe he’s more than a fairy story. The present they find themselves in is unpleasant, but to them, pretty much everything in their recent life is unpleasant, so really – what’s new? And those who stream into the dark – they’ve looked into Aslan’s face and rejected him, and C.S. Lewis refused to speculate even in fiction on the experience of that.

Chiang puts forward an idea that made me catch my breath: that eternal separation from God once you grasp the reality of God hurts in a way beyond human experience. The move for Neil isn’t from a state of unbelief to belief – it’s one from lack of devotion to devotion – but it is a fundamental change in a human’s relationship with God, at the point of their death.

The books you read as a child shape the way you see the world: what you think is possible, what you think is true. And The Last Battle seems to me to have had a part in shaping what I think eternal separation from God feels like – either it’s a blank, that I don’t really meditate upon, or it isn’t much different from how you’ve lived the rest of your life. The latter is what Chiang puts forward as as the reality of hell in the world of his story for nearly everyone who ends up there. They weren’t devout, they didn’t experience the light of God before they died, and so, hell is business as usual. They’re dwarfs. But in Neil, Chiang has given me someone who experiences the light – or looks into the face of Aslan – and goes to hell, where hell is not disappearing into the darkness and authorial oblivion. And that is a whole lot more of an unnerving proposition to face.

In which I review Global Poverty: a Theological Guide

Things I have recently finished reading for work – a new Global Poverty: a Theological Guide by Justin Thacker.

A disclaimer, as I embark on a short review: I work for one of the organisations whose theological work is crititqued in the book and we come out of it pretty well, so… either I’m predisposed to like the book because it likes my organisation and its work, or I’m predisposed to like the book because the theology of the organisation I work for and the theology of the author are generally in sync.

Thacker divides the book into five sections: creation – fall – Israel – redemption – consummation. His aim is to provide a thorough acount with multiple perspectives on poverty, but rather neatly, it also shares a structure with a now-common way that a number of scholars (Tom Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, Chris Wright, among them) break down the narrative structure of the Bible. Given my organisation’s work, the shared space between Thacker’s book and Chris Wright’s work (The Mission of God, most notably), will provide me some nice room to explore overlapping ideas in the future, and that, for me, is always fun.

Within these five sections, Thacker explores a number of key ideas:

  • In Creation, what it means to bear the image of God (individually, and corporately as a part of a collective humanity), emphasising human agency, dignity and relationality. These essential elements of flourishing are what, fundamentally, we’re looking to encourage when we deal with poverty.
  • In Fall, what sin is and how the existence of sin (individual and systematic) contributes to global poverty. Of critical importance, the fact that sin exists within and damages relationships, breaking the shalom that is the mark of the flourishing community and the kingdom of God.
  • In Israel, the purpose of Israel and the paradigm it provides for the church. Thacker argues that the key to ‘learning’ from Israel, in engaging with poverty, is to ask ‘What does it mean to be a holistic blessing?’ – that is, to be engaged in the business of political (socio-economical) and spiritual liberation within a community of God’s people in which the distinction beween ‘mine and yours’ breaks down. In the process he points out that much of the Old Testament’s teaching, law and prophecy command the powerful, not the poor, demanding that those who have the power to make a difference in the world take responsiblity for making a difference.
  • In Redemption, the nature of the gospel and salvation, followed by an assessment of a number of secular theories and contemporary theologies of development in the light of this understanding. So we look at modernisation theory, dependency theory, human rights and capabilities approaches, and then at Catholic Social Teaching, Liberation Theology, Pentecostal theologys, Christian Aid and Tearfund.
  • In Consummation, the nature of Christianity’s ultimate hope and what this means for how we think about, talk about, and try and tackle poverty. In particular, Thacker is concerned with the reality of the statement that the ‘poor will be with you always’ and the establishment of a sounder, stronger motivation for working for justice and to challenge poverty.

To cut a long story (and a potentially long blog post) short, I really like this book. I think it’s fundamentally sound and incredibly sensible, both in what it says and how it says it. The book’s not radical – well, unless being essentially right is radical, which on this subject it may be. It doesn’t get hyperbolic in support of things it is arguing for or judgemental about the things it is arguing against. I think the Fall section is incredibly helpful in unpacking the concept of sin and particularly systematic sin and our relationship with it and I think the Consummation section is incredibly encouraging for those of us working to articulate and support a biblically sound narrative for tackling poverty that is motivating and sustaining without accidentally making everybody think they can be a superhero. And finally, the writing is such that it’s really easy to read, which is something I cannot appreciate highly enough.

In which I wrap up May

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
Most importantly, I picked up the new Nickolas Butler, In the Hearts of Men, while I was in San Francisco as it’s not out till later in the summer here (in related information, I recommend Dog Eared Books in The Mission). It would be hard to overstate how important his first, Shotgun Lovesongs is to me, so I was waiting for this in a state between breathless expectation and fear of disappointment. I spent sometime reminding myself not to expect the same novel or feeling over again, and actually – that worked.

I don’t feel the same about In the Hearts of Men as I do about Shotgun Lovesongs, and that makes my review of it less hyperactively enthusiastic, but I think it’s a really good book that I hugely enjoyed reading. It shows the same ability to evoke place and the same ability to make mixed-up characters empathetic, which is this combine to make a story about the more unpleasant underbelly of mid-western America a read that disturbs without creating distaste. At the same time, I’m unlikely to return to it often, because the feeling it created in me was one of deep sadness about a part of the world.

Other things I read:
* Stay with Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò. Incredibly easy read that does a great job with a difficult subject – but it hasn’t lingered long.
* The Vorrh – B Catling. Utterly weird and a little bit unpleasant. There were times I was tempted to give up on it, but I think I’m glad I read it. It’s beautifully written and evocative, but what it evokes was probably creepier than I like with less payoff in terms of what it’s trying to say. I don’t know if I’ll read the next in the series.
* Born a Crime – Trevor Noah. Recommended by a couple of friends, so I nabbed it when it was 99p on kindle. Very smart, very funny, very illuminating. Read it.
* My Life with a Star – Jiri Weil. London Book Club’s May book, and a very wonderful one about life in Nazi-occupied Prague. It was very precise about the ins and outs and all the rules, which heightens the reality and makes the stories the narrator weaves for himself real even though you know it’s a lacquer over his life. Well worth picking up.
* Global Poverty: A Theological Guide – Justin Thacker. A work read, but I read it cover to cover. It’s very good and I’ll review it soon.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
At the cinema:
* Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which was mostly a ball, if a bit lightweight. Basically, Baby Groot brought out my otherwise totally dormant biological clock and I literally cooed in the cinema.
* Their Finest, which was far more enjoyable than I was expecting (I only went because @wittertainment liked it), although I don’t think it earned one of its big moments. Gemma Arterton is fab though.
* King Arthur, which was exactly the bundle of gloriously nonsensical entertainment I wanted it to be. A++ Guy Ritchie fun times.

On TV I joined half the rest of the Western Hemisphere in starting in on American Gods. I’m having the same kind of reaction to it that I did to the book, which is that I really like the idea, but it is just not working for me. I’ve also started Anne with an E on Netflix. I’m mixed on this: I love the old version so so so much, and while I appreciate some of the real pain that this version is bringing to the story of Anne, I don’t need all the added in dramatic angst. And then, finally, The Handmaid’s Tale started in the U.K. Based on the first episodes I’m sold. I think the lighting is particularly stunning, in the way it makes Gilead look like an Old Master inside the Commander’s home so that the realisation that it’s now-ish when Offred goes outside slams into you. The only worry I have is that the intended on-going-ness of the series and some of the flashbacks (which do help you really get how much Offred has lost) risk removing some of the ambiguities of the book.

Can I just say though, the fact that American Gods and The Handmaid’s Tale are coming weekly is SO great. I love it.

(3) Things which I wrote
Still nope, though I’m half-way through writing a review of of Global Poverty… which will go up eventually.

(4) A photo from the month gone by

How I spent a bunch of my time in San Francisco: eating ice cream and watching the baseball. The Giants actually won games when I was there. They should hire me as a professional watcher of them for luck  (I can’t do anything for them against Clayton Kershaw though).

(5) In the pile for June
I’m reading The Handmaid’s Tale again, because it’s been years, and I’m still in Ted Chiang’s short story collection. After that, I don’t know. I picked up Teju Cole and Chuck Klosterman while I was away, and I was just given Colm Toibin’s new novel, House of Names for my birthday (a bit early) because my friends know I’m here for my ancient myths.

in which I wrap up April

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
The Easter weekend means I demolished two books in short order, and then read barely anything else because I was away with work for ten days.

I read Flâneuse, by Lauren Elkin, which was my Shakespeare & Co book. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but then, I don’t think I could tell you what I was expecting – and also, I really enjoyed it anyway. I love walking and wondering in cities and this was a fascinating exploration of women doing just that.

My friend J. gave me a proof of Min Kym’s book Gone, about being a violin prodigy whose violin got stolen at a London train station, I suppose to make up for all the times she has laughed at me for sending her playlists when our book club books have classical music in them. I read it in an afternoon and loved it (plus it comes with its own playlist!) – it’s a fascinating insight into what it’s like to have that kind of affinity for an instrument and kind of explains how what can look from the outside like an unhealthy relationship with some wood and horse hair isn’t inherently unhealthy at all.

I also finished the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lent book, Dethroning Mammon, which was the right kind of combination of challenging and encouraging, and also Shauna Niequiest’s Present over Perfect, with which I have over-identification issues and to which I will probably be returning a lot.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Keeping the cinema-going in balance, I saw Free Fire, A Quiet Passion, and Fast and Furious 8 – all of which I hugely enjoyed, even though the language of enjoyment is all wrong or A Quiet Passion.

Free Fire was funny and tense and smart-dumb and refreshing in its shoot-out that didn’t level city blocks or innocent bystanders. Also I am pro Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy being in things together. Fast and Furious 8 was big and silly and hugely fun and yes I’m here for Jason Statham and the Rock fighting/hugging it out. And then A Quiet Passion was almost the complete opposite – slow and still (at least on the surface), and contained. Surprisingly sharp and funny in places (I’m not hugely familiar with Emily Dickinson or maybe I wouldn’t have been surprising), deeply engaged with eternal questions of life, death and faith, I’m just really glad I made the time to go and see it.

(3) Things which I wrote
I had a public writing lull this month, and a private journalling binge, while I tried to work out some parts of my life. Nothing to see here for now, move along. Maybe soon.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
Two this month… from Easter in Cornwall, and before breakfast in Nepal

(5) In the pile for May
I’m currently slowly reading Brian Catling’s The Vorrh: it is wild. My book club is shadowing the Bailey’s Prize (thanks, the Reading Agency) and we are reading Stay with Me. I’m about three chapters in and I love it. We are also doing regular book club, and we’re reading My Life With a Star by Jiri Weil. Childlessness followed by the holocaust will make for a cheery month, but it should be really interesting. I’m also off on holiday, so that’s a case of (a) seeing what’s on my kindle (some Dickens, some Dostoevsky, and a lot of David Mitchell to re-read I think) and (b) shopping in City Lights (yessss, I’m going to San Francisco). The new Nickolas Butler is on my list, and maybe I’ll finally pick up some Tales of the City.

In which I wrap up… March

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
I had a week’s holiday this month, so I was able to read a bunch. Or rather, I was able to demolish a 1000 page fantasy novel, and some other short things. So, I read The Wise Man’s Fear which is the second of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles and which was just as fun and absorbing as the first. Can we have the third now, please? Did I leave it late enough to read these that I won’t have to wait too long?

I also read:

  • The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, which is an Egyptian dystopia about queueing for the bureaucratic central office of a central regime to open in order to get a certificate that you need. Think Brazil but with a wholly different cultural world.
  • The Foreign Correspondent in which Alan Furst provides a suitably Alan Furst-y European WW2 spy novel. They’re always an atmospheric treat.
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones was our book club book, and we all wanted to like it more than we found we did. A fascinating idea – a novel about a very particular cultural rarity – that didn’t land as a novel.
  • The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville. I am enjoying current novella-focused Miéville a very lot. This was a wild idea tightly done, and I had a total ball with it. And now I’m going to the Tate Modern to see the surrealists again.
  • Following On by Emma John, which I demolished in one evening because I was also a teenager in the 1990s with a baffling and determined affection for the England cricket team. This was just so much fun to read as I made heart eyes at the book while remembering Graham Thorpe, and sniffly noises while remembering Ben Hollioake, and more heart eyes over Dominic Cork. I have zero idea how this works if you weren’t a female teenage cricket fan in England in the 1990s, but if you want to understand us as a species, start here.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
At the cinema I saw Logan, which I bloody loved for being tough and brutal and really going with the concept. More of this kind of X-Men world, please. And I saw Beauty and the Beast, which was enjoyable fluff for a Sunday afternoon.

At the theatre I Stoppard-ed out, with Travesties and Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead, both of which I loved, but especially Travesties which was new and therefore more hilarious to me. And I saw Twelfth Night at the National, which is very good generally and a revelation for me in how gender-switching Malvolio to Malvolia (the might Tamsin Greig) changed my feelings about how Sir Toby & co. treat the character.

And at the Royal Ballet, I saw the latest triple bill, Human Seasons, After the Rain, and Flight Pattern. I enjoyed Human Seasons fine, but After the Rain is one of my favourites, and I got to see Zenaida Yanowsky dance it, which was just lovely, and Flight Pattern was hypnotic and powerful.

(3) Things which I wrote
I reviewed Kent Annan’s book *Slow Kingdom Coming*, which I really enjoyed last year. I also worked out and listed my top twenty favourite Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes in honour of its twentieth birthday.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
I went to Egypt. I’m steadily editing and uploading my photos to flickr (has anything replaced flickr for good photo sharing and storing yet?)

(5) In the pile for April
I don’t have a firm list. I’m reading Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of your life, and others and a Stefan Zweig collection, trying Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star, which is a noir poem, and slowly plugging away at Peter Oborne’s Wounded Tiger which is a bit sludgey in style. I’m also reading Shauna Niequist’s Present over Perfect and finishing Justin Welby’s Dethroning Mammon, and getting back to Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse. At the ballet I’m seeing Jewels, and at the cinema I am looking forward to Free Fire and the next Fast and Furious installment… (yes, I am).

20 episodes of Buffy, 20 years on.

In case you hadn’t noticed (because you aren’t a nerd or aren’t on twitter or just don’t care about good television), Friday marked twenty years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired. Buffy… was my second great teen-TV love (after My So-Called Life) and almost certainly the most formative for me. I was 16 when I started watching, in my first year of A-levels. Season seven finished during my final year of university. I essentially grew up with Buffy, even if my teenage demons weren’t exactly her teenage demons.

Buffy… has shaped me in ways I don’t necessarily understand, let alone feel particularly comfortable talkin about because it’s deep and feelings-y. And it’s shaped my language and vocabulary. It wasn’t perfect at the time (cough Beer Bad cough) and it’s imperfections show up more from today’s perspective (why is Southern California so white?) – but it’s imperfections, and those of it’s characters, make it all the more human and strangely more loveable. Anyway, in honour of it’s twentieth birthday, I picked my favourite twenty episodes. It was pretty tricky – there’s a runner up list of another 10–20 pretty close behind – but I refused to allow myself to make the two-parters into one item on the list in order to get extra episodes.

1 & 2. Suprise & Innocence. AKA, the one where Buffy and Angel have sex and Angel loses his soul, and all teenage girls proxy their way through relationship angst. This two-parter taught me that television could do things that I didn’t know television could do, and I will never be the same again. I came to love Buffy and Spike, but Buffy and Angel will forever have my heart (and the cookie-dough speech in the final episode is one of my TV moments. I’m cookie dough), and this shredded it.
3. Hush. The gloriously creepy fairy tale is one for the ages – as well as proving that Buffy‘s sharp scripting isn’t just about the dialogue.
4. The Body. I’ll just be over here, howling, particularly over Anya’s speech. I am more equipped for grief because of this.
5. Passion. Oh look, more crying, this time over Giles. This is the pitch-perfect peak of the ‘when Angel was evil’ arc, and it’s emotionally destructive.
6 & 7. Becoming Part I & II. “It’s a big rock. I can’t wait to tell my friends, they don’thavea rock this big.”My favourite season finale. I love Buffy and Spike. I love Buffy and her mom more. And I love Buffy on her own stepping up to save the world.
8. Restless. Season four’s weird and wonderful dream finale, with the man with the cheese. It captures dream profundity wonderfully,
9. Once More With Feeling. Yes, I love the singing. But no, the singing is not my favourite episode. It is incredibly bold and brave and effective though. Favourite number: the Giles and Buffy 80s training montage.
10. The Gift. For all season six gave us a musical, and there are highlights in both seasons six and seven, I would have been perfectly content (if emotionally trashed) if Buffy had ended here, having saved the world a lot.
11. Something Blue. One of season four’s best and the series’ best funnies. It’s a really nice way of dealing with the fallout of Willow and Oz without getting terribly heavy. Also, Buffy and Spike’s engagement.
12. Tabula Rasa. The other episode that really justifies the existence of season six. I love the mind-wiped scoobies (espeically Giles and Spike), and the heartbreaking ending. I lost some of my love for Willow over time (she was my favourite early on, but was supplanted by Buffy in my affections by mid-season five and Buffy and I grew up), but in this moment, I feel for her rather than being frustrated at her.
13. Band Candy. In which we all realise why adults need to be adults – except for Principal Snyder who is much much more enjoyable as a teen. If you want to give yourself a heartbreak, note the music that Giles and Joyce listen to and then skip to Forever in season five to note what music Giles is listening to.
14. The Wish. “I wish that Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale.” Why would you wish that, Cordy? That aside, I love a good AU, and while AU Willow and Xander are wonderful, I really really love AU Buffy – it’s a gorgeous insight into what might have been.
15. Prophecy Girl. In which Buffy deals with boys and the end of the world at the same time, and comes of age in her own show.
16. Doppelgängland. The return of Anya and of AU-Willow is a total delight – and showcases Alyson Hannigan wonderfully.
17. Gingerbread. Not always a hot fave, but I do enjoy it’s analysis of what might happen if people did get a glimpse of what is really going on in Sunnydale.
18. School Hard. In which Spike and Drusilla arrive. What, you need more reason to love it?
19. Lies My Parents Told Me. My lone season seven entry, and another Spike-centric story – this time with some truly delightful flashbacks. But mostly in this, I enjoy the dynamics between Spike and Wood, and Buffy and Wood and Giles. Giles’ betrayal is brutal, and Buffy’s response is a painfully perfect moment of growing up.
20. Never Kill a Boy on the First Date. This is on the list because this is the episode in which I truly, deeply, became a Buffy fan, setting up the VCR to record every Thursday evening.

Review: Slow Kingdom Coming (Kent Annan)

You will know the truth and the truth will set you free
John 8:32

The truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Any book that includes these quotations within its chapter epigraphs is aways likely to be a winner with me. But I liked Kent Annan’s Slow Kingdom Coming beyond it’s epigraphs (which also include Kierkegaard, Wendell Berry and Dostoyevky). So much that despite the fact that I’m tired of adding books by white Anglo-American men to the recommended reading list, I’m adding this to the recommended reading list for people interested in Christianity, justice and development work.

[Two asides: can someone recommend me somethings to read in this field by more diverse authors, and can someone at a publishing house publishing this kind of thing find some more diverse authors to publish and publicise, Kthx.]

In my case, Slow Kingdom Coming is preaching to the choir – but it’s a really good book for the choir members to pass on to their friends. It’s short, really nicely written (yes, including the epigraphs) and reflective but practical. Rather than asking the questions, ‘How do we do justice work?’ or ‘How do we bring justice?’ it asks the question: ‘What kind of person should I be in order to be a part of seeing justice come?

Annan provides five practices for Christians to develop. These should be a part of our discipleship and daily life, but, as he makes clear, it is also essential for them to underpin Christian mission, development practice, and justice work. These are:
* Attention. Paying heed to the world around us, as the first and most important step in exercising care. Annan challenges his reader – broadly, white, western, evangelical Christians – to first pay attention, and then to focus and maintain their attention on something particular that breaks their heart and where they want to see the kingdom come.
* Confession. Admitting and lamenting past pain and faults and seeking restoration. The western reader is challenged to confess the self-interested motivations for seeking justice, our own privilege, and the roads they lead us down – towards hero complexes and grand public gestures.
* Respect. Honouring others and waiting – earning – respect in turn. He argues that seeking justice involves seeing people finding and building lives that reflect the respect they deserve, then this work must be done with respect: listening, bearing in mind the imago dei, promoting rights, and living with incarnationally.
* Partnering. Building relationships in which people are truly equal agents in the pursuit of justice. Annan challenges his readers to avoid saviour complexes that cause us to play rescuer or fixer for people, but to prepare the way for others – as John did for Jesus. He also challenges the reader to partner with God, pointing out that, ‘If you think you’re bring God anywhere you’re on the wrong trajectory of for not with.’ As he says, the resurrection is not just a rescue from something – it is a liberation for something: for faithfulness and participation in God’s story.
* Truthing (telling and seeking). Breaking down the distance between ourselves and other people to check our assumptions against the realities of the world. This helps us to learn and to improve the things we do, the way we serve, and the relationships we build – and it enables us to tell the truth to others about the justice we seek.

Slow Kingdom Coming isn’t a scary book, but it is a challenging one for a lot of the western church in thinking about what it looks like to do – or rather, participate in mission, “development”, and the pursuit of justice, because it challenges the norms that exist in our cultures, inside and outside the church. It asks us to change and give up the easy options we’ve got used to. However, it’s also a bit liberating, because it reminds us that while we’re called to be a part of seeking justice and have a responsibility to God for that: we’re not responsible for the success of the whole show.

He is not, therefore, eternally responsible for whether he reaches his goal within this world of time. But without exception, he is eternally responsible for the kind of means he uses.
Soren Kierkegaard.

in which I wrap up… February

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
Moonglow, by Michael Chabon. Chabon has been a favourite of mine for a long time, and I liked this more than Telegraph Avenue, his last novel. It’s got a lot of atmosphere and some great storytelling, and I like the point that he’s working with about memory and history and memoirs. However… Chabon just isn’t rocking my world like he used to (and it’s not just my age, I re-read Kavalier and Clay last year and still found it glorious). This felt lightweight.

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton. This was our book club pick and I was glad to have the chance to read it after having loved the film for so many years. It took a little while to get into, breaking through the familiarity with the film to get to the book itself, but then I loved it. Lily and Lawrence frustrating themselves at every turn – and Wharton showing why this is so tied to the age in which they live – is heartbreakingly painful.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. How does a twentysomething write something like this? It’s warm, it’s rich, it has an amazing ability to capture a life and its connection to all the others in the family chaing in one chapter focusing on one moment in that person’s life. That through-the-window approach is remarkably similar to that of The Underground Railroad, and like that novel it provides everything you need by way of satisfaction (even though you’d really like a little bit more.

Liturgy of the Ordinary, by Tish Harrison-Warren. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to have some Sunday reading time where I would focus on faith. This was the first book to fill that space, and it has been lovely. It’s beautifully written and nicely thought provoking, being in my space but challenging me enough in the right kinds of ways (for me) to move forwards.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Loving – which not wholly what I expected from the trailer, being much slower moving and focused on the couple in question much more than the world around them. It was almost too slow, for me, but it was really good.
Lego Batman – which is deeply deeply funny. Not quite Lego Movie moving and hilarious, but a very worthy sequel. Also, there’s nothing weirder than a film featuring Ralph Fiennes’ voice and Lego Voldemort in which Fiennes is NOT voicing Voldemort.
Hidden Figures – which I loved with all of my tiny heart. It’s got a great story, a brilliant cast, and a fabulous soundtrack. It doesn’t shy away from the struggle and injustices the women face, but it also tells the story in a really warm way – without getting sickly. It’s the best space movie since the The Dish, and I want to watch them in a doube bill.

(3) Things which I wrote
My book club is heading into it’s fifth year, so I picked my top ten reads of the first four years.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
Westminster Abbey

(5) In the pile for March
I’m on holiday with The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss and Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan by Peter Oborne. Then Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones is our book club book. I will also be at the ballet for the Royal Ballet’s new triple bill, and at the theatre for Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead (with DanRad at the Old Vic), Twelfth Night (at the National with Tamsin Greig, SCREAAAAAAM), and the White Devil (at the Globe).

My London Book Club Top 10

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I wouldn’t have let anyone who wasn’t my English teacher tell me what I had to read. Suggestions, recommendations, gifts, yes – but outright direction, no. But then I moved to London, and in search of a friends, I joined a book club that some people I knew on twitter were setting up. And thus did four years pass, and London Book Club became a monthly bedrock of my social life. And every month other people participated in a democratic(ish) process to choose at least one of the books I will read for me.

We’ve read quite a lot of books in that period of time. I’ve not read all of the books in this table. When I miss a month, I decide whether or not I fancy it (sometimes yes, Art of Fielding, and sometimes no We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves). The whole list is below, but here are my top ten (in no particular order) of the books we have read – that I had not read before.

(I had read The Handmaid’s Tale before, and it remains one of the most important books of my still-young life).

  1. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
  2. Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
  3. Girl at War – Sara Novic
  4. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal – Jeanette Winterson
  5. The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer
  6. Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain
  7. The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
  8. The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach
  9. In the Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman
  10. High Rise – JG Ballard

You should read any or all of the above, and many more of the others. Personally I would recommend steering well clear of Idiopathy and The Accidental Apprentice, and regard Fates and Furies and Outline as thoroughly overrated.