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.

In which I wrap up January

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
I had great plans to read a lot more this month, but then one book completely shellacked me and it took me a week to get into anything again. Also, you know, there’s been some political stuff going on, and weirdly I’ve not been escaping into fiction that (admittedly mostly due to time constraints). Anyway, I read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, which I hugely enjoyed and ripped through on the plane. It’s big and sprawly and fantastical, with just the right amount of brains and a lot of heart.

Then I read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which apparently won the Pulitzer last year, and which I really enjoyed. It was very acute on the which-way-is-up world of spying, the complexities of identity, and the utter misery that comes on both the winning and losing sides of a war. And I will never see another Vietnam war movie in the same way again – and that is good.

Finally, I read The Power by Naomi Alderman, which kick-started a fire in my brain that won’t go away. I read it in three days straight (which included two days at work) and then spent a week recovering from it by not really reading anything else – at least, not fictional. It’s a simple, brilliant premise, and very very on the nose. It felt like a book that was written for me.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Well, I saw La La Land, which I loathed for being a shallow as a very shallow puddle and implying that we should like and root for a guy who wants to save jazz from evolving and from John Legend. I loathed it more because I am the kind of person who likes musicals and tap dancing and jazz and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It puts me in a very small minority, but I feel like time will be on my side.

I also saw three most excellent films, though. Firstly, A Monster Calls, the film of the Patrick Ness book about stories and surviving pain and life. It’s beautifully, magickally, done, and I utterly howled at the end. More beautifully, so did the teenage girls sitting across from me in the cinema, who were given tissues by a young man on his way out of the cinema. Then I saw Scorses’s Silence, which worked on me in I don’t really know how to write about. The book’s been living with me for a while now, but the film made me notice and think about different things, mostly about incarnation and what it means to sacrifice yourself – and I really really really love that it doesn’t try and have an answer. And finally I saw T2: Trainspotting which, guys, was just a ball. I was sceptical of it when it was announced, somewhere between panicking and over-excited when I saw the trailers, and then finally, happily reassured. I don’t know what I expected it to be about or like and it was simultaneously what I probably should have expected from Danny Boyle and nothing I ever would have from a sequel to Trainspotting. It was funny, melancholy, hyperactive, relaxed about itself – and a very warm return to some very mixed up (and therefore human) people.

At the theatre I saw Art at the Old Vic, which was huge fun – short, sharp, and thought provoking (and not about art).

(3) Things which I wrote
Some thoughts on The Power and going on my first march.
On the ‘Read Harder’ challenge, which I’m going to use as a way of keeping an eye on my reading habbits.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
I went to Paris for a quick weekend. Here’s a place I hadn’t been before: The Pont de Bir-Hakeim (aka, that bridge from Inception)

(5) In the pile for February
Post-Power– stymie, I’ve got myself halfway into Moonglow, Michael Chabon’s latest, and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, which is our next bookclub book. I’m also working through Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary. Homegoing is next up, after I leaped over it for The Power, and I’ve got the sequel to The Name of the Wind still, obviously, which I may take on an upcoming trip as a chunky fun read. I was sent Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years and Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time as Christmas gifts, I picked up The Vorrh in Foyles, and Our Soul’s at Night and Flaneuse at Shakespeare & Co.

A week that started with me reading The Power and ended with my first march

On Saturday, the Women’s March took place. It turned out to be a pretty big event. It was always a pretty big deal – but then, I suppose I probably wouldn’t have chosen to go to the London march if I hadn’t thought that. It was my first march.

I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t ever had to march out of a personal necessity in my life. I’ve thought about going on previous marches, admired those who have, but never taken that step. In brutal honesty, the bottom line is that there has always been something else going on on those days, something I wanted to do more: it was never convenient – and never an absolute necessity.

To some extent, for me, it still wasn’t yesterday. I’m still well-off: educated, employed, and living in a country with a social security net and public health service – at least, for now. Even if I dislike the result of the #Brexit referendum and think many of the factors behind are shady, I still live in a fairly functioning democratic state. But at the same time it has become more and more clear to me over the years exactly how untrue that is for so many others, for the majority of women around the world, and how we’re not exactly making steady progress towards those things for the majority. Slow, unsteady, steps forward are crashing into barriers, and being bounced into lurching tumbles backwards and sideways. Frankly, it was bloody well past time to leave the sofa and the novel behind and go and numb my toes in Grosvenor Square.

And it was great. It was fun and it was serious, it was warm (ok, not the weather, that was freezing), and it was hopeful and encouraging but but not under any illusions that it on its own was going to be enough. A few tweets (coughpiersmorgancough) suggest that the existence of the march unnerves some – but not enough, yet, to upset the order of things. When a march comes close to upsetting the order of things, there tend to be arrests. But it was enough to be a start that encouraged more – and that should demand more too.

Coincidentally enough, at the beginning of last week, just before the march really began to solidify as a reality in my personal future, I started reading Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power. If you’ve not heard of it, the premise of the book (with as few spoilers as possible) is that women start to develop a skein across their collarbone that generates electricity, giving them the ability to deliver electric shocks. The novel is framed by a couple of letters, which places the writing in a very different future society looking back at what, it becomes clear, is our present.

It is a stunning read. Two of my book club friend have accurately summed it up as, ’So HANDMAID’S TALE, but on CRACK.’ We have a dinner booked in for a serious post-THE POWER debrief, because OMG are there ever things that I need to talk about.

There were a couple of things that really struck me – and neither of them were the gender-power-imbalanced future that emerges was as undesireable as our gender-power-imbalanced present. That I already knew, thanks. Most feminists do.

One was the cumulative build of events: everyone in the book is trying to the best they can to protect and preserve the people and things that they care about and think are good – with varying degrees of recognition and caring of what that might do those outside that sphere of things ‘worth saving.’ Obviously I have certain sympathies within the novel – the novel itself has certain sympathies – but the principle holds across the board. The second was how this cumulation contributes to the growing sense that losing must be held to be impossible. Because the losing side won’t go back to square one, they’ll go back to square minus at least five, people will do things – extreme things – that they might in abstraction choose not to do to other people. Doing something terrible is worse – for you – than the consequences of not doing it for you and others. The battle becomes a zero sum not necessarily because it is a zero sum game, but because at least one side insists that it is one.

Let’s be clear, The Power definitely has a view on where we’re starting from (a fairly accurate view IMHO), but is also clear-eyed might, might have to and might choose to do, and where it might lead. It would be nice to think we might get from yesterday’s marches to a future where a man can’t boast about sexually harrassing women and then go on to be elected president (amongst other things) without going through a The Power-equivalent scenario, but I’ll be honest, I also think it would be naive. There were plenty of people not at marches talking about the importance of dialogue and the search for unity, and they’re not wrong: but if we’re to avoid The Power and The Handmaid’s Tale then the side that wasn’t marching has to get better at the dialogue too. And fast.

read harder?

If you’re of a bookish disposition and frequent twitter, you may have come across Book Riot’s Read Harder 2017 challenge (and it’s previous iterations). ‘Read Harder’ is basically about challenging yourself to go beyond your default choices to read new or different things. I generally have a mixed response to reading challenges, because I tend to think of myself as fairly wide-ranging AND I already want to read more books than there is time for reading.

But I did a quick survey of my list of the books I read last year, f my 40 books last year:
* 14 were by women.
* 11 were by authors from outside the UK / North America / Antipodes, and four of those were originally written in English anyway.
* If you include UK/North America/Antipodes then I add another 3 authors who aren’t white (four books, because I read two by Colson Whitehead).
* I covered Africa and Asia, but had nothing from Latin America
Only 18 books are by white men, which makes me feel marginally more balanced, but still, I want to keep an eye on my reading. I’m clearly going to read the new Michael Chabon, because I love Michael Chabon, but I want to not read Michael Chabon followed by the most recent Jonathan Lethem followed by Joshua Ferris as my default setting.

So, this is Book Riot’s list, which I think I’m going to use as a prompt. I’m not going to get all competitive and ‘must finish this’ with it, because that is just not me, just keep an eye on what I’m reading through its categories. I’ve included some of the things I’m thinking of reading in some of the categories, many of which I already own or know I’m going to pick up, and there are clearly some gaps for me to think about – and some categories where I could look further afield. Please send tips.

  • Read a book about sports: Selection Day– Aravind Adiga, The Boys of Summer – Roger Kahn; Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan – Peter Oborne
  • Read a debut novel: Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter, The Sympathizer – Viet Thang Nguyen, The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley, *Homegoing* – Yaa Gyasi
  • Read a book about books
  • Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author: One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
  • Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative: Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.
  • Read an all-ages comic
  • Read a book published between 1900 and 1950: The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene, These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer
  • Read a travel memoir
  • Read a book you’ve read before: I have a pile of re-reading to do, and I’m probably going to pick a Nick Harkaway or a Murakami, or potentially Foucault’s Pendulum
  • Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location: I live in London, so… but Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter is already in my TBR pile.
  • Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location: to do this, I have to go beyond San Francisco in the west, Nicaragua in Latin America, Cameroon in West Africa, Burundi in East Africa, Beijing, Japan, Myanmar, and so on… The Sympathizer fits, and so does Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System.
  • Read a fantasy novel: I’ve already run through Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, but I’ll take your non-white-american-men recommendations now.
  • Read a nonfiction book about technology: Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari, The Future of the Professions – Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind
  • Read a book about war: Again, The Sympathizer has me covered, but I also have Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuschinski, about Angola.
  • Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+
  • Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country
  • Read a classic by an author of color: I’m going to finally read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and some James Baldwin.
  • Read a superhero comic with a female lead: Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird and Sydney Padua’s Lovelace and Babbage
  • Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
  • Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel
  • Read a book published by a micropress
  • Read a collection of stories by a woman: The Thing Around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  • Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love
  • Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of colour