Saturday, 14 October 2017

A book worth waiting for

Tanya Marlow, Those who Wait  2017

For an evangelical (i.e. Bible-believing) Christian to confess that the Bible no longer excites and delights him sounds like heresy. However, I suspect I am not alone among my generation in feeling that way. We read it (or even study it occasionally) out of duty or habit, but it doesn’t feel “living and active”, as we are told it is. It has become over-familiar. We know the stories and the lessons well; we have after all heard them or read them often over the years, and we or they have become jaded. It is only the exceptional teacher or preacher who revives its immediacy for us.

Tanya Marlow is one of those exceptional teachers. Sadly we are denied listening to her as she has suffered from myalgic encephalomyelitis for over twenty years and been largely confined to her bed for the last seven of them. (See Tanya Marlow talking about ME.) However she writes a blog called “Thorns and Gold” (Tanya's website and blog), and has written a downloadable book. Now she has written Those who Wait (Malcolm Down Publishing, £9.99), which looks at four characters in the Bible and their experience of waiting: Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Mary. What Tanya does is imagine them telling their own stories. However her retelling is always backed up with scholarship, the book ending with discussion about the theological and historical issues involved on the way. Each character’s story is told in five short chapters, with pauses for reflection after each. Finally there is a section entitled, “The God who waits”, reminding us that we are not alone in the experience of waiting.

I think this is a brilliant book. For one thing it’s multi-purpose! You can use it for personal devotion; you can use it in group studies; a church fellowship could use it for Advent (you might detect the characters follow an Advent pattern, beginning with the patriarchs and prophets). Mainly it’s brilliant in the way it shines light on the Bible narrative, reminding us that it’s about God’s interaction with people like us and their reaction to him in their own struggles with life. Tanya Marlow shows us, not only does the Bible engage with real people, but through it we can find a God who’s concerned with the issues where the rubber hits the road. The section headings illustrate this: “Sarah’s story – Dealing with Disappointment; Waiting for Joy”, “Isaiah’s story – Dealing with Delay; Waiting for Peace”, “John the Baptist’s story – Dealing with Doubt; Waiting for Justice”, “Mary’s story – Dealing with Disgrace; Waiting for Jesus”. If you’ve never been troubled by any of those eight concerns, the book will probably be of only academic interest to you; but if you recognise them, this book will encourage you that you’re not alone, and that you’ve not been forgotten by the Comforter who caused the stories to be written in the first place.

I’ve read quite few Lent and Advent books over the years. This is quite the most readable and exciting I’ve come across. I loved the way it reengaged me with the Bible by quite unexpected roads. I especially liked the Celtic-like blessings after each character’s section, such as this:
“May you who are cloaked in and choked by cynicism
Be broken by the grace of God.
May you who are in hiding
Find God’s hands held out to you
As an open invitation of love.
May you see God’s face when it all feels too late,
And may you encounter the God who sees you, knows you, loves you still.


I suspect that this vibrant book is the product of years of enforced silence and frustration, rather like a minor prophet's. It will probably have a wider audience than Tanya would ever had from one pulpit or conference platform. My hope is that it will have a huge circulation. It deserves it.

(Those who Wait is published on 16th October, and can be ordered from Wordery and other online and retail outlets, I believe.)

Friday, 29 September 2017

Playboy Hefner dies

Hugh Hefner, whose death was announced yesterday, wasn't, one gathers, the nicest of men - although he does have his advocates among those who knew him well and those who regard him as a vanguard of progressive values. I might harbour doubts about his ethics, though there's no doubting his business acumen in cashing in on the mores of the post-war years. However, my single brush with the Playboy empire was quite different.

40 years ago Jane and I had been married for three years and had started a family, with our first child. I was teaching in my second teaching post at our local Catholic comprehensive near Watford. We didn’t have much spare cash, and had bought a grey two-door Morris Minor from a clearly trustworthy gentleman who was involved in a religious youth movement.  

My wife’s parents had a holiday home in the Isle of Wight. Our new (old) car’s first long run was to visit them there. To avoid the traffic we set off very early with our daughter on the back seat in her rectangular no-frills cumbersome brown carrycot – there were no fancy multi-purpose buggies in those days and of course no M3. All was fine and carefree until we were well away from London. I think we’d got as far as Hampshire down the A3 when the engine began to stutter; and steam – or was it smoke? – billowed out from beneath the bonnet. We pulled off the road. The first thing to do was to rescue our daughter from the back seat before the car caught fire. Then what? No AA membership and anyway no mobile phones. And hardly any traffic. The only thing must be to walk until we found a garage.

I don’t know if we prayed, but at that moment a white Ford Escort drew up and an attractive blonde emerged, and asked if we needed any help. By now it was clear that the radiator had run dry. The young lady knew the road and told us there was a garage a mile or so down the road. She offered to drive us there. While my Jane looked after our daughter with our car and belongings, I went with our rescuer to the garage for some water. She then drove me back to our car, where I was able to put enough in to get us on our way again. (Subsequently we repaired the radiator with sealant.)

It was only as she drove away that we noticed the small sticker on the rear of her car. It was the unmistakable Playboy rabbit silhouette. We concluded that she was a bunny girl driving home after a long night on duty. I’m sure we thanked her at the time. But if she should ever read this, we’d love say thank you again, for an unexpected act of kindness in rescuing a desperate young family by the roadside. I like to think we met an angel in disguise that early morning.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

A tale of two paradoxes

Two news stories have struck me this week. 

One is the extraordinary ineptness of the contractor employed to carry out tests for PIPs (Personal Independence Payments) for disabled people in the North East, who has hired rooms in a luxury spa owned by multi-millionaire, Duncan Bannatyne, for the purpose. I can imagine few things worse than being pushed in my wheelchair through a place thronging with healthy and wealthy spa-goers padding around in fluffy slippers and snow-white bath robes on their way to a massage, a manicure, and a meal of coleslaw and prosciutto, or working off their excess weight on cross-trainers, or showing off their finely toned bodies between the swimming pool and the sauna. It is hard to imagine a more inappropriate venue for what is already a humiliating enough experience - an assessment designed to save the government £1.3bn by 2020, by cutting the number of people who receive DLA (Disability Living Allowance, being replaced by PIPs) and in particular the mobility element which gave disabled people freedom to get out and about. 

It is true that supporting the disabled costs us all a lot of money. It's also true that the introduction of PIPs has already caused a lot of personal harm and hardship. "PIP assessments have so far led to Motability cars being taken away from 50,000 disabled people.  
When the new assessments were announced to replace the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in 2016, it was estimated that entitlements would be cut by up to £150 a week for more than half a million people." See Huffington Post article.  See Huffington Post article. The irony is that the sum result of a lot of misery for a section of the population will in the end barely dent our social services bill a jot, if at all.

I do realise that a while ago I made a resolution not to whinge so much. But really! Sometimes it all gets too much. So here's my second one. It's about Theresa May's much touted Florence speech. I'm not entirely clear why her minders chose to stage it there. I gather it might have been because of the trading/banking history of the city, or it might have been some sort of convoluted symbolism to do with the Renaissance. Here she was, in the tradition of Michelangelo and the Medicis, launching a second Renaissance in Europe, Mrs May's Renaissance. From the news reports that seems to have been the gist of her message. Brexit is not an end; it's a beginning. It's not a divorce; it's a new glorious "partnership". There were precious few details of what the partnership would look like, just like nothing we had seen before and we need some more time to think about it. What must puzzle objective observers is, then what Brexit was all about. In the referendum campaign we were constantly told that it was about breaking off with the EU, having done with it, breaking free from its shackles. Which sounded very much like a divorce, a very acrimonious one at that. It sounded like "a plague on all your 27 houses".

"Brexit," Mrs May intoned, like a mantra, "is Brexit." Now it appears, "Brexit is Brentrance." Whether Europe will allow us to have our cake and eat it remains to be seen.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Who decides what is NEWS?

I get that Hurricane Irma like Harvey is a major natural disaster. Having a friend holiday in the Dominican Republic at the time, I was concerned to know how it would affect her. I understand that its effects for the people of Barbudas and Saint-Martin have been catastrophic, destroying their islands beyond recognition.

The human death toll from Harvey which flooded Houston was at least 70; Irma so far has killed 23 people. Which is tragic. No wonder they have received blanket coverage in our news every day for a fortnight now.

Photo: TEAR Fund
Meanwhile in South Asia over 1400 people have died and over 40 million have been affected by flooding in the last two months - but there's a difference. For some reason the floods affecting swathes of Nepal, India and Bangladesh have received minimal news coverage in the UK, despite being among the poorest of countries. The same is true of the flood-created mudslide in Sierra Leone with its death toll of over 1000, earlier in August. Jagat Patna points out that news of such events should be shared as they are symptoms of a phenomenon that affects us all (see Floods in Texas and South east Asia).

What's the reason for the disparity? I fear it may be that resurgent ugly trait of colour prejudice. Perhaps it is the dark side of the US/UK "special relationship": that side of the Atlantic matters much more than the rest of the world, or those lives are that much more valuable.

It seems that we haven't learned that from Shylock's most potent expression of the common humanity of all people, irrespective of creed, colour or any other distinction.
"I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die?" (Merchant of Venice 3.1). 

Of Irma one commentator likes to say, "This is a very very bad storm." Although news clearly isn't a mere calculus of numbers or size, nevertheless one has to ask what are the criteria by which our opinion-formers decide what we will see or hear by way of the news. And maybe this particularly egregious instance of selectivity over a global phenomenon which should concern us all will make them realise why so many of us now prefer to find our news via other means such as social media. 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Rachels' books

To Pete, Jane & Evelyn

I've recently had a birthday, and among the very lovely presents I was given were two books by authors whose Christian names (or forenames, as we're meant to call them now) are both Rachel. They both, for different reasons, captivated me - which you can tell because I who these days am a slow reader read them quickly.

The first is The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, whose other novels (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy) I also recommend. It is primarily set in 1988, with the final chapters 20 years later. The story revolves around the single-minded, arguably obsessive, Frank for whom the only worthwhile form of recorded music is vinyl and his shop in a run-down cul-de-sac in a cathedral city which is itself depressed and still bears the scars of wartime bombing. The remaining shops in the street are a florist, a Polish baker, an undertakers', a tattooist, a Catholic souvenir shop, and Frank's music shop. On the other side of the street are terraced houses in various states of disrepair.

All the while there are threats from a development company and racist gangs. It is a picture of a community under pressure from progressive and reactionary forces.

Frank is no musician, but he has inherited from his Bohemian mother both a love of music and a fear of relationship. However he has a unique gift - the ability to hear instantly what music every person needs. His world and the life of the street is profoundly changed when a woman in a green coat collapses unconscious outside the music shop. All the characters in the book have their own back-stories and carry their own scars. I won't spoil the plot, but content myself with saying that, as with Rachel Joyce's other books, it is ultimately hopeful and carries a message that redemption is possible though hard won.

At the moment Jane is reading it. I shall be interested to hear whether she was as captivated as I was.

The other book, which arrived out of the blue from my least "respectable" cousin, is Evolving in Monkey Town (now retitled Faith Unravelled). What a gift! It's by Rachel Held Evans (from whose blog I've previously quoted : Pain in the Offering). It's not a new book, published in 2010. It recounts her growing up in the southern states of America, and in particular Dayton, Tennessee, where her father went to teach theology in the conservative Bryan College. For one thing, she is an excellent writer. Dayton was the site of the famous 'Scopes Monkey Trial', staged to draw publicity to the small town. In 1925 John T Scopes, a secondary teacher, was prosecuted by the state for teaching evolution in a state school. The whole thing turned into a debate between 'Modernism' and 'Fundamentalism', between creationism and evolution, and gained worldwide notoriety.

This Rachel tells how she developed from knowing all the right Christian answers to sceptics' and seekers' questions to being open to accept the mystery of faith. She ends, "If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that serious doubt - the kind that leads to despair - begins not when we start asking God questions but when, out of fear, we stop. In our darkest hours of confusion and in our most glorious moments of clarity, we remain curious but dependent little children, tugging frantically at God's outstretched hands and pleading with every question and every prayer and every tantrum we can muster, 'We want to have a conversation with you!'

"God must really love us, because he always answers with such long stories."

I found the book invigorating and liberating. It helped me to understand my own journey and myself. As I commented to a friend who asked me how my summer had been: I suppose what reading Rachel’s book helped me see was, a. that I wasn’t a freak and b. that I do still have faith - which has been a considerable relief and a sort of liberation. My doubts and questions are by no means fatal. Phew!

Monday, 7 August 2017

Give Gatlin a break

I suspect a lot of people, including journalists, will be very surprised at whom they see welcomed to heaven. As Shakespeare has Portia declaring, mercy is an attribute of God himself. Therefore,
"Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy."

On Saturday evening, after watching a football match which proved that women's sport could be just as good as men's (pace Dominic Lawson), we caught the World Athletics 100 metre final and witnessed both the best and worst of responses to a race. You'll scarcely need telling that Justin Gatlin came first, followed by a whisker by Christian Coleman and Usain Bolt. People were understandably disappointed that the extrovert and brilliant Bolt hadn't won his final competitive race. However, the tragic thing was that apart from Bolt and Coleman no one had the grace to congratulate Gatlin. The London crowd booed and the commentators prefixed his name with some qualification like "twice banned drug cheat" Gatlin. That was repeated in every subsequent news report I heard on the BBC, and I gather that the booing was repeated at the medal ceremony. I don't condone drug-taking to enhance performance, not that I have illusions that my opinion matters! Nor do I doubt that in one way or another it's more prevalent than we're told. But is it even true?
Photo: Telegraph online

However he had served his sentence and, without doubt, is now as rigorously tested for illegal doping as any athlete on earth. Bolt was magnanimous in defeat. He after all came third. The general view seems to be that he had not recovered his previous Olympic form and so overtook Coleman in neither the semi- nor the final. Gatlin, meanwhile, surpassed himself achieving his season's best when it mattered. But the British public, egged on by the media, is an unforgiving animal. Maria Sharapova has been similarly branded for her use of a newly banned drug. And Chris Froome, the gritty Kenyan/British cyclist, fails to receive the plaudits he deserves, partly, in my view, because of Sky Cycling's dubious history in the pharmaceutical department.

And so we have the sad spectacle of athletes who have served their sentences for past misdemeanours branded as cheats. There is, it seems, no room for redemption. Justin Gatlin, as well as striving for the top, has also been spending his time educating young Americans about the folly and danger of doping. For a very informative article on the facts of case, I recommend this short account from one of our top sports lawyers: Mike Morgan, Gatling Article, which leads me to question the very word, "Cheat" - which is frequently used. It seems to verge on the libellous. Even so, as Gatling himself has said this weekend: “I’ve served my time and done community service. I’ve talked to kids and inspire them to walk the right path. That’s all I can do. Society does that with people who make mistakes and I hope that track and field does that too.”

So why, I wonder, are we so slow to acknowledge that a debt can be paid? I suspect it might be because we lack the divine quality of mercy. Which according to Portia is bad news for all of us. If we don't have it, what call can we have on mercy dropping as the gentle dew from heaven? We run the danger of a life and death ban.

PS I've just seen the latest news that Sara Errani, the Italian who reached the Paris Open Tennis final, has been suspended for an absurd drugs offence which seems to have been caused by entirely accidental food contamination ( Bonkers.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Women at work

I was a bit disturbed this morning listening to World Business, I think, on BBC’s World Service. They were talking about women at work, things like the gender pay-gap, maternity/paternity leave, and the small proportion of women on company boards. Sweden was focused on as the “best” for women at work.

The assumption was of course that good = being in remunerated employment. Now far from disagreeing with that, I think that the opportunity to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is highly desirable for everyone, women and men. But it is not the only good. That is a modern and harmful fallacy.

What most struck me was a comment about bringing up a family at home being “drudgery”. Drudgery? Hard work – certainly. But as Jane pointed out to me, nearly all work has an element of drudgery in it. Sitting in front of computer screens. Answering phone-calls in a call centre. A production line. Agricultural labour. Even the caring professions. But home management is not exceptional drudgery; it’s not unusually dull. In fact there’s probably more variety and skill in being a housewife (or househusband) than the majority of jobs. It’s time we stopped running it down as somehow second class (or third…).

It’s often been pointed out how many skills a stay-at-home mother employs. There’s a cheesy YouTube video of a job interview for being a “mom” ( From this side of the pond, the Daily Telegraph listed 26 morning tasks that mothers have ( But they don’t convey half of the importance of the role of parent, of either sex, passing on language, life-skills and values. Neither do they convey the situations that parents navigate, nurturing children, negotiating teenagers, and often caring for elders.

Come on! Let’s stop denigrating the role of homemaker, and instead give it the honour it deserves.