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Posts tagged ‘Jesus’

Reflections on Crime, Wickedness, and Redemption from the Crime Museum Uncovered, Museum of London

On Thursday 31st March 2016 I read many stories at the Crime Museum Uncovered, an enthralling exhibition currently showing at the Museum of London, London Wall.  Crime cases from Victorian times to 1975, solved by the Metropolitan Police. Most of the criminals were hanged; some were miscarriages of justice; vulnerable people, who today would have received 10 years in jail and might then have turned their lives around and gone on to achieve great things.

Others were people we might think “deserved to die” because the crimes they had committed were so ruthless and wicked (for instance the woman who, under the guise of running a care service for children of the poor, murdered 15 babies).

In some cases, black and wicked hearts were exposed, hearts “as hard and merciless as rock”; and victims whose names we only know by the terrible manner of their deaths, and the disposal of their bodies by their murderers.  People, it seems, who we were to define by the way they died.  And yet, as a novelist, I am convinced that no-one is ever defined by the manner of their death.  We are all complex beings, mind, body and spirit, with our joys, sorrows, memories, dreams, passions and impulses. We don’t define the greatest by their deaths; neither Mozart, nor Shakespeare, nor any other. So why should we define the lives of anyone in that way, no matter how obscure, how ‘ordinary’ they were during their lives on this earth.  This exhibition set out to ‘give the victims a voice’ and yet I did feel it fell into the trap of defining the individual victims by the manner of their deaths.

I am fascinated by human wickedness and this will impact upon the theme and plot of my third novel, following on from “Mystical Circles” and “A Passionate Spirit”. I touched on an aspect of evil in “A Passionate Spirit” but will go much deeper in my next novel. I’m not sure yet whether the paranormal will be there, but psychological suspense certainly will, and so will crime, setting the characters a huge challenge.

The Christian faith teaches that no-one is beyond redemption.

This is just one Christian concept I, along with, I suspect, many others, struggle with.

Alexander Solzenitsyn in his great book The Gulag Archipelago , which I read in my teens, describes  what he calls “the threshold magnitude of evil”. Evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope. But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme danger or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return.”

Every so often, over the years since reading that book, I have been brought back to Solzenitsyn’s observations.  Whenever I read books about the Nazi Holocaust, his words come to mind.

Yet have we ever considered that, when Jesus took upon his shoulders the sins of the world, as Christian theology teaches, he at that moment was the worst person in the world.

It is a mind-blowing thought.  We read of wicked acts in our news every day, and (unless we are suffering from compassion fatigue) we shudder.

Yet Jesus was the most wicked person in the world, at that time of darkness, before his resurrection.

It shows once again the huge paradox that is the Christian faith. “The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.”

 

 

 

 

Refugee Family Saved by the Gold of the Magi

At a recent carol service at St Mark’s Church Leamington Spa the Bishop of Coventry spoke to us about refugee families.gold of the magi (Jesus-story.net)

Referring to the current crisis across Europe he drew a parallel between these refugees and the family of Jesus.

Jesus was born into poverty in an occupied nation in a region in conflict – then, as now. A couple of years after his birth his family took him and fled from a brutal tyrant into a foreign land – Egypt.

The Bishop spoke of those refugees who have arrived at their destination with nothing – all their money has been taken from them by people smugglers.

Then he put forward this notion.

“Did Joseph and Mary have to use their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to pay people smugglers?”

Was that how the gifts of the Magi were used?

It may well be.

At the very least the gold they received may have saved their lives. For how do you flee across borders and gain safety and security in another country until the tyranny in your own country has passed – unless you have significant financial resources?

Or another kind of gold entirely – the kindness, compassion and good will of the host countries.

 

Philosopher Tramps, Fall-Guys and Authority Figures in BBC 2 Sitcom ‘Rev’

I’ve loved many TV sitcoms over the years and have attended sitcom writing workshops when I aspired to write sitcoms myself. I think it’s true to say that a few sitcom characters have influenced my own fiction. My current favourite is Rev (BBC 2 Monday 10pm). Our family has watched every episode of the 2 previous series and is now enjoying series 3 broadcast on BBC 1 on Mondays at 10pm.

the cast of BBC 2 sitcom Rev (photo credit bbc.co.uk)

the cast of BBC 2 sitcom Rev (photo credit bbc.co.uk)

There’s much in common between a novelist and a sitcom writer, and as a story-writer I like to ask myself why Rev is so compelling and so good on several levels.

The top ingredients seem to be authentic situations and sharp characterisation. I’ve written before about archetypal characters in fiction.

Here’s a selection of characters who particularly appeal to me as archetypes:

In Rev we have  an endearing main character (the Revd. Adam Smallbone, played by Tom Hollander) who is modest, self-effacing, well-intentioned but hapless: he’s supposed to be in a position of authority but often seems to be a bit of an underdog – the fall-guy. And yet there is an underlying message which tells a different story.

Then there’s Colin (played by Steve Evets), the unemployed alcoholic, who we often see sitting on the bench outside the church with the Rev. We love Colin so much because he’s an archetypal philosopher tramp.  Words of wisdom and insight come from the most unlikely mouth, along with foul language, tales of drug-peddling and the low life.

Then we have the cunning Mick |(played by Jimmy Akingbola), an oddball drug addict and street loafercunning and opportunistic, always calling at the vicarage door and making contradictory claims and asking for – but never receiving – money. Until, that is, he hits on inspiration – by bringing back the child Rev left in the grocery store, insisting on exchanging the child for money, and threatening to tell “the nasty Mrs Vicar” what Adam has done.

We have the Archdeacon (played by Simon McBurney), sardonic, high-handed, revelling in his status higher up the church hierarchy than Adam, and sometimes rivalling the Spanish Inquisition in his interrogations and threats to Adam that his church might be closed down; he’s the authority figure who’s always on Adam’s case, ditches him unexpectedly out of taxis, and accepts offers of tea then ends up throwing it away. And yet again there’s another message; the moments when the Archdeacon relents, the revelation and the twist in the relationship when Adam unexpectedly meets him with his gay friend out of working hours…

Then there’s Roland Wise, the media vicar, (played by Hugh Bonneville). He answers his mobile during his “Transforming Church” course and tells Adam, “Oh it’s Michael Burke pestering me to do The Moral Maze again.” and accuses Adam of having “conflicting personality blocks” on his Myers Briggs personality type indicator test; to which Adam replies, “That’s because I filled it out as Jesus.”

And finally I might mention Nigel, Adam’s Lay Reader (played by Miles Jupp), whose main problem is that he’s a bit ‘anal’ and pedantic. He takes himself too seriously, he always tries to play by the rule-book, and would really like to be in Adam’s position. Occasionally his frustration causes him to break out, but usually when he does he ends up being reprimanded or overruled in some way.

One of the most effective elements of Rev is the voiceovers. We hear the thoughts in Adam’s head as he talks to God. “People like rules. If Christianity had as many rules as Islam, perhaps my church would be full too,” and “Why does the church want me to be a businessman rather than a vicar?” and “I bend over backwards to try and please everyone and I end up pleasing no-one… maybe that’s what You want, me in a lot of trouble. Jesus liked trouble.”

And the truth is that Adam is good-hearted, caring, unpretentious and real.

I hope you too enjoy this brilliant sitcom. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Review of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

I’m a great  admirer of JK Rowling both as an author, and on a personal level. So when I knew she’d published her first adult novel, I was keen to read it.

When I began to read The Casual Vacancy several months ago, I found it a struggle to get through the unrelenting nastiness of the characters, without finding any one individual I could identify or empathize with. And at that time I chose to put it down.

The Casual Vacancy/JK Rowling

The Casual Vacancy/JK Rowling

Nevertheless, I was determined to come back to the novel later when I felt ready to tackle it. And I’m glad I did.  I very quickly began to recognize elements from the hometown of my childhood – local characters & social/political/economic issues.

When the author begins to fill in the backgrounds of the characters, giving them greater depth, I started to feel, at some level, empathy for Terri, and for Krystal, and for their terrible plight – and glimmers of humour also relieved the grimness of the characters’ behaviour.

JKR inspires both pity & anger with her waspish vignettes of mothers who betray their children with submissiveness, moral weakness & cowardice, & fathers/husbands who trample close relationships with arrogance, intolerance & cruelty, & teenagers full of hatred & resentment. She also penetrates right to the heart of class consciousness & snobbery, & those who live with an innate sense of ‘superiority’. These attitudes riddle our society, & our hearts & souls; they blight lives, destroy hope, & ensure injustice and inequality prevails. They lower people’s self-esteem and propagate lies that last a lifetime. All this JKR skilfully conveys in The Casual Vacancy.

I found many sharp portrayals: the conversation as a social worker visits a drug addict; the inner life of a bullied teenager as she self harms, her situation made worse by a harsh, unsympathetic mother; the fragile threads upon which a drug addict’s rehabilitation depends; the pressures at home which force teenagers into depraved company and behaviour. JKR accurately conveys the effect that going to a certain sort of school has on one’s sense of self-worth, and upon the choices one makes in one’s friendships and future life.

It’s clear to me that the characters in this novel are behaving ‘their’ way – in other words, the default setting of human nature. It would be pointless and disingenuous for any of us who live in contemporary English society to pretend that we cannot recognize something murky of ourselves somewhere in this novel: something that points up the ‘devices and desires’ of our own hearts.

However, although I enormously admire what JKR has done in this story, I still feel it lacks a strong enough spiritual message or act of redemption at the end; and the potential for that is very strongly present as the narrative progresses.

JKR may not have wished to commit herself to an explicit spiritual message in the novel. But I cannot help feeling there is clear potential for an authentic Christian witness in this story, pointing to a different attitude, a different way of life.

Jesus knew all about the default setting of human nature, and the untrustworthiness of the human heart.

In John’s Gospel we read these words : But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside & out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.

For The Casual Vacancy is, to me, essentially a story of ourselves as we are, now, in our communities, in our society today, just as we always have been; unredeemed, doing things ‘our way’ and not God’s way, and reaping the consequences.  It’s only JK Rowling’s decision not to take the opportunity for a stronger redemptive message which prevents me from giving her book the highest possible rating.

Challenging False Ideas of God: The Judge-Who-Could-Never-Be-Pleased, or Perfect Love and Limitless Goodness?

‘”These things are sent to try us.”

Rev Kenny Borthwick, Church of Scotland minister (photo credit holytrinity-westerhailes.org.uk)

Rev Kenny Borthwick, Church of Scotland minister (photo credit holytrinity-westerhailes.org.uk)

This is just one among many cliches in the English language that we use without thinking.

Yet how often do we stop to realise they are meaningless?

Who sends these hard things to ‘try’ us? An almighty sadist in the sky?

This  stands as one of the most popular arguments against Christianity. How can a supposedly all-loving sovereign God allow  terrible things to happen to innocent people?

When I was in the sixth form at school we had an atheist English teacher who enjoyed challenging us on a personal level, arising from discussions about Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Thomas Hardy was “a philosophic pessimist” and in Tess’s tragedy he suggests there is no purpose or meaning to her suffering, other than that “we live on a blighted star.”

Our teacher said, “All the evidence suggests that there is a random pain-inflictor, scanning round over human affairs, occasionally dropping a huge lump of tragedy onto someone.”

Discuss.

This would indeed be a good exam question in Religious Studies.

Two days ago I listened to a Church of Scotland minister, Kenny Borthwick, talk about why God does not send things to try us, and why  the real battle when we suffer is to hold onto the goodness of God.

Kenny spoke to a large audience as part of a day organised by The Well Christian Healing Centre in Leamington Spa.

God, he said, is not a harsh God whose main aim is to teach us hard lessons through hard things.

Although it is  true we can sometimes learn valuable things through suffering, we must be aware of this danger: if you over-stress a truth it can become a lie.

God does not send cancer to teach us a lesson.

God sent Jesus to teach cancer a lesson.

Kenny Borthwick is exactly the opposite of a traditional fire-and-brimstone preacher so beloved of numerous novels written by Catholic authors about their upbringing among religious authorities with a harsh view of God (how can I ever forget the sadistic priest in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?) No religious authority figure has ever spoken to me like that; and yet we somehow recognise the cruelty and the fanaticism in this character.

Benny Borthwick spoke of Christians who magnify badness and repentance and magnify the strictness of God with a zeal He would not own.

Kenny’s message to Christians was this:

“You have been saved into the love of God, the goodness of God that He wants to pour into your life day by day.”

The face of God-the-Judge-Who-could-never-be-pleased disappears for ever.

BUT once we accept this, there is still a process.

When we live from the goodness of God which is limitless, we realise that today and every day we always have something to offer, whoever  we are, even if we believe we have  nothing – we always have something to give.

We need to reject a false spirituality which is frightened to use words like illness or depression, and  frightened to cry and be distressed.

We can live each passing moment as a gift from God.

Jesus gave the water a new history when he turned it into wine.

He can give us a new history, with a sense of our new identity. When we are able to accept this, we can realise that our present doesn’t need to be controlled by our past.

Then we are able to make new choices – hope and trust rather than fear.

Then we can replace the old false spirituality and lies with a great truth:

“God can give me a new destiny”.

The Novels of Susan Howatch, Love, Miracle Wine and the Language of Invitation

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The Trinity – icon by Andre Rublev

Do you want to be well-integrated, do you want to feel whole, happy, or in tune with your deeper self?

These are the questions that novelist Susan Howatch asks her readers in her Starbridge series of novels, and her St Benets Trilogy.

And then, when her readers respond to this question, they find stories with themes of repentance, forgiveness, redemption, resurrection and renewal. That, in Susan Howatch’s own words, is what her books are all about.

For anyone with spiritual yearnings, Susan Howatch’s books are manna for the soul. And I am one of those.

This icon by Andre Rublev is seen by some as depicting the three men Abraham entertained (as told in the Old Testament story), who turned out to be angels; or the Holy Trinity. Jesus is the centre figure, God is on the left, and the Holy Spirit is on the right.  The message is: at that table, there’s a place for us. This image represents an invitation to us to step up to the table.

A well-known miracle of Jesus is the one where he changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana, in Galilee. In that culture Jewish weddings lasted several days and it was vital to provide enough wine. So it would have been a major social disaster for the wine to run out. And when Mary, Jesus’ mother, said to him, “They have no more wine” his reply was something along the lines of “What is that to me?” Yet she turned to the servants and said “Do whatever he tells you.”

What he did is very well known. He instructed the servants to fill up several huge wine jars with water, and then to serve it to the guests. And then people started saying to the host, “Usually the best wine is served first. But you have saved the best till last.”

Wine here may be a metaphor for what we most need at this time.

And I believe that on an individual level, in our world, we need the message of invitation, acceptance, inclusion and love.

Despite all the obvious practical and physical needs we all have, especially in our troubled times of economic difficulty, and ideological strife, I believe this is what we need: the language of inclusion, invitation, acceptance and love, instead of the language of fear and violence and hatred and self-gratification, which often deafens us in our world.

What’s your take on this? What is the “wine” you feel we have all run out of?  Please consider leaving a comment!

The Double-Edged Sword of an Artist’s Silence

If I didn’t make films I don’t know what else I would do, apart from playing jazz and making a nuisance of myself.” (Woody Allen)

Woody Allen’s words above show the nature of passion for art. For many creative people cannot imagine giving up, retiring, or falling into silence, before they die.

The master of comic fiction, P.G. Wodehouse, continued writing until the very end of his life. At the age of ninety three on his deathbed he was working on his final novel “Sunset at Blandings”. He’d reached chapter 16 of a planned 22 chapters. It was as full of spirit and youthful fun as all his many novels.

Ask a group of writers why they write and you will receive many answers. But common to many is the simple assertion “I feel compelled to write.” Compelled, that is, in the same way as Woody Allen feels compelled to make films. And this is often the case, until new circumstances intervene.

And for creative people, these circumstances may be of their choosing – or tragically otherwise.

I think of three novelists who fell into silence, for different reasons. The first is one of my favourites, Susan Howatch. Find out more about Susan Howatch’s “retirement” from writing on this thread on Vivienne Tufnell’s blog.

I followed and contributed to this thread because I share the feelings expressed by many about Susan Howatch – together with the disappointment that there will be no more from this much-loved author of the Starbridge series, and St Benet’s Trilogy. No more Nicholas Darrow. No more psychospiritual drama from that direction. No more sinuous and fluid psyches reaching out…  we, her legions of fans, will just have to go back and read those masterworks again from the beginning!

Jim Crace made a similar decision, but gave advance notice of it. He announced his next book would be his last. He created a strong impact with his novel “Quarantine” set in the Judaean wilderness, which examined those “on the edge” who wandered there 2,000 years ago, together with Jesus. Crace, writing as an avowed atheist, nevertheless developed the character of Jesus in a unique and compelling way. He has written many other successful novels too. But now he’s happy to “quit while he’s ahead”.

I used to feel the same about Iris Murdoch as I do now about Susan Howatch. I marvelled at “A Severed Head”, “The Bell”, “The Message To The Planet”, “The Book and the Brotherhood”.

Iris Murdoch’s silence was enforced through Alzheimer’s. Ironically, when the first signs of it arose she thought it was writer’s block. I could hardly bear to see the film “Iris” about the devoted support she received from her husband, because I found it so upsetting that she fell victim to such a horrific condition. Although I know full well the much-loved Terry Pratchett is on that same journey. Nevertheless I find it chilling to contemplate that this could happen to people with such truly brilliant minds.

But in the case of these writers, having been so prolific, at least one can say they’ve given of their best. And are greatly loved for it.

Have any of your favourite authors fallen silent? Do you lament that no more stories will fall from their pens? Or, perhaps, eagerly fall upon the publishers’ promises that here is another author who will fill that silence?

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