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The Kindle Has Landed

Well, despite the rank amateurism of the Royal Mail, my Amazon Kindle arrived yesterday. The Royal Mail lived down to their standards: we were out when they called with the day’s post, and the Kindle box was left in a stand we keep outside the front door for flower and plant seeds. No card through the door telling me where it was, no attempt to take it safely back to the sorting office. I was fortunate that Debbie noticed the box with the big Amazon logo. No temptation for opportunist thieves there, clearly. (And we’re still waiting for a digital camera for Debbie, which is also overdue, so who knows what will happen with that?)

So what’s the Kindle like? There have, of course, been numerous debates about the pros and cons of e-readers in comparison to traditional books. One good article and debate can be found here, for example. They say you can download the first chapters of books as samples. That’s not always strictly honest: you often get the foreword, preface and part of chapter 1.
But I was persuaded to part with cash for a 1993 book by my former research supervisor, Richard Bauckham, called ‘The Theology of the Book of Revelation‘. Nice light reading, you’re thinking. Well, what Richard doesn’t know about eschatology and apocalyptic isn’t worth knowing, so anything he writes on this is worth the price. He also writes fluently.

However, I had a particular reason for purchasing an electronic version rather than a physical one. Here is the text of one customer review on Amazon:

This is one of the most maddening books I’ve read recently. The author’s work cannot be faulted (five stars for the theology); the problem lies with the editing of the book. If it is intended to be used as a textbook rather than read from cover to cover like a novel, it needs a really good index. It doesn’t have one. Worse still, in my 2002 printing, there is no biblical index at all. Trying to find out what the author has to say about any particular verse or passage in Revelation is like looking for a righteous man in Babylon, or, anyway, a needle in a…. I’m sure Cambridge University Press could have done better than this, and the author deserves better from them.

The problems clearly aren’t the author’s fault, but the publisher’s. The lack of indices had held me back from buying it before. However, with an electronic version it is at least searchable for any verse, word or theme I want to research. Does Richard have an opinion on a particular passage? Hold on, let me just do a search and I’ll find out. The Kindle (or another e-reader) is ideal in these circumstances.

My one curiosity with the Kindle edition of the book – and this is what I find maddening – is that it seems to have downloaded without a contents page to tell me what the chapters are.

More generally, the Kindle reading experience is good. The e-ink screen is much more naturally like paper than a bright screen on a computer or smartphone. Moreover, I found myself reading at a good pace. It’s difficult to be sure, given the fact that you don’t get page numbers, only a percentage of how far you are through the book plus some ‘location numbers’. Yet my perception is that I was reading slightly faster than a physical book. I don’t have the gift of speed-reading, so this is an advantage for me.

So my early impressions are favourable. I think the big danger for me could be with just how easy and fast it is to download a title. I could end up spending more money than I should.

Richard Bauckham

The other day I discovered that my research supervisor of twenty years ago, Richard Bauckham, now has his own website. (No blog, alas!) When I studied under him he was already a respected and renowned scholar, not least for his commentary on Jude and 2 Peter, and his work interpreting Jürgen Moltmann. It was the latter interest, and his work as a theologian rather than a biblical scholar, that made me want to have him as my supervisor. I was relating the doctrines of ecclesiology and eschatology, and Moltmann’s book ‘The Church in the Power of the Spirit‘ was probably the most important text at the time for me, along with Howard Snyder‘s less technical volumes.

Richard went on to become much more well known, not least in the last four years for his book ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses‘, which claims to turn many long-prized assumptions of New Testament scholarship methodology on their heads. But what was it like to have him supervise all those years ago?

The simple answer is that it was a wonderful privilege. Richard doesn’t merely have ‘a brain the size of the planet’, he has a humility and gentleness about him. I recall once turning in some work that really wasn’t up to snuff, but the way he let me know that was so gracious that I didn’t go away crushed but felt I had a way forward.

He is also a man whose faith and scholarship are deeply entwined. One consequence of being registered as a Manchester University student then was that you were entitled to attend any lectures you liked outside your own studies. I chose to audit two of Richard’s undergraduate courses. One was on Christology, the other on the Holy Spirit and Eschatology. I used to come away from those lectures knowing I had been both academically stimulated and spiritually fed.

The nature of his supervision and his faith came together in the way he drew together four of his research students, all of us ‘mature students’. We met every couple of weeks to discuss Moltmann’s then latest book, ‘The Way of Jesus Christ‘. Not only did we have an hour of lively conversation, we then went for lunch together in a university refectory. Over lunch and coffee we often discussed important matters of faith. It was there that I first discovered his passionate commitment to green issues as intrinsic to Christian faith. Richard is an evangelical, and while such a commitment is much more common today thanks to organisations like TEAR Fund and A Rocha, it wasn’t then. I knew he was clear about the Bible’s political dimensions – I had read his book ‘The Bible in Politics‘ – but this was a new departure. One of that research group was Celia Deane-Drummond, a former botanist working on her second PhD, studying Moltmann’s ‘God in Creation‘. Celia is now a leading lecturer and writer in the field.

So if you haven’t discovered Richard’s work yet, why not start? Try his website. There are essays, lectures, sermons and poems to read. Then why not treat yourself to one of his books?

Sabbatical, Day 20: Libraries, Linux And Slow Broadband

If anything demonstrates a failure to understand different religions today, it’s this story: Bible moved to library top shelf over inequality fears. Muslims in Leicester had been upset to find the Koran on lower shelves of public libraries. They felt their holy text should be on the top shelf to show that it is above commonplace things. Librarians agreed to their request, but also moved copies of the Bible to the top shelf.

I’m prepared to believe they did so out of good intentions. Perhaps they didn’t want to look like they were favouring Islam over other faiths. Perhaps they thought all holy texts should be treated the same, as if the holy book of a religion occupies the same relative place in each faith. If so, they were adopting an approach that has been used in schools to teach about different religions. It takes the phenomena of various faiths, and directly compares them. It is a flawed approach. For, as reaction to this story shows, religious texts are treated differently. My research supervisor, Richard Bauckham, used to say that the place of the Koran in Islam was more akin to the place of Christ in Christianity, because it is revered as eternal, uncreated and coming down out of heaven. 

Christians do not treat the Bible that way, however ‘high’ their doctrine of inspiration. In the story, even the spokesperson for the extremely conservative Christian Institute is concerned that the scriptures are not placed out of reach. They are meant to be within the reach of all, a point understood by the spokesperson for Civitas when he called for libraries to be run on principles of librarianship rather than as places of worship. However much we honour the Bible for its revelation of God, we do not worship it. Only God is to be worshipped. The Bible is a holy tool. Like all tools, it needs to be close at hand.

How ironic this news comes in the same week that the atheist Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has said that children need to be taught the Bible or they will fail to understand our culture. As a Christian, I would of course want to make much larger claims for the narrative of Scripture than that, arguing that it is the framework to make sense of life, the universe and everything. However, I welcome his comments nonetheless.

Meanwhile, on the personal front, once again family circumstances have meant I’ve achieved none of my sabbatical aims today. I stayed in with Mark this morning while Debbie, Aunt Pat and Rebekah went into town. At lunch-time, Debbie and Pat left for a day trip to Sussex. However, Mark has been full of beans – or, more accurately even more pasta shapes – and we managed his first trip out this afternoon since he became ill. The local library was putting on a James Bond afternoon for children. If I took it seriously, I wouldn’t like it. Although I’m not a convinced pacifist, I don’t believe you talk about guns and poison casually. The visiting speaker was from a military museum, and was showing examples of equipment used by British spies a few decades ago. Thankfully, it went over our children’s heads and they were more keen to take out some of the books to which they normally gravitate. 

Finally, I’m trying to install some extras to the Ubuntu Linux partition on my laptop, ready for my next sabbatical jaunt on Monday. Some things install better on that Vista laptop than our Vista desktop – Ubuntu, for one! I might reboot into Windows and see whether the software for my Sony Ericcson Walkman phone will install properly on that machine – it doesn’t on the desktop. Everything so far has been immensely frustrating, because our broadband has slowed to a crawl in the last day or two. I tested it at and it reported a download speed of just 0.1 Mbps. I’ve been trying to find out tonight whether we’ve been throtted by our ISP for over-use, but so far I can’t find anything – not that it’s easy to find out. I’m going to sign off now and try again to find out some answers.

Snapshots

Our hairdresser is a family friend. We go together to her house for haircuts. Earlier this year, we were at Gemma’s and we noticed some fabulous new photos of her daughter.

‘Where did you get those done?’

She replied that she had used a new photographer in town. We had a 20″ x 16″ portrait of the children in the dining room, but it was two years old. At the age of our small children, that’s a long time in which they had changed.

So we booked a session with Melanie, who was wonderful, and Debbie asked that one of the shots be a new 20″ x 16″ as a birthday present for her. Mark was impeccable during the shoot, and Rebekah started out well before switching into full drama queen mode.

A little while later, Melanie gave us a CD of the best shots, and we spent an evening narrowing down our choices. Eventually, we placed the order and last week I collected them. They are fabulous. The new big portrait is up. Mark’s cheeky smile radiates across the room, and in Rebekah’s case you can see glimpses of the beautiful young woman she will become. It’s stunning.

So the first purpose of this post is an unsolicited plug for Melanie’s work. I’m not posting copies of the photos here for two reasons: firstly, I would be breaching her copyright, and secondly I don’t in any case put photos of our children in the most public parts of the web. I only use parts of my Facebook profile and Flickr that friends can see.

But the extended purpose of this post is to meditate on change and continuity. It’s there in the different photos of our children, separated by two years. It’s even more obvious when you go to the church social and the ice-breaker game is stuck on the walls: ‘Guess which church member this is as a baby.’

This struck me even more on Friday night, when Debbie and I sat down to watch Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. The main guest was one of my musical heroes from the 1970s, Stevie Wonder. His run of albums from ‘Music Of My Mind’ to ‘Hotter Than July’ (excepting ‘Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants’!) has to be one of the most sustained streaks of brilliance in popular music. I don’t care for much of his music since – indeed if ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ could be permanently deleted from the world’s memory, I’d be happy.

But I love his Seventies music as much today in my forties as in my teens. ‘Living For The City’ still has to be one of the great social justice songs. So am I behaving as an overgrown teenager when I put his music on, or am I still genuinely appreciating his music, despite the fact that I have grown – and hopefully matured?

One thing I did was ponder the roots of my musical taste. My love of some black music clearly comes from growing up in multi-racial north London. My best friend’s brother introduced me to Otis Redding and Stax.

But my taste is – well, the polite word is ‘eclectic’. Singer-songwriters feature prominently. Some of that comes from being a child in church during the Sixties when folk and protest music was acceptable in the mainline denominations. It was more respectable than that pop racket. Also, I’m quite an introspective person, so the Seventies singer-songwriters were an obvious touchstone for me – Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and so on.

And I’ve always had a thing about lyrics. I’m keen on meaning, so those people who say that lyrics don’t matter have little sympathy from me. Not only that, I tried writing songs with my best friend. Given that he was and is a musician and I never have been, the words were my department. Don’t worry, none of them has ever been released. You are safe. But it gave me a deeper appreciation of lyrics.

The serious side of me also went for prog rock – notably Genesis and Yes. (Genesis went down the pan when they became a pop band.) My love of the serious and the complex kept my loyalty to this kind of music in the punk wars. The late Alan Freeman once held a vote on his Saturday afternoon Radio 1 show. Punk yes or no? No won 51% to 49%. I was in the 51.

You can still trace a lot of these influences in music I enjoy thirty years later. Boo Hewerdine, John Hiatt and Aimee Mann are all currently trapped in my car CD player, strongly representing the singer-songwriter camp. I recently bought Stomu Yamashta‘s Complete Go Sessions on eBay on the prog front. And Stevie Wonder on the TV probably has me digging out some of those classic albums.

At the same time, however, there are aspects of my teenage record buying habits that I wouldn’t want people to know about. There are some singles I was glad disappeared when I finally and reluctantly said goodbye to vinyl. I’m too embarrassed to name them here, so I’ll just leave you to guess. Some of them should only have been bought by teenage girls, that’s all I’m saying. It’s change and continuity again.

All this is an extended introduction to say that holding together continuity and change is an important spiritual and theological issue. I’m not even referring to the management of change in a congregation, although there is plenty that could be said about that. At this point, I’m confining myself to the personal aspects.

The Reformation enshrined this when it said that people were simul justus et peccator, both justified and yet still sinners. Justification brings redemption and leads to sanctification, that is, change, yet we are still what we always were: sinners.

Or to put it another way: our past and our present go a long way to explaining us, and hope draws us on into God’s New Creation.

And in that respect, Tom Wright’s great sign of the New Creation to come is the Resurrection of Jesus, itself am expression of continuity and change in the nature of Christ’s resurrection body. There was continuity: once the disciples had got past their considerable intellectual barriers to resurrection happening in the middle of history, Jesus was recognisable. He was ‘known by the scars’, to take Michael Card‘s old phrase. But there was also change: whatever miracles Jesus did before the crucifixion, he never suddenly appeared in the middle of a locked room, as is recorded twice in John 20. In the Resurrection, Jesus is endowed with the ‘spiritual body’ of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15, and which my MPhil mentor Richard Bauckham used to say means, ‘a body animated by the Holy Spirit’.

So it isn’t necessarily a mark of immaturity if certain things remain from my youth. They may be part of an acceptable continuity that will travel with and in me throughout life in this age and the age to come.

Indeed, if the theory behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is correct that we have the same personality type for life, then that is an expression of this. You’ll see from the description I gave about the roots of some of my musical taste that a fair bit has to do with personality. No personality type is perfect: all have weaknesses. However, this is not necessarily about moral failure or weakness. God made humans to be interdependent, and in the Church God made us to be the Body of Christ, with complementary gifts.

But other things will fall away and be replaced or renewed. And that’s OK, too. That’s where the issues of holiness come in. So for example years ago I read an article in Third Way magazine about one of my musical heroes, Van Morrison. The author (Martin Wroe?) acknowledged that Morrison was not so much a practitioner of faith as a student of religions. He also acknowledged the commonly known fact about Morrison’s personality, namely that he is a notorious curmudgeon. Rock’s Mister Grumpy, indeed. However, he expressed a hope that there would be a place for him in the kingdom of God.

If there is, then it will be by the grace of God, just as it is for all of us. However, the question will arise for him, as it does for everyone, of change. How will he and we be made ‘fit for heaven’ (or the New Creation)? Transformation begins in this life by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, but is it complete at death?

The classical Catholic answer to this has been in terms of Purgatory. Tom Wright makes a good response to this in ‘Surprised By Hope‘. He describes it as a medieval metaphor and myth, without biblical support, having more to do with Aquinas and Dante. He quotes the current Pope, who appeals to 1 Corinthians 3, where the Lord himself is the fire in judgment who purifies us. Purgatory is unnecessary. God will see to it that we are fit for heaven and the New Creation.

And when he does, in that favourite verse of babysitters, ‘We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.’ By the grace of God, he will make us worthy of his presence. And there will be a degree of recognition due to continuity, although exactly what that is becomes another difficult question. Suffice to say it must be about more than physical likeness.

Who knows, maybe even some of my music collection will survive!