Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

For three years I have been working on a book about sin, The Dark Side of the Soul. When I started on the project I had no idea just how much I would learn in the process, or just how intellectually, emotionally and spiritually engaging it would be. But now the job is done and I have a copy of the book with its stunning cover in front of me.

It’s an obvious and easy time for a moment of reverie – all that reading and thinking and writing and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting … (sigh), and editing and correcting. All that work and worry is now safely sealed between those covers.

So I look at my book I ask myself  ‘Why did I write it?’ and, ‘What does it say?’

Why did I write it?

People today tend to think of ‘sin’ either as an excuse for a laugh, or as an excuse for a guilt-trip. Yet the truth is that the idea is not only really interesting, it’s ethically and spiritually important.

To say that human beings are sinful is a genuine, helpful and liberating contribution for Christianity to make to the world today. But it’s a hugely difficult idea to put across because people are so defensive about the suggestion and so dismissive of the language.

One of the slippery things about sin is that it hides under the radar of self-awareness. So a book about sin has to be a bit tricky too. As I say at one point, the idea is to shine a light into the dark side of the soul to give the demons a bit of a fright. Clearly this book isn’t a textbook, thesis or monograph! It’s serious about its subject, but not super-serious.

The last chapter is called ‘Demon Wrestling: A Practical Guide’. Maybe I should have called it ‘demon frightening for beginners.’ One reason for writing the book was to name and startle a few demons. These cheeky monkeys strut around the place full of vanity and pride, pretending that they do no harm, and how easily we let them deceive us.

Not that I really believe in demons. But the idea of demons does point to something about the experience of sin. We often think of it as coming at us from outside. The truth, however, is that what we think of as ‘outside’ us is probably just a bit of the inside that we are not very aware of – the dark side of the soul.

What does it say?

Well, yes it says that we are all sinners. I go along with the original sin idea, and I don’t think that there’s much point in thinking about how bad very nasty people are. In fact my chapter on ‘malicious tendencies’ is one of the shortest. The truth, I argue, is that more trouble is created, more harm done, and more people get hurt when no one is intending it and everyone believes him or herself to be acting in a well intentioned, justified or even benevolent way. I don’t say anywhere in the book that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But that’s just because I try to avoid cliches. The point is a good one. Hardly anyone sets out to be horrible. Even trolls think that their actions are justified or helpful. Yet its often when we are high minded that we are at our worst – and vice versa.

One of the things I do in the book is to mash up the seven deadly sins and to come up with a contemporary list of deadlies or vices. My list runs to 23 which I group together in 6 clusters. What all these things have in common is that they are attitudes, habits or actions that, pleasurable or otherwise positive as they may seem, ultimately hurt the person who practices them as well as others.

I don’t think that there is a short list of capital sins from which all the others flow. My image of how sins works is more like a net or web of tiny, almost invisible, filaments. No one filament is that important or that powerful, but between them they ensnare and trap us in such a way that our wriggling and struggling only makes matters worse.

The things I’m most interested in are apparently blameless practices, or even virtues, that go sour on us.  For instance, I’m fascinated by our obsession with the shortness of time these days, and while I think that some time management ideas are really smart, I still see expert time managers getting busier and busier. Indeed, despite my best efforts it’s constantly happening to me.

Busyness is one of my deadlies. It’s okay to be busy – sometimes – but as a way of life it’s bad.  And I add ‘certainty’ and ‘control’ to my list of deadlies too. We tend to believe that if we were only more certain, or if we only had more control, the world would be better place. This is sinful fantasy. The truth is that many things are unknown and mysterious and when we are dealing with anything other than the most crude and basic processes it’s not control but guidance, and companionship, and facilitating the best efforts of others that will bring us closest to happiness, peace and flourishing.

Honestly I don’t think we will get to anything like peace, justice and flourishing without dealing with sin, especially the sin that hides itself in virtue. That’s why I wrote The Dark Side of the Soul.

 

 

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As someone who has studied both theology and psychology, one of the questions that has bothered me over the years, is why the relationship between these two areas of thought and research isn’t more creative. It’s wrong to generalise, but I have often found there to be an unhealthy degree of competition between psychologists and theologians when it comes to discussing aspects of the human condition.

On the whole this is a competition that the psychologists believe themselves to be winning – and so they are the ones who most naturally and obviously carry an air of superiority. I am not myself entirely sure that the better eggs are in the psychological basket. After many years of studying psychology, I felt I was going up an intellectual gear or two when I embarked on theology. (But I shouldn’t say that and risk making the competitive spirit any worse than it is – and goodness knows, a pompous theologian isn’t exactly unheard of…)

In recent years, however, I have found a very constructive, positive and mutually respectful environment in which psychological and theological perspectives are brought into dialogue and rendered more creative than competitive – where the energy generated is more likely to be light than heat.

The environment of which I write is the ‘Trialogue’ conference, which meets every two years.  Unlike many efforts to get the ‘psyches’ and the ‘theos’ together, this venture doesn’t just set the two off against each other, but introduces a third element into the conversation – literature. This doesn’t only mean that there is a work of modern literary fiction on the table, but that treating the work as literature is as important as regarding the characters and the plot psychologically and theologically.

Actually, the Trialogue doesn’t use the word ‘theology’ very much, preferring to use the more contemporary and inclusive word ‘spirituality’. My own perspective on this is what when people use the word ‘spirituality’ to create space for a broad and engaged theology it is very helpful – and this is more or less the way it works with the Trialogue.

I went to my first Trialogue when I was completing my book about forgiveness, ‘Healing Agony’. That year the conference was focussed on two books by Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’ and ‘Home’. I found it so stimulating that I needed to rethink and rewrite fundamental aspects of my own book, and publication was a little delayed. It was a much better book for the Trialogue, however, and I remain extremely grateful to those who made such a rich environment for thinking things through.

Next year the Trialogue is based on ‘The Quality of Mercy’ by Barry Unsworth. It is a remarkable historical novel which connects the end of the slave trade with the beginnings of the mining industry, and suggests a deeply subtle and thought-provoking critique of the profit motive. Or so say the reviewers and critics.

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In my opinion it is a deeper book than that, and invites serious refection on the way in which people relate to both literal and metaphorical meanings of ‘cost’ and ‘profit’, and not only financially but also ethically. The central theme of the conference, ‘Paying for It’, is very well chosen. You could say it invites us to reflect on the spirituality of justice as well as the ethics of profit, wealth and exploitation.

I say, ‘you could say’ but in fact what I mean is, ‘I probably will say…’ because I am one of the speakers at the conference, which takes place next March.

If you would like to know anything more about the Trialogue do have a quick look at its new website http://www.thetrialogue.co.uk

And if you have a background in one of the psychological disciples, or religion, theology or spirituality or in literature (we have writers, translators, poets among us as well as academics and teachers) please consider joining. How to do so is all explained on the website.

Personally, I have found the Trialogue to be a rich environment for positive, serious and worthwhile thinking and imagining. Should this blog draw one or two more good people into its conversation I would be delighted.

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A couple of years ago I began writing prayers and meditations in a notebook. Now they are in a real book and the book is being used for The Big Read 2014.

The clips below tell you more.

If you want to access the wonderful material that has been created to support people using the book for Lent, please follow this link.

http://bigbible.org.uk/big-read/bigread14/

One of the great things about The Big Read is that it is interactive and participants are invited to share stories and become creative themselves. So I am hugely looking forward to hearing from people who engage with the meditations and prayers once the project is underway in March.

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This is the final book in this short series, and it is the pick of the bunch. My book of the year is John Drury’s ‘Music at Midnight’ a much and rightly praised exposition of ‘The Life and Poetry of George Herbert’.

Portrait of George Herbert (poet) by Robert Wh...

Portrait of George Herbert (poet) by Robert White in 1674. From National Portrait Gallery (UK) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Drury is a confident and crafty writer. Consider his opening sentence: ‘Herbert’s masterpiece ‘Love (III)’ is saturated in the conditions of life in seventeenth century England’.  This is a ‘bold attack’ worthy of either Herbert or John Donne, from whom he learnt the style. Immediately you know you are in good hands, and that the book is not going to be a heap of abstractions or technicalities, nor less a pile of pious platitudes. It’s going to be a grounded and earthy account of what made the poet tick and the poetry live. And as you turn the pages, so you discover that’s exactly what it is.

I was taught New Testament by John Drury in Cambridge and for a couple of years we clerical colleagues at King’s. I learnt then to look forward to the sort of Druryisms with which this book is filled. He suggests, for instance, that the post of Orator was important, managing ‘the University’s external relations with royalty, the court and benefactors’, but then typically adding, ‘the sort of thing which is familiar nowadays as ‘development’.’ It’s true, but who else has made the connection?

Writing of the young Herbert at Trinity, Drury notes some ‘mild strictures’ in Walton’s description and sees there ‘a certain innate snobbery in Herbert, confirmed by his aloofness and self-conscious dress-sense’. Then comes the line that lets you know who is writing: ‘This kind of undergraduate is, to this day, hard to know and hard to like’. This is experience talking.

But the observation does not stop there, and the paragraph concludes kindly, showing that even such undergraduates as are hard to like can grow up well.

Herbert as withdrawn young fogey was the father of the country parson with ‘his apparel plain, but reverend and clean, without spots, or dust, or smell’. But the man who wrote those words, though still fastidious, has at last settled among the peasants of Wiltshire as their priest.

Drury is just as good at unfolding the poetry as the life, and every reader will find new angles and truths and develop new appreciations. I was particularly taken by the way he expounds the more quirky poems – some of which I have myself have found quite hard to like – and which have been the butt of harsh criticism.  Concluding the second part of the book and reflecting on the poem ‘Trinity Sunday’ Drury writes,

Herbert’s clever arithmetic, spare craftmanship and sincere devotion has made a bright prayer-toy out of abstruse and cumbersome theology.

‘Prayer-toy’?  Well, yes. Why not?

The book begins and ends with ‘Love’.  We have already seen how it begins. It was Herbert’s genius to write ‘Love bade me welcome’ and not ‘God bade me welcome’, insists Drury – an insight that lodges easily in the mind.  And he concludes the book with ‘Bitter-sweet’ which he compares with the famous part of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’: ‘Love is the unfamiliar name’ etc.  As Drury puts it, ‘The tone  is less grandiloquent than Eliot’s. Its lower key matches the maturity of its acceptance: it’s yes to life’.

Andrew Brown has tweeted about the excellence of this book saying it has ‘forensic sympathy’. It’s an apt phrase. The book is cool and understated and yet richly stuffed and affectionate. A delight.

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In the summer of 1979 I cycled with a friend from Durham to Rome. As we sped down the Alps and into Turin we saw from newspaper notices that the Pope had died. A few days later we were living in the English College in Rome and attending all the events around the conclave. Having stopped en route at Taize and Assisi we wondered what it would be like if the new pope called himself Francis – what a transformation of values that would be!

It was of course John Paul 1 who was elected – and who lasted only a few weeks. John Paul 2 was in post before the year was out and stayed there for a very long time. Nonetheless this chance proximity to a conclave  created in me  a sharper interest in new popes than I might otherwise have developed. Sadly, though, my response to the elections has been increased disappointment; with every puff of white smoke the promise of Vatican 2 seemed to be more and more diminished.

Until now.

I was lucky enough to hear Paul Vallely speak about his book about Pope Francis at Ushaw College recently – the same college to which a couple of seminarians in a waggon returned our bicycles after the 1979 expedition.  We had cycled enough and decided to hitch-hike home, and yes, it was quicker. You could tell from the talk that Vallely was excited about his subject – and still a bit mystified.

Francis is a puzzle to be sure, but Vallely does a wonderful job of both laying out the conundrum and then sorting out the issues. My feeling in the talk, reinforced as I read the book, is that he has read the situation right – and that there is real cause for hope for the church.  Francis is certainly not a western style catholic liberal – not an Anglican in Pontiff’s clothing – but he is that rare thing among prelates: someone who has grown into his humanity as his career has developed. Like all of us he has made plenty of mistakes – but unlike most of us he is a better person and certainly a greater leader for them. He may not prove to be a ‘transformative leader’ but he is a transformed leader – and that at least gets him half-way to being properly transformative.

Of course he will have to get his strategy right – and the internal politics will have to stack up.  But his creation of an inner cabinet of advisers from across the world is a good start. It is all too easy for apparatchiks to isolate the one who has positional power. Francis needs good company and great colleagues if he is to see his values interpreted in the life of the institutional church.

One of the most remarkable and encouraging sub-plots in the story concerns the way in which Liberation Theology is seen from the Vatican. The young Francis (that is Jorge Bergoglio) took a very antagonistic view, as of course did both John Paul 2 and Benedict 16. Things look very different now. Bergoglio became ‘Bishop of the Slums’, fell in love with the poor and antagonized the political classes. Meanwhile Liberation Theology itself became disentangled from a limited Marxist critique and vision.  The result is that the new Pope is not only a penitent regarding his own actual and material mistakes and sins, but also convinced that sin can be more than personal – it can be ‘structural’ or ‘social’. This apparently small academic point changes the whole enterprise of practical and lived Christianity.

How in earth this will all unfold is anyone’s guess. The gesture theology, fulled by intentional but not inauthentic humility (Vallely is very good on this) from the new Pope has captured the world’s imagination, his preaching has focussed on mercy, and his recent encyclical was all about joy.

There is hope indeed.

Vallely gives the last word in his book to Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan liberation theologian previously silenced by the Vatican: ‘What matters isn’t Bergoglio and his past, but Francis and his future’.

There’s a huge amount of gospel in that sentence; making it worth a joyful ‘Amen’.

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Written by a father and son team – Robert and Edward Skidelsky – this book is about imagining a better future.  How do we do that?  By asking ourselves what makes a for a good life – and acting on the answers.

The book starts with a massive mistake made by John Maynard Keynes in 1930. Looking forward he thought that our work would be so efficient that we would by now by working 15 hours per week and devoting the rest of our lives to more worthwhile activities.  He was wrong – our desire has shown no sign of being sated, and so we go on and on working harder and harder pursuing ever more and more growth.

‘Growth’ however is a concept desperately in need of a teleology – a purpose or ‘end’.  More than that, it is in need of a ‘means’ that is congruent with the intended ‘end’.  The Skidelskys’ answer that neither wealth and the pursuit of wealth, nor happiness and the pursuit of happiness, are good enough. The good life for them is a complex business involving seven components.

Health – having a body in good working order and a reasonable life-expectancy.

Security – living in an accustomed way undisturbed by war, violence, crime etc.

Respect – having your views and choices regarded and taken seriously.

Personality – this is ‘Kantian autonomy’ with a bit of spontaneity and spirited individualism thrown in.

Harmony with Nature – a sense of kinship with plants, animals and landscape.

Friendship – enjoying robust affectionate relationships with others.

Leisure – being able to do things for their own sake and not because they are means to an end.

It is Skidelskys concept of leisure which interests me most. They are at pains to point out this is not the same as the normal concept of leisure.

It’s whatever we do just because it is worth doing it.  It is the pursuit of the intrinsically worthwhile. It is like the nishkama karma that I discovered in Gurcharan Das’ very different book https://stephencherry.wordpress.com/tag/gurcharan-das/

One of the important things to say about such ‘leisure’ is that it can sometimes be your work – if you are fortunate enough to be in a job which can properly be called a ‘vocation’.  All worthwhile volunteering is also ‘leisure’ in this sense – even if it is hard work. It also follows that many of the things we do when we have time off are not leisure at all; cleaning gutters springs to mind, unless you find it intrinsically rewarding and would do it whether or not it had the consequence of letting the water flow freely to the drain, rather than backing-up and leaking thought the roof.

There is much more to this carefully researched, clearly expressed essay, but two things stay with me. First, that we should no longer have any doubt that human desires are insatiable and that unless we wise up to that we will be in very big trouble indeed. The second is that the list of seven components of the good life offers a solid basis for the re-moralising of politics.  How good it would be to see them guiding policy over the coming decade.

We need a new politics and maybe it will begin to emerge if we can begin to  share a subtle yet practical vision of the good life.  Certainly we owe our children and grandchildren a better explanation of their inheritance than the excuse that we were so demoralised by adverts that we were mindlessly pursuing growth and happiness – without thinking much about what they really are.

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English: Author, A. L. Kennedy signing books a...

English: Author, A. L. Kennedy signing books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I came across this book while browsing in Edinburgh. I had an hour so started to read it, was captivated. Since then I have heard A.L. Kennedy a few times on the Radio, but for me reading her is more enjoyable than hearing her.

This is a book about writing and being a writer, but who would have thought that writing about writing could be so compelling? The chapters of the book started as blogs on the guardian website and you can still read them there.

But there is more in the book than is on-line, so you will miss out if you only read the blogs.

There is a pace to the book which is attractive and which suggests something of the busy-ness of this writer’s life – so often on the road, so often involved in a workshop, so often re-writing something, and so often fretting about things in general.  One of the most amusing chapters is about procrastination. It’s called ‘Off-Putting Behaviour’ and I have often shared it with people while leading a day on ‘time wisdom’. Writing is a task that many dread, and so the  procrastinating writer – sharpening pencils and lining them up neatly – is someone we all know from the inside; even if the writing task being put-off is just a short note.

This is how the procrastination chapter begins:

I have a small blackboard in my study. On it, I carefully chalk all of the writing-related tasks I have not yet completed: essays, scripts, treatments, rewrites, short stories, letters, novel-planning, crying in a corner, talking to my kettle … There are days when I love this blackboard and its anal-retentive attention to detail: its tiny chalk-holding flange, its even tinier rubbing-out cloth: and there are also days when it feels like having a debt-collector in the room with me, smelling of broken legs and hardened hearts.

Reading its vitality one can easily imagine the ever-so-fluent-and-articulate-writer just sitting down and writing it in one efficient sitting. But Kennedy spills the beans. Most writing is not writing, but thinking or drafting or re-writing or editing, or, more likely, worrying so much that nothing productive seems to be happening at all.

All of which I find both realistic and reassuring.  I love this passage about signing a book contract, and specifically getting a ‘deadline’ into the bargain.

One Minute I am ambling along with my hands in my pockets, flirting ardently but gently and with no real legal obligations, and the next I am handcuffed to what may – I’ll admit – develop into a lovely, warm and clean-limbed partner, but which I, as usual fear, may turn out to be at best a corpse, and at worst, some kind of brain-eating undead gentleman who will embarrass me at parties.

Of course there must be contracts if publishers are to publish real books, and deadlines are inevitably part of the process if writers are to write them. But words like ‘contract’, deadline’ and ‘process’ are a million miles away from what she calls, ‘[that] beauty that you see when someone is really reading, completely engrossed’. She goes on to say that people who are reading or writing often look ‘frozen’.  That doesn’t look too good to the outsider, but Kennedy is at her sharpest with the observation that follows.

But if we happen to glance at people just before they kiss (not in an intrusive or unpleasant way, I would hope), then their expression is the same – oddly solemn, intent. And yet nobody ever suggests that kissing is dull, or pathetic, or a bit of a waste of time. I happen to believe that giving and receiving a kiss operates very much along the same lines as giving and receiving a word – it’s simply that the giving and receiving are done in different rooms and at different times – they are still an attempt to touch, be touched, be recognised, to exist in passion, to be human.

It is because she makes writing and reading so human that this book by A.L. Kennedy is one of my books of the year.

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