Hi and thanks for landing here. It might seem a bit backward, but I decided to start blogging only because I've been enjoying Twitter so much. While I love the 140 character limit of tweets, I realised that a blog would give me a place where I could have the luxury of saying a bit more. I've also set up here because I have a blogging project in mind... but more on that later.
Right now my face is stuck in the following books...
A new book came out yesterday… except, hang on, it isn’t new.
Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Wolf Hall. It was published a year ago in hardback, and since then there have been book reviews (last May), Mantel’s winning of the Man Booker prize (last October) and of course 12 full months.
And now, finally, publisher Fourth Estate has released the paperback edition. I snapped it today in Foyles bookshop next to the hardback (pic above).
I understand why publishers produce hardback editions first – they want to maximise profits when their star books are in the spotlight and calculate their paperback print-runs intelligently. The hardback of Bring Up the Bodies is currently retailing at £20, twice the price of the paperback (£9.99).
But making readers wait a full year before releasing such a culturally significant and widely discussed book just seems greedy to me. And it surely can’t be great for the book either, since those of us who would like to talk about it but aren’t on the freebie review copy lists of Fourth Estate will only be getting our teeth into it this week.
I’d like to talk about what’s inside Bring Up the Bodies, since I found Wolf Hall such a powerful and almost unmediated doorway into past lives. But I’m wondering, why bother, a year later?
I was a bit late to this story, but just before Christmas, National Geographic announced that one of the world’s tallest trees, the 247 foot ‘President’, a giant sequoia in Prairie Creek, California, has had its picture taken. It’s a composite picture actually, stitched together from 126 separate shots.
I only mention it because I’d like to recommend one of the best books I’ve read recently called The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston. It’s about one of the last unexplored places on earth – the forest canopy – and tells the often hair-raising story of how the huge trees of northern California were first climbed in the 1960s and 70s.
The story is poetic, quixotic and often dramatic, with people climbing and then falling out of trees and trees themselves being felled by high winds. Since reading it, the book’s stayed with me and I still think about it.
Biologists were slow to realise that to study the canopy they would need climbing skills. According to one early climbing scientist: ‘People said, “What do you mean, you’re going up into the trees? There’s nothing up there. That’s just Tarzan and Jane stuff.” She believed that she was on to something. “I felt like, Wow, here’s this new place nobody’s been to.”’
I grew up climbing trees myself, so the book had extra appeal for me, but I recommend it for anyone who enjoys an unexpected and well-told story and wants to know more about one of the world’s last frontiers.
A lovely and intriguing piece in the Guardian today by my friend Matthew Cresswell, on how Nasa imposed radio silence on Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin when he took communion shortly after the first moon landing.
Nasa was being sued at the time for the religious content of the Apollo 8 mission, when 10 verses from the first chapter of Genesis were read out on Christmas Eve while the astronauts orbited the moon, so Buzz was told to play down his private act of communion.
Aldrin’s description of the moment caught my eye: ‘I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup.’
It reminded me of a cartoon I drew for my 1991 book of cartoons, When Clergymen Ruled the Earth, about the perils of hitting escape velocity during Pentecostal-style rave-ups on the lunar surface. Since the book’s out of print (although used copies are selling for one penny on Amazon, hallelujah!) I’m posting it here in celebration.
Visiting relatives in Warwickshire on Sunday, I was handed a lovely old copy of the Prayer Book, with a publication date of 1760 on the title page. I dipped in, marvelling that Morning Prayer 250 years ago is exactly as I’ve experienced it myself – except that the letter ‘s’ is frequently shown as a ‘f’ (or a character very like an ‘f’), in that fweet old 18th century ftyle.
It’s not often that my mouth hangs open in slack-jawed astonishment, but when I turned to the back of the book, with its section of metrical Psalms, I encountered Psalm 8 in a version I’ve never seen before (and which I snapped above). The first few lines tell the story.
Now I know 18th century congregations could easily read an ‘f’ as an ‘s’ and would be able to sing the Psalm without any difficulty… but they also knew and loved the same Anglo-Saxon words we cherish today. And so surely, surely, even the most pious worshipper would have sprayed their communion wine over the pew in front when they read these words?
I was in Foyles (the bookshop equivalent of the Tower of Babel, so endless and towering is its collection of books) on Charing Cross Road the other day. I was looking for a good introduction to the Christian faith and was trying to steer clear of Mere Christianity.
No offence to CS Lewis, of course, but I find MC is dating quite badly. It’s sounding more and more like the voice of a great uncle who wears tweed suits and flannel underpants, smells of mothballs and tobacco and talks like a BBC newsreel. It’s not its own fault, poor thing – parts of the book date back to 1941. But surely someone’s written a classic intro to the faith which has the smell of today and can topple MC from its top spot on the Christian bookshelf?
Anyway, standing on the second floor, surrounded by enticing books on New York, Turkish cooking, hitchhiking in Patagonia, how the human eye works, London’s lost rivers, lives of Dickens – not to mention the miles of shelves devoted to novelists from Ackroyd to Zafón and back again, I noticed that the few shelves of the Christianity section have been shoved into an obscure corner, sandwiched between the paranormal and psychology.
As I struggled to find an alternative to CS Lewis, the weight of a million brilliant modern books pressed in on me and made me see in a new way how small, how pushed into a corner, how seemingly backward-looking and irrelevant my faith is.
I realised that if I wanted to buy a world class book, either because it was beautifully written, or groundbeaking in its ideas, or sharp in its take on life, or because it contained the best comedy or tragedy or sheer storytelling money could buy, then I would not find it here, in Kristianity Korner.
That in turn made me think how few of the people I really admire in mainstream culture – people who make me laugh, people who challenge me to think better, people who show me the world in a new way through books, films or TV programmes – how few of them have anything but scorn or apathy for religion.
Frank Skinner recently told Rowan Williams that many standup comics today, even if they have no particular gripe against God, will take a few minutes out of their set to say how hilariously awful religion is and how atheism is the answer. I’ve had to accept the marginalisation of my faith ever since I became a Christian, but somehow, standing there on the second floor of Foyles, it crashed in on me in a new way.
Christians who want to live their chosen faith wholeheartedly, but who want to live in our culture wholeheartedly too, have the Devil’s own choice if they think about it long enough. In my experience, we mostly duck the issue and get on with the practical business of standing by the faith choice we made a long time ago. But it’s painful whenever you do think about it, because the pressure of faith and the counter-pressure of culture act like a pair of pincers on the soul.
How do we respond to the spiritual pain of that? A widespread response among believers is to create bubbles within the culture where we can do our own little thing and pretend that nothing outside the bubble is truly important.
There are bubbles where Christians fantasise about revival or the second coming or the blessed return to Latin liturgy. There’s the bubble of church itself, of course, with its essentially medieval world of sermons, processions, reciting texts together in buildings with pointy windows, dressing up in clothes the Romans would feel at home in, and lighting candles in the age of the electric light.
It’s lovely, but it’s a lovely bubble, a little culture inside a bigger culture with less and less appeal to the world as it is out there. These rejections of the wider world are ways of turning aside the pain, of relieving the pressure which bears down so sharply on people of faith.
Another response is gradually losing your religion because it’s too hard to sustain, or because you finally need to call time on a faith which no longer has any immediate hold on your imagination. Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach, becomes a personal experience as the sea of faith makes its ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’.
I’ve always been something of a fan of the friction between faith and culture. I’ve believed it can be a creative, self-critical force, demanding the best from us in making the connection between God and the world of here and now. But I don’t see that friction producing bright sparks in huge quantities among Christians today. I don’t see much creative impact on the mainstream as I stand on the second floor of Foyles receiving my negative epiphany.
In the end, I ran out of time and bought Screwtape. At least it wasn’t Mere Christianity, but it was the very next book on the narrow shelf.
We use one word, ‘book’ to describe such amazingly varied things. In the past few weeks I’ve encountered one book which made me sit up in bed reading way too late (the sci-fi novel Ready Player One), another I bought because I loved its gloomy illustrations (a vast black Victorian Bible), and one or two others I’ve gone to for tiny, sought-for quotes or poems.
And then this book, How Are Things? by Roger-Pol Droit. I’ve had it since the beginning of the year and it’s become my regular squeeze. The writing is casual and unexpected, it has short little chapters, and it makes me think… I love books like this which don’t demand to be read all at once.
Droit, a philosopher who likes to be popular rather than academic, spent a year recording his encounters with unremarkable objects, the things we meet and use every day. In How Are Things? he gets you to stand back and see them as if for the first time. One of these short meditations reminded me of my first mystified and magical encounter with a chest of drawers, something I hadn’t thought about from that day to this.
The objects Droit looks at don’t at first seem very promising, but in his patient hands they open up their secrets. The remote control: ‘a thing of magic, a thing of sorcery’. The drawer: ‘it offers up its contents to your eyes and fingers without quite leaving its cave’. The freezer: ‘a victory over time, over decay, over death’. The supermarket trolley: ‘vast capacity, intended to make one forget just how much’.
Here are some of his thoughts on the mobile phone…
Here we have a thing that emits incongruous tunes, or vibrates, or flashes, just to let you know, inside your pocket, or strapped to your belt, or in your car, or even in close proximity to your heart, that there are people who want to speak to you, urgently, this instant, to get information out of you, to offer you work, to make plans, to give you their news. And who want to speak to you here and now, in person, wherever you are, whatever you might be doing.
You know as well as I do that it does not succeed. There is a whole range of tricks that enable one to outflank this permanent invasion of unwanted voices wherever one goes. The voice mail, the text message, the call-return and other such tactics allow you to put off and postpone. Nonetheless, you are supposed to pick up and return your messages as soon as possible, throw yourself upon them breathless with attention and just a touch of guilt, as soon as you are back online. Since the basic principle, the entire rationale and avowed ambition of the portable phone is perpetual connection, non-stop, limitless, lifelong, night and day.
Read one of his meditations per day and see the universe in a grain of sand, as Blake said.
A new book by Simon Parke is out on 1 November. It’s called Solitude: Recovering the power of alone. The past decade has seen us make huge strides forward in banishing the experience of being on our own. All you need is a smartphone and you can text, tweet and browse your way out of aloneness. How desperate does it feel to find you have left the house without your mobile?
Solitude is written as a dialogue, which I like, as it makes a good percentage of the book ask questions. And it has short chapters of four or five pages each which are designed to make you pause and think about the issues which orbit around spending time with yourself. For the flavour of the dialogue, play the film above. Simon has also written about the book on his website…
Lady Gaga, never knowingly under-exposed, dug deep into the basket of self-revelation recently when speaking to Star TV. ‘I am an artist,’ she said. ‘We wallow in loneliness and solitude our whole lives… Yes, I’m lonely. But I’m married to my loneliness.’
How are you feeling about that? Perhaps you’re nodding your head in empathic agreement, but I’m shaking mine in frustration. Millions hang on her every word, but her words perpetuate a falsehood. Solitude is nothing like loneliness.
‘Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone,’ writes Paul Tillich. ‘It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.’ It’s important we keep them separate, otherwise all hell will break loose.
Solitude is different. Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely; of being happily alone. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself, and through oneself, with God and the world around. Solitude is something desirable, something to be sought; a state of being alone in the good company of your self.
I was in the basement of Quinto’s second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road the other day and came across a slim, battered volume from the 18th century with the gloriously misspelled title, The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Ressurection of Jesus, by Thomas Sherlock.
The cover was falling off, but in the musty pages I was surprised to find a little work of fiction which presents the case for the resurrection as a courtroom drama. The story is that a group of m’learned friends fall into a conversation about the resurrection, and agree to stage a trial for their own entertainment. When they next meet, their project has drawn a small crowd, so they elect a judge and jury and start to interrogate the accounts of the key witnesses in the four gospels.
The book concludes with the judge asking the jury, ‘Are the apostles guilty of giving false evidence in the case of the resurrection of Jesus, or not guilty?’ To no great surprise, the verdict of the jury is ‘not guilty’.
This copy of The Tryal of the Witnesses was published in 1794, the year The Terror ended in France. I was intrigued by its age, because the standout book for me arguing the resurrection forensically is Frank Morison’s celebrated Who Moved the Stone? which was first published in 1930 but has been in print ever since. That book was written by an English advertising exec (real name, Albert Henry Ross) whose ad agency also employed the novelist Dorothy Sayers as a copywriter and whose greatest success was the ‘Guinness is good for you’ campaign.
Morison borrows the language of the courtroom in examining the death and resurrection of Jesus, with breathless chapter titles such as, ‘The real case against the prisoner’, ‘The situation on Friday afternoon’ and ‘The evidence of the principal fisherman’. Thinking about it, those headlines sound more like the work of a tabloid hack scribbling at the back of the courtroom than a learned barrister.
Despite that (or maybe because of it) Who Moved the Stone? remains a classic on both sides of the Pond partly because Morison started writing it as a sceptic who wanted to disprove the resurrection, but ended up convinced by the case he sought to destroy – and no Christian can resist a testimony like that. It has something of John Newton’s ‘I once was blind, but now I see’ about it.
Frank might have written a memorable book, but he was not the first to tackle the gospels like this. I did a small amount of digging and found that ‘resurrection meets forensics’ goes back much earlier than 1930. It goes back 80 years earlier, in fact, to 1846. That’s when snappily-titled An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists: By the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice, by Simon Greenleaf, was published in Boston, Massachusetts. (You can buy the book on Amazon or read it on Google Books.) Greenleaf was one of the founders of the Harvard Law School, where he was Professor of Law.
What made Greenleaf’s book special was that he used technical legal tools for examining the reliability of the gospels and for cross-examining the testimony of the claimed eyewitnesses of the resurrection. His methods and arguments have been followed by Christian writers ever since, up to and including tireless apologist Josh McDowell.
However, even Greenleaf must give way to the little book I found in the basement room of Quinto’s, so far as originality goes. The copy of The Tryal of the Witnesses I stumbled on was published in London in 1794, but the first edition hit the bookshops in 1729. When I found that out, I realised that despite its size this must be a significant work. Any book still in print after 65 years (and with 15 editions under its belt, one every four years or so) is worth a second look.
Like Greenleaf’s book, it’s full of the detailed, lawyerly argument you would expect when the resurrection stories are put in the witness box. For example, here’s Thomas Sherlock’s defence lawyer quizzing the testimony of the Roman guards who claimed the disciples stole Jesus’ body while they, the guards, were fast asleep: ‘I wish the guards were in court, I would ask them how they came to be so punctual in relating what happened when they were asleep?’
Thomas Sherlock was a Bishop of London, although he wrote the book while he was further down the food chain as mere Bishop of Bangor. He produced several books in response to the anti-miracle arguments of the Deists, this one included, and he’s regarded as an important figure in the history of apologetics.
So who invented this idea of taking Peter, Mary Magdalene and Pilate to court? If it wasn’t Thomas Sherlock, he must be an early adopter of the genre, and I think the fact he wrote a fictional narrative makes him highly creative. The Tryal of the Witnesses, despite its ancient-looking title, is still entertaining and readable. It’s not Twelve Angry Men, but it’s good nevertheless.
Amazingly, Amazon is selling The Trial of the Witnesses, which is still in print after 300 years thanks to a specialty publisher who describes it as ‘one of the most famous – and least read – works of Christian apologetics’. That sounds about right. The text of the book can also be read online for free.
My lifelong fascination with ‘the far side’ of Christianity easily includes the Catholic Chuch’s love affair with relics, although I must confess some sympathy with it all. It’s a deeply human thing to show respect to what remains of those we’ve loved after they’ve died and the photographs, letters and books of people in my family which have come down to me are beloved things.
So the early Christian practice of meeting at the gravesides of the martyrs and placing their portrait paintings in churches seems absolutely right to me, even though it’s not for everyone. But what about collecting bones and skulls, inspecting the bodies of dead saints and parading their body parts through the streets? Call me squeamish, but it just seems macabre and obsessive, not to mention terminally out of step with modern culture. Believing the Christian faith is hard enough these days without throwing in veneration of the big toe of St Bob the Bizarre.
Back in May this year, a syringeful of John Paul II’s blood, taken from him before he died, was venerated in his beatification mass in Rome, while another found its way to Krakow in Poland. His body has already been moved upstairs from the basement of St Peter’s into the church, and it’s a disturbing possibility that the Vatican’s resurrection men might be visiting his coffin for bits and pieces sometime in the future.
Which is why I was curious to get hold of a copy of a new book, Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics, by Thomas J Craughwell. This is a book which knows where the bodies are unburied. If you want to get on a plane to go and venerate one of the many skulls of St George, the Holy Bench Jesus sat on during the Last Supper, the eye of Blessed Edward Oldcorne (don’t ask), the humerus of St Francis Xavier or even the skis of John Paul II, this is where to start.
I’m disappointed though that Craughwell doesn’t pass much critical comment on the history or authenticity of the relics he lists. Many of the saints’ relics are genuine, but all the claimed biblical objects must be regarded as frauds perpetrated on credulous believers.
It’s a fraud the Church has colluded in over the centuries. Take the Holy House of Nazareth, for example, where Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived, which was flown by a team of house-moving angels to Loreto in Italy in the 13th century. A virtual queue of Popes visited the house to bless it and bestow privileges, and only Julius II demurred by adding the words, ‘as is piously believed and reported’ to an account of the shrine’s legend.
However, there are some signs of change, as witnessed by the curious story of the Holy Prepuce (the foreskin of the infant Christ), which was the subject of another book, An Irreverent Curiosity, which I read a few months ago.
According to the book, written by American journalist David Farley, the Holy Prepuce was venerated every January 1st (the feast of the circumcision of Christ) by the people of Calcata, an Italian hill town. This went on for almost four centuries without a problem until 1900, when Pope Leo XIII took the highly unusual step of censoring all mention of the relic on pain of excommunication. The blessed foreskin had become an almighty embarrassment. But then things went further.
In 1983, the priest of Calcata told his congregation that the Holy Prepuce had been stolen from the shoebox in his wardrobe, where he had kept it for safety, and it has never been seen again. Locals believe it was snatched by Church officials to be ‘disappeared’ into the Vatican. Other uncomfortable relics, such as the breast milk of the Virgin Mary, have also been sent into retirement.
Like most traditional elements of Catholicism, the cult of relics has been enjoying something of a revival under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Their Church has renewed its love of bloodstained shrouds and holy bones. For them, God moves not only in mysterious ways, but in medieval ones too.
My bedtime reading at the mo is the engrossing Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which is just out in paperback. It’s a novel set in the year 2044, 30 years into a great depression so bad that the final decades of the 20th century look like a golden age. Our man on the spot is high school student Wade Watts, who lives with his aunt in the stacks, mobile homes stacked 20 high without proper sanitation, and which give ‘trailer park trash’ a whole new depth of meaning.
Cline has given his novel a thriller-like plot, but what is fascinating me as I read is the book’s reflection on Internet culture and online worlds. Social conditions in the story are so dire that most people escape by immersing themselves in the OASIS, a virtual universe of cosmic dimensions which provides them with all the education, entertainment and relationships they need. In this sense, the novel is a credible imagining of how the virtual world might develop.
A well as peering into the future, Ready Player One cleverly invokes the familiar past, as the culture of 2044 is fixated on the 1980s and the beginning of the digital era. The novel is rich in references to the TV shows, computer games, movies, comic books, magazines and other cultural debris of the 80s, and this scheme, where the reader is in the time between Wade Watts’ world and the Thatcher-Reagan era, is as beguiling as can be. It evokes nostalgia and futureshock in one hit.
Some reviewers are hailing the book as a worthy successor to William Gibsons’s landmark 1984 novel, Neuromancer, which fixed the term cyberspace in modern culture. Whatever the unlikely merits of that comparison, this is a book worth reading in its own right, both for sheer entertainment and thinking about the state of cyberculture.
I met the comedian Marcus Brigstocke in a West End cafe last week and this evening started writing it up into a feature for the Church Times. We had a lively and enjoyable talk about his book, God Collar, which started life as a standup show touring the UK in 2009.
Marcus doesn’t believe in God, but would like to, if someone could show him a God worth believing in. The book starts off from that point and follows his search for God, which even to a religious person like me sometimes seems a bit obsessive. ‘I’ve never stalked anyone before, but if God had bins I’d definitely rifle through them,’ he confesses. The book is a comedy, but the search is serious.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the book, and our conversation, was his enthusiasm for attacking his own (lack of) faith position. He greatly disappointed the atheists in his audiences when he told them they weren’t cleverer than anyone else, for example. I haven’t found that spirit of self-criticism in many public atheists.
And I like his openness to what other people say. He told me this story from the end of one of his shows…
‘You always go for a pee after a show and the worst case scenario – which happens very, very often – is that the punters who have just watched the show will come and have a pee next to you and talk to you while you’re having a pee. Anyway, this guy came and spoke to me and said, “Oh, I just watched your show.” He didn’t really say whether he liked it or not, which is always a bad sign. He waited and then said, “I just wanted to let you know that when you’re ready, Jesus is waiting for you.” My initial response was right, here we go, we’re off to the races. And then I thought, no, actually he paid to come to your show, he listened to you for an hour and has now had the good grace to share with you something that worked for him and say, I hope you can have a piece of this.’
I spent today at King’s College, London, at a one-day conference in honour of my old friend and partner in crime, Professor Andrew Walker. In the 1990s, Andrew and I jointly edited Leading Light, the journal of the CS Lewis Centre – which was not, I hasten to add, a fan club for Aslan, but an organisation launched by Andrew for studying and promoting ‘gospel and culture’ issues.
Andrew has just retired from King’s and was paid handsome tribute by his friends and colleagues, including Alister McGrath, Pete Ward, Martyn Percy, Luke Bretherton and Billy Abraham.
Martyn Percy focused on Andrew’s book from 1985, Restoring the Kingdom, which gave a brilliant guided tour of the House Church Movement, as it was then known. The book has Andrew’s characteristic blend of journalistic detail (he interviewed many of the big cheeses in the individual House Churches) and penetrating anaysis. He was the son of a Pentecostal household and so he was sympathetic to the movement, but was also only too aware of the history of how revivalism plays out.
I was also fascinated by the paper given by Pete Ward, the author of Liquid Church and Gods Behaving Badly. Part of what he said delved into the relationship between Andrew’s work and that of Lesslie Newbigin, the godfather of the gospel and culture movement. Pete said that in this (and other areas) Andrew was ahead of the game…
While his academic interests neatly coincided with those of Lesslie Newbigin I would argue that Andrew was more attuned to contemporary culture and the social reality of the Church and as a result his work, though less well known, was actually more useful to those who were buying into a missiological vision for the Church…
Andrew was deeply appreciative of Newbigin but it is my sense that he was too much of a sociologist to see philosophy as the arena in which to do battle. In Telling the Story, Andrew showed how theological ideas are situated in communities and communicative practices. He was one of the first to put his finger on the way that religious faith and ecclesial cultures arose from innovations in media.
Andrew has written and edited a large number of books. One of his great gifts is his enthusiasm in bringing people together to work on projects, and so his multi-author books are really worth reading alongside his solo works. Here’s my recommended Walker booklist…
I’ve been reading two books alongside each other in bed at night. It’s not something I would normally do as it’s too ambitious just before diving into sleep, but one is more of a serious read, while the other’s a graphic novel, so they make a good contrast.
John Berger’s Why Look at Animals? is in the Penguin Great Ideas series, and it’s a slim, readable book of short pieces in which Berger reflects on the dwindling and marginalized role of animals in our world. His argument is that humans once visibly shared the world with animals, who were present all around us, even in our cities. Animals were once ‘with man at the centre of his world,’ says Berger.
It’s hard to believe now that only a century ago, street life in London was full of horses who pulled carriages and buses and delivered goods. The invention of engines and the spread of towns and villages has driven domesticated animals and wildlife into retreat, while around the world animals are confined to safari parks or are becoming extinct.
The net effect, argues Berger, is that animals have ceased to be our companions and have either become pets, where they are accessorised into our lives, or a spectacle, like the creatures in zoos or the animals captured by the lens in David Attenborough programmes. ‘Everywhere animals disappear,’ says Berger. ‘In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance.’
I’m only halfway through Berger, but I finished the second book, Laika, by writer and illustrator Nick Abadzis, last night.
Set in the Cold War, this comic strip novel tells the story of a stray Moscow dog who became the most famous canine in the world when she was rocketed into space in 1957 by the Russians, just a month after the launch of Sputnik. Her name was Laika (Russian for ‘Barker’), although American newspapers quickly renamed her Muttnik.
The price of her fame as the first life form in space was high: there was no return to earth provided for Laika and she died of stress and overheating just hours after reaching orbit. The book tells her story poignantly, the words and images forming a meditation on trust, love, betrayal and the alienation of human beings from animals and each other.
There are frames in the comic strip which deliver emotional impact in a way no words could ever do, and there is poetry as Laika is shown flying in the dreams of the little girl who lost her forever on the streets. The final section of the book summons up fear and dread in the face of implacable events as powerfully as in any film. I finished reading in the early hours of the morning, long after I should have turned in for the night.
Nick Abadzis carried out detailed historical research in writing and artworking his book, but he also invented characters and situations to create a sort of myth of Laika, which like all potent myths gets to the deep heart of the story.
The book concludes with a genuine quote by one of the scientists, who said, 40 years after the Laika mission, ‘Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.’ Betraying the original companionship of animals carries a high price.
In Koenig Books on Charing Cross Road yesterday, my eye fell on Holy Crap. It’s a paperback printed on cheap paper, with gold spray-painted edges, like an old-fashioned Bible, and a hole punched through it so you can hang it up in your toilet. And inside are hundreds of black and white pictures of US church signboards, which have long been the home of smug comments, pious puns, and sacred sayings which unexpectedly turn out to have a second life as jokes about bonking…
The best vitamin for a Christian is B1
The most powerful position is on your knees
You give God the credit, now give God the cash
Family altar or Satan will alter your family
There can’t nobody do me like Jesus
The book is a project by New York artist Rob Pruitt, whose work often uses comedy to comment on mass and trash culture – such as his 1998 show, Cocaine Buffet, which consisted of a very long line of coke on a mirror on the floor of an artist’s studio. All of which was obligingly hoovered up by the show’s visitors.
In the intro to Holy Crap, Pruitt says, ‘I love multitasking, like driving and having a religious experience at the same time.’ Which is funny, but I’m more interested in what he said in a press release for the book’s launch last year: ‘We had a discussion about the Church, the Church signs in the US along the streets, about their poetry, about seduction, repression and basement tapes. The fact that these Church signs make you laugh, but that the Church isn’t funny, not the Catholic Church, none of them, no.’
We’ve been collecting church signs and religious gadgets on Ship of Fools for years, mostly playing to the comedy aspect, but this is a good reminder of the unfunny heart which lies behind it all. The humour is provided by the ironic take of Ship of Fools and the viewer’s enjoyment of that, rather than by the people producing the church signs or the holy hardware, whose intent is serious.
Elsewhere, Rob Pruitt describes his mixed feelings towards the cultural excess he depicts, which sounds like it’s coming out of the grey area satirists work in: ‘On the one hand I want to celebrate it, because it’s who we are, and on the other hand I want to condemn it. I think it’s always like a ping-pong match for me.’
The past few days I’ve been getting my head into the Christmas story by reading The First Christmas, by theological adventurers Marcus J Borg and John Dominic Crossan.
For several years, I’ve been seeing the birth stories in Matthew and Luke as beautiful, folksy, kitschy, dramatic… and highly improbable. After all, they have a very high angel count, they fly in the face of known historical dates, and they cite significant events that are not mentioned in any other records.
What I’ve enjoyed about Borg and Crossan’s book is the way they shift your attention from the search for facts in these stories, to the search for meaning. They argue that the most important questions are not about what happened when (for example, all the modern attempts to tie the star of Bethlehem to a supernova or Halley’s Comet), but what Matthew and Luke were trying to tell us when they wrote as they did. And sure enough, when you leave behind the quest for facts and look at these stories as literature, they come to life in a fresh and colourful way.
I’d never noticed, for instance, how very different Matthew’s birth story is from Luke’s. I’ve always read them as if they’re two cameras trained on the same scene, when a closer look shows they are making quite separate movies.
In Luke, Mary is the starring character. It’s to her that Gabriel appears, and it is her active ‘yes’ to God which drives the story. But in Matthew, Mary is a passive, offstage figure. It is Joseph who receives the revelation from the angel, and it is his dreams and decisions which count throughout the story.
Why Matthew and Luke tell their stories so differently, and what messages they want to give about Jesus and his mission, is one of the big themes of this book. It’s one of those books which makes you realise how much more there is to discover in the Gospels… which I find a hopeful and exciting thought.
I’ve reviewed new comedy book Jesus on ThyFace here, and my interview with the UK authors, Denise Haskew and Steve Parker is on Ship of Fools. In the interests of keeping it short there, I cut part of the interview, so here’s the authors’ account on how they wrote the book…
Steve Parker: I’d like to say we were keen to take a satirical look at the Bible, but the idea came from the other direction. I came up with an idea for a whodunnit/thriller based entirely on the social networking pages of the principle characters, and I asked Denise what she thought. She said it was probably the worst idea she’d heard in a long time.
Denise Haskew: There was the germ of an idea there, though, and I suggested retelling a classic, familiar tale using the characters’ social networking pages – something like Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace or Wuthering Heights. I thought that might work. This was last Christmas, and we were on our way to a Christmas party in London. On the way, we sat on the train chucking out suggestions. It was clear that for a book like this to work, we needed something that was familiar to as large a number of people as possible. “What’s the best selling book of all time?” we mused. Then, just like a scene from the movies, the idea hit us both at exactly the same time: ‘The Bible!’
Steve Parker: I remember Denise saying, ‘Lazarus hath changed his status to risen’, then she reached into her bag and pulled out a pen and pad. We were pretty poor company at the party – we just sat in a corner giggling and writing down gags.
Denise Haskew: When energy flagged, we turned to alcohol. I remember one particularly thorny problem working out how to best tell the story of John the Baptist’s beheading. I was looking forward to getting to this, as I thought Salome would be such a great character. As the Paris Hilton of her day, she was in many ways the ideal subject. But when we got to that bit, we couldn’t get the story to work. So we went down the pub and had a couple of pints of Winter Warmer, and then hit on the solution after just one pint: the story was much better told from Herod Antipas’s point of view. Herodias and Salome were plotters, whereas the luckless, conceited Herod was taken for a ride. Obvious, but it needed beer to bring it into focus.
Jesus Christ joins ThyFace. Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary are now friends. Jesus Christ rejected a friend request from Jesus H Christ.
So beginneth this new book, Jesus on Thyface, published last month, in which Jesus and his mum, joined by the regular cast of the New Testament (including well known Bible character Derek the Leper) get into social media. Satan’s ThyFace wall is also included, and it’s heartening to see the update…
Satan and Philip Pullman are now friends.
There are a number of ways this book could have gone. An earnest Campus Crusade author could have written the WWJD Teen Guide to Facebook – come to think of it, that’s probably already in print, complete with a free chastity ring with every copy. Or there could have been a badly produced gift book with leaden humour and available at every Tesco checkout.
Instead, Jesus on ThyFace is a slim and handsome hardback, printed in full colour, with every right hand page in familiar Facebook format. The writing is laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly accurate in its retelling of the four Gospels, and highly inventive in mining the comic potential of sacred story meets social networking. It’s not a book you’d want to give for Christmas to your evangelical aunt, unless you wanted to trigger an early meeting between her and the Lord, but for tweeting Christians of a liberal bent who aren’t offended by jokes about Jesus, this is close to perfection.
For more info check out the Jesus on ThyFaceFacebook page, where the latest joyous news is that the book has just made it into the Book Depository 1000 top sellers, at number 666. And who says God has no sense of humour?
How to describe the humour of Dave Walker, whose new book, The Exciting World of Churchgoing, was out at the end of last month? It’s as dry as a communion wafer stuck to the roof of your mouth.
Dave’s visual style is deceptively simple – with childlike drawings of bishops, people in pews and church architecture – and reminds me of Tim Hunkin’s Rudiments of Wisdom cartoons from the Observer in the 1980s. But what takes these above Hunkin is the humour, which is delivered through flatly factual text.
For example, a cartoon on the responsibilities of the church sound desk operator: ‘Moving the slider up a bit. Moving the slider down a bit. Every now and then pressing the “sudden unexpected feedback” button.’
The deadpanning and the simple drawings conceal an artful and inventive brain at work. Working consistently in this style takes time and planning, as well as the ever-necessary banging your head repeatedly on your drawing board.
Religious cartoonists who are genuinely funny should be treasured, because there aren’t many of them. There’s only one, so far as I know, whose speciality is English understatement… and that’s reason enough to buy this book.
Has anything beautiful or generous come out of Christianity in response to the tragedy of 9/11? On the micro level, I’m sure there must be Christians and communities which have responded in positive ways, but the big picture looks overwhelmingly gloomy on this ninth anniversary of the atrocity.
Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, and his threatened Qur’an-burning stunt is a powerful example of how easily the Christian faith can turn ugly, profoundly betraying the open-hearted teaching of Jesus. Although Terry Jones has now abandoned his Qur’anic bonfire, he seems to think his notoriety can be traded in for religious influence, as he’s been demanding that the Islamic centre proposed near Ground Zero be dropped. Unsurprisingly, his voice is being ignored.
One creative response to the threat of Qur’an-burning has been made by Revd Larry Reimer, minister of the United Church of Gainesville. ‘If they can burn it, then we can read it,’ he says in a blogged interview. Along with other local church leaders, he’s going to be reading passages of the Qur’an at church services tomorrow, 12 September.
I’ve never read the Qur’an or had much desire to, but the whiff of unholy bonfire smoke has finally given me the curiosity and impetus to see what is inside its covers. If fellow believers with so few functioning brain cells as Pastor Jones want so much to destroy it, that’s a strong argument for discovering the Qur’an for myself. The desire to burn comes from fear and rage, but fear and rage were never part of the gospel I received.
So I’m going to sit down with the Qur’an and read and reflect on what it has to say, and post occasional comments here as I go along. I’m a Christian, so I can’t help coming to it with Christian-flavoured preconceptions. I’m also a complete newbie to the Islamic scriptures, but I see that as an advantage, as my impressions will be fresh ones. I’m setting out to read appreciatively, respectfully and critically – just as I read the scriptures of my own faith.
The edition I’ve bought is the 2008 translation by Tarif Khalidi, published by Penguin… just in case anyone wants to read along with me.
In my home town of Cardiff yesterday I went to Waterstones to see my sister, Sue Barrow, do a signing for her two new books, published by Hometown World. This new publisher spotted a gap in the educational market a couple of years ago and started commissioning books for young readers by local authors on the history of where they live.
Since Sue like me was born and raised in Cardiff, but also lived for a time in Pontypridd, she’s written two books for them, on Cardiff and the Welsh Valleys.
The books cover the invasions of the Romans, the Normans and the industrialists (plus the Internet), and they’re full of lively storytelling based on original research, which is matched with plentiful illustration and dropped-on-the-page objects. I’m biased, obviously, but I’m a fan of popularised history, and it’s a good feeling to see my sister working in the same area as I did in The Bible from Scratch.
In Blackwells yesterday I came across a paperback edition of the New International Version of the Bible – a veritable brick, bigger than an airport blockbuster. I liked the cover, though (which I snapped, above left), with the type set in the shape of a cross, the lower half being an extended quote from Jesus: ‘Ask and it will be given to you…’
The type, which is a variation of Gill Sans, is physically impressed into the paper, like old-fashioned letterpress, which makes me think the designer has taken a leaf out of the Penguin Great Ideas series, which also features impressed type. Just a few steps away from the bookshelf where I saw the Bible was a copy of the Penguin edition of The Inner Life by Thomas à Kempis (above right), looking like it came out of the same design studio.
Ever since Diane Duyser saw the face of the Virgin Mary in a cheese sandwich and made a cool 28,000 bucks selling it on eBay to a Florida casino, visions of Mary and Jesus in food and everyday objects have been in the news.
Look! It’s Jesus! documents dozens of ‘appearances’ of the holy duo on tortillas, handbags, lava lamps, clouds, tree stumps, and a burnt frying pan. They’ve mercifully omitted the image on a dog’s bottom which has been doing the rounds on the Net for a while. Some images in the book are quite impressive, in their weird and whacky way, while others are testaments to a wildly overactive imagination.
I bought it because I’ve been following the phenomenon for a few years, curious about how people respond so willingly to these eccentric appearances of the divine, and why they identify any vaguely bearded face as Jesus, rather than Frank Zappa. I wrote about several of the most interesting stories in a feature on the Rejesus website called Unexpected Faces.
Harry and Sandra Choron, the book’s authors, have done a supernaturally good job, though, not just in collecting the pictures, but also in tracking down the original stories and talking to the people behind them, many of whom now treasure their unlikely relics. ‘Smith has set up a shrine to the lava lamp in his home,’ is the conclusion of a typical story.
My favourite episode in the book is about David, who ordered grilled chicken and vegetables in an Italian restaurant in Syracuse, New York. The food arrived and there staring up at him from the surface of the chicken was the face of Our Lord. David told the waiter, ‘I think Jesus is on my chicken,’ which must have made a nice change from ‘There’s a fly in my soup’.
Still reading Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens and have got to the point where Dickens is writing his monthly serialisations of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist at the same time.
There can’t be many (if any) novelists who have written two such famous novels simultaneously, one full of darkness and terror, the other brimming with comedy. Ackroyd says that Dickens, ‘the novelist of a thousand moods,’ got into the rhythm of writing Oliver first each month, and then The Pickwick Papers, and that the pathos of Oliver fed the lightness and laughter of Pickwick.
Anyway, I decided to take a right turn at this point and dive into one of these novels for myself. I’ve never read any Dickens before, all because of the grim TV serials which aired on Sunday afternoons when I was little, which I found horribly full of cruelty towards David Copperfield and other Dickens children.
So it was with a deep breath that I plunged into Oliver Twist a couple of nights ago, and so far, so grim. Oliver’s mother dies on page one and he’s brought up in a house ‘where one kind word or look had never lighted the gloom of his infant years.’
Dickens’ voice in the story is constantly and unexpectedly ironic. For example, in the workhouse, after the famous ‘Please sir, I want some more’ scene, Oliver’s punishment is described: ‘As for exercise, it was nice cold weather, and he was allowed to perform his ablutions every morning under the pump, in a stone yard, in the presence of Mr. Bumble, who prevented his catching cold, and caused a tingling sensation to pervade his frame, by repeated applications of the cane.’
Dickens then adds: ‘... while Oliver’s affairs were in this auspicious and comfortable state…’ This voice of Dickens is lacking from the dramatisations I ever saw, and it redeems the cruelty through its mocking humour, which invites the reader to judge the actions of the adult characters.
Reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens, I’m struck by his description of how Dickens reacted to seeing his fiction in print for the first time.
In 1833, Dickens (aged 21) was working as a journalist, writing reports of parliamentary debates for a London paper. But during the down time of the parliamentary recess he wrote a comedy story, his first attempt at fiction, called ‘A Dinner at Poplar Walk’ and dropped it off one night in the letterbox of a struggling magazine.
A few weeks later he bought a copy and was stunned to find his story in its pages. He wrote: ‘I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half an hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen there.’