New review of Where’s Sailor Jack? : ‘‘…romantic, poignant, and extremely funny, exactly what I want from a family saga.’ – Stephen Carver, Blot the Skrip and Jar It

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Testaments Old and New

My local Church, although Anglican, is evangelical. Nothing wrong in that: the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. If there’s good news to tell, it ought to be shared. The problem for me is in the approach to the source of that inspiration, the Bible.
The great reformer, Martin Luther, felt bound both by the Scriptures and plain reason, but not by the word of the Pope or any Council. He told the Diet of Worms that to do other would go against his conscience. I’m not blaming him for that. Faced by a Church thinking that they could sell indulgences, a return to first principles was sensible.
Quite surprisingly, the early Church Councils, which took such a prominent role in the development of Christian theology, did not formally ratify the 27 books that make up the New Testament. Yet these were being used by the theologian Origen in the early third century. Church councils did not fully catch up until after both the Great Schism and the Reformation. By then separate councils of Orthodox, Catholic and Reformed were needed. So Luther committed no logical inconsistency in seeing scripture’s authority as separate from that of the Church. When he spoke, the authority of the books included had come from early custom and practice.
Is it reasonable therefore to assume that this is the same thing as the working of the Holy Spirit? That’s a very big assumption, one I don’t fully share, thinking that the role of that still, small voice of calm didn’t end at that point, indeed that it can be heard at all points in space and time.
I’ve read some of the hidden gospels that didn’t make the grade. In every case, I can certainly see why they didn’t catch on. There clearly was an attempt to ensure no gnostic thinking was included in the Canon, of which Johannine Christianity, based on John’s gospel, was most aware. The other three gospels are mainly a mix of history and teaching and have used similar sources, with Luke’s continuing into Acts.
John’s gospel has an exalted Christology from its first verse, with Jesus as the Word with God from the beginning. It also has the great ‘I am’ metaphors from Jesus, which surely read as rich theology and not actual words spoken.
Then much of the rest is Paul’s. Paul does not start with a high Christology. He reads to me as an Adoptionist, one who believes that Christ joined the Godhead at his ascension. As Paul examined what that might mean, he decided it needed more. He wrote movingly and beautifully in Corinthians. In Romans, in facing up to the faith and works debate, he is anxious to show that salvation is through faith alone, and that through grace. On the assumption that salvation is required, that appears sound to me, although it then raises the question of what faith and belief are and in whom, which are not for this piece. While attending to this, Paul also ties the reader, if not himself, up in knots about if Christ has fulfilled or abolished the law. On these issues, he clearly does not agree with another contributor, James, who was possibly the brother of Jesus and certainly the head of the early Jerusalem church. Paul did not know Jesus personally and thus unlike Peter and James was not constrained by memories of the historic Jesus. Peter and Paul do appear to have developed an uneasy truce between them. But Paul did lay down some didactic assertions which go beyond anything heard from Jesus, and raise questions as to what authority he should have.
No review of the books of the New Testament would be complete without mentioning Hebrews and Revelation. I find Hebrews the book most in touch with what the Holy Spirit tells me through my conscience, and Revelation as not as good an end to the rich theology of Johannine Christianity as I would have hoped for. Others find it inspirational of course. Yet the provenance of Hebrews is unknown.
What those first Councils did succeed in doing was developing a theology of the nature of the Godhead and of Christ. The council at Chalcedon propounded that Jesus was wholly man and wholly God, a formulation that has proved useful through the ages. The Athanasian creed as used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer has God the maker of all things; Jesus the only begotten Son of God, begotten before all worlds, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and is the Lord and Giver of Life. The Godhead is thus described as entirely male or perhaps neuter in the case of the Spirit.
This of course is not new. The creation stories in Genesis assume a male God. Jesus clearly called him Father.
I’m not going to attempt as full a critique for this Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. It clearly has far more literary genres within it than the New Testament. There are two separate creation stories in Genesis alone, attributed to Priestly and Yahwist authors by scholars. In addition, two other schools are said by them to be at work, the Elohist and Deuteronomist. My reading always looks for the tension between the priestly and the prophetic epitomised in Hosea 6:6: ‘For I desired mercy and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.’ It still seems in all branches of the Church that there are priests, ministers, elders who prefer the burnt offering of a rule book.
I just offer one example of naive reading of texts leading to an unnecessary conclusion. Ostensibly one hundred and fifty years before Cyrus the Great was born, the prophet Isaiah foretold his birth and name. The fact that the book of Isaiah clearly has more than one author with different styles, and much has been added later is not sufficient to deter the miracle callers. Real faith should not seek a sign.
So at last I reach my purpose in writing this. My local Church is minded to insist on a male lead Minister when the vacancy next arises. A paper prepared by the Rev Andrew Brewerton of Sheffield diocese has been circulated. The main arguments proffered are: the complementary nature of relationships between the members of the Trinity: that man was formed first in the complementary relationship with woman: from the second creation story in Genesis where woman was created from the spare rib, Paul argues that man is the glory of God and woman the glory of man: these patterns are to be followed in Christian marriage in St Paul’s teaching with the husband as head of the wife and the wife a collaborative helper: similarly, that’s how the Church should work, with the Minister a male, the helpers can be female.
I’ll try to show Christian forbearance in responding to this priest-serving construction. Our view of the Godhead is a useful human construct and should be used for no other purpose than in attempting to understand the mystery of God. Maybe we should regard the absence of the feminine within our model as a weakness that needs work. Jesus called God Father as he was totally human as well as divine, and God was seen as male in his culture. The same argument as used by Brewerton against women’s ministry can be used to say that Theresa May should give way to a man in a suit. These are not eternal truths. The Holy Spirit in my conscience isn’t just whispering that they’re wrong.
The physicist in me sometimes solves the paradox of how the quantum wave function is collapsed by suggesting that it only happens once at the end of time, which is also the beginning, the Alpha and Omega. Jesus was wholly man as he lived his life but was in the Godhead as it all started. It’s a fond thought that may or may not have been guided by the Holy Spirit. I don’t see The Dove soaring away, so I’m probably wrong. The Christian message has produced great comfort in life for many and can continue, but to do so it constantly needs to separate temporal from eternal truth. Wiser evangelicals do consider that the Bible contains what is necessary for salvation while not necessarily correct on other matters. It is a wonderful set of books that seeks to raise questions and allows the Holy Spirit to answer them. That Spirit is always at work, in the meadow, at the rock concert, in the Physics class as much as at the Sunday sermon. Keeping women out is an anachronism which makes the Church look mean and foolish, and is not at all Christian.
I do think Paul was right about one thing in Romans. Whether Jesus fulfilled or abolished the law, he didn’t come to add to it. Nothing in the gospels suggests otherwise. The New Testament is not a rule book. And to solve Paul’s dilemma on faith against works, I hope everyone will be saved, with or without faith, the devil included, though none of us deserve it. That does have some biblical warrant, perhaps not enough. Origen hoped for it too. He thought that the brilliant book of Hebrews was from Paul, if not written by him. Maybe Paul had mellowed. Church Councils didn’t. Origen seems to have been anathematised centuries after his death, perhaps for believing that all would be saved or perhaps for seeing Jesus as wholly human as well as divine.

An elite provincial’s view of Brexit

I voted Remain. But apart from London, Brighton, a few university towns, and the very centres of Manchester and Liverpool, few others did in England and Wales. The young voters couldn’t even be arsed to vote. To try to revisit the vote now would patronise lower class provincials beyond belief and quite probably cause a hideous backlash. The big issues to cause this vote are how immigration and globalisation has hit the provincial lower class.
You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that for nearly forty years now, little surplus value has passed to the workers. Bryan Appleyard’s piece this week in the Sunday Times described how all the spirit has left his home town of what was a vibrant Bolton. And that’s while producing great comedians and actors. It was my Dad’s home town too, and Wanderers will always be my team. It’s a county borough stitched up in a metropolitan county it doesn’t want to be in. All devolution planned by Osborne is to the big Cities. What the referendum has shown writ very large is that is not the identity of most English. They don’t live in cities, villages, or market towns. They still live in county boroughs, impotent since that Philistine Heath abolished them.
I digress. Brexit will do nothing to stop globalisation. I’m not sure that anything can but an economy mixed between public and private sectors can help. A unionised public sector does give rise to comparators the private sector has to emulate.
Immigration is the other big reason for the Leave vote. I often check out the Bolton News web pages. Like many other parts of the country, the wall to wall complaint is the stretch to public services and the problems of education in a multicultural, multilingual town. I don’t doubt that many do hanker for the culture of the past, but you can’t change people’s memories.It appears that the Brexiteers’ plan is to replace European immigration with people from elsewhere in the world, not what the more racially motivated Brexiteers had in mind.
We now need to make the best of a bad job. The Tories shouldn’t elect Boris, who has shafted his colleagues, and knocked everyone else out of the way like he did that poor Japanese kid playing rugby.Labour has to ditch Jezza. I’d suggest Teresa May and Andy Burnham. If Jezza shows the perils of picking a Geography teacher to be a leader, and Roy Hodgson the kindly House Master, at least Teresa is Head Teacher material. And Burnham has a Leigh constituency down the road from Bolton and knows that the cities are not the people.
After that we can hope that other countries in the EU want to move to an associate level that would best suit us.

Why there’s still room for philosophy, theology and religion in a contemporary fiction, family saga novel

My book has sold pretty well. It’s had lots of nice things said about it. It was of course self-published. I could come out with the usual guff as to why I preferred that route, but rightly you wouldn’t believe me. I tried loads of agents. A few commented on how well written the book was, but “it wasn’t for them.”
Both my editor and my subsequent publicist think two inter-related issues were the reason for this. The first was my age and background relative to the readers employed by the agencies. I’m seventy and if metropolitan at all, only by default. The second was the inclusion of philosophical and religious issues in a humorous and poignant family saga. A novel is not now expected to carry this baggage. No matter how non-judgmentally I had written this, “it wasn’t for them.” No matter how much the literary canon is full of such musings, with only a few decades ago Graham Greene’s catholic guilt and the like being mainstream, “it wasn’t for them.”
I was writing about provincial early baby boomers, who are now approaching old age and the prospect of death with the anglican innocence their mental life has always occupied. If I were not to have included these thoughts I would have been unfaithful to them. As much the last Victorians as the first boomers, they have grappled with the twentieth century and reached a liberal, tolerant world view. Religious considerations play a full part in that. The century has produced so much suffering and pain to challenge faith, but they see their own long lives as more blessed than cursed.
The main characters, having been grammar school and university educated, also have a good grasp of the intellectual developments of the century in philosophy and science. They understand the fundamental lack of determinism in the wave equations which not only Schrödinger’s cat should fear and that Gödel has demonstrated there to be no ultimate explanation available in any equations. They thus want to consider if the physical and mental are so inextricably linked as present orthodoxy has it. And so do many real people of their and subsequent generations. It isn’t irrational to examine if metaphysics and religion can say more. It’s only in a story that this can be done.
Feedback from younger folk suggests that some do feel confronted by the ideas in my book, despite the open way they’re presented. In most cases, they’ll say it’s not the world they’re inhabiting. To them religion is archaic, about ritual or illiberal fundamentalism. It does not spring from philosophy. Challenging that isn’t why I wrote the book, but it’s a good reason to read the damn thing.
A novel must be entertaining. The several hours needed to go from cover to cover are a long time to be bored. Nobody has said they were as they read this one. They identify with the characters, they’re amused by the dialogue, and they’re caught by the story. That’s what real life is about too.

Working class males and the Victorians

Not for the first time, I read a happening journalist decrying 50+ year old white guys the other day, with a commentary on the under-achievement of white, working class youth in another article. As I hawked my novel Where’s Sailor Jack? round literary agents, too many of them appeared to share that mindset. They were young, female and metropolitan.
I’m white, male and 70+. My grandparents were manual working class with my parents making modest strides into the lower middle. None of my grandparents, male or female, would have had the vote before 1918, which I think has some relevance to the rest of this piece. I was born in 1945 as the war finished to a rationed world in a northern village, living in terraced house with an outside lavatory. I use that word not because I’m posh but that I still can’t bring myself to say ‘loo’. It represents to me people further into the middle-class than I was, although I know that to others it’s ‘naff’ for entirely the opposite reason. Sadly the word ‘bog’ no longer seems to have any currency. My early years were not hardship, just much less materialistic than what has followed, and they were soon to be an asset. Grammar school, Oxford University and a good, lucrative career came along, and now a prosperous retirement.
For people my age, the sixties seemed to be the first time when the lower class had a real shout. I didn’t expect it to be the only time. Men prospered more initially than women in Harold Wilson’s white hot heat of the technological revolution, with science and engineering at that stage their preserve. The big liberal issue was racial intolerance and the white lower classes were soon accepting of this agenda, evidenced by interbreeding on a significant scale. The sexual revolution just appeared to happen as other constraints were abandoned. Women’s equality lagged civil rights by nearly a decade. The lower class exuberance and energy of the sixties scene was mainly male with the pop groups but Dusty, Cilla and Twiggy were in it.
When women’s lib did arrive it always seemed to me more middle class than what went before it. Since then, for the working class, the last fifty years have seen intelligent jobs in engineering all but disappear and their culture in music, the arts and literature be taken over by the metropolitan blob.
So much so that while white, working class, male under-achievement can be argued to be the biggest social problem in the country other perhaps than terrorism, there is little pressure to do anything about it on either side of politics. Do you think that the centenary of universal male suffrage will get many fanfares?
I ended up self-publishing. The story including not only some business but also science and religion without the necessary sneer was palpably a problem for the agents I tried. In these areas, they all seem to be insufficiently well-read to know how trite and intellectually weak the present orthodoxy is. I can understand that Larkin’s 1963 doesn’t count as the start of the modern age for them the way it does for me. Despite our modest beginnings, they rightly think that my cohort have taken more out overall than we’ve put in. But that does not apply going that bit further back. My parents had the depression and the war to contend with; my grandparents had both those, plus another much worse war and the black hole of a social structure from which there was little escape.
All voices raised against the prevailing group-think are made to seem reactionary. I don’t believe anyone could fairly make that critique of my novel. Present thinking is good for neither social continuity nor cohesion. A voice old enough to have known and liked Victorian grandparents which accepts that many older people today are doing too well and that today’s young, at least those without affluent parents, are getting as bum a start in life as their great-grandparents did, should be heard. It’s time these class considerations got a look-in and not be out-trumped by race and gender equality. Am I turning into a Marxist?

Howard Marks

Howard Marks has died. I was up at Oxford the same three years as he was, 1964 to 1967, both of us reading Physics. Howard would walk late into the Clarendon Laboratory as the coolest guy in town, carrying his guitar case rumoured to contain the meaning of life inside. As the least hip kid imaginable, I’d carry on measuring the wavelengths of the Sodium D lines or whatever.
I read Mr Nice years later and realised that he was one of the good guys. Journalist Lynn Barber has written about him as a lover at that time. She described how all the northern grammar schoolboys at Oxford were virginal in their innocence back then. That was very true, but not for the want of trying. We didn’t have the savoir to have the faire checked out. I’ve never quite understood how Howard was so savvy so young, perhaps not a trait he always managed to carry with him through life.

Justin Welby

Justin Welby has received well-deserved plaudits for the gracious way he had handled the news of his father’s identity. He has demonstrated how the Christian spirit is interpreted in the Church of England, indeed how the Holy Spirit is felt by Anglicans. But I have a problem. In the excellent interview he gave to Bryan Appleyard for the Sunday Times, his most theological comment was: “I know that I find who I am in Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.” As a cradle Anglican who still attends Church, I do not nor never have felt that. I can’t rule out the genetics. I feel my father in me in many of the movements I make, and see them in my children. I hear my mother’s voice above the babble of today’s orthodoxy. I hear my ancestors in what I read. To this, I add the story of my life that I tell to myself, including time and place, the people I’ve known, the influences I’ve encountered, the good and bad events, and I try to miss nothing out. I don’t see Christianity as a reductive religion. I’m a Lancastrian, physicist, baby boomer Anglican, who’s had a rich life and who’s travelled through life with many people I have nothing but affection for. If there’s a eternity, I don’t see how I’ll recognise them if they’ve changed too much. In my novel, Bob Swarbrick wants to meet Jesus in a heavenly pub, have a game of dominoes with him, everybody get merry and JC himself join in with ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’, Mary Magdalene on the harmonium in a low-cut dress.
I think the theologians call that a low Christology, Jesus as wholly man who became God as the first fruits of the harvest that could include everyone.

Life science certainty

I always watch Alice Roberts’ programmes on television. They are invariably well-made, and I found The Incredible Human Journey essential viewing. She upset me a bit recently when she tweeted: “I get really confused when churches ask me to give lectures because they’re looking for an ‘ecumenical’ approach. Perhaps they’re confused.” I don’t know if the double use of ‘confused’ is deliberate, but the remarks weren’t designed to be friendly to those who’d approached her. I’m not blaming her for not fancying an evening in a draughty church hall, even with a lukewarm glass of prosecco afterwards, but I don’t think that was her problem. She has no need for their hypothesis.
I’m not a life scientist. Prior to a long business career in the electricity industry I read Physics, and at the end of my career did a Divinity degree. I would readily admit to the usual physicist prejudice of thinking the life sciences to be a branch of librarianship. No doubt my medical friends would respond that physicists, along with theologians and businessmen, are neither use nor ornament, a charge I would find difficult to resist. Back in the sixties, when quantum mechanics was still hip, I can remember my delight in deriving uncertainty and exclusion principles with digitised quantum energy levels from continuum wave equations. I would never stand on firm ground again, but I am a cradle Anglican. Later I was to read how Gödel had effectively shown that no finite mathematical system could contain its entire explanation. Even Stephen Hawking now thinks that there will not be an ultimate theory of everything with a finite number of principles. Despite the ingenious ways that mathematicians find of dealing with infinities in their equations, I still think that the concept of a physical infinity is incoherent. Gödel agreed with this, preferring to take the infinite outside the system.
That’s not the same as postulating a loving, personal God. I do think that an intelligent being similarly standing outside the system could view the development of reflective beings that we humans have become as remarkable.(And our dogs too, I’m not being exclusive!) But does that imply purpose? There is no explanation that comes close to a justification to humankind for the sheer volume of sentient pain from natural and moral evil. If there’s a God he certainly doesn’t appear almighty. Yet without those tectonic plates shifting, would there have been the background for us humans to evolve in the Rift Valley?
I’m not a full dualist in the philosophical sense, as I feel the mental and physical worlds meet on edges, which I guess makes me a dual-aspect monist. I don’t give too much agency to the mental, accepting that I usually seem to do whatever’s convenient and then repent, but I don’t discount the possibility. As a physicist, it’s difficult not to see scientific explanations as reductionist, given our use of mathematics, even when the equations don’t reduce. Yet there is a world of virtues, perhaps also vices, which cannot be put into Maths. Life scientists do at least usually work in language, if not one readily available to the amateur. Perhaps they never feel that their discipline can’t contain its own answers.
There have been some strange coincidences in my life. My father was a keen amateur cricketer back in Lancashire. Just after the war, he clean bowled five batsmen in five balls to win the game. In 2011, on the thirteenth anniversary of his death, my youngest son George did just the same bowling for his Hertfordshire School Under Fifteens. My howl of disbelief and delight could have been heard back in Lancashire. Just coincidence, say some. But there’s no way they’ve assessed the probabilities, and no way I have the data to do so either. If they did, their statistics would look at the possibility of it happening to anyone, I’d look only at the possibility of it happening to me, thus probably shifting the odds against by millions. Others say it’s in the genes. Maybe, though I never bowled five straight in a row in my life and George had been all over the place until that final over. It’s like humour, if you ask why it’s funny, it no longer is.
My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? has a set of events that come together at one critical juncture. It’s a happy outcome for one, an engineer, who then declares all equations to be maya, the truth but not the whole truth. OK, the story line was contrived by me, though I never quite felt I wrote it. The philosopher Charles Taylor sees our sense of self as the story we tell ourselves about our lives. That’s why I wrote a novel. I do need a hypothesis. Dylan reckons that the devil rules the world, and God is the judge. I’ve no better explanation. To mean more, our stories need a loving God. In mine, he’ll have everyone in his eternity, the devil included.
I’m happy to drink the prosecco. The Communion wine is even better.

He is risen indeed

He wakes up. It’s dark. There’s a crack of light coming in from behind the stone. It must be morning. He puts his finger to the stone. It rolls away easily, making the earth shake. Two angels are outside with a robe. This is what he expects. He changes out of the linen clothes and folds them neatly. He nearly forgets the head napkin. He goes into the garden with the angels and watches as Mary Magdalene looks in the tomb. He sees her run back to fetch John and Peter. They come, and go back home scratching their heads. Mary stays around. She sees the two angels by the tomb. She tries to talk to them through her tears. She turns to see Jesus, without knowing who it is. He must look younger, he thinks. He calls her by her name. She recognises him, rushing to give him a hug. He asks her not to touch him this side of Paradise. “Go to my brethren and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”

Down with the Dead

He feels the print marks of the nails. He wonders where he is. He’s been hoping for something tranquil. The place is full of monsters. Behind is a large shapeless mouth that swallows them up one by one, only to disgorge them. As Jesus approaches, the mouth closes leaving no trace behind. Faces turn to human. He talks to them. It’s the last time they might hear the sermon on the mount. Billions listen. A heckler on the back row yells out, “God is dead,” to a mixed reception. Jesus finishes: “Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He leaves, followed by many.

Ecce homo

Pilate gives up his fight against Chief Priests dressed in 19th century suits. Who can understand them? The scourged Jesus picks up his cross to the sound of the Muezzin from Temple Mound. He staggers up the Via Dolorosa under an arch he doesn’t remember seeing before. He hears his mother, dead for nearly two thousand years, shouting, “This is my beloved son.” In his confusion, he stumbles back through time. A Roman soldier hoiks from the crowd some poor sucker called Simon. Not the one aka Peter, who’s not to be seen. This guy carries the cross the rest of the way. That nice lady from St Veronica’s mops Jesus’ brow. They pass the souvenir shops selling printed Turin shrouds while you wait. Jesus trips over the manhole made for him before all time. Some women collecting for the local hospice smile reassuringly. He looks up to Golgotha. They walk on, past Orthodox and Catholic guardians exchanging holy-water-pistol fire. Simon lays down his cross. UN soldiers emerge from their bunker to nail Jesus to it.
He refuses mingled wine and gall, and exchanges words with the two blokes alongside having a bad Easter. In literally excruciating pain, he mutters something about being forsaken by his father. It is finished. It is accomplished. It’s over. He won’t be seeing rainbows any more. He’s thirsty and takes the wine.
A few hundred yards away there’s an explosion. The veil of the temple is rent in twain. Into thy hands, I commend my spirit.