Tuesday, 28 November 2006


is the name of the company that supplies my employer with its toilet products (towel holders, soap dispensers, that sort of thing), and also the Latin for 'things to be hated' (a gerund derived from invideo, I hate/envy).

Actually that's too convenient, and I suspect that I just made that up. But invidia (as an abstract noun) certainly means 'hatred' or 'envy'. One of which is fairly apt, and one of which is not.

This kind of musing demonstrates why children should not be taught Latin. Look at what happens...

Monday, 27 November 2006

gloom and finitude

There is no doubt that melancholy has tremendous power to affect me. But, before I rush to have myself diagnosed as suffering from depression, I need to remind myself that things beyond my control in the created order have the effect of lifting my spirits as well as dampening them. A short walk with Kate in the grey late morning, ending with a swing in the local park as the sun came out and all the gold of Autumn revealed itself, was enough to correct the emotional low that hit me earlier (probably some sort of winding down from a busy and satisfying weekend).

Finitude is one of these double-edged swords. What a cause of frustration and sorrow that I cannot know everything (even though I thirst after knowledge, foolishly, given that the more knowledge, the more grief), cannot rely on myself to act justly and generously in all situations (even though I am a New Creation), cannot play Chopin's Cello Sonata perfectly (which would be nice), fail in my responsibilities, slack off at work... (So I hated life, because the work that was done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind...)

But what a relief that I am finite - that I can know the joy of relating to others who are not under my control (not that I am under my own control), who can surprise me and enrich me. Most of all, of course, I am liberated from the burden of having to be God. Those who acknowledge no higher authority and being than themselves must surely struggle with that. Instead, I can rightly enjoy what He has given me, in the context of His loving care and His narration of the great story of history - the salvation of sinners who cannot save themselves.

One message of Ecclesiastes, from which I quoted above, is surely to be found on the face of the text. This book is part of the 'Wisdom Literature' of the Old Testament, and has long puzzled Jewish and Christian commentators. After a long introduction testing different approaches to life (pursuit of wisdom, pleasure, power), the Teacher says...

So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him? (3:22)

'SO' is the key. Because of our finitude, we are thrown onto God (I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him, 3:14) and we are freed to enjoy the creation around us, and to take pleasure in relationships and the natural world. But this can only happen when we live our lives under God, rather than under the sun (a repeated phrase in Ecclesiastes that sums up the attitude that denies God). It is only then that we see that finitude is not a curse, though we experience much weariness and sorrow now, but something that constitutes us as persons - in relationship to our Creator and in relationship to people around us.

New Pearl Harbour?

David Ray Griffin, recently retired from a chair (in the Philosophy of Religion) he held for 30 years at Claremont College, California, has written several books about the events surrounding 9/11.

Back in August I read the second edition of The New Pearl Harbour: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11, and it was one of the most thrilling books I have ever opened. Please nip down to your local library and get a copy. Once you start, you won't be able to put it down.

The debates about 9/11, what actually happened, government complicity and cover-ups have raged ever since the murders took place. But they have not raged in the mainstream media in the US - and there has been remarkably little public interest in the UK, despite the reception Griffin received in the summer when he visited London. It's on the internet that much of the debate has been taking place. There are many websites devoted to 9/11, many feature a lot of shouting, and many seem rather silly.

But Griffin's book is different, and his credibility as a leading academic, should cause those of us who might sneer at 'conspiracy theories' to pause before dismissing those who doubt the official version of events (which is itself a conspiracy theory!) The tone of his writing commends itself: look at how he responds here to criticisms of The New Pearl Harbour. You might say, 'Of course, you're the type of person who is going to be impressed by a professor - and that's no different to people without much education or exposure to critical reflection who might be taken in by this or that sensationalist DVD about 9/11'. To which I would reply, read the book. Try some critical reflection.

It should come as no surprise to Christians to hear that governments are complicit in major acts of violence and in obstructing justice. It doesn't take long to think of some pretty bad governments from the 20th century. Why should we trust the US government as our default position? Speaking theologically, the nations rage against the Lord and against his annointed one: human governments are far from perfect, far from what people really need. The modern nation state, no less than the Roman Empire, is fundamentally idolatrous insofar as it claims to be able to look after its citizens, fully meet their needs, represent them, and provide the conditions for their flourishing.

Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from there we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:20-21)

Which is by no means a manifesto for escapism, but for building the only community that really will last - the body of Christ, the church.

Friday, 24 November 2006


What a gift taste buds are! Yesterday, Kate knocked up one of the yummiest meals in recent memory. Dead simple, and dirt cheap.

Tinned salmon on the side, wholewheat penne pasta underneath, an easy creamy sauce with onion and crunchy marrow chunks, all liberally splashed with freshly squeezed lemon juice and black pepper.

Words cannot express my delight at that blend/clash of flavours. (I'm serious about the tinned salmon - 'proper' salmon would have been too much, not to mention too expensive.)

Surely you jest!?

Humour in the Bible? You cannot be serious!

Well, remember that the Bible is a compilation of around 60 different pieces of literature from a period spanning roughly 1600 years. If you were to take 60 written works at random from any 1600-year period I think you'd find some that were humorous. And given that the overall narrative of the Bible is a deeply comic one (God graciously and progressively restores order to a damaged and rebellious creation; the leitmotif of life-death-resurrection-glory is fairly prominent, shall we say), we shouldn't be surprised to find some humour colouring that comedy.

If you don't believe me, then read this. And read the Bible itself!

If you are a believer in Jesus, then I hope that considering humour and comedy in Scripture opens your eyes a little wider and deepens your love for God and His Word. If you're not, then I hope it opens your eyes a little wider and shows you more of the deep authenticity and richness of God's revelation - in the Bible, and in His Son, Jesus Christ. The shape of history is comic and hopeful for all who belong to God. And he has spoken to us in many different ways, which correspond to the range of human experiences (including humour!) and expand those experiences.

The Christian faith does not lead to an impoversishment of humanity or culture: on the contrary, as Jesus said, I have come that they may have life, and life to the full.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Game of Generals

is the rough translation of "shogi", the Japanese cousin of chess. I am fairly addicted to shogi at the moment. The mysterious characters on the pieces are very appealing to my ignorant Western eye, and the deep strategies fascinate and baffle me. There seems to be more of an ebb and flow than there is in chess, perhaps because there are fewer long range pieces and the opportunity to reinforce your army at any time with pieces captured from your opponent.

This Friday I am hosting my third Shogi Evening in as many months. Many Japanese (and a few English) friends converge on our little terrace, are subjected to my cooking (or Kate's if they are lucky), and then to lots of games of shogi. A post-doctoral geneticist from Toyama was the clear champion in September, and there was no clear winner last time (although an Associate Professor of English Literature from Tokyo was undefeated that evening, he and I did not play each other and I had defeated him in September) so the top games will be hard fought! Can't wait...

Next week I'm off to London to a shogi event at Asia House featuring 4 top Japanese players. It will be particularly nice to meet up with my friends the Brashes while I'm down there...

In case anyone out there can understand this, here's a sample game I played against the computer (strength 4-kyu) this afternoon. It illustrates the principle of the king-hunt, a central motif in shogi. After chasing my king across the board, the computer ran out of pieces at just the right moment for me to turn the tables. Needless to say, it doesn't usually work out this well!

1. P7f P3d
2. P2f S6b
3. P2e G3b
4. P2d Px2d
5. Rx2d Bx8h+
6. Rx2a+ +Bx8i
7. N*2c B*2b
8. Nx1a+ B7g+
9. S6h +B7x9i
10. +N1b N*7g
11. G7i +Bx7i
12. Sx7i L*2c
13. L*3c N6i+
14. Kx6i +Bx3c
15. P*2h P*2g
16. N*4e +B4b
17. Px2g P4d
18. +Nx1c G*2d
19. P4f Px4e
20. Px4e N*6e
21. S6h L*4f
22. G5i L4g+
23. P4d +B3c
24. B*2b K4b
25. Bx3c+ Kx3c
26. P6f Nx5g+
27. Sx5g +Lx5g
28. N*4e Kx4d
29. B*1a Kx4e
30. P*5f B*4g
31. K7h S*6g
32. K7g N*8e
33. K8d Bx2i+
34. B5e+ K3c
35. S4h +Lx4h
36. Gx4h S*8d
37. P3f Kx3f
38. G3g K2e
39. P2f K1e
40. L*1f checkmate

Meek(s) and Milder

Having children seems to work a civilising influence on men of my acquaintance. I'm thinking particularly of a good friend, Michael, whose wife and three tiny daughters have smoothed from mere genius engineer into family man and genius engineer. The Meeks family have generously fed us on many occasions since they started up!

As an undergraduate, I didn't quite realise what a great influence Michael was having on the Christians in college. He was in his third year when I arrived at Downing. His beard, his eccentricities and his uncompromising faith - never afraid to ask hard questions or stand up for Christ - really bolstered my walk with God, and I'm sure that was true for many of my peers. I've only come to realise what I owe to older Christians like him as I've grown up a little and got married to an older Christian myself (older by 2 months!)

Although hearty, Michael is extremely humble, and so until recently I didn't realise quite how famous, yea distinguished he is. The world of (opensource) software is a pretty closed book to me, but even a dusty artist can see that its social and technological significance is pretty vast. Praise God for men like him. The words of Paul to the church in Philippi are apt...

Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.


Although I have given up competitive chess, the game still fascinates me with its blend of art and science. When I play I see an ever-shifting beauty and potentiality. I also make lots of mistakes, and let youthful enthusiam for showy sacrifices get the better of me.

My current chess nemesis is a friend from church, Glenford. He hails originally from the wonderfully named St Augustine in Trinidad (and Tobago) and lectures in computer science, while designing the next generation of wireless networks. This man has a seriously big brain. So, he almost always beats me over the board. Currently we are in our second correspondence game (a small board is 'live' on the front room windowsill for the odd moment of reflection and experimentation, and moves are exchanged every few days) and though it's tempting defeat to say it, I think I might have the edge...

James/Glenford (July-November 2006)
1. e4 g6
2. d4 d6
3. Bc4 Nf6
4. f3 c6
5. Bb3 Bg7
6. Be3 0-0
7. Qd2 Nbd7
8. Nc3 b5
9. g4 Rb8
10. Nge2 c5
11. a3 c4
12. Ba2 e6
13. Ng3 a5
14. b4 axb4
15. axb4 Rb7
16. h4 Nb8
17. h5 Nc6
18. Nce2 Ne8
19. c3 Ra7
20. f4! Qe7
21. Rd1 Ra3
22. Bb1 Nc7
23. Qc1 Ra1
24. Qb2 Ra6
25. Kf2 e5?!!
26. dxe5 and I await his response...

But, to give a fair reflection of what usually happens - see this excellent creative attacking play from Dr G in our last game.

Glenford/James (March-July 2006)
1. e4 e6
2. Nf3 d5
3. e5 c5
4. Bb5+ Bd7
5. Bxd7+ Nxd7
6. 0-0 Ne7
7. Re1 Nc6
8. d3 Qc7
9. Qe2 h6
10. h4 Be7
11. h5 g5
12. hxg6 fxg6
13. c4 d4
14. Qe4 Kf7
15. Na3 g5
16. Nb5 Qb8
17. Bf4!? gxf4
18. Qxf4+ Ke8
19. Qg3 Nf8
20. Rab1 Rh7!
21. b4 Nxb4
22. Nd2 b6
23. Ne4 Kf7?!
24. Nbd6+ Bxd6
25. Nxd6+ Ke7
26. Rxb4! cxb4
27. Qh4+ Kd7
28. Qxd4 Ng6
29. f4 Ke7
30. Qe4 Rg7
31. f5 exf5
32. Nxf5+ Kf8
33. d4 Qb7?!
34. d5 Nxe5
35. Qxe5 Qc7?
36. Qf6+ 1-0

baroque and divine goodness

The following evening, our church, Rock Baptist, hosted an evening musical event at the Round Church (second oldest building in Cambridge). David Rowland, an elder at the church, Professor of Music at the Open University, Director of Music at Christ's College, Cambridge, and thoroughly decent bloke gave a short concert on his haprsichord and was interviewed about music and faith.

The music was almost enough to get me to like the harpsichord, and his answers were thought-provoking, and I hope, valuable to the many visitors who came. He spoke of music as a tremendous gift from God, and also talked about our use of that gift in the context of God's greatest gift, his Son, Jesus Christ. Soli deo gloria!

african goodness

A few days later we went to Churchill College, on the frontier of the city. It was a trek to get there under leg power as an undergraduate, and its still a trek today, even when a mate is giving you a lift! 'Composition in Africa and the Diaspora' was a collection of songs and piano pieces by composers I'm ashamed to say I had never heard of. The works were all written in the last fifty years, and their idiom was recognisably a blend of elements from traditional African music and twentieth century classical music. Much of it was beautiful, and all of it was interesting.

Dawn Padmore (soprano) had a cold, so her voice was not as pure as I have heard it before, but her outfit rocked, and she won us over with her entertaining introductions to everything she sung. Glen Inanga (piano) lacked a little polish in one or two places, but overall was superb. I would give a lot for his deft touch and impeccable tonal control. The two solo pieces he presented really stood out: very impressive, and full of soul. Ayo Bankole's Fugal Dance and Rhapsody on a Theme from Egun (according to this article, Bankole is a key figure in Nigerian art music despite a tragically early death). After the recital Inanga was both vivacious and gracious in conversation with members of the audience who hung around to congratulate him and Padmore, and he agreed to send me copies of the unpublished scores. Hurrah!

stringy goodness

Having a very musical time at the moment. A couple of weeks ago we heard the Britten Sinfonia at West Road, directed by Nicholas Daniel. He's always entertaining to watch - more a contemporary dancer than a conductor. He is also very tall and wears such remarkable shirts with Mandarin collars. The first half was Mozart and Tchaikovsky Serenades. Mozart very entertaining, with little cameo moments for the front desks, playing as soloists and as a string quartet. The final solo violin entry was stolen from the Sinfonia's leader by someone further back in the ranks, which was a nice touch. Tchaikovsky fittingly passionate. I noticed for the first time how the fast theme of the finale is a speeded up version of those bold, yearning chords that are the signature of the work and the heart of the opening movement. (Don't know how I'd manage to miss it before, since Pyotr Ilyich flags up just how clever he's been by giving us the opening chords again at the climax of the finale, and then gradually building the tempo until the music has been transformed into the fast theme again for the rush to the finish line.)

The second half left a little to be desired... John Taverner's Kalaidescopes was a nice idea - lots of contrasting bits presented by strings sitting in a circle round a solo oboe - but it went on far too long (the umpteenth recurrence of even the 'nice' bits grated somewhat). Watching Nicholas Daniel kept me from getting bored - he managed to get through three handkerchiefs in the course of his seriously virtuosic aerobics - but Kate was less impressed. Based on the conversations of those flowing past us as we unlocked our bikes outside, I would say that we weren't alone in that!

Bare-faced Watch

Flicking through the advertisement section of the Guardian (otherwise known as Saturday’s Magazine) late last night, Kate and I found some good meaty articles amid the overpriced holidays, overpriced houses and ludicrous clothes. But best of all was the full-page Seiko advert, with, as is customary for such things, a black and white Ben Affleck lookalike with a big watch. Underneath we read

‘It’s your watch that says most about who you are’

The mask is off. The astounding claims of our secular milieu are laid bare. Someone was paid large amounts of money to come up with that line – and some other people agreed that it was the best one to go with in a left-wing broadsheet. They think that they have a lasting city here, so they’re trying everything they can to bolster it – Seiko by selling more watches, and the buyers by telling everyone how rich and important they are.

It's your adverts that say most about who you are.

Sunday, 19 November 2006


Just eaten our garden’s last cherry tomatoes of the year. They came off the plant a month ago, very green, so we left them in a bowl on the windowsill. The bowl got dusty, but last week, almost overnight, they turned deep red. The November sun clearly hasn’t lost it yet!

Saturday, 18 November 2006

eke and mild

What a strange November this is. Are there any other cyclists out there who are getting as sticky now as you were in August!?

And what a sky there was to the east of Cambridge last night. Kate, who tends to notice her surroundings a little more than I do (lost as I often am in frowning and looking at puddles), drew my gaze upwards. The heavens well and truly declared the glory of God. And the more we looked into the deep blue, the more the stars rushed to the surface.

And what is man, that you are mindful of him, the son of man, that you care for him? (Psalm 8) That we can appreciate such beauty as there is in nature (let alone in culture), drink it in, revel in it, and feel the need to communicate the joy and the experience to the person next to us, is one of the strongest arguments in favour of beneficent theism. We are so utterly dependent on what is outside us, so fragile, and yet so able to enjoy it all, to shape it and value it... How can we not recognise that man is not the measure of all things, that instead God has put eternity in our hearts, so that we might seek after Him, the source of all these good gifts.

Thursday, 16 November 2006

Deep Comedy

Peter Leithart's latest book, Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy and Hope in Western Literature (Canon Press, 2006) is as thought-provoking as the title promises.

In a nutshell...

Paganism is necessarily tragic: pagan myths of decline from a golden age reveal this, and pagan philosophy (monist or dualist) treats reality necessarily as a disappointment. Ancient Greek writers and their modernist and postmodernist heirs have only that to work with - some hide from it, some embrace it, some wallow in despair.

Against this, Christian Biblical thought alone gives grounds for hope, because only Christians have a throughgoing (and true) eschatology, which is itself fully grounded in the life of our Trinitarian God. Real theology, the Fall notwithstanding, moves from glory to greater glory. This has allowed Christian cultures to produce literature and philosophy that expresses deep comedy.

A few juicy quotes...

Scratching the sociology and metaphysics behind tragedy brings us right up to theological questions, questions that are insoluble outside a trinitarian framework. (59)

As Derrida shows, it is axiomatic for Plato that supplementarity is degenerative; that is, anything added to an original, anything flowing from a source, is "worse" than the source itself, preceisely because it has moved away from the source. This metaphysical assumption is parallel to mythical views of history for which temporal supplementation necessarily means degeneration. For Plato and Neoplatonic metaphysics, the lower is always lesser; for Hesiod, Ovid and other myth-historians the later is always lesser. Such a metaphysics cannot support a comic view of history, much less deep comedy...

An orthodox trinitarian theology avoids the problematics of Platonic supplementarity in two ways. First, orthodox trinitarian theology asserts that there is always a "supplement" (Son and Spirit) to the "origin" (Father), and, second, insists that the Son and Spirit, though "supplemental" to the Father, are "equal in power and glory". There is no degeneration or leakage of glory or divinity as the Father begets the Son, or, together with the Son, spirates the Spirit... (xiii-xiv)

A trinitarian account of language can accept nearly all that Derrida says about originary "contamination" except the label "contamination". Here Derrida is truly Augistine's heir, for he has discovered a trace of trinitarian life at the heart of the Western philosophical tradition. (84)

[On King Lear] This is not an absurd world, but exactly the opposite. It is a world where actions have consequences that are often far greater than the actors could have foreseen. But it is a world where the consequences flow from actions. this is simply a different world from that of Attic tragedy. and the "lesson" that it promotes is not a lesson of "tragic wisdom", or emotional exhaustion. it is the "lesson" that this world is ordered and will not brook assault on its order. (136)

And plenty of the normal virtuosity and breadth you expect from Leithart.

But, Deep Comedy does feel like the weakest thing to have come from the great man's pen. His disclaimer about its sketchiness is not quite enough to offset the disappointment that much of his tour of recent philosophy was second-hand, and only in outline. And plenty of questions were raised throughout that could have been tentatively explored alongside the sweep of the main thesis, even in a book that was only trying to be an outline, an impressionistic essay (xv).

I'll publish a more detailed critique later, but I don't want to end on a sour note. Leithart is one of the most stimulating writers around, and it's all worth reading and mulling.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Hebrews 13

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God...

For a while now I've wanted to have the time and diligence to learn the letter to the Hebrews off by heart. This 58th book of the Bible is one of the most intriguing bits of literature around. Jewish, jam-packed with grand claims, colourful imagery, reinterpretations of ancient rituals, a philosophy of history, insight into the whirlwind of divine love that is the Trinity and neat domestic touches, it always sets me a-tingling to hear it. (It can be viewed in many translations and other languages here.)

And what better motto for a Christian? No earthly city can make final claims upon us disciples of Christ Jesus, so let us seek the city that is to come.

Unpacking that and running with it will, I pray, be what my life is all about. And I hope to explore this city with foundations - mostly thinking great men's thoughts after them, I expect - as this blog trundles on...