What’s the point of beautiful books?

Beautiful books — IMHO — are more likely to be read. Which could well be a brill thing if the book is a good’un.

I’ve long appreciated the Penguin series, Clothbound Classics. The Snufferjog bought us Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray which was beautifully produced, and the footnotes added interest. That whetted the appetite.

A few years down the line, my Father-in-Law generously gave me a bit of dosh for Xmas, so I decided to treat myself to another.

But which one to buy!?

I’d noticed that this series were numbered, (our Dorian was number ten, por ejemplo). So I began my internet hunt for which book was number one in the series, a task you might think was very easy, but oh no. No reference on any Penguin affiliated website of any sort of enumeration.

Hope came in the form of Google Image Search which showed me a wealthy woman’s full collection. In numerical order. And the first in the series is… Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

 

“Didn’t do it in school so ‘aven’t ‘eard of it.”

Well, uninitiated. It’s French. That’s all you need to know.

I bought it and I read it. That’s an achievement. (This was an English translation, so not that much of an achievement).

One minor issue though, the edition I bought was not numbered, so there was no real reason to buy that particular book. Oh well.

But I’m hooked anyway. So what to buy next is the question?

Well, let’s stick with the French theme he says, buy a book written around the same period he says. And by the following Thursday Les Miserables is on my doormat.

Wow. 1,231 pages… ABRIDGED.

So that’s that phase over. Although I did see that next month, Augustine’s Confessions is being released in the series. A two birds one stone killing asking to be made if ever I saw one, I’m only studying ruddy theology. So that’s getting pre-ordered. Maybe.

9780141396897

One more thing. I feel I need to explain to the ethereal head-shrinker why I have a desire in the first place to buy the number one in a series of somethings.

It all began in Brent Cross Shopping Centre, Disney Store, 1994. I’ve got some Christmas money to spend (sounds familiar) and I’m keen to get me a VHS of Sing-Along-Songs, fronted by the inimitable Jiminy Cricket. The one I wanted to get was the one with Peter Pan on the front because I liked the one with Peter Pan on the front. But Dad jumps in.

“Heyheyheyheyheyhey, don’t be so rash there son. Think about it. What you’re gonna wanna do is get Volume One and work your way up to Peter Pan which is Volume Seven. Think about it.”

“But Volume One has Bagheera on the front and he’s got more tough love than my four year old brain can handle”

“You’re getting volume one.”

“Um… okay.”

$_57

And from that day forth, I was PROGRAMMED to seek-out the first in the series of stuff.

Right, I’m off back to my Hugo. Only 1,147 pages to go!

What Will Robin Williams be Remembered For?

As I’m sure is the case for many others my age, my first real introduction to Robin Williams was via Disney’s Aladdin. A film that was being replayed in our house just last week. I remember being fascinated and highly amused by the originality and exuberance of this character of the Genie. Animation was probably the only art-form which could begin to contain this man’s effervescence.

The actual first film I saw him in was Popeye. I remember being amazed that he could do backflips. I recently found out that it was directed by Robert Altman!

I loved Hook as a boy. I thought it was such a great great idea. I loved watching Peter Pan rediscover his powers. I was fascinated by it.

Bicentennial Man was the first film we ever watched on DVD. We gathered round as a family and watched it on our Windows 98. I remember enjoying it. Especially some joke about bogies. Dad explained to us that it was not a happy ending that he dies at the end after two centuries (not a spoiler because it’s in the film’s title), death is the last enemy he told us.

We all loved Flubber too. That was great fun.

I remember watching Jim in school (a sort of Benjamin Button / Big type thing) and being heartbroken by the melancholy of it. A bit later on I watched Patch Adams, and actually liked it — again because of the sadness in his eyes. He was a ‘tears of the clown’ performer I think. No matter how funny he was being, there was always a sadness back there, especially in the eyes, that’s what made him especially engaging to watch in Good Will Hunting, despite the expected physical energy being absent.

I watched One Hour Photo this year. That’s another stripped back performance, but it ends up terrifying! Soon after that, Dad and I sat down to watch The Fisher King, and that’s a mix, a bit of the stripped back thing and a bit of the mad antics.

One shocking film he’s in is one that I think very few people have seen called Father of the Year World’s Greatest Dad. It’s about a Dad whose son kills himself, but he doesn’t miss his son, because his son was a horrible child. Despite this, Williams accepts all sorts of sympathy for the death of his son, (the gold and the girls) he even gets Bruce Hornsby — who his son hated, but he loved — to sing at the boy’s funeral. I think it was by the Donny Darko director.

All those films, but I’ve never seen Good Morning, Vietnam; Dead Poets Society or Awakenings!

My favourite Robin Williams thing I will remember him for is him being interviewed for the show Inside The Actors Studio. He is uncontainable. An interview with him one on one would have been mad enough, but put the guy in front of a crowd he’s on fire. 50000 impressions / riffs / jokes / physical tricks / slapstick gags / shouty wail things later, and I am a thoroughly impressed man. That same thing was what made him amazing to watch on Who’s Line is it Anyway too.

Another equally energetic, and — I get the sense — troubled actor is Jim Carrey. Dad always said that they should have done a film together, don’t know if that ever happened?

What does God think of Robin Williams? Someone on facebook said that Williams had sought some sort of evangelical soul-searching not too long ago, that’s interesting. We don’t know what happened in the last moments of his life.

I remember when Michael Jackson died, John Piper said that in the past minute 100 other people died too, 100 more souls going to meet with God.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter how Robin Williams will be remembered. But it is important to acknowledge the extraordinary talent he had.

There are two great animated films that have completely differing messages. Incredibles says ‘if everyone is special, no one is’ and Lego Movie says ‘everyone is special’. But I think both are true. Yes, it’s true, there are the Robin Williamses of the world who are extraordinarily talented in an obvious way. But God has given every single one of us unique gifts, everyone is an interesting individual person. We mustn’t spend too long getting caught up with these celebrated heroes, because as we’ve seen today, they’re mortal. 

Really, it is we the living who must consider the question of whether the God who granted each of us these unique talents will be praised or passed by.

Preaching Journal

Preached for the first time in a few years at Childs Hill Baptist Church, the eglwys I grew up in. I’m trying to get as much experience as I can in preparing series and preaching systematically through books of the Bible. So in the morning it was Jonah 3 and in the evening it was Mark 3 & 4, having been doing the Mark stuff at our Youth Clubs in Aber & Jonah twice at midweek meetings and once on a Sunday in A.P..

The Jonah one was a standard call and response; urge for repentance sermon. The evening was a bit more unusual, I wanted us to look at the parable of the sower, but we looked at it in the context of the previous chapter’s events. It’s here in chapter 3 that we meet four types of people — disciples; Pharisees; great crowd; Judas — who all have different responses to Jesus, the latter three having a negative response. We compared those four groups to the four types of ground in the parable of the sower.

If Knowledge is Power, Should we Fear God or Google?

A man has successfully managed to stop Google from holding information about his past.

Articles have highlighted the fact that we live in an age where our misdeeds are remembered more permanently and more visibly than ever before.

As one man points out in a Guardian article, ‘forgetting is intimately connected with forgiving’. So we come to theology…

God is the being with the greatest memory in the universe! This Google case reminds us of the vulnerability we suddenly experience when a shameful event from the past becomes publicly accessible. If knowledge is power, then God is truly omnipotent (due to his omniscience). God intimately knows your thoughts, in fact, everything you’ve ever done to everyone ever is known by him. Feel vulnerable now?

But the beauty of God and his grace is that there is protection against this disastrous situation we find ourselves in, and it’s not a measly court injunction.

It is possible to experience a divine pronouncement of unbreakable forgetfulness, how? Through Jesus.

If Jesus becomes the one on whom the responsibility for all those shameful acts we have committed in our past is laid, then forgiveness is possible. And our sins will not only be forgiven by God, but forgotten by him.

Arcade Fire’s Ontological Anthem

we exist

Arcade Fire have an interesting prayer in their song:

Down on your knees
Begging us please
Praying that we don’t exist

This is a classick example of an unbelieving 21st century philosopher’s prayer, he goes beyond hoping that God does not exist, his ultimate hope is that he doesn’t exist. If we don’t exist then we can do what we want and live at the centre of our own self-made lucid-dream (or nightmare). Lennon said it first, ‘Living is easy with eyes closed’. Win Butler’s character’s equivalent is to close his ears not his eyes: ‘Walking around head full of sound’.

But what I like is that We Exist rejects this possibility. Despite the fact that this unbeliever is desperate to conclude that nothing is real, the song’s refrain relentlessly reminds him (and us) of the truth…

We exist.
WE EXIST!

So what now?

How Should Christians Look at Nature and Art?

I read this quote a few weeks ago over at the ubiquitous Gospel Coalition and thought it reminded me of a few of the studies I’ve made on my courses regarding semiotics. Semiotics, if you’re interested is ‘the study of the sign wherever signs are to be found’ (Cobley 2004, pp.4).

C.S. Lewis says this:

We can’t — or I can’t — hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning or message (“That’s a bird”) comes with it inevitably — just as one can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the roar; I “hear the wind.” In the same way it is possible to “read” as well as to “have” a pleasure. Or not even “as well as.” The distinction ought to become, and sometimes is, impossible; to receive it and to recognise its divine source are a single experience. This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. (Lewis 2007, pp.86)

C.S. Lewis is painting himself here as an out and out Semiotician, but for Christians, there might be more to it. Phenomenologists are ‘content with describing the phenomena without asking what connection to an external reality those experiences might have’ (Hicks 2004, pp.44). So if Lewis was a phenomenologist, he would be content with hearing a bird sing, and not think to himself “that is a bird”. The way Lewis puts it, this immediate attachment of message is ‘inevitable’. This reaction is firstly because he is a human, we are ‘meaning-seeking and meaning-making creatures living in a world of meaning’ (Thomas and Segal 2006, pp.203); what’s more he is a Christian, so he believes in a Creator (Genesis 1:1).

However, the question is, whereas it is indeed ‘inevitable’ and indeed biblical (Psalm 19:1) to read the signs found in nature as those written by God, is there a place for a Christian phenomenology? I’m sure many of you could recommend me books on this subject, please do. But I would like to share some highlights from a bit of reading I enjoyed which we were set last year. It’s an article called The Phenomenological Attitude, by Bert O. States (2007).

He initially encourages us to nurture the ability to see through ‘the film of familiarity that blunts the scene of things’ (pp. 26). So straight up, phenomenology can help us become re-enchanted with God’s creation, because it is ‘the systematic attempt to unmask the obvious’ (pp.31).

But here comes my favourite bit, he talks about a guy called Adolf Reinach who ‘is said to have devoted an entire semester to studying the ways in which one experiences a mailbox’ (pp. 28). So there was a guy, who was so keen to go beyond the initial sign-reading experience that he entered into another realm of reverie — for a year.

In theory, when we try to truly look at something God’s created — which is everything — really look at it, we will realise that there is something called a frontal quality to it. In fact all of experience has a frontality, and that’s intended by God, because it ‘keeps the world from being all me.’ (ibid.)

This results in a conclusion that only God can truly look at an object — what States would call ‘the Divine Standpoint’ (ibid.) But having a phenomenological attitude towards nature — and all objects we experience — should not purely be for the purpose of making us conclude that we are not God, that shouldn’t be difficult.

Possessing this attitude would mean that we don’t immediately write off the sound of a bird singing, by just indicating its divine source, and then throwing it away just like you do a trashy novel. Yes, stage one is inescapably to acknowledge the Creator, and to praise him for his creation. But surely if Almighty God created this thing — or created the materials that made this thing — we should seek to revel in it further, experience it, contact it?

The art gallery is the ideal venue for such an exercise. Again I cite Rookmaaker via jonblog and his advice on how to approach an art gallery. I paraphrase:

Walk in, look at each piece for two or three minutes, work out which work you are most interested in, then spend one or two hours looking at that one work of art. When you leave the gallery you will look at the world with new eyes, see significance in things you never saw as significant. The sky will seem bluer and the grass will seem greener.

Christians should be the most phenomenological people around, fascinated by experiencing things that their God has created. But sadly, I find that Christians can be the least sympathetic people when it comes to art. “It’s just an object they say”, or “it’s just a line on a piece of paper, that’s not art”. But God is intricately involved, even at a micro microscopic cellular level with everything found in this world. So why not stop yourself, next time you jump the gun and write off a work of art just because you think you’ve read that sign and can read nothing more (i.e. “It’s just a urinal / unmade bed / sheep”) spend some time, looking and thinking. 

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Cobley, P., 2009. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics. Routledge.

Hicks, S., 2004. Understanding Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Stanford University Press.

Lewis, C. S., 2007. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. Mariner Books.

States, B. O., 2007. “The Phenomenological Attitude” in Reinelt A. G. and Roach. J. R., Critical Theory and Performance. University of Michigan Press.

Thomas, J. C. and Segal, D. L., 2006. Comprehensive Handbook of Personality and Psychopathology. Wiley.

Daniel Kitson on Eric Liddell in ‘Chariots of Fire’

There’s a bit in the film Chariots of Fire where the Scottish sprinter Mr. Eric Liddell has qualified with ease for the Olympic final and is by far the favourite. But he refuses to run because the race is to be held on the Sabbath. He is a devout Christian and in utter deference to his God he refuses to run.

There are all sorts of Olympic officials trying to bully him and cajole him into making the race. It’s their big showpiece race of the games and they all want him to do it, but he’s refusing, he’s steadfast.

One such Olympic Official corners him at a function and tries to get him to speak to the future King of England — the then Prince of Wales — who has a mind to convincing him to run.

Liddell says “No, I won’t talk to him, that wouldn’t be right.”

And the Olympic official says “Does your arrogance extend that far Liddell?”

And Liddell replies, “My arrogance extends as far as my conscience demands.”

I think that if you ever say anything that wonderful in conversation, you are well within your rights to never speak again.

That really is a wonderful bit of talking. Imagine hearing that coming out of your own face!? How could you possibly resist the urge to Moonwalk away from that!?

 Daniel Kitson, The Stand (2005)