Friday, February 27, 2015

"Defined" - Jonny's Story

"Defined" - Jonny's Story from Aaron Koch on Vimeo.

This guy is a friend of a friend, his amazing story of the triumph over adversity - which takes him all the way to the paralympics - is well worth watch.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Notes: Battles Christians Face by Vaughan Roberts

This is a great little book about the battles of the Christian life, it is helpful, pastorally gentle, wise and encouraging. The simple style of language and argument does not mean that the author hasn't wrestled with the issues involved, the extensive footnotes and poignant quotations are one of several giveaways that these short chapters are but the summary-conclusions of a great weight of thought and scholarly engagement, as well as personal experience. Indeed, although I have an early edition of the book, I have read that in the fifth anniversary edition Roberts explains that the selections of issues he addresses in this publication are not random or arbitrary - but are his biblical response to his own personal struggles in the Christian life over several decades.

The opening chapter looks at 'image', which Roberts notes is a problem in western society today in an historically and culturally unique way. The very idea of  projecting or choosing an image would be so alien to most humans that this issue is one of our own making, The author spends much of this chapter exploring how and why we struggle with this issue before turning to the Bible's alternative - which is to see ourselves as God does in Christ. That is to say, adopted, forgiven, renewed and His.

The book then turns to the issue of lust, examining how this fault is a distortion of the God-given sexual drive which was meant for good but when misused can cause much harm. Roberts draws lessons from the fall of King David in the Bible, and looks at ways in which Christians should handle their desires in Godly ways. Next he examines the thorny issue of guilt, arguing that genuine Christian faith is tied to the experience of being forgiven by God, and cleansed from sin. Roberts shows how Christians weighed down by guilt should not try to excuse or justify their sins, but have them dealt with by our gracious God.

The chapter on doubt is a real highlight of the book. Roberts neatly distinguishes between doubt (questioning the truth of an aspect of the faith), and "unbelief" which in the Bible is the wilful, sinful decision to turn from God. He notes that while several of the Biblical authors are scornful of unbelief, Jesus dealt very compassionately with genuine doubters who came to him, like Thomas. There is great pastoral advice in here for honest, genuine, handling of doubt - which every Christian with an enquiring mind experiences. His chapter on depression is fascinating too, opening up and responding to an all pervasive issue. He looks at the basis of Christian hope in a depressing world, tells stories of Christians who have wrestled with depression - and importantly de-stigmatises the condition with frank acceptance of its existence, and all too frequent occurrence.

Pride is seen in this book as the foundational sin of all the others - and the chapter on Christlike humility is helpful. Roberts' chapter on homosexuality will no doubt be the most controversial part of this book. He is one of those who believes that God loves gay people but prohibits all homo-erotic practice, drawing his thinking from the Bible. The chapter doesn't just talk about the Biblical prohibitions however, but talks about pastoral care for people who experience same-sex attraction within the Christian community. He wades into the furore about the ex-gay movement and seeks to frame all his comments within a gospel-centred world view in which this life is not the be-all-and-end all. Roberts has clearly laboured over these issues at great length, and it was when he subsequently noted that all the struggles in this book were his own that the reasons for this became clear. He discusses his own situation at greater length in this interview: CLICK HERE.

The book finishes with a call to ongoing spiritual health, in which Roberts talks openly about times he has struggled to maintain his own prayer-life, bible-reading, and closeness to God. He talks about strategies which have worked for him in the quest to maintain the kind of spiritual life we all crave.

The strengths of this book are the honesty with which it is written, the simple easy-to-read language, and the way in which the author consistently points Christians to ground themselves in the grace of God in Christ. The brevity of the book does leave a few questions unanswered (it's a popular book, not a scholarly tome), and the list of "battles" could be seen as a bit arbitrary; nevertheless if a particular sin of yours such as 'sloth', or 'gossip' isn't given  chapter here, there are plenty of principles which can be applied.

This is a down-to-earth, practical guide to living out the Christian faith in the face of many of the pressures which the modern world hurls against it. I was freshly challenged by it, but actually wish that books with this kind of disarming humility had been around when I was a young adult.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Notes: The Hell Of It All by Charlie Brooker

What is a clean-mouthed, Christian blogger doing reading (let alone reviewing!) a book by well known foul-mouthed atheist, Charlie Brooker? Its a fair question which deserves an answer - and the answer is that I picked it up in some railway station or airport, not quite knowing what I was getting and once I dipped into it, simply couldn't put it down. The Hell Of It All, is Brooker's collected Guardian columns, 2007-8 and brings together all of his splendidly derisory rants against the modern world from those years.

The reasons I found this book compelling are twofold. Firstly, Brooker writes with such a snarling pizzaz that it is hilariously funny. He doesn't offer well-balanced, nuanced reflections on aspects of modern culture, politics, TV, games, relationships and people; he rages against the idiocy he sees all around him. Brooker is an unapologetic misanthrope who doesn't offer a mild critique, but uses the power of language (and scorn) to  demolish his targets, While his language is funny, it is also exceptionally crude. He doesn't just cross the line in terms of taste and decency, but positively attacks it - this is not a book for the easily offended. Every language system (apparently) has its' taboo words designed specifically to shock, outrage, provoke and liken ordinary activities and people to unflattering body parts and functions. Brooker knows a lot of these, and bombards the reader with them repeatedly. The problem with the collection of individual columns into book form is that while they were intended to 'stand alone' and be read at a healthy rate of one per week; this format encourages the reader to consume them chapter at a time. While the once-a-week ride on Brooker's expletive powered cynicism wagon might raise a smile, an eyebrow or irritation; immersion in his tide of dark profanity is less satisfying. This is because while the language might at first raise the emotional pulse and thump his points home with the required arrogant air of sneering contempt; overuse lessens the desired effect. I may be unusual in my response to offence, but I find that over-exposure to the whole panoply of proscribed words lessens their offence; with one exception. My Christian sensibilities are such that while the regular biological/sexual swear words eventually fail to shock anymore, use of "God", and all the variations of "Jesus Christ" consistently provoke a deep unease. Still, despite this reservation I love the way that Brooker rants. For example, Valentines Day "The only national celebration dedicated to mental illness" (p121) is, for single people, "a cruel joke, you're like a one-legged man on National Riverdance Day" (p122) Or try this for size, from p310 about TV Show "Knight Rider":
".... a show about a coiffured berk in a talking car, and it was awful. David Hasselhoff was the berk, the talking car was a Trans Am called "KITT". It's fondly remembered today thanks to its' cool theme tune and amusingly portentous title sequence, in which a bowel-straining voice-over told us we were about to witness 'a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist' (presumably because being honest and saying, 'here's a load of made-up **** about a *** in a car which might help you pass another hour before death,' didn't play so well with the focus-groups)."
What's not to like about this - even if I had to 'bleep' a couple of moderately offensive words? 

Secondly, I found that time and time again I agreed completely that the targets of Brooker's ire are things which positively deserve debunking, ridicule and opprobrium. Whether it is idiot TV talent shows, celebrity culture, skiing, Valentines Day, Boris Johnson, conspiracy theorists, the BNP, Piers Morgan, Knight Rider, male-stupidity, pseudo-science, advertising - a glorious list of targets well in need of a critique, this book is all the more fun because the critiques are gloriously ruthless, funny, self-indulgent, over-stated and needed.

Here he goes after current men's fashions in a review of some ghastly TV male make-over thing:
"The point of the programme, apparently, is to 'explore' the increasingly demented body-image issues afflicting British men. Men have completely lost their minds in recent years, buying hair straighteners and eye-liner and stupid bloody clothes in their millions in a concerted effort to craft themselves into a cross between a Manga character and a Big Brother contestant. Walk down any high street these days and its like passing through the Valley of the Preening Wusses. While women have an impressive variety of of 'looks', from Girls Aloud to 1940s vamp, fashionable men only seem to have one [which is]  "vain *****". Why would anyone want to dress like these ***-***-***-****? This is life, not an audition for Hollyoaks."  (p308-9)
Well quite.

The other side of all this is Brooker's disarming modesty. He doesn't see himself as apart, or above the culture of which he writes, but happily dismisses himself along with all the other victims of his diatribe; and even apologises when a victim of his pen turns out to not be a "***" after all! While he clearly despises much celeb-culture, and the 'reality-TV' shows which manufacture fake celeb's, and seems to despise people who watch such inane parp; he cheerily writes as one of them. Amusingly for all his ranting about the folly of love, marriage, parenting and the horror of children - since completing these columns he has also taken up all of these life pursuits. He even takes the time to inform the reader that he doesn't hold his own writing in especially high regard either - which is nice.

One thing that surprised me was how charming Brooker can be in his appreciation of things. I certainly didn't buy the book to be charmed; I was wanting to wallow in disdain with a kindred spirit, but yet some of these moments in the book were delightful. Brooker might vent his spleen at a pretentious or boring celeb chef but his enjoyment of Heston Blumenthal doing weird, weird things with food was fun. When Oliver Postgate died there were many well-meaning obituaries which noted the politics, ideology, and creativity of his "SmallFilms" team which made the likes of "The Saga of Noggin the Nog", "Bagpuss", and "Ivor the Engine". Only Brooker's though did a good enough job because of all those I read, it was his that nailed the fact that it was the reassuring sound of his voice that above all, meant so much to children in the 1970s.

Throughout this book, Brooker takes aim at (and excoriates with flourish), many of the things that I find myself grumbling about. I think that from the opening salvo, "The hell of nightclubs" it was clear that I would appreciate this book. Reading chunks of it out to my wife (or getting her to read bits of it if the kids were about), she repeatedly rolled her eyes and said that it reminded her of me. As I read Brooker, it became apparent that we are consistently irked by many of the same things, and share a panoply of the same foibles, follies and fears (uncannily similar at times). Where we differ, I suppose, is that while we agree that so much of what surrounds in this world us is utter ****, I retain a basic Christian worldview which maintains that ultimately there is a good God, who will redeem it. His view is that this world is appalling, so appalling in fact that it deserves mockery, because that's all there is; whereas I think that the world is appalling but that is because it is fallen, and divorced from its purpose and creator; and that's all that matters. So while I read, snarled, scoffed, laughed and applauded along with Charlie Brooker it became clear that while we might want to hit the same targets, we are firing from quite different positions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Monday, February 16, 2015


Dual Mopelo

Just in case you are wondering about what 'Mopelo' means.... (click here)

Norman's Field

Sunset Panorama

One that needs to be clicked on and viewed full size!

Monday, February 09, 2015

Glen Shee

A lot of people talk about how beautiful Glen Shee is, especially in winter. My family are all skiers, and so I joined them on Saturday and did some walking from the ski-centre. I think I must be alone in thinking that the thousands of cars and assorted ironmongery all over the hills, and the concentration of vast numbers of people into one small patch of landscape; is actually rather horrible. I think that next time I'll drop them in this Highlands-meets-Disneyland playpark, and drive somewhere else - to walk in peace, calm and solitude away from the noise, crowds, cafe's, machinery, over-sized cars, and over-projected pretentious accents. I don't think I'd have to go far; I'm sure in adjacent Glens Ey, or Callater the mountains are still lurking, without looking like a vast branch of Macdonalds has enveloped them. Rant over. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Book Notes: Krushchev, The Man and His Era by William Taubman

In a far corner of the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, lie the remains of a man who at the height of his career had unparallelled power and influence in the world - but whose grave lay unmarked for years after his death. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev's (1894-1971) rise from peasantry via industry to the Russian Army was eclipsed by his meteoric rise through the all-encompassing Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). By the time Khrushchev came to dominate the party, the party itself dominated not just Russia, the Soviet Empire and the Eastern European Bloc; but swathes of the bi-polar Cold War world too.

The Khrushchev family eventually managed to erect a memorial at the burial site. William Taubman in his magisterial account of Khrushchev and his era (20003), describes the monumental headstone of this man who succeeded Stalin, in these words:

Designed by Ernst Neizvestny, the artist whom Khrushchev had excoriated in 1962 and 1963, the monument consists of intersecting slabs of white marble and black granite on one of which sits a bronze head of Khrushchev with what looks like a pained expression on his face. It sums up a man in whose character so many contrasts were so starkly intertwined: both true believer and cold-eyed realist, opportunistic yet principled in his own way, fearful of war while all too prone to risk it, the most unpretentious of men even as he pretended to power and glory exceeding his grasp, complicit in great evil yet also the author of much good. (p647)

I was barely half a year old when Khrushchev died in relative obscurity, yet I grew up in a world which he had had an extraordinary role in creating. Hazy black and white pictures of the stony-faced Brezhnev, atop the Lenin Mausoleum filled our TV sets, but the context in which the West and the East glared at each other with mutual suspicion and bristling arsenals was forged by the mercurial Khrushchev and his psychopathic predecessor.

Having recently read Simon Sebag Montifiore's two volume biography of Stalin, "Young Stalin" and "Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar", I was intrigued as to how it was Khrushchev who emerged as his successor. It would perhaps be an understatement to suggest that he was not the obvious candidate. A little research suggested that Taubman's was 'the' biography of Khrushchev to get, as it comes loaded down with worthy commendations and a Pulitzer Prize for biography. The first chunk of this 800+ page tome is concerned with that rise to power, and the developing character of the central protagonist. Working his way up the "bloody pole" (sic) under Stalin, Khrushchev was both thoroughly implicated in Stalin's crimes, "up to his elbows in blood" he would later lament; but also horrified by the purges and in denial about them. His relationship with Stalin was also complex, when as Moscow Party chief constructing the Metro, or as Ukraine Party boss overseeing agriculture and purges, or defending Stalingrad from the Nazi's; he both worshipped, feared, loved and hated his all-seeing mentor. 

Taubman takes time to explore not just the facts and politics of Khrushchev's development but also his psychological development - and the extraordinary personality who would so capture the world's imagination in the 1960s. He does so without an annoying deluge of pyschobabble, but with probing insight into the factors which came together to produce the leader he became. The man who emerges from this incredible book is insecure, emotional, sentimental. arrogant, determined, eager, flawed, vain, curiously principled, brave, and an adept schemer. Take for example Taubman's account of Khrushchev's encounter with an Academician called Paton who was advancing metal-welding techniques and whom he persuaded Stalin to admit to The Party:

How easily Khrushchev could be beguiled by a charismatic scientist promising miracles! How sentimental he could be when his benevolent image of himself was confirmed! Khrushchev had an appalling ability, during Stalin's lifetime and after, to separate the horrors carried out by the party from the great cause it supposedly served. No matter how much blood flowed in the name of socialism, tears came to his eyes when some-one like Paton declared themselves converted. (p131)

After a detailed consideration of his emergence, Taubman's book traces the improbable survival of Khrushchev, who along with Molotov and Beria emerged as one of the very few of Stalin's inner circle to outlive the paranoid, purging tyrant. This leads onto his unlikely rise as Stalin's successor as head of party and state, with total control over the machinery of government. The key to these surprising triumphs seems to have been (like Stalin in the early 1920s), the complete underestimation of him by his rivals - a result of the simpleton image that he both exaggerated and projected.

Taubman then moves to considering Khrushchev in power - which is the era of his life most familiar to Western readers, as the Khrushchev-Kennedy confrontations are lodged in popular culture; lampooned in Kubrick's Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and lyrically referenced by the likes of Queen (Killer Queen, 1974). In Taubman's biography, it was once he had achieved unchallengeable power that the full extremes of Khrushchev's bizarre personality were able to come to the fore without check or balance. In fact, as he progresses through international tours, summits, crises (Berlin; Cuba) that his personality starts to unfold. Ranting, cajoling, re-organising, shouting, Khrushchev took to the world stage - famously bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war, and banging his shoe on the desk at the UN. Most significantly of all, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes, ended the personality cult, and emptied many of the gulags - at huge personal risk, and danger to the party; and sought detente with the West (causing the split with Mao).

The Kremlin under the USSR was nothing if not an enigmatic and surreal place. As Chairman Khrushchev received the obligatory standing ovations for his mammoth and incoherent speeches; and won every Presidium vote unanimously; plots built up against him. The first plot Khrushchev crushed was entirely of his own imagining (he was after all a Stalinist!), the second he triumphed over his adversaries; but finally the Brezhnev-led plot in 1964 removed him. Unlike in the 1930s, the fallen leader was spared the firing squad or show trial; but was quietly marooned in a small country dacha; left to his gardening, family, his deep depression and the distillation of his secret memoirs published in the West as Khrushchev Remembers. Despite the ghastly nature of so much of his career, the reader cannot help but feel some empathy for the broken colossus, alone in his garden - harbouring secret doubts about whether the planned economy could ever deliver for the masses.

Despite the massive length of this book (which surely would be better as a two-volume work), it is mesmerising biographical writing. Taubman has the ability to condense vast amounts of research into fast-paced narrative and insightful analysis. Taubman's task is made all the easier by the extremes of his subject (the thought of a long biog of some dull entertainer is tedious), and the result is an 800page book in which the interest level never wanes and the reader gains extraordinary insight into this idiosyncratic man and his tumultuous career.

To hear William Taubman discussing his work on Khrushchev, press here.