Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Sometime last year, I can’t remember when, posters appeared all over the London Underground advertising this debut novel by Jessie Burton. The combination of the intriguing title and the eye-catching artwork created a mental image in my head that was highly appealing. So if the person who was responsible for the marketing of the book is reading this, well done. I only bought it, though, when I found myself in the very pokey bookshop of Primrose Hill. By this time, the book had started to win some praise and an award or two.

Set in the Netherlands in the late 17th century, the book gets off to a slightly unexpected start. Our main protagonist is Nella, an 18 year old woman who has recently married a trader roughly twice her age. Yet she seems not to really know him at all. She arrives at his house, greeted by his cold and unfriendly sister, Marin, and the servants of the household, Cornelia and Otto. It is a little while before we meet her husband, Johannes, but he remains a constant, yet distant figure throughout the book’s opening.

He attempts to make up for his relative absence by buying Nella a large kind of dollhouse. It is this that provides the impetus for the title of the novel, though it is curiously incidental to the overall plot. It’s something of a McGuffin, where the story would be little impacted if it were omitted. Because of this failure to meet expectations, I couldn’t like the book as much as I had hoped. Yet if one puts aside the missed expectations, then we do get the work of a very good storyteller setting out on the published stage of her writing career.

The real heart of the book consists of the interactions between the main characters, who are all well fleshed out and given their distinctive voices. Often written in dialogue, we see how Nella relates to Johannes, then how she relates to Marin, then how Marin relates to Cornelia, how Cornelia relates to Otto and so on. Through this method of storytelling, we build up the characterisation, while there are events which punctuate these and make for a very well paced novel.

I would warn potential readers that if it had the same kind of certification as a film, it would probably be a 15. There is some rather brutish homophobia as well as one or two gory scenes that are described in lurid detail.

It has also been noted that the book has divided opinion somewhat. I can see why some people may have been disappointed. I think it’s possibly because it’s not in the genre of fiction that people expect. Some have described it as an historical novel. While it’s certainly set in the past, the tone feels distinctly modern. Rather, this is a sensation novel, in the style of the late Victorian period. The closest in terms of the plot structure that I’ve reviewed on this blog before is Thomas Hardy’s Desperate Remedies.

So would I recommend it? Yes, it is a good book. Is it deserving of the all the awards and high praise that is garnered? I’m not convinced. If in doubt, though, do read it. There are plenty more ordinary books out there that aren’t half as interesting.

A Friday thought – the shape of art to come

Here are some musings I had over the course of the last week, somewhat related to the outcome of the general election (but less firm than I was on Monday).

It’s about how the new political landscape may affect the shape of art over the next few years. I am not here talking about funding cuts (though I know some in the arts are fearful of their livelihoods being threatened), but rather what forms of creativity that do emerge might take.

Will there be a rise in escapism? Or are we, in the post 9/11 world, at the peak of escapism, as may be seen with the literary and televisual popularity of Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) and the apparent takeover of the real world by the Marvel Universe. Yet they are predominantly American features that have infiltrated British culture.

What about the home-grown aspects of the arts? Will we see a return of satire, which has largely been nullified by the preposterous goings-on of politicians in the last few years. Under Thatcher, we had Spitting Image; under Blair, we had The Thick of It. But nothing else has had quite the bite. The Revolution Will Be Televised got close, but didn’t gain the popularity of the others and Charlie Brooker’s various Wipe programmes are too sporadically placed in the schedule to establish traction. A traction which, I might add, should have been the place of Have I Got News For You, but which has, for the most part, become as sharp as a Fisher Price saw.

One of the things that struck me about the media coverage (and conversations both taken part in and eavesdropped on) was about the impression that the leaders wanted to project. For example, there was the pre-planned (and I thought, transparently co-ordinated) tweets that declared David Cameron to be ‘strong and commanding‘. Then there was the negative campaigning, portraying Ed Miliband as a “north London geek” – a point pushed by Jeremy “I’m a one nation Tory” Paxman, amongst others. So I wondered if some parts of the arts may return to an impressionistic sense, as a reflection of the current mindset.

Then there are the allegorical art forms. Might we see a rise in horror writing? I can imagine that the planned erosion of human rights could well translate into stories whereby someone, a family member perhaps, slowly becomes less and less human. The rest of the family may be fearful, may try to restore their humanity, but when they finally go past a point of no return they have to be got rid of.

Possibly one of the reasons I can imagine that plotline is because it summarises quite a lot of Shaun of the Dead. Ho hum! I never said I was original.

Maybe you can think of other ways the creative world might choose to express itself in themes or forms shaped by the political climate.

Book Review: Pathfinders – The Golden Age of Arabic Science by Jim Al-Khalili

It’s taken me a fair old while to get round to reading this. If you check back on this blog, you’ll see that I mentioned it back at the start of last year as one of the books I planned to read in 2014. However, my science reading has been fairly varied and this just got pushed back a bit.

Having now read it, I do rather regret the delay. The title should give you an impression of the era and geographical area which is the focus of Al-Khalili’s study. It is a time and place about which I must confess my ignorance. And not without good reason, the author supposes that such ignorance is not uncommon. His task here, then, is to give us a glimpse into a world that has largely been forgotten by the West, but where a debt of gratitude is owed.

Our story really begins with The House of Wisdom, a kind of institute or academy that was established by the Caliph al-Ma’Mun in the 8th century where the great minds of the day were gathered to study the world, which Al-Khalili notes comes not from a general curiosity, but as a command from Muhammad. As such, we also get a bit of background on the rise of Islam which serves as a useful background.

While I admit that I didn’t know much about the period and that many of the people we come across were previously unknown to me, one that was familiar was Al-Kwarizmi. Part of his story was told in Joseph Mazur’s Enlightening Symbols, but here we get a bit more flesh to the man, as well as understanding why he was so important in mathematics. For the latter, Al-Khalili relies on one of this age’s great mathematical communicators, Ian Stewart. To summarise here, what Al-Kwarizmi built upon Diophantus’ shoulders was a general way of solving problems. To Diophantus and to many who came after him, the methodology used to solve problems were specific to the problem in hand. Al-Kwarizmi’s contribution was to find a solution to sets of problems that could be widely applicable, not having to go through afresh each time. This is why his important work can rightly be seen as the origins of what we would understand to be algebra. He didn’t use symbolic means, as modern students may be familiar with, nor did he construct problems with the originality of Diophantus, but his work is the key bridge between the two.

There are plenty more besides A-Kwarizmi who are featured (and Al-Khalili does include a helpful little summary of each at the end of the book), so I will leave you to discover them for yourself. I only focus on Al-Kwarizmi because of my mathematical bent. Those of a more astronomical of chemical persuasion may find themselves drawn to other characters in the book.

Without recounting the entirety of the book, I wanted to look at one more aspect in particular, which caught my eye. It concerns the question of the decline of the golden age. What caused it? While there are myriad factors that interact in complicated ways, one that Al-Khalili highlights is the rise of the printing press. Arabic science was largely dependent on written copying and this form of communication was not readily abandoned. So it was not so much that the science in the Near and Middle East declined, but rather just got overtaken in terms of the speed of the dissemination of ideas. As a bibliophile, I will often hail the printing press as one of the greatest inventions of all time, but this puts a different, and welcome, slant on the matter. What has proved good for many may have had a detrimental effect on others.

In reviewing books of various kinds, one must always try to find some good in the worst of books and one must try to find fault in the best. Here, I find myself in the latter of the two scenarios, so this review cannot be complete without noting that Al-Khalili is very unspecific and often uncritical of his sources. Over and over again, I found myself thinking “[that’s really interesting. Where does that information come from?]” only when one searches in the text and the endnotes, there is no clear answer. Instead, the reader is invited to take Al-Khalili’s word for it, to be uncritical.

To give a specific example, there is a short discussion on the destruction of the library at Alexander. Al-Khalili cites a few hypotheses (a fire in 48 BCE, a war between the Romans and the Syrians in the late 3rd century, sacked by the Arabs in 641) but dismisses these, instead favouring the idea that it was destroyed by christians in the late 4th century. At no point, though does he say where these hypotheses came from, he doesn’t critically evaluate them and he doesn’t give his reasoning for why he thinks one is more likely than the others.

This is just one example. There are others, but I include it here to illustrate that the scepticism Al-Khalili exercises professionally as a scientist does not seem to have been well transferred as here dabbles in history. Perhaps this work is an example of why scientists aren’t always the best at writing histories of science, a point I know is echoed by Rebekah Higgitt.

As a point of curiosity, while I disagreed with one of his interpretations on this history of chemistry, I was going to cite Lawrence Principe’s The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, though Al-Khalili cites a different work from the same author in support of his view. Overall, Al-Khalili comes across as quite critical of western science in the middle ages, buying in as he does to the metanarrative whereby christianity is the suppressor of science. For an alternative to this view, I would recommend James Hannam’s work, God’s Philosophers.

One of the added dimensions that marks this out from books on the history of science, is that Al-Khalili interweaves the story he tells with his own personal history. Having grown up in Iraq, he tells us of his connection to the places, showing us a “then and now” narrative that has a tinge of sadness to it, not least due to the history of the country in the last 40 years.

He also manages to hint at what the future of Arabic science might look like. In this respect, though the book is only 5 years old, seems sadly out of date. Only recently, the news broke that the Islamic State had burned a library to the ground.

From the pages of this work, we get a glimpse into a golden age, but it seems that another such age may be a longer way off than Al-Khalili hoped for.

The election happened, what next for the left?

Since last week’s general election, many have been quick off the mark with writing the post mortem, suggesting what went wrong and a few early hats have been thrown into the ring for the vacant party leadership roles.

I hope you’ve not become bored of reading such articles. I’ve written this over the course of the weekend; so I’m sorry that’s not been as quick off the mark as others have been. The plan is to look at the disparity between what was widely expected to happen and what did happen, try to look at some of the reasons behind this, suggest how the UK political left might start the fightback and what the ordinary citizens of this country can do in the meantime.

What was expected to happen?

With the opinion polls that were published prior to the election, there was no clear winner. It seemed likely that the Conservatives would win the most seats but fall short of an overall majority. Labour were expected to suffer heavily at the hands of the SNP in Scotland, but that they might gain a fair few from the Liberal Democrats, meaning an overall small loss in the net number of seats.

My own particular guess was that in the Lib/Con marginals, the Liberal Democrat voters would, in spite of their party’s betrayal, remain loyal. After all, their sin was to go into coalition with the Conservatives, so it would make no sense for voters to go from Lib Dem to Conservative. I thought they might lose some voters to Labour, ultimately diluting the Lib+Lab vote and allowing the Conservatives a few wins, but not many, as they would vote with the Lib Dems as a tactical manoeuvre.

I also thought that, given the cuts the Conservatives unleashed in the last 5 years that Labour would pick up some Lab/Con marginals. Further Labour gains would result from the rise of UKIP which would dilute the Conservative vote.

The result would be that the Conservatives wouldn’t be able to win a majority and that another attempted coalition with the Liberal Democrats would still fall short. The other possibility was that Labour would try to form a coalition with the SNP but that too would fall short of a majority. Yet crucially, Lab+SNP would be greater than Con+Lib.

As a result, I thought that we would end up with a minority government. Such a government would not last long, being unable to pass a queen’s speech and losing a vote of no confidence, triggering a second election this year. Given a quick failure, whoever formed the minority government would likely lose the subsequent election, making this May a good election to lose. My hope then was that since the Conservatives had the most seats, they would be the ones to drink from the poisoned chalice.

What happened?

My estimate was wrong. I’d bought in too much to the published opinion polls prior to the election and when the exit polled showed a clear lead (though not quite a majority) for the Conservatives, I didn’t believe it.

The expected windfall of seats for the SNP did happen, with a number of high profile people losing their seats, including Douglas Alexander, Danny Alexander, Jim Murphy and Charles Kennedy.

The first real warning sign, though, was in Nuneaton. It was a target Labour seat that they needed to win if they were going to beat the Conservatives. But instead of that happening, the Conservatives won the seat with an increased majority. This happened in several marginals, though Labour did take some (and the Conservatives won a few Labour-held marginals). This was not a case of a significant victory (though I would say it was a notable victory) for the Conservatives; more a stern defence of that which they held most precariously. Also, the success that UKIP had in the last round of local elections was not replicated, meaning that they did not dilute Conservative support as much as had been expected. A case in example was my incorrect prediction about what would happen in Crawley, where I lived for 7 years.

The real surprise was what happened in the Lib Dem dominated area of South-West England. Here, contrary to my (and others’) expectations, the Lib Dem voters did abandon their party in droves, and went to the Conservatives. It was these wins that really helped to ensure the Conservatives won a majority.

Why it happened?

We have to acknowledge that this is now a highly divided country. Scotland is undoubtedly the country of the SNP. London is predominantly a Labour city. In England, outside of London, the Conservatives are the dominant party except for in former mining communities. Wales is predominantly Labour, by population, at least. As with London, their support is greater in more urban areas, though the constituencies with larger areas are more mixed, so the Labour majority doesn’t show up well on a map. Northern Ireland has a quite different politics altogether, which has a far deeper and more painful history than I can reasonably go into here.

I would need to add: the SNP ensured that Labour had a bad night. But the SNP are not to blame for allowing David Cameron back into Downing Street. If they had increased their share of the vote, yet not won a single extra seat, then David Cameron would still have a majority. The difference would be that Labour would have a greater share of the opposition benches.

I have long maintained the idea that governments are not so much voted in as they are voted out. In 1997, the Conservatives had lost any shred of credibility and all Labour needed to do was present a credible alternative. They did that successfully and won the election with a landslide. At the time, people asked if it was the end of the Conservative party. It wasn’t. It was damaging, yes, and they were unlikely to win the next election either. But then Labour took 418 seats, with the Conservatives on 165. Compare that to last week, when the Conservatives won 331 and Labour won 232. So I think one cannot say that 2015 was as bad for Labour as 1997 was for the Conservatives.

In 2010, Labour were the ones who had lost credibility, so it should have been a cake-walk for the Conservatives to win a majority, but it was a reflection of their electoral failure that we ended up with a hung parliament, resulting in a coalition. A part of this may well be due to the fact that the Conservatives came off worse than Labour did in the expenses scandal. Though trust in both sides was severely dented by that episode.

They key thing that happened in electoral terms was where the disaffected Lib Dem voters went. In London, having looked through some of the constituency results (I haven’t done a full numerical analysis yet), they seem to have gone largely to Labour and the Greens, with some to UKIP and a handful to the Conservatives. This is what I expected to happen nationwide, but elsewhere, particularly in the south-west, the largest chunk of Lib Dem voters went Conservative. I confess, I don’t understand why they would really do this. It’s not a part of the country I live in and I haven’t been able to speak to anyone who did switch their vote that way.

Beyond that, though, my view is that the Labour message was too piecemeal. They were chasing the agenda set by the mainstream media (see below), coming up with policies in response to what others had said, instead of leading the way with an alternative vision. Much of the discussion over the last few days has asked whether they were too far left (which doesn’t wash with Scotland, nor with the opposition to their ‘control immigration’ mug) or too far right (which doesn’t explain why they didn’t take the English marginals that were ripe for the picking).

How to fix it?

There has to be a long term strategy from the left. Ideally, this should be a 13 year strategy, starting from now. Why 13? Well, there should be 3 phases: the first starts now and needs to establish a plan for bringing down the Conservatives at the next election, replacing them with a credible, progress and egalitarian government. But it would be too short term to say the aim is to be elected. The strategy has to include a full 5 year plan for government. Yet we know what the Conservatives have done in the last 5 years of coalition, and we have some idea about what they will do, untethered, in the next 5 years. Will a single term be enough to unwind the legacy of the David Cameron, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith? Maybe not. So we need to think about how to start undoing the damage they’ve done as well as the further damage they will do; this will entail fixing the country and preparing for a 2nd term.

The strategy has to be two-fold: national and local.

On the national level, there has to be a whole, coherent and credible alternative. The first thing is the substance of the message, be it on business, on housing, on debt, on immigration, on debt, on taxation, on education, on defence, on health, etc. More than that, though, any election strategy has to incorporate the media. While there has been some progress with social media, it remains the BBC and the newspapers who set the agenda. Given these are largely Conservative biased (the BBC’s main political team of Nick Robinson, David Dimbleby, Andrew Marr and Andrew Neill being the most notable of the pro-Tory group) then an infiltration strategy is partly what’s needed. One can combat the right-wing hegemony head on, to sing a different tune. Yet one can also attempt to change the tune from within the choir. In the wake of the election, people have been joining both the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Yet party members are unlikely to find employment in press run by Murdoch, Dacre or the Barclay brothers. A little more subtlety is required. In short, to be as clever as a fox, whilst remaining as innocent as a dove.

Then we have the matter of the Independent’s betrayal, as they encouraged a continuation of a Conservative-led coalition, while the Evening Standard, owned by the same tycoon who runs the Independent, backed the Conservatives. My proposition is that we need a new left-leaning national newspaper. I suggested this on social media on the election and was subsequently trolled for saying it. Amongst the irrational rantings that were aimed at me, they said that the Guardian and the Mirror were sufficient and that there was nothing wrong with the over-arching dominance of the newspaper market by a very small number of very rich men with a vested in interest in keeping the Conservatives singing their tune.

On the local level, the obvious answer is to set about targeting the seats to win. However, there has been a strong suspicion that to counter this, the Conservatives will attempt to rig the next election by changing the constituency boundaries so as to favour them. I’ve read comments from Conservative supporters saying that their primary aim is to make sure than Labour are locked out of government for decades. As an example of how this could be done, they might enlarge the London constituencies (making sure they are larger both in terms of population and area), thus reducing their number; or they might take two adjacent Conservative constituencies and make them into three.

For the Liberal Democrats, they have space to come back. First of all, though, they need to acknowledge their responsibility for helping to introduce the bedroom tax, for Sure Start centres, for cuts to disability benefits, for targeted sanctions against the unemployed. They can’t say that because they were in coalition they were forced to do those things. They need to acknowledge that they were wrong. Then, depending on how the majority Conservative government play things out, they can (as some have before the election) list out the things they prevented happening during the coalition’s reign. Things like the Conservative plan to repeal the Human Rights Act, to change the boundaries, to make even deeper cuts or further and faster privatisation of the NHS. If they can do this, then they stand a chance of taking back some of the Lib/Con marginals they lost, particularly those in south-west England and south-west London.

In the mean time

I am not a politician. I am not a journalist. I am someone who cares. Someone who is worried and fearful of the harm that this government will do.

On Saturday there was protest held in Westminster. I had looked around to see if I could find any plan for a protest but could find none. The first I heard about it was on Twitter after it had begun, by which time it seemed a little late to go and join. I supported that protest, and let me say why.

Democracy should not be an event that happens one day every five years. Democracy should be woven into the fabric of the society we live in. When we’re not at the ballot box, we can protest, we can petition, we can march, we can write letters, we can go and see our MPs at their local surgeries. Such expressions of democracy can be firm, they can be loud and at times, they can be disruptive. There are lines to be drawn, though. I do not advocate violence, nor do I advocate inappropriate protest, such as the graffiti that one person put on a war memorial.

Protests against austerity or against the removal of human rights are not, as some Conservatives have been saying, moaning or whinging about the result of the election. While there is a debate to be had over the effectiveness of our current democratic system (c.f. the referendum debate and the outcome of every close election – my particular favourite example is 1951), I do not dispute the Conservative’s right to govern. It has been suggested to me, by several on the political right, that accepting the legitimacy of the result means that we shouldn’t protest. I cannot agree with that.

When Labour won the 1997 general election and sought to introduce a national minimum wage, Conservatives would have been well within their rights to take to the streets to demand that employers should be allowed to employ people for as little pay as they saw fit.

Nor do I agree with the accusation that protest is in any way sanctimonious or self-righteous. To speak out against the Conservatives is an act of compassion; of standing up for those who have been, and will be hurt, by the acting out of Conservative policy. To turn one’s back or adopt an “I’m alright, Jack” attitude is an act of wilful negligence. There will be a time for gentler persuasion, but right now the time is right to give Conservative voters a metaphorical slap across the face, show them what they have allowed to happen. So that, like the end of The Bridge On The River Kwai, they may realise what they have done. I do not wish to demonise Conservative voters. Instead, my prayer for them is “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.”

Book Review: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

After several recommendations, I pushed this up my reading list, but that’s something I’m quite glad of. It’s now 5 years since I was first introduced to Bonhoeffer when I read The Cost of Discipleship whilst hiking around the Julian Alps of north-western Slovenia. Following up with Letters and Papers from Prison, probably no two books have had a greater influence on the direction of my discipleship in recent years.

This is a very short book, running to a little under 100 pages in the edition I read, made up of 5 chapters. From the off, as with The Cost of Discipleship and much of the later parts Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer metaphorically picks up the reader by the lapels and gives them a firm shake. One of the difficulties with reading Bonhoeffer is that he writes quite concisely. Each sentence packs a lot into it, but it is also of such a quality that one cannot help but be drawn in. You keep reading and want to keep reading, but at the same time you want to stop and ponder the points made. So even though it’s relatively brief, I had to force myself to take longer over reading it than I normally would.

He opens with a chapter on christian community where the key point is that this is life lived in Jesus, not just a life lived unto Jesus. So we are reminded of the participation we have in all aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry. This is further expanded on later on and remains a running theme throughout the book. Bonhoeffer is keen to stress the difference between the christian community, what it means to be Church, from what it means to be any other gathering of people. In so doing, he is a strong advocate of community bound by spirit and has fairly short shrift for those who would try to view church community as any kind of social or anthropological construct.

Following up on this quite general opening, he moves onto some specifics when he writes about the day spent with others. Here, he is very family focused, almost to the extent of being assumptive that a christian’s life will be within a family, and that that family will have a fairly rigid routine. While I would recognise the great value that there can be in routine (what a friend of mine refers to as Holy Habits) I am sceptical about when a routine becomes a rule or goes even further and becomes a ritual. Nonconformists, myself included, will sometimes speak of a dichotomy between a living faith and a dead religion. What we mean by this is not that anything that could be spoken of as religious is inherently bad, but it is where the ceremonial has taken over and things are done for the sake of doing them. As one anglo-catholic friend of mine puts it, “You’ve got to have the dressing up, the chanting, the smells and bells. Otherwise it’s just not proper religion”. Now Bonhoeffer doesn’t go to that conservative extreme, but he is quite prescriptive.

He stresses the use of Psalms in worship, though he gets a bit tangled up at times. It’s noticeable that he takes a very “high” view of scripture – higher than mine, though I hope to have a piece written on this fairly soon. While he doesn’t venture into talking about inerrancy, one gets the impression that, were the question put to him, it’s a view that he might well endorse.

From the day with others he goes on to speak of the day alone. This is much more akin to the world I live in. Though he doesn’t make a huge about-turn from the previous chapter; it’s much more a continuation, noting that families are separated from one another by their work for most of the day. The main thing I got out of this chapter was the need for faithfulness in all that we do and what is meant by the phrase “pray without ceasing” – something I try to do in my work, but freely admit that I often fail in it. Although Bonhoeffer doesn’t speak of balance per se, there is a sense here that that is what he aiming for. Or maybe it’s rather that he is giving a model for a well-rounded, complete christian life.

The penultimate chapter is simply entitled ‘Ministry’. I had feared that this was just for those in church leadership roles and would have nothing for people like me whose employment is found in the secular arena, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this fear was unfounded. In fact, I could hardly have been more wrong. What Bonhoeffer does is to look at various ways in which members of a community can minister to one another. Though brief, it is a marvelous exposition of the Petrine principle of the priesthood of all believers. There is no restriction based on whether someone is ordained or not. The ministries he goes into include holding one’s tongue, meekness, listening, helpfulness, bearing with one another, proclaiming and authority. Without recapitulating the whole thing here, I found it refreshingly challenging, like a cold, strong wind on a hilltop shortly before the break of spring.

The book culminates with a chapter mostly about confession. Here, as throughout, Bonhoeffer remains faithfully reformed. He opposes the idea of one person bearing the load of hearing the confessions of a whole congregation, but rather that that whole congregation should listen, on a small scale, to the confessions of one another. Though he doesn’t use the modern term “accountability partner” it is a concept which fits snugly within Bonhoeffer’s view of church. All this is to prepare for what Bonhoeffer sees as the culmination, the ultimate expression of church: communion. He doesn’t go into the theology of communion so doesn’t state here whether he takes a functionalist or symbolic view.

It is a truly beautiful vision of church that Bonhoeffer presents here and one that many christians possibly ache for, even if their expression of that vision isn’t worded quite so eloquently. I would reiterate my point that it is possibly a bit prescriptive and my take would be that each church community may find their own tweaks to this model which are more helpful than a one size-fits-all approach. An interesting point to note is that the model is seemingly only very loosely based on a biblical model. While Bonhoeffer takes a high view of scripture, this isn’t an exegesis, but any biblical backup is rather piecemeal. I get the impression that much is borne out of experience, but his own background is well disguised in the writing. He doesn’t say what he has tried and found helpful or unhelpful. Instead, I may try that myself as I would encourage you to read Bonhoeffer, consider his wisdom and perhaps try a renewed expression of christian community.

1 Peter – more work needed

I’ve been a bit neglectful of late. As I blog for the Big Bible Project, I’ve been reading my way through and around the Old Testament prophets of late. Supplementing this, I’ve also been looking at Jesus, both through the eyes of the gospels and with a more theological bent through Paul (helped partly by N.T. Wright’s in-depth study). A few weeks ago I sat and listened to a former pastor of mine give an exposition of Revelation.

So what’s missing?

Well, there are a few bits, but I’m thinking (well, you read the title didn’t you?) of the book of 1 Peter. The reason this has come into focus is because it is appealed to on two controversial topics within christianity. Yet it’s appealed to from different parts of the spectrum. The two topics I have in mind are 1) atonement, 2) the harrowing of hell.

Not two of the most straightforward subjects and here I only wish to note some points, rather than give a detailed exposition. The passage in question is this (emphasis added):

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.

1) Atonement

I’m generally reluctant to write on this subject as it can be needlessly divisive. Broadly speaking, the two main ideas are referred to as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) and christus victor (CV).

PSA concerns the idea that Jesus died in our place. It is the meeting point of two of God’s characteristics: justice and love. Justice demands that there must be a penalty for sin, but instead of humans paying the price, God, embodied as Jesus, took the punishment himself as an act of love for us.

CV concerns the idea that Jesus’ death was not as any form of punishment at all, but was his triumph over evil and death. This was a view that was espoused by the Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén in the early 20th century, although he claimed that it represented the earliest views of the church.

Without going into any depth here, I subscribe the both/and compromise. Some christians will be fiercely PSA-only and some will ferociously defend the idea of CV without PSA. Using a very broad brush, my observation is that PSA-only tend to be more evangelical, while CV-only tend to be more anglican.

The above passage (particularly the first part bolded) is one of the clearest statements of PSA. There are others, including Isaiah 53 and 1 Corinthians 15:3. I was at a talk recently with someone for whom PSA played no part in their theology. It wasn’t that they were CV-only; rather, they were advocating what they referred to as nonviolent atonement (the speaker was from an anabaptist background). In this talk, when someone challenged him about this particular passage he could only respond that he thought Peter was wrong. In fact, that’s the only time I’ve actually heard anyone who didn’t incorporate PSA into their theology tackle this particular backup for it. Usually, it is combated by means of first caricaturing it (often as “cosmic child abuse” or something similar) and then dismissing the caricature using some form of moral argument. i.e. a straw man argument.

Yet we still have the above passage which seems to speak clearly of a substitutionary process: the righteous for the unrighteous.

2) The Harrowing of Hell

This is a question of what happened to Jesus between his crucifixion and resurrection on what is variously called Easter Saturday, Holy Saturday or Silent Saturday. I’m sure there must be other terms used for the same day.

Having grown up an an orthodox, but not traditionalist, evangelical baptist church, the idea that was taught (though not with much emphasis) was that Jesus went to hell. Then somehow (it’s a mystery, the how was never properly explained) he endured multiple eternities in a single day. Once that was over, he rose from the dead.

In later life, I encountered those who took to the idea of the harrowing of hell. Here, Jesus is somewhat more active in his day in hell, doing something akin to a jailbreak. Part of the idea behind it comes from supersessionism whereby Jesus’ death created the problem of “[what do you do with the faithful Jews before Jesus?]” The problem is resolved by the harrowing of hell, whereby Jesus converts dead, faithful Jews to christianity.

I know that’s a slight simplification and that various traditions have subtly different takes on it, but that’s it in a rough nutshell. Now, I take a fairly “high” view of scripture. Not as inerrant, but as the primary epistemological source for christianity. Because of this, I come with the question “how do we know this?” Or, “what’s the backup for the idea?” If you talk to someone from a conservative background, they tend to point primarily to creedal statements rather than scripture. In this case, I get pointed to the Apostles’ Creed which has as one of it’s clauses “He descended into hell”.

Peeling back the layers, the most commonly cited backup for this idea is from Ephesians 4:4-10:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’

(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

My reading of this passage has changed over the years. I no longer interpret this as a reference to Jesus’ death (descended) and resurrection (ascended) but rather I see it as a talking about incarnation (descended) and ascension into glory (ascended). It is this revised reading that has been one of the factors (amongst several) that leads me to holding to a position of annihilationism.

Another of the backups comes not the bible but from the later works that are sometimes referred to as the New Testament apocrypha. Specifically, the Gospel of Peter with it’s rather odd resurrection scene with the talking cross that comes out of the tomb and confirms that the dead have been preached to. With hindsight, I think it’s probable that this may have been inspired by 1 Peter, though when I’ve previously read the epistle (the one that seems to be genuine, rather than the more dubious gospel) I’ve rather glossed over this part of chapter 3, so I’ve only come to it after noting story of the talking cross.

Over the Easter weekend, when lots of people were talking on social media about the harrowing of hell, I tended to bite my tongue, though I did finally manage to pin down and articulate another objection to it. It is this: if Jesus was active in salvation on Easter Saturday, then it makes his declaration of “It is finished” a lie. Or at least wrong.

Yet we still have the above passage which seems to speak clearly of Jesus making a proclamation to the dead.

The Puzzle

All this so far has been background. I’ve not tried to argue my position in much detail, just to state it with some clarity. The aim is not to divide (as these topics so often can), the aim is to note the paradox laid out below.

What intrigues me is that these two subjects are closely linked, not only in proximity in 1 Peter, but also by what we might call theological string. The ideas are not disparate strands of theological thought, as one might suppose if considering, say, the doctrine of the fall with Thomas’ scepticism at Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, one might say all things are connected somehow. But the two topics mentioned above rather nuzzle up against one another.

Yet from my experience, those who are most likely to reject PSA are those from the traditions/expressions of christianity that are more likely to embrace the idea of the harrowing of hell. Likewise, those who are more inclined to be advocates of PSA-only are also more inclined to leave out the harrowing of hell from their theological language.

It seems that both camps may be guilty of cherry-picking. I’m sure there must be some christians who take an all inclusive approach and do incorporate PSA with the harrowing of hell; it’s just that in the circles I move in, such voices are absent. There may also be some who reject all aspects of PSA who also don’t teach of the harrowing of hell. Again, such voices seem to be on the fringe.

I may well have missed something significant here, making this whole post little more than a confession of my own ignorance. I’ve clearly got some more studying and thinking to do.

Book Review: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Regular readers of this curious and ever-changing little blog may recall a little while ago that I went on a tour of the bookshops of London. One of those I visited was Perspephone Books, an outlet of a single publishing label whose aim it is to republish wrongfully-forgotten works, predominantly by female writers of the 20th century. It’s a wonderful aim and rather charming too. This was the book that I picked up while I was there.

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote regular correspndences for the New Yorker magazine in the 1930s and 40s. This is a compilation of short stories that is bookended by a pair of letters. Through fiction, Panter-Downes gives us a portrait of life in Britain during the war.

She steers away from actual conflict, though. There is little sign of the Axis powers, of bombs, bullets or Messerschmitts. It is much more about life (mostly rural and suburban, but some urban life is included) and the inconveniences that the war has caused to the everyday happenings. There are shadows of war and the odd gas mask about, but this speaks to some of the British values of the mid 20th century that were being fought for: community spirit, a good cup of tea, some peace & quiet or a nice view.

The odd thing about this is that so very few of the stories were particularly memorable. That may sound like damning with faint praise, so please allow me to explain. When reading, the details varied from story to story, but what one gets consistently, though evolving as time goes on, is a feeling, a sense of what is going on in wartime Britain. The characters are almost too well done; they are fairly boring, down-the-street people who have no outstanding qualities, are not afforded the opportunity to show their depth of character and to whom the strangeness of life, as caused by the war, is not an overwhelming burden against which they must battle. Rather, they just get on with things as best they can, while there are some disruptions to the kind of life they have been used to living.

It would do well, though, to look a little closer at the story which lends his title to this particular collection. Mrs. Craven is assumed title; it is not her real name. It is assumed, for who else would Mr. Craven be meeting for dinner on a regular basis but his wife? It could be seen as a kind of Brief Encounter type affair. The twist is though that Mr. Craven gets called up for service, so his mistress has no means of knowing how he is doing while she also has added anxiety knowing that his life is in danger. The only way she can find out is if she phones his wife…