Saturday, August 18, 2007


What a difference a year makes.

Today is Elijah’s first birthday. He is fast leaving the baby stage behind.

In four days time we will be leaving the house he was born in.

And Grandma and Grandad have taken Susannah and Noah away overnight in their motor-home.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I love shooting wildlife – with my camera.

Earlier this year, we holidayed in the North West of Scotland. We saw a lot of red deer, our largest native animal. We saw them in ones or twos on hillsides during the day; and in larger herds on lower ground, where the grazing was sweet, in the evenings. And I hoped to get some decent photos.

To be honest, I was disappointed with the images I came home with, including this one. But today, for whatever reason, I revisited this photo and cropped it, and I’m much happier with the resulting image (which is worth clicking on, to view larger).

Sometimes we try something, and have to say, that didn’t work out as we’d hoped. And that is good, because we learn from reflecting on what didn’t work out, as well as on what did.

But sometimes we try something and too quickly decide that it didn’t work out as we’d hoped. Which is why it is worth revisiting past experience, with the question: what was there all along that I failed to see at the time?

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Connect | Play

The other day I had two coffees with two friends, one in the afternoon the other in the evening.

My afternoon coffee companion raised the subject of Facebook. His view was that this self-named ‘social utility’ would, in the long run, actually work against social connections, being part of a trend that trapped people in a virtual world. He cited anecdotal evidence of a growing number of people who were self-confined to the safety of their own homes, sat in front of their computer, never having to go out and come across, for example, home-less people without access to the virtual world. And he cited first-hand observed evidence of three people he knew who worked in the same building as each other and communicated through the day on Facebook: get off your chair and walk over to each other!!!

The same subject came up with my evening coffee companion. He told me the story of how he ended up with a Facebook account. He had been asked to talk to a group of young adults on engaging in mission within their culture, and he talked about needing to go to the places where people gathered – which, in our world are both physical and virtual – and spend time getting to know them, to understand how they viewed the world, engaging with them. And he cited MySpace as an example.
At the end of his talk, they informed him that they had all moved on from MySpace to Facebook. So he went home and signed up.

Both my friends made valid points. And both made points that are mitigated by other factors we might take into account.

Here are two reasons why Facebook might be A Good Thing: multiple connection, and play.

Another friend of mine has been doing some serious thinking on the subject of friendship recently – how we make friends, and invest in friendships. And one of the things sociologists identify that strengthens our relationships is multiple places of contact. In a ‘traditional’ community, neighbours not only live/d alongside each other, they worked alongside each other, shopped alongside each other, worshipped alongside each other, their children were educated alongside each other…In a transient community, the multiple nature of connections are broken down – and the quality of our relationships suffers as a result.

(I am a transient: my family is about to move to another city for two years, while I am at theological college; we will then move again, to my curacy; and then again…)

This is why teenagers who see each other all day at school (though largely in classrooms where social contact is tightly channelled) get on the phone to each other the moment they get home – having txtd each other on the journey. It might drive their parents insane, but they instinctively recognise that the more the expressions of or contexts for contact, the greater the reinforcement of the relationship. The mobile phone and the Net do not replace physical contact in physical settings; but reinforce – and, indeed, mediate – such contact. And for some of the talk to be serious – the eternal Big Questions of life – there is need for a lot of mindless chatter, or fun. If we represent serious talk by oxygen carried in the bloodstream, fun is both the arteries along which it passes and the red blood cells that carry it along.

Fun is a means of building the trust accounts that allow us to talk about serious things; and a convention that allows us to talk about things that expose ourselves, making us vulnerable, by allowing us to be slightly less vulnerable. And Facebook was created for teenagers – even if ‘us oldies’ are gate-crashing the party…Sending your friend a virtual fish for their virtual fish tank might not change the world in a big way. But who knows what it might lead to?

And frankly, those of us who grew up evangelical could all do with a little more fun in our lives. Andrew – lighten up a little, why don’t you?

If you want to look me up on Facebook, I’m listed as Andrew C. Dowsett.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Atheism, And Everything After

I am reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and, alongside it, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, by Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath.

I have a problem with Dawkins’ book. My problem is, it is presented in such a way that no-one can question it. If a theist questions it, their points are ‘self-evidently’ invalid, on account of their being a theist. If an atheist questions it, their points are less self-evidently invalid, and so it is just as well that Dawkins is at hand in the preface to the paperback edition to point out the error of their ways. If a theist who informs us that he used to be an atheist (such as Alister McGrath) questions it, then “That is one of the oldest tricks in the book, much favoured by religious apologists from C.S. Lewis to the present day. It serves to establish some sort of street cred up front, and it is amazing how often it works. Look out for it.” [p.13].

Dawkins is unquestionably to be respected as a serious scholar, but this is not the scholarly-but-accessible piece of work that its endorsers claim. Which is a shame, because there is substantive circumstantial evidence to suggest that atheism has intellectual integrity as a worldview, and I would suggest that atheist and theist alike would benefit from a scholarly-but-accessible atheist apologetic.

For what they are worth, here are some of my initial thoughts:

I suspect that one of the reasons why atheists tend to be less vocal about their atheism than ‘faith heads’ (Dawkins’ term) are about their faith is that ‘atheist’ is a negative description – a statement of what we do not believe – and who defines themselves in negative, rather than positive, terms? The current President of the United States of America is not a not-a-Democrat; he is a Republican. When presented with an ethnic monitoring form, I am expected to mark the box saying that I am white (though in truth I have never seen a white man in my life – and I grew up in Scotland, where you would find one if one was to be found), not a box indicating that I am not black (never seen a black man, either). Defining myself in terms of what I am not generally goes without saying.
Is ‘humanist’ the ‘positive’ alternative to the ‘negative’ label atheist?

I suspect that, while there are ‘pure’ polytheists, monotheists, agnostics, and atheists living in the UK today, there is a sizeable percentage of the population who hold a poly-mono-a-theist-agnostic worldview in paradoxical tension; with any given dimension taking front-of-stage at any given time or circumstance. And while such a view is likely to be highly unsatisfactory to both Dawkins and McGrath, it only lacks intellectual integrity if we consider paradox itself to do so. (Which leaves the light-is-both-a-particle-and-a-wave hypothesis in a spot of bother…)


Cutting A Long Story Short

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was a postgraduate in a Department of Biblical Studies. Each week, we had to attend a staff-postgraduate seminar, at which we would listen to someone present a paper, followed by a question-and-answer session, before heading off for lunch in the pub.

On one occasion, a professor gave a paper on the story of Samson (which sprawls over four chapters, Judges 13-16), in which she proposed a particular reading: that this was a story written by men for men, ostensibly as a warning not to allow oneself to show any vulnerability to women, who are inherently not to be trusted; but that the account betrayed that thing which all men fear, castration (Samson’s cut ‘hair’ subconsciously representing cut testicles).

The paper presented, and questions invited, I raised my hand. I had a problem with this particular reading. The problem was, it was presented in such a way that I could not question it. If I dismissed it out of hand, that was ‘evidence’ of my fear of castration. If I wanted to call into question any part of her methodology, it would simply be a ‘disingenuous attempt’ at hiding my fear of castration. If I claimed not to harbour a fear of castration, in that my sense of identity was not primarily located in my ability to father children (massive disappointment though that would have been), that would have been ‘denial’ on my part of my fear of castration. If a female colleague called the reading into question, then she was ‘a fool’ for allowing us men to get off the hook (do they use hooks?)…in short, whatever the paper was, it was not a scholarly paper; because such work must, by definition, be open to questioning. The only thing that had been castrated, I concluded, was the academic process itself.

All eyes in the room were on me: who did this impudent boy think he was, to suggest that the Empress wasn’t wearing any clothes?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Lord Of The Harvest | Crown Of Thorns

In the past I have posted series of images for Advent and Lent, and today I found some that look forward to the harvest festival.

We were walking through the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. There is a path that runs right down the hill, along the edge of a wheat field. The sight brought to my mind this story from John’s Gospel:

Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find [Jesus] talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.”

Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.
They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”
(John 4:27-42)

And then I happened to come across a twist of barbed wire around a fence post. It looked just like a crown of thorns. Against the backdrop of the field waiting to be harvested, it made a particularly striking image.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Green Light

I heard this morning that I have been recommended for training in preparation for ordination.

This is the decision we have been waiting for – and the outcome we have been hoping for while we waited.

Waiting can be hard, especially when you are led to expect a wait of a certain time, and then find that time stretched out longer. But God has been working, while we have been waiting.

For example: yesterday we drove down to Nottingham, where I will be studying at St John’s College. It is a one-hour journey, down the motorway. But following a serious accident, the M1 was closed, and we were forced off into gridlock along alternative routes. The journey took 3 hours and 40 minutes. In a metal and glass box on a hot day.

We’d gone to look at a couple of houses belonging to former students for whom the college acts as a letting agent, and had arranged to meet someone there at 10:30 am. We were very late. And just before we arrived, a former student had come in to college. He had a property to let, one not administered by the college, and was wondering whether they had any new students in need of a house? It is close to the college; and close to the school our children had already been offered places at. It is a great house, in the perfect location.

And if we had arrived when we expected to arrive, we would not have seen the house.

God redeems even the journey from hell.

Next comes more paperwork than I care to think about, at least until after the weekend. Practical details. Thank God for my wife! But right now, the details can wait. We have God’s goodness to enjoy. And celebrate with our friends.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Listening To...

The Cinematic Orchestra’s latest album, Ma Fleur (Ben’s recommendation).

It’s very different to the kind of music I listen to most often. Far fewer words. More piano, less guitar. Electronica. Ambient.

Music that evokes images through music, rather than telling a story through lyrics. That allows the listener to be some kind of co-creator; not just appreciate, or not, the work itself as a completed thing.

I’ve been letting it roll around in my head. Playing it in album order – not on shuffle, mixed up with other things. Giving it time.

I’m enjoying it.

Though I haven’t listened to their earlier albums yet, I like the idea of musicians writing a new score for a pre-existing film.

It seems to me to be a bit like the communal interpretation of the Bible. There’s this pre-existing work, but it comes to us with the invitation to create a new soundtrack; to allow the work to live and speak to a new generation. Not any soundtrack will do: many conceivable soundtracks would be totally out of sync with the images, unsympathetic, jarring. But, on the other hand, more than one sympathetic soundtrack could be imagined. And, indeed, a skilful soundtrack will leave room for further sympathetic interpretation. Because a window needs a frame, but is more about the glass; needs a carpenter, and a glazier, but exists to be looked through.


Warm | Cold

Our local high street is so aligned that throughout the day one side is predominantly in the sun, and the other in the shade. And so, because we live in a cool climate, most people by choice walk along the sunny side of the street; only crossing to the noticeably colder side when they have to (and in a hot climate, people will choose to walk along the shady side).

The kinds of shop found on each side of the road reflect this.

On the warm side we find the gift shops and the cafés – businesses that rely on an inviting atmosphere.

On the cold side we find the supermarket, and the takeaways – businesses that rely on the fact that people have to go to them to get what they supply (out of either necessity or convenience).

Gifts shops invite us to give gifts.
That might sound like stating the obvious, but this is a profound invitation, to choose tokens of thanks or appreciation or love; to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries or occasions, or, life.
Gift shops are, themselves, an extravagant gift.

Cafés invite us to make relational time in our day. To press the pause button, and savour the moment, savour company.
The smell of fresh coffee.
The taste of almond croissant.
The tickle of a flake of pastry from your pain au chocolat, left behind on your lip.*
The muted sound of conversations going on around you.
The sight of the world going by as you sit passing time; perhaps another friend to acknowledge with a wave.

Supermarkets dominate provision of a perceived ‘universal need.’
Though there is a growing disquiet over the monopoly that the big chains exert, the ethics involved…a growing rejection, a growing (re)turning to local alternatives.

Takeaways perform a service – in this case, preparing food, and indeed washing up the cooking utensils – on our behalf, so that we don’t have to do it ourselves.

Once upon a time, churches could afford to ‘locate themselves’ on the cold side of the street. Funeral on Friday, wedding on Saturday, 10:30 on Sunday. Today, we need to ‘relocate’ to the warm side.**

*I’m not advocating having two pastries on one visit!
**As it happens, both the local Anglican and the local Methodist church buildings are on the sunny side of the street, in a literal sense. Which is not insignificant, though my point is not primarily literal, and could perhaps be better made use of?

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