So many books, so little time.

– Frank Zappa

When I look on my bookshelf or on my Kindle, I discover many books that have given me pleasure or informed me over the years. The topics range from detective stories to stories of poverty, science fiction to novels, from classics to new style books, self-help or philosophy, all of which have their importance. I noticed that when I was working and spent a lot of time driving, the best way to read books was to have them on audible, and I went through quite a number of those too. The problem with electronically stored books is that it isn’t so easy to go over them with a finger and go to a marked page, but the advantage is that they don’t take up space and they don’t gather dust.

What I do discover is that with Kindle, I tend to buy more than I am able to read, and when I then go through the list, I am shamed into realising that they are still awaiting my attention. At least there is the “sample” option with Kindle that allows me to read into a book before buying the whole book. Physical books on the bookshelf seem to get more attention, and there are hardly any books on my shelf that I haven’t read. There are, however, many that I would like to go back to. I did have a habit of buying old books when in England, where second-hand bookshops are all over the country. Unfortunately, some of them have attracted the damp rather quickly and formed mildew, which was the end of them.

I also have the advantage of being able to buy books in German, which are as equally satisfying as books in English. I have enjoyed several authors in German, not least Heinrich Böll, one of Germany’s foremost post-World War II writers, who was labelled by some ‘Gewissen der Nation’ (conscience of the nation). However, there are numerous German speaking authors that I prefer to read in the original, not least Heinrich Heine and Hermann Hesse. Siddharta was a clear favourite if only for the style of writing that had a strange tendency to drive the reader on through the story and come to a realisation of the truth that the main figure has grasped.

But, as Alan Watts is said to have said, “Just as money is not real consumable wealth, books are not life!” You don’t need to look far for signs of that, and a good sign of a bookworm is someone sitting on a bench on a wonderful day with their eyes glued to a book. That seems to me to be epitome of a book lover, and it seems to illustrate a problem that we have. Books should point to life, enrich it and enhance it, not just be time killers, filling in the boredom. There are many books on the market that seem to have a similar plot, just different characters, albeit similar types. They are written in a style that drives the story on, getting the reader in a fever, hurrying to reach the end. These books are not the books that leave a lasting memory.

I remember reading Lord of the Rings and aching to move on as Tolkien described in meticulous detail the landscape through which the heroes were moving, but it was important to him that we take in the fullness of life. This became very important when Peter Jackson was planning to film the books. He chose his homeland, New Zealand, for the closest possible equivalence to the books, and I think the films did credit to the books in that regard. However, there were the purists that were unhappy about the films, because they were not “exactly” like the books. That is another example where the word should give way to the spirit of the story.

The use of language is limited, which is why expression of human experience is manifold, and artforms of all kinds exist and expressive methods such as music, folklore and fable aren’t surprising. In fact, there are studies that indicate that these methods of expression have flowed into each other since the beginning of civilization. The sources that stem from so long ago have grown organically, encompassing the experience of human beings, and living as narratives. Yes, these stories live, and cannot be dissected, but have to be experienced to affect us. If we can’t go along with a story, it’s dead to us.

We need stories and have done since awareness emerged in individuals long ago, often depending on their surroundings allowing them to step aside, and their ability to be receptive to the ideas that formed in their minds. Of course, the world was a different experience then, the dangers were ever present, and yet there were people who looked up at the sky and were full of awe. It all began with a very modest understanding in an individual, and as soon as such perceptions were made know to a group, stories were told around campfires, which over time became ever more complex and sophisticated. But it always relied on single persons delving into a growing field of knowledge, and equally the reaction of individuals receiving this insight. If such insights had remained a secluded perception, mankind wouldn’t have progressed, and we wouldn’t have the stories we have today.

Therefore, books are important, as long as they don’t take us away from what life is showing us in the world. And yes, there seems to be little time for so many worthwhile books, so I think I’ll just pick up the next book in the pile. Happy reading!

An Encounter

I looked out at the people gathering in the corner of the temple, some of them helping the less fortunate along, and decided to look for myself. It was crowd of about thirty to forty people around a young man who was sat with two others, and they were talking loud enough for the crowd to hear. The people looking on were mostly young adults, but there were a few older people mixed in the group, and they formed a wall against the bustling of the temple, shielding the speakers and enabling the audience to hear what they were saying. Those on the outside, like myself, were straining to hear the conversation taking place, so I tried to get closer without pushing people away.

Suddenly the conversation was over and the young man in the middle stood up and went over to a man who was clearly lame and led on a makeshift bed. The crowd followed him, and this change of direction pushed me back out to the exterior. I asked, “What is going on?” and a young woman said, “He’s healing!” I tried to improve my view of the situation but once again, the crowd moved and I saw the head of the young speaker who was walking away with his companions, followed by the crowd. Some, like myself remained to see what had happened, and found the bed empty. “Where’s he gone?” I asked, “What happened?” An elderly man said with an expression of joy in his face, “He’s healed him, and they are now going to the priests to have it confirmed.”

I remained in that corner watching the group crossing the temple grounds and asked someone standing next to me, “Who is he?” The man looked at me and shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know, I heard he speaks like a foreigner.”

“But he must be a Jew, otherwise he has nothing to do here.”

“Ah, but he is, and there are lots of people from outside Jerusalem in the city at present. Besides, here in the outer grounds is the place for foreigners, it’s just that they have mostly been Roman guards.” That was true, they had been watching people come and go at the gates, looking out for suspicious people, although it was mostly the loud young men that were detained, which meant that people were becoming very quiet as they passed through the gates.

As the group crossed the courtyard, they began chanting something and the Jewish temple guards moved in to quieten them down. I looked towards the gate where most of the Roman guards stood, and they had started moving into the grounds with their attention focused on the group. A group of scribes, recognisable by their clothing, started hurrying across the square flaying with their arms, obviously also concerned about the commotion the group was causing, and the interest of the occupying troops. The group became quiet, and a single voice could be heard speaking, although I didn’t understand the words.

Unexpectedly, the group dispersed, and I couldn’t distinguish the young man who had attracted so much attention. Three men remained who made their way to the priests, but the speaker wasn’t among them. I hurried to catch up and asked one of the older people who had been in the crowd, “Where did he go?”

“I’m not sure, there was a tumult in the group and the guards wanted to take him to the priests, but he was gone.”

“What did he say?”

“I didn’t catch much of it, but he was talking about the Kingdom returning when we change our behaviour. He’s a prophet I suppose.”

“Prophet?” I asked, “Probably a troublemaker, like so many that have caused the Romans to increase their presence in the Holy City.”

“He spoke of signs that he was doing, healing people, opening their eyes … that kind of stuff” said the man, who then walked off.

I was left amidst the normal bustling of the temple, which had returned to its normal self, and although I walked around for a while, looking out for the young man, in the end I couldn’t be sure that I would recognise him anyway. I walked out of the temple, through the gates where we were scrutinised as we passed, and looked out at the valley, and the surrounding country that I could see faintly from on top of the hill.

A man’s voice said, “You’ve been looking for me?”

I turned around and it was the young man. “Yes, but how …”

“Let us walk for a while, where do you live?” he asked. I looked at his features and realised that I wouldn’t have found him, he looked just like anyone else in the city, except for an intense look from his eyes which caught me off guard. He gestured that he was waiting for an answer.

“Um, this way,” I said, and we started walking to the house where I was staying. It was quite a walk from the temple, and I was a little taken aback by the encounter and said little. He just walked next to me, saying nothing. “What were you speaking about, when the crowd was around you?” I finally asked.

He smiled and looked at me, “You couldn’t hear me? That sometimes happens, that is why I try to go into the corners. What is your hope in these troubled times?”

I was a bit irritated at his avoiding my question, “My hope?” I searched for words, and finally said, “that the Romans leave us alone, that we are able to go about our business as usual.”

“Aha,” he said, and carried on walking, saying nothing but just smiling at the people who came our way.

We walked halfway to the house and then I asked, “but, what were you talking about that had people so interested?”

“What do you think your hope depends upon?” he asked. “Do you think they will just go away on their own?”

I felt uncomfortable because I hadn’t been prepared for the conversation and it wasn’t going as I thought it would. “What do you mean? Do you think we have to force them out?”

“What do you think?” he asked bluntly.

I stopped and looked at him suspiciously, “you are not talking about …” I quietened my voice, “… an uprising?”

He turned away and laughed and motioned that we walk on. “Do you think that the sword will bring us anything but sorrow?” he asked, “do we have nothing else to offer?”

I quietened my voice so he could barely hear me above the noise on the street, “Do you mean the Liberator?”

He raised his eyebrows and walked on, leaving me frustrated at his reaction. “Who are you anyway?” I asked, stopping in the street. He stopped and turned, looking at me dispassionately, “come to the Jordan crossing tomorrow and I’ll tell you. You’ll find me,” he said. He then turned and walked off, the conversation was obviously over, and I stepped aside to let a cart pass and when I looked back at where he had stood, he was gone.

The Reluctant Christian

Adrian Plass is a tall man with a large face and thin eye slits behind spectacles. He is a Christian writer and speaker who has written mostly satirical and devotional books. Listening to him, one gets the feeling that Christians get on his nerves with their arrogance and the fact that they miss the point. In a time of crisis, he wrote a book to “get something off his chest,” as he says, and decided it would be best to make it humorous. When I read the result, “The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 ¾,” a several years ago, I laughed at his account of Anglican attitudes and parish life, but it made me very curious about what makes a man write so critically, albeit with a humorous streak.

The German Christians I knew were very enthusiastic about the book, probably because it was so exaggerated that they did not feel criticized – “it was clearly about someone else”. The German version was titled “Tagebuch eines Frommen Chaoten,” (Diary of a pious slob) which gave a clue to the content of the book. It is very English, and when I saw him on stage in a church in Germany years later, I too had to laugh, although I was slightly ahead of most of the audience waiting for the translation. I had the feeling that they were also waiting for what the majority did, and I also noticed how the translator “adapted” Plass’ statements to his pious audience.

I had to laugh, because he knew exactly what it was like to live in a congregation that self-consciously described itself as pious, but his interjections often weren’t translated, such as “doesn’t it make you sick?” It is true that the portrayal of congregational life he exaggerated in his talk was disgustingly sweet and pretended to be incredibly humble, while at the same time revealing a pride that completely contradicted self-presentation. He made fun of his audience, but no one seemed to mind – or not notice. He once made the comment that after the book came out, he thought he would be hounded in the streets, but it seemed to be received like a breath of fresh air. After all, it was about someone else.

Many church communities in Germany are different from those in Anglican Britain, but not so much that the book is about different people. Both German and British readers recognized characters in their own congregations or communities who would fit into the stories. Plass told us of people coming up to him and saying, “I’m not sure I should talk to you, I’ll become a character in your next book!” So it was obvious that there was some awareness that what he was portraying was indeed a pious truth. The German audience could also find people in its midst who behaved similarly.

Listening to Plass, and meeting him briefly when he was signing books, I had the feeling that he was indeed a needed reflection of what was going wrong in many parishes. He was putting his finger on some sore points, especially those that made communities repulsive to others. He was actually told by a “well-meaning” Christian, that the book shouldn’t be sold to non-Christians “for fear that they think that we are really like that!” Plass’ comment was, “talk about missing the point!”

At the bottom of it, Plass wants to point out what love is. The Christian message is about the love of God, and he tries to bring this over in his talks. Sometimes he resembles his characters in his books when he does so. However, he also points to the areas where power structures raise their ugly heads, where “well-meaning” means strict observance and underhanded punishments for not doing so. The blows that are dealt out often leave no bruises, but people are hurt, sometimes seriously, and Plass feels for these people, having suffered a breakdown himself after working as a residential child worker with disadvantaged children. A common problem in social work with a lot of idealism, seeing the state of families in which children are seen as a problem.

Having worked in a similar area, and for a church with high ideals, I can feel with him about how things often go wrong and out of control in church circles, and problems are brushed to one side. The ideals become bothersome when you have to make financial decisions, and principles can cause hypocrisy in people, when it matters. Employees often look up to management in such institutions, hoping for a different decision to what one might expect in industry, but when there appears to be no difference, a disillusionment strikes home. The “diaconal difference”, as it was idealistically called in Germany, was no different at all.

Adrian Plass isn’t a star and doesn’t want to be. He is making a living with a “ministry” of humour and thoughtfulness. He isn’t what everybody would call their “cup of tea”, but he is sincere. I think that that is as much as one can expect.

Are we the bad guys?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn1VxaMEjRU&t=3s

Looking back in history, we tend to simplify things and we have typified the villains, but history is written by the victors, and we tend to overlook the role our country, our mindset, or our group has played in the destruction of culture, nature, and generally people’s lives. The realisation of what harm we may have caused often causes a moment of confusion, of incredulity, or downright denial. Of course, the typification of villains by Hollywood goes a long way to help us keep our world order untouched, but the stories we tell often reveal the truth of the matter. Especially the typification of the hero, or of heroic deeds, reveal to us that we do identify with behaviour that, put in a different context, is seen as malevolent.

At a small gathering I was talking to a woman in her late fifties. She had been to an exhibition and was amazed at what she had seen there. Fantastic images and facts that were new to her, but suddenly she said something that made me look up. “I didn’t know that the sheer numbers of people on the planet is one of the causes for the destruction of natural resources,” she said. I must have had a puzzled look on my face, because she quickly moved on, but it made me think about the lack of awareness that we often have. How a basic fact that shouldn’t surprise anybody shakes our worldview and causes us to question what we took for granted. I wasn’t feeling well that morning, so I didn’t launch into a statement about how we, in the west, take so many things for granted, that people in other countries struggle to provide. How industry has polluted the countryside in many underdeveloped countries, how many people have died from poisoning by pesticides, producing fruit for us, how many people struggle to live on a pittance, whilst exporting goods that are sold for an exponentially higher price in the west.

The list goes on, and the price of globalisation is getting difficult to hide. The benefits seem obvious to us, sat in our comfortable homes, but we are missing out on the larger picture. In the news a brief headline appeared underneath the pictures, stating that mental health issues have become the chief reason for people prematurely giving up work. I know of four people in my small group of friends who have been diagnosed with depression. There are others who are obviously struggling, but who are tight-lipped about it. I think it is a dissonance that we experience, a dawning awareness that things are not as they seem. When reading Iain McGilchrist’s book, THE MASTER AND HIS EMISSARY, written in 2009, I found his last chapters difficult to read, focussing on the modern and post-modern worlds, showing us how a domination of our thinking by the left brain hemisphere, with the effects of this way of thinking is creating a crisis. On his website he writes that we:

“need to be aware of the sheer extent to which the left hemisphere is, in the most down-to-earth, empirically verifiable way, less reliable than the right: in matters of attention, perception, judgment, emotional understanding, and indeed intelligence as it is conventionally understood. And that means that we should be appropriately sceptical of the left hemisphere’s vision of a mechanistic world, an atomistic society, a world in which competition is more important than collaboration; a world in which nature is a heap of resource there for our exploitation, in which only humans count, and yet humans are only machines – not even very good ones, at that; a world curiously stripped of depth, colour and value. This is not the intelligent, if hard-nosed, view that its espousers comfort themselves by making it out to be; just a sterile fantasy, the product of a lack of imagination, that makes it easier for us to manipulate what we no longer understand. But it is a fantasy that displaces and renders inaccessible the vibrant, living, profoundly creative, world that it was our fortune to inherit – until we squandered our inheritance.” (https://channelmcgilchrist.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/The_Master_and_his_Emissary_by_McGilchrist.pdf)

It becomes easy to realise then, how we become the “bad guys”, and become a danger to the world at large – and a danger to ourselves. The rise in mental illness in the twentieth century, as well as the tens of millions of war victims, and maybe hundreds of millions who died after displacement, and the many people who died unable to cope with the burden of their war experiences, are a witness to this. Of course, we were pre-occupied by the boom that followed the war, the rise in childbirths, the culture shock and subsequent re-orientation that the rock-and-roll era brought, the threat of communism, and the cold war that gave Europe a reprise from open conflict. Of course, wars didn’t end then, they were just fought somewhere else, and our own victims were counted, but not those of the enemy. Only slowly did the question arise, whether what was going on was morally defensible.

Last year angry young people tried to make the older generations and their politicians aware that their future was being endangered by a climate crisis, which could be drastic. Some public figures either criticised them for being rude, laughed at them or just simply ignored them, others felt some sympathy, but the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow 2021 was disappointing anyway. Greta Thunberg has said she thinks it is now too late to make a difference. Who do you think these young people think are the bad guys? Our problem then, is that for all the talk of global solutions, our lack of collaboration, our exploitation and promotion of commercial competition is not concerned with the global situation, but with our own limited space. We are the bad guys.

Hello 2022!

If there is anything that New Year’s Eve is useful for, it is to see off the last year in an alcoholic haze. It is the only day in the year in which I drink too much and usually stumble down the hill back home, propped up by my loving wife. Fortunately, I am just stupid when I have had too many, not violent or unpleasant, just stupid. I am also very goal orientated; my goal being getting into my bed at home before the lights go out. This year was a little different in that my focus was considerably impaired and I saw double the amount of people on the street than Monika could see, and the few cars that came our way seemed to have four headlights.

Whatever! I reached home with Monika’s help and stumbled into the bathroom, managed to get myself undressed and eventually fall into bed without being too much of a problem for my wife. On waking after 6 hours, I drank a glass of water, then two coffees and tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t, and ended up sitting at my computer writing this. For someone who very rarely drinks enough to get drunk, I think I behave quite responsibly, and it is a way of releasing the feeling of anxiety that often accompanies me for once a year.

Now we’re back in the game in the new year, which isn’t going well for many people, even hours after starting. Many are infected with the virus, which doesn’t seem to be abating, but instead enjoying itself by spreading all over the world, even to the Maldives, which is as far off the grid as you can get, excluding the north and south pole of course. Of course, we have the conspiracy theorists who exchange facts for the wildest theories, comparing western countries to dictatorships, which they have no idea about, shouting on the streets that they are not allowed to express their opinion, whilst in real dictatorships, people are locked away to prevent the virus spreading.

The world is in a terrible state, with superpowers threatening each other again, and people who live in freedom desiring authoritarian leadership, presumably in order to pass their responsibility onto someone else. The climate is becoming unpredictable in many ways, by which I am not just referring to global warming. The storms, flooding, rising sea levels, fluctuating temperatures, and thawing ice sheets are just a mirror of our own misguided mentality, and may lead to doing away with us permanently. I am drunk once a year, but it seems that mankind is perpetually inebriated.