Killing four hours in Istanbul Airport isn't easy. The last time I was here, my connection (to Astana, Kazakhstan) had left here before we had even left London Heathrow. While waiting for a substitute flight with Air Astana we were given vouchers for a gourmet meal in Burger King. It wasn't funny.

This time I am doing some reading. Which brings me on to…

… two books I have read recently that have proved worth recommending.

Charlotte Methuen's Luther and Calvin: Religious Revolutionaries is a beautifully written introduction to the life, teaching and impact of two of the great European Reformers. Sometimes, when listening to English evangelicals talking about ' the Reformers' in awed tones, it might seem that these were paragons of orthodoxy, defenders of simple revealed truths about God and us. We quickly reduce them to simplistic-but-useful reinforcers of our own theological preferences. Sometimes it seems we award them the same authority as that claimed by the popes they opposed. Read the reality and a different picture emerges.

Of course, they were creatures of their time and they didn't know the end of their own story. But, their stories make it clear that their theology developed and changed, their theology was often driven by their politics, and their theology might well have developed even further if they had lived on (or in other times and contexts). We dig them into a framework that suits our own preferences and then quote them accordingly. It is always amusing to hear Hooker quoted by all sides in current Anglican debates…

Reality is always more ambiguous and more complex than our debating points would allow.

The full(er) picture is to be found in Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial Reformation, but Charlotte Methuen's concise book does the business. It is surely coincidental, but reading the book during the synodical debates on the Anglican Covenant and women bishops caused the ringing in my head of lots of bells.

The second book I finished on the plane from Manchester to Istanbul. I know of Mark Thomas only from the occasional telly programme and his very funny People's Manifesto. Extreme Rambling is a powerful, poignant and perceptive record of his walk along the length of the Barrier erected in Israel-Palestine. He walked it in three stages, meeting people along the way and asking lots of questions. It isn't an encouraging book unless you approve of Israel's treatment of Palestinians and think the illegal settlements are a really good idea. But, it is so well written – a personal narrative that takes you into the heart of some of the fundamental problems of this beautiful and tiny piece of land.

Having read up on the history and politics of Sudan, I am now on to William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise. Ideal for a plane journey.

[Written Saturday 12 January, posted Monday 14th. Boyd book finished…]

 

Every time I think of packing in my blog (which is frequently) I remind myself that I’m not writing a book. I think a blog only works if any post is seen as the first word and not the last word on any matter. It allows for thinking aloud – something most leaders are not encouraged to do as changing your mind, learning or growing up are seen as weaknesses rather than strengths.

Anyway, this blog runs the risk that I will write ‘first word’ stuff that gets quoted back later as if it were ‘last word’ conclusions. Quotable lines from one context get held up as heresy in another. I guess it’s just part of the game, but it’s also a massive pain.

This isn’t post-Easter misery on my part. I just started thinking about it on holiday while reading William Boyd‘s Any Human Heart. In the preamble Boyd’s main character explains why he kept a journal (which forms the text of the book). He writes:

We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being… a true journal presents us with the more riotous and disorganised reality… The true journal intime… doesn’t try to posit any order or hierarchy, doesn’t try to judge or analyse: I am all these different people – all these different people are me.

A blog is not a journal intime. But it should allow the writer the freedom to be honest, to listen to response and reaction, to venture an idea or analysis, to express a view or present an interest, to try out a perspective – perhaps then to reject it and move on. The problem is, of course, that the text stands there to be lifted and used in evidence against you. Yet, unless the blogger strives only to convey a single persona – a particular image – or create a selective persona, the whole person will always run the risk of being undermined by the partial representation of a particular instant or period. Oh well…

William Boyd’s character, Logan Mountstuart, seems pretty selfish and narcissistic so far (I have only read the first had of the book and I haven’t seen the film version). I guess I’d better reserve any further judgement until I get to the end.

The end of any book always shines new light on all that has gone before. A bit like resurrection at the end of a gospel…

 

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say that morality is straightforward?

While on holiday I was reading William Boyd’s excellent book Ordinary Thunderstorms on the beach. I picked it up simply because it was set in London and I had read somewhere that he has a bit of a cult following. You have to suspend your sense of reality a bit – especially at the basic plot of the narrative – but it is a fast-moving and entertaining read.

But, what struck me was the way we so easily adopt hierarchies of morality and don’t seem to spot the inconsistencies. of course, we spot the inconsistencies of everyone else, but not our own. (I seem to remember Jesus saying something about specks and motes somewhere…)

Without spoiling the plot, there is a character – an assassin called Jonjo – who commits all sorts of violence against selected targets and finds imaginative ways to inflict pain. Trying to track down his main target, he has to engage along the way with drug dealers, prostitutes and other casualties of civil society. He treads a path through the hidden underbelly of London life.

But, while on this pursuit of the man he wants to kill, he spits out his contempt for what has happened to his city. He thinks that this ‘low life’ should be eradicated from the face of the earth, bemoaning what has become of London society. He is happy to blackmail, torture and murder human beings for personal monetary gain… but then can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog – the only time he gets remotely sentimental.

Reading this reminded me of a session I did a couple of decades ago in an open prison in England. I had been asked to address a group of around 100 prisoners and then face questions. It all went well until I responded to a question about something or other (I can’t remember what) and in my answer I mentioned the fact that when my first two children were born, we hardly had to buy them any clothes because so many people handed on stuff to us. Given that we were broke anyway, this was both welcome and necessary.

One prisoner got up and berated me. How could I possibly call myself a Christian and not buy the best new clothes for my own babies? Somehow this was offensive to him and I had my priorities all wrong. Later I asked the chaplain who the offended prisoner was and was told he was a double murderer coming to the end of his sentence.

So, murder was OK, but clothing my kids in secondhand clothes wasn’t.

This theme is brilliantly brought out in the excellent American series The Wire. Apart from expanding my vocabulary by multiple forms of the F word, the hierarchies of morality are cleverly explored (or exposed?) in a totally engrossing narrative. We are about to start on Series 4 (of 5) – next year we will re-watch the entire seven series of The West Wing. One character in The Wire is Omar – he seems to specialise in frustrating drug gangs, torturing people and killing those against whom he holds some grudge or other. He resorts to violence like the rest of us drink coffee.

In one episode of Series 3 Omar takes his mum to church. On the way out they get shot at by rival gangsters. Omar is livid and seems genuinely affronted by this. Not, as you might have assumed, by being shot at. No. What really wound him up was that he got shot at on Sunday when there was supposed to be a truce on shooting each other.

This then reminded me of the problems Jesus had with the self-righteous religious legalists. He kept healing the wrong people on the wrong day. Read the Gospels and you’ll see what I mean. When he heals a woman after years of suffering and social ostracism, ‘God’s people’ don’t celebrate; they just moan that he did it on the Sabbath and why couldn’t he have waited a day or two and been less embarrassing? It’s a repeated ability to completely miss the point.

In this sense, we are all the same as human beings. We easily spot the inconsistencies in the moral behaviour of others – especially those with whom we disagree. It is much harder to be honest about our own convenient hierarchies of morality. Only once in my 23 years of ordained ministry have I been asked to withhold Communion from someone who was sexually ‘compromised’; not once did anyone ask me to withhold Communion from someone who fiddled their expenses or used money in morally dubious ways. Yet Jesus said far more about money and greed than he ever did about sex.