Books of 2017: Titles of interest to theology lovers and Bible students

I read all of these from cover to cover.

Only kidding! The themes for 2017’s theological reading seem to have been justification (and my discovery of a long-standing debate between John Piper and Tom Wright), hope and the kingdom of heaven, and prophecy. So here are a few short reviews of:

  • Justification
  • Why the Reformation Still Matters
  • New Testament for Everyone commentaries
  • Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
  • Whole Life Worship
  • Surprised by Hope

(Actually, they’re not short. This post is about 3,500 words. Whoops.)

Continue reading Books of 2017: Titles of interest to theology lovers and Bible students

Always reforming: 95 statements on hope, sexuality and consent

It is 500 years to the day (well, sort of, if we don’t worry about the shift to the Gregorian calendar) since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses onto the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, on 31 October 1517. His actions kicked off the reformation – a movement during which the protestant denominations split away from the Roman Catholic church.

Coming from a protestant background, this seems a fitting time for me to write 95 short statements on the themes of this blog. Of course, they don’t cover everything! But you’ll find in them thoughts and theologies that either have been, or will be, very much an integral part of my writing. (And when I’m cribbing someone else’s work, I’ve put their name in brackets.) I’ve split them into ten categories:

  • personhood
  • abuse
  • God
  • sex
  • consent
  • Christian witness
  • the Bible
  • hope
  • purity
  • and me.

Continue reading Always reforming: 95 statements on hope, sexuality and consent

A brain-dump about purity: this time, I think I really might change the world

When I was a plucky secondary school pupil, I had an idea for a perpetual motion machine. I was beyond excited. I was going to solve the world’s energy problems. I was prepared to accept that maybe there was a glitch in my design that I hadn’t realised, so I prayed earnestly that if I was wrong then God will tell me that very same day.

That afternoon my older brother told me it wouldn’t work.

I didn’t believe him to begin with, but gradually reality sank in as he explained. As Scotty would say, “Ya canna change the laws of physics!” Unknowingly, I had been trying to break the first rule of thermodynamics – that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

Thing is, right now, I feel like a child again. I feel like I can change the world. Or maybe it’s not that I can but that I will – by the grace of God, in the wisdom of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the fellowship of the church – change the world.

Is that me or is that not me? I don’t care! The world is going to change – and that’s what really excites me.

So, what’s this big world-changing idea?

I’ve tried to blog about it before and I’m hoping I’ll blog about it in various forms over the coming months (years?): it’s all about purity. Continue reading A brain-dump about purity: this time, I think I really might change the world

Rethinking virginity: yes, it is about purity, but it’s not like a silk scarf

OK, first up: caveats.

That tweet was in April. It’s now July. What I’m about to write is a mixture of theological thoughts I’ve been mulling on in the interim and talking over my husband – because he’s a fabulous deep-thinker who sometimes sees things I don’t.

When I’ve been talking to him about my ideas about virginity he’s said to me,

“OK but… this idea is like the fur of a cat. You can stroke it one way and it’s fine, but if you stroke it the wrong way, you get the cat’s back up. It’s still the same fur, but it doesn’t work. You’ve got to be careful with this.”

So, I could be on the wrong track, but even if I’m on the right track, you’ve got to look at my direction of travel here. Also, even if I’m on the right track and going in the right direction, this is a curiously complex issue. Again, it’s like cat’s fur: you can stroke a cat anywhere, but you can’t stroke a cat everywhere on its surface at the same time. (This is also called the ‘hairy ball theorem’.) In a similar way, what I’m about to say may not the have logical consistency the way we might expect at first.

But I think there’s something big here.
Continue reading Rethinking virginity: yes, it is about purity, but it’s not like a silk scarf

My greatest regrets are when I was trying to be someone I’m not

That moment when I hit “post”, “tweet” or “publish” – I never know what the response will be.

Some of my most laborious works have been put out there with only the most meagre amounts of attention paid to them. Other times, what seemed like a passing thought has been whipped up and shared widely. Well – much more widely than my average.

Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve felt a tension between writing what I want to write and what I think people want to consume. Of course, there has to be a balance between these two. The frustration comes when I’ve written something I think people would enjoy but then don’t read. But that feeling of frustration isn’t the problem. It comes, it goes. Something didn’t work. I shrug. I move on.

The problem is the feeling of fear: You’re doing it wrong.

You’re doing it wrong.

You’re doing it wrong. Continue reading My greatest regrets are when I was trying to be someone I’m not

An open letter to JK Rowling: nine things I can’t thank you enough for

Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone book with cinema 3D glasses

Dear Joanne,

I can barely believe it’s been 20 years since the first Harry Potter book came out. I was far from your earliest fan, and won’t presume to count myself as your biggest, but I am full of admiration both for your books and for you as a person. I have so many things to thank you for – here are some of them.

Continue reading An open letter to JK Rowling: nine things I can’t thank you enough for

Beast and Christian Grey: monsters or lovers? (Part 5: Hope and love)

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson dancing with lyrics from 'Evermore'

My greatest criticisms of both Fifty Shades and the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast come down to how they frame hope.

In Fifty Shades, Christian’s hope is vested in Ana, and the fear of losing her drives him to control her. In the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, Beast fares a bit better; he vests his hope in Belle’s intangible presence, which means he’s less controlling. But in the 1991 version we see something fundamentally different: Belle is Beast’s symbol of hope. When Beast surrenders to uncertainty he dies inwardly, only to be reborn into a new hope when Belle returns.

In these respects, I’d say Fifty Shades presents a hope that is Mormon, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast presents a hope that is Platonist, but the 1991 Beauty and the Beast presents a hope that is consistent with traditional Christianity.

Now you might say that’s over-analysing, but hey – I’m coming to the end of twenty-six blog posts that look into Beauty and the Beast in some form, so I think I’ve kind of already opened myself up to that accusation. I may as well keep going until I’ve said everything that I think is worth saying.

This is a long post, even by my standards (4,000 words), but if reading the above whets your appetite – keep going.

This is your spoiler warning. Continue reading Beast and Christian Grey: monsters or lovers? (Part 5: Hope and love)

Beast and Christian Grey: monsters or lovers? (Part 3: Guilt and shame)

Once this five part series is done, I’m planning on taking a long break from blogging about Fifty Shades and Beauty and the Beast. I’ve got to the point where I feel like I’m either stating the obvious or repeating myself. But hey, this five-part series might be more accessible for some people than the 18-part, and it does have some new thoughts, so – what the heck, I’ll see it through.

Being and doing

Who we are affects what we do. What we do affects who we are. In a sense, who we are is what we do.

But it’s so, so easy to say you are one thing and have your actions do something else. For this reason there are some stories that emphasise it’s not who you are, but what you do that matters.

Take Batman Begins for example. Billionaire Bruce Wayne is told by love interest Rachel Dawes that he can’t claim to be some nice noble guy underneath his wealth and extravagance; she says it’s what he does that really matters. Little does she know he is the caped crime-fighting vigilante, though she finds out later when he repeats her words back to her.

Batman saying: It's not who I am underneath, but what I do, that defines me.
It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do, that defines me.

But in fairness, the distinction between who we are and what we do, is a false one. Rachel Dawes draws a distinction because she wants to highlight the apparent shallowness of Bruce’s claim of being a nice guy really. Once she gets to know Bruce better, she realises that who he claims to be really is reflected in his actions.

This whole discussion about who we are and what we do is a really important one, because there are two big and weighty words out there that relate to our doing and our being: guilt and shame.

Welcome to part 3 of comparing Fifty Shades with both the animated and live action versions of Beauty and the Beast. CONTENT NOTE: I mention Christian’s sadism and his traumatic upbringing and quote one of the uglier lines from 50 Shades. Consider this your SPOILERS warning too; I will be talking about plot details of the live action Beauty and the Beast as well as some from Harry Potter. Continue reading Beast and Christian Grey: monsters or lovers? (Part 3: Guilt and shame)

Resurrection me: tasting future glory

Steps leading into light at Manorbier Castle, Cair Paravel, with poem about resurrection
“Resurrection me” by Christine Woolgar (click on the image for full size)

I don’t want to write a long commentary on this poem, but I will say that as I wrote it, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’ sermon The Weight of Glory (bold emphasis is mine):

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people.

It felt fitting to have the image of steps leading into light as the setting for this poem – the sense of journey and pending entry.  But there’s an added layer too: the picture is one I took in a stairwell at Manorbier Castle in Pembrokeshire, which was used in the 1988 BBC adaptation of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (and which I loved watching when I was growing up). This castle is Cair Paravel, where – in another life, perhaps not so far from our own – Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy were crowned kings and queens.

The full words of the poem are below. Continue reading Resurrection me: tasting future glory

Revelation 22 for beginners (with illustrations from Harry Potter)

Movie posters from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, with the caption "It all ends"

This is a study/sermon, aimed at Christians, to help make sense of Revelation 22, particularly verses 10 to 17. It has some Harry Potter plot spoilers. It might be helpful to read from Revelation 22:10 to the end of the chapter before reading this.

The Fantasy and Apocalyptic Genres

What are the Harry Potter books, written by J.K. Rowling, all about?

If you asked a child that question, they would probably say something like this:

Harry Potter is about a boy, who’s a wizard, and how he and his friends defeat a dark wizard called Lord Voldemort.”

If you asked someone who studied English literature they might say something like this instead:

Harry Potter is about the quest for virtue.”

(Actually, the C.S. Lewis scholar, Dr Alister McGrath, said words to that effect in April 2013.)

If you asked someone who was more historically and politically minded, they might say something else:

Harry Potter is J.K. Rowling’s way of saying that, even if there were such a thing as a master race, the Nazis were still wrong.”

(Actually, that should be credited to my husband.)

All three statements have something to be said for them.

One of the things I love about the fantasy genre of literature and films is the way that strong and stark images can be used to portray truths. They spark the imagination, working on multiple layers at a time; so long as you don’t read them too scientifically or factually, but instead read them in the context of their genre, and the traditions they are drawing from and elaborating on, then the unreality of the story allows you to unmask reality.

What has all this got to do with the book of Revelation? Well, if you want to get your head around the text, you need to understand the apocalyptic genre. Continue reading Revelation 22 for beginners (with illustrations from Harry Potter)

Music, perfection and play: shedding childhood shame

Sheet music of Harry Potter music The Room of Requirement on a piano
Sheet music from the film of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

Recently the BBC showed the film Shine. It portrays the true story of a pianist David Helfgott, including the emotionally abusive relationship his father had towards him, how he had a breakdown, and how later in his life he came to be able to take to the stage again.

I first saw this film not long after it was made in 1996; at that time I was a teenager. I was wrapped in piano lessons, music theory and even a placement at the Royal College of Music. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s one of the most prestigious classical music institutions in the UK. And it’s where David Helfgott studied. So yes, I was doing the whole studying classical music thing, because I was young and perceived as gifted. Plus I had enough people around me to claw for the money to make it happen.

I don’t think I understood the film when I saw it. But seeing it twenty years later has dredged up all kinds of emotions and thoughts.

Continue reading Music, perfection and play: shedding childhood shame

Is the One True Love biblical? On hope, choice and responsibility

I was recently asked if the idea of ‘the One’ was biblical and I decided to blog about it as I think it’s essentially a question about how romance relates to hope.

The very boring short answer is No, for the simple reason that many modern romance narratives (including the idea of ‘soul-mates’ and the ‘One True Love’) have literary origins which are much later than the Bible.

But that doesn’t answer much more interesting questions like whether God intends everyone to experience romantic affection or whether a Christian can expect to meet their ‘One’ miraculously.

So, I’ve put a few thoughts on the boring short question in an appendix, and have written a post that tries to address those questions instead. Also, because the original question asked about the Bible, I’ve framed most of my answers using examples from it.

So: is the idea of ‘the One’ consistent with the Bible?

I’m going to say more no than yes.

It’s not that God never does bring ‘the One’ into a Christian’s life (he does), but specifically expecting that God will do this makes too many assumptions about life and how God works. And it encourages too many unhelpful behaviours.

Continue reading Is the One True Love biblical? On hope, choice and responsibility