Five years of blogging

My first post on this blog was uploaded on 31 May 2005. I didn’t have much idea of where it was going to take me, but I think I’m one of those people for whom blogging is a natural medium and so, despite having all sorts of sympathy with those who keep it at arms length, or have abandoned it, I’m not going to stop. Rather the reverse, in fact – I have various plans for developing my blogging further, once I get fully well again.

In five years I have posted 3162 times here, of which more than a third were photos! I’ve also had thousands of comments – one of the most frustrating things recently has been the (hopefully temporary) loss of historical comments, when I was forced to shift from Haloscan to the new Blogger template. I still have the old comments on file, so if anyone comes across a straightforward way to import haloscan comments into Blogger, please let me know. I read and value every comment received.

A handful of highlights:
– Playing a very small role in the SPCK controversy, which led to me getting a mention in Private Eye
– Seeing some of my more autobiographical musings feed into an excellent book about ministry
– Having some of my Peak Oil posts published on Energy Bulletin

There are reams of advice on the internet about how to maximise your blog ratings and numbers, but whilst I did spend time on those a few years ago, I decided that wasn’t the direction that I wanted to take the blog in. This is my thinking space (my pensieve); as such, I have no wish to see it specialising in one area rather than another. That would feel like a form of gagging or self-censorship. It will continue to be a place where I think aloud about my ministry, where I make notes on the films and books and other culture I consume, where I continue to work out the implications of our ecological crisis, where I throw up the things that amuse and delight me. (The one exception to that was setting up my ‘daughter blog’, where my talks and sermons get posted; I’m still musing over whether that is the right thing to have done, but so far so good.) I believe that I have a small but dedicated readership, and that’s enough to keep me going.

In so far as things may change in the future, I am hopeful that I will have the time to write more substantially on theological and philosophical questions, especially book reviews, and possibly film reviews too (in other words, more reviews like this one). I hope to begin that quite soon – I have a particular debt needing paying on that score.

Thank you for reading.

My England squad

Of course I’d take Joe Cole – I’d put him in the starting 11 – but I don’t think Capello likes him. Bonkers. Anyhow:

GK: James, Hart, Green
DF: Terry, Ferdinand, Cole, Johnson, Carragher, King, Baines, Dawson
MF: Lampard, Gerrard, Barry (/Huddlestone), Parker, Lennon, Cole, Milner, Walcott
ST: Rooney, Crouch, Defoe, Bent

And I’d play as a starting 11: Green/Johnson, Terry, Ferdinand, Cole/ Barry, Lampard/ Lennon, Gerrard, Cole/ Rooney (ie both Rooney and Gerrard in the roles that they play for their clubs).

If Capello sticks with Rooney as a support striker, England to exit at the QF. If he lets Gerrard and Rooney play in their best positions, with fast wingers, then we might make the final… (but we’d lose to either Brazil or Spain).

Dennis Hopper, RIP

In memory of Dennis, one of my all-time favourite movie scenes, which I still find astonishing on the zillionth re-watch – it is absolutely pitch-perfect in every way.
Warning: contains strong language and violence.

You can’t always get what you want

I have to say I’ve been rather impressed with our shiny new Con-Dem Nation. It seems to be an example of grown-up politics, of rolling up sleeves and hammering out an agreement with which neither side is totally happy but with which (hopefully) both sides can live for the next five years. In other words, it seems that both sides have got their priorities in proper proportion – which brings me to what I want to say this week.

Last time out I talked about Phineas Gage, the man with the hole in his head who lost all capacity for judgement, and I promised to say a little bit more about how this fits in to a Christian world view. Everyone has a hierarchy of values, it’s impossible to be human and not have a sense of some things being more important that others. As Mr Zimmerman once sang “You’ve gotta serve somebody.”

Where people articulate and express their values then we can talk about what they worship, which is simply how we orient ourselves to what we see as most valuable. For the faithful, God is the single most important thing in life. Moreover, we also believe that if God is at the centre then everything else falls into its proper place – in other words, everything is given a proper place, neither overvalued nor undervalued.

So how do theologians describe the ways in which, from a Christian point of view, values can be distorted? Where the value system is severely distorted then theologians use the word idolatry to describe it. This is when one thing within the world becomes the most important thing in a person’s world and everything else has to shift around it. It might be an absolutely dedicated football fan who has to go to every match that their team plays. It might be getting obsessive about a television serial and insist on watching every episode no matter what else is happening. (Once you have grasped what this is you can see it in all sorts of surprising places).

Idolatry can be understood in parallel with addiction – eg a drug addict – where the wider richness of life gets drained out and all that the junkie can do is think about their next fix. They gear their life around getting the money to get their next high. That is a very good image of what idolatry is (it doesn’t have to be a physical addiction, it can be a mental addiction as well). An important truth about idols is that idols give what they promise. If an idol is worshipped, the idol will grant the worshippers’ requests. Heroin, to take that example, does give a tremendous high – it gives what it promises – but it takes away life in exchange. That is what an idol is. Mammon, for example, the god of money or wealth (an idol which Jesus talks about which is still very prevalent in our society) – if you worship mammon, if you structure your life around mammon, you will gain wealth. That is a spiritual, practical law, if you worship wealth, you will become wealthy. The kick is that you will lose your life in the process. Your life will be drained away. For what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?

For most people, however, it’s not as clear as this and in practice you have polytheism, many gods. It might be – “my family has this much importance, my work has this much importance, my friendships have this much importance, my pleasures in life, this has this much importance and there is nothing beyond them”. This is where most people actually live, navigating between different competing interests, muddling along, but there is nothing which integrates them. There is nothing which puts them all in their proper place and actually allows them to flourish fully, to be fully human. Another option is simply chaos. This is the position that Phineas Gage ended up in. He was driven by the momentary impulse; rather like the dogs in ‘Up’ whenever a squirrel is mentioned, the dogs just forgot what they’re doing and concentrate on the squirrel.

So at the core of a religious tradition like Christianity lies a commitment to valuing the world properly. This is why there is such an insistence upon truth, for it is the truth that makes us free. Learning a faith is all about getting things in proper proportion, learning to see the world as it truly is – as God has intended and created it. A different way of putting this is to say: only the holy can see truly, it is only the saints who can see the world clearly. In so far as our hearts are set on God then we see the truth. If we don’t have our hearts set on God and God alone then our vision of the world is more or less distorted. As Jesus put it: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Next time – a bit more on idolatry, and how understanding it illuminates our cultural predicament.

On good endings

Over the last few days, I’ve watched the endings of Ashes to Ashes, Lost, and also (by a quirk of fate) the ‘Journey’s End’ episode of Doctor Who (end of series 4), which is where my eldest son and I have got to. I think that all three TV episodes ended well. (In fact, I am now open to seeing the whole of Lost again at some point (in a few years time), when I was quite sceptical of it.) So the question of endings is on my mind; most especially, the question of good endings. What is the essence of a good ending?

I would say there are two elements that apply to any story, and then something that I look for personally to gain the most satisfaction from an ending.

The first and possibly most essential element of a story ending is that it is consistent with the characters. The actions taken – and the consequences of those actions – must flow from authentic behaviour and not be mere contrivances to advance the plot. Characters must be given their own integrity, otherwise the authorial voice is overwhelming and we are no longer in story territory, but in sermon territory.

The second element is that the plot should be coherent and intellectually satisfying on its own terms, that is, the ‘universe’ being explored should be consistent and have its own stable framework. (Where the framework is the same as our lived existence, you have realist fiction. Where the framework is altered is a specific way, you have what is called fantasy or science fiction.) Essential questions need to be answered!

Those two elements I think are essential for anything to qualify as ‘good’, ie to have a certain degree of quality. For me, personally, there is a third element that I look for which ‘knocks the ball out of the park’ when it is achieved successfully, and this is when the creation succeeds in showing that death is not terminal for meaning. What I mean by this is that there is a framework of value which is articulated through the story which is shown to be vindicated beyond the death of the lead character(s). Of course, this is a Christian perspective. It is perfectly possible to have a high quality story that is not ‘orthodox’ in this sense (Un Couer en Hiver is the best example I can think of).

Where the third element is in place, then an element of grace enters in to the story, and it makes letting go much easier – for the characters themselves, and also for those watching or reading. There IS such a thing as a good death.

Things I particularly enjoyed from those three TV episodes:
from Ashes
– the destroyed Quattro, and then Gene looking at a Mercedes brochure;
– the Railway Arms, and all that was symbolised by that (and by the parallel symbolism elsewhere);
– the realistically sad note about Molly.
from Dr Who
– the final resolution of the Rose character arc;
– everything about Donna (sort of tragic).
from Lost
– Juliet coming back in the way I predicted, and the ‘Go Dutch’ resolution for them;
– Locke forgiving Ben, and Ben staying outside;
– Jack’s redemption.

For me, the most effective treatment of these themes – and the best ending – isn’t found in television, or in novels, but in comics, specifically the Sandman sequence, which is all about the nature of a good story (and therefore, by definition, all about a good ending). My three criteria are all fulfilled in abundance here, but most of all, there is a richness of allusion and metaphor and incidental characterisation that makes the re-reading of the stories an immense pleasure.

In keeping with the nature of the medium – herewith one of the many endings in the Sandman sequence (you’ll have to read it to really understand it!)


Getting seriously fed up with being under the weather. Took this more than a fortnight ago, which was the last time I felt really well (feel like calling it ‘Rothko in blue’). Still, antibiotics are taking hold…

On agw as a big red herring

Byron asked: “Sam, do you agree that there is a significant body of hard-core deniers who are not open to evidence? I am not saying that every contrarian belongs to this group (nor that pathological behaviour is confined to contrarians), simply that there are powerful economic, ideological and social forces leading many to a place of epistemic closure on this matter. Would you agree?”

My simple answer is ‘yes’. Anthropogenic Global Warming (agw) as presented is a major challenge to the status quo, and so all those with interests in preserving the status quo will have a bias to resist the conclusions of agw. These can take many stripes; often, I would accept, there is a reactionary element involved, and there may even be some legacy influence from fossil-fuel providers funding propaganda.

However, it is also true – so it seems to me – that there are hard-core ‘affirmers’ who are equivalently immune to evidence, and that there are “powerful economic, ideological and social forces leading many to a place of epistemic closure” in favour of the agw hypothesis.

To my mind, agw is a plausible hypothesis with a significant amount of supporting evidence. It is less than certain; most of all, the dire predictions are much less than certain, and I tend to see bad theology in them.

Beyond this, I tend to see Liebig’s law as relevant. The dire predictions associated with the IPCC tend to assume, more or less business as usual, ongoing into through the twenty first century. This seems mindless to me. There is not a hope of business being anything like usual for the next fifteen years, let alone the next fifty or hundred. That is seen most explicitly for me in the assumptions employed re: fossil fuel use, but it applies to all the other limits to growth that we are hitting (and Byron has a useful list here). If we take Liebig’s law to apply to the world system as a whole (which I think is reasonable) then it seems highly likely to me that a very great number of the measures and results being sought by agw advocates will be imposed upon human society by reality. Our carbon dioxide emissions, and the whole impact of industrialisation upon the ecosphere, will substantially reduce from present levels. I see this as beyond any choice, whether that choice be made by individuals, nations or humanity as a whole. We in the industrial world are going to have to get used to using a great deal less energy, and soon (my wild-assed guess: 50% less energy in 15 years).

Which is why I see agw as a red herring. Although it makes for some dramatic pictures, the science behind agw is less certain than the science behind other ecological concerns (Peak Oil, deforestation, water scarcity etc), and the prognoses from agw are even less certain. Worse than this, they are alarmist and appeal to fear, and that has theological problems too. I simply do not see what is either achieved or achievable by the IPCC and its cohorts. Whereas something like Transition Towns (on the practical side) and the Dark Mountain project (on the human culture side) – these I find exciting, practical and inspiring.

Submitting to the material

I came back from a trip to the physiotherapist this morning – I have torn part of my achilles tendon on my left ankle – and the physio astutely enquired whether I had recently injured my right ankle. That occurred on January 6 this year, when I rather stupidly took the bike out in the snow and duly came off it, spraining my right ankle. It turns out that I have been compensating for a remaining weakness in the right ankle by using the left ankle more – and have now damaged that one. As the physio kindly pointed out to me, ‘this happens as we get older…’

I’m also currently recovering from a chest infection. In my usual way I resisted going to the doctor for as long as possible, but I find that I simply can’t get away with it any more. If I don’t get my maladies sorted out in a timely fashion, they now get worse, not better. No longer can I just amp up the willpower, adrenaline and caffeine, and power on through whatever is getting in the way. The body simply isn’t as resilient as it was, and I need to take more time and care in looking after it. ‘This happens as we get older…’


I was told recently that a phrase used in teaching art is ‘submitting to the material’. What this means is that in any medium certain things are possible, certain things are impossible. The materials that are being worked with dictate limits. What is possible for some blocks of marble are not possible for others; what is possible for an oil painting is not possible for a water-colour, and vice versa. For an artist to make any progress in their craft there is an essential humility that needs cultivating. It is no good having a wonderful vision for an artistic creation if the materials being employed are inadequate to the task. Actually, ‘inadequate’ is the wrong word – there is nothing wrong with the materials – ‘inappropriate’ is more precise. The inappropriateness lies in the judgement of the artist, in seeking to dictate to the material rather than cooperate with it. In a sense, what is needed in the artist is a spirit of service to the material, in order to enable the creation to emerge. Midwifery, not parenthood.


I’ve been pondering a similar lesson with regard to my ministry on Mersea, where I feel that I have been colliding with limits. I recently led an awayday for one of the PCCs here to talk about two things – how do we actually ‘speak truth in love’, and, how to discern the right way forward for differerent congregations, especially how they are to relate to each other. The most significant conclusion that I came away with was that I needed to abandon my vision for the congregations. I had seen the new congregation as being a bridge to the old one, which meant that the new service couldn’t get too complicated, and also meant that I had been pushing the more traditional service a little closer in spirit to the new. (Actually, I abandoned the latter some time ago – and that abandonment led to other developments – but there was probably still some remaining tension in the congregation.) Thing is, after more than five years, the people simply didn’t want to fit in with the vision – they were quite happy where they were, thank you very much – and my pushing the vision was simply amplifying friction. Letting go of it seems to be universally approved of.


I’ve been very struck by the nakedpastor’s posts on vision, especially this most recent one when he says “The greatest danger to the church is vision. Agenda. It is an idea for the church that certain people entertain that is the greatest danger to it. It is when different people have designs for the church, where they want it to be something other than what it is, that it destroys the fabric of the community. Even the most well-meaning people, believing that they want what’s best for the church, in actuality introduce what is worst for it.”


I have found letting go of the vision quite liberating, even though I don’t understand what is going on. My theology hasn’t changed – I still see the Eucharist as “’the richest and fullest expression of Christian faith” – but I’m realising that my view is largely irrelevant. What I want – even, what is most true – isn’t the most important factor here. I’m very fond of what Eugene Peterson teaches – work out what God is doing and then get out of the way – I just hadn’t applied it in this area fully (or, perhaps, I came here knowing it and then forgot). There is something kenotic in this, an emptying out, and also something very incarnational – a valuing of the local and specific. I am becoming more aware of the need to put my own desires to one side, ease off the willpower and drive, and take more care and time in simply maintaining the body. I need to learn to submit to the material.

Two statements agreed by the IPCC

“Here are two statements that are completely agreed on by the IPCC. It is crucial to be aware of these facts and of their implications.
1. A doubling of CO2, by itself, contributes only about 1C to greenhouse warming. All models project more warming, because, within models, there are positive feedbacks from water vapor and clouds, and these feedbacks are considered by the IPCC to be uncertain.
2. If one assumes all warming over the past century is due to anthropogenic greenhouse forcing, then the derived sensitivity of the climate to a doubling of CO2is less than 1C. The higher sensitivity of existing models is made consistent with observed warming by invoking unknown additional negative forcings from aerosols and solar variability as arbitrary adjustments.
Given the above, the notion that alarming warming is ‘settled science’ should be offensive to any sentient individual, though to be sure, the above is hardly emphasized by the IPCC.”
(Richard Lindzen, from here. H/T WattsUp)

My attitude to science

(repost – thought it was relevant)
This has come up in the comments again. I thought I’d put together a list of some of the things I’ve written about the scientific approach, rather than retyping the wheel.

Probably the best place to start is this post: The Holiness of Stuart Staniford, as I do see something holy in scientific endeavour (not really surprising as it has such deep theological roots) and I believe it would be a tragedy if scientific research were to be repudiated in our society.

My main problem with science as it is received and worshipped in our culture is that it is apathistic, in other words it is systematically blind to what we most value. If we are to defend what we most value, we must be prepared to topple science from its perch.

That perch is embedded in a particular story. My paraphrase of that story is written up as: the mythology of science.

My longest discussion of science can be found in my Let us be human sequence, and the transcript of the relevant lecture is here.

I think what I would most want to stress is that the great majority of my criticisms of the way science is revered and estimated in our culture are valid independently of any claim for the truth of Christian faith. Which is why sophisticated atheists agree with most of them 😉

“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered the problems of life remain completely untouched.” (Wittgenstein again)