Thursday, 22 November 2018

Exercise your brain and improve your life!

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”1

Reading was one of the most common leisure pursuits of the twentieth century. Now increasingly it is being replaced by time spent on social media, TV and video games. Research from Sheffield Hallam University discovered that in 2017 British consumers spent £7.2 billion on music, video and computer games, compared with £7.1 billion on the printed word (books, newspapers and magazines). It is the first time print has been overtaken by other media.2 Yet reading has benefits and advantages over (or in addition to) other media, not least health benefits.

Aiding mental health

In November 2018 UK Health Minister Matt Hancock suggested that GPs sometimes should consider prescribing visits to the library and other cultural activities instead of pills. “It’s scientifically proven,” he said. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.”3

Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health found that people who read books regularly had a 20% lower risk of dying in the next 12 years compared with non-readers.4 Psychologists at Toronto University found that habitual readers had an increased sensitivity to other people.5 Others suggest that reading can slow brain degeneration by improving the connections between brain cells.

In a Radio 4 Front Row programme on reading and mental health, presenter Stig Abell said “I discovered that the best way of getting control of my mind was entrusting it to the mind of another” in novels from Jane Austen to PG Wodehouse. Commenting on the latter, he said “In his Arcadian visions, nothing is serious, everything is ordered. … His stories treat trivial problems as if they are serious, and so help to make serious problems seem trivial. I still turn to him, every day, to help keep my mind balanced.”6

Laura Freeman wrote The reading cure to describe how books helped her – slowly – emerge from serious anorexia. “Emptiness today and emptiness tomorrow. The only way to bear it was to measure the day in books.” A reviewer adds that “Books began to help her to think differently about food. The dairy scenes in Tess of the d’Urbervilles enabled her to drink proper milk again, Siegfried Sassoon encouraged her to have tea and boiled eggs, and she ate a mince pie in the company of Robert Graves. Mrs Cratchit held her hand through a morsel of Christmas pudding and, after reading A month in the Country, she tried a Yorkshire pudding and found it delicious.”7

Broadening the mind, prompting the spirit

However, reading “isn’t a hiding place. It’s a finding place” according to novelist Jeanette Winterson,8 who as a teenager had to watch her abusive mother burn her books. (The experience made her determined to write her own books.) For her, reading opened up new worlds and ideas that her restricted upbringing had shut out. “Every book was a message in a bottle,” she reflects. “The wider we read the freer we become”, and “the more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies.”9

The same was true for prolific Christian author and journalist Philip Yancey. He grew up in a church that “taught blatant racism, apocalyptic fear of communism, and ‘America first’ patriotism. Christian doctrine was dished out in a ‘believe and don’t ask questions’ style, laced with fervid emotionalism. For me, reading opened a chink of light that became a window to another world.” He found some books shattered his blinkered world view, and the “calmer voices” of Christian authors such as GK Chesterton and CS Lewis convinced him “that somewhere Christians lived who knew grace as well as law, love as well as judgment.”10

Reading fiction, non-fiction and poetry can broaden our mind, introduce fresh ideas, enlarge our views, increase our vocabulary, stimulate our imagination and sharpen our perspectives. Michael Heppell’s interviews with high achievers in his book The Edge found that almost all had large libraries, were reading at least two books at any one time, and subscribed to and read industry-specific publications.11 Reading is a win-win.

For author and Times columnist Caitlin Moran, “To read is to be in a constant act of creation”, far more so than passively absorbing a film in which the visualising has been done for us by the director. With a book, you join the action, create the setting and dialogue with the author. She is worth quoting in full:

“That old lady on the bus with her Orwell; the businessman on the Tube with Patricia Cornwell; the teenager roaring through Capote – they are not engaged in idle pleasure. Their heads are on fire. Their hearts are flooding. With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss – you are the mathematical calculations that plot the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin. You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head. These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone. And when your guts fail and your bones break, Narnia or Jamaica Inn or Gormenghast will still be there: as pin-sharp and bright as the day you first imagined them.”12

Narrative can capture mood and feeling, ambience and ethos, in a way that is often difficult for film directors. That is why dramatisations of books often focus on action and argument and miss out the original author’s nuances and observations. My all-time favourite piece of descriptive writing comes from Laurie Lee’s classic Cider with Rosie. Sample it; enjoy it; imagine it:

“Mother always ate standing up, tearing crusts off the loaf with her fingers, a hand-to-mouth feeding that expressed her vigilance, like that of a wireless-operator at sea. For most of Mother’s attention was fixed on the grate, whose fire must never go out. When it threatened to do so she became seized with hysteria, wailing and wringing her hands, pouring on oil and chopping up chairs in a frenzy to keep it alive. In fact it seldom went out completely, though it was very often ill. But Mother nursed it with skill, banking it up every night and blowing hard on the bars every morning. The state of our fire became as important to us as it must have been to a primitive tribe. When it sulked and sank we were filled with dismay; when it blazed all was well with the world; but if – God save us – it went out altogether, then we were clutched by primeval chills. Then it seemed that the very sun had died, the winter had come for ever, that the wolves of the wilderness were gathering near, and that there was no more hope to look for. . . .

            But tonight the firelight snapped and crackled, and Mother was in full control.”13

This is so much more than a stark report. It is so much more than a photograph in words that could translate as easily to a screen as to a page. Instead, it forces you to savour the imagery, the allusions as well as the raw facts. Like an exquisite meal or fine wine it is something to linger over, and absorb its nuances slowly, thoughtfully; to recall, or feel, that raw emotion of “being clutched by primeval chills”, of the sun dying and hope disappearing. It can make you feel thankful that it isn’t true for you at present and to spare a sympathetic thought for people for whom it is still true. And you may even feel the relief almost physically when told, “But tonight the firelight snapped and crackled” and the story – the action – continues.

Although Cider with Rosie reads like a novel, it is in fact biographical, written by a poet with the gift of reflecting deeply on the everyday incidents he experienced as a child in a Cotswold village in the early twentieth century. Reading can help us not just to glean ideas or facts, but reflect on them and their implications. In so doing, we begin to reflect on our own life and the world around us.

Provoking reflection

Good Christian writing can also provoke reflection rather than merely describe plain theology. Sample this deeply reflective passage from Lewis Smede’s Love within limits:

Love is a power that moves us to be kind. What are we to understand by kindness? Kindness is the will to save; it is God’s awesome power channelled into gentle healing. Kindness is love acting on persons. Such kindness may be soft; it is not weak; tender but not feeble; sensitive, but not fragile.”14

If you heard that in a sermon, you would latch on to maybe one phrase, and as your mind hovered over it you would miss the rest. But read it in a book and you can pause on each phrase, stay with it for as long as you like, let it roll around your mind, inform your attitudes and, perish the thought, challenge your actions.

Former US megachurch pastor John Mark Comer (who resigned from his multi-congregation church with a leadership team of 93 in order to lead a single church) is critical of the superficial understanding and debating that often takes place over big theological and moral issues in churches. “When people stop reading seriously and thinking carefully, it’s a breeding ground for bad theology,” he told an interviewer.

“Millennials are still reading a lot online, but there are some things you just can’t do in a 1,000-word blog post,” he claimed. On controversial issues, when people are asked how they reached their conclusions, “they rarely say, ‘I’ve read these ten books and this is my take on this Greek word, and I’ve exegeted this [Bible] passage…’ They’ve rarely thought it through that much.”15

In other words, many of us are relying on second-hand beliefs, and spiritual fast-food prepared for us by people whose presuppositions are much the same as ours. Reading, in short, is, or can be and perhaps should be, a form of meditation. And that requires time, patience, and probably less reliance on technology.

Finding time, adjusting priorities

The commonest excuse for not reading is lack of time. But consider how much time it is estimated the average person in the UK spends on electronic media: 121 hours per month. That includes social media, instant messaging, emailing, texting, phoning and similar activities. In addition we spend on average 22 hours a week watching TV. By making even a small adjustment to our lifestyle we could read several books and reap rich rewards. For example, Margaret Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale, 4:24 hours (quicker and fuller and more thought-provoking than the TV series), JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (12:4 hours, longer but much richer in imagery and ideas than the film).16

Yet across the country libraries are closing due to government cuts, and independent bookshops are closing due to high rents and declining sales. Specialist Christian bookshops struggle to exist and most rely on volunteers to stay open. If we don’t use them, we’ll lose them and future generations will be denied access to rich sources of learning and mental and spiritual nourishment.

The situation is not helped by the curriculum often imposed on schools that forces them to focus on fact-based, target chasing, subjects, while broader and less academic subjects (or even academic subjects such as music which attract only a minority of students) are reduced or not offered. We risk creating a generation of narrow-minded human beings with stunted imaginations for whom books are merely an ancient source of facts that now can be better accessed on the internet.

This is illustrated powerfully in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (4:30 hours reading time). It opens with Thomas Gradgrind’s mantra that “Facts alone are wanted in life”. Much later the well-meaning educator and factory owner is chastened by the discovery that his beloved daughter Louisa has suffered greatly because her mechanical and mathematical education failed to feed her soul, nourish her heart and imagination, or help her become a rounded human being.

We’re there in the room as she confronts him. We slump to the floor with Louisa in her distress and confusion. We wring our hands with Gradgrind and stay awake with him all night, filled with remorse and guilt and helplessness. We’re pierced by his agonising contrition as he concludes “that I cannot but mistrust myself”. The cold fact baldly stated that a broad education is more beneficial than a narrow one can be argued over. But when we see and feel the consequences of Gradgrind’s philosophy working out in the life of his fictitious yet believably real daughter, the message is unmistakeable and we cannot but consider it true.17

Of course, facts are important, and of more value than instant opinions. There is a deeply prophetic warning in Malcolm Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (3:31 hours reading time). Written in 1954, it depicts (as does George Orwell’s 1984) homes where large wall-mounted flat-screen TVs (not invented at the time of writing) beam personalised soap-style inter-active entertainment into every home. Everything is reduced to sound-bites and digests, headlines and quick-flicks, stuffing people with facts and views that require no reflection: “a centrifuge [that] flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!” And books are banned.

The main character, Montag, is a fireman. Everywhere is fire-proofed, so there are no fires for the service to put out. Instead, they are employed to start them – wherever they find books. But Montag is curious. He starts stealing books and reading them secretly. He meets rebels who have begun to memorise books in the hope that one day they might be published again. And he finds a Bible. The book ends as he walks back to a war-destroyed city reciting Revelation 22:2 (“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”).18

And there lies a challenge to any reader (or even non-reader). Back in the 1930s TS Eliot remonstrated with his generation, “Much is your reading, but not the Word of god.”19 If we want to explore the big questions of life, discover God and his purposes for us and for the world, and grow in faith and Christian understanding, then the Bible has to be the book we love best and consult most. It is the oldest book we have, always in print in many (but not yet all) the thousands of languages in the world. Investing in a modern translation or paraphrase will blow your mind, feed your soul, and deepen your personal relationship with God. Schemes for systematic Bible reading and modestly-priced notes to help readers get into and understand the text are easily available. All kinds of books will serve us well, but the Bible will serve us best.

“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that, through patience and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” 20

Think and talk

1.  What book(s) have you read recently which have made you think? Reflect on what they have taught you or what they have illustrated that is worth remembering and learning from.

2.  “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). This is not an excuse for not reading! But in its context it is a reminder of what is most important in human life. What do you think that might be, and how might reading actually help you to appreciate it more?

3.  Jesus was well-read in the Scriptures of his day and quoted them frequently. So too was Paul, who was also familiar with secular literature (see Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12). How might reading both Scripture and more widely enhance our Christian service and discipleship?

4.  What might you be able to do locally to help preserve libraries and bookshops, and introduce children especially to the value of reading?


1.  Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729), The Tatler  no.147.
2.  Report by Mark Bridge in The Times 3 March 2018
3.  Reported in i  6 November 2018.
4.  Reported in The Times Weekend, 6 October 2018
5.  According to Krish Kandiah, Christianity January 2017
6.  Stig Abell, “Novels can offer great comfort to a troubled mind”, The Times 9 October 2018.
7.  As reported in a review by Cathy Rentzenbrink of Laura Freeman, The reading cure (Weidenfeld & Nicholson), The Times Saturday Review, 17 February 2018.
8.  Jeanette Winterson, Why be happy when you could be normal? (Jonathan Cape, 2011), p.40.
9.  Ibid., pp 116f, 144.
10. Philip Yancey, “The Power of Writing”, Christianity Today October 1994
11. Michael Heppell, The Edge, Hodder & Stoughton 2013, p.147.
12. Caitlin Moran, The Times Magazine, 14 June 2014.
13. Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie, Penguin Books 1962, p.72.
14. Lewis Smedes, Love within Limits, Lion Publishing 1979, p.19.
15. Profile of John Mark Comer in Premier Christianity, December 2017
16. The figures and comparisons are from i, 3 August 2017, based on an analysis of Ofcom data by MusicMagpie.
17.  Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Vintage Classics 2012; the quotes are from pp 5 and 207.
18. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, Harper Voyager 2008. The quote is from page 73.
19. TS Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”, The complete poems and plays of TS Eliot, Faber and Faber 1969, p.154.
20. The collect for the last Sunday after Trinity, Common Worship, Church House Publishing, copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.

© Derek Williams 2018

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Jonah goes to Vanity Fair

A fresh angle on the Bible’s fishiest book

Vanity Fair is where it's all happening
Mention Jonah, and immediately you think of fish – the one that allegedly kept the drowning prophet alive for three days. But that is a pity. It misses the point entirely and provides an excuse not to take the book’s message seriously. The book of Jonah is not about a fish (it gets only a brief mention). Instead, it is packed with timeless challenges that have a special resonance with 21st century western life. The fish can be left to thrash around in the intellectual and theological shallows. (Or scroll to the end if you can’t wait to reel it in.)

The short story is well known. The prophet Jonah is told to go to the Assyrian megacity of Nineveh. He refuses, but instead of travelling cross-country north east from Israel, he sets off westward on a ship to Tarshish, which was probably in southern Spain. He survives going overboard in a storm at sea, and eventually does go to the city whose inhabitants respond positively to his call to repentance.

The first question any reader asks is “why did he refuse to go?” Here are six reasons. They all relate to the nature of Nineveh itself. (This little book is packed with insights and challenges; later we’ll see more mistakes, unforeseen consequences, and stubborn refusals that crippled Jonah spiritually and that enlighten, or challenge, readers in every generation.)

First excuse: he despises Vanity Fair

One commentator pictures Jonah arriving in the city at last. “He feels small, one man against a vast metropolis. Lost like a needle in a haystack inside this gigantic Vanity Fair, this Sodom of a city, the tiny figure feels he can go no further. He stops and shouts out the laconic message with which he has been entrusted.”1

The allusion is apt, and topical. At times in Old Testament history Nineveh (in modern Iraq) was the Vanity Fair of the ancient world. It was rich, prosperous, cultured. A vibrant city of pleasure and wealth, it had parks, rivers, canals, ornate buildings. And it was where morals were loose and religion corrupt, where greed ruled and the poor were crushed. Rather like more recent satirical portrayals of “Vanity Fair”.

The 2018 ITV adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair has Michael Palin, in the character of Thackeray, giving a brief summary of the story so far at the beginning of each episode. And each time, he ends it with the words: “For this is Vanity Fair, a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.” The original book is a 700-page moralistic satire on early 19th century society, in which Thackeray often interposes the story with personal reflections. In it he says that “Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions”.2

Thackeray of course got the idea from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in which Vanity Fair was an unavoidable hazard and potential spiritual distraction or stumbling block on the way to the celestial city. Bunyan says, “In Vanity Fair, wealth and fame, pleasure and position, and many other follies, are for sale.”3 And Bunyan, no doubt, got the idea from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, rarely read but full of wise put-downs of what many consider to be important. The older translations include the refrain, “Vanity of vanities, says the teacher, all is vanity”.

This image captured the imagination of the 15th century Jesuit priest Savanarola. On Shrove Tuesday 1497 – 200 years before Bunyan – there was a pre-Lent scourge, pictured by several artists, of the bonfire of the vanities. Items considered vain and potentially sinful were thrown on, such as mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, musical instruments, books that were deemed to be immoral, manuscripts of secular songs, paintings and sculptures. It was a radical Lenten sacrifice, an extreme form of downsizing or decluttering. (Today we’d take the stuff to a car boot sale and use the proceeds to buy more stuff.)

It also captured the imagination of the American novelist Tom Wolfe. In 1987, a week before the Wall Street crash, he rather prophetically published his modern classic The bonfire of the vanities.  It is a caustic satire on modern financial fever, social pretensions and discrimination, class divisions, excessive consumption, and institutional corruption and injustice. Wolfe says that his early model was Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and he describes his main character, Sherman McCoy, viewing Manhattan: “The city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening.”4

Vanity Fair is anywhere, anytime, where people get the adrenalin rush of being where things are happening, and striving for what is not worth having, and cannot last.

It’s therefore no wonder that a good Jewish prophet would want to avoid venturing into this den of iniquity to tell it to prepare for a bonfire of the vanities. Good Jewish prophets kept themselves apart from the vanities of the world. In fact, things were just as bad at home. Jonah’s contemporaries Isaiah and Amos were shrilly condemning the Vanity Fairs that existed in Jerusalem and Samaria where, as in Nineveh, people were trampling each other in the rush for wealth and status, where injustice greed and corruption reigned (see, for example, Amos 5:10-13, 6:1-7). So he’s turning his back on the Vanity Fair of Samaria and he’s fleeing as far away as possible from the Vanity Fair of Nineveh. That was pretty drastic but illustrates his desperation; given his viewpoint, it’s almost understandable, although not excusable. But that’s just the start of his refusal to go to Nineveh.

Five more excuses   

First, Nineveh was the enemy, the chief city of Assyria that was constantly harassing Israel. To Jonah, if God wanted to zap Nineveh to kingdom come, he should just get on with it. They deserved everything they’d get. Why send someone to warn them? With Nineveh out of the way, Israel could rest in peace. Jonah wasn’t the only Old Testament prophet to hate Nineveh – Nahum and Zephaniah also condemned it, and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Micah all had strong words to say against Assyria. It was a constant thorn in Israel’s side.

Secondly, Jonah was being asked to be a pioneer minister to an alien culture and a hated country. No-one had ever done such a thing before. Like all Jews at the time, Jonah hated foreigners, especially those who had the temerity to try to impose their rules, control Israel’s borders and tax its goods. Israel saw itself as a spiritual conservation area. If foreigners wanted to find out about God, they could come and ask, but Israelites did not go as missionaries to foreign lands. So there had to be a mistake. God wouldn’t ask such a thing. Jonah must have misheard.

Besides, thirdly, if he did go there he assumned that he’d be arrested, jailed, and probably executed as a spy. You don’t just walk into enemy territory and say “Hi guys, God’s got a message for you.” They didn’t recognise his God. They’d just see Jonah as some foreign agent blundering in on a crackpot mission to poison someone or hack into the infrastructure.

And fourthly, if Jonah went to Nineveh, he’d be considered a traitor to his own people. You just did not fraternise with the enemy. The Jesus who tells us to “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44) wouldn’t be born for another seven centuries. If Jonah went to Nineveh and lived to tell the tale, he’d have his Israelite passport confiscated. Or he’d just be executed for treason when he returned. It was a case of frying pan or fire? And he didn’t fancy either.

Finally, Jonah knows what God is like: gracious and compassionate. He admits it in 4:2. He suspects that God might want to forgive and reform the Assyrians. Theologically he can’t cope with that. His faith is challenged. His traditional views are threatened. Besides, where’s the justice in letting Assyria off? And wouldn’t their friendship actually be another threat to Israel’s independence? Wouldn’t their sheer size and power overwhelm the local economy? Wouldn’t Assyrian customs clash with Israel’s traditional faith? Jonah can’t cope with the idea that, in the words of the hymn, there’s a wideness in God’s mercy. Nor sadly, can some Christians.

Pause: am I doing a Jonah?

Jonah had at least these six reasons to refuse to go. So don’t just use Jonah as a bad boy example of disobedience. He may have been wrong, but he had his reasons. Now pause there. What is God asking us to do, you to do, now? Something that seems unlikely, perhaps? And what excuses do we come up with for watering down or running away from the hugely demanding challenges of Jesus and the apostles? Love your enemy, love your neighbour as yourself, give, don’t hoard, care, support, don’t discriminate, don’t seek personal return, don’t judge, turn the other cheek, seek justice, go into a confused world alienated from traditional religion to live out the values of the kingdom.

Ponder Tennyson’s words streaming from his agonising grief over the death of a friend, and his searching faith:

"Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit God's grace"
Jonah 2:8
“Ring out a slowly dying case,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
with sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.5

The brutal fact is that many of us prefer to hover around the fringes of Vanity Fair, like Thackeray’s Becky Sharp scrounging stuff to maintain a certain lifestyle, and seeking Instagram or Facebook status to maintain appearances. We like to be where it’s all happening, striving for a way of life which according to Jesus, not just Thackeray, is not worth having.

Two silly mistakes

Apart from not listening to God, Jonah made two other mistakes. The first was to move. You cannot get a car to change direction when it’s stationary. So with us. If you want to avoid doing what God asks, stay still. Don’t move. Put your spiritual earplugs in. Keep your head down. On no account start doing anything. (It won’t do you any good, of course. You’ll just miss out on what is really worth having.) But once you move, God can switch the points, turn the wheel, change the direction of the wind and blow you back on course. Which is what happened to Jonah.

A tropical storm blew up and threatened to swamp the ship. The sailors believed, like the mariners in Shakespeare’s Tempest, that it had a supernatural origin (“All lost! To prayers! To prayers!”6).

One of them had angered the gods. Jonah bravely admitted it was him. And he accepted that to save the ship he had to go overboard.

And then he made them throw him in: his second mistake. He played the blame game. He laid the responsibility for his death on them. So when he was missed by his family and friends, the sailors would either have to lie – oh, he was swept overboard, poor man – or admit to murder. Why didn’t he just jump in? Why shift the burden of guilt on others? When you know how to correct a mistake, or deal with a sin, just do it. Don’t try and save your face by making innocent people share the responsibility.

Three unforeseen consequences  

First, the crew threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. That was a last resort. They were throwing away their livelihood. They’d either been paid to transport it and the owners would want their money back if it wasn’t delivered. Or, they’d bought it themselves to sell in Tarshish. Without it, they were bankrupt.

Jonah’s refusal to do what God wanted resulted in other people losing out. Don’t ever think that no one but you will suffer if you avoid God’s call or disobey his instructions. The results of your action or inaction will spread out like ripples on a pond. Others will lose out, even if you never see how.

Secondly, the sailors tried to save Jonah. They weren’t Jews. They were probably what we’d call Syrians or Palestinians. More potential enemies of Israel. Jonah had paid his fare and they’d got his money. So why bother trying to save him? The author is making his orthodox readers gasp at the terrible thought that there are good, decent, honest, law abiding, humane unbelievers. It’s a warning against self-righteous religious pride and a call to personal humility. Paul said in Ephesians 2:10, that Christians are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared for us in advance. Don’t just leave them to other people whose compassion may put us to shame.

Thirdly, the sailors actually prayed to Jonah’s God to forgive them for their action. And when the deed was done and the sea suddenly calmed they worshipped God. Unbelievers, praying to God and being heard? This is radical theology. Jonah has disobeyed God yet God actually brings good out of Jonah’s bad. That’s not a reason for casually disobeying him – “It’ll be all right in the end; I’ll be saved” – but it reminds us that God is never defeated by our folly or wrongdoing.

A stubborn refusal to change

Jonah was rescued and got to Nineveh. He couldn’t defeat God’s purposes. So he stood up, preached the message he’d been given, and was listened to. There was a mass repentance, a bonfire of the vanities. And Jonah was annoyed. He’d still not come to terms with God’s compassion for all people, including those who persecuted his faith and attacked his country.

Twice Jonah was given the opportunity to soften his heart. First when the Assyrians repented, and then when God gave him shelter from the sun. Yet he remained ungrateful and critical of God. When the shelter was removed, he threw a petulant tantrum: as if it was all about him, and not about God and thousands of other human beings. He had lost the art of reflecting on circumstances and learning from them. He remained set in his ways, fixed in his understanding and beliefs, focussed only on himself. “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them” (an older NIV version had “forfeit his grace”), as the author puts in 2:8.

There is no happy ending here. His last words in the book are, “I’m so angry I wish I was dead” (4:9); God’s attempt to point out that many people had been helped spiritually has fallen on deaf ears. We have no idea what happened to him then; did he continue as a prophet, speaking truth to power (2 Kings 14:25) or did his intransigence marginalise him from God’s later activity? From the author’s point of view, it was the latter. Jonah is a sad, bitter figure, a grumbler, not a supporter.

It’s a sad fact that even though “the angels rejoice over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10) and the Holy Spirit renews a Christian community, resentment can remain in the human heart over unwelcome changes in church life and thinking. We prefer our old ways, our comfortable ideas and beliefs. We are not for turning. The angels’ joy over unbelievers’ repentance must turn to tears of sadness at believers’ obtuseness.

Postscript: the fish that got away

Which brings us finally to the bit everyone gets hung up about: the fish. Which is a huge pity, because the story isn’t about the fish. (It gets three brief mentions: swallowing Jonah, the location of his prayer, and spitting him out, 1:17, 2:1 and 2:10.) The book is about God and his undying, unstoppable compassion to all the world. And that’s it.

To catch the point of the fish, we need to check the book’s likely background and the purpose of the story. Jonah is a carefully constructed literary composition, not a hack reporter’s interview as the bedraggled seaweed-covered castaway hauls himself onto dry land. The prayer in chapter 2 seems to be a compilation of what to the author would have been well-known psalms.

We don’t know exactly when it was written. There’s a reference to Jonah the prophet in 2 Kings 14:25, about 780BC but the image of Nineveh in the book reflects a period in the city’s history a century or so later. The Assyrian king Sennacherib beautified and extended it in the late 8th century when it really was where things were happening, and where everyone was striving for what was not worth having. There had been an earthquake, a solar eclipse, a flood and a famine around 763BC (within Jonah’s possible lifetime), which could have predisposed the inhabitants to see such disasters as warnings and thus listen to a prophet. However the city was not at that time as extensive and prosperous as pictured in the book.

There is no record in Assyrian annals of any city-wide “bonfire of the vanities”, although newspapers of record didn’t exist and embarrassing events were often quietly forgotten; news management by authorities is no new phenomenon. It is worth noting that Assyria (and hence Nineveh) were destroyed in 612BC by the Babylonians. But perhaps the point of Jonah is that God never delivers judgement before giving people ample opportunity to repent.

So it could be that a story around a genuine journey by Jonah circulated orally and was written down much later. By which time no-one remembered exactly how the prophet escaped the sea. He might not have remembered himself, having been severely traumatised and almost drowned. People do survive such events. Near-death experiences often include dream or nightmare-like visions that seem utterly real. Being swallowed by a fish fits that possibility, or else is as good a guess as any for a writer trying to explain the inexplicable. To the author, the point is that God engineered a rescue. The mechanics of how it was done are played right down; the survival is described in a matter-of-fact manner, and there is no attempt at sensationalising a miracle.

Sitting loose to the fish reference does no disservice to the doctrine of biblical inspiration and authority. There are different forms of literature in Scripture. Building moral lessons based on some half-forgotten incident is a good story-teller’s technique. Many of Jesus’ parables are based on common scenarios.

Time for a bonfire of our vanities?

Sadly, good, devout Jonah has been harbouring the Vanity Fair mind-set all along: the mind-set that looks out for number one, that absorbs the values and beliefs of its time uncritically, and doggedly refuses to change. Jonah is the Old Testament’s counterpoint, and preface, to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says, “It’s the pagans who strive for what is not worth having. But you, seek first God’s kingdom, and you’ll have more than enough” (as in Matthew 6:28-34).

It’s also the preface to Jesus’ call to go fearlessly into the world where it’s all happening, where everyone is striving for what’s not worth having (as in Matthew 28:19-20). But rather than absorbing its ethos, of blending in with the fairground patrons, instead to demonstrate in its midst an alternative way of thinking and living, another way of being community, a fresh source of meaning, and a focus for prayer. Above all, it’s a call to take by word and deed good news to the people we most despise or fear and try to ignore. In obeying that call, hard as it is, we gain a divine friend and a purpose that’s really worth having. And one which lasts.

Think and talk
1.  Read the book of Jonah in a modern translation. It’s only four short chapters.
2.  What is it that people in your circle, community or society are striving for that is not worth having? To what extent do you get sucked into that vortex of attitudes?
3.  What ethnic or other minority groups, or cultural or age groups, do you avoid, dislike or even despise? How do you feel when told that God loves them as much as he loves you?
4.  Look again at the paragraphs above headed “Pause: am I doing a Jonah?” Look at Tennyson’s prayer: can you make it your own? And where might you be watering down or avoiding the list of tough challenges to discipleship which Jesus and the apostles lay down?
5.  Pray. “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways; reclothe us in our rightful mind; in purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence praise” (John Greenleaf Whittier).
6.  Consider Isaac Watt’s hymn with its line “all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood”. What might go on to your personal bonfire of vanities? 

1. Leslie C. Allen, The books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, Hodder and Stoughton 1976, p.222.
2. W.M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair, J.M. Dent, 1970, p.75.
3. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, retold in Modern English by Jean Watson, Scripture Union 1978, p.74.
4. Tom Wolfe, The bonfire of the vanities, Vintage Books 2010, p.81.
5. From “In Memoriam”, Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Collins 1954, pp. 356-7.
6. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 1.

(c) Derek Williams 2018

Monday, 4 June 2018

What's next after this life?

"Forget images of playing harps up in the clouds"
When young children – and many adults – do something for a while, they soon get bored and ask “What’s next?” We’ve done that, been there, achieved this, arrived here, so what’s next on the bucket list, or the life plan? It’s what drives us to gain promotion, get more money, upgrade our lifestyle. Contentment is sometimes wrongly equated with stagnation and boredom.

But the biggest question of all – what’s next after death? – is not one we spend much time on until tragedies or advancing years intervene. Almost every culture and religion has some kind of belief in afterlife and Christianity is no exception. So what, if anything, is next, and why should we think about it?

Death: an obscene intrusion into life

Life is precious. When death intrudes, whether by “natural” or violent causes, individuals grieve, communities mourn, and strangers may gather and offer support. In some well-publicised and usually violent or tragic cases, shrines spring up, Facebook fundraising takes place, and memorial concerts are arranged. Life is glorious and to be celebrated. Death seems obscene, wrong.

We have “a profound inability to conceive of nothingness,” author and columnist Caitlin Moran wrote. Three years earlier she had declared, “I want there to be an afterlife, now.”1 The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences has been offered for anyone who can show a way of conquering death.

There have been three modern attempts to postpone or escape death. The welcome rise of medical expertise including transplant surgery, along with improvements to diet and public health, has succeeded in lengthening average lifespans considerably in developed countries. However, it can also have the effect of lengthening life artificially so much that a person becomes a breathing corpse. By contrast, good palliative care aims to enhance, not necessarily extend, a person’s remaining days.

The technique of cryonics, which deep freezes newly-deceased bodies in the hope that they might one day be resuscitated has been available to rich people for several decades, mostly in the USA (currently for $200,000). And there is growing interest, fostered by science-fiction writers and partly illustrated in the Channel 4 TV series Humans, in “transhumanism”, in which electronic hardware and software extracts memory and personality from the brain as well as replacing worn-out tissue.2

Contrary to some popular misconceptions, biblically death is not seen as a friend but as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Alfred Lord Tennyson caught the conviction that death is an unwelcome intrusion into life at the start of his long poem In Memoriam. It was written over several years in response to the sudden death of his close friend Arthur Haslam, which threw Tennyson’s faith into confusion:

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
     Thou madest man, he knows not why,
     He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

“Not made to die.”  But we do. Some believe there is nothing beyond death. We live on only in others’ memories, through our achievements, and through our genes in our offspring. That is largely how people in Old Testament times viewed life beyond the grave. Apart from a hazy idea about a shadowy existence in Sheol and the occasional glimmer of insight such as Job’s “after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (19:25), future hope for ancient Israelites lay more in genealogy than regeneration. It is only in the New Testament that a clear and at the time revolutionary concept of life after death appears.

The famous reaction of Jesus Christ – “Jesus wept” – when his friend Lazarus died suggests that there is even divine grief and anger in the face of death. Translators struggle with the Greek original of John 11:33. The NIV suggests “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled”. The New Living Translation has “he was moved with indignation and was deeply troubled”. It was not just because he had lost a personal friend whose home had been a welcome retreat for him.

The 19th-century theologian B.B. Warfield described Jesus’ anger thus: “It is death [itself] that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words, ‘as a champion who prepares for conflict.’ Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites on our behalf.”3

Death, this seems to imply is somehow an “unnatural” intrusion into life. Yet cold logic tells us that death is part of the cycle of life. Plants and animals die, their remains recycled by the seasonal rhythms. Age takes its toll on all living things. Everything physical slowly decays or wears out. Even stars like our sun, in their unimaginably long timescale, are born and eventually die and are consumed.

This creates a problem for interpretations of the creation stories in Genesis which suggest that death entered the world only after the rebellion of Adam and Eve. (This can be implied from Paul’s teaching in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22.) Was everything before then as indestructible as modern plastic? Where did the humus nutrients for plant life come from if not from decay? Were all the animals vegetarian? Generally, commentators regard the threat of “death” after eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17) as a purely spiritual alienation from God, which is probably how Paul intended his teaching to imply.

So in their pristine Paradise, how did death occur? Could Adam eventually have become crippled with arthritis? Could Eve have developed breast cancer? C.S. Lewis in his science fiction novels speculated on a kind of painless, joyful translation of an un-fallen race from this life to the next. We’ll never know. This is now, and everyone dies, sometimes prematurely, sometimes painfully, sometimes peacefully. But the New Testament suggests that God has not left us to mope over what might have been, but gives us a glimmer of hope for what could be.

Resurrection and re-creation

The Bible does not teach that human beings are immortal. On that basis, it is possible to believe that death is the end for all, or that life after death is granted only to some favoured souls. It also rules out any concept of reincarnation; we don’t go on and on in different forms. Instead the New Testament introduces a whole new concept: resurrection.

Although the idea had crept into Judaism during the previous few centuries, it was still contentious and unclear in Jesus’ time. Hence the cynical question by the resurrection-denying Sadducees about which husband would live with a hypothetical seven-times married widow in the next life (Mark 12:18-27). Jesus’ teaching about his own forthcoming death and resurrection was received with bemusement by his disciples (e.g. Mark 8:31-32; John 14:1-6).

What transformed their understanding was the undeniable fact of Jesus’ own bodily resurrection. Despite his attempts to prepare them for the unimaginable, it was only when it happened that they understood. In the book of Acts, it was Jesus’ resurrection, not his atoning death on the cross, which dominated the apostles’ preaching and inspired the rapid growth of the fledgling church. The resurrection demonstrated God’s power and love, and paved the way for anyone who believed in him to enter eternal life.

And it was Jesus’ resurrection that formed the basis of St Paul’s relatively brief teaching about what lies in store after death for the rest of us. Like Jesus, we too will be raised from death. In what is probably his earliest letter, he tells his readers not to grieve for those who already “sleep in death” as if there is no hope for them. “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

Human imagery cannot begin to comprehend
spiritual and eternal reality
In 1 Corinthians 15:20 he calls Jesus the first instalment of those who will rise at the last day, when God creates a new “kingdom”. He suggests that the bodies we shall receive will be spiritual and enduring rather than physical and mortal. This tells us only enough to be sure that life after death will be conscious and tangible.

The book of Revelation, often appealed to as a picture of life after death, certainly portrays heavenly scenes but only in figurative language. It must be remembered that the vision given to John was not intended to describe the future life in any detail but, in veiled language, to encourage persecuted Christians that their enemies would eventually be vanquished and their faithfulness to Christ rewarded. The picture of a new heaven and a new earth as a cubic city made of gold and precious stones (Revelation 21) was never meant to be understood as a sneak preview of God’s photo album but as an artist’s or visionary’s way of saying that “it will be perfect and unblemished, beyond your wildest dreams”.

Forget the caricatures and conjectures

The idea of life after death has attracted many caricatures, mythical conjectures and hopeful assumptions and it’s hard even for Christians to throw them off. So forget joining angels on puffy clouds to strum harps all day. And thankfully forget the idea of heavenly equivalent of an endless church service. The image of worshipping throngs in Revelation 7 – whose joy stems from God’s victory over their persecutors – has to be matched with Paul’s assertion in Romans 12:1-2 that true and proper worship is serving God wholeheartedly.

Forget too the idea of a perfected life as we know it on earth. At the end of Julian Barnes’ book A history of the world in 10½ chapters the hero asks to be taken away from heaven because he’s fed up of going round the golf course in 18 strokes – a hole in one each time. Couldn’t the creator of the universe come up with something more interesting, he asks. He probably has, but we know precious little about it because we cannot conceive of “life” beyond the material world.4

Then there’s the idea of some glorious reunion party in heaven. Paul does imply that we’ll meet again those who have gone before in the 1 Thessalonians passage quoted above, but that doesn’t seem to be the key concept of heaven. TV presenter Emily Maitlis told Stylist magazine, “When I was a kid, I used to think of death or heaven was about endless concentric circles of people you’d met throughout your life – some randomly, some intensely, some for moments – popping up and back into it to say hello. Then they invented Facebook and I realised how unappealing that actually was.”5

So what can we know?

Here’s some bullet points from the scriptures, to feed the thoughts and conversations we all need to have about life after death. 

·         There is something next. Jesus’ resurrection – the Easter story – points to that. Jesus rose, and is accessible to us through prayer and in experience. He told Martha at Lazarus’s grave “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live even though they die.” He told his disciples he was going to prepare a place for them (John 11:25; 14:2).

Life after death will be completely different: sculptor Phillida
Barlow's "upside down house" defies imagination
·         It will be radically different to life now. “Heaven” is an unimaginable dimension beyond space and time. It will be tangible but not as things are now. It will be a timeless dimension. Eternity is not time extended infinitely, but a whole other dimension. Theoretical physicists and cosmologists currently suggest that there are already more dimensions in the universe than we can conceive, and perhaps also other universes. Our imagination (and often our faith) is time-bound and rooted to our concept of matter as we know it. Yet Jesus’ resurrection body had unworldly properties, behaving more like some of the elusive elementary particles of matter discovered by researchers that behave in distinctly non-material ways. As he was, so shall we be.

·         It will be good but not a mere escape. St Paul declared that “I desire to depart and be with Christ which is better by far”. But this was not the weary cry of a man worn down by constant deprivations, ailments, and crises. He decided that actually “it is more necessary for you [Philippians] that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:23-24). He didn’t want to go there yet because he had more work to do here in order to comply with God’s good purposes. When Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 15:19 that if we have hope in Christ only for this life, “we are of all people most to be pitied” he did not intend to fuel Nietzsche’s later assertion that heaven is a myth devised to comfort weak people. Paul was this-life affirming; the hope of eternal life was an added incentive to remain faithful to God’s calling now. The promised upgrade to come doesn’t detract from the call of the present to build God’s Kingdom as best as we’re able.

·         It will be a place of knowledge and understanding. Our questions will be answered, our doubts resolved, at last. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

·         It will be a totally new creation without the built-in blemishes and weaknesses the present one endures. It will be without suffering, pain, and conflict; justice will be seen to have been done; evil will be banished (Revelation 21:4; 22:5). The question as to why this life is blemished and prone to accident and decay is perhaps only one that can be answered in the next life.

·         There will also be continuity with this life. The biblical picture of “paradise” begins with a garden in Genesis and ends with a city in Revelation. In between is the call to contribute to the building of God’s “Kingdom”. God is not about to destroy everything good that we’ve done corporately and individually. Somehow all will be renewed, and thus incorporated into a new creation depicting what we should and could have done had we been more faithful to God’s purposes. Paul writes of the “redemption” of creation, not its wholesale demolition (Romans 8:18-25).

More questions than answers

Once you begin thinking about the topic, many other questions come to mind. What happens between the time we die and the return of Christ and the inauguration of the new creation? Paul suggests the after-death experience will be like sleeping, which presumably means from the point of view of the deceased there’s no passage of time at all – we’re oblivious to it.

But is there some kind of intermediate state, a place of preparation, a dressing room, if you like, before we take our place on stage before the King? Scripture is virtually silent on the topic and focuses on this life as the training ground (see the parable in Luke 16:19-31 which seems to rule out any “second chance”). Yet we all retain our human imperfections. We need to receive our new set of spiritual clothes (see Matthew 22:1-14; Revelation 7:9-17; and compare Paul’s imagery of changing clothes in Colossians 3:1-14 and the promise that we shall be changed in an instant 1 Corinthians 15:51-54). The jury is out; we wait and see.

And then there’s the question of the last judgement. “We will all stand before God’s judgement seat … [and] each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:10,12). Is this an exam with rankings, to determine which position we will attain in the next life? Paul suggests that our work for God will survive, or be incorporated into the great transformation, and we will be rewarded. Those whose lives here have contributed nothing to the Kingdom will see their worthless activity “burned up” but they themselves will suffer loss yet still be saved (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Is this a hint of differing levels of heaven? But how can a perfect new creation be anything other than egalitarian? Otherwise I might think I ought to have a better spot than someone else, and all the old rivalries re-emerge! Again, we have to wait and see; it’s not for us to speculate, but simply get on with being the best we can for God.

And that leads to the final question: who will be there? There’s plenty of room (or rooms) for all, Jesus suggests in John 14:2. Paul seems to leave the door open to people who have never had the opportunity of hearing the Gospel clearly in Romans 2:12-16. But Jesus also speaks of hell as well as heaven. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven”; all others will be driven from his presence (Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31). Tyrants, murderers and the selfishly immoral appear to be excluded (Revelation 21:8), yet Jesus promised paradise to the dying thief on the cross who may have repented to Jesus but who had no time to make amends or communicate to others (Luke 23:40-43).

The imagery of a loving God torturing sinful souls for ever is probably a distortion of the biblical teaching. Better, perhaps, to think of the exclusion as permanent, and that the realisation of such a fate may result in agonising regrets; beyond that, scripture again seems to be silent. Biblical scholars these days are talking more about exclusion from the Kingdom in terms of eventual annihilation after the initial realisation, than of unending terror. Apart from other considerations this underlines that fact that humans are not born immortal. Death could be the end, for some, after the painful and damning judgement that they’ve wasted their life and missed out on some glorious future.

These warnings are not given as a basis to speculate about the fate of others. They are for each person’s cautionary personal examination. When Peter presumed to ask about the fate of John, he was rebuked by Jesus (John 21:20-23). Judgement of others is to be left to God. We’ve got enough to do just to sort ourselves out (see Matthew 7:1-2).

There’s just one potential down side, which is why all this is worth thinking about. There could be people in the next life who currently we can’t stand. God loves them as he loves us. And they will be there, just as we will be, not because of any merit on our part, but courtesy of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection on that first Easter. One way of preparing for what’s next is to live and think in Christ’s way now.

And the sure way of being confident that however flawed we remain we will still be welcomed into heaven is to take heed to Jesus’ promise to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). And if the answer is yes, John much later in life assured his readers, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. … Whoever has the Son has life” (1 John 5:1,12). We do not need to go fearfully into death’s good night.

Think and talk

1.  Work through each section and its Bible references. If you can, discuss the implications with a group of others.
2.  What have you done to prepare yourself and others for your inevitable departure from this life?

1.  Caitlin Moran, The Times Magazine, 7 October 2017 and 22 February 2014.
2.  My short story Time to go explores an aspect of this. See
3.  B.B. Warfield, The person and work of Christ, quoted in R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel according to John, IVP 1979, p.140.
4.  The Julian Barnes story was quoted by Bishop Tom Wright, “Imagine there’s no heaven – not such a hellish idea” in The Sunday Times, 20 April 2003
5.  Quoted in The Times Diary, 16 June 2016.

© Derek Williams 2018