Author Archive

all this darkness is a small and passing thing

Posted by on Tuesday, 31 December, 2019

This post is dedicated to the three people who are waiting for it with eager anticipation. I’m now ready to announce my favourite cultural bits and pieces of 2019… 

As usual, these are new to me, not necessarily released or published this year. I’ve picked a top five for each category, which is roughly in order (trying not to obsess over that part as I could spend all week tinkering!). 

And as usual, I would love to hear about the books and movies and music that have made you smile, made you think, and made your life richer this year.

“Plainsong” (Kent Haruf)
“Abide with Me” (Elizabeth Strout)
“The Shepherd’s Hut” (Tim Winton)
“Now We Shall Be Entirely Free” (Andrew Miller)
“The Noise of Time” (Julian Barnes)

“Adorning the Dark” (Andrew Peterson)
“Faithful Presence” (David Fitch)
“Hillbilly Elegy” (J.D. Vance)
“Life Without Lack” (Dallas Willard)
“Digital Minimalism” (Cal Newport)

“My Finest Work Yet” (Andrew Bird)
“I Am Easy To Find” (The National)
“Ghosteen” (Nick Cave)
“Fever Breaks” (Josh Ritter)
“Years to Burn” (Iron & Wine/Calexico)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Green Book
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Beautiful Boy

(And just to stir the pot, I’ll add that I was completely underwhelmed by Joker, Roma and The Irishman!)

Over to you, friends of internet land…

the child that (movies and) books built

Posted by on Monday, 31 December, 2018

It’s time…

The moment which at least three of you have been waiting for with something approaching mild curiosity. It’s JM’s end-of-year-best-of-lists!

These are my personal favourites of the books and movies that were new to me in 2018. (I didn’t discover enough new music this year to make a meaningful music list).

First the movies:

1. Boyhood
2. Mudbound
3. Whiplash
4. Manchester by the Sea
5. The Florida Project

Other movies I loved which didn’t quite make the list: The Red Turtle, Get Out, The Shape of Water, The Revenant, The Meyerowitz Stories, Aint Them Bodies Saints, Lion.

And now the novels:

1. Midwinter Break (Bernard MacLaverty)
2. Reservoir 13 (Jon McGregor)
3. The Poets’ Wives (David Park)
4. Miller’s Valley (Anna Quindlen)
5. A Parchment of Leaves (Silas House)

I also really enjoyed Milkman (Anna Burns), Normal People (Sally Rooney), Our Souls at Night (Kent Haruf), History of Wolves (Emily Fridlund) and On Canaan’s Side (Sebastian Barry).

And finally, the non-fiction:

1. The Examined Life (Steve Grosz)
2. The Child That Books Built (Francis Spufford)
3. The Cloister Walk (Kathleen Norris)
4. The Philosophy of the Good Life (Charles Gore)
5. In the Days of Rain (Rebecca Stott)

As usual, I’d love to hear about your favourites so I know what to watch and read and listen to in 2019!

making it up as we go along?

Posted by on Tuesday, 29 May, 2018

I guess I should begin with a warning. This is a personal reflection on public events, an attempt to make some sense of the complicated feelings that have been swirling in me since the results of the abortion referendum came to light last weekend. I’ve been aware of a deep disquiet in my spirit, of feeling profoundly sad and troubled, both by the result and by some of the reactions to it.

I’ve also been reluctant to speak about it, because the issues are complex, and the stories are heartbreaking, and the feelings run so deep and strong on all sides. But I’ve been aware of a need, at least for me, to think more deeply about my complicated feelings. And I find I can’t just think about this one issue without thinking about wider questions – about our culture at this moment in history, about the future of western civilisation, about what it means to be human…!

So I guess I’m saying if you want something short and snappy and tweetable, you won’t find it here. This may be a little rambling, and personal, and philosophical, and long! But maybe a few of you will find it helpful. And if it makes you mad, please feel free to share your thoughts below. At times like this we all need to listen more than we speak.

Where to begin? The first thing I’m really aware of as I listen to the conversation is this – people on this island are really, really angry with the Church. As someone who loves Jesus and his Church, this makes me sad. But I think it needs to be faced. Because a lot of the anger is understandable, and justified, and even righteous.

There are so many issues we could talk about here, from the sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups, to the children taken from their mothers without consent, to babies and children buried in umarked graves. And… while all of that was going on, the Church had the audacity to be lecturing people on sexual morality and making them feel bad for their own choices and mistakes. And… while the lecturing voices were all male, those who suffered most were often the women.

John Boyne’s recent novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, begins with a brutal scene – a young woman is brought to the front of a church in rural Ireland by the priest, and in front of her entire community of friends and family, she is denounced as a whore. She is unmarried and pregnant. Her family have reported her to the priest, and her packed bag is waiting for her at home. The priest asks the father of the child to identify himself – if he steps forward he can confess his sins and get on with his life. But for the young woman there is no possibility of grace. She is to leave the parish and never return. It’s a fictional account, but as I read it I found myself thinking – things like this happened, on this island, not that long ago. If we don’t face that, in all it’s ugliness, we can’t begin to understand the anger under the surface of these revolutions in our culture. People are saying “enough is enough.”

And there’s nothing to be said in defence of any of it. There’s nothing to be said except, in all sincerity, Jesus wept. Jesus weeps. And Jesus is angry. His words are as strong and blunt as any people are speaking today – you hypocrites, you blind guides, you brood of vipers. You keep the outside clean, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence. You are like white-washed tombs, which are beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead.

We have to feel the weight of that anger. The only possible response is to hold our hands up in sorrow, in humility, in repentance. And we can’t hide behind the idea that this is a Catholic problem – we have had more than our share of hypocrisy and graceless religion in our Protestant churches, and the anger is there in our communities too. If the debate is coming to Northern Ireland next, as many are predicting, we’ll see that soon enough.

These are not wounds that can be healed lightly. Rebuilding trust will take years. Generations. And it won’t be done with words and apologies and public statements (though those have their place). But through ordinary local churches, communities of faithful followers of Jesus, living the gospel with integrity among their neighbours, so the beauty of Jesus is seen and heard again.

Along with the anger, there’s a second note I can hear in this conversation. And that is optimism. There’s this wave of positive feeling that had people dancing in the streets, cheering people arriving in airports, announcing a new day and a new dawn. And I have to be honest – the optimism troubles me.

The talk was all about progress and being progressive. The choice was between being part of something old, and traditional, and backward, and patriarchal, and oppressive. Or being part of something young, modern, progressive, optimistic, liberating. It’s a powerful and effective narrative.

But increasingly the language of progressivism makes me queasy. It raises the biggest of questions about what, exactly, we are making progress towards. Leo Tolstoy wrote about a time in his life, as a member of the intellectual elite in Russia, when “progress” was his watchword:

Then I thought that this word meant something. Its utter meaninglessness I then could not understand. Here I was tormented, like every living soul, with the question, “How can I better my life?” and I answer, “Live in accordance with progress.” But this is exactly the answer of a man borne along by wind and tide in a boat. He puts the to him all-important question, “What direction must I steer for my safety?” and he receives in answer, “Oh, we are borne along somewither!”

Our generation has this deep desire to throw off the suffocating weight of “traditional morality.” But the question is, what exactly are we replacing it with? And the more I wonder about that, the more I start to suspect that we are, quite literally, making it up as we go along. We have no idea where we are going, or who is steering the ship, but we are optimistic that we are making progress.

Where does the optimism come from? It seems to be rooted in a confidence that “the people” can be trusted to choose what is good and right, once they are liberated from the oppressive control of tradition and religion. People are essentially good and we can trust their moral compass to guide us to some beautiful shore.

I don’t share this optimism. I think “we the people” are capable of astonishing kindness and generosity and goodness. And also capable of being self-deceived. We hide our darkest motivations and impulses behind our shiniest ones. And I fear that is a big part of the story of this referendum. On the surface, the Yes campaign was all about compassion for women, and justice, and equality, and freedom. And who can argue with beautiful ideas like that? I don’t mean to sound cynical either – I think all those beautiful motivations were really there.

But I also think there are other, less beautiful motivations. That have more to do with selfishness, and convenience, and avoiding discomfort. So much of the focus of the public debate was on the heart-breaking stories – of rape, and mother’s lives at risk, and fatal abnormalities in the child. But I don’t think anyone really believes Ireland is now going to develop abortion laws which only cover that tiny minority of cases. As a “modern, progressive, enlightened nation,” Ireland will go the same way as the other “progressive” nations. Abortion will be available as a lifestyle choice when the child is not wanted.

By calling it a lifestyle choice I don’t mean to suggest it is not often a painful, even excruciating choice. Or that the issues involved in the choice may not be complex. But still, it is a choice. And this is where I think some of our darker motivations get revealed.

Anna Quindlen’s novel Miller’s Valley tells the story of a young girl called Mimi, growing up in a traditional, rural community. Many of the women in her life don’t have many choices. Her mother is a smart woman who became a nurse because it wasn’t an option for her to become a doctor. Many of her friends are following the predictable path of college followed by early marriage and babies, and maybe a job in the local diner. Mimi is super-smart, and fascinated by science. She wants something more from life. And then disaster strikes. She gets pregnant. And so the novel presents her choice to go to the city for an abortion as the brave choice, the liberating choice.

But I found the way it described her thought-process very revealing. She says she never thought of what was in her womb as a person. She thought of it more as an anchor, a terrible weight that would drag her down, along with all her dreams for her future. Now I don’t think it’s hard to empathise with why she felt that way. But I still find the logic deeply disturbing. She doesn’t want the kind of future life she feels this child will bring, so she chooses not to think of it as a person, which allows her to make the choice she wants to make with a clear conscience. But the same logic would appall us if we applied it to other situations. A toddler with an autism diagnosis, a spouse with a degenerative illness, an elderly parent with dementia – all of them could be seen as “an anchor” on our future life, limiting our options and threatening some of our dreams. But we don’t follow the same path of logic, of thinking of them as “not a person” in order to justify ending their life, and thus releasing ourselves from the anchor.

I know I have desires and impulses and instincts which are good, and beautiful. And others which are dark and twisted and selfish, and which I do my best to keep hidden even from myself. So I don’t trust the herd instinct of “the people” to lead us infallibly to the beautiful shore.  I think the wind and tide of our current cultural mood is just as likely to lead us into shark-infested waters or submerged rocks. I think we need some Wisdom from outside ourselves, something given to us, something handed down.

So I’m not optimistic. But that doesn’t mean I’m not hopeful. I don’t actually think it was ever possible, or  even desirable, to enforce Christian values on the rest of our culture through the blunt instrument of the law.  We may be moving back towards the situation of the first generations of Christians, who were a small minority in a pagan culture that either ignored them or tried to kill them. But they were always people of hope. They understood their calling, not in terms of voting Christian values into law, but as living out the beautiful vision of God’s kingdom as an alternative culture, a city on a hill.

In the urban centres of the Roman empire it was common practice for unwanted babies to be left on the rubbish dumps outside the city. They were left to die, because they were physically sick or disabled, or illegitimate, or unwanted. Often it was because they were girls. The early Christians could do little to stop this practice in the wider culture – but they chose in their own lives to swim against the tide and tell a different story. They created a culture of life in the midst of a culture of death. They acted out their belief that every human person is made in God’s image and precious. They made costly and courageous choices. When it was possible they rescued the children from the rubbish dumps and raised them as their own.

I’m sure it didn’t seem like much. But they believed that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. They believed that all this darkness is a small and passing thing. They were people of hope. They planted their little seeds. They planted their flag of resistance and resurrection on the rubbish dumps of the culture. They shone like stars in the night sky, and many were drawn to their light. Let’s go and do likewise.



I don’t want to be cool, I don’t need to be right

Posted by on Monday, 1 January, 2018

It’s getting harder to hear my heart these days,

harder to hear my heart

there’s so much culture in the way…

Those lyrics from Romantica ring deep and true for me, at this moment in time. Our culture is noisy, and most of the voices I’m bombarded with every day are distracting and confusing and do me no good. And yet, when I’m paying attention, there are also always voices that enlighten my mind and nourish my heart. When I seek those voices, I find them. There’s treasure hidden in the junkyard of our culture.

And so, as usual, I’m celebrating the end of another year by making lists, of the best new things I’ve found in the world of music, books and movies. As usual, these are new to me in the past year (not necessarily released in 2017). And as usual, I’d love to hear about the treaures you have found too.

First, the novels:
1. “The Brothers K” (David James Duncan)
2. “My Name is Lucy Barton” (Elizabeth Strout)
3. “Days Without End” (Sebastian Barry)
4. “Remembering Laughter” (Wallace Stegner)
5. “The Underground Railroad” (Colson Whitehead)

Second, the non-fiction books:
1. “Liturgy of the Ordinary” (Tish Harrison Warren)
2. “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” (Alan Jacobs)
3. “Dirty Glory” (Pete Greig)
4. “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (Eugene Peterson)
5. “Life Essential” (George MacDonald)

Third, the movies:
1. Silence
2. Dunkirk
3. Arrival
4. Hell or High Water
5. La La Land

And finally, the music:
1. “Shadowlands” (Romantica)
2. “Gathering” (Josh Ritter)
3. “Treasure of the Broken Land” (Mark Heard tribute)
4. “Home” (Josh Garrels)
5. “The Burning Edge of Dawn” (Andrew Peterson)

you are what you love (3)

Posted by on Tuesday, 21 March, 2017

Sorry for the delay in writing up this chapter! Hopefully now we’re back on track and I’m determined to blog once a week until the book is finished. If anyone is still listening, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

This chapter reinforces and underlines the claim that we can’t simply THINK our way to new hungers and desires. What really hit home for me was the image of the author “reading Wendell Berry in Costco.” This was uncomfortably close to the bone for me. Wendell Berry has been for a long time one of my favourite authors. His Port William novels are my first love, with their gentle reflections on community, place, belonging, membership, forgiveness and grace.

But I’ve also been inspired and challenged by Berry’s essays, which most often deal with issues relating to food, farming, and the land. I’ve read his words and been intellectually persuaded of their truth, their rightness. But they have made very little difference to my own eating habits. I’ve read Wendell Berry in McDonalds and in Starbucks, noting the irony in my mind but not changing my practice. And not only Berry – I’ve gone on to read Michael Pollan’s wonderful books examining the same issues, and Barbara Kingsolver’s delightful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’ve taken notes and underlined, and read quotations to my friends. My mind has been persuaded, my intellect converted… and my habits deeply and stubbornly unchanged.

So I’m fully in agreement with Smith’s claim: “You can’t just think your way to new hungers.” My hungers have been shaped and formed by years of (bad) habits and (unhealthy) practices. And they can only be reformed by new habits and practices. This is true in relation to my physical hungers, but also in relation to my spiritual hungers and desires.

Again, Smith is not dismissing the need for good and deep thinking. But “reflection should propel us into new practices that will reform our hungers.”

So once again I’m sitting in Starbucks nodding along to an author who has persuaded my mind and convinced my intellect. But if this book is going to have any deeper impact, my big question is this – what exactly are these practices and habits and disciplines which will retrain and renew my hungers and desires? I need him to be specific. I need this spelled out in small words. Pictures may help.

Well, I’m hoping later chapters will help to answer this question and paint a picture for me. But this chapter starts to answer the question first by insisting we shouldn’t look for the dramatic or sensational. The habits we will be formed by will be “the ordinary means of grace” – he mentions “Word and Table,” “the church’s worship,” “prayer and song, preaching and offering, baptism and communion.” These are the ordinary, undramatic places where God meets us and shapes us by his life-giving Spirit.

Now, I like this quite a lot. But I have a question – just as I’ve noticed that lots of intellectual knowledge of Scripture and theology doesn’t necessarily lead to deep heart-and-life-change, I’ve also noticed that many of us have repeated these ordinary practices faithfully and regularly, for years, for decades – and our desires and hungers have not necessarily been deeply transformed. So have we been doing them wrong?

Smith points to one way in which he thinks we have been approaching worship wrongly – we have placed our focus on our actions and on expressing ourselves in worship. This tends to lead to a straining for “authenticity” and freshness and novelty. Which can be exhausting. He suggests that we shift our posture so that our focus is on God’s actions as he forms us through these worship practices. Instead of striving to express ourselves, we come open and expectant to receive.

There’s something deeply encouraging and restful about this perspective. “Worship is not primarily a venue for innovative creativity but a place for discerning reception and faithful repetition.” I’m interested to see where Smith goes with this. Does this line of thinking lead naturally to a preference for old songs, written prayers, and traditional formats? He says his concern is not about “traditional” or “contemporary” but I still suspect his thoughts lean towards the former – “we inherit a form of worship that should be received as a gift” and which contains “the accumulated wisdom of the body of Christ.”

An observation – many of those I know from “low church” evangelical churches (myself included) often feel tired of the expressive paradigm, the constant straining for freshness and authenticity, the need to always find “our own words” – and we can feel very drawn to the liturgical. We are tired of paddling our own canoe and want to push into a current that is deep, and ancient, and let ourselves be carried. That sounds NICE. But many of those I know who come from “liturgical” traditions are also tired – they are tired of a repetition that came to feel dry, and formulaic, and constraining. They long for freshness, for freedom to express love for God in new ways, for variety and creativity. They feel their canoe has been drifting aimlessly, and they long for some energy and direction.

Maybe I’m misjudging where Smith is going? I’m mostly with him, but I have plenty of unresolved questions and wonderings. What do you think? We’ll let Oscar Wilde have the last word:

Do you wish to love? Use Love’s Litany, and the words will create the yearning from which the world fancies they spring.


you are what you love (2)

Posted by on Friday, 3 February, 2017

Thanks to all who have joined the conversation so far – I know we are all reading at a different pace, so feel free to drop in whenever and wherever you want. Here are my random reflections on chapter 2:

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want…

Smith begins chapter 2 with an illustration from a movie which has really got under my skin. It’s from Stalker by the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky.

Three men are on a journey together towards a destination called the Zone. They are told that in the Zone is a Room where they will find their heart’s desire. Their dreams will come true. Anticipation grows as they walk through a strange post-apolcalyptic landscape. And then they arrive at the threshold of the Room.

This is the most important moment in your life, he says. Your innermost wish will be made true.

But now the men hesitate. Because it dawns on them that their “heart’s desire” may not be what they think it is. If the thing we most desire and long for is finally revealed, are we confident it will be something good and beautiful and true? As Smith asks, “would you want to step into the Room? Are you confident that what you think you love aligns with your innermost longings?” Now there’s a question that’s going to linger…

As Smith observes, we’re well trained to know what the answer is meant to be. In a Bible study, in our worship songs, we will confidently assert that what I most want is to know God better, to love God more, to love my neighbour more, to be holy, to be like Jesus. But the simple image of that Room unmasks our pretences, makes us hesitate.

A slight tangent, maybe. But this scene reminds me of my favourite part of C.S. Lewis’s strange and beautiful novel Til We Have Faces (his retelling of an old Greek myth). The main character has reached a kind of final courtroom scene where she stands before the gods, and for the first time speaks completely truthfully, speaks from the heart, about her own life. Then she adds these words:

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean… When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

Or as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 4:5 – “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.” How do I feel about that, honestly?

I also loved Smith’s other movie illustration, since it comes from my own personal “golden age of film.” American Beauty was one of a number of films over a three year period in the late 90’s that seemed to me to be trying to say something Big and Deep and True about our human predicament, the mess we are in, our woundedness and lostness.

They were not “nice” movies, and were sometimes brutal, shocking, vulgar, provocative. They only contained glimmers and whispers of hope, but I guess what they did for me was stir up longing and desire for something better. For those who are interested, the other movies of that golden age for me were The Ice Storm, Buffalo ’66, Magnolia, Fight Club and The Thin Red Line. I haven’t been as deeply moved by the movies since then – is that because of the age I was then (early 20s) or because they don’t make them like that any more?

Anyway, the American Beauty scene Smith points to is the one where Lester Burnam finally reaches his own threshold, and it seems he is going to gain the desire of his heart – by bedding his daughter’s teenage friend he has been lusting after. But at that moment his eyes are opened and he realises what he thought he wanted is not what he really, really wants. His desire turns to dust in his mouth and he realises “the disorder of his loves.”

Smith suggests that what we really, really want is often hidden from our own awareness. Our loves and desires influence and direct us all the time, without conscious thought and deliberate choice – they operate at the level of what psychologists call “the adaptive unconscious.”

But our loves and desires are revealed by our habits and practices, and also shaped by them. So by paying attention to our habits and practices, our daily liturgies, we can discover what we really want. And by making choices to change our habits and practices, we can retrain and recalibrate our loves. We need to wake up to the “secular liturgies” that are shaping us every day and (de)forming our lives – the example Smith explores is the liturgical influence of the shopping mall. We need a personal “apocalypse” to unmask these powerful background influences in our lives.

So the biggest practical question emerging from these chapters for me: what are the “secular liturgies” that are shaping my desires and loves every day? I’m going to start making an actual, physical list. I want to name these daily habits that are (de)forming my character and heart without my awareness. I’ll reveal my list in good time, but I’d also love to hear what this chapter has stirred up in you…

What I really, really, really want is zig-a-zig-ah

you are what you love (1)

Posted by on Monday, 23 January, 2017

Some reflections on chapter 1 of “You Are What You Love” by James K.A. Smith:

It seems like Smith’s basic starting point here is that we have been deeply shaped, without realising it, by the idea that to be human is primarily to be a “thinking thing” – Descartes gets the blame (“I think, therefore I am”).

In Christian culture this idea is reflected in our common assumption that “right thinking” (i.e. right theology or understanding of the Bible) will lead automatically to good character and right living. We know from experience that this simply isn’t true. This observation really rings true for me.

As a little spin-off thought – the same assumption (that right thinking will lead to right living) seems to also be the basis of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) which is pretty hot right now. Some of you with training in psychotherapy etc may have some thoughts on this…?

Smith argues that we need to recover the biblical understanding that the centre of our humanity is the “heart” (or even the “guts”). By heart we don’t just mean the centre of emotions, but of deeper-rooted desires and longings. The heart is the place from which our lives are directed and orientated towards some kind of “vision” or telos. The most important thing about us is not what we think or believe – but what we love, what we want.

So the goal in all Christian discipleship is not simply to impart knowledge and information about God and the Bible – but nothing less than the re-orientation of our desires, the re-calibration of our loves.

Smith observes in passing that some parts of our Christian culture have somehow managed to be both anti-intellectual and focused on cognitive beliefs and right thinking rather than the heart. I recognise this as true of the evangelical circles I’ve mostly spent time in. Our sermons and Bible studies focus on correct doctrine and right thinking. But we also resist deep thinking about anything too complex, controversial, or confusing.

To stir the pot a little – it seems to me that the vibrant growth of some of the charismatic churches recently may be partly because they have rejected a purely cognitive form of faith, and recovered an emphasis on experience and emotion and the heart. But perhaps we also need some more deep thinking about our emotions and experiences? What I crave is a bringing together of head and heart in a C.S. Lewis kind of way. W.H Auden said that “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” Maybe the same is true of great theology – we need to think deeply about all the complexity and ambiguity and messiness of the heart?

Smith also wants us to consider this – that what we love is expressed by, and also shaped and formed by, habits and practices.

This is part of what drew me to read this book. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about some of my own habits, especially in relation to technology, media, social media, etc. And I’ve been becoming more aware (and alarmed!) by how these daily habits are a kind of “liturgy” which is forming and shaping me. The book that really shook me up on this stuff is called “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr – exploring how the internet is changing the way we think, actually shaping our brains.

I reach for my devices to check email, Facebook, news, sports news – many times every day. It’s compulsive and habitual, woven into the fabric of my days. But I’m aware that it mostly doesn’t shape me in positive ways, but makes me anxious, angry, distracted, overwhelmed by just too much stuff to process (both trivial, frothy stuff and Big Serious Stuff).

To quote my current favourite song by Romantica – “It’s getting harder to hear my heart these days, harder to hear my heart – there’s so much culture in the way.” (You can listen to the song here).

I’m becoming aware of the need for a radical, intentional change in my daily habits. I’m hoping this book and conversation will help.

On the positive side – Smith suggests we need strong habits of worship in order to cultivate virtue – good character, well-oriented loves. So we can become the kind of people who will choose the good instinctively, since our instincts have been re-calibrated. This is not about trying to make ourselves good by obeying rules – law-keeping focuses on external behaviour, but this is about the re-orientation of our hearts and desires.

I’m aware I have some theological questions around this – I have believed (and taught) that we are changed and transformed by grace and by the Spirit – and not primarily by our best efforts. How does this fit with Smith’s emphasis on habits and practices, on intentionally choosing to do those things that will shape us and make us good? I don’t feel they are necessarily in contradiction – I hope not, since I’m drawn to both! But I may need your help to untangle my confused thoughts.

That’s enough from me. The floor is open…

you are what you love (intro)

Posted by on Monday, 23 January, 2017

So I’ve somehow managed to persuade a wonderful bunch of friends scattered around various parts of the UK and Ireland to join me in reading a book and entering into some conversation together. Thanks to all of you who have been so willing to join me on this little journey. We have friends reading along in Coleraine, Ballyclare, Belfast, Dublin, Maynooth, Galway, London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and maybe a few other places as well! If anyone else would like to jump aboard, the book is called “You Are What You Love” by James K.A. Smith. It’s available in some good bookshops and all evil online retailers.

I’m hoping to read a chapter a week over the next couple of months, and blog my responses here. I’m not going to try and write a well-structured and polished piece of dazzling prose each week, but just set down some of my gut-reactions to the chapter in a pretty simple and maybe scruffy way. That seems more honest and also more sustainable! Some of it may be just summarising some key points from the book, some of it may be questions I have, or thoughts that were set in motion by what I read.

I’m just getting the ball rolling here – what I would really love is for y’all to jump in and share your thoughts and reactions. You can do that below in the comments, or on your own blogs or some other corner of the internet – just share a link here so we can find it. Be as brief or as long-winded as you like. And you don’t have to like the book!

As a good place to start: in chapter one Smith quotes some verses from Philippians 1:9-11, which I find helpful in setting the tone for our conversation:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.

I’d love for us to have plenty of intellectually stimulating discussion – but our primary goal is not simply knowledge as an end in itself, but knowledge that helps us love well and live well. I’m aware I can get carried away by a love of words and ideas and debate – so I need this reminder often. What I most need is not more information, but formation of my heart and character and relationships and desires and habits.

With that in mind, let’s begin. My responses to chapter 1 will follow shortly…

up above my head, I hear music in the air

Posted by on Thursday, 29 December, 2016
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

By most measures, 2016 has been a strange and troubling year. In different ways the darkness seems to have been pressing in a little closer, and we’ve had to look harder for the flickers of light.

At times like this, we need artists and musicians and storytellers and poets more than ever, to tell us the truth about where we are, and also to give us glimpses of some kind of deeper truth, something truer and deeper than the darkness, some whispers of hope, some rumours of grace.

So without further ado, and without much comment, here are a few of my favourite things that I’ve discovered in 2016. First, the music:

  1. The Phosporescent Blues (Punch Brothers)
  2. The Longest Day in History (David C. Clements)
  3. Tomorrow is my Turn (Rhiannon Giddens)
  4. Real Midnight (Birds of Chicago)
  5. Sermon on the Rocks (Josh Ritter)

I really haven’t seen enough movies this year to make a meaningful list, but I can maybe just about muster a top 3:

  1. Brooklyn
  2. The BFG
  3. The Big Short

We have enjoyed a lot of great TV series, so I guess they can have their own list. I should add that my number 1 is miles ahead of the competition (as much as I enjoyed the others). We watched all 6 seasons this year and it has gone straight into my “special reserve” list of all time great TV shows, along with The West Wing, Friday Night Lights and Firefly. It has its sentimental moments for sure, but it stands out from a lot of trendier-but-shallower shows as a thoughtful, truthful, funny and very moving reflection on all the challenges and joys of family life. And yes, a tear or two may have been shed. (In every episode).

  1. Parenthood
  2. The Crown
  3. Stranger Things

As for books, these are the novels that have most amused and amazed me this year:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
  2. Saint Maybe (Anne Tyler)
  3. We Are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas)
  4. The Spectator Bird (Wallace Stegner)
  5. Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)

And finally, three non-fiction books which have deeply impacted me this year:

  1. The Divine Conspiracy (Dallas Willard)
  2. A Time to Keep Silence (Patrick Leigh Fermor)
  3. Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought To Say) (Frederick Buechner)

Although if I’m being honest, the book that has had the deepest impact has been one which made my end of year list last year, and which I have been re-reading more slowly. If I can be allowed a little moment of evangelistic fervour- this is a book that I feel strongly should be read by every pastor and Christian leader. And every teacher or educator. And every parent. And every human being.

It’s called The Shallows, it’s by Nicholas Carr, and it’s about “how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember”. Although it doesn’t claim to be a book about spirituality, it made me pause and reflect, more than anything else I read this year, on the deepest questions we can ask: what kind of people do we want to be? who are we becoming? how are my ordinary daily habits shaping my mind (and soul)? It is currently leading me to consider making several semi-radical changes to my own habits as I go into a new year, especially in my relationship with technology and the internet. I imagine each person who reads it will come to different conclusions and make different choices, but I think we urgently need to pause and reflect and have this conversation.

Sermon over! As always, I would love to hear your highlights of the year, which will form the basis of my wishlists going into 2017. (Unless they look rubbish). Please let me know what you have loved this year. Grace and peace.

grace along the road less travelled

Posted by on Saturday, 2 January, 2016

A friend complained today that I had only posted my end of year “best of” lists on Facebook, therefore excluding my wisest and sanest friends (who are not on Facebook) from the conversation. So here they are, without comment (except to say these were all “new to me” this year, not necessarily released or published in 2015).


1. “Didn’t He Ramble” (Glen Hansard)
2. “Carrie & Lowell” (Sufjan Stevens)
3. “Islands” (Bear’s Den)
4. “Something More Than Free” (Jason Isbell)
5. “Sleeping Operator” (The Barr Brothers)

I also enjoyed “Monterey” (The Milk Carton Kids), “Nashville Obsolete” (Dave Rawlings Machine) and “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” (The Decemberists). Biggest disappointment after all the rave reviews – “Lost in The Dream” (The War on Drugs).


1. Inside Out
2. Birdman
3. Leviathan
4. My Neighbour Totoro
5. While We’re Young

Other movies I enjoyed this year: The Martian, Nightcrawler, Tomorrowland, Mockingjay 2, Foxcatcher, The Way Way Back, Back to the Future 2, and Cinderella (seriously). Worst movie I’ve seen this year: Serena. And no, I haven’t seen Star Wars yet.


1. Visions of Vocation (Steven Garber)
2. The Pursuit of God (A.W. Tozer)
3. The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (Nicholas Carr)
4. Why Work? (Dorothy Sayers)
5. A People’s History of the USA (Howard Zinn)

I also enjoyed Slow Church (Smith & Pattison), Reading for Preaching (Plantinga), Praying the Psalms (Brueggeman) and Finding God in the Psalms (Wright).


1. The Big Rock Candy Mountain (Wallace Stegner)
2. Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner)
3. The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan)
4. History of the Rain (Niall Williams)
5. The Chosen (Chaim Potok)

I also really enjoyed A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler), A History of Loneliness (John Boyne), Nora Webster (Colm Toibin), Chidhood’s End (Arthur C Clarke) and The Book of Lights (Chaim Potok). Most infuriating waste of time and paper: The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt).

I’d love to hear about your favourite discoveries and recommendations too…

Happy New Year!