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all of it was music

Posted by on Monday, 30 December, 2013

“And some people say it’s just rock and roll,

Aw, but it gets you right down to your soul.” (Nick Cave)

I’ve long ago given up on trying to keep up with what’s current when it comes to music, and settled for looking for good stuff from any era, mainly through the recommendations of wise friends. So it’s a surprise to find that four of my top five discoveries of 2013 were actually released in 2013. Get me, here on the cutting edge of culture and all! Here they are:

Hadestown (Anais Mitchell)

For Foes (Sullivan & Gold)

Vampires of the City (Vampire Weekend)

Push the Sky Away (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds)

Meet Me At The Edge Of The World (Over The Rhine)

I should confess that one half of Sullivan & Gold is a friend, so I’m not pretending to be impartial, but I found their debut record a delight from start to finish. Vampire Weekend is just a great pop record, which put a grin on my face and had me dancing round the living room with the kids. And the new albums from Nick Cave and Over the Rhine have both been slow-burners which crept up on me and won me over, after initially striking me as a disappointment in light of former glories. If I revisit this list in a few weeks I suspect they may be pushing for top spot.

But right now my number one slot, for the second year running, goes to a young folk-singer from Vermont called Anais Mitchell. Last year I was floored by her Young Man In America, and that sent me digging through her previous releases. What I found was a strange and wonderful album that is best described as a “folk opera” which retells the Greek myth of Orpheus in the underworld.

It features many different voices taking the different roles in the drama, including Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), Ben Knox Miller (of The Low Anthem) and Ani DiFranco, as well as Anais Mitchell herself. The story they tell works as a simple (tragic) love story, but also as a kind of spiritual parable, full of a Screwtapish insight into the diabolical thinking of the dark side:

“The first will be first, and the last will be last,

Turn your eyes to heaven – you’ll get a knife in the back.

Nobody’s righteous, nobody’s innocent,

Now that the chips are down.”

The setting for the story seems to be Depression-era America, but it casts all kinds of provocative and prophetic light on the greed and excess of our more recent history and our present. And if all of that sounds a bit worthy and dull, the music is just beautiful and a whole lot of fun – ranging from heart-breaking folk-ballads, to country, gospel, jazz, and foot-stomping Tom Waits-style blues. My kids love this record too, and it’s the most enjoyable, original, surprising and thought-provoking collection of songs I’ve found this year.

Other records I’ve enjoyed this year which just missed out: The Beast in its Tracks (Josh Ritter), Rhythm and Repose (Glen Hansard), Repave (Volcano Choir), Live in London (Leonard Cohen) and 69 Love Songs (The Magnetic Fields). That last one also provided my song of the year, The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side, which was played in our car at least a hundred times in the last few months, and sung at the top of our lungs by the whole family.

As ever, I’m relying on y’all to tell me what my next new favorite album should be…

“To those I’ve wronged, please forgive me.

I hope this song helps you believe me.

The holding on, the letting go,

It all gets buried soft and low,

But even then a song might grow,

And all of it was music. ” (Over the Rhine)

a room without books is like a body without a soul

Posted by on Sunday, 29 December, 2013

So without further ado, here are the five (fiction) books which have most inspired and intrigued me this year:

A Place In Time (Wendell Berry)

For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway)

Lilith (George MacDonald)

Wonder (R.J. Palacios)

The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)

I loved all of these books, but the Wendell Berry short story collection at the top is my run-away first choice. I find it hard to put into words why his fiction impacts me so deeply. He has been writing about the same fictional small town of Port William for several decades, and in this collection he revisits characters we have met in other stories and novels, over several generations of life in this unremarkable place. I have no idea how these stories would impact someone who hasn’t read any other Port William fiction. I would recommend starting with the novels Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter and Andy Catlett.

But coming to these stories after being steeped in those others, I found them profoundly powerful and beautiful. Simple. Funny. Heart-breaking. There is almost no other fiction I’ve read that even comes close to the same impact (maybe only Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and a couple of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels). I’m guessing it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those with ears to hear, this is something special.

Other books I enjoyed this year which didn’t make the final list? Transatlantic and Let The Great World Spin (Colum McCann), Silas Marner (George Eliot), And The Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini), Canada (Richard Ford), The Secret Scripture (Sebastian Barry), John (Niall Williams), Harvest (Jim Crace) and The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton).

And if I was includinf a few non-fiction books, the most significant have been Darrell Johnson’s Discipleship on the Edge (studies in Revelation), No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin (on the life of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt), and an astonishing little book called The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart (a reflection on God, evil and suffering in the shadow of the Asian Tsunami).

Sooooooo what about you? Which books have opened up new worlds, new pespectives, new hope for you this year?

moving pictures 2013

Posted by on Saturday, 28 December, 2013

(A reminder of the rules – these best of lists are based on the films, books and music that were new to me this year. They may or may not have been released or published in 2013.)

Here are the five movies which moved me most deeply, stayed with me long after they were finished, made me think and made me wonder:

Amour

Gravity

A Separation

Searching for Sugar Man

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

 

And here are the next five which just missed the cut: Lincoln, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, To The Wonder, The Boy With The Bike

And here are five which were just good old-fashioned, uncomplicated, pop-corn-munching, cinematic fun: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Argo, Looper, Good Vibrations, The World’s End.

I also watched and enjoyed a lot of kids’ movies, of which the most delightful were The Croods, Wreck-it Ralph, Turbo and Despicable Me 2.

Biggest disappointment of the year for me was The Master, with honourable mentions for Moonrise Kingdom and Star-Trek: Into Darkness.

And by far the worst movie I watched this year was the absolute mess that is AI: Artificial Intelligence. I’d never got round to watching it, but always wondered what happens when you mix the eccentric genius of Stanley Kubrick with the populist story-telling of Steven Spielberg. Now I know. (I would also include Star Wars Episodes I-III in this category but I couldn’t even stay in the room for their horrible duration).

And finally, the TV series I have most enjoyed this year have been Mad Men, Borgen, Community, The Good Wife and New Girl. After five seasons I’m now ready to officially induct Mad Men into the premium “five star” category along with some very select company (West Wing, Friday Night Lights, Firefly).

Now it’s your turn. Which flickering images on the wall of your cave have most captivated you this year?

in defence of “best of” lists

Posted by on Saturday, 28 December, 2013

OK so I’m not going to actually make a defence of the strange compulsive practice of making end of year “best of” lists. It’s something some of us like to do, that’s all. I’m also not going to make a defence of my own choices in my end of year lists (coming soon!), which are my personal choices and therefore beyond criticism  – although I’ll still enjoy a good argument if you tell me I’m wrong.

But I guess want to make a modest defence of the quantity of pop cultural consumption reflected in my end of year lists. Why do I feel the need to make a defence? Partly because there is a strong stream running through our religious culture which suggests that “secular” culture should be avoided by people of sincere faith in order to “come out of Babylon” and keep our minds pure.

And also because I partly agree with those who suggest that, as a culture, we are in danger of “amusing ourselves to death,” and filling every quiet moment with whatever noises and moving pictures are close at hand, even if it’s just chewing gum for the eyes and ears.

My modest (and not very original) suggestion is that the alternative to either retreating down the Christian rabbit-hole or mindlessly consuming junk-food for the soul, is to seek out the “best of” what is being created in our culture, and enter into conversation. If we believe God is everywhere present, that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” then we need to look for the glimmers of light and signs of life which are scattered through our culture like treasure from a shipwreck.

Here are two quotes from two of my favourite writers, which make the case better than I can. First, here’s George MacDonald:

And between the dances I read two or three of Wordsworth’s ballads to them. For I thought if I could get them to like poetry and beautiful things in words, it would not only do them good, but would help them to see what is in the Bible, and therefore to love it more. For I never could believe that a man who did not find God in other places, as well as in the Bible would ever find Him there at all. And I have always thought that to find God in other books enables us to see clearly that He is more in the Bible than in any other book, or all other books put together.

And this one is from Frederick Buechner:

From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein…

Literature, painting, music – the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.

 

 

Lewis, you told me this

Posted by on Friday, 22 November, 2013

It doesn’t take much to make me emotional, but one of the things that always moves me to tears is joyful old men. When I see an old man expressing genuine gladness I’m just gone. I’ve always assumed this is mostly to do with my paternal grandfather, who shared a home with us during my earliest years, and who was the most joyful old man I ever knew.

But I’m wondering if it may also have to do with a Belfast-born writer who died 50 years ago today. C.S. Lewis was only 65 when he died, but he exists in my imagination as a joyful old man. I owe him more than any other writer I have ever read and loved. I sat in a coffee shop in Coleraine this morning trying to hold back the tears, thinking about how much I’ve received from his writing. I want to try and express my gratitude but I don’t think I have the words.

I started reading C.S Lewis as a child (Narnia of course) and I’ve never stopped. I read Mere Christianity when I was maybe 15, and by the time I was a student I’d read pretty much everything he ever published. Since then, I feel like I’ve spent my life re-learning what Lewis had already taught me. In my favourite class at Regent we read ten “spiritual classics” from Christian history, including Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas a Kempis, Martin Luther – and in every single case what I read took me back to things I’d already encountered in Lewis. It became a running joke in our class that I would inevitably claim that “C.S. Lewis says the same thing, only better.”

My friend Ben has just released a beautiful album with his band Sullivan & Gold (which you should all go and buy now for everyone you love for Christmas) and on my favourite song he sings “Lewis, you told me this.” I’m not sure what Ben was thinking about, but it expresses what I’ve felt so often. Every time I think I’ve had a profound and original thought I realise Lewis has already said it much better.

I know lots of people love Lewis as an apologist, someone who provided logical arguments in defence of the reasonableness of the Christian faith. And I certainly appreciate this aspect of Lewis. He helps me think clearly. He makes the complex simple. He is persuasive and articulate, full of robust common sense.

But what I love most deeply about Lewis is not the way he defends the truth, but the way he evokes what is good and beautiful. There is a quality of joy and delight in his best writing that draws out my deepest desires and feeds my soul. Someone said reading Lewis is like “opening a window in a stuffy room.” He wakes me up. His writing is healing and restorative for the parts of me that are most weary and lost.

In the movie Shadowlands we hear C.S Lewis say that “we read to know we’re not alone.” Lewis has been a companion and friend to me in my journey. No other writer has more often expressed what I’ve felt but couldn’t articulate, or what I’ve thought but never dared say out loud. He makes me feel less lonely.

Maybe the best I can say is that Lewis’s writing creates in me the kind of joyful longing which he himself describes. The shyness and awkwardness he describes is what I feel in trying to tell you why I love his books.

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.

We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.

But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.

These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

This is from an essay called The Weight of Glory which may be the best thing he ever wrote.

Thank you, Jack.

I didn’t notice the glory

Posted by on Monday, 31 December, 2012

And finally my favourite movies of 2012. This will be quick, because it’s 1o:30pm, and because I didn’t watch a lot of great movies this year (and didn’t keep a careful note so may have forgotten some gems):

  1. The Tree of Life. I watched this in January and it has stayed with me all through the year. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The parts that tell the story of a family growing up together are in themselves as beautiful and truthful as anything I’ve seen in a movie. But the sequences that place this human story in the context of the whole drama of life on earth, the birth of galaxies and stars and dinosaurs, take this to another level. I know some people think it’s pretentious nonsense. But they haven’t read the book of Job. It’s the most theologically serious of films, yet full of quiet joy. Not everything works and the ending is a bit mushy. But this is breathtaking film-making. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
  2. The Lives of Others. Everyone I trust had told me long ago that this is a brilliant movie. I have no idea why I waited until now to confirm that they were 100% right. It’s a simple movie in many ways, a good story well told, and acted with understated dignity. Very moving, very powerful. One of the great movies of our generation.
  3. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a sign of the lack of memorable films this year (apart from my top 2) that I’ve picked a movie I admired but probably didn’t love. This is classy film-making, clever and slick, flawlessly acted, keeping the tension all the way through, but never quite stirring the heart and not leaving much to think about when it was done.

Other movies I enjoyed this year: Midnight in Paris, Never Let Me Go, The Artist, Lawless, Drive, I’ve Loved You So Long, Kickass, The Hobbit.

I have a very long list of movies I want to watch as soon as possible in 2013, including The Master, Rust and Bone, Lincoln, To The Wonder, Silver Lining Playbook, Argo, Django Unchained, Life of Pi.

What are the movies that have stayed with you from 2012?

Peace to you and all you love in this New Year.

we read to know we’re not alone

Posted by on Monday, 31 December, 2012

If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it?… A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen within us. (Franz Kafka)

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to read. And probably assumes that I mostly read weighty books about Christian life and theology. Which is partly true. This year there have been lots of books of that kind (though not all weighty) which have stirred my heart and shaped my thinking: How God Became King (Tom Wright), The Wisdom of Stability (Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove), Washed and Waiting (Wesley Hill), Evangelism after Christendom (Bryan Stone), Introverts in the Church (Adam McHugh), The End of Sexual Identity (Jenell Williams Paris). I also found a lot of food for thought in The Penguin History of the USA (Hugh Brogan) and Religion for Atheists (Alain de Botton).

But my first love when it comes to reading is fiction. A good story well told is what gives me most joy, and perhaps also what does me most good. I read an essay by Eugene Peterson years ago about why those who want to be pastors and preachers must read good fiction,  and I wholeheartedly agree. Maybe I’ll write about that here sometime.

Anyway, when it came to picking my favourite reads of 2012, all the leading contenders were novels, and here are the winners:

  1. Prodigal Summer (Barbara Kingsolver). Over the last few years she has become one of my most-loved novelists (only Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson are in the same ballpark). For me this is her third masterpiece (along with The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna). It deals with themes of nature and ecology, the love of land and place, and above all loneliness and the longing for family. It broke my heart but left me hopeful. Beautiful.
  2. Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides). This has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, and if I’m honest, what put me off reading it was a kind of squeamishness about the central premise (the main character in the novel was born with ambiguous gender). When I finally read it I felt genuinely rebuked for my hesitation. The book shines the most compassionate of lights onto a character (like many in our world) struggling with questions of identity and belonging, feeling like a misfit and a mistake. It’s a big, epic, rip-roaring, page-turner of a novel, taking in the Greek-Turkish wars of the early 20th century, the rise of the car industry in Detroit, the nation of Islam, and much more. It made me laugh and cry in equal measure, and left me feeling smarter and more compassionate. What more do you want in a novel? (I read it just after being distinctly underwhelmed by Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and this was everything I had hoped that book would be).
  3. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami). I don’t really know what to say about this one. It’s one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read, 600 pages of bizarre characters, jumping between modern-day Japan and the war in China-Mongolia in the 1940s, blurring the lines between reality and dreams and imagination. I don’t really have any idea what it is all about. But I could not put it down and devoured it in 2 days. It’s like a metaphysical detective novel trying to solve the mystery of human existence. I felt like it was always on the verge of revealing to me the meaning of my life. Having been born in Japan (and with a father who grew up there) I’m fascinated by trying to understand the Japanese mind, and I even found the small village where I was born in the middle of all the madness in this novel. Not for everyone, but impossible to forget.

Other novels I enjoyed this year: Black Dogs (Ian McEwan), Number 5 (Glenn Patterson), Dirt Music (Tim Winton), Bel Canto (Ann Patchett), The Long Song (Andrea Levy), and two trilogies for young adults – The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and the astonishing Chaos Walking trilogy (Patrick Ness).

Which books have hammered on your skull and thawed your frozen parts this year?

young man in 2012

Posted by on Monday, 31 December, 2012

It’s the 31st December. So it must be time to make some lists.

And here are the rules (because there have to be rules). I’m not concerned about whether these were released or published in 2012, they just have to be new to me. And I’m not making any claims about what is “best” from some mythical vantage point of neutral objectivity. These are my favourite cultural artefacts of the year – the ones I’ve most enjoyed, or which have most deeply moved or inspired me. And this year I’m just going to do top 3 lists. First the music:

  1. Young Man in America (Anais Mitchell). This was far and away my favourite record of the year, and probably my favourite new discovery of the past few years. I’m guessing her voice is one not everyone will love, but I just found this beautiful, sad, compassionate, wise, lovely. The album is haunted by the influence of the songwriter’s father (his picture appears on the cover) and a deep longing for a father to shepherd and a mother to shelter us. “Another wayward son waiting on oblivion/Waiting on the kingdom come to meet me in my sin/Waiting to be born again.” Stunning.
  2. Abattoir Blues (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). It was going to see Lawless and enjoying the soundtrack that send me back to explore some more of Nick Cave’s back catalogue. This is just brilliant. And bonkers. And beautiful. No-one else writes lyrics like Cave, mixing the sublime and the apocalypic with the everyday: “The sky’s on fire, the dead are heaped across the land/I went to bed last night and my moral code got jammed/I woke up this morning with a Frappucino in my hand.” And the gosple choir backing lifts this record to another level. I’ve been so hung up on this first part of the double-album I haven’t even got round to exploring the second part (The Lyre of Orpheus).
  3. Babel (Mumford & Sons). For some reason, the Mumfords are one of those bands that music critics and music snobs love to hate. And I can even understand a little bit (I have a bit of the music snob in me). The music can be repetitive, they overdo the hoedowns, and the lyrics often fall back on stock “inspiring phrases” about light and darkness and whatever. In terms of musical originality and lyrical subtlety they can’t hold a candle to my first two choices. But the Mumfords also have something – an energy, a wholehearted sincerity, a kind of infectious joy – which sets them apart. I think the sincerity and optimism is part of why they are hated. This has been the most played album in our car, largely because our kids, lacking any kind of snobbery or pretentiousness, just love it and head-bang in the back seat with faces full of pure delight. It’s a great pop record.

Other albums I enjoyed this year: Oh Pioneer (Duke Special), Mermaid Avenue (Billy Bragg & Wilco), Sing the Delta (Iris DeMent), Brothers (The Black Keys), Love & War & The Sea In Between (Josh Garrels), Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan).

I’d love to hear about the music that has stirred your soul this year. Books and movies to follow.

on Puritans and Indians and sharing life together

Posted by on Tuesday, 21 August, 2012

Well I don’t have anything mind-blowing to write about, but I’m determined to get back on the blogging train so here’s what I’ve been thinking about the last few days…

We’ve been watching the HBO mini-series about the life of the second American president, John Adams. That has got me all in a historical frame of mind so I dug out the one-volume American history I’ve started several times before, and I’m determined to get past the War of Independence this time.

One recurring theme has particularly provoked me to ponder. When the first Puritans came to New England, they were determined to create a new kind of society that would be a City on a Hill for the rest of the world. With that bold vision in mind, they wanted to arrange the new settlements in such a way that community life revolved around a small town with the church at its heart. But they were frustrated in their hopes by the eagerness of the settlers to move out into the countryside, driven not by a love of rolling hills and fresh air, but by a lust for more land, an obsession with private property and a dream of their own individual paradise.

This theme comes up again in the deeply depressing chapter about the clash between the settlers and the native American people who had lived on the land for generations. What struck me was that the European settlers were simply incapable of understanding the world-view of the “Indians,” who saw life in communitarian terms and had almost no room for the notion of private property (which made it too easy for the late arrivals to claim for themselves what no-one had ever thought of claiming as a personal possession). This is not to romanticise the native Americans, who also had their violent side, but I find it sad that the zealously “Christian” settlers were unable to understand a way of thinking that was about community and not individualism, about sharing the land and its resources rather than dividing it up into portions of private property.

It got me thinking about the New Testament claim that God in Christ is creating a new kind of society, a new humanity. And in the glimpses we get of the early church in Acts, this new humanity found expression in local communities who shared life together, eating in each other’s homes with glad and sincere hearts, and sharing their possessions so that there was no needy person among them.

So this is what I’m currently pondering. If our churches are simply like clubs for people who believe a lot of the same things, they will fit in very comfortably with the individualism and materialism of our culture. There’s nothing radical about individuals coming together, leaving their private paradises for a little while each week to get together and share some common interests, and then retreating to our castles and pulling up the draw-bridge.

But to the extent that we take seriously the idea that the cross of Christ and the Spirit of God are creating a new kind of society, we will start to share life together  in ways that our culture cannot understand. And that will include a radically different view of possessions and property. We will be as exotic and strange (and threatening?) to our neighbours as the Indian tribes were to the Pilgrims.

That’s really as far as I’ve got, but I’m interested in your thoughts on what this strange alternative community looks like in our time and place. How do we share life together in a way that confounds and confuses our neighbours?

on the adversary behind the curtain

Posted by on Wednesday, 22 February, 2012

In our little corner of the world we just spent a few weeks exploring the foothills of the strange and powerful Book of Job. Early on in the drama, after Job has lost his wealth and his children, we hear these familiar words from his mouth: 

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will  depart.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.

These are among the best-known and best-loved words in Job, and we often take them to be straight-forwardly admirable – this is how a faithful person should respond when tragedy strikes. Job’s words have even found their way into the bridge-bit of one of our best modern worship songs. And I’ve no doubt there’s a lot of courage and wisdom to be found in those words.

It’s just that the more I look at the story surrounding these words, the more I’m not quite sure how to respond to them. For one thing, Job’s confidence doesn’t last very long – as his suffering intensifies, his next expression of confidence in God sounds a lot more wobbly, and a few verses later he is cursing the day he was born and wishing he was dead. The impression I’m left with is that the words above represent a kind of conventional, expected religious response – the one Job had been trained to give, the right answer. He uses it as an instinctive response and protective wall, but it isn’t able to hold back the rising flood waters of doubt and anger and confusion which soon burst through. To find a place of honest hope, Job will have to give voice to all those dark emotions and wrestle with God. So I find Job’s later expressions of trust (“though he slay me, yet will I hope in him”) more honest, more hard-won, more powerful.

But that’s not all that bothers me about Job’s initial response. What troubles me most is the way Job bluntly attributes the death of his children to the direct action of God – Yahweh gives and Yahweh takes away. It troubles me on a personal, emotional level, but I think it’s also in tension with the opening scenes of the drama of Job, where we saw God in dialogue with the Adversary. There we heard the Adversary provoking God to “stretch out his hand” against Job, but God responded by giving the Adversary permission (within set limits) to attack Job. For those of us who have overheard this dialogue behind the curtain, it seems clear that it wasn’t the hand of God that struck Job, but the hand of the enemy.

Of course that distinction doesn’t take away the dark questions about why God gives such freedom or permission to the enemy to hurt and kill and destroy. But it seems to me like a vital distinction emotionally and pastorally,  for the sake of our hearts and our view of the Father’s character. We need the space, given by the drama of Job, to say in the face of tragedy that  “this is not how it’s supposed to be”, “this is not good”, this is not the good and perfect and pleasing will of God. We do damage to our hearts when we look at something damaged and twisted and evil (demonic) and try and find a way to call it good.

As Mrs Landingham once said, in the greatest episode of the greatest TV show ever made, “God doesn’t make cars crash and you know it.”

A friend of mine, who has walked through his own Job-like story with the death of a brother and a father, recently wrote these words after losing a friend:

Blessed are those who mourn, who do not go gently, nor call that night “good”, who rage when brushed by Lazarus’ stench, who defy every story’s ending, who contradict Job (who hadn’t seen the adversary behind the curtain), and say, “He gives and gives and gives us life, he does not take away”, whose final enemy, like Life’s author, is death, whose love, like His, is stronger than the grave. Who do not confuse the will of God with the will of His enemy, but, like Jesus, weep bitterly at the tomb and mock its clutch by calling it “sleep”. Blessed are those who mourn, for their greatest comfort will be the surprising joy and wholeness of hearts long torn, when the cloud of lost onlookers is to flesh reborn and once again we embrace and our eyes meet, never again to be still.

 Terence Malick’s breathtaking film, The Tree of Life, is deeply influenced and inspired by the book of Job – but Malick chose to put the words “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” on the lips of the “Job’s comforter” character, mumbling useless platitudes with no power to comfort a mother who has lost her son. That seems kind of right to me. I’ll confess I’ve always struggled to understand why some people seem to consider it a comfort when a child or young person has died to assert that “God took him.” These words from David Bentley Hart seem to me to strike a better, deeper, more hopeful and healing note:

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy…We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

And now, I’d love to hear your thoughts.