Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Living in Our Paper towns: a Theological Review/ Response to John Green's Paper towns (Book review)

As promised, I once again venture into the realm of book reviews, this time to John Green’s Paper Towns. (This is as good a place as any to give the customary spoiler warning for anyone who doesn’t want to be spoiled. I talk mainly about the themes rather than the plot, but I inevitably give away plot details for people who have not read the book or seen the move. You have been warned.) Paper Towns is a popular teen mystery novel which has recently been adapted to film. Green has written a number of novels, and this is the second to be adapted into a film after The Fault in the Stars. (Note: this review is based on the book, as I haven’t yet seen the movie). He is also a big deal on YouTube, where he has a number of channels, and who (based on the contact of his novels) seemed to have had a crush on a beautiful but complex girl when he was a teenager. (It should also be noted that Green has (or had?) some sort of Christian faith, but how he would label it, I do not know.) Paper Towns is a well written and thought proving book, and is well worth the time reading it. In this review, I will unpack the key theme or motif of the book: the idea of a “paper town” from a theological point of view. But firstly, a quick synopsis. The story follows protagonist Quintin (or “Q,”) who has a crush, on his neighbour, Margo. One night, Margo takes Q out on a night of crazy teenage antics and revenge, before she disappears. Q spends the rest of the book try to work out where she is gone and trying to find her, along with his friends, Ben and Radar, and one of Margo’s friends, Lacey.

Central to the book is the idea of a “paper town,” which is not a concept most people would be familiar with. In the literal sense, a Paper Town is a town which doesn’t really exist, but is a town (or subdivision) which has been planned but was never built, or a town which is marked on a map, but which isn’t really there. It is used by Margo as a metaphor or motif for both the shallowness and faultily of the people who live in real life towns and lives that they lead. She critiques our society where people live self-indulgent lives for their own pleasure, where things are built that don’t last and where people destroy the future for the sake of present comforts. She says that she has never met anyone who “cares about anything that matters.” And later, she admits that this “paperness” (yeah, I totally just made up a new word) is not just something external, which she sees in the world around her, but also something which see inside herself. 

Margo has a valid critique of the modern/postmodern western society in which we live, which from a theological point of view, I would agree with. Many people do live shallow, paper lives, driven by materialism and self-gratification, where people build shallow relationship while chasing dreams which will not last. But the critique runs deeper than just our current culture; it goes to the heart of our human nature.  The “paper” town Margo describes in nothing new. Indeed, it sounds a lot like the “meaninglessness” the writer of Ecclesiastes also saw in the society he lived in thousands of years ago. Both realise that the way people live somehow falls short of some intrinsic standard for human living. And they are onto something here. Humans aren’t created to live paper lives. We are created in God’s image, to live lives of richness in relationships (with God and with each other), in meaning and with purpose. But the image has been distorted, and thus we realise, like Margo, that something is not right, that we are “living paper lives in a paper town.”

Faced with this paperness, Margo must decide how to respond. And her response is to run away, to leave everything she knows behind. Now, from a literary point of view, this is a good thing, as it’s what gives us the plot for the book. The rest of the book follows the Q and his friends tempting to solve the mystery of where Margo is, and it would be a pretty boring book if she stayed where she was. And this is a choice that many people make. Many, when face with the paperness of our lives, choice to ran way, it the hope that the grass maybe greener somewhere else. Unfortunately, this is only ever a temporary solution. Our paperness will find us in our new location.

Now, this is not to say that we should never move on to a new place, that is not what I am saying. We should always be open to new opportunities in new places. And there is definitely something to be said for taking time out from our lives, by seeking solitude for a time (to pray, for those of us who are that way inclined) or by entering another world thought books, TV or movies. This can be a healthy thing in moderation. However, running away from a problem is not going to make it go away. As Christians, escapism is a real temptation, and is often an accusation  leveled at the church. Often, Christians feel to  threatened or overwhelmed by the world and the problems they see around them, their response is to try to escape. Often we create our own “Christian” subculture, and try and live inside it, and only leave from time to time when we feel guilty about not evangelising. And some of the ways we sometime understand salvation, as “escaping” our earthly lives and going to Heaven, doesn’t help, as it gives us the impression that it’s okay to forget about the world around us, as we’re going to be leaving this world anyway. However, if we follow the God of The Bible, this cannot be our response. Because God did not give up on our paper selves. He entered our paper world, as a human, to redeem us, to take away our paperness, to “remove our hearts of stone (or paper) from our flesh and give us hearts of flesh.” (See Ezekiel 36:26)

So our repose to our paper towns should not be an escape, but some sort engagement with it, to love it, as God loved it (John 3:16). But how far do we go? Throughout the story, Q is relentless in his pursuit of Margo. He follows the clues wherever they led in order to find her: to abandoned buildings, failed sub divisions, and half away across America. And he dragged his friends along with him when he could. In a way, this story could be read as a retelling of parable of the lost sheep. In that parable, the Shepherd leaves all behind in order to find one sheep, who he loves (Luke 15:3-7). Likewise Q drops everything and misses his high school graduation in order to find Margo, who he loves. Now, his love is a romantic love, so it is not a perfect parallel. But in an age where love is all about what “feel good for me,” self-sacrificial love is a rare and beautiful thing. (Indeed, this story covers many different types of love: romantic love, friendship love, family love.) This is the type of love that we should have for those around us, the type that is willing to drop what we are doing to help someone in need. Because this is the type of love that people notice, that changes them. It showed Margo, who believed that no one loved her, that she was wrong. It helped her to see that, while she could leave her paper hometown, by doing so, she was hurting people who really did care about her.

Likewise, our repose to our paper towns should be a fierce and unrelenting love. For we follow a God who loved our paper town with a love that caused him to take on flesh, a love which drove him to the Cross, a love which he sealed by giving us the gift of the Spirit, so our lives would no longer be paper lives. This is the love which God shows us, and the love he calls us to emulate. There is a real hunger out there for something real, something more than paper. Will the church be that place of realness: of hope, of joy, of love? Will it be a community which cares about the things that mater, and not get caught up in the paper tail around us?

The God we follow is a God who is redeeming creation and humanity. And he calls us to live in our own Paper Towns, as ambassadors of the kingdom which is not paper, but real and living. We do this, not by leaving our paper towns, but by loving them, in a way with shows that there are still people who, as Margo would say, care about this things that matter: love, hope, community, people. We are called to live out our faith by being real people in Paper Towns. 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Celtic Christian Spirituality: How Different Was it to "Roman" Christian Spirituality?

Another essay from my Laidlaw days, this one looking at the differences between Celtic Christian Spirituality and "Roman" Christian Spirituality, with particular  reference to the Synod of Whitby. This was for the Historical and contemporary models of Spirituality paper.
 I think that this will probably be the last one I upload here (unless I can work out how to get at the hard drive on my old computer.) There a few other with are okay, but not really that interesting. 

Question: Assess the view that Celtic Christian spirituality was significantly different from Roman Christian spirituality, and that the Synod of Whitby marks the triumph of the latter over the former.

Many different people groups have accepted the gospel in the churches’ 2000 year history. Recently, the spirituality practiced by one of these people groups, the Celts, has grown in popularity. This growing popularity makes it important to ask questions about Celtic spirituality. We must ask questions about the historical context in which it grew up and how much the forms of this spirituality practised today reflect the forms which were practiced in its home contexts. Asking these questions leads us to see that there is one event which historians see as a turning point which led to the decline of Celtic spirituality. The Synod of Whitby is seen as a meeting between “Roman”[1] and Celtic expressions of Christianity, in which a “Roman” triumph led to the decline of Celtic Christianity. Yet was this the case? How much of a turning point was the Synod of Whitby really? And were Celtic expressions of Christianity really that different to “Roman” expressions? These are the questions which this essay will attempt to answer. It will explore the historical background of the Celtic people and some of the key leaders of its faith. It will then turn to look at the characteristics of Celtic spirituality, and how they differ to “Roman” forms. It will then look at the synod itself and explore some of the historical factors which lead to the decline of Celtic spirituality. It will show that Celtic spirituality is more diverse than it is understood to be, and that the historical factors are more complicated than is popularly understood.

Historical Background
  The Celts were a diverse people and language group who lived in large parts of Europe in pre-Roman times.[2] However, by the time of Christianity, much of their land and culture had been lost to the Romans and they had been pushed back to “the ends of the earth.[3] Their remaining areas included Ireland, Wales and Scotland. These British Celtics were composed of two major groups. The Brythonic Celts lived in what is today England, Wales and southern Scotland.[4] However, this area was invaded by Rome, and thus much of their culture was lost.  The Goidelic Celts lived in what are now Ireland, Scotland and Wales.[5] These areas was not invaded by Rome, and thus were some of the last strongholds of the Celtic people, although it still had a lot of interaction with the outside world, as the archaeology suggests.[6] It is thus Christianity in these areas, from around 400 to 1170 AD, which is commonly thought of as Celtic Christianity. However, this still represents diverse people groups who had very different types of spirituality. For example, Ireland at this time was not one political unit, but many different kingdoms, which were based on a tribal or clan system.[7] This essay will focus on the spirituality of the Irish, as well as the area which Irish missionaries influenced.

Saints and Leaders

  We turn now to some of the important people associated with Celtic Christianity. While there were Celtic Christians before him, and despite not being a Celt, St Patrick is seen as one of the earliest heroes and pioneers of the Celtic church.[8] Patrick was a native of Britain who had been captured by pirates and enslaved in Ireland. However, he came to know God, and later escaped after God spoke to him in a dream. Yet God called him back to Ireland as a missionary,[9]  and he returned in 432.[10] He spent the rest of his life in Ireland and successfully converted many people. Patrick left behind two written works: his Confession and letter to Corotitcus. There is also Patrick’s breastplate, or lorica, which is attributed to him, but which he is unlikely to have written.[11] Furthermore, there are many lives of Patrick, most of which come from the seventh century.[12] These are where most of the stories and legends surrounding Patrick come from. While Patrick is highly regarded today, he in fact represents a larger movement of early mission to Ireland. Indeed, there’s a theory that two “Patricks” existed, whose identities have been merged into one.[13] Bede speaks of “Palladius” being the first bishop of Ireland, rather than Patrick, making a possible candidate.[14] Nevertheless, the missionary movement which Patrick is a part of led to the conversion of most of Ireland, making it a stronghold of Christianity. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Book Review: Five Reasons Why You Should Read The Man Who was Thursday by G K Chesterton

So, since I’m trying to get back into this blogging thing, I thought that one thing I could do was a little book review/ response whenever I finish reading a book. Maybe not every book I read, but at least those where there is something interesting to say about it.  So, since I finished reading The Man Who was Thursday by G K Chesterton the other day, it seemed like a good place to start. Now, I wasn’t sure  how I should go about writing this, until I thought to myself “hey, everyone likes lists on the internet, why don’t I write it as a list.” So here it is: five reasons why you should read The Man Who was Thursday: a Nightmare by G K Chesterton. (Please note that while I have done my best to be as spoiler free as possible, there will enviable be some spoilers below.)

Firstly though, a quick praise of what the book is about. It follows the adventures of Gabriel Syme, a poet and undercover Police officer who is attempting to infiltrate the Central Anarchist council of Europe. He gets himself elected to the council, where each member is code-named for a day of the week, as "Thursday." However, he soon learns that things are not what they seem to be…

  1)  Okay, so lest start with the main reason I first read this book: Chesterton was a major influence on C S Lewis, (among others) who happens to be one of my favourite writers. And Lewis went on to influence many other writers, such as JKR. So Chesterton is part of the literary lineage to which of much of what is popularly read today belongs, and thus someone who is interesting to read from this point of view. So who is this Chesterton guy? He was an English writer and academic who has commonly been referred to as the “Prince of Paradox.” His other works includes the Father Brown short stories, and works of apologetics (such as Orthodoxy and The Ever Lasting Man.) It is also interesting to note that while he was a Protestant early on in his life (and while he was writing The Man Who Was Thursday), he later became a Roman Catholic.  

  2)  The book was first published in 1908, and so gives us a glimpse into another time in history. Okay, so maybe this point is a bit nerdy for some people, but for me personally I find it fascinating reading something from another time and place, not only to see what thoughts and beliefs they held in that time, but also as a mirror to better understand my own time and place. And unlike a lot of other older novel, I actually found it quite readable, which leads me to point three…

  3)   It’s an entertaining read. Which is important, because the reason (I’m sure) most of us read novels is to be entertained.  And I can’t think of many books that have any many twists and turn as this on which keep the reader guess, not just what’s going to happen and even what the books about, right up to the last page. 

  4)  It will make you think. Whether or not you agree with Chesterton, there is no denying the wit and intelligence of this guy, which is obvious right from the first chapter. This would be a great book for a book reading club, as there will be a lot to talk about! It is full with quips and one-liners, and a will leave you wondering (if you let it) firstly what he means, and then if you agree with what he is saying, or not.

  5)  A glimpse of grace. This is one of those books where it is difficult to work out what the main theme or message (if there is one) is. From my reading, one of the central idea is that goodness can be found all around us. Often, we fail to see it in the ordinary, mundane things which surround us. Sometimes, goodness or grace comes to us from unexpected places, and we can often miss it for a number of reasons. Sometimes, a change of perspective or some more information is required to see it. Other times, we have to pull back the certain and look a little harder. But, this book reminded me that, even in the darkest places, there is still hope, still goodness.

So, there you have it! Feel free to comment and let me know what you think of The Man Who was Thursday if you have read it (especially if you read it because of this) or what else you have been reading and think I might like to read. Right now I’m doing some worldview reading, so probably won’t review that, but I plain to reread Paper Towns before the movie comes out, so might do that one sometime soon.