James’s Blog: Death by Watching.

James’s Blog:  Death by Watching.

Above the waist Philip oozed calm confidence, but underneath the desk his foot tapped like a woodpecker. Opposite him, the young executive leaned back in his swivel chair, Philip’s CV in one hand and a twirling pen in the other.

“I see that you’ve got plenty of experience in television, Mr Hendrickson.”

“Yes,” said Philip.

Pause.

Say something else, you idiot!

“Yes,” Philip repeated. “Plenty of experience.”

Well, that was fantastic.

“It’s good,” the executive continued, “that you know what it takes to provide high quality amusement.  That’s what we need.”

“’Amusement’?” said Philip.

“Sorry?” said the executive.

“You said ‘amusement’? I thought this was more of a…an educational type of channel.”

The executive laughed. “Entertainment is education, Mr Hendrickson.”

“Of course,” said Philip, blushing. Entertainment is education? What did that even mean?

“I have to say,” said the executive, ignoring Philip’s embarrassment, “that I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen today. I think you’ll fit in well at Big Jesus TV. Very well.”

Philip’s nervous foot slowed to a stop.

“You’re offering me the job?”

“Well,” the executive placed the CV on his desk and threw Philip a winning smile, “let’s just say that you can expect an encouraging phone call later today.”

“Great!” Philip really meant it.

“Do you have any questions?” the executive leaned forward, elbows on the desk and hands clasped together.

“Actually, I do. You want me to work on this program, Super Amazing Mission Stories, about people telling others about Jesus, right?”

“Yes.” The executive rested his head on his intertwined fingers and grinned.

“Well, I was wondering, where do the stories come from?”

The executive lifted himself from the desk, leaned back in his chair again and gestured vaguely.

“Here and there. Books. The Internet. We get them from all over the place really. Most of them need, you know, tweaking a bit.”

“Tweaking?” said Philip.

“Yeah, to make them more…interesting. More exciting.” The executive tapped the side of his nose knowingly. “So that God gets more glory, of course.”

Philip waited.

“I don’t understand. Are you saying that you make bits up?” he said, eventually.

“Bingo,” said the executive, his finger swooping to point at Philip as though he were picking him out of a crowd.

“Is that…is that OK?” said Philip.

The executive shrugged. “Jesus made stories up all the time. It’s basically the same thing.”

“Oh,” said Philip. He’d never thought about it like that before.

“It’s our goal, to beam exciting and inspirational stories to the millions who subscribe to our service. But not too inspirational, hey?” said the executive, with a conspiratorial wink.

“But isn’t that the point? To inspire others to share their faith?”

“Philip,” said the executive, shaking his head, “can I call you Philip?”

“Please do.”

“Philip, think about it. If people are out there,” the executive said, waving his hand at the wall, “sharing their faith, what aren’t they doing?”

“Ummmm,” said Philip, “watching TV?”

“Exactly! We don’t provide Big Jesus TV in order to encourage people to not watch Big Jesus TV. Can you imagine that? What would our advertisers say?”

The executive burst out laughing, as though he’d just heard the punchline to an exceptionally good joke.

“So you want people to be watching your channel rather than actually doing stuff for God?” said Philip.

“Watching our channel is doing stuff for God. When you’re watching Big Jesus TV you’re being edified and built up. You can’t be out shoplifting or committing adultery while you’re watching us, can you?”

“No, I suppose not,” said Philip. He thought he was beginning to understand. “I guess that if people are going to be consumers, they should at least be consuming something worthwhile.”

“I knew you’d fit in here!” The executive slammed his fist on the desk. “That’s the Big Jesus mindset to a tee. Though I don’t like to call people ‘consumers’. It’s a bit demeaning. I prefer the term ‘addicts’.”

“’Addicts’?”

“Yes. Consumers are wishy-washy and will head off as soon as they get the slightest sniff of a better bargain. Addicts are dependable. They’ll never leave you in the lurch. Being addicted to God is good, right?”

“And being addicted to Big Jesus TV?” said Philip.

“For most people, it’s the same thing,” said the executive. “Trust me.”

James’s Blog: The Sermon as Art.

James’s Blog:  The Sermon as Art.

Over the years, the line between writing a story and preparing a sermon has become blurred. These days, I tend to take the same approach with both, which means that I spend longer editing a sermon than writing it in the first place. I revisit it frequently, toying with the order of paragraphs, or searching for exactly the right image or turn of phrase.

It’s not about ‘trying to be clever’.  The sermon – like every effort to communicate – is actually a work of art, and needs to be treated as such.

Art can be a spiritual experience for people. A poem, painting, story, film or sculpture has the power to give people a taste of what lies beyond themselves. This is one of the ways in which God has weaved revelation into the fabric of what it means to be human. The sermon is unique among art in that the explicit contract between artist and audience is that God is front and centre. Some people turn hostile if they suspect that you’re trying to sneak God into areas where He’s forbidden, but with the sermon you’re allowed to be blunt.

Because of this, I find myself squirming in the pew if I suspect that I’m listening to a preacher who takes more care over constructing e-mails than he does over sermons.

“It’s about God. It’s got nothing to do with me” is an excuse used by sometimes well-meaning, sometimes lazy preachers who think that God is a KitchenAid mixer – you just throw in the ingredients, and leave Him to it. This approach denies one of the fundamental concepts of the Bible, namely that God, as an act of love, freely delegates to us responsibility for His reputation and message.

It’s got nothing to do with human effort or creative manipulation, rather it recognises that art and communication have divinely-ordained rules. Don’t tell me that Jesus, who painted pictures of plank-eyed people, camels squeezing through needles, and angry vineyard workers didn’t take how he communicated at least as seriously as what he communicated.

I’m not saying that every preacher needs to be a poet, or that clever structure is an adequate substitute for a vibrant relationship with God. What I am saying is that every preacher needs to realise that things like language and format actually matter. A preacher doesn’t need to succeed in creating art, but a preacher needs to at least try.

James’s Blog: Creating Life.

James’s Blog:  Creating Life.

I really needed my character to make that phone call, but it just wasn’t working. The story demanded that he pick up the phone and dial those numbers, but it didn’t feel right. So what do I do now, when I have a story, but a character who doesn’t want to play ball? “All right,” I said to my character, “what do you want to do then?” You can imagine my shock and disappointment when he took that scrap of paper with the phone number on it, scrunched it up and threw it in the bin. “What are you doing?” I said, “I need you to phone that number!” But it was no good. He wasn’t going to make the call. Read more

James’s Blog: The Road to Hell.

James’s Blog:  The Road to Hell.

I saw a man throwing a child at the sun.

“Why are you doing that?” I said.

“I’m helping him. He told me that he was cold,” the man said.

I looked at the bruised child on the floor.

“I think he needs to go to the hospital,” I said.

“Sure,” said the man, lifting the child above his head once more.  “Which direction is the hospital?”

James’s Blog: A Metaphor.

James’s Blog:  A Metaphor.

There was once a boy who wanted to make a difference. He worked hard at this, but was often left frustrated by how little change he saw. On one particularly frustrating day, he took a scrap of paper, wrote on it TRUST IN JESUS, rolled it up and put it in an empty glass bottle. Then he took that bottle down to the beach and threw it into the sea as hard as he could.  It didn’t really make him feel any better, but at least, he thought, he was doing something. Read more

James’s Blog: For Sale.

James’s Blog:  For Sale.

I’ve written briefly about the concept of Christian horror in my blog on Charles Williams and I’ve also mentioned my dalliance with Microfiction.  The two intersect on a website that I occasionally contributed to – MicroHorror.

MicroHorror is now no longer live, and I hadn’t written anything for it in nearly four years, but buried on there is my one attempt to communicate something meaningful through horror.  It’s a mere 200 words, and it’s called ‘For Sale’.

Come… on… MOVE… you… son… of… a…

Muscles bulged but the jar lid remained unrepentant. This was getting embarrassing. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, such a simple idea. Offer to open the new jar for the girl in the kitchen. Impress the girl of his dreams. She didn’t look impressed right now. She looked bored.

I… can’t… believe… this… is… happening…

Still no movement. Not even a fraction of a fraction. The girl had stopped looking bored and was now beginning to look faintly amused. He didn’t know which was worse.

She’s… laughing… at… me… please… open… please… I’ll… do… anything…

Suddenly a hissing, slithering voice whispered in the silence, in the deepest backdrop of his mind.

“Anything?”

***
In the darkness of the under realm, the two demons put the finishing touches to the contract.

“…for the ability to open a jar of sun-dried tomatoes? Really?”

The first demon sounded shocked and a little disgusted. The second demon nodded dolefully.

“There’s no challenge these days. It’s just not fun anymore,” he moaned. The first demon finished the document with a flourish of his pen, and slowly shook his head.

“You know what I reckon? I reckon those humans have stopped taking their souls seriously.”

James’s Blog: Tolstoy’s Greedy Farmer.

James’s Blog:  Tolstoy’s Greedy Farmer.

There’s a story by Leo Tolstoy about a peasant farmer who had done well in life, but wanted more. One day someone made him an offer. For 1000 Roubles the farmer could have as much land as he wanted, provided that he was able to walk around it in a day. The only condition of the deal was that he must be back where he started from by the time that the sun set.

Of course, he set out early the next morning moving as quickly as he could. At midday he decided that he would keep walking, and simply make sure that he moved faster on his return journey. By mid afternoon he had walked a great distance, but he realised that he would lose it all if he didn’t get back and that he hadn’t left himself much time. He retraced his steps, running and running, trying to return to the starting line before the sun went down.

Just as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon he came within sight of where he had started, so he pushed himself for the final few minutes, despite his complaining body. He staggered across the line, just as the sun set, and then promptly collapsed and died of exhaustion.

His servants dug him a grave, about six feet long by three feet wide. Tolstoy called his story ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’

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