James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 4 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 4 of 4

Charles Williams.

Poor old Charles Williams. An amazingly talented scholar, poet and writer, and he gets no love just because he happened to be a lesser-known member of the Inklings and an Oxford contemporary of glory hogs C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

I certainly hadn’t heard of him myself, not until I moved to Australia and he was mentioned by a chap called Les Follent. Les talked about a series of, what he called, ‘Christian Horror’ novels that Williams had written. Well, my ears pricked up because the closest I had come to that genre was the Left Behind series, which I found horrific for all the wrong reasons. A few years later, when looking for a book to read, I got hold of the first of the six novels that he had written, War in Heaven.

Williams himself described the books as ‘Spiritual Shockers’, and they would probably be classified today as ‘Supernatural Thrillers’, though because they were written in the 1930s and 40s by an Oxford lecturer today’s modern, desensitized natures may be tempted to turn their collective noses up at his work.

To be honest, his stories are best described as ‘a mixed bag’, but when he’s good then he’s very good. There are some brilliant high-concept plot ideas here. War in Heaven is about a rural parish priest who discovers that an old communion chalice that has been gathering dust in a cupboard in his church is actually the Holy Grail, and that a secretive practitioner of black magic is on its trail. That’s an idea that’s just waiting to be ruined by Hollywood. The Greater Trumps is about what happens when a selfish, manipulative Romany fortune-teller gets his hands on the original Tarot deck. The Place of the Lion is about what happens when a cult summons Platonic Forms into existence that begin draining reality from our world. That last one might sound a bit confusing, but if you have a basic grounding in philosophy then you might be thinking, “That sounds like the plot for the best film EVAR!!!”.

Despite the sinister subject matter, each one is grounded in the assumption that God, and the cross, are the ultimate reality. Indeed, there’s so much wisdom in the message of each book that you know that you are in the presence of a master. Williams avoids the gore and perversity-for-perversity’s-sake that characterizes much of the genre these days, and injects subtle horror into his work. I remember reading a Stephen King comment about how the most terrifying horror is when the writer manages to twist the everyday aspects of life into something else; to turn the mundane into the malevolent. Williams manages this by capturing how our eternal character depends on those tiny daily decisions that we make; how tiny seeds of hate can eventually kill us; how little strands of lust or jealousy can grind down our souls until we cease to be human. Beware those mundane, everyday things! Indeed, Descent into Hell contains the finest temptation scene I have ever encountered, and demonstrates perfectly how our essence can hinge on the smallest of nails. This is the kind of truth that should chill and unsettle our modern, desensitized natures.

Williams has influenced me by showing that it can be possible to write intelligent Christian literature in all genres, and that it can be done in such a way that it can cross over into the mainstream. The truth speaks to everyone.  If I ever attempt anything that approaches a ‘Supernatural Thriller’ then I guarantee you that it will be done with Charles Williams in mind.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

Fred Craddock.

I’m cheating a little bit here. Fred Craddock has influenced me not so much by what he has written, but rather by the way that he has said what he has said.

I hadn’t heard of the diminutive American pastor until my preaching classes at Spurgeon’s college, where we were exposed to one of his uniquely crafted sermons. For me, it was love at first sight…well, at first hearing anyway. He was, beyond doubt, one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, and many of you have probably never even heard of him.

There’s a collection of his sermons (The Cherry Log Sermons), the style of which I slavishly attempted to emulate for my long-suffering congregation during my later years at Hayward’s Heath, but it’s the volume Craddock Stories that has shaped my own writing. The book is a collection of stories that Fred used in some of his sermons over the years, and they’re fantastic. Not just the stories, but the way that they are told and the truth that is drawn from them. Fantastic. He tells countless anecdotes from his rich life, but if he ever lacked a suitable story he would just make one up. I don’t mean “Did I ever tell you about the time I had dinner with the Archbishop of Canterbury…” made-up, I mean a skilfully constructed parable of the imagination made-up . Let me give you an example:

I remember one night, sitting in a little rural church on a Sunday night. It was a summer meeting, so it was hot, and the window was open beside my pew. The minister was preaching on his favourite text, “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, because fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

I was listening to him drone away when a man came by the church building and stopped by the window and said, “Psst, psst.”

I said, “What is it? I’m listening to the sermon.”
He said, “Come with me.”
I said, “Where are you going?”
He said, “I know where there is a pearl of great price that’s more valuable than all the other pearls in the world.”
I said, “There’s no such thing.”
He said, “In fact, where I’m going, there is treasure buried in a field.”
I said, “You’re kidding!”
He said, “Where I’m going, bums are invited to sit down at the king’s table.”
I said, “That’s ridiculous.”
He said, “In fact, they give great big parties for prodigals who come home.”
I said, “That’s stupid.”

Well, I listened to the rest of the sermon and after it was over, I told the preacher about how I was disturbed and that I hoped it didn’t upset him during the sermon.

He said, “Who was that?”
I said, “I don’t know. Telling me all this fancy stuff.”
He said, “Well, was he getting anybody?”
And I said, “Well, none of our crowd went, but I noticed he had about twelve with him.”

I had never heard anything like this before, at least not in a sermon, and therein lies Craddock’s influence on me. Stories make good sermons all by themselves but imaginative stories make powerful sermons. Let us try harder than to just pull out the same tired old illustrations that have been doing the preaching rounds since year one. Let us let our imaginations run rampant. Why should the devil have all the good flights of fancy?

Of the four writers that I am mentioning in this blog series, Craddock has had the most blatant impact on The Listening Book. There would probably be no book if it weren’t for him. It contains more than one tale where I am self-consciously trying to ape his style of storytelling. Hopefully you won’t be able to spot them! I’m finding my own voice now, but I don’t want to ever forget the influence that Fred Craddock had on me.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 1 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 1 of 4

Adrian Plass.

I hadn’t been a Christian long before I fell in with bad company. And by that I mean that I started reading a lot of Adrian Plass. I read pretty much anything of his that I could get my hands on. I was a Plass junkie. I still consider The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 & ¾ to be one of the finest and most meaningful pieces of Christian humour ever written, while I still have fond memories of making my way through books like Cabbages for the King, View From a Bouncy Castle, Clearing Away the Rubbish and so on. When I was newly minted, starting to find my way and trying to avoid traps for young players, Plass’s insights were invaluable. He is quite excellent at coming alongside his readers and offering meaningful encouragement to those who are struggling.

However, as I aged, the path that God had led me on meant that I often found myself up to my elbows in Other People’s Problems, and – as some of you will know – that often has the amusing side-effect of bringing to the surface All Your Own Problems. I wanted to grow; to change. I didn’t want to struggle through my faith the rest of my life thinking, “Is this really as good as it gets?” I needed solutions rather than sympathy, and as a result I seemed to find myself no longer in the audience that Adrian Plass was writing for.

Despite this, his impact on me in my needy youth was such that I am always interested when I hear that he has written a new book, and will probably automatically buy anything that has the The Sacred Diary name attached to it. Furthermore, there is a very specific piece of his that still influences my attempts at writing today.

As a teenager, I once got the opportunity to hear The Great Man Himself speak. I knew that he was available to sign books, so I bought what was probably the only Adrian Plass volume that I hadn’t read at that time – a collection of short stories titled The Final Boundary. The actual encounter with The Great Man Himself was embarrassing, due to me briefly forgetting my own name, but I still have the faded paperback with ‘To James, God Bless, Adrian Plass’ written in the front.

What I like about The Final Boundary is that most of the stories avoid the thinly-veiled morality tale approach of a lot of Christian fiction. Plass is just happy to just dump a story in your lap and leave you to get on with it. I imagine that Why it Was All Right to Kill Uncle Reginald would have upset a few people in its time. Marl Pit still moves me. The Second Pint is perhaps the closest in style to one of Jesus’s own parables, and by that I mean that it should leave the reader with chills running down his spine. Maybe it was this book of stories that first planted the seed that would one day blossom into The Listening Book, but even if it wasn’t, I know that within is a tale that first opened my eyes to the possibilities of storytelling. It’s a story called Bethel, about a snail who is being hunted by a sparrow, a fat child and a French chef. Without giving anything away, I will tell you that it’s surreal, bordering on the absurd at times, and makes few concessions to the reader. After twenty years, I still can’t say for certainty what message Plass was trying to communicate, and that excites me. Something different reveals itself each time I read, though from the very first time I knew that I was reading something special. It is this story that first allowed me to see that obscurity has value; that you can write something and trust God with its message. In that way, Bethel has influenced me; it taught me to write without fear.

James’s Blog: Peter & Paul

James’s Blog:  Peter & Paul

I know a man called Paul. Some people might consider him eccentric, but I think it is much more accurate to understand him as being a perpetual whirlwind of creativity and kindness.

He once did something very silly, which was to metaphorically immerse himself (and his family) in the Gospel of Mark for a period of time. It was a silly thing to do because that’s the kind of opportunity God might take to shift some heavy furniture in your life and, to be honest, who needs that kind of hassle?

Anyway, I imagine that he experienced all kinds of amazing revelations during this time, and he decided to share one of them with me. At least, I assume it occurred to him during this time. It might not have. It’s possible he could have known it for twenty years and then randomly decided to drop it on me one day. As I said, he’s a whirlwind of creativity and kindness.

In Mark 14, a woman anoints Jesus at Bethany. This fantastic little story appears in all four gospels, with particular nuances in each account. In Mark and Matthew Jesus uses a strange little phrase that, I must admit, I’d never really understood:  “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

I found it an odd comment. I suppose my confusion may have come from years of a particular type of Evangelical brainwas…I mean, teaching, where ‘preaching the gospel’ hadn’t been done properly unless you had quoted a large chunk of Romans. Telling a story about some woman spilling a jar of oil over Jesus’s head like a clumsy waitress didn’t quite seem to cut the mustard. But Paul pointed out to me that, right here, Jesus links the telling of stories with ‘preaching the gospel’. So, he said, perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus’s expectation was that the main way that his disciples would share the gospel when he was gone was by telling stories.

Is Paul right? Well, I know another man. This one’s called Pete. He’s got the soul of a poet, and it’s trapped in the body of a bouncer. Not really trapped, I suppose. It’s more of a symbiotic relationship. Some people might consider him intimidating, but I think it is much more accurate…actually, OK, he can seem quite intimidating when you first meet him. But he’s not really. Not when you get to know him; him and his gentle poet’s soul.

He does silly things too, and as a result he’s probably changed more lives for the better than he’ll ever know. I heard that he once pointed out that when we want to evangelise we tend to mine Paul’s letters for nuggets of theological truth, and forget that those same letters were actually written to people who were already Christians. If you want to share the gospel with non-Christians, he says, it’s better to spend a bit of time looking at how it was done in the Gospels and Acts.

So if you look, what do you find? You find stories. Jesus tells parables; carefully encasing the whole Kingdom of God in each self-contained scrap of micro-fiction. That’s a neat trick. In Acts, most of the recorded evangelistic speeches are just stories. Sometimes Paul shares his own story, but other times he, Peter and Stephen do nothing more than repeat people’s own stories back to them, but each time adding a postscript: “Now let me tell you where Jesus fits into your story…” Indeed, it seems that when Jesus was gone, the disciples preached the gospel by telling stories.

I am grateful for the things that these two men have shared with me. I am much more grateful for the two men themselves.

So, take note, men and women of faith! Do not neglect your story! Somewhere along the journey we may have lost our way, and belittled our stories. Do not do such a thing! Your story has been entrusted to you, and you alone, for the purpose of bringing the gospel of Jesus into the lives of family, friends, neighbours and curious strangers. Do not dare to be ashamed of it. Own it, and proclaim it, for when you do you are preaching the gospel.

I Can’t Sing, So I Have to Tell Stories.

Of course, many of Maelwys’ people had become followers of the Christ – especially since Dafyd’s coming.  But there were some with us who observed the old ways, so to make up for the missed revel, I played the harp and sang.

And it came to me while I was singing – watching the ring of faces around the night’s fire, their eyes glinting like dark sparks, gazing raptly as the song kindled and took light in their souls – it came to me that the way to men’s souls was through their hearts, not simply through their minds.  As much as a man might be convinced in his mind, as long as his heart remained unchanged all persuasion would fail.  The surest way to the heart is through song and story: a single tale of high and noble deeds spoke to men more forcefully than all of blessed Dafyd’s homilies.

I do not know why this should be, but I believe it to be true.  I have seen the humble folk crowd into the chapel in the wood to receive the mass.  In all sincerity they kneel before the holy altar, mute, reverent, as they should be, but also uncomprehending.

Yet I have seen the eyes of their souls awaken when Dafyd reads out, “Listen, in a far country there lived a king who had two sons…”

Perhaps it is how we are made; perhaps words of truth reach us best through the heart, and stories and songs are the language of the heart.’

Merlin, Stephen Lawhead

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