James’s Blog: As Yet Untitled.

James’s Blog:  As Yet Untitled.

I read a book.
The author’s search
for the Jesus of our church.
“It turns out, as you can see,
that Jesus was just like me:
A Liberal, Western-educated, postmodern, hipster, beardy social justice warrior.”

I read a book.
The author’s search
for the Jesus of our church.
“It turns out, as you can see,
that Jesus was just like me:
A middle-aged Conservative white American male, angry at gays, Muslims, the unemployed and Russia.”

I read a book.
The author’s search
for the Jesus of our church.
“It turns out, as you can see,
that Jesus was just like me:
A bland, cringing, spineless academic who just wants everyone to be happy and is trying desperately to avoid giving offence.”

I read a book.
The author’s search
for the Jesus of our church.
“It turns out, as you can see,
that Jesus was just like me:
A black, bisexual, left-handed Wiccan who cares deeply about animals, making wicker baskets and bathing in her own urine.”

But where am I to begin
if I just want to be like him?

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 2 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 2 of 4

Richard Wurmbrand.

In the early days of my faith I read Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned during the rule of Communism. The book left an impression on me, and in those early days, if I wasn’t in a Christian bookshop browsing through the Adrian Plass books then I would have been in a Christian bookshop browsing through the Richard Wurmbrand books. His biographical account, In God’s Underground, is absolutely fantastic. As Brian Clough might have said, “I wouldn’t say that it’s my favourite Christian autobiography, but it’s in the top one.”

One book that I read was Alone with God, which is a collection of his sermons. What makes them unusual is that they are sermons that Wurmbrand preached while he was in solitary confinement. As part of a routine to keep his sanity, he would preach a sermon in his cell every day, despite the fact that no-one was there to hear it. He says that he reduced their main points to rhyming couplets, and by doing so he was able to memorise the bulk of them. When he was released, one of the things that he did was write them down, and he claimed that he managed to recall 348 of the 350 that he had preached.

I find that feat of memory amazing enough, but when you consider that many of the sermons include extensive quotes from the Bible, Shakespeare and other sources, it becomes truly incredible. I can’t help but think that the published articles were a lot more polished than the original sermons. Regardless, Alone with God was a very significant book for me when I was a younger Christian.

Many years later, while I was in Australia, I read a copy of the first collection of sermons that he wrote, the functionally-titled Sermons in Solitary Confinement. I’d found Alone with God to be insightful, powerful and influential. Sermons in Solitary Confinement. Blew. My. Mind. The sermons in this collection were raw and uncompromising in a way I’d never encountered before – these were the ones that read like sermons conceived in a oppressive hole deep in the Romanian earth. There is something incredibly unnerving about having a man bleed all over you, but you can’t doubt for a second the strength and meaningfulness of his convictions. These sermons came from a dark place, but they blazed in a way that deeply challenged and comforted me, despite the distance of both years and geography.

One thing that had a large influence on both my writing and my personal walk was the book’s introduction. Wurmbrand was obviously aware of the potential controversy of some of what he was writing so he warns the reader that he will find some disturbing and uncertain things within. This is not a place to find solid, consistent theology and doctrine, he warns, rather these are the outpourings of a soul in agony. But then he writes the following about those days: “I did not live on dogma then. Nobody can. The soul feeds on Christ, not on teachings about him.” Wurmbrand survived his ordeal not because he knew a lot of theology, but because he knew Christ. Do you understand the difference? In that one line he put into words the yearning of my soul since the first day that I had bowed my head before my new master.

If there is one goal in my writings, it is this. I do not want people to learn about Christ through what I write. I want them to encounter Christ. There is a crucial and important difference, and I am thankful to Richard Wurmbrand for his writings over the years, in which he demonstrated that distinction. It has helped to make my faith real, rather than hypothetical.

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.