The Gospel Ring (2)

John’s gospel is set up with at least eleven pairs of mirror-like bookends. Some of these chiastic reflections involve numbers,  most involve identical names (though not always identical people) and all involve similar thematic episodes.

Of these episodes, the most dramatic pair held up for comparison and contrast is Jesus’ resurrection coupled with Jesus casting the money changers out of the Temple. The emptying of the tomb and the emptying of the Temple, as it were.

Because the incident where Jesus made a whip to cast out the merchants and moneychangers occurs right at the beginning of this gospel and at the end of the gospel of Matthew, many commentators believe there were two similar events. One occurring at the start of Jesus’ ministry and one occurring in the week before His death on the cross.

I don’t think that’s a necessary conclusion. John marks off the days very carefully from the moment John the Baptist is asked by the leaders and priests who he is.  ‘The next day…’ (John 1:29), ‘The next day…’ (John 1:35), ‘The next day…’ (John 1:46), ‘Three days later…’ (John 2:1). Altogether six days between John being asked about his identity and the threshold event of Jesus’ first miracle.

Another huge parallel here—though not within this gospel. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus asks Peter what people are saying about His identity, then six days later takes him, along with James and John, up a mountain for the threshold event of the Transfiguration. In fact, the six-day interval in both cases, along with specific words spoken at each event, suggest these pairs of incidents were exactly two (perhaps three) years apart.  

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On this day about 1980 years ago, give or take a few, Jesus took three disciples up a high mountain. Many scholars think they climbed Mount Tabor. However I’m with those who believe they ascended a peak of Mount Hermon.*

At sunset this evening Sukkot begins. It’s the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, a time when people build temporary booths, entwining boughs and branches to make a ‘tent’. All to celebrate and remember their history, especially the time when God provided for them during their wilderness wanderings.

So, back almost two millennia ago, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what was going on in the head of Simon the fisherman. He was only just getting used to his nickname Cephas, the threshold stone. Some of the Greek–speaking disciples—including his own brother Andrew—had fun with the new name. Turned it to Petros, the rock. Ribbed him it’s a pun on the Hebrew word peter, the first–born—nicely symbolic for the first to announce the Messiah.

Simon’s not sure he’ll ever hear the end of it. He’s happy to be away from the jokes but he’s still concerned. It’s Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. He’s supposed to be building a little hut. But Jesus doesn’t look like he’s about to stop anytime soon to collect wood. And once they get above the treeline and into the snow, the building of a booth’s going to be even harder. Wait. This is Jesus. Five thousand people fed from a few loaves of bread. Perhaps just a dead twig will be enough: Jesus could make it sprout branches like Aaron’s rod once budded with blossoms.

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The Belt of Truth 4

My favourite television show in the late nineties was the science fiction series, Space: Above and Beyond. I was such a huge fan I even wrote fanfic! Lots of readers liked one particular story, Icarus Walking—a story of truth, honour, heroism and sacrifice. In fact one person resonated with it so much she asked me to mentor her as a writer.

As I worked my way through her manuscript, I started to notice repeated ash tree symbolism. I quizzed Melissa about it. She insisted it was unintentional. This was really early days in my investigations about names but I was already suspicious. Could there be a connection between the name Melissa and the ash tree symbol?

Now any book of names will tell you that Melissa means either bee or honey. Not deterred, I looked up words for ash trees. And there I discovered the story of Melias, the nymph of the ash tree, and the saga of how the name Melissa, over millennia, changed in meaning from ash tree to bee.

The intriguing consequence of this exercise was the discovery that ‘melissa’ is also a name for the North Pole. That odd finding led to deeper digging into other ways the North Pole could be symbolised. In no time at all, it became obvious to me why Melissa had resonated so much with Icarus Walking: it was full to overflowing with obscure polar symbolism. All sorts of mysterious arctic icons spilled out of just about every scene. In particular, I seemed to focus on an idea I’d never heard of previously: a cynosure.

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The story of Samson is a cautionary tale about the consequences of presuming on God’s grace. Although it’s often couched as a salutary story on the wiles of sultry temptresses like Delilah, she is in fact only the agent of the judgment that inevitably befell him. The incident immediately prior to her introduction is the real turning point of his career:

One day Samson went to the Philistine city of Gaza, where he met a prostitute and went to bed with her. The people of Gaza… waited for him all night long at the city gate… ‘We’ll wait until daybreak, and then we’ll kill him.’ But Samson stayed in bed only until midnight. Then he got up and took hold of the city gate and pulled it up—doors, posts, lock, and all. He put them on his shoulders and carried them far off to the top of the hill overlooking Hebron. Judges 16:1–3 GNT

Now the next time we hear of Gaza it’s when Samson is defeated and taken there as a slave. There he died, between two pillars. The chronicler clearly meant the reader to see a cause-and-effect sowing-and-reaping relationship between the two events.

However let’s examine this tantalisingly brief story in more detail. It sheds so much light for us as to how and why we can be presumptuous about God’s gift of protection through the breastplate of righteousness.

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Easter: to judge by the shops, it’s all about hot–cross buns, fluffy bunnies and chocolate eggs.

Jolly pagan stuff, huh? Especially those bunnies. Symbolic of an ancient fertility rite and the revivification of the earth at springtime, they just reek of goddess worship. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian or not—one thing we’re agreed on: the bunny is an iconic pagan image.

About this time last year, I started to become excessively suspicious about this academic collectivism. In researching threshold covenants, it’s not possible to pass over the ultimate type: the Passover itself. That means returning to the original word—Pesach—and finding out what it means.

Now, scholars aren’t entirely sure about pesach. They think it means to leap, to spring, to hop, to pass over.

God leaping, springing or hopping isn’t an image that fits immediately and comfortably into my brainspace and I can see why the more dignified ‘pass over’ is the verb of choice.

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Three Kings

My brother–in–law is a king.


It happened this way: he was involved in aid work in the Philippines. Some villagers asked him to write to the government on their behalf. They wanted the land taken from them back. Privately he thought their chances were nil but he gave it his best shot anyway.

To his surprise the government agreed. The villagers were so delighted they decided to make him their king. My sister travelled with him for the ceremony and asked what it meant to become a ‘datu’. ‘Our datu is our king,’ she was told. ‘He can go to Buckingham Palace and eat cucumber sandwiches with the Queen of England.’ My brother–in–law has not tested the earnest conviction of his loyal subjects on this score, possibly put off by Wikipedia’s insistence a ‘datu’ is merely a petty tribal chief.

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Be Thou My Vision


Last Sunday I was in church singing Be Thou My Vision when a couple of lines leapt off the page and grabbed my attention:

Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;

Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my armour, my Sword for the fight;

Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight

The first two lines are from the end of the second verse and the next two from the beginning of the third. I was entranced. How could I have missed this before? It was about the making of a covenant. It was about oneness, about the exchange of armour and weapons, about offering dignity through the swapping of mantles. An eighth century hymn that preserves the notion of covenant we in the twenty-first century have lost entirely—how exciting!

As soon as I got home, I typed these words into Google and… …how very odd! Not a single instance of them were to be found anywhere in the entire world.

There are nearly 2.7 million results on Google for Be Thou My Vision but not one of them with these exact words. For a moment I thought I was seriously losing my memory but then I decided to change the spelling of ‘armour’ to ‘armor’.

Aha! One result. On YouTube. Hmm, the account was closed. It was just baffling. One occurrence in the whole world and it was no longer verifiable. How could there be just one and no more?

I decided to check out the 2.7 million results for Be Thou My Vision to see why this discrepancy existed—no, not all of them. Just a few. I quickly realised that, in a significant number of cases, ‘armour’ had been changed to ‘breastplate’, ‘dignity’ had been changed to ‘armour’ and ‘delight’ had been changed to ‘might’.

Van Morrison, Rebecca St James and Máire Brennan all have recorded the second version. At this rate, it won’t be long before this is the most common wording.

Does it matter? I think it does. To change the symbols of covenant to symbols of battle results in a profound loss. Instead of being about unity and defence, it’s about force and attack.

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One Central Spot of Red

Recently, while I was interviewing Andrew Lansdown, he commented he was living proof anyone can learn to write. He claimed that no one could have started out worse than he did. His story drafts were terrible. I laughed and told him I was sure I could still give him a good run for his money.

But, as I’ve reflected on his words, I’ve wondered: can anyone learn to write? Andrew is a poet and as a result I think there’s probably an aspect or two he’s automatically assumed about writing that isn’t necessarily true for everyone.

Most aspiring writers (and sometimes even published ones) seem to believe one of two things:

(1)   that great technique—and this includes spelling, grammar, sentence flow, engaging prose, a narrative hook, all the principles of perspective and ‘show, don’t tell’—makes a wonderful book.

(2)   that technique is a non–essential—the ideas, the message, the information imparted, the events of the plot (which are subtly different, by the way, to the plot itself) are all–important.

As I receive manuscripts to appraise, I am often struck by the fact that one very critical element is missing in an otherwise excellent text. This ingredient is sometimes missing from my manuscripts, too!  George Macdonald said it best: ‘As stories they want the one central spot of red—the wonderful thing which, whether in a…story or a word or a human being—is the life and depth—whether of truth or humour or pathos…that shows the unshowable.’ 

What stories do you remember? And what makes them memorable?  As I asked myself this, I thought of the images, scenes and words from various books that have stayed with me over a lifetime:

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Discovered or Imagined?

a real book

It’s been a while since my last post. Partly that’s because the comments in Discovered or Invented? were so thought–provoking, I had to pause to reflect for a time on a question I’d never really considered before.  Are stories discovered or imagined?

There are aspects to this question I’ve pondered before but I’ve never really looked at it in just that phrasing. And I’m not sure, after considerable thought, that there’s a simple answer to it.

To invent [that is, to make a poem] is to come into a knowledge of the unknown thing through the agency of one’s own reason.’ This statement by the medieval grammarian, John of Garland, is cited as an idiosyncratic view by Robert Edwards in Ratio and Invention but, if John is eccentric, then he’s in very good company.

George MacDonald—the great nineteenth century fantasist who influenced CS Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, WH Auden, JRR Tolkien and EE Nesbit, not to mention yours truly—said: ‘A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own.’

In his notes to his children’s fantasy, The Moon of Gomrath, Alan Garner wrote: ‘The more I learn, the more I am convinced that there are no original stories. On several occasions I have ‘invented’ an incident, and then come across it in an obscure fragment of Hebridean lore, orally collected, and privately printed, a hundred years ago.’

I’ve often encountered a similar phenomenon in my own stories: scenes that I thought I’d invented out of my imagination turn out to be classic moments from certain northern myths or folktales. Names that I’d made up and then looked for through 27 books without result have subsequently popped up in the age of Google as real names with precisely the meaning I assigned to them.  My spelling is often atrocious, as if I’d never seen the name but heard it sounded out in Old Gaelic or Norse and spelt it phonetically. I don’t even find this spooky any longer. Because I’ve noticed that lots of other writers do it as well. They just don’t know they do.

So is the creative process really one of discovery, rather than an exercise of imagination? Are writers explorers, rather than fabricators? I think a lot of us are, particularly in the field of fiction and more especially within the genre of fantasy. There’s a lot of talk in fantasy (and speculative fiction generally) about world–building, but sometimes I wonder: is it truly about creating or about charting an already–existing geography?

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Discovered or Invented?

Whatever you do, don’t surprise him.’

This sage advice was given to me some years ago by the mother of one of my students. The boy had Aspergers Syndrome.

Had I known that division by zero would come as a surprise, I would have introduced the concept more cautiously. After leaping up with a shout and throwing his chair at his nearest classmate, he picked up his desk ready to smash a window. And no, I’m not exaggerating. ‘Settle down,’ I yelled. ‘And let me explain why it’s not often zero.’

The world of mathematics with its consistent rules and its ‘right’ answers is a great comfort to the average Aspergers kid.

(There’s a modern philosophy afoot in some schools that class consensus is how an answer should be arrived at. I’ve even heard of some kids who’ve been labelled ‘bigots’ for suggesting there is one and only one ‘correct’ answer. This extreme relativistic mindset is immensely stressful for kids like the one I’ve described. For them, security lies in knowing the rules, whether in mathematics or the playground. The supreme order of arithmetic reduces their anxiety considerably. Two and two always equals four—and, trust me, I’ll never even hint at the existence of those branches of mathematics where it doesn’t.)

Mathematics is a genuinely international language. It transcends borders. No matter where you go in the world 2 + 2 is still the same. (And, of course, almost always four.)

It may come as a surprise, therefore, to know that quite a few famous scientists and mathematicians are bemused by the fact that it works so well. With mathematics, we can put a man on the moon and bring him home again. With mathematics, we can predict the trajectory of a baseball, an airliner, a missile or a meteor.

When mathematicians think philosophically, this can be baffling. If mathematics is a man-made construct, there’s no reason it should be as accurate out in the real world as it is. ‘What is it,’ Stephen Hawking asked, ‘that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?’

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I’ve got a question. It’s a trick one, so I’ll give you a couple of paragraphs or so to think about it.

Does God want you to be like Him?

While you’re mulling that one over, I’d like to tell you about the recent experience of a friend of mine who was trying to sell some of her books. She encountered a woman who told her bluntly (and not a little scornfully), ‘I don’t read fiction.’

This is an attitude that is unfortunately all too prevalent amongst Christians. Fiction is somehow beneath the notice of some readers who view it as untrue and therefore suspect. It may not always be the work of the devil but most of the time it comes pretty close. When confronted with this viewpoint and the veiled contempt of these sort of put-downs, those of us who write fiction tend to feel inadequate, intimidated and defensive. It’s hard to know what to say to these ‘cultural despisers’ of fiction.

There’s a widespread tendency to overlook the fact that Jesus’ one and only mode of public teaching was story-telling. Parables are fiction.

Like the best stories, they teach us about relationships, the world around us and the human condition. They let us slip into the skin of the characters and experience the world through their eyes. How does it feel to have worked through a hot, humid day and received the same wage as someone who laboured only half an hour?  What’s it like to know your manager has just been forgiven a million dollar loss when he’s threatening to fire you over five dollars missing from the till?

Non-fiction reports the story. A great fiction writer or a supremely gifted story-teller gives the reader the chance to live the story.

Back when I was teaching, I read many documents about Asperger’s Syndrome but nothing ever gave me anything like the understanding of it as a story written from the point of view of a kid who suffered from it.

So, now back to my question: Does God want you to be like Him? 

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I was up early again this morning to check out another astronomical wonder: a total lunar eclipse.

Apart from the faint blood hue towards sunrise, a casual observer wouldn’t have noticed too much difference from an ordinary moon. Except for the first fifteen minutes, that is, when it really did look as if a huge bite had been taken out of it. No wonder the Vikings of old believed a ravening wolf was chasing the moon.

They called the moon, Mani, and considered it to be one of those giants I’ve looked at in earlier posts in this series. One of the stories about Mani tells how he captured a pair of children, Hjúki and Bil, who had gone to a well to fetch some water. They carried a bucket on a pole laid across their shoulders. This tale of Hjúki and Bil is sometimes said to be the origin of our nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill.

The Dictionary of Non-Classical Mythology says nineteenth century mythographers considered Jack and Jill were two asteroids captured by the moon. Imagine—a world in which the moon was circled by two moons of its own! And then somehow, in some ancient cataclysm, they were drawn into earth’s gravitational well and spun out of control to a watery splashdown in one of earth’s oceans. Through most of the twentieth century, this scenario was regarded as verging on impossible within historical times—but in the twenty-first, it’s coming into favour again.

Jill Pole is, of course, one of the major characters in The Silver Chair. She arrives in a watery splashdown, dropping into Narnia after an astronomical fall. Perhaps I should retract my assertion The Silver Chair is about giants, Jupiter and Thursday, rather than—as Michael Ward suggests in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis—the moon.

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