Friday, February 27, 2015

"Defined" - Jonny's Story

"Defined" - Jonny's Story from Aaron Koch on Vimeo.

This guy is a friend of a friend, his amazing story of the triumph over adversity - which takes him all the way to the paralympics - is well worth watch.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Notes: Battles Christians Face by Vaughan Roberts

This is a great little book about the battles of the Christian life, it is helpful, pastorally gentle, wise and encouraging. The simple style of language and argument does not mean that the author hasn't wrestled with the issues involved, the extensive footnotes and poignant quotations are one of several giveaways that these short chapters are but the summary-conclusions of a great weight of thought and scholarly engagement, as well as personal experience. Indeed, although I have an early edition of the book, I have read that in the fifth anniversary edition Roberts explains that the selections of issues he addresses in this publication are not random or arbitrary - but are his biblical response to his own personal struggles in the Christian life over several decades.

The opening chapter looks at 'image', which Roberts notes is a problem in western society today in an historically and culturally unique way. The very idea of  projecting or choosing an image would be so alien to most humans that this issue is one of our own making, The author spends much of this chapter exploring how and why we struggle with this issue before turning to the Bible's alternative - which is to see ourselves as God does in Christ. That is to say, adopted, forgiven, renewed and His.

The book then turns to the issue of lust, examining how this fault is a distortion of the God-given sexual drive which was meant for good but when misused can cause much harm. Roberts draws lessons from the fall of King David in the Bible, and looks at ways in which Christians should handle their desires in Godly ways. Next he examines the thorny issue of guilt, arguing that genuine Christian faith is tied to the experience of being forgiven by God, and cleansed from sin. Roberts shows how Christians weighed down by guilt should not try to excuse or justify their sins, but have them dealt with by our gracious God.

The chapter on doubt is a real highlight of the book. Roberts neatly distinguishes between doubt (questioning the truth of an aspect of the faith), and "unbelief" which in the Bible is the wilful, sinful decision to turn from God. He notes that while several of the Biblical authors are scornful of unbelief, Jesus dealt very compassionately with genuine doubters who came to him, like Thomas. There is great pastoral advice in here for honest, genuine, handling of doubt - which every Christian with an enquiring mind experiences. His chapter on depression is fascinating too, opening up and responding to an all pervasive issue. He looks at the basis of Christian hope in a depressing world, tells stories of Christians who have wrestled with depression - and importantly de-stigmatises the condition with frank acceptance of its existence, and all too frequent occurrence.

Pride is seen in this book as the foundational sin of all the others - and the chapter on Christlike humility is helpful. Roberts' chapter on homosexuality will no doubt be the most controversial part of this book. He is one of those who believes that God loves gay people but prohibits all homo-erotic practice, drawing his thinking from the Bible. The chapter doesn't just talk about the Biblical prohibitions however, but talks about pastoral care for people who experience same-sex attraction within the Christian community. He wades into the furore about the ex-gay movement and seeks to frame all his comments within a gospel-centred world view in which this life is not the be-all-and-end all. Roberts has clearly laboured over these issues at great length, and it was when he subsequently noted that all the struggles in this book were his own that the reasons for this became clear. He discusses his own situation at greater length in this interview: CLICK HERE.

The book finishes with a call to ongoing spiritual health, in which Roberts talks openly about times he has struggled to maintain his own prayer-life, bible-reading, and closeness to God. He talks about strategies which have worked for him in the quest to maintain the kind of spiritual life we all crave.

The strengths of this book are the honesty with which it is written, the simple easy-to-read language, and the way in which the author consistently points Christians to ground themselves in the grace of God in Christ. The brevity of the book does leave a few questions unanswered (it's a popular book, not a scholarly tome), and the list of "battles" could be seen as a bit arbitrary; nevertheless if a particular sin of yours such as 'sloth', or 'gossip' isn't given  chapter here, there are plenty of principles which can be applied.

This is a down-to-earth, practical guide to living out the Christian faith in the face of many of the pressures which the modern world hurls against it. I was freshly challenged by it, but actually wish that books with this kind of disarming humility had been around when I was a young adult.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Notes: The Hell Of It All by Charlie Brooker

What is a clean-mouthed, Christian blogger doing reading (let alone reviewing!) a book by well known foul-mouthed atheist, Charlie Brooker? Its a fair question which deserves an answer - and the answer is that I picked it up in some railway station or airport, not quite knowing what I was getting and once I dipped into it, simply couldn't put it down. The Hell Of It All, is Brooker's collected Guardian columns, 2007-8 and brings together all of his splendidly derisory rants against the modern world from those years.

The reasons I found this book compelling are twofold. Firstly, Brooker writes with such a snarling pizzaz that it is hilariously funny. He doesn't offer well-balanced, nuanced reflections on aspects of modern culture, politics, TV, games, relationships and people; he rages against the idiocy he sees all around him. Brooker is an unapologetic misanthrope who doesn't offer a mild critique, but uses the power of language (and scorn) to  demolish his targets, While his language is funny, it is also exceptionally crude. He doesn't just cross the line in terms of taste and decency, but positively attacks it - this is not a book for the easily offended. Every language system (apparently) has its' taboo words designed specifically to shock, outrage, provoke and liken ordinary activities and people to unflattering body parts and functions. Brooker knows a lot of these, and bombards the reader with them repeatedly. The problem with the collection of individual columns into book form is that while they were intended to 'stand alone' and be read at a healthy rate of one per week; this format encourages the reader to consume them chapter at a time. While the once-a-week ride on Brooker's expletive powered cynicism wagon might raise a smile, an eyebrow or irritation; immersion in his tide of dark profanity is less satisfying. This is because while the language might at first raise the emotional pulse and thump his points home with the required arrogant air of sneering contempt; overuse lessens the desired effect. I may be unusual in my response to offence, but I find that over-exposure to the whole panoply of proscribed words lessens their offence; with one exception. My Christian sensibilities are such that while the regular biological/sexual swear words eventually fail to shock anymore, use of "God", and all the variations of "Jesus Christ" consistently provoke a deep unease. Still, despite this reservation I love the way that Brooker rants. For example, Valentines Day "The only national celebration dedicated to mental illness" (p121) is, for single people, "a cruel joke, you're like a one-legged man on National Riverdance Day" (p122) Or try this for size, from p310 about TV Show "Knight Rider":
".... a show about a coiffured berk in a talking car, and it was awful. David Hasselhoff was the berk, the talking car was a Trans Am called "KITT". It's fondly remembered today thanks to its' cool theme tune and amusingly portentous title sequence, in which a bowel-straining voice-over told us we were about to witness 'a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist' (presumably because being honest and saying, 'here's a load of made-up **** about a *** in a car which might help you pass another hour before death,' didn't play so well with the focus-groups)."
What's not to like about this - even if I had to 'bleep' a couple of moderately offensive words? 

Secondly, I found that time and time again I agreed completely that the targets of Brooker's ire are things which positively deserve debunking, ridicule and opprobrium. Whether it is idiot TV talent shows, celebrity culture, skiing, Valentines Day, Boris Johnson, conspiracy theorists, the BNP, Piers Morgan, Knight Rider, male-stupidity, pseudo-science, advertising - a glorious list of targets well in need of a critique, this book is all the more fun because the critiques are gloriously ruthless, funny, self-indulgent, over-stated and needed.

Here he goes after current men's fashions in a review of some ghastly TV male make-over thing:
"The point of the programme, apparently, is to 'explore' the increasingly demented body-image issues afflicting British men. Men have completely lost their minds in recent years, buying hair straighteners and eye-liner and stupid bloody clothes in their millions in a concerted effort to craft themselves into a cross between a Manga character and a Big Brother contestant. Walk down any high street these days and its like passing through the Valley of the Preening Wusses. While women have an impressive variety of of 'looks', from Girls Aloud to 1940s vamp, fashionable men only seem to have one [which is]  "vain *****". Why would anyone want to dress like these ***-***-***-****? This is life, not an audition for Hollyoaks."  (p308-9)
Well quite.

The other side of all this is Brooker's disarming modesty. He doesn't see himself as apart, or above the culture of which he writes, but happily dismisses himself along with all the other victims of his diatribe; and even apologises when a victim of his pen turns out to not be a "***" after all! While he clearly despises much celeb-culture, and the 'reality-TV' shows which manufacture fake celeb's, and seems to despise people who watch such inane parp; he cheerily writes as one of them. Amusingly for all his ranting about the folly of love, marriage, parenting and the horror of children - since completing these columns he has also taken up all of these life pursuits. He even takes the time to inform the reader that he doesn't hold his own writing in especially high regard either - which is nice.

One thing that surprised me was how charming Brooker can be in his appreciation of things. I certainly didn't buy the book to be charmed; I was wanting to wallow in disdain with a kindred spirit, but yet some of these moments in the book were delightful. Brooker might vent his spleen at a pretentious or boring celeb chef but his enjoyment of Heston Blumenthal doing weird, weird things with food was fun. When Oliver Postgate died there were many well-meaning obituaries which noted the politics, ideology, and creativity of his "SmallFilms" team which made the likes of "The Saga of Noggin the Nog", "Bagpuss", and "Ivor the Engine". Only Brooker's though did a good enough job because of all those I read, it was his that nailed the fact that it was the reassuring sound of his voice that above all, meant so much to children in the 1970s.

Throughout this book, Brooker takes aim at (and excoriates with flourish), many of the things that I find myself grumbling about. I think that from the opening salvo, "The hell of nightclubs" it was clear that I would appreciate this book. Reading chunks of it out to my wife (or getting her to read bits of it if the kids were about), she repeatedly rolled her eyes and said that it reminded her of me. As I read Brooker, it became apparent that we are consistently irked by many of the same things, and share a panoply of the same foibles, follies and fears (uncannily similar at times). Where we differ, I suppose, is that while we agree that so much of what surrounds in this world us is utter ****, I retain a basic Christian worldview which maintains that ultimately there is a good God, who will redeem it. His view is that this world is appalling, so appalling in fact that it deserves mockery, because that's all there is; whereas I think that the world is appalling but that is because it is fallen, and divorced from its purpose and creator; and that's all that matters. So while I read, snarled, scoffed, laughed and applauded along with Charlie Brooker it became clear that while we might want to hit the same targets, we are firing from quite different positions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Monday, February 16, 2015


Dual Mopelo

Just in case you are wondering about what 'Mopelo' means.... (click here)

Norman's Field

Sunset Panorama

One that needs to be clicked on and viewed full size!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Monday, February 09, 2015

Glen Shee

A lot of people talk about how beautiful Glen Shee is, especially in winter. My family are all skiers, and so I joined them on Saturday and did some walking from the ski-centre. I think I must be alone in thinking that the thousands of cars and assorted ironmongery all over the hills, and the concentration of vast numbers of people into one small patch of landscape; is actually rather horrible. I think that next time I'll drop them in this Highlands-meets-Disneyland playpark, and drive somewhere else - to walk in peace, calm and solitude away from the noise, crowds, cafe's, machinery, over-sized cars, and over-projected pretentious accents. I don't think I'd have to go far; I'm sure in adjacent Glens Ey, or Callater the mountains are still lurking, without looking like a vast branch of Macdonalds has enveloped them. Rant over. Thanks.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Book Notes: Krushchev, The Man and His Era by William Taubman

In a far corner of the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, lie the remains of a man who at the height of his career had unparallelled power and influence in the world - but whose grave lay unmarked for years after his death. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev's (1894-1971) rise from peasantry via industry to the Russian Army was eclipsed by his meteoric rise through the all-encompassing Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). By the time Khrushchev came to dominate the party, the party itself dominated not just Russia, the Soviet Empire and the Eastern European Bloc; but swathes of the bi-polar Cold War world too.

The Khrushchev family eventually managed to erect a memorial at the burial site. William Taubman in his magisterial account of Khrushchev and his era (20003), describes the monumental headstone of this man who succeeded Stalin, in these words:

Designed by Ernst Neizvestny, the artist whom Khrushchev had excoriated in 1962 and 1963, the monument consists of intersecting slabs of white marble and black granite on one of which sits a bronze head of Khrushchev with what looks like a pained expression on his face. It sums up a man in whose character so many contrasts were so starkly intertwined: both true believer and cold-eyed realist, opportunistic yet principled in his own way, fearful of war while all too prone to risk it, the most unpretentious of men even as he pretended to power and glory exceeding his grasp, complicit in great evil yet also the author of much good. (p647)

I was barely half a year old when Khrushchev died in relative obscurity, yet I grew up in a world which he had had an extraordinary role in creating. Hazy black and white pictures of the stony-faced Brezhnev, atop the Lenin Mausoleum filled our TV sets, but the context in which the West and the East glared at each other with mutual suspicion and bristling arsenals was forged by the mercurial Khrushchev and his psychopathic predecessor.

Having recently read Simon Sebag Montifiore's two volume biography of Stalin, "Young Stalin" and "Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar", I was intrigued as to how it was Khrushchev who emerged as his successor. It would perhaps be an understatement to suggest that he was not the obvious candidate. A little research suggested that Taubman's was 'the' biography of Khrushchev to get, as it comes loaded down with worthy commendations and a Pulitzer Prize for biography. The first chunk of this 800+ page tome is concerned with that rise to power, and the developing character of the central protagonist. Working his way up the "bloody pole" (sic) under Stalin, Khrushchev was both thoroughly implicated in Stalin's crimes, "up to his elbows in blood" he would later lament; but also horrified by the purges and in denial about them. His relationship with Stalin was also complex, when as Moscow Party chief constructing the Metro, or as Ukraine Party boss overseeing agriculture and purges, or defending Stalingrad from the Nazi's; he both worshipped, feared, loved and hated his all-seeing mentor. 

Taubman takes time to explore not just the facts and politics of Khrushchev's development but also his psychological development - and the extraordinary personality who would so capture the world's imagination in the 1960s. He does so without an annoying deluge of pyschobabble, but with probing insight into the factors which came together to produce the leader he became. The man who emerges from this incredible book is insecure, emotional, sentimental. arrogant, determined, eager, flawed, vain, curiously principled, brave, and an adept schemer. Take for example Taubman's account of Khrushchev's encounter with an Academician called Paton who was advancing metal-welding techniques and whom he persuaded Stalin to admit to The Party:

How easily Khrushchev could be beguiled by a charismatic scientist promising miracles! How sentimental he could be when his benevolent image of himself was confirmed! Khrushchev had an appalling ability, during Stalin's lifetime and after, to separate the horrors carried out by the party from the great cause it supposedly served. No matter how much blood flowed in the name of socialism, tears came to his eyes when some-one like Paton declared themselves converted. (p131)

After a detailed consideration of his emergence, Taubman's book traces the improbable survival of Khrushchev, who along with Molotov and Beria emerged as one of the very few of Stalin's inner circle to outlive the paranoid, purging tyrant. This leads onto his unlikely rise as Stalin's successor as head of party and state, with total control over the machinery of government. The key to these surprising triumphs seems to have been (like Stalin in the early 1920s), the complete underestimation of him by his rivals - a result of the simpleton image that he both exaggerated and projected.

Taubman then moves to considering Khrushchev in power - which is the era of his life most familiar to Western readers, as the Khrushchev-Kennedy confrontations are lodged in popular culture; lampooned in Kubrick's Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and lyrically referenced by the likes of Queen (Killer Queen, 1974). In Taubman's biography, it was once he had achieved unchallengeable power that the full extremes of Khrushchev's bizarre personality were able to come to the fore without check or balance. In fact, as he progresses through international tours, summits, crises (Berlin; Cuba) that his personality starts to unfold. Ranting, cajoling, re-organising, shouting, Khrushchev took to the world stage - famously bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war, and banging his shoe on the desk at the UN. Most significantly of all, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes, ended the personality cult, and emptied many of the gulags - at huge personal risk, and danger to the party; and sought detente with the West (causing the split with Mao).

The Kremlin under the USSR was nothing if not an enigmatic and surreal place. As Chairman Khrushchev received the obligatory standing ovations for his mammoth and incoherent speeches; and won every Presidium vote unanimously; plots built up against him. The first plot Khrushchev crushed was entirely of his own imagining (he was after all a Stalinist!), the second he triumphed over his adversaries; but finally the Brezhnev-led plot in 1964 removed him. Unlike in the 1930s, the fallen leader was spared the firing squad or show trial; but was quietly marooned in a small country dacha; left to his gardening, family, his deep depression and the distillation of his secret memoirs published in the West as Khrushchev Remembers. Despite the ghastly nature of so much of his career, the reader cannot help but feel some empathy for the broken colossus, alone in his garden - harbouring secret doubts about whether the planned economy could ever deliver for the masses.

Despite the massive length of this book (which surely would be better as a two-volume work), it is mesmerising biographical writing. Taubman has the ability to condense vast amounts of research into fast-paced narrative and insightful analysis. Taubman's task is made all the easier by the extremes of his subject (the thought of a long biog of some dull entertainer is tedious), and the result is an 800page book in which the interest level never wanes and the reader gains extraordinary insight into this idiosyncratic man and his tumultuous career.

To hear William Taubman discussing his work on Khrushchev, press here.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Film Notes: The Band's Visit

The Band's Visit is a touching, hilarious yet melancholy film which charts the visit of eight Egyptian musicians of the "Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra" (no less), to Israel. The purpose of their visit is to play for the opening ceremony of an Arab Cultural Centre somewhere in Israel - but the band take the wrong bus and end up marooned in a dead-end town, in land where they are clearly ill at ease.

Having no choice but to accept the hospitality of the local people the audience are invited to watch as the band and their hosts discover the warmth of various aspects of their shared humanity. While some characters remain aloof, the central protagonists meet in the common ground of love, food, families bereavement, sex, music, hopes, fears and regrets. While such a description could be indicative of a dull and ponderous film - or a preachy-epic, The Band's Visit is playful, delicate, and a riot of visual and comic timing. The film is beautiful to watch too, with wide vistas and silences reminiscent of No Country for Old Men, although that is where the similarities end.

This remarkably short film is delightful, surprising and lovely.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Notes: The Locust Effect by Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros

Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros' "The Locust Effect" is a profound, disturbing and important book about the battle to improve the lives of the poor in the developing world. It is also quite different from any of the purely political books on the subject (which focus on the effects of world trade systems) and is different again from the literature of most of the development agencies I have read from folks like TEARFund and Water Aid (which focus on direct, practical economic development schemes). The Locust Effect is not a book which demeans or downplays the importance of political, economic or development work; but seeks to add something of profound significance to the global effort to improve the lives of the poorest: namely the essential need for justice.

Haugen and Boutros explain:
Somehow the world missed the fact that most of the global poor lack the most basic ingredient of forward progress: personal security....... most of the global poor live outside the protection of rudimentary law enforcement and are utterly vulnerable to the locusts of violence that can come on any given day and sweep all other good efforts to improve their lives away. (p276). 
The book contains not merely a weight of statistics demonstrating the global crisis of injustice against the poor; but heartbreaking stories of individuals and families whose lives have been devastated by their vulnerability in the face of the absence of access to justice. The child-rape victims in South America whose attackers are above the law, the African widows whose land (and only income) is stolen from them in land-grabs, the Indian brick-kiln workers beaten and imprisoned as slaves, the Indian girls who won't attend the school built by an International development project, because they are not safe from rapists either travelling to//from the school or within its corridors; are only some of the stories from the book which show what life without the functioning justice system we take for granted, looks like.

The reality that The Locust Effect asks us to confront is that development aid and provision without justice is critically flawed. Haugen and Boutros write:
In their study called Where is the Wealth of Nations, the World Bank sets out to determine how different kinds of capital contribute to a nation's economic development. The sharp-pencilled regression analysts at the Bank started with the familiar sources of a nation's capital: 1) e.g. natural resources, (oil, gas, minerals, forests, croplands etc) and 2) built capital (e.g. machinery, equipment, infrastructure, urban land, etc). But the economists found that these two sources of tangible capital accounted for only 20 to 40 percent of a nation's wealth. It turns out that the vast majority of the wealth comes from intangible capital of institutions, (e.g. education, governance, property rights, justice systems, etc) that makes human labour and the natural and built capital increasingly productive. (p155)
Or as David Brooks wrote in the New York Times:
You can cram all the nongovernmental organisations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law, and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won't add up to much.... In short, there's only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder, head-on. (p157)
While I have been reading this book, the UK has been embroiled in an enormous scandal as the extent to which child sexual abuse has been rife, and carried out by public figures in the world of entertainment and politics. The headlines have focused on the abusers; but the alarming thing is the fact that virtually all the victims of abusers like Saville, Cyril Smith, Peter Righton and the rest, were vulnerable children and adults from care homes, hospitals and the like who would not be believed or would make 'bad witnesses'. This scandal is escalating amidst claims that the elites have conspired to cover up the abuse coming from among their ranks; Don Hale of the Bury Messenger alleges that Special Branch came and removed all the evidence he planned to publish about it in the 1980s, while Leon Brittan still has to account for the "mislaid" dossier of information passed to him by Geoffrey Dickens MP. We stand shocked, appalled and rightly demand a transparent enquiry and action, both the prosecution of abusers and care for victims. What Haugen and Boutros show is that what has so outraged us in the UK, where a tiny minority are below the protection of the law, and another tiny minority is above its reach: is the normal experience of billions of the worlds poorest people.

In most of the countries under discussion the justice systems are simply broken, or absent. Many of the systems are barely reconstructed colonial hang-overs from the Early 20thC and were designed, not to provide justice for the poor; but to manage a turbulent population resisting occupation. For others, policing and the justice system are simply absent and the poor have no access to any impartial dispute resolution, protection from crime or compensation for it. As disturbingly as Don Hale's accusations about Special Branch, for vast swathes of the worlds poorest people the police themselves are the problem. Untrained, unequipped and barely paid police forces act as corrupt militia's of the elite, the rich and powerful - consistently siding against the poor. Almost three-thousand years ago, The Jewish prophet Isaiah charged: They deprive the poor of justice and deny the rights of the needy among my people. They prey on widows and take advantage of orphans. (Isa10:2). He would shudder at how little has changed in 2015.

While much of the book is taken up with demonstrating the veracity of the central thesis of the essential requirement of criminal justice for the poor; The Locust Effect also assesses what the spending priorities of Western governments have been in their various development programmes. They conclude:
There has been no meaningful, large-scale attention or resources focused on protecting the common poor in the developing world from violence with basic law enforcement.(p215)
In fact, they estimate that of the trillions of dollars invested in international development over the last half a century, less than one percent has been used to fix broken justice systems.

After the painful, and difficult stories it contains, The Locust Effect concludes in optimistic terms. The authors assert that improving justice for the poor isn't something that has been tried and abandoned because of its difficulty - rather that it remains work which has simply never been really tried on a scale that fairly reflects the size of the problem.

Some localised case studies, many of which are the work of The International Justice Mission (IJM) founded by Haugen, are highlighted. Using their system of Collaborative Casework to identify the points in the system which deny the poor, the IJM team were able (with others) to rebuild the justice and policing system in Cebu, The Phillipines reducing corruption, freeing slaves and training the judiciary. The results were spectacular. Likewise the introduction, of mobile courts in rural DRC has led to the first effective prosecutions of gang-rapists causing a subsequent enormous improvement in the lives of previously vulnerable women who now live under the covering of the rule of law for the first time. The Locust Effect contains several such inspiring case-studies. They prove that huge progress for the most vulnerable in our world is possible if we can invest in justice. They point our that some cities which have reasonably well-functioning justice systems today such as New York - were utterly corrupt and dysfunctional a Century ago.

Haugen and Boutros conclude;
"the critical question of our era is before us. At this historic inflection point in the struggle again severe poverty, are we prepared to do something different? Are we prepared to honestly acknowledge that the abandonment of criminal justice systems in the developing world has been a disaster? And are we prepared to leverage what we know know to finally begin securing for the poor that safe passage out of the violence that history tells us is both indispensable and possible."(p275)
Critics on the left will perhaps be suspicious of an American book which seeks to shift the 'blame' for severe poverty in the world away from the likes of the G8, trade and tariff agreements, and debt - and onto problems within developing countries themselves. Likewise Economic determinists will insist that only wealth distribution will empower the poor and provide justice - and will be suspicious of any suggestion that cause and effect might also run in the other direction. However, even if one shares any of those starting assumptions, Haugen and Boutros demonstrate in The Locust Effect that alongside whatever vision of social and economic justice we pursue, providing the poor of the earth with safety and security is a basic human-right that must go hand-in-hand in a positive dynamic relationship with traditional development and political work.

Buy The Locust Effect is online here
Read more about The Locust Effect here:
Read more about the International Justice Mission (and their notable work freeing slaves) here:

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Friday, January 09, 2015

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Distant Fire

Penton Hook

Where my Grandparents used to take me when I was a toddler...

Monday, January 05, 2015

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Book Notes: The Permanent Revolution by Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim

Hirsch and Catchim's 300+ page book on church leadership and structure is quite unlike anything I've read before. It is closely argued, detailed, comprehensive and engaging. Despite the fact that I am no longer involved directly in church leadership, I found this book stimulating and thought-provoking - perhaps because the authors write from a slightly different theological perspective to my own. There is a tendency (or rather a temptation) when reading a familiar or favourite author, to feel so at home with the assumptions of one's own theological stable that you simply steam-through the book on auto-pilot. Reading something different is like an away-match; which can be more stretching, higher risk, harder work - but potentially more rewarding. When the authors are especially persuasive they force the reader to ask if this 'gain' can be reconciled across the different sets of assumptions or whether their coherence on the point in question presents a problem for the reader's starting assumptions. 

Having read the book in detail - and wrestled with it at length, I come away with the sense that there are some problems with it - but that the core argument of the book is both immensely challenging, and hugely helpful for the Western church in the predicament in which we currently find ourselves; namely spiritual weakness and numerical decline in the context of a secularising culture.

The central plank of the argument of the book is that the structure of the church described in the New Testament book of Ephesians (4:11-12) was not intended to be a unique arrangement for the Ephesian church, nor exclusively for the benefit of the "early church"; but was intended by God to be the permanent way in which the church was to be organised. The text itself says: So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (NIV) and can be summarized as follows:

Sometimes referred to as "The Five-fold Ministry", Hirsch and Catchim refer to this as "APEST"; (Pastor in the NIV changed to Shepherd). The authors are certain in their assertion that many of the ills which have befallen the contemporary Western church stem from our failure embrace this model and flow definitely from the distortions we have placed upon it. 

There is one exegetical question and one theological question which more theologically traditional Christians immediately raise with regard to the implementation of this model. The first is about whether Eph 4 is a really four or five fold model, and the second is about the legitimacy of any claim to contemporary apostleship. Both of these require some thought because unless they are answered the detail of the rest of the book is irrelevant.

Firstly with regard to the four-or-five fold division: The long-term scholarly consensus has been that the shepherd and teacher categories are actually one and that the pastor-teacher is therefore one and the same. This has by no means been a universally accepted division, but it is an important one nevertheless. I would want to suggest that to  hang great theological weight on points of Greek grammar is a precarious basis on which to proceed, and that being dogmatic on this point is perhaps unwise. I think on balance the four-fold model is exegetically more secure and it does have some consequences for the book - but does not render the actual argument Hirsch and Catchim make redundant, even if it requires some modification. The reason the main argument of the book is not defeated by this concern over categories is because in all key points of argument the authors actually group these two together. Their central thrust is that while Eph4 has the weight of leadership spread five ways, we have effectively abandoned the APE functions and handed the church over exclusively to the ST giftings. In my diagram above that means the top of the wheel has been neglected while the base has dominated. The separation of the pastor-teacher roles does perhaps indicate a subtle shift in the authors' understanding of the role of the Bible in the life of the church though; as the unity of this category inherently elevates the prominence of scripture in the church's philosophy of ministry. Its important to note however that this distinction does not invalidate the central argument of the book.

Secondly, conservative theological sensitivities will always be ruffled by any contemporary use of the word 'apostle'. Such rejection of the term is based upon two primary concerns, theological and pastoral. Theologically there has been the concern to defend the core of New Testament theology - "the Apostolic deposit" given by Jesus to The Twelve and Paul. Paul's writings on the "rights of an Apostle" and the qualifications for Apostolic office are clearly linked to the verification of the original gospel and authorship of the New Testament. Any suggestion of contemporary apostleship is frequently associated with an assault on the authority of scripture (either theologically or functionally in the church's life), in a way more dangerous than any claims to contemporary 'sign gifts' ever would. Pastorally, the term 'apostle' when used in anything but its New Testament context conjours up in the minds of many, dark images of heavy-shepherding, power, domination and religious abuse. These two concerns are valid and pressing; and Hirsch and Catchim go out of their way to answering them. They address these concerns in the following ways: Theologically they carefully establish that what they mean by contemporary Apostleship differs profoundly from the Apostleship of the Twelve and Paul, but invokes the Apostleship referred to in much of the rest of the New Testament. I have previously come across this distinction referred to as between "Apostles of Christ" and "Apostles of The Church"; but Hirsch and Catchim use "Apostle" and "apostle", capitalised for Peter, Paul et al to mark the difference. No reader should think that these authors think that any of their leadership equates to the likes of "St" Peter! This is helpful, and incidentally maps nicely onto my personal "Open but cautious" view on the role of the gifts of The Holy Spirit today, which allows for a shift in the Holy Spirit's emphasis on the death of the original Apostles and completion of the Canon; but not a withdrawal of His New Testament functions. The pastoral concern about authoritarianism is equally well met. Huge swathes of this book are devoted to describing what a contemporary small-"a" apostle looks like and how they function; and authoritarianism is thoroughly inimical to their understanding of it.

It is important for more theologically traditional readers not to dismiss this book out of hand on these points of definition and emphasis because there is much in it of value. In the remainder of this review I want to mention a few things which I struggled with in this book, and then conclude with the things which I consider to be of great benefit.

I have to admit that I struggled with the style of this book. Much of that is nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of the argument, merely a clash between approaches. I don't think that it is unfair to point out that this book is too long because it suffers from a great deal of repetition of ideas and at times somewhat pedantic outworking of them. More importantly however, I struggled with it because it is written stylistically like a technical manual for a car or a company management strategy document;  genres I would usually go some way to avoiding! This is more significant than mere style however as it does point to perhaps an underlying difference between my perspective and that of the authors. The technical-manual, corporate fix-it, approach contains assumptions which perhaps need to be probed a little. It may be doing the author's an injustice, but as I read Permanent Revolution I got the impression that Hirsch and Catchim felt that our primary problem in the church is structural and organisational; but more importantly that our fate is in our own hands and that fixing it is primarily something we can do. The authors make regular historical forays to illustrate their claims, regularly citing the apostolic role of John Wesley in the 18thC revival in England as evidence of their claims. One could be forgiven for thinking that the well-established problems of Charles G. Finney's Lectures on Revival, in which great spiritual awakenings allegedly inevitably flow from us following the formula to create the right spiritual conditions; have been appropriated and applied to roles and structures within the church. That is of course, not to say that we shouldn't either repent and pray as Finney advised, nor get our structures in shape as Hirsch and Catchim demand - but we shouldn't make the error of then assuming that certain results will necessarily follow. Its important to also reflect on the Sovereignty of God and the way in which such reformations as these can be the response to great spiritual movements as much as their cause. Hirsch and Catchim are certain that only when the APEST categories are deliberately applied and the Eph4 language used that the benefits of the church as an apostolic movement will be known (eg p11). It is of course equally realistic to interpret the ministry of Wesley in completely different terms. Granting that Wesley fits their definition of a post NT 'apostle', is it not the case that he was propelled into this role, not by a deliberate embrace of the APEST typology; but because the Holy Spirit was poured out which meant that ministries spontaneously expanded out of their man-made boxes? These sundry observations don't negate the central thesis of this book, but do contextualise it and limit its scope somewhat. 

The most serious problem with The Permanent Revolution however, lies in its handling of scripture. I am not arguing here that the book contains major doctrinal errors, or deviations from essential Christian theology, it does not. The problems here lie not so much in poor exegesis, but rather in selective exegesis of key texts. The five-fold ministry of Ephesians 4 is given a book length treatment, and the repeated assertion made that this typology is foundational for all-times-all-places. Given that there are a range of structures present within the Early Church (initial communal-ism, 5-fold apostolic, elder-led); this is a very bold claim which requires detailed justification, rather than just the assertion that Ephesians is foundational. Its not even that the authors see Ephesians as a whole as foundational and trans-historical and trans-cultural; they make it abundantly clear that they do not regard the household codes of chapter 5 in such lofty terms. Rather - they take Eph4:11, and apply a fundamentalist hermeneutic to it in isolation. It does make for a lively and fascinating agenda for church reform but I am unconvinced that it is a fair reflection of the breadth of the New Testament. Perhaps only someone claiming CAPITAL-A Apostle status would say they have the authority to make such a call! Of particular note are the pastoral Epistles, universally acknowledged to be among the later NT documents. Here the emphasis given to Timothy (in Ephesus!) is not to establish the five-fold ministry but to preach the Word. When the gift of preaching (as distinct from teaching) is arrived at, it should be noted that an overly rigid five-fold typology is an imposed straight-jacket because the word itself is irrepressibly Apostolic, Prophetic, Evangelistic, Pastoral in its Teaching. That is why for centuries Christian exegetes have taught that Eph2:20  (the Prophets and Apostles are the church's foundation) refers to the Old and New Testaments in their completeness. Hirsch and Catchim dismiss the learning of many great scholars on this point as procrustean (Procrustean!!). It was disappointing that such a critical point of textual difficulty for their thesis was so lightly swatted away with an epithet, when serious engagement with other views was needed.

Having mapped out some misgivings, fans of Hirsch and Catchim (like the great folks who gave me this book!) might be wondering if I am writing a full-on assault on it here. Far from it. I think that there are some extremely valuable things in this book which need to be grasped, firmly and urgently. While I thought it was only honest to outline some reservations I want to spend the remainder of this review focussing on the many positives in it.

The first things to note is that while Eph 4 might not have been contextualised adequately within the wider New Testament this is a very rich, and deep exploration of this part of chapter four. Given that these verses have been overlooked by the Western church (the Bible I inherited has the verses either side underlined in red!) a book-length treatment of these verses is appreciated. Furthermore, because the authors are not just theologians but practicioners they have a huge wealth of wisdom to share about implementation of their ideas into the realities of church life. Again one does not have to accept every nuance of every argument to benefit hugely from absorbing this.

The leadership model Paul develops in his Ephesian epistle has a wonderful balance which Hirsch and Catchim rightly call our attention to. On p48-49, they summarise what imbalances brought into the APEST model can look like as follows:

A (Without PEST) = "hard-driving, autocratic, pressure for change, leaving wounded people, unsustainable"

P (Without AEST) = "one-dimensional, factious and sectarian, superspiritual, either too activist to be sustainable or too quietist to be useful; not viable"

E (Without APST) = "obsessed with numerical growth, lacking theological depth, charismatic leader-dominated, not empowering many people"

S (Without APET) = "risk averse, lacking in healthy dissent or creativity, lack innovation unable to transfer core message across generations"

T (Without APES) = "controlling, moralistic and uptight and Pharasaic".

It is of course unlikely that any ONE of these will dominate a church, it is a useful list because it is obvious which direction any church is tempted to stray from Paul's Ephesian balance. Hirsch and Catchim's analysis of the church in these terms is as welcome as their call to return to the kind of balanced ministry explicated in Eph4.

One of the obvious-but-hard-to-practice lessons that comes from this is that leadership teams in churches are not meant to always agree on matters of emphasis and direction! Leadership can be frustrating when people seem driven by different concerns and agendas - but what this model makes clear is that the desired outcome is usually the result of the tension created by the legitimate concerns of different giftings exerting their calling. The model is like that of guy-ropes supporting a marquee. The fact that some leaders are essentially driven by the pastoral effect of a proposal on existing members, while others are driven to experiment in new ways of sharing the gospel outside the church, should not be a cause of grief, but a recognition of the type of diversity found in the APEST. The Permanent Revolution does not call for the five APEST categories to be made into job-titles and people forced into roles; rather they describe these types of gifts/personality types as five-intelligences to which every church leadership should have access. This is very useful indeed and an associated resource is the Five-Fold-Survey . This questionnaire allows participants to weigh their gifting in these five areas. If a leadership team, say a group of elders, were to do this survey together and discover for instance that none of them were driven by apostolic gifts they would need to give special attention to working with wider church leaders to help them build vision and pioneer longer-term strategy. If they found that they lacked pastorally driven people - again that would indicate a quite different need they would have to address.

While churches I know all vary hugely on this, The Permanent Revolution argues that the consistent pattern in the church in the West has been to elevate the Pastors and Teachers (or Pastor-Teachers!) to the fore, and therefore neglect the Evangelist, who engages the world with the gospel, the Prophet who calls the church to Covenant faithfulness and keeps the church distinct from the world, and critically apostles, who lead the church into being people-led missionary movement; driven by a powerful vision of the church as a mobilised community participating in the mission of God in the world. Hirsch and Catchim call these modern-day apostles "guardians of the church's missionary DNA". Frankly, and honestly; theological quibbles aside, I think that they expose a critical weakness in our churches. If we have lost our missionary heart, we need apostles to reawaken us. If identifying visionaries, who can act apostolically in our churches challenges or even threatens those of us who function as preachers and teachers; then good!

In a telling aside, the authors note that while the Pastors and Teachers have dominated church life and made the churches inevitably decline through inward looking imbalance; the apostles and Evangelists have fled to the para-church organisations. It is not insignificant that there are many para-church organisations which are dominated by apostolic visionary types who drive their staff to breaking point and are pastorally destructive; precisely the opposite imbalance to the churches.

The second thing to note is that the authors have both a healthy realism about the challenges we face, and some very telling and astute insights into our dynamics and our condition. Time and time again while reading their analysis I could picture situations to which they relate, to myself, the fellowship of which I am a part and the wider church scene. The diagrams of decline they offer in their introduction on the "Life Cycle of Movements" I found shocking, and accurate for example.

This has been a long review, but it is a very long book. In conclusion, I am very glad I was given it to read - because I would not have been initially drawn to it as "not my kind of book". Despite my various reservations about its method and the hard work of reading all the managementy/psychology stuff; this is a hugely stimulating a worthwhile read that exposes a real weakness in our churches and points towards a cure based on a New Testament example. We have indeed marginalised out visionaries, plotters, dreamers, planners, entrepreneurs, missionaries and pioneers. We have lost our ability to connect, to innovate to create and to inspire; we do not have churches which have the kind of balance that Eph4 promotes. Argue about whether we should call these people apostles (let alone Apostles), if you want to; but oh how we need to set them loose in our churches today.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Book Notes: Where Memories Go by Sally Magnusson

I first came across this book when I heard the author reading an edited version of it on Radio4.. I was doing something as mundane as driving home with the weekly shopping, but couldn't leave the car until the end of the episode. It is not just that I recognised her voice (she is after all on 'Reporting Scotland' every week), or that one of the first 'proper books' I ever read was her biography of Eric Liddel; my attention was so arrested because this book used the most beautifully moving prose to open up a dark and painful world about which I knew almost nothing.

Magnusson writes as if directly to her mother, the celebrated Scottish journalist Mamie Baird, observing her, as dementia steadily weakens, confuses, frightens, bewilders and detaches her; and finally takes her life. Magnusson writes so well and loads her narrative with such telling recollections and observations that the reader is drawn right into what would otherwise be a very private tragedy. As such it is no easy reading, not because it is academically or intellectually demanding, but because it is so very real. It is always the case that love has the power to amplify loss and this is a book written out of a deep and affecting love. Who cannot help but be profoundly affected when they read that in a rare moment of lucidity her mother says, "I am travelling down a long road away from myself"? Who, but the utterly stone-hearted could fail to ache with empathy when they read of this family saying to their confused and angry Mother, "Why do you have to fight?" to be told "Because that's all I can do now."?

The book skilfully weaves together memories of Mamie Baird in all her vivacious, and eccentric vigour before dementia took her prisoner, with the story of her decline. Alongside this are recorded the reactions and coping strategies of family, friends and carers who struggled to come to terms with the disturbing effects of this ghastly brain disease. What adds an extra dimension to the book though is that Magnusson takes well-informed and highly informative excursions into understanding the physical processes of dementia; savagely critiques much of the care offered to sufferers today, and gropes towards an understanding of the disease which allows her to honour the remaining intact parts of her beloved mother. 

And 'honour' is an important concept here for me. While reading this book, I happened to be helping a local church with some of their Sunday services and we were working through The Ten Commandments. When we reached "Honour your Father and Your Mother" I had always placed an emphasis on the difficulty which following this principle had posed to people who's parents were profoundly dishonourable: the woeful, the negligent and the abusive. I had never really considered what it would mean to act honourably towards parents who are declining, who are on that 'long road away from themselves'.. This book is not just very loving, but also deeply honouring to Magnusson's Mother. What I found most satisfying in that regard was the way in which Sally and her family honoured their Mum, throughout the long ordeal of her illness. They honoured who she now "was", as the same person as who she "used to be". This makes "Where Memories Go" a very sad book indeed; but yet a rather noble one.

Equally fascinating was Magusson's account of the way in which music played a profound role in helping to connect with her Mother deep into the progression of the illness. Mamie Baird had, we read, always loved music and was a singer and mouth-organ player with a large repertoire of songs. These songs played a critical role in connecting, calming and reaching her - sometimes during very dark days indeed. Magnusson's interview with a brain specialist about this power of music is especially insightful. She learns that music contains multiple simultaneous stimuli, (music, lyrics, arrangement, accents) which have been re-enforced by repetition over many years, and that these are powerfully connected to memories. That simultaneous multiple stimuli increases the chances of connectivity through a diseased brain in which so many of the pathways are not functioning. There were times when Sally Magnusson's mother was unable to speak coherently, but could sing old songs. Following this she has set up a charity, "Playlist for Life" facilitating the provision of personally significant music for dementia sufferers - which can be so significant for sufferers and carers alike. Their video follows:

I have not personally encountered dementia of the kind that so damaged Sally Magnusson's mother, and caused so much pain to her and her family. I do have friends who are experiencing this in their parents, and Sally Magnusson's important book has given me far greater insight into the kinds of difficulties, pains, joys and sorrows through which they are now travelling. "Where memories go" is intensely moving, and utterly compelling, quite heartbreaking in the loss it details, yet quite beautifully constructed.

There is a facebook group dedicated to the book available here.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Joys and Dilemmas of An At-Home Dad

There is a question I have come to dread, at parties, social-events or whenever we meet new people. The question is simply the innocent-enough ice-breaker, “So, what do you do?” Truth be told, I don’t actually dread the question, but I have come to anticipate people’s reactions with a large dose of nervousness. The problem is, most people simply do not know how to respond to the revelation that I am an At-home Dad. 

The worst responses have come from people who have coupled together very strong assumptions about gender roles, with a view that child-rearing is a lower or lesser activity than say dentistry, or banking. The ruder of these types assert their sense of superiority abruptly, while the more socially literate check themselves and manage to say something like, “Well how lovely for you” – with such a strong emphasis on those last two words that any hint of interest is immediately dissolved into patronisation. 

More nuanced responses have come from other people who have done this job. Women’s reactions have been fascinating. Some of them, who feel trapped in a domestic role and share a low-view of the value of child-care, express genuine sympathy and enquire as to my escape-route. This I suppose I expected. What caught me by surprise though, was the hostility of one or two women. Their initial withering comments about the inability of a man to run a house properly (let alone clean it!) have been thinly veiled masks covering the fact that my presence in their world threatens their claim to owning unique, irreplaceable skills, which no man could possibly possess. In such places I am regarded as a ‘scab’, as non-Union labour, undercutting their bargaining power. 

Then there have been those in high-pressure jobs (often men), who have reacted with an entirely unjustified
degree of envy. For these characters, the dream of dropping out from the rat-race and living simply in the countryside, is replaced with an idealistic view of life at home with the kids - that owes more to sunshine-bathed washing-powder adverts than it does to the realities of broken-nights, doing the laundry, changing nappies and peeling potatoes.

Most people react by simply asking me to justify the arrangement. I used to indulge them too, telling the story of the company I worked for going out of business, of the unaffordability of child-care for three kids, of my wife’s successful career and so forth. I no longer bother – I have long since learned that anyone who sees running a home and caring for children as being “beneath a man”, is not the owner of opinions which I respect sufficiently to care much about.

That awkward moment when… the house insurance salesperson says “Can I put you down as housewife?” thankfully doesn’t occur much anymore. The one piece of offensive terminology that has tried to make a comeback has been the ghastly American-ism, “The Dad-mom”. The offence of this phrase isn’t that our transatlantic cousins can’t spell “Mum”; but that it describes my role as pretending to be a Mum; and that in taking responsibility for feeding, cleaning, clothing, nurturing, educating and protecting my children (and I should add, looking after my wife!) that I have become in someway feminised. I am not a Dad-Mum, I am just a Dad. The implication in that nasty phrase, is that there is something inauthentic about what I achieve for my family. However such a view is based on the flawed assumption that parenting is a predominantly female skill. Historically these assumptions do not apply where there is no workplace-home divide or where parenting is more of a
community responsibility. Or go back as far as the Bible – a book which surprisingly contains as many directives about parenting aimed at Dads as Mums and does not endorse parenting as a non-masculine function. So call me a ‘home-maker’ if you must; but don’t universalise your tired 20thCentury expectations, by calling me a Dad-Mum!

Parenting is an unpaid job, not because it is of no value, but because it is so fundamentally important that we humans will do it anyway – whether we are paid for it or not. That, and the fact that being able to take care of children is an enormous privilege. I am thankful for every stone that I have skimmed with my boys, (thousands), for every time I have read The Gruffalo to my daughter (hundreds); for every castle we have explored, every river we have dammed, every waterfall we have seen, every train we have waved at, every game of cricket we have played, every song we have sung and every DVD we have watched (actually that last statement is a barefaced lie, my daughter went through a High School Musical phase). I am both honoured to have been present when goals were scored and solos sung; as I am to have been on hand to clean up cuts and grazes, or offer a hug when games were lost, or friends were mean.

Being an at-home Dad has not been without its challenges though. Before my own children were born I had never handled a baby, made baby-food or changed a nappy. Adapting to life at home with the ceaseless demands of children wasn’t straightforward, it was, as they say, a steep-learning-curve. At times when the babies were small, our house resembled the scene of a robbery, and our aspirations to provide home-cooked healthy meals were sometimes jettisoned in favour of the supermarket freezer section. Yet – getting on top of all these challenges is possible “even for a man” (cue the usual jokes about men and multi-tasking).

For the vast majority of the time, being the Dad at Home has meant simply relentless hard work. There is a standard sit-com gag, in which a husband returns from work to find a less-than-perfect house, and exasperatedly exclaims, “Well what have you been doing all day!?” At such times, my sympathies are very much with the on-screen wife. 

The physical effort of parenting and house-management is punctuated by some peculiar problems if the parent happens to be a Dad, though. The first is the relative isolation that Dads-at-home can experience. While I am content to be fairly anti-social most of the time, I was aware that my children needed to be socialised and interact with their peers. There are a few hurdles to overcome here for the committed Dad. The playpark for instance, contains some particular social mazes to navigate. The key for a Dad, I have discovered, is not to let the children run ahead of you and start playing on the swings and climbing-frames without you. This is because that would leave you as a lone male, walking into a children’s play area; an action almost designed to make other parents nervous, twitchy, worried, or even to start rounding up their children. I have sometimes thought I needed a badge which, if it didn’t say, “I have never worked at the BBC”, would at least have said, “Don’t Panic – I’m here with my kids”. But what I really want to tell them is that Fred West and Ian Brady used female accomplices to exploit exactly this kind stereotyping, and that just as Mrs West and Ms Hindley were not safe by virtue of their femininity; so I am no threat to their kids just because I am a man.

The playground is only the start of it though. You would think that the delicate matter of the disposal of human waste would be something that we would have mastered by now.  In practice it seems that this fairly straightforward process becomes complicated for the Dad-with-kids. An alarming number of architects seem
to think that the only appropriate place to situate baby-changing facilities is within the confines of the ladies loos; somewhere I would presumably be arrested for attempting to enter. Our local leisure centre is an example of this, and I still remember disapproving looks bearing down on me amid the sound of tutting when I was forced to change one of my babies on the stairs. To be fair the nappy in question was more of a weapon of mass destruction than anything Hans Blix was every likely to have found in Iraq, so the public disgust wasn’t entirely misplaced. Perhaps the ‘tut-tutters’ were questioning my parenting skills, or suggesting that a competent mother would have used the baby-change facilities! The prize for the worst baby-changing experience I ever had though belongs to St Peter’s in Rome. When I asked an official where I could change the child he curtly snapped, “You don’t – you will get your wife!” Apparently the Pope is very keen on people not using contraception, but less keen on helping us deal with the inevitable consequences which flow (some times quite profusely) from following this advice.

Thankfully the days of nappies are now past and my three are now fully housetrained; but public toilets provided an unforeseen obstacle too. My first two children were boys, so taking them into the gents was no issue. When we procreated for a third time we produced a girl – which didn’t cause any further difficulties until she was old enough to realise that she shouldn’t be going into the gents, and demanding that I take her into the ladies! Persuading some shops to let us use the disabled loos as a sensible alternative wasn’t always easy either. M&S did well here, allowing us to use their disabled facilities so regularly that in the end my
daughter developed a Pavlov’s-dog style reaction to the place, and couldn’t go past its’ doors without immediately experiencing an uncontrollable urge to wee!

Poo and puke are quickly dealt with, but isolation persists as probably the hardest element of Dad-parenting. There are a few Dads who brave parent and toddler groups, but these can be quite intimidating for a lone-male. If you frequent such places, you may have seen one of us edging nervously into an oestrogen saturated room, holding tightly onto a two-year olds hand for security. When you sit down with a cup of tea and realise that the conversation you are about to become ingratiated in, is about the pain of cracked nipples, it is never going to be anything but slightly awkward. Should the girls accept me as a fellow-parent, and just keep going, with verbal descriptions of their nipples which at the very least seriously distract me from my cup of tea? Or do they stop in mid-conversation, making it very obvious that I am interrupting their group bonding?  

The other odd thing about female-dominated groups is a verbal game I have witnessed which I call, “My husband is worse than yours”. The rules are that one Mum complains about something her husband/partner doesn’t do in the home. The participants then take turns outdoing each other with tales of woe and inconsideration on the part of absent men who have (apparently) gone to work to rest, and have no idea of how hard it is to raise children. As a hands-on Dad-at-home, I can’t join in this game. Having so deliberately bucked the traditionally assigned gender-roles, I am nothing but grateful to the wife who has worked to allow me to be here with my kids. To re-cast this privilege as an ordeal, or to scorn the person who pays to make it possible seems absurd. Perhaps an advantage of not merely following pre-conceived assumptions about the division of labour means also not swallowing pre-conceived criticisms of the other gender. The bread-winner in our house is not lazy, she is exhausted. If she drops her stuff in a room I have just tidied, this suggests to me that she is stressed more than ungrateful. It certainly doesn’t make me want to head to the parent and toddler group to initiate another round of ‘my-spouse-is-worse-than-yours’. 

For all these reasons, many times, I have simply hoisted the little ones into baby carriers, put them on my back and gone hillwalking instead. It has been exhilarating, and beautiful – but I have sometimes questioned whether such solitary pursuits have been the best thing for my children’s social development.

It has been interesting to observe the pressures which earning and parenting this way have placed upon our marriage. In most cases these have been nothing more than role-reversed reflections of the traditional dilemmas in which the at-home parent doesn’t fully understand the pressures and frustrations of the office day; while the at-work parent cannot grasp the extent to which housework can be a demoralising treadmill and children can be physically and emotionally wearing. Such pressures usually surface at the dinner-table, where both assert that they have more than earned an evening off from further effort, and express frustration at the other’s inability to see that.

At its worst I have felt that I have robbed my wife of being involved in precious moments of our kids development; school concerts, sports-days and the like. There is no way to pretend otherwise, especially when my wife is out with her girl-friends who have been able to attend these events. At such times I have had to choose not to beat-myself up about this – but to realise that our children are fortunate to be able to have had one parent at all their milestone events, when the financial reality is that if I was working there would have been none. At its best, I am aware that I have saved my wife from a lot of frustrating and mundane work, which is well-below her potential and capacity. She is talented and highly skilled, and I am sure would have become depressed if limited to the endless cycles of washing, tidying and cleaning that have been my routine for the last few years. During times when her work has been enjoyable, and the children particularly difficult, I have felt as if I have given up a lot to pursue this role. However, when her work has been stressful and arduous, but I have had fun with the children, making new discoveries, or going on outings during the school holidays – it does seem as if she has had a rough deal and that a more traditional arrangement would have been better. Strangely at times like this, I feel compelled to do a huge amount more in the house than my female friends who are housewives. While many of them relax at coffee mornings, I find myself assaulting the housework with military strategy, because however much I might wish to pretend otherwise, even in the 21stCentury, I still feel the need to justify my position here.

The Dad-at-home does bring one great advantage to the family though. I worked outside the home full-time when our first was born, part-time when our second appeared, and was full-time at home with the children by the time we had three. This meant that for the whole of my wife’s long 3rd maternity-leave, we were all together as a family. When we look back, those months of managing the children and running the home, familiarising ourselves with a new baby and handling the changing dynamics of an expanding family together turned out to be a wonderful time, a really significant period of consolidating our marriage and binding us together as a unit. 

Most people who look after small children full-time, intend to do so for a limited period, perhaps intending to become “economically active” again once the children have started school. I have discovered recently that Dads face some specific challenges in re-joining the labour-force, which their female counterparts do not. The embarrassing silence which follows the “So, what do you do?” at a party can be relatively easily
resolved by finding someone more amenable to talk to. However when the questioner is your prospective employer, that escape route is hardly an option, and the ensuing stall in the conversation potentially disastrous in the interview room. The fact is that a gap in a woman’s CV for child-rearing is seen as acceptable in a way that it still is not for a man.

I wouldn’t want to admit this publicly, but just sometimes Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is actually quite good. At its best it is really a wrongly labelled Person’s Hour; lively, informative and stimulating; but at its worst it consistently confuses role and gender. The very real difficulties of returning to work after child-rearing, are indeed compounded by the phenomenon of the double-shift, in which the lesser wage-earner is expected to continue to manage the home plus earn. These things obviously affect more women than men – but are not in themselves gender issues, but are tied most fundamentally to the role of home-maker. I cannot count the number of times speakers on that programme have made sweeping statements about the cost of childcare and the difficulties of re-entering employment as being exclusively “women’s issues”, when they apply – perhaps even more strongly, to a Dad-at-home, than to his female equivalent.

The many challenges of being an at-home-Dad have been in turns, fun, infuriating, stressful, tedious, exhilarating, joyful, perplexing and very, very tiring. Parenting is a high-stakes game in which the outcome
simply could not matter more. Sending reasonably confident, competent, happy and well-adjusted people into the world is no small aim. Sometimes our efforts are as successful as we dared hope in our most doe-eye, eros-frenzied “let’s make a baby” moments of optimism. At other times our failures seem to loom as large as Philip Larkin’s oft quoted fatalistic pessimism about the dreadful consequences of parenting in “This be the verse”. (Oh we do not mean to – but we do!). Strangely while many people have echoed Larkin’s sentiments about parental faults being irrevocably distilled into their children, very few have followed his concluding advice: “and don’t have any kids yourself”. We do; and when we do we are hard-wired to give them everything we possibly can to make them into decent, honest, useful citizens, able to forge a useful path for themselves in the world. For many Dads the very best choice for their kids will be for them to take a career-break, role up their sleeves and start looking after the home and the children. It’s no easy road – but it’s hard to imagine anything of more importance or significance.