Hazel McHaffie

Christianity

Absolute Proof

It was an article in the daily newspaper that first alerted me to the publication of this unusual book:  Absolute Proof by internationally bestselling crime writer, Peter James. It’s noteworthy that, back in 1989, James was not the success he is today, neither had he shown any great interest in religion, when, out of the blue, he received a phone call from an elderly gentleman claiming to have been given irrefutable evidence of God’s existence, and saying that Peter James was the man to help him get it taken seriously. That call was the start of a 29 year exploration into exactly what the consequences of such proof might be. It fed into James’ personal obsession with why we’re here, what happens after death, what is good/evil, and his innate passion for the subject drove him to pursue the idea. The end result is a 560 page novel which challenges and informs, troubles and intrigues, in equal measure. And I was delighted to receive a hot-off-the-press hardback copy from DJ as an unexpected gift!

Theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, who died in 1274, said that ‘To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible,’ and I suspect the beliefs and opinions of each reader will influence how they approach and interpret this tale, but knowing its origins does give it some added mystery and appeal. And the author himself declares that writing the book left him believing in an ‘informed intelligent design’ of some kind.

So, to the story-line. Ross Hunter is no stranger to weird or terrifying experiences. He’s an investigative journalist who likes to push his own limits, dig deep in the murk. But even he is taken aback when Dr Harry Cook – former RAF officer and retired professor of history of art – contacts him, saying he’s recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence. He’s been advised that Ross is the man to get it taken seriously. Ringing bells so far?

Intrigued, Ross meets the man. Dr Cook seems utterly and touchingly sincere; he really believes that together they can save the world. What’s more he brings with him three persuasive inducements: a written text from God, running to 1,247 pages; messages from Nicky, Ross’ dead twin brother, that not another living soul could possibly know; and three compass coordinates. These coordinates are the locations for three lost religious treasures: the Holy Grail; the DNA of the Lord Jesus Christ; and something related to the Second Coming … So far, so Dan Brown, huh? But religious advisors tell Ross that it would take more than three compass coordinates to prove God exists. What would it take? A miracle which defies the laws of physics, beyond human replication, seen by all the world. Furthermore the advice comes with a dire warning: anyone finding such proof would be in grave danger of being assassinated so high are the stakes for both religious and political leaders.

Naturally enough, given that this is a Peter James’ creation, there are several unscrupulous groups of people who will stop at nothing to get their hands on these invaluable objects. And also as you’d expect, all the ingredients of a crime thriller are there …
– a vast cast of characters – aesthetes and penitents, ruthless businessmen and serious scientists, atheists and devout believers
– complicated backstories which gradually unravel
– dark secrets, disturbances or psychological damage in the past histories
– a secret people will kill for
– mortal danger, chases, threats, murders
– all the unprovability of faith and religion pitted against science and medicine, economics and mathematics
– a smattering of drug dealing, sexual depravity, extortion, blackmail, addiction, greed.

The long list of acknowledgements pays tribute to the thoroughness of almost three decades of research, and the detailed insights into the Bible as well as scientific thought and understanding are indeed impressive. And yet, James leaves room for something in between – ?coincidences – ? ‘God’s calling cards‘ as Einstein put it. And when you’re hunting down the Son of God, anticipating his impact on the world today, that seems entirely feasible and appropriate!

The caller who planted the seeds of an idea in Peter James’ mind back in the 1980s said that God was very concerned about the state of the world, and mankind needed to have its faith in him reaffirmed. Plenty of people today would agree. Whether this book would contribute to that high aim is more debatable.

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The Longest Week

As it’s Easter week it seems appropriate to reference a seasonally apposite book I’ve just finished reading: The Longest Week by Nick Page.

It was a routine execution. A humble peasant became a political pawn in an unseemly power struggle and was accorded the kind of death reserved for slaves. It happened a couple of thousand years ago. And yet this death has become the lynchpin for our civilisation. We measure our calendar from it. Macabre as it may seem, the instrument of torture upon which this young man was brutally nailed and asphyxiated has become an ornament in buildings and around necks. And perhaps more incongruous still, today, shops and children’s nurseries are full of symbols associated with this story. We all know the bare bones, but few will have probed beneath the surface.

So, after hundreds of years of retelling, is there any room for another book on the subject? Well, yes, if it’s a book like The Longest Week which does so much more than recount. It recreates the events moment by moment, describing the settings, the people, the happenings yet again, but in vivid detail, fleshing them out with fascinating little-known facts, explanations, interpretations, significances, that cut through layers of myth and misrepresentation, to provide meaning and impact and challenge.

As Page himself puts it:
The streets of this story are paved with reality. The people who tread these streets are real historical characters who lived and breathed and worked and sweated, who inhabited a society about which much is unknown. And, as we delve into history, as we strip away the layers of pious iconography and theological interpretation, we discover a tale that, for all its spiritual significance, is characterised by some very real human passions. This is a story of fear and anger, of non-violent resistance and state brutality. It’s a story of the outcasts and the powerful, of processions and perfume, of feasts and festivals, of death and darkness and, ultimately, of triumph.

And through it’s pages, we feel the claustrophobic atmosphere of the seething streets of Jerusalem as the crowds amass for Passover, the brooding tension of the arrest and illegal trial as the battered prisoner staggers from ‘court’ to ‘court’, the sad bewilderment of the man’s followers and a faithful little band of women watching from a distance as their dreams and hopes disintegrate. And using writings from the time, as well as biblical references, the author helps us delve into the reasons why. Why Pilate gave consent to the humiliation and brutality, knowing the man Jesus son of Joseph the carpenter to be innocent. Why the soldiers put such venom into their beatings and mockery. Why the prisoner endured it all without protest. Why Peter managed to inveigle his way into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house but lost courage before dawn. Why the empty tomb caused such consternation and elation. Why any of it matters today.

Page’s own conclusion is:
‘This, then, is the message of the Longest Week. It’s not really about facts and dates and theories. It’s about one man and our response to his life. The real truth is that no one has ever been able to control Christ. He storms down the hills of our theories, wild and triumphant; he marches into the heart of our lives and starts overturning the received ideas that we have carefully organised into neat little piles. The historical Jesus who challenged the oppressive religious and political systems, who was passionately concerned with the plight of the poorest of society, who became, literally, one of the outcasts, who ridiculed authority and made their wisdom look foolish, who walked the road of love to its triumphant conclusion – he’s still there. He has slipped off the purple robe and climbed down from his throne and Is giving out bread and wine to all those who need it. He’s alive and he’s kicking: the great rebel, the leader of the upside down kingdom – Jesus Christ, Joshua ben Joseph – the Son of God.

Nick Page is an unofficial historian and self-styled information-monger, and author of 80 books. He loves to research subjects and bring them alive, to be provocative and challenging. His stated aim: ‘to write interesting stuff about things that matter’. It is interesting; it does matter. And this book has prompted me to think differently this Easter-time.

Isn’t that what books are all about?

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Burying the Bones

That’s the thing about ebooks – if you don’t categorise them when you download, you can easily forget what they’re all about. And I had no recollection of why I’d bought Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling. I discovered it on my Kindle when I was trawling through for something different to absorb me on an eight-hour train journey (to Chelsea and back). You had it easy last week with nothing more demanding than my pictures of beautiful things; so I thought a little more meat might not go amiss this time. (You have been warned!)

Burying the BonesEight hours is a significant length of reading time so I did a quick check on Amazon … Hmm, a biography of Pearl Buck. Who, do I hear you say? Me too. Another check … A prolific writer of the 20th century, Buck was the first of only two American women to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (back in 1938). And Burying the Bones combines history, culture, family relationships, self-sacrifice, religious obsession, and profound sadness through her story. OK, sounds promising. And it’s a while since I read a biography – which would mean another first for this blog.

The descendant of Dutch immigrants, and born in the USA in 1892 whilst her missionary parents were on a brief return visit to recover from the deaths of three of their children from cholera and fever, the baby Pearl Sydenstricker was taken to China when she was 3 months old, not leaving for the last time until she was 46. She grew up through one of the most turbulent periods of Chinese history, and Spurling doesn’t spare the bleak detail of life in China at that time: female infanticide; frequent epidemics of cholera, typhoid, malaria, diphtheria; famine, flood and drought; ruthless and ambitious generals and provincial warlords and politicians jockeying for power; the ‘barricaded houses and silent empty streets waiting for the screams, shouts and crashes that accompany the battle itself”.

Imagine this little girl: ‘Sometimes Pearl found bones lying in the grass, fragments of limbs, mutilated hands, once a head and shoulder with parts of an arm still attached. They were so tiny she knew they belonged to dead babies, nearly always girls suffocated or strangled at birth and left out for dogs to devour … Where other little girls constructed mud pies, Pearl made miniature grave mounds, patting down the sides and decorating them with flowers or pebbles. She carried a string bag for collecting human remains, and a sharpened stick or a club made from split bamboo with a stone fixed into it to drive the dogs away.’

Nor was life within the family smooth. Pearl’s father, Absalom, infuriating and stubborn, was emotionally distant and frequently physically absent.  ‘Intoxicated with the magnificence of his opportunity‘, he was an ‘unrelentingly righteous‘ man consumed by a ‘supernatural imperative‘. But the Chinese masses he set out to convert (with a decidedly hell-fire-and-brimstone approach it must be said!) were both unwilling and uncomprehending. The whole family were ostracised. Absalom himself gloried in the horror: ‘thousands of Christians suffered martyrdoms, which gave us great encouragement, as showing that the work which had been accomplished was not merely on the surface, but a genuine fruit that would stand the severest test.

His daughter however, came to abhor much of what the mission community espoused, seeing it as ‘blinkered, small-minded and arrogant’ with its ‘invincible assumption of superiority to the people to whom it ministered.’ And when her turn came to preach the gospel, though she shared her father’s weight of care about the ‘idol worship, infanticide, alcoholism, gambling, and opium addiction’, she adopted a very different tone. ‘We simply cannot express the Gospel with any force if we have hidden within us a sense of racial superiority.’ Eventually she resigned altogether from the missionary movement after publicly denouncing the system as an assault by ignorant fanatics.

Circumstances forced her to grow up quickly from an early age. Her younger brother died of diphtheria, her mother was mentally and physically traumatised by the privations of the life her husband had inflicted on her, and her many bereavements. But returning as a young wife after College education in America, Pearl saw China through new eyes. This time she was with a very different kind of man, Lossing Buck, whose life’s work was ‘an attempt to speak to and for the illiterate, inarticulate, ignored, and excluded farmers who made up four-fifths of China’s population,‘ through his meticulous research to enable Chinese students to ‘discover for themselves the facts of their own country.’ Pearl could happily stand right alongside him. At least initially.

But as his career blossomed she became more and more lonely. She immersed herself once more in the Chinese world. She continued to be appalled by the plight of females in China: harassment, abuse, murder, suicide, infanticide were commonplace. ‘China,’ she wrote, ‘is a country given to the devil.’ And for a time her rage and despair spilled over into her attempts ‘to indoctrinate villagers already brutalised by ignorance and poverty.’

But with the death of her parents, and the liberation which she found by writing a memoir about her mother’s life, Pearl experienced a new sense of freedom, enabling her to shake off the rigid shackles that had controlled her. And in writing about her own childhood, about China, about the ‘shapes and patterns of ordinary Chinese life‘, she launched her own career as a writer, even though the original manuscripts of her two greatest works, The Exile and The Good Earth, lay forgotten for decades. Both seemed initially ‘too raw and intimate for public consumption‘.

And liberated, she could also finally confront ‘the four evils’ within her own marriage: ‘selfishness, slavery, hypocrisy, and cowardice’. She and Lossing limped along for many years until Pearl finally found the resolve to establish a new life without him, and eventually to marry her publisher. For her an orderly house ran in the Confucian way: ‘by being kind,courteous, temperate and deferential, without impatience or anger’. Her Chinese inheritance gave her ‘the courtesy and calm, the unassertive authority, the unexpected reticence and often astonishing sexual frankness, the broad and impartial vision’ which she valued all her life.

The Good EarthShe is remembered as a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner; a tireless campaigner for children’s rights and against racism and sexism; a prolific speaker, writer, essayist, and editor. But she was also a mother to seven children. All except one were adopted. Her own biological child was severely affected by learning difficulties caused by phenylketonuria. Pearl felt a ‘monstrous ache of the heart which becomes physical and permeates bone and muscle’, missing ‘eternally the person [her daughter] can never be’. She was also aware that the experience changed her:

‘I come of a family impatient with stupidity and slowness, and I absorbed the family intolerance of minds less quick than our own. It was my child who taught me to understand so clearly that all people are equal in their humanity, and all have the same human rights.’

In spite of her own personal accomplishments, Pearl Buck never really ‘belonged’, at least, not in establishment terms. She was denounced in China as an enemy of the people for daring to depict the truth, in the USA for being a communist sympathiser, by the church for exposing its proselytizing imperfections whilst those it sought to convert lived in poverty and squalor, and by the literary establishment for ‘sinking’ to writing pulp-fiction.

Spurling has clearly thoroughly researched her subject, and at times the threads are complicated and repetitious, but given the effect on her writing of so much in Pearl’s life, it’s hard to see how she could do otherwise. I found this book both enlightening and very readable. Ideal for a long journey.

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New Year, new impetus

Well, it’s here! 2011. And a very happy New Year to you all.

The bells rang, the pipes skirled, 80,000 people partied in the streets of Edinburgh to the thunder and shimmer of thousands of pounds worth of fireworks … and yes, it is worth saying, because the official celebrations have been cancelled before, and the jolly old weather certainly threatened to be agin us this time.

Six years ago we took a party of guests to our usual vantage point shortly before midnight and … waited … and waited … and well, nothing happened. Apparently there were ‘safety concerns’. In our embarrassment and frustration we instantly thought Thou-shalt-not-play-conkers-without-safety-helmet-plus-padded-gloves-plus-visors writ large. But nobody wants a fatality for the sake of a mere pyrotechnical spectacular, and we learned later it was something to do with a dodgy roof and the strength of the wind. At least that was the official version.

But it’s not just dynamite that has ignited the change to a new year. The bells have been ringing for other major shifts close to my heart. Indeed the news during this past seven days has been jammed full of my kind of subjects. In no particular order (as they say on ‘talent’ shows) …

Organ donation included on driving licence applications
From July drivers applying for a licence will be asked to indicate which of the following applies to them:
Yes, I would like to register on the NHS Organ Donor Register
• I do not want to answer this question now
• I am already registered on the NHS Organ Donor Register.

It’s an official step towards increasing the pool of donors. Around 90% of people favour donation but only 27% are registered donors. And given that about 1,000 Britons die each year for want of an organ, and thousands more wait an indecently long time for one, we need to do something. Maybe there should have been one more question:
Would you be prepared to receive a donated organ for yourself or someone you love?
The novel I’m writing just now is about organ donation so I can get quite fired up on the subject.

Sir Elton John has become a dad
Put aside for a moment any qualms about the 63-year old temper-tantrum-on-short-legs with a £290,000 flower habit as a role model, and disregard the rumours about payment to ensure the birth happened on 25th December as the ultimate Christmas present, and think instead of the whole picture of a financial arrangement between an unknown surrogate mother in California and an aging, overweight, homosexual with dubious priorities. And spare a thought for the resultant offspring: Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.
Admittedly the pop star did try recently to adopt an HIV-positive toddler from a Ukrainian orphanage, but he was denied on the grounds of his age, and the fact that his civil partnership with David Furnish was not recognised. So what isn’t good enough for an abandoned Ukrainian is suddenly acceptable for Zachary? Hello? How many tribunals in this country would grant permission for such an arrangement without the pressure of fame and fortune, I wonder? OK, it did become legal in April here in the UK for two men to have a child by a surrogate and to have both their names on the birth certificate. But we aren’t talking about your average ordinary man here. Children are not commodities. Nor are they fashion accessories.
Surrogacy was the subject of my 2005 novel, Double Trouble.

A nine-year old becomes a bone marrow donor
Robert Sherwood is only nine. His brother Edward is just five. But Edward has aplastic anaemia; his bone marrow fails to produce sufficient new blood cells. Robert’s donation has the potential to save his brother’s life. But … should he have been subjected to this procedure before the age of informed consent? Does the end justify the means? Should he be permitted to say no?
It’s the bread and butter of my working life!

A grandfather has become the first to donate an organ to a grandchild
John Targett, aged 59, couldn’t bear to see his little one-year-old grandson growing sicker and sicker as a result of biliary atresia. So he offered part of his own liver and had the operation just before Christmas. What a gift: the gift of life.

Another British person has ended his life in Switzerland
Andrew Colgan was only 42 (not much older than my son) but he’d suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for ten years and his condition had markedly worsened recently. He died in that now infamous Dignitas room in Zurich. My own feeling is of immense sadness that this young man had been desperate enough to go abroad for a solution to his terrible dilemma.
I really agonised over these questions for Right to Die; I’m still struggling with them three years after publication.

Volunteers keep libraries open
A new report has revealed that libraries in England are increasingly being staffed by volunteers, to prevent closure under cost-cutting exercises. And this at a time when it ought surely be a priority to make books available to those struggling to find employment or to make ends meet. Books can change lives. Penny-pinching in this area is surely stealing vital resources from the future.
Hundreds of people only read my books as library copies. I want them to continue to have this opportunity. It represents something much more exciting than sales figures.

Bishops defend the rights of Christians
Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has urged the prime minister to review the laws which discriminate against Christians in our supposedly-Christian country. And the Bishop of Winchester has reinforced this message. We’ve all heard about the airline worker denied the right to wear a crucifix; the couple denied the opportunity to foster children because of their religious scruples; and the bed-and-breakfast proprietors who won’t take same-sex couples in double rooms in their guesthouse. The law does seem to have sided against ordinary Christians following their consciences.
Religion is closely interwoven with law and ethics and this subject too is a matter of ongoing interest to me.

There was something too about managing Alzheimer’s more cost effectively but I can’t seem to find that. No, it’s NOT a joke about dementia: I genuinely can’t. I looked and in the search found this site which might be comforting for those people struggling alongside this disease. But in the absence of a link to the news item I was looking for, I didn’t want to ignore another topic that I’ve delved into in depth for one of my novels, Remember Remember, because of course, it leapt out of the page at me.

So you see, just in a few days I’ve had my belief that people do care about ethical dilemmas reinforced over and over again. A great spur to another year of writing.

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