Book review: Wonders of the living world

This book’s author, my friend Dr Ruth Bancewitz, confesses that as a teenager she rather geekily enjoyed those books that showed giant cutaway models of things and explained how they work.

This book, though for adults, would be perfect fodder for teenagers who think the same way. Taking the work of six scientists, helped by some elegant writing and classy illustrations, it surveys some lovely science, slowly cranking up the view from the molecular all the way to the large trends and patterns that appear across species in evolutionary theory.

Then it does something that’s relatively rare in popular science: it turns the camera back onto the scientists themselves, what their discoveries mean to them, and how they integrate what they’re finding in the microscope with what they believe about God and the universe.

So as well as being popular science itself, the book offers correctives to two perhaps lazy assumptions that pervade quite a lot of popular science writing — that atheism is the only basis to do science from (it isn’t); and that the scientific process is somehow divorced from the humanity of the scientists themselves. (It isn’t: science is social construct, a tribal religion, just better than most tribal religions–we hope–at coping with the width and depth of reality).

I particularly like this book because it’s slow (in my terms): not strident, not argumentative, challenging popular assumptions just by being elegant, rigorous, beautifully illustrated and out there, inconvenient, like an unexpected piece of rogue data.

The network made me do it: belonging as the cause of believing

Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity is unsettling reading, but really worth the time and a few pots of tea.

Why do people join religious movements? His answer goes against what we would like to say, which is that we heard the truth and decided to believe it.

Having researched new religious movements he suggests the reasons people join are things like:

  • (other things being equal) when they have or develop stronger attachments to the group than they have to non-members (p18)
  • When they are people of no religion, the ‘religiously inactive’ (p19)
  • When the networks remain open, so that new people can continue to join (p21)

It would seem that these assumptions work for any new religion or movement; which is why, as we observe, people do join wacky and diverse groups, and then become arch-defenders of their new beliefs. The buzz they get from belonging outweighs the crazy they are obliged to believe.

The buzz they get from belonging outweighs the crazy they are obliged to believe.

But then, having joined, they argue that it was the group’s teaching all along that made them join.

This is interesting in all sorts of ways.

  • It does chime with my experience. Most of the people I know became Christians in the context of a friendly network. Though it isn’t true of all my friends, and it wasn’t true of me. (I much prefer to lurk on the edge of networks than actually to join them.)
  • it will always be easier for a non-religious person to start believing than for a person with a prior religious attachment. The rapid global rise in the non-religious is thus not the end of religion so much as a vast new opportunity for religions both good and bad.
  • For us Christians, we have to ask, did this process happen to us? Is that how we found ourselves in a church? Is that why we believe what we say we believe? Was it just sociology? If not, why not?
  • How do we know what is or isn’t true after all? I suspect that point is something to do with (a) what happens in the long years after we join a group. How do our beliefs change? What does the weathering of life do to them? (b) the personal experience of the life of faith: how does what we claim to believe chime with what we feel and who we are and what we are becoming? and (c)what is the fruit of the movement we are part of?

Another review

OK, I get that it may not excite you all that much but it’s just lovely for me. I do appreciate Netgalley, putting early editions of books in the hands of reviewers who don’t know or owe the authors of the book. More than all the gatekeepers in the world – agents, publishers, booksellers — actual readers are the people you want to hear from:

I raad this book as a Christian, and someone who has had to come to terms with chronic illness changing their ability to be “successful” and “productive” in the traditional sense. Initially, it wasn’t the book I expected. I didn’t realise that it is the second in a series and I was expecting to read more about the author’s personal experience and faith during his recovery after his coma. Whilst it does mention this, the book focuses in a more objective way on key elements that we lose or rediscover in a different form when we experience a life change. I have to admit to wondering for a while where this book was taking me. I am immensely glad I kept going, because from the fourth chapter, Making, this book really sings for me. It opens up the scope of the term “vocation” in a way that is both exciting and affirming, and exhorts us not to “die with your music inside you.” I highlighted almost that entire chapter! Although many years a Christian, I came found new and thought-provoking ideas in the following chapter, Believing (don’t panic, no heresy!). This is where the author really brings all the previous chapters together. The loose link to the experiences of convalescence and dealing with a significant change in life becomes much more concrete. I’m excited to read more of Glenn Myer’s books and have already bought one. Although it took me a while to get into this book, I feel he has wise and important things to say on life in general and the combination of life, faith and vocation in particular.

Lisa C., Netgalley

A little bit more Bread

Sorry if you are a regular reader and already Breaded out. My book (to be published Feb 19 2022) is on Netgalley, which is a site where reviewers and early editions of books meet, and I’ve seen a couple of reviews. It does something nice inside me when if I see people are finding the book helpful.

Here’s one of them:

I just finished the book Bread by Glenn Meyers in one day. Like everyone else in the human race, I am in the midst of an existential awakening. Through the fears, doubts, pain, and damaging health implications of these times, I find the author’s experiences and ultimate wisdom helpful. What I liked most is his ability to face his circumstances without fear but with reality that leads to humility, wisdom, and strength. I especially liked the questions he includes to evaluate one’s life. The answers help put everything in proper perspective. One day at a time, one step at a time, even through pain, we move to who and what we were always meant to be.

Another Advanced Review Copy reader (a friend this time) wrote to say that his wife and he

have both read your book and talked about it more than we have talked about any other except perhaps the Bible … I have never read such an authentic account … think it should be required reading for anyone trying for a caring profession.

So this is great.

You can still — for a few more days — download the free Advanced Review Copy here. Thanks to those of you who already have.

Or you can join Netgalley and read it here:

Or even you can open your creaking wallet and pre-order here:

In praise of the fairy story

It might come and bite you

It isn’t hard to find stuff to read or watch that rates the Bible as a fairy story, and assumes this is a bad thing.

We need atheist critics so much. They are a blessing to us Christians, hunting down our sneaky thoughts, loose morals and slippery work. But with a grateful nod to atheist critics, let’s move on. Fairy stories. Proper fairy stories. What do they tell us?

We have to define our terms a bit. Which fairy stories are being referred to here? The Three Little Pigs with its instructions on building with proper materials? The Elves and the Shoemaker, about globalized workforces and profit-led debt-free exponential growth? Cinderella, with its important lessons on the right shoes?

And then what do we mean by the Bible? The Bible is a book-room, not a book, and treating the Bronze Age literature section as if it was the sharpest modern non-fiction, or indeed something with the conventions of the fairy story, is sloppy thinking. There’s a world of assumptions and background we need before we get on board with say, Noah. But even if we knew what a fairy story was, and even if the Bible was one, it’s not so bad:

Proper fairy stories are an antidote to the atheist delusion of a clean-shaven, 1950s, rational Universe.

  1. The world isn’t a buttoned down, uptight, Star Trekky, hygienic, modernist paradise. Given the story of science so far, how can we not think that out there are paradoxes, non-intuitive answers, total surprises, and perspectives that most of today’s scientists will never accept. Einstein disliked quantum mechanics. Florence Nightingale was a germ theory sceptic. At times, science has had to progress a funeral at a time. Only when you bury a senior and respected professor, only when you let the young ones have the tenure, do scientific paradigms really shift. Sadly. Proper fairy stories are an antidote to the atheist delusion of a clean-shaven, 1950s, rational Universe. A story about a goose laying golden eggs properly prepares the youthful mind for a world where the Fed creates billions of dollars out of thin air or quantum physicists add infinity here and there to ‘re-normalize’ their theories. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. Fairy stories darken and ruffle the placid lake of the textbook. Good.
  2. Fairy stories inspire intellectual humility. Which is surely a never a bad thing.
  3. Fairy stories convey truth. Beware of the wolf, for example. Don’t look a gift-granny in the mouth. Gingerbread houses are a gateway to abuse.
  4. Fairy stories remind us there is such a thing as evil.
  5. Fairy stories leave room for wonder. Wonder is not the start of teflon slide towards gullability. It is the right human response to the astonishing. And it is as appropriate to someone looking at the Hubble deep-field view of the most distant galaxies as it is to someone reflecting on the resurrection of Christ. Wonder is what happens when you accidentally peek round a door and catch God at work. A capacity for wonder is useful bit of human kit to carry around with us. Fairy stories help.
Any excuse to show the Hubble Deep Field, in its day (1995) the most expensive and the most astonishing photograph ever taken. Point the most capable telescope at an empty patch of sky in the Big Dipper, come back after Christmas, and see the results – galaxy upon galaxy, maybe three thousand in this one shot, layered back to the beginning of time. (ESA/Hubble creative commons)

But I still resent it, a bit, when the Bible is accused of being a fairy story – a vaguely moral Eurocentric fable with fantastic elements. Here’s what ‘fairy stories’ don’t do:

  1. Inspire architecture, art and jurisprudence down through the centuries
  2. Grip people so much that, defending them they will be burnt alive, crucified upside down or sawn in two (though obviously not all at once).
  3. Cause millions of people around the world to rise early to read and then resolve to be decent, kind, to do justice, to bring peace, to serve others, and to make the world beautiful and whole.
  4. Help you die
  5. Comfort the lonely, bring peace to the old, raise tears, dry tears, get people to forgive the unforgiveable, or (in the case of Martin Luther for example) enable them to overthrow a continent-wide instance of religious totalitarianism.

Just saying.

Slices of bread – 4 – discovering goodness

Being a further extract from my new book

You may know by now that this book is a lockdown project, when I wanted to put down in order some of the things bouncing around my head and around this blog, about how a storm (in my case a medical storm) can usher in a time of healing and restoration and renewed focus. This happens to be my experience, at least from where I sit at the moment.

This extract looks at how adversity or suffering can lead us to a rediscovery of goodness. It’s a fairly long read, but I hope it may fit your weekend somewhere.

Bread

My search for what really matters – fourth slice


Goodness

Suffering can also bring out the goodness in the depths, in the same way that a storm can refresh an ocean.

Goodness is an unusual experience for those of us not used to it, but we can acquire a taste. Suffering offers the moment to step out.

Think of relational goodness. We are wrapped in a web of relationships. Sometimes our relational threads stretch to surprising people. The love embedded here is not always expressed, but adversity brings it to the surface. Their love for you is suddenly exposed in cards, notes, visits, gifts, calls, prayers. And you respond. Adversity gets you and them to say things that you’ve always meant to say. Saying them is a great gift and blessing. Letting love and pride flow back and forth down these threads of love, sprinkling them with tears probably, is not just a help to healing and thriving. It is itself the primary act of healing and thriving. Further repairs to your body or circumstances that may or may not follow are secondary. If you are lucky enough to be surrounded by a web of love, and most of us are, adversity is the time to know this and invest in it.  

Letting love and pride flow …is not just a help to healing and thriving. It is itself the primary act of healing and thriving.

What a treasure this is. In May 2011, in Palo Alto, California, a girl was sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework when there was a knock on the kitchen door. She went to open it and found Bill Gates standing outside. Upstairs the girl’s father, Steve Jobs, was ill with the cancer that would end his life. The girl let Gates in, and Gates and Jobs, the two rival tech titans, engineer and zen-gineer, spent time together. They talked, it is reported, about families and children and marrying well, and about Jobs’ plans for his yacht.[1] Gates’ visit, it seems, was to maintain, perhaps to fix, but in any case to re-emphasize, a relational thread between the founder of Microsoft and the founder of Apple.

A friend of mine who was dying of cancer pointed out that one of the good things about her cancer was that she got time to say goodbye.  Among other things, my friend arranged a party for all the women she trained with decades before. I observed her cancer was not a stressy round of treatments, anger, bitterness and disappointment but a kind of packing and farewelling for the next journey.

I agree that some adversity is better than other sorts for spurring relational goodness. In some adversity (illness, say), people send love and cards and you will feel their support; in other forms (a bad marriage, or bad breath, say), even your closest friends will fear to intrude and the shops tend not to stock cards.

But whether or not your adversity is the sort of adversity for which people send cards (Congratulations on 25 years of Irritable Bowels!), I still think any adversity can be manhandled into making you unearth good in yourself and those around you. So your anxiety or your IBS goes on and on? So does your resolve.

Set things right. Heal the relationships. Fix these things that you can fix and your whole world will be brighter. Setting things right means:

  • Saying the unsaid
  • Mending the broken
  • Straightening the bent
  • Tying up the loose ends

Here are some suggestions for adversity-propelled tentative steps towards goodness – both relational and personal:

  • Say everything good that needs saying to your loved ones. Don’t wait to regret not saying these things when you die.
  • Make peace with your enemies.
  • Get your affairs in order.
  • Work on your eulogy virtues, the things they will say at your funeral, like that you were kind, rather than your resume (CV) virtues such as your salesperson-of-the-year-runner’s-up award.
  • Sort out the God-and-eternity business in your soul.
  • Gratefully relish each ‘bright blessed day’, and ‘dark sacred night’.

More next week….


[1] The meeting is reported in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and it was previewed by Forbes magazine.

Sices of Bread – 3

Another pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book

(placeholder cover: my real cover is still being designed as I write this)

One of my lockdown projects was to compile a book about how difficulty and trauma can cause us to rethink our lives and, if we are fortunate, how we can then go on to live simpler, better and more meaningful days. Without having anything particularly to boast about, and also because of lots of other things have gone in the right direction for me, this is where I find seem to find myself (at the moment). So I wrote about this, and called the book ‘Bread‘. I’m serializing it here on my blog and here’s the 3rd slice.

The story so far: adversity can cause a rethink of our priorities. Now read on…

Bread

My search for what really matters

So: adversity or loss or infirmity or disappointment or something has brought us to crunching halt. We are looking out at a landscape with a sobriety and clarity that is aided by our low mood. We are beginning to realize that there is quite a lot that is more important behind the glitzy and temporary frontage to a life of success, wealth or popularity. These are helpful thoughts, sobering. What do we do now? What parts of our mental landscape do we stop visiting? What new paths do we tread down?

The place not to visit

I want to suggest that the main place not to visit is the broken dream. I’m not saying you should never go there. But you should go there to clear up, say your goodbyes, tie everything off. You have lost and it is good to mourn.  So visit the broken dream if you must, but visit it less and less, let it go back to nature. It’s always going to be part of you, but it is a better part of you when it shapes a new future, rather than when it is a decaying present you are trying to primp, or when you are using it to define who you are today. You need to define yourself by something other than your loss, your sorrow, your ill-health, your former hopes, or your former state.

Instead of mooching around your broken dream, enjoying the gothic scene of heartbreak, your loosened hair romantically draped over the headstone of your loss, you might want to ask a few questions now that the urgency of your loss has passed.  Don’t feel the need to answer these hurriedly. Mull them over. Work them into your life.

What have I not lost?

What do I love?

Whom do I love?

What do I value?

Point your feet where these answers direct you. Keep asking the questions, and keep walking in the answers. You won’t fix everything in an afternoon, or a year, or in the rest of your life, but you will be walking the right road and you will at times find yourself in the green pastures and quiet waters that you have always wanted.

Slices of ‘Bread’ – 2

Being the second extract from my book on how to simplify your life

A second pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book , ‘Bread’.

This passage is about how unexpected troubles can set us on the path to rethinking our lives.

Bread

My search for what really matters (second slice)

In any crisis your body gives you an emergency shot of the panic juices. A course of fight-or-flight hormones may take you through a crash, or a hospital treatment, or a birth, or a breakup, or the funeral arrangements or whatever other intense time you must rise to.

Two things will then happen. You will have a bit of a tumble emotionally as the hormones leak away and normal tiredness takes over. And, second, because the intensity of the storm has passed, you can inspect your new world.

This season can be a blessing because it can give you a clear sight of what to do. It’s like clearing up after a party. The mess! The stains in the carpet! What are you going to do? Time for the cleaning gloves

So. The house is quiet again, and there’s a new post-trauma world to explore. What to do? Some thoughts:

You were broken already. You might feel that now you are wounded and before you were whole. I’m sorry to report that this picture is wrong. You might feel like a broken egg now, but you were never the whole egg. You were already cracked, back in the shop. All that’s happened is that you’ve revised your mental model of yourself. You always were needy, but you used to cover it well.

yellow paintedsmiley face eggs
Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

Decide it’s work time. You’ve already vaguely suspected there are things to sort out in your life, but the calamity brings them into the open. The singer Debbie Harry explained her drug-taking: ‘Drugs aren’t always about feeling good … Many times they are about feeling less.’[1] True, but avoiding the pain with pharmaceutical assistance keeps forever dropping you back at the start, each time with a little more clearing up to do. You are made of better stuff.

Take time. You’ve done rushing for a bit. You can take some breaths, re-evaluate, start small.

Feel the fire. This is the best bit. There’s a fire burning inside you. Still. This is so cliched a thought that it may call song lyrics to your mind. I will survive! There’s something inside so strong! It’s probably best for everyone if you don’t actually sing—you are not a rock star for a reason—but on the bright side you have discovered something about yourself. You will go on. You will push on. We humans didn’t take over the world because we’re a species of wimpy losers. So the party’s over and your home is wrecked? On we go. On we go. The cracks let the light in. The breaking is the start of the mending.

Where are we heading here?

Where are we heading? Towards a rethink. Convalescence after hospital nightmares gave me the moment, and the need, to shut down some old mental pathways and open some new ones.  I sadly cannot declare final victory in this fight, but I do think that much of the time I have persuaded my brain to walk down a more promising road.

The breaking is the start of the mending

Suffering is our friend here. How do you see the new mental pathway that needs to be cut? That’s the clarity of low mood. What powers the cutting of the path? The fire inside you and your determination to see a better day, or at least another day. How does the path become well-trodden and familiar? By you taking it, day after day after day.  Facing adversity well, every day, sometimes every hour, builds a resilient brain. In the end you’ll have carved a fresh path with many delights where you love to walk.

More next week…


[1] Debbie Harry in her memoir Face It.

Slices of bread – 1

Being an excerpt from my new book about how to simplify your life and find what really matters.

So my second lockdown project was to spawn a new book about how serious illness led me to slim down and perk up my life. Here’s the cover.

On the grounds that everyone is entitled to my opinion, I’m planning to serve up a few extracts over the summer weeks. Here’s the opening salvo.

Bread

My search for what really matters (part 1)

We should reckon on 30,000 days in our lifetimes – 82 years. After that (if even we get that far) we will find ourselves mostly filling our days fending off the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics roughly means everything breaks, nothing lasts, order breaks down, we’re all going to die. Nothing in the Universe pushes back for long against the Second Law.

Thirty thousand days puts a cap on how many of anything we will do: how many books or boxsets we can enjoy, or create, how many cities we can live in, how many hot dinners we’ll have. We’ve got one ration of weddings, birthdays, weekends away, meals out, drinks with friends, quiet nights in, or moments to tell someone we love them. We’ve got a few decades to serve in a career or two, and perhaps raise some children. It might feel it will go on forever. It won’t, and in a hundred years we will all be dust and so will those we love.

If you feel any of these:

  • Life is passing me by
  • I’m not doing what I want to do
  • I’m not happy
  • I’m wasting my days

This book is for you. I’ve kept it short, because, hey.

It’s a personal story of discovery. My background is some years of life-and-death medical adventures, including my death in 2011 (reversed by electric shocks to the heart) and a four-week coma in 2013. People who spend a long time in Intensive Care end up paralyzed, so during the year and a half after 2013 I had to learn again how to eat, swallow, walk and go to the toilet.  Eventually I put the wheelchair in the garage and resumed a life that feels, at the time of writing, restful, purposeful and happy. I still may have thousands of days unused if I’m, as my dad says, ‘spared.’

Life is the opposite of the countryside in that you see the widest views at the lowest points. I think most people learn things about themselves during adversity. I had time to ask questions like ‘What am I for?’ and ‘What am I hoping for?’ and ‘What I am spending my time on?’

I found answers that are good enough for me. I think they are the lessons everyone learns, but those of us who have been force fed these things through medical events, perhaps, are forced to face them quicker. I found them simple enough and roughly these:

  1. Suffering helps us focus on what really matters and can stop us heading down dead-end paths in the quest for fame, success or respect.
  2. Belonging is key to long-term thriving.
  3. So is purpose.

This book, them, is about how to simplify your life, and how to make you less restless, more content and more productive. I hope it helps. None of it is complicated. Some of it will happen to you anyway. Maybe this book will help you recognize and cooperate with the ripening and mellowing that is already underway in your life.

More next week, if you can bear the tension.

Why good people do bad things sometimes

We’re sneaky, clever, and at war with ourselves

I recently finished my friend Andrew Chamberlain’s novel Urban Angel, which is a gritty story of people trying to do good things despite themselves, despite their circumstances, and despite supernatural interference.

The part of the book that really got me thinking and that I really enjoyed was his unvarnished exploration of how and why people who are signed up to serve God do bad things. His fictional treatment was I think better than most non-fictional treatises (such as this post, for example), and an intriguing, rare, read.

What it isn’t, I have come to think, is simple ‘hypocrisy’, as in, knowing the right thing to do and deliberately doing another thing and hiding it. I think it’s a lot more subtle. We Christians are more like the British Labour Party, creaking under the strain of internal warfare as different parts of us seek to take over the whole. Here are some of the participants in the war:

  1. An honest desire to serve the God who has loved us and given himself for us.
  2. A sudden, unexpected, animal attraction.
  3. An indulging of said animal attraction, at least so far as letting it make its case to the rest of our human person. Maybe more than once, and with variations.
  4. A blanking out from the mind of the inevitable consequences.
  5. An exercise of crazed theological reasoning to give ourselves a free pass toward indulging said attraction.

After that, anything can happen. Throw in, as Andy Chamberlain doesn’t, but as much recent actual history does, a power imbalance, say between a powerful man and a rather vulnerable victim, add some privacy, and boom, chaos, hurt and destruction.

Scary. Scarier than the demons who also make their way into Andy’s book, but are conveniently dispatched. Andy’s to be congratulated for laying it out so bare.

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