The Arctic Grail



I lived for seven years in the western Arctic, and the names of European explorers were scattered all over the country. Holman, where we lived from 1988-91, was named after a member of the Inglefield Expedition, one of the many sent out to search for Sir John Franklin and his men in the early 1850’s. Fort Collinson, an old abandoned trading post, was a few miles northwest of us, and the portion of the Arctic Ocean between Banks Island and the Mackenzie Delta was named for Roald Amundsen. I’ve known the names of these people for years, and portions of their story, but Pierre Berton has now helped me to put it all together into one connected tale.


The book covers three main themes: the quest for the Northwest Passage, the search for the lost Franklin expedition, and the race for the North Pole. It begins with the journeys of Ross and Parry and the other explorers of the early nineteenth century, goes on to cover in great detail the Franklin expedition and the long story of those who searched for it, tells of steady and sensible explorers like Rae, Nansen, and Amundsen, and driven and desperate men like McClure, Greely, and Peary, and concludes with the story of Peary’s supposed conquest of the North Pole in 1909.


A couple of things that stood out for me in this story:

  • The intransigence of the British Royal Navy and its continued insistence that ‘our ways are best’. These ways included: (1) using ships too big for the waters they were travelling in, with big crews needing large amounts of food to sustain them, (2) using sledges hauled by men instead of dogs (despite the fact that this was backbreaking work that arguably contributed to the deaths of dozens of men over the time period covered by this book), (3) wearing European clothes instead of furs, and (4) eating salt meat rather than living off the land (which led to many deaths from scurvy). By contrast, explorers such as John Rae and Roald Amundsen, who were willing to ‘go native’ and learn from the Inuit, did much better.
  • The astounding way in which the loss of the Franklin expedition led to the exploration of much of the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Over a ten year period after about 1847, dozens of ships and hundreds of men participated in the search for the Franklin expedition. Fortunately for Arctic exploration (but unfortunately for Franklin’s men), most of them looked in the wrong places, and in the process inadvertently mapped a huge swath of previously unknown territory.
  • The determination, ruthlessness, and eventual dishonesty of Robert Peary, credited for years with reaching the North Pole in 1909, but in all likelihood a fraud who didn’t get within a hundred miles of his target.
  • The way in which, time and time again, the Inuit proved indispensable to the survival and success of these expeditions – but very rarely got any credit for it.

This is a hugely enjoyable and thoroughly readable book. Berton has written many other books about Canadian history, and I plan to dip into more of them as soon as possible.

Advertisements

More on the Holy Spirit

My friend Peter Kirk has a good post over at Gentle Wisdom entitled ‘Should All Christians Speak in Tongues?’ He has some good things to say about the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit, the place that ‘speaking in tongues’ has had in that for some people, and so on. He seems to have touched a nerve, as the comments are quite lively. This is evidence for me of the hunger people have for a genuine experience of God rather than for more and more theories.

One thing Peter mentions is that his church, Meadgate Church, which apparently is a lively charismatic Anglican church near Chelmsford (not far from my old home of Southminster), makes a practice of praying for people to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I found this a very challenging comment, because, for one reason or another, I do not make this a practice in my own ministry. I realised as I was reading scripture and praying this morning that over the years I have probably allowed my faith to fall into routine too much. I’ve more or less stopped expecting the Holy Spirit to surprise me.

But there’s actually more to it than that. A few years ago when I was at Regent College on a pastors’ workshop I had an ‘epiphany moment’ that I haven’t especially done anything about. We were in an evening group, praying for one another, and God started to give people words of knowledge about other people in the group. The ‘words’ were very concrete and specific, and one after another, other people in the group (unknown to the speakers) said, ‘That’s me – that word is for me’. This led to prayer and the laying on of hands. It was obvious that God was touching the lives of people in a deep and wonderful way that night.

But I was bothered by this, and went back to my room wrestling with why that might be the case. As I thought and prayed about it, I didn’t like the answer I was getting. It wasn’t just the obvious potential for abuse (one had heard so many stories of people who pretend to have a ‘word from the Lord’ which turns out to be nothing of the kind). No, I realised that down below all the superficial reasons for my discomfort was a much more basic reason: fear. I’m afraid to step out in faith and trust God. I’m much more comfortable with activities in which I can depend on my own skill. I’m a pretty good preacher (I flatter myself), but, sad to say, I almost don’t need to depend on God for that activity. So I’ve emphasized the teaching and preaching aspects of my ministry, and played down as much as I can those activities in which I would have to depend on God – praying for healing for instance. Why? Because I’m afraid he won’t come through for me, and I’m afraid of what that might do, both for my faith and for the faith of those with whom I’m praying.

Funnily enough, at that week at Regent there was a little Iona Community song that was being sung over and over again; it goes like this:

Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,

My love is stronger than your fear.

Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,

And I have promised to be always near.

You’d almost think God was trying to tell me something!

I came home from that conference with the thought that I needed to work on this issue of faith and fear, but I find I haven’t done that. Reflecting on my own story as I did in my earlier post, and reading what Peter has to say (and also the comments of others), have served to bring all this to the forefront again for me. I know I need to pray about it, and to take the risk of stepping out in faith and trusting that God will indeed come through for me.

Sense and Sensibility (2008)


Last weekend Marci and I watched the latest BBC production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a three-hour miniseries starring Hattie Morahan as Elinor and Charity Wakefield as Marianne. Long time readers of this blog will know that I am a rather committed Jane Austen fan, so I have high standards for these productions. I have to say that I was very impressed with this one.


For one thing, the two sisters appeared much more convincing as young girls in their late teens or early twenties than did Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in the 1995 movie version. At 36, it was very difficult for Emma Thompson to be convincing as Elinor, and even at 21 Kate Winslet seemed far too old for Marianne. Also, it would be hard to improve on Hattie Moranan’s brilliant performance as Elinor. Totally convincing, totally in character – to me, she just was Elinor. The contrast between the two sisters – Marianne who steers by her emotions and wears them on her sleeve, and Elinor who steers by common sense, although her feelings are also deep – was brilliantly portrayed.


The supporting cast was very good as well. I really enjoyed David Morrisey’s portrayal of Colonel Brandon – reserved, yes, but not dark and brooding as in the Alan Rickman version of 1995. Dominic Cooper as Willoughby was also very good. Claire Skinner as Fanny was a little overdone, I thought; even Jane Austen at her most black and white is rarely that black and white!


All in all, very good indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing Persuasion in the same series.

Éilis Kennedy


I live for days like this.

When I was in England this past summer my old friend Peter Dale heard me sing the traditional song ‘Lord Franklin’. He immediately thought of a CD he’d seen in a music store in Ireland; he went to Ireland on holiday in August, and while he was there he picked up the CD. He sent it to me, and I got it Thursday; it’s ‘Time to Sail‘ by Éilis Kennedy.

Oh my land, what a voice! And what beautiful arrangements! This girl sings in both Gaelic and English, and her arrangement of ‘Lord Franklin’ is one of the best I’ve ever heard! She also has a wonderful arrangement of ‘Canadee-i-o’ which has vaulted way ahead of Nic Jones’ version in my estimation (and I’m a pretty diehard Nic Jones fan). She has two CDs on CD Baby, Time to Sail and One Sweet Kiss. If you go over there, you’ll find some really tasty sample tracks you can listen to. I know you’ll want to hear more!

Songwriting in the Traditional Mode: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Alex and I have been asked to lead a workshop for the Uptown Folk Club in January, and we’ve pretty much been given free rein as to the subject matter. I’ve been thinking that I might like to address the subject of ‘Songwriting in the Traditional Mode’.

I got back into songwriting a couple of years ago after many years of being away from it. The material that inspired my return was the traditional folk music of the British Isles, specifically as performed by Martin Simpson, Kate Rusby, John Renbourn,Jacqui McShee, Martin Carthy, and others like them. When I started writing songs again, I found myself writing in the traditional style – a very different style from the sort of songs I had written in my teens and early twenties.

I’m not alone in this of course. Some of my favourite contemporary songwriters have trodden the same path – Stan Rogers, James Keelaghan, Jez Lowe, David Francey, and Kate Rusby, to name just a few. The success of their music has shown that, even after decades of what I call ‘songwriting as emotional autobiography’, the traditional style still has a compelling power that draws people into the stories it tells.

What are some of the features of this sort of songwriting? I’ll name a few, in no particular order.

The traditional mode is predominately narrative in form; these songs tell stories. Stan Rogers did it to perfection: a man loses the fishing boat his father has passed down to him in an accident on the sea (‘The Jeannie C.’); a farmer ploughs his field and thinks about the difficulties of the sort of life he leads (‘The Field Behind the Plough’); a middle-aged former rodeo cowboy turned rancher is having trouble with cattle rustlers and rides patrol over his stock at night (‘Night Guard’); a man volunteers for service on a privateer and returns home after seven years, having lost both his legs in a sea fight (‘The Last of Barrett’s Privateers’).

Another contemporary songwriter (not normally associated with the folk music field) who does this well is Mark Knopfler. In his song ‘Why Aye Man’ he tells the story of the tradesmen from the north of England who went to work in Germany in the early 1980s during the Margaret Thatcher years when there was so much unemployment in England, and he does so in a memorable way, rich in the speech rhythms of his native Newcastle (‘Why Aye Man’ is apparently a greeting in that part of the world, much like ‘How You Doing?” in my neck of the woods; it is apparently also a feature of the local accent to turn an initial vowel into a consonant from time to time, so that ‘our’ becomes ‘wor’). And in ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’ he imagines a conversation between Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason on the ship to America in the eighteenth century, bound for the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland, where they would survey the country and draw a line on a map that would become famous as the ‘Mason-Dixon Line’.

The stories do not have to be about the songwriter. This is one of the biggest differences between the ‘songwriting as emotional autobiography’ school and the traditional school. Much contemporary songwriting can be introduced (and often is) by the singer saying, ‘I wrote this song about a time I was going through in my life when…’ – in other words, the writer is practicing songwriting as a form of journaling. Many times the songs that result do not in fact tell a story at all; they are written in the first person, addressed to someone in the second person, majoring on emotion and using all sorts of code words and references known only to this second person; the listener is left to try to figure out the meaning for himself. This form of songwriting is so common that to many writers it seems almost sacrilege that a person could make up a fictitious story and write a song about it, just for the fun of storytelling.

Why should this be? Novelists get to make up stories all the time, and no one thinks they are any less honest because of it! Why not make up an interesting story and write it into a song?

When I got back into songwriting one of the first pieces I wrote was called ‘Becky’s Day’. I had been thinking about some single moms I’d known over the years, outstanding women all of them, who had been ‘traded in on a younger model’ by the losers they’d been married to, and had been left to provide a home for the children by themselves. I was full of admiration for the way these women had knuckled down to the job, without complaining or inviting others to a pity party on their behalf. So I wrote a fictional song about a person like that, trying to imagine the difficulties she might face in her everyday life.

Another example from my own work: all my life I’ve been interested in naval history, and as a result I know quite a bit about the story of the Royal Navy in World War Two. More recently – and somewhat paradoxically – I’ve returned to the Christian pacifism which I held instinctively in my teens. The combination of these two factors began to plant the germ of an idea in my mind. What about the story of the Bismarck and the Hood, those two gigantic warships which had been sunk within days of each other in May 1941 – the Hood sunk by the Bismarck, the Bismarck herself sunk three days later by the pursuing forces of the Royal Navy? What happened to the children of the thousands of men – German and British – who perished on those two ships? What if two of those children – one from each side – were to meet years in the future? Would they hate each other’s guts? Or would they be able to get beyond that and work for reconciliation? Out of these questions came my song ‘The Bismarck and the Hood’.

Enough said: those who write in the traditional mode often feel free to create fictional stories and tell those stories in their songs. This doesn’t mean the stories don’t have a personal element (they often do); nor does it mean traditional-style songwriters never tell their own stories (I did in ‘Watching This Town Growing Old’). It simply means that the songwriter who writes in the traditional mode has a far wider field of material than simply his or her own personal experiences.

Another thing: in traditional-style songwriting, the tune is very important. And here’s the test: you should be able to sing it ‘a capella’ and have it still sound interesting. Many contemporary songs fail this test; they were written with guitar in hand, and the first thing the guitarist did was to come up with a chord progression, after which he or she wrote the words and then droned a bit to come up with a tune for them. The resulting tune often takes shape as a sort of monotone, with many syllables sung to the same note against the backdrop of the chord changes; it works as long as it has a guitar accompaniment, but falls flat without it.

I share a couple of my own practices here, not because I think they’re hard and fast rules (they aren’t, and I don’t always follow them myself) but because I’ve found them helpful in coming up with memorable tunes. I often write the tune before I write the words. I’ve got a couple of ways of doing this. When I’m driving in my car alone I sometimes find that there are tunes playing in my head, not tunes from the radio, but tunes of my own, tunes that my imagination is creating. If something emerges from that stream of consciousness creativity, I play with it and try to shape it into a usable tune.

There are some recognizable forms here that have evolved in traditional music. For instance, a verse will often follow the ‘A B B A’ format (the first and fourth lines of the tune are identical, and the second and third lines are identical). Bridges, which are common in contemporary songwriting, are almost unknown in traditional music. And choruses, if they are used, are designed for maximum participation.

Another way I come up with tunes is to play around on the guitar – not with chord progressions, but with the notes in various keys. Perhaps I’ll be trying a different tuning (I’ve written a lot of songs in DADGAD over the past year) and I’ll experiment with different note combinations in that tuning. Sometimes the tunes evolve from improvisation; I came up with the tune for ‘The Ballad of Jake and Rachel’ one afternoon at my parents’ home in England this past summer, when my son and I were improvising on D, G and A (with drop D tuning).

And here I want to register a plea for a return to the art of learning to read and write musical notation. I know many excellent songwriters don’t know how to read music (Paul McCartney springs to mind); I only know for myself that it is far easier to work on a tune and polish it if the first draft is written down in musical notation and I can see it on a page. I don’t have to struggle to keep the tune in my memory; there it is on the stave in front of me, and I can experiment with the order, or inverting the notes, or moving parts of it up or down, just as I want, knowing that the original is still there for me to return to should I wish to do so.

When it comes to writing the words, the words must tell the story. If I have to introduce the song by saying, ‘This song is about a time in my life when…’, I’m beaten already. I shouldn’t have to explain to the listeners what the song is about; they should be able to pick out the story from the song itself.

This doesn’t mean the storytelling can’t be subtle. Once again Stan Rogers is a master at this subtle storytelling. I think of his song “You Can’t Stay Here’, in which the listener gradually realizes that the conversation going on is between a musician and a groupie who wants to go to bed with him; the story emerges as the song progresses. Another example is his exquisite love song ‘Lies’, in which a moment of reverie on the part of a farm wife gradually unfolds as the story of her marriage and her worries about its future in the face of her fading beauty.

If I were asked to name the major difference between the traditional style and the ‘songwriting as emotional autobiography’ style, it would be this: in emotional autobiography, the emotion is the theme of the song, and you’re left to make out the story for yourself. In the traditional style, the story is the theme of the song, and as you listen to the story and enter into it, you experience the emotion yourself, without being told by the songwriter how you should feel. The ‘emotional autobiography’ style evokes emotion directly; the traditional style evokes it indirectly, through the vehicle of story.

Also, the traditional style refuses the temptation to preach. One of the standing jokes between my good friend Rob Heath (who by the way is a wonderful storyteller in song) and me is that whenever he hears a new song of mine he will make a comment something like this: “I’d love it if you could give us a chorus or a bridge that would really drive home in a few words the point you’re trying to make in this song”. And I always laugh and say to myself, “Traditional songs don’t do that. If they tell their story well, people will have got the message by the end of the song; you won’t need to spell it out for them”.

These are a few of my observations about songwriting in the traditional mode. I may have more, as I do some more thinking in preparation for this upcoming workshop. Comments are welcome.

Free of Charge


For the past month or so, I have been slowly working my way through Miroslav Volf’s brilliant book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. This book was written on assignment to ‘write a book sketching Christian faith as a way of life and inviting people to embark upon it’. Volf chose to do so by exploring what he sees as two central practices of Christian faith – giving and forgiving. Volf is Croatian by birth, and the bloody conflict in the former Yugoslavia is never far below the surface of what he writes. His background is Pentecostal, but his chief theological mentor appears to be Martin Luther, and he is currently an Episcopalian and a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. He has written on the topic of forgiveness and love for enemies before, in Exclusion and Embrace, a book I have not read but am now very much looking forward to.

Giving

Free of Charge divides roughly into two halves, corresponding to the two themes of the book, giving and forgiving. Volf begins by considering ‘God the Giver’, examining two false images of God which are both common in contemporary culture – God the Negotiator (in which we give God something he demands of us, and in response, God gives to us), and God the Santa Claus (who gives without expecting anything in return). Volf shows how these two images are both inadequate. We cannot relate to God as Negotiator because there is absolutely nothing we can give him which he does not already possess. And while it is true that God gives generously and unconditionally, he does so with the expectation that we also will become ‘joyful givers and not just self-absorbed receivers’. God gives generously in the hope that we will respond with receptive faith, with humble gratitude, and by making ourselves available to the Giver as instruments of his generosity.

In his second chapter, ‘How Should We Give?’, Volf distinguishes three modes in which we relate to each other: the coercive mode (various forms of theft), the sales mode (buying and selling, equivalent exchange), and the gift mode (giving which is unrelated to obligation or ‘just deserts’). The process of Christian growth is the process of growing from taking, to getting, and finally to giving. We exist not just to enjoy things, but to pass them on; ‘they come to us with an ultimate name and address other than our own’. To give as God gives is an art that we need to learn. God gives freely; God gives in order to seek the good of another. God gives because he delights in us; God gives because we are needy; God gives in order to help us give to others.

In his third chapter, ‘How Can We Give?’, Volf addresses the obstacles we encounter in learning this generous way of life. Even our best giving often seems to be tainted by self-interest. We’re hindered by selfishness, pride, and sloth. We need to learn new attitudes toward our possessions, toward others, and toward ourselves. Our possessions are not ours by right but are themselves gifts from God. Others are not our competitors for the possession of goods, but the intended beneficiaries of God’s gifts. And as for ourselves, a true sense of wealth does not depend on how much we own, but on the richness of the presence of the gift-giving Christ living in us. We are God’s creatures, who can give because of God’s generosity to us. We are God’s redeemed creatures, and our Redeemer lives in us, and gives to others through us. And we are God’s Spirit-indwelled creatures; the Holy Spirit makes it possible for Christ to be born in us, and puts the talents of each person at Christ’s disposal.

Interlude

Between the two sections of the book, Volf tells the story of the accidental death in 1957 of his five-year old brother Daniel, a death caused partly by the negligence of his aunt and of a group of soldiers. His parents never blamed his aunt in front of their children, and when the soldier responsible was discharged from the army, Volf’s father took a two-day trip to visit him, to speak to him about God’s love and about forgiveness. Volf’s father learned this lesson the hard way; after the Second World War he was himself imprisoned in a concentration camp and tortured by Marshall Tito’s soldiers, even though he had been a socialist, for the crime of baking bread for the non-combatant units of the defeated enemy. ‘It’s because of God’, says Volf, ‘that my father could later muster the strength to forgive the soldier who had killed his son, to forgive the servant of a brutal regime that enacted on him the very opposite of forgiveness’.

Forgiving

As he did in the first half of the book in examining the subject of giving, Volf starts the second half with the character of God – ‘God the Forgiver’. Like giving, forgiving takes place in a triangle involving the wrongdoer, the wronged person, and God. We forgive because God forgives, as God forgives, by echoing God’s forgiveness.

Volf refers back to the two mistaken images many people have of God – the Negotiator, and the Cosmic Santa Claus. Those who relate to God as Negotiator are in trouble when it comes to guilt, because they have broken their end of the negotiated deal and fallen short of the great commandments. Relate to God as Negotiator, and when you sin you come face to face with God the implacable judge.

Those who relate to God as Santa Claus cannot conceive of the idea that they can do wrong in the eyes of such a doting heavenly grandparent. They see themselves as good, their private sins as their own business and no one else’s, and unconditional affirmation as their right. But when we come face to face with the heinous crimes committed in our times, we have to see God’s wrath as an integral part of his love. Because the world is sinful God does not affirm it indiscriminately, but because God loves the world, he doesn’t punish it in justice.

What does God do? God condemns the fault but spares the doer of the fault. In forgiving God does not excuse or ignore human wrongdoing; rather, he took human sin upon himself in Christ – the one who was offended bears the burden of the offense. And this did not happen in isolation from the offenders; Paul says that ‘one died for all, and therefore all died’. Those who are included ‘in Christ’ have shared his death and now share in his life, so that they are freed from the power of sin and live because of God’s life in them. God, in other words, ‘does not just forgive sinners; he transforms sinners into Christ-like figures and clothes them with Christ’s righteousness’. Our response to this is (1) grateful faith, by which we receive with open hands the gift that God offers, (2) repentance, by which we align ourselves with God’s purposes, and (3) the offering of forgiveness to others.

How should we forgive? Volf refers back to the three modes of existence he identified in chapter two – taking, getting, and giving – and relates them to how we deal with offences against ourselves. The ‘taker’ will respond with acts of illicit vengeance, the ‘getter’ with demands for justice, the ‘giver’, with forgiveness. Revenge doesn’t demand an eye for an eye but says, ‘If you take my eye I’ll blow your brains out’. Paul explicitly condemns this in Romans 12 where he says ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves’ (v.19). But why is retributive justice not an option for Christians? For three reasons. First, because ‘consistent enforcement of justice would wreak havoc in a world shot through with transgression. It may rid the world of evil, but at the cost of the world’s destruction’. Second, because the line between justice and vengeance is so hard to draw. Third, and most fundamentally, because of the graciousness of God to sinful humanity.

At the sight of our sin, God did not give way to uncontrolled rage and measureless vengeance; nether did God insist on just retribution. Instead, God bore our sin and condemned it in Jesus Christ. But God did so not out of impotence and cowardice, but in order to free us from sin’s guilt and power. That’s how we should treat those who transgress against us. We should absorb the wrongdoing in order to transform the wrongdoers.

When God forgives, God names the act for what it is and condemns the doer – that’s God’s wrath. But when God forgives, he doesn’t condemn any more. To forgive is not to shrug off the offense as if it didn’t matter; this, says Volf, would be morally wrong. A genuine debt has been incurred, and forgiveness is a generous release from that debt. To forgive means to forego the demand for retribution against the wrongdoer – even though disciplinary measures (for instance, to protect the public against a violent offender) may still be necessary. To forgive means also to lift the burden of guilt from the offender’s shoulders, and to imitate God in forgetting the offense (to refuse to contemplate this final step, Volf says, is to continue to keep mental score and to place on the offender an indelible sign that reads ‘evildoer!’).

Volf goes on to discuss, in a section some will find controversial, the relationship between forgiveness and repentance. God’s forgiveness, he argues, is indiscriminate: ‘One has died for all’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). God loves and forgives us before we repent; it was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us. And we should thus forgive others before they repent. This does not mean that repentance is unimportant. The gift of forgiveness can be given unconditionally, but it cannot be received without repentance. The goal of forgiveness is the restoration of a relationship, and this cannot happen without repentance. Repentance is part of the response to forgiveness, but it cannot be the ground of forgiveness.

How can we forgive others? We can forgive because God has forgiven, and we make his forgiveness our own. We can forgive because Christ lives in us and gives us the willingness and the power to forgive.

‘Just as Christ grieved more over our sin than over the injury our sin caused him, so we can grieve for others if Christ lives in us. Just as Christ overcame evil with the power of good rather than avenging himself, so can we. Just as Christ absorbed the effect of wrongdoing so as to free wrongdoers from punishment, so can we if we are united with Christ. Just as Christ lifted the guilt from their shoulders, so can we. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”, wrote the apostle Paul (Galatians 2:20). Echoing these words, we can say, “It is no longer I who forgive, but Christ who forgives through me”’.

Volf gives the example of the actors in Nikos Kazantzakis’ book The Greek Passion, who enact Christ’s passion and are instructed to prepare for it by taking on the character of the people they are to portray and living it out in their daily lives. What would it mean to ‘enact Christ’ – indeed, to ‘practice Christ’, in this way? It would mean that it was not so much us acting ourselves into Christ, but rather Christ acting through us.

What are some of the obstacles to forgiving? One is the sense that we should get what we deserve, but this can never hold for Christians because it is not how God acts towards us. Another obstacle is vicious abuse perpetrated by the offender, and if we are the victim this obstacle can only be overcome when Christ cradles us, holds us in his arms and sings to us the songs of gentle care and firm protection. A third obstacle is that we live in an unforgiving culture and are not trained in the art of forgiveness. Volf’s parents were able to forgive his aunt and the soldier who caused his brother’s death because the little Pentecostal congregation to which they belonged had formed them in that practice. If we want to become forgiving people, we should seek out communities of forgiven forgivers!

God commands forgiveness and makes it possible, but we are the ones who have to put this into practice, and this is always difficult. Even when we are at our very best as forgivers, our forgiveness remains only a start. We do not know the whole truth about anyone, and neither do they know the whole truth about us. ‘All our forgiving is inescapably incomplete. That’s why it’s so crucial to see our forgiving as not simply our own act, but as participation in God’s forgiving’, and as an anticipation of the day when all secrets will be known and all sins forgiven.

Free of Charge is not an easy book to read. This is partly due to Volf’s rich writing style; this is one of those books that would repay continued re-reading, and unhurried meditation, in order to get the full benefit from his theological insights and his practical wisdom. But of course, the real reason this is a challenging book is that the practice of it will be challenging! I confess that when it comes to giving I am a slothful person, far more likely to conserve my energy and save myself the trouble of giving myself to others. And when it comes to forgiving, I am not a good forgetter; somewhere buried deep in my psyche, I know that mental scorecard Volf referred to can still be found. The book has challenged me to a closer imitation of the generous and forgiving God who loved me and gave himself for me. I highly recommend it.

Eliza Carthy


I’m not quite sure how I’ve managed to overlook Eliza Carthy until now. I’ve been a big fan of her Dad, Martin Carthy, for years, and I’ve known that they sing together as a band (‘Waterson:Carthy‘, which includes Martin and his wife Norma Waterson, Eliza, and Tim Van Eyken). But I’ve never noticed before what a wonderful voice Eliza has.

A week or two ago I posted a video of Waterson:Carthy from YouTube. Eliza sings a solo on it, and at last I sat up and took notice. Since then I’ve borrowed two of her CDs from the library, Anglicana and Rough Music. I think it’s fair to say that I’m now a fan.

Eliza is a great fiddler and a wonderful singer, but above all she’s a fine interpreter of traditional folk songs. ‘Anglicana’ is made up almost entirely of traditional songs, with the exception of one original fiddle tune; ‘Rough Music’ is overwhelmingly traditional, with the exception of one original song by Eliza and a fiddle tune or two taken from other players. Eliza does her own arrangements of these songs, and her voice is ideally suited to this sort of material.

I notice that she now plays with her own band, ‘The Ratcatchers’ (what a great name!) as well as appearing with her Mum and Dad. I’ll be looking out for her, and I’ll be collecting her CDs too. You can listen to some of her music online at her MySpace pagehere.


Oh, by the way, her Dad Martin Carthy is about to release a new CD with his old mate, former Fairport Convention fiddler Dave Swarbrick. Martin and Dave have worked together before, so this will be a great re-union. Read about it on the Waterson:Carthy website here.