Some Ideas About Having a Happy Marriage

This coming Monday Marci and I will celebrate our twenty-ninth wedding anniversary. We’ve picked up a few tips along the way, and I’ve also had the opportunity as a pastor to guide many other couples in building strong marriages. Here are a few of my convictions, in no particular order:
  • You will have to choose between (a) making enough money to have the same lifestyle as your neighbours, or (b) having enough time to love your spouse and children. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll have time to do both.
  • Don’t live common-law before you get married. Statistics show that this dramatically increases the risk of your marriage ending in divorce.
  • Be skeptical about 75% of what the media tells you about love and marriage. Most of the people who write those movies and songs haven’t been able to hold down a relationship for more than four or five years.
  • Similarly, be skeptical about how ‘normal sex’ is described in popular novels, movies etc. If you take that as the norm you’ll be setting yourselves up for dissatisfaction and failure. Technique is fine, but love is far, far more important.
  • Remember – love is a choice, not a feeling. If feelings lasted forever we wouldn’t need marriage vows. When the feelings start to wane in intensity, don’t be scared: this is normal. Do what you promised to do anyway, no matter what you feel, and eventually something deeper and stronger will start to grow. This is the most important secret of a lasting marriage.
  • Go out for coffee together regularly, and leave your cell phones at home when you do. The object is to get away from distractions and focus on talking.
  • Conventional wisdom tells us ‘lovers look at each other, friends look together at something else’. This may be true, but it hides a deeper truth: your love is more likely to last if it also includes friendship – if, in fact, your spouse is your best friend. And friends aren’t absorbed in each other, they’re absorbed together in something else. So find something you can both get absorbed in, and do it together. This leads to the next point…
  • A marriage needs a mission. Marriages in which the couple are totally focussed on each other, rather than on some form of service to others, are narcissistic marriages. For many couples, the major mission is raising their children to become happy and healthy adults. Don’t see the attention you give to this as competition for your marriage; it’s part of making your marriage less selfish and more loving.
  • Remember that when you learn to love God more than you love your spouse, you will then find that you are loving your spouse far, far more than you did before. It’s a paradox, but it’s true all the same.
  • Put the teaching of Jesus and the apostles into practice in your marriage. Make reconciliation with each other a priority, and if you have a problem with your spouse, speak to them about it first. You’re not perfect, so don’t expect your spouse to be perfect either; be quick to apologise and quick to forgive. Don’t let resentments fester; talk them through as soon as possible. Choose to stay together and work on your problems rather than getting a divorce. Don’t commit adultery with your eyes and your heart, and you probably won’t commit it with your body either. Tell the truth to each other. Live a simple life focussed on God and your neighbour, not on storing up earthly treasure. In other words, being a better follower of Jesus will make you a better marriage partner.
  • Don’t be passive about your marriage; don’t, for instance, take the attitude, “I hope it works out”. Instead, the two of you together take responsibility for making it work out. Expect this to be difficult, and don’t be intimidated by the difficulty.
  • Finally, a word for the guys from the character played by Dennis Quaid in the movie In Good Company. When asked by a younger man what his secret of a lasting marriage is, Quaid’s character replies, ‘You find the right person to get into the foxhole with, and when you’re out of the foxhole, you keep your dick in your pants’. Every time I’ve shared that story in mixed company, the women have shaken their heads about how offensive it is, and the men have nodded their heads, knowing that ‘lowest common denominator’ wisdom is often a good place to start…!!!
Credits: The first idea, about not having time for both getting rich and loving your family, is adapted from a statement by Mary Pipher in her fine book The Shelter of Each Other. And the idea about loving your spouse more if you love God first is something I first ran across in one of C.S. Lewis’ letters.

John Howard Yoder: Preface to Theology

John Howard Yoder: Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2002).

This book has been sitting on my bookshelf unread since I returned from sabbatical leave last summer. My regular readers will know that I have become rather well-acquainted with Yoder, and I must confess to having been afraid to start this book. Yoder can be brilliant, incisive, and clear, but he can also be complex and incomprehensible, and I was afraid this book would be of the complex and incomprehensible variety. I was wrong. This is one of the clearest and most easily-read Yoder books I have ever come across.

First, a word about the nature of the book. It was published posthumously (Yoder died in 1997), being prepared by Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider from a mimeographed set of lectures which Yoder gave at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary over a period roughly from the mid-1960s to 1981. As a result, some of the observations in the book are dated (the editors point out a few of these in the preface), but the bulk of it is still remarkably relevant. The mimeographed lectures have been available for purchase since the mid-1980s, but the book in its present form has only been available since 2002.

The lectures which form the basis of this book were the substance of an introductory course to theology which Yoder gave on a yearly basis. There is something characteristically Anabaptist and Mennonite about the fact that Yoder chose to introduce the discipline of theology to his students by working in the field of Christology. Many systematic theology texts begin with the philosophical question of knowledge – how can we know, and how can we know that we know? – and then move on from there to a doctrine of scripture. Yoder believed that Jesus is the key to knowing God, and so he began with the person and work of Jesus.

The work falls into three parts: (1) New Testament Themes, (2) Post-Apostolic Theology, and (3) Systematic Treatment of Christological Themes. The first section, New Testament Themes, is a brilliant historical approach to the development of Christology in the New Testament. In this section Yoder begins with the question ‘What do the apostles proclaim about Jesus?’ – i.e. in the Book of Acts. He then goes on to explore what he calls the ‘primitive’ or ‘uncritical’ NT writings, examining Jesus’ own self-understanding, that of the gospel writers, and the writings of Peter, James, and Jude. From these writings he discusses some of the titles of Jesus (eg. ‘Son of Man’, ‘Servant’, ‘Prophet’, ‘Messiah’, ‘Lord’) and what they meant in their original context. He then goes on to look at the tradition Paul received (i.e. the early material embedded in some of Paul’s letters) before examining what he calls ‘The Theologians’ – John, the author of Hebrews, and Paul. There is definitely a development in Christology between the earlier and later writers, but this is understandable as they were moving out into new territory and dealing with questions the earlier writers had not faced.

A new thought to me, in this section, is Yoder’s observation that the writings of the NT ‘theologians’ (Paul, John, and Hebrews) would not have been as influential in the early church as the enormous amount of space they take up in the NT would lead us to believe. Most early congregations would not have possessed copies of these writings. They would have had the apostolic testimony to Jesus, the various hymns and prayers and creedal statements embedded in the NT (and perhaps others), baptism and the Lord’s Supper, a way of understanding the OT story, and the concrete ethical instruction which is so strong a part of the primitive authors such as Peter and James. The way of thinking embodied in these sources would have been far more influential in the apostolic church than the writings of the ‘theologians’. Yoder does not mean to disparage the theologians in saying this; he simply states it to correct what he sees as an imbalance.

The second section is entitled ‘Post-Apostolic Theology’ and deals with the apostolic Fathers, the Christology of the Apostles’ Creed and the formation of the Canon of the New Testament, the Trinitarian discussions that led to the Council of Nicea, and the Christological controversies leading up to and including the Council of Chalcedon. This is probably the most brilliant section of the book. In this period the church continues to deal with questions arising out of her history. Two of the early questions are to do with the nature of the new life (i.e. ethics) and the problem of immortality – not exactly central issues in Paul’s thought, but obviously important in the world the apostolic Fathers were moving in. In discussing the controversy about whether sins after baptism can be forgiven, Yoder points out the assumption behind this debate: that Christians would not normally need to be forgiven, that this would in fact be an extraordinary thing. In other words, ethical transformation by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit was a normal expectation of the early Christians.

Yoder then discusses the formation of the Apostles’ Creed and compares it to the early preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts. Obvious differences include the fact that there is no Old Testament story in the Creed (the ‘fulness of time’ theme has vanished) and also that forgiveness of sins is not proclaimed in the context of repentance. Context is important here; the Christendom culture assumes that everyone is now Christian, the distinction between ‘church’ and ‘world’ is fading, so the necessity to leave something behind in order to become a Christian is not as strong. There follows a very illuminating discussion of the question of the Virgin Birth. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the process of the formation of the NT canon. He accepts the historical fact that this is a fuzzy thing (there is no revealed list of the revealed books), but also takes issue with the Catholic assumption that the Church’s decision as to the books to be included in the canon means that the Church has authority over scripture. Rather, as he says, ‘The church recognizes the limitation on her authority by saying, “Those are the writings that stand above us. Those are the writings to which we cannot add. This is the body of literature under which we stand and from which we take orders”’ (p.175).

The final two chapters in this section of the book discuss the development of the doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Christ in the processes around the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. Yoder discusses the various theologians and their positions, and he is also alive to the sociological context of the formation of the creeds – for instance, the rather curious fact that a pagan emperor, who claimed to be a Christian but had not submitted to baptism, presided over the Council of Nicea with the aim of a unified church which would unify his ‘Christian’ empire, and the intense rivalry between Antioch and Alexandra in the debates about the nature of Christ. In reading his section on the Trinity I was confronted again with an older thought – I incline far more toward ‘Tri-Theism’ than true Trinitarianism, and so does most popular-level theology. Yoder also points out the fact that in addressing these issues the Church had no choice but to use the language and concepts of Greek thought, but that in using these concepts and language there was a definite move away from the worldview of the New Testament. We might not have chosen to use this language and these concepts today, but ‘the problem of the doctrine of the Trinity, the normativity of Jesus as he relates to the uniqueness of God, is a problem Christians will always face if they are Christian. The doctrine of the Trinity is a test of whether your commitments to Jesus and to God are biblical enough that you have the problem the doctrine of the Trinity solves’ (p.204).

In the final section, ‘Systematic Treatment of Christological Themes’, Yoder examines the traditional titles of Christ – ‘King’, ‘Priest’, and ‘Prophet’. Under each section, he examines a related theological theme: ‘King’ leads to a treatment of eschatology, ‘Priest’ to a discussion of models of the Atonement, and ‘Prophet’ to the doctrine of revelation. For the first two themes this works very well; for the third, in my view, not so well.

Under ‘Christ as King: Last Things’, Yoder begins by discussing the meaning of kingship in the Old Testament, the Messianic expectation, and how Jesus challenged it, still claiming to fulfil it, but fundamentally changing its nature. It is as the suffering servant that he rules; he does not impose his rule on us like a Constantianian emperor. Christian ethics, which in Yoder’s view are a seamless garment with theology, would then conclude that this is normative for Christians. Yoder then goes on to examine the doctrine of the reign of Christ and the so-called ‘Last Things’; he sets out the general sequence of events as given in the New Testament, and then the way it has been interpreted throughout Christian history in such systems as dispensationalism, premillenialism, amillenialism, postmillennialism, various immanentist positions and so on. all of this is very helpful, particularly in demonstrating that texts whose meanings seem to be very clear when you read them from within a given system (premillenialism, for instance) have been read by other Christians in completely different ways.

Under ‘Christ as Priest: Atonement’ Yoder touches briefly on the function of a priest before launching into a major discussion of the various models of the atonement. This was probably the most useful part of the book for me. He sets out the major question to be asked (‘What exactly is perdition, and how does the death of Christ save us from it?’), lays out the various biblical options, and then examines the major schools of interpretation – ‘Christus Victor’, ‘ransom’, ‘incarnation’, ‘moral influence’ (Abelard), and ‘satisfaction’ (Anselm). He points out the strengths of these various theories but also analyses their weaknesses; he is particularly concerned to challenge the dominance of the satisfaction theory in modern evangelicalism. At the end, he offers a proposal of his own which aims at taking human freedom seriously, at seeing salvation as involving ethical transformation and not just a legal pardon, and in uniting the cross and the resurrection as integral to our redemption. I will not go any further at this point in describing this, as I hope to write a longer post outlining both Yoder’s assessment of other views and the proposal he makes.

The final major chapter, ‘Christ as Prophet: Revelation’ is in my view the least successful. This is because, although Yoder makes his major point in the first few pages – the phrase ‘The Word of God’ is never applied to the Bible in the Bible, but to (a) the prophetic oracles, (b) the person of Jesus, and (c) the apostolic message – he does not go on to work out the implications of this. Rather, he spends the rest of the chapter discussing biblical inspiration and authority – a brilliant and illuminating discussion, setting out clearly the presuppositions, strengths and weaknesses of the various schools of thought. He makes the (now commonplace) observation that both fundamentalism and liberalism are ‘in a sense siblings. They are both in the rationalistic family’ (p.357). He demonstrates the shortcomings of the Reformation doctrine of the clarity (‘perspicacity’) of scripture: if it’s so clear, how come there are so many different interpretations and so many different sects arguing about them? Toward the end, he discusses what ‘faithfulness’ the scripture actually means, pointing out that we see movement between Old Testament and New Testament and in the pages of the NT itself. ‘We test our conformity to Scripture therefore not by asking whether we keep saying the same thing without change, but rather by asking a more difficult question: Is the way we keep moving in conformity with the way God’s people were led to move in formative times?’ (p.373).

The reason I found this chapter disappointing – despite the brilliant discussion of the nature of inspiration and authority – is that having defined the Word of God as supremely revealed in Jesus, Yoder then goes nowhere with this concept. He does not discuss the Anabaptist convictions about a Christocentric interpretation of scripture, nor the controversies in the Church today around this issue (around the theory of the just war, for instance, and what difference it makes if you accept a Christocentric way of interpreting the relevant OT texts).

Nevertheless, this book as a whole has been a brilliant read for me, and I know I will go back to it. The discussion about the Atonement, especially, will have major ongoing ramifications for the way I understand and teach this concept.

One flaw – and it goes back to the editing process, not to Yoder – is that this book undoubtedly takes the prize for having the most typographical errors of any book I have ever read. Undoubtedly this is due to the fact that it was posthumously published and was based on a rough typescript and not a finished manuscript, but nonetheless, a more careful editing process could have produced a much better book. I hope this is corrected in any future edition.

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.

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.