Archive | faith

Merry Christmas, Sir David

The Living Planet (1984)

I was eight when The Living Planet arrived on BBC1. I remember looking forward to it all day at school and being able to stay up to watch in the evenings. You had to watch things live back in 1984 when video recorders were not common. It was thrilling to see the natural world as it had never been seen before. On TV, at least.

Somehow, Sir David Attenborough’s team have managed to repeat that trick every three or four years, wowing us with nature. Last year it was, Planet Earth II. This year it was Blue Planet II, which I watched with my daughters who are about the same age as I was when I watched The Living Planet. We are able to watch in installments throughout the week, thanks to Sky+. Unsurprisingly, the pin-sharp jaw-dropping footage has created gasps from our sofa, and across the nation. These programmes have been a ratings smash. The only thing that British people want to see in greater numbers is amateur bakers making cakes.

What does these shows have to do with Christmas? Two things.

The first doesn’t sound all that Christmassy at first, but it is. And it’s this: the most exciting and gripping bit of each episode is the hunt, on land or at sea. Every week, there’s always some poor animal running the gauntlet.  A giraffe trying to escape from a pride of hungry lions. A Cayman crocodile being grabbed by a jaguar. A poor lizard, only minutes old, running the gauntlet of those nasty snakes.

In these hunt sequences we see beauty and brutality. ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ as the poet Tennyson puts it in his poem, In Memoriam. Red blood, flowing from the wounds made by the teeth and the claws of the wild animals.

Many of us will only ever see this kind of visceral physical conflict on television. But for the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that we read about in Luke Chapter 2 (see? I told you it would get Christmassy), this brutal side of nature was part of their daily lives. It still is for many animal herds across the word. Shepherds watch their flocks to keep them safe from wild animals that would happily help themselves to a woolly lamb.

But we have to ask the question:

Following the birth of Jesus, why does Luke tell us about these shepherds?

And why does God choose to bring the news of Jesus’ birth to lowly keepers of sheep?

Okay, that’s two questions, but there’s a clue back in the Old Testament, in another firm favourite Bible story that’s told to children. The great shepherd, David, turns up in 1 Samuel 17, visiting his warrior brothers, only to find they are scared of this nine foot Philistine, Goliath.  David fancies his chances. King Saul suggest that this is not such a good idea, and doesn’t give David a hope. But David tells Saul that as a shepherd, he is used to dealing with ferocious beasts and wild animals.

“When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

David can handle himself. Or at least, God has form in rescuing him from lions and bears. Why should Goliath, an enemy of Israel, be any different? You’ll know how the story ends. David slays the Philistine giant – and goes on to be a truly great King, the Shepherd King. From Bethlehem. That should sound familiar.

About a thousand years later, in the City of David, a new king is born in that family line. A king who will look after his sheep, go searching for lost sheep, and will lay down his life for his sheep. In so doing, he will slay the great enemy, Satan himself, and Death itself.

We can’t be sure, but that’s probably why the angels announce news first to the shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem.

The second observation about Planet Earth II and The Blue Planet II is this. They’re not just some of the best programmes on the BBC. They’re also the most religious. More so even than Songs of Praise or The Big Questions with Nicky Campbell. The images of the natural world and the beauty of the creatures in their splendour are just astonishing. But of course, it’s not a natural world. God made it. God designed it. God sustains it.

Whether you believe in an earth that’s 6000 or 6 billion years old, or whether you look out from a mountain top or the bottom of the ocean, whether you observe the smallest insect, the most beautiful bird, or the sleekest big cat, you get a sense of awe and wonder. It takes you outside of yourself. We see, we experience and we know that there’s a God. Some don’t, of course. But many do. Historically, most have. We shouldn’t be surprised at this.

In Romans 1:20, the apostle Paul writes:

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”

God’s fingerprints are all over the so-called ‘natural’ world. But Sir David Attenborough doesn’t see it that way. When asked in a TV interview if he ever gets ‘a sense of God’s pattern in creation’, he replied:

 “Well, if you ask…about that, then you see very beautiful things like hummingbirds, orchids, and so on. But you also ought to think of the other, less attractive things, [like]… tapeworms or the parasitic worm that lives only in the eyeballs of human beings, boring its way through them, in West Africa, for example, where it’s common, turning people blind…. And I certainly find it difficult to believe that a God — superhuman, supreme power — would actually do that.”

Sir David says that it’s one or the other. You can have a divine creator who made all the beauty. But that he also made the brutal bugs and the devastating diseases that cause so much pain and suffering. It’s a common sceptical conclusion for many, especially from those who have seen so much pain first hand.

But Christmas is good news for Sir David. Except it’s not news really. It was written about in the book of Isaiah about 2700 years ago. Chapter 11 says this:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, [David’s father];

    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him…

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

  with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

The wolf will live with the lamb,

    the leopard will lie down with the goat,

the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

    and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,

    their young will lie down together,

    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the cobra’s den,

    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy

    on all my holy mountain,

for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord

    as the waters cover the sea.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.”

They are very striking images. Wolves and lambs together. Cows with bears. Lions eating alongside oxen. A Clinton Cards classic.

What’s going on here? Is this what a descendant of David will bring?

Anyone with small children will know how brilliant they are at finding trouble and danger. I’m sure my youngest would find a viper’s nest given the chance, and plunge her arm down it. But in the new world that Jesus will bring, she will be quite safe. Pain, eminity, brutality and death will have passed away.

Sir David is right to question the suffering in the world. It doesn’t seem fair. It seems brutal and wrong. The good news is that if we have a problem with all the suffering in the world, so does God. If we think that God isn’t doing anything about the brutality of the world, or hasn’t, or won’t, or can’t, then we’ve not understood Christmas. We’ve not understood who this baby is. We don’t realise what this baby will do.

Jesus, God’s shepherd king, will bring peace when He returns. That’s what we should be thinking about in the season of Advent. Jesus will defeat the giants of death and suffering. In that world, shepherds will no longer wrestle with lions and bears. People won’t be given malaria by mosquitoes or blinded by tapeworms.

Sir David, “The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.” The God you want is the God we have.

Why not hurry off to Bethlehem to see this Saviour that’s been born?


We Need to Talk About Harvey. And Mike.

The revelations about Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, are shocking and appalling. All the details and allegations are easily accessible so there is no need to repeat them here. But how did this happen? A powerful man abused his position, authority and sheer physical size to do things he has publicly admitted he should not have done.

Many women seeking the help or approval of a powerful man in a private closed meeting are made to feel nervous. My Facebook feed is littered with horrible #MeToo stories of women in such situations with creepy men who did, said or implied vile and inappropriate things.

(Official White House Photo by Benjamin Applebaum)

How could these situations be prevented? There is one way of sensibly avoiding many them. So can we talk about Mike Pence?

Now, many reading this might already have made up their mind on Mike Pence, because he’s an evangelical Christian, or a Republican, or because he is a consort to Donald Trump. Click here for the latest character assassination by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker. It’s a long article but you can probably tell what she thinks about him from the title: The Danger of President Pence Trump’s critics yearn for his exit. But Mike Pence, the corporate right’s inside man, poses his own risks.

Pick your reason to hate him. And the mainstream media were utterly delighted to find a new one back in March. It was revealed that he will not dine alone with a woman other than his wife. This was from a dredged up interview with Mrs Pence from fifteen years ago. (Note: What was Harvey Weinstein doing 15 years ago? Oh yes.) And, according to the New Yorker:

… if he attends an event where alcohol is served and “people are being loose,” he prefers that his wife be present and standing close to him. The recent Washington Post piece that resurfaced these details quotes Ken Blackwell, one of President Trump’s transition-team advisers, on Mr. and Mrs. Pence: “You can’t get a dime between them.”

Pence clearly adores his wife and doesn’t want anything to compromise that. In the view of the New Yorker, and the Atlantic, that makes him a sexist pig. Jessica Valenti agreed in the Guardian where she wrote:

Pence is a misogynist. We know it from his voting record, we know it from the things that he’s said about women’s rights and now we know it because of his odd personal rule not to dine with women alone.

Twitter and social commentators all joined in, gleefully pouring scorn on this right-wing jerk who is living in another century. And it’s not just Pence who adopts this code of conduct, rules that were conceived by the popular (in some circles) evangelist, Billy Graham. Olga Khazan, in the Atlantic, explains that this is more widespread:

An anonymous survey of female Capitol Hill staffers conducted by National Journal in 2015 found that “several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression.” One told the reporter Sarah Mimms that in 12 years working for her previous boss, he “never took a closed door meeting with me. … This made sensitive and strategic discussions extremely difficult.”

So, how do we feel about all this now? The first person to publicly point this out post-Weinstein was a Trump/MAGA staffer, Sebastian Gorka who Tweeted: “THINK: If Weinstein had obeyed @VP Pence’s rules for meeting with the opposite sex, none of those poor women would ever have been abused.”

Gorka is, of course, tarnished by his association with Trump (who am I not, for a moment, defending) and so Vox immediately went out of its way to shriek at this entirely reasonable observation about Democrat donor, activist and friend of Hillary and Obama, Harvey Weinstein. If you want a lesson in defensiveness and weapons-grade impugning of motives, I’d have a look at it (you’ll love the bit about Caesar’s wife, which is obviously a parallel here) along with those articles from the Guardian, the Atlantic and the New Yorker.

VP Pence with Linda McMahon. Make of that what you will. (Official White House Photo by Myles D. Cullen)

In all of those publications, Pence’s motives for his rule are always portrayed as entirely self-serving, to avoid suspicion and “that upstanding, honorable men avoid creating situations that might be misinterpreted by supposedly hysterical, unstable women”, according to Tara Isabella Burton in Vox. Are you sure about that, Tara? Is that how you’d describe genuine victims of Weinstein, as opposed to imaginary victims of Pence? I guess not.

The downside of Pence’s rule is obvious. It appears to exclude women from private access to the Vice President in certain situations. It could perpetuate an old boys’ network. You would hope that Pence would go out of his way to grant greater one-on-one access to women on other occasions. I have no reason to suspect he doesn’t do this. He must realise that his ‘rule’ has a cost, and it must be deeply inconvenient to live by – and frustrating for female colleagues at time. But he is clearly willing to pay that cost in terms of being pilloried in the press for days.

As usual, we need to have a grown-up debate. This time it’s about the differences between men and women, which is clearly made difficult by the agenda of those who insist that gender is fictional, a construct or self-determined. And it’s about the trade-offs that have to be made over certain policies and practices. Such a discussion is sadly not possible in the deafening echo-chambers of vociferously stated public opinions.

Meanwhile, my Facebook feed continues to fill up with #MeToo stories of women (and men) who were victims of powerful people abusing their position for their own carnal gratification. It’s all very sad.


For more of this sort of thing, pick up a copy of my book, Death by Civilisation, available on Amazon, and as an e-book, here.


Why I Can’t Hide Like Eddie Stobart

A few years ago, I read a book about the Eddie Stobart company. I’ve forgotten most of it, but my lasting memory is that Eddie himself barely featured in the day-to-day running of this company. In fact, he was soon a distant memory. The other members of the family enjoyed this because if someone stomped into their office with a problem and demanded to see Eddie Stobart, they would be disappointed. Someone else would step in and offer to deal with the problem and suddenly the situation was already beginning to be diffused. And no-one had to take the blame for being Eddie Stobart. Convenient.

I don’t have that luxury on this website. I am James Cary, and this is Welcome to my new website. Hopefully it is a permanent online home for my articles and blogs, more of which below. But for now, I realise that I’ve left myself very little room for manoeuvre. If I post a thought or opinion on this site, it’s me. I take the credit or get the blame. Anyone who stomps up and waves a fist will be doing so to the man whose name is at the top. There is no hiding.

In Pursuit Of The Obvious

My previous and now defunct website was called ‘In Pursuit of the Obvious’, which is a curious title for my website. It did not mean that I consider my own views to be merely common sense and self-evident or that that anyone who disagrees with me is clearly wrong-headed, illogical or in denial. Many newspaper columns pride themselves on what they consider to be ‘straight shooting’ and ‘telling it like it is’, in a world of political correctness, PR, spin and fake news. Much as it would be nice to have a website called ‘Both Barrels’ or ‘Shooting from the Hip’, my aim is not to shock people with the truth or rant like a rabble-rounsing demagogue.

There is a Christian justification for being cantankerous and pointing out the uncomfortable truths in the great and the apparently good. ‘Speaking prophetically’ is a thing, biblically-speaking. And if you’re going to be like anyone in the Bible – apart from Jesus – you could do worse than Moses, Elijah or any of those guys. Many of them were living dangerously and met a sticky end (except Elijah who went to heaven in a chariot of fire. Lucky him.)

No, this website and blog has a different purpose, and a different hero. My earthly hero, of the last hundred years, at least, is GK Chesterton. I was inspired to read one of GK Chesterton’s finest works, Orthodoxy, by another author, Philip Yancey, who wrote in Soul Survivor:

“We direly need another Chesterton today, I think. In a time when culture and faith have drifted even further apart, we could use his brilliance, his entertaining style, and above all his generous and joyful spirit. When society becomes polarised, as ours has, it is as if the two sides stand across a great divide and shout at each other. Chesterton had another approach: he walked to the centre of a swinging bridge, roared a challenge to any single combat warriors, and then made both sides laugh aloud. GK Chesterton managed to propound the Christian faith with as much wit, good humour, and sheer intellectual force as anyone in th[e Twentieth C]entury.”


GK Chesterton

GK Chesterton

I wanted to find out more about this man. I’d heard his name many times, not least because GK Chesterton is quoted extremely often by evangelical preachers, despite not being an evangelical himself, and he ended up drifting into Roman Catholicism. But he wrote so well and concisely, constantly using beautiful prose and paradox (perhaps the latter to a fault), that he is eminently quotable. He is such an appealing author because he is profoundly serious, but does not take himself too seriously, very much aware of his own flaws and failings. He cut an absurd figure, being extremely tall and large. PG Wodehouse honoured him by referring to his bulk in Mr Mulliner Speaking, in which the hero, Cedric, is creeping around, but surprised by a noise which is described thus:

“The drowsy stillness of the summer afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G. K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.”

Given the mass of Chesterton, we assume this is a loud noise. He would have been thrilled, amused and flattered.

We digress. Okay, I’m doing most of the digressing here, but many great truths have been expressed in digressions, just as many great discoveries were accident. That said, people tend to quote pencillin, but then dry up with further examples rather quickly. Where were we? Ah yes. “In Pursuit of The Obvious”. Why that as the title of my previous blog?

Responding to Yancey’s exhortation, I read GK Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy. It remains one of my favourite books of all time, being an inspiration for me in my non-fiction writing and precisely the kind of book that I would one day like to write. The opening chapter of the book is a wonderful admission of his own spiritual and philosophical trek about how it would look if an English yachtsman sailed off on a voyage of discovery, only to miscalculate, land on a beach and plant the British flag on a beach, only to discover that his hitherto hidden nation is in fact, England. And if you read the whole chapter – or the whole book – here, you will see that Chesterton admits to being that deluded sailor, looking around the world for something new and exciting, but realising that the thing he was looking for was orthodox Christianity. He writes:

“I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last. It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.”

Much as I’d like to write more about this wonderful chapter, I realise a little more explanation is still needed. Chesterton’s circuitous journey back to faith in plain old Christianity is something that we may yet end up experiencing as a society and nation. I am not saying that we had it right in the old days. There’s no one particular year or even century where we’d really cracked Christendom. In the fifteenth century, Britons were very religious, but it took a form of superstition, rather than a Christian faith. A century later, Protestantism had taken hold (which I’m a fan of), but lots of people were killed in the process. Within another hundred years, life for Protestants serious about their faith found living in England untenable so they left to start another country in the Americas.

The Future

I’m not nostalgic about the past, but I am optimistic about the future because I believe God is good, and that he has made the universe to be a friendly place, and despite our best efforts, our story ends well. As a nation, we are on a journey, trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. We’ve tried Kings, Parliaments, Empire-building, War, Socialism, Pluralism, Capitalism and various blends of the aforementioned, many of which have their strengths and their place.

Like Chesterton, I believe, this journey can only end with the obvious: Christianity, no matter how bizarre that may seem to us today. In that same chapter, he writes about how we chase after the novel:

“It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t. One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively the more extraordinary truths.”

The question is what mature, authentic Christianity looks like in the 21st Century, a land of iPhones, science labs, nuclear weapons, cloning, fake news and reality TV. How do Church and State fit together? What is the State? How is this discussed in the Media? What is the media? Sorry, what are the media? (We all know it’s ‘is’ really). What sort of society do we want to be? And what do we do about people who want something else?

These are questions with which I seem to constantly be wrestling. I have elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious. But rather than the call the website that, I’ve called it Disappointing, but there it is.

How to accidentally ruin a perfectly decent society

Death by Civilisation

I’ve written more on some of the above in a book called Death By Civilisation, available in some good bookshops, a few dreadful ones and unavailable in far more of both. Best bet is Amazon.

“‘a wonderful cascade of sage snippets…fit to grace bedside tables and smallest rooms in the greatest houses” – Alan Wilson, Church Times

“This is a lovely selection of well-thought out and witty articles which you can pick up and put down at your leisure. Cary is not just accomplished, but engaging too. Oh, and funny.” – DeanT, Amazon Review