A review of Rowan William’s “Being Christian.”

‘Being Christian’ is an ideal short book on the main themes of Christian life, Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer.  It is written in a lucid style that draws deeply from considerable learning, and a life spent teaching and practising the Christian faith, and provided leadership in the worldwide Anglican communion.

As such it is a great read for everyone from the jaded Christian long on the road of Faith, to the sceptic exploring Christian thought, to those newer to the faith who are looking for an accessible and compelling introduction to the most vital areas of its practice, which would include those taking ‘communion classes’ for admission to the full Eucharist.

With Baptism Rowan Williams explores what it means to be immersed in God and Jesus and what he has done, to be fully swamped and immersed with it, and to come up again into the world with what it means to live a baptised life.

In his section on the Bible the writer guards against a simplistic literalism or anxiety of the historical veracity of the detail, to stress that what God wants to do with the scriptures is ask us ‘where are you in these stories?  What would you do in these situations?’ And he also encourages us to read the Old Testament in the light of the New, and how the Old has reached its fulfilment with the new.

On the Eucharist Professor Williams explains what it means to take Holy Communion, and where in scripture it has its roots, and what it meant to Jesus and his first followers, and how Jesus used meals and hospitality to help usher in the Kingdom, and how Communion continues that process.  He stresses how the Eucharist is an invitation by God to be at his table, He wants to be with us, to abide with us, and what that means for how we see our fellow Christians or fellow people.

On Prayer he stresses the centrality of the Lords Prayer, and some work on early Christian teachers on the Lords Prayer and what it means to prayer.

As someone who struggles with their faith, and a frequently jaded member of the Anglican Church, I found the book enlivening and refreshing, and there was a lot that was new and useful to me.

Whether you are sceptic or believer, new or old to the faith, I cannot commend this bright, sharp and focussed work highly enough

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A review of C.S.Lewis’s “A Grief Observed.”

A Grief Observed, written by C S Lewis in notebooks he found around his house as a way of trying to come to terms with or understand the agony of his bereavement of the loss of his wife Joy Davidman, is a piece of writing well known for its rawness and honesty, and also for it’s description of a process.  Lewis moves from rage and disgust with God (describing Him variously as a cosmic bully, vivisectionist and sadist) to a realisation of the nonsense of this idea (ultimate bullies and sadists would not be able to create the wonderments of our creation) to a sense of the bigger picture of death, loss and Gods purposes that leads to Lewis being able to reconcile faith and loss.

One of the most admirable things about this little book is how it firmly rejects the easy answers, the cop outs.  Lewis includes with these both the ideas of lost loved ones simply waiting for us on some farther shore, and the equally simple but unsatisfactory cop-out of loss and pain being the fruits of an evil god.  There are no short-cuts through such human agony, and any attempt to package it away so we can pretend there is no pain to go through will only worsen things.  Lewis has a gift for analogy that he uses to his usual excellent effect here, such as the one towards the end of the book that compares the bereavement as being in a dark place, that at the start may feel like a cellar or dungeon, but in time we may come to realise that our own preconceptions may have misled us, we hear a wind which suggests we may be in the dark countryside before the dawn.  Or hear a friendly chuckle which suggests the presence of a friend in a darkened room.  Lewis comes back to themes and ideas he has explored in other books; that our ideas of ‘reality’ are shaped by our immediate animal sensations, we cannot comprehend a fraction of what is going on in our own minds or bodies at any time, how much more the wider realms of world and God?  In other words, we constantly confuse the little for the big picture.

Joy Davidman must have been a wonderful woman, and she shines through this book as a fierce intelligence and integrity, and it is these aspects that Lewis feels in touch with as his grief progresses.   And this is a book not only about loss but also about human love.  It describes a relationship that celebrates the raw individuality of the other, and how the two becoming one flesh does not mean that differences are lost or subsumed, but that rather those differences are celebrated  by their union.  In a passage that will upset the preconceptions many hold about Lewis, he mocks gender stereotypes, laughing at the idea that sensitivity is a female trait and chivalry and honour male ones.  with Joy he found someone with which he could not pretend or hide behind ideas.  And this is one of the many losses that he feels keenly.

Facing bereavement of one kind or another will come to us all if we continue to live.  This books is an invaluable contribution to our struggle to understand this inescapable part of the human condition.

The Gods don’t play dice; a review of the ancient Egyptian board game ‘Senet.’

Senet is an ancient Egyptian board game (@ 3’500 BC) that is a chase game similar to backgammon. Each player has 5 pawns which travel around a 3 by 10 board in an S shaped path. Indeed the Gods don’t play dice.  Here you move by the throw of 4 sticks (black on one side and white on the other).  If any of your sticks land light side up you move that number of sticks (between 1-4).  If you throw 4 dark you can move 4 and then get another go. depending on how they land.  As in backgammon, the objective is to bear all of one’s pawns off first. But unlike that game, there are safe and trap spaces on the board (in the version below denoted by different Egyptoin symbols).  Also, players may block each others’ progress if they form a row or ‘wall’ of their pieces.  If you go to Google images for Senet you will find that Senet sets are usually constructed from various woods and are often quite beautiful. Senet is one of the oldest of man’s games but unfortunately it fell out of use for a few thousand years and no ancient rules set has been discovered (possibly another tragic loss resulting from the Library of Alexandria burning to the ground). As a result modern minds have made several educated guesses as to the rules.  And it is one of these that I found, on the Google Chrome Web Store.

First thing to take on board with this version, it’s lovely to look at and recreates the feel of one of the aforementioned beautiful wooden boards.  It sings to you an Egyptian refrain and you have the option of playing an AI offline or going on-line for another human opponent.  There’s a ranking system to measure your progress as you hopefully start ratcheting up the frequency of your victories.  Second thing to mention is that it is incredibly satisfying to find such an ancient game whose game-play blows most modern turn based games out of the water .Although as mentioned the game-play is a modern ‘best guess’ reconstruction, even so, it’s brilliant.  Like many classics such as Backgammon it is an outrageous mix of skill and fortune (or chance) that will leave you thinking victory is assured one moment, only to find it all going hrribly wrong as you don’t get the throw you need, and your faulty strategy makes itself known.  Because victory in Senet comes from strategic planning to ensure that as far as is possible you will not get boxed in a corner.  In the last game I played I had got 4 of my pieces off the board and simply needed to throw 1 light stick to get on the square ‘House of life’ (I think) which would enable me to proceed further.  But I could not find that throw, and the opponents pieces flew past like cars in a F1 race.  Worse, I did throw a 1 at one point but then threw a 1 again which landed me in the “Sea of re-birth” which put me back to the half-way point.  Then I resigned.  But the most notable point was that until it all went horribly wrong, I was comfortably ahead and assured victory was in the bag.  But my strategic error was not leaving myself with sufficient choices or pieces in play.

Other versions of Senet are also available on the IOS platform but are AI versions only, which to me takes more than half the fun away (I’ll always rather play people).  If anyone knows of any other good versions on IOS or anywhere else on-line I may have missed please let me know in the

In the thick of the race.  Could go either way.

In the thick of the race. Could go either way.

comments to this post.

To sum up Senet hooks you quick and reels you in.  A great pleasure to find and play this gem.

On the playing of games

The Fireside Table is a blog whose main wish is to evoke a fireside table at the most romanticised vision of a pub that you can imagine.  Where there is fine ale and wine and excellent conversation.  Now the conversation will be on books the company have read, or plays or films they have seen.  These, if you will bear with me with this rather strained analogy, compromise the reviews of this blog.  Sometimes games will be played.  Classic pub games like Cribbage, or even more cerebral fare when the company still retain some thinking sobriety, such as backgammon or chess.  This will often get the company talking as to games they have played.  And so, this blog will now include reviews of games.

A good game, a really good game, engages us as much as the best novel or best of any kind of work can.  We are brought out of ourselves, on two important levels, to think, as with a strategic problem say, and to have fun.  With one player plus games we engage with our opponents too on a deeper and more fun level than small talk allows.

Our current social media / technological boom allows greater access to a broad range of social gaming than ever before.  One thing I’ve enjoyed recently is working my way through board and card games with which I’m wholly unfamiliar, learning the rules, key strategies, and taking on other people.  And lets not forget that little extra kick that computer gaming now encourages, the earning of achievement badges!  There’s usually a rusk of sound and colour, a little firework display, and then a message along the lives of “Congratulations!  You’ve won your first game of ____.”  usually accompanied by the earning of an in-game currency to give a further reward buzz.  They are usually ‘gold’ or ‘diamonds’ (lumps of coal probably wouldn’t have the same effect).

One thing you lean from classic games, you see why they have endured, or why they still pack a gratifying punch.  Witness the Egyptian board game of “Senet.”  It’s a race game like Backgammon, a direct ancestor of this game, but has a strategic depth and richness that is beguiled by very accessible game-play.  In other words, easy to play, very hard to master.  It has just the right mix of skill and chance (see also Backgammon).  It is perfect for our Fireside Table, and I’m going to do a review for a version I’ve discovered below.

In the meantime, if you have rediscovered any classic board or card games through internet play or by any other names means, please share below.

See you at the table.

A review of the Big Finish production “Doctor Who: Spare Parts”

This is a four part audio drama with Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor and Sarah Sutton reprising her role as Nyssa from that era of tv Who.

It’s a complex, surprising production that keeps you guessing as to which way it’s going to jump in terms of its direction.  The 50’s setting alien world of Mondas makes you think initially that it is going to overdose on quirkiness.  But then it plays out as a classic, chilling Cyberman adventure that does not downplay the horror of the conversion process or the loss of humanity and identity it involves for the poor souls involved.  The Cybermen here are modelled on those of the Troughton era, with their never bettered drawn out synth voiced monotones.  “Youuuuuu willll beee like usss….”  Gary Russell does a fantastic job of world building on his Mondas.  It’s a world stuck in the 50’s due to the squalor and retrogression caused by living underground on a dying world, whose path is wandering into that of a nebula.  The underground survivors send selected enlisted parties to the surface to try and start the giant propulsion engines that may move their planet to safety.  It’s a world of curfews, power-cuts, dimly lit streets, boarded up shops and homes, tram-stops, and a town-square with a huge “Committee Palace” with iron gates where the mysterious committee rule.  Meanwhile cyber augmentation runs through this society like veins of silver through rock.  The classic cyber-mat creatures scuttle through the streets like vermin.  People have augmented budgies for pets, and cyber chest units and artificial limbs to help with medical difficulties.  It’s a technology in its infancy.  Meanwhile cyber augmented police on cyber augmented horses keep order.  And this all heading in a direction that the Doctor, and us if we know our Who history, know only too well.

The Doctor and Nyssa arrive on Mondas, with the Doctor clearly knowing where he is and immediately filled with foreboding.  They find a struggling family, the Hartleys, Yvonne (Kathryn Gluck), Dad (Paul Copley), and Frank (Jim Hartley).  Dad has a chest unit and Frank dreams of being enlisted to the surface which fills Dad with horror.  Dad loves his tea and Yvonne is consumptive but popular in the community and pretty much the glue in the family.  The actors bring all these characters to believable life and make the distinctly odd setting believable.  And when horrible cyber things do happen to certain family members, you really feel it and are appalled by it.

The Hartley’s, the Doctor and Nyssa become tied up with the comically horrible body-snatcher Thomas Dodd (Derren Nesbitt) whilst being watched by the snooping official Sisterman Constant (Pamela Binns) in discovering the terrible truth about the hidden Committee and its plans.  On the way they meet a Doctor involved in leading the cyber augmentation, the conflicted Doctorman Allan, and come face to face with a Cyber nemesis Zheng (played by Big Finish stalwart Nicholas Briggs).  The Doctor finds he must do what he can to bring a kind of redemption to Mondas without breaking the strictures of history, his own prime directive.

The story surprises, scares and entertains and has some truly memorable ideas, scenes and set pieces, and I won’t spoil them for you, but the revelation of the true nature of the Committee is a treat.  The production scores on every level.  The 50’s level is a rich and resonates with themes from that era, such as the Stalinist Committee and it’s Palace to the domestic scenes of the Hartley family.  The Cybermen are a nasty and dehumanising evil here, and a fitting monster for our current age of upgrades and increasing reliance on technology and apps.

Get a copy if you can.  I was staggered to see it selling on Amazon for £90, but I grabbed a copy for a tenner from a high street genre comic/book store.  And you can download it for £2.99 on the Big Finish Web site.

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “Out of the Silent Planet” (Book One in “The Space Trilogy”).

“Out of The Silent Planet” is a beautiful and haunting science fiction story first published in 1938.  In the Preface Lewis admits a debt to H.G.Wells , most notably “First Men in the Moon,” and that is there in the adventure elements of the novel and in certain shapes of the narrative such as the departure from Earth and one of the travellers being set upon his interplanetary voyage completely unawares, as well as in the strangeness of man and alien race meeting.

But there are huge philosophical differences in the world-views of these writers.  Lewis was of course writing informed by his Christianity, although to call it a “Christian novel” would be to do an injustice to its universal appeal, as Well’s novel, informed by his scientific humanism, also has universal appeal.

‘Ransom,’ the hero of the novel, a Professor of Philology from Cambridge, is on a walking tour when he is asked by a distressed woman to look up her son, now very late from his work, at a nearby mansion.  At the mansion Ransom interrupts a struggle between a “simple” villager, the woman’s son, and two men, who appear to be trying to drag him somewhere.  The man runs off and Ransom is invited the mansion belonging to the two men, one of whom he recognises as Cambridge peer called Devine.  The other is wealthy industrialist called Weston.  Under the guise of hospitality they drug Ransom who awakes on a space-ship on his way to ‘Malacandra,’ aka Mars.  He learns he is to be given to an alien race called the Sorns and this understandably terrifies him.  He escapes on the surface of the alien world and soon meets other inhabitants of Malacandra; the otter like Hross, the long and slender Sorns, and creatures of light called Eldil.  Weston and Devine, who are there to variously strip Malacandra of its gold (there’s a lot) and colonise it in the name of progress, cause a violent death of one of Malacandra’s creatures and Ransom decides to go to the Sorn and give himself voluntarily to them to atone.  There he meets the planet’s ruler, Oyarsa, and the outlines of a far bigger adventure begin to be understood.  This is to be developed further in the next two instalments of the trilogy of which “Out of the Silent Planet” is the first.

Dated in its scientific elements it may be, but “Out of the Silent Planet” is as much as a timeless classic as the Narnia stories, of which it shares its imaginative re-telling of the Christian worldview.

This should not deter the most cynical and hardened atheist or agnostic reader, as long as they love great writing and stories, told with imaginative verve.  Regular readers of Lewis will be familiar with some of his ideas contained in his essays and other work; the idea that there is a spiritual duality, an “enemy” as Lewis often calls it.  That our spiritual sickness and great evils arise from the false idolatry of certain ideas, small pieces of a larger picture that we mistake for the whole act itself, and as a result these small ideas become twisted (or ‘bent’ as is described in the novel).  So bodily survival is a necessary imperative but when we are prepared to decimate other races, species and lands to preserve the life of our own race and species evil occurs, because we fear and misunderstand death.  We see physical reality as an end in itself and not symptomatic or part of something larger.  Devine in this story represents humanity’s greed in his lust for Malacandra’s gold, but as Oyarsa says, this is the lesser evil, almost at the level of the animal, next to the evil of Weston which has larger spiritual and cosmological implications.  Weston represents the utter pride of humanity in itself, and of the crudest and bluntest and most weapon like understanding of evolutionary science.  His is almost the evil of Lucifer before the fall.  Weston’s worldview and those he represents, is the desire to be God.

Again I apologise if I am putting you off the novel.  If you are a lover of science fiction or old adventure stories, I urge you to read this.  The theological implications underpin but do not intrude.  This is a novel that nourishes as much as it entertains, which is a pretty fair description of the best of Lewis’s writing.

A review of the Big Finish audio drama “Davros”

This is one of the standalone star villain dramas Big Finish produced in 2003.   others include “Omega” and “Master.”

In this the titular Dalek creator takes centre stage without his creations.  It’s part origins story, part standalone adventure with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor.  The Doctor is brought by a reporter called Willis to a world in which a company called TAI has a huge domed complex and is apparently exploiting and about to fire a lot of its workforce.  It’s this story of corporate greed that reporter Willis (Eddie De Oliveira) is investigating. Willis may or may not be a companion type role from other stories I’m not sure, I haven’t listened to enough Big Finish.   Willis is primarily interested in TAI’s CEO Arnold Baynes (Bernard Horsfall, a more familiar name including from previous Who tv adventures).  But Baynes and his historian wife Lorraine (Wendy Padbury, another familiar Who name) have brought to their company from deep space a resurrected figure from the past, Davros himself, for whom they are both apologists, believing him wronged by history, and potential beneficiaries as they intend to put him to work for their company, harnessing his twisted genius to the markets.

Of course the Doctor sees the flaws to this plan based on his own history with Davros, and joins Baynes “blue skies thinking” team to keep an eye on his old nemesis.  It’s a cracking adventure that at times treads a precarious line between satire on corporate greed and management speak, origins story for Davros and sci-Fi thriller, also seeking to capture the flavour of the era of Colin Baker’s Who, with its high body count and sudden shifts in tone.

Of most note are Terry Molloy returning as Davros,  including his flashbacks to his former life as Kaled scientist.  Molloy brings back the maniacal hysteria and twisted grandeur and even pathos of his chair bound creator.  The origins story is intriguing and a lot is told in a short snippets of drama.  We learn of Davros’s paranoia and mania to be the top scientist, and how he is horribly disfigured.  We learn of the importance to him of a colleague, Shan, and the terrible impact and legacy she has on his life and events.  There are some surprises.  Some of this material was developed further in a subsequent Big Finish Davros origins series.

Colin Baker is also great value.  Big Finish did a great job in rehabilitating his sixth Doctor from the fraught days of his tv productions.  He has a dry wit, and juggles pomposity, jocularity and deadly seriousness.   Bernard Horsfall does a good turn as a corporate kingpin and the rest of the cast turn in satisfying performances that propel the adventure along.  Production values are good, rooted in 90’s Who.  All in all a recommended listen for genre fans.