Eyam – the heroic plague village

Eyam the Heroic Plague Village

By Ron Hay

At present, in face of the Covid-19 pandemic, most of us are self-isolating in our family bubbles to protect ourselves from the risk of infection from without. But what would it be like to self-isolate with the infection inside our bubble and have no prospect of help from outside?

That is exactly what a whole English village did during the bubonic plague of 1665-6. Eyam, in Derbyshire, was the one place outside London to be heavily hit by the plague. A consignment of cloth from London, ordered by the local tailor, contained the fleas which spread the deadly disease.

The remarkable thing which happened in Eyam was that the vicar, William Mompesson, along with his predecessor Thomas Stanley, succeeded in persuading the villagers not to flee and risk spreading the disease to surrounding towns and villages. Instead, they agreed to stay and go into self-imposed quarantine from the outside world. At a boundary stone outside the village, an exchange point was set up where the villagers left money in vinegar, which was the only disinfectant they had, and people from surrounding villages brought food in return.

Between 7th September 1665 and 1st November 1666 the plague took a heavy toll in the village. In some cases entire families were wiped out. One woman lost her husband and 6 children within eight days. In times of plague people had to bury their own, so she had to dig all their graves. In all, 260 people died from the plague in Eyam out of a population of around 700.

It seems extraordinary that the villagers did not break ranks and flee in face of the plague’s impact but instead stayed and kept to their self-imposed quarantine. William Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, was one of the plagues’ victims. He had tried to persuade her to leave before the quarantine began, but she would not dessert him. Because of Eyam’s sacrificial response the plague did not spread any further in the north of England and a potentially much greater death toll was avoided in larger nearby centres such as Manchester and Sheffield.

Of course, William Mompesson and the residents of Eyam were motivated by their Easter faith – by the example of Jesus and his great act of self-sacrifice in going to Calvary for our redemption. No doubt, they were very conscious of his words: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Their story remains an inspiration to this day. And it is remarkable that, without anything like our modern scientific and medical knowledge, they did exactly what we know to be necessary to contain a pandemic.

I first heard the story of Eyam from a parishioner in Sumner-Redcliffs when I was vicar there some years ago. In September 2000, my wife, Liz, and I travelled to Britain to visit our son who was on a GAP year working at an outdoor education centre in Wales. We travelled to Derbyshire to visit friends in Dronfield and made a point of going to Eyam. It was a moving experience to walk the streets past the “plague cottages” with plaques marking where the first victims died. The museum was closed, so we went back to the church and appreciated the historical displays there and the signs of contemporary life – there was obviously a large active youth group. The parishioner at the display desk told us the church was full on a Sunday, people came from all around to attend, but it was too “happy-clappy” for his liking. I like to think that William Mompesson would be pleased.






Godless in “God’s Own”?

After a very lengthy delay the results of the 2018 New Zealand Census have now been released. In commenting on the religious affiliation section of the census, the editorial in the Christchurch Press last weekend asked the question “Has Godzone turned Godless?” At first sight the answer seems to be a resounding “yes”. This is the first census in which the proportion of people who recorded “no religion” (48.6%) has exceeded the proportion who identified themselves as Christian (38.6%). In 2013 the respective percentages were 38.6% and 43.5%.

This crossover in the last five years is striking, but was entirely predictable in view of the trends of the last seventy years. Within our generation there has been a massive and persistent decline in religious affiliation. The contrast between the latest statistics and those of the 1951 census are remarkable. Then the “no religion” proportion of the population was 0.6%, while 87% identified as Christian.

The growth of secularism and the decline of the church is a phenomenon of our times throughout the western world and is as marked in Aotearoa New Zealand as anywhere. It is clear that the so-called mainline Protestant denominations in particular have haemorrhaged heavily. This is particularly so with the Anglican Church which was for many years the most populous denomination in Aotearoa New Zealand but has been surpassed in recent years by the Catholic Church.

The reasons for growing secularism are not hard to find. Vastly increased affluence, rising life expectancy and spectacular technological advances have all contributed to a this-worldly materialistic perspective. Who needs God when life is cosy and we are in control of our own destiny? The prospect of looming climatological disaster has not yet significantly dinted our complacency, and modern medical care enables us to push the awareness of mortality to the edges of consciousness.

The church is also hugely responsible for its own decline. A major factor has been the spread of liberal theology which results in the church having no distinctive message to proclaim and looking simply like humanism with a few ritualistic trappings. Who needs a church which does nothing more than encourage us to be kind and loving when most of us live by that ethic already? When New Zealand’s most widely known theologian is an atheist clearly something major is amiss.

Sometimes, too, local churches have been stuck in traditional ruts and slow to adjust their culture and music styles to contemporary society. Spiritual seekers are not attracted by having to step back decades in cultural time. Churches which have a creative and contemporary style plus a distinctive message have thrived and grown. Many of these are independent churches or recent denominations that have sprung up and are worshipping in non-traditional buildings.

For me, however, one of the most intriguing features of the religious affiliation category of the last census lies not in the growth of the “no religion” category or in the decline of church affiliation. I’m struck by the fact that, while the “no religion” category has continued to grow, only 7,000 people put themselves down as atheists. That is 0.15% of the New Zealand population. With the great decline in church adherence I would have expected to see the number of atheists soaring. But that is not the case.

Obviously, Richard Dawkins has a few hard-core disciples, but the vast majority of those who have abandoned the church have not necessarily abandoned belief in God or in something beyond this life. The census records religious affiliation, but it does not measure personal belief. And as the Press pointed out, recent surveys both here and in the US reveal a significant percentage of people who don’t identify themselves as Christian but believe in God or a higher power. The Press editorial comments that this “suggests a sense of yearning or spiritual wonder remains even when organised religions decline, and that a partially formed sense of something greater than us may even be central to the human condition.” That is quite a comment from the secular media.

Christians would say that “a partially formed sense of something greater than us” is indeed central to the human condition. And the message of biblical Christianity is that the partially sensed something or Someone has been revealed and made known to us in human history through the prophets of the Old Testament and pre-eminently in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He invites us to move beyond wondering and yearning with the words, “Come, follow me.”

Outstanding Books #2

Outstanding Books # 2: A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

I’ve recently made a major literary discovery – Jewish writer, novelist, political commentator and intellectual, Amos Oz (1939–2018), and in particular his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The son of gifted parents who had emigrated to Israel from Eastern Europe in the 1930s, Oz grew up in Jerusalem under the British mandate, and as a child experienced the siege of the city during the 1948 war which followed the creation of the state of Israel. At the age of twelve his world was shattered by his mother’s suicide. Three years later he changed his surname from Klausner to Oz and went off to live on a kibbutz.

By the time he died in December last year Amos Oz had become one of the most celebrated of Jewish writers. He wrote 40 books of fiction and non-fiction, had his work translated into 42 languages and was the winner of numerous literary awards. Many expected him to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He was renowned not only for his novels and short stories, but also for his political analysis. He was an eloquent spokesman for the Zionist left, defending Israel’s right to exist and defend itself while being critical of Israel’s failure to compromise and accommodate the needs of the Palestinians. He wrote, “Even unavoidable occupation is corrupting occupation.” Although he fought and was wounded in the 1967 and 1971 wars, Oz was an early advocate of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was dubbed by the Guardian Israel’s “most beloved peacenik.”

For those interested in the contemporary political situation, I can’t imagine a more helpful (and engrossing) insight than that provided by his book In the Land of Israel which is the result of extensive interviews and conversations he was part of in Israel and the West Bank with Jews and Arabs of every political and ideological perspective. That book merits a blog entry of its own, but for now I want to concentrate on his personal memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness.

A Tale is moving, poignant, heart-wrenching, funny, deeply humane and utterly absorbing. The greater part of the book is devoted to his childhood memories of growing up in Jerusalem as an only child of two highly educated and gifted, but unhappy parents. His father, a thwarted would-be academic, could read more than a dozen languages and speak eleven. His mother spoke four or five and could read seven or eight. His father was a kindly, sociable rationalist who “never learned how to be close to people” despite trying hard to do so. His mother was deeply imaginative and intuitive, and emotionally starved in her marriage.

There is a single, hauntingly beautiful photo in the book  Amos Oz 2which captures much of the poignance and grace of their lives.  

Oz’s childhood memories are amazingly vivid as he takes us into his family world of cultivated Jewish emigres and secular Zionists. This world included his great uncle Joseph Klausner, a leading Zionist who was a candidate in the first Israel Presidential election in 1949 and was a world renowned Hebrew scholar particularly famous for his book on the life of Jesus which argues that Jesus was seeking to  reform Judaism, not found a new religion.

Interspersed through the childhood memories and family history are the adult’s informed reflections on the modern history of Israel. For instance, Oz recounts that in the war of 1948 most of the Jewish settlements outside Jerusalem, together with the Jewish Quarter inside the walls of the Old City, fell into the hands of the Arab Legion and that the Arabs implemented a much more complete ethnic cleansing in the territories that they conquered than the Jews did. Then he makes this comment:

In the lives of individuals and of peoples, too, the worst conflicts are often those that break out between those who are persecuted…. In reality, two children of the same abusive father will not necessarily make common cause, brought together by their shared fate. Often each sees in the other not a partner in misfortune but in fact the image of their common oppressor.

 That may well be the case with the hundred-year-old conflict between Arabs and Jews.

  The Europe that abused, humiliated, and oppressed the Arabs by means of imperialism, colonialism, and repression is the same Europe that oppressed and persecuted the Jews, and eventually allowed or even helped the Germans to root them out of every corner of the continent and murder almost all of them. But when the Arabs look at us, they see not a bunch of half-hysterical survivors but a new offshoot of Europe, with its colonialism, technical sophistication, and exploitation, that has cleverly returned to the Middle East – in Zionist guise this time – to exploit, evict, and oppress all over again. And when we look at them, we do not see fellow victims either; we see not brothers in adversity but pogrom-making Cossacks, bloodthirsty anti-Semites, Nazis in disguise, as though our European persecutors have reappeared here in the Land of Israel …

Amos Oz’s book illuminates much in the birth and rise of the modern state of Israel, but at its heart is the personal story of his childhood in Jerusalem and  early adulthood on a kibbutz. Different narrative strands and chronological eras are brilliantly interwoven throughout the book so that the tragic outcome to his mother’s depression hangs over his story but is not told till the very end. In large part the book is a coming to terms with his parents and their heritage many years after he has turned away to create a new identity for himself. He explains why he turned away:

The suffocation of life in that basement, between my father and my mother and between the two of them and all those books, the ambitions, the repressed, denied nostalgia for Rovno and Vilna, for a Europe that was embodied by a black tea cart and gleaming white napkins, the burden of his failure in life, the wound of hers, failures that I was tacitly charged with the responsibility of converting into victories in the fullness of time, all this oppressed me so much that I wanted to run away from it.

The opposite pole to the oppressiveness of the family home was the kibbutz where, far from Jerusalem:

A new, rugged race of pioneers was taking shape, strong, serious but not complicated, laconic, able to keep a secret, able to be swept away in a riot of heady dancing, yet also able to be lonely and thoughtful … tough young men and women, ready for any kind of hard work yet with a rich intellectual and cultural life and sensitive, contained feelings. I wanted to be like them so as not to be like my father or my mother or any of those gloomy refugee scholars of whom Jewish Jerusalem was full.

On the kibbutz, Amos Oz discovers a new life, finds his gift as a writer, and meets the love of his life. There is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek purple patch in which he expresses the wonder of Nily, “the” girl on the kibbutz, falling in love with him:

That day, in Hulda, the cows laid eggs, wine came out of the ewes’ udders, and the eucalyptus trees flowed with milk and honey. Polar bears appeared from behind the sheep shed, the emperor of Japan was seen wandering behind the laundry… and all the hills melted. The sun stood still for seventy-seven hours and refused to set. And I went to the empty boys’ showers, locked myself in, stood in front of the mirror and asked aloud, Mirror,  mirror on the wall, tell me how did this happen? What have I done to deserve it?

 This is a book which embeds itself deeply in the Amos Ozreader’s mind and lives with you long after  you’ve put it down.



Outstanding Books #1

To my mind, there are few more satisfying reads than a well-written biography of a great life. Two of the best I know are Roy Jenkins’ biographies of British Prime Ministers William Gladstone and Winston Churchill. Each appeared to great critical acclaim: Gladstone won the Whitbread Prize for biography in 1995, and Churchill, which appeared in 2001, was quickly recognised as the outstanding one-volume biography of its subject.

In this blog I want to major on the first of the two since Gladstone is a more distant and less well-known figure than Churchill. By any reckoning, William Gladstone (1809 – 1898) was one of the outstanding figures of the Victorian Age. He was a Member of Parliament for sixty-three years and Prime Minister four times, an achievement never repeated. He was a person of prodigious energy, both physical and intellectual. He graduated from Oxford with a double first degree and was a voracious reader; he read over 20,000 books in the course of his life and could converse in most of the main European languages. He walked vast distances in Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands, and, while at Oxford, several times did the seventy kilometre walk to his family home.

During his political career he became the outstanding orator of the Victorian era. He could hold his parliamentary audience through speeches lasting 3 – 4 hours. His longest, the famous budget address as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1853, lasted four and three-quarter hours and occupied seventy-two columns of Hansard. Jenkins writes of it being an oratorical triumph which “reverberated throughout the political world.”

His political judgement was not flawless, but Gladstone was undoubtedly the most impressive politician and statesman of his era. He showed a remarkable generosity of spirit which enabled him to put the good of the country before self-interest or even the interests of his party. Also impressive was his readiness to change and his growth in true liberalism as he got older – for instance, his acceptance of Catholic emancipation and promotion of Home Rule for Ireland. Roy Jenkins says of him, “I have no doubt that he was the most remarkable specimen of humanity of all who have so far held the office of British Prime Minister.”

Besides being a political colossus of his age, he was also a man of deeply committed faith. He grew up in a Low Church evangelical family of totally Scottish descent and maintained the habit of reading the Bible every day, often in the Greek text. While he retained much of the spirit and language of evangelicalism throughout his life, he later became more at home in High Church Anglicanism. Looking back on his early life, Gladstone made the challenging comment that “The Evangelical movement … did not ally itself with literature, art and general cultivation; but it harmonized well with the money-getting pursuits.” It’s an assessment that evangelicals today would do well to ponder. Roy Jenkins makes this comment: “Evangelicals provided much of the energy and of the enthusiasm of the Church of England. They sustained the Biblical Societies and the Protestant Missions throughout the world. Most of the great practical reformers and philanthropists – William Wilberforce or Shaftesbury – were evangelicals. It was a form of religion which released energy rather than satisfied intellectual sophistication” (p. 31). The evangelicalism of the last century has been marked by a growth in scholarship and theological sophistication, but it hasn’t always embraced the worlds of art and literature as readily as it might.

Another dimension to Gladstone was his writing. Jenkins says, his “outpouring of written words … was on a scale which no other Prime Minister except Churchill has ever rivalled” (p.625).  He made new translations of classical poets, wrote a three-volume study of Homer, published political pamphlets and theological treatises as well as maintaining his personal correspondence.

Gladstone: a Biography brings vividly to life an extraordinary human being. It also is a rich education in nineteenth century social and political history. It is a scintillating book from an author who was himself a significant political figure in the twentieth century. Roy Jenkins served as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Labour governments and later became president of the European Commission, and in 1987 Chancellor of Oxford University. He is a gifted literary stylist who produces some memorable bon mots. Recounting one of Gladstone’s speeches, he comments, “the subordinate clauses hung like candelabra throughout his oration”; and of a politician, “he was a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” Gladstone is an absorbing and richly rewarding read.

Why celebrate Easter?


Two weeks ago the Western world celebrated Easter. When I say “celebrated”, I mean that Easter was marked by public holidays and by widespread customs such as the eating of hot cross buns and chocolate eggs. In the small mountain village where I live, there was a huge surge in the  population as holidaying families arrived for the weekend and, on the Sunday, about a hundred eager kids turned up for an Easter egg hunt. I wondered how many of those families gave a thought (or even had a clue) about why they were doing this.

Of course, even in our secular society most people know that Easter is in some way connected with the death and supposed resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But why does this matter nearly 2,000 years later? Why are these holidays (holy days) still in our calendar? Do they have any significance to our lives and human concerns in our sophisticated, high-tech age? Well, that depends on what Easter is really about.

What is Easter really about? The short answer to that question is this: Easter is about the defeat of Death. No matter what you believe or what moral code you live by, no matter what you achieve in life or how much power and money you amass, there is one reality above all that casts a pall over human life. And that is our mortality.

I’ll never forget a poignant conversation I once had with a woman whose husband had died in his mid 50s. They had been planning an early retirement and dreaming of the opportunities for global travel that would provide. Now those dreams lay shattered. She said, “I didn’t know death was so final. Nothing prepared me for that.” It’s the finality of death which makes it so crushing. Death is that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”

Except that, in early first century Judea, there arises the claim that someone did return from death, and the claim looks remarkably credible when the evidence is examined. That person, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth and we find eye-witness accounts of his death and resurrection appearances at the end of the first four books of the New Testament.  What convinces me that those accounts are reliable? I’ve written about this at greater length in chapter six of my book, Finding the Forgotten God: Credible Faith for a Secular Age (Daystar Books), but for now let me mention just three key factors.

  1. Jesus’ disciples were as surprised by the resurrection as we would have been.

The claims of resurrection are sometimes dismissed as wish-fulfilment, but what is abundantly clear is that the disciples had absolutely no expectation that Jesus would rise from the dead. They were not New Age fantasists, but hard-nosed realists much more acquainted with the brute reality of death, suffering and injustice than we are today. The women who brought the first reports of the resurrection had gone to the tomb to anoint his dead body according to their burial custom, not in the expectation of seeing him alive. Their reports of resurrection are greeted by the male disciples with a disbelief bordering on derision. They are as sceptical as we would be today.

  1. The prominence of women as the first witnesses to the event.

In first century Judaism a woman’s testimony was so poorly regarded that it was inadmissible in a court of law. No writer of a fictitious legend which he wanted people to believe would include women as key eyewitnesses. Later opponents of Christianity did actually seize on the female witnesses as a reason for ridiculing the story. Because the women witnesses were such a liability at the time, they can have been included for only one reason, namely, that this is how it happened.

  1. The transformation of the disciples and the spread of Christianity.

After the crucifixion of Jesus his disciples are a dejected, defeated group living in fear of the authorities. Their hopes and expectations have been shattered by the death of their leader. However, a short time after Easter Sunday we see them utterly transformed. They are boldly facing the authorities and telling all who will listen that Jesus is God’s chosen one and that he has risen from the grave. They have an exuberant joy and gladly face flogging, imprisonment, and martyrdom in order to proclaim their good news. Such is the power of their testimony that in three hundred years it has become the dominant faith of the Roman Empire.

In the centuries since, many people have examined the evidence for the claims they made and been convinced of the truth of their testimony. More importantly, those people have entered in to the assurance that, because of Christ’s rising, they too will enter into transformed life beyond the grave.

Mark Twain (and the missionaries) in Hawaii

Mark Twain (and the missionaries) in Hawaii


Liz and I have recently returned from two months overseas visiting a friend in Alaska and family in Canada. En route to Alaska we stayed for a few days in Hawaii. When we got outside the urban cocoon of Honolulu we were struck by the beauty of the island of Oahu, especially the beaches and rugged, bush-clad hills of the north-east coast. We also discovered a little literary gem there.

In 1866, at the age of 31, Mark Twain arrived in the Hawaiian Islands to spend four months as a correspondent for the leading newspaper on the Pacific Coast of America. In 1872 he drew upon these articles and his personal notes for the Hawaiian chapters in his travel book, Roughing It. In recent times the Hawaiian material has appeared on its own in a little volume titled Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing it in the Sandwich Islands (Mutual Publishing, 1990, 106 pages). It is a fascinating and engaging read. It includes photos and engravings of Hawaiian scenes from the time – particularly striking is a scene of Hawaiians surfing on wooden boards.

Mark Twain in Hawaii

The self-deprecating humourist describes his first experience of surfing: “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national sport of surfbathing. Each would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surfbathing once, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.”

The book is rich in historical interest and enlivened by Twain’s robust sense of humour. He describes, for instance, what happened when the missionaries imported and distributed clothes in order to get the people not to come to church naked: “And they did not; but the national spirit of unselfishness led them to divide up with neighbours who were not at the distribution, and next Sunday the poor preachers could hardly keep countenance before their vast congregations. In the midst of a hymn a brown, stately dame would sweep up the aisle with a world of airs, with nothing on but a “stovepipe” hat and a pair of gloves; another would follow tricked out in a man’s shirt, and nothing else; another would enter with a flourish, with simply the sleeves of a bright calico dress tied around her waist and the rest of the garment dragging behind like a peacock’s tail off duty.”

Mark Twain’s take on the missionaries is at times satirical – “How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell!” But I was struck by how positive he is about their overall impact upon the lives of the Hawaiians. He writes of the tyranny of the chiefs before the missionaries came, and sums up the impact of their arrival: “ the missionaries have clothed them, educated them, broken up the tyrannous authority of their chiefs, and given them freedom and the right to enjoy whatever their hands and brains produce with equal laws for all … The contrast is so strong – the benefit conferred upon this people by the missionaries is so prominent, so palpable and so unquestionable, that the frankest compliment I can pay them, and the best, is simply to point to the condition of the Sandwich Islanders of Captain Cook’s time, and their condition today. Their work speaks for itself.”

A major transformation brought by the missionaries, to which Mark Twain refers several times, is the ending of human sacrifice. The extraordinary change which has taken place becomes vivid as he visits the national Legislature and contemplates the figure of the eighty year old President: “This man … has charged at the head of a horde of savages against other hordes of savages more than a generation and a half ago, and revelled in slaughter and carnage; has seen hundreds of his race offered up in heathen temples as sacrifices to wooden idols, at a time when no missionary’s foot had ever pressed this soil; has believed his enemy could secretly pray him to death; has seen the day, in his childhood, when it was a crime punishable by death for a man to eat with his wife, or for a plebeian to let his shadow fall upon the King – and now look at him; an educated Christian; a high-minded elegant gentleman; a man practiced in holding the reins of an enlightened government, and well versed in the polities of his country.”

Also intriguing is Twain’s account of the death of paganism just before the missionaries arrived. When a new king broke a number of ancient taboos without suffering any ill effects, belief in the old gods quickly withered. As a result, the nation was effectively without a religion when the first missionaries arrived. Twain writes, “The missionary ship arrived in safety shortly afterward, timed by providential exactness to meet the emergency, and the Gospel was planted as in a virgin soil.”

Mark Twain famously described the Hawaiian group as “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean” and more than twenty years after his visit he wrote this poignant tribute:

“No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surf beatP1070512

is in my ear, I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the splash of its brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.”

The Wonder that is Wendell Berry

The Wonder that is Wendell Berry

Over the summer holidays I read one of the finest novels I have ever come across – Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. For those who haven’t yet encountered him, Wendell Berry is an outstanding figure on the contemporary literary scene. He has not only published over forty books of poetry, fiction and essays, but he is also a widely-respected social critic and environmental activist. Berry is also a Christian and therefore in the uncomfortable position of finding his faith unpalatable to some who share his social and political values, and at the same finding those values alienate him from some who share his faith.

In a profoundly counter-cultural move, he turned away from early academic and literary status to spend most of the last forty years of his life farming a small patch of land in Port Royal, Kentucky. That locality is obviously the inspiration for the fictional community of Port William on the Kentucky River which is the setting for Jayber Crow and a number of his other novels and short stories.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                wendell-berry-c-guy-mendes_crop

The central character and eponymous narrator of Jayber Crow sets out to become a minister, but loses his faith and his calling and returns to his small community where he becomes the town barber. In that role he becomes the astute observer of the changing social landscape and unintentional confidant of many of its inhabitants. This is above all a novel about love – love and respect for the land, love of a way of life that is being destroyed by a harsh modern economy, and love for people and the value of community. And at its heart is a haunting story of an unusual and unrequited personal love.

images (8) This is a highly evocative novel without a word wasted. You find yourself inhabiting the lanes and fields, the town, the farms, the hill-sides, the river and the sun-dappled plantations of Jayber’s world. It’s a novel, too, about the value and dignity of ordinary people battling the destructive forces let loose in the wider world. It wonderfully captures the down to earth humour of a country community.

It is also a novel that intriguingly and insightfully addresses the big issues of time and eternity. Jayber is an intelligent and reflective character. He grows back to a faith that is much more rooted in the love and goodness of God. He reflects: “If love could force my own thoughts over the edge of the world and out of time, then could I not see how even divine omnipotence might by the force of its own love be swayed down into the world? Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on mortal flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death?”

Because it is a novel about love it is also about suffering and the reflection that brings: “Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of His human creatures…. To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow” (p. 254). The big question about suffering, of course, is – why does God allow it? Jayber poses the question well:

“Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. And why not otherwise? Wouldn’t it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and the chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment He had come down in power and glory? Why didn’t He do it? Why hasn’t He done it at any one of a thousand good times between then and now?” Jayber answers his own question:

“I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, He hasn’t because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.” (295)

This is a wonderfully moving book about love and suffering, and what Wendell Berry calls our “short, surprising, miserable, wonderful, blessed, damaged, only life.” More than that, it is shot through with glimpses of another life. So while the directness is unexpected, it is not surprising or out of keeping near the end to read: “This is a book about Heaven. I know it now. It floats among us like a cloud and is the realest thing we know and the least to be captured, the least to be possessed by anybody for himself. It is like a grain of mustard seed, which you cannot see among the crumbs of earth where it lies. It is like the reflection of the trees on the water.” And a little later – “But the earth speaks to us of Heaven, or why would we want to go there?”


How do we decide how to vote?

As New Zealand’s national election nears, my mind goes back to a conversation I was part of years ago as a post-grad English student at Otago University. In the Senior Common Room of the College where I was staying at the time there were a young doctor and a young dentist, also doing post-grad work in their disciplines.

An election was approaching and the dentist was seriously undecided. “How do you decide who to vote for?” he asked. The doctor chuckled knowingly and said, “Hey, it’s easy. You’ve just got to work out whether you’re a ‘have’ or a ‘have not’. If you’re a ‘have’, you vote National; if you’re a ‘have not’, you vote Labour.”

Sounds cynical, and of course it is cynical. In fact, there’s the very definition of cynicism – “believing that people are motivated only by self-interest.” If we vote on that basis, the gap between the rich and the poor will continue to widen, and our society will become increasingly less compassionate and more divided.

It seems to me that the only way to vote ethically is to consider whose policies will do most for the poor, the powerless and the deprived. Diametrically opposed to the guideline quoted above is a billboard which I saw recently: “If you’re doing OK, then cast your vote for those who aren’t.” That is an altogether more commendable (and Christian) guideline.

It concerns me when an organisation like Family First puts out a voting guide which examines the values of the political parties on a purportedly Christian basis and totally ignores care of the environment, poverty, and housing affordability. Of course, issues such as euthanasia and abortion are important, but the narrowing of the focus to social and sexual issues is seriously misleading – and a distortion of Christian faith.

From a biblical perspective, care of the poor and care of the earth are huge priorities laid upon us.  Both of these values are trodden under foot when the primary focus is on maximising profits and accruing personal wealth. The degradation of New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and waterways has become painfully apparent in recent years and no effective Government action has been taken to counter this. Instead our conservation estate has been run down (with over a hundred DOC rangers laid off) and the current mantra is no longer “Conservation for Posterity” but “Conservation for Prosperity.” Whichever party we’re going to support, we can’t do it on the basis of narrow self-interest or complacency about the last nine years.

At this point you may be thinking, “But hang on. What about the economy? Doesn’t our nation’s welfare depend to a huge extent on how well the economy is managed?” Indeed it does. And there is a prevalent view that National is the more astute economic manager of the two major political parties, and therefore to vote National is best for the country.  But have a look at the graph below. It’s a NZ Treasury graph for the years 1972-2017 showing which governments have been in surplus and which in deficit. (I’m indebted to Kelvin Wright, till recently Bishop of Dunedin and my predecessor as Vicar of Sumner-Redcliffs, for posting this on Facebook and colouring the graph according to which party was in power at the time.)


While the  graph shows that the greatest deficits occurred during the Muldoon, Shipley and Key administrations, and the greatest surpluses under Bolger and Clark, the significant thing is that overall surpluses and deficits are pretty equally shared between National and Labour governments. So it is a mistake to think that one party will necessarily provide better economic management than the other.

That being the case, it is not naïve to vote altruistically for the party which will do most for the poor and powerless – especially when we recognise that the “poor and powerless”  includes the environment which does not have a voice to speak for itself.

A Special Spiritual Memoir


Ever since Augustine’s Confessions people have recognised the value of spiritual memoirs –that is, the value of personal accounts of a life lived with or in search of God. Recently I re-read Lew Smedes’ little spiritual memoir, My God and I (Eerdmans, 2003, 178pp) and found it as engaging and heart-warming as I did the first time.

Lew Smedes was a much loved teacher, preacher and author who taught for many years at Fuller Theological Seminary primarily in the area of ethics. This book, completed shortly before he died in 2002, is not written for academic theologians, but for ordinary people who wrestle with the idea or the experience of God. It is warmly personal, wonderfully honest and very readable. 51085POa8iL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Smedes was born to Dutch immigrant parents and grew up on struggle street in Muskegon,  Michigan, his father having died when he was two months old, leaving his mother, who had no job skills and very little English, to bring up five young children on her own. He writes of her: “She never asked why she should have been stuck in a strange land with no husband, no money, and with five unreasonable kids; the question of “Why me?” never seemed to enter her head. She seemed convinced that whatever her lot, it was what had to be and that her job was simply to do as well as she could with what little she was given, never doubting that God has a tender spot in his heart for widows.”

Having grown up in a rather austere Calvinist setting where “God seldom wore a happy face”, he found God unexpectedly – in an English class at Calvin College. There his lecturer introduced him to a God the likes of whom he had never even heard about – “a God who liked elegant sentences and was offended by dangling modifiers.”  He writes:

Once you believe this, where can you stop? If the Maker of the Universe admired     words well put together, think of how he must love sound thought well put together; and if he loved sound thinking, how he must love a Bach concerto; and if he loved a Bach concerto, think of how he prized any human effort to bring a foretaste, be it ever so small, of his Kingdom of justice and peace and happiness to the victimised people of the world. In short, I met the Maker of the Universe, who loved the world he had made and was dedicated to its redemption. I found the joy of the Lord, not at a prayer meeting, but in English Composition 101.

The book is not a detailed autobiography; it is a pared-down memoir which could be read in a couple of evenings. It highlights key episodes in his life and his on-going wrestling with faith. Some of the things that intrigued or fascinated me:

  • Common Grace or Selective Grace?

One of the most intriguing things is seeing a Dutch Calvinist wrestling with Calvinism. Despite all that is good in the theology of John Calvin, at its heart is the dark doctrine of double predestination – i.e. the belief that God, before the creation of the world, choose some people to be saved and rejected the rest. Smedes asks the obvious question: “How can [some] Christians believe that God would do such a horrible thing as damn people before they had a chance to earn their damnation?” The Calvinist answer is that God created the world primarily for his glory, and that his power and glory are displayed in the fate of both the elect and the reprobate. To which Smedes responds: “It seems to me that we make God out to be a complete narcissist – someone who loves only himself – when we say that his main motive for creating the world was to get honour and glory for himself. It simply must be that he created us in order to love us, all of us, and all of us with the same love.”

This leads to the question – will everyone, then, be saved? As a young man doing his doctoral research, Lew Smedes was privileged to meet the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Conservative evangelicals were concerned that Barth inclined to the belief that all people would be saved, so he pushed him on this question. Here is what happened:

The folksy theologian fairly sizzled, put his face a few inches from mine, and crackled, Ich bin kein universalist (“I am no universalist”)! But he was not finished with me. He poked his finger into my chest and said to me: “You believe the Bible? Fine, then believe this verse too,” and he quoted St Paul, who said that Christ had died “not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world.” “If you are so worried about universalism,” Barth continued, “you had better begin worrying about the Bible.”

Although he is not prepared to be dogmatic, Smedes does admit to what is a bold hope given his background. He knows that none of us is “good enough to buy a seat in heaven with the small coins of our virtue” and that, while God is merciful, he is also the judge. Yet he holds the hope that all people will be saved. “In fact,” he writes, “I cannot not hope for it. My hope is a spirit’s wish, a mind’s dream, and a heart’s faith that it never pays to underestimate the mercy of God.”

  • Learning from Great Novelists

While a post-graduate student at Oxford Smedes did a lot of his research at the Bodleian library. No books could be taken from the library and it closed at five, so he used his evenings to read the novels of Dostoyevsky which, he says, “were to be more important to my life with God than any single theological work that I have since read; no theological system could expose the complications and contradictions of the human spirit so vividly or demonstrate the mercy of God so powerfully as did the greatest of all Russian novelists.”

  • Knowing God in Tragedy

After a decade of visiting fertility clinics, Lew Smedes and his wife finally conceived – only to have their baby die within twenty four hours of birth. Smedes had been “intellectually excited” by what he calls “John Calvin’s tough-minded belief” that all things – the good and the horrible – happen just as God decreed them to happen and that they happen for his glory. After the death of their child, he could no longer believe “such hard-boiled theology” and his understanding of God changed. Yet in the midst of their suffering, he experienced the reality of God with them:

Doris and I cried a lot and we knew in our tears that God was with us, paying attention to us, shedding ten thousand tears for every one of ours. Neither of us had a moment’s inclination to give up on God, to quit believing in him or to quit trusting him. In fact, he never seemed more real to either of us.

Lew Smedes memoir could be read as one man’s wrestling with and humanising of hard-line Calvinism. But it’s wider and richer than that. It’s full of lively anecdotes and diverse experience as a humble, lovable, gifted man journeys through life, always seeking to live his life in relationship with the God he has met in Jesus:

I put all my eggs in God’s basket for one reason: Jesus died and came back to life again. Then he became the life-giving Spirit to give us, be it in driblets, a sampling of the good world we are waiting for. This is where the trolley stops. If it could be proved beyond doubt that Jesus did not come alive after he was murdered, we have lost our one and only reason for hoping that there can be a good future for the world. Without Jesus we are stuck with two options: utopian illusion or deadly despair. I scorn illusion. I dread despair. So I put all my money on Jesus.

In 1999 I had the privilege of attending a Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Church in Chicago. The best part of the conference for me was a preaching seminar led by John Ortberg. In one session he played a number of clips from well-known preachers. I’ll never forget the short clip of 80 year-old Lew Smedes preaching with great gusto on the incarnation. He mentioned the TV drama “Upstairs and Downstairs” and recounted his experience of that when a post-grad student at Oxford. His wife and he lived upstairs and their landlady, Mrs Harris, lived in the basement below – and she got upset if he broke the distinction of being the “gentleman” and tried to do chores for her. Then, building on this analogy, he declared in ringing tones, “God was in the Penthouse on the 1000th floor and we were in the basement. But Jesus came all the way down, he came down and he brought his toothbrush and his pyjamas, and he came to stay. He came to stay!”


Transformed Lives

Where can we find the power to change our lives? Many of us are “stuck” – trapped in negative outlooks, destructive habits, and unhappy relationships. Where can we find the transformation that we long for when this is the case?

In the last week, I’ve come across two remarkable stories of the difference that coming to committed faith makes in people’s lives. These are stories of the transforming power of encounter with the living God.

The first story I heard at a wedding. The parents of the groom grew up without any faith. I’ll call them Mike and Chris, though those are not their names. When their children were still young, their marriage was in such difficulty that they resolved to end it. They decided that the following Thursday night Mike would move out and they would go their separate ways.

On the Thursday morning they received a phone call from friends who had heard about their decision. The friends said, “We know what you’re planning to do, but we’ve got something we need to tell you. Please don’t do it; we’ll be around tonight to say what we need to say to you.” Mike and Chris agreed to delay their separation and to meet with them that night.

The friends arrived and explained that just a few days ago they had come to faith in Christ and they wanted to share with Mike and Chris the difference this had made in their lives. Mike and Chris listened, and that evening they also committed their lives to Christ.

Since then their lives and their marriage have flourished. They are a wonderful couple and the quality of their family life is obviously special.

Two days later I heard the second story. Matt was interviewed at a church service, and he shared some more of his story with me afterwards. Matt had grown up in a troubled home and had got into drugs and other destructive behaviour. In his late teens he was invited to a Christian youth camp, but had not the slightest inclination to go –  until he heard there would be a rugby game at the camp. He was a pretty angry young man and said part of the attraction of the game was that it gave him a chance to “smash some Christians! ”

However, that night at the camp he had an overwhelming experience of God’s reality and love – an experience that began to revolutionize his life. His addictions to drugs, alcohol and violence fell away; his motivation and relationships were renewed. He’d been well-mentored, had done some study, and gone on to become a youth worker having a significant ministry in his city, and was happily married.

What made his story even more special was the flow-on effect in his birth family. His parents and siblings had come to faith as well and their lives and attitudes had been renewed.

Just thinking about these two stories puts a smile in my heart. And I’m reminded of the words of Jesus: “Look. I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5)