Monday, 26 September 2011


 Living as I do in a place where most books have to come a long way in an aeroplane, reading is an expensive addiction, and of course there is always the problem of shelf space. I have about 50 metres of shelving in my new study, but it is already full and there is not a lot of wall space left; and although it is great insulation, what is eventually going to happen to all that paper? I doubt my kids will want to fill their homes with old theological works, so most of my library is eventually going to end up as egg cartons. Ebooks are one solution to book cost and storage issues so I have been  using them for a while now, but their big problem has been finding suitable hardware to read them on.

 I first read them on the tiny screens of Ipaqs and they were quite satisfactory but the wretchedness of Microsoft Reader and its somewhat arbitrary copyright protection system killed the experience entirely. On Palm devices they were OK except the plethora of competing and incompatible formats was always a problem and, convenient though they were, the 3.5" screens were never ideal. When I got an iPad a year or so ago, I quickly downloaded the free Kindle app, and tried out a couple of books. It was great! The purchase and selection system at worked flawlessly, the software interface ditto, and there was that superb screen. But there were still issues. The iPad screen might be clear and bright enough for webpages or lengthy games of Angry Birds but an hour of reading close set text on it still left my eyes itching and watering; and while the iPad might be small and light when compared to a laptop, it is certainly not when compared to the average paperback book.

So a couple of weeks ago I got a Kindle, and so far, so good.

I ordered it online, $US139 for the wifi only version ( I couldn't see that the advantages of the 3G model were worth the extra $US50) I also got a nifty little cover with a built in reading light which means it landed, less than a week later, in my letterbox for a little over $NZ240 including postage. It was well packed and came with a USB cable for syncing and charging (There is an optional extra wall charger available on the Amazon site, but I can plug the Kindle's cable into my idevice charger, so it's not necessary). There was a small instruction booklet and a much more extensive guide included as an ebook on the Kindle itself.  The device is made of sturdy plastic with a nice non slip, non marking surface and fits nicely in the hand. After an initial charge it took me about 5 minutes to learn pretty much everything about its operations.

It is very light, and inside its nice red leather cover is about the same size, shape and weight as an average paperback. The monochrome screen with no electronic backlight has a clear white surface covered in some sort of non reflective coating and in use it looks for all the world like a page of printed paper. It is easily visible in bright light, although in dull light a reading lamp is necessary, a bit like a book I suppose. I found that after about a week of fairly heavy use the battery had used about half its charge - excellent compared to the iPad but not quite as frugal as Amazon had indicated, but then again, the reading light built into the cover draws its power from the Kindle, and that also had had a fair bit of use.

The user interface is simple and looks a bit like the ones you used to get on Palm devices from the late 90s, but it works and it is very easy to use. I find myself using the thing more and more, and wonder how many paper books I will buy from this point on.

The pluses of the Kindle are:
* Cost. On one of my last purchases of normal books from I paid $US39.59 for two books, and $US14.97 shipping, for a total of $US54.56. If I had bought them in Kindle format the cost would have been a total of $US19.98. Many books are available for very low cost or no cost at all. I should be able to halve my annual book bill (or, more likely,lets be frank about this, buy twice as many books).
* Convenience. The Kindle store is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and can be accessed wherever you have a wireless internet connection. With the 3G model it can be accessed wherever you have a cellphone connection. Order a book for the Kindle and less than a minute later you are reading it. Twice now I have followed a footnote to a reference that looked pretty darned interesting. I just needed to press a couple of buttons and the referenced book was sitting in my electronic library waiting its turn in the spotlight.
*Storage. The Kindle can store about 3,500 books. I can carry a whole library round with me.
*It's quite easy to highlight and make notes.
*No trees get chopped down to make ebooks, and no jet fuel is used up carting them about the place. 

The minuses are:
*It manages to mimic the experience of reading a paper book fairly well, but it is still not the same thing. It's hard to glance ahead and see how many pages are left in the chapter or flick through to find that really interesting sentence you remembered from somewhere about a quarter of the way through.
*That wonderful black and white screen is...well... black and white. Books with colour photos don't do so well. (though of course they look great if you have the Kindle app on your iPad)
*The editing of some ebooks leaves a little to be desired. A book of poems by Walt Whitman for example was formatted in paragraphs like a novel, rather than in the lines Whitman intended. Mind you, it was a free book.
*For reasons of international copyright some books are not available in New Zealand - about 800,000 titles as opposed to over a million in the States.
*I will own and have access to the books for as long as I've got a Kindle reader, which, given the way technology changes is not likely to be forever. Mind you, given fading, worms and the indifference of my descendants, the same is true of my paper books as well, but with more cost to the environment. 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Changing The Pattern

From Friday night until today I wore a purple cassock and sat in front of those who have entrusted me with the guidance of their diocese as we shared together in the business of our annual synod. We met in the Invercargill Working Men's club and the local parishes hosted us and made sure we were undo another notch in the belt well fed.We listened as Bronwyn Miller delivered some not very encouraging news about parish finances, the likely effects of the Christchurch earthquakes on insurances and the implications of new earthquake strengthening requirements. We are, after all, the inheritors of many historic and beautiful buildings, often made of unreinforced masonry and often with other parties (local bodies, the Historic Places Trust) wanting a say in what we do with them. Many are a struggle to maintain even now, and their future utility will exercise our imaginations considerably.

For all that, the synod wasn't negative; not even a little bit. For myself, I am perfectly secure in the knowledge that we will be led into God's future, but of course we are not there yet, and we may well have to undergo a period of ambiguity and paradox as our old ways of being church gradually fade away while the new ways are not yet quite apparent. Our diocese seems to understand this, for which I am profoundly grateful.

We talked about some important things. Trevor James, the Dean, reminded us of the need to preserve the Trinitarian theology of our worship, and although his motion did not engender much debate it was timely, and in keeping with the new emphasis on the Trinity appearing in much modern theology. Perhaps the debate was muted because it came after we had discussed, with some candour two other pressing issues.

We discussed the Anglican Covenant and agreed with the suspicion of clause 4 which seems to be current in most of the New Zealand Anglican Church. By a reasonably large majority we do not want our church to subscribe to it.

We also discussed an issue that has been exercising us for many years now, the ordination of people in same sex relationships. Tony Fitchett introduced a motion asking us to accept that people in such relationships should not be denied ordination because of those relationships. The debate was lengthy, honest and at times illuminating. It was conducted in a spirit which was, for the most part deeply respectful; I had a real sense of people on both sides of the issue listening carefully to each other. In the end, an amendment was proposed which affirmed that sexual orientation was not a barrier to ordination, but which removed any reference to relationships. That is, the amended motion served to affirm the situation which has been the case in the Anglican Church for many years. The result was not unexpected, and while it was immediately disappointing for some, I think there was a lesson for me: namely that we have been going about this debate in entirely the wrong way. The argument over sexual orientation is in itself unresolvable, given its basis, on both sides of the issue, in deeply held attitudes to scriptural interpretation, human sexuality, the family, the origins of sexual orientation and a thousand other things besides. So, if the argument is unresolvable, let's stop trying to resolve it. Let's work instead on something that is achievable: learning to live with difference. We have, after all, been living, in real terms, with this particular difference for many many years now.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Distant Light

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross writing of The Dark Night of the Soul allude to the same reality: that is, that God is unknowable and all our ideas about God, all our feelings about God, all our intuitions of God can only ever give us the vaguest knowledge of who and what God is. Whatever image of God it is that we hold between our ears is therefore largely the product of our rational, intuitive and affective imaginations. Paradoxically however, God calls us ever Godward and seeks us out. We are called, drawn to God and we make steady progress along the path to God and our knowledge of God, imperfect and fragmentary though it may be gets steadily clearer. As we progress along the narrow road that leads to life, there comes a point when we draw close enough to God that we must finally leave whatever it is we think we know of God behind. Like Reepicheep in The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, we get to the point where the ship of all our theology and concepts and experience of God will take us no further and we must leave them behind and go on all alone towards the utter East. We then enter the cloud of unknowing or the dark night of the soul. At first this place is frightening. It is a blank place where there seems to be no direction or way points, but if we persevere long enough we recognise it as the darkness of that death without which resurrection is impossible. The cloud of unknowing can never lift, at least not in this life, but it does prove to be filled with life and subtlety and light that becomes, paradoxically, more knowable as we learn to let go of all knowing.

Which all sounds very high falutin' and spiritual I am sure. The dark night of the soul sooner or later becomes the lived experience and the great blessing of anyone who follows the way of silence, but it is a spiritual principle which has far wider application than just silent prayer. The dark night of the soul, or something like it, will need to be traversed whenever we seriously seek God's will. Often we will go to God in prayer, seeking God's approval for some scheme or other we have dreamed up, and come away from our prayer time buoyed up with the enthusiasm which generally precedes the disappointment of our plan's eventual failure. Invariably, if we are truly listening, we will need to enter a space that seems full of confusion and doubt and uncertainty. This is inevitable when you think about it: before we can be empty enough to receive God's ideas we have first got to let go of all our own old ones.

This dark night of the soul is seldom comfortable. We will  often describe it to ourselves as a lack of vision or of imagination; as writer's block or confusion; perhaps as doubt or lack of faith; and it is usually at this point that we chicken out and dash back to the familiar comforts of our own reason and to things that we have tried or read about or dreamed up before.

I think the church in general is poised on the brink of such a dark night. Trusting that God is leading us onward into whatever it is that lies ahead of us, perhaps the prayer of  our hearts needs to be not so much for certainty and direction, as for the trust (i.e. faith) to face and enter the darkness which must always precede the dawning of the distant light.