Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Detectives and stuff

I go through periods of listening to some of the crime dramas which Radio 4 Extra faithfully plays for the nation’s entertainment. In some cases, these have led to me reading some of the books associated with those same authors and characters.

I have observations on these authors and characters. They are unlikely to be original. They are not profound. But I feel the compulsion to share.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes

Recommended reads: The Hound of the Baskervilles (novel), The Red-Headed League (short story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)

By a long way, Holmes is the most well-known, iconic detective in English crime history. He is the model for many other detectives that followed, and not just in crime fiction. The TV series, Sherlock – not to mention Elementary and the recent films – are not the only Holmes stories. House was Sherlock Holmes in a hospital. Bones, Numb3rs and a great number of other series revolve around a somewhat-condescending genius solving mysteries with a sidekick. Not all Sherlocks smoke pipes. Jonathan Creek wears a duffel coat.

Of course, there are different details – even within the official Sherlock Holmes stories. But give Sherlock Holmes the relevant jobs in each of these series, and the stories would basically be unaltered.

We are drawn to the autistic savant. I wonder why. Is it that we can comfort ourselves and our lack of intelligence/learning by the fact that we are at least human, and better relationally?

Or perhaps it simply lends itself to good explanatory dialogue. The Watson is the voice of the reader, keeping the story grounded, the Holmes is the voice of the author, driving the explanation.

That’s all without mentioning one of the foremost Sherlocks:

Agatha Christie/Hercules Poirot

Recommended reads for Poirot: The ABC Murders, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Recommended reads for non-Poirot: And Then There Were None, The Witness For The Prosecution (both of which have been skilfully, albeit humourlessly adapted for TV recently)

Christie herself fully recognised that she was writing within the tradition of Holmes style stories. A moustache instead of a pipe, and pomposity instead of opium, but with a similar role in the stories, a similar sidekick, wise observations and ingenious deductions.

My observations about Poirot are more my observations on Christie. Her novels generally (and thir adaptations) are machines. It seems to me that Christie decided the unique twist for a story (often an unlikely method of murder, but also unlikely culprits (e.g. And Then There Were None, Crooked House, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and then worked her way out from there, complicating the story to mislead the reader in as many ways as possible.

With Christie, everything serves a direct storytelling purpose. Virtually every character will have the suspicion of guilt cast upon them.

This helps keep the story moving but limits the emotional impact and longevity of the story. Roger Ackroyd’s twist may have readers skimming the story again but there’s little pull to re-enter the imaginative worlds of even the most atmospheric of her stories. Once you know the answer the joy is mostly over.

I do not mean this as criticism – the stories are tremendous fun and there are certainly moments of humour along the way. And Poirot himself is the embodiment of that – although he’s colourfully described, and has his own cute catchphrases (‘the little grey cells’), his function in the stories is quite straightforward.

She wrote prolifically and her non-Poirot stories are often a little more interesting in my view. But this is largely to compare the alpha-male detectives, like for like – such as our next detective:

Dorothy Sayers/Lord Peter Wimsey

I must admit to not having read/listened to as much Wimsey as the others in this list. But The Nine Tailors is fresh in my memory from a recent read and the contrast to a Poirot story is noticeable.

The Nine Tailors has a longwinded joy about it. Its heart is a theme – of bellringing – used throughout the book in different ways – not just mechanically, for the mystery, but to introduce the reader to a whole type of British life that may be unfamiliar to many.

I grew up in a rural Church of England church, was briefly a verger there, and have a campanologist father. To me, it felt like home. But even for me, the details of water drainage and canals were an unfamiliar diversion. There is plenty in the book that does not directly serve the plot or the mystery, but speak to the broader person. The book isn’t filled with red herrings.

A Christie novel is like an architectural plan, sticking to the essentials. Sayers is more like a painting, highlighting the meaning of a story.

Wimsey himself is the personification of this. He gets involved in stories largely through curiosity, as a pastime. He isn’t driven, with a great sense of urgency, but plods slowly through his “detectin’”. Bunter is not much of a Watson, because Wimsey is far more personable in the first place. Wimsey is less a copy of Holmes, and more of a Jeeves/Wooster hybrid. Well-meaning and aristocratic like Wooster but with the genius of Jeeves.

I will certainly read more Sayers, and perhaps the Nine Tailors is an outlier. But I want to comment finally on the terrific…

Francis Durbridge/Paul Temple

To clarify, I mean ‘terrific’ in the sense that it is so dreadfully written it instills terror.

OK, I’ve only listened to the radio series. And they have royally entertained me, largely through being so bad they become good again.

Where to start with Paul Temple? OK, the cliffhangers. The writing is like Dan Brown raised to the power of Left Behind. Constant mystery, cliffhangers and clich├ęs. Except, unlike with Agatha Christie, they are not even remotely resolved. Although the final episode will have twenty minutes or so of explanation, it will be so full of holes you could stick it in the Algarve and call it a golf course.

The characters act nearly entirely illogically. Paul Temple, the genius detective, stumbles from incident to incident, being deliberately mysterious and private about his thoughts for no reason, and getting him and usually his wife (Steve!) into mortal danger. The evil drug gangs that are behind each ‘affair’ (for that is what they are typically called) usually have some totally pointless distinctive calling card (like custom-made cocktail sticks) which serve no purpose to their gang but give the story a mysterious flavour.

The characters themselves are nearly entirely unlikeable; in particular, Paul Temple. He is more condescending than Moriarty falling down the Reichenbach Falls. I am no feminist but his patronising attitude to his wife is deeply off-putting. But worse still is their joint attitude towards Charlie, their butler(?) – who is ridiculed at every turn for no good reason other than to put the less fortunate in their place.

These points, and the one-dimensional characters, would be forgivable, were it not for the seemingly complete lack of self-awareness evident in the writing.

Despite all of this, I somehow like the series. The crisp accents, the hammy plot devices and the vintage music somehow compel me to listen to each series – in the hope that there will be a satisfying ending to a mystery.

The others

It would be fun to look at many more detective shows, and books to see how they’re written, how their characters are developed. Father Brown would be an interesting study, as would some of the more modern detectives like Morse. But that would take much more watching, listening and reading on my behalf.

So over to you… tell me about your favourite detectives and how they are written.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Millennial Church woes

A friend, younger than me, posted an article on Facebook entitled:

(take a deep breath)

59 Percent of Millennials Raised in a Church Have Dropped Out—And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why

It's a list of 12 problems Millennials have with the Church. I don't know how representative they are, whether they are the reasons, or whether there really is a horrendous Millennial dropout problem occurring.

Nevertheless, it's interesting, and the points are worth going through one by one. Read the original article to get the fuller picture of what I'm responding to.

1. 'Nobody's listening to us'

Not true in my church, at least. Youth are engaged in the actual service frequently, very much included in the prayer life of the Church, are asked for input and come to Church meetings. But it might well be true in some larger churches.

But let's not pretend 'listening' and 'agreeing' are identical actions. And this same criticism could be made about the younger people throughout the history of the Church - yet we're still here.

2. 'We're sick of hearing about values and mission statements'

Fair, good points, although slightly reductionistic on the love God, love others bit - absolutely true but it needs flesh on the bones to actually be any help (in the Bible's case, that's what the OT law is!)

3. Helping the poor isn't a priority

Again, can certainly be true. It is a core component of what the Bible calls 'true religion'. We should be seeking to do better with this.

4. 'We’re Tired of You Blaming the Culture'

I'm not sure this really is an issue in the churches I know. We barely talk about culture at all.

But it's unclear what the author means by blaming culture. Blaming it for what? Is this a call for the church to be uncritical of twerking? It's not really clear.

Of course we need to be aware of our own mess. That doesn't mean uncritical acceptance of all the world tells us on how to think and act.

5. The "You can't sit with us affect"

Or Church cliques. It will certainly be a problem in some churches, but again, I don't recognise it in my own. Sometimes this criticism comes without an awareness of other people's circumstances, and from those who, themselves, aren't working hard to build relationships with others.

I've been at my church as long as it's existed. Every Sunday I set up and tear down a PA system. I don't get significant time to talk to people after the service. I therefore miss out on fellowship that others get - although I get to be friends with the other band members. That's not a clique that has no interest in welcoming others - it's a reality of Christian service. Come and help us, and you'll be warmly welcomed.

That's just one example of how the criticism of being a clique doesn't always hold. And the solutions offered in there are quite horrible really. "Let's start a connect team because people will only want to talk to you if they've been told they have to" is not the warmest welcome someone can receive.

6. Distrust and misallocation of resources

Again, our church is pretty transparent on this - and I think others are, too. It may well be significantly more of an issue in the USA, where the author is from. I think the author might not realise the amount of admin work this could also entail - are they willing to do all that? Do they really want to see the 'admin' budget going up at the expense of the 'helping the poor' fund?

7. 'We want to be mentored, not preached at'

A false dichotomy, but let's forgive that. Mentoring is deeply needed in the church and we need to get better at it. There is often a significant pastoral failure in this area (not just for millennials) and we need to improve. The idea of creating a mentor database is absurdly impersonal and inappropriate though.

8. 'We want to feel valued'

Don't we all? I mean, seriously - ask 92 year-old Ethel if she feels valued by the younger people. Ask the elders if they feel valued. It's not just you.

But the text of this paragraph is a sloppy mess of different points. My responses:

You are welcome as you are. You should want to be better. Not everyone is a world-changer who will get to live out their crazy dreams. But God can do more than we can even imagine.

9. 'We want you to talk to us about controversial issues (because no one is)'

Well, people are always talking to you about controversial issues. Sexuality issues are on the front page of the BBC every single day for example. But the Church does need to speak more about these things. And the Bible is often applied in very general senses, divorced from the real world problems people face.

I was thinking about organisation and task management recently. Being productive is a matter of godliness. Why isn't the Church helping people with that? This is a good and fair point.

10. The public perception

Again, serving the neighbourhood - great. Really great, let's do it. Start it up, we'll join in.

But let's not be entirely ruled by public perception. We will be called all sorts of names for following Jesus - and not entirely positive.

11. 'Stop talking about us'

Probably a fair point. I hear older Christians bemoaning millennials without much thought as to how to engage them. But I'd also like to hear millennials talk about a strategy to reach old-aged people. I'd like to see them get out and serve people at a care home. What are millennials doing to reach people of other generations? If all that exists are articles like this one (or mine), we do rather play into the stereotype.

12. 'You're failing to adapt'

Well, it's true and it's not. It's the same criticism levelled by the youth of every generation. And yet, the Church goes on. And although there are problems with numbers in some parts of the western Church, Christianity worldwide is flourishing, and the more conservative parts in the west are also growing. So perhaps this is overstated.

But the article has identified a number of things that I wholeheartedly agree with. Now - be that change.

Don't sit around, passively whining about the Church not doing enough X - go out and do it. Ask a respected Christian to mentor you. Serve at an old people's home. Give to the poor. Go and talk to the people you think are in cliques and show them gracious, hospitable love.

I see that the author is doing this - working in suicide prevention. Fantastic.

Let's all keep talking and seeking to get better together. But suggesting that millennials are justified in leaving the Church for any of the reasons above is putting the cart before the horse. If you are in the Church, it's because you recognise your need for Jesus, which cannot be fulfilled anywhere else. If leaving the Church, for any of the reasons above is even a consideration, then you're missing the whole point.

So, while the criticisms are in many cases valid, the only real reason people leave the Church is because they are not convinced of their need for it. Which means they are not convinced of their need for Jesus - which is at root, a gospel and theological problem - not a problem with Church life as much as with Church teaching.