I’ve enjoyed David Mitchel’s previous novels, including trying to spot the linkages between them. This though, is a standalone novel, albeit involving Japan again, round the turn of the 19th century. It’s based mainly on a Dutch held trading post on an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki in a period of history when Japan is fanatically isolated from the outside world and determined to keep it that way.
The writing is beautiful, particularly one description of Nagasaki whose prose literally rhymes. Two set pieces stand out remarkably. I’ve rarely read an opening chapter both gripping and repulsive, depicting the birth of a breeched baby. Its counterpart is a later chapter describing another medical procedure, this time (located in the nethers!), the extraction of a kidney stuff. Gross but brilliant. And the whole novel is magnificently researched and enlightening. One other set-piece was also incredible, the attack by the British frigate—extraordinary. And the ending chapters are beautiful and lyrical.
So why didn’t I absolutely love it? I never quite believed the tangled love story—it just seemed to emerge as a plot device rather than integral to the story. The description of the female lead characters attempted escape from imprisonment had me laughing out loud at the contrived nature of how the plot was revealed. And the samurai attack on the monastery just seemed to fade out.
Mitchell is a terrific, creative, imaginative novelist and this has its peaks but also its troughs. Not as thrilling as Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten.
I haven’t been living under rock for the last 15 years or so, but though I am aware of Bill Hybels, I have never knowingly read anything by him nor heard him speak. I’m aware, of course, of Willow Creek, and aware that by some measures of the thing the model of church there has been a success. Success enough for thousands of congregations wanting to follow the same model.
So I had the chance of hearing a dvd of his address to a huge crowd of leaders at what I now understand to be a global event called the Leadership Summit. He’s a capable communicator, passionate and driven. The title of his address was ‘A Rogue Wave’ (or something similar), and I got to hear 40 mins out of a 75 minute talk.
Here’s my tuppence worth.
In 40 minutes he never once engaged with the bible, other than to mention a verse which happened to contain a word that corresponded to something he was talking about. It was an illustrative use rather than an engagement with the text. I understand that the leadership summit does not cater exclusively for church people, but many ‘secular’ business leaders also attend. So the omission may be OK, but I thought it was strange.
But what really interested me was his comment that the economic downturn was similar to a rogue wave, which is an unpredicted occurrence in the deep ocean which causes devastating effects.
It’s the idea that this recession was unpredicted and ‘rogue’. Really Mr Hybels? It was certainly predicted in Ireland, and the prophets who got it right are making a fortune in book sales and on the rubber chicken circuit. Was there no-one in the US who had foresight? And if not, why not?
Because even if the business media missed it, or buried its collective head in the sand, the one place that should have seen this coming was the Church. The frenzy of easy debt and overconsumption and the increasing marginalization of the poor is repeatedly condemned by the Old Testament prophets. And the story of the foolish farmer as told by Jesus also warns of the folly of building a business or an economy on the basis of assumed future incomes.
The fact that we missed this occurrence says more about our failures as a prophetic community. Was this rogue because we were so enmeshed with the wider culture that we were all blinded, even to the warnings of the Scriptures?
And one more thing. By calling this a rogue and absolving ourselves from blame, are we tacitly giving ourselves permission to behave the same way once the recession lifts?
The media (admittedly a multifaceted beast) has also played a role in narrowing public discourse, to the extent that fundamental questions, like, “what should you do with your short time on earth?” or “how can you really be happy?”, are virtually never discussed. This is all the more serious because the Catholic Church, which might once have generated debate on these issues, has made itself irrelevant (through self-inflicted wounds) and there is no other institution which can readily substitute.
Worse still, the place once occupied by priests and philosophers in the public sphere is now almost entirely populated by technocratic or managerial know-it-alls. It is more than a year since novelist Colman Toibin first called for economists to be banned from the airwaves and, without wanting to be flippant, heeding his request might be one step towards rediscovering our sense of humanity.
From today’s Irish Times in a piece by Joe Humphreys on the impact of the recession on mental health.
In this culture it is literally impossible to flee from the city’s dominance..–as all those White suburbanites have discovered–and, in my belief, the city is the central theological symbol of society. This is not only the contemporary reality in America, it is the biblical insight as well. Biblically, the city is the scene of both doomsday and salvation. There is Babylon, but there is also Jerusalem. The city is the epitome of the Fall, yet the city is the sign of the Eschaton. These connotations of death and life associated with the city empirically and theologically mean that the city cannot be escaped and that the city must not be rejected by human beings, as it seems to be by the utopian hippies and their commune movement, for example, and least of all can it be repudiated by professed Christians. (Billy Graham, if he were more attentive to the Bible, might realise this and cease his facile preaching against the city as a realm of sin and give up his proclamation of a pastoral image of salvation generally identified with the hinterland of the American South or Midwest).
I was delighted to be able to do the Broadcast Service from the studio in BBC Radio Ulster.
The theme I chose was Biblical Wisdom for Surviving in an Economic Downturn. I’ll post up some of the material in due course, but if anyone is interested, BBC Radio Ulster Listen Again facility is streaming it for the next 7 days HERE.
If you’re interested in any of the music used, let me know in the comments.
This is the video commissioned and used by the Special EU Funding Body (SEUPB) as part of their recent Peace III conference. They chose Skainos to be one of the key projects highlighted and we were very pleased to participate. I think they did a nice job. The conference was held on 20 May last.