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Culture, Life, Uncategorized

Allegories, Fantasies and… Passenger to Frankfurt?

At the end of January I finished a couple of books I’ve had on the go for ages – Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard, and a collection of stories by the Victorian author George MacDonald entitled Evenor. Both books contain allegories: Hind’s Feet is a Christian allegory from first to last, and of the three stories in Evenor the last – The Golden Key – is also an allegory. I’ve read quite a few allegories by now, and so I thought I’d make them the subject of a post.


The start of the adventure

Allegories are stories that an author intends to be readable in two ways: the action in an allegory makes sense by itself, so an allegory can be read as “just a story”. At the same time, the events and characters stand in for real-world events or concepts, and if you know what these events and concepts are the allegory can be read with a second meaning. So, to use perhaps the best known example, C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is an excellent children’s fantasy adventure. And, at the same time, C.S. Lewis wrote it so that if you identify Aslan the lion with Jesus (and so on) it tells a Christian story involving themes of atonement, forgiveness and redemption.

When starting this post I drew up a list of allegories I’ve read and was surprised by the number. It wasn’t always easy to decide which books to include – is it an allegory, or not? Here are the “definites”:

  • The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) – John Bunyan
  • The Golden Key (1867) – George MacDonald (in Evenor)
  • The Space Trilogy (1938-1945) – C.S. Lewis (3 books* in total, a.k.a. The Cosmic Trilogy)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956) – C. S. Lewis (7 books in total)
  • Hind’s Feet on High Places (1955) – Hannah Hurnard
  • Starforce Red Alert (1983) – Chris Spencer (a children’s sci-fi allegory)

(*The first two books – Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra aka. Voyage to Venus (1943) – use allegory, while the third – That Hideous Strength (1945) – does not.)

With one exception, the allegorical nature of all of these books is explicitly Christian. The degree to which the dual nature of the stories is maintained varies a lot from book to book. In The Pilgrim’s Progress and Hind’s Feet the spiritual message is dominant and made obvious to the reader (for example, The Pilgrim’s Progress follows “Christian” who meets “Evangelist” and leaves the “City of Destruction” for the “Celestial City”.) Both of these books are about setting out on a journey, and these journeys are a metaphor for becoming and/or maturing as a Christian. In contrast, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the balance between the two types of story is about even: it can be read without realising there is a Christian message, but the spiritual message is not difficult to interpret once you know it is there.

The exception in the above list is The Golden Key, which I think is harder to pin down. While the second meaning is broadly in sympathy with a Christian perspective, I don’t think there is anything that forces it to be read this way. The Golden Key follows the adventures of a boy who finds a golden key at the end of a rainbow and leaves home in an effort to find the lock which the key opens. [Strong spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph!] The journey is again a metaphor for journeying through life and becoming older and wiser. Interestingly, the boy and his girl travelling companion age and die before the end of the story – but “death” is not something they notice. They undergo a change: their new form is continuous with their old form, but better, and it has to be explained to them that they have actually died.

The Golden Key is beautifully written, and becomes more beautiful as it gets towards the end. It is very short (only about 30 pages), and I was on an allegory-reading high after finishing Hind’s Feet the same afternoon. I would recommend it, and in fact it can be found in full online here on the Project Gutenberg Australia website.


Getting sidetracked on a little literary branchline

The copy of Evenor next to me came from a second-hand sale thirty years ago. I can’t remember hearing of the author, George MacDonald, elsewhere. However, the introduction to the book explains that he was one of the most celebrated writers of the mid-nineteenth century:

At the height of his career, say around 1865, MacDonald was one of the most celebrated writers of his age, and he knew everyone in the literary world. There exists a … photograph (undated, but taken sometime before 1859) which shows a roomful of bearded gentlemen. Their names are rather famous – Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Carlyle, Macaulay, Bulwer-Lytton, and George Macdonald.

Lin Carter, “The Dubious Land” in Evenor, pp.x-xi

The introduction goes on to explain that MacDonald’s writing was a huge influence on C.S. Lewis:

I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it.

C.S. Lewis writing about George MacDonald. “The Dubious Land” in Evenor, pp.xiii

The style of fantasy in MacDonald’s stories in Evenor is different to the kind of fantasy that is popular in films such as The Lord of the Rings or TV series like Game of Thrones. It isn’t about knights and wizards, or battles between medieval-esque kingdoms. It is much more local and connected to folk beliefs. For example, The Carasoyn is a story about fairies, and powerful “wise woman” characters are a common thread linking the tales. The origin of these characters is never explained, and their power is never challenged. The focus of the stories is on the life and development of the protagonist, and the wise women and other powerful characters are a fixed part of the world with which the protagonist learns to interact.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis in Oxford. I don’t know for certain that he was also a fan of MacDonald’s work, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The style of parts of the first half of The Lord of the Rings is reminiscent of MacDonald’s work. Specifically, the parts of The Lord of the Rings that got cut when making the recent films!

[Spoiler warnings for this paragraph!] I am thinking here primarily of Tom Bombadil: he is a mysterious, never-fully-explained character that Frodo and his companions meet near the start of their journey, and who helps them out a time or two. Tom Bombadil often talks and sings in nature-centred verse. He is effectively immortal, and impervious to harm from the central antagonist. He tries on the “One Ring” and… it does nothing to him. At all. He just laughs and takes it off again. He is like MacDonald’s wise women, and is a point of connection between MacDonald’s style of fantasy and the kind of fantasy that is dominant today. When Frodo and his friends leave Tom Bombadil behind it feels, to me, as if one style is waving goodbye to the other.


Getting back on course – Tolkien and allegories

C.S. Lewis and Tolkien knew one another well. However, while C.S. Lewis used both fantasy and science fiction to write allegories, Tolkien did something different. The following quotations are from a letter Tolkien wrote in 1951 to a friend and an editor at Harper-Collins named Milton Waldman (the letter is reprinted at the start of The Silmarillion):

But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio [= from the beginning] was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world (accessible to me) for my appetite.”

Also… I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil)… Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing… For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.

For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.”

I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)

As the quotations above show, Tolkien didn’t set out to write allegories. His two best-known books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are stories through and through. Nonetheless, Tolkien, a devout Catholic, still regarded The Lord of the Rings as in a sense a heavily religious work. I’m not sure, but my best guess is that the idea he was getting at might be something like the following: in a work on which an author spends a lot of time and care their personal reflections on life and faith show through, and one doesn’t have to make explicit parallels between real life and events in the book to have something valuable to say about life and faith. There is something intrinsically valuable about a story that contains this kind of reflection. In a deliberate allegory, to use a metaphor, “the spell is broken”. The intrinsic value of the story is to some extent compromised: to the extent that the author talks to the reader directly, the story becomes second fiddle – it is a dressing for the true communication, the “sermon”. The value inherent in the reflective story itself becomes lost.

As I say, that’s my guess at what Tolkien was saying. However, I’m not a Tolkien expert, so I might well be wrong. (If you know more about Tolkien and his writing, I would love it if you left a comment below!) Personally I think there is space for both Lewis and Tolkien. I like allegories as I like their narrative approach to learning from the life experiences of the author; in other words, I like the dual meanings, but I’m reading for the spiritual one. And I love Tolkien’s stories of Middle Earth.

Although Tolkien avoided allegory, there is still an interesting comparison to be made between his book The Silmarillion and the Bible. Tolkien originally intended for The Silmarillion to be published alongside The Lord of the Rings as a companion volume. In the end this did not happen. The Silmarillion was only published posthumously in 1977, after his son Christopher Tolkien took his father’s stories and synthesised them into a complete narrative (it’s a great book – though the language and structure make it much harder going than The Lord of the Rings.)

The Silmarillion tells the story of the events before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place. It starts with Eru (God, in the Middle Earth universe), who creates spiritual beings, who go on to take part in shaping the world according to Eru’s design. The foremost of the spiritual beings rebels, and goes on to mar the world and become an evil, deceiving influence…

If you are familiar with the Bible, several parallels stand out while reading The Silmarillion. There are parallels with major early events in the Bible. And, more interestingly, there are parallels between the structure and style of the book as whole and the structure and style of the Old Testament. To give one example, and speaking very roughly, both move from God creating the world at the start; through stories which involve direct interactions between men* and spiritual figures; to stories where interactions are between men, and the actions of spiritual beings are often only seen indirectly in the outcomes of men’s actions, and the outcomes of world events.

(*Or in the case of The Silmarillion elves… )

That’s a VERY broad-brushstrokes description! The point is, the structure and style of The Silmarillion to some extent mirrors that of the Bible. It is interesting that in devising a new myth Tolkien still stuck in some ways so closely to the Biblical text. (If you are interested to find out a bit more about this, Tolkien goes on to discuss this later in the letter previously quoted from.)


Finally, we reach Germany!

The title of this blog post is “Allegories, Fantasies and… Passenger to Frankfurt?” Those of you who know your Agatha Christie might have spotted the odd one out! I had better make my case for mentioning it…

Agatha Christie is best known as an author of murder mystery novels, and for two of her detectives: Poirot and Miss Marple. However, she also wrote other books, including a number of thrillers. She was at her peak as an author in the 1930s, but continued to write on into the 1970s. Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) is one of her later books. It is regarded as one of her weaker novels, though it still gets 2.9/5 stars on Goodreads.

The book starts off promisingly: Sir Stafford Nye is waiting for a connecting flight at the airport in Frankfurt. When a woman comes up to him and says that she will be killed unless she can travel on the next plane, he switches place with her, and a train of events is set in motion. However, the rest of the book doesn’t live up to the early promise. [Spoiler warning for the rest of this section!] It is a thriller in which there are in a sense… no thrills. There is lots of talking about what is going to happen. Then the protagonist goes somewhere else, where they talk about what is going to happen. Then they travel to another place and talk about… guess what? Yep! There is almost no action!

So why am I mentioning this book in this post? As I read through the book, it seemed to me that Christie’s writing style here has more in common with an allegory than with a typical thriller. The theme of the book is the fear that something is rotten in Europe. It is hard to pin down what exactly, or who is responsible, but there is a growing fear for the future and of another (a third, in Christie’s context) war. This point is made again… and again… and again… . It felt as if Christie is talking through the pages of the book about her reflections on this subject, with the story somewhat in the background as the vehicle.

Without knowing more about Christie, or politics in 1970, I don’t know the extent to which the book actually portrays Christie’s views or those of people at the time. Passenger to Frankfurt isn’t an allegory, but to me the reading experience felt like it, and I found this interesting as it was an unexpected place to find myself thinking about “allegory as a genre”.


Some recommendations

In one long post I’ve talked about a good number of my favourite books in one go. I hope that you might have come across something along the way which you are tempted to read. If you would like a recommendation of an allegory with which to start – I think The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the most available and accessible, and from there others of the Narnia books are great (I have had a soft spot since childhood for the character of Reepicheep the mouse, particularly in Voyage of the Dawntreader.) The Golden Key is short, and definitely something a bit different. For those after something in a Christian direction, Hind’s Feet on High Places is very good for its theme of spiritual development and maturity and I think it’s easier to read than The Pilgrim’s Progress. (The Pilgrim’s Progress can be found for free here on the U.S. Project Gutenberg website).


Catch you in the next post!

Church culture, Culture, Dating, Digital, Life, Uncategorized

On-line dating: some observations from my experience with it

Some time ago, when I first started my blog, I mentioned that I was going to try on-line dating to try and meet a special someone. It’s now over a year and a half later. Did I give it a go, and how did it turn out?

The short answers are “yes” – and that I have been very fortunate, meeting a lovely person.


In this post I would like to talk about a few of the things I noticed while using on-line dating. I’m not an expert on the subject by any means: I only used one dating website, and was lucky enough to meet my special person within a fairly short time. Also, my experience was overwhelmingly positive. Many people who try on-line dating have mixed, negative (or even very-negative) experiences. However, with those caveats in mind, I think it is a subject worth me writing about. In the course of trying it I came across things I had not thought about before. Given that on-line dating is not something that most Christians I know (and many other people too!) have direct experience of, I think what I’ve learned may be of interest and worth passing on.


Dating sites exist on a spectrum

“On-line dating” is a bit of a catch-all term. There are a lot of dating websites / Apps, but they share a common idea. First, register with the site/App. Second, “meet” other people online. Third, having found someone you get on with, meet them in person “in the real world”. However, there is a whole spectrum of variety in how the “meeting other people online” bit is done.

  • At one end of the spectrum are sites/Apps where initially all you see are photos of other people and make snap like/dislike decisions based on what you see. If you both “like” each other, you can then start to communicate.
  • At the other end of the spectrum are sites/Apps where you fill in a detailed profile and the computer suggests possible matches for you who seem compatible based on the data you enter.

An example of a well-known dating tool towards the first end of the spectrum would be Tinder, and sites like Match.com and eHarmony are more towards the other end. The site I chose to use was Christian Connection, which lies somewhere in the middle. You fill in a profile, which can be as detailed or sparse as you want (and which you can edit whenever you wish) and submit pictures. You can then view other people’s profiles and pictures. However, beyond setting some simple filters like target sex and age range, the computer doesn’t do any matching for you.

As the name suggests, the site I chose was one that caters specifically for a Christian audience. It isn’t the only Christian dating site / App, and sites for other specific groups also exist – though I don’t know much about them.


Supermarkets are weird. Good, but weird.

I decided to give on-line dating a go because meeting anyone any other way looked unlikely. There are two factors that feed into this. First, in a lot of UK churches, the number of single Christians in my age bracket (I’m mid-30s) is small – maybe only 2 or 3 people in total – so the local “dating pool” is tiny to start with. Second, I found that whenever I did meet new people, it was never for long enough to actually get to know them.

Coming from this background (a decade out of university, total dates a head-spinning zero), joining up to the dating site and starting to look at other people’s profiles was weird. Good, but weird.

It felt weird because it dawned on me that I was browsing like in a shop… but for someone I might spend the rest of my life with.

However, I quickly realised that there is a lot of sense to online dating. On a dating site, you know that everyone there is there because they want to meet someone. So, you know in advance that saying hello and starting a conversation is (absolutely terrifying but) ok. In the offline “real” world, unless you know someone really well, you never know how asking them out is going to be received. It takes a lot of the awkwardness out of it.


The safety bit and the Wild West bit

One concern with on-line dating is safety: if you go to meet someone you met over the internet, what do you actually know about them? Are they who they say they are, and is what they say about themselves true? There are risks, and they do need to be taken seriously. I’m not an expert on on-line dating, so I won’t offer safety advice. But there is plenty of advice out there. For example, here is a safety page from the dating site I used: Date Safe with Christian Connection.

I’ve called this part of the post “the safety bit and the Wild West bit” because, although the “meeting in person” risks in the previous paragraph are the most obvious concerns, my experience of the “meeting online” part of on-line dating is that it is rather like the Wild West. You see people’s profiles. They see yours. Communication happens. But there are very few rules.

Like a city-slicker in a Western heading out for the first time, when I finished my profile and got off the stagecoach in Dodge, it wasn’t long before I realised that this was a social environment with dynamics of its own that I was not prepared for. And other people on the site would be in the same boat. Put lots of people from different backgrounds in an unfamiliar, emotionally-charged social environment and, even if everyone if everyone starts off with the best of intentions, communication mistakes are likely to happen and there is the risk of getting hurt emotionally.

That is a bit abstract, so to be more concrete:

  • You see a profile that appeals to you, and eventually summon up the courage to send the person a friendly introductory greeting. Fantastic! And now you wait for a reply.
  • But… how long do you wait? You don’t know if the other person is sat at the keyboard hoping for a message from someone just like you at that very moment. Or will check their account tomorrow. Or are on holiday for a week. Or, even if they have seen your message, that they will ever reply!
  • You don’t hear back after a couple of days… So, after what is essentially an arbitrary length of time, you decide to send someone else a message. Are you now communicating with one person, or two?
  • Meanwhile, other people can see your profile. You find that a couple of people have sent you messages. How nice! One of them does not appear at all suitable. But, keeping an open mind, the other person sounds like someone you would be happy to talk to. How many people are you now talking to?
  • At what point do you switch from communicating with lots of people, to just one person with whom you think you have a chance of forming a successful relationship? How do you end conversations with everyone else gracefully?

In the off-line world, talking to more than one woman at a time to gauge whether they like you, and whether a romantic relationship between you could work, would be… odd. However, given the structure of the dating site it was essentially inevitable. I found this really confusing. What were the social rules of this space?

I searched the help forum for advice, as I wanted to communicate well and not hurt people accidentally. There was a mixture of sensible general advice, and other users offering views on what was good conduct. This was helpful and gave me some guidelines, but really that is what they were, only guidelines. My overall impression was that this part of the on-line dating process is rather lacking in social conventions. I can’t help but wonder whether a lot of negative experiences with on-line dating (whether on the site I used or elsewhere) have this issue somewhere at their root.


Covering the miles

Another thing I found was that on-line dating involves the need to travel.

Using on-line dating massively widens the local dating pool. However, even on-line, the Christian dating pool in a large town like the one I live in is still quite small. Compare that to a big city like London, which is an hour or so away: for every person in the local dating pool, there are a hundred in London. I came to the conclusion that to meet someone on-line that I really clicked with, I would likely need to travel, at least as far as London.

As it happens, the person I met lives a *little* further away than that…

Thinking about it, of the Christian couples I know that met on-line, the majority lived at least a few hours journey apart before they met. I don’t know if this is generally true, or just reflects the people I happen to know. It would be interesting to see some statistics on this subject. If you happen to know of some, please do leave a comment below.


Final Thoughts

I had better stop writing this post at some point. I keep thinking of extra things to say! One question is whether on-line dating is something I’d recommend, and I’ll close with a few thoughts on that.

For me, I have had an overwhelmingly positive experience. However, in this I have been very fortunate and a lot of other people will have so-so (even if ultimately successful) experiences or negative ones. In this post I’ve tried to adopt a balanced tone, talking about both the advantages and possible downsides I’ve come across in as neutral a way as possible.

For me, thinking in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, the benefits of going on-line – meeting someone special – outweighed the risks. One thing that I think often isn’t appreciated, particularly by people in older generations, is that the risks aren’t entirely on the meeting-online side. For me, meeting a Christian partner any other way was unlikely. On the one hand, yes, there are the risks associated with the internet; but on the other hand is the risk of not meeting a partner and missing out on that side of life. This isn’t to say that on-line dating is or isn’t a good idea. It will be for some people, but not others, depending on their circumstances. But I think it is a helpful way to look at it.

Culture, Equality, Life, Racial Equality, Uncategorized

Countryside, Town and City – A Diversity of Diversity

When I finished university I went back to live in the town where I grew up. It was a medium-sized town, and we lived right on the edge of it. On one side was a succession of housing estates, followed by the town centre. On the other side was the countryside, followed by a number of small villages.

One thing that dawned on me while I lived there is that the level of ethnic diversity in one type of area – rural, urban or inner-city – is something that is not necessarily appreciated by someone used to living in another type of area. This works both ways: I’ve found that people in town and rural areas (starting with myself!) can be really surprised by the level of diversity in cities such as Birmingham and Leicester; and similarly that people who have spent their whole lives in cities can be really surprised when they find out how little diversity there is in smaller towns and rural areas.


A baseline: ethnicity in the UK as a whole

How ethnically diverse is the UK as a whole? In a sense this is an easy question to answer. The government takes a census every ten years, and records ethnicity. The last census was earlier this year (2021). However, the results will not be out until 2022. So I will have to make do with the results from the 2011 census. That means these figures are a bit out of date. Given that ethnic diversity has been rapidly increasing for the last few decades, the figures for the white population in 2021 will be lower, and the figures for ethnic minorities will (at least overall) be higher.

Well that came as a surprise! Did you know there is one census for England and Wales, and separate censuses for Scotland and Northern Ireland? I didn’t until I started looking this up. (This isn’t going to complicate things at all… )

According to the 2011 census, in England and Wales in 2011:

  • 86.0% of the population was White / White British. This category includes White British, White Irish, Gypsy or Irish Traveller, and “Other White” (e.g. for example, white people from continental Europe).
  • 7.5% of the population was Asian / Asian British. This is a very broad category which includes both far-eastern Asian (e.g. Chinese) and Indian-subcontinental Asian (e.g. Indian, Bangladeshi).
  • 3.3% of the population was Black / Black British . This category includes, for example, Black African and Black Caribbean.
  • 2.2% of the population was Mixed-race / Mixed-race British.
  • 1.0% of the population belonged to another ethnic group.

Overall, 86.0% of the population of England and Wales was White / White British, and 14.0% of the population belonged to an ethnic minority.

Scotland and Northern Ireland both have a lower proportion of ethnic minorities: the Scottish census for 2011 recorded that the population was 96.0% white, 4.0% ethnic minority; and the Northern Ireland census gave 98.2% white, 1.8% ethnic minority. Together, the population of England and Wales (56.1 million) is much larger than the population of Scotland (5.295 million) and Northern Ireland (1.81 million). As a result, the percentages of white and ethnic minority groups for the UK as a whole are quite close to those of England and Wales (doing a few quick calculations I get 87% White and 13% Ethnic Minorities).


Rural and urban

Figures for diversity in rural and urban areas in England in 2018 are available in the report Rural Population and Migration (edit: I don’t have a link to this report. The government website was updated today, 26th August 2021, and now I can’t find a link to the figures for 2018. Very bad timing! The current report with figures for 2019 can be found here – Rural population and migration5 – unfortunately it lacks the table from the 2018 figures which is most directly useful for this topic!) I’ve used a few of the 2018 figures to create the graph below. There are three types of rural areas: sparse areas, villages and hamlets, and rural towns. Then there are urban towns/cities, and minor/major conurbations. For comparison, the dashed red line shows the total “average” percentage of ethnic minorities in England and Wales as a whole in 2011 (14%); I don’t have a figure for 2018, but it would probably be several percentage points higher.

For reference: in 2018,17.0% of the English population was rural, 47.1% lived in urban towns or minor conurbations, and 35.9% in major conurbations.

The differences between rural areas, smaller urban areas and cities, and major conurbations are really pretty striking, and there is a clear pattern – the larger the urban area, the greater the ethnic diversity. I think the primary reason is simply that people tend to immigrate to a well-known, big city where they might find work, or already have family, etc., and it takes a long time (several generations) for diversity to fully spread out to small, little-known, rural hamlets.

These figures are averages over places of a particular type, and there can be big variations between individual locations. For comparison, the graph above has two extra bars: one for London in 2018 (figures from the 2016-based Greater London Authority Population Projections), and a bar for Leicester in 2011. Leicester, a good-size city (just under 330,000 in 2011) is one of the most diverse places in the UK. In 2011 the white population was only 51% – a figure which really surprised me when I first saw it. I simply had no idea the UK could be that diverse…


Wrapping it up

… and that, really, is the point of this post: that the levels of diversity in different parts of the UK can be really very different and this can be surprising. At one end of the scale there are cities like Leicester, where the white population is 50 or 60%. At the other end of the scale are villages and hamlets where, even in 2021, the arrival of a single family from an ethnic minority can still be big local news: they might be only the first or second to move in! (It would be just the same if a White family moved to a small rural village in other parts of the world.)


That’s all – it’s just a “did you realise / have you thought about” kind of post. I hope you found out something interesting. Catch you next time!

Church culture, Culture, Life, Uncategorized

Language, Church Sub-culture and the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles

Some words have an expiry date. Culture moves on, old meanings get lost or new meanings get added, and what was once a good word to use no longer fits the bill. Over the last couple of years I’ve become aware of a couple of words that are still “in” in Christian sub-culture (at least in the UK) which I’d like to suggest could be due for the chop.

I’ll get there, but first –

Heroes in a Half-Shell, Turtle Power!

It’s around 1990. A young schoolboy is going about his day, not knowing what momentous event is coming his way. Little does he know he is about to encounter four amphibian superheroes: Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Raphael – otherwise known as The Teenage Mutant Hero (Ninja in the US) Turtles.

I liked the Turtles*. For a while they really had a moment. Believe it or not, my first calculator was a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles one. It came attached to the front of a book that was on sale at the newsagents, and…

Oh dear, I’m reminiscing. We could be here a while if I go too far down that route.

The reason for bringing the Turtles up is their vocabulary. Although they lived in the sewers of New York, they had a vocabulary of 1980s surfer slang. “Bogus!” … “Cowabunga!” … “Tubuloso!”

And one other word, courtesy of Michaelangelo –

“Awesomely radical, dude!”

*Little me actually preferred the adventures of Bucky O’Hare, space rabbit, and his on-going mission to thwart the menace of the evil Toad Empire. But, given that the Turtle franchise has had a series of resurgences over the last 25-30 years, and Bucky has faded into obscurity, it seems likely this valuation was not one universally shared.

Time Passes

Growing up I was well aware that what the TMNT had to say was slang. No adult I knew followed the Turtles in using “Radical!” to describe something really good that happened. Unless in a (well-meaning but rather desperate) attempt to be hip, cool, and otherwise relevant to the youth of today. But “Radical!” didn’t seem to have a negative connotation either; it just wasn’t a word anyone would use in serious conversation.

It was in some ways a more innocent time. The Turtles could use make of radical’s meaning of “extreme” as a shorthand for “extremely good” without causing concern. Unfortunately, a lot has happened since then. On September 11th, 2001, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were attacked. This was followed by the War on Terror, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then the struggle against IS.

The dangers of Islamic Fundamentalism have been in the news throughout this time, with good reason. A big part of the discussion has been the danger of “Radicalisation” of young people. In the UK the government has been proactive and implemented the Prevent Strategy in an attempt to stop young people being drawn into dangerous fundamentalism and terrorism in the first place, and as part of this schools are now required to actively think about how to prevent radicalisation among the people in their care.

So, sadly, the word “Radical!” has lost its innocence. Where “radical” appears in the same sentence as “religion” in the newspaper now, the word carries a strong negative overtone.

The Sub-cultural Bubble

Over the last few years, I’ve listened to a fair number of talks from Christian festivals, podcasts, sermons (from a number of different churches), as well as reading a sizeable number of articles and Christian books. One thing that has stood out to me is the surprising number of times I’ve heard a speaker use the word “radical” for some reason. They haven’t meant any harm by it, and certainly haven’t used it to advocate anything which tends towards violence. It’s a word with multiple meanings, and they’ve used it for its meanings of “thorough” or “far-reaching” rather than for its meaning of “extreme”. In other words, they are using the word innocently. However, the connotations associated with the word have changed; it is now something that puts people on edge, and is open to mis-interpretation.

[A few weeks ago, I watched a talk where a minister needed to make a reference to the word “radical”. I can’t remember why; it is possible it was in a quotation they were using. Anyhow, they were aware of the problem and carefully explained how in the context it was being used nothing sinister or dangerous was implied. They did a good job. However, the necessity to give explanations and caveats does show how problematic the word has become.]

So I think it is time this word was retired. It isn’t needed, and it really isn’t going to help the Christian community in its relations with the wider community.

Likewise, I think the tendency in parts of the Christian community to refer to small groups as “cell” groups isn’t really a helpful one. The meaning is well-intended: just as healthy cells in the body grow and reproduce, a cell group in a church is envisioned as a healthy group where people get on well with each other, the group grows as new people become interested, and in time the group splits into two groups that each do the same. This use of the word “cell” is meant to be life-affirming. However, unfortunately, when the topics of “religion” and “cell” go together in the newspaper, the meaning is often not a happy one. Nowadays it connects to the idea of a “terrorist cell”, and so the meaning conveyed is life-denying rather than life-affirming. (Not to mention the other common meaning of “cell” – a jail cell! … that really isn’t a good one to connect to either!)

The Wrap-up

So there are a few thoughts about words that I think might be past their prime, and ready to be put out to grass. Are there any others that need to be let go?

Church culture, Culture, Life, Uncategorized

A Book Review of “The Invisible Church”, by Steve Aisthorpe

Some time ago I came across a book from 2016 that piqued my interest – The Invisible Church by Dr. Steve Aisthorpe.

After twelve years out in the Far East, he returned to the village in the Highlands of Scotland where his Christian faith had first developed – and found to his surprise that a lot of people that he knew had stopped attending church. Had they lost their faith? No; when he met them in person, he found that “their Christian faith continued to be the mainspring of their lives.” This was a puzzling situation, and set him on a path that led to conducting three studies on “churchless” or “non-congregational” Christians in Scotland.

The results of these studies form the basis for The Invisible Church. It’s an interesting book because, as the author explains towards the start, few previous studies have actually reached out to people who stopped joining in with the activities of their local churches and asked them why they made this choice, or what their beliefs and practices look like afterwards.


How Were the Studies Carried Out?

If you’re interested in the details, fairly short summaries of Dr. Aisthorpe’s studies are available for free on this Church of Scotland webpage: Resourcing Mission – Mission Research. Here is the briefest of outlines:

  • “Faith Beyond the Congregations”, 2013 – Contact was made with churchless Christians using methods like newspaper articles and social media. Of those who responded, 30 were selected for interview, with this 30 comprising an even male-female split and a variety of experiences of church. The aim of this study was preliminary, with the objective being to identify the right questions to ask in subsequent studies.
  • “Investigating the Invisible Church”, 2014 – Using a random survey technique to identify churchless Christians in an unbiased way, a 76-question survey was carried out in the Highlands and Islands (including the Orkneys and Hebrides), which generated 423 usable completed surveys. The goal was to see if the findings from the first study could be generalised.
  • “Faith in Scotland”, 2015 – The aim of this study was to look at differences between rural and urban areas. 815 telephone interviews with churchless Christians were carried out in total.

The term Christian means different things to different people: at one end of the spectrum are people for whom their faith is central to everything they do, and who try and live it out; at the other end are those for whom Christian has less practical impact and is closer to being a cultural label. In order to try and make some kind of distinction between different groups in the Investigating the Invisible Church survey, a number of questions were included to locate respondents on the “Hoge Intrinsic Religiosity Scale”. The summary report on this study linked to above explains that “It would be inappropriate and incorrect to apply labels such as “nominal”, “committed” or “devout” to groups within the sample according to their scores on this scale. However, it is noticeable that what might be called “high scorers” … show significant differences in their responses … compared with “low scorers”.” At a minimum I take this to mean that there are statistically significant differences in opinion between those who broadly-speaking come across as more religious and those who come across as less religious.


Some of The Interesting Results

I suppose I should give a spoiler alert here in case you’ve got this book in your “To Be Read” pile! Here are six things that stood out to me, or that I think might be of interest to others, with some quotations from the book:

  • Consumerism was only rarely the cause of leaving. Leavers had often been members of local churches for a long time: half of those who responded to the 2014 survey had attended regularly for more than ten years, and about half of this half (i.e. a quarter overall) had attended for more than twenty years. This survey also found that most people disengaged gradually (57%) rather than suddenly (22%), though there might have been an incident at church that acted as a ‘final straw’. For a fifth of people a life crisis unrelated to church (e.g. marriage breakdown or ill health) had proved to be the tipping point, with this being particularly the case for those who had been regular attenders for over twenty years. And for one sixth they had trouble finding a new church where they belonged after moving house.

“The data indicates that choices to switch, leave or not engage with a church congregation are more of a ‘wrench’ than a ‘flit’. Those who are motivated primarily by simple, rational, consumerist preferences are the exception rather than the norm.” (p36)

  • Disengagement did not actually imply a desire to avoid meeting up with other Christians – just not in the settings currently offered by local churches. Leavers were often active in starting to meet with others in informal groups.

“Ironically, some of the most common reasons given for their reluctant departure from congregational life relate to the frustration and disappointment of not finding there the very qualities extolled in the New Testament as the touchstones of Christian fellowship. Interviewees spoke of a lack of love, a coldness and superficiality… Most interviewees described how, having ceased church-going, they had formed friendships or linked into informal groups which had Christian fellowship as an important part of their purpose.” (p43)

  • A quarter of Churchless Christians had felt that they didn’t fit in when they had been part of a church. However, a large fraction of Churchless Christians felt connected to the church considered in a wider sense (the world-wide church), with this being particularly the case for those who were older or scored higher on the Hoge scale (i.e. those appearing more religious).

“… Regardless of age, previous experience of church, score on the Hoge scale, and gender, about a quarter agreed with the statement ‘I used to go to church but felt that I didn’t fit in.

However, this lack of ‘belongingness’ in local congregations does not translate into a sense of alienation from the wider Church. Half of respondents indicated that they felt part of the worldwide Christian community. … Unsurprisingly, of those with higher than average scores on the Hoge scale a significantly higher proportion agreed with this statement [‘I feel part of the worldwide Christian community’] (66 per cent) compared with those who scored less than average … 34 per cent …” (p84)

  • Some Churchless Christians were open to the possibility of becoming part of a recognised church congregation again. For Scotland as a whole, 1 in 7 Churchless Christians for whom faith was very important would have liked to attend, but were prevented from attending due to health issues. Others would be willing to try other expressions of church, were they available in their area. For those in this latter category,

“On the whole, these people would appreciate more informal expressions of church and, crucially, opportunities to ask questions and explore doubts. In the Highlands and Islands, for example, 8 per cent of all those who identified themselves as Christians but not church-goers said that they would welcome the opportunity ‘to join a small group of Christians who meet in homes and discuss faith and life together.'” (p34)

  • However, a majority of Churchless Christians are “contentedly non-congregational”. Some pointed to specific benefits. The second quotation below might be particularly surprising.

“One married couple described how their disengagement from church had led to a deepening of their relationship with one another and a deepening of their devotional life…” (p46)

“… research in Northern Scotland found that just under a third of non-congregational Christians agreed with the statement, ‘Not being involved in a traditional church congregation frees me to pursue what I believe is my Christian calling.'” (p34)

  • This next one might also be a surprise. Some of the Churchless Christians Dr. Aisthorpe interviewed had never been part of a church congregation – and of these, some had used their initiative to set up their own groups to explore faith.

“These were often men and women who had discovered the Christian faith either through an evangelistic course (e.g. Christianity Explored or Alpha) or through a visit to a Christian community (e.g. Iona, Taize), but had not engaged with a church congregation since. They spoke of the contrast they found between the lively, interactive and hospitable setting in which they had discovered the Christian faith and their experience of local congregations. In each case, these people have initiated or become part of a small informal group …” (p32)

Although one of the studies was designed to examine the differences between urban and rural areas, there was relatively little about this in the book and I think this is one of its biggest limitations. I would have really liked to see a chapter specifically on this subject. The options available church-wise in a small village and a major city can be very different, and even after reading through the book twice, I’m still not sure how much is more reflective of a rural/low-population density context.


A Few Personal Reflections

One of the challenges I’ve found in writing a blog this year has been taking my personal experiences and setting them into a wider context. It isn’t always easy to generalise, and where a subject is one I care a lot about, it is highly tempting to generalise too readily.

“Fitting in at church” is a subject I care about. As I’ve said elsewhere, I became a Christian at university some fifteen or so years ago. While I haven’t looked back since, I’ve often found it difficult to fit in at church; for a while in my late twenties I largely stopped attending on a Sunday, and even now (pandemic aside) I rarely attend every week – though I rarely miss a midweek homegroup. In short, from my own experience I know that you can indeed be a “churchless” Christian for a time. This isn’t to say this situation is ideal; only that, depending on personal circumstances, it can be a practical reality.

The book itself is largely positive about the faith of churchless Christians in Scotland, and I hope that in the previous section I’ve fairly reflected both this positive tone and some of the conclusions of the author. Bringing in the ideas in the previous two paragraphs now: reading Dr. Aisthorpe’s research, and finding it in sympathy with my own experiences, the temptation for me is to get a bit carried away and be over-excited about what the state of the “churchless Christian” population in Scotland, or by extrapolation the UK as a whole, might be like. This is a temptation the author recognises themselves, and at the end of a chapter critiquing stereotypes of Churchless Christians (e.g. that they are “backsliders” or “Christian in name only”), addresses as follows:

“One person who commented on a draft of this chapter taught me a new word in the process. He suggested that I might be in danger of ‘enantiodromia’…. the tendency to replace one thing with its opposite. In this case, his concern was that I might replace one set of stereotypes and prejudices with a romanticised or rose-tinted picture of those who leave church. He has a point. In attempting to simplify complex data, I am guilty of ‘generalising.’ However, the observations I have shared reflect the dominant themes and patterns.” (p54)

The overall impression I get is that, while the picture of Churchless Christians in Scotland is far from uniform, there really is more authentic Christian faith than might be anticipated.

Looking at the positive traits mentioned in the previous section which some Churchless Christians display – from willingness to meet together to learn, to using initiative in setting up informal groups, to concern for living out one’s calling in the world (including with a “mission” focus in some cases) – makes the separation from other Christians in local congregations all the more regrettable. The later chapters of the book go into the reasons that people disengage from church in detail. I thought about discussing some of them here, but I think this post is long enough. It’s a thought-provoking book that I enjoyed reading, and would particularly recommend to those interested in thinking about the current state of the church in the UK and “why it is as it is”.


Having read this book, I’m interested in whether it resonates with the situation in England, particularly in the South where I live – or for that matter elsewhere. I would be interested to hear any thoughts you have on the Churchless Christian “Scene”. I would also welcome any recommendations of books / research you might know of – can anyone point me in a helpful direction?

Until the next post!


Summary of Books and Links

The Invisible Church, Steve Aisthorpe, Saint Andrew Press, 2016.

Resourcing Mission – Mission Research Joint research by the Church of Scotland and partner organisations.

art, Bible Study, Culture, Digital, Uncategorized

Animating “Jonah”

In the autumn the church I attend decided to make a pre-recorded “program” for the children to watch with their parents on a Sunday morning. Recently, I was asked if I would like to contribute and produce some artwork to illustrate the story of Jonah. I like having an opportunity to use my skills, and jumped at the chance.

The story was told in three parts over successive Sundays, finishing last weekend. My contribution was a series of still images and short animations. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on these, and a couple of people have suggested that I do a write-up of the animation process in a blog post, so today I’ll do just that.


Telling the Story – Requirements

Before starting on illustrations, I had a virtual meeting with the church children’s worker to discuss what would be needed. They had adapted the narrative in the Bible into a script; I would do the artwork for the story, another person would record a voiceover, and a final person would edit the video and audio together and add sound effects. So overall four people were involved and it was a real team effort. (Referring to “another person” seems a bit cold and distant! I haven’t used their names on the blog to respect their privacy.)

To tell the story, quite a lot of animations were needed in total. Illustrating/animating is time-consuming, so there was a need to be efficient: to choose art and animation styles that were simple and quick to do, and where possible to re-use the same assets in multiple scenes.

The Sunday morning children’s program is aimed at younger children, with a typical age of something like 1-7 (though adults who’ve seen it have enjoyed it too!). I haven’t much experience of making things for this age group, so I had a think about what the requirements of this audience are and came up with the following:

  • Some of the children are really young, so the artwork needs to be simple to interpret: obvious, somewhat exaggerated facial expressions on characters; keep scenes visually free of clutter.
  • The artwork needs to be attractive to this audience: use bright, bold colours and simple shapes; use humour in animations.
  • Assume that it’s being watched by someone who can’t read: as far as possible tell the story using changes in colour (e.g. from red for bad, to blue for good), changes in shape (e.g. from spikey for bad/wicked/dangerous, to soft and rounded for good/friendly/wholesome), changes in facial expression and so on.

The Final Result

Here’s my contribution to the final result – i.e. the “animation” part, without the voiceover or sound effects. I’ve added in a text overlay to give a broad-brushstrokes description of what is going on in case the story is unfamiliar.

The animation is in a simple 2-D style, it’s bright and colourful, and hopefully the scenes are easy to understand.

Here’s how it was made.


The Technical Bit

I used three programs: Illustrator, Character Animator and After Effects. This diagram shows the basic workflow:

A simple flowchart showing the workflow I used for animating a scene of Jonah.

It looks a little complicated, but it’s really not too bad. I used Illustrator to make all the graphics – character models, props, scenery, and the sky – and Character Animator to animate the human characters (facial expressions, body movements and walking). I used After Effects to do the rest of the animating (waves moving in the sea, the motion of the boat, the worm eating a plant etc), to create special effects (e.g. bubbles coming out of Jonah’s mouth when he’s underwater), and to combine all the different bits together. I then added a bit of camera motion, such as moving the camera in for close-ups of Jonah’s facial expressions. And finally each scene was exported as a video file.

Here’s a bit more detail on two parts of the process: animating the character of Jonah, and putting a scene together.

1. The Character of Jonah

The character file that I made for Jonah in Illustrator shows him in three views: front on, left profile and right profile. The front view was used whenever he was standing still, and the left and right profiles were used when he was walking across the screen.

Illustrator works in layers. An image is built up by stacking layers on top of each other, starting with whatever is furthest back and moving forwards. So, as an example, the eye layers have to be on top of the head layer (or all you’d see is a scary eyeless head!) Bottom left below is an exploded view to show how this works. For each view, it was necessary to make a separate expression for every emotion that would be needed in the story. The six expressions needed for Jonah when front on are shown below top right.

Left profile, head on, and right profile.
On the left is the finished character. On the right the layers that make up the character have been separated out.
A range of expressions for Jonah. It’s amazing how much can be done just by changing the mouth shape and eyebrow angle!

When the designing was finished, I imported the Illustrator file into Character Animator. It is designed with characters like Jonah in mind, and the amount of set-up needed to turn artwork into something ready to animate is pretty small. The things that need to be specified are things like –

  • where the arms should connect to the body
  • how bendy the arms should be (wobbly cartoon arms anyone?)
  • which points should be fixed in place when the character is standing still (e.g. the feet)
  • setting up particular expressions to play when keys are pressed on the keyboard

Set-up complete, Character Animator automatically calculates a starting walk cycle from the character artwork. As the name suggests, a walk cycle is the series of movements that take place when someone walks – left leg up, left leg down, foot flat on ground, heel up, and so on. It saves a huge amount of time to use a program that creates a walk cycle for you. Once Jonah was moving, there was then a bit of back and forth between Illustrator and Character Animator to make everything look good, but this wasn’t too arduous.

The animating itself used a series of passes, each of which added something to the final result:

  • 1st pass – Overall positioning. Use the arrow keys on the keyboard to walk Jonah left and right, and walk on/off screen, or stop pressing keys to let him stand still.
  • 2nd pass – Eye gaze and head movement. Using a webcam, my head motion and eye movement were tracked and mapped onto Jonah’s head, upper body and eyes.
  • 3rd pass – Facial expressions. Key presses were logged to register changes in Jonah’s facial expression, to express his different moods.
  • 4th pass – Moving the hands/arms to give Jonah gestures like scratching his head, mopping his brow and leaning in a relaxed fashion.

Here’s a short scene showing this. Going from left to right each copy of Jonah has an extra pass included:

Animation build-up through passes.

(The facial expression for Jonah when he walks to the left is a “default” grumpy expression for Jonah when he’s walking.)

2. Putting a Scene Together

The background, scenery and props were made in Illustrator using a similar method to creating the artwork for Jonah, and then imported into After Effects. Just as artwork in Illustrator is built up in layers, a scene in After Effects is also built up in layers from background to foreground, with each object in the scene (the sky, a tree, a boat, a wave etc.) on a separate layer. Here’s an example of how a scene was constructed:

Some objects, such as the sky, or a beach, didn’t need to move. Others did, like the waves in the sea. I animated each of these separately using “keyframe animation”: I specified where where the object needed to be at key times, and allowed the computer to calculate a path for the object that took it between those key positions. For instance, for a wave, the keyframe information was along these lines: “Start here“; “Two seconds later be further right and up a bit“; “Two seconds after that be further right and down a bit“; “Two seconds after that be further right and up a bit“; and so on.

As well as position, all sorts of other things can be keyframed to produce different effects –

  • The height of an object can be changed to give it a squashed or stretched look. Keyframing a rapid series of stretches and squashes gives a cartoon “Boi-oing” effect. This was used on the signs that land near Jonah towards the start.
  • The colour and brightness of an object can be keyframed. This was used to change the appearance of the waves when the storm sets in.
  • The shape of an object can be distorted. This was used on the fish (whale) to flap its fins and tail, and open and close its mouth.
  • The transparency of a layer can be keyframed to give a “see-through” effect, or make something disappear. When Jonah is in the sea and has his head above water, the wave layer in the foreground is completely opaque. As he sinks, this layer becomes partially transparent so that we can “see” him underwater.
  • The scale of an entire scene can be keyframed, to give a zooming in/out effect. This was used for close-ups, such as seeing changes in Jonah’s facial expression, or the worm eating the bush.

With a combination of keyframed effects operating on screen simultaneously, the result can be quite an interesting, realistic scene.


That’s a Wrap

That’s a quick run-through of the 2-D animation process I used. I hope you found it interesting. If you have any questions, do leave them in the comments below.

Church culture, Culture, Life, Uncategorized

The length of time it takes to make friends

On Friday morning I came across an article on Business Insider . It was based on the results of a study called “How many hours does it take to make a friend?”, which looked into how long friendships at different levels of closeness take to form.

The “how” of making friends is something I’ve thought about a lot over the last ten years, so as soon as I read this article I knew what my next blog post would be about. I was excited to find some hard numbers to go with my musings on the subject.


So… how many hours does making a friend take?

The study mentioned mentioned at the start of this post, by Jeffrey A. Hall of the University of Kansas, looked at two groups of people: adult Americans who had moved to a new city in the US in the preceding six months; and students who had recently started their courses at a particular US university. By means of surveys, samples of the two groups were asked about friendships they had recently formed, and in the case of the students these friendships were then tracked over a short period of time. Inter-personal relationships were split into four categories: acquaintances, casual friends, friends, and good/close friends. The main things the study measured were the time, in hours, that people spent together, and what that time consisted of (working together or social occasions? activities or talking? talking about what?).

The study goes into things like differences between a student population and a general adult population, how to define different types of social activity, whether statements in surveys are likely to be under- or over-estimates, and so on. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m only really interested in a few of the results:

  • Timescales. Not all acquaintances turn into friends, but where this happens the study found:
    • to go from acquaintances to casual friends takes something like 40-60 hours spent together.
    • to go from acquaintances to friends takes between 60 hours over 3 weeks (students) to 160 hours over 3 months (general population) spent together. Because of the way statistics were collected, the value of 160 is likely to be an over-estimate; a kind of “average value” for making a friend is something like 80-100 hours spent together.*
    • to go from acquaintances to good/close friends takes something like 120 hours over 3 weeks (students) to 220 hours over 3 months (general population) spent together. The average value for making a good/best friend is estimated at over 200 hours for relationships that form over six or more weeks.*

[*These figures are totals, i.e. for students 120 hours spent together in 3 weeks could be enough to go all the way from acquaintances to good friends.]

  • How time is spent together matters. Simply spending time in the same place (e.g. for work or study) is not associated with closeness of friendships. Choosing to spend more time together socially is.
  • It matters what you talk about. In relationships that become closer, people spend time catching up and joking around – as well as talking about more deep and meaningful things. Time spent in small talk (e.g. about the weather) is negatively correlated with increasing friendship closeness.

The number of hours involved in making a friend is large. 100 hours spent together over 3 months might not sound much over that long a time period, but it is an average of about 8 hours a week!

This sounds to me still quite a high “social intensity” (average hours per week). Where social intensity is lower, I think it is reasonable that the total number hours taken for a friendship to form is likely to be higher. For what I want to talk about in the rest of the post this is the case, so I am going to take a round 50 for the number of hours to form a casual friend, and a round 100 for the number of hours to form a friend.


Putting these numbers to use

Here’s why I find having some numbers on this subject interesting: it gives a way to assess an activity and calculate a rough estimate of how long it might take to make a friend through it.

So, for example, pre-Covid I went to a social drawing evening once a month. Some of the same people were there each time – say 10 out of every 12 evenings – and I spent 2-3 hours there a time. This gives a total of about 10 x 2.5 = 25 hours per year spent with some of the members of the group. This is about half of the time needed to turn an acquaintance into a casual friend – the process might be underway, but isn’t complete. After going to the group for about a year, I think this would be a fair description of the “status” of my relationship to those people I know only through this group and with whom I get on reasonably well. Making casual friends from this activity might take about 2 years in total.

This approach obviously isn’t in any way precise, but only a kind of ball-park estimate. However, I think it’s a useful way of analysing social situations and thinking through how friendships might develop.


Musing about how this could be used to think about church

Those who follow my blog will know that I often write about church culture and Christianity. Here are a couple of suggestions about how the kind of estimates described above might come in useful.

How long does it to make a friend at church?

I’ve often heard talks that mention making church a welcoming place for new people. And rightly so! But I can’t remember anyone ever making an estimate of how long it takes to make a friend within a welcoming church. This might be quite a useful thing to know.

When it comes to friendship formation, the church meetings/services I’m used to occupy a kind of intermediate category, somewhere between working/studying and a fully social occasion: they are something adults choose to go to, but a meeting mostly involves interacting with either those leading the service (e.g. by listening to a talk/sermon) or God (e.g. through prayer), rather than directly interacting with the people you’re sat next to. So attending church with someone may be a positive influence on friendship formation, but few people will make friends through going to services alone.

What about after a meeting/service? Most churches have some kind of social coffee time. In my experience of UK churches, coffee time tends to be pretty similar from church to church, typically taking about 30-45 minutes. I find I usually talk to a few different groups of people each week, and it is rare that I talk to the same person several weeks in a row. And generally I tend to attend church 2 or 3 Sundays out of 4. So, taking some ballpark figures, I might speak to someone I naturally get on well with once (maybe twice) a month after a service, for about 15 minutes at a time. Over a year, this adds up to around 3-6 hours time spent together – much less than the average 40-60 hours needed to make an acquaintance into a casual friend. So, even where a church is welcoming and people are friendly, a bit of basic maths shows that it is quite difficult to make a new friend through Sunday mornings alone. (Even if one were to speak to the same person for half an hour every week, a realistic estimate is that it might take a couple of years to develop a casual friendship.)

Most churches encourage people to go to a mid-week home group of some kind as well as coming to church on a Sunday morning. Home groups tend to involve the same people week-to-week, happen once a week for a couple of hours, and are semi-social occasions (a mixture of Bible study & prayer, and eating, drinking & catching up). How good are they for forming friendships? Well, assuming one attends for fifty weeks of the year, after one year this adds up to about 100 hours spent together (50 weeks x 2 hours per week). Assuming that a group has someone you hit it off with, six months of a mid-week group may be enough to make a casual friend, and a year enough to make a friend.

When I think about the house groups I’ve gone to and the people I know only through them, I think these estimates are not unreasonable. However, there is considerable variation between mid-week groups in group composition, style and how often they meet. Also, their nature means that some people often find them much easier to socially navigate than others. And shift-based employment or parenting needs can lower the frequency with which it is possible to attend. So while some people may form friendships in less than a year, for others it might take longer.

What do I make of this?

Summing up, according to this analysis, through Sunday mornings and mid-week groups alone it might be possible to make a casual friend in less than a year, and possibly even a friend – though this could also take considerably longer. To make a close friend in a single year would require spending considerably longer together outside of these activities, either socially or through something done together like volunteering.

I think this is interesting. To me it’s a surprisingly long time. Even in a friendly church, attending every Sunday and meeting with the same home group every week, after a year one might only have made a few casual friends – and making friends and good friends could easily take a couple of years.

Here are five thoughts / observations / consequences that occur to me –

  • A couple of years is a long time to go without Christian friends nearby! For some groups of people, particularly those in their twenties and thirties, this problem can be exacerbated by the need to change location multiple times for study and employment. I’ve lived in four different places as an adult myself (I’m mid-thirties now), and because of the distances involved I’ve had to make new local Christian friends in each place – taking several years each time.
  • This is bound to have implications for things like mental health and spiritual formation. These implications need not all be negative. For example, someone who’s used to living as a Christian without friends locally might develop a faith that’s resilient and has a positive kind of independence (even when other people aren’t available, God really is still with you!) There may also be implications for how a church utilises the gifts and talents of the church body – without getting to know someone fairly well, it can be hard to get a realistic idea of both what they can do (strengths) and what their limitations are.
  • While I have focused more on making friends within church in this post, I think the same kind of rationale can be used to think about making friends outside of church. If making a friend in one year takes over hundred hours, this equates to spending an average of something like 2 hours a week together socially. This is actually quite a lot – an evening each week. For people who have long work days and commutes, and already have families, regularly making new friends might be quite difficult – let alone close friends.
  • The length of time it takes to make a friend, whether in church or without, is largely limited by how long people have available to spend together. Lots of things affect this, not least the structure of our society. Structural factors are things like it is common to work in a different town to where you live. There is nothing right or wrong with these things per se, but they have knock-on effects. So, for example, one consequence of the need to commute is that it places a limit on how much time is available for social activities, which affects how quickly friendships can form, which in turn can affect things like mental health. One thing that might come out of the current crisis is an assessment of the viability of an increase in remote working: could this help free up time spent commuting so that people can spend more time together socially?
  • The time it takes to make friends may have implications for church outreach. Church outreach is currently often based on an invitational model – invite people you know to come along! But if the timescale for making friends is too large, this kind of outreach might run into the problem that few people actually have someone new to invite.

What do you reckon? Is this way of analysing social situations useful? Can you think of any other consequences that the lengths of time it takes to make different types of friends might have? Do you know of any other simple estimates that can be used to analyse another aspect of society or church life? If so, do leave a comment, I’d be interested to hear about them.

Until the next post!

Culture, Life, Uncategorized

Measuring History: Change of Units, Change of Perspective

History is usually measured in years. But what if the passage of time is measured in a different way?

In this post I want to share a simple idea I found staggering when I first came across it. Instead of measuring history in years, what happens if it is measured in generations? On the surface it doesn’t sound like this will make much of a difference, but I found the result was a big surprise.


How long is a generation?

A generation is the time between someone being born and them going on to have children of their own.

In the UK in 2017, the average age of first-time mothers in the UK was 28.8, and the average age of women giving birth was a little over 30 (the second number is larger as it includes women having their second, third children etc.). The UK doesn’t keep statistics on the average age of first-time fathers, but the average age of the father of a newborn baby that year was 33.4. These numbers suggest at the present time a generation length of a little over thirty would be appropriate.

What about hundreds of years ago? The average ages in the last paragraph have all been going up for the last few decades due to changes in society, such as more women having careers in the workplace; an increase in university education leading to marriage and starting a family being delayed; and so on. So my initial thought was that a lower value for generation length would be appropriate in previous centuries – perhaps a value of 20 years.

I thought I would do a quick search on the internet to find out what values academic researchers use for generation length. This lead to an interesting article on the Ancestry website (if you don’t know it, Ancestry is a website that helps people find information on their ancestors and fill in their family tree). According to the article, several research projects by geneticists have found average generation lengths around the thirty mark for a range of cultures over recent centuries, with average male generation length a bit over thirty, and average female generation length a bit under thirty. The article also mentioned a study of a modern-day, stone-age-style tribe, which found figures of ~25 for women and ~35 for men: while the women started having children at a younger age than in the modern West, they kept having children for longer, so the average age at which women gave birth was still in their mid-twenties.


Putting history into generations

Overall, in most cultures an average generation length of 25-30 years seems appropriate.

What does history look like if considered in terms of generations rather than years? In the chart below, I’ve listed some important historical events, and given their dates and roughly how many generations back they occurred. There is one column for an average generation length of 30 years, and one for an unrealistically low value of 20 years (to show what kind of a difference a low value makes).

What I found amazing when I first came across this way of measuring is how few generations there are to get right back to ancient times. Henry VIII and the Reformation are only 17-20 generations back, The Battle of Hastings 32-40, and Jesus and the Romans 67-80. And the whole of recorded history fits into a petite 200-or-so.

To me, 2000 years sounds like a very long time, but 70 generations doesn’t sound like a lot. 2000 years gives the impression of slow, gradual change. But fitting everything that has happened since the time of the Romans into 70 generations makes each generation sound busy and jammed full of activity. Human history doesn’t sound that long at all.


What about trying a third unit of measurement – a “good old age”?

As far as I’m aware, no-one on my extended family tree has made it to the big 1-0-0, though some have come close. Life expectancy sky-rocketed over the twentieth century, but even today a figure of ninety-something is a good old age.

So what would we get if we were to measure the length of history in units of a modern “good old age”? Here’s what is to my mind an astonishing thought: someone who gets to the age of 90 has lived through and seen roughly one-sixtieth of the whole of recorded history. Wow. How crazy is that? One sixtieth! Recorded history is really not that long.


Final Thoughts

In a sense the units used to record time don’t matter. The same amount of time passes however it is counted. But I find that counting in generations or lifetimes gives a real sense of perspective. Historical people and events suddenly seem closer to the present, and more relevant to today.

Have you come across this before? If not, what do you think? Are there any other ways of measuring time that fascinate you? If so, do leave a comment below; I’d love to hear about them.