Free audiobooks!

11 May

Throughout the merrie month of May, my novelised biographies of St Patrick and Augustine of Hippo are available from Christian Audio for half price. That’s three hours of educational entertainment for $4.98 (which is about £3.68 in real money).

But better yet, if you take out a free trial membership (cancel within 30 days or you’ll be charged for the following month – you know the drill), you can get them for FREE! If there’s one thing better than a good book, it’s a free good book.

You can also give them as gifts apparently, although I’ve never done that, so I don’t know how it works. Worth investigating if you have a tween/teen/person who’s interested in late Roman, Irish, North African or church history on your birthday present list.

Happy listening!

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Europe’s Forgotten Hero

25 Apr

Statue of Skanderbeg in Tirana

I’ve got an article in the May edition of History Today magazine. This is exciting because it’s a new ‘market’ for me, but also because the article is about Skanderbeg – someone I think more people should have heard of.

It’s easy to assume that Albania’s national hero, a medieval warlord, was always an obscure figure. Albania is a small country, after all, and has often being under foreign domination to boot. The genesis of this article came about when I visited the National History Museum in Tirana and saw a display of old books about Skanderbeg – not in Albanian, but in Italian, German, English, French… Clearly, there had been a time when Skanderbeg (or Skenderbeu in Albanian) was a lot better known. So, years later, when I found out 2018 was the ‘Year of Skanderbeg’, I finally looked into it, and wrote the article.

If you’re interested in Skanderbeg, and want to know about the sources I used, use the ‘Get in touch’ form on the right. Otherwise, simply rush out and buy the magazine. It will be in shops shortly, if it’s not already, and it’s the edition with the bright blue cover and a picture of a very creepy looking mermaid with oversized ears. You can also read the article online.

I’ve got a couple of articles coming up in Christianity Magazine, too, so I’ll blog about them in due course. In the meantime, I need to get on with the work in progress, The Sarcophagus Scroll, which is getting tantalisingly close to the magic 50,000 words at which you can indisputably call it a novel. Better not leave it at 50,000 words, though, since we still don’t know whodunnit or why 😉

 

Read an Ebook Week 2018

5 Mar

March 4th to 10th is Read an Ebook Week, so all my ebooks are free on Smashwords.

The books included are:

That doesn’t include Patrick of Ireland: The Boy Who Forgave or Augustine: The Truth Seeker because they are from a different publisher – but if you really want them, you can probably stretch to six quid, right? If not, petition your local library to stock them, if it doesn’t already.

See Paris and Diet

1 Mar

The other weekend, hubbie and I went to Paris for the first time, to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Paris in the springtime is supposed to be very romantic. Of course, we are still in the Never Ending Winter® so it wasn’t really like that, but despite the gloves and big coats, we had a good time. Here are a collection of impressions and musings about Paris, for you to be enlightened by or disagree with, interspersed with random photos of Paris Metro signs, because I just really liked them. (My husband didn’t. In one of the photos you can see him hiding his face in embarrassment at my touristy snapping.)

You can get surprisingly far with schoolgirl French

In fact, I topped up my half-forgotten French with a quick Memrise course, but even so, I was astonished how much of it I was able to use. I had heard that people in Paris just take one sniffy look at you trying to speak French and then reply in English, and there were a couple of those, but mostly people were perfectly happy, even pleased, that I was trying to speak their language. And at least two people we dealt with didn’t actually speak English. Yes, even in Paris.

Paris is not as lovely as I had hoped

Probably most of the top tourist destinations are over-hyped (except Rome – Rome is amazing), but it was still a bit of a disappointment to find at the end of the trip that I didn’t really like Paris. I was disappointed in the city and also kind of disappointed in myself because I really wanted to like it. But…

  • it was pretty dirty and smelly;
  • lots of people were rude and pushy – literally, in the context of public transport;
  • waiting staff take your drinks when you’re not finished. Just because I’ve asked for the wine list, that doesn’t mean I’ve finished with my champagne. It’s called planning;
  • waiting staff make you move seats for no reason at all. Seriously, in an empty cafe they will come up and tell you that you must move one chair to the left, or you must sit facing your date instead of beside him. In one case my coffee ended up all over the floor because of an unnecessary move and I was fumingIf I’m in Paris again and asked to move, I may just say ‘non’ and see what they do about it.

It’s not all waiters, waitresses and shop staff who are condescending and pushy, but enough to leave a bad taste in the mouth. I should say, though, that most of the time we received decent, friendly service. Just keep a firm hold on your drink.

The food was amazing

Whatever we may have disliked about the weekend, the food was definitely the bit we liked best. From a seriously stuffed bagel, eaten at a grubby outdoor table, to a cosy little restaurant (Un Air de Famille – strongly recommended), to the various chocolate shops peppered around central Paris, we scoffed with abandon. The coffee was also uniformly good. I discovered that the way I take my coffee (with a splash of milk) is called noisette  in Paris (maybe the rest of France too), which saved time. The length of the coffee varied from barely more than espresso to proper coffee-cupful, but the quality was unfailing. A place with good coffee and good food can’t be all bad 🙂

But now I’m back in Glasgow, where we’re no slouch at metro signs ourselves (okay, it’s the subway, but you know what I mean), so here’s a lovely picture of Cessnock Underground. And my husband thinks I’m weird…

Cessnock Underground Station

Three little-known signs of dyslexia

2 Feb

Here’s my latest piece for the Dyslexia Scotland blog, about the signs of dyslexia you might not be aware of.

A Life less ordinary

child-daydreaming

When I was in primary school, my new teacher asked everyone in the class to tell him something they thought he should know about them. I remember that I wrote something along the lines of, “If I’m staring into space, don’t stop me – I’m thinking up stories or imagining.” That’s not very surprising for someone who went on to be an author, but I didn’t realise at the time that it was probably a sign of dyslexia, too. I wasn’t identified for many years after that, but a tendency to daydream or ‘zone out’ is more common for dyslexics. Often, we don’t even realise we’re doing it, and can completely lose track of time!

There are other things that can be signs of dyslexia that people wouldn’t normally think of. Most people know that dyslexia affects reading and writing, but there are signs that have nothing to do with…

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Love Your Local Library

1 Feb

Library books

This is less a blog post, more a public service announcement – or at least, a readers’ and writers’ service announcement. I’m sure most writers will know* about the Public Lending Right (PLR), but I get the impression that a lot of readers don’t. Some people perhaps feel guilty if they borrow a book from the library instead of buying it, even if, like me, buying all the books you read in a year would consume most of your annual income.

You can stop feeling guilty! Writers get paid when you borrow their books from libraries. Now, there are a list of exceptions and exclusions (you have to register; it’s only in some countries; private libraries don’t count; you have to reach a threshold; there’s a cap on how much you can get) but I don’t want to go into them and obscure the major point: writers get paid when you borrow their books from libraries!

The Public Lending Right Act came into force in 1979, after a lot of lobbying by writers’ groups, securing a small payment each time a copy of an author’s book is borrowed. Fair enough, it’s not much. In fact, I think it’s about 7p per loan at the moment. But every little helps when you’re a starving artist, and it’s not as if royalties from sales are particularly high either.

So please, stop feeling guilty if you get your fix at the library rather than the bookshop. You are supporting the writer. (If you’d like to support a writer who’s not stocked by your local library, you can request that the library get their books in.) And please, please, keep using libraries and borrowing books. Not only are you making it more likely libraries will stay open to benefit future generations of readers, you’re also helping authors like me. 😃

(Feel free to share this with fellow bibliophiles.)

*If you’re a published author and you don’t know about the scheme, here’s some information on how to register for PLR payments.

The Scandalous Mothers of the Messiah

19 Dec

It’s Christmas time (just about) so for your delectation, ladies and gentlemen, here is a little essay I composed about Jesus’ genealogy. (No yawning at the back!) It was inspired by something in Companions on the Bethlehem Road, a book of meditations and poetry that I read every Advent. The author, Rachel Boulding, mentioned that all of the women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy were gentiles, which is quite striking, but when you look into it further, their stories were more scandalous than striking.

I originally wrote this piece for the Dangerous Woman series, which had published my piece on Arsinoe (Cleopatra’s sister), but they decided against this one – possibly because I sent it much too close to Christmas. But when you’ve got your own blog, you don’t need any notice at all to get a post up in time for Christmas.

Given the frequency with which I post, I imagine this will be my last post for the year. So merry Christmas, and have a great 2018 when it comes!

Scandalous Mothers of the Messiah

Rahab and the Spies

The very first words of the New Testament are “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The verses that follow give a list of Jesus’ ancestors going back over a thousand years. You may have heard them recited if you have ever attended a traditional Christmas service – “Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob” and so on, until it’s time for the next carol.

These days, genealogy is a hot topic, with celebrities and ordinary people keen to find out about the long-forgotten ancestors that made them who they are today. However, unless you’re a real fan, you could be forgiven for simply letting the names in Matthew chapter one wash over you as you wait for the ‘real’ story. But there is a story within the genealogy, and it has to do with the five women who are named alongside the 41 generations of men.

Women don’t usually appear in Jewish genealogies; they are lists of fathers and sons. (Have a look at Ezra chapter seven in the Old Testament, for example.) So who are Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, Ruth and Mary, and what are they doing in this patrilineal list? The answer reveals that bold women crop up in the most unexpected of places, even in candlelit carol services.

Let’s start with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her story is well known, and acted out by five-year-olds each year: a simple girl who graciously accepted her part in God’s plan to save the world. Young, humble and virginal, she seems like a threat to no one. And yet, her decision took enormous courage. Jewish law said that if a girl was engaged to be married but was found not to be a virgin (and most people would take pregnancy as proof of that), she should be stoned to death. If Joseph had not accepted her child as his own, Mary faced not only shame, but possibly death. Her decision was dangerous – and world-changing.

Then there is Ruth, a foreigner who loved her Hebrew mother-in-law so much that she followed her back to Israel after they were both widowed. Hard-working and faithful, she seems like the perfect moral exemplar to feature in a list of the Messiah’s ancestors – until you look a little more closely at the story of her second marriage.

Ruth put on perfume and her best clothes, and crept into a room full of men in the middle of the night to propose marriage to one of them, slipping away home before first light. There’s nothing strictly wrong with any of that but, as in the case of Mary, it certainly looks bad. Ruth was already an outsider because of her ethnic origin, but she risked her reputation in the town that had become her home in order to provide a future not only for herself, but for the mother-in-law she loved. Once again, if her husband-to-be had been less honourable, things could have ended badly.

But this list isn’t about honourable men protecting women who take risks. Bathsheba earns her place because of King David’s far-from-honourable behaviour. Her name isn’t given in the list. The text says, “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife”, but that brief account glosses over the fact that David and Bathsheba had already had a child together, conceived while Bathsheba still was Uriah’s wife.

It’s debatable how much choice Bathsheba had in the matter – if a woman is summoned by a libidinous king, and doesn’t want to have an affair, who can she appeal to? But however that meeting went, there’s no question that David committed adultery with Bathsheba (again, a capital offence) and then had Bathsheba’s husband killed to cover it up. None of this is mentioned in the genealogy, but Matthew’s original Jewish readers would have known all about it.

They would have known, too, about Rahab – or ‘Rahab the harlot’ as she is traditionally known. She also seems to have had a business producing cloth out of flax, but that’s not the profession she is remembered for. So much of ancient history is just hints and guesses, and we don’t know whether prostitution was acceptable in her society, or if she would have been an outcast, but of course it was not at all acceptable for women in Jewish culture.

She enters the story of Jesus’ genealogy because she took in the Hebrew men who came to spy on Jericho before attacking it; hers was a house where, naturally, strange men coming and going wouldn’t have raised suspicions. She then transferred her allegiance to the invaders, believing that God, and history, were on their side. She hid the two spies from the authorities, presumably at the risk of her own life, and bargained with them for the safety of her family. She then married a husband from the conquering Hebrew tribes (quite possibly one of the men she had protected) and became an ancestor of Jesus.

Tamar was also caught in prostitution, although the circumstances were very different. She had been married to two brothers, one after the other, but was still childless upon their deaths. Her father-in-law, Judah (the brother of Joseph, he of technicoloured dreamcoat fame) still had a third son. According to custom the remaining son should have married Tamar once he reached an appropriate age, but years went by and it was clear that Judah did not intend to give his final son to Tamar.

So Tamar took matters into her own hands. Disguising herself as a veiled prostitute, she waited on a road she knew her father-in-law would take, and he partook of her services. The ‘shrine prostitute’ kept Judah’s personal seal as a guarantee that he would send payment, but when he kept his promise, he was told there was no shrine prostitute in the area. Tamar fell pregnant and Judah, with breath-taking double standards, ordered her to be killed; but when she produced her sexual partner’s personal seal, he was forced to admit, “she is more righteous than I.” So Tamar was left to live in peace as a single mother.

What is the purpose of including these five names, attached to stories that range from the unseemly to the utterly scandalous, in a list of the ancestors of Jesus? Plenty of scholars have commented on the fact that all these women (with the exception of Mary) were gentiles – non-Jews. They emphasise the fact that the Messiah came for the sake of the whole world, since gentiles were even included in his lineage. But it’s more than that; other men on the list married foreign wives. These women are not merely included as foreigners, but also as women, and as individuals.

These are women who took risks. They are women who, by choice or by compulsion, found themselves outside the bounds of societal acceptance, but did not quail. Their place at the very start of the Christmas story challenges the sanitised, nativity-play version of the incarnation. Instead, these women point to a Messiah who would not turn away from the unacceptable, the foreign and flawed, the sinned-against and the most scandalous sinners; because these women are who he came from – but they are also who he came for.

The Great Hippopotamus Invasion of 1840

20 Nov

or
Who Wrote the Gospels, and Why?

 

I was inspired to write this post by a brief exchange on Twitter. As a platform it can be very positive and funny, and it’s stuffed full of writers encouraging and commiserating with each other, but it’s not always like that. There are also people (or bots) who are angry, nasty or crazy. But enough about Donald Trump…

Apropos of the Greggs sausage roll controversy, there was a wee discussion of the historicity of Jesus, and someone commented that he isn’t mentioned in any Roman sources. That’s not true, of course, so, thinking I would simply be offering an interesting bit of factual knowledge, I pointed out a couple of Roman sources that do mention Jesus. The reply came back that these sources (one of them the major source for early imperial Rome) were obviously “fakes”.

There’s no point in trying to have a rational discussion about ancient history with someone who thinks ancient history is falsified, so I just let that one drop. But what surprises me is the number of non-conspiracy theorists who don’t believe that Jesus existed. We have four biographies (that’s the Gospels, to you) ostensibly written by eyewitnesses or based on eyewitness testimony, lots of mentions in letters by Christians from the mid-first century onwards, plus a smattering of mentions in Roman sources.

Of course, you could argue that these are all fakes, that they were either written much later and presented as contemporary sources, or that extra bits were slipped into Roman sources by naughty medieval scribes. I’m not going to get into the historiographical arguments about whether the sources are reliable or contemporary, or this post would end up being the length of a book, and plenty of good books have already been written on the subject. (You could try The Case for Christ, for example. The author has a bit of an obsession with what his interview subjects are wearing, but otherwise it’s pretty good.)

No, what I want to rant (sorry, write) about is the logical side of things. During my degree in Ancient History I also studied a lot of Philosophy, which means that I tend to find myself questioning whether arguments are sound, and the argument that the Gospels were forged centuries later strikes me as very circular.

The theory goes that Christians forged these “eyewitness” documents in (let’s say) the third century AD. (You can’t really push it any later than that without running into far too many references to Christianity, including the Roman Emperor becoming a Christian.) Gullible people believed them, and a religion was born, despite the fact that Jesus may never have lived. The question is, why would someone make up not only hugely detailed stories about a shadowy figure they knew nothing about, and be prepared to be punished for following their new religion, but also claim that there were thousands of other followers of this brand spanking new religion all around the Mediterranean, where their forgeries would be read? What possible motive could they have to do something so rash?

The answer is “because they were Christians, of course”. But that doesn’t help. If Christians are people who believe that Jesus Christ is God, and died to save mankind from their sins, then these forgers are, by definition, not Christians. They are the opposite – people who know for a fact that the claims of Christianity are not true, because they made them up.

So why would they do it? For the fame? Hardly; if the Gospels weren’t written by the people whose names were on them, then we still don’t know who wrote them. For the money? Nope – these documents were spread around like the common cold, not sold to the highest bidder. For larks? Well only if your larks include living a strict moral life and potentially being thrown to the lions (or at least duping other people into doing those things).

Let’s make up an analogous fictional situation. In philosophy this is called a thought experiment. It’s less exciting than a scientific experiment, but it’s also cheaper, and there’s a lower risk of explosion.

Let’s say that I set out today to fake eyewitness accounts of the Great Hippopotamus Invasion of 1840. I’ve decided to fabricate eyewitness accounts of the time that 5,000 talking hippoptami invaded Birmingham and denuded the city’s ponds of all their carp. The king was summoned from London and managed to save the city by promising an offering of carp every week to the hippo overlords.* I’m going to say that thousands of people now observe the weekly carp-sacrificing ceremony. I’d probably have to get a couple of friends on board too, to write other “eyewitness” accounts, unless I was extremely skilled at mimicking different writing styles.

But I’m not going to do that, am I? Because that would be daft. I have no reason to invent the Great Hippo Invasion, and, once the RSPCA and Birmingham City Council get involved, plenty of reason not to. I don’t think I could persuade any of my friends to join in either – maybe if it was a fun hoax and there would be a big reveal, but not in order to get generations of people to devote their lives to appeasing talking river horses by killing ornamental fish. And no one would believe it. I mean, do you believe it?**

According to the theory about the faked Gospels, my motive would be that I and my friends are hippoptamists, these deluded fools who go around sacrificing carp. But there aren’t any hippopotamists. Have you ever met one? No, because I just made them up. But that’s presented as a real motive for why Christians would want to invent accounts of Jesus’ life.

Now, if you still wanted to stick to the line that the Gospels were faked, you could argue that the (let’s say) third century authors who wrote them were Christians, and were trying to provide (fake) written evidence for things they’d only heard orally, but believed. That makes more sense, but then you’re accepting that there was a surviving oral tradition about the life of Jesus passed down in an existing Christian community – which still constitutes historical evidence for Jesus. And then you’re back to the same basic problem – how do fake (oral) accounts about Jesus arise without a Jesus for them to be based on? – just pushed back a bit closer to the time, so it would be even harder for false stories to be believed, even if anyone had a motive to make them up, which they didn’t.

I’m not presenting Anselm’s Proof here, and I’m not even going to go into the question of the miracles and Jesus’ divinity (again, that would turn into a book). I’m just trying to show that dismissing the existence of a well-attested historical figure on the basis of the argument:

Christians invented Christianity because they were Christians

is silly. So please don’t.

***

*Yes, it was a queen and not a king on the throne in 1840. But why bother about historical accuracy when you’re inventing 5,000 talking hippos?

** If I set up a Wikipedia page about it I suppose a few people might believe it. But then, some people believe that Finland is a Japanese conspiracy, apparently.

Church ministers? Bunch of slackers! 

18 Oct

I’ve just done a blog post for Premier Christianity about why church ministers have the easiest job in the world. Before you start fuming, I should say that it’s not an entirely serious argument, to put it mildly.

It was commissioned because it’s Thank Your Vicar Week. So if you have a vicar (/pastor/minister) why don’t you give the article a read and then maybe send them a nice email? Although I can’t promise they will have time to read it.

Olympia Fulvia Morata, the Genius You’ve Never Heard Of

2 Oct

Normally I’m not too insistent about telling people they must read my stuff. I mention it, of course, and if I think an individual will particularly enjoy something I’ll direct them towards it, but I don’t like to be pushy. (I still expect my mum to read every word of mine that’s ever published, but that’s her job.)

With my latest article for Premier Christianity magazine, it’s different. This time, I’m telling all and sundry that they should read it – including you. It’s not because I think it’s an earth-shattering piece of literature; it’s because the subject of it is so shamefully forgotten. The article is on the Women of the Reformation.

This Hallowe’en marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses, which catalysed the Protestant Reformation, and naturally Christianity magazine is focussing on that. As part of that they asked me to write an article either on Reformers you’ve never heard of, or women of the Reformation. I thought the former would be easier – after all, there weren’t any women involved in the Reformation, were there, apart from Martin Luther’s wife? But I did a little research and was stunned to learn that there were loads – writers and theologians, patrons and publishers, incredible women whom I had never heard of.

The one who really blew me away was Olympia Fulvia Morata. She was a child prodigy from Ferrara in Italy. By the age of twelve she was fluent in Greek and Latin. She composed treatises on Homer, lectured on Cicero, wrote poetry in Latin and Greek, all while still in her teens. Here’s one of her early poems, about her love of learning:

I, a woman, have dropped the symbols of my sex,
Yarn, shuttle, basket, thread.
I love but the flowered Parnassus with the choirs of joy.
Other women seek after what they choose.
These only are my pride and delight.

When she grew up, Olympia (or Olimpia, if you prefer – it doesn’t really matter) organised the translation of major Protestant works into Italian; corresponded with major reformers such as Calvin and Luther, and even with royalty; taught Classics; and in her spare time translated the Psalms into Greek hexameters. And she died at 29. Feeling inadequate yet?

Naturally I would warm to Olympia, with my own background in Classics, but why haven’t I heard of her until now? Why has no one else heard of her? And it’s not just Olympia, there were other influential women that I should have heard of too, but hadn’t. My article covers Olympia Fulvia Morata, Katharina von Bora (Luther’s wife) and Katharina Schutz Zell, because I was limited to three, but there are others too. Leaving out Argula von Grumbach, for example, was a difficult decision.

These women weren’t ignored in their day; they were mentioned in Luther’s writings, sometimes in glowing terms, and they were an integral part of Reformation culture in Europe. Olympia’s works were in print throughout the sixteenth century. But at some point they were quietly forgotten. Now you don’t even find these women in the index of most books on the Reformation; they don’t even make it into the footnotes!

I consider myself a feminist, a word that I feel I should quickly qualify since it means vastly different things to different people. Some readers are probably now picturing me as a man-hating SJW waving a placard about abortion rights, but my understanding of feminism is simply that women are people too; being a woman is not a failure to be a man. This is a fairly uncontroversial claim (and one that’s eminently compatible with Christian faith) although sadly it’s still not universal. (I’m not going to mention any major figures in public life, but you probably don’t have to think too hard.) And it’s this belief that left me so scandalised about the forgotten women of the Reformation, and so uncharacteristically forthright about telling people to read my latest article.

Everyone has heard of Erasmus (or at least the Erasmus student exchange programme, named after him), an intellectual who fruitfully combined classical scholarship with theology. I think everyone should have heard of Olympia Fulvia Morata too, who did the same thing, only younger. She has entered the small pantheon of my personal heroes, and I hope she finds a soft spot in the hearts of some of my readers, too.

My article, ‘Unsung Heroes, is behind a paywall online, but if you’re not a subscriber you can order a free trial copy of the magazine, or get it in Christian bookshops.

Olympia Fulvia Morata, my new hero.