On faith, motherhood, and overwhelm

When I was 21, I had a ‘Damascus Road’ moment during which I became a Christian during my year abroad. I was so enthused by the freedom I had found in Christ that I shouted it loud to anyone who would stop to listen for a good few years after. I stood up in front of hundreds of students and shared how God had called me home at a Christian Union mission event in 2009, and sang a version of Amazing Grace with a friend that my brother had arranged (he even accompanied us on the piano). In 2010 I was asked to share my story with dozens of teenagers at a CYFA youth venture. More recently I filmed my testimony a few years ago for the youth group I helped to lead, and shared that video on Facebook, and I re-share it every so often when it comes up in my Facebook memories. I have always sought to be real and honest when people ask me about my faith, even when that exposes less than favourable aspects of my character and is frankly embarrassing. But over the last few years I have realized that the story of my faith did not ‘end’ with that sudden realization that knowing Jesus had always been my deepest need and desire, amazing though that period in my life was when he removed the burden of sin from my shoulders. When people have asked me why I am a Christian, I have found it hard to talk about the ‘life after’, because I am still in it, and still making sense of it.

Five and a half years ago, I became a mother. This is a time of inordinate change for any person. While it is undoubtedly a blessing, it causes you to re-examine everything you had ever held to be true as you discern how you wish to raise your child in the world we live in. It can lead to a re-emergence of past hurts from your own upbringing and childhood, isolation and loneliness as you adjust to a new life where you have zero autonomy, and a readjustment of close relationships that had settled in recent years. For me, it also coincided with a period in time when many millennials were waking up to the realization that we had taken prosperity, democracy and peace for granted. Our parents had lived through the Cold War, but the privileged and educated members of my generation emerged into consciousness as the world seemed to settle down, at least in Europe. The great Enlightenment dream of an inevitable march towards utopia seemed to have come true, and I think most of us fell for it hook, line and sinker. The rise of global right wing populism has put a stop to that for many of us, and we find ourselves in crisis. How has this happened so quickly? How were we so blind to all the issues that caused it? Brexit is symptomatic of this trend, and has hit me personally very hard for all sorts of reasons. But it is the way we are trashing the planet that has been an accompanying undercurrent of my depression over the last few years. In 2014, the same year my daughter was born, I read a Tearfund special report which set out in no uncertain terms how drastically awful the situation was. I burned with shame that I hadn’t taken it seriously prior to then. I vowed to do everything in my power to be a good steward over God’s creation.

But motherhood didn’t afford me much time or headspace to do that, despite my best efforts at using cloth nappies and switching to reusable menstrual products and so on. With my new little person had come an inability to find joy in anything, not because she wasn’t joyful or things weren’t still good in some aspects of my life, but because everything just hurt more. Life matters so much more when you are responsible for someone. I became aware of the manifold ways we – especially Christians! – hurt each other even when we have no intention of causing hurt. I was grateful for my healthy, happy (though very intense) baby, but how could I be happy when so many other people lost babies or had babies who had life threatening illnesses? I was grateful that we lived in comfort and peace, but I knew that millions didn’t, and I felt helpless to do anything about it. We went on a cruise holiday and all I could think of was the fact that people were drowning in the Mediterranean while we were sailing around in luxury. Through the ‘natural parenting’ movement I understood the damage of cultural appropriation, and I became very conscious of my own role in upholding the systematic oppression of marginalized people, and felt constantly that I wasn’t doing enough to counter it with the privilege I had. I learnt that these ‘white tears’ (Google the term if you don’t know it) are very common for people when they are woken up to their own privilege, and felt guilty given that I enjoyed innumerable advantages in life based on my skin colour, my education, my religion and so on, but I couldn’t stop centring myself and my own experience and felt so powerless to facilitate change in myself, let alone challenge and call out others.

I was also completely exhausted and constantly sleep deprived. It didn’t help that I received so much unsolicited advice from all sorts of people, Christians included, about what I was doing wrong. (I know now that I was doing nothing wrong, but it took me a long time and many years to gain the confidence to know that, when it comes to children’s sleep, I have not made my own mess. Some kids just wake frequently and need lots of night time reassurance. The end.) It hurt somehow that Christians could come to such different conclusions about how best to parent, based on the same belief in the character of God. In spite of a number of supportive friends (thank you!), I grew tired of being told by the great majority that I needed to abandon my daughter to scream herself to sleep if I wanted to be less exhausted, a mantra which was by no means limited to fellow Christians, and alas is pretty pervasive in our culture. Despite the supportive voices I surrounded myself with, it resulted in me not feeling able to tell people how I really was, firstly because it was such old news, and secondly because on very low days I couldn’t face the possibility of a flippant comment about what I needed to do to fix my daughter’s sleep.

Anyone who has experienced chronic sleep deprivation will know that it can drive you to the brink of insanity. I went to dark places that I really don’t feel the need to share here. My anxiety skyrocketed, particularly with regards to my health, which was consistently compromised by poor sleep. I also struggled hugely with trying to fit a PhD into the mess of it all. It is extremely hard to bully your brain into any kind of academic work off apocalyptically awful sleep. At the time, I worked at weekends while my husband looked after our daughter, though she often couldn’t cope with the separation from me when she was under 2 and I frequently had to abandon my work. We could have just about afforded to send her to (part time) childcare, but she was the kind of small child who never stopped crying when I left. It felt deeply wrong to push her into something that she was too small to cope with, given that we didn’t have to, and it was hard to trust my gut despite almost the entirety of the world telling me she would be fine. So we bumbled on as a small family, not really having any time together, and feeling stretched and pressured from all sides. Although I struggled, I felt mostly carried by God and despite not understanding why I seemed to cope so much less well with the journey through motherhood than others around me, I trusted him enough that this was a season and it would pass.

When I fell pregnant with my son in 2016, things reached a new low. In conjunction with my daughter’s night time wakefulness, I also had terrible pregnancy insomnia. I lived off a few hours’ interrupted sleep every night for months. I sobbed into my pillow without fail for hours. My daughter, a highly articulate and intense child who is always ‘on’, found the pregnancy very hard. Although she can hardly believe it now, at the time she frequently became violent towards me. I found it very hard to control my emotions, particularly at bed time, as she always took hours of intensive parenting to fall asleep (she still does, but she reads to herself for an hour or so now before she needs us). The Brexit referendum fell into this turbulent period. I abandoned the NHS mental health support I was offered after I was told simply to practise mindfulness and keep a mood diary (it didn’t help, and in any case I found mindfulness to be problematic on all sorts of levels). I knew I would benefit from therapy but did not have the time or funds to facilitate it at that stage. I had been depressed in my previous pregnancy and expected it second time round, which helped, but the difference was that this time I felt very distant from God. I would try to focus on the sacramental aspect of pregnancy and motherhood: this, for me, was the way of the cross – this is my body, broken for you – and it helped make sense of it all somewhat. But I was feeling increasingly like God wasn’t listening. And I was pretty rageful at him. For a start, he had NO idea what motherhood was like, having come as a man! People bleated on about how Jesus knew our suffering, but it seemed to me that he suffered for about one day, not the years and years I had been through. And, while I was at it, I raged about how the whole bloody Bible was written by a load of old men who really (it seemed to me) had no idea about women’s issues. You see, I am not one of those Christians who thinks that my ‘role’ should (necessarily) be in the home, and yet I had no idea what path I was supposed to take in life when it came to juggling motherhood with paid employment. I would frequently scream ‘f*ck the patriarchy!’ into my pillow at the injustice that no one tells men that they ‘can’t have it all’, there is next to no culture of men working part time to take on unpaid caring roles in the home which would vastly ameliorate the pressures on women, and no one asks or cares even how many children men have (Boris Johnson anyone? No one actually knows…)

I had a dose of happy hormones when my son was born that made me hope that things would improve. Alas, his sleep was as poor as his sister’s, though in a different way. He woke every hour for four months, and every couple of hours till he was about 2. My daughter still didn’t sleep through and found his arrival troubling and perplexing, which is common, but as she is ‘more’ she reacted in ways which were, well, ‘more’. My husband was packed off to the spare room and I ‘slept’ (haha!) for the best part of the first year of my son’s life with one either side of me in our big bed. The biggest challenge with my son, who was a calm and relatively straightforward baby, given that I could put him down without him screaming, and he only nursed for five minutes every hour or so, was that he was (still is!) an early riser. My daughter is a night owl and would command every iota of my attention and existence 24/7. She would finally fall asleep by 9.30pm or so, and then they would both wake me up all night until my son woke for the day at 5am. Not being pregnant meant I had some physical energy back, but with one either side of me in the bed, the chronic sleep deprivation, and associated dark places, continued.

Life since my son’s birth passed by in even more of a blur than it did before he was born. I recognized dully that some people seem to enjoy parenting tinies immensely, and I, alas, was not one of them. But I started to lose hope that I would ever enjoy motherhood or see it as anything other than an immovable chain around my neck, and I couldn’t stop myself from focusing on all the ways in which motherhood constrained my life, rather than seeing the many benefits and joys. Despite having agreed with my husband that we were a team and would split family life with me primarily caring and him primarily earning, I felt a lot of stigma being ‘just a mum’, particularly around the time I was finishing my PhD and I was trying to work out what I could ‘do next’, even though I knew I couldn’t possibly add another string to my already breaking bow. I felt (and I still feel) that I have other areas of my life apart from childrearing that I would like to prioritize, but my husband’s well paid but very busy and intense job meant that anything I did employment-wise would have to fit in around the children. Rather than focusing on the amazing privilege I had of not having to earn money and having the option of being available for my children all the time, I felt resentful that financially it didn’t work in our set up to split the child care and employment between us more equally. And then I felt guilty for not being grateful for what we had. Even though I recognized I was doing it, I couldn’t stop myself building my identity into my place in society, and felt shunned from all sides – a common feeling for women. And, as we grew more despairing of the Brexit chaos, my husband and I looked seriously at relocating to Germany, a long-held dream of mine that pre-dated the Brexit referendum. He took a German course with the hope of brushing up on his old skills and I tried to find a route that would enable us to earn enough over there to support our growing family. It came as a major setback when we realized that – for various reasons – it wasn’t going to work.

God was depressingly absent. There would be days when my mood was fine, and days when the darkness would consume me, often tied in to my exhaustion levels and overwhelm about the world around me. When God had called me home when I was 21, I had been mired in I think now typical coming-of-age issues at a very formative time in my life. That’s not to play down what happened, because those issues were very real to me then. But they were totally individualistic. God saved me from my own sin and my own despair at the state of my sorry self. But now – now the stakes were so much higher. This was not really about me anymore. All of this was so much bigger. It was about our children’s future. It was about society. It was about the manifold ways sin is entrenched in every aspect of life. And, when I read a report about how unlikely it is that we will survive as a species beyond 2050 unless we reduce climate change to safe levels in the next ten years (which means putting things in place by the end of 2020), I realized it is about our very existence.

Where was God? Here I was, a professing Christian who knew very well from an academic perspective that we have an eternal hope and blah blah blah. But I didn’t feel any of it. I was despairing, even though (I thought) Christians should never despair. I would read Psalm 23 and throw the Bible across the room. During those sleepless nights when I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death and sobbing into my pillow, I definitely did fear evil, and his fecking rod and staff most certainly did not comfort me. Was any of it true at all? I would think of other moments when the psalmist invoked the history of the exodus to remind the reader that our God is one that acts. God had acted in my life in a massively transformative way when I came to faith. I couldn’t deny that. And I remained as convinced as ever that the arguments for God’s existence and the historical evidence of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gave meaning to life in a way that atheism and agnosticism just didn’t. I still believed God existed, but I was sadder than ever that I couldn’t feel that peace that passes all understanding that we are promised. In fact, I didn’t feel God’s presence at all, and our relationship felt very one-sided. Only once in recent years could I recall an event that I had felt was unambiguously God. It was in the depths of my pregnancy insomnia in 2016. We were in a Manchester travelodge and while the others slept I kept watch and prayed and I felt him telling me he would not abandon me to the grave during the many years of sleep deprivation.

I held on to this revelation like my life depended on it for two years, because there have been many times when death felt like it would be kinder than living through the exhausted haze I was in. And in my head I knew that ‘dry patches’ and not feeling God’s presence are all very normal experiences in the Christian life. I would dwell on the words of a very dear fellow Christian student who counselled me when I first came to faith, telling me that we believe in a faith that is grounded in what he has done, not in our feelings, because they come and go. But it didn’t stop the pain of feeling abandoned, and knowing that I could have got through the hard times a lot better if I had felt ‘held’ by God.

There were a couple of crumbs of comfort. I was in good company. For example, I happened to read one day (coincidence? Or God?) that Mother Theresa didn’t feel God’s presence for decades but tirelessly continued her work, trusting anyway. Whenever you mention hardship in Christian circles, well-meaning believers often try to help by glibly asking you if you’ve read the book of Job. So I actually read it, cover to cover, in two sittings (it would have been one but I was required by a child). It is the most frightfully depressing book but I thanked God all the same that it was in the Bible, because Job gets no answers, just like me. And, I recalled, Jesus himself had yelled out ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ on the cross. I could not bend my head around why we might feel God-abandoned, but at least I wasn’t alone.

Thinking it would be helpful, I tried to bury myself in lots of Christian literature on suffering and God’s silence. It didn’t help much, not least because I didn’t really have any time to read around the children and my other commitments, but also because it focused me on all the ways God is silent and actually, on reflection, I needed to focus on the opposite. I had asked a few people to pray for me, which they dutifully did, but I had basically decided that their prayers were almost certainly worthless. I believed it all with my head, but my heart couldn’t keep up. On Easter day 2018, I stumbled into church with my daughter, late, and the only space left was right at the front. We very obviously shuffled past everyone to find the seats. My husband and son had stayed at home, because it had been one of the most dreadful nights in the whole of my parenting-small-children career and my son had been awake for most of it and so needed a nap. For my part, I felt, misery guts though I was, like I should really turn up to church on Easter Day. It was awful. We normally go to our church’s quiet, liturgical service (for various reasons, not least because my husband plays the organ twice a month at it), but we’d slept through that, so we arrived for the extrovert-heavy bouncy welcoming service. The band struck up with some happy Jesus-is-so-amazing-life-is-great song, and I lasted two lines before collapsing in tears. I felt empty, stuck in the disciples’ collective grief and confusion of Easter Saturday, and the dissonance with happy praise music was not something I could cope with. A kind friend happened to be sitting next to me and I was grateful for her. I took my (somewhat perplexed but very comforting) daughter off to crèche and emailed my friend later to explain.

I can’t recall when exactly things began to change. Certainly not until well into this year (2019). We had been trying to sell our house and, having shelved the Germany plans, move to a bigger place in our village. After having had a stressful 9 months during which we had a potential buyer drop out before finding another, the house that we wanted to buy, which is truly a delightful property, had stayed on the market and not been snapped up by anyone else. It seemed to be a nudge from God that he wanted us to stay in this part of the world, and I was grateful for it. Our daughter had settled pretty well into her school and it made sense with the upcoming uncertain political times to stay put, especially with regards to my husband’s job, and ride out the bumpy future from a place we know well.

There were a few nudges elsewhere, too. During one church service, as my son had been knocking down all my daughter’s brick towers that she had made at the back of church, I began to herd my gang towards crèche as quietly as possible so that everyone else could listen to the epistle being read (my husband was at the organ bench). I caught a sentence of it as I marched them past the lectern on the way up the north aisle. It was from Philippians, and Paul was talking about finding contentment in times of trial as well as in times of joy. I was immediately convicted that I had been building up happiness, mental wellness and indeed good sleep into idols. I was clearly taking aim at the sun and getting upset when my arrows got nowhere near. I knew that what I needed to seek was contentment, which I realized at this point must theoretically be possible at the same time as being overwhelmed, exhausted and depressed.

My mum and I share an appreciation of Paula Gooder’s books and, when it got to Easter, she leant me her book on the resurrection. I don’t think I even managed to read all of it, but what I did read did me the world of good. Rather than focusing on what God was or wasn’t saying to me, I dwelt on the meaning of the resurrection, and I came away not being able to explain God’s absence any better, but more convinced than ever in the power of him rising from the dead. I began to feel what I dully recognized as Easter joy, and, though it felt far away, I was finding that sense of hope that God really will make all things new under Christ in the new creation. Gooder had also written something in another book that had resonated powerfully with me: having a living faith in Jesus doesn’t make our trials any easier, but it does perhaps give us the strength to keep going. I felt a huge amount of relief when I read that, and I realized that I had been struggling with the fact that I had expected my faith to make my trials easier, when, actually, there was no biblical mandate for that at all.

Then, during one particularly sad and tear-filled night when I was lamenting all the friendships motherhood had prevented me from investing in over the last few years, a sentence arrived in my head out of nowhere: I will rejoice over you with singing. I stopped in my tracks, because although I didn’t hear God, those words were not mine, and I knew they came from God. I vaguely thought they sounded like they were from a Bible verse, but I was so exhausted and emotional that I fell asleep without looking it up. In the morning I whacked them into Bible Gateway online and lo, Zepheniah 3:17 popped up:

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.

I cried. The image of the creator of the universe thinking that I am worthy of rejoicing over with singing – particularly as he knows how important singing is to me – and that he had chosen this way, in the midst of my distress, to show me how much he cares for me, floored me. I had not read Zepheniah in a decade. I don’t recall having heard it read in church recently. It’s not a verse (or a book) I know well, and in any case, the words that he planted in my mind were in the first person, and the Bible verse is in the third person. God wanted me to know in that moment that he meant those words about me. It meant that he had a plan for me, and that I will survive this (it’s in the future tense!)

Since then, through wrestling in prayer, and a lot of soul searching, God has graciously made me aware of several personal shortcomings that were causing a lot of my overwhelm. In a bid to understand my own upbringing, I have been delving into my family history a lot in recent years, and I have been determined to learn from the experiences that my German family lived through in particular. It has meant that I often think of my descendants looking back over my life and scrutinizing my efforts in using my privilege for good. Recently, God has patiently showed me that I need fear no one’s judgment now or posthumously other than his, and he has declared me free from sin because of the death and resurrection of his son. The feeling of not being able to do enough to bring about change and call others out should have sent alarm bells ringing that I was in some respects trying to earn my salvation through my deeds. But it is only when we have freedom in Christ that those deeds flow freely from our faith.

He has also recently convicted me that he is, actually, bigger than church scandals, bigger than the rise of right wing populism, bigger than the systematic oppression of minorities and the refusal of the vast majority of privileged people to engage with this, bigger than Brexit, and bigger even than the climate crisis. He is bigger than the overwhelm that has threatened to swallow me all these years. He’s got this, and for the first time in my life I believe him. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is true, it changes *everything*, and one day Jesus will return to judge the nations. The deceivers and the charlatans of the world that are steering the poorest people into ever deeper despair are the ones who should fear, not me, for my hope is in Christ, and he has defeated sin and death.

So, why the silence from God for years? I don’t have any answers, but I can now look back and see growth. I have learnt that life is messy and complicated in a way that my 21 year old newly Jesus-enthused self could not understand. Back then, if I had met my 32 year old self I would probably have thought ‘wow she really needs the Lord.’ I now realize that you can, actually, have the Lord, and still not be coping. I am grateful to God for having prevented me from stuffing up innumerable friendships and acquaintances by teaching me this, even if it came at personal cost.

I can also resonate a lot more with people who don’t believe in God. I am in a better place to understand their reasons, and while I never think I really thought of non-believers as projects to convert (Lord have mercy on those that do), I now totally recognize my fellow sojourners along the road of life as people to love in all their complexities.

I also suspect very strongly that the devil had a hand to play in it all. Some people will have reached this far and decide on reading this that yep, the woman’s totally crackers. But others will know the darkness and know that spiritual forces are real and dangerous. In my past, the devil used to make himself very known to me in his taunts, but I think his best weapon is when he convinces us that it’s not actually him that’s causing the pain. I think he’s been trying the stealth approach with me over the last six years or so. Admittedly, sometimes it is very hard to discern what is your sin talking and what is the devil. But I have got better at recognizing that he is almost certainly behind destructive thought processes. Just on a whim one night when I found myself falling into a spiral of low self-esteem thoughts, I yelled out (in my head, didn’t want to wake the children who were – uncharacteristically – asleep at the time) ‘Get behind me Satan!’ I felt a stillness after a couple of minutes which made me think, aha. Another time I tried ‘in the name of Jesus Christ, clear off!’ (well actually I used a much worse word but you get the idea) to similar effect. God’s name is powerful. ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you’, I found myself musing. Never had it felt so true.

While my coming to faith a decade or more ago was sudden and glorious, this return into the fold has been gradual and without fanfare. It’s not to say I’m fine (I still need therapy, don’t we all?) but I feel like I am starting to find that contentment in times of trial and of joy that St Paul wrote about in Philippians. And my faith is deeper and more nuanced than it was. I am grateful. I recognize that my life is full of privilege, and I acknowledge that the hardships I have written about here are nothing in comparison with what people of colour and other marginalized people go through. I do not wish to pretend they are. But feeling guilty about it gets me nowhere. It is God who gives me the grace and sets me free to effect change in myself and those around me, including in dismantling the systematic oppression that I’m a part of.

This week my daughter has been attending a holiday club run by the churches in our village. It has been wonderful to witness it as a parent (we are invited to attend the last twenty minutes to see what they’ve been up to), and I have seen the very best in how Christians can work together for the gospel. Most of the children that go come from families that rarely go to church. Having done some children’s work myself in the past, I know how easy it is to get wrong, how cringeworthy it can be to sing songs about fuzzy wuzzy bears and how patronizing Christians can seem to outsiders when they do it by dancing around the issue and then whacking in a ‘God slot’ at the end. But this holiday club was anything but. It was plainly and unashamedly, yet also sensitively, Christian, and was so refreshing in its honesty about what the church holds to be true about God. Heaven only knows that our kids need this honesty in the world we’re raising them in. My two (who I love so desperately and who are such wonderful people) have come home singing along to all the songs, and today, we danced wildly together in the kitchen to this one. If someone had played me this song a year ago, I would either have wanted to vomit into a bucket, or run away in tears. But you see the thing is, when you have been mired in the darkness for such a long time, and the light bursts in, it shines brighter and longer than it ever has before. And I can now once more sing, and mean: there’s so much more to this life, our freedom is, our freedom is in Christ!


Reflections on motherhood #1: a transcendental birth experience

A very fat and pregnant me in March

A very fat and pregnant me in March

In my previous blog post I briefly listed ten things that I wish I had known before having a baby, and said I would expand on them one by one. This is the first in that series.

I was so terrified about what the reality of having a baby would be like that I rarely allowed myself to even think about labour and birth for the first two thirds of my pregnancy. I would happily read all about the growing baby inside me, about what was normal for pregnancy and what was not, and so on, but I could never bring myself to even click on the ‘labour and birth’ tab on the NHS choices website. Partly, it’s because there was a bit of a taboo around it when I was growing up. It’s something of a joke in our family now, but every so often conversation would swing round to childbirth at some stage during family meals, and my father (who’s somewhat squeamish) would retort with ‘not at the table!’ This usually meant whichever story that was being recounted got curtailed, so giving birth seemed to be shrouded in mystery to me.

At the apparently tender age of 27, I was the first among my cohort of friends to have a baby. I have no sister or cousins who have gone before me, and the last person I am close to who’s had a baby recently was my step-aunt back in 2005. You get the picture: I had no clue. My knowledge of labour was limited to having read Call the midwife a few years ago, what others tell me of One born every minute (never could bring myself to watch it) and my mother’s half-finished tales of panic (brother born prematurely with a (thankfully minor) heart condition that involved father arriving at the hospital in a helicopter; self (breech) born by emergency caesarian in the middle of the night after 2 hour labour following ten weeks of bed rest for my poor mother because of a strange condition that had almost resulted in me being born at 26 weeks).

When my midwife asked me at one of my appointments whether I had thought about where I might want to have my baby, my immediate thought was hospital (and I told her so), because in my limited experience everything always seemed to go wrong and you definitely wanted to be in the safest place possible with the most highly trained specialists on hand. Paul (my husband) was on side because he wanted whatever I wanted. I had decided I would just let labour happen, not think about it until the moment arrived, and then work out what to do (head in the sand approach, so beloved of my family).

As it happens, two friends of mine (who don’t know each other) were a couple of months ahead of me in their pregnancies. (Curiously, they share the same name, are of similar ages and both had beautiful baby girls within two days of each other.) I got chatting to one of them soon after the birth of her daughter as she had very kindly offered to give me and Paul a crash course in how to change a nappy, hold a newborn, bath a baby, that kind of thing. She told me that she had given birth in a stand alone midwife led unit (MLU) in South Oxfordshire with no pain relief. My jaw nearly dropped to the floor. No pain relief? HOW did she manage that? She must be superwoman! ‘Well, it didn’t really hurt.’ Come again?

Said friend had been on a Hypnobirthing course (say what? I hear you say), something I had heard of but dismissed out of hand as total poppycock and a nasty attempt to swindle money out of scared, vulnerable pregnant women. Obviously I had not remotely looked into it when I made that judgment. Said friend very kindly leant me the book she had on it and I have to say, it proved to be a very interesting read. I can’t say I bought into the whole philosophy of it, but I learnt an important skill: reading up on and trying things that work for you, and leaving the rest. I did learn that Hypnobirthing is not nearly as scary or new-age as its name sounds. And a lot of what I read made sense – about how mammals in the wild and indeed many women in non-Western contexts just get on and give birth with little bother, about how labour pain is only felt when one is tense, about how relaxation can help you to take control of your birth. I learnt a couple of the breathing exercises and practised them often at night while I lay awake with restless legs (a frustrating side effect of pregnancy). I began to actually look forward to labour, as a challenge, as something exciting, as something transcendental.

But mostly what struck me about the book was the opening chapter: the history of childbirth in the West. I realised on reading it that childbirth had become ‘medicalized’ during the twentieth century, that the majority of women for many decades had been out cold and not witnessed the birth, their babies whisked away from them immediately after, that most women gave birth lying on their back going against gravity, and importantly that women labour better when they are able to be mobile in a calm environment where they are allowed to take as much time as they like and when there is as little medical intervention as possible. It really resonated with me that giving birth isn’t an illness, so why does it need to happen in a medical environment? I could also see how one thing could easily lead to another: mum is not in a calm environment and feels out of control, so mum feels stressed, consequently mum feels more pain, mum feels rushed and cannot cope with pain, mum opts for epidural which is available 24 hours a day, mum cannot feel to push so needs an assisted delivery, which results in an episiotomy (if you don’t know what that is and are of a strong disposition, have a Google) … of course this wouldn’t be true for everyone, and there is definitely a place for an epidural in some circumstances, but I decided to invest everything I had in avoiding one if at all possible.

Armed with this new knowledge, I promptly decided the best place for me to give birth was at a midwife led unit in the same building as the delivery suite at the John Radcliffe. That way I’d have all the benefits of an MLU (calm environment, midwife led, option of using a birthing pool etc) but I could easily be transferred if something ‘went wrong’ (I still had my mother’s experience in the back of my mind). The Oxford Spires (as it is called) don’t allow tours, so my midwife booked my 36 week appointment there so we could have a nosy round. The same week, I attended a (free) NHS antenatal class organised by the community midwives. We got talking to other couples about where they wanted to have their babies and one couple told me they had been to look round the MLU at Chipping Norton and they were definitely going there. There was something about the way they said it that made me know I had to check out Chippy before ruling it out. The lady said that having looked round, she would never opt to have a baby anywhere else. This had to be seen. We phoned up and booked a tour for the following Saturday (unlike Spires, the Cotswold Maternity Unit do weekly tours). In the mean time I read every document I could lay my hands on about the hospital transfer rates, breastfeeding statistics and reviews of the various different places I could have our baby. Despite many of my medic friends thinking I was crazy, I became convinced that for me (with my low-risk pregnancy), going to an MLU was just as safe as going to hospital. Not only that, I realised that should something ‘go wrong’ and I needed specialist medical help, it would take me as long to be put in an ambulance and get to the nearest hospital as it probably would for a consultant to get around to seeing me in hospital anyway, as normal hospital births are all midwife led. Midwives, not consultants, are the specialists when it comes to normal births.

On arriving for our tour at the MLU in Chippy I knew why that lady had seemed so serene in her decision – it is in a community hospital and the rest of the complex is shut at the weekend. Talk about calm with a capital C. It took us 25 minutes to drive there. There is no risk of bad traffic (unlike down the A40 to the JR!) There is free parking. They gave us tea. They have two birthing rooms, and only once have they both been used at the same time. Both rooms have a pool, and are ensuite. You have access to a simple kitchen (microwave and kettle) throughout your stay there. Your partner can stay in with you. There is unlimited breastfeeding support afterwards. They seemed to share the philosophy of as natural a birth as possible. We’d made our minds up before we had even seen the whole premises.

The Oxford Spires did a great job at our 36 week appointment. But it wasn’t quite the oasis of calm I’d been hoping for. We asked the midwives about how busy they were and sometimes they did have to turn people away. They have three rooms and only one of them has a pool (and I had decided that I really wanted to use one by this point). There were people coming and going and the midwives seemed a bit stretched. They didn’t appear to have an altogether brilliant relationship with the delivery suite people downstairs. As we fought our way out of the car park I was practically already on the phone to my midwife to tell her I’d changed my mind. Chippy it was to be.

When the great day arrived and we thought I was in the early stages of labour, I was mainly concerned that the midwives would think I was making it up and I’d be wasting their time. I was reassured twice on the phone by Becky, the community midwife on duty, that I wasn’t a time waster. We decided the moment had come to make the beautiful drive through West Oxfordshire to the MLU. It was a warm, spring day. When we arrived, I was examined by one of the midwives there called Claire. She was full of good cheer and told us all about how she had had six children and breastfed the last one till he was at school. It was a Saturday so there was only her and one other staff member on site. I mumbled something about being worried that I was wasting her time. She told me in no uncertain terms that I would be having our baby that night. ‘I can’t be sure whether it’ll be this side or the other side of midnight, but it’ll be tonight.’ This encouraged me. Claire said I was still in the early stages of labour. I assumed therefore that I would have to go back home and come back in later. She explained that this was up to us. There was no policy at Chippy to send women away. I could stay, go home, or go for a walk, but in her view I needed to stay active to get things moving. She made me understand that she wouldn’t ever offer me pain relief, it would be up to me to ask for it, as every woman knows their own body and deals differently with pain.

Fear not, I’m not going to go through my ‘birth story’ blow by blow. That’s not the point of this piece. But I do want to reflect on that day. I’m not sure I could put my finger on exactly what it was about the experience that was so positive. Perhaps it was the fact I was totally in control of it all, deciding where and how I wanted to labour at all stages. The midwives took it in turns to care for me, and they were happy to stay in the room or go, depending on how I felt. I never felt abandoned. I always felt safe. Perhaps it was the realization that my husband and I had never been through anything so powerful together before, and it bound us together even more tightly. Perhaps it was the quiet sense of calm that pervaded the building (the box set of Marie-Claire Alain playing J.S. Bach’s organ works that we’d brought with us lay unopened). Perhaps it was the fact that we were doing something so ordinary, and yet so remarkable, something that united us with all people everywhere throughout history and into the future. The name of those helping me -midwife – caused me to reflect on this. The name of their profession is from an old Anglo-Saxon word, meaning ‘with-woman’, akin to modern German words like ‘Mitmenschen’ (‘with-people’, or fellow humans). We were doing something as old as time itself. Perhaps it was the feel of the warm water surrounding all the pain. Because it was painful, in the end. I did pretty well for the first four hours or so with my breathing exercises as per the Hypnobirthing book. But as it all got more intense, and as I tried to remember to relax, all I could do was tense up in agony every time I felt a contraction. It was the only way I could deal with it – it was more effort to try to relax. And I learnt that the best pain relief does not come in the form of drugs: no, the best pain relief was the team work of the midwives and my husband in helping me to get through it, along with good old fashioned back rubs and warm water to sit in. By far the worst bit of it all was having the regular examinations to check how things were progressing – right as I was in my stride, I would be interrupted, and I found that more painful than ever (HOW do so many women labour on their backs? I was in agony for the three minutes I was on my back for the examinations). There was a dark time when I thought I wasn’t making any progress, and I remember whispering to Paul that I didn’t think I could take much more. The baby had been ‘back to back’ (notoriously more painful!) and we had had to spend a while turning her, meaning all sorts of weird and wacky (and painful!) positions. And yet isn’t it always the hardest things in life that are the most rewarding? Because I found labour and birth to be one of those moments that C.S. Lewis describes as ‘signposts’, pointing to another place. In those moments, time seems to stand still and you get lost in it all. Before I commited my life to Christ, I used to live for those transcendental, ‘zonal’ moments, and didn’t pay much attention to where they were pointing. But here, in all the mess and pain, the theological parallels were not lost on me. Through toil and sweat and blood and pain comes new life, hope, a new beginning, a miracle.

When little Phoebe emerged into this world at 11.15pm that night (Claire had been bang on with her prediction), covered in more bodily fluids than I care to remember, life changed forever. My memory of it is such a blur: the release from the pain as soon as she was born, the look of jubilation on Paul’s face, Becky (the community midwife) stifling back tears when I told her I couldn’t have done it without her, embracing my daughter for the first time, who I’d known for so many months from her kicks and wriggles and yet not known, feeding her for the first time while I lay down resting …

Without us noticing, Becky and Claire had left us to it for a couple of hours to get to know our daughter together, alone. They had gone well beyond the call of duty. Becky had been at work since 9am, and she didn’t leave till 2am. Because we had wanted to stay in over night and no other member of staff was available, Claire said she would stay on. Neither of us could sleep. For the first and last time since she was born, Phoebe slept six hours straight. We stayed awake staring at her. We did it. She’s here. A new beginning. A miracle.

Holy Week and J.S. Bach

Did you know that J.S. Bach is this week’s composer of the week on Radio 3? Every year I think to myself that Holy Week is the best time to engage with the works of Bach. This is primarily because it is usually during this week, the week where Christians follow Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Palm Sunday) to the cross (Good Friday) and subsequent resurrection (Easter Sunday), that Bach’s two great ‘Passions’, those of St Matthew and St John, are performed across the country. While I have to admit (and most of you know anyway) I am a totally committed fan of pretty much anything Bach composed, the passions are singular, as far as I am concerned, in their emotional depth. For those who know nothing about passions or the Bible or Bach, these great works were intended to be performed on Good Friday in church, and take the form of a gospel text (St Matthew’s in one instance and St John’s in the other), which charts the last few days of Jesus’ life in recitative form, interpolated with arias and chorales in which deeper themes within the biblical text are explored.

Now I happen to think that the works of J.S. Bach will enrich anyone’s life, regardless of whether you are a Christian, a musician, a Germanist, or none of the above. Hence this is my attempt to gently encourage you all to engage with a little bit of Bach this week, regardless of your background. I think Bach has something to offer everyone.

For Christians who are not musical, these passions offer an alternative style of devotion (that’s what they were intended for!) They take us through the last moments of Jesus’ life and give us space to reflect on and respond to his great sacrifice for the sins of mankind. The scores are unparalleled in the musical world in their treatment of this topic. You might come away feeling like you’ve run a marathon, but sitting down with the words and a CD and listening along certainly adds a new dimension to my devotions every year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Since the passions deal with questions of cosmic significance, they are relevant and accessible to non-believers as well as Christians, especially to people who like music! As a wannabe musician, I sometimes find myself guilty of not really paying attention to what I’m singing about. However, my understanding and appreciation of Bach’s passions increased exponentially (as did an outpouring of my faith, as it happens: ask me about it sometime) as a result of engaging with the text and Christian claims of these great works. I urge you whatever your faith not just to sing or play, but to engage!

As for Germanists who might or might not be familiar with classical music and/or Christendom, Bach counts among the best of Germany’s exemplary cultural output, so he’s definitely worth getting to know!

The best way to get into a passion is to sit down with a libretto, a translation and a recording. Happily, you can do all this online! (Isn’t technology wonderful!) For example, you can watch a live recording of the whole Matthew Passion, directed by the brilliant Philipp Herreweghe, here. You can follow the German here, and read a translation here.

Since most people will find the idea of listening to 2 hours 45 minutes of Bach daunting, I thought I’d help you find a ‘way in’, one from the Matthew Passion and one from the John.

St Matthew Passion: This aria is called So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (‘My Jesus has now been captured’), and features just after Jesus has been identified by Judas in the garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday. A duet allows us space to reflect on the unjust arrest of Jesus, before a fabulously exhilarating section helps us to recognise the cosmic significance of the moment (and call for judgment on Judas, which you may or may not like, but is a great vehicle for some truly terrific German: Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle – try getting your mouth round that lot in a hurry). It’s quite brilliant – do have a listen, and enjoy how Bach uses the ‘chorus’ to interject with lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht! (‘Leave him, stop, bind him not!’) The words are below with a translation (from the same source as above).

So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Mond und Licht
Ist vor Schmerzen untergangen,
Weil mein Jesus ist gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Sie führen ihn, er ist gebunden.

Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?
Eröffne den feurigen Abgrund, o Hölle,
Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle
Mit plötzlicher Wut
Den falschen Verräter, das mördrische Blut!

Thus hath my Jesus now been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
Moon and light
Are in sorrow set and hidden,
For my Jesus hath been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
They lead him off, he is in fetters.

Hath lightning, hath thunder in clouds fully vanished?
Lay open thy fire’s raging chasm, O hell, then,
Now ruin, demolish, devour, now shatter
With suddenmost wrath
The lying betrayer, that murderous blood!

St John Passion: Here I have gone for the final chorale of the piece. Recall that Jesus’ resurrection is not depicted in the passion accounts (in the Lutheran church this would have been celebrated with much gusto on Easter Day with an Easter cantata) It is a prayer which looks forward with great faith and hope to the resurrection at the last day, and I never fail to be inspired by the boldness of the words Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich! Ich will dich preisen ewiglich! (something like ‘Lord Jesus Christ, listen to me! I’m going to praise you for ever and ever!’)

Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein
Am letzten End die Seele mein
In Abrahams Schoß tragen,
Den Leib in seim Schlafkämmerlein
Gar sanft ohn einge Qual und Pein
Ruhn bis am jüngsten Tage!
Alsdenn vom Tod erwecke mich,
Dass meine Augen sehen dich
In aller Freud, o Gottes Sohn,
Mein Heiland und Genadenthron!
Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich,
Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!

Ah Lord, let thine own angels dear
At my last hour my spirit bear
To Abraham’s own bosom,
My body in its simple bed
In peace without distress and dread
Rest till the day of judgment!
And then from death awaken me,
That with mine eyes I may see thee
In fullest joy, O God’s own Son,
My Savior and my gracious throne!
Lord Jesus Christ, give ear to me,
I would thee praise eternally!

Words; Translation

Attitudes to linguistic borrowing


So I’ve been quiet on the blog-front in recent months: mostly finishing my MPhil thesis and revising for exams. Now I find myself in that slightly eerie Zwischenphase between Masters and PhD. Happily, I’ve had plenty of things going on to fill my time. One of the things I’ve been working on is preparing to teach a new undergraduate paper from October: History of the German Language. The reading list sent out to students is longer than both my arms put together and I’ve had my work cut out getting through it, let alone getting further than it. One of the topics is Medieval and later loan vocabulary, which essentially focuses on lexical (but also phonological and morphological) borrowing into German at different periods and from different languages.

The Germanists amongst you will be aware that German has borrowed extensively from several languages over the years, but probably none more so than French in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To give you a bit of (very basic historical) background, the Thirty Years War was not  a great time for the German economy, and there was much trade with France as a result. In addition, French and German dynastic relations had become ever more intertwined, and many thousands of Huguenots were seeking refuge in Germany from persecution in France. Culturally, then, Germans had begun ever more to look to France. French loans are consequently found in abundance in technical language, newspapers/journals, as well as letters from the period, influencing such semantic fields as military vocabulary (Attacke, marschieren), fashion (Brokat), food (Schokolade), the home (Balkon), pastimes (Promenade), trade (Billet), diplomacy (Administration) and kinship terms (TanteOnkel). Many of these loans were dropped in subsequent centuries, but some remain. Scholars estimate that Standard German as spoken today is made up of about 5% of words of French origin.

Rather like today, commentators in the seventeenth century had strong opinions about the use of language and in particular the use of French loans. What I found interesting is that these opinions were often inconsistent. Brunt (1983) explains that public opinion in Germany showed various conflicting attitudes towards the French in the mid-seventeenth century:

On the one hand they [the French] were the epitome of all that was cultivated and elegant; on the other they were an inferior race, lacking all the German virtues, whose language and fashions were exerting a deleterious effect upon German society. (p22)

Towards the end of the Thirty Years’ War […] there arose among certain writers a conviction that the whole of German society was in a state of decline due to neglect of native virtues and the imitation of foreign manners.  (p62)

What I always find amusing about studying the history of languages (or of anything) is that the same ideas keep coming round again. The fact is, linguistic purism has been alive and well for centuries. The above German example strongly reminds me of British attitudes to so-called ‘Americanisms’, but it’s also true of the response of many speakers of other languages to English loans. On the one hand (and speaking very broadly), we embrace much of the culture and attitudes crossing the pond from the US, but at the same time there’s a feeling that ‘Americanisms’ ‘infiltrating’ the (English/German/whatever) language are having a deleterious effect on our society. One need only think back to this article from the BBC last year, in which a commentator lists the ‘Americanisms’ which he found to be the most ‘ugly’ and ‘pointless’.* We see conflicting attitudes even in this little piece. The author broadly upholds some things about America which he deems to be positive (even including some ‘Americanisms’ here), but he also writes of the ‘sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe.’ The idea is that abandoning our own ‘distinctive’ dialect(s?) comes about as a result of idleness and is a negative thing.

Examining attitudes towards linguistic borrowing from the past, however, serves to show that connecting lexical borrowing with the deterioration of society is nothing new.

The seventeenth century German equivalent of Engels’ article above was the pamphlet. I’ll leave you with a quotation from one called Der Vnartig Teutscher Sprach=verderber (‘The wicked German language corrupter’) from 1644:

Seithero die Complementen […] auffkommen / so ist die Teutsche Trew/ Glaub vnd Redlichkeit auβ Teutschland gezogen.

(‘Ever since these [linguistic] complements (i.e. French loans) have been around, the German sense of loyalty, faith and integrity has been hauled out of Germany.’)

*Rather embarrassingly (and as is often the case with perceptions about language), the author of the article is unaware that his linguistic perceptions do not match up to reality. In the event, 80% of his ‘Americanisms’ are not, in fact, American (at least in the first instance). See this link from the folks at Language Log for more info.


Brunt, Richard (1983): The Influence of the French Language on the German Vocabulary (1649-1735). Berlin: de Gruyter.

Lo, he comes

LO, he comes with clouds descending,

once for favoured sinners slain;

thousand thousand saints attending

swell the triumph of his train:


God appears on earth to reign.

‘Advent’ (Latin, adventus) means ‘coming’. For centuries, Christians have observed a season of preparation for Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is a solemn season, but by no means sad. It is characterised by a sense of joyful expectation as we anticipate the second coming of Christ, as well as remembering his first coming. (From the inside of our church service booklet)

Our sermon this Advent Sunday was, unsurprisingly, all about watching and waiting for Jesus’ coming, both as a baby born in a cattle stall and as the Judge, coming on clouds descending. It is the latter that has particularly caught my attention this year. The preacher laboured those terms. Watching. Waiting. In the run up to Christmas, I’ve found I so easily get distracted by all the tat that I’ve often missed the point of Advent. I can’t shake off some of Jesus’ words from our Gospel reading this morning. ‘Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come … What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”‘ (Mark 13:33 and 37)

I find that lighting a candle aids meditation. It’s hardly a new idea, but I haven’t grown up in a tradition that heralds the merits of silence and contemplation, watching and waiting. This year, however, I’ve gone candle-tastic, and used it as an excuse to have some mother-daughter bonding time as she has taught me how to make Advent decorations. It’s also because I found myself with the slightly daunting task of making our church’s wreath, where one candle is lit each Sunday to symbolize the passage of the four weeks in Advent. I thought I’d share some of the fruits of my candle-inspired labours. (The church warden informed me how disastrous last year’s wreath was, and that I couldn’t possibly do any worse …)

I found inspiration in German and Dutch magazines – they’re everywhere over there. They told me everything I needed to buy: oasis, oasis trays, oasis fix, stub wire, candles, silver and gold spray. My mother then sent me out foraging in our local woods for tree ivy, holly, fir, and pine cones, that kind of thing. She brought a selection of other things that she’s collected over the years that can be sprayed like dried poppy heads, dried fruit, and so on. There’s no need to spend lots of money on expensive decorations in garden centres if you can spray your own, I have discovered! In the end we made a good number of decorations, which can be seen below.

I was informed that churches tend to like traditional foliage with not much glitz. This reflects the ‘solemn’ nature of Advent. Consequently, I avoided too much sparkle. I sprayed the tree ivy berries with the smallest amount of silver spray to give a hint of shimmer. Otherwise everything else is totally natural and collected from the local area – including the churchyard! (My mother also made a wreath for her church, and put me to shame! Hers is the second of the two.)

The stand was simple and metal and provided by the church. We then taped down four small dishes with oasis in (which were left over from our wedding and happened to fit) and added foliage. As a rule of thumb, cut off leaves about an inch from the bottom of the cutting, and put long stuff at the bottom, short stuff at the top.

My sister-in-law decided to make a wreath as a table decoration involving large candles. You can stand them in oasis using stub wire heated by a hob flame, so that the wire more easily fits into the bottom of the candle without making it crumble. Large candles obviously mean that there’s not a lot of space for foliage. My sister-in-law wisely chose to make her decoration quite simply, and it is beautiful:

My decoration was different in that I used stump oasis and had long thin candles, which resulted in the slightly ‘exploded’ look, as much more foliage is needed to fill the oasis. The cinnamon sticks can be purchased cheaply from florists. Otherwise everything else in the decoration has been foraged and in some cases sprayed. I found that the candles are very difficult to keep straight! I might try wider candles next year.

I also wanted to make something for the door to our house, but didn’t have a lot of time to spend on it. Mum gave me an old bare wreath made up of wired twigs. I wove ivy round it and added a few red baubles:

Last, I wanted to use the leftover foliage to make a stand for an Advent candle I’d bought in a Christian bookshop. For each of the days of December running up to Christmas day, there is a name or a characteristic of Jesus to meditate on. It reminded me a bit of the chorus of a song we sing on Quantock called ‘You are Holy’, where we recall many of the names we have for God. They are numbered as follows:








The Vine


The Way


The Truth


The Life






The Rock


The Word


Son of God




Lamb of God


High Priest


Anointed One


Living Water


Morning Star


King of Kings


Lord of Lords


Lion of Judah


Good Shepherd


Prince of Peace





I hope and pray that lighting this candle each day of Advent will help me to become more aware of the many wonders of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yea, Amen, let all adore thee,

high on thine eternal throne;

Saviour, take the power and glory,

claim the kingdom for thine own:


Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

Ich backe Streuselkuchen …

In a bid to combine my love for all things German with my love for all things edible, I decided a couple of weeks ago to have a go at making Streuselkuchen. When I lived in Germany, my friend Christina used to bring a load of Streuselkuchen with us whenever we went hiking. We used to drink it down with “Westminster Tee”, a bizarre brand of “English” tea which I’ve only ever had in Germany. In any case, I was very keen to replicate this, and our church’s monthly parish lunch seemed like a good enough opportunity. If you google Streuselkuchen you’ll find a million and one different recipes. To give you a bit of a heads up (for those who don’t know German and consequently can’t read its German Wikipedia page), Streuselkuchen consists of crumble on top, fruit in the middle, and a tasty pastry base. This is what it (normally) looks like:

The saying goes that Streuselkuchen (or just Streusel, as the Germans I know call it) originated in Silesia. Silesia used to be a part of Germany until 1945, and now only a tiny corner of the former province makes up part of the state of Saxony, around the town of Görlitz, on the Polish border. For those of you who never did History GCSE (ahem, husband), this is where Silesia used to be when it was German:

The recipe I used comes from our German friend Silke from Wuppertal, but who lives up the road from us, and the result was delicious. I’ve made two different batches using different fruits, and apple is my favourite so far, though it’s always nice to have more than one fruit. Here’s the recipe:


a) Dough:

500g Flour

100g Sugar

50g Butter/Margarine

1 pinch of salt

1 Egg

125 ml Milk

Yeast (can use dry yeast)

b) Streusel:

250g Butter/Margarine

200g Sugar

1 pinch of salt

400g Flour


Dough: Put dry yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar and 2 tablespoons of warm milk in a cup and cover to rise. Put flour in bowl, make hollow in middle. Pour other ingredients around edge (butter in small pieces). When risen pour yeast in hollow, cover with flour and mix and knead all to dough. Flatten dough and put on baking tray.

Streusel: Put all ingredients in bowl at same time and make crumbs with fingers (or 2 forks).

You can put Streusel directly on dough or put fruit in between.

Bake ~ 20-30 min at 170° (fan oven).

Empiricism, God and language

I started reading a really good book a couple of days ago called Simpler Syntax, by Culicover & Jackendoff (2005). In it, the authors outline considerable problems with the way the Minimalist Program has been progressing in recent years. But that’s the stuff of another post sometime. I thought I’d google a couple of reviews to see how much of an impact the book had had on the linguistic community. I came across this review, which interestingly (to me) compared the way in which Culicover & Jackendoff perceive Universal Grammar with a ‘God of the gaps theory’. One sentence particularly got my goat, however:

Fortunately, unlike the issue of the existence of God, in which one side views empirical evidence as simply irrelevant, there is a good chance for the UG/constructionalist debate to be resolved along empirical lines.

I stopped thinking about Linguistics for a while and pondered the opinion expressed by the reviewer. I’m sure you’ve all come across it many times: science = empiricist, existence of God = not empiricist/stupid (delete as appropriate). Is the reviewer right when he says that people who argue for the existence of God view empirical evidence as ‘simply irrelevant’?

Something else that caught my attention this week was a comment on a friend’s Facebook status which read:

You don’t need to be a theologian if your argument is with the fundamentals, not the fiddly little details. If someone tells you there’s a unicorn in your bedroom, you know there isn’t. You don’t ask what colour it is and which way it’s [sic] horn twists first.

Not being an epistemologist by trade, I have only dabbled a little in the theories of knowledge, caught up in the debate between rationalism (e.g. Chomsky) and empiricism (e.g. Quirk), along with a couple of other books and articles about theology which I’ve read. As far as I understand it, empiricism refers to the kind of knowledge that comes via ‘sensory experience’. The Wikipedia article on the subject (ever to be trusted!) defines it in this way:

Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.

I wouldn’t quibble with that. What strikes me, however, is the apparent hypocrisy of some in the ‘science’ camp concerning the existence of God, such as those I’ve quoted above. Empiricism dictates that one doesn’t make one’s judgment based on a priori reasoning, but that is exactly what the Facebook commentator has done! He starts off with the view that unicorns do not exist, therefore he needn’t concern himself with the finer details. That’s not empirical, at least according to wikipedia’s definition of it, and thus isn’t ‘scientific’ (by his own logic).

That’s all well and good, you say, but unicorns don’t exist. This, however, isn’t really the point. I’ve no problem with a priori reasoning: there are many kinds of knowledge, not just empirical knowledge, and everyone lives their lives according to these different kinds of knowledge, whether they care to admit it or not. In many circumstances, a priori knowledge makes a lot of sense (such as this one). I just find it curious how often it’s the case that ‘scientists’ (whoever that refers to) sometimes don’t stick to the ‘rules’ of their own game.

It is not my intention to start spinning out the usual arguments in the Science vs God debate. Many others devote their life to this, and this is a good place to start. John Lennox, a Professor of Maths at Oxford University, also has an excellent website which is worth looking at. Nor is it my wish to bring forth the (historical) evidence for the God I  trust in, though I believe this to be profuse.

Instead, I want to think about language. It’s certainly true that language can be investigated according to empirical methodology, and Linguistics has undergone a bit of a shake-up over the years as scholars from other disciplines (notably Psychology) pick holes in its bad research practice. But I wonder whether empiricist methods can really illuminate our understanding of the meaning of  ‘language’ as a concept. Let me be absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that empirical linguistic evidence does not shed light on the nature of language. But let’s think a bit about what language actually is.

You can’t touch language. It isn’t physical. Sure, you can observe it, for example, in the utterance you spoke when you ordered a coffee this morning, or the words you’re reading on this page. But that’s not actually all we mean by language. These words I’m writing are part of what we call the English language, but they’re not synonymous with it. In fact, they’re just symbols on the page that represent the phonetic noises we emit when we exhale air. Sound waves even. But there’s more to language than that, everyone knows that. There’s that meaning part to it. Oh, and grammar.

Some have argued (notably Chomsky!) that what language really is is I-language, that is, the ‘internal language’ in your brain made up of a lexicon and a grammar, which is heavily dependent on Universal Grammar, which is something all babies are born with. But we’re about as close to finding out what constitutes this I-language, or where it is in the brain, as we are to drawing square circles. It may be the case that we’ll know everything about I-language one day, but this ‘science-conquers-all’ mentality requires a (blind?) faith in science that I find difficult to share.

Nevertheless, people do argue that we know language is in our heads, so it is ‘tangible’ in some abstract sense. However, when we refer to the English language, we refer to the language through the ages, as well as the language used by different geographical and social groups, and not simply to the I-language in your or my head. To be a native speaker of English today, you don’t have to know that the English passive used to be formed with weorþan (‘to become’) rather than ‘to be’. But this and similar phenomena are still part of what we understand when people refer to ‘language’ as a concept.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that we happily get on in life with knowledge that is not ’empirical’, in the purest sense: while language is observable and can be empirically tested, it isn’t something ‘physical’ when we refer to it on a day-to-day basis. It’s not made up of atoms. Our concept of it can’t even be reduced to neurons flying round our brain. And yet no one denies that it exists or is real, even though we don’t really know much about how and where it’s stored in the brain, how words are associated with meaning, and so on. This is, of course, true of other abstract nouns such as hope, or love, etc. It’s just that Linguistics prides itself on being ‘scientific’. Oh, and I happen to have a vested interest.

Obviously, in answer to my (rhetorical) question above, no theologian worth his salt would view empirical evidence as ‘simply irrelevant’. How many books arguing for the existence of God have you read which do this?

I’d welcome comments!

Because he lives!

My husband and I spent the bank holiday yesterday at a family barbeque in Surrey. Given that my brother and sister-in-law live so close to us, they kindly offered to drive us there and back. It was a fun sort of road trip which included listening (and joyously singing along) to a CD of all their wedding music from a couple of years ago. They also introduced me to a song/hymn they were surprised I’d not come across before called Because he lives. Getting the hang of the tune by about the second chorus, my husband and I were soon singing along, and I’ve had it humming round my head since.

I love singing, especially in contexts of worship. I think that’s what music was made for. I get every bit as much out of singing good praise music congregationally as I do out of singing the most beautiful sacred choral music, or singing or listening to a Bach cantata (more on that soon!) because the point is the same:

I will sing to the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Psalm 104:33

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Colossians 3:16-17

When we got home (after a very enjoyable day out) I did a bit of research. The song seems to be an old-style gospel number written by Bill and Gloria Gaither, who have (so his wikipedia page tells me) written some 600 hymns and songs. Because he lives is one of their better known, and I can see why, as it’s so singable and uplifting! I particularly rejoice in the line Because I know he holds the future… He is the Alpha and the Omega: how wonderful that we get to trust in that! We share in an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, which is freely given and open to all. What a hope! Here’s the text, and here‘s a rendition from youtube. Listen and sing along!

God sent His son, they called Him, Jesus;
He came to love, heal and forgive;
He lived and died to buy my pardon,
An empty grave is there to prove my Saviour lives!

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because He lives!

How sweet to hold a newborn baby,
And feel the pride and joy he gives;
But greater still the calm assurance:
This child can face uncertain days because He Lives!


And then one day, I’ll cross the river,
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain;
And then, as death gives way to vict’ry,
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He lives!