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Introduction to Welcome To The Real World
from the print edition of 2000.

A poem is a door between two worlds.

A good poem opens from the everyday world of circumstance in which it is being read or listened to, into a world of imagination in which surprising things happen and in which improbable things exist side by side.

If you are lucky, as you stand in the doorway that the poem has opened, you will find that this glimpse of these other worlds changes—sometimes forever—your understanding of the everyday world with which you thought you were familiar.

Which of these worlds is real?

This book contains pieces written over a period of twenty years. My first, home-produced, collection The Place Where Socks Go appeared in 1985 in response to demand for copies of poems performed at concerts with Geoff Shattock. This grew into Breaking the Chains (1992) which included The sailing of the ark, and is reprinted here unchanged apart from minor corrections and some updated references. The remaining poems, written since 1992, are published here under the title Welcome to the real world in book form for the first time.

These poems are doors with locks on them. You bring to the poem the keys of your experience, and because your history and mine are not the same, not all these doors will open, or open completely, for you.

Anyone over forty and living in the UK will find that Come on in, the sofa’s lovely opens (all too easily!) at the first nudge. But unless—for example—you happen to know (and care) that Galileo, using the first telescope, discovered that Jupiter had its own orbiting moons at a time when more than a thousand years of dogmatic belief—and the Inquisition—had insisted that the earth was the centre of the universe, then the lock on that poem will fail to turn for you.

This is not a book of religious or devotional verse, but its perspective is clearly Christian. There will be those who look here for an underlying theology, to place it, for example, in an evangelical, or liberal, or mystical tradition.

There is a binding logic to be found here: that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were both historical and spiritual events, and are the defining expressions of God’s relationship with humanity.

But a very big change is going on around us. At the beginning of the 21st century we find ourselves firmly rooted in postmodernity, the first radically new phase of western culture for over half a millennium (though to be firmly rooted in anything postmodern is, of course, something of a contradiction in terms).

Propositions have given way to stories, positions to views. We have become defined by what we consume, not what we produce. Opinion has supplanted truth, in our debating as much as our advertising. The exercise of choice has become our principal form of worship, and we are tolerant of anything except dogma. Our identities dissolve into a series of disconnected images—we are what we seem.

This is a dramatic shift in our culture. The ground was prepared by scientists: Einstein (with Relativity) and Heisenberg (with quantum mechanics) discovered early in the 20th century that the workings of our universe are weird—and its scale huge—beyond all imagination. Both time and space are relative and unpredictable. More disturbing than that, at the extreme limits of speed and mass, time and space become impossible to tell apart. In the everyday world, nothing is really the way it seems.

The comforting certainty of Newton’s physics is gone for ever, and with the gates of modernism fatally breached it took only the combination of economic prosperity and mass communication to sack the city entirely and set up consumerism in the Holy of Holies:

                                —this abomination

that brings desolation, this god of matter
to whose altar we have been dragged smiling to be sacrificed.
                                           (The sailing of the ark
, sonnet 11)

Now, driven by global commercial competition and the 24-hour casino of the stock market, we are rushing headlong into the next phase, that of the Internet, in which the 'real' is replaced by the virtual. The pace of technological development in computing and medicine over the next century will be staggering: its consequences are unimaginable. Everything, including life itself, is up for grabs.

All of this deals body blows to conventional thought and behaviour. Formal Christianity is in the firing line as much, if not more, than anything else. 21st century postmodernism smiles blankly and ironically at evangelical phariseeism and declines to be interested in its tedious drawing of borderlines.

Of course this is threatening. God as an objective person is deeply unfashionable: in postmodern thought, everything is a view. Already dismissed by philosophy as irrational and science as unknowable, God is now redefined by popular culture as a consumer option.

But postmodernity is also liberating for Christianity. It is no coincidence that “Jesus chose the parable”, and the postmodern emphasis on stories rather than creeds brings us closer to the 1st century than, say, the mid 20th.

One of the most empowering features of postmodernity is that it is no respecter of person or tradition. It is not afraid to say when the emperor has no clothes (or is at least clad in extremely threadbare underwear). Christians have been doing the same and, having found they have not been struck down with a thunderbolt for voicing their doubts and concerns, have been encouraged to think that there may be other ways to embrace radical discipleship other than those formulated in the middle of the twentieth century around western prosperity and the Four Spiritual Laws.

The sailing of the ark documents my own journey into postmodern Christianity. As I wrote in the original introduction to this poem, I had found modern evangelicalism a creed spelled out in black and white, and the God of the manger and the wilderness was not to be pinned down so easily.

Postmodernism does not say there is no objective truth: it only says that, if there is, we can never know it. Postmodern Christianity agrees that we can only know truth “as in a mirror, darkly”. Faith, hope and love are the means of access to the real world. Parable and metaphor—that is, poetry—provide some glimpses of it.

In this book, ideas in different poems sometimes appear at odds with one another; but life is not tidy, and for precedents I point to Job, the Psalms and Ecclesiastes; more recently to Gerard Manley Hopkins “terrible sonnets” and to James K Baxter, whose fractured sonnet form I borrowed for the Ark.

The style of these pieces varies according to their origin and purpose. Many were written with performance in mind (after more than a decade of commissions for Christmas Carol services I think I have covered the Nativity from every angle with the possible exception of the donkey). For those who wish to read or perform some of these pieces in worship services or other events I have provided some notes and an index of themes at the end of the book.

Throughout 1999 I was determined not to write a Millennium poem. Song at the start of a century is it.

For ideas, encouragement, criticism and (unpaid!)  commissions I am especially grateful to Mark Bratton, Isobel Montgomery Campbell, Stan and Judith Dakin, Gill Dallow, Colin and Mary Duckworth, James and Mary Lazarus, Donald McRobbie, John and Carina Persson, Jackie Runcorn, Geoff Shattock, Joanna Whitfield and most of all my wife Tessa, children Emma, Joel and Adam, and mother Joan.

For help and advice in the production and marketing of this book I am also indebted to Julianna Franchetti, Chris Gander, Colin and Steve Taylor and Julie Woods.

All three sections of this book come to their conclusive points at the cross. Christ’s instruction that “he who would find his life must lose it” goes beyond both reason and common sense: love is, quite literally, absurd.

But I have found these conclusions inescapable: first, that God’s behaviour is subversive. Secondly, that all important truth is paradoxical. And lastly, that love in the form of self-sacrificial forgiveness is the most powerful force in the universe. These are co-ordinates of the real world.