Paul Distilled

In the first weeks of Lockdown in 2020, Gary Burnett did a wonderful series in Fitzroy on the theology of Paul. He took 10 themes in Paul's letters and gave 10 minutes teaching session on each. Gary's research in into Paul's writing and the social history of the first century was wonderfully illuminating.

A year later and Gary has added a few more themes and put it all down in a book that is launched on March 10th 2021. I had the honour of endorsing the book with these words:

"Gary Burnett has an academic mind, a devotional heart and a cultural perception. This unique blend gives him the ability to take big theological ideas and distill them into short accessible teaching sessions. They are inspirational, insightful and instructional. You will read the text afresh and hear the call to live in challenging ways."

I got a chance to ask Gary a few questions about himself, the book and of course Paul.


When did you start taking theology seriously?

About 30 years ago, after having been a Christian for many years, and thinking I knew my Bible pretty well, I went to a year of evening class study at Belfast Bible College – and realized how little I really did know! That spurred me on to do a theology degree and then I couldn’t get stopped, so I did a PhD. After that I began teaching, mostly in Union College, but also in the Bible College and Stranmillis College


What then drew you particularly to Paul?

The church I grew up in was a great fan of Paul and so I knew Paul’s letters pretty well. But during my studies I discovered there were a great many other approaches to Paul than what I’d grown up with, so it was very intriguing to start to drill down and see if I could get a better handle on him. 

Plus, I’d become very interested in the social history of the first century world, and I really appreciated trying to understand Paul within his own context. In the light of what we know – and we know a great deal – about his world, how might we understand what he has to say? And what relevance might that have to our world and our lives?

So, as I approach Paul, I’m always reminded of what John Stott said was the job of preachers – to try and understand the two worlds of the first century and our own, and then to build a bridge between them. And that’s pretty much what I’ve tried to do over many years. But there’s hard work involved!


Paul Distilled started as a teaching series. What was the original inspiration for that?

Well, last Spring the pandemic had hit and the whole world was turned upside down. We went in to lockdown for the first time, and we were aware of a great deal of suffering all round the world because of the havoc caused by the virus. So, I suppose I just wanted to do something positive, to provide a little bit of encouragement and inspiration for people.

So I knew that there was great potential for that in Paul’s letters – something, of course, that I know a little bit about! What he has to say about resurrection, about anxiety, joy, the power of the Holy Spirit and about love seemed to me to be the perfect antidote to the malaise we were all feeling.

As a result, I did this series of ten “Paul in Tens” – little video presentations, taking a theme in Paul and trying to make it engaging and hopeful for everyone, and doing each one in just 10 minutes. And they seemed to go down quite well, so after the videos were completed, I talked to the guys at Wipf and Stock about turning the material into a book and they were enthusiastic. I then set to work to augment and re-arrange the material and turn it into Paul Distilled.


In your introduction you suggest that many people have issues with Paul. Why do you think we ended up with a wrong take on him?

Well, you’ve got to admit, some of the trains of thought in Paul’s letters can be a bit confusing! Even the apostle Peter said that he thought brother Paul’s letters were “hard to understand.” And he lived in the same world as Paul! So perhaps we can be forgiven for getting the wrong end of the stick sometimes.

And then, of course, we have 2,000 years of theology to contend with – much of which is good and helpful, but some of it is a product of its time and its own social setting. So, along the way, Paul has been used to support slavery, despotic regimes and dreadful treatment of women, for example, and that legacy lingers on. But, trying to understand Paul in his own world can be a great help in untangling some of the knots we’ve got ourselves into at times.

Knowing something about the Roman Empire, its religion and its values, for example, can be a great help in seeing that Romans 13 isn’t the only passage in Paul that can guide our attitude to the powers that be. There are other passages where he is really being quite critical of all that Rome stands for.


Your subjects are intriguing. Usually Paul is all about "justification by faith” but though you use a Bob Dylan quote to almost take that as read, you are dealing with poverty, peace-making and justice. Why do we often miss these themes in Paul?

Yes, it’s maybe strange to have a book on Paul which doesn’t cover what most people think of by the term “justification by faith.” And, of course, that is important. But I did want to highlight some of the areas many of us have missed – perhaps by the very concentration there has been on that phrase. 

Once you start thinking about what the idea of the “gospel” was to a first century Jew like Paul, then you are immediately into the idea of the expectation of the kingdom of God arriving on earth. And that was his expectation – except now, it all revolved around the person of Jesus the Messiah. His coming, death and resurrection, Paul saw, were the way in which God’s promises to Israel were being realized. And that meant the peaceful world that Isaiah had envisaged; that meant the great reversal of rich and poor that Mary had seen; that meant the new day of justice that Israel’s prophets had looked for was now arriving; and that the transformation of the world was beginning.

So, I think, once you get that clear, and you see that the gospel is not simply “getting saved and going to heaven,” then as you read Paul, you’ll begin to see ideas about peace and love and justice popping up everywhere. 

What I really like about Paul’s letters is that in them we can piece together this grand vision that Paul has for seeing the significance of the coming of Christ. Which will culminate in the day of resurrection when God comes to renew the world. But, for Paul, that day of resurrection has already begun – which has enormous implications for our individuals lives, but also for the world. We Jesus-followers are called to anticipate God’s new creation in the present by seeking peace and justice in our church communities and in the wider world.       


And then the woman issue. Paul is often seen as against woman. You challenge that assumption.

Sadly, Paul is often seen as restricting the role of women in leadership. With the result some people just give up on him, thinking he is some sort of misogynist. Part of the problem is that there are a couple of verses in his letters that have been magnified out of all proportion. But if we start at the right place – which I argue in the book is Romans 16 – then we begin to get a much different understanding of Paul. One where he clearly works with and appreciates a whole range of women leaders in the early churches. So, the evidence from the New Testament really does not support restricting women in leadership. Far from doing that, actually, Paul supports women in church leadership!


How do you hope people might use the book?

I hope that the book is a good starter for people. That it gives them a way into Paul and opens up their thinking about the way that he thought about the gospel, about Jesus, about the world and the potential for transformation. That it might whet their appetite to study and think more about Paul’s letters. 

But also, I’ve included a set of questions at the end of each chapter, so that the book could be used in a church or home group setting. Where, perhaps, people could read a chapter and then come together to chat about some of the issues it has raised.

But again, like the Paul in Ten videos, I hope people will find this little book interesting, challenging and inspiring.


More details at




I cannot get enough of these books. Flicking across their pages I laughed, I sympathised, I welled up, I remembered and I raged. Paul Cookson has been writing poetry for decades but it is almost as if his gift was honed for such a time as this. He has captured ten months of living through Covid 19 with a holistic breath and depth that I don’t think he ever thought about doing when he set out.

Paul Cookson is a funny funny man. I have watched him doing his day job, grabbing the attention of Primary School children making them laugh and opening them up a love for poetry. I have actually laughed so hard that I thought I might pass out!

In the innocent Coronavirus days back last March, Paul committed to writing a poem every day. I bet he regrets that commitment. A few rhymes for a week or two turned into a year! Yet, every day there on Facebook… another poem! I followed the days, then weeks, then months on Facebook. Every day. 

Writing a poem every day is quite a task. It is not the quantity of the poems that impresses. It is that every day he found something of a weightiness to say. I have found these books a rather astonishing way to look back at the strange year we have lived through. Actually reading them, looking back has been much more profound than when I read them at the time.

Now, let me explain. Mr Cookson has a few roles in his poetic life as well as making a Primary School class love poetry. He is the Poet-In-Residence for the National Football Museum as well as for Everton in the Community. He is Poet Laureate for Slade too. He is even in a band with Slade drummer Don Powell!

So there are some wonderful entries about football and Glam Rock. However, this collection encompasses national issues and communal issues that sit alongside Paul’s own personal experience. It is a rich tapestry of what we have been going through. There are dull days, mental challenge, grief, tributes, praise for the NHS, sympathy for teachers and lots of political critique. 

These collection are about Coronavirus life in all its fulness in a punchy clever arranging of words and rhymes. They are an entertaining national history. Thank you Paul for committing to that first poem and keeping on… and on… and on. 


Let Us Dream

No Pope Here! That was a slogan I was familiar with growing up. Who knows as a child I might even have shouted it with my mates. There are many who still stand by the sentiment.

So, I can hear you asking, and I hear some of you louder than others, what is a Presbyterian minister doing reading about the Pope? Well, here is the thing. I do not only think that Let Us Dream is only helpful for a Presbyterian, whose vows tell him not to refuse light from any quarter, but I think this is a document of social transformation that needs read and discussed by Jews and Muslims and Hindus and agnostics and atheists. It is a powerful challenge for all of us.

“When are we getting back to normal?” “I don’t want to go back to the old normal.” “What will the new normal be like?” These are all questions that I have heard, even said over this past strange year.

The Pope is writing into these questions. He is making the most of what he calls this “stoppage”, to critique the old normal that we left behind and ask if we can come out of these restrictions and lockdowns to a much better world. 

He writes, “In every personal ‘covid’, so to speak, in every ‘stoppage’ what is revealed is what needs to change; our lack of internal freedom, the idols we have been serving, the ideologies we have tried to live by, the relationships we have neglected.” All the potency of a preacher for sure.

For Francis the dream is nothing short of a revolution. He suggests that if we just tidy up the old normal we miss a powerful opportunity to create a new way to live based around people and creation. 

The Pope sees our “private demons” and “isolated conscience” at the core of what is wrong with the world. He speaks of a “hyper individualism”, a lack of common good, a business focus that is damaging to the environment, society and the soul. He defines that old word sin as “the rejection of the limits love requires”. I particularly love that line. A depth crag etc live by. Love of earth and love of fellow humans.

The target of his rage is unaccountable business and the wrong purposes for the accumulation of wealth. He rages, “I criticise the self-evidently fictitious idea that wealth must be allowed to roam unhindered in order to provide prosperity to all.” Instead he sees the secret of a better day “to put the economy at the service of the people to build peace and justice and defend mother earth.”

The poor and the environment are dear to Pope Francis heart. The economy should be put to the service of these. He is a massive fan of fraternity and solidarity. Fraternity means that we live with a love for our neighbours. “Solidarity is not sharing of crumbs from the table but to make space at the table for everyone.” 

I am captivated. The Pope calls it Catholic Social Teaching. Oh some of the theology and ecclesiology is a little too Catholic for a contrary wee Presbyterian from Ballymena but it would be wrong to miss its wisdom for prejudice sake. I would call it a good account of what the Bible lays out in the books of the law, what the prophets rage for in the Old Testament and what Jesus goes on about throughout the entire Gospels. 

Again, do not think that therefore not being a religious person you can ignore these ideas. Even if you do not believe in the existence of a transcendent God the ancient Scriptures are wonderful books of wisdom and insight in how to live as individuals and in community.

The Pope is dreaming up a way to live that is not new but is laid out in ancient alternative imaginings. At the core of the dream is the fulfilment of the potential of every human being and environment that we live that potential in. 

The Pope also has something profound to say into our own eccentric divisions here in Ireland. He is speaking into the new polarisation all over the world, particular evident in recent events in America, but his words should be heeded in the midst of our own eccentric fundamentalisms and deep divide. 

The Pope talks about the “great danger in remembering the guilt of others to proclaim my own innocence” and of “reducing a person’s history to the wrong they did.” He implores us to  “look at the past critically but with empathy.” It seems to me that such attitudes would help our healing?

Pope Francis shares a lesson from the synodal approach taken by the Catholic Church. “Rigidity is the sign of a bad spirit concealing something” but a synodal approach is about “mutual listening” and the “productive tension of walking together”.

Productive. That is at the centre of everything Pope Francis dreams about. Let Us Dream is to Pope Francis what the song Imagine was to John Lennon. “You may say that I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one…” Pope Francis’s dream is a good one and though it holds a very similar sentiment to Lennon’s The Pope’s has a more robust argument, the worldly experience and spiritual wisdom of a very experienced religious leader.

No Pope Here some will still say. Not this Presbyterian. I suggest we need this particular book by this particular Pope in as many places as we can get it into!


Damian book

Damian Gorman was a highlight of 4 Corners Festival in 2020. He arrived among us with a humility, rural Irish confabulation, insightful world wisdom and words to open the soul. He gave himself to our festival in the most generous of ways.

His poetry was so good that I was googling his work to see where to start acquiring a lengthy catalogue of books. Nothing! How on earth could this man not have a book out?

Thankfully before he arrives back at 4 Corners Festival this year, the book is available. As If I Cared was finally published and it doesn’t let us down.

This is more than a poetry book. Damian’s imagination takes you on a short memoir journey. He begins by talking about his father, a harsh man who left more marks on Damian than we would like but ends with words of love to him. In between we get all kinds of poems. Short bursts of memoir, essay and other writings about his upbringing, his own children, The Troubles, other country’s troubles and more.

Some of these words are endearing; some are nuggets of good advice; some are insights into the mess we are; some are clues to the direction out of that mess; and some are rather hard hitting of soul and head and heart. 

All of it comes with a deep sensitivity to words and a deep tenderness to human beings. On the back cover there is quotation of Adrienne Rich “without tenderness we are in hell”. Damian’s words tend to be all about keeping us out of hell and nudging us in other directions. 

At 4 Corners Festival 2020 Damian spoke of story telling being like the Eucharist where the writer breaks himself apart to feed others. As a literary eucharist As If I Cared is nourishing soul food. 


Damian Gorman is reading at Breathe Out, the final event of 4 Corners Festival 2021 - book here -



Rain rings trash can bells

And what do you know?

My alley becomes a cathedral


I’ve long loved this Bruce Cockburn lyric. The entire song actually. It is from his very first record in 1970. Cockburn asks almost as a prayer:


Oh, Jesus, don't let Toronto

Take my song away


It is as if the city is the bad guy. To hold on to faith and love and everything spiritual we need to get out of the city. 

Declare me guilty. I love those walks on Ballycastle beach that I mention so often in these blogs. There, with the sound of the waves and the wonder of God’s creation all around me, uncluttered I sense God.

Or I remember almost 30 years now, driving through the red stone deserts of Nevada and Arizona and understanding why the apostle Paul took three years in the desert to prepare for his ministry. There was something sacred about it all. Something that you don’t feel as you look down a back alley with black bins over flowing with rubbish.

Bruce Cockburn asks that the trash and traffic wouldn’t take away his song.

Yet, my Canadian songwriting companion has spent the rest of his career finding that the alley can become a cathedral. He finds God’s light so lyrically in some of the world’s darkest places. 

I was drawn back to Cockburn’s work reading Richard Carter’s book The City Is My Monastery. 

Rev Carter was a member of an Anglican religious order in the Solomon Islands who found himself in parish ministry at St Martin-in-the-Fields, smack bang in the middle of London.

I can hear him singing Bruce Cockburn…

Richard’s book is not some memoir of how he came to terms with that shift in vocational call and geographical space. It is a work book (Rowan Williams’ words for it) for how to make the city your monastery. Or as Cockburn put it how to find a cathedral in an alleyway.

Under the headings With Silence, With Service, With Scripture, With Sacrament, With Sharing, With Sabbath, Staying With and When The Me Becomes Us, Richard leads us into how to be a pilgrim, disciple, in the clang and clamour of a city in the 21st century. 

He does so with real spiritual insight and also with lots of beautiful poetry scattered through it. 


Our monastery is here and now

Where you are today

The person you are speaking with

The room you are sitting in

The street where you are walking

The action you are doing now

This is your monastery

This is your prayer

Eternity is now

The city is our monastery.


This is all a good thing when we stop to consider that the Bible is different to Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. We do not, as Joni suggests, have to get ourselves back to the garden. The culmination of Scriptures is not that garden back there BUT a garden city. The new world longed for is a a new Jerusalem coming out of heaven with a river running through it.  

We are delighted that Richard Carter is speaking at this year’s 4 Corners Festival. Imagine our lockdown house is our monastery… our cathedral. 


Discovering Our Ability To Be Resilient

To complete our focus on resilience today, the award-winning broadcaster and journalist Seamus McKee chairs a panel discussion that includes Rev. Richard Carter, Associate Vicar for Mission at St Martin in the Fields, London; Rev Kiran Young Wimberly, an American-born Presbyterian minister and folk singer based in the Corrymeela Community, on the north Antrim coast; and Br Thierry Marteaux, OSB, of the Holy Cross Abbey, Rostrevor, Co. Down.



Patterson on Lennon

I love a good Beatles’ biography. I read a lot of them. Two of my 5 favourite rock books of 2020 are Beatles related. 

After enjoying Kenneth Womack’s John Lennon 1980; The Last Days Of A Life I was looking forward to this one on the death of Lennon by James Patterson.

I had never read Patterson before but of course I am aware of his popularity - 385 million books sold! He must be something! To have him turn that kind of ability on a Beatle. I was more than interested.

And… I kind of enjoyed it… but…

It is a page turning race through The Beatles and then Lennon’s career in around 300 pages. However, nothing is new, even the 2019 interviews with Paul McCartney give us not one new gem of intrigue. 

The information on Mark Chapman is skimpy. Skimpy because we already have all we know. He is not a very intriguing killer. Maybe the lack of pages on Chapman is because we all feel that if he set out to raise his profile by killing John Lennon we shouldn’t raise his profile. I could respect that…

I was particularly disappointed with Patterson’s take on what has become known as John Lennon’s Lost Weekend in LA in 1973 to 1974. Patterson points out that there were creative fun times in these months written off as drunken and wasted. Interesting, I thought. Must get my May Pang memoir out again. I will need to because Patterson again reveals nothing new and just regurgitates the same old drunken and wasted stories.

That is my problem with the entire endeavour. It is all very well but all very unnecessary. As I got further and further through the book, I wondered why? Beatles fans don’t need another book with nothing new to share. Was it for Patterson’s fans to discover John Lennon? Was it a publisher cashing in on the 40th Anniversary of Lennon’s death? 

Maybe that was a good idea. It is. One of the world’s most popular thriller writers giving his genius to the death of one of the world’s most famous humans. It is just that it doesn’t come off. It has to be a low in Patterson’s career. It certainly doesn’t entice me to go and pick up any of the 385 million that he has already sold!




Being a massive Jimmy Webb fan this book was a dream, taking us through the song Witchita Lineman, the times it was written in and the best biog I have read on Webb, including an interview with the man himself.



4. KENNETH WOMACK - JOHN LENNON 1980; The Last Days Of A Life

The Beatles' most meticulous historian takes us through John Lennon's 1980, how he finds himself and his muse, making Double Fantasy and lighting up the world again before being tragically taken from us.



3. CRAIG BROWN - ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR; The Beatles In Time

Took time to get into Brown's bizarre collage of stories and thoughts but eventually I can to love it. I particularly loved how he brought the losers in the story alive - Pete Best, Jimmie Nicol, Cliff Richard... and eventually Brian Epstein.




A Morrison book by Stuart Bailie is way overdue and when it came for Van's 75th Birthday it was a beautiful thing. Taking 75 of Morrison's songs Bailie brought them to their geographical places and spiritual spaces. Like a piece of art all in itself.




Jollett is the main man of indie rock band Airborne Toxic Event. He has quite the story, The child of a cult and a mixed up mum and alcoholic father this is the memoir of a boy who somehow found his way out of what could have been a tragic life to not only survive but thrive. 






Astounding novel that links biography with fiction. A book about the fracture within our entire humanity and how that causes localised conflict and that in turn leading to very personal heartache and grief. In the midst of all of that Apeirogon is a book about hope and forgiveness and the challenge as to how to deal with the fracture.




Any other year and this is an easy #1. An utterly gripping, insightful and spiritual rollercoaster ride from a comfortable life to escaping across Mexico, borders and deserts. Expect nerves to be frayed, hearts to be tugged and stereotypes to be knocked.




Rock band climbing the late 60's musical ladder, with wonderful characters, meetings with the famous and eccentric quirks too. Let me hear the songs!!




A wee short book that is typically Park. He has a way with characters and their ordinary interactions that opens up the soul. The phenomenon of the park run is a perfect plot space. There's always some music and it is Bruce Springsteen this time. 



Belfast's Novelist In Residence Patterson has his novel way of opening up where Belfast is as a society and he does it again here in a humorous tale of Herbie whose lost job, wife and mostly daughter and is those seeking who he is now rather than back somewhere else.



DIG WITH IT - Music, Arts and Nordy Culture

Hannah Cover

I have been intrigued by Hannah Peel since she arranged the strings on Paul Weller’s Live at the Royal Albert Hall album. I heard she was from Northern Ireland. Eh? How did I not know that. There was so much I wanted to learn.

Well, this afternoon by personal delivery the third issue of Dig With It came through the door and right there on the cover - Hannah Peel. I now know that she grew up in Craigavon until the age of 8 before moving to Yorkshire. I know she now lives in Bangor and what she’s been working on this year. Paul Weller has been very good to her.

This is what I love about Dig With It. With the strap line Music, Arts & Nordy Culture this magazine launched early in 2020 throws insight across our burgeoning local arts scene. 

The brain child of our most legendary rock journalist Stuart Bailie and his designer daughter Betsy, Dig With It comes out quarterly and is crammed with great writing, interviews and reviews about those who dig with pens, guitars, brushes and cameras - a nice tribute nod to Seamus Heaney.

As well as Hannah Peel, the current edition that literally landed on my mat today has Stuart talking to Sinead O’Connor as well as a brilliant article by Anthony Toner about the late great Bap Kennedy. There is always more and all three issues have had me discover what’s absolutely new on the Nordy music scene and giving insight to what I had already discovered.

Issue 3 has me comparing my thoughts on Joshua Burnside's astonishing record Into The Depths Of Hell with Kristen Sinclair's review, off chasing a new Jealous of the Birds record, introduced me to poet Micheál McCann and excited me about Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s new novel Thin Places coming out in January.

There is loads more, far too much to share. If I haven’t convinced you can I also add that the magazine is so well produced that it is a piece of art in its very self. In this edition Lily Bailie works with Hannah Peel, Kwa Daniels, Oona Doherty and Siofra Caherty to create flags, banners and emblems that illustrate those 4 creatives' lives.

Yeh, that Bailie name again. They are like a wee arts dynasty. We should be proud to have them. Dig With It has a much wider team but there is still a sense of family cottage industry. The best of what we Nordys are inside the magazine and in its making.  

3 covers

Subscribe or give it as a gift - DIG WITH IT


Lennon Womack

John Lennon’s death was the first one that I really grieved. I was too young to remember my Grandfather’s death. I was sad when Elvis Presley and Marc Bolan died about a month apart in 1977 but though they were heroes Lennon was more like a companion through my late teens. Indeed, Lennon helped shaped my worldview.

In later years I would question my loyalty to Lennon. He would drift down the charts to become my third favourite Beatle (sorry Ringo!) but in 1980 he was my man. 

I remember at the time that I was most gutted by the exuberance of life that was just snuffed out. We hadn’t seen much of Lennon for 5 years but suddenly here he was enjoying New York, enjoying his wife and particularly his son Sean and he was back in the studio making music. All that energy - gone. I was heartbroken.

Kenneth Womack is the new Beatles’ historian on the block. He has written quite a number of books on the band as well as two biographies of George Martin and another on George Harrison and Eric Clapton out next summer (cannot wait!). 

I am not sure that I am a massive fan of Womack’s style. He has written for Cambridge University press but what his writing loses a little when it betrays an academic style is more than made up for in his thorough research. 

Womack’s account of the last year of Lennon’s life is set up by sketching a pretty bleak scan across the four years before it. From retiring to his apartments in the Dakota after the release of Rock N Roll in 1975 Womack suggests Lennon was a creatively scant and without much purpose. Womack does give a really good feel for life in the Dakota and how the Lennons fitted into their district of New York

1980 however saw some new focus. Helped by Paul McCartney’s Coming Up single as competitive impetus, a new hobby in sailing and a holiday in Bermuda, Lennon started dreaming of a return to the studio.

I loved the investigative thread where Womack delves through Lennon’s demos and fragments and unveils as the pages turn how the songs on Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey came together. All these years later I got a bigger vision of the project. The love story and starting over for the 60s generation. 

Most of all, this book 40 years after the event expresses my feeling about the biggest tragedy of the tragedy. Womack paints the picture of a man who was living 1980 full on. The speed of his life, vision and art was accelerating month by month and then… with the futile act of one mad man… the life, vision and art was gone. 

That will always be the sad ending of such a Lennon book but John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life has a very positive hue, until that last page!