Monthly Archives: November 2012

Book Review: Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy

Those of you with a keen eye on this blog will be aware that I have something of a love for the writings of Thomas Hardy. I’ve read the majority of his novels (though not all of them reviewed on this blog) but this was my first reading of his first published novel (he did write one before this, but it never saw the light of day – I’m still wishing the manuscript will be discovered one day). Prior to reading it, I was led to believe that it was quite un-Hardy-esque in every conceivable aspect. I took this to mean it was quite unlike his other writings in style, themes, use of language and of characterisation, etc.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is not a wholly accurate description of Desperate Remedies at all. In fact, it’s really a rather good book with many features in it that readers of Hardy’s more famous works may well recognise.

The story revolves around the affairs of one Cytheria Graye, whose father dies at the start of the novel and who leaves no inheritance of any value. So her desperate remedy, encouraged by her protective brother, Owen, is to take up residence as a domestic assistant to a middle-aged spinster, Miss Aldclyffe (who seemed to have been somewhat inspired by Miss Haversham from Dickens’ Great Expectations). The opening of the book takes the reader down some tunnels, with sudden twists and turns in the plotline, though with such a tight focus, I will admit that something of the locational scale of Hardy’s later writing was missing.

Eventually, the story settles to a more rural pace and we find ourselves in a story of unrequieted love, foiled affairs and underhanded manipulation of the characters. Mid-way through the book, almost the whole cast of characters are thrown together in a tumultuous event, with the remainder of the book dealing with the fallout thereof. I hesitate to be more specific, lest I spoil the book for anyone. It is only in the resolution that Hardy really goes in a different direction than that which he took with his later novels. Yet one can clearly see early hints here of later writings such as Far From The Madding Crowd, Jude The Obscure and The Return of the Native.

The pace of the book is a little uneven, with turgid, aimless passages suddenly giving way to a flurry of prose of exciting events and vivid imagery. While it may be a little off the beaten track in terms of the Hardy canon, it is by no means the weakest of his writings and I’d encourage you to dive in.

Some potential measures to improve welfare & unemployment

As you are probably aware, I have been unemployed for the majority the last 6 months. This has given me, amongst other things, some time to watch the goings on at the party conferences in late September through to early October. As a left-wing christian, I fully support the idea that society should look after it’s more vulnerable members, whether they be children, the elderly, the jobless or the disabled. When I post views such as these on Twitter, I often get responses from trolls (or maybe genuine conservative apologists) who sometimes suggest I ought to come up with a perfect welfare system, fully costed, in 140 characters. So in this post, I plan to explore some ideas of how improvements could be made. I am not, by myself, a full government department which ought to be looking at these things, so any figures I use are reasoned estimates.

My first point to note is that job seekers’ allowance (JSA) is not enough to live on. It covers food costs and, when considered on a daily cost basis, utility bills. But it doesn’t cover all the cost of rent or travel to and from interviews. Also, costs of living vary around the country. So it is nonsensical to even ask for ‘a number’ that would suffice for JSA. I have seen no evidence of any costing behind the £71 per week that it currently is.

Instead, I would propose a reimbursement of living costs. That is, make claiming JSA more akin to claiming expenses from an employer. Lay down rules about what can and can’t be reasonably claimed and reimburse when evidence is presented for those claims. For example, for my rent I could present my lease contract, for my travel I could present train tickets and emails confirming dates and locations of interviews, for food I could present a till receipt from Asda.

The second point is about reducing unemployment. I have been to interviews and lost out to people who are moving from one job to another. All this time they are working, gaining experience and making themselves more attractive to potential employers. So it’s a virtuous circle for some, but a vicious circle for others. The longer I spend unemployed, the worse it looks on my CV and the less attractive I am to employers.

So I would I would propose an incentive to companies to encourage them to employ those who are currently unemployed. How would I do this? A tax break. At present, the expense of hiring someone and paying their salary reduces a company’s profits which lowers their tax bill a bit. i.e. if you hire someone on a salary of £30k and have a £5k recruitment fee, in that year you will get a tax benefit of £35k multiplied by the rate at which that company pays corporation tax (which depends on how big their profits are). I would propose that the amount that is tax deductible by increased if that person has been unemployed, the evidence for which would be a P45 from the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP). So as an example, let’s say the multiplication factor is ‘W’. This would be effective for any recruitment costs and the first year’s salary. After that, no additional tax break could be claimed.

At present, for employing someone at a total cost of £35k, the company has a tax deductible amount of £35k. But if they employ someone who has been unemployed for a month, then their tax deductible amount would be W x £35k. The difference is of course, £(W-1) x 35k. If the company pays corporation tax at 24%, then they get an additional tax benefit of £(W-1) x35k x 24% = £(W-1) x 8.4k.

How would this be funded? It would be self-funding as the newly employed person would no longer be claiming JSA and would be paying income tax and national insurance. Assuming there are no complications in their tax affairs, a person on a salary of £30k would pay roughly £4,379 in income tax and £2,689 in national insurance. There would also be a contribution for the employer’s NIC of £3,107. This make a total contribution back to the treasury of £10,175. So by employing someone, even if they were unproductive, that’s what they would contribute. But if they’re no longer unemployed, they wouldn’t need to claim JSA. A year’s worth of that costs 52 x £71 = £3,692.

So let’s work out what W would be to break even.

(W-1) x 8,400 = 10,175 + 3,692
W – 1 = (13,867/8,400)
W = 2.651

So we could in fact give a tax break to companies by allowing a tax deductible amount that is exactly double the actual cost and the net cost to the treasury would be less than the revenues raised.

Of course, this is one example, with many other variations possible, such is the complexity of life. I’ve done some testing for other W figures based on other salaries and they tend to be about 2.3-2.8.

This is not an incentive to create employment, merely a way to encourage companies to take on those who are currently unemployed. It’s not a panacea, but I think it’s a small improvement on what we have now.

I hope I’ve shown that this is an idea worth pursuing. So those are some of my ideas. What measures do you think would help improve the benefits system and reduce unemployment? Please be constructive.

Fisking Rick Warren

As you will have seen, my recent review of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life was not favourable. Rather than simply leave the review as a stand-alone, I will here embark upon a more detailed review, as I did with Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great. Here, I will draw out just some of the points with which I deeply disagreed with the author and state why. Warning: contains sardonic humour!

P12: “I am excited because I know all the great things that are going to happen to you.”

I severely doubt if Rick Warren knows what is going to happen to his readers. If so, maybe he can tell me when I will next get a job, when I will have a truly great meal or what eureka moments of understanding I may have from my bible studies.

P12: “I want to challenge you to stick with this spiritual journey for the next 40 days, not missing a single daily reading.”

Challenge all you like. But when we make arbitrary rules to stick to, we set ourselves up for all sorts of failures: pride if we succeed, condescension if we succeed and see others fail, self-chastisement if we fail and unwarranted feeling of self-inadequacies if we fail and see others succeed.

P18: “If I handed you an invention you had never seen before, you wouldn’t know its purpose, and the invention itself wouldn’t be able to tell you either. Only the creator or the owner’s manual could reveal its purpose.”

I think most of us could have a pretty good go. Maybe you just haven’t tried enough.

P19: “For thousands of years, brilliant philosophers have discussed and speculated about the meaning of life. Philosophy is an important subject and has its uses, but when it comes down to determining the purpose of life, even the wisest philosophers are just guessing.”

Maybe so, but are you really so sure that you understand better than all philosophers? Might they not have had similar considerations to you and come to alternative conclusions?

P22: “God prescribed every single detail of your body. He deliberately chose your race, the color [sic] of your skin, your hair, and every other feature.”

Hmmm….that’s rather deterministic. I suspect a literalist interpretation to the poetry of the Psalms has been taken here. Not the smartest analysis.

P23: “God knew that [your parents] possessed exactly the right genetic makeup to create the custom “you” he had in mind.”

While I wouldn’t wholly disagree with this, it’s rather simplistic, but that’s typical of the approach of the book.

P24: “The more physicists, biologists and other scientists learn about the universe, the better we understand how it is uniquely suited for our existence, custom-made with the exact specifications that make human life possible.”

Dear Rick, allow me to introduce you to The Anthropic Principle.

P25: “If there was no God, we would all be “accidents,” the result of astronomical random chance in the universe….There would be no right or wrong and no hope beyond your brief years here on earth.”

While the relation of creational theology to ethics and morality is an interesting topic, this is a total non-sequitur. As others have well demonstrated, and as I have argued before, christianity does not have monopoly on morality. One can have a sense of right and wrong without believing in God. As for the use of the term “random” I refer you my thoughts on that here.

P31: “Hope is as essential to your life as air and water.”

Hope may be important, but this is rather a hyperbolic statement.

P32: “Paul almost single-handedly spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.”

He may have done quite a lot, but he had a lot of help. This downplays the important role played by many other disciples, some named in Acts, many more anonymous.

P34: “One day you will stand before God and he will do an audit of your life, a final exam, before you enter eternity.”

Having worked in audit for several years, I really hope that this will not be the method used by God in a final judgement. Nor an examination. I hope God will be much more thorough.

P37: “Your earthly body is just a temporary residence for your spirit.”

Wow! I thought this was a book on christianity, not dualism.

P38: “If your time on earth were all there is to your life, I would suggest you start living it up immediately. You could forget being good and ethical and you wouldn’t have to worry about any consequences of your actions. You could indulge yourself in total self-centredness because your actions would have no long-term repercussions.”

This says more about what Warren would like to do but feels repressed from, than it does about the truth of christianity.

P42: “The Bible offers three metaphors that teach us God’s view of life: Life is a test, life is a trust and life is a temporary assignment.”

Ah yes, the old 3 point sermon which Jesus teaches us in Mark 17. Must. Never. Deviate.

P48: “Your identity is in eternity and your homeland is heaven.”

You might want to check the details of Paul’s Roman citizenship and how it informed his analogy of citizenship of heaven.

P58: “Real life begins by committing yourself completely to Jesus Christ.”

So….anyone who isn’t a christian is living in a holographic projection?

P74: “When you are sleeping, God gazes at you with love, because you were his idea. He loves you as if you were the only person on earth.”

Where to begin with this one? Extreme anthropomorphisation and am really not sure about the “only person” bit. God’s covenant promises tend to be to ‘people’ as a whole rather than to individuals.

P79: “If you want to know how much you matter to God, look at Christ with his arms outstretched on the cross, saying, “I love you this much!””

Whenever I hear or read this old statement, I want to scream. The shape of the cross is not indicative of someone depicting size.

P101: “People often say, “I like to think of God as…,” and then they share their idea of the kind of God they would like to worship.”

This is a point I would agree with Warren on. Yet its appearance in this book is incredibly ironic as the view of God is so specific to Warren’s own view that it might be almost unrecognisable by a multitude of biblically astute christians across the world.

P107: “God is real, no matter how you feel.”

Supporting evidence? I think there may be one or two atheists and agnostics who might want to see some backup to that statement. Unfortunately, none is provided.

P123: “Life is all about love.”

Really? While love may be an important part of some people’s lives, I’m yet to be convinced by the “all” of the above statement.

P134: “If you know someone who is wavering spiritually right now, it is your responsibility to go after them and bring them back into the fellowship.”

Rick, I think you’ll find that’s the controlling methodology used by Scientology, not something to be advocated in christianity!

P167: “At Saddleback Church, every member signs a covenant that includes a promise to protect the unity of the fellowship. As a result, the church has never had a conflict that split the fellowship.”

You’re not convincing me this is a church instead of a cult. Besides, sometimes good comes from a church split. The whole New Frontiers network would never have begun if Terry Virgo had not had a bitter dispute with the leadership of St Luke’s church in Brighton.

P172: “The Bible says that all people, not just believers, possess part of the image of God; that is why murder and abortion are wrong.”

Of course! That one sentence finishes all debates on capital punishment and abortion. Why did no one realise this before?

P177: “God is far more interested in building your character than he is anything else.”

I think the evidence we have in the bible may indicate that there are other matters on God’s mind. c.f. Job.

P190: “You select a verse and reflect on it over and over in your mind.”

Warren’s guide for how to meditate is a great example of understanding scripture in its textual, historical, cultural and political context. Oh, wait…

P195: “Because God is sovereignly in control, accidents are just incidents in God’s good plan for you.”

Thus, the Epicurean problem is solved and theodicy is complete! Or maybe not…

P213: “At Saddleback Church we…developed [a programme] called Celebrate Recovery. It is a biblical, eight-step recovery process…”

The bible is well-known for its eight-step programmes, isn’t it?

P231: “The last thing many believers need today is to go to another Bible study.”

While I can see the point Warren was trying to make here, he doesn’t advocate a balance between study and practice. Pity.

P263: “Unfortunately, many leaders today start off as servants but end up as celebrities.”

Says the man whose book proudly announces on the cover that he is “One of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.”

P265: “God is always more interested in why we do something than in what we do.”

An interesting idea worthy of discussion. What’s that? Oh, you just wanted it stated as plain fact without supporting evidence. I see…

P268: “…we have a group of CEOs and business owners who are trying to make as much as they can so they can give as much as they can…”

Not that old canard again! Remind us what the bible says about worldly riches and the love of money…

P282: “Your mission is so significant that Jesus repeated it five times, in five different ways, in five different books of the Bible.”

So if you read 5 different newspapers, each reporting an earthquake in California using different words, then that must mean there were 5 different earthquakes.

P286: “If you want Jesus to come back sooner, focus on fulfilling your mission, not figuring out prophecy.”

Firstly, not sure you’ve quite got the hang of the idea of prophecy. Secondly, I’m yet to be convinced that trying to work towards any goal is going to bring a second parousia; it doesn’t seem to fit in with the ‘thief in the night’ motif.

P290: “…unbelievers see pastors as professional salesmen, but see you as a “satisfied customer,” so they give you more credibility.”

Really? What survey was that research taken from? What was the methodology used? Or is it something that you just made up?

P294: “There are hundreds of great book on how to share the Good News. I can provide a list of books that have been helpful to me (see appendix 2).”

[Looks at appendix 2] Of the 8 books listed, 5 are written by Warren and another 1 is produced by his church. So when he says they “have been helpful to me” what he really means is that they “have been helpful to [my bank balance].”

P300: “People may refuse our love or reject our message but they are defenceless against our prayers.”

You do know that many people find being prayed for a form of passive-aggression? The idea of “defenceless” implies we are attacking them. Maybe not the best metaphor to use.

P307: “I strongly urge you to gather a small group of friends and form a Purpose-Driven Life Reading Group to review these chapters on a weekly basis.”

Indeed! Let’s scrap the bible and adopt The Purpose Driven Life as our new scripture. What could be better to ground people securely in God’s word?

Book Review: The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

As mentioned some time ago, this is one of my books of shame. I picked this up on the basis of numerous recommendations that mostly came from friends in non-denominational churches (which comprise most of my christian friends) though I had also heard and read strong criticisms from both liberal and conservative ends of the church spectrum.

The book is broken up into 40 small chapters which Warren asks the reader to read at the rate of one per day. The start of the book also contains a very cheesy ‘covenant’ between the reader and Warren (with a curiously presumptive line for “partner”). This is where the problems with the book begin. It’s that with God’s help, a covenant is made between the individual reader and the author. Forget anything about a covenant between God and his people as a collective, that doesn’t get a look in here, this is a new covenant that Warren instigates, which has very little mention of the blood of Jesus which most christians will be familiar with through communion services.

 The point at which I gave up before (OK, I actually threw the book across the room in anger) was at the end of ‘Day 7’ where Warren invites the reader to pray a ‘conversion prayer’. He writes some pithy lines and says that if you say these words then you are a christian. What this seems to imply is that it’s a book that is largely intended for non-christians, or at least for new christians. If so, then the lack of what one would generally consider ‘core theology’ of the gospel is grossly lacking. This is a book of applied theology where the theology is absent, leaving us with a vacuous self-help message dressed up in christian clothing.

The fact is, there is actually much which is commendable here. So it is not a case that I think Warren is trying to be misleading. It is the black-and-white certainty with which he pontificates that irritates me. I think it may be because I take a very different interpretation of the word “assurance” – no doubt coloured by the years I spent working as an auditor, where “assurance” simply means ‘pretty sure there’s nothing majorly wrong’ rather than ‘correct to the very last penny’. Warren presents us with his point of view (nothing wrong with that) but presents it as the only interpretation. Whilst various passages in the bible do warn against teaching a false gospel, I don’t think that means unity means conformity.

Whilst one might be impressed at ‘over 1,000 verses’ are cited, these are very often piecemeal and demonstrates this as more a work of proof-texting than of exegesis. It is as though Warren has written out his viewpoint and then gone in search of soundbites to back up his point of view, often stripping them of their context. It’s not helped when he refers the reader to a list of further resources he said he found helpful, only to find a further list of resources authored by Warren himself or otherwise produced by the church of which he is the founding pastor.

I will be going into more details about this, fisking some aspects of the book as I did with Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. For now, though, I struggle to think of anyone to whom I could recommend The Purpose Driven Life. There are much better introductions to christianity available or, if it is your thing, better self-help books available.

Derren Brown, confirmation bias and the need for religious education

On the evening of Friday 16th of November, Channel 4 aired the 2nd of a 2-part programme entitled “Fear and Faith” which was hosted by one of Britain’s foremost entertainers, Derren Brown. In the first part of the programme, Derren explored the placebo effect, giving various different groups of people a very well-crafted placebo to “cure” their different complaints, though the programme predominantly focused on those who had certain fears, such a woman who was trying to make a career in theatre but who was afraid of singing in public, a man who was so afraid of heights he had difficulty walking over a bridge which safely carried road traffic across it every day and a man who was very shy, fearing new social interactions, especially conflict.

In this 2nd part, Derren looked at the idea of “God” being the ultimate placebo. Rather than recount a blow-by-blow account of the programme, I’d recommend you try and find it online to watch again or wait for a repeat. What I found most interesting was the reactions on Twitter. I was following the #FearAndFaith hashtag and making a few posts myself (apologies to anyone who follows me and thought I was spamming).

The climax of the programme, which was being built up to, was trying to give an atheist a “conversion experience”. Much of the response on Twitter echoed the idea of @evertoniandy when they wrote:

Derren Brown was brilliant. Fascinatingly interesting. Turns out God is probably imaginary. Who knew? #fearandfaith #atheism

What is particularly interesting about this is the phenomenon of confirmation bias. The programme didn’t really examine religious belief at all. It focused on the idea of an emotional experience. This is something Charles Foster looked at in his book, Wired For God. Yet the conclusions that were made by the viewers far outstretched what could reasonably be made from the evidence presented. There is an earnest desire among some atheists to disprove the existence of any kind of god, so what happens is that anything which vaguely hints in that direction is taken as a confirmation of their own (lack of) belief.

Having spotted the sleight of hand that the programme creators were using, I posted the following message on Twitter:

#FearAndFaith Interesting to explore the emotional aspect of belief. Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?

This prompted as response from an account called Godless Spellchecker, a fairly relentless account (it averages 60 posts per day) which has around 16,000 followers.

@GSpellchecker
“@TheAlethiophile #FearAndFaith Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?” + They don’t make 10 second TV shows.

Because I was quoted rather than having a straight response, this prompted a flurry of other replies which I transcribe for you below:

@cheesymondo
@TheAlethiophile Taking all scientific reasons behind it.

@martarama
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile I’d have thought there wasn’t enough to put into such a tv show….

@DanielWalker319
@GSpellchecker @TheAlethiophile He already has. Fear and it helped us get laid.

@stuhowling
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile Haha brilliant. Another brilliant put down from GS

@glenn37smyth
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile LOL

@ogoffan
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile 10 seconds – must include an advert break then.

@JosianeGrignon
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile lol I just choked on my candy

While the Godless Spellchecker account may believe it made it a witty response, what it really did was betray an underlying problem with some modern critiques of religion. It presupposed, without evidence, that there cannot be a rational basis for faith. Indeed, the last decade or so, led by the New Atheists, has seen an increasing use of language whereby atheist is made synonymous with rationalist. Yet I have come across many atheists who could not reasonably be called rational, given their views on atheism are based very much on an emotional level, prejudiced and hateful of anything resembling what they perceive as ‘religious’. Equally, the increasingly tiresome canard of ‘science v religion’ betrays the fact that there are a great many scientists who hold “religious” beliefs and many “religious” people hold no objections to scientific ideas or the evidence or proof which uphold them.

Sticking to christianity, I know some people who believe for primarily emotional reasons, maybe based on an experience such as that which Derren attempted to recreate. Yet many I know, myself included, believe for much more rational reasons. For me, while the existence of God is vitally important, it’s not the most helpful way to approach a critical examination of christianity. Rather, the historical basis of christianity has to be the first thing examined. In other words, looking at the person of Jesus. For Islam, one would need to examine the life of Muhammad. On these subjects, there is much to be examined, evidence to be pored over and ideas to be discussed.

What is most concerning is the belief, in the teeth of the evidence opposing it, that there is no rational basis for belief. It demonstrates a very clear lack of education on matters relating to faith/belief/religion, however you want to word it. While some of this may be the result of poor religious education in the state system, I don’t think all responsibility can be taken away from the church. As christians, we have a duty to explain clearly what we believe. If people’s religious education is sourced from the naysayers then the view the public will get will be grossly skewed, a distortion of what christians believe. Hectoring the close-minded is not the answer; engaging with the open-minded is. The question then is, how to do this faithfully, rationally and with all due respect for those who hold different views from ours?

Book Review: Confessions of a GP by Benjamin Daniels

This was a bit of a break from my normal reading. I’m not a big one for “real life stories” but in the past I quite enjoyed A Paramedic’s Diary: Life and Death on the Streets by Stuart Gray. So it was a case of reading something that I wasn’t expecting to be particularly taxing, but still enjoyable.

It’s best described as a series of anecdotes. Each ‘chapter’ is minute, being only 3-5 pages long for the most part. So it’s a book that is very easy to pick up, read a little, and put down again; what I would describe as a coffee table book. You may have another phrase for it.

Benjamin Daniels is a pseudonym of a general practitioner (GP) working for the National Health Service (NHS). As such, this is very distinctly British in its setting, approach and tone. It may not translate that well, even to other English-speaking nations, though I would be fascinated to see what an American might make of it.

The book was a big seller in the e-book market, partly due to aggressive pricing, though as an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, I bought the paperback version. This brings me to my only complaint about the book: it wastes a lot of paper. There are so blank pages in between chapters and white space on the pages that in spite of it being 325 pages long, there is far less by way of text. For example, there is the equivalent of 5 blank pages just in the first 13.

Aside from that though, it is an excellent book which I would highly recommend. In stark contrast to A Paramedic’s Diary, this is told with no bitterness and only mild cynicism. The doctor’s passion for the NHS and backing for a service free at the point of need is clear throughout. He gives us an insight into all the things he wishes he’d been told during his medical training but which he has had to learn through experience. We also get a glimpse of the ethical dilemmas he faces, such as when he convinced that one of his patients is having affair, but can’t tell the patient’s spouse, another patient of his.

Though there are moments of extreme pathos, the book is lit up by the doctor’s sense of humour and the glasses through which he chooses to view the world. He’s willing to admit his mistakes, giving probably the best message that any patient reader ought to bear in mind when they next see their GP: doctors are humans too.

Book Review: Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan

I picked this up because I do judge a book by its cover; or to be more specific, by its publisher. Of the christian books I own and have read, I tend to find the ones I like the best come from either SPCK Publishing or SCM Press. Christianity Rediscovered is part of the SCM Classics collection, a range which includes Letters & Papers from Prison, The Crucified God and The Early Church.

When I read the spiel on the back, however, something caught my eye: Vincent Donovan is a catholic. His catholic bias is evident, with references to Vatican II, the Council of Trent and of the sacraments as being functional rather than symbolic. However, he has a few comments which one would not expect from the typical papist.

For starters he states,

“…every theology or theory must be based on previous missionary experience, and that any theory or theology which is not based on previous experience is empty words, of use to no one.”

I would strongly deny this. If taken seriously, it would imply that unless you have spent time as a missionary (which would probably exclude most christians) then any amount of bible study, wider academic theology or experience learned through everyday life is useless. One might wonder if Donovan was familiar with any theologians, though he does quote Augustine, Tillich and Aquinas, none of whom were particularly noted for being missionaries.

He also says,

“I would like to invite the reader to go on that journey with me. But before commencing it, one would want to have the same open-mindedness toward it, with no convictions beyond the one that Christianity is something of value; no preconceived notions about God, salvation, Christ, the meaning of being a Christian, the church…or anything traditionally associated with Christianity.”

This is a particularly bizarre statement, as it would require that the reader hold a belief in the value of something completely unknown to them. However, the reasons do become clear, as I shall expand upon below.

Those criticisms aside, I want to move to the main substance of the book. This is a story, as much of the best of christian writings are. It’s the story of different cultures and how the gospel is above being defined within a culture, but also how it percolates through cultures. In this reading of it, there are 3 cultures at play: the Masai tribes of Tanzania, the American catholicism of the author and the English non-conformism of myself, the reader. The reader cannot but help be drawn in by Donovan’s writing, asking yourself the same questions that he asked. I could not say that I wholly agreed with his answers, though it would be even more wrong to say I rejected them.

Christianity Rediscovered was first published in 1978 and there are references to political situations which existed at the time which are no longer relevant; in particular, to the Cold War and to Apartheid. The portrait of missions that is presented is one that is completely alien to me. He talks of mission “compounds” where education and healthcare was provided first, before starting to introduce the gospel.

Of all the missions I have ever supported, this sounds like none of them. Instead, they are much more along the lines of the conclusions that Donovan eventually reaches. Whether this is because of any impact the book may have had is hard to say; I think it is more likely because the whole idea of missions that Donovan begins with is a very narrowly-focused, catholic idea.

With that in mind, the book is very much a diary of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, he is discovering christianity for the first time, learning the principles that are well known to those who think in line with apostolic/reformed/nonconformist viewpoints. On the other hand, he’s trying to reconcile this to his catholicism and the unhelpful baggage that comes with that. He’s conscious that trying to teach a particular way of doing christianity is not the best method of being evangelical, but rather that communicating the gospel, so that it is understood, is then available to be either accepted or rejected (see my thoughts along these lines here).

In some ways it is quite a sad read, as Donovan gets close to some great ideas, yet refrains from these due to his catholic background. Nowhere is this more evident when he uses much of the same reasoning I did when discussing the nature of priesthood yet he fails to draw the logical conclusion and instead falls back on traditionalism.

At a little over 150 pages, it’s a short read, written in a simple, readable manner. It wouldn’t take long to get through if you just wanted to sit down on a wet afternoon and read a little about life in sunny east Africa, but I wouldn’t recommend it be read that way. Often without asking them explicitly, Donovan asks us questions about our churches (although I think his intention was more about American catholicism), how we approach mission and also fundamental questions about we understand the gospel. Questions we would do well to think long and hard about.