Monthly Archives: December 2012

Book Review: Blind Spots in the Bible by Adrian Plass

From the outset, I probably ought to declare that I am already a big Adrian Plass fan. His breakthrough books, The Sacred Diary and its follow-up, The Horizontal Epistles of Andromeda Veal, capture perfectly the real life expressions of christianity in everyday life. His collection of parables, The Final Boundary, is brilliantly written and highly thought-provoking. So I came to Blind Spots in the Bible with high expectations.

The book is laid out very simply. Plass gives us a short-ish passage which contains some aspect that he feels he has overlooked in the past. He then goes on to explain why it may have been overlooked and to offer his thoughts on the subject. What he doesn’t give is a neatly packaged, all-encompassing answer that leaves no room (or need) for further explanation; life isn’t that simple and Plass puts the reader in no doubt that that is his view.

These blind spots are only those that Plass has noticed; some of which I share, some of which I thought Plass may have omitted. But that’s sort of the point; our blind spots are our own. Though orthodox in his belief, he comes across a little more conservative than I had thought him to be. Consequently, I don’t always agree with him, but that’s ok. He acknowledges that there are some things we are unlikely to understand in this lifetime and that some revelations of understanding are awaiting us.

The book is broken up into approximate themes, though these get more and more tenuous as the book goes on. Each passage and Plass’ ponderings is quite short, but also quite thought-provoking. As such, this is not a book to be read in a hurry. I found it most helpful to just look at 2 or 3 passages a day, but never one straight after the other. Each of us could write our own version of this book. Indeed, I may well address some of my own blind spots on this blog later in the year.

I would recommend this book to you, not as a resource where you might come to have questions answered, but as a resource where questions are asked, prompting you to think for yourself.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

This was one of my books of shame that I needed to get round to finishing. It probably stands out amongst the others as it is generally regarded as a very good book, one of Dick’s best. Yet on my first reading, I found it incredibly difficult to get into and lost interest in the characters. I think this was partly because the premise (an alternative reality where the Nazis won the 2nd world war) brings so much to my mind, I had already gone some way to writing the book, only to have the image conjured up completely at odds with what Dick actually wrote. This cognitive dissonance meant that I just didn’t get it, so went in search of something where I felt more at home.

So, on my 2nd attempt at reading it, what did I discover? Well, the characters were still as uninteresting as before. This is my one bug-bear about much of Dick’s other writings, of which I read much when I was in my late teens and early 20s, though which have not been reviewed on this blog. His true mastery is in sci-fi philosophy. The premise and how he has worked it out is what ultimately drew me in. The true stroke of genius was a plot device whereby a book becomes the subject of the novel. The book in question, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, gives a ‘fictional’ account of an alternative history whereby the Allies won the 2nd World War and the Axis powers lost.

The book has a fairly small cast of characters, many of whom never meet. I read the book with the expectation that they would all be brought together at the conclusion, but they never are. Most of the plotlines peter out, but not all. One of the other recurrent themes is a second book, the I Ching (or book of changes) which is a book of superstition, whereby its users throw some sticks in the air and the pattern in which they fall determines the decisions they ought to make. Dick uses this as a mechanism to demonstrate the fatalistic mindset that becomes prevalent in the wake of war.

It is worth noting that the book was first published in 1962, when memories of the Second World War were much fresher. Dick noticeably draws on the American spirit of optimism in the early 60s with relation to space exploration, but twists it by portraying the space race as being dominated by the Germans ahead of the Japanese.

Though the characters are uninteresting, the same could not be said about the premise. For that alone, it is worth reading. For me, it falls into a similar class of book as Catch 22, a brilliant idea which has been poorly executed. It is not as good as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch but is still a lot better than much run-of-the-mill science fiction which was turned out around the same time.

Book Review: The Future of Justification by John Piper

I’m continuing my look at the New Perspectives on Paul, here looking at the first of the rejoinders. Piper angles his writing specifically as a response to N.T. (Tom) Wright. It was for that reason that I chose to read What St Paul Really Said and Paul: Fresh Perspectives before I read this. If you are considering picking up Piper’s book, I would heartily recommend that you read these first; otherwise you may get lost, although Piper does quote Wright quite extensively, but only on the points which Piper disagrees with.  

A word needs to be said about the book’s structure & style. The main book is a little under 200 pages long, but tagged onto the end are six appendices. Piper fully admits that these appendices don’t directly relate to the argument of the book, but are little essays that give some more detail to his views on the theme of justification. Most evident in these, but also present in the rest of the book, is Piper’s inferior communication skills. While he criticises Wright for not always being clear (and I agree that Wright isn’t always clear in communicating his views), Piper has a habit of peppering his writing with Greek. Only, he rarely includes a transliteration, making it difficult to read for anyone who can’t easily read Greek. One wonders if this was done not for the purposes of making himself clearer, but for the purpose of making him look clever. Likewise, Piper uses the word ‘impute’ and its cognates a lot, but at times he contradicts himself over what he understands this to mean.

As the title suggests, the aspect of the New Perspective which is in contention is that of ‘justification by faith’. Wright’s contention is that justification is not that which ensures salvation, but is the “badge” by which those who are saved are identified. Here, I do find Piper more convincing than Wright, particularly with respect to the interpretation of the phrase ‘dikaiosune theou’ which is usually translated as “God’s righteousness” but which Wright takes as “God’s covenant faithfulness”.

Piper drops a vital clue as to some of the differences between his & Wright’s point of view when he says, “This British phrase, “putting the world to rights” means…” (emphasis added). It seems that there may be something lost in translation inside a common language. Piper then goes on to question how good news for the world can be a gospel for an individual, betraying a very particular Americanised sort of individualism. Of course, such a viewpoint would have only faintly recognisable to Paul.

This is by no means a response to the whole “New Perspectives” idea as espoused by Wright, Sanders, Dunn and others. This focuses on just one aspect of it. As such, I couldn’t help but think that Piper seems to have disagreed with Wright’s conclusions without first walking out the path that Wright has done himself. Indeed, Wright has stated that he is attempting to “think Paul’s thoughts”; the image that comes to my mind is of a child walking across a muddy field trying to step in their parent’s footsteps. Here indeed, the field is very muddy.

Much of the first part of the book focuses on an analogy that Wright used in What Saint Paul Really Said about a lawcourt. Although Wright only spends 7 pages on this (one of which is a diagram) out of 183 (4%), Piper’s critique of it covers just over 40 pages out of 225 (18%). In this particular respect, I find Wright’s account more compelling, as Piper seems more keen to stick to his own traditional understanding, rather than accept the possibility that theologians of generations past may have slightly misunderstood.

No one can doubt Piper’s earnestness or that he has taken great care in researching this book. Where a perceived misinterpretation of the bible has taken place, I do think it’s important to try to set things right, so I wouldn’t join with those who say Piper was being ungracious in writing this. In some points, I think his criticisms are valid, but not in all. As this was the first book of his I have read, I think he’s relied a bit too much on his other writings, though I said something similar for Paul: Fresh Perspectives.

After reading this, the next step in my self-education in the new perspectives will be to read Wright’s response to Piper entitled ‘Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision’. If my current reading goes to plan, I would expect for that review to ready sometime around late January or early February.

Book Review: A Brief History of the Crusades by Geoffrey Hindley

I realise this year I have read woefully few books that fell into the category of “other non fiction” which keen observers of the blog will note as one of the key categories of book reviews. Even some of those I have classed as such might have fitted into another category. Part of this was the fact that it took an awfully long time to get through Herodotus’ Histories. Taking a break from ancient Greek history, I decided to take my battle against ignorance to one of the most shameful periods in history: the Crusades. The wrongs perpetrated by those on either side of this series of conflicts have echoed down the years and continue to resonate in the so-called “War on Terror” that has played such a prominent part in international politics over the past 11 years.

Hindley’s style as an historian is that of a story teller rather than an analyst. This makes the narrative fairly easy to follow, though the profusion of names were too much for this reader, so I only picked up a handful of details, though some may have been absorbed subconsciously. It will probably take a pub quiz to find that out, though.

Hindley notes that certain conflicts carry an ordinal number to them, even though they do not reflect the actual number of skirmishes and battles. However, he chooses to stick with the conventional numbering, with more descriptive titles for those that are not afforded a number.

What follows is an account of conquest, bloodshed and ideology. As informative as it is with regards to the personalities and the large scale military aims of each side, I could not help but think that there was a lack of critique about the motivations behind the Crusades. There are a few references dotted about, mostly towards the end of the book, but these are few and far between. For example, he states:

“The ideal which had first inspired men to go on armed pilgrimage to reclaim the Holy Land for Christendom had always been a matter of mixed motives,”

“…the wars fought in the name of religion became increasingly embroiled in politics and the rhetoric of crusade became part of the vocabulary of international diplomacy.”

Early in the book, Hindley notes that the Crusades were not endorsed by all catholics, with Thomas Aquinas opposing such ventures. This is, I think, quite significant as he was probably the most influential thinker in christianity & catholicism in the millennium between Augustine and Martin Luther. This demonstrates that then to regard this as “christian v muslim” is to oversimplify affairs. That is not to defend the Crusades in any way, but the particular expression of what passed for christianity at that time is unrecognisable in today’s world.

However, it is clear, though Hindley seems not to want to emphasise the point too much, that the “theological” ideas behind the Crusades were those of the concept of the ‘holy place’ – namely, Jerusalem and that of the sale of indulgences. Those familiar with the history of christianity will, of course, recognise that it was the latter of these two which triggered Martin Luther into posting his 95 theses and kickstarting the Reformation. I just wonder how many lives might have been spared had the Reformation come about some 500 years earlier.

As an introduction to the Crusades, this is a very good book and I would recommend it. By the end, I was just trying to finish it, rather than finding it fascinating as the history seemed to be repeating itself, but that is no fault of the author’s. But the lack of critical analysis was a slight disappointment, with almost all of it being reserved for the last few pages.

Blogger’s block: Searching for cohesion

I’ve hit a wall again. While I found my month off quite beneficial and several people commented (albeit slightly backhandedly) on the quality of my posts thereafter, I’ve run into another mental block. I’ve received responses to both my tax proposal for companies taking on unemployed people and to my post on confirmation bias and the need for religious education.

While I have draft responses to these, I am satisfied with neither. Looking at them as they stand, they are little more than a collection of soundbites. To those I have promised to reply, I apologise. They lack an overall cohesion, making them difficult to read.

I also have had some other distractions, some welcome, some not. For one, the job market seems to have picked up, so I have been spending a lot more time researching for both 1st and 2nd round interviews. Inevitably, there have been some massive disappointments; interviews that have gone particularly well have resulted in rejection because “[there was just someone with more relevant experience]”. Also, I’ve not been in the best of health, and the most minor of illnesses tends to make my head go a bit fuzzy, making the prospect of writing that bit more daunting. 

There are a few more books which I’ve read & reviewed, but whose reviews haven’t yet been posted. So unless I can improve my half-written posts greatly in the next few days , then the rest of this year’s posts will just be book reviews. I know they’re not the most popular of my posts although they do seem to be the most frequented when the blog is found via search engines.

Let’s hope the new year beings good health, a new job and greater clarity in writing (in that order of priority).

The melancholy undertones of Christmas

The films

In the run up to Christmas, much of the talk over the tv schedule has been about the sequel to The Snowman, entitled The Snowman And The Snowdog. The original is a classic. I am of the right age where I grew up watching The Snowman every single year; it was one of the markers that meant Christmas had arrived. Some families make a tradition of watching the Queen’s speech, but mine didn’t. It’s not that my parents are republicans, they’re not; it’s just ‘one of those things’.

Yet The Snowman, in spite of charming style, visual narrative and the famous theme song sung by Peter Audy (the Aled Jones version was a cover, released 3 years later), it is a story about the death of a grandfather figure. The relationship that develops between the boy and the snowman has many features of that between a grandfather and a grandson. I always recognised my own granddad in that cartoon, at least.

For all its joy and beauty, it ends in inevitable tragedy, with the boy having to come to terms with the death of this figure who was in his life for all but the briefest of moments and who came to mean so much to him.

At the same time, one of the most popular ‘Christmas’ films is Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Again, this is one of my favourite films of all time, but not because I think it is some simple, optimistic tale. The film has a huge reputation, yet I never saw it until I was in my early 20s. It seemed to be ingrained in some sort of collective consciousness, yet I don’t recall it ever being aired on television. Maybe it was on when my family & I were all playing Trivial Pursuit – another hallmark of it being Christmas.

It’s A Wonderful Life is the story of a man who is driven to suicide by events overtaking him. The alternative reality he encounters in a world without him is nightmarish and ghastly, making for some very uncomfortable viewing. I think particularly of Jimmy Stewart’s panic-stricken face in close up as the shock of the alternative world hits him. It’s not a cheery film at all, although I would regard it (along with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) as one of the best films to deal with the normality of mental health issues.

I don’t have space here to go into some of the darker passages of A Christmas Carol, an equally influential work of fiction in the modern mindset.

Pondering

So why is it that such tragic films are entwined with the modern notion of Christmas? I couldn’t hope to answer that fully, but I will venture a few thoughts.

I don’t think it’s going beyond the realm of reason to state that Christmas is seen by many as a time for being with, and celebrating family. Whether that be a “holy family” or one’s own (or both), when I hear people asked questions such as “What does Christmas mean to you?” then family is a noticeably recurring theme in the answers.

Yet Christmas is (incorrectly*) noticeable for being perceived as a time with a high suicide rate. That is not to downplay the suicides that do occur. For those, I would conjecture that part of the cause may be to do with those who either have no family or are estranged from them feeling isolated. It may even be that they are envious of those who they see being part of a family, which only exaggerates feelings of loneliness.

Conversely, for families who have lost members during the year, or who have in the past lost members around Christmas time, then there can be a gap in their togetherness, an empty seat at the Christmas dining table. How we react differs greatly from person to person and from family to family. One of these reactions is to hold on that little bit tighter to what we have. When we experience loss, or witness it in others close to us, then we may treasure a little bit more those who we love, embracing them a little more to keep them safe.

A prayer

Suicides are not the only cause of death. We think especially of the families in Newtown, Connecticut who are facing a Christmas devoid of their children, their lives ripped from them. In the cold winter months, those who are elderly, homeless and those who cannot afford to heat the homes they have are especially vulnerable.  Lord, please show us how we may show practical compassion for those who are in need and grant us the strength of resolution to aid those who are at the sharp end of winter. For those whose loss is keenly felt at this time of year, we ask that you will bring comfort to their family and friends. We may struggle to find the right words or find it hard to be physically present in a time of need, but we ask that you will facilitate the right person to say and do the right things at the right time.

If this has chimed with you, the phone number for the Samaritans is 08457 90 90 90 who are always willing to listen.

*When I investigated this, it turns out that the statistical evidence doesn’t support the popular opinion. Suicides in December are lower than the year average, with the peak occurring around late spring & early summer. Still, one suicide is one too many. Each is a tragedy to be mourned, leaving holes in the lives of many.

Book Review: Introverts in the Church by Adam McHugh

It was quite a few months ago that I came across an article in the New York Times about how introverts were supposed to be taking over the world. It was linked to a book by Susan Cain called ‘Quiet! The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.’ Either from that article, or from a series of links therefrom (I can’t recall which) I stumbled across McHugh’s book. On the basis of the title alone, I knew it was one that had to go on my reading list (which currently has about 200 titles in it).

I make no bones about the fact that any time I do a Myers-Briggs type personality test I invariably come out as an INTJ. Also, I made (albeit slightly obliquely) reference to my former church pushing on the congregation the idea that you had to be extroverted; which ultimately ended up being one of several factors which pushed me to finding a new church.

Rarely do I read a book and start muttering words of agreement under my breath as I do so, but this was one of the few as I read through the first couple of chapters. One thing I had been wary of was that, being American in origin, the translation across the Atlantic might not work well. Also, the front cover endorsement from John Ortberg didn’t fill me with confidence as those of you who remember my review of one his ‘lifestyle christianity’ books may recall. McHugh does include sets of questions at the back of the book, which I still find slightly patronising, though it does seem to be a peculiarly British thing to find them as such. Other than those few points, it does translate very well. The kinds of characters and scenarios described are very familiar, and I could even have provided alternative names for some of them which would have fitted nicely.

The first part of the book really looks at the issues that introverts face in being part of a church. While I heartily agreed with most of it, I couldn’t help but think that the key beneficiaries of reading this would actually be extroverts. The thing is, and one may guess this from my blogging, that introverts communicate better when there is time to stop, think and carefully choose the rights the words. So for an introvert like me, this is as a great encouragement, telling me “you’re not the only one” and I think others may well read it in a similar manner.

McHugh admits that the most difficult chapter to write was that on introverts in community. This is very carefully and well-thought through with much to mull over as well as practical suggestions. Where the book got a little turgid was in the two chapters (which take up just over a quarter of the book) on leadership. This is just my view, as I have neither any position of leadership or desire to occupy one. Once those pages have been passed, the book picks up once again, with much that is practical. In order for churches to implement the ideas proposed will require persuasion of those extroverts who presently dominate the ‘way things are done’, something I have never had much success with.

On the whole, this is a book that is hugely welcome. Though there are references to quite a few others, they only skim the subject, so this seems to be one of the first books to tackle the title subject “head-on”. Some readers may be put off by the frequent use of the word “introvert” as it may feel as though you are being gently hit over the head with it. At a random flick through the book, I looked at 5 separate pages and found “introvert” or some derivation of it 13 times, 6 of which were one page! However, that’s a minor point. An even more minor point that may be addressed in the 2nd edition will be a couple of typos on pages 77 & 78 which escaped the notice of the proofreader. That aside, one issue that McHugh deals with excellently is that of biblical basis. After all, personality types aren’t really a significant issue in the bible. What he does is make some reasonable suppositions with all due warning, evident of careful scholarship.

One of the chapter titles is entitled “Finding Healing” and the front cover contains an imperative to “Read it and heal.” This implies that some introverts may find themselves hurt by extroverted characters within churches. If so, then they have had it much rougher than I have. I would more describe my view as being frustrated by extroverts in the church. So my encouragement to you would be to read it and discover an alternative way of doing church.