Monthly Archives: August 2015

Book Review: Taking God at his Word by Kevin DeYoung

After asking for reading suggestions at the start of the year, this was one of the suggestions that came up as a book to particularly challenge my thinking. Such challenges are always welcome. For my own view, I would recommend you read this and this.

It has to be said, it doesn’t get off to a good start. The way the book is structured is that DeYoung starts with his conclusion (that’s not just my view, he states it explicitly himself) and then spends the next 7 chapters attempting to justify that conclusion. So what is his conclusion? The subtitle of the book spells it out: Why the Bible is knowable, necessary, and enough, and what it means for you and me.

He begins by making a category error. He wishes to start with Psalm 119 but states that is an “intricate, finely crafted, single-minded love poem…about the Bible itself.” Really? The author of the psalm was writing long before the idea the bible ever existed. DeYoung is correct in stating that the bible is “a very long collection of books” but all too often he seems to treat it as though it were a single body of work with a single author.

Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, though. As this is meant to be a kind of executive summary, then all the supporting evidence and reasoning must come later. I just kept my ears pricked to see if anything in the first chapter was used as justification for later points. Such a possibility is hinted at as DeYoung states that he sees no problem with circular reasoning.

He begins each chapter with a passage from one book or another of the bible and uses this as his starting point. In particular he chooses 2 Peter 1:16-21, Hebrews 1:1-4, Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Acts 17:1-15, 1 Corinthians 2:6-13, John 10:35-36 and 2 Timothy 3:14-17.

The chapter headings give a flavour of what to expect:

  • Believing, Feeling Doing
  • Something More Sure
  • God’s Word Is Enough
  • God’s Word Is Clear
  • God’s Word Is Final
  • God’s Word Is Necessary
  • Christ’s Unbreakable Bible
  • Stick With the Scriptures

Very early on, we see the most revealing statement that summarises what is wrong with this book. He gives a summary of an exchange with an unnamed “liberal pastor” about the historicity of the virgin birth. In it, he states this pastor wrote “I don’t claim that you need to accept my understanding.” Now that’s a very gracious and affirming statement. Nothing to be condemned there. I don’t force others to conform to my view. If I believe them to be wrong, I may point out why, just as others are welcome to correct me (and of course, both parties are entitled to a defence of their views). But DeYoung will not have that. His response to the pastor was “I do claim that you need to accept my understanding.” (emphasis original). In other words, DeYoung sets himself up as arbiter of the interpretation of the bible and claims himself to be infallible. Though his argument is trying to show that he thinks the bible is infallible, his de facto position is that he is a person of perfect understanding. If he were not, then his view may be open to questioning, to challenge and even to change. It is one thing to be firm in one’s convictions and robust in their defence, but this level of arrogance is sufficient reason to view DeYoung as an unsound, unhumble teacher whose work is not to be trusted.

As with many conservatives, DeYoung has an unhealthy preoccupation with the idea of authority. He wants to be able to view the bible as a stand-alone document that contains all the right answers. Obviously, if one could do this, then that would be wonderful. Clearly DeYoung thinks he has found his paradise and wishes to show people how to get to his enlightened position. Yet it’s not that easy. In arriving at his conclusion, he has abdicated his responsibility to “love the Lord your God….with all your mind”. For while he is correct in pointing out that christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise, the mind must form one part of our love. As someone so educated (the book cites he has an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) one would have hoped that he’d be a bit more serious when it comes to utilising the gift of logic and the skill of fact-checking.

One of the failings of the book is to be suitably specific. For example, in his view the bible is wholly clear and can be readily understood. But if you read the chapter, there is no evidence of his appreciating the times, the cultures or the languages the bible was written in, nor to the various audiences to whom the books were written. In the chapter where he argues that the bible is readily understandable, he doesn’t tackle any of the difficult problems that must be addressed by one wishing to assert such a view. The first example that sprang to my mind was of statement about being meeting Jesus in the sky in Thessalonians. Is this readily understandable? If one takes an English translation prima facie then it would be an obvious backup for “rapture theology”. Yet as soon as one gains an understanding of the cultural norms prevalent at the time Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica, where it was customary for a people to leave the city and welcome the returning king in as they approached (c.f. Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem about a week before he died) then it casts a wholly different light on the passage.

One of the telling signs in the book is the sources DeYoung quotes. Obviously, there are some scriptural references, though all too often they are piecemeal, stripped of context and have a strong odour of proof texting about them rather than the aroma of exegesis. DeYoung makes a few very loose and broadsided comments about “liberals” but doesn’t quote any or give the reader any insight as to where such claims about these liberal views may be checked. The closest we get is a single reference to Karl Barth, one of the most robustly orthodox of evangelical theologians of the last 200 years! Instead, we have what appears to be some straw man arguments. I cite as my example (see, it’s not that hard!), the question of historicity. DeYoung argues for a binary all or nothing: either the bible is a completely reliable record of the history it purports to document or one may take the “liberal” point of view where history doesn’t really matter. There is no room for nuance. Yes, some things are really important historically. I would fully affirm the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; those twin events are not only the lynchpin of christianity, but are well attested and can be relied upon as historical events as strongly, if not more so, than many an event in the ancient world. But what about the parting of the Red Sea? Is that even the correct understanding; perhaps it was the Sea of Reeds as some have suggested. Are we to understand the creation story as being in the same genre as we do the book of Acts? I would say, no. They were written for different purposes, in different styles, by different authors, in different cultures and at different times. This is where I find the approach of N.T. Wright much more reasonable, in his appeal to critical realism (see The New Testament and the People of God for more on this topic) as the way the historically-minded person ought to set about their understanding of christianity. But this seems like too much hard work for DeYoung, who wants to take the shortcut that gets him to a quick and easy answer.

One notes that his non-scriptural sources, aside from excluding any actual liberal sources, are very strongly leaning in one direction. J.I. Packer gets numerous mentions (see here for my review of his work, Knowing God), John Calvin gets a fair few, as does a work entitled Reformed Dogmatics. All of these seem to be chosen because they back up DeYoung’s view, not because they are necessarily the most appropriate sources to use. If they are indicative of DeYoung’s own library, then it is indicative that his focus is very narrow indeed, which has resulted in a certain level of cherry picking. A more balanced work would cite the views that DeYoung sees himself as opposing as engage with them.

Let me use an illustration now:

I have a colleague at work who regularly asks the question: “Can you send me the headcounts, please?” In their mind, they are very clear about what they are asking for. Yet to me, it is not. Are they asking for the number of employees or the number of full time equivalents. Are they asking for the latest figures, a snapshot as at the year end or an average over a period? As soon as one starts to ask these questions, there is evident confusion on the part of the other person, as they don’t understand all the distinctions. Sometimes, they merely repeat the simplistic, initial request hoping that the complications they hadn’t foreseen would simply dissipate.

So it with Kevin DeYoung. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but it seems that in the few instances he pays lip service to serious matters like form criticism, he seems to lack an understanding of the questions posed by that school of thought. Instead, he offers us the off-handed dismissal that what Jesus thought

Ultimately, this is the work of a confused person who desperately wants to believe that they have a perfect textbook in front them, as to do so bypasses a lot of thinking that would otherwise be needed. Yet there is little appreciation of what the books of the bible are or what the intentions are that underly their purpose. Instead of having a holy trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, who are revealed to us in scripture, and whom we know through the revelation of the Spirit, through the communal life of the Church, through the determined study of the bible, scripture is, for DeYoung, treated as a member of the trinity: perfect, complete and unquestionable. Not only that, but his approach is wholly cataphatic.

In conclusion, it is not a worthwhile effort in reading if you want to gain a reasonable understanding of how to read the bible. Its main value is an example in how American conservativism works and how that can lead to a kind of fundamentalism. To finish, I am reminded of what Paul said to the church in Corinth: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned as a child…” On the basis of the evidence of this book, Kevin DeYoung still does.

Book Review: Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann

It’s been a few years since my introduction to Moltmann, which came in the form the The Crucified God. Since then, I’ve read his autobiography, but have been putting off reading this work, his first, which launched his reputation in the theological world in the 1960s. The edition I read was the SCM Classics version with an introduction from Richard Bauckham. This introduction is warm, gracious and readily accessible. The latter quality is one that I cannot say applies to the start of the main text itself.

You see, part of the reason I keep reading works ahead of Moltmann is that he doesn’t make for easy reading. While some of this may be down to the translation from German to English, I suspect it is far more about the intricacies of the workings of Moltmann’s own mind, as communicated via the written word.

The theme of the book is eschatology. Is that an unfamiliar word to you? If so, this is perhaps not the best place to start; for that I would direct you to Tom Wright. Yet Wright treads partly in the footsteps of Moltmann. For eschatology is a longer way of saying ‘hope’. It is often written about by more conservative theologians as ‘end times’ but Moltmann is here keen to point out that that’s not quite right. It’s not wholly wrong, but the emphasis is misplaced, just as one theologian I know cannot pronounce the word ‘eschatology’ (which ought to be “esker-tology” rather than his unfortunate mispronunciation as “ess-scatology”).

Moltmann opens by trying to assess hope in the context of some of the greatest thinkers known to the Western world. With apparent ease, he moves from Parmenides to Kant, from Anselm to Bultmann. There is a dazzling array of references here which would only be readily understandable to someone who is far better read in philosophy and theology than I am. So I confess that much of section one was glossed over a bit. Yet this does give rise to a criticism of Moltmann. For though I am not a specialist reader, an intellectual if you will, it’s not unreasonable to expect that a well-written work should be reasonably understandable. Part of this is that Moltmann is rather fond of his Latin, with an obscure phrase used on just about every page, which the editors decided should go untranslated. I am no linguist and wasn’t taught Latin in school. So while I could work out something simple like fides quaerens intellectum, most were lost on me and I didn’t fancy doing a search on Google translate every 3 minutes.

It’s a humbling experience to read something and admit that you don’t understand it. I was definitely in this territory in the opening section, including a chapter entitled ‘The Theology of the Transcendental Subjectivity of God’. If that seems like small potatoes to you, then by all means, read on. If I were to be critical here, it might be said that Moltmann is showing off that he is a well-educated person, as much this section is peripheral to the central argument of the book, which comes in parts 2 and 3.

Part 2, entitled Promise and History, begins to really get to the title of the book. In it, Moltmann is keen to rescue eschatology from the hands of what we might call fundamentalists. He doesn’t engage them as such, but points out that thinking of eschatology as purely an understanding of “end times” misses the point. Instead, eschatology is an understanding of hope. Where his masterstroke is, is that when he comes to the subject of history, we can only understand the past if we can readily identify what the past has in common with the now. That common feature: the future. It is then that Moltmann details that how we think of the past, must be in terms of what the hopes and shapes of the future are. I couldn’t help but think in terms of understanding the civil rights movement and in particular Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ as a particular example. Here, we can only understand the movement if we understand what their hopes were.

One of the questions posed regards why it was that the nomadic Israel kept their God once they had settled and changed into an agrarian culture; one might have expected that once the promise of the land was fulfilled they would no longer need a God of promise, of hope. Yet they kept him. It’s not a question that I had thought about much before, but it’s an interesting one to consider.

The real meat of the book gets on to look at the resurrection and the hope that is for, and embodied in, Jesus. Here, my main bugbear is that, as with much of the rest of the book, in fact, it appears to be written as a stream of consciousness instead of in a methodical manner. So there is not so much of an argument to progress through as there is a splurge of thoughts that seem to come all at once and which Moltmann is struggling to write down.

In dealing with the resurrection, Moltmann flips the notion of history on its head and inside out. He posits that to ask the question “was Jesus physically raised from the dead” is to ask the wrong question. In Moltmann’s world, the question of hope takes central place and what we think of as history (which he argues is an example of positivism) is a wrong-headed construct. At times he seems to contradict himself. He agrees with Paul that the resurrection is the single event upon which the christian faith hangs or falls but goes on to say, “That the resurrection actually took place is not denied, but does not lie within the field of interest.” If you’re reading this review thinking Moltmann might be offering a line of reasoning within which to understand the evidence for the resurrection, then this is the point to give up and refer to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God instead.

In section 4, he reverts back to the philosophy and heuristics of history. This section begins with a puzzle: if history is constantly in motion, changing from moment to moment, yet philosophy is inherently atemporal (that is, it is true regardless of the time frame), then how can there be such a thing a philosophy of history? For my mind, I then wondered if he might extend this to questioning whether there can be such a thing a history of philosophy, though this isn’t a point Moltmann actually raises.

The whole of the 4th section is entitled “Eschatology and History” but for much of it, the eschatological aspect is conspicuous by its absence. Ironically, it does drift in towards the end of the section with an intriguing discussion on the nature of tradition. Moltmann argues that what christianity understands by tradition is vastly different from what most others do. For most, tradition means harking back to the past (and my opinion is that many expressions of christianity do this, though not helpfully) but Moltmann argues that christian tradition, though rooted in the past, is inherently a forward-looking thing.

The book concludes by returning from the world from of high philosophy and back into the real world that most people inhabit day by day. Entitled ‘Exodus Church’, I had expected to see here the roots of liberation theology, a feature of the 1960s and 1970s theology in which he played a significant part, but any resemblance to it here is only as much as the resemblance between an acorn and an oak.

Probably the fairest summary of the book is given by Moltmann himself, with this quote from near the end of the book:

“If, however, the Christian Church is thus orientated towards the future of the Lord, and receives itself and its own nature always only in expectation and hope from the coming Lord who is ahead of it, then its life and suffering, its work and action in the world and upon the world, must also be determined by the open foreland of its hopes for the world.”

Book Review: How God Became Jesus by Various Authors (edited by Michael Bird)

This was written as a response to Bart Ehrman’s recent work, How Jesus Became God. With two subtitles, ‘A Response to Bart D. Ehrman’ and ‘The Real Origins Of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature’ it should be clear to any would-be reader that this should not be read as a standalone book. If one were to do so, then it might appear a bit of a hodge-podge of different aspects of christology.

The lead editor of the work is Michael Bird, who contributed to the introduction, conclusion and two of the chapters. The other contributors are Craig Evans (1 chapter), Simon Gathercole (1 chapter), Chris Tilling (2 chapters) and Charles Hill (2 chapters). After obtaining an advanced copy of Ehrman’s book, this team set about a quick response, which is why this was published almost in conjunction with How Jesus Became God.

As far as my reading is concerned, I embarked on reading both. I have linked to my review of Ehrman above, so I approached this work half-expecting many of my more critical points to be repeated and expanded by the various contributors to How God Became Jesus, though I was a bit wary of the fact that the publishers were Zondervan, whose tastes in theology tend to be a bit more conservative than my own.

I was particularly looking forward to reading Michael Bird’s contributions as I greatly enjoyed his contribution to Justification: Five Views where he advocated the ‘progressive reformed’ view of justification. How disappointed I was, then, when I read the flippant tone with which Bird had written. Appealing to mass popular culture, he takes some cheap pot-shots at Ehrman, unnecessarily denigrating him and failing to treat Ehrman’s views in a mature and reasonable way. Later on, he attempts to pass these incidents off as humour, but there is nothing funny about them. Rather, it is demonstrative of a poor lack of judgement on Bird’s part.

Thankfully, the other responses are, on the whole, much more carefully thought out. To pick up on one item, there is a good response to one appeal made in form criticism: that of the criterion of dissimilarity. If you’re unfamiliar with it, please allow me to summarise:

In textual criticism of the gospels, there is a presumption that if there is something written which resembles early christian belief then it must be an anachronistic back-projection of the gospel authors, writing into their books things that reflect the beliefs of their (later) times. The flip side of this is that anything present in the gospels which doesn’t readily seem to fit with early christian belief then that is much more likely to be a genuine reflection of the historical Jesus. To many this seems to be an obviously absurd viewpoint, yet in the world of form criticism there has been a loss of sight of the wood for the trees; one that Ehrman falls prey to, and which is dealt with swiftly and bluntly.

Probably the chapter that chimed most with my own critique of Ehrman’s work is that by Chris Tilling, where he questions the use of the word ‘divine’ and casts doubts upon the doubts raised by Ehrman as to whether Judaism was truly monotheistic. In particular, one of the targets is Ehrman’s use of Galatians 4:14 as the primary text through which to understand all of Paul’s christology.

Craig Evans’ chapter on the burial traditions makes for a fascinating read and could well be explored further. In some was, it was indicative of a slight problem with the book. That is, it is so specifically written as a response to Ehrman that some potentially fruitful and enlightening avenues are left unexplored. Had such routes been covered in more depth, then it would have made for a much longer book.

In conclusion, Ehrman was not openly seeking to deny Jesus’ divinity, but he writes with a kind of dog-whistle theology that is intended to show that the case for Jesus being one and the same as God is not as clear as modern christianity teaches. Such scepticism is needed for healthy belief, so one cannot reasonably object to the person who wishes to cast doubt upon the veracity of tradition. What this work does is cast doubt on the work of the doubter. There is by no means a complete rebuttal of Ehrman’s work here, but there is sufficient work done to cast doubt upon Ehrman, just in case one were to read him uncritically.

Book Review: The Early History of Rome (books 1-5) by Livy

Since finishing The Nicomachean Ethics, this has been my ‘long, slow book‘ that I have read just a few pages at a time. Having last year read The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction I wanted to read more of the primary material that underlay that greatly enjoyable start to the subject. It also felt like something of a resumption of ancient history after having, in the last couple of years, read both Herodotus and Thucydides.

If you know anything about the foundation of Rome, then you will have heard of Romulus and Remus and how they were raised by wolves. This is pretty much at the start of Livy’s work, though one should note the introduction by R. M. Ogilvie. I probably ought to add, since there are multiple versions, that this was the Penguin Classics edition translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. It’s rare for me to comment on the faithfulness of a translation, though here I couldn’t help but notice the appearance of some seemingly anachronistic idioms cropping up in the text. Seeming quite out of place and out of tone with the rest of the work, I do query whether this was the most faithful rendering of Livy’s work.

The opening of the book reads rather more like a work of mythology rather than history. The story of Romulus and Remus is fleshed out in a little detail, yet they were all too fleeting in their appearance, particularly Remus who was murdered by his brother. From here we read a little about an early period where Rome was ruled by kings, many of whom were corrupt or incompetent, so we see the seeds of a resentment of monarchy. A running theme throughout the foundation of the republic is the desire to have competent government and resisting the temptation to return to monarchy nomatter how bad things got.

Much of the book is very reminiscent of the History of the Peloponnesian War as we just get battle, death, rebuttal and a little political insight into how the early Romans organised themselves. With tribunes, consuls, military tribunes and the dastardly group known as the Decemvirs there is a fair array of models of governance on display, though without a detailed political theory, there is some ambiguity over the precise constitution. The other feature is that as seemed to happen all too frequently, in times of crisis, they would dissolve the republican model of government and appoint a dictator whose decisions could not be challenged. The idea seems to be that a single person’s choices are more readily made than a consensus. If one is familiar with later Roman history, you will be aware that the last person to hold this position was one Gaius Julius, or as he is more often referred to, Julius Caesar – the first emperor; a dictator who never gave up his position.

The most interesting parts are certainly towards the front of the book, with various episodes recounted which have seeped into later collective consciousness and re-imagined by later writers. I think in particular of the rape of Lucretia and the account of Coriolanus, the latter being adapted into a play by William Shakespeare.

That said, the end of the book (that is, book 5 of Livy’s work, the end of this volume) sets up nicely the next part of Livy’s work, in that we get an introduction to the Gauls, who are described as being quite unlike any other enemy Rome has faced and where the entire existence of the city is not only under threat, but seemingly doomed.

It’s a shame really, because while it does hint at a certain level of interest in reading on, I must confess that I think I have just about reached the end of my tether when it comes to reading the source material of ancient history. I still have a copy of Tacitus’ Histories on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, as well as a later summary: Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think I take as much from reading the early works as others with a keener interest in history. So while I pondered Plutarch, I think that will have to wait for some considerable time.

To conclude then, this is not a book for the casual reader (a category in which I place myself). It’s more for those who have an abnormal desire to dig into the origins of Roman history, but who probably already have a good understanding of the overall period, gleaned from later historians and summarisers. If that sounds like you, then absolutely do read it. You can even have my (by now, slightly dog-eared) copy.

Opinion regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to lead the Labour party

By [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

It has been with some interest that I have viewed, as an outsider, the Labour leadership contest. One name has been spoken of far more than any other: Jeremy Corbyn. It seems quite possible, as is often the way by self-fulfilling prophetic medium that is the media, the attention paid to him may result in the success of his leadership bid.

Because the media has, under the direction of a small number of men, moved to the political right, that which is reasonable and formerly regarded as “centrist” is now called ‘the left’, often with a pejorative overtone. After all, how often do we hear of politicians or political commentators being introduced as ‘right wing’? The reason they’re not is that it is the assumed position. It is only those who differ from the prescribed political view who need to be labelled as different, as an outsider, as a threat.

It is precisely in this role that the media has cast Jeremy Corbyn, which has certainly gone some way to dilute attention paid to the campaigns of Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. As has been evidenced by the ‘Tories for Corbyn’ campaign, the Conservatives are taking a risk that the media on whom they have been able to count for faithful support (in return for certain favours) will be able to cast such aspersions upon Corbyn that he will be seen as unelectable. And if anyone is seen to be unelectable, then they become unelectable.

Yet it is a gamble.

If it doesn’t come off then we will have, for the first time in many decades, a prime minister who doesn’t kowtow to the god of neoliberalism. What support Corbyn has is strong, but is it widespread? For a widespread but half-hearted support will always win an election against a fervent minority. For an example of this, I would point you to the result of last year’s Scottish independence referendum.

Corbyn’s campaign has undoubtedly stirred up the imaginations of those on the fringes of the party whose views have been marginalised in the last 20 years. But is he likely to win over the floating voters in the marginal constituencies in England and Wales that Labour would need, as well as win back the voters of Scotland who voted SNP in May?

The idea that Corbyn would be unable to do so is the main argument used against his leadership bid. There are some within the Labour party who think it is better to choose someone who could win an election; so long as they are in charge of a party called Labour, it doesn’t matter what their principles are. The idea being that a party called Labour is better in charge than the Conservative party, regardless of whether or not their policies are indistinguishable. Such a view is indicative of the collective move to the political right where power is the end goal, not service to society.

So for some, there is little good about Corbyn. To some in the Labour party, he must be stopped as he represents a possible hindrance to regaining power. To this end, he ought to be demonised and every flaw pointed out and made known so as to dissuade people from voting for him. Appeals are made back to Tony Blair, the only leader of a party called Labour who has won any general in the last 30+ years. The argument goes roughly like this: people may have hated Thatcher but she won elections; people may hate Blair but he won elections; people hate Cameron and he’s won an election; so it doesn’t matter what your policies are – so long as you have a good PR machine you can win power. That is far more important than having The Other Party in power.

It is partly because Corbyn represents a break from this hegemony that he is so popular, though one would be naive to think that he doesn’t have some advisors in his ear, telling him what to wear, how to make sure he is listened to and how to combat any negativity he may face.

Yet there is a danger inherent in choosing someone who makes a break from the norm. That is, that the reason they get chosen is because they are the only alternative. This can foster the belief that they are the best person for the job, when in fact they may not be, but the novelty factor may supersede any scrutiny that they may be placed under. With Corbyn, one factor that has been brought up is his unwillingness to condemn some terrorist organisations such the IRA and Hamas.

That said, the ‘Friends with Terrorists’ label never did Thatcher too much harm, given her support for Pinochet’s reign of terror in Argentina or Blair’s endorsement and participation in the illegal war against Iraq.

Still, the fact that he represents something different, could attract those who want ‘just anything different’. i.e. that people are so fed up with the norm that they accept the first new thing that comes along.

Whoever does win the Labour leadership (and at this point, my expectation is that Corbyn will win), they will not be perfect. They’ll make errors of judgement both in matters of policy and of PR. They are not the person who will be able to undo the Conservatives’ legacy of public sector cuts, underfunded services, selling off government property to the private sector at cut prices and a massive increase in the use of foodbanks.

The only advice I have is to beware of those who speak uncritically of Corbyn or any other candidate. If they portray their chosen candidate as the person to solve all of Labour’s ills, then they are not a person to listen to. For support is not the same as sycophancy and no one is perfect.

Book Review: Dear Life by Alice Munro

I first heard of Alice Munro when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. So poorly read am I that most winners are, to me, unheard of until they win. Having greatly enjoyed some of the work of previous winners, notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Galsworthy, I was looking forward to this collection of short stories.

This is one of Munro’s later works and the opening story gives the impression that it was written with a sense of a retrospective, but told with great gentleness.

The back cover of the book states: “Alice Munro captures the essence of life in her brilliant new collection of stories. Moments of change, chance encounters, the twist of fate that leads a person to a new way of thinking or being: the stories in Dear Life build to form a radiant, indelible portrait of just how dangerous and strange ordinary life can be.”

Some of the short stories are actually quite long, the 2nd story being some 36 pages. These make them just a little bit too long to do in a single commute (when I do most of my reading). Not wanting to split a story across journeys, I took to reading one per weekend, so it’s taken me some 3 months to get through this book, moving at a relatively slow pace. Because there is no overarching narrative, this has resulted in me getting to look in through a window for a short space of time every Sunday afternoon. I catch a glimpse of what is going and then move on.

For what one is left with is not a memory of each plot, each character, each decision that they make. What one is left with is a feeling.

It is interesting to note that some of the stories were first published in The New Yorker, which also published the wartime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. As I had read that so recently, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between them. For again, none of Munro’s characters stick with you for long after you’ve finished reading the stories. Even as I write this, I cannot think of more than a couple of names and very few of the plotlines. But this does not mean it is bad writing. If anything, it is quite the opposite, because what I have been left with is the impression that the stories have made, their footprints on the sand of my mind. They get you thinking as you read and it is those thoughts that linger with you. So I suspect many a reader will take away from this work something different, something unique to them and how they relate to Munro’s writing.

But in order to take that something away, you must first invest the time to read Munro, and that is something I would encourage you to do. Don’t expect her to blow you away with dazzling imagery or turns of phrase that make the heart ache, but let her abide with you for a season.

How to read 5 books at once (and not get them muddled)

1. The Main Book

As the title implies, this is what I regard as the book I’m focusing on. It’s what I read when I commute or if I get an odd spare half an hour (and I have it on me). It travels around and I get through it relatively quickly. I’ll typically average about 20-25 pages a day.

Past examples: The Wasp Factory, Dazzling Darkness, Watching the English

Current example: Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann

2. The bedside book

The bedside book is a long book  that is read slowly. Typically only 5-8 pages are managed per night. Sometimes, it does come on the commute and makes for a break on a Friday from reading the main book.

Past examples: Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Histories, Philosophical Investigations

Current example: The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin

3. The coffee table book

This is a book made of multiple short ‘bits’ that only take a few minutes to read. The Very Short Introductions are very good for this.

Past examples: Boffinology, Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, 50 Ways the World Could End.

Current example: Hebrews for Everyone by Tom Wright

4. The lunchtime book

Very similar to the coffee table book, this is a shortish work that props up my keyboard at the office. I get to read for about 20 minutes at lunchtime, so it has to be something that can be picked up and put down with ease. This is only something I’ve started doing recently.

Recent examples: Art Theory – A Very Short Introduction, The Social Contract

Current example: Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

5. The Sunday afternoon book

To make a break from the rest of the week’s reading, Sunday afternoons need something a bit different. It needs to be something that doesn’t need to be read continuously, so it can’t be a constructed argument for anything. Rather, each part needs to be self-contained and preferably not too short so that you can get stuck into it for an hour or two each week. For this, short stories are ideal or a collection of essays. Again, this is only something I’ve started doing recently, and any work I do read this way will be one I take my time over.

Recent example: Dear Life

Current example: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

So how do these not get muddled up in my head? Well, I try not to read too many of the same genre. If I do, they tend to be at opposite ends of the genre. For example, it is very rare that I read two fiction books at once. If I were to do so, one would have to be a classical work (such a Thomas Hardy novel) and something science fiction-based (like a work by Philip K Dick).

Similarly, if I were to be reading two science books at once, then I might opt for one on biology and one on maths.

You get some interesting confluences between books sometimes. For example, I was recently reading Livy’s Early History of Rome, which was being referred to by Jean Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract, which I was also reading. Then Rousseau was referred to by Rebecca Solnit in her book on walking, Wanderlust. Given the possible permutations of books being read simultaneously, I wonder if I was the first person ever to come across that particular linkage.

One of the other methods I used to use (when I spent longer commuting) was to have one book for the morning route and one for the evening.

What about you?

Do you read lots of books at once or do you prefer to focus on one at a time?