Tag Archives: disappointment

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: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Some time ago, I had a look at my book reviews, noting the gender of the authors. It was a stark revelation to me how few books I’ve read by women. Does that indicate my reading is sexist? I would posit that it isn’t, but I may expand on that in another post. The point of this as introduction is that I made a conscious choice to pick those books from my reading list by female authors and push them up the order. So while this has been on my radar for some time (when I checked, I had included it on a list I wrote back in November 2010) I picked it from a local bookshop along with the more recent Night Circus by Erin Mortgenstern – which is the next fiction book I’ll review, though probably not for a little while.

So with the preamble over, what of Moon Tiger itself? I have to say, I found the book very difficult to get into. The characters are very poorly defined and there is scant all plot. The idea seems to be that an old woman on her deathbed decides to recount various episodes from her life. These episodes are then told in a very cold manner. Though various characters recur one doesn’t have a chance to get to know them properly. It reminded me very much of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, though it was less pornographic than that.

The woman in question is Claudia Hampton. With one or two exceptions, the episodes she recounts from her life are devoid of place and time, so the reader is left none the wiser if a jump of 10 years or more is made. She might even have gone back in time, but I honestly don’t know. It may be a problem that I have with winners of the Booker prize – as with Midnight’s Children, it just doesn’t get going.

As much as one might try to like it, Claudia’s character is just underdeveloped and relatively soulless. Since the book is her memoirs, that centre is just lacking. If you enjoyed those other novels referred to above, then you may well like this. But if you’ve read them and were nonplussed by them, then it may be best to avoid it.

The only possible recovery for the book is if Lively wants us to view Claudia with the same cold indifference that Claudia views the rest of the world. If that is her intention than she succeeds marvelously in her creation of a wholly unlikeable character. That is not to say Claudia is detestable; she’s not a pleasant person, but she’s not a villain either. An endorsement on the back of the book says it “leaves its traces in the air long after you’ve put it away.” I couldn’t disagree more; it is mediocre work which is instantly forgettable.

Book Review: Around the Moon by Jules Verne

Having finished From the Earth to the Moon without enjoying it as much as I had hoped I nonetheless carried on with the sequel, perhaps in the hope that it would be an improvement on the original.

The book opens with a brief recapitulation of the first book which might have saved me the effort of having to go through it. Though given the simplistic writing style, it was not much of a chore. Neither, it must be said, was the sequel. Our cast is now reduced to just 3, President Barbicane being  one (president of the gun club, not of any nation state) and two others who were so unmemorable that a mere week after finishing it, I had forgotten. I could look it up, but it would be more effort than it is worth.

Our insipid explorers conjecture about the nature of space and, in particular, what the moon is like. They have taken dogs and chickens with them on the flight, though there is a noticeable absence of disruption, given the enclosed space they are in. One aspect that this reader noticed was also conspicuous by its absence was any mention of sanitation. Though Verne may have thought this somewhat vulgar or base, it is nonetheless a vital aspect to consider which is woefully overlooked.

The mistake that Verne focuses on though, is one of speed. As they slowed on their exit as they were shot out of the enormous cannon, they have not attained sufficient velocity to reach the moon. Instead, they just miss the target and are pulled into orbit around it, from where they make various observations and further conjecturing. I wish I could say more, but that pretty much encapsulates the whole book. Much of it is wildly incorrect and is neither enlightening nor entertaining.

To cap it all off, the book ends with a deus ex machina whereby rockets are suddenly said to be attached to the craft, having not been mentioned before in either volume. Yet these rockets are suddenly employed and allow the 3 men to return to earth to recount their tales, rather than stay stuck in orbit and eventually die of dehydration, starvation or, more likely, asphyxiation.

I had been hoping this would be a gentle and entertaining read, though I have to report it failed to live up to expectations. Though it is easy to read, I cannot think of anyone to whom I would be likely to say, “You must read this.”

Book Review: One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Prior to reading this, I was well aware than this is considered something of a modern masterpiece, with it often being cited as the book that led to Marquez being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Therefore I approached it with some anticipation, particularly as I enjoyed Love In The Time Of Cholera. However, I have also had many disappointments of books that have had high praise but which have nonetheless been disappointing. Notable recent examples have included Cloud Atlas and Midnight’s Children.

The start of the book is fantastic, and a real pleasure to read. In style, it is very similar to Love In The Time Of Cholera in that the language used is extremely poetic. This, however, is about as far as it goes. Having read the book from cover to cover, I really couldn’t tell you what it’s about. The story is set in a place called Macondo. It is somewhat ambiguous as to what sort of settlement Macondo is. At the start of the novel, it comes across very much as a small village. Later on, it seems to be a provincial area and at times it seems to be a whole country. The story itself is non-linear which adds to the confusion. So a character that is killed very early on crops up again alive and healthy later on.

The other thing that really annoyed me was the names. It’s supposed to be set across several generations, only to keep the idea of a link between them, almost every male character is named Aureliano or Jose. When this is combined with the non-linear story line what you end up with is a book made up of pages and pages of beautiful word-imagery that is disparate and incoherent. There are individual sentences in here that are wonderful, but adjacent paragraphs often bear no relation to one another.

The ending of the book (which I shan’t spoil) does go a long way to explaining why this is. I felt, however, that it was a bit too convoluted. Because of the issue of the names, the reader can’t really get to know any of the characters which is something I value a lot in a fiction book. So would I recommend it? Barely. It is a frustrating read, but there are some really beautiful phrases used where Marquez can, with just a few words, conjure up images in your head of stunning aesthetics.

Book Review: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

This was one of those modern classics that often crops up of “best books of the 20th century” and the like, so I thought I should read it at some point. I picked it off my shelf on the evening the 14th of August, as it seemed an appropriate time and date to begin it, having read the back cover.

I have to say I didn’t like the start of the book much. Rushdie doesn’t start at the beginning, but rather a couple of generations back and spends quite a few pages rambling on about a guy with a big nose and another who decides not to wash. The biggest issue for me was his introduction of a large number of characters who are not properly formed. When I read fiction, I like the author to be able to give me enough detail when each person is introduced to be able to visualise them, so that as I continue to read, I can visualise any scenes that occur. So the start of the novel was suffused with bit-part players who kept coming and going, but whose voices just seemed to merge together in a background cacophony.

The main story doesn’t really get going until about page 140. Once we do get going, what we have is a novel which is extraordinarily beautifully written, but which crawls along at a snail’s pace. There is no clear narrative in the traditional sense. Rushdie often seems more interested in making a sentence aesthetically pleasing than in telling a coherent narrative. Of course, there is an underlying story which permeates the book, but it is not progressed in the conventional manner of a storyteller. This lack of convention may appeal to some readers, though I personally found it quite frustrating.

In rough outline, the story follows the growing up of Saleem Sinai, who was born on the stroke of midnight as India became independent of British rule. The book is written mostly in the first person, although in a few places this becomes muddled when Saleem starts referring himself in the third person as a Buddha. Along with the children born in the hour after India’s independence, he is endowed with a “superpower” not unlike X-Men or Heroes, though the fantastical element is underplayed here in contrast to the aforementioned creations. The closer to midnight they were born, the more powerful their power. Saleem’s was telepathy. He is able to use his gift to “talk” to all the other children of midnight, though very little is actually done. The other key feature of the book is that, having been born at the same moment as the modern India, his fortunes and misfortunes are inextricably linked with that of the country.

I think for me, the thing that frustrated the most was that the detail was extremely fine, but at the cost of losing context. Rushdie spends most of the book describing people’s physical attributes, their actions and other mannerisms, but very little on the environment in which they lived. I am the kind of reader who likes to be able to visualise a scene as I read it. But Rushdie’s style of writing forces the reader to look through a magnifying glass at almost all times, so you can’t get a feeling for your surroundings.

The book is really quite long (~650 pages) which is why it has taken so long to finish from the time I started. As I now consider Midnight’s Children to be one of those classics that I’ve not really liked, it might be a favourite of those who liked those other books that I would put into the same category: Catch 22 & The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Justice, Love & Grace: A christian response to the England riots

I started writing this about a week ago, but have been ridiculously busy with work lately, but I hope it is still relevant.

Though I touched on this in another recent post, I thought I would expand a little on some of the reactions coming out of different sections of the christian community in this country in response to the riots. It seems to me that there has been a distinct left/right divide that has exhibited itself. Those that know me are aware I am unashamedly liberal in my outlook. Here, I will provide the reasons for my views, which will include some lengthy Bible quotes. So if that isn’t your cup of tea, you may wish to skip the rest.

I was ashamed to see so many people who profess to be christians speaking so much intolerance in relation to the recent spate of violence in some of England’s largest cities. In my earlier post, I included some quotes. Below are a few more that I have copied from facebook:

“Dear police, if you do feel the need to shoot anyone looting or rioting whilst on duty this evening, please feel free, we don’t mind. Dear fire brigade, if you want to shoot the miserable scum with your high powered water hoses whilst they are preventing you from doing your job, that’s absolutely fine. Dear ambulance service, if you get any phone calls from injured/dying or bleeding rioters, stay at home and watch corrie.”

“I hereby give my consent to curfews, water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas and the army on the street to sort the rioting and the looting on Britain’s streets.”

“Human rights?! Surely these idiots lose their rights once they start being as stupid and reckless as they are now!”

Whenever I have sought to point out how wrong this thinking is and pointing people to relevant scripture passages, all I got back was hatred. They didn’t want to listen to sound teaching and correction. One comment I got was “when they ask for forgiveness, I’ll consider it.” I know I’m not the brightest button around, but did Jesus wait for us to ask for forgiveness before he was executed? No. In Mark 2:1-12, did the paralysed man ask for forgiveness before it was offered by Jesus? No. Jesus is a very counter-intuitive figure, and while it may be gut instinct (or sinful nature, depending on your favourite terminology) to put the onus on those we perceive to be perpetrators, we should be the ones to take the first step, even if it hurts our pride.

There is an oft-quoted incident whose veracity may be questionable, but whose sentiment is pertinent. It regards the Inklings, who were discussing comparative religion. They were trying to work out the characteristics that distinguished one from another. After having come to an impasse with relation to Christianity, C.S. Lewis arrived late and replied along the lines of, “That’s easy: grace.” Although I am not an expert at comparative religions, I am not aware of any evidence that contradicts this view. Justice is common, but grace is uniquely christian. It is one of the central themes of the gospel, and if you take it away, the gospel you would be left with would not be worth keeping.

From what I have seen in the news the most vocal advocate of well-reasoned grace came not from a christian, but from a Muslim: Tariq Jahan, the father of one of the men who were murdered in Birmingham during the unrest. When I see the above words of hate I have quoted and compare that to the gentle answer from Jahan, turning away wrath, I wonder what perception those outside of the church receive of our worldview. How is it differentiated from that of any other person?

To my way of thinking, if grace is what we have been shown by God, then that is what we ought to show to the rest of the world as a means of our witness aboutGod. But grace is an action that stems from a root cause: love. Paul describes what happens when our outward actions are not motivated by love:

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

It’s when I think of the above scripture that it saddens me at how poor a witness is being given by some christians. If, as a community, we speak what is in our hearts (c.f. James 3:9-12, Mark 7:20-23), then to speak words of intolerance & hate is to testify that Jesus was a man of intolerance & hate. But this is not a Jesus that I recognise. It is a false impression, distorted by a failure to remember the love that has been shown to us:

Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”

“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him ten thousand talents.He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sistersfrom your heart.” Matt 18:21-35

When I read that, I fail to understand how anyone can claim to be a christian and yet hold a grudge. Of course, christians aren’t the finished article. We are all works-in-progress, liable to slip up. Nor am I saying that those who spew forth words of hate and condemnation aren’t christians. I simply say I do not understand how they reconcile such right-wing views with the grace of God.

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile,carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” Matthew 5:38-42

To the modern reader, this may sound trivial; but when you apply it to the violence and looting that we have seen on the streets of England, you can begin to get an idea of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he talked about “costly grace.” To give someone a blessing, when convention tells us they deserve the opposite, requires real strength of character and self-sacrifice.

I think it is right that as christians we should call for justice in the world. At the same time we need to show the world grace. It is not always easy to get the balance right, and I am sure I’ve got it wrong plenty of times myself. I do not set myself up and “better” than anyone else in this, or any other matter.But we have to understand where our notion of justice comes from. Too much of what I have read seems to come more from the Daily Mail than from critical reasoning, based on what is found in the Bible. If you take the words of Jesus seriously, then you may well agree with Gandhi in his paraphrase: “An eye for an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

It is also written (Leviticus 19:18, Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30) “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

My interpretation of that is that it is not for us to meat out any form of retribution. We need to understand that there is a difference between divine justice and the secular rule of law that is needed to govern this, and any other country. I am not an advocate of theocracy as a form of government, as it inevitably leads to people being in charge and hence it is no less susceptible to corruption and greed than any other form of government. So I’ll happily stick to democracy.

Please do misunderstand me; I am not condoning or encouraging violence, theft or any other form of criminality. I am here merely looking at the reactions of individuals and communities in response to these actions.While I agree with the response from some sections of the christian community, I am not convinced that other parts of the witness given has been either unified or dignified.

Book Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I picked up this book on the basis of some very positive reviews I had heard; though, as usual with fiction, I only skim-read the reviews the hope of avoiding any plot spoilers. In this case, though, it seems I need not have taken such trouble since, in his attempt to be avant-guard, David Mitchell seems to have discarded the concept of having a plot.

What we have instead are a series of short stories. Each (except for one) are “mirrored” in two parts. That is to say, the short story which begins the book (and is frustratingly ended mid-sentence) is concluded at the very end. The 2nd story is also the penultimate one, and so on. If we were to represent each story by a single letter, the book is structured as follows: ABCDEFEDCBA.

I was not incredibly impressed to begin with. The first two stories had very little coherence to them and were almost entirely uninteresting to read. Mitchell takes a stab every few pages at pretending to be incredibly clever by throwing in foreign phrases, seemingly in the hope that the reader will consider him a master wordsmith for doing so. However, they are ill-placed and do not cover up the cracks in some markedly poor writing.

What is there is often derivative. The opening story is a rip-off from Horatio Hornblower, the story entitled An Orison of Somni-451 has distinctive overtones of Philip K Dick (in particular Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) and the story at the centre, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, subjects the reader to the same kind of phonetic linguistic torture that Will Self inflicted upon readers of his truly terrible, The Book of Dave.

After the diabolical central story, the second half of the book doesn’t seem quite as a bad in comparison. I actually quite liked the second part of The Terrible Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, even though it is conceivable that a plagiarism case could be made against it by Ken Kasey for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Mitchell has attempted to write these stories as variations on a single theme: “the will to power” (taken from the back cover). In doing so, he is attempting to be incredibly ambitious and the task requires an extraordinary quality of writing. Unfortunately, such quality is not found in Mitchell’s writing and Icarus-like, he has fallen to earth with a great thud.

In spite of this, the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won many fans. A limited number were given away for free at the recent World Book Night as an example of great, modern British writing. So I am perplexed as to how such a bad book could come to be so highly praised. Of course, it is eminently possible that I have missed something incredibly subtle that I was too dim to see, or it could be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Book Review: So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore by Wayne Jacobsen & Dave Coleman

There are quite a number of issues with this book, which I will deal with in order of increasing severity.

The first one is the editing. The book is littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes which should have eliminated before going to print. I hope later editions have this sorted out, as it made the reading unnecessarily difficult.

Secondly, there was a noticeable lack of characterisation. Everyone spoke with the same platitudinous two-dimensional turn of phrase. The authors often embarked upon long dialogue, which would have been more at home had they been writing a play, rather than a novel. Given their reluctance to say who was speaking, and the fact that everyone was the same, I was often left having to flick back several pages and count alternate statements in order to determine who said what, which made the reading of the book needlessly wearisome.

Now that we’ve got the style issues sorted, we can finally get onto the content. This is not really a book, so much as the authors’ fantasy sermon. Only it’s not quite a sermon, more of an interactive seminar. There is clearly a long list of things that the authors would love to be asked about but never are. The main character, Jake, is a concoction of sycophantic questioning invented as the foil against which the authors (through “John”) can reel off their opinions on what is wrong with the church and how to fix them.

There is nothing in here that hasn’t been said before:

  • Being a minister and running a local church is tough.
  • You can’t please everyone all the time.
  • Be Christ-focussed.

The above three lines above sum up the whole book, but they’re truths that just about every local pastor knows.

For a more coherent, insightful and relevant story, read The Visit by Adrian Plass.

Book Review: Who Made God by Edgar Andrews

This had been recommended to me a friend and I bought it some time before getting around to reading it. The reason for the delay was the list recommendations on the back of the book. Most notable was the endorsement by John Blanchard, whose own book, Does God Believe in Atheists? left me less than impressed. Thus, I was expecting Who Made God to be more of the same. A couple of other things worried me about the endorsements. There was one by Fay Weldon (who most people have probably heard of) but it was so short that it had the distinct flavour of something curtailed, something that omitted key insights. And the last of the main recommendations came from some random mother and housewife .

I am in danger of judging a book by its cover. However, I am not judging it yet. I am merely noting some warning signs. In terms of the actual cover and print quality, it is very well produced and makes for easy reading.

The approach of the book is to put forward the proposition that God exists and to see what sort of universe that would yield. The author then compares this to the universe we see around us and concludes that the God proposed at the beginning does indeed exist.

Though it is scientifically honest to take approach like this, the author apparently fails to appreciate the notion of Occam’s Razor. The trouble is that the conclusions lack exclusivity. In no place can you say “this is due to God uniquely, at the exclusion of all other hypotheses and possibilities.”

The author brushes off some arguments with apparent ease, but which really treat them with a contempt that they do not deserve. For example, at the start of the book, he dismisses the entire field of ontology (several centuries’ worth of philosophical reasoning) in under 3 pages.

Much of the first half of the book is spent taking apart some of the arguments in Victor Stenger’s book, God, the failed hypothesis – how science shows that God does not exist. I confess to not having read the book and in order to think well of Victor Stenger, I can only hope that his publisher came up with the title, as it is one that clearly oversteps the marks of any reasonable scientific evidence. One day, I may get around to reading it, but it’s not on my rather extensive reading list at the moment.

What does make a refreshing change from some counter-argument books is that the author does put forward his own point firmly, not just limiting himself to pulling the threads on someone else’s jumper. But this is where the book ultimately falls down. In making his case, the author isolates himself from just about every school of thought. He makes it clear that he is not a young earth creationist. He also disagrees with the theistic interpretation of evolution, making some rather unjustified cricisms of Francis Collins along the way. The closest school of thought he aligns himself to is intelligent design, though even this is subject to a bit of cold shoulder treatment. Prof Andrews refers to others painting themselves into a corner, though he fails to appreciate that he has done this himself, and now stands in a rather isolated position, having marked his territory with a colour that is quite unlike anything readily identifiable.

The book some have good points, though they are few and far between. I would be highly surprised if any atheists found this at all a convincing treatise for the existence of God and this is by no means in premier league of christian writing. I will not be recommending this one on to anyone else.