Summer reading review #2
Life after life by Kate Atkinson was another of my holiday reads, picked (like many are) by recommendations in the Saturday paper literary supplements. I realise, as I about to explain it, it's all going to sound a little ridiculous. The story revolved around Ursula, born 1910 into a middle class family in the suburbs. The plot follows her life, but each time she dies, the story starts over – a bit like a non comic Groundhog Day. Sometimes this interludes are very short (she dies at birth, she dies shortly after birth, she dies in infancy and so on). But it's an interesting writing device that allows the author to make things right.
And basically that is what this book is about. Each time Ursula has a kind of sense she's been here before even though she doesn't realise details. So she is able to save her friend Nancy from being abducted and murdered. She is able to save herself from an abusive marriage. And ultimately she tries to eliminate the Holocaust but murdering Hitler early on his political life.
It reads better than it sounds. In fact, both Mrs R and I really enjoyed it. But there is a fundamental flaw. However much you put things right, there is always something else to go wrong. Kate Atkinson stops the story at the Holocaust, but why there? Why could she not learn Russian and do away with Stalin too? Do you see? Christianly speaking the world is broken and any amount of human intervention is not going to fix it.
So (and I suspect this is the opposite intent of the author), the reader is left exasperated by the constant ability to finally fix things. It's all rather draining. Presumably the book could have gone on for another 1,500 pages – in fact on into infinity. And so, like a book I will review tomorrow, the Christian reader is ultimately left gasping for the gospel which does change things for good, for ever.
As an aside, the sections when Ursula serves as an Air Raid Warden during the Blitz are extremely well written. I love was history and though I recall reading about war leaders (Churchill, Bradley, Brooke), battle histories (D Day, Stalingrad), life at home (land girls, life in Britain), naval history (U boat battle) and soldierly camaraderie (Band of Brothers), I don't ever recall reading about such a grim but necessary job as the wardens had in Blitz torn London. Recommendations, anyone….?
Summer reading review #1
Back here I explained some of my summer reading habits and have already reviewed Katherine Boo's book which was on my summer list. I find it a good discipline to think about the books I read in a Christian way, even though many (most) of them are not explicitly Christian. So here goes for a few I devoured this summer.
First up (and this will get the most comprehensive review) is Alister McGrath's new biography of CS Lewis. This has got some startling commendations, so I delved into it eagerly. I have to say, however, that I found it all a bit underwhelming. There are a number of reasons for this:
- first, I'm not one of those who owes a great debt in my Christian life to the writing of CS Lewis. I just don't. I was given his The Pilgrim's Regress (McGrath: his most difficult book) as a confirmation gift (I know, I know – but I later saw the light) by the Bishop of Bradwell. It did very little for me. Unlike, say, Tim Keller, who publicly confesses a great debt to the man, I have no such account.
- second, although I like trivia, I get unexcited about the fact that we may have dated Lewis' conversion wrongly by six months or so. This, perhaps, is linked to point 1 above. But you would need to be a Lewis scholar to appreciate this point.
- third, he can hardly be described to have lived a wholesome life, even post conversion. I found all that deeply unsettling, although I knew much of it already and was aware that the Shadowlands story was something of a gloss.
- there were times when the book didn't feel quite that well edited – one or two stories that recurred, quite a lot built on speculation…
Nevertheless, there were a few golden insights.
- First, it was a good reminder that Lewis is not the evangelical hero we often make him. As much as someone like Lewis belongs to any tribe, it most certainly is not ours. Like Bonhoeffer, we must be careful into making him into something he never was.
- Second, I was reminded of the great usefulness of writing things down. This is often a great discipline in times of crisis. Indeed, there have been times in the last twelve months where keeping a journal has been a more regular and helpful discipline than at any time in my Christian life.
Faced with these unsettling and disquieting challenges, Lewis coped using the method he had recommended to his confidant Arthur Greeves in 1916: "Whenever you feel you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago." In the days following Davidman's death in July 1960, Lewis began to write down his thoughts, not troubling to conceal his own doubts and spiritual agony….he found liberty and release in being able to write what he actually thought, rather than what his friends and admirers believed he ought to think. (p342)
- Third, I was particularly struck by Lewis' hermeneutical method – in his case, as it related to English Literature. But what struck me about it was that is essentially an evangelical hermenutical method.
Lewis insists that to understand the literature of the classical or Renaissance periods, it is necessary to "suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits" that result in reading modern literature – such as an unquestioning assumption of the innate superiority of our own situation. Lewis uses a familiar cultural stereotype to help make his point – the English tourist abroad, so heavily pilloried in works such as EM Forster's Room with a view (1908). Lewis asks us to imagine an Englishman travelling abroad, fully persuaded of the English cultural values to those of the savages of the Western Europe. Instead of seeking out the local culture, enjoying the local food and allowing his own presuppositions to be challenged, he mixes only with with other English tourists, insists on seeking out English food, and sees his Englishness as something to be preserved at all costs. He thus takes his Englishness that he brought with him and "brings it home unchanged."
There is another way of visiting a foreign country and a correspondingly different way of reading an older text. Here, the tourist eats the local food and drinks the local wine, seeing "the foreign country as it looks, not to the tourist, but the inhabitants." As a result, Lewis argues, the English tourist comes home "modified, thinking and feeling" in different ways. (p188).
This is a good metaphor for how we should read the Bible today!
This book was relatively easy to read, it gave a useful introduction to some of Lewis' books. But though I would class it as "good" the problem was that it was just not that good. Probably ideal for Lewis fans.
For non UK readers of the blog, today is a bank (statutory) holiday in the UK, so there is no regular post. See you tomorrow!
I have always liked reading Themelios, both for its stretching articles and varied book reviews. Granted, without Carl Trueman's inputs it is not quite so funny as it once was, but perhaps that is not an absolute necessity in a theological journal? The latest issue is here.
The atonement… again. And church restoration.
Being back from holiday allows me to catch up on missed issues of the Church Times. I know, life's a hoot, ain't it? I flick through it every now and again just to see what is happening in the rest of the 'Christian' world. This week there are a number of letters following the fuss about Townend and Getty's refusal to allow the Presbyterian Church in the US (I hope I have the right tribe) to change the words from "wrath of God was satisfied" to "love of God was satisfied." (You can read a longer article about this at the White Horse Inn.)
First of all, good on them, of course. Second, the letters pages are a sobering reminder that what we see as biblical Christianity is largely a minority view ("really nice Christians faithfully reiterating really bad theology"!!). This does not make evangelicalism wrong, nor indefensible, nor something to be embarrassed about! Perish the thought. I cannot prove it, but I imagine there has scarcely been a time when true orthodoxy has been a heart felt majority.
But it's sobering to realise that the Bible's message we so love and believe is dismissed as ancient clap trap by those both outside and inside the church (in its broadest sense). It makes me wonder how we hope to evangelise such people? I guess there's one point of view which says we needn't bother. These are just different expressions of the same faith. I cannot follow that line of thinking. Is there a danger that our evangelism is targeted at the unchurched when there is a significant number of churched people who also need to come to faith?
Those who are working hard to recover "lost" churches (both Anglican and Free Church, even though the "lostness" might look different) deserve our support and prayers. Church planting and reaching new people is seen as sexy and is absolutely necessary. Church restoration and recovering lost ground is unglamorous but just as urgent.
Holiday reflection: the test of a good church
Just back from a couple of weeks away in the Peak District and a good mid-break visit to a local church in Buxton. It was holiday time, staff and vicar were away. But it was really quite good. It got me wondering if this is the ultimate test of a ministry: how good is the church when the main preacher/pastor/vicar and/or staff are away? It's then when you know just how much the expository teaching from the front has seeped into people's lives. Does the service and the preaching still reflect our evangelical and biblical commitments during down time?
It would be easy for a church to "revert to type" in choosing songs, the quality, style and content of preaching, what is said from the front. So, here's my thesis: it's not the outputs that mark out a faithful church (for God may cause the seed to fall on rocky ground). Rather, it's the quality of the inputs. So, what would I discover visiting your church this summer….?
Back to school
Today, as you read this, I shall be back in the office following a two week break in Derbyshire. Either
- the sun will have shone, I will have enjoyed cycling round the peaks with my middle daughter Bethan, enjoyed walking through Chatsworth grounds (where we're staying) with the family, and enjoyed a Sunday out in Buxton vesting a good church. Or,
- the rain will have come and I will be miserable.
OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I do enjoy holidays in the nice weather. Next year, France (we keep telling ourselves). Whichever it was, this week back in the office tends to be a make do and mend week when I try to fix cheaply things that are (a) broken (b) legally fixable without a special licence. It's part of the rhythm of life.
Every ministry has rhythm of this kind and I have discovered as I have moved from rural Hampshire to East London, that this rhythm changes from church to church and situation to situation. Some churches mirror school terms. Others don't. We don't have quite the mass summer exodus in East London that we had in Hampshire (it's partly a demographic thing).
As a preacher understanding your churches rhythm is essential to planning your programme and times away and so on, inasmuch as you do these things. But here's my critical observation – even though a church has a rhythm and perhaps a summer downtime, there is no preaching let up. The preaching on an August Sunday is no less important to the church (even if the church is half filled) than the preaching on the first Sunday in September. The place preaching has at the heart of church life is a reality irrespective of numbers in the pew, visitors on holiday, students (or not) and a myriad of other factors. Do people coming to your church know that?
I always enjoy the Credo magazine. It does come from my baptistic stable, I must admit. Nevertheless, that is not a badge it wears particularly strongly and, therefore, whatever your ecclesiological persuasion, you should find something stimulating here.
2013/4 Resource Guide
You should by now have received your 2013/14 resource guide if you are on our UK mailing list. Please note that we don't send them overseas any more as the cost is astronomical (e,g £4.24 for each copy to Australia). If you are in the UK and have missed out on the UK mailing and wish you hadn't – then please contact the office to be included. If you are overseas and would like to browse, then you will find the guide online here in easy to read format (and also available for download). It's worth a little of your time – not only news about what we're planning for 2013/14 but some articles and other bits of useful information.
Sermon illustrations part 4
Where do you get your sermon illustrations from?
I wonder if there's a better way than either Mr A or Mr R. In reality, it's a strategy we both use. Here it is in essence:
- many passages have their own illustrations – or, at least, colour. Preachers ignore these at their peril. "We all, like sheep, have gone astray" says Isaiah. There's no need there for an illustration about lemmings (which, by the way, do not behave as the video games suggest). The simile is right there for you.
- many things that need illustrating are well illustrated by stories from the Bible. It makes me laugh that some preachers are almost evangelistic about not have any cross references but are happy to liberally quote the BBC website. The Bible is full of stories that illustrate hard things. Why not use them?
Added to this is the importance for the preacher of simply looking around. Spurgeon makes much of this in his "Lectures to my students.". For him, it was being aware of the natural world (flaura, fauna etc) and using these to illustrate. Perhaps our vista may be slightly broader, but – in essence – being a good sermon illustrator is often about just keeping your eyes open.
What is more, this kind of "look around you" illustrating will make your sermons sound more contemporary immediately. (I say "sound" advisedly, because a contemporary sermon is surely one that hits home to current listeners, rather than one which is "trendy" and "happening"). For example, I preached on Numbers 5-6 last weekend and was trying to show from Numbers 5.1-3 that God was interested in holiness because he was both holy himself and present. My illustration was that you can admire a skillful athlete from the stands, but you don't need to be skillful yourself. However, God is present with his people. You're not in the stands. You're on the track with him. I used the athletics illustration because – right around the corner from us – we'd just hosted the anniversary games at the Olympic Park.
Which brings me to one of the most important rules about illustrations which I have just broken.
Please, no sports illustrations.
Must you? Really?