Category Archives: Books

The ape and the lamb

I wonder which false theologians C.S. Lewis had in mind in this section of The Last Battle.

“Please,” said the Lamb, “I can’t understand. What have we to do with the Calormenes? We belong to Aslan. They belong to Tash. They have a god called Tash. They say he has four arms and the head of a vulture. They kill Men on his altar. I don’t believe there’s any such person as Tash. But if there was, how could Aslan be friends with him?”

All the animals cocked their heads sideways and all their bright eyes flashed toward the Ape. They knew it was the best question anyone had asked yet.

The Ape jumped up and spat at the Lamb.

“Baby!” he hissed. “Silly little bleater! Go home to your mother and drink milk. What do you understand of such things? But the others, listen. Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who. That’s why there can never be any quarrel between them. Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.”


 

Quick review: Roads were not built for cars

Roads Were Not Built For CarsRoads Were Not Built For Cars by Carlton Reid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am so easily tricked into thinking that the way things are now is the way things always have been. It’s self-centred thinking, of course: My way is the way.

Roads Were Not Built For Cars gave plenty of blows against that approach, for which I am thankful.

This fascinating book gives much insight into roads, transport, and modes of transport – as well as the conflicts that arose as change occurred.

Reid writes about the United Kingdom more than any other place, the United States being a close second. Yet this focus is fine, because the UK and US patterns seem to exemplify what has been seen elsewhere.

That pattern is, in a word, domination. Motor vehicles have come to dominate transport (and transport history) in a way that unhelpfully marginalises all others.

The greatest surprise to me in this history is that roads stopped being public places. Sure, they’re (mostly) not private. Yet roads used to be social places: a mixture of pedestrians, neighbours, business, conversation, play, and some transport.

Cars, though, pushed all else away – onto narrow footpaths, into the new crime of ‘jaywalking’, etc. A common space has been usurped for one group. And it happens again each time I’m on a bike and a driver yells at me, ‘Get off the road.’

Even this famous video (https://youtu.be/IJfTa5SjDCY) of San Francisco in 1900 includes car trickery: one vehicle drives past the tramcar-mounted camera again and again, giving an inflated impression of cars on the roads.

Being freed from my own self-focus is helpful in two ways.

Firstly, it makes me watch out for the bullying inherent in power. Speed, motors, and human power tend to push others out. This can happen to me, and I can also be a perpetrator.

Secondly, it frees our minds to consider other ways of doing things. If it was not always so, then it need not always be so. I guess this idea is one of Reid’s aims, since he is a promoter of cycling – a promotion I heartily endorse.

On a different level, it’s clear how some grasp of history is a mighty tool. My Christian trust is in an historical faith. It matters if Jesus died and rose again, and it matters if he didn’t. These are the things we need to find out. And if convinced, as I am, constant attention to the real Jesus of history is a must. If the history of roads and cycling is important – and I think it is – how much more the history of Jesus and his followers.

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Quick review: The First 48 Hours

The First 48 Hours: Spiritual Caregivers as First RespondersThe First 48 Hours: Spiritual Caregivers as First Responders by Jennifer S. Cisney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a volunteer ambulance chaplain, I was given this book by my senior chaplain (thanks Paul!), and I am very glad to have read it. In two words: highly recommended.

Before I describe why, however, there is one bugbear to note – questionable use of the Bible.

I’ve often seen that Christian books dealing with counselling or other personal helps tend to read their pastoral situations back into texts of the Bible, and thereby determine what they think a particular Bible verse means.

So here we read of disciples, ‘Struggling with direction, full of doubt and fear, they believe they are alone’ (p.20) – this sounds more like one of the authors’ crisis care situations than an accurate portrait of Matthew 28:18-20. Yes, there are elements of this, but not as much as is claimed. And so Jesus’ closing words (‘I am with you always, to the very end of the age’) become comfort. There is, undoubtedly, an element of comfort. But also of challenge: the one with all authority has given a command and is with us!

This is important because the Bible word lives and is powerful. When Christians adopt powerful emotional ties to wrong interpretations, it’s an unstable help. One of the authors mentions how Hebrews 12:1 is a great comfort to him after his father’s death: believing that the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ witness us, rather than bear witness to the faithfulness of God (p.120). I could not help but think he will be painfully discomforted when someone points him to a more accurate reading of Hebrews 12.

Noting this point, though, I still highly recommend this book.

It has a clear focus on the first stages of helping people in crisis. It has helpful definitions (for example, the difference between critical event and crisis). And it is so very realistic – speaking of the first 48 hours as a first aid-type involvement. That is, first responders don’t need the advanced skills of fully-trained psychologists or psychiatrists.

With presence, sensitivity, compassion, one’s own life experience, and a few fundamental skills caregiving is possible.

The First 48 Hours names these skills, as well as illustrating them with real life examples. Perhaps most importantly, it generously encourages Christians to provide this type of crisis care.

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If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter

The above heading is a famous quotation from Blaise Pascal. It is regularly invoked as an appeal to write better, not longer. This well-written page looks at the origin of this quotation, and similar statements over the years.

The attribution to Pascal dates to 1657.

I recently came across a very similar statement by John Donne.

Sir, you are used to my hand and, I think, have leisure to spend some time picking out sense in rags; else I had written less, and in longer time.

This is from a letter to Sir Henry Goodyer, in October 1622. (Source.)

I don’t know how or when this letter became public, so do not claim Donne influenced Pascal. But it’s interesting that Donne was earlier.

 


 

Quick review: Catch-22

Catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you like a book that’s listed as a classic, you’re simply following the crowd. But if you dislike the listed classic, you’ve got no taste. Catch-22.

If you enjoy the writing in a novel that narrates awful events, and even looks somewhat amoral, that must make you unfeeling. But if you dismiss a novel that refuses to hide the grizzly nature of life, you’re still unfeeling. Catch-22.

I wanted to read Catch-22 for some time, because it’s a classic. And reading it created my own cases of Catch-22 – the ‘catch’ that is impossible to escape, no matter what you do.

Here are two examples of my catches: the humour is enjoyably off the wall-but I kept wondering if black humour is merely stylish cynicism; there’s great compassion for this world of suffering-but I hated the way women (in particular) were treated in the book.

Catch-22 is so well known that there’s no point me recounting its content or themes, you can find great summaries on the web. So here’s my take on the whole theme of the book: this life is a crazy yet hopeful struggle.

The crazy struggle is everywhere, especially war: horrible deaths, innocent suffering, racketeering, apathy, selfishness, … And Heller captures all this and more.

It’s the hope in Catch-22 that surprised me. The lead character, Yossarian, has most of his friends die. One death in particular is referred to again and again, with increasing detail until we read the whole awful story. I expected a bleak conclusion. Yet Catch-22 ends with the excitement of an unexpected survivor, and a crazy plan for Yossarian to survive. (And in this edition, Heller’s 1994 preface confesses that he could never kill Yossarian.)

How odd that the novel of honest hopelessness cannot give up on hope. Paradox-22, anyone? The persistence of hope even when people don’t know why: people will always need the hope-filled news of Jesus’ victory over sin and death.

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Quick review: Bike!

Bike! A tribute to the world's greatest racing bicyclesBike! A tribute to the world’s greatest racing bicycles by Richard Moore

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This has flashes of being a great book on racing bicycles, but often disappoints.

It consists of many short entries on a series of famous brands. They might be bike manufacturers (Bianchi, Flandria, etc) or component makers (Reynolds, SRAM, etc). There’s also the occasional special two-page spread for more detail: such as Coppi’s 1952 Bianchi after the chapter on Bianchi.

That’s all good, an accompanied by plenty of fine illustrations. But the whole is let down by poor execution.

For a start, the number of contradictions within the text shows sloppy proof reading. Within two or three pages you can read three different start dates for some companies. Are any of them correct?

The editors also made a lazy (non-)decision about units of measurement: everything is listed in both miles and kilometres. This makes for awful reading in sections where four or five racing distances are listed in the one sentence.

Further, for a book about classic cycling brands, I think it was a poor decision to include some ‘up to date’ recent technology – poor because they aren’t classics. The spread on Mark Cavendish’s Specialized Venge just reads like a press announcement from three years ago.

I enjoyed this book, but I don’t trust it as a source of information. Hence, two stars.

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Quick review: I am Malala

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is quite an astonishing family – especially Malala (of course!), but also her father. Through this biography, we get a sense of their dedication to the cause of education even in the face of grave danger.

Malala, and her beloved Swat Valley, faced – and still face – many dangers. She narrates a number of the troubles of Pakistan and Pashtun history. But the worst, it seems, is the Taliban infiltration of the valley. Starting with apparently benign aims of social improvement, the Taliban’s presence in the valley became increasingly violent and uncontrollable. Malala’s verbal pictures of external carnage and internal fear simply underline how extraordinary is her bravery in speaking up for education of all, especially girls.

And so the Taliban shot her. The injuries were serious, and her rehabilitation difficult for all. But you don’t need me to recount the story of the book. The book is clear and speaks for itself. Instead of a re-listing, here are some impressions and thoughts from I am Malala.

This book successfully gives an outsider like me a feel for some of the history of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s complex, but the amount of complexity recorded is just enough so I am not totally confused.

Through written with the help of an English journalist (Christina Lamb), Malala’s voice comes through. This sounds like a teenager speaking – speaking well of serious matters, indeed, but still being herself. I’m glad this book does not sound like anonymous, anodyne reportage. Obviously Malala has a strong voice and Lamb is a good journalist.

The tone of this book is mature. It’s not that blame is planted simplistically at the feet of just one or two actors. And even those who fail have moments of strength. For example, Malala’s mentions of Pakistan’s military – of which there are many – do not at all absolve them of culpability in Pakistan’s turmoil. And yet there are also military personnel and structures credited with good and helpful activity.

Finally, showing my definite interest in matters of faith, Islam’s place in the tapestry of Malala’s story is fascinating. The presentation of Islam is a particular example of the book’s qualities noted above: complexity and maturity. Malala is an observant and prayerful Muslim. The Taliban are also Muslim (there’s none of the silly Western pretence that they’re not) – but their expression of Islam is criticised from within the tent of Islam. Pakistan is notably a Muslim homeland, yet Malala wonders why this nation has harmed Muslims more than if there had not been a split between India and Pakistan.

I am very glad for the brave Mulsim activists I heard of in this book: Malala, her father, and a number of others. But I long also for there to be more Christians in Pakistan and the Islamic world. This is not because there’s any greater deficiency in those people compared with others – but because of the greatness of Jesus whom Christians trust. The gospel of the Lord Jesus is needed in places of war, just as it is in places of complacent peace.

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The value of work

A good question, from the early sixteenth century (from Thomas More’s Utopia):

what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in the things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs?

I don’t propose compulsory rearrangement of pay scales (not necessarily, anyway!), but how foolish it is to value people by the measure of their salary.

 


 

Quick review: Honk if you are Jesus

Honk If You Are JesusHonk If You Are Jesus by Peter Goldsworthy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Very disappointing! A book written by rote, it seems.

I greatly enjoyed Goldsworthy’s Maestro, so had been looking forward to Honk if you are Jesus. I can’t see how it’s the same author.

‘Honk’ is entirely predictable. Every plot turn is telescoped. And the characters! Awful examples of mere types, barely encompassing even two dimensions. There is a lonely-brilliant-cynical woman professor, a fat-gay-epicurean diva, a nagging mum, a two-faced televangelist, a scruffy-brilliant-geneticist, a trophy wife … And these are the filled-out characters!

All this is a pity. Firstly, because I’m convinced Goldsworthy can write. Secondly, because he’s nodded towards a whole library full of fascinating topics.

The story touches on: private tertiary institutions, the decline (or not?) of religion in Australia, genetics, the nature of scientific enquiry, the personality-driven nature of ‘objective’ progress , and the ethics of interference.

These wonderful ingredients, however, are poorly articulated. ‘Honk’ made me feel like it was a neat colour-by-numbers book (#1, make medical expert a cynic with nagging mum, etc).

There is one exception – the last chapter is SO MUCH better than the rest of the book. It has shade and nuance, it’s more reflective, and it hints at (not yells out) a surprising plot twist. The whole book could have been like this!

As a Christian, it’s kind of encouraging to see how poorly this book is written. There’s pressure, both subtle and direct, that tells Christians to butt out of these big topics. I hear the message that Christianity has nothing worthwhile to say about abortion, genetic engineering, medical funding decisions, etc. This book reminds me that so many Christians, simply by being interested in these things, already have a more thought-out point of view than our neighbours who float along with current popular opinion.

So, if you have an idea, speak up! Test it out. Measure the idea by the gospel of Jesus. See how to explain it to a general audience, with varied points of view. And, respectfully, speak. In other words, ‘Honk if you know Jesus.’

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Quick review: Ministry in Disaster Settings

Ministry in Disaster Settings Lessons from the edgeMinistry in Disaster Settings Lessons from the edge by Stephen Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good read for anyone doing Christian ministry (paid or unpaid). The book began with interviews with chaplains involved in very stressful settings: the Granville Train Disaster, Kempsey Bus Crash, Port Arthur Massacre, and Thredbo Landslide.

These stories draw us in from the start of the book, which then goes on to reflect on a number of areas: the nature of ministry in these tough circumstances; theological reflections; tips and lessons.

This is all great stuff. It’s full of important observations. It illustrates the varied types of response people make, as well as varying kinds of support given to chaplains (and others). The appendices alone are a most useful resource. Three appendices I think I will return to address symptoms common in emergency response workers, what it means to defuse, and what it means to debrief.

There are two criticisms I have of the book. Please only read these if I’ve convinced you that it’s a very good book and worth reading!

First, the interviews and reflection are grounded in disasters. That is, exceptional situations of chaos and mayhem. Yet the conclusions are applied equally to general emergency work. As a volunteer ambulance chaplain, I am naturally interested in these conclusions and lessons. But I think there needs to be more effort put into explaining how lessons from ‘big trauma’ are applicable to everyday emergency service work. I suspect there is connection and similarity – along with significant difference. A disaster, I’d guess, is more than a scaled-up everyday emergency.

Secondly, I wish that theological reflection in Christian circles had more depth when speaking of incarnational ministry. This book did as I’ve seen often: ‘Jesus became flesh, that’s a model for us.’ It has become a simplistic ministry cliché, bypassing the theology of Jesus’ two natures, of creator taking on aspects of creation, etc. If we use such a high-powered theology to justify care for neighbour it doesn’t improve our care, but seems to water down the theology. I can feel a hobby-horse coming on, so will stop there …

Overall: a good book, worth reading, and full of reflection on caring for those confronted with trauma.


 

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