Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Mini fiction reviews

When it drops, Alex Dyson

This is a great debut novel by former triple j presenter, Alex Dyson. Sixteen year old Caleb is a songwriter and nerd, and happy to be left out of the limelight. One of his songs is about the girl he has had a crush on for years, Ella. Of course, that’s just his secret, until his little brother grabs an opportunity to share it online. Is disaster looming? What if Ella finds out? When some in the music industry take notice, is it just possible this could be his big break? This is very fun. There are the usual amusing and awkward scenes in school and with friends, as well as humorous insights into the music industry. What took the cake for me though was the comments on the high school discipline system:

“RUB stands for Rough, Undisciplined Boys, which is one of many categories we utilise here at Riverview for administrative and disciplinary purposes. For example, occasionally we encounter a GIMP at this school, or Girl Initiating Malevolent Practices. Last week we had quite a serious outbreak of HERPES, or Hurtful Event Rendering Pupil Extremely Sad.”

Enjoyable for teens and adults alike.

Pandemic, A. G. Riddle

A fast paced action book following the events of a pandemic over about 2 weeks. Two young men in Africa present to a local hospital with symptoms suspiciously like Ebola. The CDC despatches their experts to assist with identification and management. But at the same time thousands of people across the globe are developing flu like symptoms. Could they be related? How could it spread so fast?

It might seem too close to home at the moment, but it’s not about what a pandemic does to people and societies. Rather, it’s a chase around the globe, as various characters try to solve this high stakes mystery, where nothing it quite as it seems. There appears to be a mighty shadow organisation managing everything, but to what ultimate end?

Riddle has blended actual history with fiction, and science with fantasy, and it’s a reasonably enjoyable mix. There are times where characters talk about having faith, or hope, but there’s no indication of what that faith or hope should be in - the ingenuity of the human race, the ability to survive, kindness of others? It’s unclear. He does seem to be raising the question of what the larger purpose of mankind is and why we exist, although comes to no answers, beyond perhaps is suggesting that without suffering and pain the world would be better.

Either way, it’s hard to tell because it leaves you hanging and having to read Book 2 - Genome, which I haven’t managed to get to yet.

Stoner, John Wiliams

Written in 1965, Williams tells the story of William Stoner, from when he first went to the University of Missouri as a freshman in 1910, where he stayed as a lecturer in the Department of English until his death in 1956. My understanding is that this is a literary classic. I enjoyed reading it and was at times reminded of the style of Gilead (link). There was a similar continuous storytelling with no particular climax, yet much of interest along the way. You see how his life unfolds, with marriage, a child, various university stoushes and friendships. However, in the end, I found Stoner a sad figure. He had a life of very little joy or purpose, as he himself pondered “He found himself wonderful if his life were worth the living, if it had ever been. It was a question he suspected that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him.” Many of those around him were much more extreme characters that he was, I particularly found his wife hard to imagine in reality. Those with a broader understanding of literature may appreciate more of the references within the book itself.

The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett

Follett has already written three books about Kingsbridge, set in the 1100s (Pillars of the Earth), 1300s (World Without End) and 1500s (Column of Fire). This fourth is a prequel, set around 1000AD and moves around the stories of a young shipbuilder Edgar, a Norman noblewoman Ragna who moves to England to marry, and brother Aldred, a pious monk. As per usual with Follett’s books, it's an epic tale told over hundreds of pages. It also fits his usual style, where the main characters are basically good, kind people who are stymied at almost every turn by the treacherous, violent leaders and churchmen who stand against them. As I noted with Column of Fire, there is a crassness towards women in Follett’s writing although I am still uncertain whether that it reflecting the setting or the author. I do enjoy his tales though, they bring aspects of the past to life. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Dingo's Got My Baby

The Dingo’s Got My Baby, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton

Probably every Australian over thirty will have heard of the Chamberlains. (I have established my children had not). Michael and Lindy became household names when in 1980 their nine-week old daughter Azaria was taken by a dingo from a tent in a camping ground near Ayers Rock. While the initial inquest upheld the finding of death by dingo, the Northern Territory government later accused Lindy Chamberlain of murder, and she was sentenced to life in prison. After numerous appeals, she was finally remitted and released after about three years of imprisonment. Later followed a Royal Commission and finally an official acknowledgement of baby Azaria’s cause of death.

It was a case that caused strong emotion and opinions, with many believing the media coverage that Lindy had killed Azaria, while others campaigned for justice to a hostile audience. She notes later:
"Many people were not game to stand up and say what they believed. There was no sitting on the fence in our case, and people who had the guts to stand up and make a public stand for the Chamberlains’ innocence certainly needed the guts to live with the flak that came afterwards." 
I never knew much beyond the basic facts, being a child myself at the time. However, the phrase “a dingo’s got my baby” became part of the Australian lexicon and was often used to get a laugh, much to our shame. I remember it being a joke on a Seinfeld episode.

She is clear from the beginning this is her story, not Michael’s and his story is for him to tell. It’s very detailed, the ebook I read was 900+ pages. There are detailed sections on the camping trip itself and the first inquest, the second investigation and trial, the prison years, and then once she was released and the ongoing fight for justice. So it’s very long, and probably would have benefited from a stronger edit. However, I can see why it was kept as is - this is her opportunity to say everything she wants to say. She was denied justice, falsely accused, treated dreadfully by the Northern Territory government and police, and was talked about in virtually every household in Australia (and many overseas). This is one opportunity to put everything in one place and make it her record. She has no hesitation with fully naming and including photographs of everyone on both sides - lawyers, police, forensic scientists. She wasn’t nasty, but didn’t hesitate to name incompetence, unkindness and mismanagement. She is open about prison, both the kindness of some guards and the sheer unpleasantness of others, as well as the variety of prisoners she lived with.

Even with the length, it is an engrossing read. I read it solidly for a week on holidays and struggled to put it down.

Lindy is a Christian, a seventh-day Adventist, and that shines through clearly. There are numerous times she refers to her faith, or her reliance on God. She has confidence that God has been with her through this time, and how crucial that has been.
“It is only when your faith is tested that you know whether you have any or not. It is only when your temper is teased and provoked to the limit and you manage to control it, that you know you have succeeded. It is no use saying, ‘I have got self control’ when there is nothing to provoke it."
“I thought of Job, who suffered horribly without knowing why, only remaining faithful to God, his Lord and Master. God rewarded him in the end, but still he did not know why. Maybe we will never find out in this world either. I'm sure Job has many questions to ask God when he sees him. I have a few to ask Him, too. Maybe we can queue up together. But suffering is not God's will. He will help us to bear what we must, and to hang on until the end, but it's not something he delights in."
Reflecting on prison:
“When the doors clang shut behind you, locking you in, and you have nothing to rely on except your own strength of body and mind, it can be terrifying if you let it. At a time like this, if you thought God was a figment of your imagination, He now either becomes a very real and personal friend, or is totally disregarded as a mirage only relevant to a distant Biblical past. Like others before me, I came to that knowledge while in prison. There is no way that one can put this into words, it is simply something that slowly but surely happens. Time and time when there was no one else to turn to, nowhere else to go, I could turn to God and say, ‘Lord you've got to help me here. I can't manage on my own’.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that if it hadn't been for God's help and strength, plus grit and determination, I would have landed up in a mental asylum. At times I felt myself so low I knew I was losing my grip, not only on life but on reality. I knew I had to find it again in a hurry; only God could give me the strength and courage I needed for that and calm me down." 
There are strong words throughout about the problems with the justice system, and the pointlessness of much incarceration: “I believe the only thing ever taught in prisons is the perfecting of old and the learning of new criminal skills."

Throughout is woven the story of the family and how they were affected: the two older boys, baby Kahlia born while she was in custody, her and Michael’s divorce and then her marriage to Rick, about whom she fondly says:
“To have a supportive man who is both gentle and strong behind you who loves you for who you are without a desire to change you is the most empowering thing I know. To know you are loved and supported even when you make mistakes and are no longer young or glamorous lets you become a whole person."
The book was first published in 1990, but it’s had later additions and the version I read was published in 2015, as more things have happened in the case and to this family. Azaria would have been 40 this year, and this case is still fresh in many people’s minds and part of public life. Yet, as Lindy says:
“People forget that my family has a private life. We have gone through a private hell as well as a private happiness in our battle to survive the last twenty-four years and most of our biggest battles have been fought in private."
No matter what you think of the Chamberlains or the case, this is a book well worth reading. This is part of our nation’s history, and not a proud one, and these are real people who have gone through immense suffering, yet have come out of it stronger and completely reliant on God.

Monday, January 4, 2021

I Still Do

I Still Do, Dave Harvey 

As far as I can tell, there aren’t many marriage books that focus on later life. For that reason, I was very excited to read this book and see how Harvey addressed the challenges that marriages face over the long haul.

While it is good and helpful, it isn’t as strong a treatment as I was hoping for. Harvey has also written When sinners say "I do", and this appears to be partially a corrective, noting that yes, two sinners are living together but that not all struggles in a marriage can be narrowed down to sin. 
"I want to help you identify profound factors that shape your marriage – influences that can’t so easily be traced back to sinful desires. We often encounter weaknesses or personality differences in marriage and instantly try to moralise them. We assign motives and then ascribe sin to spouse’s actions and omissions. But cultivating a durable marriage involves recognising that our brokenness is broader than sin."
"To thrive in marriage over the long haul we need to care for our spouse as a whole person. That means seeing how God’s good news speaks not only to their sin but also to their suffering, weakness, family history, disappointed dreams, physical limitations, and changes in sexual appetite."
He breaks the books into three sections: starting together, sticking together and ending together. He has structured chapters around the idea of ‘defining moments’, when you realise something crucial about your marriage, yourself or your partner.

Early chapters consider the realisation that our brokenness (and our spouse’s) is broader than sin and how we need to see our spouse as a whole person:
“The need to see our spouse as a whole person – a person full of sin and grace, weakness and strength; a person with a broken and beautiful human body wrapped around an eternal soul.”
He then looks at how we manage and accept blame and weakness in marriage, as he says: “Marriage is the union of two people on a journey to discover their weakness.”

The central section considers the moment when you realise family can’t replace church, which was helpful but focussed on the nuclear family (how you manage your children etc). It would have been interesting to see this extended to parents, in-laws and extended family and what it means to the for us to prioritise the family of God.

I found this section the most helpful including how you face your spouse’s suffering, what it means for sex to change with age, and what it means to really understand mercy,
"Marriage, particularly an ageing one, becomes an awakening to the mercy of God. A place of safety where we see each other as God sees us (as we are, without any masks) and where we learn to respond to the way he does (with kindness and compassion). In this way, marriage becomes a sanctuary. For two people growing older together, it’s a reprieve from the world, a place of refuge – a home where two sinners can dwell peaceably in the comfort of mercy."
The final section considers when dreams disappoint as well as when the children leave. It was a shame that the focus in this chapter was on children who leave to marry, it could have been written in a way that made it broader, rather than just passing references to single children also moving out. Many couples have children leave home long before they are married, if they ever do, and it seemed a missed opportunity to consider that it more depth.
"Letting go of a son or daughter is a significant test. It reveals how much we trust God’s sovereignty in our kids’ lives; it reveals where our own emotional security is rooted; and it reveals, in a significant way, what we truly understand about leadership."

He finishes with the idea that closure is overrated.
“What does a married couple do when hard things continue, when the problems seem hopelessly open-ended? How do we make sense of situations where resolution would appear to bring so much glory to God? How do we go on when that experience remains elusive and unreachable, taunting our hopes? How should we respond when a lack of resolution becomes so oppressive and burdensome that a marriage risks collapsing under the strain?”
There is an honesty here about the struggles that some face over the course of a marriage, and an encouragement to realise some things never get tied up neatly in a bow.

In the end, there are good things covered here and these are certainly issues long term couples need to consider, but I felt the way it was written at times hindered rather than helped.

Firstly, while there are good principles, I felt the whole book stays one step away from hard practical application. The tables at the end of each chapter help to consider the content of each chapter, but there could have been more questions or things for couples to work through together. For example I think many readers would want more detail about the implications of their sex life changing, what it might look like and what continuing to love and serve each other with grace could look like in later years.

Secondly, while the topics he covers are good, I’m not convinced the wording used is the most helpful. I wonder if some Christians looking at the chapter headings might not immediately see the relevance for themselves.

Thirdly, there is an over-reliance on illustrations, and they often muddy the application rather than clarifying it. At one point over about five pages, he references King Tut’s beard, a hurricane, Star Wars, Hillbilly Elegy, CS Lewis, King Lear and John Owen. The final chapter is an extended retelling of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which seemed a convoluted way to finish. It might be readily applicable if you have read it and appreciated it but otherwise you have to do the work to understand that story and then figure out why it is being used. It would have been much more powerful and helpful if numerous illustrations and stories were dropped and instead direct use of God’s word and then application to marriage was prioritised.

This is a helpful treatment on marriage into later life, and one I will probably return to again in future years. Harvey has certainly emphasised the gospel of grace and mercy and how that can affect all aspects of marriage and life together. Taking time to identify and work though some of the defining moments of a marriage will have benefit for every couple, whether they have been married five years or fifty.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Being Mortal

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

Gawande has written this sobering, honest, critical and yet hopeful book “about the modern experience of mortality - about what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong.” 

As he says:
“Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need."
He considers the medicalisation and institutionalisation of dying, and how it comes at cross purposes to what many want in their final days and years: choice over whether to remain in your own home, freedom over what you eat & drink, how we socialise (or not) with others, and the ability to make your own decisions about care, treatment and death.

He moves through topics considering how independent we are through most of life, but things start to fall apart as bodies decay and age naturally. We become creatures who need more help, and who become more dependent on others.

He consider what he terms the failure of the nursing home experiment, noting they were never designed for the purposes to which they have been put, with the three things that plague them: boredom, loneliness, helplessness:
“Our elderly are left with a controlled and supervised existence, a medically designed answer to unfixable problems, a life designed to be safe but empty of anything they care about.”
Gawande uses personal stories to illustrate many of his points, including very sad situations of people over-treated with increasingly painful and pointless procedures, and given false hope, who, along with their family, were never properly prepared for their inevitable death. He contrasts this with well done hospice care. He also weaves the story of his own father’s decline and death, and the choices they had to make along the way.
“Our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come - and escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.”
He notes how hard it is for patients, family and doctors to have these hard conversations, but having them helps everyone to process the reality, and to be clear about when they want, can expect and what is possible. He suggests some of the things we should be talking about at this stage are:
  • What do you want? (eg to be at home, to manage the pain, enjoy remaining days) 
  • What are your biggest fears and concerns? (eg to not be able to go home, to be ventilated) 
  • What goals are most important to you? (eg. being able to walk, care for yourself, eat, have autonomy over day) 
  • What trade-offs are you willing to make, and which ones are you not? (this can help with risky surgery decisions, etc) 
Personally, I would have loved some consideration about how faith affects people’s view about these last days, but that was not where this book was headed.

He touches on assisted suicide, and in the end is not greatly supportive of it: “Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end.” As he notes, “assisted living is far harder that assisted death, but its possibilities are far greater, as well.”

I appreciated some of his final comments:
“Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the “dying role” and is important to people as life approaches its end. People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, settle relationships, establish their legacies, make peace with God, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay. They want to end their stories on their own terms …the way we deny people this role, out of obtuseness and neglect, is cause for everlasting shame. Over and over, we in medicine inflict deep gouges at the end of people’s lives and then stand oblivious to the harm done.”
“If to be human is to be limited, then the role of caring professionals and institutions - from surgeons to nursing homes - ought to be aiding people in their struggle with those limits”.
This is an excellent, thoughtful analysis that could help many start these important conversations with those they love.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

God Made Me for Worship

God Made Me for Worship, Jared Kennedy 

This new volume in the God Made Me series helps young children to understand the purpose of church and what happens when we are there.

Like others in the series (God Made All of Me, God Made Me AND You, God made Boys and Girls, and God Made Me Unique) although all have different authors, they have a similar feel, both with way they have been collated, and with the eye-catching illustrations of Trish Mahoney.

It starts with a group of children talking to their pastor and wanting to understand why they do the things they do in church.

Then young readers are introduced to various parts of a worship service: the call to worship, praise and adoration, confession and lament, assurance, welcome (or passing the peace), ministry of the word (reading and preaching the bible), communion, giving, and the benediction. Variations between this expression and your church’s own would be easy to explain (eg. in our church no-one shouts out “That’s right! Amen!” during the preaching). And, of course, whether you have all these elements in your own church service will reflect your own churchmanship. Frankly, if some key parts are missing in your church, even parents should start to ask why. 

All of these are explained through the lens of the gospel, showing how what Christ has done for us is reflected in a worship service. My guess is, that this is a step many of us miss when we explain church to our children, for we may not have fully grasped it ourselves. 

I would have liked to see a bit more on prayer, because I hope a church would be praying more broadly that only in confession. I also felt bringing Isaiah 6 in was probably a bit more complicated than was necessary for this age group. I think this may be the first in the series with a parent that is not a believer, the father picks up the little girl and her mother after, and she is keen to tell him what she has learnt. That’s a helpful addition and reflects the reality of numerous families.

Another solid addition to the God Made Me series, aimed at those who are 4-8.

I received a pdf copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Grace in the Desert

Grace in the Desert, Christine Dillon

Christine Dillon returns with the fourth book in her great series of Australian Christian fiction. I have not come across another author who so clearly explains the gospel, has strong Christian characters with real struggles and challenges, and has such relatable storylines.

In this volume the focus of the story returns to Rachel, and how she is managing with the changes life has presented to her in recent years. She is growing in her faith, but struggling with what forgiveness really means.

Pete also enters this story in more depth, who has suffered his own personal tragedy and is still coming to terms with loss. It is pleasing to see more strong Christian men in the later volumes.

Familiar characters from previous books are also still present: grandmother Noami, Blanche and William, the young man Josh with Down Syndrome who works at the nursery with Rachel and Pete, and Pete’s parents who were key in Rachel’s conversion.

Dillon writes very encouraging characters, who grow in sanctification, who are changed by God’s word, and who pour out their hearts to God in trusting prayer even in the midst of very challenging circumstances. She doesn’t shy away from the realities of life, the effects of sin, and the sadness that many live with. I found myself caught up in the characters’ lives and was moved to tears at numerous points.

My only concern is that for some it will feel like a high bar for comparison. There is almost no backsliding, no significant falling back into sin. While this is obviously the goal for us all as we continue to live faithfully in Christ - to be on an onward path of growth, I wonder if it may be disheartening for some who struggle to make such progress in their own lives. The challenges that beset many are not obviously present: be they laziness, struggles at church, finding it hard to love others, battles with addictions, or just persistent resistance to change. It’s also surprising that almost all of the characters are Christian, so there are much fewer evangelistic conversations than in previous books.

I suspect Dillon has chosen to have the focus more about what it means to continue to live in Christ, and that will be a help and encouragement to Christian readers. This book give us something to hope for and characters that we could model ourselves on. There is more practical theology and guidance for godly living here that in many non-Christian ‘how to’ books.

Again, my children (aged 17, 15 and 13) really appreciated it. Our Miss 13 has recently read all four for the first time and loved them. Compared to the light fluffy other ‘Christian’ fiction our children read, these are a wonderful way to explain the gospel again, to have characters that are real Christians living faithfully, and a way for them to consider their own growth in Christ. And they have been the same for me.

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Croods: A New Age

After watching The Croods in preparation for this review, we were a little surprised by the decision to produce a sequel. While it was visually very impressive and had a strong theme of ‘family sticks together’, there really wasn’t much of a storyline.

The Croods are a family of cave-people, who just try to survive each day. Father Grug (Nicholas Cage) protects his family from all the dangers that the world throws at them, and regularly cautions his family not to do anything new or different, because everything adventurous can lead to death. But his daughter Eep (Emma Stone) feels trapped and longs to explore the world. Sneaking out one night she meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a young man who is completely alone, yet searching for tomorrow.

By the end of The Croods they had all travelled to safety away from the impeding dangers of tectonic shifts, and were finally in a place where they could ‘follow the light and find tomorrow’. That was just one of numerous illogical ideas in the movie.

So, in a turnaround of the usual scenario, we were pleased to discover that the second movie is better than the first. The Croods are still searching for a good place to live, and enough food to eat. Eep and Guy are in love and considering what it might mean to be together, just the two of them. Grug however is desperate to keep the family together. Grug happens upon a wall, and when he breaks through discovers crops and ample food all owned by the Betterman family. It turns out that Phil and Hope were close friends of Guy’s parents, and they are thrilled to have Guy back, especially as he makes such an obvious partner for their daughter Dawn. It did seem a little odd for a movie, presumably aimed at under 10s, to make teen love, with parents trying to set it up, a key focus. And some humour was clearly for adults, with references to man-caves, and being passive aggressive.

After that, the story goes a little haywire and changes tack quite dramatically as the men are captured by Punch Monkeys and the women have to come to their rescue.

Some things we appreciated were:
  • The imagery is striking, with bold colours, imaginative creatures and creative landscapes. It feels like a technicolour Dr Seuss world. Nothing is quite the same as our world, but much is still recognisable, such as the wolf spiders: fluffy wolves complete with 8 legs and eyes, and spinnerets.
  • Dawn seems to have no idea that her parents are trying to set her up with Guy and no romantic interest in him. She is just keen to be friends with Eep. Eep and Dawn realise how much they have in common, and are both excited to finally have some company their own age. 
  • There were very few negative body image messages at all. How anyone looked was not really referred to, which is refreshing. In fact, Dawn is envious of Eep’s numerous scars from the dangers she has encountered. 
  • The strong family theme was again evident. Both fathers wanted what they thought was best for their children, and tried to get it, even if later it made them realise they had been “two profoundly foolish fathers”. 
  • In the end, the Bettermans and the Croods were able to look beyond their surface differences to find their common humanity. And a final happy medium was found with the families choosing to stay and live together, but Eep and Guy also able to explore the world on their own. 
I’d give this one 3 stars.

I saw an advance screening thanks to Universal Pictures Australia.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Building Bridges

Building Bridges: Biblical Counseling activities for Children and Teens, Julie Lowe 

A few months ago, I reviewed Caring for the Souls of Children, and concluded it was an excellent tool for biblical counsellors, parents and mentors as they reach out to children pastorally and biblically.

This new book by Julie Lowe (author of Child Proof) is an excellent companion volume to that book, focussing on assisting those who want to provide more specific counsel to children and teenagers:
“This book aspires to help counselors, families, and other caring adults to build bridges—life-giving, gospel-infused connections—with young people in our sphere of influence.”
Young people need people who will love them, listen to them and then offer a wise path forward:
“Young people … need wise adults who are willing to enter their world and experiences. They need us to sit with them and feel what life is like in their shoes, and they need a vision for something beyond such experiences. They need hope that there is more to their lives than their current circumstances, and they need us to find winsome ways to point them to the Lord.”
Lowe addresses different stages of development and how we need to be aware of them as we talk to young people. She makes some helpful observations on character and temperament, with temperament being more innate characteristics, and character being more learned moral behaviour.
“In seeking to understand and help a young person, it is prudent to ask when issues are developmental and when they are moral (sin) issues. Is a challenging behavior a result of willfulness and sinful desires, or just immaturity? Initially it is not always obvious. But with wisdom, time, and a willingness to engage with a child’s struggles, clarity will often develop.”
Chapters also address the importance of involving parents, and a biblical rationale for using expressive activities with children:
“Expressive activities are demonstrative, winsome ways to draw out what is going on in the heart and mind of an individual. Each activity is both expressive (meaningful and communicative) and projective (symbolic of their inner world) and seeks to find ways to understand individuals and help them grow. The activities are used to help uncover a person’s thoughts and feelings in a nonthreatening, indirect fashion.”
“I like to think of expressive therapy as “creational counseling”—using things in nature to remind us of biblical truths and point us to the Lord. It would seem both winsome and wise to use his creation to woo those we counsel to what is true, right, and good.”
Lowe then turns to practical principles and application, the skills needed to draw out children, and ways to engage well, such as giving instruction one at a time, being simple and clear, asking open questions and letting children explain what they have done in an activity. All reasonably basic reminders of things many will know but sometimes forget to practice.

The second half of the book gives many examples and activities of ways to interact with children. Starting with methods for drawing them out, she covers strategic use of storytelling and books, talking about superheroes and villains, role playing, sand trays, art and other activities.

Then follows numerous activities to understand children, their families, their heart, relationships, and challenges. All are very helpful and will be a springboard for many to assist with their own resources. Those in professional counselling will already use or be aware of versions of these, and will find them easily adaptable to their own purposes.

Then there are numerous expressive activities that speak into children’s hearts and challenges, bringing God’s word to bear in ways that are understandable, relatable and applicable. Those familiar with the idea of fruit & thorns from How People Change or any of the CCEF courses will recognise elements. 

She concludes by encouraging readers to unleash their own creativity, adapting these resources for their own use and in their own ways. Those who buy the book, will also find they have access to pdf downloads of all activities for their own use.

A comment I found helpful throughout was the reminder that those who have skills working with young people are not necessarily inherently gifted to do so, but rather it comes through hard work, persistence and a desire to care:
“Working with young people may appear to be an innately God-given gift, but it is really a fostered expertise and aptitude that grows when we commit ourselves to knowing and loving this community well. Let’s lean into the truth, wisdom, and encouragement of God’s Word as our foundation as we seek to best steward the ministry he has given us. It is a privilege to serve on the front lines of ministry as a counselor, and to seek to winsomely connect a struggling young person to the heartbeat of Christ.”
As I said with Caring for the Souls of Children, you shouldn’t read this and then expect to be fully equipped to counsel children. Rather, this would be one of many resources you would want to have before you proceed. But the wisdom and insight contained within will encourage those who counsel children (both ‘officially’ and ‘unofficially’) to consider creative ways of doing so as they reach out to young people with hope.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Note: I use the Australian spelling for counsellor myself, but when quoting the book, use the American spelling counselor

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Pop Culture Parent

The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids engage Their World for Christ, Ted Turnau, E. Stephen Burnett, and Jared Moore

How do you deal with popular culture in your home? Do you all rush to watch the new series of Agents of Shield? Do you anticipate the reset of Minecraft? When Peppa is a bit rude to her parents, do you point it out? Do you love listening to the creative lyrics in Hamilton with your teens, or ban it because of the explicit language in some songs? Do you comment when the heroine is always stunning, skinny and kick-fighting impossibly in heels? What about when the hero saves the day by laying down his life for others?

In essence – how equipped do you feel as a parent with connecting popular culture to Christ? If you are like me, you find it tricky at times. The Pop Culture Parent is an excellent resource to help you out. While also approaching parenting in general, it specifically focusses on how to interact with popular culture, teaching kids to do so with appreciation and an awareness of the good, yet aware of the idols within.

Popular culture includes human-created works that occupy common spaces, and so we start to appreciate its extensive reach into our lives via TV, the internet, music, advertising, movies, video games, books, social media, and so on. So, the authors encourage:
“As parents, we need to understand popular culture and parenting according to God’s Word. Only then can we avoid both (1) fearing popular culture and (2) embracing it with little discernment. And only then can we apply this truth to our parenting and to the entertainments our children love. That way, we can best glorify God as we fulfil our incredible and biblical calling as parents.”
They consider the purpose of popular culture as being the way humanity expresses the world and how they view it. As such, we shouldn’t dismiss it for it presents a serious view of the world, reflecting both the wonder of the creator and the reality of sin; “culture is inevitably a complex, messy mixture, and this mixture is our world as we have (re)made it”.

The authors then turn to considering what gospel-centred parenting looks like, contrasting it with hands-off parenting and endless child-proofing. They have five questions to assist families as they engage popular culture:
  1. What is the story?
  2. What is the moral and imaginary world?
  3. What is good, true and beautiful In this world? What are the common grace elements that are present? 
  4. What is false and idolatrous? What are the idols in this story, what does it suggest is the best way, or the way that wins?
  5. How is Jesus the true answer to this story’s hopes?
As they work through this, they raise some of the errors parents can make in this area, such as forgetting to respect the style and excellence of human art, and having an overly narrow view of God’s common grace. They encourage parents to discern their child’s heart as they are influenced by popular culture, like watching for mood swings and what they become obsessed about.

Then they dive into how to explore popular culture with children of different ages, giving a worked example for each. In each, they outline the main areas to consider when engaging culture with children, lining them up with the physical, mental and social changes they are undergoing. This includes being aware of the messages about physical bodies and sexuality, how it encourages them to think and feel, and what it suggests about the community around them.

With young children, it’s mostly about celebrating the way God makes people in all their variety, helping them think about what they see, and encouraging contentment. The example for this age group is Frozen and the reader is led through a detailed analysis of how to consider their five questions.

With older children and preteens, we want to consider the messages given about physical appearance and sexuality, to think deeper about morality and consequences, and how to help them as they interact with friends and develop their own identities. The practice session for this age group is Star Wars - The Force Awakens.

Finally, they turn to older teens and young adults:
“At this age, popular culture carries huge weight, and teaching kids how to think it through as Christians helps bolster their faith.”
Again, the developmental changes of this age and how culture speaks to them are addressed, including changes in sexual awareness, including body image dissatisfaction, pornography, sexual orientation, and gender identity. These were all wisely and sensitively addressed. In the end, we want to help teens celebrate creation and inner beauty. Then they consider the changes in mental processing and their social interactions, including helping them to seek health and peace, getting to know their friends, letting them make their own cultural mistakes, and valuing their cultural tastes and choices. The worked example here is the video game Fornite Battle Royale. There were some great questions at the end of this chapter to encourage children to analyse video games and similar entertainments.
“In following Jesus, we participate in and even speed along the renewal of creation that God will, in his time, bring to fruition an earth that will flow with more color and energy than any computer game. This doesn’t mean we should tell our kids “Never play entertaining computer games,” but rather, “Always remember where your true hope lies; don’t ever make entertainment an idol.” The gospel offers something better than entertainment. It offers the new creation to which entertainment gestures.”
These sections are incredibly helpful and the examples given likely to be immediately relevant to many parents who will likely already be familiar with the chosen case studies. Each time the analysis was much more than I would have come up with on my own, and gave helpful pointers to further conversation. We have already used some of it in discussions about the things that we watch or listen to as a family.

Some parents may find the level of detailed analysis overwhelming, but the authors are clear to point out that you don’t have to talk like this with your kids all the time, and in fact that would be counterproductive. No one wants to finish every movie, song or video game and be asked how the gospel speaks to it. They are giving parents tools to start and then further the conversation as works for them. For me, I wish I had this book ten years ago. It’s not too late now by any means, but it is harder to have these conversations with older teens when you haven’t done so in a particularly structured way that much before.

I really appreciated the authors’ willingness to engage with popular culture, not shutting it down and refusing to interact with it, but also neither embracing it wholeheartedly without analysis. Parents are helped to develop and implement wise principles that apply across the range of parenting, as your family interacts with popular culture. Highly recommended.

Review first published on The Gospel Coalition Australia website
I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Gospel-Centred Life in the Bible Study Guides

New Growth Press have been publishing a series of bible study guides under the banner The Gospel-Centred Life in the Bible

I have recently worked through three: Titus, Ephesians and Revelation. It’s worth noting I did this myself as part of my own personal bible reading, rather than in a group setting. But it’s easy to see how they could work for two or more people. 

Each book has a similar format, with each lesson containing: 
  • Big Idea - the summary of the main point 
  • Bible conversation - a chance to read the passage and then talk about it 
  • Article - a main teaching section of the lesson, written by the author 
  • Discussion - a few questions to help you interact with the article 
  • Exercise - some things to consider yourself and then to discuss as you apply the teaching to your own life 
  • Wrap up and prayer 
It is expected that each lesson would take about an hour, although groups that have extensive discussion would go for longer.

There are a few leaders notes provided at the back of each book, but these are by no means exhaustive, rather just a prompt.

The strengths of these studies are the articles and exercises. The articles point the group to the key points of the passage and the exercises really direct individuals to consider how it applies to them. They are gospel focussed bringing the reader back to God’s grace, how the gospel speaks from the passage, and then makes it personal as you consider your response. I found many of these very helpful as well as challenging. As the Revelation study says:
“Like the other resources in this series, this study is gospel-centered. This means the study begins with an assumption that you have a daily need for the gospel. You have fears and insecurities and sins that the saving work of Jesus addresses, and by looking to the gospel you grow in love for Jesus and, in turn, a desire to love others and take the gospel out to them. With this in mind, the group will be a place to be open about sins and struggles with the goal of growing in Christ, gaining confidence as you see how he saves you in every way from that sin.”
The weakness in these studies is the lack of exegesis or even pointing toward learning good exegesis. There is very little time spent in the actual text and nutting out what it means. There are two problems with this, one theoretical and one actual. The theoretical problem is that you are reliant on the author’s exegesis and interpretation as you move through the study. I say theoretical in this instance, because I felt the authors did a good job of explaining the text in most cases. Of course, that may not always be the case. My real and actual problem was that it does not teach the reader how to exegete the bible for themselves: how to consider the context of a passage, the flow of a passage, what the author intended, and how it links to other parts of scripture. Therefore, I think the format has a weakness in not spending more time in the actual text. 

So, these are useful gospel-centred studies that will encourage people to apply God’s word to their lives, but a bit light on teaching people how to read the bible for themselves.

These ebooks were provided by New Growth Press in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Caring for the Souls of Children

Caring for the Souls of Children: A Biblical Counselor's Manual, edited by Amy Baker

This great resource, edited by Amy Baker with numerous contributors, speaks to many situations that children face, and provides biblical counsellors and parents with tools and advice to address them pastorally and with care. 

It begins by addressing foundational and methodological issues, first noting that the implications of the gospel are as relevant for children as they are for adults, and then some implications of counselling children:
“For children, the struggles, desires, and hopes are no different than for those of us who are adults. Therefore, the counsel we provide for them should lead them to the same place—the good news of Jesus Christ.”
“As counselors, we need to be reminded that the answers from Scripture are not too hard for children to grasp... Like adults, children need to wrestle with sin and suffering and be led to see a sovereign, merciful God at work.”
Her first goal is to counsel parents to counsel their own children.

She then outlines “seven structural components for counseling that can be a backbone for your counseling. These key elements are 1) show love and begin to build a relationship, 2) gather relevant data, 3) evaluate the problem biblically, 4) share biblical hope, 5) provide biblical instruction, 6) assign practical homework, and 7) involve the parents.”

Then there are charts of covering six stages of development from age 3-18, covering physical, emotional, cognitive, social and spiritual changes.

All of these provide a framework, which is then used as the focus turns to numerous specific counselling issues that are addressed by different authors.

Children and their relationships includes leading children to Jesus, the relationship with parents and friendships.
“Parents and children alike often feel they are in a bitter struggle against each other. Parents want respect and obedience. Children want freedom and independence. These two desires clash in most parent-child relationships, even in the households with the healthiest dynamics. In all families there is a level of tension and a pull to navigate the issues of authority versus emerging independence.”
I found comments on friendships insightful, including that:
  • friendships are hard and often require sacrifice 
  • friendships ultimately point to someone greater 
The next section was children and their emotions, and included helping those who are anxious, angry, dealing with shame, and what to consider after a suicide attempt.
“Let your child know they are not alone. Pursue meaningful conversation with your child. Be proactive in addressing hard topics they are bound to face in their world. Be a redemptive guide speaking into the corruption they will be forced to weed through. Let them know there is One who fights on their behalf.”
“To solve a child’s anger problem, you must target the source of his anger—his heart... While it is true that anger ultimately stems from the heart, it is crucial to ask what other contributing factors may be present. Considering the heart gives a deeper understanding of anger problems; considering the situational factors gives a wider understanding. Understanding the wider context of your counselees’ lives will help you be more patient, compassionate, and creative as you work with them. Discerning these various facets of a child’s struggle requires wise, patient questioning and good listening.”
Children and their bodies addresses talking about sex, sexual identity, children who self harm, and those with a disability or disease. All were balanced, helpful, compassionate and contained wise advice.

While the following quote was related to self harm, it still applies in numerous circumstances:
“Most parents experience at least one shocking discovery about one or more of their children. Life is going along as well as can be expected and with a blinding flash and deafening roar trouble strikes. When that happens, it’s easy to lose your bearings and to react with fear and anger to the trouble you see in front of you. But when you discover that your child is self-harming, remember at that moment in time, you will be your child’s first counselor. Whether you wish to or not makes no difference. The option before you is to either occupy that role as best you can by God’s grace, or to do poorly by responding with all your fear, hurt, and disappointment in plain view. You get one opportunity in that moment to respond in a helpful, biblical way. Start with asking God to help you and then listen to your child.”
The final section, children and trauma, covers abuse, children of divorce, facing grief and death, and children not living with their biological parents.

I come to this book more from the perspective of a parent, rather than a biblical counsellor, but I think there is application and relevance for both.

Some of my observations were:
  • Each chapter is structured around an actual example, containing the detail as of a child and their situation. This is then used as springboard to consider the wider issue. It’s a helpfully concrete way in to considering the issue being addressed. 
  • Numerous authors refer to the Psalms as a way in to talking with children and giving them the language they need. This reflects the reality that children can gain as much truth, comfort, instruction and wisdom from Scripture as adults, and we should desire to lead children to these truths and help them find ways to absorb them and apply them to themselves. 
  • Every chapter has a ‘word to parents’, making this book extremely accessible to carers as as well as biblical counsellors. These assist parents to reach out and care for their children, while being aware of their own struggles. 
  • It's a little surprising there is no chapter on depression, or mental health challenges generally.  
  • You shouldn’t read this and then expect to be fully equipped to counsel children. This would be one of many resources you would want to have before you proceed. However, the wisdom and insight contained within will encourage those who counsel children (both ‘officially’ and ‘unofficially’) to consider how the gospel impacts all aspects of a child’s life and circumstances, and how to journey with them to see the Lord is for them and with them. 
  • Similarly, it’s true that God’s word is indeed sufficient, but it needs to be applied wisely, well and appropriately. This book is a help to that end, but not the only resource and skills you would want. Some chapters (eg the one on abuse) really only started to address the issues, rather than being comprehensive. 
In conclusion, this is a good guide for parents, caregivers and counsellors as they reach out to children, helping them to see God is at work, is in control and loves them, through the complexities of life.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Note: I use the Australian spelling for counsellor myself, but when quoting the book, use the American spelling counselor

Monday, September 7, 2020


DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard, Shelby Abbott

What do you do when you have doubts about your faith? Where do you go?

A few ago, when I was struggling myself, I turned to two places. The first was John 6:68, when Simon Peter says to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” They encapsulated my belief at the time, which was “Where else is there to go? Even though I am not always sure, Jesus, you are the only answer that makes any sense”. I also read a book by Martin Ayers, Keep the Faith.

Today, I would still recommend people turn to Peter’s words in John, but also to this new book by Shelby Abbott. Abbott works with university students, and has written the very helpful Pressure Points on Navigating Student Stress.

DoubtLess is designed to help young people think through doubt and how to manage it well. For as he notes, all Christians experience doubt, but there are risks when it begins to lead to unbelief, and so doubts need “to be discussed in a safe environment of grace, truth, and love.” What he wants to do is ”give you the tools to develop a healthy sense of godly perception when doubt hits.”

It’s aimed at young adults in academic contexts of “deep thought, intentional study, and challenging opinions”, however, I think older believers will also benefit from Abbott’s wisdom.

Abbott is clear from the outset he is not dealing with apologetics (the answers to the tough questions), but rather the issues behind the questions people have when they are wrestling with doubt.

His encouragement as people deal with doubt is:
“to lean into your relationship with God in the process, instead of succumbing to the temptation to flee from him. Let’s link arms together and move forward, with a spirit of hope and expectancy, as we trust the Lord during the struggle. May our faith in Jesus Christ be anchored and strengthened through our wrestling with doubt.”
In Section One, he considers seven foundational issues to do with doubt. The first is to realise that doubt is biblical and common and a reading of the even just the Psalms demonstrates this. We can be honest with God about our doubts, because he can handle it.
“We can see doubt as if it were like a sporadic visitor who should be a welcome guest in the home of our heart. Guests can come in and shake things up a bit in your home, but then they leave. Doubt should never take up permanent residence in your heart.”
He encourages us to follow through on our questions about doubt, rather than being anxious about them.
“When big questions come up, not panicking about our doubts is an act of faith in and of itself. So take comfort in the fact that God is God and you’re not.”
Feeding your faith rather than your doubts is crucial and so spending time in God’s word, in prayer, in Christian community and trusting the Spirit is at work helps feed our faith while we process doubt. Knowing God, rather than about God is critical:
“But a deep heart relationship with God is one of the biggest buffers against doubt. Even if you don’t know a lot of biblical truths and can’t win an apologetics debate, a life-changing relationship with God is a solid foundation to stand on, and it won’t be swayed because of a lack of debate skills….Similarly, you must stay connected to God’s Word, God’s people, and God’s Spirit because they are your spiritual resources. To proactively neglect them is to walk down the path toward unbelief. When doubt creeps in, don’t let it steer you toward unbelief. Instead, learn to doubt in a healthy way—invest in your personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and let your doubts strengthen your faith instead of weaken it.”
He challenges the unrealistic idea that we can understand everything with absolute certainty. This is arrogance which needs to be tempered with humility. He encourages three ways to manage doubt well, and I agree with his assessment here:
  • Talk with a wiser Christian who will listen and walk with you 
  • Practice habit of good orthodox reading 
  • Be a committed member and regular attender of a local church 
A lack of any of these will contribute to ongoing struggles with doubts.

He concludes by encouraging you to make sure you have two keys truths solid in your heart: the bible’s validity and reliability, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
“Again, the resurrection is the hinge on which the door of our faith swings. There may be many problems in your personal heart and mind that cause you to doubt and question the validity of God, his Word, the Christian faith in general, creationism, eternity, or the existence of heaven and hell, and so on. But if Jesus is alive, those other doubts you’re wrestling with will start to fade in the light of Christ’s victory over death. Sure, there may be certain things about God you still don’t understand or can’t wrap your mind around, but you can always come back to the fact that Jesus is alive.”
Section 2: Everyday Doubts are those which “might not rock your face to the core, but they have the ability to wear you down and erode your faith over time”.

The first is the being willing to even ask questions, rather than fearing of what other will think about you if you voice doubts.
“But there should be no statute of limitations on your questions. Just because you may have been a believer for a long time doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions anymore. The body of Christian community, if anywhere, should be the place where questions are welcomed. The church should invite sincere questions from men and women who are wrestling with doubt—not only so we can point them to resources and pray for them, but also so we can be godly friends to them and encourage them as they doubt. All of us need Christlike friends to lean on when the storms of life shake us up.”
“Christianity has existed for nearly two thousand years, and has never collapsed in on itself because of inquisitive questions. There should be a free and vulnerable environment among the Christians on your campus, in your church, with your believing friends, in your neighborhood, or in your campus ministry. Those are the places where nonbelieving people should feel safe to be skeptics, and in turn see the love of Christ shine brighter than anything they’ve ever seen before. If nonbelievers in your circle of influence continue to experience the kind of setting I just described amid your Christian community, you should get ready—because you’re probably going to see lives transformed and people coming to Christ on a regular basis”
He makes the astute observation that learning to ask questions when you are young teaches that you are still allowed to ask questions when you are older, and life becomes more complex.
“To be a person of faith is to think more and comprehend the realities of truth all around us. Work through, grasp, fathom, discern, consider, understand—think! Doubt will pull you from thought, but faith will lead you to use your God-given brain more deeply.”
Later chapters cover the ability to rest in the truth that God is powerful and loving (he is sovereign, in control and he cares), as well as warning about the tendency to wallow in doubt rather than research it. He notes that for some this excuses people from living faithful, godly lives; choosing to be casual about their relationship with him and his command to live in holiness.
“we need some doubts in our lives. We need to encounter them because when we fight them, we become stronger in our faith. The battle with doubt itself builds up antibodies in our system, preparing us for the certainty of future hardships. The faith that encounters doubt will become a sturdy, long-lasting faith to prop ourselves up against when life attacks.”
He finishes with practical strategies to combat doubt: practice thankfulness, meet with ‘real and right’ people to work them through, continually remind yourself of the gospel and share your faith.

Abbott uses the words of others throughout, and I think has overly relied on Tim Keller. Not that Tim Keller is not great on this topic, I just felt he could have used his on words to the same effect.

All in all, an excellent book for young adults (and others) encouraging them to work through doubts, be honest about them, seek help and guidance in them, and continue to so while growing in their relationship with God, trusting in Jesus and all he has done. Where else have we to go? He truly does have the words of eternal life.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  

Monday, August 31, 2020

Ready or Knot?

Ready or knot? Scott Kedersha

I’ve been looking for a new book to replace our standard recommended reading for a couple who is newly engaged. Finally, I think I've found it.

Scott Kedersha has provided an excellent resource for couples considering marriage. He addresses 12 topics to think about and work through together, covering pretty much everything I want addressed (and that we do in our own marriage preparation with couples). These include: the purpose of marriage, communication, having faith as your foundation, personality differences, family of origin, sex, financial stewardship, friendship, biblical roles, children and church community. Each chapter finishes with questions for each individual, questions to discuss together, and a prayer to pray together as you continue to work through the issue.

Kedersha seems eminently qualified, having run a marriage ministry for 13 years in Texas and having helped thousands of couples prepare for marriage. Each chapter is founded on scripture, is clear and very relevant. Published last year it is also up to date, and addresses issues older books don’t deal with as well, such as challenges of technology and the potential impact of previous sexual experience and pornography on a marriage. Each chapter includes an extended illustration of one couple and how they have managed that issue in their marriage. This gave a personal voice to the content, and will help starry-eyed couples see what challenges they may face down the track. I appreciated that these weren’t sugar-coated, there were couples who had had affairs, struggled with anger and had hopes dashed. But all came to be confronted by the grace of God in their lives and were able to enact real change.

He flags that as couples work through things, they will need consider whether an issue is a green light (proceed to marriage), orange light (reconsider, postpone, work on things), or red light (time to walk away). One potential red light issue he flagged was a partner who never asks for forgiveness. Very insightful.

I have a mental list of topics I would like to see covered in pre-marriage books. Things like: how to manage technology use, couples who were already sleeping together, what physical boundaries to consider while engaged, what friendships with the other gender might look like once married, considerations over having children, and contraception. I was thrilled to see each of these and many more covered.

There were a few minor things that could have been better. There was one very poor biblical reference to Rev 2:4-5, where Jesus rebukes the church for forgetting their first love (him), which Kedersha uses to say you have to keep the fun activities you enjoyed early on and keep doing them later in marriage. I would have liked to see him raise the red light issue if you have concerns regarding your partner’s anger or any violence. And in the chapter on biblical roles, he did not address decision-making. We find the majority of couples think headship and submission comes down to decision-making and I would have liked to see him address this oversimplification. 

While I appreciated the breadth of topics he discussed, the real strength is the way he addressed them. All were designed to bring you back to Christ, and what it means to serve him in your marriage both biblically and practically. This book will assist many engaged couples thoughtfully assess how they want their marriage to honour God and each other.

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Madness of Crowds

The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, Douglas Murray 

You may recall I read some books on racism earlier in the year, White Tears / Brown Scars and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race. Both prompted me to think through current issues and language, such as white privilege, white guilt, structural racism, intersectionality, etc.

I then turned to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and at this point started to feel uneasy. I chose not to review her book here, but after some research realised it’s not just me who felt uncomfortable with it. She is a white woman who runs diversity seminars. Her premise is that all white people are racist, we live in a white supremacy world, with our white fragility and an unwillingness to face our racism. Her book keeps us all of us our place: we cannot learn or change, you have to live with your guilt, fragility and privilege.

I felt it was time to explore some other writing, so after enjoying Ben Elton’s fictional exploration into identity politics, I turned to Douglas Murray’s analysis in The Madness of Crowds.

I could give a very detailed review, as I wrote copious notes and highlighted many sections. Instead, I’ll give some overarching summary comments, including quotes, so you can decide whether or not you want to read it for yourself. I realise this is still quite long as is.

Personally, I highly recommend reading it.

He asserts there are four main tripwires now laid across culture, which he titles:
  • gay 
  • women 
  • race 
  • trans 
He addresses each in depth, starting from why they have come to the fore, but at the same time pointing out the illogical nature and antagonistic attitude behind much of today’s discourse.
“Among the things these issues all have in common is that they have started as legitimate human rights campaigns. That is why they have come so far. But at some point all went through the crash barrier. Not content with being equal they have started to settle on unsustainable positions such as ‘better’.”
He then notes, “each of these issues is infinitely more complex and unstable than our societies are currently willing to admit. Which is why, put together as the foundation blocks of a new morality and metaphysics, they form the basis for a general madness. Indeed a more unstable basis for social harmony could hardly be imagined.”

It’s a brave man who chooses to dip his toe in these muddy waters. But his analysis is timely, logical, helpful and does not hesitate to draw out the inconsistencies of positions that we are presented with.
“We are going through a great crowd derangement. In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant. The daily news cycle is filled with the consequences. Yet while we see the symptoms everywhere, we do not see the causes.”
He believes the cause is because all our grand narratives have collapsed. Religion and politics no longer tell the story, and postmodernity suggested there wasn’t one.

So, people find meaning by engaging in “new battles, even fiercer campaigns and ever more niche demands. To find meaning by waging a constant war against anybody who seems to be on the wrong side of a question which may itself have just been reframed and the answer to which has only just been altered.”

He examines how the world is now interpreted through three lenses: social justice, identity group politics and intersectionalism, which he notes is “probably the most audacious and comprehensive effort since the end of the Cold War at creating a new ideology.”

Woven throughout the book are overarching comments and arguments, including:

1. The way we treat each other and impute motive:
“The manner in which people and movements behave at the point of victory can be the most revealing thing about them. Do you allow arguments that worked for you to work for others? Are reciprocity and tolerance principles or fig-leaves? Do those who have been censored go on to censor others when the ability in is their own hands?”

“Which leads to a question that everybody in genuinely diverse and pluralistic societies must at some point ask: ‘Do we take other people at face value, or do we try to read behind their words and action, claim to see into their hearts and the divine the true motives which their speech and actions have not yet revealed?”
2. Hardware vs software 

He returns to this distinction in each category, and how thinking has changed around it. For example, gender was always thought to be a hardware issue, you are born male or female. However, with the trans movement, someone can declare themselves to be a woman even while being biologically male, thus turning the perception of gender in a a software issue.

3. The politicisation of each position

Each section refers to the political nature of each issue, to the extent that if you aren’t on the ‘right’ side of the debate, you can be outed from that position. eg, a gay man who was told he could not be truly gay, because he supported Trump.
“…may be among the biggest issues of all. It is whether being gay means that you are attracted to members of your own sex, or whether it means that you are part of a grand political project.”
4. Claims of each have moved beyond equality, to that proponents of each are somehow now ‘better’ than others 
“just one of the contradictory settlements that we have landed on … the one that simultaneously insists that women are in every meaningful way exactly the same as men, possessing the same traits and competencies and able to challenge them on the same turf at any time. Yet simultaneously, magically, they are better than men. Or better in specific ways.”
5. Intersectionality 
“To say that intersectionality has not been thought through is an understatement. Together with its other faults it has not been put to the test in any meaningful way for any meaningful length of time. It has the most tenuous basis in philosophy and has no major work of though dedicated to it. … it would ordinarily be deemed presumptuous, not to say unwise, to try to roll out that concept across an entire society, including every educational institution and every profitable place of business.”
6. The impact of technology
“What all these waves have inadvertently demonstrated is the deranging effects that social media can have not just on a debate but on a movement.
He notes the power that Silicon Valley have to make the world think like they do:
“on each of the maddening issues of our time - sex, sexuality, race and trans - the Valley know what is right and is only encouraging everyone else to catch up”
7. Forgiveness

One final area which I thought was particularly insightful were his interlude comments on forgiveness. This echoes Tim Challies’ comments almost 10 years ago, noting the eternality of information online, “can a world that never forgets be a world that truly forgives”.

His comments on the loss of faith here are instructive:
“As one of the consequences of the death of God, Frederick Nietzsche foresaw that people could find themselves stuck in cycles of Christian theology with no way out. Specifically that people would inherit the concepts of guilt, sin and shame but would be without the means of redemption which the Christian religion also offered. Today we do seem to live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption. We do not know who could offer it, who could accept it, and whether it is a desirable quality compared to an endless cycle of fiery certainty and denunciation.”

These are some of the overarching thoughts across the four tripwires he discussed. For more detail on how he addresses each issue, I suggest you read the book. He uses a lot of anecdotes and stories to make his case, and of course the ones chosen illustrate his points perfectly. Stories from the other side would have helped balance some of his argument, for it is true that there are times when women, gay, trans and people of colour have been treated appallingly. However, he is not arguing they have not, but rather the pendulum has swung so far the other way.

His final chapter turns to some solutions, which is only the start of a way forward. His suggestions include inclining towards generosity, recognising where this all may be going and depoliticising our lives. Like many of these types of books, Murray has done an excellent job of identifying the issues, but struggles to propose a helpful, practical way forward for the average person. Perhaps that it because we are still in the middle of it all.

Or perhaps, that is because we do need a meta-narrative to hold our society together. One that values all people. One that considers we are all wonderfully made. One that knows that we all err and fail, yet mercy and true forgiveness can be found. One that calls us to love our God and love our neighbour as ourself. One that extends grace and generosity to one another with a desire to understand and be unified by our common humanity. That’s a meta-narrative worth exploring.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Victoria: The Queen

Victoria: The Queen Julia Baird

After dipping my toe into the historical fiction Victoria by Daisy Goodwin, I was keen to read more about her. So I turned to Julia Baird’s detailed biography.

It was a great read. Baird writes clearly and engagingly, covering large amounts of content, but making it eminently readable. 

I was pleased to have read the Goodwin one first, as I was covering familiar ground for the first few chapters. This enabled comparison between the accounts, but also meant I was familiar with the people present in the young Queen’s life.

This is a solid read and a large book that covers her whole life in detail (although for those that are alarmed by the size of the book, almost half is notes and references). Apparently it’s a challenge to research Victoria for although she wrote thousands of pages of journals and letters over the course of her life, her children and others severely edited them, sanitising much of the content.
"Beatrice, Victoria’s daughter… had been charged with the unfortunate task of editing the queen’s voluminous diaries. She did this over ten years, writing them out in her own hand into blue copybooks and burning the originals, in one of the greatest acts of historical censorship of the century."
So, it’s hard to be sure of the facts. Baird has spend hours in document research, and tries to draw conclusions about facets of Victoria’s life that have been ignored by others, most notably her later very close friendship with John Brown.

Victoria is a fascinating character study. In a time where women where viewed as the property of husbands, could not vote and were rarely considered having opinions worth hearing, Victoria became Queen at 18 and ruled an empire for 64 years. As Baird notes:
"When Victoria was born, food was cooked in open fireplaces, horses carried messages, half of the population was illiterate and a narrow band of property owners were the only ones with political power. By the end of her life in 1901, people travelled by subway, telegraphs shot messages across oceans, education was compulsory, and women had some basic rights."
Her great love was Albert, although she was only married to him for just only 21 years (he died in his mid 40s). Over that time they had nine children. Baird does bring her own interpretive note here at a number of points. One I found unnecessary was that “In the most conventional of senses, Victoria has procured herself a wife. [The Prime Minister Lord] Melbourne was her intellectual companion and Albert was her object of desire.” For many years, it seems that Albert essentially functioned as king, which makes some sense considering the years she would have spent pregnant and recovering from childbirth. Yet, Baird also observes that she ceded much to Albert, losing much of her own strength over those years, which really only rallied when she was again on her own:
“She had forgotten her own colossal strength. It lay dormant for years as she worshipped and relied on her ailing, driven husband.”
This is not only an account of Victoria and those closest to her, woven throughout are the events of the time, how they impacted England and the world, and other notable people living during the same period. She worked with ten prime ministers, some very well and some very cantankerously. Her children went on to marry into many of the royal houses of Europe. There were moments of great progress and triumph, as well as wars where many lives were lost. This is really a telling of the history of England in the 19th century, through the lens of the monarch.

Well worth reading, especially, if like me, you know very little about Victoria and her time.