Monday, July 29, 2019

Human Race

Human Race: Ten Centuries of Change on Earth, Ian Mortimer

Where do you learn your history? Do you read any history at all? As I get older I’m more interested in understanding the past and the world in which we live. I suspect this is common, for as we age, we start to realise how much we do not know. We also see in a small, personal way in our own lives how much we can learn from the past and how history repeats itself, and so we might also be intrigued about that on a larger scale.

This is a great, illuminating book. It’s a solid read and one that you will probably take a little time over, but if you are interested in learning more about the major changes of the Western World over the last millennium and how they impacted life today, Human Race is a great option.

The idea for the book started when Mortimer heard a TV presenter at the end of the 20th century claim that it was the century that had seen the most change. It prompted him to think, “was it really?” So he set about to analyse the last 10 centuries, considering the major changes that affected them. He has then drawn conclusions about each and tried to select one key agent of change (one person) that most affected that century. He has also limited it to the Western World, which for most of the book means Europe.

It’s a book well worth reading if the above interests you. For those that want a brief summary of some things he covers, here goes:

Starting with: “The human race in 1001 was not just illiterate, superstitious, ignorant of the outside world and devoid of spiritual supervision: it faced continual hardships and dangers.”

The church grew widely in the eleventh century, and ended in the call for crusades:
“Just imagine setting out from France today on foot for Jerusalem. Now imagine doing it without any guidebooks, phrasebooks or money, facing incredible heat and large numbers of heavily armed enemies. And imagine doing it without ever having travelled more than a few miles from your native village.”
One large change in the 12th century was the rise in medicine, “it marks the start of the process by which men and women came to trust their fellow human beings rather than God with their physical salvation, and systematically employed medical strategies to cope with sickness rather than relying on prayer or magic.“

The 13th century saw a shift to written records and the introduction of the Magna Carta, which was “indicative of a growing need for people to have a say in the government of the realm.”

Overwhelmingly the major agent of change in the 14th century was the plague. While the plague hit in a couple of major instances, it also returned every decade or so for hundreds of years. It’s first major wave killed 45% of Europe’s population over 7 months. "The 14th century thus heralds an age of fear. People went to bed aware that every night might be their last." This century also saw projectile warfare (arrows, guns and cannons) completely change the field of war.

In the 15th century clocks came into common use which meant that time was now secularised rather than set by the church and times of prayer. At the same time mirrors also came into regular use, increasing the sense of individuality and uniqueness of each person.

The sixteenth century saw "The combination of three things – the printing press, the use of the local vernacular and the spiritual significance of the Bible – that challenge the dominance of the pulpit and the marketplace and ultimately turned Europe into a literate society." Part of this was the Reformation which challenged the previous authority of the church.

The seventeenth saw multitudes die from famine, yet there were also medical and scientific revolutions as well as expansion by Europeans into the rest of the world. The eighteenth century had huge change in transport medication as well as agriculture practice and economic and social theory. By the 19th century, “life in Europe for the vast majority of its burgeoning population was no longer a matter of how to survive; it was a question deciding how to live.” There were major developments in medicine, photography, transport, communication and the concept of leisure.

Many of us know the huge changes of the 20th century, and Mortimer includes developments in transport, the increasing isolation of people with urbanisation, our reliance on electricity, and the media. The idea of total war (affecting an entire country or population) also defined the century: “The increasing deadliness of warfare is surely the greatest irony of human civilisation.”

The final two chapters is where analysis of the main question comes into play. He first tries to categorise the primary forces underlying change, and then develops a scale for how to measure each of the changes. Need for change is usually determined by basic needs: the need to eat, or the need for shelter. When basic needs are met then humanity turns to issues of security, law and order and health. Generally after all that comes ideology and personal fulfilment.

We also see that change is never just about technology:
"Breaking down the overall overarching concept of change into smaller facets has allowed us to glimpse the dynamics of long-term human development. We can see that not all change is technological: it includes language, individualism, philosophy, religious division, secularisation, geographical discovery, social reform and the weather."
Finally, he considers the future, and some of the major changes that might affect us in the western world in years to come. Considering energy consumption versus long-term supply, he raises the question of whether the world can continue to function as it does for much longer. Some of his conclusions are somewhat depressing but they are also informed and challenging.

I really enjoyed this book, and learning about change over history. I appreciated his analysis and have come away more informed about the last millennium.

Spoiler alert:

What I found fascinating was that in the final analysis, Mortimer came to the conclusion that the principal agent of change for the entire millennium was God. Now he openly acknowledges he does not believe in God and for him, God does not exist. However, he concedes what he thinks is irrelevant, because faith in God drove much, including changes in the church, and learning in medicine and science. Studying God in the written word gave people the ability to read, and a desire to understand God’s creation pushed people to understand the world better. Knowing God made all people equal also pushed various changes for equality. I was impressed with his analysis here, and wonder if he was himself personally challenged by it. I have already noted in his historical fiction novel that it is clear he has no faith himself, yet there is a humility that allows him to come to the conclusions that he has.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Palm Beach

This lovely new Australian movie is a story of friendship and family amidst the realities of getting older set against the backdrop of the gorgeous Palm Beach in NSW.

It is set over one weekend with three couples and their kids, all friends since the men were in a band together 40 years before. Frank and Lotti have invited Billy & Eva and Leo & Bridget to celebrate Frank’s big birthday at their picturesque home. It's a fabulous cast including Bryan Brown, Greta Scacchi, Richard E. Grant, Sam Neill and Jacqueline McKenzie.

The first half of the movie sets the scene, with the various relationships between the couples and their children, showing where tensions have grown over the years, and the history they all share. There are numerous references to the realities of aging; Lotti and Leo compare notes that cancer scares for both have brought ‘uninvited clarity’ to their lives. But there are secrets in the past, and this weekend is threatening to unravel them.

It is a beautiful setting, showing off the NSW coastline in all its light filled, eucalyptus back-dropped glory. [Husband & I joked afterwards it was just like seeing Crazy Rich Asians, except it was one big add for the NSW coast rather than Singapore].

We were lucky enough to see an advance screening and Bryan Brown introduced the movie. He made the point that they chose Palm Beach, not only for its beauty, but also to highlight that no matter how successful people are or seem, everyone has issues and problems they have to deal with. And that came through in the movie, there was great food, an abundance of wine, and stunning views, yet the problems of the people in it were the same as any – relationships, financial, growing older, and wondering whether you made the right choices along the way.

It really is a feel-good movie. There were significant points of tensions and drama, but the denouement was satisfying even if a little neat. For those that like to know: there are a fair number of f words dropped along the way and a couple of light sex scenes.

As we left, we found we liked what it said: what matters is what you have now in front of you and how you live with that, rather than what you once had or what you might have had. It’s a matter of being thankful for the present, while acknowledging the past.

We were guests of Universal Pictures Australia.

Monday, July 22, 2019


Winterhouse, Ben Guterson

Miss 11 recommended this one and upon reading it, I fully agree with her. For his first novel, teacher Guterson has written an intriguing story full of word plays, anagrams and word ladders. Anyone who likes reading, puzzles and mysteries will enjoy it.

Orphaned Elizabeth Somers lives with her grumpy Aunt Purdy and Uncle Burlap. Surprisingly, they send her off for a trip for the Christmas holidays to the Winterhouse Hotel. Elizabeth is dubious, but once she arrives the charm of the hotel, its eccentric owner Norbridge Falls and the friendly staff win her over. She quickly makes friends with boy Freddy, who is as keen on world games as she is. The delights of the massive library and the various entertainments on offer keep them amused. Yet, an odd, mysterious and unwelcoming couple are also there, and they seem to be taking a close interest in Elizabeth.

Soon she discovers a magical book in the library that it seems will unlock some of the mysteries of the Falls family. But why do things keep happening around her? And why are others also searching for the same book?

It’s an enjoyable, longer read aimed at about 10-12 year olds. Guterson clearly has a love of reading and puzzles himself and there are many word ladders throughout, as well as references to numerous books loved by children, enough to encourage keen readers to try some other books afterwards as well. The illustrations (by Chloe Bristol) match the tone of the book well and help to set out puzzles and clues. There could be a few confusing or slightly scary moments for some readers, as there is also some dark magic and someone returns to life.

We then discovered that this is a planned trilogy, the second of which has also been published: The Secrets of Winterhouse. Both Miss 11 and I enjoyed that one as well, containing the same characters with another mystery and some odd people in the hotel who seem up to no good. We are both looking forward to the third instalment, planned for release later in the year.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Outcasts of Time

The Outcasts of Time, Ian Mortimer

After enjoying Mortimer’s The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, I turned to his historical fiction novel, The Outcasts of Time.

It is quite a different read, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I was left pondering aspects of it days later.

It is December 1348 and John of Wrayment and his brother William Beard are travelling near Exeter, and have been exposed to plague. John is the given the choice by his own voice to either spend his final seven days in his own time, or live his final seven days, each one consecutively 99 years into the future. John is told it is his conscience speaking, but he has no idea whether he is making a deal with the devil or with God.

However, in complete uncertainty about his state before God, and thinking he can save his own soul, and perhaps others, he agrees to the deal and go into the future. And so, Mortimer now has a way to bring a character from the Middle Ages up to 1944 in 99-year intervals. Each day, William and John awake in the same place they fell asleep, but almost a century later. Every time they feel more and more removed from their own experience, they never have the right clothes and are regularly mistreated. But they also experience the kindness of others and the cognition of humanity in each place. They become increasingly aware that the morals and beliefs they so strongly hold, are constantly being challenged and changed, as the ages pass. It seems England is always at war, there are always kings in power and poor who are downtrodden.

Throughout there are some very interesting comments on faith and belief, as their middle aged Catholic beliefs are challenged by Protestant Reformed and then Enlightenment thinking. Woven through it is all is the idea that it is a moral imperative for Christians to try to help others, and John keeps trying to do so. Yet, also woven throughout is the assertion that ‘man is a devil to man’, for men are often each other’s worst enemies.

Some of the comments throughout:
[In 1447, upon tasting sugar] “It tastes as if God had made it simply to make us smile.” 
[1546] “In this new century, people are all divided and unsatisfied, hoping that God will smile upon them personally.” 
[1744] “If Christ were living in this day and age, would He not have ended up on a workhouse? Yes, even He would have treated as a draught animal in this godless age” 
[1843] “These people are not my folk; they are strangers from a world of words and metal.”
He becomes aware that “men and women have a limited capacity for happiness and suffering. If you were to make their lives more luxurious, and to remove their pain, they would find other ways in which to be discontented. And if you were to make their lives miserable, they would find joy in the slightest delights.”

I liked the progressing through the ages, but I found the ending disappointing. I wonder if this was because it really represented the author’s views rather than John’s. There was language of belief, heaven and hell, repentance and sin throughout, through a Catholic humanist lens, but in the end, it was the triumph of humanity that won in the end.

Overall, it was an interesting read and an engaging way to show change over centuries.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Talk the Walk

Talk the Walk, Steve Brown

This challenging book by Steve Brown addresses the issue raised in his subtitle: How To Be Right Without Being Insufferable. From the beginning Brown fully acknowledges that Christians have the truth and as such we are called to share that truth with a world that does not always want to hear it. Yet there is a risk that those who hold this truth don’t always share it well.
“It is one thing to be right about the authority of Scripture, the incarnation of God in Christ, the resurrection, the Trinity, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and eternal life, but at the same time, to miss the truths that have to do with humility, love, and forgiveness. Some of the meanest, most condemning and arrogant people on the face of the earth are Christians.”
He has a great starting point that sometimes we should be silent. We should not speak out of guilt, without permission, from self interest or ignorance, or even thinking we are helping God out.
“What if we looked at the pain of our neighbor and just loved him or her, instead trying to fix the unfixable? What if our response to confusion, fear, and guilt was simply, “I know”? There is a powerful witness in that kind of silence.”
What Brown refers to again and again in this book is that it really matters how we speak the gospel to people:
“I will say a lot about heart attitude because communicating and living the truth to people who do not want to hear or see it is 95 percent attitude and 5 percent technique, knowledge, planning, and training. Actually, attitude may be enough.”
We need to be very wary of self righteousness, hypocrisy, being selective to the truths we hold to and we must be open to some ambiguity:
“I cannot tell how many times I have stood before the grave of a child, cleaned up after a suicide, or told a terminal patient the truth. I had no answers to the questions that were asked. I had only tears. Those tears became a key to the communication. And my confusion became an open invitation to say more about a confusing but loving God.”
He also makes a helpful point about how as Jesus became a human through the incarnation and understood what it was like to fully experience human life, we too have the opportunity to share life with those around us. When we consider our fellow unbelievers we can identify with their sin and weakness, their needs, their doubts, the experience of death and just the ordinariness of normal life. We can be honest about the struggles we face when life is hard.

In addition, we should carefully choose when to speak and what we choose to speak about. Being right does not mean we need to comment on everything, correct everything or defend everything:
“One of the great hindrances to the Christian effort to share our faith is the horrible need to correct every error… there is hardly anything negative that one can say about the church that is not at least partially true, and there is hardly anything positive that one can say about the church that is not at least partially true. Christians are a bad bunch (the Bible is clear on that), and when someone points that out, a proper response should be “duh!””
He encourages believers to show up, to be part of their community, to show they really care about people.
“Let me suggest that believers do what they have been called to do: go out into all the world. The world is sometimes antagonistic and angry, but God calls believers to love people, love God, and speak truth. That sounds so simple and easy, but it is not. Just the opposite—it is really hard.”
As we do so, we remember who God is (our loving heavenly Father), who we are (sinners saved by grace), and who unbelievers are (loved by God also in need of grace).

Brown has written an insightful book that will help Christians reassess the way they speak about Jesus to an unbelieving world. It’s quite short at about 160 pages, so it’s a quite easy read with lots of illustrations and examples. At times I felt he was name-dropping with all the people he mentions, but actually I think it a way to honour the people he feels have learnt these skills well. If you are someone who struggles to share your faith, this will give you some wise ideas as you proceed into the world with love and gentleness and truth. If, on the other hand, you are very keen to share your faith, but tend to be a little forceful or strong willed as you do so, this might help you reconsider the way you go about it. Recommended reading.

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

Monday, July 8, 2019

Praying Through the Bible for Your Kids

The One Year Praying Through the Bible for Your Kids, Nancy Guthrie

If you are a parent, I highly recommend this devotional book by Nancy Guthrie. It combines a one-year bible reading plan with commentary and prayers for parents. So, not only are you getting your daily input of bible reading organised and suggested for you, she has picked something each day to comment on and respond to which is relevant to your life situation.

There are four bible readings each day: Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms (covered twice) and Proverbs. I was a little surprised by the decision to spread the Proverbs over the whole year, with only a verse or two a day. However, the decision to cover the New Testament only once over the year, meant it could be read in a little more detail than some other reading plans.

Increasingly, devotional books do not actually dwell in the bible, rather they dwell in the author’s thoughts about the bible. But here, if you take the time to read the assigned passages, much more time is spent in the actual word of God, which is richer by far.

Guthrie extends your thinking though, by offering a commentary on one of the passages, in a way that is applicable to raising children. There is much to ponder and reflect on here, as well as to be challenged by. Each day finishes with a written prayer to bring before God about the passages read, applicable in some way to parenting.

What I loved was that many passages were not so much praying for your children (although there certainly were those), but so many were praying about our parenting. Our sin, our failings, the grace extended to us, and the mercy that is new each morning. She applies the scalpel of God’s word to parents and challenges them to consider their own hearts and motivations. She reminds parents that God is also parenting them: loving them, caring for them and comforting them in their struggles. She exhorts parents to live godly lives that speak grace to their kids and to speak the gospel into their lives.

Yet, there are also numerous prayers to bring our children to the Lord, change their hearts, grow them in fruit of the spirit, change them to be like Christ, and prevent them from conforming to the ways of the world.

I did use it for a year and found it to be very encouraging and very challenging about our parenting, and I am about to start it all over again. It made me more biblically prayerful for my kids and it grounded me in God’s word. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 1, 2019


Just a short review for this movie we both quite enjoyed.

Imagine a world where no one (but you) has any memory of the Beatles, and you just happen to be a singer-song writer looking for your break. This is what happens to Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who has been struggling to launch his music career for years. His faithful friends have remained by his side, most notably his manager and childhood friend Ellie (Lily James).

One night, a freak power outage across the globe removes all knowledge of the Beatles, for all but Jack. So, he starts to sing their songs, and interest immediately gathers. Ed Sheeran (playing himself) asks Jack to cover for him in a Russian show and after wowing everyone with his live performance of Back in the USSR, he soon has an American agent and is lined up for a double album that is likely to take the world by storm.

But how do you manage fame, especially when it is all built on a lie? Do you ever admit the truth of what you have done?

Alongside this story is the relationship between Ellie and Jack, and whether they can be anything more than friends. Some added fun is finding out what other things have also disappeared from world knowledge.

Obviously, it’s a great soundtrack, and Jack performs the songs well, even allowing some to take on different meanings. It’s amusing watching him try to remember the lyrics to many of the songs, as well as the suggestions his recording team make to change them.

You would probably enjoy it more if you have some basic knowledge of the Beatles, and obviously, the more knowledge, the more references you will pick up. I am sure we missed a few. But I imagine most people have at least some awareness of Beatles songs (or they will when they realise which songs are actually by the Beatles). As such, the music may attract an older audience, but I think the story itself is generally pretty appealing.

A fun and lighthearted movie option.