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.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport

(This is a longish review - feel free to skip to the bold parts to see the main outline) 

In this interesting and thought-provoking book, Newport makes a case for digital minimalism:
"A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else."
Part 1 outlines the philosophical underpinnings of digital minimalism, argues why it’s the right solution, and what a digital declutter would look like.

He starts by considering the uneven playing field we are now on with technology, as tech companies use two forces to encourage behavioural addiction: intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval.
"We’ve been engaging in a lopsided arms race in which the technologies encroaching on our autonomy were preying with increasing precision on deep-seated vulnerabilities in our brains, while we still naïvely believed that we were just fiddling with fun gifts handed down from the nerd gods."
He notes the issue is control:
"current unease with new technologies is not really about whether or not they’re useful. It’s instead about autonomy. We signed up for the services and bought these devices for minor reasons… And then found ourselves, years later, increasingly dominated by their influence, allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel and how we behave."
Digital minimalism is based on three core principles:
  1. Clutter is costly 
  2. Optimisation is important 
  3. Intentionality is satisfying 
His proposal is a digital declutter: a 30-day break from the optional technologies in your life, clarifying that it’s optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life. During that time, explore other pursuits and interests that you enjoy and find meaningful. At the end, you consider which technology to reintroduce, asking three questions as you do so:
  1. Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? 
  2. Then, is this technology the best way to support this value? 
  3. Then, how am I going to use this technology going forward to maximise its value and minimise its harm? 
(I am still in the middle of my 30 day break from Facebook and Instagram, and have thoroughly enjoyed it)

Part 2 provides a framework for adopting a sustainable digital minimalism lifestyle if you decide it’s right for you, with many practical suggestions. He has four particular practices you might consider:

1. Spending time alone. He notes that many operate in a state of solitude deprivation: where you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.

In avoiding solitude, he observes “you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.”

Some practices he suggests here are leaving your phone at home (or at least tucked away and hard to get out), go for long walks (on your own, no music or headphones), and to write things down (journaling thoughts, etc).

2. Avoid all low quality communication, and instead prioritise actual conversation.

Suggestions here are: don’t click ‘like’ or make online comments ever, manage texting within set times, and set conversation hours. Here is where you start to think about the principles rather than the suggested practice. I couldn’t make a set time for conversation work - it doesn’t account for other people’s availability, but I already schedule phone calls with friends in advance via text. Or, I meet a friend for a walk, enabling purposeful time together. I don’t have text threads with no purpose, although with teenagers I can see how they might benefit from limiting texting to more purposeful conversation.

3. Reclaim leisure, being purposeful with how you spend your extra time. He has three ideas here:
  1. prioritise demanding activity over passive consumption 
  2. use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world 
  3. seek activities that require real world, structured, social interactions. (While he explored clubs and gyms, my mind naturally and immediately went to Christian communities) 
Suggestions include: fix or build something every week, schedule your low quality leisure, join something, make leisure plans for the week and the seasons.

4. Join the attention resistance. This is where he got more practical in taming tech use. Practical ideas included: deleting social media from your phone, reducing apps and websites (turning them off as standard), managing social media access with precision, embracing slow media (eg read the newspaper rather than nonstop headlines), and dumbing down your smartphone (or actually changing to a dumb phone).

With lots of these, I felt these options were simplified, so while a helpful starting point, there were numerous other ways you could make it work for you.

I have several reflections. 

There are helpful insights into what we have lost in the hours wasted with low value online experiences, whether its flicking through social media, scrolling news sites, binge watching Netflix, or texting in never ending but empty streams of conversations. Ironically, as he points out, no one who spends hours a day on Facebook would ever have the time to develop something like Facebook.

He’s identified a middle-class first-world problem: having enough free time to waste online. But even more than that, it seemed even more elite. How much of this is a problem for those who can afford iPhones, have time to spare and waste, have time and money when not online to devote to leisure pursuits, and who aren’t encumbered by the burden of long working hours and family life. We may bemoan the hours wasted online, but do we stop and give thanks to God that we have the time, money and privilege to have the option to do so (even if we need to reconsider how we use it)?

The author is a tenured college professor and it felt like it. That’s not to dismiss his wisdom, but to see it’s place. He uses the thinking of Thoreau, the practices of Benjamin Franklin and the choice of solitude by Abraham Lincoln as entry points to consider our practices today. Some suggestions reflected a lifestyle with great flexibility, and a fair amount of free time. He can go for long walks daily to encourage solitude, he can decide when he is available for conversations and limit himself to those hours, and can invest in leisure projects.

I assumed he must be single, because there was no consideration of what digital minimalism might look like in a family setting. No thoughts about how to consider these things with a partner or with children who are also navigating the online space, or making such decisions in a household with differing ideas and values in this area. Many recommendations struck me as suiting someone with few ties and much flexibility. (Yet the acknowledgements thank his wife and three children).

I found myself wondering, what does the digital minimalism look like for the Christian? I guess it depends on its purpose. If you step back from online pursuits to fill your life with woodwork and long walks, you are still not really fulfilling God’s call to love him and your neighbour (although you may be happier and less stressed). There could be great value in digital minimalism if you turn to further glorify God, to serve others, and to consider the state of your own heart. One risk of the clutter of a busy online life is we cannot focus on God and how he calls us to live. Newport does suggest that humans are made for more than this empty online life. I agree, we were made for so much more: a deep and abiding relationship with our creator and the people he has made. Any change to our digital lives that fosters that is well worth considering.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Fredrik Backman

I have discovered a wonderful writer recently, Fredrik Backman, a Swedish author and blogger. 

First was Beartown, set in a rural town in Sweden, where ice hockey reigns supreme. Everything in town revolved around it: the junior teams right up to the A-team, the sponsors, the board, the coaches and all the supporters. Backman spends the first third of the book setting the scene and does so marvellously. You meet the players of the junior team, their parents, the coaches, discover some backstory and how the town operates. For those that have seen it, the parallels with Friday Night Lights was striking. There is a slow relentless build to something major happening, and one night after a team win, it does. Once a crime is reported, the town splits. Do you protect the team and the players, do you close ranks and protect the club, or do believe the victim and what they have said? Do you bully others into seeing things your way, or perhaps do you figure out what it means to stand up for someone else? A totally compelling read with great insight into communities, the complexities of relationships, people, and how they act, for better and for worse. He has wonderful comments on teenage friendships, parents and the love they have for their children (excusing all manner of things), and how an obsession with sport can create and destroy community. 

The follow up to Beartown is Us Against You. I won’t give detailed information, because you definitely need to read Beartown first, and this immediately follows those events with the same people. The same themes are continued and expanded, and we how much is influenced by the choices that difference people make. A local politician is playing a dangerous game, causing division and conflict, all to orchestrate his own ends. At the same time, the hockey club is struggling, the team is divided, and people’s private lives are brutally exposed for others to excoriate. What is it that brings a town together and what can tear it apart? Just as compelling and insightful as Beartown

Then A Man Called Ove. Amusing, sad, and very relatable. Ove is 59, and he lives his life with order and structure, he does things right and knows what should be done. In his mind, the world is full of people who do things lazily, wrongly or carelessly, and it is his job to fix it, or at least complain about it. To those who cross his path, he seems a cranky curmudgeon. Yet, perhaps there is more to Ove than meets the eye. As one neighbour starts to reach out, Ove’s walls are slowly breached, as he is forced to continually help people in need. As the details of his childhood are revealed as well as more about the one person in the world who truly understands him, we start to understand him a little more. While I often will cry in a movie, there are few books that make me teary. The Book Thief was one, and this was another. Beautiful. 

The next two were still strong, but not my favourites. My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, tells of 7 year old Elsa and her granny, an eccentric lady who enchants Elsa with her extended fairytales. It becomes apparent to Elsa that the tales aren’t all made up as she gets to know the stories of the people around her. Personally, I found the fairytales distracting, but they were needed to explain the people around Elsa. Britt-Marie Was Here follows a women in Elsa’s block later on. Britt-Marie has spent her life caring for her husband and cleaning, never having any interests of her own. When she is forced to take care of herself and moves to a small backwater called Borg, she discovers she is not only capable, but can find new friends and a sense of purpose. 

Reflecting on these last three I think Backman has real insights into people who might be considered to have various personality disorders, or mental health challenges. He is compassionate and considered, which acknowledging issues. 

 I eagerly await Backman’s new release in 2020.

Monday, July 6, 2020

American Dirt

American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins

This absolutely compelling book is heartbreaking and yet hopeful. I wanted to take my time over it, but couldn’t put it down.

Lydia and her husband Sebastián have lived with eight year old son, Luca, in their hometown of Acapulco their whole lives. But, it has changed in recent years with the rise of a new cartel ruler, La Lechuza, who rules the city.

Sebastián has been targeted as a journalist, and in one afternoon 16 family members have been murdered at a BBQ at her mother’s house, but astonishingly Lydia and Luca are overlooked. Their lives remain in danger, but this man controls the whole region, so where do they go? The police will not act, or may turn her over. No one can be trusted.

So, with few belongings and their life savings in her pocket, they flee the city. She knows they will never be safe in Mexico with the extent of his reach, so they plan their route to el norte to the “Estados Unidos”. (You may also benefit from having Google Maps open at points to chart their course, and occasionally Google Translate to see what some words mean.) They will be pushed to their limits, and tested in ways they never knew possible.
“Trauma waits for stillness. Lydia feels like a cracked egg, and she doesn’t know if she’s the shell or the yolk or the white. She is scrambled.”
“So much has happened that each hour of this journey feels like a year, but there’s something more that that. It’s the bond of trauma, the bond of sharing an indescribably experience together. Whatever happens, no one else in their lives will ever fully comprehend the ordeal of this pilgrimage, the characters they’ve met, the fear that travels with them, the grief and fatigue that eat at them.”
There’s no question this is hard reading. They meet up with two teenage girls along the way, and everything that you would imagine happening to them while they are on the run does. None of the violence is explicitly detailed, but you can imagine the horror of their experience. You are fully exposed to the sinfulness of humanity, yet there are moments when the kindness of others comes through. Churches, pastors and loving people along their route provide safe haven. Some men will protect them. It’s a pretty damning view of Mexico; Cummins notes at the end, in 2017 it was the deadliest country in the world to be a journalist. The nationwide murder rate was the highest on record and most are unsolved, because the cartels operate with impunity. It’s remarkably sobering, and seems an almost unsolvable problem.

As a pastor warns them along the way:
"If it’s possible for you to turn back, do so now…If there is any other place for you to go, to stay away from these trains, to stay away for el norte, go there now…This path is only for people who have no choice, no other option, only violence and misery behind you. And your journey will grow even more treacherous from here….Some of you will fall from the trains. Many will be maimed or injured. Many will die. Many, many of you will be kidnapped, tortured, trafficked or ransomed. Some of you will be lucky enough to survive all of that and make it as far as Estados Unidos only to experience the privilege of dying alone in the desert behind the sun, abandoned by a corrupt coyote, or shot by a narco who doesn’t like the look of you. Every single one of you will be robbed. Every one. If you make it to el norte, you will arrive penniless, that’s a guarantee."
An excellent, challenging and gripping book about what being a migrant on the run might look like.