My Reading: July 2012-2013

14 07 2013

It’s that time of the year again when I display my geeky side and cast my mind over the books I’ve read in the past 12 months.

Each year I try to justify my nerdish tendencies. This year I shan’t bother to elaborate too much – feel free to read my previous attempts here, here and here – but I’ve personally found it helpful to plan roughly what I want to read each year, so that I can ensure I’m getting a balanced diet; reading the kinds of books I might otherwise be tempted to avoid, and making sure I’m not just overdosing on one genre.

To be honest, this year I’ve not followed my plans as much as in previous years. Most of my reading has been dictated by necessity rather than choice. But with the M.A.’s completion fast approaching, I live with the hope that I may regain some sense of choice over my reading plans!

That said… a couple of observations.

  • For the first year ever I’ve reached (and exceeded) my goal of one book a week – 55 completed.
  • I’ve no idea how many books I started this year, since I’ve read copious poems, articles and chapters of books for various essays, and didn’t bother noting down the books I had neither inclination nor intention to finish.
  • A literature class bumped my fiction quota up considerably!
  • I soon realised I wasn’t going to read any drama this year, but needed to read a fair chunk of literary criticism for a class I was taking, so I switched the category title.
  • The Christian/Secular divide wasn’t easy to discern this year (how do you categorise the collected works of Gerard Manley Hopkins or T.S. Eliot for example?) so is a little arbitrary in places. It’s a division I don’t much like anyway! But it’s loosely helpful to make sure my head’s not stuck in religious literature the whole time.
  • I didn’t read any books on leadership (I find them rather boring, truth be told!) though I’ve read loads more articles and listened to podcasts on the subject this year.
  • I also didn’t complete any books on marriage, though I restarted Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. But again, I’ve read a number of articles and listened to podcasts – and spent time with my wife! And I resisted the urge to put all the books on divorce and remarriage into the ‘Marriage’ category! Skewing the stats to make the numbers look like I was a great husband, would only have provided a temporary ego boost, before you glanced down the list of books!

So here’s a rough breakdown of my how my reading faired this year, and also the list of books I read. I always intend to review books and never get round to it – but if you want my opinion on any, just ask:

Reading Breakdown

Category Aim (%) Achieved (%) Variance
Spiritual 16 10.30 -5.70
Theology 42 41.21 -0.79
Ethics/Politics/Apologetics 16 10.91 -5.09
Drama 1 8.48 7.48
Skill-Development 8 5.45 -2.55
Fiction 8 23.03 15.03
Marriage 3 0.00 -3.00
Biography 3 0.61 -2.39
Leadership 3 0.00 -3.00
Christian 75 63.64 -11.36
Secular 25 36.36 11.36

Reading List

  • Alldritt, Keith – Eliot’s Four Quartets
  • Beck (ed.), James – Two Views on Women in Ministry
  • Bell, Rob – What we Talk About When we Talk About God
  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph – Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament: The Ordering of Life in Israel and Early Judaism
  • Burke, Trevor – Adopted into God’s Family
  • Camp, Claudia – Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs
  • Chandler, Matt – The Explicit Gospel
  • Copan, Paul – Is God a Moral Monster?
  • Cornes, Andrew – Divorce and Remarriage
  • Crenshaw, James L. – Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction
  • Delillo, Don – White Noise
  • Delillo,  Don – The Angel Esmeralda
  • Dell, Katharine  – Get Wisdom, Get Insight
  • Donovan, Jeremey – How to Deliver a TED Talk
  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor – Crime and Punishment
  • Duvall, J.Scott and Hays, J. Daniel – Grasping God’s Word
  • Eliot, T.S. – The Four Quartets
  • Erswine, Zach – Preaching to a Post-Everything World
  • Fee, Gordon and Stuart, Douglas – How to Read the Bible for all its Worth
  • Foster Wallace, David – Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
  • Gish, Nancy – Time in the Poetry of T.S. Eliot
  • Greene, Graham – The Heart of the Matter
  • Hybels, Bill – Just Walk Across the Room
  • Instone-Brewer, David – Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context
  • John of the Cross, St – Ascent of Mount Carmel
  • John of the Cross, St – The Dark Night of the Soul
  • Johnson, Adam  – The Orphan Master’s Son
  • Joyce, James – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Keener, Craig – …And Marries Another
  • Kramer, Kenneth – Redeeming Time: T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets
  • Kreeft, Peter – Christianity for Modern Pagans
  • Manley Hopkins, Gerard – Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • Medearis, Carl – Speaking of Jesus: The art of not-evangelism
  • Miller, Donald – Father Fiction: Chapters for a Fatherless Generation
  • Murray, John – Divorce
  • Partridge, Alan  – I, Partridge: We need to talk about Alan
  • Peers, E. Allison – St John of the Cross
  • Phillips, Caroline – The Religious Quest in the Poetry of T.S. Eliot
  • Rajan (ed), Balachandra – T.S. Eliot: A Study of his Writings by Several Hands
  • Rossiter, Joanna – The Sea Change
  • Sinnot, Alice – The Personification of Wisdom
  • Smith, Zadie – White Teeth
  • Sproul,  R.C. – Can I Have Joy in my Life?
  • Spufford, Francis – Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can make surprising emotional sense
  • Stibbe, Mark – I Am Your Father
  • Stott, John – The Cross of Christ
  • Thomas, Gary – Sacred Pathways
  • von Rad, Gerhard – Wisdom in Israel
  • Vonnegut, Kurt – God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian
  • Warren, Rick – God’s Power to Change your Life
  • Wenham/Heth/Keener – Remarriage After Divorce in Today’s Church: Three Views
  • Westermann, Claus – Roots of Wisdom
  • Witherington, Ben – Jesus the Sage
  • Zacharias, Ravi – Jesus Among Other Gods 

Note: there’s one book missing from my list because it’s not actually been published yet. But rest assured, it will be released soon and then I won’t stop recommending it!!





Reading Analysis 2011-2012

16 07 2012

To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.’ – A.C. Grayling

What you put into you matters. Or so nutritionists tell us. Balance is essential. Too much of one food group and you end up fat, lethargic, unwell… or dead.

If that’s true of our physical wellbeing, might it not be true for our intellectual wellbeing?

Each year I try to plan my reading in order to ensure that I have a balanced diet: reading widely, reading in areas that will strengthen the areas I need to be strong in immediately, and reading things that stretch me and strengthen me for the next 5-10 years.

It’s geeky I know, but I’ve found it helpful over the past few years to plan what types of books I need to read over a year, keep a list of all the books I have read, and then analyse how balanced my reading has been. Each July I’ve set goals for how I want to divide up my reading in the next 12 months. And the time has come to analyse my reading from 2011-2012.

This year I thought my reading would take a hit. Having started an MA, I’ve been reading more articles or chapters of books rather than whole books. I haven’t listed those here, since I’ve dipped into well over a hundred books that I’ve never had the inclination or intention to finish. These are just the books I’ve read in full.

As it happens though, the number of books I’ve completed has increased rather than decreased, which I’m pretty happy with, especially since a number of the books are pretty enormous (Beale’s commentary on Revelation for example, was something of a beast!)

In July 2011 to July 2012 I completed 50 books; that is 3 more than last year. Annoyingly I didn’t quite make it to 1 book a week. I was tempted to read a couple of Mr Men this morning to tip me over, but resisted the urge…

82% of books were Christian, 18% secular. This is a bit out from what I had hoped. I’d originally aimed for a 70/30 split, but reading for an MA in Theology skewed that quite considerably.

The following table shows my goals for the year, how my reading broke down into each category, and the variance between my goals and achievements.

My theological reading has been more than I’d aimed for this year, on account of the fact that I wasn’t planning to study for an MA when I originally set my goals. A change of focus means that I’ve read no plays this year, and have spent less time reading books on Leadership or Skill Development. However, I’ve made a concerted effort to develop my writing this year, and have consequently found it useful to read ‘well written books’ rather than ‘books on writing well’; hence more novels.

Again, I couldn’t quite bring myself to post it here, for fear of irrevocably labelling myself a geek… but if you would prefer to see it represented as a pie chart, your wish is my command.

All this has helped me to set goals for 2012-2013. I hope to apportion my reading roughly as follows:

And in case you’re curious, here’s a list of all the books I completed this year:

Barr, James – The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality
Barnes, Julian – The Sense of an Ending
Barton, John (ed.) – The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation
Bauckham, Richard – The Bible in Politics
Beale, G.K. – The Book of Revelation (NIGTC)
Carson, D.A. – The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God
Cook, Jeff – Everything New
Cooper, John – Body, Soul and Life Everlasting
Copan, Paul – Is God a Moral Monster?
Coupland, Douglas – Miss Wyoming
Coupland, Douglas – Life Without God
DeWiit, Patrick – The Sisters Brothers
Fergusson and Fergusson, Dave and Jon – Exponential
Fergusson and Fergusson, Dave and Jon – The Big idea
Giles, Kevin – Jesus and the Father
Guinness, Os – The Call
Guinness, Michele – The Genius of Guinness
Gunton, Colin – The Promise of Trinitarian Theology
Hosier, Matthew – Sex Talks
Hosier, John – The Lamb, the Beast and the Devil
Keller, Timothy – Counterfeit Gods
Koukl, Gregory – Tactics
Lawrence, D.H. – Apocalypse
Laws, Sophie – In the Light of the Lamb
Lloyd-Jones, Martin – From Fear to Faith
Mamet, David – Writing in Restaurants
Mansfield, Stephen – Searching for God and Guinness
McEwan, Ian – The Innocent
McLaren, Brian – The Secret Message of Jesus
Mitchell, David – Cloud Atlas
Moore, Phil – Straight to the Heart of Revelation
Moraine, Jack – Healing Ministry: A Training Manual for Believers
Ponsonby, Simon – More
Rahner, Karl – On the Theology of Death
Rahner, Karl – The Trinity
Reeves, Michael – The Good God
Rollins, Peter – How (Not) to Speak About God
Rollins, Peter – Insurrection
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth – In Memory of Her
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth – Discipleship of Equals
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth – The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment
Smith, James K.A. – Desiring the Kingdom
Smith, James K.A. – Thinking in Tongues
Tyson, Jon – Rumours of God
Wilson, N.D. – Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl
Wilson, Andrew – If God Then What?
Wimber, John – Power Evangelism
Wodehouse, P.G. – Love Among the Chickens
Wright, Tom – Revelation for Everyone
Zacharias, Ravi – Recapture the Wonder





Riots, Looting and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

8 08 2011

London is in shreds. Rioting has begun to spread: First in Tottenham, then Enfield, and now many other places, including my neighbourhood, Brixton. It’s shocking and saddening when you hear the reports and see the footage of buildings you pass by every day, with bricks through windows and flames tearing their hearts out. Each shop represents a staff of dozens; people’s livelihoods. Each person injured is a son, or a daughter, or father or mother. Each person arrested is a needless waste of human liberty.

I’m not in London at the moment. I’m on holiday outside the city for a few days, and my news is coming from TV reports, online newspapers and twitter searches. It’s strange watching the whole raft of people commenting on the various riots; some in proud approval, some showing off their haul from various shops (a few seemingly oblivious to the inherent stupidity of posting a photograph of your own face next to a stolen plasma screen!), some in shock or fear. Every time I hit refresh there’s a new threat, a new rumour, a new precaution. People speculate about how it’s all been organised and where will be hit next. Who knows how far this will spread?

It’s hard to know if any of the protests were legitimately warranted, even in their nascent form. It’s not yet clear whether Mark Duggan’s death was due to police malpractice, or whether he shot first, and I dare not speculate.

But what is clear is this: responding with violence will achieve little. Violence has a nasty habit of escalating. We could cite hundreds of examples, but one leaps immediately to my mind.

In the Bible, the book of Judges chapter 15, Samson’s father-in-law gives Samson’s wife away to someone else; perhaps a legitimate reason for him to be somewhat irked! Samson responds aggressively, the Philistines up the ante, and the whole thing spirals out of control:

‘Samson said, “This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them.” So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves.

When the Philistines asked, “Who did this?” they were told, “Samson, the Timnite’s son-in-law, because his wife was given to his companion.”

So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death.  Samson said to them, “Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you.” He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam.

The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. The people of Judah asked, “Why have you come to fight us?”

“We have come to take Samson prisoner,” they answered, “to do to him as he did to us.”

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?”

He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.”’
(Judges 15:3-11)

What is striking about this scenario is the futility of it all. Things so quickly leap from the actions of one person, to the burning of crops, to murder, to mass murder, until over 3,000 men are involved, and 1,000 Philistines get pummelled to death with a donkey’s jawbone!

How quickly too the threats, excuses and defences leap to the tongue:

“I have a right to get even” (v3)
“Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you” (v7)
“We have come […] to do to him as he did to us” (v10)
“I merely did to them what they did to me” (v11)

Humans have an uncanny ability to legitimate their actions and defend the indefensible, at least in their own minds. Even if Duggan was the victim of police malpractice, a violent retort is hardly the answer. How does burning buildings to the ground establish justice? How does robbing a shop, or decimating a bus?

But let’s be clear: most of what has been done this weekend is in no way related to the Duggan incident. I don’t know what motivated the hundreds of youths to smash, maim, burn, destroy and steal, but I doubt that for many of them it was a passion for justice.

Just this week I’ve been thinking about a talk I’m due to give in a month or so. It’s on the latter chapters of the book of Esther, and at this point in the story, the Jewish people are facing extermination. The Persian King Xerxes permitted the Jews to defend themselves, to kill their attackers and ‘to plunder the property of their enemies’ (Esther 8:22) and yet three times we are told that ‘they did not lay their hands on the plunder’ (Esther 9:10, 15, 16). I don’t know why they refused to take the plunder, even when the King had permitted them to. I assume it was to show something of their character: they were not in this for selfish motives, to make money at others’ expense; rather they were trying to establish justice. So they protested strongly, they fought, but they refused to cross over into greed.

Looting would only have undermined their cause, but they demonstrated the purity of their motives by refusing to plunder their enemies.

Of course, at other points the people of God did take spoils from war, so I’m hardly holding them up as a shining example! But for all the questions this passage does raise about the legitimacy of war or self-defence, it tells us one thing: In standing up against injustice, you don’t have to go to extremes. You have a choice. You can draw a line; saying ‘this far and no further.’ You are able to go as far as is necessary to protect yourself, to prove a point, and yet still resist greed and selfish motives. You have a choice about how you conduct yourself.

There is nothing honourable about the way in which people have conducted themselves these last few days. This kind of mindless looting is immoral, and it undermines the original cause: the pursuit of truth and justice. The higher the injury toll goes, the harder it will be to gain sympathy for the cause, and the death of Mark Duggan, innocent or not, will very soon be irretrievably buried under hatred, pain, bitterness and cynicism.

I pray for peace on my home streets. I pray for the family of Mark Duggan. I pray that justice will be done for all involved. I pray for the police, that they may have wisdom to handle the riots with integrity. I pray for those arrested, that they would be truly repentant. I pray for those who are contemplating rioting tonight; that they would think before throwing away their lives. And I pray that Isaiah 2 will be fulfilled even quicker than expected:

‘God will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:2-4)





Oh for truthful beauty, and beautiful truth…

2 08 2011

Trevin Wax has posted a brilliant comment on Chan and Sprinkle’s Erasing Hell, in which he’s picked up on a concern I’ve had for sometime with the battle between the Emergent and Reformed camps. I’ve been meaning to post something to this effect, but he beat me to it, and did a brilliant job.

Read the whole thing, please, but here are some of the key sections I would like to comment on:

‘Chan and Sprinkle approach this topic from an analytical, exegetical point of view. And […] at the exegetical level, the book succeeds. But that’s not where the battle is being waged. No one is discarding hell because of the convincing nature of Bell’s eisegesis. No… people are following Bell because of the compelling way he has made his case.

Chan and Sprinkle are analysts. Bell fashions himself as an artist. (It’s no coincidence Bell’s first book is Velvet Elvis.)

Chan and Sprinkle are theologian-pastors. Bell fashions himself as a risky explorer.

The power of Love Wins is not in Bell’s exegesis or in his thoughtfulness. The power of Bell’s book is in its aesthetic qualities. Bell is appealing to the sentiments and emotions in a way that proves effective for many disaffected evangelicals today.

Bell’s book is troublesome, not because it is a thoughtful representation of the optimistic inclusivist position. (See Clark Pinnock’s work if you’re looking for that!) It’s troublesome because it is seeking to make inclusivism beautiful. Bell succeeds at “dressing up” falsehood. Meanwhile, his evangelical critics aren’t even bothering with the wardrobe. We are Nixon, and he is Kennedy. From a purely rhetorical, debating standpoint, we win. But Bell understands the medium.

What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of Truth – the Person. God is inherently beautiful, but many times, we don’t do well at drawing out the inherent beauty of Truth with a capital T.

I’m not calling out Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle alone on this. God bless them – they care about precious truths and they are working to preserve them. No, I’m indicting myself in this too. We struggle in the area of aesthetics, and I’m not sure why. After all, the Reformed wing of the church is influenced by Jonathan Edwards, who wrote more about beauty than virtually any theologian in Christian history. The study of true beauty is the study of God. So why doesn’t the result of our study reflect that?

[…]

The problem with the responses to Love Wins is that, while we are experts at critiquing Bell’s vision of God, we aren’t stepping up with a more compelling portrait of God’s magnificence. We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.

We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack. Meanwhile, men and women like William Young continue to craft great stories. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium.

Beyond that, we often appear pedantic in the grasping of these important issues. In the study of the communication arts, there is a part of the brain known as Brocha’s Area which acts like the gateway to whether people actually listen. Surprising or intriguing Brocha is one way to get that door to open – something that art in its many variations is capable of doing.

Erasing Hell is functional, but not beautiful. From a functional point of view, I recommend it. But I think we need to be pushed on the beautiful side of this equation as well. The gospel shouldn’t shut down our imagination, but rather fuel it and direct it toward the beauty that is inherent to the truth. We need more than analysis; we need artistry.’

He is absolutely right.

The thing I found most frustrating in the whole Love Wins fiasco was the lack of creativity, compelling writing and aesthetically-evocative engagement I saw coming from those who defended an orthodox position. As Wax said, we can write the 50 page responses with proof-texts galore, but they’re the ones writing the good stories.

I could list half a dozen responses to Love Wins which I think are genuinely, biblically excellent. DeYoung’s tome is outstanding. Carson’s Gospel Coalition session is very helpful. But neither of them has that ‘I must turn the page’ factor. None of them has me holding my breath, or causes a tear to form in my eye like Bell does when he pleads with me “but don’t you wish this were true?”

So we saw papers, articles, blogs and debates with people who dotted every I, crossed every T and painted a picture of a God with no heart, soul, or emotions. (Perhaps ‘painted a picture’ is too artistic a term: I fear ‘chalked up an equation’ may be more apt). In fact, sometimes I wonder if the god they defended wasn’t some wizened old coward with his hands tied, mumbling feebly “I really wish I could help… genuinely I do… but logic prohibits me!”

The thing we have to remember is that it is not, on the whole, those with neo-reformed predilections who are being swayed by Bell. It’s the emergent, arty people; those who’ve often been hurt by churches, or who tend to (rightly or wrongly) be wary of black and white statements and hardline positions. It’s the disaffected and suspicious; those who need to be wooed rather than lambasted. Therefore we can’t simply expect to speak to them in Reformedese, and imagine that they will respond positively. We need to engage with them on their terms, in their language, in a style they’ll understand and warm to.

So nobody with a predisposition to engage with the emergent style is going to take kindly to being handed a missive by Carson, or an angry rant by Driscoll (for different reasons: one has a lot of academic clout, but sometimes feels a little dry, and the other has a loud voice that gets people’s backs up immediately, irrespective of the content). That would be somewhat like complaining to your local street cleaner that he missed a spot, but doing so in finely honed, point-perfect, totally abstruse and impenetrable Latin. You’re simply speaking a different language!

(Ok, maybe it’s not quite like that. No offence to emergent guys or street cleaners… But there is an issue of language at stake here: tone, style, timbre and vernacular. And we can’t assume that because we technically speak the same language: ‘English’ we speak the same form of English.)

You can’t just approach someone who loves grey areas and say:

‘Look, it’s just black and white! There’s no middle ground and you have to choose!’

But you can say gently and with a winsome tone:

‘Sure, that looks a bit grey. But there are even different shades of grey. And surely you can see that this shade of grey is darker than that one… and hey, this shade of grey is only one step away from being black.’

And thus we woo…

Ultimately, whilst I may favour the Reformed perspective, I am drawn to beauty. And I wish beyond wish that there were more people from the orthodox perspective writing with the same level of creative engagement as some of the emergent guys. Because frankly, some of the Reformed guys make me want to switch sides… Call it petulance, but I have artistic tendencies that are often unfulfilled by many of the guys I read or listen to. I have the odd postmodern gene bobbing along in my bloodstream, and if my head-shape were a little more regular, I daresay I might be tempted shave my hair and wear emergent, thick-rimmed glasses… If you catch my drift.

I want truth and I want beauty. Surely that’s not asking for too much?

We need to find ways of turning phrases, and painting vistas that are compelling and evocative, not simply perfectly lined up, puritanical and soulless. I don’t want to write (or read!) books that make people go “Well, I guess I have to believe that, even if I don’t like it, because at the end of the day he showed me more proof texts than the other guy.” I want to write and read books that make me see the beauty of unpopular doctrines.

As I write, I am on the train on the way home from speaking at a seminar at the Newday youth festival. At the end of the seminar a girl came and asked me if in the new creation she would remember her non-Christian friends. And if so, how could she remember them without feeling a sense of sorrow at their absence. We spoke for a while and settled on the fact that there will be a good number of things that we will come to with a fresh perspective “when we’ve been there ten thousand years.” Perhaps one of the reasons we won’t feel sorrow is that we will be captivated by a new understanding of judgment; one that emphasises justice over emotive-offence; one that sees things from God’s perspective at last. And the things that once seemed abhorrent may then shine like precious jewels.

If only people could begin to write in such a way as to help us see like that now… Oh for truthful beauty, and beautiful truth!





Reading Analysis: 2010-2011

19 07 2011

A balanced diet is good for your health, because what you put into you matters. Too much of one food group and you will end up fat, lethargic, or with vitamin deficiencies. I would propose that the same is true of our reading…

What you put into you matters; it shapes what you become. And so for the past couple of years I’ve tried to get a balanced diet of reading, ensuring that I am:

  1. Reading widely
  2. Not simply reading in the categories I enjoy, but broadening my horizons to read things I wouldn’t naturally choose
  3. Reading books that will help me develop the skills I will require for the next 5-10 years.

It’s geeky, I know, but I’ve found it incredibly useful not only to chart what I’m reading, but then to set goals for the next year. I haven’t followed my goals slavishly… reading is an art (and a joy!) not a science, but it has helped me to identify areas I rarely read in, and to readdress the balance accordingly. With a limited amount of time to read, it’s too important for me to leave to chance…

If you wish, you can check out last year’s stats and book list, but here’s what I’ve found for July 2010-2011:

  • In 2010-2011 I started 55 books, of which I completed 47.
  • I completed one more book this year, and started fewer, which is great! I no longer have quite an enormous pile of half-read books languishing on my bedside table. Of course, there are plenty of other books I’ve dipped into for the odd chapter or fact… I haven’t bothered listing those here, only the books I started with a genuine intent to finish!
  • 77% of books were Christian, 23% secular
  • The following table shows my goals for the year, how my reading broke down into each category, and the variance between my goals and achievements*

  • From this I can see that I’ve read more ‘spiritual’ books than I had imagined or intended, but that’s no bad thing. Part of that has been necessity (researching for talks on prayer for example) and some of it was a healthy redressing of the balance from last year.
  • I’ve read far fewer books on ethics, apologetics and politics this year than I had intended. That is a weakness, and I would like to change that in this next year. I’ve already lined up a couple of apologetics books that I could do with reading to strengthen my thinking in that area.
  • I’ve spent little time reading books about marriage, though I’ve listened to plenty of talks on it this year, so hopefully I’ve still invested in it my marriage in other ways!!
  • My reading of drama has decreased this year. I’m happy with that. As I’ve thought long and hard about what I am likely to do with my life, I see less of a role for drama and the theatre, other than being a hobby. So I’ve felt less inclined to give time to it in my reading.
  • My ‘skill development’ figure is low and my ‘fiction’ figure high. This is due to the fact that I really want to develop in writing, and yet as I have read books on writing, I’ve realised that I can learn immeasurably more from just reading well-written books! Books on writing can be pretty turgid, self-indulgent, opinionated, and not overly helpful… So I’ve read a number of novels by skilled writers instead, and have enjoyed them immensely. I’m not usually one for reading fiction, but I’ve gone on recommendations from my wife, and she’s hit the nail on the head every time!
  • Again, I couldn’t quite bring myself to post it here, for fear of irrevocably labelling myself a geek… but if you would prefer to see it represented as a pie chart, your wish is my command.
  • All this has helped me to set goals for 2011-2012. I hope to apportion my reading roughly as follows:

In case you’re curious, here’s the list of books I’ve completed this year:

As I’ve said previously, I’ve found this to be a helpful exercise, which has caused me to take my reading more seriously, and to be more strategic and forward looking about what I read. Socrates wrote:

“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily by what others have laboured hard for.”

Think about where you want to be in a year. Think about the character traits you want ironed out, the skills you want to improve, then read the relevant books. Make your reading count. Think about the great men and women of history you want to learn from and emulate – and then read their biographies. Think about some of your edges that are blunt, and read books that will sharpen them. Think about your jagged edges and read books that will smooth them. And then join me in public self-humiliation – post a pie chart!

__________

* Given that there is often a significant amount of cross over between categories, I apportioned each book 3 points, which I could spread across the categories as I saw fit.





Slaves and Masters

16 07 2011

‘Slaves submit to your masters…’ (Ephesians 6:5)

This verse is a challenging one to preach on. The temptation is to just focus on the subject of work and the relationship between a worker and his boss (which really is what it’s about!) But in so doing, we can end up ignoring the elephant in the room, the big question: “So… does the Bible endorse slavery?”

In the West Wing episode In God We Trust, President Bartlett and Senator Vinick discuss issues of faith, and this very question comes up:

Bartlett tries to dodge the question through some questionable theology (and bad hygiene… using the same spoon on multiple tubs of ice cream!?) but it has some force. Does the Bible condone slavery?

Consider these statistics:

  • There are currently around 27,000,000 slaves in the world today
  • Many of them have been kidnapped, sold by family members, or tricked into slavery against their will
  • They are threatened with violence, and often forced into drug dependence
  • A huge number of those slaves are sold to brothels and used for sex
  • The average price of a slave is around £55
  • The BBC reported just a couple of weeks ago that children are being trafficked and sold on the streets of London for £16,000.

I can fully understand why Ephesians 6:5 might cause such a problem for Arnold Vinick, and for many modern readers of the Bible. Surely God cannot endorse that!

The Bible speaks a good deal about slavery. The New Testament uses the Greek word doulos 124 times. It means slave or servant, and in most English translations is rendered ‘servant’ with a footnote saying ‘or bond servant, or slave’ presumably to avoid the negative connotations ‘slave’ conjurs uo.

Although the Bible never condemns nor condones slavery outright, it has plenty to say on the way in which slaves are to be treated. And if we are to understand Paul’s commands, here as well as in his other letters (most notably 1 Corinthians 7; Colossians 3 and Philemon), we need to appreciate the differences between slavery in the First Century and that of the modern world.

Here are just four of the many points of difference, followed by a number of recommended resources for further reading and reflection:

  1. Race

    Modern slavery is typically racist; strong or economically wealthy nations subject those of others nations to slavery. The American Founding Fathers, for example, believed that the black people they imported were only 60% human, and thus only deserved 60% of normal human rights.This is not a typical feature of first century slavery. Romans owned Jewish slaves, and Greek slaves. Jews owned Greek slaves and Jewish slaves. It was not a case of one powerful nation subjecting a weaker nation (or people of a particular pigmentation) to slavery.We cannot, therefore, read ‘slaves obey your masters’ as an indication of God endorsing racism. Genesis 1 and 2 tell us that God made one man and woman in His image, and out of them came every nation. Every human; black or white, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile is made in the image of God and all have dignity as a result.

  2. Status

    First century slavery was not based on social status. Slavery was a widespread practice, and it is estimated that around one third of the population of Greece and Italy was enslaved. Slaves were sometimes more educated than free people, and they very often had greater levels of responsibility, including managing people and resources.Additionally, slaves could also take other employment as time would allow. They could also own other slaves. So it is not the case that in the food-chain of society, slaves were the lowest of the low. They could be reputable, of high standing, with a good education and leadership responsibilities.Just imagine the challenges this would have presented for the church where both a slave and his master would worship side by side as believers, since ‘In Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith… There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free’ (Galatians 3:26; 28). Imagine a slave having a position of leadership within the church, which his master attended! These were all likely problems that the early church faced, and which are unthinkable under modern forms of slavery which are entirely demeaning, reducing slaves to the lowest positions of society, and removing from them all sense of human dignity.

  3. Finance

    In modern slavery, people are often tricked or coerced into slavery in order to pay a debt, and then they are kept in a state of poverty, never able to pay their way out. Additionally, they are never able to make money to sustain life beyond slavery, so there is no hope of a better future, since they would be unable to support themselves.In the first century, whilst some people may have got into slavery in order to pay off debts, others saw it as a good way of making money, a genuine source of income like any other job.The table below compares the financial situations of slaves and free workers. Whilst a slave would be paid considerably less than a Roman free worker, all of his accommodation, food and clothing would be paid for by his master. So at the end of a year, a slave would end up with 60 denarii in savings, whereas a Roman free worker would only have 33 denarii.

    Roman Free Worker

    Slave

    Income

    313 denarii

    60 denarii

    Expenditure

    280

    0

    Difference

    33

    60

    These savings gave first century slaves the option to buy their way out of slavery early, or to have a means of sustaining life once they were released.

  4. Length

    Modern slavery is often lifelong; people are promised a release that never comes, because they are unable to pay back the spiralling debts (often exacerbated by forced drug addiction) or they die in the jobs as a result of violence, infection, or crushing workloads.By contrast, in the first century you could earn enough in a few years to buy your freedom, or you could earn favour with your master and be set free. Most slaves were released within 10-15 years, and the majority were free by age 30.In fact, it was often in the master’s interest to release slaves, because it was cheaper to hire them back as free workers!

Summary

Of course, there were always exceptions, and particular people who abused the system. Slavery was certainly not a pleasant thing; there was still a sense of indignity about it, and certain writers were particularly demeaning towards slaves. Aristotle, for example, wrote ‘A slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave’ and he argued that it was wrong to talk of friendship or injustice between a master and his slave, since ‘there is no friendship nor justice towards lifeless things.’

Whilst the Bible never condemns slavery outright, neither does it condone it. In fact, I would say that the Biblical principles of being made in the image of God and granted liberty through the gospel hint that God disapproves of slavery, even in its first century form… perhaps a topic for another day.

On the whole, however, many of the elements we think of when we hear the word ‘slave’ are simply not part of Paul’s original meaning. Modern slavery is highly racist. It is thoroughly demeaning. Most of it is driven by kidnapping, or deception. It is often linked to sex and abuse. It is life-long, with no hope of freedom, and may in fact cost people their lives. It is lucrative, feeding the rich, and abusing the poor. It keeps the poor poor, with no hope of restoration. What is fascinating is that when the Bible does restrict or critique particular practices related to slavery, many of the things it condemns are practices which characterise modern slavery.

Just one example: Exodus 21:26-27 lays out principles for masters treating their slaves well, and just a few verses before it says ‘Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death’ (v16). The Bible has an enormous problem with the practices of the modern slave trade, speaking in strong terms and threatening death for those who would dare to kidnap, buy and sell human life.

Christians have historically been on the forefront of fighting slavery, and still must today. But it would be a mistake to read Ephesians 6:5 and other passages, and think that God somehow condones the barbaric practices of the modern slave trade.

Resources

The resources that have helped me most as I have thought about the subject of slavery (ancient and modern) include the following:

Slaves of Christ – Murray J. Harris.
This is a brilliant book, looking at the theme of slavery in the Bible and the surrounding world. It draws from a wide range of sources, and is incredibly helpful. It looks not only at the Biblical view of literal slavery, but also at the metaphorical use of slavery in scripture, the way the language is used to describe Jesus’ own descent into human existence (Philippians 2), how he has rescued us through the gospel, and what it now means to be a slave of Christ.

William Wilberforce – William Hague
Hague’s biography of Wilberforce is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Brilliantly written and easy to read, focussing on the facts that matter rather than just trying to cram in every stat and figure imaginable. It is an amazing story of an amazing man.

From Every People and Nation – J. Daniel Hays
A slightly broader book, looking at the subject of race in Scripture. I’ve reviewed this in more detail here but it’s well worth a read on this related themes of race and racism.

Free The Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net)
This has been a great source of information, though I have to say, I’ve not looked much into their work beyond the information they provide.

Stop the Traffik (www.stopthetraffik.org)
Stop the Traffik is an international movement who aim to raise the awareness of human trafficking as well as campaigning for an end to trafficking and sexual exploitation.

International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org)
IJM is a human rights agency working to rescue people from sexual oppression and slavery. They work all round the world, but are based in Washington D.C. and do an amazing job!





Serpents and Strawberries

24 06 2011

I have been a little slack at updating this thing, for which I apologise… but I haven’t been entirely lazy and unproductive. My efforts have been focussed elsewhere. So if, for some inexplicable reason, you miss my musings and would like to read something else I’ve written, you are in luck. Today two of my articles have gone live on other sites, so feel free to check them out:

The Seed, the Serpent and Chekhov’s Rifle (whatyouthinkmatters.org)

Amazon, Google and the Strawberry-Cycle (everythingconference.org)