Monday, July 07, 2008

More books

Before I go on to some of the other books, I just wanted to write a little more on Chester’s. I was thinking about the title of his book, which is admittedly, a little odd – it even has a whiff of self-help about it, a notion which will no doubt horrify Tim. (Is this a secret agenda to sneak the title into mainstream bookstores? :-> ) But I guess the title is meant to communicate hope: You, the reader, can change. It’s possible! And as my friend pointed out, it isn’t titled You will change, as in any other number of books that promises a fail-safe formula. More than that, though, I was wondering, and it’s possible that I’m making a leap too far, whether "You" could be referring not (only) to the reader, but to God, as in, it’s not the nature of God which changes, but it is God who can bring about change in us, which is in keeping with the content of his book. Of course, the absence of an object on which the verb acts upon might shoot my theory to bits. By now you’re wondering why I’m tying my boxers in a knot over this – I blame it on another book I’m reading further down this post.

I was really struck reading Chester’s chapter: 'How can we support one another in changing?' today though. I know that although I do pay lip service to the role of the Christian community, it is true that I often think of personal holiness as between me and God. But Chester is quite clear that the church needs to be a community of openness and repentance. It is full of messy people with messy lives, especially when we remember Jesus words that he came not for those who are well, but the sick. Yet at the same time we should not "stroke" the sin, but to, as Chester puts it, "accept people with God’s agenda for change". I know that while I have no problems with the idea of confessing sin before God, I think I would find it much harder to confess sin to one another, something which does have biblical warrant (not the same thing as confessing sin to every single person though!). Similarly, I know that I’m not very good at confronting others.

The thing about Chester’s book is that it’s clear, simple and most Christians would probably agree with most of it, until they realise that if they actually think what it would look like in the “real” world, ouch. But it’s a necessary kind of ouch because, as Tim unflaggingly points out, it’s nothing compared to the riches found in Jesus.

A Bird’s Eye View of Paul – Michael F. Bird
I’ve read through and/or listened to a sermon series on every Pauline book in the last 4 or so years; I’ve even led Bible studies on one or two myself! (Well, not including his own biography, i.e Acts). So I thought it would be nice to grab a title just to synthesise some of the things I’ve been picking up from Paul. This was advertised as an introductory book, conversant with the best recent scholarship, by one of the rising stars in biblical studies, so it seemed ideal, especially as the other more heavyweight titles (Gorman, Schreiner) were probably too much too soon.

I liked it. The first half is especially good, as he paints Paul as persecutor, missionary, theologian, pastor and martyr, and then shows the connection between the OT and the Pauline literature, that is, salvation-history. There are a few chapters on the gospel, with perhaps more stress on the diachronic, or in other words, the creation-fall-redemption-glorification schema than the holy God-sinful man-Saviour Christ-our response presentation. One of his best points, with which I am in full agreement, is that the gospel can’t just be reduced to “Jesus is king/Lord” as some circles currently do, because we need to know that Jesus shows his kingly power in the most paradoxical way, by giving himself up in the place of our sins. There is also discussion about the key terms in Paul, such as justification, righteouness, etc, plus stuff about Jesus and Caesar.

There were some things I didn’t understand on a first reading. I found his chapter on ethics quite difficult, and couldn’t, for instance, understand what his reading of Romans 7 was. It seemed to me that he was charting a 3rd way beyond the two main interpretive routes but I could be completely misreading him!

The Undercover Economist – Tim Harford
I did take Econs at A Levels but haven’t touched it since, so felt like I needed a refresher. Harford writes for the Financial Times here, and he uses real-life examples to illuminate basic concepts here like scarcity, comparative advantage and so on. I think the value in this book lies especially in his applied egs., and he certainly opened my eyes on a few things – externalities played a bigger role in the thinking of economists that I realise! I also don’t think the book went overboard in extolling the free market, although there’s no doubt Harford is very much in favour. Those trained in economics might find things oversimplified, but it’s a good read for laypeople like me.

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
A third of the book in, I wasn’t impressed. This book has been lavished with many superlatives, you know, great postcolonial novel blahblahblah. She’s a good writer, since the words obviously flow easily on the page, but I was thinking to myself, this is supposed to be great characterisation? But at the end of it, I was won over. It’s not the greatest book ever, but it is good.

Is it an attack on Christianity? No, I don’t think so. Nathan Price is enough of a singularity to convince me otherwise – Kingsolver has us peek into his past as a shattered soldier who’s obviously haunted by the war, and seeks atonement in his newfound vocation as a preacher. His venture into the Congo is not sanctioned by the Missions Board, and tell me, which Baptist preacher actually thinks the Apocrypha should be in the Bible? That’s enough to signal to me that he’s not to be taken as representative of the entire Christian missionary endeavour. But that isn’t to exonerate that endeavour completely from its colonial form. There’s one especially arresting scene where the village elder holds an election to decide whether they should follow Jesus, which was a superb if ironic way of framing how Christianity and Western trappings, in this case liberal democratic values, can end up enmeshed in a such a way as to take on a damaging form. Kingsolver, who grew up in the Congo, is certainly critical of the colonial project, and at the end, she doesn’t really offer up a huge vision of hope.

This book made me think again of the poverty of fiction writers with an evangelical worldview. Fiction is a good litmus test of culture as well as a shaper of it, and while I certainly think that there’s no reason Christian characters can’t be portrayed critically, there is a sense in which I do think that it is no wonder evangelicals are misrepresented so heavily if we do not offer up any compelling counter-narratives. There are plenty of Catholics, where are the Protestants? I can think of Marilynn Robinson and Gilead but no others in recent memory.

The Stuff of Thought – Steven Pinker
I’m still slowly reading this. This is one of those books that make your brain ache. Pinker is a popular (in both senses of the word) science writer who’s written extensively on the relation between language and cognition, eg. The Language Instinct. There’s a reason he’s popular, he’s brilliant at explaining things. But the subject matter is such that you can’t avoid needing to use your brain.

What he does is examine closely a lot of our language and its relation to time and space and reality. Why do we “fill a glass with water” but not “pour a glass with water”? The former puts the emphasis on what is happening to the glass, whereas the latter is more concerned with the state of the liquid. It’s this kind of minuscule details that Pinker examines and pushes, and in doing so shows the implications of how we think and interpret the world. I noticed that some of my friends, when they do memes, like to exploit the ambiguities in some of the questions so as to answer in a way which avoids the design of the meme, and Pinker explores stuff like that as well. Think about the word “now”, what timeframe is it exactly referring to? And so on. Pinker does use jargon though, although he always explains them, but it doesn’t take me long to lose track of what a dative-container or pluperfect tense is! I just recently finished reading the chapter 'Cleaving the Air' and that was very hard work. I probably won’t remember very much. The point of Pinker’s book, I think, though, is not so much to remember facts but in pushing you to think about language and thought in a fresh way. For a better review of the book, see that of one of my former lecturers, Deborah Cameron.


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Blogger Debibo said...

federer's loss amongst other things signifies the end of an era which i will look back as "in my generation." but then, i'm glad both williams sisters got through and felt the britishness in me swell with pride when laura robson 'corrected' the reporter who assumed she felt more aussie than brit.

maybe british tennis should keep their eye on female rising stars. henmen embodies british support and resignation in rooting the under dog and murray.. i don't know.

9:45 am  
Blogger BK said...

wrong thread Deb, and isn't our generation Sampras-Agassi?

I don't think this is really a changing of the guard - Federer was due to have a bad year, and I'm sure he will eventually surpass Sampras's record. But it's nice to know there's yet another classic rivalry to spice up the sport!

British tennis: Murray might get there, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

9:30 pm  
Blogger Debibo said...

"in my generation" blair was prime minister, raja azlan shah was the yang di pertuan agung and no one questioned BN. how things have changed...

3:50 am  

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