Category Archives: books

The Poor in the Gospel of Luke – an addendum

A few years ago I did a blog series going through the gospel of Luke, discussing what it said to us about the poor (which can be found here). Having recently re-read this series as part of some sermon prep on the same theme, I found (with the help of a commentary) some important additions from chapter 7 of Luke.

John the Baptist is in prison, shortly to be beheaded, and he is having doubts. He knows he is the one who was to announce the coming of the Messiah and prepare the way for him, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one, or it there is another to come, presumably for his peace of mind. This is Jesus’ response.

21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Luke 7:21-23

“Good news is proclaimed to the poor.” A question here would be to ask, who is the poor? Another would be, why is this incident placed here in the gospel? Just before we have two accounts of miracles by Jesus. The first is the centurion who comes to Jesus asking him to heal his servant (7:1-10). He exhibits his faith by saying to Jesus “Just say the word and by servant will be healed.” Following that is the account of jesus raising the dead son of a widow, brought back to life off his funeral bier (7:11-16). After the incident with John the Baptist’s disciples, we have the description of the Jesus having dinner at a Pharisee’s house when a woman who “had lived a sinful life” came in, began crying over Jesus feet and then poured expensive perfume over them – during the meal! (7:36-50)

It is well known that Jesus called to him those who were on the edge of society. In this chapter, Michael Wilcock (from the BST commentary) argues that all the recipients of Jesus grace in these accounts were poor in some way. The centurion was a Roman, and whilst probably materially well-off, he wouldn’t normally have had access to the synagogue, the temple, or Israel’s God. In this sense he was socially poor as he was from the wrong ‘tribe’. The widow was facing material hardship. Her husband had already died at some point in the past, leaving only her son to be a wage earner. In the days before social welfare, families would have been the last line of support before financial hardship, and now her son has died too. Jesus not only reaches into her grief but alleviates her poverty at the same time.

In the final passage, the ‘sinful woman’ was spiritually poor. By being labeled “sinful”, she would have been on the edge of society, and most respectable people would have avoided her. She cries over Jesus’ feet and Jesus proclaims her sins forgiven, and declares “Your faith has saved you”.

So we have the socially poor, materially poor, and spiritually poor all encountering the Kingdom of God in Jesus, with the latter being declared ‘saved’. This reminds me of one of the Lukan Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (6:20). Jesus’ understanding of the word ‘poor’ goes beyond the material sense that we often associate it with.

Here and elsewhere, Jesus talks about “preaching” or “or claiming” good news to the poor. Yet it is evident from his actions that this also involved practical help. The Kingdom of God comes where gospel words are supported by actions, and actions by words.

Wolf Tide

The latest novel discussed in our book club was an accomplished first foray into fantasy fiction from established author Catherine Fox.

Anabara Nolio is a young private investigator in the city of Larrity trying to make her way in business, life and love. The world she inhabits is one filled with sub-species of humans each with their own attributes and traditions. Anabara is half Gull, half-Galen which means she can fly, although she isn’t supposed to within the confines of the city. It is also a world filled with charms, magic, faith and fairies – only these fairies are not ones you’ve ever dreamed of. Less Tinkerbell and a little more vampire.

When Anabara is appointed to investigate the disappearance of books from the university library and to report on the broken charms in the stained glass windows, she makes a solid start. But as she delves deeper she discovers layers of deception, corruption and injustice, even by those she loves.

I’ll not say any more as that would give the plot away.

This is a new style of fiction for Catherine Fox. I first was alerted to her when I was an undergraduate at Durham, and I was told that there was this new author, a former student, who had written a novel about theological students in Durham, and if you knew the place you could actually pinpoint where in the colleges the characters were. I didn’t really read novels at the time, but I gave Angels and Men a go and loved it. Her next two novels were in the same style mixing keen observations of faith, strong characters, humour and love together  – this time following female vicars as they took their first steps into ministry. Wolf Tide is quite different but doesn’t disappoint. Anabara is a well rounded female lead character. She is good at her job, she obviously is looking for love but is not overly obsessed with make-up or appearance, yet there is enough that is vulnerable or uncertain about her 17-year old self which makes her quite believable. She relies day to day on St. Pelago, who is key to the organised religion of the town, and he usually comes through for her.

This is certainly a good addition to this genre. I was able to imagine the world quite well and I liked the central characters – always important to keep you reading. And in the plot Fox keeps the pages turning too. If I was being really picky, i might have liked a little more distinction between the human sub-species – Gull, Galen, Tressy, Zaarzuk. Their difference in character between the groups were described well but I had a little difficulty imagining their general differences in appearance. But that is being picky. Despite, I think, not being the intended demographic of readership, I enjoyed it a lot. I hope there is a sequel and I will certainly read it if there is.

On it’s release Catherine Fox told the Greenbelt Blog a little about how she came us with the idea.

 

(Photo from Greenbelt)

 

Be filled with the Spirit.

John Stott from his Commentary on Ephesians.

When Paul says to us, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’, he uses a present imperative implying that we are to go on being filled. For the fulness of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience which we can never lose, but a privilege to be renewed continuously by continuous believing and obedient appropriation….

To the defeated Paul would say, ‘Be filled with the Spirit, and he will give you a new love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control.’ To the complacent Paul would say ‘go on being filled with the Spirit. Thank God for what he has given you thus far. But do not say you have arrived. For there is more, much more, yet to come.’

 

Neighbouring

photoWhen asked by one of the teachers of the day which of God’s commandments was the greatest, Jesus gave this answer which silenced them.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-40)

Few today would argue that there are any better commandments than this. It emphasises a love for God with every fibre of our being, heart, mind and will, and a love for all those around us, even those we may disagree with, as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates. Implicit in the two commandments is a love for oneself.

The question, “but who is my neighbour?” is a good one. If we are supposed to love our neighbours, who are they? In one sense everyone is our neighbour – people of different nationalities, creeds, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and ages. This is true, but sometimes an answer like this is not practically useful to those wanting to live out a life of “loving their neighbours”. If we are to love everyone, where specifically do we start?

This is where Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon’s book, The Art of Neighbouring, can come in useful. Looking at American suburban society in particular (the book is not limited to this setting but is primarily written from this point of view), they saw that, in fact, people often don’t know those who live immediately around them. I think this is true in the UK too, especially in new-build developments which don’t have a lot of history or long-term residents. Their answer to “where do you start?” is to look at other residents of your area.

They begin by asking you to think of the people who live immediately around you. Can you picture them? Beyond that, what kind of relationship do you have with them? Do you know their names? What sort of person are they? What do they like doing or talking about? Do you know what their desires or concerns are? With this in mind, Runyon and Pathak saw the great potential for impacting community cohesion, security, and general welfare of society for the better, simply if Christians took this command seriously with their literal neighbours. The idea is not to set out with a mission to convert them, but simply to share something of God’s kingdom-goodness with the world by creating loving and peaceful communities. Think about it, how much of your town would be impacted if every member of your church made a commitment to get to know, befriend, and be involved in the lives of those who live around them? I also have no doubt that a side-effect of this will be to open up opportunities for people to find out about and discover faith. When people are confronted with God’s goodness, some will respond.

It is an easy read, with that one central point running through it, and full of suggestions of how to out the greatest commandments into practice, but as always, it will need some adjustment to the individual context. It is a simple premise which, if a number of churches in one city commit to, could have a big impact.

The Magus

greek island viewAs this 1966 novel was chosen as the latest offering in our book club, one of our members exclaimed, “I’ll talk about it but I’m not reading that again!”. This didn’t bode well for the The Magus, by John Fowles. But I was willing to give it a go and to get to the end. It isn’t often I don’t finish books and this one was no exception, but 656 pages later I was more than a little frustrated.

It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford educated public school teacher in his early twenties. After a year teaching at an English public school and a short but intense affair with a young Australian air hostess in London, he decides to travel to Greece to take up the post of English Master at an exclusive boarding school on the tiny island of Phraxos. Initially bored, due to the lack of company of his own age, he soon finds himself in the company of a wealthy elderly gentleman, Conchis, one of the few English speaking people on the island. He is invited to visit most weekends, during which he begins to hear the story of Conchis’ own personal history. Soon though, he realises that he is caught in an intricate psychological, mythological, and emotionally perverse game – the godgame. Over the course of the year, he is introduced to a bizarre cast of characters, including beautiful English twins, also in their early twenties. He begins to fall for one of them. Questioning everything he is told and experiences, caught inside an ever increasingly bizarre situation, he is overcome with curiosity, anger and the search for truth and cannot bring himself simply to walk away and has to see this macabre game out until the end.

Immediately after finishing the book I tweeted this:

Some spoilers follow from this point

That is the level of frustration that this book left me with. Whilst it is undoubtedly well-written, and the description of the Greek island is beautiful and idyllic, at no point do we get a reason or explanation for the weird sequence of events that Urfe endures. There is a meanness to the game that his played. Urfe’s letters are intercepted. Things are made up and evidence fabricated to make him believe that certain things are happening outside of the island in order to guarantee his participation in the game on it. Conchis and his friends even, somehow, persuade the Australian ex-girlfriend to be a part of it (although we are never told how they persuade her) and they convince him that she has committed suicide, just at the moment that he realises his true and deep feelings for her. He is distraught but the effect of this is simply to entice him further into the trap.

The final straw for me was the ending. Urfe returns to London to try and piece together parts of the story he has been told, and finds even more people who are in on it. When he eventually discovers that his Australian friend is alive, he realises he simply has to wait. He will not find her until they allow him to. The last section is written very well and, in the spirit of a detective novel, leaves you wanting to turn to pages to find out the resolution. you want Urfe and the air hostess to get back together. Sadly you never find out. The book ends with them meeting and arguing, both quite justified in the hurt and confusion that has preceded. Both want answers, as does the reader, but Fowles doesn’t give them. He simple ends the book before it is really finished.

I imagine this is the type of book that lots of people start but never finish. One of those that looks intelligent but sits on lots of bookshelves unread. Six hundred pages, albeit of well-written prose, but culminating in no clear ending or message is severely disappointing. I can’t say I understood it, but it seems that Fowles doesn’t really want us to, and no other reviews I’ve seen can shed much more light than that.

I did come across this letter, reportedly from the author himself shortly after the novel was first published. It seems that he is being deliberately baffling, trying to deconstruct freedom which, he says, results in the rejection of everything except human reason.

fowles letter

Whilst I cannot disagree with the conclusion of the letter – acting humanely to all humans is simple a rephrasing of Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves – however, “reason alone” is an argument that the new atheists still try to peddle today, and it is flawed. I think that modernism has shown that reason alone cannot help us in everything, and leaves vast areas of life untouched. The Christian would argue that true freedom is only found in God – growing into the people that he has created us to be.

Credit to Fowles for his writing – The Magus certainly leaves plenty to ponder on, but I can’t say I recommend this. It is simple too random, unexplained, and frustrating. And it doesn’t have a proper ending.

 

How not to be a football millionaire.

how not to be a football millionarie gillespieI don’t usually read football biographies. I do like the odd biography from a notable figure – Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, or someone of interest. I was sent a copy of Keith Gillespie’s autobiography and was pleasantly surprised. He was part of the Newcastle United team during one of the most exciting times in recent history, during the first management of Kevin Keegan and shortly afterwards. I remember that fantastic European night when Gillespie and Asprilla teamed up and everything clicked in a memorable 3-2 victory over the mighty Barcelona.  Gillespie is famous not only for being a footballer, but for being one of a few who has managed to be declared bankrupt. On the inside flap of the dust jacket he lists the money he has earned, and lost, over his career. Over £7million. It is sobering reading.

Here’s why I liked the book.

  • He’s not boasting as his career is the wrong way round. He began at Man Utd and finished at Gletoran (N. Ireland) and came via Newcastle, Blackburn, Sheffield Utd and a short spell at Bradford. This is no rise to stardom story.
  • It is very down to earth. He does not shy away from talking about the times when he did or said something stupid. There is no cover-up here. He describes all his relationships and how they went wrong. He talks openly about his depression and the support he is getting. It is brutally honest.
  • He is open about the fact that he earned and lost a huge amount of money gambling, and in ill-judged business ventures.
  • He doesn’t pretend to have it all together or to know where he is going. At the end of the book, with his football career behind him, he is unsure what to do next. This takes guts to admit to.

Admittedly, it is not the best-written book you will ever read, but there is something compelling and admirable about a man who comes clean and says, in front of the world “I messed up, I made mistakes, and now I’m trying to put my life back together”.

Communion

communionA wonderful (lengthy) quote from Unapologetic on the meaning and importance of communion (probably my last quote from the book). And as it’s quite difficult to quote Francis Spufford in small chunks, here’s the lot:

“Every Sunday morning, in all the church’s human niches, from downtown Isfahan to downtown Manhattan, in places of great wealth and comfort and in cities under bombardment, on every continent including Antarctica and once, I believe, on the moon, we hold again a stylised version of the original Passover meal in Jerusalem. There is bread, there is wine. We bless them using one of the Passover prayers. We break the bread, we pour the wine into a cup. We repeat Jesus’ words from the story. This is my body. This is my blood. And then for us the bread, made unmysteriously from wheat, and the wine, made unmysteriously from grapes, are different. There has been a change in their meaning. For some of us, the material bread and material wine have altered (on a tiny domestic scale, with crumbs and dregs and washing-up) in the same way that the material world was altered by having its creator within it. Right there on the table, the set of the world once more contains itself as a member; once more, a peculiar knot has been tied in the fabric of existence. For others of us, the change of meaning is made by the material world aligning itself to form a sign of what began happening once in Jerusalem long ago, and (the sign reminds us) is still happening now. Either way, the change puts the same strange burden on our imagination and our understanding when we do what we do next, and eat the bread and drink the wine. We’re eating God. We’re eating Jesus. The body [of Christ – the people of the Church] that wants to the a body is eating the body it wants to be. The pun multiplies. ‘O taste and see’, the choir may be singing, if it’s the altar of a cathedral we’re filing towards to take our bite and our swallow of the meal. The tasting is literal: tongues, teeth, gullet and intestines are all involved. The God of everything is demonstrating again his gross indifference to good taste in the other, polite, little-finger-extended sense. Because it’s inescapable: this is an act of sacred cannibalism, in symbolic form. The Romans, used to temples where the literal blood of animals flowed, passed round rumours of the vile stuff Christians got up to on a Sunday, and perhaps it’s too easy for us now to soothe away into familiarity the language we use. Perhaps there ought to be a hint of repulsion, of taboos overridden, when we sup the red stuff in the chalice, to keep us reminded of where our sign is pointing: which is towards Skull Hill, and the human body on the cross there. We aren’t just eating Jesus. We’re eating his death. We eat and we drink because we desire monstrosity’s end, but the sacrament carries us into the monstrous, through the monstrous, to get us there, just as the story we tell only arrives at hope by way of tragedy. The meanings of the bread and the wine line up along a bloody corridor, as barbarous as the barbarous world God is working on, and at the end of the corridor, once we have accepted the strange and frightening gift we are being given, there is forgiveness, We eat the bread, we drink the wine, to be joined to the act by which forgiveness came. We eat the end of cruelty and shame. We eat amnesty for whatever the particular load of the HPtFtU* was that we brought to the dinner table. We eat the rejoicing that this one time, in spite of all sorrow, the world’s weight was flipped over and turned to joy. We eat grace.

And that’s what the church is for. Forget about saints, popes, bishops, monks, nuns, processions, statues, music, art, architecture, vicarage tea parties, telethons, snake-handling, speaking in tongues, special hats. All of that stuff (OK, I’m not sure about the snake-handling) can be functional in its time and its place, can do things sometimes to inch forward the work of love, but it’s all secondary, it’s all flummery, it’s all essentially decorative compared to this. We eat the bread. We drink the wine. We feel ourselves forgiven. And, feeling that, we turn from the table to try to love the world, and ourselves, and each other.”

* HPtFtU – The Human Propensity to F*ck things Up is Spufford’s way of describing the brokenness of the world, sin.

Square brackets are mine, round brackets are Spufford’s own footnotes.