Category Archives: Books

Book Review: The Poverty of the Nations

First sentence confession and disclaimer all in one; I chose to order and review this book from Crossway’s Beyond the Page blog reviewers section expecting to disagree with it. I was fairly sure that I would find myself uncomfortable with some of the conclusions of the authors but because I value listening to voices other than my own or those in my camp I resolved to challenge myself with what appeared to be some thoughtful arguments on Christianity and the value of Free Market Capitalism.

How wrong can one man be? I downloaded this book months back and despite being an avid reader I plodded through this book a few pages at a time finding any reason to read anything else but this. If I had not agreed to write this review in exchange for getting a free copy of this book I am confident I would have recycled this book months ago. Honestly I have plenty of stuff on my book shelves I don’t agree with but which pushes my thinking, challenges my assumptions and helps me organise and develop my own thinking better. But this is poorly written, filled with mad tilts at straw men and stingy representations of opposing arguments.  It almost reads like a propaganda document for the free market system rather than a well thought out and reasoned piece of writing by two well-respected professors in their fields.

I grew up in and completed ¾ of my schooling under the apartheid schooling system. As a result I am well versed in this kind of one-sided, parochial presentation of the virtues of a particular system, whilst never allowing the recipients to examine the full range of data for themselves. If you read this book with no prior thought to economics or economic systems (and I am no economist) you can only conclude that anyone who does not support the free market/ capitalistic system is a complete idiot. There is little generosity to the opinions of others; lampooning and presenting the worst or weakest side of opposing systems are common in this book. There is no concern to honestly examine the strengths of for instance democratic socialism or the very obvious weaknesses in the free market system that a growing number of reputable voices are raising. At times it felt like the book was caught in the Cold War or the Middle Ages, arguing against Soviet style communism or feudalism. Which are useful as examples but are hardly the economic questions that the majority of the books audience are wrestling with. Furthermore the almost canonisation of the Industrial Revolution and the economic growth of the Far East without so much as a footnote to the hugely destructive social issues and dehumanization arising from the triumph of greater economic growth left me cold.

Four final thoughts before this descends into the level of a rant…too late you say?

1. The book’s claim to be a Christian book is only borne up at times by an horrific use of out of context verses. A blatant desire to conflate the free market system with biblical economics is deeply disturbing. Even if you do not think the free market/capitalist system does not go against the Bible it is still a rather large leap of justificational logic to imply that it is a biblical system. The “economic system” we see in the Bible is far more nuanced than any one system, and if anything has a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized rather than the increased creation of wealth for the already wealthy.

2. On that point just recently, I heard Professor Piet Naude from the University of Stellenbosch Business School suggest that we have to examine the assumption that “all the boats in the harbour” rise with the creation of wealth. The free market he said has been excellent at creating wealth but very weak in distributing it. This is not an usual insight but a widely acknowledged, contemporary challenge to the free market system. Yet Grudem and Asmus all but ignore it and write instead as if the free market is the saviour of the poor. History simply does not bear that up, even in the United States. I cannot believe the authors are unaware of this. Is their commitment to free market capitalism so deeply entrenched that they are able to simply waive this aside as a petty criticism not worth engaging in?

3. The pro-American bias of this book is hugely off-putting. God Bless America we have the worlds best economic system if only the poor Africans would listen to us. They might not have said this, but I heard it loud and clear. If I was reading a hard copy of the book rather than my kindle I would have been sorely curious to have tested the aerodynamics of this patriotic drivel at times.

4. No matter what the merits and advantages of a free market system are, and I am convinced there are many, this book sadly merely demonstrates for me the problem of allowing privileged westerners with unchallenging assumptions to write books. I have greatly benefited from many of Crossways resources but this is not one. It is poorly argued, parochial and almost without merit. The few thought-provoking moments that I did encounter in the book were so overpowered by the negatives that at 400 pages it just was not worth it.

I gave it one star on Amazon simply because there was no category for “makes excellent recycling.”

Book Review: The Meal Jesus Gave Us

The-Meal-Jesus-Gave-Us-Wright-N-T-9780664226343

Honestly very disappointing.  Even though it is a small work by comparison to some of his other works, I still expected that usual depth of scholarship and ability to surprise you with a turn of phrase or well thought out question. One of Tom Wright’s rare gifts in writing is the ability to make you unsure of whether you agree with him or not. You cannot read a Tom Wright book glibly, even though his style is surprisingly readable.  But this was, unusually for Wright, distinctly bland fare.

I have been greatly stimulated by Wright’s work on kingdom and eschatology but was quite unimpressed by his work on the “Jesus meal”, as he often calls it.

In all the other works of Wright which I have read, his writing seems to flow almost effortlessly out of his immense knowledge and learning of the Scriptures. This book is not like that, most of the arguments are from tradition or experience or common sense rather than from Scripture. And as a result they do not have that same “feel.”  That same depth.  That same stimulation to think or question.

It probably did not help that I found his views on the “Jesus meal” overly mystical, a bit existential with just a touch more sacramentalism than I am comfortable with. He argues for communion in a church building, with ordained leaders, with due liturgy and seriousness.  He does allow for different circumstances but he makes it clear that he thinks that these are the preferential means of holding communion.

I guess I am just not high church enough. Perhaps naively I was surprised to find out just how high church and sacramental Wright could be.

Some of my most meaningful times of remembering the death of Christ have been with a can of flat coke and a stale bread roll with neither ordained minister or church building in sight.

Read everything else of Wright’s that you can lay your hands on… but feel free to give this one a skip!

I gave it a 2/5 on Good Reads

The Story of God, The Story of Us

the-story-of-god-300x450I loved Sean Gladding’s “The Story of God,  the Story of Us.” Firstly it was well written, this is a big plus for me.  I am seriously surprised at how many badly written books there out there.  People who are good speakers or who have good things to say should not necessarily write books.  Sean Gladding I am glad(ding) to say can most definitely write.

The Story of God, the Story of Us is a creative and mostly faithful retelling of the Biblical narrative.  The Story is retold from within two other stories.  The narrator who himself narrates a story is a clever literary device, which Gladding uses well, to enable the author to compress the story, provide bridges between disparate parts of the story, move out of chronological sequence and insert editorial comments.  All without breaking from the fictional-historical story context.

The Old Testament story is set in the context of the Babylonian exile.  The people are angry, confused and questioning God.  The old storyteller, a member of the first group of exiles, has not forgotten the Story of God and he now retells it to a people struggling to understand who they are and why their God has abandoned them.  Each chapter is set a week apart on the eve of the next Sabbath.

The New Testament story is told by a leader of a Christian household church, in an unnamed city to her own church as they struggle with the persecution and economic marginalisation that their Christian faith has brought them.  They have also just witnessed the public martyrdom of one of their own.  Central to this story is a wealthy non-Christian merchant who has been invited to share a meal and listen to the story.

I loved the freshness of this approach.  I loved the human element that Gladding weaves throughout the story.  Gladding is not afraid to weave lengthy portion of Scriptures throughout his narrative, and this gives the book real depth to go with Gladding’s obvious ability to craft narrative.

The only criticisms I have is that (1) for the New Testament sections, Gladding chooses to quote extensively from The Message, which I do not always find that great from a stylistic point of view.  Sometimes Eugene Peterson tries too hard to be creative.  (2) Gladding obviously holds certain views very tightly, like egalitarianism for instance.  At some points in the narrative Gladding forces these view into the narrative, giving them an emphasis that is out of proportion to their place in the story.  It feels forced and is below a writer of Gladding’s skill.  It has the feel of one who does not trust either the biblical narrative or his constructed narrative to say what it wants to say.

Some Favourite Quotes from Experiential Storytelling

ImageI previously posted this review on Mark Miller’s Experiential Storytelling: [Re]Discovering Narrative to Communicate God’s Message.  While the book left quite a bit to be desired, Miller can be quite quotable, and includes some great quotes from others too.

“Storytelling is powerful because it has the ability to touch human beings at a most personal level. While facts are viewed from the lens of a microscope, stories are viewed from the lens of the soul. Stories address us on every level. They speak to the mind, the body, the emotions, the spirit and the will. In a story a person can identity with situations he or she has never been in. The individual’s imagination is unlocked to dream what was previously unimaginable.” (33)  (While this may be overstating the case and creating a little bit of an unhelpful dichotomy between facts and story, nevertheless it does capture the value of story well.)

“People can argue doctrine and theology.  They can even sit with arms crossed listening to someone’s convincing reasons why they should believe.  But when powerful stories begin to be told, and when a person can identify with another person’s journey, the arms drop, the defensiveness wanes, and a receptive ear is gained.” (37)

“Stories can hold the complexities of conflict and paradox,” Annette Simmons (38)

“A sermon tells people what to think.  A story forces people to do the thinking for themselves.  It can feel dangerous because it allows for interpretation.  But one of the adjectives used to describe the Holy Spirit is “counsellor.”  Do we trust our people and the Holy Spirit enough to allow them to think for themselves?  Can we leave something open-ended, knowing that conclusions might not come until later that day, week, month, or year?  Can we allow people to own the stories?  Or do we do all of the interpretation and leave nothing to the imagination?” (41)

“Regardless of whether one considers this good or bad, for this generation, aesthetics counts more than epistemology.”  William Dyrness (55)

“The imagination is among the chief glories of being human.  When it is healthy and energetic, it ushers us into adoration and wonder, into the mysteries of God.  When it is neurotic and sluggish, it turns people, millions of them, into parasites, copycats and couch potatoes.”  Eugene Peterson (Under the Predictable Planet) (63)

Mark Miller: Experiential Storytelling

ImageAt the back of Mark Miller’s “Experiential Storytelling: [Re]Discovering Narrative to Communicate God’s Message” was a link to a website for further resources, ideas etc.  When I pointed my browser in search of said website I was informed that I was now free to purchase this domain name, which I took to mean that the website was now defunct.  What I did find however, was a review by Steve McCoy, so I thought I would have a quick peek to see what he said before I posted my own thoughts.

How annoying to find that not only did Steve say everything I wanted to say… but I am sure he said it better.  So rather than clog the already crowded internet with more of the same I thought I would rather cut some thoughts from Steve’s review and point you to the rest of the blog post if you want more.

“I expected more.  It was a fast read, with not a great deal of content.  The book did spark some interesting questions in my head and I learned a few things along the way, but by the end I felt like it never took me where I needed to go.  It never got me into “aha!” stuff.  It never solidified anything I was already thinking. 

It’s possible the issue is partially with me, but the book is explained as a book about “rediscovering narrative,” and I didn’t read it that way.  I felt the point the book ultimately made was to emphasize “sensory” stories over “verbal” stories.  Verbal has a role for Miller, but for this book at least it’s a diminished one.

I think the book serves better as a tool for helping a handful of youth leaders supplement their normal communication of the truth with creative experiences.  Because of the work it would entail, these youth leaders would probably need to be in large churches with lots of youth and a sizeable budget.”

You can read Steve’s whole review here

Some Favourite Quotes from a Million Miles in a Thousand Years

0785213066I previously wrote a review of Donald Miller’s book “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.”  You can read that review here.

Miller is always really quotable, here are a few of my favourites:

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers.  You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen.  The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back.  Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.”

“But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful.  The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”  (xiii)

“Without story, experiences are just random.” (27)

“I think life is staggering and we’re just used to it.  We all are like spoiled children no longer impressed with the gifts we’re given- it’s just another sunset, just another rainstorm moving in over the mountain, just another child being born, just another funeral.” (58)

“I don’t know why we need stories but we always have.”  (80)

“Here’s the truth about telling stories with your life.  It’s going to sound like a great idea, and you are going to get excited about it and then when it comes time to do the work, you’re not going to want to do it… People like to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen.  But joy costs pain.” (99-100)

“The mountains themselves call us into greater stories.” (159)

“There is an intrinsic feeling in nearly every person that your life could be perfect if you only had such-and-such a car or such-and-such a spouse or such-and-such a job.  We believe we will be made whole by our accomplishments, our possessions, or our social status.  It’s written in the fabric of our DNA that life used to be beautiful and now it isn’t, and if only this and if only that, it would be beautiful again.” (201-202)

“I don’t mean to insinuate that there are no minor climaxes to human stories.  There are.  A kid can try to make the football team and in a moment of climax see his name on the coach’s list.  A girl can want to get married and feel euphoric when the man of her dreams slides a ring on her finger.  But these aren’t the stories I’m talking about.  These are substories.  When that kid makes the football team, he is going to find out that playing football is hard, and he’s going to find himself fin the middle of yet another story.  And the girl is going to wake up three months into her marriage and realize she is, in fact, still lonely, and so many of her issues haven’t gone away… they thought the climax to their substory was actually a climax to the human story, and it wasn’t.  The human story goes on.” (202-203)

“There is a lot of money and power to be had convincing people we can create an Eden here on earth.” (205)

“Do I still think there will be a day when all the wrongs are made right, when our souls find the completion they are looking for?  I do.  But when all things are made right, it won’t be because of some preacher or snake-oil salesman or politician or writer making promises in his book.  I think, instead, this will be done by Jesus.  And it will be at a wedding.  And there will be a feast.”  (206)

Book Review: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years- Donald Miller

0785213066Dare I say, “Blue Like Jazz” was a once in a lifetime book? It was the right book for the right time with the right tone. A writer probably only has one such book in him, if he is lucky.  Donald Miller is on a hiding to nothing trying to write a follow-up.  Readers now come armed with those most evil of emotions for writers and film-makers  high expectations.  They are looking forward to more of the same experience that Miller previously delivered in Blue like Jazz.  And “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” does not deliver and in fact it was cruel of me to expect it to.

It is exactly this blight of “quick success” that has put Don Miller in the slump we find him in at the beginning of the book.  The book cleverly follows three inter-related threads- the nature of life as a story, Miller’s own search for a better story and the writing of “Blue like Jazz”, the movie script.  The main idea of the book is that each of our lives are a story, some of us live great stories and some of us live terrible stories or non-stories.  Throughout the book Miller explores this nature of story through the writing of the screenplay which is mirrored in his own search for a better life story that the slump he is currently in.  Miller is a great story teller and he had me cheering him on, laughing out loud, furiously underlining, inspired, frustrated and even shedding a tear at one point.

Miller’s search for a story leads him to hike the Andes, kayak the Jervis inlet, cycle across America, found a mentoring organisation for fatherless kids, find love and lose love again.

Story has been a theme I have been thinking about quite a bit lately and I picked up this book eager to see what Miller’s unusual way of looking at the world brought to this theme.  I must confess that apart from the chapter entitled “The Reason God Hasn’t Fixed You Yet” which is quite brilliant, I found the book “Jesus-lite.”  I am not sure what Miller’s reasoning behind this was, as he speaks quite clearly and unambiguously when he does speak of Jesus.  I found it particularly unusual given that the great story he seeks and which he speaks about is so clearly fulfilled in Jesus.  He briefly touches on this but I was honestly surprised he did not explore this more.  It would have given the book a greater punch and a greater depth.  In the end what could have been a really great book ends up being a bit fluffy with some great scenes without really going anywhere.  Dare I say that Miller fails somewhat to do what he explores throughout the book- write a great story?