Squeezing A Book Into A Stocking?


Still don't know what to ask for for Christmas? My answer, as always, is: go for books. All of these are pretty brief (less than 200 pages in every case) and therefore fairly cheap, but they pack a punch out of proportion to their size...

God
The Good God, Michael Reeves
Seeing and Savouring Jesus Christ, John Piper
Gagging Jesus, Phil Moore (reviewed here)

Prayer
Enjoying Your Prayer Life, Michael Reeves

The Bible
Unbreakable, Andrew Wilson (reviewed here)

Helping others
The Myth of The Undeserving Poor, Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams (reviewed here)

Making decisions
Just Do Something, Kevin DeYoung (reviewed here)

How God deals with us
God's Lavish Grace, Terry Virgo

Believing Christianity
If God, Then What?, Andrew Wilson

If you're a new Christian
Beginnings, Lex Loizides

Christian living
Battle for the Mind, David Holden

Student life
First, Matt Carvel (reviewed here, and if you come to Edinburgh I'll give you a free copy)

Just Do Something


This book's full title also serves as its introduction: Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God's Will. Or, How to make a decision without dreams, visions, fleeces, impressions, open doors, random Bible verses, casting lots, liver shivers, writing in the sky, etc. This is typical of Kevin DeYoung's style which is forthright to the point of being blunt. His topic is one that requires urgency, however: the paralysis of many Christians who feel they don't know God's will for their lives and are therefore on-hold until they get further revelation. He writes with a pastor's concern/frustration that I recognise. Often when I speak to people about making decisions they have an assumption that God's will is a tightrope that can be easily fallen from; or that they are faced with countless doors, of which only one is the right one. This is instinctive to many of us, and reinforced by general Christian culture. DeYoung examines this thinking robustly, pointing out its faults and showing a better way to understand God's will and our lives.

Just Do Something presents what the Bible tells us about God's will, and describes the implication as seeking wisdom more than guidance. It deals with a lot of the anxieties and confusions in this emotive area of (western) Christian life and is full of practical, godly sense. DeYoung has no doubt that God's will will be done, what he challenges is the assumption that God always makes it clear to us before we get on with doing it. Most of the Bible's "Aha, this is God's plan" moments are retrospective:
"God has a wonderful plan for your life – a plan that will take you through trial and triumph as you are transformed into the image of His Son (Romans 8:28-29). Of this we can be absolutely confident. But God’s normal way of operation is not to show this plan to us ahead of time – in retrospect, maybe; in advance, rarely."
As someone who believes in the work of the Holy Spirit through spiritual gifts today, I would disagree somewhat with his suggestions in chapter 6 that the descriptions of guidance in Acts are not at all normal (though he presents a more balanced perspective than others would). Several of the key life decisions I've made have been significantly shaped by personal prophetic words so I would not discount them or discourage people from seeking them. Where I do agree with him is that these words could never veto what the Bible says, and that they should always be considered prayerfully and in community. I often have decisions justified to me with the dreaded phrase, "God said to me..." As DeYoung points out, this is the end of all discussion and accountability, both of which are commended by God in His word as key to wisdom.

Many of us we need to think through what "walking by faith" means. DeYoung's presents it as a lifestyle of always listening to God (through reading His Word, praying, taking counsel, and - I would add - eagerly desiring prophecy) whilst getting on with doing good unhindered by indecision.

This book is brief and to the point. I found much to cheer here, and I will be encouraging people to read it in the hope that the paralysis of analysis and the tyranny of "God said..." will feature less prominently in our lives, to be replaced with wisdom and seeking first God's Kingdom.

The Myth of The Underserving Poor

This book should help Christians help others. It was written by Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams who serve Jubilee+, a Newfrontiers initiative to help churches serve their communities.

It starts with a potted history of care for the poor in the UK, then presents research which shows that where we get our perceptions of poverty from may not be the sources we expect. The great challenge of this section is to examine our assumptions/prejudices and bring them under the light of God's Word. Charlesworth and Williams then do this for us by presenting an indisputable case for Christian mercy from the Bible, followed by a description of key values and principles for practice. Among the recommended resources is The Cinnamon Network, which connects churches with social action enterprises.

The Myth of The Underserving Poor prefers data to individual stories, and the stunning truth of the gospel to emotional blackmail, making it challenging and hard to argue with. The risk of writing such a book is that it will only be read by those who already agree with it - though they will likely find in it fresh encouragement and ideas to work out their convictions. To those unconcerned, this is an opportunity to hear the strong words God has for those in need and those who neglect them.

Here are some quotes from it to get you thinking:
"God’s initial dealings with those in need are always characterised by unconditional mercy… We mustn’t slip into the temptation to ask people to change before we help them. That is a deeply unbiblical response."
"The nature of mercy is that has nothing to do with the recipient and everything to do with the one being merciful."
"When Christians think or talk about poverty in Britain, we must not let our minds lazily leap to stereotypes, to examples on the extreme needs of the spectrum, or to pithy but ill-conceived soundbites. When we do this, our mouths perpetrate myths, our hearts become hardened and our hands hang limply in inaction."

This week: bad weather, good ageing, The Apprentice


We were hit by a weather bomb, but we were not unprepared.

Few books have such a sense of place as J.R.R. Tolkien's. Rumeana Jahangir shows where he got his inspiration from.

North of the border, Chris Deerin has realised that Edinburgh is better than Glasgow.

What do you want to be like when you are old? James Russell Miller has some sound advice, with a final line worth waiting for.

Age seems to have caught up with Steven Gerrard but, as Simon Barnes suggests, that needn't be the end of his career.

Kirk Livingston highlights three things that won't help a Christian grow.

Mitchell and Webb show how we got The Apprentice as it is...


Unbreakable


A little while ago, Andrew Wilson sat down with a famous British church leader and had a series of discussions about what the Bible says and what it doesn't, what it means and what it doesn't. I think he got a bit frustrated by that, so he wrote this book.

He wrote this book so that you'd read the other Book, and not read it like any other book.

His main point here is that the place to start when considering the Bible is Jesus: what did He say and believe about it? As Christians are meant to be followers of Jesus this has a powerful logic that's easily lost on us. So he looks at what Jesus said about where (or rather, Who) the Bible came from, its authority, its coherence, its clarity, and its purposes.

Because this is a very short book, many of its arguments are summaries and starting points for further thinking and talking. (There is a list of longer books to consider at the end too, and the blog he contributes to often discusses this kind of thing.) Don't expect every question to be answered exhaustively, but you will be pointed in the right direction. As often with Andrew, you may feel like you're being moved at breakneck pace through a museum exhibition or court case, with him turning round every so often to say, "So, do you see?"

He's writing mostly for Christians, and I'd suggest if you're not a Christian but you want to think about whether the Bible could be true, you'd do well to start with Andrew's own If God Then What? or Timothy Keller's The Reason for God, both of which think carefully about this. If you're a Christian with concerns about the Bible, I think you should read this book. You'll be encouraged by its clarity and coherence, and probably also by the fact that you can read it very quickly. And then you might be able to try the rather longer book it points to with a bit more confidence than before.

This week: Christmas stuff, smeared MPs, smeared Christianity


Edinburgh is in the festive spirit.

If you want images for your blog but can't produce your own, Michelle Shaeffer has listed 21 places you can go to get some for free.

Taking time to actually think about Christmas is encouraged by John Piper in a series of Advent readings, The Dawning of Indestructible Joy.

Why does Thierry Henry think he got so good at football?

Jason Byassee exlains why you can't be a follower of Jesus and not associate with "Christianity" and "the Church", however much you might want to.

Can anything good come from the word "submission"? Jennie Pollock thinks so.

The accusation that MPs only turn up to give themselves pay rises but never to debate what matters to the rest of us is given a debunking, of sorts, by Isabel Hardman.

You may not have heard about this, but there's a new Star Wars film coming out...


Week 47: overshare, free speech, incarnation, blogging, family



Last week were in Wiltshire, where there is a lot of past. This is a shot of The Ridgeway, a road that's been used for over 5,000 years.

Preachers who are easily tempted to overshare would do well to listen to Katelyn Beaty's concerns.

The fate of free speech in the west is considered by John O'Sullivan, who notes that "a public culture that used to be liberal is now 'progressive' - which is something like liberalism minus its commitment to freedom."

If you're wanting to get yourself in the mood for Christmas, and the John Lewis advert hasn't helped much, Peter Mead's book, Pleased to Dwell looks good.

Is the new Facebook going to be like old Facebook? Dieter Bohn reports on changes to Groups.

Gina Trapani heralds a return to blogging, with some liberating rules.

Finally, here's a video from the Vatican's colloquium on the family...

(Don't) Be Yourself

One of the smartest things you can do is learn how the culture you live in thinks, because you probably think in a very similar way. Charles Taylor has identified our time as "the age of authenticity", which sounds fine but in practice is self-destructive in its idolisation of the self. Here's a chunky quote from Taylor:

"I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority."

Trevin Wax explains what this means from a Christian perspective here. I come across this mindset all the time: reading the news and social media, dealing with young Christians, in my own advice when I'm not thinking carefully, and when we're choosing paint. It's everywhere, so be wise to it.

A Halloween Treat

Glen Scrivener poetically puts Halloween in its place...

Week 43: art, growing up, Christmas, conviction, slavery


We had a little visitor.

The late works of one of my favourite artists, Rembrandt, are celebrated by Simon Schama. (Available on BBC iPlayer until 15th November 2014).

Does anyone know how to be a grown-up any more? A.O. Scott thinks not.

The race for the first article to be written about this Christmas has been won by Peter Mead. He looks at what the arrival of God on earth means.

"The Holy Spirit doesn't condemn us, He convicts us," is a common phrase in my kind of Christian circles. Joshua Rogers disputes our choice of the word "convict".

Anne Jolis credits Christians past and present with doing the most to end slavery.

Week 42: Barca, boxer, politics real and imagined, teen tech




We went to Barcelona, it was brilliant.

Kevin Mitchell hears boxing great Manny Pacquiao describe how Jesus changed his life.

The difference between Hong Kong and mainland China - and why it should matter to Christians - is explained by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun.

If you love The West Wing (and if you don't, what's wrong with you?), then enjoy some nostalgia with James Dyer's definitive guide to the show.

Politics as we know it has to change, contends Chris Deerin.

I know at least one of every character in Richard Barrett's article, "19 Guys You Always See At Five-A-Side". (I'm kind of Number 18 but without the sense of a crushed dream)

I still don't really understand SnapChat, but Casey Neisat does a good job of explaining why millions of people love it...

Week 40: discipline, stupidity, violence, craziness


Autumn suddenly arrived.

David Brooks notes the importance of discipline in creativity.

James Fraser's life is worth studying if you're a Christian wanting to make a difference. Phil Moore draws out some lessons from it (parts 2, 3, 4, 5).

Kevin DeYoung thinks that reading the news makes us stupid.

If you're tired of Tyldsley and Townsend, and maddened by Motty and Mowbray, you'll agree with David Stubbs.

Is religion to blame for war? John Gray reviews Karen Armstrong's answer.

After last week's video of Scotland's beauty. Here's nutcase riding over some of it with a bike. Incredible...

Week 39: spit roast, solitary joy, hi-tech prayer, low-tech parenting



It's been a spectacularly busy time, including a wedding in Cornwall (check out the row of chickens on the spit roast).

How could twelve years of solitary confinement be joyful? If Jesus turned up. Simon Guillebaud relates how this happened to a former Prime Minister of Kenya.

Tim Challies credits the app PrayerMate with revitalising his prayer life.

And/Or for £1.12, you could read Michael Reeves' short and helpful book, Enjoying Your Prayer Life.

But beware too much technology: Nick Bilton reports on how Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent, as are many other in the industry.

Has the Scottish Referendum changed politics? Armando Iannucci hopes so.

Either way, it's still a rather beautiful place to live...



Yes or No, and More or Less


Firstly, the articles I think you should read instead of this one:

  • The Economist's editorial in support of the union.
  • AA Gill's cry for independence. (Behind a paywall, sorry.)
  • Mikey Macintosh's assessment of the campaigns and alternative vision for the future - the best thing I have read from a Christian perspective and deserving of any thoughtful Christian's time.
  • Phil Moore gives us a bit of history and three things to remember when praying for Scotland.


For my own thoughts – well, where to start with something as large as a nation’s destiny and as small as nationalism?

Much of what I’ve observed in this debate has frustrated me, as both sides have made poor arguments (Of course Scotland can exist by itself as a country - there are many much smaller and poorer which do. Of course Scotland cannot default on a shared burden of debt if it is ever to be taken seriously by the rest of the world and its bankers.) I think that the Yes campaign has often been deceitful, and Better Together has often missed the point by failing to explain what the union has been and can be in terms other than economics (Tom Holland does a good job of that).

What has troubled me most is the divisiveness that the independence campaign has been built upon. The referendum gives Scots the opportunity to define themselves by division (however anachronistic they might want to declare the union to be). It’s ironic, from this perspective, that Yes campaigners present Scotland as diminished and limited by the union when in fact the opposite has been true. It is to Better Together’s discredit that they haven't told this story more effectively: that so much of what is great about Scotland has been revealed in and by the union, what Scotland has given and what it has received. I fear for anyone - and any nation - who cannot see that they need others. Humility and interdependence are marks of wisdom and greatness, and they are usually rejected by nationalism.

On a personal level, independence for Scotland will force me to define myself incorrectly, should I need to describe my nationality. "British" will no longer be an answer. But like so many in these islands, I am a happy mongrel, my mixed blood hailing from Ireland, England, Scotland, Cornwall, and Lithuania. No single one of those terms is sufficient, whereas "British" contains a breadth of possibilities wider even than my needs. Not only does it have space for me, but there is room for many others whose stories are different to mine. This, again, is the price of division: Scotland's citizens will be able to reduce how they and those who live among them can be understood, they can cut themselves off from the peoples they have mixed so well with.

Among all this, and the much more that has been written and shouted, how does a Christian vote?

Prayerfully.

I don't think there's an argument that can be made one way or the other that is decisive for a Christian. I’ve heard someone suggest that the unity/diversity/equality of the Trinity is echoed by the union. A less persuasive case is that the scattering of the nations at Babel (Genesis 11:9) is best obeyed by the United Kingdom fracturing. Some Christians up here are suggesting that they could have more influence on Holyrood than Christians presently do at Westminster but I’m not convinced that this is would be the case, especially with the currently-unique growth of church size and influence in London.

Most importantly, as a Christian I am a foreigner wherever I live on the earth as it presently is. I may be about to feel that more acutely, but the Bible describes me as a “stranger and exile” (1 Peter 2:11) until Jesus returns, and instructs me that my “citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). My loyalty is not to any land or lord, but to the Jesus Christ the Lord of all, and He is where all my hope is too. Furthermore, He has instructed His follows to share the news of this great hope with everyone, so a passage from the Bible which closely links this command with day-to-day politics has been shaping my thinking and praying:

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-5)

So that’s what I hope for: whatever brings about this peace that benefits the advance of the gospel. I cannot know which option will, so I pray and vote with faith that God will work whatever happens to His advantage.

 

Week 36: fit footballers, racing children, bad news, good books, thinking advice


Students are returning to Edinburgh this week, so our fridge looks like this in anticipation of hosting a load of them for lunch on Sunday. Our cupboards are in a similar condition.

Are you fitter than a Premier League footballer? Probably not, but Mark Bailey has the tests you can do to find out for yourself.

Jen Pollock Michel issues a rallying cry to parents to stop their children from thinking that life is a race.

I know I posted a response to Richard Dawkins' asinine comments about Downs' Syndrome last week, but Simon Barnes is a wonderful writer, and his payoff line deserves a mention: "It’s a shame that Dawkins wasted his title The God Delusion for his fundamentalist tract. He should have saved it for his autobiography."

Is reading the news bad for you? Rolf Dobelli explains why it could be. Better to stick to blogs, eh?

But seriously, read more books. Justin Taylor is compiling a list of "novels every Christian should consider reading."

It's careful titles like the one above which give pedantry a bad name, but we really do need to think more carefully and react even more slowly, as Andrew Wilson argues.

On similar lines, David Brooks lists the virtues needed to be a good thinker.

And here are the things Christians say, according to Tripp and Tyler. I like to think I'm in the lower 25% of these, praise be...