Unfinished books: 2017 edition

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This year, I set the goal of reading at least fifty books. I didn’t have a set list, just an ever-growing “to read” pile, foolish optimism and a bit of wildness about the eye. I made some headway, but in my reading, there were a few books I started but just couldn’t finish, not even if it put me one desperate book closer to magical number fifty.

It’s not to say these books weren’t good, but for whatever reason, they just didn’t appeal. I may try them again at some point, but at present, they’ve been relegated to the reject list (and I’m sure these authors are quaking in their boots at the thought of being in some random blogger’s bad graces, but they must carry on as best they can!)

In no particular order…

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Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

According to my tablet, I got 34% through this one. A rec from a favourite Christian podcast of mine, I stocked up on a few Richard Rohr books thinking I’d be able to relate. And while Falling Upward has a great premise, the book and I just never hit it off. It didn’t help that Rohr kept throwing shade at “young people nowadays”, which is just presumptuous.

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Black, Ted Dekker

Ted Dekker is sort of the Stephen King of Christian fantasy fiction, so I set into the first in the Circle series, Black, with some enthusiasm. Now, I consider myself a fairly die-hard fantasy/horror fan, but Black crept me the hell out. Worse, the parts that freaked me out weren’t supposed to! I didn’t get very far with this one before I gave it up.

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History of a Pleasure Seeker, Richard Mason

An irreverent and somewhat sexy read (think The Talented Mr Ripley meets Downton Abbey, but set in the Netherlands), the chief characters soon lose their appeal, and after that, the novel feels self-conscious and pretentious. I’m aware that this may have been intentional given the protagonist, but still.

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Look: A practical guide for improving your observation skills, James H. Gilmore

My tablet suggests I got all of 11% into this one. I wasn’t expecting it to turn me into Sherlock Holmes, but the theory was so boring I stopped reading it before it could even try!

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The Art of Intuition, Sophy Burnham

It’s a very finger-wavy book. Contrary to popular belief, the existence of what we call intuition is closer to scientific fact than to anything esoteric, but don’t tell this book that: it wades right into spiritual topics, and that’s fine, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.

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The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

I’ll finish this book one day, but today (or this week, or month, or year) isn’t it. It’s a good book and it delivers keen insights into the topic at hand and the men discussing it, although it’s been so sanitised you can practically eat off of it. Hardly a page-turner, however.

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The Dictator’s Handbook: Why bad behaviour is almost always good politics, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Another good, but kind of dull, book, it offers fascinating insights into the nature of politics. This is the academically toned down version of the authors’ work, but I think it’ll take another level of dumbing down to make it as absorbing a read as it is an intriguing one.

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Fallen, Lauren Kate

Lest it be said I scorn only intellectual books… I’ve written before about my ambiguous relationship with YA fiction. Well, when the movie adaptation for Fallen came out, I set to reading it, thinking I wanted to finish the novel before I see the film. Now I doubt I’ll ever even watch the movie. The book is just plain badly written, dragging its feet across the dull flagstones of its story world. I should probably be intrigued by the Mysterious and Rude Boy, but Edward Cullen has saturated my tolerance for that business. Hard pass.

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Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer

Reading the blurb for this sci-fi novel, it ticked a lot of boxes, not least of which is the fact that the author is a woman. The premise is interesting and I don’t hate its execution, but after a few chapters, the weight of the story world just begins to sag down on all the beguiling characters and the decent plot.

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The Upside Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill

Another good book that fell to my book version of ADD, Kraybill’s The Upside Down Kingdom takes a thorough and enlightening look at the social, economic and political nature of Jesus’ Kingdom message. This really is a good book, and one I’ll endeavour to finish, but I doubt it’ll make 2017’s “read” pile.

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Identity-Driven Churches, Malan Nel

I heard Nel speak at a church event and loved him. He’s a very clever man and his book, Identity-Driven Churches, is full of timely insight into the post-Christian decline of churches. All that said, I could not get more than a few chapters into this book, my best intentions despite. Part of the problem is that because he knows so much, even the simplest statement of his is buried in footnotes and more information. It isn’t a book so much as a roadmap to knowledge, of which his book forms only one link in the chain.

A good book, but hard to read. It’ll remain on my “try again” pile, if only for my consternated ego’s sake!

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Pad Na Gebed, Jorg Zink (The Way to Prayer)

I found this little book in a secondhand bookshop, and while I love it in theory, in practice I never read much farther than its mid-point. A collection of prayers and devotional writing with tender insights into the human condition, it’ll stay on my shelf, probably perpetually unfinished but comforting in its presence.

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The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

As a hack writer, I feel guilty about this one purely because Roy’s writing is so beautiful: every sentence is like opening a present of literary merit. That’s part of the problem, though: if you’re not in the right mood, the novel becomes a slog rather than a wondrous journey, and all the flowery language in the world won’t make you identify with characters who don’t give you much reason to.


What didn’t you read this year, and why?

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Book review: The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw

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It’s not often that an author can say the very agency they decry in their book helped rocket it past its initial print run of 20 000 copies. But that’s exactly what South Africa’s State Security Agency did when they served Jacques Pauw and his publishers with a cease and desist notice for sharing “sensitive information” about the state. Pauw’s book, launched at the start of November, was suddenly all anyone could talk about. The print copies quickly sold out at some of South Africa’s biggest booksellers, and the ebook version climbed to number 15 on Amazon’s international charts. A pirated pdf version of the book spread like wildfire across WhatsApp and other social media sites, ensuring that many South Africans previously uninterested in the book read it.

To his credit, Pauw’s book is absolutely worth all the fuss. Pauw is a retired journalist for whom the temptation of a story about the people keeping the hopelessly corrupt South African president Jacob Zuma in power proved too tempting. He chronicles the way Zuma and his henchmen gutted and crippled South African state organs, like the State Security Agency (SSA) and the South African Revenue Service (SARS). The extent of the rot is staggering, and the lengths to which Zuma and his cronies went to keep themselves paid and in power is astounding.

Despite its contents, the book was a pleasure to read. Pauw writes knowledgeably and knows how to keep his reader interested. The sheer amount of information the book conveys would have been off-putting in someone else’s hands, but Pauw handles it well. It’s a page-turner.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The President’s Keepers
Author: Jacques Pauw
Publisher: Tafelberg (2017).
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.67/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s a compelling, well-researched read.
The worst feature of the book: Some of Pauw’s “old guard” shines through at times.
Trigger warnings: Nothing that I’m aware of.
You’ll like this if… You like nonfiction or political exposes.

Book review: Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel

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Chances are that if you’re of the Protestant persuasion you’ve come across Alpha. Alpha is a course refined by attorney turned pastor Nicky Gumbel as an introduction to the basics of Christian faith. It’s presented through weekly workshops structured around small groups, Bible study and video lectures.

I’ve never attended Alpha myself so when I got a chance to read Gumbel’s primer on it I thought why not? It’s a dense, inexpensive book, aimed at those already considering or involved in Christianity rather than trying to win over unbelievers. As far as introductions go it does a good job: it covers all the basics, though inevitably some people will take issue with its slightly charismatic slant. Gumbel’s train of thought is easy to follow and he refers back to Scripture often. The book is peppered with his own experiences as he went from atheist to believer, which lends it some credence.

Altogether it’s a solid book. What it lacks in depth it more than compensates for with practicality, and I suspect this has more to do with the book’s target audience than Gumbel’s writing ability or own depth of faith. It’s a great book to be able to give to seeking friends or family members, and one I’m more than a little sad I didn’t have access to myself when I first found Christ. This is not to say that it doesn’t offer something to people who’ve been Christians for a while. Gumbel was the first Christian who convinced me to give “speaking in tongues” a shot, so I really can say that taking a “refresher course” was beneficial for me and my faith.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Questions of Life
Author: Nicky Gumbel
Publisher: Kingsway Communication Ltd (1993).
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.92/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s down to earth and practical.
The worst feature of the book: It’s a little dense at times.
Trigger warnings: None.
You’ll like this if… If you’re considering going to church, have questions about the Christian faith, if you’re a total newbie to the Christian faith or want to get in touch with your Christian roots.

There’s no wrong way to be a lizard in the sun

 

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I love November. It’s the summer month par excellence for me. Early mornings, days stretching to their apogee, their afternoons often swallowed up by thunderstorms and rain that beats the smell of ozone from the earth. November is full of the dance of some old thing we’ve mostly lost to the advent of 24-hour living. Novembers are simply magical.

November isn’t hugely productive as a rule. Combined with the mischievous wink of summer and sun and the approach of Christmas (tacky, seasonally inappropriate decorations seemed to go up at the stroke of midnight on the 31st of October) and the beckon of the schools closing for the year, November is about as circumspect as a toddler presented with a bowl of candy. It’s an odd time to be thinking about the Advent season and the new year, when so many things seem to be telling you to stop thinking, to turn your face to the sun and the season and to just breathe it all in.

I wonder whether God isn’t asking the same thing with prayer. Glancing through my prayer list, much of it is busywork: me trying to press my case or impose my will (masquerading as God’s will of course) or otherwise labouring at my idea of what a faithful life looks like. Sometimes that labour is necessary – if I didn’t go against my natural urges, how often would I get up early on a Sunday morning to go to church, for instance – but maybe like the month of November, sometimes prayer isn’t a job to do or an item to tick off or a solemn request to make, but a turning to the “sun” of God in our lives.

For the last few weeks, whenever I go outside it’s to a scatter of small lizards streaking in all directions, startled by my appearance. If basking in the sun were a religious practice, lizards out-holy us all. They go to the sun with nothing but the need to be warmed, and nothing but the expectation that they will be warmed. There’s no wrong way to be a lizard in the sun, other than not seeking the sun, of course. There’s no wrong way to seek God, other than not seeking him.

Work and necessity will play tug-o’-war with November for our heart. Even Advent will push its own agenda. But I think the month of November is itself a kind of prayer. All the while, whatever the season, God is there, trying to lure us from the shadows of tradition and busywork and our own limitations into the warm sun of his light, love, grace and mercy; back into relationship with him, friendship with him, communion with him.

Sometimes that communion is bread and wine in a church building. Sometimes it’s the rustle of Bible pages at the end of a long day. Sometimes it’s a hurried, muttered prayer in the mornings. But sometimes, other times, it’s a shady, grassy spot under a big tree with the wind whispering through the leaves.

Looking Lectionary: Proper 27A/Ordinary 32A/Pentecost +23

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A look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.


Reading: Matthew 25:1-13

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ Matthew 25:9 NIV

“There may not be enough.” We usually read this parable as an indictment of the unprepared virgins. They had more than enough time; they knew the Bridegroom was on his way; and as they hurried off to buy more oil, we see a lack of resources wasn’t to blame for their situation, merely unpreparedness. But Jesus loved telling stories inside of stories, and I think we find a deeper, more complex message here than “just” “you know the day and the hour”. This parable isn’t just about the five unprepared maidens, but about the five “prepared” ones too.

In the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, I was “friended” to a popular prophetic account on Facebook. I’d say that 95% of the people on that page were pro-Trump, and one of the reasons they gave was that Trump would be God’s “trumpet” – that he’d herald the beginning of the end, bring on the glory of the Lord and the final judgment. Quite a few of these people seemed to understand that Trump would be a terrible president, but – to their way of thinking – that would only hark on the end of the world all the more quickly.

I’ve never understood this obsession Christians have with the end times. Some people are literally excited that Jesus is coming to judge and cast all unbelievers into fiery damnation. This has got to be the epitome of insider mentality. I mean, whose fault is it that so many people are unsaved? We love to lay all the blame at the door of unbelievers. “We brought enough oil,” we say. But would we still be so excited about the day and the hour if we admitted our culpability in the decline of the Christian religion? If we faced the fact that people leaving the faith or not wanting to join in the first place isn’t God’s fault, or their fault, but ours?

We’re such schmucks, Christians. You just have to cast an eye over the news to see the often viral evidence of our failings, not just as Christians, but as human beings. In the parable of the ten virgins, can we really say that the five “prepared” maidens acted in a Christ-like way? If our salvation is secured (and it is, when we believe); if we are new creations in Christ (which we are, whether it feels like it or not); if we are living in a state of grace, mercy and love (check, check and check) just what are we so afraid of losing if others, lost as we ourselves once were (and often still are) get to experience the saving grace that we do? Why so afraid, Christians?

I do believe that the day and hour will come. I don’t look forward to it, because – graced as I am – I know I’m guilty of others’ loss. But maybe if I’m more willing to share my most undeserved “oil” with others (by giving them the benefit of grace, for instance), on some day, at some moment, someone will share their undeserved “oil” with me in turn, and we can go into the Feast together.