Personal Jesus: The Dangers Of A Systematic Faith

“What’s the worst thing about this college?”.

This was a question I asked at each of the three theological colleges which I was considering for my three years of study prior to being ordained in the Church of England. One particular college, the third of the three, was the one I would almost certainly attend. This wasn’t because it was my natural favourite (it wasn’t), but because it would enable me to be near my fiancée and her family as we prepared for marriage, whilst supporting her mother who was suffering from what proved to be terminal cancer. Everyone I met on the day I spent there was lovely. Especially the students. Most of them. Some of them were a tad on the over-zealous side. They were loudly talking up the benefits of the college whilst we played table-tennis. After the game concluded, I found myself in a group of (all men – not a surprise, all the would be priests here were men), continuing the conversation. As we talked, needlessly loudly given we were within a few feet of each other, I realised I was being quite literally backed into a physical corner; this probably wasn’t deliberate on the part of the students, but it felt like an apt representation of the hard-sell I received. As I found myself with nowhere left to go, I asked that question – I had a very good idea by now what the college’s perceived strong points were. I wanted to know what was wrong with it. A moment of silence: “I suppose it can be a bit intense occasionally.”, came the reply. No kidding.

I ended up studying there, mainly for the practical reasons I mentioned. I made some good friends, enjoyed some of the study because I like study and reading, and harbour a few (very few) good memories; but yes, it was intense. Theologically most of what was promoted  – by many staff and the most vocal students – was of one particular system. The system was Calvinism, most specifically what’s known as 5-point Calvinism. Now theology has exercised some of humanity’s greatest minds over the last 2,000 or so years, so it’s impossible to do justice to such an intellectually complex system as Calvinism in a few sentences. Suffice to say it covers issues like the free-will of humans to respond to God’s (irresistable) grace, and suggests (depending on quite where on a spectrum you sit), that God has chosen before time who will be saved and who won’t be. When I expressed to someone at college that I didn’t agree with these ideas I was, told that to believe otherwise was “sub-Christian”. Not everyone went that far, of course, but the message was clear; there was only one theological system to which we should adhere.

 

book cover 2

That all came back to my mind when I was reading Austin Fischer’s book “Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed“. I don’t know much about the author, but the book stood out from the crowd as conservative reformed (in this case meaning Calvinist) theology has become a louder, richer and well-publicised force in some more westernised countries. It’s a short book – 136 pages – so I wasn’t expecting much heavy theology. I was expecting a narrative reflection on the author’s experience. I did get the latter, but it surprised me how much of the former I also got, given the book’s brevity. The author describes his own experience of growing up and being trained in Calvinist/Reformed theology, and then his gradual departing from it towards something rather different. He uses logic, reason, personal and pastoral experience, the Bible and theology to do this; and he does it accessibly.

He doesn’t pretend at any point in this book that what he’s saying is the whole story. He doesn’t dismiss Calvinism (though reading some online reviews, some feel he does). True, the version he was taught is very extreme; but the issue is that many people do actually take this theology to those extremes. He is also at pains to point out that he remains grateful for what Calvinism has given him, can see why some interpret Scripture in this way and lauds the intellectual integrity of those fully committed to it. The theological landing place he finds himself in is one he feels works, but he is clear it is not the finished article, and suggests that there should be no theological worldview that is complete and unassailable. God is other and holy; infinite and ineffable; and many other things besides. To suggest we can describe him fully would be folly; humility, says Fischer, should be the theologian’s and disciple’s ultimate posture. The God revealed to us in Jesus that the author paints for us is a loving, intoxicating and attractive one. I think I agree with Fischer more than I disagree with him.

There’s the rub. Increasingly there is no one theological system I can call my own. The other day I was trying to articulate this and said I might be ‘theologically homeless’. I wondered if that might be somewhat tactless; but then a friend pointed out that maybe it was apt – accepting nourishment and provision wherever I find it. Not a perfect image, but a striking one; and one I suspect many of my homeless friends might resonate with. This doesn’t mean I don’t have fixed points – Jesus’ divinity, the resurrection, historic creeds. But these describe rather than systematise; they give parameters within which to explore. These parameters, it turns out, are surprisingly spacious, far more so than the suffocating control I found Calvinism to be (and which other people experience of other closed theological systems). Yes, I have certainties; but there’s much I don’t know. It’s a city the streets of which I’m still walking; alleys, byways and major roads which I’m still discovering; working out where the refreshing parks and coffee shops are. Is it pushing it too far to state here that Jesus said he that had nowhere to lay his head? Maybe; but the most pure revelation of God humanity has received is a person, who for three years roamed from place to place, doing what he sensed God was guiding him to do. That’s not so much a system as it is a discovery of a map, a city, a region.

If you have a theological system to defend you always have to be on the look out. You sense someone probing away at one part of is, so you have to scramble to keep it intact. If one part disappears, the whole will go with it. Such a system may look attractive, and appear safe and secure, but as soon as you find one part doesn’t work, then it all comes crashing down. For me, as for so many others, that collapse can come around God’s ‘control’ or sovereignty or whatever you want to call it. Extreme Calvinists – who take it to its logical conclusions – decide that God is in control of everything. We sort of have free will; but nothing happens to which God doesn’t say yes. And still he remains perfectly good.

Rachel

Rachel Held Evans

Many believe this with confidence and integrity; I never have. A few days ago the hugely influential Christian writer Rachel Held Evans died, painfully young, of a sudden illness, leaving behind a husband and young children. Her writing nourished many  – including me – and painted a way back to a Jesus-centred faith that many who had given up on it all could embrace. She grew up in a theological environment similar to Fischer’s, and ended up in landing place that may be a little different to his, but also has many overlaps. In the wake of her death, many are mourning. Some of my more Calvinist friends, whilst sincerely lamenting the sadness of this loss, stated her final blog post on the subject of death and loss on Ash Wednesday showed ‘God was in control’.

I admire them, but wonder if that could be said to her family. I shudder at the idea that some may say God was in the control of the terrorist’s bullet which killed my friend in Nairobi one day. I think I couldn’t worship such a God. Rachel Held Evans, Austin Fischer, and others like them provide for me and many others a picture of a Jesus-like God whom I find mysterious and other and holy and majestic; yet still truthful, kind, good and impossible to systematise or fill in all the blanks of, at least this side of the new creation. Humans aren’t made in the image of a system; we’re made in the image of a God of three persons, all in perfect relationship, all-loving, all-good. I don’t need a system to draw close to that God – much as many seem to think I do. After all, when Jesus died, a curtain that preserved a system was torn in two.

No. I don’t think that I need a system. I need a person, one whom I can know even as I am known.

Everything Happens, but not ‘for a reason’

It’s possible to fill a book (and a few people have done so) with lists of things Jesus did say. Some of them are quoted so often by well-meaning Christians that they attain some kind of untouchable status. The one I’ve heard the most is ‘Everything happens for a reason’. It’s been quoted to me when I’ve been ill or sad or having a tough time; I’ve heard people who are ill or sad or having a tough time say it back to me. It’s helped me get through, they say. The idea seems to be that even if things are awful, God has secret plan for this and we’ll find out in due course.

I don’t believe that, and never have. I believe something rather different that can sound rather similar if it’s not spoken to or listened to carefully. It runs like this: God doesn’t make or cause bad, painful things to happen to us. But so good and creative is he that he’s able to recreate even what seems lost to make something better out of it. I don’t know if it’s right, but it makes sense to me.

Everything Happens

I also don’t know if Kate Bowler, the author of this book, believes that. She’s a Canadian theologian and church historian living and working in America, who has stage four cancer. As someone who has researched and written a lot about the prosperity gospel movement (the idea that God wants Christians to be happy, healthy, and wise and we can be if we just ask the right way), the idea that ‘Everything Happens For A Reason’ is something she was well used to hearing, along with several other sub-Christian truisms that just don’t work when things go wrong. Hence on the logo of the excellent podcast she hosts, the last 3 words of the main part of the title are crossed out. So it simply reads thus: ‘Everything Happens’.

Jesus didn’t promise health, wealth, success or even happiness. He asks us to take up a cross and expect to suffer. I’m writing this in Holy Week, so Jesus’ cross is even more at the forefront of my mind than ever. This books is an account of Kate Bowler’s journey with diagnosis and illness, processing the different responses she hears herself and others giving to the situation. It’s short, easy to read, and painfully, beautifully honest. You might say it’s the story of a woman taking up her own cross, and just how bloody hard that can be to do – and for those who love the one carrying it to watch.

I’ve been in pain for 20 years (Ankylosing Spondylitis), and there’s no prospect of that changing. I have depression, anxiety and PTSD. I have 2 learning disabilities. Having scoured the Bible, listened to countless talks, read a lot, prayed some, listened and been spoken at, cried a lot, considered suicide a few times and much else besides not least working as a priest for 18 years … I too have concluded that everything can and does happen to Jesus-disciple and the rest alike. The rain, cancer, depression, Ankylosing Spondylitis and mental health issues and everything else all fall on the just and the unjust alike. They don’t bother to check what you believe before invading your life; there’s rarely a reason apparent; and it’s often hard to see what beautiful something God may bring out of it. I trust that God will do that, but I may be wrong. I do know, though, that even if I am wrong God is still good, and He’s still with me and not letting me go. So when everything happens to me, as it does to Kate Bowler, and is it does to all of us, I am not alone. I am seen and accompanied and heard and held. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much in the meantime.

This books offers no answers; but it gives us a story we can find ourselves in. Which is why we all need this book, an inoculation against the seemingly appealing lies of finding a reason when there may be none to find.

When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend: Reflections On Life And Ministry With Depression

Testimonies can be powerful, which is why they are something of a Christian ‘thing’. Especially amongst we who call ourselves (charismatic) evangelicals. You know the sort of thing – in a worship service or conference, a person will tell his or her story about dramatic change in their their life, attributed to God in some way. These are true and genuine – be they physical healing, emotional healing, general life change as a result of an encounter with God, or the like. There’s good reason to find these helpful – they remind us that God is living and active and able to actually do stuff here and now; that prayers get answered and change is possible. There is a caveat; like a diet that entirely consists of steak (only for example, nothing against steak), it’s good for a few meals, but if that’s all we eat we’re going to get into trouble. I mean to say this: that if the only stories we tell are stories of total transformation, healing, overcoming and victory then we’re only telling part of the truth. I’m not suggesting for a minute that these testimonies are untrue; it’s just that they’re not the whole truth.

This applies in any area of ministry and life in general; healing ministry, social justice, finances. It could be anything. We need to tell other stories alongside the stories of victory and change. As is often the case, a self-confessed addict can be helpful here; he will speak of himself (if he’s wise) as ‘a recovering addict’, not ‘a recovered one’. Healing and freedom for the recovering addict is a daily, ongoing, repeated journey. We all need to tell stories like this – of the processes and journeys, the struggles and failures and repeat visits in our lives. I come to this as a minister and church leader; there is a pressure and expectation to be strong; to be healed and from my own healing to heal others. Don’t have needs, I’m subtly told – or if I do, don’t express them. It’s been fed back to me on previous occasions that I must never respond to a congregant who asks the ‘How are you?’ question with anything less positive than ‘Ok’ or ‘fine’ so that people won’t be put off from telling me their stuff.

My therapist, who’s not a Christian, helped me see the absurdity of this. Is the leader really expected to have no wounds or problems? People know I sin, right? The thing is, I never have a day where I’m OK or fine; I have Ankylosing Spondylitis, which means that every single day for over 20 years I have had pain of a minimum of 3 out of 10 on the pain scale, along with other symptoms. I also live with ADD, chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD, dysgraphia and dyspraxia. I am never OK; essentially in being asked to say I’m OK when I never am is asking a minster to lie about how they’re doing in order to make things easier for the person they’re speaking to. We all know lying is sinful; so this represents a request to your minister to knowingly sin to make it easier on you.

Nonsense. Understandable nonsense, but nonsense all the same. Not being OK doesn’t mean I can’t hear your stuff; in fact (unless it’s a really bad day, which means I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed to see you in anyway), for the Christian my wounds and pain make me more able to understand your wounds; we are, after all, healed by, not in spite of, Christ’s wounds (as well as His perfection; His perfection means that your minister as well as you don’t have to be perfect). It’s what priest and author Henri Nouwen and others have called the ministry of the wounded healer.

 

black and white dark girl eye

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

All of this is a very long way round to talk about Mark Meynell’s book ‘When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend’. He’s a relatively conservative theologian and minister from England, who for a long time now has lived with depression and PTSD. This book is his story; it’s subtitled ‘Reflections on Life and Ministry with Depression’. The Christian, and especially the evangelical, conversation about mental health has improved a great deal recently, but there is still a way to go. This book will be an important part of that, as much because of what it doesn’t do as well as because of what it does do. It tells the author’s own story, offering Biblical reflections along the way; it offers hints and tips and suggestions – but never solutions. It doesn’t suggest his experience is universal; quite the opposite. The author is wise enough to let his specific story be his and his alone – and to allow us to through that understand our own stories; to see where they connect and diverge from his. It’s not the story of victory; it’s the story of a still-ongoing night long wrestle with a being who may be an angel or may not – but God is there; it’s just that it’s hard to see in the dark cave of mental health pain (to use the author’s own image of the cave). When you’re in the cave you can’t tell if it’s night or day outside; let alone if the one you’re wrestling happens to be God. The author attaches no guilt to that; he simply gives some idea of what has helped him. Some sense of direction of where to look, which way to turn to find the light.

Mark Meynell is also a good theologian, with a teacher’s gift for making complex ideas accessible without ever simplifying them. His use of the Bible is nourishing, well-thought through and personal. His use of one psalm in particular bought me up short, in all the best and most healing ways. I rather think I share with him some taste in music (and films?); I reckon he’d be fascinating company over a beer.

This book will be a friend to many church leaders like me; it will be a challenge to many church members. Over the 8 plus years I’ve been at my current church, my congregation have grown more accustomed to my weaknesses and inadequacies; sometimes that has infuriated some people (including me); sometimes some of us have found it healing. That doesn’t mean I can’t be better or wiser at this, or that I don’t have anything to learn; it’s just that weakness seems to be something God works through, rather than in spite of. (That’s actually in the Bible, it turns out). As the prophet Michael Smith sang: “Wear your scars like medals”.

Will we tell better stories, then? As leaders, will we tell the stories of our struggles and pains? Will be OK with not being OK – and saying that; and through that allowing healing to come? Or will we play to the image of alpha male strength, people-pleasing by never walking with a limp despite the excruciating pain? Of course, if we try to not limp when the pain is too much, eventually we won’t be able to walk any more; and then people really will get hurt. But that doesn’t stop us defaulting to the presentation of health; to presenting the image of being the sort of fine that people think they need in us.

We’re not made to be idols of shiny OK-ness for the sake of the ease of conscience of people in our communities. We’re made to be fellow disciples; perhaps with a sense of where we’re going, trained and gifted and set aside to help point out some things that others may miss. Those things include our own inadequacies; as much for our own good as for the good of those we lead, let’s let go of pretence about ourselves towards God and others. It’s OK for a leader not to be OK, and to say that. Mark Meynell’s book will be a significant companion on that journey for church leaders and members alike.

Losing Home, And Finding It

Bereavement is a journey for which there are no road maps. Many of us are familiar with the stages of grief that many researchers and therapists talk about – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance; DABDA. Many now accept that this isn’t a linear, one way journey; it’s more of a description of the various places we can pinball back and forth amongst, often with alarming suddenness and speed as we continue to live with the reality of the death of people we love.

My father died on the 9th August this year, leaving me without parents. His death wasn’t unexpected, but the final descent was somewhat abrupt. Even so, I was by and large prepared for his death. Living a hemisphere away from him and facing various challenges of my own that made it difficult to travel, I had reconciled to myself some time ago the possibility – even likelihood – that I may not see him again before he died. The funeral date took some organising; my sister also lives abroad from our birth-town of Edinburgh, so we had to co-ordinate around our various family commitments. Still, arrangements were made, and we eventually made it to our Air BnB a short drive from where we were lived as children.

It was a precious, sweet time – not without busyness and tears, of course; but there was less busyness than others at this stage of life have, thanks to my Dad’s lawyers being professional, personal and efficient (a pleasing combination of traits). There was a lot we didn’t have to do. The funeral came on a cool, crisp later-summer Edinburgh Saturday; the sort of day when the city shows off both its natural and architectural beauty with a kind of proud swagger that’s irresistible to tourist (this was the end of Edinburgh Festival season) and inhabitant alike. It was a lovely, moving, memorable day.

The day after, Sunday, my sister and I returned to the church where the funeral was held – the same one we had been bought up attending, and with which I still have links with. I spoke in the service about our work in Cape Town. We chatted to old friends; in the afternoon I relaxed and watched movies.

On the Monday morning we had an appointment with the lawyers to talk about Dad’s estate. It was straightforward, and there were no nasty surprises. I left my sister to her own devices in order to amble, via shops, to meet a friend for a film and lunch; I felt OK, but something unidentifiable nagged. It was only after I made my way back to the flat from meeting my friend that I realised – via a WhatsApp message from my wife – why I was beginning to struggle in unidentified ways. I was losing my sense of home. I suddenly realised that a place I had always come back to at some point was no longer a one where the familiarity of family, home and roots would exist. I didn’t know when I would be back. I walked slowly, the colours and sounds of the city amplified to remind me that I didn’t know when I’d see them again.

person giving keys on man

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

 

A couple of days later and I was back in Cape Town, back with my wife and kids, and back into the swing of work and life. But an alarming sense of rootlessness remained. I realised I’d moved around so many times  – I calculated that at the age of 45 I’d moved house 15 times and countries once. My wife had moved rather less – until we moved to Cape Town, she’d never lived outside the M25 circular road that attempts to keep London in its place. I was beginning to question where my home was; not that I was unhappy in either my family life or my working-life (I’m not, to be clear). It was a sense, growing and laden with grief, that I didn’t belong anywhere. I’m reminded, for example, at least once a week, often in as many words, by a local that the reason I do/say/wear something is because I’m a foreigner. My foster children are fluent in languages I barely understand. And so on.

I expressed this on social media, and a friend both affirmed this as a real sense of loss (as my therapist had also done), and recommended a book called Home by Jo Swinney. The author is married to a minister, and has moved homes and countries more than me. If ever there was a book designed for me, in this moment, then this seemed to be it. I bought it and started almost instantaneously.

As I read, much resonated and rang true and appeared to be helpful. But something wasn’t quite hitting home. Something felt like it wasn’t working for me or providing the answers I sought. I didn’t think it was a fault in the book – though obviously there were places where differences in our contexts and experiences meant I couldn’t quite connect with the details of what she was saying. Maybe it was a fault in me? I didn’t think so. I was open to new thinking; it just wasn’t quite landing.

It was only in the last couple of chapters that it clicked. I had thought she was providing a series of different ways we find home – church, family, place … and so on, inviting us to find the one that works for us. I had done her a disservice. She was erecting a home, layer upon layer. It needed its final floor to be a complete home. The final floor, the part that finally made sense of it all, was the need to find home in what we do. That’s complex for a minister – everything can seem so temporary, at the whim of a Bishop or God. I have no plans to move anywhere, but Cape Town still seems foreign and I have always seemed to feel slightly out of place everywhere I go, even before moving countrie. The book helped me see that I needed to add, or emphasise more, activities in my life that are not work (in the sense that it’s what I’m paid to do), but that give me life and joy, and where I’m using what gifts God has placed in me in ways that are fulfilling. Writing – this blog – is that thing for me (in a similar way to how writing is for Jo Swinney as expressed at the end of her book).

I don’t know quite what that means or how it looks in reality. I process thoughts and feelings best by writing; having written, I find I can (if necessary) speak about it. This blog really serves a large part of that purpose for me, allowing me to work out what I think about various things in a way I enjoy; the enjoyment or help it may bring others really is secondary in that sense. But I find that in this new era of my life I need to give myself permission to do this – and that may well mean a few changes over the next while to how I use this platform.

I lost my father, my second parent. Clearly that’s sad, and there’s grief associated with that. But it’s the rootlessness that is leading me to a new, intangible place (not a move of location, but a move of mental roots). It’s often repeated that the world is smaller than it used to be, populations increasingly mobile; immigration may be the big political issue of the day. As that continues, we may find the experience I’m describing here reflected and refracted in many different ways and different contexts. We – especially those of us in the church, who seek to point people to an eternal home – need help to rethink what we mean by home and help those we encounter to do so with us. Jo Swinney’s book may be the first resource to help us do that.

Church: there and back again

Recommending a book is a tricky business. No more so than when it comes to Christian books – especially the ones aimed at a more popular market. Recommend something and there can often be the assumption that the recommendation also means endorsement and agreement. That always seems to me to be a lazy approach to anything, let alone something so personal as a book; but there we have it. Algorithms increasingly tell us what we should read, watch, listen to next based on what we’ve liked before, and we expect people to do the same – so we get funnelled deeper into an echo chamber we may not have been aware we were making.

I value Rachel Held Evans. I don’t always agree with her; sometimes her writing on blogs or in books annoys or angers me. Which is all the more reason I need to listen to voices like hers. She is one of those who voices what many who love Jesus increasingly feel and experience. As such, whether I agree with her or not is in many senses irrelevant. I need to hear her, and through her hear those who feel she speaks for them. Her last book, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, has been for me a key plank in establishing my own feminism. Her new book, Searching For Sunday, has challenged and enriched me deeply. Through a series of reflections around each of the Orthodox church’s sacraments, she tells her story of struggling with doubt; of leaving, trying to remake, and eventually reconnecting with church. Sometimes people who write or speak on these subjects put people like me (church leaders) on the back foot; we’re made to feel guilty, failures. It’s our fault, you see. Sometimes it is, of course, but such blame shifting doesn’t open dialogue or encourage learning. Searching For Sunday I found to be rather different. It was truthful, open, compassionate, humble. It spoke as much for the experience and concerns of someone in my role as it does for the skeptical and occasional pew-sitter.

It eschews easy judgements and blanket assertions; the book – and the author – is both vulnerable, but confident in her own incompleteness. It’s also her best piece of writing – some of the metaphors and imagery are startling or refreshing; I especially appreciated how the conscious use of voices, stories and metaphors associated with women opened up different perspectives.

It seems so reductive to ask myself if I agreed with everything she said. I don’t know how to answer that, or quantify it. I needed the book, and continue to need it. It speaks to me, and for me. It challenges me and refreshes me and encourages me and heals me. It sheds fresh light and depth on aspects of both my life as a disciple of Jesus and as one tasked with public ordained ministry, performing some of the sacraments on which she touches in the book.

It’s neither the first, nor the last, word on any of the issues it raises. It’s not trying to be either of those things. It’s more than that – it’s a beautiful, touching, and eloquent chapter in the story.

 I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads

Stuff Of The Year 2014, 2: Books

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014.  This post’s about the books I’ve read in 2014 that have most improved the year. They’re in the order I finished reading them, if you’re interested, ending with the most recent. The year in brackets is the year of publishing.

Stillness and Speed: My Story by Dennis Bergkamp and David Winner (2013)

A great sports book, that transcends its subject. Thematic rather than strictly chronological, this is the anatomy of genius; it does justice to one of the greatest exponents on his art and it’s hard to imagine a genuine football fan or anyone interested in what goes into making greatness not enjoying this. (Click here for a longer post on the book)

Tresspass by Rose Tremain (2010)

An elegantly written, finely tuned novel by way of Ian McEwen, this exerts a vice like grip on the attention and never fails to develop its big themes of family, expats and greed. Rose Tremain at her understated and gripping best.

The Circle by Dave Eggars (2013)

Contemporary literary fiction of the most urgent, relevant kind; a convincing portrait of a near-future nightmare at the hands of omnipresent corporations and social media; never less than accessible or fun, too. (Click here for a longer post on the book)

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You by Jon McGregor (2012)

One of my favourite writers, McGregor is the great painter of contemporary urban Britain, spinning beauty out of the mundane and everyday. This is a collection of short stories, poems and bits and pieces around the broad theme the lenses we view life through and how they shift over time. Sometimes accessible, sometimes odd; always brilliant.

How God Became King by N T Wright (2012)

NT Wright is the era’s defining theologian, and this is one of his more popular level works, aiming to make his take on the Gospels accessible to the everyday reader. It’s pretty much essential reading for the Christian looking to really get to grips with the scope of what Jesus came to do.

Red Letter Christianity by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo (2012)

The authors are at the forefront of a movement seeking to transform how Biblically faithful Christians are viewed. It’s an American-centred book, but still vital reading if you say you care about Christian faith and social justice.

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery (2013)

Absolution was one of my favourite books of the last few years; the follow-up isn’t quite that good, but nearly. It’s a literary thriller with some dazzlingly good touches; it’s thematically about truth, lies and the security we crave. It entertains and feeds the brain.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

A bona fide masterpiece of sinuous prose, bravura characters and hallucinogenic portrayals. Every bit as good as you’ve heard.

Winter of The World by Ken Follett (2012)

The middle volume of 20th century spanning trilogy of  historical fiction, setting the trials of families from various nations against the backdrop of World War 2. Brilliantly executed, crowd-pleasing and no small achievement.

Dominion by C J Sansom (2012)

I love the Shardlake novels, but his may be his best; an alternate history novel set in a Britain which sought peace in 1940; it’s thrilling and chilling in its portrayal of how history turns on a sixpence. Characters are rich and deep, and not just the main ones – even the bit parts are richly textured.

Also In This Series

1: Movies

Closing The Circle: Social media’s subtle temptations and opportunities

Dave Eggars’ latest novel, The Circle is on the face of it straightforward. It’s an easy to read yarn about a woman taking a job working for a fictional hybrid of Google and Facebook, telling a gripping story of conspiracy and manipulation on a grand scale. This is Dave Eggars, though – a self-consciously brilliant writer (his first book, a kind of memoir, was called A Hearbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius)  – and he’s always as much about ideas as he is about story. That this book manages to twin the two so well is testament to his skill.

The book holds a mirror to our digital culture and invites us to consider if we like what we see. The fictional company  – The Circle – has combined online shopping, social media and web searching and seems to be on an unstoppable run of innovation and invention. It’s moving towards total market domination of more or less everything – what will it mean when ‘the circle is closed’? What will that look like, and what will it do to us? It’s an ultimately chilling conclusion.

In the process we see a series of different realities reflected to us. The novel portrays the desire to record and log everything we do, the measuring of viewpoints and popularity by ‘hits’ and ‘likes’, the addiction to screens and surveillance, the habit of experiencing great things second or third hand rather than directly, the need to present to the world a transparent picture of happiness, integrity and balance. The digitized life is well and truly under the microscope here.

It’s an achingly real vision of where we are and where we might be going. So much so that I was stunned to discover that many consider this to be science-fiction; I really don’t see it that way. It seems to me to be simply one perspective, only marginally exaggerated for story purposes, on where our society is headed. I’ve visited the Google campus in California twice; I can tell you that the workplace depicted in Eggars’ novel has roots in real life bricks and mortar. What’s on-screen in the novel’s world is equally recognisable.

Most of us use social media, but increasingly – especially in Christian circles (there’s that word again) – it has a bad reputation as something at best to be wary of, at worst something that’s eating us alive. Whether it’s privacy issues, cyber-bullying, the breakdown of ‘real’ community (a conveniently ill-defined term in the debate), the by-the-back-door marketing, or dangerous #neknomination style crazes, Christians are being warned frequently about the dangers these technologies present.

All of which obviously makes me think about playing music backwards. When I was a young Christian the biggest danger was, apparently, heavy metal. If you listened to it you were worshipping satan; there were messages so subtly written into the songs that they could only be discerned by playing the songs backwards. Slowly. But no matter! Listen to music often enough at the right speed, forwards, and the messages would seep into your soul and soon you’d be sacrificing kittens or killing yourself. Seriously.

It was absurd, of course. Not that there wasn’t destructive music out there, but everyone was looking in the wrong direction. So called Christian music was dangerous for sucking people into an artificial sub-culture of sub-standard music which took them away from the very people amongst whom they were meant to be salt and light. You didn’t have to listen to it backwards to see the danger, but that seemed irrelevant to most. Stick a Christian label on it and it must be kosher.

I was reminded of this when I was thinking on a friend’s recent Facebook post. She lives in a different country to me, and her family was experiencing a horrible crisis. The way she communicated updates and requests for help and prayer was through Facebook. It was such a good way for us all to be connected and involved. As the emergency abated she posted ‘I know Facebook has a bad reputation but …’. She went on to say what a good source of support it had been for her in this hard season. It was that first part of the post that intrigued me – the bad reputation. Add to the mix that one American mega-church has seen fit to set up its own social media platform, which is how much of its material and information is released. Not a Facebook group, you understand. I mean its own equivalent of Facebook. You can only join the platform if you’re a signed up member of the church. It’s Christian social media – for Christians only.

What is going on here? It seems to me that what’s being missed is the simple truth that social media is simply another incarnation of an old Christian dilemma. We see a new thing producing bad fruit, so we retreat and build a Christian version of it. Which misses the point. We brand the thing as evil, forgetting it’s people who make bad choices, not pixels or musical notes. Putting a ‘Christian’ label on something doesn’t make it better; too often it’s just a pale, lifeless version of the original. Ever listened to a Stryper album next to a Metallica one? Don’t. In fact, just don’t listen to Stryper.

These things are what we make them. What social media gives us is a unique opportunity to shape a vision of life that’s true – or false. We can do the bland sun-drenched, Instagrammed version of life or we can do something more real. We can put struggles and confessions of sin up there alongside chilled white wine and cute puppies (don’t put those last two together; chaos would clearly ensue). We can do real debate alongside status-update moralising. A few weeks ago I got into a Facebook argument with someone (another Christian leader) who decided, ultimately to block me. He said he’d rather not engage with me at all than disagree publicly.

Really?

I – and he – handled that incident badly. However, does it really do any good, as Christians, to present to the world a fantasy of smiling agreement? Or do we do better to put our sin, brokenness and disagreement on display as we try to work out what it means to be Jesus-people here and now? We need boundaries, of course; as The Circle shows us there are some things we shouldn’t share, some sins that should be confessed privately, some areas that must remain private. We are made to have boundaries. I’ve also learned that for me, Twitter is a bad place to debate. It’s hard to say something helpfully and clearly in such a short space. We all have our limits.

We, though, are called to be living sacrifices, people who live with whole lives laid down before God as worship, open to His use and purifying fire. Shouldn’t that make us more open with the world, not less? Either we do the age-old dance of retreating into a Christianised ghetto, in reality no more than a baptised theme-park version of reality; or we’re so eager to ‘win’ the world and the culture that we present a version of ourselves and our faith and our relationships, so filtered through sunny idealism that it won’t stand real scrutiny away from pixels in actual flesh and blood.

Live life online and in flesh and blood. Like flesh and blood, your online life is what you make it. Be wise, but be honest. Close the circle, but close it with humble honesty not grasping control. Don’t hide your sin; confess it appropriately the move on. Don’t retreat or seek to win the culture war. Just be there, living life and living it well. On screen and in person.

In a word it’s called incarnation. Which has, I think you’ll agree, a noble history.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com