Stuff Of The Year 2013, 2: Books

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules, so it may not all have been produced in 2013 – the point is that the media in question have all been a big part of my year. Where possible, I’ll link to the media in question, or an article I wrote about them; click on a title to follow a link if I’ve found one suitable. This post’s about the books I’ve read in 2013 that have most shaped me. You may notice from this that star-rating books is, for me, a fairly arbitrary process. They’re in the order I finished reading them, if you’re interested, ending with the most recent.

A Year Of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans Spending a year doing something and writing about it is in vogue at the moment. It lends itself to the discipline of blogging and the momentum gathering potential of social media. This book chronicles one woman’s journey through a year taking everything the Bible has to say about women literally. She’s a Christian with the desire to take both the Bible and society seriously, and the results in this book are funny, deceptively weighty without necessarily showing the academic working and respectful. Required reading, especially for any Christian (male or female) who’s ever quoted Proverbs 31 in reference to how a wife should be.

The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes  There are very few authors who can make me think of  Eugene Peterson, but Trystan Owain Hughes is one of them. Concise at around 100 pages, this is a beautiful book inviting us to humble awe, to find God and each other in the everyday and to rescue us from lazy, culturally skewed discipleship which has the powerful lording it over the powerless.

The God Of Intimacy And Action by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling  One of the very few books linking a passion for social justice with spiritual practices, aiming to deepen our relationships with God as we live with responsive awareness to the needs around us. Worth reading not just because it’s one of the few like it, but because it’s a rich book born out of deep experience.

Absolution by Patrick Flanery  A crime story; a family drama; a thriller; a mediation on present-day South Africa; a book about fear; a book about hope; a book about writing books. A masterpiece.

On Warne by Gideon Haigh Cricket has a tradition of quality writing, and this is a good addition to that history; a small, beautifully formed and written book which isn’t so much a biography of the greatest bowler in history  as a reflection on him.

Bringing Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel  I know some struggle with her style, and I understand why. I don’t, and all I can say is that I’m a believer in these books. Historical fiction made vitally relevant to all our todays; we’re one book away from this being one of English literature’s greatest set of novels.

11/22/63 by Stephen King  When he’s good, he’s very good. This is a romantic, thrilling, time-travel-love-story-thriller showcasing King’s genius for storytelling, based around the assassination of JFK. It’s not a horror novel … I urge you to read this on your next holiday, especially if you’re one of those who thinks King is populist hack. Sometimes success is awarded to those with talent and an understanding of what people enjoy. This book is the perfect illustration of that.

The Pastor by Eugene Peterson I’ll blog on this in due course – the man I’ve never met, whose beautiful books have pastored me over the years writes his memoir of a life in pastoral work. It’s beautiful, and essential for anyone who is a pastor, has a pastor or is considering being a pastor.

Advertisements

The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes

I finished reading this in the week of the Boston Marathon, a week which highlighted that for all the shock and outrage which following an attack, terror has become everyday. There were other bomb explosions around the globe  that day – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The Boston bomb, as outrageous and disturbing as it was, remained the least effectual terror attack of the day … if you measure these things with the awful and simple matrix of lives lost. The shock of so many at one attack when terrorism remains a daily reality for so many suggests we’ve lost perspective, that fear and cruelty have numbed us. We have to shut it out; when it comes close to home, we allow it fill our consciousness for a few days, for as long as the news channels keep it front and centre.

This is another effect of what charity fundraisers can call ‘compassion fatigue’; you grow tired and immune to the suffering of those who aren’t right in front of you. It’s only when suffering gets right in our faces that we’re forced to pay it closer attention; the logic goes that it’s the job of the fundraiser to keep the suffering front and centre and thus to ensure the funds keep flowing.

The Compassion Quest, the wonderful new book from Trystan Owain Hughes, suggests an alternative, a way to keep compassion alive. The reason is not so much to raise more funds for charity, though if we all paid attention to the book’s suggestion that may be a positive side-effect, so much as to awake us all to life as we are meant to live it. In his first book – the concise, brilliant Finding Hope And Meaning In Suffering, Trystan Owain Hughes didn’t seek to explain suffering, but to offer us a map through it. If you we’re to summarise its endpoint – and you really shouldn’t settle for just a summary – you’d say that the book called for mindfulness. Mindfulness of who we are and the world God’s placed us in, and a resultant thankfulness and appreciation; these are things which equip us to live through suffering. This book builds on that; to take us beyond ‘just’ surviving difficulties and pain, to living well in the world around us, building good and life-giving relationships with other people, the world and the things in the world.

This, like the first book, is brilliant and accessible theology for real people. Owain Hughes, in little over 100 pages peppered with insights from all manner of books and films and music, suggests seeking and embracing a sense of our mutual interconnectedness. Relationship – with people, with the created order – leads to stability and a recognition of yourself in the other. There’s something important to grasp here – some will see in this pseudo-spiritual new age inflected tree-hugging. That would be to do this a grave disservice. The author’s orthodox (in the best sense of that word) theology of creation and the incarnation of Jesus rescues us from those to skewed theologies which sees men (humans) and men (males) as there to lord themselves over the rest. This is a theology of humble awe at the breadth of what God has made; a theology which invites us to love with a thankful awareness of everything that’s around us; a theology which sees God-reflecting life everywhere; a theology that recognises the thin margins separating us, against which we are usually more wont to build draw-bridges and moats.

There’s much more to be said about this deep and rich book, but really you should read it for yourself. Like my favourite spiritual theologian, Eugene Peterson, reading this book you feel in the company of quietly content, confident, humble wisdom grounded in good scholarship and expressed in beautiful, accessible prose. When’s all said and done, this is theology for the everyday.

I rated this book 5/5 on GoodReads.com

Finding Hope and Meaning In Suffering by Trystan Owain Hughes

It’s often said that it’s easier to be creative about sadness and suffering than it is about joy and happiness. It’s also often said that for those who follow Jesus, the fact and presence of suffering in the world presents the most significant philosophical, ethical and practical challenges. Those two statements may be cliches, but they are cliches with a weight of truth and experience behind them; tragedies are considered higher art than comedies, and Christians have spilt a lot of theological ink confronting the issue of suffering.

Trying to explain or understand suffering, whilst it may be valuable, can obscure something important. How do we live in it and through it? How do we it do it ‘well’ as people who call themselves Christians? We may accept that it poses us theological and other types of questions, but that doesn’t necessarily help us deal with tragedy and pain when it hits home. Understanding can get us so far – but what we need alongside that are tools to help us live well through it all. That’s where a book like this one, Finding Hope And Meaning In Suffering by Trystan Owain Hughes comes in. It’s a short book, clocking in at 101 pages which seeks to do just that.

As for us all, the author has experienced his own measure of suffering and it’s from that space which he writes – he’s the Anglican Chaplain at Cardiff University who was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition at the age of 34. Those two realities – exercising a pastoral ministry and his own experiences of suffering – have caused him to reflect deeply on what God gives us that may enable us to flourish and grow in even the most hostile of environments. It’s a short – and brilliant  – book, which really should be required reading for anyone who suffers, cares for someone suffering or desiring to grow as an effective disciple of Jesus. I’m not sure that anyone’s left out by that. This book is a prime example of how depth and weight can go hand in hand with readability and brevity.

The structure is simple. There’s an introductory chapter on the fact of suffering itself. He then, in two chapters lays two simple but profound foundations for living well in suffering. First comes awareness: living in the present moment in such a way that we are alive to the presence of God around us. Second comes acceptance: not resignation to suffering, but the radical acceptance of God’s goodness in even the darkest of places. There then follow a series of ‘building blocks’ – chapter by chapter reflections on aspects of life which create the space for life to grow in tough contexts: an awareness of and interaction with nature, the gift of laughter, the place of memory,  the significance of art, the call to keep on helping others.

Every chapter engages with a variety of sources: these may be Biblical, more generally Christian, other faiths, or a variety of artistic expressions – from Jewish Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl to the TV show Heroes and onwards to Kylie Minogue. That’s one of the book’s real strengths – that even in such a well and concisely written book, there’s enough different perspectives for all of us to find something we ‘get’; this book may be the result of much thought, prayer and study – but it’s there to be read on the commute to work or lying lazily on the couch on a Sunday afternoon. This is a book which actively invites you in with its breadth of sources, the author’s own experience and the fact that it doesn’t so much try to explain as to give you something to go away and work into your own pattern of life and discipleship. One point on that – there’s a few spoilers in here about books and films. Place the reading of this book on hold, for example, if you’re are reading or planning to read Ian McEwen’s book Atonement or you’re saving up the DVD for a Christmas treat. You don’t want that surprise ruined.

That’s a minor quibble, really. Here’s another one, of a very different type. There’s so much richness here that to limit the book to the topic of suffering may be selling it short, limiting the impact. The suggestions – the foundations and building blocks – are valuable for living through suffering precisely because they are valuable for all of life. In other words they  (along with other practices) help us live life as God intended it to be lived – to the full. This isn’t just a book about how to live well in experiences of suffering – it’s a book about how to live life well for God in the world to which He calls us.

So this is a book to read, re-read, practice and digest, to buy and to give. Even if – or perhaps especially – you’re not really suffering. Because, as a book like this shows us, it’s worth living life well, whatever the scenery.

I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads.com