Top Reads of 2016

I haven’t read as much this year as I usually do, but there have been a few gems in there.

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I’m currently reading Winton’s Boy Behind the Curtain and finding it both captivating and wonderful and occasionally ho hum. Such is the nature of an autobiography I guess. We share a love of writing, of the ocean and a Christian heritage so on those points I find a deep resonance with much of what he says.

His chapter ‘Twice on Sundays’ raised many wry smiles and fond if somewhat butt clenching memories of my own years growing up in church. That said, his critique of the church he grew up in is fair and reasonable – I know – because I had some involvement there as a teenager myself. Sure – he has a laugh at the quirks of the 70’s and he does tell a sad tale of being unable to remain within the bounds of conservative/ fundamentalist faith as he began to ask questions, but he also offers some gracious comments and observations regarding the authenticity and sincerity of faith he experienced.

In the end the ‘bounded set’ expression of Christianity found him to be ‘outside’ the lines and something of an interloper in the ecclesiastical setting. James Fowler would say he was in ‘stage 4’ of faith development – questioning – thinking outside the confines of his immediate community, and pushing back, but in those days few churches were able to handle disparate thought. They tended to quietly, but firmly exile by theologising you to the edges and allowing you to figure it out yourself – you didn’t belong any more – you are no longer ‘one of us’.

This is still a challenge and while we have moved on somewhat it can still be hard for churches to manage a congregation of people who do not think in the same straight line.

Winton is an ardent conversationist and this is one of the chapters I found less engaging. Interesting – but not riveting and even beautiful like his chapter on surfing where ‘men do something pointless’. It is significant that in reflecting on his teen years he saw the church as woefully deficient in its environmental stance. With Hal Lindsey flavour of the month and ‘this world is not our home’ a mantra for dispensationalists he found himself again on the outer – or maybe just ahead of his time. He’d be flavour of the month in some churches these days…

He writes a wonderful fun chapter describing the sheer embarrassment of ever being seen near his grandads’s 1953 Hillman Minx and the horror when it was passed on to his own family. Cardigan grey and and every bit dowdy, he remembers being driven to school in it. In contrast he has a wonderful line recalling listening to his bogan neighbour revving his hotted up car in the backyard which he describes as ‘sounding like Satan clearing his throat’.

I’m only half way through, but its still a winner for me.

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The North Water was a somewhat harrowing read, often brutal and dark but a gripping rendering of the whale trade back in the 19th C. Both the characters and the environment were harsh and at times it felt like that car accident you couldn’t look away from. Not for the faint hearted, but if you like a strong story and enjoy immersing yourself in a foreign world then this is a good read.

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Similarly The Good People immerses you in 19th C Ireland with its folk lore and superstition mingled with religion and you are invited into the life of 3 women all facing different struggles. I have written about this here so I won’t say any more.

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Husbands Should Not Break by Shane & Elly Clifton was loaned to me by a friend who told me it was about a theology lecturer’s reflections on coming to grips with spinal injury and that it explored the issues of theodicy and suffering. This was a confronting and honest journal type account of one man’s struggle to come to grips with a life changing situation. Again I have written about it elsewhere in more depth.

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I chose this one, not because I had a part in writing it, but because I really enjoyed he collection of honest reflections of dads on their journey of fatherhood. I guess it helped that I knew some of the other authors, but this is a really warm, engaging read and a great gift for a dad on any father’s day. Phil is a gifted writer and has gathered up some stories from all around the world that will encourage, inspire and maybe just tickle you.

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Next Door as it is in Heaven by Lance Ford and Brad Brisco – is another in the ‘missional’ genre and helpful for giving form to a suburban missional life (as distinct from a hipster approach) and for helping people think thru some practical actions. The chapter on eating together was great, and generally I found the book a collection of well formed and helpful ideas that would move people to action. I don’t read many ‘mission’ books these days, but this one, while not really saying anything new, was still well framed and enjoyable.

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I don’t normally read money books. I’m skeptical that anyone writing a book about money will shortly want to sell me some advice. However I have been doing some financial research in the last few weeks and in that time I stumbled on The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape. I realise Pape is very well known but I haven’t really had much to do with him or his writing / ideas.

Pape writes in the style of your Aussie neighbour next door and hence sounds like a blue collar worker who just figured a few things out. I doubt he is… but his common sense approach to money and his ‘choose your own path’ lingo was refreshing.

I liked that he gave direct specific advice (eg. choose ING bank because they have no fees  ever) and he also presented a simple but sensible philosophy of money. Much of what he says is good common sense, but it obviously isn’t derived from biblical ideas so it was good to consider that what ‘makes sense’ isn’t necessarily what we ought to do. Interestingly he advocates ‘giving’ as part of teaching kids how to use money but it doesn’t figure in adult wealth management. That aside he calls people to debt reduction, sensible spending and future planning in ways that are doable and clear.

His chapter on retirement is particularly encouraging for folks who aren’t rolling in dough. He shows how with your house paid off, just 250K in super, a government pension and the willingness to do some part time work you can have a very sustainable time in the twilight years of life.

Reading about Fairies…

After a disappointing read with ‘Into the Sea’ I was ready for something a bit richer and stronger. I decided to give Hannah Kent’s latest novel ‘The Good People’ a shot and it was well worth the effort.
Kent wrote Burial Rites and this is her second novel. It’s the story of a poor village family living in Southern Ireland in the late 1800’s. The novel opens with the husband dying suddenly and this being the second bereavement for Nora in the year as her daughter had also died. She finds herself left with the care of her 4 year old grandson who was once a healthy boy, but now is suffering from some debilitating illness that prevents him from walking or speaking. He is totally dependent on others so Nora, struggling with grief and the weight of responsibility, hires Mary, a young farm girl to be her assistant and to care for him.
In time Nora is convinced that the boy (Micheal) is actually not her grandson but that he is a fairy – that ‘the good people’ (the fairies) have stolen him and replaced him with one of their own.
The local expert in folk remedies (Nance) enters and the remainder of the story follows their various bizarre, but sincere attempts to rid Micheal of ‘the fairy’. 
It is an interesting reflection on the power of superstitious belief and the degree to which it affects us. It highlights many practices of the (not so) ancient Irish and as you read it you realise our society is only different by degrees and not by kind. We still believe and practice odd things from time to time (touch wood…) in the curious belief that there is another power at work. I had written ‘a higher power at work’ but I’m not sure it’s necessarily seen as higher – just ‘other’.
As it finishes the story depicts a primitive Irish culture alongside the more sophisticated mainstream, but it also shows how deep and strong the folk beliefs lie. When a culture is formed over thousands of years simple rational explanations for sickness and struggle are unlikely to suffice.
As well as dealing with the subject of folk religion, it deals with how we perceive and interpret illness, especially serious mental illness. It looks at how we view calamity or lack of prosperity. It looks at how grief affects us and it is unique in that it focuses on the issues faced by single women, an elderly spinster, a widow and a young single girl. Nance the elderly spinster says: 
‘An old woman without a man is the next thing to a ghost. No one needs her, folk are afraid of her, but mostly she isn’t seen.’
It’s a statement I have heard several times – that older single women are unnoticed in society.
From a faith perspective we would often pooh pooh superstitious practices, but we are sometimes blind to our own ‘folk Christianity’, that believes
– if we tithe faithfully God will bless us with abundance…

– That ‘x’ wasn’t healed because she didn’t have enough faith…

– That certain prayers must be recited word perfect to deal with spiritual oppression, curses and the like (because God won’t pass a near miss)

– That trouble in life is because of sin – that God is repaying us and balancing the ledger… because Jesus’ death was inadequate.
I could go on, and I’m sure you could suggest plenty more that you have heard or experienced. 
While it is based on real events, it is still an odd subject for a novel, but Kent opens up the world of the Irish village community so well that it becomes intriguing and enjoyable to read.

The Conversion of Eric Edgar Cooke

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The years 1959-1964 were a unique time in Perth history as they marked the Eric Edgar Cooke years – the period during which the city’s first serial killer was making his mark. If you want to read an intriguing account of this time then Robert Drewe’s Shark Net is well worth the time. 

Drewe recounts living in close proximity to Cooke and observing him as he worked at his father’s Dunlop factory. He devotes a whole chapter to the 1959 Billy Graham crusade in Perth and his insights are valuable. An aspect of this story that has always left me both curious and chilled was his account of Graham’s evangelistic altar call:

He kept quietly urging and beckoning us to join him. It was hypnotic. It was contagious. The people getting up from their seats didn’t look like religious maniacs. The looked like your average movie audience on a Saturday night. I recognised neighbours and a contingent of boys from Wesley College whom I’d played sports against. I saw my friend John Sturkey. I saw the chemist’s wife and my old maths teacher. Two rows along I saw Eric, the Dunlop delivery driver, sitting by a sign saying ‘South Perth Methodists’. People stood up all along the rows or chairs and people began sliding down from the roofs of the cattle, horse and pig pavilions. The chemist’s wife stood up. Eric stood up and joined Billy Graham. People were having conversions all around me. p.174

Aside from it being a beautifully crafted piece of writing, it is an account that raises some enormous questions.

So Eric Cooke became a Christian at the 1959 Billy Graham crusade… shortly before he went on his 5 year rampage of 22 violent crimes and 8 murders?… What exactly happened there?

Eric Cooke hanged in Fremantle prison on October 26th 1964, the last man to die by capital punishment in Western Australia. Will we see Cooke in the next life?

I’ve been pondering questions of conversion and this is one that has stuck in my craw since reading Shark Net back in the mid 2000’s. Perhaps the broken, messed up person that was Eric Cooke did have an encounter with the grace of God that could never be undone, no matter his crimes. Or maybe Cooke was just another casualty of an evangelistic methodology that sought to herd ‘souls’ like cattle rather than disciple real people into the kingdom of God.

More ‘conversion’ reflections to come after I’ve done some teaching on this issue tomorrow.

And here’s a link to the trailer for the TV mini series that was made from the book.

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‘What’s the point of theology if it doesn’t help is us come to grips with real life? So asks Danelle when I explain a little of the book I have been reading. And she has a point… surely one major aim of good theology is to help us understand the intersections of the divine with the everyday. Surely theology should help us grapple with the difficult questions of life and suffering is right up there with the biggies.

Husbands Should Not Break by Shane & Elly Clifton was loaned to me by a friend who told me it was about a theology lecturer’s reflections on coming to grips with spinal injury and that it explored the issues of theodicy and suffering. Kerryn had heard Shane present at a recent conference and as a result bought his book. She shared a little of it as we took communion yesterday – enough for me to say ‘I’d like to borrow that…’ and having been laid up with the flu since yesterday afternoon I have had time to read and finish it.
As it’s written in journal style, some of the content are blog entries and Facebook posts. When I was half way thru I started to think ‘This is good, but it’s not theological reflection…’ however the further along I went the more I felt like it was some of the best theological reflection – honest, gritty, expletive laden, at times hopeful and at times totally despairing and certainly unafraid to express stark emotions.In this book you won’t read a systematic theology of human suffering complete with Harvard referencing, but you will hear an earthy, articulate, theologically educated 40 year old man grapple with the life that was foisted on him. It doesn’t hit much on theodicy per se (big subject…) but it certainly does grapple with personal issues of suffering and pain.
That said, it doesn’t offer any clear theological paradigm for making sense of suffering, but nor does it advocate hopelessness. If ‘mystery’ is a paradigm then it probably best fits here. The author is from a pentecostal background and was prayed over/for/under/around by all and sundry but to no avail. If anyone was going to be successful at healing then you would think it would have been his ‘mob’, but he simply has to accept the reality of unanswered prayers (as well as the bizarre oddity of then praying for bedsores to heal while he is still unable to walk…) Clifton hovers between gratitude that he is alive and anger at the way his life has been turned on its head. I liked the absence of trite answers or the call to ‘just trust’. He makes an excellent point in that while God is able to bring good out of suffering we are mistaken to suggest God inflicts suffering as part of his purposes.
The value of the book is in its detailed (some may say explicit) descriptions of living with a spinal injury. Unexpected poo and wee feature prominently in the narrative and are one of the challenges for people in this situation. I found this extremely helpful – the difficulty – the shame – the helplessness… the reminder to look out for folks who are disabled because even as they regain autonomy there simply are times they can’t do what others can. Reading the account of Shane trying to find someone to assist him because his catheter was about to explode and being rejected at the first few attempts was pretty gut wrenching.
I found the chapter on sex really well written and commendable for its boldness and candour. So many Christian authors would shy away from the more intimate issues because they are somehow deemed inappropriate for public consumption, but Shane Clifton and his wife Elly took the risk, opened their world to us and said ‘here’s how it is…’
Shane has a blog here for those who want to read more of his journey.

Missional in the Neighbourhood 10 Years On – Part V

Ishaping learn by reading, and much of my early introduction to the missional movement was via books. I thought it would be helpful to list some books I would be using with our church congregation now, as I imagine they may be different from what we were reading in the early noughties.

Shaping of Things to Come by Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost was the grenade launched into my stable church leader world and it blew things to pieces in the best possible way. It was an incendiary book, as it called for ‘revolution’ rather than evolution, but I doubt a tame voice would have been heard in the early 2000’s. A polite book would have gathered dust on the shelves of Koorong and made no impact, but this book generated conversation like few others have. More than that it generated debate and often serious argument. And that was good thing – because we can too easily be polite and inoffensive in church world. Not with this book… It came after some of the more high level texts (like Transforming Mission by David Bosch), but it was accessible to all and therefore a little dangerous.

I haven’t read ‘Shaping’ for a long time, but I remember it fondly. I probably wouldn’t hold it up for people to read today, as I think the missional ideas have been well embraced and its prophetic edge will have dated somewhat.

So what would I tell people to read now?… Here’s a selection of books I’d recommend and all are very ‘reader friendly’, because if you want people to read then the stuff you’re giving them has to be accessible. The common thread in all of these is that they focus on helping the individual find their way in mission and have little to do with re-shaping the structures of the church.

Here we go in no particular order:

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Sentness by Kim Hammond and Darren Cronshaw – ok its by two friends of mine, but this is a very readable and very practical guide to understanding how we are ‘sent’ as missionaries into our communities. You won’t get confused reading this one.

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God Next Door by Simon Carey Holt – this one has been around for a while and won Australian Christian book of the year. Its a very helpful guide for seeing God at work in our everyday life and seeing mission as part of life rather than a new thing to do

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Surprise the World by Mike Frost – this one gives people a series of habits that can be learnt and practiced to give form to a missional life. Frosty does say ‘don’t just copy’, and for a long time he resisted giving this kind of information out in the belief it may stifle people’s own listening to God. But I sense this is a concession to the fact that most people still won’t be able to form their own missional habits and this is an excellent starter in that direction.

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Next Door as it is in Heaven by Lance Ford and Brad Brisco – I just finished this one and found it very helpful for giving form to a suburban missional life (as distinct from a hipster approach) and for helping people think thru some practical actions. The chapter on eating together was great, but generally I found the book a collection of well formed and helpful ideas that would move people to action.

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Sacrilege by Hugh Halter – Its been a while since I read this one, but I remember it as being engaging and inspiring. Halter is a funny guy who tells good stories, but is well able to make his point. This book is worth it just for the story about Halter’s interaction with his neighbour while mowing the lawn.

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Untamed by Alan & Deb Hirsch – This one’s been around for a while too, but its got some real teeth. It doesn’t just look at missional practices, but it looks at the kind of life that is needed to be genuine missionaries. Al & Deb challenge us to look at every aspect of our life from money to sex and to bring it under the Lordship of Christ. I have given plenty of these away and I have one left…

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The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – This one doesn’t fit into the ‘Christian book’ niche, but it does speak practically to how we learn and implement new behaviours. Well worth a read especially the chapter on keystone habits.

Ok – I’m sure there are others, but these are a good place to start if you want to get inspired to action.

 

The Dad Book

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For the last couple of years Phil has been collecting stories and reflections from dads from various walks of life and this is the end result.

I’ve read most of it (as well as contributing to it) and I can say its well worth getting hold of. Its an easy read for the most part with moments where you chuckle and moments where you have to stop and ponder. I loved Steve McKinnon’s account of his first date and Stu Wesley’s stories of family discipline… and I’m sure there are many more.

Phil says:

These stories of being a father come from around the world – Cuba, India, the USA, Australia, England, Switzerland, Sweden and elsewhere, but they have in common an honesty about the gift and work of being a father. The Dad Book is not about how to be a better Dad. It’s about being a Dad – the struggles, the regrets, the things we got wrong, and the things we get right. The moments of joy and wonder, the things we learn along the way and the things we’d rather forget. And the things we want to remember.

You can buy it here  or it will also be available at Wipf and Stock publishers in a few weeks. Amazon to follow.

Now That Was Fun

surfariWhile seeking something new and enjoyable to read for the time out at Kurrajong I was wandering thru the Exmouth news agency where there is quite an eclectic selection of books. In the biography section I noticed MP the biography of Michael Petersen a legendary and iconic surfer from the 70s. I read this a number of years ago and really enjoyed it. Next to it was a title I hadn’t seen before – Surfari by Tim Baker.

I picked it up and skimmed the back cover, where I read that the book was about Baker and family’s (sponsored) round Oz journey of surf adventure in a Jayco Expanda and Toyota RAV4. I was intrigued. Apart from the shared love of surfing there was the ‘big lap’ connection and (I presumed) a love of writing.

I opened it, browsed the writing style and straight away I knew I was going to buy it. Baker is a surf journo, has edited Tracks magazine and written a couple of surfer bios (Occy and Fanning) He tells a great tale and in the first chapter he describes his middle aged malaise and his hopes for a more inspiring life. I’ve been there… He is a year younger than me and his story sounded like a fun way to wile away a couple of days on the beach.

So being a tightarse I immediately googled the book and found it on Amazon. Ten bucks on Amazon or $29.95 in the newsagency?… Tough decision. I downloaded the sample right there and had a read that night. I bought the book and stashed it for a day or two while I finished Lila. That was a slog…

And then the fun began. Baker is an engaging writer as well as having the ability to reflect and observe what’s going on around him and inside him.

It was April 2009 that we set off for our lap with two kids and a surfboard and we shared many similar experiences to Baker and family. (Here’s how ours came about…)

While the book chronicles Baker’s surf odyssey it is much more than a piece of surf porn. He takes time to discuss the history of the areas he visits, the culture and context he is experiencing as well as reflecting on the challenges of family life and personal development in the midst of it all.

As a middle aged man Baker felt he was writing about surfing more than he was actually getting in the water and this was part of his plan for redressing the imbalance. As he travels he discovers it’s harder to duck off for a quiet surf than he had anticipated. The responsibility of family, driving and working make it difficult and at times the grand vision became a mirage.

His daughter is homesick within a day (been there done that…) the surf doesn’t turn up on schedule and then there is the delicate balancing act of hitting the water and spending time with the family – while not losing your cool. He tells a very honest story of losing it with his young son and what he learnt in the process.

He writes guardedly of some of his best surfs choosing not to identify the location, but I think I pegged his anonymous spot between Merimbula and Eden as it was where we scored some great waves too. He doesn’t even mention Cactus by name, despite its legendary status and there are several other spots he wisely choose to leave to your best guess. It seems localism is still an issue in the wilder parts of Oz.

I sympathized with many of his experiences. The ‘night of the bogans’ had me chuckling in bed as I read – imagine a maroon falcon sliding into camp with 5 heavyweights set for a big night on the turps and you get the picture.

I remembered the many grey nomads who treated our kids so well and who were kind and gracious when they may have been wanting to escape pestering children.

I shared and still share his hatred of the generator. Why anyone would want to tuck themselves away in a remote and serene part of the world only to arc up a clattering piece of machinery for 3 or 4 hours each day is beyond me. It’s been one of my pet peeves on this trip – thinking you’ve finally found ‘the spot’ only to have Stan and Dorothy roll up and kick the genny into life so they can watch a bit of telly… Get a grip people…

Baker leaves home as a ‘teeth grinder’ and hopes the road trip will be a panacea for this problem – not so much… Just a different set of stresses… He introduces us to some interesting people around the country as he searches for surf and he has some brilliant if understated surf sessions.

That he finished his trip in the north west of Australia in Exmouth gave the book a little more resonance again. As we left Exmouth we dropped in for one final bite of the cherry at Dunes Beach, but Mother Nature was not playing nicely. A small choppy swell, blustery onshore winds and a badly timed tide meant we  took one look and drove on. This was a bit of his experience, although he seems to have got his fair share of amazing waves as well.

If you also share a love of camping and surfing and want an entertaining and very readable book, while taking some time to reflect on the challenges of middle age then this is a gem.

Lila – At Last

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As we left for Cape range I was keen to restock the library, as I had cut thru my first stack of books and was needing some fresh inspiration.

My intention was to finally finish Lila by Marilyne Robinson, a book I have started 3 times (and got well over half way thru on each occasion) but then become bogged down in. It feels like it’s worthy of a greater effort from me – I loved Gilead and enjoyed Home, but this one just fails to ignite each time I tackle it. So I commit to finishing it…

I finish Lila in the way an amateur runner finishes a marathon. I slog it out and refuse to quit but I’m so glad when it’s over. Perhaps it’s the mood I’m in, the distractions around me or my need for some simple, more readable and entertaining material, but Lila just doesn’t cut it.

I wander in and out of attentiveness and regularly have to go back and read whole chapters to remember just what is actually happening in the story. But I finish it late on the first evening at Kurrajong and now I can delete it from my tablet. It no longer haunts me as the unfinishable book…

Gould’s Book of Fish however… I accidentally bought two copies of this on Amazon and have not been able to get a third of the way into it before feeling like I am lost.

For the record Lila is the third in Robinson’s trilogy of novels set in the fictitious American town of Gilead and revolving around the life of an elderly Congregational minister – John Ames. This is the story of his second wife – Lila – and it tells of her life from birth into a family of homeless drifters thru to her marriage to Ames.

It’s a powerful story as Lila is ‘stolen’ from her family by Doll and endures a life of wandering hardship before finishing up in Gilead and finding a friend in Ames. The unlikely relationship between the conservative, genteel preacher and the somewhat feral and fickle Lila is the making of the story, and the child they conceive together makes it a little more interesting.

Ames ability to love and accept Lila and to pronounce no judgement on her past is the beauty of the story, but it just seems to meander interminably and ends up becoming an exercise in endurance rather than joy.

I will devote a whole post to my next book though as it’s been a wonderfully easy read and an all too brief source of late night chuckles.

 

Holiday Reading

So here’s what I have been reading over January… In this order

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My mate Stu recommended this one. A fair read, but didn’t go where I thought it might. Not much to say about this one.

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This bloke was a legend when I was a kid and I thought it would be interesting to hear about his life. It was well written, but did tend to put George on a pedestal. While it acknowledged his flaws you never felt like there was much of a critique of his life – more of an explanation. I enjoyed it, but more for the nostaglia than the balanced treatment of the subject.

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Same subject but this time written from the point of view of his sister. I thought it would be interesting to hear a ‘non-professional’ perspective on Best. It was ok, but definitely read like the lament of a sister.

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When a leading evangelical ethicist changes his mind on how he sees homosexuality then its worth a read. This is a short and very readable book and a good intro the issue. I didn’t find it convincing on its own, but it did cause me to begin re-thinking.

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I thought another biography would be good and given I was planning on launching into some weighty subject matter I figured this would be worth a read. And it was. Its quite explicit in parts so be aware of that, but I think that actually allows you to feel some of the pain. I appreciated an insider story of life as a gay Christian man and the struggle that accompanies that situation.

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This one’s been recommended a few times and with good reason. Its a strong case for a revisionist view of homosexuality. I didn’t find it the easiest book to follow, but I thought Brownson made some good points and he has pushed my thinking some more.

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This one was a ‘two views’ type of book – one for and one against. I didn’t find Via’s arguments very strong at all, and Gagnon was much stronger albeit dry and boring as hell.

So that’s my holiday reading…

 

A Novel History

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Having just returned from a trip to Ireland my interest in Irish history was kindled yet again. Here in Oz its hard to grasp just how sectarian the whole scenario is, but when you step back into it, you can’t help but be confronted with the ever present reality.

Admittedly we did go back in July just before what they call ‘marching season’, the time of year when the Protestants take a day to stomp the streets in uniforms and regalia, while playing flutes and beating the daylights out of monster lambeg drums. Its a remembrance of a battle way back in 1690 when William of Orange defeated the Catholics and took control of Ireland. To some its just a festive event, but there is no denying its place in perpetuating the priority of the protestant way in that country.

Having attended the 12th day marches early in our stay I began to fossick through Amazon for some novels depicting Irish history and finished up with 3 novels and one autobiography all centred on the divisions within this country. While novels may not be actual history, I find them an enjoyable way to enter the story of a country, moreso than just reading a text book.

I began with Return to Killybegs, a novel based on the true story of an IRA informant who returns to his home town late in life after confessing his activities as a spy. He goes back to his childhood home, long since abandoned and sits morbidly in squalor waiting for the inevitable to happen. He didn’t set out to become a spy. It wasn’t in his nature, but an unfortunate event in his teen years was used against him and left him with no choice.

Written by a French author, its a good story depicting the complexity of a person’s life once they get involved in paramilitary organisations. It is based on the actual story of Denis Donaldson, a senior IRA turned spy who was murdered in the small town of Glenties in 2006 after revealing his activities.

Belfast Peacelines

From there I moved on to Burning Your Own, a novel about primary school aged boys set in 1969 around bonfire time, and just as the troubles were kicking off. I really enjoyed this one as it recaptured very well the world that I grew up in. The language and the culture was as I remember it and very believable. The story depicts the early days of the ‘troubles’, the fertilisation of fear and the way communities so easily believe the worst of those they don’t know. Based in a working class protestant neighbourhood, it explores the development of sectarian violence in nearby areas and the gradual expulsion of the catholics from that community despite many years of being a peaceful neighbourhood. It focuses on one young boy in particular, (Mal) who is a protestant and his relationship with the red headed Catholic, Francy, who marches to the beat of his own drum, but can’t stop the tide of prejudice and fear.

I went from there to Into the Dark – 30 Years in the RUC, a pretty dark autobiographical account of the police career of Johnson Brown who discovered very early in the day that police work didn’t just involve locking up baddies. Sometimes the police were the ‘baddies’ and collaborated with other ‘baddies’. Its an interesting but somewhat arduous recollection of his time as a detective and the constant undermining he suffered from the untouchable Special Branch. He portrays himself as a model policeman doing the right thing at all times, but the depiction of the thuggery and ‘looking away’ that he suggested happened in the name of the ‘greater good’ is disturbing if only some of it is true. He particularly highlights the colllusion between senior police officers and various paramilitary groups in Ulster and makes it clear that for some it was war on Catholics and it didn’t matter who got the result.

The final novel is entitled The Boys of Derry (Sunday Bloody Sunday) and while I haven’t yet finished this one I can see where its headed. It tells the story of oppression and mistreatment from a catholic/bogside perspective and is interesting because it follows the lives of the central characters from boyhood to manhood,  as the Irish civil rights movement kicks off and the violence begins in the volatile city of Derry before escalating into all out war.

Every story tells a sad tale of a country that has lost its way and is stuck in such a rut it may never get out. On my final day in Belfast I took some time on my own to wander the city, to ‘sniff’ and get a sense of what it is like there now. I happened upon an exhibition in a small shop by a group called Healing Through Remembering, an organisation trying to help people move on from the troubles by various peaceful, reflective means. Their exhibition was focused on displaying ordinary household items that got transformed in the troubles (eg a dustbin lid).

In conversation with the curator we discussed the future for Ireland and he mentioned a stat that suggests for every one year of conflict there needs to be thirty of healing. That means that assuming no more major violence breaks out, Ireland is just a milennia away from erasing this tragic period from its collective memory…

That said, things are much much better than they were 40 years ago and there is a peace process in place. You can’t help but feel it wouldn’t take much to reignite old hatreds in all of their fury, but even a fragile peace is better than none at all.