I’ve put down Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God for a bit as the further I get into it the more disturbed I become – not so much by his ideas per se, but by the sheer complexity of it all. Is the Bible really that hard to understand? I get that we read with 21stC western lenses and we need to re-enter the culture of the people and their writing to appreciate it. I get that we are always interpreting and we need to interpret well, but I fear he has made this so inaccessible that it almost becomes absurd.
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.
I hardly ever write negative book reviews, but there are few things that annoy me more than a bad novel.
I just finished a re-read of one of my all time faves, The Poisonwood Bible – a brilliant book that was even better on a second pass. Then I moved on to ‘Into the Sea’, a novel that based the story around the subject of surfing. It was set in WA in the late 70s to early 80s as two mates get into surfing and get hooked.
While there are no places named in the story it was obvious the two boys grew up in a suburb near my own, in the same era I started surfing, so that part of the story resonated. Skipping school to surf, buying your first board, living for the waves, were all things we did in that time.
The story moves across to Cactus (not named) for another 100 pages where not much happens and then one of the characters heads off to Indo and doesn’t come back. His mate goes looking for him and finds him surfing perfect waves and happy in his island paradise.
Yeah… it was a book pretty much devoid of plot. I read the whole thing, all 300 dreary pages in the hope that some energy would rise from it, but it just lobbed from one surf setting to the next with bland characters and little to hold attention.
Given its origins and characters, I had high hopes for this novel, but it was a mega-disappointment. If surfing magazines are ‘wave porn’, then this would be the equivalent of a porn movie – scene after scene of same same same… blokes surfing or talking about surfing. It might sound promising but it’s actually unsatisfying.
If you see it around give it a wide berth. A good novel ought to evoke some deep stirring, but this one felt like a suburban bus ride where every chapter was a prolonged stop. In the end I was just happy to be home.
If you enjoy reading then get a hold of The Poisonwood Bible instead and delve into the complexities of character, culture and religious nuance it offers.
I’m onto Hannah Kent’s Good People now and already breathing easier…
Sorry Jay Laurie – if you read this… I really wanted to like your book, i even ‘saved it up’ for holidays, but in the end I just couldn’t. You got the era, the language and the characters down well, but something needs to happen for it to be a good story.
Sorry if you recently got a stupid number of bizarre emails from me!
If you’re a subscriber or follower you will probably have been deluged.
I have been experimenting with a new template for our church and thought I’d test it on the blog. I used to be pretty tech savvy, but I’m not so up to speed with all things wordpress these days.
I imported a template and some dummy pages and I think you got sent all the dummy pages. Anyway – this one’s the real deal.
It’ll save you all emailing me, texting or phoning to let me know 🙂
And thanks to those who already have!
The title of this series is intentional. Its about mission in the local neighbourhood as distinct from going overseas or to a whole new sub-culture. It’s about being effective where we are.
Paradigm shifting was big in 2006. Part of helping people grasp a ‘missional imagination’ was deconstructing the heavily churched mindset that most of us had lived with for so long.
I remember saying things like ‘it’s not that God’s church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church’. We spoke of Christology shaping missiology which in turn shaped ecclesiology (which in essence meant Jesus inspires us into mission and from there we allow our church communities to take shape). In that time paradigms did need busting, the church needed something of a kick up the bum to get back into the world and ‘revolution rather than evolution’ was the order of the day for the church. I loved that period and the energy that went with learning new things and being challenged to figure out how we do mission in this changing landscape.
But we’re not there any more. Pretty much everyone would sign off on the importance of the church getting back into the community and the importance of a tangible gospel rather than just a five minute spiel. We would agree on contextualisation and thoughtful interactions rather than just spewing a gospel message on people.
So my sense is that these days the issues are far more practical and pragmatic than philosophical. I imagine that’s why Mike Frost’s Surprise the World ‘workbook’ has been so successful – because people are convinced of the importance of mission but not sure where to start. Frosty offers a collection of practices that give shape to a missional lifestyle and I will be taking a similar approach with our crew.
I sense we need to more and more help people move into action and to form a missional lifestyle that is true to who they are. Not everyone is good at caring for the poor and needy, nor is everyone good at hosting parties. So helping people to play to their strengths and developing intentional missionary practices will be a part of what we do.
Our teaching series will only run for 7 weeks but it will be largely practical and each week will offer some tangible expressions of mission that people can pursue.
One of the things I have noticed in church leadership is that presenting people with a concept and allowing them to ‘join the dots’ and come up with their own missional idea rarely results in action – it seems to get filed in the ‘too hard basket’ but… plain old telling people what to do does get traction. Maybe that’s unfortunate but you also need to accept reality and play the hand you’re dealt.
It’s the difference between ‘think of a creative way to bless your street’ and ‘go knock on your neighbour’s door and invite them around for a meal’. Of course you have to cover that with a caveat that says you don’t HAVE to invite people around for a meal if hospitality isn’t your strength. But if we present enough clear practical alternatives then people will realise they can do stuff.
I get the sense we have come out of the dark ages of evangelism – think wacky door knocking and zany street preaching – but we aren’t sure what we are to move into, or how we are to do things in this context.
I’m all for discussing and reflecting on the higher level missiology stuff with those for whom it inspires and makes sense but I tend to think most folks just want some help to get practical and effective as the people of God
So reads the chapter title in my 1984 version of the NIV bible over 1 Corinthians 5. When I look the same chapter up on Bible Gateway it has been ‘re-titled’ as ‘Dealing with a case of incest.’ A subtle change, but perhaps one that reflects a bit of how we treat things these days.
It ain’t cool to ‘expel’ people from church… It sounds like the kind of thing cults do and chances are you could even leave yourself open to litigation… In these days when numbers are already in decline who wants to willingly lose another person or family?
But what do you do with Paul’s words in 1 Cor 5:13? Is there ever a time for showing someone the door? Or do we always in every situation seek to keep them in the fellowship? Paul seems pretty clear on the fact that there is a time to exclude someone from the community and he speaks of it more than once. In 1 Timothy we hear him speak this way of Alexander and Hymenaues and in Titus he says similar of divisive people.
If we just take Paul’s words at face value then it seems very strong, but somewhat understandable. Where it gets a little complicated is when we read Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, where the final stage in the ‘conflict resolution’ process is to treat the person as if they were a pagan or a tax collector. What does that look like?
If we’re looking at how Jesus treated tax collectors and pagans then we see him eating with them and showing them love and acceptance, yet at the same time calling them to repentance. So some would suggest that ‘treating as a pagan’ is this kind of relationship. Normally I’m a fan of reading difficult passages thru the ‘lens of Jesus’ and concluding that his insights are given priority, but my take on this issue is that there is a time to show someone the door and let them feel the absence of Christian community.
The issue Paul deals with in 1 Cor 5 is one where he says ‘even the pagans don’t tolerate it’, so for the church to allow and even boast about their practice of incest is bizarre and abhorrent. Clearly no one in Corinth has been able to sort the issue out, or has been able to exert authority over the people responsible so Paul has been called in to make a judgement.
And that he does… He doesn’t mince words.
His clear point is that we aren’t to be about the business of judging those who claim no faith alignment, but when people do, and are part of a faith community then there is an obligation on the church to call them to account. To allow unrestrained, wilful sin in any form (Paul mentions sexual immorality, greed, idolatry. lying and cheating) is to minimise the problem of sin and to sap the church of its distinctive character.
The point to make here is that this is repeated and unrepentant behaviour that is clearly out of line. It isn’t for an occasional moral failure, or for sin that is confessed and repented of. Its directed at a person who rejects Jesus’ authority and insists on doing their own thing to the detriment of the community. And that’s another key – we don’t seek first the welfare of the offending person – we seek the welfare of the community as a whole and if by their actions they they show that they don’t value the broader community then they will inevitably bring destruction to that community.
In that case then they need to be asked to leave or even sent away from the community to live as an unbeliever and to accept the consequences of that. My experience is that we rarely get to this point as most people who choose a path of wilful sin slowly ebb away from the community anyway, or those who need to be confronted often get ‘offended’ and feel ‘judged’ and then leave because they believe they have been badly treated. Maybe they have… We don’t always do confrontation well in church, but even where a perfect process has been followed, a person who doesn’t want correction can find a reason to baulk.
In these situations I think Paul would say ‘Yes. You have been judged. Your behaviour and character has been considered to be destructive to both you and the community and for that reason you aren’t allowed to stay.’
That’s pretty unPC and sure would cause a fair degree of angsty vibe within a church, but if we are going to be a distinctive and Christ flavoured community then there is a time to say ‘we have exhausted every avenue of seeking to help you see the light – now you’re on your own.’
Its a tragic place to get to, but if we never allow for it then we end up with a church where anything goes and there is no authority.
So that’s tomorrow’s sermon in a nutshell…
Ten days ago we spent a few nights on holidays in Koh Samui, a trip I won thru our business along with a whole bunch of others from around Oz. I enjoyed the time away, but meeting with other irrigation guys and talking business is always problematic for me, because it usually involves the discussion of strategies for growth and expansion. And my ‘old self’ starts to get discontent. My competitive nature gets poked and stirred as I listen to what my competitors are doing and ponder what I could do to be bigger and more profitable (than them).
The tension is that I don’t want to be a bigger more expansive business. Increased profitability is always a win, but my question is usually ‘at what cost?’
I never set out to start a business like I currently have. It was a hobby and a small income stream to supplement the 3 different Christian leadership roles than I held. However one day my work coaching Baptist youth pastors ended and I needed to fill the time and pay the bills.
So I spent more time in my business. And it grew… It was fun doing things to make it more profitable – and let’s face it – when you are starting out the only way is up. I wasn’t any kind of genius – it just worked. I tinkered for two years doing a day a week of odd retic jobs but with no real concern for growth or expansion. I didn’t need the work and I was just having fun (which incidentally is a great way to kick off a business.)
When we came back from our round Oz trip in 2009 having lost a heap of money in the GFC I shifted focus and got cranking, seeking to earn back the money we had lost. I worked very hard and did what I could to make the business grow – and it did. But there came a time a couple of years back where we had to make a choice – to grow and expand to next level or… well, what else do you do in business?…
While there is part of me that would like to provide employment for people and develop a sustainable and valuable asset, I know that my primary vocation is not to be a successful business person, as good as that may be. My focus is Christian leadership and my business is there to facilitate that – to give me freedom to serve as I am gifted and not have to try and ‘grow a church’ big enough to sustain my income needs.
Last week around the other guys I found myself listening to their progress and it set me dreaming again of expansion, of possibilities and strategies for gradually developing a significant business. It is tempting and it is a possibility – I can see how it could be done… But the cost is still too high.
Maybe one day I will need to rethink the model but for now my focus is still ‘simplicity, autonomy and flexibility’ and whatever funds are generated have to fit within that frame. The choice has been to ‘compact’ the business rather than expand – a lifestyle choice rather than a financial choice. Ironically last year was our most profitable ever and I was pretty disciplined with only working locally.
The competitive urge is still alive and well in me, but these days it is tempered by the knowledge of the cost involved in pursuing that focus. I’m not getting any younger so perhaps one day I will be managing a younger guy or two… or three… But for now I will keep rolling solo, doing the grunt work myself and keeping the weight off in the process.
I imagine a sedentary version of me would be considerably weightier than the active version. So – the choice appears yet again – as it does every so often – to grow and develop or to take a different path. I remember the words of Robert Frost ‘I took the road less travelled by…’ and hopefully that will make all the difference