Brutal and Beautiful

Plum by Brendan Cowell

If a book can be both brutal and beautiful then Plum by Brendan Cowell is that book. I picked it up at the suggestion of a friend and have been reading it in snippets over a couple of really busy weeks. I have been working 10 hour days in the sun so most nights I have taken it to bed with me around 8.30 and fallen asleep just 15 minutes later with the tablet having fallen on the floor. I was about to give up altogether and wait for autumn – or holidays, until today when I was able to grab an indulgent 3 hours, curl up on the couch in our bottom lounge and just read…

It literally left me reeling – both laughing and in tears – which is a no small accomplishment. A few months back on our trip I read Shuggie Bain, another fantastic piece of writing – also brutal in it’s portrayal of young life in Glasgow, but lI felt it lacked any genuine redemptive edge. Plum manages to achieve a redemptive angle that without wilting or getting sappy.

At face value it’s the story of an ex NRL star who leaves the game and at the age of 49 develops a brain injury as a result of the head knocks. The book opens with 4 very rough and raw Australian men living their self centred lives and doing as they please even if it leaves a wake of destruction. Peter Lum (Plum) is a local (Cronulla) rugby legend who is held in awe by those of his generation (he is 49), but less so by the new generation who have no clue who he is. His son worships him and wants to be like him – wants to win his affection and his attention. But history repeats and Pete fails to really support him, just as happened with his own father. It’s a story of generational failings and of the culture that stops men from getting past their bravado to honest interactions.

It’s a story that reflects on ‘mateship’ when it’s not all it seems to be, on loyalty, even on the place of alcohol in our lives. We see the destruction it creates in so many relationships and the belief that ‘I could quit if I wanted to.’ But at it’s best it’s a reflection of redemptive relationships and the courage it takes to enter these. I could write so much more but it would spoil the story for those who will read it.

On one hand it’s a very blokey story with lots of sport talk, drinking, sex and male banter, but on the other it’s an incisive reflection on the deep sadness many men carry at their inability to actually love and be loved – to express honest emotion. Some books lilt to a finish, but this one punched hard.

Maybe it was just me but this was a cracker and one for men to read and talk about.

Doing it For the Boys

I’ve read it twice now, but I still haven’t really got my thoughts together on Winton’s latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut.

The first read I was in page turner mode and just chasing the story to its end, but after getting there I wanted to read it again to savour some of the insights Winton offers on the struggle to be a good man in a world that is often against you.

Whatever else he is gifted at by way of writing there’s no question Winton can choose some wonderful names for his characters. Mort Flack, Quick Lamb and Pikelet are just a few, but in his most recent work Jaxie Clackton meets Fintan McGillis and both are as wonderful, colourful characters as their names would suggest.

Jaxie is a broken, angry kid from a one horse town in the mid west of WA, whose mum has died leaving him with a violent and screwed up alcoholic father who he describes like this:

“He wouldn’t give you the sweat off his balls, the old Captain, but when it come to dishing out a bit of biff when you weren’t looking, well, then he was like f…ing Santa.”

As the story begins Jaxie comes home to find his abusive father dead under his ute. Being a tightarse the old man had tried using the kangaroo jack for his mechanical work instead of axel stands, but the car had tumbled on him and crushed him. While everyone in town hated him, Jaxie fears he will be blamed for the death and so hits the road on foot bound for ‘Magnet’ where his girlfriend (and cousin…) lives, hoping to escape the madness and find a proper life.

He is a badly broken kid – but a kid with hopes for a better life – a normal life – even an appearance of a normal life – but he doesn’t know how to get there.

His journey takes him across the Mid West salt flats where he discovers an old hut with its one inhabitant – Fintan MacGillis, a ‘defrocked’ priest who has been dropped out here for his crimes (we never find out what they were – but Winton makes the point of telling us he wasn’t a pedophile) and has lived alone now for years with only the occasional food drop as human contact.

MacGillis is a good man – but also a flawed man and the remainder of the story explores the relationship between these two. Jaxie is cagey, suspicious and relates to MacGillis like a dog that has been kicked too many times. MacGillis seems at ease with himself – settled in his identify and with no need to impress or win Jaxie over. There is no posturing with MacGillis – he is too old to be bothered, but he seems to know what Jaxie needs – a man who will do the righty by him and not screw him over – someone who will listen and not judge – who will ‘be there’ and put up with his shit – and Jaxie dishes out a fair amount of it…

I remember once buying a rescue dog on Gumtree and seeing this timid, frightened dog come alive as it realised it was safe and it was loved. Its that kind of slow burn that we see in Jaxie as he relates to MacGillis. It seems Winton has been doing some thinking and writing around the idea of ‘Toxic Masculinity’ and this novel is one of his foils to the devastating  brokenness we see in so many young men.

Winton describes what he sees happening with young men:

Boys and young men are so routinely expected to betray their better natures, to smother their consciences, to renounce the best of themselves and submit to something low and mean. As if there’s only one way of being a bloke, one valid interpretation of the part, the role, if you like.


There’s a constant pressure to enlist, to pull on the uniform of misogyny and join the Shithead Army that enforces and polices sexism. And it grieves me to say it’s not just men pressing those kids into service. 


These boys in the surf. The things they say to me! The stuff I hear them saying to their mates! Some of it makes you want to hug them. Some of it makes you want to cry. Some of it makes you ashamed to be a male. Especially the stuff they feel entitled or obliged to say about girls and women.


What I’ve come to notice is that all these kids are rehearsing and projecting. Trying it on. Rehearsing their masculinity. Projecting their experimental versions of it. And wordlessly looking for cues the whole time. Not just from each other, but from older people around them, especially the men. Which can be heartbreaking to witness, to tell you the truth. Because the feedback they get is so damn unhelpful. If it’s well-meant it’s often feeble and half-hearted. Because good men don’t always stick their necks out and make an effort.


Winton’s picture of the broken teenage boy is as tragic as it is accurate – the pressure to conform – to ‘renounce the best of themselves and submit to something low and mean’ – or as he puts it so well ‘to join the Shithead Army’ and continue to enforce the destructive culture they have grown up in.

This is tragic stuff he is writing about and if it were a piece of non-fiction it would be a lament about the state of masculinity in our culture today.  I’ve also sat in the surf and heard those same conversations, and the unashamed misogyny he describes .I’ve literally paddled away at times because I’ve been at a loss for what to say and all I’ve had left in me was rage.

I’ve had a few conversations with friends about this book and several times found myself fighting back tears because I’ve been so close to the impact of this abuse on a kid like Jaxie and I’ve seen someone fighting thru, trying to be a ‘good man’, but all the time having to resist the script that is so embedded in their psyche. There have been days this summer where I have felt like a MacGillis type listening silently as the vitriol and anger spills out, as the rehearsed script gets enacted, but then listening more deeply to the raw pain of someone who doesn’t want to be ‘that bloke’. Its broken my heart at times.

I’ve had someone suggest the ending of the book is unsatisfying, as if he got bored and just wound it up so he could move on to something else, but I found the ending every bit as powerful as I am guessing it was intended.

Read on if you wish… it might spoil it for you…

You see in that critical moment MacGillis doesn’t let him down – he doesn’t give him up.  MacGillis – for all his flaws does the right thing by Jaxie at the cost of his own life – and Jaxie sees and experiences that a new way is possible.

You don’t have to be a selfish prick to be a man – you can be a good, kind, gentle, courageous man. I love that Winton has wrapped this message in such a raw and brutal story because it highlights the beauty of MacGillis sacrifice. In the end the reality is we are all broken but we still get to choose how we deal with that brokenness, but if you’ve never seen an example of a better way then you are stuck. I get the sense this novel is ‘for the boys’, the Jaxie Clackton’s of Australia (and elsewhere) who need men in their lives who will show them a different way to live.

MacGillis doesn’t ever get preachy – but his life speaks loud to Jaxie. There is another way to be a man.

When God Kills People III

Ok so the sausages were really good. We have a fantastic butcher here in Yanchep who creates some really interesting varieties – not your standard ‘meat paste’ rolled in plastic – but some really funky types like ‘cheesy-mite & bacon’ (bacon, vegemite and cheese) or ‘hot hot hot’ – so hot in fact I could only eat one before my mouth was on fire – and I’m a hot food lover!

But back to Boyd’s book…

He describes his idea as like one of those magic eye pictures that if you stare at it long enough it comes into view. Of course some people stare aimlessly for a very long time and just see blurry lines and he acknowledges that this may happen with the ‘cruciform hermeneutic’ for OT violence.. Right now I’m having rare moments of glimpsing the picture (you know that feeling?) but mostly its blurry lines and long periods of wondering if I’ve actually been conned… There is no picture after all…

I finished volume 1 earlier this week so it seems time for an update before I forget what I read. I appreciate that Boyd is unwilling to just dismiss what is inconvenient and that he takes a high view of scripture so obviously he needs a different plan for articulating the violence passages.

He is looking at possible solutions now and his next one is the Synthesis Solution where ‘the OT’s violent portraits of God must be accepted as accurate revelations alongside of Christ’. He acknowledges this as the broadest of the views with 4 main strands.

  1. The ‘Beyond Our Categories’ Defense ie. he is God and subject to our ethical constraints and he sees the bigger picture so he can do what we might find abhorrent without failing to be good. Think ‘potter and clay’ and ‘will not the Lord of the whole earth do what is right’ type scenarios. The end of this thinking means that we have to somehow see that ‘barbaric and atrocious-appearing behaviour is in fact ‘good” While I think there is an element of truth in this explanation he goes on to argue well that we simply cannot accept that good is simply defined by what God calls it at the time otherwise our understanding of morality has no north point.
  2. The ‘Divine Punishment’ Defense – this speaks to the violence being an ‘expression of God’s holy wrath against sin.’ Boyd rejects this on the basis that much of the violent behaviour in the OT seems unjust. eg being stoned to death for picking uo sticks on the sabbath (fairly harsh…)
  3. The ‘Greater Good’ Defense – the idea is fairly obvious – God is at work doing something bigger than we see, but Boyd suggests it comes unstuck when we look at an example like the complete wiping out of the Canaanites as being ‘necessary’ yet ‘subsequent to the invasion of Canaan the Israelites continued to live side by side with – and when in exile even in the midst of – wicked and idolatrous neighbours.’
  4. The ‘Progressive Revelation’ Defense – which he sees as the most tenable outside of this own ideas. This idea suggests that God interacts with his people in ways that are in keeping with their development. ‘In short God meets people where they are at, not where he wishes they were’. This view suggests ‘Yahweh acquiesed to violence as much as he had to but moved his people in the direction of peace as much as possible. He argues that if this were the correct view then why does God not minimalise violence rather than (as some times happens) allowing maximal violence. He maintains that this view means that under certain circumstances God’s character is such that he is willing to command and engage in horrific even genocidal violence.

These are very brief overviews and I’m not trying to argue for or against any of them. I’m just trying to keep my head above water and stay with his thinking.

He spends the rest of this volume in his ‘reinterpretation solution’ which he calls the ‘cruciform hermeneutic’. If I were to sum this approach up in as simple language as possible then it would be saying ‘If Jesus crucified is the ultimate revelation of God then when we read the violence texts we must assume something else is going on that bears witness to the crucified Christ and we need to ‘keep digging’ till we find that truth.

He cites Origen as an inspiration for this methodology and while he doesn’t agree with his conclusions he states that he was headed in the right direction by ‘digging deeper’. Boyd writes ‘Origen’s incarnational model of inspiration ld him to believe that there could never be anything superfluous in scripture’, so there has to be a way of understanding the difficult stuff and locate the ‘spiritual meaning’.

‘The method of the spirit’ he notes ‘is to conceal these truths and to hide them deeply underneath narratives which appear to be records of actual events.’

So this is where Boyd finds his ground to stand. Its a long spiel from here on and I’m no sure I will do it justice in this post, but perhaps Boyd’s summary of his path forward is enough:

I will argue that as we interpret these violent portraits through the lens of the cross, we can discern what God was doing when he ‘breathed’ these violent portraits through ancient authors anticipates, participates in and thereby bears witness to what God did in a decisive manner, and for all humanity on the cross. We can in a word, discern in these violent portraits that God was bearing the sins of his people and was thereby taking on an ugly literary semblance that reflected that sin, just as he did in a historical way for all humanity on Calvary p.457

I got to this point and then realised that the subsequent chapters in this first volume must have ‘gone in one ear and out the other’ so to speak, so I may need to re-read them to make sense of what’s ahead. (Don’t ya hate that?…)

I appreciate some folks are reading and commenting – and I’m not replying much – largely because I am yet to form any opinions on this subject and I am not writing this as an advocate for Boyd or to negate his ideas. I’m just curious… So if I don’t reply its largely because I don’t have a lot to say at this point.

I’m hoping to get into Volume 2 shortly, but the work of reviewing it is more than I anticipated – a bit like an ungraded essay for a theology class – so don’t be surprised if my next posts are thinner and more of a ‘good book’ / ‘bad book’ scenario!

(And I have stared at that ‘magic eye’ pic above for 5 minutes now and still can’t make out what it is so that might be indicative of my capacity for new ideas…)

Sorry Charles?

Back in 1996 I ventured off to what was then called Baptist Theological College. I went reluctantly and not expecting to enjoy myself, but thankfully the experience was very different to the perception.

One of my first year units was Intro to Old Testament, a subject I really couldn’t give due diligence to because I was also studying New Testament Greek and it was the ultimate time thief. Every other unit got studied at half capacity while I sought to pass Greek and invested all my spare time in rote memorising Greek words and expressions. While I eventually got HDs for Greek I missed out on really digging into the other areas, something I was somewhat bummed about (and the reason I never did study Hebrew and subsequently dropped out of the accreditation process.)

In that first year of OT study I remember beginning to explore some difficult questions around the early chapters of Genesis. I picked up The Biblical Flood by Davis Young, that looked at the biblical flood and began to raise questions from a geological perspective about the legitimacy of a worldwide flood, an ark inhabited by two of every species and the sheer logistics of having predators housed with prey, not to mention the means of dealing with animal excrement.

The author made a very good case for reconsidering and re-reading the Genesis story, and I was intrigued by what that meant and how it would play out. But ‘Greek’ called (bellowed) and I was forced to abandon real learning to try and get my head around an ancient language I had very little interest in, but without which I couldn’t make it to second year.  I doubt I would have been half as resentful towards learning biblical languages if it hadn’t impinged so negatively on the learning I really wanted to do. But as it was I ended up shelving many pressing questions to make sure I could enter my next year with Greek behind me.

So when a friend recommended Adam & The Genome recently by Venema and McKnight I felt it may be time to re-open some of those questions. I also have Greg Boyd’s ‘Warrior God’ sitting on the table, but it only arrived this week so I felt it worth finishing the ‘Genome’ first.

I must admit I am something of a McKnight groupie – if theology lecturers had fan clubs then I would join his as he has a remarkable ability to express in readable English, thoughts and concepts that are often inaccessible to us mere mortals. I also find myself on a very similar theological trajectory to McKnight, who is (to my perception) thoroughly conservative evangelical but willing to think, reconsider and adjust his conclusions if needed.

My short ‘Danelle-language’ summary of the book is that these two make a case for Darwin’s theory of evolution to be the best explanation of human origins and as a result call for a reading of Genesis that does not see Adam (and Eve) as historical, but literary. Venema makes the case from genetics for modern humanity descending from approximately 10000 individuals rather than just two distinct people. If the science is correct – and it does seem to be quite compelling – then we either have to see the biblical story as an aberration in history where God intervened dramatically, or we need to consider how we read it differently.

So Venema writes the first half of the book and explains the science behind all the genome stuff. To be honest I struggled to stay with him at times, but I did pick up the gist of his argument – essentially that Darwin got it right. McKnight then begins to look at how we view Adam and Eve in light of this scientific insight and offers an alternate and (to my mind) fairly convincing reading of Genesis that does not see two literal human beings, but rather two people as part of a story suitable for its time that is a way of giving sense to origins.

I have never had any trouble subscribing to an old earth point of view, but up until reading this I hadn’t given serious thought to Darwin’s theory as palatable. I could swallow ‘intra-species’ evolution, but the inter-species form Darwin required for us to get here today was always a bit of a stretch for my mind. Venema suggests it is legit and part of God’s creative process. He suggests the sheer weight of scientific evidence leaves us with no option but to let go of our abhorrence towards evolution and begin to accept that God chose to work thru the evolutionary process.

I don’t have time to unpack all of McKnight’s discussion, but suffice to say that his tracing of understandings of Adam through history, the genre of Genesis and his subsequent conclusions are not easily dismissed either.

It certainly isn’t a denial of the miraculous or supernatural as McKnight agrees that we still read the gospels as historical documents. But I am certainly up for revisiting and re-considering the early chapters of Genesis and where they fit in the broader story.

Am I convinced?

It’d be foolish to be convinced on the basis of one author, but it has certainly led me to think more about the subject as it is a much more believable rendering of things than anyone else I have heard to date.

Anyone else read it and can comment?

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.


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.












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.












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.


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.











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.









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.









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


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.


‘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:










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.










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














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.










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.








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…














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

The Dad Book FULL COVER DRAFT.10.6.2016

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.