Book review: Satisfaction Guaranteed (IVP)

Disclaimer: I was kindly given a copy of this book by IVP to review, but this in no way altered my review and my freedom to express what I want to about it.  All books I review can be got from your local Christian bookshop, in Cork (Unbound) or in Belfast (Evangelical Bookshop).

Satisfaction Guaranteed

It’s a bold title “satisfaction guaranteed” that grabbed me from the outset and made me think it may not just be another book of many on this kind of topic.  Whereas in other works (see footnote), the authors try to persuade people from further back (persuading them that unbiblical sexuality is wrong), Berry and Wood have a lesser target but still a bold one – that we as Christians can be completely satisfied in Christ.  The book is not a long one, and passes quite quickly over other material to really home in on this aim.

Easily read, they spend the first half of their case building a biblical worldview of sexuality and then in the second half, hit home marvellously helpful points about how we can still find life to the full, even within that biblical worldview.

Somewhat the uniqueness of this book is the two who are writing it.  Berry in his forties, and Wood in his twenties both have been in same-sex relationships and know what it is to be in that position from a Christian background.  Their stories (not lurid and just the right amount of detail to be helpful), are what really grabbed me and made the rest of the book have a weight greater than the size of book would otherwise have managed.  Through their work, they’ve met hundreds of same-sex attracted Christians and have given guidance and help to many.

As they rightly note, it’d be easy for those well versed in the big Bible picture to drift through or entirely skip the opening half of the book, but it’s a helpful read, if not even just for their stories interspersed throughout.  As they lay the groundwork for what is to come later, it really goes without saying that the first half is worth the read.

But for me it’s the second-half which so helpfully counters prevailing belief even in Christian circles.  Dealing with our weakness and struggles and verses like “it is not good for man to be alone” and the “gift” of singleness and marriage, they correct many false understandings and deal with many struggles for the single Christian, whilst not allowing us to dwell in being victims of society but to be empowered to love God and love others.

Jonathan and Rob write with such warmth and understanding that the fact they call Christians to the “narrow road” in Christ doesn’t seem so bad anymore, as they point to a flourishing of humankind that opens into an infinite enjoyment of the One who gave us sexuality in the first place.  They join me (see: here)  in quoting Lewis!

Altogether, a worthwhile addition to the books on this topic, that is worth picking up, though don’t expect to be blown out of the water with new thinking.  It’s a long, hard road, the Christian life.  But we’d do well to walk in their footsteps.


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On running…

This one, a gem found in a Roman ruin in Budapest.  Martial, a first century Roman poet writes:

To trifle in the various sports to which every open space is devoted, when one can run, is sloth.
(Martial, XXXII 5-15)

By the sounds of it, Martial quite enjoyed sloth, and until the fair weather shines, so do I!  But having taken a season or two off playing hockey to run long distance, I think it may be time to change the running pattern to build up to next hockey season!  Looking forward to training runs on the Welsh border, in Scottish Highlands, south Spain, Morocco and along the banks of the Lee, over the next few weeks, thanks to kind people giving me free places to stay.  Thanks all!

Girlfriends, travel, housing and winks across the dancefloor

So since moving to Cork I’ve had about 13 housemates.  Unlucky?  Having lived with me, I think they all probably thought they were, yes.  Moving in to the house, I remember being asked whether I wanted to move in to the spare room, or switch to the big ensuite room.  For a little extra cost, I fancied a room longterm that I could make my own, so opted for the big one.  So far, so good.

  1. The chap who left the small room, went off to get married.
  2. The following chap to step into that small room was a graduate entry medic.  At the end of our year together, he left, to get married (he wasn’t engaged before being in that room).
  3. The guy who replaced him was another graduate entry medic (yes, I’ve had free health service, even in Ireland), who, you guessed it, left after six months to live with his newly married wife.
  4. For one year after that, an Iranian researcher who, during his time living here, found the love of his life and then left to marry her and live elsewhere.
  5. After that came a Brazilian friend who had nervously started going out with a girl.  I went to his wedding a few months ago.
  6. And finally??  An Irishman now living in that room, has indeed completed the current tally and is about to get married this summer.

Assuming I would want to get married, it could be that this is a divine rebuke for my selfish and materialistic grab for the large room, when I could have given others it.  And in a highly superstitious Irish culture, perhaps many may chuckle and read into it exactly that.

I chuckle but don’t.  Coincidence, I reckon.

But then one night I’m travelling from Waterford to Limerick around dusk.  Three quarters of the way there I stop to pull over a hitchhiker by a farm in a rural village.  Flowing ginger beard and a waft of ginger hair, he looks like a proper Irish stereotype, around studenty age.  His first question determines where I’m going and his second is:

“What is a Christian?”

Slightly stunned at such a question, given there is nothing in my car to suggest I would know, and given that everyone in Ireland reckons they’re Christian so doesn’t ask, I stumbled to ask him why he asked that.  “You’ve a northern accent.  You must know.  I mean protestant and catholic and all that.  Y’know?”

But as I was sure he’d met many a northerner before, I persisted.  “But what raises the question?”

Turns out he’d been travelling round the world a year and had ended up in Hawaii.  So beautiful was the experience with the community they’d met there, he decided to stay on and get to know them.  Time was running out but he wanted what they had!  So they said to him “look, we run this summer volunteer thing in Haiti this year – you should go and find us there.  Go home and raise funds and we’ll see you out there!”

And so he had done.  His family thought he’d met a cult.  “I know they said they were Christians, but that can mean anything from those born-agains to cults” they said.  “Stay clear of it”.  And so it got him thinking, “what is a Christian?”.  And so he asked the next person who he met, who happened to be me driving along.  4 minutes later and we’d reached his brother’s house and he jumped out.  All that we’d established was that the group were Youth With A Mission, that he should trust them and go, and that in the meantime he should read his Bible to see what produces this genuine faith, unlike all he’d met before.  With that, he walked off into the dark, slamming the car door behind, after briefly asking my name.

Coincidence?

To stereotype:

  • The atheist would presumably say yes, that anyone could have driven along that road.
  • The agnostic may want to remain curious but ask us to treat both cases the same.
  • The conservative (perhaps cessationist) would declare it to be the providence of God using promised means (humans).
  • And the more charismatically inclined may lean towards declaring it something more spiritual.

Perhaps I can answer some other time, but here are some questions it raises for me:

  • For those sceptical: what are the chances of these happening?  My suggestion is that the latter is far more unlikely (the former occurs as males of my age in conservative cultures tend to all pair off and get married), given how few evangelical Christians are in rural Ireland.  Maybe add into it, the fact that tens of these coincidences seem to happen regularly to me, it makes it harder to explain, but not impossible, perhaps!
  • For those keen to call it a God thing: if we are to call the latter an act of God (using human means), would we call the awful things that happen in this world also a carefully planned act of God, or is He not in control of those?  Perhaps on a basic level: this may help.  But I’m not convinced there’s any easy, neat answers, philosophically and theologically (though I may come back to this).

In the meantime for the Christian I found Kevin De Young’s book a bargain and worth reading.  And for those more sceptical still, why not ask (the-potentially-imaginary-being-in-the-sky) him to reveal himself to you?  Or start by looking where he promises to do so?  Right here: Uncover: see for yourself.  I don’t trust on any of those coincidence-like experiences to tell me about God primarily.  That’d be like depending on winks across a crowded dancefloor to tell you whether a girl actually likes you or not.  It sometimes thrills my heart and gives me butterflies.  But ultimately, I’d wanna know…like, for real.
Just do something

Spiritual good, material bad??

Often I meet folk on my travels who say: “Prayer, reading your Bible, going to church, telling others about Jesus and a few other things [my cheeky edit: not many] are great things to do.

However travelling for fun, taking time off, sleeping, having passions, playing sport, doing art, playing computer games and sex….well they’re not so good.”

Why?  Well, they’re, erm, not as spiritual!  Or so the thinking goes in most religions. 

The Islamic call to prayer reminds us that prayer is better than sleep.  I struggle to have a normal human conversation with Jehovah’s Witnesses who I meet!  And in forms of Buddhism, we must try to escape this world and the trappings of physical reality.  Even sadly some Christian preachers I’ve heard saying that the “real you” is just some soul part that will go to be with God forever in some airy fairy land in the sky.

Often called “dualism” in theology/philosophy, this ancient belief that makes you feel guilty about doing fairly normal things in life and does not look fondly on the fact that Christ is Lord over everything in life, always lurks round the corner in most Christian circles.  I would argue it stems more from Greek Platonic thought (Plato) than from the Bible but it profoundly shapes the way many of us think.

plato

Plato and some amphitheatre steps.  Probably annoyingly the cultural equivalent of having a picture of me next to a Leprechaun.

Here’s two ways it did for me at university:

I was raised with a passionate heart for Jesus and sharing Him with others.  With great Biblical teaching all my childhood, and wonderful practical training with United Beach Missions, the facts of eternity just seemed to spark an inevitable reaction with me as my convictions grew (oh so gradually!).  First year at university and I would sit and weep at my desk in Sherwood Hall, watching carefree people go past in their hundreds on the way to a lost eternity.  Thankfully the CU taught me amazing ways to share this with campus, but still, this heart for people debatably meant that I felt that doing my studies was not as God-honouring as evangelism.  Or at least the maths part certainly.  Philosophy mentions god the odd time…so that’s alright, no?  I’m thankful for those who quickly saw which way I was going and corrected my trajectory very gently, so that I could delight in serving God in mathematics lectures as much as in CU meetings!

Secondly, I guess I met dualism in my philosophy lectures.  It’s one of the most ridiculed concepts in all of philosophy (or at least Descartes was in my lectures!), and so in an aggressively secular department (all the god-dy type people went off to do their philosophy through the Nottingham Theology department with John Milbank et al.), I faced a challenge.  I think many Christians studying philosophy are stuck thinking they need to defend popular dualism.  We have a soul and a body, so we have to be philosophical dualists!  Whilst not all believers have agreed (bizarrely, if you ask me), I think some form of dualism is probably inevitable, but just not Cartesian or not necessarily even substance dualism either.  What does that leave you with?  A headache perhaps.  But I’ll have shot at answering it sometime else for those of you who are more philosophically minded.  I do think it’s more reasonable than it’s given credit for!  Or so I spent my dissertation trying to prove.

Not sure whether your travelling can really be as God-honouring as outreach?  Check out this on washing dishes, that may provoke some thoughts: A theology of mundane things, like washing up

Or try reading Julian Hardyman’s “Maximum Life” (previously “Glory
Days”).  I’ve a few second-hand copies if people want.
maximum life

 

Travelling mercies, whatever they are…

Christian lingo (Christian-eese as some may call it) is fine until you’re new to Christian things or have those around you who are and are wondering what on earth the last thing you said was.  Part of our International Cafe Team [Cork ISC] ate out last night at Sultan’s Restaurant in Cork as an end of year treat for all our hard work.  It was the last time one of the team would ever be there and the last meal another would have before flying home for the summer.

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And so before leaving, I thanked God for them, and prayed for…erm, “travelling mercies”.  I’m not going to debate whether praying for safe travel has much Biblical warrant.  But none the less when I catch myself using such language I tend to think of GK Chesterton who said:

“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”—G. K. Chesterton

A constant stream of thankfulness!

Our travel dreams are too small!

FatherTedCarefulNow

Travel and God.  Most of us may quake when we want to mix God and anything!  For many of us in Ireland he is the ultimate show-stopper.  The strait jacket that has bored us for one mass too many, and robbed us of the pleasure of going out and enjoying life.  The guilt stick in the corner, raised to hit us over the knuckles should we enjoy themselves a bit too much.  And surely travelling the world is probably in that category – most good things seem to be!

We think he’s a bit like Father Ted above, out to curb our freedom, for no particular reason.

But contrary to that, CS Lewis (the Irishman and Oxford Professor) says some fascinating things:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (The Weight of Glory, and other essays)

Lewis would suggest that the cry of God when we spend our lives craving the next travel experience, lusting over the holiday photos that our best friend just put up online, living for our holidays or whatever more subtle versions of the above, is that we are too easily pleased!  We’re like the child in the slum!  Ironically the holiday at the sea is nowhere to be found in our lives.  Lewis seems to be saying that God would say: “Dream bigger!  There’s far more out there”.

And not more holiday, or more world.  But more of the infinite One who made it all!  If travel is soo good, then how much more the One who generously gave it all.

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All very nice, but how do we know this “God” described above is not just a projection of our imagination, a comfort blanket for weak people or simply wish fulfilment?  Where are the signs that should be so obvious and where we want them to be?  Well, that’s a question I might come back to some other time (and Lewis does, in his easily read “Mere Christianity”) but for now I’ll finish with Lewis who thinks that this is at least a small sign:

“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.” (Mere Christianity)

Made for another world.

Made for a better world.

A new Heavens and Earth where the infinite God will whisper “Bigger, bigger!  Dream Bigger!” and we’ll wish we never spent so long in slums, playing with mud pies without Him.

Shuma!

Travelling Morocco is a joy.

Arriving into Marrakech airport, I was soon picked up by a local family.  One of the advantages of travelling alone this time was going to be throwing myself head-first into culture.  But one thing I was told at the very start “if you get into trouble and you feel threatened, the word in Arabic to shout is “shuma!” and people will back off.  Now I’m not sure on the validity of this advice, and I didn’t intend on getting into trouble, so it went into storage at the back of my mind and basking in the 45 degree June heat took my attention away.  Little did I know that I’d use that little phrase “shame on you” before I left the country.

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The quiet waters of a beautiful Rabat, not the usual stop on the tour guide.

From the packed Jamaa El Fna Square in Marrakech, to the hustle and bustle of the souk stalls of Fes, to the wonder of the Atlas mountains, the barren majesty of the Sahara and the surfing spots of Agadir and the coast around, Morocco is worth a visit, even in the lesser visited spots like the financial capital in Rabat (see above).

It’s been one country largely unaffected in recent years by terrorist attacks, so I could imagine its tourist trade is rocketing, with it being one of the cheapest destinations to reach from Ireland.  Given the number of Moroccans leaving to fight further east, sadly I wonder whether it won’t come under the same fate soon.

Top travel tip: stay away from the tourist traps, and regardless of attacks, you’ll be fine!  And you’ll probably also have some more genuine experiences, unlike the one I’m about to describe.

Visiting quite touristy Marrakech souks, I was hoping to strike up conversation enough to get to know stall-holders and get a feel for life behind tourism.  Going to Fes, and I turned into a stallholder, with one of the most fantastic experiences ever, living in the medina with a local family and helping a man run his souk stall!  (My thanks go to: Fes Homestay)

But being a stallholder for a day or two and travelling the length of the country means that one tends to be alert to prices.  So when a market stall holder saw money (a westerner) walking towards his stall, he thought he was in for a treat.  Declining to speak in English, I thought I was on safe ground, but when the bartering price started at £400 for a small earthen vessel, I looked amazed and declared that I have the local price and not the tourist price!

“No, no, I’m not a rich American!” (*price gets lowered by a third*)

“No, no, I’m not English…the English oppressed us for hundreds of years and left us with nothing!” (*price gets lowered by another third*)

“I am a poor Irishman” (*we agree a final price, a fraction of the first*)

I’ve only once in my travels felt so threatened and surrounded by several stallholders, all pushing excessive prices and starting to corner me and grab me physically, that I had to shout “shuma”.  Shame on you!  The ultimate Arab public insult.  Later, having spent many more hours of life with Arabs, I wonder whether I over-reacted that day to cultural intensity and bartering banter.

But since my exposure to such cultures, I started to wonder.  Why is shame and honour such a huge thing in Arab cultures?  Why do I think more of guilt in western culture?  Is it a western/eastern divide?  Or perhaps an Islamic/Christian one?  Because whatever the answer, shame and guilt poke uncomfortably into every human’s life at many points.  And it’d be handy to know why to hopefully be able to start to remove them from dominating life!

I’ve been mulling over this a few months with folk and may pen a few thoughts soon.  But in the meantime, if you know of any resources to help us all think further on it, I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime here’s some more of Morocco for those who don’t like to philosophically ponder as much!

Great minds don’t think alike…

I want everyone to be united.

Imagine a world where everyone was united!  United for equality.  United for freedom.  United for justice.  Just plain and simple united.

Well, as long as they unite round what I want.

Because that’s right, isn’t it?  I mean, everyone else is looking through their cultural lenses and past experiences.  We’re the only tolerant ones who aren’t backward looking and who can see above the reasoning and rationale of everyone else.

Or perhaps not…
…unless we want a dictatorial ruler Peter.  Rather I wonder whether what we want is unity despite diversity.  Or unity in diversity.  Sound catchy?  Perhaps I should name some learning institutions around such a concept….uni(ty-di)versity…ah wait!

What worldview would achieve such a thing, is a different question.  Is there any worldview that is equipped to help humanity, in all its diversity, thrive?

As the University College Cork motto beautifully says

“Great minds don’t think alike”.

Sadly, I’m not sure they’ve figured out how to live that one out…yet.  It’s often also one of the claims of those who travel: “travelling makes me more rounded in seeing other points of view”.  But in my limited experience of travel, cynical me wonders more whether it just gives me the arrogance to claim that I’ve seen someone else’s point of view.  I mean, a few weeks in a country probably tells me enough to give me a false impression.  A few days with a local similarly.  It’s the equivalent of reading a wiki/blog post on a topic and thinking we know something about it!

A little greek is a dangerous thing?  Or am I just cynical…

ucc-poster-great-minds-dont-think-alike

#wanderlust

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Working around universities, you get used to being asked the “3 classics”:

  1. What’s your name?
  2. Where are you from?
  3. What do you study? (or in my case, “since you don’t study here, why on earth are you on campus?”)

But now there’s a fourth that closely follows any lull in conversation:
4. Where have you travelled?

“Wanderlust” as affectionately known, has captured the heart of every twenty-something-year-old and many more besides.  During long winter months we flick through old photos, we peruse online travel guides, we escape for weekend breaks.  During spring days the talk and excitement builds: the world is our oyster!  Where shall we go?

And for students the magic happens, when, the pen is put down in the last exam and…boom!  It’s 4 months (sorry to those Brits who only get 3) of unadulterated freedom, travel and enjoying the world we’re in!

And then during autumn we reminisce and spend the days in darkened lecture halls, secretly still far away in our minds, dreaming of what has been and what still might be.

Many questions come to mind; why this craze with travel?; where should I go?; is it ok to spend life exploring the world when there are other needier causes?; who should I go with?; what’s a good theology/philosophy of travel?

And so these are just some of what I may try and attempt to think through or get others to share their thoughts on here.  In the meantime, I include a photo I took from Jugurtha’s Table in Tunisia, where Dan Ross (the Rebel Cyclist) and I stayed a night, overlooking the vast expanse into Algeria.  One of the most stunning spots I have ever slept in.  Though it did come at a cost, having been followed up the mountain by armed men, accosted by them and later left alone to sleep amongst “very dangerous wild animals”.  But that’s a story for another time!

Another blog…

Why another blog I’ve already been asked several times?

Does this young man arrogantly think he has something to share with the world?
Does he not know that we’re distracted enough already by online things?
Will he try to justify his every action and condemn everyone else?

Perhaps on a bad day, I’ll get it all wrong.  But for now I’ll steal Hans Rookmaaker’s title “Art needs no justification” and let you decide over time whether this is art you wish to return to or not.

For a fuller story of why I’m writing, why not check out “The story of Al-jabr”

Thanks for reading!