Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures (Book review, IVP Academic, 2016)

I sat in the Christian Union (non-denominational campus ministry) missions committee meeting in my own house, just like every month of every semester.  But now, more than ever before, it all made sense.  This is why people were acting like this!

We had begun at 7pm with a meal.  I say “began” rather loosely.  Because at 7pm, the only one who’d shown up was the British student.  The Irish trundled in a little later, bringing a Germanic student with them (who didn’t know the way).  By 7.50pm, we were settling down to tea, coffee and dessert, and I was mightily impressed at how quickly things were moving.

Until the Germanic lady startled the room and drew everyone quiet:

“When are we starting the meeting?”

Many puzzled faces.

“I mean, I will have to leave soon” she said.

“When do you need to leave?” I asked.

“Uh, I guess pretty soon”.

And so with that knowledge, I “started” the meeting.  The fact that this was the first meeting of a committee, and that she didn’t know anyone yet, didn’t strike her as needing all this social faff before the meeting “proper”.  Nor did being in a culture that hugely values people, connections and relational life.

“Say who you are, what you study, where you’re from and why you wanted to be on the missions committee.”

And so we went round the room.  Much to the visible distress of the British, the answers to why they wanted to be on missions committee, were nothing to do with mission!

“I thought it’d be good craic” (x2)

“I wanted to be more involved in the community here in CU” (x3)

“Er, well, I think mission is great, and God has commanded it, so I want to reach the campus with the good news of Jesus” he said.

Silence.

Before the final person quickly took up the reins and said that they were there for the craic too.  Phew.  Awkward serious moment resolved.

Shortly afterwards, the Germanic lady got up and left.

“What was up with her?” said one of the Irish students, there for the craic.  “Is she not keen on this whole missions week thing?”


Culture is a baffling thing!  And the fact that the Bible was written by humans in a particular culture may not appear to immediately help the issue.  That evening to look at Acts 17, we first needed to see what culture the author was writing into.  Then from there, we needed to assess what culture we sit in, and then hardest of all, make the bridge from one culture to the other.

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The simplest of tasks like walking past a graveyard, becomes a complicated action when you’ve people from different cultural frameworks there!

The tricky thing about culture is that we all think we’re Biblical.  Because we read scripture through our own lenses.  Nigerians will always declare the Irish to not be passionate about faith at all (as you’ll see in this interview here).  British will always find the Irish not to be direct enough about an urgent proclamation of the gospel.  Americans will find the relational way of going about things to be the most unproductive, nepotistic way of doing life possible.  And those from Germany find the Irish to be quite two-faced…saying “yes” to things and yet not actually appearing to do them, or to turn up at all.

Are the Irish just a horrible bunch of people, in a culture seething with horrid practices?

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Because no Irish sign will ever directly tell you to do something….without at least making a joke about it.

Well, given I’m an Irishman writing this blog, I guess you may anticipate my response.  But this book (yes, we finally are getting to it), is one that will help anyone thinking through these questions or similar ones.

Jayson Georges and Mark D Baker play on years of experience of ministering within shame-honoUr (I insist on the proper spelling, sorry!) cultures.  The whole book is out to persuade us that there are 3 paradigms for culture:

  1. Fear and Power (Often thought to be African, animistic settings with witchdoctors)
  2. Shame and Honour (often considered to be Eastern settings)
  3. Guilt and Innocence (often considered to be Western settings)

And that none of them are “correct” or necessarily better than the other.  Here’s one chart to illustrate how we each think poorly about others who think differently:

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The book weaves in helpful stories from real life, solid handling of Biblical scriptures and texts, and very helpful nuances to their argument.  Here’s 3 things that I found helpful about that.

Firstly all their work was Biblical and opened my eyes (who has been theologically reading endless amounts) to new insights, fresh ways of thinking and things that warmed my heart about the God we serve.  Seeing outside of my own perspective is refreshing and paradigm shifting.  I’ll never be able to look back again.

Secondly their application to culture was very refreshing.  Their principles of what “shame/honour” culture looks like never stayed abstract.  They tell story after story of very helpful tales, all of which resounded with me and made sense.

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Up on top of a mountain with other international students, and I was interrupted by an Irish Aviation Authority tannoy system, telling us that the Gards had been called (in order to shame us into leaving).  The fact that the Gards had clearly not been called, is besides the point.

And thirdly, they always gave caveats to their arguments and never try and broad brushstroke everything.  Because “western” culture is not all guilt-innocence related.  In fact, in Ireland, according to those I’ve had do their test online here, Ireland is a good bit more shame orientated than guilt.  They also made the case that everyone will have some kind of mixture of values, and that it’s impossible to be all things to all men.  The more one delves into a particular framework and lives by it, the more alienating one will be to those of other cultures.  Try and stay separate from everything?  Impossible!  And you’ll only run the rick of not resonating with anyone.

This book is a fantastic point to delve deeper into this key topic, and those around me in Cork will know that it’s impacted me enough that they’ve had to endure me excitedly giving them a running commentary on culture in every gathering we’ve entered for the last few weeks.  However, if you’ve never thought about it before, this will be heavy going and you may prefer to start with reading chapter one, and then seeing for a few months whether you see what they’re talking about, as you look on life with others.

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Finding God in my loneliness (Book review, Crossway, 2017)

I’ve previously noted that travelling can be a lonely world, but ever lonelier can be trying to settle down after you travel.  At least in travelling, loneliness came by choice.  But in marriage, in singleness, in settling down and other things, it doesn’t seem to be the case.  Lydia Brownback correctly says in her introduction:

“That’s why everyone — young or old, single or married — experiences loneliness.  No one is exempt”

But why is this?

One of the most powerful moments in the whole book is a quotation that helped me to really grasp that I often place my treasure in the wrong place.  In a world that screams “I’m your oyster – have me any time, any place or anyhow”, comes paralysis.  Paralysis in options.  Too many of them.

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Alone travelling down Ireland, but in the presence of my Maker

“The god of open options is a cruel and vindictive god. He will break your heart. He will not let anyone get too close. But at the same time, because he is so spiteful, he will not let anyone get too far away because that would mean they are no longer an option. On and on it continues, exhausting and frustrating and confusing and endless, pulling towards and then pushing away, like the tide on a beach, never finally committing one way or the other. We have been like the starving man sitting in front of an all-you-can-eat buffet, dying simply because he would not choose between the chicken and the shrimp.

The god of open options is also a liar. He promises you that by keeping your options open, you can have everything and everyone. But in the end, you get nothing and no one.”

And that “god of options” can be smoothly dressed in a beautiful, Christian (modest) dress, with sparkly shoes.  Options about how one invests one’s life.  Options of who (or whether) to marry.  Options of simply being so nuanced, we never say anything of any importance.  It’s a tug that the author feels so well as she sits with us in our loneliness in other chapters:

  1. Loneliness in Leaving
  2. Loneliness of Night
  3. Loneliness of Obedience
  4. Loneliness of Running Away
  5. Loneliness of Grief
  6. Loneliness of being different
  7. Loneliness of being unclean
  8. Loneliness of Misplaced Love
  9. Loneliness of marriage
  10. Loneliness of being unmarried

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What I enjoyed (if I can use that word) about Lydia’s experiences and writing was that it did not come from a place of privilege in some senses.  It is fine for me to write about loneliness while unmarried, but ultimately, I have a choice in who to pursue (in conservative Christian circles where the male pursues), and so my loneliness my not be as intense.  Equally it is fine for me to write about being “different” and yet so many things are stacked in my favour that do not make me different (me being Caucasian, male, heterosexual etc) that even in my difference, I am similar.  Equally in my “obedience” of wanting to embrace the “unengaged/unreached” world, even if it means foregoing some relationships (of all sorts).  That’s fine for me, but there are tens of women out there who are foregoing marriage by doing so, for every one male who does.

But ultimately no matter what level of privilege (and Lydia must have a fair bit, given her educational background and ability to write for a major western publisher), she beautifully points us to the fact that Christ is enough.  And beyond being enough, that knowing Jesus and being plugged in to his body, the church, will help us to make the most of our loneliness and thrive not despite of but because of our loneliness.  Because as she so adeptly says at the start, our loneliness is partly there to point us to the greater reality that we were made for something more.

Made to connect to something greater.

Made to delve into depths of far deeper relational connectedness than this world could ever give us.

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This, is a book for travellers.  I mean, it’s a book for anyone and everyone, but one especially that connects to the travelling heart and re-orientates our travels towards God.

My only complaint?  It was so short that I could easily put it to one side and not let some spiritual “heart surgery” be done.  Perhaps I should go back and meditate on the beauty of encountering a Christ who walked our lonely road perfectly before us, and now walks our lonely road with us at all times.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” 

(Isaiah 53:3)

And people wonder why a Triune God appeals to me…

 

Dying to Travel: “we died before we came here” (Book review)

I’m always nervous about stories of travelling to your martyrdom.  Partly because the question “what are you prepared to die for?” is rarely as simple as the questions suggests.  There’s a rare case in which Christians are taken by their captors and asked to deny their faith in Jesus or die, and there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable other way of viewing it.  I could think of the Egyptian Christians taken by ISIS on the beach in Libya, and shot.

ISIS Egypt

In other cases there’s far more nuance about why such folk are killed.  Was it simply for their faith, or had they been abusing their colonial powers or privilege or been perceived to be on the side of those who were treating people awfully?

In the first few chapters of this gripping book, “Emily” (not her real name) tells of how her husband gave her Foxe’s Book of Martyrs when they were dating and asked her whether she was willing to live and die for Jesus.  But as someone who also read such a book when I was younger, I was not only encouraged by the stories, but also appalled by some of the political warfare, colonial attitudes and sectarian bigotry that led to many of the deaths, or the lack of information to prove otherwise.

Thankfully what emerged from the book was a story of genuine love for North African people who had not had a chance to hear of the name of Jesus.  The questions the book raises are exemplary to get people thinking of what it would take to cross cultures and take the good news to others.  The stories she tells are answers to the common objections that are raised by others on why such lifestyles are foolish.  Wouldn’t going to such a place ruin your children’s lives?  Isn’t it unnecessary risk?  Do Muslims in North Africa deserve the good news?  Do you have to be superhuman to go?  And the way that she tells them had me wanting to finish the book in a day!  It’s an easily read story of ordinary (but obviously gifted) humans, told with honesty and passion.

The main learning curve for me, was again in the story of martyrdom.  For me in my Christian life here in Ireland, I’ve always been baffled that it’s not the “non-Christians” who have caused me most pain in life, but Christians at my side.  And the more I go on, the more I think that despite such great pain, that they were genuine believers and not just “Christians” by name only who caused this misery.  I’m still examining the scriptures to see whether this is to be expected and Biblically normal to expect this.  But regardless, so it is with this story.we died before we came here

Her husband is billed as being a tremendous human being, working for an NGO and loved by all.  She portrays his faults, yes, but largely has great praise for such a man.  But Emily tells us of believers who (despite being some of the better discipled ones,) were so young in the faith, that when they were confronted over some patterns of sin of stealing, they turned against Stephen (her husband) and wrote articles about him on fundamentalist Islamic websites, where they’d be seen by extremists who would quite happily “deal” with him.

All this is quickly and quietly summarised in a few paragraphs on page 133 of the book, nearly in passing.  She also explains that their team situation had been escalating between expats, and that because of other reasons, they didn’t defend him.  She mentions that Stephen had tried to do Biblical rebuke/confrontation well, going first to the individual and then the group, but she doesn’t explain how this might have looked in a shame/honour culture, or whether they just ploughed on ahead with their usual western way of reading that passage in scripture “if a brother sins against you…”.

It was this, that set up his martyrdom.  But like many cases of martyrdom, it’s a murky one.  Did Stephen die for his faith in Jesus?  Or did he die because he didn’t know how to pastorally handle messy cases in shame/honour culture?  Why did his colleagues or team mates not defend him and prevent such things happening?

Similar questions have been raised in recent years about other martyrs, right up to the most prolific of Christian stories of people like the Jim Elliot in the Amazon.  Why did they have guns on them at the time?

But ultimately, despite the grey areas and question marks over the story, I do believe it is a story where Stephen did indeed die for his faith in Christ, and that his story is one that needs to be told.  Because ultimately, in the Christian narrative, Christ is not dying for those who perfectly follow him.  Christ is not abandoning those even who deny him temporarily (Peter).  Christ claims a weak and messy Bride as His own.  And even when it may be partly our fault for the abuse that we may get, it is still abuse for the sake of Him.  No one made those Islamic fundamentalists shoot him (or whoever it was).  No action of Stephen’s provoked them, other than His faith in Jesus and his spreading of it.

And so I’m praying that this book would touch many hearts and lives, as it has mine, and be an example of Tertullian’s oft quoted phrase:Tertullian

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

I mean, it hasn’t always been that way.  The land of Augustine in north africa was a land where the church seemed to be persecuted out of existence for nearly 1500 years.  And in other settings we could report the same.  But in many cases, martyrdom has grown the church, and I’m praying such stories would do that, as many consider the call to die to themselves and live for Christ.  Emily, in a powerful way, writes that Stephen (and her family) could deal somewhat with his death in a better way, because of the words of a missionary (james Calvert) to Fiji and the Pacific Islands long ago who went before cannibals with the good news of Jesus:

“We died before we came here.”

And if we’re dying to self each day, and living for Christ, such stories of travelling for your martyrdom will be true, regardless of whether it is a physical death you are dying or whether a spiritual death of dying to self.

Traveller I ask you, will you be a martyr in your travels?  Will you die each day you live?

Confessions of a travel writer…

I guess the book review that I wrote yesterday comes with a bit of a caveat.  As I was sending my final manuscript of my book to the senior editor of the publishing company, a few friends very helpfully sent me a link to this newly published book.  Not knowing the implications of what that meant for the book that I was working on, I gulped, ordered my copy, and prayed that God would help me hold lightly to my aspirations of writing a book.

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Kilcrea Friary, Co Cork, late September.  The beautiful ruins on every street corner in Ireland remind me of the state of my own heart and thinking.  Made beautiful, but badly ruined, even as a regenerate believer. (c) my own

I mean, technically that was always my prayer, ever since the publishing company approached me and asked me whether I would consider such a book.  But I think this is one of the few times I’ve had to really consider whether I meant it.

Am I writing for the glory of Peter, or for the glory of God?

Do I delight that God is raising up others (in this case more qualified than me theologically) to write on this timely topic?

Will I speak positively of this book, and keep the main thing the main thing, or will I knit-pick and point out all the perceived flaws in it?

I technically know what all the answers should be to that.  Just like any moral situation.  But my heart doesn’t always find it easy to persuade my hands of the truth of the matter.

I love disguising the glory of Peter behind glory of God language.

I love praising others, while at the same time making my thoughts known about them.

I find it easy to drop positive reviews while insinuating far more negative to the astute reader.

Life is messy.  The blacks and whites of truth seem to mould and shift into greys as soon as they hit my life.  Anyone else?

Thankfully family and friends who I’ve been able to confess these things to, have helpfully reminded me of truths from the good news that are far better than the good news that I may or may not receive from the publishing house boardroom on Tuesday, when my contract is discussed.

After sitting with me in my worries and tongue-in-cheek suggesting that I negatively review the book in every evangelical magazine and paper in this part of the world, they point me to greater realities of where my identity lies; that there’s nothing in me that “ought” to get a book contract; that we rejoice in worldwide partnership in the gospel, not competition in the gospel; and that actually, this might free me to better get people thinking about the topic, without being seen to be out to sell merchandise.

It’s at moments like these that I am thankful for Church community.  And for all the same questions that I apply to my life about “why write?”, I guess we could apply similar to our hearts about “why travel?”, which is what the concluding chapter of Stephen Liggins’ book does so well.

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My mind sadly works over-time, long after everyone has gone home to relax.  Justifying myself and then reminding myself I’ve been justified already by One who has done a better job at it than I could ever do. (Photo here at Cork Institute of Technology 05/10/17 (c) )

 

Book Review: Travelling the World as Citizens of Heaven (Liggins, Matthias Media)

Hallelujah!  It’s here.

Finally a Christian who thinks travel is a topic that merits some thought and wants to help us engage in the global phenomenon that has struck our wandering millennials (myself included).

And Stephen Liggins (an Aussie pastor/Sydney Missionary Bible College lecturer) didn’t disappoint.  Although I gulped a little at the “why I wrote this book”, and wondered whether we were going to have a tirade against travel, my early fears were relaxed as soon as I got stuck into to story after story from round the world.  Here was something who agreed with me that the Bible thinks travel is good!

The author takes us on a journey, seeing that travel is always in the presence of God (chapter 1), is good (chapter 2) and then gets very practical about how to connect with Christians (chapter 3), how to connect with those who aren’t Christian (chapter 4).  In chapter 5, he considers travelling in a suffering world, and then finishes off with practical advice in chapter 6 and some questions to our motivations in chapter 7.

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I love Stephen’s travel tales, that were so relatable in nature, that if you swapped stories, they could have been mine or yours too.  Finding himself in awkward group settings doing things he didn’t really want to be doing.  Finding himself chatting alongside a beautiful female late at night and wondering what he will do.  Wondering whether he should go on that holiday for months on end, or save every penny for other things?  These and so many more positive situations and stories.

This book oozes so much practical advice for on the road, that it would be a great read for someone as they travelled.  And yet for me, what it is most helpful for is learning from Stephen’s personal example and lifestyle.  The conversations he has had.  The way he decides to make choices.  The dilemmas of life.

But sadly two things irked me about this book.

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  1. how gospel truth is communicated

Stephen has a beautiful view of God.  I mean the Bible has a beautiful God, so it would be disappointing if we didn’t communicate this.  But it is clear from His writing that Stephen really thinks this is worth living for.  And he conveys it well, particularly in early chapters about the nature of a God who is with us, and about the nature of this world.

But I found he also rather dominated the book with a list of instructions.  I don’t know whether this is a difference in how Aussies communicate authority or commands, or just an older generation attempting to speak to a younger one, but it seemed to me to be like a parent listing of a list a “do” or “don’t do” things before their child headed off to explore the big, bad world.

Refrains that struck a lot were his thoughts on alcohol, sex, drugs, money etc.  And I’m not sure I would have disagreed with much of what he wrote, but I did wonder whether it needed brought up as much as it did.  They are huge issues while travelling, but I’m not sure the solution is to tell us thrice over about his “two drink” policy, wise as it may be (and caveated as his advice was).

Even the chapter on suffering turned into a comment on sex, drugs and racism (amongst other things).

2. cultural suggestions taking precedence

There were a few points in the book where I just thought Stephen was writing to a very conservative, western audience (socially so, not just theologically).  Socially, I wondered whether he needed to make as big a deal over how to chat to people about Jesus or how to apply some things.

For example, as a “Christian worker”, I can choose one of two ways to take a conversation when asked what I do.  I can make it awkward and tell a very forthright description, or I can give some response that will seem relevant to the listener.  Primarily because I want to be known for being human, before people know me as a Christian, I often do the latter.  And opportunities (through questions I ask), often open up windows of opportunity to say more.  There are other ways of doing things that aren’t his.

Equally, on hammering on about the importance of the evangelical “quiet time”, Stephen could well lose a respect from a traveller who has learnt far more flexibly to commune with God.  Obviously it depends a lot on the traveller and their spirituality, but I could easily imagine the type of person who is on the road, won’t appreciate being forced into such narrow definitions of what it might be to have a healthy communing with Him.

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Despite this, I was comforted that Stephen on his travels obviously was someone greatly used by God and a real person with a love for other humans, no matter who they were.  One doesn’t often get a letter back from a woman who said (pg. 122):

“Hi Stephen,

Lovely to hear from you again.  I can clearly remember that boat trip.  It was a time in my life when I had strayed away from Jesus.  I was fascinated to meet these two guys who were full of the joys of life and liked travelling to discover new places as I did.  I remember being somewhat surprised when you said you were training to be ministers.  This blew my perception of what a strong believing Christian was like, completely out of the water.  You seemed so normal and alive [and] seemed to get on with everyone on the boat….I often thought that meeting the two of you was a pivotal point in my coming back to Christ.”

What marvelous warmth of faith and personality that meant that this was just one of many stories in the book!  And things like that made me confident that regardless of what I disagreed with culturally and in emphasis, that this was a book that I would happily give out to my students and my travelling friends to help them and me as we travel this world together.  Much more could have been put in such a volume, but I’m very thankful that this author has opened the door for far more thinking on this topic at an understandable level!  May the conversation continue…

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“Home” – just one of the topics I was surprised he didn’t touch upon much (if at all), despite the title and the nature of travelling for fulfilment. Photo (c) my own

The world is on your doorstep – will you let it in?

You don’t need to travel to be a global minded person.  Here’s a few ways Global Connections suggest we as Christians can be global-minded and share God’s heart for the nations:

  • read things written by Christians in other parts of the world, cultures (not just western ones), classes (not just middle class ones) and backgrounds
  • invite such speakers to speak at our conferences

For the original:

http://www.globalconnections.org.uk/churches/global-mission/learning-from-the-global-church

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The world is on our doorstep…will you let it in?

Book review: The Art of Travel (De Botton, Penguin, 2002)

  1. What worldview gives unfettered freedom to travel and enjoy the world (in the present)?

  2. What worldview frees you from being controlled by such desires and travels?

These are the two questions in which I would sum up Alain de Botton’s riveting book.  He’d probably shoot me for saying it.  But let me explain.art-of-travel-botton

This book is a treat.  With art and culture scattered throughout the book, Alain finds some obscure tour guides of past culture and history to introduce us to aspects of travel.  When he’s not doing this, he’s inserting tales of his own, but never in a way that leaves you feeling like that awkward person at the party who has to listen to everyone never shutting up about their travels to far flung lands.  His use of the English language, his way of portraying even bland scenes, and his command of imagery is stunning, and is worth the read even for that.

But like all post-modern writers, they strike a grave difficulty as they attempt to lead you on a joyful, purposeless wander through (in this case) travel.  Because at some point, free-ing as it seems to be offered unfettered, chaotic travel, a big, bad “BUT” comes in.

In this case with Alain, his BUT is an understanding that we can live in chaos.  He gets to a third of the way through a book with random tales, but then he insists on preaching his ordered, secular message to us through the words of another, that “any attempts to create order imply a censorious and prudish denial of our condition” (p. 783 Kindle).  In other words, “if you try to tell me how to travel and insert some order into travel, you can get lost, because that’s not how we are” [or how I want to be].  I mean it’s a nuanced attempt (and far more nuanced than some art that derides a word-centred worldview and then has to describe what the art means, in words) to tell us that we don’t live in an ordered world…..with ordered words, in a book that doubtless has order and intentionality.

And with this, he fails to convince me on the first question, that the secular worldview can give us unfettered freedom to travel with no order or law to how you go about it.  Apart from his secular law which he’ll now proclaim.

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Found here, some common Stoic thought

However to the second question, he gives a far more interesting answer that no matter what worldview you adhere to, you would do well to listen.  He never says it outright, but he insinuates that we’ll never be able to remain chasing big travel moments and be happy.  The reality lies beyond the travel brochure pictures which painted for us the idyllic, and set our expectations so high that we couldn’t help but be disappointed.

And in realising things like this, De Botton concludes that happiness is primarily psychological, not material (p. 273 Kindle).  Happiness cannot be decided by how many places we visit, or the state of the places we find (for we would always fall short or be disappointed).  So happiness must involve expectations and imagination and being content like the Stoics.  The traveller is not merely chasing the present experience, but potentially also the memory and the dream, and being content in the present (where we are, what we have deemed ourselves to be).  In his documentary, he goes nearly further into Eastern thought, and suggests that we should try to lose ourselves and our feelings, in order to gain happiness.

But another sad thing for the stoic, is that he deems that he’s unable to change messy reality, and therefore, he must create a new one (p. 926 Kindle).  He thinks that this is free-ing because it doesn’t nail his colours to one thing, and leave him standing against others.  For example, in creating his identity as a Chinese-Arab person, he doesn’t force himself to forever be either one, and against the other (p. 941 Kindle).  But surely this is a false dichotomy?  What if the Christian traveller could be fully Chinese (what he truly was born), yet delight in all nations, and have a passion for all peoples?  He could learn from all cultures, all genders, all occupations, all languages, and yet realise he is a limited creature, and cannot delude himself into thinking he will be all things to all men perfectly.  Surely in realising his limitations, it would free him to enjoy adventuring to expand his horizons?

In several brief and borrowed moments of sanity, the author (through Nietzsche) borrows from Christian belief, in seeing that what you believe changes how you act, and therefore changes stuff (p. 1059 Kindle).  Or so it should.  It shouldn’t remain a dry construct on a page.  Other things follow on, that the majesty of nature brings out good in us (p. 1447) and that it makes us feel small (p. 1552).  The the sublime is really sublime in the world, because we feel weak (p. 1562).  Turning Pascal around (p.1904 Kindle), he instead says that in painting an image, we point to something we can create, more beautiful than the original, perhaps.  But Pascal’s point was that we point to a creator, in the things we paint.  They are mere shadows, not because we could imagine better, but because there is better, in another place – a new Heavens and a new Earth.  And so it’s on those dispersed notes that I finish.

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Can the secular worldview give unfettered freedom to travel the world?  

Well, not while it continues to be a preached, wordy message, telling us exclusively what to think about reality.  That’s no more freeing than the Christian exclusive message.

Can such a secular worldview free us from being controlled by such desires from travel, to enjoy the small things in life?  

I’d argue not as well as the Christian message could, that has our identity firmly in other places (in Christ) and frees us to enjoy the world under His Lordship without being controlled by it.  For His yoke is a light one, and His New Creation a million more times stunning than the beautiful ruin we stand in front of now.  And in the meantime, He enables us to engage the messiness straight on, and not have to re-create ourselves to try and avoid it.

Will you buy the secular vision of travel?  It promises so much.  But will it live up to its calling?  Or will it be vanity – mere soapy bubbles.  All talk but no substance.

TED talks and travelling

If there’s one thing that comes close to rivalling travel in student conversations (and even this doesn’t come close), then it’s TED talks.  Billions of people watch them every year on their website, and every so often one does the rounds on Facebook.  Chris Anderson (the Head of TED) has recently brought out a book on public speaking which would surprise many TED cynics who think TED are all style and no substance.

In it, he quotes Tierney Thys (biologist and TED speaker) who links talks to travel:

“Like all good movies or books, a great talk is transporting.  We love to go on adventures, travel someplace new with an informed, if not quirky, guide who can introduce us to things we never knew existed, incite us to crawl out windows into strange worlds, outfit us with new lenses to help us see the ordinary in an extraordinary way….enrapture us and engage multiple parts of our brains simultaneously.  So I often try to fashion my talks around embarking on a journey”

[Chris continues himself] What is powerful about this metaphor is that it makes clear why the speaker, like any tour guide, must begin where the audience is.  And why they must ensure no impossible leaps or inexplicable shifts in direction.

(pg. 20 TED Talks, Anderson, Headline Publishing)

And it’s why that I think that although there are some obvious gulfs between TED Talks and what preaching should be, the similarities exist that we wish to take our hearers on a ted-talksjourney from where they are.  It’s why I think Christian Persuaders connects with people in a way that much of modern preaching and evangelistic talks don’t.  It would have us believe that an Acts 17 model to a secular generation is:

  1. Identification
  2. Persuasion
  3. Invitation

Perhaps more on this journey later.

 

 

Book review: A Better Story (Harrison, IVP, 2017)

(Normal readers of Al-jabr, please excuse a final detour into book reviews, as the site I will now normally post them on struggled to get this one up in time.  Not that this book will be entirely unrelated to the travel-bug that has struck our individualistic world)

Ireland.  The Magdalene Laundries.

It’s here that Glynn Harrison (former professor of psychology in Bristol University, now retired) starts us thinking about the sexual revolution that has happened since the 60s.  Is another book about sex and Christianity really needed?  Well after reading this one, I would say that not only was it needed, but it’ll be one I recommend to all students to read this year (and I don’t say that about many).

The book is split into three parts that could as easily be entitled:

  1. where we’ve come from (“a better understanding”),
  2. the present condition of our own hearts (“a better critique”), and
  3. a way forward (“a better story”).

In describing where we’ve come from, Glynn recognises that we must examine the whole culture of the air we breathe each day.  Porn is not the problem (primarily).  Sleeping around is not the problem.   And activists for other worldviews are not the problem.  They are simply products of the world that we live in.  And so to help ourselves and the world, we must know where we are and why we are there.  But don’t worry, in case that sounds scary and philosophical.  Glynn will make you think, but is easy to relate to, does it in bitesize chunks and convinced me he feels what I feel.

In part two of the book the author then persuades me that I am not removed from this culture.  That I have major areas of struggle and sin in my own life, impacted by living in this time of revolution.  The problem is primarily not “out there” with those people ruining our society.  Nor can anything be reversed.  We are so far away from where we came from in the sexual revolution, and the old way of doing life had so many problems too.

The sexual revolution isn’t primarily about the ‘hot-button’ issues being fiercely contested in the so-called culture wars. It is about a much wider, deeper unravelling. And where the revolution forces us to sit up and think, we should be grateful. There can be no ‘going-backery’. No hankering after some bucolic paradise of the 1950s that never actually existed. Where the revolution has forced us to face our shame and hypocrisy, we should say ‘thank you’ – and mean it. Only then will we be ready to put the claims and promises of the sexual revolution under a critical spotlight.” (p. 89)

Finally in part three Harrison beautifully turns and paints a true vision of flourishing sexuality.  He shows that the secular worldview that craved individual freedom and better sex has left itself wanting, with people having sex less often and fewer being satisfied when they do.  Instead they’ve ended up more lonely and isolated than ever, having less social interaction.  Instead, we are to satisfy ourselves to live as God created sex to be.  And in case this starts to sound old and boring, Glynn’s view of sex is a far way removed from what you may have heard in an average church each week (or not heard, as the case more likely is).  He tells a story of even someone like myself, a single twenty-something-year-old who has never had sex, being a flourishing, sexual being, giving people a glimpse of a better earthy reality, and a faithful God who waits for His marriage day to an unfaithful people.a-better-story

Glynn’s stories has been crafted from raw experiences from his life as a researcher and professor.  They’ve been trialled and tested in lectures, seminars, talks and interactive workshops across the UK and Ireland, and having been one of many who’s been stimulated and challenged by him in that context, I’m delighted he’s put some of his material into book form.

But it’s not primarily his academic research that creates such a good book.  It’s his humanity.  His authenticity.  His ability to sit with us in our struggles, and not just rant about how far society has degraded.  With balanced lenses he puts his arm round us and tells us of a better story.  And in doing that in this book, takes us by the hand and starts to walk us towards that goal.

It’s too early to say whether this will be one of my 2017 top ten, but I just have an inkling it might!  Order your copy in NI from here or in Ireland from me.

*****************

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book by IVP to review, but this in no way affected my review of it, nor was I entitled to give a positive review.

Unity, post-election.

There’s nothing like making a few Donald Trump jokes.  That was the mood my house were in this morning.  A friend, staying over last night was quick to google search “Trump jokes” probably to lighten a fairly gloomy mood on a rainy, cold, winter’s morning in Ireland, when you’ve just learnt the news of the US elections.  But sadly googling that is exactly why I think most of us Europeans are no better than the mud-pie slinging Americans who are sitting in their polemical political camps, throwing things at each other from a distance.

This is a book review of “The Righteous Mind” by Jonthe-righteous-mindathan Haidt (Penguin books) which has been one of my top-reads in the last year (and for those of you who know how avidly I read, that says something!).  Jonathan is an academic social psychologist, but also an American Democrat.  But if that would put you off, please don’t let it – he writes purposely to describe how he thinks we can sit down side by side and talk constructively in the political and religious realm, instead of just talking past each other, and mis-understanding the “other” as just something from our nightmares.

He follows on from other recent works in social psychology (and perhaps goes back to agreeing with Aristotle and many before) to persuade us that we’re not so rational as humans as we’d like to think.  As an intuitionist about moral values, Haidt thinks that “the emotional dog wags the rational tail”.  His thoughts have been previously well drawn on in other works such as “Switch” (another must-read in my opinion, for those wanting to learn to bring about change in this world), but makes a convincing case, even if you haven’t read them.  (A video here to explain.)

Once he has convinced us of this, he then spends some time trying to look beyond our blind spots to see how conservative and liberal minds think morally.  Summed up in these two diagrams, this powerful analysis would help people at opposite ends of the political spectrum to not just throw mud-pies at each other, but to understand that there may be strong rationale why  people vote certain ways on certain issues, and how we can appeal to other voters and talk in terms that are meaningful to them.

righteousmind-conservative

righteousmind-liberal

Once we understand these frameworks (for which he gives evidence in the book), and seem (intuitively!!) to me to be correct, we can start to talk.

Thirdly, Haidt goes on to argue for evolutionary group selection.  Given how much common populace reading (think Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and others) has derailed such concepts, it was eye-opening to me to see him advocating for such and suggesting that others will/do.  Perhaps I’m just behind on the academic thinking at the moment.  Through this, he tries to argue that anything that binds us together in social groupings could be for the advancement of society.  This would help an atheist to see the good of religion, as well as democrats to see and start to understand why having republican groupings might be good (and vice versa for both).

Finally he applies it concretely to life.  There are not those who are “good” and those who are “evil” as we so often like to pretend (we, or anyone who agrees with us, of course, are the good).  There is good and evil in everyone, and we must sit together and learn from each other.  Admittedly he says, it will be hard.  And if this election is anything to go by, the elephant has chosen the easy path, which is sitting in our camps yelling loudly.

Perhaps it’s the one fault of this book.  By it’s own theory (part 1), it will be virtually impossible to enact.  We are too emotionally driven to see its sense.  But for those who wish to see unity, I suggest this book is remarkable and well worth the read, particularly if you are a leader wanting to bring about change, or someone so frustrated with an “other” side of a political or religious grouping that you can’t fathom the attraction of it or how to bring about change.

(NB: for those concerned or persuaded that his group evolutionary thought may mean Christianity is a mere social construct, I can point you elsewhere.)