“How we all came to believe in freedom, kindness, progress and equality”
Glen takes 7 values that virtually everyone (in the West) believes in and lives for, and seeks to ask why we shape our lives around them. Equality, Compassion, Consent, Enlightenment, Science, Freedom and Progress. Where can we get our justification for saying these are good things? Was there a moment in history when people started believing in these things and shaping life around them? By believing in these things, are we just mindlessly having faith in unprovable values that we like or find comfortable?
Who is it written for?
Glen conveys that he writes for 3 audiences:
‘Nones‘ – many who are atheistic or agnostic but have perhaps never stopped to think where these precious values might have come from.
‘Dones‘ – the many people in our part of the globe who would perhaps have described themselves as ‘Christian’ at some point in their life but now no longer do, and who see the immense problems with it.
‘Wons‘ – so that followers of Jesus can understand where they and the world around them got their values from, and how to better live with confidence in the days ahead.
“It is not necessary to be a Christian to appreciate the force of Glen Scrivener’s argument in this punchy, engaging and entertaining book.”
Tom Holland (Historian, Author and Podcaster)
A bit about it
As I’ve enjoyed Glen’s YouTube podcasts over the past couple of years, with varied thought-leaders from across the globe, I was crazily anticipating this book at the end of it all, and it didn’t disappoint. He writes in short, snappy chapters, yet readers would be mistaken to think there’s no depth in there. If you watch Glen’s YouTube series, you’ll know that each sentence, and certainly each chapter, is backed up by leading thinkers of diverse background. For example, in his introduction he lists a book or two per chapter that support his writing, as well as stating what he is and isn’t trying to do in this book.
Each chapter tries to take us on a short history of the idea or concept, and help us to see that really each one comes about in history because of Jesus. That other cultures and worldviews are radically opposed to such thinking (or should be, unless they’ve blindly borrowed these ideas).
And in case that sounds too far-fetched an agenda to be true, others across the West are starting to realise Glen’s main thrust of his argument. In the Irish Times ‘Inside Politics’ podcast, Hugh Linehan has just done a very similar interview, bringing out some of the points Glen tries to make. And that’s not to mention people like the secular historian Tom Holland’s foundational work “Dominion”, and many others like Larry Siedentop, Rodney Stark, Kyle Harper and Joseph Henrich, to name a few that Glen quotes (none of whom are Christians).
Ultimately, Glen tries to convince each group of something:
‘Nones‘ – that most of the values they hold to are indeed Christian values, only come about through Jesus. You can’t have these values without Jesus. Or you can, but you’d be basing life on blind faith.
‘Dones‘ – that the values they (rightly!) judge Christianity by, are indeed Christian values. That there isn’t any leg to stand on to try and judge Christianity, unless these values are true.
‘Wons‘ – that Jesus’ values are worth holding on to, sharing and enjoying in their right context.
The group of young adults who I read this with particularly enjoyed Glen’s quotation towards the end of the book:
“Be half a Christian and you shall have enough religion to make you miserable”
Glen really helped us to see that we all want to live by Jesus’ values, even if we find those who take Jesus’ name utterly repulsive at times. But that to take his values, without taking him, is just giving ourselves a list of preachy rules to keep, applied by everyone differently. It is taking enough of Him to make our lives miserable (for none of us live up to our own standards, nevermind His), and not enough of Him to offer us forgiveness and some context for how to apply such values with wisdom.
The weaknesses of the book?
Chapter 5 on ‘the Enlightenment’ rushed over five things (technology, universities, human rights, parliaments, The Reformation) that Glen tried to connect to Christianity. Although he may well have been right, I think this was the weakest supported part of the book, spending not enough time on each one. I could imagine hearing my Muslim friends’ voices making audible remarks in my ear about why some of these things developed. But then again, Glen was writing to an English speaking, Western context, rather than engaging with other religions.
I wonder whether this will be the flaw more generally of the book – that there’s not enough in it to convince the reader on each point, unless they are prepared to do the homework on reading up elsewhere. That said, I know what it is to be an author and to be trying to decide what content to put into the book, while keeping it at a popular level that people will actually read and engage with! A daunting challenge, and I think Glen has done well in what he selected. I trust the way he writes will encourage others to go away and explore more.
Reading it as a book club together here in Crumlin, Dublin, we loved being able to watch his video that goes with each chapter, and discuss the questions together. You can find the videos and discussion guide here for free. I look forward to giving away a few copies of this book, and to continue discussing it with all of you, whether ‘nones’, ‘dones’ or ‘wons’!
It's an amazing privilege to not only be able to read this book in print, but to have known the author Paul Ritchie as much as to nearly be able to hear him say everything in it, and to know that this book is something real. I say that to disclose that I'm not a neutral coming to this book review, but I hope you'll trust me on it!
‘Is it Unspiritual to be Depressed?’ is an ideal short read (90ish pages) on the topic, perfect for both someone who is depressed or wrestling with mental health issues, but also for those who wish to know how to live alongside those who do. The author is a Baptist pastor in Limerick (Ireland) who fits both of these descriptions.
Eight short chapters await the reader, which I robbed myself by reading in one sitting in just over an hour this evening. There is a feast of things to meditate upon in those chapters, but all very simply put. In fact that was one of the great notable features of the book. It was not only the chapters which were short yet rich, supportive and very practical. Even the way Paul told real stories of those around him, and often his own struggles in life, was in a very simple, down-to-earth kind of way, which anyone could pick up and read, even with poor concentration.
Despite this, from knowing many of those he quotes, there is considerable research, and decades of medical, psychological, pastoral and theological wisdom which will have been poured into the book from various people. But you wouldn’t have guessed it from its readability – more from how the author tackles the topic in hand, responds to questions and places emphasis on certain things.
Every word and story is born out of real life experience, and the messy reality is helpfully present in the book. This authenticity was one of the powerful things about the book, that made me think more of the good news and of Jesus, as I saw His grace in action in the life of Paul and those he spoke of. Paul reminds us of some of the glorious realities of the good news in ways that are not cringeworthy, and seem very relevant to many dark places where our minds and hearts can go.
In a world where huge percentages of people do struggle with mental health and will continue to do so, Paul’s realism to prepare Christians to live with these challenges is a welcome refreshment amongst other spiritual responses which can try and suggest that depression will necessarily go away if you truly know Jesus (or similar).
Please do get yourself (and a friend or your church) a copy of this book from the publisher (GB), from an Irish bookshop like Teach Solas or if you really must, from the dark underworld for your Kindle. And if you feel up to it, why not even start a conversation with someone else about this, or simply confess our struggles to each other as we do life together? Thanks Paul for leading us in this so well.
I’m always devouring resources, whether books, podcasts or videos and 2020 has been no different. In fact, with Covid19, it means there has been more opportunity to stop, reflect and read (though I haven’t used that to the full!). There have been several requests for me to list what I’ve read here, though I have to admit I’m a little reluctant. So instead I’ll draw up a few resources I discovered this year that I think travelling people should be aware of, combined with a few resources that Christians who travel might like to engage with to give themselves a good foundation in their faith. Discovered useful resources this year that might help the traveller? I’d love to hear from you!
[For those that are books, please support your local bookshop and not the richest man in the world (Amazon) or the big corporations online who seek to control the market and decide what gets stocked.]
In no particular order:
The Meaning of Travel (Thomas, 2020) Not often does a title come out specifically about a philosophy of travel, so when it does, I jump on it. This was a stimulating read for myself, and also as a global book club during lockdown. For the average traveller, it’ll raise fascinating questions but also lots of relatively obscure philosophy that you may or may not want to engage with! Emily writes from a secular point of view, as a lecturer in Durham.
Don’t Go There (Fletcher, 2018) Sometimes you just want some fun travel stories that will mention things you didn’t know, show you new angles on old places, or just give you a chuckle. Fletcher writes well, and if you can put up with a few minor digs at religion (which I hope you can), you’ll find some juicy quotations randomly appearing about all sorts of things. One about true community being found in not just living for the next travel adventure. You’ll not find much new here in the travel writing market, but a few quid on Kindle was worth the chuckle. I’m sure there are many similar options out there!
Prayercast world prayer video resources You don’t need to agree with every word on every video in order to find these a superb way to gain insights into places and people of the world, and how we can best pray for them. Watch one each day, use them in prayer meetings, or pop on to get insights into a country you’ve just started thinking about – these videos will fuel your prayers and help you worship. Rather than prayer meetings praying for random places that no-one knows anything about and praying “God bless place X”, you can now pray in more informed and imaginative ways for God’s glory across the globe. Check them out!
Prisoners of Geography (Marshall, 2016) I’ve come late to this one, but this book on political geography from an ex-British army/intelligence worker, really started to open my eyes to some world events and why some countries are getting away with horrendous abuse of power, and why others seem to be scrapping over nothing. Have a world map open next to you as you read, and you’re sure to learn something new. It’s written from a very western point of view, but granted that, it has shaped my understanding considerably.
The Book of Bivvy (Turnbull, 2007) Many people (if you’re like me) will not have heard about “bivvy bags” and those who have, may quickly move the conversation on and see no desire in the world that would make them try sleeping in a bag under the stars. Tents are already a step too far for some! Turnbull writes well and helps us see why many ‘Bivvy’ and how to go about that. We’ll see whether it remains simply a read book on my shelf, or a manual which I take and use!
Microadventures (Humphreys, 2014) I needn’t say too much about this, having penned about micro-adventures alot this year. But there’s been no better antidote to being stuck in a 5k lockdown, than seeing our local world with new eyes and not getting disgruntled.
Church in Chains updates I would hope that no Christian traveller can be passionate about travelling the globe without an awareness of our brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe who are persecuted every week for His name. Does this reflect how we travel, where we spend money and how we live? What a privilege to learn from their example, to be shaken from our comfortable western existence, and to bring them before our Heavenly Father. Church in Chains is an Irish charity who does that, but there are others across the globe near you – perhaps Open Doors, Release International, the Barnabas Fund or others. They all have fractionally different emphases, so take a look around and see who you can connect with to help shape your perspective on travelling the world as a Christian.
Manage your money like a ******* grownup (Beckbessinger, 2019) (Please excuse the title.) A book that every student should receive upon graduation. So why do I include it in here? Well, although travel need not cost much, I do know many of my travelling friends who, in their dream to travel full-time, not be the wisest about investing for the future. Equally I know many who don’t travel, simply because they think they don’t have the money. I don’t agree about everything in this book, but I don’t really know another like it to help us all see clearly what may or may not be wise.
The SpeakLife (YouTube) Podcast (but in particular this episode and this episode) Glenn Scrivener has hit lockdown gold! In attempt to get back to a great confidence in the foundations the Bible lays down in Genesis 1-3, he interviews a range of Christian, secular and religious figures from round the world. Of particular note (to me anyway) are Tom Holland and Douglas Murray. Secular historian Tom Holland has written “Dominion” this year, which makes the case that the moral foundation for our whole liberal society and worldview is only found in the Christian message and can be traced back to that period. Quite remarkable, if true.
Douglas Murray’s interview is remarkable for other reasons. Glenn helpfully brings out that in the (post?) post-modern world, where there is no longer perceived to be an objective moral standard or way of seeing the world, then something will always try and replace god/God or the thing that used to give us those standards. So now we see politics trying to fill that role more and more. And that has huge dangers. One being that whatever (version of politics) seeks to be top spot will always try and vilify the “other” in order to succeed. Thus one of the key things for the next decade will be to help the church navigate how to engage well in politics. Stay out of it, and you not only lose a voice, but can’t speak to anything of the current worldview. Go in with the wrong priorities, or for one party only, and God’s word get mightily confused with human priorities and good news gets drowned.
The Equip Project Podcast (Season 2 Episode 5 – the Future of Evangelicalism) When you’re on the road it’s easy to react to what you were brought up with, or become a Christian who is quicker to say what they aren’t (‘we’re not one of those type of Christians’) than what they are (we are in Christ, we experience the scriptures as the word of God, we confess our sinfulness to [God and to] each other, we look to the cross, resurrection and ascension etc.). We start to become consumers rather than partakers. We get the best of world Christianity and leave the rest behind. In this podcast episode, the Chairman of the organisation I used to work for, chats to his church intern about the future of evangelicalism in the West. Setting aside specifics of timeline and personality, I think the main points of this deserve to be heard by a far wider audience. As travellers, we must admit the extreme risk of not committing to a local church community. Having expectations of smallscale suffering in a “1 Peter” way may help us as we otherwise may seek affluent lives, devoid of suffering.
“Majority world” theologians Increasingly I’m enjoying reading far more church history and authors from past years, as well as authors from across the globe in places that radically change my western blindspots, and teach me lots about what the future of the Church will be like. Doing this more and more this year has humbled me to realise just how God is working across the globe, how western individuals like me aren’t indispensable (duh!) and how glorious God’s picture of a multi-ethnic family of God is. As I don’t enjoy living that out as much as I ought, I’ve been enjoying lots of resources from the Majority World this year. Here’s one from The Global Church Project (interviewing Harvey Kwiyani) which I discovered this year. I also try and have one Langham Publication on the go every few months, as they seek to develop the voices of lesser-known indigenous authors. In a year where many have raised “race” issues, one of the ways I’ve tried to respond is to better shape my life round sitting at the feet of those of other races in the Church (and outside of it), both in person and through my learning.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Trueman, 2020) This will doubtless be one of my top reads of the next few months (I’m hoping Santa will bring it!). But Carl can be found helping us think through this key topic of the “self” in video format too. On the Gospel Coalition he summarises the book in an hour-long interview. And if you want more, there’s a full series of short lectures here. With the travel narrative using “finding ourselves” as a main reason to travel, a robust theology of the ‘self’ is needed as we work out what is cultural and what is Biblical about the self. Carl is an academic, but these bite-sized chunks are hopefully manageable. Books like this would also have been excellent for undergraduate me, before I started trying to grapple with philosophy from a Christian perspective.
It does come with a warning from me though – for travellers, you’ll not be able to read this without being profoundly challenged and realising that lots of what you think about travel, is not helpful (or true) as followers of Jesus. It is not a light, practical “how to travel better” book, but one which examines the very embedded structure of our lives and seeks to speak into that. But the great thing, is that Carl doesn’t write polemically. He seeks to best represent the people he is talking about, putting their arguments in the strongest ways, so that even those who disagree with him, will be nodding along all the way until the final chapter. In that way, I am already thinking I might give this book to a few non-Christian friends who are also are thinkers and have lots of thoughts about ‘identity’ politics.
Mission Hits – From Every Nation (mission resource round-up) I love Twitter for all the world resources that it connects me too, but particularly as I could never be aware of everything and it connects me to those elsewhere in the world who are. This year I discovered Chris Howles (a seminary leader in Anglican circles in Africa) puts together fortnightly mission resources from round the world which would be of use to any person interested in mission across the globe.
The Christian Travelers’ Network podcast and resources The CTN has been around a couple of years now, and Sarah has done a great job from the US in growing the network and keeping content flowing. Like anything run by one person (this blog included), it will only ever reflect what that person (and guests) can bring to the network, but none-the-less, I’ve been delighted to see something with such scriptural aspirations, develop. Apart from the regular podcast, community on social media, and resources on the website, the CTN is expanding to be a travel agent who will service the Faith & Travel industry (largely from America). Although it’s ambitious to start such things at the tail end of a pandemic, and when travel companies have been shutting doors across the world even before the pandemic, I wish Sarah all the best for the next steps – do connect with her to see what she can offer you for your 2021 travels. One way you can do that is to join her at either of these two events online:
This is a continuation of my reflections on my 7 years in Munster (Ireland) working with IFES. You can find part 1 here. This post is part book-review, part reflection – perhaps a bit of an unusual combination for anyone else but me, who does quite a bit of my reflection through reading, and quite a bit of my work while also selling/giving away hundreds of books.
It was the summer before moving to Cork after my Relay internship in Nottingham, and I had a whole 2 months to spend as I wished. My new employer (Christian Unions Ireland) suggested that I don’t pack my summer madly full of teams and exhaust myself before such a big transition, but I still think I found a few weeks to co-lead a Beach Mission team for the first time in Tramore, County Waterford. What was one to do with the remainder of time?
Well, an invitation came up from a Cambridge University lecturer to chauffeur a visiting family, prominent in evangelical circles in America. Having not driven a car since passing my test, many years before, my desire to meet this family, and to live alongside them in a 5 star lifestyle for a week or two, outweighed any common sense that would have said no. And so there I was. Many travel stories could be told about those weeks, but as this is a book review, I better get to my point. At the end of that holiday I was sent a book by the family “A hill on which to die” by a Southern Baptist evangelical man who had stood strongly against liberalism in the church and had fought to swing the denomination back from error, by holding out the Bible as the inspired word of God.
If the account contained in that book was anything near the truth, I could be very thankful for such a stand of truth made in challenging and bitter circumstances, even if I did not always agree on the spirit in which the battles were fought – but who am I to know how I would behave in such heated years of debate and political gameplay?
It made me think a lot about what was worth spending my life on. There are so many good causes clamouring for our attention that affect millions of people. There were about to be many things I could spend my time and energy on, in a region which didn’t have much student work and still (despite much growth) only had a young and fledgling church scene.
Some groups that year would try and persuade me that creationism (6 day creation) was worth going to the stake for. Because if one loses that, they said, one loses the very trustworthiness of the scriptures.
Some individuals that year would try and persuade me that Luther was completely wrong to have a theology of the cross, and that a theology of glory (abundant miracles, over-realised eschatology etc.) could be radically different to that of the cross and still be the perfect way to walk as a Christian.
That was also the year that settling in a Baptist Church also meant I couldn’t become a member and have any voting rights or part in the leadership of the church, as I was a Presbyterian by conviction. Should I be baptised, just because they wouldn’t have me in? Or did I have to go to the Presbyterian Church or set one up anywhere I went in life?
Soon in my time, I was being labelled an egalitarian (in terms of the role of women in church life), simply because I spent time discipling and investing in women and making sure they had opportunity to grow in Bible handling and exercising their gifts in various ways. Similar assumptions were later made about my (lack of) trust in the Holy Spirit, as I had not been ‘baptised of the Spirit’ in the way a second-blessing charismatic might be happy with, and so I was assumed to be devoid of true spirituality.
Sadly even recently, it was me who jumped very quickly on things that a pastor wrote on social media, not understanding his friends or the context into which he was writing, and instead sensing an opportunity for my heresy heron to find something to publicly challenge.
And for every hard story, there have been encouragements and much grace shown to me. My Baptist church in Cork who (although denying me membership) let me lead a homegroup at times, preach in the church, shape the evangelism strategy at points and lead services regularly. And having been invited to lecture at a Pentecostal (Nigerian) Bible College for a few days, it was the organisers who persuaded the students to listen to me, despite me not having been baptised of the spirit at a second point in life (post-conversion) – that was a secondary issue, according to them – I had all I needed for life and Godliness already. And even those who would try to persuade me that creationism was an essential doctrine, would let my agnosticism (along with firm convictions on God’s word and God having created out of nothing) in to their fold in the end.
And these are just a few of the theological positions that one is encouraged to have strong views on. I am thankful that I have been nurtured in a gospel church all my life (in Belfast, Nottingham and Cork) that valued Godly character perhaps even more than agreement on secondary beliefs. I have been raised in a family where listening to diverse opinions on non-central issues was encouraged and demonstrated – where holding various beliefs in tension was not a problem. The heritage of Christianity that I have been brought up with, and the warm gospel heart of grace it came with, has let me explore theology and drink of the deepest wells and most profound literature. It has left me able to spend hours, days, weeks, even months exploring some debated topics, and even then not always coming to firm conclusions straight off. “If I just read this one more book, then I’ll make up my mind…” went my line of thought normally. One book later, I was often just as perplexed!
Of course when jousting with the world’s experts (or at least watching them joust, thinking I am gallantly riding in with them!) on topics that I am reading about for the first time, it is not a surprise that I was not immediately able to see a clear position to take on some of these issues. But I have appreciated the chance to wrestle for years with these topics and gradually increase my convictions on where I stand on many things.
But I am a rare case (in many ways, you might say). Not many have such theological resources at their fingertips (in English and in wealth). Not many spend years delving into finer points of theological nuance, before they have to make decisions in order to get on with life.
It is into this that Gavin Ortlund writes, and writes fantastically.
What is a primary issue? What is a secondary issue? Do secondary issues matter? What is a tertiary issue? Do some theological truths change from being one level to another level depending on circumstance? What churches ought to put aside differences and unite? What theological truths are important enough to be wiser to stay apart?
Gavin comes from an unashamedly reformed position (not that it is obvious throughout the book), though interestingly has found himself outside of normal denominational parameters in the convictions he has reached on various points. He therefore is a good sparring partner and hopes to get us flexing our theological muscles and our generous spirit, rather than agreeing with him on everything he believes!
He helps us firm our convictions on some major points (he follows Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, amongst other things) but is beautifully experiential in realising that not everyone can state theology or understand theological statements on primary issues, yet may still believe them in their heart (quoting John Owen and others on that topic). But on other points he aims to persuade us that there are more grounds for diverse views within a faithful church that many of use care to believe or practice on a day to day basis.
His work was a rare gem on a topic I rarely see tackled, that fits perfectly into one of the great strengths of the Christian Union movement in Ireland (and IFES beyond) where the Doctrinal Basis that speakers and committees are asked to sign-up to, is as broad as the gospel allows on primary issues, but as narrow as the gospel demands also. Figuring out what is primary and what is secondary (or tertiary) is indeed what every young leader spends a lot of time wrestling with. Some need to stop being heresy hunters in every meeting. Others need to learn to take a stand against theological error (even at the expense of friendships and other costly things) that will destroy God’s people long-term if it is allowed to persist.
But beyond the CUs this book is one that is hugely needed too. As the Presbyterian Church in Ireland perceivably go to loggerheads with each other over whether female leadership is a primary or secondary issue, as the Association of Baptists in Ireland recently debated at a leadership gathering whether to let paedobaptists like me into membership, and as the Church of Ireland and Methodist Church in Ireland face battles against liberalism, this topic is a timely one. Not to mention the need to increase theological conviction in many within the new independent and charismatic churches in Ireland, and the increasing secularism in the north which will mean unless similar church denominations agree collectively on a strategy to shut (and plant) churches, many resources will be wasted and the Church will suffer at the hands of reluctant denominational committees, all holding out on their precious secondary (and tertiary) beliefs, unwilling to budge.
The awkward thing is, that when one starts to realise how much of the gospel is of primary importance, and how much we hold dear is actually just cultural or tertiary beliefs, one starts to realise that one has spent an awful lot of life living ungenerously towards others, choosing to not love them well, by not seeking to better understand them and their position.
And indeed it can be one of the greatest blessings of travel too. It opens one’s eyes to the whole world, to vastly different cultures, and to the persecuted church. And when one sees with new eyes, with the voice of the persecuted church in one ear, and the many Unengaged People Groups in the other ear, it is very hard to start fighting theological battles constantly over minutia of doctrine that don’t appear all that central in scripture.
But without leaving Munster, I am indebted to several (unofficial) mentors, who demonstrated several principles to me so well and bore with my naïve understanding of this topic with incredible grace:
Is what you are opposing really what the other person believes? Is your articulation of their belief the fairest or most generous account you could give of it?
Is this the hill upon which to die?
Am I the person who ought to do this?
Is this the right time?
Is this the best spirit in which this can be done?
Perhaps two small areas which I felt Gavin (in a marvelous book) could have spent a bit longer on:
How God has sovereignly used mistake after mistake, mis-emphasis upon mis-emphasis, to still bring about his good purposes in this world
The difference between heresy and mistaken belief (or convictionally being different on a secondary issue)
The first is as much because I feel the weight of it on my own heart – what glorious grace that has brought me to where I am, and what grace I will need to go any further. The second perhaps because the word “heresy” is chucked around an awful lot, when we actually mean “if he were to continue in that belief and not hold it in tension with other doctrines, one would logically be heading down a path to heresy”. Such ultra-logical frameworks often over-exaggerate the way someone arrives at convictions in life, but sometimes can be helpful to perceive where something could lead.
But having promised my wife (recently married) that I’ll sell some of my books, and having lost my student audience to loan and sell second-hand books to, I feel bad to say that I think I may buy five copies and give them away. But I really might. This one is just so helpful.
Not often do I find a book that combines two of things that I love the most – thinking philosophically, and travel! So when I found out about this one on Twitter one day, I had it downloaded to my Kindle with a single click, and despite not having read it, thought it might be a good one to discuss with others – light enough philosophically to please the traveller but thought-provoking enough to engage the philosopher?
And to my delight, a bunch of others expressed interest and sought to join together on Saturdays each week for 6 weeks. One bravely getting up at 5am in the USA, one staying up later in Australia, one in the Middle East, and two of us in Europe – a diverse bunch in some ways.
Emily, an associate professor of philosophy at Durham University (England), takes us through 11 interesting philosophical ideas, conundrums or thoughts, posed by travel. Loosely shaping her thoughts round a trip to Alaska, the book is packed full of those who’ve travelled the planet before her, both philosophically and otherwise!
It opens with a lovely chapter on why we travel, including a later admission that what will follow is largely flowing from western philosophy of the last few centuries. Curiously, the book irked me a little by claiming that there were no other books on the philosophy of travel, no lectures and no conferences. But I was reminded of thoughts that I’d similarly had when I started writing a theology of travel, thinking that there was very little out there. Her constant referencing to philosophical and travel-related works, showed me that whatever Emily means by this, it’s not because she hasn’t come across other western works. This is indeed a field which needs more writing and thought.
(The following section is a more detailed look at each chapter. If you just want a paragraph summary – feel free to jump to the end!)
Flowing from the first chapter, are largely stand-alone nuggets on various topics, which to the philosophically astute are more connected that might first appear. The second chapter on a philosophy of maps, and how maps shape our reality and how we understand the world, can really help us see differently and realise the lenses we wear. The landscape architect amongst us was captivated, through the rest of us took a bit longer to flesh out what this was really like. Twitter accounts like this one below, put some flesh on the chapter, for those not willing to sit down and digest larger works like this recent bestseller.
Chapter 3 was to outline a relationship between philosophy, science and travel, through the life of Francis Bacon and others. So much of travel has been driven by a quest to find out more about the world whether through philosophical thinking or scientific experiment, and more-often than not, both! Understanding this chapter, might significantly help us all to not fall into the same trap as Bacon was said to have done – thinking scientific thought will progress us so much until the utterance of an apocalypse.
Such belief about human progression can be found both amongst the religious (eschatologically thinking the world is getting better and better until a Second Coming of Christ), but also amongst the fervently secular (thinking education will be the solution to all our woes, progressing us to nearly some point of enlightenment). These discussions raised by this chapter are foundational.
Chapter 4, brought me back into my first year at university for my core module that started off with Descartes and moved on to Locke. For the others in the group, the framing of their teaching through the travels they embarked on, did not make their teaching any easier to engage with!
Does travel suggest that innate ideas about God (that are thought to rescue us from the infamous ‘brain in a vat’ scenario), cannot be true because all peoples don’t believe in a god (or a particular god)? Philosophically, I could imagine I come to very different conclusions than the author on some of the related questions, but none-the-less, the travel conclusion – that travel can broaden our horizons and help us to learn from those with differing opinions – is one of the foundational reasons many will travel.
The fifth chapter brought relief to those not wanting more philosophy, considering the history of ‘The Grand Tour’ of Europe for education (and other on-the-side benefits). Travel can help us grow in all sorts of ways, though often it can also be abused and doesn’t necessitate growth!
The sixth chapter continued to display a rich education of varied things – this time would please anyone who enjoys fantasy and fictional literature – what is the boundary between truth and falsehood, reality and fictional worlds? Could such fantastical worlds, be just as real as the world we inhabit? For the traveller who perhaps enjoys intertwining travel tails with a modicum of exaggeration for entertainment, the chapter will be thought provoking. And for many of us who wrestle with what place imagination has to play in our thinking, lives and logic, it also raised many a question!
The seventh chapter I was looking forward to the most, given the topic of space is the one to which Emily specialises. Why did mountains appear fearful things? Why was there a change in terms used to describe previously fearful things? Emily tells us one reason is because of a change in how people viewed space – once an atomless existence – later thought to be an extension of the infinite divine (sharing many of ‘his’ properties). I’d love to see to what extent this change in language also correlates with humanity’s exploration and perceived ability to control nature?
Ever craved watching the Northern Lights, or stood overlooking a sight that takes your breath away? The eighth chapter is on Burkean ideas of the ‘sublime’ and the difference between that and beauty. What is it that we’re feeling in light of some of these sights? Is there a difference between fear and awe? Can human creations evoke such things? What about the catastrophe’s we have caused – why do we flock to such sites with such similar feelings?
Closely connected to what had gone before, the next chapter (9) considers wilderness and connection to humans and why we have a strange fascination with escape to wild places. It had us all googling our favourite cabins and wild places to go and sharing them! Although fascinating and one of the chapters enjoyed most by lots of us, I’m not sure any of us followed her reasoning that because we are part of the world around us, we should care for it! Without knowing it, the Humean “ought” could not be found here. All the readers had vastly other motivation for caring for our environment and some thought the current drive to save our world was hard to philosophically ground.
The tenth chapter, I let someone else take the lead in discussing, given I was the only male in the group, and chapter was on whether travel was a male concept! Being brought up with Dervla Murphy being the archetypal traveller in Ireland, and having an adventurous, travelling sister (and similar female, ultra-running friends), I’ve never really found the history of travel being more male dominated (as many things were) to be a thing that has stopped many around me. And nor did my fellow book readers.
It was helpful to be reminded of society’s old gender roles, and saddened by some of the unwanted remnants of that. But I struggled with this chapter because I know that guilt is a bad motivator. So making me feel guilty of my being a male, because of past generations gender constraints, is not going to motivate me to act better. It might in the short-run, but not in the long-run. Guilt, I believe, does not drive action in a healthy way.
But it is also difficult for the female to travel in many places because of current gender roles in some cultures and societies. Should the west colonise these places and enforce their gender norms on others by with-holding aid and trade agreements? Or what is the objective standard of equality that we refer to that ought to transcend culture? It was a chapter that left me with more questions, from quite a simplistic take on the topic.
The penultimate chapter (11) was on ‘Doom Tourism’ and very helpfully lined up the chief problem that the travel industry worldwide will face in the coming years – climate change. The desperation of people to get to sites which will soon disappear (ice caps, coral reef, limited resources, small islands etc) may well cause further danger to those sites.
In fact, in a step further than Emily wrote, if the NPCC and others are right about climate change, flying anywhere for our own pleasure alone may not be the wisest thing for the climate. The credibility of pointing fingers at the structures in society, without doing anything ourselves in our personal lives, is a bit too easy for my liking. Far more questions could be asked that perhaps some publishers may not like adding to travel books, for fear of losing an audience. Perhaps in a theology book (like mine) or a philosophy book (like this one) isn’t the best place to debate science, but we do need to create space somewhere!
The last chapter is a reflection on space travel and whether we (humans) have significance or not. Again, I found the philosophical arguments here to be interesting but not greatly rigorous and too easy to object to. Bertrand Russel arguing that size does not make for significance – thus the size of space should not be bewildering or make it significant. And Guy Kahane arguing that life is more valuable than non-life because a world with life seems to be preferable to a world of craters. Both philosophers I’m sure may make sense in context, but were far too quickly passed over to follow what their logic is, and how it stands to quite simple objections. Still, it was enough to raise my curiosity to go off and explore the arguments more.
This review may make the book appear deeper and harder to engage with than it is, as I find it easiest to engage with some of the philosophical content that the author helps us understand. May the travel-hungry reader be assured that there’s much in the travel narrative to enjoy and discuss, even if the philosophy is harder for the novice to grapple with. However, “I’m glad I read this book with friends – I don’t think I would have done otherwise” was the response of at least two of our group for this reason.
But for me, I’ve loved engaging with it, and will happily recommend such helpful thinking to everyone, as I lead discussions in universities and community spaces wherever I travel in future. I dearly hope that it will get further discussion going especially in Coronavirus days (of limited travel), about the philosophical underpinnings and relevance of travel to the world to come. Because how each of us live and travel, whether we realise it or not, is deeply influenced by the philosophy we hold to. And each of us, whether we realise it or not, is deeply affecting many others in this world by those views we hold too as well.
Given the great dearth of books and material on the topic, does this mean that this book is greatly significant?!! I’ll let you read the book and see.
More info about the book can be found on the publisher’s website here.
I was given this as a free review copy by the Evangelical Bookshop Belfast. You can buy it from them here, with free UK postage. (Postage to Ireland is normally cheaper than Amazon too.) This in no way meant I had to give a positive review of the book.
As I’ve said before, I’ve been using this lockdown period to explore more why as a western individual, I struggle so much with suffering in my worldview. Despite following a suffering Saviour for years, every time I experience suffering or talk to those who suffer, I feel not only the fact that this suffering ought not to bein general, but I feel grieved that this has happened to me personally. I deserve better! (Or so I think.) The response of my fellow believers in Africa stuns me. And teaches me a lot.
Dave Furman is a church planter in Dubai (United Arab Emirates). And although his story (see the video above) appears at several key points in the book, it does not dominate the book. This book is centrally focused on helping us grapple with the God of the gospel more, so that Dave’s story, can be our story – of being sustained and even finding deep-rooted joy in the midst of horrific pain, that never seems to cease, and which leads to emotional and relational distress. In fact, I nearly at times lost sight of Dave while reading the book, which in my eyes, was not actually the most helpful. None-the-less, the book is an absolute delight, refreshing, simple and a treasure to ponder, even for someone who reads an awful lot.
“We came to the village intending to change the world for Jesus, but I couldn’t even change my jeans without help.”
Dave’s writing feels like a powerful collection of quotations of many ‘greats’ of recent Christian writing, combined with huge chunks of Biblical wisdom and comfort and finely honed into a soothing package of goodness. It is easy to pick up and read in one go, or perhaps better, taken chapter by chapter and processed over two weeks of devotions.
Quoting Keller in the introduction, it is for everyone, because even if you’re not suffering right now:
“No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable, with friends and family, and successful with our career — inevitably something will ruin it.”
Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering
Each chapter starts with a short story from someone Dave knows who has deeply suffered, followed by a connected meditation on some of the most beautiful and encouraging truths of scripture. Because of Dave’s own story, you know these are not just glib comforts trying to stick a plaster over a gaping wound, but treasures that will help sustain you and shape your perspective even in the darkest of times.
One quotation from the book which particularly resonated with me as I work in a graduate context and with many Irish students who’ve considered going or have gone to Dubai:
“I often tell those in our church’s membership class my prayer for each of them. I don’t pray that they would ultimately get promotions, make more money, and be successful in the marketplace (though those aren’t necessarily bad things). I pray they would love Jesus more when they leave Dubai (nonce of us is allowed to retire here, so we all must leave at some point) than they do at that moment. I pray the same for all of us in our trials.”
But putting aside Dubai, I think of my prayers during Coronavirus season. Simplified, they could perhaps be summarised often as:
“God bless me. May I not suffer. May no-one I know suffer. May everyone have their jobs. Would you make clear the future?”
Reading this book, I am forced to abandon the centrality of myself and my will in my prayer life, and replace it with something oh-so-much better.
One final glimpse from the book that I enjoyed but found utterly frustrating as someone who loves to go camping! I must disagree with him plenty here, but love his comparison, speaking about 2 Corinthians 5:1-5!
“It’s not surprising that Paul, a tentmaker by trade, compares our earthly bodies to tents. I don’t own a tent, but I used one on a couple of camping trips as a child. I think the worst thing about camping may be the tent itself. I easily get claustrophobic. When the rain falls, you can hear it hitting the tent just inches from your face. And the worst thing is the buzzing of the buzzing of mosquitoes next to your face, making you feel like they are feasting on your flesh all night long. That’s because they probably are! As you can see, sleeping on a hard floor inside a shabby tent isn’t too compelling for me. A tent is a temporary dwelling place, not a permanent residence. In 2 Corinthians Paul paints a picture of the better, more glorious body as a house in comparison to a tent. Today, Paul says we live in a tent, but a day is coming when our bodies will be more like a house. Tents break and often need to be replaced. They hardly protect you from high and low temperatures or from precipitation. … In this life, our bodies face disease and decay. Paul says, “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our Heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor 5:2)”.
As someone who laughs at such shoddy dismissals of camping, and who perhaps rather longs to decrease the emphasis in my life on materialistic dwellings, it took me a little minute to get over it in order to appreciate the Biblical truth behind the passage he was speaking on.
For the wandering Cain, for Abraham (and descendants), for those in the dessert in Numbers, for exiled Israel, for Christ with no place to lay his head, for persecuted ‘strangers and exiles’ across the Greco-Roman world and beyond – temporary dwellings were things very real. Other dwellings were longed for. Camping was not the ultimate reality. These bodies are not our homes. And like Christ, raised in a physical body, so shall we look forward to the day our tents will be replaced, in earthy new ones. What a glorious new reality awaits!
To finish, I must say that although I come from the author’s theological perspective (a reformed one), I am very glad that he (perhaps unlike some reformed authors) at the end does acknowledge that amidst his ultimate trust that God is sovereign over all suffering and uses it for His glory and our good, that it is the devil who is responsible for such evil, which is a glimpse of hell-ish things to come. Those words in the final chapter were very necessary ones, which make it easier for us to approach this God, knowing He is not going to cruelly delight in suffering, pain and endless tears.
This book has helped turned my eyes from thinking I ought not suffer, and praying for my own comfort, to refocusing my heart and mind of the good God of the gospel. I pray it will do like-wise for many.
You can find out more about the Furman’s life in the video below. But before you do, consider buying the book (cheapest here – only the price of two coffees or your work commute for 2 days!), and reading it in lockdown – you won’t be disappointed!
Emily Thomas (Assoc Prof. in Philosophy at Durham) puts together a bite-size look at travel, taking us through various fun things about the history and philosophy of travel, in order for us to change how we think about it. Plenty in here to agree about, laugh about, disagree about and wrestle with, in short chapters. You’ll need to buy your own ebook (£9.98 on Kindle).
Part of the 9Marks series – short, practical chapters. There’s things radically alter our lives and church life, questions that’ll challenge things you believe, heart-warming thoughts that’ll help you treasure God, things to disagree with, and much more. Has the church ended up following tradition/pragmatics rather than the Bible on some things? Have we robbed ourselves – and more importantly, hundreds of thousands of unreached peoples – of eternal enjoyment of God, by not thinking through this? The author would suggest so.
If you’re in the UK/Ireland, I can send you 1 of 12 copies that I have, for £4/€5 (including postage). (Or buy an ebook yourself for £9.50)
We’ll meet on Zoom each week (likely at a time that suits the Irish timezone) – I have Zoom (paid), so you’ve no need to signup or pay.
There’ll be a social meet-up this coming week, to meet each other, chat and see what speed we want to go at.
Drop me a line on the “contact us” page if you don’t already have my contact details and want to take part.
Finally, if you’re a friend/mutual acquaintance and you’re struggling for money at this time of crisis, but still want to take part, just say (no shame!) and I can put some of my travel/petrol money (unused this month) towards a copy for you.
Each year I try and get through over a hundred wide ranging books, whether old classics, the latest releases, or ones I’m slow to catch up on. Here’s 7 that have deeply influenced me this in the last year, that have particular relevance to us as travelling people and also to the Coronavirus season. I must also add – this is not what I feed myself spiritually on as a Christian traveller! It’s the extras on the side.
SCIENCE: Why we sleep. (Matthew Walker, Penguin, 2018) If you’re anything like me, you’ll have tried at some stage in life to be living such a productive life, that you get up early and stay up late – burning the candle at both ends, so to speak. Matthew Walker writes quite a shocking book in that regard, making me realise that such patterns of living longterm would make my health, mental wellbeing and life crumble. He does so simply through outlining the science which he has spent years researching with many others. He also has very practical tips about drinking before bed (those whiskey nightcaps!), screentime and caffiene which may help improve life too. It’s a heavy read in places (you may want to skim at times), but one that shouldn’t be avoided because of that. Ultimately, I hope that the Coronavirus will return many to rhythms of rest which they hadn’t before, particularly amongst those of us who travel and always desire “more”.
BIOGRAPHY/APPLIED THEOLOGY: The Common Rule (Justin Earley, IVP US, 2019) Potentially the millennial’s book of the year! I have not heard many my age be able to read it and say “that’s not me”. Justin describes his life as a successful cross-cultural business person and traveller, seeking to thrive and live life to the fullest, only to find his life crashing on the rocks, in ways many of us will say “that’s me – just a few steps further down the line!” Addiction to work; distraction; busy-ness; alcoholic tendendcies; indecision; paralysis; medications; mental collapse and more – this book doesn’t dramatise or tell glamourous tales, but instead shares of an ordinary life. The downward spiral was one that had him (although a missionary) at the end of his tether with God, deciding to pack it all in. But over the years that followed he was able to come back to the truths he’d neglected, that would have actually helped him flourish and grow as a human. This is his story. But it’s part of mine too. And I’m guessing many of our generation. Not sure? It’s worth a read. Again, my prayer is that the Coronavirus period will slow us down enough to stop many of these “rushed” patterns in life that cripple us mentally and physically, and instead will let us get back into daily, weekly and annual rhythms.
FRIENDSHIP/THEOLOGY: Why can’t we be friends? (Aimee Byrd, P&R, 2018) As we think about isolation and community a lot, may we think about our regular patterns of isolating ourselves or developing deep community. Gender is one of the big topics of recent years, and sadly, many of us as Christians have been busy defending 1960s cultural conservatism, rather than Biblical good news. Aimee seeks to unpick a massive movement in Christianity that claims we shouldn’t get too close to members of the opposite sex, lest we fall into temptation. Showing provocatively how this is not good news at all, for a #metoo world, she calls us to engage wisely and hold out a marvelous Biblical picture of cross-gender friendships, that honour and empower each other, whilst having holiness at the centre. She answers common questions about the fall of so many Christian leaders through sexual sin. When you’ve travelled through cultures which disrespect women, and have segregated genders, there is nothing more free-ing than knowing good news of liberation – a liberation which doesn’t descend into sexual chaos and dishonour. Review here.
MISSIOLOGY: Stubborn Perseverance (Nyman, Mission Network, 2017) What we do as humans when we perceive an urgent need or a seeming problem: panic! And its not just in response to viruses that we do this. Another complete change of topic brings us to the latest in missiology that all the main mission organisations are buying into. This is an easy-read fictional account based on real life stories from ‘Creative Access Nations’. It is gripping, very helpful in places, but like much of current missiology in such places, it is largely shaped by panicked pragmatism. In a bid to get the gospel to as many as possible, as quick as possible, we over-emphasize things the Bible does not emphasize. I’ve already written on this briefly here though more full treatment can be found on this website. What should shape our views on urgency? The Biblical pattern. And I think some of us more task-orientated cultures in the west will be shocked that God’s glory is greater than simply some of the tasks He calls us to.
COMMUNICATIONS: So Everyone Can Hear (Crosby, SPCK, 2019) The Church has gone online! With Coronavirus stopping any gatherings of people over a certain size where it’s possible to socially distance, livestream events and social media have taken over. But as one who works part-time in communications (including social media), I’ve noticed a wave of panic, as many churches just put up whatever content they can. Every church would do well to read this beautifully presented book, and then to discuss as a leadership team afterwards, how their church’s theology drives communication. It’s not a how-to-guide but an empowering read that will help guide you from your theology to practice. Of course, many in other parts of the world would chuckle, that western Christianity has tied itself so much to buildings and large gatherings, and can’t perceive of other ways of easily being a local church. But regardless, this book is a helpful read.
THEOLOGY: Understanding Christian mission: participation in suffering and glory (Sunquist, Baker, 2013) One of the things that strikes me most about my own life, is my feeling of entitlement and desire for control over my life. The Christian doctrine of suffering and joy both running concurrently in the Christian life (1 Peter), is simply baffling for many of us in the west, even to those of us who’ve preached about following in Christ’s sufferings (as well as his resurrection hope) for years. We just can’t fathom suffering when it hits us. We want to say it’s evil, but then struggle when its used by God for eventual, ultimate good. And so this virus shakes the western world and has thrown us in disarray. This title, (recommended to me online by a lecturer at Edinburgh Theological Seminary), helpfully puts participation in suffering at the front and centre of God’s mission. There is so much that is helpful historically and to meditate upon in this volume, that I hope we can overlook the broader side to it. May this virus humble humanity to realise how to incorporate suffering into our worldview well. What might that look like for us pleasure travellers? I’ll leave you to figure.
HISTORY: Dominion (Tom Holland, Little-Brown, 2019) This much acclaimed volume I’m sure has reached your attention a long time ago, but I believe still deserves a mention. Secular historian Tom Holland is certainly no friend of endorsing the Biblical text (taking a very liberal view of the Old Testament), but makes astounding claims, which seem fairly undeniable, around the fact that the way that we think in the west, is undeniably Judeo-Christian. Even if you are a hardened atheist reading this, you will be standing on Christian foundations, according to Holland. How are we thinking about the virus? In Christian ways. We mourn at such suffering! Why? Because we have expectations stemming from the Christian worldview. Why do we have the moral response we do in light of the virus? Because we steal our moral framework from the Christian one etc. But ultimately, Holland’s just a great writer who has got me back reading history (having been bored stiff at school by it). It might help us as we travel, to see outside our narrow cultural lenses.