Am I Beautiful? A review

20130828-083734This isn’t a review of whether or not I am beautiful, although it’s a question I’ve asked myself more this week than ever before. I’ve found myself looking in the mirror, taking in my appearance, thinking about how I choose what to wear.

I’ve wondered what people think about my appearance, what assumptions they make based on what I am wearing, whether I have brushed my hair (in all likelihood probably not). On my weight and my height, on the shape of my face and the colour of my skin.

I was bouldering on Tuesday evening and at one point as I was watching one guy tackle a particularly feisty route I found myself remarking on his muscled form. It’s not the sort of thing I usually do. I would certainly hesitate from making comments like that about a girl, I’d phrase it differently, I’d focus on her abilities and not her attributes, I’d say she was a great climber.

Because beauty and appearance has become commodified and traded, it has been weakened and abused. Beauty has become the thing we cannot ever fully achieve and certainly not retain. Yet it is something, which in the US alone $5billion is spent trying to enhance, recreate, and manufacture. Beauty is not just assisted by products it has become a product. Continue reading

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter: A Review

20130509-113349.jpgIt is a weird feeling buying a book off a shelf and knowing the person behind the book. There was the surge of excitement that a journey has reached this milestone (accompanied with the obligatory tweet). But there was also the apprehension of having to read words that someone has poured every ounce of effort and energy into.

I hesitated as I sat on the park bench and turned the cover and found my way through the opening epigram. Within a few pages I realised I was reading this differently. I was more deliberate, and I was more critical. I wondered why ‘underneath’ was used instead of ‘beneath’, convinced the latter carried better cadence.

I soared through the first half of the book that first evening in a frantic, and slightly pointless, attempt to read the book before its official launch last night. And I wondered, when such vast amounts of time have been spent crafting and working, and editing and refining, the words that make up a book does reading it in three days do it justice? That was all a bit academic because while the first hundred pages were enjoyable and delightful to read, an experience I wanted to cherish, the pace at which I read the rest of the book was not optional. It had grabbed hold of my collar and pulled me beneath the surging wave only to then thrust me headlong across the contours of the page and to the end. I was reading on the escalator, reading walking, reading while the kettle boiled. I would have read it in the shower if that was vaguely feasible.

20130509-113514.jpgI finished it last night after joining Joanna Rossiter and many others for the official launch at Daunt Books in Marylebone. Several of the early reviews cited yesterday commented that it was an extraordinary first novel, written with a maturity that one would think only comes from years of experience. And I agree, my pathetic thoughts of replacing words soon vanished as I realised just how good this book was, and how astonished I was anyone I know could write like this. I’m thrilled for Joanna that the book’s been picked for the Richard and Judy book club and hope this helps it get the many readers it deserves.

The Sea Change is set across two generations, in 1971 and in the years leading to and during the Second World War. It tells the story of two women in two different places, it speaks of home, and of loving and losing. One part of the story is based in the village of Imber in Wiltshire requisitioned during the war, while the other in south India in the wake of a tsunami. It speaks of drifting and driftwood, it uses distance and proximity as the currency of relationships. It builds layers of characters on vibrant portraits of landscapes. The characters barely distinguishable from the places they inhabit. Place is not impersonal in the world Joanna Rossiter creates.

By the end I was enraptured by the characters and their stories. I wondered if some, one in fact, was too loosely painted, lacking in depth, but I now wonder if that was to tell its very own story. The incredible depth and detail with which one character is portrayed, and still not all of the story is told. And for another where although the details slip through the cracks, more is perhaps told. At first I found the slightly chaotic and haphazard introduction of characters difficult to manage, names are used scarcely; relationships are at time unclear. Yet as the book develops the relationships begin to arc across the plot lines and across villages and oceans. And the rootedness that is at the heart of so much of the story is at one point suddenly and swiftly suspended.

The book isn’t perfect, there was one particular aspect that annoyed me, and I found myself wanting to know more about all of the characters – the brevity and detachment which I’m sure was intentional was also frustrating. There was so much which was unspoken and remains unknown. Jennie Pollock commented in her review that she struggled with the weight of similes in the book and with that in mind as I began reading I was very aware of each one in the early pages, but actually, once I was engrossed in the stories, the layers of words only helped to drag me deeper into their clutches. And as with perhaps the very best books the ending left me nearly hurling it across the room, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I highly recommend this book and suggest you buy it right away!

To the head or to the heart: a pair of reviews

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‘Unapologetic’ by Francis Spufford

‘Who do you think you are?’ by Mark Driscoll

On Friday afternoon I wanted something to read over the weekend, I was approaching the end of ‘Unapologetic‘ and knew I had plenty of time to get some reading done. I was handed a copy of Mark Driscoll’s latest book ‘Who do you think you are?‘, and read it fairly swiftly.

These are two very, very, different books, and it might seem a little odd to review the two together. But I think they present two different approaches to a common problem, and while Driscoll’s book does so explicitly, Spufford also provides plenty of material for the formation of Christian identity.

Unapologetic is one of the best books I have ever read. The writing is among the most beautiful I have come across and a few parts are simply stunning. Last Saturday I sat in Starbucks in Greenwich reading the chapter on Yeshua and there was a sharp hint of tears in my eyes as I read the words describing with such painful beauty the journey to the cross. They were words that reminded me why He deserves all that I have to offer, and of why all of that would still not be enough were it not for what He did two thousand years ago.

Who do you think you are? is not in the same league, it’s not in the same ballpark. What Spufford’s work is to good writing, Driscoll’s is to bad. That’s not to say in and of itself that it is a bad book, just that the writing is poor. And in parts it is really shocking. I’m a snob about writing I know.

When the use of quotation marks around a word is used to pejoratively describe someone it is a bad sign. The description of a liberal bible scholar is not given more power by putting quotation marks around the word scholar. You can disagree with the scholarship, you can think it is poor scholarship but using quotation marks not for grammatical propriety but to aid an insult is lazy.

Who do you think you are? could be good, it could be a simple and effective guide to forming your identity in Christ. And in parts it does that: some of the sections are clear and sometimes they provide a useful starting point for thinking about different aspects of the Christian life. But as one reviewer said, this book has been written thirty thousand times before.

When it is not simple, this book is simplistic. And unfortunately that is most of the time. I could pick at some of his theological positions which reach toward the extreme of the reformed part of evangelicalism, but when I picked up the book I expected to disagree with more than I did. Each of the chapters, which are based around an ‘I am…’ statement drawn from Ephesians as part of understanding Christian identity, contain at least one story to illustrate the point. Some of these are engaging and powerful, and they get better as the book goes on, but while purporting to have a more pastoral emphasis all the stories do is present case studies of people who have succeeded in finding a stronger identity in Christ.

The problem, and this is what lets the book down the most, is there is virtually no acknowledgement of the ongoing challenges of becoming a disciple of Christ. That sometimes it doesn’t always work out. That for every story of success there will be others of recidivism. So for a book that is supposed to be pastoral it barely offers any advice as to how to handle the ebb and flow of growing closer in likeness to Christ. It presents a victorious life as too victorious, and unreality doesn’t provide a good basis for constructive discipleship.

Spufford’s book is unlike any other I have read, it was apparently written without research, and that shows. It is stream of consciousness writing, and in this case that makes it very good. In effect it is Francis Spufford telling everyone why he is a Christian. And it inspires me, and it enthralled me. His premise is to avoid the academic arguments often used to justify Christian belief, but to instead for why, despite everything he believes it to be true. He uses rhetoric to inspire and prompt you towards knowing Christ more deeply and more beautifully. It was a book that made me fall in love with God again.

If you are looking for a doctrinally tight book then Unapologetic is probably not for you, he certainly doesn’t tick all the boxes of evangelicalism. Francis Spufford also swears quite a lot, including in his relabelling of sin as HPtFtU (the Human Propensity to F?#! things Up). If you know exactly what doctrine you want then Driscoll’s book will do it for you, but then if you know exactly what you want then there is little reason to read the book except for to confirm your own rightness.

Spufford appeals to your heart while Driscoll speaks to your head. This is the fundamental incongruence in Driscoll’s book, it is a book about identity, and about how we need to have our identity in Christ. And yet it does not affect the heart, it tries to tell the head what to do. If you digest everything in Who do you think you are? You will have acronyms to avoid idols, (IDOLS) and to help your prayer life (yes, PRAYER). You’ll also have a list of things to help you develop gifting and understand salvation.

Counter productively a book written in this way gives us 16 different things to do to understand your identity is in Christ and not what you do.

Unapologetic gets one big thing right, this is an unfinished process. “We’re the league of the guilty after all, not the league of the shortly-to-become-good. We are a work in progress. We will always be a work in progress. We will always fail, and it will always matter.”

A bit like my reading of the book. I haven’t finished it. Almost not wanting to close the back cover on a book that cuts to the heart of the relationship between us and God. A beautiful account of who we are and who God is. When I do finish I am sure it will not be the last time that I read the words between the covers. I’ve taken my time over it, reading it in chunks, and slowly at that. Ironically Driscoll’s book did not take long to get past my reading eyes. I wanted to get it finished quickly. I was disinterested in truths that should be life changing, so frustrated with empty prose that barely warrants the label – almost justifying the use of quotation marks around the word prose.

If you want to know that what you believe is correct then read Who do you think you are? (as long as you believe everything he does). It’s not a particularly bad book, it did not plummet to the depths of my expectations. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt it was one that didn’t need to be written.

Unapologetic, on the other hand, is a book I would recommend everyone to read.