2012 in Books
2012 started with The Last of the Mohicans, something I hadn’t read in about twenty years, and the perfect ripping yarn to get the blood stirred after the thickening of Christmas. This is certainly not a politically correct story by contemporary standards, but the book is infinitely better than the film, and it does cast interesting light on the creation of the American national myth.
Fictional adventure can be gripping, but often it is accounts of real life derring-do which grip the imagination more firmly. I happened to pick up the biography of Paddy Ashdown, A Fortunate Life, and while I remain unimpressed with Ashdown the politician, the account of his life pre-politics is real James Bond stuff. His time serving in the Royal Marines, Special Forces (based in my home town of Poole) working as a spy for British intelligence, and then later role during the conflict in Bosnia add up to more adventures and escapades than any one individual should enjoy in a lifetime. Paddy comes across as an interesting and decent man, but his decision to walk away from his life of adventure and enter politics is never really adequately explained.
I don’t read that many novels but did this year pick up a copy of Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces, a story of two nineteenth century psychiatrists seeking to help the mentally poor. It took me a while to get into but did offer stimulating insights into the human condition. Ultimately, though, Faulks paints a bleak picture in his total denial of God. Humans – the conclusion seems to be – are nothing more than the product of a random mutation. How desperate, contrasted with the gospel which says we have the potential to be like God. Despite this, Faulks is a superb writer.
Writing superbly is difficult. I found Stephen King’s On Writing (which, appropriately for a King book, I finished reading on Friday 13th) very revealing in describing through the medium of memoir how to write fiction. King might not be regarded as a superb writer by literary purists, but he sure knows how to tell a story, and grab an audience. He can communicate. Having read the method, I then read Salem’s Lot. Perhaps not typical ministerial reading, but fascinating from the perspective of thinking, “How is he doing this?” You might not like the message (or the expletives), but the way King manages to layer up the story is worthy of admiration.
King tends to write about gruesome deaths, but the book I found spoke to me most profoundly about the reality of death was The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch. Lynch is an award winning poet, as well as an undertaker, and writes with a poet’s sensibility and love of language and ability to connect with the emotions. As an undertaker he writes as someone very familiar with the intimacies of the dying and death. This is a very Ecclesiastes-type book, which was helpful to me as I was preaching through Ecclesiastes at the time. Lynch made me laugh out loud, and cry, and think. He is brutal about the finality of death, the reality of decay that sets in as soon as the final breath departs. But he is also lyrical about the significance of the dead body that remains for those not yet dead (“The bodies of the dead are really important. We want them back to let them go again – on our terms, at our pace, to say you may not leave without permission, forgiveness, our respects – to say we want our chance to say goodbye.”). He faces head on our embarrassment about death and draws interesting cultural observations about the ways in which we deal with death (“There seems to be, in my lifetime, an inverse relationship between the size of the TV screen and the space we allow for the dead in our lives and landscapes.”). He riffs about the potential of combining golf course and cemetery in a money spinning ‘golfatorium’ and (in a section I found almost unbearable) describes a colleague stitching back together the wrecked body of a girl smashed to pieces by a murderer-rapist. And he offers what is I think the most sustained and powerful polemic against euthanasia I have ever had the pleasure to read.
The reality of death does raise the corollary question as to the purpose of life, and our very own Andrew Wilson has done a superb job of providing some answer to that question in If God, Then What? – certainly one of my top reads of 2012.
Once one is convinced of the reality of God, and then the specific reality and claims of Christ, a concern for the Church of Christ must surely follow. So, I had high hopes when I picked up Mark Dever’s The Church, and indeed, was blessed by it in many ways. Dever has a real passion for the church, as all Christians should. He has devoted his life to serving a local congregation and his love for the body of Christ shines through. I am with him all the way on this. As the first sentence of the first chapter puts it, “The church is the body of people called by God’s grace through faith in Christ to glorify him together by serving him in his world.” Amen! Where I found The Church less satisfying is that it reads very much like a detailed membership course for people looking to join Dever’s church. Also, almost inevitably, Dever comes to the conclusion that the ideal expression of the local church is the type of church that he leads! I think we all do this – if we didn’t, presumably we would join a church with a different ecclesiology – so I don’t blame Dever for it; but it becomes irritating at those points where his arguments are not so strong as he tries to contend.
I enjoyed rather more Carl Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative. Trueman probably gets quoted more on Think Theology than any other blogger: We admire his style! I also have a great deal of sympathy for his appeal for us to understand the origins, purpose and value of creeds and confessions. Trueman sets out the history of the creeds and confessions and provides application in terms of how they should be used today. In doing so, he does as does Dever and begins to argue the case for his own ecclesiology – in this case confessional Presbyterianism rather than Dever’s Reformed Baptist congregationalism.
There is nothing wrong with arguing one’s ecclesiological position – if we take the church seriously we are going to take her forms and structures seriously too. This is why we do theology, and why this blog exists! One of the more intense sequences of debate we indulged in here was over the extent of the atonement and the nature and validity of Calvinism. There is a lot being published on this subject at present. One such book I really did not enjoy was The Joy of Calvinism by Forster. Rather than filling me with joy it left me rather disappointed. However, Ken Stewart’s Ten Myths About Calvinism was much more uplifting, and a book I would recommend to anyone wanting to understand what Calvinism is and isn’t. Both these books were published in 2012, but the out-and-out 2012 Christian paperback winner has got to be Mike Reeves’ The Good God/Delighting in the Trinity. We have already puffed this book quite a bit on the blog, but should you by some oversight have failed to yet read it, there really couldn’t be a better way to end one year and begin another. I’ve enjoyed my book reading year, but enjoying God is even better!