RECENTLY READ BOOKS  (March – April 2017)

1.  Paulo Coelho: The Alchemist, trans. Alan R Clarke, New York, HarperOne, 2014 (1993)

This is a popularly read book which combines a form of magic realism with a form of Christian and Eastern mystical  teaching written in a smooth, easy to read style for all ages. It has a certain charm and picks up on characteristics of ancient alchemy without being preachy or new age waffly. It is an easy and calm read but may well be too superficial or whimsical for some. The theology points to a Christian world view but the vision is cloudy and incomplete!   3 stars

2. Jack London: The Call of the Wild, illustrated Martin Gascoigne, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK, Puffin Books, 1985 (1903).  The ultimate animal story. This edition was Issued in a Puffin series for children but the novel is not really a children’s contains considerable brutal cruelty, killing and bloodshed. Extraordinarily powerful rhythmic language of deep vigour and fire and images that will not be soon forgotten after reading. The image built up of the magnificent dog “Buck” tugs at the heartstrings episode after episode. Also a magnificent introduction to the Yukon and the Klondike gold rush. Exceptional impact for such a short novella (124 pages).   5 stars.

3.  Charles Dickens:  The Pickwick Papers, (The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club),  Nelson Doubleday, New York, 1944  (1837)  A rollicking account of the adventures and misadventures of the indefatigable Samuel Pickwick, Esq, G.C.M.P.C (General Chairman-Member of the Pickwick Club). Pickwick formed this club of good friends (Tupman, Winkle and Snodgrass) who agreed to spend some time together travelling around the country and city sights of England and enlarge their experience of life. It is the first “laugh out loud” book by Dickens I have read  although some of the embarrassing scenarios are difficult to read and some of the horrors of the C19th poorer classes appallng to read about. In particular the account of some aspects of the now defunct  Fleet St prison and the amount of alcohol consumed in daily life everywhere on every occasion both help to remove any glorification of the purity of life in C19th England.   Representatives of the legal and official religious classes come out badly here and as usual Dickens’ description of women is awkward in places. The real hero is not Pickwick but Sam Weller, Pickwick’s heroic man Friday whose expressions are as funny and clever as I have come across. The theme also allows Dickens to retell some ancient English yarns and stories including an interesting tale of a grumpy grave-digger who is transported to Goblin-hell to change his ways1  A very cheerful, if at times tedious read!  4 stars.

4. J I Packer: Knowing God; with Study Guide, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1993 (1973). This is the third time I have read this spiritual classic at very different times in my life. Packer’s knowledge of Scripture and theology is impressive. A careful study of this book brings one into contact with a vast amount of Biblical material including an excellent analysis of Ecclesiastes and a detailed analysis of Romans (36 pages).Theologically Packer is very much at home quoting Puritan writers to good effect  but also Luther, Calvin, Samuel Rutherford, Wesley, Whitefield, Leon Morris, T C Hammond,  C19th and C18th hymn writers, Jonathan Edwards, John Murray, Tasker, Ryle.  He is also able to quote accurately from Brunner, Niebuhr, and Robinson. Perhaps the most helpful parts of the book are Packer’s wise comments on living the Christian life especially in relation to personal suffering and hardship, Middle Class Christianity, problems associated with the use of images of Christ, Christian conceitedness, super spirituality, finding truth in persons first and propositions only secondarily, understanding the wrath of God, ethics, prayer, hope, holiness, guidance, inward trials and much more. Curiously Packer appears to be Calvinist in relation to who God chooses to bless and Arminian in regard to those who choose to reject God. Packer’s detailed analysis of salvation, judgment, wrath and atonement is hard work for anyone unschooled in dogmatic theology and reading. In 2017 it feels like a gap that Packer does not give attention to the  question of the fate of those who have not heard the Gospel   A thought provoking and challenging book. The study guide makes this book an excellent tool for a committed study group. (5 stars).

5.  How Shall We Worship? Biblical Guidelines for the Worship Wars, Marva J Dawn, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton Ill., 2003.  A penetrating, scholarly and useful guide to the issues in the current “worship wars” between supporters of traditional and contemporary worship written by theologian, musician and educator Marva J Dawn who is a Teaching Fellow at Regent College Vancouver British Columbia Canada.  In general the book appears to be aimed at Fundamentalist North American churches who major on loud contemporary music in their worship and have little by the way of liturgy, structure or ordered reflection in their worship. Nevertheless the book also has some hard things to say about the rigidity of some churches using historic liturgies (p76) and our culture’s idolatry of everything new, though in worship, materials the new is often not sorted …on the opposite side, many sacralise the old, without noticing that some hymns and forms from bygone eras have lasted for terrible reasons (such as fatuous sentimentality).  

The structure and chapter headings of the book are based on an exegesis of Psalm 96

I note the following wise comments that should inform the debate about church worship:

  • Music should be of all kinds…traditional, multi-cultural, contemporary..above all it should be what is appropriate for the particular service.  (chapter 1)
  • Worship is primarily in praise of God. She is critical of the culture of narcissism [à la Christopher Lasch: The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York, Norton, 1978]  Lasch argues that the C20th produced a momentous selfishness which continues today.
  • Churches should not succumb to the C21st niche marketing rage and divide up congregations into smaller sub-sections based on age or choice of worship style.(chapter 2)
  • Declining church attendance has encouraged “attracting new attenders” as the major preoccupation of church planning and has confused worship and evangelism. (chapter 3)
  • The whole of life is worship…Churches should use “the church’s year” to structure the content of worship and in some cases this means that worship cannot always be upbeat e.g. Good Friday. The author argues that we have failed to train our church members for daily mission, that worship is the job of the whole congregation, and that churches need to be counter-cultural. (Chapter 4)
  • Idolatries and false gods abound today including mammon, worship of nature, idolising “the new”. Dawn provides a useful list of dialectical opposites which are both needed in worship (p53) Some prominent examples are these: (chapter 5)

truth from God…………………….. response to God

head…………………………………… heart

freshness………………………………continuity with the past

contextualization………………… universality

new expressions……………………familiiarity for the sake of participation

order…………………………………… freedom in the Spirit

joy, delight, elation…………………….sorrow, penitence, lament

enthusiastic expression………………silence



  • Worship should be influenced by creation theology…silence and beauty as well as wild power; young and old together in worship (especially in musical instrumentation); qualified use of technology without domination by technology.and more on dialectics (chapters 6 & 7)
  • The importance of liturgy, ritual and mindfulness (chapter 8)
  • Good worship changes our character…examples include offering of ourselves and our means to God; a sense of the communion of saints; even the question of how we dress in church; a sense of the privilege of worship; reconciliation with one another; mission and redescribing the world; using secular songs/cultural symbols in worship vs Christian symbols; robes or not robes. our inability to escape cultural forms; (chapters 9 & 10);
  • Creation as a model for praise; celebrating the cosmos; all nature joins our praise; worship is counter-cultural; It is not a democracy or a hierarchy or a is a charismacracy; the charismacracy includes the pastor, the musicians and a worship committee. (chapter 11)
  • Worship forms us to be the people of God; are our lives determined by the past, present or the future? We are not pulled down by the past… we live for the present guided by the future; our thinking must be eschatological so that our worship is not utilitarian or entertainment or a backdrop for ‘star clergy’! We carry God’s kingdom wherever we go. We are freed from the power of sin..a community in Jesus’ likeness. (chapter 12)  The book includes useful discussion questions, informative notes, excellent resources for further study and group discussion and a topical index which could have been more useful if more detailed. (4 stars)


6.  Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,  London, Serpent’s Tail, 2014.   A quirky, very funny but also heart-breakingly sad novel which shines a fierce  light on the use of sentient animals for scientific research. Since a summary of the plot would detract from the pleasure of reading I will simply say that the book is an excellent read. The writing is deceptively simple yet sophisticated; it will improve your vocabulary substantially; the insights into human communication are superbly and humorously drawn; and a mid-novel twist brings surprise and a serious look at some ethical questions regarding scientific method and some components of the study of psychology. Difficult to put down initially but the second half tends to get caught between the story and the message and can’t quite make up its mind. For a deeper understanding of our simian friends this book is essential.(4 stars)

7. Cate Kennedy, Dark Roots, Melbourne, Scribe, 2014 (2006)  Imaginative and evocative collection of short stories written in an Australian environment and cleverly managing to avoid dateable references.Very funny in parts; exceptional ability to get into the minds of individual characters in a very short space of time. It is easy to identify with many of these stories and characters. Well deserved recognition (reprinted seven times since 2006).  (4 stars)