The Spire – William Golding


The Spire
by William Golding

Available from Amazon

William Golding’s ‘The Spire’ is the sort of book that you read at your own risk.

The book challenged my thinking, disturbed my emotions, unsettled my presuppositions, exercised my intellect, and for such a tortured book, inadvertently consoled my spirit. How many books achieve that end?

Who is not familiar with the concept of mankind’s desire to aspire to something greater than himself?  Dean Jocelin is no exception.  Believing that God has chosen him to build a spire on top of the already unstable foundations of a cathedral, he relentlessly and stubbornly pursues the insurmountable task in the face of both opposition and reason.  The spire is an architectural impossibility, being built upon an already over-weighted existing structure.  However, neither the Master Builder’s resistance nor the multiple confronting forces both around him and within deter Jocelin from what he perceives to be God’s call.  The process is deeply tortured and the Dean is comforted neither by the encouragement of his fellow men nor God Himself.

The stream of consciousness narrative is not for the faint hearted.  I don’t profess to have understood every word but Golding’s penmanship nevertheless worked its magic.

In his Nobel Lecture given in 1983, Golding himself said:

Words may, through the devotion, the skill, the passion and the luck of writers, prove to be the most powerful thing in the world’.

sir-william-golding-9314523-1-402

There is tremendous breadth of subject matter in Golding’s novels which, according to the Nobel Foundation ‘illuminate the human condition in the world today’, ‘with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth’.  The writer’s own struggle and effort (he was haunted into adulthood by a lifelong fear of the dark) are reflected in Jocelin’s Macbeth-like overarching ambition, on one level a tremendous testimony to the force of human resolve and on another a terrifying indictment of his pride, arrogance and presumption.

Despite the passion of his vision, Jocelin is blind to the tuberculosis that is gradually claiming his life believing that the fluctuations in the physical pain he experiences are in fact a personal devil or angel at his back. He is blind to the fact that it was his aunt’s sexual influence at court that resulted in his promotion to the lofty position of Dean rather than his own merits. He is blind to the reality of Goody Pagnall’s earthy character and appetites and in denial about his own. But Jocelin is also blind to the God to whom he reaches out, seeing Him as a distant unattainable deity rather than the compassionate and loving Father brought near to us in the person of Christ – Himself the sure foundation.

 

Salad Days

Salad

You are what you eat.  Or so we are told.

Today, I want to suggest that we are what we read.

In a former life when I taught English to feral boys,  I told them that to eat a variety of nutritious foods was good for their health and to read a range of well-written books was good for their minds.   Eat junk – get spotty.  Read junk – get …flabby, mentally flabby.

My own reading this summer has not got off to a good start.  Like a good and thrifty housewife I determined to read some of the books that I’ve bought at some point but not yet read before going out to buy anything new.  Alexander McCall Smith’s ’44 Scotland Street’, the first in the series, and Lyndsey Davis’ ‘The Silver Pigs’ about a Roman detective called Falco, accompanied me on a week away near Chichester.  I didn’t spend very much time reading the Bible as often happens when away on family holidays and with little else available to read,  I chewed my way through these two books like a grumpy child who quickly realises he is not enjoying his meal but knows he must eat up or there’ll be no pudding.

My husband, on the other hand, nearing the end of a second reading of ‘Middlemarch’, has been deeply moved, wholly absorbed and stimulated to lots of Christian thought, self-reflection and engaging conversation.  I need to choose with a bit more care what I read for the remainder of the holiday.  Eating up what’s in the cupboards may be economical financially, but if it’s not good for you, throw it away.

Glancing Across Huge Plains

A Wilderness of MirrorsA Wilderness of Mirrors
Trusting Again in a Cynical World
by Mark Meynell

Available from Ten Of Those

The Bible is a book that exposes a man’s sin.  ‘A Wilderness of Mirrors’ is a book that exposes a man’s ignorance.  Or a woman’s, or let’s be honest here…mine.

This book is a tour de force of political, historical and sociological research which bravely tackles the issue of broken trust in a cynical world and presents the gospel’s answer to our deepest intellectual and emotional struggles.

Mark Meynell has a first class Oxbridge mind, so first class in fact that bears of very little brain may get lost amidst the dense forest of references, quotations and allusions.  Nevertheless, the central message about trust, broken and rebuilt, is compelling because it is honestly framed by the writer’s own personal experience – a profoundly moving section which I wished had been developed further.

If you, like Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright, wish to make ‘intellectual and explanatory sense of the world we live in’ then this book is for you.

If you want to know why a culture of suspicion has grown out of the last century and what its social consequences have been, then this book is for you.

If you want a refreshing and attractive presentation of the gospel’s solution to the human condition in its current manifestation, then this book is for you.

However, if ‘thus’ clauses or long words bother you, as they bothered Pooh Bear, then you need to be prepared to be liberally peppered and may want to read the book with a pencil in hand and a dictionary by your side.  A good dictionary.

But do read it.  Written in academically mellifluous prose, it’s an education in 200 pages which the writer self-deprecatingly describes as a ‘cursory glance across huge plains’ and which he attributes largely to the giants from whom he has learned.  He is far too modest.

Blogging – One Year On

Roquesreviews reached its first anniversary last week.  On 25 May 2015 my first book review appeared and now here I am a year on, 26 posts later, reflecting on how it’s going.

26 posts doesn’t sound very impressive, does it?  That’s an average of two a month which, given that the posts are mostly book reviews, is reasonable.  Not a complete disgrace anyway.  But is anyone actually enjoying the blog?  Social Media has been my main source of  readers but to be honest, though there have been a good number of visits and views, the likes can be counted on two hands and that’s pretty dispiriting.  Is there some coffee I need to wake up and smell here?

Cup of coffee

Reluctant to quit,  I’ve been doing some research. I recently stumbled upon WordPress’ ‘Blogging Fundamentals’ course which advises posting answers to various questions whether you’re new to blogging or have been at it for a while.  Today I’m focussing on this one:

Why are you blogging publicly instead of keeping a diary?

  • Predisposition
    The main reason is that I love writing.   Secondly,  I love reading.  The third reason is that I’m a Christian and I want to serve God with these two passions.  So I review the books that have touched my heart and mind in the hope that you might read them too and be encouraged and stimulated whether you share the Christian faith or not.  I keep a diary too as it happens (and have done since the age of 11) but the diary cannot by definition be a blessing to another.   It’s private.  And I want to bless others with my writing not store it up for myself.
  • Inspiration
    I was a late starter when it comes to literature.  It wasn’t until my ‘A’ levels that I really got going and became an avid reader.  Up until then I’d existed mostly on a diet of ‘Malory Towers’ and ‘Flambards’.  Then two English teachers and a friend studying art history, in their very different ways, inspired me.  I discovered Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Iris Murdoch, Jean Rees, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster – the list goes on and on and despite a rejection from Oxford University I went on to study English at St Andrews… and read on.  I enjoyed writing about the books I was reading and have kept records ever since.
  • Conviction
    In the last couple of years I’ve been learning how the Lord can use literature (and the arts more generally) in the life of a believer to his/her own, and others’ encouragement.    Novels, music, paintings and films are not the big bad distraction from the Gospel that I’d always feared but are part of what is sometimes called ‘Common Grace’.  (I’m not talking about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ here).  What I really want to do by writing this blog is to bless others, Christian or not, by sharing my thoughts on books (and the occasional painting or other art form) and how they have helped me understand and love Jesus more.

My prayer is that you will be helped or encouraged by what you find here.  It will then all be worth while.

 

Time to ‘refresh’ your framework?

Virtually HumanVirtually Human
Flourishing in a Digital World
by Ed Brooks and Pete Nicholas

Available from Ten of Those

Can digital advancement and spiritual growth co-exist?  This, amongst others, is one of the central questions that this subtly entitled book, published in 2015 by IVP, addresses.  Ed Brooks and Pete Nicholas courageously tackle the present culture head on, engage with it, connect with its proponents and humbly confront them with the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of the gospel of Christ.  Obeying the Lord Jesus’ instruction to His disciples to be ‘in the world but not of it’ they have produced a thoroughly researched, academically weighty yet accessible read with a strong evangelistic edge.

Part One explores the nature of technology, its history and the challenges it presents to today’s users.  Part Two examines the impact technology is having on our sense of identity, our relationships and our perception of time, sex and knowledge.

The great achievement of this book is that it does what it sets out to do.

‘If we as authors do our task well, and if you are open to change, then by the end of this book you won’t see technology in quite the same way.  In fact, we hope you won’t see yourself, God or his world in quite the same way either.’  (p19)

I, for one, have had my assumptions challenged, my prejudices gently exposed, my knowledge expanded, my interest stimulated and my will inspired.  And because we all ‘live within the story of the digital age’ and therefore cannot avoid the subject, it’s a book we all need to read.

If you’re someone who feels out of your depth in this age of devices and gadgets, Virtually Human will give you an overview of the issues surrounding the subject.  If you’re a technological aficionado, it will challenge you to consider your online habits and encourage you to use technology in a way that glorifies God.  There really is something for everyone – you can’t go wrong in reading this book.

It’s also a great book to read with a friend or in a reading group owing to the thought-provoking questions at the end of each chapter that address the heart as well as the mind.  Brilliantly structured, it reads like a well-designed and user-friendly website in which the reader can find his or her way around the discussion with confidence.

The concluding chapter focuses on the Lord Jesus Christ as the most fully human being that ever lived and encourages readers to proceed in the real-time of this fast-changing digital era in accordance with, rather than against the grain of God’s design for the world.

I’d like to think that having read this book, I am now less of a ‘user’ of technology and more of a ‘reflective practitioner’ and for that I grateful to these two writers and look forward to whatever they publish next.

And So I Began To Read

And So I Began To Read
And So I Began to Read…
Books that have influenced me
by Faith Cook

Available from Ten Of Those

What are you reading at the moment?  Do you remember the title?  Can you name the author?  Occasionally, we speak about a book we are reading without being able to recall even these basic details.  Why is this?  Perhaps we read mostly for recreation while our minds ponder life’s banalities.  We all know what it is to read a whole page without having processed a single word.  Let’s be honest.  When we read like this, we know we are wasting our time.

Faith Cook is not one to waste her reading time.  Books have been a source of comfort, rebuke and delight to her since her childhood in China where reading matter was scarce and choice limited.  A missionary childhood taught her to prize books highly.  In her recently published book, And So I Began to Read, she shares with us some of the treasures that have most influenced her over the years and in so doing encourages the reader to reflect on his or her own reading experience and to pick up or dust off some forgotten titles.

One of the most interesting features of this short, readable and personal book (she is more commonly known for her work as a Christian biographer) is her account of her own spiritual relationship with reading.  In 1951, Christian missionaries were decisively thrown out of China following the Communist takeover of the country and Cook’s family moved to Malaysia sending their daughter to a boarding school in North Wales.  During these formative years of Christian growth she imbibed a legalism which forbade certain pastimes and stressed rules ‘to such an extent that even the reading of  a daily newspaper troubled [her] conscience.’  Shunning Dickens and novels altogether Cook describes how she learnt self-righteously to frown upon secular reading.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that all the works mentioned in this book are written by Christians and only one of the influential texts is a novel.

Starting in 1957 with her discovery of the work of Jonathan Edwards, Cook begins to walk and talk us through her library.

John Bunyan

“Cry to God that he would inflame thy will…with the things of the other world.” John Bunyan

On the topics of suffering and prayer Cook is nourished and comforted by Baxter, Bonar, Boston, Brooks, Bunyan, Spurgeon and Gurnall.  With a heart for those who may not want to tackle the dense wording of such writers, she helpfully suggests contemporary authors whose writing on similar themes may be more accessible to the modern reader.

Poetry, hymns and letters are also amongst the literature that sustained her over the years, Newton, Cowper and Samuel Rutherford being particular favourites.  These  ‘turned my thoughts away from my own troubles to the griefs and pain that the Saviour suffered for his people, putting my own in perspective.’    Through reading, Cook was self-medicating in her own suffering with the balm of others’ sanctified wisdom.  Books were to her ‘an unfailing source of strength and consolation’.  They accompany her like a reassuring and kindly guide as she journeys through the painful years of her husband’s reduced mental health and another move from Shepshed to Hull.

Reading presents the temptation of escapism but Cook assumes a responsible and structured approach to her reading time, aided by her husband’s rich supply of Puritan titles, in particular, Richard Baxter’s ‘The Saint’s Everlasting Rest’ which, ‘chimed with her own thinking at this time’.  As the Lord kindly provides reading matter for His pupil, she in turn diligently copies out long passages into a notebook, often memorising them by heart, embracing rather than running from the ‘quaint’ and ‘inaccessible’ language.  Her reading stirs a yearning for heaven and fires her desire to serve her Master in the ante chamber that is this life.  I wonder, does my reading do the same?

Cook describes movingly how the Lord often ministered to her ‘by means of a book’, especially in times of backsliding or luke warmth reminding us how tenderly ‘the great Shepherd of the sheep is well able to seek out any of his flock that are wandering in a wilderness.’

Samuel Rutherford

“Rutherford is beyond all praise of men.”  C.H.Spurgeon

The final section of the book describes how the author began to write.  Longing to share discovered gems with friends, she set about translating Samuel Rutherford’s seemingly impenetrable prose into more accessible rhyme, an endeavour which was enthusiastically received by the Banner of Truth Trust and launched her writing career.

Jesus tells us that we reap what we sow.  Faith Cook extends that principle to the world of reading inviting us to choose our next book wisely, with our gaze on eternity, aware that the time is short.  She teaches us, as Bunyan taught her, to see life as ‘a pilgrimage from this world of sin and suffering to the Celestial City.’  I am left asking myself whether my reading choices encourage or detract from this view.

 

A Mind for God – James Emery White

A Mind for God
A Mind for God
by James Emery White

Available at Amazon

You don’t have to be a scholar to be interested in the life of the mind.  In fact, if you’re a Christian, it’s important that you are.  According to the apostle Paul, the believer, whatever his calling, is to ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ (2 Cor 10:5).

Our mothers advised us to think before speaking.  Sometimes, we remember to do this but what about thinking Christianly before speaking?  According to Bertrand Russell, ‘Most Christians would rather die thank think; in fact they do.’ This is simply not true but it’s a challenge to the Bridget Joneses amongst us to pay heed not just to the murky areas of our thought life, but also to the muddled ones.

While it may be tempting to dismiss the need to think Christianly with legitimate fears of becoming puffed up with knowledge, it is also crucial to ask oneself, ‘Am I ensnared by the thinking of the current culture without even realising it?’  This is a particularly important question to ask if you:

  • watch TV
  • scroll through Facebook
  • tweet
  • read the news
  • know anybody who’s not a Christian.

I assume that is most of us.  Even if you are not someone who exposes himself regularly to the external influences of the day, we all know that the mind can play tricks on us, perhaps more than ever when we spend time alone.

If you are interested in reading more on the subject, at just over 100 pages, James Emery White’s little book is a great place to start.

The book is particularly appealing for two main reasons.

First, because it is short!  With only seven chapters and two useful appendices (recommended reading and resources) it can be read and absorbed in a few hours but stand you in good stead for many years when returning the ‘volleys against faith [that] come from every quarter and at every age’.

In his engaging and personal introduction, White cites Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in which he points out that lots of Christians consider humble ignorance a nobler quality than a cultivated mind.  If ‘homo sapiens’ means ‘thinking being’, then surely to be fully human is to think.

White then gently leads us through concepts like Moral Relativism (‘what’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me’); Autonomous Individualism (‘our choices are ours alone, determined by our personal pleasure, and not by any higher moral authority’); Narcissistic Hedonism (‘I, me, mine’ – the toddler in us all) and Reductive  Naturalism (‘life is accidental’).  Having done so, he invites us to ask ourselves whether we are actually harbouring any of these world-views without acknowledging it.

Secondly, the book motivates us to read books.  Describing our library as our ‘armoury’, he calls the reader to exercise his mind through reading as we exercise the body through going to the gym.  We don’t get fit, either physically or mentally, if we don’t make it a priority.

“As iron rusts when not used, 
and water gets foul from standing or turns to ice when exposed
to cold, so the intellect degenerates without exercise.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Starting with the Bible, White gives us a framework for what to read to develop a mind for Christ and encourages us to take the time to do it.

I once asked a busy housemaster of a prestigious boys prep school how he managed to read so many books.

‘It’s important to me,’ was his simple reply.

Is it important to you?