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.

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A Very English Family Saga

The Cazalet Chronicles
by Elizabeth Jane Howard
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Elizabeth Jane Howard who died early last year aged 90 is a writer whose work I first came across as a teenager when my father gave me ‘A Beautiful Visit’, her first novel, published in 1950.  I never read it despite its prize winning status.  (It won the John Llewllyn Rhys memorial prize).  The intellectual snobbery of youth meant that I quickly assumed the condescending attitude of her critics who described her as a writer of ‘women’s novels.’  They might just as well have said ‘magazines’.  As an aspiring English Literature student I was looking for the higher brow.

It was not until twenty years later that I came across her again when her Cazalet Chronicles were republished after the event of her death.  Looking for an ‘easy’ read I came across Volume One, The Light Years, began reading and was pleasurably gripped by the novel and its four successors (Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) for the next few months.  Howard combines pure story-telling brilliance with an enviable elegance of style.

Jane, as she was known, was born in London in March 1923.  Now recognised as an acclaimed novelist in her own right, she was formerly referred to purely as Kingsley Amis‘ wife or Martin Amis‘ stepmother.  Margaret Drabble famously omitted her from the 1985 edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, a slight which she took with commendable equilibrium.  Married three times, she sadly described herself as a ‘tart for affection’ having had a troubled relationship with her mother, re-enacted with her own daughter Nicola by the Naturalist Peter Scott, her first husband.

Marriage to Peter Scott, Naval Officer and Naturalist in 1942

Marriage to Peter Scott, Naval Officer and Naturalist in 1942

Perhaps the appeal of the novels for me lies in their Englishness.  A large family country house in Sussex, a kindly matriarch and her ageing husband ‘The Brig’,  three brothers and their spinster sister, troubled marriages, growing children, boarding school angst, coming of age, unrequited love and the onset of war.   The details of upper middle class England are minutely observed alongside the repressed emotions of its inhabitants.  These books are a delight.  There is a time for everything under the sun and there is a time for reading for the pure pleasure of enjoying a story.

Her work doesn’t come into the category of improving reading, there being no Victorian moral didacticism nor any particular heroic protagonist to emulate.  Instead, we are introduced to an array of humanely portrayed, utterly credible characters crafted lovingly with failings and idiosyncrasies, insecurities and foibles with which the reader is only too able to relate.  Getting to know their personalities and what drives them, seeing their motives and their regrets is an education in patience, compassion and human understanding.

Her autobiography ‘Slipstream’ if read after this family saga reveals how much of her own life she drew upon for her Cazalet novels.  It is an ‘achingly honest’ portrayal of her life, her marriages, her mistakes and her writing.  Writing was clearly a form of therapy for her alongside the formal psychotherapy she received in her later years.

Fascinatingly, Janet Watts in her Guardian obituary of 2 January 2014 writes:

Jane once admitted that writing was the most “frightening” thing she did, and that she did not enjoy it.  “I find it much too anxious a business”, she said.  She once tried to give it up altogether.  But she couldn’t.

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It is terribly moving to see how frankly she faces up to the ‘mess’ she made of her life.  With three failed marriages, an abandoned daughter and a string of affairs one can see why she might have felt this way.  However, with such a legacy of literary work, a final reconciliation with Nicola, her daughter and a long life ‘full of years’ she has also left a valued mark on the landscape of English fiction and is to be admired for her courage, her perseverance and her insights into the English psyche.

Making a mess of it?

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Relationships – A Mess Worth Making

by Timothy S. Lane & Paul David Tripp
Available from 10 of Those

I’m generally not a fan of co-authored books.  Extra effort is needed trying to second guess which author is speaking at any given point and it’s hard to listen to two people at once! This book by Lane and Tripp however gets my ‘yes’ vote because with books by Paul Tripp, a bit of respite from his relentless heart surgery is more than welcome.

Despite being only 177 pages, the book is a relatively weighty read and one that demands courage from its readers.  The constant challenges to one’s attitudes and behaviour fix the book for me in the category of ‘strong meat’.  But isn’t there a place for this type of meat in our Christian reading as well as our Bible reading? So, although I felt exhausted after reading this book, it is nevertheless one that I highly recommend.

Lane and Tripp begin by asserting our brokenness and our need for the reconciling grace of God both in relation to ourselves and in relation to others.  They tell us why it’s worth bothering with our relationships in the first place when it can be tempting at times to walk away.  After all, who hasn’t felt after a tricky exchange, ‘Right, that’s it.  I’m backing off!’  Or perhaps it’s just me.  But since God has bothered with me, I have no option but to relate with the people around me.   Vertical relationship with God demands horizontal relationship with others.   It is only in community that we truly reflect the image of God who is Himself in community: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

A whole gamut of possible relationships is incorporated in the book.  Marriage receives a fair bit of attention but relationships between parents and children, colleagues, friends, acquaintances, peers and strangers are all covered.

The authors refuse to allow us to hold onto any illusion that our relationships will deliver what we long for.  Instead they teach us that ‘every painful thing we experience in relationships is meant to remind us of our need for God’.

The book is helpfully laid out and interspersed with enlarged quotes to help us to digest its hard hitting message.  The writing is also hugely practical.  Great big grey text boxes with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions for you to answer help to break up the intensity of the content.

Consider, for example, some of the following questions Lane and Tripp ask:

  • Have you ever felt misunderstood?
  • Have you ever experienced loneliness even when things were going well?
  • How do you deal with relational disappointments?
  • Do you blame, deny, run away, avoid, threaten and manipulate?  Or do you speak the truth, exhibit patience, approach people gently, as for and grant forgiveness, overlook minor offences, encourage and honour others?

Ahem…!  This book made me squirm.  This book made me uncomfortable.  This book held a mirror up to my manner of relating that made me stop looking so much at what I perceive to be wrong with the other person and start asking what any given conflict shows me about my sinfulness.  My self-centredness and disinclination to get involved in other people’s mess are rebuked by the reminder that ‘he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but of him who died for them and was raised again.’ 2 Cor 5:15.

What made the book so memorable for me was that I found my critical spirit backed into a corner until I had no choice but to confess, which then led to a wonderful fresh celebration of the gospel.  God hasn’t given up on me and so I am re-motivated to persevere with you.

Lest we become unduly discouraged, Tripp and Lane frequently remind us that God has given us his Word to help us to navigate our relationships, his Spirit to strengthen us to relate in godly ways and each other for mutual encouragement and correction.

So although I’m still struggling with slight spiritual indigestion, I’m glad I read this book – I just won’t be taking another trip down relationships lane for a while.

A Portrait of Nina Hamnett, The Courtauld Gallery, London

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Roger Fry (1866-1934)

This painting caught my eye on a recent visit to The Courtauld Gallery.  I was drawn by the elegance of this serious and intelligent looking person.  With her dated roll neck sweater and a-line skirt sporting what would today be considered a ‘bad’ hair cut, she nevertheless carried a beauty despite the almost skeletal bone structure of her cheekbones and wrists and the self-protective posture. Born in Wales in 1890, a Bohemian artist and writer, Nina Hamnett was not exactly what you’d call an example of godliness.  She was a flamboyantly unconventional, sexually liberal divorcee who suffered from alcoholism and died after falling out of her apartment window and being impaled on the railings below.  Her last words are said to have been: ‘Why don’t they let me die?’ To discover that this woman endured such a painful life makes the portrait that much more moving.   But what is it that makes it beautiful?  Might it be that Nina Hamnett was, as the bible puts it,  made in the image of God; was ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ and was one of the Creator’s ‘wonderful works’ (Psalm 139)? Perhaps this is what Roger Fry has unwittingly captured in this portrait.   How much more does God see in us the potential for beauty that lies behind our brokenness and shame.  How might our portrait appear the hands of the Divine Artist?