Lift up your hearts with John Calvin

Calvin’s pulpit in Geneva, © Yann Forget / Wikimedia

I’m currently reading a fascinating book called Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva. It’s part of a series of books, The Church at Worship, which combine essays, illustrations and extracts from primary materials in order to give readers an insight into Christian worship in a particular place and time. The Kindle edition is also currently available at a knockdown price (£1.93, versus an RRP of £18.99), so I heartily recommend grabbing it while you can.

One of the texts provided is a selection of excerpts from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 9, delivered as a public lecture for trainee pastors. Here are a few points that particularly struck me.

First, on verse 1 (“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds”
), Calvin writes:

When he says “with all my heart,” he means with a pure and whole heart, rather than in a duplicitous way. And therefore he not only makes a distinction between himself and those heavy hypocrites who praise God only with their lips, leaving their hearts stone cold, but he also acknowledges that everything praiseworthy he has done so far stems entirely from the pure grace of God.

This underlines what I’ve long believed: that one thing the psalms teach us is that our feelings matter. They are not the be-all and the end-all – it is “the pure grace of God” that matters above all, not our feelings about it – but the idea of a “faith without feelings” is unknown to the psalmist. I am to give thanks “with my whole heart”; we are not to “praise God only with [our] lips, leaving [our] hearts stone cold”.

Next, Calvin turns to verse 11, “Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion.
Declare his deeds among the peoples”

Indeed, it is not enough to honor and venerate some vague divine force, but instead to know how to recognize the one and only true God, whom one should serve appropriately and according to his commands.

As Luther put it: “There is no other God than the one God who is called Jesus Christ.” The God we worship is not “some vague divine force”, but “the one and only true God”, who has revealed himself to us in “his doings”.

Also on verse 11, God is called “the one who dwells in Zion”, but this wasn’t to tie him to one place; on the contrary, we are to “declare his deeds among the peoples”. Calvin draws a lesson from this about the sacraments:

It is very true that God had given genuine signs of his presence in this visible Sanctuary, but the goal was not to bind people’s senses to earthly elements. Instead, he wanted these external signs to serve as ladders to draw the faithful to Heaven. For right from the start God had the same goal for the Sacraments and all other outward practices of the faith, namely, to accommodate the weakness and minimal capacity of his people. Therefore yet today their true purpose is to help us seek God spiritually in his heavenly glory, and not to keep us in this world or distract us with the vanities of the flesh.

As the editor of the volume, Karin Maag, observes in a side note:

This image of the ladder is one of Calvin’s favorite ways of explaining how God uses the elements of this world to draw believers to a deeper and more spiritual understanding of their faith.

And this, I feel, is where I find myself disagreeing with Calvin. While Calvin sees the sacraments as means by which God draws us up spiritually to heaven, Luther sees them as a means by which God comes down to us and assures us that he is with us here on earth.

This is an important distinction, but perhaps we should not force it too much. Perhaps instead we should see it like St Paul’s description of the second coming of Christ in his first letter to the Thessalonians, where we rise to meet the Lord in the air as he descends to us from heaven…

Quarterly books roundup (January to March 2020)

Here’s the first of this year’s quarterly summaries of books I’ve been reading.

With the current coronavirus epidemic, many people have been writing or tweeting about what a fantastic opportunity the lockdown provides for reading lots of books. Well, if that’s you, then that’s great. For me, the combination of an exceptionally busy time at work, loss of time spent commuting, and (above all) the sheer mental and emotional exhaustion caused by The Whole Situation meant that my reading hit something of a buffer during March. Things have improved a little since then, but let’s see how the year has been going overall.


Looking at my list of books read in January and February (everything up to and including the Priestley), they look like a list from about 2009. Was it really this year when I read those? Feels like an age ago. Which is a shame, as I’m sure several of them were pretty good, if I could remember anything about them.

Funnily enough, the one that leaves the clearest imprint on my memory now is one that seemed like the slightest at the time: J.L. Carr’s entertaining account of a fictional amateur football club’s glory trail to victory in the F.A. Cup. But it’s the books completed in March, though fewer in number, that have held up best for me so far.

Once I got into it, I loved Susanna Clarke’s massive Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (and am now watching the TV adaptation, also excellent). Vying with it for my favourite novel of the quarter is Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, which my wife, E, compared to “Muriel Spark writing a novel by Graham Greene”. Its combination of an eccentric feminism, whimsical humour and spiritual profundity won’t be for everyone – I described it at one point as “Weird Anglican Twitter, the novelisation” – but those to whom it does appeal are likely to love it.

The distractions caused by the coronavirus epidemic meant I took rather longer to stagger to the end of The Towers of Trebizond than might otherwise be the case, and once I’d completed it I needed something lighter. Cyril Hare’s legal whodunnit, Tragedy at Law, proved to be just the ticket. A fascinating slice of social history (following an Assize court around wartime England), very funny, and a plot that appealed immensely to my inner Law Nerd.

  • Barchester Towers (Anthony Trollope)
  • The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford)
  • A Division of the Spoils (Paul Scott)
  • How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup (J.L. Carr)
  • The Little Drummer Girl (John Le Carré)
  • Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
  • An Inspector Calls* (J.B. Priestley)
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
  • The Towers of Trebizond (Rose Macaulay)
  • Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)


My pre-distraction nonfiction reading has fared rather better in my memory than was the case for fiction. That may be because there is no post-distraction nonfiction reading. Looking at the list, I remain very fond of Dan Jackson’s warm and informative history of northeast England, The Northumbrians, and look forward to this being a guide when we take our family holiday in Northumberland in August (which I’m still hoping will happen!). Leo Damrosch’s Eternity’s Sunrise is a must-read for any fans of William Blake.

I also particularly enjoyed Deborah Levy’s post-divorce memoir, The Cost of Living, and Mary Midgley’s What Is Philosophy For?, which turned out to be mostly an analysis of the weakness of claims made for artificial intelligence by those who (in Midgley’s view) have too naively scientistic and unphilosophical an understanding of what “minds” are in the first place. Meanwhile, I finally completed reading Orwell’s collected essays, which I’d begun some time in 2017.

  • The Northumbrians (Dan Jackson)
  • Essays (George Orwell)
  • Eternity’s Sunrise (Leo Damrosch)
  • The Cost of Living (Deborah Levy)
  • What Is Philosophy For? (Mary Midgley)
  • Things I Don’t Want to Know (Deborah Levy)
  • Nothing: A Very Short Introduction (Frank Close)
  • This Is Not Propaganda (Peter Pomerantsev)


The standout book for me in this category was Matthew Myer Boulton’s Life in God, an assessment of the continuing value of John Calvin’s work from the point of view of practical theology. Boulton argues that Calvin’s aim was not so much to formulate a theology as to form a people: making the monastic disciplines of scriptural study, daily prayer, psalm singing and so on the backbone of Christian life for ordinary believers. It’s this emphasis on practical formation, Boulton argues, that holds most promise for Christian theology (and Christian living) today.

Benjamin Dueholm’s Sacred Signposts makes a similar point from a Lutheran perspective, the “signposts” of the title being the seven “possessions of the church” identified by Luther as the common heritage of all Christians: the Word; baptism; the Lord’s Supper; confession and absolution; the ministry; prayer, praise and worship; and suffering and the cross.

  • What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Philip Yancey)
  • Image of the Invisible (Amy Scott Robinson)
  • Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Matthew Myer Boulton)
  • Sacred Signposts (Benjamin J. Dueholm)

The sacrament that coronavirus can't take away

View of a part of the balustrade/parapet of the northern gallery in the Amanduskirche in Beihingen, a district of Freiberg am Neckar (Germany), seen from the southern gallery. The paintings by Hans Stiegler (18th century) show the baptism of Christ and Martin Luther as reformator. (source)
© Roman Eisele / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 & GFDL ≥ 1.2

As with pretty much all churches in the UK, our congregation has suspended services until further notice in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic. Last week we also omitted the Sacrament of the Altar due to concerns over our ability to administer it safely.

This situation leaves Christians in the distressing position of being deprived of the Sacrament of the Altar – the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass – at a time when we might feel most in need of it and of its promised benefits of forgiveness, life and salvation. Many of us have become used to a weekly (or even more frequent) celebration of this sacrament.

For many of us, the suspension of public worship also deprives us of the comfort of the weekly general absolution pronounced by the pastor: “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins…”

Last night, though, I came across the following comment on Facebook, which brought home that there is one sacrament that has not been taken away from us at this time:

I’m always stunned and encouraged in such moments by Luther’s appeal to, “I am baptized”. Baptism is the most powerful sacrament in this way, but most forgotten as to its actual power today. It of necessity sustains YOU and me even when the other two, absolution and the supper, are unavailable.

Luther famously emphasised the value of baptism in our assurance as Christians, our confidence in the face of temptation and doubt:

The only way to drive away the Devil is through faith in Christ, by saying: ‘I have been baptized, I am a Christian.’

This is reflected in the Small Catechism, where Luther sees the significance of baptism as lying, not in its status as a mere “initiation rite”, but as the basis for our daily repentance, as something to which we return daily in order to die to sin and rise to new life:

What does such baptising with water signify?

It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily remorse and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new person should daily come forth and arise, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Small Catechism, Holy Baptism, question 4

Hence our daily prayers should always begin with the sign of the cross and the invocation of the Trinity, in recollection of our baptism:

In the morning, when you get up, bless yourself with the holy cross and say:

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Small Catechism, Daily Prayers

One “Luther” quotation which does the rounds on the internet – “When you wash your face, remember your baptism” – appears to be misattributed. But Luther would probably agree with it (once he’d got his head round 21st century hygiene standards – “Washing your face? Every day?”), and at the moment it’s easy to extend it: “When you wash your hands, remember your baptism (for at least 20 seconds).”

We’re facing a difficult Lent, and perhaps an even more difficult Easter, separated in so many ways from our fellow Christians and from the regular ministry of word and sacrament which we have previously taken for granted. The daily recollection of our baptism, however, can be one source of comfort and encouragement.

Baptizatus sum! I am baptised!

2019 books: rounding ’em up

Book covers: Middlemarch, Day of the Scorpion, Bonfire of the Vanities, The Power, The Stone Table, I Am I Am I Am, Shake Hands with the Devil, The Crucifixion

I’ve now completed my review of books read during 2019 (Jan to Mar | Apr to Jun | Jul to Sep | Oct to Dec). In this post I’ll take a look at the year as a whole and single out some of my overall favourites.

This is not an objective measure of “the best books” I’ve read: rather, these are the books which, looking back, have left the strongest continuing impression on me.

Fiction (classic)

I’ve split fiction into two categories for this, as there were so many great novels I read this year, both “contemporary” and “classic” (roughly, and egotistically, classified according to whether they were published before or during my lifetime). The list of favourites for each category could easily have been half as long again.

The classics themselves can be split into two subcategories: pre- and post-1900, and that’s the order I’ve put them below. The three pre-1900 books on the list are, of course, among the mightiest works of literature in the English language, and it seems invidious to start ranking them like Olympic sprinters, but if push comes to shove, it’s probably Middlemarch that takes the laurels.

The 20th century novels are an eclectic mixture. Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke – nominally a detective story, though really a psychological/spiritual thriller to which the detective himself, Campion, makes only the most incidental contribution – is memorable most of all for its evocation of the atmosphere of postwar London, how Victorian the city still was.

Perhaps the single most memorable character from the four novels I’ve mentioned is “Miss Jean Brodie in her prime”, though Paul Scott’s Sarah Layton runs her a very, very close second: I find her as mesmerising and vivid as Anna Karenina (wait, did I say that out loud?). And it’s Scott’s The Day of the Scorpion (pipping its sequel, The Towers of Silence, to the post) that wins the overall prize from this subcategory.

  • Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
  • Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
  • Middlemarch (George Eliot)
  • The Tiger in the Smoke (Margery Allingham)
  • All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville-West)
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark)
  • The Day of the Scorpion (Paul Scott)

Fiction (contemporary)

Again, I’m going to split this into two subcategories, very roughly divided between “literary” and “SF/other”.

Looking back at January to March, it was an astonishingly strong start to the year: not only reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the “classic” section, but Donna Tartt’s highly entertaining The Goldfinch (glad I avoided the film, though), Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping all being among my favourite books of the year.

Indeed, while I loved Circe, The Porpoise and The Friend, it’s from those first four that I’d need to pick a winner. And in the end, much as I loved the Robinson and the Spufford in particular, I think it has to be The Bonfire of the Vanities.

In the SF/other camp, I loved Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Most obviously influenced by The Handmaid’s Tale, what makes it most effective are the way Alderman uses the structure of her book to ramp up the tension: the chapters count down to a cataclysm whose impact is made apparent by the increasing age of the archaeological artifacts pictured between each chapter. This element of “imagined anthropology” is clearly influenced by Ursula Le Guin, especially Always Coming Home.

I’ve written in previous posts about how fun Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is. Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest have some of the most powerful and thrilling ideas I’ve ever encountered in science fiction (the concept of “the dark forest”, in particular, is unforgettable and chilling). The third book in the trilogy, Death’s End, was also good, but not quite at the level of the first two.

Right up to typing the last two paragraphs, I thought I was going to give this one to Liu Cixin, but on reflection it’s Naomi Alderman’s The Power that wins: for that structure and use of non-narrative elements, but also because it’s just such a terrific concept.

Finally, a special category award for Francis Spufford’s Narnia continuation, The Stone Table, which I posted on in more detail earlier this year. Sadly, it seems that the copyright issues which had prevented its wider publication have not been resolved, and we’ll have to wait until 2034 at the earliest for the book to see the light of day beyond the limited circulation it’s had to date.

  • The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)
  • Golden Hill (Francis Spufford)
  • Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)
  • Circe (Madeline Miller)
  • The Porpoise (Mark Haddon)
  • The Friend (Sigrid Nunez)
  • The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest (Cixin Liu)
  • The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Sydney Padua)
  • The Power (Naomi Alderman)
  • The Stone Table (Francis Spufford)


In some ways, the most “important” of the books on this list is Roméo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With the Devil, simply because I suspect most of us know too little about the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Dallaire was the Canadian general given the task of leading the United Nations forces in Rwanda, and he is unsparing in his description both of the horrors of the genocide and of the shocking complicity of the great powers, who left the tiny UN force starved of the troops and resources that, Dallaire still believes, could have halted the killing. It’s not the best written of the books I’ve read this year, but it certainly has an unforgettable impact.

Barnabas Calder’s love letter to brutalist architecture gave me a great deal of pleasure earlier in the year, as did Tom Wolfe’s vivid and vigorous account of the early US space programme, The Right Stuff. But my other winner is I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, a beautifully-written memoir that celebrates life through the medium of near-death experiences.

  • Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (Barnabas Calder)
  • The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe)
  • I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (Maggie O’Farrell)
  • Making Sense of the Troubles (David McKittrick and David McVea)
  • Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise (Katherine Rundell)
  • Shake Hands With the Devil (Roméo Dallaire)


This was a rather thin year for reading theology, to the extent that I could almost be tempted to fold it into the general nonfiction category. That said, I do read the books in this category for a different purpose than other non-fiction, so it makes sense to treat them separately.

Anyway, there can only be one winner in this category for 2019: Fleming Rutledge’s superb study of The Crucifixion, a book I hope will have a lasting impact both on me and on the church as a whole; especially Rutledge’s emphasis on an “apocalyptic” understanding of the cross as the framework within which to understand and embrace the other biblical motifs (including “substitutionary atonement”).

  • The Crucifixion (Fleming Rutledge)
  • For All the Saints? (Tom Wright)
  • Paul: A Biography (Tom Wright)

Looking ahead…

As for what I plan to read in 2020, my to-read shelf (see below) is the usual horror-show, so should remain my priority (“and this year I mean it!”). I am planning to repeat last year’s freeze on book purchases for January to March, so as to encourage me to make inroads into the existing stock.

After several years in which my reading of fiction has gradually overtaken nonfiction, I suspect the pendulum could now afford to swing back a little in the direction of nonfiction (both general and theological), especially when I look at the books I have lined up to read in that category.

I also have several books remaining from the “Marital Review of Books”: the recommendations that my wife gave me for Christmas 2018. I managed just under half of them this year, but I’m looking forward to tackling the rest of the list. Some of the authors that would be “new to me” (a shocking confession of my ignorance coming up here): Gabriel García Márquez, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Andrea Levy and John Steinbeck. And then there’s the next Big One for me to use as an alibi for not reading other long books: War and Peace. Let’s see how I get on…

Books! (October to December 2019)

Book covers: Middlemarch (George Eliot); The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark); Why You Should Read Children's Books (Katherine Rundell)

Here’s how I finished my year’s reading, covering October to December. The previous posts cover Jan to Mar | Apr to Jun | Jul to Sep.

Slightly fewer books than previous quarters, but some heavyhitters in the fiction category, and rather more nonfiction than earlier in the year. I should also point out that, in these posts, an asterisk next to a book name indicates a book I’ve read before.


Well, this was the year I finally ticked off another of The Big Ones: Middlemarch. For some years this has been my go-to alibi for getting out of reading other long books: “how can I read Cryptonomicon when I haven’t even read Middlemarch yet?”; I now need another alibi (probably War and Peace). As for what I thought of Middlemarch: well, as I said on Twitter, “it turns out that Middlemarch isn’t a ‘classic’ in an ‘eat yer greens’ way, but in a ‘you’ll be increasingly absorbed until you end up reading the last 100 pages before getting up for breakfast’ way.” I loved it.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a much shorter book, but another which richly deserves its status as a classic. Rather topical, too, given Miss Brodie’s (<ahem>) “alt-right” tendencies. I also enjoyed Spark’s curious Watergate-meets-Vatican-2 satire, The Abbess: perhaps helped by the fact that the Abbess herself went to my college: “I read classics for a year at Lady Margaret Hall before switching to Eng. Lit.”

I was also pleased to discover I share an alma mater (modulo a parallel universe or two) with Lyra Silvertongue, star of The Secret Commonwealth, the second book in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy. The Secret Commonwealth was a huge improvement on its predecessor, La Belle Sauvage: I’m looking forward to the third volume. It’s become clear that one of Pullman’s key motivations in writing the new trilogy is to distance himself from the “New Atheists” with whom he has tended to be lumped: the main theme of the book is the importance of imagination over rationality. I find this a much more congenial hobby-horse for him to be riding than “ReLiGiOn iS t3h eViL”.

I also resumed Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, reading both The Day of the Scorpion and The Towers of Silence, having read The Jewel in the Crown last year. Scott is a master of the set piece (one chapter in The Day of the Scorpion is an eighty-page interrogation scene), and in Sarah Layton and Ronald Merrick he has created one of the most compelling heroines, and one of the most vivid monsters, in modern fiction. I’m greatly looking forward to reading the concluding volume, A Division of the Spoils, in the new year. He almost wins book title(s) of the year, too.

  • Middlemarch (George Eliot)
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark)
  • The Day of the Scorpion (Paul Scott)
  • Jeeves and the King of Clubs (Ben Schott)
  • The Power (Naomi Alderman)
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Harrison)
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Other Stories (Truman Capote)
  • The Abbess (Muriel Spark)
  • The Secret Commonwealth (Philip Pullman)
  • The Towers of Silence (Paul Scott)
  • Waiting for the Barbarians (J.M. Coetzee)
  • The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)


Perhaps it’s as things got serious in real life that I felt I had to read some equally serious nonfiction: McKittrick and McVea’s informative history of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Roméo Dallaire’s gruelling account of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and, after Labour’s calamitous election defeat, re-reading Nick Cohen’s What’s Left, which predicted the disaster the Left was leading itself into over a decade ago.

On a lighter note, and snatching “book title of the year” from under Paul Scott’s nose, came Katherine Rundell and her essay, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. Rundell is both a children’s author and a fellow of All Souls’ College, and her book is correspondingly intelligent, illuminating, inspiring, warm and moving:

Children’s books say: the world is huge. They say: hope counts for something. They say: bravery will matter, wit will matter, empathy will matter, love will matter. These things may or may not be true. I do not know. I hope they are. I think it is urgently necessary to hear them and to speak them.

The list also includes the very last book I finished in 2019, on the evening of the 31st: A.E. Stalling’s collection, Olives; the only book of poetry I completed during the year.

  • Making Sense of the Troubles (David McKittrick and David McVea)
  • Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise (Katherine Rundell)
  • Shake Hands With the Devil (Roméo Dallaire)
  • Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (Perry Anderson)
  • What’s Left?* (Nick Cohen)
  • Olives (A.E. Stallings)


I’m definitely cheating a little here, including The Actual Bible. But hey: my two-year Bible reading plan came to an end on 31 December, so on the list it goes. One shift that did occur during the two years was switching from the NRSV to the RSV, after reading Fleming Rutledge’s defence of the older translation in her book, The Crucifixion:

From my perspective, the gains in the New Revised Standard Version are outweighed by the loss of literary quality and powerful sentence structure.

It probably helps as well that my copy of the RSV has slightly larger and clearer type than my compact NRSV: old age is clearly creeping up on me…

  • Hebrews for Everyone (Tom Wright)
  • For All the Saints? (Tom Wright)
  • An Introduction to the Catholic Epistles (Darian Lockett)
  • The Screwtape Letters* (C.S. Lewis)
  • The Bible*

So, that concludes the list of 2019’s books. In my final post in this series, I’ll pull together the four posts and choose my favourite books of the year in each category.

Books! (July to September 2019)

Book covers: The Friend (Sigrid Nunez), The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Sydney Padua), I Am I Am I Am (Maggie O'Farrell)

Here’s the next instalment in my review of this year’s reading, covering July to September. Previous posts: Jan to Mar | Apr to Jun.

The summer is usually a peak period for getting through books, as I normally do plenty of reading on holiday. This year I didn’t manage quite so much of this, mostly because our holiday involved more driving and changes of location than usual and hence less time sitting around reading. However, I still managed to get to some good stuff.


Highlights in fiction included Madeline Miller’s retelling of the story of Circe and Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise, which reworks Shakespeare’s Pericles in a more modern framing. Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness is an unsparing (though frequently very funny) account of growing up as a teenage girl in a rural Canadian Mennonite community; Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, gives a more sympathetic portrait of a small town community in Colorado.

The most “so hot right now” book on the list is undoubtedly Margaret Atwood’s blockbuster sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I enjoyed The Testaments, but can’t help but see it as Handmaid’s Tale fanfic, and undeserving of its Booker Prize.

My favourite novel of the quarter, though, was Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. It’s a lovely book, characterised by what Nunez’s narrator praises as three hallmarks of good writing: “A lack of sentimentality, a lack of self-pity, and a sense of humor.” The narrator is a writer, whose grief at the suicide of a friend is healed by her care for her late friend’s Great Dane – an animal strictly prohibited under the lease terms for her rent-controlled apartment. As she observes at one point:

There’s a certain kind of person who, having read this far, is anxiously wondering: Does something bad happen to the dog?

Indeed, “Please tell me nothing bad happens to the dog!” has now entered my and my wife’s vocabulary.

Another book I’d single out from this quarter is Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. I was tempted to include this graphic novel under non-fiction: it opens by telling the story of the Victorian computing pioneers Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, before going on to imagine a world in which Babbage succeeds in building his mighty mechanical computer, the Analytical Engine – which he and Lovelace then use, obviously, to Fight Crime; and which Padua uses to provide a whimsical history of Victorian culture (George Eliot) and engineering (Isambard! Kingdom! Brunel!). Tremendous fun.

  • Circe (Madeline Miller)
  • The October Man (Ben Aaronovitch)
  • Plainsong (Kent Haruf)
  • The Friend (Sigrid Nunez)
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (Eric Ambler)
  • The Sky is Yours (Chandler Klang Smith)
  • The Thief (Megan Whalen Turner)
  • Predator’s Gold (Philip Reeve)
  • The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Sydney Padua)
  • The Last (Hanna Jameson)
  • Leave it to Psmith (P.G. Wodehouse)
  • A Complicated Kindness (Miriam Toews)
  • Jingo (Terry Pratchett)
  • Berlin (Jason Lutes)
  • The Testaments (Margaret Atwood)
  • The Porpoise (Mark Haddon)


Peter Frase’s Four Futures is a stimulating “speculative non-fiction” imagining four possible outcomes for human society: from a post-money, post-scarcity, post-labour life of abundance (not a utopia, but a society able at least “to convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness”) to the ultimate dystopia of “exterminism” in which the hyper-wealthy decide that “mass labour has been rendered superfluous” by technological advance.

But my favourite of the non-fiction books from this quarter (if you exclude Sydney Padua’s Lovelace and Babbage romp mentioned above) is Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, a memoir covering incidents in O’Farrell’s life ranging from narrowly escaping murder as a teenager to being the mother of a child with severe allergies, with two near-drownings and a year of being bedridden as a child thrown in along the way:

When you are a child, no one tells you that you’re going to die. You have to work it out for yourself.

  • I Am I Am I Am (Maggie O’Farrell)
  • Four Futures (Peter Frase)


An uncharacteristically light quarter. I rather skimmed Walter Wink’s book, if I’m honest. James Dunn’s commentary on Ephesians was the highlight of the Oxford Bible Commentary’s Kindle volume on The Pauline Epistles: the only chapter in the book to provide pastoral warmth alongside the academic analysis. Here’s Dunn on Ephesians 1:22-23:

The church, his body, is (or should be!) the place where God’s presence in and purpose for creation comes to its clearest expression. Would that it were so!

  • The Uncreated Light (Solrunn Nes)
  • The Pauline Epistles (Oxford Bible Commentary)
  • Unmasking the Powers (Walter Wink)

Books! (April to June 2019)

Book covers: All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville-West), The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe), The Crucifixion (Fleming Rutledge)

I had this great idea earlier in the year that, in place of my usual annual round-up of books read (2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018), I’d post quarterly round-ups instead. Well, I managed the first quarter, but have since fallen behind rather ignominiously.

So anyway, a mere six months late, here is my round-up for the second quarter of 2019.


It’s interesting posting this so late after the event, as it enables me to see which books have stayed with me in the succeeding months and which have fallen down the memory hole.

For example, I devoured Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere within a 24-hour period, and recall enjoying it hugely, but don’t remember much about it beyond that. By contrast, books like Rogue Male, Spring and Normal People have left a stronger trace in my memory; even if, in the case of a book like Elmet, it’s the book’s atmosphere that survives more than anything else.

From what is a pretty mixed bag of books, the one I’d single out though is Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent: a glorious portrait of a widow discovering a quiet freedom, to the dismay of her appalling offspring, after a lifetime of suppressing her own desires and ambitions:

“I had nothing to complain of – nothing.”

“Except that you were defrauded of the one thing that mattered.”

  • The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
  • Elmet (Fiona Mozley)
  • All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville-West)
  • The Beginning of Spring (Penelope Fitzgerald)
  • Rogue Male (Geoffrey Household)
  • Death’s End (Cixin Liu)
  • Spring (Ali Smith)
  • Summer Lightning (P.G. Wodehouse)
  • Normal People (Sally Rooney)
  • Tales from the Loop (Simon Stålenhag)
  • The Friends of Harry Perkins (Chris Mullin)
  • Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman)
  • The White Book (Han Kang)
  • Good Omens* (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman)
  • The Vegetarian (Han Kang)
  • Laurus (Eugene Vodolazkin)


Really only one to choose from this quarter: Tom Wolfe’s classic account of the early US crewed space programme, from the machismo of navy test pilots (who “would rather crash and burn”, literally, than admit they’d encountered a problem they couldn’t handle) through to the heroics of the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts: “The era of America’s first single-combat warriors”.

  • The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe)
  • Fifty Watches that Changed the World (Alex Newson) `


Two books that will stick with me from this quarter: Fleming Rutledge’s magisterial 600-page study of The Crucifixion and Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith. What the two books have in common is their emphasis on apocalyptic as the framework within which Christianity was born and is best understood: the gospel not as the “inevitable final stage in an orderly process” of revelation, but as a dramatic confrontation as God enters his world to confront the powers of evil.

Rutledge’s aim in her book is “to highlight the whole cluster of images surrounding the death of Christ, within the overarching apocalyptic drama.” It’s within this framework that the “forensic motif” is to be understood. For Rutledge, the forensic motif of “substitutionary atonement” and the apocalyptic worldview of “Christus Victor” are “not mutually exclusive. They can be allowed to enrich one another”; but it’s the apocalyptic framework that must take precedence.

Jenkins’ book then recounts the history of how apocalyptic developed during the period between the Babylonian exile and the birth of Christ: a period when the suffering of the Jewish people led many to look to a more fundamental confrontation between the forces of good and evil than had been envisaged by earlier prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Jenkins argues persuasively that it is this apocalyptic tradition that bridges that gap in worldviews between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and that the latter is incomprehensible without understanding that tradition.

  • The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (S.E. Gillingham)
  • The Seven Last Words from the Cross* (Fleming Rutledge)
  • The Justification of the Ungodly (Jonathan F. Grothe)
  • Reflecting the Glory (Tom Wright)
  • The Crucifixion (Fleming Rutledge)
  • Crucible of Faith (Philip Jenkins)
  • God Here and Now (Karl Barth)

What the prosperity gospel gets right

Image: Robert M. Worsham (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Financial Times this weekend has a profile of Joel Osteen, “a preacher for Trump’s America”, one of the most successful proponents of the “prosperity gospel” — which the FT describes as a “quintessentially American” blend of Pentecostalism and faith healing, and the only section of the US church that is currently expanding.

The writer, Edward Luce, picks up on Osteen’s ability “to keep sin and redemption out of a Christian message”. Osteen’s response:

It is not my aim to dwell on technicalities. I want to help people sleep at night.

Helping people sleep at night is good for business: Osteen’s church, Lakewood, had revenues of $89 million in the year ending March 2017, with more than 90 per cent coming from its church members. Most church members give at least one-tenth of their income to the church, but those interviewed by Luce seemed to consider it a good investment, one they’d seen repaid in promotions, pay rises, new jobs. “God works fast when you work for him,” one observes.

All this tends to leave most other Christians aghast. As one commentator observes, what the prosperity churches provide is a “deification and ritualisation of the American dream” rather than anything resembling the New Testament gospel. But, despite the evident (and understandable) appeal of such a message for the American super-rich, Osteen’s target market is “the struggling middle class”: a demographic experiencing stagnating incomes, precarious employment, family and community breakdown, a “crisis of loneliness”, addiction to prescription drugs. One congregant comments:

Here is a community that only offered love. Nobody told me that I was bad. The world already tells you that every day.

We don’t have to give any ground to the prosperity preachers’ theology to ask ourselves: is it really just false offers of wealth and security (for those who believe, and give, enough) that keeps people loyal to these churches? Or is there a message here about how the mainstream churches may be failing to address the situations faced by many people?

Which brings me to Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion, which I am currently reading. At the heart of Rutledge’s argument in this book is that the cross has to be understood in the context of apocalyptic theology. She describes the recovery of the apocalyptic perspective as one of the major developments in New Testament scholarship in recent decades:

[This scholarship] is still not well known in the churches, but it is becoming more prominent in academic circles, and this will begin to filter down to the pews.

(The Crucifixion, p.353)

It’s clear that Rutledge — a self-described “preacher and pastor” rather than an academic theologian — sees her book as part of this process of filtration.

The essence of the apocalyptic framework as outlined by Rutledge is that the gospel — and in particular the crucifixion of Jesus which lies at its heart — isn’t simply a matter of individual salvation from the penalty for our sins. Rather, it is God’s assault on the powers of Sin and Death that hold all humanity captive; a confrontation between two realms, two aeons: the reign of Sin and Death and Satan and the other Powers on the one hand, and the reign of righteousness and grace through Christ on the other.

Rutledge argues that, far from this perspective overriding or setting aside more traditional motifs such as sacrifice, redemption, substitution and so on, apocalyptic provides the framework within which those motifs can be better appreciated:

This book has been designed to highlight the whole cluster of images surrounding the death of Christ, within the overarching apocalyptic drama that consistently presents God as the acting subject while at the same time enlisting even the humblest Christian (especially the humblest Christian) in God’s band of resistance fighters.


This in turn can bridge the gap that has often opened up between the gospel of individual salvation and the call to social justice: to confronting the Powers of evil in the world. For Rutledge, the meaning of the cross is twofold: it is both God’s action in making vicarious atonement, and God’s decisive victory over the powers of Sin and Death. Too often, she argues, the former has devolved into an individualistic approach in which “my sins” are somehow “paid for”, giving me the prospect of life with God after death, but in the meantime leaving the wider world largely unchanged. This in turn can have an appeal to those for whom the wider world — however much they (we) may pay lip-service to the idea of societal sin — has shaken out pretty much OK. It has less appeal to those who have been on the receiving end of severe injustice, for whom an apocalyptic message of God’s incursion on a world under the control of alien powers has greater resonance: as Rutledge illustrates with frequent references to the US civil rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid struggle.

So, perhaps this shows us the one thing that the prosperity gospel gets right: its diagnosis that the “mainstream” gospel of individual forgiveness is inadequate to the plight faced by millions of people; that it is not good enough to tell people that they simply need to “bear up patiently” in the face of poverty or suffering or injustice, and certainly not good enough to cite the crucifixion of Jesus in support of this; that God really does want something better for his people, and that he really does intervene in a dramatic way to bring this about, to lay waste to the Powers that oppose him and oppress his creation.

Of course, the prosperity gospel gets pretty much everything else wrong from that point onwards: starting with the idea that how God goes about this is by individually enriching those who show their faith by tithing to Lakewood or whatever. But maybe the answer to this isn’t to be found in telling people that they are wrong to expect God’s intervention in the concrete circumstances of their lives, but rather in developing, at a pastoral and devotional level, the apocalyptic perspective in which the gospel is God’s dynamic assault on all the Powers that oppress us: Sin, Death, poverty, injustice and the rest.

Books! (January to March 2019)

I’m experimenting with moving from an annual books round-up to a quarterly one – partly to make each post a more manageable length, partly to make this blog look slightly less moribund.

Anyway, this is a good quarter to choose, as it’s the quarter when I decided to try not to acquire any books, so as to work on my backlog of unread books. The effect of this on my “physical” backlog (I also read ten Kindle books over the three months) can be seen in the “before and after” shots of my to-read shelves, above.

So how did I get on? Well, the books I read are listed below. As for avoiding acquisitions: the only exceptions I made were Tom Wright’s Reflecting the Glory (bought on Kindle as a book for my wife and I to read during Lent) and, well, The Stone Table (which I could scarcely refuse…). The 25 books read break down as 16 novels, 5 theology, 4 other nonfiction (confirming the pattern I noted in my previous post); 15 physical books, 10 on Kindle.


After a light Agatha Christie as an amuse-bouche, this was a strong quarter for fiction. I’d started The Goldfinch at the end of 2018 and finished it in the first week of the year. As I put it on Twitter, it’s “preposterous, yes, but gripping, and with characters who, if not ‘realistic’ as such, have a life to them that lifts them off the page as you read.” As Sam Leith said of The Secret History, if only “all literary fiction could be this gripping, and if all popular fiction could be this well written.”

My wife, E, gave me a curated reading list for Christmas, the “Marital Review of Books”. I read five of the 22 books during this quarter: The Warden, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Golden Hill. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were the first books I’ve read by the Brontës, and they were both an intense experience. It certainly came as a shock to realise that Kate Bush toned down Emily’s novel for her song.

I’m also loving Liu Cixin’s science fiction trilogy, The Three Body Problem, having read the first two books during the quarter. I don’t think I’ve ever read two books with such an exhilarating range and intensity of ideas. The countdown in The Three Body Problem is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve read in a novel (even if the explanation turns out to be a little silly); but it’s possibly eclipsed by the climax to The Dark Forest. You’ll never look at humanity’s attempts to contact alien civilisations in the same way again. Interesting, also, to read science fiction written from a Chinese (PRC) perspective.

  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie)
  • The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  • The Warden (Anthony Trollope)
  • The Three Body Problem (Cixin Liu)
  • Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
  • Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)
  • Melmoth (Sarah Perry)
  • Golden Hill (Francis Spufford)
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)
  • The Dark Forest (Cixin Liu)
  • Judgment on Deltchev (Eric Ambler)
  • Solaris (Stanislaw Lem)
  • The Tiger in the Smoke (Margery Allingham)
  • The Rings of Saturn (W.G. Sebald)
  • The Stone Table (Francis Spufford)
  • Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)


As I noted in my post in January, my book-buying habits have, for a long time, been based on what turns out to be a largely delusional idea of how much nonfiction I actually read. “About one book a month” was my average last year, and that’s pretty much where things have pitched up between January and March.

Barnabas Calder’s Raw Concrete is a glorious and intelligent celebration of brutalist architecture as a unique and unrepeatable moment in architectural history: the brief period when architects were free able to exploit the fresh technical possibilities of modern building materials and seemingly limitless cheap energy; a period brought to an end by the backlash against brutalist architecture in the 1970s and 1980s, and made impossible to return to by 21st century concerns about energy efficiency.

Anne Stott’s memoir of Hannah More is a book I keep going back to as a reference point. More lived during a fascinating period of English history, encompassing the literary world of the mid-18th century, the Evangelical revival of the later 1700s, and then the growth of what would become the Victorian sensibility in the early 19th century. More’s life provides a window both into the world of the upper-class and gentry, and the often overlooked world of the poor working-classes and rural poor among whom More laboured to establish Sunday Schools to provide education. Stott is excellent on the contradictions of More: above all the tension between her antifeminist convictions and her life spent both exemplifying and enabling the opportunities available to women beyond their traditional roles. Stott rescues More from the oblivion to which history had consigned her, while avoiding hagiography.

  • Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (Barnabas Calder)
  • The Death of Adam (Marilynne Robinson)
  • Hannah More: The First Victorian (Anne Stott)
  • A Field Guide to the English Clergy (Fergus Butler-Gallie)


Alert readers will notice a theme here: I’m focusing on books about Romans for the first part of this year, with Tom Wright’s biography of Paul providing some stimulating (if not always entirely convincing) background material. I’m currently reading Jonathan Grothe’s commentary on Romans, The Justification of the Ungodly – a book which deserves a better fate than the “self-published on Lulu” obscurity to which LCMS politics consigned it – and Fleming Rutledge’s monumental study, The Crucifixion.

  • Paul: A Biography (Tom Wright)
  • Your Confirmation (John Stott)*
  • Discovering Romans (Anthony Thiselton)
  • When in Romans (Beverly Roberts Gaventa)
  • The Message of Acts (John Stott)

(An asterisk indicates a book I’ve read before.)

So, a good start to the year. I’m looking forward to the third Liu Cixin volume, as well as (more immediately) reading the final volume in Becky Chambers’ enjoyable Wayfarers trilogy, Record of a Spaceborn Few. I’ll also be wanting to keep pace with the Marital Review of Books, especially with behemoths like Middlemarch and War and Peace waiting for me on that list. Perhaps something a little lighter first, though.

I’ve also assembled something of a hit-list of books to check out now my purchasing fast is over – especially having received a bunch of book tokens for my birthday. High on the list is Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, recommended by (among others) Rowan Williams. I may also splurge a chunk of my book tokens on Jason Lutes’ Berlin and Simon Stålenhag’s Tales from the Loop.

Back through the wardrobe

Content warning: smugness, limited-availability swag.

Well, I’m not supposed to be acquiring new books till the end of March, “but for you I would make an exception.” 

E and I went to see Francis Spufford interview Andrew Miller at Daunt Books last night. During the Q&A, E stuck her hand up and asked Spufford if he could give an update on publication of The Stone Table

The what? Well, it all starts with a recent Tumblr post by Megan Whalen Turner in which she describes receiving a mystery package in the mail after her friend Francis Spufford asked if she’d like to see something he’d been working on:

Fun fact: N.W. Clark was also used as a pseudonym by a certain C.S. Lewis.

Anyway, E asked Spufford about The Stone Table, and he confirmed that at present he couldn’t say much about it, “but if you’d like to ask me afterwards, please come up and do so.”

Well, we weren’t going to take an invitation like that lying down, and we spoke to him for a couple of minutes about the, um, potential difficulties in getting the book published this side of the year 2033 (let the reader understand). Then, as we turned away, Spufford suddenly asked me, “Do you, by any chance, blog as John the Lutheran?”

When I confirmed I did, he opened his satchel, fished inside, and pulled out… this:

It turns out that Megan Whalen Turner had emailed Spufford to let him know about a couple of comments I’d left on her post:

As a result, he’d brought along a copy for us: number 39 out of 50 in the “second batch” he’s had privately printed. He even signed it for us. No pleading required!

For obvious copyright reasons I can’t post any more of the text than I have already, but I’ve shared the table of contents below just to tease/torture you all even more than I have already.

You’ll see that, for the second printing, Spufford has “come out” as the author of the book. I hope this is a sign that he’s making progress in overcoming those “copyright difficulties”, and that the book will see the light of day for everyone else sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, all I can do is say my astonished thanks to both Spufford and Turner, and apologise to the rest of you for the torment…