What to read in August (or any other month)
The summer holidays are here again and now is perhaps the only time some of us have the leisure for a “good read”, on the beach, relaxing away from home and the daily routine, killing time (dare I say) on the airplane.
So this month I am looking at some of the roles of fiction.
There are some worthy souls, not all of them strict and devout Christians, who would avoid fiction at all costs, because it’s “made up”, is not factual, therefore not useful and a waste of time, makes entertainment out of sin, makes sin attractive and beguiling; is not true, therefore is all lies. Such folk have missed out on the world’s greatest literature, on some of the best of human creativity, and, I’d risk saying, are short on empathy. And there is plenty of non-fiction, supposedly factual, that turns out to be just plain wrong, biographies that are economical with the truth, and so on.
Whereas good fiction can illustrate the human condition, let us experience and gain understanding of lives unlike our own, can introduce ideas, be prophetic, even change the world – for example Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe which was instrumental in raising general awareness of the evils of slavery, leading to abolition in the USA. A modern example is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone who is fifteen and has Asperger’s Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings, yet once read we know a lot more about how it feels to experience life with Asperger’s Syndrome. My sister and other liars, by Ruth Dugdall, is a very recent crime mystery novel, and true to life since it’s inspiration comes from the author’s career as a probation officer. The narrator and detective here is anorexic, her reaction to her experience of crime, as it turns out; the story is gripping but incidentally would also be useful “background” reading for anyone needing an insight into the experience and mindset of anorexia.
And then there is the Christian novel. Just what is this? One written by a Christian, one “suitable” for a Christian (whatever that means), one with a “message”, one about Christian lives, either idealised or with plenty of sin and struggle but coming out alright in the end, one without a single “bad” word, one where the detectives are clergy, a classic like Jane Eyre, a “secular” novel that is nonetheless infused with what we’d recognize as Christian values? The latter can turn up in the most surprising places and can be more successful in reaching non-believers than any from a Christian publisher. I recently read a very enjoyable and exciting “young adult” novel from a mainstream publisher, The new world order by Ben Jeapes which is an intriguing mix of historical (set in 1645, the middle of the English civil war) and science fiction and fact. There is a breathtaking scene where one of the protagonists leaps forward to confront and stall an invading alien troupe with only a bible rescued from a burning church and a brilliant exposition of the Christian faith worthy of St Paul. Wow! Totally unexpected.
Hopefully you can find one or more of these “genres” in Sign of the Fish and the books above also at the Library.Over the year I have read, re-read and dipped into “Misreading scripture with western eyes: removing cultural blinders to better understand the Bible” by E Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien (2012), which has informed these ramblings. It convinced me, among other things, that many things we consider “Christian” nowadays are no more than cultural glosses: from the back cover of the book “Paul exhorts women to “dress modestly”, we automatically think in terms of sexual modesty. But Paul is likely more concerned about economic modesty – that Christian women not flaunt their wealth through expensive clothes and gold jewellery” Sexual modesty in dress went without saying, and flaunting wealth if you had it was a norm in Roman society too, but Paul is pointing out Christians should be better than that, Christianity was to be inclusive and no-one should make others feel lesser, unvalued.
If we really want to know what the Bible says, more self awareness is required, more cultural awareness, more historical awareness. So two recommendations. Join a Bible study group, and read more generally ( For more historical context and awareness, in an accessible, thought-provoking and entertaining style I would recommend books by Nick Page, just some of which are “A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity,” “ The Longest Week: The truth about Jesus’ last days,” “God’s dangerous book” , “The Wrong Messiah: The Real Story of Jesus of Nazareth” we’ll take orders at “Sign of the Fish”!)
A few you may have missed:
Angelguard, by Ian Acheson, a contemporary dystopian thriller with a spiritual twist and plenty of frantic pursuits, action and witty dialogue
Lydia’s Song, by Katherine Blessan, sometimes painful, always readable, hope lost and innocence restored, wounded hearts and faith refound, a novel that could almost be a memoir, giving a challenging insight into the truths of child sex-trafficking in Cambodia and Vietnam.
The fight, by Luke Wordley. A “coming of age” novel, this is perhaps more for teenage boys and young men, set in present day east London with a boxing background
Ashes to Ashes, by Mel Starr, the latest and eighth in a series of entertaining historical crime mysteries – if you enjoyed the Cadfael series this is one for you.
The Rosemary Tree, by Elizabeth Goudge a gentle (vicarage) family story sent in the aftermath of WW2. This is a classic now, written soon after the period it is set and still in print. The author is famous for her Carnegie prize-winning Little White Horse and her novel Green Dolphin Street made into an Academy Award winning film.
for Sign of the Fish