At the beginning of each new year it has become common place for people, especially the scholarly, to review the books they’ve read. I am not particularly scholarly and don’t read to relax, however I was curious to remind myself what books I’ve tackled this last year and was pleasantly surprised by what I’ve digested.
Faitheist is an honest, humble and though-provoking biography of a young man who ‘became a Christian’ but then rejected religion because if it’s ability to painfully exclude and manipulate people, but who has ended up being an advocate of inter-faith dialogue and partnership. Some deep challenges for people of faith and atheists who seek the welfare of society and a great example of someone who refuses to hate.
The Reason I Jump is a delightful biography written by someone with autism. A precious insight into the mind of a remarkably self-aware person living on the autistic spectrum.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Urban Halo and The Sound of Worlds Colliding are each real stories and reflections from people living in or alongside slum communities around the world. The latter two are written or edited by people who have been part of Servants teams, the charity which I have recently become an elder of (see former post). One of them, Craig Greenfield has since developed the inspiring Alongsiders initiative, equipping those who have grown up in slum communities to mentor children growing up alongside them in those neighbourhoods. It was a delight to meet him and hear more whilst in Phnom Penh. The love of these authors for these neighbourhoods-become-home is tangible, but so is their cry for the rest of the world to engage with these marginalised communities that are rapidly housing the majority of the world’s population.
Whilst staying in the slum community in Phnom Penh I chose to re-read the Gospel of Mark from my host’s doorstep. It was healthy to read it from a different perspective, one which looks far more like the original context than my developed world, privileged, powerful perspective. It made me interpret some bits quite differently and I scribbled lots of questions around the text which I will come back to one day. I interspersed this with reading Scarcity, an intellectual investigation into how lack of time, food, security, or anything else, makes us react. A little light on the practical solutions for this activist, but it did suggest there are some similar responses to be aware of in our efforts to counteract poverty.
I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum whilst in Phnom Penh. It is an essential but awful visit to make. Whilst there I heard the story of Chum Mey, a prisoner at the school, turned prison, turned museum. Although tortured, he avoided death because he was an artist and was regularly called upon to paint members of the Khmer Rouge. At the end of the tour I met him at a stall where he sells his book Survivor, the triumph of an ordinary man in the khmer rouge genocide. He has committed himself to tell the story in order to prevent such genocide happening again. In the intro he says remarkably:
“…I do not condemn the people who tortured me. If they were still alive today and if they came to me, would I still be angry with them? No. Because they were not senior leaders and they were doing what they had to do at the time. I consider them victims like me, because they had to follow other people’s orders. How can I say I would have behaved differently? Would I have had the strength to refuse to kill if the penalty was my own death?…Even the ones who tortured me, they also lost parents and family members,”
In a similar vein, using real life global scenarios Andrea Riccardi in Living Together investigates our yearning to live in a peaceful society whilst surrounded by conflict and violence. Exploring issues of globalisation, identity and cohabitation from various standpoints, it charts changes throughout history, attitudes to religious groups and even raises the awkward topic of jihad.
Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement is a story- and theologically-rich investigation into contemporary issues which might tempt people to excarnate, or disengage, themselves from the world and communities they find themselves in – to be present but not available. This, Frost argues, is counter to what the incarnate, enfleshed, embodied Jesus models and so he includes examples of how to take root, embrace place, and appreciate who we have been made to be as humans. Rarely have references to films, zombies, porn, cities, clicktivism and menstruation all appeared in the same theological book! It was contemporary, thoughtful, grounded and affirming.
To be honest, I am only half-way through Half The Sky: How To Change The World. It is a thoroughly disturbing examination of how women and girls are treated around the world, yet inspires the reader with incredible stories of how many have overcome. “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict”, says a former UN force commander of the extortionate number of women raped in war. And the authors suggest “it appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century”. Reading this is like having a bucket of cold water thrown over your head to awaken you to such routinised genocide, and provokes the religious to deep soul-searching as we share more than a hint of culpability in shaping attitudes which promote inequality.