The Souls Of China
Before Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, scholars used to talk about religion in China as ‘diffused’. People didn’t belong to one religion or another, as they do in the West, nor were some parts of their lives sacred and others secular. Instead, religion permeated everything that people thought, said, or did.
This side of the Cultural Revolution, religion is supposed to have been stamped out in China. But as Ian Johnson’s beautifully written account shows, more and more people are turning to Confucian, Buddhist, Daoist, and Christian practices to give order and meaning to their lives.
The book doesn’t overwhelm the reader with statistics or complex research methods. Instead, Johnson invites us to get to know individuals. Through easy-to-read and sometimes poetic prose, we share in their hopes and fears as they navigate what is still uncharted territory for religious people in an atheistic state.
Most of Johnson’s discussion of Christianity focuses on two underground Protestant churches, both in the Reformed tradition and with a strict focus on the Bible. These pastors – who view their city as a mission field – walk a fine line between legality and illegality, officially banned but unofficially tolerated. They face difficulties finding spaces to meet in and have undercover policemen at their gatherings, but are nonetheless allowed to hand out pamphlets, publish books and hold outreach activities that draw in large crowds.
Johnson says Christianity creates spaces for people to participate in civil society, quietly criticising the state and providing help for people in need. He believes that in recent years the state has been trying to use religion as a means of uniting people behind ‘Chinese culture’, and in doing so it has opened the way for spiritual seekers to practise religion in their own ways, filling in a moral vacuum left by the failure of communist ideology.
This is an excellent book which is outstanding in its field. RC
Still Valued and Blessed
In the growing number of books written to help those in their senior years, this will not be a standout addition, yet it does provide a useful resource for those who minister to this significant age group.
Coghlan’s main purpose is to develop among seniors a mind-set whereby they approach old age with a positive attitude and an expectation that God can still use them.
Each chapter is short and to the point, with large-print text. There are many suggestions on how we can be used by God as we grow older: providing a listening ear and a word of encouragement, sharing our wisdom and experience, setting a good example to our families, developing a ministry of prayer, and sharing our testimony. The impression given is that old age is not a time for slowing down or of losing focus, because God can still use us.
Coghlan seems to write for those who are still active, mentally alert and physically fit rather than for those who may be increasingly frail, in need of support and potentially housebound. This makes the book more suitable for the newly retired rather than for those who are truly seniors. TH
Cycling out of the comfort zone
Cycling Out of the Comfort Zone is a well-written, expertly translated travelogue depicting a transglobal cycling tour whose itinerary included Turkey, Iraq, Syria, India, Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, the Amazon, Senegal, Mauritania and Algeria. Charles and his cycling partner, Gabriel, friends since childhood and both Roman Catholics, decide before embarking that the purpose of their trip is to get closer to God by meeting persecuted and isolated Christian brothers and sisters who are often forgotten in the West.
The cyclists’ entrepreneurial and adventurous spirit carries them through many different countries and from one life-changing encounter to the next. Through Charles’ understated, optimistic style we experience the warmth of the hospitality the pair receive from churches along the route. From the hair-raising account of their Amazon river trip to the repeated offers of free food and lodging, God’s protection over their mission and his provision are undeniable.
This book will introduce Christians in the West to other communities of believers where the gospel is lived out in a different way, often mixed with local culture and traditions, but more authentically, in the face of poverty, isolation and persecution.
When one considers, in the light of recent events, the very real danger in which the Syrian and Iraqi communities depicted in this book were living, one sees a Church that lives in loving, healthy community, and individuals to whom God is very present and real. CI
Stay The Path
Hodder & Stoughton
Like a latter day book of Proverbs, Stay the Path is laden with wisdom, gleaned from the life experience of Bobbie Houston, co-founder of Hillsong Church.
Using an engaging conversational style, Houston shares lessons she’s learned over many years of being a Christian leader.
Her opening message is that to keep going (‘stay the path’) as a Christian, we need to keep our eyes on the prize – the hope of heaven. She then meanders through various other themes in her own unique and rather poetic way, all of them focused on persevering on our Christian journey.
The book is best read in small chunks as there is a lot to digest, but the personal stories included help to anchor the wisdom in real life.
The book appears to be marketed toward women leaders, but why is not clear. The wisdom within Stay the Path could be beneficial for any believer – male or female, leader or not. CN
Don’t Settle For Safe
Sarah Jakes Roberts
Sarah Jakes Roberts is a minister, speaker and daughter of well-known American preacher TD Jakes.
Don’t Settle for Safe focuses on the lessons she has learned in her relatively short life. Not only has Jakes lived under the spotlight of being the daughter of one of America’s most well-known pastors, but she was pregnant at 14, married by 19 and divorced soon after.
In this self-help-meets-biography, a story of faith is woven through the pages as Jakes speaks about her journey through the deep valleys of her life. Jakes wants the reader to walk in confidence towards the purpose God has in store for them and not feel disqualified from service due to pain or past mistakes.
While God’s role in Sarah’s story is evident, the book fails to emphasise the strength of God’s word, wise counsel or repentance.
This testimony of triumph over self-inflicted adversity is both a warning and inspiration. SG
Circa 2013 the ever-enigmatic singersongwriter Frank Ocean tweeted: “If you’re a writer you can write anything. Prose, songs, raps, novels, plays, films, laws…take the governor off your gift. Note to self.”
While I don’t agree with all of the items on that list, there is certainly a lot to be said about the importance of branching out from your primary mode of communication. By writing his first book, Unpopular Culture, well-known Christian grime artist Guvna B has done exactly that.
Released the day after the horrific Grenfell Tower fire, the book comes at a time when gospel-centred hope is more necessary than ever. With humour, humility and honesty, Guvna B shares stories of his teenage years and coming to terms with struggles that we’ve all faced, but are rarely put down in written form or discussed enough for attitudes to shift and change.
It’s especially encouraging to see the issue of mental well-being in men given attention. This is an issue that is often dealt with very poorly by Christians and churches. Anything to counter this, and keep the conversation going on, should be celebrated.
It may have been too early for the 28-year-old rapper to have written such an autobiographical book. But overall, this makes a great gift for teenagers looking to find purpose in life bigger than themselves. Fans of the Guvna’s music will also enjoy it, along with youth leaders. SJB
Hodder & Stoughton
Having travelled extensively, Jo Swinney has long wrestled with the concept of what ‘home’ is. In this fascinating book, she takes the reader on a quest of belonging.
In writing about her own experience as well as current world events and unpacking biblical narratives, Swinney gives us a fuller picture of what ‘home’ means. She also gives a fresh insight on those who may struggle to find a place to belong – whether refugees, religious minorities or those who often travel for work or leisure.
At a time when many in the world are displaced or stigmatised, Swinney’s words cut to the core of belonging. The book will also help the reader to step into the shoes of others and have conversations with those who are different.
Home is ideal for anyone interested in people, places and seeing the world from a different perspective. It will leave you wanting to make a difference to wherever and whatever you call ‘home’, and it will challenge your preconceived beliefs of others and what ‘home’ really looks like. RC
Left to Their Own Devices?
Any parent struggling with the uncomfortable dilemma of how to manage their children’s usage of the internet will find Left to Their Own Devices? a very timely and useful book. As UK director of Care for the Family, Katharine Hill draws both on her experience of parenting in the digital age and on a wide range of statistics.
Hill’s honest diagnosis of the danger in which the digital generation finds itself might come as an unwelcome surprise, but both preventative measures and a course of treatment are offered.
Left to Their Own Devices? exhorts parents to be the biggest influencers in their own children’s lives, rather than whatever they are watching on the internet or whoever they are talking to via social media. The book’s positive tone, enhanced by David McNeill’s hilarious illustrations, champions the safety of young people and rallies parents to arm themselves to protect the next generation more effectively. CI
Bright City Collective Ltd
This stylised album has a heavier production than Bright City's previous tracks but its heartwrenching compositions stir the listeners’ hearts to adoration. Coming out of St Peter’s Brighton, the creative flair of the city has clearly influenced the feel of this album. It has successfully brought the city’s artistic culture into the Church – a feat that is rarely achieved. It is refreshing for the Church to embrace the arts and enable its creative types to express their praise while equipping others to articulate a heartfelt groan of praise.
The opening track, ‘Maker of the Moon’, is a standout with Anna Smith singing its mystical near-Franciscan lyrics. Although not all of the tracks are suitable for congregational use, ‘Rock of Our Salvation’ could be a belt-it-out song for more ambitious congregations. ‘Your Love’ should be the song of the summer as it basks in the greatness of God’s love.
This play-with-the-windows-down summer album will lift your eyes and heart to our loving Maker. KS
Humble Beast Records
Lyrically hard hitting; Crooked by spoken word artist Propaganda provokes. Challenging ingrained beliefs and thought patterns plus tackling contemporary political, religious and social issues, this album doesn't hold back. This isn’t a record you can appreciate by merely playing it in the background. Beautifully written and composed, the Latin band style conjures images in your mind of diverse streets, cultures, smells and sounds.
‘I Hate Cats’ sounds like stand-up comedy with a musical accompaniment rather than spoken word.
‘It’s Not Working’ brings a movie soundtrack feel, featuring distorted vocal, electronic waves and perfectly placed rhythms, making it epic and dreamy. Even the cheesy guitar solo at the end didn’t ruin it, because Propaganda’s wordplay is so good it comes in and solidifies the song once again. This is a weighty album, delivered by an outstanding artist. KW
The book that changed my life
Unapologetic was published in 2012 and came a little out of the blue. Spufford is a writer well outside of the Christian bubble, whose work has been awarded several prizes. But Unapologetic was different.
Subtitled ‘Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense’ the book is a weapons-grade attack on the smug, patronising waffle of the new-atheists. However, what struck me was not the arguments – strong though they are – but the tone. Spufford refuses to apologise. Instead, he goes on the attack, in page after page of warm, humane, intelligent, beautifully written prose which fizzes with poetry and wit.
The writing is angry, gentle, surprisingly moving. And very, very funny. It is also, I ought to warn you, extremely sweary (he redefines sin as ‘the human propensity to muck things up’. Only he doesn’t use the word ‘muck’.) I’d never read a book like it. It opened up to me a whole new way of writing about the kingdom of God.
So, I don’t know about changing my life, but this changed the way I wrote. And, for a writer, that’s pretty much the same thing.
By Nick Page