Category Archives: Books

The Beauty Of An Honest Christian Memoir: Ashley Cleveland’s ‘Little Black Sheep’

Ashley Cleveland

Ashley Cleveland by Steve White aka echobase_2000 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Back in July, I wrote about the controversy attending the discovery of substantial fictional elements in Tony Anthony’s book ‘Taming the Tiger’. I noted the evangelical obsession with celebrity, and the lust for dramatic conversion stories as drivers in promoting such books, with an attendant risk of pastoral damage for Christians who do not have a spectacular story to tell. I began the piece with reproducing a cartoon from Ship Of Fools when it was a print magazine, not a website. ‘Born Again Testimonies’ asked, ‘You may be, but has your TESTIMONY been born again?’

Now I’ve found an antidote in Ashley Cleveland‘s memoir, ‘Little Black Sheep‘. i have loved her music for a good twenty years. Many say she sounds like Melissa Etheridge: I say she makes Janis Joplin sound like Janet Jackson. A blues-rock singer with notes of soul, she sings with passion and honesty about faith and life. In the book, she writes with the same passion and honesty about faith and life.

Superficially, her story has elements that Christian publishers and readers love. Blaming herself as a young child for the divorce of her gay father and vain mother, she slides into multiple addictions – food, alcohol and drugs. She seeks love in all the wrong places and believes that God only wants to punish her. She has no concept of a personal, loving God – although eventually she is – if I may borrow Brennan Manning‘s word – ‘ambushed’ by God.

But hers is no quick fix fairytale of the ‘When I met Jesus, everything was happy ever after’ variety. She slides back, still fighting alcoholism while winning Grammy awards for her music. She struggles to establish a healthy  marriage. The Christian community is locally welcoming, in the non-judgemental members of her church, but the wider Christian constituency is offended when she dares to sing about sex – even as a married woman. But hers is the tale of the God who lifts her up by love every time she falls.

There is much more that I could say about the book, but what I essentially want to say in this post is that all sorts of people would profit from reading this book:

* Music fans should read it;

* Pastors should read it;

* Most of all, broken people should read it.

I’d better end this with some music:

The song which provides the title for the book:

Queen Of Soul – her take on being a woman of God:

An exhortation to others, based on her own experience:

Covering the Rolling Stones:

 

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Tony Anthony, Born Again Testimonies, And Poor Evangelical Theologies Of Conversion

Back in the days when the now-famous Ship Of Fools website was a print magazine thirty-odd years ago (aagh!), it printed in Issue 3 (June 1979) this cartoon strip. I reproduce it below with permission from the editor, Simon Jenkins, and Ship Of Fools.

Born Again Testimonies 1Born Again Testimonies 2

How apposite this seems in the light of the Tony Anthony story. For those who have not heard, Anthony, an evangelist, had a book called ‘Taming the Tiger’ ghost-written by a journalist called Angela Little. Ever since its publication in 2004, some have been sceptical about claims Anthony makes in there about significant details of his life. Now, following the resignation of one of Anthony’s trustees, Mike Hancock, an investigation has indeed shown that large parts of the book are untrue. Journalist Gavin Drake has many of the details. The Evangelical Alliance and Avanti Ministries issued this statement. Ghost writer Angela Little revealed some possibly surprising approaches and attitudes to research and verification in a conversation with someone on a martial arts discussion board. The publisher, Authentic Media, have issued a statement, but it is hard to detect any sense of them taking any responsibility for the debacle in their words.

But my purpose here is not to analyse this specific case. It isn’t hard to find those on the Internet who are doing so. The reason for posting this is to ask what kind of culture promotes the lust for spectacular testimony books, such as Anthony’s.

I suggest there are at least two reasons. The first, briefly, is that evangelical Christianity is too obsessed with celebrity. And if we haven’t got any celebrities, we’ll make some. In this respect, we mindlessly accept the values of the world. I have no wish to decry those who genuinely have become disciples of Jesus Christ through a dramatic route. God bless them. But celebrities are not more valuable than the unknown. Indeed, we believe – surely? – in a Jesus who was and is on the side of the marginalised.

But secondly, we have a huge issue over privileging dramatic conversions, and this troubles me pastorally. So often I hear Christians feeling inferior because they have not had a ‘Damascus Road experience’. It may even make them doubt whether they are Christians at all. I tend to say, “Do you have to remember when you were born to know you are alive? No! You just need to notice the signs of life. And it is the same in spiritual matters.”

In the early 1990s, Churches Together in England commissioned some work on conversion. It was published in 1992 by the British and Foreign Bible Society under the title ‘Finding Faith Today‘, and was authored by John Finney. 54% of the 601 Christians interviewed said they knew of a time when they were not Christians,46% had ‘always been Christians’. Of the former category, 38% spoke of a sudden conversion, and 62% gradual. Of the latter category, 80% had a gradual commitment, 20% sudden. Among evangelicals, it was as I reported: 37% sudden, 63% gradual. Among non-evangelicals, it was 80% gradual, 20% sudden. On average across all Christians, 31% had a datable conversion and 69% did not.

So if datable conversions are a minority experience among Christians, then dramatic datable ones must be an even smaller percentage. And I therefore have to ask how helpful they are, when ordinary Christians feel demeaned by them. I think publishers are partly responsible, and need to rethink their policies. I also think the wider Christian culture is possible, because whatever we say about these contributing to evangelism, in reality they are often treated as Christian entertainment with a spiritual veneer.

As Phil Groom asked on the Association of Christian Writers’ Facebook page today,

Why do we need super conversion stories to proclaim the gospel? Isn’t the gospel dramatic enough??

So – does an addiction to dramatic celebrity testimony indicate that we don’t really believe in the Gospel?

On The Death Of Brennan Manning

Brennan Manning

Brennan Manning (Photo credit: Jordon)

I was sad to pick up the news today about the death of Brennan Manning. His books, with their radical embrace of God’s grace, have meant a lot to me in recent years. I recall someone once saying that you have not truly preached grace until you are falsely accused of antinomianism – well, if that were ever true of anyone it was true of Brennan Manning. His message that ‘Abba is very fond of you’ was too much for many contemporary Pharisees.

And the same Pharisees had a field day with the self-confessed evidence of Manning’s own life. In many places, not least his final book, a memoir entitled ‘All Is Grace‘, he talks ruthlessly about his failings and his unconquered sins. To the horror of many fellow Catholics, he quit the priesthood to marry (not that I see that as a sin). However, his marriage didn’t last. He never broke his habit for alcohol. To the scandal of many, he would return to his room after giving a powerful sermon or a homily at a retreat and hit the bottle. He knew the gutter at the same time that he knew Jesus Christ. He said that he was dying of a disease caused by his alcoholism, ‘wet brain‘. Where did he stand on the New Testament conviction that Christians will not continue to sin? Some felt this made him a false teacher. Others felt the accusers were not being honest about their own besetting sins.

Time and again, Manning the sinner came back to the message of grace. He brought his readers and listeners back to grace, too. If you have never read ‘All Is Grace’ or classics such as ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel‘, then I commend them to you highly.

Sleep well, child of Abba. A reward awaits you on the Last Day when you awake.

Rachel Held Evans And The Southern Baptists

Only in America? Rachel Held Evans tells her readers:

Since a lot of you have asked, (and in the spirit of Banned Books Week,) I thought I’d let you know that I recently received word that Lifeway has decided not to carry A Year of Biblical Womanhood in stores, presumably in the wake of the “vagina” controversy over the summer.

The history: Evans has written a book detailing how she spent twelve months attempting to follow all the biblical instructions for wives as literally and fully as possible. Her manuscript contains the word ‘vagina’. Her editor encouraged her to remove this scandalous word, because it would offend the sensibilities of Christian bookstores. Readers of her blog campaigned for her not to give in to such silliness, and she didn’t.

Now, the Southern Baptist bookstore chain Lifeway has said it won’t stock this evidently shocking book. Is it down to using this terrible word? Certainly, Evans has criticised Christian bookstores for demanding such ultra-sanitised content that, if they really followed through with their stated convictions, they wouldn’t stock the Bible itself. So maybe this is Lifeway’s revenge. That’s a nice Christian motive if it is the truth. Yet bizarrely, they are taking online orders for this book! Well, business is business, I guess.

Maybe it’s Evans’ public pronouncements in general, that have been deemed too theologically liberal for Southern Baptists. One of their scholars, Denny Burk, denounced her the other day as a ‘non-evangelical’, a ‘post-evangelical’ and a ‘theological liberal’. He doesn’t give any evidence in the blog post or the comments, but since Burk is a ‘complementarian‘, he is probably offended by her egalitarian views on gender rôles. Indeed, one of the thrusts of his article is that several of these women should not be celebrated, because they are doing things that only men should do – proclaim the Word of God. Worse than that, Evans has raised doubts about creationism and dares to think that gay people are human beings, not an issue.

Only in America?

Actually, no. Although they have certainly changed in recent years, the British-based international bookstore chain Christian Literature Crusade used to be known in some circles as ‘Constricted Literature Crusade’. (I think Michael Saward may have been responsible for that name.) They only sold certain books under the counter in brown paper bags if you ordered them, because they wouldn’t stock them. The Lion Handbook to the Bible was one example, because it contained a photo of an archaeologist who was smoking.

So am I advocating that Christian bookstores should have no boundaries? Of course not. But I am saying that fear is not a decent motive for boundary-setting. And I am saying that attitudes which denigrate women (why else would a proper biological name for a body part – a body made by God – be unacceptable?) are also unworthy of Christians.

The Gospel Coalition And Rape

Back after a long, difficult period away from blogging with this: in apparently trying to condemn the tawdry book ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, the Gospel Coalition allows a blog post that uses language which seems to endorse rape. The justifications in the comments by author Jared Wilson that the language of a man ‘conquering’ his wife in the sexual act are to be taken metaphorically are beyond belief. What kind of metaphor is that? How does it soften the language? Not one bit. He accuses critics of misunderstanding the post – all this when it later appears he thought E L James, the author of the murky trilogy, was a man. I don’t think he’s in any position to tell others they have misunderstood. Jared Wilson has posted a clarification, but he is still so tied to male authority and female submission that he doesn’t see the point about the grim metaphor of conquest, however much he might protest that Douglas Wilson doesn’t stand for that.

As for repeatedly quoting 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 and the Song of Songs in favour of male authority and female submission, that requires taking a pair of scissors to both texts. The former clearly says that both parties in a marriage must realise their bodies belong to their spouse, not to themselves. And in the Song of Songs the Shulammite woman clearly takes the initiative in an erotic encounter.

I’m left with this question: does the Gospel Coalition have any Gospel for women? I think the answer is ‘no’.

(See also Scot McKnight, Rod the Rogue Demon Hunter, Rachel Held Evans and others.)

A Year For Memoirs

I won’t be foolish to try a review of 2011 in its entirety, not even my own 2011. But I thought I would just highlight the fact that one thing I have enjoyed this year is reading memoirs. They have been a refreshing contrast to the linear arguments of theology that I often read, and a useful reminder of the truth I often proclaim that God wants to draw us into his story.

Here are three I especially commend. I certainly discovered the first two from Scot McKnight’s blog, and I think possibly the third one, too.


Rachel Held Evans
, Evolving In Monkey Town is a book I have wanted to read for a while. Evans comes from the town in Tennessee that was the storm centre of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, and is thus a bastion of fundamentalism. Evans grew up in that faith, and her memoir details where her questioning led her. Some of her conclusions will not surprise those who have grown up in mainstream churches, but they are a hurricane all of their own for someone with her background, and she writes engagingly, with both modesty and passion. Read her blog, too, or follow her on Facebook.
Then I would commend Flirting With Faith by Joan Ball. Ball is an atheist who is  dramatically apprehended by God in a church service. Don’t read it for intellectual arguments in favour of Christianity and against atheism, but do read it for the humour and honesty she displays. It is both fun and poignant to read how her faith grows, and disturbing to hear how she is attacked from within the community of faith for it. Nevertheless, her faith endures, and she never stops questioning. Like Evans, there is a beautiful honesty in her reflections. You feel like you are living someone’s real life, rather than one of those ‘When I came to Jesus, all my problems were solved’ stories. Ball knows better than that, and so her story is not at all remote from the average reader.
Last of all, let me add my praise for Ian Morgan Cron‘s wonderfully titled and powerfully written Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me. Cron is an Episcopal priest in the States. For some he will be too sacramental, but even if his expression of faith is not quite the same as yours, do not be put off. This is a book in which to encounter grace and the healing work of the Holy Spirit, as Cron battles the demons of his father’s life and his own inner struggles. The book will be like a magnet, attached to your hands.

Yes, all three books are American. That’s just a coincidence. There is plenty in these for those of us east of the Big Pond to appreciate.

Have any of you read these books, and if so, what did you think? What else have you read this year that you would recommend, and why?

My Memory Of John Stott

Yesterday evening, reports appeared on the web that John Stott had passed away yesterday afternoon at the age of 90. (This search will take you to about two hundred stories in Google News at the time of typing.) Obituaries cover his evangelism, his leadership of All Souls, Langham Place, his key place with Billy Graham in the Lausanne Movement, his commitment to social action as core to evangelical understandings of mission, his clear Bible teaching, his concern for the Majority World, his love of birdwatching and much more. I particularly recommend Christianity Today’s obituary.
More concisely, Maggi Dawn has described him this morning on Twitter as

 The most compassionate, sane evangelical Christian I ever met.

I have read many of his books. Favourites of mine include his expositions of Acts and Ephesians (the latter is particularly worn and battered). However, I only heard him preach once. I was training for the ministry in Manchester at the time, and he came to preach one evening at the local Anglican church, which had a large student ministry. Dr Stott agreed to stay behind afterwards and field questions.
I attended that meeting. I was engaged in my postgraduate research in Theology, specialising in ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. I asked him a question. Why did he think Archbishop Robert Runcie had chided evangelical Anglicans at the third National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1987 that

‘If the current evangelical renewal in the Church of England is to have a lasting impact, then there must be more explicit attention given to the doctrine of the church’?

Dr Stott gently batted the question back at me, with quiet grace and a faintly sparkling smile. “Why do you think he did?”
I had no sense that he was trying to dodge the question. Rather, like Jesus, he knew that questions could be more deeply explored by asking further questions. He wasn’t short of answers himself, and for those who want to know, it is worth reading his book The Living Church.

Farewell, then, in this life, to one of the most gracious, compassionate  and hard-thinking evangelical Christians to have come to prominence in the last century. May more of us in that tradition seek to emulate his example.

The Imagination Of God: An Address For Addlestone Arts Festival

Luke 14:15-24[1]


Yann Martel
is the Canadian author who won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 for his novel ‘The Life of Pi’. In 2007, he was invited, along with forty-nine other distinguished Canadian contributors to the arts, to the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons in Canada, where they would celebrate fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, the equivalent to our Arts Council. One artist for each of the fifty years that this body had been making grants to aspiring artists. Martel himself had received a grant from them when he was beginning as a novelist.
The Arts Minister, Bev Oda, stood up and gave a speech of less than five minutes. The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, spent the time shuffling his papers and did not even acknowledge the artists with eye contact. After the speech, it was all over. There had been a reception the day before, when only twenty-five of the 306 MPs had attended.

Martel was devastated. What could he do? Doubtless these people, the Prime Minister, especially, were busy people. But they still needed stillness, and they needed something to stimulate their imaginations in that stillness.

He made a plan. He would send the Prime Minister a book, every other Monday, in the hope that he might read it. During an election period, he even sent an audio book instead, so Mr Harper could hear the book while travelling.

After sending the hundredth book, he gave up. Never had Harper acknowledged him. Only five times did he receive a three-line reply from the Prime Minister’s staff. In an interview with The Independent newspaper in February, Martel said,

“I can’t understand how a man who seems never to read imaginative writing of any kind (novels, poetry, short stories, high-brow, middle-brow, low-brow, anything) can understand life, people, the world,” … “I don’t care if ordinary people read or not. It’s not for me to say how people should live. But people who have power over me? I want them to read because their limited, impoverished dreams may become my nightmares.”[2]

We are celebrating the end of Addlestone Arts Festival. We have enjoyed music, crafts, poetry and even valuation of antiques – although I confess I’m at something of a loss to understand how Bingo fits into an arts week! I imagine that many of our contributors have seen their art as more than entertainment. They have been glad to entertain us, I am sure. But I suspect many had a bigger vision than merely entertainment.

For example – we’ve had two Disney events. Don’t the Disney films try to take you into a particular world, and see life a certain way? Poetry – don’t poets want to engage our imagination to hear the world with fresh ears? The music about royalty encourages a certain understanding of national life. And so on.

So what does a Christian minister like me have to do with this? I had a failed attempt to learn the guitar some years ago. I can’t sing – although a friend of mine swears he could teach me. My art doesn’t get much beyond matchstick men, and I am embarrassed into inferiority by my eight-year-old daughter. I used to write the odd bit of poetry and song lyrics, but they tended to head in the pretentious/Sixth Form direction.

Where does that leave me? To advocate the historical position the Christian churches had as patrons of the arts? No – because we don’t have the money any more! Although when we did so, it reflected our belief in a good Creator.

It leaves me offering you something that I believe is rich beyond measure. In this year when we mark the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, think about the Bible as a work of art. It’s a compendium of sixty-six books, representing a wide range of literary styles, not only history and poetry but also some literary forms rarely seen any more. It tells of a God who not only speaks, but who sings, dances and tells stories. All these things combine to tell one great story, spread over centuries, if not aeons, that invites our imaginations to see the world differently from the culture in which we live.

So whereas Richard Dawkins urges us to see a universe that is pitiless, indifferent and lacking any basis for morality, the biblical story invites us to see a creation rooted in the work of a good, loving and purposeful God.

Or take the way our culture thinks that the leopard can’t change its spots. We see broken people causing damage and pain to others, and we say they can’t change. Yet the biblical story invites us into a kingdom where people are forgiven and transformed.

We live in a society where dreadful things happen to people and they say, “That’s unforgivable. I could never forgive them.” Yet the Bible invites us into a story where the one who was on the receiving end of the greatest injustice of all prayed, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Or how do we view the future? As ending in death? As the chaos of environmental destruction? As something that science will solve, despite the fact that for all the advances it gives us, it also hands us other gifts such as the ability to cause mass destruction? Or do we think all our troubles will be alleviated by the next hot consumer product? The Bible invites us to imagine something much bigger, with a universe made new and freed from suffering.

A couple of minutes ago, I disparaged my artistic abilities. In truth, there are one or two artistic pursuits I enjoy. One – when I have the time – is photography. Another is writing. I belong to a group of writers who are Christians. Like most novelists, we know the truth of one telling approach about getting our message over:

Show, don’t tell.

In other words, don’t in your story tell people the message you want them to hear. Show it instead, by the nature of the tale. Now the Bible has its ‘tell’ moments, to be sure, but a surprising amount of it is more like ‘showing’ than ‘telling’. Jesus tells stories, like the parable we heard Ben read, and he invites us to see where we fit in the story. Who are we? Are we those who are ludicrously self-obsessed that the invitation to a banquet – yes, a banquet – means nothing? Or are we the people on the margins, not the folk you’d normally expect to be associated with God and religion, but to whom Jesus throws open the doors? Might there even be jazz musicians in the kingdom of God?

So at the end of this year’s festival, I thank God for the artists of all types who have both entertained us and also given us an illuminated commentary on life.

And I also commend to you the greatest Artist of them all, the One who invites us to improvise within his general script, the One who invites each of us to take a rôle in his story.


[2] I found this story and quotation through Tools For Talks (subscription required).

The Church And The Scarecrow Festival

“You’ve got to go to the Pirbright Scarecrow Festival, it’s amazing,” said one of the mums at school. It was on yesterday, and, well, Sally was right.

Over fifty scarecrows scattered around the village green and the church, the latter forming a tableau of the recent royal wedding. I think my favourite, even if not the most sophisticated scarecrow, was the ‘cartwheeling verger’:

And here he is at Pirbright:

Yes, complete with odd socks.

It was a great day. Lots of stalls, amazing sausages and burgers from Fulks the local butcher, music, ice cream, fun for children and adults.

The royal wedding was the theme – or, perhaps more accurately, the theme was ‘William and Kate’. Hence you also saw scarecrows of William Shatner, Willy Wonka, and my favourite, a bush with a speech balloon containing the lyrics to ‘Wuthering Heights’. Yes, the bush was called Kate.

And you know what: the church was the driving force behind it.

Evidently, the event has been going some years, but the way the programme was worded, you couldn’t miss the theme that this had begun from the parish church. They had corralled local businesses into supporting it in various ways, and many local families had made the scarecrows.

No, it wasn’t remotely an overtly religious event, but I wonder what goodwill they build up in the village by doing this.

David Wilkerson

It is sad to read this morning the overnight news from Texas about the death of David Wilkerson.  in a car crash. His life and ministry impacted millions. No appeals to his supporters for the money to buy a Lear Jet, just a guy who risked his life in the violent Projects of New York to show the love of Christ to gangs led by the likes of Nicky Cruz. Famously, this was recounted in the book The Cross And The Switchblade, and the film of the same name, along with Cruz’ testimony, Run Baby Run.

Then the founding of Teen Challenge, to help young people with troubled lives. And a ministry at Times Square Church, New York, where he still preached regularly, even as he approached 80.

Google the Internet and you will find some of the controversial prophecies he made in recent years, not least on his blog. On some of these, time alone will tell.

His life affected my family. My sister went forward at one of his evangelistic meetings, around 1978 at Loftus Road, Queens Park Rangers football stadium.

Today I give thanks for the life of a courageous Pentecostal preacher, and the fruit of his ministry. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

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