Sue and I both love books, and would rather be reading them than writing about them. But sometimes a book really stands out, and we find ourselves talking about it or recommending it to other people on a regular basis. Here are some of those books.
When I have provided a link from the book's title, it will take you to the Amazon page for that book. If you choose to buy the book, or any other product from Amazon having followed this link, Crisis Centre Ministries will benefit from the commission. It costs you nothing, but is a small way to help support the ministry. Thank you. Do ask me if you have any questions about this!
The books on this page are all ones I have read; there is another page where I talk about book reviews of books I have not yet read: Interesting Books. Not that the books listed below are uninteresting...
|The Anatomy of a Hybrid
|The Challenge of Jesus
|A Churchless Faith
|The Lost Message of Jesus
|Mapping the Origins Debate
|Kai Lung's Golden Hours
|State of Fear
|Darwin's Black Box
|Dishonest to God
|Fermat's Last Theorem
|The Happiness Advantage
|The Logic of Life
|Men Are From Mars
|Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You
|The Shock Doctrine
|Stuart: A Life Backwards
|The Anatomy of a Hybrid: A Study in Church-State Relationships
|Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1976
|0 8028 1615 0
Reading this book was a real turning point for me. Through it, I discovered (amongst other things!) something of my Anabaptist heritage, and found a way of following Jesus that is both intellectually honest and spiritually vibrant.
The book deals directly with the nature of church-state relationships - in fact, it deals with the way in which religion and state have worked together through the centuries, not just in 'Christian' countries, but in all societies through to the present day.
Before reading this, I had been unhappy with the idea of a state church: it seemed so far away from the life Jesus lived, and the life He called people to. This book gave me a clear theological grounding for understanding the issues, and thrilled me with the conviction that it is possible to follow Jesus honestly and consistently today.
I would love to quote so much of this book, but here is the first paragraph of the Introduction to give you a feel for where the author is coming from.
"During the past half-century the world has witnessed the rise of totalitarian governments and monolithic societies, that is, societies in which all are expected to share in the same ultimate loyalty. These are societies in which there is no room for diversity of conviction. I view this development with alarm. My conviction is that for a person to be his proper self he must live in the presence of genuine opinions, must be able to exercise choice, must, in a word, be free to enjoy a measure of sovereignty. In order to be fully human, a person must be part of a composite society."
|Boundaries: When to say yes, when to say no to take control of your life
|Dr Henry Cloud & Dr John Townsend
|Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992
|0 310 24745 4
This is a life-changing book, and a classic. I thnk the main message of the book can be summarised very simply: I need to understand where my boundaries are; take responsibility for the things within my own boundaries; and allow other people to take responsibility for the things within their boundaries.
Several aspects of the book can be quite annoying.
All of which is to say that the book grates on some people's nerves. But don't let this put you off: whatever the problems of culture and style, the content is relevant and vital. If you are not applying these principles, this book could be one of the most important you will ever read; and if you are, it will help you understand why your life is so much better than most of the people around you - and how to help them take control of their lives.
|The Challenge of Jesus
|N T Wright
|SPCK, London, 2000
|0 281 05286 7
My enthusiasm for this book could lead to a review as long as the book itself. As Tom Wright says in his preface, there are three concerns that run throughout the book: firstly, the need for historic integrity in talking about Jesus; secondly, the need to discover a Christian discipleship that is rooted in the real Jesus; and thirdly, the need to give people a Jesus-shaped model of mission (and motivation for it) that will transform our world.
Tom Wright goes beyond the usual evangelical concern with personal (and private) morality and spirituality: he considers how the truths we discover about Jesus should affect the way we live as a society. Almost inevitably, in a book of this kind and age, he looks at the relevance of this to the postmodern world - and in the process, comes up with a one-page description of postmodernism that is the most useful (and, possibly, the most accurate) summary I have yet come across.
If you want to go beyond the bland and stale summaries of church doctrine and start to look again for the real Jesus, I can think of no better place to start the search.
|A Churchless Faith: faith journeys beyond the churches
|SPCK, London, 2002
|0 281 05465 7
This is possibly the most important book I have read in the past five years. It provides a comprehensive analysis of why people are leaving Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in such numbers - and the picture which emerges is unlike anything you will normally hear being talked about in one of our churches.
It is well researched, academic, compassionate, scriptural and challenging. If church leaders take on board what is written here, I am convinced that we will see a significant and continued rise in church growth, and many fewer damaged lives into the bargain.
I am not totally convinced by all the analysis and theology, but I recognise the truth of much of what he reports, in my own experience and in that of many others I have spoken with over the years. As a starting point, I know of no better.
|The Lost Message of Jesus
|Steve Chalke and Alan Mann
|0 310 24882 5
All I can say is: read it! This book combines solid scholarship with a gripping style, and a deep insight into the person and work of Jesus Christ - "disturbing, exciting, provocative and inspiring". Don't let the controversy over one short paragraph put you off.
|Mapping the Origins Debate
|1 8447 4616 X
Anyone who wishes to engage helpfully in the creation-evolution debate needs to have a solid grasp of the material in this book. I wish I had read it years ago, when I was spending a lot of time taling with people about this subject.
The hard thing for many people to grasp is that the folk who disagree with you are not evil or insane: they have good reasons - or, at least, what appear to them to be good reasons - for seeing the world the way they do. As Rau puts it:
"Although everyone has access to the same evidence, the presuppositions implicit in a person's philosophy determine the perspective from which he or she views the data, leading to different logical conclusions about which explanation best fits the evidence." (p. 20)
Rau makes the connection between the worldview, the evidence used and the belief. He also helpfully identifies the evidence which is not easily incorporated within each worldview.
The style is a bit plodding, but that is the nature of the work. There are a few details where I think the author misunderstands or mis-represents an idea or position, but my criticisms are petty compared with the monumental achievement of bringing together this material and presenting it so carefully.
|Sparrow Story: The Gospel for Today
|SPCK, London, 2006
|0 281 05790 7
I must confess, I was reluctant to read this book: another re-telling of the story of Jesus in a modern setting. But, despite myself, I was moved.
I was also challenged - both to think and to live, which is somewhat rare for a book these days. Intellectually, I found myself playing 'spot-the-Bible-passage' at various points. It is not always obvious where all the bits of the story come from. And with it comes the questions: is this a valid way to update the story? Is it what the Gospel writers had in mind?
So, there is lots to chew over and meditate on. And I love the way it ends: after the resurrection, the counter-attack. 'What did the man say? "You cannot serve both God and Mammon." Well, I know which most of them will choose.' Ouch!
A delightful series of books by Ellis Peters, based around a mediaeval monk.
These books - some twenty in all - are each set in a very specific place, and at a specific time. This is a real surprise and relief after reading many books and watching many films set in the mediaeval period when you don't know (and suspect the author doesn't know) even which century you are in.
The books are mostly written in chronological sequence, so you get the unfolding political drama as a background to the smaller concerns of this monk, his monastery, and the people they come into contact with.
Another surprise is that Peters takes the faith of the characters seriously. While this is not a major feature of the books, it is a refreshing and consistent theme: many of the characters genuinely seek to know God's will, they pray, and occasionally they see an unexpected answer to those prayers.
|Kai Lung's Golden Hours
|Jonathan Cape, London, 1922
What can I say? For those who have not discovered this gem, the sad news is that it is currently (August 2002) out of print, so you will have to look for it in a second-hand bookshop.
Ernest Bramah invents a China that ought to have existed, and tells the story of one Kai Lung, an itinerant story-teller, who uses his collection of stories to get himself out of a variety of tight situations. The humour is gentle, the language is perfect, and the whole thing is completely delightful.
I must give the classic quote, known by heart by all true fans of this work:
"There are few situations in life that cannot be honourably settled, and without loss of time, either by suicide, a bag of gold, or by thrusting a despised antagonist over the edge of a precipice upon a dark night."
There is no ISBN on the edition I have (far too old), although I have seen later editions that would have had one.
|State of Fear
|Harper Collins, 2004
|0 00 718160 4
Sue and I were deeply impressed by this book. We have never read a work of fiction containing so much hard science, and with references to the academic papers as footnotes on each page!
As a thriller, it is a good example of a standard format: the hero is an ordinary chap, drawn into a series of life-threatening scrapes, with an obvious plot-twist and minor romantic sub-plot. I don't intend to damn it with faint praise - it is certainly a page-turner. But that is not the point.
Woven into the story are a series of arguments and questions about science, how it is done, paid for and reported. You may disagree with the author's position, but it is a stunning and passionate plea for people to examine the facts and to think for themselves. And with that, I have no argument at all.
My copy cost £6.99, and it was worth all of that just for the final 40 or so pages, containing an "Author's Message" summarising his own position and beliefs, an excellent essay on "Why Politicised Science Is Dangerous" and an annotated Bibliography.
|Macmillan, London, 2009
|0 230 74429 5
Forget about Self-Help books: this is the real thing. Based on actual research, this tells you what does - and does not - work. If you want to change your life, these are the facts you need to know.
A classic example of this comes from the section on motivation. Popular books on the subject often tell you to visualise the desired outcome: imagine what it will be like, in as much detail as you can. But all the research tells us that if you visualise the desired outcome, you will become significantly less likely to make it a reality. Do not imagine what it will be like: instead, make a plan to achieve it, and tell other people that this is what you will do. Both these activites increase your chances of achieving your goal.
The whole book is packed full of practical wisdom and interesting observations. Some of it is less immediately helpful than other bits, but it's all good, and all of it is much more useful than the wishful thinking you get in most of the alternatives.
|Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking
|Penguin, London, 2005
|0 141 01459 9
This fascinating book is about how we think, and how we make decisions - when this works well, and when it goes wrong.
Like his previous book, The Tipping Point, it is filled with real life stories, interviews and summaries of research. Much of what he says is counter-intuitive, which is why it is so important.
Among the subjects touched upon are why we vote for people, how you can tell which couples are likely to stay together, and why music auditions ought to be conducted behind screens.
|Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution
|Michael J Behe
|Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996
|0 684 83493 6
Biologists are almost completely united in the belief that evolution has taken place, and are constantly fighting among themselves when they try to describe the mechanism by which this may have happened. They are encouraged by the fact that, when they look at the visible structures of life, what they see is the sort of thing that might have evolved.
But the situation is very different when you start to consider the incredible biochemistry within even the simplest living cell - the 'black box' of the title. In Darwin's day, the living cell seemed to be a black box, and was assumed to be comparatively simple. Today, we are beginning to understand something of the complexity of the biochemical systems within every single living cell. More importantly, we are discovering many examples of biological systems that show irreducible complexity. The challenge is for evolutionists to show how these aspects of living organisms could possibly have evolved without some external help.
In recent years, "Intelligent Design" has become very familiar, and has hit the headlines on several occasions. Scientists frequently say that it is simply a dressed-up version of Creationism. This, at times, is a fair criticism: some of the people who promote the term are using it in this way. But this does not mean that scientists can ignore the subject. When it is used properly, the term "Intelligent Design" refers to a valid and entirely scientific approach to some significant facts.
I find it fascinating that, of the numerous scientists who have denounced this book, every single one I have read has argued on the basis of faith that the facts in this book can and should be ignored because we will one day find a 'scientific' (read: a different scientific) explanation of those facts. It really comes to something when the supposedly religious people are talking purely about the scientific data, and the mainstream scientists are talking about their faith in traditional Darwinism.
|Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics
|Continuum Publishing Corporation (2 Sep 2010)
|978 1 441 12712 9
If you are familiar with Mary Warnock, this book will probably deliver what you are expecting. She is widely read, intelligent, and has extensive experience of the legislative process in the UK. But she really doesn't understand faith or religion.
More importantly, she doesn't understand the limitations of her own book.
When she talks about things she knows about, she is interesting and informative, with a sharp analysis of many aspects of modern debates. She can analyse and criticise the actions and arguments of people of faith, and some of this is interesting and helpful. If Christians want to get involved in politics, this book is a helpful resource.
But when it comes to understanding the role and place of religion in the modern world, she comes unstuck. She sees religion as a tool for establishing a moral system for society, in much the same way as Dawkins sees God as a tool for explaining biodiversity - neither seems capable of recognising that there may be more going on than the small bit they are interested in.
The plus side is that she recognises the absolute need that society has for morality, and the need for that morality to be based in something. There is a lot of useful analysis and argument around this point. But then, at the crucial point in her argument, she simply affirms that religion cannot provide this basis, and we need to find it elsewhere. Where and how, we have no idea. But it is important that we do, because we need morality and we can't base it on religion. After all, there are a lot of religions, and not everybody has faith... as if this were something new.
The book is a strange combination of information and ignorance. It is worth reading for the former, just don't get too irritated by the latter.
|Fermat's Last Theorem
|1 84115 791 0
Don't be put off: you don't need to be a mathematician to appreciate this book. It is mostly about the varied and colourful people who have been involved in the attempt to solve a theorem which has fascinated the world since Fermat wrote about it in his notebook some 350 years ago.
The story of these folk, and of Andrew Wiles, who finally solved it, is utterly absorbing. The story is incredible, and if it were fiction it would be beyond belief. This is a factual history, and is quite unputdownable. A brilliant story, excellently written.
|The Happiness Advantage: the Seven Principles that Fuel Success and Performance at Work
|Virgin Books, 2010
|978 0 7535 3946 0
The basic message is that most people have got happiness and success the wrong way round: you will never become happy through being successful, but you can become successful through being happy.
Of course, this is a terribly superficial summary, but it is fundamentally true. The book does an excellent job of spelling out what this actually means, and how to apply it. Despite the title and the repeated examples drawn from the world of work, this is about the whole of life.
I am teaching much of the content in our volunteer training program, but each concept is spelled out in far more detail than I can provide, and is illustrated by a range of stories.
One nice section demonstrates how some people really are luckier than others: if you believe yourself to be lucky, you will be expecting and looking out for good luck, so you spot it when a happy opportunity presents itself; an unlucky person is not expecting anything good to happen, so tends to miss the same opportunity. It makes sense, and the mindset can be changed: you are not destined to be unlucky for the rest of your life.
It's a nicely practical book. It doesn't claim you can change your life overnight, but by learning how to apply the principles, almost anyone's life can become better.
|The Logic of Life
|0 349 12041 6
I confess: I'm a fan of the new wave of popular economics books. And this is one of the best.
How far can you get, if you try to explain human behaviour from an economic perspective, making the assumption that people are rational? Surprisingly far, is the answer in many situations.
There is a nice chapter on why your boss is over-paid. There is a disturbing and thought-provoking chapter on democracy. And a very disturbing chapter on racism: it is worth getting the book for the insights in that chapter alone.
|Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: How to Get What You Want in Your Relationships
|Thorsons, new edition (2002)
|0 00 15259 0
I have to say something about this book, as I find it deeply worrying. It contains a good deal of practical advice and wisdom to help men and women understand each other, but the underlying assumption of a contract in which each expects the other to deliver the promised goods is incredibly dangerous.
I believe that, in essence, marriage is a covenant, not a contract; and that relationships, if you want them to endure, must be based on grace rather than greed, and on love rather than a calculation of mutual benefit.
|Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness
|Richard H Thaler & Cass R Sunstein
The book is all about the way people make choices, and how they can be encouraged to make better choices - vital issues for anyone who wants to think about the nature of society and what sort of society we want to live in.
"In this book we have made two major claims. The first is that seemingly small features of social situations can have massive effects on people's behavior; nudges are everywhere, even if we do not see them. Choice architecture, both good and bad, is persuasive and unavoidable, and it greatly affects our decisions. The second claim is that libertarian paternalism is not an oxymoron. Choice architects can preserve freedom of choice while also nudging people in directions that will improve their lives."
I love the concept of 'choice architecture' - it has made me think again about some of the systems and structures I have put in place at work. And libertarian paternalism is a powerful concept I want to explore further.
The book contains many practical and low cost proposals for improving peoples lives. Much is it is rooted in the USA, but many of the proposals carry across the pond essentially unchanged.
|Profile Books, 2010
|978 1 84668 288 9
"Why our goals are best achieved indirectly."
I love this book. I have wanted to write it, and if I couldn't do that, then to own it, for years. Finally, John Kay has done the job and I can cross it off the to-do list.
We live in a world in which assumes that the direct approach is the best, often the only, way to achieve anything. But this approach is deeply and dangerously mistaken.
You see it very clearly in self-help books. We are told to define our goals, determine what needs to be done to achieve these goals, then break these activities into manageable steps, with targets for each one. It makes sense, in the sense that if you do what the books tell you, and if you work hard enough, you are likely to achieve your stated goals. But it doesn't make sense in the real world, for real people: it doesn't provide what you are actually looking for.
In the real world, we don't know what we want, and we don't know how to get where we want to be. And all the important goals in life are things we cannot achieve by working directly for them. You may be able to get the job, or the girl, of your dreams, but what then?
I have frequently argued this in the past with regard to happiness. The more we seek happiness, the more our lives become empty and unfulfilled. Instead, you have to live the sort of life which will make you happy, and this involves setting aside happiness as a major goal you work towards - it involves putting others first.
This book takes the issue of our need to approach problems indirectly, and shows how it is relevant to all of the important areas of our lives.
Part one shows how obliquity (our need for an indirect approach) is all around us; part two shows why we often can't solve problems directly; and part three applies the lessons, showing how to solve problems in a complex world.
As a primer on how to solve problems in the real world, I have found nothing better. And it's an entertaining read, too.
As an aside, the reviews of this book are quite mixed. Some people are clearly irritated by the message and point out that the examples used don't prove the underlying theory is true (they are not intended to, of course), and others are annoyed that the content of the book is so obviously true that the whole thing could have been summarised in a single page, or a single paragraph, so it is hardly worth buying the whole book. My suggestion is that, if you find it is all completely obvious, find someone from the first group, lend it to them, and then talk about it.
|Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You: a guide to the universe
|978 0 571 23546 9
The book looks like it is intended for children, but despite a slightly breathless style at times, it is a wonderful and readable guide to the mainstream contemporary understanding of relativity and quantum theory. Why the title makes no reference to relativity is beyond me.
Sadly, it does not address the questions I have about these subjects. But since none of the texts I have yet found have been the slightest use here, it is not really a criticism of this book.
|1 85728 068 7
The calculation of and minimisation of risk are two major factors in almost evey area of life these days. 'Health and Safety' determines what we are allowed to do and how we are allowed to do it.
And almost everything we think we know on the subject is wrong.
This book is packed full of counterintuitive ideas which turn out to be quite obvious when you think about it.
For example: we do not, in real life, seek to minimise risk; we seek to manage it. We aim to balance the cost of the risk against the benefits. If we get a car with better brakes, we do not drive more safely; we drive more quickly. The balance between risk and reward has been shfted. The process is called risk compensation.
For more examples, read the reviews on Amazon. "This book changed my life. More accurately, it changed my world-view."
|The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
|0 14 102453 4
This is possibly the most frightening book I have ever read.
To be honest, I have a poor track record when recommending books. Time and time again, I rave about a book, and friends come back a week or two later, complaining that it is quite unreadable.
Not so here. With this book, I rave about it, and they go and read it, and come back and say it is even better than I claimed. If you don't believe me, visit the Amazon page and read the reviews.
I keep asking people who ought to know about such matters to let me know where and how Klein has got it wrong with this book. So far, nobody has offered anything which would undermine her message.
I thought I was reasonably well read, with a fair grasp of modern history and economics. But as a result of reading this book, I now see modern history in a completely different light. Economic theory really can shape the world we live in, for better and for worse. We need to understand the theories and the issues if we are to play a part in shaping it for the better.
|Stuart: A Life Backwards
|Harper Perennial, 2006
|0 00 720037 4
This is quite brilliant. It is a very readable account of the life of a homeless person, and the author's frustrating but engaging relationship with him. It describes homelessness and many of the associated issues in a humane and enlightening way.