Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading (2006).

Eugene Peterson was pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, until he retired in 1991 to work on his 'magnum opus' - his translation of the Bible into modern American English (The Message).

In Eat This Book, Peterson is passionate about three things:

1. God's Word being in the language of everyperson - as was most of the Bible when it was originally written...

2. Peterson wants us to read the Bible for our spiritual formation - shaping us into our true being - rather than for information. ('To know much and taste nothing - of what use is that?' asks Bonaventure). He rues the modern tendency - even among Christians - for the 'authority of the self' to replace the authority of Scripture. 'The three-personal Father, Son and Holy Spirit is replaced by a very individualized personal Trinity of My Holy Wants, my Holy Needs, and my Holy Feelings'. Following his mentor Karl Barth, Eugene Peterson encourages us to approach the Bible 'as a book like no other book', which 'reveals the sovereign God in being and action'...

3. And Peterson wants us to know that the 'contemporary unbiblical preference... for information over story' leads us to organize biblical knowledge theologically, so that we can take charge of our own lives rather than submit to the message of the biblical narrative/s. It's what others have called our modern tendency to be 'over' the Word as its critic, rather than 'under' the Word in an attitude of submission and obedience.

Peterson's writing is sometimes heavy, even dour (he's Presbyterian, remember... oops!). You won't laugh at anything here. Occasionally Eugene the poet writes lyrically - especially in his chapters 'Scripture as Text' and the last chapter about Bible translations. (If you don't know anything about the massive importance of the Oxyrhynchus garbage dump and its influence on modern biblical research, read all about it first, from page 141. Exciting!).

And we learn more about Eugene the pastor here than in most of his other books (making coffee to be served in styrofoam cups to his bible study group for example...).

Some theologians will argue about his identification of 'the Bible' as 'the Word of God' without qualification (rather than, say, Jesus Christ being the primary 'Word of God').

An appendix offers us Peterson's seven top 'writers on spiritual reading' - Karl Barth's Dogmatics, Ivan Illich's In the Vineyard of the Text, Austin Farrer's The Glass of Vision, Northrop Frye's The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Paul Ricoeur's Essays on Biblical Interpretation, George Steiner's Real Presences, and C. S. Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism.

Rowland Croucher

January 1, 2009

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


The Shack

Part I: A Preamble

Books become best-sellers when they connect with our deep questions and tragic/meaningful experiences. Some become classics, others may be left behind with the detritus of literary or theological history.

Wm. Paul Young's The Shack (2007) is a best-seller (it's knocked Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven books off a few perches) but probably won't be a classic. He's nowhere near the brilliance of apologists like Oxbridge don C S Lewis or Soren Kierkegaard.

But when we ask why so many ordinary folks tell their friends 'You gotta read this' I think they have two questions in mind which Young is trying to answer:

• 'Where is God when tragedy crashes in on us, when the innocent suffer, or when a "Great Sadness" overwhelms us?' (Theodicy) and

• 'What sense can we make of it all?' (Theology).

Addressing the second issue first, my 'conservative self' wants a coherent theological system where 'truth' is clear, and questions are answered to my satisfaction – a theory of EverythingImportant, which 'adds up'. Young tries to do this, but many fundamentalists/ conservatives take issue with some of his ideas.

More of that later.

My 'moderate/progressive/skeptical self' can live with some paradox, ambiguity, antinomy, and has real problems with a desire to wallow in 'simplicity this side of complexity'. I'm prepared to live with stuff happening which I can't explain, and believe that verifiable 'miracles' are very rare. I know humans can't easily live with cognitive dissonance, but some of my reservations about The Shack's approach is that too little is left to mystery. The Judeo-Christian God suffers with us, acts for us, speaks to us, but (as in Job, for example) doesn't always give us nifty answers to our deep and urgent questions.

Without revealing too much of the plot, Young takes us on a journey into another, fantastic (in both senses) world, complete with out-of-body experiences - a journey which, to say the least, stretches credulity. Liberals/progressives are rarely at home in realms-beyond-the-rational.

Many books have been written about evil/suffering: Philip Yancey's Where is God When it Hurts?, Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, C. S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain come to mind.

The Shack tries to contemporize (and soften) C. S. Lewis's approach, especially the in-your-face question that Lewis asks if one objects to the notion of human freedom issuing in the possibility of our inflicting evil on others, and God's allowing rebellious humans to choose hell: 'Well, what are you asking God to do?' The Shack is an attempt to put into words God's response...

The Problem of Pain has these famous lines which might serve as commentary on Young's approach:


Except that Young is not as prescriptive about hell as was C S Lewis. There's much more about the joyful certainty of a loving relationship with God in The Shack than in The Problem of Pain (which C S Lewis wrote before he fell in love, and married, Joy Davidman. You'll have to read A Grief Observed to get in touch with that side of Lewis).

Indeed Young is sometimes accused by fundamentalists of being a universalist. He isn't, unless you want to read that into this interesting exchange:

[Jesus]: 'Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans... Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian...' 'Does that mean,' asked Mack, 'that all roads will lead to you?' 'Not at all,' smiled Jesus... 'Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you'. [p. 182].

I would urge anyone to read this little page-turner, and suspend your simplistic fundamentalism or sophisticated skepticism, and allow yourself to be bathed in God's love - an experience beyond creeds or explicable rationalities, whether conservative or liberal. Of course, if you can offer a more coherent apologetic send it to me, and I'll put a selection on our website, but I for one applaud Young for, as we Australians say, 'having a go'...

Part II: The Author and his Book

Knowing an author's life-story offers many keys to understanding what and how they write. At Paul Young's Melbourne meeting I jotted down these summary- points about his amazing journey:

* He was brought up among the stone-age Dani people of New Guinea. His missionary-father was cruel/abusive, and the boy Paul had lots of questions he was not allowed to ask.

* Because he understood the Dani language better than his parents (as children do in these situations) he knew about their conspiracies to kill his family: which, understandably, produced terrible nightmares. His bad dreams were made worse by aspects of the Dani's highly sexualized culture, and some sexual abuse he received at a boarding school.

* Paul attended 20-something different schools before graduating from high school, so he didn't have a 'missus': he trained himself not to 'miss' anybody.

* Until he worked on his shame-based approach to life over a period of 11 years (after a brief extra-marital affair) Paul reacted to conflict by 'compartmentalizing' his responses to each person/situation. He didn't know the difference between an observation and a value-statement. For example, when his wife said 'Don't mix colored clothes with whites' his life-experience taught him to regard that as a dire condemnation of him as a person. He'd planned his suicide (in Mexico, so his children wouldn't find his body). But his wife never gave up on him (hence the tribute 'To Kim, my Beloved, thank you for saving my life!').

* Paul had confused God with his own father: so he could never win God's approval either, and became a religious perfectionist. His were 'golden addictions' - being significant, pleasing others, etc.

* Paul has only been his 'free self' the last four years: especially after intensive therapy (until his counsellor-friend was accidentally shot dead by a meth-addicted son). After a life full of religious and psychological 'crap', God showed up! His secrets were exposed - all of them - and he finally realized he couldn't heal himself.

* Paul is an 'accidental author': he didn't set out to publish a book, but to write a story - in 2005 - for his children and grandchildren. He notes wrily: 'It's as if God wanted someone to speak to Balaam!' Paul was not well-off (three jobs, rental housing) and when a few friends urged him to get it into print, 26 publishers rejected it. So they set up 'Windblown Media' and published it themselves, despatching books around the world from a friend's garage.

* The Shack is a parable. 'Does that mean it's true?' 'Yes,' responds Paul, 'It's just not "real": it's a story!' Is the geography real? Yes (except for the stop-light): people are now hiking that route in the U.S's Pacific North-West. (The story-line is so 'real' that two forensic detectives asked for a briefing on the case-file!).

* The Shack's key question: 'In a world of unspeakable pain, where is God?'. Paul says he's reacting against the angry God he grew up with. He wants people to bring their own paradigms to the story, and be open to a loving Father/Son/Spirit God. Performance-based religion is the worst way to relate to God.

* And the imagery? The 'shack' is the human soul, filled with good stuff or junk by the good and evil inputs of others; it's the house one builds out of one's own pain: until God ('Papa') emerges and gives us an 'Almighty hug!' It took Paul 11 years to renovate his 'shack'.

* The essential message? 'There is nothing from which you cannot be redeemed!'' 'You are the one the shepherd will leave the ninety and nine for...!'

* Paul's conclusion last night? 'It took me 50 years to become a child: I'm not going back to being an adult again!' 'Remember: God doesn't use shame or guilt or condemnation to heal us!'


The Shack opens in a context of tragedy. Four years have passed since the cruel murder of Missy, Mack's precious six-year-old daughter.

The heart of the book is a series of extended conversations between Mack and the various members of the Trinity about how God could possibly allow such pain in his creation. In these conversations, God reveals deep secrets about both his character and the nature of the universe that slowly heal Mack's grief, anger and pain.

The Big Questions:

1. WHAT IS GOD LIKE? 'The door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman. Instinctively he jumped back, but he was too slow. With speed that belied her size, she crossed the distance between them and engulfed him in her arms....' The Shack's feminized 'God' has caused widespread consternation. What's in Paul Young's mind? Here's one explanation: 'For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.'

My response? The first time I visited Harlem in New York a Presbyterian minister told me that most fathers there were cruel and/or absent, so they rewrote the Lord's Prayer: 'God in heaven, who cares for us like our grandmother does...' The person most-like-God for those kids was their grandma.


Jesus in The Shack as a thirty-ish man of Middle Eastern appearance: no problems there!

The Holy Spirit - the creative Sarayu - is an Asian-looking woman (seen more clearly when you aren't looking directly at her).

Mack asks, 'Which one of you is God?' '"I am," said all three in unison.'

And what is God like? 'I'm not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation....'

In other words - a healthier God than the one espoused in guilt-ridden legalistic religion. (As the Jesus Freaks used to say 'If God is like Jesus, nothing is too good to be true!')

2. WHERE IS GOD? 'God, who is the ground of all being, dwells in, around, and through all things'. The panentheism implicit here has also been attacked by conservative Christians. But we ask: 'Where do you suggest an omnipresent, loving God is *not*?' As the old aphorism has it: 'God, whose centre is everywhere, and circumference nowhere.'

3. THE CRIME. A friend writes: 'Do you think the author downplayed the severity of the crime against Missy? When the climactic dialogue happened and he was told the little girl coped better than the dad might imagine, and she was worried about him... I thought that section was trite actually.' We'll make our own judgments there.

4. MYSTERY AND THE BOOK OF JOB. The same friend: 'And the other thing that I felt was overlooked, was the book of Job - the only story in the Bible anything like The Shack: where God comes and talks to the person suffering. And there.... well... God is not some cookie-making happy and patient middle aged woman. In Job God is very "Who are you to ask me this?" kind of God. (Or am I misreading Job?)'. No, Jim, you're not. And further, in Job God doesn't finally answer the Big Questions (as Job's 'comforters' tried to do), but invites the suffering Job to trust him anyway. Dialogues about meaning and The Great Sadness in The Shack sometimes come across as too simplistic. Nowhere (that I can recall)

does The Shack's God say something like: 'On that one, Mack, you'll just have to trust me!'

5. JESUS' CHURCH is 'all about relationships and simply sharing life... being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people, and life is all about relationships.' One of the key tests of a healthy theology is to ask 'What, essentially, is a Christian?' If the reply begins 'A Christian is someone who believes that...' and love is not at the top of the list, I become very wary, because that's how Jesus' enemies the Pharisees defined their religion. Sure, as 1 John teaches us, there are three tests of authentic Christianity: belief, obedience, love. But love is, for John, as for Jesus his master, the 'greatest of these' (as another Jesus-follower, Paul, put it).

6. FORGIVENESS. Not only does Mack learn to 'forgive' all who have hurt him, he also forgives God! Conservative critiques? 'As if God had done something wrong!' Such a simplistic response ignores both human nature (asking, reasonably, why if God is both loving and powerful the world isn't a happier place) and the enunciation of this complaint in the Psalmic laments.

7. NEW AGE? Literalists have problems with phenomena like (what The Shack calls) 'flying' - something akin to astral travel. 'Such a powerful ability, the imagination!' says The Shack's fictional Jesus. 'That power alone makes you so like us.' My experience of rationalistic theologies is that they have immense problems validating God's gift of imagination.

8. ANTI-INSTITUTIONALISM. 'Enforcing rules' [says Sarayu] ' a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. And contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse.' In addition, The Shack's Jesus doesn't create institutions - 'never have, never will!' [1]

'Institutions, systems, ideologies, [are] futile'. 'I can give you freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political. You will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems and to move freely between and among them. Together, you and I can be in it and not of it.' Put me down as someone who resonates with this 'Jesus' (probably tainted by my study of the radical sociologists of the 60s and 70s for whom - as Robert Merton put it - 'All institutions are inherently degenerative!')

9. MACK'S JESUS ISN'T A 'CHRISTIAN'. '"Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian." The idea struck Mack as odd and unexpected and he couldn’t keep himself from grinning. "No, I suppose you aren’t."' [2]

SUMMARY. As many have noted, The Shack has a quietly subversive stance, not-so-subtly attacking conventional, orthodox Christianity. The book will appeal to the 'Jesus Yes Church No' _majority_ (yes!) of Western Christ-followers. The responses everywhere in the many reviews by 'the Doctrine Police' - whose God isn't as 'nice' - decry the absence/ paucity of references to a hierarchical Trinity, hell (sinners are always 'separated from a holy God'), Satan, repentance, salvation, sin and guilt, a physical 'resurrection', and doctrinally 'correct' belief-systems. Such wooden literalism doesn't cope with this genre of imaginative fiction (though note that The Shack has a literal Adam). One of the problems of course is that Paul Young doesn't 'proof-text' everything with Scripture references. 'At its core the book is one long Bible study as Mack seeks to resolve his anger at God,' writes Paul Young's friend and advisor Wayne Jacobsen [3].

ENDORSEMENTS. When the highly-respected Evangelical scholar Eugene Peterson says 'This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" did for his. It's that good!' the rest of us had better sit up and take notice. I agree with this sentiment, in an review: 'Don’t miss this! If there’s a better book out there capturing God’s engaging nature and his ability to crawl into our darkest nightmare with his love, light and healing, I’ve not seen it. For the most ardent believer or newest spiritual seeker, The Shack is a must-read.'

Buy it and read it with an open heart and mind, disagreeing here and there if you wish, but above all prayerfully asking The Shack's God to give you a little taste of the amazing love practised in the Community of the Trinity.


[1] For more helpful material on this idea, Google 'Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity.'

[2] For my article 'Was Jesus a Christian?' see

[3] 'Is The Shack Heresy?' by Wayne Jacobsen (one of Paul Young's friends / theological advisors):

[4] The Shack official website -

[5] Conservative Evangelical Critique - william-young-part-two/

[6] 'Reformed Evangelical' critique -

Rowland Croucher

November 2008

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Ten Reasons To Read Boreham's New Book 'A Packet of Surprises'

Have you got yourself a copy of the new F W Boreham book that has just been released?

I think it is one of the most important books to read for these ten reasons:

1. This is the first time the best sermons and essays of Dr F W Boreham have ever been brought together. Over the years commentators on preaching have selected one representative sermon from Boreham's preaching archive to put in their Best Preaching of the Twentieth Century books, which is testimony to his prominence. But A Packet of Surprises is the first selection of the Best of Boreham's sermons and essays.

2. For the many newcomers to the writings of F W Boreham, and there are a growing number in the younger generations, this is a wonderful starter as it draws thirty essays and sermons from more than twenty of the more than fifty-five books that he wrote.

There is an informative introduction in the book to the person and ministry of F W Boreham. This is written by Howard Crago who was Boreham's biographer.

3. New and old readers of Boreham books have great difficulty finding Boreham books and when they do, the price often puts it out of their reach (one of the best sermons comes out of Boreham's book, The Whisper of God which, when it is on sale through eBay fetches prices of well over US$500).

Mike Dalton and I, through John Broadbanks Publishing, have published five new Boreham books in the last three years to make the writings of Boreham accessible to a new generation of Boreham readers.

We have deliberately self-published (not drawing any money for ourselves) in order to keep the cost of these books as low as we can for our readers. We have not made a profit but in keeping with the wishes of the Boreham estate we send 10% of the income we receive to help fund the cost of training pastors and Christian workers throughout the world (two passions of Dr Boreham). When you buy a copy of this book you are investing in the important work of training Christian leaders and we thank you for this.

4. A Packet of Surprises is a must for homiletical scholars and students of the craft of preaching. The selection draws sermons from the first decade of Boreham's preaching ministry, some from the last decade of his life and many from in between, thus offering samples from the different stages of Boreham's career.

There are a great variety of sermon types represented, ranging from the textual sermon ('The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ…'), to doctrinal (The Meaning of Easter), a biblical exposition (on the book of Jonah), some Life Situational sermons (Handling interruptions and exploring the meaning of coincidences) through to Boreham's innovative biographical preaching (Abraham Lincoln's Text). A big part of Boreham's popularity then and his enduring significance is his preparedness to innovate and try out many different types of preaching.

5. This volume includes three sermons from the longest, most popular (judged by congregational response and sale of books) and most evangelistic series that Boreham ever delivered. There are valuable lessons in this trio for modern day Christian communicators.

6. A Packet of Surprises gives ample evidence of Boreham's creativity. Readers will see his brilliance as a marketer with his catchy titles that were printed on billboards and advertising leaflets—titles like 'Sermons and Sandwiches', 'I.O.U', 'Dominoes' 'Mind Your Own Business' and 'Please Shut the Gate'.

7. F W Boreham was the Rick Warren of his age as he was a much-loved preacher who wrote many books and magazine articles. Like Warren, Boreham was on the best sellers' list many times and over a million copies were sold causing the manager at Epworth Press to say that Boreham was their 'greatest catch' since John Wesley. Rick has about another 40 books to write before he can get near to Frank Boreham's number of published books.

Such was his influence that FWB was once introduced to a Pastor's Conference as "the man whose name is on all our lips, whose books are on all our shelves and whose illustrations are in all our sermons!" A Packet of Surprises is full of vivid illustrations and stories you can use to great effect.

8. Boreham has enriched many communicators and leaders down through the years through his writings. When Billy and Ruth Graham visited Australia in 1959 he said that the person he wanted to meet more than any other was F W Boreham because his books had so enriched his spiritual life and ministry. They did meet and they exchanged books. During his amazing campaign Billy got some time for pursuing another passion of his viz. golf. Out on the fairway when he was mulling over a sermon to preach at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (which incidentally became the largest gatherings ever to fill the huge MCG), Dr Graham said to his golfing mate and host, "Where can I find the amazing illustration by Dr Boreham about…?" I can give you the details if you're interested concerning this event but that sermon is included in The Best of Boreham's Essays and Sermons.

Contemporary leaders including Gordon Moyes and Ravi Zacharias have testified to their habit of reading one sermon a day from Boreham's books to feed their minds and kindle their spiritual devotion.

9. F W Boreham once wrote, "When a man has been fifty years in his grave it ought to be possible to review his work dispassionately. The sentiment that is born of human fondness has by that time evaporated; and the prejudices that arise from personal animosity have died down."

Next year (2009) it will be fifty years since the death of F W Boreham and for many reasons it will be an important year to reflect on his contribution and distil the insightful lessons from his life. The Packet of Surprises will therefore be a timely book to read, and

10. A wonderful gift to give.


Check out Mike Dalton's site to discover how you can get your hands on these two books.

If you live in the southern hemisphere you may want to order your books from Peter and the COC Online Bookshop which is based in Brisbane.

Dr Geoff Pound

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini).

If the first casualty of the War on Terror (as with any war) is truth, Hosseini’s best-sellers The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) are a terrific read if you want an insider’s view of the situation in Afghanistan. Remember the dictum ascribed to Zwi Werblowsky (Martin Buber Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem): ‘There are some things about a given religion which can only be understood from inside and some things about the same religion which can only be understood from outside.’ Hosseini gives us an insider’s insights into the lives of Muslim families in Afghanistan (and should help soften some of our bigotry about Islam).

Here we’ll look briefly at The Kite Runner. However, as the Chilean writer, Isabel Allende says, A Thousand Splendid Suns is ‘unforgettable’. For a review of that book visit here and for a summary of the Taliban’s less-than-creative (!) ways of taking the fun out of life start here.

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul (1965) and with his family sought political asylum in the U.S. in 1980. He is now a medico and an envoy for the UNHCR, deeply involved in the plight of refugees throughout the world.

Last time I looked there were 2348 customer reviews on for The Kite Runner. It was Hosseini’s debut novel, and offers dramatic insights into Afghanistan’s political turmoil, from the last days of the monarchy to the collapse of the Taliban regime. All that is backdrop to the story of two boys - Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman, and Hassan, the son of Amir's father's servant (who are ethnic Hazaras). The boys are inseparable; they compete in kite-running competitions, and share dreams and stories, until something unspeakable happens, severing the relationship. After Amir and his father flee to America, the guilt and shame of that event still haunts Amir, who later returns to his war-torn country to rescue Hassan’s son after the Taliban murdered his parents.

Many of the great themes of literature and life are here: guilt and redemption, character and country, betrayal and loyalty, courage and cowardice and hope, war and terror and tragedy, children who are motherless and/or fatherless, bullying, rape, and the persecution of minorities...

We have to remind ourselves that this is a (haunting) morality tale – a novel, not a memoir. The plot twists are quite amazing (if sometimes implausible). When we meet ordinary people like these who are swept up in the turmoil of history, it ‘gives pause’ to our simplistic views about (a) how to relate to refugees, and (b) the kaleidoscopic varieties of belief inhabiting all major religions, in this case Islam.

The Kite Runner
was also produced as an audiobook read by the author, and was adapted into a film of the same name released in December, 2007. Hosseini’s official website is here.

Rowland Croucher
April 2008.


THINGS HIDDEN: Scripture as Spirituality, Richard Rohr (2008).

Franciscan prophet and teacher Richard Rohr is a mystic rather than a systematic theologian: indeed he believes ‘systematizing’ theology runs the risk of doing it violence and missing the point: theology is to be experienced in a life of faith, hope and love, not organized into creeds.

Is he ‘evangelical’? I would say ‘yes’ though he doesn’t use the term of himself: he has an unqualified commitment to Jesus as Lord and God’s special revelation of God’s character. Is he ‘progressive’? Yes: for example he likes Marcus Borg and reads the mainline liberal biblical scholars. Is he a dogmatist/ fundamentalist? Definitely not: any exclusionary system which divides humans made in God’s image into ‘our people’ and ‘those [heretics] not like us’ is alien to the will of God as experienced in the life and teaching of Jesus.

He writes in the Introduction: ‘Only when inner and outer authority come together do we have true spiritual wisdom. We have for too long insisted on outer authority alone, without any teaching of prayer, inner journey and maturing consciousness. The results for the world and for religion have been disastrous… I offer these reflections to again unite what should never have been separated: sacred Scripture and Christian spirituality.’

He quotes Eugene Ionesco with approval: ‘Overexplanation separates us from astonishment.’ Example: the humble recipient of God’s love in the Eucharist/communion, who gazes at Christ on the cross with awe and wonder and love, is far more likely to ‘get the point’ than a theologian who organizes dogma into theories of the atonement.

Here are some representative quotes:

• ‘Suffering seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering… as “whenever you are not in control”.’

• ‘If you are not trained in a trust of mystery and some degree of tolerance for ambiguity, frankly you will not proceed very far on the spiritual journey. Immature religion creates a high degree of “cognitively rigid” people. If you want to hate somebody… do it for religious reasons… do it thinking you’re following some verse from the Bible. It works quite well. Your untouched egocentricity can and will use religion to feel superior and “right”.’

• ‘It is painful but necessary to be critical of your own system, whatever it is. But do know it will never make you popular. As you know the prophets are always rejected by their own (see Luke 12:50-51)… Until you are excluded from any system, you are not able to recognize the idolatries, lies or shadow side of that system. It is the privileged “knowledge of the victim”. Insiders are by nature dualistic, because they divide themselves from the so-called outsiders.’

• ‘Law is the thesis; it lays the ground against which the Prophets develop a positive antithesis… the Wisdom books are a synthesis and integration of the first two. Transcendance to higher levels of consciousness always means inclusion of the previous levels. Walter Brueggeman finds [a similar progression] in the Psalms: Psalms of Orientation (confirming Tradition), Psalms of Disorientation (the prophetic recognition of things not working or not being true) and Psalms of Reorientation (the Wisdom level of a new faith-synthesis). All three levels are affirmed in the Psalms, and unlike today, one or the other level is not called heretical or faithless. (Although people trapped at stage one will normally call people at the other two levels “sinners” or “heretics”, which is what we see happening in the Gospels.) True transcendence always includes the previous stages and does not dismiss them.’

• ‘True orthodoxy (“right ideas”) is important, but in the Bible orthodoxy is never defined as something that happens only in the head… Jesus consistently declares people to be saved or healed who are in right relationship with him, and he never grills them on their belief or belonging systems… I observe that the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers.’

• ‘Prayer and suffering are the two primary paths of transformation. Only people who have first lived and loved, suffered and failed, and lived and loved again, are in a position to read the Scriptures in a humble, needy, inclusive and finally fruitful way.’

• ‘My lifetime of studying Jesus would lead me to summarize all of his teaching inside of two prime ideas: forgiveness and inclusion.’

It’s the best book I’ve read for a couple of years. And it’s best read devotionally, in small doses…

Rowland Croucher
April 2008

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (Paperback)
by Neil A. Grauer

I'm just back from a cheap P&O cruise (PS. if you buy a cheap ticket, your cabin is probably near a noisy exit-door, like ours was), and I read two books from the ship's library: this one, and Bill Bryson's memoirs of his childhood. Both terrific (and both about men brought up in the American mid-west).

Grauer, a former newspaper cartoonist and reporter, has given us an anecdotal, easy-to-read biography of Thurber - the sharpest humorist/cartoonist of his era.

Thurber (1894-1961), mostly had his bittersweet cartoons and stories published in The New Yorker. He had a wry sense of humor, but was a somewhat sad and tormented man, given to fits of depression (what's new among humorists?). His sometimes-friend Peter de Vries wrote of him: 'If in his art he told the truth, in his life he told it off.' In his later life he got angrier - alienating former friends and sometimes throwing things against the wall (like his eyeglasses or wine-glasses). He was a mysoginist, a misanthropist, and sometimes a racist. Two of his core beliefs were that animals are superior to humans, and technology is awful. His blindness was devastating to him, but he showed great courage in adversity.


Here's one reviewer's helpful summary (from

'American humorist James Thurber brought us Walter Mitty, and now freelance journalist Neil Grauer brings us James Thurber in all his comic and caustic complexity.

A native of Ohio and graduate of Ohio State University, Thurber began as a code clerk in the Department of State. After working as a journalist in Paris, he began a life-long association with New Yorker magazine, whose pages were brightened with Thurber's short stories and classic cartoons in which his misanthropy is often present as animals ape the behavior of humans and vice vera.

Always aware of the frailties and pratfalls of human beings as they faced life's predicaments, Thurber penned among others, "The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze" and "The Thurber Carnival." In 1940 he joined Eliot Nugent to write a drama of college life, "The Male Animal," which, along with other Thurber works, was made into a motion picture.

This funny man's last years were relentlessly bleak. Unable to cope with the loss of his sight, Thurber alienated many of his former colleagues with boring boasts of his past successes.

Grauer does not gloss over the humorist's flaws, instead presents a concise human portrait of one who brought laughter to the lives of many.'


Thurber could scribble a cartoon in seconds - like this one:

or his most famous one (The Seal in the Bedroom):

'All right, have it your way - you heard a seal bark!'

Rowland Croucher

January 2008.