‘The Hunger Games’ and the Human Predicament

For the last couple of days I’ve had some late nights because I’ve been rewatching the32b48154b2be18daf89f26dee4993c60 ‘Hunger Games’ movies on Netflix (I’ve also read the books). I know, it seems a dark and depressing way to end the day, but I find them riveting. In fact, if I wanted to lead a young adult study group on the Christian doctrine of original sin, I think I’d start with ‘The Hunger Games’.

I can hear the objections. ‘Can you really imagine a whole society being so twisted that it enjoys the spectacle of teenagers—and some barely into their teens—killing each other in a virtual arena?’ Well, as it happens, I can. I recall a time in human history when gladiatorial contests were entertainment—the more blood, the better. I also recall a time when young children were sent up chimneys as sweeps, and many died when they got stuck up there. As a human race we’ve dropped bombs on children, sold them as sex slaves, kidnapped them and turned them into child soldiers. We’re not quite the enlightened race we like to think we are.

‘But a nation set up in such a way that a wealthy capital sucks in all the resources and enjoys the lifestyle they make possible, while keeping the regions that produce the resources in poverty and subjugation? Surely we wouldn’t do that?’ But that was the whole point of colonies, wasn’t it? Places that the developed nations could exploit for their resources, while keeping the natives under their thumb. People living in the two-thirds world tell us it’s still going on today.

‘But can you imagine people standing up in front of a microphone and telling out and out blatant lies like that?’ Um – funnily enough, in 2020, I can! Enough said about that!

‘But those ridiculous costumes and hairstyles! All that flashy extravagance and love of spectacle! Isn’t it all a bit over the top?’ Maybe, but is it really so very much different from a modern political convention—or the Grammy Awards?

‘But children standing up on stage talking about how they can’t wait to get out into the arena and fight for the honour of their district?’ Well, that sounds rather like what a lot of soldiers said when they marched off to fight in World War One. And some of them weren’t much older than the kids in the Hunger Games.

So yes—I think ‘The Hunger Games’ tells us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Christians believe human beings are made in God’s image, but are also infected with the disease of sin. And what is sin? It’s what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to F___ Things Up.’ We’re really good at it. We break things. We break people. We break relationships. We know it. We try to change it, but it’s desperately hard to break old habits and find a new path.

And ‘The Hunger Games’ reminds us that it’s not just about individual choices. Whole societies are organized in such a way as to institutionalize evil, to reinforce it, so that if you want to step away from it, you have to be intentional about it and be ready to suffer the consequences. As Cinna did. As Katniss and Peeta did.

A gloomy way to start a Friday morning? Maybe. I also believe God has come among us as one of us and started a movement to root out the poison of evil from our souls and our societal structures. But I don’t expect that to be the work of a few minutes, and I don’t expect it to be completed in a single lifetime.

As so often, Bruce Cockburn sums it up well:

From the lying mirror to the movement of stars
Everybody’s looking for who they are
Those who know don’t have the words to tell
And the ones with the words don’t know too well

Chorus:
Could be the famine
Could be the feast
Could be the pusher
Could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That’s the burden of the angel/beast

Birds of paradise — birds of prey
Here tomorrow, gone today
Cross my forehead, cross my palm
Don’t cross me or I’ll do you harm

[Chorus]

We go crying, we come laughing
Never understand the time we’re passing
Kill for money, die for love
Whatever was God thinking of?

 – ‘The Burden on the Angel/Beast’ (from the Album ‘Dart to the Heart’ [1994])

Books I read (or re-read) in 2019

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2019, in the order in which they were read:

Kate Moorehead: I Witness: Living Inside the Stories of Advent and Christmas
Rachel Kadish: The Weight of Ink
Roy McGregor: Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada
Rachel Kadish: Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story
Philip Yancey: Disappointment with God
Ian Cowley: The Contemplative Minister
Karen Swallow Prior: On Reading Well
Louise Penny: Still Life
Karen R. Keen: Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Marriage
Simon Armitage: The Unaccompanied
Rudy Wiebe: Collected Stories 1955-2010
Jonathan Bate: John Clare: A Biography
C.S. Lewis: An Experiment in Criticism
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Emmy Kegler: One Coin Found
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Billy Bragg: The Three Dimensions of Freedom
Richard Wagamese: One Story, One Song
Andy Weir: The Martian
Adrian Plass: The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass
Charles Martin: Water from My Heart
David Lyle Jeffrey, ed: English Spirituality in the Age of Wesley
John Goldingay: Psalms for Everyone, Part 2
John Grisham: The Last Juror
Mark Noll: The Rise of Evangelicalism
Heidi McNaughton: Forever My Girl
John Grisham: Grey Mountain
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
George MacDonald: Thomas Wingfold, Curate
John Grisham: The Reckoning
John Grisham: Sycamore Row
George MacDonald: Paul Faber, Surgeon
Alan Jacobs: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds
C.S. Lewis: The Discarded Image
Rudy Wiebe: Big Bear
Gary S. Selby: Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality: C.S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith
Thomas Cahill: Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter
Paula Gooder: Phoebe
Ada Bezancon-Spencer: 2 Corinthians
John Grisham: The Broker
Anthony Bloom: Beginning to Pray
Thomas Cahill: Mysteries of the Middle Ages
Anthony McGowan: How to Teach Philosophy to Your Dog
Rupert Shortt: God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity
John Grisham: The Guardians
C.S. Lewis: The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings
Rupert Shortt: Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good?
The Revised English Bible, with Apocrypha

And now, a few reflections.

Best book of 2019? Rachel Kadish’s brilliant novel The Weight of Ink. Superb plot, very vivid writing style, amazingly believable characters, superbly researched (it’s set in London, partly in the 17th century and partly in the 21st).

Runner up? Probably Paula Gooder’s Phoebe, a brilliant imagination of what life may have been like in one of the house churches that first received Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paula says it’s not really a novel, but I think it is! However, the scholarship behind it is superb.

Least enjoyable book of 2019? Probably Ada Bezancon-Spencer’s commentary on 2 Corinthians in the People’s Bible Commentary series. It may have been our fault; we were reading it as a daily devotional commentary, but we found the readings so often lost the wood for the trees. Too much extraneous detail.

Best re-read: Anthony Bloom’s brilliant little book Beginning to Pray, which I think i last read in the 1980s when I certainly wasn’t ready for it. Simple but profound treatment of contemplative prayer, which I will re-read again in 2020 and take as a spiritual guide.

I also enjoyed re-reading the Harry Potter series. I see I re-read some John Grisham as well; he appears to be my go-to relaxation when I’m not feeling 100%!

Finally, I used the ‘One Year Bible’ reading plan to make my way through the entire Revised English Bible day by day through the year. The REB has been on my shelves for years but I have never read it all the way through, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Now, on to 2020!

‘A Time to Mend’ is out in paperback!

I’m pleased to announce that my new novel, ‘A Time to Mend’, is now available in paperback timchesterton_A5from Amazon.

Here’s the blurb:

‘Two years after the loss of his beloved wife Kelly, Tom Masefield comes face to face with a new challenge: his father—the one he originally left England to get away from—is dying. For twenty-one years they have lived on different continents and have kept their personal contact to a bare minimum. But now Tom’s conscience tells him he needs to make one more attempt at reconciliation before his father dies.

‘So Tom and his daughter Emma decide to move back to England. Over the next two years, they will find out whether it is possible to mend relationships that have been broken for half a lifetime. And along the way, Tom will make a discovery that will transform his life in ways he never imagined.’

Here are links to some of the places you can get it:

Canada

USA

UK

For other countries, please search on your local Amazon website using ‘Tim Chesterton A Time to Mend’; it should be one of the first few to come up.

I hope you enjoy it!

‘How to Think’, by Alan Jacobs

fullsizeoutput_8d9aI thought this book was brilliant, and will definitely re-read it and recommend it to many of my friends. It’s short (160 pages), enjoyable, but also challenging and honest.

Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

How to Think is a contrarian treatise on why we’re not as good at thinking as we assume—but how recovering this lost art can rescue our inner lives from the chaos of modern life.
 
As a celebrated cultural critic and a writer for national publications like The Atlantic and Harper’s, Alan Jacobs has spent his adult life belonging to communities that often clash in America’s culture wars. And in his years of confronting the big issues that divide us—political, social, religious—Jacobs has learned that many of our fiercest disputes occur not because we’re doomed to be divided, but because the people involved simply aren’t thinking.
 
Most of us don’t want to think. Thinking is trouble. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits, and it can complicate our relationships with like-minded friends. Finally, thinking is slow, and that’s a problem when our habits of consuming information (mostly online) leave us lost in the spin cycle of social media, partisan bickering, and confirmation bias.
 
In this smart, endlessly entertaining book, Jacobs diagnoses the many forces that act on us to prevent thinking—forces that have only worsened in the age of Twitter, “alternative facts,” and information overload—and he also dispels the many myths we hold about what it means to think well. (For example: It’s impossible to “think for yourself.”)
 
Drawing on sources as far-flung as novelist Marilynne Robinson, basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, British philosopher John Stuart Mill, and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis, Jacobs digs into the nuts and bolts of the cognitive process, offering hope that each of us can reclaim our mental lives from the impediments that plague us all. Because if we can learn to think together, maybe we can learn to live together, too.

I have only one thing to add: a hint to people who may be considering reading this book. The blurb above will give you a good idea what it is about, and it will be enough to let you know whether or not it’s a book you’d be interested in. But if you buy it, turn first to the end of the book, the twelve point checklist for better thinking. Reading it through will give you a good idea of where Jacobs is going, and it will give you a clear sense of direction as you then turn to the beginning and read the book in order. In this case, it really is true that it’s good to read the last page first!

Alan Jacobs: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Currency, 2017).

 

We’re getting closer!

IMG_4231Today the proof copy of my book ‘A Time to Mend’ arrived in the mail. Now I have to read through it and check for errors, correct them, reload the corrected manuscript to Amazon, and then hopefully the book will be ready to go live around the first week in October.

It’s getting exciting!

Don’t forget that if Kindle is your preferred platform you can already purchase it here (Canada), or by the same title at your local Amazon website,

Book review: ‘Anglican Theology’ by Mark Chapman

13732149I enjoyed this book but found the title ‘Anglican Theology’ misleading. I recognize the validity of the author’s point that telling our story is sometimes the best way of exploring Anglican theologies, since there have been so many of them (Reformation/Tudor, High Church/Stuart etc.)! But even given this point, I thought a more honest title for the book would have been ‘Church of England Theology’.

The vast majority of the book describes theological controversies in the Church of England, most of which had to do with the nature of authority in the Church and its relationship to the British crown. A Christendom relationship between Church and State, with Anglicanism as the ‘Established Church’, was assumed in all these controversies. But for the vast majority of Anglicans around the world today this is irrelevant, as our churches have never been ‘established churches’. So how can we find a way forward toward a vibrant Anglican Christianity that does not assume a privileged position of power in society? What is our Anglican identity when we are not an established church? And what forms of episcopacy are appropriate in such contexts?

The penultimate chapter introduces the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, but rightly points out its inadequacies (it was intended as the basis for Anglican reunion with other churches, not as a definitive statement of Anglican essentials). The author points out that if the Quadrilateral is seen as definitive of Anglicanism, its omission of any mention of the Book of Common Prayer (in its many and varied editions) is very strange. Surely this is one of the most characteristic features of what Anglicans actually do: we worship together using the Book of Common Prayer and/or books based on it. For many of us, this is where we both discover and develop our theology.

I enjoyed Mark Chapman’s honest description of the way in which later generations have adopted revisionist understandings of certain defining moments in Anglican history, in service of their own theological agendas. But I have to say that I would enjoy reading a more future-oriented volume, which takes these convictions Anglicans have developed in the past and asks how we can move forward as a global family of churches, and what theological ideas can unite us and energize us in the very different situations we find ourselves in today.

Rudy Wiebe: ‘Collected Stories 1955-2010’

8807488Some very good stories here, but overall the collection is uneven. I didn’t especially enjoy most of the stories that were originally alternative chapters from the author’s published books. As usual, Rudy Wiebe’s descriptive writing is excellent, but his long run-on sentences are often hard to follow.

I’m a fan of Rudy Wiebe’s novels, especially ‘Peace Shall Destroy Many’, ‘The Temptations of Big Bear’, and ‘Sweeter than All the World’. I would not rate this collection as highly as the novels. In fact, many of the stories feel incomplete, more like unnaturally isolated chapters from novels than real short stories. Three stars out of five.

Book Review: ‘Tolstoy Lied’, by Rachel Kadish.

1577123The starting point of this story is the famous Tolstoy quote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As the intro says, literature professor Tracy Farber disagrees with this quote, which seems to imply that only unhappiness is interesting. Happiness is boring and predictable.

This controversy is presented to us as both the theme of this book, and also a project within the book, a project which Tracy never quite gets around to beginning until the end of the story. I believe in her project and I agree with her: I think literature (and music and poetry, for that matter) does indeed have a prejudice against happiness, especially happy marriages and families.

But I’m not sure this book is going to drive the coffin nail into Tolstoy’s maxim. Yes, I found it a very interesting story, but it was the conflict and the unhappiness (actual and threatened) that was interesting. When the happiness came back in all its glory, it was within only a few dozen pages of the end of the book.

Still, I loved the book. I enjoyed the honesty of the love story. These are real people making the mistakes that real people make, and yet living to tell the tale. I loved the quality of the writing; Rachel Kadish is highly literate and I enjoy reading a book written by someone who knows how to write excellent English sentences and paragraphs. I found the characters believable and credible. I found it hard to put this book down. I’ve read Kadish’s more recent work, ‘The Wright of Ink’, which is also excellent, and look forward to more great stories from her in the years to come.

Book Review: ‘Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada’ by Roy McGregor.

34127974Marci and I read this one together. It wasn’t what we were expecting, but it was very good.

Roy MacGregor takes a close look at sixteen iconic Canadian rivers: the Columbia, the Fraser, the Bow, the North Saskatchewan, the Red, the Dumoine, the Ottawa, the Don, the Grand, the Niagara, the Muskoka, the Rideau, the Gatineau, the St. Lawrence, and the Saint John. He writes as a journalist, with an eye to current events and contemporary stories. but he is also well aware of the history behind these rivers. I actually expected more history (and would have welcomed more), but what was there was accurate and well-written, and I suspect most Canadians would learn more about the story of their country from reading it. He also writes as a keen canoeist who has paddled many of these rivers. This hands-on perspective adds what might be called a water-level view to the narrative, and I enjoyed it.

This book also tells a sad story. Most of these rivers are in difficulty because of human activity. Some of them have been brought back, but some have not. We depend on the water from these rivers, but we continue to pollute them with industrial waste, sewage, garbage, and chemicals. In the words of Jacques Courcelles (whose family have lived near the Red River in Manitoba for five generations), “Sometimes you have to think beyond your lifetime”. Some Canadians are getting this message. Many, sadly, are not. It’s ironic that many of the same people who get agitated about leaving government debt for their grandchildren to deal with seem to have no such qualms about leaving their grandchildren to deal with the consequences of their (our) environmental irresponsibility.

I would recommend this book to all Canadians who want to earn more about our country’s history and geography. I would also recommend it to newcomers to this country. If you want to find out about the soul of Canada, this is a good place to start.