Every time I see a Nick Page book on my bookshelves, I am reminded of a long-lasting desire of mine to share a couple of pints in a pub with him. It is a desire that started when I read A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity. It was such a breezy, insightful and enlightening piece of history that I imagined him feeding my curiosity over a few bottles. After reading The Wrong Messiah, my longing for that pub hangout has only heightened. I am officially a Nick Page stan! He has this rare ability to relate history, be it that of the early church or the Christian faith itself and relate it with so much dry wit, extensive research and relative objectivity that leaves you curious and your faith strengthened at the same time. All of these and more he has done in The Wrong Messiah.
In The Wrong Messiah, Nick Page explores the birth, life (ministry) and a little bit of the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. While none of these topics is new, the approach is what makes for a refreshing read. The approach reminds me of the famous N.T. Wright quote – ”For too long we have read Scripture with 19th-century eyes and 16th-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first first-century eyes and 21st-century questions”. The Wrong Messiah does a good job of contextualizing the gospel narratives in their correct context – 1st century Israel. The juxtaposition of a living scripture in the context of the world where it happened yields plausible answers to some of the vexing questions of its authenticity, relevance and plausible contradictions. The Wrong Messiah does not seek to provide an answer to all questionable aspects of the gospels. It actually makes no such attempt. Rather what it does is to highlight extensively why Jesus was the wrong man, from the wrong town and even used wrong methods in pursuing his messiahship. Everything about him was contrary to what the Jews expected of a messiah. A peasant, who preached forgiveness instead of wielding the sword, one who stopped low to accommodate and validate sinners while forgiving their sins and one who sought to serve rather than be served was not what they had in mind for a messiah. More importantly, after dying his band of followers were suddenly energized to not just preach his message but were energized enough to live new lives while no plausible reason could explain his empty tomb giving credence to their assertion that he had resurrected from the grave.
The wrongness of his messiahship within the first-century Jewish traditions is understandable. More importantly, it makes the events and the claims of the early church more profound. With extensive research (and a good dose of references to the work of Flavius Josephus), Nick Page makes a good case for the historicity of Jesus and in highlighting the wrongness of Christ’s messiahship within the 1st-century context, echoes the scripture that states that ”the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. Two thousand years later, the kingdom that the stone established is still waxing strong. Excellent read!
No Hunger in Paradise is the third of Michael Calvin’s books that I have read. The first was The Nowhere Men, which focused on the work of football scouts. The second one was Living on the Volcano, which examined the pressures of managers in English football. In No Hunger in Paradise, the author tackles the academy system of English football. It is full of human stories of youngsters who fell through the cracks of the academy systems, the majority whose dreams are extinguished by the cut-throat industry, those whose lights burned too brightly too soon, those who were trapped by the destructive influences of external factors and the very few who make it to our screens.
There is a common joke on social media where young parents seem to be grooming their toddlers for a future of football stardom – Project Mbappe, it is jokingly called. Football academies are full of 6 to 10-year-olds whose barely discernible talents are propped up by their parents’ dreams and aspirations. But not all academy kids are being shepherded by their parents, some come from rough parts of English cities and have been shepherded by mentors who are doing a thankless job of being the guardian that most of those boys do not have. So, No Hunger in Paradise is a combination of anecdotes that documents the driving forces of community football teams, youth centres and academies. It highlights the roles that these community mentors play, the evil of football agents as they prey on youngsters while selling false hopes and the academies themselves where dreams are wither made or dashed before the very few from those academies who grace our scenes arrive the first team.
No Hunger in Paradise is another well-written book by Michael Calvin but my problem is that it tries to grapple with too many sub-topics. The academy system in modern football has too many stakeholders and this book would have been better served if it focused on two or three of these (e.g. parents, agents and youth coaches) but it tries to take them all in a singular sweep. The outcome is that the book lacks depth and none of the anecdotes sticks. Also, it would have been a better read if one of two of the few success stories was x-rayed in detail. In all, it is a decent but not spectacular read.
I cannot remember when I started being alarmed about the high rate of poor decisions made by intelligent persons. However, the current political and cultural climate has heightened that alarm. One of those days I decided to find a book that dealt with the issue and ended up buying The Intelligence Trap by David Robson. The Intelligent Trap explores why intelligent people make silly decisions, what skills and dispositions make intelligent people susceptible to silly decisions and finally it explores how we can cultivate those positive decision-making qualities that protect us from the errors of silly decisions.
High IQ and other academically-tested intelligence measures are no guarantee for avoiding dumb decisions. The Intelligence Trap highlights decades of research that have pointed out that rather than high IQ, a better predictor of quality decision making is evident-based wisdom. It provides practical techniques that can be used to cultivate wise thinking and escape the intelligence trap of biases. The Intelligence Trap uses the springboard of highly people to highlight that intelligence is no vaccination against stupidity. The anecdotes are illuminating – going from Arthur Conan Doyle’s friendship to Houdini to Arthur Conan Doyle falling for the scam of the Cottingley Fairies photo hoax to the FBI’s wrongful arrest of Brandon Mayfield. The curse of knowledge, inflated self-confidence, earned dogmatism, meta-forgetfulness and motivated reasoning are some of the biases that induce poor decisions of not just highly intelligent individuals but also intelligence communities.
The Intelligence Trap is not just a book that explores the downside of intelligence, it provides antidotes to poor decision-making. Antidotes apply to both the highly intelligent and the average Joe. No other anecdote explores these antidotes other than the stories of Benjamin Franklin told in the book. The intellectual humility and moral algebra that underpinned his decision-making as highlighted in the book are foundations that can be implemented by anyone, irrespective of the person IQ. In a world where we are currently bombarded by information and expected to make definite choices on a myriad of topics, the toolkit that The Intelligence Trap provides is a worthy armour.
The moment I came around to the fact that doubt is not the opposite of faith nor is certitude equivalent to faith, I began to feel comfortable enough to interrogate my moments of doubt as it concerns issues of faith. I have read and enjoyed a few books that have explored the topic. Last year this was the pick for the 2020 TBR list and this year I found myself reading Doubting by Alister McGrath.
Doubting is different from most of the other books on Christian doubt that I have read. It is more pastoral in approach. It is relatively shallow on the philosophical front. What it lacks on the philosophical front it makes up for on the pastoral front. It provides in-depth details on how to overcome doubt for a new believer. It is a vital read that acts as a handy reference.
I finally got around to reading the first of the many Walter Mosley’s novels on my shelf (discounting the short stories collection which I read earlier this year). The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a very thoughtful but unusual story. It is the story of a 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey who is suffering from early-stage dementia. The book delves into his struggles with the disease and how it impacts his life. Ptolemy remembers random events that happened 8o years ago but struggles to remember how to lock his door or who is standing in front of him. The book and the story in it hold a special place in my heart because I have a parent who is a decade and a half younger than the protagonist and suffering from an even more advanced form of dementia. The impact on not just the sufferer but their loved ones is devastating.
Ptolemy’s mind like his apartment is becoming a jumble of the memories he has accumulated over his long life. The memories pop up every now and again and tell us about the life that Ptolemy has lived. The years have not dulled his longing for his long-dead wife, Sensia, and the colourful life she lived nor have they dulled the wisdom that was passed down my Coydog his childhood mentor who was lynched in the South, as was common back in the days. Past events are uppermost in Ptolemy’s mind to the extent that he is unable to function in the present – clean his apartment, eat properly or even clean himself properly. His saving grace is his grandnephew Reggie. Reggie comes around to take him grocery shopping and cash his retirement cheques. When Reggie is killed in a drive-by shooting, Ptolemy’s life takes a new turn – one that presents him with an opportunity to live more fully in the present while preparing him for a more intentional exit.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a uniquely crafted book in the way it allows us to enter into the world of a nonagenarian. Ptolemy’s fears, inadequacies and longings are all contrasted with the life he has lived and the social injustices that have impacted that life. In The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey we see how the past, present and future are a constant flux in old age and how diminished memory is a drag in old age. This is a very thoughtful story.
Talk of The Town is Fred Khumalo’s collection of ten short stories. Short stories are not my favourite type of fiction and I am making a conscious effort not to buy any new ones in the next year. However, I have about a dozen of them on the shelves and this is probably the fourth collection in my 20201 TBR. Some have been below average, a few have been average and one has been spectacular. So, in all, it has been a decent year in short stories for me. Talk of The Town is a decent collection that covers varied themes set mostly in South Africa. It opens up with the titled short story – Talk of The Town, a story that explores township life just before the end of apartheid in South Africa. How consumerism defined social status, the pass system that bred absentee fathers (that is still a problem today, long after the pass system became history) and the vibrancy and colourfulness of township life in general. The returning exiles were a constant fixture of the social life of black South Africans soon after the end of apartheid. Their outlandish tales and sense of entitlement were constant features in most social gatherings. The Guz-Magesh character who is the main character in two stories set in the fictitious Ekhaya watering hole is a familiar character to anyone who has a keen eye for South African polity and its social settings. Gladly, the people are becoming less beholden to those who returned from Exile after 1994. Their fallibility has gotten obvious and it has become obvious that their sacrifice does not make them faultless. This much is obvious in The Invisibles, the second of the Guz-Magesh stores.
Xenophobia is a theme that vibrates in this collection. It is a topic that the author, Fred Khumalo has strong opinions about. Having studied in America decades ago and worked for a couple of years at a Nigerian newspaper that unsuccessfully tried to establish in South Africa, he has a good idea of what it takes to be the other person in public and private spaces. He has the experience of being the odd one in the room and having the weight of unjustified stereotypes fall on your shoulders the moment you open your mouth to speak and your accent betrays your nationality. In Beds Are Burning, Nomcebo is analysed and profiled by the street sweepers and they conclude that she is a foreign whore simply on account of her attire. The theme is revisited in my favourite story in the collection – The Phiri, Esquire. Shirley’s suspicion of Phiri is only because of his nationality.
In all, the stories in this collection are decent and contain some memorable characters. A few of the stories are really good and in all, a decent collection awaits the reader who picks up Talk of The Town.
The first thing to be clear about Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is that the title is misleading. I picked this up assuming that it was a takedown of the political left (not like I am a big fan of the right). Here the author is taking a longer view and announcing the death of both classical liberalism as espoused by global capitalism and contemporary liberalism as espoused by the social justice movements of the day. The context of Why Liberalism Failed is better appreciated once you accept Deneen’s definition of liberty as a root word of liberalism as against the contemporary meaning. A barrier is immediately created if you refute his assertion that liberty is more about virtue, discipline and containment within communal good.
While he sees the classical liberalism group and the progressive liberalism group as two sides of the same coin, most of the author’s exposition and ire is reserved for the progressive liberals. For largely good reasons, he explains that the quest for individual freedom without limits is a destructive inbuilt mechanism that was destined to fail from inception. A good example explored in the book is how universities have become hostile grounds for the exchange of ideas and opinions as unbridled freedom clashes with the freedom to hold contrary views. Politically, the tendency of contemporary liberalism to resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat via the administrative state run by a small minority will continue to damage democracy and fuel populist discontent. Besides the discontent, it exposes the irony of the situation that liberalism ends up creating a most powerful state when its stated aim is to create a most powerful individual who is not beholden to community or state.
While I agree that both the conservative and progressive sides of the liberal coin and currently defective and rightly taken down in Why Liberalism Failed, I found the arguments slightly repetitive and the end was hugely disappointing. After taking down the left and the right, I was eager for a conclusion that offered light out of the dark tunnel we find ourselves in – none was forthcoming. The best the author offers is a return to household and local economy. Not only is this a simplistic solution, but it is also impractical to the point of utopianism. Similar to another book along the same line that I read last year, I find that pinpointing all that is wrong with current systems is easy, it is much harder to come up with realistic solutions. Why Liberalism Failed is a decent read that highlights the issues with the current conservative and progressive sociopolitical theories. However, it does an abysmal job of pointing out the way forward and it assumes the catholic worldview as universally accepted.
Migration is an urgent topic whether you are for it or against it, the inevitable fact is that the movement of people westward has become a hot topic in our world today. It is this urgent and hot topic that Helon Habilla has chosen to tackle in his fourth novel – Travellers. My TBR is often chosen with deliberate randomness but this year’s picks have thrown some interesting migration themed works of fiction. Whether it is The Year of The Runaways or the more recently read Brother or Travellers. Each has interrogated the issues around breaching geographical boundaries, crossing borders, being forced to embrace a strange land due to a lack of options (in the place you previously called home) and even the burden that such movement and dislocation places on migrants and their future generations.
The narrator of Travellers is an unnamed Nigerian man living in Virginia and married to an American lady. With their marriage on the verge of collapse, he and his wife, Gina, migrate to Berlin where she takes up an Arts fellowship. Trying to fit into life as a migrant in Germany, he connects with other migrants from Africa whose stories are as diverse as their faces but the sense of dislocation, deferred hope and shattered humanity are all uniform. Whether it is the story of Mark who migrates to Berlin from Malawi, a move occasioned by his father’s unwillingness to embrace his life choices. Mark then finds himself being hurled from one detention centre to the other in Berlin due to his migration status. These experiences shape Mark’s view of the world and pose questions to the reader about our shared humanity. There is Manu, a doctor from Libya with his wife and two children. They cross the Mediterranean in very turbulent circumstances. He and his daughter make it to Berlin but his wife and son do not. They had promised to meet at Checkpoint Charlie if they were separated in their journey. Every Sunday, Manu and his daughter go to Checkpoint Charlie and look through the crowd of people hoping to be reunited with their loved ones. It is this hope that kills, in addition to the readjustment of going from being a medical doctor to a nightclub bouncer. There are many more characters whose stories Helon Habilla gives a voice in restrained clean prose that acknowledges the gravity of the topic.
Told in the form of vignettes where the young Nigerian-born academic is the narrator in some of the stories and others where the other migrants tell their own stories, Travellers is uniquely structured in a way that some of the stories are interrelated and others are stand-alone. Irrespective of the interconnectedness or its absence, the overarching themes of dislocation, chasing a hope that always seems to be fading and the trauma of a peripatetic life are elaborately explored in sparse prose. The only issue I have with Travellers is that the spareseness and cleanliness of the prose do not match the urgency of the subject. For such powerful themes under consideration, the characters are flat. In my view, focusing on fewer migrants and having a consistent narrative voice would have aided the character development. In all, Travellers is a very thoughtful read.
In his second novel, Brother, David Chariandy elegiacally narrates a succinct tale of migration, hope, race, community, motherly love and sibling relationship. In less than 200 pages he examines the life of a migrant family whose mother and absent father from Trinidad and their sons Michael and Francis are struggling under the weight of their mother’s sacrifice and the hope that the children will redeem the past and dreams of their mother like those of the other migrant parents in the Scarborough estate where they live. These migrant parents had big dreams that they have now outlived but what keeps them going is that their children will not end up like them.
Brother is told through the eyes of Michael, the younger of Ruth’s two sons. Michael is a young lad that attracts the empathy of the reader. He is a fragile kid that is not readily built for the rough life of the housing project where they live. The prejudice that the police exhibit in policing the neighbourhood makes him even more fragile, leaving him scared and unsure of his place in society. His elder brother Francis is more aligned with the streets. In a fatherless household, one where the mother is mostly absent as she tries to do countless jobs and shifts in a bid to earn enough to barely feed them, Francis becomes a victim of his environment – an environment that is built to exploit and destroy him and people like him. Soon after, tragedy strikes and Michael has to assume a leadership role in the family despite being barely a teenager. The prejudice against his skin colour and means that in addition to the poverty around him, the cards are heavily stacked against him.
Brother is structured interestingly – one step in the present and the next step is in a decade past. The past is centred on Michael and Francis’ childhood and the period around which police brutality reshaped an already impoverished neighbourhood. David Chariandy’s prose is clean if a little too colourful for my liking. There is a brutal honesty about his depiction of migrant life and police prejudice in black communities that are found in his use of language. The structural issues that shape the daily living of the inhabitants of Scarborough are palpable in the pages and brought to light in the prose. Brother is an impressive story that reminds us of the odds that some have to deal with on account of their skin colour and being born or raised in the ”wrong” part of town.
The cross and the lynching tree. Two symbols of humiliation, torture and killing. The former, common in the first century Roman Empire and the latter, common almost two thousand years later in America. At first, the similarity is not obvious but when you engage this historical exploration by James Cone, you see how the cross at Calvary has served as an aid and hope for the black American society as they came to terms with the symbol of the lynching tree both figuratively and literally. And because one can lynch a person without a tree or a rope, the lynching tree remains an indicting rod for the white American church back then when juxtaposed with the centrality of the cross in the Christian faith.
The Cross and The Lynching Tree is a small volume (166 pages without the copious references) that packs a tremendous punch. In it, James Cone outlines not just the history of the lynching tree but how the centrality of the cross and Jesus’ crucifixion served as an anchor and source of hope as black Americans faced the evil of white supremacy depicted in the lynching that went down in America’s south. Just as the crucifixion of criminals on a cross in the Roman Empire was an instrument reserved for insurrectionists and rebels, white supremacists used lynching to instil fear and shame in those who dared to rebel against her dignity of slavery and racism. The fact that the cross was (and still is) God’s critique of power with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat emboldened the black American church to face up to slavery and its offshoots like the lynching tree. Ironically, the white church was largely ignorant of the reflection of the cross as it showed up in the lynching tree. James Cone was particularly critical of Reinhold Niebuhr who despite his theological prowess was unable to expound that while the cross symbolized God’s supreme love for human life, the lynching tree was the most terrifying symbol of hate in America. The lukewarmness of church figures like Reinhold Niebuhr is a criticism that James Cone repeatedly returns to and it is a very poignant one. A criticism that when evaluated fully, exposes the hypocrisy of the white American church and criticism that reminds one of the Afrikaans church in South Africa during the height of apartheid. They found reasons to justify racial segregation and the subjugation of blacks in their own land. Most interestingly, James Con’s criticism of Reinhold Niebuhr reminds me of the difficulty I still have with Paul’s letter to Philemon in the New Testament. I have struggled to reconcile the content of that letter with Paul’s message of the new birth and the kingdom of God. Why was he not bolder in denouncing slavery in that letter. Why did he not tell Philemon that Onesimus was not an object to be owned and that in God’s kingdom there was no master nor slave?
The Cross and The Lynching Tree is an impactful book that looks back in history and reveals the hypocrisy of a part of the American church, the struggles and hope of another part of the church and both revelations are through the prism of the cross. It is thoughtful, provocative and instructive, all at once.