Friday, August 26, 2016

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

Abacus, 2016, 512pp 

More summer holiday reading. Still on the theme of our Rome/Venice half term break.

Ever read the second half of Romans 1 and thought, 'Hey, Paul, that's laying it on a bit strong'? I mean, all that stuff about idolatry, sexual immorality, hatred, murder and the like. Surely those old Romans weren't that bad? Worse, actually. The apostle was sparing his readers' blushes. Holland doesn't.

In his latest historical blockbuster the historian tells the tale of the House of Caesar. Put simply, they weren't very nice people. What Senneca said regarding the worst of them, Caligula, might well be applied to the rest in some measure, 'Nature produced demonstrate just how far unlimited vice can go when combined with unlimited power.'

Holland unfolds the story of Augustus' dynasty with his customary flair for writing a well researched historical account that is borne along by a surging narrative flow. Full of detail and drama.

By his victory at the decisive battle of Philippi, Gaius Octavius brought an end to the civil wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar. He then  claimed for himself the  ultimate prize in Rome. While Augustus (as Gaius became) paid lip service to the traditions of the Republic, he accrued to himself the powers of an absolute monarch. Anyone who stood in his way was eliminated. Plotters and would-be rivals were ruthlessly dispatched. Those who succeeded him; Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero followed suit.

You think the jostling for position among leading Tories after the Brexit vote was sharp elbowed; Gove and Johnson and all that? Playground fisticuffs compared with the deadly goings on in the House of Caesar.

Holland's work could be read as a meditation on human nature. An extended commentary on the saying, 'Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.' That certainly rings true for the Caesars. Not even their nearest and dearest were spared. Brothers had their sisters murdered, uncles their nephews and nieces. In the case of Nero, he had his own mother bumped off and in a fit of temper battered his pregnant wife, Poppaea to death. To say nothing of how they treated their enemies.

Ovid, for ever wanting to push the boundaries of taste and decency said, 'We always want what we're not allowed'. A profound commentary on human nature. Augustus passed a law against adultery, and yet demanded that his sexual appetites be sated by a steady supply of nubile young women. Tiberius posed as an upstanding embodiment of old Roman virtue, yet spent his last days living out his depraved sexual fantasies. Caligula openly reveled in excess of all kinds. Nero tried to replace the wife he murdered with a male eunuch.

Ovid was right. In his Letter to the Romans Paul wrote, "Now the law came in to increase the trespass" (Romans 5:20). The divine 'thou shalt not' provokes the response 'why shouldn't I?' Paul testified to own experience of this, "Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet.'” (Romans 7:7).

But hang on a minute. Augustus and co didn't exactly have the Ten Commandments inscribed on their villa walls. How can they be said to be deliberately transgressing the law? A clue may be found in Ovid's statement cited above. His 'allowed' suggests moral force. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 argues that pagans knew right from wrong, and yet deliberately chose what was wrong; idols over God, unrighteousness over righteousness, what was unnatural over the natural etc.

The apostle elaborates in Romans 2:12-16. God had 'by nature' written the law on the hearts of Gentiles and their consciences bore witness to that law, accusing or excusing them accordingly. The problem wasn't that Ovid and Caligula didn't know any better when it came to immoral conduct. Rather, the very prohibitions of the 'light of nature' provoked them to want what they were not allowed. That is part and parcel of the perversity of human sinfulness. The history of the House of Caesar, indeed all human history bears witness to that sad fact.

That is why placing too much power into the hands of one person is always a recipe for disaster. Political systems need checks and balances in order to rein in the worst excesses of human nature. The period of the Roman Republic was hardly a Golden Age of love and peace, but at least the system that Augustine and his line supplanted had some checks and balances.

Dynasty is great background reading for the New Testament period. Holland references Jesus and his teaching and describes the persecution of Christians under Nero. The text is sprinkled with Bible references. Spookily, Holland brings his account to a conclusion with a nod to Revelations 17, which sprung to mind when reading Peter Ackroyd's Venice.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. Sometimes you feel like you are wading through blood and guts. Holland doesn't flinch at detailing the seamier side of Roman life either. A kind of 'Horrible History' for grown-ups, 'The Dreadful Dynasty'?

What made Augustus and his line so dreadful was the rampant power of human sinfulness let loose. The Caesars styled themselves as lords of their people and sons of a god. They attained their elevated status by ruthlessly grasping for power and keeping hold of it at all costs. Paul visited Philippi, site of the famous battle and planted a church there. Roman soldiers were given the right to settle in the city, which became a colony of Rome. Members of the church were both citizens of Rome and citizens of heaven. As citizens of heaven they acknowledged another Son of God, Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Philippians 3:20-21. Jesus showed an altogether different attitude to power and prestige to that of the Caesars, Phil 2:5-11. He who was in the form of God took the form of a slave to die for his people. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place of honour in the universe.

The apostle wrote to the believers in Philippi that they were to, 'Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus'. They were to eschew selfish ambition and seek honour through humility and service, Philippians 2:3-4. For the Caesars, especially Caligula and Nero, overweening pride came before a terrible fall. The Christian gospel turns the world upside down by teaching that down is the only way up. As Jesus taught, "The meek shall inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5).

As he wrote his letter to the Romans, Paul sensed the vulnerability of the Christian community under Nero. What chance did they have against the brutal princeps of Rome? Yet he assured them they they were held in the grip of something more powerful than the spite of the Emperor. Nero might label them as enemies of mankind and have them thrown to the lions, doused in pitch and set alight, but nothing would be able to "separate them from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35-39).

The House that Caesar built lies in bloodsoaked ruins. Its legions have long perished. Its monstrous deeds stand condemned by history. The kingdom of the wolf is no more. The Lamb is in the midst of the throne. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd

Vintage, 2010, 498pp

Venice. I confess that I've spent longer getting acquainted with the city through Ackroyd's book than in the actual place. Strange that it was on the sun scorched beaches of the Algarve that I got to know more about Venice than when we visited the place.

We were only there for a few days as May ebbed away and June began to flow. One half of a Rome/Venice  split break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

Sarah and I left having been entranced by the Serene City,  determined to drop by again sometime.

Revisiting Venice with Ackroyd as a guide has added retrospective depth and interest to our fleeting stay. 

If depth is the right word for a city intent on sliding down the surface of things.

Ackroyd peers through the mists of time to trace the myth-shrouded origins of Venice. Founded by people seeking refuge from Barbarian hordes, the city rose from the sea on the back of countless wooden piles, driven into the ocean bed.

Numerous islets were melded into one island city. Ancient rivers and streams became the arterial canals that made Venice throb with life.

The very existence of the city is an act of defiance against the forces of nature. The sea ever threatening to return it to the marshy bog from whence it came. The siren's call alerts Venetians to the danger of flood. In 1966, the year of my birth, a great tidal deluge saw the  waters rise by almost 2 metres, inundating many properties. Cue renewed fear and  foreboding over the city's future.

A sense of being under threat from the elements helped to unite the populace from the beginning, making the people willing subjects of an intrusive political system, headed by the doge. Only as a united body could they hold out against the sea. Against all comers.

Venice exists distinct from and above the sea. It must. Yet it could not exist apart from the sea. Its buildings are clad in limestone and marble, products both of the force of the sea. Venice is famous for its glassware, especially the island of Murano. Ackroyd describes glass as 'material sea'. The light captured on canvas by the great painters of Venice shimmers and glitters like light dancing on the waves of the sea.

From the start Venice was a trading city. Sea trade. Merchant ships sailed from east to west and back, laden with all manner of goods, exotic and ordinary. Vast fortunes were made. Venice became a hive of industry, building ships at unprecedented speed in the Arsenal.

The juxtaposition of East and West can be seen to best effect in Saint Mark's Basilica. A Roman Catholic Church replete with golden icons and Orthodox domes. The four horses that adorn the top of the entrance way were plundered from Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade. 

Sliding down the surface of things. Venice was synonymous for its processions, carnivals and masked balls. Cassanova and all that. The politics of the city in its Republican heyday was as theactrical as any play or opera. Venice was a place to see and be seen. Today it's in danger of existing only to be gazed at and serve as a splendid backdrop for tourists' selfies.

Its empire was not the expression of some noble idea of bringing enlightened civilisation to other poor, benighted lands.Trade was all. Careful diplomacy and when necessary a striking show of arms were deployed to that end.

The chapters vividly describing Venice's voracious appetite for trade put me on mind of Revelation 17-18. There John the Divine ransacks the old prophets' denunciation of Babylon, Tyre and Sidon to depict Rome and through Rome, the world. Her rapacious trade, bloodthirsty violence and seductive harlotry made the city ripe for a fall. Venice too is here. She used to sell to the world, now she merely sells herself. The artists of Venice loved colour. Titian-like, John shows us 'a woman clothed in purple and scarlet, the great harlot who is seated on many waters.' Do the campanile bells ring at that description, I wonder?

Venice is the very epitome of a city. 'Pure City' as Ackroyd calls it. Cities are the pinnacle of human achievement. They show what is possible under what Calvinist theologians called 'common grace'. Venice had its finely tuned political system, innovative industries, magnificent architecture, high arts, and enriching trade. To this day it really is a dazzling place. But you can't help notice that there is something slightly impure about it. Murky, even. The city's focus is on itself, lost Narcissus-like in its own watery reflection. Appearance is everything. This is what the Bible calls the 'world', which is strangely attractive and yet repellent. Ackroyd can't quite hide his moral distaste for a city he evidently loves so much.

In one of his letters, John warns his readers not to love the world, 'the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions'. 1 John 2:15-17. He could have been describing Venice. The same words could be used to describe all cities, towns and villages,  for they are each the sum of their fallen human parts. Few cities match Venice for stately grandeur, yet it floats precariously on a grimy bog.

You can get lost in Venice. Spirituality and literally. We did in the latter sense; traipsing around seemingly endless streets in search of Saint Mark's Square, but never seeming to get anywhere. It was comforting to read that  Ackroyd has had the same experience. Only on water is it possible to find your way around. Via speedy vaporetta.

Better still by taking a gondola ride. At night. The darkness punctuated by points of gentle light. The gondolier's friendly patter, 'This is the Bridge of is Marco Polo's house..I love my Venice.' The sound of water under the boat. The splashing of oar in canal. Then silence. At that moment Venice becomes the Serene City once more. You couldn't think of anything more romantic

But the moment of peace is only temporary. There is money to be made. We had to engage in negotiations before our ride. Not on the price. There is no negotiating on price. I didn't have enough Euros left. That wasn't a problem said our gondolier. He knew of a charge-free cash point on route and could pause to let me get some money out. He knew aright, and so we had our ride. 

Maybe he'd been 'had' by British tourists doing a runner before. I had no intention of doing so once we had finished the tour, but our perfectly affable gondolier seemed worried that we might. 'You pay me!' he anxiously cried out after us. There speaks Venice.

On my study wall hangs a fine print of Titian's portrait of John Calvin as an older man. At lest he looks old as depicted. Lined face, graying beard, thoughtful, melancholy eyes. Although I discovered after buying the picture that the image may not be that of the Genevan Reformer after all. Just some random old bloke. The words 'Giovanni Calvino' were added later, apparently. In Venice not even Calvin is all that he seems.

The city was happy to tolerate Protestants. Trade links were forged with Holland, Germany and England. Cromwell's ambassador hoped that Venice would come to embrace the Reformation. But it was not to be.

If Venice may be likened to a prostitute, somewhat incongruously the city was wholly devoted to worshipping the Virgin Mary. Images of her are everywhere; churches, bridges, public spaces, private homes. Although tetchily independent of the Pope in Rome, Venice was thoroughly Roman Catholic in its Marian piety. Ackroyd quotes the impressions of seventeenth century evangelical visitor to Venice, William Bedell, who complained of the 'multitude of idolatrous statues, pictures, reliques, in every corner'. Idols. What the Old Testament prophets denounced as 'whoring after other gods'.  Machiavelli commented that Italians were 'irreligious and corrupt', to which Ackroyd adds the rejoinder that Venetians were 'religious and yet corrupt'.

For all that, what is to compare with the city which sits in decaying splendor on many waters? Its maze-like streets,  weave through the city like corridors through time. Every building seems pregnant with history; from the old houses that flank the Grand Canal to the magnificent doge's palace. Saint Mark's piazza at night. Disclosing its beauty twice, once to the direct gaze of its visitors and again as reflected in the waters that gather darkly on its flagstones. While the music plays. If the stones of Venice echo the words, 'pay me' they also resound to the sound of of Vivaldi.

But this town is becoming like a ghost town. Tourists staying on the island way outnumber residents, many of whom have drifted  to the mainland. The population has dropped from 174,000 in 1951 to 55,000 today. If the trend continues there will be hardly any local people left on the island. Venice will cease to be a living city.  Little more than a glorified museum. Existing simply to be looked at. Sad, but maybe there's something quite fitting in that. Recent news reports speak of residents fighting back, however, putting up signs saying, "Tourists go away!" Understandable, no doubt. But like that's going to happen. Venetians of all people should know better than to try and hold back the tide.

Ackroyd is a fine guide to the city. He seems to have captured the very essence of the place. Even at its most solid in brick, glass and stone, Venice sits uneasy, foreboding; for its essence is that of the sea. Restless, fickle, devouring.

The author struggles to see any purpose in it all beyond the primal instinct to survive. He discerns no guiding hand of Providence determining the rise and fall of nations, only a bewildering coming together of innumerable causes. As Calvin would have told him, the Lord works through secondary causes to advance his will. But his ways are often a mystery to us and  admit no trite interpretation. The psalmist testified, 'Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.' (Psalm 77:19).

Of one thing we can be sure. Contrary to its sometime vaunted claim, crumbling Venice is not the New Jerusalem. According to the Book of Revelation, that Pure City will not ascend from the sea, but descend from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband. Then the sea will be no more. (Revelation 21:1-4). We read that the glory and honour of the nations will be brought to the City of God. (Revelation 21:26). Does that mean there is some hope yet for sea-lapped Venice?

The blurb on the back cover of Ackroyd's book suggests that reading it is a holiday in itself. Reading it while on holiday perhaps made it doubly so. But it's one thing to study Venice and quite another to see her. Before the sea is no more and the cites of this world sink to dust and dregs, we would like one day to return and gaze upon the forlorn beauty of Venice.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Armação de Pêra

Right, then. Sarah and I are off to Armação de Pêra on the Algarve for a bit. Looking forward to chilling, swimming, exploring and reading, etc. Only means of communication: speaking loudly and gesticulating wildly at the natives. Usually works. I'll hit 50 while we're away. Had better check holiday insurance to make sure we're covered for a midlife crisis. Grateful that Sarah's shingles cleared up in time for us to go. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Growing Smaller Churches talks now online

The three addresses from this helpful Grace Baptist Partnership conference are now available to stream or download from our church website:

Nigel Hoad - ‘Evangelism in a smaller church
Barry King  - Leadership in a smaller church
Jim Sayers - ‘Mission and the smaller church

It was an encouraging time. Not only in terms of the talks, but also in having an opportunity to engage with others who are serving in smaller church situations. So, if you couldn't join us on the day, or fancy a recap you're welcome to have a listen: Growing Smaller Churches conference

Monday, August 08, 2016

How (Not) to Be Secular by James K. A. Smith

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor,
by James K. A. Smith, Eerdmans, 2014, 148pp

It's commonplace to say that we live in a secular age. At least, 'we' in the West do. But what do we mean by 'secular' and how may Christians bear witness to their faith in the current existential environment? Well, Charles Taylor has written an influential book on just those things, A Secular Age. But it's a thumping big tome, weighing in at nigh on 800 pages. Can't be doing with that? Me neither. Slackers aren't we? Never mind, James K. A. Smith has done the job for us and produced a kind of 'bluffer's guide' to Taylor's work. It's more than that, but essentially he offers a neat summary of A Secular Age, with some insights of his own and a little critical engagement thrown in. Handy, eh?

Christians need to get to grips with all this secular stuff, as secularism is rapidly becoming the normative worldview in Western culture. As a result lack of belief in God is the natural default position for many/most. In the past it was the other way around and atheists rather than believers were the odd-bods. But that ain't the case just now. A recent survey showed that for the first time the number of people in the UK with 'no religion' (48%) has outstripped the number who regard themselves as Christians (44%) (see here). 

Now, according to Taylor's taxonomy 'secular' has three main meanings: Secular1 - as in this temporal, earthly realm in which some people pursue 'secular' vocations such as butcher, baker, candlestick maker, as opposed to religious ones like monk, priest, bishop. A bit medieval, that, I know. Secular2 which involved the disenchantment of the world in the face of Enlightenment-inspired empirical science and technological advancement. Out with faith, in with reason and all that. Religious belief pushed to the sidelines of life. Then there's Secular3, which is kind of where we are now. This is the world of exclusive humanism in which anything beyond the imminent frame is eclipsed. Human flourishing is sought at the this worldly level alone. In that context belief in God simply doesn't make sense. That kind of religious hokum is so last millennium. 

But that's not the end of the story. The secular self, safely buffered from transcendence within the imminent frame, finds itself strangely haunted by a sense that there must be something more to life than this. The writer Julian Barnes confessed, "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him." Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson sighed, "All my life I have sought something I cannot name." (I supplied that quote, not Smith - got it from Twitter). We also find that sort of sentiment in some of the more thoughtful examples of modern pop music,

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don't, I don't know what that will be
I'll get back to you someday soon you will see

What's my name, what's my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
(Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes)

Such 'cross-pressures' reveal a longing for transcendence on the part of the Secular3 soul. This can't be satisfied by what Taylor calls 'subtraction stories' that offer a reductionist account of our lived experience. Whether of the type offered by 'new atheists' like Richard Dawkins, or religious Fundamentalists. Neither is it simply a matter of marshaling the intellectual arguments of Christian apologetics. What we have to do is tell a story that makes sense of our cross-pressured existence. At least more sense than other 'takes' on reality, including the Secular3 one. 

Smith also references Radiohead somewhere, but I can't track it down just now. Decent taste in music, that man. I was interested to see this New York Times piece on Searching for Transcendence with Radiohead. More cross-pressures.  

Taylor's emphasis on speaking to the secular person's felt 'sense' of things as opposed to trying to reason them back to belief makes him something of a self-confessed Romantic; pitting sensibility against rationality. I'm all for a bit of Brahms and Bruckner, but Romanticism has its limits, as did the cold-eyed rationalism of the Enlightenment against which it reacted. As a Christianised apologetic strategy it has its flaws. Taylor's approach could easily be open to the postmodern riposte, 'I'm glad that you feel that way about God and the Christian faith, but that's not how it feels to me'. Reasoned argument on the cogency of Christian truth claims has its place in our witness, as well as an appeal to more experiential factors. 

At least judging from Smith's summary, Taylor is better at helping his readers get a feel for what it's like to live with the Secular3 sensibility than he is at showing the way out of it. Taylor is a Roman Catholic. His touchstone is Francis of Assisi rather than the biblical gospel. Smith explains his outlook,  "Tell me what you think of Saint Francis, Taylor suggests, and I'll tell you what your 'unthought' is." An 'unthought' is a "pretheoretical perspective that comes with a certain sensibility and outlook". (See p. 81). 

But, if anything, the 'unthought' perspective of cross-pressured Secular3 unbelief is best accounted for by Reformed presuppositional apologetics. Arguing along the lines of Romans 1, this approach holds that human beings cannot entirely eschew an inbuilt sense of God. We may try and retreat into an exclusively imminent zone, but cannot entirely suppress the knowledge of God. Barnes, Thompson, and Fleet Foxes testify to that. As old Augustine put it, 'You have made us for yourself and we can find no rest until we find our rest in you.' The Secular3 'take' on reality is consciously deficient because it cannot account for the fact that God has "placed eternity in their hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Not that belief in God removes all tensions, questions and challenges. Just like that. It was Ecclesiastes I cited. 

Yet Taylor sees the Reformation as part of the problem, rather than a gospel-retrieving movement that offers a solution. Started with Luther & Calvin denouncing the superstitions of popery; idolatry, invocation of the saints and what have you, and ended up with a disenchanted world that paved the way for the God-free zone of hardline secularism. I really don't know about that. At its best the Reformed theological vision smashed the secular/sacred divide and suffused the whole of life with divine glory. Pastors and ploughboys, ministers and mums were all servants of God. Sweeping a floor was as God honouring  an activity as preaching a sermon when carried out by a believer in the name of Jesus. The superstitions of the Old Religion's 'enchanted' life had to make way for a holistically sanctified one.

It seems that for Taylor the Reformed tradition lacks the deep spiritual sensibility needed to speak to our secular age. He sees it largely a shimmeringly cool system of theology. A world of excarnate ideas, loftily floating above the messiness of flesh and blood reality. But that is a 'subtraction story' if there ever was one. We also need to factor in Reformation spirituality, which is all about encountering the God of the Gospel as he draws near to us in our brokenness by his Word and through his Spirit. That takes place not in individualistic isolation, but in and through the life and worship of the church, spilling over into the whole of existence. The tendency towards excarnation might be better seen in the world-denying, flesh-mortifying  asceticism of Roman monasticism than the Reformation's call to whole life discipleship. 

In terms of Christian witness, the Reformation beckons the church back to the gospel of grace as disclosed in Holy Scripture. The Bible's Big Story of God/Creation/Fall/Redemption/Renewal makes sense of the glory and grime of reality. It explains our longing for transcendence and the failure to find it. Christians can testify to Secular3 men and women that inhabiting this Story offers a better 'take' on lived reality than attempting to withdraw into a wholly imminent realm, only to find that space too is haunted by a sense of God.

The gospel speaks to the ache and aspiration of the human heart more satisfyingly than any 'cross-pressured' secular perspective. We cannot escape from the transcendent, or find transcendent meaning within the imminent frame. Not even in a Radiohead concert. But in the person of Christ we encounter God in the flesh, the perfect union of transcendence and imminence. Through his redeeming work sin-broken people, dwelling in the imminent realm of time and space, can be reconciled to a transcendent and gloriously holy God. In other words, that 'something'  for which Hunter S. Thompson sought, but could not name is in fact someone; Jesus.

To sum up, this book is certainly worth a read. It will help Christians to understand the Secular3 mentality and encourage thought on how to engage secular-minded people with the gospel. But it's a bit like seeing a Doctor who correctly diagnoses your ailment, only to prescribe the wrong medicine. Ain't going to make you any better. In his conclusion Smith shows that the success of Taylor's project can be measured in so far as secular types come to see that all along they've been 'waiting for Saint Francis' (p. 139). What? Like that's going to help. 'Waiting for God in Christ' is the thing. It's the gospel that shows us how (not) to be secular. 

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

This was my 'holiday read' when Sarah and I went to Rome and Venice during the May-June half term break, but it's only now I've had the chance to jot down a few thoughts. 

If Robinson's earlier Gilead novels cover more or less the same timescale, Lila is a kind of prequel. Readers of Gilead and Home may have wondered just how elderly pastor John Ames came to marry the much younger Lila and have a child with her. Damaged and uncultivated, she doesn't exactly conform to the expected pattern of a small town pastor's wife.

Well, this is her story. It's a harrowing story at that. but one that is also touched by grace. Lila is pretty much a novelistic attempt at exploring Ezekiel 16. The chapter with its theme of the Lord's care for an abandoned child is a motif to which Robinson returns again and again as Lila puzzles over the meaning of this disconcerting passage. She was the neglected child, but in good old Ames she found the love that slowly healed her broken soul. Ezekiel's flashes of lightning and peals of thunder reverberate around the book. 

Typical of Robinson the pace is slow and meditative. Gradually the narrative unfolds that throws Lila and the Reverend together. Meanwhile the fragile, yet life-hardened young woman reflects on her troubled past. If you're after a pacey Grisham-style page-turner, then you'd better stick with Grisham. Robinson offers something more captivating and enlightening as Lila and Ames tentatively learn to love and trust each other. 

The novelist offers an insight into the human condition; broken to the point of despair by pain and sorrow, but capable by the grace of God of finding love and restored hope in place of bitterness. Her unflinching vision is more Book of Job than 'Smile, Jesus loves you'. 

Robinson is a self-confessed admirer of John Calvin. John Ames and his dear friend and fellow-minister Robert Boughton are often found discussing the finer points of the Reformer's theology. But for Robinson it's Calvin as reinterpreted by Karl Barth. Ames falters when Lila presses him on whether unrepentant sinners will be condemned to judgement. Lila's view of heaven towards the end of the book seems to edge in the direction of apokatastasis, going beyond what Calvin (and the Bible for that matter) would sanction. 

I wonder whether this will be the last we see of Robinson's Gilead? She can't seem to drag herself away from the place and its world of characters who, although flawed, damaged, and questioning, are not beyond the touch of grace. Just like us. 

Inspired by our previous holiday destinations I plan to pack Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland and Venice: Pure City, by Peter Ackroyd when (God willing) we head for the Algarve later this week. Also Iain Murray's latest biography, J. C. Ryle: Dare to Stand Alone.