My Favourite Reads of 2017, Writing Update and Scribe

It’s been a hectic twelve months, and the forthcoming year looks to be as full.

During 2017 I’ve spent much of my non-working hours grafting away on the first draft of my second book, Living The Dream? By the beginning of December that draft was in the proverbial bag, and it’s currently with some of my compatriots for preliminary review/endorsement. My hope for Living The Dream? is to seek out a literary agent and pursue a more traditional publishing route. So there’s still a long, long road ahead. But hopefully, by the close of this year, it’s material form won’t be too far away.

Surprisingly though, the beginning of this year finds me working on my Opus one again (Love: Expressed). At the back end of 2017 I was blessed to receive an unexpected invitation to contribute to an excellent online Biblical Studies/Discipleship resource called Scribe. So for the next few weeks I’ll have my hands full with breaking Love: Expressed’s chapters down into bite-sized chunks for some video modules that will be filmed in February.

Scribe itself will be launching it’s platform this summer, and will provide a wide range of free, online courses which will bring robust training to the church in an accessible form that aims to deepen one’s understanding of faith and enhance the journey of discipleship. It’s ecumenical in its approach, hosting a range of voices and traditions. And it’s video format will be perfect for personal study and also for group use in Church house groups etc. As soon as it launches, I’ll let you know.

So watch this space, as 2018 seems to be full of new and unexpected roads for me!

For obvious reasons then, I’ve not really had the chance to do much blogging this year. To be honest, if I do get the chance to write, I’d rather be writing a book than a blog.

Sorry 😦

But I’ve still been determined as ever to read and study as much as I can. And my reading this year has taken me to some fascinating and sobering territories.

Which makes this specific post all the more difficult, because I’ve read many great books this year – many that I’ve given 5* reviews and shouted about on my social media platforms.

Trying to to select a few favourites from a host of favourites has been a headache, to say the least. So I feel it necessary to say a BIG THANK YOU to all the authors whose works I have immersed myself in over the past twelve months. And for the sake of those books that haven’t made it on here, please check out my account! (Also, if you’re on Goodreads, feel free to send me a friend request).

In no particular order then, here’s my favourite reads of 2017 (but if you’re after a favourite, it would certainly be Claudia Rankine!);

[Please note, instead of putting my own thoughts here (which can be found in the review sections of Amazon and Goodreads etc.), I’ve provided the books own synopsis/endorsement.]

Enjoy and explore!

Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, by Jonathan Sacks.

Despite predictions of continuing secularisation, the twenty-first century has witnessed a surge of religious extremism and violence in the name of God.

In this powerful and timely book, Jonathan Sacks explores the roots of violence and its relationship to religion, focusing on the historic tensions between the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Drawing on arguments from evolutionary psychology, game theory, history, philosophy, ethics and theology, Sacks shows how a tendency to violence can subvert even the most compassionate of religions. Through a close reading of key biblical texts at the heart of the Abrahamic faiths, Sacks then challenges those who claim that religion is intrinsically a cause of violence, and argues that theology must become part of the solution if it is not to remain at the heart of the problem.

This book is a rebuke to all those who kill in the name of the God of life, wage war in the name of the God of peace, hate in the name of the God of love, and practise cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

For the sake of humanity and the free world, the time has come for people of all faiths and none to stand together and declare: Not In God’s Name.

The War on Women: And the Brave Ones who Fight Back, by Sue Lloyd-Roberts

In 1973, Sue Lloyd-Roberts joined ITN as a news trainee and went on to be one of the UK’s first video-journalists to report from the bleak outposts of the Soviet Union. Travelling as a tourist, she also gained access to some of the world’s most impenetrable places like China, Tibet and Burma. During her 40-year-long career she witnessed the worst atrocities inflicted on women across the world. But in observing first-hand the war on the female race she also documented their incredible determination to fight back.

The War on Women brings to life the inconceivable and dangerous life Sue led. It tells the story of orphan Mary Merritt who, age sixteen, instead of being released from the care of nuns was interned by them in a Magdalen Laundry and forced to work twelve hours a day six days a week, without pay, for over a decade. She gives voice to Maimouna, the woman responsible for taking over her mother’s role as the village female circumciser in The Gambia and provides a platform for the 11-year-old Manemma, who was married off in Jaipur at the age of six. From the gender pay gap in Britain to forced marriage in Kashmir and from rape as a weapon of war to honour killings, Sue has examined humankind’s history and takes us on a journey to analyse the state of women’s lives today. Most importantly she acts as a mouthpiece for the brave ones; the ones who challenge wrongdoing; the ones who show courage no matter how afraid they are; the ones who are combatting violence across the globe; the ones who are fighting back.

Sue sadly died in 2015, shortly after writing this book, today she is widely recognised as one of the most acclaimed television journalists of her generation. This book is the small tribute to the full and incredible life she lived and through it these women’s voices are still being heard.

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

In this moving, critical and fiercely intelligent collection of prose poems, Claudia Rankine examines the experience of race and racism in Western society through sharp vignettes of everyday discrimination and prejudice, and longer meditations on the violence – whether linguistic or physical – which has impacted the lives of Serena Williams, Zinedine Zidane, Mark Duggan and others.

Citizen weaves essays, images and poetry together to form a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in an ostensibly ‘post-race’ society.

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News, by Brian Zahnd

God s attitude toward you is one of unwavering affection. You have nothing to fear from God. Rather than constantly being disappointed by our failures and mistakes, God looks with unconditional love upon all his sons and daughters. Even the prodigals.

“Brian Zahnd walks boldly into the violent propensity of so much Christian theology and preaching that has wounded so many people, a propensity in which he himself has participated. He not only shows what bad, irresponsible theology this is, pervasive as it continues to be; he exposes the ‘hackneyed trope of dispensationalism’ that feeds so much worldly violence and that authorizes so much wounding. But more than that, in his poetic mode, Zahnd invites to an alternative that is grounded not in ‘Biblicism’ but in the reality of Jesus who embodies the inexplicable love of God that passes all human understanding. Zahnd writes as one emancipated to evangelical joy. He invites his readers to walk with him into such a God-given vocation that honors the God of love and that loves the neighbor.”

–Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (Penguin Classics Edition), by Mary Shelly

A terrifying vision of scientific progress without moral limits, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein leads the reader on an unsettling journey from the sublime beauty of the Swiss alps to the desolate waste of the arctic circle. This Penguin Classics edition is edited with an introduction and notes by Maurice Hindle.

Obsessed with the idea of creating life itself, Victor Frankenstein plunders graveyards for the material with which to fashion a new being, shocking his creation to life with electricity. But this botched creature, rejected by its creator and denied human companionship, sets out to destroy Frankenstein and all that he holds dear. Mary Shelley’s chilling gothic tale was conceived when she was only eighteen, living with her lover Percy Shelley near Lord Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. It would become the world’s most famous work of Gothic horror, and Frankenstein’s monster an instantly-recognisable symbol of the limits of human creativity.

Based on the third edition of 1831, this volume contains all the revisions Mary Shelley made to her story, as well as her 1831 introduction and Percy Shelley’s preface to the first edition. This revised edition includes as appendices a select collation of the texts of 1818 and 1831 together with ‘A Fragment’ by Lord Byron and Dr John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre: A Tale’.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

Your body is teeming with tens of trillions of microbes. It’s an entire world, a colony full of life.

In other words, you contain multitudes.

They sculpt our organs, protect us from diseases, guide our behaviour, and bombard us with their genes. They also hold the key to understanding all life on earth.

In I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong opens our eyes and invites us to marvel at ourselves and other animals in a new light, less as individuals and more as thriving ecosystems.

You’ll never think about your mind, body or preferences in the same way again.


Some brief thoughts on being Spirit-filled (Part 2);

The Holy Spirit is not merely a conduit of gifts, like a postman delivering parcels.

The Spirit is the source of divine life within us, enabling us to be the vehicle of God’s expression into the world. And the emphasis of that vehicle is not about abilities or spectacle, but about being more human; I.e image bearers of the divine.

That’s not to say that the gifts aren’t important, but they are not primary.

Loving as Christ loved, being transformed into his likeness, bearing his humanity; this is the primary evidence.

This evidence isn’t an individual, private movement and manifestation either. It’s corporate and corporeal. It’s body, and can only ever be. It’s shown in a love for one another; our neighbour and our enemies.

The Gifts of the Spirit aren’t given for spectacle, but for the building up and the movement of the body of Christ.

If we’re are not moving towards loving neighbour and enemy, as Christ did, but we’re full of spectacle, then maybe we’ve took a wrong turn.

Maybe, the one who is truly “Baptised in the Spirit” is the one who is willing to pour out their life for other, not the one who can speak in tongues?

Further to that, maybe the gifts only ever function fully as we pour ourselves out for others?

The Spiritual Gifts are always about other, not me.

They’re about Christ’s body, not personal progression.

They’re about healing humanity.

They are ‘Charis-mata’; grace gifts. They are not God’s endorsement of individuals or congregations, nor trophies, nor medals of honour

The gifts of the Spirit were given to aid us in the praxis of the Spirit’s fruit. But the gifts aren’t the only or primary means of praxis.

There is also serving, visiting, comforting, listening, speaking for the voiceless, meeting needs, forgiving, justice…and so much more.

It’s not about being “gifted” in the Spirit, but living in the Spirit of Christ.

So when individuals complain that the gifts are not exercised enough in a church meeting, I wonder. Because the reality is that it isn’t about whether we exercise the gifts, but about us excercising the life of Christ amongst us.

Even as Pentecostals, shouldn’t we worry more about justice and mercy etc. than tongues etc?

Surely the absence of human flourishing is more of a marker for the absence of the Spirit’s work in our churches, over gifts?

I.e. Is the church Christ-like internally and externally?

Great, we speak in tongues, but do we love one another? What are we like with the marginalised? Do we play at empire building, or are we an example of Kingdom ethics?

To paraphrase Paul, “Great, so you can speak in tongues! But without love, we’re still a nuisance to humanity and not a blessing” (1 Cor 13:1)

Maybe, when someone says the Spirit doesn’t “operate” here anymore, I should reply, “have we stopped learning to love as God loves?”

Our division (and biased) for one movements of the Spirit over another is therefore unbalanced, and maybe unhealthy, as we can end up looking for spectacle instead of seeking to be Christ-like.

We always want a supernatural community, when we should equally be desiring a natural one.

Some brief thoughts on being Spirit-filled (Part 1)

As a Pentecostal, I was taught that being Spirit-filled was about tongues, words of knowledge, prophecy etc.

However, I’ve learnt this isn’t the case at all.

I’m not a cessationist, but Spirit-filled is more evident in loving others, walking humbly & living prophetically.

Being Spirit-filled is about learning from and exhibiting the life of Christ in our communities, not being able to say “Kassandar” et al.

It’s possible to speak in tongues, as the Apostle Paul tells us, and still be a menace to society.

It’s possible to make prophetic sounds but still be resistant to the prophetic orchestrations of the Spirit’s movement towards other.

In short, I couldn’t care less about the gifts you excercise or excel in.

If you’re racist, sexist, supremacist, xenophobic etc. you’re not Spirit-filled.

If you’re moved by Prejudice, Hate, Greed, Ignorance and a desire for control, you’re not Spirit-filled.

If you’re moved by compassion, mercy and humility out of your inward-looking perspective and toward other, now we’re getting somewhere.

I’m speaking to myself here, too.

I long for the Spirit to move. But I long for the Spirit to move us towards the marginalised, the oppressed, and the broken, not just to a greater number of people speaking in tongues.

I long for the Spirit to move us toward creating community; that the Spirit will guide us in becoming Christ-like. That we’ll learn to be fathers to the fatherless, and how to gather, as a family, around the lonely.

Come Holy Spirit, come.

The Clock is Ticking…

Well, that went quick!

Two years ago today I published my first book, Love: Expressed with WestBow Press (A Division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan).

Which means, scarily, that there’s only ONE YEAR left of the book’s three year publication contract with WestBow. I’ll be honest, I’m not too certain of what to do with it after that. Especially as it’s self-published and self-funded, and I’ll have to make any decisions about it in view of my other writing projects. In other words, if you planned on getting the book in either paper or e-reader versions, the clock is now ticking; T – 12 months to go!

Whatever happens, I’m still blessed with the feedback I’ve had over the past two years—Thank you! Also, huge thanks again for the endorsement given by my bishop from across the pond, Brian Zahnd. And I’m still extremely grateful for the beautiful gift of a foreword from my brother Jonathan Martin.

Your support and encouragement has meant a lot to me!

For those few who might be wondering, the first draft of the second book will be complete before the year’s out. It’s working title is: Living The Dream?: The Problem With Escapist, Exhibitionist, Empire Building Christianity. (It’s also the reason why I haven’t blogged in a while).

My hope is that before 2018 is over, it’ll be in a fit state for publication (maybe with a traditional publishing route). I’ll keep you posted.


Ps. If you’d be tentatively interested in reviewing the second book with the mind to provide an endorsement, please get in touch! And I’ll put your name on the list for an electronic proof-copy after the first set of edits. Thanks.

“Burn them! Burn them all!” – A Pentecost Reflection

“Burn them! Burn them all!” –King Aerys II Targaryen, (aka, “the Mad King”). From George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice saga.

I’ve been writing a lot recently, trying to birth the next book from grey-matter into ink on page.

There’s one particular New Testament story that has been in focus over the past two-three weeks of this process. A story which features prayer, discipleship and, of course, Jesus.

But it’s not a nice story.

Far from it.

It’s a story which takes place in Luke’s gospel (Chapter 9: 46-56), whilst Jesus is on his final journey towards Jerusalem.

For the sake of brevity, and to avoid repeating what I’m writing elsewhere, I’ll skip to the most sinister aspect of the scene.

Jesus has just been refused hospitality by a Samaritan village, and two of the disciples–The brothers James and John (aka, The Sons of Thunder)–bring a horrible, disturbing and genocidal prayer request to Jesus.

They ask permission to call down fire from heaven with the purpose to engulf the entire village–including it’s residents of women, men and children–in a death bringing furnace of divine retribution and vengeance.

Shocking! And that’s from two of Jesus’ followers. Which should surprise us, but these ideas have a nasty way of repeating themselves.

This, John and James believe, is what God is about and how God’s Kingdom comes; through destroying those who stand in their way.

Thankfully, Jesus rebukes them both. (Btw, this a great example of unanswered prayer).

Jesus turns to them and says (to paraphrase), ‘You have no idea of how malignant and dark the desires of your hearts are! God isn’t about dealing out death, but about curating life!’

These guys had missed it. By a long way. Their theology is skewed. Their picture of God’s power, God’s Spirit, God’s authority is perverted and tainted by their nationalism, xenophobia and twisted idea of how power is exercised.

That said, they are not alone. Their request has found its way on to many lips over the rolling centuries; as our intercession and prayers (as well as our open conversations, Facebook posts etc.) about those we see as threats to us and ours, testify.

Especially in recent days.

The idea of a God who heals a fractured and broken world by smiting all those who seek to break it through their terrorising methods, is really appealing. And in my own anger, shock and despair, I find James and John’s sentiments wishing to climb out of my mouth.

But death is incapable of bearing life. Violence will never breed peace. Hate, to quote the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, can never drive out hate.

Now fast-forward a couple of months after this event. And we find James and John getting their request; although, it’s in a very remixed fashion (thankfully).

It’s the feast of Pentecost, and the Sons of Thunder find themselves with the other disciples praying and waiting upon God. When all of a sudden, to use the words of Acts 2 (Acts being the continuation of Luke’s first letter, his Gospel);

‘ …there came a sound from the sky like the roar of a violent wind, which filled the entire house. Then [the disciples] saw what looked like tongues of fire, which separated and came to rest on each of them’

But this *Fire from Heaven* doesn’t reduce them to charred ashes, nor does it brandish them with the power to maim their enemies. This fire falls in order to empower them to preach and to practice the Good News; a message of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, grace and love.

God’s fire falls, but it doesn’t come to destroy life, but to ignite divine life within humanity. The disciples are like tapers–enflamed to touch the world with love and light. All the world; not just the bits they like.

It’s this commissioning experience that would lead John to later write, ‘Let us love one another; because love is from God; and everyone who lives has God as his father and knows God’ (1 John 4:7, CJB).

The same John who once prayed for the horrifying death of others, now encourages us to be led by the Spirit towards love for others. This same John would also write the most loving of all the Gospels; a gospel which continually presents us with a God of love. A love which at its pinnacle is displayed through laying itself down for others.

It’s apparent that the heat of the Holy Spirit had melted the hard places of John’s violent nature.

You see, this is the thing with the Holy Spirit; it consumes our hatred, our bitterness, our desire for vengeance. The Spirit falls, and I find that it is my prejudices, preferences, stereotypes, and my twisted sense of justice which God seeks to annihilate.

I need this right now. I need a baptism in God’s agenda. I need empowerment from above to practice God’s Kingdom ethic, because it’s certainly not going to come from within me.

So to God I pray, ‘Burn them! Burn them all!’

Burn up my hate, my blood lust, my paranoia, my ability to demonise and scapegoat. Burn up anything that leads me away from love; any impulse that leads me to seek to destroy other instead of loving other.

As Spirit-filled people, we are called to unite what is broken and heal what is hurting. We’re to cultivate sacred gardens in barren wastelands; to bring life, and stem the flow of death.

So as we celebrate Pentecost, especially at such times, let us remember that Pentecost has a this-world agenda, not an escapist one. It’s focus is not on sensationalism, but on generating authentic, loving human community; A Spirit-soaked, earthy Humanity which bears the hallmarks of the self-emptying, benevolent God.

Holy Spirit, come.

—Tristan Sherwin, author of *Love: Expressed*.

O Death, Where Is Your Sting

It’s Resurrection Sunday! As such, here’s some beautiful ancient prose to read on this day; An excerpt of John Chryostom’s Paschal Homily;

“He has destroyed death by undergoing death.

He has despoiled hell by descending into hell.

He vexed it even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he cried:

Hell was filled with bitterness when it met Thee face to face below;

​filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing;

​filled with bitterness; for it was mocked;

​filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown;

​filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains.

Hell received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven.

O death, where is your sting?

O hell, where is you victory?

Christ is risen! And you, o death, are annihilated!

Christ is risen! And the evil ones are cast down!

Christ is risen! And the angels rejoice!

Christ is risen! And life is liberated!

Christ is risen! And the tomb is emptied of its dead;

for Christ having risen from the dead,

is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power, now and forerver, and from all ages to all ages. Amen!”
He has risen! 


Header image is entitled ‘Resurrection‘, by Melissia Elisa

Good Friday Reflection; Of Dice And Men

I know, it’s been a very long time since my last blog post. But, in my defence, I’ve been very busy writing the next book. Therefore, as a reflection for Good Friday, and a teaser of what’s to come, what follows is an unedited extract;

Of all the scenes in the bible, there’s one that strikes me as the most poignant and telling.

Jesus has just been stripped naked and nailed to a cross, condemned to die under the torturous process of Roman crucifixion. His beaten and scourged body now finds itself under tremendous pressure as it hangs suspended by its upper limbs, making each and every breath agonising and difficult.

It’s an excruciating way to die—a word which derives its meaning from crucifixion—and it can’t have been at all pleasant to watch. And yet, Jesus’ crucifixion has gathered a crowd of spectators. There’s a mixed assembly of friend and foe, mourners and trolls, gathering about the suffering saviour of Golgotha. The execution’s atmosphere is saturated by a cacophony of tears and jeers, as the sound of genuine lament finds itself discordantly enmeshed with the scoffing and insulting voices of those who wish to get in a last word whilst the Teacher struggles to grab what little breath he can.

However, it’s not just the activities of human weeping and cheering that find themselves being expressed at the cross. Even here, at the place of torture and death, profiteering (mining) flourishes.

The gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all mention the story of the soldiers who crucified Jesus casting lots for his clothes. Jesus’ garments find themselves being distributed equally between the four of them in some silent, mutual compromise until they finally come to his robe. The robe presents them with a problem. The mantle of Jesus somehow disturbs this faux equality; an equality which is reliant on a scapegoat. You see, this is a robe of quality, woven in one seamless piece; far too good to be torn in pieces and shared, or so the accounts tell us.

Which makes me think, if the robe was too good to be torn does that mean the other garments of Jesus were shared by tearing, slashing or ripping them apart into equal portions of scrap material? If so, this division wasn’t about acquiring some new additions to the centurion wardrobe, it was just about depriving someone else of clothing; ‘better we have rags to clean our weapons with, or to wipe ourselves with, then someone else have clothes’.

However, the robe of Christ adds a prophetic tension into the corruption-steeped, amicable division of the spoils of war and colonialism. The robe’s worth keeping, such quality shouldn’t be subjected to violence. So, as a means of keeping the peace—ironically, in the blood-stained shadow of Rome’s symbol of peace—the soldiers decide to cast lots, to throw dice.

To us, this seems to be nice, nonviolent solution to the problem; a fair means of selection. Just like us tossing a coin, or drawing the short-straw? But not everything is what it appears to be on the surface. There’s something subtle being suggested in this act.

When we throw dice today, we understand that it’s a game of statistics; the outcome is strictly chance. If you role a pair of dice one hundred times, eventually percentages should play out and you’ll role a double six. Or maybe not. It’s likely, but never certain. For us, dice is a game of probability. No one controls the outcome, ergo, it’s fair (unless someone plays with loaded dice).

But not in the ancient mindset of the first century citizen. To them, casting lots or throwing dice aren’t just the means of making a decision, but the means of invoking a god’s decision. Superstition highly nuances this game. What results isn’t chance or luck, but divine ordination. God controls the outcome, ergo, what transpires is more than fair, it’s decreed.

Apparently, in this ancient game—which carries ideas which are still prevalent today—it’s God who decides who rises and falls, who succeeds and fails. God is seen on the side of the winner, not the loser. In a roundabout way, it’s God who draws the lines between “us” and “them”; it’s God who blesses and sponsors the competitive instinctive for material progress. God, in this thinking, personally elects the world’s champions; they’re the ones who’ll receive the material award. The divine intervenes and, in this scenario, the victor will walk away with a seamless robe.

What a contrast.

As four roman militia roll dice, invoking the divine to act on their behalf and choose who should be the worthy owner of a fine robe, God hangs bleeding and choking for breath on a cross mere feet away from them. In the shadow of the cross, all this so-called “divine ordination” is exposed for what it really is, and what it has always been; men using god as a scapegoat to their schemes and dreams.

The cross unveils the truth. God is not the one blessing and legitimizing the human activity of tearing and ripping and gambling over his garment. God is not the one advocating a “winner takes all” philosphy, or defining “us” from “them”, or prospering his favourites by giving them what they desire. God is not the one deciding who has, and who has not. God’s hands are pierced, and he hangs naked, unclothed before the world, giving himself for the healing of the nations.

At the cross, the tree of life for all humanity, mankind is revealed to be grasping for the power to coerce and control, and invoking the heavenly powers to perform to their will.

At the cross, four individuals, undeterred by the surrounding sound of lamenting and grieving, raucous and jeering voices, toss dice over divine property using a twisted concept of divine privilege.

And yet over this act, through what must have been a weakening and spluttering voice, piercing the atmosphere of dissonance, Jesus cries out with what little breath he has remaining, ‘Father, forgive these people, because they don’t know what they are doing’.

Just like the creation story, God speaks his loving and liberating oration into a world caught in the oppressive grip of chaos and darkness.

But I wonder, how many in the swarm about him gave any credence to these words?

It’s a powerful scene. A moment of history which highlights the difference between God and men.

It’s sobering to consider this contrast between human and divine acts; this distinction between what we think God wants and does, and what God actually wants and does.


The above is an extract of Living The Dream? (Writing in progress).

Tristan Sherwin is the author of Love: Expressed (available now)

My Top Seven Books of 2016

Well, another year has passed by. Some of it slipped through my fingers, but I think I may have caught most of it in some way or another.

At least I’ve read some great books this year, and so below is a list of my top seven of the year.

“Why Seven?”, you ask?

Why Ten, or Five or Three?

Whatever the quantity, these are books I’d love you to check out.

I’ve not reviewed every book I’ve read this year. But where I have, I’ve provided a link to my blog review. And where I haven’t, I’ve just added a sample of my thoughts.


1. Scars Across Humanity, by Elaine Storkey.

Blog review – click here

2. Out Of Sorts, by Sarah Bessey

Blog review – click here

3. A More Christlike God, by Brad Jersak

Blog review – click here

4. Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

Blog review – click here

5. The Son of Laughter, by Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner has done a beautiful job of grafting flesh onto the biblical story of Jacob.

As a master storyteller, Buechner’s prose provides an immersive experience into the sights, sounds, and smells of ancient nomadic culture. It’s raw, gritty, sweaty and brimming with the harsh realities and beauties of life.

Buechner’s biographical portrayal cuts no corners. His words capture both the dark and the light of the human and divine dance; giving voice to ancient perspective and passion. Yes, sometimes the language is explicit (this is no children’s tale, afterall), but this narrative perfectly captures the emotion, the fatigue, and the grain of the long and winding road that the family of Jacob find themselves travelling.

This is the story of one who wrestles with both God and men — a reality we all share. So read this story expecting to meet our very human selves, as we too find ourselves trying to make sense of this journey we’re on.

The Son of Laughter is one story you shouldn’t miss.
6. Silence, by Shusaku Endo

Set in 17th Century Japan, Silence traces the journey of Fr Sebastian Rodrigues as he seeks for his mentor who has apparently apostatised in the face of the intense persecution of the Christian faith. Not believing his devoted mentor would have done such a thing, Rodrigues goes in search of the truth, not knowing that his own faith will be tested in the process — especially his understanding of apostasy.

This is a very powerful novel. I didn’t want to put it down. It’s profound, captivating and beautiful.

Also, it’s coming to the cinemas in the new year, under the direction of Martin Scorsese (who writes the introduction to this Picador Classic edition), and starring Liam Neesan, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. Let’s hope he does a good job, but I’d still strongly recommend reading the book.

7. The People of Paper, by Salvador  Plascenia.

I can’t begin to describe this novel. But it’s certainly got to be the most bizarre novel I have ever read. And yet, it’s intriguing, beautiful and extremely well crafted. It is a work of art; a Paper-maché masterpiece formed of soul, soil and sweat which baptises the imagination.

The way it’s laid out, the way it’s written – all of it is the not the “usual” way of telling a story. But out of everything I’ve read this year, this story consistently comes back to my mind.

So that’s it; my top seven.

However, for those who like round numbers and multiples of five, here’s another three I’d highly recommend;

How To Survive A Shipwreck, by Jonathan Martin.

War in the Hebrew Bible, by Susan Niditch.

What We Cannot Know, by Marcus du Sautoy.

Merry Christmas, and I hope you have a great new year.


Tristan Sherwin is author of Love: Expressed

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Was Mary A Whore?

Before I begin, I need you to know that the above title is not some clever PR stunt or an attempt at being controversial and derogatory.

I am writing this “advent reflection” of sorts, probably my last/penultimate blog of 2016, because I’m aware that it’s that time of year again.

That time of glitz, over indulgence and throw-away remarks about the integrity of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Already this year I’ve lost count of the amount side-comments and “banter” that has involved the idea of Mary being a woman of sexual promiscuity. Or, to express it in the terms I’ve heard, “Mary was a whore”. And we’re only seven days into advent!

I totally get that the Virgin Birth is a tough idea to swallow (even some Christians wrestle with it). But my major beef with comments such as this has nothing to do with theology, per se. (At least not in this blog post, anyway.)

I’ll get to what I detest most about this comment very soon, but before I do, and for those who believe the message of Christianity rises or falls on the Virgin Birth, it’s worth noting the following;

(For those who don’t wish to read these points, and who want to get to the juice of this post, you may skip ahead to the section entitled, “Mary was not a Whore“)

1. Only Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus mention the virgin birth within their nativity stories, and only due to its significance/emphasis to their respective themes. The gospel accounts of Mark and John don’t, and neither do any of the other writings contained within the New Testament (NT). In other words, the vast majority of the NT makes no specific statements with regards to a virgin birth, or anything special about Jesus’ conception. Yes, there are references to the deity/incarnation and the sinless state of Christ, but this God-head status and sinless lamb status are never defended via reference to the means of Jesus’ conception. Nowhere within the New Testament writings (the letters of Paul being and containing the earliest Christian records) is anything of the theological, political, and sociological thrust of the Christian faith “hung” (I.e. dependent upon) a virgin birth. This should strike us as odd if the Gospel is reliant upon on it. There’s lots of theological emphasis on Jesus’ Life (Incarnation), his death, and his Resurrection. But zero on the way in which Jesus was conceived.

Later, from the times of the Church Fathers and into the Reformation, theological statements regarding the nature of Jesus’ flesh (i.e. whether his body was made of the old/existing “fallen” creation, or of a different, new creation/none fallen substance) and its implications to the atonement were developed; these issues have been consistently revisited/debated ever since. But the NT as whole doesn’t make much of a big theological deal at all about the Virgin Birth in connection to the atoning work of Christ. If Matthew and Luke’s nativity stories weren’t part of the NT, the message of who Jesus was and what his life, death and resurrection achieved and enacted, wouldn’t be compromised.

Ergo, it’s possible to be Christian and not accept the historical reality of the virgin birth.

2. Some Christian Bible scholars do refute the idea of the virgin birth stories as being historically accurate. They see them instead as literary devices that reflect Old Testament themes and employ political rhetoric, and are thus used by the gospel authors to reflect the significance of what God was doing in and through the ministry of Jesus.

For example: Luke’s nativity, involving both Elizabeth and Mary, closely parallels the birth stories of the Old Testament judges of Samson and Samuel, recorded in Judges 13:1-24, and 1 Samuel 1-2:11. Both of which were miraculously conceived by “barren” women and went on to deliver Israel from some kind of oppression.

For those who have studied Mary’s hymn of praise — also known as the Magnificat (see Luke 1: 46-55) — it’s hard not to notice how closely Mary’s words follow the rhythm and heartbeat of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2: 1-11. Whilst the words of Gabriel to Zechariah, in Luke 1: 11-15, are reminiscent of an angel’s words to Samson’s mother in Judges 13. Even Luke’s use of the angel Gabriel, in being the messenger to both Zechariah and Mary, finds its referent in the Old Testament story of Daniel and his messianic visions, which is the only other reference to the angel Gabriel within the entire corpus of scripture.

By modern standards, Luke could be charged with plagiarism. However, that’s not the case. Luke, and Matthew, purposely echo Old Testament themes to stir up cultural memory. To use a modern term, Luke is “riffing” on the Old Testament promises and purposes of Israel’s God and distilling them into the Jesus story. Luke’s purpose in doing this is not solely about the historicity of the events he is describing, but about grounding the historical story of Jesus and the implications of his actions in human history into the grander narrative and themes of the Jewish Story.

As an aside, with regard to the implications of Mary’s story in Luke, I think Brian McClaren’s remarks on the significance of the virgin birth are poignant when thinking about the patriarchal dominated culture of her day:

“In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, God aligns with the creative feminine power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood. The doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counterviolence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered ‘the weaker sex’ that God’s true power enters and changes the world. That, it turns out, is exactly what Mary understood the messenger to be saying:

 ‘God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant . . .  scattered the proud . . . brought down the powerful . . . lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1: 48, 51, 52, 53)[i]

Even the scholars who do accept the historical credibility of the virgin birth, still concede the importance of the Old Testament allusions and Political punch of the nativity stories as the primary motivation for their writing.

 3. With regards to any “untoward” involvement from Joseph. Some people are surprised that Joseph wasn’t suspicious about Mary’s pregnancy. But Matthew’s gospel clearly says otherwise. Matthew states that Joseph was not happy with the story he had received from Mary with regards to how she became pregnant, and sought to divorce her because of this. It took divine intervention to persuade him otherwise (see Matt 1:18-24).

On the other hand, if Joseph did happen to be the biological father of Jesus, there would have been no need to invent a “cover story which scapegoats God” for fear of being frowned upon for having “pre-marital” sex. This is an example of us, in a western modern age, reading back modern, Western, conservative Christian views into a Middle Eastern, first century culture. Joseph was betrothed to Mary (legally married in his day). They would have been seen as Husband and Wife (hence why Matthew states that Joseph thought of divorcing her in secret). If Joseph and Mary had decided to be sexually active prior to an official ceremony, no one would have made a fuss of it.

4. Yes, there is that old story of a Roman centurion, or another Jewish man called Joseph Pandera floating about. Around the ninth century this story emerged, stating that Mary was involved in an amorous and willing premarital or extramarital affair. But this story is such a late development that it can hardly be used to refute the earlier stories, or be taken as a serious historical contender for Jesus’ parentage.[ii]

 5. Added to the above, there’s also the other annoying modern telling of the “Angel” being some bloke pretending to be sent from God just to take advantage of Mary.

Not only do I suspect that such a story finds its origins in the mental faculties of a particular gender (as will be clear below), but I also highly doubt that anybody would be daft enough to believe the validity of such a claim and therefore be willing to have sex.

6. Finally, what’s the motivation behind associating some scandal to Jesus’ conception? From what I can tell, the thinking seems to be, “If Jesus was conceived in some dubious, illegitimate, tabloid manner then the whole of his ministry can be seen as illegitimate”.

In other words, if Jesus’ conception was of some immoral means then some people feel that this casts a rather long shadow on Jesus’ own character, integrity, potential and apparent goodness. Therefore, “he’s not the kind of person to be emulated, honored or listened too”.

It should be obvious that such ideas are also ridiculous. Whether or not someone was conceived in a “moral” manner does not define, nor determine that person’s potential as a good, moral person. Imagine saying this to someone who was born as a result of rape, or conceived by “accident”, or born out of marriage? Regardless of how  “culturally moral” or “unlawful” or “unplanned” we came to be conceived, we would never classify ourselves (and others) as being bad people, or sub-human, or lacking in potential for human goodness based on anything to do with our parentage. Would we?

How someone comes to be conceived does not allocate them to being treated as less-human, evil or valueless. And it would be perverse and prejudice of us to do say it would.

Secondly on this point, if something scandalous had surrounded Jesus birth, biblically speaking, he wouldn’t have been on his own. Both Matthew and Luke would have had an additional wealth of biblical narrative at their disposal to allude to. Their genealogies alone contain a multitude of “scandalous” stories; stories that the sovereignty and grace of God redeems and works through. How someone came to be never, within scripture, stopped God from taking holding of their lives, loving them and using them for extraordinary things.

In summary, I’d suggest that our motivation for making such claims says more about how we perceive, and define people’s goodness/humanity and worth, then it does about Jesus’ character.

Which nicely brings me to my major gripe with this irritating and, for reasons that will become evident, highly degrading and insulting comment.


Why do I hate this comment so much?

Not so much for the historical or theological ignorance it displays.

But because it perfectly crystallises the patriarchal oppression, derogatory objectification and scapegoating of women.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that there was a basis to some illegitimate, pre-marriage infidelity involved in Jesus’ conception at the hands of a roman centurion or someone under angelic-delusions.

If so, notice what this kind of side-comment does; it lays the blame for such infidelity on the woman in typical patriarchal fashion.

If there was some historical basis for such an idea — and there isn’t — it would be more likely that Mary would have been a victim of this episode and not the instigator. I.e. if such a story has any grounds at all, Mary should be seen as a victim of rape and not as a willing participant.

But following a very disgusting, dehumanising, modern (and yet ancient) patriarchal trend, the victim is labelled as a whore.

In a modern analogy, such thinking is reflected in the horrible way of blaming the crime of rape on what the victim is wearing. It’s encapsulated in the horrendous statement, “She was asking for it“.

I hate this. I really, really hate this! Instead of naming the horrible and perverse principles at work in the mind of the rapist, we negate the rapist’s culpability by scandalously scapegoating the woman. The abused victim, in turn, is painted as some malicious siren, whilst the male perpetrator gets cast as an innocent victim to his senses.

There is no defence for this scapegoating. Such excusing of an horrendous act is both shameful and evil. To project the reasons for rape onto the victim is, I adamantly believe, to purposely collude with the intentions of the rapist.

That may sound harsh. But trust me, I could put it across in a worse way. So consider that as me being polite.

If there is anything that a comment like, “Mary was a whore” reveals, it isn’t the illegitimacy of Jesus’ birth. It is more revealing of our objectifying and degrading view of women, and our willingness to conspire with a male-dominated system which scapegoats the opposite sex for the inexcusable actions of men.

If you’re going to say “Mary was a whore” — and it’s mostly men I’ve heard it from — it says more about you than it does about Mary.

So to be clear, this post isn’t a defence of a biblical story. There are books and articles galore exploring and debating the events of the nativity. Rather it’s to sound an alarm, and to state an obvious truth that still seems to escape some of us men in the twenty-first century;

Women are not trophies, objects, or toys.

Women do not exist for male entertainment, nor to be subservient to men, nor to be ranked, or graded, or scored by our twisted brains.

Again, Brian McClaren’s understanding of the virgin birth, above, speaks volumes into this male-masticating-milieu.

However, I’ll leave the final words for an absolute hero of mine, Elaine Storkey, with regards rape culture;

“Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, the glamorization of sexual violence and the entitlement given to men. Gender definitions themselves play a part in it. When ‘manhood’ is defined in terms of dominance and sexual aggression, then it is hardly a man’s fault if he expresses the aggression towards a woman…Defining ‘womanhood’ produces more ambiguous results. Women can be perceived as submissive, innocent and sexually passive, or as whores just waiting to be raped (‘she was asking for it’). Either way, [women] are at risk.

Other facets of rape culture are easily recognised: trivializing sexual assault, showing tolerance towards sexual harassment, inflating false rape report statistics, publicly scrutinizing a victims dress, mental state, motives and history. One of the more alarming recent developments in many Western societies is the proliferation of ‘jokes’ about sexual violence.”[iii]

I know that the theme of such a blog post might seem out-of-sync with the whole Christmas season, but I assure you, it’s not.

If the incarnation–God dwelling among us–is about redeeming a fallen humanity, then that also involves the renewal of our thoughts towards each other.

Chow for now,


Ps. If you want to read my Advent reflection for last year, click here.

[i] Brian D. McClaren, We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 15, p85, Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

[ii] See Jesus Outside the New Testament, Section The Toledot Yeshu, p122. Robert E. Van Voorst, Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2000.

[iii] Elaine Storkey, Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming the Violence Against Women, p127-128, SPCK, 2015.

Tristan Sherwin is the author of Love: Expressed

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Sometimes life feels like breathing;

You inhale, you exhale,

You take in, you give out.

Equilibrium surrounds;

the assurance of removal and replacement,

That you contribute to, and are provided for.


But then there are other days,

when life feels like drowning.

When everything pushes in,

and nothing is allowed to escape.

Not even the scream.

Times when walls surround, voices dominate, confusion reigns.

The world capsizes and the climate goes grey.


When beneath, you do anything to simulate the surface,

anything to plateau.

Whatever brings release;

whatever stimulates the faux sensation of life prior to the submersion.

The addiction calls.

Like a siren it persuades,

promising life, but anchoring us down into to the fathoms below.


I must kick.

Fight against the oceans pull,

And resist the lies the siren promises.

There is no breath here,

regardless of the momentary sensation in my lungs.

Life only awaits above,

the surface tension can be broken.

This will not be my abode or grave.

I must kick.


And on those days when my legs are too tired,

when my strength is gone,

I surrender my hands skyward and await for heaven’s pull.