Why I hate Jojo Moye’s Me Before You

me before you

It’s hard for me to convey how much I hate Jojo Moyes’ supposedly romantic novel Me Before You, and dread the movie that is due out later this year. It is the story of a romance between a wealthy play boy become quadriplegic and his carer, although it’s a romance with a twist.

Spoiler alert: I need to discuss the ending to explain my hatred, so stop now if you (God forbid) want to read it yourself. But I begrudge anyone spending money that might find its way into the author’s pocket.

Okay, where was I. To borrow Moyes own summary, “the book is about a quadriplegic who wants to die.” Actually, the book is about a quadriplegic who wants to die, and at the end of the book chooses to do so – despite the fact that he found love and had a loving and supporting family, and so had an amazing opportunity to live a full and flourishing life. He was, after all, as rich as is a bottle of fine whiskey, and could have afforded any number of compensations to manage life with a disability– unlike most quadriplegics who are poor, but still choose to live.

So let’s not beat around the bush. This is a book celebrating suicide. Worse, it’s a book that presumes that suicide is the only rational response to the experience of living with quadriplegia.

In an interview about the book (available here), Moyes was asked whether she knew a quadriplegic before she wrote the book. She replied:

“not quadriplegics. The thing that really informed it was a member of my family who suffers from a progressive disease. I have been involved in feeding her, taking her out, and that kind of thing. Part of what inspired Me Before You was just questions I had in my head about quality of life.”

Bloody hell. Moyes (when you read that name, say it with venom) writes a book about quadriplegics and she hasn’t met one. Had she done so she would have discovered a community of people that have the courage to choose to live.

Now, before you get on your high horse and remind me that some people do choose to die, and that’s their right, let me say that I understand that quadriplegia is downright hard to live with, and many people have it much harder than I do. And the person that chooses suicide has my compassion and support.

But I’m not going to celebrate that choice. And I’m not going to allow someone who has never met a quadriplegic to continue the myth that those of us with the injury would be better off dead.

Right, breath slowly, relax. I’m feeling a bit worked up.

I guess if you are looking for a tear-jerking romance that will get you thinking, you might enjoy this book. If you do read it, I hope that you notice that it reinforces the stereotype that women need a man to tell them what to do, and that you understand that our play boy hero is really a privileged white guy who just can’t come to terms with the fact that life is fragile and difficult but that if you fight the good fight and persevere it’s worth it in the end.

Disability and the church, chapter 2

Review part 2, part 1 see here

In the second chapter of The Bible, Disability and Church, Amos focuses his attention on the “Hebrew Bible/Old Testament” (his label, highlighting the importance of language and recognising that the Christian OT is the Jewish Bible). He begins with the topic that I have touched on before (see here), Leviticus 21:17 to 23. Amos is far gentler than I have been, seeking to explain the exclusion as being connected only to specific functions of the Levitical priesthood, outside of which “blemished” people had full access to the temple and its activities. Indeed, he makes the important observation that a focus on the exclusion of this passage should not override the emphasis throughout the Hebrew Bible of God’s electing the poor and marginalised (i.e. Israel) and entering into a gracious and empowering covenant with them.

I would note, in response, that we should not try to dodge discrimination when we see it; that it is vital we unmask prejudice, especially when it is found in sacred texts. This is necessary because the scriptures, more than any other piece of literature, frame the attitudes and values of whole societies. To give Amos his due, he does not dodge the issue but rather than focus on the original intent of the biblical authors, he points his criticism at the various ways in which this passage (and others like it) have been interpreted. In doing this he moves beyond Leviticus 21 to address the Deuteronomic curses, which link sickness (and disability – which go together in these texts) to the punishing hand of God. As he notes:

This leads us to the heart of the problem for any traditional theology of disability: that disabling conditions and ailments seem linked with purposive divine action – curses, no less! – intended to deal with and respond to the disobedience of God’s people (Kindle Locations 343-344).

And again:

when the Pentateuchal scheme of things is read from the normate perspective, an understanding of God as the one who is without blemish, and an associated understanding of all blemishes and diseases, as well is the people who have them, as being an holy, imperfect, and ultimately symbolic of human disobedience against God’s law.”

Having set up the problem, Amos goes on to explore various ways in which the logic of the Pentateuch might be “redeemed.” He focuses attention on Leviticus 21, taking on various readings: spiritualised (which ignore the historical reality and speak of spiritual sickness et cetera) and Christological (which focus on Jesus’ incarnation as the suffering servant – who identifies with the disabled and redeems them). It is in these discussions that Amos is at his best, since he does not flinch at identifying the inadequacies of each of these readings, which inevitably render disability as constituting a person’s inferiority.

Rather than force resolution, Amos sets these difficulties in the context of the broader narrative of the Hebrew Bible, identifying alternate and liberative stories of disability: Jacob with his limp, King David and the crippled Mephibosheth, the story of Job, with its refusal to accept suffering as curse; the Psalms of lament. What becomes apparent is that, however one reads the covenantal connection between Israel’s sin and suffering, the God of Israel is, above all, the God who embraces the sufferer (and the suffering nation of Israel), who elevates their plight, who refuses to accept their oppression and who provides hope for all those experiencing hardship – whatever its nature and cause.

And in attempting to rush this summary I have obfuscated Amos’ clear and lucid argument. So if my work has left you confused, best to go straight to the source – Kindle version click here, Amos Yong, the Bible Disability and the Church.

Book review: The Bible disability and the church, Amos Yong

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is Amos Yong’s, the Bible Disability and the Church. The book is a biblical theology of disability, although I would not want its readership to be limited to people with a disability. It is really a form of liberation theology, using the lens of disability to explore the ways in which the scriptures confront and overturn attitudes and cultural prejudices that marginalise, stigmatise and belittle people who don’t fit within the supposed norms of society.

The impetus for the book is Amos’ love for his brother, who was born with Down Syndrome, although the book is concerned with the broader concept of disability. In his earlier Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity, Amos recounted his brother’s story in detail and developed a more systematic and scholarly analysis of disability. Where the previous book is scholarly (one Amazon reviewer who loved the book nevertheless noted “I have to admit I didn’t always necessarily understand everything being said as the language is much more geared toward theologians”) The Bible and Disability is written for a lay audience. It would, for example, stimulate rich conversation in a small group or around a family dinner table. For those of you in Australia, the soft copy is available from Koorong for $15 (see here). I read the Kindle version, which will only set you back $10 (see here).

** I should admit that this point that Amos is a friend of mine, although he has not bribed me for a positive review **

over the next little while (and sorry, I’m notoriously slow) I might make a few comments on each of the chapters. In terms of the first chapter I have the following observations/comments (and if you decide to download a (legal) copy why not add yours):

  1. the first question that arises concerns the definition of “disabled”. Amos touches on this issue only briefly but I feel the matter is vital. The lines between ability and disability are grey indeed. In the case of down syndrome or spinal-cord injury (SCI) the situation is normally clear-cut, although a person might have a disabling SCI and look relatively “normal”. Likewise, how do you draw a distinction between a person with an intellectual disability and someone of below average intelligence? (An issue that is especially troubling in a court of law) How do we distinguish between illness and disability, especially if the former is permanent? How severe must a physical or intellectual limitations be to be classified as a disability? And how do we distinguish between the degradation of old age and disability? All of this leads me to conclude that the question of disability is in fact not just about people living on the margins but is pertinent to us all. There is every chance that at some point and in some way we shall all be disabled, and this fact makes Amos’ work all the more important.
  2. What language do we use to speak about disability? Amos notes the difference between the nomenclature “disabled person” and “person with a disability”. The former highlights the disability whereas the latter highlights the person. What labels are appropriate and what are derogatory? In hospital, my friend and I would call each other spastic, and especially enjoyed what we called “spaz pong” (ping-pong for those of us whose arms spasm and pretty much miss every shot). Was this derogatory to others or ourselves? Is it appropriate between friends but inappropriate now that I’ve put it on the page? Does it matter who uses the label and how they use it? These might seem like insignificant issues, but they get to the heart of the problem that Amos is trying to address. The language we use matters, because it reflects the attitudes we have about disability.
  3. Amos addresses a fascinating issue about whether we should judge disability as something needing to be fixed. Let me quote him in full:

Disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated. Should we avoid losing a functional arm or leg if we can? Of course. But many who have lost the functionality of an arm or a leg lead very productive and satisfying lives – they don’t need to be healed. More complicated are the congenitally disabled. Still, people who were born without certain appendages or who have grown up without certain sensory capacities live quite well-adjusted and normal lives with what they have. Should we try to “fix” those who are different among us so that they can be just like us? Most problematic are those whose disabilities are a constitutive part of their identities. My brother Mark is a case in point. How can we fix or erase his chromosomal condition without eliminating him altogether?”

Which brings us to the primary point that Amos is trying to make, and again it is best if I quote him in full:

Historically, and even across wide swaths of contemporary life, ableism presumes that people with disabilities are subhumans, menaces to society, or objects of pity, dread, or ridicule. And just as with racism and sexism, the excluded minority population internalizes the views of the dominant culture so that people with disabilities also come to understand themselves and act in ways that confirm the expected stereotypes. This book opposes the exclusions legitimated by our ableist worldview, and seeks to challenge normate assumptions with perspectives derived from the experience of disability.”

What Amos is saying is that disability is not primarily medical but social. The tendency for us is to think, “how can we fix this person? ” A much better question is, “how can I respect this person?” The truth is, that as a person with an SCI I generally do not feel excluded or mistreated. In fact, my friends and family, and the broader society, normally treat me as they would any other person. But I am fortunate in this regard, because the experience of most people that act a little different and look a little different is that they are treated differently. The extent to which the Bible is used as a document of exclusion or inclusion is the focus of Amos’ work.

all that in chapter 1 – and in some future post I will comment on his analysis of the scriptural contribution.

book endorsement:I Love Daddy God

And while I am on the topic of reviewing books (see my previous post on Amos Yong), I would like to take the opportunity of endorsing a book, I Love Daddy God. to describe the book it is best if I quote the blurb:

Divorce and separation are difficult for the whole family. I Love Daddy God is a resource for mothers to support their children to work through the challenging process of divorce.

I Love Daddy God is designed primarily for 4-10 yr old girls whose parents are going through a divorce or separation. The book could be adapted to meet other needs such as single dads.

Each activity is designed to open up discussion on the divorce / separation, assist the child to work through the associated emotions and to create a connection with our heavenly father.

it is, no doubt, an odd book for me to be writing about; I am a married father of three sons! yet, I  was given the opportunity to read the text before its publication, and am commenting on it now simply because it is a beautiful. the creator, Antonieta Dubuc, is a graphic designer her illustrations are gorgeous and the text and exercises meaningful for single  mothers with young daughters. if that is you, or if you know someone in that category, this might be well worth a look.

No room for nonsense

I have just finished reading Growing Sideways, by Jay McNeill. This autobiography tells the story of Jay’s relentless pursuit of meaning in the context of abuse and hypocrisy. Jay is a PK (pastors kid) whose father was a relatively prominent Pentecostal preacher in New Zealand and Australia in the 70s and 80s. This was something of a unique period in Pentecostal history, a time when charismatic experiential Christianity – tongues speaking, faith inspiring, laughing, crying, dancing, demon chasing – influenced mainstream Protestant and Catholic movements. Pentecostal Christianity was radically transformed as a result, and once relatively conservative and marginalised churches experienced rapid growth and change. It was a period in which charismatic preachers confronted the traditional liturgies and structures of church and encouraged congregants to open their hearts and minds (and bodies) to the life changing power of the spirit. For many people, these charismatic revivals stimulated new life. But the excesses of this experiential spirituality sometimes masked a dark underside – and Jay was to suffer as a result.

On Sunday Jay’s father was a funny, engaging and seemingly spiritual preacher. For the rest of the week he verbally and physically abused his family. He planted churches, attracted crowds, prayed for miracles, drove flashy cars … and beat his children, had numerous affairs and when events at church turned against him moved on to the next town and started again.

Growing sideways is not the story of a bastard father, but it is the story of a man who grew up as a victim of abuse and in the shadow of Christian hypocrisy. Because this is so, Jay has a perspective on the church that must be heard. There is a tendency for people of faith to try and put the best possible spin on everything that goes on in church, to be blind to the superficiality that too often colours the culture of Christianity. In the telling of his own story Jay forces us to look at ourselves and our churches, to turn on our “bullshit radar” (his words not mine, Mum, honestly!) and set aside the false and self-serving in pursuit of the real and substantive.

Jay ends up recovering his faith – or perhaps it would be better to say finding it for the first time – but it is a very different faith to his Pentecostal father. It is an open and generous and doubting faith. He finds it in the love of the woman who was to become his wife. He finds it in the friendship of Christian people who turn out to be very different to his dad. And he finds it in the birth of twin daughters, Jasmine and Sunshine.

These beautiful girls are born premature and, as a result, Sunshine ends up with extreme cerebral palsy. It seems strange but Jay, who has spent most of his life angry at the church, finds God in the beauty of his perfect daughters:

And my ‘faith position’? I don’t really have one. Some people would like me to have a more refined position on faith because it would make them feel more comfortable, but the only thing I know how to do is to keep asking God to do something. Praying that the cerebral palsy will go away seems a ridiculous idea. I feel better accepting reality than to live in a deferred state of hope. I wrestle with my responsibility as a dad to pray, but I can’t allow myself to be distracted with the idea that something magical could happen.

My reluctance to pray for healing has gone hand in hand with an ongoing conviction that Sunny is wonderfully complete. Some people of faith may criticise me for not being more consolidated in my resolve to pray, but in reality there are very few people who have a child with cerebral palsy and still have the energy to believe that God will bring complete healing. When life-changing events like cerebral palsy enter your world, you are confronted with a truth that leaves no room for nonsense. It confronts the western notion that we somehow deserve everything to be perfect, despite the sufferings in the rest of the world.

I am always grateful for people’s prayers and encourage them with expressions of deep gratitude, but once everyone has finished praying for healing, the reality remains that Sunny is still barely able to hold up her head. People would do better to pray the way Helena and I do: to give us strength and teach us to take delight in who Sunny is.

I think you should buy the book. It will make you angry and it will make you laugh. You will appreciate its honesty, even though it is clearly a one-sided account of charismatic Christianity. I do have to say that, as a work of literature, it is not without its problems. It is self published and available on Amazon for $5 (click here). The difficulty with self published works is that they have not had the red pen of an editor who, in this instance, might have sharpened the narrative. It is, at times, repetitive, and I would have liked more space devoted to his parenting joys and challenges (the story of Jasmine and Sunshine comes very late in the book – perhaps there is a part 2 coming later). But in the scheme of things these are small matters and really, $5 is nothing, and his story is worth hearing. And if we can give a few dollars to his family and learn something from his narrative, then it is time and money well spent.

If Jay McNeill interests you, he is also blogging at http://jaymcneill.blogspot.com.au/.

Disclosure: it is important I note my bias as a reviewer of this book. I have never met Jay but I am privileged to know his beautiful mother. Also, my first experience of church at age 16 was in Nowra when Jay’s father was associate Pastor. Three months later he had an affair with another church member, and the ramifications of that impacted the church for years afterward. I was too young to know or care about what was going on – but I do have some connections to the story of the book I have reviewed above.

critical review of Jeffrey Deaver’s The Bone Collector

critical review of Jeffrey Deaver’s The Bone Collector

A few months after my accident I was given the present of an Apple iPad, a brilliant invention for those of us with kacky hands, since sliding fingers is enough to make it work. The first e-book I downloaded to the Amazon Kindle app (and I have spent a fortune since) was by Jeffrey Deaver, The Bone Collector, also made into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. The novel was recommended to me because the central character, Lincoln Rhyme, was a quadriplegic.

The novel was okay – a light enough and sometimes thrilling read – and I was just happy at the time to be able to get my head into a book. I was intrigued by Rhyme, whose story I could at least partially relate to. There was, however, something that was not quite right, but I could not pin it down at the time.

Rhyme is a high-level quad, unable to move anything from the neck down except his little finger. He is wealthy, having received a substantial payout as compensation for his injury. As a result he has access to extraordinary technology, not only assistive wheelchairs and top of the range vehicles, but a state-of-the-art sound system and television and even a $200 down pillow.

When we first meet him, he is receiving visitors, his former friend and colleague, Lon Sellitto and another policeman. They are shocked at what they see:

“Rhyme had changed considerably since Sellitto had last been here and the detective didn’t hide his shock very well… The sloppy room, the vagrant gazing at them suspiciously. The smell too certainly – the visceral aroma surrounding the creature Lincoln Rhyme now was.”

What quickly becomes apparent is that Rhyme is both bitter and angry. He is impatient with Sellitto, and his animosity is such that he has had no visitor for three months (except his long-suffering personal carer). Sellitto is uncomfortable but he understands Rhyme’s aggression, appreciating the magnitude of his loss. Prior to the accident Rhyme had been a forensic detective, one of the best in the business. Now he is a trapped in a broken body. And so it is not surprising to the reader that he refuses friends and stays locked in his room, bedridden, his only company a lonely Falcon that has come to live on his windowsill, taking the daily flight that Rhyme so wishes could be his.

And so Rhyme’s loneliness is interrupted by a visit from his former colleagues, who need his help in an ongoing crime investigation. He gives them a minimal attention before shooing them out so he can take an appointment with a Doctor Berger, described in glowing terms as having “the best bedside manner Rhyme had ever encountered”. The doctor’s subsequent physical examination gives Deaver another chance to describe Rhyme’s experience and character

“Rhyme paid no heed to the lack of privacy. One of the first things crips get over is modesty. While there’s sometimes a half-hearted effort at draping – shrouding the body when cleaning, evacuating and examining – serious crips, real crips, macho crips don’t care.”

The extent of Rhyme’s ‘macho’ then becomes apparent. Dr Berger’s particular expertise is assisted suicide. We are, thereafter, given a whole chapter that describes the horror of Rhyme’s past and present experience and are left in no doubt that, in those circumstances, the ‘manly’ thing to do, the only valid response, is to utilise this good doctor’s services.

Ultimately, of course, the decision for suicide is set aside as Rhyme finds some meaning in the return to criminology (and becomes the subject of a string of subsequent books). I will leave others to comment on the quality of the book as a work of crime fiction but from the perspective of disability there is one more intriguing aspect to the novel. Assisting Rhyme in his pursuit of the criminal is the beautiful Amelia Sachs (later to be played by Angelina Jolie). What starts out as an entirely functional and aggressive relationship ends up in an unusual bond – an entirely a-sexual friendship that is described in sexual terms when, near the end of the novel, Sachs takes Rhyme for a drive in her sleek black Chevrolet:

 “’isn’t this the best, Rhyme?’ She shouted ‘man, better than sex. Setter than anything’”

“’I can feel the vibrations’, he said, ‘I think I can. In my finger’”

So, there you have it. An inspiring novel about a quadriplegic man who overcomes the horrors of his disability by the help of a beautiful woman. A meaningful and real description of an inspiring disabled man. Or so it might seem. In fact, The Bone Collector is a sensationalised story presenting a stereotypical picture of spinal-cord injury (SCI). Deaver knows next to nothing about living with quadriplegia and projects able-bodied assumptions about what he imagines life should be like for people like Rhyme. Note the following:

  1. Deaver (and most of his readers – the book rates 4 1/2 stars on Amazon) presumes that death, even by suicide (performed by heroic medical rebels), is potentially better than life as a quadriplegic. In fact, I have never met a quad who felt that way but I have met many able-bodied people who admit to asking themselves the question, would I be better off dead then paralysed? This question, however, reveals the underlying assumption that the quad is essentially no longer fully human, no longer really alive, without the potential for joy or the opportunity to contribute to others. My experience, however, is that SCI people want to live and are driven (like everyone) to make the most out of life, whatever its challenges. Of course some quads at some point will contemplate suicide, as do many people in all walks of life. But to have suicide as a major theme of a book centred on an “heroic” quadriplegic does an absolute injustice to the mostly driven people that make up the SCI community. Deaver might claim that he has Rhyme come to realise at the end of the novel that life is better than death, but this conclusion is a very close run thing – and might have gone the other way if Rhyme was not needed for subsequent books in the series.
  2. Notwithstanding his access to mobility aids, Rhyme spends most of his time in bed shunning the company of friends. Honestly, this is an absurd portrayal of a quadriplegic. While bed rest might sometimes be forced upon us, no one chooses to stay there, locked away from friends and family. Of course sometimes wheelchair users are forced into exclusion, when buildings and other social spaces are inaccessible – a too common reality; take a look at your own home and ask yourself, could a quadriplegic visit? Accessibility aside, even the most down and out SCI patient I have met at least gets out of bed to have a smoke and get drunk at the pub  – a fact that indicates that a person’s character and habits before an SCI inform his/her habits afterward. Unless Rhyme was a depressive loner prior to his injury (and we are led to believe this was not the case) it is extremely unlikely he would become such a person afterwards.
  3. Rhyme is made wealthy by a payout but the money seems to have been wasted on him – he spends it on trinkets (pillows fit for Kings) but could do with far less. This reflects the common view that insurance payouts to victims of accidents are over the top, examples of the absurdity of a legal system that supposedly favours disabled people and leaves the rest of the community with inflated insurance. Now, apart from the fact that the vast majority of sci people live below the poverty line, often struggling to get meaningful employment and barely surviving on pensions that are totally inadequate, even those with substantial payouts are not living extravagantly. Most have had to repay massive medical expenses, and have ongoing costs that a payout will have to satisfy over the course of a lifetime.
  4. Deaver has the sight of a quadriplegic as being shocking. Rhyme is labelled “a creature” and even the smell of the room in which he lives has a “visceral aroma”. Almost every character who comes to visit Rhyme in his bedroom responds to his quadriplegia with shock and a certain horror – as though such reaction is normal and acceptable. How odd. No doubt, in the early stages of injury in ICU, a quadriplegic hooked up to wires and tubes and monitors looks confronting. Thereafter, however, they look and smell about as horrible/nice as any of the weird people that make up the human race. Even ventilated quadriplegics get dressed up and look pretty “normal” – whatever we mean by that term.
  5. The dehumanisation of Rhyme extends to the assumption that as a quadriplegic he is used to being prodded and poked and showered so that all sense of privacy has been set aside. Now, it is true that sci people learn to appreciate the body for what it is – a body! But that does not mean that the really “manly crip” (to cite to Deaver) has no sense of personal dignity.
  6. In an attempt to indicate that he has some inside knowledge of the SCI community, Deaver has Rhyme describe himself as a “crip.” Now it may be that sci people themselves use such labels, taking what is pejorative and turning an insult into a label of power. Such relabelling is our right. But it is not a right that Deaver has earned, especially with his prejudiced portrayal of Lincoln Rhyme.
  7. Finally, the dehumanisation of Rhyme is made complete with his a-sexuality. Every male in The Bone Collector responds sexually to the beauty of Amelia Sachs … except Rhyme. In later novels we discover that it is precisely this that attracts her to him. It is as though Rhyme has been removed from the heterosexual community and taken on the role the media traditionally give to gay men – best friends with beautiful women sick of being objectified by men. And so rhyme is portrayed as a eunuch, as only half a man – as utterly excluded from sexuality. In fact, however, female and male sci people remain as fully sexual beings, capable of admiring and even lusting after beauty. Again, it is only able-bodied people who imagine that paralysis destroys sexuality. This review is not the place to set out to describe the sexual life of paraplegics and quadriplegics but it is enough to note that the emasculated Rhyme is an invention – a projection from an able-bodied person as to what life, without sex, must be like for a disabled person.

What becomes apparent is that Jeffrey Deaver knows nothing about sci people. But does this matter? He is, after all, writing a novel, and its purpose is entertainment not social commentary. Of course, it might not matter to able-bodied people just looking for a good read. But it does matter to me. A novel that purports to elevate a quadriplegic as a “hero” should tell the story of a realistic disabled person. Lincoln Rhyme should not have to be pushed by able-bodied people to get out of bed. He should not have to be saved by a beautiful able-bodied woman. At the least, he should not be a cardboard cutout of the able-bodied imagination, a mass of stereotypes and only half a man. The SCI community deserve better.

Btw:  if you appreciated this review, please consider taking a journey to Amazon and voting on my review of this book on their website (a summary from this blog). This might give some prominence to my concerns when people consider purchasing this book. My review can be found by clicking the “one star” reviews – there are only 10 of these so it should be easy to find.

Grumpy old man begrudgingly reads Love Wins

**  Published on Two Pints Later **

I teach theology, and because I’m likely to be asked on a daily basis over the next few months what I think of the book, I knew I could not avoid reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Now, I normally like what Bell as to say but I’m often disappointed when preachers put pen to paper. I was not surprised, therefore, to discover a book written largely in point form, single sentence paragraphs, that could be finished in less than an hour (okay, slight exaggeration, let’s give it two hours). Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want a book of this type to be written like Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. But you might hope that a manuscript that will make as much money as this would have literary qualities at least equal to that of a daily newspaper. At a bare minimum you would think that the editor of a Christian book would know that the possessive, Jesus’, does not have an additional ‘s’ (Jesus’s). Okay, I’m being churlish. My jealousy stems from the fact that academic books normally take more than a few weeks to write and make far less money!

My real complaint is with the shallow nature of the argument set out in a book purporting to address some of the more complex questions of Christian faith. It is not that I disagree with much of what Bell has to say. The opposite is true. There are important concepts and ideas throughout that need to be addressed if the church hopes to be anything other then an outdated, irrelevant and fear mongering institution. Bell is arguing for a move away from fundamentalism and for the embracing of a gospel focused more on the love of God than on hellfire and damnation; on a church that cares more about redressing hell on earth in the here and now then preaching about a future heaven and hell. Sadly, however, little of this will be heard as critics justly attack the unsubstantiated biblical analysis that frames his case. The most obvious is his re-translation of the phrase, in Matthew 25, “eternal punishment” as “a time of trimming”, or his related suggestion that “forever is not really a category the biblical writers used”. He provides no reference to a scholarly source that might help substantiate such radical claims, and that is the problem throughout. Readers are left suspicious of his interpretation of the Bible and, since they are not given the opportunity to investigate the basis of his arguments, are given no reason to trust what he has to say. If he can’t be trusted in matters such as these why should he be believed in the broader case he is making?

Bell has the basis of a worthwhile book. He has some cracking one-liners, such as his advocacy of the word “hell”:

  • We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secret hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
  • And for that, the word “hell” works quite well. Let’s keep it.

I agree wholeheartedly with the point. I just don’t think Bell’s argument supporting it was convincing.