Wondering what to read during your summer holidays? Eternity writers and contributors review their best book of 2015.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
Published by Pan Macmillan
An offhand remark from one of our staff at Bible Society has stuck with me. “We’re all humans walking around here.” It’s true, of course, yet it’s so easy to forget. “The other” isn’t just a pawn in my own personal story – they have feelings, lives. They’re people.
In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson (author of The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test) comments on the “great renaissance of public shaming” that is sweeping social media. Shame, argues Ronson, has always been a part of human culture. It’s just that these days we can sit behind our computer screens and join the crowd in mocking and shaming someone on the other side of the world. This victim is someone we shall never meet and will promptly forget after three days of viral Facebook posts but who is just as real as the person with their wrists in the stocks that people in the Middle Ages would have walked past on their way to the market.
Unlike Ronson, I have not indulged in social media escapades that participate in the online shaming of the likes of Justine Sacco or Mike Daisy or Lindsay Stone (and these cases of “online shaming” have to be read to be believed). If you’ve never heard of those people, it’s probably a good indication that you haven’t been a social media shamer either. Not yet, anyway. But I have certainly experienced large doses of Schadenfreude online. Social media – and Twitter in particular – is a place where, as Ronson puts it, it’s easy to “mercilessly find people’s faults” and use “shame as a form of social power.” This book, while funny, is also an almost incredible testament to how online actions can cross the line into real life ruination. It really made me think about my own behaviour, both on social media and IRL (in real life). We’re all humans, after all.
Reviewed by Kaley Payne, writer, Eternity
We had been having a terrible run on books in our book group. All of them had been sad or macabre, depressing or violent. I bumped into Margie in a coffee shop and she told me that she was going to convince the group to read All the Light we Cannot See. Her eyes shone as she described a book of hope and lyrical beauty.
I had misgivings when I realised the book was set during World War II and featured a French blind girl Marie and a German orphan called Werner. These were reinforced when it opens with a catastrophic bombing raid on a seaside French village defended by Werner, a soldier, and where Marie is hiding.
However, as the story unfolds, one gets swept up in the beauty of these characters and the chance circumstances that brought them together.
This is a book with many parts:
- A war novel with historical realism.
- A tale of technical brilliance with details of marvellous devices, clever engineering and problem solving.
- A plot line that plays tricks with time, ending where it starts.
- A book that turns science into poetry. That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived maybe one hundred million years ago … And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up and the coal man brought it to your house, and maybe you yourself carried it to the stove, and now that sunlight – sunlight one hundred million years old – is heating your home tonight …
There are glimpses of faith in the midst of this story of science and human ingenuity (I am reminded of The Martian in this respect). At one point Marie asks if she, blind as she is, may get to see God face-to-face. Madame Manec responds: “I’d expect of God wants us to see something, we’ll see it.”
Reviewed by Kara Martin, Associate Dean, Ridley Marketplace Institute, Avid reader and book group attendee
This one’s kind of cheating, as it was definitely not published this year (try World War II – and set during the 19th century), and it was the second time I’d read it, but that only confirmed to me that it’s one of the most perfect novels I’ve ever read.
Green Dolphin Country (or Green Dolphin Street, the US title) was once popular – Lana Turner starred in the movie! – but is now not nearly so well known as it deserves to be. It’s an epic saga that stretches from Guernsey in the Channel Islands to New Zealand in its pioneering days, following two very different sisters and the boy they both grow up loving.
I find this book especially remarkable for its portrayal of a marriage built on the most unpromising of foundations, shaped and refined through the years by a dogged determination to imagine the best of the other person, and then bring reality into alignment with that vision. It has loads to say about beauty, suffering, sacrifice, and kindness; it has the most achingly beautiful descriptions of place I’ve ever read; as well as the most compelling characters – from those who are happy even if they never get what they want to those who can’t be, even when they do.
And the grace of God blows through every chapter and every character’s story, sometimes a whisper, sometimes a storm.
This is one of those books that, while I’m reading it, has the quality of seeming more real to me than my own life! It’s not my first reading of it, and it won’t be my last.
Reviewed by Natasha Moore, Research fellow, Centre for Public Christianity
This was my favourite book of 2015, by some distance. There were no other books that were so quietly ambitious: it’s a book that aims to change your life and relationships, starting with yourself.
It should not be read as a book that supplants the Bible, as Brown herself would say, but for those with a firm spiritual base, who want to do the work of changing their lives for the better, this book is its own reward.
It’s a book that is easy to read, and yet not easy, because the true work of maturity is not easy, and does not pretend to be. It’s a book that is less flashy than the self-help section, or the books that promise immediate change and deliver fluffy anecdotes. It’s a book that can help you see a way forward to maturity in your life, in the way you approach your family, in the way that you do your work. And that’s something I could say about no other book I read this year.
Reviewed by Guan Un, contributor, Eternity
When viral ideas take root, extraordinary courage and grit are required to cast them down.
Queensland-based author Paul Henderson’s survey of the life of the fourth-century Egyptian church father Athanasius is a fascinating study in the uprooting of destructive lies. Athanasius – someone from nothing reveals extraordinary parallels between the challenges of the fourth-century Christian church and today’s.
Church and state had been swept up in the idea that Jesus was simply a good man but by no means divine. This abandoning of Christ’s essential nature was postulated by a third-century Libyan priest by the name of Arius. His ideas took root and threatened to split not just the church but the empire.
If it were not for Athanasius’s dogged commitment to arguing the truth in the councils of the church and state, Christianity would have lost an essential truth.
Athanasius’s childhood was marked by what would become Rome’s final mass persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian. But as Athanasius discovered, not even the Constantinian settlement could protect someone arguing inconvenient truths. Exiled six times, he spent vast swathes of his life on the run – finding refuge with the desert fathers of early monasticism. Thanks to Athanasius’s persistence and willingness to fight with wit and grace for truth, the doctrine of the Trinity is settled.
Today’s viral idea poisons the truth of what it means to be a human creature created male and female in the likeness and image of God. Just as Jesus’ divinity was being deconstructed by Arius and his followers, the Imago Dei is under fire as never before by those running a political and cultural program to deconstruct gender. Same-sex marriage ideology has caused confusion even in some parts of the church and certainly in the wider culture. At a time when many Christians are afraid to post a pro man-woman marriage comment on Facebook, Henderson’s study in the courage of the “black dwarf” Athanasius is a timely reminder that truth must be contended for in public.
By Lyle Shelton, Managing director, Australian Christian Lobby
This year I’ve been maximising my time driving and in the gym by listening to audiobooks. It’s fantastic!
One of the most stimulating “reads” has been British journalist Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
Ronson, the author of several best-selling books including The Men Who Stare At Goats, is a student of the weird and wonderful in human behaviour. He usually finds the fringe-dwellers and the conspiracy theorists and the psychopaths.
But in this book, he sets his sights on a demon that seems to lurk within us all: our delight in the self-righteous shaming of others. The internet, and Twitter in particular, have become instruments of moral outrage, by which we can pile on someone who we feel has stepped out of line morally speaking.
For example, Ronson tells the sad tale of Justine Sacco, who posted this tweet to her 170 followers from Heathrow airport: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” It was a not very funny joke, and to be fair to Sacco, she didn’t mean it to sound racist. She was, in fact, satirising the racial imbalance in AIDS in Africa. But by the time she landed in South Africa some hours later, her reputation was in shreds and her career was over. Her tweet had become the number one trending tweet on Twitter, and she had been denounced by celebrities and nobodies all over the world.
Why do we do this? Ronson determines to find out, and digs beneath the surface of this idea of shaming. Social media unlock the potential for a vicious culture of moral payback, if only we can find someone who will lapse for us conveniently and spectacularly. And here’s the demonic secret that Ronson exposes: our self-righteousness will lead us to barbaric mob behaviour of the worst kind. In the name of the highest good, human beings are able to and willing to destroy one another.
It isn’t too hard to see how, yet again, a study of human social behaviour confirms the ancient wisdom of Scripture. If only we could hear again Jesus’s words: judge not, lest you be judged…
Reviewed by Michael Jensen Rector, St Mark’s Darling Point, Sydney
I have read a selection of memoirs-cum-autobiographies this year, mostly written by women too young to be writing memoirs-cum-autobiographies. One of my favourites has been Spinster, by Kate Bolick. Admittedly, the title was a bit of a turnoff, and when reading it in public I wanted to wrap it in brown paper so no one could see the cover.
Bolick casts her own life against the backdrop of five women from the last century, concluding that, although a woman’s existence in society is still largely determined by “whom to marry, and when it will happen,” she – and we – are actually free to fashion our lives on our own terms. Bolick is not a Christian, but there is still plenty in this book for Christians to affirm: the importance of the examined life, a critique of the unquestioned supremacy of marriage, and the value of existing in a long line of women who fought for the freedoms we now take for granted.
Reviewed by Tess Holgate, writer, Eternity
One of the most dog-eared books at home is a copy of Kim Philby’s My Secret War. It’s the gossipy and self-serving memoir of the KGB spy who betrayed a generation’s worth of MI6 and CIA secrets to the Soviet Union, from his position of running the British intelligence anti Communist spying network. He was the classic double agent.
I have always read this book, again and again with a sense of guilty pleasure. Guilty because I know it is skilful propaganda.
Now there’s this insider account from the Western side by Ben Macintyre. A Spy Among Friends draws on the memories of Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s good friend in the British secret service who, along with James Jesus Angleton of the CIA, thought he knew Philby, then found himself betrayed. It takes courage to reveal yourself to have decisively lost a battle, so it’s not surprising that this is a posthumous account.
The most famous quote about Philby, or at least the most used in discussions about him, is “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” It is by E.M. Forster, who was writing about humanism. Macintyre’s book reveals that Philby not only betrayed his country but he also betrayed his friends.
Philby’s rickety triumphalism makes for sour reading. Nicholas Elliott’s story reveals the gaps in Philby’s account and suggests that he was actually outmanoeuvred. The Soviet hero is revealed as a hollow man.
And that has been the fascination of this spy story for me. The slow unwinding of the Marxist Left and its myths has been a theme of my adult life. On campus the Left had almost as many adherents as Christianity, and I spent a period as the only non-Communist elected official of a national student union. (The one that Tony Abbott and Peter Costello made their names in destroying).
Philby’s decline from superspy, the mole that ensured that hundreds of exiles sent back to liberate Iron Curtain countries to a seedy existence in Moscow, reading days old cricket stories in the Times, was a metaphor of the decline of “The God that failed” (as Koestler called it).
There are no real Marxists any more. Sure, there are people who are called that as an easy insult. But the moral crusade that swept up parts of my generation of Australians students late last century and Kim Philby in the 1930s has disappeared. Reading Philby’s and Macintyre’s accounts reminds me of watching an electric train disappear down a tunnel. Something strong and overpowering departs almost quietly and recedes, shrinks and vanishes without trace.
Philby disappeared without trace from Lebanon and surfaced in Moscow. It seemed that the Soviets had triumphed and rescued their man. But Macintyre reveals the last great Philby secret. Philby was allowed to leave. The MI6 incompetence that had allowed him to survive as a double agent was reprised, for his personal benefit. Someone wanted him to disappear to Moscow, it seems.
Reviewed by John Sandeman, editor, Eternity