Cut to the Chase (by Lee Jackson, Baz Gascoyne & Friends)
Another really good book by Lee, Baz and mates.  If you are looking for a cosy read, or something nice and fluffy that won’t challenge you, then this book might not be for you.  However, if you want to be challenged, and read a number of very moving, interesting, poignant and sometimes very funny testimonies of real men who engage with Jesus in a real and liveable way, then I couldn’t recommend this book more.

What I am finding with many more modern Christian writers is that they are trying to write about a real walk with Jesus, and all the faults and problems we have, rather than trying to be overly nice, or seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses; which for me is neither healthy or realistic.  Don’t we all want to get to the truth of the matter?  Don’t we all want a real on-going relationship with our Creator?  I know I do anyway.

What do want from, all kinds of, Christian literature?  Do we want something that confirms what we thought we already knew anyway, or do we want something that challenges us and makes us think; or a bit of both?  Nothing will replace the Bible but there is always space for what might be a different and even highly original take on Christianity and Christian living.

I looked at a number of things, because obviously I read the whole book!  First off, I enjoyed reading the personal testimonies, which I think is always a good sign; if you write something that people want to read, half your job as a writer is done.  Anyway, I looked at this first: “All God is asking of you, the person who is reading this chapter, is to be yourself.  You and I will not find security that will last apart from in God.  How do you receive this?  First, by being honest enough to say that in the past your identity has been in what you do, what you own, what others think, which has never really brought you contentment.”  Here, it is plain that it is important to be yourself; you can’t be anyone else after all.  I don’t believe that God wants His followers to be exactly like each other, except that we all share the same faith; there can be unity in diversity!

The next thing that caught my attention was this: “…regardless of the individual incidents, the message of the Bible on a very simple level is a transformation from unhappiness to happiness: The very goal of a comedian!  ‘Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh’ (Lk. 6:21, esv).”  I think sometimes that when people get caught up in religion, they can miss the sheer simplicity, divine simplicity no less but simplicity all the same, of the Gospel message and the Bible itself.  Does God want us to be happy, and does God want us to laugh now and again?  The answer I believe is a resounding yes!  So much of what can pass for Christianity can be complicated and complicating, maybe resulting in some people wondering why they became Christians in the first place.  We need, as ever, to return to the Gospel message, which is always one of hope, peace and contentment.

This next piece stood out for me: “As you read this I want to encourage you that God has an amazing destiny over your life.  It is unique to you and you alone.  It will not be easy and there will be the highs and lows but it is part of your identity and make-up and should you avoid it, pass it up or ignore it, I believe that you will always feel that there is something missing.”  How many of us in life feel that there is something missing, or there is something we have missed out on, we’ve taken a wrong turning somewhere, or we just feel that we’ve ‘missed the boat’ so to speak?  Many people no doubt; I have been one of them.  Finding God may also be finding ourselves.

This next piece spoke volumes for me, perhaps it might do the same for you:  “I am on a mission to ban the word ‘fine’ in the church today.  Why?  Because the gospel (the good news of Jesus) is not for ‘fine’ people.  It’s for people who are broken, helpless, who are in pain physically and emotionally.  It’s for the lonely, depressed, angry, bitter, the struggling, people with addictions and fears without hope or a purpose.  It’s for people carrying unforgiveness in their lives and who are bogged down with their sin.  It’s for the bereaved, misunderstood, the wealthy and the poor.  Whatever condition the person’s life, heart and mind is in, this is who Jesus is for and not a fine brigade.”  Strong words, but if we reflect on them for a moment, we might just see the truth of them.  How often is Christianity portrayed as something fluffy and nice, and how often are Christians portrayed as people who have it all together?  Many times and often it seems.  Jesus didn’t come for those who ‘have it all together’ but it seems He came for the broken and the lost.  How does this tally with the way Christianity is often presented?  Do we, as ever, need to get back to the real message of Jesus?  The next bit, which is really an appendage of the last bit, is: “We need to create an environment where people can come with all their crap and be accepted and loved to such an extent that will encourage them to open up and begin to let God into the areas that need healing and forgiveness.”  One of the major problems of humanity, and I am not just talking about Christianity and Christians here, is often our inability to understood our fellow humans, and then we wonder why people don’t understand us!  We can all be so pig-headed, and frankly we can be horrible to other people whilst at the same expecting everyone to be nice to us!

Finally, this caught my eye: “We need to have a sense of reality in our prayers to God.  As a man, it’s important that you feel you can say whatever you want to God.  When we are honest God meets us at our place of honesty.  During my journey with God, I have often shouted and sworn in anger, full of bitterness and even hatred to him, to do with the way I felt about being a failure.”  The theme of honesty comes through a lot in this book; I have believed for a long time that it is better to be honest, rather than pretending everything is fine, when it mightn’t be at all.  Many of us have to come to terms with all sorts of issues in our lives; we won’t overcome them by pretending they don’t exist.  If we approach God with honesty and our honest yearnings, we can approach everything in our lives with the same honesty.  A little honesty in all our dealings, might take us a long way.

In summing up then, this is a very candid book, and is refreshing for its honesty alone; but the book has so much more to offer than this; it’s a good read because it’s truthful, rarely pulls any punches, is poignant and incisive and is funny in parts too.  I looked forward to reading it every night and the only complaint I can make is that it is perhaps too short!  Seriously, this is a book I recommend for Christian men; oh, and women too!

The Blokes Bible (by Dave Hopwood)
I am always on the lookout for new Christian literature, and it isn’t a hard task as there is so much Christian literature in the marketplace.  We do very much need the Bible as our guide if we are Christians, and perhaps even if we are not, but it’s also nice to have another view, another viewpoint from someone else who is a Christian; a fellow traveller no less.

I wanted something a bit, shall we say, different, something with an original slant on an old, old story, and in the Blokes Bible I certainly have found something different; but also quite familiar too.

Dave, the writer, has modernised some famous, and not so famous, Bible stories, brought them up-to-date, and regales us with his versions of these Bible stories; after each story, he talks about life in his local pub, Cutters, and all the people and stories and things that occur there.  For me, this makes the Blokes Bible highly original, interesting and different enough, whilst still remaining an essentially Christian book, but a book for Christians and not-quite-Christians as well.  I feel that Dave is reaching out to Blokes as well as women who, for whatever reason find organised Christianity, or modern Christianity, or English Christianity, just isn’t reaching them, or reaching out to them; to be quite frank, I am a Christian, and much of what passes for Christianity in England just isn’t connecting with me.  We need writers to be brave, and, perhaps above all, to be honest about why present-day Christianity isn’t reaching out to people, people who might feel a connection with God, but don’t know what to do about it.

I have thought for a long time that Christianity can fall foul of being seen as this kind, or that kind, and that it can become stereotyped; or that Christians have to fit into some kind of stereotype to be a Christian, or to fit in with other Christians.  Any one of us, who doesn’t feel comfortable with playing up to some norm, that very probably doesn’t exist anyway, might feel then that Christianity isn’t for us; this is a mistake, and I for one strongly believe that God doesn’t want religious stereotypes, but wants each person who serves Him, each Christian, to very much be unique; who else can we be, after all?  I certainly don’t think I fit anyone’s idea of what a Christian is supposed to be, yet here I am, a Christian; a Christian, who in many ways just happens to be an ordinary person too.

Dave Hopwood is I think part of a group of new Christian authors, who want to truly explore their faith in an open and honest way, whilst perhaps putting , what I think, less important religious ideology behind them, or certainly unchallenged notions that go unchallenged in some Christian circles.  I’m not suggesting that Dave, or any other writer, is challenging what he believes, but he is challenging what can be falsely held, but what can be cosy, assumptions that some Christians have.  There is definitely an ‘English’ Christianity, one which seems more about social status and respectability, than it really is about Jesus, and just learning humbly to walk with Him each day. 

There are lots of people, out there, who may not be anyone’s idea of what a typical Christian should be, but they have a hunger for God, a hunger which cannot be fulfilled by any other person, thing or experience, other than God Himself; if we aren’t as Christians trying to reach out to other people, then we are I think failing God Himself.  It is not our job to make or pass judgements on whether other people fulfil the criteria for being Christians, it is simply our job to be the best Christians we can be, whilst preaching the Gospel to any who have a hunger for it.

Dave’s book is most definitely for any Christian, but it might open doors for people who are on the margins of faith, or don’t particularly have any faith at all.  It is, after all, about a bloke who likes to go to the pub, and has more questions than answers; don’t we all?  Christianity in England could be accused of being too Middle class in its outlook, which is fine if you are Middle class!  But seriously, what happens if you are not from that walk of life?  Christianity not for you then?  We then have to pretend to be something we are not to be accepted?  This is not acceptable to me, and I think many other people too.  Do we want to find the truth, or do we want to hide behind a raft of nice, but ultimately false, notions; notions that really don’t hold any water when truly evaluated?  I certainly don’t anyway.

I have been a Christian for over thirty years now, and for many of those years I have had a dialogue with God, a walk with Him; sometimes I have failed, and He has corrected me; other times I have lived peacefully as a Christian.  But what has been most important to me is that my faith is in a real being, not a big bearded bloke in the clouds, but a God who really surpasses all understanding, a God who literally came down-to-earth to connect with us in a real and lasting way.  In other words, I have always tried to be honest about my faith, and I have always wanted God to be honest with me.  Dave’s book is his honest walk with God; that’s why it speaks to me on many levels, and why I rate his book highly.

To sum up then, I give this book ten out of ten for honesty alone, and I recommend  it for Christians who want their assumptions challenged, and for those who are thinking about becoming Christians.  It is a good read too, and it might surprise those who think they know all about Christianity, and think they know all about Christians too.

Dead Men Walking (By Lee Jackson, Baz Gascoyne & Friends)
As a Christian, although I very much like reading the Bible (yes, I really do!), I also like to read Christian-themed literature as well; and there are some very good books by Christian authors out there.

I tended to read Dead Men Walking just before I went to sleep; not that it made me sleepy though, far from it, but I just felt the need to digest their message before I drifted off.  I tend to read the Bible in the same way.

What I first found with this book is that they don’t really pull any punches, and it’s hardly a quaint and gentle read; if you want Christian platitudes, go somewhere else.  If you want to read something that will make you think, and perhaps that can be shocking and might question your view of British Christianity, read on, as I did. 

My first impression of this book is that it is an easy read, and an enjoyable read too; I wanted to keep reading it; and that’s always a good sign.

There is a stereotype of British Christianity, but there is also a real British Christianity too; a British Christianity involving all kinds of different people, maybe some who don’t seem the right type for being Christians at all.  I can identify with this, as in some ways I don’t think I am a typical Christian at all, but in other ways I think I could be a typical Christian!  Whatever the case, I think God wants us to be true to ourselves, true to others and true to Him too.  Being ‘true’ is the key word; being real about our faith, instead of hiding behind false niceness, or religious platitudes, or factionalism, when instead we need to ask God just what He wants from us, as much as what we want from Him.

Anyway, I looked at a few things in the book that stood out for me, the first being on page 169: “…I believe the role of full-time ministry also needs to be challenged regularly to make sure that we’re not using it as a reason not to live in the real world.  If we’re going to stand up as radical men, we need to challenge ourselves and each other regularly.”  As Christians, we are meant to be in the world but not be a part of it.  I think many Christians are Christians in name only, because it is a badge of respectability; to me radical Christianity is really just about being honest about our faith, and not sugar-coating it, or making it something that it isn’t.  A real living faith, for real living people in fact!  Christianity, in Britain especially, has in some quarters become nothing more than a kind of status symbol, a mark of niceness or respectability for nice and respectable people; the inference being that if you’re not nice and respectable already, and if you’re not from the right background, Christianity isn’t really for you; or so the cliché goes anyway.

Many of us, not fulfilling any kind of Christian stereotype, feel that, somehow, we might be impostors, not having any right to call on God, or be real Christians; this is such a shame, because  in the final analysis, didn’t God create all of us, not just nice respectable socially acceptable people who got to church?  God is a whole lot bigger than we really give Him credit for.

The second thing that particularly caught my eye was on page 188.  I’ve taken bits of the page, and put it together like this: “The Simple truth is there is no such thing as ‘Christian’ and ‘secular’.  The Bible makes no distinctions between the two…How can an instrumental piece of music be Christian or non-Christian? …People go to ridiculous lengths to try and prove that secular music is dangerous, and really the argument goes nowhere…My friend Kenny (who’s a DJ in New York) simply  says, ‘Is your car Christian or non-Christian?’  People answer, ‘Well, it’s just my car…’, and he says, ‘Well, it’s just my music…’  And it’s as simple as that!  If we can get rid of this false divide, then I believe that Christians will impact society in a much more meaningful way.”  I can totally identify with all this, because first off there aren’t two separate worlds we live in, there is only one, and because I like so many things in my life, that aren’t particularly Christian.  As well as secular music, could we talk about anything being either secular or Christian?  Do Christians suddenly have to buy from Christian shops, eat Christian food and live in a road full of other Christians?  If you think that you do, good luck to you; I wish you well, but I think it would be easier to hop here and back to the moon quite frankly!  The serious point made here I think is that we can’t put people in boxes, or label everything as either ‘Christian’ or ‘non-Christian’, as being acceptable or not, by some criteria out there that perhaps has no real basis in reality.  Christians eat ordinary food like non-Christians, Christians listen to all kinds of music like non-Christians, Christians do ordinary jobs like non-Christians do, Christians have a pint with their mates just like non-Christians do; God doesn’t want us to live in Christian ‘ghettoes’, if that were possible anyway, He might just want us to live as Christians right slap-bang in the middle of ordinary ‘secular’ people who aren’t particularly Christians, so that we can witness for Him, either by what we say, and, perhaps more importantly in such circumstances, by how we live.

The third piece I came across, on page 233, is: “Shortly after I became a Christian, I felt that there was a calling on my life to communicate the good news of Jesus.  However, it seemed that I didn’t fit the mould.  I now realise that God wants us to be ourselves and allow him to make us what we should be and not what the church wants or thinks we should be.”  Frankly, this is music to my ears; it’s not only Christians who feel they have to conform to other people’s often unrealistic definitions of what they should be; people do it to other people all the time; even society does it.  If we want to be real Christians, with a real and lasting faith that is going to have an impact on our own lives, our family and friends and the world in general, we have to get real about our faith, and not try to live up to some false standard that maybe God Himself doesn’t want or demand of us.  But other people might!  In human society, whether that be family, friends, student or work colleagues, and even the wider world out there, we often feel under pressure to conform, sometimes to even conflicting standards; I believe a Christian needs to know, quite simply, what God wants from us, and also maybe as importantly what He doesn’t want from us either.  We are all individuals, with different skills, talents, interests, gifts and a unique outlook that is very likely different from the next person; we have our own sense of humour, we have likes and dislikes, we like different things from someone else.  A Christian can be an individual, and not a religious clone.  I believe God wants us to be the people we are, whilst still being good Christians; obviously, once we become Christians, we leave our sin and sinful lifestyles and behaviour firmly behind us, but we can still be unique too.

In summing up then, I have enjoyed this book immensely, and on the strength of it want to read more of their books; they are getting at a real liveable Christianity, rather than a false ‘nice’ one, a Christianity that might shake people up, and  make them even question things; we can hide behind all kinds of walls, that make us safe and might confirm our worst prejudices, but I think God wants us to get out there and mix it with real people, of all sorts of beliefs and maybe no beliefs at all.  Instead of being dead men walking, we might be live men and women walking the walk as well as talking the talk.