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Review – The Song of Songs: Exploring the Divine Romance

Charlie Cleverly is a fine devotional writer. As well as being Rector of the well-known St Aldates Church in Oxford, England, he is rapidly taking his rightful place among the best of our contemporary writers of faith. Every time Cleverly publishes a new book, I wait with some anticipation.

This latest book on Solomon’s Song of Songs is very good, but perhaps for me, not as impactful as his earlier, ‘Epiphanies of the Ordinary’, which to my mind was extra-ordinary – and a unique contribution to modern devotional writing.

Song of Songs

However, we should be grateful to Charlie for opening up again what, to so many, is an inaccessible book in the Bible. I was brought up on the poetry of the Song of Solomon. My father loved it, but in the tradition of his day, regarded it purely as an allegory describing Christ and His church. Of course, it’s far, far more than that and Cleverly cleverly brings allegory and reality together, ensuring that the book is once again made relevant to today’s church and to wider society.

For my part, I think I’ve always regarded the biblical book as far more than allegorical. As an adolescent growing up in a rather rigid church environment, the text of the Song of Solomon was often an exciting and (yes, I’ll admit it!) earthy distraction in an otherwise dull church service! It was possible to be seen reading the Bible, but to be enjoying it at the same time, perhaps for all the wrong reasons!

I read Charlie Cleverly’s new book on holiday whilst staying at a couple’s only resort. The upside of the many attractive qualities of human love was clearly evident around us! His celebration of human sexuality together with the divine romance as laid out in Solomon’s ancient song is very beautiful, as is the biblical text itself.

Cleverly’s writing is wise, clear, deep, evocative and contemplative, much as in the Song itself. One detects shades and hints of the Puritan Divine in his writing. Here are eighteen chapters covering the eight chapters of the Song of Solomon in some considerable depth. In strict terms, this is not really a commentary, but more a devotional exploration of the Divine Romance and the ‘Kiss of God’.

If anything, the book may be overly long, perhaps relying too much on quoting swathes of text from the Church Fathers. Cleverly is at his best here in his application of the Song of Songs to the Church in today’s culture. I valued his perceptive point that ‘society is obsessed by sex and the Church obsessed by marriage’– and that both such emphases are wrong! He is clear that true marriage is a ‘passionate monogamy’ and has ‘exclusive permanence’. However, he is sensitive to singleness and celibacy, but oddly silent on the persistent matter of homosexuality in human relationships.

Cleverly’s notion of the pressing need for ‘Finding your voice’ (or helping to express yourself intimately) in life and relationships is also powerful and telling, and worth the price of the book alone. He writes movingly of the winter of loss and bereavement, and of the ‘dark night of the absence of God’.

I appreciated his profound insight that churches may be better if ‘presence-led’ rather than ‘purpose-driven’! The final chapter is a wonderfully uplifting rehearsal of the truth of the Maranatha future return of Jesus Christ.

Could his book have been shorter? Possibly, but actually I’m glad that it isn’t as there is much to go over again in the future. Overall, a more than worthwhile book for anyone involved in the intricacy of life’s often complex relationships.

THE SONG OF SONGS: EXPLORING THE DIVINE ROMANCE

CHARLIE CLEVERLY (HODDER FAITH)

ISBN 978-1-444-70204-0

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Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Summer 2015

Here is a personal selection of my top ten ‘to watch’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current sales period:

BLESSING 

To ‘bless’ someone is spiritually powerful, but what does it actually signify? In this accessible paperback (part of the Faith Going Deeper series), Andrew Davison lays out a comprehensive framework covering the theology and practicalities of Blessing. Superb – I loved it – if with a rather unimaginative jacket!

Blessing (2)

DEEP CALLS TO DEEP – SPIRITUAL FORMATION IN THE HARD PLACES OF LIFE

Tony Horsfall is a past speaker at CRT, and an accomplished leader of spiritual retreats. This new book of reflections is based on the Jewish Psalms, and of particular help to anyone going through difficult times. It’s also a book for group use, with material and questions designed for this purpose.

Deep calls to Deep

DELIGHTED IN GOD: GEORGE MULLER

Roger Steer’s biography of Muller is a classic. Published again as part of CFP’s HistoryMakers series, this book recounts the amazing story of this Victorian Christian who built five large orphanages in Bristol, relying on the scriptural principle of faith to raise the necessary funds.  A ‘must-read’.

George Muller

THE GOOD SHEPHERD: A THOUSAND YEAR JOURNEY FROM PSALM 23 TO THE NEW TESTAMENT

Magisterial – the only word to describe Kenneth Bailey’s books. Now this very welcome addition. Bailey writes in a unique way looking at scripture through Middle Eastern eyes. He’s one of those few authors who, in whatever they write, are always worth reading. Simply wonderful. I loved it.

good shepherd

HILDA OF WHITBY – A SPIRITUALITY FOR NOW

The North Yorkshire fishing port of Whitby rates as one of my favourite UK places. I’ve long been fascinated by the haunting ruins of its vast cliff-top Abbey. Nearly 1400 years ago, St Hilda, a Celtic nun, established the northern centre of Christianity here. This is Hilda’s inspiring story, expertly told and a pleasure to read.

Hilda of Whitby

JESUS WITHOUT BORDERS

I enjoyed this book although it’s terribly American.  However, that’s the point. This is a collection of travel stories as the author journeys from the USA Bible belt to a dozen different countries, looking at Church life and meeting with Christians. The chapter on his visit to England will make you smile!

Jesus without Borders

POPE FRANCIS: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY

Jorge Bergoglio or Pope Francis has been in office for two years. The only authorised biography to date, this book fleshes out the man and his ministry in a series of revealing conversations. Written by two journalists, it provides a clear and comprehensive picture of this most unconventional of Popes.

Pope Francis

THE THIRD TARGET

Written by a New York Times best-selling author, and in the style of Spooks and Homeland, this novel pushes all the buttons for a gripping read. Highly topical; ISIS, Al Qaeda, Israel, America and Syria are all in the story. There is not that much fiction on our shelves that appeals to men, but this is one such novel that can be recommended with confidence.

978-1-4964-0531-9

THE THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE MAN

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of TTTE. Who doesn’t love these stories and who cannot recite the names of most of the engines? Yet we know a lot less about Thomas’s creator, Reverend W Awdry. Here Brian Sibley, the best-selling biographer of C.S. Lewis, unlocks Awdry; train enthusiast, storyteller, family man, eccentric, pacifist and pastor.

TTTEM lion

WHERE IS GOD AT WORK?

Has the Church given the world of work short shrift over the years? This book explores the importance, indeed the imperative, of taking your faith to work with you. The author, an ordained C of E priest, is also a tax specialist in a major corporation. He reflects on the challenges and opportunities provided to Christians by their working environment. Innovative and practical.

Where is God

Metadata for these titles: Author ISBN
Blessing (Faith Going Deeper) Andrew Davison 978-1-84825-642-2
Deep Calls to Deep Tony Horsfall 978-1-84101-731-0
George Muller: Delighted in God Roger Steer 978-1-84550-120-4
Hilda of Whitby: A Spirituality for Now Ray Simpson 978-1-84101-728-0
Jesus without Borders Chad Gibbs 978-0-310-32554-3
Pope Francis: The Authorised Biography Rubin / Ambrogetti 978-1-444-75251-9
The Good Shepherd: from Psalm 23 to NT Kenneth Bailey 978-0-281-07350-4
The Third Target Joel C. Rosenberg 978-1-4964-0531-9
The Thomas the Tank Engine Man Brian Sibley 978-0-7459-7027-1
Where is God at Work? William Morris 978-0-85721-628-1

This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Spring 2015

January 11, 2015 2 comments

Whoever said that Christian books are boring? Not so . … here is a personal selection of my ‘Ten to Note’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current period:

40 Days, 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World

Simply superb! If you missed this, you’ve missed a treat. This is Operation World Lite for all the family. Colourful and informative, a really outstanding package which deserves to do well. The maps, charts and prayer points enable adults and children to learn together whilst praying for the world.

Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land

Despite the perceived and sometimes real dangers, people still travel to Israel. I went there last year and I’m sure I would have benefited from this new BRF guide. The truth is that, alongside a Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet, you need to take a spiritual guidebook as well. This should be the one.

10 to Note 40 days 40 bites10 to Note Footsteps of Jesus

In God’s Hands – Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2015

At the heart of Archbishop’s Tutu’s faith is an unshakeable belief in the infinite value of every individual. This, coupled with his unwavering declaration of the love of God for everyone regardless of colour or faith, makes this paperback a profound reflection for the forthcoming season of Lent.

Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns

I love hymns. I collect books of hymn stories. Hymns are in danger of being lost to our culture. BBC TV’s ‘Songs of Praise’ has probably done more than most churches in keeping hymns alive in the national consciousness. Presenter Pam Rhodes selects her personal choices in this small hardback.

10 to Note In Gods hands10 to Note Love so amazing

Miracles

Sub-titled, ‘What they are, why they happen and how they can change your life’. Is this rather hefty hardback the definitive work on the subject of Miracles? You must judge for yourself, but it comes with some weighty endorsements, and attempts to navigate the middle ground between the extremes of enthusiasm and scepticism.

The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating

I heard Andy Stanley preach at his mega-church in Atlanta last year. He is the son of the better-known Charles Stanley. Above all, Andy Stanley came across as sensible, realistic and down-to-earth, with none of the usual trappings of American superstar preachers. This book deserves to do well.

10 to Note Miracles10 to Note New Rules

On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future

The Archbishop of York always seems such a joyful, solid character, and a far better role model for this country than so many of our politicians. In this book, John Sentamu edits various contributions looking at the essential values required to build a just, sustainable and compassionate society for the Britain of the future.

Presence and Encounter

I met David Benner at a counselling conference in Singapore. He had the most extraordinary impact on my life, introducing me to the constancy and beauty of God’s presence. I view that moment as a clear spiritual turning point. Anything written by Dr Benner is well worth reading – very slowly!

10 to Note On rock or sand10 to Note Presence encounter

When God Breaks In

Yes, it’s the same Michael Green – back again with a fascinating book of how Christianity is thriving and growing around the world. For me, the interest lay in his chapter of how spiritual renewal came to Singapore. Sub-titled ‘Revival can happen again’, this is truly a faith-building and timely book.

The Wisdom House

Hodder Faith do produce attractive books. This title is elegantly packaged and makes a lovely gift. I enjoyed this book of ‘life-lessons’. As a grandparent, so much of what Rob Parsons writes resonated with me. This is vintage Parsons: thought provoking, faith-full and wise. This really is a significant book.

10 to Note When God breals in10 to Note Wisdom House

This article was written in November 2014 for publication in Together Magazine (January to February 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com.

Bibliographic Metadata        
Title Author Publisher ISBN
40 Days 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World Trudi Parkes Christian Focus 9781781914014
Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land Perry Buck BRF 9780857463456
In God’s Hands (ABC Lent Book 2015) Desmond Tutu Bloomsbury 9781472908377
Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns Pam Rhodes Lion Hudson 9780857215703
Miracles Eric Metaxas Hodder Faith 9781473604766
The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating Andy Stanley Thomas Nelson 9780310342199
On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future Editor: John Sentamu SPCK 9780281071746
Presence and Encounter David Benner Brazos Press 9781587433610
When God Breaks In Michael Green Hodder Faith 9781444787962
The Wisdom House Rob Parsons Hodder Faith 9781444745665

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Autumn 2014

September 28, 2014 2 comments

Here is a personal selection of my top ten ‘to watch’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current sales period:

EAGER TO LOVE

Spirituality writer, Richard Rohr’s books are always eagerly awaited. In this new hardback, Rohr, himself a Franciscan friar, looks closely at ‘the alternative way’ of St Francis of Assisi, one of the Christian church’s most popular saints. All in all, this is an attractive package with a stunning cover.

10 to Watch - Eager to Love10 to Watch - Gatecrashing

GATECRASHING

A remarkable book and a content-rich ministry title from one of the UK’s newest publishers. Gatecrashing is the account of the ‘24-7 Prayer Ministry’ as it has developed on the non-stop party island of Ibiza. This book deserves to do very well and is well worth stocking in some depth.

10 to Watch - Growing up socialHeartLioness_cover

GROWING UP SOCIAL

OK, so how long do you spend on a screen these days? For children, the statistics relating to screen time are astonishing. Gary Chapman (of 5 Love Languages fame) and Arlene Pellicane look at ways in which families can ‘remain relational’ despite the continuing impact of technology. A timely title.

HEART OF A LIONESS

A moving testimony of a life lived with ‘sacrifice, courage and relentless love’ among the children of Uganda. Irene Gleeson or ‘Mama Irene’ describes an incredible journey of faith which led eventually to Africa and to her work for justice and child advocacy. A strong cover; this should do very well.

10 to Watch - Journalling the Bible10 to Watch - Killing Lions

JOURNALLING THE BIBLE

Spiritual Journalling is becoming increasingly popular. Corin Child, a Norfolk vicar and the vice-chair of ACW, demonstrates some creative ways to help engage with this spiritual discipline. It’s practical, easy-to-use and includes 40 ‘road-tested’ writing exercises. This surely is the type of book that cries out for effective hand-selling!

KILLING LIONS

There are not many books out there that appeal to younger men. Bestselling author, John Eldredge has teamed up with son, Samuel to explore what it means to be young and male in a western culture. Here is a series of meaningful conversations between a father and son. A fascinating topic.

10 to Watch - Play through the Bible10 to Watch - Running into No Man's Land

PLAY THROUGH THE BIBLE

Hurrah – it’s the sequel to Bake through the Bible which I just loved! Here are stories and activities for 20 weeks of games, crafts and play with young children which explore the Gospel of Luke. Described as fun and messy, obviously just right for a grandparent to buy for a grandchild, I think!

RUNNING INTO NO MAN’S LAND

The well known World War 1 poet, Woodbine Willie was not a soldier, but an Anglican chaplain who won the Military Cross for bravery. This account of his life is beautifully written, each chapter is engaging and it deserves to reach out to a very wide audience. Thought-provoking and well timed.

10 to Watch - Surprised by Scripture10 to Watch - Vanishing Grace

SURPRISED BY SCRIPTURE

Not another Tom Wright, I hear you say! Described as ‘thoughtful and provocative’, here is a collection of sermons and talks that seek to show how Bible principles can be applied to pressing contemporary issues. It’s sure to sell well, so you’ll need to extend your shelf space yet again for Professor Wright!

VANISHING GRACE – WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE GOOD NEWS?

Journalist and popular writer, Philip Yancey asks why the church tends to so often stir up negative vibes in our society. Here he poses the question, ‘How is Christianity still relevant in a post-Christian culture’? Yancey is one of the best writers of our time, with his books already regarded as classics.

Killing Lions John & Sam Eldridge Thomas Nelson 9781400206704
Eager to Love Richard Rohr Hodder Faith 9781473604018
Journalling the Bible Corin Child BRF 9781841017365
Surprised by Scripture Tom Wright SPCK 9780281069859
Running into No Man’s Land Jonathan Brant CWR 9781782592655
Vanishing Grace Philip Yancey Hodder Faith 9781444789027
Heart of a Lioness Irene Gleeson Authentic 9781780780474
Growing up Social Gary Chapman Moody Publishers 9780802411235
Gatecrashing Brian Heasley Muddy Pearl 9781910012093
Play through the Bible Alice Buckley Good Book Co. 9781909559196

This article was written in August for publication in Together Magazine (September to October 2014).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com.

Book Trade: Pressing Issues facing the Trade: The PA Year Book 2011

May 8, 2012 1 comment

Last week the deputy editor of The Bookseller described the Book Trade asBystanders watching a race that began before we were ready’. Is this apt or just plain wrong? He was writing about the global growth of the e-reading market where the statistics continue to astonish and possibly frighten us in equal measure.

The Bookseller postulated in its leader that same week; 50/50 digital-print parity could be with us by 2020. It also posed the chilling question, ‘How many Indie and chain bookshops will remain’

Why such gloom? Well, the Publishers Association had released its 2011 Yearbook, containing all the sales value and unit numbers for last year. You’ll need a strong stomach to read this as for most printers, publishers and terrestrial booksellers it makes for grim consumption. On the other side of that particular coin; for self-published authors and for publishers in the eBook market, particularly in Romance or Horror, the future looks very bright indeed. In 2011, digital accounted for a sharply growing 8% of the book market.

Physical book sales declined 4.8% to £2.9bn but when you factor in the growth of the e-Market (up 55%) at £243m, the overall decline falls to 1.9% (at £3.2bn). This represents the first drop in total book sales in more than three years – not the best place for the industry to find itself. When you take inflation into account, this fall is actually much more serious. We are going backwards, not forwards. Even export sales fell, declining by 3% (£1.2bn). It’s worth noting that exports remain almost a third of all UK invoiced sales.

Sales of print fiction – the largest category of print falling victim to the e-Reader – dropped over 10% in the year, a loss of £57m. e-Fiction popularity grew strongly to £70m but by not quite enough to cover the losses in print. Non-Fiction and Reference also fell (down 4%) but these categories were not compensated at all by additional digital sales. In fact, all print categories declined apart from some growth in School and ELT sales. The value of Children’s book sales fell by 8% on the previous year (post-Twilight).

According to the commentators these are now the pressing issues facing our trade:

(1) The speed of digital migration, (2) the vexed question of ‘discoverability’ (and the related importance of browsing in a physical shop), (3) whether DRM should or should not be embraced by the industry (with strong views either way), (4) the growing dominance of Amazon and (5) the steeply falling price of eBooks online, thus devaluing books in general.

Oh, and it’s raining as well!

Note – the PA figures as published here often differ from the Nielsen BookScan figures for the UK book market. Both are correct but each takes slightly differing approaches when compiling the data – apples and pears spring to mind.

Book Trade; eBook debate – a view from Singapore

April 6, 2011 2 comments

Next week the global book trade will gather in London for the annual London Book Fair. Once again, the ongoing eBook debate will dominate both the trade agenda and the fair programme.

The burning question continues to be, amongst all the hype and speculation, what will happen to physical book sales in the light of the widely predicted digital onslaught? Opinions range wildly from ‘Do nothing; we’ve seen this kind of thing before’ to ‘Get out quickly whilst you are still able to salvage something of value’. Is this truly a ‘Caxton’ moment or will life carry on much as it has before?

 As I write this, I’m in Singapore, probably one of the most wired societies on the planet. The answer to the question here seems to be that there is no discernable impact yet on sales, which to my mind is mildly surprising. Even the mighty Amazon has only a limited Asian presence (although there is an Amazon Japanese site). Singaporeans, if they use Amazon, log on via the UK or American sites.

I met with a significant general market distributor and they reported seeing no real impact on their business. Even Borders troubles here are put down to poor chain management rather than sales being siphoned away through digital stealth. I therefore conclude that, as in the rest of the world, no-one really knows quite what is going on although it seems clear to most in the wider trade that something pretty significant is beginning to stir in the undergrowth!

What is abundantly clear, however, is that all sections of the trade have their own particular fears and are watching the developing situation incredibly closely, leading to some sharply divergent views; 

  • Retailers – seeing their business disappearing online and wonder where it’s all going to end
  • Publishers – scrambling to find a viable rights and pricing model as authors potentially disappear from view hand-in-hand with online retailers
  • Distributors – wondering if they will be cut out of the action all together
  • Authors – either upset by inferior internet royalties or sensing new opportunities to cut out the publisher and self-publish via the big internet players such as Amazon

Back in February, the International Publishers Association (IPA) asked its various members for their views on their own embryonic eBook markets. These findings, widely reported at the time in the trade press, are worth summarising;

  •  The proliferation of smart phones and tablet computers (such as the iPad) is radically fuelling the eBook market as millions of these devices cry out for content
  • Amazon.com’s eBook sales were recently reported as surpassing their print unit sales
  • Most reference and academic journal publishing has already largely migrated online
  • USA newspapers have started to incorporate eBook sales into their regular bestseller lists
  • The UK e-market is around 18 months behind the USA – but the gap is fast shrinking
  • Amazon, Apple and Google exhibit every sign of becoming ePublishing competitors!
  • The existing copyright and territorial rights are not always relevant to the digital environment
  • The new model significantly challenges territorial marketing as eBooks are effectively global in reach
  • The proliferation and ease of digital piracy and file sharing is a major worry particularly in certain emerging markets
  • Price remains contentious as consumers expect digital texts to cost less than the printed work
  • Savings in print and distribution are largely offset by technology costs, new services and VAT
  • Surprise, surprise! French publishers are lobbying to extend fixed retail print prices to all eBooks sold in France!

The overall conclusion to all this seems to be that, yes, this market is changing faster than we realise but, in the words of IPA, ‘the day eBooks will outsell print is not imminent’.

No doubt the debate – and the opinions – will continue for a while yet.

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