Book Reviews: Hope During Struggles, Or Drawing A Circle Around Smuts

July 18, 2016



Jimfish by Christopher Hope                                                           8

Jan Smuts: Unafraid Of Greatness by Richard Steyn                     8

#Struggles by Craig Groeschel                                                        8

The Circle Maker & Draw the Circle by Mark Batterson              3


It’s likely that every author has a hankering to create, at some point in their careers, a truly epic story. One definition of “epic” includes narratives that take in a wide scope of both history and geography, taking the reader through the thrill and fascination that comes with being a part of world-changing events at an intimate level. Such tales in popular fiction – from Forrest Gump to The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared – have proved both hugely popular and enduring, and Christopher Hope’s Jimfish, named for its protagonist, is likely to have the same durability. His protagonist is race-less, an anatomical anomaly who fits none of the prejudicial categories set up by the old South African government, and as a result he fails to settle in any of the scenarios in which he finds himself, a situation that makes him an easy mark for anyone with a strong personality and an agenda. There are plenty of those around, so Hope doesn’t have to get too inventive as he comes up with a succession of crazy characters who take charge of each chapter of Jimfish’s destiny. Hope’s style is droll and dry, making the heavy, hard-hitting satire involved extremely palatable, though no less effective for being so entertaining. Jimfish’s naivete and compassion make him a soft target on the one hand, but also too unsophisticated to know when he’s in mortal danger, which makes him an unlikely leader in even less likely situations. Jimfish’s travels see him meeting and interacting with a succession of dictators – communism is gleefully lampooned – whose regimes seem to crumble dramatically when their unexpected visitor comes to town. The ways in which Hope dissembles these set-ups, which are beautifully researched but presented in a way that takes the tedious politics and bureaucracy  out of the equation, is as enjoyable to read as it is masterfully written. Hope’s delivered something that dissects that state of the human race with an unwaveringly caustic perspective and yet is a breeze to read. Funny throughout, but with constant reasons to swallow your giggles. – BD


Crafford’s biography of Jan Smuts was on our bookshelves when I was a boy. Having as a ten-year old listened in on a very crackly radio to the broadcast of the statesman’s funeral, I read the book. Since then I have read several more biographies of Smuts, and numerous other works referring to him. Richard Steyn has obviously built on solid foundations, and this book is the most satisfying account of Smuts I have yet read. It is beautifully written. The narrative flows and the issues are woven into that story. The  person of JC Smuts is wonderfully alive. His extraordinary intellect, his vibrant interest in the natural world, his capacity for leadership, his strong commitments, his determination, his energy, his weaknesses, his awe-inspiring grasp of international affairs, his mastery of the written word, his inability to listen to lesser minds, his relationships: all these are vividly recounted. There are no extra words. The writing is terse, tense and clear. Smuts’s extraordinary academic career (he began school at  age 12) took him to Stellenbosch and thence to Cambridge. He must be regarded as one of the great intellects of the 20th century. Einstein in 1936 said of Smuts that he was one of only eleven men in the world who conceptually understood the theory of relativity. His work on holism did not receive universal acclaim, but he was, in 1931, President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and later Chancellor of Cambridge University. This is the same man who at age 31, chafing from bureaucratic inaction in Pretoria, went into the field and led a commando that made an incursion into the British-held Cape. Steyn gives a graphic account, drawn of course from Denys Reitz, of the iron will, courage and the fortitude Smuts displayed. In due course he would become a member of the British War Cabinet, adviser to Churchill, confidant of kings and a Field-Marshal. His international career was equally remarkable: he was involved in the Peace of Vereeniging, the Paris Conference of 1919, and the peace negotiations that ended the Second World War. He drafted documents that were the foundation for the League of Nations, and then was a leading figure in establishing the United Nations. Offered the opportunity to remain on the international stage, he committed himself to a political role in South Africa. Steyn gives an excellent account of the changing political landscape and how Smuts both shaped and was shaped by affairs at home. He was a man of extraordinary energy and integrity. He could be ruthless, as in the strike of 1922. And of course, despite championing a Charter of Human Rights at international level, he was unable to break through his own naïve and paternalistic perceptions of the African people. And the man who saw the folly of invading Germany only on the western front was incapable of listening to his own cabinet in 1948: he refused to consider revising the delimitation of rural constituencies, suffering an astonishing defeat by DF Malan, once a member of his Sunday School class and a friend. In closing, Steyn includes a very good series of chapters discussing Smuts the man: his intellect, his beliefs, his understanding of ecology, his relationships with women, his compromises on racial issues, and his patriotism. This is a book worth reading: in a day of superficial debate we need to revisit the history of our country and the extraordinary contribution of Jan Christiaan Smuts. – RH


Craig Groeschel understands information and communication technology very well indeed: he has built up the pastoral and teaching ministry of his church utilising technology. He knows of course that we as human beings have a capacity for creating what is worthwhile and then using it for destructive purposes. He has, like many of us, a love-hate relationship with technology. Each chapter  of #Struggles deals with important issues in our current world; issues affecting individuals as well as our common life. This book is both a plea that we understand the problems and a practical guide to regaining control of our lives: “It’s time to put technology back in its place and it’s time to love God with all our hearts,” as Groeschel says. The book is addressed to Christians, but much of the material would be valuable to any counsellor, parent or young person of any persuasion. The first chapter deals with the age-old struggle with comparisons, now becoming life-threatening because of the obsession with selfies, other forms of postings, and the technical possibility of projecting totally false images. Relationships based on technology are equally problematic. Groeschel draws on his considerable pastoral experience as well as on broader resources, understanding that technology can enhance real relationships and help keep communication open. It can also, however, enable us to create relationships that have no substance and little satisfaction. “Friend” does not mean what it used to. Presence with others is essential to relationship. I love one piece of advice: ”Don’t just pray for people; pray with them.” There follows a plea for establishing authenticity. Oliver Cromwell insisted that the artist painting his portrait show him “warts and all”. Today we airbrush, auto-correct, and filter. Selfie-obsession (literally millions are posted every year) is changing the way we relate to one another. Conversations of any sort are being replaced by one-way communication. A good dictum: “Everything we say should be true, but not everything true should be said.” We are all familiar with the problem of insensitivity, or “desensitisation”. We are exposed to the latest drama or tragedy and we react in short-term: our outrage is communicated and shared with thousands, for a week or so, and then some other disaster or sorrow “goes viral”. Groeschel analyses the problem extremely well. The book is worth reading if just for this analysis. Ultimately, “clicking is clean; compassion is messy”. Reviving integrity is considered in the chapter on pornography. Pornography is obviously a huge challenge to individuals in their own relationships and is a reality in the lives of many professing Christians. The joy of being a constant critic! The sorrow of being constantly criticised! And the waves of slander, gossip and malice and facile  half-truths that can engulf the victim and destroy the perpetrators: impersonal technology makes all this so much easier and so much more dangerous. The next chapter is entitled, “Reclaiming Worship”. It is not about how and what to sing but about the way we idolise technology: it can consume us, seduce us. The author quotes Tim Keller: “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘if I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I know I’ll have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure’.” Do you know the word nomophobia? It is “the fear of being without a mobile device or beyond mobile ‘phone contact.” Groeschel unpacks the psychological dependence on e-mails and cell-phones; a frightening trend among Americans. It means, of course, an obsession with both the device and the electronic communication. He pleads for a “cyber Sabbath”. This is a very practical, very challenging chapter. The concluding section is on keeping technology in its place. Again, down-to-earth, grounded in pastoral experience. This is a very good book. I commend it to all Christians, including pastors. – RH


The Circle Maker & Draw the Circle by Mark Batterson comprises two books, the first of which appeared in 2011 and the second in 2012. I reviewed the first when it was published. I have reread it thinking that possibly I might find something to modify the opinion I then expressed. I like the book even less than I did then. This is an American-style, go-getter, how-to-do it book on prayer. An effective way to get God to accede to your requests. Of course you must pray and seek God’s will first – this tells you how to do that, too. The piece takes the form of the story of Batterson’s building up a mega-church in the heart of Washington DC, and is about vision, prayer, donors, faith and so forth. Undoubtedly the church is valuable and does good things. The account of the real estate deals and the inflow of money, however, makes me believe that God operates one way in affluent USA, and quite differently among the Christians of Syria, Palestine and what is loosely termed the Third World. Or do the latter simply not follow the prescriptions of this book? I believe that successful Christian leaders often underestimate the force of their own personalities. There are alternative explanations for some of the “miraculous” answers to prayers, but these are not explored. Draw the Circle is a 40-day step-by-step manual. There is much good material in it; many good anecdotes and some challenging personalities who are quoted. However, there is nothing new about prayer except the 40-day exercise. This is as remote as it is possible to be from the New Testament’s account of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. It is all about victorious, triumphant Christianity; successful saints. There are many books on prayer. Some are tried and tested. Some are spiritually challenging. Some reflect the spiritual journey as it really is. I’d rather reread Andrew Murray than wade through this again. And I’d recommend others to do the same. – RH