Wednesday, April 30, 2008


My journey as a Christian, lover/husband, father, and pastor/teacher/ evangelist has covered different terrains during threescore and ten years. Here’s a rough chronological journey listing books that influenced me ‘at the time’. Remember, I’m not ‘back there’, stuck where-I-was. I was brought up in a ‘gentle fundamentalist’ church (Open or Plymouth Brethren) and I’m still ‘evangelical’ but now also somewhat ‘progressive’ and ‘catholic’, conservative about a few things but also radical, encouraging individual initiative but also committed to social justice, compassion and community. As Richard Rohr says in his latest book (Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality) we must incorporate - not reject - Torah/tradition, Prophetic/dissenting perspectives and Wisdom/mysticism – all of these - into a full and complete life of faith, hope and love...

Another caveat: My calling is to minister mainly to practising pastors and to ex-pastors, so this list is slanted towards ‘pastoral theology’ rather than, say, academic theology, or missiology etc. Other gaps in this list include social issues like homosexuality, corporate worship, counselling, pastoral leadership/management, general literature (novels, poetry) - important areas but which would require many more words/titles. I’ve also majored on recommending authors who were pastors for a substantial period of their lives as well as being well-read scholars (Sangster, Claypool, Peterson, Rohr, McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor etc.). A longer list compiled half a decade ago can be found here.

1. THE BIBLE. As a youngster I was captivated by the wonderful stories of God’s grace in the Bible (KJV), and also its magnificent poetry (eg. Isaiah 40, which as a teenager I learned off by heart). I knew more about ‘dispensational prophecy’ than the apostles did, and read the Bible through several times. (The most readable recent translation: Eugene Peterson’s The Message. The best for study and corporate worship: the NRSV.)

2. ADVENTURE STORIES – especially R M Ballantyne’s; and the William, Biggles and Deerfoot books - gave me as a child a love of reading for pleasure.

3. THE KNEELING CHRISTIAN (by ‘An Unknown Christian’) instilled in me the conviction that genuine Christian commitment is nothing if not fervent. BIOGRAPHIES – of people like George Muller, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, C H Spurgeon and the Ecuador Martyrs – inspired me in my formative years to ‘be the best I can be’ for God and others.

4. C S LEWIS (especially Mere Christianity) and JOHN STOTT (Basic Christianity) were helpful in my accepting orthodox Christian tenets as ‘believable’.

5. MILLAR’S SCM COMMENTARY ON LUKE and (later) WALTER BRUEGGEMANN’S ON THE PSALMS (among others, eg, Abraham Heschel) encouraged me to believe that expounding the Scriptures can be instructive, and interesting and challenging.

6. W E SANGSTER’S sermons, books on homiletics, and magnum opus The Pure in Heart (on spirituality) were wonderful ‘integrative’ elements in my formation as a young pastor. Two decades later Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and later again his Streams of Living Water helped in the quest for an overview of historical/ecumenical spirituality.

7. I got JOHN CLAYPOOL’S sermons once a month by mail for many years, and stopped everything to read them: he’s still the best ‘writing preacher’ in the English language, I reckon. His Tracks of a Fellow Struggler – sermons on Job while his 9 year old daughter Laura Lue was dying of leukemia – has comforted many in their grief. Following Claypool, I think Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons delight me the most.

8. Three Catholic authors who have enriched/inspired: THOMAS MERTON (his best - New Seeds of Contemplation), DOM HELDER CAMARA (especially A Thousand Reasons for Living), and HENRI NOUWEN (start with either The Wounded Healer or Creative Ministry).

9. My favourite contemporary author is RICHARD ROHR. Start (slowly) with his latest book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, then Everything Belongs: the Gift of Contemplative Prayer.

10. For young/new Christians no one beats BRIAN McLAREN. His best, I think, is A Generous Orthodoxy. For those enquiring about Christianity give them Finding Faith: A Search for What is Real.

11. Interfaith? Remember the dictum ascribed to Zwi Werblowsky: ‘There are some things about a given religion which can only be understood from inside and some things about the same religion which can only be understood from outside.’ Now here’s a surprise choice perhaps: begin with KHALED HOSSEINI’S The Kite Runner. It gives us brilliant insights into the lives of Muslim families in Afghanistan (and should help soften some of our bigotry about Islam).

12. The number one issue in western theology is the current ‘Jesus Quest’. Conservatives will like CRAIG EVANS’ Fabricating Jesus (2007) or BEN WITHERINGTON’S What Have they done With Jesus? (2006), but I would suggest that a wider stance should be explored – most easily with the dialogues TOM WRIGHT had with MARCUS BORG on The Meaning of Jesus (2000) and JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN on The Resurrection of Jesus (2006).

13. Christianity and Social Justice? Start with JIM WALLIS’S Seven Ways to Change the World (2008).

14. Finally, anything by EUGENE PETERSON is excellent (though there’s quite a bit of repetition in his various writings). His Take and Read: Spiritual Reading, an Annotated List is a good guide, and his recent books on Spiritual Theology – Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (2005) and The Jesus Way (2007) – are an excellent summary/miscellany of his ideas.

Ponder: ‘Beware of the man of one book’ (Thomas Aquinas). ‘The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency - the belief that the here and now is all there is.’ (Allan Bloom ).

In another article I’ll look at best/favourite blogs and websites.

Rowland Croucher

April 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

DEAR MR RUDD (Ed. Robert Manne)

The Gist of DEAR MR RUDD (Ed. Robert Manne, 2008).

Here’s a book addressed to Australia’s recently-elected Prime Minister,
in which 20 experts (mostly left-of-centre, as you’d expect if they’re
chosen by Robert Manne) offer ideas and suggestions for Australia’s
future. This was a rush-job, written and edited during the couple of
months after the November 2007 election, but with some brilliant
offerings by academics and others on such key issues as Aboriginal
affairs, climate change, the economy, human rights, education, health,
the republic... and much more.

Here I’ve selected a fairly representative miscellany of
opinions/suggestions – one from each contributor. Add these to the 2020
Summit ideas, and Mr Rudd has quite an agenda in front of him, eh?

‘”Dear Mr Rudd” hopes to help resume the conversation between public
intellectuals and government, which broke down so badly during the
Howard years’ (Robert Manne)

‘On what basis should Australia remain a constitutional monarchy? There
is no credible argument left... If the queen died tomorrow, the streets
of our cities and towns would not be lined with thousands of mourners as
they were in January 1936 with the death of George V, when the empire
“stood still and silent in grief”’ (Mark McKenna)

‘Over the last decade, this nation has experienced a diatribe from
ultra-conservatives attacking Indigenous people’s quest for recognition
as a distinct culture and acknowledgement of past injustices’ (Pat Dodson)

‘John Howard presented himself as the protector of the national culture
against the social engineering of the left-wing elites who had got their
hands on state power’ (Geoff Gallop)

‘Viewers of the televised segments of [Question Time in Parliament]
would be surprised to learn that past speakers’ rulings... forbid the
barracking, cat-calling and other nonsense that moves so many of those
viewers to write furious letters about the poor quality of their
representatives’ (Harry Evans)

‘”Yes Minister’s” Sir Humphrey put it epigrammatically: “If you want to
do those damn silly things, don’t do them in such a damn silly way”.
Ministers need their departments’ help... There has not been a single
case since 1901 when a minister has been forced to resign for actions of
the public service about which he did not know or could not reasonably
have been expected to know’ (Patrick Weller)

‘After almost 120 years it is time to cut the labour movement’s Gordian
knot, that most intricate relationship between the fortunes of the
political wing (the Australian Labor Party) and the industrial wing
(trade unions affiliated to the ALP’ (Mark Aarons, no less!)

‘Howard [built] his credentials as a national security leader largely on
his close identification with the personality and policies of the US
president, and his standing suffered accordingly as the president and
his policies were discredited... American policy is drifting in a
dangerous direction – towards an attempt to build a coalition of
democracies designed to contain China’s challenge to American primacy’
(Hugh White)

‘[Minister for Foreign Affairs] Stephen Smith... is well-placed to
engage with neighbouring states in a civil rather than a patronising
manner... The Tampa affair ... was orchestrated to win back the votes
of bigots... Achieving one’s [foreign policy] goals requires a
willingness to listen rather than preach’ (William Maley)

‘When arguments get heated, battles so often occur over words: are
asylum-seekers refugees or queue-jumpers? Is Hamas a terrorist
organization or liberation movement? Was Australia settled or invaded?’
(Martin Krygier)

‘[Professor Ross] Garnaut described the response to climate change as
“the defining challenge of our time”... Over the years the aluminium
industry has made more threats than any other to take its business to
countries without emission restrictions, and has bankrolled the
greenhouse mafia... If unconstrained, aviation emissions will account
for half or more of Australia’s total emissions by 2050 and will
undermine all other efforts’ (Clive Hamilton)

‘An independent, expertise-based Murray-Darling Basin Authority... like
the Reserve Bank [should] be required to communicate with great
discipline, always mindful of the weight given to its statements’ (Mike

‘The fundamental economic fact of Rudd’s victory is that he won in a
boom. This is rare... Ultimately, economic growth comes from two
sources: you can get more people into work and/or get the existing
people to work more efficiently... Australia is suffering a skills
shortage, as several industries struggle to find the qualified employees
they need to expand and grow’ (Andrew Charlton)

‘The Australian health-care “system” is a structural and organizational
shambles that has nevertheless produced world-class results... In the
absence of any grand over-arching vision, the system is a product of one
hundred years of short-term fixes... We have too few staff for too many
hospitals, many [of which] are located where people used to live rather
than where they live now’ (Bill Bowtell)

‘Australia is the only [OECD] nation with the dubious distinction of
combining long hours – over one-fifth of all employees work more than
fifty hours per week – with very high levels of casualization... In his
essay on Bonhoeffer, Rudd wrote that “the time has come for a vision for
Australia not limited bythe narrowest of definitions of our national
self-interest.” The family must not be “sacrificed on the altar of
market reality.” Two large British studies... concluded that “high
levels of group care before the age of three (and particularly before
the age of two) were associated with higher levels of antisocial
behaviour at age three”.’ (Anne Manne)

‘The “Bringing Them Home” report... found that race-based child-removal
policies were a special instance of genocide... This is crystal clear,
for instance, in Western Australia, where the instructions and
justification were aimed at eliminating the entire “race”... Throughout
the last decade , Andrew Bolt, Christopher Pearson and their ilk have
engaged... in polluting Australian political debate with a vicious
account of the nation’s history... I have heard the life stories of many
of the victims and read the documentary evidence’ (Marcia Langton)

‘The ALP’s “Forward with Fairness” policy [re workplace relations]
adopts the notion of “fairness” as its underpinning ethical principle.
By contrast, the Howard government’s WorkChoices revolution arose
primarily from an economic perspective...’ (Jill Murray)

‘House prices are now less affordable in Australia than in almost all
other developed countries... Our three levels of government should
cooperate in providing... a scheme to provide subsidies and other
incentives for institutional investors in low-rent housing... At least
initially, the scheme should be managed by non-profit organizations’
(Julian Disney)

‘Australia has just two universities in the top 100 [Shanghai Jiao Tong]
universities [in the world]... ANU at fifty-seven and Melbourne at
seventy-nine. Canada... has two universities in the top forty’ (Simon

‘The arts need government patronage because they create minds that
matter... The optimistic claims made by Keating: “Culture creates
wealth... Culture employs... Culture adds value”... Artist fees in most
art forms remain pitifully low’ (Juliana Engberg).

(After reading these chapters with hundreds more generalizations and
suggestions like the above, I’ve moved Mr. Rudd up my prayer-list!)

Rowland Croucher

April 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008


The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini).

If the first casualty of the War on Terror (as with any war) is truth, Hosseini’s best-sellers The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) are a terrific read if you want an insider’s view of the situation in Afghanistan. Remember the dictum ascribed to Zwi Werblowsky (Martin Buber Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem): ‘There are some things about a given religion which can only be understood from inside and some things about the same religion which can only be understood from outside.’ Hosseini gives us an insider’s insights into the lives of Muslim families in Afghanistan (and should help soften some of our bigotry about Islam).

Here we’ll look briefly at The Kite Runner. However, as the Chilean writer, Isabel Allende says, A Thousand Splendid Suns is ‘unforgettable’. For a review of that book visit here and for a summary of the Taliban’s less-than-creative (!) ways of taking the fun out of life start here.

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul (1965) and with his family sought political asylum in the U.S. in 1980. He is now a medico and an envoy for the UNHCR, deeply involved in the plight of refugees throughout the world.

Last time I looked there were 2348 customer reviews on for The Kite Runner. It was Hosseini’s debut novel, and offers dramatic insights into Afghanistan’s political turmoil, from the last days of the monarchy to the collapse of the Taliban regime. All that is backdrop to the story of two boys - Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman, and Hassan, the son of Amir's father's servant (who are ethnic Hazaras). The boys are inseparable; they compete in kite-running competitions, and share dreams and stories, until something unspeakable happens, severing the relationship. After Amir and his father flee to America, the guilt and shame of that event still haunts Amir, who later returns to his war-torn country to rescue Hassan’s son after the Taliban murdered his parents.

Many of the great themes of literature and life are here: guilt and redemption, character and country, betrayal and loyalty, courage and cowardice and hope, war and terror and tragedy, children who are motherless and/or fatherless, bullying, rape, and the persecution of minorities...

We have to remind ourselves that this is a (haunting) morality tale – a novel, not a memoir. The plot twists are quite amazing (if sometimes implausible). When we meet ordinary people like these who are swept up in the turmoil of history, it ‘gives pause’ to our simplistic views about (a) how to relate to refugees, and (b) the kaleidoscopic varieties of belief inhabiting all major religions, in this case Islam.

The Kite Runner
was also produced as an audiobook read by the author, and was adapted into a film of the same name released in December, 2007. Hosseini’s official website is here.

Rowland Croucher
April 2008.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

THINGS HIDDEN (Richard Rohr)

THINGS HIDDEN: Scripture as Spirituality, Richard Rohr (2008).

Franciscan prophet and teacher Richard Rohr is a mystic rather than a systematic theologian: indeed he believes ‘systematizing’ theology runs the risk of doing it violence and missing the point: theology is to be experienced in a life of faith, hope and love, not organized into creeds.

Is he ‘evangelical’? I would say ‘yes’ though he doesn’t use the term of himself: he has an unqualified commitment to Jesus as Lord and God’s special revelation of God’s character. Is he ‘progressive’? Yes: for example he likes Marcus Borg and reads the mainline liberal biblical scholars. Is he a dogmatist/ fundamentalist? Definitely not: any exclusionary system which divides humans made in God’s image into ‘our people’ and ‘those [heretics] not like us’ is alien to the will of God as experienced in the life and teaching of Jesus.

He writes in the Introduction: ‘Only when inner and outer authority come together do we have true spiritual wisdom. We have for too long insisted on outer authority alone, without any teaching of prayer, inner journey and maturing consciousness. The results for the world and for religion have been disastrous… I offer these reflections to again unite what should never have been separated: sacred Scripture and Christian spirituality.’

He quotes Eugene Ionesco with approval: ‘Overexplanation separates us from astonishment.’ Example: the humble recipient of God’s love in the Eucharist/communion, who gazes at Christ on the cross with awe and wonder and love, is far more likely to ‘get the point’ than a theologian who organizes dogma into theories of the atonement.

Here are some representative quotes:

• ‘Suffering seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering… as “whenever you are not in control”.’

• ‘If you are not trained in a trust of mystery and some degree of tolerance for ambiguity, frankly you will not proceed very far on the spiritual journey. Immature religion creates a high degree of “cognitively rigid” people. If you want to hate somebody… do it for religious reasons… do it thinking you’re following some verse from the Bible. It works quite well. Your untouched egocentricity can and will use religion to feel superior and “right”.’

• ‘It is painful but necessary to be critical of your own system, whatever it is. But do know it will never make you popular. As you know the prophets are always rejected by their own (see Luke 12:50-51)… Until you are excluded from any system, you are not able to recognize the idolatries, lies or shadow side of that system. It is the privileged “knowledge of the victim”. Insiders are by nature dualistic, because they divide themselves from the so-called outsiders.’

• ‘Law is the thesis; it lays the ground against which the Prophets develop a positive antithesis… the Wisdom books are a synthesis and integration of the first two. Transcendance to higher levels of consciousness always means inclusion of the previous levels. Walter Brueggeman finds [a similar progression] in the Psalms: Psalms of Orientation (confirming Tradition), Psalms of Disorientation (the prophetic recognition of things not working or not being true) and Psalms of Reorientation (the Wisdom level of a new faith-synthesis). All three levels are affirmed in the Psalms, and unlike today, one or the other level is not called heretical or faithless. (Although people trapped at stage one will normally call people at the other two levels “sinners” or “heretics”, which is what we see happening in the Gospels.) True transcendence always includes the previous stages and does not dismiss them.’

• ‘True orthodoxy (“right ideas”) is important, but in the Bible orthodoxy is never defined as something that happens only in the head… Jesus consistently declares people to be saved or healed who are in right relationship with him, and he never grills them on their belief or belonging systems… I observe that the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers.’

• ‘Prayer and suffering are the two primary paths of transformation. Only people who have first lived and loved, suffered and failed, and lived and loved again, are in a position to read the Scriptures in a humble, needy, inclusive and finally fruitful way.’

• ‘My lifetime of studying Jesus would lead me to summarize all of his teaching inside of two prime ideas: forgiveness and inclusion.’

It’s the best book I’ve read for a couple of years. And it’s best read devotionally, in small doses…

Rowland Croucher
April 2008

Monday, April 07, 2008


History’s Worst Decisions (Stephen Weir, 2005), History’s Greatest Scandals (Ed Wright et. al, 2006), (Murdoch Books/Pier 9).

If you want to occupy part of your holidays – as I have just done – reading about history’s idiots/ idiotics, you can’t go past these two 250-page volumes.

But first, a quiz to test your knowledge of some Very Important Trivia:

(Greatest Scandals): 1. America’s ‘worst president’, who according to e e cummings was ‘the only man, woman or child who could write a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors’.

2. Another US president who was ‘an introvert in an extrovert’s job’ who spent his last night in office drinking, sobbing and praying.

3. He said ‘power is the ultimate aphrodisiac’.

4. Among her lingerie she had a bullet-proof bra.

5. This statement got into Bartlett’s ‘Familiar Quotations’: ‘If “is” means is and never has been, that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.’

6. When she died at 67 tales persisted that she’d been crushed by a horse while attempting to have sex.

7. ‘Demons made me do it but Oral Roberts cast them out over the phone’.

8. He created headlines like ‘Man Raped by Banana’.

9. This evangelist amassed a personal fortune of $158 million which he stashed in 47 different accounts – and they were only the ones in his name.

10. Neighbours in the Sydney suburb of Palm Beach heard her crying at night for months on end.

(Worst Decisions): 11. He tried to kill his mother, three times with poison, and one by rigging the ceiling to cave in while she lay in bed.

12. This pope lasted only a month before a papal sceptre was broken over him and he was carried off to a monastery.

13. His army was destroyed because the enemy moved backwards faster than his could move forwards.

14. His rabbits migrated faster than any colonizing mammal anywhere in the world.

15. Stanley delivered a territory 80 times larger than Belgium to him, and was then deemed his private property – a personal domain probably without precedent in history.

16. It was then the world’s largest movable object – with four funnels, only three of which were actually usable; one was just for ostentation.

17. He was good in history and weak in geography, and ordered a ridiculous assault with inexperienced soldiers against an impregnable terrain with no strategic importance at all. He also said ‘I don’t understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.’

18. Another military leader ordered operations which resulted in over a million casualties in six months with absolutely no gain whatsoever.

19. He killed half the leadership of his country during two years.

20. ‘This outstandingly safe drug can be given with complete safety to pregnant mothers without adverse effects on mother or child.’ Result: 12,000 born with birth defects, and of those one-third died in their first year.

You get the idea. The authors are British, but the Idiotica covers a good selection from all times and places (the earliest – Adam and Eve!). They write interestingly, but the proof-readers did a poor job (with, for example, a couple of dozen wrongly hyphenated words in the middle of lines).

Richard Rohr says we all need a good experience of humiliation every day. These 80-odd humiliations are of a magnitude that is staggering. You’ll gratefully pray through these chapters, as I did, ‘There but for the grace of God go I… Thank you Lord that my stupidities were played out on a much smaller stage.’ And the famous line from George Santayana kept going through my head: ‘Those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.’

1. Warren Harding 2. Richard Nixon 3. Henry Kissinger 4. Imelda Marcos 5. Bill Clinton 6. Catherine the Great 7, Jimmy Swaggart 8. Rev. Canaan Banana, president of Zimbabwe 1980-87) 9. Jim Bakker 10. Evdokia Petrov 11. Nero 12. Benedict V 13. Napoleon 14. Thomas Austin 15. King Leopold 16. The Titanic 17. Winston Churchill (Gallipoli) 18. Douglas Haig 19. Joseph Stalin 20. Drug company Grunenthal’s drug thalidomide.

Rowland Croucher
April 2008


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Melbourne, Australia
Husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, pastor, teacher, writer, used-to-be-academic... See here for more: