Book Review: ‘The tenth parallel’ by Eliza Griswold

My monthly review of a wonderful book for those of us navigating the space between faith and doubt.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Accept no substitutes for a writer who travels to wild places and talks to people. Eliza Griswold (what a wonderful name, like something out of Dickens or Harry Potter) explores in her book the peoples of latitude ten degrees north of the equator.

She concentrates on the human geography, the conflict between the desert and the sown, the aristocratic nomad and the dirt-digging farmer, and — her real purpose — between Islam and Christianity.

She’s either fearless, or crazy, in her pursuit of former terrorists and other dodgy characters, as well as of the people who are perhaps just the collateral damage in this turbulent region– the two Muslims who were to be caned for suspected adultery, who just wanted to marry so they would not be shamed, for example.

She meets plenty of missionaries and zealots on both sides. On the way she is led to Christ by Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, an experience that was evidently more satisfying to him than it was to her.

Halfway round the world she meets a former mujahideen trying a new career selling beauty products. And on and on.

Eliza Griswold resists cynicism, stereotyping and the urge to fit what she is seeing into some coherent analysis. She’s very likeable. The daughter of a radical, liberal bishop, her very puzzled poking around in this confusion is to me almost a vital sign of a living faith.

I loved the contrast (in a rare personal aside) between her own nail-chewed hands and the worthily worn ones of her professional-Christian mother. Hers is a ‘doubt’ that is the penumbra of bright belief.

I have one little caveat which is that her library-work isn’t always quite as excellent as her reportage. Her footnotes sometimes lead us to other popular accounts, not authoritative sources. There’s the odd place where she’s surely oversimplifying, for example: ‘Under the Roman Empire, the practice of Christianity was punishable by death until 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine officially legalized it.’ (p 78). Rome’s persecution was patchy and sporadic.

After reading this book I’ve learnt more, and understood less, about the people at the join between Islam and Christianity , an area mightily unwritten about and largely unknown to the Western world.

A question for us

Scattered‘Do you love me?’

Inside all of us–I guess and hope, because I’m surely not the only one–is a red-faced, awkward, sweating, small and ugly person.  It’s when that person and Christ talk together the real work is done.

Peter and Jesus had that conversation. Ignore their history, their beards, the sound of lapping waves and crunching footsteps, the barbecued fish in their teeth. Ignore their age and size, big blokes, rugby team blokes. Ignore Peter’s  secret tears, recriminations, justifications, sleepless nights, self-doubt, arguments with himself and despair.

Here’s the conversation:

‘Do you love me?’

‘Lord–you know.’

‘Tend my lambs.’

The Silence

Silence‘Every mouth will be silenced’ (Romans 3:19)

I love that thought. A whole world’s chatter dying away as Christ looks on. Some people are looking straight at him. Others are talking among themselves, and they get a poke from their neighbours, or they look up.

I don’t think Christ looks on censoriously, the teacher about to give a telling off.

His look is just grace. Undermining our arguments. Dismantling our complaints. Shining on our tarnished trophies. Grace, grace, grace.

I feel hot, red, awkward, unworthy as the silence falls and the gaze continues.

So do we all.



Walking the space between what we have to do and what we love to do

Don’t seize up or blow up, fill up.


It’s kind of basic to being a Christian. We want to know God’s will and follow it. You can’t call Christ ‘Lord, Lord’ and then go off and ignore what he says. We have to pursue obedience.

But for me the Christian life only works when we pursue joy as well.

My experience is that we try to do things faithfully and obediently but without joy we can manage to a certain extent—and we have to, because we all have to do stuff we don’t particularly like doing.

But if that’s all we do, and we do it for a long time, we start to run out of steam, get cynical, feel trapped. We may not know how it happened—we never wanted it to happen—but we know it has happened or is currently now happening. Externally we can look fine but internally, we know things are not so good.

(Of course the other side is true too. If we merely pursue pleasure and happiness, that too becomes rather empty.)

A kind of repentance

Somehow—it seems to me—the fruitful place is when we are under the influence of both faithfulness and joy. We obey Christ. But we lean towards, move into, preferentially choose, those tasks and roles that seem to answer a deep longing in our hearts, those things that nourish us, those things we love. ‘I have food’ said Jesus to the disciples, ‘of which you know nothing.’ He found joy and nourishment in his obedience.

Choosing joy as well is obedience is a kind of repentance. Why? Because it is turning away from a focus on jobs to be done and gaps to be filled and turning back to Christ himself. It is realizing, again, we have an audience of just One, and everything we do we do for him. It is seeking to have him re-create us again, a bit more in his image. It’s admitting our need and helplessness, not looking to him for a medal.

Revolution in the air

But it’s OK

In a single month a while ago I made four visits and had four snapshots of quiet revolution.

  1. A tour round Jimmy’s Nightshelter in central Cambridge
  2. Taking some furniture to be recycled at the Emmaus community north of Cambridge
  3. Buying some fairly traded food at the Daily Bread Cooperative in the North of Cambridge
  4. Popping in to see the manager of our own St Martin’s Centre for the elderly.

Each place exuded peace and a kind of a quiet well-ordered-ness. Each place runs through the hands of many volunteers and a number of full-time staff who are not paid well. Each fights almost daily battles with bureaucracy and politics that threaten to capsize the whole ship. Yet each provides a vital service to a large part of a city.

Each is an expression of Christian faith that is unsung, long-term, wholly appropriate for the 21st century.

Then I read this quote — more appropriate to regions outside Europe, but still relevant.

‘Alongside the political, economic, social and technological revolutions … which have commanded enormous media attention and coverage … there has been this far less trumpeted, but equally important revolution in the status and standing of worldwide Christianity. Few have taken on board what is happening.’ (Kenneth Hylsom-Smith To the ends of the earth ISBN 978 1 842 274 750)

A family business

It’s not a distraction.

Recently waved goodbye to son going to the USA to study a PhD. Both my children are earning Master’s degrees from Cambridge University this year. A nice thing to slip in at parties.

graduationCall me a slow learner, but I am just waking up to how important family life is. Careers run in families: doctors beget doctors. Lawyers spawn lawyers. Even criminality runs in families. Faith, too, trickles through families; not always–every generation makes its choices–but noticeably.

People who are interested in mission are usually concerned with how the rule of God in people’s hearts spreads out of one network into another. How–we usually ask–does it break new ground? How does it cross cultures?

But that focus can stop us seeing what is in front of us. The kingdom of God spreads through networks of loving relationships that already exist. It travels–at least some of the time–from parent to child. Sometimes it skips a generation or two, but up it bubbles again, like a hidden stream.

Do you have Christian ancestors? Do we ask God for Christian descendants, generations not yet born?

Secret of moving big things: stand still

Pretty cool.

Is this a law of the universe?

To make the maximum impact for good with your life:

  • keeping doing the simple things that you love and are good at.

It might be called the ‘horse chestnut principle’. If a conker can avoid being stolen by squirrels or collected by children, it can become a horse chestnut tree, huge and lovely.

horse chestnut tree
Attached by fungus, but still doing the business, the horse chestnut outside our our house

Here’s an open letter, from a much-loved Sri Lankan Christian leader Ajith Fernando, to elderly theologian J I Packer. It’s a testimonial to Packer’s long lifetime, to Ajith Fernando’s consistent service, and to the compounding power of faithfulness.

The Rock that is higher than we are

And we don’t quite know how we get there

Rocks, Sedona“Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child.”
― Frederick Buechner

So stirred by this quote. I think we can pray in many ways. Sometimes it’s good to lift up people we love and situations we care about, working through our lists.

Sometimes we can worship.

Sometimes we work our way through a psalm, or a liturgy.

Some of us like to use the Lord’s Prayer as a set of headings or jumping-off points, a kind of road map to guide our thoughts.

But I wonder if this best sort of prayer is beyond all of these. It’s to do with unpacking our problems before Christ until we come to a place, not necessarily of understanding, but of peace.

Or clambering up an impossible problem in prayer, scrabbling for a foothold, until again, Jesus reaches down and gives us something to hold onto, something that holds us and gives us quiet, happy hearts. The view all around may be terrifying,  but we are safe and snug, supported by some promise or gift of trusting that is beyond our understanding.

We have stumbled onto the rock that is higher than we are: Christ’s own trustworthiness. We don’t know how it happens, but it happens.