Book Review, Theology

Nick Page, ‘A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity’ (Review)


When I first thumbed through my Christmas-gifted copy of Nick Page’s book (2013, available here), I wondered what perspective the writer was coming from. It wasn’t immediately obvious whether he was a skeptic aiming to debunk Christianity based on the sins of the church, or whether it was a tongue-in-cheek, in-house reckoning of Christian history with the goal of bringing it a bit more down to earth. It turns out, I think, to be somewhat of a mix, as indeed the subtitle indicates: “a history of 2000 years of Saints, Sinners, Idiots and Divinely-inspired Troublemakers.” In an engaging and often hilarious style, Page writes from within the church, but certainly attempts to pen a sobering exposé of the church’s failures, bringing figures to light that have enjoyed too little recognition for their contributions to “true Christianity.” He also aims to form a picture of a simple faith that endures in the unsung, heroic masses despite the frequent moral corruption of the upper echelons of Church leadership.

Covering the period from the Resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem to the events of September 11th 2001 in New York City, Page undertakes what would be a mammoth task for any historian in trying to cover the incredibly long and diverse history of an incredibly varied and global movement. However, in order to focus somewhat, Page limits himself to the history of Christianity in the Mediterranean world and, largely, the Western European church. Spanning 429 pages, there is an impressive amount of material, offering a broad sketch that aims to deal with each period relatively equally rather than zooming in on typically emphasised issues and figures.

Page’s humorous style is the most attractive facet of the work. It’s not often I physically laugh out loud while reading works of history. The muted, dry tone of delivery leads to innumerable quote-worthy passages, such as this one about attitudes to sex:

“By the Middle Ages, there was hardly any legitimate opportunity for a bit of ‘it’. Around 585 the church rules that there should be neither rumpy nor pumpy for the forty day before Christmas. Nor for forty days before Easter. Nor the eight days after Pentecost. Nor on the nights before the great feast days of the church. Nor on Sundays. Or Wednesdays. Or Fridays. And not for thirty days after your wife gave birth to a boy, or forty days if she gave birth to a girl. Nor five days before Communion. By my calculations that means Christians of this period were allowed sex on second Thursdays in October.”

But although Page makes you laugh, the history he presents is coherent and brings to life the interconnectedness of traditions, events and beliefs. It is a fascinating read, making entertaining and enlightening work out of a genre that is often too dense except for serious study. By adopting a no-nonsense approach that refuses to explain away former evils, the author deftly straddles two audiences. Skeptics will learn that though the saints are indeed sinful, their faith and contributions to modern values highlight a robust underlying bedrock of truth at the core of Christianity. Committed Christians, on the other hand, will see that those same saints are more human and sinful than often portrayed and certainly unworthy as objects of hagiographic worship. But for either reader, what stands out is the simplicity and strength of Christ-centred faith that shines through the shortcomings. For Page, the Church was deeply corrupted by gaining its “official” status and joining hands with power. But Christ stands against the wiles of earthly power politics and rules a kingdom of the heart. The Church has often coerced the weak and excluded the undesirable. But Christ stands with the poor, downtrodden and oppressed. The Church has too often trusted in dead rituals and decaying relics. But Christ is the living presence behind the charade.

I sympathise with Page’s outlook and goals in this book. When I was thrown into a crisis of faith studying colonial history at UCL and learning of the many horrors committed in Christ’s name, it was only the purity and centrality of Jesus Christ that drew me back. If a person’s faith is in anything but Christ, whether the Church, or leaders, or virtue, it is to be pitied. So hopefully, for many readers, this work can help knock down the whitewashed edifices that often vie for our worship, and expose the true rock that faith must be founded on.

But I do think there are some shortcomings here that deserve attention. Firstly, it is tantalising to have absolutely no indication of sources or biographical information on the author. It left me as a reader not knowing how much stock to place in some of the conclusions that were put forward on topics that I know to be controversial. What qualifies Page to make the strong statements that he does? What does he base them on? It’s hard to know and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to glean such information. This is a main gripe for me on this book.

Secondly, while I appreciate that a work of this kind cannot be as detailed as might be desired at points, I wonder whether an excessive zeal for debunking the myth of “Great Men” has at times led Page into some questionable portrayals of key figures. While it is true that all giants have clay feet, and we should beware of glossing over our heroes’ humanity, I can’t help but feel that Page takes relish in knocking influential leaders down a peg or three, thus leading him at times to verge on misinterpretation and blithe dismissal of their ideas. While notable throughout the book, this is particularly true of Reformation figures. John Calvin, for instance, he characterises as a “fundamentally…unlikeable and cold human being” (p. 321).  Luther was a “foul-mouthed, anti-Semitic bigot who would dissemble for the cause and who fell out with virtually all his friends” (p.323).

As a corollary to this, it seems Page falls somewhat into the post-modern trap of assuming that all orthodox theology, like history, is just the beliefs of the ‘winners.’ Heretics, therefore, seem to be portrayed simply as just misunderstood, left-field thinkers. While there is much to be said for the sincerity and good intentions of many that came to be known as heretics, and it was evil that some of these went to the stake (McGrath’s Heresy is good on this), Page does not sufficiently deal with why their beliefs were condemned. While some disputes were trivial and needlessly divisive, many others that Page glides over were fundamental to the nature of the gospel and do not deserve to be portrayed as unimportant or subjective. The way that ancient polemicist wrote about those condemned is undoubtedly harsh, especially to modern ears. But it is important to highlight that the early Church only condemned such beliefs after realising that their implications ended up denying the core of the gospel, most often the divinity and humanity of Christ.

Lastly, although Page’s praise of the simple faith of the unnamed masses is commendable, to some extent his decision to focus, quite traditionally, on European ecclesiastical history threatens to undermine his point. It is a nice notion, and the only one left when all the heroes have been torn down, but there is not much information about such people in this work. I would love to read a follow-up work from Page on a history of non-European Christianity, which could perhaps provide a better picture of this using a more social history approach.

In conclusion, I laughed and learned a lot from this “nearly infallible” work. Page’s history follows the example of the Bible in that it certainly does not gloss over the flaws in any of its central figures. God in Jesus Christ is the only true hero of the Bible and calls for our undivided trust and devotion. But the balance sometimes lacking here is that heroes of the faith do in fact exist (Hebrews 11) and the Bible is unabashed in reminding us to follow them. But only as they follow Christ. Despite the flaws and failures, from Abraham to Peter, the Bible shows that it is God’s grace in these lives that causes them to be exemplary. It is God’s ability to “draw straight lines with crooked sticks” that brings him greatest glory. This is the value of Christian history.

Book Review, Hip Hop

Joseph G. Schloss, ‘Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop’ (Review)


When I spotted this book on Amazon I could hardly contain my excitement. Someone had bothered to write a book on that one thing which has formed half of my lonely act of creativity since age twelve. And it was a quality academic work! Needless to say, the Matrix was in full, warp-speed binary swing in adding this to my Christmas wish-list. Then, lo and behold, the Fat One brought it on his sled and into the world of my reading possibilities–Geek.

The attention of the academy, as we know, is swayed by a number of factors, not least being the criterion that the object be ‘worthy’ of study. Over the past twenty years, since the powers that be have begun to realise that hip-hop is not a passing urban fad, but a multifaceted culture of global proportions, various disciplines have slowly started to deem the topic sufficiently non-inconsequential so as to write on it. Unfortunately, as the majority of scholars approaching the field do so as ‘outsiders’ looking in, such studies have often been rife with bad analyses based on faulty cultural assumptions. In a realm as obsessed with authenticity, or at least the appearance of it, as hip-hop, it was necessary for scholarly ‘insiders’ to produce works which resonated more with the culture as experienced by its contributors. This is exactly the kind of work presented in Joseph Schloss’ Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop, the first work to explore the musical process and internal culture of hip-hop as music.

Hip-hop culture has four primary creative expressions: b-boying (dance), emceeing (rap), deejaying (music) and graffiti writing (visual art). Most studies on the music have tended to focus on rap, largely overlooking the work of ‘producers’, their methods, goals and values. Joseph Schloss, himself a hip-hopper, compiled his study from ten years of research among hip-hop producers from 1992-2002 . The outcome is a wide-reaching book which covers a diverse and unexpected range of topics from a perspective which feels faithful to its material. Although in many ways hip-hop production has since been transformed by technology and societal shift, facts which are acknowledged in the second edition’s new foreword and afterword, the book distils several key cultural outlooks which continue to exert influence in hip-hop and offers important criticisms of reigning academic assumptions.

After an introduction outlining methodological approaches and concerns, Schloss begins his study by outlining the history of how hip-hop production came to be defined by the use of ‘samples’ of other music. The producers’ explanation is that hip-hop’s sound was born out of a particular method of deejaying invented by South Bronx pioneer DJ Kool Herc, which looped the most rhythmic sections (breaks) of songs at parties and prized the challenge of finding rare, unknown vinyl to use in sets. Once the digital sampler was invented, it is held, it was thus a natural step to emulate this sound through the use of samples. While Schloss challenges this simple picture by pointing out that in the early years of hip-hop live bands had often been used and might also have become the norm, he acknowledges that the choice to sample is not pragmatic, but aesthetic. In other words, hip-hop producers sample not because it is convenient, as many scholars have assumed, but because it is beautiful.

Chapter four discusses the tradition of ‘digging in the crates’, hip-hop producer’s near obsessive collecting and searching for rare vinyl which serves a multivalent purpose as a show of dedication and skill, a pedagogical tool to apprentice young producers and as an inspiration for music creation. Following from this Schloss delves into the ethics of sampling from a producer’s point of view. In contrast to other studies, this is not concerned with the legality and ethics of sampling as a general practice–a method taken for granted as it forms the base of the hip-hop aesthetic–but the code by which producers abide in how they sample. What this reveals is that sampling is not the ethical free-for-all that is often assumed by outsiders, but subjected to a strict set of rules that exalt creativity and originality above all. Finally, Schloss considers the process of composition and the way in which producers actually build their beats, before ending with a look at the relationship between beat-makers and the various circles they must engage with, including emcees, record labels, and listeners, to get their music heard. In conclusion, the author highlights the importance of gaining the insider perspective because “no matter how significant the pressures applied by base and superstructure, nationalism, capitalism, and ethnicity”–the most common focusses in the field of hip-hop studies–”it is still individual human beings (and their friends) who must navigate this course.”

Although the data in this book reflects a largely bygone era, a long way away from today’s iPad beat-making software and digital ‘crate digging’ on Spotify, I believe its deeper message holds value beyond mere historical documentation. At the time of writing, Schloss’ study represented a gentle but firm rebuke against much of the detached academic theorizing about hip-hop. Often this was, and continues often to be, expressed in assumptions about what hip-hop means to the people that are involved in it, or about its implications and history, which under closer examination are at best laughable, and at worst demeaning. The problem is that they largely pay no attention to the views and motivations of the culture’s contributors themselves and judge hip-hop’s value by alien aesthetic standards. As Schloss shows, constant discussion of hip-hop as being the product of inner-city disadvantage and survivalism sounds praiseworthy, but if left at that ignores important facts and removes all creative agency from hip-hoppers. For instance, hip-hop production could simply not have arisen out of mere poverty-driven convenience and opportunism since the equipment necessary to create the music, including turntables, sound systems, vast record collections, and later digital samplers, until very recently cost huge sums of money to acquire. What emerges from his study, therefore, is a refreshing  look at hip-hop which takes it status and value as music for granted because–for once–it values the views of the people who love it and recognises their individual creative agency over and against environmental determinism and external expectations.

Book Review, Theology

Steven Pressfield, ‘The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles’ (Review)


Many of the books I’ve found most helpful on the topic of writing and creativity have a no-nonsense, let’s-get-down-to-brass-tacks style. They aim to demystify the creative process and focus on the practicalities of actually producing work. Of these, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles is one of the most direct treatments I have found. Its author, Steven Pressfield, best known for his novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, intends to diagnose and counteract the powerful internal force which impedes creative work–an enemy he labels Resistance. He writes in an entertainingly punchy style, formatting the book into (largely) page-length thoughts. The result is encouraging, practical, empowering, and–surprisingly–leaves me questioning the theological implications of his argument, which I will expand on below.

The book’s central thesis is that the difficult part of writing is not the writing itself, but the sitting down to write. If we can beat the forces which prevent us from actually getting to our work, we can be set free to produce the art which is our gift to the world. The name of the enemy is Resistance, that pernicious inner tug which takes on any form necessary to keep us from achieving the things we know we should. Split into three sections, the book first defines this enemy, then looks at ways in which to combat it, and finally points towards the elements which sustain creativity once Resistance has been overcome.

Anyone who has attempted to follow a higher calling knows Resistance intimately. It manifests itself any time we try to transcend our path-of-least-resistance, lower-nature mentality to do something of moral and spiritual value. It stops at nothing to prevent this. The difficulty is that it is an extremely subtle, invisible, internal, and often very rational force. Rather than showing its face clearly, it is most often expressed in procrastination, coping mechanisms, addictions, victim mentalities, criticism of others, and rationalisations. Essentially, Pressfield argues, it is fuelled by fear. But in betraying itself by fear, we can know that the more fearful we are, the more significant the task before us.

However, we know that Resistance can certainly be defeated, otherwise there would be no Macbeth, or Don Quijote, or Michelangelo’s Pieta. The way to overcome, as Pressfield puts it, is to “turn pro.” Primarily, the professional possesses a mentality which the amateur lacks. While the common view is that the amateur works for the love and the professional works for money, the author asserts that in reality the amateur does not love the game enough, otherwise he would dedicate his life to it like the professional. A professional stakes it all on his calling, plays for keeps, turns up to work and commits full-time. The basic attributes of what this looks like are to work daily, no matter what, over the long-haul, taking risks, accepting remuneration, mastering one’s craft, having a sense of humour and receiving blame or praise without over-identification with one’s work. Pressfield’s argument is that there is no luck or magic involved, but simply a wilful decision to turn pro and approach one’s work with this relentless perseverance.

The final question pertains to the source of creativity once Resistance has been put in its place. Pressfield opens the book with a prayer from the Odyssey, invoking the Muses, the mythical daughters of the gods, to inspire the poet in his work. The author takes the Muse as representative of that common feeling among artists that the work is not their own, but rather handed to them to ‘enflesh’. Amateurs only work when inspiration happens to hit. Professionals create a regular space where this can happen. Rather than waiting inactively for the Muse to descend, which turns out to continually be ‘mañana’, simply turning up to work daily creates a space into which the Muse can speak. This voice, the author explains, is what the ancients called our “inner genius,” the unique gift of our individual soul. Thus, he exhorts us, “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

The practical aspects of this book have been revealing and uplifting, causing me to take my calling more seriously, recognising Resistance when it attacks and resolving to “turn up” to work so that inspiration has a ready vessel to fill. Beyond this, however, the work raises some interesting theological questions in its discussion of the creative Muse. Pressfield, on his part, seems to take this spiritual aspect with absolute seriousness. He states that his daily ritual begins with a prayer to invoke the Muses. But, at least for him, this is not only a method, but a real act of worship. He bows his pride to the Muse and offers his gift back to it. Although he encourages the reader to follow him even if he doesn’t believe in such things as angels or Muses, there is a clear indication that every artist implicitly recognises that there are real, powerful, immaterial forces at work in the act of creation. Although Pressfield takes pains to thoroughly demystify the process of writing, and I think he is successful, in the end he reinforces a spiritual notion of the source of creative inspiration. Ultimately, for the author, the artist’s journey is that of discovering ‘self’, because the Muse is his authentic self, talking to him from a higher plane of existence where “God is all there is.”

What is interesting to me, therefore, is that the book points to sources outside of ourselves as the source of creativity, but on the other hand ends up identifying those external forces with ourselves. What Pressfield espouses, therefore, is a form of Monism or Pantheism. With this in view, the book can almost be seen as a theological treatise, with Resistance playing the role of sin, and invocation of the Muse the salvific act which, through artistic expression, connects us to our estranged inner god. In this framework, both the thing that we are striving for and the thing which holds us back are within us. Thus, Resistance is an illusion caused by fear of our inner divine potential.

But why is it more plausible to think that the Muse is simply our authentic, divine self, than that it is the eternal, immaterial, creator God at work? When taken as a whole, the author seems driven to this conclusion by being unable to deny the spiritual forces at work in his craft, but being unwilling for some reason to admit that this could be God, separate and distinct from his creation. Perhaps there is Resistance to this idea because of its possible moral implications on the artist’s life. Of course, it would also, unfortunately, imply that we ourselves are not God.