For the foodie
Eating Heaven: Spirituality at the Table by Simon Carey Holt.
I have seen Simon select ingredients from market stalls and home-grown herbs. I have seen him prepare food with focus and joy. I have watched him set the table, lighting a candle representing the presence of God. I have held hands around the table to thank God for his provision. I have enjoyed wonderful combinations of scents and tastes, and thoughtful conversation.
I have seen him practising everything he writes about in Eating Heaven.
This book protests against “fast food, microwave ovens and fragmented schedules” and an empty dining room table. But the table beckons because “at its core, the table is about such fundamentally human things as intimacy and family, identity and communication, redemption and friendship, sustenance and celebration, beginnings and endings.” Is your mouth watering yet?
In this delightful book, Holt combines stories, research, biblical references and themed recipes. He deals with all the different “tables” in our lives, and points out what is extraordinary about the everyday activity of eating.
In “The Kitchen Table”, Holt describes growing up with his family, and the significance of meals as a place of formation. He talks about his own discipline of eating as a family in spite of difficult work and social schedules, and concludes with his mother’s chocolate pudding recipe. Then he moves to “The Backyard Table” where he suggests that the BBQ, or the more modern woodfire pizza oven, might be an antidote to an “ever more paranoid age of cultural suspicion and border protection”.
My favourite chapter is the next: “The Café Table”, since it is a table I frequent! Holt says it beautifully: “the café is about more than flat whites … Coffee is about relationship, connection, theatre and community.”
Just when you think Holt has got carried away with the wonder of food, he also challenges our cultural obsession in “The Five-star Table”: “The truth is, where we eat, what we eat, and with whom is an indication of our social standing and the ever-clearer divisions in our society.” He quotes J. Shannon Jung who recommends that we never lose sight of food whose source is God, and its purpose as sharing, given for relationship, and the table is “an expression of community”. Holt adds a desire for the table to be a place of justice and inclusion.
In “The Work Table”, Holt talks about cooking as vocation—he trained as a pastry chef—and this flows into the mood of “The Festive Table” where Holt shares moving stories of weddings and funerals: “… it is difficult to imagine any major or minor alliance, rite of passage or celebration, not marked by the sharing of food and drink.” For Holt, such feasts are nothing less than “our communal defiance of death and our claiming of life”. And “The Multicultural Table” is a celebration of Australia as the world’s most cosmopolitan society where “food, identity and story” are intimately entwined.
The last table Holt invites us to is “The Communion Table” where he talks about the origin of the communion feast, and Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the Passover meal. He quotes New Testament scholar Robert Karris’ claim: “Jesus got himself crucified by the way that he ate.” At a time when the table represented social order and religious purity, Jesus broke every rule in society and culture, claiming that God’s table is open to all. In a memorable phrase, Holt describes the table of Jesus as “one that compels, obligates and sends”.
In concluding, Holt skilfully weaves together the lessons learnt at these tables, and concludes that given a choice we would not choose to live without the table: “For life without the table is no life at all”.
This is a beautiful book, one to be savoured and shared. In our food-obsessed culture it might be the perfect Christmas gift to get people to pause as they plate up, and consider how life at the table could move beyond food to relationships, and beyond exclusion to grace.
For the politically-minded
In God They Trust? by Roy Williams.
For a politically minded stocking-stuffer that points to God, it’s worth picking up In God They Trust? Published by the Bible Society earlier this year, In God They Trust? is written by Roy Williams, best-selling author of God, Actually, and has earned glowing reviews from a wide spectrum of readers, including Kim Beazley, former Opposition leader, and ABC’s Annabel Crabb.
In God They Trust? details the religious beliefs of each Australian Prime Minister, and digs deep into their religion or agnosticism to examine how their beliefs affected their actions, thoughts and political leadership.
The book is thoroughly researched, going beyond the usual stereotypes of religion to examine historical sources, and, when it comes to the living politicians, even includes two extensive interviews with former PMs, John Howard and Kevin Rudd.
Williams has a fluid prose that is a pleasure to read, and as you might expect from an ex-barrister, in the moments he mounts a case, he does so with conviction and with his evidence well at hand.
It would be a good book for starting conversations about God this Christmas, or simply delving into the religious hearts that have guided this country.
For those wondering about life direction
The Thing Is by Tony Payne
Flip open the cover of The Thing Is and the inside front cover poses a question: “What is the purpose of your life?”
It’s a bold question and one that author Tony Payne answers in this short, fast-moving book about the key questions of life: who God is, who you are, and what to do with your life.
Within The Thing Is, he cuts to the heart of what the Bible says on these topics. He writes on the shape of the Christian life, including where people often go wrong:
“Many people today, including some Christians, think this is what Christianity really is—the conviction that God exists for our sake, to bless us, to save us, to make our lives better, and to help us reach our potential.”
Instead, he winsomely argues that the centre of the Christian life is Jesus. As such, God’s purpose for our lives doesn’t compete with our own agenda. Instead: “God’s agenda completely rewrites and replaces ours.” His focus on the Christian life not as individualistic, but as flowing outwards to love others, is also thought-provoking.
Perfect for people going through mid- or quarter-life crises, or anyone else wondering what difference it makes to be a Christian, readers will be jolted towards thinking about the big questions.
For the murder mystery fan
C.S. Lewis and the Body in the Basement by Kel Richards.
Kel Richards is probably known to you as an experienced journalist, radio broadcaster and author of bestsellers including The Aussie Bible. Now he can add murder mystery author to his impressive resume.
C.S. Lewis and the Body in the Basement is not a book about C.S. Lewis, but instead stars the great apologist as an amateur detective, presented with a mysterious murder.
The fictional frame is strengthened by impressive research, and a detailed story that brings us back into Lewis’ England with all its trappings. And the ‘impossible’ murder with all its twists and turns is as compelling as any other in the genre.
However, what marks this out is that Richards cleverly weaves throughout the story an apologetic conversation between Lewis and the narrator, Tom Morris, with Lewis giving a compelling argument for the Christian worldview.
It needs a deft touch to work, and Richards pulls it off, never leaving you too long in that argument before bringing you back to the main plot. The voice of Lewis is convincing as well, echoing the written materials where he has argued so well for Christendom.
A wonderful present to leave under the tree for the murder mystery fan.
For the married, or soon-to-be married
The Best Sex for Life by Dr Patricia Weerakoon.
Admittedly, a book titled The Best Sex for Life is probably not a hard sell.
Written by Dr Patricia Weerakoon, a Christian who is one of Australia’s leading sexologists, this book is the culmination of her considerable experience as a sex therapist, speaker, and writer.
Throughout, she gives frank, real advice about the reality of sex, and that to understand sex we must first understand God’s plan for sex, and his creation of us as sexual beings.
She comes back to Scripture’s reminder that the basis of sex is not self, but as an expression of love.
However, this is not merely theoretical, as she discusses with clarity the physical aspects of sex for both male and female.
Her experience shines throughout the book, as she writes of the sexual life cycle of every married couple, from the nervous expectation of the honeymoon period, through to the natural distractions of middle-age, right through to a frank and real discussion that nobody talks about: sex for the 60+.
The appendices here are particularly helpful including “Advice to a porn user”, and a discussion guide for couples to discover how to have better sex.
If you want to have the best sex in all stages of your life, then buy this book.
All of the above books and more: available at the Bible Society online bookshop.