Review: Al Stewart's MEN – firing through all of life (Blue Bottle Books, 2007)
by Doug Petering
The latest 2006 National Church Life Survey confirms that Church as a whole finds it really difficult to connect with unchurched men. This volume suggests solutions and speaks to real needs of Aussie men in their middle years.
Al Stewart, the forty-something bishop of Wollongong, speaks refreshingly from the midst of his own challenges. His passion for presenting the Gospel to the men of his generation sits easily alongside his love of wild pig shooting in the outback with his mates, while trying to keep his aging body in shape at the gym and training for half marathons.
The thesis of this book comes from Henry David Thoreau's 150 year old diagnosis: "The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation." Stewart reflects, "If he was right 150 years ago… it's surely even truer today. Why does this happen to us? Does it have to be this way? Are there any answers?" It coincides with my own observations of many men in mid life who appear to be on a treadmill where the slope seems to get steeper with every passing year.
Stewart deftly draws on the wisdom from Ecclesiastes, New Testament writers as well as contemporary secular writers like Steve Biddulph. He points to the "conspirators" of aging, health decline, responsibilities, death of colleagues and time. He articulates some of our male efforts to overcome them, such as fast lifestyles, status-seeking, wealth, sex, pornography and substance abuse. It's a grim but accurate picture of many Australian middle-aged men.
Stewart proposes a radical and challenging solution: the person of Jesus of the Gospels and His call to follow him. It's His courage, the way He teaches and what He Teaches, the way He treats people, His passion, sacrifice and resurrection, which make all the difference. His challenge to self-giving rather than self-serving really turns life upside down, only to find it's now the right way up.
The challenge to men is to turn their lives of quiet desperation on the treadmill of mid-life into a radical and revolutionary experience by serving Jesus. Stewart holds out the promise that this will transform the pain and struggle of these years into a rest-of-life experience of meaning and purpose.
Stewart's book is an insightful read and would be a worthy gift for the men in your circle this Christmas. It comes from the heart of our Aussie culture which is a welcome contribution to our Christian literature aimed at men, when compared with many US authors who somehow miss the mark when it come to the male species Down Under (despite early references to "Groundhog day" which eluded me). In addition it concludes with two appendices on male health issues and sexuality which most men will find exceedingly useful.
Doug Petering is married to Elizabeth. They've been members of St Alfred's Blackburn North for over forty years. Doug doesn't go pig-shooting, but he leads a men's ministry and has two sons and a daughter, and three grandsons and a granddaughter.