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Monday, 1 October 2012

October 2012 Book Reviews



Autumn is fully upon us in the northern hemisphere, and longer nights mean more time for reflective reading. Here are reviews of 7 new volumes which may be of interest. The range is wide: from Black Liberation Theology to Old Testament Study. There is a fascinating work from Archbishop Rowan Williams on the work of CS Lewis. (Where does the Archbishop find time to write!) For those in training for ministry or who are themselves training clergy and lay ministers, there is an important new manual. And there is an important volume on pastoral responses to homosexuality from a distinctly Evangelical perspective. Inclusion on this monthly list does not mean I endorse all the views contained in any of these books, by the way. As always I am grateful to Dr Martin Davie, the Bishops' Theological Advisor, for the basis of these reviews.

Genießen Sie diese Bücher!

For the reviews, click the read more button.

Brian Brock and John Swinton (eds), Disability in the Christian tradition: A Reader, Eerdmans, ISBN 978-0-80286602-8, £29.99 

As Brian Brock and John Swinton note in their introduction to this book, contemporary views of the way in which Christians from the past have thought about what we would now call ‘disability’ are shaped by two powerful prejudices. The first is the belief that writers from the past were inevitably ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’ in what they had to say about this issue. The second is the idea that the Christian Church has historically stigmatised and marginalised those it deemed disabled. However, the editors say, once we set these prejudices aside, and start looking carefully at the Christian tradition we find that it actually provides us with a wealth of positive resources for considering issues of disability. In their words, ‘Once we start looking it is surprisingly easy to find reflections in the Christian tradition on the definition and meaning of variations in the human population. The attentive reader can detect traces everywhere of a will to embrace and include those we might call disabled’. This book seeks to help people to follow up these traces from of the most significant thinkers in the Christian theological tradition. The editors, both of whom teach at the University of Aberdeen, have brought together a team of fourteen experts in theology and disability studies who each guide readers through an era or group of thinkers, offering commentary and highlighting important theological themes. The thinkers that are covered in the book include Augustine, Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Luther, Calvin, Hegel, Kierkegaard, van den Bergh, Bonhoeffer, Barth, Vanier, and Hauerwas. This is a ‘must read’ for anyone wanting to think seriously about what the Christian tradition has to say about disability.

James H Cone, The Cross and Lynching Tree, Orbis Books, ISBN 978-1-57075-937-6, £18.99
Although there is now a black President in the White House, there was a time within living memory when such a thing would have been impossible and when white supremacy resulted in the summary execution of thousands of black people who were strung up on the ‘lynching tree.’ It is this dark part of American history that the black American liberation theologian James Cone seeks to address in his new book by relating the memory of the lynching tree to the cross of Jesus Christ. As he puts it, ‘The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represent a message of hope and solace, while the other symbolizes the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities...relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists and other far seeing artists have exploited the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is a challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.’ In order to address these issues Cone looks at how the two symbols of the cross and the lynching tree were connected in the history and spirituality of black Americans. For black Americans, the image of Jesus, hung on a tree to die, provided a powerful grounding for their faith that God was with them, even in the face of oppression and death. In his book Cone brings together social history, theology, and cultural studies. He explores the message of the spirituals and the power of the blues; the passion and death of Emmet Till and the engaged vision of Martin Luther King, the spirits of Billie Holliday and Langston Hughes, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida B. Wells, and the witness of black artists, writers, preachers, and fighters for justice. Above all, he remembers the victims, especially the 5,000 who perished during the lynching period. Through their witness he contemplates the greatest challenge of any Christian theology, to explain how life can be made meaningful in the face of death and injustice. This is a powerful exploration of a deeply painful and disturbing subject which deserves to be read by anyone who wants to understand the black American experience or think more deeply about how the cross helps us to make sense of a world that is still marked by oppression, violence and the imposition of sudden and arbitrary death.

Stephen G Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty – a Theology of the Hebrew Bible. IVP, ISBN 978-0-85111-783-6, £14.99
In this book Professor Stephen Dempster of the Atlantic Baptist University in New Brunswick, Canada looks at the canonical shape of the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh), which was most likely the form of the biblical text known and used by Jesus and the earliest Church, and argues that attention to this canonical shape provides a 'wide-angle lens' through which its contents can be properly understood.’ After surveying the text through in the light of its overall canonical shape, Dempster’s conclusion is as follows: ‘From Adam to David; from the creation of the world to the building of the temple, which will give new life to the world and from which the divine rule will extend to the ends of the earth; genealogy and geography, dynasty and dominion, the story of the Tanakh, is a story that still leaves Israel in a type of exile, waiting for someone from David’s house to come a build a house to bring about the fulfilment of all things. The many stories of the Tanakh together constitute a single Story. And this Story is about the reclamation of a lost human dominion over the world through a Davidic dynasty. In short, it is about the coming of the kingdom of God, and it is unfinished.’  In a brief final chapter, Dempster sketches out the way in which the New Testament sees the unfinished story contained in the Tanakh as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the descendent of David through whom God finally brings in the Kingdom.. This is a hugely stimulating reading of the Hebrew Bible that will help anyone who reads it to see more clearly how the texts of which it is made up can all be read as parts a single overarching canonical whole without their individual witness being lost or distorted. If you only read one book on Old Testament theology this year, this book should be it.

R Po-Chia Hsia, A Jesuit in the Forbidden City, OUP, 978-0-19965-653-0, £19.99 (Kindle edition also available).
It is very easy for those whose roots are in the Evangelical tradition of Christianity to think that Missionary activity only began in the 18th century as a result of the Evangelical revival. Setting aside the question of how Europe was first converted, this view of missionary history overlooks the huge Roman Catholic missionary effort that took place in response to the opening up of European contacts with the wider world from the end of the fifteenth century onwards. One of the key figures in this Roman Catholic missionary activity was the 16th century Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, who was the founder of the Catholic Mission in China and one of the most famous missionaries of all time. Ricci spent twenty eight years in the country, in which time he crossed the cultural divides between China and the West by immersing himself in Chinese language and culture. Even today, he is still one of the best known westerners in China and is celebrated for introducing western scientific and religious ideas to China and for explaining Chinese culture to Europe. This work by the Hong Kong Chinese scholar, R Po –Chia Hsia, who now teaches in the United States, is the first critical biography of Ricci to use all relevant Chinese and Western sources. Hsia offers important new insights into Ricci's long period of trial and frustration in Guangdong province, where he first appeared in the persona of a foreign Buddhist monk, before a crucial move to Nanchang in 1595 that led to Ricci’s sustained intellectual conversation with a leading Confucian scholar and his subsequent attempt to use a synthesis of Christianity and Confucianism to propagate the Gospel in China. Hsia then explains how Ricci’s expertise in cartography, mathematics and astronomy won him official recognition, especially after he had settled in Nanjing in 1598, the southern capital of the Ming dynasty. Finally, he describes how Ricci launched into a sharp polemic against Buddhism as his reputation and friendships grew, and how Ricci’s career found its crowning achievement in the imperial capital of Beijing and left behind a legacy that is still very much alive today. This account of Ricci’s life is worth reading simply for its own sake as an account of a fascinating life, but it will be of particular interest to those who want to know more about the history of Christianity in China, or to ponder the issues raised by Ricci’s life and work about how far you can legitimately go when seeking to inculturate the Christian message in non-Christian culture.

Andrew Goddard and Don Horrocks (ed), Resources for Church Leaders, Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality, ISBN 978-0-95724-480-1, £7.00 (available from the Evangelical Alliance).
This new report from the Evangelical Alliance is a completely revised and updated version of their 1988 report Faith, Hope and Homosexuality that takes account of the changed social context since 1988 and the contemporary debate about homosexuality across the churches. As the Evangelical Alliance General Director, Steve Clifford, writes in his Preface, the report ‘reaffirms an evangelical sexual ethic, setting its discussion of homosexuality within the context of the gospel of grace and Christian teaching about, love, marriage and sex more generally.’ He goes on to say that as well as giving an overall theological framework for thinking about homosexuality, the report also ‘engages realistically and honestly with real-life scenarios to help Christians, especially pastors and other in Christian ministry to discern how we can speak and live the truth in love.’ At the heart of the report are ten affirmations which range from recognising that all, regardless of sexuality, are sinners, and that God’s love and concern is for all human beings regardless of their sexuality, to firm opposition to blessings for same-sex relationships and the ordination of those in same-sex relationships, and the call to sexually active gay men and lesbians to repent. The five chapters of the report each explore and expound one or more of these affirmations. The report concludes with an extensive bibliography listing over a hundred sources and recommendations for further reading. This is without doubt the most scholarly, comprehensive and up to date report on the issue of  homosexuality from an Evangelical perspective and because it was produced as the result of an extensive process of consultation it claims to be representative of mainstream Evangelical thinking about the subject. Anyone who wishes to understand and engage with such thinking therefore needs to read this report.

Tim Ling and Lesley Bentley (eds), Developing Faithful Ministers, SCM, ISBN 978-0-33404-383-6, £25.00 (Kindle Edition also available).
The aim of this new book, edited by Tim Ling, National Adviser for Continuing Ministerial Development in the Ministry Division of the Church of England and Lesley Bentley. Director of Ministry Development in the Diocese of Lichfield, is set out in the opening sentences of the Introduction. These declare ‘This book aims to support the work of all those involved in supervision and training relationships within the Church. Its primary relevance will be for training ministers and curates or licensed lay ministers in training. The book’s title Developing Faithful Ministers draws attention to our view that this is not an instrumental activity but rather one that is rooted in God’s faithfulness.’  The book consists of a series of essays on various aspects of ministerial training and development which are written by the editors themselves and a number of other writers with expertise in this field. The book is divided into three parts. Part one, ‘Faithfulness,’ contains three essays that reflect on the ‘the nature of confidence, community and creativity as they relate to the nature of ministry and its development.’ Part two, ‘Ministry,’ contains three essays ‘that provide both theoretical and practical resources to support the learning relationship between the training minister and curate.’ Finally, part three, ‘Development’ contains six essays that cover ‘approaches to, and practicalities in, the exercise of ministry,’ looking at issues such as the use of time, handling money, the whys and wherefores of church law and chairing meetings. There is also an appendix by Lesley Bentley on ‘Learning outcomes exercises.’ Bishop Stephen Cottrell has written ‘Combining the useful and practical with the reflective and theoretical, this book will prove to be an invaluable companion for those who find ministry means leadership and leadership means service.’  This is an important resource for all those involved in the training and developing of new ministers in the Church and all those who are in the process of being trained and developed.

Rowan Williams, The Lion’s World, SPCK, 978-0-28106-895-1, £8.99 (Kindle edition also available)
One of the things that is not generally known about the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury is that he is an enthusiast for the work of C S Lewis. That this is the case is revealed by Archbishop Rowan in the Preface to his new book, which is a theological appraisal of Lewis’ Narnia series. In the Preface the Archbishop declares: ‘I can only confess to being repeatedly humbled and reconverted by Lewis in a way that is true of few other modern Christian writers. Re-reading works I have not looked at for some time, I realize where a good many favourite themes and insights came from, and am constantly struck by the richness of imagination and penetration that can be contained even in a relatively brief letter. He is someone that you do not quickly come to an end of – as a complex personality and as a writer and thinker. In this brief study, I have wanted simply to display some of what has mattered most to me as a reader of Lewis over more than half a century.’ Following an Introduction, Archbishop Rowan’s study beings by looking at ‘The point of Narnia’, that is, what Lewis was seeking to do by writing the Narnia stories. He next considers the criticisms that have been made of the stories by people like Philip Pullman on the grounds that they are sexist, racist and violent and explains why he thinks these criticisms are largely unjustified. He then gets into the heart of his study in a sequence of four chapters which consider what Lewis has to teach us through the Narnia stories about the Christian understanding of God, self-knowledge, judgement, and eschatology. Finally, there is a short conclusion in which he pulls the threads of his argument together. Bishop Tom Wright has written: ‘Reading Rowan Williams on CS Lewis is like watching two old friends in animated discussion of great, powerful themes….Those who have loved Narnia since childhood will here discover fresh and sometimes disturbing depths of meaning and power. Those who don’t know it will be stimulated to read the stories for themselves. Those who have tried to debunk Lewis and his children’s books will find Williams more than a match for them, not as an uncritical apologist but as a wise and humane expositor.’ There really is no excuse for anyone not to read this book!

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