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Sunday, 7 August 2011

August 2011 Book Selection

It's the height of summer and here is a selection of some current theology for dipping into in these more relaxed weeks. There are 9 books reviewed below, including works on genetics, Christian Initiation, mission, atonement, the soul, violence and conflict, and a book by one of the foremost Orthodox theologians of our time, John Zizioulas.

For the reviews, press the read more link. 

Alexander, The Language of Genetics: An Introduction, DLT, ISBN 978-0-23252-878-7, £24.99. 
The study of genetics is a rapidly developing field of scientific study that constantly hits the headlines in relation to questions of ethics and the diagnosis and possible cure of various diseases. Because it is a complex field of study it is, however, one that a non-specialist cannot easily understand. In his new book, Dr Dennis Alexander from the University of Cambridge helps non-specialists by offering offers a ‘user friendly’ introduction to the study of genetics and its implications. First he sets out the main developments in the field of genetics, looking at the discovery of DNA, what it is and how it works; our genetic history; the role of genes in diseases; epigenetics and genetic engineering. Then he goes on to explore some of the big questions raised by genetics. What are its implications for notions of human value and uniqueness? Is evolution consistent with religious belief? If we believe in a God of love, then how come the evolutionary process, which depends upon genetic inheritance, is so wasteful and involves so much pain and suffering? How far should we go in manipulating the human genome? Does genetics subvert the idea that life has some ultimate meaning and purpose?  This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to know about the study of genetics and for anyone interested in the philosophical and ethical issues raised by advances in genetics, and general questions about the compatibility of science and faith.

Paul Avis (ed), The Journey of Christian Initiation, CHP, ISBN 978-0-71514-237-0,
The issue of Christian initiation continues to be the subject of lively discussion within the Church of England. This new book from the Church of England’s recently established Faith and Order Commission (FOAC) is the fruit of many years of study within the FAOC and its predecessor, the Faith and Order Advisory Group (FOAG). It also draws on the discussions with the Baptist Union that led to the 2005 report Pushing at the Boundaries of Unity. The book is a collection of individual essays by current and former members of FAOC and FOAG, but it has an overall theme, which is that the concept of “Baptism as Complete Sacramental Initiation” (BACSI) is an inadequate one. Christian initiation should instead be seen, in the way that Anglicanism has traditionally seen it, as a process or journey involving a number of elements, baptism, catechesis, personal confession of faith, confirmation and admission to Holy Communion. Seeing Christian initiation in this more comprehensive way makes more sense in terms of the biblical witness, the Christian tradition and pastoral practice and is potentially fruitful for ecumenical relations. This is an important study for anyone who wants to think more deeply about the nature of Christian initiation and who wants to know why the traditional Anglican approach to this subject has continuing validity.

Lorraine Cavanagh, Making Sense of God’s Love: Atonement and Redemption, SPCK, ISBN 978-0-28106-403-8, £7.99
This new book from SPCK is part of what is billed as a new series of accessible theological guides sponsored by Modern Church, formerly the Modern Church Peoples Union. The book is written by Dr Lorraine Cavanagh, the Anglican Chaplain at the University of Cardiff. Its starting point is the belief that many people today are put off Christianity by the idea of God punishing his Son for our sins. While not rejecting the idea of God they find it hard to believe in an allegedly loving God who appears to be so angry and vindictive. Dr Cavanagh’s book is intended to address this difficulty by creating what is described as an ‘open theological landscape’ that takes account of the many different ways in which we are saved and restored by God.
This book, like the series of which it is a part, is aimed at those wanting to return to their faith, or those who would like to explore it in greater depth. It will be of interest to anyone who wants to understand what atonement and redemption look like from an overtly liberal starting point. It also challenges those who take a more conservative view of what atonement and redemption involve to find ways of explaining traditional ideas of Christ being punished for our sins and of God’s wrath and vengeance that make sense to the sort of people for whom Dr Cavanagh’s book is written.

William T Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, OUP, ISBN 978-0195385045, £32.50.
One of the points that is consistently made by contemporary critics of religion such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is that ‘religion’ is inevitably violent, which is one of the reasons we should not regret its disappearance from contemporary society. In his important 2009 study The Myth of Religious Violence, the American theologian Dr William Cavanaugh challenges this argument, arguing that the concept that ‘religion’ is violent was a construct by secular powers to legitimate their own violence and power. Drawing on a growing body of scholarly work that looks at how the overarching category ‘religion’ has been constructed in the modern West to support specific forms of political power, Cavanaugh makes three fundamental points: (1) There is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of political configurations of power; (2) Such a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion as non-rational and prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of Western society; (3) This myth can be and is used to legitimate neo-colonial violence against non-Western others, particularly the Muslim world. Basically, he is saying that by depicting the religious ‘other’ as irrational and prone to violence the secular West has been able to justify its own violence as a regrettable but necessary response. This is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the development of the modern Western concept of religion and the historical roots of the current ‘war on terror.’

Tim Chester and Stephen Timmis, Everyday Church, IVP, ISBN  978-1-84474-520-3, £ 9.99.
Tim Chester and Stephen Timmis are leaders of The Crowded House, a network of Evangelical churches in the United Kingdom and Europe. The premise of their new book is that Christians today live in a post-Christian culture in which the majority of people in the West have no intention of ever attending church. Most only utter the name of Christ as a swear word. Some prominent churches are growing, but much of this is transfer growth rather than true evangelistic growth. However, as they see it, many of the approaches that Christians take to evangelism ignore this reality. As they put it ‘We expect people to come when we ring the church bell or put on a good service. But the majority of the population are disconnected. Changing what we do in church will not reach them. We need to meet them in the context of everyday life.’ This situation, they say ‘is a call for us to be an everyday church with an everyday mission. We need to shift our focus from putting on attractional events to creating attractional communities. Our marginal status is an opportunity to rediscover the missionary call of the people of God. We can recover witness to Christ, unmuddied by nominal Christianity.’ They develop this thesis in dialogue with 1 Peter, a letter that was written to Christians who were likewise on the margins of their culture and facing the challenge of undertaking mission in this context. This is a helpful book on two levels. First, it is helpful for anyone seeking to understand the ecclesiological and missiological vision of one of the new network churches that are becoming an increasingly important part of British Christianity. Secondly, because much that is in the book overlaps with the thinking of Church of England missiologists such as Graham Tomlin it provides a good basis for ecumenical reflection on how the Church of England may be able to undertake shared mission with these churches

Carol J Dempsey, Elayne Shapiro, Reading the Bible, Transforming Conflict, Orbis, ISBN 978-1-57075-914-7, £17.99
We have already seen with reference to the work of William Cavanaugh that the idea that religion is inherently violent is a myth constructed for Western political purposes. This new book from two American authors further shows that religion, or at least the Bible, can be used to transform conflict and promote peace. Its purpose is to show students how understanding situations of conflict described in the Bible can help us to develop skills for addressing conflict in the contemporary world. From the Genesis accounts of Adam and Eve through to the letters of St. Paul, each of the eleven chapters in the book examines a type of conflict - intrapersonal, interpersonal, or between humans and God, and also a particular theme - the nature of conflict, the role of identity, the need for forgiveness, the use of power, the potential of mediation, the skills of negotiation and the possibility of reconciliation. The goal is to help readers recognize different aspects of conflict, and learn how to develop right relationships with one another and with God. Using accessible language and including discussion questions, suggested readings, and sidebars throughout, Reading the Bible, Transforming Conflict is an attractive, classroom-tested text that will help undergraduates and others to explore the Bible in relation to the nature and resolution of human conflict. This is an important resource for applying the Bible to issues facing us today.

Stewart Goetz and Mark C Baker (eds), The Soul Hypothesis, Continuum, ISBN 978-1-44115-224-4, £12.99
As Professors Goetz and Baker note in their introduction to this volume a belief in the existence of the soul has been a constant feature of human history: ‘most people at most times, at most ages, have believed that human beings have some kind of soul.’ However, as they also note, in recent times this belief has given way in the Western world to a materialistic monism that holds that human beings are purely physical entities. The prevailing assumption in our culture, or at least in the opinion forming segment of it, is that both philosophy and science have shown that there is no room for the soul in any rational account of what it is to be human. It is this prevailing assumption that is challenged by the essays in this new book. The essayists, who are philosophers and scientists, argue that that in fact not only is there space for the soul, but that a belief in the soul is the only way of making sense of the entire range of data we possess about the nature of human existence. Evidence from fields as diverse as quantum physics and linguistics points us towards the soul hypothesis. Although this is not a book of theology it is a book that is important for theologians because it shows that the traditional Christian belief in the existence of the soul is entirely compatible with rational enquiry into what it means to be a human being. Furthermore, as C S Lewis pointed out in his book on Miracles, once you concede the soul hypothesis the straightjacket of materialism is broken and the existence of God is not only possible, but required

Luke Ben Tallon and John Zizioulas, The Eucharistic Communion and the World, T&T Clark, ISBN 978-0-56732-660-7, £19.99.
There is a good case to be made that Professor John Zizioulas, Metropolitan John of Pergamom, has been the most influential Orthodox theologian of his generation. There can be no doubt that he is the Orthodox theologian who has had most influence on the Western Church and that his thinking about the relationship between the Church and the Trinity has been fundamental to the development of modern ecumenical theology. In this new volume, edited by Luke Tallon, a PhD student at St. Andrews, we have a collection of Professor Zizioulas’ writings on the Eucharist. In these writings Professor Zizioulas explores the biblical dimensions and eschatological foundation of the Eucharist, the celebration of the Eucharist by the Church, and the ethos of the Eucharistic community. As one would expect from their author, these writings are firmly rooted in theology, but they are also very concrete and practical and demonstrate that his teaching about the themes of persons, communion and otherness, developed here in relation to the Eucharist, has radical implications both for the life of the church and for its relationship to the world. This volume will be of interest to students of Zizioulas, but more widely it will be of interest to anyone who wants to learn to think more deeply about the nature of the Eucharist and the importance of the Eucharist for the life of the Church. 

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love, Eerdmans, ISBN 978-080286-615-8, £ 23.99.  
The American Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff is one of the leading philosophical theologians of our time. In his previous book Justice, Rights and Wrongs (Princeton UP, 2010) he discussed the nature of justice. In this new book he considers the relationship between justice and love, arguing against the widely held belief that the demands of justice and love are somehow fundamentally contradictory. In his words,
‘Rather than accepting tension between these two imperatives as an unalterable fact of life, I argue in the following pages that our perception of tension between them is a sign of something having gone wrong in our understanding of them. I propose and argue for a way of understanding love and a way of understanding justice such that the two imperatives are fully in harmony with each other.’ As he sees it, both justice and love, rightly understood, are necessary for human well-being and as such they are complimentary. True benevolent love, he says, is always attentive to justice, and love that wreaks injustice can only ever be ‘malformed love.’ The scope of this work is wide ranging and relates to several areas of study including cultural analysis, legal theory, and the theology of atonement, as well as to many other areas of thought and practice. It is a challenging read and not for the intellectually fainthearted, but all who work through this book will benefit from its sharp analysis and lucid prose and will be challenged by Professor Wolterstorff’s unwavering commitment to the marriage of justice and love

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