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Saturday, 19 November 2011

November 2011 Book Reviews

Here are November's book recommendations. Thanks, once again, to Dr Martin Davie, the theological advisor to the Church of England's bishops, for these thorough reviews. (Martin - where do you get all the time to read?) 

This month's selection includes works on Methodism, Inter-faith relations, Anglicanism, preaching and the increasingly important area of Christian apologetics. Also, given the nature of the questions that come to my office each day, I would say that the volume on Church law should be standard reading for clergy, churchwardens and readers.

FeliƧ lectura!

Click on the read more link for the reviews.

William J Abraham and James E Kirby (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies, OUP, ISBN 978-0-19969-611-6, £30.00.
There are many things that most Anglicans do not know about and one of them is the existence of Methodist studies as a flourishing academic discipline. This discipline has its origins in the decision by Frank Baker, Albert Outler and others in the 1950s to produce a proper scholarly edition of the works of John Wesley. This pioneering venture became the foundation for various streams of scholarly enquiry into the wider history and theology of Methodism and today a new generation of students and scholars is busily generating a steady stream of texts, university courses, seminars and conferences that ensure that this field of study keeps on expanding and developing. This new handbook of Methodist Studies from OUP, edited by two leading Methodist theologians from the Perkins school of theology in Dallas, provides an overview of the results of all this scholarly activity, summarising and expanding on current Methodist research, and looking where this research may lead Methodist Studies in the future. The forty two essays in the handbook are organised into five sections which look in turn at ‘History,’ ‘Ecclesial forms and structures,’ ‘Worship, sacraments, liturgy, hymnody and preaching,’ ‘Spiritual experiences, evangelism, mission, ecumenism,’ ‘Theology’ and ‘Ethics and politics.’  As this list of section headings indicates, this is a very wide ranging handbook that touches on almost every aspect of the history and current thinking and practice of Methodism and it is an essential scholarly companion for any Anglican who wishes to understand Methodism better.

Craig Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, Baker, ISBN 978-0-80103-637-8, £19.99.
One of consequences of the fact that human beings are embodied souls is that ever since the Garden of Eden all human beings have been placed by God in particular places. Place, a particular location in space and time, is thus fundamental to human existence. However, our awareness of the placed character of our existence is challenged in contemporary culture because of the compression of time and space that are characteristic of post modernity and globalization. Professor Craig Bartholomew is a well respected biblical scholar and theologian who was formerly at the University of Gloucestershire but now teaching in Canada. In his new book he responds to this challenge to our understanding of place by looking in turn at place in the Bible and in the Western Christian and philosophical tradition. Drawing on the resources provided by the Bible and tradition he then sets out ‘A Christian view of place for today’ which articulates a hopeful Christian vision of place making for today's world.. Professor Gordon McConville describes this book as ‘a major work of theological rediscovery in which Craig Bartholomew imaginatively reconstructs a Christian view of human implacement. Bringing biblical, philosophical, and theological perspectives to bear, he explores unexpected aspects of implacement with ventures into ornithology, building, gardening, and the home. Where Mortals Dwell is an erudite, readable, original, and fascinating invitation to a theology and spirituality of place.’

Steve Bell and Colin Chapman (eds), Between Naivety and Hostility, Authentic Media, ISBN 978-1-85078-957-4, £9.99.
Last September marked the tenth anniversary of the events of 9/11. What took place on that day has shaped a huge debate in Britain about the place of Islam in society. For example, the tabloid newspapers regularly contain articles expressing the fears and anxieties of many people about the growing number and influence of Muslims in Britain and partly in response to this both the current government and the previous one have taken steps to try to counter the perceived threat of Islamic extremism. The debate about Islam is also taking place within the Christian Church with a spectrum of opinion ranging from those who appear to demonize Muslims and Islam to those who stress the importance of good interfaith relations and see no cause for concern in the growth of Islam in Britain. The essays in this new book from Authentic Media ask if there is a middle way between these two ends of the spectrum, a Christian response to Islam that avoids naivety on the one hand and hostility on the other. The twenty Christians who have written these essays are all actively engaged with Muslims and aware of the realities on the ground and from a variety of different perspectives they all stress the need to build relationships of genuine trust and respect with Muslims while still holding firmly to our Christian convictions and to our commitment to spreading the gospel to all people everywhere. This is an important contribution to the current Christian debate about Islam which has the potential to help those who read it to become both agents of greater social peace and more effective witnesses to their Muslim neighbours.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, SPCK, ISBN 978-0- 28106-234-8, £9.99
In Philippians 3:20 St Paul tells us that the Christian’s homeland is in heaven. In spite of this fact most Christians appear to go through their lives knowing little about heaven and thinking little about it. It is a homeland that has little place in their thoughts. The new book from Dr Paula Gooder, the author of numerous widely appreciated books on biblical teaching, will hopefully go some way to altering this state of affairs. In her introduction she writes 'Heaven is one of those great mysteries that somehow symbolizes what we don't know about ourselves and the world around us. At the same time it lifts our vision from the mundane realities of our lives and reminds us that beyond the daily grind of our existence there is another, unseen reality. A reality governed not by the things of earth but by the things of God. A reality that is as real - if not more so - than our everyday lives.'  In her book she sets out what the Bible has to tell us about this mystery. She looks at what the biblical writers have to say about heaven and the angelic beings who dwell there and considers the ways in which these writers saw heaven and earth connect. In addition she looks the issue of heaven and life after death, exploring all the major strands of biblical teaching about this subject, including the role of paradise and what happens between death and resurrection. Jane Williams has described this book as ‘profound, lucid and compassionate’ and it is recommended reading for anyone who wants to learn more and think further about the important topics which it covers.

Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Christian Faith, IVP, ISBN 978-0-83083-935-3, £24.99.
In 1 Peter 3:20 the Apostle Peter tells us to ‘always be prepared to make defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you’ and the apologetic task mandated by these words has been an integral part of Christianity since the earliest times. Because apologetics involves commending Christianity to people in a particular time and place it is something that has to be undertaken afresh in each generation. The new book by Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary in the United States, is a major attempt to engage in the apologetic task for our generation. There are many books on Christian apologetics currently on the market, but what marks this one out is its comprehensive nature. As Groothuis has explained in an interview for Christianity Today:  ‘While there are many good apologetics books out there, it seemed that they were all missing something. For example, a book might be extremely good but not deal sufficiently with the problem of evil, or with Darwinism and intelligent design. And in general, a lot of apologetics books fail to sufficiently address other religions, particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, whose beliefs pose very significant challenges to Christianity today. So I'm not claiming that I necessarily do a better job than some of the great apologists out there, such as J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig. But I tried to put everything germane to the apologetics agenda in one book.’  The book is in three parts. Part I ‘Apologetic Preliminaries’ looks at the nature of the apologetic task. Part II ‘The case for Christian theism’ looks at the philosophical and historical arguments for Christian belief. Part III ‘Objections to Christian theism’ looks at the issues posed by religious pluralism and the problem of evil. There are additional essays by Professors Craig Blomberg and Richard Hess on how we can know about Jesus and apologetic issues relating to the Old Testament. This is a major volume of Christian apologetics and should be of interest to anyone working in this area. It comes from a particular American Evangelical perspective, but those who come from other places and other Christian traditions can learn from this book to undertake their own apologetics with the sort of care and thoroughness that Groothuis displays.

John Lennox, Gunning for God, Lion, ISBN 978-0-74595-322-9, £9.99
Professor John Lennox’s new book for Lion, Gunning for God, is less comprehensive (and a lot shorter) than Groothuis’ volume, but it is nonetheless a fine example of the sort of apologetics that Groothuis advocates. Professor Lennox, who is Reader in Mathematics at Oxford University, is a well known speaker and writer in the field of Christian apologetics who has debated against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others among the ‘new atheists.’ His book is based on the lectures and debates he has been involved in over the past few years. The topics it covers are ‘Are God and faith enemies of reason and science?’ ‘Is religion poisonous?’ ‘Is Atheism poisonous?’ ‘Can we be good without God?’ ‘Is the God of the Bible a despot?’ ‘Is the atonement morally repellent?’  ‘Are miracles pure fantasy?’ ‘Did Jesus rise from the dead?’ and ‘Final reflections.’ As this list of topics shows, the book tackles many of the major issues the Christian apologist has to face at the moment and it tackles them in a way that is up-to-date, well informed and extremely lucid. Lennox’s approach to apologetics is a very robust one and this may not be to everyone’s taste. However, this should not distract people from the importance of Lennox’s arguments. This in an excellent short primer in apologetics for those called to engage in it and a useful book to lend or give away to serious enquirers who want to know if there is a good answer to the arguments of the new atheists.

David Parrott, Your Church and the Law, Canterbury Press, ISBN 978-1-84825-102-1, £17.99
Although theologically speaking Christians are ‘not under law but under grace’ (Romans 6:14) it is nevertheless the fact that the life of the Church is governed by law, both the law of the state and the law of the Church itself. David Parrott is a Vicar in the Diocese of London and the education officer for the Ecclesiastical Law Society. In this second, revised, edition of his guide to the Church and the law, he offers a straightforward and jargon free guide to the key legal requirements that those with responsibility for the life of the Church of England need to be aware of. The topics that he covers include child protection, health and safety, employing staff, working with volunteers, appointing church officers, data protection, marriage and the law and funerals and graveyards. The book sets out the essential knowledge that is required in order that people can comply with the law in these areas and for each topic there are real life scenarios and frequently asked questions. The sort of issues which this book covers are not ones that most people instinctively find exciting, but they are nevertheless issues which all those exercising responsibility for the day to day life of Church of England dioceses and parishes do need to know about and act upon. This is therefore a book that counts as essential reading.

Caroline Cox and, Benedict Rogers The very stones cry out, Continuum, ISBN 978-0-82644272-7, £12.99.
The fact that Youssef Nadarkhani, an Evangelical Pastor in Iran, has been facing the death penalty for departing from Islam is a stark reminder that the age of the martyrs is not yet over. It has been plausibly suggested that more Christians were killed for their faith in the twentieth century than in all the preceding centuries of the Church’s history and things have not got any better at the opening of the twenty first century. For example, the result of the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘Arab spring’ has been an increased persecution of Christians, particularly in the Middle East. Lady Caroline Cox and Benedict Rogers have long been involved in advocating the cause of persecuted Christians around the globe. In this new book they provide documentary evidence of the persecution that has recently taken place and that is taking place now, evidence that includes both photographs and eye witness accounts. Their aim is to challenge both the Church and advocates of religious freedom in general to take this persecution seriously and to take action to prevent it happening. As Christians we are guilty before God if we know that our brothers and sisters are suffering and do nothing about it and this book provides us with a key tool for doing something about it, both by providing a basis for our own prayer and practical support for suffering Christians and by providing a means by which we can make their suffering more widely known.

Simon Vibert,  Excellence in Preaching,  IVP, ISBN 978-1-84474-519-7, £8.99
Dr Simon Vibert is Vice Principal of Wycliffe Hall and the director of its School of Preaching. The concern that led him to write his new book on about excellence in preaching is the belief that the place of preaching is under serious threat in today’s Church because of the widespread caricature that a sermon is ‘a monstrous monologue by a moron to a mute’. In the face of this threat Vibert seeks in his book ‘to build up a composite picture of a model preacher by looking at those things which good preachers do well. What makes us want to listen to them in particular? Why is it that some preachers make the time fly by, leaving us wanting more, sensing that we have connected with the living God?’ In order to do this he undertook a survey of fellow preachers, theological college students and congregational members in order to find out who their favourite preachers were, and what it was that made people want to listen to them. His book is the outcome of this research. It begins with a chapter that looks at Jesus himself as the ‘supreme standard’ for preaching and after that there are twelve studies of the approach to preaching of twelve contemporary Evangelical preachers and why people want to listen to them. For example he considers J.John ‘Use humour and story to connect and engage, and dismantle barriers,’ Vaughan Roberts ‘Let the Bible speak with simplicity and freshness’ and John Ortberg ‘Preach with spiritual formation in mind.’ In a final chapter Dr Vibert draws together his conclusions under the heading ‘preaching that changes lives.’ An appendix describes the approach he took in his research and linked to the book there is a website providing profiles of other preachers who had to be left out of the book itself for reasons of space. Dr Vibert is an Evangelical, as are all the preachers he considers, but the principles about effective preaching that he outlines will be of interest outside the Evangelical tradition and might usefully challenge those from other traditions to undertake a similar exercise. How about a parallel survey of powerful modern preachers from the Catholic tradition of the Church of England?

Samuel Wells, What Anglicans Believe: An Introduction, Canterbury Press, ISBN 978-1-84825-114-4, £12.99.
There is an urban legend that says that back in the 1970s a competition was held at Wycliffe Hall to decide the smallest book in the world. The book that eventually won was David L Edward’s What Anglicans Believe. The point of this story, of course, is that any book of that title must necessarily be a very slim volume because Anglicans do not actually stand for anything at all. The new book by Professor Samuel Wells, a Church of England priest now teaching at Duke University in the United States challenges the idea underlying the story by explaining that Anglicanism does actually stand for something important in the spectrum of world Christianity. The book is in four parts. ‘The Faith’ looks at what Anglicans believe. ‘The Source of Faith’ looks at the place of Scripture, reason and tradition. ‘The Order of the Faith look at how worship and mission reflect what we believe.’  Finally ‘The Character of the Faith’ considers how Anglican history provides us with the resources to address new challenges. Professor Well’s overall argument is that a distinctive Anglican tradition emerged out of the controversies of the Reformation period and that its best it has been able to draw on the Patristic inheritance embodied in the Creeds to develop a wise and generous approach to Christianity that has been able to hold Catholic and Protestant tendencies together in a creative way. At a time when the unity of Anglicanism is under threat this is a useful reminder of the core beliefs and values that had traditionally held Anglicans together and why Anglicanism is a Christian tradition that does have meaning and theological integrity. 

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