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Friday, 9 December 2011

December 2011 Book Reviews

Here are 9 books reviewed in our December selection. Among the volumes below you will find an important new look at 1 Corinthians, a resource to help us understand the contemporary Twilight phenomenon, a remarkable story of conversion, an anthropological work by an important modern European theologian, and a stimulating volume on leadership in the parish. But there's much more... 

Felix lectio!

Click on the read more link for the reviews.

Kenneth E Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, SPCK, ISBN 978-0-28106-455-7, £16.99
Kenneth Bailey is an American Presbyterian theologian who spent forty years living and teaching in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. His experience of living and working in the Middle East has led him to believe that an understanding of Middle Eastern culture and a knowledge of Arabic, Coptic and Syriac sources that are often overlooked by Western scholars can help us to a clearer understanding of the teaching of the New Testament by making us more sensitive to the way that the New Testament texts work as literary structures and to the cultural norms that they reflect. Most of Bailey’s work along these lines has found expression in studies of the gospels such as his study of the parable in St. Luke’s Gospel Poet and Peasant and his more recent study of the Gospels in general Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. However, in his new book he has turned his attention to the Epistles and specifically to St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In this book Bailey looks at 1 Corinthians in the light of what we know about Paul's Jewish socio-cultural and rhetorical background and the Mediterranean context of the Christians in Corinth In a series of essays he highlights the way in which 1 Corinthians is rooted in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, how the structure of the letter reflects St Paul’s theological purpose in writing it and how the rhetorical form of the letter reflects the cultural practices of the Middle East. He then further explains how this fresh understanding of how 1 Corinthians works helps us to understand more clearly nature of Paul's response to the critical situations facing the Corinthian community: racial, ethnic and theological divisions, sexual misconduct, interaction with Hellenistic paganism and disputes about church practice. This work is warmly commended by Professor Anthony Thiselton and it is a useful resource for anyone who wants to be stimulated to think afresh about what St Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians and why.

Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder (eds), Documents of the Christian Church, OUP, 4 ed, ISBN  978-0-1995-689-8, £16.99.
Since its first publication in 1943, Professor Henry Bettenson’s anthology of key documents from the history of the Church has been an invaluable resource to students of theology. However, Professor Bettenson published the second edition of his anthology in 1963 and many important documents have been produced by the churches since that date. In order to ensure that the anthology remained as useful as possible  Chris Maunder, who is now Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University College of Ripon and York St John, therefore produced a third edition of Bettenson’s work in 1999 which added a selection of more recent documents. This additional selection illustrated the Second Vatican Council, theologies of liberation, Church and State from 'Thatcher's Britain' to Communist Eastern Europe, Black, feminist, and ecological theologies; ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue. It also reflected the developing ethical debates in the churches through documents on topics such as homosexuality, divorce, AIDS, and in-vitro fertilization. In this new fourth edition Maunder has added a further selection of documents illustrating the issues facing the churches in the twenty first century. This new selection includes documents that reflect the churches' responses to questions of social justice, international politics, trade and debt, environmental change, technological development, the global growth of Christianity, the progress of Christian unity, and mission in multi-faith and postmodern societies. This new edition brings a classic work up to date and is highly recommended to anyone who wants a handy work of reference giving you a comprehensive set of the key texts from the history of the Christian tradition.

Radu Bordeianu, Dumitru Staniloae: An Ecumenical ecclesiology, T & T Clark, ISBN 978-0-56733-481-7, £65.00.
The Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1933) is generally regarded by those who know of his work as one of the most important Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century. However, because most of his work was produced in Romania during the communist era it is not yet very well known outside the relatively small circle of specialists in contemporary Orthodox thought. The purpose of the new book by Professor Radu Bordeianu, a Romanian Orthodox scholar working in the United States is to make Staniloae’s work better known. Its particular focus is on Staniloae’s teaching about the nature of the Church, which Bordeianu believes can make a helpful contribution to ecumenical discussion about this topic. Bodeaianu argues that Staniloae understands the Church as a communion in the image of the Trinity. As Staniloae sees it, the continuum of grace between the Trinity and the Church means that the relationships that exist among the persons of the Trinity are manifested both in creation in general and in the Church in particular in the relationships that exist between human beings and the non-human creation, between the Church and the world, between the local and universal aspects of the Church, between the clergy and the laity, and between the various charisms that exist in the Church. In this way, the Trinity fills the world and the Church and determines their modes of existence. Although this is an expensive volume, it is worth reading both as a useful introduction  to the thinking of an important but neglected Orthodox theologian and as a contribution to the continuing ecumenical debate about how the nature of the Church relates to the Trinitarian structure of God’s own being and to God’s activity in the world as a whole.  

Elaine Heath, The Gospel According to Twilight, SPCK, ISBN 978-0-28106-661-2, £9.99.
Given that her core fan base is teenage girls it may be that not many readers of this blog are familiar with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series of vampire romances or have been to see the films based on the series. However, if they wish to relate to the culture in which we live, we need to understand the Twilight phenomenon since it has been the most popular series of books and films since the Harry Potter franchise with over one hundred million copies of the books in print and the films all being big box office hits. For many people the fictional world created by Stephanie Meyer is an important part of their mental furniture and is therefore necessary to be able to engage with this world from a Christian point of view. Elaine Heath is the Associate Professor of Evangelism at the Perkins School of Theology at the Southern Methodist University in the United States and in her new book she undertakes such an engagement, addressing both the problematic and the more positive aspects of the Twilight series. She notes that there is a deeply problematic emphasis on gender stereotyping and violence towards women. On the positive side, however, there is also a strong emphasis on salvation, on the importance of a strong and mutually supportive faith community and above all on reconciliation with the chief heroine, Bella Swan, being able in the end  to bring peace between the warring species of humans, vampires, and werewolves. As Heath notes, the novels ultimately present a vision of a world in which a lion and lamb may lie down together, and a child and a viper can be friends. The series concludes with metaphorical glimpses of a world freed from the powers and principalities, from the terror of religious leaders who declare "holy" war. It is a redeemed world in which vampires, werewolves, and teenage girls belong to one another - a world made new through love, where all are family. Heath gives us a reliable guide to the world Meyer has created and her book, which includes questions for discussion, is a very useful tool for anyone who wants to understand the Twilight phenomenon and to explore its positive and negative aspects with those who are its fans.

W Paul Jones, A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer who became a Monk, Eerdmans, ISBN 978-0-80286-651-6, £8.99. 
A Different Kind of Cell is the story of a Roman Catholic monk called Clayton Fountain. It is an unusual and challenging story because Fountain, who died in 2004, was a cold blooded multiple murderer. He was a soldier in Vietnam who murdered his sergeant and was incarcerated for the crime. In prison, he killed four more people in succession, violently and without remorse ‘The simple facts are indisputable. He was a hardened killer, convicted of murdering in cold blood five different people at five different times with no apparent motive.’ Because the death penalty was not imposed in United States in 1984, Fountain was sentenced to a lifetime of solitary confinement and in the context of his solitary confinement he encountered God and was transformed as a result. In the fifteen years from 1989 until his death Fountain became a Christian and was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. He went from being ‘both incorrigible and uncontrollable’ to being someone who was gentle, even meek. He began studying for the priesthood, though he knew that the prison would be his only ministry. He turned his cell into a holy hermitage, the ‘different kind of cell’ of the title. A life of solitary confinement became a life of solitary prayer. Fountain’s story has been written by the Roman Catholic priest who was his spiritual advisor during the last six years of his life. This is a book that deserves to be widely read as a witness to the fact that God is capable of changing people’s lives even in the most unpromising and seemingly unlikely circumstances and as a challenge to the idea that we can write anyone off as beyond redemption, no matter how dreadful their behaviour may have been. As Sister Helen Prejean puts it in the Foreword ‘No one is beyond the mercy of God. No one. The message of this book is that to kill anyone on the assumption that their redemption is impossible is to take the place of God.’

Sebastian Kim, Theology in the Public Sphere: Public Theology as a Catalyst for Open Debate, SCM, ISBN 978-0-33404-377-5, £40.00.
One of the key problems that the Christian Church now faces, at least in the Western world, is how to avoid the privatisation of the Christian faith in a context in which society is increasingly secular. How can Christianity still have a voice in the public square in a setting in which the Church can no longer claim an automatic right to be heard on matters of ethics or public policy? The new discipline of public theology has emerged in recent years as an attempt to address these issues. It seeks to promote a new form of participation by Christians in the public domain in which they make a contribution to the thinking of wider society by engaging in dialogue with those outside the Church and by promoting critical inquiry and public debate. The new volume by Professor Sebastian Kim, who holds the Chair in Theology and Public Life in the Faculty of Education & Theology and York St. John University, outlines a constructive model for the practice of public theology. In outlining this model Professor Kim draws on his experience in a number of different international contexts and explains how public theological thinking works with reference to a number of case studies of recent issues such as the Danish cartoon affair, the debate about the place of Sharia Law in Western societies and the involvement of the churches in reconciliation. This book will be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about the discipline of public theology or anyone who is interested in Christian involvement in public life. The key theological issue it raises, however, is whether the Christian contribution should in principle be restricted to acting as a ‘catalyst  for open debate’ (Professor Kim’s preferred option) or whether in an ideal world the Church should be accepted as having the right to speak authoritatively  to the nation on behalf of God.

Christoph, Cardinal Schönborn, Man the Image of God: The Creation of Man as Good News, Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-420-0, £9.37.
Cardinal Schönborn is the Archbishop of Vienna. He is a renowned theologian who was the primary editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In this book he looks at the subject of Christian anthropology. He takes as his starting point the teaching of Genesis 1:26-27 that human beings are created in the image of God. According to the Cardinal this teaching tells us that ‘Man is created by God and for God; he has an incomparable dignity because God, in creating him, has for him an infinite love, the very origin of creation and the reason for the work of redemption.’ Drawing on the insights of philosophy, theology, science and art the Cardinal reflects on what it means to say that human beings have this incomparable dignity and to claim that all the works of God in creation converge towards, and find their fulfilment in, humanity and that humanity in turn was made for a relationship with God that is made possible through the work of Christ. As the title of the book suggests, he also explains why it is good news to see human beings in this light, not simply as the end product of impersonal processes of natural selection but as the objects of God’s love and of His personal and providential care. This is an important study that will be of benefit to anyone who wants to explore the common Christian belief in the unique dignity of human beings as those made in God’s image and to think further about how to explain and commend this belief to others.

Mike Starkey, Ministry Rediscovered: Shaping a Unique and Creative Church, BRF, ISBN 978-1-84101-616-0, £7.99.
In his new book Mike Starkey, a Vicar in West London, suggests that there are currently two main models of church leadership on offer, neither of which is helpful. The first model sees the role of the successful church leader as being to guard the traditions of a particular denomination or tradition of churchmanship. Those who adopt this model seek to act as faithful stewards of these traditions in changing times and to ensure that they are passed on to the future. The second model encourages the church leader to look for inspiration not to church tradition, but to what has been shown to work in large and successful churches today. Those who adopt this model seek to imitate the practices of these churches in the hope that what has worked elsewhere will also work in their church as well. In Starkey’s view the problem with both models is that all the reference points for what the local church should be a re drawn from elsewhere. In commercial terms both are a form of central buying that leave too little room for local creativity or uniqueness. What he suggests as a better alternative is for churches to learn to nurture something in their own context, which grows authentically out of the local community, congregation and leadership. In this scenario church leaders are not simply guardians of tradition or those who seek to replicate a successful model of being the church imported from elsewhere, but are creative explorers. In Starkey’s own words: ‘What if we were to see the role of church leader not so much as the guardian of a tradition or formula, but as an explorer, a creative person who takes people on a journey of discovery and opens up fresh possibilities? The explorer is somebody who heads off on a journey with others, for the sheer excitement of travelling and the wonder of arriving at new places not seen before. How can this sort of leader possibly know in advance precisely what the journey will look like or where it will take them?' This is a provocative and stimulating contribution to thinking about ministry which will be of interest to those engaged in ministry and those training people for it.

Benjamin Gordon Taylor and Nicholas Stebbing, Walter Frere, Canterbury Press, ISBN 978-1-85311-868-5, £18.99  
Walter Frere (1863-1938) is not someone is well known today, even among people with a good general knowledge of Church history. However, in his day he was among the most important figures of the second generation of the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church of England. He was a monk who was a musician, theologian and liturgist. He was one of the founders of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield and subsequently Bishop of Truro. His liturgical influence stretched across the Anglican Communion and he was the first person in the Church of England to compile a book of collects and reading for saints days. He was heavily involved in the development of the 1928 Prayer Book and was also involved in ecumenical discussions with the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches. This new volume of essays, edited by a member of the Community of the Resurrection and a tutor in liturgy at Mirfield, is the first critical study of Frere and his work. The essays it contains offer an overview of Frere’s life and character and a reflection on his spirituality. They consider his role as a teacher, his innovative vision of the priesthood, the controversy he aroused as Bishop of Truro, his pioneering ecumenical work, his influence on the 1928 Prayer Book and finally his enduring influence as a founder of the Community of the Resurrection. This work will be obviously be of interest to anyone associated with Mirfield and the Community of the Resurrection, but it will also be of interest to those who want to know more about the history of the Church of England at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries and to students of liturgy and church music. 


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  2. The Gospel According to Twilight is an excellent example on how to watch modern movies with gospel eyes.