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Thursday, 29 December 2011

End of Year Book Reviews

Here are some books reviewed for your end of the year reading. The 10 works below include one by our former Director of Training, Charlotte Methuen. There are also two Lent Books suitable for both private and group study which you may like to peruse for your forward planning. (Ash Wednesday is on 22 February!). As usual there are also works on prayer and spirituality, volumes of ecumenical interest, and lots of solid theology. 

Buona letttura!

Click on Read more for the reviews ...

Gregory S Clapper, The Renewal of the Heart is the Mission of the Church: Wesley’s Heart Religion in the Twenty First Century, Lutterworth Press, ISBN 978-0-71889-247-0, £15.50
It has been argued that John Wesley has influenced more American Christians that any other Protestant theologian and it has been further suggested that one reason for this is that Wesley often spoke about  the ‘heart’ and its ‘affections. This way of speaking has meant that he has seemed to offer an experiential account of religion and this is something that has had great appeal. However, contemporary stereotypes concerning ‘affections’ or ‘emotions’ can often present a barrier to understanding what Wesley actually taught about ‘heart religion’. As a result it is rare for either Wesley’s friends or his critics to appreciate properly his sophisticated understanding of affective reality. In his new book Professor Gregory Clapper, a Methodist scholar from the University of Indiana, seeks to address this misunderstanding of Wesley’s teaching by clarifying what Wesley himself meant when he emphasized the renewal of the heart. Professor Clapper begins by giving an overview of some recent work by contemporary philosophers and theologians that has given us a new understanding of is meant by ‘emotion.’  He then uses this new understanding of emotion to throw new light on Wesley’s vision of Christianity as a renewal of the heart and to reclaim his language about the heart as the framework for a comprehensive theological vision of Christian life and thought. He concludes his book with several practical applications that make clear the power of Wesley’s vision to transform lives today. Wesley was a great Anglican theologian and this new work is helpful tool for anyone who wants to obtain a batter understanding of a central element of his theology.

Stephen Cottrell, The Nail: Being part of the Passion, SPCK, ISBN 978-0-28106-635-3, £6.99
This new Lent Book from the Bishop of Chelmsford is based on a way of presenting the story of the Passion that he has used in various missions and at a Good Friday service at All Saints Marlow in 2008. In his introduction  he writes that this way of presenting the story ‘has proved a remarkably effective way of telling the story of the cross and getting over in a powerfully emotional way what it means for God and what it means for us, it is a way of reflecting theologically upon the cross through a retelling of the story.’ The story is retold in seven chapters, each of which focuses on a different key character from the Passion story, who describes his or her experience of Jesus’ death. The nails that were used to crucify Christ are used as a starting point for these reflections (hence the title of the book) and each of the seven characters considers the questions ‘who killed Christ? and ‘who was responsible? ’ Each chapter consists of a Biblical passage, a meditative hymn, a reflection from the point of view of the character concerned, and a short prayer. The book is designed both for individual reflection and for group study. The book finishes with some practical suggestions on how it can be used as a Lent study course and the book can also be adapted to form the basis of a Good Friday liturgy. As we have come to expect from its author, the book is readable and challenging and is likely to prove a very useful resource for both individuals and churches. 

Eamon Duffy, Ten Popes that shook the world, Yale UP, ISBN 978-0-30017-688-9, £14.99
John Reed’s classic account of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was entitled Ten days that shook the world. This title was adapted by the BBC in 2007 for a series on Radio 4 by the Cambridge historian Professor Eamon Duffy on ten great Popes. In this new book Professor Duffy now gives us his account of these Popes in written form. The book begins with St. Peter and then looks in turn at Leo the Great from the fifth century, Gregory the Great from the sixth century, Gregory VII from the eleventh century, Innocent III from the thirteenth century, Paul III from the sixteenth century, and Pius IX from the nineteenth century. The book finishes by looking at three twentieth century Popes, Pius XII, who was in office during the Second World War, John XXIII who launched Vatican II and John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 450 years. Professor Duffy explains the role that each of these Popes played in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, but as the title of the original BBC series and now this book indicates, he also explains how they shaped the wider world as well, playing a central role in the history of Europe and the world as a whole. This is a very readable account of ten great Popes and it will be of interest to anyone who wants a better understanding of these individuals, of the history of the Roman Catholic Church and of how the Papacy has helped to shape the world in which we live today.

Charlotte Methuen, Luther and Calvin: Religious Revolutionaries, Lion, ISBN 978-0-74595-340-3, £9.99 (Amazon Kindle edition £8.54)
It is generally acknowledged that Martin Luther and John Calvin were, like Eamon Duffy’s ten popes, men who ‘shook the world.’ What they did during their life times and the impact that their lives have subsequently had has fundamentally shaped the Western world as we know it today. However, although their importance is generally acknowledged, what they actually stood for in their own day is now much less well known. Dr Charlotte Methuen, the former Director of Training of this Diocese in Europe, who is now the Lecturer in Church History at the University of Glasgow, is an expert in the history and theology of the Reformation and in her new book she combats this ignorance about the teachings of Luther and Calvin by providing a reliable beginners’ guide to their thought and to why their influence has continued to change the world. The book sets Luther and Calvin in their historical context. It then goes on to look in turn at what each of them actually taught. Next it considers the arguments that have subsequently raged about the interpretation of their teaching and finally it looks at how their teaching changed the face of Europe and then spread to America and the wider world. This is an excellent introduction to two of the most import theologians in the history of the Church. It can be confidently recommended to anyone coming to study them for the first time, but it will be equally helpful as a refresher guide for anyone who studied them some time ago and now wants to look at them afresh.

Richard S Reddie, Martin Luther King Jr. Lion, ISBN 978-0-74595-282-6, £10.99
In October this year President Obama unveiled a statue of Martin Luther King in the centre of Washington DC and declared him to be a ‘founder of the American nation.’ This ceremony to honour King is just the latest sign of the heroic status that he now has, not only in the United States, but around the world. He has become a symbol of courage, self-denial, compassion and reconciliation, and is seen as exemplifying the fact that sheer force of character can overcome any obstacle. His famous 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech is widely regarded as expressing the universal values to which all good people now aspire. However, as in the case of many figures who have achieved heroic status, there is the danger that who King really was can become lost and the more difficult and challenging aspects of his life and thought can become forgotten. In his new biography of King, Richard Reddie, who was the Project Director for the Churches Together in England's initiative to mark the bicentenary of the 1807 Act to abolish the slave trade, attempts to ensure that this does not happen. In an informative and thought-provoking reappraisal of King’s life Reddie argues that King was not the  'moderate' he is now often portrayed as being, but a radical thinker whose ideas on peace, war, poverty, social justice and equality were well ahead of his time. Reddie explains how in the mid 1960s King broadened his approach from a concentration on civil rights to include 'human rights' issues as well as, and how it was this development which most concerned his detractors and hastened his downfall. This is a very important guide to King’s life and continuing significance that will be of interest not only to those approaching King for the first time, but also to those who want to think more deeply about what he really stood for and the lessons he still has for us today.

Alan Verhey, The Christian Art of Dying, Eerdmans, ISBN 978-0-80286-672-1, £19.99
The question of what it means to die well is a live one because of the continuing debate about assisted suicide. However, the question has focussed on the whether or not it is right to help someone to die when they feel that life has become unendurable.  This reflects the fact that in our day the question of how to die well has tended to become reduced to the medical question of how to die with the greatest amount of dignity and the least amount of pain. It was not always thus. In the history of the church the ‘art of dying’ was not primarily about pain relief, but about how to die well as a Christian in order to participate in the blessings offered by God in the life to come. In his new book the American Christian ethicist Professor Alan Verhey, who himself faced death during a recent life-threatening illness, seeks to recover this traditional Christian perspective in order to bring ‘both comfort and courage to other mortal Christians and confidence to the Christian communities who are called to care for them.’  He revisits the fifteenth century Ars Moriendi, an illustrated spiritual manual designed to instruct the medieval Christian how to die well, Although he finds much wisdom in this book he ultimately rejects its Stoic and Platonic worldview and argues instead that it is in the biblical accounts of Jesus death that we find a truly helpful paradigm for dying well and faithfully. This book is a very helpful study of what a good death means from a Christian perspective. In the words of John Swinton from the University of Aberdeen: ‘Death is inevitable. But how we die is not so inflexible. In this scholarly yet deeply personal reflection on death and dying, Allen Verhey offers vital insight into how we think about dying and what kind of people we need to be if dying well is to become our new way of living.’

Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How followers of Christ should serve the Common Good, Brazos Press, ISBN 978-1587432989, £ 12.99 (Amazon Kindle edition £8.46)
Professor Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School is widely recognised as one of today’s leading theological writers and in his new book he addresses the pressing topic of the role of Christians in public life today. We live in an increasingly pluralist world in which those of various faiths now live side by side in increasing numbers. This raises the question of how it is possible for adherents of different faiths to live together, especially when each religion wants to shape the public realm in line with its own beliefs. In addressing this question Volf explores three major issues which Christians need to consider in relation to today’s world: 1) In what way does the Christian faith come to malfunction in the contemporary world and how should we counter these malfunctions? 2) What should a Christian's main concern be when it comes to living well in the world today? and 3) How should we go about realizing a vision for human flourishing in relation to other faiths and under the roof of a single state? In Volf’s view Christianity malfunctions both when its seeks to impose its vision through coercion and when Christians become ‘idle’ and retreat into a privatised form of religion which ceases to make a contribution in the public realm. As he sees it we need to chart a course between two equally unhelpful extremes, on the one hand ‘totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion’ and on the other the ‘secular exclusion of all religion from public life.’ Volf’s overall argument is that the main contribution Christianity brings to the public arena is a vision of the common good, or, as he puts it, what makes for human flourishing The primary way that Christians are called to work toward this objective is not by imposing its vision on the world but by bearing witness to Christ who first shapes our lives. This book will be an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to think more deeply about the place of Christianity in a plural world and about how we can find a middle course between totalitarianism on the one hand and a purely private form of religion on the other. 

Andrew Watson, The Way of the Desert, BRF, ISBN 978-1841017983, £7.99
Following on from his two previous publications for the Bible Reading Fellowship, The Fourfold Leadership of Jesus and Confidence in the Living God (a study of the story of David and Goliath), the Bishop of Aston’s new book for the BRF is a Lent Book that provides a series of daily Bible readings running through Lent to Easter. In these readings he looks at two accounts of time spent in the desert, the Old Testament story of the time spent in the wilderness by the people of Israel after their crossing of the Red Sea and before their entry into the promised land and the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness as recorded in the Gospels. He starts from the premise that the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness were a period of spiritual training in which Jesus meditated on the story of Israel’s time in the wilderness and its lessons for his forthcoming ministry and argues that by comparing and contrasting Jesus’ time in the wilderness with the story of the people of Israel we can learn how to avoid Israel’s mistakes and learn how to follow Jesus perfect example as we too journey through the ‘desert’ of this world to the homeland that God has promised us. This is a series of readable and stimulating studies that will provide a useful course of Lenten reading either for individuals or for Lent study groups. 

Tom Wright, Simply Jesus, SPCK, ISBN 978-0-28106-479-3, £9.99
As he explains in the preface, in his new book Tom Wright seeks to answer the simple question ‘tell me about Jesus.’ As he further explains ‘I decided to answer the simple question by putting together, layer upon layer, in as simple a form as I could, what I thought might help someone who really wanted to find the way to Jesus, to Jesus as he really was, and so to find the way through Jesus both to God himself and to a life in which following Jesus would make sense.’ The book is in three parts. In the first part Wright explores ‘what the key questions are, why they matter and why we today find them difficult to answer.’ In the second part he seeks to explain ‘what I think Jesus’ public career was all about, what he was trying to accomplish and how he want about it.’ In the third part he looks at the question of what all this means for us today, exploring what it means to say that Jesus’ project of bringing in God’s kingdom ‘can become a reality not only in the lives of his followers, but through the lives of his followers.’ Even for those who have many of Tom Wright’s earlier books this one is worth getting for two reasons. First, it reflects the way that his own thinking about Jesus has developed since he wrote his previous books like Jesus and the victory of God.  If you want to know what he now thinks you need to read this book. Secondly, it is written in a straight forward fashion that makes it a useful resource to lend or give way to a serious enquirer who wants to know what can be said with integrity about Jesus in the light of New Testament scholarship.

Irma Zaleski, Living the Jesus Prayer: Practising the Prayer of the Heart, Canterbury Press, ISBN 978-1-84825-101-4, £5.99
What is known as the ‘Jesus Prayer’ is a form of prayer that has been used since the earliest days of Christianity. It has existed in many variations from ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ to the use of the single word ‘Jesus,’ but in all its many forms it has been a basis for prayer and for focussing on God that has been used by monks, nuns, clergy and lay people across the whole of the Eastern Church. Today it has spread beyond the churches of the East and it is used by Christians from many different traditions across the world. However, many Christians in the West are still unsure about what the Jesus Prayer is about and how to use it. This book by Irma Zaleski, a Christian writer now living in Canada, helps to address these issues. In line with the Eastern tradition Zaleski holds that the Jesus Prayer is a gateway to our divinization, our being ‘transformed into that divine image which we were created to be’ and in her book she provides a short, simple and inexpensive guide that is ideal for all who are new to the use of the Jesus Prayer as well as those who are already learning to make it part of their daily practice of prayer. In some forms of Eastern Christianity there is a tradition of continuously reciting the Jesus Prayer, thus fulfilling the New Testament injunction to ‘pray without ceasing.’(1 Thess 5:17). Zaleski’s book may not lead people immediately to this level of spiritual discipline, but it is a useful place to start for anybody approaching the Jesus Prayer for the first time or who are wanting to develop their use of it.  

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