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Saturday, 31 March 2012

March 2012 Book Reviews

What a rich selection of reading this month: two challenging books about the place of Christian values in modern society; a review of the doctrine of Grace; a study of the relationship between missionand development; a theological reflection on issues of immigration; a look at Evelyn Underhill on Mysticism; a very human portrayal of Pope Benedict XVI,and a fresh angle on John Calvin. There is even some pre-olympic reading: a biography of Eric Liddell. Enough to occupy our post-Easter breaks!

Goed lezen!

For the reviews press the read more button.

George Carey andAndrew Carey, We don’t do God,Monarch Books, ISBN 978-0-85721-030-2, £7.99, (Kindle edition also available).
The origins of this book go back to the judgement in April2010 in the case of Gary McFarlane, a Christian who lost his job with themarriage counselling charity Relate because he refused to counsel a same-sexcouple. In his judgement Lord Justice Laws was critical of the evidence offeredby Lord Carey in support of McFarlane and dismissed the idea that the Christianreligion had any place to play in the law of England. As their introduction tothe book explains, the Careys see this judgement as symptomatic of ‘a deepmalaise in modern Britain about the role of faith in the public square.’ Intheir view, it seems at times ‘that a ‘crusade’ is being waged by the militantwing of secularism to eradicate religion in general – and Christianity inparticular – from any role in public life.’ Yet, they say, this only a smallpart of the picture. For the most part  the modern unease regarding the publicmanifestation of faith arises out of ignorance, historical forgetfulness andwell-meaning but mistaken ‘multiculturalism’. In their book the Careys addressthese issues, tracing how we have reached the current situation, outlining thedangers that this situation poses and suggesting what might be done about it.They are, they declare, ‘not pleading for special treatment for Christians,only for justice. It is our hope that the Christian faith that has blessed ournation more than most of us realise may continue to flourish and make apositive contribution to our world. We believe that our current laws, and theway that they are being implemented, are impeding the work of the Church andchallenging our effectiveness into the future.’ This book is a significanttreatment of the place of Christianity in Britain today and deserves to bewidely read and debated.

Don Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, IVP, ISBN 978-1-84474-405-3,£12.99
Don Carson, the research Professor of New Testament atTrinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, is a veteranEvangelical theologian who has written a number of well received books on theplace of Christianity in contemporary culture such as The Gagging of God and Christand Culture Revisited. In this latest book he looks at the contemporary conceptof tolerance from a Christian perspective. The starting point for this book isthe fact that in Western society ‘tolerance’ has come to be seen as an absolutegood and intolerance as conversely something that is always morally wrong. Thepopular definition of tolerance has now changed. It now has less to do withputting up with a person or stance while still seeking to disagree, and more todo with not saying others are wrong. In Carson’sview this new definition of tolerance is seriously problematic. ‘Although a fewthings can be said in favour of the newer definition, the sad reality is thatthis new, contemporary tolerance is intrinsically intolerant. It is blind toits own shortcomings because it erroneously thinks it holds the moral highground; it cannot be questioned because it has become part of the West’splausibility structure’. In this book Carson spells out in detail the problemswith the prevalent view of tolerance in our culture using a range of examplesand quotations to illustrate his analysis. In the place of tolerance Carson argues for thevirtue of ‘civil civic discourse’ and he concludes the book by giving practicaladvice on how to exemplify and promote this. This book is a challenging pieceof Christian social analysis that will help Christians to think more clearlyabout how to challenge a culture that officially prizes toleration, but is inpractice increasingly unwilling to tolerate clear statements of religious, andparticularly Christian, conviction.

Raymond Chapman, The Practical Mystic: Evelyn Underhill andHer Writings, Canterbury Press, ISBN 978-1-84825-128-1, £19.99
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was one of the leadingAnglo-Catholic thinkers of her day. She was a theologian, a broadcaster, anovelist and a poet and was highly regarded as a retreat conductor and aspiritual director. Her particular theological expertise was in the area ofChristian mysticism. In response to the rather unfocussed mysticism of theearly twentieth century she used historical scholarship to introduce people tothe riches of the Christian mystical tradition and to show the relevance of thewritings of the great Christian mystics of the past to the contemporary world.She insisted that mystical experience was not something esoteric that was openonly to the favoured few, but was something that was within the reach of anysincere Christian believer. Although Underhill’s reputation has grown in recentyears (there is now a flourishing Evelyn Underhill Society) her work is not widelyknown. This new volume in the Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology serieswill go some way to redressing this situation by introducing her to a wideraudience. It is written by Raymond Chapman, an Anglican priest who is EmeritusProfessor of English in the University of London and it contains extracts fromher theological writings and letters arranged according to their main themesplus extracts from her fiction and poetry. It also contains a biographical andcritical introduction giving an overview of her life and work and placing themin their historical context. This is a useful introduction to Underhill foranyone coming to her for the first time and a useful compendium of her work forthose already familiar with it.

Matthew Clarke (ed), Mission and Development: God’s Work or GoodWorks?Continuum, ISBN978-1- 44110-811-1, £19.99.
This new book edited by Matthew Clarke, the Head of the School of Internationaland Political Studies at Deakin University in Australia, is concerned with theoverlap between Christian mission and development work in the poorer nations ofthe world. As Clarke explains in his introduction, the purpose of the book isnot ‘to seek consensus on the appropriate approach to mission,’ rather its aimis ‘to consider how mission activity intersects with development interventionsas currently being implemented.’ The book consists of a series of essays onthis theme and it is divided into three parts. Part I introduces the concept ofChristian mission and considers how it relates to the secular notion ofdevelopment. Part II presents three historical case studies of the intersectionof mission and development drawn from the Pacific region. Part III presents aseries of case studies of how contemporary faith based agencies are grapplingwith the relationship between mission and development. In his review of thisbook Dr Andrew Hartropp from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies writes thatit ‘…offers a critical but constructive analysis of the intersection betweenthe 'good work' of development initiatives and the specifically mission work ofChristians and Christian churches. 'Secular' development is waking up to thelongstanding and contemporary involvement of Christians in developmentinitiatives and this book is thus a timely and down-to-earth reflection.'  This is very useful resource for anyonewanting to think further about the relation between mission and development.

Peter Groves, Grace: the Free, Universal and LimitlessLove of God, Canterbury Press, ISBN 978-1-84825-054-3, £9.99.
This new book by the Revd Dr Peter Groves, Priest in Chargeof  St Mary Magdalen, Oxford and Lecturerin Theology at Worcester College, Oxford, is the first of new series edited byAndrew Davison of Westcott House, Cambridge on ‘serious theology for a popularaudience’ which aims to explore key aspects of Christian belief in anaccessible way. In this first volume of the series Groves explores the natureof grace, the free, universal and limitless love of God referred to in thetitle. All traditions of Christian theology give the grace of God a centralplace in their account of salvation, but according to Groves grace is nevertheless something thatis not well understood even by Christians, let alone by those outside theChurch. He argues that down the centuries Christians have laboured under twoopposite misunderstandings of grace. On the Catholic side grace has popularlybeen seen as something that Christians are able to earn through the performanceof good works. On the Protestant side grace has been totally disconnected fromthe performance of good works on the ground that human beings are so sinful asa result of the fall that they are incapable of doing any good deeds at all. Tocounter these misunderstandings Groves explores what exactly is meant by grace,how grace flows out of the life of God the Trinity, and how it becomes visiblein the life of Christ. He further considers the presence of grace in creationand in the Church, how grace relates to human freedom, different ways ofthinking about grace and what it means to live a life of grace. This bookfulfils the series aim of providing serious theology for a popular audience andwell be a useful book for anyone approaching the doctrine of grace for thefirst time or wanting a refresher course on the topic.

Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Sceptics Find Faith,  Baker Books, ISBN 978-0-80101-416-1, £10.99 (Kindle edition also available).
Professor Alister McGrath, who now teaches at Kings College,London, is an enormously productive theologian who has produced significantstudies in a variety of theological fields including systematic theology, thehistory and theology of the Reformation and the relationship between scienceand religion. In his latest book he has produced a primer in Christianapologetics. As he explains in his introduction, ‘This book is an introductionto apologetics – the field of Christian theology that focuses on thejustification of the core themes of the Christian faith and its effectivecommunication to the non-Christian world’. The purpose of the book, he says,‘is to introduce its readers to the leading themes of apologetics, providing abasic understanding of its agendas and approaches.’ McGrath declares that he isnot advocating one particular approach. However, he also admits that in ‘manyways’ his approach follows that of C S Lewis, ‘perhaps the greatest apologistof the twentieth century.’ The themes he covers in his book are ‘gettingstarted,’ ‘apologetics and contemporary culture,’ ‘the theological basis ofapologetics,’  ‘the importance of theaudience’, ‘the reasonableness of the Christian faith,’  ‘pointers to faith, ‘gateways for apologeticsand ‘questions about faith.’  On thislast topic he gives two case studies, one on why God allows suffering, and oneon whether faith is simply a crutch. There are many books on apologetics on themarket, but what this book has to offer is a clear but succinct overview of theapologetic task. It does not give you a detailed answer to every conceivablechallenge to the Christian faith, but what it does give you is a reliableorientation to the nature of the apologetic task. As such it is an idealtextbook for those in theological colleges and elsewhere who are beginningtheir study of this subject. 

Ched Myers andMatthew Colwell, Our God is Undocumented, Orbis Books, ISBN 978-1-57075-956-7,£16.99
In recent years the question of immigration has become acause of  heated political debate across the Western world. The presenceof immigrants and the surrounding political debate challengeChristians to think about what the Bible has to say about this issue and howChristians should respond practically to immigrants and their needs. Theprinciple of hospitality and the commandment to welcome the stranger are amongthe most consistent themes of the Bible. How does that apply to the question ofundocumented immigrants in our own countries? These two American theologiansaddress these issues in a series of alternating chapters. In his chapters ChedMyers explores the biblical material relating to hospitality, sanctuary, thecrossing of borders, and God’s predilection for those on the margins. In hischapters Matthew Colwell tells the stories of immigrants and immigrants’ rightsactivists, giving voice to their hopes, their dreams and their sufferings. Thusin chapter three Myers looks at the theme ‘Our God Is undocumented: Sanctuaryand prophetic hospitality’ considering in turn ‘A theology of welcome: Behold Istand at the door knocking’ and ‘An ethic of identity: A wandering Aramean wasmy ancestor’ and in chapter four Colwell tells the story of Mois├ęs Escalante‘From immigrant to immigrant justice organiser’ under the headings ‘Fleeing andfacing the war in El Salvador’ and ‘Reintegrating faith and politics.’ Thefocus of this book is the immigration issues currently facing the UnitedStates, but the issues the book raises and the stories the book tells are ofuniversal significance. All the signs are that immigration will continue, andwill continue to be a divisive issue, in the years to come and this bookprovides important resources for beginning to address the issue in a way thatis properly informed by biblical teaching and the experience of immigrants andthose working with and for them.

Georg Ratzinger andMichael Hesemann, My Brother the Pope, IgnatiusPress, ISBN 978-1-586177-04-1, £17.06 (Kindle edition also available).   
As is well known, the Pope is not the only member of hisfamily to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. He has an elder brotherGeorg who is Roman Catholic priest who for many years outshone his youngerbrother since he was for thirty years the director of the Regensburger Domspatzchor, the world-famous boys choir of theRegensburg cathedral while his younger brother was a relatively obscure professornot widely known outside German academic circles. In this new book, co-writtenwith the German historian and journalist Michael Hesemann, Georg tells hisstory and the story of the close friendship that has united him and his brotherfor more than eighty years. The book tells the story of the two brothers,describes the religious culture of Catholic Bavaria that shaped them and theirtwin vocations, and explains how their family managed to  survive through the difficult years ofNational Socialism in Germany. This is a book of human interest, filling in thebackground of the Pope’s family life, but it is also more significant thanthat. As the American Catholic writer George Weigel has noted: ‘Msgr. GeorgRatzinger's evocative portrait of the Bavarian Catholicism in which he and hisbrother, the future pope, were raised, offers 21st century readers an intimateglimpse of a lost world that clearly lives on in the minds and hearts of agreat musician and a great theologian. The scenes sketched so ably by Msgr.Ratzinger also shed new light on the experiences that shaped some of thethinking of Benedict XVI about the reform of the Church and the future ofEurope.’ In other words, for those seeking to understand the Pope and histhinking this book offers new insights into the influences that helped to shapehim and that have led him to think as he does.

Julian Wilson, Complete Surrender: A Biography of EricLiddell, Authentic Publishing, ISBN 978-1-86024-841-2, £7.99 (Kindle Editionalso available)
This book by the Australian author Julian Wilson is arevised version of his biography of Eric Liddell which was originally publishedin 1996. The story of Liddell’s victory in the 400m at the Paris Olympics of1924 has become well known through the Oscar winning film Chariots of Fire, but there was far more to Liddell’s life than wascovered in the movie and Wilson’sbiography helps to fill in the blanks. Drawing upon interviews with Liddell’ssurviving family and friends,  Wilsondescribes Liddell’s early years as a child of missionary parents in China, hisrise to prominence as a Rugby player and a runner at school and university, andhow after his Olympic triumph Liddell returned to China to teach in a missionschool. Wilson explains how Liddell combinedteaching and evangelistic work in the war torn countryside of north China with continuing to compete in athleticcompetitions all over the Far East as a way ofbearing witness to Christ. The book concludes by describing his final days in aJapanese internment camp where he continued to give Christian service to thosearound him. As well as describing his life Wilson also describes the religiousmotivation that shaped it. He explains that the mainspring of Liddell’s lifewas his total commitment to God, a commitment that was shaped by a life ofconsistent Christian discipline. It was this discipline that meant that Liddellrefused to compete in the heats for the 100m at the Paris Olympics since thiswould have meant running on a Sunday and that meant that he never missed hisearly morning ‘quiet time’ spent reading the Bible and praying, even in hislast days in the internment camp. This is a very readable and very movingaccount of Liddell’s life and it is well worth considering buying copies togive away to people as part of evangelistic events linked to the 2012 Olympics.

Randall C Zachman, Reconsidering John Calvin, CambridgeUniversity Press, ISBN 978-1-10701-575-3,£45.00 (Kindle edition available).
Randall C. Zachman is Professor of Reformation Studies atthe University of Notre Dame and the author of several important studies of thetheology of John Calvin. The current work originated as lectures given atPrinceton Theological Seminary in October 2009 as part of the celebrations ofthe 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. The volume is divided into sixchapters in each of which a different aspect of Calvin’s theology is exploredin dialogue with the thought of another figure from the Bible or the Christiantradition. The five figures that Zachman chooses for this purpose are BlaisePascal, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Ezra the Scribe and Julian of Norwich.Through a comparison between their thought and Calvin’s, Zachman explores andcritiques Calvin’s teaching about the place of astronomy in teaching us aboutGod and our place in the universe, the image of God in human beings as thebasis for love of our neighbour, the election and rejection of Israel and hercontinuing place in the purposes of God, how relationship with God brings us totrue self knowledge, and the wrath and love of God. By pairing Calvin up withother figures in this way Zachman both deepens our understanding of Calvin’sown teaching and challenges us to think more deeply with Calvin and these otherdialogue partners about a series of important theological themes. This is not avolume to give to someone who wants a straightforward introduction to Calvin’sthought. It is a volume for someone who already has a good working knowledge ofCalvin and the wider Christian tradition and who is willing to be challengedand stretched theologically by looking at Calvin’s teaching from a series ofunexpected angles. 


  1. Very interesting collection of books. Do you typically read them and then review them, or are they on your 'to-read' shelf?

  2. Most on the to-read pile, which is growing each month!

  3. Indeed, a phenomenon I'm well acquainted with myself!