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Monday, 2 July 2012

June 2012 Book Reviews (a couple of days late!)

A little late, I am afraid, but here is the June selection of reviews of 10 new theological works. Lots of  meaty summer reading. Among them, two commentaries on Old Testament books, a new resource for post-confirmation, studies on "Fresh Expressions", Church History, the latest "Tom Wright" (just how does he keep up his publishing pace?!) and much more.

Buona lettura!  

For the reviews press the read more button. 

Michael W Austin and R Douglas Geivett (eds), Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Eerdmans ISBN 978-0-80286-565-6, £9.82 (Kindle Edition also available)
One of the fundamental questions facing all human beings, whether religious or not, is what it means to be good. This new volume provides a fresh approach to this question from a distinctively Christian perspective. The contributors to the volume are American university professors in the fields of theology and philosophy. They explore what being good looks like at both theoretical and a practical level. They do this by looking both philosophically and theologically at eleven key Christian virtues; faith, open-mindedness, wisdom, zeal, hope, contentment, courage, love, compassion, forgiveness and humility, and ask what it means to live out these virtues in everyday life. Following the example of St Paul in I Corinthians 13, the chapters in the volume are grouped under the three headings of faith, hope and love, and each individual chapter follows a five fold pattern in which (i) a virtue is described, (ii) it is described philosophically, (iii) a Christian perspective on the virtue is given, (iv) advice is given about Christian formation with regard to the virtue and how it might be lived out, (v) a list of questions is given for use in individual study or group discussion. This is a very useful volume for anyone wanting to think anew about the key Christian virtues and it might also form a useful starting point for discussion with non-Christians about the nature of the good life from the Christian perspective.

W Ross Blackburn, The God who makes himself known, IVP, ISBN 978-184474-573-9, £12.99
Dr W Ross Blackburn is an Anglican priest who teaches Biblical Studies at Appalachian State University in the USA. He explores the book of Exodus and argues both that the book can be read as a unified literary and theological whole and that the key to reading it in this way is to understand the book as having a missionary focus. He builds on the definition of mission put forward by Christopher Seitz that ‘mission, biblically understood, fundamentally involves God’s seeking to put right what has gone awry.’ He contends that if this understanding of mission is applied to Exodus, that which has gone awry is that the world does not know God, and the missionary focus of Exodus is consequently ‘the Lord’s effort to make himself known among the nations for who he is, the God who rules over the universe and redeems those who call upon him.’ On this basis Blackburn argues that Exodus shows how God humbles Pharaoh so that the world will know that only God can save, that God gives Israel the law so that he might display his goodness to the world and live in a state of order and blessing, and that God deals with Israel's idolatry severely, yet mercifully, in order to ensure that Israel’s missionary vocation can be fulfilled since God’s goodness cannot be known if his glory is compromised. Blackburn’s conclusion is that ‘In the end, Exodus not only sheds important light on the church's mission, but also reveals what kind of God the Lord is, one who pursues his glory and our good, ultimately realizing both as he makes himself known in Christ Jesus.’ This book is a helpful contribution both to our understanding of the book of Exodus and to our thinking about the nature of the Church’s mission today. The challenge it poses is how we can apply today the lessons taught to us in Exodus about how as a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:3) we can make God’s name known among the nations.

David Goodhew, Andrew Roberts & Michael Volland, Fresh! An introduction to Fresh Expressions of Church and Pioneer Ministry, SCM, ISBN  978-0-33404-387-4, £16.99 (Kindle Edition also available)
Since the Mission Shaped Church report in 2004, fresh expressions and pioneer ministries have been two of the key growth areas in the life of the Church of England. However, conversation with people about fresh expressions and pioneer ministry soon reveals that there still is a widespread lack of clarity about what precisely these two aspects of the Church’s life involve. Fresh! is a an introduction to fresh expressions and pioneer ministry written by three members of the staff of Cranmer Hall, Durham who have been deeply involved with both over a number of years and it is very helpful in addressing this lack of clarity. It offers a clear explanation of what fresh expressions is and is not and shows that both fresh expressions and pioneer ministries have their roots deep in Scripture and the Christian tradition. It also looks at how fresh expressions and pioneer ministries relate to contemporary British culture. As well as clarifying the nature of fresh expressions and pioneer ministries in this way, the book also offers helpful practical advice for those who are already involved in fresh expressions or who want to become involved in it. It provides a survey of best practice in fresh expressions and pioneer ministry and offers guidance both about starting such ministries and about sustaining them in the long term. This book is the best kind of practical theology, drawing on a deep knowledge of Scripture and the Christian tradition, but also applying this knowledge in a way that is relevant to the practical issues facing the Church of England as it engages in mission. 

Peter Maidment & Paul Butler, Living your Confirmation, SPCK, ISBN 978-0281064625, £7.99
There is an old joke which says that confirmation is the Church of England’s version of a passing out parade, in that those who are confirmed normally pass out of involvement in the life of the Church thereafter. This joke goes back to the days when confirmation functioned as a social rite of passage for people in their early to mid teens and it may no longer be applicable given that those who are being confirmed today are increasingly older people who have chosen to be confirmed as a way of demonstrating an adult Christian commitment. However, the fundamental issue that the joke raises, namely that we ensure those who are confirmed persevere as Christians and continue to grow in their understanding and practice of the Christian faith, remains an important one and it is an issue that is helpfully addressed in this new book from SPCK. The book is written by the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, Paul Butler, who has long experience of working with children and young people and by Peter Maidment, who is youth officer for the Diocese of Winchester. As the title indicates, it is a post confirmation study guide that is intended to help people to live out their confirmation. The book consists of ten chapters that work through the promises made by the candidates in the confirmation service, looking at what these promises mean and then exploring how they can be lived out in everyday life. Each chapter starts with a word from Paul Butler and there is then an opening section which looks at the topic of the chapter in more depth and its relevance to daily life. This is then followed by further reflection on the topic and a chance for the reader to reflect for themselves and finally there is a ‘react’ section which contains suggestions for practical action. This book is primarily aimed at young people, as is shown by the purple headers, boxed sections and scruffing around the page edges, but the content is adaptable for us with people from all ages and the book provides a much needed resource for anyone concerned with continuing Christian formation of those who have been confirmed. 

Jacques Maritain, Christianity and Democracy – The Rights of Man and Natural LawIgnatius Press, 978-1-58617-600-6, £12.99
Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) is widely regarded as one of the great Roman Catholic writers of the twentieth century. A philosopher, teacher and writer, he was an influential interpreter of the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. He lived for many years in the USA, teaching at Princeton and Columbia Universities. After the Second World War, he served as the French ambassador to the Vatican and he also helped to draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This new book re-publishes two key essays by Maritain, Christianity and Democracy (first published in 1943) and the Rights of Man and Natural Law (first published in 1942). These essays were written in the faith that Fascism and Nazism would be defeated (something that was not at all clear when they were first published), but also in the conviction that the new world which would emerge after the war needed to be inspired by a Christian understanding of the true nature of human existence, if the mistakes of Fascism and Nazism were not to be replicated by the powers that had defeated them. In these two essays Maritain contends that human rights and a Christian inspired democracy necessarily go together. He shows that Christi­anity cannot be made subservient to any political form or regime, that democracy is linked to Christianity, and that in order for democracy to thrive, it must reflect certain values historically derived from the Gospel. As Maritain sees it, modern Western style democracies, even with all their weaknesses, represent an historic gain for the human person and they spring from the very Gospel they can often overtly repudiate. These essays are well worth reading for two reasons. Firstly, they show the philosophical and theological roots of the emphasis on democracy and human rights that has characterised the Western world since the end of World War II. Secondly, they make it clear that the Western tradition of democracy and human rights rest on a specifically Christian vision of the human person and that therefore secularism is in the long run actually inimical to this tradition.

Nick Page, Kingdom of Fools: The Unlikely Rise of the Early Church, Hodder and Stoughton, ISBN 978-0-34099-625-6, £14.99 (Kindle Edition also available)
In this new book from Hodder and Stoughton the journalist and writer Nick Page gives a fresh account of the development of the Early Church from the day of Pentecost to the end of the first century. The title of the book reflects the way that the first Christians were viewed by their contemporaries. As Page puts it in his introduction: ‘To outsiders these first Christians were dubious characters. They were definitely antisocial and probably criminal. Not to mention stupid. Fools That was the main thing. Celsus, the first pagan we know to have written against Christianity claims that Christianity deliberately set out to attract ‘the foolish, dishonourable and stupid, and only slaves, women and little children.’ Celsus claimed that the Christians did not welcome anyone who had been educated, ‘or who is wise or prudent, but if there are any ignorant, unintelligent, or uneducated, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence.’’ The fact that their contemporaries viewed them in this light raises the question, says Page, of how a ragged collection of lowly tradesmen, women, and slaves created a movement that changed the world. How did this happen? How did the kingdom of fools conquer the mighty empire that was Rome? In his book he tries to answer these questions by setting the biblical accounts in Acts and the Epistles alongside the latest historical and archaeological research, exploring how the early Christians lived and worshipped, just why the Romans found this new branch of the Jewish faith so difficult to comprehend and the reasons that Christianity eventually triumphed. Page argues that the first Christians remain ‘important figures. Their lives, their attitudes, the problems they faced, all have something to say to us today. We can gain inspiration, encouragement and strength from these people. The world around then considered them idiots, criminals, fools. But looking back, we may just catch a glimpse of some of the wisest people who ever lived.’ This is a book that is based on solid scholarship and research, written in a lively and accessible style. It is an ideal introduction to the first century Church for new Christians or interested enquirers who want to know what Christianity was originally all about. In a world in which the ‘cultured despisers’ of Christianity seemed to be becoming more and more prominent, it is a helpful reminder that being looked down on by the surrounding world may be actually be something that is an unavoidable part of faithful Christian discipleship. 

Roger Scruton, The Face of God, Continuum, ISBN 978-1-84706-524-7, £18.99 (Kindle edition also available)
Professor Roger Scruton is a lay Roman Catholic philosopher who is Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. This book is the published version of his 2010 Gifford Lectures which he delivered at the University of St Andrews. He examines the phenomenon of modern atheism and suggests that ‘it is not only an intellectual problem, expressing a disbelief in God, but also a moral phenomenon, involving a turning away from God.’ As Scruton sees it, we can state the atheist position in terms of two fundamental doctrines: ‘that everything happens in accordance with the laws of nature and that these laws are contingent, summarising the way things are and being without any further explanation.’ As Scruton also sees it ‘it is not easy to be satisfied with a world view that maintains these two positions. Surely, we feel, the law governed nature of the universe requires an explanation? We may not phrase the question in religious terms, but there is nevertheless a question: why is the universe governed by comprehensible laws?’ In order to provide a satisfactory answer to these questions, Scruton develops a form of natural theology which draws on the work of Immanuel Kant. In this theology the human face is seen as the paradigm of meaning. That is to say, when we look at the human face we find both the proof of our freedom and the mark of self-consciousness and this in turn provides a basis for understanding the fundamental nature of the world and attaining to the knowledge of God. Scruton also argues that on the moral level belief in atheism is motivated by the attempt to escape the judgement of God. You escape from the eye of judgement by blotting out the face and this, according to Scruton, is one of the most disturbing aspects of the times in which we live and is at the root of the habits of pleasure seeking and consumerism that are increasingly defacing our world. They are ultimately an attempt to hide from the face of God. His book defends a vision of the world as sacred against these habits of desecration, and offers an account of what it means to live a religious way of life in an increasingly Godless culture. This is an important study of the philosophical and moral limitations of contemporary atheism, and a vigorous and challenging argument that a proper study of the human person necessarily points you towards a God centred view of the world.

David L Stubbs, Numbers, SCM Press, ISBN 978-0-33404-198-6, £19.99
The book of Numbers is often disregarded theologically because it is seen as consisting of censuses, detailed legal regulations and morally disturbing acts of divine judgement. In this commentary the American theologian and ethicist David Stubbs challenges this depreciation of the value of Numbers. He contends that ‘Numbers not only informs us of Israel’s historical, physical journey, but as scripture, it authoritatively shapes and finds itself in mutual conversation with Christian understandings of the calling, purposes and commandments given to the people of God in other times and places: tells us much about God’s reactions towards us and plans for blessing his people; and also alerts us to the temptations common to God’s people.’ As he sees it, Numbers has three major parts that form an ABA chiastic structure, A1.1-10.10, B 10.11-25.18, A 26.1-36.13. Understood in this way ‘the first and third parts show what Israel’s vocation entails in terms of a visible polity and worship life. The crucial middle part of the book shows the struggle needed to create a holy zeal and faithfulness in this sinful, yet chosen people who are called to be blessed, to be holy, and to bear the name of God among the nations.’ From this perspective, declares Stubbs ‘Numbers is a book that focuses on the vocation of the people of God and the sins that constantly work to keep Israel from fulfilling it. Because of this, Numbers is a wonderful book for the Christian church to reflect on in the midst of important contemporary discussions about the nature and mission of the church. Numbers pushes the Christian church towards an incredibly high view of its calling, while at the same time being utterly realistic about the ways in which people fail to fully live into it. It pushes us to be a people of zeal and hope and of humility and honesty.’ This is a wonderfully stimulating commentary which should be read by anyone who wants to think more deeply either about Numbers or about what it means to be the people of God on the way through the wilderness of this world to the land of promise.

Gordon Temple & Linda Bell, Enabling Church: A Bible based resource towards the full inclusion of disabled people, SPCK, ISBN 978-0-28106-649-0, £ 7.99
One of the features of Jesus’ ministry that is recorded in all four gospels is the way in which he healed those we would now call disabled, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the paralysed and the dumb. Theologically these healings show God’s love towards these people and their inclusion in God’s kingdom. The question for us is, if we do not possess the same gift of miraculous healing, how too can we demonstrate in practical ways that disabled people are loved by God and fully included in His kingdom? To look at the same issue from another angle, if we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), 'fearfully and wonderfully made' as the Psalmist puts it (Psalm 139:14), what does that mean if we can't see, or can't walk; if we can't hear, or can't speak? How can we be said to share in God's unconditional love if we are humiliated by epileptic seizures, or if we can't remember our own name because of the ravages of dementia, or if the only response of which we are capable is a smile? How can we truly be a valued and valuable part of the Body of Christ here on earth - the Church? These are the kind of questions that are addressed in this new book written by Dr Gordon Temple, the CEO of The Torch Trust, and Lin Ball, who is Chair of the Association of Christian Writers. The book provides a rich resource of material for ministers, congregations and small groups and challenges us to get to grips theologically and practically with what the Bible says about disability - and what the Church could do in response. It explores themes of understanding, inclusion and interdependency through discussion, prayer, worship, hands-on activities and listening to the voices of disabled people themselves. Almost all churches will include disabled people and this book is a must read for anyone who wants to think how both to minister to disabled people and to discern how, in and through their disabilities, they in turn can play their full part in the life of God’s people.

Tom Wright, How God Became King: Getting to the heart of the Gospels, SPCK, ISBN 978-0-28106-146-4, 12.99
Bishop Tom Wright has combined writing his popular For Everyone commentaries with a series of major academic studies of the New Testament and middle-weight works that attempt to express the themes of his big academic works in a more accessible way for ordinary members of the Church. Like his previous work Simply Jesus, his new work How God became King falls into this third category. While Simply Jesus is about the ministry and message of Jesus himself, this new book looks at the message of the four gospels. The basic argument that Wright put forward in this book is that ‘we have forgotten what the four gospels are about.’ He does not mean that the Church has forgotten the contents of the gospels; he means that the Church has forgotten the message that the gospel writers were trying to get across through the contents of the gospels. He argues that we have for too long read the gospels from the perspective of the creeds which jump straight from the incarnation to the cross and the resurrection, and leave out everything in the middle. According to Wright this way of looking at things is a mistake because ‘if we start with the creeds, granted the way our Western Christianity is now more or less bound to read them, we will never understand the gospels, and hence the whole canon itself. If, however, we start with the gospels, which form the heart and balance point of the whole Christian canon, and if we understand them to be telling the story of how God, the creator God, Israel’s God, became in and through Jesus the king of all the world, then we can return to the creeds and say them in a very different spirit. Put tradition first, and scripture will be muzzled and faded. Put Scripture first and tradition will come to new life. Better still, as Jesus himself said, put God’s kingdom first – put first the revelation that as the gospels have been eager to tell us, this is the story of how God became king! – and all these things will be added to you.’ As this extended quotation indicates How God became King offers us Wright at his robust and theologically provocative best. Not everyone will agree with his re-reading of the gospels or the creeds, but anyone who reads this book will be forced to think hard about what the gospels and the creeds say and if they eventually disagree with Wright’s conclusions they will be better informed theologically for having gone with him on the journey and for having been forced to grapple with his arguments. 

1 comment:

  1. The Numbers book intrigues me. I read through it last year - without too much excitement, I must say - this book piques my interest.

    I really enjoy your "Book" posts.

    Thank you for putting this list together.

    Be Blessed,