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Wednesday, 1 August 2012

July 2012 Book Reviews

With the Olympic Games in full swing you might find you have less time to devote to reading. Nevertheless here are 9 reviews of some new theological works. There is (yet another) study of Fresh Expressions, two theological reflections on economic issues, some Church History, spirituality, and a couple of big names in theology: Jurgen Moltmann and Timothy Radcliffe. Also, a book that is sure to provoke some reaction in its new approach to the current human sexuality debate... 

Felix lectio!  

For the reviews press the read more button.

G W Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome, Yale, ISBN 978-0-30017-997-2, £25.00 (Kindle edition also available)
In his biography of Richard III, Paul Murray Kendall describes the late medieval English church as ‘rather like a fat whale stranded in a lagoon abounding in its food – not uncomfortable enough and too well fed, too inert, to try to move in any direction at all. Though pricked by the Lollards and stung by hostile criticism from the laity into holding tight to its privileges, the church was not sufficiently challenged to attempt or even imagine reform.’ This negative view of the late medieval English church is one that was widely accepted until recent times. It has been seen to be a key explanation for the English Reformation: that it occurred and took a Protestant direction because of popular discontent with the corruption and complacency of the Catholic Church of England in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This account of the causes of the Reformation has been challenged in recent years by a number of historians,  notably by Professor Eamon Duffy in his book The Stripping of the Altars. It is challenged again by G W Bernard, the Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton, in this new book. In his view the English church of the late Middle Ages was a church marked by vibrant faith and great energy. He explores the structure of the church, the nature of royal control over it, the role of the bishops and other clergy, the intense devotion and deep-rooted practices of the laity, the existence of anti-clerical sentiment, and the prevalence of heresy. He argues that the Reformation was not inevitable, nor was it caused by the fact the church was corrupt, superstitious or outdated. The late medieval church had its vulnerabilities, but paradoxically these were often a sign of its great vitality. This is a book that needs to be read by anyone who is interested in the history of the English Church and the background to the English Reformation. The question it raises, like the work of Eamon Duffy before it, is why, if the pre-Reformation church was so vibrant, did the English Reformation take place?

Bruce a Demarest (ed) Four views on Christian Spirituality, Zondervan, ISBN 978-0-31032-928-2, £12.50 (Kindle edition also available)
The ‘four views’ series from the American publishing house Zondervan is a series that, as its name suggests, puts forward four views on a particular topic. This latest book in the series presents four views on spirituality. Bradley Nassif writes on ‘Orthodox spirituality: A quest for transfigured humanity.’ Scott Hahn writes on ‘Come to the Father: The fact at the foundation of Catholic spirituality.’ Joseph Driskill writes on ‘The progressive face of mainline Protestant spirituality.’ Finally, Evan Howard writes on ‘Evangelical spirituality.’ Each essay seeks to address six issues ‘the definition and key emphases of Christian spirituality,’ ‘the relation of spirituality to spiritual formation,’ ‘the means, discipline or regimen by which spirituality is cultivated,’ ‘the role of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in spirituality,’ ‘the function of the institutional church in spirituality’ and ‘the goals or endgame of spirituality.’ The essays are preceded by an instruction by the editor that explains the nature of Christian spirituality and introduces the four traditions represented in the book. Each essay is followed by a response from the other three essayists that highlight points of convergence and divergence with their own tradition. This is definitely an introductory volume. The limitations of the length of each essay means that those who want a detailed exploration of the tradition covered in it will need to look elsewhere. From an Anglican perspective it is also unfortunate that the distinctive nature of Anglican spirituality goes unrecognised. However, as an introductory volume, and even with the limitation just noted, this a book that is well worth giving to those who want to begin to study the various traditions of Christian spirituality that it covers and also offers a useful refresher course for those who want to revisit these traditions.

Fresh Expressions in the Mission of the Church, CHP, ISBN 978-0-7151-4295-0, £14.99
This book was a key resource for the debate on fresh expressions in the General Synod in July. It is the product of a joint working party established by the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain. The task given to the working party was: ‘To undertake a critical study of the explicit and implicit ecclesiology of fresh expressions, and to produce recommendations or guidelines for ongoing work or change to existing structures that are workable within both traditions'. The report is in seven chapters. The first chapter explains the issues addressed in the report. The second chapter explains the development and nature of fresh expressions and includes snapshots of fresh expressions from both churches. The third chapter considers the Church in the Acts of the Apostles as a paradigm for subsequent ecclesiology and chapter four then looks at the ecclesiology of the Anglican and Methodist traditions and shows how this provides a basis for assessing the ecclesiological implications of fresh expressions. Chapter five explores the major theological criticisms that have been made of fresh expressions and chapter six pulls the threads of the report together by outlining a ‘Mission-shaped Ecclesiology’ that addresses the needs of mission today, but that is also faithful to the basic ecclesiological pattern found in Acts and in the traditions of the Church of England and the Methodist Church. The final chapter sets out the conclusions of the report and puts forward a series of specific recommendations, building on these conclusions. This is a major theological study of the ecclesiological questions raised by fresh expressions and should be read by anyone who wants to have a better understanding of the place of fresh expressions in a ‘mixed economy’ church.

Daniel K Finn (ed), The Moral Dynamics of Economic Life, OUP USA, ISBN 978-0-19985-835-4, £18.99
Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) is an encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI published in 2009 that addresses issues about the person, community and the globalized economy from the standpoint of Roman Catholic social thought. At the heart of the encyclical is a study of the implications of the relational nature of the Triune God for daily human life and for economic activity as a key part of life. For Pope Benedict the relational nature of God can best be expressed in economic life through ‘reciprocity,’ a relationship characterized by help which is freely given, but which forms an expectation that the recipient will ‘reciprocate,’ either to the donor or, often, to someone else. It proposes that the 'logic of gift' should influence daily economic life. This volume is the result of a conference of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace held in Rome in October 2010 to respond to Caritas in Veritate. Social scientists, theologians, policy analysts and others engage with, extend, and critique the teaching given in the encyclical as well as Pope Benedict’s teaching on social and economic issues more generally. Each of the chapters in the book is made up of a series of papers from the scholars who attended the symposium. Examples are Kenneth Himes on ‘Benedict’s view of the person,’ Michael Novak on ‘Markets and government; the vitality of markets,’ Michael Naughton on ‘The logic of gift and the world of business’ and Stefano Zamagni on ‘Re-conceiving welfare politics.’ Although coming from a Roman Catholic perspective this is an important study for any Christian who wants to think through what the Christian faith has to say in relation to the social and economic issues that the world faces today.
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Wes Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, Zondervan, ISBN 978-0-31033-003-5, £9.99 (Kindle edition also available)
In the debate about human sexuality there is a minority within a minority who are often overlooked. This minority consists of Christians who are gay or lesbian, but who believe that faithfulness to God requires that they should not act on their sexual attraction. Wes Hill is one such person. As he writes in the introduction, ‘by the time I started high school, two things had become clear to me. One was that I was a Christian. My parents had raised me to be a believer in Jesus, and as I moved towards independence from my family, I knew that I wanted to trust, love and obey Christ, who had been crucified and raised from the dead ‘for us and for our salvation’ as the creed puts it. The second thing was that I was gay.’ He was not able to hold together these two aspects of his life by affirming that God approved of homosexual activity because as he puts it, his conviction is that ‘homosexual practice goes against his express will for all human beings, especially those who trust in Christ.’ He also did not experience any alteration of his sexual feelings even though he asked for this in prayer. Instead he had to learn to live faithfully before God by not acting on his sexual desires. This is his account of how he has attempted to do this, what he calls ‘the confusion and sorrow and triumph and grief and joy of the struggle to live faithfully before God in Christ, with others, as a gay person. Hill combines reflections from his own life with insights drawn from the lives and writings of other Christians, such as Henri Nouwen, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Archbishop Rowan Williams. He advocates neither unqualified 'healing' for those who struggle with homosexuality, nor their accommodation to temptation, but rather faithfulness in the midst of brokenness. This is a book that gives an important contribution to the range of opinions in the sexuality debate.

Nathan Macdonald (ed), Genesis and Christian Theology, Eerdmans, ISBN 978-0-80286-725-4, £23.99 (Kindle Edition also available)
One of the features of modern academic life is the growing specialisation of different disciplines. One of the consequences of this for the study of theology is the division that can often exists between biblical scholars and systematic theologians with each side of the divide feeling that the other side fails to take the importance of their discipline with proper seriousness. In an attempt to address this a series of conferences on ‘Scripture and Theology’ have been organised at the University of St Andrews in which biblical scholars and systematic theologians reflected together on a particular book of the Bible. The first conference was on St John’s Gospel, the second was on the Epistle to the Hebrews and the third was on Genesis. This is a collection of the papers from this third conference. The book looks at four themes ‘Genesis and salvation history,’ ‘Genesis and divine-human relations,’ ‘Genesis and the natural world’ and ‘Genesis and the people of God.’  Among the papers that address these themes are a paper by Kurt Backhaus on ‘Before Abraham was I Am: The Book of Genesis and the Genesis of Christology,’ a paper by Walter Houston on ‘Sex or Violence? Thinking Again with Genesis about the Fall and Original Sin,’ a paper by David Fergusson on ‘Interpreting the Story of Creation:  A Case Study in the Dialogue between Theology and Science’ and a paper by Mark Elliott on ‘Genesis and Human Society: The Learning and Teaching People of God.’  As the titles of these papers indicate, Genesis and Christian Theology covers a wide range of interesting issues relating to its subject matter and it will be of interest to anyone who wants to be provoked to think more deeply about the theological significance of the Book of Genesis.

Jurgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, SCM, ISBN 978-0-33404-403-1, £40.00
Professor Jurgen Moltmann, who is now the Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tubingen, has been one of the most influential Protestant theologians to have emerged since the Second World War. His books such as Theology of Hope, The Crucified God and The Way of Jesus Christ have helped to shape the thinking of countless theologians round the world. From Theology of Hope onwards the importance of eschatology has been a major theme in Moltmann’s writings and in his new book he looks at Christian ethics from an eschatological perspective. Here Moltmann offers ‘an outline for a common answer by worldwide Christianity to the global dangers which threaten us all’. In the first part of his book he offers an account of what it means to do ethics in light of eschatology and distinguishes this approach from other past or contemporary approaches. In the following three parts he then sets out ‘an ethic of life’ (against the dominant ethic of death), an ‘ethic of earth’ (against today's utilitarian ethic) and an ‘ethic of justice’ (against today's social injustice and global conflicts). In the course of his exposition, he also applies his eschatological framework for ethics to concrete issues of medical ethics, ecological ethics, and just-war theory. The final part of the book is entitled ‘Joy in God: Aesthetic Counterpoint’ and in this part he looks at ‘sabbath – the feast of creation,’ ‘the jubilation of Christ’s resurrection’ and ‘peace in the midst of strife.’  Moltmann also highlights the importance for Christian ethics today of the insights of the Anabaptists of the Reformation era. He argues that for today’s post Christendom era ‘the ethical alternatives of the Anabaptists in their service for peace, in their experience of community and the conduct of life’ are as important for Protestant ethics as the ethos of the monastic orders is for Catholic ethics. This is a major study by a hugely important theologian and deserves to be read by all who want to think seriously about what Christian ethics should look like in the face of the challenges facing the Church and the world in the twenty first century.

Timothy Radcliffe, Take the Plunge: Living Baptism and Confirmation, Continuum, ISBN 978-1-44111-848-6, £9.99 (Kindle edition also available)
Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP is a  Roman Catholic theologian, who was Master of the Dominican Order for nine years. He is widely appreciated by Christians outside the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, he was the keynote speaker at our diocese's last clergy conference. In his new book Fr Radcliffe gives his perspective on a subject which will be of interest to all Christians, the importance of baptism for the Christian life. His starting point is the observation that ‘Christianity faces vast challenges: indifference, aggressive secularism, the rise of religious fundamentalism, persecution in many parts  of the world and so on.’ In the faces of these challenges, he says, ‘our faith will only flourish if we have a profound sense of the beauty of this simple ritual.’ Baptism, he declares, ‘touches the deepest dramas of human life: birth, growing up, falling in love, daring to give oneself to others, searching for meaning, becoming adult, coping with suffering and failure and eventually death.’ However, he notes, in the West ‘baptism hardly seems to matter’ for many people. The way to counter this perception, he thinks, is to help people to realise that the point of being a Christian is about becoming fully alive in God and that this happens to all Christians as an outworking of their baptism. He sees the baptism rite as having an ‘implicit narrative’ that points forward to the shape of the Christian life as a whole. This narrative begins ‘with us being named and claimed for Christ. This is the unconditional love that calls us into being. We discover that this love is demanding and transforming. We are invited to share responsibility for each other and creation, to let go of all egoism, to die and share the life of the life of the Triune God. This love is exigent, precisely because it is true, and a true love is always transformative.’ The book as a whole develops these ideas in detail and will be of value to anyone who wants to think more deeply about the nature of baptism as the foundation for Christian life and discipleship and the challenge this poses to the contemporary Church in the West.

Michael Sandel, What money can’t buy: The moral limits of markets, Allen Lane, ISBN 978-1-84614-471-4, £20,00 (Paperback and Kindle editions also available)
The debate in the United States about President Obama’s healthcare policy and the debate in the UK about the coalition government’s proposed reforms of the NHS have both centred on the place of the market economy in the provision of health services. These debates are part of a wider debate about the place of free market economics in society as a whole. It is this wider debate that the philosopher Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University addresses in his new book. Professor Sandel begins with the words ‘there are some things that money can’t buy, but these days not many.’ He then lists the things that money can buy you in the USA and elsewhere: a prison cell upgrade, access to a car pool lane for a solo driver, the services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a baby to term, the right to immigrate into the USA, the right to shoot an endangered black rhino in South Africa, the mobile phone number of a doctor, the right to pump a metric ton of carbon into the atmosphere and access to a prestigious American university. He comments ‘We live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. Markets – and market values – have come to govern our lives as never before.’ He goes on to say that ‘the great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and private relations? How should we decide what which goods should be bought and sold and which should be governed by non-market values? Where should money’s writ not run? These are the questions this book seeks to address.’ In order to address them Sandel has an opening chapter which sets the scene for his discussion and he then looks at five specific topics ‘Jumping the queue,’ ‘Incentives, ’ ‘How markets crowd out morals,’ ‘Markets in life and death’ and Naming rights.’ This book is an important, challenging and immensely readable study of a key issue for contemporary society. As people who care about the well bring of their societies and the people who live in them, Christians need to engage with this book in order to understand the reality of the world in which we now live and what a Christian response to the issues that Sandel raises should look like. 

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