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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

November 2012 Book Reviews

Here are nine engaging volumes to keep you busy this November. Among them is an important new work to help with the Christian's apologetic task in countering questions raised by the new athiesm. There are volumes of thoughtful comment on Western society, including one which will be the last book by Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. Two Biblical studies are included, one from a popular perspective and another quite dense and scholarly. Included is a reprint of a ground-breaking study on the Church and same-sex relations which will keep you up-to-date on an important perspective on this issue. For a change of pace there is an enlightening study of Da Vinci's Last Supper mural. If you get into this November reading list chances are you will not have time to do much else! The introductions below are again based on the excellent reviews by Dr Martin Davie, the Bishops' Theological Advisor.

As one of the books is a fascinating review of the contribution of Germany to our modern culture... Genießen Sie diese Bücher!

For the reviews, click the read more button.

Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Baker Books, ISBN, 978-0-80107-275-8, £9.99 (Kindle edition also available)
Richard Dawkins described the God of the Old Testament as ‘arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’ While not necessarily expressing themselves so vigorously, many people, including many people within the Church would have a good deal of sympathy with the basic thrust of what Professor Dawkins says in this quotation. In his book Is God a Moral Monster? Professor Paul Copan, who teaches philosophy and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, tackles head on the issues raised by Dawkins and others about the Old Testament depiction of God. His book is in four parts. Part I, ‘Neo Atheism,’ describes who the new atheists such as Richard Dawkins are and the accusations they level against the God of the Old Testament. Part II, God: Gracious Master or Moral Monster’ looks at why God requires praise and sacrifice without this meaning that he is an arrogant ego maniac and how we are to make sense of the anger and jealously attributed to God and his command to Abraham to slay Isaac. Part III, ‘Life in the Ancient East and Israel’ begins with a section entitled ‘incremental steps for hardened hearts’ which looks at how we can understand the Old Testament law as a revelation of God’s will without saying it is the full and final revelation of his will. It then goes on to consider and refute the specific charges that the Old Testament is misogynistic, supports slavery, and commands genocide and the more general charge laid by Christopher Hitchens and others that religious belief necessarily leads to violence. Part IV, ‘Sharpening the Moral Focus’ looks at why the existence of the sort of God that we find in the Old Testament is a necessary foundation for a belief in moral goodness and how Jesus fulfils rather that repudiates the Old Testament revelation. This is an important book that not only grapples with specific Old Testament passages and issues but places them in the larger perspectives of God's universal blessing to all nations, the revelation of God in the New Testament, and modern issues such as Islamic jihad and the divine foundation of goodness and morality.

Jeffrey John, Permanent Faithful Stable, DLT, ISBN 978-0-23252-957-9, £6.99
In spite of the sub title ‘Christian same-sex marriage’ (which has obviously been added by the publisher in the hope of increasing sales) this is not primarily a book about present UK proposals to introduce same–sex marriage. It is an update of the 2003 edition of Dr Jeffrey John’s 1993 essay on Christianity and homosexual relationships, with some obvious anachronisms amended and a preface and postscript which explain how he sees the situation today. The argument of the main body of the book is set out with great clarity at the beginning of the introduction: ‘This book has a straightforward aim. It argues that homosexual relationships should be accepted and blessed by the Church, provided that the quality and commitment of the relationship are the same as those expected of a Christian marriage. It argues that the theological, ethical and sacramental status of such a partnership between two men or women is comparable to that of a marriage, whether or not the word marriage is used to describe it. It also argues that the self-discipline and self-sacrifice which are required to make Christian marriage a way of holiness are equally required of a homosexual partnership which deserves the name Christian.’ Dr John comments that while the Church of England is likely to start offering services of dedication for civil partners relatively soon: ‘it will take much longer for the Church to come round to solemnizing same-sex marriage. But it will. The sadness is that the Church will, yet again, only get there reluctantly, following the State, and will finally realize much too late that the impulse which brought this about was truly God’s impulse, even though it had begun outside the Church.’ He attacks the way in which the Church has colluded in the oppression of gay people, declaring that ‘almost as long as it has existed, the Church has been directly responsible for evils and injustices committed against gay people, and it is responsible for them still’ He criticises the fact that ‘there is still not a glimmer of repentance; rather the opposite – an arrogant restatement of ‘traditional’ exclusion and contempt’ and notes in particular  that the bishops of the Church of England ‘continue to defend the attitudes and ideology which undergird prejudice, and they continue to bear the heaviest responsibility for it.’  Since the original version of the book was published in 1993 it has been widely regarded as one of the most significant Anglican arguments for the revision of the Church’s teaching and practice in relation to homosexuality. As such it is a book which everyone who wants to play an informed part in the current debates about human sexuality needs to read, even if they finally end up disagreeing with Dr John’s conclusions.    

Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper, Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-0-74759-947-0, £20.00 (Kindle Edition also available).
From 1495 to 1498 Leonardo Da Vinci painted a mural for the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. This mural, which was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, depicts the moment recorded in John 13:21 at which Jesus said to his disciples ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’ This mural, now known as ‘the Last Supper’, has become one of the most famous works in the entire history of Western art. From a Christian perspective it has become a dominating image of the Last Supper, endlessly reproduced in a whole variety of different media and forming the sub-conscious mental picture of the Last Supper for generations of Christian believers, even if they know that from a historical point of view what Leonardo depicted is nothing like what Jesus’ last meal with his disciples would have looked like. For a century after its creation the Last Supper was regarded as nothing less than a miraculous image. In his new book Ross King, who has previously written acclaimed accounts of the creation of Brunelleschi's Florentine dome and Michelangelo's ceiling for the Sistine Chapel in Rome, provides a ‘biography’ of the Last Supper which gives a detailed account of how it was produced, describing the adversities suffered by the artist during its execution; the experimental artistic techniques he employed; the models for Christ and the Apostles that he used; and the numerous personalities involved with work ranging from Ludovico Sforza himself to Leonardo’s young assistants. This is an account of the creation of the Last Supper that manages to be both scholarly and accessible and it is worth reading by anyone who is interested in the history of Western art, anyone who knows the picture and is curious about how it came into being and anyone who simply wants to read a well written account of the personal and practical difficulties involved in creating an artistic masterpiece.  

Peter Kreeft, You can understand the Bible, Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-158617-045-5, £ 11.50 (Kindle edition also available)
From time to time a gem of a book comes from an unexpected source. This is the case with Peter Kreeft’s book You can understand the Bible. Ignatius Press is not a particularly well known publisher and Peter Kreeft is not a very well known writer and is by his own admission ‘not a biblical scholar.’ However, from this publisher and from this author there has come one of the best books on the Bible for a long time. The author calls it ‘a popular overview, intended to pique the reader’s interest in reading and studying God’s word ’ and it achieves exactly what was intended. The book consists of a ‘General introduction to the Bible’ followed by introductions to the books of the Old and New Testament in their canonical order together with introductions to the Old Testament, the Gospels and the Epistles. As Kreeft is a Roman Catholic writer he includes the Deuterocanonical books and the Apocrypha at the end of his comments on the Old Testament. The best way to begin to appreciate why this is such a good book is to give some extracts from it, so here are two. Firstly, from the introduction: ‘Most essentially the Bible is a story. Unlike the holy books of other religions, the Bible’s basic line is a story line. It narrates real events that really happened to real people in real history. G K Chesterton said, ‘There are only two things that never get boring: stories and persons.’ The persons involved here include the three most important Persons of all: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Bible is ‘stories of God’. But it is also stories about us, about our relationships with God and each other (the word religion, from the Latin religare, means essentially ‘binding relationship’). The horizontal (man-to-man) and vertical (man-to-God) relationships meet here and form a cross.’   Secondly, on the book of Judges: ‘Judges contains seven cycles of Israel’s disobedience and repentance, infidelity and return to fidelity with God. Again and again, Israel compromises and worships the gods of the native Canaanites – just as we, the New Israel, worship the gods of our society (consumerism, control, comfort, power, prestige, pleasure). Again and again, the loss of Israel’s inner, spiritual strength results in a loss of outer material strength socially, politically and militarily; and they are defeated and oppressed, Compromise always leads to chaos. Then they repent, and God raises up a new judge each time to deliver them (no amount of human folly can exhaust the divine patience). But each new judge-deliverer is different. The monotony of Israel’s (and our) sins contrasts with the creative originality of God’s methods of deliverance.’ This is a really good book and a perfect gift to give to someone who says ‘tell me what the Bible is all about.’

Michael Nazir-Ali, Triple Jeopardy for the West, Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-1-441113-474, £12.99.
Alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has been one of the most prominent Christian commentators on the social, religious and ethical issues facing the United Kingdom. In Bishop Michael’s case these comments are particularly informed by his widespread experience of the Church outside the UK and especially his experience of the challenges faced by the Church in Islamic majority countries such as his native Pakistan. In his new book, which is a collection of his writings from recent years, he looks at the impact that aggressive secularism, radical Islamism and multiculturalism are having on the Western world, and particularly Britain. As the title of his book suggests he sees the UK and the West in general as facing a triple jeopardy with the traditional Judeo-Christian foundations that have given the West a tradition of equality, justice and freedom being undermined by a combination of secularism and multiculturalism and militant Islam coming in to try to fill the resulting moral vacuum. His positive argument is that the UK needs to recover its Christian heritage and recognise the threat posed by militant Islam and that in the face of our multi-cultural and multi-religious society the role of the state needs be more than attempting to simply balance the competing interests of different groups. Instead the calling of the state is to provide a moral vision for the common good, using the moral and spiritual legacy of Britain's heritage as its foundations. His book is in four parts. Part one looks at ‘Society: The State and the Good Citizen.’ Part two looks at ‘Religion: The Threat of Radical Islamism.’ Part three looks at ‘Science: Evolution, Bioethics and Assisted Dying.’ Finally, Part four looks at ‘Politics: Values and Good Government.’ The topics covered under these heading include ‘What Comes After Multiculturalism,’ ‘ Islamic Law, Fundamental Freedoms and Social Cohesion,’ and ‘The Moral and Spiritual Challenge Facing the Coalition.’ This collection of his writings is a very important warning by Bishop Michael about the dangers that the West is now facing and the need for Western society to return to its Christian foundations. Like the collection of writings by the Archbishop of Canterbury on similar themes reviewed below, this book is a ‘must read’ for anyone who wants to think and speak responsibly about the future of Western society from a Christian perspective.

Andrew Shead, A Mouth Full of Fire, IVP, ISBN 978-1-84474596-8, £14.99.
This new book by the head of the Old Testament department at Moore College, Sydney, is an attempt to bring together two theological disciplines, biblical studies and Christian doctrine. In his Introduction he notes that ‘Doctrine and biblical studies are two disciplines we are used to thinking about quite separately. Many, perhaps most, graduates of theological schools have been trained to approach each as a distinct field of study with its own modes of thought and its own body of literature. While there are good reasons, both historical and practical, for doing so, I hope that this book will demonstrate the value of blurring the boundaries between them’ The way he attempts to blur the boundaries between them in this book is by looking at how what is said in Jeremiah about ‘words’ and ‘the word’ helps us to make sense of the overall narrative structure of the Book of Jeremiah and at the same time helps us to understand better in terms of Christian doctrine the relationship between the words of Scripture and the word of God. He also looks at what Jeremiah 36 tells us about how the word of God given to the prophets achieved permanence in written form and how the move from the oral to the written form of the divine word in this chapter gives us what he calls a ‘prophetic paradigm of inspiration’ which helps us to think more clearly about the inspiration of Scripture as a whole. The final chapter of the book is entitled ‘From the book of Jeremiah to the doctrine of the word of God.’  In it Dr Shead considers the relation between words and the Spirit in Jeremiah, how the doctrine of the word of God which we can develop from Jeremiah relates to Karl Barth’s teaching about the word of God in the Church Dogmatics and to the New Testament’s teaching about Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word and how all this points us to what we can say in terms of Christian doctrine about the relation between the words of Scripture and the word of God. This is a theologically demanding study that requires concentrated reading, but it is valuable both as a model for the bringing together of biblical studies and Christian doctrine and as a fresh contribution to the continuing debate about how the words of Scripture embody the self-revelation of God and how this is best expressed in terms of a doctrine of biblical inspiration.

Robert and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough?: The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life, Penguin, ISBN 978-1-84614-448-6, £20.00 (Kindle Edition also available).
Robert Skidelsky is Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick and his son Edward is a lecturer in the Philosophy Department of the University of Exeter. Their new book is an attack on the idea that individuals and societies should pursue the unlimited acquisition of wealth. As they write in their Introduction, ‘This book is an argument against insatiability, against the psychological disposition which prevents us, as individuals and societies, from saying ‘enough is enough’ It is directed against economic insatiability, the desire for more and more money.’  Drawing on a largely forgotten essay by the economist John Maynard Keynes they ask us to imagine ‘that everyone has enough to lead a good life. What is the good life’? What is it not? And what changes to our moral and economic system would be needed to realize it?’ In seeking to answer these questions the Skidelskys bring together perspectives from their academic disciplines of economics and philosophy ‘the one for the sake of its practical influence, the other for the sake of its ethical imagination.’ Their book, they say ‘aims to revive the old idea of economics as a moral science, the study of human beings in community, not of interacting robots.’ Their book includes a definition of the 'good life', discusses the relevance of 'Happiness Studies' and the environmental impact of our ever-growing need to consume. They conclude by offering a radical new model for income redistribution - and a consideration of what human beings might really want from their lives. This book is well worth reading as a strong challenge to the prevailing materialist culture of our society. In asking ‘what is the good life?’ and ‘can the pursuit of ever larger amounts of money and material goods help us to attain it?’ they are asking the right questions. However, from a Christian point of view their answers to these questions deserve only two cheers. Because the Skidelskys do not see having a relationship with God as a fundamental part of living a good life, the world they sketch out could happily be populated with contented atheists who had managed to curb their desire for money. From a Christian perspective these contended atheists would still have missed out on the purpose of human existence and would thus not be leading the good life. What this book calls for therefore is not simply a bilateral conversation between economics and philosophy, but a trilateral conversation between economics, philosophy and theology about the nature of a truly good life and how it can be attained.

Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century, Simon and Shuster, ISBN 978-1-41652-615-5, £9.99 (Kindle Edition also available).
When the Bavarian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was appointed Pope in July 2005 the Sun ran the headline ‘From Hitler Youth to Pope Ratzi.’ As Peter Watson notes in the introduction to his new book, this headline typifies the way in which British popular culture continues to see Germany and the Germans through the paradigm of the Nazi period and the Second World War. As Watson suggests, this fascination with the Third Reich ‘has done more than unbalance British education and foster an obsession with the years of dictatorship, helping to create an ignorance of the reality of modern Germany.’ This book attempts to set the record straight. It traces the way in which from the end of the Baroque age and the death of Bach in 1750 to the rise of Hitler in 1933, Germany was transformed from a poor relation among western nations into a dominant intellectual and cultural force that was more influential than France, Britain, Italy, Holland, and the United States. In the early decades of the 20th century, German artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, and engineers were leading their freshly-unified country to new and undreamed of heights, and by 1933, they had won more Nobel prizes than anyone else and more than the British and Americans combined. This genius was then cut down in its prime with the rise and subsequent fall of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, creating a legacy of evil that has overshadowed the nation's contributions ever since. As well as telling the story of Germany’s rise and fall Watson also stresses how, even though the Nazi period has obscured the fact, the intellectual, cultural and technological developments that took place in Germany from the mid eighteenth century have continued to shape the modern world. As he convincingly demonstrates, while we may hold other European cultures in higher esteem, it was in fact German thinking - from Bach to Nietzsche to Freud - that actually shaped modern America and Britain in ways that continue to resonate today. This is an important study, not only because it serves as a useful corrective to an excessive focus on World War II, but because it sets out in a very clear and comprehensive way the historical roots of the world we now inhabit. It would be an exaggeration to say that the modern world was ‘made in Germany,’ but it would be an exaggeration that contained more than a kernel of truth.  Anyone who wants to properly understand the modern world should therefore read this book.

Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square, Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-1-40818-758-6, £20.00 (Kindle edition also available).
At the beginning of the Introduction to this final published work of his Archepiscopate, Archbishop Rowan notes that ‘Every archbishop, whether he likes it or not, faces the expectation that he will be some kind of commentator on the public issues of the day.’ He further notes that if he attempts to fulfil this role ‘He is, of course, doomed to fail in the eyes of most people. If he restricts himself to reflections heavily based on the Bible or tradition, what he says will be greeted as platitudinous or irrelevant. If he ventures into more obviously secular territory, he will be told that he has no particular expertise in sociology or economics or international affairs that would justify giving him a hearing.’ Nevertheless, he says, the risk of commenting must be taken because: ‘ If it is true that religious commitment in general, and Christian faith in particular, are not a matter of vague philosophy but of unremitting challenge to what we think we know about human beings and their destiny, there is no reprieve from the task of working out how doctrine impacts on public life – even if this entails the risk of venturing opinions in areas where expert observers vocally and very technically disagree with each other.’  In his book Archbishop Rowan explores how Christian faith relates to public life under seven headings ‘Secularism and its discontents.’ ‘Living within limits: liberalism, pluralism and law,’ ‘Living within limits: the environment,’ ‘Housekeeping: the economic challenge,’ ‘Justice in community,’ ‘Religious diversity and civil agreement’ and ‘Rediscovering religion.’ Under these general headings he has twenty six chapters covering a variety of specific topics such as ‘Has secularism failed?’ ‘Pluralism – public and religious,’ ‘Ethics, economics and social justice’ and ‘The gifts reserved for age: perceptions of the elderly.’ Archbishop Rowan begins to sketch out a renewed Christian vision for the life of our society and mounts a challenge to he calls ‘programmatic secularism,’ something he defines as the view that: ‘any and every public manifestation of any particular religious allegiance is to be ironed out so that everyone may share a clear public loyalty to the state unclouded by private convictions, and any signs of such private convictions are rigorously banned from public space.’ For the archbishop this idea raises two major issues: ‘One is that this reduces what will be for a lot of people their most intimate and decisive moral inspirations to the level of private choices, lifestyle choices as you might say; and this ‘thins out’ the fabric of public debate and of moral passion. The other is that without respect for the possibility of criticizing the state on the grounds of a truth that does not change at elections, without the possibility of arguing with some things the state thinks are reasonable or self-evident, the chances of radical social change are threatened. This may not feel like a huge issue in liberal democracies, but the history of the last century should remind us that, in times of political crisis and corruption, we need to know what resources there are to resist what a government decides is ‘rational’.’ What the archbishop argues for instead is for a state that thinks of itself as a ‘community of communities’ rather than a ‘monopolistic sovereign power’ and works consistently with ‘diverse religious groups to make the best use of their resources for the common good and to minimize conflict.’ This collection will be one of Archbishop Rowan’s most important intellectual legacies from his time in office and should be read and engaged with by anyone who wants to think more deeply about the nature of British society and the place of religious belief within it. 

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