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Friday, 25 January 2013

January 2013 Book Reviews

Another year of reading is before us. Here are 9 new theological works on a wide range of subjects that will certainly be of interest to clergy and laity of the diocese. 

The works include new books on missiology, spirituality, WWII, Science and Religion, relations with Islam, even near death experiences, and much more. As always the reviews are based on the work of Dr Martin Davie, the Theological Consultant to the Bishops of the Church of England. 

Felix lectio!

For the reviews, click the read more button

Graham Cray & Ian Mobsby, Fresh Expressions and the Kingdom of God, Canterbury Press, ISBN 978-1-84825-091-8, £16.99.
Since its origins in the Mission Shaped Church report of 2004, the Fresh Expressions movement has become a key part of the life of the Church of England and is now becoming increasingly important not only in other parts of the United Kingdom, but also in the United States, Canada. Australia and New Zealand. Interest in this form of mission has also been in expressed in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. However, in spite of its increasing importance Fresh Expressions has continued to have its critics and one of their chief complaints has been that it has been too focussed on building the Church rather than on seeking to embody the coming of the Kingdom of God through acts of social transformation. As its title suggests, this book seeks to address the issue raised in this criticism. It argues that the tension between a focus on Church on the one hand and on the Kingdom of God on the other is based on a false dichotomy. Building the Church and working to transform society need to go together. The volume is edited by Bishop Graham Cray, Archbishops' Missioner and Team Leader of Fresh Expressions and the Revd Ian Mobsby, Associate Missioner of Fresh Expressions and founder of MOOT, a worship community exploring fresh ways of being the Church in the centre of London. It consists of twelve essays that combine the two strands of theological reflections from Fresh Expressions practitioners with more academic theological writings on the nature of mission. Overall this is a stimulating collection of essays which illustrates the way in which the Fresh Expressions movement is maturing theologically and responding creatively to the critiques that have been made of it. It is useful reading for anyone who wants to think more deeply about the nature of mission today.

David F Ford, The Shape of Living, Spiritual Direction for Everyday Life, Canterbury Press, ISBN 978-1-84825-247-9, £9.99.
Professor David Ford, who is Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University and Director of the Cambridge Interfaith Programme, is one of the most highly regarded theologians writing in Britain today. The Shape of Living is a welcome re-publication by Canterbury Press of a Lent book by Professor Ford which was originally published by Fount in 1997. The book, rooted in a constant interplay between stories from Scripture and the poetry of Micheal O'Siadhail, is about Christian vocation that begins from the premise that we live in a world which constantly threatens to overwhelm us, as Noah was threatened by the overwhelming waters of the flood and then subsequently overwhelmed by drunkenness.  It then asks how we can shape our lives so that they can achieve their greatest potential in this kind of world. Examining the people and forces that influence us, the rhythm of work and leisure, and the intense experiences, both good and bad, that make up reality, Professor Ford offers practical wisdom for coping creatively with challenge and change and suggests a dynamic pattern of life that will shape our desires, relationships, responsibilities and celebrations in such a way that we can avoid being overwhelmed. Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff has commented ‘What is extraordinary about this book is that, while written at a popular level, it never ‘dumbs down’ and never descends into pious chatter. Its spirituality is profound and reflective, yet always concrete, and never dishonest or evasive; it uses not only Scripture but literature with creative facility. Simple, yet rich. A jewel of the spiritual life in its everyday manifestations, I want to savour it with repeated readings.’ This is a classic work. It re-publication is to be applauded and it deserves a wide readership in its new edition.

Richard Hanser, A Noble Treason, Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-557-3, £12.99 (Kindle Edition also available)
Since the end of the Second World War certain aspects of the German resistance to Nazism, such as the attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 and the activities of the Confessing Church, have become relatively well known.  Other aspects, however, are still relatively unknown. The White Rose, the subject of this book from Ignatius Press, is one of them. The book, which was first published in 1979, tells the story of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans who were students at the University of Munich in 1942. They had both been members of the Hitler Youth and enthusiastic supporters of the renewal of Germany that the Nazi regime promised. However, they had both become aware of the barbaric nature of Nazism and this awareness brought with a sense of moral outrage and a determination to oppose it. As Sophie put it ‘somebody, after all, had to make a start.’ They formed a small group of like-minded friends, which initially included two medical students, a student of philosophy, and a fifty-year-old professor. All of the group self-identified as Christians from various traditions-Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox-and they called themselves the White Rose. In a darkened studio lent them by an artist, they printed a series of eloquent anti-Nazi leaflets, which they ingeniously spread throughout Germany. The identity of the group was eventually uncovered in February 1943 and a many of its members, including the Scholls, were executed for treason. Today they are regarded as German national heroes and one of the group, Alexander Schmorell, has been made an Orthodox saint. A Noble Treason gives an accurate, readable and moving account of the White Rose, setting out in a very clear way the idealism and courage of the White Rose members as they resisted the pull of wartime patriotism and overcame their fear of the terrible price they would pay for their resistance. The story told by the book is one of faith-inspired idealism in deadly conflict with totalitarian tyranny. Its theme is the ultimate victory of that idealism despite its bloody-and seemingly final-destruction by the state.

Malcolm Jeeves & Warren S Brown, Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion, Templeton Foundation Press, ISBN 978-1-59947-147-1, £13.99 (Kindle edition also available).
One of the challenges to Christian belief offered in recent years by new atheist writers such as Professor Richard Dawkins has been the claim that since we now know that the human consciousness can be explained in purely physiological terms this leaves no place for religious experience and therefore no place for God. In their book in the Templeton Science and Religion series Professor Malcolm Jeeves, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews, and Professor Warren Brown, Professor of Psychology in the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, challenge this reductive view of the findings of neuroscience. They begin their book with the account in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book The Idiot of how Prince Mishkin had a religious experience occasioned by an epileptic seizure. They then comment ‘This book introduces readers to the wide range of issues in modern neuroscience and psychology, but it will take particular interest in the topic raised by Dostoyevsky’s compelling account; the role of brain activity in human behaviour, experience and even religious belief.’ The authors provide an academically sophisticated but also accessible overview of the relationship between neuroscience, psychology, and religion. They introduce key terms; chart the histories of both neuroscience and psychology, with a particular focus on how these disciplines have related to religion through the ages; and explore contemporary approaches in both fields, looking particularly at the contemporary debates about science and religion. Throughout the book, they cover key issues like the nature of consciousness, morality, concepts of the soul, and theories of mind. They examine topics such as brain imaging research, evolutionary psychology, and primate studies and argue that recent advances in these areas offer much to our understanding of humanity's place in the world and can blend in harmoniously with religious belief. They conclude their study by providing an interdisciplinary model for shaping the ongoing dialogue between science and religion in this area. Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion addresses important age-old questions about the relationship between the soul, the mind and the body and demonstrates how modern scientific techniques can provide us with a much more nuanced range of potential answers to those questions. This is an important contribution to the current debate about science and religion and is an important resource for anyone wanting to put forward a scientifically literate account of Christian anthropology.

Philip Jenkins, Laying down the sword: why we can’t ignore the Bible’s violent verses, Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0-06199-072-4, £10.99 (Kindle edition also available). 
This book by the well know American historian of religion Professor Philip Jenkins starts off by noting that in the light of contemporary concerns about ‘Islamic terrorism’ many Christians and Jews ‘consider Islam to be a kind of dark shadow of their own faith, with the words of the Qur’an standing in vicious contrast to the scriptures they themselves cherish. In the minds of ordinary Christians and Jews, the Qur’an teaches warfare, while the Bible offers a message of love, forgiveness, and charity. However, he says, ‘in terms of ordering violence and bloodshed, any simplistic claim about the superiority of the Bible to the Qur’an would be wildly wrong: it’s easy to see the mote in somebody else’s eye while missing the beam in your own. In fact, the Bible has its own bloody and violent passages, which have troubled faithful readers for centuries, and have attracted still more intense attention during recent debates over the relationship between religion and violence.’  From this starting point Professor Jenkins sets out to address what he calls the ‘holy amnesia’ that prevents Christians and Jews taking seriously the violence contained in the Bible. Believing that Christians cannot engage with neighbours and critics of other traditions - nor enjoy the deepest, most mature embodiment of their own faith - until they confront the texts of terror in their heritage, he lays bare the whole Bible, without compromise or apology. However, he does not stop there, but goes on to suggest theologically positive ways of  reading even the most unsettling biblical texts, from the slaughter of the Canaanites to the alarmingly violent rhetoric of the book of Revelation. His overall argument is that an informed reading of the Bible shows that it is possible for religions to grow past their violent origins and that this realisation gives those in the West a credible basis for interaction and dialogue with Islam, and delivers a powerful model of how a faith can grow from terror to mercy. This is an important and challenging book that needs to be read by anyone who wants to take the Bible in its entirety with proper seriousness. His warning against ‘holy amnesia’ needs to be taken to heart. However, like a number of other recent books on this topic, its argument ultimately depends on rejecting the idea that any of the violent texts in Scripture are a faithful reflection of the mind of God. This raises serious questions about the traditional Christian affirmation that Scripture as a whole is a reliable theological witness to God’s will and intention. There is therefore still room for further work on how to still make this affirmation without also affirming that the violent texts contained in the Bible provide justification for violent acts by God’s people today.

Kelly M Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians, IVP USA, ISBN 978-0-83083-975-9, £4.99 (Kindle edition also available)
Professor Kelly Kapic is Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College in the United States. His new book is intended to offer a modern day equivalent to Helmut Thielicke's classic work A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by offering a concise (96 page) introduction to the study of theology for newcomers to the discipline. What makes this book distinctive is that it explains not only how theology is studied and the contents of the theological curriculum, but also the skills, attitudes and spiritual practices needed by those who take up the discipline and the vital importance of theology for Christian life, worship, mission and witness. The book is in two parts. The first part looks at the question ‘Why Study Theology?’  It covers ‘Entering the Conversation’, ‘To Know and Enjoy God: Becoming Wise’  and ‘Theology as Pilgrimage.’ The second part looks at ‘Characteristics of Faithful Theologians and Theology.’  It covers ‘The Inseparability of Life and Theology,’ ‘Faithful Reason.’  ‘Prayer and Study.’  ‘Humility and Repentance,’ ‘Suffering, Justice, and Knowing God.’ ‘Tradition and Community’ and ‘Love of Scripture.’ Professor Kapic contends that ‘Christians must care deeply about theology. If the true God is renewing our lives and calling us to worship him ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23) then such worship includes our thoughts, words, affection and actions.’ He also emphasises that Christian theology is a way of examining our praise, prayers, words and worship with the goal of making sure that they conform to God alone.  ‘Every age has its own idols, its own distortions that twist and pervert how we view God, ourselves and the world. Whether it is the distant and uninterested deity of modernity or the fragmented and territorial gods of post modernity, all time and cultures carry the danger of warping our worship. We aim not to escape our cultures, however, but to recognize that God calls us to respond faithfully to him in our time and place, whatever our particular social philosophical climate. We, not just our ancestors, are invited to know and love God – and thus to worship him.’  This is a brilliant and challenging book that rightly connects theology with the whole of our lives as Christians. It is a book that should be read by everyone coming to the study of theology for the first time, but also by seasoned theologians who need a renewed perspective on the nature of the vocation to which God has called them.

Rob Lister, God is impassible and impassioned, Apollos, ISBN 978-1-84474-601-9, £16.99 (Kindle edition also available).
Article I of the Thirty Nine Articles declares that God is ‘without, body, parts, or passions.’  In affirming God’s impassibility in this way the article follows a tradition going all the way back to the earliest days of the Church that declares that God is incapable of being affected by emotion in the way that human beings are. Although this tradition was upheld by both Protestant and Catholic theologians at the Reformation, it has been widely abandoned in contemporary theology. Responding theologically to the horrors of the twentieth century, theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann in his book The Crucified God have argued that taking the biblical witness seriously means affirming God’s ability to experience emotion and in particular his ability to participate in the suffering of his human creation.  They have therefore affirmed divine passibility, and explored the significance of God's emotional experience, especially the issue of divine suffering. In his new book, Robert Lister, Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University in the United States, challenges this modern abandonment of divine impassibility. In the words of Professor Kevin Vanhoozer: ‘Rob Lister boldly goes where few evangelicals have gone before in this very helpful study of how best to make sense of what Scripture says about God’s emotions. Lister does away with caricatures of the Patristic tradition as having sold out to Greek philosophy, surveys contemporary evangelical positions on divine impassibility, and provides a constructive hermeneutical method and theological model for doing justice both to the impassibilist tradition and to biblical language about divine emotions.’  Whether or not one finally agrees with his proposal, Lister's stimulating analysis will be of value to all with a serious interest in the serious issues involved in the debate about God’s impassibility.

Mary Neal, To Heaven and Back: A Doctor's Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story, Waterbrook Press, ISBN 978-0-30773-171-5, £9.99 (Kindle Edition also available)
In 1999 the American orthopaedic surgeon Dr Mary Neal drowned in a kayak accident. While cascading down a waterfall in southern Chile, her kayak became pinned at the bottom and she was immediately and completely submerged. Despite the rescue efforts of her companions, Mary was underwater for too long, and as a result she died. While she was dead she declares that she experienced being met by twenty human spirits and went with them to a ‘great and beautiful hall…radiating a brilliance of colours and beauty’ and as she approached the hall ’I physically absorbed its radiance and felt the pure complete, and utterly unconditional love that emanated from the hall. It was the most beautiful and alluring thing I had ever seen or experienced.’  At this point she knew, she says, that this was the point of decision ‘where each of us is given an opportunity to review our lives and our choices, and where we are given the final opportunity to choose God or turn away – for eternity.’ Eventually Dr Neal was told that she had to go back to earth, returned to her body and was subsequently revived.  To Heaven and Back is Dr Neal’s record of her death and subsequent return to life and of a number of conversations that she says she had with angels for some time after her return. As she sees it, one of the reasons for her return to earth was ‘to tell my story to others and to help them find their way to God’ and her book is her attempt to fulfil this vocation. According to Dr Neal what her experience has reinforced for her is the fact that ‘God and his angelic messengers are present and active in our world today.’ In addition, she feels that ‘through the experience and conversation I gained an understanding of many of life’s important questions such as ‘what happens when we die?’ ‘why are we here?’ and ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ and she also ‘gained an understanding of the disciple Paul’s statement from 1 Corinthians 13 that of faith, hope and love the most enduring is love. I already had reasons to believe in miracles, but taking a journey to heaven and back transformed my faith into knowledge and my hope into reality. My love remained unchanged and everlasting.’ Dr Neal’s book was in the New York Times best-sellers’ list for over twenty weeks and it is a one of a number of similar books about what are known as ‘near-death experiences’ that have sold in large numbers in the United States. Dr Neal’s book is worth reading both because tells a story that is interesting in its own right and because it raises some important questions for theology and apologetics. Do we believe that this and similar accounts of near death experiences describe what really happened to the people concerned. If not, why not?  If so, what weight should we give to what they tell us, alongside Scripture and Tradition, in shaping our thinking about what happens after death? If we do think such experiences are true what place should we give them in our apologetics when arguing for the Christian hope of eternal life?    

John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, SCM, ISBN 978-0-33404-672-1, £25.00.
Dementia, with its accompanying loss of memory and consequent loss of a sense of personal identity, is one of the most feared diseases in Western society today. Many Christians are involved, often sacrificially, in caring for people with dementia, but relatively little work has been done by Christian thinkers on understanding dementia theologically. This new book from Professor John Swinton, Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, addresses this lack of theological reflection. As he explains in his Introduction, the book began after he took part in the BBC Radio 4 programme Beyond Belief. In the course of this programme he was asked the question ‘if you ended up having dementia how would you like to be treated?’ He answered that he would like to be ‘loved and cared for just as I am.’ On his journey home after the programme he reflected on his answer and realised that what he had said raised a fundamental theological question about the identity of someone with dementia. Theologically he was sure that ‘In the end only God knows who we are; only God can search our hearts and recognize who we really are. God creates us, sustains us and knows us.’ However, this conviction raised the question ‘What does it mean to be known, loved and held by God when you have forgotten who God is and you can no longer recognize yourself or those whom you once loved?’ He eventually wrote his book as an attempt to answer that question. This book is not an account of how to offer Christian care for people with dementia, or a work explaining why God allows people to suffer from dementia. It is rather an attempt to re-describe dementia in theological terms in such a way as to identify the value and significance of people who are no longer aware of their own identity, the identity of others or the identity of God. As Professor Swinton puts it, ‘If God knew us when we were still in the womb (Ps 139) and if God does have plans for us to prosper, then neurological decline cannot separate us from the love of God and our ongoing vocation as human beings. Lives that are touched by profound forms of dementia have meaning and continuing purpose.’ 
As the book’s title expresses it, people with dementia are ‘living in the memories of God.’ If God knows them and loves them that gives their lives infinite value and significance even if they no longer know who they are or who God is. This is a powerful and important book that should be read by all Christians concerned to think Christianly about dementia

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