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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Late Summer 2013 Book Reviews

Here are some recent books on a variety of theological topics, from hearing confessions to Messy Church. There is some stimulating reading here.

Unfortunately, these book reviews are going to be less frequent as Dr Martin Davie, the Theological Consultant to the bishops of the Church of England, is no longer with the national staff at Church House. I relied on his extensive reviews to be able to pass along news of the latest quality theological writing which would be of of interest to the faithful of this Diocese in Europe who wanted to keep abreast of the latest quality theological writing.

¡Buena lectura!

For the reviews, click on read more.

David M Allen, The Historical Character of Jesus – Canonical Insights from outside the Gospels, SPCK, ISBN 978-0-28106470-0, £16.99
Dr David Allen is Tutor in New Testament and Director of Studies at the Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham, and European representative for the Anglican Communion's 'Bible in the Life of the Church' project. In his new book he offers a fresh perspective on the continuing ‘quest for the historical Jesus.’ This quest has traditionally been focussed on the material contained in the four canonical gospels and this continues to be the case today, although the Gospel of Thomas is now seen as an additional source of independent information by some scholars. However, this focus on the gospels ignores another potentially significant source of information about the historical Jesus, which is the other twenty three writings of the New Testament Canon. These are writings produced at much the same time as the gospels and they are full of references to Jesus, so why should they not also be drawn on as sources of information about him? Dr Allen thinks that they should and in his book he focuses on these other New Testament writings to see what they have to contribute to our understanding of Jesus. He helpfully surveys these texts and what they have to tell us both about what the first Christians believed about the historical character of Jesus and its theological significance. This is a book that is well worth reading by anyone who wants to understand what the New Testament as a whole has to say about the historical Jesus.

John Bryant, Beyond Human?  Lion, ISBN 978-0-74595-396-0, £9.99
Until recently it was assumed that the nature of human beings was a given and that ethics involved discussing how humans should behave in relation to their given nature. Thus sexual ethics was about how human beings should behave in relation to the fact that God had made human beings as male and female. Similarly ethical questions in relation to babies focussed on the question of whether the parents were willing to welcome a new baby as a gift from God regardless of its sex or whether it was handicapped. In recent years, however, new ethical questions have arisen due to the fact that scientific developments mean that it is possible to do what was previously impossible and unthinkable. Advances in cloning may soon make it possible to clone human beings in the way that we can already clone animals. It is now possible to produce designer babies according to parental specifications, to ‘genetically enhance’ athletes and soldiers and to wipe out entire populations with a simple airborne chemical. Such developments mean that we are no longer limited by human nature as we have traditionally understood it and that the decisions that human beings can now make have unprecedented power. In his new book, subtitled ‘science and the changing face of humanity,’ John Bryant, Professor Emeritus of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Exeter, considers these developments and their ethical implications from a Christian perspective. He asks whether developments in biomedical technology, biotechnology and information technology threaten our understanding of what it is to be human. His book introduces many of the most significant scientific advances of recent years, including topics such as the environment and poverty, food modification, genetics and eugenics, modern medical technology and ‘transhumanism’ (the attempt to  'improve' the human species). It then considers the potentially dehumanizing effects of technology and asks us to stop and think about what they mean for us. His major argument is that new technology has developed so quickly that we haven't had time to consider all of its ethical implications, but to fail to do so is to risk our own humanity. This is an important book that should be read by everyone concerned about responsible Christian decision making in today’s world.

Steven Croft and Paula Gooder, Women and Men in Scripture and the Church: A guide to the key issues, Canterbury Press, ISBN 978-1-84825-510-4, £7.99 (Kindle edition also available)
The continuing debate in the Church of England about whether, and if so how, women should be appointed as bishops in the Church of England is not simply a matter of whether or not women should exercise a particular ministry. It is also about how men and women view one another as sisters and brothers within the Body of Christ, about the structuring of our family life, and about how the Church should relate the wider world. This book from Canterbury Press, edited by the Bishop of Sheffield and the well respected New Testament scholar and Church of England Reader Dr Paula Gooder, helps to address these wider issues by providing a fresh introduction to the teaching of the Bible about the roles of men and women from the perspective of those who are supportive of women’s ordination. The aim of this book is to help individual Christians, small groups and even whole churches to look again honestly and carefully at what the Bible says about women and men in family life, in ministry and in society. It is written by people who all believe that it is ‘biblical’ for women to serve the Church in many different ways, including through preaching and teaching and through being ordained as bishops, priests and deacons. We hope that using this book will help many people respond to the very deep feelings stirred up by last November’s General Synod debate, through study, prayer and conversation. There are eight chapters by different authors which look at different aspects of the biblical material and the contemporary debate about the ordination of women. Joe Bailey Wells writes on ‘Women and Men in the Creation and Fall Stories.’ Stephen Cottrell writes on ‘Humanity redeemed in Christ.’ Steven Croft writes on ‘The Women of the Early Church.’ Ian Paul writes on ‘Women, Teaching and Authority.’  Joanne Grenfell writes on ‘Women and Men in Family Life.’  Rosalyn Murphy writes on ‘Women and Men in Ministry Today.’ Vivienne Faull writes ‘The Story of the Recognition of the Ministry of Women in the Church of England.’  Finally Emma Ineson concludes with ‘Frequently Asked Questions.’  This is a book that deserves to be widely read as the debate about women bishops continues. It is a thorough and thoughtful explanation of why those who support the ordination of women believe that their position is congruent with the teaching of Scripture and should therefore be supported by everyone in the Church.

Julia Gatta and Martin L Smith, Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, Canterbury Press, ISBN 978-1-84825-196-0, £9.99 (Kindle edition also available).
Go in Peace is a book by two American Episcopalian writers which aims to provide resources to develop the skills of members of the clergy in exercising pastoral ministry as confessors, or ‘ministers of the sacramental Rite of Reconciliation.’  Their starting point is the conviction that it is strange ‘that sacramental confession to a priest is considered, even by clergy, to be something of a specialized or marginal ministry. The opening message of the gospels, announced by John the Baptist, reiterated by Jesus, and finally proclaimed by the apostles, is ‘Repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:15). The grace to change one’s mind and heart and then accept God’s forgiveness lies at the very core of salvation. Thus for those who have been baptized and who sin, as all adult Christians do, the practice of confession and absolution can be a significant sacramental encounter with the Christ who pardons, heals, and embraces us in love. It can signal a dramatic turning point or serve as one of many small conversions along the Christian journey.’ Because they view hearing confession as a central part of the ministerial calling they want to see members of the clergy undertaking this ministry as sensitively and effectively as possible. They therefore seek to make available in their book the kind of teaching and coaching in the art of hearing confession that has been traditionally been done individually and informally, but has not, in their view, been widely accessible or well integrated into clergy training. The first part of the book provides an overview of the theology and history of the Rite of Reconciliation and its place in the Anglican tradition, the pastoral skills needed in the ministry of reconciliation, its relationship to pastoral counselling, the disciplines of confidentiality and the integration of this ministry into mature priestly identity and spirituality. It offers practical insights to help people to prepare for the rite and pastoral guidance for administering the rite itself and explores how clergy can offer spiritual guidance that helps people to take God's forgiveness to heart and supports them in their intention to amend their lives. The second part of the book provides a series of sample confessions involving men and women in different states and places in their lives ranging from a first confession by a middle-aged professional woman, to a rector in his late thirties who comes regularly to his spiritual director for confession and a confession made in his hospital room by a truck driver who is about to undergo open heart surgery. In each case the authors set out the nature of the confession and provide suggestions for the sort of advice and counsel that they think a confessor might offer. This book is definitely from a liberal, Catholic, American perspective, but it is a book that Anglican clergy in Europe from a range of different traditions might benefit from reading as they think how to minister appropriately to those who come to them seeking to unburden their souls before God and amend their lives.

Michael P Jensen, Martyrdom and Identity, T & T Clark, ISBN 978-0-56727-186-0, £19.99
Recently many theological and philosophical discussions concerning the nature of human existence have centred less on questions of human essences or capacities and more upon the question of the self and human identity. In his book Martyrdom and Identity: The Self on Trial Dr Michael Jensen of Moore College Sydney enters this debate by looking at what Christian martyrdom can teach us about what it means to be a self. As Jensen explains, ‘what does Christian martyrdom tell us about being a self? I argue that Christian martyrdom provides a coherent and compelling narration of the self in terms of the narrative of the life and death of Jesus Christ: a narrative that orients the self in hope towards the good and turns the self towards recognition of and sacrificial service of other selves. In conversation with writers such as Salman Rushdie and Charles Taylor and prompted by T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, I show that Christian discipleship is not the path of establishing oneself securely, or pursuing the good made possible through collaboration with earthly power, or making oneself an identity through action according to some ideal, or seeking earthly or heavenly renown, but is rather narrated in the light of the experience of pierasmos (temptation/testing) and with reference to God's providence.’ This is not a book for beginners. It is a demanding read and it assumes prior knowledge of the issues that it discusses. However, those who have the requisite knowledge and who are prepared to take the time to engage with Dr Jensen’s argument will find this a rewarding read.

Paul Moore, Making Disciples in Messy Church, BRF, ISBN 978-0-85746-218-3, £6.99 (Kindle edition also available)
Messy Church, pioneered by the Revd Paul Moore and his wife Lucy, has shown itself to be an effective way for churches to enable families to experience the life of the Christian Church and to hear about the good news of Jesus Christ. There is clear evidence that people are becoming Christians through Messy Church, but the question that has often been raised is whether Messy Church can also nurture those who have become Christians and help them to become mature disciples of Christ. Paul Moore’s new book Making Disciples in Messy Church addresses this question. In this book he looks at the evidence about whether Messy Church is nurturing disciples and argues that it is, considers what the Bible teaches about discipleship, and looks at various contemporary approaches to catechesis and the development of discipleship and how these relate to Messy Church. His overall conclusion is that ‘God is evidently at work in the Messy Church movement. Adults and children are journeying towards God, coming to faith and growing as disciples. It is a form of Christian community with potential to model discipleship and nurture new disciples, less through traditional and formal ways of learning (although there are still opportunities for this) and more through non-formal learning and socialisation – an immersive learning experience.’ Making disciples, he says, ‘should ideally involve all three forms of learning; formal, non-formal and socialisation. The church has tended to put more emphasis on formal learning through sermons and courses, forgetting that the other two modes of learning are constantly impacting the development of our world view and how we live our lives. Messy Church, with its experiential and community based approach, is strong in these areas, and we are rediscovering important insights into disciple-making that are worth sharing with the wider church.’ This is an important contribution to the growing body of resources produced to support the Messy Church movement.

Efrem Smith, The Post-Black and Post-White Church: Becoming the Beloved Community in a Multi-Ethnic World, John Wiley, ISBN 978-1-11803-658-7, £16.99 (Kindle edition also available)
In chapter 1 of his new book The Post-Black and Post-White Church, the African American theologian and church leader Efrem Smith writes that ‘Jesus reconciles us to God through his death and resurrection. We are freed from the penalty of sin, which is death, through Jesus. This reconciling work not only brings us into an intimate and right relationship with God but also empowers through the Holy Spirit to experience the right relationship with each other.’ This is a conventional statement of orthodox Christian theology. What makes Smith’s book worth reading is the way in which he builds on this statement to set out a blue print for the Church as a multi-racial community. It has been said that Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in America. The legacy of slavery and racial division lives on in the way that people still prefer to attend a church that reflects their own racial identity and that has a church culture that has been created on the basis of that identity. Smith believes that such racially divided churches fail to do just to the reconciling work of Christ. He argues that what we need is ‘a post-Black, post –White church’ which ‘unplugs us from the sinful and unbiblical race matrix…of Black and While and liberates us to live in an otherworldly, counter-cultural kingdom church and reconciling community’. Smith offers a theological argument for a multi-ethnic church, and also provides a practical, hands-on, blueprint for developing and sustaining a multi-ethnic and Christ-centred community. The Post-Black and Post-White Church brings together multi-ethnic church development, reconciliation theology, missional church development, and Christian community development and connects theology with practical models of what it means to be a church in an ever-increasingly multi- ethnic world that is polarized by class, politics, and race. The book portrays Jesus as someone one who was both Jewish and multi-ethnic and focuses on a theology of reconciled, multi-ethnic, and missional leadership. Smith gives real life stories of people who are members of thriving multi–ethnic congregations and shows how engaging with urban and multi-ethnic subcultures such as hip-hop can further the mission of the Church. Smith has something important to say beyond the USA and to us on this side of the Atlantic. We too need to develop a post-Black, post-White church and reading Smith’s book will stimulate us to think further about how we can take practical steps to achieve it. 

Roger Standing, As a Fire by Burning - Mission as the Life of the Local Congregation, SCM, ISBN 978-0-33404-370-6, £35.00.
This new book by Dr Roger Standing, the Director of Training at Spurgeon's College in London, begins with the 1931 statement by Emil Brunner that ‘Mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church, mission is its cause and life. The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission there is no Church, and where there is neither Church nor mission there is no faith.’ Dr Standing’s conviction is that Brunner’s emphasis on the priority of mission in the life of the Church is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s and that the primary location for the mission of the Church is the life of the local congregation.   In his view, a wide variety of different contexts for mission means that we have to ‘begin with the experience of the local church itself.’ Accordingly the first part of his book consists of a series of studies of ‘mission in context’ looking at sixteen different contexts for mission. These include ‘mission in a rural context,’ ‘mission in a small church context,’ ‘city centre mission’ and ‘mission in youth ministry.’ These studies are written by an ecumenical team including Dr Standing himself and also Dave Male, Yvonne Tulloch, Martyn Percy and Michael Volland from the Church of England. After this overview of different mission contexts, Dr Standing goes on to in the second part of the book to look at ‘some of the issues which are integral to the ongoing life of a local congregation, with which they need to wrestle as they seek to embody the missional DNA of the Kingdom of God in their life of witness and service.’ Ten topics are covered in this part of the book, including ‘mission and the cultural landscape,’ ‘worship and mission,’  ‘mission and third agers’ and ‘mission and the occasional offices.’ Anyone who is concerned about mission in Britain today will find this book stimulating reading. Rather than relying on a ‘one size fits all’ off-the-shelf approach to mission, As a Fire by Burning encourages local congregations to engage seriously with context, Scripture, prayer and theology in a way that will help them to discern and shape their own distinctive forms of mission for their own localities. As Neil Hudson from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity comments: ‘It’s hard to read this rich book without being forcibly reminded that the great privilege of the church is to be included in God’s mission for his world. Through church case studies, Biblical and theological reflection, it offers the stark reminder that if leaders and people together do not embrace this call to be missional disciples, we will have failed in our central calling to be the people of God for the sake of the world. Mission is not the leisure activity of the few, it’s the core identity of the whole people of God. This book enriches our imagination as we embrace this calling.’  

Rachel Marie Stone, Eat with Joy, IVP (USA), ISBN 978-0-83083-658-1, £9.99 (Kindle edition also available)
This book from the American Christian writer Rachel Stone looks at our relationship with food from the standpoint of Christian theology and spirituality. The book covers seven topics: ‘Joyful Eating - God’s Intent for How We Relate to Food,’‘Generous Eating - Serving the Needy, Loving Our Neighbors,‘ ‘Communal Eating -  How Meals Bring Us Together,’ ‘Restorative Eating - How Eating Together Heals,’‘Sustainable Eating - Wise Choices in Stewarding the Land,’  ‘Creative Eating - Food Preparation as Culture Making’ and ‘Redemptive Eating -  Putting Best Practices Together in the Real World.’ Stone’s overall argument is that in our contemporary culture food is the source of endless angst and anxiety. We struggle with obesity and eating disorders. We constantly worry about calories and fats and too much bread and their effects on our waistlines with the result that, as Stone puts it, eating can feel like ‘a concession to the enemy.’ In addition, reports of agricultural horror stories make us worried about whether our food is healthy, nutritious or justly produced. We are also bombarded through the media with diets like Atkins, Paleo, gluten-free, vegan, and a host of others that are endorsed by celebrities and promise to guarantee weight loss, clear skin, cures from disease, and even longevity. All this means that we have a complicated relationship with food and it is hard to know if our food is really good for us or for society. However, argues Stone, this is not what God intends our relationship with food to be like. Scripture tells us that God wants us to delight in our food. Scripture reveals to us a gracious God who provides incredible variety for our cuisine, who delights in feasting, and who, incarnated in Christ, was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. God's most precious gift to humanity - his own flesh and blood broken and poured out for us - is commemorated in the act of eating and drinking, and calls us to look toward the Supper of the Lamb at the Resurrection. All this shows that food is important to God and she calls us to rediscover joyful eating by receiving food as God's good gift of provision and care for us. Stone shows us how God intends that we should relate to him and each other through food, and how our meals can become expressions of generosity, community and love of neighbour. Eating together can bring healing to those with eating disorders, and we can make wise choices about what we eat that supports just and sustainable forms of agriculture. Ultimately, she suggests, redemptive eating is a sacramental act of culture making through which we gratefully herald the feast of the kingdom of God. Eat with Joy is filled with practical insights (plus prayers for use at meals and some tasty recipes) and provides a thought provoking Christian journey into the delight of eating.

Koenraad de Wolf, Dissident for Life: Alexander Ogorodnikov and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in Russia, Eerdmans, ISBN 978-0-80286-743-8, £21.99.
The Dutch journalist Koenraad de Wolf tells the story of a lesser known Russian dissident. His name is Alexander Ogrodnikov. His father was a member of the Communist party and he too was brought up to be a good Communist. However, his Grandmother secretly arranged his baptism and in due course he became an Orthodox Christian, thus giving the lie to the Soviet belief that a Communist upbringing would succeed in eradicating religious belief from the minds of the young. In the 1970s he organised thousands of Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians in a secret underground group called the Christian Seminar, an ecumenical undertaking without precedent in the Soviet Union When the KGB found out about the seminar they gave Ogorodnikov the option to leave the Soviet Union, but he refused to do so because he wanted to change ‘his’ Russia from the inside out. His willingness to sacrifice himself and be imprisoned meant leaving behind his wife and newborn child and he was sent to the Gulag where he spent nine years, barely surviving the horrors he encountered there. After his release he continued to fight for the freedom of religion and for a more humane society in the Soviet Union. He founded the first Christian Democratic Party, the first non-government school, the first free soup kitchen for the homeless and the first private shelter for orphans, homeless girls and teenage mothers. Even though the Soviet Union has now passed away, he remains a dissident to this day, continuing to fight against the economic and political corruption in Putin’s Russia. Ogorodinkov’s courage in opposing the Soviet regime was an inspiration to all those who learned about it, including political leaders such as Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. De Wolf’s readable account of Ogorodnikov’s life and work will hopefully make his story more widely known and encourage all those who read it to think about how faith can emerge, grow and continue to flourish even in the most difficult of circumstances and to consider the imperative laid on all Christians to challenge those aspects of their society which are contrary to God’s will.

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