Book of the month
Available in the UK through Alban of Edinburgh, Sinners and Saints: The Real Story of Early Christianity (Kregel Academic, Grand Rapids 2018. 176pp: £16.99) by Derek Cooper, associate professor of Christian history at Biblical Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, proved to be a fascinating, amusing and instructive read. Written in a lively, populist style, the author wears his scholarship lightly, as he seeks to correct the tendency for Christians to cast their history in the best light possible. Cooper believes that one reason why many non-Christians fail to take Christianity seriously is that “all they hear from us talk about is our triumphs but never our defeats”. So he sets about to emphasise “as much grit [perhaps better ‘dirt’] as glory”. His first chapter – ‘Living in the real world- daily life’ – shows from a sociological perspective what “miserable” lives the first Christians must have lived: “when Paul preached through this ‘Eternal City’ [Rome], we have to imagine his Roman toga caked in a crust of mud, trash and excrement”. Cooper talks also about the moral filth and suggests that most early Christians would have experienced sexual abuse, and even suggests that 1 Pet 2.18 is a tacit acceptance of sexual slavery. In his second chapter, ‘Leading with a limp – flawed leadership’, he argues that “the apostle Paul had more flesh on his blessed bones than many Christians care to admit”, and seeks to illustrate how the early church sought to downplay – if not deny – “the feud” between Paul and Peter. And so the book goes on, ten eye-opening chapters in all. He concludes: “What has romantically been labelled Christianity’s ‘golden age’ had more in common with bronze or iron than gold or silver. Better yet, we could label this time period what Dio Cassius called his age in the late second century: ‘a kingdom of iron and rust’”. The fact is, he says, the early Christians “were broken humans in the process of being redeemed by a faultless Saviour”. It is a provocative and thought-provoking book.
Booklet of the month
Leading a Suburban Church: Good News from the Edge of Things (Grove Leadership 32, Cambridge 2018. 26pp: £3.95) by Steven Morris, an Anglican minister in North London, is a ‘cracker’ and an absolute ‘must’ for all leaders (not just ministers, but deacons and PCC members) in suburbia. Creative and yet not over the top, from start to finish it is packed full of ideas based on good theology and common-sense. The suburbs are defined as places that “have perhaps seen better days, or are part of urban sprawl or lack a sense of clear definition”. I loved the author’s use of language: “I firmly believe that if Jesus were carrying out his ministry today he would live in a place like Northolt or Neasden and his disciples would be van drivers, care-home assistants, cleaners, cabbies and carpet fitters”. I appreciated too the author’s emphasis on ‘hospitality – “in our suburb where we are the minority community, an ethos of hospitality is just about the most powerful witness we have to God’s love for all the people and our love for our neighbours”. Instead of having as their strapline “changing the world for Jesus Christ: worship, demonstrate, equip”, the mission of this Anglican church is now “blessing the community”. The church offers a variety of creative worship experiences – along with ‘ritual’ for “our unchurched newcomers respond to church when it feels a bit like proper church”. This is a great booklet for ordinary suburban churches with limited resources.
Resource of the month
The Last Journey: Reflections for the time of grieving (SPCK, London 2018. 96pp: £14.99) by Scottish song-writer John Bell, is a remarkable resource for all those wrestling with the loss of a loved one. The book and its accompanying CD consists of seventeen amazingly expressive songs arranged in broad categories that roughly represent different stages of the grieving process. As John Bell writes: “Feeling lost, being puzzled, letting go and gladly remembering are part of a continuum, and our spiritual health requires that we go through it, rather than remain numb with no desire to recover, or sing victorious hallelujahs to avoid dealing with the mess itself”. Along with the text of the songs there are appropriate prayers and words of Scripture. This is a great resource for pastors – and above all for the grieving.
Other books to make us think
Available in the UK through Alban of Edinburgh, Forty Questions about Salvation (Kregel Academic, Grand Rapids 2018. 352pp: £18.99) by Matthew Barrett, an associate professor of theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a student textbook with questions divided into five parts: sin and the need of salvation (e.g. ‘Are we totally depraved?’); salvation and union with Christ (e.g. ‘What is the order of salvation?’); election, calling and new birth (e.g. ‘Does God coerce our free will?’); conversation, justification and adoption (e.g. ‘Is justification a legal declaration or a moral transformation?’); and sanctification, perseverance and glorification (e.g. ‘Is perseverance in the faith necessary?’). It is more a reference book to traditional evangelical theology rather than a book to read.
Published in the ‘New Studies in Biblical Theology’ series, Finding Favour in the Sight of God: a theology of wisdom literature (Apollos/IVP, London 2018. 242pp: £14.99) by Richard Belcher, professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina) contains a useful survey of recent approaches to the Wisdom literature. Perhaps a little unusually, a whole chapter is devoted to ‘Jesus and Wisdom’. This is a book for students and academics.
A Philosophy of the Christian Religion for the Twenty-First Century (SPCK, London 2018. 330pp: £25.99) by Nancey Murphy, Professor of Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, California, is a textbook for students which seeks to look at some of the core philosophical questions facing Christians today. This is definitely not for the general reader.
Learning to Breathe: my journey with mental illness (SPCK, London 2018. 148pp: £9.99) by Rachel Newham, a director of a mental health awareness charity, will bring hope to any Christian struggling with depression. The author was just six when she had her first suicidal thought; and then just before her eighteenth birthday she tried twice to take her life. Her testimony is that even in the darkness God was with her: “through all the locust years, the times I so nearly ended it all, through endless tears and the snatches of solace – I have seen God moving in my life”.
The Genesis of Marriage: God’s declaration, drama and purpose (Paternoster, Milton Keynes 2018. 236pp: £14.99) by Richard Shenk, a professor of theology and a pastor in Minnesota, seeks to set out a biblical theology of marriage, grounded in the ‘marriage text’ of Gen 2.18-25, and investigates how it fits in the context of Genesis 1-3 and the whole of Scripture. Somewhat controversially for an Evangelical, the author argues that we should regard marriage as a sacrament, in the sense of being “a sign, a dynamic enactment, which mirrors the grace of God, which is ordained by God for our sanctification, and which displays God’s great acts of salvation history”. I confess that I did not find the Biblical exegesis always convincing. Shenk is a ‘systematic’ theologian, and the danger of systematic theology is that the Scriptures are sometimes made to fit the ‘system’!
See, Love, Be: Mindfulness and the spiritual life. A practical eight-week guide with audio meditations on MP3 CD and to download (SPCK, London 2018. 184pp: £9.99) by Tim Stead, an Anglican vicar in Oxford and accredited mindfulness teacher, argues that the key contribution that mindfulness makes to Christian spirituality is awareness and non-judgment. Apart from the first 20 pages of introduction, the rest of the book is devoted to a practical guide.
Recent booklets from Grove of Cambridge, all 28pp and cost £3.95, include Preaching in Times of Crisis (Pastoral 154, 2018), a thoughtful reflection by Robert Beamish, a Baptist minister in Colwyn Bay, on how preaching can play a key role in bringing hope in the midst of darkness – I liked the recognition that there are times when we must take heed of the need for silence as part of the process. Shaping Church to Disciple Young People: Intentionally Fostering Relationship-based Discipleship (Youth 51, 2018) by James Vaughton, an experienced Director of Youth for Christ, explores the hallmarks of healthy vibrant church communities for young and old – I appreciated the brief section entitled ‘What does the church do to resource and support parents in bringing up their children to follow Jesus?2
Hodder & Stoughton have published the Anglicised NIV Bible for Journalling and Verse Mapping, (London, 2018. Hardback £26.99) which uses a 9 pt font for the text set in double columns, with an added 5 cm margin. There are 32 pages of verse-mapping outlines, and a 32-page concordance. This Bible comes in two colours: pink or grey.
IVP has created a new series of short popular book on the Christian life, MORE>, where the content is held together like a series of blog posts to allow readers to dip in and out of them. Published in small format, the first two in the series are MORE> Distinct: reclaiming holiness for the world today (London 2018. 127pp: £7.99) by Calvin Samuel, Principal of the London School of Theology; and MORE>Direction: navigating the unique calling God has for your life (London, 2018. 121pp: £7.99) by Ayo & Ruth Afolabi. Both books have a ‘fresh’ feel to them and are directed at the younger end of the market.
SPCK have published The One Hour Bible: From Adam to Apocalypse in sixty minutes (London, 2018. 99pp: £4.99) edited by Philip Law. It is not a summary or a re-telling of the biblical story, but rather excerpts taken from the New Living Translation of the Bible. At a time when according to a recent Bible Society survey around 30% of parents in the UK don’t know that Adam and Eve, David and Goliath or the Good Samaritan are in the Bible, this is a welcome ‘taster’. True, there are no passages from the Psalms or from Paul’s letters – the emphasis is on some of the key Bible stories. Hopefully churches will rise and be creative in the way and which they use this booklet with people on the fringe – if not beyond the fringe!