Books for Today – September 2019

The book of the month

Not to include new versions of the Bible as ‘the book of the month’ would be tantamount to sacrilege! I therefore warmly commend in this spot the Study Edition of the Revised New Jerusalem Bible (DLT, London 2019: 2400 pp + 8pp of maps £39.99 hardback). It is a wholesale revision – in previous editions of the Jerusalem Bible the divine name was translated as Yahweh, but the Jewish community found this possible vocalisation offensive and so the more traditional term of ‘the Lord’ is now used. There is a lovely fresh feeling to this translation – and the relatively brief notes are most helpful.

I also commend the Christian Basics Bible (Tyndale House, Carol Stream, Illinois 2017.  1633pp:  this retails on Amazon £21.99 hardback; £14.99 softback) edited by Mike Beaumont & Martin Manser, both based in the UK with a good deal of experience in editing. This volume contains not just the text of the New Living Translation of the Bible, which is a ‘dynamic equivalent’ translation, together with a wide range of notes and articles, including a 133 page section on ‘Basic Truths of the Christian Faith’. This is not an ‘academic’ Bible: instead the focus is on new Christians and Christians who may have plateaued in their faith.

The Bible apart, the book that stands out head and shoulders above the others this month is So Everyone Can Hear: Communicating Church in a Digital Culture (SPCK, London 2019. 245pp: £9.99) by Mark Crosby, the Director for Communications for Vineyard Churches UK & Ireland. Don’t be misled by the title: this is not a book just about social media, for otherwise I would be lost. This is a book about leadership, values, vision, and objectives; it is a book about transforming church with a view to transforming society. This is a book that every leader – not just ministers and vicars, but deacons, elders, church stewards, PCC members – need to read. The very format is different from any other book I have read – and as a result ensures that the importance of effective communication is doubly underlined. Easy to read, but challenging, I wish I could have read this when I was leading a church.

Other books to make us think

Both previously in the USA some years ago and now republished in the UK in 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton, The Bible Tells Me So…. Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read and The Sin of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our ‘correct’ beliefs by Peter Enns, currently professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, St David’s Pennsylvania, are popular and lively expositions of ‘progressive’ evangelicalism. Both books reflect the author’s struggles with American fundamentalism, which makes them less relevant to the British scene, where fundamentalists occupy “only a narrow space towards one end of the broad spectrum of British evangelicalism” (see Evangelicalism & Fundamentalism in the UK during the 20th century, edited by David Bebbington & David Ceri Jones, OUP 2013).

So What’s the Story…? A resource book for Christian reflection and practice (Methodist Church & DLT, London 2019. 158pp: £9.99) by Barbara Glasson & Clive March, who are respectively President & Vice-President of the Methodist Conference 2019/2020, encourages readers to tell a wide variety of stories – including life stories, stories of faith, stories of churches, stories of Jesus. I appreciated the opening chapter where the point is made that stories are told “to make sense of things”, “to persuade”, and to “build and sustain communities”. Interestingly for all the positive functions of storytelling, the phrase ‘telling tales’ indicates a fundamentally negative aspect of storytelling. The chapter on ‘living stories’ in the sense of writing a ‘testimony’ to one’s faith was also helpful. Intended for private study or group discussion, every chapter includes points for reflection and for ‘connection’, as also a prayer.

Bathsheba Survives (SCM, London 2019. 180pp: £19.99) by Sara Koenig, associate professor of biblical studies at Seattle Pacific University, looks not just at the Biblical account of Bathsheba (just 76 verses) but also at the diverse ways in which that story has been understood in Judaism, by the church fathers, by the medieval church, the reformers, as also by the later Enlightenment and contemporary society. As the author shows, the story of Bathsheba is a story of many ‘gaps’: e.g. was David in the wrong place at the wrong time? Did Bathsheba know David could see her? How much could he see? What prior interaction, did David and Bathsheba have? Was their sexual interaction consensual? Why does Bathsheba tell David she is pregnant? Answers to these and other questions have been very different from one period of history to another. For some Bathsheba has been an innocent victim, for others a scheming seductress. Although this book had its roots in a PhD thesis, as is evidenced by almost sixty pages of notes, this is a readable and fascinating account of a minor Biblical character who still continues to fascinate: as Koenig concludes, “Though she fades out of the scene in the biblical text, she refuses to fade from thought and study. Bathsheba will continue to survive in the centuries to come.”

Beard Theology: A holy history of hairy faces (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2019. 174pp: £12.99 hardback) by ‘the church mouse’, is a tongue-in-cheek account of the religious significance of beards. As the book points out, Jesus would not have been an Orthodox Jews of his time “if he had not grown as big and bushy a beard as nature permitted” (see Leviticus 19.7). By contrast, shaving was a Roman practice. Early church fathers warmly endorsed the wearing of beards – as did the Victorian ‘prince of preachers’ C. H. Spurgeon (“a habit most natural, scriptural, manly and beneficial”). The author concludes: “To imitate Jesus we should embrace the bushy beard. On the other hand, Paul’s instruction to be ‘all things to all people’ would lead those of us in predominantly shaved societies to take up our razors”!

Interfaith Worship and Prayer: we must pray together (Jessica Kingsley, London 2019.  293pp: £19.99) edited by Christopher Lewis, former Dean of Christchurch, Oxford, & Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a Reform rabbi, is made up of fifteen chapters reflecting very different forms of religious belief and practice: Hinduism, African traditional religion, Judaism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Unitarianism and Bahai. For many probably the most interesting and challenging chapter will be the essay written by Christopher Lewis on ‘The argument for interfaith prayer and worship’. “Prayer”, writes Lewis, “is the language of love for God and for the world. In prayer and worship, belief comes alive”. Although Lewis has “complete confidence in the uniqueness and worth” of his own faith, he has no desire to see people of other faiths come to know Christ: “the plurality of religions is not an evil to be overcome; instead it is a richness to be welcomed”. For Lewis all the great religions are “paths to salvation”. Although my theological position is different, nonetheless I found there was value in exploring the issues – indeed, in today’s context where many British schools have children from a variety of faiths, it is not an option. What is important, however, is not to equate interfaith worship with syncretism: indeed, as Lewis himself notes, “serious contact with other faiths, far from leading to syncretism and confusion, may strengthen the faith of the believer”.

We Need To Talk About Race: Understanding the black experience in white majority churches (SPCK, London 2019. 186pp: £9.99) by Ben Lindsay, a black pastor of a white majority church in South London, is a passionate exposé of racism not just in British society, but in British churches, and a call “to start a conversation…. that will provoke large and small actions – from black and white people – to help dismantle racist structures in the Church and beyond”. There is much in the book with which I agree: to be true to the Gospel churches need to be multi-cultural and must reflect the make-up of the communities in which they are set. What’s more, the leadership should our churches should be multi-cultural – there is indeed a huge difference between churches being diverse and churches being inclusive. I readily acknowledge the evils of the slave trade, but there is no mention of the way in which Arab traders and some black tribal chiefs were also complicit. As one who was brought up on William Knibb and his role in ending the slave trade in Jamaica, I wish there had been an acknowledgement of the long-standing Baptist commitment to freedom and human dignity of people of other races and colours. I was concerned too that throughout the book people of colour seem to be viewed only as victims, with the result that there is no recognition of the effect that West Indian family breakdown has had on knife-crime in South London. Nor is there recognition of the strides that many white majority churches have made in becoming places where all can truly belong. But this is where we need to have a ‘conversation’ – and not just a ‘monologue. To end on a positive note, I liked the quotation from Augustine of Hippo: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

Wake up to Advent! (SPCK, London 2019. 130pp: £9.99) by John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, is a down-to earth spiritual tonic for advent. With daily readings and comments and a prayer for the four weeks of Advent, readers are encouraged to ‘wake up!’, ‘clean up!’; ‘feed up!’ and ‘grow up!’.

River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2019 . 295pp: £16.99 hardback) by Helen Prejean, an American nun who belongs to the Sisters of St Joseph, is a ‘prequel’ to her earlier memoir, Dead Man Walking, and as such is essentially part one of a two-part autobiography. It is a lively and challenging account of how a nun’s very conservative view of the world is totally transformed by the aftermath of Vatican II, and as a result becomes ‘on fire’ for the poor and the oppressed, including those sentenced to death in the American justice system.

Luminaries: Twenty Lives that Illuminate the Christian Way (SPCK, London 2019. 146pp: £12.99 hardback) by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on the lives of twenty leading Christians, and how they illuminate the path of discipleship today.  These ‘luminaries’ include St Paul (‘a man of passions’), John Milton (‘from heroism to fidelity’), Charles Dickens (‘the truth of exaggeration’), and Oscar Romero (‘God has injected himself into history). With the exception of Augustine of Hippo (‘teacher of the inner life’) and Teresa of Avila (‘a lived theology’), all these pieces have already been previously published – nonetheless it is useful to have them all brought together. The challenge for the reader is ‘what story do I have to tell’?

The Bible Reading Fellowship of Abingdon have been adding to their resources for the ‘Holy Habits’ journey. The underlying rationale of the Group Studies is that “When Jesus calls us to follow, he gifts us others to journey with us…. others who will help to teach us and who will learn from us; others who will pray with us and check how we are; others who will watch over us in love and keep us accountable in our discipleship”. In this respect I warmly commend Eating Together (2019. 61pp: £6.99) edited by Andrew Roberts, which is a series of eight provocative Bible studies on hospitality. Complementing the Group Studies are a series of Bible reading reflections: in this respect I warmly respect Prayer: 40 readings and reflections (2019. 89pp: £3.99) also edited by Andrew Roberts.

16 and a half ways to upgrade your faith (SPCK, London 2019. 156pp: £9.99) by Bob Wallington, youth pastor at Soul Survivor Watford, is written to help young people keep their faith alive after the highs of a Christian festival. Down-to-earth and full of good sense, the book’s unusual title relates to the final chapter numbered as chapter 16 ½ as “a reminder that you and I don’t have half of what is necessary to set a youth group on fire” – only God does!

Recent booklets from Grove of Cambridge, all 28pp in length and £3.95 in price, include Seasons and Saints: Exploring the Christian year and young people (Youth 55, 2019) by Nick Harding, who argues that in churches which do not celebrate the Christian year  there is a risk that “the understanding of how the gospel story fits together can be weakened or lost”. Living as a Clergy Spouse: How to align the daily reality with your personal identity (Pastoral 158, 2019) by Matthew Caminer will be of interest to all prospective clergy spouses – I liked the point that “in most cases you have the power to make choices that free you from precedent, other people’s expectations and your own assumptions…. Maintaining healthy and constructive boundaries often domes wn to choosing whether to say ‘Yes’ or No’.”

Leading in a Second Chair: insights for first- and second-chair leaders (Leadership 37, 2019) by Tim Harle of Sarum College’s Centre for Leadership Learning, looks at how leaders and their deputies (e.g. associate ministers, deacons, home group leaders) can work together effectively – this is an important subject.

Keswick Resources in cooperation with IVP (London, 2019) have produced further devotional resources: Longing (67pp: £5.99 ) by Elizabeth McQuoid is a popular but thoughtful study guide for personal or group use, and looks at longing for God to answer my prayers (Ps 13), to forgive me (Ps 51.1-13), when my heart has grown cold (Rev 2.1-7), to take me deeper (Ps 63), to display his glory (Is 48.1-11), and for Christ to return (Rev 21.1-7) I was struck both by the 20 pages of leaders’ notes and by the suggestions for further reading. Food for the Journey: a 365-day devotional (775pp: £16.99 hardback) edited by Elizabeth McQuoid is an ‘omnibus’ volume bringing-together popular study guides on individual Bible books by well-known Keswick speakers (including Chris Wright, John Stott, Jonathan Lamb, Michael Baughen, and Alistair Begg) published in previous years.

 

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