Book of the month
The New Testament in Its World: An introduction to the history, literature, and theology of the first Christians (SPCK, London & Zondervan Academic, Grand Rapids 2019. 989pp: £40 hardback) by N.T. Wright with Michael F. Bird, is an amazing publication. It is far more than a traditional NT introduction but seeks “to provide the scaffolding for a fully orbed and fully fledged historical description and a theological account of Jesus & the early church”. It is divided into nine main parts: 1. Reading the NT; 2. The world of Jesus and the Early Church; 3. Jesus and the victory of God; 4. The resurrection of the Son of God; 5. Paul and the faithfulness of God; 6. The Gospels and the story of God; 7. The Early Christians and the mission of God; 8. The making of the NT; and 9. Living the story of the NT – making the NT matter for today.”. Most of the content is drawn from Tom Wright’s earlier writings, but there has been a considerable amount of adaption and re-writing The presentation of the material is terrific: illustrations, figures, maps, tables and text grids abound. In addition, there are ‘panels’ containing ‘blasts from the past’. ‘emails from the edge’, ‘portals and parallels’, together with outlines of all the NT books. Although it will undoubtedly become a standard textbook in all theological colleges, it also will prove to be a helpful guide for church people generally. To cap it all, the authors have also produced an accompanying workbook together with video & audio lectures! Although Michael Bird, a NT scholar based in Australia’s Queensland, has clearly played a major role, nonetheless as the following two sentences in the ‘Bringing It All Together’ make clear, this book is vintage Tom Wright: “In much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting ‘souls going to heaven’ for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation) with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of ‘salvation (substituting the idea of ‘God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath’ for the genuinely biblical notion s of atonement, victory and reconciliation.” Although not the final word on the NT, it will be essential reading for any budding student of the NT.
Other books to make us think
Defying the Holocaust: Ten courageous Christians who supported the Jews (SPCK, London 2020. 243pp: £9.99) by Tim Dowley, who has written widely on church history and Christian music, is a tough and challenging book. Carefully researched, it graphically tells ten very different stories of Christians who broke almost all the Ten Commandments with a view to rescuing Jews from the clutches of the Nazis. Soberingly the author makes the point that only a tiny minority of those who rescued Jews did so for explicitly Christians reasons; and goes on to quote Sidney Hall that most Christians at the time “chose to stare silently away from the flames while embracing 20 centuries of anti-Jewish theology”. Although this happened over 75 years ago, sadly the story still needs to be told.
As a child when I could not sleep, my mother would come to my bed and sing to me ‘Lead Kindly Light’ by John Henry Newman (1801-1890), one of the founders of the Oxford Movement, who eventually left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church. It was therefore with great interest that I read John Henry Newman: A very brief history (SPCK, London 2019. 145pp: £12.99 hardback) by Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of Christian History at Cambridge. Published to coincide with Newman’s canonization by Pope Francis in October 2019, this magisterial ‘introduction’ is fascinating, but theologically demanding. It has five main chapters which deal with Newman & the Fathers; Faith & doubt; Newman’s Catholicism; Man of Letters; and Legacy. There is also a lengthy chronology, where I saw that in spite of Newman’s erudition he only gained a Fourth at Oxford! I was saddened to discover that although Newman could produce sublime sermons (e.g. the following prayer is part of one of his sermons “May He [the Divine Lord] support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in his mercy may He give us safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last”) at the same time he could excoriate those with whom he disagreed – indeed he detested and loathed Anglican Evangelicals. Furthermore, although obsessed by a desire for personal holiness, he could be “thin-skinned and easily offended, slow to forgive, even at times implacable”. Although constantly questioning and examining himself, he appears to have lacked true self-awareness. It seems to me that Newman could have profited from some spiritual direction, but as it was – in his later years particularly – he had “no equals, only disciples”.
Reading A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Ambition (SPCK, London 2019. 290pp: £19.99 hardback) by Tim Farron, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has given me great respect for the author. Although I do not share the political views he outlines at length, I have no doubt he is a faithful follower of Jesus. True, when under great pressure, he may not have been wise in some of the answers he gave to interviewers who were seeking to caricature him on his attitude toward ‘gay sex’, but he is wrong to beat himself up for his failures in leadership. Clearly, he is still wounded by the events which surrounded his resignation as leader of his party – he speaks of his loss of “reputation, standing, and even dignity”. However, he has not lost his integrity – nor his love for his Lord. In this latter regard, let me select two quotations from the book. First, “Christians pray. That really shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s like asking newsreaders whether they read the news.” Secondly, “I want to challenge the lazy consensus that has grown up in the West that atheism is neutral and that faith is eccentric; that society should be constructed on the assumption that people don’t believe in anything supernatural; that those who do probably only do so because of cultural reasons or family heritage; and that the ones who seem to really mean it are to be marginalized, ridiculed, or worse. A genuinely liberal society would have no truck with such nonsense.”
Published in the ‘New Studies in Biblical Theology’ series, Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets (Apollos, London 2019. 218pp: £14.99) by David Firth, an OT tutor at Bristol’s Trinity College, is a highly technical study on the ‘Former Prophets’: viz. the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. After detailed examination he concludes that unlike the negative views of many, the Former Prophets showed a positive attitude toward foreigners; and recognized that the people of God were not defined on the basis of ethnicity but on the basis of faith. This leads to him to some all-too brief reflections on how today’s church “is called to be a people of faith that models God’s ultimate purposes in which all peoples are gathered together within God’s kingdom”.
Wrestling with my Thoughts (IVP, London 2020. 183pp: £9.99) by Sharon Hastings tells the story of how ‘a doctor with severe mental illness discovers strength’. The title is taken from Psalm 13.2 NIV: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts”, which in the NRSV is rendered “How long must I have pain in my soul”. Hopefully this honest account will help to break down the stigma which in some quarters is still associated with mental illness.
Ambition: What Jesus said about power, success & counting stuff (IVP, London 2019. 194pp: £9.99) by Emma Ineson, Bishop of Penrith in the Diocese of Carlisle and a former Principal of Bristol’s Trinity College, has written a lively, down-to-earth guide to leadership. She acknowledges that “God made us with drive and ambition and WE WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE” (her capitals), but recognises that ’success’, in ministry terms, is very difficult to define, and suggests that ‘excellence’ (see Phil 4.8) is a better concept for Christians to aim for. Nonetheless, she believes there is a place for ‘godly’ as distinct from ‘selfish’ ambition’. God, she says, “made us to be passionate about the things he is passionate about and loves it when we put all our strategies and connections and contacts and abilities into the work of his kingdom”. In the context of godly ambition she gives some ‘top tips’: 1. don’t be afraid of ambition; 2. pay more attention to character; 3. be accountable; and 4. develop a keen sense of theological reflection. She has a valuable chapter on ‘comparing’ and writes of the dangers of surfing other churches’ publicity materials which she likens to looking at ‘church porn’! Her chapter on ‘The Beatitudes for ambitious leaders’ gives food for thought: 1. stay (properly) humble; 2. seek wholeness (but not necessarily your own); 3. show (gentle) compassion;4. pursue righteousness (by which we mean the holiness of God); 5. address inequality; 6. spend time alone with God; 7. extend hospitality; and 8. be of good courage. Abounding too in thought-provoking quotations, this book is a ‘good read’.
The Bible Themes section of The Bible Speaks Today series is a wonderfully helpful collection of expositions which seek to apply the Scriptures to today’s world. The Message of Love (IVP, London 2019. 298pp: £12.99) by Patrick Mitchel, Lecturer in Theology at the Irish Bible Institute, Dublin, is no exception. Divided into four main parts (Love in the OT; The love of God revealed in the mission & death of Jesus Christ; Love in the life & teaching of Jesus; and The church as a community of love) there is more than sufficient material for seventeen cracking sermons. I found, for instance, the introduction to the final chapter on ‘Love gone wrong: money’ (1 Tim 6.2b-10) quite thought-provoking: “Who am I? By what values or story should I live? What or whom do I live for? Who do I hope for?… Our answers are seen tangibly in the choices we make, the desires we pursue, the relationships we forget and in the hopes that shape us. In short, what we love – what we are most deeply committed to – will be revealed in how we act in the world…. Therefore, perhaps the most revealing spiritual question to be asked is not ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What do you love’.”
As one who is proud to have been called “as narrow as John Stott” and “as liberal as John Stott”, I warmly welcome The Radical Disciple: Lent in all the Scriptures (IVP, London 2020,. 157pp: £7.99) a six week course of readings and reflections, where each Sunday is a lengthy quotation from John Stott (mostly taken from his classic The Cross of Christ) with the rest of the material written by Chris Wright, an OT scholar with the gift of being both popular and thoughtful in style. My one regret is that this book only reached me toward the end of Lent.
As befits their name, the Bible Reading Fellowship (Abingdon 2020) continue to produce helpful resources for Bible reading. Published in its Messy Church series, What’s in the Bible (for me)? (111pp: £4.99) by Lucy Moore, the founder of Messy Church, consists of 50 readings and reflections around the theme of ‘journey’. Published in their Holy Habits series, a discipleship course which on the basis of Acts 2.42-47 identifies ten habits for Christian discipleship, Worship: Bible Reflections (91pp: £3.99) edited by Andrew Roberts, consists of 40 readings and reflections to be used over a period of 8 weeks; although the booklet can be a ‘stand-alone’ resource, it is accompanied by Worship: Group Studies (61pp: £6.99), also edited by Andrew Roberts, which is an excellent guide for Bible study group leaders.
DLT (London, 2020) have produced a new series of Bible studies for individuals or groups entitled ‘How the Bible help us understand’, based on the Revised New Jerusalem Bible which DLT published last year. Each study has five chapters, with relevant Scriptures printed out in full together with questions for reflection and prayers to pray. The first two guides are Approaching the End of Life (128pp: £7.99) by Virginia Moffatt, a writer & editor of this series, and Forgiveness (125pp: £7.99) by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, a screenwriter & novelist who helped to create the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony. The strong point of the two guides is that both are rooted in real life and contemporary culture. The weak point is that neither author has theological expertise – but some may find that refreshing!
Hodder & Stoughton (London 2020) have published three short hard-backed books, entitled On Birth (125pp), On Marriage (106pp) and On Death 105pp), all priced at £9.99, by American preacher Timothy Keller, who sets out to “help readers facing major life changes to think about what constitutes the truly changed life. Our purpose is to give readers the Christian foundations for life’s most important and profound moments.” The underlying idea is good, but the execution is questionable. Although evangelistic in intention, the style is sermonic and in a British context would probably not appeal to the average non-churchgoer. At times the exegesis is questionable: for instance, in spite of Matt 22.30, Keller argues at length that we shall be with our earthly spouse in heaven: “When all your sins and flaws are removed from your soul and body your spouse will be able to say with infinite joy, ‘I always knew you could be like this. I saw it in you. But now look at you!” Really?
Recent booklets from Grove of Cambridge, all 28pp & £3.95 each, include Creating Intentional Christian Communities: Integrating Models of Urban Mission (Mission & Evangelism 129, 2020) by Simon Cartwright, an Anglican Area Dean, who on the basis of 25 years of urban ministry in Birmingham & Derby, proposes a “new kind of church” which engages with its community by creating “a shared space – where we build shalom – creating bridges not barriers”’ “a safe space – where we work in community development – offering hope for change”; and “a sacred space – where we recognize the image of God in everyone and pioneer a new church”.