Books for Today – July 2020

My book of the month is Where is God in a Coronavirus World? (The Good Book Company, Epsom 2020. 64pp: £2.99) by John C. Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, who is well-known for debating the Christian faith with articulate atheists such as Richard Dawkins. I found it a stimulating read – and in the process learnt that 99% of viruses are essential to life; and was reminded that the Book of Leviticus prescribed sevens isolation for some diseases, and an indefinite period for others! It is also offers helpful advice on how Christians should respond to the pandemic, which includes suggestions such as ‘maintain perspective’, ‘love your neighbour’ and ‘remember eternity’. However, the reason for selecting what is essentially a booklet as my ‘book of the month’ is that is a very useful apologetic tool, in which John Lennox answers the question: “If we accept – as we must – that we are in a universe that presents us with a picture of both biological beauty and deadly pathogens, is there any evidence that there is a God whom we can trust with the implications, and with our lives and futures?” This is a book to give away to non-Christian friends – indeed, to encourage such action, the publishers offer substantial discounts on bulk offers such as 100 copies for £1 each!

Other books to stimulate thought include All Things Bright and Beautiful (SPCK, London 2020. 16pp: £6.99 large format) beautifully illustrated by Jean Claude and is just the book to give to a young child. Based on the classic hymn written by Cecil Frances Alexander, in the words of the cover blurb it aims to help children ‘see the world come to life in this wonderful celebration of creation’.

On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2020. 177pp: £12.99) by Stephen Cottrell, the new Archbishop of York, is based on a collection of addresses given to Anglican ordinands the night before they are ordained. Although I have difficulty with the concept of ‘priesthood’, I found this to be a thought-provoking and insightful guide to Christian ministry – so much so that I have written eight blogs reflecting on some of the issues raised.

The Heart of Communication: How to really connect with an audience (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2020. 159pp: £12.99) by Rob Parsons, Chairman of Care for the Family, contains insights from over fifty years of public speaking, both to church and to secular audiences. I confess that I wondered whether after fifty years of ministry I had much to learn, but was challenged by one of the author’s opening statements: “The world is full of people who have an incredible natural gift but never reach their potential because they believe they have nothing left to learn and stop trying to develop that gift”. I discovered too that the book is peppered with helpful insights: e.g. “connection is the very heart of communication”; “remember you are talking to ordinary people”; “designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it: To Whom It May Concern” (quote from Ken Haemar); “Trade length for effectiveness”; “Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable”; and “Practice with evaluation makes perfect”.

Finishing Well: A God’s Eye View of Ageing (SPCK, London 2020). 263pp: £9.99) by Ian Knox , a former solicitor who became an evangelist and not long before his retirement an Anglican priest. is “a book about not leaving God our as we grow older”. Chatty in style, peppered with Scripture verses, abounding with stories and quotations, is a useful resource for Christians about to retire.

1 and 2 Samuel (IVP, London 2020. 472pp: £19.99) by V. Philips Long, Emeritus OT Professor of Regent College, Vancouver, is a welcome revision in the Tyndale OT Commentary series, As with other books in this excellent series of accessible scholarship, the format is hree-fold: after a short introduction to the ‘context’; detailed exegesis is provided by the ‘comment’; and finally the key theological themes are highlighted in a brief ‘meaning’ section. As Philips Long notes, 1 & 2 Samuel raise key theological questions such as “What does living in the world in relationship to one’s creator look like? What does it mean to be a person ‘after [God’s] own heart….? What does it take for a leader to succeed? How is a failed leader to respond when deposed from office? Why was Saul rejected as king, while David was not, even after the latter committed adultery and murder?” This new commentary will certainly prove to be a great resource for preachers.

Broken by Fear, Anchored in Hope: Faithfulness in an Age of Anxiety (SPCK, London 2020. 101pp: £8.99) by Rob Merchant, currently engaged in ministerial formation as Director of Chelmsford’s St Mellitus College branch, will be appreciated by people wrestling with mental health problems such as shame, fear, anger and despair. Written in a very accessible style, the final sentence says it all: “Ultimately the love of Jesus is all sufficient. Hallelujah!”

Handbook of Christian Ministry for Lay and Ordained Christians (SPCK, London 2020. 250pp: £12.99) by John Pritchard, the former Bishop of Oxford, is a most helpful resource, worth every penny, from which anyone involved in any form of Christian ministry will benefit. It is a book of principles and ideas, a personal ‘A-Z’ written out of the experience of ministry over the years. I loved the lively and at times provocative style; I appreciated too the ‘quick ideas’ and ‘tailpieces’, together with the list of recommended books for further reading which follow each section. I enjoyed too the many insights as also fresh ways of putting the familiar: for instance, “The resurrection is the USP (unique selling point) of Christianity, yet we are often very cautious about sharing that confidence”; in the context of older people, “ministry is always ‘with’ and not ‘to’”; in the context of preaching, “TED talks are emotional in that they touch the heart, novel in that they offer new information and a new approach, and memorable in that they stay with the listener and aren’t erased after a few minutes. How does our last sermon stand up to that analysis?”

Christianity and Depression (SCM, London 2020. 236pp: £19.99) by Tasia Scrutton, Associate Professor in Philosophy & Religion at the University of Leeds, is a wide-ranging guide to the way Christians understand depression. Sadly, there are still some who think that personal sin is to blame, while others put the blame on demons. By contrast the author sees biology as playing a large role. A chapter is devoted to the ‘dark night of the soul’ as experienced by St John of the Cross as also Mother Teresa, and its relationship to depression’ while in a subsequent chapter she looks at the potential for depression to help us grow through the lens of the life of Henri Nouwen. After considering whether God can suffer and indeed would a suffering God help, the author concludes with a helpful Christian response to depression. She suggests that people with depression are not unlike lepers of Jesus’ day, for all too often they are implicitly excluded by an overemphasis in worship on joy – indeed she notes that people with depression often turn to the Psalms, which express not just joy, but also sadness, hopelessness and despair. – amongst other things. Tara Scrutton believes that a factor in depression can be ‘social’ (as distinct from ‘individual’) sin, in so far as the systemic injustices of society can lead to poverty, instability, and vulnerability for many. I appreciated too her section on the resurrection which leads to the hope that suffering, sin and death together with the transformation of woundedness “will happen fully and to all of creation”.

Equality is Biblical: Lifting the curse of Eve (SPCK, London 2020. 112pp: £8.99) by Penelope Wilcock, who has worked in schools and in hospice & prison chaplaincy contexts, and has pastored a number of Methodist churches, has written a book which is less radical than I thought it might be. For although the blurb from Steve Chalke claims it is ‘paradigm shifting’, the reality is that the one chapter which deals with equality between ‘women and men in the new creation’ I found totally uncontroversial – perhaps this is because women’s ministry is no longer an issue in most Baptist churches.

Rowan Williams in Conversation with Greg Garrett (SPCK, London 2020. 124pp: £9.99) consists of a series of conversations between the former Archbishop of Canterbury and an American English professor who teaches at Baylor University in Texas and also serves as theologian in residence at the American Cathedral in Paris. The seven conversations cover a wide range of literary and theological subjects: I particularly appreciated the conversation on preaching but had more difficulty with other conversations dealing with books I had not read. In reviewing this book I realised how much ‘lockdown’ has deprived me of a decent conversation!

The Essence: Unpacking Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Resource Publications, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon 2020. 226pp: 25 US$) by New Zealand Baptist minister Brian Winslade is rooted in many years of pastoral experience. It is a great resource for preachers, which not only unpacks the Scriptures but also abounds in helpful illustrations. It is also a useful resource for small groups, for every section is followed by questions for discussion. My one surprise is that for questions of length the Beatitudes are missing!

God and the Pandemic: A Christian reflection on the coronavirus and its aftermath (SPCK, London 2020. 76pp: £7.99) by Tom Wright takes a thoughtful look at how the followers of Jesus should respond to the crisis in the light of Scripture. This will mean: first, we tell people about the God’s kingdom and summon them to repent “not because of any subsequent events such as famines or plagues but because of Jesus himself”; second, we are “people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain” (see Rom 8.22-27); third, we work actively with God – for “in everything God himself co-operates for good with those who love him” (Rom 8.28); fourth, with the poor and the needy as our priorities (see  Psalm 72.1-4, 12-14), as we come out of the lockdown we need “to find policies that will prevent a mad rush back to profiteering with the devil taking the hindmost”. With plenty of material for four powerful sermons, I commend this book!

A great Covid19 resource for home groups is Living Under the Rainbow: a course in six sessions to help churches prepare for the evangelistic opportunity presented by the ‘New Normal’ (self-published 2020; free copies available by emailing hrdibbens@gmail.com) by Hugh Dibbens, the Evangelism Adviser for Barking. This study course consists of Bible passages to read, reflections on Covid19, together with questions for discussion. The six topics are: 1. ‘Shaken and stirred – the opportunity for radical change; 2. ‘Recognising Jesus; – caring globally’; 3. ‘Becoming more human – listening attentively’; 4. ‘Loving more deeply – facing our mortality’; 5.‘ Believing more truly – considering the R factor’; and 6. ‘Living more hopefully – under the rainbow of God’s promises’.

Recent booklets from Grove of Cambridge, all 28pp in length and £3.95, include Is This Still My Church? Faith and Feeling during a Church Merger (Pastoral 161, 2020) by Jungian analyst, Ann Hopwood, who makes the important point on the basis of her experience of mergers of Methodist churches that “paying careful attention to the psychological needs of individuals, as well as thinking about their spirituality and so the meaning and purpose for them of the project, affects the outcome”. Does Youth Ministry have a Future? Lessons learned from Youth Ministry Past and Present (Youth 58, 2020) by Tim Gough, Pioneer Youth for Christ Director for Wales, concludes that “Youth ministry has a future… but the more youth ministry becomes the ministry of the whole church, supported by specialist youth facilitators rather than lone-ranger youth ministers, the healthier that ministry will be” – this should be essential reading not just for youth ministers, but for all ministers!

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