Books for Today – September 2020

My book of the month is Through a Glass Darkly: Journeys through Science, Faith and Doubt (Hodder & Stoughton 2020. 225pp: £14.99 hardback) by Alister McGrath, a respected scientist who became a respected theologian, and in the process holding a series of distinguished academic posts and chairs, including being principal of Wycliffe College, an Oxford Anglican theological college. To my surprise, although not a scientist, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this ‘memoir’. The story begins with his schoolboy commitment to atheism followed by his Christian conversion at Oxford, and how it then impacted his views on both science and faith. Amongst the many intellectual guides and companions, he owes a particular debt to C.S. Lewis, who famously said: “I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else”. The book’s title is, of course, taken from the Apostle Paul: to quote McGrath, “We do indeed see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13.12), being captives to our limited capacity to behold and understand, and the fragility of the truths on which we base our lives. That’s why we attach ourselves to other for company and solidarity, holding on to a vision of reality and embodiment of wisdom, which in turn holds us, encouraging us to probe and discover its depths and riches. Somehow, the shadows of the cosmos seem softer and more bearable when we journey in company – and in hope, knowing that someone has walked through that darkness before us, blazing a trail to follow.”

Other books to stimulate thought include

British Gods: Religion in Modern Britain (Oxford University Press, 2020. 282pp: £25 hardback) by Steve Bruce, professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, is a hard read for Christians, for he concludes that the current stock of religious knowledge is so depleted, religion so unpopular, and committed believers so scarce that any significant reversal of religious decline in Britain is unlikely. His chapter on the impact of charismatic renewal is particularly scathing: “The charismatic movement and the innovations it pioneered was intended to reverse secularization, but it actually facilitated decline by providing young members of conservative Christian families with a stepping stone on the road to religious indifference and by reducing the visible presence of Christianity”. He illustrates the marked change in attitude to religion since the start of this century with the story of a man who organised ‘faith literacy’ sessions with government workers who asked his classes to write down three words they associated with Christianity: the most common ones were ‘homophobic’, ‘misogynist’, ‘Bible-basher’, ‘bigot’ and ‘intolerant’. Sadly, since the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, “the typical Briton has gone from churchgoing Christian, to nominal Christians, to non-Christians who nonetheless thinks religion (in the abstract at least) is a good thing, to being someone who supposes that religion does more harm than good”. Religion has now become an alien phenomenon. The one positive note is the link between believer and convert: Bruce writes, “We want some evidence… that getting right with Jesus will indeed improve our lives. The best evidence is that it has worked for people who are sufficiently similar that we can see them as models for emulation”. However, Bruce notes that “when 97% of people aged 16-34 do not attend church, the chances of them developing a relationship with any committed believer are pretty small”. My judgment is that after Covid-19 many churches will close and those that survive will need to face up to the challenge that there are no short-cuts to making disciples of people who are totally outside the church – true friendship, not loud worship bands, will be key.

First published in the USA by Wipf & Stock, Paternoster have done a great service to preachers by publishing for a UK market Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical reflections in a time of loss, grief and uncertainty (Milton Keynes, 2000. 80pp: £4.99) by the distinguished OT scholar Walter Brueggemann. As is his custom, Brueggemann engages with and then expounds Scripture as is indicated by the chapter headings: 1. Reaping the whirlwind (Leviticus, Exodus & Job); 2. Pestilence.. Mercy? Who knew? (2 Sam 24.1-25); 3. Until the dancing begins again (Jeremiah); 4. Praying amid the virus (1 Kings 8.23-53); 5. The ‘turn’ from self to God (Ps 77); 6. God’s new thing (Isaiah 43.18-19); 7. The matrix of groan (Isaiah 42.14-15). In my judgment Brueggemann well and truly fulfil his hope that “my thinking may be of some encouragement and suggestion about how we may think and speak critically, theologically, and biblically about our current crisis of virus in order that the community of faith may maintain its mission identity with boldness and joy”. Don’t be fooled: although Brueggemann has provided exposition and application, there is still work for the preacher to do. However, without Brueggemann, I would have been hard pressed to know how to expound the Old Testament Scriptures. This is a book all ministers need to buy and work through with their congregations. And thank you, Paternoster, for publishing the book at such an affordable price!

A Better Song to Sing: Finding life again through the invitations of Jesus (BRF, Abingdon 2020. 140pp: £8.99) by Mags Duggan, a missionary in Asia for 20 years before returning to join the faculty at Redcliffe College where she lectured on spiritual formation and soul care. This book had its origins in a series of devotional retreat addresses in which she reflects on six key invitations of Jesus to abundant life in our real and everyday life (John 10.10); freedom from beliefs and behaviours that bind us (John 11.43-44); refreshment from his thirst-quenching presence (John 7.37); vulnerability through naming our deepest desires and truest longings (John 1.38 etc); rest from life-sapping burdens (Matt 11.28-29); and peace by receiving his lavish love, offered with all wisdom and understanding (John 15.7,9,14).

First published in 2000, The Marriage Book (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2nd edition 2020. 366pp: £10.99) by Nicky & Sila Lee, who are both on the staff of London’s Holy Trinity Brompton, deals helpfully with issues such as communication, conflict, forgiveness, sex, and parents & in-laws. This is a great book for couples preparing for marriage. Unfortunately, although a revised edition, no information is given to the nature of the revision.

Darwin Disproved? Evolution, Debates and Proxy Wars 1860-2020 (Amazon, 2020: 245pp:  £7.44 paperback; and £2.49 Kindle version) by Neil Thomas, a senior academic literary historian and a life member of the British Rationalist Association, is an unusual book, for it is an attack on the secular theory of evolution by a non-Christian. The author points out that Darwin himself in later years “was never able to satisfactorily resolve the conflict in his mind between a naturalistic and a theistic understanding of the nature of the things”.  Thomas asserts that one reason today’s proponents of Darwinism are driven to defend “a discredited doctrine” is that “if you have a preconceived mindset prompting you towards the position of anybody/thing but God (or any non-material explanation of whatsoever), then it seem readily understandable that you will set the bar low for assessing evidence – considerably lower than is you have no preconceptions at all”. Indeed, he says that “to attribute creative potential to Nature itself is a deeply archaic, animistic way of thinking”, and concludes that we should “no delude ourselves that we have any inkling of what lies behind the genesis and evolution of our unique planet’s plant and animal life”. I confess that I am not qualified to judge the book’s scientific arguments, but am astonished by a non-Christian suggesting that Darwinism is not a science, bur rather “a philosophical construct”!

BRF of Abingdon are to be congratulated on producing a series of Carer’s Guides, all priced at £2.50 each, under the imprint of ‘Anna Chaplaincy for older people, as a response to the health crisis of Covid-19, which offer practical help and guidance to carers who find themselves needing to provide spiritual support to older people or others in residential care. Titles so far published this year are: How to worship with a group of residents (29pp) by Catriona Foster; How to take care of yourself in stressful times (25pp), How to worship with individuals in your care (31pp), & How to have a memorial service at home when you are unable to attend the funeral (26pp) by Sally Rees; and How to help someone spiritually towards the end of life (21pp) by Debbie Thrower. These simple but thoughtful guides will certainly help to fulfil the aim of the guides: viz. to give “the confidence and skills to enable those in your care not only to cope emotionally and spiritually but even to thrive, despite challenging circumstances”.

Recent booklets from Grove of Cambridge, all 28pp in length and £3.95, include Inviting Muslims to Church: How to plan and hold a guest service for people of Islamic Faith (Mission & Evangelism 130, 2020) by Colin Bearup, who has worked for many years among Muslims both overseas and in England – it is an excellent guide and a ‘must’ for every leader whose church has Muslim neighbours. Leadership for the Long Term: Affirming the value of staying (Leadership 41, 2020) by Henry Corbett, an Anglican vicar in Everton since the 1970s, is a personal reflection on the advantages long-term ministry can offer to the church and the community. Detached Youth Work: Mission at the Margins (Youth 59, 2020) by Steve Blower, an experienced youth specialist who is currently developing projects with young people, often socially excluded, in Scarborough. Leaving Church: What can we learn from those who are done with church? (Pastoral 162) by Robin Stockitt & John Davison who explore the experiences of Christians who have given up on church – strangely there is no reference to the ground-breaking work of Alan Jamieson, a New Zealand Baptist minister and sociologist, whose research resulted in A Churchless Faith: Faith journeys beyond the  churches (SPCK 2002) and Journeying in Faith: In and beyond the tough places (SPCK 2004).

One comment

  1. I’m surprised Paul with regard to the book against Darwinism by a non-Christian that you put your reaction so strongly: “…but am astonished by a non-Christian suggesting that Darwinism is not a science, bur rather “a philosophical construct”” Christian or non-Christian the rational argument for Darwinism is now so weak that I’m not at all surprised that some non Christians are coming out with these conclusions. Its really that much of the scientific (and medical) community including the magazine Nature just merely want to ‘keep up appearances’, because they don’t want God encroching into the debate in any way!

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