My book of the month is Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2020. 264pp: £16.99 hardback) by Michael Curry, the black American bishop who preached at the wedding of Harry & Meghan, is a really good read. It is not a book of sermons: rather it is an exposition of Agape-Love roughly organised according to the events and lessons learned in his own life. Quotable quotes abound: “This love is a verb – an action with force and follow-through”; “Love – God’s GPS for living… To switch on God’s GPs simply ask yourself a question: Is this just about me, or is it about we?”; “It’s all too easy for faith communities to drift slowly toward existing for the good of their members”; In the context of civil action, Curry quotes Frederick Douglass, a former emancipated slave: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are man who want crops without ploughing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning”. I confess that I do not share the author’s acceptance of gay marriage, but was moved by a quotation of Verna Dozier: “We always see through a glass darkly, and that is what faith is about. I will live by the best I can discern today. Tomorrow I may find out I was wrong. Since I do not live by being right, I am not destroyed by being wrong”. In the context of Donald Trump’s first election campaign: “Love doesn’t just belong in the public square; it is desperately needed there to break through deadlock and make our diversity of perspectives an asset”. In conclusion, “Love is powerful, transformative, free, and freeing to all. Dr King was right: ‘We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way’.” This is the story of a man who has not just talked the talk, but walked the walk. I found it a moving story
Other books to stimulate thought
What’s Wrong With Rights? (Oxford University Press, 2020. 362pp: £30 hardback) by Nigel Biggar, the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, is a heavyweight book in every sense of the word, and is not for the faint-hearted! Yet it is an important book, which addresses some key ethical questions such as Are natural rights ‘nonsense on stilts’, as Jeremy Bentham memorably put it? Must the very notion of a right be individualistic, subverting the common good? Should the right against torture be absolute, even though the heavens fall? Are human rights universal or merely expressions of Western neo-imperial arrogance? Are rights ethically fundamental, proudly impervious to changing circumstances? Should judges strive to extend the reach of rights from civil Hamburg to anarchical Basra? Should judicial oligarchies, rather than legislatures, decide controversial ethical issues by inventing novel rights? Ought human rights advocates learn greater sympathy for the dilemmas facing those burdened with government? The author draws upon resources in intellectual history, legal philosophy, moral philosophy, moral theology, human rights literature, and the judgments of courts. It ranges from debates about property in medieval Christendom, through Confucian rights-scepticism, to contemporary discussions about the remedy for global hunger and the justification of killing. And it straddles assisted dying in Canada, the military occupation of Iraq, and genocide in Rwanda. Biggar concludes that much contemporary rights-talk obscures the importance of fostering civic virtue, corrodes military effectiveness, subverts the democratic legitimacy of law, proliferates publicly onerous rights, and undermines their authority and credibility. The solution to these problems, he argues, lies in the abandonment of rights-fundamentalism and the recovery of a richer public discourse about ethics, one that includes talk about the duty and virtue of rights-holders.
Soul Fuel for Young Beginners (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2020. 182pp: £10.99) by Bear Grylls, former SAS soldier and Chief Ambassador to World Scouting, provides an excellent basic guide to the Christian life for young teenagers.
Why Christianity is Probably True: Building the case for a reasoned, moral and relevant faith (Paternoster, Milton Keynes 2020. 138pp: £9.99) by Brian Harris, Principal of Vose Seminary, Perth, Western Australia, is a popular introduction to apologetics in which the author looks at the evidence of reason, history and experience. Some might be surprised by the term ‘probably’, but then “those who follow Jesus are called to a life of faith, and you don’t need faith if everything is certain”. This is a great book to give to give to a thoughtful seeker.
Mentoring Conversations: 30 key topics to explore together (BRF, Abingdon 2020. 151pp: £9.99) by Tony Horsfall is a great resource by an experienced mentor. The focus of the book is on producing mature disciples. Although it can be used in small groups, the primary intention is for the book to be used in a one-to-one setting where both mentor and mentoree each have a copy. Helpful quotations abound: e.g. “For optimal spiritual health, conversations on spiritual matters matter. They speak to our desire to know and be known by God and one another, and to do so in community.” Each chapter has a series of ‘conversation starters’ as also a guide to further reading.
The Glorious Journey: A reflection book based on ‘The Two Popes’ (DLT, London 2020. 125pp: £6.99) by Liam Kelly. who works in the Abbot’s Office at Ampleforth, is designed to be used individually or in a group context – the book is peppered with questions for discussion. At its heart is the superb 2020 film The Two Popes which in turn is based on Anthony McCarten’s The Two Popes (Penguin 2019). The two popes in question are Benedict XVI and Francis, who in their conversation explore some of the key themes of what it is to be human. In the light of the film six of these key themes are explored by this study guide: viz. the journey; listening, change, mercy, loneliness, and love. I found it an interesting read.
Seven Sacred Spaces: Portals to deeper community life in Christ (BRF, Abingdon 2020. 227pp: £10.99) by George Lings, who from 1997-2017 led the Church Army’s Research Unit specialising in fresh expressions, is a substantial expansion of his earlier Grove Booklet. In a quite creative fashion Lings has developed the monastic idea of seven spaces and applied them to our individual and communal walk with God: viz. the cell (being alone with God), the chapel (corporate public worship), the chapter (making decisio0ns), the cloister (planned and surprising meetings), the garden (the place of work), the refectory (food and hospitality), and the scriptorium (study and passing on knowledge).I found the concept of the scriptorium particularly interesting, because a key part of my own daily rhythm of life is my ministry of writing which takes place in my ‘library’. However, I do wonder about extent to which one might expect this of others.
Christmas: Tradition, Truth and Total Baubles (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2020. 246pp: £9.99 hardback) by Nick Page sets out to correct much ‘fake news’ about Christmas and traditions relating to Christmas. Divided into six parts, there are what the author terms ‘original baubles’ (e.g. Jesus was born on 25 December), ‘Biblical baubles’ (e.g. three kings visited Jesus), ‘pagan baubles’ ( e.g. hanging mistletoe comes from the Druids); church baubles (e.g. there are 25 days in Advent); ‘Santa baubles’ (e.g. Coca-Cola invented the modern Santa Claus) and ‘traditional baubles’ (e.g. commercialisation is killing Christmas). Although clearly well researched, I confess that I found the author’s sense of humour somewhat irritating (and forgive me if I sound like Scrooge!).
The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why you don’t have to submit to domestic abuse and coercive control (BRF, Abingdon 2020. 174pp: £8.99) by Baptist minister, Helen Paynter, addresses the problem of domestic abuse in Christian marriages. This practical pastoral resource is in the first place written for women who are being told that “they must tolerate the intolerable”.
Every Step an Arrival: A 90-day devotional for exploring God’s Word (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2020. 184pp: £9.99) by Eugene Peterson, consists of extracts taken from sermons preached by the author over the years. The book’s title is taken from a poem by Denise Levertov who conjures up the image of a dog who “keeps moving, changing/pace and approach but/not direction – ‘every step an arrival’”! As with everything Eugene Peterson writes, there is plenty of food for thought.
Entertaining Saints: Tales from St George’s Crypt (DLT, London 2020. 160pp: £9.99) by Roger Quick, the chaplain of St George’s Crypt in Leeds, contains some 100 brief stories from his diary over the past seven years. It is an entertaining but powerful account of loving service to those who are “outcast”, i.e. those who are “homeless, vulnerable, abandoned by society, needy in every way, despised and rejected”. The true Church, writes the author, is “not just a club for people like ourselves, but rather a place for everyone else, where by some miracle of grace we also are always welcome”. As Quick goes on to say: those whom he serves are people just like him, for “if circumstances had been just a little different in my life, it really could have been me who ended up at the Crypt”.
Jim Packer is one of Alister McGrath’s heroes: as long ago as 1998 he had written a Packer biography entitled To Know and Serve God. With the death of Jim Packer only in July of this year, in J.I. Packer: His Life and Thought (Hodder & Stoughton, 182pp: £14.99 hardback) focusses on Packer’s legacy. For me the most interesting chapter was the last – ‘The Golden Years: Ministry in Vancouver’, for here I discovered an unexpected side to Packer. For in reading Packer – sadly I never met him – I had regarded him as a somewhat ‘hard-liner’ amongst Evangelical theologians. He had been a fan of the Puritans – indeed his Oxford DPhil was on Richard Baxter. However, I was fascinated to discover there was an unexpected openness about him as exemplified, for instance, in his willingness to engage in discussions between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics which resulted in the 1994 manifesto, Evangelicals and Catholics Together. For this Packer got a good deal of criticism, to which he responded by quoting C.S. Lewis: “When all is said (and truly said) about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by God’s mercy, an enormous common ground”. As Packer rightly saw, to reach out to an increasingly secular world Christians need to work together. In this controversy as also the controversy relating to conditional immortality, McGrath is a helpful guide. So this is a book not just for the many Packer fans – but also for others to read and enjoy.
Love@Work: 100 years of the Industrial Christian Fellowship (DLT, London 2020. 165pp: £14.99) by Ian Randall, Phil Jump & John Weaver tells the story of how the ICF, with its roots in the Navvy Mission Society and the Christian Social Union, has developed and adapted over the years. The title Love@ Work conveys ICF’s intention “to achieve a holistic marriage between the world of work and the love of God as shown in the life and mission of Jesus Christ”. I particularly appreciated the ‘Ten Commandments for Christians at Work’ found in the concluding chapter, which – in summary – are “Be diligent – alert – forgiving – caring – honest – health – prayerful – generous – positive – reliable”. My one sadness was to realise that currently there are only 75 individual members of ICF: hopefully the production of this volume will encourage many more to join. In the meantime ICF are to be congratulated on this significant anniversary.
Newman: The Heart of Holiness (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2020.149pp: £9.99) by Roderick Strange, a long-time eminent Roman Catholic Newman scholar, takes a reflective look at Newman through the lens of holiness, for which Newman consistently strained. Strangely although Newman claimed there was “nothing of a saint” about him, he was ‘beatified’ last year by the Pope. I found it interesting to learn that Newman used to say that he prayed or meditated best “with a pen in his hand” – in a much humbler fashion, that has tended to be my mode of praying on retreat! For Newman the prayer of intercession was important – as seen in the fact that in his private chapel at the Birmingham Oratory he surrounded himself of pictures of family and friends, people whom he held in prayer, “Intercession”, he wrote, “is the characteristic of Christian worship”. Prayer too for him was a thirsting for the presence of God: as he wrote in one of his prayers, “Enter my heart substantially and personally, and fill it with fervour by filling it with Thee… Thou art the living Flame and ever burnest with love of man: enter into me and set me on fire after Thy pattern and presence”. This is a book that will appeal to some – but not to all!
The Countenance of Christ: A Commentary on the Beatitudes of Matthew (Amazon, 2020. 211pp: £7) by Gervase Vernon, a retired family doctor who has Catholic roots but who worships in Chelmsford Catholic, is perhaps best described as an ‘eclectic’ commentary. Although the author is widely read, he is not a theologian per se. Nonetheless he is able to ‘think outside the box’ which in turn makes his commentary an interesting read, as he seeks to expound and then apply Jesus’ message to today. The Countenance of Christ is intended not just for personal study, but also for group discussion and action – and a series of nine ‘exercises’ are provided. A final short section of the book is devoted to ‘The life of Jesus through the eyes of others’ and consists of twelve imaginary retellings of the story of Jesus by twelve different characters – although I found Mary’s story thought-provoking, I am not sure that this addition adds very much to the book as a whole.
Finally, there is the NIV Bible Speaks Today (IVP, London 2020. 1792pp: £34.99 hardback; £50 leather/fine binding) edited by Martin Manser, which consists of the entire text of the NIV (British edition) together with 2,300 notes extracted from IVP’s series of commentaries in The Bible Speaks Today series. In addition there are questions at the end of each note for discussion, and outlines that give a brief overview of each Bible book. Although my preferred English version is the NRSV, it would be churlish not to say that this is an excellent one-volume study Bible and a great resource for leaders of small groups. It is also remarkable value for money!