Books for Today – July 2021

Two Books of the Month

Still Love Left: Faith and Hope in Later Life (YouCaxton Publications, 2021. 129pp: £9.99) by Michael Jackson, an Anglican Non-Stipendiary Minister, who retired in 2013 after working for 26 years as the director of St John’s Winchester Charity, which looks after some 150 residents who are either frail or suffering from dementia, abounds in quotable quotes and consists of a series of thoughtful reflections on growing old. Divided into three main parts each of which is then sub-divided into four chapters, it looks at the challenge of the aging process from the perspective of Christian faith: Part 1, Making Sense of the  Past, deals with identity, loss, reconciliation and wisdom; Part 2, Embracing the Present, deals with growth, contentment, engagement, blessing; Part 3, Facing a Certain Future, deals with acceptance, passion, death and resurrection. My one sadness about this book is that it is self-published and therefore has not a publishing house to promote it. Ministers will find it a helpful pastoral resource, and those of us who have reached the age of 60+ will find it a positive guide.

The Sanity of Belief: Why faith makes sense (SPCK, London 2021. 188pp: £9.99 ) by Simon Edwards, who worked as a lawyer in Australia before moving to the UK to study at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, is a first-class defence of the Christian faith over against atheists such as Richard Dawkins who wrote: “When one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion”! This is a book which churches should give to every one of their young people starting university. It is also a book for ministers to read carefully and incorporate some of its thinking in their sermons!

Other books to make us think

Up from the Ashes: a Syrian doctor’s story of sacrifice and hope (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2021. 244pp: £16.99 hardback) by ‘Dr A’ with Samara Levy is a challenging read, for it tells the story of how, when given the opportunity to relocate his family to a safer country and start a new life, with a dream job and generous package, this Chr5istian doctor committed himself to stay and serve his people, at an extraordinary cost to himself and to his family. I was struck too by two sentences from the book’s penultimate paragraph: “We nee4d to light as many candles as we can, to illuminate the darkness in this fractured world. We need to build beacons to guide the way for each other, so that should my brother’s or my children’s candles ever grow dim, your child’s candle or my neighbour’s candle will be there, reading to relight them.”

Heaven Come Down: The story of a transgender disciple (DLT, London 2021. 302pp: £12.99) by Chrissie Chevasutt tells of the author’s struggle with dysmorphia and gender dysphoria – born a man, she married and  had children, and then in her 50s ‘came out’ as a woman. Although dramatically converted after five years of alcohol and drug addition, it is also a story of her rejection by church after church – and yet of her remaining in the church, seeing herself called by God to be an advocate for transgender people within Evangelical churches. It is a powerful and disturbing story which Evangelical ministers in particular need to read. In this regard I was deeply moved by two short paragraphs toward the end of her list of acknowledgements:

To my community, the transgender community, I am sorry for all the hate, the judgement and the ugly words that Church has cursed you with. I hope you’ll open your hearts again to the possibility that God is love, nothing more, nothing less. You are my tribe. Thank you for holding a safe space for me. To the Church, my prayer is that you might listen and learn, learn to refrain from judging those whom you do not understand, and instead learn to embrace those you have oppressed and maginalised. Grace and mercy will always triumph in the end.

Deep Calls to Deep: Spiritual formation in the hard places of life (BRF, Abingdon 2nd edition 2021. 143pp: £8.99) by Tony Horsfall, a former OMF missionary who has developed a ministry of mentoring and leading retreats, looks at some of the psalms written ‘from the depths’ and reflects on how “in the deep experiences of our lives, God invites us into a deeper relationship with himself”. The 1st edition drew particularly on the experiences of some of the author’s friends, but in the introduction to this 2nd edition Tony Horsfall shares his own story of losing his wife of 46 years to breast cancer and of his own ending up in intensive care with coronavirus. He writes: “These have been difficult days, some of the hardest of my life, and yet I know that God is at work in me, using my suffering to transform me and prepare me for what lies ahead”. It is this experience which makes this book all the more powerful. This thought-provoking study of some of the psalms of lament includes a series of questions for group discussion.

A Theology of Disagreement: New Testament Ethics for Ecclesial Conflicts (SCM, London 2021. 214pp: £30) by Christopher Landau, a chaplain to postgraduate students in Oxford and a former BBC World Service religious affairs correspondent, is an academic book which follows and critiques the methodological approach of Richard Hays in The Moral Vision of the New Testament and as such is a demanding read. However, the implications of this book are profoundly challenging for today’s church. For Landau’s central contention is that “the church is yet to find a coherent theology of disagreement, which might enable it to face its inevitable disagreements in a way that is reflective of the love that it claims to have at its very foundation”. The author is rightly concerned for the massive damage done to the image of the church by the way in which Christians air their disagreements in public. He points out that in the New Testament, even though varied responses to occasions of disagreement are present, there is a constant urging of Christians to seek a loving unity through which others might then view the love of God. Christians need to disagree in love, and in so doing reflect the fruit of the Spirit. We need to live out the teaching of Col 4.6; Matt 10.19-20; Luke 12.12; Acts 4.31 & Rom 12.18: viz. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone; pursue Godly speech, inspired by the Spirit; if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peacably with all”. How right Landau is! Would that he were to produce a shorter and popular and cheaper version of this fascinating academic study! If so, it would be undoubtedly my book of the month.

In my experience all too often ministers can be crassly insensitive to the feelings of couples who for one reason or another cannot have children. For this reason I warmly commend A Pastoral Theology of Childlessness (SCM, London 2021. £19.99) in which Emma Nash, a Baptist minister currently working in the Methodist mission department, not only bravely shares her struggle with childlessness, but also provides a thought-provoking theological framework enabling ministers to help couples suffering from the pain and the anger which results from childlessness. This is a great pastoral resource: very readable, it should be required reading for all ministers – and, of course, for those training for ministry.

Lighten our Darkness: Discovering and celebrating Choral Evensong (DLT, London 2021. 128pp: £16.99) by Simon Reynolds is a thoughtful guide to evensong, the popular name given to the sung service of Evening Prayer offered in particular by cathedrals and Oxbridge colleges. Abounding in quotations, I particularly appreciated the words of John V. Taylor: “To pray is to place oneself in the silent presence of the Eternal Beyond, the God of truth and love, and letting the flow of communication between that and one’s truest self clarify the distorted vision, purify the motives, countervail the pressures and set one free from dependence upon any other power except the care for others which holds on, trusting, hoping and enduring, until in the long term it wins through”.

Monk in the Market Place and the Simpsons: My Autobiography (DLT, London 2021. 207pp: £12.99) by Raymond Simpson is something of a curate’s egg. I enjoyed the lively account of the author’s his early years and was impressed too by the account of his eighteen-year long ministry at Bowthorpe, Norwich. However, I found myself unable to identify with his somewhat muddled account of his co-founding of the Community of Aidan and Hilda on the island of Lindisfarne. Less than half-way through the book he records his standing down as the ‘Guardian’ of the community at the age of 71, and at that point the style of the book changes and effectively ceases to be an autobiography and instead we have a series of reflections on the island of Lindisfarne, his life as an author, his love of countries, his experiences of pilgrimage, the history of the last 100 or so years of the Simpson family, and peters out with a strange chapter on ‘borderlands’. Some better editing seems to me to have been called for.

How to Eat Bread: 21 nourishing ways to read the Bible (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2021. 164pp: £12.99) by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, a vicar of three churches in Liverpool, provides a delightfully refreshing introduction to Bible reading from which Christians at all stages in life could benefit. Written with a light touch, it nonetheless reflects the author’s interest in medieval history as also in contemporary theological developments. Divided into three main sections, Part 1 is entitled ‘From the store cupboard – Scripture’; Part 2 ‘Grandmother’s recipe book – tradition’; and Part 3 ‘Molecular gastronomy – reason’. I appreciated too the way in which the author emphasises that “the act of reading is never neutral… So it is important to be conscious of who you are, and what you bring to your reading”.

Edgewise? Experiences of some Anglican women (DLT, London 2021. 160pp: £12.99) edited by Hannah Ward & Jennifer Wild, is a collection of ten provocative essays written by some friends who have met together for an annual weekend once a year for the last twenty years. Although very much individuals in their own right, they are all ‘of a certain age’ (retired or soon to retire), they are all white and middle class, of a liberal and radical bent, and most High Church – not one is remotely Evangelical. Although most of them see themselves as ‘on the edge’ of the church, the reality is that a number of them have been very much part of the institution of the church. A running issue throughout the book is ‘what does it mean to be a lay woman?’ now that women can be ordained in the Church of England. Interestingly some of the contributors feel that the Church of England has become more clerical with the advent of women’s ordination. Is lay ministry primarily about helping to run the church or is it primarily about exercising ministry beyond the church? To this I would ask the question: does the Anglican equation of ordained ministry with priesthood lead not inevitably to regarding lay ministry as inferior to the ordained?

Resources for ministry and Christian living

Out of the Shadows: Preaching the Women of the Bible (SCM, London 2021. 212pp: £19.99) by Kate Bruce, an Anglican RAF chaplain, and Liz Shercliff, director of studies for readers in the Chester diocese, is a super resource for all those called to preach. Informative, provocative, and interesting, the headings of the 17 chapters give a flavour of the book: for instance, ‘Eve: the long shadow of blame’; ‘Sarah: the shadow of ownership’; Jephthah’s Daughter; the shadow of control’; ‘Ruth: the shadow of racism’; ‘Abigail: the shadow of neglect’; ‘Mary the mother of Jesus: the shadow of tradition’; ‘Haemorrhaging Woman: the shadow of shame’; ‘Women witnesses in Luke: the shadow of dismissal’; ‘Women in Acts & the Epistles: the glorious gathering of women’. The appendix has helpful suggestions for sermon series on such themes as social justice and putting women in their place. I warmly commend this book – and particularly to men!

BRF of Abingdon have published two new books on green issues both by Martin & Margot Hodson: Martin is a plant scientist and environmental biologist, and Margot is a vicar in Oxfordshire. The first is A Christian Guide to Environmental Issues (2nd edition 2021. 220pp: £9.99): this is an updated version of the original 2015 and therefore includes a section on Covid-19 as it deals with issues such as biodiversity, climate change, water, human population & consumption, energy, soil, food, and environment & sustainable development. Each chapter ends with a Bible reflection, a Bible study and questions for reflection and discussion. This is an excellent resource, brimming with all sorts of facts and ideas. The second is a collection of daily Bible readings with comments entitled Green Reflections: Biblical inspiration for sustainable living (2021. 157pp: £8.99). Illustrated by Martin Beek and fully indexed this too is a great resource.

Wiley-Blackwell of Oxford publish a variety of textbooks on Christianity and religion.  One such textbook is The Modern Theologians Reader (First published 2012. 450pp: £19.19) edited by David F. Ford & Mike Higton with Simeon Zahl is intended to a companion to The Modern Theologians (Blackwell, Oxford 3rd edition 2005) edited by David Ford with Rachel Muers. The latter consists of a series of expert commentaries on the contribution of some of the most important theologians of the 20th century, while the former provides excerpts from the writings of these theologians. Used together both books enable students to gain a helpful overview of the development of modern theology. Another such textbook is The Religion Toolkit A Complete Guide to Religious Studies (first published in 2012. 348pp: £19.99) by John Morreall & Tamara Sonn. I am not a world religions expert and so cannot give a competent assessment of the book as a whole: however, as New Testament scholar I have to say that that account of the Christian faith is unfortunately skewed and sceptical. The third textbook is Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative Approach to Global Ethics (2nd edition 2011. 360pp: £22.99) by Darrell Fasching, Dell Dechant & David Lantigua. The approach adopted here is through comparative storytelling and comparative spirituality in response to some of the defining events of the 20th century – the struggle against colonialism, racism, sexism, terrorism and the human capacity to inflict mass death revealed at Auschwitz and Hiroshima. However, in spite of this innovative approach I confess to feeling of dis-ease brought on by what at times seems to me to be oversimplification.

Always good value for money recent booklets from Grove of Cambridge, all 28pp and cost £3.95, include Evaluating Youth Work: Reflecting on your church-based youth ministry (Youth 62, 2021) by Colin Bennett, a free-lance trainer – full of good things, I was particularly struck by the usefulness of a simple CONE  survey to be answered by young people in the church, in which C stands for Culture – how your church fits with the local community; O stands for Openness to God; N stands for National standards for youth work; and E stands for Enabled – the extent to which young people are enabled by the youth work. At a time when churches are becoming more aware of eco issues, Marine Plastics (Ethics 201, 2021) by Robert Sluka, lead scientist on the A Rocha marine conservation programme is a challenging read, with each chapter ending with suggestions for churches to engage in practical action. ‘For Just Such a Time as This’: Learning from Esther for ministry in difficult times (Pastoral 165, 2021) by Simon J. Taylor, the Director for Ministry Development in the Bristol Diocese, consists of a series of reflections on the multiple challenges facing churches coming out of the Covid 19 pandemic such as anti-Semitism, racism and sexual violence.

Finally , although I don’t normally review children’s books, my attention was drawn to Whistlestop Tales around the World in 10 Bible Stories (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2012. 229pp: £10.99 hardback) by Krish and Miriam Kandiah which tells how God uses people from all over the world “in his global adventure: for instance, Abram, the tale of the intrepid Iraqi who had a lot to lose; Ruth, the tale of the giant-hearted Jordanian who went the extra mile, the Centurion, the tale of the Italian invader who fought an unexpected battle; Barnabas, the tale of the Cypriot sleugh who unlocked a mystery; and Onesimus, the tale of the Turkish truant who risked everything. It is a great book for children growing up in multi-cultural Britain.

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