The book that most fascinated me: Cries for a Lost Homeland: Reflections on Jesus’ Sayings from the Cross (Canterbury Press, Norwich 2021. 74pp: £10.99) by Guli Francis-Dehqani is strikingly different from other books on Jesus’ last seven ‘words’, for the new Bishop of Chelmsford is writing from her experience of having to flee with her parents from Iran at the age of fourteen after her brother had been murdered. It is within the context of her own story that she approaches the Cross. Borrowing words from Annette Simmons, she writes, “My hope is that by talking about my stories, you will start thinking about your stories….. Go tell your story; the world needs it”. Although there were times when I questioned some of her exegesis, I was nonetheless overwhelmed by the potency of her exposition. Thus commenting on Jesus’ prayer, “Father forgive”, she writes from within her own experience of pain: “Forgiveness is less a point of arrival at some clearly defined destination and more of a messy voyage – the ultimate expedition – and undertaken in faith, knowing that we may stumble, fall and fail over and over again”. Within the context of her brother’s murder, she makes a point which had never occurred to me before: “The loss caused us terrible pain, but was it our role to forgive his murderers? Did we even have the right to do this on his behalf? Moreover, is forgiveness ever ours to offer, or does it belong to God? Neither St Stephen as he was being stoned, nor Jesus from the cross, said ‘I forgive’. Their cry is ‘Father, forgive….’”. I was also struck by her unusual exposition of the words of Jesus to Mary and then to John, “Here is your son… here is your mother” which she interprets in terms of identity: “Jesus loosens the bonds of their familial ties, lightens the weight of their histories and eases the stranglehold of the stories that had brought each of them to this place. He gives permission for a new future and points them towards a new way of belonging….. less concerned with tradition and history and individuality and more concerned with exploration, connectedness and community.” These reflections contain so much on which we may and indeed should ponder. I warmly commend this book not just to ministers but to any follower of Jesus.
Seven Ways to Pray: Time-tested practices for encountering God (Form/SPCK, London 2021. 176pp: £10.99) by Amy Boucher Pye, an American retreat leader and spiritual director who is now based in London, is a simple guide to prayer, drawing upon the traditional Christian prayer practices. A key part of each chapter are the prayer exercises.
A Great Place to Grow Old: Re-imagining Ministry among Older People (DLT, London 2021. 176pp: £12.99) by Tina English, founder of Embracing Age, is a thoughtful but practical guide to working amongst seniors. Bearing in mind that by 2030 it is predicted that 45% of churchgoers will be over 65, it should be essential reading for every local church minister. I liked the challenge the author presents in the very first chapter: “Discipleship is a lifelong process, with new challenges presented to us at each stage of life…How do we journey with people through these latter years in a way that encourages them to live and experience later life in all its fulness”. The book is a great resource and abounds in ideas and insights. In terms of evangelism, for instance, I learnt that one church, instead of doing an Alpha course for seniors, developed a four week series of ‘Hymns We Love’ to share the gospel: ‘How Great Thou Art’ explores the wonder of the creator God; ‘Rock of Ages’ is an opportunity to talk about the death of Jesus; ‘Amazing Grace’ is the theme for week three, and ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ unpacks God’s promise to be with us when times are hard.
The key question underlying Just Leadership: Putting Integrity and justice at the heart of how you lead (SPCK, London 2021. 240pp: £12.99) by Simon Barrington, a director of a leadership consultancy, and Justin Humphreys, the chief executive of a safeguarding charity, is not ‘What just causes should I choose to champion and fight for?’ but ‘How can I become the type of leader who can be used by God to tackle these injustices?’ The book sets out a model of leadership that has justice and fairness right at its heart. Written during the recent lockdown and recovery from the pandemic, its focus is on the inequalities in society and is full of passion and insight. Its weakness is that neither author appears to have had experience of leading a local church – significantly many of those endorsing the book are engaged in campaigning organisations of one kind or another. Little is said about how just leadership might impact the life of the ordinary minister in a local church.
Re-Membering the Body: The witness of history, theology, and the arts in honour of Ruth Gouldbourne (Pickwick/Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon 2021. 188pp: £18) edited by Anthony Cross & Brian Haymes, is a collection of 15 essays honouring a gifted Baptist minister who was one of my former students! Two essays stood out for me. The first, ‘”Spend and be spent”: the nature of the ministry’ by the late Anthony Cross highlighted includes some challenging words from Maurice West given to the author at his ordination: “The scars of the ministry are the signs of the faithful minister”. The second, ‘Pastoral Prayer’ by Brian Haymes underlines the key pastoral role ministers have in leading their people in prayer – alas, in many Baptist churches today the pastoral prayer has disappeared, and even where present is not given the preparation that is its due.
Unveiled: Women of the Old Testament and the Choices They Made (BRF, Abingdon 2021. £12.99: 223pp) by Clare Haynes, chaplain at Christ Church, Oxford, is a stimulating collection of reflections on 40 women in the Old Testament, with sections on mothers, prophetic women, ‘Hesed’, strident women, and bad girls.
The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries grow in size. My old commentary on Romans by F.F. Bruce published in 1963 is 288pp in length. By contrast, Romans (IVP, London 2021. 490pp: £19.99) by David Garland of Baylor University is almost double the length; Bruce’s bibliography was a mere 4 pages, whereas Garland’s runs to 35 pages! Paul’s Letter to the Romans can be hard graft, but I enjoyed the light touch of Garland’s scholarship. For instance, commenting on Romans 5.12-21 Garland writes: “Humans are born into a world where a sea of collective sinfulness encircles and engulfs them History exposes the truth that humans all share a dark side – a predisposition to do wrong and to invent new ways of destroying the lives of others and themselves.” It is a good commentary for preachers.
We Believe: Exploring the Nicene Faith (Apollos, London 2021. 307pp: £15.99) by Alexander Irving, who teaches theology at the East Midlands branch of St Mellitus College, is essentially a student textbook, which sets the Nicene-Constantinopilitan Creed of AD 381 in its historical and theological contexts, and connects its theology to some areas of contemporary theological inquiry. To Evangelicals who belong to non-liturgical churches and are not in the habit of reciting the Creed in Sunday worship, Irving makes the helpful point that the Reformation was not about Scripture verses tradition – rather it was about “what really constitutes tradition and how it should be held in relation to Scripture”.
Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How changes in climate drive religious upheaval (Oxford University Press, 2021. 257pp: £22.99 hardback) by Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, draws out the complex relationship between religion and climate change. Much of the focus is on the years around 1320, 1570, 1680 and 1740, when as a result of the climate significantly cooling life became disastrous for many – this in turn had a significant impact on church life: for instance, Philip Jenkins believes that there is a clear relationship between the New Awakening in the USA and the ‘Little Ice Age’ of 1739-1742. Today we are facing not a cooling but a warming world: Philip Jenkins argues that in such circumstances we should expect “a powerful thirst for religious explanations of the disasters , and a fresh openness to apocalyptic and millenarian preaching”, not least in tropical countries where faith is already vibrant. “God is far from dead, and He may yet return with faces that are comforting to his followers, but which outsiders might find stern and even terrifying”. It is a truly thought-provoking approach to climate change.
Return from a Distant Country (DLT, London 2021. 92pp: £8.99) by Alister McGrath, professor of science and religion at Oxford, is part of a new series of small books entitled ‘My Theology’ in which distinguished Christian thinkers explain some of the principal tenets of their theology. McGrath, who debated with Dawkins, has quite a story to tell about his involvement in Christian apologetics. He also has written a number of guides to Christian theology, where his role was akin to the householder in Matt 13.52 who brought out of his treasure chest things new and old.
Autistic Thinking in the Life of the Church (SCM, London 2021. 178pp: £19.99) by Stewart Rapley, who at the age of 51 was diagnosed as autistic, is based not just on his experience but also upon research amongst autistic worshippers. This is an important book because with 1% of the UK population directly impacted by autism, this means that in many churches at least one or more of their people are likely to be on the autistic spectrum. Church leaders need to understand how their churches can become more autistic-friendly. For instance, because people on the autism spectrum tend to find relationships difficult, they prefer to conceive of prayer as coming into God’s presence rather than ‘talking to God’. For the same reason, it is not helpful if church life centres around meetings, because meetings can be difficult for autistic people to navigate successfully. Insights abound – and in particular there is a helpful chapter entitled ‘Implementing the engagement module’.
As one whose wife in her role as a senior coroner specialised in disaster victim identification – whether it was the Brits caught up in the bombings of Sharm El Sheik or the 39 Vietnamese whose bodies were found in the back of a lorry in Tilbury, I read with interest Trauma and Pastoral Care: A Ministry Handbook (Canterbury Press, Norwich 2021. 208pp: £18.99) by Carla Grosch-Miller, an American minister now living in the UK. Divided into three parts, she deals with the traumatized individual; then with collective trauma; and finally with the changing story of life and faith and how individuals and communities can find recovery and resilience. She writes: “To be human is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be able to be wounded (from the Latin vulnus – wound). We always need one another, but when we are wounded the need is even greater.” Inevitably the impact of Covid is frequently mentioned. However, as the author recognises, trauma comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, such as natural disasters, acts of violence, betrayals of trust and church closure. It also includes death – whether the death of a child or the death of a prominent figure in the church. Ministers will find this a useful reference book, helped all the more by a good index.
I have the greatest respect for Ian Stackhouse, the senior minister of Guildford Baptist Church (‘Millmead’), and have greatly benefitted from his previous books. However, I struggle with the basic premise of In Praise of Dissent: Nonconformity in a Time of Covid (Amazon 2021. 73pp: £7.99) in which he argues that churches in the UK should have protested against the national lockdown following the outbreak of Covid rather than conforming to the regulations of a secular state which prevented families and churches from meeting and banned congregational singing. “To trade freedom for safety; to allow the State to determine when we meet; to not push back for the sake of worship, is in fact to accept that Christian faith is just a private affair, nothing more than a leisure activity”. In his view, for the vast majority of people Covid was not life-threatening – he maintains that the figures for infections and death lack “any academic rigour”. I am not convinced by this argument. Had there been no lockdown, a totally unacceptable number of our fellow citizens would have died, for at the time there were no vaccines available. Even so the number of those who did die, despite the lockdown, were more than double the number of all those who died in the Chernobyl nuclear accident. However, let me not be totally negative: I found his chapter ‘On the difference between Black Lives Matter and Martin Luther King’ illuminating: as he says, “Whereas King focused on reconciliation and imagined a ‘colour blind’ world, the progressives of our own day are so focused on white supremacy and black grievance that even the term ‘colour blindness’ is deemed a form of racism”.
The Bond of Peace: Exploring Generous Orthodoxy (SPCK, London 2021. 190pp: £25) edited by Graham Tomlin & Nathan Eddy is a collection of thirteen essays by distinguished British & American theologians who explore how the phrase ‘generous orthodoxy might help the Church develop new ways of addressing diversity in worship, ecclesiology and evangelism. I particularly enjoyed the essay by Tom Greggs, a Methodist based at Aberdeen university, who rightly argues that too often the ecumenism’s call to be one comes to be understood as the call to be the same.
A thoughtful Roman Catholic friend and former GP, Gervase Vernon, is the author of Looking at God, Looking at Me (Available on Amazon, 2021. 188pp: £9). The title is an old description of prayer and is taken from one of Ignatius spiritual exercises, although the book is not about prayer, but “about God and me”. It consists of 83 essays of varying length. It is a book to be dipped into, rather than to be read from cover to cover, Although it will appeal primarily to the author’s friends, this collection of essays and mediations forms a useful template for others to reflect on themselves and their understanding and experience of God.
As part of their centennial celebrations, the Bible Reading Fellowship have published The BRF Book of 365 Bible Reflections (BRF Abingdon 1922. 414pp: £15 hardback) edited by Olivia Warburton & Karen Laister. It consists of a year’s worth of devotional readings with contributions from BRF authors, supporters and well-wishers. It is not a through-the-year devotional in the traditional sense. The reflections are not dated and are ordered thematically in four main sections: Journeying through the Bible; Journeying through the Christian year; Together through the generations; and How should we live. It has an excellent index to the Scripture passages on which the reflections are based. I warmly commend this book (although I have to declare that I am one of the contributors!) and look forward to using it myself in the coming year.
I have mixed feelings about Where The Light Fell: A Memoir (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2021. 302pp: £16.99) by the American Christian author, Philip Yancey. It tells the story of how extreme fundamentalism, of a kind rarely seen in the UK, destroyed a family. Not surprisingly Philip Yancey’s brother rebelled against God. Yet although Yancey rebelled against fundamentalism, he never gave up on God. Toward the end of his story, he writes: “In the churches of my youth, we sang about God’s grace, and yet I seldom felt it. I saw God as a stern taskmaster, eager to condemn and punish. I have come to know instead a God of love and beauty who longs for our wholeness. I assumed that surrender to God would involve a kind of shrinking – avoiding temptation, grimly focusing on the ‘spiritual’ things while I prepared for the afterlife. On the contrary, God’s good world presented itself as a gift to enjoy with grace-healed eyes”. For this reflection alone, this memoir is worth reading.
As a follow up to his Easter Story for families to share: readings, questions, activities & prayers, Martyn Payne has produced in a similar format The Christmas Story for families to share: readings, questions, activities and prayers (BRF, Abingdon 2021. 30pp: £2.50). This again is a superb resource. As I said of The Easter Story, If I were still a minister of a local church, I would ensure that every family in my church received a copy!
The Story of Christmas (SPCK, London 2021. £6.99) by Alexa Tewkesbury & illustrated by Dani Padron is an attractive retelling of the Christmas story. The Christmas Star (SPCK, London 2021. £6.99) by Hilary Robinson & illustrated by Ciara Ni Dhuinn, is an imaginative tale of how the smallest star volunteers for the task of leading travellers to the birthplace of Jesus, ending up with the punchline “And just as angels had faith in that start, which fulfilled its part, likewise those who have faith in God find love in the star of their heart”! Both books would appeal to young children.
For adults with an interest in art The Art of Christmas: Meditations on the Birth of Jesus (SPCK, London 2021.114pp: £9.99) by theologian Jane Williams would make a super Christmas gift, for her thoughtful reflections on twenty major paintings help to deepen our wonder of the Christmas story.
Recent booklets from Grove of Cambridge, all 28pp and costing £3.95, include Climate Action as Mission: How to link the Gospel with Safeguarding Creation (Mission/Evangelism 134, 2021) by Grace Thomas & Mark Coleman argues not only that climate action is mission, but also that it involves political activism in which churches engage with groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Christian Climate Action in transforming unjust structures that have led to climate inaction and denial – in the light of their track record in causing mayhem and distress on motorways I have major reservations! Dreams: Interpreting what God says while we sleep (Spirituality 157, 2021) by Daniel Miles argues that God continues to speak to his people through dreams and that churches should offer space for people to share their dreams, which would allow for the development of discernment to “distinguish between spiritual dreams and mind dreams” – I confess this is beyond my experience.