Originally intended to appear in September, but then pushed back a couple of weeks by, ‘Prayers as we approach the Funeral of her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’, this review of books fittingly comes out on the day when the Church of England in its Lectionary celebrates ‘William Tyndale, translator, martyr 1536’.
The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the wisdom of tradition in an age of chaos (Hodder, London 2022. 299pp: £12.99) by Sohrab Ahmari, born in Iran, now living in the USA, where he converted to Christianity and became a Roman Catholic, is essentially an attack on “the Western dream of autonomy and choice without limits”. Significantly, Ahmari named his son, Maximillian, after Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Catholic priest who died at the hands of the Nazis: “Kolbe climbed the very summit of human freedom. He climbed it… by binding himself to the Cross, by denying and overcoming, with intense spiritual resolve, his natural instinct to survive”. Divided into two parts, Part 1 addresses six questions relating to God: How do you justify your life? Is God reasonable? Why would God want you to take a day off? Can you be spiritual without being religious? Does God respect you? Does God need politics. Part 2 addresses a further six questions relating to humankind: How must you serve your parents? Should you think for yourself? What is freedom for? Is sex a private matter? What do you owe your body? What’s good about death? Here are some great topics for preachers to address – and to draw upon this book as a fascinating resource.
Repackaging Christianity: Alpha and the Building of a Global Brand (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2022. 308pp: £22 hardback) by Andrew Atherstone, a research fellow at Oxford’s Wycliffe Hall, is a largely uncritical account of the extraordinary growth of Alpha. By the end of 2021 almost 30 million people had participated in Alpha courses. However, although as a local church minister I was involved in running Alpha courses for many years, I had my theological reservations. As a result, Nicky Gumbel invited me to be his guest at an Alpha conference – but my reservations were not allayed, for at every session there was always mention of the blessing of ‘tongues’. Nicky Gumbel commented that my reservations revealed I was “as narrow as John Stott”! But in no way do I want to quibble. Overall, Alpha has been an enormous force for good. I was most impressed to read the chapter ‘Transforming Society’. There is no doubt that over the years Alpha has changed many of its views, even if at its core it remains the same: viz offering “an opportunity to explore Christianity, repackaged in a convivial, informal, experiential environment”. I look forward to hearing Nicky Gumbel’s plans to develop the evangelistic potential for 2033, when we shall all be celeb rating the 2000th anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus Christ!
Miles To Go Before I Sleep: Letters on hope, death and learning to live (Hodder, London 2022. 277pp: £10.99) by Claire Gilbert, begins with the statement, “I write, because I’m going to die”. Diagnosed with myeloma, an incurable cancer of the blood, the book reproduces her ‘Dear Readers’ letters written 2019-2020, which tell how her faith has enabled her to live positively with her diagnosis: “As I have discovered, there are many miles to go before that final sleep, and the miles we walk actively create meaning and the meaning is beautiful”. This honest account will be of great help to others having to walk a similar path.
First published in 1985, God of Surprises by the late Gerard Hughes, having already sold over 250,000 copies, has been republished (DLT, London 2022. 224pp: £14.99) with a superb foreword by Margaret Silf. To quote her opening introduction: “God’s surprises often wear disguises. Things that seem harmful can turn out to be very life-giving. Things that seem attractive can be dangerously seductive. Bad situations can re-route our lives in new directions. Unexpected encounters can free us from places that we hadn’t realised were prisons.” This is a book to buy – just for the foreword alone.
The Creed in Slow Motion (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2022. 294pp: £14.99) by Martin Kochanski, a Roman Catholic who graduated in mathematics & philosophy and who takes seriously Jesus’ command to love God “with all your mind”, is a stimulating commentary on the Nicene Creed. The author is convinced that “the only way to engage properly” with the Creed “is not to say it right through and all together, but to take it slowly and reflectively by oneself, phrase by phrase or even word by word”, and with this in mind he dissects the Creed into forty different statements. This would be an ideal book to take away on a retreat: it needs to be read slowly and savoured.
Emmaus: Journeying toward and onward from Emmaus (Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon. 112pp: available on Amazon £16 as paperback; £8.33 Kindle) by my friend John Weaver, a former principal of Cardiff Baptist College, and now retired, is an autobiography with a difference, for along with testimony to God’s grace there is theological reflection and Biblical exploration on how we can all experience God’s grace and calling on our lives. Although I have preached many times on the Emmaus story, nonetheless I found the author’s re-telling abounded in fresh insights. For instance, it had never occurred to me that the pattern presented by Jesus on the road to Emmaus provides a model for mission as we walk with others whom we meet in life: “Each of us has a personal story to tell – a journey of faith; of ecstasy and pain; of loneliness and of the company of others; of doubts and certainties. We must find ways of sharing these stories in our worship and fellowship together, and in the witness of our lives.” As somebody who is retired, I was inevitably interested in John Weaver’s reflections on retirement: “Retirement is a good time for a life review, considering the choices and mistakes we have made in life so far, what unfinished business there may be and what the creative possibilities are for the next stage of life”. The author is greatly inspired by Richard Rohr who in Falling Upwards suggested that “this first half-of-life task is no more than finding the starting gate. It is merely the warm-up act, not the full journey” in which we find our true identity in God. But this is not just a book for the retired: there is great wisdom for the younger generation too. This would make a great book for ministers and their lay leaders to study together, for it would revolutionise their approach to being and doing church.
First published in hardback, Where the Light Fell: A Memoir (Hodder & Stoughton. London 2022. 302pp: £10.99) by Philip Yancey has been re-published in paperback. As I said in my earlier review of the hard-back, it is a fascinating read.
I continue to be impressed by the reasonably-priced resources BRF of Abingdon provide for personal and church use. Among their latest resources are Sharing the Christmas Story: From Reading to Living the Gospel (156pp: £8.99) by Sally Welch of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. The intention behind these readings and reflections is to answer two questions: ‘What is the Christmas story really about?’ and ‘How do we share it?’. Although “they can form the basis for a weekly Advent group or provide topics for discussion at Advent lunches and suppers”- they can also be used profitably by individuals. I loved the freshness of approach. The second resource is The BRF Book of 100 Prayers: Resourcing Your Spiritual Journey (137pp: hardback £12.99) by Martin Payne, currently BRF’s Prayer Advocate. The prayers are divided into five uneven sections: Approaching God; Prayers for the Journey; Seasons of the Christian Year; Together through the Generations; and How should we live? The well-crafted prayers are often accompanied by a reflection from Martin Payne together with a well-chosen quotation. I was moved by the final sentence in the BRF Centenary prayer: “Keep us humble in your service, ambitious for your glory, and open to new opportunities”.
The NIV Journalling Bible for Creative Contemplation (John Murray with Hodder Faith 2022. 1312pp: £32.99 hardback) is illustrated by Jacqui Grace. Essentially it is a wide margin (just under 5 cms) Bible with 32 black & white illustrated pages to draw upon or even colour which will no doubt appeal to many. At the back there are brief comments on each book of the Bible together and a very short concordance
Recent publication by Grove of Cambridge, all 28pp and £3.95 each, include the following: Preaching Beyond the Pandemic: Exploring Topical Homiletics (Pastoral 170, 2022) by Marcus Throup of St Mellitus College, although a lively read now sadly feels dated, for life has moved on. Holy Communion at a Distance (Worship 251, 2022) by Ian Tarrant, Bishop of Gibraltar, explores how within the Anglican church communion has been shared remotely, and whether the development should be encouraged. On the Atonement: Examining the Debates on Christ’s Reconciling Work (Doctrine 8, 2022) by Oliver Crisp, Head of the School of Divinity in the University of St Andrew’s, is an excellent guide – I liked his concluding encouragement “to exercise care in what we say ab out Christ’s reconciling work, and to extend grace to others with whom we disagree on this topic”. Sustaining Whole-life Disciplemaking Church: Key Ingredients for Lasting Change (Discipleship 6, 2022) by Joe & Lyn Weston of LICC, encourages churches to focus on “equipping Christians to live out their faith in every aspects of life – in all kinds of workplaces, homes, hobbies, volunteering roles, family groups, and beyond”. Reading Joshua (Biblical 104, 2022) by British OT scholar John Goldingay, is a stimulating exposition, encouraging readers to set accounts of war-making within the book as a whole, and applying the message of Joshua to migration and settlement. Changing Lives, Transforming Communities: How to do Youth-fuelled Mission (Youth 67, 2022) by Matt Brown, who is the founder and national director of the Leicestershire-based Reality Youth Project and has a heart for “the last, the least, and the lost”, is packed full of ideas for youth leaders. The Christian Development Model: Spiritual Examination, Spiritual Mentoring and Discipleship (Spirituality 161, 2022) by Sue Howard, is based on her earlier PhD research, and in a way I have not seen before seeks to “provide a way for people to refocus on listening to God, and then to prioritize how their time and energy aligns with their current and spiritual context”. The booklet which most grabbed my attention was Surveillance Capitalism and the Loving Gaze of God (Ethics 206, 2022) by Mark Ireland, the Anglican archdeacon of Blackburn, who contrasts the unhealthy impact of surveillance by big tech companies with the very different surveillance of the loving gaze of God, and in the process buzzes with insights galore.
Thanks Paul again for the periodic bookreview. My only comment is on your mention of theological reservations and the conference’s blessing of ‘tongues’ in regard to Alpha courses from Repackaging Christianity by Andrew Atherstone: surely ‘tongues’ are a blessing aren’t they? Certainly individually, while there is not a lot of exercise of the gift and interpretation of tongues gift as described in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 these days!
How encouraging to know that people are thinking and writing creatively in a way that helps to keep faith alive even for people who have been steeped in Christian thinking for many decades! There seem to be some excellent ideas for groups as well as individuals there. Thanks, Paul