book reviews

THE REASON FOR GOD

Belief in an Age of Scepticism Timothy Keller

Hodder & Stoughton, hbk, 295pp 9780340979327, 12.99

Where do we get more ammunition to counter the new aggressive tide of atheist publications? From America? Until picking up this book, I had tended to doubt that American Christian apologetics would be of any use to me as so much of it seems to be as aggressive and mindless as the atheists!

I am grateful to the friend who gave me The Reason for God believing it would do my intellectual grasp of Christianity good. It did.

As the cover says, 'Keller mines material from literary classics, philosophy, anthropology and a multitude of other disciplines to make an intellectually compelling case for God! I found it a refreshing read, drawing on some wells that I have not found before, and from a pastoral context. Not many pastors can write at such intellectual depth while presiding over a large growing inner city church. 

Drawing enormously on C.S. Lewis - the book is something of a refresher of Lewis' main apologetic lines - Keller sets forth a metaphysical priority. 'If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn't stopped evil and suffering in the world...you have...a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can't know... you can't have it both ways!

In Lewis' words, 'Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn...agony into a glory! The whole dynamic of Christian endeavour for justice is related by Tim Keller to an out-of-this-world hope brought by a God yearning for his creation to 'step into his joy!

 Keller attempts a middle way between relativists and rationalists, those who deny absolute truth and those who want it in their pockets. He is quite successful in calling the bluff of those whose 'confidence we can control the physical environment has spilled over, so we now think we can control the metaphysical realm as well.

It seems to our minds unfair, therefore, that we should determine that it is all right to have sex outside marriage and later discover that there is a God who is going to punish us for that! If Christianity is a straitjacket, as some say, it is no more so than the harnessing of energies in a concert pianist determined to excel who must spend much of her time in practice. The commandments of God are liberating restrictions, helping us excel as we become what we are meant to become.

N.T. Wright is brought in to fight the corner of the resurrection, seen as the keystone of Christian apologetics. Belief that there is nothing after death is shown up as the main source of demoralization for humanity in our age. 'Why sacrifice for the needs of others if in the end nothing we do will make any difference? If the resurrection of Jesus happened, however, that means there's infinite hope and reason to pour ourselves out for the needs of the world.'

The book throws out a number of provocative lines useful in discussion. Would the civil rights movement have emerged from secular belief in the goodness of human nature rather than conviction of the sinfulness of human hearts? Doesn't evolution, a helpful scientific tool in the form of natural selection, become a problem when adopted as an all-encompassing philosophy?

If the New Testament were made up, why didn't the authors get Jesus to rule on the circumcision of Christians rather than say nothing about the issue that so divided his followers? As I read The Reason for God I found myself storing these and other lines for my next interrogation in the gym or the pub about whether what I have given my life for has reason to it.

John Twisleton

 

 

RESCUING DARWIN

God and evolution in Britain today Nick Spencer and Denis Alexander

Theos, 70pp, pbk

978 0 95554453 5 4, 10

10 is a bit steep for a slim, report-style paperback, until you grasp that this is a report, of a wider project including a survey conducted by a religious think-tank. Indeed if you simply want the text, you can find it at <theosthinktank.co.uk> for free. I am sorry it is not a popular paperback, because it is easy to read, and one of the best responses to the current fuss over Darwinism.

It is refreshingly encouraging for theists. It revisits the history of Darwin's work and its reception in Victorian England, showing for example how the standard interpretation of the Oxford debate in 1860 between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas 'Darwin's Bulldog' Huxley is largely the result of the latter's highly successful spin, that one noted naturalist was de-converted from Darwinism by the Bishop's arguments, and that it was not the simplistic triumph over religion it has come to be remembered for.

I am sure that I ought to read a more thorough treatment of the Victorian response to Darwin's work, but the fact remains that I am unlikely to; this gave me a clear but convincing summary of the key facts, including the truth that most of the early enthusiasts were devout Christians, and not just in Britain but in America as well.

It is clear that the divide between science and religion that Darwinism has come to represent is largely the result of a deliberate desire by atheists and secularists to see it as such, reinforced in our own time by an equally strong desire by some Christians and increasingly many Muslims to maintain the irreducible antagonism. Like so many intellectual and religious contests, it is maintained because too many people have a vested interest in keeping it going. While this may be depressing in the short term, it gives hope for the long term, and rather undermines the confidence of those atheists who maintain that Darwin will see them attain total victory some time in the future - not so.

Much of their work is in the analysis of a survey undertaken of peoples attitudes in Britain. That a quarter of the population believe either in Young Earth Creation-ism or Intelligent Design, and the same number remain uncertain about evolution (that's 20 million adults) is surely surprising, when there seems (unlike America) so little cultural basis for it. Antagonism to science is hardly sufficient justification for such a huge proportion rejecting, or at least unwilling to accept one of its most powerful and persuasive theories.

The authors focus on Herbert Spencer (who coined the odious phrase 'the survival of the fittest') and the rise of social Darwinism, as well as its later transformation into fascism as the start of what one might call the moral rejection of Darwinism - forget the science, simply turn your back on this inhuman creed. They also show, convincingly, how this Darwinism Plus, this subtle attempt to push his theory beyond the realm of mere science, is still a major force even now. I think they were a little too kind to Richard 'Selfish Gene' Dawkins, but they were probably right not to focus too much on his clever (but stupid) writing: he has become something of an atheist martyr, when in fact there are plenty more using the science for their own philosophical ends. If this moral rejection of evolution is the basis for why so many otherwise intelligent people reject what is promoted as a triumph of science, who can say that they are wrong? It is not Darwin they are rejecting, so much as his more loathsome children.

John Turnbull

 

TWO WORLDS

Notes on the death of Modernity in America and Russia

Thomas C. Oden

IVP, 176pp, pbk,

978 0830817634, 10.99

Russia and America differ in many obvious ways, but this book is worth reading for what Oden defines as The Mod Rot, the unhappy aroma of dying modernity. He dates the modern period from 1789, the French Revolution, to 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall. His thesis is that in both societies Enlightenment optimism, scientism and hedonism are decaying, and this finds expression in a mod rot penetrating all political barriers and economic histories.

His reflections result from visiting Russia at the invitation of the former Department for Atheism to lecture on Christianity. He sees in these two worlds a perishing modernity and an emerging post-modernity His concern is to demonstrate how classical Christianity can endure and maintain its perennial appeal.

The name-change from Department of Atheism to Department of Scientific and Historical Study of Religion and Free-thinking, is more than cosmetic, in ceasing to be an agent of atheistic ideology and becoming akin to what in the West is a comparative study of religion. Like America, Russia suffers from the rapidly deteriorating assumptions of modernity and no longer actively resists religion but is looking for ways 'to incorporate the vitality of religious understandings and communities and sacramental life into its common ethos.'

They are interested in understanding the decades of theological experience denied them and how to appropriate the religious experience of the West in ways that pertain to their current moral, economic and social dilemmas. They want more than a purely speculative or conceptual ideology, being prompted by life rather than mere thought, the experience of being denied religious faith and theological discourse. They found Oden's description of modernity, the emergence of post-modern consciousness, and the vitality of orthodox Christianity within post-modern consciousness, a plausible and an accurate reflection of many analogous aspects of their own experience.

The contact between the Russians and Oden was his evangelical-patristic vocation. The Fathers have been fundamental to the religious consciousness of Russia for a thousand years, giving the Russians a point of contact between vital post-modern Western consciousness and the writings of the Eastern Church Fathers. With atheism now Tike a ghost of an issue', they want to know about the methods of theological inquiryin the US and were intensely interested in Christian belief, though none were explicitly Christian believers.

For Oden modernity began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As an ideological worldview filled with the humanistic ethics, scientific values and idealistic hopes of the Enlightenment it has dominated the modern university, media and Church. It is a languishing social malady within the world-view in East and West and from 1960-90 has been in relentless disarray. The malaise is acute in America and chronic in Russia.

He identifies four motifs that flow together into an ethos that epitomises decadent modernity. There is the reductive naturalism of Freud no longer viable as therapy, the historical uto-pianism of Marx now in a cynical phase of collapse, the narcissistic assertiveness of Nietzsche killing itself on Los Angeles streets and the modern chauvinism of Strauss, Troeltsch and Bultmann which exalts the ethos of late modernity itself to a norm that judges all pre-modern texts and ideas. This ethos 'still sentimentally shapes the knowledge elites of American universities, who remain largely unprepared to grasp fully their own vulnerability within this historical situation.'

It is in this post-modern situation that Jews and Christians are beginning to rediscover in ancient texts long-ignored, classical Jewish and Christian teaching. For Christians this means the Eastern Church Fathers of the first five centuries. It is a return to the sacred texts of early Christian Scripture and the exegetical guides of the formative period of its canonisation and interpretation. Those who gave definitive form to the ecumenical interpretation of these texts are the patristic writers, four in the East (Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and John Chrysostom) and four in the West (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great).

It remains possible within the premises of post-modern consciousness to engage in an objective, fair-minded, scientific study of all this religious testimony and experience, which includes taking seriously the prayers, sacred texts, liturgies and spiritual disciplines that have emerged out of the worship of God. For these are historical concretions of man's consciousness of God. The disagreements will come about the attempted descriptions of what has been passing away, what is coming to be and how Christian orthodoxy and catholicity relate to both. For Oden the world that is passing away is a world dominated by the failed ideas of autonomous individualism, narcissistic hedonism, reductive naturalism, and absolute moral relativism and which he terms modernity.

Arthur Middleton

 

 

THROUGH JULIAN'S WINDOWS

Growing into Wholeness with Julian of Norwich Elizabeth Ruth Obbard Canterbury Press, 113pp, pbk 978 185311 903 3, 7.99

Sister Elizabeth is a Carmelite hermit and the author of numerous books. The prologue describes Julian as 'a woman of yesterday for today', and describes activity in I her cell or single room that was situated on the side of St Julian's Church in the commercial district of Norwich. Hence the theme Through Julian's Windows, for it had three windows; one looking on to the sanctuary of the church, one which was her point of communication with a domestic help, and one covered with a black curtain on which was a white cross, this being the window where people came for counselling. So it describes the spirituality of the Revelations and their implications for her vision.

Five chapters follow. The first, A Window on to History', explores the biblical and historical expressions of the hermit life. Secondly, 'Wounds as Windows into God and the Self explains the significance of Julian's request for three wounds. The third chapter discusses 'Julian's Window on to Everyday Life and the Wound of Contrition'. Fourthly, 'Julian's Window of Welcome and the Wound of Compassion' articulates the place of compassion in love, listening and prayer. The fifth and last chapter, 'Julians Window on to the Sanctuary and the Wound of Longing', is about the lifelong, all-consuming longing and desire for God.

An epilogue, entitled 'A Personal Odyssey', explores the author's own desire for and experience of the hermit life. There is a useful bibliography.

'This engaging volume explores the very modern understanding Julian of Norwich had of the need for balance to keep our spiritual lives healthy and productive. Exemplified by the three windows in her cell - one representing adoration and love for God, one the service of others, one the importance recognising one's own limitations and need of support - here is profound wisdom tempered by the practical realities of day-today living.'

This book is a readable and practical insight into Julian of Norwich and the implications of her Revelations for our own human and spiritual growth.

Arthur Middleton

 

 

BOOK NOTES WAGNER AND THE WAGNERITES

The music of Richard Wagner remains an acquired taste. It was one acquired by Adolf Hitler and there is a case to be made that he was shaped more by Wagner's music than by the books in his library, which he may or may not have read, about which I wrote last month. There remains a decided reluctance to play Wagner's music in Israel. The problem could be that we see Wagner's music through the prism of its subsequent history. But Wagner was controversial enough in his own lifetime and not merely for the revolution he wrought in music.

He wrote, originally anonymously, a tract in which he attacked the music of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, two Jewish contemporaries and, therefore to Wagner, rivals. He accused them and Jews more generally as an alien and corrupting influence on German culture and the arts. Their interest was mainly in the making of music rather than in the creation of works of art. His anti-Jewish animus cannot be ignored. The question is, does it infect his music?

His greatest opera (in my view) Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is an intense paean to German culture and the German nation and could be read as an epitome of the Aryan spirit. There have been suggestions that Beckmesser is a cruel Jewish representation but there is no indication of that in the libretto, nor in surrounding literary evidence. And it is possible to argue that the music transcends its creator's personal failings.

As a devotee of the Ring Cycle and Die Meistersinger, I can hear the music without the background din but there can be little doubt that Wagner himself sounds dreadful. Against this background, it is little surprise that the family in its several generations following his death has proved highly dysfunctional and disputatious. The Wagner Clan by Jonathan Carr [Faber and Faber, 12.99] catalogues and details its remorseless disintegration, rows, splits and reconciliations over some four generations. And still it goes on. There is a change in family control pending and the factions are setting out their stalls and their claims.

When Wagner died in 1883, his wife Cosima took control of the family and the opera business and directed the heritage and guarded the sacred flame with a grim and determined tenacity. She was the daughter of Franz Liszt and had been married to the conductor Hans von Billow before she met Wagner, himself married. They lived together and had three children, Isolde, Eva and Siegfried, before they married in 1870. Wagner was twenty-four years older than her and she survived his death by thirty-one years, dying in 1930.

After her death Siegfried took over the family business and after his death his widow Winifred succeeded and then passed on to her son Wieland, when she was prohibited for her Nazi associations from running the Festival by the Allies. He in turn was succeeded by his brother Wolfgang (are you still with me?) and there was in the past few years a struggle for the succession when he gave up the directorship. Eventually in 2008 his daughters Eva Wag-ner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner were named as his successors, having overcome a bid by two cousins for the position.

It is a family saga worthy of The Ring itself. The pursuit of power, the complexities of family rivalries, the rise and fall of dynasties, the toxic unpleasantness of some of the characters, the intrigues of love and lust make it as compelling a family saga as Wagner's masterpiece. Jonathan Carr's book charts all this and keeps admirable control of the cast of characters and the tangled web they wove. They had to deal with what he rightly calls 'a glorious but poisoned' chalice and heritage. But we have the music. For this, the best read of all remains The Perfect Wag-nerite by George Bernard Shaw. Read that and listen to the music.

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