Book Reviews

 

INSPIRATION

David R Law

Continuum, 234pp

0 8264 5183 7, £16.99

I was in two minds when this book arrived. Would it be relaxing holiday reading or something more solid? Inspiration had always been for me a joyful and exciting experience and I expected a matching book format. Instead this book by David Law came in a hardback with a black cover and looked like a challenge. Interest, however, was restored after reading the first few pages because they showed that the book was about biblical inspiration and my recent book on St Luke had sought a renewed authority for our gospels.

Law begins with the Problem of Biblical Authority in an age when speculation has done much to erode the reliability of scripture for Christian living. Is it because it is word for word inspired by God speaking through inerrant scribes? This has been more or less the line taken by the western Church at least for most of the last eighteen hundred years and is still held by some Protestants. In this case there is little to be said except to receive the Bible humbly as an infallible book. Law shows how some Protestant theologians have defended this teaching and explained inconsistencies in the text.

The author moves on to deal with non-verbal inspiration theories and devotes most of the rest of his book to this. ‘The inspiration of the Bible, it is argued, resides in its moral and spiritual teachings’, he writes, and calls on and quotes Gore and Austin Farrer among others as witnesses. He moves on to other theologians, like existentialists Macquarrie and Heidegger and arrives at Jaspers who shows how the transcendent and beyond-Being-God inspires his Church not only by signs and symbols but also more powerfully by ciphers. This last takes some explaining and the ordinary reader may well get lost, if this has not happened already.

Despite the concentration needed, I found this a book of interesting and exciting ideas which if translated into more simple language, could lead to profitable discussions but probably not in front of the children! It was scarcely holiday reading but it kept the mind ticking over pleasantly. My concern over the years has been chiefly with the historicity of the gospels and this remains essential if the Bible and especially the gospels are to be source of unique inspiration for readers at all. Law seems to accept this.

Fr Ivan Clutterbuck writes and prays in Beckenham.

 

A SLIPPERY SLOPE?

The Ordination of Women and Homosexual Practice – a Case Study in Biblical Interpretation

RT France

Grove Books B16, 24pp, pbk

1 85174 434 7, £2.50

In 1986 from the same publisher, with whom I have sometimes been closely associated, came a study of similar length from a well-known evangelical, called Biblical Headship and the Ordination of Women. The Bible, apparently, did not mean what it seemed to say. Whether or not this was a calculated part of the softening-up process matters little now. But six years before 1992 it struck me that on the principles of exegesis used here, you could be well on the way to proving from the New Testament, if not simply anything, then at least the legitimacy of homosexual conduct and lifestyles. Do they, I wondered, know where they are taking us?

Some clearly did, and do. But those who want to slam on the brakes at this point are clearly anxious about their efficacy, with good reason; hence this booklet. Dr France, whose scholarship deserves respect, takes the beginning and the end of the Letter to the Romans in order to make his case that there is no linkage, no slope, not even the thin end of a wedge. In booklet form, this is a revision of the author’s chapter from a larger theological volume. But it is intelligibly self-contained; put simply but not unfairly, he squeezes every last ounce out of the references to women in Romans 16 (and adds a gram or two of his own), while declining to see any room for manoeuvre within or beyond the moral position of Chapter 1.

To change the metaphor again, it is a brave attempt to put one finger in the dyke while the floods pour in all around and over him, and the rest of us. Gay or liberal theologians find these distinctions incredible and his stance indefensible, and in practice it is the same people who push as hard for gay rights as they once did for women priests. The next theological and moral innovations may still be half-hidden around the corner, but it is not hard to see what they will be. We can also predict the steps in the argument, though different schools will emphasize different stages. One, the Bible doesn’t mean what we always thought it did. Two, if it does, it was OK at the time but is different for us. Three, if it’s the same for us, then it’s wrong anyway. Slippery slope? We seem to have run out of brake fluid.

Christopher Idle

 

What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Philip D Yancey

Zondervan, 292pp, pbk

0 310 21862 4, £7.99

This is a book that goes for what is distinctive about Christianity among all the other religions and philosophies of the world. It is currently a best-seller among Christian books.

‘The world can do almost anything as well as or better than the Church. You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace’ (Gordon Macdonald). Grace, we are told, ‘contains the essence of the gospel as a drop of water can contain the image of the sun’. To live open to grace is to live knowing that because of what Jesus has done for us there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, or to love us less. God’s love and forgiveness is absolutely unconditional. In Nouwen’s words, it comes from ‘a heart that is completely empty of self-seeking’. Man’s self-interest by contrast is such that most often we remain trapped in the gravitational field of self-love ‘filling up all the fissures through which grace can pass’. So it is that the Church very often comes across as judgmental.

There are many vivid tales about the way Christians are perceived. The book starts with one about a drug-addicted prostitute who rents her two-year-old daughter out for sex. On being offered contact with the Church this is her response: ‘Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’ Christians can sometimes be perceived more as moral exterminators than the gracious people of a gracious God. ‘As a gay man, I’ve found it easier for me to get sex on the streets than to get a hug in church’ is one telling comment. Christianity is perceived by some as being more full of moral demands than of the good news of unconditional love in Christ. The reputation of Christians is sometimes rather like that of the people Mark Twain described as ‘good in the worst sense of the word’.

At the same time the hunger for grace is as evident as ever in the world. The Los Angeles Apology Sound-Off Line is said to have two hundred people a day calling in to confess their faults to an answering machine. Ernest Hemingway wrote of a Spanish father who, wanting to be reconciled with his son, put an advert in a Madrid paper. ‘Paco meet me at Hotel Montana noon Tuesday. All is forgiven. Papa.’ Paco is a common name in Spanish. When the father goes to the Hotel there are eight hundred young men named Paco outside. This is a vivid illustration of the ‘ungrace’ within family life.

If the distinctiveness of Christianity is the grace of God, it should distinguish Christians above all qualities. ‘I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least’ wrote Dorothy Day. It is only those who are needy and empty-handed who can become Christians in this sense. As St Augustine says, ‘God gives where he finds empty hands.’ ‘Truly it is an evil to be full of faults, but it is a still greater evil to be full of them, and to be unwilling to recognize them’ (Pascal). ‘We cannot find him unless we know we need him’ (Thomas Merton).

Some have said that Christians’ concern for the next world makes them poor citizens of this world. The thrust of this book is to dispute this. Philip Yancey issues a grand reminder that it is those most conscious of another world and the supernatural enfolding and empowering of grace that become most effective as Christians and as citizens. They issue the ‘aroma’ St Paul speaks of which both spices and sweetens the world.

The Revd Dr John F Twisleton is Chichester Diocesan Mission and Renewal Adviser.

 

THE WORK OF LOVE – Creation as Kenosis

Edited by John Polkinghorne

SPCK, 230pp, pbk

0 8028 4885 0, £14.99

The book is the outcome of the meeting of an interdisciplinary group of scholars in Cambridge under the auspices of the John Templeton Foundation in 1998 to discuss ‘kenotic views of creation’. The subject was inspired by the various writings of Jürgen Moltmann and, especially, WH Vanstone’s classic Love’s Endeavour Love’s Expense; sadly Vanstone died before the group’s second meeting the following year, and it is to his memory that the present volume is dedicated. Each chapter is prefaced by a quotation from his book. The group is made up of scientists and systematic theologians with the numerical balance in favour of the latter.

Ian Barbour questions the notion of divine omnipotence as traditionally understood, and seeks to reinterpret it in terms of the process theology of Charles Hartshorne and AN Whitehead which has much in common with kenotic theology of creation. Arthur Peacocke suggests a possible resolution of the problem of reconciling biological evolution with God’s creative activity. Holmes Rolston questions the myth of the ‘selfish gene’, and adumbrates possible biological processes leading towards altruistic and, ultimately, ethical behaviour. Malcolm Jeeves investigates the nature of a self which might be said to be emptied in kenosis. This involves discussions of personhood, freedom and determinism, and the distinction between altruism and kenotic love. In terms of cosmological physics, Polkinghorne seeks to understand the relationship between love and divine power in the creative process. This will involve a re-evaluation of omnipotence, eternity, omniscience and causality – but not special providence or novelty. George Ellis treats kenosis as the theme which unites life and cosmology, ‘Whoever loses his life will save it’, and vice versa. The incarnation instances, by way of a human example, God’s loving action in the cosmos.

Michael Welker describes the different aspects of love, romantic, covenantal, and kenotic and discusses the creative power love. Moltmann outlines Jewish and Christian kenotic theology. This latter, as also for Hans Urs von Balthasar, is grounded in the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead and governs God’s presence and activity in the cosmos. Creation is an act of divine self-definition; self-contraction to make space for the world; and, hence, self-humiliation. Keith Ward begins by tracing the history of kenosis in (more recent) Christian thought. By contrast with ‘classical theism’ the lesson of kenosis is a moral one. ‘It does not speak of the renunciation of ontological powers but of a way of exercising these powers in love.’ Paul Fiddes develops the notion of creative love particularly, and possibly controversially, with reference to the ‘needs’ of love which lend it the persuasiveness and attractiveness which (to quote Dante) ‘moves the sun and the other stars’. Fiddes owes much to Thomas Traherne and Julian of Norwich. Sarah Coakley reviews the different senses of the words kenosis/kenotic as used by the previous contributors. If the terms are really so elastic, one wonders how far they can be helpful or useful. She goes on to issue a warning that even kenotic theology may not be immune from insidious gender connotations; most ironic, when we might have thought that we had laid the stern and domineering patriarch to rest!

This collection of essays marks an important stage in the on-going ‘Debate about God’, as theologians seek to respond to the new challenges presented by physics, biology, psychology and sociology. If classical theism needs to be qualified by the biblical story of a moral, passionate and dynamic deity, kenotic theology also needs to be corrected by some kind of reaffirmation of the classical truths to preserve it from the anthropomorphism and the pantheism to which process theology may sometimes be prone. To be fair the contributors to this volume, Polkinghorne, Ward and Coakley, in particular, are concerned not to lose sight of the divine transcendence . ‘I am what I am’, or ‘I will be what I will be’.

This collection deserves an important place on the reading lists of our numerous training courses – for ordination, post- ordination, Readership, and also the more advanced lay-training enterprises. The humbler creation may well stay with Vanstone, and be no less edified.

Hugh Bates is a retired priest living in the Diocese of York.

 

THE MESSAGE OF EZEKIEL

Christopher J H Wright

IVP, 368pp, pbk

0 85111 548 9, £9.99

If the interpreter of Ezekiel must be a careful scholar with a gift for communication and a heart for Christian mission, IVP has assigned this one wisely. It also says something for the people of Israel that they made room among their sacred scrolls for 48 chapters from a priest who never made it. He became instead a crazy loner with bad news, insulting sermons, offensive stories, obsessive detail, and a series of dumb-shows put on from a dim corner of his tiny refugee hut. Yet this was the man by whom God spoke, for them and for us.

I put it that way because that is how the commentary is written: snappy titles, homely illustrations, and imaginative reconstructions. If you distrust these, then what do you think Ezekiel was doing tied with ropes, lying on his side, not saying a word for months on end? Dr Wright’s account of the audience is speculative, but his scene-painting is rarely more weird than either a woodenly literal reading or a complete rewriting of the book. Sometimes the cartoon-style, TV allusions and jokey asides (which rapidly date) are overdone. But, in line with the series aims, the contemporary applications are strong. Prophetic denunciations of Tyre or Moab have more mileage than we thought; such powers are with us still, sometimes with surprising names.

Ezekiel does not appear much in the Revised Common Lectionary; still less in the sermon. But if we are to understand the famous purple passages, we have to see his book and his calling whole. Only when we get down among the refugee huts by the Kebar Canal can we fully grasp the longing for a resurrection, a new heart and a new temple. Chris Wright is a useful guide on this painful, fruitful, ugly, beautiful journey; he shows how the prophet loves his Pentateuch, and how Christ and the apostles love him. He is helpful on the structure of the book, good on watchmen and personal accountability, graphic on the prophet’s own bereavement, clear on his apparently misfiring forecasts. In his own way he warns us, as the prophet might have warned Israel, that ‘The word of God is not a blank cheque to be filled in to the recipient’s benefit, nor a draft discussion document awaiting the input of various focus-groups’.

I have some regrets. There are some odd numerical misprints (pp308, 360, 362) and ‘horrendous’ used half a dozen times is six too many. More seriously, if ‘ethnic cleansing’ is as obnoxious as p281 says, it should not be used at all without serious qualification. It is also irritating to hear so relentlessly about the tribal deity ‘Yahweh’. He even lets slip, ‘to Yahweh, not to other national gods’ (p234). This word, never used in the New Testament, entirely fails to represent to us what the original ‘I AM’ conveyed to a reverent Hebrew. Chattiness descends to triviality when we join Ezekiel’s ‘day-trips’ with his ‘tour guide’, or ‘Yahweh blowing the final whistle after a greatly extended period of injury-time.’

In a fine range of ‘Select Bibliography’, Wright leans heavily on Allen and Block. If Greenhill and Fairbairn have fallen into oblivion, some of us will still sneak a look from time to time, while also appreciating the freshness, wisdom, vision and frequent passion of this book. Final tip: start on page 17; no later but no earlier. CI

 

THE SAINTS OF CORNWALL

Catherine Rachel John

Tabb House, 150pp, pbk

1 873951 39 6, £9.99

The great charm of local publishing lies in its quirkiness. What first comes across as haphazard or inadequate editing can sometimes (though this is by no means guaranteed) offer a perspective that would have been missed by a more sophisticated publisher. This paperback offers an introduction to the multitude of early and obscure saints from the Celtic fringe: the lack of dates is annoying and would certainly have been corrected by a London editor, and yet the sense of history is powerfully and sympathetically put across. There is much that is irrelevant: the fact that an RC church in St Austell is dedicated to St Augustine of Hippo surely does not justify an account of his life as one of the saints of Cornwall. But because of that, there is much that would not be found in a more conventional dictionary or guide. AS

 

HISTORICAL ATLAS OF CHRISTIANITY

Franklin Littell

Continuum, 448pp, hbk

0 8264 1303 X, [£30.00]

An atlas of Church history is one of the unexpected requirements of a parish priest’s library: lots of good, clear, simple maps on everything from the Crusades to the Saxon dioceses of England to the Reformation wars to the Ottoman advance. School teachers, Sunday School, Lent groups, parishioners, all will ask, ‘Vicar, have you some information on …?’ One good map would show Aidan’s missionary journeys, the medieval shrines of Europe or the Papal exile. If only such an atlas existed.

Publishers’ editors (see above) are employed to ensure that a book delivers on what it promises, and it is because they do their job that we come to trust certain publishing houses. So when they fail in such a house, the failure can prove dramatic: 1) This book calls itself an atlas; not true, it is a potted history of the Church, with the addition of some small maps. 2) This mistake will hit you within five seconds of opening the pages: the black and white maps and illustrations have been inexpertly scanned from colour originals, and are dreadful. Solid hard cover, solid price, scrappy maps. What a disaster! AS

 

The story of the King James Bible

Alistair McGrath

Hodder and Stoughton, 340pp, hbk

0 340 78560 8, £14.99

Alistair McGrath is a prolific writer, and his books reflect the breadth of his scholarship. This one is written in a very easy and non-technical style, and yet it is packed with information. We are provided with something of a history of printing, from Gutenberg onwards, together with a discourse on the development of language, and also a skilfully condensed summary of the main events of the Reformation on the continent of Europe and in England. We have a careful analysis of the various translations of the Bible into English from the time of John Wycliffe, as we travel through William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, and the Geneva Bible, leading up to the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, which in turn led to the compiling of the King James version of 1611.

The names of all 47 translators are given, and we are told something about their ways of working, though the author admits that there is insufficient documentation to give the full picture. We have here a refreshing reminder that through all the changing seasons of life during the turmoils of the Reformation period there emerged this great treasure, known as the Authorized Version, or the King James Bible. While not blind to the various blemishes and infelicities within it, McGrath asserts that the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare did more than anything else to influence the language and culture of the British people. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that this is not the end of the story, and that modern versions of the Bible are essential, because of the change in our language and the increased knowledge of the original texts.

Brother Martin SSF is the Mission Secretary of the Society of Saint Francis.

 

THE LOVING STRUGGLE

Fray Juan de los Angeles

St Austin Press, 230pp, Hbk

1 901157 26 1, [£12.99]

Reacting to an evangelical education in my late teens, I went into the town library and borrowed the Complete Works of St John of the Cross; I read it from cover to cover and earnestly began to put its demands into practice; being the sixties, it blew my mind. I would have done better to read this more modest, more practical teacher from the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic tradition, but it is only now that he has been translated into English. I have appreciated his erudition; the breadth of his quotation mixed with occasional homely images gives a context and perspective that adds real power to his exposition, while his emphasis on the sacrament and communion gives a clear focus for his search for union with God. Fine teaching and a good translation. NT

 

GOD

Thoughts in an Age of Uncertainty

James M. Byrne

Continuum, 170pp, hbk

0 8264 5169 1, £16.99

This is the book to read if you want to know reasons for not believing in God. But borrow, don’t buy! The author, curiously professing agnosticism rather than atheism, is a fan of Arius, whom he seems to regard as a theological Tim Henman (ought to have won, but was unlucky on the day), as of Bishop Spong. His pet hates include ‘the institutional misogyny of Roman Catholicism’ and ‘white supremacism masquerading as Protestant piety’, but so as to be fair to everybody he adds sharia law and swipes at Hindu nationalists. So who’s left? Well, there’s Ursula Goodenough whom he wants to emulate in articulating ‘a covenant with Mystery’ and Raimon Panikkar’s cautionary ‘nine ways not to talk about God’. Byrne also thinks that the word ‘God’ is better written with a crossed-out sign through it but, God be thanked, my word-processing skills aren’t up to it.

Rodney Schofield teaches the faith in Malawi

 

HOW TO THINK LIKE A PHILOSOPHER

Nicholas Fearn

Atlantic, 200pp, pbk

1 903809 13 4, £9.99

Does your understanding of the Christian faith veer more to psychology or to philosophy? Which does faith serve best: truth or happiness? Let us forget Jungian analysis and personality development weekends, and go for truth every time. Which makes philosophy, for the whole of the last century the poor relation to psychology, the natural bedfellow of theology. There is little enough popular writing in the field, so this is a welcome addition.

It does not fully deliver on its title; the writing is too general, wide-ranging and non-directive for that. It should more accurately be called ‘An introduction to the extraordinary range of philosophical argument.’ Twenty-five short and easily manageable chapters from the early Greeks to the 1990s, from such frauds as Nietzsche and Derrida to such honest workers as Lucretius, the neglected Scotsman Thomas Reid or the fierce champion of true liberalism Karl Popper.

If you missed philosophy in your formal education, and the English system ignores it shamefully, this book offers an entertaining outline of the subject. It may not do much to sharpen up sloppy theological thinking, but it will reveal the possibilities. NT

 

ANGLICAN RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES YEARBOOK 2002–3

Canterbury, 208pp, pbk

1 85311 413 8, £5.99

This is now the third edition of this yearbook, which has developed into an assured source of information on all the religious communities of the Anglican Communion. There are, if you wanted to know, some 2,500 Anglican religious, of whom 1,550 are women and 950 men, and of those men 600 are based in Australasia and the Pacific. The decline of many older European houses and the rise of new orders further afield offers an interesting picture of great change and even excitement.

This is an excellent resource, but why I wonder does it attract a liberal catholic veneer? Have we done something wrong? Are our traditionalist religious not nice enough? It is a mystery. The foreword is by Presiding Frank (Griswold III), and of course I had to read Bishop Penny Jamieson’s piece at the end: interesting indeed; a clever and perceptive deconstruction of the traditional retreat is followed by a holistic, everyday ‘practice of selective silence’. Sophisticated, contemporary and relevant, and yet, is it a fair substitute for what so many of these communities have been offering for so many years?

I am less interested in the superficial and momentary wellness and strength that old-style retreats provided for me than in the ongoing engagement of God with the questions I face. My role in my dealings as a bishop is not to either be controlled by God or to control others in the name of God, episcopacy notwithstanding. My role is to participate, as God participates with me.

Maybe; but it is a curiously negative postscript to the richness of the witness outlined in the preceding pages; the best one can say is that it is too clever by half, with an inadequate grasp of sin and weakness. AS

 

CECILIA’S VISION

TJ Armstrong

Review, 340pp, hbk

0 7472 1418 2, £17.99

Dominicans investigating a Cathar visionary in thirteenth-century Canterbury, with kidnappings, murder, conspiracy, and bits of arcana. Rather too much is in reported speech, it distances us from the drama, but nice enough writing. No great insights into the Church, but a pleasant historical novel. AS

 

After a couple of rants on secretive pricing, to which we shall return, this month’s turns from the wicked to the silly. In the ever-increasing competition for readers’ attention, most books now carry a subtitle, to specify more clearly the book’s subject; no problem with that; but extra titles that add nothing are merely an irritant.

For your information, How to think like a philosopher is also called Zeno and the Tortoise, and The Story of the King James Bible is also called In the beginning. Pretentious nonsense. Publishers are entirely free to add as many titles as they wish; we are equally entitled to ignore them.

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