Book Reviews

Including David Banting on Peter Jenson

The Revelation of God

Peter Jensen
IVP, 304pp, pbk
0 85111 256 0, £11.99

Peter Jensen has written a most timely book and offered a refreshing approach to a timeless doctrine. He is a scholar and teacher, but writes more obviously as a preacher and pastor. He is a clear thinker and helps his readers follow his thinking clearly.

Systematic theology nowadays seems to have to begin not with the doctrine of God, but with a doctrine of revelation. Without revelation, there can be no knowledge of God. So before we can know God, we need to be clear that there has been revelation and how that revelation has come or works. What Peter Jensen makes so fresh in this book is that his start-point is not some abstract theory of revelation, but the gospel itself. It is the gospel and the preaching of the gospel that brings the knowledge of God.

He believes that much of the modern Church’s unease with the Bible is for the wrong reasons. It has capitulated to worldliness. Too many ministers, trained in sceptical theology, have lost confidence in the Word of God and in the gospel.

What makes this book so timely is that many of the issues that swirl around the Church, and especially its public leaders, are to do with revelation and authority in the Church, and especially the authority of Scripture. Quite apart from implicitly establishing his own credentials as an archbishop, Peter Jensen has clarified where and how authority is to be found in God’s Church. This is crucially necessary in the Church of the twenty-first century, but perhaps also controversial.

Jensen offers a confident and confessional exploration of revelation. He is fluent in explaining: for example, the relation of the Word written and made flesh, or of Word and Spirit, or of infallible and inerrant; or the contrast between providential and miraculous, or between authority and power; or again, the trio of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, so beloved of Anglicans. He is equally fluent in correcting: whether in a gentle exposure of much contemporary revelation or a more trenchant rebuttal of an apophatic theology and of the abuse of John 16.13 in, for example, Newman in the nineteenth century or the WCC in the twentieth. He reveals his particular concern that, if Christians come to see the Bible and the Word of God as somehow separate (even for the best of reasons, ‘to protect God’), then the faith that relates us to God is destroyed. Jensen’s gospel approach is warmly relational. As a missionary and as a pastor, he fears for our relationship with God. That is how much is at stake in the modern discussion of revelation.

A twenty-page historical introduction is key. It sets out the questions that the Enlightenment generated and sets up Jensen’s approach. He does not go in for close philosophical or theological argument (the reader can be assured), but chooses a freer path in unpacking the nature of the gospel and how it is the pattern of revelation.

Calvin is beloved of this author. The four parameters of the gospel owe much to his exposition: the grace of God, the sinfulness of humanity, the uniqueness of Christ and the humanity of revelation. One of the emphases the reader may think uncomfortable, but pertinent, is the constant reminder of the sinfulness of the human mind, expressed so much in the ideals of independence and autonomy of liberal western education. Jensen calls us emphatically to distrust the elevation of human reasoning, which, for example, encourages the reader to become the author, or to take authority to be selective about inspiration.

In the other direction, Jensen’s desire to take God seriously may occasionally leave the reader thinking his arguments dogmatic or circular. For example, atheism is a spiritual, not an intellectual, problem. Or, without accepting the unity of the Bible (as a corollary of the unity of God), we can only misunderstand the Bible. However, mostly Jensen’s gospel approach is heart-warming, relational and not abstract, missionary and not defensive. After all, the Christian faith and Scriptures were hammered out and brought new life in a world just as religiously and philosophically pluralistic as today.

This is a book about revelation and not just the Bible. Nonetheless, for many the high-water marks will be central chapters on the authority and nature of Scripture and on reading Scripture. Again, this book is not primarily about hermeneutics, much as the reader might want or expect more on authority and interpretation. It is about how Christians believe God has revealed himself and can be known. As such, it contains healthy words for the assurance or guidance of believers, especially in today’s world of perplexity and increasingly privatized faith. It champions a biblical faith, which disenchanted the world and created the scientific era. It constantly reminds us that the classic strategy of reading Scripture as a whole, comparing Scripture with Scripture, has always been a hallmark of orthodoxy.

This book will appeal not so much to the theologian or scholar as to the pastor-teacher and believer. I personally ended with a desire and need to read it again more humbly. I realized also that it left me with a heart-ache and even heart-sinking that so much of the Church appears to have lost the warm conviction and confidence in the gospel and the Word of God that brims over in Peter Jensen.

 

David Banting is Vicar of St Peter’s, Harold Wood.

 

The Pilgrimage of Grace

Geoffrey Moorhouse
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 390pp, hbk
0 297 64393 2, £25

Geoffrey Moorhouse’s combination of detailed historical examination and elegant prose makes his latest contribution yet another work to be treasured. The rise of Sir Robert Aske, a minor aristocrat from Aughton – then as now a tiny village in east Yorkshire – to become one of the North’s most powerful and energetic leaders makes for a gripping narrative.

The religious turmoil of the early sixteenth century, inherited by Henry VIII when he succeeded to the throne, and compounded by his personal marital problems and his greed for the wealth of the Church, created a situation that could well have cost him that throne. His travelling commissioners under the guidance of Thomas Cromwell were deeply unpopular, not only for the closure of religious houses but for the economic turmoil this created among the ‘commons’ (the working class, we might say) whose prosperity often depended on the work provided by the monasteries.

The Pilgrimage of Grace, as Aske was to point out often, was not at all against the King himself but against the self-seeking behaviour of the commissioners. But as the commons gathered in great numbers in its support, and as increasing members of the nobility, especially in the northern parts, were drawn into its net – not always willingly – Henry realized very quickly that he had the beginnings of a dangerous rebellion on his hands.

Moorhouse catalogues its development with great skill, weaving the web of intrigue and deceit on the King’s part and the ultimately fatal vacillation on the part of the Pilgrims. The cruel purge of so many of its leaders and supporters at the end depicts a monarch totally without honour, while the careful withdrawal of the nobility, anxious for their own skin, is hardly a pretty sight.

What emerged on the religious front was the continuing support for the Catholic Church as it was and had been. Dix in his masterly work, The Shape of the Liturgy, suggests that the decline of English churchgoing began in the sixteenth rather than the eighteenth century. ‘Voluntary and above all weekday churchgoing – on the popularity of which in England most fifteenth-century travellers remarked – virtually disappeared’ (op cit, p687).

Dix puts it down to the overturning in 1549 of a liturgical tradition of nearly a thousand years, so that the people – the ‘commons’ – ‘were compelled to accept not only a totally different conception of worship but two new rites in rapid succession, followed again by two further revolutions in the next six years, each accompanied by conscientious public murders on a nationwide scale.’

It is not, as Dix points out, ‘perhaps the conventional Anglican picture of the Reformation’, but Moorhouse’s fascinating account of the period immediately preceding that sudden liturgical reform confirms Dix’s thesis that the breach with Rome was not the popular movement we have so often been led to believe. This is a book not to be missed.

 

George Austin is a writer and broadcaster.

 

Anglicanism – the answer to modernity

Edited by Duncan Dormor, Jack McDonald & Jeremy Caddick

Continuum, 206pp, pbk
0 8264 6699 0, £14.99

How do we understand Anglicanism at the start of a new millennium? What is there that commends this particular strand of Christian tradition to a society distrustful of religion but hungry for purpose and meaning? These are important questions for the mission-minded. If we are unclear about our own understanding of what the Church is about, we are most unlikely to win anyone else into Christianity, save through God’s generous tendency to over-rule our inadequacies.

A group of Cambridge college deans have assembled a book prefaced by the Archbishop of Canterbury with this agenda, ‘the advocacy of the robust and inclusive form of Christianity conducive to human flourishing that we find in Anglicanism’. It was the promise of ‘robust’ Anglicanism that primarily caught my eye. In the event the book proved Anglican in the less than robust sense of the Curate’s Egg!

Jo Bailey Wells’ chapter drew a helpful connection between the unsystematic wisdom of Proverbs and the ‘pastiche’ character of post-modern culture. The wisdom literature fosters dialogue rather than imposing dogma, and of all biblical texts was said to ring most true to the perceived Anglican approach, namely putting questions rather than giving answers.

‘Yes, but,’ I thought, in sympathy with the writer’s praise of dialogue. Most of my work as mission officer is about helping Anglicans find new confidence to speak for Christ, albeit many a time in dialogue, so I would approach things differently. Nevertheless, my bones tell me we have moved out of a decade of evangelism into a decade of dialogue, evidenced not least in the change of Archbishop of Canterbury.

Ben Quash reflected in his helpful chapter on ‘enacting real presence’ as essential to Christianity and on how the Anglican Church prides itself on being present in localities in the name of Christ. He considered the impaired communion within Anglicanism caused by differences over sexual ethics. ‘Yes, but,’ again I thought, this time with a big ‘but’ as I read Ben’s appeal for inter-communion to be based on charity alone. ‘Love and truth walk in the presence of the Lord,’ Psalm 89.14.

Duncan Dormor pushed for further liberality with the acceptance of pre-marital sexual intercourse in some circumstances. His contribution was given a good Anglican balance through a more conservative essay by Jeremy Caddick. He presented an Anglicanism that would challenge rather than bless social trends in his critique of a rights-based approach to ethical decision-making. An essay on the future of Church and state was similarly courageous in its call for a radical review.

In the most provocative essay, Timothy Jenkins presented Anglicanism as a Christian tradition offering both order and freedom, yet subordinate to the end of human flourishing. He wrote of ‘territorial embeddedness and conversational mode’ as distinctive features of an Anglicanism, which serves ‘human flourishing, which we call salvation, or the Kingdom of God’. This last sentence reveals the rather this-worldly nature of the book. Is salvation actually identical with human flourishing? Only in a transcendent view of humanity; and the book is weak on this to say the least, though not as weak as modernism, it has to be admitted!

Anglican pragmatism looks for what works and helps communities to flourish – but there are Anglican principles as well, not least those that witness the transcendent reality of Jesus Christ and applaud the counter-cultural challenge of scripture and tradition. Although the essays contain some references to Christianity as counter-cultural the overall tenor is of a faith that engages with the culture by going with the flow.

Anglicanism is by nature inclusive and as such very comfortable about reasoned dialogue within a post-modern culture. To stay robust, though, it needs fresh consciousness of the wondrous momentum of the Christian tradition as a whole, of which it is but part in space and time.

I read this book weeks after reading the obituary of one of the retired bishops in Chichester diocese, Edward Knapp-Fisher. He was an advocate of robust Anglicanism in a different era but with an insight that is a necessary complement to these Cambridge essays, that come close to making scripture and tradition servants of our flawed contemporary experience. For Knapp-Fisher the robustness of Anglicanism derives utterly from its historic place in the Christian mainstream. He wrote once in these terms, which are a refreshing counter to both modernism and the ‘going with the flow’ Cambridge Anglicanism:

The present is but a fragment of history, and our contemporary experience can only be understood and evaluated in the light of that of those who have lived before us. Only arrogance or complacency can blind us to the truth that we are pygmies who stand on the shoulders of giants.

If Anglicanism is to be commended to a society hungry for purpose and meaning, it is on account of a faith made robust by its unity with the faith of the Church through the ages, over which Christ promised ‘the gates of hell will not prevail.’

 

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

 

The Holocaust and Antisemitism

Jocelyn Hellig

Oneworld, 354pp, pbk
1 85168 313 5, £14.99

When I type ‘antisemitism’ the computer automatically adjusts to ‘anti-Semitism.’ The former term is, Jocelyn Hellig explains, best used to describe animosity to Jews, while the latter has fallen out of scholarly use since it implies the racial and too often racist definition of ‘Semites’. The best part of this book is the introduction and first chapter in which the differences and usage of these and other terms (for instance, Shoah and Holocaust) is explained, the literature is surveyed, and issues around the uniqueness or otherwise of the Holocaust touched upon.

Hellig turns then to historical analysis. Pagan antisemitism was sporadic and varied in intensity. Its context was the success of proselytizing Judaism. The Christian’s response to the Jew is different in kind because theological in impetus. Christianity does not preach genocide, but the Holocaust was only possible because Christian prejudice provided the background and ultimate source of much Nazi theory.

There is much in the evidence to give pause for thought. But the case is far from watertight. In the pre-modern period not enough weight is given to the often violent imposition by rulers of unity in religious belief and practice. Arguably the Jews did rather better than the Cathars or the Moors or the Huguenots or the Recusants. Later, the radical anti-religious aspect of Nazi ideology is missed, which, although drawing on Christian models, was simultaneously rejecting them.

More worryingly, it is not good enough for Hellig to suggest with Rosemary Reuther that the only way Christianity can learn to relate without potentially catastrophic prejudice to Jews is to demand we shed belief in the Incarnation and insistence on the necessity of conversion for all.

Hellig accepts Schweitzer’s view of Jesus as a disappointed apocalyptic revolutionary whose message was misapprehended by Paul of Tarsus (of whose repeated insistence that he was sent ‘to the Jews first’ she seems blissfully unaware). This allows her to deny any religious reason for the crucifixion and so to ‘free’ Christianity from asserting Jewish complicity in the death of Christ. The work by E Sanders locating Jesus’ crime in blasphemy against the Temple is ignored, despite the fact that it is based on exhaustive study of Jewish texts. Thus a chance to discuss a more mature response to the ‘blood guilt’ of Matthew 27.25 is lost.

There is an odd structure to the remainder of the work. Hellig deals with Islamic antisemitism before turning to secular antisemitism. Historically the latter is on the wane while the former is more acute today. The musings on the current politics of the Middle East in the last chapter fail to impress, since in becoming current affairs rather than history they have been overtaken by events.

 

Luke Miller is Parish Priest of St Mary the Virgin, Tottenham.

 

THE ONE

All-Age Bible – The Gospels

Translated by Michael Foster

Mayhew, 400pp, pbk
1 84003 974 4, (£9.99)

‘All-age’ is one of the current multi-purpose affirmations in contemporary prayer and worship. What it means in this paraphrase of the gospels is a relentlessly colloquial style. What it really means is a style and presentation specifically aimed at young teenagers. It offers a breathless self-consciousness that just might be what is needed to get through to troubled, self-absorbed adolescents.

The layout is simple, there are texts boxes introducing and explaining the passages, as well as footnotes and a glossary offering further help. Everything is done to make Jesus’ words and actions as understandable as possible, which is admirable; but in such a way that when one has reached this goal, there seems no further use for the biblical word thus re-presented to us. This word will not ‘endure for ever’.

If the neophyte moves then to a proper translation, all well and good. A price is always paid for compromising the clear word of God, and dumbing down is not always the right approach where evangelism is concerned. But Foster’s intentions are undoubtedly earnest; he shows an evangelical desire to share a faith in Jesus, and many may be helped by it.

That he has ‘asserted his rights’ as ‘the author of this work’ in accordance with the 1988 Copyright Act (back-title page) is another post-modern ironic ‘contemporary take’ on the transmission of the Scriptures. SR

Mark 4.3-9, the Parable of the Sower, as paraphrased in The One:

Listen: there was this sower who went out sowing seed – as sowers do – and some of his seed landed on the pathway, so the birds thought it was dinner time and snaffled it all. Then some of it fell among rocks – not a lot of soil there, so the wheat died as fast as it grew. No roots, you see – no way of getting water when the sun got up – you know how it is. Anyway, some other seeds fell in the briar patch and the wheat that grew there just got choked to death by all the weeds – so that was pretty fruitless. So far, not so good – but some of the seed fell on good soil, and, wow, did it grow! I mean, it just went on and on, producing more and more – anything between thirty and a hundred times its own weight. OK? End of story. If you’ve got ears, fine – use them.

 

WHAT THEY DON’T TEACH YOU AT THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE

Malcolm Grundy

Canterbury Press, 198pp, pbk
1 85311 500 2, £12.99

Perhaps an alternative title could have been ‘Life at the raw edge (of ministry)’ as I think that this is a book of wider appeal than just to the newly or not so newly ordained. Much of the information it imparts could be more useful to churchwardens and PCCs, as well as to the inquirer into the function and institution of the Church of England. For instance, are we really ordaining people who do not know the difference between an area, suffragan or diocesan bishop? I note no mention is made of PEVs which those not of our persuasion may be unfamiliar with. On the other hand those of your congregation who want to know how you spend every minute of your time would be well advised to read, learn and inwardly digest.

The Chapter entitled ‘The Archdeacon says’ is probably the best, perhaps because the author is himself an archdeacon, (and he is also my archdeacon!) Much needed and important chapters on clerical spirituality and the discipline of the same; lifestyle, personal and parish finance, time planning and retirement are all covered. My only criticism is that I wanted more. Because it is a handbook it is necessarily brief, but could the author be persuaded to write several small books on each of the subjects in more depth?

The book as a whole is informative and serious but written in a light-hearted fashion which enables one to dip into it again. It is sprinkled with a lovely touch of humour and is worth buying for the cartoons alone, although I am sure that you will get more out of it if you also read the print! What is leadership in today’s church? Should the vicar be a Jack of all trades? What is the future of the ordained ministry – full or part-time, parish based or not?

The book gives you much to reflect on and if I’m honest makes me feel my age! (As did the rather poor proof reading: is it only old people like me who know how to spell?) Have I changed as much, I wonder, in my ministry as the Church of England appears to have done in the last twenty years? Before I come to my annual assessment with the author, later in the year, I am going to have to do some serious thinking.

 

Ann Turner works in the Archdeaconry of Craven.

 

 

GRIEVING A SUICIDE

The search for comfort, answers and hope

Al Ksu
IVP, 190pp, pbk
0 85111 275 7, £6.99

This is a useful book if not an entirely satisfactory one; but who can produce a satisfactory book about suicide? Some write strictly as professionals, some also as mourners; the Chinese-American author of this study combines the pastoral and the personal. Albert Hsu’s father took his own life without any obvious warnings; the detailed treatment of the family’s response ensures that the book is realistic, but may sometimes overshadow the varied concerns of a mixed readership.

This would be a pity, since the writer has wisdom for all the bereaved, including sections on turmoil, listening and remembering; and on funerals. We neglect the Psalms of lament and desperation to our great impoverishment; they are not all Hallelujahs. ‘Good guilt’ and ‘bad guilt’ are helpfully distinguished on one of many pages where other authors and sources are gladly acknowledged.

In Britain we often hear of suicide rates among young men, prisoners, farmers and doctors; apparently, too, the artistic temperament makes depression more dangerous. Contrary to myth, Christmas is not a common trigger to self-destruction (since most people are less isolated then); divorce, however, is.

This book warns against the opposite dangers of hard or soft reactions, and gives two biographies of acutely polarized responses to war experiences. He could profitably have moved further beyond the question ‘Why?’ to consider the presence of God, travelling through the grief and healing of the survivors. Not an easy read, and not one to lend while wounds are raw. But when the time is right, it could provide some useful pointers to hope for those ready for them. CMI

 

THE LAMP OF THE WICKED

Phil Rickman

Macmillan, 552pp, hbk
0 333 90805 8, £10

A who-dun-it with a difference and with an appeal to all avid readers of crime novels. That is if you dare read it. It is a book which you don’t want to put down, but you have to unless you want sleepless nights or are prepared to be scared witless!

The central character is a female DC. Not detective constable, although she could well have been, but a young woman priest deliverance consultant. Diocesan exorcist in the Diocese of Hereford, she is now a widow, who brings with her a load of baggage, not least Lol her rock musician boyfriend, and Jane her teenage daughter, as well as an odd assortment of friends, including a neurotic cop and a woman who happens to leave a black bin liner stuffed with cash in church.

What this all has to do with electro-magnetic fields, rural village life, computers, sewage, magic and angels is gradually and intriguingly revealed. Bodies abound, or do they? And what is the connection with the great and gruesome crime of the 1990s, nearby? I challenge you to solve the mystery before the end!

It is refreshing to note that here, at least, is a ‘woman priest’ who is not an ardent feminist and appears not to be able to perform her priestly ministry without a male priest advisor lurking in the background, and on whom she relies heavily (so men are still needed) even in celebrating a mass for the unquiet dead.

Phil Rickman is a born storyteller and the lack of elementary research can easily be forgiven, but I am still intrigued to know as to why this ‘woman priest’ seems to wear a white alb at all times even when tramping around the countryside in the dead of night. This is the fifth book in the ‘Merrily Watkins’ series – I look forward to the next. PT

 

From The Lamp of the Wicked. Jane begins to feel protective of her mother’s developing love affair:

All through the late summer, Mum had seemed brilliantly light and girlish, maybe for the first time since she’d been ordained. Twice, she’d actually worn this provocatively low-cut top Jane had brought back from a summer sale in Hereford as kind of a joke.

Jane had imagined the skimpy thing lying on the floor of Lol’s loft and was entirely cool about the notion. Mum had been a widow for over six years now and, although the crash that had killed Dad on the M5 had been a drastic kind of reprieve from a marriage gone bad, it was time to dump the guilt for ever.

It had to be guilt, didn’t it? Mum had always been good at guilt, on any level. During the summer, Lol had written this song, ‘The Cure of Souls’, about the problem women priests might have loving God while also loving a man.

Which was only a problem if you believed that God was a man. If you believed that God was anything.

And if this thing – this faith in something unknowable, unprovable and very possibly bollocks – was likely to screw it up for Mum and Lol, there was no way Jane could live with that . . . like, even if she had to stand out here in the square and publicly burn Bibles on the cobbles.

 

FOUR FOR A BOY

Mary Reed & Eric Mayer

Poisened Pen, 330pp, hbk, 
1 59058 031 1, (£18.50)

Procopius’ Secret History is an extraordinarily vivid, cynical and entertaining account of life in Byzantium in the early sixth century, a glorious Christian empire riddled with corruption and immorality. Rich, decadent, inventive and wonderfully modern, centring mainly around the figures of the dying emperor Justin and then his adopted son and successor Justinian, with his ex-prostitute wife, the unforgettable Theodora.

This is a murder mystery based on the same city in the same period. It is easy to read and hugely entertaining, as our unlikely heroes dash through the crowded streets avoiding danger and hunting the murderers. But it is resolutely modern. Not, as is Procopius’ writing, quite clearly of a different age and civilization, but with surprising and compelling parallels, but rather a modern day American stuck in a time warp. Which is not the same thing at all. It distances that city of one and a half millennia ago in exactly the opposite way that the original historian brings it closer. A pity. DN

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