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Reviews – June 2013

A guide to rethinking the Bible

elusive_god

Chasing an Elusive God: The Bible’s Quest and Ours

Ray Vincent
Christian Alternative
£12.99

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How should we read the Bible – as the authoritative word of God, or as a human creation that poses questions rather than offers answers? Ray Vincent suggests that the Bible is a “fascinating collection of literature” compiled from poems, stories and sayings which have passed from generation to generation. The purpose of his book is to help readers to understand the Bible as part of the ongoing search for truth and for God.

The stories in the Bible are not there “just for the record”, but are part of the process by which people attempted to understand themselves and their world in the light of their particular perception of God.

In reading these stories, he suggests that we ask ourselves why was it so important to tell them and to tell them in a particular way. Rather than telling us directly about God, the Bible records the experiences and thoughts of people who are searching for an “elusive God”.

Likewise, if we read the Gospels without the framework of traditional Christian dogma, instead of a biographical account of Christ’s life we get a picture of Jesus from writers trying to explain their experience of him.

Whilst the work of biblical scholars has cast doubts on many things that had been taken for granted, it has made the Bible “a more interesting and exciting book to read”. Such scholarship, however, may make the ordinary reader feel inadequate to the task. To assist, Vincent makes helpful suggestions and provides a very useful historical framework of the Hebrew Scriptures listing 10 episodes of Jewish history linked to the passages of the Bible which refer to these times and which reflect the writer’s experience. The Hebrew Scriptures can then be seen as a debate of many voices, “each telling their own story for their own purpose”.

Written in an accessible, conversational style, Vincent’s book offers a guide to “re-thinking the Bible” which will appeal to anyone wishing to read it with imagination and curiosity.

Patricia Brewerton is a member of Lumen United Reformed Church in London

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Biography of a pioneering woman minister

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Elsie Chamberlain: The Independent Life of a Woman Minister

Alan Argent
Equinox Publishing Ltd
£60 (hardback)

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Few of us buy a book for its cover, but the image on this one – Elsie Chamberlain seated at a microphone and ready to broadcast to the nation – is a treasure. This is a detailed, well-written biography of the best-known Congregational woman minister in Britain during the second half of the 20th century.

The author, Alan Argent, currently minister of Trinity Congregational Church in Brixton, admires his subject’s personality and achievements, relishing the “firsts” which singled out her remarkable life.

She was the first woman forces chaplain and the first nonconformist minister who, having married an Anglican clergyman, continued her active ministry. During the 1950s she became the first ordained woman producer at the BBC, her voice familiar to many breakfasting listeners through Lift up your Hearts. No wonder some mistakenly think she was the first ordained woman in Britain, rather than one of the second generation, who owed much to the pioneers.

Argent acknowledges that Chamberlain’s life was not one long string of success stories. He recognises committees are difficult places for activists and women run risks when speaking their mind rather than deploying charm tactics. The book could have broadened its feminist appeal with more analysis of this sort and less detail of events.

Some still associate Chamberlain primarily with the parting of the ways between what became the Congregational Federation and the newly-formed United Reformed Church in 1972. Argent explains her choice of Congregationalism as springing from a distrust of complex ideas and structures rather than the clarity and simplicity she always preferred. This has interesting resonances as today’s United Reformed Church reviews its central operations and attempts to simplify its bureaucracy.

Chamberlain also had reservations about the status of women in the new denomination. Some might agree, considering the gender imbalance within the Synod moderators group and the continuing resistance to female ministers in some congregations.

Recently, I heard Congregational minister Janet Wootton broadcasting The Daily Service on Radio 4, as I also do. Elsie was the first woman presenter on that programme some 60 years ago. I think she might be pleased.

Kirsty Thorpe is a United Reformed Church minister based at Wilmslow URC in Cheshire

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A new view from a pew

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Am I Missing Something? Christianity through the Eyes of a New Believer

Ruth Roberts
Authentic Media
£7.99

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Ruth Roberts is a journalist who has worked for major British newspapers. However, not so long ago, Robertsí life began to change. Something began to stir inside her, testing her long-held attitudes and presumptions. What began with a cry for help into the silence of a candle-lit church ñ when on location in Poland ñ eventually led her to the welcoming arms and friendly faces of a local evangelical church.

But life for Roberts as a new Christian wasn’t without its challenges, complications and self doubt. She found herself wondering how she came to have lost her Sunday morning lie-ins and ended up in church. And found herself thinking over what she believed in, which sometimes clashed with what she thought she should believe in. Does having faith mean you have to
leave your brain at the door of the church? And
why was her concern early on not “what would Jesus do?” but “what would Val say at me becoming a Christian?”

Thankfully Roberts’ journalistic skills provoked her into writing down many of her conflicting, often confused thoughts, which reflect much of what so many of us already in the church are thinking, but possibly aren’t brave enough to admit. I love that she writes with such honesty as, in her diary-style entries spanning several years, she inspects her own faith, or lack of it, with self-deprecating humour. Praise God that someone has had the courage to admit that this is what it feels like to be a Christian, as we struggle to work out what we believe God is trying to do and say to us today, amid the contradictions.

This accessible book is for anyone feeling God beginning to stir in their lives. Others have been there too! It is also for seasoned churchgoers, because here we have a poignant reminder of the difficulties of entering into church life, and just how strange we are to outsiders. And for those who want to know about Christian outreach – read it! We hear from the outsider-come-insider herself.

Catey Morrison is a United Reformed Church minister working with the East Cleveland Group of URCs

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Modern ways to spread the message

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Digital Revolutions: Activism in the Internet Age

Symon Hill
New Internationalist
£9.99

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Symon Hill has been an activist since his teens, campaigning for causes which include, among others, religious liberty, disability rights and economic justice. He is a tutor at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.

This well-written and engaging book describes the use of new technology and social media in the campaigns he and many others have been involved in. His thesis is twofold: real and important issues have always been the basis of radical campaigns ñ but the new means of communication have made a marked difference to how these campaigns have developed.

He starts with the very significant historical example of how a new communication technology (the invention of printing) had a dramatic effect on the revolutionary potential of the Bible. There is a revolutionary message in the Bible ñ but printing was the technology that helped to spread this. He also makes the point that only through many individuals, both well-known and unknown, was the reading of the Bible promoted. It did not happen by itself.

What the internet and social media (Twitter and Facebook in particular) have done is to give activists on the ground a means of communicating with each other and communicating their message to others. Symon Hill lists a whole series of examples – from campaigns in Britain, such as the Occupy the London Stock Exchange movement in front of St Paul’s, to those against ageing dictators in Egypt and Tunisia ñ where people are demanding their rights and opposing oppression of various kinds.

In his conclusion, he says: “The internet has not been the cause of this wave of activism. The economic crisis, accompanied by a range of individual historical and cultural factors, has much greater claim to that title. But it would be wrong to suggest that the internet has not affected it. In some cases, it has equipped and emboldened people who might otherwise have remained silent.”

We Christians have a revolutionary message and we must use all the means available to spread our message. This book is a primer on how to do so.

Kees Maxey is a member of Brentwood United Reformed Church, Essex

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Wrestling with God

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RS Thomas: Uncollected Poems

Ed Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies
Bloodaxe Books
£9.95

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The great poet RS Thomas makes nothing that he writes about sound inviting. He discusses faith, ministry, poetry, Welshness and relationships, and makes them all sound very hard. He also makes them seem worth it.

This book marks the centenary of his birth, covering his 60-year career with a selection of poems that have not been published in books before. That may make it sound like a compilation album of B-sides, but in fact most of the poems were published individually, and there are many wonderful pieces here, well worth getting to know whether you are a fan wanting more of the same or a newcomer wanting a way in.

He talks about wrestling with God’s absence for the sake of parishioners who also give him absence. He writes about farmers wrestling hard soil that gives so little and yet is the only place they can be. “The stone pages go on/with their story. God, I/Tell them, will read this.”

Reading these poems, RS Thomas, once again, has given me a sense of how bleak life can look, and at the same time given me a new sense of its worth.

Kim Kelly is an English teacher

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Worker’s prayertime

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Tooth & Nail
Billy Bragg
Label: Cooking Vinyl
£9.99

Billy Bragg has always been on the side of the angels, but it comes as a surprise to hear what a strong vein of spirituality there is in his new album.

Making his name in the 1980s with raucous, rabble-rousing raillery against Thatcher’s Britain, he has mellowed in tone but never lost his passion for justice or his hope for the future. Tooth & Nail is laidback and gentle, with tasteful country production, but still he rages against craven city bosses and the politics of hate and cynicism.

What is new is the way that he seems to be looking to religion as part of the answer, both on a personal and at a society level.

It’s most obvious in the song Do Unto Others, which, as you might have guessed, holds up Jesus’ words as a guiding light to a world marred by selfishness. It also takes on religion’s scientific despisers, pointing out that the fact you don’t believe in Adam and Eve is no reason to ignore the wisdom of Jesus and faith in “the greater good”.

In No One Knows Nothing Anymore, Bragg links reckless business leaders with polemicists who insist that science gives the universe its meaning, both being blind experts leading the bind to ruin. For respite, he turns to a Zen master on a mountaintop, who sees all and is spiritually banging his head against a wall.

Bragg tries his hand at the prophetic in one song, calling down woe on pedlars of hate and negligent politicians, and announcing “There will be a reckoning”.

As for his own journey, in the world weary opening track January Song, he says it’s been so hard going he had to get out and push. He talks of feeling overwhelmed by hard times, and of turning to prayer – or “talking to a burning bush” as he puts it – for help. He ends up saying:

Somewhere on the fall horizon
Gonna wash away my sins
Turn around and taste tomorrow
This is when the end begins

I don’t want to suggest that this is a gospel album, or that there’s nothing on it but religion. There are plenty of other things. There are songs that chart the ups and downs of a troubled relationship. There are songs about revisiting his hometown. There’s an anti-cynicism anthem. And there’s a funny ironic song about how being a poetic genius excuses him for being so inadequate around the house.

But among it all there are these hints that the man who has done more than anyone else to mix politics and pop is now also on a spiritual journey. Bon voyage, Billy.

Stephen Tomkins is the editor of  Reform Magazine
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This article was published in the June 2013 edition of  Reform.

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