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Reviews – October 2013

Why gay marriage is biblical

same_sex_marriagePermanent, Faithful, Stable: Christian
same-sex marriages
Jeffrey John
Darton, Longman and Todd
£6.99

Jeffrey John argues that “homosexual relationships should be accepted and blessed by the church, provided that the quality and commitment of the relationship are the same as those expected of a Christian marriage.” He examines all the biblical texts prohibiting same-sex partnerships and comes to the conclusion that Judaism portrays homosexuality as an exclusively Gentile vice. Jews must refrain from homosexuality along with all the other Gentile vices because that is what it means to be the distinctive people of God. Paul’s condemnation of homosexual acts in Romans 1 as an instance of idolatry and perversity reflects the universal Jewish view at the time. However, the author argues that the only model of homosexual partnership known to Paul and his contemporaries was that of pederasty and prostitution; Paul did not conceive that there could be homosexual orientation (that was not a matter of choice) expressed in faithful and exclusive partnership.

The author argues that permanent, faithful, stable monogamy is the best foundation for the flourishing of both heterosexual and homosexual people. This is because we find our best and truest selves by losing them in love for the other. This self-giving love is an earthly analogy of the love between the persons of the Holy Trinity. Just as this theology has been applied to the marriage of a man to a woman, so the author believes it should also be extended to same-sex couples, so long as their relationships exhibit commitment and fidelity. While such relationships may be contrary to the letter of the Bible, the author argues that they are congruent with its spirit, are moral, and are achievable if given the support that heterosexual marriages are given.

What I find refreshing about this approach is that it is based on a thorough engagement with the Bible, not on secular human rights. Literalists and conservatives will not necessarily be convinced by it; but if some of these permit the remarriage of divorcees, and accept that women may teach men (both clearly prohibited by Jesus and Paul respectively), here is a challenge also to accept faithful and committed same-sex partnerships.

Julian Templeton is a United Reformed Church minister at Highgate and St John’s, New Barnet
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Interfaith perspectives on Jesus

christians_muslimsChristians, Muslims and Jesus
Mona Siddiqui
Yale University Press
£20 (hardback)

We should expect that some of the most exciting developments in theology will emerge from our encounters with other world faiths. In this book, a scholar of deep personal spirituality wrestles with the very different understandings of Jesus in Christianity and Islam.

Mona Siddiqui is a Muslim, a professor within the School of Divinity at Edinburgh University and a pioneer of interfaith dialogue. Her book brings together careful research on the history of Christian/Muslim conversations about Jesus, some key Christological themes, and the author’s personal journey of exploration.

Siddiqui sets out the problem about who Jesus is by exploring how prophecy comes to an end with each faith, but in ways we cannot reconcile. She then follows Christian/Muslim dialogues as they examine who Jesus was for each faith in the seventh and eighth century, and up until the end of the 16th Century. She discusses the figure of Mary the mother of Jesus as a fruitful channel for future conversations between Christians and Muslims, and then looks at the law, love, and our different understandings of the creative tension between the two. From this follows a concluding personal reflection on the Cross, a concept which puzzles Muslims as much as the idea of Muhammad as the final prophet puzzles Christians.

How might you, the reader, expect to be changed by this book? You might come away with a renewed awareness of the Jesus of Christian faith, seeing Him through the eyes of a truth-seeker who is trying to stand in Christian shoes. I did.

Siddiqui talks of dialogue, not polemic; of puzzlement, not offence; of mercy, of enjoying the presence of God, of waiting or the revelation of ultimate truth. I came away with an enhanced appreciation of the possibilities of interfaith dialogue.

If you already meet with Muslims, you might come away encouraged to take the risk of opening up the issues that divide Christians and Muslims rather than sticking to safe topics. I shall be suggesting tougher topics for our own shared scripture study group.

Scholarly, accessible and passionate, and a readable 248 pages, this is a book that most people can enjoy.

Maggie Hindley is a United Reformed Church minister based at the London Inter Faith Centre

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Lessons from history

SellTheologicalEducationThe Theological Education of the Ministry: Soundings in the British Reformed and Dissenting traditions
Alan PF Sell
Pickwick Publications
$36

This is an eclectic collection of studies from teachers ranging from Caleb Ashworth of Daventry in the 18th Century, to John Oman of Westminster College and Geoffrey Nuttall of New College in the 20th.

The chapter on Ashworth reveals the curriculum, the life of the students, and the occupations of the teacher. We today would be shocked at the lack of biblical study, but impressed by the variety of views put before students. We might be unsurprised to find teachers too busy to publish much!

The chapter on Oman is a beautiful study of his theology, setting him in his context as an Orcadian and a philosophical theologian. Sell shows him offering a generous kind of Calvinism, including the free offer of the Gospel to all and a faith which was never coldly rationalistic, nor claiming omniscience, but rather “points of light in the darkness”. Sell’s writing made me read more of Oman.

There are two chapters about Nuttall, one based on conversation and recollection, one on studied reflection on his works. I found these chapters too reliant on anecdote and dominated by Sell’s own concerns. I couldn’t always tell whose view I was encountering, and there were some stories best left private. But there were powerful reminders of some key principles of Congregationalism that should not be forgotten.

This is not a book about the education of ministers so much as about some who educated them. But if it’s not quite what it says on the tin, it is a fascinating collection. It gave me a few surprises.

Susan Durber is a United Reformed Church minister and theology coordinator for Christian Aid

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Faith’s contribution to war and peace

gods_and_armsGods and Arms: On religion and armed conflict
Ed. Kjell-Åke Nordquist
Lutterworth Press
£15

Lying behind this set of essays is the famous quote from Hans Kung: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions; no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions; no dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.” These eight short pieces from scholars in Scandinavia, America and Sri Lanka give a clear and thoughtful overview of how religious faith has contributed to war, and yet is a requirement for peace.

The first three chapters open up the issues surrounding faith as conviction (“with God on our side”) analysing how religion, in theory and practice, and the diverse interpretation of sacred texts has underpinned the Christian crusades (ancient and modern), the various anti-western Islamic jihadi movements, militant Hinduism/ Sikhism/ Buddhism, and of course the prevalent apocalyptic anticipation of Armageddon coupled with an almost militant Zionism across the USA. The book includes some contrasting and fascinating examples from the conflicts in Rwanda, Colombia, Sri Lanka and pre-war Palestine.

The political analysis is generally sharper than the theology. Thus in the chapter on US fundamentalism Göran Gunner could have usefully mentioned Jack McKelvey’s splendid analysis in The Millennium and the Book of Revelation; Gunner does not properly critique the biblical interpretation on which such fundamentalists purport to rely. I was struck by Mark Jürgensmeyer’s description of the decade since 11 September 2001 as “world war four” (the third being the Cold War). Crucially, this war, like earlier ones, was “started by the other side” (a perennial justification for all parties). These global struggles have been increasingly fought for domination not, simply for territory, with more frontlines each time; the so-called Cold War was a succession of small “hot” proxy wars and the current “war on terror” is even more dispersed. All in all, this is a pertinent, timely and short book on a crucial contemporary issue.

Peter Brain is a United Reformed Church minister and was formerly the URC secretary for church and society

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These reviews were published in the October 2013 edition of  Reform.

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