Reviews – July/August 2015
What does it mean to be human?
Steve Chalke’s new book is something of a muddle – part spiritual journal, part motivational self help and part angry rant. Whilst there are some moving stories and inspirational illustrations, I was constantly left wondering for whom this was written. Chalke’s ongoing fracture with evangelical Christians is rather clumsily visible in some chapters and will deter many of his old followers from getting much from the read. The secular reader, I suspect, would find his switching back and forth between self help and “what would Jesus do?” unengaging.
There is truth in his work and I do not doubt it comes from genuine conviction. Chalke is attempting to go deeper into what being human means in the real world. However, his suggestion that we should better our lot by the habit of good works and self improvement has a ring of the current political dogma that “working people” will get what they deserve. This comes as a bit of a surprise from one who has been so involved in social enterprise and outspoken on the injustices of our culture.
Having reached the end of the book, I was surprised to find that he seemed to have lost sight of where he began his narrative. His opening chapter tells the reader: “The journey of life, it turns out, is a quest to find ourselves and our place in the world; a journey of self discovery.” Yet, by his final chapter he is castigating our cultural self absorption: “Life is about ‘we’ not ‘me’.”
I was left wondering quite what to make of this journey. I enjoyed parts of the book very much and felt it was worth traversing the at times uneven path to reach the end.
John A Hardaker is a church minister serving in Hitchin, North Hertfordshire
Christian responses to strangers
With growing numbers of displaced and fleeing migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, is there enough compassion and political will to facilitate a new attitude to strangers at our gates? In the UK and Europe, while populist migrant bashing may upset some, the reality for many is distributional inequalities in our society, increased competition among workers in deregulated labour markets and that the cost of the crisis is largely felt by the middle and lower income groups. Looking for a scapegoat, migrants become either the face or the symptom of our problems. You Shall Love the Stranger as Yourself is therefore a timely publication.
Drawing on both the Bible and our present situation, this book addresses complex political, legal and humanitarian challenges related to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Fleur Houston, a pastor and gifted theologian with much personal experience in this area, connects some of these intersections in helpful ways. Working the theme of our common humanity and a biblical understanding of justice, she uses contemporary examples to locate God’s commitment for justice. In applying biblical analysis to a current urgent issue, Fleur gives us a book that students, scholars and practitioners will find helpful.
As it is so easy to confuse and conflate migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants, the book spends the first three chapters clarifying the world of refugees and asylum seekers, unpacking terminology and legislation. The remaining chapters draw on biblical sources to give content to Christianity’s ethical/moral response to the “strangers at our gate”. Houston suggests ways in which the Bible can shape the way Christians both respond to the challenges and contribute to the shaping of a different world – one of welcome and hospitality, especially for those exposed to dehumanising barriers as they seek a safe haven.
Challenging and compelling, this excellent resource for the Church should be necessary reading for all preparing for leadership roles in ministry or already in such roles. It is not a book for theologians and practitioners who are unwilling to be stretched and converted!
The Revd Dr Michael Jagessar facilitates the United Reformed Church’s work on racial justice and intercultural ministry
Daniel and the new atheists̕ den
Over the years I’ve spent reviewing books for Reform, I have been introduced to a number of excellent theologians. Never have I appreciated the exerience more than in the case of this introduction to the thought of John Lennox. Against the Flow combines solid study of the book of Daniel with clear insight into our current social and political conditions. The book helps us see the practical implications and relevance of the book of Daniel to 21st-Century life.
Professor Lennox is a scientist and Christian apologist. Both aspects of his expertise are well demonstrated in this latest book. Lennox is a man with the courage and skill to take on the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins in public debate and expose the falseness, inconsistency and ignorance of the new atheists’ tirades against Christianity.
Lennox’s writing style is easily accessible, with a delightful lack of unnecessary jargon. One could imagine many parts of the book being delivered as a sermon. The text is direct, humorous and sometimes quite startling in its instructive hints as to how one could answer the claims of new atheists.
In an enlightening appendix, Professor Lennox uses historical works of the time to show how the prophecy in Daniel 11 was for the most part fulfilled, thus demonstrating the accuracy of the prophecy. Lennox demolishes the argument that Daniel 11 must have been written after the events took place; he insists that the final fulfilment of the prophecy is still to come and will repeat the characteristic elements of Daniel’s prophecy. Lennox makes the point that prophecy repeats itself and that a future repeat won’t be specifically for the Jews.
This is strong stuff, fascinating and illuminating. It has given me renewed confidence in the validity and relevance of scripture and in the way that prophecy works; it has also given me hope for the future. I heartily recommend it and will be seeking out Professor Lennox’s previous books to nourish my retirement.
Ruth Allen is a retired church minister based in Ilkeston, Derbyshire
A heroic life
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes – a Christian theologian and pacifist who was nevertheless involved in the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler and was brutally hung in the last weeks of the war. This new biography gave me a much less heroic man, and yet a more deeply inspiring one.
Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 into upper middle class wealth; his family were nominally Lutheran (the Prussian state church). An older brother returned from the trenches an atheist, but Dietrich chose academic theology and obtained his first doctorate at 21. Bonhoeffer loved to walk in the hills and thirsted for new experiences. His church placements in both Barcelona and London saw young people attracted to him because he took them seriously. Through his travels, Bonhoeffer built up an ecumenical network of contacts and friends.
Hitler’s 1933 Aryan laws forbidding Jewish Christians to attend worship outraged Bonhoeffer theologically – theology was always his starting point. Within those few Confessing Church congregations who resisted the new laws, he founded a training school for ministers where he met Eberhard Bethge – the friend (perhaps love) of his life. The school was soon closed down; ministers were called up, or shot if they refused. All the time Bonhoeffer was writing theology on how to live as a Christian in those circumstances and what the future of Church might be given its current betrayal of the Gospel.
Due to his family contacts with senior army figures, who employed him to travel abroad – trying, unsuccessfully, to get support from the Allies for an army coup – Bonhoeffer avoided call up and arrest until 1943. He acted as pastor to the plotters, wrestling theologically with the tension between Christian faith and a plot to kill. In prison, Bonhoeffer was pastor to other prisoners and even to guards.
The inspiring thing about this unlikely hero is that, the more he was stripped of his privileged life – of his career, his ministry, family, friends, even of a clear conscience – the more free and even joyful he became. That is true Christian freedom.
Sheila Maxey is a retired church minister and book reviews editor for Reform
This article was published in the July/August 2015 edition of Reform.