Reviews – October 2017
How to spread the Gospel
Spiritual and Religious: The Gospel in an age of paganism
Christians in our society struggle to know how to challenge the prevailing ideologies with which we are surrounded. People say they believe in God, and spirituality is a growing business, but they don’t seem interested in the Gospel. This book seeks to understand our society and suggest ways in which we can more productively make our witness.
Tom Wright describes how our culture is very like that faced by the early Church, with people today worshipping false gods as the Roman world did. Wright argues that because these gods are false, they lead to our destruction. Christians proclaim Jesus as the one to follow, and he alone can bring the joy and peace for which people crave. The first half of the book seeks to show how Jesus defeated all false gods when he died on the cross, and then, by His resurrection, was declared victorious by God. Now, the mission of the Church is to bring all to follow this Jesus, and God has sent the Holy Spirit to empower us for the task.
The author explores new movements which God has given to enable us to be more effective. These include the ecumenical movement, the development of worship and spirituality, healing ministries, Bible learning, the charismatic movement and social justice. He then calls the Church to build new shrines to the true God over against the shrines of false gods, as our predecessors did. This will involve the Church showing an alternative to war for solving the world’s problems, a better way to build strong families, a more just way to order society and a better way to care for the earth.
At the end of each of the 15 chapters in Spiritual and Religious there are questions for discussion, making it a useful tool. It certainly explores the Gospel and our mission in the world. Readers will have to decide whether the author’s solutions are theirs too.
Stephen Thornton is a retired church minister living in Fleet, Hampshire
Biblical approaches to human trafficking
Human Trafficking: The Bible and the Church
Marion LS Carson
The trafficking of persons – where men, women and children are recruited by deception for exploitation or financial gain – is a global industry. In the UK, as elsewhere, significant numbers of people, often invisible, are engaged in slave labour. So, Marion Carson’s book is timely. Carson seeks to enable readers to formulate a Christian response by engaging with the Bible and trying to hear the voice of God for our time.
The author’s acknowledgement of the hermeneutical complexity involved is welcome. But a reader who expects to engage with human trafficking in the broadest sense will be disappointed. There is nothing here about the plight of those who engage in agricultural, construction or hospitality sectors, in domestic servitude or the manufacturing industry. The book ignores the alarming and increasing number of child victims. Instead, Carson focuses on slavery in general and on the sex trade.
She gives a historical account of the anti-slavery campaign in Britain and the US and explores how the Bible’s attitude to slavery might inform a Christian response to trafficking. The rest of the book is largely devoted to a systematic account of the sex trade, drawing on literary, historical, philosophical and feminist sources in addition to the Bible.
While this is culturally sensitive and comprehensive, highlighting confused thinking and double standards about prostitution, one is left wondering whether the main focus on trafficking has been lost. This applies also to the related biblical material. Might the non-consensual kidnapping of women, for instance, in Judges 21, be more relevant to the theme than the stories of Tamar and Rahab?
Carson concludes with an apt exhortation to examine our attitudes towards money: ‘How we earn it, spend it, and invest it – and our relationship to business and profit … we must work together to fulfil the demand of the gospel and set the captives free.’
Fleur Houston is a retired church minister living in Macclesfield, Cheshire
Meanings of the cross
The Cross: History, art and controversy
Robert M Jensen
Harvard University Press
There can be little doubt, using PT Forsyth’s phrase, of the ‘cruciality of the cross’ in Christian theology, or that much has been written and debated, if not also constructed, about the cross in Christian history. Robert Jensen, unsurprisingly, begins with the New Testament, but draws also on the so-called ‘apocryphal’ literature, numerous theologians and, perhaps most strikingly, on art and artefacts to supply a rich and intriguing history of the transformation of the cross from a cruel means of execution, a ‘stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’, to the demonstration of divine love intent on redeeming humans.
While textual sources provide explanations of the cross as a source of comfort, healing and hope, the author’s primary interest is where the cross becomes a sign – an empty cross signifying victory over the final enemy, and the crucifix representing suffering. Both are shown to have far-reaching implications for Christians.
The book has more to say about the first millennium of Christian history than the second, with seven chapters discussing the early Church to the medieval period and two devoted to the period from the Reformation to the modern era. Clearly pre-Reformation times provide greater source material for the discussion, despite the significance of Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’ (rather cursorily treated here) and Calvin’s conviction that, in preaching, Christ is displayed before our eyes as crucified.
Beautifully produced, grounded in scholarship but lucidly written, the book combines text and illustration to provide a sympathetic and insightful history of the cross. The author does not seek to be comprehensive or to offer a definitive explanation about the cross and its significance – two impossible tasks given its numerous representations and the fluidity of interpretation to be found in Christian history. Informative rather than devotional, this book offers much for those interested in the way in which, over time, central symbols of faith develop and expand their meaning.
Robert Pope is Director of Studies in Church History and Doctrine for Westminster College, Cambridge
Countercultural rapper’s memoir
Unpopular Culture is the debut book by double Mobo-Award winning rap artist Guvna B. Now in his late 20s, Guvna B was born to Ghanaian parents and grew up on a council estate in east London, where drugs and gangs were commonplace. Most of his peers lacked ‘real’ ambition, aspiring to flashy cars, name-brand clothes and easy sex – what some would call the benchmarks of success dictated by popular culture. Unpopular Culture seeks to buck against this ‘default’ mindset – not just challenging but actively rejecting the status quo.
Guvna B encourages his readers to look again at what we do, why, and resist conforming to the norms of the day. He points to a higher standard, flowing from the conscious recognition that we are made in the image of God, loved without limits, and intended for things far greater than the world can provide.
Unpopular Culture is a refreshing read. There are no big words, no weighty theological arguments. Guvna B comes across as an everyday individual – a young man determined to live his faith within the realities of his world. The book is scattered with anecdotes from his life – his shame-faced recollection of pride when, aged eight, the estate gang members knew his name; his boyhood efforts to be a wheeler-dealer, earning him the nickname ‘Black Del Boy’; going to university as a young Christian and finding himself the odd one out in a raucous environment. Guvna B’s reflections feel honest, with consideration given to friendships, relationships, his career in the music industry and the struggle against being pigeonholed. While, at times, the biblical references feel too easy, the book insistently looks to Jesus as the one perfect example worth emulating – someone who knew what he stood for and would not conform or compromise.
Unpopular Culture has potentially wide appeal – for Christian youngsters and youth groups generally, black and urban young people specifically (particularly boys) and those struggling to balance faith and the world. It’s a good read for anyone with a few hours to spare.
Karen Campbell is a Church-related Community Worker serving in Luton
This article was published in the October 2017 edition of Reform