Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: Robertson – Dawkins Letters

November 21, 2010

Dawkins Letters

David Robertson is a Scottish Presbyterian who ministers in Dundee. Having read Dawkins ‘God Delusion’ he decided to respond with a series of letters addressing the major themes of the book. These include letters addressing: the notion that atheists are the truly enlightened, intelligent ones; the impossibility of true beauty without God; the myth of atheist tolerance and rationality; the myth of a cruel Old Testament God; the false dichotomy Dawkins creates between science and religion; the “who made God?” argument; the nonsense that all religion is inherently evil; the myth of morality within an atheistic worldview; the myth of an immoral bible, and; the charge of child abuse.

Where to start? The first half of the book is definitely less persuasive than the latter. One might conjecture that Robertson’s understandable irritation with Dawkins slides off into sarcasm and thus dents the force of his presentation. Seriously critiquing Dawkins view of “multiverses” could have been achieved without mockery. Even if, especially at this point, one does think that Dawkins might deserve a dose of his own medicine. Further, the brevity he must deal with each topic to fit his chosen format (short letters), inevitably leads to some shortcuts in his arguments. For example, Robertson doesn’t really address some of the real moral problems from reading the Old Testament. This is an area he really should have spent considerably more time on, as it’s something one hears more and more often. His letter on this, frankly, comes across as assertion rather than explanation for how Christians view this problematic material. It lacks substance and wanders off into preaching/proclamation rather than tackling the difficulties. This was the most disappointing chapter in the book.

Nonetheless, things pick up considerably in the second half of the book. The tone changes, becoming less polemical, and far more compellingly argued. Indeed, the strongest letters cover the basis for morality without God and whether religion is really the source of all evil. Here Robertson takes Dawkins to task for his continual oversimplification, ad hominem polemics, failure to express what Christians actually believe rather than his straw-man caricatures, and his genuine failure to engage informed and erudite Christian tradition. To say one does not need to know about spaghetti monsters is surely effective and clever rhetoric, but is simply a strategy of evasion, an utter cop-out to avoid being challenged by the best of Christian thought. The latter half of the book also pushes Dawkins to consider the outcome of his polemics and where it might lead, especially in view of the irresponsible charge of child abuse.

Overall, Robertson’s book is well worth reading, if only for the latter half of the book, which is passionately expressed, critically on target, and better representative of the concerns about the underlying philosophy Dawkins holds. Moral relativity and the drive of the selfish gene unchecked by the good, loving, and holy God revealed in the face of Jesus, are more likely to lead to ‘might is right’ and ‘the ends justify the means’ than ‘care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in your midst’ and ‘love your neighbour’.

Perhaps some day, when the heat has gone out of the current polemics, Robertson will write a much more lengthy and detailed response. If he does, I’d be glad to read it.

I.C. Rating 7/10


Fifteen Authors Meme

November 18, 2010

In this meme, you’ve to list the fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Don’t forget to let me know what you’ve chosen either here or on Facebook as I’d like to know!

Originally, I thought, ‘fifteen’? Actually, in less than three minutes I was up to seventeen and had to cut a couple. So here’s my list in no particular order:

  1. C.S. Lewis
  2. Tom Wright
  3. Richard Bauckham
  4. T. Desmond (Desi) Alexander
  5. Gordon Wenham
  6. Scot McKnight
  7. Marianne Meye Thompson
  8. Dallas Willard
  9. Bill Craig
  10. Keith Ward
  11. G.L. Prestige
  12. T.F. Torrance
  13. Tertullian
  14. Athanasius
  15. John Myendorff

Looking at this list with so many Anglicans probably helps explain why I’ve found myself in an Anglican church.

Wesleyan Wednesdays: Sufficient Saving Grace

September 22, 2010

While thinking about what I’d cover this week in my continuing quest to understand Wesley and the movement he founded, I recalled a book gathering dust on a shelf: Herbert Boyd McGonigle’s Sufficient Saving Grace: John Wesley’s Evangelical Arminianism. I’ve never gotten around to reading this, so we’ll chalk up my decision to start a series on Wesleyanism and remembering about this book as the gentle guiding hand of providence.

Essentially, the book investigates the origins, nature, and development of John Wesley’s Arminian theology. It opens with a summary of Jacobus Arminius’ revision of Dutch Calvinism and continues by tracing the growth of Arminian theology in 17th century England.

Wesley inherited anti-Calvinistic convictions from his parents, and defined and defended them in three doctrinal controversies with his Calvinistic Methodist contemporaries. Although Wesley had read Arminius, his “Arminianism” really grew out of one strain of Anglicanism, not Dutch Remonstrant theology. The book seeks to demonstrate that Wesley promoted a form of evangelical Arminianism that embraced the biblical doctrines of sin, grace and salvation without recourse to “Five-Point Calvinism”.

Close attention is given to Wesley’s teaching on original sin, justification by faith, the witness of the Spirit, and what he designated Methodism’s “grand depositum” – the doctrine of scriptural holiness.

Over the following weeks, Wesleyan Wednesdays will treat one chapter at a time of this book. As a newbie to this particular scholarly discussion, I hope my Methodist friends will feel free to chime in and correct me (and McGonigle) if I misunderstand the nuances.

Thy undistinguishing regard
Was cast on Adam’s fallen race;
For all Thou hast in Christ prepared
Sufficient, sovereign, saving grace.

Charles Wesley

Simply Christian: Introduction & Orientation

September 21, 2010

Some people like to jump straight into a book at the first chapter. Others prefer to read the introduction and gain an understanding of the general shape of the argument, and this allows them to grasp better the individual parts along the way. This post is for the latter folk – people like me.

Wright’s basic aim in the book was to describe what Christianity is all about, “both to commend it to those outside the faith and to explain it to those inside.” (ix) He doesn’t remotely pretend to have covered everything, but has tried to give the subject a particular threefold shape.

In the first part, Wright explores four points of contact with today’s world which he suggests are the echoes of a voice: “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationship, and the delight in beauty.” (ix) The echoes point beyond themselves to something deeper, more profound, and Wright wants us to keep them in mind as we progress through the book. Having raised important questions in this first part, he will gradually offer answers to them in Parts 2 and 3. All he asks is the patience to bear with him, to wait until everything gets tied together by the end of the book.

Part 2 focuses on the Christian belief about God, that: there is only one true and living God, and this God is to be known in the face of Jesus; this God called the Jewish people to be his special agents in advancing his plans to rescue and restore his good creation, and; this God acts now by his Spirit. Thus,  

Gradually, as this part unfolds, we discover that the voice whose echoes we began to listen for in the first place becomes recognizable, as we reflect on the creator God who longs to put his world to rights; on the human being called Jesus who announced God’s kingdom, died on a cross, and rose again; and on the Spirit, who blows like a powerful wind through the world and through human lives. (x)

Part 3 imagines what it looks like in practice to follow Jesus, be energized by the Spirit of God, and advance the plan of the creator God (i.e., worship, prayer, Scripture, mission, new creation etc.). This leads us to think about the “church”, not as a building or an institution, but as the community of believers who try to follow Jesus. Indeed, what is the church there for, because following Jesus isn’t simply about wanting to ensure a better afterlife. 

Our future beyond death is enormously important, but the nature of the Christian hope is such that it plays back into the present life. We’re called, here and now, to be instruments of God’s new creation, the world-put-to-rights which has already been launched in Jesus and of which Jesus’ followers are supposed to be not simply beneficiaries but also agents. (x)

This gives us a new angle to approach prayer/Christian behaviour, and enables us “to find the “echoes” of the first part coming back again, not now as hints of a God we might learn to know for ourselves, but as key elements of the Christian calling to work for his kingdom within the world.” (x)

To buy: Simply Christian

Simply Christian

September 19, 2010

One of the things I’d like to do over the life of this blog is provide some accessible resources for the church. As such, from time to time, I’ll blog through one of the introductory books on Christianity. As each of these is slightly different and will have varying appeal depending on one’s presuppositions and personality/temperament, I intend to cover a range of material such as Stott’s Basic Christianity or Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Over the next couple of weeks though, I’m going to post on Tom Wright’s Simply Christian, which the blurb on the back cover describes as:

Why is justice fair? Why are so many people pursuing spirituality? Why do we crave relationship? And why is beauty so beautiful? N. T. Wright argues that each of these questions takes us into the mystery of who God is and what he wants from us. For two thousand years Christianity has claimed to answer these mysteries, and this renowned biblical scholar and Anglican bishop shows that it still does today. Like C. S. Lewis did in his classic Mere Christianity, Wright makes the case for Christian faith from the ground up, assuming that the reader is starting from ground zero with no predisposition to and perhaps even some negativity toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. His goal is to describe Christianity in as simple and accessible, yet hopefully attractive and exciting, a way as possible, both to say to outsiders ‘You might want to look at this further,’ and to say to insiders ‘You may not have quite understood this bit clearly yet.’

By the way, if anyone has any books they’d like me to look through or blog on, please do let me know either in the comments or by email (which can be found on my “About” page).

Love, Sex, and Grace

September 15, 2010

Having finally started to recover from the horrendous evils of near-fatal man-flu (that’s how it felt anyway), I’m back to blogging properly again. On the recommendation of Chaplain Mike, I’ve just finished reading Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace. While reading Capon, I’ve been pondering the true nature of love, which is why there has been the odd post of love poetry recently. There would have been more, but, so I’ve been told in no uncertain terms, this does not say to others that I’m a romantic soul, rather, that I’m a “big girl’s blouse”. Now, I don’t normally pay much mind to what others think of me. Yet, this time I’m going to cease and desist, for I do not exactly have a reputation for being Mr Smooth. Among my dating debacles are to be found: buying chocolates for the girl with diabetes; giving flowers to a girl with allergies, and; ordering steak, rare and bloody, when out for dinner with a vegetarian. Seriously though, how was I supposed to know? There’s no doubt that Cupid has shot me with his arrow; unfortunately it was right in the back, squarely between the shoulder blades. Sigh. Anyway, enough of doing my therapy in public and back to Capon…

Warning: rant follows, avoid if squeamish

I’m not even going to attempt a full review/interaction with Capon’s book, needless to say, it’s all about grace. In fact, Capon rightly believes that God’s completely free gift of grace to us hideous sinners is so shocking that he’ll try to shock his readers into pondering it afresh. To this end, he gives us a “parable” of his own devising, just an aesthetic image to bring everything into focus.

His yarn is woven around Paul and Laura, two adulterous lovers, one is a college professor and the other is his student. Capon warns us from the outset that nothing bad will happen to them, their spouses will never know, and they’ll have a perfectly wonderful time; he even indulges in describing one of their tawdry, afternoon sex-sessions. During the parable, Paul confesses all to Laura – about his current string of mistresses of which she is just one. He confesses that he has no intention of giving these others up for her, let alone his poor wife. Laura, in an act of utter “grace”, simply accepts Paul for the worthless wretch he undoubtedly is.

Thus, in fictional form, Capon tells us that we’ve been given an insight into the radical nature of grace, even, or perhaps especially, in a story which shocks our moral and ethical sensibilities. If we can grasp the essence of grace as he’s presented it to us, then we’ll be able to see more clearly how even more radical and shocking God’s grace is for us. Not only did this grace land Jesus on a Roman cross, but this grace raises spiritual corpses; grace is life-giving and it brings resurrection.

Where to start? Perhaps it is because I’ve been very heavily influenced by my studies on the development of Orthodoxy with its doctrine of theosis, participating in the very life of God with everything that entails (not to mention Wesley on sanctification, even if he went too far), but I really didn’t like this book. Capon himself tells us that Christian truth is often two-sided and paradoxical and we must hold both truths together to be faithful. In my view, Capon fails in this regard in a manner which is unsatisfactory theologically, and close to pastorally irresponsible. Given the nature of the book, I am genuinely baffled by the kind of Christian subculture Capon feels he must address in the manner he does, for one’s imagination would conjure up some sort of semi-Pelagian form of medieval Roman Catholicism. If so, perhaps my complete unfamiliarity with such a beast partly explains why I found the book to be a bit of a dud – I don’t need to read 300 pages repeating ad nauseam “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” I get it. Honestly. I really do.

I really want to applaud Capon for trying to address this warped version of Christianity, but I just think he has only succeeded in giving us something as equally imbalanced to replace it;  something which comes very close to an unpleasant dualism between grace and works – more anon. Nonetheless, specifically, Capon’s parable self-destructs. His protagonists are both complicit in acts of wanton betrayal and treachery. Whatever grace they find or provide for one another is always at someone else’s expense, not their own. By contrast, God’s grace is so supremely radical because it is given from a position of absolute holiness. Where we should expect judgement, we find grace. God reaches out to us in the costly vulnerability of love; truly risking all for our sakes.  Capon’s “parable” doesn’t give us anything resembling this. The “parable” may only have been used as a tactic to shock us into sitting up and paying attention, but anyone who has seen the devastation wreaked upon the lives of those left trailing in the wake of adultery will find his cavalier aesthetic, to say the least, leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

So, yes, we are saved by grace alone through faith – not by our own hands or attempts to curry favour with the Almighty. Absolutely. This is a precious truth – thank God. But one fears that Capon’s telling of this may lead us to be paralyzed by it. He separates out confession/repentance from any causally-intertwined relationship with reform. This may be so in solely human relationships. However, in the context of the divine-human embrace, it is God’s own Spirit which indwells the repentant heart. It is God’s own Spirit who vivifies our rotten spiritual corpses, who renews and transforms us, conforming us to the image of the Son, Christ our Lord. God’s own Spirit does this work and it is an essential feature of any discussion of grace, law and works. We can’t simply read Rom 8:1 that “now there is no condemnation” without fully taking on board the rest of that glorious chapter in Romans. Yet, in Capon’s parable, Paul has an absolute determination to continue just as before – to continue wholeheartedly (unrepentantly) in sin. What a pale shadow his “repentance/confession” casts. There is a different character altogether to confession to God (metanoia meaning ‘to turn around’). As such, in what sense is this really reckoning with the true meaning of the grace God has offered us in Christ? As Ken Schenck put it a few days ago, “Christian groups may differ in their definitions of sin and they may differ in how much they think a Christian will normally sin, but no tradition worthy of the name Christian will teach that Christians will continue to sin no differently than before they received the Holy Spirit.” This is very different to the portrait given us by Capon in his parable. [Quite coincidentally, there have been a number of posts about this issue around the blogs recently.]

The great emphasis of many a NT writer is that we are saved by grace through faith for works (just read the Book of Revelation alone on works!). This can’t be disregarded. Capon has focused intently on grace but to the detriment of sanctification and the “obedience of faith”. It’s a great shame that he has given us something so totally imbalanced, skewing the bigger picture, especially when it’s apparent that he can be more careful and nuanced when he wishes and could have provided us with a much more adequate wrestling with these difficult issues. For example, he makes clear that grace does not mean that moral order has been abrogated.

Even if I trifle with those demands in a fiction – even if God in his grace is willing to trifle with them by accepting us despite our transgressions of them – there is simply no way of coming to a serious conclusion that morality has been set aside. The law remains the standard of our nature. To be what the law says we should be is the only way we can be what we really are. No one breaks the law with impunity because by every transgression we and the society in which we live become progressively and perceivably less human. But for all that, no matter how far below the level of our true humanity we sink, we retain some vision, however clouded, of what that humanity is. The law stands as a vision of the true beauty of our nature: in most instances, we go on wishing that we ourselves could have kept it, and we are in all instances fully convinced that our neighbors should have kept it. The few pleasant delinquencies for which we manage to fake out permission remain just that: few. (Capon:148–149)

When he writes like this it just leaves me incredibly disappointed and frustrated, imagining what this book might have been. I did, however, enjoy thinking through his musings on the atonement/reconciliation to God and on hell/judgement. And he does cut right to the chase on grace at points too:

the last rule of the life of grace is that nothing can separate you from it. Not your faults, not your vices, not your being a brat about refusing the cross – not even your rubbing salt into the wounds of Christ or kicking God when he’s down. Because he took you by a voluntary crucifixion for your sake, and he takes it all as the price of taking you.

Wonderful! But again, let’s not allow this to downplay what happens to our lives beyond confession and turning to God.

Finally, Capon’s own vulgar and ad hominem style (which seems to aim at insulting his readers as much as possible along the way) doesn’t inspire me at all. He is at his best as a communicator when he stops trying to be edgy and provocative and, consequently, much better conveys grace. Ironically, his style continually draws one’s eyes to Capon himself and away from the subject of the book – the wondrous grace of God. Personally, I think this whole discussion of grace, law, and works needs to be reconfigured in terms of love: our loving response to God’s act of exuberant and gratuitous grace and love in Christ and by his Spirit.

I’ll leave the last word to Tom Wright:

Never allow yourself to get into the way of thinking that, just because nothing you can do can earn his favour, God isn’t pleased with what you attempt in his name. Precisely because love cannot be earned or deserved, it is always delighted when it receives answering love.

I.C. Rating: 5/10
To buy: In the US; In the UK

“Sleepfaring” – A Journey Through Sleep

August 17, 2010

I’ve just finished reading Jim Horne’s book on the science of sleep: Sleepfaring. As someone with terrible trouble sleeping, I knew I had to buy this book to see out the lonely, dark, wee hours of the night.


Although Sleepfaring is actually a serious look at the science of sleep, it is written with a dry wit which provides an amazing amount of material without appearing as information overload. From explaining that some animals go to sleep with half of their brain at a time (dolphins) to describing the (self-inflicted!) effects of sleep-deprivation on someone who stayed awake for 11 days (264 hours!), this book is a treasure trove for boring the pants off everyone at your next party with all sorts of weird and wonderful sleep-related trivia. Moreover, as sleep scientists discovered, quite a number of participants in sleep-deprivation experiments “passed through periods of giddiness and silly laughter, like addled drunks, when their behaviour became uninhibited” [p.80]. So, when you’ve had a few too many glasses of sauvignon blanc at that party, you can afterwards explain away all of your obstreperous and rambunctious conduct simply to manifesting the symptoms of chronic insomnia! At least, that’s my new excuse and I’m sticking to it!

Horne takes you through various types of sleep experiments; what REM and non-REM sleep are; what alpha, beta, theta, and delta waves really are; the effects of sleepiness on driving – i.e., don’t do it!; the body clock or circadian rhythm; how to beat jetlag; dreams; how much sleep we really need and insomnia (I didn’t think he was terribly sympathetic to sufferers – i.e., they’re really just stress-pots, rather unfair); sleep apnoea; sleep in children and much more.

The Important Stuff

Disappointingly, no new wonderful insights are offered into the causes or treatment of insomnia beyond the usual suggestions:
– try to deal with stress and worries during the waking day – i.e., before you go to bed;
– the bedroom should be a place for relaxation and sleep only, not a workplace;
– hide the alarm clock, for you only need to know when to get up, not to be worrying and fretting about how little sleep you seem to be getting and making the whole problem worse;
– when you wake up/can’t get over – give up, get up, and go into a different room and do a jigsaw puzzle. Apparently, this is better and more engaging for the mind than passive activities like reading or watching tv and thus more likely to make you sleepy. Repeat if necessary. This was a new suggestion to me;
– Have a warm bath before bed. Apparently, our body temperature drops slightly in preparation for sleep and after a bath, our bodies overcompensate by trying to rid themselves of excess heat which aids in our preparation for bed.
– The most harsh way to try to reset the body clock is through a drastic sleep restriction programme. E.g., most people sleep an average of 7-7.5 hours a night. Thus, ideally we wish to sleep between midnight and 7am. Therefore, on the first night we subtract an hour from each end of the spectrum – in other words, go to bed at 1am and get up at 6am. Even should you only get three hours sleep that night, you’ll know that you’ll have built up sleep pressure for the following night. Eventually, this is changed to midnight and getting up at 7am. If you rigidly stick to this program, your body clock will reset itself. Just remember, no naps during the day. Getting as much sunlight as possible during the day helps get your body acclimatized to daytime wakefulness. (I’ve tried this, and it wasn’t exactly successful – I just ended up an exhausted wreck and zombie – maybe it’ll work for you.)

Anyway, if you’re interested in a journey through the science of sleep, you’ll enjoy this book. Well worth reading. 7/10

To buy: In the US; In the UK (cheapest through the Book Depository – free worldwide shipping).

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Scot McKnight’s “Praying with the Church”

August 1, 2010

Praying with the Church: Developing a Daily Rhythm for Devotional Life

As one who is originally from a very low church background, I appreciated what McKnight was trying to achieve with this little book: to demonstrate the value of regular fixed hours of prayer by using a traditional prayer book. He suggests that not only should we maintain our own “spontaneous” prayers, but that by using the traditional set prayers from various traditions, we can learn to pray with the Church – not alone within the church, but with it.

The first part of the book deals with Jesus in prayer and the wider Jewish tradition. The second part of the book introduces us to each of the major prayer books of the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox, and the Anglican traditions. He gives a useful sketch of what each entails and how they might be profitably used based on his own experience.

Importantly, McKnight points out that having fixed hours of prayer helps to reorientate our lives around a sacred rhythm. We should no longer shape our day around “breakfast, lunch, and dinner”, or “before work, work, and after work”, but rather around our times of prayer. Thus, we centre our daily lives around our communion with God, and after the pattern of Jesus’ own praxis.

This was a short, helpful little book for those new to prayer books and set times of prayer. I’ve even been persuaded to start using  The Book of Common Prayer (the Anglican one) in concert with Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours. I’ll use them for a few months and then maybe give an update on how I’ve found my journey. My only complaint about the book is that it is over-punctuated with personal testimonies of the value others have found in taking up set times of prayer. It’s not that I object to doing this in general, rather that it was a bit overdone – there wasn’t any need for quite so many. Nonetheless, 7/10.

To Buy: In the UK; In the USA (it’s on at a bargain price at the moment!)

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