Category: Book Review


Day 84 – Sleepers

I’ve managed to be getting more sleep lately, but with the help of a lot of sleeping tablets. This leaves me groggy in the morning and I have to be careful of my balance and footing. The bonus is, though, I’m getting some sleep. My steroids have been reduced gradually by half over the last fortnight, but I’m yet to see any change, since the dosage is still quite high. It’s been great to have Dad back in the unit and I finally feel like I’m getting used to living here. We had great news from the last bone marrow biopsy. There was no detectable Leukemia in the biopsy, even with the most sensitive tests. This means my new immune system is fighting the Leukemia in my body and God-willing will do so for the rest of my life. Praise God for that! One concern is, though, I’m eating as much as I can pretty much possibly eat, but I’m still losing weight. Please pray that that situation reverses and I start putting on weight.

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666 And All That

9078738Can you think of an entry level book on eschatology (the study of end things) pitched at your average church goer? I can think of only one: 666 And All That by John Dickson and Greg Clarke. That alone makes this a worthwhile book. In fact having only finished this book yesterday I’ve already handed it on to one of the nurses in the hospital. It was dead easy to lend. Eschatology is one of those subjects that most people are curious about and some people are obsessed with. So I want to offer some reflections on this book without actually having my copy of the book here by my side. But hopefully chemo brain has not completely frazzled my memory.

John Dickson and Greg Clarke have written an easy to read book that covers all the basics of eschatology. They talk about Jesus’ return, heaven, hell, judgement and a whole heap of other issues. Generally they handle things very well, in an accessible way. If I have a gripe with the book, and I do have a little one, it’s that they angle the book more toward non-Christians at the expense of people who’ve been sucked into some of the dodgy eschatology floating around, particularly dispensationalism. One of the longest sustained arguments in the book relates to speculating that God could save people through Jesus without them hearing the gospel. This seems a bizarre decision to me. I guess they’re aiming at an apologetic for the exclusive nature of the gospel, but they chew through a lot of pages in the process, for what is at the end of the day speculation. On the other hand they deal with the mark of the devil in a few cursory sentences and the millennial views in about a paragraph or two. I doubt many non-Christians are going to pick up a book on eschatology. The title of the book suggests inside knowledge of the Bible and the hot button issues. It’s too bad they didn’t pitch the rest of the book along the same lines.

So in the end what can I say? This book sits in a niche and as such is without peer as far as I’m aware. It does the job admirably even if I think the execution is not perfect. I suspect that those who are sold out on dispensationalism will not be persuaded by this book, but at least it will raise some issues for them. This book is most effective for the evangelical who’s curious about eschatology. It wades through some of the Christian ‘myths’ and straightforwardly sets out the key elements of eschatology. For that reason I highly recommend it for your average church goer. Unless of course someone knows another book that does the same thing…

Losing My Religion

41hnqvwfill-_sx324_bo1204203200_As I’ve done in the past, I want to offer some reflections on this book which I just finished reading. After big reviews from Rob at church I was very much looking forward to reading this book. It’s an assessment of unbelief in Australia and I’ve learnt plenty from reading it. Tom Frame attacks the idea of unbelief from several different angles, including historical, philosophical and theological. This approach has strengths and weaknesses. The strength is that if you’re relatively unfamiliar with philosophical influences, theological trends and overseas authors, he gives you a well-rounded appreciation of some of the factors in the mix. The weakness is that he spends less time actually focusing on unbelief in Australia.

Particularly insightful was Frame’s historical sections. I didn’t realise how pragmatically atheist Australia had begun. Religion really didn’t become a major part of the cultural landscape until close to Federation, when rising affluence led to a desire to express greater respectability. Religion was a key way to be respectable. Really the religious highpoint of Australian life was the first half of the twentieth century. The claim that this is a Christian nation is a debatable point. It didn’t start much that way and it doesn’t seem too much that way now, but there were some decades when it seemed so.

Another enlightening historical discovery was Frame’s reflection on more recent history. The terror attacks of 9/11 and the Bali bombing turned Western, and particularly Australian opinions on religion. Though the attacks were both perpetrated in the name of only one religion (Islam), religious ignorance (aren’t all religions much the same?) led the blame for such attacks to fall on religion in general (every religion has its extremists). Given that the vast majority of religious people in Australia are Christian, rather than Muslim, a lot of the heat and suspicion generated in response to such threats has been turned on Christians, who in many cases are the only ‘religious’ people someone might know. That seems a little unfair, but that’s the air we’ve come to breathe.

Given the strength of Frame’s historical work, I would have liked to have seen more of it. It seems to me, and maybe I’m being a bit too controversial, that there were significant sources of influence since the latter twentieth century which deserve some historical analysis for their part in promoting unbelief in Australia. The media comes immediately to mind. Have the media pushed a secularising agenda or is it just perception? Were there key players along the way that shaped media output in a particular direction? Was it the Christians fault for disengaging from media at some key stage? What about the effects of feminism on belief patterns? Has feminism been religiously neutral or has its widespread influence affected belief patterns? Were there particular feminist personalities who also pushed particular positions on belief? I have the same kinds of questions about the LGBT lobby. What about the rise of the Christian Democrat Party and Australian Christian Lobby? How do they play into the mix. These are controversial questions I know, but this is the kind of historical analysis I would have loved to see in this book.

Frame’s book is worth a read. Some sections might interest you more than others. I sense a certain defensiveness in his writing (or pastoral sensitivity), wanting to counter the voices of unbelief that he reports, which might leave you cheering or frustrated. But as a general introduction to unbelief in Australia he covers the bases well.

41wj1wgyn5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_This is the latest book I’ve read, and been wanting to read for some time now. It’s a biblical theology of the temple. Beale begins in Revelation 21 and points out that while in v1 John sees a new heaven and new earth, in v2 he sees the holy city Jerusalem coming down from heaven. In v9-27 the city is described using a series of temple images. Beale contends that all three are referring to the same thing. The new heavens and earth are the new Jerusalem which is a temple. The whole cosmos is pictured as a temple city. This, says Beale, is the consummation of an expectation that flows through all of Scripture, of an expanding temple project that would eventually cover the whole world.

Beale then goes back to Genesis 1 and 2 and traces that expectation throughout Scripture. In Genesis 1:28 God says to humanity, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Then in Genesis 2:15 Adam (and Eve) are put in the garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. How do we bring those two commands together? An ever expanding garden of Eden until it covers the Earth, filled with an ever-growing population, says Beale. He also makes connections between the garden of Eden and Israel’s tabernacle and temple. One interesting approach Beale takes is to notice the similarities between Israel’s temple and other temples of the Ancient Near East (ANE), and to investigate the symbology that ANE cultures saw in them.  The three part temple was common in the ANE, representing various parts of the cosmos. Beale points out those parts of the temple that likewise evoke images of the cosmos.

Beale points out the OT passages which expect temple growth. Is 4:5-6 and Jer 3:16-17 predict a temple that extends over all Jerusalem. Ezek 37:26-28 and Lev 26:10-13 expect the sanctuary to cover the entire promised land. This temple expectation is met in the NT by Jesus, and by the church which is his body, a temple of the Holy Spirit. Temple growth equates to world mission by his holy people. This returns us to the final consummation of this mission, in Revelation 21, a cosmos which is a garden temple.

Beale points out that this is a new idea. This ought to give us pause for thought as theology should not be about novelty. Beale throws up a wide variety of lines of investigation, some compelling and some tenuous. Does he make the case in the end? Well, you’ll have to read the book to decide for yourself. Personally I think the core of his case stands, even though I don’t follow him at every point. The book is well worth the read for the purposes of understanding biblical themes better, but not much outside the core of his thesis would be preachable. Often the points are made through highly technical connections that evade English translations and probably most Christians who sit in the pews. The core thesis, however, I think has value at a number of points:

  1. The connections made between the garden of Eden, tabernacle, temple, church and Revelation are a superb example of how Christ fulfils OT expectations. They challenge some of the limits people place on OT exegesis, limits which the NT writers seem to be serenely unaware of.
  2. Dispensationalism is fairly common in some church circles in Victoria. Beale’s biblical theological approach puts paid to many of the OT interpretations and predictions favoured by dispensationalism, and shows how Jesus is the divine ‘yes’ to all the promises of the OT (2 Cor 1:20).
  3. If the temple, the holiest place on earth, was put there by God with the intent of growing to fill the world, then holiness cannot be disconnected from evangelism. Holy Christians are also those who are engaged in Jesus’ mission. Churches that have lost the priority of evangelism have lost the big picture of what God is doing on earth right now, until the return of Jesus.

This is probably a book for pastors and super-keen Bible study leaders. Beale often assumes a theological education and some familiarity with the original languages, but someone well read could probably still navigate his book without missing too much.

Anna Karenina by Tolstoy

Caution: this review contains spoilers. This book is well worth reading, or at least watching one of the movies, and reading this review will thoroughly spoil it for you, so read on if you dare.

15823480This feels very ambitious, but here goes. I’ve read Anna Karenina (I’m not even sure I’m pronouncing it right) over the last week or two and thoroughly enjoyed it. The copy I’ve borrowed has over 1000 pages, so it’s no small undertaking. It is still a very popular book, even if it was first published in 1877 in Russian (I read the Maude English translation). In a nutshell the book contains two stories at the same time. The title story is a romance between Anna Karenina, wife of Karenin, with her lover, Count Vronsky. She starts by initially conducting a covert affair with Vronsky, but then moves out from her husband and sets up home with the Count. This leads to her being publicly ostracized by her high society friends and eventually she suicides (told you I’d spoil it for you).

Meanwhile another romance goes on between the country bumpkin Levin and the young city girl Kitty. Though Levin is older, and Kitty initially has a crush on Vronsky (there’s a lot of plot in this book), they end up marrying, having kids and living in the country. While Vronsky and Anna end up miserable, Kitty and Levin end up happy, although they have their fair share of troubles along the way.

So why read this book? Well don’t bother because I just wrecked the book for you. Having said that, at least watch one of the movies. Actually read the book, it’s masterfully written. Tolstoy has a way with words unlike few others. He is a genuine master storyteller. Maybe it was the chemo speaking, but I was actually brought to tears by his account of childbirth in this book. And I’ve seen 4 births! Everyone I meet who has read the book wants to talk to me about it. Most people ask the question: what do you think of Anna? Do you like her? It’s one of the key responses to the book: do you like the main character who commits adultery, abandons her family and hooks up with another guy? It’s an interesting question which I’ll put off till later while we examine another issue: Tolstoy’s main point.

What is Tolstoy’s main point in this book? Tolstoy gives us a couple of clues. His first sentence I think is key to understanding the book: “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There is a few happy families in the book, but the main happy family is Levin and Kitty. They follow the normal ‘plan’ for a family: love, marriage, children, productive service. Tolstoy sees this as instinctive and God-given. In his book there are several unhappy families, and all have deviated from the God-given plan. The key unhappy family is the relationship between Vronsky and Anna. By the end it seems that there is nothing they can do to be happy, so completely have they abandoned the plan. A lot of their unhappiness is supplied by their society, where Anna is very unfairly targeted as a woman of ill-repute, while Vronsky seems to get by without being publicly shamed.

The second clue is Tolstoy’s epigraph: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” This is a quote from the Bible, from Romans 12:19. Some connect this with a couple of moments of forgiveness in the story, one of which is quite key to the narrative. I’m less convinced. I suspect Tolstoy means this quote much more along the lines of Romans 1:18-32. Several times in that passage God gives people over to their depraved actions, and the consequences of their depravity form the punishment for the actions. In the same way I suspect that Tolstoy is saying that the unhappiness that comes from departing from God’s plan is part of God’s punishment for people ignoring his plan.

220px-annakareninatitleFew would agree with Tolstoy today, and yet this story still captures people’s imagination. Could Tolstoy be right? Is there an instinctive plan for happiness that God has put in our hearts of love, marriage, children and service? I think the Bible supports such an idea (although the order may not be quite so important: love before marriage is only a few hundred years old as an idea). I also think that our society, even as it supposedly leaves such antiquated notions behind, still ends up following the script. Where people depart the script it can be statistically shown that they are less happy (e.g. greater rates of domestic violence in de facto relationships). Perhaps Tolstoy has something to teach us?

Wonderfully, Tolstoy will teach us more than just to stick to God’s plan. Because of his great skill as a story-teller he’ll suck you into Anna’s world as well. Anna is a beautiful and charming woman trapped in a loveless marriage who only discovers what true love is when she is pursued by another man. She wrestles for a while with the temptation but then abandons herself to adultery and betrays her husband and abandons her son. Later she’ll torment Vronsky her lover and find herself trapped and isolated in her predicament, unable to undo the damage she’s done with no obvious way out. It feels easy to condemn her early on, but as she descends more and more into pretense and secret misery I find it hard not to sympathise with her. There’s no doubt that her society was unfairly cruel in punishing her alone for her adultery, but it’s also hard just to excuse her for betraying her husband and son. In Anna we see reflected ourselves, living with the consequences of our own sins, often trapped and ashamed. Dare we condemn Anna given what we’ve done?

I’m curious now to see the movies that have been made from this book. I suspect modern day cinema goers would struggle to condemn anyone who is being true to their emotions regardless of the damage left in their wake. Adultery is so commonplace in our society that in many instances it’s considered a good thing. But I think Tolstoy is a voice from the past worth a listen. If he’s right, and there’s a plan for life that leads to happiness, then wouldn’t we be stupid to ignore it?

Act and Being

I finished reading today Colin Gunton’s book Act and Being. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and again count myself grossly underqualified to offer a review. So let me reflect.

9780334028925Who’s this book for? I suspect formal theological education, or at least familiarity with heavy theological books is a prerequisite for reading this book. What made the book stimulating is Gunton’s characteristic big claims to be providing something fresh and new. I’m not widely enough read to know how new his work is, but he takes aim at about the last 2000 years of theologians, so he is certainly intending to be controversial. His main idea is that when it comes to discussing God’s attributes, theologians have typically followed pagan Greek philosophy instead of God’s self-revelation in the Bible. The height of that self-revelation is Jesus the incarnate Son, the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15).

I thought he made a good case against the ‘negative theology’ of Greek philosophy (which is actually pagan Greek theology), but I was waiting for the sustained exposition of what a positive theology of God’s attributes looks like. Instead Gunton interacts in a lot of debates and along the way sketches some components of what that might look like. By the end of the book I was still left waiting for him to give me the properly constructed doctrine of God. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention enough along the way?

What I did gather, I think, was that the core of God’s attributes ought to be that which God decides to communicate, not what the Greeks said. So what is the core? Holy love. Although Gunton didn’t quote it, my mind immediately went to Exodus 34:6-7

“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,  7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

This is God’s self-disclosure to Moses and I think holy love summarises these verses well. The other key statement about God is that he is spirit (John 4:24). Spirit doesn’t make him the exact opposite of people, since we humans also possess a spirit. Another interesting concept that Gunton addresses is the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God. Gunton points out that though the entirety of the incommunicable attributes cannot be given to us, portions of them can. God is omnipotent. We don’t become omnipotent, but God can empower us by his Spirit.

Gunton wants the emphasis to fall differently than classical theology, with holy love at the centre, and the other attributes used in the service of holy love. So God acts omnipotently in the world for holy love. He is omnipresent for the sake of holy love. Also, the stress on the unknowability of God has come to us again from the Greeks. The testimony of Scripture is that God has made himself known through Jesus (John 1:18). Whatever our doctrine of God we can’t say God can’t be known when God himself has acted in history to make himself known. That’s not to say that we know God completely. But God reveals true things about himself through Jesus, by the power of the Spirit.

The book is highly readable, even though the material is heavy. But make sure you pay attention along the way. I made the mistake of thinking the detailed teaching section was just around the corner, but it never came. You’ll have to pick up the details as he interacts with other authors along the way. I have one other gripe. He lapoons the last 2000 years of theologians for proof-texting their way through the doctrine of God, but then never offers more than one verse himself at a time. I almost feel like there’s another book waiting to be written, where the doctrine of God is set forth plainly as a teaching text, arranged appropriately with exegesis rather than proof texts.

One Forever

one-foreverOne Forever is a beautifully written book that’s easy to read and passes on great truths in a simple, understandable and elegant way. Rory uses union with Christ to move through doctrines such as creation, incarnation, salvation, justification, sanctification, ecclesiology (church), and eschatology (end times). He uses union as Paul does, the web that joins us together with big doctrines of Scripture, and so in that way is really helpful. This is a great book for the keen church-goer. The ideas are profound but the language is not too hard.

To be completely unfair to Rory, I approached this book thinking it was something entirely different. Some basic investigation should have corrected my fault. I approached this book thinking it would be the popularised version of Con Campbell’s Paul and Union with Christ. Given that both books were published in 2012, and Rory’s book is based off National Training Event lecturers from 2011, it was never going to be that book. So a question remains, are we still waiting for the popular book that will take Con’s work to the average pew-sitter in church? I think we are. Rory’s book covers some of the key concepts and links that union draws, but doesn’t cover the full breadth of the definition of union that Con concludes with. Now, I could be wrong about that, and if I wasn’t so lazy I’d work out exactly what the overlaps and gaps were. Perhaps someone else has already done that. But I still think, even though Rory’s book is very good, there’s room for another, using a similar approach to Rory: clear, simple, accessible, practical, that picks up on Con’s work and makes it accessible to Mr. Joe Average.

So in summary, I highly recommend Rory’s book and look forward to someone writing another like it that popularises Con’s hard work. Maybe Con will write it?

Ways of Judgment

9780802863461Well, it’s taken me over a year, but I’ve finally finished off Oliver O’Donovan’s Ways of Judgment. I won’t pretend to be in any way qualified to offer a review of the book. I barely understood it. It’s a very heavy read and required all my concentration. At times I wasn’t sure I really understood what he was saying and at other times I knew that I definitely didn’t. Yet it’s not like it was a waste of time. The book is about political ethics, the sequel to The Desire of the Nations, which is political theology.

Rather than go into any details of the book (which I will almost certainly misrepresent), let me give you a little tidbit which has stuck with me from reading the two books, which is perhaps relevant in our current context. O’Donovan says the Kingdom of Yahweh from the OT can be divided into three aspects: salvation, judgement and possession. All aspects are fulfilled in Christ, but a temporary role of judgement has been handed to the secular (i.e. of this world) leaders to carry out. Judgement is more than just purely running a court system, but it must be distinguished from possession and salvation. What does that mean in practice? One outcome is that it is not the role of government to transform society (for better or worse).  From a Christian point of view that is the role of the church, through preaching the word, love, example, etc. Governments that set themselves that task do so in opposition to God. They take more authority to themselves than he has given.

This is interesting in the marriage equality debate and the growing gender debate. Many are calling on the government to empower itself to begin transforming social institutions such as marriage and redefining gender terms, in order to protect the dignity of vulnerable communities. While we ought always be concerned for the dignity of our fellow image-bearers, to give the role of assigning dignity to the government is a very strange and dangerous turn. Why should the government get to decide who can and cannot have dignity? Why would we trust them with that power? The proper place to find dignity is as an image bearer of God. This insight may not be much use as I try to talk to my local member about his support for same-sex marriage, but it does help make decisions about what political issues matter. I think that’s been the chief help for me from the long slog through both books. That’s about all I’ve got to offer. If you want a useful review then there’s always google…

Groundhog Day

It feels like this blog is becoming more a commentary on Matthew than an insight into my cancer journey. Largely this is because most days are just the same. Nights are probably harder than days, in that I have to get up several times a night for pit stops, and I’m still trying to find the perfect earplugs for my delicate princess ears. The side effects remain mild and I thank God for the break I’m getting to read those books that have been sitting on my shelf for years.

51-vmqvat8l-_sy344_bo1204203200_One of the books I just finished was Paul and Union With Christ by Con Campbell. I feel woefully unqualified to offer a review, but here’s some reflections on the book instead. It’s been a long slog for me, largely because of the comprehensive nature of Con’s book. In my pride I felt I couldn’t skip any pages, but having said that I’d recommend probably skipping the exegetical section if you struggle to read large slabs of pages. It’s not that exegesis is boring or unnecessary, but I found personally that the rewards were found later in the book. All respect to Con, though, for showing his working.

So what did I especially get out of the book? Apart from appreciating the comprehensive work on union, I particularly enjoyed Con’s work on representation vs. substitution and participation vs. imputation. Spoiler: one doesn’t cancel the other out. Other issues of interest to me were handled in a briefer manner and I suspect would do little to convince people of a new position, but given the massive scope of this book that’s understandable.

There’s work to be done by us preachers in light of this book to communicate union more clearly. I think I’ll put Rory Shiner’s One Forever on my reading list for some ideas. If you’ve got some good illustration ideas for union, participation, identification, incorporation (Con’s definition of union with Christ) then I’d love to hear your ideas.

Reflections on Matthew 9:18-38

That faith theme just keeps on rolling, doesn’t it? The ruler makes a most amazing statement of faith (7:18), assigning to Jesus a power he hasn’t yet demonstrated in Matthew’s Gospel – the power to raise the dead. Along the way to the ruler’s house Jesus points out to the bleeding woman that it was her faith that healed her (7:22). The lack of faith by the flute players and noisy crowd shows just how strong the faith of the ruler is in Jesus. The two blind men also proclaim their faith in Jesus (7:28) and it is done to them according to their faith. We also see the faith of the mute man’s friends (7:32)

The faithlessness of the Pharisees therefore stands out after this long list of the faithful. Though the evidence is clearly before them, they choose to interpret it wrongly, as the work of Satan. It’s not lack of evidence that they struggled with, it was Jesus. Many today I think are the same. There’s not a lack of evidence for Jesus, but to respond in faith is to trust Jesus with your life, in a day when the myth of control of your life is everything. Supposedly we are free and can do whatever we like. In reality we are harassed by life, like sheep without a shepherd, enslaved by the things we love so that we are owned by the things we possess. As I listen in the ward I hear the darkness in the hearts of those whose eyes are bad (6:23), who cling to the hope of a new possession (e.g. sports car) or a new holiday once they are out of the ward, as their hope of making the most of life. But this is to follow the same path that led them into the ward, one that hasn’t left them in here feeling content, but empty. If only every follower of Jesus could see through the bravado of our culture to see the emptiness in the hearts of Australians. Then perhaps we would volunteer to stand up and be the workers in the fields, ripe for harvest (9:38). Rather than being overawed by people’s possessions or holidays, let’s show compassion to those whom Jesus says are lost, by speaking the good news of the kingdom.

Since I’m in hospital and reading books I thought it worth reflecting on some of the books that I’m getting to read. Saving Eutychus is a book on preaching I’ve wanted to read for a while, and now by God’s grace got the chance to here in hospital. I’m not going to claim this is a book review, but I here’s some thoughts:

  1. For training new preachers, this is a great book, but I wouldn’t recommend it alone. I think it would make a great companion book with Setting Hearts on Fire by John Chapman, which contains a lot more of the practical. Saving Euthychus takes Setting Hearts on Fire up one level. Of course preacher training cannot be achieved by just giving people books to read, but these two books together would make a great starting resource.
  2. Preaching for those newly out of Bible college. This is a very stimulating book for the preacher newly out of college, or even for someone who’s been preaching for a while. I appreciated the push to simplify our preaching without dumbing it down, but really the stand out chapter for me was ch 5, where Gary outlined 9 pathways to do biblical theology well in OT passages. For me, this chapter justified the cost of the book alone.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book if you’ve read it…