Book Reviews

Book review: What Christians Ought to Believe

What Christians Ought to Believe:
An introduction to Christian doctrine through the Apostles’ Creed.
Michael F. Bird, Zondervan, 2016

As a self-confessed fan of the Apostles’ Creed, I was excited to see that Michael Bird had written this book. After reading it I am now even more excited about the book and recommend it to both fans of the Creed and those who are perhaps a little less enthusiastic in their desire to use the Creed in their churches.

What Christians Ought to Believe is remarkably readable, profoundly relevant to our time, and deeply theological as well as practical in terms of a life of Christian faith. Even if your church isn’t an Apostles’ Creed reciting type of church, the contents of this book will inform your mind, encourage your heart and strengthen your faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Bird uses the Apostles’ Creed to structure this book, which is really a primer on the theological basics all Christians would find it useful to reflect on and know. Most chapters of the book cover one or two lines of the Creed, which is broken up into appropriate bite (or chapter) sized chunks. However before he gets to the Creed, Bird whets our appetite with three preliminary chapters. Chapter 1 gives a brief and helpful recap of the history of Christian creeds; Chapter 2 discusses the biblical canon and church creeds, how they go together and why we need the creeds; and Chapter 3 is a fascinating reflection on the first two words of the Apostles’ Creed: ‘I believe’. What does it really mean to have Christian faith, how do faith and obedience relate to each other, and what are we to do with doubts are big questions that are covered briefly but helpfully in this chapter. From here, Bird launches into the substance of the Apostles’ Creed, which is covered in the remaining eleven chapters of this book.

Perhaps surprisingly for a book about Christian doctrine, this book is written in a chatty and anecdotal style, which I found made it both engaging and relevant. As Chapter 3 addresses the question of ‘What is faith?’, we’re pointed to Kenny Rogers’ and George Michael’s use of the words ‘faith’ and ‘believe.’ The beginning of Chapter 7 recounts a late-night comedy show’s take on the virgin birth. And when thinking about the return of Jesus, the ‘end of the Christian story’, Bird compares this with the end of The Return of the Jedi and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Bird’s anecdotes and illustrations are apt and make for enjoyable reading.

This book shows a refreshing willingness to ask the hard questions about Christian faith and about the Creed. These hard questions are addressed and honestly discussed rather than swept under the carpet. When we say we believe in ‘God, the Father almighty’, is this not just hopelessly patriarchal? As mentioned, the difficulty of the virgin birth is admitted before constructive discussion. During this discussion Bird reveals his view that ‘no one should be yelled down for asking honest questions raised by reading the biblical texts’ (p102), which is a refreshingly non-defensive approach to the Bible, Christian faith and the Creed. Bird also opens chapter 6 with the intriguing statement that ‘There is sadly a major deficiency in the Apostles’ Creed’. I’ll leave you to discover this deficiency for yourself, but this chapter doesn’t despair and ditch the Creed, but rather concludes with this lovely sentence:

‘The most confronting issue about Christian faith is not any single idea—as if “Christianity” can be reduced to an “idea”; rather the most challenging aspect is a person: Jesus’ (p. 96).

Bird displays an ability to unveil the beauty of many deep theological truths in this book, as well as a commitment to sharing the practical implications of how the theological truths summarised in the Apostles’ Creed make a difference in our everyday lives of Christian faith. From reflecting on the implications of a declaration that ‘Jesus is Lord’, to thinking about the practical consequences of Jesus’ ascension, to wondering why the return of Jesus really matters to us, Bird challenges not just what we believe as followers of Jesus but how we live as his people each day.
This book has been a delight to read. I’ve learnt new things, been encouraged with a deeper understanding of old truths and been challenged by the profoundly practical implications of the central truths of the Christian faith.
Natalie Rosner, Vic

Book Review: Strange Days

Strange Days:
Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval.
Mark Sayers, Moody Publishers, 2017

In Strange Days, Mark Sayers starts with a personal story that captures the uncertainty and fear of our modern world. After smoothly flying to Europe over various conflict hotspots he finds out:

‘Another Malaysian Airlines jet has gone down—shot down, I’d later learn, over a conflict zone. The plane had been traveling opposite of mine, at roughly the same time, filled with fellow Australians and other nationalities. Torn from the sky. That thin skin, that fragile membrane of security peeled away. I shake my head. The world is going mad.’

It’s a compelling opening. Despite all the benefits of technology and travel, life appears chaotic and insecure. What are Christians to make of this age of terrorism and political dysfunction? How should we respond to the flood of social media and radical changes of globalization? Strange Days aims to help Christians think about this world in flux. Sayers writes:

‘My goal is to grasp our cultural moment, to help you understand its landscape. There is a pattern to the chaos, and what is more, there is a door out, into the holy expanse that is life in the Spirit.’

The book does this in 3 parts. Parts 1 and 2 consider the Biblical and historical patterns of chaos. Part 3 then explores the Christian response to this time of upheaval: the ‘Life in the Spirit’ of the book’s subtitle.

Is this book brilliant or flawed? I found it hard to decide. Sayers’ dense writing, so arresting in the introduction, became wearying as the book went on and I wished for a more plain style, even if it took more words. Some sentences offered profound insight into our culture and context, but it seemed that every sentence was written as if I should consider it profound, until I couldn’t tell if it was anymore. The book interprets the upheaval of our times as a striving for a sense of place, but I found myself questioning whether this interpretive lens was correct. Surely it is unlikely that the chaos of our world can be neatly slotted into a single overarching narrative?

Unfortunately, that narrative is assumed more than argued for. The book gives only sixteen pages to Part 1, which means the biblical data that the rest of the book builds upon is poorly sketched. Was Cain’s building of a city in Genesis 4:16-17 really ‘an attempt to carve out meaning and legacy apart from God’? Perhaps, but the point isn’t adequately explained. Much of the use of the Bible felt deductive rather than inductive. As a result, I found myself unconvinced that the categories of place, sacrifice and purity really provided the right lens through which to see our tumultuous world.

There are both strengths and weaknesses in Sayers’ historical analysis. The reflection on the fall of the Berlin wall and the rise of the age of optimism is excellent. It helped me understand more about the origins of globalization and the achievement culture we now live in. However, his depiction of online environments as ‘non-places’ is disappointing. Along with communal, commercial spaces like cafes and airports, he presents them negatively: ‘There is no shared identity there, no story in the soil, no legends of a people or group.’ And yet, many in today’s world feel otherwise and genuinely find a home and relationships there. Are there not some aspects of the online world that are redeemable and good for the believer? I wanted Strange Days to dig deeper into questions like this.

In the end, Strange Days would have been better if it had been longer. A longer book would have allowed for more detailed exegesis of critical Bible passages, more sustained and convincing arguments, a simpler writing style and allowed greater scope for unpacking complexity rather than forcing evidence to fit particular categories. Nevertheless, Sayers’ final landing point is tremendous. In the midst of the confusion of our age, he directs Christians towards deep discipleship that looks to the word of God, prioritizes the fellowship of the church, rejects the influence of the world and so stands as salt and light, holding out the joy-giving gospel of Jesus.

Jeff Hunt, WA

Book Review: Workship

How to use your work to worship God
Kara Martin
Graceworks, 2017

The title Workship encapsulates Kara Martin’s application of Romans 12:1-2 to the whole life of the Christian, not least one’s attitudes and habits in the “secular” workplace. Many others have written on this theme, not least our own Robert Banks. The strength of Martin’s book is that it provides not only biblical principles, but also stories and practical examples that illustrate both the realities of the workplace and possible Christian responses.

Workship is presented in such an accessible way that it would be a helpful workbook for individual and group study. It is also a profitable read for pastors who need to reflect on the challenges facing many to whom they preach.

Bishop Tony Nichols, WA


Book Review: Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life.

Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life.
Sheridan Voysey, Discovery House, 2015

The art of pairing a wine with a meal is supposedly a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically, local food would be matched with local wine without much room for choice, but the luxuries of modern life have birthed a booming industry in the search of paired perfection and the ultimate dining experience.

I wonder if we do a lot of the same when it comes to pairing the right devotional commentary to Scripture. Does the devotional content enhance the experience of God’s Word? Is it a helpful companion or a distraction? Is the overall result more nourishing or vainly exotic? What is the ultimate Bible dining experience? What a luxury to have so many good books available to us that we can think in this way!

Thankfully with Sheridan Voysey’s devotional book Resilient, it is easy to see that Scripture came first and his reflections flowed secondarily. The book came about because he committed to reading the Sermon on the Mount every day for a month, an experiment that tripled in length, and captivated his journaled thoughts enough to make the ninety short reflections that comprise it.

The book is organised into 6 sections and roughly follows the flow of the Sermon on the Mount: Your Invitation, Your Calling, Your Relationships, Your Practices, Your Choices and Your Resilient Life. In that sense, the clear theme of resilience only climaxes towards the end, just as it does with Jesus’ closing analogy of building a house on the rock. Yet the resilient life is consistently built up every step of the way.

The whole collection is meant to be read slowly. This is a good thing, drawing us back to the Sermon that our wayward hearts love to ignore. The extreme challenge of each individual instruction from Jesus is hard to embrace, let alone to absorb it all at once, so to be guided deliberately through it by Voysey’s awareness of the implications is helpful. This slowing down gives space for new insights into our present context and stops the powerful ethical impact from getting lost in the rush. He raises the challenge of Jesus by helping us see it more clearly.

Far from being a harsh call to a self-reliant holiness of living, the book is full of grace. He writes with a compassion that can only come from someone who knows the transforming work of the gospel and he works hard to make sure the reader doesn’t miss the grand narrative of God’s love. It is the kind of thing that comes from someone who has actually done the hard yards of sustained reflection on the glorious Word of God and the lived experience of a Jesus-shaped life.

Voysey has a knack for sensitively navigating topics that many Christians have strong opinions on. People are very quick to give up on a devotional if it starts to push controversial buttons at whim (I should know, I’ve lost track of how many such books are on my shelf with their unsubtle agendas left unfinished). Voysey writes carefully, respectfully, is informed by good scholarship and acknowledges a variety of Christian experience. Typically this is achieved by leading with a story rather than leading with an assertion and it is an effective strategy that builds trust and respect with the reader.
My main worry about the book is the title. I read it because anything to do with resilience draws my attention these days out of a fascination with the buzzword it has become. The Western cultural narrative seems preoccupied with the silver bullet of resilience as it seeks desperately for anything that will plug the hole of widespread anxiety and fragmentation. There is nothing wrong with the word and what it represents, only that the book deserves to last longer than the buzzword is likely to and I hope it doesn’t detract from the impact it should have once we’ve all jumped on the new flavour of the month.

Both endeavours of pairing wine with food and devotionals with Scripture are notoriously difficult. One might find that they have found the textbook perfect combination only to hear scathing critique from the person sitting next to them. Welcome to subjective taste and personal preferences! Nevertheless, I think this is a satisfying, enlivening and ultimately productive combination. Bon appetit!
Mark Juers, Vic

Book Review: The Great Good Thing

A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ
Andrew Klavan
Nelson, 2016

Andrew Klavan is a successful American writer of crime fiction, young adult fiction and screen plays. In The Great Good Thing, he leaves fiction for spiritual memoir, recounting his life from his childhood in Great Neck on Long Island, to his baptism at forty-nine in a Manhattan church. I am a bit of a sucker for spiritual memoir, and I am always looking out for a good one. The Great Good Thing did not disappoint – Klavan is a capable storyteller, with a story to tell.

God’s dealing with him unfolds in the telling from his childhood in a Jewish family in a new-money Jewish neighbourhood across youthful ambition, anger, questing and despair, through engagement with literature, the Bible, love and marriage, psychotherapy and five epiphanies to his eventual conversion and baptism.