­
EFAC Australia

Book Reviews

God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church

Brad Roth. Herald Press 2017

Sometimes myths get in the way of mission. In the opening chapter of God’s Country, US Mennonite pastor Brad Roth asserts that ‘all too often, rural people and places become objects of our cultural mythmaking, the focus of our fear or pity, meant to be saved or gawked at.’ That tallies with my observation of the Australia scene. Stereotypes such as the bush as hapless victim of natural disasters and economic change or the bush as the bastion of cultural backwardness and prejudice are neither accurate nor a helpful basis for faithful and fruitful Christian ministry. That is why theologically informed and pastorally realistic accounts like Roth’s are vital. Notwithstanding the cultural translations that need to be made at times, the book makes stimulating reading for anyone concerned to reach the millions of Australians who live outside major population centres.

Roth’s book contains a brief but important discussion of what constitutes the essence of rurality. He concludes that what makes a location ‘rural’ is neither the presence nor importance of agriculture but the way people experience the world:

‘The defining difference may be that rural communities are marked by knowing and being known. We know our neighbours and they know us.’ (p27).

For the Australian scene at least this conclusion would need to be qualified. There are communities in the bush, particular those with a mining or lifestyle component, which have quite high levels of transience. Even in more stable farming communities there is often a disconnect between long-term residents and those who’ve moved to town more recently because of relatively cheap housing. Roth’s catalogue of the structural challenges facing rural communities—the industrialisation of agriculture, declining and aging populations, the removal of government and other services—is consistent with the Australian experience, particularly outside major regional centres. More searching is his examination of the challenge of acedia (literally ‘without care’), which he describes as ‘a boredom that anchors its gangly roots in the belief that God is not present or at work in the places or life situations where we find ourselves.’ (p41) His antidote is a commitment to praise God wherever we are, recognise and name the signs of God at work and abide in situations of challenge rather than give in to the temptation to flight. Roth then explores the practicalities of ministry in a rural setting. He explores the process of discerning a community’s structure, working with rather than against its yearly rhythms and nurturing intentional evangelism that grows out of a commitment to sit with people and listen carefully to their stories. A particularly interesting suggestion is that rural churches express an intentional vocation to a ministry of focussed prayer, precisely because the challenges they face should encourage a deep dependence on God. Roth’s book offers a vision for rural ministry that is both wholistic and hopeful. There are certainly points at which I felt his case needed to be strengthened or supplemented. For example, there seems to be a tension in his theology of place. Sometimes he seems to suggest that rural locations have a unique relation to God; at other points their significance lies more in what they share with every other part of God’s creation. This tension is resolved to some extent in the final chapter when he develops the rudiments of a biblical theology of the rural church as a community located both in present realities but also in relation to God’s promise of a new heavens and new earth. It would have been good to have this perspective worked back through some earlier material. I also had some questions about the implied reader of the book. In most sections this appears to be an ordained pastor who has come to a rural community from elsewhere. Perhaps this is not surprising given the actual readership of ministry books! But given the importance of local, long-term leadership in many rural settings I thought it would be valuable to address them more directly. It’s one thing to think through what it means to abide in a rural community when you have the choice of accepting a call to a city church, another when re-location is not even an option because of the ties of family and work.

Notwithstanding the above quibbles this book inspired me to pray and dream about God’s work in our rural and regional places. It’s also challenged me with the need for similar resources that engage more directly with the Australian context—a challenge that I hope BCA and others will answer in the years to come.

Mark Short, Bush Church Aid.

God and the Transgender Debate: What does the Bible actually say about gender identity?

Andrew T. Walker, The Good Book Company, 2017

As Christians think about how we respond to transgender issues, many have fallen into two opposite errors. On one extreme, many have forsaken the truth of the Bible and let go of God’s good design of humanity as male and female, affirming things that we ought not to affirm. On the other extreme, many Christians have forsaken the grace we find in the Bible, and have affirmed biblical truths but done so in a way that is unloving and out of line with the gospel of grace. Both of these extremes are dangerous because real love requires both truth and grace. It requires that we speak truth, even when that truth may be hard to hear. But it also requires that we speak it with grace and compassion, with kindness and genuine love for others. So when it comes to conversations around transgender issues, how can we engage with both truth and grace? One really helpful place to start is God and the Transgender Debate by Andrew T. Walker. In this book, Walker shows us that it is possible to steer clear of both extremes, helping us to hold firmly to the truth of the Bible and what it has to say about gender, but doing so in a way that exudes compassion, love, and an understanding of how difficult struggles with gender dysphoria can be.

Compassion Without Compromise

One of the most striking and praiseworthy features of this book is that it is saturated with grace. Sharing about how writing this book was a transformational and eye-opening experience for him personally, Walker reflects,

‘I think Jesus’s compassion and gentleness are especially needed when addressing a topic like this, because the testimonies of people who experience these conflicts demonstrate real distress… While I’m not afraid to share a strong opinion, if it can’t be mediated through a tone of compassion, mercy, and gentleness, it may not be an opinion worth sharing.’

This perfectly sums up the approach of this book. The opening page (and whole opening chapter) sets the tone for the whole book by pointing us to Jesus, who was known for spending time with ‘sinners’ and invites us to come to him and find rest (Matthew 11:28-30). When it comes to conversations around transgender issues, he asks, ‘What would Jesus do? He would listen to us, and he would love us, and when he disagreed with us, it would always and only be out of compassion.’ (p. 15)

This book demonstrates that it’s possible to have compassion without compromise. And it demonstrates that loving others doesn’t mean letting go of the truth of the Bible, even when those truths can sometimes be hard to hear.

The Bigger Picture

Walker spends a good chunk of the book looking at what the Bible has to say, helping to place transgender issues within the bigger picture of God’s redemptive story. He not only looks at individual verses that speak to issues of gender, but also helps us see the importance of the broad sweep of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Creation shows us that God’s design of humanity as male and female is deeply good. The Fall reminds us that our experience of this good design is marred and imperfect – though God’s blueprint remains. Redemption shows us that Jesus has saved us and paved the way for the world to be made right again – though in the meantime we continue to struggle as we take up our cross and follow our Saviour. The New Creation shows us that we can have hope, because one day we will be freed from the effects of the fall and everything will be made right.

Walker argues that experiencing gender dysphoria is not something people choose, but rather a result of the fallen world we live in. At the same time, he points out that we do sin if we act on those feelings in such a way that rejects God’s good design of gender. These are truths that are no doubt very difficult for many people to hear. But time and time again Walker points us back to the hope that we find in Jesus, even amidst the struggles and pain that this life may bring.

Tough Questions

Another reason to commend God and the Transgender Debate is that it is intensely practical. It has a chapter devoted to ‘Tough Questions’: How should we think about pronouns? What about people who are intersex? Is taking hormones to manage dysphoria ever appropriate? Can someone be transgender and Christian? Walker provides helpful answers to all these questions (and others) with love and wisdom. He’s also got a whole chapter on ‘Speaking to Children’, helping us think through in very practical ways how we have conversations with the next generation about transgender issues. Rather than keeping the discussion in the realm of theory, Walker does a great job at bringing things down to earth. He has lots to say in challenging the church about how we respond to transgender issues, and what we can do to engage more lovingly. He has a whole chapter on what it might look like for someone who struggles with gender dysphoria to follow Jesus. So if you’re looking for a practical guide on responding to transgender issues as a Christian, you can’t do better than this book.

As Christians, we need to work hard at engaging with the transgender conversation in a way that is saturated with truth and grace. And if you want to be equipped to do that better, God and the Transgender Debate is a great place to start.

Ben Smart, WA

All Things Made New
Writings on the Reformation
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Penguin, 2017 

Alongside his larger works on various aspects of the Reformation, MacCulloch has also written smaller pieces, book reviews, and occasional lectures. Some of these are gathered together in this volume. He has a few themes which run through the collection. His common sub-theme of sexuality is a very minor part of this book. One of the bigger ones is his crusade against the rewriting of Reformation history by the Oxford Movement

The first part concerns the Reformation in Europe. He has excellent chapters on Calvin, the Virgin Mary, Angels, the Spanish Inquisition and a very thoughtful book review of John O’Malley’s Trent: What happened at the Council. He regards this as the best history of the Council yet written.

The English Reformation is the second part and includes chapters on Tudor image making, Henry VIII, Tolerant Cranmer, the Prayer Book, the two Tudor Queens, and the King James Bible. A lot of helpful and new insights in all of this.

The third part is a look back at the English Reformation. It includes a number of chapters critical of modern studies on the Reformation. He critiques what he calls the “hegemonic narrative” of the twentieth century. The hegemony was Anglican – but specifically High Church Anglican. There had once been another narrative, the Evangelical Anglican Narrative but this had been lost in the Victorian era. So the “adherents of the Oxford Movement, or the wider world of Anglo-Catholicism, were dominant in the practise of religious history at university level ...” (240). This first chapter provides an excellent overview of the progress of historiography in the last century. McCulloch gives an example of the mythology of some history by recounting research into the removal of rood screens in certain parts of England. 30 – 40% disappeared in Norfolk churches in the nineteenth century, and 40-50% in Dorset, the work of High Churchmen who wanted the congregation to be able to see the consecration on the High Altar.

He has a similar critique of Thomas Cranmer’s biographers. Perhaps the best chapter is the 42 page essay on Richard Hooker, and the various people who hijacked him for their own purposes, not least John Keble. This chapter I think is worth buying the book for.

MacCulloch’s penultimate chapter concerns two reformation myths. He calls it a cautionary tale. One concerns the sermon Cranmer preached at Edward VI’s coronation where he referred to the King as like King Josiah. The other is the story of Queen Elizabeth berating the dean of St Paul’s for giving her a copy of the Book of Common Prayer adorned with devotional pictures. MacCulloch, says neither of these things happened although they have become part of the legend of the Reformation.

His last chapter is a potted summary of the history of Anglicanism underlining that it is really a Reformation church, but that in the face of too much dogmatism, it should be recognised as a “trial-and-error form of Christianity”. And we should keep on debating in public and allow ourselves to change.

One doesn’t need to agree with everything MacCulloch says to benefit from his many helpful insights and research. One of the great benefits of his writing is that he has challenged the narrative that the Reformation in England didn’t really happen. And has provided lots of new evidence not just that it did, but what actually went on between 1533 and now.

This is a fascinating book and worth reading. It also contains eight pages of colour plates with important images to go with the text.

Dale Appleby, WA

 

Liturgy of the Ordinary:
Sacred Practices in Everyday Life
Tish Harrison Warren, IVP, 2016

Liturgy of the Ordinary could become a contemporary classic. It was the Christianity Today Book of the Year in 2018. As a staff team we look over this annual listing and pick one book each as a summer read. This was my pick and it was surprising, refreshing and renewing. I’d go so far as to say it was the best book I’ve read in years. The concept of the book is unique and the writing is beautiful, honest and theologically rich. Being on holidays I read a chapter a day and it was a rich experience. None of that getting the book out with good intentions and finding oneself asleep an hour later!

Tish Harrison Warren is an Anglican priest (in the ACNA), a writer, a wife and the mother of two girls. When she wakes up each morning she faces a formidable to-do list. How does one find time to pursue holiness amid the rush of responsibilities?

The answer comes in this, her first book. Chapter by chapter, she explains how the most routine tasks, if done with an eye on the eternal, become extraordinary. ‘We are shaped every day, whether we know it or not, by practices—rituals and liturgies that make us who we are’, she writes. And that makes the ‘small bits of our day . . . profoundly meaningful because they are the site of our worship. The crucible of our formation is in the anonymous monotony of our daily routines.’

The opening chapter begins with getting out of bed and then proceeds to look at the seemingly ordinary things that make up our lives. The chapter headings could make it all seem very mundane, covering topics like ‘Losing keys’ or ‘Fighting with my husband’. But this is what makes it so refreshing. Each day we see that everything in life is touched with holiness. Warren’s writing is very personal, honest and fresh, and each chapter takes you to surprising places. Some might be tempted to think this is a woman’s book. Presumably many women will find this especially refreshing, seeing she is a young mum. However it shouldn’t be boxed. It helped me to see my daily chores with fresh eyes and lifted my mind and spirit into new places in order to reflect on the extraordinary in the ordinary. I can’t recommend this book more highly.

Stephen Hale, Vic

Together Through the Storm:
A practical guide to Christian Care
Sally Sims. Matthias Media, 2016

The book is just as it is described in the sub-title: it’s ‘a practical guide to Christian care’, in three parts. Part 1, ‘Suffering and the God who cares’, sets out the reality of suffering in this world and points us to the God who not only understands, but who can be trusted. According to Sims, Christian care aims to anchor the person in these truths as they deal with suffering. Part 2, ‘Biblical Foundations for Care’ explores how as God’s people we share life together in all its suffering and joy, and how we are called to love one another. It then looks at what makes our care Christian, and finally turns to how Christian care can be structured across the church. Part 3 is about Christian care in action, with lots of very practical guidelines for visiting people, finishing with the specific context of visiting people in hospital.
Sims has achieved what she has set out to achieve: a practical guide to Christian care which is also well grounded theologically, and not afraid of using insights from the helping professions. This work would be useful for a care team in the local church as a basic training tool, or for any Christian keen to be better equipped for caring.

I think the title ‘Christian care’, rather than ‘pastoral care’, is helpful in practice, especially when the term ‘pastoral care’ is too open to the misunderstanding that all or most pastoral care should be done by the pastor. Also, as Sims points out, it helps us to hold onto the distinctiveness of Christian pastoral care, when the term is often used of general pastoral care in hospitals and schools and other settings.
This is a balanced book, encouraging the use of the Bible and prayer in Christian care while also underlining how we demonstrate our love by the way we listen, are sensitive to people’s needs and provide practical care and support. The practical section, the last section of the book, covers some areas that those who are new to Christian care will find helpful—everything from how you might prepare to visit someone, what you need to keep in mind with hospital visits, to what to review when you come back, including discussing and praying about this with your team so you are encouraging each other in the work.

Overall this is a good and useful book. At times I wanted a bit more depth, but as a basic tool it is great. I especially appreciated the reminders about the importance of listening as a way of demonstrating love. These were repeated throughout the book, and I think Sims is right to imagine that we need to be reminded to listen. Her repeated reminders helped me finally to hear what she is saying, and—hopefully—correct the tendency to come up with a quick answer, seeking to solve people’s problems. (See pages 66-68 and 92-93 on listening).

Chapter 8 on the body of Christ working together gave a helpful basic outline and description of how a church could provide structure to the ministry of caring. I’m always struck by how Christian care happens (without much organisation by a leader) as people are motivated by God’s grace in their lives to reach out to love and care for others. Much of this is encouraged and furthered through small group ministry in a church. However, when circumstances are overwhelming or someone has long term needs, they may need additional care that’s part of a more structured and planned approach, including a care team of people who provide care at various levels and care leaders who co-ordinate care and who equip people for this ministry.

Together Through The Storm will help the reader to grow in their capacity to care for others, especially if Christian care is either new to them, or they need some basic training or a refresher on the basics of Christian care. Chapter 8 will also help pastors who have not thought through how to structure Christian care in a church, by providing a basic structure and description of that structure. Finally, there is a helpful reflection at the end of the book about how pain and suffering is often ‘where the real work of life takes place’, and thus how God uses our own pain and suffering to change us for the better and make us better carers. That’s something every pastor or Christian carer ought to reflect on and give God thanks for, whether we read this book or not.

Roger Morey, WA.

­