Book Reviews

Book Review: If God, Then What? Wondering Aloud About Truth, Origins and Redemption

If God, Then What?
Wondering Aloud About Truth, Origins and Redemption
Andrew Wilson
IVP, 2012

In jaunty, full caps font the testimonials on the back cover of If God, Then What? declare it to be ‘a real page-turner’ and ‘powerful, compelling stuff’. You can’t blame the publishers for wanting to talk it up, but I couldn’t help but feel this would be a classic case of overpromising and underdelivering. How on earth would a book on apologetics manage to be ‘dazzingly good’ when dealing with stale, academic topics like epistemology and cosmology? Thankfully, it’s everything the cover boasts and more. The prologue begins: ‘I’ve only been in trouble with the law three times, and each time it has been in America.’ (p. 10). Wilson has a way of story-telling that draws you in and propels you forward. The book feels conversational, but not annoyingly so, since he’s not so much trying to chat to the reader as he is wondering aloud to himself. It’s a refreshing and disarming technique.

For example, in dealing with epistemology (the study of the nature and scope of human knowledge), Wilson doesn’t mention the term, instead he tells an hilarious anecdote about a home intruder that introduces his reflection:

‘A little while back, I was thinking this stuff through, and so I did a thought-experiment to see how it worked in practice, and wrote it all down. The thought-experiment was this: how do I know that I ate cornflakes for breakfast this morning.’

By addressing fundamentalism and epistemology in the first two chapters, If God, Then What? positions the reader simply to be open-minded about what follows as the book tackles topics including the existence of God, the human mind, the ‘problem’ of miracles and the reality of evil and death. Of course, Wilson doesn’t make the journey that joyless; the chapters have titles like ‘Galactic roulette’ and ‘A hornet in the icing’. It’s fun, pleasurable reading that deals with huge topics in a quaint, identifiably British manner. I loved it. Wilson’s writing is easy and accessible but avoids being reductionistic, and he often digresses to discuss objections or present alternative explanations in their best possible light. His arguments therefore feel robust, and reasonable, and not easily dismissed.

Despite all the advantages of Wilson’s method and style, it’s worth considering what the book doesn’t do. While God in his kindness may achieve this, it doesn’t aim to convert anyone. Its more modest goal seems to be to open readers up to the possibility of God and that he might have done something incredible and redeeming for our world. As such, it doesn’t ever appeal to the authority of the Bible or even mention it. In this sense it fails to give readers an encounter with Jesus through God’s word. It’s also true that Wilson’s chatty, thinking-aloud device works better for the philosophical topics in chapter 1-5 than when he turns to the theological topics of sin and redemption. Somehow the truths of the gospel are too specific to just reasonably wonder your way to. Who would imagine the cross and resurrection, for example?

Nevertheless, I think this book fulfils a crucial function in the overall task of sharing the gospel. I found myself thinking of several friends who would not easily agree to read the Bible with me, but who might be willing to read If God, Then What? And if they did, I think they’d be disarmed and confronted, and perhaps moved to consider the possibility of redemption. As an ice-breaker for the sceptical, it’s the best I could imagine. I think it achieves this because it has a real sense of discovery, as if Wilson expects the reader to be changed as they think these topics through. You get a sense of what the book feels like in Wilson’s own summary of the experience in the final chapter:

‘Writing this book has been something of a journey for me, literally as well as metaphorically… I peered into glass cases in Dublin, read academic tomes on first-century history in Oxford and Cambridge, reflected on what was wrong with the world in Zimbabwe, and daydreamed about what a redeemed earth might look like in Samoa, Tuscany and New Zealand’ (pp. 152-3)

You really do end up feeling as though you’ve travelled the world with your friend Andrew and stayed up late having conversations with him about life, the universe and everything. Ultimately, I’d love to introduce my friends to Jesus, but I can see how it could help if they chatted with Andrew first.
Jeff Hunt, WA

Book Review: Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community

Uncomfortable:
The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community
Brett McCracken
Crossway, 2017

It’s always Christians who make me want to give up the faith. The dumb, embarrassing things they do. Twee women’s evangelistic craft nights. Still singing songs that should have been left in the 1970s. International Roast as the standard morning tea fare. If you can think of similar experiences and cringe, then this book Uncomfortable by Brett McCracken is for you. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is easy to read, gospel focused, culturally astute, biblically faithful, personally challenging and funny. You don’t get that combination very often in a Christian book, let alone a book about church, which is what this is. I was so excited I could barely put it down.

Uncomfortable is one of a wave of books that are trying to help Christians live in a post-Christian world. McCracken sees the answer in committing to your local church, no matter how uncomfortable and challenging that may be. His thesis is that the church is uncomfortable for a reason—it is God’s plan to place us in communities where we do the hard work of ‘doing hard things, embracing hard truths and doing life with hard people for the sake and glory of the One who did the hardest thing’. (p26) Church may be weird, but that’s a good thing. As McCracken says,

‘The Western world doesn’t need a more muddled, confused “I love Jesus but not the church” Christianity made up of a million different opinions and to-each-his-own permutations. Rather, it needs a true, unified, and eloquent witness to the distinctly alternative vision of life that Jesus offers. And this will only come with a renewed commitment to the local church in all of its uncomfortable but life-giving glory.’ (p.37)

Instead of being like the culture around us, this book calls Christians to ‘debunk and destroy the toxic consumerist approach to church’ and be willing to commit to ‘the nearest non-heretical, Bible-believing church where we could grow and serve—and where Jesus is the hero—however uncomfortable it may be.’ (p.25) I think every Christian should read it.

The book starts with an outline of the author’s dream church. I found myself agreeing with every sentence. It went on for pages. I was constructing in my head a brilliant church with fantastic, purpose built spaces, wonderful music (just my taste) and super encouraging Christians connecting well with the local community. And then he explodes this fantasy by saying this is exactly what we cannot be doing. This consumerist mindset has infiltrated the way we approach church and it is poison. If we always approach church through the lens of wishing this or that were different, or longing for a church that ‘gets me’ or ‘meets me where I’m at’ we’ll never commit anywhere (or, Protestants that we are, we’ll just start our own church). But church shouldn’t be about being perfectly understood and met in our comfort zone; it should be about understanding God more, and meeting him where HE is. (p.24) I was soundly rebuked. And hooked.

Each chapter of the book explores an uncomfortable aspect of church, starting with the gospel. He explores the ‘foolishness of the cross’ (1 Corinthians 1:18-23) and how the Christian message has always been offensive to our pride and what we think redemption should look like. He speaks passionately about how ‘Christianity is not about “your best life now”. It’s about following Christ’s example who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). It’s about commitment rather than consumerism; finding ways to serve rather than desiring to be served; filling a need rather than finding a niche’ (p.50) It’s a message we all need to be reminded of. He goes onto explore the uncomfortable but essential process of pursuing holiness and not settling for mere authenticity. He talks about the importance of holding onto uncomfortable truths such as a biblical sexual ethic, the reality of hell, the idea that the universe was created ‘and any number of other unfashionable things’. He speaks about uncomfortable Christ-like love that doesn’t just look like the passivity of niceness or tolerance. He has chapters on uncomfortable mission, uncomfortable people, uncomfortable diversity, uncomfortable worship, uncomfortable authority and uncomfortable unity. All these chapters support his idea that ‘the church that will change your life is the one that challenges you to grow rather than affirms you as you are. The church that will change the world is the one that provides a refreshing alternative to, rather than an uncritical affirmation of, the way things are’ (p.188). Indeed.

There are so many funny lines in this book. ‘Every time we sing the praise chorus refrain for the SIXTY-SEVENTH TIME as if in the Hillsong equivalent of Groundhog Day…’ (p.191) made me choke with laughter until my coffee was pouring out of my nose. It’s the delight of the self-depreciating in-joke that only Christians can appreciate (without being mean, crude or sarcastic) that makes the book so enjoyable to read.

One chapter which made me rather uncomfortable was his chapter on the Holy Spirit, ‘the Uncomfortable Comforter’. He challenges ‘charismatic-skeptics’ (such as myself) to see that ‘the unpredictable and often uncomfortable work of the Comforter need not be feared or avoided’. (p.96). What he thinks this work of the Comforter consists of though, is the problem. But I weirdly quite enjoyed the uncomfortable experience of reading this chapter, as it did what I presume McCracken wanted me to do – to be challenged, to go back to the Bible, think hard and wrestle and pray. I was living out the thesis of the book while reading it. Read the book and see what you think.

The conclusion is hopeful, beautiful and inspiring. He encourages Christians to see that to live the uncomfortable life together for the sake of Christ is worth it in the end:

‘We are, mysteriously, part of a cosmic plan God has eternally known. And we have an eternal inheritance. The discomfort we endure in this life as a peculiar people will be a blip in the timeline of our infinite history. We will at last be the perfect church we presently long for; the unblemished bride at an unimaginable wedding feast. The dream will be real.’ (p.191)
Michelle Underwood, WA

Book Review: Church Growth Through Mentoring

Church Growth Through Mentoring
Rhys Bezzant

The Mathew Hale Library Public Lecture for 2016
Available from http://mathewhalepubliclibrary.com/book-sales/

Our country has never been wealthier, we are one of the most stable democracies in the world with little to fear from the state, yet the church is losing ground’ writes Rhys Bezzant. We are asking ‘how we find children’s workers or youth workers, how we get people to come to church every week.’

He identifies impediments and distractions that may prevent us undertaking this work: the burden of compliance with increased regulation, the growing loss of traction Christian evangelism and a Christian outlook is experiencing in our society, disempowering church leadership and dejected Christian leaders.

He reflects on Paul’s example in 2 Timothy 2:2 ‘What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others also’, and expounds Paul’s strategy as relational, visionary and having theological content.

I am myself involved in trying to see a new congregation grow, and it is slow, long work, but one of the things which is making an impression is the patient, persistent personal work being done by my assistant minister among the people of this congregation.

Bezzant gives us a good reminder that we cannot do Christian ministry from a height or a distance, but we need to spend purposeful time alongside people, passing on, not just ideas, but attitudes, aspirations and ways of living that are shaped and energised by knowing God through Christ and that seek to serve the fruitfulness of the gospel of Christ in the lives of others.

Ben Underwood, WA.

Book Review: The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History

The Bible in Australia
A Cultural History
Meredith Lake
University of NSW Press, 2018.

Meredith Lake has provided a fascinating and authoritative account of how the Bible, in the hands of preachers, immigrants, suffragists, unionists, politicians, writers, artists and indigenous Australians, has played a contested but highly significant role in the nation’s history. Her opening allusion to the Bra Boy’s tattoo arrests the reader and illustrates how, in twenty-first century Australia, the Bible still ‘floats in fragments across the surface of the popular consciousness’. She then retraces the ebb and flow of Australian culture: the arrival of the First Fleet and the tragic encounter with indigenous people; Federation and the ascendancy of civic Protestant nationalism and White Australia; the 1950s—presided over by Prime Minister Robert Menzies, for whom the Bible defined the Australian people. This culminated in the remarkable 1959 Billy Graham Crusade’s interdenominational meetings attended by over three million people, while a broader radio audience heard his trademark ‘The Bible says’.

However, the cultural revolution of the sixties was reflected in the media landscape, public schools, and growing multi-culturalism. Television soon eclipsed reading as a leisure activity. Church decline, especially in the British-origin Protestant denominations, accelerated shrinking Biblical literacy. Roman Catholic numbers, however, boosted by immigration, have been more stable and now comprise the largest Christian denomination. New migrant groups such as Korean and Chinese, have bucked the trend of declining church affiliation. Pentecostal churches, led by Hillsong, attract a younger generation and have planted over a thousand congregations. Nevertheless, survey comparisons suggest that the proportion of regular Bible readers has dropped by more than 75% since the sixties.

Biblical literacy is also seen to have plunged because Bible reading has disappeared from radio and from public schools. NSW schools are the exception. Lake does not attempt to analyse possible reasons (In fact she seems studiously to avoid any mention of the Diocese of Sydney or Moore College). She does make the telling comment that in the same-sex marriage postal survey debates, the Australian Christian Lobby preferred the terminology of rights and values rather than the language of the Bible.

The book’s attention to the plight of Indigenous Australia is comprehensive, drawing heavily, but not exclusively, on John Harris’ magisterial One Blood. One question not addressed is: Why were colonial relationships with Aboriginal peoples so disastrous, given the different story in the case of Maori and Pacific Islander peoples?

One lesson this reader did learn is that the Bible played a key role in nourishing the cause of Federation—an achievement which now we do not even commemorate, but which was by no means a foregone conclusion. Both before and after 1901, the Bible was cited profusely in debates by both believers and non-believers. In Lake’s words, ‘The Bible stretched like a canopy above the forest of Federal feeling’.

In summary, Lake argues convincingly that, while current levels of Biblical literacy are at an all-time low, the Bible has a powerful history in Australia. ‘In various cultural and theological guises, it has informed efforts to educate the young, to extend the franchise, to meet the challenges of poverty. It has been applied to the formation of trade unions, schools and charities, as well as all manner of religious institutions. In the hands of indigenous Christians, the Bible has nourished movements for justice, for land rights, and for recognition and reconciliation’ (p.365).
Anthony H. Nichols, WA.

Book Review: The Wreck Redeemed

The Wreck Redeemed: Stories of Suffering and Hope
Richard Elms , Richard Elms, 2017

Richard Elms is a Mental Health Social Worker who has worked in a variety of settings as a therapist, trainer and consultant. He is deeply embedded in the Australian context, working in New South Wales. He also provides supervision to others who work in the field and draws on a rich and varied range of clinical examples to answer the questions relating to suffering and hope in the modern context.

Elms presents a picture of the work of narrative therapy and gives insights into the use of this approach in working with those who are broken as the result of abuse. He cites the work of the father of narrative therapy, Michael White and gives a detailed explanation of how the use of ‘storying’ can bring hope to victims of abuse and to those who have experienced a troubled pathway in life. Elms identifies as a Christian with his motivation and understanding of his work deeply influenced by his faith and God’s word, the Bible. In a series of case studies and explanatory chapters, he links the work of narrative therapy and the practice of telling our stories to the Bible. The story of the Bible is linked to many of the stories in the book and he makes useful references to God’s story and his work of redemption in his Son. The case studies are not for the faint hearted as they depict many of the situations that present in a clinical setting and are sad and heartbreaking. They are many of the struggles that ordinary Australians live with and have experienced. There are also clear links to a Christian response to such suffering.

In Elm’s use of narrative therapy he gives the reader an introduction to the stages of work with individuals, couples and families. As people tell their story he examines the story with them, sharing his reflections, seeking to understand, repositioning the story and the person’s view of their part in the story, developing a new story and in the process building hope. He seeks to work with those who have experienced trauma to develop a fuller picture of their story that incorporates their experiences of suffering but is not limited to them. He uses concepts such as creating a map for life, the social and cultural context of stories, deconstruction of the story, creating alternative stories, multiple listening and the place of community in providing support to those who have suffered. Each of these concepts is introduced and explained with reference to a case study and the detail of an individual’s struggle to overcome the suffering they have experienced. God’s story in the Bible is threaded through The Wreck Redeemed. Elms provides helpful explanations and linkages from the stories in the Bible, the work of the apostle Paul and the Holy Spirit, and ultimately the work of Jesus Christ.

Many of the case studies outline the struggles that those who have been abused and suffered trauma have had in their understanding of God. Elms provides a number of excellent accounts of conversations with those he is working with as they have struggled to understand their experience in the context of a loving God. The first case study with an indigenous child sets out his preparedness to work through all her questions and seeks to help her understand her cultural context and her current circumstances. He demonstrates how to be responsive to her particular situation and is not afraid to enter into the realm of what are often difficult questions relating to spirituality and how abuse can affect our understanding of God. Elms works at her pace seeking to find links that are relevant to her life experience to help her build a story of hope. In this case study and many others in the book, a child or young person presents with very difficult behaviour. Elms’ use of narrative therapy provides an understanding of how our emotions, behaviours and overall mental health are affected by our history and need to be understood in this context. Many of the situations presented will be experienced in the life of a parish. Elms shows the need for expertise in managing these situations on a clinical level, however also provides excellent insights and models a way of approaching each individual that is helpful for anyone involved in parish life or any other kind of ministry. Many will find this book helpful.

The Wreck Redeemed is packed with insights from a career spent responding to those who have suffered. It gives some very specific instruction as to how people function and how those who have suffered can find a pathway through to hope. It is also very clear about the kind of work that those who have harmed others need to do in order to repair their relationships. He offers insights into what is happening in a person and in a society that results in the vulnerable suffering. He also provides a biblical understanding as to the origins of such behaviour and the distortions that have led to oppression and suffering. At a time when the church has a reputation to rebuild, many of Elms’ insights provide a pathway to restoration of relationship and hope. I would have found this book very helpful when starting out on my career as a Social Worker and would recommend it as a helpful addition to any reading list.

Pauline Dixon, WA.