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EFAC Australia

Book Reviews

Beyond Belief
How we find meaning, with or without religion
Hugh Mackay, Pan Macmillan, 2016

According to the 2012 census 61 percent of Australians identified themselves as ‘Christian’. However, in practice only 15 percent attend church once a month or more (p. 7). Hugh Mackay’s book Beyond Belief is written for that missing 46 percent.  That is, almost half the Australian population who relate to the Christian faith in some way, yet are “doubters, sceptics, heretics, agnostics and religious fringe dwellers.” (p. 2) The goal of Beyond Belief is to provide spiritual encouragement and direction for those who no longer wish to receive such instruction from the church.

This conflicted and rapidly changing attitude to spirituality is a fascinating aspect of Australia society that deserves greater attention and research.

Unfortunately, Mackay’s book is undermined by a lack of detail, pop-culture theology and a fundamentally flawed process.
I consistently found myself frustrated at the lack of data on display throughout Beyond Belief. What proportion of these ‘Christian agnostics’ come from Protestant backgrounds? What proportion from Catholic families? How does commitment to the tenets of faith vary between country towns and the inner-city; the old and the young? And what of those who remain committed to exclusive truth claims if, as claimed, they stretch credulity to breaking point.

For instance, Mackay acknowledges the growth in Pentecostal churches but writes it off as being as much about the ‘bandwagon’ effect of their communities as specific beliefs (p. 7). Really? Could it not be that explicit Pentecostal doctrine is driving their growth and thereby creating vibrant communities?

Mackay frequently quotes from respondents to his research, which helps make a human connection to those who identify as SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious). However, he does not give any space to laying out his research methods or extent, so the end result is the book feels anecdotal and partial.
Mackay admits upfront that his book is unlikely to appeal to either committed Christians or atheists and he certainly makes good on that promise. His analysis of Jesus’ teaching manages to present him as a secular humanist whose goal was to dismantle the stuffy institutional religion of his day. His reading of the Sermon on the Mount is particularly galling. I don’t mind him creating a secular spirituality based on pop-psychology but would he mind not using Jesus to endorse it?

He clearly esteems Christian ethics, especially Jesus’ ‘Golden Rule’ but wants to provide a spiritual option for those who find the Christian worldview unreasonable when it accommodates miracles a resurrection and a virgin birth. He therefore discards the Bible’s truth claims in favour of myth as a means for reinterpreting the Christian faith in a way that is acceptable to modern sensibilities.
However, even though Mackay acknowledges it, he ignores the fact that abandoning the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection for a mythical interpretation undercuts the ethical framework of Christianity entirely. (p. 216) After chopping down the apple tree Mackay’s conclusion is to tell us to go on making cider, because it’s delicious and refreshing and he likes it a lot and other people like it too.
Beyond Belief is also undone by its fundamentally flawed process. Mackay surveys the opinions of the non-churchgoing ‘believers’ and attempts to combine them with teachings of spiritual gurus (such as Jesus) into a quasi religion-for-all based on faith in something (anything) and communal compassion.

But how will people have faith in something greater than themselves if the basis of this movement is their own experiences and preferences. And how will anyone adopt a genuinely selfless attitude if it is driven by the recognition that my welfare is bound up in yours and we are all one?
I fear that the conclusion that love is enough will prove to be empty or unattainable for those who adopt Mackay’s way forward.
Nevertheless, Mackay’s research is important. He gives a voice to people who have abandoned organized religion but still experience deep yearning for spiritual fulfilment.

The chapter ‘Anyone for church?’ cuts close to the bone as Mackay articulates the reasons for Australians lack of church-going. Institutional abuses, the treatment of women and a judgmental and exclusionary church culture are all highlighted as prima-facie reasons why we must explore a new spiritual path. Churches must come to grips with this new cultural landscape and Mackay’s book presents these attitudes in a clear and compelling way.
In a roundabout way, Beyond Belief reminded me again of the brilliance of God’s grace. For the Christian, genuine humility and the freedom to love others are built upon the free forgiveness offered in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus. Without such foundations they necessarily fall. Mackay offers nothing as powerful or transformative as the doctrines he discards.
Jeff Hunt

INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION by JOHN CALVIN
Translated from the first French edition of 1541 by Robert White, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2014.

“A prophet is without honour in his own country”. Jesus’ words have proved true of Jean Calvin, the greatest Frenchman. They also resonate with regard to his brilliant Australian translator, Robert White, former Senior Lecturer in French Studies at the University of Sydney. Robert who came to Christ in a John Stott mission in 1958, gained Honours in Latin and French at SU before proceeding to post graduate studies in Paris in the 1960s. His doctorate from the Sorbonne was for his work on an obscure, bohemian French playwright. But it was in those years that he began a lifelong study of the  Reformation in French speaking areas of Europe. An extraordinarily modest scholar, we can be grateful that his specialist articles in overseas journals attracted the attention of publishers in the USA and UK. Robert White has now produced at least four books on Calvin’s sermons, the latest being his Sermons on Titus, also published by The Banner of Truth Trust (2015).

Why another translation of The Institutes, you may ask? Most of us encountered Calvin through Henry Beveridge’s version of 1845 or the two volumes by Ford Lewis Battles published in 1960.  Both of these were based on the last Latin edition of 1559. All told, The Institutes passed through six Latin editions and three French before receiving their final form. The massive treatise of 1559 is five times the length of the concise primer of 1536. Qualitatively however, there is no fundamental change. Scripture still determines both the content and scope of Calvin’s enterprise. The grace and glory of God remain his theme. The growth from edition to edition reflects Calvin’s pastoral experience, his exegetical reflection, and the unceasing pressure of theological debate both within and outside the churches of the Reformation.

The French version (1541) of The Institutes which Robert White translates, is significant in that its target audience is no longer limited to educated Latin readers, but reaches out in a more familiar style to a broader constituency. Although it recasts the original “catechism” of 1536 into a more ambitious, thorough and methodical exposition of Christian Theology, it is less daunting for modern readers, White suggests, than the final edition of 1559 has proved to be (Karl Barth called it, somewhat harshly, a “primeval forest”!). The last chapter on the believer’s walk with Christ is a model of pastoral insight and was destined to enter the last edition of The Institutes virtually unchanged.

Robert Whites fresh translation of Calvin’s French Institutes makes the Reformer live again. The reader will be impressed by the power and relevance of his Biblical teaching for modern Christians. For the doubtful, I suggest the reading of Calvin’s Preface – his appeal to the King of France. It is surely one of the most moving letters ever penned.
Anthony H Nichols.
  

INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION by JOHN CALVIN

Translated from the first French edition of 1541 by Robert White, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2014.

 

“A prophet is without honour in his own country”. Jesus’ words have proved true of Jean Calvin, the greatest Frenchman. They also resonate with regard to his brilliant Australian translator, Robert White, former Senior Lecturer in French Studies at the University of Sydney. Robert who came to Christ in a John Stott mission in 1958, gained Honours in Latin and French at SU before proceeding to post graduate studies in Paris in the 1960s. His doctorate from the Sorbonne was for his work on an obscure, bohemian French playwright. But it was in those years that he began a lifelong study of the  Reformation in French speaking areas of Europe. An extraordinarily modest scholar, we can be grateful that his specialist articles in overseas journals attracted the attention of publishers in the USA and UK. Robert White has now produced at least four books on Calvin’s sermons, the latest being his Sermons on Titus, also published by The Banner of Truth Trust (2015).

Why another translation of The Institutes, you may ask? Most of us encountered Calvin through Henry Beveridge’s version of 1845 or the two volumes by Ford Lewis Battles published in 1960.  Both of these were based on the last Latin edition of 1559. All told, The Institutes passed through six Latin editions and three French before receiving their final form. The massive treatise of 1559 is five times the length of the concise primer of 1536. Qualitatively however, there is no fundamental change. Scripture still determines both the content and scope of Calvin’s enterprise. The grace and glory of God remain his theme. The growth from edition to edition reflects Calvin’s pastoral experience, his exegetical reflection, and the unceasing pressure of theological debate both within and outside the churches of the Reformation.

The French version (1541) of The Institutes which Robert White translates, is significant in that its target audience is no longer limited to educated Latin readers, but reaches out in a more familiar style to a broader constituency. Although it recasts the original “catechism” of 1536 into a more ambitious, thorough and methodical exposition of Christian Theology, it is less daunting for modern readers, White suggests, than the final edition of 1559 has proved to be (Karl Barth called it, somewhat harshly, a “primeval forest”!). The last chapter on the believer’s walk with Christ is a model of pastoral insight and was destined to enter the last edition of The Institutes virtually unchanged.

Robert Whites fresh translation of Calvin’s French Institutes makes the Reformer live again. The reader will be impressed by the power and relevance of his Biblical teaching for modern Christians. For the doubtful, I suggest the reading of Calvin’s Preface – his appeal to the King of France. It is surely one of the most moving letters ever penned.

Anthony H Nichols.

  

“Child, Arise – A Spiritual Handbook For Survivors Of Sexual Abuse”
by Jane N Dowling, David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne, 2015.
(awarded the National Christian Book Award by SPCKA/Sparklit)

“Child Arise” by Jane Dowling is a Christian “Handbook for Survivors of Sexual Abuse”,  especially abuse by clergy. The book is a gentle, almost tremulous, series of personal reflections on Biblical passages, whose genesis lies in her fearful preparations to appear before the Royal Commission for Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It is a book by a victim for other victims by one who has spent countless hours meditating on the Scriptures and applying them to her own situation.

Evangelical Christians might be surprised that a Roman Catholic author can so powerfully apply Bible passages to the painful journey of survival, without ignoring the original context of the texts chosen, and their place in the unfolding scheme of Divine revelation. “Child, Arise” helps the reader feel the pain, shame and paralysis of victims of sexual abuse, but provides inspiration, encouragement and hope from prayerful reflection on the words of God.
 
A.H (Tony) Nichols.

From Strength to Strength
A Life of Marcus Loane
Allan M. Blanch
Australian Scholarly, 2015

This Review first appeared on the Gospel Coalition Australia website

Having recently attended WA Baptist leader Noel Vose’s funeral, it’s easy to come away with the impression that, compared to the War Generation, we are spiritually stunted. There was something about that generation’s combination of scholarly earnestness and personal piety I fear we (or at least I) am in danger of losing. And, if I may begin a positive review of an excellent book rather negatively, the question of what happened to our piety is one that has haunted me since reading Canon Allan M. Blanch’s account of the life and work of Sir Marcus Loane in his new book, From Strength to Strength: A Life of Marcus Loane (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly, 2015).

Sir Marcus Loane (1911-2009)

For those who do not know his name, Sir Marcus Loane (1911-2009) was an Australian pastor, author and leading Anglican churchman who served the Christian community with distinction from the 1940s to the 1980s and into his retirement (or “retirement”).

Born a third generation Tasmanian, the family moved to the Australian mainland in 1912, where they would eventually settle in Sydney and where Loane attended The King’s School in Parramatta. A graduate of Sydney University and Moore College, he was ordained in 1935 and married Patricia Knox in 1937. After active service in World War II, including in Papua New Guinea, he lectured at Moore College, where he would eventually served as principal from 1954-1958. He was succeeded in that role by his brother-in-law D. B. Knox.

He was made an assistant bishop by the then Archbishop of Sydney Howard Mowll in 1958, and served both Mowll and Archbishop Hugh Gough until, in 1966, he would follow Gough as Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop from 1966-1981—the first Archbishop of Sydney to have been born in Australia.    
Telling Loane’s Story

In 2004 John Reid published a lively and readable a biography of Marcus Loane called Marcus L. Loane: A Biography (Melbourne: Acorn Press). However, at less that 150 pages, it always seemed incongruously small and slight for so towering a figure as Loane. It was clear in 2004 that another fuller biography would still be required.  

Rev Allan Blanch’s 400 page biography has now stepped into this historiographical gap with grace and power. Blanch is well positioned to write this work. He was himself ordained by Loane in 1966, and served in several leading parishes in the Diocese of Sydney, including the parish of St Barnabas Broadway 1974-1982.

Blanch writes with elegant, austere prose. Deeply and meticulously researched, it is a warm and admiring account of Loane. The book does occasionally alert the reader to some of Loane’s errors (such as the time he harshly chastised a member of Synod whose innocent comment he had misunderstood). However, the book is overwhelmingly positive toward its subject, written by an intelligent admirer.
 
Loane the Anglican Evangelical

Marcus Loane’s life and work held together a tenacious loyalty to Anglican forms and order with an unimpeachable commitment to evangelicalism. He was insistent on clerical dress, refusing to take questions from clerical members of Synod not wearing clerical collars. Once in the 1970s he summoned the book's author, then rector of St Barnabas Broadway, to his office after introducing bishop Robinson at an F. F. Bruce evening lecture without wearing a clerical collar. He saw the The Book of Common Prayer as not just a bulwark for orthodoxy within the Anglican communion, but as a pure well of reformed and evangelical spirituality. He nevertheless moved freely in interdenominational circles and was warmly received and appreciated by non-Anglican evangelicals and in the wider Christian community.

In a way that people in my generation find hard to fathom, he was also able to hold together a deep loyalty to British culture, society and monarch with a similarly unimpeachable claim to be Australian.

One of the more controversial episodes of Loane’s life was his decision not to attend the ecumenical service at the Sydney Town Hall on the occasion of Pope Paul VI’s visit to Australia in 1970. It was a decision for which he received praise among reformed Christians including Francis Schaeffer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and severe criticism from both fellow Anglicans and the secular press. Interestingly, Loane was later to say that he found more understanding for his decision among Roman Catholics than among Anglicans (p 246). What Blanch makes clear is that it was a decision made on theological principle without any personal animosity or bigotry.

Blanch’s book also records some fascinating incidental anecdotes, such as the time Marcus and Patricia Loane travelled with John Stott the 100-plus kilometres from their home in Sydney to the Blue Mountains, only to discover Loane had left the keys to the house back in Sydney. Stott eventually managed to break in through a bedroom window to open the house.

What emerges most clearly from Blanch’s biography is the picture of a pastor. Despite holding senior office and despite a prolific publishing record, Loane operated fundamentally as a minister of the word of God—visiting the sick, leading people to faith, preaching the word of God and praying for the people in his care. (On visiting the sick, Loane—normally a stickler for the rules—would happy ignore the advertised visiting hours in hospitals in order to pray at people’s bedsides.)

Conclusion

I don’t know if my sense of the gap between the piety of Sir Marcus’s generation and my own is actually true. Perhaps the nature of biography is that Loane was singular within his generation? Perhaps for every Sir Marcus or John Stott or Leon Morris, there were thousands of ordinary Christians of that generation whose personal spiritual lives were as modest and meek as my own?

Or, perhaps Loane is an example of intelligent piety we can and should seek to recover? Whatever the case, the combination of warm personal knowledge of God with serious minded reading of scripture is an intoxicating thing to see. More of that, please.

Allan Blanch has written an excellent biography of an important figure in the story of Christianity in Australia. I warmly recommend it.
Rory Shiner studied Arts at the University of Western Australia and theology at Moore College in Sydney. He is currently completing a PhD through Macquarie University on the life and work of Donald Robinson. He is senior pastor of Providence City Church in Perth, where he lives with his wife, Susan, and their four boys. He has written books on Union with Christ and on the relationship between Jesus' resurrection and our own.
Rory serves as a member of the TGCA Editorial Panel as Editor for the Arts and Culture Channel and for Book Reviews.

Understanding Jesus and Muhammad
By Bernie Power

If you ever talk to Muslims about faith, then Bernie Power has written the book you need. There are many books about Islam or the person of Muhammad written to inform Christians, but this book is actually for Muslims. Finally, we have a book we can give away, written specifically with the questions of Muslims in mind.

Understanding Jesus and Muhammad explains the truth about those history-changing men for the person wanting to make an informed decision. It is honest and hard hitting without being aggressive or offensive.

There are numerous unexamined ‘defeater beliefs’ (see Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs by Tim Keller) deeply ingrained in Muslim thought, and Bernie addresses them in a way that is warm, expert and accessible. The book reflects Bernie’s love of the Bible; deep knowledge of the Qur’an and Hadiths; and his love for Muslims.

Each chapter was originally a pamphlet Bernie wrote to explore difficult ideas with Muslims. Among the chapters are pairs such as:

‘The sinlessness of Jesus Christ’ 

‘Was Muhammad Sinless?’;

’The miracles of Jesus’ and ‘Muhammad and miracles’;

’Jesus, violence and peace’ and ’Muhammad and violence’.

Presenting these and many other important topics (Women, Trinity, Death, Resurrection and Faith) in this way provides a transparency and intelligibility about the issues.

Bernie worked amongst Muslims in Asia and the Middle East for decades and his fluency in Arabic, his passion for Muslims and his PhD in the hadiths are the foundation for the genuine expertise evident in this book.

I have already read this with a friend, and many wide-ranging discussions ensued. Don’t miss the opportunities you have to do the same. Buy it, read it and give it away to your Muslim friend.

Karen Morris

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