Book Reviews

Book Review: Ezra & Nehemiah: Walking in God’s Words

Ezra & Nehemiah: Walking in God’s Words, Peter Adam (Aquila, 2014) ISBN 9781925041187

Why read Ezra & Nehemiah?  Why read whole books of the Bible as they have come to us through history and tradition and the sovereign guiding hand of God?  Why (as the Prayer Book enjoins us to do) read, mark, learn and inwardly digest all of the Scriptures – and not just our favourite selections? 

This new book by Peter Adam gives us the answer.  This book gives great help and encouragement.  It does so all the way through the book, but it also starts as it intends to continue.  In the six short pages of chapter one, Peter offers us brief but pointed, theologically-insightful and pastorally-helpful reasons for keeping on reading whole books of the Bible – like Ezra-Nehemiah.  It’s a chapter well worth presenting again and again to maturing disciples as we encourage them to love - to read, mark, and learn - whole books of the Bible.

But perhaps we don't need all that much encouragement to get into Ezra & Nehemiah.  Anyone who has been part of a church with a building programme has probably sat through a sermon series in these books – I know I have!  The narrative is so rich in detail and interesting!:- benevolent Cyrus, returning exiles, the prayerful administratively-able leader, turning hearts and hands back to God, willing followers and co-workers, opposition and defensive tactics, the organised building plan.  Its richness leads to the common temptation to preach these books as a kind of ‘how to’ manual and model.  ‘How to successfully execute a church building programme’, or,  ‘How to build a church wall – especially around the pesky youth group’. 

What Peter does in this book is to examine all that rich detail, but within its richer historical and theological context.  He thus drives our reflection, our appreciation and our ultimate application deeper in and further on.  He does this consistently in every chapter, but let me highlight two in particular.

When I go shopping for a commentary one of the things I do is zero in on the troublesome passages.  That’s often a litmus test for the quality of the rest of the commentary.  How does this commentator deal with the difficult bits like the warning passages in Hebrews, the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2, anything in Revelation after chapter three?  How does this book deal with the putting away of the Gentiles wives in Ezra 9-10? 

Peter’s pastoral gifts come to the fore here.  The relevant chapter of the book is entitled, ‘First Sins’, and there he highlights the significance of ‘first sins’ in the Bible, and, by implication, in us.  Peter rightly calls the reader to develop our cross-cultural sensitivities.  He notes that today we are particularly attuned against racism and towards individual choice in marriage.  So to read Ezra & Nehemiah in our context means we need to work hard to understand their 6th century BC culture: in particular, the place of marriage in relation to corporate worship, religious syncretism and the corporate leadership of the people of God.  Or, if you’re married today: what does your marriage have to do with church worship, with wholehearted devoted faith in Christ, and with your church’s leadership? 

The Israelites put away their Gentile wives.  How can that be right?  What about the kids?  Who paid their monthly maintenance?  Peter’s handling of this tricky issue is considered, pastoral, biblically-informed, makes God the rightful hero of the narrative, set in the context of a deep concern for the honouring of both God’s Word and God’s people then and now, and gives the reader eminently helpful advice about marriage and holiness for today.  All that packed succinctly into one chapter.

A second highlight revolves around a second tricky issue.  How does Peter deal with Nehemiah’s repeated refrain at the end of the book for the Lord to remember him, and his deeds?  Will Peter agree or disagree with Don Carson’s assessment that this marks Nehemiah – great and prayerful leader as he was – as ultimately still a person who didn’t get grace, and hence is another Old Testament pointer towards our need for the greatest leader and rescuer of all, the Lord Jesus?

What Peter does here is typical of him and his long ministry among us but sadly atypical among many Christians today.  Peter reflects theologically and pastorally, within a robust biblical framework, on the repeated prayer.  He draws our attention to additional evidence in Ezra & Nehemiah, in the minor prophets, indeed in the whole body of Scripture, Old and New Testaments.  And then he drives it all home by applying his findings to our prayers and our relating to God today.  This is very helpful stuff: for understanding the chapter, and for understanding how to work through difficult Bible passages. 

The great achievement in this book, and indeed of the series itself, is that it condenses so much in so little.  It does not aim to be a rigorously academic commentary, but this does not mean it lacks intellectual or theological clout.  There’s a clear overview of the text, right attention to particular parts that need more detailed explanation, a firm focus on context and overall theme and purpose, informed and engaging theological reflection, and pastorally-helpful and challenging application. 

It is not a simple thing to include so much value in such a small package.  We should be grateful for this particular fruit of Peter’s labour – and take full advantage of it.  It’s a valuable resource for when your church comes to this preaching series, full of solid food for preachers, every small group leader and every keen Bible reader. 

Wei-Han Kuan is the State Director of CMS Victoria

 

Book Review: True Devotion: In Search of Authentic Spirituality

True Devotion: In Search of Authentic Spirituality. Allan Chapple Latimer, 2014. ISBN 9781906327279

Allan Chapple has written an excellent study of what is commonly called ‘the Christian life’, or ‘spirituality’, or, ‘the devotional life’.

The title of Allan’s book is True Devotion: In Search of Authentic Spirituality, and it is one of a series of Latimer Briefings, published by the Latimer Trust in England.

While much writing and speaking on this topic drives an artificial and ungodly wedge between head, heart and hand, Allan follows the Bible in refusing to separate them. We can distinguish between them, but must not separate them. So Allan’s quest is for true devotion, as well as for authentic spirituality, and devotion which transforms our lives.

In Part 1 he describes gospel spirituality as responsive to God’s word and work, paradoxical in living out the tensions of time, focus, death and life, and the already and the not yet. Then too gospel spirituality is relational, expressed in faith, love and hope, and expressed from our hearts, that is, from the core of ourselves.

In Part 2 Allan tackles a common expression of spirituality, that of mysticism, whether in its Protestant, Quaker, Catholic or Charismatic expressions. Here he provides a clarifying perspective on a complex topic, and helpfully points to all the relevant issues.

In Part 3 Allan describes the Biblical view of meditation, that is, meditation on the words and works of God. As he points out, Bible reading and prayer are not enough: we must practise Biblical meditation, so that we are not only informed but also nourished and transformed by God.

Here Allan provides the most positive way forward for those whose spirituality is often separated from the Bible, and also for those whose reading of the Bible is only intellectual, clarificatory, and disconnected from their inner selves, their emotions, or their actions. He wants to encourage a form of Biblical meditation which revels in the meaning of Scripture, and which also reads and engages deeply with the drama, the emotion, the power, and the practicality of God’s words.

In his words: “Meditating on Scripture….enables me to appropriate and absorb what the Bible says in a manner that makes it more personal and me more prayerful…it leads me to a heartfelt response to what the Bible teaches me. It makes me more prayerful by giving me lots of reasons for turning to God with thanksgiving and requests” [pp. 219-20].

Through all this, Allan provides useful and memorable insights from the saints of former days, and these greatly enrich his writing, and help us to focus on key issues and practices.

In my opinion the valuable insights of this book also need to be applied to the corporate life [the body-life] of the church. This would reflect the Biblical pattern of corporate spirituality, found so clearly in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, in many of the Psalms, in Colossians, and in the letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Communal spirituality has a big impact on every believer: we are shaped by the churches we belong to. While the Bible does describe personal spirituality, its greater focus is on the spiritual welfare of God’s people, and Christ’s church. The insights that Allan gives us could be applied just as significantly to our churches, and to the shape and content of our meetings or services. We need to hear the Bible read in our services, and then our preachers should help us meditate together on the words of Scripture

we have heard, and then turn our meditation to prayer and practise in our corporate life.
This book is deeply enriched by Allan’s theological, pastoral, and personal experience, and this experience is useful for others because it is so deeply shaped by the Bible.

I recommend this book very highly: it would benefit a young Christian, as it would benefit a seasoned believer. It would be useful as a discussion book for a small group or church book club. And it will not only help us in our own life with God, but also help us to encourage others as well.

Peter Adam, Carlton Vic.

Book review: Washed and Waiting

Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, by Wesley Hill (Zondervan, 2010). ISBN 9780310330035

A gay friend once said to me, “You know why I reject Jesus? Because I want a loving relationship just like you have. I want a man to snuggle up to at night and watch TV with. Otherwise, what hope do I have?” His reference to “hope” transcends the trenches of morality and truth – it is grounded in heart-affections. And this is the realm of the universally human. Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill asserts how Christ can provide new affections which can help those who experience same-sex attraction and how the church is key to this. Hill’s book gives hope that is biblical, relational, sophisticated and timely.

Washed and Waiting is biblical. The title refers to two texts. The “washed” aspect refers to I Corinthians 6:9-11, where the Apostle Paul describes Christians as being "washed… in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." The “waiting” refers to Romans 8:23-25, where Paul refers to the groaning of all creation for glorious renewal. Hill holds the historic Christian understanding of sex as a gift from God that is expressed obediently in the context of a heterosexual marriage (see pp 51-53). But you won’t find an encyclopaedic, rigorous or systematic analysis of the biblical material such as in Gagnon (see www.robgagnon.net) or Schmidt (Straight & Narrow?). And that’s ok. However, such a scripture-saturated book would have benefited from an index of passages used.

Washed and Waiting is a personal book. Hill recounts how he struggled from a young age to uphold relational fidelity. He gives moving insight into his intense feelings of loneliness, shame and guilt. Hill’s honesty is purposeful and challenging. Regarding purpose, he says, "I hope this book may encourage other homosexual Christians to take the risky step of opening up their lives to others in the body of Christ." He challenged me to be the kind of straight supportive person who takes the midnight call and listens for 3 hours, or who takes the day off to spend with a lonely heart. Missing in the book, however, is a page or two on how churches can practically work toward being this community of support for the gay Christian.

Washed and Waiting is a sophisticated book. Hill weaves together reflections and stories of people as diverse and ecumenical as Henri Nouwen, CS Lewis, Alan Paton, Aristotle, the Pope and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Negatively, this could prove too ‘high-brow’ for many. Positively, Hill occupies the cultural territory often claimed by the Cultural Revolution (Peter Hitchens’ term) and frequently barren of any authoritative Christian voice. Hill is no ‘Westboro Baptist’ type! His sophistication means that his arguments cannot be conveniently dismissed.

Washed and Waiting is a timely book. Hill seems agnostic with regard to the origins of his same-sex attraction. He has no story of childhood abuse or parental absence. He doesn’t advocate "heterosexual reassignment." He therefore dodges another popular missal of dismissal: that of the Christian who advocates a ‘solution’ to same sex attraction. Hill simply considers himself a gay Christian who is – like all of us – ‘washed and waiting’.

I recommend Washed and Waiting for all Christians who experience same-sex attraction. You might even find it appropriate to give to a gay non-Christian. Its impressionistic biblical references, relational and sophisticated approach, and Hill’s own undoubted authority on the subject makes it an excellent way to present the “new affection” of Christ. This makes it a rare book on the topic. And gives hope for people like me who love and pray for my gay friends.

Francis Chalwell is the Rector of St Michael's Surry Hills in Sydney, and the Vice Chair of Liberty Ministries

Book Review: Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times

Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. Os Guinness; IVP 2014. ISBN 9780830836710

In Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, Os Guinness grapples with questions surrounding the decline of the church in the West and whether or not there is hope for a renewal of vital Christian faith. Drawing upon biblical truth, keen cultural insight, and an extensive knowledge of church history, Guinness' response to these questions is marked by both a profound and confident hope, and at the same time a thoughtful and cautioned realism.

In the first chapter, our attention is brought to the decline of the Christian faith in the West. Churches are emptying in droves. Cultural captivity and worldliness are rampant even in the churches that remain. Many claim that modernity has dealt Christianity a death-blow. And even though the church in the Global South is exploding, why should they fare any better when the tide of modernity reaches their shores?

In response to this bleak and discouraging picture, Guinness affirms that we do indeed have real reason to have hope in a Christian renaissance. By this he is not referring to the 15th century Renaissance, but simply the revival of vital Christian faith. Whether you call it revival, renewal, rebirth, renaissance (the French word for 'rebirth'), or whatever else, Guinness argues that the character of God, the nature of the Kingdom, and the experience of church history all suggest that the current decline of the Church in the West should not be interpreted as its death throes.

He quotes G. K. Chersterton, who noted, “at least five times... the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died.”

Guinness builds a convincing case that it is not only possible and realistic for Christians to hope in a Christian renaissance, it is also necessary for us to do so, and to work towards it.

So how does he suggest we work for revival?

He is quick to point out that the work of revival is ultimately God's work.

But he is also careful to show that throughout the Bible, God's sovereignty never justifies our passivity. God is in control, but we are still responsible. And so while we must recognise that only God can bring about spiritual revival, we must at the same time roll up our sleeves and get to work.

He argues that cultural influence is a by-product of Christians faithfully living out our callings, following Jesus, and being “in the world but not of the world.” This is a well-trodden saying, but Guinness argues for its value and relevance in a persuasive way.

While Renaissance is a book marked by confident hope, it is anything but naïve. Guinness demonstrates a well-grounded realism. As one example of this, he cautions against looking back to any time in history – whether it be the New Testament era, the time of the Patriarchs, or the Reformation – and thinking that that was the golden era to which we must return.

Guinness reminds us, with many historical examples, that no 'Christian culture' is perfect. So we should pray and work for Christian renaissance, but always recognise that our golden age is not behind us. It is ahead.

Only when Christ returns and consummates His perfect reign will we experience our golden age.

Until then, Guinness argues, it is our job to live faithful and godly lives, to engage lovingly and critically with our culture, and to pray for God to bring about renewal – because ultimately, it is His work.

Guinness brings us back to the essentials and gives us firm grounds to trust in God despite the languishing state of the Church in the West. My one criticism of Renaissance is the lack of positive historical examples of Christians engaging their culture in the way that Guinness describes.

There were a plethora of examples throughout history where the church has failed to engage with the broader culture and become secularised. These were helpful warnings, but the absence of any positive examples of Christians engaging culture was sorely lacking. This would have provided a helpful point of reflection, encouragement, and application for the Christian reader.

On the whole, however, I would commend Renaissance warmly, especially to those disillusioned by the
state of the church in the West. A great read.

Ben Smart, Shenton Park WA

Book Reviews

A Rightful Place. Race, recognition and a more complete Commonwealth. Noel Pearson. Quarterly Essay 55, 2104. ISBN 9781863956819

The Last Man. A British Genocide in Tasmania. Tom Lawson. IB Taurus. 2014. ISBN 9781780766263

Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History. Bain Attwood. Allen & Unwin 2005. ISBN 9781741145779

As far back as 2007 there has been bipartisan support for changes to the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to remove clauses to do with racial discrimination. This support was affirmed at the 2010 election.  Recent reports suggest a referendum might finally happen in 2017. In the meantime Noel Pearson has written a Quarterly Essay outlining his arguments for Constitutional Reform.

The general question posed by Pearson is: “how do 10,000 distinct peoples [in the world] live well and prosper – and get along with each other – within 200 nation-states?” (6) The immediate question that affects Australians is that the Constitution of 1901 did not recognise the peoples who were here prior to the settlers arriving, but did provide powers to the Commonwealth to make laws based on race. Even the reform of 1967 still included indigenous peoples on the basis of race (more on this later).

Pearson takes some time to review the difficult issues of history-writing, and the differences of perspective that have plagued the debates. He thinks Bain Attwood's  Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History is a fine circuit breaker to the “History Wars”, but wants to affirm a stronger view to what happened on the frontiers: the fate of the Tasmanians was genocide; and “the profoundest moral problem of this history: the heavy discounting of the humanity of the Aborigines” (20).

Bain Attwood does provide a very helpful and insightful understanding of the so-called “History Wars” which emerged over the last decade or so, spearheaded in the popular understanding by Keith Windschuttle's The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002).

One of the things he identifies is a change in the way history is understood and done. Once upon a time the professional academic historian was seen to be the one who could tell us “what happened”. In fact there are now in the public arena a variety of historical discourses.

Attwood divides his book into three parts. Part 1 aims to trace the roots of the controversy. In Part 2 he critiques Windschuttle's work and attempts to show why it is flawed. In Part 3 he discusses how academic historians might better tackle their research, especially with respect to frontier history, and what role their discussion might play in the public sphere.

A lot of the book concerns the nature of historiography. About who can tell the story. Much Australian history has been told by the settlers and their heirs. Only recently has the Great Australian Silence been broken to hear an Aboriginal History. One of the issues in the book is the nature of oral history and the different ways history is preserved in oral tales. It also concerns the status of the field of Aboriginal History and its relationship to the studies of anthropologists and linguists.

Attwood also discusses what could be called national myths. Stories about a nation that the nation uses to define itself.  With respect to the “History Wars” one thing that became apparent was that the public debate was not carried on, by and large, by professional historians, but by public intellectuals who were readers of history. In the process the academic historians appeared to have been marginalised, and their claims to authority weakened. This was part of the process of the democratisation of historiography.

This has led to a plurality of histories in the public arena. Attwood gives a masterly survey of a variety of ways of doing history and the way they relate and compete. In the end he writes to help Australians deal with the truth of the past so that a future can be made with two groups going together. He doesn't think reconciliation is the right word. It “implies that historical difference can somehow be transcended.”(194). He thinks that there will continue to be differences but that the task is to try to moderate these. A truthful exploration of all aspects of the story will assist this.

Pearson affirms Lawson's thesis that the British project was not aimed at genocide but nevertheless had a fatal logic such that even policies of protection “ultimately envisaged no future whatsoever for the original peoples of the island.” (23).

Tom Lawson writes as a British historian and a scholar of genocide. His interest is in what happened to the original inhabitants of Tasmania. Australian scholars have reflected on whether this is a genocide that is part of Australian history. Lawson thinks it is a British question, and argues that it has been part of British public knowledge since the mid 19th century (HG Wells used it as the stimulus for his novel The War of the Worlds). Raphael Lemkin, who prepared the groundwork for legal definitions of genocide, defined genocide as a “total social practice” involving two stages: destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; and the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.  For this reason Lawson agrees with the authors of the Bringing Them Home report. The forcible transfer of children with the intention to undermine the viability of a community is defined as genocide in the 1948 Convention (20).

One question is whether it was intentional. The Secretary of State for the Colonies wrote in 1830 to Governor Arthur, warning that the 'extinction' of the indigenous population of Van Diemen's Land would leave an 'indelible stain' upon the reputation of the British government. Lawson's argument is that while protection was strongly in mind there was no concept of a shared future. The indigenous people would give way to the settlers, at best they would be Christianised and civilised. Even protection was a means of 'extinction'. The idea of the 'extinction', of course, ignores the descendants of those original people and has  become part of a continuing cultural historical debate.

Pearson says he has “always understood that protection worked in concert with frontier dispossession and facilitated it.” (24) Yet as the inheritor of a mission's religion and traditions, he holds complex perspectives on the history. “... without the Lutherans my people would have perished on the Cooktown frontier.” (26). It is this complex history which each of these writers help us to understand better, and which needs to be heard in its complexity rather than read selectively.

One of the issues in the Essay is the question of identity, for which Pearson proposes a concept of layered identities, so that the various identity markers everyone has can be seen, not in competition but as layers. In this way indigenous people can share a bicultural future while retaining important aspects of their traditional heritage. There is no monocultural past they can return to.

Pearson comments on the lack of consent by the indigenous peoples to the arrival of the settlers, and goes on to urge that indigenous people need to have real choice, because with this goes both power and responsibility. He wants “indigenous Australians to become active agents in our own development.” (48). These are well-known Pearson themes.

A significant part of his argument is that “the basis of our inclusion in Australian citizenship in 1967 was fatefully wrong. We were included as citizens of our own country on the basis of race...” (52).  Culture, language, ethnicity, religion are not shared uniformly, but there is only one race - all are part of the human race. So constitutional reforms need to remove the concept of race.  He sees the Australian nation in three parts: the ancient indigenous heritage; the British inheritance; and the multicultural achievement.  “Constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians … will make a more complete commonwealth.” (55) As part of this Pearson appeals for the protection and preservation of the indigenous heritage.

He makes a strong appeal to the conservatives, concluding, “... you cannot have a unified nation, this cannot be a fair nation, without the proper inclusion of that 3 per cent of the nation who were originally excluded from the constitution. And who, when belatedly acknowledged in 1967, were included on the fatefully wrong basis of race.” (72)

These books and the issues they discuss are of great relevance to evangelical Christians, because it was our forebears who, in many places, stood (admittedly often with their own faults and racist views) between the indigenous peoples and their destruction. The departure of the missions from direct involvement in aboriginal communities may have reduced our view, and the apparent take-over of indigenous “aid” by the “left” may have further isolated many of us. But it is not too late to pay attention and contribute to what is now a national debate.

Dale Appleby