Book Reviews

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: God’s Country

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.

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.

Book Review: God and the Transgender Debate:

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

Book Review: 12 Rules for Life:

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
Jordan B. Peterson, Allen Lane, 2018

I don’t know about you, but suddenly I can’t move without bumping into Jordan Peterson, the Canadian professor of psychology who has become a public intellectual almost overnight it seems. He is a polarising figure, who has been involved in controversies over the use of newly-coined transgender pronouns, and whose online interviews and lectures are viewed and listened to by millions. He is outspoken in his intense dislike of the ideological left, and the feeling is mutual. He was recently in Australia, and his conversation with former deputy prime minister John Anderson is at the top of Peterson’s youtube news feed as I write this review. The conservative side of society feel Peterson has cut through in articulating many objections they have to the ways we are being encouraged to think and feel about ourselves, our history and others in a post-modern, politically correct world.

Beyond his controversial profile, Peterson seems strongly motivated to help people live more satisfying, successful lives, and as a psychologist and intellectual he has ideas about how to do that. He is influenced by Jung, Nietzche, Dostoyevsky, the Bible and the Tao. He believes in the wisdom of the past, expressed in stories, myths and cultural practices passed down over millennia. His first book was an academic work on the psychology of religious belief. His second book, 12 Rules for Life, is the top selling book on the Amazon nonfiction charts in the week I write this review and aims to convey what Peterson believes will help people live well. The place to live well, according to Peterson, is on the straight and narrow path between order and chaos. For Peterson it is primary to say that chaos is a threat to life, and hence we need order, routine, tradition, discipline (and so the book’s title and subtitle). But something else also needs to be said, that ‘order can become excessive, and that’s not good’ (p. xxxiv). Chaos is also needed for exploration, creativity and transformation. The individual lives well by living on the boundary of order and chaos, in the zone of their fruitful intersection.

12 Rules for Life is a self-help book with a polemical edge, a critique of a certain current sensibility, rooting for taking responsibility for yourself, burying envy as a motivation, aiming at the good without seeking to be avenged upon the world for its unfairness, and sitting at the feet of tradition expecting to be schooled well, amongst other things. Peterson is unusual in his great respect for and extensive use of Biblical episodes and texts like Genesis 1-4, or the Sermon on the Mount. The twelve rules are cast in the form of wise advice, sometimes quirkily expressed. Rule 5 is ‘Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them’ and rule 12 is ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street’. Each rule gets a chapter, and the chapters wend their way towards the rules (which are the closing words of each chapter), covering a rich variety of topics and life issues. Chapter one is about hierarchy and dominance, the second about the necessity of sympathetically and realistically taking responsibility for yourself, the third about the company you keep, the fourth about what to pursue and why, the fifth about parenting, the sixth about responding to the outrages of the world, the seventh about sacrifice, evil and meaning in life, etc. Chapter 10, ‘Be precise in your speech’ has a lot about marriage in it. Peterson is bold, bracing and strident as well as sympathetic, careful and hopeful. He advocates living for meaning rather than happiness, and thus regards suffering as not merely unavoidable, but potentially the place of productive and meaningful growth and action. He is for the pursuit of the transcendent good, and against the reduction of human life to a contest of self-interested power. He is for the real distinction of masculine and feminine, and against artificial measures aimed at equality of outcome for all without distinction. He has a hard face, a sometimes aggressive twitter feed and huge doses of charisma. He has gotten lots of people talking. What shall we make of him and his ideas?

It seems to me that Jordan Peterson is for law. He is about recognising the non-negotiable realities of human existence. Instead of destroying yourself and your culture by resentfully and misguidedly going to war with the way things are, Peterson recommends living creatively and meaningfully according to the rules that lead to success in the midst of inevitable suffering. Jordan Peterson is not preaching gospel. His exposition of Biblical texts contains none of the notes of grace that a Christian might point out. This is not to say that Peterson has no mercy or compassion in him, it is more to say that for Peterson, Being (the way things are) is practically synonymous with God. The figure of God stands in at points for all the things (encompassing both chaos and order) that we must accept with awe and humility, and be reconciled to as what stands sovereign over us and cannot be changed.

But since Christians make a momentous distinction between God and the World, the Law of Being is not the final reality in our lives. There is the possibility of divine help coming to us that is utterly different to self-help, or to any other help offered by another. Help offered by another who is not God will take the form of instruction, guidance, counsel, listening and conversation to accompany what is ultimately self-help, a process started, carried out and concluded through an individual’s courage, resolution, reflection and action. Such help is not to be sneezed at, but God in his grace may help us in a fundamentally different way. His help can come to us as new birth, as regeneration, as life from the dead, as justification by faith, as conversion. I have not found in Peterson this gospel note. As far as I can see, for Peterson, Jesus is a teacher and an ideal, archetypal human being, but he is not the Risen Saviour who pours his Spirit upon his disciples and in whose name forgiveness of sins is proclaimed.

Still, Jordan Peterson has cut through. He has a great chord in our culture. To some it is beautiful, half-forgotten music. To others it is an ominous, dark and unwelcome sound. Christians may find what he has to say illuminating, and we may enjoy the respect he accords the Bible as a popular intellectual with a rather different angle on religion and Christianity than Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens and their ilk. Peterson may catalyse a softening of militant atheism and a revaluation of the Bible in our public discourse, and that would be a welcome development. Beyond that hope, we may also pray that some Christian, some preacher of the Gospel, might cut through and strike a mighty chord in our society in the way that Peterson has, and that the Spirit would blow our way and bring new birth, even to those who are old. For law is not our salvation.

Book Review: Liturgy of the Ordinary

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