Book Reviews

Book Review: A Secular Age

A Secular Age 

Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, 2007

It took me a couple of years to work slowly through Charles Taylor’s massive tome A Secular Age, before finally finishing it in 2011, but I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. It was like a good fruit cake; eaten in small slices (mostly) but each piece rich and delicious. This will be not so much a review as an impression: the book is 776 pages long, with another 75 pages of notes at the end. Taylor is Canadian, now Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal after a long and distinguished career as a philosopher. He is also a believing Roman Catholic.

Taylor opens his book with the question, ‘What does it mean to say we live in a secular age?’ He is not going to give the kind of answer that some give – that is that to live in a secular age is to live in an age which has (rightly) outgrown religious belief and where more and more people have been freed (and will be freed) to live without the distortions that such illusions foist on us. He has the eyes to see that things are more complex than that.

Taylor begins by defining three senses of ‘secularity’: firstly the absence of religion and religious foundations from society’s political structures and spheres of shared activity; secondly the declension of religious belief and practice in the population, and thirdly, a set of conditions for belief which mean that believers experience religious faith not as an obvious and axiomatic part of life, but as one possibility amongst others; perhaps as a minority  view in a society more likely to think of religious faith as implausible and inconceivable. It is this third sense of secularity which Taylor proposes to examine. In particular he wants to tell the story of how Western culture got from a situation where it was ‘virtually impossible not to believe in God’, to a situation where not believing in God is ‘easy, even inescapable’ (p 25).

Another foundation Taylor lays in the introduction is his discussion of what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘unbelieving’. Taylor is interested in where one looks for ‘fullness’, that is the full, rich, meaningful, admirable, empowering, joyful mode of life. Believers live, suggests Taylor, thinking of this place of fullness as located ultimately beyond this world, and the flourishing that is possible for us within our ordinary lives. Ultimately, reaching fullness is a matter of undergoing a transformation that opens us to something transcendent (e.g. God). On the other hand, unbelievers live thinking of the place of fullness as immanent within the conditions of our human lives and what ordinary flourishing we can enjoy. Living for something beyond our present life will only be to the detriment of our actual experience of fullness.

Setting up the distinction in this way does capture something deep about families of world views and approaches to life and is a helpful way to approach the matter quite generally. Taylor does not leave things there, however. His book is an exploration of the exploding gamut of believing and unbelieving positions that have arisen over the last five centuries, and the way these react to and upon one another to produce an even more complex array of moral and spiritual outlooks. Ultimately, suggests Taylor, this nova of new spiritual options underlies secularity as we experience it today. Whatever we believe, we are aware of others who believe differently—our position is just one option amongst many, and everyone’s position is cross-pressured and made more fragile by the existence of the other options. This does not mean that everyone feels uncertain about their world view, but it does mean that at least some feel the pull and pressure of other positions, and can find them plausible and attractive, without adopting them (cross-pressure). It also means that we may not share the spiritual outlook of our parents or children or our siblings. (Mutual fragilisation—e.g my family: my dad professes atheism, I am a Christian, my mother and one brother have become Christians since I have. Another brother would be something else again, I suspect. In another age/place, family and culture would almost certainly determine religious outlook. Not in our secular age.)

Taylor describes his book not as a continuous story and argument, but rather as ‘a series of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other’ (p ix). These sets of essays do move broadly forward through an historical progression, providing a loose narrative with many dimensions, beginning at 1500 C.E (!) or so and ending in the present. I cannot now come even close to summarising the various lines of argument and topics of definition and discussion that Taylor unfolds. I can say that I found just about every page and every discussion absorbing, insightful and instructive. His tone is sympathetic, his writing style is easy and conversational, his thinking is broad and deep. His discussion of the nature of religion and unbelief, of the porous self and the enchanted world giving way to the buffered self and the disenchanted world, of the modern moral order and modern social imaginaries is all rich and fascinating, and this main line of the story has plenty of fascinating side discussions about the way we think of and experience time and eternity, the nature of modern art and music, even extended discussions in later chapters of points of Christian doctrine such as the atonement and issues which surround it, or of modern atheism. As one reviewer put it, the book is ‘an education in itself’ (David Martin, quoted on the dust jacket), and thus even to outline and discuss the main lines of argument would take some doing.

Instead I will mention a few more of the themes which impressed themselves on me. One important thesis is that modern secularity has been constructed via a series of historically contingent religious, intellectual and cultural moves, rather than the alternative kind of view (which Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’), that modern secularity is rather the result of stripping away various wrong (religious) ideas about the human person and the cosmos in order to uncover the true (modern, secular) sense of the human self, society and the universe. It is important to Taylor to challenge the idea that our modern, secular condition is that we have seen through to the self-evident truths about who we are and how we are related as individuals and societies, in contrast to our unenlightened forbears who believed in the Great Chain of Being, or that goals beyond ordinary human flourishing might direct us towards true fullness of life. Taylor wants to tell the story of how the outlook that seems self-evident to us was constructed through a contingent historical process.

Part 1 is entitled The Work of Reform. Taylor uses the term Reform to refer to one of the great historical and cultural forces that has shaped the western outlook, the great, multifaceted and ongoing  project to make over the whole of society so that it conforms to the higher standards of an ideal whose realisation lies in the future, rather than seeing the present order as something not needing to be ‘made over’, but to be received and participated in as it is. The roots of Reform lie in the Middle Ages, and work themselves out in the Reformation(s) and Counter-Reformation within Christendom, but Reform spills out beyond Christianity to produce the ongoing reform movements of the present day, such as civil rights, feminism, or the normalisation of homosexuality.

He begins by seeking to help us into the sense of self and the cosmos that was shared by Europeans around the beginning of the sixteenth century. He draws the reader into imagining a quite foreign conception of the human self—a porous self, susceptible to penetration by external forces and agencies, which were features of an enchanted world. This was also a society ordered by God, making the desire for reform rather dubious from one point of view. And yet the Christian gospel contains the dynamic of Reform, as it calls people to turn away from the world and towards the kingdom of God, whose transforming fullness is yet to be consummated in history. Hence, in various ways from the middle ages, the church tried to mobilise ordinary Christians to engage in the Christian life in a more disciplined and radical way. From a political point of view, a disciplined society became desirable because it was more productive and could field more effective armies.

Part 2 of the Book is called The Turning Point. As Taylor see it that turning point for the western story is the emergence of an exclusive humanism (exclusive of God, that is) as a viable alternative to Christian orthodoxy for more than a very few. Taylor argues that the efforts within Christendom towards reform and discipline transformed the sense of self and its relation to the world that we share. We became buffered, disciplined selves in a disenchanted world, reimagined as a world created and beneficently ordered by God so that we humans enjoy happiness and flourishing as we engage in mutual service. Thus a providential deism emerged, that allowed the possibility of sidelining God as inessential to the achievement happiness and flourishing. With God sidelined, it could simply be that humans enjoy happiness and flourishing as we engage in mutually beneficial service. And this new exclusive humanism was able to win wider allegiance than the ancient exclusive humanisms (Lucretius and Epicureus) because it carried over in a sense of universal benevolence, a trace of the Christian agape (love). Thus in place of the grace of God putting the love of our neighbour into our hearts we may rely upon the benevolence within our own nature, and the guidance of our reason, to impel us to mutual service.

As this exclusive humanism became a viable option to Christianity in the west, it provoked many reactions, both believing and unbelieving, giving rise to new spiritual options. Unbelieving anti-humanisms arise (quintessentially Nietzsche, but many others too), as well as believing reactions that are not a return to orthodox Christianity (many Romantics). This Taylor calls the is the Nova Effect, and Part 3 of the book tells that part of the story, which covers the resurgence of piety that the nineteenth century saw with, e.g. the Evangelical Movement, as well as the renewed turning to unbelief in that century, which Taylor argues was deeper and more deeply anchored in a universe that was experienced very differently because of the reimagining of the old cosmos of Christendom.

The last stage of the story is the way that the pluralisation of religious options that were available to the elite became the spiritual condition of the whole society. In Part 4, Narratives of Secularization, Taylor explores the revolution that we have been living through since the 1960s, which has seen dramatic decline in religious adherence in terms of church going and religion in public life in many places. He dubs the last 200 years as the Age of Mobilisation, where the great social changes wrought as modernity arose through revolutionary industrialisation, urbanisation, specialisation etc. compelled new religious forms, practices and polities to be envisaged and created. The Methodist movement is an important example. These religious forms were successful until the Age of Authenticity began to flower in the 1960s. In the Age of Authenticity, individual expressivism reigns, and insight and feeling by and for each individual are what counts. Being mobilised to conform to a group culture in a church and to submit to the authority of a community run counter to the spirit of this new age, and Christians find it hard to address people with this outlook of individual expressivism.

Part V of the book is a long meditation aptly entitled Conditions of Belief. I found this to be the most abstract and difficult part of the book (in patches), but fascinating nonetheless. Taylor traces out the interaction between three poles or camps of belief—believers, humanist unbelievers and anti-humanist unbelievers, and argues that far from any one camp having all their problems solved, they all wrestle with the same dilemmas, favouring different ways of seeking their resolution. Taylor wants to promote mutual understanding and sympathy in the midst of some angry and shortsighted polemics that go on in our culture. He also engages more and more with his own religious position, which I might guess could reasonably be approximated by the label ‘liberal Roman Catholic’, addressing his readers more and more from this perspective.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this book and I’m not really in a position to offer him a lot of advice about all the things he’s missed and the ways he could make the book better. The book contains the reflection of a lifetime. So I’ll just say that I found his book a great companion for those couple of years it was my companion, and feel like it could be one of those books worth reading again down the track. He’s down on Calvin and substitutionary atonement (which I’m not), but I wasn’t reading him for theology I agreed with completely. I’m interested in the sociology of secularisation, and this is a very intellectual tour of secularisation—thinkers and ideas more than societies and cultures. But that’s ok—I love intellectual history. I recommend this book to all and sundry. I’m sure you’ll learn something. I learned plenty. 

Ben Underwood, WA

 

A Secular Age

Charles Taylor

Harvard University Press, 2007

 

It took me a couple of years to work slowly through Charles Taylor’s massive tome A Secular Age, before finally finishing it in 2011, but I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. It was like a good fruit cake; eaten in small slices (mostly) but each piece rich and delicious. This will be not so much a review as an impression: the book is 776 pages long, with another 75 pages of notes at the end. Taylor is Canadian, now Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal after a long and distinguished career as a philosopher. He is also a believing Roman Catholic.

 

Taylor opens his book with the question, ‘What does it mean to say we live in a secular age?’ He is not going to give the kind of answer that some give – that is that to live in a secular age is to live in an age which has (rightly) outgrown religious belief and where more and more people have been freed (and will be freed) to live without the distortions that such illusions foist on us. He has the eyes to see that things are more complex than that.

                 Taylor begins by defining three senses of ‘secularity’: firstly the absence of religion and religious foundations from society’s political structures and spheres of shared activity; secondly the declension of religious belief and practice in the population, and thirdly, a set of conditions for belief which mean that believers experience religious faith not as an obvious and axiomatic part of life, but as one possibility amongst others; perhaps as a minority  view in a society more likely to think of religious faith as implausible and inconceivable. It is this third sense of secularity which Taylor proposes to examine. In particular he wants to tell the story of how Western culture got from a situation where it was ‘virtually impossible not to believe in God’, to a situation where not believing in God is ‘easy, even inescapable’ (p 25).

                 Another foundation Taylor lays in the introduction is his discussion of what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘unbelieving’. Taylor is interested in where one looks for ‘fullness’, that is the full, rich, meaningful, admirable, empowering, joyful mode of life. Believers live, suggests Taylor, thinking of this place of fullness as located ultimately beyond this world, and the flourishing that is possible for us within our ordinary lives. Ultimately, reaching fullness is a matter of undergoing a transformation that opens us to something transcendent (e.g. God). On the other hand, unbelievers live thinking of the place of fullness as immanent within the conditions of our human lives and what ordinary flourishing we can enjoy. Living for something beyond our present life will only be to the detriment of our actual experience of fullness.

                 Setting up the distinction in this way does capture something deep about families of world views and approaches to life and is a helpful way to approach the matter quite generally. Taylor does not leave things there, however. His book is an exploration of the exploding gamut of believing and unbelieving positions that have arisen over the last five centuries, and the way these react to and upon one another to produce an even more complex array of moral and spiritual outlooks. Ultimately, suggests Taylor, this nova of new spiritual options underlies secularity as we experience it today. Whatever we believe, we are aware of others who believe differently—our position is just one option amongst many, and everyone’s position is cross-pressured and made more fragile by the existence of the other options. This does not mean that everyone feels uncertain about their world view, but it does mean that at least some feel the pull and pressure of other positions, and can find them plausible and attractive, without adopting them (cross-pressure). It also means that we may not share the spiritual outlook of our parents or children or our siblings. (Mutual fragilisation—e.g my family: my dad professes atheism, I am a Christian, my mother and one brother have become Christians since I have. Another brother would be something else again, I suspect. In another age/place, family and culture would almost certainly determine religious outlook. Not in our secular age.)

 

Taylor describes his book not as a continuous story and argument, but rather as ‘a series of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other’ (p ix). These sets of essays do move broadly forward through an historical progression, providing a loose narrative with many dimensions, beginning at 1500 C.E (!) or so and ending in the present. I cannot now come even close to summarising the various lines of argument and topics of definition and discussion that Taylor unfolds. I can say that I found just about every page and every discussion absorbing, insightful and instructive. His tone is sympathetic, his writing style is easy and conversational, his thinking is broad and deep. His discussion of the nature of religion and unbelief, of the porous self and the enchanted world giving way to the buffered self and the disenchanted world, of the modern moral order and modern social imaginaries is all rich and fascinating, and this main line of the story has plenty of fascinating side discussions about the way we think of and experience time and eternity, the nature of modern art and music, even extended discussions in later chapters of points of Christian doctrine such as the atonement and issues which surround it, or of modern atheism. As one reviewer put it, the book is ‘an education in itself’ (David Martin, quoted on the dust jacket), and thus even to outline and discuss the main lines of argument would take some doing.

                 Instead I will mention a few more of the themes which impressed themselves on me. One important thesis is that modern secularity has been constructed via a series of historically contingent religious, intellectual and cultural moves, rather than the alternative kind of view (which Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’), that modern secularity is rather the result of stripping away various wrong (religious) ideas about the human person and the cosmos in order to uncover the true (modern, secular) sense of the human self, society and the universe. It is important to Taylor to challenge the idea that our modern, secular condition is that we have seen through to the self-evident truths about who we are and how we are related as individuals and societies, in contrast to our unenlightened forbears who believed in the Great Chain of Being, or that goals beyond ordinary human flourishing might direct us towards true fullness of life. Taylor wants to tell the story of how the outlook that seems self-evident to us was constructed through a contingent historical process.

 

Part 1 is entitled The Work of Reform. Taylor uses the term Reform to refer to one of the great historical and cultural forces that has shaped the western outlook, the great, multifaceted and ongoing  project to make over the whole of society so that it conforms to the higher standards of an ideal whose realisation lies in the future, rather than seeing the present order as something not needing to be ‘made over’, but to be received and participated in as it is. The roots of Reform lie in the Middle Ages, and work themselves out in the Reformation(s) and Counter-Reformation within Christendom, but Reform spills out beyond Christianity to produce the ongoing reform movements of the present day, such as civil rights, feminism, or the normalisation of homosexuality.

                 He begins by seeking to help us into the sense of self and the cosmos that was shared by Europeans around the beginning of the sixteenth century. He draws the reader into imagining a quite foreign conception of the human self—a porous self, susceptible to penetration by external forces and agencies, which were features of an enchanted world. This was also a society ordered by God, making the desire for reform rather dubious from one point of view. And yet the Christian gospel contains the dynamic of Reform, as it calls people to turn away from the world and towards the kingdom of God, whose transforming fullness is yet to be consummated in history. Hence, in various ways from the middle ages, the church tried to mobilise ordinary Christians to engage in the Christian life in a more disciplined and radical way. From a political point of view, a disciplined society became desirable because it was more productive and could field more effective armies.

                 Part 2 of the Book is called The Turning Point. As Taylor see it that turning point for the western story is the emergence of an exclusive humanism (exclusive of God, that is) as a viable alternative to Christian orthodoxy for more than a very few. Taylor argues that the efforts within Christendom towards reform and discipline transformed the sense of self and its relation to the world that we share. We became buffered, disciplined selves in a disenchanted world, reimagined as a world created and beneficently ordered by God so that we humans enjoy happiness and flourishing as we engage in mutual service. Thus a providential deism emerged, that allowed the possibility of sidelining God as inessential to the achievement happiness and flourishing. With God sidelined, it could simply be that humans enjoy happiness and flourishing as we engage in mutually beneficial service. And this new exclusive humanism was able to win wider allegiance than the ancient exclusive humanisms (Lucretius and Epicureus) because it carried over in a sense of universal benevolence, a trace of the Christian agape (love). Thus in place of the grace of God putting the love of our neighbour into our hearts we may rely upon the benevolence within our own nature, and the guidance of our reason, to impel us to mutual service.

                 As this exclusive humanism became a viable option to Christianity in the west, it provoked many reactions, both believing and unbelieving, giving rise to new spiritual options. Unbelieving anti-humanisms arise (quintessentially Nietzsche, but many others too), as well as believing reactions that are not a return to orthodox Christianity (many Romantics). This Taylor calls the is the Nova Effect, and Part 3 of the book tells that part of the story, which covers the resurgence of piety that the nineteenth century saw with, e.g. the Evangelical Movement, as well as the renewed turning to unbelief in that century, which Taylor argues was deeper and more deeply anchored in a universe that was experienced very differently because of the reimagining of the old cosmos of Christendom.

                 The last stage of the story is the way that the pluralisation of religious options that were available to the elite became the spiritual condition of the whole society. In Part 4, Narratives of Secularization, Taylor explores the revolution that we have been living through since the 1960s, which has seen dramatic decline in religious adherence in terms of church going and religion in public life in many places. He dubs the last 200 years as the Age of Mobilisation, where the great social changes wrought as modernity arose through revolutionary industrialisation, urbanisation, specialisation etc. compelled new religious forms, practices and polities to be envisaged and created. The Methodist movement is an important example. These religious forms were successful until the Age of Authenticity began to flower in the 1960s. In the Age of Authenticity, individual expressivism reigns, and insight and feeling by and for each individual are what counts. Being mobilised to conform to a group culture in a church and to submit to the authority of a community run counter to the spirit of this new age, and Christians find it hard to address people with this outlook of individual expressivism.

                 Part V of the book is a long meditation aptly entitled Conditions of Belief. I found this to be the most abstract and difficult part of the book (in patches), but fascinating nonetheless. Taylor traces out the interaction between three poles or camps of belief—believers, humanist unbelievers and anti-humanist unbelievers, and argues that far from any one camp having all their problems solved, they all wrestle with the same dilemmas, favouring different ways of seeking their resolution. Taylor wants to promote mutual understanding and sympathy in the midst of some angry and shortsighted polemics that go on in our culture. He also engages more and more with his own religious position, which I might guess could reasonably be approximated by the label ‘liberal Roman Catholic’, addressing his readers more and more from this perspective.

 

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this book and I’m not really in a position to offer him a lot of advice about all the things he’s missed and the ways he could make the book better. The book contains the reflection of a lifetime. So I’ll just say that I found his book a great companion for those couple of years it was my companion, and feel like it could be one of those books worth reading again down the track. He’s down on Calvin and substitutionary atonement (which I’m not), but I wasn’t reading him for theology I agreed with completely. I’m interested in the sociology of secularisation, and this is a very intellectual tour of secularisation—thinkers and ideas more than societies and cultures. But that’s ok—I love intellectual history. I recommend this book to all and sundry. I’m sure you’ll learn something. I learned plenty.

Ben Underwood, WA

Book Review: Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity

Known by God:
A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity
Brian Rosner
Zondervan, 2017.

This remarkable book combines Biblical truth, personal honesty, theological reflection, Biblical theology, contemporary relevance, and pastoral usefulness! Brian Rosner points out that though ‘self-knowledge’ is frequently recommended, being known by others is vital for human life, and being known by God is of central importance. And again, while we might rightly focus on ‘knowing God’, the deeper truth is that God knows us.

He shows us the ways in which we naturally define and understand ourselves, and then shows us what the Bible teaches about human identity. Next, he unpacks the rich Biblical theme of being known by God in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. This includes belonging to God, being chosen by God, being a child of God and being remembered by God. It also includes being known by Christ, being known by God in Christ, and recognising our family likeness to God and to Christ. He then explores the themes of shared memory and defining destiny, as we are shaped by the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, and await our resurrection bodies. Rosner then reflects on how being known by God shapes our lives in humility, comfort, direction and purpose. The book concludes with 8 things we should do if we want to know ourselves as we are known by God.

Known by God is based on a simple Biblical truth, and shows us its richness, diversity, and power. It provides deep insights into many Bible passages, and is profoundly personal and pastoral. Its intellectual and academic integrity is communicated in a very accessible way, and it is a joy to read. It is so helpful to see that being known by other people is such a precious experience, and also so good to be reminded that as we are known by God we are not just individuals, but part of his family. Very good!

I have read the book three times, and found it very stimulating and encouraging. It prompted some more ideas. These are not criticisms of the book, but my own reflections on continuing the trajectory of the book.

The 8 things we should do if we want to know ourselves as we are known by God are: Get baptized; Attend family gatherings; Read and hear the Bible; Pray to our heavenly Father; Sing the faith; Say the creed; Take communion; and Live the gospel [pp. 246-60]. I agree with all of these, and do them! I also find it helpful to do things that are in the world as well as those in the church. So I know myself to be known by God in the beauty and power and diversity of creation and nature; in the joys and frustrations of daily work; in the joys and sorrows of my body; in the gifts of God seen in the lives of unbelievers; in music and the arts and architecture; in machines; and in small acts of kindness in daily life. I know myself to be known by God in his world, as well as in his church family.

The book helpfully focuses on the comfort and joy of being known by God, and it rightly also shows us some of the consequent challenges to our natural ways of thinking and behaving. However there is one aspect of being known by God which does not receive much attention, but which is of vital importance to me. It is that God also knows the secrets of our hearts and lives, he knows our sins and our secret sins. ‘Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid’. And on the last day, on the day of judgement, these secrets will be revealed. For example,

‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs’
Luke 12:1-3.

‘But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgement for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned’
Matthew 12:36-37.

‘For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work’
1 Corinthians 3:11-13. See also 2 Corinthians 5:10.

‘For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad’
2 Corinthians 5:10.

‘Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it … And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books’
Revelation 20:11,12.

There are some sins which attract me so powerfully, that it is only the fear of God would that stops me. The only cure for hypocrisy is the fear of the final judgement. For me, loving God and wanting to please him is not enough. I need to fear him as judge, as well as trusting him as saviour. This, for me, complements the insights of Rosner’s wonderful and generous book.
Peter Adam, Vic.
(This review first appeared on The Gospel Coalition Australia website)

Book Reviews: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea & Biblical Authority After Babel

Christianity’s Dangerous Idea:
The Protestant Revolution—A History From the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First
Alister E. McGrath
HarperOne, 2007

Biblical Authority After Babel
Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity
Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Grand Rapids, Brazos, 2016

These are two books which should be read together. First, McGrath: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea is a large book and a big read, but, for anyone interested in the history of non-Catholic Christianity it is profoundly interesting. McGrath is a meticulous scholar and his research has taken him all over the world. It is a book of scholarship but not written for scholars but rather an attempt to identify the inner principles and dynamic that have driven the vast array of non-Catholic ministries since the Reformation.

The dangerous new idea is of course the principle that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. This was the idea that drove first Luther in Germany, then Tyndale in England to translate the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible into German and English respectively. But who now had the authority to interpret the Scripture as they read it their own language and who had authority to define the faith of the church? Institutions or individuals? Who has the right to interpret its foundational document, the Bible? Uncharted and dangerous waters lay ahead.

McGrath’s model for the growth of Protestantism is a biological one. He sees Protestantism as a micro-organism, ‘capable of rapid mutation and adaptation in response to changing environments, while still maintaining continuity with its earlier forms.’ (p4) While no model is perfect, ‘mutation’ seems an apt description. The pre-Reformation church already had an appetite for reform and it is ‘increasingly clear that attempts to depict the late mediaeval church as morally and theologically corrupt, unpopular, and in near-terminal decline cannot be sustained on the basis of the evidence available.’ (p8). McGrath establishes early in his narrative that the Reformation itself was no straight-line historical process. The Benedictine priest Zwingli, captivated by the simplicity and vitality of the apostolic age, came to Zurich in East Switzerland in 1519 to commence a new and liberating way of reading the Bible directly without reference to papal or churchly authorities. He seems not to have even heard of Luther at this time. Calvin’s situation in France, then Geneva was different again. He was first a scholar and second a clear-headed leader and organiser. He had no particular interest in Luther’s powerful mantra of ‘justification by faith alone’. On the more radical side Anabaptists of various kinds were seeking a far more thoroughgoing local detachment from a traditional top down authoritarian structure of church leadership. Thus Protestantism never has had a singly unifying theology or leadership other than being against Roman Catholicism. In the 21st century, as theologians and church leaders from Catholic and other denominations have drawn closer together, Protestantism has had to look elsewhere to a degree for something to be against.

Some of the most useful material covered by McGrath is his account of the ultimate failure of the English Puritan rebellion against Anglicanism followed by the foundations of American Protestantism; the debates within Protestantism about predestination and Arminianism; the impact of Protestantism on culture including the development of the Arts and Sport; and Protestantism’s 19th century missionary explosion and the 20th century recognition of the need for indigenisation.

McGrath’s rationale for a new history of Protestantism is based on radical developments in Protestantism following the cataclysm of two world wars in the 20th century. ‘Protestantism itself has changed, decisively and possibly irreversibly, in the last fifty years, in ways that would have astonished an earlier generation of scholars and historians.’ (p. 9) McGrath identifies in particular, the rise of Pentecostalism within Protestantism. Nigeria alone, today boasts more Protestant believers than the combined total of Protestants in the USA, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand combined. Thus the centre of Protestantism has shifted to the South with over 500 million adherents in Asia, Africa and Latin America. When the Pentecostal phenomenon is combined with the non-denominational megachurch movement sweeping through Western Protestantism and the subsequent decline and struggle of traditional authoritarian based denominational structures, the arrival of a rejuvenated and aggressive Islam, and the constant incoming tide of political secularism in the West there is certainly a place for a new history of Protestantism.

McGrath has produced an exciting book that in the end encourages rather than dismays. He cannot, even in 500 pages, cover everything. One looks in vain for references to P. T. Forsyth, Francis Schaeffer and L’Abri, Ridley and Moore Colleges, the Keswick movement, Leon Morris and the mid-20th century explosion of brilliant Biblical commentaries, James Barr’s critique of fundamentalism, the rise and fall of evangelical television spruikers/Crystal Cathedral etc, the 20th century assault on secular philosophy (Alvin Plantinga, Roger Scruton, Herman Dooyeweerd and Nancey Murphy et al), Hillsong, the Stendhal/ Sanders/ Crossan/ Borg/ Wright debate about 1st century Judaism and Paul to name a few. But this is nitpicking. McGrath’s book is worth reading for the vast reference list alone. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea closes with two memorable quotations:

‘Western theology has some excellent answers—but they are answers to questions that no-one else seems to be asking’. (Desmond Tutu)

‘Times are changing and we change with them.’ (Ovid).

 

Biblical Authority After Babel
Kevin J. Vanhoozer is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the USA. He writes prolifically from a reformed position but with a broad sweep covering theologies, theologians and literature from many fields and approaches. His general editorship of Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible is an impressive gift to theological scholarship. Biblical Authority After Babel obviously takes its title from the Genesis 11 story of the Tower of Babel built by mankind to reach up to God. God was not pleased with their arrogance and came down and confused their languages so that they could not complete the tower.

Vanhoozer is responding particularly to Alister McGrath’s claim in his recent book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea that the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers led directly to the notion that every Christian has the right and authority in the Spirit to interpret the Bible for themselves. Thus according to one way of reading McGrath, the Reformation set loose interpretive anarchy upon the world, a Babel of scepticism and schism which divides, confuses and continually multiplies into the many thousands of denominations and Protestant ideologies in the world today. At the same time Vanhoozer takes issue with other historians who argue that Protestantism, by its removal of any magisterial shared framework for the integration of knowledge, has been responsible for the gradual secularisation of the modern world—see, for example, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society.

Vanhoozer states early on that ‘there is no merit in giving pat answers to complex questions’ (p9), and this book is certainly no easy read due both to Vanhoozer’s carefully worded and detailed writing but also to the double layered layout of the book found in two over-arching themes. The first is Vanhoozer’s attempt to use retrieval theology to analyse again the fundamental theology and thinking of the 16th century Reformation. Retrieval theology ‘is the name for a mode or style of theological discernment that looks back in order to look forward’ (p23). What Vanhoozer seeks to retrieve are the four classic Reformation Solas and their true intention and meaning. Sola is the Latin for ‘alone’ and Vanhoozer deals with grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone and in Christ alone. He adds his own fifth sola—for the glory of God alone. He has a final chapter in which he attempts to synchronise Protestantism with Evangelicalism and in a sense to retrieve the term Evangelicalism, a term increasingly confused and under fire.

That would be meat enough for one book, but on top of this significant retrieval analysis Vanhoozer details and defends his version of ‘the interpretative practice of ‘mere’ Protestant Christians’ (p62), channelling C. S. Lewis at this point—as Lewis himself channelled Richard Baxter, the 17th century Puritan pastor and scholar. To do this, Vanhoozer propounds twenty theses throughout the book to delineate this Protestant interpretative practice. Sometimes these use philosophical/theological terms—such as material principle, formal principle, the triune economy of light and so on—which are not always clearly enunciated (to me anyway). The result of these two over-arching themes is that the reader is divided between sorting out the five solas at the same time as getting a handle on the twenty theses of Protestant interpretative practice and it takes care and patience to push through to the finish line.
In spite of these difficulties, Biblical Authority after Babel is a far-reaching and worthwhile read and indeed it provides a program for Protestants and Evangelicals to understand what they have in common and to direct their energies towards the unities of Protestant belief and practice rather than concentrating on the relatively minor issues that divide some Protestant believers. On the other hand Vanhoozer has stayed away from any actual issues in this lengthy discussion choosing rather to focus on a theoretical way forward. Much as I admire his attempt it seems to me that the book would have been stronger with at least a chapter on the hard issues. Aside from one indeterminate footnote he has avoided the same-sex attraction issue which—in the Anglican Church at least—has already caused substantial division and heartache and won’t be going away any time soon. Equally the coherent and jaunty writing and podcasting output of Rob Bell’s influential body of work has a vast worldwide following. In calling for a radically different approach to many conservative doctrines, Bell has attracted the ire of the likes of John Piper. Vanhoozer’s model may find a way to deal with issues like these two but it would have been useful to have a chapter with attempts at a practical way forward. Vanhoozer’s very impressive reading guide alone is one major value of the book. There is enough food for thought here for a solid one year course in Biblical and Theological hermeneutics. An impressive and thoughtful book but only for those who are committed to theological analysis and prepared to stay the distance.
Richard Prideaux, Vic.

Book Review: Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization

Impossible People:
Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization
Os Guinness
IVP, 2016

The theme of this book is the necessity for Christian courage today in the struggle for Western civilisation. The title Impossible People comes from a term used of the reforming 11th-century Benedictine monk Peter Damian, who courageously stood for truth, integrity and the moral standards of the Christian faith at a time in the church was compromised by a culture of corruption among church leaders. Many were involved in immorality, homosexual practice and paedophilia. Simony was rife. Damien was known as incorruptible, unbribable and uncompromising in his opposition. The authorities described him as ‘that impossible monk!’.

Guinness believes that Christians today have to become like Peter Damian, for we have become too complacent and compromised by our culture. He sees this moment as a crisis, a showdown, for the church, particularly the Western church and also for Western culture. What is at stake is the victory or defeat of the long assault on the Jewish and Christian faiths, the two defining faiths of the West. The attack comes from what he calls progressive secularism. This is the push to marginalise or exclude Christianity from the public square of community debate, politics, public policy and legislation. The Christian faith is the particular target because of a resentment of perceived past power over culture, public morals and values.

Guiness describes a number of other forces that are currently arrayed against Christianity. First, nihilism—the loss of a sense of ultimate meaning which in turn leads to a loss of hope and then despair. Contemporary nihilism is partly a product of postmodern relativism about truth and morality. This could lead to a social degeneration where the West collapses from within. The second force is the very opposite of the first—a new secular optimism. This is driven by an over-confidence in our increasing technological mastery and our subsequent ability to create a new world and a new humanity—a world of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, guided evolution and genetic manipulation. The third of the other threats is the re-emergence of cultural Marxism. Its theory of power as oppression calls for the exercise of power to be resisted and overturned. On this theory, cultural elites hold power and control the masses, not only economically, but culturally. They determine morality, social norms and values. As part of this cultural elite, the church is forcing a certain view of morality and truth on society, so its cultural power must be broken and overturned. The question of power is a recurring theme of this book and Guinness evokes Nietzsche‘s dictum that man’s impetus is ‘the will to power’. This view of power is a key reality in this struggle and only God, through the gospel, can redeem and transform it. Fundamentalist Islam is the fourth force he mentions.

Guiness avows that if these anti-Christian forces prevail, they will return the West to the philosophy, ethics and lifestyle of the first century pagan world that Christianity was born into, and which it originally transformed to become the influential force in developing Western civilisation. ‘We are not simply the guardians of some of the best of the past’, he writes, ‘but pioneers whose task is to stand against the world for the future of the world.’ Guiness poses three great questions, the answers to which he claims will decisively shape the future of the world in the next generation. These are: 1. Will Islam modernise peacefully in the end? 2. What faith or ideology will replace Marxism in China? and 3. Will the Western world recover or completely sever its Christian roots?

The third question is Guiness’s main concern. In the final chapter he invokes Churchill’s WWII appeal to the US to abandon its isolationism and provide the resources England desperately needed to defeat Hitler: ‘Give us the tools to finish the job’, said Churchill. At that time, the US did give the tools, and the Nazis were defeated. The tools Guiness appeals for today’s fight are, first, an understanding that power is a key issue behind many of the forces at play and a lively sense that unless we renew our personal knowledge and experience of God’s spiritual power, we will be ineffective in this struggle no matter how courageous we are. Paul teaches that the gospel ‘is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe’ (Rom 1:7). Second, we need to be alive to the ancestry of the ideas around us. To counter the forces ranged against us we need to understand the ideas that generate them, so that we can confront those presuppositions lying behind the forces producing particular social effects. Third, we need probing cultural analysis. We need the ability not simply to describe and critique the culture we are living in, but also to gauge its impact on us, on our thinking and behaviour. Finally, Guinness suggests that ‘what we need above all in the church today is for each Christian to have a profound personal knowledge and experience of God himself and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures as his authoritative Word. No one and nothing can replace those essentials.’ This is a challenging book and will make a great resource for a small group discussion series. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion and a closing prayer.
Peter Corney, Vic.

Book Review: C.S. Lewis: A Life

C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

Alister McGrath
Hodder & Stoughton, 2013

I confess: I have never been a big fan of C. S. Lewis. My early attempts at reading his apologetic writings foundered on the register of his prose. In my undergraduate evangelism, I was trying to present the truths of Christian faith in a vernacular that could easily be understood. Lewis seemed to move in a different direction. So I was taken aback then when I lived in a graduate student dormitory at Yale and got to know a non-Christian friend who voraciously read anything by Lewis that I could lay my hands on. The time had now come to get serious with the Apostle to the Imagination.

So I read the biography of Lewis by Alister McGrath, called C. S. Lewis: A Life, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2013. Though intimidating by its size, I discovered that its thick pages, frequent photos, and penetrating analysis of Lewis’s life and times made it a much easier read than I anticipated. In fact, McGrath has inspired me to dig deeper. It takes the normal shape of a chronicle, starting with Lewis’s birth in 1898 and early life in Northern Ireland, and ending with Lewis’s death in November 1963, the same day on which JFK was assassinated. McGrath alerts us to the fact that Lewis disengaged from Irish politics in the 1920s when his identity was increasingly English. His service in World War I and call to explain Christian faith on the BBC during the darkest days of World War II portray him not as an absent-minded professor but as profoundly immersed in the vicissitudes of the life of the nation.

There is also here no avoidance of the bizarre relationship which Lewis enjoyed with Mrs Moore, nor of the strange way that his later marriage to Joy Davidman began: after the ceremony, Lewis headed back to Cambridge and Davidman to their home in Oxford. It appears to have begun as a relationship of convenience for an American, whose Communist leanings closed off job prospects at home. McGrath quotes Jacob: Lewis was ‘an American divorcée’s sugar daddy’ (p. 331). Joy’s literary inclinations however gave Lewis much stimulation and encouragement in his writing in the last years of his life, and Lewis’s account of Joy’s untimely death remain some of the most moving in twentieth century literature.

What McGrath does so well is take a break from the narrative from time to time to insert chapters on particular writings of Lewis. There is analysis of Lewis’s philosophy, his approach to apologetics, and most interesting of all reflection on Lewis’s creative pieces. I loved reading about how the Narnia series was composed, and how it doesn’t so much establish one on one correspondences with our world, as an allegory might, but intends rather to provoke us to ask which story about Narnia is true, the interpretation of the Witch or of the beavers. We have a role to play in working out the meaning of it all.

Fascinating was the insight that perhaps Lewis sets up the whole seven books of the series each to represent a planet, with its own distinctive contribution to make, without instructing us to read the seven in a particular order. Drawing on medieval precedents—Lewis was after all a professor of medieval literature in Cambridge—he could create a deep unity in the chronicles while giving a distinct feel or atmosphere to each part. These books don’t just give us apt quotations for sermons, but build an imaginative yet Christian world to inhabit, even if only temporarily.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the joy I discovered in reading this biography of one of the twentieth century’s great apologists. I am a reluctant reader no longer. Lewis helps us live in a world dominated by technological capacity for evil by nurturing the power of the imagination, and by teaching us of the possibility of mere Christianity, which points us to Jesus, not just the institution of the church.

Rhys Bezzant, Vic. 

 

C.S. Lewis: A Life:

Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

Alister McGrath

Hodder & Stoughton, 2013

 

I confess: I have never been a big fan of C. S. Lewis. My early attempts at reading his apologetic writings foundered on the register of his prose. In my undergraduate evangelism, I was trying to present the truths of Christian faith in a vernacular that could easily be understood. Lewis seemed to move in a different direction. So I was taken aback then when I lived in a graduate student dormitory at Yale and got to know a non-Christian friend who voraciously read anything by Lewis that I could lay my hands on. The time had now come to get serious with the Apostle to the Imagination.

                 So I read the biography of Lewis by Alister McGrath, called C. S. Lewis: A Life, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2013. Though intimidating by its size, I discovered that its thick pages, frequent photos, and penetrating analysis of Lewis’s life and times made it a much easier read than I anticipated. In fact, McGrath has inspired me to dig deeper. It takes the normal shape of a chronicle, starting with Lewis’s birth in 1898 and early life in Northern Ireland, and ending with Lewis’s death in November 1963, the same day on which JFK was assassinated. McGrath alerts us to the fact that Lewis disengaged from Irish politics in the 1920s when his identity was increasingly English. His service in World War I and call to explain Christian faith on the BBC during the darkest days of World War II portray him not as an absent-minded professor but as profoundly immersed in the vicissitudes of the life of the nation.

                 There is also here no avoidance of the bizarre relationship which Lewis enjoyed with Mrs Moore, nor of the strange way that his later marriage to Joy Davidman began: after the ceremony, Lewis headed back to Cambridge and Davidman to their home in Oxford. It appears to have begun as a relationship of convenience for an American, whose Communist leanings closed off job prospects at home. McGrath quotes Jacob: Lewis was ‘an American divorcée’s sugar daddy’ (p. 331). Joy’s literary inclinations however gave Lewis much stimulation and encouragement in his writing in the last years of his life, and Lewis’s account of Joy’s untimely death remain some of the most moving in twentieth century literature.

                 What McGrath does so well is take a break from the narrative from time to time to insert chapters on particular writings of Lewis. There is analysis of Lewis’s philosophy, his approach to apologetics, and most interesting of all reflection on Lewis’s creative pieces. I loved reading about how the Narnia series was composed, and how it doesn’t so much establish one on one correspondences with our world, as an allegory might, but intends rather to provoke us to ask which story about Narnia is true, the interpretation of the Witch or of the beavers. We have a role to play in working out the meaning of it all.

                 Fascinating was the insight that perhaps Lewis sets up the whole seven books of the series each to represent a planet, with its own distinctive contribution to make, without instructing us to read the seven in a particular order. Drawing on medieval precedents—Lewis was after all a professor of medieval literature in Cambridge—he could create a deep unity in the chronicles while giving a distinct feel or atmosphere to each part. These books don’t just give us apt quotations for sermons, but build an imaginative yet Christian world to inhabit, even if only temporarily.

                 Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the joy I discovered in reading this biography of one of the twentieth century’s great apologists. I am a reluctant reader no longer. Lewis helps us live in a world dominated by technological capacity for evil by nurturing the power of the imagination, and by teaching us of the possibility of mere Christianity, which points us to Jesus, not just the institution of the church.

Rhys Bezzant, Vic.

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