They don’t get along
- Written by: Wayne Schuller
Peter Hitchens, brother of the famous anti-theist, Christopher Hitchens, describes how atheism led him to faith.
The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith
Harper Collins 2010
Peter and Christopher Hitchens have a shared heritage of British nominal Christianity and the embracing of atheism as a form of intellectual emancipation. ‘I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967. I was 15 years old’ (page 7).
Peter has since returned to an active Christian faith after decades of leftist-atheism, whilst his brother Christopher has become a great preacher of the new atheism. This book is a banquet of biography, a prophetic evaluation of 20th Century Western Christian culture, a defence of common objections to the
Christian faith, and an undressing of self-assured anti-theism.
Peter has written this book as a record of his own journey, and also to help those who might be potentially ‘enchanted by the arguments of the anti-religious intellects of our age’ (page 2). Having been on the inside, he is able to shine a light on the motives and arrogance that makes up much of popular atheism.
Peter argues that the biggest weakness of his brother’s ‘faith’ is that ‘he often assumes that moral truths are self-evident, attributes purpose to the universe and swerves dangerously round the problem of conscience—which surely cannot be conscience if he is right—he is astonishingly unable to grasp that these assumptions are problems for his argument. This inability closes his mind to a great part of the debate, and so this makes his atheist faith insuperable for as long as he himself chooses to accept it’ (page 3). This inability is revealed with insufferable repetition in the 2009 documentary Collision—which narrates a string of public debates Christopher Hitchens held with the American Christian pastor and writer, Douglas Wilson. This DVD is highly recommended as both entertaining and thought-provoking viewing (see www.collisionmovie.com).
Peter puts forward a cogent case that the decay of 21st Century Western societies is due to the 20th Century decay of credal Christianity. He is scathing of Church of England nominalism in the last 100 years, especially in relation to English patriotism and the two World Wars. His reflections on the ‘national cult’ of British patriotism also critique our own Anzac traditions and loyalties.
As a professional journalist, Peter’s observations of the 20th Century have a breadth of wisdom and evidence, not least his insights comparing five years of living in Russia and his return to London at the turn of the century. As part of his spiritual journey he observes what effect predominant belief systems have on the virtue of any society: ‘I also concluded that a high moral standard cannot be reached or maintained unless it is generally accepted and understood by an overwhelming number of people. I have since concluded that a hitherto Christian society which was de-Christianised would also face such problems, because I have seen public discourtesy and incivility spreading rapidly in my own country as Christianity is forgotten’ (page 66).
Peter knows 20th century history exceedingly well. He was thoroughly versed in and supportive of leftist atheistic regimes, and of the excuses required to maintain this ideology in the face of repeated atrocity after atrocity. He is now ‘baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of my anti-theist brother that the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and his cause. It unquestionably does. Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism, materialist rationalism and most of the other causes the new atheists support. It used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as atheism today’ (page 100).
The biographical elements are sparse but riveting. The poetic majesty of the KJV and traditional Anglican 1662 Book of Common Prayer liturgy connected and awakened suppressed beliefs for Hitchens. In fact his journey back to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ came in part through his wife and children’s baptism in a traditional Church of England parish. As Anglican Evangelicals, what does it say of us that should we be surprised by this? There is more than one way to skin a secularist cat—of his brother he suggests that ‘it is my belief that passions as strong as his are more likely to be countered by the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the human heart at any time’ (page 3).
At 160 pages this is a concise book, eminently readable and well worth giving to our atheist friends. It represents a challenge to evangelicals who, being weak on history and aesthetics, are often left to debate on the narrow turf of Enlightenment categories. It highlights Christian failures but it also offers philosophical and historical ways forward from our Anglican heritage.
As a weakness, presentation of the person and work of Jesus Christ is significantly absent in this book. But it is a penetrating critique of the spirit of our age and I pray it opens eyes for many to consider the ascended Saviour-King.
Wayne Schuller is Vicar of Berwick Anglican Church in Melbourne’s booming south-eastern growth corridor.
Why we need more Bonhoeffer
- Written by: Rhys Bezzant
Rhys Bezzant reviews Eric Metaxas’s biography of one of the twentieth century’s leading lights.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, martyr, prophet, spy
Thomas Nelson 2010
Sooner or later every Christian needs to read a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Even better, a couple of them. Pastors, no less, need to interact with his example and his ideas because he has become one of the most celebrated Christian leaders of the twentieth century. His image is engraved above the door of Westminster Abbey and in the stonework surrounding the altar of St John’s Cathedral in New York City. A recent documentary, produced by Martin Doblmeier and available on DVD, is a remarkable compilation of scenes from the Third Reich, a reconstruction of the events of Bonhoeffer’s dramatic life and interviews with surviving friends and family. Eric Metaxas’s biography of Bonhoeffer, published in 2010, is the latest English book to trace his story and summarise his ideas. It has been received with great fanfare, perhaps not least because it contains an introduction by Tim Keller, and reached number twenty-three on the New York Times Bestseller list. It appears that I am not the only person to be intrigued by Bonhoeffer’s life and untimely death.
His story may not be familiar to all. Growing up in a family of academics, diplomats, Prussian military elite, clergy and scientists, Bonhoeffer was destined for greatness. He was born in 1906 and was shaped by the tumultuous events of WWI, the humiliation of Germany and the collapse of the German monarchy, democratic instability in the Weimar Republic, and the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, better known as the Nazis. Theologically, he was greatly influenced by Karl Barth, with whom he had a long correspondence, and by the ecumenical movement of the early twentieth century. His own doctorate was on the theology of the church.
Having spent time in pastoral work in London and Barcelona, and further study in New York at Union Seminary, he decided that his place during WWII was not to be found in the safety of America, but amidst the dangers and risks of ministry in Germany, resisting the anti-Semitism of the regime and training a new generation of pastors for service in a threatening world. He was later employed as an intelligence officer in the military secret service, and, despite his pacifism, was prepared to involve himself in plots to overthrow the government, in particular to assassinate Hitler. A remarkable step to take for a Lutheran pastor. For his connections to the conspirators, he was killed in the last few weeks of the war in a concentration camp in Bavaria. Some of his last words to a fellow inmate were: ‘This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.’
Metaxas’s biography traces this story with extraordinary pathos and is written in a most readable style. He does well to include material published for the first time in the 1990s, namely letters between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, and recognises that the resistance to Hitler, once thought to include just a few lone military officers, was actually a broader movement. The biography is long (542 pages), but often includes substantial quotations from letters, sermons, speeches and treatises, which is a useful gift to those who have not met Bonhoeffer before. This is a great place to start to understand the Nazi dictatorship and Bonhoeffer’s Christian discipleship.
The twentieth century has so many examples of Christians living through great evil. I find it purging to read accounts of Christians who persevered in their faith under totalitarian regimes, whether that was in Germany, the Soviet Union, Rumania, or China. There is something bracing about peeling back the layers to get to the core of obedience: listening to the voice of Christ alone and blocking out the screeches of propaganda officers or the seductive words of collaborators, who pervert what is true and real and lasting. I read a biography like this one and ask myself if I would have found it within my power to stand up against horrific crimes, and I pray again that God would spare me from the time of trial.
Unfortunately, after reading this biography, I still have to say that I am waiting for a modern biography of Bonhoeffer that is really fair and doesn’t try to force him into an evangelical box. I fear this is what this book has attempted to do, wittingly or not. It appears to me to be written to make Bonhoeffer appear to be a conservative evangelical, who read his Bible every day, who hated preaching which was divorced from the Scriptural text, and who had a conversion experience in a Baptist Church in Harlem. Actually, he confessed to his closest friend that there were times when he found it too difficult to read the Bible and pray, he was no inerrantist, and had multiple turning-points on an erratic pathway to sanctification.
This book contains almost no interaction with the treatises of Bonhoeffer, the philosophical reasons for his high regard for Gandhi, nor theological reasons for his involvement in the ecumenical movement. I was left wondering if this was a Bonhoeffer deliberately shaped for right-wing Christian conservatives in the US, who would value the Bible-reading Bonhoeffer, but may be less appreciative of the Bonhoeffer who criticises Christians too closely aligned with power. There appears to be no interaction with recent scholarly debate, either in America or in the German-speaking world. Apart from these substantial concerns, my confidence was undermined through dozens of careless mistakes in the spelling of German words, the assertion that a text from Matthew 10 is part of the Sermon on the Mount (page 536), and turns of phrase which were glib and jocular at moments in the story where nothing but searing honesty and sober writing was called for. It was surely an error to have Barth say that the theological community led by Bonhoeffer on the Baltic Coast had a ‘monastic eros and pathos’ (page 269). Certainly ‘ethos’ was Barth’s phrasing!
We need more Bonhoeffer. The tragedy of his life, and of German history in the first half of the twentieth century, needs frequent retelling, to set before us the example of a man who was not scared to confess Christ before human opposition, and to warn us of the base potential of human evil. On a recent visit to Berlin, I was most moved when I sat in the chair at his writing desk from which he was led away by the Gestapo for his two years in jail. The great and the grotesque met there on that day in April 1943. Read this book by Metaxas by all means and give it to others to read too. But find other books on Bonhoeffer to read to fill out the story. We must be generous to recognise that he was indeed a hero of the faith, even when he doesn’t share all the assumptions and priorities of evangelical conviction.
Rhys Bezzant is Dean of Missional Leadership and a lecturer in Christian Thought at Ridley Melbourne.
- Written by: Gordon Preece
Gordon Preece reviews this year’s Australian Christian Book of the Year.
Economics for Life
Acorn Press 2011
Ian Harper is a well-known economist and perhaps one of our most public Christians. It was fitting that the launch of his book Economics for Life was hosted by the new merged entity of Deloitte-Access Economics and the launch was conducted wittily by Ian’s friend and fellow-believing economist, Glenn Stevens, Governor of the Reserve Bank. Ian has never hidden his faith, nor imposed it. As both an economist and Christian he respects choice, despite the Sunday Age’s headline ‘God to set minimum wage’, upon Ian’s appointment as Chairman of the Australian Fair Pay Commission (AFPC). It decontextualised Ian’s guiless theological throwaway line about praying before accepting the appointment. And its implication of some Taliban like theocratic takeover, was grossly unfair. Likewise the ABC’s quote from an anonymous professional colleague or jealous rival, describing him as a ‘conservative, right-wing, religious zealot’. Similarly shallow, adding a religious gloss to an ABC and Age bias, was the then Australian Uniting Church moderator’s view that a Christian couldn’t in good conscience serve in such a role. Ian is a controversial figure for secularists and Christians alike. Here is a chance to hear from the man himself.
The book is partly a personal apologetic addressed to two groups, economists suspicious of society, particularly church critics, and church critics suspicious of reductionist economists. But its style is more testimony than apologetic. It is first hand-testimony from a knowledgeable insider of some of the epochal economic moments in Australian life, and of how an economist, one of the high priests who’d fallen prey to some of that reductionist view that economics has ‘got it all’, found a more encompassing faith and a larger life in Christ. ‘Economics is for life, … but not for all of life’ (page vi).
The book falls neatly into three parts. Part 1 asks ‘What is economics, anyway?’It provides a user-friendly explanation in simple, clear prose, of the science and morality of economics. These seem to be neatly separated into descriptive and prescriptive (normative) economics, facts and values. Those educated in the humanities or with a Reformed theological view that nothing is value neutral will find the distinction too neat and simple, but they will not find an economist for whom morality does not matter.
An enlightening survey of Australian economic history in Part 2 ‘Economics at Work ‘illustrates Harper’s distinction between prescriptive and descriptive economics. It puts many of our contemporary issues as a resource-rich nation in helpful long-term context. Next comes an inside account of Ian‘s short time at the AFPC and their surprising determination of a major catch-up rise for minimum wage earners. I was particularly impressed by the empirical-meet-the-public methodology used. Ian’s agony over those who may lose their jobs in a time of economic downturn, especially if he and his colleagues raised the minimum wage too high, is palpable. It reminded me of my father’s agonising over having to sack people from his business. This is followed by an excellent explanation of the Global Financial Crisis, in the context of the 1890s and 1930s depressions, the former of which Ian thinks was closer to the GFC. The chapters on Financial System Reform and The Future of Banks reflect his time on the Wallis Committee whose reforms largely saved Australia from the worst effects of the GFC. Their prophecies of the demise of banks in favour of financial markets proved to be, Ian admits with characteristic honesty and humility, cracks in their crystal ball. He advocates a new banking enquiry to hedge against future finance crises.
Part 3 ‘Beyond Economics’ begins by arguing that while there’s nothing wrong with affluence, there’s more to the abundant and truly happy life. This chapter seems more moderate and appreciate of the happiness literature questioning capitalism than Ian’s ‘Treating Affluenza’ in Ian and Sam Gregg’s Christian Theology and Market Economics. In fact, in general, the GFC’s capitalist excesses seems to have had a moderating effect on Ian’s tone. The final chapter, ‘There’s More to Life than Economics’ is for me the highlight of this economist’s testimony. It is a moving story of how Ian came to Christ from a nominal church-school educated background, through his wife Roslyn’s influence after her conversion at Princeton University chapel, and through the timely influence of a visiting Christian economist colleague and the genuine friendship evangelism and apologetics of once economist, now Bishop John Harrower. Oh please God that our churches would encourage more of such thoughtful and unapologetic marketplace mission, and thank God, even when we disagree with some of his economics, as I do, for an economist evangelist and man of integrity like Ian Harper.
So for a model of marketplace ministry with integrity and excellence, for a user-friendly understanding of a major area of modern life, for an interesting look behind the news of industrial relations and the GFC, buy this book, or if none of those work, to see what it takes to win the Australian Christian Book of the Year Award.
Gordon Preece is the Senior Minister at Yarraville Anglican Church, Director of Ethos: Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society (www.ethos.org.au) and author of the forthcoming book Moth and Rust Consume: Christ, Wealth and Ongoing Financial Crises.
The Stott literary legacy 2
- Written by: Kanishka Raffel
Kanishka Raffel chooses a favorite book
The Cross of Christ
InterVarsity Press 1989
The Cross of Christ was the first Christian book I owned other than the Bible. It is one of only two or three books that I re-read, either in whole or part, every year. It is well known and well loved for its thoroughgoing exposition of the meaning and significance of the work of the Lord Jesus in his death upon the Cross. The scriptural, historical and theological rigour of Stott’s articulation of the meaning of the cross is amply demonstrated in his gracious but exacting response to critiques of the evangelical doctrine of the atonement.
Stott affirms not only the centrality of the Cross for understanding Christianity, but the centrality of ‘satisfaction through substitution’ for understanding the Cross (page 159). Stott expounds the bible’s images of the atonement—propitiation, redemption, justification and reconciliation—and demonstrates how substitution is ‘the essence of each image and the heart of atonement itself’ (page 203).
He engages with historical and contemporary debates with typical generosity and resolute fidelity to Scripture. But the book is no mere textbook. It is steeped in reverent praise of the crucified and risen Lord who gave himself for his people. Part Four of the book, ‘Living Under the Cross’, is a manual for disciples who have been summoned to ‘take up your cross and follow’. Stott describes a life of joyful fellowship and service, generosity and forgiveness, endurance and hope; a life infused with the transforming power of the Cross of Christ. The book concludes with seven affirmations about the cross drawn from the Letter to the Galatians. One could hardly hope for a better seven day cycle of meditations on Christian life and service.
Kanishka Raffel is Rector of St Matthew’s Shenton Park, Perth.
The Stott literary legacy 1
- Written by: Peter Brain
Peter Brain chooses a favorite book
The Incomparable Christ
InterVarsity Press 2001
I consider it a great privilege to have been able to read books written by many gracious Christian leaders. John Stott is one, with the added privilege of having met and listened to him speak. Always the loving encourager and lucid expositor, his books and talks have nourished, shaped and helped me (in concert with so many) follow Christ.
Published in 2001, The Incomparable Christ is a record of Stott’s 2000 AD London lectures. I can remember reading it in early 2002 and being drawn to recognise in a fresh way how unique our Lord and Saviour is and being reminded just how privileged I am to have been called to trust, serve, preach and follow Him.
The book is essentially a New Testament overview of Jesus. Part I: The Original Jesus outlines ‘how the New Testament witnesses to Him’ while the final section, Part IV: The Eternal Jesus, is a superb exposé of the way Jesus challenges us today through the text of the Book of Revelation.
Sandwiched between are two fascinating and challenging sections. Part II: The Ecclesiastical Jesus shows how the church through the ages has presented Jesus and Part III: The Influential Jesus sets forth through the lives of thirteen Christians how Jesus has inspired so many from so many backgrounds and circumstances to give themselves in serving Him, thus making a difference in His name.
What we have is what we came to expect from Stott, a careful and incisive exposition of Scripture combined with challenging and insightful application. For me both were active in this book, helping to sharpen my understanding of Jesus and to lift my vision and move me to honour Him in my life and ministry. He wrote in the introduction ‘I send the book on its way, with the hope and prayer that many readers will acknowledge Jesus Christ as the proper object of our worship, witness and hope, and as deserving the description ‘incomparable’, for He has neither rivals nor peers.’
I am so grateful to God for John Stott’s testimony of Jesus’ supremacy, sufficiency and glory and for the legacy he has left us with in books such as this.
Peter Brain is the Bishop of Armidale and an EFAC Vice-President and NSW Chair.
- Written by: Rhys Bezzant
Rhys Bezzant reviews Tom Frame’s latest on the Anglican Church.
A House Divided? The Quest for Unity within Anglicanism
I loved this book, or should I say books. Tom Frame’s interests range so widely. He guides us through discussions of ecclesiastical party politics, structural impediments to mission in Australia, contemporary forms of Christian mysticism, and the modernist atheist reaction to theologically anaemic expressions of faith. Each of the first three sections could have become a book in itself, and sometimes I was left hoping for more. Bringing these themes together sometimes felt a little contrived, especially the chapters on the Lucas–Tooth Scholars and the Moorhouse Lectures, with their appendices as lists of nominees, but two things made the book coherent: the thoughtful ecclesiology undergirding it, and the author’s life-story which framed the telling.
The book begins with an outline of positions held by evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and liberal Anglicans within the Australian church, and the resulting tensions which can be seen not only in our country but across the Anglican Communion as well. Frame works hard at affirming what he can in each of these traditions, while pointing out their weaknesses and the ways in which they are culturally coloured. The section on evangelicalism was for me most stimulating. Frame takes as his launching pad the published views of Dean Phillip Jensen and his defence of Reformed Anglicanism. In response, Frame argues that Anglicanism has never seen itself as a confessional church, that the evangelical movement itself is more diverse than Jensen acknowledges, and that the wider church needs the contributions that evangelicals can provide.
I am not persuaded that Frame is entirely successful in his critique. We may not name the 39 Articles as a Confession, but approved by Convocations and Parliaments, they are indeed in Frame’s own words ‘Anglican formularies’ which prescribe ‘convictions and customs’ (page 26), and were subscribed not just by clergy but anyone wanting to graduate from a university (see also page 82). The idea that Evangelicals ought to remain within the Anglican church can also appear patronising: our tradition is seen as something valuable not on its own terms, but when it is used to slow down the church’s drift towards the ‘Liberal Protestant churches whose demise is only a matter of time’ (page 30). Of course the Evangelical movement is impacted by the culture in which it is housed, as missiologically committed movements get close to the ideas and practices of their neighbours, becoming like them to win some for Christ. We have often had our fingers burned by getting too close to the fire. Frame’s warning is timely, though naming evangelicals as a faction rather than a renewal movement, which its eighteenth century origins reflect and which is almost entirely neglected here, readies us for the model of ‘consensus Anglicanism’ which Frame himself espouses.
I agree with Frame that evangelicals need to work harder on ecclesiology. We resort with too much haste to pragmatic strategies and a revivalist mindset. We too quickly denigrate the nurturing value of sacraments, and conduct services without ‘any sense of reverence and awe’ (page 28) for the sake of contemporary connections. We take our model of leadership from worldly examples, and are strangely hesitant to map out consistently a theological vision for leaders, though the chapter on the episcopate suggests that it is not only evangelicals who are wedded to models which have little theological underpinning (page 156). We must reflect on the fact that our Gospel convictions are sometimes rejected because we have not lived lives worthy of the Gospel which we preach. However I am just not sure that the Lambeth Conference of 1930, for which Frame makes his ‘fulsome apology,’ adequately encapsulates my understanding of the heartbeat of Anglican life and witness: ‘an open Bible, a pastoral priesthood, a common worship, a standard of conduct consistent with that worship and a fearless love of truth’ (pages 104–105). Where is justification? Where are hearts strangely warmed? Where is anticipation of the joy of glory?
Frame’s chapters on synods, episcopacy, and diocese should be compulsory reading for anyone responsible for the institutional features of our corporate life. They breathe an imaginative air and give concrete expression to new ways of organising our ministry. Abolishing electoral synods and replacing them with diocesan-national Episcopal selection panels may sound crazy, but we need ideas like this to cast new visions of what could be (page 123). Frame’s own desire to relinquish his title as bishop, now that he works at St Mark’s Theological Centre in Canberra and not in episcopal ministry, gives his reflections on episcopacy a sharpness which is bracing: he argues that ‘the powers and discretion of the bishops must be devolved’ (page 141). Frame also argues for a radical redrawing of diocesan boundaries, and an openness to ‘cultural episcopacy,’ or the development of targeted ministries in government, business, or ethnic groups (page 156). In all this, he does not despise the institution, nor imagine that the church and the Kingdom are synonymous (page 171). He does however want the church to be ‘recklessly selfless when mission demands it’ (page 174)—a clarion call.
The section entitled ‘Then and Now’ is the least coherent. While there is much here to learn from, and the individual chapters give personal insights into Frame’s own formation, I kept asking myself what this particular tree had to contribute to the forest of the book. I found myself nodding when Frame spoke of Anglican captivity to political correctness and its promotion of ‘liberal democratic statism’ (page 192), and shouting ‘Amen’ when he described how pitifully we support and finance the theological training of our leaders, and so often in Australia mock intellectual leadership more generally (page 232). The chapter on William Ralph Inge’s contribution to Christian mysticism seemed to me to be out of place. Frame praised Inge’s commitment to experiential faith, and appreciation of the immediacy of knowledge of God (page 248), without giving due place to these very values amongst Anglican evangelicals, for whom they are nevertheless Christologically defined.
The final chapters of the book, functioning as one part mid-life crisis and two parts appeal for courage to learn again what it means to be the church in an aggressively secular culture, were reassuring. Frame’s encouragement to get on with the work of evangelism and apologetics and disciple-making was heartening, for he is searingly honest about the critical state in which the Anglican church in Australia finds itself. Our enslavement to money and status is almost as alarming as the growing intolerance towards the Christian vision of human flourishing. Though I suspect Frame is a little naïve in assuming that Anglicans will be able to develop a ‘coherent doctrine of the Church that can attract the conviction and allegiance of all theological traditions’ (page 268), I agree with him that mid-life is a time for ‘taking stock, reassessing and reviewing one’s life’ (page 256). We are as a church a middle aged institution, grown just a little too flabby and suddenly aware that we have to become more intentional in maintaining the vigour which once seemed so effortless. This book is a great health check, and a timely word.
And by the way, I wonder why the photo on the back cover has Frame wearing episcopal purple and a pectoral cross? After all his appeal to change our thinking about ministry structures and visions, this picture seemed an odd choice. We have so far to go.
Rhys Bezzant is Dean of Missional Leadership and a lecturer in Christian Thought at Ridley Melbourne.