EFAC Australia

Book Reviews

The Last ThingsLastThings
IVP, 2019

(Author’s disclosure: David Höhne is presently supervising my M.Th.)

The Last Things are generally presented as four in number, being death, judgement, heaven and hell. In this volume David Höhne gives us six last things, taken from what may seem an unexpected source, namely the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. As soon as you think about it though, expounding eschatology using the framework of this prayer makes a lot of sense. The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are big petitions, oriented towards God’s original and ultimate purposes for his creation. They set out a vision for our faith and hope and, as they are given to us to pray by Jesus Christ, we may expect that they do express the will and plan of God. To organise the teaching of Scripture about the last things under the heading of God’s name being hallowed, God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done seems like a sane and sound approach to eschatology. The last three petitions also lend themselves to being expounded with reference to ultimate things: daily bread is about the sustenance of life—will God sustain our lives despite death? Forgiveness of sins counts most of all at the last judgement, and deliverance from temptation and evil is the hope of the new creation.

Apart from the use of the Lord’s Prayer as an organising framework, another distinctive of this work is that it seeks to say what can be said about the End from our current situation, living in what Höhne call ‘the Middle’. The Middle is the period between the resurrection and the return of Jesus. Höhne wants to describe the experience of Christian hope in this situation theologically. In the Middle we have the gospel, which is a promise from the past, for the future. In the Middle we do not see the Beginning or the End, but we have these promises, which are the means by which God gives himself to us. God is with us, the people whom he is perfecting, through his word of promise and by his Spirit. Life in the Middle is the life of prayer, the church calling upon God to fulfill the promises he has made, and trusting that he will. This is an experience of faith and hope expressed in prayer.

A third feature of this work is that it engages pretty seriously with both Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann. This makes it a stretching read. Höhne aims to construct his eschatology using the resources of Scripture, organised by the Lord’s Prayer, drawing on the methods of Biblical theology that Moore College is well known for developing, leaning also on Calvin for theological method, and sifting Barth and Moltmann so as to integrate their best insights and critique their inadequacies. The Contours in Theology series is a set of ’ ‘concise introductory textbooks’, but this is not an introduction to a first year theology course’s section on eschatology. It is more at the level of an introductory textbook for a later specialist course in eschatology. Just so you know.

The chapters on the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer come in two sets. To give you an indication of the guts of the book, let me describe the first of these sets of three chapters. The first set focusses on the hope that God’s heavenly fatherhood will be perfected on earth. This is traced first through the theme of the hallowing of God’s name. Philippians 2:9-11 is the touchstone promise, that ‘in honour of the name of Jesus every knee shall bow’. Höhne traces the theme of the hallowing of God’s name from Moses and the Temple through the Exile and to the Word made flesh who is given the Name above every name, through whom God’s Name is and will be hallowed on earth as in heaven. The next chapter traces the theme of God’s fatherhood perfected on earth by the coming of his kingdom. 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 is the touchstone promise. There we learn that after the destruction of the enemies of the Messiah, finishing with death, he will hand the Kingdom over to God the Father, and God will be all in all. The chapter expounds the biblical development of the Spirit-empowered Son of God, chosen from the people to deliver the people. Jesus is that Messiah, ‘mighty over sin, death and evil’ (p. 113). He is not only king but rather king-priest, establishing right worship and leading the people in it. These things he does through the shedding of his blood, and sending his Spirit to gather his church. This church lives by God’s promise of the defeat of death in the resurrection of the dead, and the consequent entire advent of his kingdom on earth as in heaven. The next chapter is on the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven. The touchstone promise is Ephesians 1:3-10 where we learn that the mystery of God’s will is that he intends to sum up all things in the Messiah. This chapter traces the planned and mysterious choices of God in bringing this will to pass. God plans ‘to bring blessing to the many by the choice of the one/few’ (p. 168). Jesus is the focus of God’s plan for creation, and in this life he is the interpreter and executor of God’s will, the one through whom the will of God is known and done on earth as in heaven. Through him the will of God in blessing and the curse will be perfectly realised.

I hope you get the idea, that this is not a book narrowly focused on what will happen in the End. It is a book about the whole plan of God from the beginning, through the middle and to the end. The End is known through promises received and believed in the Middle. These promises must be carefully considered and their various strands thoughtfully integrated. These promises are rooted in God himself, and contain the hidden fullness of what they offer even from the beginning. These promises all find their ‘Yes’ in Jesus Christ. So if you work through this book you will get a whole theology, really, not simply eschatology. There are discussions of the four last things to be found here: death (and resurrection), judgement (and forgiveness of sins), heaven (and the new earth) and hell. There’s the millennium, the beatific vision and other topics too. But Höhne wants the book to ground eschatology in our ordinary Christian lives, so he repeatedly asks, ‘What can we know?’, ‘‘What should we do?’ and ‘What can we hope for?’ in the here and now, in the Middle that precedes the End. He wants to include our current eschatological experiences of prayer and church in his account of the last things.

This is, then, rather an ambitious book, and will ask readers to do some work. This is its biggest weakness for a general readership. I did not skip easily from page to page, but I am glad to have made the effort. Its best strengths are firstly its creative and useful way of framing eschatology through the Lord’s Prayer. (I’m tempted to try a topical sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer after reading this book.) A second strength is that its account of the End is consciously and explicitly drawn from the beginning and addressed to us where we really are: in the Middle. Another way of saying this is that it is evangelical, founded on the gospel. The last strength I will mentions is its many stranded approach: using biblical-theological methods, grounded in lots of exegesis, but also reading theologians, most obviously Calvin, Barth and Moltmann, and allowing them to extend and refine this eschatology where their insights seem valuable.

Foundations of Anglican Evangelicalism in Victoria: Four Elements for Continuity, 1847–1937Foundations


If, like me, you are from a state other than Victoria, you may be asking yourself the question, “Why read a book on another part of Australia?” You may also be asking, “How can the period 1847-1937 be relevant today?” The key reason for reading this book is in its subtitle.

The Rev’d Dr Wei-Han Kuan has done a great service to the whole church, and especially to evangelicals in the Anglican Church, by identifying four key factors that enable ongoing evangelical witness in an Anglican diocese.

Buried in the detail of this book, based as it is on a Th.D. dissertation completed for the Australian College of Theology, is the evidence for Kuan’s thesis. For evangelicalism to survive—and I would argue for the church as a whole to thrive—it must have what the Diocese of Melbourne had during the leadership of Charles Perry, its first bishop 1847-1876. It needs:

  1. vibrant and vital evangelical parishes;
  2. vibrant and vital evangelical societies focussed on mission and evangelism;
  3. a robustly evangelical Anglican theological college; and
  4. a diocesan bishop willing to promote and support evangelicals and their causes.

Moreover, there is a circular flow from the parishes to societies, to this college, and to the bishop.

The author has selected a 90-year period of study that starts with the formation of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne (then coterminous with today’s State of Victoria). He finishes at the cusp of the Second World War in 1937. The reasons the author provides for this somewhat artificial end date are rather weak, but he leaves the door open to further research which might prove very illuminating, especially if recent motions of Melbourne’s Synod, the rise of The New Cranmer Society and the resignation of the current Archbishop of Melbourne as Primate were to be included in such a study.

Kuan’s introductory chapters provide a helpful analysis of the definition of evangelicalism and (together with his 2019 Preface and Epilogue) the current situation for evangelicals in Australia. He continues by telling this largely untold story in the form of a very engaging narrative. The story of the impact of Charles Perry is so significant that it spans chapters 2 to 4; and the gradual unravelling of his evangelical legacy is told with great insight in the last two chapters, which cover the period after Perry’s departure.

Common misconceptions, based as they often are on hearsay rather than historical facts, are addressed, including that Perry’s immediate predecessor, James Moorhouse, dismantled the evangelical heritage of the first bishop. Kuan’s meticulous examination of the evidence shows that Perry himself sowed these seeds, mainly by not addressing the four issues listed above. This is surely an object lesson for all of us who are today committed to the persistence of evangelical faith and culture in a diocese. It suggests that, without observing these four ‘rules for ongoing evangelicalism’, even a robustly evangelical diocese such as Sydney could, in time, grow weak.

If we apply these rules to dioceses where there are hopes of a stronger and long-lasting evangelical presence (e.g. Perth and Adelaide), we can quickly identify the missing elements. For Perth, it is an evangelical archbishop and substantial growth in the strong, but still small, evangelical societies such as CMS and EFAC. For Adelaide, it is the lack of an evangelical Anglican theological college and an evangelical archbishop. An interesting conjecture is that the recent growth of evangelicalism in each of these dioceses may be due to Adelaide and Perth having three of these four key elements, albeit different ones.

For me the most exciting aspect of this study was the spiritual encouragement I received from Kuan’s research into the life and witness of one of the evangelical ‘greats’ of Australia: Charles Perry (1807–1891).

Perry was an undergraduate in Cambridge during the ministry of Charles Simeon and helped place (what was to become) the Anglican Church of Australia on a firm gospel footing. He is also a model and inspiration to us all of evangelical witness. Kuan argues that our churches must maintain this witness “in the face of growing secularism in the Minority World, and as they experience rapid expansion in many parts of the Majority World” (p. ix).

Perry’s influence on the wider church in Australia was evidenced by another interesting fact that Kuan has brought to light. During Perry’s episcopacy there were more graduates from Moore College ordained for Melbourne than any other Australian Diocese (including Sydney). His influence on the national church was huge, including through his successful promulgation of a conservative evangelical theology during the development of the protype Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. How we hope (and earnestly pray) that the current Archbishop of Melbourne and Primate of Australia would do the same!


The Whole Counsel of God: Why and How to Preach the Entire BibleWholeCounse

Tim Patrick and Andrew Reid have done us a great service in producing this challenging and practical apologetic for preaching systematically through the entire Bible. They recognise there are many good contemporary resources on how to preach. ‘Instead, this book is about what to preach, and about how to plan and manage a long-range, ordered, and deliberate preaching program.’ (p. 23) The authors’ foundational conviction is that God has revealed himself progressively, that these words have been inscripturated, and that they are sufficient for the establishment of his people and their ongoing growth. Most importantly, they argue that all of these words are necessary for the growth of God’s people today. So, ‘we wish to encourage preachers to make it their goal to preach the entire Bible because we are convinced that all of it is the word of God for us.’ (p. 22) They recognise that this is ‘a monumental ambition.’ (p. 23) Indeed, their argument ultimately leads to this challenge: ’All vocational preachers should set themselves the goal of preaching though the entire Bible over a thirty-five-year period.’ (p. 81)

Although not their primary purpose, Patrick and Reid argue refreshingly for preaching solely from Scripture, given its ‘inspiration, perspicuity, inerrancy, sufficiency and authority.’ (p. 224) They remind us of how fortunate we are to have the written word of God (p. 36) and, more particularly, they argue well for the authority of both the Old and New Testaments (pp. 52-58). The authors remind us of the need ‘to let the Bible set our agenda.’ (p. 71) They note there is a significant difference between saying, ‘What does God say about X?’ and ‘What does God say?’ Asking the latter question should ensure appropriate proportionality in our preaching and, concomitantly, in our theological debates and lives. It should ensure we are alert and committed to what God is alert and committed to, proportional to his revelation. Simultaneously, it should prevent us from making claims where God is silent. As preachers, it forces us to ask the questions, ‘Why is this passage in the Bible?’, ‘How does it contribute to the whole?’ and ‘What would we lose if it wasn’t there?’

Patrick and Reid argue especially well for preaching that recognises the progressive and cumulative nature of God’s revelation. In other words, preaching that lives and breathes biblical theology. ‘The goal is to understand the theology of the passage itself; where the theology fits into the progress of the revelation of God’s purposes outlined in the Bible, which find their focus in Jesus; how it engages with the theological priorities of the Bible already revealed; and how it contributes to further develop that theological revelation.’ (p. 91) In addition to the integration of biblical theology, Patrick and Reid also argue for the integration of systematic and gospel theology into the regular preaching series (pp. 94-101). On this basis they argue against, for instance, preaching a doctrinal series synthetically, or having special evangelistic sermons. Incidentally, I am very mindful that the biblical, theological, pastoral and homiletical skills required to preach through the entire Bible in this way are substantial. The authors exemplify the implementation of their proposed preaching program by dividing the Scriptures into six different sections and planning for series from a variety of genres throughout the year. Where there is more than one preacher, they discuss the principles by which they have chosen preachers for texts. For those at home in reformed evangelical contexts, their illustrative program will not be unfamiliar and is quite accessible. However, for those used to using the common lectionary, moving to their proposal will require significant change and congregational training, which they address on pages 223-7.

While having great sympathy for the overall thrust of the authors’ argument, I have wrestled nonetheless with some of the theological, pastoral and practical implications of their 35-year plan. While recognising that all of the Bible is God’s word and is helpful, I need more help in understanding how, for example, the food laws or the dimensions of the temple need equal treatment compared to the New Testament passages of their fulfilment. The theological question is also raised as to whether some parts of Scripture are more pertinent than others to God’s people at certain times and contexts. Of course, the danger is that many pertinent parts are avoided because of the preacher’s competence, disposition, theological position, contextual misreading, external pressures, or any number of other reasons, so one well understands the authors’ fallback position. Pastorally and practically, covering the Gospels and significant sections of the Old and New Testaments only once in 35 years may be unrealistic, even within a strong biblical theological framework, where one is constantly bringing to the congregation the biblical, systematic and gospel implications.

In our own Australian context, for instance, surely the issues addressed in 1 and 2 Corinthians bear repeating more than once every 35 years!

I wonder whether the authors may be placing too much freight on the sermon, even when it is accompanied by a weekly Bible study before or afterwards. Indeed, the book could be strengthened by more discussion of the place of the sermon within the broader task of training all in the whole counsel of God. Enabling families to train each other and their children, greater use of an adult Sunday School program, as is so ably done in many North American churches, greater use of a year or more at theological college and even greater encouragement of individual learning will take pressure off all that is being asked here of the sermon, which includes teaching, exhortation and evangelism. It would also give greater freedom to the preacher to use the sermon for those ministry aspects of the word of God for which it is best suited and needed in that particular context. Indeed, changing one’s focus from the sermon to training by numerous means for all in their various stages of life and discipleship takes pressure off the sermon while still giving it a high place in congregational life. Such a focus does ask more of a preacher. It means charging them with the assessment and implementation of a congregation’s teaching needs, including the preaching program. Nonetheless, that is the role we see Paul adopting in Ephesus, as outlined in Acts 20.

Such considerations aside, The Whole Counsel of God is a great encouragement to read, both for its affirmations and its challenges. Australians have much to be thankful for in terms of our contribution to biblical theology. This integration of biblical theology and preaching, with its practical call, takes this contribution to the next step.

The Road to CharacterCharacter


David Brooks says that he wrote this book to save his own soul (xi). As a New York Times columnist he is “paid to be a narcissistic blow-hard” who has to work hard “to avoid a life of smug superficiality” (xii). In an effort to avoid “self-satisfied moral mediocrity” he wants to clear away the overgrown road to character and try to start down it. ‘Character’ is your moral core, your capacity for responding to the needs of the world, for struggle and self-conquest, for humility and self-effacement, for maintaining dignity, for giving and receiving love, for being open to grace.

The road to character is overgrown, says Brooks, because our culture has become shallow.

We are too focussed on skills, achievement and success in the outer world, the world of wealth, knowledge, status and power. We have lost the knack of talking about the inner world, the world of wisdom, meaning and growth in the qualities of heart and soul. We have embraced ourselves, celebrating and affirming who we are, and lost an older, “crooked timber” tradition that emphasised all the ways we fall short of who we should be and how we must work to overcome who we are in order that we may be someone worth admiring or emulating, someone really integrated and mature.

Brooks opens by analysing a cultural shift in the West from values of self-effacement and modesty and a low opinion of one’s own importance (“little me”), to a “big me” moral ecology that encourages us to think that we are special, that we should trust what we find in ourselves, that the way to maturity is to unfold faithfully what we discover in our hearts, not to struggle to tame and transform it. The bulk of the book is then ten biographical chapters of figures that Brooks thinks have some moral nobility about their lives that makes them worthy for us to know and perhaps emulate in some dimension.

The subjects of the chapters are men and women, religious and secular, and their journeys along the road to character are various. There is Frances Perkins, summoned by her experience of the tragedy of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire to a life of single-minded political work in the service of workers. Tough and shrewd, she gave herself to the cause, and this sense of vocation took her to the inner circle of President Roosevelt. There is Dwight Eisenhower whose rigorous self control and moderation expressed the basic conviction that our sin gives us reason to distrust and control ourselves inwardly and outwardly. There is Dorothy Day, whose bohemian life gave way, in a conversion to Roman Catholicism, to a life of self-sacrificial service of the poor, inspired by a desire to live for God. There is George Marshall (of the Marshall Plan) who committed himself to the institution of the military, and submerged his own ego to serve those over him and what the army and the country asked him to do. There is Philip Randolph, the civil rights leader whose determined, dignified and disciplined life equipped him for the moral tasks of his moment.

Late in the book we get two interesting chapters where the direction changes from figures whose self-integration and maturity seems to come through a fair bit of choice and self-training, to figures whose self-integration and maturity comes more through things that happened to them. First comes George Eliot (the author whose real name was Mary Evans) whose early neediness and emotional immaturity stabilised with experience, and especially through her romance and domestic partnership with George Lewes, who unlocked and encouraged her novel writing. Then comes Augustine, whose experience of God’s grace broke the spell of his infatuation with ambition, pride and pleasure, and the method of self-cultivation, and re-ordered his loves, so that life could begin to become about living out love for God. Lastly comes the chaotic and incomparable Samuel Johnson: sui generis.

Apart from the astute social analysis it contains, this book testifies to the enduring hunger human beings have to pay attention to a real moral core we have, even if we neglect it. Brooks legitimises our desire to feel like our lives are meaningful, and that this is not some weak-minded illusion to be dispelled, but a vital cue to us for the task of personal integration and maturity. Brooks does not want to be shallow, and wants to resurrect the old vocabulary of sin, soul, spirit and grace, and the conviction that we should distrust ourselves, discipline ourselves and seek our own healing, rather than parading and primping ourselves. To the degree that he succeeds, he primes people to think they have the kinds of problems that Jesus came to address, and that what the gospel has to say might be more deeply and lastingly relevant than some productivity guru giving you life-hacks or some pop star urging you to believe in yourself. Brooks’ subjects are flawed and their roads to character are not systematic, and nor are they entirely admirable as people even at the end. Brooks does not try to line it all up neatly. I did find the account of grace in the Augustine chapter to be attractive and palatable enough that I am considering taking it to my Big Questions reading group to see what my secular friends make of it.


The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral LifeSecondMountain

I reviewed David Brooks’s book The Road to Character in the last Essentials. At the end of that review I mentioned that I was considering taking the chapter on Augustine to my Big Questions reading group, because of its attractive discussion of Augustine’s experience of God’s transforming grace. Well I did that, and my mostly non-Christian friends and I had a very good discussion there. Then when I picked up Brooks’s next book, The Second Mountain, it provided an illuminating personal backstory to the writing of The Road to Character, because as it turns out, Brooks has been on a spiritual journey, and during and since the writing of that previous book, he has embraced the Bible, the religious attitude to life, coming to faith in God, a Jewish-Christian identity, and even, almost—perhaps partially or waveringly—the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You come across this surprising story in chapter 21 of the book, entitled ‘A Most Unexpected Turn of Events’. But more of that a bit later.

Although it contains a chapter or so of spiritual memoir, the book is really a continuation of the project of his former book, about the spiritual impoverishment of our current culture’s moral ecology, and the possibilities inherent in discovering a better moral ecology. The term ‘moral ecology’ is a term for the systems of belief and behaviour that we live our lives in. These may be local, such as the culture of an organisation that rubs off on those in it, or they may be quite encompassing, such as the classical honour codes of the ancient world. As Brooks tells it, we have moved from an early-to-mid 20th century moral ecology he calls ‘We’re all in this together’, to a postwar, 60s-counterculture-influenced moral ecology he calls ‘I’m free to be myself ’. While this was an understandable shift, it has gone too far, and left us too self-focused. We live on what Brooks calls the first mountain, the mountain of life tasks: get an education, a job, a spouse; cultivate talents, reputation, success; seek personal happiness. But Brooks is convinced that we must see that there is a second mountain, and that mountain that is not about personal happiness but about moral joy; not about self, but about others, about communities. Our current moral ecology is too dominated by slogans like ‘You can do anything’, ‘Follow your dreams’ and ‘Make your own way there’. The problem is that at the outset we don’t know who we are or what ‘our own way’ might be. Nor do we have a dream to follow. We just don’t know what will deliver to us the life we seek. Freedom is not what we need, but rather we need a tried and tested road shown to us, and encouragement to walk it.

So Brooks wants to give a plan for life that is aimed at the moral joy that is the promise of life on the second mountain. The heart of the book discusses four commitments for a second mountain life. These are vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, and community. These four commitments become the arenas in which we build a life which goes to work on us. Making these commitments integrates us so that we escape the empty moral ecology of the Instagram life (individualistic, aesthetic and insecure) and discover the richer moral ecology of the relationalist life (interdependent, integrated, assured). Commitments don’t erode individual freedom (as the hyperindividualist fears). Rather, our commitments actually give us what we seek, namely: identity, purpose, freedom and moral character.

Brooks carried me along with his enthusiasm, his urgency, his marshalling of anecdote, quotation, research and story. He gives the wisdom of self-help: how to get a handle on your life. He seeks to update and re-recommend the best of an old set of convictions about the centrality of commitment and community, of forgetting and submerging yourself in something bigger than you (‘we’re all in this together’). It is encouraging, heart-warming, inspiring. I think there’s good advice here, and the basic Judeo-Christian ethic is expressed well in modern idiom. The right life is to love: to commit to others in a deep way seeking to serve their needs and weave a culture of mutual love, leading to deep joy. It occurred to me that my teenaged son could benefit from reading the chapters on vocation and marriage (so could my daughter, but she’s a bit young yet).

But when Brooks turned to the long, very personal account of his awakening to faith, I was really engaged, and I ended up quoting Brooks in my Good Friday sermon: ‘I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, how vast are my hopes.’ (p. 262). This book is influenced (strongly) by Christians and Christian ideas and convictions, and is written by a pretty famous Jewish New York journalist and writer who has discovered in Christians he encountered and the Christian perspectives he slowly grasped something unexpected, compelling, liberating and life-changing. His last chapter is an enthusiastic manifesto, bubbling and overflowing with newfound conviction about the importance of pursuing a different vision of the good life. Where his journey will take him is yet to be seen, but it is wonderfully interesting to watch him go.

It is also interesting to see Christians through his eyes, to hear what struck him, confused him, put him off or attracted him as he engaged with Christianity. Walls obstructed his progress. ‘I found that many of the walls in the Christian world were caused by the combination of an intellectual inferiority complex combined with a spiritual superiority complex.’ (p. 256. He names evangelicals explicitly here). He sees these complexes building four walls that hinder. First is a siege mentality, ‘a sense of collective victimhood’ amongst some Christians, The second wall is ‘bad listening’, where in dialogue we just ‘unfurl the maxims regardless of circumstances’. The third wall is invasive care, where ‘people use the cover of faith to get into other people’s business when they have not been asked’. The fourth wall is intellectual mediocrity, where’ ‘vague words and mushy sentiments are tolerated because everyone wants to be kind’. By contrast, Yale professors are ‘brutal in search of excellence’. (pp256-7)

Read this book for a thoughtful take on our modern predicament, some ideas for a different approach, for a modern spiritual memoir and also for a few perspectives on how Christians can appear to outsiders coming into our orbit.

How to change your mind: the new science of psychedelicsPsychedelics


I loved reading Michael Pollan’s book "Cooked", and watching the Netflix documentary series based on the book. He tackled an interesting subject in a multi-disciplinary manner and writes prose that carries you effortlessly along. Pollan’s interest has turned from food and its production, preparation and consumption to psychedelic drugs, and the renewal of scientific investigation of their effects. This is a fascinating story with a varied cast of extraordinary characters, told through Pollan’s mix of science writing, social history, journalism, and personal accounts of his own experiments (in this case, with psychedelics). The basic story of psychedelics that the book recounts is of the initial growth of a scientific programme of psychedelic research in the mid-twentieth century, followed by the infamy brought upon psychedelics by those (such as Timothy Leary) who wanted psychedelics out of the lab and in the brains of the general population, and the sooner the better. This led to the closure of the research programme and the scheduling of these drugs. However, there were those who worked quietly but determinedly for years to reopen the door that had been closed, and a generation later they have succeeded, so that today psychedelics are again being studied by doctors and neuroscientists. The hope is that on the one hand, psychedelics might give neuroscientists new tools for studying the brain and its operations so that consciousness, brain function, and their connection might be better understood. On the other hand, doctors and psychiatrists hope that psychedelics might prove effective in treatment of patients who face terminal disease, addictions or depression and anxiety. The book is a hopeful one that seeks to indicate the promise that these researchers are seeking to fulfill.

The book is also the story of some of the underground aspects of the history of psychedelics in the west.

The big thing about these non-lethal, non-addictive drugs is the power of the experience that people may have when taking them.

At its height, the psychedelic experience is equivalent to a full blown mystical experience, where people lose their sense of local and individuated ego in a larger, ineffable sense of self that is merged with the whole cosmos. Everything shines, and is full of beauty, meaning and joy; everything is one, and love is at the bottom of reality, and people come away from some psychedelic experiences deeply convinced that they have seen these things, and come to know them in a direct and undeniable way. The experience is so powerful that it cannot help but be undertood in spiritual terms. People often rate these experiences as among the most meaningful experiences of their lives. Many people, convinced of the power of psychedelics to give ordinary people a revelatory experience that leaves them filled with peace, openness and a sense of the meaningfulness of life, make it their business to keep the practice of guiding people on trips alive, whether or not such activities are legal. Some are wishing and waiting to see psychedelics become a much more mainstream way for people to have spiritual experiences that will benefit then in ordinary life. All acknowledge the unusual fact that any therapeutic potency of such drugs is not simply connected to its effect on the cells and systems of the body, so much as to the effect on the person that arises from their conscious experience of the trip, and the way they make sense of it. Hence the importance in the world of psychedelics of ‘set’—the attitude you take into the experience and the expectations you have of it—and ‘setting’—where you are, and who you are with, how they treat you and how safe and secure you feel. Bad trips are far more likely when people take psychedelics without attention being paid to set and setting by people who have some knowledge of these things.

You may be wondering why I am reviewing a book like this in Essentials.

Here are two reasons: first, the book is a testimony to the hunger human beings have for meaningful experiences, that is experiences that impress upon you the meaningfulness of the world about you and your belonging to that world of meaning. The conviction that love founds reality was mentioned in the book, but not discussed much by Pollan (whose longtime atheism was opened up to the possibility of something more through writing the book—the closing words are, “the mind is vaster, and the world is ever so much more alive, than I knew when I began”). The convictions people bring back from a highly mystical trip are a challenge to a hard core atheist view of the cosmos (although it is also easy to retort to the tripper that if you put a chemical in your brain that binds to your receptors, and suppresses your default mode network, why should you believe the experience that results is in any way a true insight?) But they are also something of a puzzle to Christians. Should we reinforce the convictions that may arise about a divinely made, meaningful cosmos with love at its foundation? Or should we repudiate any such convictions as having nothing to do with God and his truth? This leads to the second reason for bringing this book to readers’ attention: if in coming years psychedelics do become an accepted part of treatment of depression, addiction or end-of-life existential distress, how should Christians regard their use? As a pseudo-deliverance built on an illusion? As an alternative and therefore problematic claim to provide a revelation that is not the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? Or as a useful therapy that might be baptised by using a set and setting consistent with Christian conviction? This will not have to be settled anytime soon, but Pollan is a big name writer and this book will no doubt give the movement to rehabilitate and utilise psychedelics a big push along.