Category: book review

Justin Welby biography

Archbishop Justin Welby: The Road to Canterbury / Andrew Atherstone (DLT, 2013)

A group of us at church are meeting to discuss this short biography of the recently installed Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby comes across as a leader with the ability to turn things around, and reconcile people in the most difficult circumstances – from African conflicts to diocesan spats about the sale of paintings. Welby wrote in 2012, “Division, dislike and even hatred are the quickest ways to kill churches. The first to leave is the Spirit of God. Reconciliation and modeling difference without enmity to a world in desperate need of it is both healing spirituality and effective testimony to Christ.”

Ten – or even five – years ago, I would have been antithetical to reading this book, because I was anti-hierarchical and anti-leadership, and because the Anglican Church is, in origin at least, so thoroughly Constantinian. And because I didn’t read biographies. Against my house church days, I’ve come to cautiously accept the value of good leadership in churches – I should blog on this one day. I now attend an Anglican church – again, worthy of a post to explain myself. And my main area of literary interest is currently biography. (Would my old self like this 2013 self? Not sure; he might be very disappointed.)

It is a decent biography for a quickly written one. Yet it feels too banal at times; perhaps this is because Atherstone is writing about the living. Or perhaps it is because Welby’s life has been quite ordinary between the exciting parts. But I think it’s also because it relies heavily on sermons and weekly columns written by Welby, and so despite not being authorised, it comes across very much as a sanitised, public biography. Am I saying Atherstone should have tried to dig up more dirt and highlight antagonism? Well, probably not, but these are some of our expectations of biography. Perhaps he should have at least found a still seething parishoner from the time Welby removed the pews from his parish church in the 1990s and replaced them with chairs.


Faith in the Shadow of Death: A Review of Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) 

Christian Wiman is a poet with a rare cancer, currently in remission. He was brought up a Texan Baptist, lost his childhood faith, only to return to church and a new kind of faith in the midst of falling in love and being diagnosed with cancer in his late thirties.

It is the second great spiritual memoir I’ve read this year, and it reminded me a lot of the other – Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. White men in their late forties who both write beautifully, and have a faith on the margins of doubt. Both memoirs are digressive and lack structure. Spufford’s is the more whimsical; Wyman’s is the more urgent and darker – but not even by that much.

My Bright Abyss is an extended meditation – illustrated with poetry – on believing in God when God so often feels absent. It is a far better book on doubt than any evangelical attempt I have encountered – probably because it is so honest, and so unconcerned to get to a particular answer. (Really, for Wiman and any unbeliever reading, it is a book about faith; but most believers will probably find it to be a book about doubt.)

It is an extremely quotable book; almost a collection of quotable insights. But this one is as good as any to give a taste of Wiman’s theme:

We feel ourselves alive in the anxiety of being alive. We feel God in the coming and going of God – or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant). We are left with these fugitive instants of apprehension, in both senses of that word, which is one reason why poetry, which is designed not simply to arrest these instants but to integrate them into life, can be such a powerful aid to faith. (27)

He has not compelled me to return to poetry, although I believe he’s right, and the book itself stands as a testimony to the significance of poetry in making sense of life.

For Wiman, faith is something fragile:

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. (60)

At the centre of Wiman’s faith in this book is the moment Christ on the cross calls out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It is a book which takes existence and death seriously, when so few books and so few people do. This is a man who has stared into the abyss and written beautifully about it.

More: Interview with Wiman here.

A beautiful monologue about what ‘Christianity feels like from the inside’: Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic


A humanist friend bought this book for me, which was a kind thing of him to do, as it’s blessed me. I haven’t read much in the field, but it’s the finest apology for Christianity I’ve encountered.

There are so few contemporary Christian writers whose prose is beautiful, but this book is beautiful in places, and full of the kind of insight into human experience one hopes to find in the best literary fiction, and rarely encounters in Christian nonfiction.

All this said, I’m hard pressed to sum up Spufford’s argument. It’s less an argument than a beautiful monologue about what ‘Christianity feels like from the inside’ – about how, apparently, it makes emotional sense.

Spufford states early on that he is a fairly orthodox Christian, but he writes as someone who carries little theological baggage, and perhaps that’s why he’s refreshing. He describes his inner life and how it resonates with his faith. He actually manages to cover all the key areas of the faith in this account, from his limited but important experience of God, to the message of Jesus and the significance of church.

It’s not a book which will sit easily with evangelicals; he likes to use f-word, and he claims that hell is not something many Christians believe in. For me, I’m so glad to find this  account of a fragile but very real faith that takes seriously the prospect of being wrong, the spectre of atheism and the reality that we often hear nothing back when we pray, and spins from these threads a compelling account of ‘why, despite everything’ Christianity might still be true.

Daily devotions – some resources

The daily ‘quiet time’ (I don’t like the phrase; I’m not sure why – something from childhood) is the centrepiece of evangelical spirituality, and surely a source of much guilt. It’s hard to do. The Bible is hard to read afresh; prayers sometimes fall so flat.

I’ve been glad in recent times to find a few things which have worked for me.

1. Take Our Moments and Our Days is an Anabaptist prayer book. It’s designed for use in corporate worship, but is of value to the individual to read to themselves. It’s a wonderful combination of liturgy and Anabaptist themes. Each liturgy has a call to praise, a call to discipleship, and a call to intercession. I don’t have a Kindle, but bought the Kindle edition and read it on the Kindle for PC program. Sometimes it feels too much to try to do in a morning devotion, but I have been blessed by it.

2. Thank you, Methodist Church in Britain, for ‘A Word in Time Bible Study‘ online resource. Each day brings a good portion of scripture to read, with commentary and some questions to ponder. (You can even answer the questions in the comments section, but that doesn’t often happen.) There is also a daily prayer on the site, which for me is a good prompt to prayer. (I wish there was a stronger Methodist presence in Australia. We would be the richer for a good dose of Wesleyanism; I’m not convinced the influence comes through the Uniting Church. It would make for a stronger advocacy of a more Arminian approach to theology, for one thing.)

3. I’ve just discovered the Ancient-Future Bible Study Series, which has actually been around a couple of years. It takes its name from the late Robert Webber’s ‘ancient-future’ approach to Christianity, drawing on the wisdom of the early church – in this case, a lectio-divina approach to reading the Bible. I’m only two chapters into the book on Abraham, but so far I have found it very spiritually enriching. It’s built on some well-handled commentary; I’m glad it combines a contextual reading of the Bible with a spiritual one. It is available as an ebook, but I wouldn’t recommend that, as writing down answers in the space under each question is surely central.


Why evangelicals listen to Ken Ham, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye: a review of The Anointed


The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age
Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson (Harvard University Press, 2011)

It would be easy to be misled by this book’s title. It could well be the latest combative tome by a conservative evangelical. Yet it’s published by Harvard University Press; the ‘anointed’ and the ‘evangelical truth’ have invisible scare quotes around them. It is a book which explores how evangelicals will follow the teachings of populist extremists like Ken Ham, David Barton, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye while paying less attention to more balanced, moderate and better-credentialed voices within evangelicalism like Francis Collins, Mark Noll, David Myers and Tom Wright in their respective fields.

As befits a book published by Harvard and aimed at a scholarly or educated general audience, the authors write as neutral, secular observers of the movement. Yet the back flap reveals that Stephens teaches history at the (evangelical) Eastern Nazarene College and Giberson used to teach physics there. (Stephens has since moved to Northumbria University.) They are actually insiders to the evangelical culture, writing as if outsiders. Perhaps the nature of the book required this pretense, but I think it would have been valuable to have an acknowledgement in the text itself of their own relationship to evangelicalism.

This criticism aside, their analysis is very good, offering a historical account of the rise of young earth creationism, the myth of Christian Founding Fathers of the USA, Focus on the Family and populist premillennial eschatology. In each case, ‘anointed’ men have popularised a fundamentalist message, claiming to have derived it straight from the Bible, unlike the liberal ‘experts’ whose education and research can be dismissed. A historical treatment is particularly valuable, placing these ideas within the context of the Scopes Monkey Trial, the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s and the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s.

Having been brought up to believe young earth creationism in Australia, I found it particularly fascinating to read about the key role Queenslander Ken Ham played in making young earth creationism far more popular than it had been in the USA since he moved there in the 1980s:

Before his arrival in 1987, ICR [Institute for Creation Research] representatives – with the exception of the superstars, Morris and Gish – spoke to crowds that sometimes measure only in the dozens, making dry technical presentations about problems with radioactive dating, transitional fossils… and so on. (42)

Ham’s genius was to have a ‘bottom up’ approach:

He would convince millions of ordinary people to reject evolution in the hopes that the grassroots groundswell would change society and work its way up, or at least marginalize the eggheads at the top. (43)

He achieved this with the glossy Creation magazine, books aimed at children and, more recently, the famous Creation Museum. In this account, he and the others have been brilliant populisers, speaking to the evangelical masses in ways they can understand and with personas they can trust.

The analysis of the four areas of Christian thought is entirely US-centred, and to a significant extent, this is a US phenomenon, with the final chapter offering an explanation in terms of US egalitarianism. Yet the anointed fundamentalists have a death grip on Australian evangelicalism too. The revisionist history is the least widespread phenomenon in Australia, but even this has its Australian equivalent, with popular writer Col Stringer insisting Australia is actually a Christian country, despite Tom Frame’s persuasive case otherwise. In the other three areas, Ham, Dobson and LaHaye are extremely influential. Why should this be? A lot of Australians dislike the Americanisation of their culture – yet in both Christian and secular culture, they are always taking it on. Australia has a similar disdain for experts; this is surely one factor.

The weakest chapter for me was the penultimate one, “A Carnival of Christians”, which tries to explain the phenomenon through the eyes of one particular subject, a young evangelical named Paul Miller in his twenties who has lived most of his life cloistered in this ‘parallel universe’ of evangelicalism, explaining how he could embrace it growing up and how it came into question when he was exposed to the wider world. It is an interesting attempt to humanize their argument, yet in this case the details of the particular dragged for me, rather than illuminating the whole.

Overall, I found the book compulsively readable and fair-minded in its attempts to understand the appeal of the anointed. I think there should be a unit in evangelicalism at theological colleges, and that this should be required reading, in the hope that the fish might come to recognise the water they are swimming in – and perhaps prospective pastors could find ways to steer their congregation toward the best thinking Christianity has to offer in each area of thought, rather than to the bestsellers.

On coming late to The Great Divorce

I’ve just finished C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce for the first time. It is a strange genre of writing, certainly not a novel in a conventional sense. Somewhat like Pilgrim’s Progress, it has a series of encounters with representative people in heaven, hell and in-between, whose responses to their situations have much to teach and warn us about our lives today.

Despite its disclaimer (‘a dream’), the book must surely horrify many evangelicals with its set-up of the afterlife. People’s fates are not fixed; they have the opportunity of visiting heaven and even staying. Their entry seems to depend upon their letting go of the sins which they have become attached to.

Lewis performs a deft twist at the end to exculpate himself and maintain his orthodoxy; the encounters we have read of are perhaps ‘only the mimicry of choices that had really been made long ago’ or perhaps ‘anticipations of a choice to be made at the end of all things’ (107). Better to say neither, advises George MacDonald (C.S. Lewis’s literary hero and his guide in heaven) – ‘do not ask of a vision in a dream more than a vision in a dream can give.’ MacDonald, warns him to be sure to ‘give no poor fool a pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows’ (108).

It is one of those rare books which inspire me to be a better person. Actually, perhaps it scares me to be better as much as inspires me – it is frightening to see parts of myself in all these people who are shutting out heaven and holding onto sin. The worst sin in The Great Divorce seems to be joylessness – those who shut out joy will shut out God. This is hard for a gloomy person like me to hear. It’s not the sin Jesus spent the most time on, but I see much truth in Lewis’s depiction of a series of people who will not embrace joy and truth because they are holding onto resentments of various kinds:

…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. (60)

Also frightening is Lewis’s depiction of a liberal bishop, who would rather return to the ambiguities of his theological reading group in the gloomy city (hell) than embrace the certainties of knowing God face to face. This is how he became what he is:

Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. (28)

There should be more books like this. The Shack probably belongs in the same genre, but unfortunately not in the same league.

Good News For Anxious Christians: that voice inside you is not God, says Phillip Cary

It’s not a book for Christians with an anxiety disorder; instead, Phillip Cary’s book claims that the ‘new evangelical theology’ is making Christians anxious by leading them to believe God works in ways God doesn’t work. (He calls ‘new evangelical theology’ the charismatic-influenced evangelical mainstream, particularly what you find in Christian living books for non-academic audiences.)

Chapter 1 is called “Why You Don’t Have to Hear God’s Voice in Your Heart: Or How God Really Speaks Today”. It certainly does challenge present day evangelical practice, whereby many evangelicals are ‘listening out’ for God’s promptings in their heart. Cary insists God doesn’t speak to our hearts; what we’re hearing is our own (fallible but often helpful) inner voice. Mistaking it for God can only give it an absolute authority it shouldn’t have. Instead of speaking in our hearts, God speaks through the Gospel, Cary insists – particularly, I suspect, the proclamation of the Word.

If he’s right, does this mean God’s silent, even as we pray to God? Is the Holy Spirit not even prompting or prodding us gently? I think I’d find it hard to pray if I completely agreed with him.

Anyone remotely charismatic will find themselves at odds with Cary. I’m keeping an open mind. He has a good point when you think of the way God speaks in the Bible – dreams, visions, audible voices, proclamations by prophets, but not so much voices in our hearts. But what about the charismatic gifts in the assembled church? I’m sure God speaking isn’t meant to be the private affair evangelicals make it, but I think Paul would say that God speaks new words to the congregation through people with the gift of prophecy, a gift God particularly poured out on a diverse range of people.  Not sure what Cary would say to that; in short my hunch is that’s right in relocating God speaking away from the individual’s heart, but that he has not given enough consideration to God speaking to the body in Pauline churches of the NT.