Category Archives: Book Reviews

Recommended reading – The Book of Common Prayer: a biography

by Alan Jacobs – Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University.

Publisher: Princeton.

I found this little text in a book shop in rural Queensland! It is a gem that tells the full story of the evolution of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

The BCP has had an enormous influence on the evolution of church, prayer, doctrine and church and national politics in the most post reformation churches.

The book’s chief make, Thomas Cranmer, created it as the authoritative manual of Christian worship throughout England. It has been the focus of celebrations, protest and even jail terms.

Many forms have been developed to serve English speaking nations, wherever the British Empire extended its arms.

“From pious aspirations to ruthless politics, and from bonfires of hated communion rails to the Star Wars prayer, the history of the Book of Common Prayer, in Alan Jacob’s hands, is both an education and a bright panorama. I can hardly remember another read so swift yet at the same time so helpful.” Sarah Ruden, author of  Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Won Time.

Few texts have had as much influence on the language, culture and religious life of English-speaking nations as the Book of Common Prayer. Alan Jacobs masterfully distills its history with a poetic touch that is at once scholarly, reverential, and highly engaging. There is no better introduction or guide to the Book of Common Prayer than this one.” Carlos Eire, author of A Very Brief History of Eternity.

oOo

Book review: Christianity after Religion

The end of church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening

Diana Butler Bass

What is behind the great changes that are replacing traditional forms of faith with new ethical and areligious choices? Diana Butler Bass argues that we are at a critical stage in a completely new spiritual awakening and a wholly new kind of post-religious faith

This is a hope filled engagement with changes that are creating a fresh and authentic way of faith that stays true to the real message of Jesus.

In her typically provocative, well-informed and inspiring way Diana provides a range of essential questions, great insights and wise counsel about the future. She sees a new ‘Age of the Spirit’ dawning which brings both fear and hope. Her critical point is that faithful people should intentionally engage with the emerging issues and be part of the reform, renewal and re-imagination of traditions so that they make sense to contemporary people.

The trend to being multi-religious in outlook reflects the considered ‘choices’ that are replacing unquestioning ‘obligation’ and conformity. at the same time, more people consider themselves spiritual than religious. Many are dissatisfied with institutional religion and want to connect with with God , their neighbourhood and life in a more considered and personal way.

The resemblance of many denominations to corporations that have dominated life for the last century gives the impression of selling a ‘product’. This is a tough spiritual climate for them. Public trust in religious institutions has dropped dramatically in the last decade. Young people are leaving evangelical Christianity in droves. This is an age of choice. Diana sees this discontent as a gift. It is one short step from creating a better way of life, a better society, and a better world. Discontent reflects a longing for a better sort of Christianity, one that embodies Jesus’s teaching and life in a way that makes a real difference in the world. This calls for a return to pre-creedal church while calling for a more responsive and relevant church.

This ‘ great awakening’ is a call to human connectedness, economic equality, democracy, love of creation and spirituality. We need religion imbued with the spirit of shared humanity and hope, not religions that divide and further fracture the future.

Diana gives the last word to Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose prophetic voice from the mid-twentieth century offers:

There is a need for spiritual vitality. What protection is there against the danger of organisation? …. our relationship to God [is] not a religious relationship to a Supreme Being, absolute in power and goodness, which is a spurious conception of transcendence, but a new life for others, through participation in the Being of God. (Letters and Papers from Prison)

This review has not done justice to a wonderful book. There is much more that could be said about it. The reader will soon find that out. It is an important text and one which Brian McLaren expects and hopes will be the must-read church book for years to come.

Paul Inglis, July 2017

Earth Link Commentary/Review- Defiant Earth

DEFIANT EARTH

Our responsibility to care for Earth receives a new impetus from the recent publication of Defiant Earth  by Clive Hamilton, who is an ethicist at Charles Sturt University in Canberra.   He stresses that this is a new time in geological history, the Anthropocene, which he explains as a new geological epoch where “human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces in nature”.  A new science has emerged which studies the whole Earth system.  The data is emerging that humans are changing the course of Earth.  This is a time to acknowledge the rupture that we are causing, and stand in solidarity with Earth rather than continue our exploitation.  Earth is increasingly angry, and all species are vulnerable in the face of this new situation.
Rather than offering you a review of this book, I am providing you with a link to the blog page of Bishop George Browning who responds to this situation in way that you will probably find helpful.

Earth Link began in 2000 in Brisbane, and moved to “Four Winds” at Ocean View, which was its base until the end of 2011.  During that time, Earth Link developed programmes and conducted workshops, retreats and rituals in cosmology, ecospirituality, sense of place, sustainable living, permaculture, and property management.  These were held at “Four Winds” and at other venues.
 
Earth Link continues to facilitate deep bonding with the whole Earth community through  resourcing, reflecting and acting.  We do this by conducting events, responding to invitations, and through our e-newsletter and this website.  Earth Link has a library from which you can borrow for the cost of the postage.

Earth Link invites you to

  • Deepen your connection with nature, the cosmos, self and the Sacred
  • Nurture a spirituality that links Earth, humans and the Sacred
  • Act with concerned others on behalf of the whole Earth community

    For more from Earth Link go to: http://www.earth-link.org.au/

oOo

Book review – Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.

Reviewed by Rodney Eivers – 22nd May 2017

 Glorify by Emily C. Heath

Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity

Glorify            I was drawn to this title in the MediaCom catalogue by its subtitle “Reclaiming the Heart of “progressive” Christianity”.  This is because, for all my own commitment to “progressive” Christianity I have to struggle with how we can generate enough passion about this option which will provide people with emotional satisfaction leading them to staying with it as a guide to the way we might live.

Although Emily Heath has much that is positive to say, the content of the book does not live up to my expectations.

Rev. Heath is at pains to identify with the “progressive” Christianity movement. A favourite phrase repeated in one form or another in pretty well every chapter is “We progressives”, yet her progressivism bears little resemblance doctrinally to what would be the standard for proponents such as, Spong, Geering and Borg – especially Gretta Vosper of “With or Without God” – with their dismissal of supernatural attributes of a 21st Century faith.

At one point Emily Heath goes as far as to acknowledge that she accepts a literal resurrection.  She then goes on however, to discuss this in metaphorical terms typical of modern liberal orthodoxy which is still anxious about disenfranchising itself from the wider church committed to the 4th Century creeds. Such a retreat from literal interpretation avoids the challenge from an educated public prepared to challenge supernatural interpretations of Bible stories.

Despite this, God, in this book, is spoken of virtually in theistic terms, as some form of ‘being” with whom one may make contact. I doubt that this is really Heath’s base position.

Her attachment to progressivism clearly comes from its acceptance and support of homosexuality and other elements of the LGBTQ community. With her being an openly gay minister of religion, recently married, thanks to changes in USA law, this is understandable.

She is spot on with her analysis of what is happening with the decline of church attendance, especially for the mainline denominations. She notes the reticence of today’s generations to join or commit to anything. This is being exacerbated by the attachment to screens and social media in preference to face to face interaction.

I am fully with her also on the place which local community interaction can play, perhaps must play, in maintaining and sustaining a vibrant Christian presence and initiative.

So I find the prominence given to “doing it our human selves” is made to sit uneasily against depending on God to sort it out.

The trouble is, what sort of God are we talking about here, assuming that we have moved away from the mediaeval, theistic persona waiting out there to come to our aid if we use the right prayer formula?

There are so many avatars of God. Jesus imagined God as a loving father but he also spoke of the God of nature, the creator of flowers of the field and of being neutral as to human welfare. “God causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust”.

Some speak of God as representing the spirit of love. As Don Cupitt has highlighted, the word “life” in common usage has become synonymous with God. Some see God, as the inner voice of conscience and reflection with which we each have an ongoing conversation. Another picture of God, somewhat allied to “life” or “what is” is that entity which comprises all the collection of chance events and probabilities ranging from formation of the cosmos to ordinary day to day living. That is, any moment in time. In this characterisation God itself does not know what is going to happen next. It is unpredictable. It is interesting that in this last case we can  pray to this god with intellectual integrity. In praying, for ourselves, or for someone else we can express a hope that the dice of life will fall our way. Is this not, indeed, what we are doing these days when instead of praying for someone with terminal cancer, we do not ask for supernatural healing. We simply express a wish, a hope, that the  doctors will do their best or that the end will be relatively peaceful.

So what is the God whom we are to glorify?

Perhaps the best we can do is to celebrate life and express our gratitude that we have the privilege of experiencing this great gift of living, of consciousness, of  knowing that we exist.

With these caveats I would suggest that although Emily Heath may not have found the secret to “heart” for most of us who call ourselves progressive, there is much of value in reading her take on the issue.

oOo

Critical comments about the 40 years of the UCA’s Basis of Union

A RESPONSE TO GEOFF THOMPSON FROM JOHN GUNSON (author of God, Ethics and the Secular Society: does the church have a future? reviewed in Crosslight.)God-ethics-and-the-secular-society-COVER

Rev Dr Geoff Thompson’s Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology provoked by the Basis of Union, received some attention in Journey On Line in July 2016.

[Both books available from Morning Star Publishing] [Thank you to Rex Hunt for helping us to observe this debate].

Rev John Gunson –

The Uniting Church is this year celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our formation, our coming together.

One of the things worth focusing on must surely be the Basis of Union –  the expression of the faith of the church upon which three separate denominations came together.

Geoff Thompson has done us a service here in his recently published book about the Basis entitled “Disturbing Much  Disturbing Many – Theology  provoked by the Basis of Union”.   I would like to continue the conversation, both because it is important to the future of the Uniting Church, and because Geoff’s analysis expresses only one point of view in our churches and because it is factually wrong about aspects of the Basis, while other aspects of his theses need challenging.

Disturbing-much-disturbing-many_FRONT-COVER.13.5.2016The title of Geoff’s book is apt.  I was certainly greatly disturbed by what Geoff has written.  The framers of the Basis expected their work to “disturb much and disturb many”, probably because they knew it was much out of kilter with how many of those in the three churches would have expressed their faith, but there is very little evidence that such an expected theological disturbance took place, or lasted for long.

As one who was involved (not on the Joint Commission itself, but in other ways preparatory to union), I have a different understanding of much that Geoff asserts about the Basis and its function and significance.

Geoff believes that the Basis of Union was intended as the forever definitive theological basis of the Uniting Church.  Some of those on the Joint Commission may well have believed that, or at least hoped that would be true.

What in fact determined the theological position expressed in the Basis of Union was the pragmatic need to find a basis upon which three very different denominations with widely diverging theological positions could come together in union.  In other words it had to avoid looking like a normative/typical statement of any one of the three negotiating churches.  e.g. “That’s Presbyterian.  We can’t agree to that.  That is a takeover.”  So let’s agree on one of the historic creeds that we give lip service to as part of the church’s history – a kind of neutral ground.  Nicea is more or less recognized across the major expressions of the church as the first definition of faith to come out of an ecumenical council and its attempt to unify the many different theological positions of the time.

Let’s conveniently forget that this supposed “divine revelation” was implemented under Roman Imperial threat for the convenience of the Roman state and empire, and its consequent continuing orthodoxy for the next 1300 years also imposed by the State which everywhere controlled the church.

Geoff refers to God’s “inscrutable ways” to explain the otherwise nonsensical and inexplicable.  The God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is here seen operating totally out of character with what he reveals in Jesus, and in terms of a revelation that he obviously denied to his “only-begotten” “incarnate” “Son”.  Geoff quotes some lonely scholarship that suggests that even if Jesus didn’t claim Messiahship he acted Messianically.  But he makes no case that Jewish messiahship is seen by Judaism as implying anything vaguely approximating the incarnate son of God dying for our personal salvation.

Since the Reformation, with the church increasingly freed from the control of the State, and with the benefit of the European Enlightenment(s) and Biblical and theological scholarship freed from “church” control and censorship, many branches of the church were moving on from Nicea.

Our union 40 years ago happened at a time when neo-orthodoxy /Barthian theology was resurgent (that doesn’t mean it was right).  Had we come together in the 19thcentury we would have had an entirely different  Basis of Union, and Geoff would have been arguing my case – that the Basis of Union was certainly not “for all time”, but simply the best and most pragmatic way to get agreement/union between the churches at the time, and thus subject to review and change.

The second factor at work 40 years ago was the ecumenical spirit of that time.

Dominant in the life of our three churches, it brought home to us powerfully the scandal of denominationalism and disunity.  I, along with many others, was heavily involved in ecumenical activities and the work and scholarship of the World Council of Churches and the Australian Council of Churches.

Congregationalists (my background) historically did not look on themselves as a denomination but as a reforming movement in the life of the church, and we urgently desired and worked for both the continuing reformation of the churches and the unity of the church.  That was a much higher priority than a particular choice of a confession of faith we could all agree about at the time.

We believed that the Basis was a necessary pragmatic concession, in order to achieve union – which we could each interpret in our own way, in spite of its Greek philosophical thought forms, themselves incomprehensible to most.

The majority of Congregationalists would probably not have entered into the Uniting Church if they had not believed that the Basis of UNION was a starting point on which we could come together, not a permanent “once and for all” expression of the faith of the Uniting church.  Such a confession would have been called “The theological basis of the UC’, not the basis of UNION.

To make absolutely sure this was the case, Congregational representatives on the Joint Commission insisted on the inclusion of Paragraph 11.

To those not privy to the background I have described above, Geoff’s interpretation of Para. 11 may seem reasonable.  But, in fact he explains away its essential meaning and purpose, and in fact is quite wrong.

I knew personally the Congregational representatives on the Joint Commission.

Geoff mentions both Henry Wells and Maynard Davies and refers to some of their correspondence.  Maynard was a member of my congregation and I knew his thinking intimately over nearly a decade of close association.

Maynard believed that modern scholarship was giving us new knowledge and understanding of our sources and our faith, and that he expected the Uniting Church to take it seriously and not reject it because it did not happen to reflect literalist interpretations of Bible or creeds or Barthian or any other interpretation of the faith of the church.

For Maynard (along with most Congregationalists) the church was always a church under reformation, and not to be imprisoned by a 1000 year old statement of faith, nor a 1000 year old interpretation of it.  He didn’t believe, as Geoff does, that God wants to be understood in a way that makes no sense to most people today –  thatwhile scholarship and knowledge has moved on, yet God and his works are best understood expressed in the limited knowledge and ancient Greek thought forms forced on the church by a Roman Emperor.

Maynard Davies would have approached each meeting of the Joint Commission with the words of Pastor John Robinson ringing in his ears, as Robinson farewelled the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower, fleeing persecution from “orthodoxy” in England for a new life in America in 1620.

Robinson urged them : “I charge you before God … to follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ.  If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive truth from my ministry, for I am persuaded that the Lord has yet more truth and light to break forth from his holy word. …..  The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw  … and the Calvinists  … stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things.  This is a misery much to be lamented.”

A third and powerful factor also determining the Basis of Union was the vision expressed in the deliberate wording of our name – the Uniting Church in Australia, not the “United” church.  In coming together we all believed that this was only the first step in a larger on-going process of union, beginning with the Anglicans with whom preliminary discussions were already underway, and ultimately, some dared to hope, even with Baptists and Roman Catholics. (See paras 1&2 of the Basis.)

To even start conversations with Anglicans and Roman Catholics we knew we had to have a theological/creedal basis with which they would readily agree.  Nicea made obvious sense.  Further, in support of this goal, great consideration was given on the Joint Commission as to the possibility of including Bishops in the polity of the new church.

Again, all of this was about achieving a starting point, and assumed an ongoing reformation and reformulation of the faith, not a capitulation to the churches with whom we hoped for union, but from which we had since the Reformation distinguished ourselves.

Ecumenism, unity, and the scandal of denominationalism was the driving motivation, formulation of the faith secondary and pragmatic.

Ecumenism and ongoing church union is no longer a central priority of the Uniting Church.   The priorities of 40 years ago need no longer delay our urgent attention to a ”fresh confession of the faith” and the ongoing reformation of the church.

These then are the major misunderstandings and misrepresentations in Geoff’s position, but other aspects of his book are perhaps even more disturbing.

While Geoff rightly refers to and recognises the diversity within the unity of the

Uniting Church, he believes that any departure from what he sees as orthodoxy, orthodoxy based on a once for all revelation by God, is somehow a capitulation to what he calls a modern “relativist” culture which characterises the intellectual world of today.

He declares his belief that “the Creed’s homoousiospoints us to the real intellectual, ethical, cultural and spiritual radicalness of the Christian faith.  It is a reminder that Christianity has reasons for arguing that the love of enemy, generosity to the poor, a relationship with God based on mercy and grace, the universal scope of God’s love, the summons to resist all dehumanizing and unjust ideologies, the realities of freedom and hope ….have a ground in the one who is the Creator and Lord.”  And “that God is not especially impressed by religion or spirituality, that true lordship is servanthood, that forgiveness is unconditional ,”

Geoff contrasts this orthodoxy which he believes points to the radicalness of Christian faith with a number of contemporary scholars whom he believes are captured by the relativist spirit of our age, and whose intent, he declares is either “to dismiss the church and its faith”, or some like Crossan (widely regarded as probably the leading New Testament and Historical Jesus scholar today because of his meticulous and objective research) whom he claims has a deliberate intent to “modernise or re-invent the faith.”

This is so far from an accurate and honest assessment of Crossan that one is tempted to wonder whether Geoff has actually read his research.

But the more important point here is that many, if not most, “progressive” Christians give assent to precisely that “radicalness of the Christian faith” that Geoff refers to above, except that they trace its genesis, not to “the one who is creator and lord”, but to the historical Jesus himself.

If the result of the best contemporary scholarship that Geoff finds so threatening is a radical Christianity that is agreed by both ‘orthodox’ and ‘progressives’, then to make such a fuss about the importance of orthodoxy is to suggest that our particular theology is more important than the life lived.

The Church in Australia moves inexorably through decline to imminent death.  Geoff sees no need to work at reforming the church to reverse this decline because it is the world that is the problem, not the church and its practices and its theology.  As a teacher of theology training our future ministers for the front line, I believe Geoff has an obligation to present impartially all the best scholarship, not just that with which he agrees, and certainly not to denigrate that with which he disagrees and is in fact outside his particular discipline.

Does the Uniting Church have a strategy and program to ensure that both/all versions of “radical Christianity” receive equal exposure and are in active dialogue both in our churches, and in particular in our theological colleges?

Both interpretations of faith involve Jesus at the centre.  Let’s start from there, or just accept that so long as we live what the Christ- life means, whether we find Nicea central to that is a matter of personal choice.

At least the secular world, that has turned away from a Nicean statement of Christianity, needs a chance to hear and respond to a more contemporary version , based on a more historically accurate version of the man from Nazareth.

That is why Para 11 is in the Basis of Union, and why Congregationalists came into the Uniting Church.

John Gunson.

A note on John Gunson:

The author is a retired minister of the Congregational Churches in Australia (now Uniting Church). He is a graduate in Arts and Theology from Melbourne, and later completed post-graduate studies in Theology and Christian Education in the USA. He has served parish churches in Australia and the USA, and been Director of Christian Education for the Congregational Churches in Australia.
Retiring early he sought to test his growing questions about theology and the church by undertaking secular employment, where his final lob was as Manager Human Resource Development with a major state road planning and construction authority.
He has been actively involved in the community on issues of social justice and in particular the conservation of the natural environment.

A note on Geoff Thompson:

BAgrSc Hons (Melb), BD Hons (MCD), PhD (Cambridge).  Co-ordinator of Studies: Systematic Theology at Pilgrim Theological College within the University of Divinity. Previously Director of Studies: Systematic Theology at Trinity College Queensland (2001-2013) of which he was also Principal from 2010-2013. Geoff’s research has focused on Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, the functions of doctrine in the church, the relationship between practical and systematic theology, the theology of the Uniting Church (especially the Basis of Union). Current and future research is focused on the relationship between Christology and Discipleship and the theological significance of secular or non-Christian appropriations of, or responses to, the Christian narrative.

oOo

Book Review: A Conspiracy of Love – following Jesus in a postmodern world

While spending May on board a YWAM Australia medical ship with 100 other volunteers in the Milne Bay (PNG) island villages, having no TV or internet, I managed to read several books. This one was a real joy as it helped me place the work of the doctors, dentists, opticians, nurses, pediatricians, general volunteers and crew in a context of being ‘agents of love’. As the oldea conspiracy of lovest volunteer on board and feeling the oppressive heat and humidity, I do not deserve this accolade but witnessed much of what the book described in the people around me.

Then he said to the crowd: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me”…. Jesus of Nazareth.

The author, Kurt Struckmeyer, dedicated this work to his grandchildren with the request that

May you work toward a better world where children no longer weep from poverty and hunger, where they no longer live in fear from violence, and where they are taught kindness. 

If ever a country needed liberating from poverty, sickness, poor government and hunger it is Papua New Guinea. PNG is listed at the bottom of the World Health Organisations scale.

Struckmeyer is, like many of us, on a journey of transformation and non-conformity to this world (Romans 12:2). He was greatly influenced by Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and early in life took up a stance of non-violence and unconditional love that he saw manifested in Jesus teaching. His thinking was furthered informed by Harvey Cox, Hans Kung, William Stringfellow and Clarence Jordan. He set himself the challenge to find a contemporary life of faith that followed the radical nature of the gospel. He has not found this very often in the church and he is “deeply disappointed by the church’s passionless and feeble response to the dramatic social changes of the postmodern world.” So he has looked more closely at the teachings of Jesus than than the mission and message of the church.

In the 1990s he participated in weekend retreats with Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Walter Wink and followed this with the Jesus Seminar conference in California.

He makes the point that his experience has taught him to say with confidence that following the radical teachings of Jesus is not central to religious life in most congregations in America. Like Ghandi he says that following Jesus is not just for Christians, and this is what I experienced on the medical ship where conservative, liberal and non Christians were working on a Jesus agenda together.

This book Conspiracy of Love offers many different people – those who remain in the church, those who dwell on its margins, those who have left, and those who have never ventured near – with a life of faith that is both intelligent and passionate.

I picked up my copy as a Kindle audio book but it is also available in hard cover or soft cover from Amazon.

oOo

 

Book Review – The Shack

The ShackWilliam Paul Young’s novel The Shack became a mega sensation after solid word-of-mouth from America’s Christian community transformed it from a little-known novel from a tiny publishing outfit (operating on a shoestring marketing budget) to a USA Today best-seller. With the film adaptation—featuring Hollywood stars Sam Worthington and Octavia Spencer—about to hit Aussie cinemas, Rodney Eivers reviews the 2008 book that launched Young’s career.

The Shack is an intriguing book. On just about every page it raises questions which provoke thought. It is the sort of book I would love to chew over in an analytical Christian study group or in one-on-one conversations particularly with someone exploring Christian faith….

For the complete review go to: https://journeyonline.com.au/scoop/book-review-shack/

oOo

Recommended for ‘entry to’ or ‘refresher of’ progressive theology

We are often asked for recommended readings and we give reading lists to new ‘explorer’s’ of progressive Christianity. Top of my list is Val Web’s Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology: Finding yourTesting Tradition and Liberating FULL COVER B.20.12.2014.indd own voice for many reasons. I am sure many of our hundreds of followers will have already read this wonderful text, but just a few comments for others….

Val is an advocate for theology being done by every Christian. She asks How can the church be a force in the world if its lay people have nothing to offer but dogmatic sound bites that fade into nothing when taken up and challenged by others? Thinking theologically is not the same as believing and we should re-think and investigate what we previously simply ingested by osmosis. In that way we can make sure what we think or believe is not someone else’s formula  for making our own lives make sense.

Many explorer groups exist on the sidelines, or in some cases even have a significant part to play in the life of congregations These are safe places for people to discuss questions without censure and to use their brains and life experience to make sense of everything. Nothing beneficial comes from religious debate where arrogant certainty or disdain, the use of clever words, or refusal to engage are the tools for discourse. These groups often share the growing number of books that demonstrate the great scholarship that exists in this field of thinking.

Val Webb’s book gives a good overview of the field of thinking around progressive Christianity identifying it as part of the stable of liberation theologies that have emerged from greater education, the impact of science and the challenges to the way in which church doctrine has evolved. It is also about a universal spirituality movement because the way God is discussed leaves room for openness to other religious traditions. We can learn more about our faith and ourselves by greater understanding of other faiths and atheism. Important to this is the move away from one meta story or universal truth and its medieval understandings of God as an external interventionist, in contrast with the notion of an indwelling Spirit.

Church historian Diana Butler Bass says that, for centuries, we have assumed religious commitment starts with assent to a set of beliefs that also dictates how we behave. This believing and behaving makes us eligible to belong to a church community. While this may have been the way of past generations, she suggests it should be the other way around – belonging, behaving and believing.This would take us to the way of Jesus who invited followers to join him – belonging – to proclaim and live the way of the reign of God – behaving. Beliefs emerged and these were fluid until the creeds declared orthodoxy.

Val manages, in one book to take us through the foundations of theology, the way in which we can all do theology, the history of the church and its theology, reasons for being bold with our doubts, the spiritual journey of life, and living out our theology in ethical and responsible ways.

I enjoyed this book immensely.

It is available from Morning Star Publishers 

oOo

 

 

 

 

…and ‘How God became Jesus’ a critical response and other reviews…

How God became JesusThanks to a subscriber for drawing our attention to a work that responded to Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus became God.  The later publication is:

How God became Jesus by Michael F. Bird , Craig A. Evans , Simon Gathercole , Charles E. Hill , Chris Tilling. These contributors are all internationally known biblical scholars, not as well known as Ehrman, but recognised scholars.

The publisher’s blurb to the latter book includes: “While subjecting his (Erhman’s) claims to critical scrutiny, they offer a better, historically informed account of why the Galilean preacher from Nazareth came to be hailed as “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Namely, they contend, the exalted place of Jesus in belief and worship is clearly evident in the earliest Christian sources, shortly following his death, and was not simply the invention of the church centuries later.”

The reviews of the Bird et al text have also attracted mixed criticisms and compliments generally based on the theological perspective of the reviewers. Some reviews even find strengths and faults in both books. So our many subscribers can make up their own minds, a number of these reviews are listed here:

How God became Jesus: Bart Ehrman gets it wrong, again by Michael Bird. (The 40 comments following this review make further interesting reading).

How God Became Jesus: Part 1 In Review of the Evangelical Response to Ehrman by JR Daniel Kirk

How Jesus Became God—or How God Became Jesus? A Review of Bart Ehrman’s New Book and a Concurrent Response by Rob Bowman

Response to the response: How God became Jesus by Bart D Ehrman (The comments following this are also interesting).

 

‘How Jesus became God’ – reviewed by Professor Peter Fensham

How Jesus became GodJesus and God?

If you were asked, When did Jesus become God? What would your answer be?

The Gospel writers and Paul give us four different answers. For Mark it was when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. For Matthew and Luke it was his moment of conception by the Holy Spirit. For John it was from the beginning of creation, and for Paul, when Jesus was resurrected and appeared to the disciples and to him.

In his 2014 book, How Jesus became God (Harper Collins),  Bart Ehrman1  introduces readers to the manner in which a Biblical historian goes about drawing on the sources we have, to deduce an answer to this question (and incidentally to my rephrasing of it as When did Jesus become God?).

What I particularly liked about the boo0k was the clear way it set out the historical and literary processes of analysis that a scholar from one of these disciplines uses to address this type of question.

He starts by identifying the main sources that are available to us today and the timing of their appearance after Jesus death. About 20 years later, 50-60 CE, there are the seven epistles of Paul that scholars agree are certainly his writing. A decade later there is Mark’s Gospel 9 which draws on a probably lost source scholars called Q.  In the 80-85 CE period, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles ap[peared, and towards the end of that first century John’s Gospel was written.

None of these very Greek literate authors had known or met Jesus alive. They were writing down stories and beliefs they were told by Jesus’ immediate or subsequent followers in the various parts of the Roman Empire where these writers were living.

Ehrman, on literary grounds, adds to these sources some short sets of words that appear in Paul’s epistles and in Acts, which he calls Pre-literate traditions.  His criteria to identify these are that they are a self-contained bit of the larger text, that is highly structured, like a poem, and contain phrases and words not otherwise used by Paul or Luke.  He sees them as short creeds or poems that were being used in these very early gatherings of Christians (followers of Jesus as Messiah or Christ) much as we now repeat phrases and words in family graces or in services of worship. The distinctiveness of these extra sources is unfortunately almost lost in the way the Bible is now presented.

The historical phenomenon that Ehrman acknowledges as requiring an answer to his primary question is the rapid emergence of groups of persons after Jesus death, who acted out their lives in quite new ways, because they believed that Jesus was God. It has been estimated that the growth rate of these groups was at least 40% per decade for the next two or three hundred years, despite them often paying dearly under the Roman authorities for their practices and beliefs.

The historical criteria Ehrman uses are as follows:

  • independent attestation in several of the sources,
  • dissimilarity – stories that are not positively helpful to writers basically trying to promote the Jesus message,
  • contextual credibility – statements that are, or are not, consistent with what is known about the social context at the time of Jesus from other sources.and
  • cultural appropriateness – statements that are, or are not, in keeping with Jewish culture and tradition.

 By applying these criteria to the source materials, Erhard works through a number of questions before Jesus’ death, like Did Jesus think he was God? and Did the disciples think Jesus was God? What is the significance of Pilate’s charge, Are you the King of the Jews? and What was Judas’ act of betrayal? He concludes that there is no historical case for Jesus being God in his lifetime, but that both Jesus and the disciples were very expectant of an apocalyptic event soon to happen in which they would all have important roles in the Kingdom of God that would follow.

Erhard then turns to Jesus’ death and what happened in the post-death days. There is great confusion in the gospel sources about the empty tomb, who was there, and where the disciples went after the crucifixion. There are, however, attested stories about some of his followers believing they saw Jesus after his death. While history cannot vouch for such appearances of Jesus, history can vouch for these claims about his appearances in a form that was both familiar but with other qualities.

After a short review of the commonness of the experience of reporting seeing persons after their death in modern society, and extrapolating this likelihood to Jesus’ time, Erhard concludes that it is their belief in these appearances and their interpretation of them as Jesus had been especially exalted by God that changed their lives.

They began to share with others, their knowledge of Jesus’ teaching as a human being and their belief in him as having been specially chosen by God to be resurrected and exhalted to divine status and purpose – the first steps towards the movement that became Christianity. So Paul begins his letter to the Romans (1:3-4) by quoting a very early pre-literary credal statement of these pioneering Christians:

             A1  who was descended                                       B1  who was appointed

            A2  from the seed of David                                   B2  Son of God in power

            A3  according to the flesh                                    B3 according to the Spirit of Holiness by his

                                                                                               resurrection from the dead     

The  A statements affirm the humanity of  Jesus and the B statements affirm his exaltation into the spiritual and divine realm. 

Erhard’s historical quest leads to the resurrection of Jesus as the primal event for his Divinity, displacing his incarnation, his baptism, and his crucifixion.

The rest of this very readable and engaging book discusses the historical development of these low and High Christologies from the initial Binitry of God to the Trinity position that came to hold sway after the great councils of the  Christian Church in the 4th and 5th centuries.

 1Bart Ehrman describes himself, as initially a believer somewhat theologically to the right of Rev Billy Graham, who through his studies and experience now sees himself as a non-believer. In an earlier book, Peter, Paul and Mary, he explores in a delightful way the historicity and myths about these three pre-eminent persons in the Jesus story.

Peter Fensham                                                                                                         26 Feb 2015

03 9853 3437, peter.fensham@monash.edu