Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Deep Work – spiritual practice in our workday world

Thanks to subscriber to the UCFORUM, Professor Peter Fensham for this review:

Available from Mediacom.

Deep Work: Spiritual Practice in our Workday World: Jenny Tymms, MediaCom Education, Inc.

This book is addressed to all those who find it hard to giving attention to their inner life in the face of the expanding demands of our everyday lives during the week. The author, still in employment, has persons like her very much in mind, but the pressures and complexities of modern society make many others feel concerned about the problem of holding the spiritual and everyday life together.

The book has an interesting layered structure. The first layer is set in the eight-fold rhythm of a day beginning with Waking Up, Heading Out, Showing Up, Working, Taking Time Out, Toiling, Finishing Up and Heading Home, and Resting and Recreating. Its other layer provides five sub-themes of each of these eight stages, and gives a variety to them that mirrors the differences the days of many working and everyday weeks can have.

It was pleased to see that each of the sub-themes is introduced by both a short extract from the secular and more contemporary literature, juxtaposed with a relevant biblical piece. This use of the secular spiritual writing can open up what follows to the majority of today’s seeking persons who are not as familiar with the Bible as a resource as are regular church goers.

At the end of each sub-theme a practice is suggested, so the book introduces forty practices in all. These practices are ‘intentional disciplines that foster and nourish our desire for spiritual depth. They shape us into people who joyfully participate in God’s compassionate and justice making work in the world.’ Among them I found some that fitted my limited understanding of spiritual practice, and a few that I fairly regularly do. Many more of the practices are actions I haven’t thought of in spiritual terms, but can see would be worth a try.

The book is available from www.mediacom.org.au

Professor Peter Fensham  19th June 2018.

Note: Jenny introduces her book with:

I believe there is a growing thirst in our western contemporary culture for depth, purpose and meaning in our lives. It feels like our world is speeding up. Economic pressures are leading to workloads that are ever-increasing. Our capacity to attend to our inner lives weakens in the face of expanding external demands. We often feel either wound up or worn out. Yet we are aware of our alienation (although sometimes only dimly) even in the midst of our frantic busyness. We do sense our dis-ease.

Rev Jenny Tymms currently works for the Uniting Church in Queensland as a member of the mission team.

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Book Review: A Scandalous Jesus-How three historical quests changed theology for the better

Professor Joe Bessler is coming to Australia. Watch for information about his presentations for Common Dreams on the Road

Thanks to Rex Hunt for this book review

Joseph A. Bessler.
A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historical Quests Changed Theology for the Better
Salem: Polebridge Press, P/Back, 250 Pages, 2013.

I had been waiting for this book since late 2006.

John Smith, Dick Carter and myself met with Joe in Santa Rosa, CA. in 2006 to invite him to come to Australia in 2007 to the first Common Dreams Conference in Sydney. We shouted him a beer and he told us about the book he was writing. He accepted, came, and was brilliant.

Bessler is a theologian, affectionate known as the ‘Jesus Seminar theologian’, stationed at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa. His book covers each of the three quests of the historical Jesus—from the original quest in the early 20th century, through the new quest of the 1940 and 50s, to the renewed quest in the late 20th early 21st centuries, initiated by the Westar Institute and its famous ‘Jesus Seminar’. He seeks to capture the historic questions that surround and shape each of these research endeavours and assess the impact of these differing quests on theological and cultural life.

He is critical of neo-orthodoxy—justifiably so I reckon—because in their rejection of the historical or human Jesus in favour of the Christ of faith, they missed something. What they missed was the possibility that the question of the historical Jesus was in fact, “not only a historical question but also a historic question—a question that created a series of profound social, political, and theological impacts that have continued to shape and reshape our world” (Pg:2).

In short, the ‘quest’ for the historical Jesus “is not (and was never) simply about the historical Jesus; it was always already about larger issues involving churches’ theological self-understanding and their relation to broader society. And… the theological rejection of historical Jesus research was almost always a refusal to deal with those larger issues” (Pg:3).

Moreover, there was not simply one quest, but differing quests that emerged within distinct periods and places. Quest One: 18th and 19th century and Reimarus, Strauss, Schweitzer, and medieval background, and emergence of new tensions; Quest Two or ‘New’ Quest: Bultmann, Kasemann, Robinson, Kung; and Quest Three or ‘Renewed’ Quest: as expressed in the work of Funk, Patterson, Taussig, Crossan, Scott, and the Jesus Seminar.

There is theological continuity across these quests “in that they press the Christian institutions of their period to alter long-held theological assumptions in order to make room for a new depth and range of discourse” (Pg:4).

How have they challenged the institution? Q1—move beyond the use of ecclesiastical power to control civil society and embrace greater religious freedom; Q2—embrace the full historical humanity of Jesus and be open to the full range of human experience in modern life; Q3—reject the politicised power of Christian fundamentalism and open up modes of faith beyond the too-narrow confines of right belief.

The publication of such historical Jesus scholarship has often created a climate of scandal. “Blaming scholars for confusing and disturbing the faith of the simple believer, outraged officials have sought to mock and suppress such inquiry as a kind of treason against the church. Historic questions are often the most scandalous precisely because they raise basic, fundamental challenges about the assumptions governing their societies” (Pg:5).

Bessler has written an important book. It deserves to be widely read and internally digested. I am grateful for his research and publishing efforts. For, in each time and place where a ‘quest’ has become important theological inquiry, “what has appeared initially as a threat and as a scandal, has brought both greater openness and vitality to discussions of faith” (Pg:227) even as it has brought the human Jesus and his teachings into clearer view.

As Bessler says: “if one can see the importance for models of faith that go beyond official claims of right belief and supernaturalism to speak in publicly assessable ways, then what appears to others as scandal assumes the weight of a risk worth taking” (Pg:227).

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Book Review: An Eternal World, messages from the other side

By Rev Ron Ramsay

Reading Ron’s book, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a serious writer telling of his journey through a world of psychic experiences. Time and again I thought I was reading a mystery novel. His writing style is loaded with building anticipation and new turns and twists in a dramatic and fascinating set of experiences.

As a somewhat critical skeptic, I was often tempted to pass judgment against this retired Uniting Church minister. But as I persevered, it became harder to easily dismiss the many episodes of ‘life after death’ that he reported. But the eternal life he gives evidence for is not physical and in many ways not greatly dissimilar from that of the orthodox or traditional view taught in many churches.

However, the range of existing spiritual perspectives I have come across is huge and this is just becoming obvious to researchers. The complex nature of these perspectives makes it unproductive to categorize thinking Christians.

So my motivation is to encourage inclusive discourse and to give voice where so often there is derision, and therefore I can recommend coming to this text with an open mind. Readers may not agree with all the arguments, but they are likely to enjoy the way they are told and to be fascinated by Ron’s personal challenges and decisions.

 

This is a real life story full of personal experiences ranging through dialogue with the dead to coming to grips with reincarnation. Ron’s world view has taken a long time to evolve and to be come coherent to himself, but his writing is clear and precise. He now challenges both orthodox Christian teachings as well as liberal perspectives. For Ron, these experiences have answered two vital questions – ‘Who am I? ‘ ‘Why am I here?’.

I am always looking for the Jesus factor in conversations about spirituality and in this two elements are important to me – ‘joy in life’ and ‘sharing with justice’. The Jesus ethic calls for living life in abundance without the threat of fears and doubts. It also calls for living a life of sharing in justice and compassion. These elements did not jump out at me in Ron’s book, but they were there in the way he sought to ease the mental torments of others and his search for a truth that brings peace of mind.

I found a different kind of good news – being able to stay in touch with deceased family and friends! That produced enormous satisfaction for many of Ron’s acquaintances. This seemed like a very risky enterprise to me. It could also have fed old conflicts.

For people like Ron Ramsay and many he has met in his life journey there is an element of ‘ joy in life’ coming from discourse with the spirit world – the assurances, warnings and support they receive from all of this. But as someone who has never had such experiences and been tutored to think suspiciously about them, I cannot see how it would benefit the world to be able to do so. That didn’t stop me enjoying the book as it filled a giant gap in my understandings.

This is a book that will challenge because it is piled high with ‘evidence’ that cannot easily be dismissed. Every reader will have their own response based on their own view of reality and life experiences. I enjoyed the book but was not significantly changed by it. It would be good to have other reasonable viewpoints on this book.

Paul Inglis 13th May 2018

Can be purchased as an e Book through Amazon Australia for around $11.99…you can read the first 2 chapters before buying.

Before buying the book, consider reading Ron’s short essay first at no cost: ‘Valid evidence for a spiritual world view.’ Just send him an email request to:

rjsmramsay@bigpond.com

 

Review:Christmas, Myth,Magic and Legend

Making sense of the Christmas stories. by John Queripel. John is a UCA minister  with a diverse set of experiences … city, rural, university and prison ministries. John is committed to scholarship and authenticity in faith.

 

A myth is not a lie. With that introduction, John Queripel captured my interest and held it to his last words. And his last words are good to read…We are not to pretend that the stories are history but rather to enter the experience and be transformed by them. I can think of no better way to be transformed than to use this book as a guide..John’s forensic skills have produced a classic critical analysis of the Christmas narratives, unpacking the true meaning of Christmas, and bringing into focus the powerful symbolic and metaphorical teaching. At the same time he has dismantled the a huge amount of overly simplistic thinking by sourcing the forces that have shaped and politicized the gospel writers.John helps us to see past our Western scientific mindset, profoundly shaped by Aristotelian logic of factual, objective and verifiable truth.

Most affected by the populist scientific framework is the literalist reader of Scripture.  Richard Dawkins is also influenced by the same logic!

But truth lies in  myth….

The Christmas Story is simply not factual but possesses deep truth in another way. Not to realize this means missing out on greater understanding of the purpose of biblical stories such as that of Adam and Eve.

Literal reading produces an ideological outcome serving self interest, eg of woman being born of man! Many biblical myths have had tthe power of ensuring men’s dominance over women and human dominance over the rest of creation. John carries out some of the best theological research to illustrate the development of the birth and crucifixion legends and myths. He makes it easy to see why it is foolish to take the stories literally and the consequent dumbing down of Jesus human role and purpose.

He has much to say about the way in which we have blended in the ttwo different biblical stories of Matthew and Luke. In his wonderfully attention grabbing writing style, he opens up to analysis many of the taken for granted assumptions about the world of Jesus. He shows how important is an understanding of the radical changes taking place in Judea at the time of the gospel writings.  This includes Challenging traditional views about pharisees, the Jesus Jews and the rabbinic Jews and their differences from the sacred traditions.It is important to understand the ‘anti Jewish agenda of Matthew.

I found his expose of the different infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke and finding their common ground and emphases ffascinating as well as informative. Each gospel writer has a different agenda. Knowing about these agendas is part of the exploration of honest theology.

Having dismantled the notion of Jesus being born of a virgin, the doctrine of perpetual virginity of Mary, and the Christian aversion to sex, the doctrine of immaculate conception is left with nothing to support it. Since the latter was only established in 1854 it is not hard to rrealize that the Church has played a major role in distracting us from the valuable mythological values.

After reading his comments about the jjourney to Bethlehem on foot over ten days while heavily pregnant and only so Joseph could be included in the census of males it is not hard to accept that the narrative has another purpose of fulfilling ancient prophecies about where the Messiah will emerge.

Highly recommended. Very transformative and loaded with brain stimulation and fabulous thinking.

Paul Inglis 29th April 2018.

See an earlier post for ways to purchase.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Wind Blows Where It Chooses

The quest for a Christian story in our time – by Kevin Treston

This is a text that is hard to put down. It is a powerful work addressing Christianity’s crisis of authenticity and integrity. But once outlined effectively, it does not dwell on this crisis. Instead it offers ways to recover the authentic Jesus and presents a way to a lived spirituality based on hope and positive seeking that does not deny the reality of the secular world, nor modern scientific advances, or the evolution of humankind.

The author has the right credentials (academic and experiential) to offer this guide to moving forward – practical and applied theology, work with learners and leaders in the churches and a wonderful knowledge of our Christian heritage beyond orthodox and traditional practices.

This is an aid to facilitating a renewal of a faith that incorporates everyday living, rapid social change, evolving family and community structure, the process of aging, and dealing with the many challenges of life. For those who want it, it also offers a way forward for progressive church reform. To do all of this, one needs to have a helicopter view of society, a method for telling the Jesus story to inhabitants of an increasingly secular world, a way to eliminate the irrelevant doctrines and dogmas that obscure this story, and ways for enriching and living life ‘in full abundance’.

For me, it was good to read  for my own learning. But the book is also useful as a guide for small group study. It is loaded with resource references. As a tool for church councils at all levels and across denominations in the Western world it is bound to provoke worthwhile discussion and action.

While reading the book, I kept telling myself that this material is very timely – a post truth era, the diminishing identity of Christianity in our culture, the competition for people’s allegiances, the proliferation of aggressive ideologies, the fragility of world peace. Where is Jesus in all of this? The author urges us not to retreat into secure enclaves to shut out the world, but to live among the cutting edges and paradoxes of life lived in reality – no more fantasy, just awake to what is happening and calling up the teachings of Jesus as a guide.

Kevin Treston calls up new scholarship to recover the authentic Jesus story and helps the reader to unpack the accumulation of uncritical baggage that diminishes the real value of the cosmic Christ and links him into all of creation. In this, there are some strong messages for those leaders who have substituted clericalism for ministry and widened the gap between priest and people and reduced the people of God (laity) to passive observers.

But there is much more ….. I won’t tell you…go get the book and enjoy!

Scroll this blog for a recent post for the details for purchase. Or contact Kevin Treston

Dr Paul Inglis 22 March 2018

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Book Review – Resurrecting Easter

Resurrecting Easter: How the West lost and the East kept the original Easter Vision, by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, 2018.

Front Cover: Apse, Church of the Saviour in Chora, Istanbul Turkey

Book Review by Dr Richard Smith
Biblical scholars John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg conducted pilgrimages over the years to Italy and Turkey, two of which I was fortunate to attend. We learnt that all the major events in Christ’s life are described in the Gospels but no direct reports of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Instead many artistic impressions of Jesus’ resurrection were created, some we visited in churches, caves and museums. The first direct image appears by 400 and is part of the West’s individual resurrection tradition. The second direct image by the year 700 is part of the East’s universal resurrection tradition named the Anastasis, Greek for resurrection. For 15 years Dominic and Sarah Crossan travelled across Europe and Asia creating a comprehensive photographic archive of this resurrection imagery. How timely when this book with Sarah’s images, the ancient texts which inspired them and Dominic’s scholarly interpretation arrived for Easter. The cover image of their book is from the 1300s Chora Church in Istanbul, where we gazed at this beautiful Anastasis mosaic high in the half dome of the apse of the risen Christ, enveloped by a star studded mandorla, grasping the wrists of Adam and Eve, the personification of humankind.

Christ pulls them from their tombs while standing firmly on the shattered gates of Hell with lock and bolts strewn around his feet. Christ is trampling down a well-trussed Hades, guardian and personification of death, who is lying prone beneath his feet. Looking on are a rough clad John the Baptist and Solomon and David with crowns. Among an unidentified group on the other side is Abel with his shepherd’s crook, the victim of the violence by which the bible first defines sin, the ultimate cause of Jesus’ death. A death where the power of evolution represented by the Anastasis creates a movement of non-violence offering the Gospel of peace to a violent world. In the second millennium why did the West gut this heart of Christianity’s understanding of the Resurrection by rejecting this once-common universal iconography in favour of the original individualistic vision? Resurrecting Easter re-introduces this inclusive, community-based ideal that offers renewed hope and possibilities for our world. In the final images, the symbolism of an Anastasis image in the twin arches of the Resurrection Gate in Moscow’s Red Square challenges the display of Russian military might. Through this amazing re-visioning of Easter, such profound scholarly insights should empower us as a church “.. to confess The Lord in fresh words and deeds” (Para. 11, Uniting Church Basis of Union, 1992).

Available from Amazon Australia.  as hardcover or kindle.

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Book Review: Prayers For Progressive Christians

Michael Morwood has been engaging Christians searching for a more relevant faith for thirty years. He has interacted with people from various denominations who have been prepared to reflect, discuss and change their thinking in the face of new information and discoveries. He uses the word progressive to describe the willingness of these Christians to move beyond traditional forms of thinking and acting.

I have found this book an inspiring resource that fills a great need in the growing progressive movement and I will get a great deal of use out of it for personal as well as corporate use.

For people who have severed all ties with the church, it is a wonderful tool for personal moments of deep contemplation, meditation and reflection. For them it would be a liberating resource. For others who form small groups meeting privately, and for those who still attend church services it will help to support their questioning minds.

Prayer has been a contentious matter for many progressives who would rather see it as an instrument for centring their thoughts and finding ways to be practically helpful to others in need, than a means for calling up God to intercede and change the course of events.

Michael introduces the themes of prayer with a discussion on why prayer should change so that we pray for what we believe. He says: Twenty-first century followers of Jesus of Nazareth deserve better than prayers based on an outdated redemptive worldview that has been, and still is, perpetuated by the Christ-religion.

One option is to continue praying the prayers despite their disbelief. Another option is to walk away from church attendance. A further option is to look for liturgical prayers that resonate with what they now believe. This approach will reveal the shortage of such prayers.

Michael enters into a refreshingly bold conversation about “God”. He asks the reader to think about where we got our concept of God from. He does not ask for everything to be discarded. The discernment about such knowledge is left to the critical thinker.

Next he asks about the purpose of life. In the context of this he has constructed some lovely contemporary prayers where the thoughts paint pictures of reality, relate to our world and ourselves. One feels very humanly fragile and humble while reading and thinking about the prayers. They capture the seasons of life, the seasons of the church and the key events in a full lifetime. Although they are meant for people of all ages in all situations I managed to find a lot that stirred my senses as a 72 year old and like Michael Morwood brought me to a sense of reality and meaning.

I would commend this book to everyone. [See an earlier post for purchasing details]

Paul Inglis 17/3/2018

Book Review: The Numinous Factor

 

The Numinous Factor: The Spiritual Basis of Science and of Life

by John L Walker

Thanks George Tully for recommending this book. I downloaded an e-copy from Amazon Kindle for $5.21 AUS. 187 pages – easy and enjoyable read.

The author, Dr John Walker, in his seventies, has been a professor of religion and languages, a university administrator, religious leader, prison religious counsellor, public speaker, author and mystic. He and his wife live in California.

“Maybe there is a Creative Power that really is the energy, is the gravity, is the rock, and is the fusion process in the stars. Maybe there is no separation between Spiritual and Physical. Maybe everything that we see or measure physically and everything that we might sense or feel spiritually is really One, a Unity. If this is so, then Spirituality, a human term referring to an awareness of the Presence of the Divine, cannot be left out of scientific reasoning. At the same time, science can enhance an understanding of the concrete aspects of the spiritual.”

“Numinous” carries the idea of relating to the Spiritual Essence of things in non-rational ways. It refers to a creative force, a spiritual nature that inhabits, or even is, every material entity and is part of the Creative Force. It refers to the sense of the Presence of Divinity in everything, a Presence that exists in, as, and through everything that is manifest, including what is not known to us yet. The term sees all things as being made up of a Divinity that can be felt but not logically grasped by our human thinking at the present time.

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Review: Faith without Fear by Keith Mascord

The subtitle of this book is: Risky choices facing contemporary Christians. Published by Morning Star Publishers in 2016.

Keith Mascord is a Canadian-born Australian who has been a teacher, a priest, and academic and a chaplain. During the 1990s he taught philosophy at Moore Theological College (Anglican) where he journeyed out of fundamentalism. Also author of Leaving Fundamentalism in a Quest for God (2012)

The Hon Michael Kirby says of this book: Mascord explains that rationality, truthfulness and the love of God are the ingredients essential to the efforts to revive Christianity in countries in steep religious decline, such as Australia. His is a message for all Christians everywhere – but particularly for evangelical Protestants as they approach the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s fateful Reformation.

Dr Val Webb says this is a must read for those who struggle with biblical literalism, inerrancy of Scripture, male headship and anti-homosexuality within their Christian denomination, and an invaluable resource for those in dialogue with friends and relatives holding such views.

There is a consensus amongst reviewers that this book is well written. To me it was valuable because it focussed on the issue that is at the core of the differences between most Evangelicals and Progressives – literalism.

In a novel and authentic way Mascord has shown how literalism does not work – by drawing on the life experiences of people whose personal reflections could be that of many others. He has also demonstrated how, often, a commitment to literalism has backed many into unwinnable corners.

Some of the more obvious conundrums are dealt with early:

  • Why are humans and animals created twice?
  • Who are the other people that Cain is afraid might kill him?
  • Who was Cain’s wife? Was she his sister?
  • How many animals did Noah take into the ark – two of each or seven pairs of the clean and one pair of the unclean?
  • Did Methuselah drown in the flood?

Mascord also identifies the many ways in which these and other controversies have been explained by interpreters through the ages.

In the search for meaning in the Bible, it is worth noting how Origen in the third century saw the cryptic and metaphorical nature of the lessons in the Bible and while describing much of the literal interpretation as silly, he did not take away any of the high values of the stories and even found deeper meanings than those not seen through literal eyes.

Mascord makes many suggestions for the contemporary reader of the Bible. Standing out was his suggestion that we must become content with uncertainty. There is much we don’t know. There are many things about which we are reasonably uncertain. There is very good reason to think that our interpretations of individual biblical passages are not the only valid interpretations.

To be anything other than humble is to be out of touch with reality.

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