Category Archives: Book Reviews

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 






…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,



Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology

Testing tradition bookby Val Webb   (Morning Star Publishing, Melbourne, 2015)

A Review  (by Dr Noel Preston AM)

Testing Traditions and Liberating Theology may well be the best volume to come from Val Webb’s prolific key pad – and that is quite a rap! Her primary audience is the inquiring lay person. In Val’s own words, she “wrote this book because I meet so many people that either know very little about the development of theology within their church tradition; or else have left their church because what they hear there makes little sense to them, or is even harmful to them. Like Richard Dawkins’ attacks on Christianity, they only know one version and have no idea that theology has actually changed considerably over the centuries and keeps on changing.(p.1)”

The valid assumption underpinning Val Webb’s interpretation is that the true test of religion is how religious faith and practice sustains and nurtures good living “here and now”.  Much of the book is an  historical survey of the development of (Christian) theological ideas. As such, it will be a great eye opener to many, and an enlightening refresher to others. She demonstrates how theology moves from the dogmatic and systematic to the contextual, that is, to liberation and feminist theologies which  emancipate theology from ivory tower seminaries and continue to test the traditions of ecclesiastical institutions while providing a theological framework for engaging contemporary moral questions and public policy as well as personal empowerment.

Adopting the style of the teacher rather than the polemicist, Webb does not labour her own preferences, though they are well implied. Her own  theological perspective is informed by process theology and relates to a pan-en-theistic understanding of the divine. As such, the traditions informing twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich rather than those of Karl Barth support her contextual approach.  She also endorses the contemporary importance of interfaith dialogue, indigenous spiritualities and eco-theology. Indeed, one of the most significant chapters in Testing Traditions and Liberating Theologies is the final one, “Living our theology on the planet”.

Along the way Val speaks to her own denomination,  the Uniting Church in Australia (pp.231-235). She questions how theological debates are to be resolved in this twentieth century ecclesiastical creation. “Can the Uniting Church allow its theology to emerge from reflection on its context or must it stay in conformity with churches from which our ancestors broke away? And…who decides?” She observes that if this is to be the national Assembly of the church, this requires a theologically literate laity who compose half that body. Adding,  many of the Assembly’s laity “simply accept what their theologians say UC people must think, even if they have questions within themselves.”

Her passion is for lay theology (not that she suggests current theological seminaries in Australia overlook this). Because of this passion I found her omission of reference to biologist and process philosopher Charles Birch obvious and  unfortunate, for Birch  was arguably Australia’s most eminent twentieth century  lay theologian, and a Uniting Church affiliate. That said, Val herself qualifies for that title in the new millenium.

Certainly, this is a most commendable and readable text “backed by serious, inquisitive scholarship”, as its dust cover asserts. My copy will be passed on to my critical thinking son-in-law and then it may become a second hand Christmas present to my local pastor! It is also amenable to group study with questions for discussion following each of its twenty chapters.

The Reviewer  Noel Preston is a retired Uniting Church minister and an ethicist formerly Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University. (


Limited offer.  Email Val Webb at for purchase and payment details

There has never been one truth, despite what people claim.  Theological ideas have waxed and waned through history, taking conflicting turns with changing leaders, worldviews and political forces.  This fast-paced, lay-friendly book, backed by serious, inquisitive scholarship, follows this maze, shining a spotlight into dark corners and dusty shelves to observe ideas silenced and others declared eternal.  As many people walk away from churches unwilling to face the big questions, this book offers readers permission to think for themselves.












Coming in July: Our third seminar for 2014

Looking for Jesus in the 21st Century

Looking for JesusTuesday 15th July 2014  10am to 12pm

Wavell Heights Uniting Church

Rode Road, Wavell Hts, Brisbane.

Guest Reflector:  Dr Greg Jenks, Academic Dean, St Francis Anglican Theological College and author of the recently published  Jesus then and Jesus now (see earlier posting for review information or go to:  the author’s site or to the publisher Mosaic Resources  for details and purchase).

Come expecting a vibrant and friendly forum – enter this date in your diary now!

More details about our third public forum will be posted in the days ahead.

Book Review: Emergence for Life by Kevin Treston

Treston BookEmergence for Life not Fall from Grace: making sense of the Jesus story in the light of evolution.KevinTreston

Treston, K. 2013

Review by Don MacGregor, CANA (Christians Awakening to a New Awareness). The website for this UK based group is under re-construction. Hopefully we shall be able to make a link soon.

[CANA is a network of people exploring the emergence of humanity’s next evolutionary step for which Jesus has paved the way. This requires us to risk living co-creatively through attunement to the ONE.]

The Review

This is a wake-up call to the church and its entrenched fall-and-redemption model, which is seriously out of step with the evolution and emergence model in today’s world. Treston writes from a Catholic perspective and draws on his knowledge of the Roman Church, of which he is highly critical at times. He challenges the traditional religions to reframe their messages of salvation, to move from a literal interpretation of images and stories that were birthed in a pre-scientific era to understanding them metaphorically and symbolically – and to see them embedded in the evolutionary nature of all things. He asks the serious question, “What culturally bound beliefs, religious practices and structures need to be modified or even discarded?” I liked his description of ‘Jesus who became the Christ’. He defines the Christ as a descriptive name for the manifestation of the Divine in creation.

Treston creates a useful scaffolding to support his thesis that the Genesis origin myth should be understood as an evolution and emergence of human consciousness, not a fall from grace, covering such areas as the role of mythic stories, language and religion, the role of science, emergence and evolution. He examines the role of myth as a poorly understood way of looking at the Christian narrative, and yet one which it is essential to recover in order to steer Christianity away from a dogmatic literalism which, to the rational mindset, often makes little sense. The mission of Jesus who became the Christ is reinterpreted as a revelation of God’s limitless love within an expanded human consciousness in an evolving universe, not a rescue mission.

Throughout the book, Treston has a strong critique of the hierarchical, authoritarian, paternalistic nature of the Roman church. In an emerging higher stage of human consciousness, attitudes to ethnic groups, pluralism of religions, sexual identity, ecological concerns, justice and the status of women are examples of how social attitudes are evolving, yet the Church is static and stuck in its pre-scientific fall/redemption model.

He calls for a reinterpretation of the mission of Jesus away from the one who rescues us from the distant Fall, to the one who is a prototype for our journey towards union with the divine.

“For a Christian, the life journey is not so much about a restoration of something that went wrong in distant past times, but a journey towards deification within an evolutionary celebration of the universe.”

This book is an impassioned, well-written and well-argued call for a radical change in the Christian message, to incorporate the evolutionary journey of humanity into Christian theology and move away from the idea of humanity as inherently sinful because of the Fall. I wholeheartedly endorse it!

Don MacGregor

KevinTreston has been a teacher, author and consultant in pastoral ministry for over 50 years in many countries including his own country, Australia. He obtained his PhD from the University of Notre Dame (Indiana), and pursued post-doctoral studies in Chicago, Boston and Washington. Kevin is a member of the Association of Practical Theology Oceania. He lives with his wife, Kathryn, in Brisbane, Australia. He is a member of the Lay Forum.

This book is available from Amazon in paperback or electronic editions. Further enquiries can be made to the author.


Comment and Review – Jesus Then and Jesus Now

JesusThenJesusNowJesus Then and Jesus Now: looking for Jesus, finding ourselves.        Gregory C. Jenks

Mosaic Press, 2014.

During Easter I took the opportunity to read Greg Jenk’s new book  Jesus Then and Jesus Now.

I was very favourably impressed.  Greg  seems to have struck a good balance between appropriate and full reference to up to date academic research while at the same time maintaining a readable, narrative style.  Each of the chapters provides intriguing light on so many aspects of the Jesus Story.

Dr Jenk’s personal “faith journey” fits in well with the theme and the final chapter where you ponder on where we go from here suggests some useful  directions while conceding that there are no clear answers.

It was interesting to me that he seemed to be now fully accepting that his thinking lies within what is more and more being called the “progressive” field. Many people, including a number of theology academics, I have spoken with have been wary of being “labelled” with any particular name which might risk their being restricted in how people see them.

I can understand this but the problem I see is that if we don’t use some sort of label like ‘progressive’ which comes to have a general  recognition as an approach to faith, the general populace does not know  what we are talking about.  There is a quotation from Marcus Borg somewhere which I can’t put my hands on right now, to the effect, that a lot of people in the pews are not innately orthodox theologically, they  are just not aware of any alternative.

This applies to the secular world as well. Somebody referred to Bob Carr on ABC TV’s Q and A this week posing the question,

“Why did Jesus or anyone have to die for our sins? ”

Perhaps things are changing. Australian, English and American writers, practitioners and theologians are more and more often identifying with ‘progressive’ groups, speaking at their conferences and making public statements about their own ‘progressive’ ideas. I get the impression that even John Spong, for a while, had reservations about the label but now his newsletters are actually published by the Progressive Christian network in the US.

I make this point about widening promotion of the label because unless  we do that, Bob Carr, Tony Jones, even Richard Dawkins, let alone the wider public and the people in my own congregation, cannot become aware that there is a truly viable alternative to fundamentalism or “neo-orthodoxy” (as one of my e-mails today referred to it) and the Western church will continue its rapid decline.

I congratulate Greg on Jesus then and Jesus Now  and look forward to being associated with
him in doing what we can to nurture the “Kingdom of God”  in our somewhat confused society.

Rodney Eivers

This book is available for purchase now.

Opinion: Celebrating CHRISTMAS in this 21st Century

In November the Gold Coast PFC group conducted a seminar on the recent work of Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth. The session was led by Bryan Glimour. His introduction to the seminar follows:

Most of us wouldn’t like to lose the wonder and joy, the mystery and holiness, the generosity and hope, the humility and drama that the nativity stories have acquired through the centuries. Yet as recent scholars have researched and discovered, the story has been spectacularly spiritualised and dramatically immortalised beyond the human and natural birth of Jesus.

So then, how do we, –  without destroying what history has enshrined as sacred and factual, – demythologise the nativity stories and put them into a 21st Century understanding that is both comprehensible and real. Borg and Crossan have done this in their Book –“ The First Christmas”.

The Enlightenment period, (17th & 18th Century) generated an understanding of TRUTH and REALITY very different from the pre-modern world,(where the stories of history were just accepted.) And this has forced the factual fundamentalist to dig in and force feed their followers with so called scriptural proof . – on the other hand, the enlightened modernist is quick to throw out these stories of history as mere fable.]

What then will our response be,  in being able to celebrate Christmas with all the positive and affirming values of the Nativity stories in the light of the revelations of modern scholarship?

Firstly, recognise the following –

  1. Paul’s letters (the earliest NT writings) have scant reference to Jesus’ birth – ‘born of a woman’ – and no reference to Nativity stories.
  2. Mark’s Gospel, an originating Source has no references to the Nativity Stories.
  3. Mathew’s focus is a Jewish affirmation and a  narrative document of Jesus being the long awaited  Messiah. The virgin birth and the gifts of the Magi are strong parabolic Overtures of the Christ , Emmanuel , – God with us, – the Divine Presence with us for all eternity.
  4. Luke’s focus, –  a gentile proclamation narrative of Jesus, sets the scene in his two chapter Nativity parabolic Overture, by his  portrayal of Jesus as the loving Friend and Saviour of all humanity, with strong female focus, (roles of Mary and Elizabeth), focus on the poor and weak, (shepherds and Jesus birthplace).
  5. John’s Gospel bears only parabolic reference to the Nativity stories by referring to Jesus as the Light and life from the beginning.

My faithfulness to being a Disciple of Jesus and recognising God’s divine, and indeed, living Presence  in all humanity (and  the whole environment)  does not depend on the factual truth of the Nativity stories but in fantastic parabolic truth that these stories release in enabling me to discern –

  1. The liberating power of the divine hope that emerged through the humble,  humiliating and sacrificial lifestyle of Jesus.
  2. The JOY and acclamation of all those who witnessed the birthing to all the world,  in  the person Jesus, God with us and within us, experiencing that Indwelling Presence
  3.  The intimate love that evolved in the person of Jesus who has gifted the world with the passion and perseverance of one who was divinely inspired.
  4. The gifting of Jesus’ life, gifted and lived to generate peace in every community, that is cross cultural, cross geographical and cross generational.

All of these we celebrate in the birth of the Christ child through the stories that enhance that primitive Jewish cultural period of history.

Wishing you all a Christ centred happy and blessed Christmas.


Bryan Gilmour

Book Review – “Christian Faith at the Crossroads” (Lloyd Geering)

220px-Lloyd_Geering,_2011 Reviewed by John Wessel

This is a SUMMARY OF Lloyd Geerings book “Christian faith at the Crossroads”. This is important reading if one wishes to understand where religion fits into our modern world.
There are two major turning points in the history of religion which are called AXIAL periods.

The first axial period, roughly 800 BCE-200 CE was when the great living religious traditions were founded, the second may be dated from 1600-1800 CE. We can analyse mankind’s religious experience into three phrases, which may be referred to as (1) the primal religions,(2) the historical religions and (3) the secular (or this-worldly) religions. We need to ask, what is the essence of religion? Religion is the response of faith to the ultimate issues of human existence, a response by which a society (or an individual) expresses its sense of identity, its purpose in life and its hope of fulfilment, a response which manifests itself in a complex of beliefs, rituals, lifestyles and social structures.

The societies of the uncivilised world (the Stone Age) were mainly tribal in character. These societies had to draw upon unhistorical myths with which to describe their origins, these were usually superhuman divine figures that belonged to myth and not to history. The first axial period was a dividing line and never again has the human race as a whole reverted to religion of the first pre-Axial type. This pre-Axial religion was always ethnic in character. It could not divorce itself from the tribe, city or people. To the first pre-Axial people the world around them was pregnant with unseen powers, very varied in character, powers both beneficial and hostile. Humans felt themselves to be at their mercy. The human world belonged to the gods of nature. In that world the life of the community took precedence over that of the individual. We moderns see myth as symbolic and imaginative creations of the human mind; but for ancient humankind they described reality.

In the first post- axial period humans not only thought but, for the first time, became aware that they were thinking. To find salvation, they looked beyond their immediate world to another order of reality – another world. In this age were born the fundamental categories within which we still think today and the beginning of the world religions. The absolute reign of mythology had come to an end.

We now look at the first post-Axial religions and see the change that took place. Here Lloyd speaks of Judaism, Christianity, Islam; Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucius, and Taoist. These all were reaching out to another world. The monistic world-view of the early pre-Axial society was replaced by a dualistic world-view in the early post-Axial period where reality was conceived as consisting of two different and mutually exclusive worlds. The dualistic world-view was thus mirrored in a dualistic view of the human condition. Religion consequently changed from a nature-orientated type to a salvation-directed type. This continued on until the eighteenth century CE. This was the watershed between the modern world and all that preceded it and was the beginning of the second axial period. The Renaissance was the starting point of modern times. The Renaissance thinkers began to look with new eyes at the natural world around them. It no longer appeared to them as the fallen world destined for destruction as the church had long taught. At the Reformation the Reformers began a critical study of the Scriptures.

The period of 1650-1750 CE is referred to as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment (the second axial period). It was the natural continuation of the Renaissance and Reformation. People like Spinoza saw the Bible as a historically conditioned object that could not be expected to contain the absolute truth. This foreshadowed those of later biblical scholarship. The basic belief of the Enlightenment was deism. Deism is a form of reduced theism, which makes no appeal to divine revelation, but which can be arrived at (it was claimed) on the basis of reason and the study of nature. It reached its peak in England before the middle of the eighteenth century. During the Enlightenment all external authorities were being challenged, and by appeal to the internal authority of human reason were having a new look at their understanding of reality. Areas of study such as philosophy, anthropology and science had their beginnings in this period (Lloyd has chapters dealing with each of these areas). A new world was taking shape. Mankind’s future was one of religious pluralism where there is no one religion which holds the absolute truth.

As a result, the duality present in the world-views of first post-Axial religions has been replaced by a view of the world which emphasised its essential unity. The world could no longer be understood by the former two-world dichotomy of natural and supernatural. Modern men and women have experienced a loss of the sense of the sacred. During the second Post-Axial period religions, just like the tribal and archaic religions of the past, have become displaced. The dualistic world-view has been replaced by a new monistic, world-view. (There is a growing reaction to this within the fundamentalist in all religions; this is because the pre-modern form of religion offered security and certainty in a time of growing uncertainty and insecurity. Once there is a threat to the survival of ones faith tradition the level of toleration dissipates.) New forms of religion need to manifest themselves. Reality must be sought within this world rather than outside of it, assuming it is to be found at all.

The traditional institutions of the first post-Axial religions are crumbling, mostly because they are the manifestation of the other-world which is now receding and of the authority believed to emanate from it. Modern society is becoming increasingly aware that all of its symbols have been created by humans, past and present. However, in spite of this, humankind need religion in order to remain human and to experience spiritual satisfaction; but it is less content with what it has created.

Lloyd explains how the now secular world came into being via the Old Testament writings and how it came out of Western Christianity. We now live in a secular world. By secularization we mean the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols. Whether one is pleased or not, the supernatural is disappearing from the world; however this does not mean that religion is no longer necessary. It does mean that man is turning his attention away from the worlds beyond and toward this world and this time. We are only at the beginning of this new era of this-worldliness. Modern people want to be known for themselves, they want to be free to be themselves, free to change and grow to greater maturity; labels, while they serve to categorize identity, also have a hampering and depersonalizing effect.

In order to experience our human potential we must make our response to ultimate issues; and that is, as shown in the opening paragraph of this paper, what it means to be religious. The ultimate issues which confront humankind today emerge from within this world and sometimes even from within the human condition itself. This calls for new religious forms, that is, new ways in which people will come to understand the reality which ultimately concerns them.

It is true that pre-modern religions may no longer meet needs, particularly in their traditional forms, for they came to expression within the context of different world-views. If religion is defined as humanity’s response to the ultimate issues of life, then modern men and women, no less than their forbears, are required by the very nature of human existence to make their response to the kind of world in which they find themselves. That response will provide the religious forms of the new era.

Primitive Christianity spoke of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. It was not the Jewish priests and scholars who initiated Christianity; they were strongly opposed to it. Christianity came to birth on the margins of Jewish religions life with people like Jesus and Paul. Similarly it was not the Christian clergy who initiated the modern secular world but Christian thinkers who were and are on the margins or growing edge of Christian life and practice. Further, just as Christianity was not simply the continuation of Judaism but a radical transformation of it, so the modern secular world constitutes a radically new and post-Christian age. To meet this challenge religion must discover within itself a radical transformation.

Lloyd opens his book (page 6) by stating words with which I now close this paper- “The decay of religion is the first stage in the transformation of religion…. The withdrawal of support from traditional religion is a necessary preliminary to a transformation of the religious form.” Are we now in the stage of the “withdrawal of support” as congregation numbers continue to fall?

My comment: If the church can understand that it must operate within
a new world-view, and change to meet the needs we humans now have in this modern time, then it may still have a future. If it doesn’t change then history demonstrates that the world will pass it by.

John D. Wessel

Book Review: The Book of Rachel by Lesley Cannold

Note: Although the book reviewed is not new it was brought to the minds of people at the national conference of Sea of Faith in Australia at Toowoomba in September 2013. Dr Cannold made a strong impact on those who listened to her address on that occasion and participated in her workshop. She continues to catch the attention of the national Australian news media on several public issues.

Reviewer: Rodney Eivers

The Book of Rachael by Leslie Cannold

It is rare for me to read a book of fiction these days. The Book of Rachael is certainly a book of fiction. Leslie Cannold, herself, does not claim the work to be even credited as “historical” fiction.

But this fiction is well related to my main interest in books, those dealing with a ‘progressive’ approach to Christianity often related to interpretation of the Jesus story from the sketchy clues we have from the Bible. Several years ago I had listed as a “project” the idea of writing the Jesus story purely from a secular ‘non-faith’ point of view. The book could be presented to high school students of English literature with no evangelical pretensions. It would simply provide an illustration of the extent to which the Bible has enriched our English language and our world view. Sayings such as “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, “Cast your bread upon the waters,” “For everything there is a season”, come to mind. I did not go ahead with the book as it was beyond my writing talent and those writers I approached about it turned out to be too busy with their own proposals.

So, knowing Leslie Cannold’s ‘faith’ position, I approached this book with curiosity. There have been other writers who have built fictional accounts filling in the large spaces which exist in the historical record of the Jesus of the New Testament narratives. Leslie Cannold does not do fill in the gaps so much but seeks to ‘bring to life a fictional character (in this case the sister of Jesus) by evoking the time and place in which the character’s story is set”.

She does this admirably. One can feel the vitality, the tensions, the struggle for existence in the Galilee and Judaea of that era. The emotional impact can be striking and I found myself a bit weepy right from the first page.

From hearing her speak at the SOFIA conference at Toowoomba in 2013 and from subsequent occasions when she has caught my attention with her reputation as a vigorous feminist polemicist I had every reason to expect that Cannold’s writing would have a strong anti-male thrust. I went into my reading of the book with a conscious decision to counter such defensiveness as might be aroused in me through my male gender.

Thus it came as a great surprise to find that actually the author treats the main male characters relatively gently. Much of her rancour, surprisingly, is directed towards some of the female characters especially the mother of Jesus. This is not to deny her main theme and rationale for writing the book. That is to demonstrate how women have been badly done by throughout history – and by implication are still being badly done by in this current age.

Perhaps she is trying to say that the behaviour of both men and women is conditioned by their environments. Very few of the people in the story are depicted as gentle, compassionate, people with a universal love for human kind. Even Jesus is depicted as a person ruled by the passion of his human relationships rather than developing a conscious life-long resolve to do the right thing. Nobody seems to be happy!

What does seem to be the villain in the piece is legalistic patriarchy with the backing of a universally accepted religious ideology. The author sees little good found in this sort of religion, certainly as experienced in 1st Century Roman-occupied Palestine. Of course, for those of us with “faith” who give him a special place in history this is the very issue which Jesus of Nazareth set out to remedy.

The biblical record tells us, and the Book of Rachel also relates, that this aim turned out to be pretty much a failure, at least during the lifetime of Jesus. Yet one has to suppose that there must have been something very charismatic about this one man who had such a persistent influence on his followers for the several decades after this death. An influence which led ultimately to layers of mythology and adoration being added to the story. Jesus the sage of Nazareth became the universal divine Christ.

Although dismissing any supernatural explanation of events Cannold takes the Jesus story as told in the four gospels at face value. Until the events leading up to the death of Jesus she makes little reference, however, to the chronology and series of events related in the Bible. Writers, typical of the Jesus Seminar, are not listed among her references. From such sources most (but not all) scholars agree that Jesus, the man, probably existed but it is generally accepted that all the biographical details of Jesus, scanty as they are, are perhaps as fictional as Cannold’s Rachael. One interesting link which the author does not actually relate, is the story of the family of Jesus going to look for him to bring him home because he was “out of his mind.”

Little good seems to have come from Rachael’s involvement in sexual and family relationships which seem to be fraught with tension, confusion and betrayal. I might add here that in a matter-of-fact way the author is explicit (without any obvious erotic intention) about the influence of physiological sexual responses leading a woman to choose a partner – so much as she has a choice. His being a good provider, for instance, would not override the biological sensual need. Her heroine is far from being a passive sexual partner.

As prescribed in this book I don’t know that Leslie Cannold provides a satisfying answer to the ultimate place of women in the world. Perhaps my female friends and colleagues can offer their views here. Is it to withdraw from troublesome personal relationships and the world, falling back on their “traditional” role of carers and family supporters? Perhaps it is to fight for the honourable place in society which has for so long been denied to women. Have we in this 21st Century come near to succeeding in this? Can marriage bring happiness? Can women have it all? This leads into the larger question of “What is happiness?” for women or for men. Is structure or convention in intimate relationships good or bad? This, however, is not the place to go into those broader issues.

In a separate personal interview* in responding to the question: “What might Rachael be doing now if she’d been born in our time?” Leslie Cannold concludes, “She’d be Prime Minister, or the head of the UN, or head of a Fortune 500 company. She was born for this century, this decade. Whatever Rachael would be doing, she’d be heading towards the same goals as me, “When you don’t have faith, you have to come up with a reason why you’re here on the planet. My reason is that I want to feel when I look back on my life that I have left the world a better place than when I came into it.”

To your reviewer of this absorbing book, himself a person of ‘faith’, this sounds very much like what Rachael’s brother was talking about when he proclaimed the Kingdom of God.


*Note 1: An overall conclusion is that there is very much of Leslie in Rachael and this may explain some of the strongly drawn description of personal and family relationships displayed in The Book of Rachael. The reader may like to judge this for herself by studying the biographical details of Leslie Cannold. A start may be provided by following the following Internet link: I would recommend that this link be consulted after reading the book and not before it or halfway through it as I did.

Note 2: In my opinion The Book of Rachael would provide an excellent study source for a gender-balanced group of men and women. It raises issues which are relevant to peoples of the contrasting sexes seeking to live in harmony. The starkness of description of the characters helps to get a grip on how culture and history have treated one half of the human race.

The Book of Rachael is available at a price of $20 probably from most major bookshops and from Rainbow Books.