Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Opening Doors

A seeker’s reflection on the rooms of Christian living

by Kevin Treston

I have been looking forward to more from Kevin Treston since his The Wind Blows Where it Chooses made practical sense of the crisis facing western Christianity. Opening Doors is a great follow on from that book and once again he has produced a text that is useful for personal as well as group studies. This time the exercise is to reconcile a contemporary faith with modern science, cosmology and spirituality.

Dr Kevin Treston has taught and lectured for many years in 14 different countries. He is the author of 30 books, and a highly respected presenter among Christian educators. He was a visiting Scholar at Boston College and is a member of the association of Practical Theology Oceania. He was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for his services to education.

He calls himself a seeker because he has taken on board Jesus’ invitation to open the door to him, get to know him better and at the same time bring Jesus wisdom into contemporary society. He invites us to be seekers and gives us the tools for shifting from the old anthropocentric (human centred) faith to an ecocentric faith better suited to our times.  This is a very personal exercise and the book acts as a resource that guides the reader/s through a range of elements that enhance Christian living today.

For Kevin it is obvious that the Christ Story is told within the Great Story of the Universe which is a much longer narrative than the 2000 years of Christianity. The profound mystery of God within and beyond creation needs to be reframed within the wondrous story of the universe. He has developed this theme in previous books so that the three great movements from Jewish beginnings to the traditional story we are familiar with are linked to the emerging cosmic story including teachings, theology, liturgy, ethical living that form a new consciousness that includes modern science.

Kevin builds the discussion on a foundation of human evolutionary destiny for homo sapiens as an exclusive species of hominoids exhibiting unique attributes of self-reflection, language, art and consciousness over 150,000 years through towards today’s global people to emerging trans human forms. This is accompanied by a history of the development of religions and especially in the Christian religion the rise of the clerical class which has had a depowering effect on individuals ‘reducing them to a spiritually dependent lay state’. He makes the point that the propensity to be religious deeply embedded in the human psyche is not confined to those who endorse creeds and doctrines. But it does give each of us an inclination to consider the question What Does it mean to live life given the fact that one day I will die? He gives fresh insights into the meaning of ‘incarnation’ as core thinking in the human narrative.

The reader is given opportunities to consider the issues and questions raised by the author’s commentary on life, religion, spirituality, advances in science, love and relationships, the divine, sin, God as Trinity, the worship of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus and the Cosmic or Universal Christ, the exercise of ministry, the role and status of women and the problems of patriarchy and domestic violence, morality and shifts in teaching about morality. All of this leads to Kevin’s model for the spirituality journey which is really a framework for each of us to develop our own intentional model.

I found this book personally liberating and I was motivated to follow up on Kevin’s invitation to describe the room of life that I would like to be in after opening the door. Highly recommended for individuals, conversations and self-directed groups who will find some great ideas for getting underway. It is a resource suitable inside and outside the church with particular benefit to communities looking at the renewal and relevance of their mission focus.

Paul Inglis 14th October 2019

To order online go to: www.coventrypress.com.au

Phone: 0477 809 037 Email: enquiries@coventrypress.com.au

Post to: Coventry Press, 33 Scoresby Road, Bayswater Vic. 3153

Cost: $24.95 + *Postage: $9.95 for 1-3 books; $11 for 4 and more; free freight for orders over $100

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Book Review: Why are you here Elijah?

The Mystery of Meaning

by Walter Stratford

While reading this wonderful book, I felt a real sense of hope for the future despite the obvious challenges facing humanity and the growing challenges to our planet and humankind. It is a work that is dense with serious philosophical reflections on ‘the meaning of life’. Elijah is a great vehicle for demonstrating the conundrum that inevitably every thinking person is faced with – Why am I here?

Drawing on a range of great scholars in the field of existential theory, Stratford takes the reader on a journey through our links to land and Spirit, of our being in the world, our search for personal meaning that makes this being significant, the mystery of ‘God’ in the shaping of the meaning and the part played by shadows that hide the pathway ahead.

Ultimately, he grounds all of this in a series of case stories provided by a range of people who reflect on their own being experiences.

As the author says, there are two realities that undergird all in this book. Land and Spirit are fundamental for our being, and attachment to the land anchors our life…Imagination and story bind us to the earth and open pathways for the recognition of the Spirit.

We are reminded that a good religion has been ruined by its advocates, who got so caught up in literalism that its essence was lost. Consequently, much that passes for a Christian message makes little sense for so many. Stratford addresses this by describing God as a verb rather than an elsewhere person. In the web of possibility for hope and affection emerging from this view of God appears mythology and poetry which give life to a personal spirituality that has been lost, in the main, in the evolution of the Church.

Why are you here Elijah? Why in this place? Why not somewhere else and doing the job I called you to? This question encourages us to evaluate the situation in which we find ourselves and to live through that situation. It also encourages us to continue in a way of being, consciously, in a way that can be modified but which needs to be valued, to get on with living.

There is an intentionality about being that honours the earth as a gift for humankind, a place that needs to be nurtured if we are to maintain a healthy viability of being for all people. It also requires that we maintain kindness and truth as fundamental building blocks so that all people are accepted. There is a measure of personal responsibility implied. There is also a suggestion that we can all be greater than who we are now, and this will be validated, despite moments of uncertainty, as we become more aware of all that makes the framework of our life.

This book will cause the reader to think! You will also want to capture the hundreds of great philosophical reflections that Stratford produces, to stop and to make links to your own experiences of life. For me it was not for a single sitting because I needed to put it down for a while and let the ideas settle before coming back to it. Clearly this work comes from someone who has thought long and hard about the meaning of life. You won’t get a single answer to that question but you will be better able to answer it from your own perspective once you have engaged with this book.

The author: Rev Dr Walter Stratford is a retired Uniting Church Minister who served in such diverse places as the New Hebrides, Traralgon, Townsville and Dandenong. He also spent time as secretary to the Queensland Ecumenical Council, and as a chaplain at the Wesley Hospital, Brisbane. During his ministry Walter found time for study and completed a number of degrees, including a PhD in 2012. He is married with four adult children, a number of grand children and great-grandchildren.

Currently available as paperback from Amazon.com for $18 plus shipping cost.

Reviewer: Dr Paul Inglis

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Book Review: Into the Deep, seeking justice for the people of West Papua

By Peter Arndt (Catholic Social Justice Series Book 82)

I was moved to tears while reading this document about the challenges facing the people of West Papua, in particular their claim to freedom and independence.

In 2016, with ten fellow Christians from Australia, Peter Arndt, Executive Officer of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Commission, visited West Papua to hear first hand the stories of the local people. They were especially wanting to hear from survivors of the Indonesia massacre of 6th July 1998. This occurred at a peaceful prayer focussed demonstration for independence. These people had been under the governance of the Dutch, the Japanese and now the Indonesia military. The leader of the demonstrators, Filep Karma, at the time a prominent civil servant had insisted that his followers should only use bibles and hymns as their weapons. The vast majority of Papuans are Christians. They were attacked mercilessly by Indonesia soldiers.

Peter graphically describes this incident, it’s brutality, the many deaths and the torturing. This makes for hard reading as the incidents are dealt with so thoroughly. Peter was approached by Laurens who had been a teenager at the time of the massacre.

He gives evidence for Indonesia’s direct implication in some of the worst forms of human brutality and the incredible journey of Laurens and his Biak people.

Peter and his colleagues then experienced first hand the heavy hand of the Indonesia overlords and it seems they are not the first visitors to be interrogated and followed everywhere.

Peter Arndt’s clear and concise first hand account of the horrific suppression of justice and the state of fear in which the Papuans live is a moving tale.

Arndt sees the experience of Laurens paralleling those of Jesus and draws on the Scriptures to graphically make this clear. Laurens treatment and continuing struggle has moved Peter as it has moved me, to consider the way all Christians and people of good will must identify with the struggle of the Biak people.

Once read, the story cannot be dismissed or forgotten. The reader becomes part of the struggle for justice and freedom of the oppressed and abused people everywhere…

Peter and friends travelled to villages to hear more stories of brutality and killings and later Peter returned to West Papua several times gathering more evidence. The gathering of evidence was challenged at every step by police and corrupt officials and he was placed in fearful situations.

The author reflects on the way Papuans have been treated historically by colonial authorities and missionaries. It is a mixed history of blessings and mistakes. Their subsequent treatment is now part of the problem for a people ill prepared to fight for their rights. He also comments on the way in which Christians can express sympathy but cannot take the next step and offer real support.

The historical context for the current crisis helps to explain but not excuse the stark and shocking events that are now happening. The way in which the Indonesians are gradually reducing the influence of the Papuans culture, commerce, and faith practices is forcing them into minority status in their own land.

Within the Pacific Islands nations there is growing support for and solidarity with the people of West Papua. Drawing on the Scriptures Peter calls on the justice loving people of the world to recognize the plight of these people and for Christians who have been taught about restoration through love, the human values of freedom, dignity and hope to now come to the aid of a people begging for help. He also describes how a personal involvement in such a cause can bring to individuals a deep personally liberating outcome of living in the peace and love of God.

But there is more to this story….As First Peoples of West Papua they form a part of all those peoples who face injustice and deprivation. Advocating for them is advocation for all First Peoples.

I strongly recommend this paper to your reading and personal refection on how to be a part of the solution. If you are not greatly moved I will be surprised.

Paul Inglis 20th August 2019

Avaliable from Amazon Kindle Australia.

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Feedback: Aboriginal Spirituality

Our recent post about the spirituality of the original inhabitants of Australia brought many personal responses to me. This was a standout reaction from Betty Vawser.

“I am fascinated by this information you have presented about the Aboriginal people at Mowanjum. We lived with the families of the tribes you mentioned for years in the 1960s during which Donny Wollagodja’s father took Professor I A Crawford with him and a group of Aboriginal men into the Outback to repaint and revive the painting of the Wandjina in the caves and crevices. Each major Wandjina had a personal name.

The book he wrote resulting from his annual visits is called ‘The Art of the Wandjina’ and was published by Oxford University Press. He gave us a copy of this excellent book as he stayed with us before and after his trips to see the Wandjina, hear their stories, and observe the men when they entered Wandjina caves or places.

We also had a book written by Donna and his friend Bundell called ‘Keeping the Wandjina Fresh’ which he gave to us while staying with us. We know and love these people. I have more presents than you can imagine, their stories,a massive Wandjina painting,….I could go on but will sign off there…”

Betty.

Theology in changing times

This book “Doing Theology in the Age of Trump: A critical report on Christian Nationalism” is a work of theological reflections, about the state of Christianity and the moral character of the evangelical Right, which the nationalist/populist movement of Trumpism has co-opted. The contributors are academics in theology and religion of the Westar Seminar on God and the Human Future. While the Gospel is good news for the poor and woe to the rich, the authors expose how Christian Nationalism has led to various forms of economic oppression contributing to a vast, dynamic global network of systemic injustice and marginalization.
The books weakness from my science perspective was an adequate theology of the twin “Eco’s” of Ecology and Economy that describe two aspects of our common home. Ecology is governed by nature’s laws, within which humans construct their Economy governed by laws of human self-interest. While humans radically modify ecological systems for the economy they cannot change the fundamental laws under which these ecosystems have evolved to enable higher orders of life. These economies easily become corrupt, highly instable or self-destructive when the social contract on which they depend fails. The Christian Right long based on claims on the inerrancy of the bible have failed to accept science based on the immutability of the laws of nature leading to an escalating crisis of ecological destruction and global warming.

Richard Smith Progressive Christian Network, Western Australia

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Book review: on the global impact of Jesus teaching.

Book Review
All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians.
Roman A. Montero, 2017
By their economic practises the Early Christians discovered in Jesus’ life and teachings the corrective to the gross inequalities of the Roman Empire. Global Warming, a product of current economic policies poses a much greater moral challenge of gross inequality.

Is the answer to be found in “All Things in Common” with its striking parallels to the “communism of the apostles” passages in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37, which tells of how early Christians built “social relationships” to solve their problems of discrimination, poverty and dispossession in the violent multi-ethnic world of the first century Roman Empire?

Citing sources ranging from the Qumran scrolls to the North African apologist Tertullian to the Roman satirist Lucian, “All Things in Common” reconstructs the economic practices of the early Christians to reveal that Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 describes a long-term, widespread set of practices that were taken seriously. Practises that significantly differentiated the early Christians from the pagan world of the Roman Empire. Even taking into account Judean and Hellenistic parallels, the origins of the practises for promoting the common good are traced back to the very life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and their brilliant exposition by Paul, revealed in his six authentic and seven pseudo letters.

This book will be of value to anyone interested in Christian history, and the insights it offers to the human construct of capitalism based on self-interest, which now threatens the very basis of the civilisation it has built. Is the climax to the apocalyptic eschatology of the Gospels to be found in “All things in Common”?

Richard Smith

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Spong, Borg and Wright

The previous post has provoked comment to me which highlights the breadth of thinking and some caution when defining ‘progressive’ thinking. Readers may like to look at this text when it becomes available again through Amazon or chase a second hand copy. Paul Inglis

Book review: Simply Jesus

A new vision of who he was, what he did, and why he matters

By N T Wright (Harper Collins, 2011)

NT WRIGHT is the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and one of the world’s leading Bible scholars. He serves as the chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews. He has featured on ABC NEWS, Dateline, The Colbert Report,, and Fresh Air. He is the award winning author of ‘The Day the Revolution Began’, ‘Surprised by Hope’, ‘Simply Christian’, and more.

Jesus is under-utilized in the Christian discourse. Anglican bishop NT Wright espouses a compelling thesis of tapping into the potential of Jesus more effectively in contemporary life. There has for too long been a pre-occupation with a biblical faith where Jesus is absent and the full significance of his teaching supplanted by negative pre-Jesus thinking. A focus on ‘the second coming’ also has meant that the work he gave to his followers to complete has been neglected. Postponing the development of the ‘kingdom’ ignores the Pauline precept (1 Cor) of the reign of Jesus in the present age. The God-givenness of authority needs to be constantly acknowledged as Jesus did with Pilate (John 19:11).

He points out how relevant this is when it comes to ‘winning an election’. We have come to think of political legitimacy in terms of the method of gaining it – eg winning an election . The ancient Jews and early Christians were more interested than today’s Christians in holding rulers to account in the name of appropriate values.

He says there are millions of things that the Church should be getting into that the ruling elites don’t bother about or don’t have the resources to support. No one would have thought of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission if Desmond Tutu hadn’t pushed to make it happen.

(In Australia, we could add no one would have listened hard to isolated rural communities as John Flynn did – a situation I have been looking at on a trip through the Outback.)

He rebuts the argument that most of the reforms are small with a reflection on Jesus explaining his own actions in terms of the smallest seeds that eventually grow into the largest shrubs. He describes this as ‘cascading grace’. His idea of the ‘good news’ is that all people can participate in the many small things that make for the kingdom that Jesus foreshadowed.

I am not sure if Wright realized it, but he was also demonstrating how ‘good things and good thinking’ are even now changing the Church.

The central part of the present day meaning of Jesus’s universal kingship is the many varied ways in which each generation or each local church can ‘figure out wise and appropriate ways of speaking the truth to power’ in ways that can’t be ignored by the powerful.

Recommended.

Dr Paul Inglis July 2019

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Book review: English translations of the OT have been inadequate …..

Until now

The Art of Bible Translation, Princeton University Press (2019) by Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Religion at University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967. He published a new translation of the Hebrew Bible in 2018.

Alter has been awarded: National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience; Guggenheim Fellowship for Humanities (US and Canada.) He is currently President of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He was born in 1935.

“The practice of translation, as I have learned from experience, entails an endless series of compromises, some of them happy, some painful and not quite right because the translator has been unable to find an adequate English equivalent of what is happening – often brilliantly – in the original language. “(Alter)

Alter is impelled in his years of work on translating the OT by ‘a deep conviction that the literary style of the Bible in both prose narratives and the poetry is not some sort of a aesthetic embellishment of the message of Scripture but the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society and moral values is conveyed.’

He shows how word play, diction, rhythm, syntax and strategic choice of words are crucial to the shape of the literary authority and moral and religious outlook of the Hebrew Bible. No one else has done this! In the context of his overview in this book, he provides copious examples that give entirely different meaning to the text.

Reflecting on the history of English translations of the Bible, Alter claims all have been woefully inadequate.

The inspired literalism of the King James version has employed the original Hebrew parataxis (ordering of phrases and clauses), much of which has been discarded in modern English versions. He uses an example of the way ‘the flood’ in Genesis has been dealt with and the loss of authenticity and meaning. He demonstrates how ‘the rage to explain the biblical text’ has had unintended consequences in translation.

But the KJV shows how a limited knowledge of Hebrew by 17th Century translators has led to confused syntax, missed nuances and meanings. There is also a stylistic issue with the KJV. It’s treatment of Hebrew poetry is less successful than its treatment of prose. The Jacobean rhetoric has failed to capture the compactness of the Hebrew and introduced great amounts of extra information to the passages

Later translations have done worse.

“…The Hebrew writers reveled in the proliferation of meanings, the cultivation of ambiguities, the playing of one sense against another and the richness is erased in the deceptive antiseptic clarity of the modern versions.”

Many of the contemporary translations compromise the literary integrity of the biblical texts and Alter contends this is the fault of the university training of contemporary translators and he identifies their training institutions. Also, the absence of an understanding of the Sociology of Knowledge is a major culprit.

You cannot determine the meanings of biblical words without taking account of their narrative and poetic contexts. This has for centuries been a problem with literal translations. There are livelier and more surprising details in the biblical stories than we first realize but those are often erased by translators who have an inadequate grasp of how the narratives work.

Whether the reader of this work is a philological or OT translation scholar, or simply, like myself a seeker after truth in biblical literature and scripture, Alter’s work is seductive, interesting and rewarding.

My copy was purchased though Kindle Amazon Australia. Recommended.

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Start reading it for free: http://amzn.asia/h9NeXdv

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Book Review: A New Spiritual Tapestry

Woven from the frayed threads of traditional Christianity

by Glennis Johnston

A great read by a very capable and experienced practitioner of progressive ministry. It deserves to be included in the pantheon of great progressive texts.

God is experienced within our mortal, messy lives, which is the heart of spiritual living. The new spiritual tapestry that we are weaving affirms this truth, while calling into question the basic doctrines of traditional Christianity….

Christianity is losing credibility because observers notice that it is built on a foundation of guilt and fear, both promoted by religious doctrines. It is time we recognised that these doctrines can be traced all the way back to a misleading interpretation of myths, such as the Garden of Eden. We need to develop a spirituality on a different view of humanity and on gratitude that, within our imperfect lives, the divine impulse is always, faithfully present.

In dismantling many of the myths and shibboleths of church taught traditional doctrine and biblical interpretation, the author manages to demonstrate the inconsistency of the teaching and the way in which ‘God’ is portrayed. Is God wrathful and encouraging violence (apparent in both Testaments) at the same time as offering unconditional love? How does this inconsistent teaching work for contemporary society and a humanity challenged to address violence, racial hatred and inequalities?

Students of the biblical text searching for the real Jesus can be forgiven for any confusion. As Glennis Johnston points out they need to separate out the material that can be attributed to writers who paint a picture of Jesus as the son of a vengeful God and those who portray him as unconditionally loving. It is not possible to accept these two opposing images as co-existing.

So which stream of thought in the New Testament should inform our spirituality? The “one focussed on sacrifice, judgement, religious identity and supportive of organisation and hierarchy; the other committed to non-violence, social justice and supportive of non-hierarchical community”? Both exist in tension in current Christian thought and practice.

The ‘new spiritual tapestry’ that Glennis Johnston seeks to weave is an intelligently crafted non-coercive, morally persuasive ethic that is always looking for opportunities to improve ‘global social justice’. All of this draws together ‘threads of wisdom’ from the best of the Christian tradition and a God of ‘goodness, hope and beauty’.

All the time that the author takes us through a discussion about the inevitability of our need for a new spiritual narrative, she is holding fast to key principles of honesty, equity and mercy. There is no need for any one to miss out with fair distributive justice as a guiding principle. Life values and parameters can still be sourced from a careful reading of Hebrew teaching as well as the teachings of Jesus which, unfortunately, have often become distorted, obsessively negative elements rather than followed with a spirit of a loving and forgiving God.

It is made clear that if the Church is to have a role in the evolving new spiritual paradigm, it will have to heed the groundswell of theologians, biblical scholars, economists, historians, scientists, educators, philosophers and cultural critics who are in consensus that an alternative story about our collective social responsibilities is imperative.

This is a book that has multiple uses. It informs as well as teaches. Groups committed to church reform will find it invaluable for ideas, values and mission focus when shaping a progressive profile. For students of theology and ministry education it provides an essential instrument for helping them to recognise the reality of many of the mistakes that have been made in the past and opens up possibilities for making Jesus relevant and without boundaries or barriers. For those who no longer can tolerate the Church, it offers ways to bridge from the secular to the sacred without artificial barriers that have for so long made this appear impossible.

 A strong thread running through the stories that are used to explain the vision of a transforming spirituality is the emphasis on how the new spirituality will be a liberating experience. The sense of entitlement and power of some over others disappears. Inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus as reported in the gospels our everyday lives in community will come ever closer to the kingdom of God.

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The author: Glennis Johnston BSocWk BTh BA(Hons) is an ordained Uniting Church minister with a research degree in New Testament Studies. She has worked in counselling and parish ministry for 22 years as well as voluntary work in Australia, India and Europe for 5 years. Glennis now operates Fernbrook Lodge, a Retreat Centre and B&B in Dorrigo, NSW where she facilitates individual and group retreats.

To order a copy ($30) email to Firelight Publishers

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