Category Archives: Book Reviews

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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The Lost Gospels

For those who like their reading accompanied by beautiful illustrations, the National Geographic HISTORY edition for March/April 2017 includes an article on the Gospels not in the Bible. Written by Antonio Pinero, The Forbidden Books of the Gnostics: Seeking the Hidden Gospels, takes the discussion on the establishment of the Bible into popular reading culture. The NG has supported a significant amount of biblical archaeology for many decades. This report gives support to the notion that what we have in the Bible misses a lot of material hidden for 1500 years. Found in jars in an Egyptian cave near Nag Hamadi, 13 bound papyrus books in Coptic Greek were discovered in 1945. More gospels have been discovered since then.

Gnosticism was not well known until the 19th and 20th centuries. Bishop Irenaeus had been effective in his offensive against the movement from around 180CE. By 367 Bishop Athenasius was the first was the first to list the 27 books including the canonical gospels of the New Testament. The Gnostic writings did not get a look in!

With the Jesus movement growing to more than 300,000 in Asia Minor alone by the end of the first century, and many more through the Roman Empire, this was a movement without any authorized texts or formal organisation. But there were at least three major factional groups putting their claim on the new Church.

The first, mainly Jews, was growing from the group who had been closest to Jesus. Jesus was the anointed Messiah, representative of God, who would one day restore God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus was fully human and certainly not God.

The second, those who had, in the main, been converted to the Christian faith under the influence of Paul. Paul’s radical theology took the idea of Jesus as Messiah a step further – as God the Father who sacrificed his son in order to eliminate the sins of the Jews and all humankind. It goes without saying, that this faction shaped the way that Christianity would develop over the 2000 years.

But it was the third faction – very small in numbers, that was a threat to Pauline Christianity or ‘orthodoxy’. The Gnostics believed one could know God through a life of inner transformation – ‘gnosis’ would help bring salvation. Gnostics taught that all people bear something of the divinity of the Creator (demiurge) and that this knowledge (salvation) was being revealed by a series of beings beginning with Adam to Jesus who revealed the ultimate truth. They believed that they alone understood this absolute religious truth. Salvation was an intellectual activity.

The Gospel of Mary discovered in 1896 is possibly Gnostic. It is not hard to understand why this gospel was not included in the Biblical canon in the context of an official church that could not contemplate women being prophets and preachers.

The apocryphal Gospel of Judas was identified in the 1980s. It had been referred to by Irenaeous in 180CE as ‘fictional history’.

The process of stamping out opposition to the emerging ‘orthodox’ church begun by Irenaeus was continued until the Roman Empire took the Pauline Church as the official religion and documents such as those found at Nag Hamadi were hidden from the authroities.

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Overdue or overdone? ‘Fire and Fury’ and Trump

Certainly a great read…well written and enthralling …. especially for US citizens who would know all the characters! My reading of Fire and Fury: inside the Trump Whitehouse by Michael Wolff was biased by my personal dislike for Trump and all he stands for and so I enjoyed it immensely. What does that say about me?

The final word of Wolff is:

Trump, in Bannon’s view, was a chapter, or even a detour, in the Trump revolution, which had always been about weaknesses in the two major parties. The Trump presidency—however long it lasted—had created the opening that would provide the true outsiders their opportunity. Trump was just the beginning.

If this is just the beginning, what is the world in for? How do ordinary people deal with the current crisis of leadership in the world’s major economic and military power? Or is there no crisis?

The bewilderingly repetitive description of most of Trumps closely aligned campaigners and political leaders as less than really impressed by Trump and often privately very critical of his actions and words, demonstrates the amount of political power games were at play in his election. Trump moved rapidly from a ‘no chance’ in early 2016 to ‘ a likely winner’ by the end of the campaign towards the end of 2016. Much of this can be attributed to alliances and back room deals with media. There were some fateful incidents along the way:

On May 12 (2016), Roger Ailes was scheduled to return to New York from Palm Beach to meet with Peter Thiel, an early and lonely Trump supporter in Silicon Valley who had become increasingly astonished by Trump’s unpredictability. Ailes and Thiel, both worried that Trump could bring Trumpism down, were set to discuss the funding and launch of a new cable news network. Thiel would pay for it and Ailes would bring O’Reilly, Hannity, himself, and maybe Bannon to it.

But two days before the meeting, Ailes fell in his bathroom and hit his head. Before slipping into a coma, he told his wife not to reschedule the meeting with Thiel. A week later, Ailes, that singular figure in the march from Nixon’s silent majority to Reagan’s Democrats to Trump’s passionate base, was dead.

Trump’s failure to offer condolences to Aile’s wife, Beth, was typical of many undiplomatic slips and the funeral with only close Aile’s allies present showed the way in which the Republican Party was imploding and now needed trump to survive.

The president had surely become the right wing’s meal ticket. He was the ultimate antiliberal: an authoritarian who was the living embodiment of resistance to authority. He was the exuberant inverse of everything the right wing found patronizing and gullible and sanctimonious about the left. And yet, obviously, Trump was Trump—careless, capricious, disloyal, far beyond any sort of control. Nobody knew that as well as the people who knew him best.

The Trump campaign was a giant exercise in bluff and bravado. He rationalised that he was a gift to the USA and the world, that he was one win away from turning the US problems, and inevitably those of the rest of the world, around.

But it is not just the story of the election campaign that enthrals. It is the events that have followed too.

Global liberal leadership had been all but paralyzed by the election of Donald Trump—indeed, by the very existence of Donald Trump. But it was an inverted universe in the Middle East. The Obama truculence and hyperrationalization and micromanaging, preceded by the Bush moral militarism and ensuing disruptions, preceded by Clinton deal making, quid pro quo, and backstabbing, had opened the way for Trump’s version of realpolitik. He had no patience with the our-hands-are-tied ennui of the post-cold war order, that sense of the chess board locked in place, of incremental movement being the best-case scenario—the alternative being only war. His was a much simpler view: Who’s got the power? Give me his number. 

Trump has worked on the principle that the ‘enemy of the enemy is my friend’. Consequently in its simplest form his notion that Iran was the bad guy in the Middle East brought him into unquestioning support for Iran’s enemies. His lack of foreign power knowledge of relationships will be his downfall. This approach has given Russia an enormous amount of freedom in Eurasia and who knows where this will go.

We are going to see a lot of ‘prosecuting’ in the months ahead and all of this will only add to the hype around Trump and help books like this to sell. We must not forget that a key player in all the events around Trump has been Murdoch, at first opposed but later a friend and advisor. With friends like that, and advice from that quarter, we can expect trump to have plenty of wins in his attack on former friends.

This is a book that must be a significant artefact in the collection of Trump critiques. But the best book is yet to be written … after Trump slips into history.

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Fundamentalism is a new phenomenon

Writing in the October 2017 edition of New Scientist, Philip Ball argues that “today’s religious fundamentalism that denies evolution and Earth’s age is a peculiarly modern delusion”. Ball is a science writer and author of Curiosity: How science became interested in everything.

Ball asks “Did the religious revolution 500 years ago clear the way for the scientific revolution?”

In part it did.

Four years after nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church, Luther defended his strong movement of conscience to the 1521 Diet of Worms. Much bolder than Galileo’s weak defence of astronomy, Luther’s challenge to the authority of the Church in Rome contributed to the liberating of an enlightenment in scientific thinking that would not be held back any more.

Ball’s argument is supported by John Henry historian of science at the University of Edinburgh, UK. The Protestant Reformation opened the door to thinking outside the Bible. Robert Merton, in 1938, fuelled the idea of the Reformation opening up scientific thinking. he pointed out how Puritanism, an English strand of the protestant movement, fostered the work of Newton, Boyle, Hooke and others.

Pure reason, mathematics and measurement became the tools for understanding the world.

The notion that Catholic dogma was putting a brake on science is a myth based on the misconception that science and religious belief are enemies. Ball highlights the many scientific challenges promoted from inside the Church from the 1400s. Early Protestantism was not exactly ‘progressive’ on science either with Luther calling Copernicus a fool.

The forces for change are more complicated than sometimes reported – with numerous reformations with different origins occurring across Europe in the 16th Century. But one thing aided all of these reformations – the growth of the printing press. At the same time as reformers such as Calvin and Luther were evolving, so too were their reactionaries and it is too big a claim to say science progressed only because of the reformation.

When Galileo asserted that the Bible was not a book of natural philosophy, this viewpoint was not criticised as it would be today by a large section of the Church. 16th Century theology and Church teaching did not dwell on belief in the creation myth so much as how humankind should give God appropriate precedence in all things on Earth. That form of fundamental interpretation was left to a later age.

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The search for the real Jesus continues

The December 2017 edition of National Geographic challenges skeptics about the existence of JC while attempting a fact vs fiction review of who he was. Author, Kristin Romey, herself an archaeologist, highlights the work of contemporary archaeology that throws new light on the man Jesus.

The difficulty of finding traces of proof for a person who lived 2000 years ago is acknowledged. The New testament texts, especially the Gospels (despite their divergent reports) remain as preeminent sources while being openly debated.

Tradition and archaeology inform each other in this search. Serious archaeology in the Holy Land is only 150 years old and has made shifts in perspectives in that time. Despite the emergence of some scholarly arguments against the existence of JC, few mainstream scholars today challenge his existence.

John Dominic Crossan, former priest and co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, supports the ‘existence’ arguments. However, stories of his miraculous deeds need considerable re-thinking.

Scholars who study Jesus divide into two opposing camps separated by a very bright line: those who believe the wonder-working Jesus of the Gospels is the real Jesus, and those who think the real Jesus – the man who inspired the myth – hides below the surface of the Gospels and must be revealed by historical research and literary analysis. Both camps claim archaeology as their ally, leading to some fractious debates and strange bedfellows. (Romey)

Archaeologists have succeeded in showing the influence of Rome’s first Christian Emperor, Constantine, in developing the ‘church’ in his building and organisational influence. But proof of links between Bethlehem and the Nativity are scant. Once again Constantine in the 4th Century was responsible for identification and veneration of key sites in the Holy Land. What credence can we give to this?

However, the search for Jesus has produced more evidence in Galilee which had been subjugated by Rome 60 years before the birth of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus in 1991, presented an influential thesis inspired by new archaeological discoveries that Galilee, more urbanised and Jewish than at first understood, had a more significant role in Jesus’ formation than previously thought. He argued that Jesus was a wandering sage, living a counter cultural lifestyle, and challenging the old rules of cleanliness and wealth and status seeking.

Romey’s article goes on to explain how recent (late 20th Century) digs have brought to light evidence for homage to Jesus in the first century homes and meeting places. Similarly, the discovery of a boat, a synagogue and the Magdala Stone from the time of Jesus have only enhanced the speculation about the real Jesus.

But it is in Jerusalem that many lines of evidence attest to the way Jesus died and this is also more consistently reported in the Gospels.

For progressive Christians this search for evidence is important to having a better understanding of Jesus, his life and teaching. The integrity of the arguments are important to following a man of substance and applying his principles personally.

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