Reading list

There is a certain poignancy to this book – it is John Stott’s farewell – his final publication. Over the years he has produced dozens of books covering Biblical exposition right through to engagement with all kinds of contemporary issues. His book The Cross of Christ is certainly a contender for the best Christian book I have ever read, and his contributions to the Bible Speaks Today series are amongst the best on offer (Sermon on the Mount, Romans, Acts, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy & Titus, 2 Timothy). He is one of the most widely respected evangelical leaders in the UK, and deservedly so. So when he writes a farewell book, it’s definitely going to be worth paying attention to.

The book is a call for us all to be radical disciples. To be radical is to be deep-rooted and whole-hearted. Stott picks out eight areas to explore in which we can become more committed followers of Jesus.

Our common way of avoiding radical discipleship is to be selective; choosing those areas in which commitment suits us and staying away from those areas in which it will be costly. But because Jesus is Lord, we have no right to pick and choose the areas in which we will submit to his authority.

The first area is non-conformity. Both escapism and conformism are forbidden to the believer. We are called to engage with our culture without compromise. Stott identifies four areas in which we need to refuse to conform: pluralism, ethical relativism, materialism, and narcissism (love of self).

The second area is closely related – Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God. Stott takes us on a Bible-study showing the call to Christlikeness, some specific ways in which we are to be like Christ, and some implications of our Christlikeness. One of the reasons our evangelistic efforts fail is that we don’t look like Christ.

God’s purpose is to make us like Christ, and God’s way is to fill us with his Holy Spirit

The third area is maturity. Stott laments the fact that the modern church can be summed up in the phrase ‘… growth without depth …’. He draws on Colossians Ch.1 vs.28-29 to bring out some aspects of maturity. In particular, we need a fresh vision of Christ, from the pages of Scripture. We must look for Christ as we read the Scriptures, in order to love, trust and obey him, ‘… ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ …’

A fourth area is creation care. The simple fact that this chapter is here shows Stott’s commitment to applying Scripture to contemporary issues. He starts by building a biblical case for our responsible stewardship of the earth, avoiding the two extremes of deification of nature and exploitation of nature. He commends the work of Tearfund and A Rocha, and calls us to be deeply committed to care for the creation.

He quotes Chris Wright and says, ‘… it seems quite inexplicable to me that there are some Christians who claim to love and worship God, to be disciples of Jesus, and yet have no concern for the earth that bears his stamp of ownership. They do not care about the abuse of the earth and indeed, by their wasteful and over-consumptive lifestyles, they collude in it …’

A fifth area is simplicity. John Stott speaks from a position of integrity on this subject, since his book sales and speaking engagements could have made him a millionaire, yet he practices what he preaches, giving all his book royalties towards the work of providing books for believers and pastors in poorer countries. He feels grieved that the International Consultation on Simple Lifestyle which took place in March 1980 received very little attention, and this chapter is simply given to republish their statement (which he co-wrote with Ron Sider). This is a very challenging chapter, and one that exposes deep-seated idols that we are reluctant to part with.

The sixth area is balance. In this chapter Stott expounds 1 Peter Ch.2 vs.1-17 and brings out three areas to hold in balance:

  • Both individual discipleship and corporate fellowship
  • Both worship and work
  • Both pilgrimage and citizenship

The seventh area is dependence. He movingly speaks of his experiences of growing increasingly frail and weak. Humiliation is the road to humility. He notes that we start and end our lives completely dependent on others. We are not designed to be independent from one another. ‘… you are designed to be a burden to me and I am designed to be a burden to you … Christ himself takes on the dignity of dependence. He is born a baby, totally dependent on the care of his mother. He needs to be fed, he needs his bottom to be wiped, he needs to be propped up when he rolls over. And yet he never loses his divine dignity. And at the end, on the cross, he again becomes totally dependent, limbs pierced and stretched, unable to move. So in the person of Christ we learn that dependence does not and cannot, deprive a person of their dignity, of their supreme worth. And if dependence was appropriate for the God of the universe, it is certainly appropriate for us …’

The final chapter deals with death. In it he explores from several angles the paradox of Christianity that death is the road to life. Our disicipleship involves a death to self. Our mission leads to the cross. He speaks of persecution and martyrdom, before moving finally to consider our mortality, and how death has been robbed of its horrors for the Christian.

Basic to all discipleship is our resolve not only to address Jesus with polite titles, but to follow his teaching and obey his commands.

In conclusion, this is a book you will want to read if you have had any contact with John Stott’s teaching ministry before. Though he is far too humble to say it about himself, it comes from a man who has fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith (2 Timothy Ch.4 vs.7). He has not asked us to do anything that he has not modelled first in his own life. It is a fitting farewell from a remarkable servant of God and I pray that his vision of radical discipleship will be fully embraced by the next generation.

God is the Sovereign Lord of history and the just judge over all the earth. However, as Martin Goldsmith points out in his most recent publication, ‘… such faith statements seem almost naïve in the light of what we see and hear on television and in the newspapers …’. As we struggle to find God in the midst of recent historical events in Israel and Gaza, consider the wider threat of global terrorism or mourn because of injustice, oppression and sin within our own countries, we often struggle with the question, ‘… why doesn’t God intervene ? …’. Habakkuk went through a similar dilemma in his day but the answer he received from the Lord was far from what he expected.

When Habakkuk complained about God’s inaction, the Lord told the prophet that he was going to act by raising up the Babylonians to judge Judah. Habakkuk was shocked and began to ask questions concerning God’s character and his eternal covenant with his people: Could Judah really be destroyed ? What about God’s covenant with Abraham ? How could a holy, righteous God be at work among a people who are as cruel as the Babylonians and use them to fulfil his purposes ? Why does God sometimes seem to withdraw and be silent ? Is there no end to the suffering God is bringing upon us ?

The issues raised are those which resonate with many in the modern situation but Martin Goldsmith points out that, in questioning the Creator, our doubts need to be bracketed by a deep inner assurance of God. For this is how Habakkuk prayerfully approached God, and the prophet found himself reduced to silence. Drawing on that experience, Habakkuk was able to see a time when all the earth would be silent before the Lord! Martin Goldsmith describes this as, an ‘… awe-filled silence as they see the splendour of God’s kingdom reign …’ and he adds, ‘… what a vision …’.

Any Complaints? Blame God! is much more than a commentary on the book of Habakkuk. Martin Goldsmith argues that Habakkuk‘s ‘… pictorial teaching would fit well into the postmodern Western world of today …’, and he goes on to assert that the Bible ‘… gives little support to dry academic theological language in preaching or teaching …’. Thankfully the author practices what he preaches, and his experience of his mission and first-hand knowledge of many cultures combine to fill this book with a wealth of interesting material. Whilst being thoroughly academic, it is rich in devotional material and is replete with anecdotes from across the world, containing quotations from sources as diverse as: David Ben-Gurion; Japanese theologians and missiologists; Harry Ellison; liberal critics; John Calvin; a Chinese lady from Hong Kong ; Vinoth Ramachandra and an Indonesian leprosy sufferer !

This book is very practical and relevant, touching on topics such as the blame culture, the economic cost of sin, the trinity as a model of humble service and the ultimate purpose of mission. The Hebrew word studies that are scattered throughout the book are also intriguing and informative. For example, finding out that the Hebrew word translated as creditors or debtors (Habakkuk Ch.2:7) actually means those who bite certainly adds a new dimension to the term credit crunch !

In addition, Martin Goldsmith’s ability to trace concepts from Habakkuk back to Genesis and forward to Revelation helps to enrich the reader’s understanding of the text in its narrower context. For example, the author parallels Habakkuk Ch.2:14, ‘… for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea …’ – not only with Romans Ch.11:25,26 – where Paul speaks of the full number of the Gentiles coming in and all Israel being saved – and also with the picture in Revelation Ch.7:9 of a great multitude from every nation and tribe who stand before the throne and before the Lamb.

The author challenges us to look outward, to widen our gaze and see that God is indeed at work in our world. He points out that the Lord’s justice can represent more of a threat than a promise to his people, for justice leads to judgement. Peace will come but ‘… only to those who won’t abuse it …’, for the most important element is neither the judgement of sinners nor the salvation of the Lord’s people but rather the glorification of the Lord himself.

Any Complaints? Blame God! is an uplifting and God glorifying book that will, I trust, help Christians to rediscover the richness and relevance of the Hebrew Scriptures. Buy it, read it, and give it to a friend; or better still, gift it to an enemy!

Paul (book cover)Pope Benedict XVI declared 2008 to be the year of the apostle Paul in celebration of the apostle’s 2000th birthday. Coming to terms with the theology expressed in the letters of Paul has kept theologians and writers busy for nearly two millennia now. Michael Bird’s new book, A Bird’s eye view of Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message, is a clear introduction to the Apostle Paul that manages to be both brief and substantive.

Some books on Paul focus on the theology of the apostle expressed in his letters. Others provide a biographical look at the apostle’s life and missionary journeys. But this book combines the best of these approaches. Bird delves into Pauline theology, the specific letters, the story of Paul’s life. And he accomplishes these tasks in less than 200 pages. Bird is careful to read Paul in his own historical context. Many times in the book, he insists that we first realize that Paul’s letters are not written to us, even if God intends that the letters be for us. If we are to understand Paul rightly, we must read him in his own context. If the Paul we claim to know looks and sounds a lot like us, then that is probably a good indication that we do not know him as well as we think we do. There is always a temptation to recruit him to our cause, to make our enemies his enemies, our beliefs his beliefs. But if we can be mature enough to let Paul be himself and treat his letters as windows into his world rather than as deposits of theological dogma, then we stand a chance of meeting him anew, letting him speak for himself in his language, on his terms and for his purposes.

Bird starts off by talking about Paul the man. He focuses on five important aspects of the story of Paul’s life: the persecutor of the church, the greatest missionary who ever lived, a world-class theologian, a pastor with a heart for the church, and the martyr who died for his faith. Bird describes Paul as a maverick and spends a good deal of time recounting Paul’s conversion experience. He argues for continuity in Paul’s thought after coming to faith in Christ against some scholars who argue for late-life shifts in Paul’s theology. Bird believes that his theology remained generally stable from conversion until his martyrdom. The conversion experience is central for understanding Paul: that encounter with the risen Jesus had an enormous impact on his continuing religious experience of God, on his missionary drive and upon his theological reflection about God, Israel, Torah and salvation. That grace-event killed Saul the Pharisee and birthed Paul the apostle. From there, Bird spends considerable time familiarizing his readers with the stories behind the story. In order to properly understand Paul, we must know the stories about God and creation, Adam and Christ, Abraham and Israel, Jesus and the church. These meta-narratives provide frameworks into which we can fit the letters of Paul.

After he sets up the historical framework, he then launches into a chapter that gives a brief overview of the historical circumstances, original audience, and basic theology of each of Paul’s letters. In a single chapter, Bird successfully surveys all of the letters. What makes Bird’s contribution especially timely is the way in which he weaves together old and new perspectives on Paul. He has great appreciation for N. T. Wright and for other new perspective authors; yet he affirms the traditional view of imputation of Christ’s righteousness, although Bird doesn’t see any text as explicitly saying that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers, nonetheless, without some kind of theology of imputation a lot of what Paul says about justification does not make sense. Imputation is the integrating point for a variety of ideas in Paul’s letters. Bird attempts to do what many believe is impossible: incorporate the best aspects of the new perspective within a largely traditional Reformed framework.

I would positively recommend this book as it serves as a wonderful introduction to Paul’s theology. It covers the relevant material in a way that is easy for the reader to understand, and it provides a good overview of the main issues in Pauline studies.

A Certain Rumour coverSometimes you just need to be reminded of the basics of the Christian message of hope – no detailed evaluations, leading questions or intellectual dissection, just simply a reminder of the hope that our faith in Jesus Christ brings, regardless of circumstance. If you’re tired of the demands of your life, frustrated by the tyranny of routine and weary of the overworked inlellectualised debates on issues of faith, then it’s probably time to take a step back, lift your gaze from the ground around you and look up.

In A Certain Rumour Russell Rook expounds upon the theme of hope, as seen through the eyes of Cleopas as he journeys, along with his companion, to Emmaus shortly after the events of the first Easter.

Luke Ch.24 vs.13-35 is a relatively small portion of scripture to base a whole book on, but Rook has put a great deal of thought into it’s importance and meaning. The passage is shown to be not merely a narrative describing a physical journey that leads to the enlightenment of a few disciples of the early church, but rather, more importantly, it should be viewed as representative of the faith journey of all Christians as they travel from death to life. Furthermore, this short story is shown to be a summary of humankind’s metanarrative and of God’s ultimate plan for redemption.

Each chapter of Rook’s book mirrors the series of events recounted in Luke. Starting by looking at Jesus Christ’s death; then moving onto the possibility of life after death in the rumours of Jesus’ resurrection. The stranger on this journey to Emmaus responds to Cleopas’ distress by taking him and his companion on a journey through the ages, and the chapters follow suit – looking at God’s hope for humankind from creation through the exodus. Finally we see the breaking of bread and the hope mitigated through fellowship and through that we are drawn to see our future hope as members of His body, the church.

The Christian faith is about hope – both God’s hope for us, his children, and His hope for the world in which He has placed us. Hope is what keeps us going when everything around us appears to be in danger of tumbling down and yet, too often, hope becomes buried in the munadities of life or lost under a stack of papers. Rook invites us to encourage the presence of this eternal hope amid the multiplicilty of daily details.

Stylistically A Certain Rumour is very readable with lots of stories for the journey and little, if any, confusing technical language. Rooks writing moves effortlessly from readable anecdotes through to thoughtful theological insights completely seemlesly. But don’t be fooled by it’s engaging simplicity into thinking that there’s no depth of insight because there is, an incredible amount, and it’s certain a book I’ll be turning to again and again.

2009-spring-harvest-a4-poster-1Just back from an inspirational and relaxing break over the Easter weekend at  Spring Harvest (Minehead – Week 2) with a small selection of new books to read …

I’ll try and find the time to read and review them over the next few weeks, but here’s the list just in case you’re interested …

  • Title :  Just Imagine
  • Author :  Danielle Strickland
  • Publisher :  Spring Harvest
  • Title :  A Certain Rumour
  • Author :  Russell Rook
  • Publisher :  Authentic Media

love-of-god-carsonOne of the most frequent arguments cited against Christianity is the apparent difficulty in reconciling God’s love with his judgement. The nice bits – the benefits, that is – are easy to accept, but do they really fit with the God of the Old Testament, or a God who insists that belief in him is the only way to heaven ?

In this book (Crossway Books – ISBN 10 1581341263 – 1999) Don Carson answers those questions with an emphatic yes. He argues that in an attempt to get rid of anything society considers unacceptable, we have ended up with a concept of God’s love that has been sanitised and above all sentimentalised. We have come to view God as a kind old man who’ll help us out of a sticky situation; He loves the world, and it’s his job to forgive us. Carson argues that this flies in the face of the Biblical view: we cannot hope to have a proper understanding of God’s love if we separate it from His sovereignty, His holiness, and His wrath.

Carson touches briefly on all of these topics in several of his other books.  However, here he explores them in much greater depth and sets about re-directing our understanding. As a starting point, he begins by looking at the way we have distorted the truth about God’s character, before examining what the Bible actually tells us. He shows how this is perhaps illustrated best by the intra-Trinitarian love – the Father loves the Son, and the Son demonstrates His love for the Father by His obedience. This love extends yet further to us through Jesus’ death (John Ch.1 vs.9-10). However, because He is love, His love is not dependent on the loveliness of the loved. The most helpful chapter tackles the tricky problem of reconciling God’s love and wrath. In contrast to our experience where wrath and love are often mutually exclusive, God’s wrath is an entirely reasonable response towards offences against His holiness, which is as much a part of His character as His love.

One thing to be aware of before you start out with this book is that Carson’s writing is often dense and the concepts he deals with aren’t always easy to follow, but this is a book – and a topic – worth getting to grips with. A proper view of God is crucial not just for ourselves, but also if we are to be effective in evangelism. This book tackles many potential confusions arising about God’s character but, as it concludes, the themes of His love and wrath reach a resounding climax: “… do you wish to see God’s love ? Look at the cross … do you wish to see God’s wrath ? Look at the cross …”

colossians-remixedI’ve recently finished reading Colossians Remixed : Subverting the Empire by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. In this book the husband and wife writing team argue that Paul’s letter to the Colossians, when viewed in its original setting, would have been heard as a subversive and dangerous text. Colossians, so they insist, presented an alternative vision of reality to the ethos of the Roman Empire and called for ultimate allegiance to a power other than Caesar. In order to give weight to their argument the writers use a creative mix of historic, cultural and Biblical studies to unpack how the text would have played out to its original hearers. Unlike a lot of other commentaries, that can at times get bogged down in technical detail, Walsh and Keesmaat have chosen rather to stick with the big questions and the big story – a format that makes for a refreshing and interesting read.

The premise of the book is that we too find ourselves today in another equally powerful empire – global capitalism – with a different set of idols. Working out how to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in this consumer-driven culture is, so the writers comment, possibly the biggest challenge facing the church in the West. Walsh and Keesmaat do a lot of imaginative work to bring this ancient angular text to life and show that it offers plenty of wisdom for addressing this challenge. The other big question which they tackle head-on is one that characterises our culture – the post-modern suspicion about truth. They suggest that it isn’t good enough to stand on the side lines and keep your options open in a cool, detached, post-modern way since following Jesus Christ demands commitment.

One of the most striking things about the book is the set of Targums that Walsh and Keesmaat use to illustrate their points. When a Jewish rabbi read the Torah to the Jews of the diaspora, recognizing that his congregation did not understand Hebrew, the rabbi would translate the text as he read. When a rabbi did this he would update the text as he went applying it to the changing context of the moment. The result of such interpretive exercises was called a Targum. What would Colossians sound like if it was written yesterday ? This snippet of the Targum on Colossians Ch.2 suggests what the result would look like …

‘… don’t be duped by advertising that tells you that various products are indispensable to constructing certain images and personas … this is all crap … they are still trying to captivate your imagination … resist this McWorld nightmare with all the strength you have ! …’

The writers argue that these Targums give a fresh and original look at the intent of the book of Colossians – connecting it with applications for our current post-modern context. We have, so Walsh and Keesmaat contend, chosen to domesticate and privatise the message of Colossians, just as we have done with a lot of the radical and counter-cultural teachings of Christ, and the Bible in general.

It is hard-hitting stuff at times and I’m sure many readers will find some of the content of this book uncomfortable reading. Despite that, or maybe because of that, I’d recommend it. It has certainly broadened my horizon as to the nature of approach a commentary can take when released from the over-attention to minutia that can, in some commentary writing, result in losing sight of the big picture.

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