Book Review: The Forgotten Cross

Lee GatissIn this short but stirring work, Lee Gatiss calls Christians back to “the poetry of the gospel, and the multifaceted beauty of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (p108). As Gatiss states in his preface, such a work is necessary because the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has become embattled. Gatiss notes how this has drawn much of our attention away from the wonder of the cross. However the motif behind this book is not to enter into that debate. Thus Gatiss writes, “I want to affirm with all my heart that God the Son’s punishment-taking, in-my-place death is the magnificent centrepiece for all Christian theology” (p9-10), but, “The Bible explores and applies what Jesus did on the cross in a multitude of different ways. Penal substitution is one of them—indeed, it’s the most important one…because without it other ways of looking at the cross end up being inadequate for my salvation. But that’s not to say that penal substitution alone is fully adequate to meet my needs” (p11). Therefore as the book’s title suggests, Gatiss seeks to draw out “some forgotten or at least neglected dimensions to Christ’s death that we would to well to recover.”

To claim that PSA is not comprehensive in and of itself may raise some heckles, but that only reveals how narrow our understanding of the cross has become amidst recent theological debates. Gatiss repeatedly identifies Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners as the glorious focal point and source of salvation. But his very appropriate concern is that our focus has become myopic, meaning we are failing in our preaching and teaching to explore the spectacular depths and glory of Christ’s self-giving love, not to mention the broader implications of salvation for all of life. “This is what I often neglect,” Gatiss writes, “I think of the cross as having done something in the past…But I so often forget that it has implications in this present age” (p83). That is one of the resounding points of this book, as well as one that Gatiss models. He allows us to rest in the clear and undeniable biblical teaching of PSA, but shows how that truth is inseparable from others. For example, in his exposition of Ephesians, “We are saved by his precious blood. But there is also a corporate dimension to what the cross achieved. Jesus didn’t just come to save me personally so I can go to heaven when I die” (p62).

If I may interpose something C. S. Lewis wrote in his Reflections on the Psalms, “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” One of the greatest strengths of Gatiss’ book is the application, which is both practical and offers some invaluable development of truths too often ignored. There are too many examples of this pointed and expansive application, so I will highlight just three.

Firstly, a repeated theme of The Forgotten Cross is how glory is promised after suffering and service, as we emulate our Lord. “The question we’re left with here is very simple: would you give up everything you have, and everything you’d like to have, to follow Jesus to the cross? It may not be glamorous. But in the end, even for Jesus, it’s the only way to true and lasting glory” (p40). Towards the close of the book, Gatiss baldly states, “Defeat and obscurity in the eyes of the powerful is utterly unimportant. Only the eyes of faith can perceive where true victory lies” (p107).

The forgotten crossSecondly, and tied to the aforementioned theme, Gatiss challenges the worldly desire for impressive ministry. In his first chapter we read, “When we see that the church in Corinth could boast of strong, well-educated, wealthy, successful people and leaders—that it was a strategic and important church…we’re not a million miles away from the culture of many evangelical churches today” (p17). In the chapter on Mark 10, Gatiss puts his finger on the temptation faced by many ministers: we have the nagging sense that we are made for something greater, to be more influential and successful. Concluding that chapter he writes, “It’s noble to want to make the biggest impact we can for the gospel. But it’s probably better for most of us, especially for the health of our souls, if that’s in a place that nobody’s ever heard of” (p40). Thus Gatiss reassures us, “[Jesus] knows our weakness. So we don’t have to collapse under the strain of having to appear together, to having to compete in the game of who’s the best and keenest Christian. Our saviour was crucified, crushed to death by the weight of our sin and God’s wrath against it, so that we can be free of that pressure to perform” (p26).

Thirdly, chapter 5 (on Titus 2) draws out the intractable link between the cross and our sanctification. The glorious point Gatiss reminded me of is this, “What we see going on at Calvary, the place where Jesus died, is of monumental significance. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting together in concert and perfect harmony to achieve their purpose in our salvation. And part of that salvation is…our holiness, godliness, purity, and goodness” (p80). The work of Jesus on the cross is in fact the joint work of the Triune God to make us his, therefore that work extends far beyond the atonement. “[The cross] saves us from a life of going with the flow of the world. Jesus died to save us, but he also died to make us different. That was the plan. So if we’re not different we’ve missed something in our doctrine, and are not adoring the gospel in the eyes of the world—however good we are at talking about” (p89).

This review is already too long, so I will offer just one short criticism, before concluding: Gatiss’ treatment of 1 Peter (chapter 3). On the whole this is one of the best chapters in the book. But I think that merely suffering with the same resolve and faith that Christ did fails to do justice to Peter’s epistle. Jesus stood before his enemies without sin, any harsh words or retaliation, and with full confidence in his Father who judges justly. But I am unconvinced that we are called to simply do the same. Suffering like Christ has the express purpose of vividly presenting the gospel to others, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see you good deeds and glory God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Added to that, a little later, “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for that hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:14-15). Christ undoubtedly set an example for us in the way that we are to suffer, but how we suffer can present us with opportunities to declare the gospel of Christ, as we share in his sufferings.

I read The Forgotten Cross in preparation for Easter and my heart was warmed, welcomingly challenged, and joyously reminded of the multifaceted glory of the cross. And I was convinced, most of all, because in the end Gatiss teaches the plain sense of Scripture, unpacking what God has revealed, and applying it with the caring but incisive sharpness of a pastor.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. Previously I reviewed Stuart Olyott’s short work on the Trinity, also published by Evangelical Press, and offered a slightly nuanced critique of it.

Book Review: What the Bible Teaches About the Trinity

Considering the present theological maelstrom about the Trinity punctuating most timelines and newsfeeds, I chalked it up to providence when I was given this short book to review. While the intricacies of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father will be dismissed as a superfluous conversation by many, studying what God has revealed about himself as both three and one – Father, Son, and Spirit, yet one God and not three gods – is not a subject (if we can call it that) that any Christian should pass over. Indeed, every Christian should be familiar with what the Bible teaches about the Trinity. In this helpful and mercifully short book Stuart Olyott sets out to do just that.

Stuart OlyottIn the introduction, Olyott offers his work as a primer, both concise and accessible. Without assuming to settle minor and infinitely complicated details about our doctrine of the Trinity, throughout the book the reader is presented with the major tenets and a few key passages. He acknowledges disagreements, mostly those of the past, and modestly owns that there is much as creatures we will never comprehend. Instead his modest aim for the work is that, “It will remove that sense of strangeness that you may feel as you first approach this deep subject and make it possible for you to progress where once you thought you would never begin” (p7). Olyott achieves this, providing his reader with a very useful and far from insignificant first step in their lifelong study of the living and true God, the Trinity.

Even though Olyott overstates the point when he writes that no question about God containing the word ‘how’ can be answered (p15), I appreciate that he makes humility and adoration key components to his work. As the author says, “We come as humble learners, searching the Scriptures…humbled that we cannot enter anywhere, except where he has permitted. We are not as God. We are creatures. We can never discover what he has not revealed” (p16). This is such an important and often overlooked point when it comes to the Trinity, specifically, and Christian doctrine, generally. We come to God as fallen and finite creatures, meaning it is appropriate we do not view the subject of God’s nature, or any theological matter, as one we might master. Rather, as Olyott insists from the beginning of his book and concludes in his final chapter, we should walk away from theological study as reverent worshippers. Olyott’s book captures these twin attitudes, as the author refuses to venture far beyond what we can know from Scipture and he brings the book to a close exploring how the truth of God as Trinity shapes worship and prayer.

TrinityWith this attitude of teachable humility and reverence, Olyott approaches the deep truths of God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. You can read other reviews to learn how the book is laid out; here I want to briefly comment on the general flow and aims of the book. Olyott identifies three Trinitarian heresies that have almost always existed in the church: polytheism, Unitarianism or Monarchianism, and modalism (p51; expanded on p81-86). The first overstates God’s plurality or threeness, resulting in three gods as opposed to the God who is one. The second favours God’s oneness and generally– for example in Arianism – denies the full divinity of the Son or the Spirit. The third suggests that God has at different points in history worn different masks, meaning there is no Son for God simply took another form or mode. But identifying the common heresies that ignore and twist the witness of Scripture does not get us where we need to be. Olyott then unpacks the mystery of the Trinity, affirming threeness and oneness, distinction and unity, the full divinity of each person of the Trinity with the repeated scriptural insistence that there is one God. This forms the bulk of the work and is worth reflective reading, critical engagement, and serious study. Olyott carefully guides the reader through the turbulent waters of Trinitarian theology, making all the necessary stops, and only a few that would have been better left out of a primer. The author works hard throughout his work to make plain what has been revealed to us but also warning against that which has not. I appreciated his simplicity, especially considering that God’s Triune being is perhaps the greatest mystery we will ever encounter (p16); and I thought the strict dismissal of all analogies for the Trinity was an important challenge to teachers and students alike (p78, 86). Though he covers immense ground in a short space, Olyott does well to avoid reductionism and shows that when it comes to the Trinity responsible simplicity can only go so far.

Before concluding this review, it must be said that while Olyott demonstrates the appropriate instinct to turn his abridged theology into doxology, I found his application to be shallow. This shallowness also extends to Olyott’s theological corrections, which are dated. On the first criticism, my want for application, to limit the practical value of the doctrine of the Trinity to worship, prayer, and salvation feels like a sermon where the application is: read your Bible, pray, and evangelise. To pick just a few examples, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity is immensely important for our understanding of the cross, progressive holiness or sanctification, God’s comforting and powerful presence, being transformed by God’s Word, and properly grasping human nature since we are made in the image of God. Secondly, the book possesses too few timely corrections that the proper understanding of the nature and work of God results in. Obviously this is not a work exclusively on the Holy Spirit, but pneumatology is an area where modern misunderstandings must be challenged. And I am not only talking disagreements about spiritual gifts or growing Pentecostalism; we desperately need work to be done around the role of the Spirit in empowering and making Christians fruitful, illuminating Scripture, and convicting us of sin. These were my two major criticisms of the book: it lacked rich, practical application and did not adequately challenge the significant errors that result from an incomplete view of God as he has revealed himself. But the brief work more than makes up for these shortcomings elsewhere.

Scotum FideiIn closing, let me reiterate the outstanding positives of Olyott’s work: accessibility, humility in approaching this study, application of the truth that God is Trinity, careful treatment what Scripture teaches, and the correction of common Trinitarian heresies, unwitting and deliberate. I have other further questions that I would like to raise but this review is already far too long. Therefore I highlighted just two concerns about the book, chosen because of the nature and intended audience of book: application and challenging prevalent misunderstandings. Having said that, my copy is well marked and I plan on returning to it in the future as both a teaching resource and invaluably concise reminder of the God whom we worship.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. If you enjoyed this then you might enjoy other reviews I have written, here and here, covering some theological works, Christian living, and a few novels.

Stop What You’re Doing and Read

Mark HaddonI recently picked up a short collection of essays titled Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! The title caught me – not to mention the bright cover – because I am passionate about literature and convinced that we should carve out time in our busy lives to read. Not only am I troubled by the lack of reading today but have elsewhere observed an obverse trend: the consumerist approach to books that fails to engage with their ideas and prefers volume to deep reading. After reading Stop my zeal to see the prioritising of literature was heightened. So I hope this post will both serve as an appetiser for the collection and create a hunger for reading good books.

The best place to start, in my opinion, is with Blake Morrison’s essay, which for the most part remarks on how books provide readers with hope beyond where they find themselves, however dire; he argues that literature allows us to breathe when our surroundings are suffocating. Any lover of reading knows this. But the point I want to pick out from his piece touches the canonical works of literature. In a culture obsessed with entertainment, resistant to sustained and thoughtful engagement, we find that older (and, most often, larger) books involve too much effort and are sorely lacking in event. But, referring to the canon, Morrison writes, “Some books are simply better than others. Or last the course longer. Or grow richer the more they are reread.” With the postmodern insistence on subjectivity and self we are determinedly independent and suspicious of established narratives. However, Morrison’s necessary point for today is this: “If we see the canon not as social-conditioning…imposed from above, but as a collective of writers’ and readers’ enthusiasm, then there’s no reason to resist.” Recognised and recommended literature, especially those works belonging to the canon, should be added to our reading lists. As another contributor, Tim Parks, writes, “Life is simply too short for the wrong books, or even the right books at the wrong time.”

Earnest HemingwayThe next point I want to pick up on is the unique ability of literature, not possessed by any other art medium, to help us feel the human condition. We are so over gorged on series and films, the effortless and explosive entertainment flying off our screens, that we overlook what is undoubtedly a healthier medium: paper. One of the contributors, Carmen Calill, probably overstates this point, arguing that without the connection of words, thoughts and stories we will die. Though I do agree that without literature our internal lives will suffer, as we glut ourselves on stories made to sell through gripping viewers and grabbing awards. Mark Haddon believes that when you, “Lay the novel alongside film…its specialness becomes obvious…[Film] can’t do smell or taste or texture. It can’t tell us what it is like to inhabit a human body. Its eyes are always open. It fails to understand the importance of things we don’t notice.” Haddon is convinced that the novel will endure because it comes closest to revealing the “texture of life” and “the mystery of what it means to be human.” Anyone who has invested time into engaging with exceptional literary works, will admit to the screen’s relative poverty and readings’ probing power, which is sometimes unnerving yet always enriching.

Following on from the previous paragraph, Jane Davis makes an incisive point about our fear of deep reading. While her issue is with the preference for light reading I would extend it to our obsession with film, “The plea for lightness may be a natural and entirely understandable fear of getting serious: lots of us spend a great deal of time not thinking, for fear of being brought down.” A little later she adds, “It is easy to see why, when dealing with literature or life stuff, people think it better if we stick to the surface of things and splash around up there, lightly pretending there are no depths.” We might think this is harmless, and because life is so demanding we are justified in sticking to the shallows and superficial engagement with the human condition. But Davis thinks the opposite, suggesting that, “Consistently ignoring the inner life has put depression and anxiety high amongst the world’s most serious epidemics.” I admit that this conclusion seems far reaching, but listen to what Davis adds, “Despite our desire to amass, consume, and be mindless, the ‘unspeakable desire’ to know ‘our buried life’ is ancient and implacable. If we ignore it, or have no means of knowing it, that desire will come back and hurt us.” Our fondness of film, more often than not, indulged at the expense of deep interaction with literature is a cost that we fail to consider; it damages our inner lives and numbs us to the depths of human nature.

Lastly, hopefully tying some of the above points together, I want to develop another fascinating point made by Jane Davis. She suggests that religions’ fall from grace, over the last century, as an interlocutor in the discourse of common life has not only impoverished our language for contemplating the human condition but has also in many ways been the demise of community. She posits that members of faith groups are more likely to flourish as religions provide people with a “network of fellow supportive creatures, a sense of purpose”. Religion, according to Jane Davis, offers us “inner stuff, scaffolding to help us get around our inner space” and meaningful community; maps to explore the complexities of our humanity and safe groups where such ventures are encouraged. The reason I find this point so interesting is that while I agree with Davis that a “reading revolution” will help us to reinvestigate the human condition and even result in new communities formed around good literature, I also believe the Christian story that plumbs the depths of our humanity including the parts that we avoid, drawing people into a community governed by grace, connected by their faith in Christ. In my experience this community has greatly enriched my understanding of human life and afforded me a platform to discuss it further. But even here, I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the shallow, distracted interaction with our world, thought and significant literature.

 

Rediscovering the Art of Biblical Narrative

Art of biblical narrative revised and updated“Religious tradition has by and large encouraged us to take the Bible seriously rather than enjoy it, but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history” (p235). So ends Robert Alter’s seminal contribution to biblical literary criticism, The Art of Biblical Narrative. Since finishing Alter’s masterpiece last year I have wanted to highlight a selection of invaluable points he makes with regards to how we: read biblical narrative; navigate and answer theories of textual criticism; and fully appreciate the Old Testament’s rich theology.

I. A unified and sacred text. Alter’s approach to the Hebrew text treats it as “an intricately interconnected unity” rather than a patchwork of disparate documents (p11). It is tragically ironic that Robert Alter’s view of the Old Testament is higher than much modern Christian scholarship. Modern criticism has not only undermined Scripture’s cohesion but also blinded us to, “the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attentions…the artful use of language…shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units, and much else” (p13). For it has caused us to ask, not what the text has to teach us but rather, what these literary phenomena reveal about the history and formation of the text.

You might agree that Alter is right in pointing us to the minutiae as literary mechanisms, yet feel that modern criticism provides the only explanation for the glaring discontinuities, duplications and contradictions in the biblical text. But Alter argues that in order to reach “the fullness of statement they aspired to achieve as writers,” at times they violated what was later decided constitutes a canon of unity and logical coherence (p165), our assumptions regarding literary unity. And a littler later, he adds that we must recognise that “the Hebrew writer might conceivably have known what he was doing” while we do not (p169). What we construe as editorial error may very well be included for a literary function within a carefully crafted narrative, of “composite artistry.”

Blake - Garden of EdenAlthough Alter is does not subscribe to the traditional Christian view of inspiration, he does hold revelation and the Hebrew text closely together saying, “With language God creates the world; through language He reveals His design in history to men” (p140). Alter sees this as the underlying assumption of biblical narrative: economically selected and specifically arranged language that does not merely convey the narrative events but serves as an integral and dynamic component in God’s intermittent self-disclosure and frequent non-disclosure. In summary, Alter views the biblical text as a divinely inspired vehicle, in the form of narrative, which addresses and confronts the reader. Modern criticism too often tends towards viewing the Bible as a rudimentary and careless collection of disparate texts, shoddily edited, whose only value in study is the development that led us to the final, albeit rough, product.

II. Critique of modern textual criticism. I have touched on textual criticism generally and will offer some of Alter’s more specific and smarting critiques. Christians and Jews have long regarded the Old Testament as a unitary source of divinely revealed truth, this was, however, before the advent of modern biblical criticism. Now, neither Alter nor myself advocate for some sort of ‘chronological snobbery’ when viewing the Scriptures, but Alter does highlight how the modern view, which readily assaults the idea of a unified text, often fails to consider the Bible with any literary interest (p17). Literary criticism suggests that sources are less important than the artistic and composite whole (p21). And I tend to agree since so much criticism is conjecture, whereas literary criticism looks at the text in its final form for answers.

Alter points out how source criticism seeks to break the Bible into its constituent sources and link those pieces to original life contexts. The first problem with this approach is that a psalm is studied in terms of its hypothetical use at a point of Israel’s history rather than treated as an accomplished piece of poetry. Secondly, source criticism attributes repetition in the Hebrew text to a duplication of sources rather than effective and deliberate literary artistry (p218). When we fail to consider the Bible as literature we run the risk of inventing groundless hypotheses and losing sight of the biblical narrative’s power (p19).

Santa Maria MaggioreRedaction criticism, writes Alter, views the Old Testament with a kind of “modern parochialism,” which condescendingly preconceives the ancient text (along with its editors) as simple, because it differs in so many respects to modern works (p23). Alter challenges us to escape the modern provincialism that assumes ‘ancient’ means crude and says we would do well to consider the possibility that whoever gave shape to the integrated text chose to combine versions, perhaps even demonstrating something about his subject with style or content that appears contradictory (p181). Literary criticism, on the other hand, compels the reader to recognise the complexity and subtlety with which it was formally and consciously organised, as artful discourse. What the modern reader might consider contradictory, based on the assumption that the ancient Hebrew writer or editor was inept and unperceptive, may simply have been viewed as superficial in the editorial process; or, as I have repeatedly emphasised, deliberate (p172).

Finally, for now, Alter dismisses the postmodern panoply, death of authorial intent, and the rise of reader response. He does not presume to supply a fixed and absolute meaning for any literary text and we would be wise to assent, since narratives are nuanced and elusive in their meaning depending on who is reading them. Yet Alter rejects the contemporary agnosticism about all literary meaning in favour of considering a range of intended meanings (p222). These meanings are anchored in the unified and carefully written, arranged and edited Old Testament Scripture.

Read Smart

Kevin Hendricks - 137 Books137 Books in One Year; no, that is not how many books I read in 2012 nor is it how many I aim to complete in 2013. It is the title of a book, which was free on Kindle for Independence Day. I am an avid reader so books about literature interest me (and free books are always worth grabbing). Now – to risk causing the collapse of our universe – I am going review a book that is about books. But this will be more than a book review, for I hope to offer a critique of the book and expand on the Christian’s motivation behind reading.

The book is extremely short so I will not spend too much space summarising its content. Hendricks is a book lover and desires to see others regain or discover their love of and appreciation for literature. It is a noble, worthwhile undertaking. Hendricks is clear that these tips for cultivating a love of books, gaining momentum with practice, have nothing to do with an impressive annual tally. He wants people to actually love reading. But I have two major criticisms of the book. Firstly, while Hendricks is adamant that the number of pages per day and books per year is not in focus, I could not help but feel volume is crucial to being a lover of books. Secondly, I felt the terse piece was as a whole unevenly weighted in favour of reading as recreational.

Firstly, while Hendricks obviously returns to things he has noted during his own reading, attested to by his free use of a multitude of other writings in this short book, as well as on his blog, reading 137 Books made me feel that progress ultimately came down to moving hastily from your present title into the next upon completion. Exhortations that reading is not about quantity are obscured by the numerous tips aimed at streamlining your reading and maximising your time. Even when it came to reflection Hendricks seems to suggest writing hurried summaries rather than thoughtful assessments and critiques. I would sooner side with Julian Morrow, in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, arguing for the merits of having single teacher as Plato did: “it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.” What is the rush? I believe Hendricks’ emphasis on volume coupled with scant time for reflection entails his reason for reading, and my second criticism, below.

Book on darkHendricks’ purpose for reading is principally recreational. Now please do not hear me as some literary-purist-type who believes all reading must be informative, and that we must engage critically with every work we pick up. Just last month I read David Gemmell’s entire Troy trilogy (almost 2000 pages of historical, heroic fiction). Yet I wish that Hendricks had emphasised something he provides only glimpses of. He writes in the introduction, “[we read] to discover incredible new worlds and stimulate creative thinking. To get out of my skin and experience something I otherwise couldn’t.” Later, in chapters 7 and 8, Hendricks encourages intentional reading that processes content, notes valuable quotes, and records brief summaries of ideas contained in the writing and reading experience. But as I have noted above, these tips are couched in the larger context of reading lots. It is hard to see this valuable approach to and aim for reading amidst the voracious consumption of books. I am convinced that we need to be responsible and critically engaged readers, to varying degrees. And obviously that will be depend on the type of literature you read. We should be weary of viewing books in the way TV has taught us to see entertainment: frivolous and disengaged consumerism.

Take notes readingWith those two criticisms in mind I will close with what I believe to be a better and healthier approach to reading, which is obviously in much need of development and discussion. For starters I would suggest reading Tony Reinke’s book Lit!, which I have reviewed briefly here. Reinke aims for 6 or 7 books a month, between 70 and 80 a year, which is modest and realistic if you plan on really reading and not merely shredding books. More important than the number is the content of his suggested reading. He provides 5 categories, outside of Scripture: knowing Christ, spiritual reflection, personal growth, professional excellence, and good stories (p95). Forget reading for reading’s sake. Read to enrich and strengthen your faith. Stop reading for the love of reading. Read in order to love God more. I am not advocating the abandonment of recreational reading, enjoying a cleverly written narrative. But when we reduce the reading of books to consumption we lose out. For, as James Sire puts it, “[great literature will] help us understand who we are as a human family in all our diverse and glorious yet fallen splendor” (p163 of Discipleship of the Mind). Literature embodies worldviews and philosophies. Engaged and unhurried reading helps us imbibe reality, as others understand it.

In his famous article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr quotes Maryanne Wolf: ‘Deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking’. I do not know if the modern resistance to thinking means we no longer read deeply or if our lack of discerned reading has stunted our thinking, with regards to literature. Perhaps it is both. What I do know is we need to start at both ends. This means endeavouring to engage with worthwhile good books, even if they are hard, and engaging deeply with more of what we read.

Review: Five Books From 2013

In my last year of high school, for final assessment, I was summoned for external moderation on my English portfolio. Back then we had to list five books we had read during the year, three non-fiction and two fiction titles. Though that transcended the borders of impossible for my eighteen-year-old self, discovering reading as a young Christian meant that today I engage with more books than ever before but unfortunately have no moderation board to discuss them with. Enter you. In an attempt to atone for missed opportunities I will offer quick reviews of three theological books and two novels I have read this year that, incidentally, I think you would do well to read yourself. (I will include a brief quote from each hopefully to whet your appetite).

God crucified - Richard BauckhamGod Crucified: Monotheism And Christology In The New Testament by Richard Bauckham. To my shame and loss I never investigated Richard Bauckham at college. In God Crucified he presents a sharp and succinct treatment of Second Temple Judaism and why Jewish monotheism did not rule out the possibilities of other hypostases in God’s nature and being, revealed in the Old Testament. Bauckham argues that the early church did indeed possess a high Christology, which was entirely consistent with Second Temple Judaism. This flies in the face of skeptical readers of history and Scripture who believe that the full divinity of Jesus Christ was only reached through a process of creedal developments along with the increasing influence of Hellenistic philosophy and categories. But Bauckham does very well in attempting, very briefly, to show that the writers of the New Testament were convinced that Christ being fully God did not challenge the Jewish understanding of God’s nature. I am very much looking forward to reading his expansion of this work, Jesus And The God Of Israel.

“[The] identity of the God of Israel does not exclude the unexpected and surprising…God’s freedom as God requires his freedom from all human expectations, even those based on his revealed identity…He is both free and faithful. He is not capricious but nor is he predictable. He may be trusted to be consistent with himself, but he may surprise in the ways he proves consistent with himself” (p71-72).

Discipleship of the mind - James SireDiscipleship Of The Mind by James Sire. Most coffee dates in Cape Town with my friend Marcus included some discussion of Christian worldview. And Sire’s book was always mentioned as the key work in laying foundations for engaging with our world, its thinkers, philosophies and ideas. Having read Discipleship Of The Mind I can now echo Marcus’ recommendation. Sire does not attempt to critique other worldviews in this volume, as he does in The Universe Next Door , but instead provides crucial and pointed distinctives of the Christian worldview, which inform our engagement with other worldviews and also give confidence in the terra firma of Christian intellectual endeavor. This should be a set work for any theological student and prescribed reading for every Christian, not that those two groups do not overlap.

“Knowledge and belief are in the same categories. Both have to do with matters of truth…When a claim is made for the truth of the Christian religion, the response comes back, “It’s true for you. But it doesn’t have to be true for me.”…Countering this view is very difficult. The “value” of tolerance is so ingrained on campus, that any exclusive claim is rejected before it is considered rationally. Of course, it follows – as night follows day – that if the God of the Bible exists, he exists…His existence is fact. So is any moral orientation he may have” (p101).

Holiness - John WebsterHoliness by John Webster. In usual fashion I came late to the party and only latched onto John Webster in my fourth year of theological study. That was perhaps providential since his writing is very, very demanding. Holiness was helpful in writing my dissertation on sanctification and this year I was able to give it some undivided attention. Despite its brevity I am tempted to say that Webster’s offering is too difficult to distill, probably because I still have not fully comprehended it. The introduction establishes the grounds of Webster’s work: dogmatic and Trinitarian. These are vital distinctions because from the outset Webster is free to present Christian theology, traditionally and historically, as well as ultimately scripturally, on its own terms; and most basic to these terms are God’s self-revelation and presence as Trinity. In the rest of the book Webster provides an invaluable argument for God’s holiness, which is both positive and negative, he shows how Christians enjoy ‘alien sanctity’ (to borrow Barth’s language), and how important these aspects of holiness are for Christian life. Webster also has a chapter on ‘Scripture as holy’, the sanctified creaturely word. And this is where most Evangelicals will part ways with Webster, as well as where I need to seriously engage with his arguments (Carson has done this in Collected Writings On Scripture). Webster’s writing is rich, refreshing and required.

“But, if fellowship is a condition and not merely one possibility for my ironic self to entertain, then in building common life – in culture, politics and ethics – I resist the relationlessness of sin into which I may drift, and, sanctified by Christ and Spirit, I realize my nature as one created for holiness” (p97).

The shining girls - Lauren BeukesThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. For the first time in my short history of reviewing books I can say I am on the cutting edge as this title was only released last month. I was spellbound from the first page. When you look past Beukes’ fascinating observations about people, the way they think, and life in general, you are encountered by a grippingly complex thriller moving backwards and forwards through 60 years, and between compelling characters. Though less futuristic and otherworldly than her earlier works Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes retains the mysterious and vivid collision of grittiness and the ethereal that made those titles so intriguing. But to that she has added a familiar landscape, setting the narrative in Chicago, anywhere between the depression and vibrant 90s. While less imagination is spent on conjuring up the unrecognisable future, more is required in trying to solve the genius of a murderer who is not bound by time, except perhaps his future.

“He is tracing his fingertip over the lines drawn between the stars transfixed. Big Dipper. Little Dipper. Ursa Major. Orion with his belt and sword. But they could just as easily be something else if you connected the dots differently. And who is to say that is a bear or a warrior at all? It damn well doesn’t look that way to him. There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might be random. He feels undone by the revelation. He has the sensation of losing his footing, as if the whole damn world is stuttering” (p252).

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo IshiguroNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Lastly, Ishiguro and his story that I unfortunately encountered on screen (in the 2010 film adaption, screenplay by Alex Garland) before paper. Somewhat of a desperately hopeless gauntlet from beginning to end, Ishiguro’s sparse style matches aridity of the narrative. His characters are engrossingly developed but never over-complicated. The combination of this and Ishiguro’s matter-of-fact writing leaves the reader wanting more from every page, either because the haunting simplicity of reality expressed is disturbing or merely that each scene, conversation and reflection begs for expansion. This is a book that you will abhor and adore simultaneously, both for good reasons. If you fail to feel the overwhelming sense of loss and wishful longing – which is often understated as ‘a sad novel’ – then you have failed to let the narrative sink in.

“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end we can’t stay together forever” (p282).