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).

The Law, Galatians, And ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

Commandments on tablets and MosesTowards the end of last year I preached on Galatians 3:15-29. We had been working through the book in the evening service at Tokai Community Church and in our midweek bible study (ahem, my apologies, in our “community group”). Making our way through Paul’s letter I discovered that despite having a lot to say about the law; if we assume the traditional view of the law, Paul doesn’t expound the third use of the law, also known as the normative. John Webster gives a really helpful and concise definition of this aspect of the law in Holiness (p95): The law is God’s given order for life within the drama of God’s saving work. Therefore, the Christian, much like the Hebrew in the Old Testament, should see the law as teacher (usus didacticus), for it is no longer magistrate.

With that helpful qualification it isn’t entirely fair to say Paul ignores Christians’ relationship to the law. He spends most of the epistle challenging the wrong approach to the law that was prevalent in Galatia. Paul stresses throughout the letter that Christians are free from the law; or rather, that Gentile Christians are as much a part of God’s new people without strict obedience to the law, specifically around the issue of circumcision. The passage I was given to preach is emphatic that Christians are children of the promise, and not the law (3:15-29). And immediately after, we are heirs not slaves (4:1f). Faith has set us free and Paul wants Christians to enjoy their new freedom in Christ, not to fall back into fearful obedience to every aspect of God’s law.

In applying this passage I had to ask myself how this is tangible to our experience today, beyond the obvious. And the point I reached was the tendency of Christians to be duty bound, burdened by what James Dunn calls the world’s ‘grim captor,’ the law. Whether we love it or loathe it, most evangelical Christians struggle to move away from feeling some sense of obligation. This means that a lot of what we do is driven by guilt or fear. And that is to miss not only Paul’s point in Galatians but the essential truth of the gospel: we are no longer enslaved but free, justified by grace. Our service ought to be borne from the desire to become like Christ and the empowerment coming from the Holy Spirit to honour our loving Father. It is not anxious service to avoid punishment. Yet we often retreat back to the law, for assurance and accomplishment, allowing duty to accompany our faith.

The Shawshank Redemption: BrooksThe illustration that I used to drive this home was taken from the classic film, The Shawshank Redemption. Set in a maximum security prison, the film follows the life of a young man who is sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his wife along with her lover. One of the fascinating characters he meets is a much older inmate called Brooks Hatlen. After nearly 60 years of incarceration he is granted parole. When he first learns of his parole, Brook is excited to leave and enjoy freedom for the last few years of his life. But prison was all he ever knew and he found security in the order and control of imprisonment.

Red, a fellow inmate, explains Brooks’ anxiety and our nature, with tragic clarity: “There’s a harsh truth to face. No way I’m gonna make it on the outside. All I do anymore is think of ways to break my parole, so maybe they’d send me back. Terrible thing, to live in fear. Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all too well. All I want is to be back where things make sense. Where I won’t have to be afraid all the time.” It is a terrible thing to live in fear, hankering after the control we find in obedience and duty. Only that isn’t control but submitting ourselves again to a yoke of slavery. Christ has set us free.

Reflection: God’s Grace in Gilead and Reductionism

Marilynne RobinsonLast month I found a second hand copy of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel, Gilead. The book is a collection of moving memoirs (for lack of a better word) written by an elderly man, whose heart is failing, to his young son, whom he will soon leave behind. John Ames, the father, never expected to have a young wife in his old age, let alone that he’d be leaving a child to the world in his flight from it. And so the warmly honest diary touches on many things, from grieved apology to wondrous reflections on human life and creation, to the painful recounting of his mistakes and pensive thoughts on his sermons and pastoral duties. Gilead is a tale of untold beauty.

One of the features in John Ames’ letter which I found myself rereading over and over was his theological musings. I want to quote one of them and offer my own brief reflection. As he approaches the close, John Ames writes, “the Greek word sozo, which is usually translated ‘saved,’ can also mean healed, restored, that sort of thing. So the conventional translation narrows the meaning of the word in a way that can create false expectations. I thought he [Jack Boughton] should be aware that grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways.” What John Ames wants his son to bear in mind, and what struck me, is his caution to narrow and impoverish grace, for God’s initiative to save presents itself in a number of ways. When Jesus Christ saves people he gives life, affirming the goodness of creaturely existence and undoing the disastrous effects of sin.

In my experience, an all too frequent characteristic of Reformed theology is the tendency towards reductionism. Words and concepts are reduced so that they fit snugly within our larger systematic structure and ‘party line’ truisms. Michael Welker defines reductionism as, ‘limiting our understanding of an area to one guiding principle or single key at the expense of all other tools.’ N. T. Wright warns us against an overly reductionistic approach to Scripture. In his essay New Perspectives on Paul, Wright confronts those who would diminish the gospel to a system of salvation, ignoring that Israel’s Messiah was being proclaimed as the world’s true Lord who calls all people to faith. Grace writes us into the greatest story ever told.

Night SkySalvation is more wonderful than a system whereby God makes us right with him, for he remakes creatures for righteous living. Grace is much more than ‘God’s riches at Christ’s expense,’ it is the magnificent divine movement that captures sinful creatures and takes them from rebellion to glory. Being saved is not God’s extraction of sinners from a hopeless world; it is their experience of his new creation both around and in them, as the Lord renews what was broken. As Michael Horton says in The Christian faith, “Scripture does not present us with a choice between the personal and cosmic dimensions of the new creation” (p560). Behold, he makes all things new! That is the greatest tale of untold beauty.

The Jokes We Tell

Yann MartelA friend recently returned my copy of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil. Though it has been almost 2 years since I read it, holding the book in my hands resurrected much of the intense emotion I experienced when reading it. Parts of the book are harrowing, others horrendous, yet the brilliance of the writing makes it almost impossible to put down. I must admit that I will need to reread it in order to elucidate Martel’s finer points for myself. Yet the raw and wrenching reaction is, I think, more towards the author’s intention.

After the story has ended Martel provides us with what he calls ‘Games for Gustav’. While giving us a clearer window into actual situations in which many Jews would have found themselves, positing impossible but necessary decisions, these short and somewhat macabre ‘games’ draw out real heartache and sympathy in the reader. I want to quote just one of them, and trust that you will get hold of the book, and allow yourself to be confronted by the ‘games’,

Games for Gustav: number ten

Afterwards, when it’s all over, you overhear a joke.

At the punch line the listeners gasp, bringing their hands to their mouths, and then they roar with laughter.

The joke is about your suffering and your loss.

What is your reaction?

Martel is, if you did not know, writing about the holocaust. Without detracting from his purpose or denying that there are things I have said about the issue which I deeply regret and need to repent of; I want to highlight one place where I believe this sort of hurt is felt today, and is perpetrated by many Christians. It is in the jokes we tell about homosexuals.

One of my closest friends and most encouraging brothers in Christ is gay. As we have walked alongside each other – for more blessed years than I can care to count – he has taught me very much and given me a small window into the struggles that someone who is a Christian and homosexual experiences. Our wonderful friendship often involves him trying to explain the “burden of discomfort, shame, fear, hurt and ostracism” (to use his own words), and me failing to grasp the weight of that burden.

In a brilliant sermon I listened to a while ago, Matthew Jenson speaks about the experience of homosexual desires being ‘excruciating and confusing, desires that heckle and haunt people.’ Our careless words and ‘harmless’ jokes may be gutting someone unknowingly. That person may even be amongst your own group of friends, rather than a person ‘overhearing a joke’. I wonder if you have considered that.

A Light that Shines in the Darkness

Shelob, Frodo and SamI’ve been reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and have loved his narrative. One of the remarkable capacities of story is its emotive power and I’ve been thinking about how to utilise this in preaching. In the second book of the trilogy (The Two Towers), Sam and Frodo come to Cirith Ungol – home of Shelob, the mother of all spiders (literally and  idiomatically). In trying to make their way through her lair, the hobbits inevitably encounter this terrible creature. There is no escape for them, Shelob is at home in the darkness and her webs line the caverns which are stiflingly dark to the hobbits’ eyes. Frodo then remembers the gift he received which is essentially a bottled star; “a light when all other lights go out”. This he produces from his cloak and they see their dreadful foe and her mountainous eyes. As the light strengthens in Frodo’s hand and flares out to all the crevices of the cave Tolkein writes the following observing Shelob’s eyes:

They wavered. Doubt came into them as the light approached. One by one they dimmed, and slowly they drew back. No brightness so deadly had ever afflicted them before. From sun and moon and star they had been safe underground, but now a star had descended into the very earth. Still it approached, and the eyes began to quail. One by one they all went dark; they turned away, and a great bulk, beyond the light’s reach, heaved its huge shadow in between. They were gone.

It’s been difficult to read Tolkien and not think of the Bible. As I read this all I could hear was:

4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

Imagine hearing a sermon on John 1:1-13 that brings its audience into the kind of story that Frodo and Sam find themselves in at Cirith Ungol. In which the audience realises that the spiritual darkness they live in is not unlike Frodo and Sam’s:

the air was still, stagnant, heavy, and sound fell dead. They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought. Night always had been, and always would be, and night was all.

The darkness in which we find ourselves is not passive in it’s lightlessness; it increases the depth of darkness in our minds and our hearts. And living in that darkness which is itself our enemy, is the mother darkness who wishes to devour us. We must flee but we are blind and trapped. We must see but it is impossible. We are in desperate need of light or not only will we never find the way but we will be consumed.

But what light can be hoped for in this deep shadow?
What brightness could ever penetrate the place we find ourselves?

Well there is a light of all mankind that shines in the darkness. A light that even the deep darkness cannot overcome. The true light that gives light to everyone, a light that descended from the heavens into the very earth and at its approach, the darkness quails.

It is not mere narrative: darkness quails!

Admittedly, this is poor exegetical work on John. Nevertheless, given due exegetical time, I would find such delivery compelling. I wish preaching were more like this.

Out of the Silent Planet: Modernism and Malacandra


CS Lewis“To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization – with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower.”

These are the bold words of the scientist Weston, confronting the Oyarsa (the godlike, benevolent leader of Malacandra) at the finale of Lewis’ first installment of his Space Trilogy. When Ransom translates this into Old Solar he simply says that Weston did not consider genocide of the Malacandrians, to further the progress of humanity, to be “bent”, evil or wrong.

Weston continues, “Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilization.” Ransom struggles to translate, “living creatures are stronger than the question whether an act is bent or good…it is better to be alive and bent than to be dead”. Weston announces that the superiority of mankind justifies them to stretch their empire across the universe, throughout Deep Heaven. While reading this I could not help but notice the similarities of Weston’s philosophy to the primitive modernism that came with the Enlightenment.

Darwin’s natural religion came with great hubris, and was reinforced with cultural superiority and domination. Though few people would agree today with the European mindset of the 18th and early 19th century which saw those who lagged in the evolutionary march as inferior not only in the realm of science, medicine and the likes but even when it came to our genes. Thinking back to the dialogue from Lewis, Weston thought that progress of the human race would come about through the advancement of natural science, how much we can control by it and where it could take us. Without lessening the great gifts of the Enlightenment, modernism promised to improve the human race but could not for the fact that the emphasis was on everything else but humans themselves. Though quality of life and command of nature are good things, they are in and of themselves external to the human problem. This human problem shows itself in the attitude of Weston, and the natural religion of Darwin.

The Oyarsa of Malacandra puts the human problem quite well, “In your own world you have attained great wisdom concerning bodies and by this you have been able to make a ship that can cross the heaven; but in all other things you have the mind of an animal.” Once mankind, but more specifically the West, established themselves as superior in everything ranging from culture to social structures then they are not far from imperialism, enslavement and extermination. Through the developments of science we can, I think, rightly pat ourselves on the back for the great capacity for knowledge and advance we possess. But the danger is that we forget what we actually are. Life extends beyond laboratories, hospitals and classrooms to communities, families and cultures. I can understand why existentialism arose in angst against modernism; and why it carried through to full flower in postmodernism that tore off the dangerous shackles of imperial modernism.

Weston went to Malacandra, in an attempt to win ground on which humanity might multiply; only, it would be as effective in making people better, as trying to improve the skills of footballers by giving them a larger field on which to play. Obviously this depends largely on how we define “better” and what we think constitutes progress. But modernism offered little of what most people would understand as fixing the problems that are endemic to human nature, furthermore it offered little to nothing in bolstering culture, the arts and so on (you only need to Google ‘modern architecture’ for proof of this). What does any of this matter? As a Westerner, and a Christian, I think we need to be very careful that we do not enact a new imperialism. The biblical picture of Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21-22 depict a renewed, perfect future in which we retain our cultural differences. Therefore every human culture has inherent good and distinct strengths for the enrichment of the human race. Scientific advance does enlighten our minds, but can do little if anything to change hearts. Christianity has too often been rightly critiqued as eradicating cultures which were and replacing them with Western culture. Weston threatened domination of Malacandra and anything else that stood in the way of his enterprise, we should be careful we do not end up doing the same.

All the quotations above are from chapter 20 of Out of the Silent Planet, unless otherwise stated.