Category Archives: Books

David Wilkerson

It is sad to read this morning the overnight news from Texas about the death of David Wilkerson.  in a car crash. His life and ministry impacted millions. No appeals to his supporters for the money to buy a Lear Jet, just a guy who risked his life in the violent Projects of New York to show the love of Christ to gangs led by the likes of Nicky Cruz. Famously, this was recounted in the book The Cross And The Switchblade, and the film of the same name, along with Cruz’ testimony, Run Baby Run.

Then the founding of Teen Challenge, to help young people with troubled lives. And a ministry at Times Square Church, New York, where he still preached regularly, even as he approached 80.

Google the Internet and you will find some of the controversial prophecies he made in recent years, not least on his blog. On some of these, time alone will tell.

His life affected my family. My sister went forward at one of his evangelistic meetings, around 1978 at Loftus Road, Queens Park Rangers football stadium.

Today I give thanks for the life of a courageous Pentecostal preacher, and the fruit of his ministry. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Not St George’s Day

Today is not St George’s Day here in England.

“But it is,” some object, “It’s 23rd April. That’s St George’s Day.”

Not this year, it isn’t.

The church calendar for this special season of the year takes precedence over saints’ days (we’ll overlook the dubious nature of George as a saint), and this year it’s relegated to 2nd May.

So what is today – Easter Saturday?

No, not that either. Easter doesn’t start until tomorrow. We’re still in Lent today. Easter Saturday is in a week’s time.
Today is Holy Saturday, one of the most neglected days of the church’s year. It is the day when, as my friend Will Grady posted on Twitter and Facebook earlier,

Sometimes, though, we Christians need to observe a Holy Saturday moment. On Holy Saturday, there is nothing you can do except wait. — N. T. Wright, Lent for Everyone

It’s the day of waiting. Jesus is still in the tomb, so to speak. Hopes are still dashed. Darkness still covers over hope. It forms a wonderful section in Pete Greig‘s book on unanswered prayer, God On Mute, where he recognises that this darkness is where many people spend much of their lives. We wait in the tomb of hopelessness, with our prayers seemingly unanswered or refused, not necessarily knowing that it is all going to burst out of the tomb in new and unexpected ways tomorrow. Greig quotes the poet R S Thomas, who says that God is ‘the darkness between stars’.

So let’s not rush past today in the hurry to prepare for tomorrow. If we get a chance, let’s linger here. Because many people are – often against their will.

Later tonight – after sunset – my Easter Day sermon will appear here on the blog. But in the meantime, let’s wait – especially with those who are living protracted seasons in Holy Saturday.

Action For Happiness

Mark Easton reports on the BBC this morning about the launch of the Action For Happiness Project. Naturally, this interests me from a religious perspective.

Its ten pledges make no reference to God, which leave it doomed to failure in an important sense for me, although it rightly emphasises doing things for others as a source of happiness. Nevertheless, aiming for my own happiness is like looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You won’t find it by seeking it.
However, it’s interesting to note that one of the founders, Labour economist Professor Richard Layard, says the project is important because organised religion has failed to turn back the “tide of narrow individualism”. And that’s a criticism I think we should listen to in the Church. Has that happened because we simply have not persuaded people of the virtues of the Gospel? Or is it more about us failing to embody an adequate Gospel?

In the book I’m reading right now, Alan Hirsch says,

In an already overtly consumeristic culture, Western Christians tend to view the church as a place that exists to serve my spiritual needs. When viewed like this, it becomes just another silo. If one church (silo) doesn’t fulfill my particular taste and perceived needs, then I will simply look until I find one that does. If this is true, then we can probably say that many Christians have now subconsciously determined that “the community exists for me”, rather than the more missional “me for the community”. (Page 166)

So – there’s the challenge for the Church: to be a community, not a silo.

Rob Bell, Universalism And The Christian Blogosphere

Before reading on, may I invite you to watch this video teaser for Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins?

Now tell me how that proves Bell is a universalist? He may be, or he may not. This is far too ambiguous. This video raises the questions. It doesn’t give Bell’s answers. To be precise:

Unambiguously stating that Gandhi is in Hell does raise concerns. If you are an exclusivist (only those who have personal faith in Christ will be saved) you might well say that. But if you believe the biblical evidence leads in another direction, you will be bothered by this. That doesn’t simply apply to universalism (all will be saved, regardless of faith in Christ); it also applies to inclusivism (God will deal justly and mercifully with those who never get the chance to respond to Christ). And there is plenty of evidence for inclusivism in the Bible: take Melchizedek the priest of Salem in Genesis, for example. Take Job, possibly. And besides, Bell at very least may only be raising the questions our culture asks and which need answering.

Likewise, Bell’s portrayal of the Gospel as preached by some that a loving Jesus rescues us from an angry God. What kind of Trinity is that, where Christ is love but the Father isn’t? That certainly should be up for debate.

And as for the slogan ‘Love Wins’? Well, if Christians don’t believe that in some form or another, we’re in big trouble. There is something deeply troubling about a brand of Christianity that is more certain about who is going to Hell than who is going to Heaven – after all, Calvinism has always had a problem with knowing how you are one of the elect.

Oh, and by the way, the publisher’s blurb is correct: eternal life does start now. Read John’s Gospel, especially chapter 17 verse 3: ‘eternal life is knowing you’ (emphasis mine).

As I say, it is possible that Bell might be a universalist. But there is nothing in these two minutes and fifty eight seconds to establish that with any certainty. Therefore it is pretty unworthy for the new Calvinist militants to go after him like this. I say this as one who takes doctrine very seriously – this shouldn’t be the way a Christian theme ends up in the top ten trending topics on Twitter, as this did on Saturday.

I guess someone who commented on Christianity Today’s blog about the controversy got it about right:

Kudos to HarperOne’s marketing team. Job well done. I’d imagine this kind of buzz before the book’s release can only improve sales.

A Novel Approach To Missional Church: Mike Burke’s ‘Daydream Believer’

No, not that one.

I first met Mike Burke at Trinity College, Bristol between 1986 and 1989. He was a guitar-toting, wisecracking Anglican ordinand, and I was a Methodist wondering where on earth God was calling me. When we left, we all had to pen fifty words about ourselves for a magazine sent to college supporters. It was no surprise when Mike wrote that he had fulfilled an ambition to get U2 played in college chapel.

Then we lost touch. He went off to his curacy in Sheffield, and I returned to the dark bowels of Methodism.

Years later (2001, I think), we bumped into each other again at an Evangelical Alliance conference in Cardiff. By then, he was a vicar in Gloucestershire. This time, we kept in touch. Often it was Mike sending me emails that I found ridiculously funny and my wife (who doesn’t share the same sense of humour) found ridiculous.

In recent years, Mike has come out of parish ministry. He now networks for the Church Mission Society with local congregations. He has used his creative gifts to turn the difficulties of traditional church life today and the need to find new forms of missional church to reach today’s cultures into a witty and poignant novel.

It makes sense from my perspective to communicate missional thinking in a narrative format. Much of the literature talks about the importance of story, so let’s use story! The only other example I have ever encountered in this field (perhaps there are others) has been Brian McLaren‘s ‘A New Kind of Christian’ trilogy. However, McLaren has in my opinion more of an agenda for revising classical theology than Mike does. Moreover, the American church situation is considerably different from the British contexts.

I know I’m biassed, but do read Mike’s book. You will find a healthy and humorous dose of reality, right through to the inner thoughts of the clergy. If you’ve ever wondered, then buy this!

Oh, and his first cultural quote is from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. You can’t go wrong.

My one gripe would be with Highland Books, the publisher. They seem to have laid off a proof reader in place of a computer spell-checker. It was The Forsyte Saga, not the Forsyth Saga (Brucie, you can have a rest). A quantity of paper is stationery, not stationary. Something you can’t quite catch is elusive, not illusive.

Although I have just linked to it on Amazon, they were unable to fulfil my order, but I went through Amazon Marketplace to the trusty Book Depository, who sent me a copy quickly.

The Kindle Has Landed

Well, despite the rank amateurism of the Royal Mail, my Amazon Kindle arrived yesterday. The Royal Mail lived down to their standards: we were out when they called with the day’s post, and the Kindle box was left in a stand we keep outside the front door for flower and plant seeds. No card through the door telling me where it was, no attempt to take it safely back to the sorting office. I was fortunate that Debbie noticed the box with the big Amazon logo. No temptation for opportunist thieves there, clearly. (And we’re still waiting for a digital camera for Debbie, which is also overdue, so who knows what will happen with that?)

So what’s the Kindle like? There have, of course, been numerous debates about the pros and cons of e-readers in comparison to traditional books. One good article and debate can be found here, for example. They say you can download the first chapters of books as samples. That’s not always strictly honest: you often get the foreword, preface and part of chapter 1.
But I was persuaded to part with cash for a 1993 book by my former research supervisor, Richard Bauckham, called ‘The Theology of the Book of Revelation‘. Nice light reading, you’re thinking. Well, what Richard doesn’t know about eschatology and apocalyptic isn’t worth knowing, so anything he writes on this is worth the price. He also writes fluently.

However, I had a particular reason for purchasing an electronic version rather than a physical one. Here is the text of one customer review on Amazon:

This is one of the most maddening books I’ve read recently. The author’s work cannot be faulted (five stars for the theology); the problem lies with the editing of the book. If it is intended to be used as a textbook rather than read from cover to cover like a novel, it needs a really good index. It doesn’t have one. Worse still, in my 2002 printing, there is no biblical index at all. Trying to find out what the author has to say about any particular verse or passage in Revelation is like looking for a righteous man in Babylon, or, anyway, a needle in a…. I’m sure Cambridge University Press could have done better than this, and the author deserves better from them.

The problems clearly aren’t the author’s fault, but the publisher’s. The lack of indices had held me back from buying it before. However, with an electronic version it is at least searchable for any verse, word or theme I want to research. Does Richard have an opinion on a particular passage? Hold on, let me just do a search and I’ll find out. The Kindle (or another e-reader) is ideal in these circumstances.

My one curiosity with the Kindle edition of the book – and this is what I find maddening – is that it seems to have downloaded without a contents page to tell me what the chapters are.

More generally, the Kindle reading experience is good. The e-ink screen is much more naturally like paper than a bright screen on a computer or smartphone. Moreover, I found myself reading at a good pace. It’s difficult to be sure, given the fact that you don’t get page numbers, only a percentage of how far you are through the book plus some ‘location numbers’. Yet my perception is that I was reading slightly faster than a physical book. I don’t have the gift of speed-reading, so this is an advantage for me.

So my early impressions are favourable. I think the big danger for me could be with just how easy and fast it is to download a title. I could end up spending more money than I should.

Brennan Manning On Failure

Failure. Now there’s a word for this blog lately. Nothing except links since 5th December. There are reasons, but best not mentioned publicly. Even my pre-Christmas sermons are not here. In some cases, I wrote one and changed to an old one on the spur of the moment.

Anyhow, by way of dipping my toe gently back in the water, a couple at church gave us a beautiful book for Christmas. Lion And Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness Of Jesus by Brennan Manning.  I’ve been savouring chapter 4, ‘The Affluent Poor’. It’s the chapter that contains the words

we were created from the clay of the earth and the kiss of God’s mouth (p 55)

that Julie Miller read, recounted to Emmylou Harris, and which became Emmylou’s remarkable song about God’s longing for humans, ‘Here I Am‘, on her CD ‘Stumble Into Grace‘:

But it’s a passage three pages later that has stayed with me. Here goes:

Children have no past. They abandon themselves to the reality of the present moment. The one who is childlike is not surprised that he often stumbles. He picks himself up again without discouragement, each time more determined to get where he’s going.

I saw that in action last week.  As compensation for not having a summer holiday this year due to our August move, we took them to Lapland UK. Part of the experience was half an hour’s ice skating. I say ice skating, the surface was synthetic in order to reduce the carbon footprint of the event. Rebekah has ice skated once or twice before, with older friends. Mark – this was his first time. Usually he displays my cautious traits, but he went on the ice without hesitation. Five times he fell down. Five times he got up and continued, sometimes with the help of his sister.

They say that failure is not falling, failure is only when we do not get back up after falling. Brennan Manning is someone who knows about that. Despite his faith, he ended up an alcoholic. But God lifted him up and gave him a wonderful appreciation of grace and ‘the fierce love’ of Jesus.

In the summer of 2009, I felt like not getting up again. I was close to quitting the ministry, or at least coming out of it for a few years. I couldn’t say anything about it here on the blog, and I still wouldn’t go public about the causes. I’ll only say that moral failure wasn’t involved – just to prove that at heart I’m probably a Pharisee. It was other people, notably my Chair of District, who helped me to my feet again, and enabled me to find a more fruitful place.

Thank God for the people he uses to lift us up when we fall.

Countering Idolatry: Some Thoughts On Tim Keller’s ‘Counterfeit Gods’

This week I have mostly been reading two books. One of them awaits a future blog post, but the other is Tim Keller‘s Counterfeit Gods, subtitled, ‘When the empty promises of love, money and power let you down’. It manages to be both pastoral and evangelistic, in that Keller diagnoses the affliction of idolatry as infecting both Christian and non-Christian alike.

An idol is for Keller anything – and usually a good thing – that we inflate to absolute good in place of the true God. While covering the usual contemporary suspects such as money, sex, relationships, power and success, he briefly analyses some less common ones. He is well read in contemporary culture and in the analysis of idolatry.

He also distinguishes between ‘surface idols’ and ‘deep idols’. The former are easy to identify, but the latter, the driving forces behind our idolatry, are harder to detect. However, in what may be the strongest section of the book (with the possible exception of the biblical exegesis) he provides a series of ways in which we can diagnose whether something has become an idol. What obsesses our imagination and daydreaming? Are there things on which we spend too much money? For the Christian, do we react with undue anger or despair to unanswered prayer for a particular request? Do our uncontrollable emotions, such as fear, anger or guilt, tell us we are raising something to the level of a necessity in life when it is not? This section falls in the book’s Epilogue, and is priceless.

My one disappointment was with what followed that section. Keller says that it isn’t enough to renounce idols, they need to be replaced by a devotion to Christ and all he has done for us, because in that we will find true satisfaction in life. He tells us this is best developed by the use of spiritual disciplines, but unfortunately then bails out by saying that describing them is beyond the remit of the book. That seemed to be a shame to me, since to describe that would be to outline a major element of the cure. Instead, he simply footnotes books by Kenneth Boa and Edmund Clowney. I am sure Keller is capable of writing lucidly on this subject. It is as if he had run aground against a publisher’s word limit. Perhaps he will offer his own thoughts on this important subject one day.

Despite that one hesitation, this is a book I heartily recommend. It is significant on so many levels. If you are a prophet, its diagnosis of sin in western culture is important: as Keller says, you cannot understand a culture without discerning its idols. If you are an evangelist, it will give deep insight into what holds people captive. The pastor will also appreciate the understanding of the human condition and the tools for discerning idolatry. It is well worth your time and money.

Unless books are your idol, I suppose.

The Writing Industry And The Digital Revolution

We know the decimation of the music industry in the face of digitisation. A whole industry looked for a beach full of sand and buried its collective heads.

Thankfully, there are some signs that in the world of writing and publishing, there are some more visionary leaders. Take this Guardian interview with John Makinson, the head of Penguin books. He knows that devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad are changing the landscape, now that Amazon’s US operation sells more e-books than hardbacks. He envisages all sorts of added value content in ebooks. Steve Ballmer knows that Microsoft needs to play catch-up. What are the pros and cons? A few thoughts:

1. Carrying around 3500 books with you on one small device, such as you can with a Kindle, has to be amazingly appealing.

2. Being able to search a book, rather like you do a Word document or a PDF, must also be a terrific advantage.

3. There is a clear focus from Makinson and others on the core issue, which is the promotion of good writing, rather than holding up soon-to-be-outdated structures. See Clay Shirky’s recent thoughts about newspapers and jounalism: the question isn’t protecting papers with paywalls, it’s a concern for journalists. Hence why I refer to the writing industry, not the newspaper industry or the publishing industry, even if what we are talking about is new forms of publishing.

4. More negatively, will we take in less cognitively this way? It’s generally accepted that people absorb about 25% less information on a PC screen than on hard copy. Will the same be true for 6 inch screens, even with e-ink?

5. What about the financial implications for smaller publishers, given the cash flow problems of independent publishers or the well-documented difficulties of Christian bookshops and publishers? Will they simply have to persist with print while the rest of the world marches on, or will this finish them off?

What do you think?

What Shape Is The Digital Future?

Interesting piece by Andrew Marr in the BBC Magazine: A New Journalism On The Horizon. If digital means the end of cinemas and bookshops as well as record shops, along with the catastrophe facing the newspaper industry, what shape will the future take?

Marr being a journalist with a history in newspapers (he edited The Independent in the 1990s), he has an interesting slant on Rupert Murdoch’s paywall approach. If traffic to The Times sites has fallen by 90% since its introduction, is it viable? But is free content viable, either? Marr suggests an alternative way. Just pay for the content you’re interested in, not the whole lot. Effectively, you don’t pay for the whole newspaper, given that you might want the sport section but not the showbiz coverage.

If he is right, then while this might be the economic solution (cheap enough, but still creates revenue), is it not a further sign of digitalisation being the ally of consumerist individualism? The advent of personal MP3 players has made it harder to share an excitement about a new musical discovery than before. It is still possible, but it is slower and less easy to do so. Will this be the same with journalism?

Is Marr right? What do you think? Pete Phillips, if you’re reading, does CODEC have any thoughts on this?