Book review – Water to Wine: Some of My Story by Brian Zahnd

51YtM9q6qqL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I don’t mind saying that Brian Zahnd has been an important voice in my journey over the past few years. I listened to pretty much every one of his sermons over a period of around two years, as well as reading his previous books A Farewell To Mars (review here) and Beauty Will Save The World, both of which are highly recommended.

As well as the fact that he is simply a great communicator, able to present eternal truths in a most accessible manner, what makes Brian such an important voice – and a voice with which so many resonate – is his journey. A pastor and church founder since his early twenties and at one time the leader of one of America’s twenty fastest growing churches, in the early 2000s he experienced a crisis when it became clear to him that so much of the culturally conditioned Word of Faith stream of Christianity in which he had previously swum was, in his words, “a paper-thin Christianity propped up by cheap certitude”. He embarked on an audacious journey of rediscovering the deep and ancient roots of his faith – a journey that would bring him much heartache as many longstanding members abandoned the church, but one that would ultimately lead him into deep and satisfying waters and utterly reinvigorate his faith. Water to Wine is the story of that journey.

At just over a hundred pages, Water to Wine is not a difficult read, and Brian’s easy and engaging style ensures that no one should find it hard going. The structure is simple: starting from the spiritual crisis he experienced in 2003, Brian walks us through the key steps that led him to a broader, deeper and richer faith. Being a personal story, this is a book in which the author makes himself vulnerable, exposing the various doubts and fears encountered along the way. But the great strength of Water to Wine is that Brian uses various points along his journey as teaching opportunities. These are presented not as dry and dogmatic pieces of dogma, but rather as oases where we can stop, breathe, reflect and drink deeply as Brian shares the unfolding understanding into which his journey led him. Continue reading

Some thoughts on the Eucharist, Anglican style

3294797689_811f4439b2_bI’ve written about the Eucharist (aka Holy Communion) before, notably here and here. But today I want to share a couple of brief thoughts about my own recent personal experience of this sacrament.

In recent months I’ve received the Eucharist a number of times in an Anglican church. Being a Pentecostal of thirty years’ standing, there are some key differences in the way Communion is celebrated in these two traditions that really stand out to me.

First, let me summarise how I’ve known Communion to be understood and practiced within the Pentecostal tradition with which I’m oh so familiar.

In the churches of which I’ve been a part, Communion has always been made out to be a Big Deal. There has been an air of solemnity about it, perhaps heightened by the fact that it’s often the only vaguely ritualistic component of an otherwise very free and fluid style of corporate worship. There are two features of the typical Pentecostal Communion that appear to be central: Continue reading

A thousand chances

3156541867_8f0e7f3fae_bIt’s New Year’s Eve. As we stand here on the threshold of another revolution around the sun, allow me to share a brief thought.

As I’ve written before, I’m not generally a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions; it seems to me they are often little more than a recipe for deferred disappointment. However, I do think New Year is a good opportunity to take stock of where we are and where we’re heading.

Of course, where we are and where we’re heading will differ for each of us, but it seems to me there’s one thing we all need in life, whatever our age or social and geographical location: more chances. We need the chance to learn from our mistakes; the chance to show grace where we have previously withheld it; the chance to say sorry where we have previously dug ourselves into a deep rut of pride; the chance to open our arms in welcoming embrace where we have previously folded them and turned our backs. Continue reading

The Beatitudes for today

8341450211_a46c86f6c9_oBlessed are the self-confident, for the world shall be their oyster.

Blessed are those with a positive mental attitude, for they shall always bounce back in short order.

Blessed are the bold, for they shall be able to get what they want.

Blessed are those who do not concern themselves with others’ problems, for they shall live happily ever after in a cocoon of serenity. Continue reading

Repost: The Night Before Christmas Revisited

5287582073_7bd9ce9203_bIt’s Christmas Eve.

Maybe all your presents are wrapped and you’re all set for the big day… or maybe you’re running around like a headless turkey and wondering how you’re going to get everything done in time.

Either way, I invite you take a moment in the midst of the hustle and bustle and, through the medium of poetry, remember the real reason for the season.

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‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the land
The people were stooped under Rome’s mighty hand;
They clung to the hope their oppression would end
As they looked for a king they believed God would send.

They read in their books what the prophets foretold:
A Messiah would save them, as promised of old;
This coming Redeemer would save them from sin
And a glorious new kingdom of God usher in. Continue reading

What matters at Christmas

8301267396_149c9fbf99_kJesus quite possibly wasn’t born in Bethlehem.

I realise that’s a shocking opener. And when I first came across the idea a few months ago, I was initially quite shocked at the mere suggestion that such a long- and firmly-held tradition might not be true.

Yet you’ll find plenty of credible scholars willing to assert that they do not believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The main argument is that the writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke needed to put Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to cement his royal lineage (Bethlehem is known as the city of David), but that the idea of a census in which people had to travel to their birthplace in order to be registered was completely far-fetched, even in the ancient world. If you want to register people for tax purposes, you register them where they live and work, not where they were born.

It seems entirely plausible, if not likely, then, that Luke dreamed up the idea of a census-required journey simply as a narrative device for getting Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

In fact, when you think about it, the nativity story is full of elements that are impossible to verify and might legitimately be considered fantastic, from Jesus being born in a stable or cave, to an angelic host appearing to shepherds, to magi journeying from the East, to Herod ordering the massacre of every baby boy in Bethlehem under two years of age…

However, the point of this post is not to try to convince you that various elements of the nativity story may not have unfolded as reported in the gospels. It honestly matters little to me whether or not you hold firm to the traditional version of events. For myself, I’m undecided on various aspects of the nativity story. Continue reading

Book review: Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology

Work of TheologyI’m not honestly sure how well known Stanley Hauerwas is here in the UK. He has been referred to as America’s most celebrated living theologian, and has also been described as “one of the world’s most influential living theologians”. Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University, and during his illustrious career has penned well over 40 books.

I am mainly aware of Hauerwas because I have a good number of theologically minded American friends. I have The Hauerwas Reader on my shelf and dip into it from time to time, but up to now had not read any substantive work of his from cover to cover. (I had read his Cross-Shattered Christ, but that is a devotional rather than a scholarly work of theology.) Being something of an armchair theologian, when I saw that he had a new book coming out titled The Work of Theology, I was keen to read it to see what useful lessons I could learn from Hauerwas’s long and esteemed career as a theologian and public intellectual.

I suppose I expected this book – just from its title – to be some kind of treatise or gathered reflection on what theology is. On one level, I was disappointed, because the book is a lot more complex than that. But on another level, I was very satisfied: it does indeed act as a kind of survey or primer of theology – what it is, why it matters, and what the theological state of affairs is in the world today – just not in the format I expected.

To structure the rest of this brief review, I’ll describe The Work of Theology using three adjectives: academic, referential and practical. Continue reading