Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Books (Page 3 of 6)

Book review: Coming Clean by Seth Haines

Coming CleanThe best way I can introduce Coming Clean: A Story of Faith to you is to share the opening paragraph from its foreword:

This is a book about alcohol; you can practically smell the gin coming off the pages, the lime, hear the ice clinking, the crack of the new bottle opening. But it’s not a book about alcohol. It’s about whatever thing you use to cover over the pain—sex, food, shopping, perfectionism, cleaning, drugs—whatever you hold out like an armor to protect yourself instead of allowing yourself and your broken heart to be fully seen and fully tended to by God.

If you don’t consider yourself an addict, you might find these opening lines something of a turn-off. Given the cultural baggage that tends to be associated with the idea of addiction, most of us work hard to keep such labels at a safe distance. But the truth is that we’re all addicts at some level. As psychologist and spiritual counsellor Gerald May put it, “To be alive is to be addicted, and to be alive and addicted is to stand in need of grace.” (in Addiction and Grace, New York: HarperOne, 1988). Seth Haines, the author of Coming Clean, goes on to explain:

Read this less as a book about alcoholism and more as one about the pains and salves common to every life. My alcoholism is not the thing, see. Neither is your eating disorder, your greed disorder, or your sex addiction. Your sin is not the thing. The thing is under the sin. The thing is the pain. Sin management without redemption of life’s pain is a losing proposition.

Coming Clean is essentially the very personal story of Haines’s journey from denial and self-medication towards healing and wholeness. It is a story of childhood faith and grown-up questions; it is a story of doubt and faith, of darkness and light, of fear and hope. It is not, at bottom, a book about alcohol or substance abuse; rather, it is about how we deal with (or fail to deal with) the trials and struggles life often sends our way. And it is, above all, about how freedom and healing is found in forgiveness – of ourselves, of others, and maybe even of God.

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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.

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Book review: Eve by Wm. Paul Young

EveToday I’m delighted to be reviewing the latest offering from Wm. Paul Young, titled Eve.

Young shot to fame in 2007 after a book he wrote for his children was picked up by a publisher and became a multi-million-dollar bestseller. That book, of course, was The Shack, now in production as a motion picture. He also published a second book, Crossroads, in 2013, which I have not read.

The Shack is a book that has both enjoyed success and stoked controversy. Many have hailed it a transformative masterpiece for its creative reworking of common misconceptions about the nature and character of God, while others have condemned it as at the very least playing fast and loose with scripture, and at worst embracing outright heresy. (For myself, I found it very helpful in my own journey towards a deeper, richer understanding of God and my faith.) I suspect Eve may meet a similar response.

Eve is a novel, but beyond that it is difficult to categorise. In it, fiction meets both science fantasy and biblical (re-)interpretation. The surface-level story begins with main character Lilly Fields washed up in a shipping container on the shores of a mysterious island somewhere between our world and the next. There are strong hints at a background as a victim of abuse and trafficking – a highly topical subject that is guaranteed to resonate with many readers. While on the island, as well as encountering a number of strange and quirky characters, Lilly will undergo a physical and emotional healing process that will see her witness the Bible’s creation narratives brought to life before her very eyes. Indeed, her own eventual psychological and emotional healing is rooted in the fresh understanding of God and his relationship to his children that she gains from these experiences.

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Book review: Questions Are The Answer by David Hayward

Hayward questionsToday I’m delighted to be reviewing the brand new offering by David Hayward, Questions Are The Answer: Nakedpastor and the Search for Understanding.

[Apologies for the lack of recent posts: I’ve been on holiday. (North Americans, that means vacation.)]

Anyone who’s been around the “Christian internet” for any length of time will know David Hayward as the (in)famous Naked Pastor, who styles himself a “graffiti artist on the walls of religion” and has been posting irreverent but piercingly insightful cartoons on a near-daily basis since 2006. While Questions Are The Answer is not his first book, it is surely his most personal and widely accessible writing to date.

In short, the book recounts Hayward’s story from childhood dreams of pastoral ministry through to his current status as unofficial agent provocateur and commentator on all things related to western religion and its shortcomings.

At the core of this book, as its title indicates, is the idea of paradox: Hayward sets out to show that, while much of the Western evangelical church is unrelentingly engaged in hot pursuit of dogmatic certainty, the real satisfaction is, in fact, to be found in the very questions that stimulate uncertainty and prevent crystallised certainty. The genius of the book is that Hayward accomplishes his task not by setting out an apologetic or series of arguments, but by simply and honestly telling his own story. As we read about his childhood and teenage passions, his on-off love affair with more than one church community, his theological studies, and his processing of all this with wife and close friends, we feel not threatened but rather privileged to have a disarmingly real and vulnerable insight into one person’s spiritual development.

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Author interview: Anthony Bartlett, Pascale’s Wager

A few days ago, I published an interview with theologian and author Anthony Bartlett about his book Virtually ChristianIf you want to get an idea of where he’s coming from theologically, it would be best to go back and read that interview before you move onto the rest of today’s post. That will also save me repeating my mini-biography of the author. Go on, read it: I’ll wait for you.

Today’s post is a follow-up interview based on another book of Tony’s, titled Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven. This book is a very different animal from Virtually Christian, the most obvious difference being that it’s a novel. Perhaps the easiest way for me to give you an idea what to expect is to quote the synopsis found on the book’s back cover:

Cal and Poll belong to a world of brutal cold, relentless routine, and hi-tech religion. They live in the frozen Homeland, the artificially engineered last-stand of humanity on an earth wrecked by storm and flood. While cal tries to block out her world, Poll continually questions it. He is drawn instinctively to the remote young woman, believing she alone has the abilities to help him get answers. Very soon the two of them are pitted against the old order, demanding to know the truth even if it turns their whole existence upside down. Step by step their journey of discovery brings them to a dramatically different place, beyond anything they could have imagined…

Pascale’s Wager is a bold and unusual book, for at least a couple of reasons. First, while there is no shortage of post-apocalyptic fiction, this book is set in a future world that is both dystopian and utopian. Second, it’s written by a theologian, and so works on two levels: the narrative itself, which is quite self-contained, and the deeper meanings that are illustrated and explicated through that narrative. It is at this second, deeper level that Pascale’s Wager gives the reader much to ponder; I found it to be in some sense a social, theological, anthropological and spiritual commentary on the world and its future trajectory. If you like futuristic science fiction with a difference, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

Anyway, enough from me. Let’s get to the interview.

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PW coverRob G: Thanks for being willing to answer some more questions, this time about Pascale’s Wager. First, I’m interested in how you found the writing process. Having previously written theological non-fiction, what gave you the idea of writing a novel?

Anthony Bartlett: The thing about Pascale’s Wager is that it says more than I can think, or think logically, if you see what I mean. A story works on many levels, and some of them may not make complete sense in a standard sort of universe. But that’s okay because you go with them for the sake of the larger picture they make possible. As Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth”. It is this larger picture I was interested in (and still am), and at this level the picture exceeds what you can express in strict propositions. For me PW has the excitement and thrill of opening a space you hardly know exists and yet in some way you do know otherwise you would not write it. Writing in this way is completely different from writing formal theology. But, at the same time, it is deeply related to theology. Theology is about something you cannot see directly with your eyes, although you see evidence of it in many different ways. A story like PW can suggest to the mind’s eye a theological truth that reason and even rhetoric would struggle to present. So, having done some of that other kind of writing I decided to turn to fiction as a way of communicating. I thought, “If you let your imagination almost out of control, or just this side of the impossible, then something new can become visible”. At the same time the story has to stand up, it has to work. In fact it is only in writing a successful story, one that draws you in and fills your senses, that the opening up of a new space becomes possible.

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Author interview: Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian

VC BartlettI apologise for my long media silence. I was away on holiday (“vacation”, for you North American readers) for a week or two, after which it’s taken a while for my thoughts to return to anything so mundane as regular blogging.

Anyway… today I’d like to introduce you to an author who is probably new to most readers. However, rather than post a straightforward book review, I asked the author in question if he’d be prepared to answer some interview questions. He was happy to do so, and his answers will hopefully give you more insight into his work than I alone would be able to provide.

This is the first of two book reviews, so make sure you come back in a few days for the follow-up to this post.

Before we get into the interview proper, let me introduce our author. Tony Bartlett emigrated with his family from Britain to the US in 1994. He has a PhD from Syracuse University’s Department of Religion and has taught theology in seminaries and local church programmes. Born in 1946, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in his mid-20s, resigning the clerical ministry in 1984. He currently resides in Syracuse, New York, and leads a small study and prayer fellowship with his wife. In addition to Virtually Christian, he has also written Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement and a futuristic novel, Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven.

So, onto today’s interview-cum-review. Virtually Christian was published in 2011, and claims on the back cover to sketch a picture of “a God deeply implicated in the human story and labouring with us for a transformed earth”. Having read it a few months ago, I can tell you that this book is a radical and searching re-examination of the meaning of the gospel and its significance and impact in the modern world.

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Rob G: If you had to write a two or three sentence summary of Virtually Christian, what would it be?

Anthony Bartlett: Like the tiny coral which over time produces a massive reef, the Christian Gospel has uniquely refashioned the human landscape. The nonviolence and forgiveness of the Crucified One has seeped into the deep structure of human affairs, throwing into relief the victims of human violence, and, at the same time, evoking life-giving responses of compassion, forgiveness and nonviolence. In this sense our world can rightly be called “virtually Christian.”

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Book review: A More Christlike God by Brad Jersak

moreChristlikeBook_trans_270

Today I have the honour of reviewing Brad Jersak’s soon-to-be-released new book A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel.

“God is like Jesus.”

There has been an increasing chorus of voices making this proclamation in recent times. In my opinion, it’s been a very welcome chorus, because it’s a most necessary message.

But… for all its increasing popularity, if this message is not to become a mere soundbite, it needs to be explained, nuanced, understood in all its myriad implications, and generally shown to be the premier way of understanding what God is like.

Enter Brad Jersak.

I hold Brad in high esteem for two reasons. First, it was listening to him speak about the atonement that spurred me on to the earth-shattering realisation that God did not in any way, shape or form kill Jesus – a seminal moment in my theological journey. And second, I had the privilege of meeting him last year. The opportunity to put a name and a story to a face is worth more than many printed words on pages.

Brad is a Canadian author and teacher based in Abbotsford, British Columbia. His active, ongoing experience in the evangelical and charismatic streams and his interest in the Orthodox Church, in which he is a confirmed Reader, give him a unique perspective on what it means to live out an ancient faith in a modern, fast-changing world. Brad has solid theological credentials and is currently part of the core faculty of Westminster Theological Centre (UK).

One of Brad’s gifts is to take profound and complex theological truths and translate them into language that the rest of us can understand.

So… what are the implications of the statement “God is like Jesus”? Brad basically spends three hundred pages answering this question.

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