Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Books (Page 3 of 6)

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

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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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Book review: Desire Found Me by Andre Rabe

Desire Found MeToday, I’m delighted to be reviewing Desire Found Me, the latest offering from Andre Rabe.

A little about the author first. South African writer and speaker Andre Rabe met his wife Mary-Anne while they were both involved in missionary work in southern Africa at the turn of the 1990s. After settling down to raise a family, in 2010 they felt the call of the road and decided to sell up and travel the world sharing their message of our belovedness as God’s children. Their intention, in their own words, is simply “to inspire love and reduce violence”.

I confess that I have another book by Andre Rabe on my Kindle that’s been there for a year or so and is still currently unread. However, having read a few of Andre’s Facebook and blog posts and watched the odd video on his YouTube channel, I was intrigued to find out how he might tackle the subject of mimetic theory and its relation to the gospel. So when I came upon the chance to get hold of a free review copy of Desire Found Me, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Andre Rabe is firmly within the charismatic stream of Christianity. For some people, that might conjure up images of emotion-laden worship and an over-emphasis on experience at the expense of solid theological foundations. Based on my own experience, I would say that such observations are true of at least some expressions within the charismatic stream.

However, having read Desire Found Me, I think Andre’s gift lies in understanding and communicating deep theological and human truths using a language and style that is very accessible to the charismatic community and beyond. In fact, as someone with a recognised ministry within that community, he may be uniquely positioned to lay down necessary theological foundations in a way that invites welcome and acceptance rather than pushback. (I am not for one moment suggesting that this book is of no value to readers from other streams; quite the contrary.)

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Book review: Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Brad Jersak

Her GatesToday I’m delighted to be reviewing Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem by Brad Jersak, published in 2009 by Wipf & Stock.

Hell is a subject which, in my experience at least, is not often openly spoken about in churches and among believers, but which nevertheless plays a vitally important role in the doctrinal apparatus of many Christians.

If I speak of a “hellfire and damnation” preacher, most people will immediately have a good idea of what I’m talking about and be able to form an associated mental picture. The thought of such a preacher might make many Christians squirm, but in the majority of cases, if those same Christians would stop and consider their most fundamental beliefs, they would have to admit that they and the hellfire preacher have much in common. The way they express those beliefs might differ drastically, but the basic message is the same: give your life to Jesus or burn in hell forever.

In fact, the belief in a hell of eternal, conscious torment for unbelievers is so deeply ingrained in the contemporary Christian psyche that to question its necessity is to run the risk of being seen as a doubter at best and a renegade or a heretic at worst. But is such a belief actually necessary to authentic Christian faith?

For those keen to explore the subject, there’s no shortage of books on hell, both old and more recent. Most either present and defend a clear pro- or anti-hell stance, while the occasional volume includes a range of differing views, usually set out by different scholars, and leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut doesn’t really fall into either of those categories.

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Review: Kingdom Conspiracy by Scot McKnight

Kingdom conspiracyI’ve been a regular reader of Scot McKnight’s blog The Jesus Creed for nine or ten years now. In fact, along with the late Michael Spencer’s Internet Monk, it’s probably the blog that I’ve been following the longest. If you want a rich and varied source of comment on theology, the church, and news and current events, The Jesus Creed is hard to beat. (Just be warned that you might struggle to keep up with the number of posts that appear daily.) I’ve also read a couple of McKnight’s previous books, and enjoyed them. So I was intrigued last year when he released his latest book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. Given that the term “kingdom of God” seems to have become one of those bits of Christian jargon that is routinely tossed around without much thought to what it really means, I was interested to read what this highly respected New Testament scholar had to say about it. I recently finished reading the book and would like to share some brief thoughts here.

The first thing to say is that this book is not a light read. That’s not a criticism of McKnight; he is, after all, a serious scholar tackling a subject that is both deep and broad. I have to say, however, that compared to some of the author’s earlier works (I’m thinking particularly of his book The Jesus Creed, for which he is perhaps still best known), I found Kingdom Conspiracy quite heavy going. It weighs in at a reasonably hefty 289 pages, and on quite a few occasions I found myself losing the thread of McKnight’s argument and wondering why he was taking ten pages to labour a point that could perhaps have been more effectively made in two. Those who like their theology in easily digested, bite-sized chunks, then, should probably look elsewhere.

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Jesus enthroned

KingdomToday is the last in a series of posts surveying Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus, which is highly recommended for anyone wanting a more scripturally, historically and theologically faithful understanding of who Jesus was, what he did and why it matters. (You can read my full review here; for a link to all posts in the series, click here.)

As I was discussing with some friends yesterday, Simply Jesus is one of those books where you have to read right to the end before you understand the whole case the author is making. The case put forward by Tom Wright is really about how Jesus’ primary concern, the kingdom of God, was established through his life, death and resurrection. Only by understanding the rich story of creation, fall, covenant and redemption – which is the story of Israel, its chequered journey through history and its often tumultuous relationship with God – can we hope to properly understand just what this strange kingdom is and how it operates.

Let’s get to today’s excerpt:

This is what it looks like, today, when Jesus is running the world. This is, after all, what he told us to expect. The poor in spirit will be making the kingdom of heaven happen. The meek will be taking over the earth, so gently that the powerful won’t notice until it’s too late. The peacemakers will be putting the arms manufacturers out of business. Those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice will be analysing government policy and legal rulings and speaking up on behalf of those at the bottom of the pile. The merciful will be surprising everybody by showing that there is a different way to do human relations other than being judgmental, eager to put everyone else down. ‘You are the light of the world,’ said Jesus. ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ He was announcing a programme yet to be completed. He was inviting his hearers, then and now, to join him in making it happen. This is, quite simply, what it looks like when Jesus is enthroned.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

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Forgiven sinners

Fisheye churchThis is the penultimate post in our ongoing survey of the final chapters of Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus (full review here; click here to link to all posts in the series).

Let’s jump right in with today’s quote from the final chapter of Simply Jesus:

The church is not supposed to be a society of perfect people doing great work. It’s a society of forgiven sinners repaying their unpayable debt of love by working for Jesus’ kingdom in every way they can, knowing themselves to be unworthy of the task. The moment any Christian, particularly any Christian leader, forgets that — the moment any of us imagine that we are automatically special or above the dangers and temptations that afflict ordinary mortals — that is the moment when we are in gravest danger. Peter’s disastrous, humiliating crash came an hour or two after he had declared that he would follow Jesus to prison and even to death.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

You might well read the above paragraph and think it says nothing that isn’t perfectly obvious. However, there is a big implication for the church.

If you asked many non-religious folks their opinion of Christians, you would undoubtedly get a wide range of answers. However, a good chunk of those answers would surely be along the lines that Christians are a bunch of holier-than-thou do-gooders, people who consider themselves morally a cut above the average Joe or Jane and who spend their lives looking down their noses at the moral inadequacy of those not so enlightened as they are. This view may appear to be based on a caricature, but it’s the view that a lot of people hold, and one has to assume that they mostly have at least some reason for holding it.

Jesus spent his time hanging out with people who were transparently bad and/or messed up in a variety of ways. When he was referred to as the “friend of sinners”, this was not a compliment. Furthermore, the twelve men he chose to be his closest associates and into whom he poured his life and teaching were a motley band of liars, hot-heads, deniers and betrayers.

And so we seemingly have a major disconnect. On the one hand, the Jesus of first century Palestine kept community with all manner of social misfits, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells; on the other hand; the community of Jesus in the twenty-first century (the church) is largely seen as being made up of self-important morality police.

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