Book Review

“Bullies and Saints” – a review

Book Review: Bullies and Saints

Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look At the Good and Evil of Christian History Paperback

John Dickson, Zondervan Reflective

Bullies and Saints” tackles the ticklish question of the role of the Christian faith throughout the last two millennia. The subtitle of the book is: “An honest look at the good and evil of Christian history.” It tackles the accusation often made by atheists and others that the world would have been better off without the Christian faith. Which is a thought that has possibly crossed many of our minds. Religious wars, the Inquisition, and more recently the atrocious abuse of innocent children by clergy has all, understandably, fuelled the fire of antipathy towards the Christian faith.

Dickson, as a trained historian and theologian, carefully combs through the history of the church and sorts fact from fiction. With meticulous detail goes through many historical events. He openly acknowledges that which is evil, without excuse, but also highlights the many good things that Christianity has given to the world.

An interesting tack that he takes is that he also looks at “atheist” history and reveals the enormous atrocities perpetrated by unbelieving rulers such as Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, that causes any “Christian” barbarism to pale into the background. Dickson also clarifies inaccurate historical perceptions. For example in the historical imagination “The Inquisition” was one of the great historical evils. The fact is that over the 350 years of the Inquisition fewer than 5000 people died. Not that this is excusable but the truth is often vastly inflated. Fascinatingly, it was probably the Protestants and their propaganda against the Roman church that was largely responsible for this inaccuracy.

One of the refreshing aspects of this book is the way he looks at the doctrine of the “Imago Dei” – the image of God in humankind – and reveals how this has impacted our understanding of the value of life. This doctrine has, for example, been central to the development of charities, public hospitals, the anti-slavery movement from the early years of the church and in turn, has been incorporated into modern civilised societies.

His chapter on child abuse within the church is short but pointed and he acknowledges that this dark stain has caused a huge mistrust of the church which will take time and effort to redress. He shows clearly how this is a betrayal of Christ and the gospel.

In the final chapter he points us back to Jesus Christ and the importance that Christians follow him in faith and action. He also adds, ironically, how some atheists now acknowledge the importance of the Christian ethic for healthy society to function.

This is a valuable book as it enables us to put Christian history into perspective. It will assist Christians in honest discussions with non-Christian friends and colleagues. It also reminds people of faith that our motives  must always be guided by Christ and his word. Waver from that and all sorts of traps await.

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Helping Our Children Grow in Faith – a review

keeleyOver the years I have become reticent about recommending books as I have discovered that books often resonate with a person because of the time and place they are in individually. However, I will overcome my reluctance and challenge Christian parents, teachers and Children’s ministry workers to read “Helping Our Children Grow in Faith” by Robert J. Keeley (Baker Books 2008).

Essentially Keeley unpacks 6 principles that he believes (and I concur) are important in nurturing faith in children.

  • Children need to be nurtured in their faith by the whole community of faith, not just parents.
  • Children need to be part of the whole life of the church.
  • Children need to know that God is mysterious.
  • Bible stories are the key to helping children know a God who is mysterious and who knows them for who they are.
  • Faith and moral development are both important but they are not the same thing.
  • Children should be part of congregational worship and they should have opportunities to experience developmentally appropriate worship.

Not only are these 6 points beautifully unwrapped but a lot of the incidental teaching along the way is very valuable too. For example, when discussing the power of story, he touches on the danger of simply attaching morals to Bible stories. He suggests that if we simply connect a story to a moral (“Dare to be a Daniel or David” – my examples) we prevent children pondering what God may be teaching them.

He also reflects on a passion of mine: children in worship. He says, “For children to have the kind of faith we want them to have, they need to be part of the worship experience.” Here I would like to have seen, at least, a mention of the impact that children have on the faith of adults as they can inspire us with their naïve simplicity.

Overall, an excellent book that is worth reading, re-reading and discussing with family, colleagues and congregation so that we can all assist in the nurturing of that all import faith in the most vulnerable in our families, schools and churches.

Categories: Book Review, Child Theology, Children, christian, christian education, Christianity, Church | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Providential Intersections

Lately I have been dipping into a book, “The Piety of John Calvin” by the foremost Calvin scholar and translator, Ford Lewis Battles. It is delight to read and casts a wider and more human/humane picture of Calvin than we often read. (If you are obsessed with the Calvin and Servetus controversy I suggest you read the excellent work listed below).

Picture 1159 cropThis book has an extra level of joy and that is the providence we see in its pages – the hand of God at work. Battles was a Rhodes scholar who went to study at Oxford in the 1930s. One of his teachers was none other than C.S. Lewis who introduced him to the classics of theology. Battles stated that this led to a “rebirth into faith all too imperfectly received in my childhood when I was sent to the early Christian fathers by my academic supervisor, C.S. Lewis of Oxford University.” (p11).

Battles died in 1979. “The Piety of John Calvin” has since been republished with a preface by his daughter, Nancy, who describes her father’s pre-laptop computer attempt in developing a well catalogued version of Calvin’s work and that his effort to do this well was inspired by the medieval monks who spent a great deal of effort producing handwritten and illuminated works.

I hope to write more about this book in the future but my question for today is a simple one. Are we aware of the saints who preceded us who have shaped and directed our lives? Who has inspired us to do well, to serve well and live well? In an age when “the present” is king and we deify this moment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, do we stop long enough to reflect on the positive influences from the past?

These saints of the past may have come to us via books and studies we have pursued. Let us be thankful that God has given us a lineage of influences linked throughout the centuries. For Battles, church fathers, medieval scholars and C.S.Lewis were just some of the intersections that God put along his path.

PS. A balanced article by the renowned scholar Lorraine Boettner on “Calvin and Servetus”:

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The Beauty of a Well Written Biography

whitefieldIn my re-reading of Arnold Dallimore’s magnificent 2 volume biography of George Whitefield I have been struck by the qualities of a good biography. Dallimore doesn’t just tell us the story of Whitefield but he adds a wonderful description of the social and religious conditions in England in the C18th. Moreover, he also explores the foundations of the religious groups and societies at the time and assesses their impact on the lives of Whitefield and the Wesleys.

For example, the author describes the Moravians and their amazing impact on the Wesleys but he is not uncritical. Count Zinzendorf had a higher view of the Augsburg Confession than the Bible. This led to Scripture not being given the respect and study it deserved. It was often used in the “lucky dip” method when looking for a verse for guidance – open the Bible at random and place a finger on a verse. Yet the Moravians had a faith and passion that was missing in C18th England and had a deep and profound impact on the Wesley brothers, John and Charles.

The author paints a picture of the times and weighs the positives and negatives. We are reminded that God is always working with incomplete men and women in the development of His kingdom.

The biography is full of delightful digressions such as the a brief overview of the Welsh evangelist who encouraged Whitefield to become a field preacher, Howell Harris.

Lord willing, I will return to this biography on future occasions as I progress through the books. To this point, it has been a valuable insight into Church history.

Categories: Book Review, christian, Christianity, George Whitefield, Reflections | 1 Comment

Between Heaven and Hell

kreeftCurrently I am re-reading Peter Kreeft’s classic, “Between Heaven and Hell: A dialog somewhere beyond death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley.” Kreeft, a Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, originally wrote the book in 1982 and updated it in 2008.

The genius of this witty book is that it takes the fact that the three protagonists in this book all died on the same day, November 22,  in 1963. The author then imagines a debate or learned conversation between them as  they exist somewhere beyond death. Kreeft is helped by the fact that he is a Catholic. In other words, a type of purgatory is a possibility, however this is a minor issue in the book. The key element is how the three participants look at heaven, faith and life from their respective world views: Lewis an orthodox Christian, Kennedy a liberal Catholic and Huxley a pantheistic Gnostic.

Issues such as the nature of Jesus, authority, the place of reason in faith, miracles, wisdom and faith itself, are just some of the topics explored. Best of all is that it is a primer in apologetics: defending and explaining faith and the gospel. Peter Kreeft uses his knowledge of Lewis’ work to show how Christians can confidently defend their faith against the critiques thrown at them. This is not unlike the techniques used by people such as Professor John Lennox today.

“Between heaven and Hell” is not a long book and could be a valuable resource for many people – particularly Christians who sometimes find themselves lost for words when their world-view is attacked. I am enjoying this book again because it reminds me that the evangelical Christian faith is not loopy, as the world at large tries to portray it, but a well founded faith and like every world-view starts with presuppositions or “faith”.  Having taken the step of faith, the Christian position has a beautiful harmony and unity. I for one, often forget that.

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Unapologetic – an emotional defense of the faith

spuffordA Review:


Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

By Francis Spufford

If you like Theme Parks and fast rides you may very well like this manic excursion of Spufford’s heart and mind.

The author takes on the thinking of the New Atheists and others but not by engaging in the “God is dead  debate” from a calm, rational, fact and logic perspective (which, incidentally will never work, as both Christianity and Atheism must come from faith perspectives). He tackles it from the heart wrenching depths of the human experience. He looks at God’s encounter with his life from the point of view of someone who has to go through the mire of life.

Warning: if you are offended by language, particularly a word starting with the sixth letter of the alphabet you may wish to read a book by Max Lucado instead. This word is repeated or implied often. As much as I don’t like it, it is effective because it does describe our propensity to completely foul our lives.

Spufford brings us to the foot of the cross – the God/man who not only lives our lives but takes on himself, our foulness. The image Spufford paints with his words is uncomfortable, yet profound.

The author confronts the image of the church and acknowledges that it has done itself a disservice in history. Yet also reflects on some of it wins. However, the strength of the book lies in the personal journey of the author coming to grips with the personal reality of grace in in his own mucked up life and in a mucked up world.

I have a few quibbles. Spufford glibly glosses over some important issues with a dismissive wave of his hand, such as the creation/evolution debate, same sex marriage  and homosexuality. I would rather he hadn’t mentioned these as they detracted from the main thrust – and quite frankly his approach annoyed me. At another point Spufford speaks flippantly of the Kingdom as a Republic. This muddies the beautiful picture of Christ the King and the Kingdom, and also takes away from the main thrust of his un-apologia.

His writing style is manic. I described it to a friend as “Stream of Consciousness on Steroids”. I found myself rereading paragraphs and pages just to remind myself where he was going with his thought. But that may just be me.

Overall: not a book for everybody, but for those who see life as it is – warts and all, it is a great reminder of a God who steps into this walk with us and for us. It is also a challenge for those who see God as non-existent, absent or remote –Spufford’s God  is none of these.

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The New Conspirators: A Review

The New Conspirators: Creating the future one mustard seed at a time, Tom Sine, IVP 2008.

In 1980 Tom Sine challenged western Christians in the “Mustard Seed Conspiracy” to use their wealth in small seemingly insignificant ways to make a real difference in the world. He heightened that call in 1999 in “Mustard Seed versus Mac World” when he explored the dangers of Globalism and the consumer culture and suggested ways in which, via the mustard seed metaphor, Christians/the church could respond in Biblical ways.

“The New Conspirators” maintains the metaphor and the call. Written before the GFC occurred, it nevertheless says much to challenge us .

He starts off by taking us on a journey, exploring how “new conspirators” are being and doing church, in what Michael Frost would call this “Exilic” age.  Sine explores 4 models: Emerging, Missional, Mosaic and Monastic. I found this section particularly exciting as it revealed ways in which church can be relevant in an age that (in western cultures) is rapidly turning its back on the Christian faith. This section also shows that there is no one answer and that our God given creativity is a key to how we make ourselves relevant.

In the next section Sine asks to what extent globalisation is shaping our culture (and imagination) . This scenario becomes the basis for his call that Christians have been called to create life transforming alternatives – alternatives that take regard for all sections of society – in particular the vulnerable.

He concludes by giving us five imaginative challenges with regard to the world as it is, stewardship, mission, community and entrepreneurship.

This is a challenging book, but unlike many that can be deflating by revealing a disheartening picture that is too immense, Sine’s mustard seed approach, littered with current examples of effective action, is spirit enlivening. If you are challenged by what it means to be a relevant Kingdom worker in this post GFC globalised economy, in which the Kingdom of Christ is being marginalised – take heart and instruction from this book. After all, it only requires a mustard seed.

P.S. This book has handy questions at the end of each chapter that can be used to engender discussion and action.

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Review: Total Church

Review of Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis IVP

Currently my wife and I are “between churches”. We’re looking for a church. The usual reaction from our friends and acquaintances is, “You won’t find the perfect church.” And my usual tired rejoinder is, “If we do, it won’t be once we join.”

Currently a lot of Christians are dissatisfied with “church” and more than a few books have been written about it. George Barna’s “Revolution” and Michael Frost’s “Exiles” are just two excellent examples in this area.

Total Church is a worthwhile addition because it adds further Biblical understanding together with “how to” practicality. Chester and Timmis explore what church is, and then show how it can look in practice. It highlights the connection between a living, growing (in understanding and relationship with God) organic community and the task of being God’s witness to the world, and how the two are inseparable.

Coming from an evangelical/reformed perspective, they correctly, in my opinion, highlight the centrality of the Word of God in proclaiming the gospel. However, they emphasise that this needs to be done in community and relationship. That is why the organic church is such an important instrument of God in this world.

If anything, in their attempt to counter the wishy washy-ness of the social gospel they overstate the case. Psalm 19 is used as evidence for the centrality of the Word, but in the process they omit the first 6 verses in which the psalmist declares that the glory of God can be read in the heavens. We know that this is not a salvific Word but it is still God revealing Himself, and the apostle Paul reminds us that leaves us without excuse (Romans 1:20).

But why quibble! I found this book an encouragement as to what church could be in a church world of institutions, programmes, mega churches, church orders and constitutions. The irony is that their view of church is far less tangible as it is not about buildings and programmes but relationships and community, and yet, in an Acts/New Testament sense they have painted a picture of church that is far closer to the maker’s intentions.

They do not dismiss other models of church, but they do challenge them to be aware of the pitfalls and not to take their eye off the main game – the revelation of Christ.

If you are looking for a living, breathing community desiring to serve and proclaim God in this world, this book gives you some great ideas for your search. One the other hand, you may need to gather like-minded people to grow this living expression of God in this world. As for me, my view and expectation of “church” has been irreparably altered.

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Who Made the Moon Part 2

 A continuation of my short review of Sigmund Brouwer’s book

I encourage Christians to read this book and struggle with his ideas. He challenges us to know our science before we make uninformed comments which make us look foolish. He makes a compelling argument for Theistic Evolution.

But I am uncomfortable about a number of things. The distinction Brouwer makes between Evolution and Evolutionism is weak. He suggests one comes from a world view and the other from well considered science. He fails to recognise that no human endeavour is neutral. We all come from faith and value positions (often unconsidered!) in all our life’s actions.

However the biggest problem I have is a profoundly theological one. The book fails to make room for the “Fall”. This is profound because it is the whole “raison d’etre” for salvation history: From the first glimpse of the gospel in Genesis 3 to the Cross of Christ. If there was no first Adam who consciously rebelled, why was there need for the second? I believe the historicity of the first Adam is crucial in our understanding of Jesus Christ.

Is it worth reading? I believe it is. It has challenges for the Christian to take science seriously and to engage in intelligent, not blindly emotional, debate. It challenges parents to prepare their children for the world of scientific thought. It reminds Christians that they do need to have an answer to the faith they possess in a sceptical world. These are all crucial issues which Brouwer raises and ones for which we need competent answers – if not his, then our own.

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WHO MADE THE MOON:  A Father Explores How Faith and Science Agree

by Sigmund Brouwer

In this articulate book the author sets out, for his children’s sake, to show how science and the Bible agree. It is a journey fraught with pitfalls as both conservative Christians and athiest scientists will be offended by much of what he writes.

Brouwer writes with grace and insight and one cannot argue with his sensitivity towards the topic and its emotional tensions. However, his overriding concern is that the creation debate does not thwart young Christians (in age or maturity) from growing in their faith.

With meticulous research he strives to show how the “Big Bang Theory” is supported by the creation accounts in Genesis. He adds to this the voices of other conservative evangelical Christians (such as Billy Graham) or Christian bodies that support or do not decry the “old earth” view of the creation account.

The big questions is, of course, are his views correct? Or, one could add, do his views weaken the very thing he is striving to support and strengthen – the Christian faith.

… to be continued

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