Book Reviews - Others

Over the years I have been asked to write Reviews of newly published books.
Here is a small collection of some of the more recent of those Reviews.
You may find them interesting...

They are usually short in length as that was my brief.
But hopefully they still might contain some valuable impressions of both the contents of the book
and the arguments of the author or editors.

Click on the authors name to get the full Review.


Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong.

On the Bible. Books that Shook the World.
NSW: Crows Nest. Allen & Unwin, 2007.

Karen Armstrong is regarded as one of the world’s leading historians of religion. Many will already know of her writings, especially the extremely popular A History of God. I expect this book to also become very popular with readers.

In this book, which is part of a series on famous or important books which have had a major influence in the world, Armstrong traces the history of the Bible’s usage over the generations, beginning with the (Hebrew scriptures) Torah through to Modernity (most readable and helpful in light of our current faddish flirting with fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy) – in eight well-written, thoughtful chapters.

Then, the Glossary, Index and Notes, covering 71 pages, is a goldmine of information and references.

Finally, and this is where I want to end this review – with Armstrong’s own thoughts – is her Epilogue. It is here I hope many in the Uniting Church will find both informative and helpful, and as she says, a way forward. Let me offer some of those thoughts in note form:

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass.

Christianity After Religion. The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.
H’cover. 295 pages. Index. NY: New York. HarperOne, 2012.

Checking my Facebook entries, this was posted for edification and no-doubt, comment: “Religion is for people afraid of going to hell, Spirituality is for people who have already been there”.

Diana Butler Bass’ new book is a commentary about those who claim to be spiritual but not religious. Or, about religion and change, specifically how Christianity, especially in the USA, is changing and how people are questioning conventional patterns of faith and belief.

It is one of many on the scene at the moment, as well as web and blog sites claiming to advance ‘spiritual but not religious’ – SBNR. While Bass has visited and lectured in Australia – she is probably coming again in 2013 – there are only suggestive comments on Australian and Canadian religious life. Her audience is definitely her own turf: America.

Dating major changes in the 1970s and then the 1990s, Bass claims there has been a major ‘reversal’ in contemporary American spiritual longing. Away from the ‘believing-behaving-belonging’ model of the past, to the current ‘belonging-behaving-believing’ journey. “Therein,” claims Bass, “lies the difference between religion-as-institution and religio as a spiritually vital faith” (Pg:204).

Joe Bessler

Joseph A. Bessler.

A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historical Quests Changed Theology for the Better

Salem: Polebridge Press, P/Back, 250 Pages, 2013.

I have been waiting for this book since late 2006.

John Smith, Dick Carter and myself met with Joe in Santa Rosa, CA. in 2006 to invite him to come to Australia in 2007 to the first Common Dreams Conference in Sydney. We shouted him a beer and he told us about the book he was writing. He accepted, came, and was brilliant.

Bessler is a theologian, affectionate known as the ‘Jesus Seminar theologian’, stationed at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa.

His book covers each of the three quests of the historical Jesus—from the original quest in the early 20th century, through the new quest of the 1940 and 50s, to the renewed quest in the late 20th early 21st centuries, initiated by the Westar Institute and its famous ‘Jesus Seminar’. He seeks to capture the historic questions that surround and shape each of these research endeavours and assess the impact of these differing quests on theological and cultural life.

John Bodycomb

John Bodycomb.

No Fixed Address. Faith as Journey.
2010. VIC: Richmond. Spectrum Publications. P/back. 285 pages.

John Bodycomb is a true non-conformist.

Ordained in the Congregational Church 54 years ago, No Fixed Address is the story of one adventurous life lived in ministry within two ‘old’ or ‘mainstream’ churches. And how these ‘great edifices’ have ‘collapsed’, with a suggestion of two that all may not be lost.

The book, which was launched at the Common Dreams2 Conference for Religious Progressives in Melbourne in April this year, is divided into five sections, each with several chapters, a conclusion, and some questions for further thought and discussion.

Section titles are inviting: (i) Born to dissent, (ii) The falling edifice, (iii) The new age of discovery, (iv) God, humanity and cosmos, and (v) The new mystics. And the subjects within each section include: the historical Jesus, G-O-D, resistance to change, formational theology, and pluralism.

While the Conclusion: “examines the practicalities of all this – [the issues raised in the five sections] – getting through to the pew and to the ‘church alumni’, and what might be some implications for leadership (either clergy or lay) in churches.”

Borg & Crossan

Marcus Borg & Dom Crossan

The First Paul. Reclaiming the Radical Visionary behind the Church’s Conservative Icon.
2009. NY: New York. HarperOne. P/back. 230 pages.

This book continues the work of two outstanding biblical scholars, Marcus Borg and J Dominic Crossan.

Indeed it is part of a trilogy, the first two books being The Last Week (2006) and The First Christmas (2007).

As the sub-title suggests, the authors seek to correct the image of Paul, whom they claim “is second only to Jesus as the most important person in the origins of Christianity” (Pg:1).

Of most value is their reminder that not everything printed under the name of Paul, in the book we call the Bible, was indeed written by Paul. So it is important to realise that (a) Paul was always a Jew, never a Christian, (b) only seven letters are authentic Paul – I Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, Romans, and (c) most of our appreciation of or reaction to, Paul, comes via The Acts because of its placement in printed Bibles. So there really are ‘four Pauls’ in the Bible. And they are all different.

Don Cupitt

Don Cupitt

A New Great Story.
Salem: Polebridge Press. 2010. P/Back. 136 pages (including Index).

Those familiar with Harvey Cox’s latest book The Future of Faith will know he describes three phases in the development of Christian belief: (i) Age of Faith, (ii) Age of Belief, and (iii) Age of the Spirit.

Cupitt’s book, not his latest as he is such a prolific writer, traces a similar journey.  From a time when Western Christianity propounded its Grand Narrative – a great cosmic story of Creation, Fall and Redemption (fatally damaged by Galileo and later astronomers and historians of human origins) – to now, when a new Great Story is emerging where the focus is not on Christ or Christology, but on the teachings of the one named Jesus of Nazareth, to bring about the ‘highest good’.

His thesis is spelled out in 14 short chapters, under such headings as: The Uses of ‘God’; In the Beginning; Mediated Religion; Religious Thought and the Making of Mankind, and The Highest Good. While not always an easy read, Cupitt has a brilliant encyclopaedic mind.

Michael Dowd

Michael Dowd

Thank God for Evolution. How the Marriage of Science and Religion will Transform your Life and our World.
New preface. 2007. NY: New York. Plume Books/Penguin Group. 410 pages. P/back.

This year is the 200 anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150 anniversary of the publication of his famous and important book, The Origin of Species. These are truly important events.

So too is the publication of Michael Dowd’s book, Thank God for Evolution. Dowd, a former Pentecostal preacher, had a ‘conversion’ experience and in now one of the world’s leading and passionate ‘travelling’ advocates of evolution, and the ‘marriage’ of evolution/science and religion. He is, or was, in great demand as a speaker among hundreds of churches across America. Indeed, several colleagues in the USA have sponsored visits by Dowd and his science writer wife, Connie Barlow.  So the book’s tone is passionate – even evangelically progressive.

The book is encyclopaedic in its coverage. It has been embraced and endorsed by no less than 100 progressive religious, scientific and cultural leaders. It addresses every aspect and argument of evolution and religion through four substantial Sections and a total of 19 Chapters. It attempts to address questions raised by those who have rejected evolution because of their religious faith, and those who are unable to embrace religion because of their scientific worldview. It includes personal stories, historical facts, evaluated opinion, religious doctrine, theology and poetry.

William Emilsen (ed).

An Informed Faith. The Uniting Church at the Beginning of the 21st Century.

(ed.) William Emilsen. Melbourne: Mosaic Press, 2014. P/Back, Index, 378 pages.

When this book arrived for me to read and review I had just finished reading again Charles Strong’s 1894 sermon, ‘Christianity Re-interpreted’. The irony has not escaped me!

Charles Strong was a forceful voice of liberal Christianity in Melbourne, especially between 1875 and 1882 when he was minister at The Scots Church in Collins Street – the most important Presbyterian church in Victoria. Charged with heresy in 1883 by powerful conservative antagonists in the Presbytery of Melbourne, Strong resigned and went on to help found The Australian Church in 1885, where his long ministry bridged both the end of the 19th century and nearly half of the 20th century.

One hundred years after his arrival, his former church, The Scots Church, did not vote to go into union to help form the new Uniting Church in Australia in 1977. And it continues to remain separate, even in some degree separate from the Presbyterian Church of Australia as it is also in direct relationship with the Church of Scotland.

Habel, Rhoads, Santmire (ed).

N. C. Habel, D Rhoads & P Santmire. (ed)

The Season of Creation. A Preaching Commentary.

MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2012. P/Back, 234 Pages, No Index.

The Season of Creation is a recent addition to the Lectionary.

It is an Australian or ‘southern hemisphere’ initiative to the Lectionary, dominated as it is by northern hemisphere cosmology and myth. Although some churches have established Lectionaries with an insert called Creation Time, as an early attempt.

It is a new optional Season, launched in 2005, inserted into the After Pentecost time of the Lectionary and covers the Sundays in September.

Norman Habel and two Lutheran colleagues, has put together a preaching commentary on the Season. This includes some Articles expounding the theology behind the Season – Part One - as well as a collection of Preaching Aids by various biblical scholars to each of the 12 Sundays across the three years – Part Two.

The Preaching Aids are indeed varied, theologically speaking. Each commentary consists of (i) Background comments on the particular theme, (i) notes on each of the four Lectionary/Season of Creation readings, and (iii) all rounded off by a brief Reflection.

Richard Holloway 1

Richard Holloway.

Between the Monster and the Saint. Reflections on the Human Condition.

VIC: Melbourne. 2008. Text Publishing. (P/back).

I started reading this book in bed of an evening. But after nearly a chapter I closed it. No more at night, I thought. This is too raw.

Holloway is an excellent writer. He is the former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Chair of the Joint Board of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, and former Gresham Professor of Divinity. His pedigree is as long as your arm!

No wonder he is sharing in the Sydney Writers Festival this month (May). This, his latest book, holds a mirror up to our human condition and often finds it is the ‘monster’ in us that dominates. And that is not pretty!

A slim volume, 170 pages of text, the book is divided into three major sections: (i) X Force, (ii) Market place, (iii) Play Time. Likewise each section is shaped by two further sub-sections: Monster and Pity, Soul and Suffering, Comedy and Saint.

Richard Holloway 2

Richard Holloway.

Leaving Alexandria. A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.

VIC: Melbourne. 2012. Text Publishing. (P/back). 358 pages.

Richard Holloway was raised in a working class family in Glasgow, Scotland. His father, called Wee Arthur, worked in a dye factory, “dyeing bales of cloth hour after hour; and I would wonder what colour he’d come home” (Pg:26) each evening.

While not religious, because he could sing the local Anglo-Catholic Rector co-opted him into the church choir when both were visiting “Cousin Mary”. A few months after his 14th birthday in 1948, he left his small town in the west of Scotland called Alexandria and went to England as he had been accepted by the Kelham Fathers (Society of the Sacred Mission) “to train for the Sacred Priesthood” (Pg:45). He had left Alexandria.

Much later, Richard Holloway was to become the Bishop of Edinburgh, but in-between Kelham and Edinburgh he spent some time in Africa, served in three parishes – one of those in the USA – and fought openly and courageously in the Church Courts on behalf of the disadvantaged, including gays and lesbians.

Francis Macnab

Francis Macnab

A Fine Wind is Blowing: Psalms for the Bible in Words that Blow you away

2006. VIC: Richmond. Spectrum Publications

This is a very good book. Francis Macnab, long-time minister at St Michael’s Uniting in Melbourne, founder of the CairnMiller Institute, and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar (Westar Institute), has used his expertise in both psychology and progressive theology to offer very helpful resources for those who are often called upon to shape Sunday morning liturgies, or who share or lead in meditation groups.

Divided into five parts, by far the largest is the section containing 70 (plus five second versions) psalms where Macnab has turned “the psalm inside out” to see if he can “discover or reasonable assume what was bothering this philosopher of life, and what led him to say what he said”.  Macnab has done this well.  And, yes, Psalms 23, 121, 139 and 150 are there.

Parts Two and Three see Macnab doing the same to a few other biblical passages from both the Old and New Testaments. Part Four is a collection of metaphorically addressed public prayers (away from the usual anthropological disasters we too often hear, or the glossed over three-tiered universe much of our language is still shaped by), while Part Five is a progressive liturgy for the celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

Eaarth. Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

2010. VIC: Melbourne. Black Inc. P/back. 258 pages.

Bill McKibben is an author and founder of the environmental organizations Step it up and and was one of the first to warn of the dangers of global warming.

So he has been warning us for a long time. Now, he says in Eaarth, it is too late.

He writes that we live on a different planet than the one on which civilisation began. Global warming and peak oil are not future problems for our grandchildren. And the effects of our fossil fuel experiment are hitting us now.

The changes could hardly be more fundamental! And they are irreversible.  “The earth that we knew – the only earth that we ever knew – is gone” (Pg:27).

Now, as I was preparing this Review a couple of things were happening around me: Reports were coming in that the BP oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico was continuing to grow, and all attempts to stem its flow were proving to be in vain.

Indeed, in a radio interview on ABC Radio National Breakfast last month, McKibben said that this year we will really sense God’s humour when the hurricane season strikes. They will go further inland and live longer, due to the sun’s rays being absorbed by the dark surface of the oil, warming the air, dropping even more record rain.

Robert Mesle

C. Robert Mesle

Process-Relational philosophy. An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead. 2008. PA: West Conshokocken. Templeton Foundation Press.

Mesle’ book on Whitehead’s process philosophy is a follow-up volume to his earlier Process Theology: A Basic Introduction, published last year.

Both books require a grounding in philosophy, not always available to the average reader, as Whitehead’s thought patterns and language are not the easiest to follow. However, Mesle’s writing style does make that task a little easier.

As Mesle says early on in the book: “One function of philosophy is to help us see obvious truths more clearly and deeply. Another function is to challenge ideas that appear obvious but that may be fundamentally mistaken.

“Process philosophy is an effort to think clearly and deeply about the obvious truth that our world and our lives are dynamic, interrelated processes and to challenge the apparently obvious, but fundamentally mistaken, idea that the world… is made of things that exist independently of such relationships and that seem to endure unchanged through all the process of change” (Pg:8).

Karl Peters

Karl E Peters

Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion, and Human Becoming.

2008. Fortress Press.  $11.95

This is a great book. Probably one of the best I have read all year.

Peters is a retired professor of Philosophy and Religion, and co-editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. I first met him through the Journal in 1972. His only other book is called Dancing with the Sacred.

Small in both size and number of pages (150), Peters sets out to explore “those spiritual transformations that shape and reshape who we are and our relationships with other human beings, the rest of our world, and the sacred” in 10 easy-to-read chapters – Crossings, Passages, Rebirth, Callings, Events of Grace – are just some of the metaphors/titles.

Each chapter is shaped by a Reading (non-Biblical) followed by a Reflection. They were originally chapel reflections as part of an Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) conference in 2005, on Star Island. They have been expanded for publication.

Gene Robinson

Gene Robinson

In the Eye of the Storm. Swept to the Center by God.

2008. NY: New York. Seabury Books.

The name Gene Robinson, or to give him his official title - The Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson - is the ninth bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

He was elected bishop in 2003 and is probably best known for being the first openly gay, non-celibate priest to be ordained a bishop in a major Christian denomination ‘believing in the historic episcopate. The mere mention of his name in some quarters can create quite a ‘storm’. And he is also known as the ‘gay priest’ who delivered an invocation at the inauguration of President Barak Obama which HBO television network ‘deleted’ from its broadcast.

The collection of mostly short articles and reflections which makes up this book is not just about what he thinks, which at time is rather conservative, but also about who he is as a person. So the book is a mix of personal reflections, experiences, former sermon notes, pastoral situations and, especially in the section on ‘Homosexuality and the church’, raw and honest comment.

John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong.

The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic

NY: HarperOne, 2013. Hard Back, 360 Pages.

This is an important book from an at-times controversial author and church bishop.

His twenty-fourth book, John Shelby Spong has always been disturbed by the fourth gospel we give the Anglo-Celtic name of ‘John’. But after more than five years solid work on this gospel he now says he feels a “sense of completion. I have arrived at a place both spiritually and theologically with which I am content” (Pg:ix).

What has changed? He has discovered that the author, or authors, of this gospel were not proto-orthodox theologians, as used (or distorted) by the fourth century credal thought police, but reflect a collection of ‘tales of a Jewish mystic’ - probably first designated as such by Clement of Alexandria in the second century, and shaped by the ‘wisdom tradition’ within Judaism.

This is not a commentary on John. For that you need to go to Bultmann or Brown or Barrett. Spong says: “My readers want meaning, not technical facts nor excessive knowledge…” (Pg:9).  And Spong says: John’s gospel is about life – expanded life, abundant life, and ultimately eternal life” but then this qualification, “not in the typical manner that these words have been understood religiously”.

Val Webb

Val Webb.

Stepping Out with the Sacred: Human Attempts to Engage the Divine.

London: Continuum. 2010. H/back, 286 pages (incl. Notes and Index). $34.95.

Val Webb is steadily establishing herself as the leading progressive theological thinker in Australia. Which is indeed welcomed by this reviewer!

Stepping Out… reads like a sequel to her 2007 Best Books winner, Like Catching Water in a Net. Where the latter was an attempt to describe the Something More, the Divine, this new publication focuses on attempts to engage the Divine – across the religions of the world.

In 19 chapters, Webb stitches together personal stories, ideas and beliefs from people “as they are taught within their religions” (Pg:x) and leaves it to the readers to make their own judgments. Those religions touched on include: Zen Buddhist, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Christianity, Sufism and Judaism.

But this is not a comparative religion book.  Nor does it single out “the religiously strange or obtuse” ( Pg:x). Her thesis instead is to take religions seriously and honestly. For “faith is not about believing something but about living, about doing something…” (Pg:260).

Bronwyn Angela White

Bronwyn Angela White.

You Who Delight Me: Words of Spirit and Faith.

2012. Wellington: Steele Roberts Publishers. 64 pages. NZ$24.95 + p&p from publishers:

This small book by New Zealander Bronwyn White is a fresh and valuable resource for those seeking new material to read or use in worship.

Divided into two parts, the first part is headed: Poems of Love. These 28 poems are very personal, touching both everyday and special events and people. Topics covered include “In the Garden”, “Hugs like Coffee”, “Rainbow Dance”, “Women in the Graveyard” and “Raining in Bali”.

When the book was launched in April last year, an article in the local Wairarapa News reported the poems included “from tragic affairs, to recollections of life with her daughter, to sex and observations on society”.

The second part: Words of Sprit and Faith offers a wide selection of 27 liturgical reflections suitable for a Sunday morning experience. They include: “This Sacred Space”, “Way of Justice”, “Bread for the Journey”, “Autumn Benediction” and “Litany for the Journey”.