Book Review: GOD: A Very Short Introduction

This book review was published in The Baptist Times earlier in the summer. John Bowker has just republished Beliefs that Changed the World which would be a good follow-up to God.

I was once was a mission chaplain for the CU at Leicester University. I remember after one evening’s gathering I was approached by two Muslim students. They were full of questions and what they wanted was an explanation of what Christians believe. They were not interested my experience. They wanted to know what I believe. I think too much Christian promotion is about the good feelings that result from following Christ. That is not enough. Explanation is important too.

John Bowker knows this.

A priest with missionary heart emerges from the professional theologian in this concise book about God.

51Ps3CXw3hL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_The Very Short Introductions (VSI) offer a concise and accessible way to consider a new subject. They are written by experts from the chosen area of interest and range from The British Constitution to Anarchism, Privacy to Robotics. They offer a starting point and then point on to the paths ahead.

In his VSI John Bowker achieves just this. He is an authoritative theologian, translator and author working both in Britain and the USA. Due to failing eyesight he acknowledges the help of his wife in completing the script. She is an ecclesiastical historian and together they have served the Anglican Church worldwide.

Whether or not this makes them experts on God I would expect them to deny but they are clearly well-placed to reflect on how people have described the experience and comprehension of ‘the magnificent concept of God which will not go away’.

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But is there dew in the city?

6263143213_7c18d3e69d_bIt is about this time of the year that I must put on boots for my early morning walk with the dog. It may not have been raining the night before. But we will both return with damp undercarriage and the need of towelling down.

The season of the dewfall is upon us and the song of Eleanor Farjeon ‘Morning has broken like the first morning’ calls to me across the meadow. For a person of my generation a song always to be associated with the Cat Stevens version; its vibrant piano accompaniment lifting the spirits to a delight in the newness in each day.

But it is more than just another day; rather it is a replay of the very first day.

This may be far-fetched but only when truth is sought solely through the candid researches of reason and neglects the gifts of poetic imagination.

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How do we let our faith shape and be shaped by the passage of time?

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan teacher and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. He has a worldwide ministry and is the author of numerous books. Many of them have strongly scriptural themes.

In recent years his attention has been drawn to the development of our inner discipleship. What is it that strengthens our convictions? How do we let our faith shape and be shaped by the passage of time?721057

Eager to Love is the summit of this output. He bases his material firmly in the life of his mentor Francis of Assisi.

Whilst its North American background is evident this is Rohr’s attempt to put down his own convictions. It would be a helpful summary for both new readers and others who have read his earlier material.

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Go with the blessing of the God you could not reach

Once you have emerged from whatever safe religious place you were in – recognising that your view of the world is one worldview among many, discovering the historical Jesus, revolutionising your understanding of scripture and up-dating your theology;

Once you have changed the way you do church, or at least changed the music at your church and hired a pastor who twitters, or you can no longer find any church within a fifty-mile radius in which you can let your guard down long enough to pray;

Once the Dalai Lama starts making more sense to you as the pope or your favourite preacher, and your rare but renovating encounters with the Divine reduce all your best words to dust, well,

what’s left to hold onto?

Barbara Brown Taylor writing in her latest book Learning to Walk in the Dark.Learning_to_Walk_in_the_Dark-330-exp

She is describing an experience more common than is admitted among church-goers. We have created our little churchy Edens, but they have become places to hide from God. So we walk away and wonder what will happen next.

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Just preach!

Learning_to_Walk_in_the_Dark-330-expI have been asked to review the latest book ‘Learning to Walk in the Dark’ by American priest Barbara Brown Taylor for the Baptist Times. It will be done shortly.

She was on tour in this country this month, bringing with her a reputation as a gifted preacher.

BBT_Photo-210-expHer first book, The Preaching Life, includes a powerful defence of preaching as a form of communication

No other modern public speaker does what the preacher tries to do. The trial attorney has glossy photographs and bagged evidence to hand out; the teacher has drawing boards and projectors; the politician has brass bands and media consultants.

All the preacher has is words. Climbing into the pulpit without props or sound effects the preacher speaks to people who are used to being communicated with in a very different ways.

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And whose feet will you wash?

sofiyskiy_sobor_61_2The man with tired eyes lingers with his question hanging in the air. His friend continues to walk away and does not reply. His mind is made up. He seeks a purer life than can be found in the city. The desert beckons.

For a moment he closes his eyes, maybe he is in prayer and then stroking his long beard the man with the tired eyes turns indoors.

Later he would enshrine his question in a Rule for Christian living which he would offer his flock as their Bishop but for that moment it was part of a painful encounter.

I do not know whether it happened this way. Sara Maitland who introduced me to the question in her book A Book of Silence suggests that Basil, the man with the tired eyes asked the question in irritation as he watched another parishioner wander off into the wilderness. I do not know whether this was how he felt any more than she might but it is a powerful question.

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He spoke fluent human!

Charles_Peter_KennedyIn a fond article Alastair Campbell used the arresting phrase – he spoke fluent human – of Charles Kennedy. He was bidding farewell to a friend and political sparring partner who had died prematurely at 55.

Kennedy had a long parliamentary career as a Liberal and often spoke firstly from principle than pragmatism for which he was widely respected.

To speak fluent human is a gift. Charles Kennedy was a heavy drinker and had a full share of the griefs and burdens that come to us. But this does not qualify you to speak human. He spoke in this way long before the turmoil that afflicted his later years.

It is a gift born out of the realisation that we are no more than human. No matter what our background, status or achievement we come from dust and to dust we will return. To speak human is an act of humility.

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Poor little Pentecost

There was a time when I feared the approach of Pentecost. Now it’s a forgotten festival as people pack up for school holidays and the Bank Holiday weekend.



I used to fear it because I felt caught between the self-appointed experts on the Spirit who would expect my congregation to turn back the clock and become Jerusalem AD 33. On the other hand, the rest would be checking whether or not I had become too charismatic. So instead of being enflamed by the Passionate Grace of God, worship was swept by the freezing winds of tension and wariness.

Perhaps that is why people went on holiday. I was left struggling to release the truth of Pentecost to those who couldn’t get away at that time of the year.

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Altars in the World

Untitled2What people’s religious faith took indoors, their spiritual intuition discovered outdoors.

High above ancient city of Petra, the Nabataea people carved the windswept rock into a place to honour their gods. It was simply a High Place. An altar in the wind of the winds of the heavens.

Temples, cathedrals, churches and shrines have their altars too. But for all their drama and eye-catching splendour do they imprison the spirit as much as they may release it.

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