Gospel DNA – Richard Coekin

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Richard Coekin is an old friend; he was a real help to me when I was a young Christian and he’s one of the key people in the story of me getting ordained. He now runs a network of churches and church plants in London.

This is a series of 22 essays, probably based on talks or seminars, about what priorities the Church should have, based on Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:17-38. Some of them are very clearly rooted in the text, others are using the text as a springboard for looking at other Biblical themes (e.g. the hope of the New Creation).

I found it really devotionally helpful, and good for thinking through and evaluating what I’m doing as a church leader, and for giving me some helpful corrections where I’d drifted a bit. There are certainly chapters I’d use myself in various contexts. I’d certainly recommend the book to other church leaders to read themselves.

That’s not to say I agree with everything in it; it’s very rare that I find a book where I do, but where I didn’t agree 100%, I usually found it a helpful dialogue partner, and often found that it helped me refine my thinking. I think I found one factual error (Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, not Galatia), and there were a few places where I’d actually like him to have expanded on his view. For example, he takes a variant of the standard conservative evangelical position on male leadership in the church (p.25). I don’t agree with his conclusions, and I know that his views would make this book difficult to recommend to some within the C of E, which is a shame. But I’d love to hear how he gets families needing male headship from 1 Timothy 2 (a chapter which I’ve never heard a fully convincing explanation of), what that means for families where that isn’t a possibility, and what that means for the wider church where there simply aren’t enough willing men to lead it.

The only other place where I found myself dramatically disagreeing was over our attitude to Roman Catholics (p.131-6), where I’d want to distinguish more strongly between the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church and the actual views of most of the Roman Catholics I’ve met. Indeed, I could point to distinctly objectionable things in the official doctrine of many denominations, including Presbyterianism and Anglicanism.

There are some areas where he’s much better than many conservative evangelical writers – for example on the importance of “remembering the poor”.

I also love the fact that he doesn’t abuse the DNA metaphor. Most church leaders who use it abuse it horribly, usually by suggesting it’s something that we can decide or control when part of the point of DNA is that we can’t.

All in all, I really enjoyed and benefited from this book. I’d recommend it to other church leaders, provided they were willing to learn from a conservative evangelical who has been greatly used by God. [And if they aren’t willing to learn from him, they should be!]

 

 

The Robots are Coming: Us, Them & God by Nigel Cameron

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Back when I studied theology at university, Science and Religion used to be one of my favourite areas of study, but I always found the area of engagement with questions about AI interesting for the first few minutes, and disappointing thereafter.

I found it interesting because there are lots of genuinely good questions there – for example “What if we manage to make a machine that is the same sort of intelligent as ourselves, rather than just very good at following instructions? Could it relate to God? Do computers have rights? Could they / should they?” I found it disappointing because the answers tended to be either poorly thought through or missing altogether.

This book is an introduction to the field, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve read on it from a Christian point of view, but there are still loads of weaknesses, some of them simply because no-one has thought about those areas properly.

What Cameron does very well is raise a lot of the important questions, and summarise the main views in the secular discussion on the area.

I think he’s much patchier on offering Christian answers to some of those questions – sometimes it’s really good and sometimes he just doesn’t seem to have anything to say (to be fair to him, I’m not aware of good Christian answers to some of the questions he raises).

There are also some big questions and issues he ignores, which is a problem. For example:

  • Is human intelligence or the sense of free will something which just emerges from a sufficiently complex system, or is it something different which God has given to us which computers could never have? I don’t raise that question because there’s an easy answer to it, but because the answer, whether we know it or not, makes a profound difference to some of the other questions around potential machine rights.

  • The issue of cyber-security. For example, he mentions a Barbie doll which needs a WiFi connection and can speak back to children, without noticing the implication that a human hacker (or a sufficiently advanced future AI one) could therefore hijack it to listen to whatever your child says and speak back to them in the person of a favourite toy. Creepy? Absolutely, but Cameron just misses it.

There are a couple of other reservations I have about the book. He always capitalises “Robot”, which just looks weird, especially when all the sources he quotes from don’t.

[Disclaimer – I was sent a free copy of this book, though I’m not sure why. It hasn’t influenced my review, though I might not have read the book otherwise.]

Book Review – How to Interpret the Bible by Ian Paul

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[disclosure – I know the author, and he gave me a free copy of the book so I could review it]

Biblical interpretation is a really challenging and multi-layered task. At one level, anyone can gain a lot from just reading the Bible, and most of it is pretty easy to understand at face value. At another level, it’s not unusual to find people writing books arguing opposite cases for slight shifts in meaning in a single verse or even to find non-Christians who have spent years reflecting on why a story works quite the way it does.

Ian Paul (Christian bible scholar, academic and blogger) has written this book as a very short (28 page) introduction to the task of interpreting the Bible. I suppose it’s mainly aimed at the thoughtful person-in-the-pew, or possibly at a rookie Bible College student.

He asks and introduces four main questions:

  • What kind of writing? (Genre)

  • What did it mean? (Context)

  • What does it say? (Content)

  • What part of the story? (Canon)

I agree that they are four of the most important questions to ask when trying to understand a passage, and Ian generally handles them well, often illustrating it with controversial examples which he has done a lot of work on, especially New Testament apocalyptic literature and women in ministry. At least one of the examples (seeing the promise of healing in James 5 as being a wisdom statement rather than a promise) was a series of dots all of which I knew, but which I hadn’t joined before in quite that way.

He also recognises some of the big dangers – for example letting our loyalty to a group within the church stop us from reading a text rightly if it disagrees with the group view, or the danger of an effective “priesthood of Bible scholars”, though there’s not always space to discuss how to deal with the problems effectively!

The one big weakness, and the thing that would give me hesitation about using this book with folk I’m teaching to understand the Bible, is that it’s very New Testament – heavy. Almost all the examples, and all the difficult ones, are from the New Testament. That makes sense – Ian is a New Testament scholar, but the Bible is mostly Old Testament and some of the key principles for working with the OT are missing.

For example, what Ian says about reading one passage as part of the big story of the Bible is true and helpful, but there’s nothing about what it means for the whole Scripture to be about Christ (Luke 24:27, John 5:39). He recognises that the Old Testament was written for us (1 Cor 10:11), but doesn’t really engage with what that means for interpretation.

All in all, I’d say it’s a good place to start with learning how to interpret the New Testament, but I think it’s missing a few key tools for the Old.

Book Review – Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

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I like reading sci-fi; I especially like intelligent sci-fi. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the best intelligent sci-fi authors out there at the moment, and this is meant to be one of his best books. Some people are even saying that it’s one of the all-time sci-fi classics.

In my opinion, nearly, but the ending doesn’t work. (spoilers below)

Continue reading “Book Review – Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson”

Book Review – Towards a Theology of Church Growth

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I’m really not sure what the point of this book is, because it seems to be labouring under the assumption that most Christians and most Christian theology hasn’t figured out that the church should be growing numerically.

That may be the case in some ghettoes of pseudo-Christian theology, but it plainly isn’t the case in most of the Church. Consider the word “apostolic”, which features in the Creed. It’s a word that came into English via Greek, meaning “sent out”. The equivalent word from Latin is “missionary”. If the church isn’t missionary, it ain’t apostolic either, and therefore probably isn’t the church at all.

Having said that, there are some really interesting essays in here from a lot of Christian scholars of different backgrounds. Especially good were the ones on the Holy Spirit, medieval church growth and Thomas Cranmer. A few chapters were weaker – notably ones on Acts (Chris Green is so much better on that) and Celtic saints (just because Cuthbert was devoted to prayer and needed persuading to do mission, doesn’t mean that contemplative prayer is itself mission).

But all in all it was a worthwhile read.

Review – PCC Tonight

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PCC Tonight is a resource pack which is most easily available from the CPAS website. It contains a book about ways to improve church leadership, a 6-session course for PCCs (Church councils in the Church of England), and access to a whole load of online resources.

The course is pretty helpful. I guess it seems to be aimed primarily at moderately dysfunctional PCCs (e.g. ones where it would help to create a shared and agreed code of conduct), but looks like it would work well with them. Thankfully, our PCC here functions pretty well, and it’s been fairly easy to adapt some of the sessions to be useful here too. Session 2 on why the PCC exists is certainly worth revisiting every few years with new PCC members. I’ve used a couple of others on PCC away days as well.

I guess the weak point of the course is session 5 – thinking about what it means for the church to reach out – there doesn’t seem to be much linking it with the Biblical imperatives to share the good news, and it would be easy for a church that had been badly taught for years to conclude that giving money to a charity which helps to look after creation was more important than sharing the good news of Jesus.

The resources are potentially really helpful. There’s a lot of practical stuff which most people probably won’t need, but will save a lot of time and energy if you do – e.g. a job description for a church treasurer. There are also useful resources around the course – some of the graphics, worksheets, etc.

The book presents itself as a troubleshooting guide, but is actually worth reading through. Some bits of it are really helpful; other bits less so. Many bits are obvious, but often what leaders need is someone who will point out the things that are both helpful and obvious. Occasionally it slips into presenting a model which it says is really important, doing enough to make it look obvious but not enough to show how it is actually useful in practice. But definitely worth using and revisiting from time to time.

All in all, well worth the investment and I’d recommend it for just about anyone who chairs a PCC…

Communicating for a Change – Stanley & Jones

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The subtitle of this book might as well be “how to preach like the pastor of a US megachurch”. It’s one of the easiest-to-read books I’ve ever read on preaching, and also one of the few I’ve read from that bit of the church – most of the stuff I read on preaching is either from Anglican or Reformed backgrounds (or both).

Andy Stanley does a very good job of explaining how to preach the way that he does; with one point making a strong emotional impact and memorably applied. I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve read on how to craft an introduction to a sermon, and how to get people hooked on listening to it. As such, it’s certainly a useful addition to the toolbox.

There are significant weaknesses too though. He seems to make other styles of preaching into straw men before demolishing them; the idea of multiple points working together and reinforcing the theme sentence (Proc Trust style) isn’t really considered, and churches that preach and structure sermon series in the way that he suggests would run the risk of only ever hearing about the preachers’ pet topics. He may well be right in what he says about the style of preaching he grew up with, but his isn’t the only solution to it.

In fact, when I read books which advocate Lectionary preaching, they tend to assume that the only other way of doing it is what Andy Stanley suggests here – the leader / preacher picking topics or series, leading to a very restricted diet of Scripture and no-one able to outgrow the leader in terms of spiritual depth or insight.

Short summary – really helpful book for understanding how to do one useful style of preaching and for raising some important questions about how people hear what we say (or don’t hear it). Poor for how it treats other styles, and if I went to a church where the preaching was like he advocates, I might last a month but probably not more because I’d want solid food, not just milk.

On Book Reviews

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” Ecclesiastes 12:12

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I read quite a few books, but I don’t write enough book reviews. Book reviews help other people to benefit from my reading, and to see whether books might be worth reading for themselves. They also help me to remember what I’ve read, and how I’ve benefited from those books, which is really helpful for my own references in case I want to read those books again in future, or lend them out to folks.

I’ve been reminded of this by a facebook friend who seems to read at a terrifying rate, but posts short reviews of just about everything, which is I guess part bragging and part really helpful… I’m nowhere near as quick a reader as him, but I guess I can do more than some people.

So from now on, I’m going to try to write more book reviews again!