Book Review

Book Review – Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament

Rage, misery, sorrow, distress, suffering, lamention. These are not the sorts of experiences that one would think would engender confidence in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ nor even deem it attractive to the skeptic. Yet these are the experiences that well-known Christian apologist experiences when his wife goes through the cruel horrors of dementia.

What is clear from Groothius’ experience is that no-one is immune from the ravages of living in creation that has turned against itself, of living in a world that is chaotically sinful and sinfully chaotic . As Groothius himself writes:

“Dementia…can be eerie. When creation turns against itself at is highest level, the incremental and insidious chaos can rattle the most stable soul”[1].

We were all made for the Garden, yet we all live on the other side of Genesis 3. We all live outside the Garden now.  This is primary issue that Groothius’s book raises, in fact, this issue is the backdrop of his entire book.

The Scriptures are very clear as to why we are the way we are, why the world is the way it is and it is equally clear that the way we are and the way the world is not what was originally intended.

In Genesis 1 and 2, we read that what God created the world in six days, and it was very good. It was perfect, in its seasons and its functions; all that lived within it lived perfectly within the world. The created world was perfect. So no magma displacement, no tsunamis, no crop failures, no droughts, no floods, no disease, no death. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were in a perfect relationship with God, they were in a perfect relationship with each other, and in a perfect relationship with the creation. God established a perfect created order, is one of vocation, permission and prohibition.And it was given for the good of Adam and Eve, for the good of all future human beings, and would lead to blessing[2]. No chaos. No creation turning against itself.

But the fall in Genesis 3 changed, or rather distorted the order, and with that distortion what was born chaos, and with it, came the ultimate consequence, death. Not instant death, but death via the process of dying, the process of a plethora of disease. The body of human persons will do what it was never meant to do, return to the ground from whence it came[3].

This is the curse that unites all humanity, the militant atheist, to the sceptical agnostic, to the Christian apologist. For the latter, yes, he was redeemed, right with God, adopted by grace, yet in this life there was no removal of the physical curse of death nor its process. He and his wife are outside the garden. His book in many ways is a longing and a lament for what was lost, but also an acceptance.

Groothius writes: “I prayed and faster. We sought out those gifted in healing and spiritual deliverance. We read all the books on healing and laboured to implement their admonitions. Yet futility stalked us relentlessly”[4]. In his book Groothius comes to the realisation that although we should “fight against the evils of this world since they flow from the fall…there is no virtue in prolonging defeat. He appropriate points to Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes. There is a time for everything. Quoting Ecc. 3:1-6 he points out the fact that the Qoheleth is “not a nihilist, rather, he is realist[5]”. For the reader, what is highlighted is that the Christian faith is raw, existential, timely and “in –time” and part of living in time is that we have a God who is transcendent yet immanent and is sovereign over our time[6]. The challenge for a Christian apologist of the theological depth and acumen of Groothius is the acknowledgment that God knows what he does not know, and that included God’s timing. His knowledge of God, of the truth of God does not cancel out his emotional wrestling with God[7], nor his rage against God. Yet he comes to the conclusion that when it comes to following God, “there is no other alternative”. God is omniscient, we are not[8].  The Apostle Paul writes:

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor. 13:9-12)

Groothius, it is clear from his work, vocation and academic credentials has a deep well in which to draw answers, the right answers to difficult questions, answers that are profound and what one would hope for from an apologist, philosopher and ethicist. But until the face to face comes, Groothius, like the rest of redeemed humanity have to live in that now/not yet tension, of living by faith and Groothius does us a great service in pointing us to the most seminal moment in life outside the Garden – pointing to the one who made the Garden, the one who was nailed to a cross, who died and was buried and three days later rose again, the one who is coming back to lift the curse. In a sense, take his people back to the Garden, only a garden that is better than the first. . Which Groothius writes “are my only hope in life”. What great hope it is. A Groothius writes, “When I look at Becky’s face, happy or sad, I see what has been taken away, and I see what no earthly cure can touch. But I know that God’s favor has not been taken away from this child, that her awareness and intelligence will be restored. But we are still walking through twilight and into a night when no one can work. And God is working still”[9].  He certainly is.

Footnotes:

[1] Chapter 4, p.31

[2] God created human beings to work, they were given a vocation, (Gen 2:15), to work the Garden of Eden and keep it (to care for it). They were given permission – they have absolute freedom, and the example given of this freedom is in regards to food. Gen 2:16. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden…BUT…and here is the third part of that order, prohibition…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.

That is the order.

[3] Groothius writes profoundly, “God is before all, he transcends us as Creator, he brought forth nature and humanity to dwell in him – but as dust…By command we exist; by command we return to dust. At some point all of us lose our youth and sense the dustiness of ourselves”. Chapter 9, p.70.

[4] Chapter 5, p.33.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In chapter 7, Groothius helpfully writes about time and about the importance of knowing the signs of the times – see pp.54-55.

[7] See Chapter 6, 41-44.

[8] “Even though mortals can known many things about God’s existence, and nature from the Bible, rational intuition, and sound reasoning, much that we would like to know is obscured from us…we know in part, God knows in full. (Chapter 6, p.48).

[9] Chapter 9, Moses and Our Sadness, p. 78

Book Review – God of all Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors Of This World

According to the Cambridge dictionary the definition of the plural of horror is ‘things that are very shocking or frightening’[1]. One does not have to look hard to come to the realisation that our world is a place that contains a plethora of things that are very shocking or frightening. Those things vary in context; they can be due to events, people, they can be real or perceived. Thus in his crucial work, Harrower endeavours through special reference to St Matthew’s Gospel to reveal and elucidate to the reader how they can “connect with God meaningfully” and therefore engage in “meaningful living” in spite of living in a world that has fallen into what Harrower rightly describes as “ontological transgression – transgressing into being like God (Gen.3:5).[2] Harrower  provides the context of the origin of horrors, of how horrors entered the world that God “designed for personal flourishing” as a result ‘Shalom’ was lost[3]

In chapter 4 Harrower addresses the problems that those who experience horror and trauma are often faced with, “the theological problem”; “the existential problem”; and thirdly, “the anthropological problem”.[4] To use more exoteric parlance, Harrower attempts to reconcile two truths;

(1) God is all-loving and all-powerful;

(2) we live in a world full of horrors and trauma;

and thus assure his readers that God is sovereign and loving and that the latter abrogates neither.

Thus for the purposes of this review, the question being asked is a very pertinent and germane question, one that Harrower certainly answers:

“Can we really say that God is present and active in the midst of horrors?”

In answering this question Harrower points the reader to Narrative, namely to Matthew’s Gospel[5]stating “There is a divine personal and conscious mind responsible for the existence of human consciousness. This personal mind, belonging to God the Trinity, has also generated an inspired set of scriptural texts, through which he engages personally with people’s minds and perspectives”.[6]Harrower reasons for choosing Matthew’s Gospel is very clear. He gives five reasons[7], for me the highlights being: (1) “At times the best way to investigate deep theological and anthropological questions is via the narrative of Scripture”;  (2) “Matthew assumes an Edenic backdrop to the story of the fall (Gen. 3) and its consequences (due to Matthew’s strong historical interest and very strong interaction with Jewish texts and traditions)” ; (3) “Under-used in works related to theodicy, (the answer to the question of why God permits evil – or the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil). This final reason stated is what I found to be most engaging as earlier I thought it was interesting that Harrower had not at this point engaged with Job[8] or Revelation and he addresses this very point: “My work hopes to redress this neglect by demonstrating that a biblical book other than Job or Revelation may be engaged in order to resolve key intellectual and pastoral issues related to horrors”[9].

Sections Six and Seven of Harrower’s book I found to be rather horrifying exegetically.  After reading through these sections, the thought came to mind, “Does anyone actually eisegete Scripture this way”? It is possible but unlikely that a person would adopt such a hermeneutic and if a person were to do so, it would be indicative of a person who needs cognitive therapy and trauma counseling before they read Scripture. Thus my conclusion is that Harrower is elucidating the aforementioned in order to aggrandise section 8 – A Blessed Reading of Matthew[10].

This chapter is the linchpin I believe to Harrower’s entire work, not only does it provide the basis for his initial aims stated in his book but also sets up the platform for the proceeding section.

A significant emphasis of Matthew’s Gospel is his focus on the Kingdom of God. Thirty-two times in Matthew’s Gospel Mathew incorporates the phrase “the kingdom of heaven”. The use of the word “Kingdom” is also used extensively in Matthew’s Gospel in a variety of contexts[11]. Leon Morris in his introduction aptly states:

“For Matthew, it is important that God is sovereign over all and that his rule will one day be brought to a glorious consumption. The present or the future aspect of the kingdom underlies a great deal of what is written in this Gospel”[12].

This is clearly evident in Harrower’s engagement with Matthew’s Gospel. For example, he asks an excellent question: How does the living, Trinitarian God act to establish a sense of safety for trauma survivors?[13]. His answer: “Through objective historical events – (Matthew’s Gospel presents historical tangible evidences of God’s responses to horrors). God can order historical events so that they mediate knowledge of himself[14].

A concern I had when first engaging with Harrower’s work was that he would not deal with Matthew’s Gospel on Matthew’s terms, but his treatment of the text correlated with the themes and emphasis of Matthew’s Gospel, (his dealing with the Genealogy was excellent) and my other concern; that the book may be triumphalist in its conclusions was easily allayed. There is a humility to the author and to this book. A humility that is consistent with one who is a follower of the One who displayed ultimate humility by condescending to human persons, by becoming one of us. The One whom “in his earthly ministry…makes it objectively clear that God rejects horrors and trauma. He is morally and creatively opposed to them… at the same time in Christ offers hope for human horror makers.

Jesus was not immune to horrors and traumas and wonderfully not only does He reject horrors, He does so strongly that he ultimately will banish them and those who caused them (Matt. 13:41-42)”[15].

A hard read, a stretching read, but well worth it.

 

 

 


[2] See Part 1 Horrors and Skepticism – Chapter 2 – the Backstory of Horrors, Subheading, What Went Wrong? The Images of God and shadows of God. (Kindle Cloud Reader -Location 358)

[3]ibid.

[4] See Chapter 4 Issues Arising from Horrors – Kindle Cloud Reader – Loc. 771, 806, 881

[5] The problems of horrors and skepticisms generated by these cannot be understood nor resolved by means of abstract proposals alone. Rather, narratives are the framework within which this theological, existential, and anthropological discernment must take place. – Part 2 Horrors and Interpretation, Kindle, 939, 979,

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid. 1 Choosing Matthew’s Gospel, Kindle Location. 1023 of 7053.

[8] Or even one of Job’s comforters whom holds to a very strong ‘Causal theological understanding of God’.

[9]Choosing Matthews Gospel, Kindle Location. 1023 of 7053.

[10] Which in my view is Harrowers strongest chapter in this work.

[11] i.e “See the parables of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel”

[12] Morris. Leon, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series, Erdmans, Grand Rapids, 1992, p.8

[13] Part 3 Horrors and Trinity – 9. Re-establishing Trust in God’s Character -Kindle Loc.2178.

[14] Ibid. A great explanation follows. (i.e. A great explanation follows!) God stands in negative relationships with horrors: there will be a time and place further ahead in history in which horrors, unrelenting horror makers, and potential horror makers will be exposed, judged, and disallowed at the same time that all other persons will be remade into glorified human beings.)

[15]  Paraphrased from Part 3 Horrors and Trinity; The Life of Jesus: Historical Engagement with Horror Makers; Kindle Location, 2362.

Book Review – Ever Ancient Ever New – The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation

Being an Anglican priest who loves the liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer, who thinks a traditional prayer book service should not only be found in an early Sunday morning service for people aimed over the age of eighty, I was very interested to read the latest work by a fellow Anglican priest from across the pond Winfield Bevins.

He makes some very salient points. For example, Winfield notes one of the weaknesses of the church growth movement:

“The end result of attempts to “woo” the world with the world’s ways has produced a generation of consumers – individuals who in the driver’s seat and dictate what and how the church should meet their needs – rather than radically comitted disciples of Jesus Christ”. chapter 1 – [the New Search for Liturgy – p.29]

He backs this up in chapter 2 (which I thought was his strongest chapter) writing:

Finally, perhaps the most powerful characteristic of liturgy is its participatory element. Many young adults have shared with me how they are tired of a seeker-friendly, consumerist approaches to the faith in which they observe and absorb the work of others. They no longer want to be etertained; they want to participate. Liturgy ensures that each person has the opportunity to participate in the worship of the church, and it keeps us from being passive spectatotrs who simply observe and consume knowledge. (Liturgy is participatory – p.53).

Winfield unpacks and applies this to families in Chapter 10 – Bringing Liturgy Home, (pp.191-192).

“People today tend to focus on “the now” at the expense of the past, and we invest ourselves in what is temporal rather than what is eternal”.

After reading chapter 2 I was saying aloud “yes!”, “so true”.

Bevins made points which I strongly agree with, how liturgy frees us from ourselves:

“Liturgy is formative…it inoculates us from man-centered worship’. (p.50).

Below are some other helpful tidbits:

“liturgical worship can bring a much-needed focal point for a more disciplined spiritual life”.[Chapter 1 – the New Search for Liturgy – p.37]

“Historical liturgy offers us a way to correct our forgetfulness”. [the New Search for Liturgy – p.39]. ” As such, we as a people should not approach God as individuals, but as a family of God”.

In later chapters, Winfield helpfully elucidates the benefits of using liturgy prayers in one’s prayer life and the daily office (i.e. Chapter 8 – Rhythms of Grace -pp.164-167).

A question that his book raised in my mind as I was reading it pertains to Bevins’ claims that many young people, many young adults in the USA are moving to churches that are liturgical. I wonder if Winfield is over-egging the pudding just a wee bit. I have asked other Anglican priests from the States if many young people are in fact moving to churches that are liturgical, some are saying that this is not the case, some do, but not on a huge scale.

I believe that the liturgies of the Anglican Church, namely the Book of Common Prayer are a blessing that cannot be overstated. I love being an Anglican Christian and love our Anglican liturgies. I (like Bevins) am also very wary of consumer entertainment-based church services where members are spectators rather than participants and so to encounter a book written by not only a  brother in Christ, but a fellow Anglican priest who shares the same love of liturgy, I really wanted to love this book. However, Bevins’book seemed to be theologically confusing. On the one hand, he talks about embracing liturgy “in conjunction with good theology” and the necessity of orthodoxy (right doctrine) and yet throughout his book he provides anecdotal examples of where one’s experience was the litmus test to discern whether something (in this case, liturgy) was true, right, brought them to God.  Bevins uses very subjective language. He often uses the words “felt”, ” a sense of”; his term ‘a sense of’.

As I read this book, it became more apparent that Ever Ancient Ever New was not about the merits of Anglican Christianity, or about the blessings of Anglican liturgy and in particular the BCP. It was more about the benefits of being liturgical, and the litmus test of what makes good liturgy is the experience that it engenders in the person using the liturgy, regardless of its source (be it Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic or Anglican). The book lacked theological clarity (which I think was most evident in Chapter 7 – Three Streams, One River). I won’t elucidate my concerns of that in this review as I have already written about the Three Streams in a previous article, sufficed to say that Winfield is a strong proponent of this view and thus, in my opinion, has moved away from Classical Cranmerian Anglicanism and places a dichotomy between Word, Spirit, and Sacrament in its very attempt to try to bring together what Cranmerian Anglicanism had never separated.

What makes liturgy good liturgy is not the experience one has when engages in it, but the Word of God that permeates through it, (which is why the BCP is such good liturgy). But for Bevins, it seems that Scripture (whilst authoritative) it is not the supreme authority.

Australian Anglican priest and former Dean of St Andrews Cathedral in Sydney, the Rev Philip Jensen, writes:

While nearly all Christians uphold the authority of the Scriptures, in reality, there are other authorities which compete with the Bible for supremacy. There are those who regard the teachings of the institution or tradition to which they belong as authoritative for their life. If their church or priest or bishop or pastor (past or present) offers direction for their behaviour or understanding or praxis they will adopt it readily and fall into line. Others wish to be led more by their experience of God. They see their Christian lives in terms of following the movings and promptings of the Spirit. Then there are those who base their understanding of God and what He requires of us on human reason. They will accept and practice whatever can be demonstrated as sensible, rational, and intelligent and discard what they deem to be primitive or irrational. Whilst in the Christian life, the positions that we hold to have a measure of Bible, Experience, Institution, and Reason mixed in, there comes a point where one has to choose between these four competing authorities. What will we do when our experience doesn’t tally with the Scriptures? Or when our reason disagrees with what the Bible says? Or when our practice or tradition does not match with God’s Word? It is at this point that we reveal our true colours. We draw a line and take our stand. 1

Bevins, like all of us, has to choose between these four competing authorities. Judging from his book, Bevins has chosen experience. And this is the book’s greatest weakness and is where it falls down. Cranmer’s goal in putting together the BCP was to point people to Scripture, he did not discount reason, experience or tradition, but for him, these authorities come under the final authority – Holy Scripture. That is the point of authentic Anglican liturgy.

Some years ago a book came out entitled Evangelicals On the Canterbury Trail by the late Robert Webber. Bevins’ book in many ways seems to be a 21st Century version of that book, minus the American Episcopalianism with a strong addition of three streams theology. The result is a theologically confusing book. His quote from Brian Zahnd in his epilogue encapsulates this confusion:

“We need the whole body of Christ to properly form the body of Christ. This much I’m sure of: Orthodox mystery, Catholic beauty, Anglican liturgy, Protestant audacity, Evangelical energy, Charismatic reality – I need it all”

So would I recommend this book? I would have to say that in spite of the strengths of this book (which there are many of which my Subterranean Anglicans could benefit from), I could not recommend this book to anyone other than the Biblically discerning.

Footnote

  1. https://phillipjensen.com/four-ways-to-live/