Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Books read in November 2011

1. Romans: Momentous News by David Cook

50 short studies suitable for personal devotions or group study. Sound and clear interpretation. Highly recommended to get to grips with the most important epistle.

2.Between Naivety and Hostility: How Should Christians Respond to Islam in Britain? by Steve Bell and Colin Chapman

Nineteen contributors write on how Christians in the UK should relate to Muslims today, but only two of them are converts from Islam and neither of them I believe of British origin. This I think is one of the few weaknesses in a most helpful, informative and challenging volume. My experience is that converts from Islam are often the more negative in their approach to Islam. The regrettable absence of an index prevents me from seeing how many times a more critical approach, like that of convert Patrick Sookhdeo is referenced. I also missed any reference to those promoting Meetings for Mutual Understanding.

The first chapter is on Approaching Muslims with Grace and Truth. The book ends with a final statement of ten ways to do this as an appropriate response to Muslims. The first section, Assumptions and Starting Points gives some theological and historical perspectives but does not deal with some of the big, relevant issues like are we talking about the same God or where did Muhammad's message originate. The second section, Crucial Issues in Britain Today examines the diversity of Muslim communities, conversion to and from Islam, apostasy, persecution of converts to Christianity, human right, education and women. I found the chapter on Islamic Courts and the British Legal System very informative but found no mention of the inequity of witnesses before Shari'a courts.

The chapters on Models of Positive relationships give practical examples of how Christians are and should be taking action. I am pleased to see the polemic approach of Jay Smith stated as well as that of a softer dialogue approach. The chapter on Taqiyya, dissimulation I found disappointing from a Christian perspective as it really failed to deal adequately with the Roman Catholic equivocation doctrine and the diversity of approach among Protestants, some of whom will say Rahab told a lie to the glory of God. Surely when one witnesses to Muslims or non-Muslims it is only by personal contact can one tell if they are people of truth.

This book should encourage and help Christians in befriending Muslims. It should promote personal dialogue, witness and polemic. On the corporate level it should encourage churches to relate to local mosques, seek opportunities to promote co-operation and social cohesion. It should also encourage churches to show real practical support to converts from Islam. Until Churches show they are real communities of care and support they have little to offer by way of real challenge to their neighbouring Muslim umma.

The jury is out on whether the authors downplaying of the demographic and political threat from Islam is the realistic one. I also wonder if there is not a place for a consideration of possible co-belligerence with some Muslims against the common secularist enemy. I think also that looking at the manifestations of Islam in the UK where it is a minority faith, one has a very different impression from that seen in countries where it dominates.

3. Wise Counsel: John Newton's Letters to John Ryland, Jr. edied by Grant Gordon

83 letters, many never before published, written over 31 years by Anglican clergyman Newton to John Ryland Jnr., a Baptist 28 years younger than Newton. Ryland was a child prodigy, fluent in Greek aged 8 and destined to be principal of the Bristol Baptist College. Newton, now famed as hymn writer was the letter writer of genius in the 18th century Evangelical revival. The catholic spirit of Newton was remarkable in an age when Establishment generally despised Dissent. In an age of bitter theological controversies Newton was a peacemaker counselling avoidance of unhelpful disputation. His letters to Ryland are practical and deeply spiritual. To a young man there is counsel on decision making, courtship, charity, pastoral calls, bereavement and more. Newton even tells the young widower and parent, Ryland, to look for another wife with sentiments unromantic and practical like those counselled by Samuel Johnson.

These letters cover dramatic times in world and church history. We go through American and French Revolutions, the slave trade and abolition. We read of the founding of missions, BMS,LMS and CMS. We read of the baptism of 'a poor journeyman shoemaker' by Ryland to his description by Newton as an Apostle. There is much also on missions to Sierra Leone.

Newton comes across as a very remarkable man. He was an evangelical par excellence not caring about denominational labels but only whether someone loved the Lord. He was open about his own sins, even the unusually confessed one of idolising his spouse. He had a remarkable warmth of character in a formal age. His servants were treated more like family. Ryland often instructed Newton to burn his letters. Thankfully Ryland kept Newton's.

Grant Gordon has produced a great piece of well researched work with very helpful annotations. The only thing I missed was an account of how the postage system operated before the 1840 Penny Post. This is a heart warming historic read. You can feel Newton growing old, enduring trials but triumphing by faith. Grace brought him safely home.

4. Collecting Cobwebs, Gathering Brambles: Poems, Rhymes and Light Verse by Elizabeth A. Leaper , Jack Williamson

Reviewing the poetry of family members is probably territory where angels fear to tread. Jack was a quiet bachelor whose poetry reflects his life long residence in Wilmslow, the old town of Cheshire, not the posh place beloved of the rich from Manchester. A man whose poetry shows his love of home and family and a time now past. Like Elizabeth I wish he had not been so reticent about his talent with words. Elizabeth shares it too with reflections on what is seen in a more modern world and countryside. I am no expert on poetry but there is stimulation for reflection and smiles here.

5.The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobson

Prize winning and allegedly funny. Not to me. I confess I am not a fan of modern novels by Western authors but I heard this was a funny one so I read it. Unlike some reviewers I persevered to the end but it was at times hard going. Funny it is not. It should be called the Jewish question as that is what it is all about but that would hardly sell the book as a novel.It is all about two Jews and a man who aspires to be one. It seems full of Jewish angst in a way that I am sure no g can fathom, a bit like when one character lambastes a sympathetic gentile woman who is taking his side in denouncing Zionism for she as a Gentile has no right to do so. I wonder it his is how the author feels about his reviewers. I searched in vain for an appreciative Jewish reviewer.Of his two main Jewish characters one seems liberal and as much Czech as Jewish. He seems a decent old man but ends his own life. The other is British born, rejecting all things Jewish, even Zionism. He is a popular philosopher, an adulterer and gambler, a totally unattractive character except in devotion to his children. His Gentile friend is promiscuous, obsessed with matters Jewish. He has two adult sons with whom he has little contact, sleeps with his friend's wife, thinks he has been mugged by a woman who has mistaken him for a Jew. He is even more mixed up than any Jew in the book. It would have been so refreshing to meet an upright orthodox believer. Instead we have a rag tag collection of anti-Zionists ASHamed to be Jews. There is ugly antisemitism in the book. Reading one wonders how the Jews have managed to survive. Perhaps it is to do with the God who seems absent from this novel. This seems to be a book about obsessions, Jewishness, Zionism, sex, circumcision, even the BBC. Perhaps one might have understood a little better if there had been a glossary of Yiddish/Hebrew words. Not recommended.

6.The Litigators by John Grisham

Grisham is on form again. I have read all his fiction and though I prefer him in the deep South, here he is at his urban best. A disreputable two partner firm of ambulance chasers is joined by a smart Harvard graduate who has run away from a career in international bond law at a prestigious firm. Grisham has no love for big business, legal or pharmaceutical. Both are portrayed as ruthless and venal. Not all big business is castigated. The happy ending comes via a case involving a large toy company. David, the hero lawyer is a bit of a fairy tale good character but he gives you the good vibes, unlike the two men he works with, one in an unhappy marriage and one an alcoholic. Once again it is a gripping page turner.

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