Category Archives: Book reviews

A Fan’s Best of Christmas Music Lists

I collect Christmas music. I have been doing so since I was a teenager, and it’s become something of an obsession. I now have nearly 300 albums of Christmas music, spanning every musical genre and era.

Choosing the best of the albums and songs is not an easy task – and obviously highly subjective. But I guess I am as qualified as anyone to do so. Here then are my “best of” lists of Christmas music (this is a work in progress – latest update 23 Dec 2016):

To get into these lists the songs and albums need something distinctive, they are musically excellent (even if I don’t particularly like the style), they must not be cheesy (so, no Boney M then), and they must capture the Christmas spirit (festive or reflective). I also favoured variety (so that my list of top albums didn’t dominate the individual songs list too much). The final criteria is that I included not just popular musicians, but Christian artists and worship albums as well – it is Christ-mas, after all.

These lists are going to be updated regularly, and change as I get suggestions and come across new songs and albums (and get slapped down for my initial choices). I’d love to hear your suggestions for these lists, and any songs or albums you think are better than the ones in my lists below.

Please remember that it’s actually impossible to create a “best of” list of Christmas songs. It’s actually better to be clear on what musical styles you prefer, and then get the best Christmas album in those styles. It’s also a good idea to select the best version of each Christmas song you like. That’s what I’ve done below, knowing full well there is not one chance that any list of “best Christmas songs” will ever be satisfactory. There are just too many musical genres competing for attention.

So, add your voice below.

Xmas Baubles
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Best books to read on Christians, the Bible and homosexuality

For the past ten years, I have been reading, writing and researching on the issue of Christians, the Bible and homosexuality. I have become convinced that the traditional Christian approach to the topic of homosexuality and to same sex marriage is incorrect, and needs to be adjusted. This is not due to pressure from society or to recent legislation changes in some countries, but rather through an in-depth study of God’s Word.

I don’t believe that any twisting of God’s Word is required in order to see that we can accept homosexuality and approve same sex marriage, based on Scripture and what we understand of God. I don’t believe that we have to ignore certain parts of Scripture, writing them off as cultural or outdated in order to do this. I believe the Bible has been misread for two millennia on this issue. I realise that this can be a very difficult position for conservative Christians to accept and understand, but I believe that those who are truth seekers, and are open to seeing how God’s grace and love is extended to the LGBT community, will find an acceptance in God’s Word that will surprise them. I think we’ll discover that this issue is to our generation what previous generations of Christians have had to face when dealing with significant social change brought about by women’s suffrage, the end of segregation, the end of slavery, the changing of the system of divine rights of kings and of feudalism, mindsets around foreign missions, and many other similar shifts in both theology and society in our history.

There are some excellent books available to help you to investigate this issue for yourself, and familiarise yourself with new ways of looking at God’s Word. Here is a short list to help you get started. These are books that deal with affirming homosexuality and same sex marriage, or engage in looking at the topic through multiple lenses. I am not including books that are opposed to same sex marriage – I am sure a Google search will give you plenty of those if you want to read all sides of the debate.

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No-one is ever going to be “Left Behind”

Apparently Nicolas Cage’s latest movie, “Left Behind” is horrid (see movie website and trailer here). Critics are absolutely panning it, and from a few reviews I’ve read it sounds like another of Cage’s duds (I like him, and he has done some really great movies, but he’s done some stinkers too). But even if the movie itself was any good, the premise is bad. In fact, horrific.

It is based on the second best selling book series of all time (after Harry Potter) by Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins, “Left Behind”. This 12 book series tells a variety of stories about the rapture, and what happens in the aftermath of all the world’s Christian believers disappearing “in the blinking of an eye”. Especially in conservative Christianity, this 150 year belief (yes, it’s not something the historic church has believed) that comes straight of dispensationalism, has taken hold and is even an article of faith for many (by writing this blog, I am guaranteeing that I will be getting a long list of loving comments… watch my Facebook feed for evidence of the wrath of the faithful).

The problem is that this concept is entirely unbiblical. Not only does the word “rapture” never appear anywhere in the Bible, the two verses that the concept is based on have been badly misunderstood on the basis of a very simple misinterpretation of a single Greek word. I also think that the whole concept of a rapture goes directly against the central message of the Gospel itself, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

I am not a lone voice in this. Some very significant Biblical scholars have carefully debunked the concept.

Let’s start with that Greek word. The word for *meet* (εἰς ἀπάντησιν) in 1 Thess. 4:17 (see also 1 Cor. 15:51-54 and Phil. 3:20-21) was a technical term that described the custom of sending a delegation outside the city to receive a dignitary who was on the way to town. The delegation would go out to meet the guests and then immediately return to the city with them – basically just escorting them into the city. Luke uses this term in this way in Acts 28:14b-15: “And so we came to Rome. The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet (εἰς ἀπάντησιν) us.” Therefore, what Paul is suggesting in 1 Thess. 4:17 is that the dead in Christ will be raised, caught up with Jesus in the air, and then come straight back down to earth with Jesus. That is in fact where Jesus is heading: to earth. This fits pastorally with what Paul’s trying to say in the rest of 1 Thessalonians, as he encourages persecuted believers to understand that they will be vindicated when Jesus returns.

The whole Bible points to the fact that this earth will be renewed and restored to fit God’s original creation plan. It’s an incorrect view of the end times that sees Christians being “rescued” from a “dying” planet that is then destroyed. In fact, the Bible says the opposite: God comes down, establishes a new Jerusalem, restoring this earth. This may be figurative language, but it’s the best we’ve got, and at no stage do we see this earth being done away with, or being left to rot. God’s game-plan has always been to bring heaven to this earth. Not to take us away from earth into heaven.

Continue reading No-one is ever going to be “Left Behind”

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We Make the Road by Walking

One of the most anticipated books of the year is released today. My friend, Brian McLaren, launches his latest book, “We Make the Road by Walking”. I know that this book has been almost a decade in the making in his mind, and a full year of focused writing. Early reviews have been brilliant, and I am looking forward to getting my copy.

Here’s why you should get a copy.

This book is designed to take us on a journey through the Bible and the Christian faith in a year. It’s 52 chapters are short reads with reflections and group study guides. Organized around the traditional church year, each chapter reflects on a different story from Scripture and invites contemplation, discussion, and action.

People who are committed Christians, but have lots of questions, doubts, and frustrations with the version of faith they’ve been given and would like a fresh start are really going to get a lot from this book.

As Brian says: “You are not finished yet. You are ‘in the making.’ You have the capacity to learn, mature, think, change, and grow. You also have the freedom to stagnate, regress, constrict, and lose your way. Which road will you take?”

Read more about the book here. You can read the first three chapters online here.

Buy it:
Amazon.co.uk Paperback
Amazon.co.uk Kindle
Kalahari – in South Africa

UPDATE: Here is a review by Tony Jones.

UPDATE:
May online resources are now springing up to help you work through the book with small groups, families, etc.

Here’s one for families.

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It’s all about the Bible – and it’s important!

The major debates raging in Christian circles these days all actually distil down to one big issue: how we interpret the Bible.

Many people treat the Bible as a combination of scientific textbook and heavenly constitution. If we believe this, then we can use verses and phrases to prove key points of differentiation and detail. We still have to explain away any competing statements or interpretations, but our approach is to look to the Bible for proof in the sense that modern day scientists, jurors or lawmakers would understand. The extreme view – which is completely untenable, but is still the idealised view of many conservative Christians – is that all of the Bible is “literally” true.

Liberals might find themselves on the opposite extreme claiming that the Bible contains little more than myths, legends and poems, and that it can really mean anything we want it to.

But maybe there are other ways to look at the Bible, that find a middle way between these two extremes.

This is the conversation that has taken hold in our time.

Brian McLaren recently created the following list of up-to-date resources for those who want to pursue this journey. I certainly do, and have found these very helpful:

Watch Steve Chalke’s video here:

Restoring Confidence in the Bible from Oasis UK on Vimeo.

Join in. This will define the future of Christianty for the next few centuries.

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VIDEO: Brian McLaren on the Courage to Differ Graciously

Brian McLaren’s last book was about interfaith dialogue and how we can learn to be both fervently Christian and also gracious to those of other faiths. In a recent event hosted by The Guibord Center, Brian spoke about his book (Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World). You can watch the whole video here.

During the Q&A session, Brian gave some fantastic advice on how we should deal with people from within our own faith traditions who attack us and fight against us. I was both impressed and challenged by his advice, and extracted it in a short video. His simple message, and one I am trying to learn, is to have the courage to differ graciously.

For further reading on this vital issue, have a look at Brian’s own blog for two examples. And then read Mark McIntyre’s superb blog post on “Selective Grace in the Church“.

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Rational responses to the Noah movie

In recent weeks, conservative evangelical Christians have complained about the Disney movie, “Frozen” (proclaiming it’s theme tune to be supportive of gay rights), campaigned against World Vision withdrawing funding for third world children, and now are up in arms about the Hollywood movie, Noah. It can be embarrassing having to wear the label “Christian” alongside these whiners and moaners.

The movie, Noah, was recently released. It is a fictional tale based on the Biblical account. It includes some content from the book of 1 Enoch (it is stunning how many Christians show complete lack of knowledge about the books that nearly made it into the canon of Scripture, and have been accepted as extra-canonical but nevertheless Biblical by more than half of all the Christians who have ever lived). It also includes some references to other ancient flood myths, including the most powerful one, the Gilgamesh Epic, that actually predates the Biblical account (again, most conservative Christians show complete ignorance of these other accounts of creation, the flood and antiquity, even though an understanding of the version Moses wrote must take into account how it interacted with these more ancient myths).

The movie, Noah, is a fictional account of the Biblical story, taking some license with the very short version in the Old Testament. It contains typical amounts of extra material designed to build drama and excitement, and does a good job of incorporating a variety of source material. But it does contradict the Biblical account in a number of ways, and dramatically changes how Christians would prefer God to be portrayed. As such, should Christians still watch it?

I believe that we absolutely should. And we should take the opportunity to talk about it amongst ourselves and with our children. This really does come down to how we handle truth. Conservative Christians try to handle truth by not engaging with error in any way. Well, “the elders” of their churches should engage with error, effectively becoming guardians and censors, warning “the flock” of dangers and steering them away from error. I prefer the approach which teaches people how to spot error for themselves, and to raise their ability to handle truth wisely. This involves, amongst other things, teaching people how to have conversations about truth, how to investigate, how to think and analyse, and how to ask questions – all the time relying on the Holy Spirit to teach and guide.

For the most balanced and rational review of the movie, I’d suggest Greg Boyd’s which you can find here. You can also read Tony Jones’ take on the movie – a more theological reflection on the nature of the Bible and how we should interpret it.

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N.T. Wright on Paul, Romans and Election

I am a huge fan of N.T. Wright, and especially of his work on showing the sweep of God’s redemptive history in Paul’s books. I also particularly like his interpretation of the book of Romans (I have written on this blog before how Romans is a very misunderstood book if you think it is simply a summary of theology by Paul. It is not: it has a very specific and deliberate purpose, aside from which the book does not make sense as a coherent whole).

In his upcoming book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright takes a deep look at the doctrine of election. Some extracts are being made available, and I was intrigued by these two passages from the book. They make a lot of sense to me, and the idea that God’s covenant with Abraham (which was repeatedly shown to be a one sided covenant anyway) – that the whole world will be blessed – is fulfilled in Christ is magnificent:

Now at last we see where his sharp-edged, and often controversial, ‘doctrine of election’ in Romans 9 was going. This was never an abstract ‘doctrine of predestination’, attempting to plumb the mysteries of why some people (in general, without reference to Israel) hear and believe the gospel and others do not. Paul never encourages speculation of that sort. Rather, it was a way of saying, very specifically, that the fact of Israel’s election (starting with the choice and call of Abraham) had always been there to deal with the sin of the world; that Israel’s election had always involved Israel being narrowed down, not just to Isaac and then to Jacob, but to a hypoleimma, a ‘remnant’, a ‘seed’; and that this ‘remnant’ itself would be narrowed down to a single point, to the Messiah himself, who would himself be ‘cast away’ so that the world might be redeemed. The point of ‘election’ was not to choose or call a people who would somehow mysteriously escape either the grim entail of Adam’s sin or the results it brought in its train. It was not – as in some low-grade proposals! – about God simply choosing a people to be his close friends. The point was to choose and call a people through whom the sin of humankind, and its results for the whole creation, might be brought to the point where they could at last be defeated, condemned, overcome. Hence the line that runs, in Romans, from 3.24–26 to 8.3–4 and on to 10.3–4, backed up by the summaries in 5.6–11 and 5.12–21. Here is the faithfulness of the Messiah, which discloses, unveils, apocalypticizes, the righteousness of God, God’s covenant faithfulness.

And on Romans 9-11:

As becomes apparent in Romans 9—11, this single divine plan has been hugely paradoxical, because the way in which Israel’s story has been God’s instrument in the salvation of the world has been precisely through Israel’s ‘casting away’. This is the point of the (to us) strange passage about negative predestination in 9.14–29: Israel is simultaneously ‘the Messiah’s people’ and ‘the Messiah’s people according to the flesh’, as we might have deduced from the opening summary statement in 9.4–5. Israel’s story, that is, was always designed (as many second-Temple Jews would have insisted) to come to its climax in the arrival and accomplishment of the Messiah; but that accomplishment, as Paul had come to see, involved the Messiah himself in being ‘cast away for the sake of the world’. Thus Israel, as the Messiah’s people, is seen to have exercised its vocational instrumentality in God’s rescue operation for the world precisely by acting out that newly-discovered and deeply shocking ‘messianic’ vocation: Israel is indeed the means of bringing God’s rescue to the world, but it will be through Israel’s acting out of the Messiah-shaped vocation, of being ‘cast away’ for the sake of the world. Paul finally says it out loud (at a point where most interpreters have long since lost the thread and so fail to make the connection) in 11.12, 15; this is where we see why Paul did not deny the ‘boast’ of 2.19–20, but went on affirming it paradoxically, even though it raised the questions of 3.1–8 to which he has at last returned and which he has at last answered. Salvation has come to the Gentiles – through Israel’s paraptōma, the ‘stumble’ in which Israel recapitulates the sin of Adam, as in 5.20. ‘The reconciliation of the world’ has come about – through Israel’s apobolē, ‘casting away’, the ‘rejection’ in which Israel recapitulates the death of the Messiah, as in 5.10–11. At the heart of one of Paul’s strangest and most challenging chapters we find exactly this theme: that the creator God, having entered into a covenant with Abraham’s family that he would bless the world through that family, has been faithful to his promise, even though it has been in the upside-down and inside-out way now unveiled in the Messiah.

A deep, but important, reflection this Sunday evening.

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A ‘gag reflex’ to ‘gay lifestyles’ is not any way to judge morality

Recently, Thabiti Anyabwile (Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition) wrote an article which the Gospel Coalition posted on their website: “The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and ‘Gay Marriage’“. I have heard this argument before: that the disgust many conservative Christians feel towards homosexuality is a sign of the Holy Spirit working in their consciences and a clear indication that it is wrong.

Whatever your belief about homosexuality and gay marriage, this is an entirely spurious supposition.

I travel all over the world for my work, and have very often had a gag reflex in response to some of the food I have been offered. Is that my conscience telling me that the food is morally bad for me? Or is it possibly more likely to be some deep seated cultural conditioning telling me not to eat this food which is unknown or unappetising to me? I have learnt not to trust my gag reflex in many situations.

But I have also experienced the ‘gag reflex’ Pastor Anyabwile speaks of in a church context. The first time (and a few more, sad to say) that I heard a female worship leader (sorry, Darlene Zschech) and a woman preacher I had literal bad physical reactions. I had been brought up to believe with all my heart that women should not be leaders or teachers. I don’t believe that anymore. But the gag reflex had nothing to do with it – either way. I also had a ‘gag reflex’ the first time I saw a black man and a white woman kissing. I grew up in Apartheid era South Africa where this was illegal, and also considered immoral on the basis of the Bible. Although I remember my church being vaguely opposed to apartheid, we never had any black kids in our Sunday School or youth programmes (it was technically illegal to do so, but some churches didn’t bother obeying that particular law, while mine did). And there were certainly no cross cultural couples around. I had a deep cultural conditioning against such things. I don’t anymore (my family has even adopted a Zulu daughter). But a few years ago, on an international youth pastor’s forum, I asked participants to list their top three biggest youth group issues. Many pastors from the southern states of the USA listed cross cultural dating as their number one issue (and they were opposed to it!).

So, I don’t trust my gag reflex to be my moral guide. I really honestly don’t. And I find it horrific that a person in the position that Pastor Anyabwile is can publicly put forward the level of homophobic attitudes he does in his article.

As I was wondering how to respond, I was delighted to see that one of my favourite Christian bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, had also picked up the story and provided a thoughtful and useful response. You can read it on her blog, or an extended extract below.

God forgive us for these attitudes, and rescue us from the pit from which they come.

Continue reading A ‘gag reflex’ to ‘gay lifestyles’ is not any way to judge morality

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Wonderful examples of inter faith solidarity

Two years ago when the first riots swept across Egypt, I posted a wonderful picture of Christians who surrounded and protected Muslims who were praying. Now, in the past few days, as Christians have been on receiving end of persecution it is wonderful to see Muslim’s returning the gesture. There are now quite a few photos circulating on the web of Muslims surrounding Christian churches, protecting them from protestors and arsonists.

Here are two of these images:
Muslims protecting church in Egypt

Muslims protecting church in Egypt

One of the books I have enjoyed reading most this past year is Brian McLaren’s, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World”. It is an insightful and well reasoned book that helps us reconsider how we can be truly Christian while still connecting with other religions. The intention of the book is to seek a “third way”. As Brian says, “We know how to have a strong Christian identity that is intolerant of or belligerent towards other faiths, and we know how to have a weak Christian identity that is tolerant and benevolent. But is there a third alternative? How do we discover, live, teach, and practise a Christian identity that is both strong and benevolent towards other faiths?” (Buy Brian’s book at Kalahari.com in South Africa, on Amazon.com or on Kindle[email protected]).

It’s great to see some examples of this in Egypt.

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