Theology and Issues of Life and Death: A Review

Theology and Issues of Life and Death

A guest post from Scott Jackson

John Heywood Thomas, Theology and Issues of Life and Death (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2013). ISBN: 13:978-1-62032-228-4; xx+136pp.

According to philosophical theologian John Heywood Thomas, Christian theology must vindicate itself by addressing practical questions: When does life being? How can we die with dignity? How can we uphold human values in the face of rapid advances in medicine and technology? To meet this need, these thematic essays mobilize concepts from Christian thought and modern philosophy to address contemporary moral decision making. Thomas, professor emeritus at the University of Nottingham, writes, ‘What I want to show is that Theology is of temporal as well as eternal use and that it has light to shed on problems that concern us and guidance to offer us in our perplexities as we live our lives in this world’ (p. xvi). By and large, Thomas succeeds at this task with sensitivity, erudition and an engaging style. The collection is somewhat eclectic and lacks a central thesis; still, these seven essays, which were developed from public lectures and previously unpublished pieces, hang together fairly well.

Thomas draws from his extensive research into Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy and theology. He reiterates the Danish philosopher’s clear distinction between time and eternity and his characteristic emphasis upon the lived dialectic of existence. Like his mentor Paul Tillich, Thomas conceives theology as a ‘boundary’ discourse that impinges upon the human sciences at the level of their existential rootedness in ultimate reality. Thomas quotes Aquinas and catholic spiritual writers with ease. In one of the more engaging aspects of this collection, moreover, he draws from literary sources, showing a special affinity for the poets from his Welsh heritage who share his surname (Gwen Thomas, Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas), and he teases out religious implications from these works.

Thomas rejects typically modern dichotomies in religion and morality. Thus, for example, he insists that all philosophy and theology stem from existential commitment and the authors’ specific contexts, as Kierkegaard taught; yet, as Tillich insisted, religious thought also entails a speculative dimension (Thomas does not share the postmodern antipathy to asking big questions.) Good theology, he holds, transcends the dichotomy between theory and practice and embraces the keenest insights of contemporary research. In this vein, he goes beyond the absolute stance of the Roman Catholic against abortion and argues that the contemporary science of brain development can help us address the question of when human life begins. Still, as Christians, we cannot rely merely upon modern notions of individual rights when facing problems in medical ethics: All our deliberations must be framed by our paradoxical situation as ‘created creators’ and by the central events of our redemption in Jesus Christ. Similarly, in our common human experience, we respect the bodies and last wishes of the deceased, and these commitments inform the practice of transplant surgery, tempering the utilitarian impulse to treat bodies as mere sources for parts to save the living.

Some of the most provocative insights in this book emerge from the author’s attempt to frame a theology of death and a ‘theology of the funeral’. Although Thomas references the Christian story explicitly and seems fairly comfortable with traditional religious language, he also seeks to respect the mystery that permeates the meaning and ending of human life. Thus, he affirms the resurrection hope believers share in Christ, but he refuses to speculate about the character of our post-mortem existence. In faith we proclaim that the frontier line between time and eternity has been overcome in Christ’s death. Whatever eternal life means is not something we can know before we experience it. Still, scripture provides images – e.g., the last supper as eschatological banquet. In conversation with Sartre, Heidegger and Rahner, Thomas explores the notion of death as the quintessential act of human freedom that gives meaning and shape to life as a whole. Moreover, today, contemporary climate science urges us to ponder the spectre of death on a global scale and points to a potential catastrophe for life on earth. Western individualism does us a grave disservice as we face questions of ecology and sustainability; yet, Christian eschatology has always had ‘cosmic’ strands that may help us learn to take the natural world more seriously; Thomas engages such thinkers as Jürgen Moltmann and Teilhard de Chardin, who have offered powerful models for addressing these questions.

Some readers, no doubt, are likely to find these essays unsatisfying. Thinkers who seek a bolder and more direct account of how Christian witness may inform contemporary moral issues – including some liberationists, postliberals and radical orthodox thinkers – may find Thomas too indebted to modernist philosophy and theology. Nonetheless, the author engages his resources with skill and thoughtfulness. Contemporary Christians, especially lay and ordained ministers, can find much in Thomas’ work to challenge and broaden their perspective on some of the most vexing issues of our day.

Scott Jackson, a member of the Episcopal Church, is a theologian and independent scholar who lives in western Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to the wonderful blog Die Evangelischen Theologen.

Always Being Reformed

PICKWICK_TemplateA new collection of essays on reformed theology, arising from a wonderful conference hosted by Austin Seminary, has just been published. Always Being Reformed: Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Reformed Theology was edited by David Jensen, who was also a contributor to the volume along with Cynthia Rigby, Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, Deborah van den Bosch, Henk van den Bosch, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Lameck Banda, Margit Ernst-Habib, Martha Moore-Keish, Mary Fulkerson, Meehyun Chung, and Bill Greenway. The collection includes a few scribbles from me too.

My essay is titled ‘Semper Reformanda as a Confession of Crisis’. It is unambitious and simple in its three broad aims, each of which earns a section. The first section is an attempt to identify the historical beginnings and theological intentions of the aphorism semper reformanda, and to trace some of the ways in which the commitment to this virtue of the reformed project has evolved. The second, and longest, section asks more specifically about how that commitment relates to reformed patterns of confessing. Principally, what I argue for here is that to confess the faith in the spirit of the semper is to confess that the Christian community is, at core, in a state of crisis. The final section attempts to place on the table one theo-political commitment that might call for reevaluation; namely, how the reformed conceive of their relationship vis-à-vis the modern state. I take it that this section is an implication of the previous one – i.e., an implication of the gospel’s eschatological character and what it means to be a community unsettled, unpredictable, and unreliable when it comes to its relationship with whatever current arrangements might be in place in the world.

I look forward to seeing the book when it arrives, and to revisiting some of the wonderfully-stimulating essays therein.

The conference was memorable in many ways. So was Austin. It was there that I met, for the very first time, a quiscalus quiscula.


Prayers of a Secular World: a review

Prayers_FC_HR1Prayers of a Secular World. Edited by Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy; introduction by David Tacey. Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2015. 160pp, ISBN: 978-0-9875401-9-5.

Inkerman and Blunt recently published a new anthology of work, a relatively little book by an impressive range of some 80 mostly Antipodean poets, some very well known, others hardly at all. The collection, Prayers for a Secular World, was edited by Melbourne poets Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy, and is introduced, fittingly so, with a brief essay by David Tacey on the religious nature of secularism. The latter helps to orient the reader to some of the terrain they are about to enter.

In their call for submissions, the editors said that they were ‘looking for poems of wonder and celebration, poems that mark the cycle of the day – dawn, midday, evening, night – the seasons, the progression of planets, the evolution of weather; poems of becoming – first steps, first words, transitions, epiphanies and inspirations; poems of belief and of doubt, pleas for protection, poems of remembrance and blessing, of forgiveness and redemption, poems of gratitude’. Short of the sternest editorial policing, such an invitation almost guarantees, more than most edited collections I think, the kind of hotchpotch smorgasbord of aptitude evident in the volume’s final form. Still.

The book’s title – which echoes Donna Ward’s claim, in Australian Love Poems, that ‘poems are prayers of the secular world’ – appears, at first glance, to promote the somewhat late-Victorian idea that poets are the new priests. But the pages therein are marked by a welcome avoidance of such presumption, their words occupied with patterns of time and of place, of dying and of encountering the world anew, and with the sounds of landscapes mostly suburban, where the majority of its readers, no doubt, dwell and pass through. In a review published in The Australian, Geoff Page noted of the title: ‘They are certainly not be [sic] “prayers” in the intercessory sense but they are contemplative and very likely to widen and diversify the metaphysical sensibilities of all but the most hardened of fundamentalists ­– who, no doubt, already have their own (more limited) rewards in view’. This is a point worth repeating, especially perhaps for those uncomfortable, in Tacey’s words, with the notion that ‘the transcendent doesn’t happen elsewhere, apart from the world, but is a dimension of the world’. Still, the publisher’s description of the book as ‘a meditation on living in a post-religious world’ strikes me as very odd – odd not only as a sketch of the book’s content, but also odd in terms of its assessment of things. Observers of the cultural landscape of our day might well enquire what world exactly is being spoken of here.

There is, for many, the perennial temptation to will oneself into a kind of authenticity. Such efforts are an expression of a romanticism that either refuses or forgets to weave into the solidest realities a knowledge of its loss. The result is, as the poet Christian Wiman has observed, a ‘soft nostalgia’. There are here, happily, a good number of notable exceptions to what might otherwise be merely another unwelcome example of such, of groping disorientated by a handful of tamed Emersonian ghosts trying to iron out the highs and lows of life apparently naïve to the view that our being of dust does not equate to an uncritical defence of some pathetic form of natural theology. In this volume, poems by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Andrew Lansdown, Fiona Wright, Robyn Rowland, Debi Hamilton, Ron Pretty, Anne Elvey, Michelle Cahill, and David Brooks, for example, serve this end particularly well. So do, I think, these two contributions:

‘Da Barri Barri Bullet Train’, by The Diwurruwurru Poetry Club with Mista Phillip

we bin get up with mista an habim gooda one feed
we bin jumpin da mudika
an millad bin go lunga bush
mimi an kukudi bin come too
an dey bin singim kujika
dey bin learnim us mob
for sing im kujika
we likim learn for sing us mob kujika
wen us mob bin lyin down in da darkes
darkest night I bin look da barri barri
e bin movin really really like da bullet train
I bin hold ma mimi really tight
da fire us mob bin make next ta millad mob
poking tongue like a big one king brown
an millad mob listen noise one side na water
must e bin da buffalo drinkin water
den us bin listen da croc bin snap da buffalo
da gnabia out there too
an he bin make us mob so frightn
but ma mimi bin sing out
hey you mob stop all da noise
ma mimi bin start to sing
da song na us mob country
sing in da old language
dem old people did sing
an make millad mob so shiny an strong
an I bin lyin da listen na mimi
I bin feel really really safe
den I musta bin go sleep


‘Eucalyptus Regnans’, by Meredi Ortega

for Brandi

that was some fiery trajectory you took, moving to Kinglake
to be among giants and clouds
I recall you dying once before
…….. .. run down at the crossing, going home for lunch

but you’re on Yea oval, among the nightied and discalceate
and you’re okay
road posts gone
all delineators and signs, the way forward and way back
…….. ..only black stags, ash deafening

one charred fence post
and your old weatherboard like a kind of gloating, it falls to you
…….. be the lucky one
better to believe in regnans than luck, they have what it takes
martyrdom, lofty sentiments
…….. ..all crown and nimbus and resurrection

up on the mountain, no one knows if lyrebirds
are mimicking silence
…….. ..volunteers go into the wasteland, leave songs out
musk and fern and siltstone tunes

it rains and then some
…….. ..and the green is giddying
stags wash white, their millioned saplings serry
…….. ..knit roots, squeeze out the other then each other
ashes move up the escarpment and up
to the yellow-raddled cockatoo, yellow-eyed currawong, to the sun
and you are in the very dawn of things

A little commendation for The Givenness of Things


I want to commend Marilynne Robinson’s recent book The Givenness of Things.

The result of this collection of wise and intelligent essays on profoundly human themes, proclivities, and experiences – like poverty, theology, freedom, randomness, fear, fads, greed, faith, science, and alarmism, breathed through with decent doses of Shakespeare, Calvin, Locke, and Saints Matthew and Luke, and marked by a remarkably high christology – is a perspicacious map which assists those of us living in and with Western cultures to read better the signs of the times, and to live better orientated towards those things that will outlast all else. A gift, from one who on her next birthday will be seventy.

I read large amounts of this book while sitting by two kangaroos – a big one, and a little one. They seemed to enjoy my company as much as I did theirs, and that of this book. And nearby hung this sign, another telling commentary on the state of things:


Richard Flanagan on books

Gould's Book of FishMy (re-)reading of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North turned me into a disciple, a Flanaganite, a lover of all things Flanagan, and so determined to enjoy my way through everything he’s published. I recently finished reading his Gould’s Book of Fish, doting on quirky page after quirky page of this delightful story, and along the way falling in love with William Buelow Gould who lived ‘once upon a time … long ago in a far-off place that everyone knows is not here or now or us’.

Here’s one of my favourite passages; it’s about books:

‘Perhaps reading and writing books is one of the last defences human dignity has left, because in the end they remind us of what God once reminded us before He too evaporated in this age of relentless humiliations—that we are more than ourselves; that we have souls. And more, moreover.

Or perhaps not.

Because it clearly was too big a burden for God, this business about reminding people of being other than hungry dust, and really the only wonder is that He persevered with it for so long before giving up. Not that I am unsympathetic—I’ve often felt the same weary disgust with my own rude creations—but I neither expect nor wish the book to succeed where He failed … I had begun with the comforting conclusion that books are the tongue of divine wisdom, and had ended only with the thin hunch that all books are grand follies, destined forever to be misunderstood.

Mr Hung says that a book at its beginning may be a new way of understanding life—an original universe—but it is soon enough no more than a mere footnote in the history of writing, overpraised by the sycophantic, despised by the contemporary, and read by neither. Their fate is hard, their destiny absurd. If readers ignore them they die, and if granted the thumbs-up of posterity they are destined forever to be misconstrued, their authors transformed first into gods and then, inevitably, unless they are Victor Hugo, into devils’.

– Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish

Kevin Considine reviews my book Hallowed be Thy Name

Hallowed be thy nameThe most recent edition of the journal Horizons (42.1, June 2015) includes a review (pdf), by Kevin P. Considine (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Calumet College of St. Joseph, Indiana), of my book Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth.

The book is now available in paperback at a friendlier price too.

Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History – now available on Kindle

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702The publishers have informed me that the Kindle edition for my edited volume Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth is now available from Amazon in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, India, Japan, Italy, and Mexico.

It’s also available in regular paperback and in ePub formats direct from the publisher, Wipf and Stock, and from wherever good books are sold.

Hallowed Be Thy Name – now available in paperback

Hallowed be thy nameUntil recently, my major study on P. T. Forsyth – Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth – has only been available in hardback (which is usually my preferred format for non-fiction titles but can be, and in this case is, reasonably pricey) and in e-book format (convenient but not, in my view, the nicest way to read theological tomes).

I was happy to learn of late that the publishers have followed a habit with the T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology series  and have now made Hallowed Be Thy Name available in paperback (at a more reader-friendly price too). Those interested can pick up a copy here.

By the way, if you do happen to head over to the Bloomsbury site, some readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem may also be interested to note the appearance of a forthcoming title, The Spirit and the Letter, edited by Paul Fiddes and Günter Badder. It looks great.

John Roxborogh’s A History of Christianity in Malaysia

A History of Christianity in MalaysiaThe Presbyterian minister and historian John Roxborogh has been accumulating research notes and scraps of information on Christianity in Malaysia and Southeast Asia for thirty years. Some of the fruit of that work is now available to us in his recently-published (and very-reasonably priced!) A History of Christianity in Malaysia (Armour, 2014). The volume comprises of a series of intelligent, well-researched, and accessibly-written reflections on how Christianity has been – is – part of the Malaysian story, not only from the beginning of ‘Malaysia’ in 1963, but through the centuries leading to the nation’s creation as well.

Roxborogh’s aim throughout is twofold: to offer a framework for further study, and to ‘provide an integrated narrative of how, as a universal faith, Christianity became a religion that was part of Malaysia at its formation’. Among the kaleidoscope of stories are accounts of some early generations of missionary scholars who felt pressure to recast stories in order to win support at home, while others worked to document more honestly the way of life of those they found themselves among and because of such better recognised the need to champion the cause of others rather than their own. This is, of course, a story that is not without echoes elsewhere. And part of the achievement of Roxborogh’s disciplined attention to its Malaysian contours is how it assists us to not only better understand the Malaysian parts of that story but also to interpret other contexts in more informed light.

The final chapter, ‘Praying and Belonging: 1989 to 2013’, owes some debt to Grace Davies, Kevin Ward, and others who talk about ‘believing and belonging’ as separable variables in European and Western Christianity. In Malaysia, praying and belonging is, according to Roxborogh, a fair description of the current situation. It also indicates something of the dynamic change in Christian self-identity and sense of mission that has taken place, in Malaysia and elsewhere, over the past 60 years. We need to know more about that story, about why it has happened and is still happening, and to think more deeply about what might be involved in faithfully documenting the story as it continues to unfold. Here in this book, Roxborogh shows us one way that this can be done.

I understand that some thought is already being given to a Chinese edition. Were such to eventuate, this may occasion an opportunity to consider additional themes and emphases, and to revisit too the ones that Roxborogh has already attended to but in a new light. For example, as Roxborogh is well aware, the challenges that attend being both ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Christian’ is mirrored in the dilemma of how to be both ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Chinese’, or ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Indian’ and ‘Eurasian’. Such questions remain pressing ones, and ones that are not to be discarded when the weight of being an indigenous church in Malaysia is now carried primarily by large groups of local Christians from East Malaysia.

Understanding Christianity as a global movement demands taking Asia and the Pacific Rim – its histories, practices, and theologies – seriously. Roxborogh’s study ably helps to serve this end.

A surprise among the ‘best-sellers’

Tikkun OlamFor everything, there’s the first.

Apparently, one of my edited books, ‘Tikkun Olam’: To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, has made a best-sellers list, coming in just behind Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful new novel Lila. Thanks to the discerning readers at Eighth Day Books.

My wonders are new every morning, just like my sins.

Who would have thought …

The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret

The Mumbersons and The Blood SecretSome moons ago, I posted an interview with the Dunedin author, composer, and musician, Mike Crowl, in relation to his book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp. Mike is a good friend who has, besides his literary foray on his surgical experiences, published two fantasy books this year for children. One of these was based on a really delightful musical he wrote and produced in 2012, called Grimhilda! (I posted about it here). This month, Mike released a ‘sort of sequel’ to Grimhilda! called The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret.

The Mumbersons is a ‘sort of sequel’ because here new characters take the lead, and only a very few of the people from the first book appear. It’s an approach not unlike that which C. S. Lewis adopts in his Narnia series. The Horse and the Boy, for example, has distinct connections to the earlier book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the characters driving the tale are quite new.

Mike’s fantasy world, like Lewis’s, isn’t explicitly ‘Christian’, although much of the strange new world of the Bible underpins the stories. In Grimhilda!, for example, the parents of a young boy called Toby are kidnapped by a witch, who later explains that she’s entitled to do this because they haven’t loved their son; they’ve been too busy with their own lives. After some initial reluctance, Toby sets out with some companions to rescue his parents. In the background to the story we learn of another young boy who tried to do the same thing many years before, and failed, dying in the process. This past sacrifice makes possible Toby’s new life of loving service.

And then there’s the blood. Indeed, a main thrust of the new story is about the secret of Billy’s blood, and whether it can be used for good or evil.

Both stories are adventures, with the heroes having to overcome a number of difficulties, sometimes by their own strengths, sometimes aided by the unlikeliest of gifts. In each story, the boy is accompanied by a female companion: in Grimhilda! she’s a bossy doll who’s come to life; in The Mumbersons, she’s a risk-taking girl with a rather strange family background.

Like the other two books, The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret has been published as an e-book. (It’s available on Kindle, Kobo, iTunes, and Smashwords. It’ll also soon be available at the Dunedin Public Library.) And, again, Mike has worked closely with Cherianne Parks, his co-author, whose ideas ‘permeate the story’, as he notes in the Acknowledgements. You can read more about Mike here.

It isn’t necessary to have read Grimhilda! to understand the new book. Although, of course, knowing the background of the earlier story will add to the enjoyment of the sequel.

Congratulations to Mike on this latest publication. It’s good to see that he’s relaxing in that most unbiblical of modern concepts – retirement!

Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: a guest review by Kim Fabricius

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702Jason A. Goroncy, ed. Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-60899-070-2. 396pp.

 A guest review by Kim Fabricius

Somehow, I’m ashamed to say, P. T. Forsyth flew under my radar during the three years (1979–1982) I studied at Mansfield College, Oxford. I vaguely remember hearing about this former College Pastor and ‘Barthian before Barth’ – an epithet as complimentary to Barth as it is to Forsyth – but as I’d already been nurtured in the faith by Uncle Karl, why bother with a distant relative? Then, shortly after my ordination, a retired Old Testament professor who was downsizing his library offered me some of his books. Among them was Forsyth’s The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909). It was seriously impressive. Forsyth’s relentless Christocentrism, theologia crucis, and kenotic soteriology were an inspiration and encouragement to my own early theological formation. Over thirty years later – far too long – it’s been a pleasure to renew my acquaintance with the great Congregationalist scholar-pastor through this generous collection of sermons and addresses. A thousand thanks to Jason Goroncy for arranging the meet, and for his superb introduction, which not only reminded me of what I’ve been missing but also, with both affection and erudition, wondrously surveys it.

Every preacher should buy this book. It won’t tell you anything about sermons – for as Forsyth insists, ‘your duty as preachers is not to preach sermons, but to preach the Gospel’ – but it will indeed draw you more deeply into the Gospel you are called to proclaim. If, that is, you pay attention and persevere. These sermons are not an easy read (though they were surely an even harder hear!). They begin with no winsome appeal, they proceed with thick thought and lengthy exploration, they range with polymathic breadth, but they have a passion and energy that sweep you along like a river in flood, and they repeatedly stun you with powerful and memorable phrases. And while the sermons are based on texts, they proceed less by exegesis and more by focussing on the res, the heart of the matter.

My marginal notes on the sermon ‘Mercy and the True and Only Justice’ and ‘The Bible Doctrine of Hell and the Unseen’ read, respectively, ‘Wow!’ and ‘Wow x 2!’. Refusing a competitive understanding of the divine love and justice (God’s love is holy love and God’s justice is his ‘love in action’); denying the endlessness of the wrath of God (‘you offer men a devil to worship’) as well as the ‘miserable doctrine of annihilation’; dismissing the ‘whole immoral’ theory of (penal) substitution and – the hermeneutical key – declaring that ‘if Christ’s cross means anything, it means the destruction of evil everywhere and for ever’: here Forsyth gestures towards (without arriving at) a doctrine of universal salvation. He also anticipates and funds, by well over a century, the so-called new evangelical universalism.

These two sermons are, for me, the diamonds in the pack, but there are many gems. ‘The Pulpit and the Age’ should be required reading for ministers thinking of answering – and for churches thinking of issuing – a ‘call’. At a time when congregations have the attention span of a mayfly and the PowerPoint image threatens to turn the spoken word into a sound bite, one hears with an ‘Ouch!’ Forsyth’s deadpan declaration: ‘I believe myself that short sermons are mostly themselves too long.’

‘Dumb Creatures and Christmas: A Little Sermon to Little Folk’ is a delightful ecological plea for recognising that Christmas is not only ‘All Children’s Day’, it is also – because in becoming creaturely flesh, the Word hallows all animate creation – ‘All Creatures’ Day’.

One more favourite: ‘The Problem of Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer’. Here Forsyth exhibits a truly evangelical understanding of forgiveness and repentance. Not only are we reminded that God forgives us before we repent, that God’s forgiveness provides both the power to repent and the motive – thanksgiving – for forgiving, we are also astounded to learn that ‘The love of God forgave sin before we sinned, and slew the Lamb before the world was.’ Because the heart of God is cruciform, it is also omnibenevolent.

Nobody, however, is perfect. In the midst of First Wave Feminism, Forsyth can be disconcertingly patriarchal. His take on colonialism is rather blithely Kiplingesque. He addresses the moral but not the material conditions of society; he was interested in socialism, but too suspicious of it to endorse a Social Gospel. It is not good enough just to say that Forsyth was ‘a man of his times’, but notwithstanding these deficits, his theology is lucratively in the Bible-black.

Finally: it is a largely unexamined cliché that you can’t judge a book by its cover: often, I think, you can. Certainly the thoughtful aesthetic of the cover of Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History is marvellously expressive of the formidable intelligence and fine sensibility of the person whose sermons it adorns and announces. There is a photograph of Forsyth – terrific moustache! – leaning his head on his arm. The pose is conventional, but so capacious is the man’s brain that one wonders whether the head is resting on the arm, or the arm is propping up the head. And beneath the photograph – the image of a painting: a trellis of colourful crosses, a perspicuous small white cross, and a lovely blue flower with a yellow pistil. On the back cover, in fine print, we learn that the artist is Sinead Goroncy.

A note on Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep

The Face of the DeepCatherine Keller’s Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming is a wonderfully-creative, beautifully-written, and seriously-provocative read. An entanglement of biblical studies, poetry, and feminist and process theologies, Keller offers a profound commentary on a most neglected Hebrew text, Genesis 1.2: ‘… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep …’.

The book represents Keller’s effort to take seriously Genesis’s claim that creation is not creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) but creatio ex profundis (creation out of the deep waters, creation as the germinating abyss). She sees this in stark contrast to the tendency in western theology to emphasise the creative and omnipotent Word which is, in a sense, spoken against creation with a view to taming and ordering its chaos. She writes:

Christianity established as unquestionable the truth that everything is created not from some formless and bottomless something but from nothing: an omnipotent God could have created the world only ex nihilo. This dogma of origin has exercised immense productive force. It became common sense. Gradually it took modern and then secular form, generating every kind of western originality, every logos creating the new as if from nothing, cutting violently, ecstatically free of the abysms of the past. But Christian theology … created this ex nihilo at the cost of its own depth. It systematically and symbolically sought to erase the chaos of creation. Such a maneuver … was always doomed to a vicious circle: the nothingness invariably returns with the face of the feared chaos – to be nihilated all the more violently.

Our tradition, she says, has leaped from Genesis 1.1 to 1.3, from the beginning with God to the divine speech, ‘Let there be light’. In this view, God does not work with the ‘formless void and darkness’ but, in a sense, against it. But wedged between these two verses, she reminds us, is ‘a churning, complicating darkness’ which ‘refuses to disappear’. She writes:

It refuses to appear as nothing, as vacuum, as mere absence highlighting the Presence of the Creator, as nonentity limning all the created entities. It gapes open in the text: ‘and the earth was tohu vabohu, and darkness was upon the face of tehom and the ruach elohim was vibrating upon the face of the mayim’ …

To make her case, she engages constructively with the work of Augustine, Barth, Deleuze, Derrida, Whitehead, and others. My favourite chapter was on Melville’s Moby-Dick, ‘“Leviathanic revelations”: Melville’s hermenautical journey’, wherein she suggests that ‘the infinity of a chaosmic hermeneutic signals … not a dearth but an excess of meaning, a meaning-fullness or meaning-flux released by the refusal of hard lines and clear boundaries’. Religion which tries to protect us from the risk of ‘being eternally stove and sunk by [the great Leviathan]’ (Melville) has, Keller avers, ‘offered us cartoons instead: a God-thing, an evil thing, and a creation full of things, surrounded by nothing’. ‘When religion pretends to “systematized exhibition,” it removes us both from the streets and from the deep’.

One real achievement of Keller’s book is how effectively it reminds us that creation is not a beast to be tamed, but a deep mystery – a mystery that we experience the echo of in our own times of chaos and deepest prayer, and over which the ‘wind from God’, the ruach elohim, ‘vibrates’. We are, in our most primordial reality, vulnerable creatures of this earth in which the ‘formless void and darkness’ from time to time reasserts itself. Where Keller’s work is less satisfactory, however, and that characteristically so for a process theologian, is in the absence of any serious christology – the journey which the kenotic God undertakes into and with creation’s dark and formless depths. Put otherwise, while Keller certainly plumbs the subterranean depths of creation, and that with some existential bite, she stops short of going where God in Christ goes, and so where a fully Christian account of creation bids theologians go.

Reading Keller’s book reminded me of Arvo Pärt’s De profundis, and led me to reflect more deeply on three texts from the Hebrew Bible (Pss 47.2; 139.5–12; Gen 15.12–13), and two verses from the Second Testament (Mark 15.33–34). Perhaps the true test of any book, however, is whether or not it lures one to prayer. Keller’s did that for me:

O God, who created the heavens and the earth, for whom nothing that is is apart from you, and who mends all the tears in the canvas of creation, we bless you.

We thank you for the promise that nothing in all creation can keep us from your love, even while we confess that that love is so often a stranger to us and that our lives are more often characterised by anxiety than by the courage to enter the deep caverns of creation and of your love’s mysterious shadows.

We mostly live in the shallows, and for that we are relieved the burden of constant darkness – our greatest fear that the sense that our very being is under threat. And sometimes we find ourselves in water too deep, where your presence is marked by an absence, and our presence is marked by our own nightmares, the storehouses of forgotten memories and open wounds that recoil at your gracious promise of healing and redemption. Thank you that even the darkness is not dark to you.

Give us a candle of your Spirit, O God of the depths, as we encounter and are encountered by the deeps of creation’s being, that these might be for us the spring of new life, and that our service in your name might bear witness to the profound depths that you have traversed and continue to transverse in Jesus Christ. Amen.


Carlton Johnstone’s Embedded Faith – a review

Carlton Johnstone, Embedded Faith: the faith journeys of young adults within church communities (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013). ISBN: 9871625641236; 213pp.

 A guest review by Geoff New

I have been aware of Carlton Johnstone’s work for some time. The thought of reading his book was akin to the thought of going to the dentist; I probably need to but I’m scared of the pain that will no doubt result. The anticipated pain of reading this book was centred on the anxiety I held about the young adults in my congregation. Why? I’m jealous for the young adults in my congregation because I have pastored them since they were in primary school. The prospect of reading this work was like hearing what your children have been up to from other ‘concerned parents’. Denial was a tantalising option. Nevertheless, I decided I needed a check-up so I read the book. Spoiler alert: insofar as the emotional effect upon me as a pastor, it was exactly as a dental assistant once said to me, ‘Today dentistry is a painless exercise’. Surprisingly!

Allow me to begin with a generalisation. For a busy minister who will be choosy about what they read and for how long, Embedded Faith is not an easy read. It is very academic in style and its main discipline is sociological rather than theological. If you are intending to buy this book, it’s important to know that. Also, this is not a how-to book; it is a what’s-happening-and-why book. As a reader, you will find a helpful map of what lies ahead in the Introduction (pp. xvi–xvii). Orientate yourself with this and then begin reading with your own people in mind.

Allow me to continue with what might appear as a painfully obvious point. Different chapters and sections will resonate and challenge leaders depending on the nature of their context and the length of time they have been in such a place. For me, I was intrigued with the chapters entitled ‘Worship and Modes of Engagement’, and ‘Preaching and Interpretative Communities’. What struck me about the findings articulated in these chapters was that with good authentic relationships with young adults, anxious leaders do not have a lot to be anxious about. Urban myths about what younger generations are after are debunked by the stories, experiences, and aspirations shared in these pages. Yes, there is work to be done but there is less of a them-and-us dynamic going on than is often claimed. This book, to a significant degree, is actually a tribute to the spirituality and conscientiousness of young adults that God has graced the church with.

The book reaches a conclusion where Carlton coins the phrase ‘two-timing’ to describe the spiritual practice of young adults attending two churches. At risk of over-simplifying this conclusion, a main feature is that it takes more than one church for the participants described in this book to enjoy spiritual nourishment. Outrageous? Well, in reading that section my mind went to Revelation 1–3 when the ascended and glorified Christ appeared to the apostle John on the island of Patmos. He then addressed the seven churches of Asia Minor at that time. His opening comment to each of the churches featured one or more aspect of the original description of Christ in Revelation 1.12–16; but no church had the entire vision presented. In other words, it took all seven churches to present the full vision of Christ. Maybe that’s where this research is heading? By the book’s end I was wishing for more application and reflection in terms of ‘what-now?’ It is there, but it is all too brief and general.

In my view, this work calls forth a commitment to a particular kind of open-hearted relationship with young adults. As mentioned earlier, it is not an easy read due to its academic style and referencing; but it is an empowering voice for young adults and encouraging for over-anxious pastors who feel like they are in the dentist chair.



Ed. In the spirit of both full disclosure and sheer delight, Carlton is one of my students. This means, among other things, that I am particularly happy to give his book a wee plug here at PCaL. – JG.


My books are available from Logos

The folk at Logos contacted me today. They are interested in selling my books, and have posted information about them here, here and here.

While browsing the site, I was surprised to learn that I had written another book, In Search of Health and Wealth: The Prosperity Gospel in African, Reformed Perspective.  I don’t remember writing this one, so I’m guessing that a mistake has been made. There might be other explanations, of course, but a simple mistake seems to be the most likely one. I’ve let the folk at Logos know.

[An update: apparently, I’m no longer the author of the above-mentioned book. Now I can just return to my normal level of confusion. Thank you team Logos.]

An interview with Mike Crowl, a ‘prostate wimp’

I recently had the privilege of proof-reading a very different kind of book – one on one man’s journey through diagnoses about and surgery on his prostate. The book was published about a week ago, and I thought it might be fun to do a wee interview with the author – friend and blogger Mike Crowl:

Mike, congratulations on the publication of your most recent book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp: the aftermath of having a prostate biopsy. Its coming indicates again that you are person with many interests – music, writing, acting, religion. You’re the almost-‘renaissance man’. I want to ask you about your book – a book which I learnt a lot from about things which I hope to never experience first hand – but before we talk about the book, please tell us a bit about yourself.

I’d certainly prefer that men don’t have to go through what I went through too, or even worse, what Dave (whose story is also in the book) went through, but these experiences are more common than we realize.

That aside, I’m retired, have had a varied working career including running a Christian bookshop, OC Books, for 17 years, and am now trying to catch up on some of the projects that I haven’t had sufficient time for in the past.

Your latest book is quite a contrast to your previous book Grimhilda! – a tale for children (and their parents) about a dragon baby sitter, animated toys, and parents with lessons to learn (and about which I wrote here). What is the story behind this most recent project? What is the book about?

Like most men, I began to have increasing problems with urinating as a result of my prostate increasing in size. Unfortunately, prostate growth is normal for almost all men. My GP was keeping track of this via a regular blood test. The results showed a need for some concern, and I was sent for a biopsy, in case there was any cancer in the prostate. The biopsy, which is quite invasive (there’s concern worldwide that it’s actually dangerous, because of infections) caused my bladder to seize up. This is known as water retention, and when you can’t pee, they give you a catheter. For blokes, this is a very unpleasant thing to have.

When did you first realize that you wanted to write a book about your experience with prostate problems?

I wrote blog posts about the experience back in 2008/9, and after I’d had a prostate operation, a man in Australia wrote and said he was experiencing similar issues, and that reading about my experience had been helpful. I thought that perhaps other men might find the posts of use if I put them into a book, but the project went on hold for a few years, partly because the children’s musical/book took priority.

The topic seems kind of ‘private’. Why did you choose to make the details of this story so ‘public? Who were you writing for?

One of the first responses I got when the book was published was ‘TMI [too much information] Mr. Crowl’. This came from a female friend. However, much of what I’d written had appeared in the blog posts, so it wasn’t private material suddenly being made public. Some other matters came from my own diary notes, though I edited out things that were even more private. I had debated how far to go with detail, but I don’t think I went overboard. When I showed the book to Dave, he immediately picked up on things that might be considered private and confirmed that these were things he’d experienced too. For me it was a matter of trying to say that there’s no need for men to be reticent about these issues: it’s helpful for guys to know they’re not alone in going through these experiences.

What do you hope readers will gain from the book?

In spite of the increasing talk about prostate cancer, I don’t think the average man realizes that he’s likely to have some issues with his prostate at some point in his life, quite apart from the cancer aspect. I certainly didn’t. Anything that gives more information is useful, and if it can be put across in a reader-friendly fashion, then it’s all to the good. We talk about young men thinking they’re bullet-proof, but I suspect that men continue to think the same thing throughout their lives until something like this hits them.

Are there similar books that inspired the idea for this one?

Far more of them focus on the prostate cancer aspect than on the biopsy and what they call the TURP operation (read the book for an explanation!). While prostate cancer kills more men than any other cancer, not every man who has problems with his prostate has cancer. I know many more guys who’ve been through the prostate operation than guys who’ve had cancer. So I think this book is slightly unusual in focusing on the lesser issue than the greater.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

Balancing out the different voices: the slightly jokey blog posts, the more serious diary and ‘God Notes’ (stuff I wrote to God during the time) and Dave’s story, which also appeared as blog posts originally. But in general this was a good deal easier to put together than the children’s book had been. I’d be interested to know what you thought about the prayer angle of the book.

I valued – and was challenged by – the raw honesty of the prayers. And I appreciated the way that you tried to mimic in print life’s own ‘natural’ integration of medical issues, emotions, humor, sex, and God. What have you learned from this experience – both the experience of living with prostate troubles and the experience of writing about them?

Ask questions. Medical people deal with so many different illnesses they tend to only answer things that are necessary. Be persistent with your doctor, don’t let him or her fob you off. New Zealand doctors are better than some overseas ones – in the UK, for instance, it seems from anecdotal information that GPs are less likely to concern themselves with men and their prostate needs, and may even be quite uninformed. If you’re a man, it’s likely you’ll need to deal with some prostate issue at some time. Forewarned is forearmed.

Why did you choose to go the e-book route? How have you found the process to be?

I went this way because I knew I could get it published more readily. Print publishing in New Zealand is difficult these days, as it is in much of the world, and it’s also a long process even if your book is accepted. Some of the e-book technical challenges seemed overwhelming at first, but there are books to guide you (both Kindle and Smashwords have very detailed style books available for free). Furthermore, the cost factor is considerably less and you’re not left holding a bundle of unsold stock with e-books. Their shelf life is indefinite, unlike many printed books.

What are you working on now? Is there another book in the pipeline?

I’m planning to write a ‘sequel’ to Grimhilda!  How it will relate to the previous book is the question at the moment. I have my ideas, my co-writer (Cherianne Parks, who worked on Grimhilda! with me) has other ideas; there are things I believe should be in it, but whether they fit the mix is another matter. I’d like to see it finished by the end of the year. Cherianne isn’t sure that’s realistic!

Thank you Mike. This has been fun.

Thank you too, Jason, for the chance to talk about it further.

John (de Gruchy) on John (Calvin): a commendation

De Gruchy - John Calvin

John W. de Gruchy, John Calvin: Christian Humanist and Evangelical Reformer (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-62032-773-9. 240pp.

John de Gruchy’s little book on John Calvin is a great read! One of its real achievements is that its author has succeeded, in little over 200 pages, in capturing something of Calvin’s spirit and energy. It is certainly no hagiography – de Gruchy is not shy to point out those areas where paradox exists in his subject, and where he thinks that the reformer simply got it wrong! In an honest effort to introduce one of the most important figures in Western intellectual, theological, and social history, it picks up some themes that marked and gave anatomy to his work. De Gruchy is especially keen to retrieve Calvin and the tradition that exists most consciously in his wake as constructive expressions of Christian humanism, a movement of social transformation that is at once liberating, ecumenical, and humanising.

Writing with a non-technical style, and out of his own experience of witnessing both the beauty and the ugliness of the reformed project played out in his native South Africa, de Gruchy builds a compelling case for why we should take Calvin’s thought seriously as a resource for what it means today to engage in the public commons, and for encouraging the kind of flourishing of human society that God desires. Certainly not everything in Calvin’s thought lends itself to such a project, but there is much that does, and these are the features that de Gruchy identifies and develops. He concludes his study by offering six affirmations about Christian humanism and its public vision. They bear repeating and thinking about as a way into considering Calvin’s own vision, and its portability today. They are:

First, Christian humanism is inclusive in its vision of humanity. It recognises that being human is our primary identity – coming before those of religion, race, culture, social class or gender.

Second, Christian humanism affirms both the God-given dignity of being human and the concomitant responsibility of being human. Given human brokenness, it understands the gospel as God’s way of restoring human dignity and awakening our responsibility for the world in which we live.

Third, Christian humanism is open to knowledge and insight from wherever truth is to be found, but it draws most deeply from the Christian Scriptures and the long history of their interpretation through the centuries, embodied in what is called ‘Christian tradition’.

Fourth, Christian humanism insists that love of God is inseparable from love for others; that faith and discipleship belong together; that theology and ethics are part of the same enterprise, and that the renewal of church life and public life are intrinsically connected.

Fifth, Christian humanism places justice, good governance, ecological responsibility and global well-being above national and sectional interests. It is concerned to ensure that scientific and technological development serve the common good and the well-being of the earth.

Sixth, Christian humanism encourages human creativity and cherishes beauty. It insists that goodness, truth and beauty are inseparable, though distinct. Just as it places a premium on moral values and the search for truth, it also regards the development of aesthetic values and sensitivity through the arts as essential for human well-being.

I warmly and enthusiastically commend this book, particularly for those for whom Calvin remains something of a persona non grata, or an embarrassing – or worse! – spokesperson for the Christian faith, and for those who wish to gain a clearer sense of the world-embracing vision of the reformed project at its best.


The Quest for the Trinity: a review

The Quest for the TrinityStephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012). ISBN: 9780830839865.

The Quest for the Trinity makes plain again that Steve Holmes is among the most erudite and trustworthy theologians working today. His acquaintance with the tradition’s own wrestlings to articulate its speech about God, and its nuances and real game-shifting moves, is extraordinary, and his ability to communicate these in an accessible, albeit at times dense and somewhat dry, 200-page account is nothing short of remarkable.

The book has an encyclopaedic and ecumenical character about it. Holmes writes with a disciplined handle on the primary literature, its various nuances and theo-historical location, and is conversant with, but not distracted by, much recent secondary literature. His treatments on Irenaeus, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine, Aquinas, Hegel, Schleiermacher and Dorner, in particular, as well as of the various anti-trinitarian movements between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, are exceedingly helpful and clearly laid out.

Holmes is concerned to defend the thesis that apart from some relatively minor disagreement and development, the doctrine of the Trinity was basically settled by ecumenical consensus in the fourth century, enjoyed ‘essential stability’ until the eighteenth century, and has been the accepted position of the church, with no significant modification, until the modern period and its various ‘recoveries’. Holmes believes that rather than representing a genuine recovery of a lost doctrine, however, the modern ‘trinitarian revival’ represents a departure, misunderstanding, and misappropriation of the received tradition, sometimes in the name of underwriting some social, political, or ecclesial programme. He builds a strong case, and those who believe particularly that unambiguous continuity with traditional articulations of doctrine central to the faith remains an indispensable feature of doing theology responsibly today will find much here to bolster that claim.

Of course, there are additional ways to tell the story of faith’s efforts to think and speak about God – ways which are no less responsible to revelation, which are not necessarily at odds with the articulations offered by the Fathers but which offer some different ways of expressing such claims, and which remind us that we might be better to acknowledge a greater plurality of expressions within the one tradition.

Whether Holmes holds that such different accents represent voices too insignificant to hear, or too far removed from settled orthodoxy, or whether it is due to editorial concerns, he chooses not to engage with modern contextual (including feminist) accounts of the Trinity, or with the work of Christian mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich, or with some other ways that faith has sought to ‘speak’ of the Triune God: for instance, ways that some visual artists and poets and musicians have taken. Here, the catholic and innovative work of Sarah Coakley is to be much welcomed (for it represents both a fruit of the tradition that Holmes is keen to guard as well exhibiting something that is actually demanded by it), along with that of J. S. Bach, William Blake, Dorothy Sayers, and Marlene Scholz.

These niggles aside, The Quest for the Trinity is an extraordinary and timely achievement, and no reader – even those who may finally remain not entirely convinced of Holmes’ thesis vis-à-vis modern accounts and retellings of the tradition – could fail to learn much here, and to be challenged again about what it means, and about how, to speak of Father, Son and Spirit, and of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity. Such a challenge is most urgent, particularly for those of us whose task it is to preach the gospel, and it may be most timely for those of us who have looked primarily to the likes of Rahner, Zizioulas, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Gunton, Jenson, Volf, and/or Plantinga to interpret the history, and articulate the meaning, of the doctrine for us. On those parts of the tradition given attention by Holmes, teachers and students alike will find here a reliable and fruitful guide, and, for some of us, a challenge to rethink what we may have been taught about the apparent gulf that exists between Latin and Greek doctrines of the Trinity, and about accounts that have painted the Fathers to be working at some odds with the authors of the Bible. Indeed, if Holmes’ thesis is anywhere near correct, then most of what passes for ‘trinitarian theology’ today will have to be re-thought.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s Contemplations from the Heart

Congratulations to Grace Ji-Sun Kim on the publication of her latest offering, Contemplations from the Heart: Spiritual Reflections on Family, Community, and the Divine, now available from the good folk at Wipf and Stock. Grace invited me to pen a wee endorsement for the book, which I was happy to do. Here’s what I wrote:

To be human is to be bound to this earth—to its concerns, frustrations, passions, pains, loves, vulnerabilities, and hopes; but to stake all on the claim that the bounds of humanity interplay with the movement of God is to be a theologian. Kim’s reflections on a wide range of subjects are an invitation to think further about what this claim looks like in the turbulence of the ordinary.

Mike Crowl’s Grimhilda!

Almost two years ago, my daughter Sinead (who had just turned six at the time) and I attended the opening night of a delightful musical called Grimhilda!, written by local musician, poet, blogger and author Mike Crowl. It was a really fun night, and from the moment we left, Sinead, who was already a bibliophile,  was already asking two things: (i) is there an accompanying book? and (ii) when is Mike going to make the next musical thingy?

We were both very pleased when the answer to Sinead’s first question was answered a few months ago with the appearance, on Kindle, of Grimhilda! – a fantasy for children, and their parents. An animated storyline brimming with a generous splattering of dry humour and colourful characters, and a pace that affords some time for the narrative to unfold in ways that give due attendance to layers beyond the mere pedestrian, combine to make this a rollickingly good read for parents and their wee sprogs. Sinead and I read this tale, this invitation to adventure, and we didn’t want it to end. At times we felt that we were journeying with the Pevensie kids. This is good thing. We look forward to more from Mike’s pen.

Grimhilda is also about to be released on Smashwords.