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Votewise 2015: Helping Christians engage with the issues
Votewise 2015: Helping Christians engage with the issues
by Guy Brandon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.51

5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely helpful overview of election issues, 21 Mar. 2015
If you’re a Christian thinking about how to vote (or *whether* to vote) in the 2015 General Election, and if you read just one short book on the topic, then make it this one. I doubt anyone else will publish something more helpful, in terms of being brief and to the point, covering a wide range of issues (rather than just a couple of headline ‘Christian’ issues), and in terms of bridging the gap between the Bible and the political questions facing us today.

Votewise 2015 is the third of the Jubilee Centre’s ‘Votewise’ books, with previous editions published prior to the 2005 and 2010 General Elections. Each book has been written afresh, and this time the author is Guy Brandon, part-time researcher for the Jubilee Centre, but with contributions from others at the end.

The book faces the reality that many Christians will be inclined to disengage from politics, whether that’s by doing no more than voting (‘to place a cross on our ballot sheet and to use this as an excuse to disengage from politics for the next five years’, p.13), or by not voting at all. But there are many important issues at stake, and we have a responsibility to use our votes in the best way.

Ten issues are tackled in the book: marriage and family, the economy, debt, welfare, Europe, immigration, the environment, crime, education, and health. Each is tackled in the same way: the issue is presented, then we delve under the surface (e.g., what is the economy for? what is education for? what is health?), then we look to the Bible for insight, and finally there is an attempt to draw out some implications for policy.

One recurring theme is the importance of relationships. (This will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the Jubilee Centre.) In all of the areas covered, there is an enormous relational deficit. But the laws given in the Old Testament were all about maintaining and strengthening relationships: within extended families, within the nation, with the land, and with the surrounding nations. A Christian approach to politics will give attention to the place of relationships, in every area of policy.

The final two chapters form something of an anticlimax, it has to be said. The chapter on relationships seems unnecessary, given the way relationships have featured throughout the book. Then the final chapter (before the conclusion) features contributions from members of each of the five main UK parties. These have no connection with the material in the rest of the book, and say very little at all about the points of contact between the Christian faith and the visions of each party. Instead, they descend into bog-standard party-political broadcasts. Much better would have been either to give the contributors a simple questionnaire, or for Guy Brandon to have written those parts himself. (An idea for next time, perhaps?)

So, leaving those chapters to one side, that’s just 85 pages. What are you waiting for?


Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises
Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises
by Bob Goudzwaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.13

5.0 out of 5 stars Unmasking the ideologies and idols behind today's global crises, 5 Mar. 2013
We live in troubled times. Worldwide poverty, environmental degradation, widespread terrorism: the problems are massive and potentially catastrophic. As we face these global crises, is it possible to react with hope rather than despair? Is disaster inevitable and beyond our control, or Is it possible to get under the surface of these issues and begin to see new possibilities for our world?

"Hope in troubles times" (2007) was written by Dutch professor and former MP Bob Goudzwaard, Canada-based writer and social worker Mark Vander Vennen, and US-based professor David Van Heemst. The bulk of the content comes from Goudzwaard, building on his 1984 book, "Idols of our time". The main text (205 pages) is accessible to the general reader, while the notes (35 pages) make it suitable for academic readers too.

The authors' contention in the book is that we find ourselves in the grip of powerful modern ideologies. These ideologies first latch onto a worthy goal (such as prosperity in the face of extreme injustice and poverty, or security in the face of potential attack), then propose a means by which that goal can be reached (such as the operation of free markets, or weapons technology), and then seek to reshape the whole of reality in the service of those means. The means then function something like a traditional idol: we create something, we entrust ourselves to it, and then we find it seems to have a life of its own, demanding greater and greater sacrifices while the good things that the idol promised become more and more elusive.

"[V]enerating a certain force or type of knowledge as something that by definition brings prosperity or security implies that in specific circumstances we may be prepared to place our lives under the control of such a power, a power that would not exist without our efforts. At the heart of that transfer of control may be a need for certainty, an urge to feel as though there is a power greater than us that can regulate our lives. It may be born out of fear that we have little or no control over our world. And for some today, following the dictates of the market, technology, or the state may offer that sense of security. But then the ultimate irony, the role reversal characteristic of idol worship, has been achieved: what we ourselves have created ends up controlling us. The instruments must be obeyed, even if they require sacrifices--such as damage to health, deterioration of the environment, the loss of privacy, the threat of unemployment, or the perilous undermining of peace. In principle, every ideology is able to summon its own tools or instruments, either forces or institutions, whose exacting demands elude scrutiny and critique" (p.43-44).

Three contemporary ideologies dominate the book:

1. Identity. When a group of people have their identity threatened, an ideology can emerge in which the preservation of their identity becomes an absolute end. Violence is employed to secure that end, but violence can become an idol, and there is soon no limit to the amount of violence that can be legitimately used in service of the goal. Examples of this ideology in practice are apartheid, Islamism, terrorism, most conflicts in the world today, and the Israel/Palestine conflict, in which "both sides adhere to a very similar ideology: the preservation of a people's identity and their threatened land" (p.79).

2. Material progress and prosperity. In the face of widespread hardship, the operation of the free market is trusted as the saviour from poverty. This can become an idol.

"[W]e live, to a greater or lesser extent, in the grip of a powerful, largely Western ideology: the ideology of a restless commitment to unlimited material progress and prosperity" (p.93).

"Obsessed by an end (rising material prosperity), we have off-loaded our responsibility and allowed various forces, means, and powers in our society (such as untrammeled economic expansion) to become gods who dictate their wills to us" (p.28).

"In addition, a remarkable sense of fear radiates from these [financial] markets, fear of what they might do to us. The predominant question today is, How do we behave as a corporation or as a nation so that our actions become acceptable in the eyes of the financial markets? The question in and of itself suggests that money and financial markets have taken on a life of their own: a feature of idolatry" (p.97).

A remarkable table (p.158) shows how a blind adherence to this "market fundamentalism" has led to a host of undesirable outcomes, as a consequence of an obsession with those sectors of the economy that can increase in efficiency at the expense of those sectors of the economy that are "characterized by virtually fixed levels of productivity" (p.90). So the operation of the free market mechanism has led directly to "unemployment, environmental problems, stress ... Increasing need for care; increasing inability to pay ... Loss of home markets, increase of poverty" (p.158), and yet the only solution that seems available (particularly to the Coalition government in the UK!) is to sacrifice more and more to the free markets, in the hope that they will give us that prosperity that we long for.

3. Guaranteed security. Following the Second World War, it was clear that there was a great need for security. Military power was trusted as the "idol" to give us security. And--particularly in the USA--this has been taken to extremes. The only answer to threats to security is to accumulate more and more weapons. The weapons end up controlling us.

"The means take control. The strategy no longer holds the weapons in check. Instead, the progress of weapons technology determines the strategy" (p.110).

Even when the accumulation of weapons ends up destroying the very freedom it was supposed to deliver, the answer is still to accumulate more weapons.

"Absolute freedom requires absolute force to accomplish, secure, and guarantee that freedom. The end (freedom at all costs) justifies every possible means, including unprecedented force (such as unlimited military power, a profound curtailment of civil liberties, and the violation of international law). The requirements of that force gradually diminish, curtail, and ultimately destroy freedom" (p.120).

The outcome is truly hideous.

"The subject matter of this book is hardly uplifting" (p.169), particularly when these ideologies are exacerbated by globalisation, or when they are seen to reinforce each other (as in the global arms trade) or to collide with each other (as in 9/11). What room is there for hope?

Perhaps the greatest opening for hope is simply the unmasking of the idols of our age. They are not autonomous powers beyond our control. We have put them in place, and it is within our power to dethrone them.

"[T]he so-called end of our history is by no means in inescapable fate. Today's general feeling of insecurity is actually not a sign that the powers now dominating us are beyond our control. On the contrary, it is a sign that we have abdicated our human responsibility" (p.170).

Drawing richly on biblical insights, the authors then sketch out some steps that could be taken towards "widening ways of economy, justice, and peace". They are optimistic that by "turning away from today's steps of despair" (p.178) and by taking even small steps towards hope, it would be possible to counter "today's ominous, devastating spirals of terror" (p.157) and to "launch an upward-moving spiral, one that lifts us from the depths that threaten to engulf us" (p.188).

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says in his foreword to the book,

"If apartheid can fall in South Africa, then ideologies of identity, materialism, and security can end too. God is dreaming of a world where all people, black and white, rich and poor, clever and not so clever, are drawn into one family, a world where all of us participate as agents in God's inexorable transfiguration of evil into good. How can we lose?" (p.11)


No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics (No-Nonsense Guides)
No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics (No-Nonsense Guides)
by Derek Wall
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent introduction to green politics, 31 Dec. 2012
I bought this book because I joined the Green Party (England and Wales) last year, and wanted to read a brief introduction to the green movement that I seem to have become involved with.

Derek Wall is an economics lecturer and writer and a prominent member of the Green Party. His book is packed with detail and comprehensive in scope, but still very readable.

Chapter 1 looks at the history of the global green political movement. Wall identifies four pillars of green politics:

1. Ecology: "Green politics is first and foremost the politics of ecology; a campaign to preserve the planet from corporate greed, so we can act as good ancestors to future generations" (p.12).
2. Social justice: "Greens argue that environmental protection should not come at the expense of the poor or lead to inequality" (p.13).
3. Grassroots democracy: distinguishing "greens from many traditional socialists who have often promoted centralized governance of societies" (p.13).
4. Nonviolence: "Green parties evolved partly out of the peace movement and oppose war, the arms trade and solutions based on violence" (p.13).

All of which seem eminently sensible to me.

Chapter 2 looks at the ecological crisis. Safe to say there is one. Green politics could exist without an ecological crisis, but the crisis has led to huge growth in the movement in recent decades.

Chapter 3 looks at the philosophy of the green party. Summarising it in my own words...

* Green politics is based on the belief that everything matters. All people matter, and they all have valuable contributions to make to the ordering of society. Non-human life matters. The world matters. The ecosystem matters. "While other political ideologies have generally viewed nature as a quarry--something to be dug up and exploited for short-term gain--greens put the environment at the center of their concerns" (p.47).
* Green politics is based on the belief that everything is interconnected. Green politics is thus holistic politics. It stands in opposition to all kinds of reductionism. Human society and the non-human world are deeply interconnected.

The second half of the book deals with the policies and practice of green politics.

Chapter 4 looks at green approaches to economics. Greens reject the dominant obsession with economic growth: "Greens believe that ever-increasing consumption is neither possible nor desirable" (p.67). This doesn't mean they are opposed to prosperity. As an obvious example, "If goods last longer, because we don't need to replace them as often, it certainly reduces economic growth but it does not affect our prosperity" (p.73). Noteworthy in green economics is the emphasis on the commons and on social sharing. This is an alternative view of ownership to the traditional views of private ownership or state ownership. Examples include co-operatives, mutuals, car sharing schemes and open-source software.

Chapter 5 gives a sweeping survey of green policies for all sorts of areas: energy, transport, waste, agriculture, animal welfare, social justice, housing, healthcare, democracy, warfare and development. A helpful taster of how green political principles work themselves out in particular contexts.

Chapter 6 looks at the practice of green politics: how, practically, can green policies be implemented? Various approaches are needed, none of which is the answer in isolation, but all of which are valuable. So, in addition to traditional political activity, the green movement is also driven by direct action, personal lifestyle changes, green approaches to business, green trade unions and a complete transformation of our beliefs and values. On this last point, "The deep politics behind both our voting decisions and the assumptions of planners and policy-makers is based on fundamental and often unconscious beliefs about our relationship to the rest of nature and to each other" (p.120).

In other words, the "green" vision for society is dependent on a deep change of heart.


God and Government
God and Government
by Nick Spencer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Christian political wisdom, 24 Mar. 2012
This review is from: God and Government (Paperback)
"God and Government" is an accessible, recent (2009) multi-author book, aimed at stimulating Christian thinking about political issues within the UK context. Recognizing that there are no simple answers, the book's aim is to put forward a set of principles, which can help to form political wisdom in the context of political practice.

There are eight chapters, framed by an introduction and conclusion by the editors (Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin). The brief for each chapter was to respond to the same question: "what, according to Christian theology, is the proper function of government? What, in other words, should those Christians engaged with politics, in whatever capacity, be aiming to achieve through their engagement?" (p.3). The first four chapters focus more on principles, while the last four attempt to spell out the implications more concretely. Here's a summary of the chapters:

1. Nigel Wright, a baptist theologian, sets the ball rolling with his chapter on "Government as an ambiguous power". Government is ambiguous: both good and bad, being simultaneously created, fallen, and open to redemption. It has important functions, "to maintain order and to punish wrongdoers" (p.27).

2. Julian Rivers, professor of law, then explores "The nature and role of government in the Bible". Government has legitimate authority from God, but it is limited, both "by the existence of other human authorities, in particular, church, family and individual" (p.47) and "by the means at its disposal" (p.48), its power to coerce. Government should itself be under law, diffuse and accountable.

3. The chapter by Tom Wright, former bishop of Durham, is entitled "Neither anarchy nor tyranny: Government and the New Testament". It is a call for believers to embrace God's alternative empire, recognizing that the Christian confession that "Jesus is Lord" is in direct opposition to the Roman confession that "Caesar is Lord". Jesus' lordship is the proclamation not just of a new lord, but of a new kind of lordship, shaped by Jesus' crucifixion.

4. "The role of government in classical Christian political thought" is the subject of the chapter by David McIlroy, a practising barrister. Government, according to this rich tradition, should be accountable, and it should be limited, having the twin aims of promoting the common good and executing just judgment.

5. Nicholas Townsend, lecturer in Christian ethics, then begins to flesh out these principles, in a chapter on "Government and social infrastructure". Government should not attempt to implement the common good in its entirety, but should limit itself to providing that social infrastructure which is a prerequisite for the common good. In pursuing this, the role of government is both corrective (remedial) and directive (coordinating).

6. "Government, solidarity and subsidiarity" is the next chapter, by economist Philip Booth. The principles of solidarity and subsidiarity (as well as the common good) feature prominently in Catholic Social Teaching. Solidarity should characterise our communities, but subsidiarity is taken to mean that government intervention should be a last resort in achieving this.

7. Social commentator Clifford Longley then looks at "Government and the common good". The central principle underlying all policies should be a commitment to the common good, which is not the sum of each person's individual goods, but which is the good of society as a whole.

8. "Government and equality" is the theme for the final chapter by Andrew Bradstock, a professor in faith and politics. The Bible is committed to equality between all people, and this stands against the large and growing inequality in British society. Government has a role to play in narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

A few words from Jonathan Chaplin's conclusion will serve well as a summary:

"[T]he book's ... hope is that it will spur Christian [political] practitioners on as they seek to forge new, closer and more critical linkages between their theological convictions and their policy commitments--and so to manifest practical Christian political wisdom in ways that promote justice and the common good for a contemporary Britain crying out for much more of both" (p.234).


The Gospel of Luke (New International Commentary on the New Testament)
The Gospel of Luke (New International Commentary on the New Testament)
by Joel B. Green
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £28.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good news to the poor and release to the captives, 19 Jan. 2012
A substantial commentary on one of the synoptic gospels can easily fill its pages by concentrating on questions about the composition of the text and about the details of the historical events themselves, with constant reference to the other gospel accounts.

Strikingly, and refreshingly, Joel Green in his lengthy (928-page) commentary on Luke's Gospel shows no concern whatsoever with these questions. Rather, his overriding aim is to hear what Luke is trying to communicate, within the context of the Old Testament scriptures, and within his own historical and social context.

I've been reading this commentary very slowly for almost a year, mainly for personal reading, but also for a couple of sermons and a few Bible studies. Sometimes it's felt like a lot of reading, but I've never found myself wading through irrelevant material. Instead, I've been repeatedly struck with how rich Luke's Gospel is in its portrayal of Jesus.

So what, for Green, is the message of Luke's Gospel? Throughout the commentary, our attention is drawn back to Jesus' inaugural speech, in which he stated his own mission, "To bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives" (4:18). "Poor" is to be understood not simply in material terms, but as those who are socially poor, marginalised, oppressed, rejected, and weighed down by sickness or the guilt of sin, and "release" is to be understood not just as setting free from whatever might hold someone captive, but in terms of full inclusion in the community of God's people, often demonstrated by a communal meal.

This sets the tone for the rest of the gospel, in which Jesus' mission is seen to be diametrically opposed to the way his society was ordered. Those at the forefront of the culture were concerned simply with their own status, and had no room for someone who preached and lived a message that involved losing one's own status for the sake of those on the margins of society. The climax, of course, is Jesus foregoing any status by dying an ignominious death on the cross, in order to bring release, forgiveness and full inclusion to those who were bound by sin.

While reading the commentary, I've been challenged to think about how Jesus would speak to our society. Is his message as diametrically opposed to the way our society functions as it was to the society in which he lived on earth? I think it is. Our society is built not so much on social greed (status), but on economic and personal greed (money and pleasure). But Jesus' message is just as radical, calling us to a total rethink of our whole value system. Once we have received Jesus' welcome and forgiveness, we are to value our resources (including our money) as opportunities to benefit those in need, and thereby to gain true riches in the economy of the age to come, rather than as opportunities to advance our own position in the economy of the present age.


God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science
God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science
by James Hannam
Edition: Paperback

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On the shoulders of (medieval) giants, 29 Mar. 2010
What did the Middle Ages ever do for us--for science in particular? Not a lot, I hear you say? The Greeks laid the foundations, and then, after the fall of Rome, a great darkness descended on the intellectual world for about a thousand years. During this time no major advances were made, and any attempts to make progress were swiftly suppressed by the dominant ecclesiastical establishment. Then, finally, the light began to dawn, the classics were rediscovered, reason broke free from tradition, and the modern era was born.

Right?

Not at all, says James Hannam in his recent and highly accessible book (with a wealth of highly inaccessible contemporary scholarship to back him up). God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Icon Books, 2009) seeks to do away with the simplistic and inaccurate view the most people (myself included) have tended to have concerning intellectual achievements of the Middle Ages.

But how could such a misrepresentation arise? Quite easily, in fact. History can easily been rewritten, or re-spun, to give the impression that all that went before was insignificant ("Middle Ages") and repressive ("Dark Ages"), but that now we have life ("Renaissance"), light ("Enlightenment"), progress ("Modern") and real transformation ("Reformation" and "revolution", even "scientific revolution"). Anyone with an axe to grind against their predecessors will soon pile in to reinforce the stereotypes.

So what did these "Middle Ages" do for modern science? The rest of the book takes us on a remarkably enjoyable whistle-stop tour of the period to find out, as we meet one "giant" after another. There's Boethius (480-525) who, in his hugely influential The Consolation of Philosophy, provided the Latin-speaking world with continued access to Greek scholarship, even after the language faded from use. Then there's Gerbert of Aurillac (c.940-1003), "the most learned man in Europe", who introduced some of the riches of Muslim scholarship to a Christian audience before becoming Pope Sylvester II, the "Mathematical Pope". And so it continues, as discussions about mathematics and science, the nature of physical reality, the use of dissection and great technological advances are mingled with the colourful life stories of many remarkable individuals. Amongst them are Anselm (1033-1109), Peter Abelard (1079-1142), Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), Roger Bacon (1214-92), Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336), William of Ockham (c.1287-1347), the 14th-century Merton Calculators, John Buridan (c.1300-c.1361), and Nicole Oresme (c.1325-82), who gave arguments to show that the earth was rotating (everyone knew it was round, of course). (The book's List of Key Characters came in handy for writing that bit!)

Particularly interesting to me, as someone largely ignorant of the subject, were the five chapters on the origins of modern astronomy, with Nicolaus Copernicus (1472-1543), Johann Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and their buddies.


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