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Francis of Assisi: The Life
Francis of Assisi: The Life
Price: £8.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A refreshing perspective on Francis, 9 Nov. 2013
Given the new Pope's adoption of the name Francis, this is a remarkably timely addition to the many biographies of Il Poverello. However, this is more of a quest for the historical Francis than most. And since the author is a Dominican he may be less susceptible to the hagiography of Francis than some of his earlier biographies. As if in confirmation of that, Thompson places particular emphasis on Francis's own writings and the earliest testimonies to Francis's life while being clearly sceptical of later hagiographies (and quite dismissive of the Fioretti).

The result is effectively a quest for the historical Francis arranged in a broadly chronological structure. Thompson divides the life of St Francis into eight segments that are given roughly equal treatment.

Thompson begins with Francis's early life and strips away much of the romanticism associated with earlier biographies of the saint. This Francis is presented as a troubled young man, traumatized by war and behaving erratically. Perhaps most interesting is Thompson's sympathetic portrayal of Francis's father as a man genuinely concerned by his son's apparent descent into madness. The second chapter outlines the earliest beginnings of the Franciscan movement with Francis being joined by Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter who had experienced similar religious conversions. Over the next two chapters, Thompson presents the emergence of the Franciscan movement as largely spontaneous. It was certainly not intended by Francis. On the contrary, Francis is shown to be reluctant to take responsibility for the growing movement; leadership is forced upon him by Cardinal Hugolino. That initial reluctance gradually develops into a love-hate relationship with leadership: Francis happily resigns from his role as leader, but he remains the power behind first Peter of Cataneo then Elias. The concluding chapters offer a careful study of Francis's Rule, particularly the Regula Bullata (Chapter 6); in something of a departure from his erstwhile scepticism, an affirmation of the historicity of the stigmata (Chapter 7); and an account of how Francis's final days were stage managed.

I am not entirely convinced by Thompson's portrayal of Francis. He certainly does a good job of highlighting Francis's flaws, thus perhaps creating a more approachable Francis. However, I suspect that the difficulty with a quest for the historical Francis (like that of the long-discredited quest for the historical Jesus) is the re-creation of Francis in our own image. And the eccentric, vacillating, self-doubting man who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder glimpsed in these pages does seem suspiciously modern. Nevertheless, the book is well written and presents a refreshing alternative to the older biographies.

My thanks to Cornell University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book via the Netgalley scheme.


Imagining the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): How Worship Works
Imagining the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): How Worship Works
Price: £9.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking, must read, 21 Sept. 2013
There is more to Christian discipleship than understanding the Bible or doctrine. Imagining the Kingdom is the second volume of a trilogy entitled `Cultural Liturgies' in which James Smith tackles this `more' by exploring how imagination, desire and story shape the way we are in the world.

I must confess that I haven't read the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom. Fortunately Smith has written in such a way that each volume can be read on its own.

In the first volume he argued that `we are, primarily and root, affective animals whose worlds are made more by the imagination than by the intellect--that humans are those desiring creatures who live off of stories, narratives, images, and the stuff of poiesis' (xii). Imagining the Kingdom picks up this argument and develops it in two parts.
The first part, `Incarnate Significance', explores the embodied nature of our knowing and acting, drawing on contemporary thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu to illustrate the importance of the pre-conscious contribution to Christian thought and praxis. In particular, he makes extensive use of Merleau-Ponty's concept of perception (or embodied knowing) and Bourdieu's concept of habitus.

Deploying these concepts, he argues that it is not the case that theoria is prior to praxis. We are predisposed to act in the world, but that action does not derive primarily from theoretical attention to the world. Our action is more instinctive than that. Rather our practice in world is shaped by our experience of world. And that experience is shaped by stories, `stories that have captivated us, have sunk into our bones--stories that "picture" what we think life is about, what constitutes "the good life." We live into the stories we've absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us' (32). Embodied knowing thus envisaged must be rooted in community: in shared stories and shared communal practices.

Part 2, `Sanctified Perception', weaves the theoretical considerations of Part 1 into an exploration of how worship works and of Christian formation for mission. This latter half of the book presents an appealing picture. It is important that we are reminded that there is far more to being a Christian than merely our attempts to give rational expression to the faith. Smith rightly points towards the important role played by repetition, ritual and story-telling.

The first chapter of this section looks at how worship works in the broadest sense. Drawing on Part 1, he defines human beings as imaginative, narrative animals. Our embodied knowing and our shared practices are formed by our imaginations. This allows him to present the world as liturgical, where liturgy is defined as `rituals and practices that constitute the embodied stories of a body politic'. He continues, `If liturgies are "rituals of ultimate concern" that form identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and that do so in a way that means to trump other formations, they do so because they are those story-laden practices that are absorbed into the imaginative epicenter of action and behavior.' (109) Our desires are formed by such `cultural liturgies', and Smith offers smartphone usage as an example.

The second chapter of Part 2 explores the implications for Christian formation for mission. For Smith spiritual formation takes place primarily through worship rather than catechesis. Through worship, we become immersed in the gospel narrative and reoriented to the story of salvation history. And this results in the gradual transformation of our reactions: In face of wrongdoing or injustice, we show mercy instead of revenge; in face of suffering, compassion instead of callousness; in face of tragedy, hope instead of despair.

Smith offers a sustained critique of intellectualistic piety without ever becoming anti-intellectual, a judicious relativization of the role of the intellect in Christian discipleship. Positively, he places a welcome emphasis on the centrality of worship in Christian formation and mission (though other reviewers have commented critically on the conservatism of his view of worship).

Having said that, my Barthian background makes me sceptical of any approach that relies so heavily on expositions of perspectives from outwith the Christian tradition(s). One has to ask oneself what presuppositions about the way the world is have been slipped into Smith's argument courtesy of his adoption of Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty. Is this account of human knowing and formation as uncontested as his presentation suggests? Are there other approaches that might supplement, complement or contradict this one?

In spite of that reservation, I think this is a well-written and thought-provoking volume that will repay careful study by theologians and pastors alike.


Against Calvinism: Rescuing God's Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology
Against Calvinism: Rescuing God's Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology
Price: £2.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Helpful critique of Calvinism, 22 Jan. 2013
This is the sister volume to Michael Horton's `For Calvinism', which I reviewed some time ago. Roger Olson has clearly drawn the short straw in this project: It is always more difficult to write a constructive critique of a view which you believe to be just plain wrong than to write an apologia for you own belief system. It might have been fairer to ask Olson to write something entitled `For Arminianism' but, of course, he has already written something very like that.

In the first two chapters, Olson explains the context for his opposition to (certain forms of) Calvinism and outlines the complexity of the Reformed and Calvinist family of Christian traditions. This is essentially a response to the Calvinism of the so called young, restless Reformed thinkers (e.g. John Piper) who have spearheaded the re-emergence of a radical high (or even hyper) Calvinism in the past three decades. Olson insists that they do not have a monopoly on the term `Reformed' (his own theological hero, Arminius, was also a Reformed theologian) or even `Calvinist' (Olson cites the Dutch theologian Gerrits Berkouwer as an example of a moderate Calvinist who would take issue with this new hyper-Calvinism) and challenges some of their more extreme statements about God's sovereignty. In his own words:

`I believe someone needs finally to stand up and in love firmly say "No!" to egregious statements about God's sovereignty often made by Calvinists. Taken to their logical conclusion, that even hell and all who will suffer there eternally are foreordained by God, God is thereby rendered morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst. I have gone so far as to say that this kind of Calvinism, which attributes everything to God's will and control, makes it difficult (at least for me) to see the difference between God and the devil.' (p. 23)

In Chapter 3 he defines what is commonly understood as Calvinism today in terms of the five points of Calvinism (or the doctrines of grace). His basic argument is that Calvinism has to be inconsistent in order to avoid making God the author of evil, and he expands on this in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 4, `Yes to God's Sovereignty; No to Divine Determinism', affirms a `weak' view of divine sovereignty, namely that nothing happens without God's permission. He goes on to argue that a stronger view of sovereignty would make God the sole cause of all that happens and thus undermine the contingency of creation (p. 72). He traces this latter view from Zwingli through Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, R.C. Sproul, and Lorraine Boettner to Paul Helm and John Piper. As he sees it, this understanding of divine sovereignty is in tension with the goodness of God; taken to its logical conclusion it must lead to fatalism and an implicit belief that God is the ultimate cause of evil.

In Chapter 5, `Yes to Election; No to Double Predestination', Olson affirms the unconditional election of God's people as a whole and the conditional election of individuals. But he rejects the Calvinist notion of reprobation: in his view, that God pardons one sinner and condemns another who has committed the same sin makes God capricious rather than compassionate.

In Chapter 6, he argues that the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is a deduction from other points of Calvinism (specifically unconditional election and irresistible grace), which lacks scriptural support. He maintains that it contradicts the love of God by making God partial and, indeed, actively antipathetic towards those he has not chosen. Olsen also devotes some space to refuting the Calvinist argument that the only alternative to limited atonement is universalism.

In Chapter 7, Olson questions Calvinist claims that any human contribution to salvation (synergism) reduces it from grace to work and again he devotes some space to correcting what he sees as Calvinist misrepresentations of synergism as covert Pelagianism.

Olson concludes his critique with a chapter summarizing the conundrums of Calvinism and a couple of appendices dealing with some Calvinist responses to his central criticisms and various Calvinist claims.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a critique of any theological tradition is attacking the belief without attacking the believer. Roger Olson has done an admirable job of challenging the implications Calvinism while acknowledging that most Calvinists do not press their beliefs to their logical conclusion. He concludes that `evangelical Calvinists are some of the best Christians in the world. I just think they are terribly inconsistent and teach and believe doctrines contrary to scripture, most of Christian tradition, and reason' (p. 179).

This volume makes a very readable companion to its sister volume by Horton. Nevertheless, just as I remained unconvinced by Horton's very attractive presentation of Calvinism so I reached the end of Olson's text feeling more than a little uncomfortable about the Arminian alternative. Is it perhaps the case that both Calvinism (at least in its modern `restless' incarnation) and Arminianism are tainted by the Pelagianism that theologians like Kathryn Tanner and Colin Gunton have perceived to pervade post-Reformation (and certainly post-Enlightenment) Western theology?

(Perhaps I should add that I received this book free from Zondervan as part of their blogger review programme.)
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God and Creation in Christian Theology
God and Creation in Christian Theology
Price: £16.14

4.0 out of 5 stars The language of creation, 21 Jan. 2013
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How is it possible to affirm both absolute divine sovereignty and the existence of genuine freedom within the created order? For many people today this is simply not an option. Theologians and believing scientists alike carefully qualify the concept of divine sovereignty by, for example, referring to God's respect for the created order. Alternatively, those who are concerned to maintain divine sovereignty at all costs are prepared to allow determinism to creep into their accounts of the created order. Both sides tacitly admit that traditional theological attempts to maintain both were mistaken.

Tanner denies that widespread modern conclusion. She argues instead that traditional theological discourse is coherent so long as it conforms to certain linguistic rules about the transcendence and creative agency of God. The bulk of this book is devoted to uncovering those rules at work in certain traditional theologies. In a concluding chapter she examines the reasons behind the belief that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are incompatible.

The approach adopted in the book is unashamedly linguistic. Tanner readily admits that `In studying theology I am concentrating, not on what theologians are talking about, but on the way they say it' (p. 11). One effect of this approach is a pragmatic view of theology: it exists to help us live life in a `Christian' way rather than to promote understanding of the object of our faith. The association of this semantic ascent with non-referential approaches to religious (and scientific) discourse may well render it uncongenial to conservative Christians (or, practising scientists). However, the linguistic approach does enable her to lay bare a variety of rules of discourse which, taken together, enable the theologian to affirm coherently both divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom.

Turning first to divine transcendence, she examines the difficulties created by this concept in the Hellenistic context of early Christian theology. Transcendence and divine agency appeared to be mutually exclusive. Neo-Platonic efforts to maintain both were only partially successful, resulting in an emanationist understanding of creation. Christian theology had to hold together belief in a radically transcendent God and in his intimate involvement with every aspect of the created order. Tanner perceives two rules of discourse at work in the theologies which developed in the face of this requirement: as regards transcendence, the theologian must `avoid both a simple univocal attribution of predicates to God and world and a simple contrast of divine and non divine predicates'; as regards God's creative agency, we must `avoid . . . all suggestions of limitation in scope or manner' (p. 47). Her argument is amply illustrated with analysis of particular theological cases, notably Aquinas and Barth.

She then repeats this procedure for Christian theological talk about the power and efficacy of creatures. At first sight the rule about divine agency appears to preclude talk about genuine creaturely freedom. However, Tanner maintains that in traditional theological discourse divine and creaturely power were not inversely but directly proportional: `If power and efficacy are perfections, the principle of direct proportion requires that creatures be said to gain those qualities, not in the degree God's agency is restricted, but in the degree God's creative agency is extended to them' (p. 85). This fundamental rule is then developed in a variety of subsidiary rules defending the Christian doctrine of creation against tendencies to deism or occasionalism amongst other errors.

Tanner concludes her study with an analysis of what has gone wrong in the contemporary climate. Why does the suggestion that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are compatible meet with such resistance today? She argues that a complex of ideas and intellectual methods widely regarded as the legacy of the Enlightenment is responsible. The result is an intellectual milieu in which talk of creaturely freedom is most naturally interpreted in a Pelagian fashion while talk of divine sovereignty is understood as advocating divine tyranny. In such a situation, attempts to reaffirm the traditional Christian doctrine of providence are fraught with difficulties.

Once again, Tanner illustrates her analysis with historical examples. Her choice (the theology of Gabriel Biel and the de Auxiliis controversies) is interesting. Implicit in this choice is a denial that the Enlightenment is the chief source of our difficulties. The tendencies which came to fruition then were already at work before the birth of the Reformation.

Finally, Tanner does not leave us without hope. The problems analysed in her final chapter are not intractable. We do not have to give up traditional claims for a transcendent creator God in order to speak to late twentieth century western culture. On the contrary, there are forces within contemporary culture which will enable us to do what Christian theology has always done, namely, `fracture anew the language of the ordinary, so that traditional affirmations about God and the world come to hang together intelligibly once again' (p. 169).

Stylistically, this book is far from easy. She writes in the opaque style beloved of American theologians and she assumes that her readers will have a good working knowledge of Christian theologies of creation. Nevertheless, what she has to say well repays the effort of reading her.

I have some reservations about her theological functionalism and her tendency to focus upon the language of theology rather than its referents. Nevertheless, I found this book fascinating. She does not offer us a Christian theology of creation and providence for the end of the twentieth century. However, her analysis of the rules of discourse lying behind traditional claims in these areas ought to be taken seriously by anyone who is working in this field.


For Calvinism PB
For Calvinism PB
by Horton Michael
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Helpful explanation of contemporary Calvinism, 4 Aug. 2012
This review is from: For Calvinism PB (Paperback)
This is one volume of a pair of books exploring two poles of contemporary American evangelicalism. Its sister volume, Against Calvinism by Roger Olsen, argues the case for an Arminian approach. Here Michael Horton offers a passionate and eirenical defence of the Calvinist pole.

His opening chapter outlines the essence of Calvinism in terms of the various `sola's of the Reformation: `Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the source and norm of Christian faith and practice, and this Word proclaims a salvation that is by God's grace alone (sola gratia), in Christ alone (solo Christo), through faith alone (sola fide). Consequently, all of the glory goes to God alone (soli Deo gloria)' (p. 27). Thus salvation is entirely and exclusively the work of God (monergism). This is contrasted with Arminianism, which proclaims the free gift of grace to all humankind coupled with an element of synergism (a degree of human cooperation in the work of salvation).

The bulk of the book is given over to an exposition of the so called five points of Calvinism (a.k.a. the doctrines of grace). In the first of these chapters, Horton makes the point that `Reformed theology never starts with the fall, but with God's good creation' (p. 35) and with the notion that humans are made in the image of God. Thus the first of the five points, total depravity, refers to a distortion of that original goodness. He also reminds us that the `total' in this phrase is extensive rather than intensive; it implies that the distortion applies to every aspect of our being rather than that we are in some particular respect totally depraved.

Moving on to the doctrine of election, Horton insists that the Calvinist insistence on its unconditionality does not imply that it is somehow arbitrary. Rather, the point is that it is entirely a matter of God's love for us and has nothing to do with our capacity for faith. Some Christians complain that this is not fair and Horton agrees: if God's response to human sin were rooted exclusively in divine justice, we would all be justly condemned. Election is a matter of divine mercy rather than justice. This is an attractive presentation, but I'm not sure it really answers the most serious criticism of Calvinism, namely that it is inescapably and unacceptably deterministic.

The next chapter explores the doctrine of atonement. Horton summarizes six theories that have been proposed over the centuries to make sense of Christ's atoning work. He points out that no one theory adequately accounts for the reality. However, in his view, two aspects are essential for any theory to reflect adequately the New Testament witness: redemption must be particular and objective. While no evangelical would dispute the second of these, it is questionable whether the New Testament really does imply that Christ died only for the sins of the elect. Horton marshals the most persuasive Calvinist arguments in favour of this view, but I confess I remain unconvinced.

Finally he combines effectual calling (his preferred term for irresistible grace) and perseverance into a single chapter. These he maintains are implications of the monergism that is fundamental to Calvinist theology.

Having given an outline of the intellectual dimension of Calvinism, Horton turns to its implications for Christian life and practice. Calvinism is variously criticized as either antinomian or legalistic. By contrast, Horton presents a Reformed spirituality in which we work out our sanctification in fear and trembling knowing that it is all by the grace of God. It is a spirituality rooted firmly in the means of grace and virtually opposite in direction to that of much contemporary Christianity. Much contemporary Christianity concentrates on the seeker after God and is directed Godwards; Calvinism is a spirituality for those who have been (perhaps unexpectedly) found by God - it is directed from God to humankind.

Another common criticism of Calvinism is that is has been or is indifferent or antipathetic to Christian mission. Horton admits that there have been hyper-Calvinistic distortions of which this would be true. However, he denies that this was ever true of mainstream Calvinist thinking and demonstrates his point by outlining the Calvinist contribution to Christian missionary activity.

In summary, this is a clearly written and carefully argued defence of Calvinism. It makes an excellent introduction to a major theological and spiritual root of contemporary evangelicalism.

(Perhaps I should add that I received this book free from Zondervan as part of their blogger review programme.)


The Bone House (Bright Empires)
The Bone House (Bright Empires)
by Stephen R. Lawhead
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.88

3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very disappointing, 7 Dec. 2011
This is the sequel to The Skin Map, which disappointed me when I read it a few months ago. Nevertheless, I decided to give Stephen Lawhead a second chance because of the pleasure his earlier books have given.

Sadly there was no sign of improvement. The dialogue and characterization remain as wooden as before. As for the storyline, if anything, that has degenerated even further into a series of short scenes located at different times in very different geographical locations strung together in a (deliberately?) confusing manner. Even worse, he has begun to indulge in a bad habit of the second-rate novelist: using arbitrary scene breaks to create a false sense of tension. On top of that, he indulges in some rather unsubtle infodumping more than once.

I also have my doubts about the extent and reliability of the historical research he has done. To take just one example, he has Douglas Flinders-Petrie seek out Roger Bacon in Oxford in 1260 when according to modern scholars he was in Paris. Granted this is a parallel universe rather than our own past, but little things like that make it harder for me to suspend my disbelief.

Also irritating was the evidence of poor editing. Glaring typos like `Canus Major' for `Canis Major', `died' for `dyed', and `bier' for `byre' are really not excusable!

Much as I wanted to enjoy this novel, I must again register my disappointment. I won't be reading any more of the series.

NB I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Urban Fantasy Anthology
Urban Fantasy Anthology
by Peter S. Beagle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.50

4.0 out of 5 stars A masterly overview of the genre, 25 Sept. 2011
It's raw, it's vibrant, it's undeniably popular, but just what is urban fantasy? The editors of this new anthology from Tachyon attempt to define the genre by offering us twenty short stories they regard as typical. These stories have been subdivided into three categories: mythic fiction, paranormal romance and noir fantasy. By way of introduction, Peter Beagle offers a useful critical overview of the book as a whole, while Charles De Lint, Paula Guran and Joe Lansdale do the same for each of the three subdivisions.

Mythic fiction is the oldest and best established of the three types of urban fantasy. However, as Charles De Lint points out, the term was originally chosen by him and Terri Windling precisely to avoid describing what they were writing as `urban fantasy'. It is probably the most easily definable of the three categories. Essentially, mythic fiction refers to any story that takes traditional fantasy tropes and/or mythic elements and places them in a (sometimes loosely) contemporary setting. In this collection, the category is illustrated by stories from Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford and Peter Beagle. All the stories chosen to represent mythic fiction are excellent reads, but the Jeffrey Ford offering (`On the Road to New Egypt') seems rather out of place in this company: there is a surrealism about it that to my mind makes it more akin to the category described here as `noir fantasy'.

The term `paranormal romance' immediately put me in mind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Twilight saga and Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake novels. Paula Guran's take on the category certainly overlaps with those works, but she puts more emphasis on `kickassitude' and detective-style plots than on any element of romance. The stories chosen to represent this category are by Charles de Lint (again), Kelley Armstrong, Norman Partridge, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Bruce McAllister, Suzy McKee Charnas and Francesca Lia Block. Again it is a strong selection of stories. My particular favourite was Patricia Briggs's `Seeing Eye', perhaps because I have a soft spot for paranormal detective stories.

Finally, Joe Lansdale introduces what in their wisdom the editors have decided to call noir fantasy. I think this is a misnomer because, to my mind, it suggests a connection with film noir and hardboiled crime fiction; it leads me to expect a cynical take on the world, a morally ambiguous (possibly darkly humorous) central character and possibly a erotic dimension that is not constrained by (or at least is in tension with) conventional attitudes. In fact, the term `noir fantasy' leads me to expect precisely what Paula Guran highlighted about `paranormal romance'. However, for Joe Lansdale it clearly means (urban) fantasy with a strong component of horror and/or surrealism. The stories presented here as `noir fantasy' are a disparate collection by Thomas Disch, Susan Palwick, Holly Black, Steven Boyett, Joe Lansdale, Tim Powers and Al Sarrantonio. They are all twisted, dark and surreal . . . but noir? Of these, I found Susan Pawlick's `Gestella' (a werewolf betrayed by her human lover) and Steven Boyett's `Talking Back to the Moon' (ex-werewolf and centaur on a road journey in a post-apocalyptic California) particularly memorable.

The sheer diversity of stories anthologized here does a good job of highlighting the breadth of contemporary urban fantasy. I am less convinced by the editors' attempts to classify the stories. But more important is the fact that they have brought together an excellent collection of stories that showcases the best of urban fantasy writing (however you define it). Definitely a must read!


Interpreting the Universe as Creation: A Dialogue of Science and Religion (Studies in Philosophical Theology)
Interpreting the Universe as Creation: A Dialogue of Science and Religion (Studies in Philosophical Theology)
by Vincent Brummer
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A study in diversity of opinion, 18 Sept. 2011
As the title suggests, this volume of essays is the outcome of an international consultation on science and religion. No fewer than four of the papers are from the pens of British authors already well-known for their contributions to aspects of the dialogue.

The structure of the collection is quite simple. After two introductory chapters of a theological nature subsequent chapters are paired so that we are given a scientific and a theological contribution in the areas of cosmology, evolutionary biology, and human nature. The one departure from this pattern is the concluding chapter which explores the theological implications of the ecological crisis.

The theological introduction is provided by Vincent Brümmer who defends Wittgenstein's concept of religion as a language-game against the charge of fideism. This is developed in the following chapter by Luco van den Brom. He relates it to George Lindbeck's cultural linguistic view of doctrine. This suggests that the doctrine of creation is part of religious map for the journey of life. Van den Brom maintains the possibility that it makes claims about the nature of reality. However, he effectively marginalizes the doctrine by treating it as a `footnote' to salvation history which is retained primarily because we have no way of deriving ethical norms from scientific facts.

Personally I found the two chapters on cosmology the most interesting in the book. The first, by Chris Isham, discusses recent quantum creation theories. It stresses the highly speculative nature of these attempts to explain the origin of the universe. In its companion paper, Willem Drees explores some of the potential tensions between cosmology and theology. In particular, he focuses on cosmology's spatialization of time and its platonizing tendencies. However, while recognizing that these are hard to reconcile with traditional Protestant theologies, he suggests that theology need not be unduly worried that we can evade such tensions by reverting to some form of Christian Platonism in which eternity is interpreted as timelessness and the universe is a mere reflection of mathematical entities existing in the mind of God.

By contrast, I found the chapters on biological themes rather disappointing. Taken as a whole they provide a useful introduction to the dialogue between science and religion in the areas of evolution, human nature and ecology. However, they simply go over ground that is already extremely well trod: we cannot answer the question `What is life?'; evolution is not incompatible with creation and this has implications for our understanding of God (predictably, little attention is given to whether the view of God revealed in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures has implications for our understanding of evolution); human beings cannot be distinguished from animals by any biological or psychological criteria but only on theological grounds; and, finally, we are told that this distinction is one of the roots of our ecological crisis.

No attempt has been made to integrate these papers into a consistent overview of the subject. The result is a degree of disjointedness which may irritate some readers. However, it does serve to highlight the degree of theological divergence within the debate.


Christianity and Ecology (World Religions & Ecology)
Christianity and Ecology (World Religions & Ecology)
by Elizabeth Breuilly
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars A peculiar mixture of the very good and the very bad, 18 Sept. 2011
This volume forms part of a series sponsored by the World Wide Fund for Nature with the overall aim of exploring how different world religions have viewed the natural environment and the relevance of religious beliefs for our handling of the current ecological crisis. If this volume is typical of the series as a whole, it is designed as a semi-popular presentation for the benefit of parish discussion groups and, perhaps, for use in schools.

The editors have divided the contents into four main sections tackling respectively the ecological crisis, the roots of Christian attitudes to the environment, historical case studies and practical contemporary Christian responses.

The first section consists of a single paper by Freda Rajotte (a former member of the WCC Church and Society Unit). She moves rapidly and uncritically from a summary account of the ecological crisis itself to a statement of Christian culpability which reflects the secular environmentalist consensus rather than the views of informed Christian theologians. One is left with the distinct impression that the Church, as she sees it, is a conservative institution hell-bent on maintaining the status quo over a wide variety of issues (she even implies that Christianity resisted the movement to abolish slavery!).

By contrast with the shrill and tendentious opening section, the three papers on the roots of Christian attitudes are balanced and helpful pieces of work. `The Bible and the Natural World' and `The Influence of the Bible on Christian Belief about the Natural World' are by Dr Ruth Page. She presents a positive view of biblical teaching in relation to the environment and also offers a counter to Rajotte's suggestion that Western Christianity must bear much of the blame for the present crisis. The third paper is a précis of lectures given by John Zizioulas at King's College London. Serious students of the theology of nature will want to read the original version (published in King's Theological Review) but the editors are to be thanked for making this important material more widely available.

Turning to the historical case studies, we encounter first an excellent study of Benedictine monasticism by Sister Joan Chittister. She summarises the Benedictine ideal in terms of hard work, respect for the land, simplicity, care and stewardship and examines its implications for environmental ethics. This is followed by a study of St Francis by Father Peter Hooper of the Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury. Hooper presents an interesting but, I suspect, anachronistic picture of Francis. He admits, but fails to explain, the consistent failure of Franciscans to live up to the ecological ideal he portrays. Could it be that there were other facets in Francis, warring with his love of nature? That was certainly true of St Bonaventure, the first great theologian of the Franciscan Order. The concluding contribution in this section claims to tackle the Protestant tradition. However, its author Martin Palmer seems to be more interested in launching a tendentious attack on Calvinism than in giving a fair account of what is, after all, an extremely diverse family of Christian traditions. He accepts Max Weber's correlation between Calvinism and capitalism uncritically, apparently unaware of the serious questions which have been raised regarding Weber's thesis. Calvin himself is presented as a religious fanatic who did not believe that God cared for his creation (apart from the elect)! Now it is certainly true that Calvin shares the Augustinian ambivalence towards the natural world which runs throughout Western Christianity. But Palmer's suggestion that Calvinism was `a major contributor to the growth of an exploitative attitude to nature' (p. ix) is errant nonsense. On the contrary, Calvin was the first Reformer explicitly to assert our duty of responsible stewardship with respect to the natural world.

The concluding section, like the opening, is by Freda Rajotte. In it she offers a variety of suggestions for individual Christians and churches seeking to make some kind of genuine response to the ecological crisis.
People seeking to use this book as a resource for parish or classroom discussion will be much helped by the questions which are interpolated into the text at frequent intervals. However it has two serious weaknesses: the lack of bibliography and the tendentious nature of the contributions by Rajotte and Palmer. A book which presumes to be a teaching resource should enable readers to look elsewhere for complementary (or contradictory) perspectives. And it should eschew the temptation to perpetuate ill-informed prejudices.


Creation and Double-Chaos: Science and Theology In Discussion (Theology and the Sciences Series) (Theology & the Sciences)
Creation and Double-Chaos: Science and Theology In Discussion (Theology and the Sciences Series) (Theology & the Sciences)
Price: £14.21

3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but idiosyncratic approach to creation, 18 Sept. 2011
At first glance, this is yet another general dialogue between Christian theology and the natural sciences. What sets it apart is the author's take on theology, arising from his rejection of a central feature of the Christian doctrine of creation, namely, creation from nothing. Instead, he opts for creation from primordial chaos, of which more later.

In his introductory chapter, Bonting sets out his methodology for bringing science and theology into dialogue. He sees both as 'God-given worldviews of a single reality' (p. 16), so that in principle there should be no conflict between them. Dialogue is possible because both disciplines seek a rational explanation of basic data: natural phenomena in the case of science and biblical data in the case of theology. Further, such dialogue can be direct without any mediating role for metaphysics, which he regards as essentially non-theistic and therefore unsuited for such a role. Interestingly, the role of religious experience is quietly marginalized to such an extent that the famous Lambeth Quadrilateral is reduced to a tripod (p. 106) of Bible, tradition and reason (in that order).

After his methodological introduction, he moves on to give a brief overview of cosmic and biological evolution (the two aspects of the scientific world-view which he thinks most pertinent to the dialogue between science and theology). Inevitably, specialists in the various disciplines invoked in the course of this chapter will quibble with details but setting that aside Bonting has achieved a remarkably lucid non-specialist introduction.

He then turns his attention to the doctrine of the creation. Chapter 3 surveys a variety of creation stories from around the world (rather oddly, in light of his earlier insistence that the 'data for the dialogue with science must be the canonical texts delivered to us' (p. 6)), before outlining what the Bible has to say about creation. He sees no evidence for arguing that the Bible offers any support for a doctrine of creation out of nothing. In chapter 4 he explores the origins of creation from nothing and concludes that the doctrine emerged from the Church's conflict with Platonism and Gnosticism. While it may have had a certain apologetic value for the early Church, in Bonting's view its introduction presented Christian theology with a number of serious problems, not least the problem of evil. He concludes his examination of the doctrine of creation from nothing with a brief survey of contemporary approaches. However, this is far too brief (13 theologians in fewer than 20 pages) to be helpful to the reader or fair to the theologians surveyed.

Over against the doctrine of creation from nothing, Bonting asserts in chapter 6 that God created from primordial chaos. God's continuing action in the universe may, therefore, be seen as a matter of overcoming the remaining vestiges of chaos until complete order is achieved in the eschaton. While he denies that chaos as he envisages it bears any relation to gnostic evil matter, he suggests that evil may be seen as arising from the elements of chaos still present in the universe. In chapter 7, he explores how God acts in such a universe, concluding that he does so by influencing chaotic events in an undetectable manner.

The remaining seven chapters are devoted to various applications of Bonting's chaos theology. He begins by addressing the problem of evil, which he has effectively dissolved by denying that God created the chaos from which evil arises and asserting that he is acting against evil continuously by reducing remaining chaos to order. Chapter 9 goes into greater detail concerning God's action in the world, while chapter 10 focuses specifically on the cosmic Christ. He is critical of traditional doctrines of reconciliation, accusing them of portraying God as entrapped in divine justice when they assert that God cannot act in a manner contrary to God's own nature. Apparently chaos theology offers an alternative, but he fails to explain how crucifixion and resurrection play a decisive role in overcoming residual chaos. Chapter 11, on genetic modification and cloning, really adds nothing to either his dialogue between science and chaos theology or current debates on biotechnology. Likewise chapters 12 (on disease) and 13 (on extra-terrestrial life) seem to add little to the dialogue.

Finally he turns to the future, contrasting the pessimism of scientific forecasts with the glorious promise of the Bible. Judgement there will be, but he re-presents this as self-judgement. Having said that, his doctrine of the last things seems to be more informed by the biblical vision than by his own chaos theology. Little is said about the implications of the final state being one of complete order and zero chaos.

Creation and Double Chaos is well written and offers a refreshingly unconventional perspective on the doctrine of creation and the dialogue between science and theology. I must confess, however, that I remain unconvinced by his approach. In particular, I think the lack of serious engagement with contemporary creation theologies needs to be addressed if his thesis is to be taken seriously on the theology side of the dialogue.


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