A Gentle Thunder – Max Lucado

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A Gentle Thunder is book of meditations consisting of short, encouraging passages that can be read in one or two sittings, or studied in a more leisurely and prayerful fashion. It consists of 30 short chapters, so pretty much one a day for a month.

Each chapter of A Gentle Thunder offers a supportive short story or homily which develops life enhancing insights into God’s unfailing love. Each chapter is accompanied by a short Bible verse which is then amplified by reference to the author’s personal experiences, or through the development of a short fictional narrative in the form of a parable, allegory or sustained metaphor.

Max Lucado is a good writer and preacher who can communicate through dramatic examples and images, as you can see from the title and subtitle, which is Hearing God through the Storm. Whilst a cynic could argue that these images are cliches, that would be very unfair on Lucado who goes out of his way to find modern analogies and approaches to ideas which are expressed in the Bible through such dramatic and powerful natural imagery.

For example at one point Lucado compares himself and the apostle Peter to the cartoon Roadrunner to show Peter’s impetuosity, and in another example he contrasts an American cowboy with a Hebrew shepherd in order to draw out the intimate caring love of the Father for his flock. He uses the metaphor of dancing to explain the intimacy of the Holy Spirit, and to suggest how He can bring our walk as Christians to life. He describes a middle aged father failing to ascend a climbing wall in order to show how God is always there, ready to rescue us should we fall.

Lucado questions whether a cat can be taught to be a gentleman in a short tale in which two sons compete with their father to make a philosophical point. The cat, whilst able to serve at table and handle a full tray of food, only does so until the mice arrive at which point chaos breaks loose: the message of course is about original sin.

Sometimes Lucado focuses more clearly on the Bible passage itself, using his imagination to help the reader step more closely to the passage and to the biblical event and its theological significance. He looks at the crucifixion and considers God’s viewpoint about the different participants, and describes the feeding of the five thousand and the wedding at Canaan focusing on the reaction of the participants and the story of their faith. At Canaan the servants take the jugs of water to the wedding host in a spirit of faith, and Lucado insists that we should do that too with our daily concerns and issues: listen to God, and act in faith. With the feeding of the five thousand he focuses on the disciples’ lack of faith; they advised the crowds to go home, as they saw no solution. But Jesus broke the bread and blessed it: his grace did not depend on their faith. He cannot be false to himself.

That last example was typical of the way Max Lucado communicates a real sense of God’s love for us and explains through all kinds of examples the lengths that he is prepared to go to for our salvation. It’s hard always to keep God’s love in mind, or to give sufficient time to prayer and reading and we all have doubts and fears. Max Lucado has a stunning  and inspiring vision of God’s love and I can certainly recommend this book for individuals to read or study, or for groups to read together: for the latter there are questions attached to each section, though I did not read these!!

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Non-Fiction – Literature/ Auto/ Biography / Christianity / Humour

Literature

Bate, Jonathan                                   The Genius of Shakespeare

Crystal, Ben                                        Shakespeare on Toast

Sheers, Owen                                      Skirrid Hill

Biography / Autobiography

Armitage, Simon                               Walking Home

Connelly, Charlie                               Attention All Shipping

Dylan, Bob                                            Chronicles

Firbank, Thomas                                I Bought a Mountain

Masson, Madeleine                           Christine – SOE Agent

White, Michael                                    Leonardo Da Vinci – The First Scientist

Christianity / Theology

Bernis, Jonathan                                 A Rabbi Looks at Jesus of Nazareth

Morison, Frank                                    Who Moved the Stone

Spufford, Francis                                 Unapologetic

Wright, Tom                                          How God Became King

Humour

Guareschi, Giovanni                          The Little World of Don Camillo

Trillin, Calvin                                      Tepper Isn’t Going Out

Unapologetic-Francis Spufford

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Well I guess I’m still on that economy drive.  This was a book I picked up for £1 in a remaindered tray in Waterstones, Plymouth, a few weeks ago.  It was pretty good value.

Unapologetic probably didn’t sell because it has a rather dull cover and a very long subtitle – Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense – but you can see that from the picture!

I’ll try and summarise the argument, chapter by chapter, though it’s a sketchy and brief summary.

  1. Atheism is fashionable but it’s still a matter of belief.  Dawkins comes in here.
  2. There’s a crack in everything – he calls it The Human Potential to F*** Things Up, an imperfect world.  (He omits the stars, replacing them with letters.)
  3. Humanity has a capacity to wonder and worship.  At times, when he prays or meditates he has a sense of otherness, a sense of God – Big Daddy, in his words.
  4. The question of suffering.  He looks at the traditional philosophical explanations of how a just and merciful God can allow suffering, and dismisses them all.  He explains that he can’t see the point of suffering for the Muslim and Jew – for them God is outside the world, apart from suffering.  He claims that for the Christian the issue is less difficult as God, in Christ, shares the suffering with us.
  5. Yeshua: he gives a crisp account of the life of Christ, amalgamating all the gospels and creating a summary of the historical accounts, which allows him to focus on the key issue – God’s love shown in Christ, and the potential for forgiveness and renewal.
  6. He tidies up some issues – etceteras – such as the other “gospels” that didn’t make it into the Bible, alternative accounts of Christ’s life, and earlier mythic accounts of gods that some claim gave rise to the “myth” of Christ.
  7. He looks more closely and in more detail at the nature of God’s forgiveness – its extreme quality, its boundlessness.  He looks at some misconceptions about Christianity that turn people away.
  8. He concludes by asking what we should do in the light of the possibility of belief, claiming that Christianity, or Christian belief can give rise to many different systems of behaviour – from the Marxism of liberation theology to the right wing republicanism of the Bible belt USA.  At its heart is the message of love and forgiveness, of hope and renewal.

Spufford is interesting.  His faith sounds real – especially in that it admits doubt, in fact suggests that doubt is an authentic expression of faith.  Spufford says he is more interested in this life than the next; that Christianity offers a solution to the problem of being a human being, of being continually faced by our own ability and tendency to mess things up; a solution to our own continual inadequacy and failure.

I guess I tend to agree with most of what he says.  I wondered if I might give this book to someone to explain what it means to me to be a Christian.  I’m not sure.  Spufford wrote all this at a table in Costa Coffee, Cambridge, Sydney Street branch.  There are no academic references, it’s a plain account, but at the same time it gets pretty complicated in places, and I think you’d need to be quite committed to the ideas to get through it.

Having said that, the chapter on Yeshua is certainly worth a look for everybody.  It gets right to the heart of the story, puts its finger on the pulse if you like, of what Jesus, and the gospel, is saying.  Most people could read that chapter, and benefit from it.

Who Moved the Stone – Frank Morison

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This is a short but incisive account of the last days of Jesus written by a sceptic with a scientific and logical mind set, and a complete disbelief in miracles.

The author sets out to examine the documentary evidence about the resurrection with the intention of debunking what he considers to be a myth.  Close analysis of the gospels causes him to change his mind.  He examines each part of the crucifixion story, beginning with the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, and looking closely at the events as recorded in the gospels, at the psychological motivations of the characters, and at the cultural setting of the time.

Morison begins with an examination of the case against Jesus, and the wrangling between the Roman and Jewish authorities about his guilt.  In this section he argues that the evidence against Jesus was flimsy to non-existent, and that in securing his execution the Jewish leaders played fast and loose with the traditions of Judaism, ignoring the importance to Jewish Law of the sanctity of human life.   He goes on to describe the time that Jesus spent in the garden before his arrest, suggesting that he was deliberately delaying his departure in anticipation of the arrival of the arresting party.  Morison suggests that there were many delays caused because the pharisees needed to come to an arrangement with Pilate to put Jesus to trial before sundown the next day, so that the whole business could be expedited before the beginning of the Passover.

There is a close analysis of the trial which sews together the events from all the gospels and casts interesting light on the motives of Pilate and Caiaphas leading up to the final accusation that Jesus claimed he was King of the Jews.  The role of Pilate’s wife is considered, along with the motivation for Pilate’s refusal to remove the sign saying “This is the King of the Jews”.  The following chapter looks at the crucifixion itself, considering common views such as that in the Quran – that Christ was not dead but taken down alive from the cross.  The last half of the book moves forward in time 36 hours, examines the events surrounding the tomb and considers the different gospel versions.  He looks at the role of the women in discovering the empty tomb, and considers the whereabouts of the different disciples, telling the story from the points of view of Peter, James and Paul, and drawing conclusions about the identity of the man in the tomb who speaks to the women when they first arrive.  He concludes with a clear summary stating that the weight of evidence is clearly in favour of the gospels being true accounts rather than legends later imposed on the event.

Some people have objected to Morison favouring the Gospel of Mark as the earliest, and thus closest to a factual account, saying that all the gospels should be given equal weight as the inspired word of God.  I imagine they find his occasional reference to the apocryphal gospels such as Peter even less welcome!!  The fact is that Morison was writing in the 1930s and was responding to the textual approach of the German critics whose aim was to subject the Bible to critical analysis; the significance of scientific criticism of religion was also an influence on his thinking – his early ideas were influenced by Huxley and Matthew Arnold who were of the post Darwinian generation, so we need to see Morison as a man of his time.  In any case the Bible is a collection of different types of books, and to understand each one we do need to think about textual issues such as the use of metaphor.

In the end of course faith, belief and obedience are all we have, but it’s clearly enough – that’s what God says throughout the Old Testament, and that’s what Jesus says in the New.  Morison’s approach is a delight.  He writes logically and argues his case with grace and insight.  The account brings to life the final days of Jesus in a way that is very hard to do for people like me, who have read and heard the accounts frequently but never given this amount of thought to the very fine details, and to the exact sequence of events.

To me there are many things unanswered in the Bible – we have to trust God and not expect to be able to explain everything in a rational way, and there are a couple of holes in Morison’s logic – especially with respect to the man in the tomb, who he sees as the gardener, coincidentally also present at Gethsemane.  Nevertheless this was a fascinating and interesting account of the final days of Jesus and one that would repay the effort taken to read it – both as an inspiration to faith and as a model of how to write with clarity and logic.

Link to e-book

Tom Wright – How God Became King

Durham Cathedral

Tom Wright’s book How God Became King offers a challenging and revitalising interpretation of the Gospels and creed which emphasises that Jesus is King, the embodiment of God’s kingdom here on earth. To some this is not new. However, Wright’s interpretation focuses on aspects of the gospels that he claims are overlooked by many Christians, who, he claims, skip from the Virgin birth to the crucifixion, missing out the story in-between – the story told by the gospels – the story of how in Jesus God came down to earth to claim his kingdom – that in doing so he crushed the powers of darkness, and the political powers of his day.

Wright’s argument is that by dying on the cross, and by his resurrection, Jesus defeated the powers of this world, and instigated the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Wright says that God’s Kingdom is not just some heavenly escape from this sinful world – not just a promise of life after death – that, he claims, would amount to gnosticism. For Wright, Jesus’ Kingdom is both here, now, and after death. The Jews were a sign to the nations of God’s justice and power – an indication of God’s character. Jesus is the embodiment of Israel, the Kingdom of God on earth revealed. Jesus won a victory once and for all, and the final victory is his. His death showed God’s love and compassion. The job of the church is to continue to do that – to be active in this world in revealing God’s love, building God’s Kingdom, healing the nations, bringing peace, living in the way of a servant, not a powerful ruler, living according to God’s rules, and not the rules of this world.

In the cross Jesus triumphed over the powers of his age – Caesar, Herod, Pontius Pilate – and inaugurated God’s Kingdom here on earth. It is the job of the church, and the individual Christian to continue that. Christianity is not an escape from the world, but a call to be even more closely engaged with healing this broken world, to carry the cross, as Jesus instructed us to.

Online Bible

Tom Wright – Biblical Scholar – former Bishop of Durham

Jonathan Bernis – A Rabbi looks at Jesus of Nazareth

The Ten Commandments

Jonathan Bernis has written a clear, detailed and fairly straightforward answer to the question “Who is Jesus of Nazareth”, and I recommend this as a book that everyone should read.

Bernis’ most telling contribution is to show that Jesus is the Messiah of the Jews, foretold in the Old Testament. He does this by systematic reference to the Old Testament prophets – including the suffering servant described by Isaiah (Isaiah Chapters 7, 50 and 53), and Zechariah‘s prophecies about events leading up to Jesus’ death (Zechariah Chapters 9 and 11). The references are wide and convincing. He also mentions Daniel and the Psalms, as well as the history of Israel. Bernis emphasises again and again the nature of the chosen people, set apart as God’s representatives on earth, and the significance of Jesus as the embodiment of Israel. He reminds the reader of God’s love for Israel, and for the world. He shows how Jesus is the perfect embodiment of the passover lamb, a final and perfect sacrifice for our sins.

The book opens with a reference to CS Lewis Mere Christianity, another rational discussion of Christian belief that I can recommend. Bernis gives a strongly personal and passionate account, which looks at some aspects of the history of the relationship between the Christian church and Judaism, considering the ways in which each developed separate identities over time. There are elements which are specifically Jewish in emphasis – such as the Talmud in relation to Jesus, a consideration of other Jews who claimed to be the Messiah, and a review of the lives of some Jews who, like Bernis, became Christians. Finally Bernis looks more specifically at some Christian beliefs – in particular the resurrection. In all cases his arguments are convincing and his knowledge impressive.

The Oldfield Park Bookshop