A review of Charles Marsh’s “Strange Glory: A life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

This book has been a faithful companion for a few years of my life now. I have taken an absurdly long time over it, because of the busyness of life, and knowing that I’d never abandon it unread, that I’d always pick up where I left off.

It is a remarkable biography of the war-time minister and theologian. It is so rich in detail, so evocative of the times and places of it’s subject, I felt I had actually visited the places in the book, and met some of the people concerned. We begin with Dietrich’s childhood in a wealthy and connected family, and there are different flavours of the provincial and urban life of the time, of the holidays in mountain retreats studying nature and poetry, of the holiday games and rituals. Then there’s is the young man Bonhoeffer, studying and traveling, visiting sumptuous locations such as Barcelona, transported by the Cathedrals and Orthodox Christianity he encounters there, the parades, the music, the sung catechisms. We watch him navigate University life, cut his exceptional theological teeth, and then travel further and mature greatly in his views and theology in New York and with Harlem churches, where he makes strong connections with social action, protest, political idealism and Christianity.

Tangentially through all this there is the growing horror and dread of the growth and spread of the Nazi movement, including in the Churches. Bonhoeffer’s attempts to organise a dissident group of preachers is described, as the oppression and Nazi barbarity gains momentum.
Bonhoeffer meets Eberhard Bethge, with whom he develops an enduring and profound romantic friendship that at times borders on a possessive mania (on Bonhoeffer’s part). This is an important theme in Bonhoeffer’s life, revealing inner conflicts both in his self and in his theology.

Bonhoeffer is involved, even if it is peripherally with one of the plots to assassinate Hitler, and this seals his awful doom of execution in a Nazi concentration camp. Here the power of the writing to put one in the very shoes of Bonhoeffer has a terrifying and oppressive affect. Charles Marsh views Bonhoeffer’s fate without blinking, he offers no distancing philosophising or sermonising, only Bonhoeffer’s own words.

In it’s description and analysis of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings and thought, the book presents these ideas in all their freshness and excitement. That is, the excitement of a faith that is there to change the world, to challenge evil and turn established orders on their head; so the last, the brutalised, poor and oppressed come first in a theology of service and sacrifice, and the first, that is the preening leaders and Churchmen so quick to yoke their faith to the Nazi machine, come truly last as the abominations that they are.

A remarkable work, detailing a remarkable life.


A review of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017, “Dethroning Mammon”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017, “Dethroning Mammon,” is a rich (no pun intended) and thought provoking read on spiritually opposed value bases on wealth.  On the one hand we have Mammon, “the love of money” which the Bible tells us is at the root of evil (not just “money” as some suppose).  That is when, in our hearts, we believe that everything is a resource for our own enrichment (we may build in an ethical get out clause on “trickle down” economics), then we will see, value, and interpret everything in that light.  Christ will be a threat, as he was in his day, to those holding that value.  Chapter 1 of the Archbishop’s book explores this, with reference to Matthew 13 (the Pearl of Great Price) and John 11 (the death of Lazarus), on the different ways we can value what we see.
Moving on from this, there’s a danger that we will see everything as a finite resource to be assessed and measured accordingly, driven by ethics of scarcity, i.e. we have to acquire and pile up wealth as otherwise someone else will.  And we will aggressively defend and acquire accordingly.  We are put into an adversarial position with the rest of creation.  The opposite to this are the economics of Grace.  We have a generous God who gives abundantly and outrageously.  No one deserves or earns Grace.  With Grace at the centre  the Archbishop begins to draw out how else we might understand wealth, in the light of having no fear, and faith in an infinitely abundant and generous God.  It posits a very different approach to the world around us, and how we find and use our resources.  The key texts here is John 12, with Mary anointing Jesus with very expensive perfume, apparently wasteful but in fact an act of Grace and love that is not motivated by the scarcity of the resource or the need to frantically hold onto it.
Chapter 4 expands on this, looking at the relationship between money and power, and how Jesus’s servant-leadership subverts this, especially in the key act of the washing of the disciples feet (John 13).
Chapter 5 further looks at how apparent motiveless and wasteful generosity can in fact be Grace in action.  Something as apparently of no benefit to people or the world as acquiring and anointing for burial the body of Jesus (John 19), are in fact Kingdom actions, actions that show that real wealth as decisions to give money and time based on no hope of reward, but as service to God, actions that can ultimately transform the world, as they move away from fear, to faith, to generous and transformative action.
Chapter 6 moves to Revelations, the end of all things, with the ultimate dethroning of Mammon (Babylon) by the eternal and redeemed creation of the City of God.  This moves into an action plan as to how we can start to live this message now, through listening, repentance and action.This book is intelligent, wise, and written with a clear integrity.  There are points of reflection throughout the book, questions to help individuals and groups preparing for Lent share and understand the material.
Much recommended then as a Lent book, or to be read at any time.  You’ll find it’s messages live on in your mind and heart after reading.

A review of Stant Litore’s “Lives of Unstoppable Hope.”

This is a beautiful and powerful little book.  The writer has a pre-school daughter, Inara who struggles with a rare form of epilepsy.  Although Inara has made a lot of hopeful progress, her infancy was full of inexplicable and violent rolling seizures that left her parents shaken and frightened.  The father sat long vigils by her hospital bed, which inspired these reflections on the Beatitudes of Jesus.

Stant Litore has a love of and has studied languages, including the Greek of the New Testament.  He brings this learning to bear in this book in a powerful way, really getting to the inner life and power of Jesus’s words that a lot of translations have left obscured.

This, together with his poetic and imaginative understanding of God, humanity, joy and suffering make this a book that has the potential to push you out of your comfort zones and live lives of “unstoppable hope,” making a real difference to the world.

I am not new to Stant Litore, I belong to the Paetron crowd-funding scheme that supports his work, having read and greatly enjoyed and appreciated a lot of his stuff.  This includes a series called the “Zombie Bible,” that takes the stories of the Bible and fuses them with …the undead.  Stant’s reading of spiritual hunger with the zombie plagues he describes is an illuminating and enriching one.  I have also enjoyed his “Ansible” series that describe telepathic space travel and demonic creatures of pure mind, real Lovecraftian horrors.

Common to also his writing is a fiercely humanistic Christian faith.  I find it powerfully authentic.  So look up his work, and if you are so moved, support him and his family through Paetron.  I write through powerfully selfish reasons, I simply want to read more of his stuff.

A review of Timothy Keller’s “My Rock My Refuge: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms.”

My walk as a Christian is a very faltering one indeed.  Therefore a daily devotional reading, I reason, is helpful in keeping my steps on more or less the right path.  ‘More or less’ the right path.  What a typically British thing to say.  As if to say”keep my feet on the right path” was too definite and impolite.  But no.  As I said, my walk is faltering, and as a flawed human being I know that rather than some angelic Roman road, I’ll be weaving in a zig-zagging, inebriated fashion.


I bought this book as a daily devotional to help me for the above reason, and also because the Psalms are the amongst the most the human and relatable writings in the Bible.  Cries of hatred and rage, deep wails of despair, and dialogues of depression that sound like the speaker is having to tear the words from their throat, sit alongside jubilant songs of praise, wonder and gratitude.

I have read C S Lewis’s excellent “Reflection on the Psalms,” which is a helpful book, packed with wisdom and insight.

In this you get a Psalm, or sections of a longer Psalm (related in their Biblical order) along with a short commentary and prayer.  That’s the format, day in, day out.  The translation used is that of the NIV.

Just a word on the writers.  Tim Keller is an American Pastor, theologian, writer and apologist.  He is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City.  This is a large and influential Church with a congregation drawn from mainly NY young professionals.  So far so US Conservative mega-church?  Not so, according to Tim Keller, who says that the Church defines itself less on an oppositional, hostile take to the Secular world but more that of one of neighbourliness, focusing strongly on the person and mission of Jesus Christ.  Tim’s wife, Kathy, is the book’s other writer.

Nevertheless, the theology in the book has a strongly Conservative taste to it.  I don’t mean that as a criticism.  What is more of a criticism is that there is little in this book that seems to be taking risks, really breaking into the Psalms and making them bleed into our daily lives.   There is little history or grappling with the language or translation issues.  It lacks that kind of kick-start energy that inspires you and has you thinking on the train into work.

The book is peppered with references, although most of them draw on a commentary of the Psalms from someone called Derek Kidner.  Then there’s some references to traditional hymns, a few references to the poetry of George Herbert, and more eclectically, one relating to Superman Returns, the movie, and another to Tolkien’s  The Two Towers.  But on the whole the references are not very varied, and add to the conservative feel of the book.

What is interesting is that, in an Afterword to the book, Kathy Keller states that the early manuscripts of the books were scrapped for being far too dense and complex.  It looks like they went too far the other way.

But look, this book has kept me company all year, it has given me some focus and brought me back to the Psalms, and for that I’m grateful.  It may well work better for others, it’s not a bad book at all.  It has integrity and sincerity of purpose.  But personally I wanted more.

A review of the podcast “The Robcast”

“The Rob Cast” is a weekly podcast presented by Rob Bell.  Rob is many things.  He’s an ex Pastor at Mars Hill Church, a ‘Mega-Church’in the US.  Rob became controversial when his book “Love Wins” firmly positioned him as a proponent of the ‘Universalist’ branch of Christian thought; that is, that all, without exception, will be saved.  This was too much for those who like their Hell, be it good old fashioned ‘eternal torment,’ or those who take to the ‘annihilationist’ position.  That is, you don’t get tortured for ever if you reject the Gospel.  That would be barbaric!  You instead get ‘executed’ or snuffed out to nothing if you reject the Christian God.  Liberals today, huh?

But all that is in the past.  Now Rob continues to tour, speak, host conferences, help businesses, broadcast, and write.  His latest, “How to be Here,” is being promoted by Rob through a tour.

His podcast is notable because it is a treasure trove of fresh, clear thinking, and is the kind of resource that will open up new horizons to you if you let it.  Rob has studied the Talmud and the Jewish faith and its lore and has connected it with his Christian faith.  He communicates some of what he has learnt, and it is truly illuminating, and led me to buy a copy of “Everyman’s Talmud.”

The podcast also has guest speakers and guests, and is informed by other passions of Rob’s including diving, and his experiences of being a husband and parent.

Everyone will find something here to inspire them or get them thinking, if but they keep an open mind.

Rob has his catchphrases and mannerisms, that someone recently observed you could base a drinking game on, including the repetition of “so good.”

The podcast is stripped down, just Rob or Rob and his guests speaking, and it’s all the better for that. So good.



Bending the Brain around the Big Questions: A review of the radio show and podcast “Unbelievable.”

“Hello and welcome to Unbelievable, the show that keeps you thinking”  I’m Justin Brierley, and today I’ll be talking to….”

So opens the long running (from 2007) radio show and podcast, Unbelievable, to be found on the radio station Premiere.  This is a show where Christians debate with Atheists and secular humanists from all of their various branches, sects, denominations, meetings, groups, and organisations.  And not only that, Mr Brierley puts representatives from different faiths round the table, and if that wasn’t fraught with potential for grief enough, representatives from different denominations of the same faith.

The show is amazingly successful with all of the above.  Truly, it has devoted atheists, secular humanists, and God botherers of all stripes.  It’s success can be in large part attributed to Mr Brierley’s relaxed, courteous and measured approach to facilitating the debates.  He is genuinely interested in hearing what everyone has to say,  appears to very much want to understand them and get his guests to understand each other, the better to engage with each others views.

The range of shows and guests is immense.  For example we recently have had a Christian group purporting to love Muslims but wanting to destroy Islam (love the person but hate their faith), then we had highlights from a range of speakers at the Unbelievable yearly conference on boosting your skills in evangelism, then a show debating the multi-verse (big enough topic for ya?), and last week it was look at the life of Christian thinker Soren Kierkegarrd.  This a small selection of a vast back catalogue that can be found here.

The format is to introduce the guests, including a short history of their life/work and what either led them to take up or reject faith. Then an introduction from both on the subject being discussed.  Then battle is joined.  Then a  final summary.  Then Justin gives feedback from various shows.  Except it rarely seems like a battle as Justin is such a skilled and decent moderator that the guests are so often so decent and respectable to each other, which if they really try to understand and critique each others ideas, is how it should be.  The worst shows are where the guests agree with each other so much you wonder what the point was.  The shows where it really kicks off are a guilty pleasure, but in the minority.  Most are part way between extremes.

As a Christian sometimes I am frustrated by the lack of grounding in absolutely anything of some of the beliefs expressed.  I have no patience with those who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, or that God committed genocide and it can be theologically justified, or that people will really attend a conference on annihilating  the souls of unbelievers after death as opposed to just tormenting them eternally.  Liberals today eh?  It’s political correctness run mad!   Nevertheless the value of this show is to give all these views a platform, hopefully with a good critical voice.  Through the synthesis of the two we may arrive at reason.

Premier is a station with a mission based on the evangelistic wing of the Christian faith and Justin is part of that, but nevertheless the show remain accessible to even the most rabid reader of Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.

My favourite show?  The one where Justin comes under fire from ex Mars Hill bad boy Mark Driscoll and aces him with British cool.  Find it here.

I have moved from fear and hostility of the secular humanist world to a greater understanding and appreciation.  What unites most of us is that we are seekers after truth.  Happily the show makes this utterly believable.



A review of C.S.Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength.”

The last of his “Space Trilogy,” this is widely held to be the most problematic of the series, and / or people’s least favourite instalment.  See my reviews of the previous books here and here.

My feelings are indeed mixed.  On one level it thoroughly gripped and engaged me in places, and even the most problematic sections are full of powerful and rich imagery. In the end I was left reeling and troubled, challenged and entertained, and definitely left with a book I won’t forget.

Mark and Jane Struddock are a young married couple recently ensconced in their first married home in the fictional University town of Bracton, part of the equally fictional area of Edgecombe.  In his Preface Lewis says that if these places are based on anywhere, then they are based on Durham.  Mark has a teaching post there, and has recently been initiated into the in-crowd there, the smart set ostensibly bringing about progress. Through the influence of the Charimanship of Lord Feverstone, aka “Devine” from the previous novels, Mark is then introduced to the organisation of N.I.C.E at their headquarters “Belbury” on virtue of his work as part of that University smart-set in helping NICE to buy a piece of the Bracton University grounds that it has a strong interest in.  N.I.C.E is ostensibly set up to propagate the values of science in advancing the progress and welfare of mankind through eliminating troubling “red-tape” on areas such as vivisection and the “curing” of criminal behaviour. It is gaining national political and media support by the day.  Mark begins to advance through the organisation and become embroiled in an Orwellian world of fear and double talk, where he is torn between advancing his career and influence there, and the terror of losing his soul…

Jane meanwhile has been troubled by dreams including the decapitation of a well known scientist / criminal Alascan, and the unearthing of a mysterious sleeping figure beneath Bracton wood.  Jane learns from her involvement in a Christian community at the nearby village of St Annes that she is in fact a seer, and her dreams have a direct bearing on reality, including the machinations of N.I.C.E and their interest in Bracton wood.  Jane meets the Director of St Annes, a spiritually and physically powerful man who we learn as interplanetary traveller Ransom from the previous novels.  The St Anne’s community must stop the evil of N.I.C.E which turns out in fact to be under direct control from the forces of Hell and their “principalities and powers.”  And the figure under the Bracton woods turns out to be none other than Merlin of Arthurian legends, whose old powers will decide this titanic struggle once and for all.

So as you can see from the above, this really is a heady brew.  What I loved were the descriptions of political intrigue first at the University then at N.I.C.E.  Lewis nails the insidious nature of organisational corruption, and the slow, corrosive drip by drip effects of evil talk and decisions on advancing poisonous agendas.  He’s good at describing evil, and how it feeds on itself, always ravenous for new souls, always pitiless in its elimination of weakness, and how this can be justified by facile agendas in the name of progress.  Keen readers of Lewis’s wider works including his essays will recognise many of his recurring themes: the seduction of the smart set as a gateway into evil society; why vivisection is not justified; the hidden horrors of a “curative” as opposed to a penal approach to punishment; the romance and hidden realities of myth; how “myth” is misunderstood and is in fact a valid expression of reality; his views on the primacy of masculine roles in religion and marriage and the misunderstandings of equality; and more.

The baddies are hugely entertaining too.  Like “Paradise Lost” and various works of Shakespeare, this is a work where we get impatient for those on the wrong side to take the stage.  There is the vague and vacuous Deputy Director Wither, who behind the facile reassurances of his conversations and political double talk is a mind of terror and horror. There’s the clinical nihilism of Frost, the bonhomie masking the sexual sadism of Police chief “Fairy Hardcastle,” and more.  Seeing this lot ensnare Mark Struddock, and their battles with each other, is vastly entertaining.  At the same time, they remain an utterly ruthless and frightening foe, a massive fascist regime no less, capable of taking over a whole town with its own Police Force and instituting a reign of terror where all manner of evil is sanctioned.

What I found problematic are found in the following strands:

Mark and Jane both undergo a slow conversion to Christianity through the pages of the book.  Their marriage was almost dead as it was not earthed in sustainable values.  Mark is converting through disillusionment, horror and terror.  Jane through the influence of the Christian community she is driven to and what she sees there.  This includes a Bear and Jackdaw both under Ransom’s healing spell.

This turns out to be a decisive battle between the cosmic powers of good and evil on Earth, and when Merlin joins the fray, much rich imagery abounds from the mythic heritage of Arthurian Britain and “Logres.”

In the past instalments and especially “Perelandra” Lewis really nailed a magical and nourishing marriage of theology between imaginative fiction and theology.  The conflict between Ransom and the “Un-man” in preventing another Fall of creation on Venus is gripping and powerful stuff. The integration of some theological themes and the fiction of “That Hideous Strength” was to me not as successful.  His views on marriage and equality are hard to reconcile with our lives now, and I found them immensely challenging.  And the introduction of the Arthurian themes, and the “tame” animals threaten a kind of imaginative confusion and incoherence.  It’s nothing if not audacious.

Definitely a not good jumping on point for those new to Lewis and although he says the book can be read as a standalone in his Preface as well as the culmination of a trilogy, I would only recommend the latter, because it can be bewildering already and if you are not familiar with Ransom and some of the background on the cosmic powers, it will for many I fear be too much.

To sum up, a flawed but powerful culmination of the Space trilogy of C.S. Lewis.