Confronting Christianity

Confronting Christianity: 12 hard questions for the world’s largest religion
Rebecca McLaughlin
Crossway, 2019

I wouldn’t have noticed this book were it not for a glowing recommendation from one of my favourite Bible scholars, Peter J Williams. The subtitle of the book explains what it’s about, and the hard questions include topics such as diversity, science, women, homophobia, suffering and hell.

The introduction is brilliant, with many ‘myth-busting statistics’ (as Williams calls them) showing the failure of the ‘secularization hypothesis’. It’s a real shot in the arm, and a great antidote to doom and gloom to read projections that have Christianity growing and atheism declining. The first chapter – ‘Aren’t we better off without religion?’ cites a Harvard School of Public Health professor saying that religion may be a miracle drug (given its physical and mental health benefits), and that the rise of secularisation in the States is a public-health crisis.

Other highlights include the stat that ‘the most likely people to be Christians are women of colour’, her section on how being against homosexuality isn’t equivalent to racism, and her myth-busting sections on the Crusades and Galileo (the latter was ‘a Christian who argued vociferously that heliocentrism did not undermine the bible – attempting to make theological arguments got him in trouble with the pope’).

It’s not a perfect book – in the chapter on science she comes out in support of millions of years and the big bang. While supporting male headship, her dismissal of traditional gender roles probably goes too far. She also seems to uncritically accept all who claim the label Christian, whether Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, with recent revelations about the latter making the references to him right throughout the book seem particularly unwise. Overall, I was left with the feeling that she conceded too much to the culture.

I would still give the book a solid 4 out of 5 stars, recommend it as a challenge to non-Christians and an encouragement & apologetic resource for believers. I look forward to drawing on it when addressing these topics in preaching.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Reformed Systematic Theology

Reformed Systematic Theology
Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley
Crossway, 2019

It feels hard to justify reading a new ST when you haven’t read Turretin or Bavinck or Vos – so I haven’t gone through this in depth! Nevertheless, the fact that this volume is available can only be a good thing. It’s the latest (after Reformed Preaching) in a plan by Beeke to publish much of the material from his lectures at PRTS. Those who’ve sat under Beeke say that it sounds like him, though it’s hard to know what influence a Baptist co-author will have (love you Walker!). There’s an interesting comment that the WCF was ’emended’ (ie corrected/improved!) by the congregationalists on its way to becoming the 1689 Baptist Confession! Being a Beeke book, it aims to be experiential – even including psalms (and hymns!) for the reader or their study group to sing in response to each chapter’s content. Being a Beeke book, it also uses the KJV.

The fact that the book joins a crowded marked has led to mixed reactions. Shane Lems says that this book overlaps with the content of previous ones by around 85%, and even if they do interact with some issues of the day such as Pentecostalism and Open Theism, he had the feeling that he’d read most of it before. On the other hand, Donald John Maclean (of Banner of Truth) states that of all the current candidates to be the ‘Berkhof of the future’, Beeke’s may be the most likely candidate.

Perhaps militating against it may be the length – around 1,200 pages, and this is volume 1 of 4! Its readability is an advantage, but a one volume version might have been more realistic to hand to lay people or study in something like a theology MET. Nevertheless, there are plenty of unofficial helps to those who are keen to jump in and read it – such as a facebook group, reading plan (for the ReadingPlan app) and podcast.

Beeke states fairly early on: ‘The most basic truth of theology is that there is a God and you are not him’. Plenty to meditate on even in that one sentence.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Competing Spectacles

Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age
Tony Reinke
Crossway, 2019

I made two wrong assumptions about this book.
Given the title, and given Reinke’s previous book (12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You – which I haven’t read), I assumed this book was going to be mostly about social media. However, after 24 pages Reinke states that because he wrote that book, he’s not going to belabour social media in this one.
I also assumed that he was using ‘spectacles’ in the sense of glasses – but actually he’s not using the word to mean things you look through, but things you look at. So advertising, BMX events, autoplaying videos, terrorism, the American Presidential race – they’re all spectacles, all calling for our attention.
However these must all pale into insignificance in light of the greatest spectacle – the cross. This is a spectacle for the ear, not for the eye, as faith comes by hearing. This spectacle is seen by faith when the cross is preached (Gal 3:1). ‘Bible movies and cinematic recreations of the cross add nothing to the spectacle of the cross and too often take away from it’. In a later chapter, which will further cheer those who hold to a Reformed view of the second commandment, he includes the helpful quote ‘God wants…exclusive rights to the production of images’. He adds that ‘images…call out for a response’ and ‘images will inevitably take on a life of their own no matter how innocent the purposes of their creators’.
So in many ways it’s not the book I expected – and that’s no bad thing! Not essential, but will be helpful for many.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

The Prayers of Jesus

The Prayers of Jesus: listening to and learning from our Saviour
Mark Jones
Crossway, 2019

First up, if you’re expecting a book to help you in your prayer life, this isn’t necessarily it. Of course, studying the prayers of Jesus should help your prayer life, but that’s not the direction in which Jones applies this. It’s more seeing what theology we can learn from Jesus’ prayers. Like Jones’s other books, it’s not exactly lay-person friendly (the chapters are short but dense). He acknowledges himself that the introduction isn’t the most accessible – but actually I think large parts of it would be beyond the average person in the pew.

Even for the more theologically-informed reader, the book is hit and miss – the quality of the chapters varies quite significantly. Jones also spends over half the book (14 chapters) going through Jesus’ prayer in John 17. This is the middle section of the book, and where I feel it loses its way a bit.

There are plenty of gems throughout it. For someone who likes to get the digs in against exclusive psalmody, Jones assumes the psalms are about Christ in a way many exclusive psalmists don’t! As usual he is particularly good on children/parenting: ‘in believing households, children must be taught to pray, by faith, as early as possible’ (you’d think that was obvious but sadly people would argue against it!). There are also some great one-liners: while urging believers to say grace, he reminds us ‘Prayers at restaurants do not need to be re-enactments of Daniel 9’.

Overall, as a fan of the other books by Jones that I’ve read, I was a bit disappointed. It will be a handy resource to have for preaching eg on the sayings on the cross. In short, this book is a great idea, the execution is just a little lacking.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

The Lord’s Supper as the Sign and Meal of the New Covenant

The Lord’s Supper as the Sign and Meal of the New Covenant
Guy Waters
Crossway, 2019

the_lords_supper

I’m a huge fan of Guy Waters’s How Jesus Runs the Church. I’ve also met him, and he’s a lovely guy. So I was looking forward to reading this book, but for some reason or another I found it a bit of a struggle to finish. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t particularly looking for a book on the Lord’s Supper at the moment – though even if I was, it takes until 85 pages in to a 117 page book before he begins talking specifically about communion. That’s not a criticism – if it started with communion it wouldn’t be a very good biblical theology – I simply mean that it’s not Communion for Dummies.

The strength of the early part of the book is him setting out the context of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace – and he’s particularly helpful on the former: ‘Christ, the second Adam, has blazed a trail to that tree [of life] for us by his obedience and death’. Without going into the issue, it’s also leaves the average Scottish and Irish Presbyterian something to ponder on communion frequency: ‘Because the Supper is designed to strengthen and nourish believers in grace, it is administered frequently’ [‘frequently’ of course simply taken straight from the Westminster Standards].

In a context where the biggest issue for some seems to be on the externals of how communion is administered, this book is a refreshing reminder of the true significance of the Lord’s Supper in the context of the Bible.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.