My Year in Books (and Culture) – Andrew Prideaux

Still image from “A Hard Day's Night” ©Janus Films

Prophetic from the Center—The Gospel of Jesus Christ in 1Corinthians 15:1-19, D.A. Carson

A very short book (54pp) in which every word counts! This book goes straight to the top of my reading list for mentees and ministry apprentices. 1Corinthians15:1-19 is a significant text for a number of reasons and gives us access to perhaps the earliest summary of the Christian gospel in the New Testament.

Carson addresses the temptation that all Christians, individually and corporately face: to move the gospel of Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins out of the center—invariably replacing it with a new one:

The tendency [that is] … to assume the gospel, ‘whatever that is,’ while devoting creative energy and passion to other issues—marriage, happiness, prosperity, evangelism, the poor, wrestling with Islam, wrestling with the pressures of secularization, bioethics, dangers on the left, dangers on the right- the list is endless… These issues, if they are analyzed on their own, as important as they are, remain relatively peripheral; ironically, if the gospel itself is deeply pondered and remains at the center of our thinking and living, it powerfully addresses and wrestles with all these other issues. (pp 4-5)

Christ the Controversialist—A Study in some Essentials of Evangelical Religion, John Stott 

As far as (pseudo) intellectual swear words go, ‘evangelical,’ seems to be vying with ‘fundamentalist,’ for poll position. If Packer’s 1958 classic Fundamentalism and the Word of God, set the record straight on the later, Stott’s 1970 classic did it (and still does it) for the former. While some of the cultural observations are dated, the ‘gospel meat’ of this book compared to much current Christian writing, is what the Beatles are compared to most contemporary contenders: a timeless classic and standard setter.

This book is a plea to recognise evangelical Christianity as the only Christianity:

Christianity is Christ Himself, together with the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ. It depends on a historical event (the birth, life, death and resurrection, ascension and Spirit-gift of Jesus) and on a historical testimony by eyewitnesses … the Christian is obliged to be as radical as Scripture commands and is free to be as radical as Scripture allows. (p.37)

As biblical Christians increasingly emerge as the true radicals in a conformist culture which breathes the atmosphere of godless-secular-humanism, Stott’s book provides a clarion call to embrace ‘the foolishness’ of our crucified King, and Risen Lord.       

Edwards the Mentor, Rhys Bezzant

In this groundbreaking study of the ‘mentoring,’ and ‘one-to-one training’ ministry of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), Rhys Bezzant (Jonathan Edwards and the Church, 2014) provides timely insights into a significant form of ministry used of God to promote long-lasting human flourishing.

At a time when both the academy and popular culture of the West, proclaim that human identity is up for radical and self-defining reinvention, Edwards, argues Bezzant, provides the way forward—applying the universal and eternal truths of God’s word to individual lives ‘singly, particularly and closely.’

At a time when culture of the West proclaims that human identity is up for radical and self-defining reinvention, Edwards provides the way forward—applying the truths of God’s word to individual lives ‘singly, particularly and closely.’

As someone who has both been mentored and for the past 25 years or so has mentored others in the Christian faith, the most significant insight I gained concerned the centrality of the ‘beatific vision,’ for Edwards’s discipleship.

The beatific vision reinforces a fundamentally theocentric view of reality, which permits at the same time an intensely personal spiritual dynamic, and forces us to reconsider an impoverished view of the end that reductionistically positions creational or cosmic order as the goal, rather than the Son’s enjoyment of his bride, the church, in face-to-face fellowship, which the reordered cosmos supports and enables. (p.110)

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

A radical example of such loving commitment in mentoring is seen in the conversion story of Rosaria Butterfield. She testifies to God’s gracious love at work through the faithful and patient witness to Christ and generous hospitality of an older Christian couple. At 36 Butterfield was an associate professor at Syracuse University teaching Queer Theory and living with a woman in a long-term lesbian relationship. In response to an article she wrote which strongly critiqued conservative Christianity, Butterfield received what she describes as “the kindest letter of opposition that I had ever received” (p.9) from Reformed Presbyterian Pastor, Ken Smith. This letter led to Rosaria being invited into Pastor Ken’s home where she would share in many conversations over meals with him and his wife Floy. Over time they studied the Scriptures together, and Rosaria came to the point where she was prepared to,

… ask God if the gospel message was for someone like me, too. I viscerally felt the living presence of God as I prayed. Jesus seemed present and alive … I prayed that if Jesus was truly a real and risen God, that He would change my heart…I prayed for the strength of character to repent for a sin that at that time didn’t feel like sin at all—it felt like life, plain and simple. I prayed that if my life was actually his life, that he would take it back and make it what he wanted it to be. (p. 21)

Soon after, Rosaria left her partner eventually marrying a man who would go on to become a Pastor himself. Although she helpfully points out that many gay people who become Christians will not be ‘healed’ in this way, she also makes it clear that the fundamental change in her life was not from ‘gay’ to ‘straight,’ but from proud self-reliance and rebellion against God, to a confident trust in His forgiveness and in a new identity with Christ.

Marriage does not redeem sin. Only Jesus himself can do that. (p.83)

God changes us—all of us. It is not just people who identify as LGBT whom God calls to change. The Christian life is the relinquished life—for all or for none. And sin is sin. (p.172).

Rosaria’s book is painfully honest, funny, quirky and provocative; as well as deeply challenging. It is also full of patient hope and common-sense gospel realism and joy.

You are not damaged goods. If you are in Christ you are the son or daughter of the King. Remember that temptation is not sin, but you should not toy with it, or let it define you…Do not misuse Christ by asking him to baptize your feelings; instead, ask God to fill up your heart and soul and thereby create your feelings. (p.179).

 The Justification of God: Lectures for War-Time on a Christian Theodicy, P.T. Forsyth

Forsyth wrote his theodicy in an attempt to help believers persevere in the life-and-death struggle of faith in Christ in the middle of the worldwide devastation of World War I (1914-1918). The so-called “War to end all wars,” exploded the myth of inevitable human progress and exposed the failure of liberal theology to deal with the most fundamental human dilemmas.

However for Forsyth (as for Bonnhoeffer a generation later) the answer is to be found in the Lord Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection:

If the greatest act in the world (the wrath bearing death of Christ in the place of sinners), and the greatest crime there, became, by the moral, the holy victory of the Son of God, the source not only of endless blessing to man but of perfect satisfaction and delight to holy God, then there is no crime, not even this war, that is outside his control, or impossible for his purpose. (p. 151)


Shorter Notices

 The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley

Hartley’s novel is a coming of age story set in 1900 at the dawn of what Colston, the English boy protagonist, thought would be a “golden age”. It begins with the oft quoted line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (p.7)

As a grown man, the narrator looks back over his school-boy diary for the first time in fifty years and tries to make sense of what his life, and the century he has grown up in, has become. In short, it failed to deliver on what was promised. What promised to be a glorious ‘Indian summer,’ at the grand home of an upper-class friend, led to him being used in their own intrigues:

… to them I knew, I was a go-between, they thought of me in terms of another person… (p.231)

Beautifully written through the eyes of a boy heading into adolescence, Hartley’s novel reminds me again of the wonderful truth that through our faith in Jesus, we are deeply known and graciously loved by God our Father. Our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of life! However the story of our lives works out, we know that we have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for us (1Pet 1:4).


Three Classic Music Films …

The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, (1964)

Shot in glorious post-war England Black & White, this Dick Lester directed classic is fast-paced and fun. It combines actual “fan-chase-footage,” with classic mop-top Liverpudlian humor and slapstick antics. The music, of course, still sounds fresh, and the film shows why the Fab-Four were key culture leaders—but also cynical observers of the “swinging sixties”. Like all human revolutions, this one was bound to fail. But the sheer creative energy of “the four-headed-monster” that was John, Paul, George and Ringo, still inspires. My favorite line comes during a crowded hotel press conference:

Journalist: Are you a mod or a rocker?

Ringo: Neither, I’m a mocker.

Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense (1984)

From the band that made “thinking people’s dance music,” this could be the (third) greatest concert film ever made.[1] Part multiple-film-clip, part spontaneous live concert, part stage show (but without the pretension of ’70s prog-rock), this film manages to be slick and edgy at the same time. It was made in the 80s, but stands the test of time: It swings, it rocks, it rolls … And it’s fun! These musicians play and sing with smiles on their faces, while lead singer/song-writer David Byrne gives hope to all you strange dancers out there. We really are cool, it’s just that other people are too cool to see it. As Byrne asks the crowd half way through their performance:             “Has anybody got any questions?”

Miles Davis, Miles in Paris, (1990)

What Bob Dylan is to rock writing; Picasso was to painting, and the Marx brothers to comedy; Miles Davis was to Jazz. Okay, so it’s his ’80s band rather than one of his classic era-defining groups of the ’50s and ’60s; and the synthesizer sounds are dated (although the culture police may now deem them acceptably retro). But it’s still cool; really, cool. You get to hear Miles’ husky voice as he talks about the need for human beings “to contribute something; to create.” It’s wonderful to hear him describe his own creative process and what music means to him. Also, watching Davis dig his sax-player with deadpan expression is a crash-course in stage-craft that makes Mick Jagger look like an amateur.

Miles Davis was never too cool for school; but that’s what made him, well, cool. Even Davis’ wrong notes were right notes and he reinvented trumpet playing forever. Ultimately an isolated man, infamous for his unpredictably cruel mood swings, he talks about not really having friends except in the moments when he was playing in his band. My favorite Miles quote which sums up his playing: “Well, I like that street sound; I don’t like a perfect sound.”

Dig


Captured by a Better Vision, Tim Chester

In 1912 PT Forsyth warned against the growing movement amongst the intelligentsia of his day to ‘rescue’ sexual expression from the narrow confines of marriage.[2]

The man supremely ruled by passion is a fraud to human nature. Man is more than an erotic process, and this more means obligation, responsibility, the freedom of the soul against the vagrancy of the moment’s appetite and the slavery of chance desires. [3]

A hundred years later, UK writer Tim Chester has written a book that deals faithfully, forcefully and compassionately with a chief fall-out of the movement Forsyth warned against: the pornography plague which devastates the lives of men, women and children; and is destructive of family and societal life. Speedy internet connections become virtual sewerage pipes, unloading a deluge of increasingly addictive and degenerative images into our homes.

Chester’s book needed to be written, and has become one of the chief tools in my mentoring arsenal. Not just another book with lists of defensive strategies (although it includes many helpful ones);it teaches us to abhor sin by taking us back to the forgiveness, the fresh start; and the true freedom and beauty that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can deliver.

We become Christians through faith and repentance. We continue and grow by ongoing faith and repentance…Battling porn with faith means embracing the truth about God in place of the false promises of porn. Battling porn with repentance means turning from self worship to God. (p.73)

Tim Chester is a realist about the ongoing struggle with sin this side of glory, who believes in the power of the gospel to save and change lives. I can not recommend this book highly enough

Faith in Jesus is not a quick fix. It’s certainly not a case of “just believe’…the message is “fight to believe.” And it will be a fight, a daily fight. Some days you’ll be wounded; some days you’ll lose the battle. Then you’ll have to pick yourself up, fight to believe God’s grace and re-enter the fray. (pp.69-70)

Warnings not to do something are rarely enough. Telling people the dangers of sin will take us only so far. What we need is a vision of the glory of Christ. When we desire Christ above all things, then we’ll root out sin with enthusiasm; we will long for the true treasure of Christ and His kingdom (Matthew 13:44) (p.134)


[1] For those interested, #2 The Band—The Last Waltz directed by Martin Scorcese (1976), #1 Monterey Pop (festival), directed by D.A. Pennebaker (1967).

[2] Originally designed as lectures for the ‘National Council of Public Morals,’ they were later published in book form as PT Forsyth, Marriage: Its Ethic & Religion, (London: H&S; 1912), available free on-line as a PDF.

[3] Ibid, pp.120-121.

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