Saturday, June 23, 2007

Book Review: The Future of Christianity, by Alister E. McGrath

In this book, the British professor McGrath, discuses what he sees as the future trends in Christianity culminating in an interesting chapter on the growing irrelevance of academic theology. Basically, Christianity is incredibly successful in the Third World while it will continue to stagnate in the West. The Evangelical and Pentecostal movements will factor in significantly in the next century, displacing the older mainline Protestant denominations. He also predicts that Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy will continue to be strong forces in global Christianity. He noted an interesting phenomenon in that some Evangelicals are converting to Orthodoxy. He thinks this is the case because Evangelicalism is a recent addition in the Christian family and that some evangelicals want to have a stronger sense of attachment to historical Christianity and thus become Orthodox.

Most of the book was merely interesting, not rising to a very insightful discussion since McGrath only had 155 pages to write in this Blackwell Manifesto. If it was longer, I probably wouldn’t finish the book. This was the first McGrath book that I actually finished since he does have a tendency to get a little dry at times. The main weakness of this book is that McGrath tends to tell me things that I already know. This either means that McGrath ought to be more original or that his target audience isn’t as well read as I am which is entirely possible.

The last part of the book that discussed the irrelevance of academic theology in the life of the Christian laity was particularly fascinating. McGrath outlined the biases of academia and how the assumptions of the laity and academia are in many instances diametrically opposed. For example, in academia, the gospels are thought to tell us about the specific gospel writers and their particular communities of faith while for the common Christian, the gospels tell us about Jesus. Basically, the academic theologians and those in biblical studies largely have secular assumptions that are not accepted by most Christians outside of the academy. McGrath outlines well how the pressures of the academy don’t necessarily coincide with the interests of truth, academic excellence and faith. In fact, according to McGrath, theology is trapped in a cerebral box that makes Christianity into a set of intellectual ideas and concepts rather than a holistic way of life. The picture that McGrath paints about academic theology is quite grim but to his credit he does outline a brief idea about how to fix this problem.

McGrath speaks of the need for “organic theologians” or people that tackle theology in the context of their faith communities and to evangelize to people outside the Christian faith. These would be people who use their intellect to engage with the Church and everyone else rather than theologians who only write for other academicians in a language that only they can understand. He cites C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers as examples of people who effectively did this. None of these were professional theologians but they all helped communicate theology to Christians.

Overall, this book is merely okay. It isn’t by any means really bad but it isn’t really good either.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Book Review: The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

This was a fascinating read. Chesterton’s prose is clear and poignant making the story a mostly easy read if you forgive the century old English expressions and such. The novel is rich in symbolism about man’s perception of free will, Nature, and the ultimate question of God. It’s a novel that one thinks about long after reading it because it elucidates the various mysteries of both the human condition and the metaphysics of the universe. Few pieces of fiction have been able to implant in me such a sense of wonder and mystery, as The Man Who Was Thursday. I very much recommend this book.

Appearances rather than realities seem to be the point of much of the imagery in the book. I would go on further but I want to give a spoiler warning. If you are interested in reading this book, don’t read any further.

The novel is an inverted mystery novel in which villains are revealed as being actually good people, while the real mystery is the enigmatic man named Sunday, the head of the Anarchist Council. Syme, the main character, manipulates his way into the leading Anarchist Council, to undermine its efforts since he is a police officer. Through the book he makes quite a few interesting discoveries about the other members of the Council and finally goes on a quest to figure out the both sublime and bestial Sunday.

The final chapters of the book are my favorite, although this is not to say that the whole book isn’t good. Chesterton does a good job of cultivating the sense of adventure throughout the novel but the ending chapters are best because they elucidate the meaning behind much of the symbolism in the story. Sunday represents what Nature is separated from the revelation of God. The backside of Sunday represents the part of Nature that is seen apart from revelation. Syme even comments that in this world we’ve only seen the backside of things when in the next we will see things face to face, or something to that effect.

Someday I would definitely consider buying this book and reading it more thoroughly for symbolism since I probably didn’t catch everything. If I ever was to write a novel with a strong biblical allegory, I’d definitely look to The Man Who Was Thursday as my inspiration.