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So, what’s it all about, then?

01 November 2011

Robert Mackley reads expositions of faith


The Five Doors of Faith
Derek Mills
Authorhouse £8.99

Sorting Out Believing: Not Alpha but Omega, an alternative guide
Michael Taylor

Open House Publications £4.95
Church Times Bookshop £4.50

AS THE Church’s missionary sense grows, an increasing number of books under the general heading of “apologetics” or “catechesis” have emerged in recent years.

Mark Hart, a parish priest and theological-course tutor in the dio­cese of Chester has done us all a big favour with Straight to the Point­lessness: the title cleverly refers to the sheer benefaction of creation, and the freedom that God has and calls us to have from proving or justify­ing ourselves. It is a good pointer, too, to the quality of the rest of this excellent work.

This book is perhaps just a little high-brow to be given to an outside enquirer, but is ideal for someone beginning training for ministry. There are 20 good, short chapters on all the essential aspects of Chris­tianity: faith and reason, God and creation, Jesus, atonement, Church and sacraments, and so on. The endnotes are a roll call of distin­guished theologians, ancient and modern, such as Augustine and Aquinas, Austin Farrer, and Rowan Williams. Hart acknowledges an especial debt to Williams, whose intellectual fingerprints are all over this book, which is both its great strength and also a slight weakness — at times Hart’s prose has a Williamsesque density.

This is a minor complaint, how­ever. The book is full of excellent one-liners, such as “Monotheism was not a statement about the nature of God but a claim that he has no rivals,” which are indicative of the clarity of thinking on display here. I felt that the chapter on God and creation gave a little too much away of the traditional faith when addressing the Fall and miracles, but otherwise this is a book to be recommended without reservation.

Derek Mills is a retired priest who has written a guide to re-inspiring our faith, based on “Five Doors”: finding Jesus in the Church’s ministry, her fellowship, the Bible, Christian worship, and our neigh­bour. This is all excellent, and he makes good points about: the need to re-establish a permanent diacon­ate; the fact that evils com­mitted by Chris­tians in the past were known to be evil before they happened, not thanks to secular hindsight; and the import­ance of baptism, holy com­munion, and Christian welcome.

Sadly, this is also a book far too focused on the clergy, one that de­presses with negativity on almost every page, full of criticisms and depressing anecdotes about “the hierarchy”, and generally commun-i­cating an air of faint despair: the Church is in a “downward spiral” no fewer than 14 times in 90 pages.

Michael Taylor, a retired Baptist minister and former director of Christian Aid, has written a gener­ous, kind, and honest book, Sorting Out Believing: Not Alpha but Omega. It attempts to deal with some diffi­cult areas of the faith, such as the existence of heaven, the resurrec­tion, the divinity of Christ, the nature of the atonement, the crucial decision to follow Christ, the uni­ver­sal claims of Christianity, and Jesus’s abiding presence.

Sad to say, in confronting most of these situations, he “sorts out” the belief basically by dissolving it. I sense a recovering Evangelical, especially when he talks about things like the atonement and one’s “de­cision” for Christ. There is in these pages too much of faith as cognitive assent to propositional truth; and if the Christian faith really is about how many truth-statements you can hold in your head before breakfast, it is perhaps not surprising that Taylor confesses in this book to being more or less an agnostic.

There are, however, some sound points, as he observes that “the problem of suffering is not how to justify it but how to get rid of it,” and that all beliefs and truths are mediated to us through a cul­ture of which we are a part. I ended this book liking Taylor a lot, and thinking how different things would have been for him if he had been brought up in the Catholic faith.

The Revd Robert Mackley is Assistant Chaplain of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

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