Category Archives: books & reading

“How the Medieval World laid the Foundations of Modern Science”

In my youth it was respectable to argue that science was built on foundations partly laid in the Middle Ages. Nowadays this view is derisory and disreputable. I’ve just bought God’s Philosophers by James Hannam. The subtitle is “How the Medieval World laid the Foundations of Modern Science”.

The Introduction begins:

The most famous remark made by Sir Isaac Newton (1642– 1727) was: ‘If I have seen a little further then it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Most people assume that he meant his scientific achievements were built on the discoveries of his predecessors. In the same letter, he alludes to René Descartes (1596–1650), the French philosopher and mathematician, so presumably he was one of Newton’s giants. Few people realise, however, that Newton’s aphorism was first coined in the twelfth century by the theologian Bernard of Chartres (who died around 1130). Even fewer are aware that Newton’s science also has its roots embedded firmly in the Middle Ages. This book will show just how much of the science and technology that we now take for granted has medieval origins.

I hope the book lives up to its promise!

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Amish Vampires in Space

I have been using this blog for sermons almost exclusively for some time, though I used to do more with it. I seem to have gravitated to Facebook. On fb, I posted a review of a very strange novel called Amish Vampires in Space. I didn’t know whether to read it at first; perhaps I was unwise, as it’s a few hours of my life spent to no useful purpose other than to be a warning to others. Here’s the review:

I’ve just finished reading Amish Vampires in Space on kindle. When I (so to speak) turned the last page, I saw the words ‘THERE’S MORE WHERE THIS CAME FROM’. I shall heed this warning.

The ‘more’ refers to the output of a publishing house specialising in Christian sci-fi and fantasy. Who knew? I have also learnt of a further genre: ‘Boots and Buggies’, Christian romance in an Amish setting. Again, who knew…

This novel (and it was novel to me!) is a mashup of all these, with some mild horror thrown in—though not enough to scare the horses, who became vampires too.

It seems to be reasonably accurate in its portrayal of Amish ways, one thing to be thankful for. Though I doubt real futuristic Amish would really get into spaceships flown by ‘Englishers’. Of course, being an example of American Christian fiction, there is a non-Amish ‘normal’ Christian character. ‘Normal’ in this context meaning a US-style evangelical. Of course.

The story behind the book is more interesting, involving a joke title that was taken on for real, but the sassiness of the title doesn’t follow through in the story. Neither does the promise of the cover, which looks like a demented Ellen Degeneres in Amish clothes, dripping with blood. A fascinating premise that sadly goes nowhere in particular.

But if characters having a conversation about grace vs works while running down the length of a spaceship which is infested with vampires interests you, then go ahead. Read. Or not.

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NRA: Nudge, nudge, wink, wink

Fred Clark is again blogging about the Left Behind series. Terrible novels, terrible understandings of what it is to be human as well as execrable theology.

But Fred’s critiques are brilliant, hilarious and right on the money.

NRA: Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

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The cast of Luke—Advent 4, Year C (23 December 2012)

Micah 5.2–5a
Luke 1.39–55

When the Scriptures are used maturely, and they become a precursor to meeting the Christ, they proceed in this order:

  1. They confront us with a bigger picture than we are used to, “God’s kingdom” that has the potential to “deconstruct” our false world views.
  2. They then have the power to convert us to an alternative worldview by proclamation, grace and the sheer attraction of the good, the true and the beautiful (not by shame, guilt or fear which are low-level motivations). “Attraction not promotion,” said Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
  3. They then console us and bring deep healing as they “reconstruct” us in a new place with a new mind and heart.

Preparing for Christmas (Richard Rohr)


Are we nearly there yet?

There can’t be a parent who hasn’t been asked that question. Usually as you’re backing out of your suburban Brisbane garage to drive to Sydney.

Are we nearly there yet?

Well yes, we’re nearly there. We’re almost at the stable, the baby Jesus will soon be born.

And as we’re nearly there, Luke gives us a story of Mary early in her pregnancy. Her very unexpected pregnancy. This was not on her radar!

So in dealing with this unexpected pregnancy, Mary does something you might expect. She hurries to see Elizabeth, also unexpectedly pregnant. But Elizabeth is older and has more experience of things. And she is a whole six months pregnant.

They talk. They talk about babies, but it’s not the usual conversation because these are not the usual babies. Elizabeth is carrying John, who was to be the forerunner of Mary’s son, Jesus.

Every baby is special, but these are two very special babies.

Mary and Elizabeth were not important women. Herod didn’t know them, Pilate had never heard of them. But God knew them, and chose them for a wonderful task. God chose a barren woman, and a young woman little more than a child herself.

If Elizabeth and Mary had been asked who would God choose to bring the Messiah and the Messiah’s herald into the world, they would have scratched their heads. I don’t believe they would say “Pick me, pick me!” More likely, they’d wonder which great lady in a royal palace would get do this. If they were lucky, they might be allowed to become a servant in that great lady’s household.

But no. They were the chosen ones. A barren woman and a girl.

It’s God’s decision who God chooses. He may choose you. This Advent, this Christmas, watch; wait; listen. It may be you.

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Passion: Desire and Suffering (First Sunday in Lent, Year B, 26 February, 2012)

Passion: Desire and Suffering

Genesis 9.8-17
Mark 1.9-15

Create in us a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within us.

Have you ever been to a passion play? There is one held every year not far away from here at Lake Moogerah, and of course there is the very famous passion play held at Oberammergau in Germany every ten years.

In a passion play, ordinary people act out the events of Holy Week—Jesus clears the temple, he disputes with the religious authorities, he eats the final Passover meal with his friends, he is betrayed and arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, hoisted upon the cross and buried. The stone is then rolled away and Jesus comes in resurrection glory, victorious over sin and death and hell.

We usually employ the word ‘passion’ these days in a very positive way. If we have a passion, we have a strong desire for something. It may be a person, a motor bike or an ice cream, we can have a passion for it.

But ‘passion’ also has a kind of opposite meaning: it means ‘suffering’. A few years ago, Mel Gibson produced a film called The Passion of the Christ. It was very much about Jesus’ sufferings. Too much for my taste.

So there is intense desire and painful suffering; both are passion.

We can easily have both at the same time. If you love someone, you make yourself vulnerable to them. The one your heart yearns for may also be the one who causes you great suffering. We can see today that Jesus combines both desire and suffering in one.

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Praying in weakness

On holidays at the moment, so no sermons… I’ve been re-reading Henri Nouwen’s With Open Hands, an absolute gem of a book on prayer. I love this section, which speaks of the necessity of praying always from within our weakness. I take it as commentary on 2 Corinthians 12.9:

[The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

We males especially have to listen to this; I think the first few words apply to males more than humans (my copy is from the 70s, and the language is exclusive; I’m sure the latest edition will have changed this).

In the thinking of modern, active, energetic man, praying and living have come to be so widely separated that bringing them together seems almost impossible. But here lies the central problem: How can your prayer be truly necessary for the welfare of your fellowman? How could it be that you should “pray always” and that prayer is the “one thing necessary”? The question becomes important only when it is posed in its most exacting form. The question of when or how to pray is not really the most important one. The crucial question is whether you should pray always and whether your prayer is necessary. Here, the stakes are all or nothing! If someone says that it’s good to turn to God in prayer for a spare minute, or if he grants that a person with a problem does well to take refuge in prayer, he has as much as admitted that praying is on the margin of life and that it doesn’t really matter.

Whenever you feel that a little praying can’t do any harm, you will find that it can’t do much good either. Prayer has meaning only if it is necessary and indispensable. Prayer is prayer only when we can say that without it, a man could not live. How can this be true, or be made true? The word that brings us closest to an answer to this question is the word “compassion.” To understand this, you must first examine what happens to a man when he prays. Then you can comprehend how you can meet your fellowman in prayer.

The man who looks prayerfully on the world is the man who does not expect happiness from himself, but who looks forward toward the other who is coming. It is often said that a man who prays is conscious of his dependence, and in his prayer he expresses his helplessness. This can easily be misunderstood. The praying man not only says, “I can’t do it and I don’t understand it,” but also, “Of myself, I don’t have to be able to do it, and of myself, I don’t have to understand it.” When you stop at that first phrase, you often pray in confusion and despair, but when you can a so add the second, you feel your dependence no longer as helplessness but as a happy openness which looks forward to being renewed

If you view your weakness as a disgrace, you will come to rely on prayer only in extreme need and you will come to consider prayer as a forced confession of your impotence. But if you see your weakness as that which makes you worth loving, and if you are always prepared to be surprised at the power the other gives you, you will discover through praying that living means living together.

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Richard Rohr has written a new book called On The Threshold of Transformation: Daily Meditations for Men. I’ve ordered my copy, but excerpts are appearing in his Daily Meditations. (You can subscribe here.) I found today’s excerpt particularly helpful:

Much of a man’s life is spent going to work, running errands, cleaning house, mowing the lawn, waiting in lines, attending meetings, and tending to the necessary but endless minutia that make up life.  We know that we can’t live as if we’re in the middle of an Indiana Jones adventure.  We know that much of life is rather dull and repetitive.  That’s why it’s so important to be fully present to the ordinary things that keep us going: a movie, a concert, dinner with a friend.  Anything you do fully gives you joy.  Anything done halfheartedly will bore you.  People do not tire from overwork nearly as much as from halfheartedness.  Wholeheartedness requires that a person be fully present.  And people who are present are most ready to experience the Presence.

In the middle of the ordinary, in the midst of the tedium, if we pay attention to the Presence, we will be blessed by joy, grace, and simple, sustaining pleasures.  We no longer need religious highs to know God; the lows and mediums are more than high enough.

Wholeheartedly living in the ‘now’ is for me a great stress buster. If I am present to what I am doing—to the person I am with at the moment—I can attend with all I’ve got. I can then turn to something or someone else and give my attention where it now belongs. When I am able to do this, I am not preoccupied with what’s going to happen/what should have happened/what did happen. I am present to the Now.

It reminds me of a quotation from George MacDonald, a great source of inspiration for CS Lewis: he spoke of “living in the eternal carelessness of the eternal Now”. Isn’t that a great aim for life?

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Renewing the Eucharist — Journey (book review)

A while ago, I read Renewing the Eucharist Volume 1: Journey, (Richard Giles, Nicola Slee, Ann Loades and Mark Ireland; series editor: Stephen Burns, ISBN 978 1 85311 860 9) and wrote a review for Uniting Church Studies. This little book is well worth getting, so I’m reproducing the review here:

I recall arriving in Turku, Finland on a Saturday. Next morning, I decided to go to church and with some difficulty found one with a service at the right time. It was a Lutheran congregation, as they mostly are, on the ground floor of a block of units. I wondered how I’d go—but it was much easier than I thought to feel ‘at home’, even though there was (predictably, obviously) not a word of English spoken.

My way was made smooth because I was familiar with the shape of the liturgy. I knew at every point just where we were in the flow of the service. ‘I’ was part of the ‘we’! We gathered, we received the Word, we shared the Holy Meal and were dismissed. All this was clear, without a word of English being spoken, because of this fourfold shape.

It was with anticipation, then, that I opened the first volume of Renewing the Eucharist, entitled Journey. This little gem of a book plays with the theme of the fourfold shape of the Service of the Lord’s Day:


I write ‘Service of the Lord’s Day’ in good UCA style, but just as I entered the fourfold flow of a Finnish Lutheran service, in this book we enter the shape of the liturgy that forms worshippers in the Church of England and uses Anglican speech forms. Yet we find the Spirit still bestows the Pentecostal gift of understanding.

And little wonder—for this shape is neither Anglican nor Uniting, nor is it registered to any sectarian label. The fourfold shape of the liturgy is a great gift to us all: the earliest record of a congregation at a worship service employing an early form of this shape comes from the pen of Justin Martyr, writing in the Rome of the second century.


We begin by gathering. Richard Giles shows that the shape of the liturgy is the shape of a journey, a pilgrimage, which takes us (if we will go) ‘into the heart of God’.

Fascinatingly, he writes: ‘if we are merely ‘on time’ for the liturgy…we are in fact late. For we have failed to allow time for the essential process of gathering together’. Some people at some times may need to arrive late (and leave early), but it deprives them of participating in essential elements of the liturgy. As Giles says (p. 18),

Gathering is…a springboard [through which the] individual is made ready for worship, to give God worth-ship by first receiving from fellow-worshippers a sense of his or her own worth… Whatever life has thrown our way in the previous days, here…we are known, and cherished, and thereby may be healed. In gathering for worship we come home.

Would that all congregations gathered in this spirit to worship the living God!


Nicola Slee reminds us that the living Word is more than words. It takes the initiative, it forms us, addresses us; it is the ‘dynamic presence of God’ (p. 36), it is the Sophia Wisdom of God, it has become flesh in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the word is a life rather than a series of propositions. We need to beware domesticating the Word of God to fit our words. To really hear the Word, we both receive it as gift and (p. 40)

do all we can to make space for the word to be spoken, to cultivate the habits and disciplines that will allow the word to be heard: it is up to God, in God’s freedom, to speak as and when God wills.

The text of the Bible may alienate, because it comes mixed up in the messiness of human life. Slee is thankful that Anglicans have never made a simple identification between the Bible and the Word; I breathe a similar prayer of thanks for the guidance given to the Uniting Church by the Basis of Union.


Eating together is an everyday activity. It fosters relationship, promotes hospitality and reminds us of our creatureliness. As creatures, we look to the Creator for life; as Christians, we draw on our ancient texts, singing ‘Holy, holy, holy’ and ‘Glory be’ to the triune God. We respond to God’s gracious self-revelation and find that life is ‘sacramented’ (p. 68), even in the midst of failure and shame. In the Lord’s Supper, we are given hospitality by Jesus Christ.

How many sacraments are there? As good heirs of the Reformation, we answer ‘two’. Yet the early Church found sacramental grace in the Lord’s Prayer, making the sign of the cross, a baptismal font, anointing oil… Anne Loades’ work leads me to ask: Are we short-changing ourselves?


Mark Ireland writes bracingly of ‘sending’ as mission. He challenges us to include the seeker. He wonders if we should take the service out of the building or have ‘fuzzier’ endings ‘so that worship fuses into mission’ (p. 87). It is not only the Sending that is missional: receiving the Eucharist ‘points us forward to the consummation of God’s purposes’ (p. 88).

It was good to see that Ireland mentions the Word of Mission in reformed liturgies such as Uniting in Worship 2 as one example of an ‘increased emphasis and space [given] to the Sending’ (p. 97). He counsels us not to truncate the Sending and thereby diminish its place as the springboard to mission. He offers some practical ideas to enhance the Sending: for example, moving the Offering to the end of the service, as our offering for the mission of the Church; or passing the Peace at that point, so that people may invite someone they don’t know to after-service coffee.


This is a wonderful little book for practitioners of liturgy, leaders of worship and students alike. Stephen Burns’ questions in Appendix 2 make it very useful for worship committees and other small groups.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!

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A History of Christianity

I’m reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, an amazing and magisterial work. (The subtitle is correct: to grasp the early Christian movement, we need to have a grounding in the Jewish, Greek and Roman histories and cultures of the time.)

It’s way beyond my competency to review this work. Besides, I’m on page 108 right now; only over 900 pages to go… But I do want to point to the wit and insight with which MacCulloch writes, as he does in other books of his with which I am acquainted (The Reformation; Thomas Cranmer: A Life). Take, for example, these words about the Greek pantheon of gods (p. 32):

The pantheon portrayed in both Greek myths and the Homeric epics can hardly be said to exemplify virtue: the origins of the gods in particular make up an extraordinary catalogue of horrors and violence. Hesiod’s Theogony named the first divinity as Chaos; among the divinities who emerged from him, representing the cosmos spawned out of chaos, was Gaia, the Earth. Gaia’s son Ouranos/Uranus (the Sky) incestuously mated with his mother and had twelve children. whom he forced back into Gaia’s womb; Gaia’s youngest son, Kronos/Cronus, castrated his father, Ouranos, before in turn committing incest with his sister and attempting to murder all their children. How unlike the home life of the Christian Trinity. Matters only marginally improved in the generation of Zeus. If one were coompleting a school report on the behaviour of the Olympian gods, it would have to include commetns on their lack of moral responsibility, consistent pity or compassion.

‘How unlike the home life of the Christian Trinity’—just delightfully slipped in. Absolutely sheer unadulterated gold!! This book is well worth the asking price for the wit alone.


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Jesus, Christianity’s burning bush

I looked up a book review on The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany here.

Surprisingly, it began with these remarkable words, which I am going to be dwelling on for a while:

Jesus is Christianity’s burning bush. His presence beckons to his followers in each generation, calling them to stand before him fully present and attentive to the rule and realm of God brought near in each encounter with the neighbor.

Like the summoning bush of Moses, Jesus’ searing presence calls forth without being consumed by the transcending nature of the call. He declares with that presence, “Here I am. Where are you?” He remains who he is, Jesus of Nazareth, even as he manifests to subsequent generations the fullness of the One who calls us out of ourselves into full and responsible engagement with every other.

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