That Was The Church That Was

Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead

Bloomsbury Continuum


Given the credentials of Linda Woodhead (professor of sociology of religion at the University of Lancaster) and Andrew Brown (religious correspondent at The Guardian) you would expect them to know what they’re talking about when it comes to the Church of England. But this book offers no such evidence.

Each chapter in That Was the Church That Was addresses a period in the Church’s history since the 1980s by focusing on what the authors believe is the dominant issue. The anecdotes are often spiteful and superior, and the analysis is shallow, error-strewn and fundamentally flawed. The personal stories function as a way the authors can demonstrate their superior insight and experience, which means that their conclusions are never open to question. Woodhead recounts her time on the staff of a theological college in Oxford, yet demonstrates little insight into the real issues or challenges of theological education. The approach is also inconsistent.

George Carey is mocked for trying to adopt “management voodoo” while Woodhead and Brown themselves advocate a managerial approach. They sneer at falling attendances while believing that the Church should be run like the National Trust – maintaining the buildings without worrying about congregations. There’s also a total lack of analysis of changes in wider society, as if all the issues we face centre on the relentless incompetence of the Church’s leadership. The initial review copies of this title which were sent out to journalists had to be recalled by the publisher after a legal complaint from one of the Christian leaders mentioned in the book. But even in this presumably revised version, the book aims to trash the reputation of many key figures. I think the book succeeds in that, at least in part. But I cannot help feeling that the reputations mostly trashed by this book are not the ones named in the pages, but the ones named on the cover. IP


Seize The Day

Joyce Meyer

Hodder & Stoughton

You might assume this book would be packed with overly positive ‘can do’ statements. But it is actually a refreshingly well-grounded look at how to live well for God. Meyer tackles pertinent issues, such as why we are so busy and how to avoid wasting time. There are thoroughly practical chapters on scheduling and organisation, as well as ones centring on analysing how carefully we are living and using the talents God has given us. There were times when the writing seemed a little like a stream of consciousness rather than really wellstructured. Perhaps she’s now such a huge celebrity that editors don’t like being too heavy-handed with her text? Having started the book with antennae up regarding doctrine, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the solid, biblical truth the chapters were grounded on and pleased to see Joyce was willing to share from her own experiences. This may not be the greatest book on re-evaluating our busy lives, but it is certainly full of useful advice, common sense and good biblical wisdom. CM


The One True Story

Tim Chester

The Good Book Company

What to do with Advent? Drown myself in the madcap rush towards Christmas? No, better by far to relax and soak myself in the stories which make up the background and context to the Christmas story, God’s saving purpose for me and for you.

This book offers 24 readings for the season of Advent. Tim Chester skilfully weaves stories from the scriptures to illuminate and deepen our understanding of Advent and Christmas. And he invites the reader to take more responsibility for the journey in exploring and meditating using prayers, poems and carols included with each day’s text.

Chester earths spiritual insights with the everyday, be it a memory of driving his parents mad on car journeys by singing ‘Joshua fought the battle of Jericho’ or thoughts about the curse of grumbling. I particularly liked his take on the importance of laughter, both in the biblical narrative and on our joyful journey.

There are some Christians who dread the season of Advent. They see it as a second Lent or a time to be depressed with thoughts not of ‘God with us’ so much as sermons about death and judgement. This is a great book to put into their hands. It’s easy to read, despite a few avoidable typos.

I often encourage people to find a quiet space and read through the Gospel of Luke as a positive way of marking Advent and preparing for Christmas. The One True Story can be another means of linking God’s story with our own stories and those of our fellow pilgrims. PF


Songs For A Saviour’s Birth

William Philip


Embracing the season of Advent in our preparation for Christmas can help us to refocus, and Songs for a Saviour’s Birth is the perfect accompaniment to that.

Philip navigates his way through the beginning of Luke’s Gospel via the medium of song – an idea which he says is not just musical, but rather, joy-filled responses to the presence of God.

We journey through the songs of those who first welcomed Christ into the world. From Elizabeth’s exclamation on meeting the pregnant Mary, through to the virgin’s own Magnificat; from Zechariah’s postdumbness prophecy to the angel’s declaration of praise on the hillside and finally Simeon’s emotional response to encountering the long-awaited Christ.

At just 74 pages the book is not too long or too theological. It’s easy to read, but with enough depth to challenge, and is clearly written with the reader in mind, asking questions and challenging us to engage our faith with contemporary issues. Think of it as a pick-me-up just in time for Christmas. JM


Advent For Everyone

Tom Wright


Tom Wright’s ‘For Everyone’ series has been a gift to the Church. These commentaries for people who don’t typically read commentaries have found a wide audience as brilliant devotional theology for the everyday Christian.

In each title, Wright translates a portion of scripture then adds his own anecdotes and examples to help us unpack what the Bible is saying. You’d be forgiven for assuming Advent for Everyone is a brand-new book that unpacks this special season.

You’d be wrong. It’s almost entirely lifted from Wright’s Matthew for Everyone books, first published nearly 15 years ago. John Sentamu’s foreword is new, and so is Wright’s brief introduction. But the other 120 pages are not (to be fair to the publishers, they more or less admit this on the blurb).

If you’re new to the ‘For Everyone’ series, this is as good a place as any to start. The content is good. But despite this beautifully shiny cover, it’s hard to justify the need for reprinting a book that’s already so widely available. SH


Making Sense Of God

Timothy Keller

Hodder & Stoughton

In 2009 the New York City-based pastor Tim Keller published The Reason for God to much critical acclaim. The book sought to answer common objections to Christianity such as ‘How can a good God allow suffering?'

In writing Making Sense of God as a prequel to The Reason for God, Keller is recognising that some people aren’t yet ready to consider the standard apologetics questions and answers. Not only is Christianity far stranger culturally than it was just seven years ago, but many don’t want Christianity to be true.

In Making Sense of God, Keller appeals to the heart as much as he does the intellect. He argues that human beings cannot live without meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, justice, and hope. Everyone longs for these things. Yet Keller’s grand thesis is that only Christianity provides us with unsurpassed resources to meet these universal needs. Building on the works of other greats (Augustine, Lesslie Newbigin, Charles Taylor), Keller peppers his arguments with gripping analogies and stories. With his finger on the cultural pulse and a deep commitment to representing opposing points of view in their strongest form, Keller has produced a first class book which sceptics should find both fair and challenging. .

The 327-page volume is as wellargued as you might expect from the man who has been dubbed this generation’s CS Lewis (a comparison which, for the record, Keller strongly objects to). If you’ve an intelligent atheist friend who is willing to invest considerable time in allowing their position to be respectfully interrogated, this is the ideal book to give them. It’s also the perfect Christmas gift for any Christian apologist. SH


Katharina Luther

Anne Boileau

Clink Street

Expecting this to be a history book about Martin Luther’s wife, I was surprised to discover that it is written in the form of a story and so reads as a historical fiction. And a jolly good one it is too.

Raised as a nun, Katharina became caught up in the subversive writings of Martin Luther and plotted to make her escape from the convent and join him in Wittenberg. Boileau is a good writer, and her descriptions of the natural world and of Katharina’s discovery of her sexuality are beautifully written. The book is also a very good way into the extraordinary times and events around the Reformation. My one frustration was that it is helpful for a historical novel to have something at the end about the historicity or otherwise of the story in the book. With this lacking I was left with no idea as to how much of the story was Boileau’s improvisation or based on historical fact. That aside, this is a good book and well worth a read. RV


Searching The Scriptures

Charles R Swindoll

Tyndale House

Well-known American preacher Charles Swindoll has over 60 years of Bible teaching experience. His preaching style is to focus on what the Bible teaches and to ensure that he leaves his listeners with an unmissable practical application.

He is a consummate communicator, and this skill is evident in Searching the Scriptures.

He begins with a really helpful overview of the Bible; setting out how the Old and New Testament books are structured and arranged. His major purpose is to teach us how to study the Bible and how to teach the scriptures to others. He also brings his gift of humour to his task, which adds to the enjoyment of the read.

This book will be a useful asset to the new Christian as they try to establish a workable system of Bible study; it will also be a useful tool for teachers and preachers of the Bible. The only downside was the strained ‘preparing of a meal’ analogy that prefaces each chapter. Nevertheless, Searching the Scriptures makes a valuable contribution to this vital area. AP


These Christmas Lights

Matt Redman

Integrity Music

I love a good Christmassy album; yuletide greetings and winter hearts all aglow. But Matt Redman’s These Christmas Lights takes a standard collection of festive tunes to a whole new level by weaving into its centre heartfelt and passionate worship.

This brand new collection of worship carols (is this a new genre?) looks at the wonder of the Christmas night, asking God for that light to “be born again in me”.

The album features mellow duets with Chris Tomlin and Natasha Bedingfield, and as I listened, my hands wanted to instinctively reach upwards to join in worship of the newborn king. This is a gentle album, packed full of simple but unforgettable melodies. But it’s not all temperate tunes as “Glory to you in the highest” finishes with a stand-up-and-beltout-loud refrain of ‘Come let us adore him’.

This will be my Christmas album of choice this year, helping me to keep my focus where it should be – on the king of kings. PC


The Thrill Of Hope

Christy Nockels

Keepers Branch Recs

I tend to approach festive albums with caution due to an acute awareness of the commercial engine that drives these calendar releases. But from the opening orchestral stabs on ‘The king is coming’ I was captivated by this record.

Beautiful, charming and honest, The Thrill of Hope delivers intelligent production, discerning arrangements and comfort-rich vocals. It’s one of the best Christmas albums I’ve heard. Classics ‘O come O come Emmanuel’ and ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ are really well crafted and include some innovative additional touches that breathe life into them. Meanwhile, ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas’ evokes the atmosphere of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Nockels crowdfunded this album through the support of hundreds of fans. The songwriter’s hope was to tell the greatest rescue story of all time through music. And she’s achieved that aim. Apart from a couple of original songs – ‘Amaryllis’ and ‘Our Christmas song’ – which are a little under par, this is a real festive treat. SR



The book that changed my life


Francis Spufford As a millennial passionate about showing how my faith is relevant to real life, I absolutely loved Francis Spufford’s stunning book Unapologetic. So many Christians of my generation have been desperate for gifted communicators who will tell the story of our faith in a way that doesn’t make others cringe. Unapologetic is a masterpiece. It is honest, authentic, vulnerable, gritty and uplifting. Spufford’s very personal take on why Christianity makes sense addresses some of life’s biggest questions beautifully. The cadence of the words he uses and the pictures he draws of life and faith had me, at times, weeping. The key to a good Christian book – one I could give to my friends – is that it needs to contain that raw element of humanity. It needs to bring our faith right to the heart of who we are and show how it makes a difference in the stuff of life. I would love more books like Unapologetic to be published – showing an authentic side to faith that doesn’t shy away from the doubts that we have all experienced.

by Chine McDonald


REVIEWERS: REVD DR IAN PAUL is associate minister at St Nic’s Nottingham and a member of the Archbishops’ Council • CLAIRE MUSTERS is a freelance writer and editor • PATRICK FORBES is a retired communications officer who enjoys sailing, music and writing • JULES MIDDLETON is an Anglican curate, wife, mum and author of the blog “Apples of Gold” • SAM HAILES is deputy editor of Premier Christianity magazine • RUTH VALERIO is theology director at A Rocha UK • ALAN PALMER is deputy lead chaplain at Ipswich Hospital • PAULA CUMMINGS works in PR and blogs at uglygrace.comSUE RINALDI is a singer-songwriter and writer