Book Review: Simply Good News by Tom Wright

Disclaimer: I was given this book by the publishers, SPCK, free of charge. I was not asked to review it, so, as ever, I publish this review off my own back.

Tom Wright manages to write books faster than most can read them. While I’ve caught up with all published volumes of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series and dip into his New Testament for Everyone commentaries every now and then, there are many more works that I’ve not yet got into. Most notably, these would be Virtue Reborn, How God Became King, Simply Jesus (though I bought this last year, it’s not yet percolated its way to the top of my reading pile) and Surprised by Scripture.

This work, subtitled ‘Why The Gospel Is News And What Makes It Good’ could be thought of as “Simply Paul”. For as some of his works published as “Tom Wright” have been closely linked to, and could be thought of an shortened version of, his longer works published under “N.T. Wright”, there is much here that is in common with Paul and the Faithfulness of God. If anything, this could be summed up as the ‘gospel according to Paul, according to Tom Wright’.

The major thesis is that what we refer to as “the gospel” is often misunderstood. He is not here proposing that the church has wholly misunderstood christianity, but that when we speak of the gospel, it is often more spoken of as advice rather than as news. Of course, there is a right an appropriate response to the news, but that response should not be mistaken for the news itself. So calls to repent are not inherently the gospel. Giving your life to Jesus is not the gospel. Taking part in the sacraments is not the gospel.

A master of the analogy, Wright begins by taking us not to the gospels, but to England’s victory in the rugby world cup final in 2003. The game was in Australia, but Wright was in America at the time (a country not exactly well known for its love of rugby). He was excited by news of the victory but found that anyone he wanted to tell simply didn’t care. Until he found some Australians, that is, who weren’t exactly keen on hearing the news of England’s triumph. His excitement about England’s victory was irrelevant foolishness to the Americans and was unwelcome to the Australians. It is in this way that Wright gets across what he understands by Paul’s statement that gospel is foolishness to the Gentiles (what does anything to do with a Jewish teacher have to do with us) and a scandal to the Jews (this person cannot be the Messiah if he died in ignominy).

The heart of the book is laid out very early on. What is the news? Firstly, it is a development, something unexpected happening within a wider context. Secondly, it is an announcement not only that something has happened, but that because of it, things will be different from now on. This then brings about a period of hopeful, expectant waiting.

The rest of the book is the fleshing out of this. So we get an overview of what the wider context was. This entails an overview of 1st century Judaism and the Roman Empire. The second part necessitates the “now and not yet” of christianity to be discussed, though Wright skillfully avoids the technical jargon of inaugurated eschatology, which can be so off-putting to many. Indeed, throughout the book, the theologically well-informed will recognise many a familiar concept, but Wright communicates them with the utmost clarity and gentleness.

In reading this, I could not help but think that the misrepresentations of the gospel Wright is so keen to correct are largely that of the more right wing American churches. In so doing, he does seem to rile up others who interpret him as saying that the whole church has failed to understand the gospel for centuries but thank goodness that Tom Wright has now arrived to correct us all. I don’t think that’s what he intends at all. It is rather that he is here trying to write for as wide an audience as possible, but having in mind particular ways of teaching of christianity that miss the central point of the gospel.

So he is neither being an heresiologist nor a general teacher, but trying to incorporate both aspects in his writing. A tough task, indeed, yet it is my view he does this just about as well as anyone could hope for. In so doing, he does bring a challenge; a challenge to our current understanding and our ways of communicating the news that God has come to earth to restore creation through Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and that we are all invited to be a part of that ongoing story which has already reached its dénouement in his death and resurrection.

To finish this review, one must think of who it would stand to gain most from reading this work. Might it be for the curious non-christian who wants to find out what we mean by ‘the good news’? Perhaps, though Wright does assume a level of familiarity with the ancient world that the person on the Clapham omnibus doesn’t have. Maybe it is more suited to the more Calvinist christian who, though familiar with the bible, doesn’t always seem to get the emphasis right. Maybe it is best for the person who has recently become a christian but is still trying to navigate their way around the rich, vast and multitudinous expressions of christian belief across different churches.

I would suggest that it may be read in conjunction with a few other works. Firstly, the gospels themselves. Examine the source material and make an assessment for yourself. Secondly, it might go well with Rowan Williams’ Being Christian or C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I hope that gives you a fair impression. If it at all piques your interest, then please do read it. It is well-written, gently provocative and has the gospel of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah, running through it like a stick of Brighton rock.

Book Review: Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie

Readers of this blog may recall that I went on a tour of some of London’s bookshops back in February, buying one at each. This was a work I picked up at the Kennington bookshop which, as it turns out, was not far from the area of London where Ruth Picardie lived. It is an area I am quite familiar with, as I was commuting on the bus through Walworth and Elephant & Castle as I read it, seeing the occasional references to places outside the window.

Yet as I sit down to write this review, the afternoon after finishing it, I am somewhat at a loss for how to give it a fair and reasonable review in the same way that I try (to a varying degree of success) with anything else I read. For the title should be fairly unambiguous: Ruth Picardie is dead. She died in September 1997, in her early 30s, after having had cancer for a little under a year. The book is not a memoir or the impartation of a brief lifetime’s worth of wisdom. It mostly consists of letters to and from Ruth in the months between her diagnosis and her death. It is interspersed with the occasional article that she wrote for the Guardian and also features a handful of the responses she received from readers.

Describing herself as a ‘fast-track kind of girl…an evolved post-feminist chick’ one shouldn’t be surprised at her very forthright and occasionally fruity turns of phrase. She gives it what-for and doesn’t beat about the bush in her criticisms of the doctors who she felt passed her from pillar to post, getting diagnoses wrong and not being as straightforward with her as she would have liked.

With the diagnosis of her breast tumour being malignant, one cannot help but feel something of the anger Ruth expresses as well as the desperation to do anything. One of the things that struck me was how quickly she turned to alternative “medicine” in search of anything that might help. But this is not a miserable book. It is a last hurrah of a great spirit of wit and humour. With an opportunity to take a wry look at the end of life, the to-ing and fro-ing of repartee with her friends gives an insight into a world that many of us have been affected by in some way or another, but far fewer live in, day in, day out.

Ruth’s writing then stops fairly abruptly, in the middle of an article which was finished by her sister, Justine. There is then an afterword by Matt, her husband, describing her last days and paying homage to Ruth. From this other perspective, we can see the dehumanisation that cancer can wreak upon people. In line with much of the rest of the book, there is little beating about the bush. I would wholeheartedly recommend the book to you; just be prepared for some fairly frank talk. It’s not a great work of philosophy, nor a guide on how to go through cancer treatment. Indeed, there is much railing against the euphemisms surrounding cancer; the word ‘ontology’ coming in for a lashing in particular.

The top corner of the cover states that 10p from every sale would go to the Lavender Trust. As I bought it 2nd hand, that donation was only made on behalf of the original purchaser. So if you’ve read the book, want to read it or this review has made you think, then here is a link to their website, where you can donate.

End Austerity Now: The Witness of One Participant

Gathering by the Bank of England

Gathering by the Bank of England

On Saturday the 20th of June, I took part in a protest march in London. It was the first march I had been on since the days of the Blair government introduced top-up fees and launched an illegal war against Iraq. Organised by the People’s Assembly, it was an anti-austerity protest directed against the planned cuts to public services.

Here is my account of the day.

The itinerary on the People’s Assembly website stated that we were to gather together outside the Bank of England at midday, there would be some speeches and then we would set off at 1pm through the City of London, down Fleet Street and Strand to Trafalgar Square, then turning left onto Whitehall, past Downing Street and finishing in Parliament Square.

I got off the train at London Bridge shortly before 12, where the first signs of a protest were visible. One or two banners were visible, but they were furled up, their messages hidden for now. Walking out of the station, there were pockets of people gathering together. In the shadow The Shard was a group of about a dozen people, with a very prominent NHA (for the National Health Action party) in its familiar shade of blue.

Going across London Bridge, there were far fewer people than expected. I recall my days of commuting this route and the east side of the bridge would be packed with medium paced, middle aged, middle class white men in suits. On Saturday, we had more guitarists and the first of the placards were visible.

Getting across to the north end of the bridge the first of the road blocks was visible, so I was able to wander down the middle of the road, which was quite liberating. Though I soon discovered it was only closed to motorised traffic as a cyclist ting-ed their bell before passing by in close proximity.

Getting to the bank of England, the crowd was huge. The junction with Mansion House is a very large one, and there were people as far as you could see (which, admittedly, as a little limited due to the banners having been unfurled). A few opportune salesmen were offering whistles for a pound. The stewards in their fluorescent tabards were encouraging people to move towards the front which I duly did until I could go no further.

I had been hoping to join with the Quakers for some of the march, but at no point did I see any sign of them. In the throng at the start, I found myself standing alongside the anarcho-Marxists and the members of the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP). They’re not groups that I would readily identify with, but it was testament to the unity in diversity that we could stand shoulder to shoulder. From where I was stood (just between Mansion House and Poultry), I could see the big balloon that was suspended from the Fire Brigade Union’s (FBU) and there were a few Green Party signs dotted about.

The organisers had made sure there was something of a carnival atmosphere to it, with plenty of music. Every now and then, for no apparent reason, there were whooping cheers and mass whistle-blowing. It was a difficult balance to strike, as this was a protest, not a celebration. So I didn’t cheer, nor did I dance. In fact, I was quiet pretty much the whole time, apart from the occasional conversation with those around me. I was most vocal on Twitter, where I was providing updates, primarily for those who wanted to be there but couldn’t. There was some very heartwarming feedback, saying that people felt I was marching for them.

Looking round, there were some who (purely due to my own prejudices) thought might have been there to cause trouble. With any mass protest consisting of tens of thousands of people, there are often a handful who do something daft and who draw the attention of the right wing press. In this case, it was those wearing black bandana-style covers over their mouths and noses. On closer inspection, each had a logo and some words on them, and it was clear that this was to protest against state surveillance. Chatting to one bloke near me who had one on, he said that it was a reaction against the kind of surveillance that was revealed by Edward Snowden and also against the proposed snooper’s charter, which Theresa May has recommended, after its previous incarnation was scrapped during the coalition. To get the negative out of the way in one paragraph, I wasn’t in agreement with some of the tones of the banners. There was one that read ‘Fuck the fucking fuckers’ and another that called for unilateral free markets. I’m more in favour of protest by education (making sure that those to whom you are protesting understand what your complaint is, why you are making it and what you are proposing they do about it) rather than insult and I am also not a free market fundamentalist, preferring good corporate governance and a strong regulatory system in place to ensure that the business sector acts for the good of all society, not just the narrow segment of investors and analysts.

To that end, I was much more in favour of a group entitled ‘Economists against austerity’ and I’ll take a look at that group later this week.

In contrast to what had been promised, there were no speeches at the start of the march. We eventually started to move at around quarter past one, as a few people had started to complain about the prolonged standing and wanted to get their legs moving. As we got going, the throng thinned out a little, so it was less like rush hour on the Underground and a bit more civilised. The main upside was that I no longer got the whiff of cigarette smoke from nearby chimneys.

There was a sort of MC who was reading out some of the placards. A lot were from the People’s Coalition and a variety of trade unions. Some construction workers looked down on us, as did a couple of helicopters. The route was dotted with police, though their presence was unnecessary. Some looked on with seemingly stern disapproval written across their faces, others were much friendlier, chatting to the crowds and helping to direct people to the nearest public toilets.

Once we got beyond St Paul’s cathedral (we didn’t go immediately next to it, but another road down), the chanting began to subside and people marched on in relative quiet. Occasionally, there’d be pockets of noise, but being the City, we were going through an area that is generally deserted on a Saturday anyway. Off to the side of the main crowd, the route was dotted with some side shows. There was a brass band, some Hari Krishnas, a rat pack style singer doing a piece of satire on Iain Duncan Smith and someone dressed as a crab. In many ways, it reminded me of the Great North Run in terms of atmosphere.

One place in London I’d never been to before was the Royal Courts of Justice. It’s a really spectacular building, and I couldn’t help but think that justice was a theme that underpinned so many of the strands of protest.

As I went along, I marched alongside a number of different groups. There was the group Disabled People Against Cuts. One of their big concerns is the scrapping of the Independent Living Fund, which currently helps to pay for the costs that allows disabled people to live with the independence and dignity that many of us take for granted. The Conservatives wish to take this dignity away from disabled people.

Another group was Sisters Uncut. They are primarily concerned with the effects that cuts have on women, arguing that they have been unfairly targeted, as well as that not enough is being done to prevent violence against women or to adequately prosecute those who perpetrate such violence.

Coming down Whitehall, past Downing Street, the volume began to pick up again as people made various chants and songs, mainly directed against the incumbent government, some against particular members (David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne, Theresa May and Michael Gove being those mentioned most frequently) and a few that were bordering on the abusive. The police by Downing Street were the most densely packed and the most stony faced. Previous to this, it was their guarding of Coutts bank that was the most superfluous (7 officers in uniform). It struck me as more symbolic, verging on the futile, to aim slogans at Downing Street directly, since it’s likely the weekday residents would be spending their Saturday at their 2nd homes in the country.

Arriving in Parliament Square, the place was pretty packed. I found a tiny spare patch of grass and sat down at about quarter to three. It wasn’t long before the speeches started. Most of the speakers I hadn’t heard of. The only one I was familiar with was Len McCluskey, the democratically elected leader of the Unite union. As I have the foresight to take a notebook with me, I couldn’t catch all the names or the details of the speeches. So I can only convey the general sense that I picked up. They were all passionately given, with a mixture of well-researched evidence and rhetoric. All were strongly pro-trade unions. It seemed to be fairly standard fare. The question was, who was listening? Because unless the anti-austerity message gets beyond those of us on the left and has the positive effect of educating and persuading those in government and those who voted for this government, then it will all be for naught.

As I had made sure I was well hydrated along the march, it became necessary to make a visit to a nearby pub to use their facilities. As I left the square, I checked with a policeman that the figure of 250,000 was correct, as had been claimed by Len McCluskey. To be precise, he said that that was the police estimate, though later reporting in the media said that the police did not make an estimate. The officer I spoke to confirmed verbally to me that “that was the estimate we were working with.” However, there were signs of an increased police presence around, with them massing in large groups outside Westminster Abbey. To me, it looked like they were getting ready to instigate a kettle. So I made the decision to not come back for the rest of the speeches (missing out on Jeremy Corbyn, whose praises had been sung throughout the march, in contrast to Liz Kendall who was roundly booed every time her name was mentioned). I headed down to Victoria to get a bus home.

There was a small group of vocal protesters (about 15-20) outside Westminster City Hall. They were being very closely watched by the police, in a ratio of 1 police officer to every 2 protesters. On hand also were the legal observers, seemingly taking the numbers from the epaulettes of the officers nearby and talking with them. Earlier, the same observers had been handing out cards advising people what to do if they were arrested. I simply stated that I would give no cause for possible arrest. As it turns out, no one else did at all as the whole event went without any trouble whatsoever. Any suspicions of possible mischief-makers were unfounded.

Here ends my observation of the day.

Reflections

It was a fantastic day to be out and extremely heartening to be part of such a diverse group of people, united in standing up for what is right. Yet the point of it was not to make us feel good. This was to ensure that the message was delivered: Austerity isn’t the best way; there are fairer ways to do politics.

There are many sub-stories that make up this narrative, many of which were represented on Saturday. Yet effective protest has to not only be large and loud, it has to be clear and clever. If the only ones who listen to the message and understand are those on the political left who would never dream of supporting Conservative neoliberalist ideology, then we are speaking to an echo chamber. We need to demonstrate the human cost of austerity to those who tacitly or openly support it, in order to bring about a change of mind.

Key to this is ensuring that the press are not allowed to twist the message. If you read the reports of the march in the Mail or the Telegraph, then you will end up with a highly distorted understanding of what went on. Many doubted the BBC would report on the march, though to their credit they did. Yet the only person they interviewed was the one chap from the right wing pressure group The Tax Payers’ Alliance, which is hardly representative of the views of the thousands who marched. This is partly why I’ve written my eyewitness account, and I hope that others will do too.

Earlier I stated that it one needs to state 3 things: what your complaint is, why you are making it and what you are proposing those in power do about it. It seems only right then to finish with a brief summary of these 3 points.

My complaint

The last 5 years of austerity and the current plans for further cuts to public services is not the result of sound, well-thought out economics. At the end of the last Labour government, after the 2008 crash, the economy was recovering. We had growth in GDP and falling unemployment. So Conservative claims that their policies were the sole factor in the recovery are untrue; things were getting better.

Some cuts were necessary, that is clear. We needed to try to reduce the debt and the deficit, very few deny that. But the manner in which the Conservative-led coalition did this was not fair. The burden of the cuts fell hardest on disabled, the unemployed and the poor. There was some good here (the raising of the personal allowance, as championed by the Liberal Democrats) but the bad far outweighed the good. This is why we have a country where around a 1/3rd of children live in poverty, where over a million meals have had to be provided by foodbanks.

This is not right. This must change.

Why make it?

I am not one of those who has been badly affected by the cuts. But that is not sufficient reason to refrain from protesting. I am compelled by a sense of decency to stand up for my fellow human beings. Many couldn’t make the protest because they were housebound. Right now, I am healthy and employed in the private sector on a salary that is more than the national average. But there is no security in this position. If I become unemployed again, or homeless, or ill or disabled, who will stand up for me?

My proposal

I have laid out my ideas at some length in A Voter’s Manifesto. In short, we first need to ensure that government supports those who most need it. This includes an NHS that provides universal healthcare, free at the point of need. It means a system of social security that helps people to have a decent standard of living when they are unable to earn enough. It is also ensuring that employers provide a living wage so that there is an end to the need for in-work benefits.

To fund this, there must be a fair tax system, where those who earn more than they need to live on pay their fair share. Where companies providing valuable goods and services at a fair price are managed and regulated well, allowing them to do business and to earn sufficient, but not excessive, profits from which they may pay their fair share of tax.

We may also need to cut some aspects of spending, but not those that the current government proposes. We can phase out the renewal of our weapons of mass destruction and scale back expenditure on those industries and government departments whose function is warfare and death. Yet this need to be done in a careful manner, so as to not increase unemployment.

In short, I want a fairer, more just society where no one is left behind.

Book Review: The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

Having tried to look at the origins of what we might recognise as philosophy, I wanted to read some more of the “Big 3″. It was a slightly arbitrary choice to pick Aristotle over Socrates or Plato, but my interest in ethics and morality probably swayed it.

The book begins with a very long introduction by Jonathan Barnes. I also ought to note that this particular version was translated by J.A.K. Thomson.

The introduction makes clear what others have told me about the book, in that it is really a series of lecture notes rather than a book that is meant to be read cover to cover. There is also a lot of background on Aristotle, placing the work within his surviving corpus of work. One of the frustrations is that the introduction contains lots of seemingly random references, almost a dewey decimal-like system. Only at the end is it stated what these are; but they refer to a different edition, so are very little use to the reader of this Penguin Classics edition.

What might one expect from an early book on ethics? Well, I wasn’t expecting a vast amount of deliberation or references to earlier writers. I thought this was just going to be a straight-from-the-hip exposition. That is more or less what we get.

Aristotle’s aim is that this is not a work to be merely studied. Rather, the aim is that it is a transformative work that should make one a better man. The fact that it comes to us in book form might be something of an oddity as there is some suggestion in the notes (as well as hints in the text) that this is really a set of lecture notes. I also use the term ‘man’ in the masculonormative sense that Aristotle himself uses, so I shall stick that form for the purposes of this review.

The fact that it was lecture notes didn’t really strike me at first, as the work (made up of some 12 short books) is really rather gripping to begin with. I could faintly see how this could be in terms of the history of thought, though reading a modern translation made it just seem like a treatise on common sense. If anything, the fact that it was so unscandalous is testimony to the influence that Aristotle has upon western culture. It is only when we get to a question of ‘continence and incontinence’ that the book slows somewhat. I confess that I find the term incontinence to be somewhat lavatorial, so it was not clear what Aristotle was on about.

Up until then, the whole tenor of the book had been about moderation. The ideal man, in Aristotle’s view, was not a person of extremes, but who took everything in their stride with due consideration, who could be allowed to be passionate, but who was not quick to be inflamed. That’s the overarching message. What we don’t get, which many modern readers may come with, are questions over particular moral dilemmas. Contrast this with Julian Baggini’s The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten.

Having laid out this vision of the moderate man, the remainder of the book is a little bit turgid to get through. I think I rather lost track in book 7 entitled ‘continence and incontinence’. Through my own ignorance, my immediate thought on reading that header regards the ability of a person to maintain control of their bladder. So what does Aristotle (or the translator) mean by these terms? Well, I was no more enlightened after reading it. There was no clear definition given and without that I couldn’t get a grip on the topic.

Thereafter, I rather struggled to maintain interest and the remainder of the book became more of a chore than a joy to read.

With that said, I would still recommend it as a reading in the history of thought. Not having formal training in philosophy, I probably skimmed over many of the finer points and failed to appreciate it to its full, but it remains (mainly in the first half) an interesting work. There are a great many more works of ethics that I have yet to read (those on my radar include those by Spinoza and Bonhoeffer) and it will be interesting to compare the approaches.

In the end, though, I cannot say it has made me a better man for having read it. In the culture I’ve grown up in, moderation has always been instilled as a good thing. Yet here is where we may well find the origin of that idea. In a world that has its fair share of extremism, moderation is clearly a tempting alternative. Though as I sometimes hear, extremism is only bad is it directed in a bad direction. Can there be anything bad about an extremist for love? Or someone who has extreme generosity? Aristotle would argue that while those things are virtues, an extreme bias towards one of them will detract from a person being capable in another.

Whatever your view here, there’s certainly plenty to think about here.

Book Review: Magna Carta – A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Vincent

Today, the 15th of June 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of the meeting at Runnymede when the Magna Carta was first ‘signed’. 3 weeks ago, I visited the British Library which is running an exhibition all about the Magna Carta. Just before I did, though, I thought I ought to try to get clued up a bit about it. My aim wasn’t to become an expert, but just to sketch in a rough form where there was a massive space of ignorance in my knowledge. This VSI by Nicholas Vincent, then, was the book I chose.

Those of you with good memories may recall that I picked this up when I was last at the British Library in February, having been somewhat disappointed by the VSI on the British Constitution.

Here, Vincent was keen to put Magna Carta in its context. That context takes up more than half of the book, so the contents of Magna Carta are somewhat relegated to an appendix. It wouldn’t be too unfair then to say that this is much more about politics of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. So if you expect this to a summary of the Magna Carta and a discussion thereof, then you will likely be very disappointed by this work (don’t worry, though, there are plenty of publications available at the moment; I’m sure some of them take this approach). This is likely because Nicholas Vincent’s specialty is medieval history. So rather than foregrounding Magna Carta and filling in the background detail, he spends a lot of time and effort bringing to life the background, seeming to hope that the Magna Carta speaks for itself.

In favour of this last statement, a modern translation of the Magna Carta is provided in an appendix, though it seemed slightly unfair to relegate it to this position. It is only when one is about 2/3rds of the way through this VSI that we get the occasional reference to specific clauses, though there’s no specific instruction to the reader to turn to the appendix, so one might be a bit wrong-footed by this.  Even then, we are not exactly guided through it, but instead we are given a scattergun approach.

As an overview of the politics of north-western Europe in the medieval period, it is a very good work. It’s not a period of history that I could claim any expertise in, nor even much familiarity, so cannot really comment on Vincent’s accuracy or choices of emphasis in his portrayal. As an amateur reader then, I came away with a better appreciation of the circumstances that led to the Magna Carta’s formation, though this wasn’t really a magnification of it. Rather, one could see a developmental stage that led towards it. This was later added to by my visit to the aforementioned exhibition at the British Library which is very well done (apart from the actual copies of the 1215 Magna Carta which I must say were a tads disappointing). There were several videos running in the exhibition, one of which featured Nicholas Vincent talking, so when I listened to him, it rang strongly of this book that I had finished reading the day before.

One thing that is picked up on by both the book and the exhibition is that almost as soon as the Magna Carta came into force in 1215, it was annulled. So we ended up with a slightly farcical situation whereby it went and came again, with there being various versions going about, each differing slightly different from the last. Only Durham Cathedral (I miss seeing it from the dining room window) has a copy of each edition. We get an overview of which sections got dropped from the statute book over the years.

The thing is, the Magna Carta is more often invoked by name than in substance. How relevant is it that clause 33 calls for the complete removal of fish-weirs from the Thames and Medway? Well, a lot less than clause 39: “No free man will be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor shall we go or send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land.” The book finishes then with an evaluation of the legacy of Magna Carta. It is somewhat brief, and might perhaps have been better written by a legal or constitutional expert, rather than a medieval historian. As a starting point, though, it’s not bad.

You may well hear a lot about Magna Carta at the moment, but a lot of it comes with an assumption of a knowledge and understanding of its background and content. If you think you have a gap in your education around this, then I would certainly recommend this as a very short remedy.

Book Review: How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman

I’m rather fond of Bart Ehrman. I have often found him to be a great communicator, hugely knowledgeable and yet wields his learning with gentleness so as to not alienate people needlessly. I first heard of this book when he took part in a debate (no doubt as part of a promotion) on Unbelievable, the Saturday afternoon apologetics programme on Premier Radio. His foil in that argument was Simon Gathercole who was one of several writers who had contributed to a riposte to Ehrman’s latest work (and which I shall be reading and reviewing in a month or two’s time).

As the title implies, this is a look at Jesus and how he came to be regarded as God. While Ehrman is no longer a christian, he retains his key interest in the origins of christianity. His opening thesis is that that while theologians tend to focus on questions of incarnation (i.e. how God became human) it is less frequently asked how Jesus came to be regarded as God. The obvious answer (that he was seen as God because he was God) is discounted as too simplistic and reliant on an uncritical reading of the gospels. His overall thesis is that Jesus wasn’t thought of as God in his lifetime and that a high christology only developed later on. Incorporating Jesus as the 2nd member of the Trinity was a much later development still. First, though, he lays out his approach for tackling the problem at hand.

He begins with a nicely deceptive piece of writing where he describes a charismatic figure from the backwaters of the Middle East, who had a group of followers who came to think of him as a god.

What he does, and this is what makes him such a brilliant writer, is that he makes some general points that makes the reader think. As I read from a christian perspective it is inevitable that some of his points are dissonant with my current understanding. Many of these objections are then addressed in a very short space of time.

Much of the argument over what is early and what is late in terms of theological development hinges on an assumption of a late authorship of the gospels. Unsurprisingly, John is portrayed as the last of the gospels to be written, though Ehrman puts the date of all four as after 70 CE. He references one of his earlier works in support of this claim, but no further backup is given. It’s an assumption that stands in stark contrast to, say, F.F. Bruce who advocated an earlier date of composition.

Clearly, the earlier the date, the less room there is for an elongated period of oral history. The shorter that period, the less time there is for corruption and therefore the more likely it is that the gospels are a faithful record of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. When it comes to oral history, though, Ehrman seems unreasonably dismissive. In what is a clear sideswipe at Kenneth Bailey, he states, “Some people today claim that cultures rooted in oral tradition are far more careful to make certain that traditions that are told and retold are not changed significantly. This turns out to be a modern myth, however.” It seems to be a pretty obvious reference to Bailey’s Informal Controlled Oral History and the Synoptic Tradition, yet Ehrman isn’t even willing to grant Bailey a namecheck, let alone any engagement with the subject.

One of the most irritating features of the book, though, is Ehrman’s frequent use of the “many scholars” fallacy“. Throughout the book, he cites “scholars” who either support his view or whose work support a particular aspect of the argument he’s making. Frequently, though, they are not named or sufficiently well referenced, so it is impossible to follow up to make further enquiry. As a result, even the reader who comes to this work in anticipation of Ehrman’s critical analysis will be left frustrated there is insufficient support at crucial stages of the argument and therefore the force of the point being made is not as well backed up as Ehrman would like his readers to think.

As one would expect of a good scholar, he traces his steps carefully. He begins the study by looking at beliefs in gods who became human and humans descended from gods. The examples cited all came from the Roman and Greek worlds. He also postulates different levels of divinity, whereby a human exalted to the form a deity was only of a low form of a deity, not necessarily to the same level as, say Apollo.

Following the outline of the book, he then draws parallels with the above to the Jewish world (making much hay from the Nephilim) to try to say that a human being elevated to the status of God was not at all against the grain of mainstream monotheism. Crucial to Ehrman’s view is an idiosyncratic usage of the word ‘divine’. While in christianity and Judaism, this is an adjective to mean ‘of God’, Ehrman takes it to mean ‘heavenly’. The distinction soon becomes apparent when, having noted the various different expressions of divinity in the Greek and Roman worlds, he tries to construe Judaism as a polytheistic religion. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, most notably from Francesca Stavrakapoulo, but which seems to be reliant on a particular eisegetical way of reading a few cherry-picked passages and ignoring the whole sweep of monotheistic Judaism. In short, it is a category mistake.

From here, he moves onto a couple of chapters on the resurrection. Those who know me know that this is an area of particular interest as it’s the criteria upon which I believe christianity rests. Ehrman’s approach is somewhat novel. First of all, one has to note that Ehrman stops short of denying the resurrection. That’s not his aim. Rather, his idea is that there is insufficient evidence to be confident in its historicity. But he does think that the disciples and early church genuinely thought that Jesus was raised from the dead. So he doesn’t endorse the ‘stolen body’ hypothesis. In an interesting turn, he notes that many attempts to debunk the historicity of the resurrection have failed so he takes a different approach. Going back to the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (interpreted as a creedal formulation), he takes his critique not to the idea that Jesus died, nor that he was raised, but to the idea that he was buried. He cites, without endorsing, the view of John Dominic Crossan that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs. Instead, he puts forward several ideas, without being too firm on any of them. Just to cite one, he says it’s possible that Jesus’ body was thrown into a communal grave with a lot of other criminals.

The rest of the book is then spent charting how views of Jesus emerged over the life of the early church. He does come to express that there was an early high christology, as expressed in the writings of Paul. But he stops short of saying that was an expression of something that had already been understood. In other words, any evidence from the early church, whether that be in Paul’s writings or in the gospels, which indicate that Jesus was God are thought to be later interpretations. Yet Ehrman seems unaware that his approach is wholly dependent on confirmation bias. If one assumes that Jesus was not thought of as God in his lifetime, then any expression must have been invented. He discounts the other two possibilities: 1) it was a later realisation (epistemological) of an extant fact (ontological) or 2) that Jesus was actually thought of as being God, and understood himself to be such, during his lifetime.

The reason I’ve spent some time on the critiques is not to be mean to Ehrman. No, this is one of the instances where I have attempted to review in the same style that the book is written in. So it is something of an homage. So while I think there are gaps in argument, it is right to point them out just as Ehrman sees fit to point out holes in the arguments of christian orthodoxy. It is a well-researched, and brilliantly written book. Yes, there are flaws in the methodology, but it is my view that christianity needs voices like Ehrman who take a close look at the subject matter, ask probing questions and can communicate to a wide audience.

I intend to follow up with the response book, How God Became Jesus, so it will be interesting to see what aspects of my critique may be picked up (and probably articulated much more clearly) and what aspects I may have overlooked. For now, though, I do heartily recommend you read some of Ehrman’s work if you’ve not already done so.

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Sometime last year, I can’t remember when, posters appeared all over the London Underground advertising this debut novel by Jessie Burton. The combination of the intriguing title and the eye-catching artwork created a mental image in my head that was highly appealing. So if the person who was responsible for the marketing of the book is reading this, well done. I only bought it, though, when I found myself in the very pokey bookshop of Primrose Hill. By this time, the book had started to win some praise and an award or two.

Set in the Netherlands in the late 17th century, the book gets off to a slightly unexpected start. Our main protagonist is Nella, an 18 year old woman who has recently married a trader roughly twice her age. Yet she seems not to really know him at all. She arrives at his house, greeted by his cold and unfriendly sister, Marin, and the servants of the household, Cornelia and Otto. It is a little while before we meet her husband, Johannes, but he remains a constant, yet distant figure throughout the book’s opening.

He attempts to make up for his relative absence by buying Nella a large kind of dollhouse. It is this that provides the impetus for the title of the novel, though it is curiously incidental to the overall plot. It’s something of a McGuffin, where the story would be little impacted if it were omitted. Because of this failure to meet expectations, I couldn’t like the book as much as I had hoped. Yet if one puts aside the missed expectations, then we do get the work of a very good storyteller setting out on the published stage of her writing career.

The real heart of the book consists of the interactions between the main characters, who are all well fleshed out and given their distinctive voices. Often written in dialogue, we see how Nella relates to Johannes, then how she relates to Marin, then how Marin relates to Cornelia, how Cornelia relates to Otto and so on. Through this method of storytelling, we build up the characterisation, while there are events which punctuate these and make for a very well paced novel.

I would warn potential readers that if it had the same kind of certification as a film, it would probably be a 15. There is some rather brutish homophobia as well as one or two gory scenes that are described in lurid detail.

It has also been noted that the book has divided opinion somewhat. I can see why some people may have been disappointed. I think it’s possibly because it’s not in the genre of fiction that people expect. Some have described it as an historical novel. While it’s certainly set in the past, the tone feels distinctly modern. Rather, this is a sensation novel, in the style of the late Victorian period. The closest in terms of the plot structure that I’ve reviewed on this blog before is Thomas Hardy’s Desperate Remedies.

So would I recommend it? Yes, it is a good book. Is it deserving of the all the awards and high praise that is garnered? I’m not convinced. If in doubt, though, do read it. There are plenty more ordinary books out there that aren’t half as interesting.