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22 December 2015

The December book club

The December book club


By Alister McGrath (Hodder and Stoughton)

Science and religion are widely believed to exist in a state of perpetual conflict. This impression has been fostered in recent years by writers such as Richard Dawkins and the other 'new atheists'. Alister McGrath's latest book, however, argues that the relationship between science and religion is much more complex. He presents a case for an informed and respectful dialogue between the two disciplines, which he believes can only lead to the mutual enrichment of both.

McGrath describes the decline of his own early belief that science could provide an answer to every question and  his progress from teenage atheist to Christian believer. Taking his lead from the philosopher Mary Midgley, he proposes that we need "multiple maps of reality" – theology as well as science - to help us make sense of the universe in which we find ourselves. Science can provide valuable information about the physical universe, but is unable to answer the ultimate questions such as: why are we here? and: what is the purpose of life?

McGrath shows that asking questions about God and meaning are a natural part of being human, rather than a mental disorder, as proposed by Dawkins and some of his followers.

The author's chapters on Darwinism and evolution will not please creationists and believers in a literal six-day creation. However, he provides an excellent survey of the way in which Darwin's theories have been misapplied over the years, leading to failed attempts to derive ethics from evolutionary theory.

McGrath shows the difficulty in making ethical judgements without an underpinning  of religious belief. Along the way there are many fascinating discussions, including a section on current ideas of "transhumanism", which believe that science can manipulate and take control of the human evolutionary process.

Despite having failed O-level general science rather dismally, I found this a fascinating overview of the current debate and would recommend the book to anyone interested in the relationship between science and faith.


By Michael Green  (Hodder and Stoughton)

Michael Green, well-known as an evangelist, theologian and apologist, begins his latest book with a survey of the recent decline of the Church in Britain and Western Europe. He argues that there have been earlier times when spiritual life has been at a low ebb in Church and society, and these have often been the times when God has intervened in a remarkable way.  

He continues with an account of the spread of the early Church in the aftermath of Pentecost, before looking at significant revival and reform movements in church history. These include the Reformation, the 18th century evangelical awakening, associated with Wesley and Whitefield, the work of the Clapham Sect led by William Wilberforce and others, the Welsh revival of 1904, and the 20th century charismatic renewal movement.

Despite his enthusiasm for these movements, Green is not blind to their failings. For example, he lists some of the factors that led to the Welsh revival being a short-lived phenomenon.

Green acknowledges that these movements were sovereign acts of God, but points out that a number of human factors were inevitably present.   These included a commitment to prayer and the authority of the Scriptures, an emphasis on personal holiness, and a concern for the eternal destiny of men and women.

In the later chapters Green leaves Europe behind and provides accounts of revivals in Mongolia, Singapore, and even China where the churches have grown significantly during the years of Communist rule. He concludes that all is not lost for the western church, and that God can intervene in our own society once again.


By Peter Stanford (Hodder and Stoughton)

Could Judas Iscariot have been the only disciple who understood the mission of Jesus? Stanford begins his survey by reconstructing the life of the 12th apostle, including the significance of his name. He looks at the so-called Gospel of Judas and reviews the way in which Judas has been viewed through history. He  shows how Judas has often been  an excuse for anti-Semitism. The book reaches few conclusions but echoes Bob Dylan's famous question: "Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?"

Reviewed by Graham Hedges