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27 November 2015

The November book club

The November book club

Vanishing Grace: Whatever happened to the good news?

By Philip Yancey (Hodder and Stoughton)

Philip Yancey follows up his earlier best-seller What's So Amazing About Grace? with a new look at grace and the way that it is perceived in Church and society. He asks some hard questions. If grace, forgiveness and mercy are key concepts in Christianity, why are evangelical Christians often perceived as judgemental and moralistic in the wider culture?

Much of the book reflects an American background where evangelicalism has often linked itself with right wing Republicanism. Yancey is a firm supporter of the separation of Church and state, and has little sympathy for the state religion still evident in Britain and some other European countries. He points out some of the dangers of linking the faith with a particular ideology, while giving encouragement to Christians who do become involved in political action.

Alongside his criticisms of grace-less and unloving Christians, Yancey acknowledges the contribution of activists whose Christian faith motivates them to serve the poor and oppressed. He also draws attention to the role of artists in commending gospel values to a wider society.

Along the way inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jurgen Moltmann and Karl Barth appear alongside references to the social commitment of U2 front man Bono.

Reviewed by Graham Hedges

Revelation Road: One Man's Journey to the Heart of the Apocalypse and Back Again

By Nick Page (Hodder and Stoughton)

This book from a self-styled "unlicensed historian" finds the author on the trail of the Book of Revelation. His book is by turn a travelogue, an exposition of the final book of the New Testament and a survey of some of the weird and wonderful ways in which Revelation has been interpreted during the past 2,000 years.    

The author looks back to the 1970s when Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth used Revelation to predict world events and an imminent end of the world. Most of Lindsey's specific predictions have been discredited, though he is still a popular writer. Page then sets off on a tour of the ruined cities of the seven churches of Revelation before finally landing on the island of Patmos itself.

Page visits the churches and monasteries of Patmos and spends time in the cave where Saint John is traditionally said to have written his Apocalypse. He reflects on the likely author of the book, concluding that he was probably a second John, rather than the apostle.

There are some interesting conclusions. For example, according to Page, the battle of Armageddon is never actually fought in Revelation. There is no evidence that Patmos was a prison island, though John probably went there after being exiled from Ephesus.

In the past Revelation has had many interpreters, some of whom have seen the papacy, Napoleon, Hitler and the European Union pre-figured in its pages. Nick Page prefers to keep his exposition grounded in the late first century, when Christians faced heavy persecution during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian.

Revelation Road will not please followers of Hal Lindsey and his successors, but will  appeal to others looking for a more sober treatment of the Bible's most enigmatic book.

Reviewed by Graham Hedges

God and Churchill 

By Jonathan Sandys & Wallace Henry

Winston Churchill is an iconic figure in British history, his role in the Second World War will always be what he is primarily remembered for, but like all great achievements the foundations for this occasion lay far deeper and begun much earlier. This new book from Jonathan Sandys (Churchill's great-grandson) and Wallace Henry explores some of those roots and focuses on how Churchill's faith and religious belief affected what he did and how he did it.

Churchill was a patriot and he was committed to fighting for his country – following ignominy after the Gallipoli, disaster in the First World War while in charge of the Navy, he pulled on his uniform and headed to the trenches in France. But there was more that motivated his passion to oppose the tyranny of Nazi Germany, and a motivation that enabled him to maintain his focus through years in the wilderness as his warning cries became increasingly vocal, increasingly desperate and increasingly ignored. Churchill was committed to a way of life that he saw threatened by Hitler and his intent to dominate Europe. The authors portray this as a commitment to the continuation of a Christian society, in fact, of a Christian world – a point which is arguable – what is not arguable is the motivation it provided Churchill to stand firm, against those who rejected his warnings, and then when they came true, those who threatened Britain's borders.

God and Churchill also presents a case for how the approach Winston Churchill took, from his early career as a journalist, to his multiple stints at the Admiralty, to his assent to Downing Street in 1940, was modelled around Christian principles including service, faithfulness and honesty. Above all, and most interestingly, they make a case for the centrality of his vision and his commitment to that vision, he saw it as his responsibility to take on the challenges that were threatening the country and not allow setbacks or the opinions of others to affect that cause.

All this makes for an interesting and fascinating book, the authors acknowledge that plenty has been written on Churchill's war leadership so while inevitably covering that period their attention is spread across all of his life including valuable portraits of both his youth and early career. Where the book falls down is that it at times drifts into hagiography. It is useful to see how Churchill embodied an ideal of what a Christian leader should look like, but the book doesn't really look at the other side of the equation – at least not with any rigour. We don't learn about his character flaws, and his failures are usually described to illustrate how he overcame them. Such is the high view in which God and Churchill presents the wartime Prime Minister it is at times unclear which one of the title characters is the Messiah.

This doesn't stop the book being a worthwhile read, the insights into both the way Christian principles can be exercised in the highest of offices under the greatest of pressure are extremely valuable. So too is the discussion of the Christian society he was motivated to protect and it should prompt us to think about what our society needs from Christian leaders in public life. A worthwhile read, but with blind spots that may have been inevitable when co-written by his great-grandson.

Reviewed by Danny Webster