"When I look at my sins (and if I think they're sins, then they are sins), I can see the appeal of born again Christianity. I suspect that it's not the Christianity that is so alluring; it's the rebirth. Because who wouldn't wish to start all over again?"
(Nick Hornby in his novel How to be Good)
Who wouldn't want to start all over again? To reboot. Some fantasize of a new job, new relationships, new country, new home. But a completely new start – that is not going to happen. Our past and our current context cannot just be removed as we seek to start with a clean slate. What Jesus Christ offers is something even more radical. He offers us a new birth, a clean heart, the robes of his goodness, and the sure and certain hope of a renewed body in the Resurrection. It's a lot to take in. But rebirth, renewal and re-formation are the heart of the Good News.
As I reflect on the year that is past I would like to thank Christian Today for the opportunity to write, reflect and comment on church and culture in the world today. It has, to say the least, been an interesting year! As we move into a new year I would like to reflect a little on another aspect of renewal – not so much the individual renewal that we all need – but the corporate renewal that the Church, especially in the West is in desperate need of. The combination of rampant commercialism, individualism and heresy has so weakened the church in the UK and the US, that there is a real and present danger we will become like the 'seven churches' of Asia – wiped out by the incoming tide of an increasingly paganistic post-modern confused culture. Of course the gates of Hell will never prevail against the Church Triumphant throughout the world and eternity, but the lampstands of particular churches can and have been removed. Christians in the West need to wake up and strengthen what remains and is about to die. I am thankful that there are some signs of the green shoots of renewal but we need a whole lot more. Reflecting on this I have made a list of my top five books of the year – each of which, as it happens, points to the renewal that is needed.
5. Murdo Fraser – The Rivals
This is an unusual and somewhat obscure book. It is a history of two of Scotland's great figures in the 17th Century, James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose and Archibald Campbell, the Marquis of Argyll, written by a leading Scottish Tory (yes they do exist!). Apart from being a well-researched and well-written tale, it is a poignant reminder to us of where our countries came from. Although largely about Scotland, it also involves the United Kingdom and of course the foundation of the United States. In a world where President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and First Minister Sturgeon speak of Western/British/Scottish values as though they were self- evident, we need to be reminded of our history. We are more likely to have an idea of where we are, and where we are going, if we know where we have come from. Likewise the church needs to get its bearings. Don't underestimate the value and importance of history.
4. Andy Bannister – The Atheist who didn't Exist
Andy is an Englishman who works for RZIM in Canada. This book is an absolute gem. Quirky, full of that underplayed English humour and absolutely spot on in its analysis of the New Atheism and why Christianity really makes so much more sense. The Church needs many more 'apologists' (persuasive evangelists) like Andy, if we are to reach an increasingly cynical, skeptical and ignorant culture with the Gospel. I hope in the New Year to begin a series on Christian Today looking at some of the major 'defeater beliefs' that prevent people from even considering Christ.
3. Al Mohler – We Cannot be Silent
Al Mohler has become one of the most significant voices in the US Church. He has a prodigious output with his daily podcast, The Briefing, providing insightful and challenging biblical commentary on contemporary culture. This is not the typical Christian Right political cultural Christianity, or the liberal 'lets ape the culture', that has wrecked so much havoc in the US. His book is subtitled 'speaking truth to a culture redefining sex, marriage and the very meaning of right and wrong' – which is exactly what it does. And it something we need to do. The Church is being devastated by a weak and confused message on the cultural shibboleths of the day. The prophetic voice has been turned into the pathetic whimper. The culture says 'jump' and the church argues about how high. If you want to understand where we are at, Mohlers book is the best analysis I have read this year.
2. Os Guinness – Fool's Talk
This is the finest book I have ever read on apologetics and evangelism. Os is one of those elder statesmen of the contemporary Western evangelical church who is like an excellent Malt – he just keeps getting better with age! For cultural understanding, biblical teaching, quality writing and Christian wisdom this is hard to beat. Before you plan your church programmes, events etc. for the year, take some time to sit down, read, think and pray about what this book teaches – perhaps best summed up in the quote from John Stott "I pray earnestly that God will raise up today a new generation of Christian apologists or Christian communicators, who will combine an absolute loyalty to the biblical gospel and an unwavering confidence in the power of the Spirit with a deep and sensitive understanding of the contemporary alternatives to the Gospel". Speaking of prayer...
1. Tim Keller - Prayer - Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
This is the best book I have ever read on prayer because it is a distillation and summary of the best books I have ever read on prayer. I know it is a cliché but this really is a faith affirming, Christ exalting and life-changing book. It has certainly changed my prayer life. We do not pray 'for' the work – prayer IS the work. The well known verse of 2 Chronicles 7:14 should surely be written on every one of our hearts, and put into practice in every one of our churches – "if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
Happy New Year and may God grant healing and forgiveness to all of us – our families, our communities, our churches and our countries.