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This week’s ten of the best

Order 'Judas' (released 12th March 2015) for just £16.00 (RRP £20.00)

Order ‘Judas’ for just £12.99 (RRP £20.00)

As life gets back to normal after the Easter break there quite a lot of change in the books that have proved to be of most interest. The ever-popular Tom Wright has two books featured this week: Reflecting the Glory and Simply Good News.

A notable new release is Judas from the journalist and TV presenter Peter Stanford and you can read our interview about this book here. You can read interviews and articles with other bestsellers including a look at the new Readers’ Edition of C S Lewis’ A Grief Observed.

Fathomless Riches: Or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit by Richard Coles (W&N)
A Rushing Mighty Wind by Angus Buchan (Monarch)
 A Grief Observed: Readers’ Edition by C S Lewis (Faber & Faber) 
The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez (Lion) 
100 Things God Loves About You (Zondervan) 
 Reflecting the Glory by Tom Wright (BRF)
Judas by Peter Stanford (Hodder & Stoughton) 
Transformed by the Holy Spirit by Liz Babbs (CWR)
Simply Good News by Tom Wright (SPCK)  
The Illustrated Guide to Bible Customs and Curiosities by George Knight (Barbour) 



Following Jesus, Changing the World and Being Human

steve-chalkeSteve Chalke is, in equal measure, an inspiring and controversial figure in the UK church. Passionate, outspoken and willing to engage with the thorniest of issues, he heads up Oasis – a charity that is involved in schools, healthcare, child trafficking and many other ways of reaching the neediest and most vulnerable in society and around the world. His latest book, ‘Being Human’, explores how following Jesus motivates the work of Steve and Oasis.

Buy ‘Being Human’ for just £9.79 (RRP £12.99)

What was your motivation to write Being Human?

I have written over fifty books, and churned them out pretty quickly – sometimes I wrote three or four in a year. This book has taken five years to write, explaining what motivated me to set up Oasis, and it is the essence of what I think a Christian is. Sometimes I published a book because a publisher asked me to, but I wrote this book because it had to be written, because it is the heart and soul of what I understand about life.

Buy 'Being Human' for just £9.79 (RRP £12.99)

Buy ‘Being Human’ for just £9.79 (RRP £12.99)

In Chapter 3 you talk about preferring the phrase ‘follower of Jesus’. Have terms such as ‘Christian’ now become so loaded that they should be rejected?

I think that the problem with the term Christian is that when ever you use it, however well meaning you are (and I still do use it), there are all sorts of preconceptions and prejudices in the hearer that blocks almost everything you’ve got to say from there on in. I run an event called ‘Pub Theology’ where we use a local pub and talk about life. It is jam-packed with people who are searching for life’s answers. However, most of the people there have rejected the Church, because the Church is the place where they have been judged; told they cannot believe in science; that women are not equal to men. They bring all of this with them, and the problem with the term ‘Christian’ is that all the pictures of what that means are different so you can never actually deal with all the different problems people have with the term.

So to use the phrases ‘follower of Jesus’ and ‘Jesus’s teaching’ is a simple way of cutting through most of that.

You seem to argue for something beyond the ‘moral legalism’ or ‘consequentialism’ dichotomy. How would this look in practice, in day-to-day life?

We know that legalism doesn’t work in day-to-day life, that rigid rules don’t work in real life. So people went to the other end of the scale and adopted the idea of situational ethics; that people can do what they believe is right in any situation. But this leads to a ‘if it feels right, do it’, but the scandals we have seen in television, newspapers and even Parliament have shown this doesn’t work either.

This third way, beyond just ‘rules’ or the idea that I guide myself through life, is the idea that a community has a story and the story expresses the ideal and principles that people live by. This is an old idea; it was first put forward in the West by Aristotle (and in the East by other philosophers). It is this idea that the story teaches the ethics to live by – is the way of life set out in the Bible. Paul’s whole thesis was ‘We don’t live by the law anymore, we follow Christ’, and that is why he talks about the fruit of the Spirit, which is just a description of Jesus’s character, and we are called to imitate Christ. When talking of the fruit of the Spirit, Paul finishes by saying ‘against these things there is no law’!

If we live a life that is faithful – a life of generosity, love and self-control – then there is no law against these things, because there doesn’t need to be. In the book I quote the Dalai Lama who said that ‘rules are important until you know how to break them properly’. Rules are important for children – don’t cross the road without holding a hand, for example. But you come to an age where the rules don’t work anymore and you have to cross the road without holding a hand.

Why do you think the belief that Jesus advocates non-violence is still seen as a fringe, minority view?

When I was a child people used to say religion and politics didn’t mix. I remember my dad getting very offended when the pastor of our Baptist church gave a political sermon. Things have moved on a lot since then and we now understand that we have got to be involved politically.

Jesus calls us to do a certain kind of politics. He said ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, ‘lay down your life’, ‘sell all you have and give it to the poor’! That is a certain type of politics, and we have to get beyond the message that it is good to be involved in politics to getting to a certain type of politics. Jim Wallis said that the three words ‘love your enemies’ are the best sound bite in the world.

Jesus could have called down a legion of angels to destroy those who were crucifying him, but the message of Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a radical and very political one. 

When you look back to yourself as a young man in 1969, how would you say your beliefs and understanding has changed?

In 1969 I decided to follow Jesus. But the more I walk with Jesus, and the more I’ve discovered of the Christian life, the more my beliefs have been changed. Over the years I’ve seen endless pain in people’s lives; I’ve seen good friends die and lives torn apart; I’ve seen marriages end. Internally I’ve failed to be the husband and dad I wished I was.

What this drives me to is a rejection of the simplicity that says, ‘if you pray long enough and hard enough it will all work out well – that person will be healed, that child will not suffer, that marriage will not end.’ Why would God fix the sun for a youth club outing when there are millions of people trafficked or living with famine?

I’ve heard so many people say to me ‘I’m disappointed with God.’ What they mean is that they are disappointed with the God that they controlled – with a God who will sort everything so we can sail through life without trauma.

My faith has come to be about all of these things – that in the end I can look death in the face and say ‘I trust in Jesus’.

Buy ‘Being Human’ for just £9.79 (RRP £12.99)

Finding hope in the Psalms

With an international reputation as a teacher and retreat leader, Tony Horsfall has turned his attentions to the Psalms. In his new book, ‘Deep Call to Deep’, Tony examines how the Psalms offer honest insights into the reality of life with God. Through looking at some of the Psalms written ‘from the depths’ he argues that we can understand more fully the way God works to shape our characters and form the life of Christ within us during difficult times in life.

Buy ‘Deep Calls to Deep’ for just £5.85 (RRP £7.99)

Why do you think the Psalms that are thematically more of a lament tend to be avoided in church?

In church we want to sound a positive note, and the rediscovery of praise and worship (which abound in the Psalms) tends to dominate the Christian music scene, and probably rightly so. The psalms of lament don’t fit the bill because they are sometimes sad, often angry, and not always polite! But of course, we don’t always feel like boisterous praise, and there must be a time for quiet reflection as well as an expression of sadness or sorrow – singing the blues if you like!

Buy 'Deep Calls to Deep' for just £5.85 (RRP £7.99)

Buy ‘Deep Calls to Deep’ for just £5.85 (RRP £7.99)

Is it possible for a Church service to incorporate both praise and lament using the Psalms?

Probably not in the same service, although we need to recognise that within any congregation people will be experiencing the whole gamut of emotions, and a constant diet of loud celebration and positivity will not work for everyone. I think we need to occasionally introduce songs and liturgies that are about the hard realities of life to give a voice to those who are struggling and to recognise that victory is often achieved only through real suffering. We can perhaps do more to recognise specific times when as a congregation of people we have a need to grieve, to repent, to cry to God in longing. This is where there is a place for lament.

You write in the book of how ‘difficult paths’ can be part of spiritual formation. What do the Psalms offer for the suffering that seems disproportionate to this?

We can never squeeze human suffering into a box where we can understand it, analyse it or fathom it. And recognising that God uses the difficulties of life to shape and mould us is not meant to trivialise suffering or offer a simplistic solution to the pain we face. What the Psalms teach us is to trust in God even when we don’t understand, when there seems to be no reason for our pain, and indeed our suffering seems disproportionate. They teach us to be content with mystery and not-knowing. This is part of the work of formation that God is doing in us in the darkest of nights, and the only way that faith can come to maturity is through the path of suffering.

How do you think we should approach the Psalms that speak of revenge upon enemies? That seems contradictory to the approach in the Gospels.

The Psalms are expressions of Hebrew poetry, and as such reflect a culture where the open expression of extreme emotions is welcomed. This may seem strange to reserved British ears where politeness reigns and anger is best avoided! The imprecatory psalms as we call them were not in my opinion first written for public consumption. In some of these psalms we are reading the ‘journal’ of someone who is being very honest with God. They are cathartic expressions of real honesty where the boil of anger and hatred is being lanced. They are private transactions with God where the soul is being cleansed, and that is what they can do for us. We can be bold enough to admit our feelings of anger and hostility, but do so before God, handing over our desire for vengeance to the One who has said ‘it is mine to avenge’ (Romans 12:19). There is never a thought here of taking action, or of directing vitriol at another person.

How can we overcome the temptation to focus on ‘victory’ rather than ‘brokenness’?

I think ultimately life teaches us that brokenness is inevitable, and that victory comes through struggle and sometimes seeming defeat. The pattern of Jesus was ‘life – death – resurrection’, and that is the same pattern we see in the book of psalms, and throughout scripture.

I would not want to emphasise a brokenness that did not lead to victory, or imply a victory that did not include brokenness at some point.

What do you hope people take away with them after reading this book?

I hope that people will have a better understanding of how God can use the difficult parts of our lives to make us more like Jesus. I hope they will come to trust God more for the things they go through, and allow him to make them deeper people as a result. In other words, I hope they realise that in the deep places of life God is inviting us into a deeper relationship with himself.

Buy ‘Deep Calls to Deep’ for just £5.85 (RRP £7.99)


Is it time to rehabilitate Judas?

peter_stanfordJudas is probably the most infamous traitor in all of human history. But who was he really? In his new book, a fascinating historical and cultural biography, writer and broadcaster Peter Stanford deconstructs that most vilified of Bible characters who famously betrayed Jesus with a kiss.

Order ‘Judas’ for just £12.99 (RRP £20.00)

When starting to write Judas, did you approach the topic with an expectation of your conclusions?

The figure of Judas Iscariot has long fascinated me – right back to my Catholic schooldays. In one sense, I always had an idea of him as flawed like the rest of us, even if his flaws were considerably greater. And that interest in him has remained with me, rising regularly to the surface, notably in 1996 when I published a book called The Devil: A Biography, and later made a TV series for the BBC on the same subject. If the Devil is the eternal name and face that we have put to the intangible reality of evil, then Judas is the human face and name of the same evil – at least in much of Christian theology. Yet that conclusion never quite satisfied me. So – to answer the question – I approached the topic open to the idea that Judas might have been given a rough deal by history, but equally determined to reach my conclusions on the basis of the evidence my research turned up, rather than shape that evidence to a pre-determined conclusion.

Order 'Judas' (released 12th March 2015) for just £16.00 (RRP £20.00)

Order ‘Judas’  for just £12.99 (RRP £20.00)

How far can we rely on the accounts in the Gospels? Do you think they stand up to scrutiny as historically reliable?

Opinions tend to polarize around the gospels. Some insist they are literally gospel and therefore true. Others point out that they are not eyewitness accounts, postdate Jesus’ death by between 30 and 100 years, contradict each other repeatedly (notably in the case of Judas) and were never intended as objective, historical records. As with many other questions where there is such fierce debate, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. If the gospels cannot be taken literally in a historical sense, they certainly merit being taken seriously.

Should we view the portrayal of Judas as simply a narrative device as part of the Passion drama, rather than seeking historical or wider theological lessons?

The ‘narrative device’ argument is superficially appealing. After all, St Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, which predates the gospels, simply speaks of Jesus being betrayed, or handed over. He doesn’t feel the need to name the culprit, and later in the same letter appears to absolve all 12 apostles. So did the gospel writers thereafter decide that the narrative required the betrayer to be named? It is one way of reading the gospels, but a crude one. There is much nuance in their various accounts of Judas – from Matthew’s portrait of a repentant Judas, trying to return the 30 pieces of silver, and then dying a lonely death to John’s insistence that Judas was a thief and a hypocrite, a terrible human being who was then taken over by the Devil. To unpack and understand that nuance, catch-all labels like ‘narrative device’ are not helpful.

Do you think there has been a shift towards a more sympathetic view of Judas in recent years? I noticed that the recent BBC miniseries, The Passion, attempted to explain the motivation of Judas as more than just betrayal.

In very broad terms, you can read the history of Judas Iscariot as a tale in two parts. From the earliest days of Christianity until the eighteenth century, the prevailing view was that Judas was “Satan’s tool”, irredeemably evil, and damned. Then since the eighteenth century until the present day, the dominant voice on Judas has been that of people questioning his place in the divine plan and asking if he was, in fact, God’s agent. It isn’t a simple before/after. There were always those in the first 1700 years who voiced sympathy for Judas, and in the past 300 years we have seen both the Dreyfus Affair and the Holocaust, where the image of evil Judas as a symbol of Judaism has been deployed to appalling, horrific effect, but by and large Judas has been rehabilitated of late, most recently even by certain Vatican spokesmen.

Your book seems to suggest that a deterministic view of God creates problems for the portrayal of Judas in the Gospels – is this a fair observation?

Yes. If we believe that God sent His Son to live amongst us, then an omnipotent God – which is what Christianity believes in – then also intended the trial, death and resurrection of his Son so that we could be saved. As part of that trial, death and resurrection, there was first a betrayal. So, logically, the betrayal was also intended by God. It is there in the gospels. In Matthew’s account of the Judas kiss, Jesus says to his betrayer – ‘my friend, do what you are here for”.

Is there still a potent anti-Semitism to the way Judas is viewed and described?

There is definitely anti-Semitism and it is definitely on the rise in Western Europe, but I have not so far seen any evidence that Judas is being used as part of that anti-Semitism as he was so often in the past. The last example is the Holocaust, where the Nazis invoked the figure of Judas the vile, untrustworthy betrayer to vilify the Jews on the basis that he was the representative of the whole Jewish race (something Christianity had long taught). In the wake of the Holocaust, such use of Judas’ story is no longer heard.

What do you hope people will take away from Judas?

Well, I hope they will enjoy reading it. I was delighted that Frank Cottrell Boyce, one of my favourite writers, a film-maker and the man responsible for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, liked reading an early copy of the book so much that he wrote the following words for the cover: “a cracking piece of writing that posits such a great idea – a pilgrimage to Judas”. If readers agree with him, when they reach the end of my book, I will think “job-done”.

Order ‘Judas’ for just £12.99 (RRP £20.00)