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Vanishing Grace in the modern world?

In his latest book renowned author Philip Yancey considers the role of the Church in an increasingly hostile culture, asking how Christians can show grace in the modern world.

Pre-order ‘Vanishing Grace’ for just £9.99 (RRP £12.99) – released 11th September 2014

Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey

‘Vanishing Grace’ seems related to ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?’ – is there a connection between these two books?

You can’t cover a topic like grace in one book, you know!  The first book was a look at the nature of grace itself, exploring this great gift that God extends to us by offering forgiveness instead of revenge, love instead of wrath.  I had grown up in a church that often used the word grace, yet I never really experienced or encountered it there.  Instead the church seemed to add its own ranking system of spirituality to the broader world’s rankings based on things like race, economics, prestige.

This second book explores how Christians should relate to an increasingly post-Christian culture in which people of faith meet indifference or even hostility.  Europe and the U.K. have known this milieu for some time, of course, and the U.S. church is just now confronting it.  How is it that so few in the broader culture see Christians as bearers of good news?  And how should we be interacting with the world around us?

What do you think the role of the Church should be in addressing the big moral questions of our age?

We do have a role to play, and I wish the Church were seen as a more credible source.  Instead we’re often viewed as intolerant and narrow-minded.  You can’t really talk about “the Church” in this context.  Different people will have a different calling.  Some scholars and academics will carefully examine issues such as abortion and end-of-life.  Others will respond by adopting unwanted babies and working in hospices.  Still others might feel called to picket or lobby politicians as laws are being considered.  All should have in common, though, a commitment to use “the weapons of grace” in fulfilling their calling.  1 Peter 4:10 expresses this well: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”

Pre-order 'Vanishing Grace' for just £9.99 (RRP £12.99)

Pre-order ‘Vanishing Grace’ for just £9.99 (RRP £12.99)

In the second part of the book you talk about ‘pilgrims, activists and artists’. Is there any place today for the preacher?

The preacher has a huge role to play in leading the faithful, in providing inspiration and spiritual care for Jesus-followers.  When you think of the broader culture, however, preachers have a shrinking place.  I quote the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who says in the old days we communicated faith head-to-head, so that an evangelist like Billy Graham would say to a packed house at Wembley Stadium, “The Bible says…” and people would respond.  Not so much now.  Instead, says Volf, the most effective communication is hand to heart to head.  We reach out in acts of mercy: responding to disasters, feeding the hungry, serving the needy, freeing victims of sexual trafficking.  That touches a person’s heart, and in the last step the person wants to know, Why did you do this?  Why did you care?  I see the preacher’s role primarily in informing and motivating believers to do God’s work in the world.

Do you think the Church, as it stands today, is finished in the West?

No, I don’t.  In the U.S., almost half the population still attend church each week and we have a huge Christian infrastructure of publishing, education, and many charities.  Obviously, the proportion is much smaller in Europe, yet I find great signs of life.  Celtic spirituality has lively centres that attract people from all over the world.  I’ve rarely attended a more inspiring church than Holy Trinity Brompton in London.  Oddly enough, as a society’s Church shrinks in size it tends to become more unified, remembering its main calling to shine as a light in darkness.  And of course Jesus’ images of the kingdom were small things: a sprinkling of salt on meat, a bit of yeast that causes the whole loaf to rise, the smallest seed in the garden that grows into a great bush in which the birds of the air come to rest.

In many ways Europe is living off what I call “habits of the soul”: Christian assumptions and behaviours that linger on even after the beliefs have been largely abandoned.  That will catch up with society someday, and the blank soul will be exposed.  Alternatives rush in, as they do in extremist Islam now.  I hope and pray that the church will continue to hold up light that grows increasing bright in a darkening world.

Is there a way for Christians to engage in the spirituality of western culture?

I recommend seeking out common ground.  Some Christians think of something like New Age spirituality as worse than the devil, worse than atheism.  No, I find it encouraging when someone admits a spiritual thirst.  In a culture like ours, acknowledging the existence of an invisible world is the biggest gap to cross.  Once a person openly wonders about the existence of God and such issues—at that point I believe Christianity stands up rather well.  Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic does a good job of demonstrating to nonbelievers how essential Christian beliefs can satisfy the ultimate questions.

Should the Church be hanging on to its claims of exclusivity?

I’ll leave the specifics of that question to the theologians.  I don’t really get into such issues.  My main concern is grace.  For those who do emphasise exclusivity, do we do so in a grace-filled manner?  How do we treat those who strongly disagree, the “cultured despisers” of faith?  That’s what I speak to.  Grace is put to the test when you’re around people who view you as bigoted and intolerant.  It takes little grace to relate to people who think and look like you.  What about people we morally disapprove of?  How do we show them grace?

What do you hope people take away from ‘Vanishing Grace’?

The book begins with the diagnosis of a problem.  Surveys show without question that Christians are increasingly perceived as irrelevant or a negative force in society.  Yet I did not want to write a scolding book.  I truly believe we do have Living Water that can quench thirst, that the gospel is truly Good News.  I hope a person who reads Vanishing Grace has an elevated sense that faith matters, to the individual and the entire society—and then is encouraged to put such a belief into practice.  Hebrews 12:15 says it simply, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God.”  That’s a fine mission statement for the contemporary church.  We won’t clean up all evil, nor will we convert the whole world.  That’s not our job.  We can, however, see to it that no one misses God’s grace.

Pre-order ‘Vanishing Grace’ for just £9.99 (RRP £12.99) – released 11th September 2014

Assessing Rowan’s Rule

Rowan William’s tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury coincided with some of the most turbulent years in global Anglicanism with numerous ethical and moral issues threatening to tear the communion apart. Many wonder whether the thoughtful, softly-spoken academic was up to the task of handling the maelstrom of controversy. Now, 18 months on from his retirement as Archbishop, Rupert Shortt’s fully revised biography asks searching questions about the man behind numerous media caricatures.

Buy Rowan’s Rule for just £10.99 (RRP £12.99)

Buy 'Rowan's Rule' for just £10.99 (RRP £12.99)

Buy ‘Rowan’s Rule’ for just £10.99 (RRP £12.99)

How do you view the role of biographer, especially of a living person?

My impulse was to be more of a reporter and analyst than a strong advocate. Although I think it’s clear from the text that I admire Rowan Williams deeply in many ways, I don’t think he’s infallible and didn’t want to ram opinions down the reader’s throat. A range of verdicts on my subject is set out. The question is right in hinting that this can be especially tricky when one is writing about a living person. Fortunately, Dr Williams is not a back-seat driver.

Did you find a tension between being a sympathetic chronicler and objective biographer?

The second answer feeds into the first. I encountered some fairly strong criticism of my subject, especially regarding his work as a bishop, when strategy and day-to-day management in the Monmouth diocese left something to be desired. I felt that this had to be reported openly.

In the chapter ‘God and Mammon’ you describe a number of scenes in which he appears burdened by his office – would you say it is too strong to say he regrets accepting the appointment?

No. Although he hated the job in some ways, I think it was part of his understanding of his vocation to believe that God wanted him to carry this burden.

Rupert Shortt

Rupert Shortt

Do you think that his time as Archbishop of Canterbury has eclipsed his wider work in theology and Christian thought?

Being Archbishop was a good springboard for raising his profile as a thinker in my view. It was very good for the Church of England, and Anglicanism in general, to have a public intellectual capable of addressing a variety of constituencies – secularists; those of other faiths, and members of other churches (especially Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox).

How do you think history will judge Rowan’s time as Archbishop?

My book pivots on a fundamental question: whether it was right for a man of such transparent gentleness and godliness to hold such a political job as Archbishop of Canterbury. Some judge that he lacked the grit necessary for the job. Others would say that this misses the point, because he recast ideas about leadership, taking his models from the gospel, rather than from more conventional templates. On balance I feel that his tenure was a great blessing to the Church (I write as a Catholic with a lifelong admiration for Anglicanism), even if some mistakes – especially over the women-bishops legislation – were made along the way.

Buy Rowan’s Rule for just £10.99 (RRP £12.99)

Justin Welby: Risk-taker and Reconciler?

Within months of the announcement of the nomination of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, Andrew Atherston published a short biography of the outsider who became Primer Inter Pares of the Anglican Communion. Now, a year later he has followed this up with a fuller and more comprehensive study of the person he describes as a ‘Risk-taker and Reconciler’

Buy ‘Archbishop Justin Welby: Risk Taker and Reconciler’ for just £13.99 (RRP £18.99)

Andrew Atherstone

Andrew Atherstone

You released your first book on Justin Welby within weeks of the announcement of his appointment. What differs in this book?

This new book is much fuller, twice the length, with four new chapters examining Justin Welby’s first year at Canterbury. It also covers his earlier life and career in more detail, in the light of new interviews and new research. For example, I have interviewed Lady Williams (the Archbishop’s mother) and Rowan Williams (the Archbishop’s predecessor), amongst others. There is a new chapter about Welby’s gap year teaching in Kenya, including details of the suicide of one of the pupils, and the roots of Welby’s Christian conversion. Other new material includes a significant debate about homosexuality at Coventry Cathedral in 2004 – it took a year to track down the recording! We have also included thirty photographs.

Buy 'Archbishop Justin Welby': Risk Taker and Reconciler' for just £13.99 (RRP £18.99)

Buy ‘Archbishop Justin Welby: Risk Taker and Reconciler’ for just £13.99 (RRP £18.99)

To what extent is his theological approach influenced by his upbringing?

Justin Welby was raised in a broken home – his parents split up when he was just two years old. I argue in the book that this difficult family background has influenced the Archbishop’s thinking about the Church. He often refers to the church as “family” (a Bible metaphor), and especially the need for the Church family to stick together. He insists that no family member can ever be thrown out, everyone belongs, which has major implications for the way he handles controversial debates in the Church.

Considering his attachment to Alpha and Holy Trinity Brompton, how typically ‘Anglican’ is Justin Welby?

What is a typical Anglican? Anglicans come in all shapes and sizes. Certainly Justin Welby is closely connected to Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), one of the most vibrant and innovative congregations in the Church of England, and he has been running Alpha courses for twenty years. The Archbishop learned many things from his years at HTB, especially the importance of evangelism and growing churches; priorities he brings to Canterbury.

How would you describe his first year in office?

It’s been a year of clocking up the air-miles. Justin Welby’s leadership strategy puts great weight on personal relationships. So he has been travelling the globe, meeting as many Christian leaders as possible – two visits to the Vatican; one to Constantinople, and plenty to Anglican archbishops around the world from Mexico to South Sudan to South Korea. He’s not interested very much in institutional relationships, formal receptions and position statements, but invests instead in personal friendships.

How do you think he will handle issues such as sexuality which caused so much conflict under Rowan Williams?

Rowan Williams tried to find ways for Anglicans to agree. For example, he promoted an Anglican Communion Covenant of core theological agreement, but this came to nothing. Justin Welby’s project is different. He is not seeking agreement, but what he calls “good disagreement”. Amongst his other key catchphrases are “mutual flourishing” and “learning to live with difference”. These are the foundational principles of the “shared conversations” in sexuality (the Pilling Process) on which the Church of England is about the embark.

How would you imagine his tenure will be judged in years to come?

Justin Welby has moved so quickly through the ranks of the Church of England, his feet have barely touched the ground. In parish, cathedral and diocese he has scored some “quick wins” before being headhunted for the next job. He was only Bishop of Durham for eighteen months before moving to Lambeth. But this job is different – he’s likely to be Archbishop for a decade, much longer than his previous posts. So the key question is, after the quick wins of the first two of three years (like securing women bishops), what’s the long game? That’s how his legacy will ultimately be judged.

Buy ‘Archbishop Justin Welby: Risk Taker and Reconciler’ for just £13.99 (RRP £18.99)

Richard Rohr: The ‘alternative way of St Francis’

Catholic priest and franciscan friar Richard Rohr has developed a reputation for shaking up the religious establishment. With over twenty-five books now in print he has been a voice on the edge of conventional Christianity since his ordination in 1970. In his latest book, ‘Eager to Love’, he argues that an authentic franciscan spirituality is one much more radical than many expect.

Pre-order Eager to Love for just £9.99 (RRP £14.99)

Fr Richard Rohr

Fr Richard Rohr

St Francis seems to be all things to all people – is there a danger of losing a essential message in the many competing claims for ‘true’ Franciscanism?

I address that very issue in my book, and I call it Francis light and birdbath Franciscanism, which I am afraid, has been its most common form.  The Church itself has largely ignored his radical message up to now.  Perhaps this is why pope Francis’ choice of name was so shocking to many people? Socialists, hippies, pious Catholics, and laissez-faire Christians have all claimed him as their own.  He is just too likeable from too many sides, and so it is a great temptation to create him in our own image.

What would you say Francis teaches us on the tension between progress and obedience to the Church’s teaching?

Mystics of any religion, who understand things at higher levels of consciousness, invariably look disobedient to the tradition, but they are only expressing it in an experiential way, which sounds heretical to those who only mouth the formulas.  He does not criticize traditional dogma at all, but lives it in a striking, concrete, and challenging way.  His emphasis is orthopraxy over mere verbal orthodoxy, and thus he avoids the usual doctrinal disagreements.  Francis and Clare (of Assisi) emphasize the practical things that Jesus himself emphasized about lifestyle itself (simplicity, non violence, love of creation, forgiveness of enemies peace-making, etc.)

Pre-order 'Eager to Love' for just £10.49 (RRP £14.99)

Pre-order ‘Eager to Love’ for just £9.99 (RRP £14.99)

How does the way of Francis help in the balance between an inner experience of God and external need for empiricism when communicating religion?

He communicates his inner experience by not rejecting anything in particular in organized Christianity, but simply emphasizing very different things.  This is the major points of the sixth chapter on alternative orthodoxy.

What does the way of Francis have to teach about other religions and faith traditions?

His reaching out toward the sultan, with maybe three trips to the Islamic world, and his insistence on our honouring their scriptures (in the 13th century, mind you!), is his clear answer here, while also remaining proudly a catholic Christian.  This is the subject of chapter ten.  When you go deep in one place you meet the universal stream underneath.

You write in the book about the ‘Cosmic Christ’. How does understanding this affect practical day-to-day living?

It allows your Christian faith to also be a universal faith, since the Christ is ubiquitous and eternal and beyond any denominational or cultural ownership.  It allows prayer to be constant and everywhere, because awe and reverence is now called forth in all things and not just “churchy” things.  This indeed changes everything in your practice of the Christian religion.  It is no longer a sectarian religion, while it is still based in a concrete love of Jesus who personifies the whole mystery.  It has the power to resolve what many say is the foundational philosophical question:  “the one and the many”.  To believe in both Jesus and Christ is to have both the one and the many!

What do you hope people take away with them after reading ‘Eager to Love’?

I guess the title gives away my deep hope and desire.  I hope the book frees, inspires, and urges people toward an eagerness to love in practical ways.  Not a life of fear, paying dues, merely believing things, or any achieving of private worthiness, which are the common counterfeits for Christianity.

Pre-order Eager to Love for just £9.99 (RRP £14.99)