By ROB HOFMEYR
How To Survive A Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin 9
Chase The Lion by Mark Batterson 2
N: i am not the voice of the martyrs by David C Cook 6
Is Jesus Enough? by Angus Buchan 4
This is an extraordinary book, one which I read at a single sitting. In How To Survive A Shipwreck, Jonathan Martin describes honestly and movingly his own shipwreck and suffering and how he found himself completely dependent on the grace of God. The product – as he describes himself – of the “Christ-haunted landscape” of the American South, a highly successful church-planter and pastor, a charismatic preacher within the tradition of Pentecostal theology and praxis, a rising star within his own denomination. An engaging person, his marriage fell to pieces, he abandoned the church he had founded and was thrown onto the love and support of entirely different folk, right outside his own experience. He describes how drawn into an Episcopal church, “off the grid of my evangelical circles, I felt completely safe to come as I was – to receive, to just be.” A yoga instructor teaches him to breathe, a nun helps him to pray again. Each chapter reflects something of his being buffeted, tossed, nearly drowned, despairing, catching glimpses of stars, finding planks to float. There are wonderful passages of new insight: his interpretation of that verse from the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” is illuminating; his quotation from Merton on the fallacy of success; his own wonderful, “the waters that drown you are the same waters that will save you; and the same sea that is pulling you under will make you new.” There are no platitudes in this book. There is no “church talk”. He has broken free from all the formulae of so much Gospel presentation. The chapter The Blasphemous Posture of Looking Down should be compulsory reading for us all. Zondervan has departed from what I expect marks its normal publications. This is a wildly different statement of theology, which flies in the face of much standard thinking. The sea of suffering and shipwreck are part of the chaos that none of Job’s friends nor any Reformed theologian can deal with. God does not have a “plan” which demands our distress. God in Jesus died and was resurrected and that is our hope and our future. I need to read the book several times more, but I suggest you read it at least once.
Each time I open a Mark Batterson book, I attempt to be open-minded. This is another book of “Rah-rah theology”, and so I am again disappointed. Let’s start with the title, Chase The Lion. Batterson has taken the well-known verse 2 Samuel 23.20, recording the exploits of one of David’s warriors, “He also went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion.” However, Batterson, without any justification, changes the text to read, “he chased a lion into a pit” so that he can use the incident as a metaphor for a great endeavour. In the original there is no “dream”, no “great purpose”. It was a chance situation in which the warrior showed great courage. The book is a series of Batterson’s own personal success stories, interspersed with a wide variety of secular and Christian examples of great dreams and great determination. Undoubtedly Wall Street tycoons, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Wright Brothers, Steve Jobs and other luminaries do offer good examples of dreaming big, working hard and persevering. However, their aims and their methods were often more appropriate to business school case studies than as examples for Christians to follow. There is a great deal of sound material in the book. Many of the accounts of Christian vision are worthwhile, though some of the examples of faithful folk on Kingdom-business are hard to fit into the general theme of the book. I also find Batterson’s amazing success stories read more easily in the context of affluent USA than of those countries with quite different economic climates. This is not a book I should recommend.
N: i am not the voice of the martyrs is a compilation of stories of Christians facing Muslim extremists. In parts of Syria and Iraq “n”, or the equivalent Arabic letter, is painted by extremists on churches and Christian homes, signifying the presence of Nazarenes, or followers of Jesus of Nazareth. With this mark comes the threat of martyrdom. This book does not simply give statistics. It recounts the stories of individuals and families facing the forces of Isis and other extremist groups such as Boko Haram, but also the enmity of tight-knit families or communities that cannot accept that anyone should convert to Christianity. The accounts range from Iraq to Pakistan, to Iran, to Somalia, Egypt, to Nigeria, to Malaysia, Israel, Afghanistan, to The Philippines, Niger, to Turkey, and to Bangladesh, reminding us that persecution of Christians is a near worldwide phenomenon. There are also accounts of martyrdom in other times and places, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Richard Wurmbrand, to name just two. The stories are appropriately divided up into six sections, entitled Sacrifice, Courage, Joy, Perseverance, Forgiveness and Faithfulness. A short homily is inserted into each account, with appropriate Biblical references. These are sometimes redundant. The stories speak for themselves. We are reading of those who survived and those who were martyred and the impact of their suffering on others, sometimes extraordinary in its power. I did however find that written as these accounts are after the style of The Reader’s Digest, ie with narrative reconstructions, they lose something of their impact and their authenticity. A better model for me is the precision and objectivity of Rupert Shortt in his excellent book Christianophobia. This is a different work, aimed at a different readership, but I believe better honing of the material would improve its credibility.
Angus Buchan is a remarkable man who has made a considerable impact on this country. Is Jesus Enough? is, however, an unremarkable book. It is more of his straight-down-the-line theology, which often begs so many questions. It is almost as if Buchan lives and thinks in a world which he has spun round himself. Buy into it and everything is simple. Salvation is simple; conversion is simple; the atonement is simple; prayer is simple; obedience is simple. The Bible is simple. What is all this business of theologians, scholars, historians and so on? Angus tells it like it is. “When you take the Word of God literally, from cover to cover, you will find that life is not so complicated. All the answers are in the Living Word.” The accounts of highly successful evangelistic campaigns are always in need of deeper interrogation. What were the long-term outcomes? What support systems were in place? Experience has engendered in many a degree of questioning, if not of scepticism. Buchan quotes a certain evangelist of the early 20th Century, John G Lake, who was co-founder of the Apostolic Church in South Africa. The statement is made that there were 100,000 recorded healings. However, Lake abandoned his wife and children in South Africa during the Great Depression, while he went to evangelise in America. His wife died and his children turned away from him and from faith. The claim about the healings is obviously dubious. That God uses a man who abandons his wife and children is equally dubious. There are other paths to Christian commitment and a deep and lasting knowledge of God than through the brand of evangelicalism that Buchan lauds in others. This is a book of a particular genre. It covers a wide variety of topics, none in depth. In fact the writer tends to jump around from one subject to another, often introducing puzzling illustrations or references. By the way, John Wesley never entered Queen Victoria’s court. He died long before she was born. This is possibly a reference to a story of an encounter between John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots. A glaring inaccuracy like this should have been picked up by the editors. It casts doubt on other claims made. Read this book because Buchan is a great man. Read it because there are many, many stories of his own ministry which are encouraging and challenging. Buchan is best when he is not attempting history or theology but relating the work that God has done in him and through him.