Secular shelf life from Sarah Allen: Levels of life (book review)

LEVELS OF LIFE Levels of life

By Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape. 118 pages. £10.99
ISBN 978 0 224 098 151

‘You put together two things that have not been together before. And the world is changed…’

So begins Julian Barnes in his hard-to-categorise book Levels of Life. The library would shelve it under memoirs, but that it is not accurate. No, rather, this is in parts essay, history and short story. And while that might immediately seem whimsical or over-literary, please do not be put off, because this is a very poised, moving and serious book about love and grief.

Barnes’s partner of 30 years, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, died 37 days after diagnosis of a brain tumour in 2008. Levels of Life is an attempt to put the unspeakable into words in three separate, but related sections.

The first is a lesson in ballooning. Barnes takes events from the early days of Anglo-French ballooning in the late 19th century and weaves them into a narrative called ‘The Sin of Height’. This explores the danger and exhilaration of the combination of fire and air which first lifted men into the atmosphere and gave them a new perspective on the earth.

In the central section, ‘On the Level’, Barnes creates a fictional relationship between two of these balloonists: ‘the divine Sarah’, Sarah Bernhardt, the beautiful and notorious actress, and Fred Burnaby, an awkward cavalryman. It is a slight story, with some pathos and humour, which makes the brutal last section, ‘The loss of depth’, all the more painful.

Here Barnes journeys into his own grief, and writes compellingly of an experience of mourning many will relate to. It is worth buying the book for this section alone.

Atheist faces death

An atheist, Barnes confronts the darkness of death without God: ‘When we killed — or exiled — God, we also killed ourselves… we sawed off the branch we were sitting on. And the view from that height… wasn’t so bad’. The trite and awkward sayings of friends are dismissed here, and instead the depths of Barnes’s loss are anatomised. The imagery and metaphors of the previous two sections are used again and again here to expose Barnes’s feelings: crash and burn, photography and memory, movement without direction. And while the bereavements of the many around us may not be dissected in the same way, their griefs are still great and terrifying. Reading this book will give us more empathy with those bereaved, and will prepare us for the griefs each one of us will face.

Yet it also stands as a call to faith. Julian Barnes writes as a man bereft in another way; his idol-factory heart bereaved him of the great comforter God, and replaced him with the image of a mortal woman. Christians in grief and desolation can look up and be upheld by the one who descended for us.

Sarah Allen writes the ‘Secular shelf life’ column for EN, is a secondary school English teacher, and is currently involved in evangelism and women’s work at Hope Church, Huddersfield.

This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Prayer fuel: News from the UK and around the world

Here are a handful of news-bites from around the UK and around the world included in the September issue of EN. May these encourage us as well as spur us on to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world facing severe persecution.

And the winner is…
An Emmy-nominated mini series from the US called The Bible is due to air on Channel 5 soon, it was reported in August.
The ten-hour series has been a phenomenal success in America, seen by more than 95 million viewers. The Emmy awards will take place on September 22, where it will compete against five other programmes. The trailer for the series can be seen at Bible Society’s Newswatch

Premier Christian Radio is launching a 24/7 national Christian helpline called ‘Premier Lifeline’, a confidential telephone helpline offering support and prayer from a Christian perspective.
They are recruiting volunteers, providing training and upgrading their systems to be more effective. Contact: peter.kerridge@pre Fellowship of European Broadcasters (FEB)

Plymouth prayerless
Local Labour leaders in Plymouth have removed prayers from the beginning of council meetings, as ‘part of the process of modernisation’.
Prayers will be 15 minutes before the meeting officially starts at 2 o’clock. A local Conservative councillor strongly criticised the move, slamming ‘the thoughtless rush for change’. The Christian Institute


Egypt: children pray
In a country rocked by change and division, some 1,400 8-14-year-old Egyptian children gathered in July to worship and ask God to change them to be the salt and light for Jesus in their communities.
The first ever One Thing Kids festival was held at the desert oasis of Wadi El Natroun from July 16-18 and televised live by Christian broadcaster SAT-7.

India: restrictive
The legislative assembly of Madhya Pradesh state on July 10 passed a more restrictive version of its existing anti-conversion law, effectively overturning the religious freedom guaranteed under India’s constitution.
The bill, yet to be signed off by the governor, requires anyone wanting to change their religion to first seek official permission and obliges religious leaders to report conversions, and mandates a three-year jail sentence for failing to do so. That rises to four years in the case of a minor, a woman or a Dalit (untouchable). Seven Indian states have already passed anti-conversion laws, as a result of pressure from Hindu nationalists. Release International

Vietnam: pressured
A young couple in Vietnam who accepted Christ in June have been beaten and threatened by officials, it was reported in July.
Local authorities hit the wife on the face with a stick and threatened to take the couple’s land and home if they refuse to renounce Christianity and return to Buddhism. They are afraid that they will lose their land and have no way of supporting their family. The couple, who survive through subsistence farming, have three boys aged 10, 12 and 14. Their pastor is trying to help, but lives 15 miles away in another village. Religion Today


For more news and prayer fuel from around the world, subscribe to EN for monthly updates.

Anglican update: Why the fear?

When being reminded of the deadline for my Anglican Update this month, I was asked, among other things, to stay off the already much reported topic of gay marriage. This, however, is actually quite hard to do.
One of the websites I regularly visit to get a ‘feel’ for what is going on in the Church of England is grandiosely titled ‘Thinking Anglicans’. It is resoundingly liberal in its theology and utterly persuaded of its own wisdom, but it is depressingly short on variety when it comes to content. Thus their coverage of the recent election of a new Archbishop of Sydney focussed ultimately on his attitude to women’s ordination and samesex relations. But then that is true of the website as a whole, where these two issues provide the mainstay of news and comment.
However, this is not just a problem for outright liberals. The other website I dip into for a contrary view to my own is that of Fulcrum, the open evangelical group founded back in 2003. Here there is more interest in the wider Anglican Communion, but still the focal interests are the same. Indeed, earlier this year Fulcrum sponsored a conference in support of women bishops titled ‘Church in all its fullness’. The verbal parallel to Jesus’s offer of ‘life in all its fullness’ suggests, consciously or unconsciously, the status accorded to this issue.

Church growth
The question this focus raises, however, is what else is on offer if those two issues are resolved? Recently, the General Synod produced two important documents addressing church growth: Challenges for the Quinquennium (GS Misc 1895) and Making New Disciples: the Growth of the Church of England (GS Misc 1054). Both documents are essential reading for Anglicans and, although they have their flaws, they indicate a commitment to growth that has hitherto been lacking. Indeed, during the debates in General Synod, Archbishop Justin Welby was apparently seen waving a copy of Towards the Conversion of England, and there are even rumours that this may be officially reprinted.
The problem is, as the obsession with issues of ordination and sexuality indicate, that the Church of England is simply not equipped for the task of evangelising the nation with the gospel. Not that we are in a bad position to do so. We have a vast network of buildings and personnel with an established presence in almost every community. The trouble is that, institutionally, we don’t agree on what we’re there to do or how to do it.

What are you left with?
Take away the current campaigning issues of the liberal wing and you are left with social action. Interest in spiritual matters, or even theology per se, seems to be at a low ebb — at least judging from the website of SCM, one of the oldest liberal publishers. Yet the Church of England remains dominated by liberal ideology, most notably in its official tendency to treat variant ‘gospels’ as ultimately compatible with ‘being Anglican’ and therefore indifferent when it comes to planning and policy.
Yet, in the midst of this ‘Rodney King’ theology (so named after the individual who famously asked ‘Can’t we all get along?’), there is still a suspicion of evangelicalism. As one of the documents noted above says: ‘In some circles there is a latent fear that a commitment to evangelism is about advancing Evangelicalism … This fear must be acknowledged, since it is real’ (GS Misc 1054).
The question that must be asked if we are to understand the Church of England in the present and plan effectively for its future therefore is this: ‘Why the fear and who feels it?’ If we could answer that, we’d be in a better position to plan and act.

John Richardson, associate minister of the churches at Henham, Elsenham & Ugley, near Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Editors commentary: unseen realities

Recently our Sunday morning exposition focused on Elisha.
It was the incident in which the prophet was protected by chariots of fire when Israel’s enemies sent soldiers to take him. The following mid-week fellowship group was based on the same passage, taking up the question of what the Bible teaches about angels. As we talked about this, one of the members of our group, brought up in Poland, related a story from her family.

Siberian camp
A few months before the end of World War II, her (future) grandfather was taken to Siberia. Stalin’s Russian army was passing through Poland and men were scooped from the streets and sent to internment camps.
He had become a Christian while studying structural engineering at university. Now he began telling his co-prisoners about salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. There were about 2,000 men in the camp. God began to work and many believed. Night after night he preached from memory. But hard labour, very poor nutrition, rough treatment from the guards and then illness brought on profound weakness. His memory began to fail, so the new Christians began praying with him for a Bible.
A few days later a young prisoner came sheepishly forward confessing that during the long winter march to Siberia he had stolen a huge Bible from a crossroads chapel because it had leather covers which he thought might be useful for shoe soles. For some reason he couldn’t explain he carried the contents between the covers all the way too. Now he gave our friend’s grandfather the pages on the condition he could keep the covers. The clandestine gospel meetings grew. Over the nearly three years of imprisonment, men came to the Lord Jesus in their dozens. Many of them died soon after.

An angel?
The Communist camp guards, especially the commandant, became very antagonistic. Under the harsh conditions her grandfather became seriously ill with typhoid fever and dysentery. One night, very weak and sick, he had to cross the empty yard to get to a latrine. In the moonlight he suddenly saw his arch enemy, the commandant, begin to run towards him with a metal rod, his face contorted in anger. It seemed he was ready to kill as there were no witnesses. Our friend’s grandfather stopped, too weak to move, and committed his soul to the Lord. Then something astonishing happened. The commandant stopped abruptly. His expression changed to one of utter terror. He turned around, dropped the rod and ran for his life. After that he went out of his way to avoid our friend’s grandfather.
She told us: ‘My grandfather was certain that that man saw something of what Psalm 34.7 talks about: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them”’.

As believers swim against the tide of secularism and antipathy to the Bible in our society it is easy to forget the unseen realities of God’s sovereign providence and his angelic hosts. We may feel very much a despised minority. But the Scriptures would reiterate to us the words of Elisha to his frightened servant when they were surrounded by the enemy: ‘Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them’ (2 Kings 6.16).
Interestingly, in mid-July, the Christian Broadcasting Network reported that archaeologists have discovered a building that ‘might have been the house of Elisha the prophet’ at Tel Rehov in Israel. You will have to look on the web to get the full story.

John Benton

This article was first published in the September 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Passion: how Christ’s final day changes your every day (book extract)

Passion_Christs last dayOn Good Friday morning, there was a courtyard in Jerusalem where every kind of person was represented.

There were Jews and Gentiles. There were political and religious elites — the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish priests. And there was the crowd, the great mass of unnamed people who turn the wheels of history in every age. And there was a beaten, bloodied man, who’d claimed to be a king but was being tried as a criminal. His name was Jesus.

In Luke 23, Luke shows us this universal scope in order to invite us to locate ourselves within the story. We’re drawn to put ourselves in the shoes of the different characters. We’re challenged to ask ourselves: of all the people there that day, who am I most like? Who represents me?

And Luke’s provocative answer is: all of them, except one.

You are Pontius Pilate

Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. In verse 20 he wants to release Jesus, and in verse 22 he responds to the cries of the crowd: ‘I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty.’ But he won’t simply free him, because he doesn’t want to anger the Jewish leaders who think he is guilty. And so, in the end, he hands Jesus over to be crucified. Pilate has the power to protect the innocent; instead, he sends him to his death. It’s at this point that Matthew’s Gospel includes the famous detail of Pilate washing his hands of the whole affair (Matthew 27.24).

It’s easy to condemn Pilate. Surely we could never do anything like that… could we? If the innocent Lord of creation had stood before us, we would never have sent him to his death… would we?

But what is Pilate’s crime, ultimately? In verse 23, Luke tells us ‘their voices prevailed’. Pilate ‘decided to grant their demand’ (v.24), and so he ‘surrendered Jesus to their will’ (v.25).

Pilate is forced to make a decision: will he do the right thing, or the popular thing? Will he fear God, or fear man? Let’s pause to ask ourselves: have we ever chosen to do what was easy rather than what was right? Ever compromised on our convictions, or kept silent when we should have spoken, or just decided that it would be better to go along with the crowd? Ever backed down from treating Jesus as King because it happened to be a little inconvenient?

The honest answer, for all of us, is ‘yes’, isn’t it? At those moments we were in Pilate’s shoes… and we did what Pilate did. We wanted to do what was popular more than we wanted to do what was right. So while we’ve probably never done anything as awful as what Pilate did, that’s only because we’ve never had the opportunity.

Breaking the power of cowardice

It’s hard to be honest enough to recognise our own cowardice. It’s still harder to break its hold on our hearts. How can we do it?

First, we need to fear God more. Fearing God means worshipping him, knowing his holiness, and trusting in him. For those who live shamelessly for Christ in this life, fearing God isn’t about abject terror, because ‘the Son of Man will … acknowledge him before the angels of God’ (Luke 12.8). Fearing the Lord is about being more concerned with God’s judgment than the judgment of our peers.

Second, we also need to love people more. When we fear other people, we can’t actually love them; we only want them for their approval. It’s really quite selfish. We withhold from people the things that they need from us, because we fear that they might cut us off from the things that we want from them. Love has the power to displace cowardice.

But ultimately, believing the gospel is the key. If you grasp the magnitude of what God has done for you in Christ, then he will become the primary object of your love and affection. His gaze will be the most important in your life. When you understand that Christ’s death secures your total acceptance and approval before God, then you won’t be so concerned about what other people think about you.

And when you no longer need everyone else’s approval, you can be free to love them truly and care for them selflessly.

You are the crowd

Pilate proclaims Jesus’ innocence, but Luke tells us that ‘with one voice they cried out’ (v.18) for Jesus to be crucified. Who are the ‘they’? It’s the chief priests, the rulers and the people — everyone else.

They all cry out together. This is a universal, unanimous verdict from people of every walk of life and social class. Everyone cries out: ‘Get rid of him!’ Why? Surely there is some mob mentality there—people do crazy things when the crowd is going in that direction. But perhaps there is something deeper going on, because in that shout we see most clearly the natural state of man. We are, at our core, God’s enemies. There, in the howling hatred of the crowd, we see something of our natural attitude towards God. When it came down to a choice, they prefer to have a murderer live among them rather than God himself.

There is no middle ground. God is perfectly holy. We were created to know him and enjoy him and obey him and worship him and be satisfied in him. But we have all rebelled against that. We have all looked for fulfilment in other places. We have done whatever seemed right to us rather than what God has told us is right.

And so now we are God’s enemies. We are rebels against him and he is a threat to our way of life. He stands between me and my desire to run my world the way that I want to. And every time I decide to live my way instead of under Jesus’ rule, I am wishing he did not exist; that he were dead. I can see my own face in that mob. The tragedy of our race is that every human being has divine blood on their hands. The wonder of history is that the divine Son shed his blood for this same human race.

You are Barabbas

The murderer Barabbas is the opposite of the people we’d like to be, and like to think of ourselves as. But for a moment, put yourself in his shoes. You are sitting in a Roman jail awaiting your death. You know you will be crucified for your crimes. And, in your more honest moments, you know you deserve it. There aren’t many worse ways to die. And so day after day you sit in this jail, anticipating the nails, the mockery, the excruciating pain, the blood filling your lungs, the breaking of your legs. That’s your future. You don’t know when it’s coming, but you know it is coming.

And then on this fateful day you hear a mob outside. Something is going on. Has word gotten out that today is your day, your day to die? It sounds like it: you can hear the crowd screaming: ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’

Imagine what you’d be thinking! Finally, the Roman guards come and get you. They drag you out in front of the angry mob and… you are set completely free.

As you stand there, you watch another man stumble off under the weight of the cross — the cross you’d pictured yourself carrying. You discover as you ask some bystanders that it was him they’d demanded be crucified; it was him the shouts were directed at, not you. You ask what he’s done, but the people near you are surprisingly hazy on that. But they chose you to live, they say, and him to die. Somehow, you are going free because that man is going to die.

Jesus bore the guilt and shame and curse and disgrace and death that Barabbas deserved, while Barabbas received the release, the freedom, the life that Jesus deserved. Barabbas was now a free and innocent man as far as the law was concerned. Jesus was the condemned one.

You really are just like Barabbas! You and I are sinners; we sit in a spiritual prison, helpless, awaiting the day where we get the just punishment that we deserve. But then Jesus dies in our place. He gets what we deserve: we get what he deserves.

This is the glory of the cross; that God the Father sent God the Son to die for men and women like Barabbas; men and women like us. We won’t grasp or appreciate the events of Good Friday unless we stand in Barabbas’ shoes, and find that they fit us.

This article is an edited extract from Passion: How Christ’s final day changes your every day by Mike McKinley, published by The Good Book Company (£6.79, ISBN 9778 1 908 762 061) —

(This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057)


What’s coming up in the September issue of EN

September 2013 highlightsA few highlights to look forward to in the September issue of EN! It’s scheduled to arrive from the printers on Friday August 23. Of course you can always e-mail as well if you’d like a complimentary copy or if you’d like to subscribe!

A Passon For Life 2014

Passion for life 2014EN: How would you sum up the success of A Passion For Life 2010?

TH: A Passion for Life 2010 was hard work!

Mission is hard work and it costs us to do it. It means that we stick our heads up and make some noise in our communities; it means inviting people to events and therefore introducing the risk of being known not only as Christians but as Christians who believe some serious things and want other people to believe the same.

During 100s of events around the country the gospel of the Lord Jesus was clearly spoken and some people responded by trusting the Lord Jesus for the first time. Many others heard and walked away without making any obvious response (except rejection?). We continue to pray for them.

As well as all of these opportunities there was much that was a great encouragement.
When was the last time that a large group of churches across the country got together to verbally proclaim the lordship of Christ as seen in his death and resurrection? This was an encouragement nationally, but also locally.

New relationships between churches have been formed and these are continuing to bear fruit for the gospel in all kinds of ways.

And it seems to me that, as I consider our own fellowship in Cheshire and talk with other church leaders around the country, mission to our communities is higher on our agenda. This can only be an encouragement!

EN: What is the difference in format of A Passion For Life 2014?

TH: The main things are still the main things. It is local initiatives between local churches. As in 2010, there is no great central organisation. There is a small planning group that has been meeting to prepare resources and encourage other people to get going. We hope that this publicity and the resources that we are producing will be a catalyst to help churches be involved.

The main change has been in encouraging churches to push the boundaries. ‘Pushing the Boundaries’ is a challenge to the whole church. We are asking local churches to identify people groups that they do not reach, or groups that are under-represented in the local church, it might be men or teenagers or a particular ethnic group.

We want to encourage churches to start asking questions such as:

* Why don’t we reach this group?
* What do we need to change, if anything, to make us more accessible to them?
* What resources do we need to help us reach this group?

The website will have helpful hints from people with experience of reaching various people groups with the gospel.

Passion for Life 2014 may not mean that revival takes place among these identified groups (it may!!) but it at least gives us stimulus and reason to start the conversation among ourselves.

‘Pushing the Boundaries’ is also a challenge to every individual Christian. Some have identified that the trend among evangelicals is not to talk to people about Jesus, but simply to invite people to an event where they can then be told about Jesus by someone else.

Wouldn’t it be great if another legacy of Passion for Life 2014 was for a great number of Christians to be confident and enabled to talk about Jesus.

We are encouraging churches to use the Passion to Witness DVD course, a short course to help Christians talk about Jesus and his work.

We are asking every Christian to work hard to form real relationships with non-Christians and then risk those relationships by asking people if they would like to read through a Gospel with them.

In this way we hope that Passion for Life 2014 won’t just be a short moment of evangelism but a time of equipping us all for a lifetime of evangelism.

EN: What methods of evangelism would you most like to see churches engaged in?

TH: We are expecting that churches will be committed to verbally proclaiming the person of Christ and explaining his work on the cross. We are expecting that churches will call people to repent and believe the good news. We want to encourage personal evangelism, especially the idea that Christians can do one-to-one Bible study with friends, colleagues, family.

We hope that churches will not just turn to the few well-known evangelists, but will seek to use local/regional people who God has gifted for this work. These may not be full-time evangelists, but church workers whom God has gifted to speak evangelistically.

We are grateful that some of the full-time evangelists will be available around Easter 2014 but we hope that one of the legacies of 2014 will be the encouragement of a greater number of people with confidence to speak evangelistically.

The website ( will have contact details for people who are willing to come and speak at events.

As people around the whole of the country reflect on what worked or didn’t work in 2010, I am sure that changes will be made where necessary. For instance, in mid-Cheshire in 2010, we tried the big set piece evenings at the local leisure centre. They worked in some ways but not in others, so this time the same group of churches have decided to host a number of smaller events aimed at different people groups.

EN: What is the point of churches engaging in their evangelism under the banner of Passion For Life?

TH: There’s always a point to doing evangelism. Acts 1.8 tells us that the church’s work is to witness to Christ. As the rest of the book of Acts bears out, this is more than just work for the apostles, it is work for every generation. I am sure that all of the churches that are planning involvement in A Passion for Life will be doing lots of evangelism.

This is one opportunity among a lifetime of opportunities. But this is an opportunity to be involved in something more than our own local church’s initiatives and activities.

* It’s good to pray for other churches around the country.
* It’s good to be aware of other churches around the country praying for us.
* It’s good to work together with other local churches.
* It’s good to remind the Gospel Partnerships around the country that evangelism is our business.
* It’s good to work together for a lasting legacy; a legacy of evangelicals working together, a legacy of gifted evangelists being identified and encouraged.

I would turn the question around and say that because of all of this, what’s the point in not engaging in Passion for Life 2014?

EN: What are the greatest needs at present in facilitating the PFL vision?

TH: The key is to find key people in each region who will work to get people to work together in smaller, local areas.

If people know that their region is not represented then we would love to hear from someone who would be willing to do that work. The regional co-ordinators will be meeting on a number of occasions during 2013.

The regional representative job is to encourage people to get involved and to be an advocate for the Passion for Life vision and the resources that we are producing.
These resources will include a Passion for Life Gospel, an evangelistic talk on DVD and a Gospel tract. We plan to launch the 2014 version of the website at the Evangelical Ministers’ Assembly in June. The website will be the main place for news and other resources. We do need people to support the central planning costs and the website will help people give to support A Passion for Life. It is a registered charity, so people can give tax efficiently (no. 1125822).

For further information about A Passion for Life, please email

Tim Hanson

Gospel Partnerships have reviewed the above mentioned DVD on their blog post entitled ‘A Passion To Witness DVD Review’ which you may purchase from

This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Notes to growing Christians from David Jackman: Working at the Bible

Last time we looked at starting a regular pattern of Bible study.

It’s a great discipline to cultivate, so that we constantly have input from the Lord into our thinking. Paul talked about the value of Scripture in terms of teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness in 2 Timothy 3.16 and we all need all these ministries as we seek to grow in our knowledge and love of God. But no Scripture exists independently of the whole.

Context is important

So, whether we are dealing with one verse or a whole book, we do have to set each text in its context if we are going to understand it properly.

I remember a missionary to the Arab world telling me that before he began that work he had several times been arrested by the command, ‘You shall not go down into the land of Egypt’. Was this a word from the Lord to him? Ought he to ditch his plans? He concluded that the original context of the words in Jeremiah 42 was very particular to the hearers of Jeremiah’s day and did not match his own circumstances in the same way at all. It was teaching Jeremiah’s hearers that they could not escape the judgment God was bringing on Jerusalem by fleeing south, back to the land of their earlier captivity.

It is rightly said that a text out of context is merely a pretext and that you can make the Bible mean almost anything if you ignore its original purpose and context.

Why here?

First, we have to look at the immediate context of what we are studying, in its own particular place in the book of which it is a part. I find the ‘why’ questions especially helpful here. Why does the writer say these particular things at this point in his book? Why does he say it here and why does he say it in this way? The more we can train ourselves to listen carefully to the detail of Scripture, the deeper will be our understanding and the richer our enjoyment of God’s life-giving words. ‘They are more precious than much pure gold and sweeter than honey from the comb’ (Psalm 19.10).

This means we have to ask ourselves exactly who is being addressed in our passage and what the surrounding verses tell us about their situation and need. If we can understand why these words were written for the first readers and what it meant to them, then it will start to become much clearer how the same unchanging message is vitally relevant to us, now.

That won’t always be obvious on the surface and we will often need to re-read and think hard, asking the Lord to open our eyes to see ‘wonderful things in your law’ (Psalm 11.18). Do you remember how Paul combined hard work with divine illumination when he wrote to Timothy, ‘Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this’ (2 Timothy 2.7)? Both are equally vital — reflection is our job, insight is the Spirit’s gift.

Theme tune

So if I’m doing my own notes on a book of the Bible, as suggested last month, I shall want to be working on what is the big idea, or theme tune, of the whole book. Why is it in the Bible? What would we not know if this book were not there? What is its distinctive contribution to the whole 66 books? This is sometimes called the ‘melodic line’ of the book — the major theme, which replays with different variations and applications, all the way through. If you think you know your Bible well, ask yourself how many books of the Bible you could write a theme-tune sentence summing up its essential contribution to the whole. You will probably find, like me, that you have quite a long way to go. But it’s an exciting journey!

Look for surprises

Another great tool for doing this work is to look especially for the things that surprise you as you read. Whenever I am pulled up by the Bible text and find myself saying, ‘I’ve never noticed that before’ or ‘Well, I wouldn’t have written that’, or, when I start to consider how this text questions my assumptions or rattles my cage, I rejoice because I know I’m going to be on a learning curve. It stops me thinking I already know it all and just applying my framework to every passage, like a mincing machine, reducing the Bible to a string of sausages, all much the same. Setting the text in its context will bring the truth alive and help enormously with its application. More about that next month!

David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust and writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.

This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Dangerous Calling (book review)

The unique challenges of pastoral ministry
By Paul David Tripp
IVP. 227 pages.
£11.99 ISBN 978 1 844 746 026
A friend recently began saying ‘sorry prayers’ with his young daughter. ‘It felt awkward and embarrassing that I, the adult, the Christian, the one in ministry, had to say sorry to God for things.’ This story would fit well in Tripp’s latest book, which helpfully highlights, and painfully examines, specific temptations in the life of the gospel minister. Dangers addressed include: an academic approach to Christian work which sees messed-up people as ‘distractions from the real work of ministry’, isolation and lack of accountability in the pastor’s life, and the idea that the pastor has ‘arrived’ and doesn’t have the same dire need for grace as those he is preaching to.

Not alone

Use of real stories from his own life and of many pastors he has spoken with fills out the reality of Tripp’s writing. Those who haven’t fallen prey to these dangers might otherwise consider Tripp’s diagnoses exaggerated. Similarly, those who see themselves in the chapters can know they aren’t alone, and, rather than burrowing further into a disjointed ‘private’ and ‘ministry’ life, may be enabled to confess secret sins, turning from them back to God and his calling.

Pastor sees himself

This is an uncomfortable book. You may not see yourself in every chapter, but you will in some of them. Thankfully, Tripp prescribes and applies the gospel to every failing of the minister, as we are constantly reminded that we need the same gospel we preach to others. This book is immensely valuable to me as I hope to begin Bible College. It alerts me to potential dangers of ministry life at every step. If you are beginning, or are early on in ministry, read this book prayerfully, asking the Lord to continually deliver you from its dangers. If you are established in ministry, read this book prayerfully, asking the Lord to help you see how you have been shaped by unhelpful aspects of ‘pastoral culture’. If you are a church member, read this book prayerfully, asking the Lord to help you see ways you have isolated your pastor, or set him up for a fall. My friend finished his story by encouraging us that his ‘sorry prayers’ have helped his daughter understand grace more clearly. As the Spirit blesses, this book will help pastors live lives which enable congregations to see more clearly the grace of Jesus in his saving and transforming power.

Richard Baxter,  apprentice at Carey Baptist Church, Reading

Neil Powell of Birmingham City Church shares on his blog ‘A Faith To Live By’ that this book is the ‘highlight of [his] summer reading’.

This article was first published in the May 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057


Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction – issues of pastoral and counselling support (book review)

Issues of pastoral and counselling support 
By Andrew Goddard and Glynn Harrison 
CMF Publications. 32 pages. £2.00 
ISBN 978 0 906 747 07

With a foreword by a past-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and written by a professor of psychiatry and a theologian/ethicist, this booklet, which could not be more timely, is also written from a breadth of professional experience and many years of combined pastoral wisdom. Its 44 useful references attest to how intensively researched the 22 pages of actual text are. But are so few pages worth having at all? Yes, definitely.

This booklet assumes its readers already know what the Bible says about gay sex. The content is a summary, in an easily readable format, of what pastoral challenges are presented by Christians with unwanted sexual attraction to the same sex (SSA) and what the latest evidence is on how sexual desire is patterned in men and women.

It also offers a framework for ministry to Christians with SSA that offers hope without hype and, most importantly, focuses on safeguards for those ministered to as well as those offering help. At a time when the very possibility of changing sexual desire is increasingly ridiculed, and those open to it are being systematically silenced or driven out of the caring professions, a booklet of this nature has never been more needed. Every evangelical in church leadership should read it and have copies for reference available.

Dr. Trevor Stammers, 
past Chair of Christian Medical Fellowship



This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057