RECENT REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS

  • Christian Middle Way, The
    Robert M. Ellis
    The book, The Christian Middle Way (see http://www.middlewaysociety.org) provides a thorough discussion of how to engage fruitfully with Christianity, while avoiding its apparent absolutes. The author, R. M. Ellis believes that Christianity has a lot to offer, if understood in a certain way.

    In this book, Ellis presents “the case against Christian belief but for Christian faith.” The difference between the two is crucial, although arguably not so clear in life as we live it. But, as with Spiritual Naturalism, the crucial task is to clarify our concepts so that they inform wholesome (positive) growth. It’s not an easy assignment, but a fruitful one. Ellis begins his argument with a quote by Carl Jung: “…We must make our experiment. We must make mistakes. We must live out our own vision of life. And there will be error. If you avoid error, you do not live.” With this, the author invites us to some very intense, and very rewarding, thinking.

    Belief, as he sees it, is a representation of the world or ourselves held firmly enough that we affirm or enact it. Belief implies embodied meaning – it reflects felt meaning. And it need not involve the affirmation of “facts”; stories and other artistic expressions may be deeply meaningful, though never understood to be factual. Ellis is not against all belief. In fact, he describes faith as “simply a term for the more embodied and emotive aspect of belief” (p.19). What he opposes is absolute belief, which is inflexible and therefore fragile. Central to his Middle Way philosophy is that affirmed absolutes keep us from adapting to our complex and ambiguous context. The rigidity of absolute belief in anything will mislead us. But a sensitivity to deeply felt and experientially helpful, meaningful affirmations – with a willingness to hold them tentatively (always subject to correction) – can be a crucial and reliable compass for our spiritual journey.

    Throughout the book Ellis is asserting the possibility of affirming Christian themes in a faith-full way, while identifying and avoiding any unhelpful absolutising. The demand to affirm absolutes (“fundamentalism”) is a well established option, with a great appeal to some, whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Marxist or Libertarian. History tells many tales of how damaging it can be. Yet a lighter touch, a more tentative holding of any received understanding, can allow a depth and breadth which is so much more rewarding.

    This is a challenging read, partly due to the depth of its subject matter and partly due to the density of the author’s style. But it rewards the reader who is willing to work through it. I see two ways to take the book: one for those who suspect that Christian themes have a positive, nurturing gift for them. For Robert M. Ellis (and perhaps for some Spiritual Naturalists) it outlines a path back into meaningful Christianity – washed clean, as it were, from its absolutist tendencies. As well, those of us who can identify with other “faiths” -in my case, humanism- reading The Christian Middle Way is more of a prompt to clarify one’s own belief/faith, determining what is healthy and helpful and what one should avoid or abandon.

    Ellis dedicates his book to his father, now deceased, who was a “liberal” Baptist minister and missionary. After rejecting Christianity, the author associated with what I consider a rather fixed brand of Buddhism, leaving it to develop his broader Middle Way philosophy. Now he’s widening his path again, to include a healthy Christian journey – or at least benefit more explicitly from its themes. One key to his understanding is Jung’s theory of archetypes, patterns of thought deeply embedded in our “collective unconscious”. For instance, the author finds the God-archetype deeply and reliably meaningful. As a symbol of an available and unconditionally positive reality, we can summon great strength from it. As well, we can apply the the so-called main archetypes (Hero, Attractive Other, Shadow) to a meaningful, embodied and emotionally helpful relationship with Christ, Mary and Satan. In so doing we need not absolutise a particular set of traditional or imposed beliefs about them. But we can find refreshment in them.

    Similarly, the author exposes a Middle Way appreciation of Jesus (as an “integrated teacher”), the Fall and Expulsion from the Garden (marking our responsibility for our actions), The Annunciation and Incarnation (the God-archetype in human experience), The Crucifixion (Suffering), Resurrection and Hope (“when out of every intransigent problem springs hope”, p. 151)… and lots more. We can read these vibrant themes (if we wish) not as literal and undeniable history, but as meaningful stories, understood provisionally, through the lens of Christian agnosticism (which is explored in Chapter Seven). Ellis has filled his study with insights on how to find a meaningful and credible way from Christian traditions. There’s much more in it than I have exposed here.

    Such thoughts are not shockingly new, but in some ways similar to other liberal and non-sectarian, non-absolutist interpretations of Church teaching, which has a well-established pedigree. Don Cupitt, whose Sea of Faith book began a movement in the 1980s, republished as an SCM Christian classic, does not echo Ellis’ framework and terminology, but travels is similar territory. To judge by his bibliography, Ellis is not acquainted with the long-standing tradition of liberal (non-absolutist) Christianity, which is itself a rainbow of various expressions and understandings. Two “classics” in my current reading (prompted by this review) are Rudolf Otto’s Naturalism and Religion (1907) and Leslie Weatherhead’s The Christian Agnostic (1965). Their insights could have informed and enriched Ellis’ study, without necessarily altering his conclusions. Also missing is an knowledge of the dynamic, multi-faceted evangelical movement (now representing a large number of professing Christians). Many of their authors are more subtle and more open-minded than the “fundamentalist” options.

    The conditions of our time have left many influenced by the Christian religion, who cannot accept it’s many absolutes, but don’t want to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’. Perhaps Middle Way Christianity would provide them with a credible way into an adult, non-authoritarian experience! By exposing his own connection to his father’s faith, Ellis may well be an example of the (attributed) Jesuit injunction, ‘Give me a child till he’s seven and we’ll have him through his lifetime.’ However, I seriously doubt that many people without Christian roots (Christian conditioning!) will use this book as a roadmap to a vital faith.

    In our time the majority of children (and perhaps their parents) were not brought up in Church (at least in Britain). The Hero archetype, for example, may speak to them, but not as Christ (sad to say, it’s”celebrity” for many).

    The author’s gift to me has been to realise more clearly and more deeply that my roots are in humanism. Despite the fact that I was converted to Christianity (age 20) and served in a variety of ordained Church roles, I have remained at heart (in my integrated being) a secular humanist. Though a Buddhist now, part of a very liberal & pragmatic movement, my Middle Way faith is grounded in my earlier roots. This, of course, shaped my interpretation of that tradition (with embodied, emotional experience) and of all the traditions I identified with. I’m thankful to Robert M. Ellis for this perspective on faith and belief.

    I do wonder, however, what kind of sangha (community) the author will be able to find. Most people of faith seem to like (even demand) some pretty firm (close to absolute) beliefs to validate their deeply felt sense of things. I often reflect that I irrationally cling at some level to foundational certainties within this ambiguous life and universe. As a man of faith, I cannot abandon belief, even when I can rationally critique it.

    How many existing Christians, or even Christian want-to-bes, will find Middle Way Christianity attractive and credible? It will be interesting to see to whom and how many this book appeals.

    If, like the author, you were raised in a reasonably positive Christian context, a Middle Way Christianity might appeal. If it’s not deeply planted in your psychic soil, you still might discover a vitality in Ellis’ description of non-absolutist, provisional and agnostic faith – triggered by the traditional sacred stories. You might use the book as an example of how to explore and express your non-Christian faith (what you find most meaningful) in a more skilful and helpful way. In either case, we can welcome this book enthusiastically. Those who do can explore the other authors who have been published by Christian Alternative books (http://www.christian-alternative.com/), as well as more established “liberal” and “radical” Christian authors. ~ Dennis Oliver, Spiritual Naturalist Society, https://snsociety.org/book-review-the-christian-middle-way-by-r-m-ellis/

  • Heart of Oneness
    Jennifer Kavanagh
    This reflective ‘little book of connection’ enables readers to stand back from the violent images portrayed on our screens every day and the realisation that our divided world is full of poverty, inequality and injustice. And the same time, heroic acts of altruism are also going on, reflecting the paradoxical nature of the human condition and our difficulties in living together. The author highlights examples of mutuality and interconnectedness from science, psychology and religion – what she calls the oneness at the heart of existence - and gives guidance on how we can enact a way of life consistent with these insights. Ultimately, the mystic experiences a unity of subject and object, but it is still a challenge to live out this insight in everyday life. ~ David Lorimer, Scientific and Medical Network newsletter

  • Heart of Oneness
    Jennifer Kavanagh
    In this treatise, Kavanagh peels back the layers to look at poverty, injustice, love, hate and kindness, counterbalancing her findings with the natural beauty and unconditional love that is still to be founding in the most unlikely of places. ~ Janet Mawdesley, Bluewolf Reviews

  • Quaker Quicks - Quaker Roots and Branches
    John Lampen
    British Quaker Lampen (The Peace Kit) distills central ideas and beliefs of Quakerism in this quick introduction to the pacifist faith. Lampen centers his presentation on what Quakers, also called Friends, term “testimonies”: areas of particular preoccupation that have attracted the efforts of Friends over centuries to establish or improve. He provides an overview of Quaker work for peace, the environment, and prison reform—all distinctive Quaker concerns. For instance, he writes of how Quaker Elizabeth Fry led a campaign for significant reforms within Victorian prisons—a tradition of appeal that has extended to modern calls for full abolishment of institutional incarceration. Lampen then looks somewhat apologetically at Quaker stances on the arts, where Friends’ earnestness historically led them to look askance at artistic expression, especially in music, for an embarrassingly long time. He concludes with a chapter on Quaker theology and its varieties of expression; American readers will note a distinctly British slant to the contemporary material he draws on. Lampen’s work brings to light important moments in Quaker history, and though many readers will quarrel over what is left out, none can complain about the Quaker simplicity this little handbook embodies. ~ Publisher's Weekly

  • Quaker Quicks - Telling the Truth About God
    Rhiannon Grant
    This is a book for non-Quakers as well as those familiar with the Quaker tradition. Dr Grant explores the different approaches Quakers have with God, the scriptures, worship and the significance of experience in seeking words about God. Some, including the reviewer, as an Anglican priest, might baulk at the suggestion that clergy act as ‘intermediaries’ between God and the people, but the cap may fit in many instances and deserve the critique. The issues for the non-Quaker that Dr Grant details and addresses are wide ranging and insightful. They enable a fuller understanding and appreciation of the Quaker experience and the struggle we all face when it come to language and images of God. In keeping with that tradition, it is a book for ‘everyone’. ~ Canon David Jennings, Canon Theologian, Leicester Cathedral

  • Christian Middle Way, The
    Robert M. Ellis
    Erudite, well-researched and deeply thoughtful. ~ Ben Whitney, Sofia, Sea Of Faith

  • Friday's Child
    Brian Mountford
    Friday’s Child: Poems of suffering and redemption by Brian Mountford
    16 MARCH 2018

    BRIAN MOUNTFORD’s Friday’s Child: Poems of suffering and redemption (Christian Alternative, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-78535-741-1) is a literary anthology of 40 items for Good Friday, with commentary: e.g. famous hymns and prayers, poems by Donne, Hopkins, Larkin, and Carol Ann Duffy, and prose by Lancelot Andrewes and T. S. Eliot. ~ , church times

  • Heart of Oneness
    Jennifer Kavanagh

    This meditation by a British Quaker may be modest in size, but the subject it addresses is a dauntingly ambitious one; in fact it’s one that could risk a bit of superficiality: the paradox of a world of incredible diversity in creative tension with a mutual interconnectedness. The author wisely does not attempt a head-on tackle of this matter that such volumes have been written about, but merely invites us to think with her about where within ourselves we can learn to find underlying unity. “It is this series of paradoxes that this book will seek to address.”

    As the narrative gets underway, her detailed review of the wide reach of this dividedness in the world (colonialism, nationalism, segregation, injustices, social divisions, prejudice, thoughtless exploitation of the environment, and more) could tempt the reader to think, “All right, I really don’t need to be reminded once again of all the world’s familiar disconnections,” but Kavanagh soon begins to introduce examples of the underlying unity shining through in endeavors such as the United Nations and European Union, Alternatives to Violence Programs, and a long list of others down to the personal level. And this is only the beginning: her sweeping journey through various challenges to recognize connectedness also includes learning “shared creatureliness” with other animals, another—by way of the challenge of sustainability—of our relationships to the planet, and our “vertical” oneness across time, manifested compellingly in care for future generations.

    Then, as a step toward understanding this tugging of opposites, she brings in the incredible diversity of the natural world, and reminds us of our all-too-recent—and still far from complete—realization that all this is interconnected down to the last atom (in fact, “interconnectedness” shows signs of becoming a fashionable buzzword). The question, as she has posed at the outset, is how then do we find our way to this same unity in our social world? Here we deal with the time dimension just mentioned, and even more strongly with the space dimension. The connectedness we experience in various ways (group performance, Skype, group meditation, and so on) is a “field” that surrounds us, and Friends’ meeting for worship stands for us as a potent distillation of this. It is this consciousness of others’ inner lives and minds that makes for depth of worship. We are seeking unity in the Divine, and this leads the author to the final step (I’ve been rearranging her thoughts a bit to reflect my perception of how one idea develops into another).

    God is often defined as no more but also no less than the pure relational act itself: God is “the ultimate oneness,” and oneness with God is oneness with all being. So we need to find oneness with our true self, and finding unity means becoming a unity within ourselves. How do we do this? “Living within ourselves requires allowing enough space … for the Spirit to enter in.” We hold within ourselves balances of disconnection such as light–dark and diversity–unity, and balance is at the core of a unified life. My finding oneness in the world must inevitably be preceded by finding oneness in myself. She reminds us that this—formulated in endless different ways—is to be found at the center of all religious traditions.

    But achieving a glimpse of the oneness at the heart of existence and then in oneself is not really the goal here, but merely the gateway to insight. The really crucial step each one of us must take is discerning how this insight guides our living and acting in the world. Within the cramped space of only 66 pages, Friend Kavanagh’s meditation offers a direction. ~ William Shetter, Friends Journal

  • Authority of Service and Love, The
    Roger Payne
    This is the second book by Roger Payne, a Reader in the Church of England. His first, A Different Way: A human approach to the Divine, explored the use of language and the meaning of words. From that book, he believed the word 'authority' needed reassessment, particularly when applied to 'religious authority'. The Authority of Service and Love seeks to show that our understanding of authority must change if we are to be true to the message of Jesus.

    The early chapters summarize the roots of the word 'authority' and move to a thumbnail sketch of Augustine and Aquinas and early Christian understandings, through to the Reformation and Richard Hooker. Payne uses reflections from contemporary commentators including Paul Avis, N.T. Wright, Martyn Percy and Alister McGrath to punctuate the historical narrative. Payne concludes:

    as the Christian Church grew in size and
    influence, it also claimed increasing
    authority and wielded greater power.

    It is the abuse of power, and the crisis of authority in the Church, including the publication in 1968 of
    Humanae Vitae and the 'Monkey Trial' debates of creationism verses evolutionism in the USA, that leads
    Payne into exploring responses to religious authority.

    Our responses, Payne concludes, are drawn from our psychological foundations, including fear and anxiety,
    need and dependence, habit and herd instinct; and lead into growth, creativity and being. The rationale and conclusions are again drawn from a plethora of authors from Jung, Freud, Maslow and Tillich.

    I found the concluding section on extremism in religious authority connecting with our concerns
    around the contemporary debate on radicalization, and fundamentalism in religious teaching and
    authority. This, together with recent media interest in spiritual abuse by clergy, focused my attention on
    Payne's coverage of authoritarianism, dogmatism and fundamentalism. Payne draws from Jack Dominian,
    who I confess I'd not read since studying marriage preparation at theological college thirty years ago!
    Dominian has some interesting thoughts around authority and personality.

    Payne concludes his book by underlining and unpacking the book's title. He suggests authority is a
    hierarchical top-down approach, whereas service is bottom-up. He quotes Dominian and Jesus Christ to
    remind us that service is the hallmark of the use of authority in the New Testament:

    For the Son of Man came not to be served,
    but to serve.

    The polarization of both extreme religious teaching, and the rise of militant atheism, calls for a solution to
    this new but not so new, crisis.

    The solution, Payne cleverly sets out from his first book, A Different Way: A human approach to the Divine, is
    to explore further what it means to be human. Payne states [p.165],

    Progress will not be made in tackling the
    'crisis of authority' until our image of God is
    worthy of the authority we ascribe to him.

    The book is an easy read, and offers a number of questions for the reader, Christian or not. The text
    challenges us to reflect, as we seek to understand the authority entrusted to us, and how that authority is
    given and received. It would make a useful tool for a book group, especially for clergy and lay ministers, as
    they explore this unavoidable topic.


    ~ Alan Jeans, Archdeacon of Sarum in the Diocese of Salisbury, Signs of the Times, Modern Church's quarterly members' newsletter April 2018 Issue 69.

  • Psychedelic Christianity
    Jack Call
    Jack Call’s Psychedelic Christianity is a carefully written journey of a soul, chronicling the development of the author’s thought over the last ten years. As a Baby Boomer who experimented with LSD and spent much of his adult life as a secular humanist, he has now returned to Christianity but has had trouble finding a congregation that is neither too politically progressive nor dogmatically fundamentalist. Echoing Huxley, he describes his youthful psychedelic experiences as having an “absolutely fresh newness, as on the day of Creation.” But now as a self-identified Protestant Christian, he believes that Christianity offers “the best religious expression” of his psychedelic experiences. As with psychedelics, Christianity reveals truths that are “forgotten, ignored, [and] . . . hidden,” and although some view psychedelics to be the domain of hippies, the author contends that “Psychedelic Christianity is as fresh as the tender shoots of spring . . . [because the] psychedelic experience is a way of learning how to be in the right relationship to God.” To skeptics, he encourages them to try psychedelics and find out for themselves. He has considered the possibility of starting his own congregation but thinks he lacks “the talent for it.” He wants a church that does not use “shame, fear, and guilt as tools to enforce social conformity.” People instead should be “acting from love . . . [and not] because one has been forced.” With utopian fervor, he asserts that “the kingdom of God happens when everyone . . . freely chooses to be fair and just, full of pity and love for the next person.” The author has already established the Institute for the Advancement of Psychedelic Christianity and manages a website for the organization. Perhaps the next step will be to take the plunge and start a new denomination. ~ David Overly, Ph.D., Professor of English, Citrus College

  • Psychedelic Christianity
    Jack Call
    Psychedelic Christianity tackles the deepest questions we all ask of ourselves: Why are we here? What, if anything, is our purpose? What is God’s plan for each of us? Using the words of Jesus and Paul as his jumping off point, Jack Call merges teachings from the New Testament with insights from history’s greatest philosophers to build his own philosophical argument that seeks to answer those very questions. Always logical, and often deeply personal, Psychedelic Christianity is a book that helps the reader reconsider his or her assumptions about the nature of God, free will, the Golden Rule, social justice, and the relationship between psychedelics and the divine. ~ Jason Lambert, Executive Director, Content Licensing & Metadata, Sony Pictures Entertainment

  • Quaker Quicks - Telling the Truth About God
    Rhiannon Grant
    Rhiannon Grant's book is wide-ranging, warm, wise, and witty. It's a wonderful introduction to the varieties and vagaries of Quaker theology - such as they are (or aren't). ~ J. Brent Bill, author of Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality

  • Quaker Quicks - What Do Quakers Believe?
    Geoffrey Durham
    “If you look to Quakers for a belief system you are going to be disappointed,” writes Geoffrey Durham. But he certainly does not disappoint in the clarity he brings to portraying the shared principles by which Quakers seek to live and act. The pages of this book are powered by the potential for change in individuals and in the world. ~ Mike Wooldridge OBE, former religious affairs journalist and broadcaster

  • Quaker Quicks - What Do Quakers Believe?
    Geoffrey Durham
    In this excellent and informative book Geoffrey Durham explains in direct and straightforward language who the Quakers are and what they believe. Quakers reject no one. They have a deep respect for human life and for the world in which we live and they attempt to bring some common sense to a world that is increasingly driven to distraction in the endless pursuit of “bigger and better”. I warmly commend this book to you. It caught my attention from the very first page. ~ Terry Waite CBE, bestselling author of Taken on Trust and Solitude: Memories, People, Places

  • Quaker Quicks - What Do Quakers Believe?
    Geoffrey Durham
    It is not easy to explain what Quakers believe; we are notoriously hard to pin down. Yet Geoffrey Durham has managed to unpack Quakerism in an open, lucid and friendly way. If you have ever wondered what is actually happening in a room full of people sitting in silence together, you will understand better after reading What Do Quakers Believe? and may want to try it yourself. It is a book even Quakers can benefit from. Reading it also made me understand myself better; how I’m put together, how I operate in the world, and yes, what I believe. ~ Tracy Chevalier, bestselling author of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Last Runaway

  • Quaker Quicks - What Do Quakers Believe?
    Geoffrey Durham
    The clearest introduction to Quakers I have read. Beautifully and clearly written, this book brings Quakerism to life in a very accessible way. ~ Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, broadcaster and writer

  • Quaker Quicks - Telling the Truth About God
    Rhiannon Grant
    Suggesting a range of differing understandings has, over the last hundred years, become an accepted means for describing Quaker theology. One example of this is the varying words we use for God (or whatever you call it.) Rhiannon uses her academic research and her wide experience of getting Friends talking, to produce a thoughtful commentary on the impact, difficulties and joys of this approach to doing theology as a community. It may seem that we end up saying very little, but that little has a unique kind of truthfulness. ~ Lesley Richards, clerk of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group

  • Quaker Quicks - Telling the Truth About God
    Rhiannon Grant
    This is an admirably informed, clear-sighted and open-minded exploration of that knottiest of subjects: the Quaker view of God, the Divine, or “whatever you call it”. ~ Jennifer Kavanagh, author of The World is our Cloister

  • Quaker Quicks - Telling the Truth About God
    Rhiannon Grant
    I enjoyed this very much, and even found it unexpectedly moving. I love the accessible, conversational style, the commitment to seeing the issues from multiple perspectives, and the embrace of the messy reality of our feelings, conflicts and struggles in community. ~ Craig Barnett, author of Quaker Renewal

  • Psychedelic Christianity
    Jack Call
    Psychedelic Christianity is not a book about Christian information, it is more of a transformational reading experience. The term “all in all” is explored in how a psychedelic trip can bring you towards an experience in the truth of the Word and remain in the Word. Psychedelic Christianity may be a book ahead of its time! This is a read that has a Divine lure which includes and transcends the tradition; a bold view of the Kingdom of God. ~ James F. Skalicky, Ph.D., Psychotherapist, Professor of Psychology, Citrus College (ret.)

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