Timothy Keller – Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Sceptical
Hodder and Stoughton 327 pages £16.99 ISBN 978 1 444 75019 5

For almost three decades Tim Keller has been a church planter in Manhattan. He has been involved in planting a multi-congregation church, in what must be one of the hardest mission fields in the western world. This book is the fruit of arguing for the gospel in that environment. 

Evangelistic books tend to fall very much in two categories: home and away. Keller’s previous book, The Reason for God, falls into the former category, presenting an apologetic case for the major beliefs of the Christian faith. Making Sense of God, by contrast, falls into the latter category as Keller engages with the major objections made by sceptics when they dismiss Christianity or any other religion. 

Keller marshals a vast array of evidence to make the case that a rationalistic, material view of the universe is an unsatisfactory explanation for life as we know it. He deals with the views of others with courtesy and fairness, as he attempts to undermine them and reveal their flaws. The final chapter does swing us back nearer to home with a survey of the distinctive truth claims of Christianity.

This would be a great book to read if you want to strengthen your confidence in God in a world that often seeks to reject, marginalise or ignore him. Whether this Christian book is sufficiently rooted in the ‘away’ to gain a wider readership remains to be seen. I do hope so; the high profile of Keller in New York, and the US in general will ensure interest.

Yet a final story that Keller tells in the epilogue implies that what tends to win people to Christ is not a clearly articulated argument but encountering people with an authentic Christian life and testimony. Read the book, pass it on to a friend, who is sceptical about God but be yourself, the radiant advert, that if God is real, they will see the difference in you.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

The Dave Walker Colouring Book
Canterbury Press £7.99 48 pages ISBN 978-1848258976

Anyone knowing, worshipping in, or working in the Church of England (and plenty who don’t) know about the wonderfully witty cartoons of Dave Walker, either via his Church Times cartoon, cartoonchurch.com or several collections that have been issued in recent years.

He has the knack of putting his finger on the eccentricities and peculiarities of the Anglican Church, and its local church expressions, but doing it with such affection and love that few could possibly be offended - even when there are some genuine points to be addressed.

So it’s a joy to find an A4 size colouring book that gives the reader the chance to enjoy the fun and have a bit of therapeutic colouring in. You’ll find many favourites here with more than 40 cartoons covering everything from the contents of the verger’s cupboard to the joyful anarchy of the toddler group, what people really think about during intercessions, and a glimpse inside a clerical outfitters.

Buy two copies – one for you, and one for a friend.

Russ Bravo

Henri Nouwen – Life of the Beloved and Our Greatest Gift
Hodder ISBN 976 1 473 -63534 0 168 Pages £8.99

James I Packer – God has Spoken
Hodder ISBN 978 1 473 63709 2 170 Pages £8.99

I guess that there have not been many reviews that have combined books by Henri Nouwen and JI Packer. They both have books published in the Contemporary Hodder Classics series. 

The words contemporary and classic point to what it special about both these books: they are classics because they have been around for some time, and they are contemporary, not merely because they have new covers but because they still speak with freshness to this generation.  These two voice still need to be heard; maybe there is a greater need for them to be heard today.

Packer seems to have the ability to clearly address issues facing the Church, at the very time they need to be tackled. Again and again he comes up trumps, on knowing God, the work of the Holy Spirit and what it means to be a Christian. Perhaps one of his most crucial contributions is what he has written about Scripture.

Packer wrote God Has Spoken in 1979, two years after Time magazine dubbed 1977, the Year of the Evangelical; people were intrigued by an evangelical view of Scripture but also sceptical about it.  This book stiffened confidence in Scripture for a generation of Christians in the 1980s, which was maybe the hardest decade to evangelise in the past 40 years. It is still worth a read.

Henri Nouwen has the ability to remind me of what it means to be a whole human being, rather than a compartmentalized one. His book in this series combines two little books that talk about how we remind ourselves to remain in an active experience of God’s love, and how we embrace the gift of living and dying.

Give them a try.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle, West Sussex

Tiny Churches - Dixe Wills
AA £16.99 320 pages ISBN 978-0-7495-7768-1

Dixe Wills, chronicler of some of Britain’s lesser known quirks and eccentricities, has turned his attention to the tiniest churches England, Scotland and Wales have to offer.

These kind of national guides can often fall into one of two flawed categories: the comprehensive, hefty tome full of erudite information but largely dull to read and inaccessible for the non-specialist, or the admittedly entertaining but largely superficial sweep around the subject, poorly researched and hugely patchy in its scope.

Gloriously, Dixe Wills has avoided both these traps, and put together a wittily written guide that is genuinely accessible and educational, but great fun too. He has an eye for the oddball, yet this never descends into irreverence and cheap laughs.

You’ll learn a lot about church architecture, local history and the intriguing way some of our tiniest churches have survived over centuries of plagues, civil war, religious upheaval and dodgy landowners.

There are service times and contact details for each church listed, so you can check it’s open when you want to visit. Lavishly illustrated with beautiful photography, it’s a great read and ideal for popping in your bag if you’re travelling around the UK. Highly recommended!

Russ Bravo

Kevin J. Vanhoozer – Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the church’s worship, witness and wisdom
IVP ISBN 978 1 78359 426 9 323 pages Price £9.99

Kevin Vanhoozer is a prolific author, who has written a number of books about the role that Scripture has in the Christian life, church and society. This book is collection of sermons, talks and articles on this theme. 

The author creatively uses his imagination to see the theme as a picture gallery with a foyer and three galleries. In the foyer we look at the foundation of biblical thinking in the nature of Scripture itself. The three galleries are the Church’s worship, witness and wisdom. 

The collection is a bit of a mixed bag, with some chapters being written at a more popular level and some being a little more demanding. Compared to the average Christian book, this one will require pacing yourself and letting your mind undergo a good workout! 

The key message that Vanhoozer wants to communicate is the importance of having a life that is shaped by Scripture; for him, being biblical is not merely being informed by Scripture but being daily formed by Scripture. 

In this way the reader will be helped to form a Christian mind, and thus be daily equipped to think clearly, love well and delight to do God’s will.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle in West Sussex

John Young and Greg Hoyland – Teach Yourselves Christianity: A Complete Introduction
Hodder and Stoughton ISBN 978 1 473 61578 6 348 pages Price £14.99

I remember the old Teach Yourself books with their distinctive black and yellow covers; they were a great interactive way to learn anything from Chinese to Calligraphy.

Here we have a carefully updated version of the Teach Yourself guide on Christianity. In four main sections the book deals with:

  • The Central Figure: Jesus (and the Bible)
  • Christian Belief and Practice
  • The Christian Church (and its history)
  • The Modern World (and its challenges)

The authors make the bold claim: “Get all the answers FAST in this ultimate, ONE STOP GUIDE.”  

Does the book deliver on its promise? The book does manage to pack in more into a small space than the most experienced traveller can cram into a cabin-approved suitcase. It has an impressive sweep that gathers in an astonishing amount of detail but in a very readable style. It is impressively up-to-date including serious engagement with contemporary issues like Christianity in the public square, secularism, postmodernity, the new atheists, and the opportunities and threats posed by the internet.

Inevitably there are some generalisations and omissions. Are all reformed churches austere? Why no meaningful reflection on what it means to be united to Christ or on the doctrine of justification? That being said, this is a brilliant book for giving a readable overview of what Christianity is all about.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Paula Gooder – Body: biblical spirituality for the whole person
SPCK ISBN 978 0 281 07100 5 Price £9.99

You can’t judge a book by its cover! This book is not quite what it seems at first sight. The title and the cover suggest a gentle reflection of holistic spirituality. The book itself is a robust and careful biblical study on the place of the body in Christian thinking and practice. 

Gooder contests that the use of the term spirituality can extenuate the idea that being spiritual has nothing to do with our bodies. To move beyond this, somewhat Greek philosophical idea of the body, the author takes the reader through what the Bible has to say about the Christian life being a body-affirming and embodied state. 

Gooder suggests that keeping body and soul together in our thinking helps us to have a healthier view of our bodies now and in the future. If our bodies are not a prison house for the soul, and if our eternal future is not a jettisoning of the body like a short-lived booster rocket into a free spirit future, then we begin to get a handle on how God views our bodies. 

It will involve some patience to work through this book but if you do, you will never look in the mirror the same way again.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Michael Reeves and Tim Chester – Why the Reformation Still Matters

Inter-Varsity Press ISBN: 9781783594078 175 Pages Price £9.99
The 16th century saw enormous changes to European Christianity and the questions, answers, and insights of reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and William Tyndale still mould Protestant churches around the world. As Michael Reeves and Tim Chester emphasize in this accessible introduction to the theologies of the reformers, their most stunning achievement was to put Christ, revealed in the Bible and dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit, at the centre of their faith.

“None of this has become any less important or any less relevant down through the centuries”, the authors write. “Still today Christians display a strong gravitational pull away from knowing God.”

The great writings of the Reformation are worth reading and rereading because Luther’s struggles are in many ways ours too. It is all too easy to try to make myself good enough to please God or to try to know God through study or meditation, rather than in humility and suffering.
Reeves and Chester explore Reformation theology one theme at a time, explaining justification by faith, the authority of scripture alone, sin, grace, the theology of the cross, union with Christ, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, the church, and living as a Christian in the work-a-day world.

This is not a history of the Reformation, and the books tells a rather simplistic, black-and-white story in which Catholics are bad and Luther suddenly bursts on the scene with all the right answers all at once. Readers hoping to understand why and how the Reformation took place are likely to end up disappointed, but this book is nonetheless a valuable reminder of the why Christ’s victory on the cross matters so much.

Roland Clark is Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Liverpool. He blogs regularly here.

Richard Rohr – Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps
SPCK ISBN 978 0 281 07512 6 147 Pages Price £9.99

Richard Rohr is the spiritual guide of choice for many in what has been called the “Emergent Church”. People like Brian McClaren and Rob Bell value the profound, yet deceptively simple writings of this Franciscan monk.

What I like about his books is that they take the Bible seriously as the source of wisdom in life, but move beyond the simplistic use of the Bible that can often be a feature of evangelical preaching and writing. Rohr stretches the mind, probes the heart and prods the will into action. 

This book takes the Twelve Step Programme of Alcoholics Anonymous and develops a Christian response to the things to which we can become addicted. Rohr suggest that addiction might be a good contemporary way to think of the traditional idea of “sin”.

Some will find that like his mentor Thomas Merton, Rohr is a little bit chummy with Buddhists; there is always a danger of blurring the lines. Yet this caution notwithstanding, Rohr provides a well laid out workout for the soul; pointing to a wisdom that spells genuine freedom.

In addition to the study questions in the book, SPCK have produced a Companion Journal (ISBN 978 0 281 07514 – 7; Price £9.99) that provides a useful resource for thinking through the issues raised in the book.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

John Piper – Living in the Light: Money, Sex and Power – Making the most of three dangerous opportunities

The Good Book Company ISBN: 9781784980511 154 Pages Price £8.99

There is always something robust, fresh and compelling about a book from John Piper. Living is the Light is, as you would expect from Piper, a book thoroughly grounded in the Bible, passionately argued and personally applied.

Piper when dealing with money, sex and power, asserts that: “The world has stolen what belongs to believers”. When we are drawn into the darkness of distance from God, who is light, we end up with a distorted and ultimately unsatisfactory experience of all three. 

For example, on sex he suggests that:

“When the planet of sex, which is itself a good thing, comes into the gravitational pull of an alien star, it is drawn into illicit orbits. The most common alien star is a burning preference for sex over God … Only when the sun of God’s satisfying glory is the centre of the solar system of our lives will sex find its beautiful, holy, happy orbit.”

Piper argues that when we look for love in all the wrong places and all the wrong people, we are left disappointed and unsatisfied. Yet if we are to genuinely live in the light we must come to the light by seeking God’s glory. Piper writes: “When God’s glory is revealed and treasured most, the power of sinful attraction is broken.” 

In a world increasingly addicted to the pursuit of money, sex and power, this small but substantial book would repay careful reading.

John Woods

David Garrison – A Wind in the House of Islam: How God is Drawing Muslims around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ

Wiglake 303 pages ISBN 978 1 939124 03 6 £13.99

This is an astonishing book. With careful grassroots research, the author paints a picture of the state of play in the attempt to bring the gospel to the Muslim world.

David Garrison divides Islam into nine geographical houses, providing a historical perspective on each before bring the reader up to date with what is happening now.

What emerges is the story of a long slow process of minimal gospel growth within the Muslim world, accompanied by severe persecution of those who have become Christians. Yet what is so exciting is the narrative of modest, yet steady growth in each of these nine houses in the 21st Century.

This book provides examples of the methods that have been effective in reaching Muslims for Christ. It is interesting to note that many are using the Koran itself to demonstrate that Mohamed is not the ultimate prophet, thus undermining some of the central claims of Islam.

At a time when ISIS are wreaking such havoc and causing considerable fear, this book  provides much encouragement and fuel for praying for more to come to faith within the House of Islam.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle in West Sussex

Kyle Idleman –The End of Me: Where Real Life in the Upside Down Ways of Jesus Begins
David C Cook £9.99 218 pages
ISBN 978 1434707079

Some might find this book a little too American, or a bit too simple, and the jokes rather corny. Yet there is a freshness of approach here that often creeps under the reader’s radar.   

We all need daily reminders that the beginning of experiencing more of Jesus is learning to come to the end of me! 

Starting off with the beatitudes of Jesus, idleman (he must have had fun at school with a name like that) helps the ready explore ways in which Jesus can enable and fill us when we honestly face our weaknesses. Some might see a little irony in a book that has contains so much detail about the author being called The End of Me!

The author has an approachable, simple self-depreciating style that disarms the reader and helps the medicine go down. The book contains simple reflections on biblical stories, lots of personal anecdotes and some gentle application to life. 

This easy read will sometimes make you smile and sometimes make you laugh; it should also lead you to take yourself a little less seriously and help you to learn to take the way of Jesus more seriously in your life.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Virtually Human: Flourishing in a Digital Age – Ed Brooks and Pete Nicholas
IVP ISBN 978-1-78359-7 174 pages £8.99

The authors of Virtually Human have produced a book that is accessible, well-researched, biblically based and carefully applied to everyday life.

The book takes up the challenges and opportunities of living in an increasingly digital age. Particularly welcome is the emphasis on being grateful to God for technology, and the encouragement to learn from him how we can use technology as a tool, rather than allowing ourselves to be controlled by the technology we encounter. 

Social media, time, sex and the pursuit of knowledge are used as examples of how digital technology can invade and shape our lives in ways that dehumanise us and use others. 

By contrast the authors provide help from scripture and Christian history to demonstrate how we can use technology as a servant, rather than allow it to become our master.

There probably is no area of life that is not affected in some way by new digital technologies. Whether we are a primary school child with a smartphone, a silver surfer or a technophobe, we need to learn how to navigate our way around the brave new world of technology.

This helpful little book is a great place to start.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Don’t Beat Yourself Up: Learning the Wisdom of Kindsight – Tania Bright
Lion Hudson £8.99 ISBN 9780857216632

Reading this book was like curling up on my favourite couch with my best friend for a good chat! Tania Bright manages to write with the wisdom of experience, the gentleness of a sister and the prayerfulness of a mentor. This book is so honest; at times it is as intimate as reading someone’s journal, but that kind of honesty is worth gold, as we battle with low self-esteem and the guilt in our lives.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up is one of those rare books that, having been read once, will be kept on the shelf and dipped in and out of through my ministry – especially as I encounter women and girls who use their Christianity as an excuse to berate themselves for past mistakes and low self-esteem. This is a very practical book, bringing real-life experience together with a solid faith in God’s healing and forgiveness. 

Tania has struggled with low self-esteem, she has made mistakes and yet she has learned that with ‘kindsight’ she can look back lovingly and learn from these experiences. She has learned to be kind to herself. 

That is a wonderful gift to share with others.

Rev Sara-Jane Stevens, Assistant Curate, St Matthew’s Church, Worthing

Timothy Keller (With Kathy Keller) –  My Rock my Refuge: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms
Hodder and Stoughton £12.99 372 pages ISBN 978-1-976-473-61422-2

I was interested in this book for several reasons: I love the Psalms; as Martin Luther said: “All of Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us.”  I also enjoy the format of a one page a day devotional that covers the whole year; it is a great way to keep a regular pattern of reading, prayer and reflection.  

The third reason is that Tim Keller is one of my favourite authors. So what is there not to like about this book? Not much!  

Each day there is a section from a psalm, a brief reflection and a prayer. Over a year the whole Book of Psalms is covered. Each day has just enough for a brief time of worship and reflection at the beginning or end of the day.  

Keller explains that the creation of this book took three attempts; each time the material was trimmed and simplified to make it more accessible and readable. I am glad that the Kellers made the extra effort – it was well worth it as it makes this devotional more succinct and useful.  

Why not treat yourself for one to use next year? While you are at it, buy a couple more, this book would make a great gift for Christmas, birthdays, or for a couple getting married.

Paul David Tripp – Awe: Why it Matters in all we think, say and do
IVP £9.99 198 Pages ISBN – 978-1-78359-377-4

“Don’t let me lose my wonder” (Keith and Kristyn Getty). That is how Paul David Tripp begins the first chapter – and his radical suggestion is that awe is not simply an add-on in our lives, it is to be at the very heart of our lives. He argues that we can only understand our lives if we see that we are wired for awe, and in particular awe of God.  

I guess that when we think of awe we think of standing before a jaw-dropping sunset or mountain range, or we picture ourselves at a special time of worship lost in wonder, love and praise. Yet because awe does not always filter down into our everyday lives Tripp has written this useful book to take the lid off why we are as we are.  

Tripp traces all of our problems to a lack of awe. It makes sense when you think of it; we imagine that all our problems are at a horizontal level, but what if we act as we do because of a lack of awe in our vertical relationship with God? Although at times it can appear as if Tripp is spreading his idea a bit too thin, this is a useful book that can help us to regain a sense of who we live for.

John Woods is Pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

The Unofficial Bible for Minecrafters (LionHudson £12.99)

Minecraft is a computer game much loved by teenagers and younger, but most likely baffling to the rest of us. So we asked Minecraft gamer Reuben Moreman (12) and his older brother Alex (14) to give us their verdict …

I enjoyed it because even though I know these Bible stories, they are giving you a new perspective.

It is clever how they have used the captions and the speech bubbles to add a new view – a lot of effort has gone into creating the scenes. As a regular Minecrafter I found these good detailed images which help tell the story.

The tower of Babel is a huge tower which could take days to build in the Minecraft world and it is quite an impressive achievement.  For a Minecraft fan who had never read the bible and was interested in finding out the story of the bible and what Christians believe this would give them something which they could understand and get hold of.

One problem, however, is putting something like the Bible into Minecraft (just a game) means it doesn’t fully take on the seriousness of what the bible really means.  I would recommend it to someone who is interested in Minecraft to find out about the Bible and then maybe move them on to something more.


The Bible is quite a complicated book and for the target audience I think that they have done a really good job of simplifying some of the stories so they are understandable. They have also done well by managing to get some of the background information and morals of the Bible in so that it is not just about interesting stories.

One of my favourite points is the way they use speech bubbles at the start of chapters to add a sense of how the people in the stories might have been feeling. The layout of the book into chapters is really helpful and allows you to read the book in small chunks. Through many of the stories there is plenty of humour which for the target audience makes it an easier read and is definitely a good thing.

The pictures are very good representations of what was happening and this helps expand the reading age for this book as some very young children play Minecraft, and so this could be good for parents to read with young children who are Minecraft fans. This set of Bible stories ends with the Gospel story which is understandable as it could be harder to tell stories after that but overall they have done a really good job.


Billy Graham – Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, And Our Life Beyond
Thomas Nelson 267 pages £9.99 ISBN 2 370000 240453

Billy Graham hardly needs an introduction or a recommendation from me. This book is a reflection on eternity, and it draws from decades of Graham’s meditations and sermons. 

There is a unique combination of the strangely familiar and the fresh. The format is fresh; Graham takes a brisk walk though every book of the Bible to see what the whole book says about his subject. At first sight this seems like a recipe for a ponderous plod through Scripture. As it happens Graham uses such a light touch that he manages to land a foot or two on every section of the biblical journey, extracting something distinctive from each section. 

The content is classic Billy Graham. In this book we have simple observations on Scripture, well told stories, references to current events and world history, personal application, and a well-developed instinct for finding evangelistic opportunities in unexpected places. 

We are also reminded of some of the world leaders Graham has rubbed shoulders with over the decades. While some – the Nixons for example – are controversial, it is impressive that Graham has maintained friendship and integrity in these encounters.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Michael Green – When God Breaks in: Revival can happen again
Holder and Stoughton £9.99 228 pages ISBN 978 1 444 78795 5

Michael Green in is a great enthusiast, a racy writer, and highly skilled at compressing complicated issues into succinct explanations. This book is indeed a tour de force through the high spots of 2000 years of Christian history. 

From Pentecost to the phenomenal growth of the Chinese Church, Green traces the moves of God at key moments in the story of the Church. Some might find that the book leans a bit heavily on a charismatic reading of history; there is a bit of that here.

Yet if the reader looks beyond that, there is an exciting and stimulating reminder of what God has done, is still doing today, and what he might do in the future.

Green suggests that there are some features that always feature as a prelude to a fresh spring of spiritual awakening: prayer, holiness, awareness of eternal destiny, and return to Scripture. Then, adding a cold burst of reality he reminds us of the inevitable accompaniment of a fresh move of God: suffering.

May this little book stimulate the 21st Century Church to ask God to break in to the lives of his people so that we might be equipped to be lights in a dark world.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Henk Stoorvogel and Theo van den Heuvel – The 4th Musketeer: Living in the Service of the King
Monarch 253 pages £8.99 ISBN 978057216748

This is a creatively written book that has grown out of the men’s ministry 4th Musketeer, founded by the authors. It uses extracts from Alexander Dumas novel The Three Musketeers as headings for each of the chapters of the book.  

The authors write about the complex adventure of living that men face in the 21st Century. It takes a few chapters to get into the mood of the book, which is a mixture of biblical reflection (which although helpful is occasionally a little off centre) powerful true life stories, and bone crushingly personal applications to everyday life.  

At many points I was moved and challenged by this book about who I am as a man and what I am doing with my life. It is always useful to have a bit of an M.O.T of our lives from time to time; reading this purpose helped me to get under the bonnet of my life and get tuned up. 

This would be a good book to recommend for men’s groups; helpful study material is available from the authors online. This would make a great present for a father, husband or a son.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Sean Oliver-Dee – God’s Unwelcome Recovery
(Monarch £8.99 185 pages ISBN 978 0 85721 630 1)

Sam Harris – Waking Up: Searching for Spirituality Without Religion
(Black Swan £9.99 245 pages ISBN 9781784160029)

This might at first seem an odd combination of books to deal with in one review; yet both confirm that spirituality is far from dead in the western world. 

Harris promotes the view that it is possible to be spiritual without being religious. He writes:

“20% of Americans describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do…” yet he does eventually admit that “Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism …”

To my mind this presents the Church with an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is to reclaim an area that has traditionally been our turf. The challenge is that when we use the language of spirituality, we are clear about what we are affirming. 

Harris has some interesting observations about how similar some some Christian mystics are to Buddhists! His ideas have been shaped by a number of Eastern thinkers; it is worth asking what he finds so odious about Christianity, and what we could do about it?

Harris himself is not entirely clear in his mind about what represents spirituality, particularly how meditation works in a world disconnected from God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is all rather like those arguments about keeping the code fo Christianity without its creed; it does not work. It is rather like trying to drive a car from which the engine has been removed.

Which brings us to Sean Oliver-Dee’s book which claims that the rumours of the decline of Christianity in Britain have been greatly exaggarated. If his statistics stack up (and we all know what they say about statistics), the Church in Britain had a net gain of over 300,000 in the decade between the census taken in 2001 and 2011. Interestingly he claims that this cannot entirely be attributed to the massive growth of Black Majoriy churches or Polish Catholic immigration.   

His book contains some fascinating details, a few interesting proposals and a challenge to think more carefully about the state we are in. The danger is that it teeters between despair and complacency. If we find that we have £100 more in our current account than we thought we had, we must be careful not to go on a wild spending spree as a result. 

If the state of the Church in Britain is slightly better than we imagined, there is a cause for some encouragement, but before we pat ourselves on the back, it might be worth analysing why we don’t feel very optimistic about the future of many of our churches.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

The Dark Night of the Shed: Men, the midlife crisis, spirituality – and sheds by Nick Page
(Hodder, £14.99, 223 pages, ISBN 978-1-473-61683-7)

If I had to choose an author to sit in a pub with, put the world to rights, enjoy a beer, share a few jokes and prod the hairy subject of God and the male midlife crisis with a stick, there are few I'd choose over Nick Page.

Something of a veteran of more than 70 books, Nick has been ploughing his own inimitable furrow for many years now and has really got the knack of producing engaging, thought-provoking, helpful yet entertaining reads you actually want to finish. There are still too many Christian books I start, plod on with for a bit, before sighing and wanting to throw them out of the window.

The Dark Night of the Shed asks all the kind of questions men ask when they reach midlife, and gently steers us away from some of the half-baked answers we often come up with. Along the way, the author builds a shed.

Few other books can provide that sense of a journey, genuinely do-able devotional suggestions, Biblical insight, lessons from Old Testament heroes and Percy the Park Keeper, generously interspersed with wit, good humour and some healthy self-deprecation.

Well worth a read, whether you're a man of a certain age, his better half … or just fancy building a shed. NB You'll find more supportive gubbins at darknightoftheshed.com

Russ Bravo

The Atheist Who Didn't Exist – Or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments - by Andy Bannister
(Lion Hudson, £8.99, 238 pages)

What a refreshing read! Dr Andy Bannister is the Canadian Director for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), and he's put together a punchy, intelligent, witty book that takes on many of the arguments current in popular atheism, and dismantles them with insight and good humour.

The great skill of this book is that it deals with weighty philosophical ideas and outlooks in a way that helps readers unfamiliar with them to understand what they're saying, as well as probing some of the common atheist arguments that simply don't hold water.

Andy is a bright and engaging writer, and it's an easy to read book. He does make hefty use of footnotes, which can occasionally interrupt the flow, and the book is stuffed with British cultural references that might pass non-British readers by, but for many on his cultural wavelength it certainly is as Adrian Plass describes it "a positive whoosh of fresh air".

The Atheist Who Didn't Exist is a handy book for equipping Christians with ways of engaging with their atheist and agnostic friends, and would also work as a book to give an open-minded non-believer. Buy it.

Charlie Cleverly – The Song of Songs: Exploring the Divine Romance

Hodder and Stoughton ISBN 978 1 444 70204 0 321 pages £13.99

The biblical book Song of Songs is difficult to categorise: it is part-mystical devotional, part-marriage handbook, part-sex manual. How are Bible readers to make sense of the mysterious, multi-layered poetic book that is the biblical Songs of Songs?  Cleverly suggests that one of the ways that we can access this book is to use the biblical imagery of love and marriage used of God and his people to explore the interaction between God and us.

Cleverly is clearly strongly influenced by a devotional reading of this biblical book. At times this can be a little overdone; yet there is something compelling about the emphasis on the beauty of Jesus and the intimacy that believers can experience in their relationship to him.

Perhaps Cleverly in onto something here; maybe we supposed to be a little uneasy about using this kind of devotional language because we know very little of genuine spiritual intimacy. As the author writes: “Often in my tradition, church can feel more like business and competition and striving to succeed, rather than the celebration of heavenly aroma.”

All this being said, I wonder if in pursuing the imagery of sexual relationships as an analogy of our relationship with God Cleverly has missed to opportunity to provide insight into how the Song of Songs can help to improve relationships between men and women. 

In an age of sexual confusion a practical explanation of the committed delight that is at the heart of biblical sexuality might have been very timely.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Brian Houston – Live, Love, Lead: Your Best is yet to come

Holder and Stoughton ISBN 9781 473 61878 7 258 pages £13.99

Brian Houston, the founding pastor of Hillsong Church, has written a fascinating book that is a mixture of motivational talks, sermons, leadership handbook and autobiography. It is always interesting to read books by people who have founded churches that have an impact beyond their own home base, people like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Tim Keller and Brian Houston. None of them aimed to build big churches or have a global impact; these were instead a byproduct of building a healthy church.

This book is about following Jesus. Houston writes: “Living fully, living completely, leading boldly – are the hallmarks of Jesus’ time on earth”. The book is made up of four parts: A Big Life – A Difficult Path – A Narrow Path - A Glorious Future.

Each chapter is headed by a quote from one of the Hillsongs; the cumulative effect of this is two fold: firstly, it is an indicator of how pervasive these songs have become in the global church. Secondly, I was struck by how these songs have so helpfully articulated a wide range of Christian affirmations and aspirations.

I was impressed by an authentic, honest and humble account of how God has used a willing person to build a local community of faith has turned into a movement that touches the nations. Any leader should be able to find help from such a rooted, realistic, and relevant account.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Kate Middleton – Refuel: How to balance work, life, faith and church – without burning out

Darton Longman and Todd ISBN: 978-0-232-53160-2 242 pages £9.99

Kate Middleton on burnout: why is the Duchess of Cambridge writing about stress? Not that Kate Middleton!

This practical book is a game of two halves. Part 1 takes a careful look at what stress is, and then offers a diagnostic model to see if we are stressed and in danger of burnout. The section on how our passion about life can cause us stress was especially helpful. I guess that most of us could do with a little help in sorting out the most appropriate way to emotionally engage with life and what it throws at us.

Part 2 begins to look at how we can go about dealing with stress in practical ways in our daily lives. Here the author uses a number of biblical examples, beginning with the story of Elijah, that aim at providing a biblical underpinning for the principles worked out in Part 1.

This would be a good book to read at a key turning point in life: the end of term, the first week of a sabbatical or between jobs. What I most like about the book was that it is very practical, giving lots of things to think through and do. 

One niggle is the attempt to weave in popular ideas like “Mindfulness” and “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy”, without establishing the ways in which these might be different to Christian practice.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Timothy Keller – Preaching: Communicating the Faith in an Age of Scepticism
Hodder and Stoughton, ISBN 978 1 444 70217 0, £16.99 309 pages

Maybe you know a preacher; perhaps he or she is in need of a little bit of encouragement. Why not buy them a copy of this book by Tim Keller on preaching? Keller has made something of a name for himself as the pastor of multi- congregation Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and through the publication of a wide range of books on subjects as wide-ranging as idols and prayer. 

He has developed an approach to preaching that respects the Bible as the source book of what we preach. In part one of this book Keller writes about how preachers can be better at listening to God's Word as they prepare to preach it to others. 

In the second part Keller explores how preaching can understand the context in which their hearers live. Here preachers can learn to be sensitive to the background, unique questions, objections and pressure points of each hearer. This section would be good for anybody to read because Keller skilfully lifts the lid on how contemporary people think and feel. 

Keller describes this book as more of a “manifesto” than a “manual”. Reading it can be a great motivation to engage in the task of communicating the liberating message of Jesus to a new generation. 

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Tim Chester – Mission Matters: Love Says God
IVP 162 pages £8.99 ISBN 9781783592807

Tim Chester has written a simple and very stimulating book, as part of a Keswick Convention sponsored series on issues that matter today in church and society. The book effectively combines a biblical overview of mission with a rich vein of mission stories, (many related to the Keswick Convention), clear principles of how mission can work in practice and lots of tips on practical issues.

In this way, Tim Chester manages to steer a middle path between a book on mission that is too theoretical or too pragmatic. Instead we have a book that avoids the pitfalls of being merely full of ideas and tips that have no biblical foundation or practical outcome. We are guided into a view of mission that is rooted in the character and purpose of God, shaped by the gospel narrative of Scripture, informed by real life examples and is grounded in down to earth application.

Who would benefit from reading a book like this? It would be great for anyone thinking about being more involved in mission. It would be an excellent resource for getting a clearer view of what motivates mission in the first place and how we begin to work out in practice how the missionary God wants us to fulfil this missionary vision in our lives today.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Steve Chalke – Being Human: How to become the person you were meant to be
Hodder and Stoughton, 306 pages, £12.99 ISBN 978 1 444 78948 5

A book by Steve Chalke is always entertaining, provocative and worthwhile. He has the ability to scratch where people itch as he addresses issues that people care about in terms that are accessible to the average reader. This book on the important subject of "being human" is no exception. 

Chalke seeks to take the ought and the grind out of being a Christian by challenging and looking to dismantle the barriers that keep us from making headway as Christians. In the process he uses some brilliant quotes and tells some great stories. It is difficult to see how one could read a book like this without being helped in some way. 

Yet, there is a but. In the attempt to be inclusive, Chalke is in danger of painting a caricature of more conservative Christians. I guess that one of the key red lines that Chalke challenges is a conservative view of what is happening when Jesus died on the cross. There are many dimensions of the the cross of Jesus; it is always inadequate to stress one aspect, and neglect the others.  In this way those who see themselves as the targets of Chalke's criticism are wrong, but so is Chalke.

So, in short, this book is a mixed bag. Learn from it but read it with care.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Andy Flannagan – Those Who Show Up

Muddy Pearl 2015 ISBN 978 1 910012 19 2 £9.99

Whenever a General Election comes around Christians ask the same question: “How should I vote?” This is a complex question: do we vote for the person, the policy, the principle or the party? 

In many ways the “How should I vote?” question can be an exercise in missing the point. By contrast Andy Flannagan has written an engaging book about how a General Election can be an excellent opportunity to reflect on how we can be more intentional and effective in our political engagement. 

Flannagan weaves a fascinating narrative from the stories of various people who are attached to all the major parties. Here are accounts of people who have shown up and been willing to get involved in the political process. What I particularly liked was that alongside some fairly spectacular stories of Christians being involved in politics there are also stories of people who have made a difference to their community without actually getting elected. 

The point is active political engagement; the willingness of people to get actively involved in the process of thinking through and shaping politics in our nation. Flannagan seeks to root this narrative in two chapters of biblical and theological reflection. 

For me this was the least compelling part of the book. Rather than a sweep through every book of the Bible it might have been better to home in on characters like Joseph and Daniel, and look at the Book of Proverbs in more detail. The chapter on the New Testament is a bit thin and does not do sufficient justice to the Church as a truly counter-cultural movement.

I also felt that Flannagan appeared to place too much confidence in politics and the political process as an agent of change. When the Church becomes too cosy with the establishment, it is often the Church that loses its distinctiveness. With this warning, read the book and pray about how you can show up.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle in West Sussex

Claire PoveyBeyond Beans on Toast: Packed with recipes, Tips and Stories to Help You Survive at Uni (£4.99 – discounts for bulk orders from 10 Publishing)
ISBN: 9781910587072
53 pages

If you remember that Scripture Union booklet It’s Your Move, designed to give to those heading off to High School, you might be interested in Beyond Beans on Toast. It is produced by Festive, a Christian organisation dedicated to working with Sixth-Formers.

The book is beautifully produced and has been put together with creativity and imagination. It is a practical nuts and bolts introduction to university life, rolled into an economical recipe book, rolled into an evangelistic booklet. 

The brief stories of students interspersed between the Uni tips and recipes provide snapshots of how a range of students have encountered Jesus at university. Beyond Beans on Toast is designed to be given to Sixth-formers as they prepare to go off to University. I am sure that prospective students would be delighted to get this as a gift. 

The reduced rates for multiple copies would make this an affordable way of reaching out to our local Sixth Forms and Colleges of Further Education. How about offering one of these to everyone in your town going to university this autumn?

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle in West Sussex

The Little Book of Garden Bird Songs (Fine Feather Press, £12.99)

We often eat at a table in our kitchen, which looks out onto our back garden. It's a great spot for watching the birds that come to our feeders: near enough to see them quite well, but hidden out of sight so we don't scare them off.

Neither of us are great bird experts – we can recognise a few but only the most common – so this book is a lovely simple way of exploring some of the common breeds you might find in your garden.

Teaming great photos with beautifully illustration, it gives you information, figures and fun facts on 12 different birds, along with a push-button panel that allows you to hear each bird's song. Great for using with children, it's also a handy starter reference for anyone keen on enjoying our Creator's feathered friends.

Russ Bravo

Eric Metaxas – Miracles: What they are. Why they happen. And How they Can Change Your Life.

Hodder and Stoughton £16.99 333 pages ISBN9781473604766

I really enjoyed the author’s blockbuster biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so I was favourably anticipating this book. This was especially the case when I read one endorsement that suggested it was “a more personal, anecdotal, and updated version of CS Lewis’ 1947 book on the subject – Lewis with jokes added”; what is there not to like?

Well as it happens quite a bit. The book is a game of two halves; the first half takes a look through biblical miracles, the second is a collection of “miracles” experienced by Metaxas or those known by him personally.

The first half is like the kind of material Philip Yancey produces: a popularizing of a wide range of information that might not be readily available to all readers. The bottom line: it is OK to believe in miracles; the Christian faith is rooted in the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus.

The second half is an odd collection of stories. It is difficult to either affirm or deny their veracity, the author does not really provide us with any criteria by which we can make this assessment. There is some amazing stuff in these stories – but are they all miracles? I think that Metaxas confuses miracles with the mystery of providence. 

Providence is God’s regular engagement with us in our normal lives that keeps us together and gets us from A to B. Sometimes this is ordinary, sometime this is spectacular but it is providence, not a miracle. Overuse a word and it will begin to lose its meaning: awesome, unique or miracle.

Many people will enjoy this book but will be left with little sense of what they are to do with it. In life we are called to trust God, live faithfully and leave the rest to him.

God’s gracious engagement with us is always a special blessing but we need to be careful before we give it the label 'miracle'.

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Prayer: Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller
Hodder and Stoughton 2014 Hardback £16:99
321 pages ISBN 978 1 44 75015 7

Some books offer a few hours of entertainment, insight or escapism but then are tossed aside and soon forgotten. Others like Jim Packer's Knowing God, and CS Lewis' Mere Christianity provide a resource that continues to feed and stimulate us for a lifetime. It is daring to call any 21st century book a classic. Yet I don't think that it would be out of place for this masterly work by Tim Keller.

Books on prayer are often unrealistic and guilt-inducing; we put them down feeling that we could never pray, or they are filled with a bravado that assumes if we follow the three or four steps to effective prayer, we can change the world! Keller has written a demanding book that is probably best read a chapter at a time in an unhurried and prayerful way. It is not always an easy read but if the reader is patient, they will find many helpful ways into meaningful prayer. 

The book is comprehensive in its range, well thought through and eminently practical. Keller has probably read everything, ancient and modern on prayer. With engaging skill he helps us explore the mysterious world of prayer. He does so, not so much as an expert teaching principles, but as a praying man allowing us to eavesdrop on his intimate moments with God. 

Get a copy and spend 2015 reading while making the request: "Lord teach us to pray".

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle

Adventure – Christmas Poems by Mark Greene (Muddy Pearl, £6.99)

This is a delightfully thoughtful, playful and at times moving collection of poems from LiCC director Mark Greene, nicely presented in a hardback, pocket-sized book by Muddy Pearl.

An engaging and unusual invitation into the heart of the Christmas story, 25 of Mark's poems are complemented by David McNeill's contemporary design and powerful illustrations.

You could use it as a devotional aid, give it as a nice gift or even find it an inspiration for awakening your own poetic expression. And of course, you don't just have to use it during Advent!

Russ Bravo

Every Good Endeavour – Timothy Keller (with Katherine Leary Alsdorf)
Hodder 287 pages £9.99 (Paperback edition 2014 ISBN 978 1 444720260 6)

Christian books on work come in two broad categories. There are those that are long on biblical principle but short on practical direction or motivation. Then there are those that are brilliant at looking at the coalface of our workaday world, but have little or no biblical foundations. Keller and his co-author manage to avoid these two polar opposites with a careful exploration of what the whole Bible says about work which is rooted in everyday life. 

Here we see the theological being eminently practical, and the practical always being theologically rooted.

The title for the book comes from the liner notes of John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme. This album was composed to express his gratitude for a deep spiritual experience that made him see his life, including his creative work in a completely fresh way.

Keller’s book is written in three sections:

1 God’s plan for work in which Keller sketches the biblical blueprint for work as dignified cultivation and service.

2 Problems with work when we ignore God’s blueprint. Work becomes pointless, fruitless, governed by selfishness and idolatry.  The last item: idolatry is helpfully explored as any centre around which we build our lives other than God. Keller explains how we can see and challenge the idols that are attached to our view and practice of work.

3 The Gospel and Work: Keller explores how the gospel gives us a new story by which we can re-imagine what we are doing in our working lives. The gospel becomes a new compass to direct our decisions about work, and provides a new power to work for the Lord and others, rather than primarily for ourselves.

Although written in New York, Keller is such an Anglophile that it travel well across the Atlantic.

John Woods - pastor of Lancing Tabernacle, West Sussex

The Bad Christian's Manifesto – Dave Tomlinson (Hodder £13.99) ISBN978-1-444-75225-0

I love reading Dave Tomlinson's books. I know I'm never going to be left feeling indifferent to the contents – I may not agree with all his theology, but maybe that's not the most important thing. What he manages to do is to unpack the generous, compassionate love of God in a way that brings a tingle to everyday life.

Vicar of St Luke's Holloway, he's a regular contributor to Pause for Thought on Radio 2, and has attracted flak in the media for taking the funerals of Ronnie Biggs and fellow train robber Bruce Reynolds. He's even been adopted as spiritual advisor to atheist church The Sunday Assembly.

Each person, each circumstance, each area of life is pregnant with God's presence if only we have eyes to see it, argues Tomlinson. The gospel is a radical invitation to share the welcome of God with those all too easily judged and rejected – an opportunity to see people and love people as Jesus did.

You'll have plenty of questions as you read Dave's take on living as a follower of Jesus in today's world, but before you pigeonhole him as an irreverent liberal, give some time to thinking through the generous inclusivity of his theology, and the heart that sees him mix with and welcome so many society rejects, and point them to Jesus. There's wisdom and grace here many of us can learn from.

Russ Bravo

RT Kendall – In Pursuit of His Wisdom
(Hodder and Stoughton, £13.99, 237 pages) ISBN 978 144 74972 4

There is always something reassuringly familiar and yet remarkable fresh about any book by RT Kendall. That is the case with his latest; those who have read his books before will recognise familiar themes and the usual suspects from the gallery of biblical characters that RT interacts with so skilfully. In some ways he only has one story and one message: the wonderful reality that God works in and through deeply flawed individuals to bring the blessing of salvation and useful service.

The book focuses on how we can gain wisdom and avoid the blind spots of life-wrecking folly. RT defines wisdom as having “The presence of mind of the Holy Spirit”. He explores this theme by looking mainly at a series of Old Testament characters. All of these display wisdom but have glaring blind spots. The book ends with a chapter on the flawless wisdom of Jesus as a pattern for our pursuit of wisdom.

We live in an age that has knowledge at its fingertips with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a screen; yet never has an age been so subject to foolishness. Wisdom is the gift that allows us to use knowledge with skill; this book makes a contribution to the task of putting wisdom back on our radar.

John WoodsPastor of Lancing Tabernacle, West Sussex

Paradoxology: Why Christianity was Never Meant to be Simple (Hodder, £13.99)

What do they say about the definition of an optimist? It is someone who does not have all the facts yet! 

I was reminded of that definition when reading this book. It is possible to go through life blissfully unaware of any complexity, questions or uncertainty. Some Christians make a virtue out of having a simple faith; this is a virtue when the simplicity seeks to avoid the unnecessary complexities of pride disguised as sophistication, or unbelief disguised as scepticism. Yet, it becomes simplistic when Christians refuse to face any inconvenient questions about their faith. There are loose ends in biblical faith; some things do not appear to add up. 

In short there are paradoxes in the Bible that appear at first sight to be at loggerheads. These paradoxes are the subject of this thoughtfully written book. The author is honest about inconvenient questions and loose ends. With an eye to the issues that face Christians in the contemporary world Kandiah explores some of them here. 

I guess that, as for me, some chapters will be more compelling to certain readers than others. For me the chapters on Abraham, Joshua and Job touched the rawest nerves in my consciousness. Read this book and give your faith a workout.

Allow your mind to test your conclusions about the Bible. Like Thomas in the Easter Story, you might find that exploring doubts and questions will bring you to clearer vision.

John Woods

Noah's Ark – Francesca Crespi (Frances Lincoln Children's Books £14.99) ISBN 978-1-84507-937-6

Following the success of Francesca Crespi's The Nativity pop-up book, which sold 200,000 copies worldwide, her follow-up is the beautifully designed Noah's Ark.

Telling the well-known Old Testament story via six elaborate 3D pop-up scenes, it's an ideal book for sharing with 3-7-year-olds, packed full of tabs to pull, flaps to open and screens to unfold.

The text is a simplified retelling of the story which works fine, but it's the rich and evocative artwork that wins the day and will make this a lovely book to return to, sure to be popular with young children.

Russ Bravo

Rob Lilwall – Walking Home From Mongolia (Hodder £13.99) ISBN 978-1-444-74528-3

Adventurer and Christian Rob Lilwall's previous book Cycling Home From Siberia proved a fun and thought-provoking read, charting his journey back to London through 28 countries including Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, and Iran.

So I was looking forward to his latest, subtitled 'Ten Million steps through China, from the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea'. I'm a bit of a sucker for a travel book, particularly when it mixes road trip, exposure to vastly different cultures and a bit of spiritual discovery.

Rob's latest doesn't disappoint on the first two counts, mixing a relationship tale as he and cameraman Leon grapple with each other's company on a 3000-mile test of endurance, with a voyage of discovery through the heart of China. The chapters are short and punchy, there's an unfolding story which keeps you gripped, and the insights into a vastly changing country are fascinating.

My only slight disappointment was the spiritual insights were brief, and Rob's own faith doesn't feature as strongly as I'd hoped. It's still a very readable book which entertains, informs and makes you think, but a little more faith content wouldn't have gone amiss.

Russ Bravo

Brian D. McLaren – We Make the Road by Walking (A Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation) (Hodder £11.99 ISBN 978 1444 703702)

Some authors are safe, sound and reassuring; what you see is what you get. Their writing is reliable but does not always get the pulse racing or set the world alight. Other authors take risks, push boundaries, and unsettle; you are never quite sure where they are going to take you. 

A new book by Brian McLaren is never dull or predictable; he is a creative and imaginative wordsmith, who likes to stay close to the edge. This is what makes this book so very interesting; We Make the Road by Walking is a creative journey through the traditional Christian year, thus is a blend of the progressive and the traditional. The book is designed to be read slowly in bite-size chunks, and can be used by individuals or groups.

Overall the journey through the year with McLaren is a stimulating ride. He encourages the reader to take a fresh look at familiar themes, and encourages the reader’s active participation in the process. Many will find reading this book a beneficial spiritual exercise; a time to slow down to a walking pace, to make room for spiritual formation. 

Yet, there is a cost; McLaren uses biblical stories as placemakers on his journey but often calls into question whether these stories have any historical substance. It can at times seem like looking at the Cheshire Cat’s disappearing smile!

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle, West Sussex

The Silencer – Paul Alkazraji (Highland Books, £7.99)

Having written a book about Albania, God's Secret Listener published by Lion Monarch, I was interested to read a new publication about this Balkan country entitled The Silencer.
Although mine was the true story of Captain Berti Dosti's journey to faith under dictator Enver Hoxha, and Paul Alkazraji's is a fictional thriller, I was fascinated to see how he tackled this project.

The author has been living in the country since 2003 where he met his wife and he now runs a magazine for churches in Albania.

The story is about Jude Kilburn who moves from London with his wife Alex to encourage the new church by publishing a biography of a local hard-man, Mehmed Krasnichi, who has become a Christian but has many enemies from his past.

Ergenekon, a secret group plotting to destabilize Turkey, wants to stop this testimony coming out and what happens keeps the reader on a knife-edge until the final page.
The story is a fascinating glimpse into the problems of resurrecting the Church in a country that had claimed to be the world's first atheistic state.

However, the plot is complex and the author lists the 47 characters at the end of the book to help readers follow the fast-moving story.

The book is a fitting tribute to Berti, the fictional Mehmed and thousands of other brave Albanian Christians whose testimonies helped the Church survive a difficult rebirth and which is now thriving 20 years later.

John Butterworthclick here to read Inspire's story about God's Secret Listener

How to be a bad Christian ... and a better human being – Dave Tomlinson (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99)

You kind of know what sort of book you're going to get from Dave Tomlinson. A former house church leader who found himself increasingly at odds with his evangelical roots and church culture, he started a church in a pub called Holy Joes for disaffected churchgoers, and wrote the famously controversial The Post-Evangelical. He's now vicar of St Luke's, Holloway in London.

So for some, it will mean they will only read his writings primed ready to disagree. For others, they will enjoy his refreshing no-nonsense approach, and look forward to a few sacred cows being slaughtered along the way. I'm somewhere in the middle.

Dave's primary focus is on how God is working in – and using – those with little time for organised religion, creeds and churchgoing. He's more interested in human beings doing stuff that glints with the character of God, whether they self-identify as 'Christian' or not.

And there's the strength and weakness of the book. Yes, we all recognise that the Church can get so wrapped up in doctrines, rituals and tick-box beliefs that the secular stereotype of believers as verse-spouting, 'spot it and stop it' hypocritical bigots devoid of any sense of humanity and reality can be uncomfortably close to home, among some in the theological spectrum.

And yes, it's very necessary for Christians to grapple with the human kindness and goodness imbued with God shown by those who don't for a moment consider themselves believers.

But I'm left wondering exactly what his vision of the Church is – the Body of Christ, or something less than that. He has a lower view of the Bible than most evangelicals would be happy with, and while I like his generous view of a Church that is inclusive and diverse, I wonder how he interprets Hebrews 10:25?

There's a lot of wisdom and insight in here, and I'm glad people like Dave continue kicking at closed doors and asking questions. It's a healthy sign in the Church. Just don't read it if you don't have an open mind prepared to be challenged!

Russ Bravo, Editor

When I Was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson (Virago, £8.99)

The latest offering from Pulitzer prize-winning American novelist Marilynne Robinson is a collection of essays entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books. 

The title is wonderfully indicative of one of Robinson’s most deeply-held beliefs: in the power of literature. For the writer books are a way that people can exercise ‘the most complex organism in the universe’, the human brain, and ponder about what lies at the source of human existence.

Marilynne Robinson, born in Idaho but now living, writing and teaching in Iowa, includes several essays in her collection that address specifically ‘American’ issues. Such issues include the perception of ‘the West’ in American society and how this definition is misplaced and reductive. 

Also, the second essay in the collection, ‘Austerity as Ideology’, is verging on inaccessible for the casual reader who does not have a working knowledge of American political history and philosophy. 

Nonetheless, one of the great triumphs of this book is its accessibility. Robinson writes in a way that is erudite, sophisticated and often beautiful, but never gets too pretentious. This is a substantial achievement in a book that grapples with such lofty topics as cosmology and Calvinism.

The essay entitled Wondrous Love, in particular, is a marvel.  Robinson, a Christian writer, a storyteller, uses the language of some of her favourite hymns as a route into a discussion about the electrifying story of Jesus. That the story of the greatest person who ever lived is preserved and proclaimed across the ages in the form of a written narrative is important, says Robinson. In a world governed by technology, the gospel narratives about Jesus remain timeless and powerful.

While many of the essays in When I Was a Child I Read Books could stand alone and are not necessarily linked by any continuous thread, there is an implicit message present in most of the essays.  This is that Christianity has conceded too much intellectual ground and the author is on the offensive for a large part of this book trying to reclaim some old terrain.

In her final essay Cosmology, Robinson offers a reasoned, compelling and, at times, acerbic refutation of macro-evolution and how it is now accepted as simple fact. One cannot emerge from this essay, which challenges so many notions that are taken for granted in mainstream society, without feeling that they have had their convictions re-calibrated and tested. This is a healthy feeling, one that is sobering and should be experienced often.

For Marilynne Robinson the way to question and probe the issue of human existence is through books, through the many writers down through the ages who have recorded human experience in all its terrific variety. 

Books are not the only way. Even a conversation in the street that is in any way earnest or edifying, says Robinson, can reveal something about the significance of human residence on this planet. However, books are one way of pondering this mystery. 

Reading this convincing and, often dazzling collection, I’d certainly agree with her.

Alistair Shand

Church Actually: Rediscovering the Brilliance of God’s Plan – Gerard Kelly (Monarch, £8.99 ISBN 978-0857212313)

In his latest offering, Christian writer and leader Gerard Kelly strives to tackle that difficult question about where the responsibility of a church should lie. Is it primarily inward – to its members – outward, or a marriage of the two?

Kelly admirably grapples with this question throughout this book. He starts by suggesting that the Church has lost some of its past vigour and zeal when it comes to mission.  

Despite a tendency to generalise about ‘crumbling old cathedrals’ across Europe who now offer nothing to the next generation of young people in the way of vibrant Christian witness and mission, the author makes a valid point.  

Few would argue that churches need to be more focused and willing to engage in communities, locally and globally, to ensure that an entire generation is not prevented from hearing the clear message of the gospel.  

Gerard Kelly tries to get the urgency of this responsibility across through his book and focuses on a different scriptural passage in each chapter, in an attempt to emphasise the importance of reinvigorating churches across Europe.

The book may have benefited from having a few more scriptural references embedded in each chapter's argument to support claims made by the author. Indeed, while the content of the book was engaging and inspiring, there was the tendency to over-adorn each chapter with words and metaphors when fewer or shorter chapters might have resulted in a clearer and more focused ultimate message.

Nonetheless, Church Actually is an interesting read which certainly tackles the important issue of finding a balance between inward and outward missional focus for a gathering of Christians.  

The conclusion Kelly reaches is a convincing one, that churches should be an ‘explosion of joy’ and that this faith and joy celebrated by its members should naturally spark a committed and outgoing passion to share the gospel.   

Alistair Shand

Concrete Faith  by Matt Wilson (£6.99, ISBN: 9780957141414)

Living as a Christian in contemporary western society, in the information age, can adversely affect one’s witness. 

That is why it is so inspiring and refreshing to hear stories like the inception of The Eden Network, as people move out of their comfort zones and take the message of truth to the most impoverished and neglected of communities.

Concrete Faith by Matt Wilson, Mission Director of The Message Trust, tells the incredible story of the growth of The Eden Network since its inception in 1997 in Manchester. 

Placing an encouraging emphasis on physically moving into deprived communities and establishing a home there, Concrete Faith is packed with wonderful stories of how God has transformed the lives of many through Eden and its many willing workers and volunteers. 

Matt Wilson takes great care to stress that community engagement and the building of trust is at the heart of effective gospel ministry.

However, perhaps the greatest strength of the book, and of the work of the network, is a determination to reach all people, however desperate their plight. As a result of this readiness to make a home in communities rife with gang violence, drug addiction and crippling poverty, Matt Wilson suggests that "hope is being born in some of the most unlikely of places". 

The author makes clear, through a series of short testimonies written by some of those helped by The Eden Network, that the message of the gospel is now having a saving impact in previously broken communities. 

And as the Bible promises, this hope "does not disappoint" (Romans 5:5).  

Review: Alistair Shand

Stand Up and Deliver – Andy Kind (Monarch, £7.99, 2011, www.lionhudson.com)

When you pick up a book by a comedian, you expect to be entertained. You don't, however, expect to be made to think – or even on occasion to be moved by what you read.

Andy Kind's "warts and all" recounting of his first year on the comedy circuit is a fun read, with lots of good gags, quirky anecdotes of his larger than life friends, and intriguing insights into life as a comedy newcomer trying to build a career.

But there is more to Stand Up and Deliver than the usual quick and cheap comedy memoir. Andy's honest about his own personal journey – his friends, his relationships, his family and his developing Christian faith.

It's well written, so it's an easy read. It keeps you interested, so you want to know what happens to him on his journey, and what happens to the characters he encounters on the way. And it leaves the way open for a sequel, to bring his comedy story up to date.

Aspiring comedians will also find it littered with useful tips, handy insights and Andy's often tough experiences on and off stage. There's much more grit than glory, which is a good thing, and it's down to earth, so (for those of a delicate disposition) you'll find a bit of asterisked out swearing.

The only minor gripes I'd have are that not every Staffordshire expression translates easily in other parts of the country (I had to look one of them up!) and I struggled with some of the assumed knowledge of 80s kids TV shows. But these are passing quibbles.

A great read, and a good book to give to a friend. Highly recommended!

Russ Bravo, Editor

Love Wins – Rob Bell (HarperCollins: London, 2011)

Rev John Woods writes:

I like Rob Bell. He is creative, imaginative, passionate, and manages to connect with an age group that the church has been struggling to engage for decades. His books, sermons and video parables have painted a picture of Christianity as a script in which people want a part. 

Therefore, I have read this book with critical openness because I respect Bell as a human being and as a Christian leader of compassion and integrity. I have tried not to read much of what has been written about Love Wins before writing this review, but I understand that in some circles the book has been about as popular as a free steak supper in a vegetarian commune. Well this is a review, so here goes:

First, Bell acknowledges that what he has written is not new. I have to agree with him, what he writes he generally writes well, in his usual engaging style but the ground has been covered by others in the past, often more comprehensively, eruditely and evenly. There are also plenty of sane critiques of these views.

Second, Bell is right to question the narrow focus in classic evangelicalism on the need for a signing on the dotted line view of becoming, and being a Christian. Easy-believism, and unproductive ‘faith’ that fails to engage with reality needs to be challenged. 

Bell is also right to challenge superficial views of human destiny and careless and inaccurate portrayals of heaven and hell.

Yet, Bell in challenging evangelical narrowness appears to have opened a door to a breadth of ‘hope’ that is dangerously vague. We ought not to be too eager writing a guest list for heaven and hell, but nor are we to conclude that everybody eventually responds favourably to God’s love.

Thirdly, Bell’s focuses on the love of God; the first biblical text he cites is the first part of John 3:16. The end of John 3 (verse 36) speaks about the wrath of God remaining on those who do not believe. There is no mention of the wrath of God in Bell’s book, unless you count the reference to “this destructive, violent understanding of God” (p.183), or the following:

“God is love,
and to refuse this love moves us away from it,
in the other direction,
and that will,
by very definition ,
be an increasingly unloving, hellish reality” (p.177).

Does this measured prose ring a bell? This appears to be what is being said in John 3, in the end everybody experiences God’s love; either as love or as wrath.

Bell often talks in this book of a distorted view of God; and there are times where evangelicals reading the book must say themselves: “if the cap fits wear it”. Yet we could say to Bell: “Physician heal yourself!”

Bell has made an uncertain sound concerning the nature of God. Telling God’s story, however compellingly, by focusing on his love but dodging his wrath, leaves none of us a winner.

Rev John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle, West Sussex

The Poetics of Contemplation 1 : Love's First Look (2010, printed by MPG Books Group, £8.50) by S C Fordham

I must admit I struggled to review this collection of poems by Sarah Fordham. It’s not that it’s not good poetry, rather that most of the poems just didn’t work for me. I found the majority to be slightly esoteric and not easily accessible.

That said, there are some gems that I loved.

Remember Me is a beautifully moving piece about the penitent thief on the cross beside Jesus, and If I Were a Poet contains some cleverly crafted lines that display Sarah Fordham’s love for language.

I also liked Taken, Blessed, Broken, Given which is almost liturgical in its simple beauty as it first paints a picture of the Last Supper before slipping effortlessly into prayer. 

Sarah Fordham is a keen observer of our world and the social and political aberrations that sometimes make life hard to bear, and she spares nothing of her own emotions as she commits frustration, regret, fear, loss and worship to paper in these poems.

Maybe my initial indifference to some of this collection is due to the need to return for a second or third reading in order to unlock their treasures. So much poetry is intensely personal to the author and it is not always immediately apparent to the reader what has inspired the writing of a poem, and some work is required to make it so.

In spite of my misgivings I would say, if you love poetry and the English language then give this collection a go. It may not have all been to my taste, but for the joy of reading those gems that were, it was well worth the read.

Read more and order the collection at http://scfordham.blogspot.com/    
Martin Collins is Production Manager at CPO, and co-author of Three Sussex Poets (White Door Press, 2009)    

Operation World – The definitive prayer guide to every nation (Seventh Edition, Biblica, £19.99 hardback, £14.99 paperback) by Jason Mandryk

First published in 1974, Operation World has via Patrick Johnstone and WEC International, become the key handbook and resource manual for those committed to global evangelisation, and particularly those devoted to praying for the nations.

The previous edition was published in 2001, three days before 9/11 – and was almost immediately out of date. And that has remained the daunting challenge for Jason Mandryk and his team: charting the detail and data of world and Church where change is accelerating.

The good news is that while any reference book is likely to be overtaken by events, Operation World's seventh edition is as helpful, insightful, informative and challenging as one could wish, and an essential tool for any Christian leader, missionary, intercessor or believer who wants to understand what is happening spiritually around the world.

A useful introductory section helps you understand what the book provides and how best to use it, and there helpful overviews of each continent and region before the country by country breakdown begins.

The section on Afghanistan, for example, includes brief summaries of the country's geography, peoples, economy, politics and religion, before listing both answers to prayer and challenges for prayer.

If you want to work through the book through the year, there are dates at the bottom of each page to keep you on track.

For supporting video and ongoing updates, you can go to www.operationworld.org and there are also DVD and CD products available.

An extraordinary piece of work, this reference books is genuinely indispensable – every church, ministry and prayer group should have one.

Russ Bravo

Losing Faith – Andy Frost (Authentic, £7.99)

Over the years, so many books have been published about sharing your  faith, seeing people come to Christ and preaching the Gospel, you'd think we'd be better at it by now.

The problem, of course, is that only a few have read most of them – and putting things into practice is easier said than done.

So it's good now to see a book that tackles an issue few have handled in the past: people who come to Christ, and then lose their faith. Why do people walk away from Jesus and the church?

Andy Frost, who leads Share Jesus International and works mainly with teenagers and twentysomethings, gets to grips with the issue by listening to people who have walked away and sharing their stories.

There's a good mix of stories, from those brought up in Christian families asking questions about how real their faith is, to those struggling with a faith that has never been grounded in reality and life's challenges.

Each chapter ends with practical tips – questions to answer, challenges on how we communicate our faith and disciple others, ideas to explore.

It's a helpful introduction to a big issue: it's fine for the Church to seek to bring more people through the front door, but it needs to attend to those leaving by the back door.

Faulty discipleship, unrealistic expectations, poor support structures and an unwillingness to develop a robust thought through faith are all areas to be explored further, and hopefully this book will kick-start a fresh examination of this neglected area.

Russ Bravo

An Illustrated History of Gospel by Steve Turner (LionHudson, £18)

This is a knockout book. Steve Turner is always hugely readable, but this lavish 200-page hardback is a delight either to dip into or to work your way through.

The author carefully lays out the historical and social background for gospel music's development, and its subsequent impact on the growth of so many other musical forms from blues and R & B to rock 'n' roll.

With stacks of photos and memorabilia, plus fascinating interviews with legendary gospel artists including Ray Charles, Clarence Fountain (Blind Boys of Alabama), 'father of gospel music' Thomas Dorsey, Jessy Dixon and Bill 'Hoss' Allen, it's a great read and a book that charts gospel music's history up to the present day.

Highly recommended.

Russ Bravo

Adrian Plass – Silences and Nonsenses: collected poetry, doggerel and whimsy (Authenticmedia, £10.99, ISBN 9781850788768)

I'm a great fan of Adrian Plass, so I was delighted to get a copy of his collected poems as there were some I already knew and loved, and others I wanted to get to know.

Culled from 25 years of writing, there is an exhilarating mix here that capture much of the heart of the man and his willingness to be vulnerable before God, and honest with what he finds in church life.

It's probably a volume best dipped into at random, rather than read from start to finish, as although there is a chronological ordering with pieces grouped in sections from 1985 onwards, each section has a very mixed feel and the contents range from the playful and silly to the deeply serious, from reflective and devotional, to baffled and questioning.

One of Adrian's great gifts is making us smile and wince at the same time. His humour disarms us and then delivers a blow to the solar plexus as our foibles and compromises are exposed.

Many of the pieces came from incredibly difficult times for Adrian and his family, others from his visits to dangerous and poor parts of the world, and many from his ongoing love affair with the Church.

Some poems were written as performance pieces, and work best in that way, while others are more meditative and suitable for personal reflection. Everyone will find items they love and which speak to them.

Yes, there are some pieces there that aren't great poetry, but there are some gems too – overall this is a volume you'll want to use, to pass on and to return to. Lovely stuff.

Russ Bravo

Just Because by Rebecca Elliott
Lion Hudson plc – Lion Children’s Books 2010
ISBN 9 780745 962351

Reviewed by Louise Morse
One of the joys of being a parent is being able to read children’s books again. Some adults, like me, never lose their love of a good, illustrated children’s book. Even those they bring home from school with themes so different from our own times: we had Janet and John, and now there’s Salim and Javed. 

Occasionally there’s a new book that brings an old theme into the modern idiom in such an engaging, winsome way that you wonder it hasn’t been done before. 

Clemmie and her younger brother have adventures. You know they include flying to the moon, because of the picture on the front cover. But if you look closer you’ll see that Clemmie is in a wheelchair, in fact, she’s in a wheelchair in many of the illustrations. Because Clemmie "can’t walk, talk, move around much ... cook macaroni, pilot a plane, juggle, or do algebra" explains her brother. "I don’t know why she doesn’t do these things," he adds, "Just because."

We don’t know the boy’s name, because he’s the one writing the story and he doesn’t tell us. But he tells us that Clemmie is a lot like a princess.  "They don’t have to do much, either." Some sisters can be mean, he writes, "They scream and shout, pull your hair ..." 

But Clemmie’s not like that. She makes him feel better when it’s dark, or when there’s thunder and lightning outside. He gets scared, but Clemmie just smiles. For this little boy, Clemmie is lovely, just the way she is. 

Just Because is a truly lovely book. An adult can read it in minutes, but it has the curious effect of grounding you in what really matters. For grown-ups, this is the antidote to the tabloid headlines. For children it’s a story of a boy and his sister, and love.  

Buy it to let your children read it, but secretly, to treasure it for yourself. 

Louise Morse is Media and Communications Manager for Pilgrim Homes

Is God Still An Englishman? How we lost our faith (but found new soul) by Cole Moreton (Little, Brown £20, ISBN 978-1-4087-0180-5)

Is there an authentic English spirituality? How has England in particular changed over the last 20-30 years, and where does God and the Church fit in? What hope is there for those who have left the Church behind but are still hunting for God?

Journalist and writer Cole Moreton's entertaining and engagingly written book is part personal journey, part polemic, part sociological analysis and part Church critique. It will infuriate some, intrigue others and find plenty of readers nodding in agreement at key points. It will certainly make you think hard about what you believe, how the moral, spiritual and political landscape in England has shifted in recent decades, and what the future is for the Church.

He carefully weaves together his own journey into faith and out again with the cultural and sociological changes impacting society and the Church (and the CofE in particular), and explores our shifting shared values have changed our approach to faith.

The book takes in Thatcherism and the Miners' Strike, the Royals and Jade Goody, Archbishops Runcie, Carey and Williams, movements like March for Jesus, the Toronto Blessing, Alpha and more, the new atheists, and the Church's struggles over women priests, the Church Commissioners' financial meltdown and the ongoing sexuality divisions, in painting a nation and national Church in flux.

It's easy to read, but not an easy read. It doesn't settle for the glib, pat answer and is at times painfully honest and uncompromising. Yet it isn't without hope. It charts part of our journey as a nation, and part of Cole's personal spiritual journey. And both, to be sure, have many miles yet to travel.

Is God still an Englishman? is not a book of neat answers – but it is a book that asks great questions. And we need more of those.

Russ Bravo is Editor of Inspire

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