Book Review: The Actuality of Atonement A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition by Colin E. Gunton


As you know, I have started by M.A. at Spurgeon’s college, and part of my assessment is a theological essay. I thought this might be quite fun, as I am someone with lots of opinions (as you know) and an essay is the perfect way to inflict them on someone who is paid to read it. I chose my title from a small selection, and started to read the suggested books. The book by Colin Gunton (see above) is the first one I read.

As you will know from my last blog, the second-hand copy I bought was full of irritating under-linings by the previous owner. I shan’t mention this again. The book was quite difficult to read, as it was very wordy (perhaps I should have been expecting this given the not particularly snappy title). However, a box of Cadbury’s ice-creams helped, and I ploughed my way through.

The book was clearly aimed at readers who know more than me, because there were unexplained references to theologians (who I had never heard of). For example, he starts by describing the work of Kant (a chap born in 1724 who also had strong opinions) and Colin is discussing his views, when suddenly he writes: “… and as Barth has asked, ‘Is it possible…” Who is Barth? Had I missed something, I wondered. I checked back a few pages—nope, no mention of him. I assumed he was another theologian as opposed to Colin’s uncle, but I did feel rather bemused. I felt I should have been warned before his name was suddenly interjected into the debate, it was like everyone knew something that I didn’t. This happened a lot when I was day-dreaming at school, but I feel it’s cheating when it’s in a book. It happens again later in the book, when Colin writes about, “Dr, Carr’s querying…” and “G. B. Caird’s remark…” Who are they? People he met at the bus-stop? It was like when you’re chatting with someone and they pause to reply to a text on their phone. Oi! Introduce your readers first please Colin.

I read the book with the help of a dictionary, because Colin has a better vocabulary than me. I had no idea of the meaning of terms like ‘procrustean’ (something that forces everything to be the same) or ‘fortiori’ (a stronger reason) or ‘Pelagianism’ (Pelagius believed humans are basically good, and it is possible to be perfect/sinless) and although I had heard of Plato, I didn’t know that ‘platonist’ was another way of saying, ‘a dispassionate realist.’ I won’t use these terms in my essay, just in case … (some of them sound a bit dodgy).

Colin described various types of rationalism (helpful for my essay) and then wrote pretty much a whole chapter on what constitutes a metaphor. This was less helpful, but quite interesting. His main point was that when we take a word out of context and use it to explain an image of something else, it makes a good description, but is it reliable? As much of the doctrine of the Bible is explained in metaphors (like Jesus having victory over death—a military image, and people being redeemed—which is a slave-trade image) then do we actually have a clear understanding of what is described, or just a hazy picture/image? If God is too big to be fully known, then we cannot have the correct terms to describe him, so we have to use images/metaphors—but are these reliable? Interesting point.

One thing Colin writes (which I can definitely use in my essay) is:

“The language…does not then give us a theory, something final and fixed forever, but one way into a many-sided reality with which we are concerned. It helps us, that is to say, to come to a measure of understanding of some aspects of the way in which the Bible sets forth in language the saving action of God in and towards his world.”

I like when people are a little uncertain, when they don’t think God and theology can be packed into the little box of our brains.

Colin makes the point that we all use the language of our time and culture, and so too did the authors of the Bible. Therefore some of the images which relate to the slave market, or Roman conquest, might be misunderstood by later readers. He writes an interesting chapter on demons, and whether these are ‘individuals’ (like people but somehow spirits) or forces (as in evil influences). The words used in the ancient manuscripts meant different things to later readers. All very interesting.

I’m not sure if I would recommend you read this book, unless you are interested in studying theology, because it is not hugely accessible. However, if you are interested in reading something difficult, buy a box of ice-creams and set aside a weekend for some heavy reading. Colin makes some interesting points.

Anne E. Thompson
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Who Needs Theology?


Who Needs Theology by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson

This is an interesting book, which outlines exactly what theology is, and how it might be applied. Although the beginning is somewhat repetitive, the authors do thoroughly explain things, and if the concepts are new this would be helpful. The writing throughout was clear and easy to understand, and it was regularly smattered with examples from the Snoopy comic.

One slightly irritating aspect was the printing of the book. The typesetter had not kept the words complete, and on some pages there were many words split with a hyphen. When reading unfamiliar words, this was unhelpful. (I suspect it was done to reduce the number of pages and therefore the cost, but was, in my opinion, a mistake.) But if you can ignore the physical aspects (and I am being picky so you may not even notice) the content was excellent.

Irritating hyphenated words.

I especially enjoyed the description of different types of belief, such as the explanation of dogma, doctrine and opinion. The Bible contains many truths and rules. Some of these are dogma, i.e., if you don’t believe them, you aren’t a Christian. They include things like that there is only one God (so if you believe there are many gods, you cannot call yourself a Christian).

Then there is doctrine. A doctrine is a belief that is considered important by certain churches, and they would not allow you to be a leader in their church unless you believe them—though you would still be a Christian. For example, some people believe you should be baptised by being fully immersed, when a believer. They would not allow someone who believed in infant baptism to lead their church, though they would recognise them as being Christian.

Lastly, there are some parts of the Bible that are interpreted according to opinion. Two people might both be Christians (same dogma) both belong to the same church (same doctrine) but one might think women should wear a hat to pray, and the other think that’s irrelevant in modern times (different opinions).

Churches/Christians decide what is dogma, and what is doctrine, and what is opinion. Sometimes they disagree. Of course they do! However, it is helpful to keep these categories in mind when discussing issues. I have heard people protest that if you start saying one part of the Bible should be interpreted in the light of contemporary culture, where do you stop? The answer is now clear—you stop when you reach the truths that make up our dogma.


The book also includes a brief outline of church history:

The first Christian emperor, Constantine, called together the leaders of the church from all the Christian cities in the Roman Empire to write a creed stating what it meant to be a Christian. They met in Nicea (because Constantinople was still being built, and no one likes visitors when the builders are in). They wrote the Nicene Creed, which basically said that to be a Christian, a person must accept that Jesus was equal to/of the same substance as God. This was dogma (non-negotiable).

Until 1054, the church was unified.

In AD 1054: the church split into:

1) Eastern Orthodox (who believed that everything that was decided in Nicea in AD 325 and AD 787 constitutes a definitive body of Christian doctrine—so nothing should be changed.)

2)Roman Catholic Church—this includes the ‘Holy Office’ which decides what should be dogma/doctrine/opinion. They decided, for example, that dogma should include the immaculate conception of Mary, and her bodily assumption into heaven. This church has been further split as follows.

In 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk nailed 95 points for debate to the cathedral door. This evolved to become a new wing of the church, which protested the Roman Catholic emphasis of the authority of popes and councils—it was therefore called the Protestant Church. This then split again:
Luther founded Lutherism.
Zwingli and Calvin founded the Presbyterian church.
Cranmer helped establish the Anglican church (when Henry VIII wanted a divorce).
Simons led the Anabaptists/Mennonites.   

These wings of the church (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) were all Christian. They all believed the same basic dogma.

In the early nineteenth century, modernism arrived. The Protestant church began to view Biblical truths in the light of modern culture—in some cases, refusing to believe things written in the Bible unless they complimented modern thought. The Roman Catholic church rejected modernism, thereby also rejecting scientific discoveries, the rights of humans, and so on. The Protestant church divided into two groups—those called ‘liberal’ who at their most extreme would only believe Biblical texts if they could be ‘proven’ by modern thought (so they rejected miracles as superstition, for example) and ‘fundamentalists.’ Fundamentalists at their most extreme tried to make all belief dogma, producing a tight list of everything found in the Bible and declaring that none was a matter of doctrine or opinion, and to be a Christian everyone must believe exactly the same things.

The book then explores the role of theologians, and how theology might be studied and applied. I found the book very accessible and immensely interesting. It is definitely worth reading if you have any interest in theology, or how the church evolved, and is continuing to evolve today.

Little Women


Little Women

When I was a child, one of my favourite books was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. We owned or borrowed from the library all the books by Alcott, though Little Women was our favourite, possibly because at one time there was also a dramatization of the book on television. It tells the story of four sisters and their mother, and the boy who lives in the big house next door. It’s set in America, and is based on the author’s own life (though I’m not sure how closely). There is something wholesome about the stories, and the characters have flaws and strengths, and are easy to relate to. I guess I was about ten years old when I first read the books for myself.

When I was very young, once a week, we caught the bus to visit my grandad. We would walk up to his house, and he would give us sweets, and then we would escape upstairs to play while my mother chatted and did jobs for Grandad. My aunt and cousin would often visit at the same time, and when my cousin was there, we would often ‘play’ Little Women (this must have been based on the telly series and my mum reading us the stories). Grandad’s house had two spare bedrooms, smelling of mothballs and dust and lavender. There were wardrobes, still filled with discarded clothes from my mother and her sisters, and we used these as our costumes, pulling the dresses—long on our child bodies—over our clothes, and swooshing around the room in them. They felt very grand and we felt beautiful (luckily, no one had phone cameras in those days!) We acted variations of the plot. Every week there was an argument/discussion about who would be which character. My cousin and sister were 3 years older than me, so I had very little influence, and they would only let me play if I was Beth—which meant that I had to spend the whole game in bed, not speaking, because I was too ill. I seem to remember that on one occasion, they told me they were starting the story after Beth had died, so I wasn’t allowed to move or speak. For some reason, this felt completely reasonable at the time.

So, last week, when Bea suggested that I joined her and my mother and went to see the new film of Little Women, I was very keen. We collected Mum, and drove to the cinema, and I worried about whether there would be an easy parking space, and whether our tickets (which were on my phone and unprintable) would work, and if the film would irritate me by shattering my childhood memories.

I wasn’t disappointed, it was fabulous.

Now, it’s a long time since I read the books (now on my ‘to do’ list) but I vaguely remember the story. The film is brilliantly cast, with the characters depicted exactly as I imagined them. However, the plot varies from the books slightly. I once watched a John LeCarre interview, and he said that a film is a very different medium to a book, and something that works for a book might not work as well for a film, therefore a film should be left to the script writers and not be constrained by the original version. I think these are wise words. The essence of the books remains constant, even if the plot has slight differences. As a film, it works brilliantly (I think). I won’t tell you how it differs, because you might go to see it and I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a good way to spend a lazy afternoon.

One aspect of the film, which will strike a chord with any aspiring author, is the difficulty that the character Jo has when trying to get her work published. She is depicted as being just as unsure and nervous as every author who I know today, and you see her motivated by encouragement and wilt when criticised. Clearly writing, whichever age we live in, makes the author feel vulnerable.

Do try to find time to watch the film, I fully recommend it. Though if you’re tempted to re-enact scenes at home, try to ensure you’re not cast as Beth–I can assure you, it’s not a great role.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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Star Wars Review by An Uninitiated…


I’ve never watched a Star Wars film. Ever. Until yesterday, when I went to see Episode 7, The Force Awakens. As none of my family have been particularly besotted by it, I actually knew nothing of the story either. So, would I understand the plot? Would I be captivated by the story? Wowed by the special effects? Here’s how my Star Wars initiation went:

I watched the film at the cinema with friends who had all seen at least some other Episodes. I instructed them to not explain the story to me, I wanted to see how much I understood on my own. (Risky strategy as asking for explanations during films is pretty standard for me at the best of times.) Being at the cinema was an important element – I guessed from sighs and general audience reaction when a character was well known.

The film began with a written explanation. We were introduced to a character, Luke Skywalker. Not, I felt, the most original of names. If I was writing a film and suggested the space man was to be called Ben Moonhopper or Peter Starjumper, I think it would be rejected. Husband was not receptive to this pearl of wisdom.

We then saw what appeared to be giant Playmobil men in a spaceship. I always enjoyed my children playing with Playmobil, so could relate to the decision to include them in a film. They were all white and all identical, which was somewhat confusing until one helpfully put a bloody handprint on his head, thus differentiating himself from the others.

Another character was a giant marble with a sliding head who made squeaky farting noises. The audience seemed to warm to him.

There were lots of people in tatty clothes. I did feel there was a mismatch between the technology needed to produce spaceships and intelligent robots and the technology used in clothing manufacturing. Perhaps it was a fashion statement.

We then met an actor who I didn’t recognise, who had Rufus Sewell eyes (good for acting tension, fear and discomfort during torture scenes. Not someone you would leave to care for small children.)

One of the Playmobil white men removed his helmet, which was a surprise. There was a man inside. He was rather sweaty so I’m thinking the design of Playmobil suits was perhaps not a good one for general use. Also not sure how one would launder them. Husband told me this was irrelevant and would I please be quiet and just watch film. In fact, all the Playmobil men had real people inside them. I am not sure why they wanted to look identical. It would be good to wear on the school run when you had just rolled out of bed.

The next character we met was a girl (dressed in bandages – I really did not get the costume ideas.) She bought a powder that she could add to water and heat and it bubbled up into something that looked like bread. This was intensely interesting. I would LOVE cooking dinners to be that easy.

Although the clothes were rubbish, all the hairstyles were very complicated. Maybe costume budget got used up on hairspray. And sand – there was a lot of sand.

The girl who was the clever cook could also speak lots of languages, including ‘machine’. As well as American and Scottish (particularly tricky one I find.)

The film had lots of machines. Lots of loud wind instrument music (actually, the music throughout was excellent. Well done Mr Williams.) There was lots of sand. Lots of explosions. Lots of props that I recognised from toyshops and fast-food giveaways over the last forty years. There was some good dry humour, some impressive chase scenes and a lot of hair spray.

I was then completely confused when Indiana Jones turned up. Very unexpected. He still has very good hair (which is essential for a Star Wars actor.) No hat or whip but still wore a leather jacket. Another actor also pointed out the jacket. He is a very good actor, I warmed to his character immediately (perhaps because he was the only one I recognised.) Actually, connecting with the characters was something I found difficult. I never felt like I knew them, so didn’t really care if they got blown up. He arrived with a giant teddy/extremely hairy man who had a speech disorder. I never really understood if he came from a planet of hairy beings, was a pet or they were just being inventive with costume ideas.

For most of the film the scenery was fairly stark. There were plants in one bit, when they turned up at a futuristic Hogwarts but mostly it was machines and sand. It didn’t look a very comfortable place to live.

There was enough explanation for me to mostly follow what was happening, though some of the story only made sense if you have seen previous episodes. I knew when a character from a previous film had popped up by the audience reaction and I could tell when something important was happening because the music changed from wind instruments to strings, but there weren’t many clues for the uninitiated in the script. I also got confused by what was spaceship and what was planet. I would see a character enter what was clearly a spacecraft, then when they left it they were in a snow covered forest on a planet.

The plot followed the same basic theme of most other films : Good fighting Evil. There was an added element of The Force, which I never quite got to grips with. For most of the film I thought this was some kind of power that the evil chaps had but then later the good characters said, “May the force be with you.” I have heard this phrase quoted on television so I knew it was famous – I still have absolutely no idea what it means.

The film was well made, had some good special effects, lots of action, some clearly sad bits and happy bits. However, if you have not seen other episodes, there was no real connection and the emotion passed you by. I would say, if you are the other person in the world who has never seen a Star Wars film, watch some of the others first. This one did not really stand alone. You kind of HAVE to watch it because everyone else will but I don’t think it was ever intended to be watched in isolation. Either that or take a book to read……

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Another article by Anne E Thompson:
https://anneethompson.com/christian-tearfund-materials-and-poems/the-world-was-dark/
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