Published by Darton Longman Todd.
I picked up this book because of the similarity of its title to the Henri Nouwen book ‘Letters for Mark about Jesus’ – which had touched me deeply when I read it in my early 20s. Like Nouwen, the author has used a series of apparently personal letters to real-life people to address a wider audience about the nature of God, faith and the Christian life. I wondered: could this be a Letters for Mark for the 21st Century? One the cover, Pete Ward, a professor of theology at King’s College London is quoted as saying: ‘One of the most profound, practical and deeply theological books I have read.’ Was he right? I settled down over three evenings to find out.
Well yes and no. Some chapters touched and challenged me deeply – such as the chapter to ‘Eddie’ whose healing prayers for his dying father (‘in the name of Jesus’) had ‘failed’. And the chapter to his friend Marie who doesn’t believe she needs to be part of a church community to be a Christian. I must admit I couldn’t finish the letter to Tommy, his 12-month-old nephew who had died when he was struck by a falling lamppost in aLondonstreet. The questions Russell was asking about why God allows so much pain and suffering in the world; were just too close to the bone. I will go back and finish that letter – perhaps when I’m feeling less fragile.
However, there were other letters that didn’t touch me or challenge me in the same way. I came out of the letter to his worship-leader friend, Gemma, feeling that I had learnt nothing new; I felt the same way about sin in the letter to his atheist friend, Jonny. But that perhaps is because I am not an atheist and have what I might call a ‘healthy’ awareness of what sin is on a personal and corporate level. I have also spent many years thinking about and contemplating the nature of worship. So rather than a weakness of the book, I see this as inevitable in a work that is addressing so many different ‘types’ of people at different stages of their spiritual walk. Other readers may find these letters deeply challenging, and the ones that touched me, less so.
If you like books that don’t come from a ‘this is what the bible says so we can be in no doubt about it’ position, then you will not be disappointed. Russell, who is a vicar in the Church of England, could be described as a left-leaning evangelical. Some would say ‘Third Way’, but I think Russell himself would object to that label. However, if you do like books that come from a more fundamentalist tradition, then I would challenge you to read it too as it may just give you a framework to allow for the doubts we all have. I grew up in a (dare I say) right-leaning evangelical church. However, over the last 15 years I’ve felt the theological framework I had been given no longer fit the reality of my life or faith. Books like Russell’s (and Phillip Yancey’s and Eugene Petersen’s and Tom Wright’s and Henri Nouwen’s) have helped me stretch my boundaries and still allowed me to call myself a Christian. Let me know if it does the same for you.