5 Question on Christianity, life and books
How did you become a Christian? I enjoyed the huge blessing of being raised by Christian parents, who modelled prayer and Bible reading and daily following Jesus. Both my father and grandfather were clergy in the Church of the Province of South Africa, and the first church I was part of as an infant was in Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal, on the Indian Ocean – in a beautiful part of the city known as “The Berea”, named after the Christians in Acts 17 who studied the Scriptures daily. I soon embraced the Christian faith for my own. We moved to England when I was nine years old.
Which books influenced you most as a young Christian? I still look back to undergraduate days as a special period of Christian growth and new excitement about the gospel. It was then I discovered Christian literature for the first time, and began initially to hoover up as many C.S. Lewis paperbacks as I could find, like his science fiction trilogy from the 1930s and 40s, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. I quickly fell in love with missionary biographies like Norman Grubb’s C.T. Studd: Cricketer and Pioneer (1933), which was recommended to me by a Christian friend from school who loved cricket, and Elisabeth Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendor (1957). One of the reasons I enjoy writing and teaching Christian history, is because of the spur to Christian discipleship I received from biographies as a young believer.
Who are you reading at the moment? I’m currently going through a J.C. Ryle phase! I can’t get enough of him! I’m writing Ryle on the Christian Life for Crossway, and as preparation over the last couple of years have been reading as many Ryle tracts as I can – in their original form, as first delivered, rather than in his later compilations. He is wonderfully nourishing, always direct, spiritually invigorating, and I find myself frequent challenged and driven to prayer after time with Ryle. During the lockdowns, Ryle’s Thoughts on the Gospels were my daily companion, a hundred times better than any modern commentary! I’ve also recently been appreciating the devotional commentaries of W. H. Griffith Thomas on Genesis (1907-8) and Romans (1911-12). He was a famous Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, a regular on the platform at the Keswick Convention and the Mildmay Conference, perhaps best known today for his Principles of Theology, a classic exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles. His lectures to Wycliffe ordinands, The Work of the Ministry (1911), are still superbly relevant and pastorally rich. IVP have just published British Evangelical Theologians of the Twentieth Century: An Enduring Legacy, examining twelve evangelical apostles from James Orr to James Packer, to which I’ve contributed a chapter on Griffith Thomas.
What's the last novel you read? I’ve just finished reading for the first time Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, her commentary on conservative Christian culture in the US in the 1980s. I’m currently co-editing The Oxford Handbook of Christian Fundamentalism, due out in 2023, so have been trying to catch up on novels which reflect upon fundamentalist religion. Another classic I enjoyed recently is Sinclair Lewis’s satire Elmer Gantry (1926), which was hugely influential in shaping public perceptions of revivalist preachers as womanizing, money-hungry hypocrites. When Billy Graham began his revival crusades he had to work hard to change those perceptions, one of the reasons he and his friends in the 1940s agreed the Modesto Manifesto (the so-called “Billy Graham Rule”) to protect their sexual and financial integrity. Other novels on my recent reading pile, in the Elmer Gantry genre, are Dotson Rader’s Miracle (1977) and Charles Templeton’s The Third Temptation (1980), which deserve to be better known.
What's your latest, and next, book? My most recent book is Transatlantic Charismatic Renewal c.1950-2000, a co-edited volume bringing together an international team of historians for fresh analysis of the charismatic movement. The chapters traverse contexts ranging from California to Cambridge, Paris, and Wales; and from Notre Dame Roman Catholics to Pennsylvanian Mennonites. I enjoyed writing the chapter on ‘power evangelist’ and former rock musician John Wimber, who has had a massive impact upon the Church of England through ministries like New Wine, Soul Survivor, and Alpha. Next out is Repackaging Christianity: Alpha and the Building of a Global Brand – the remarkable story of Alpha, from its earliest origins in the 1970s to its latest evolutions in the 2020s. There have been plenty of books about Alpha, from sociological or ethnographic perspectives, but never a history. Alpha has attracted the attention of the global media, politicians, and celebrities, and been a powerful driver of Christian innovation and resurgence. I’ve been granted privileged access to the abundant Alpha archives, and it’s been great fun to research and write. The book is due out with Hodder & Stoughton in July 2022, to coincide with Nicky Gumbel’s retirement as vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton.
Andrew Atherstone is a research fellow with the Latimer Trust, and is a lecturer at Wycliffe College, Oxford. He has written various books, some of them published by the Latimer Trust can be found here