Choosing a book
How will you chose your next book to read? It is a good question. After all, it is estimated that about 2.2m books are published each year worldwide, with about 180,000 in the UK – so the potential reading list is long and the range is broad. I tend to choose on three criteria. First, I read mostly non-fiction, and anything obviously bioethical catches my eye. However, I keep bioethically up-to-date by reading scientific journals, like Nature, The British Medical Journal and The Lancet, so a good generalist medical book like Atul Gawande's Being Mortal is a most welcome find. Second, I always appreciate an ‘improving’ Christian book, like Jim Packer's Finishing Our Course with Joy – it is a neo-classic. Third, I sometimes pick way out of my comfort zone, like Voltaire's' Candide. I suppose my reading diet consists of about 70:20:10 from these categories.
Why then did I select Candle in the Wind? I have long had an interest in the issue of conscience and particularly its sub-issue of conscientious objection as it occurs in medical ethics and practice such as in opposition to abortion or assisted suicide. Not so long ago, it was accepted as entirely legitimate for a doctor or healthcare worker to excuse themselves from participation in such medical measures. That era has now disappeared. Conscientious objectors are becoming scarcer. The common retort nowadays is that if your work troubles your conscience, then you should find yourself another job.
So to the chosen Candle in the Wind. Oh dear, this is uncomfortable. This book disappointed and even exasperated me. I was expecting to learn so much, but ultimately I learned so little. I can explain why under three headings.
Structure of the book
The book consists of twelve Chapters and three Appendices. So far, so good. However, the book has no clear and coherent theme. It jumps from one subject to another – from theology to history to politics and so on. Nothing wrong with that, except here the topics are arranged neither logically nor thematically. My overall impression was that the book is an amalgam of several pieces, perhaps a magazine article, a paper for a ministers’ fraternal, an academic essay and something for a church meeting – indeed, Brady confirms this in his Preface. The upshot is a disjointed structure, a higgledy-piggledy array of stuff.*
Moreover, the book’s targeted readership must be quite limited and towards the serious and scholarly end of the spectrum. Therefore, thorough indexing and referencing are essential. Yet this book has no index and virtually no references. These omissions are inexcusable. A decent index takes a day to construct. If a reader wants to recall what, for example, Spurgeon, had to say, the book provides no helps. But over and above this major criticism is the stark fact that for all the cited writers and quotations – and there are scores of them – there are no references. I was shocked. Simple footnotes, or endnotes, would have easily filled the void. This omission is important for at least two reasons. First, if the book is intended to be a significant addition to our understanding of conscience – which the blurb says is ‘a truly important subject’ – then it must follow the accepted academic practice of citing all primary and secondary sources. It is quite insufficient to provide barely a page of A Select Bibliography at the end of the book. Second, readers will often wish to examine, as I did, some of the quotations in their original context. The book denies, or, at least, frustrates, such further study. Additionally, some quoted authors are not even given their full names, let alone their dates. Who, for example, are Hurley and Baird in a paragraph on p. 95? Similarly, a cluster of Dr Duke, Lumpkin, John Smyth and Estep appear on p. 181. I have no idea as to their identities and little aid in unmasking them – hurrah for the Internet! Too much is taken for granted. And it continues, for example, on p. 183, ‘In a famous passage Williams says …’ ‘Famous’ for whom? This is all immensely annoying. I felt like an outcast from some inner circle of evangelical cognoscente.
For me, there are other structural aspects that grate. Brady has a regular habit of drawing up lists, sometimes numbered, sometimes bullet-pointed, sometimes neither. Such précis can be a useful device, though at times I was not sure if their content was Brady’s or the original author’s. And while on the subject of quotations, these are sometimes apparently randomly and partially italicised, as on pp. 112 and 114. And whereas the Chapter headings are quite expressive, the sub-headings, often single words, like Content, Deliverance? and Education are less than meaningful. Like so many Christian books these day, this one could do with an in-depth going-over by one of that endangered species of publishing houses, the copy editor.
Furthermore, I am not keen on mixing Scripture with hymns – I find it a common, but blurring, practice in both books and preaching. Sadly, we can all quote hymns better than Scripture. Nor do I like one-sentence paragraphs, as on p. 123. But now I am being nit-picky.
Style of the book
I did not find Brady’s style of writing engaging or enriching. The plain prose plods.*** And it often left me confused. For example, he has an annoying habit of using the word ‘thing’ instead of explaining the term in question. Similar vagaries continue with phrases, such as, ‘in some cases’ or ‘in many countries’ without any helpful quantitative assessment – I am left hanging, I want to know more. And he recycles a curious phrase ‘the moral record’, which may be novel, but means nothing to me.**
I came away after carefully reading, and making copious notes, profoundly disappointed. It seemed that the book was constructed on the basis of a Google search of the word ‘conscience’ and, by hook or by crook, every example was going to be wedged somewhere into the text. I was expecting something else. I was hoping for a clear exegesis of conscience in all its varied colours and applications. At the very least I was wanting a practical guide how twenty-first century Christians might reason and resolve their tender consciences when faced with the thorny issues posed by our increasingly secular and antagonistic society. No wonder I was disappointed.
Substance of the book
So what is conscience? Good question. It has baffled some of the world’s greatest thinkers for over three millennia. Brady has several stabs at defining the term by presenting clues from the apostle Paul to Charles Spurgeon to Mark Twain to John Murray and many others. But then there is also the soul, the will, the heart, the affections, the memory and the understanding. So what specifically is the conscience, where is it located, what is its origin, when does it begin, when is it active and so forth? Brady presents a metaphysical miasma. He asserts that the human conscience is God given to all (Romans 2:12-16) yet it is naturally imperfect (Titus 1:15). Based largely on the thinking of the Puritan, Richard Sibbes, Brady plumps for this definition (p. 40), ‘Conscience is not the voice of God in a person but that person’s own voice.’ Come again! Is it not simply our innate sense of right and wrong? I was confused rather than clarified. Here again the book fails. Brady seems content to report various ideas and opinions but less willing to draw clear conclusions. As already suggested, the book is like a thesis without a hypothesis. I, and presumably other readers, want clarity and precision.
The book’s sub-title is, Understanding Conscience in the Light of God’s Word. That is what made me buy it – I wanted to fill a gap in my Christian understanding. But herein lies a biblical obstacle. Both the Old Testament and the Gospels are silent on the matter. True, the idea, the notion of conscience can be gleaned from, for example, Adam (Genesis 3:8, 10) and Joseph (Genesis 37:21-27) and some remarks of Jesus as in Mark 3:5 and Luke 12:57. But the construction of a comprehensive biblical exposition of conscience looks like a strained and not overly convincing task. Suddenly, a sizeable book on the topic appears moot. Rescue comes by way of the Epistles because conscience is largely a Pauline word, which he uses some thirty times. The reality is that Paul appears to have stolen the word and concept from the Greeks and filled it with Christian content. All this made me feel somewhat disenchanted.
Nevertheless, not all was lost. The book proceeds to examine what is a good, clear, seared, hardened conscience, how it can be educated, liberated and so on. This is all instructive material. It consists of biblical exegesis by Brady and mainly by other authors. However, it was not until Chapter 6, with its sub-title of Developing conscience, that I began to engage more warmly with the book. Chapter 9 on solving differences of conscience between weak and strong Christians is the best in the book – it is theology applied, practical doctrine, doctrinal practice. Nevertheless, the showcase verse for every Christian has to be Hebrews 9:14, ‘How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!’ I had not grasped this majestic verse before. I want to meditate on it, exclamation mark and all.
It seems that three modern men have driven the author’s enthusiasm for his chosen subject. There is the American Alfred Rehwinkel (1887 – 1979), the Swedish Ole Hallesby (1879 – 1961) and the English David Fountain (1930 – 2004). They all wrote relevant books entitled respectively, Conscience (1933), The Voice of Conscience (1956) and Let Conscience Speak (1973). I have read none of them so am not sure what Candle in the Wind adds to this corpus. In addition to these relatively modern-day authors, Brady is obviously enamoured by the Puritans. Indeed, some, especially William Perkins and William Ames, are frequently quoted. The latter was apparently influenced by Ramist philosophy (p. 233) – not many people know that. This Puritanophilia peaks in Appendix 3, which is largely given over to a listing of dozens of such men and the titles of their books. This passed over my head, but, I suppose, is just about justifiably included as an Appendix.
And in conclusion
Let me preface this section with a comment because some readers may think my review is a bit harsh. I consider it to be honest. I read too many reviews of poor and average Christian books that are awarded 5 stars. What are these critics thinking of? A 5-star book must be destined to become a classic, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers. There have not been many of that calibre written this century. Moreover, I am well aware of two glowing reviews of Candle in the Wind by Paul Helm and Paul Wells. What can I say, other than that I disagree with them?
Yes, I did not enjoy this book. Yet it make me think – never a futile activity. And, of course, I learned something from it, though not as much as I had hoped. For a start, I had not realised how much the Bible’s direct teaching on conscience is confined to only the last 10 per cent of the Book. Then again, I was reminded how human nature is so hugely complex – who can understand the heart, the mind and the affections? The Puritans certainly gave it more attention than we do. Perhaps we have been frightened off the subject because disciplines like the neurosciences and psychology are so dominated by atheistic thinking.
Let me close with two of the most valuable quotations from the book. In discussing 1 Corinthians 10 and how believers differ over matters of conscience, Brady states on p. 153, ‘A strong conscience is not everything, however, nor is Christian freedom. Love should be our highest goal.’ And then there is Paul’s seminal declaration to Felix as recorded in Acts 24:16, ‘So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.’ To rediscover and to reapply that dictum from Gary Brady’s book is £9.99 well spent.
*Not so but I'm not surprised that what I think is good order does not pass muster with a scientist
** See Chapter 2 of the book