Book Reviews

Story telling and the mysteries of the world

 

Sacred and Secular Scriptures

A Catholic Approach to Literature

Nicholas Boyle

DLT, 300pp, pbk

0 232 52575 7, £14.95

Any book which promises Schleiermacher, Moby-Dick, hobbits and James Bond on its back cover ought to be worth investigating, and this does not disappoint. Sacred and Secular Scriptures is outstanding. Beginning with the observations of Marie-Dominique Chenu op, a ‘neglected…father of the Second Vatican Council’, that the Bible is literature, in which God is revealed not in a system of ideas but ‘through a history and through many stories’, Boyle initiates a series of conversations in philosophy and theology as to how, more precisely, the Bible might be understood as something which is both alike and yet unlike non-scriptural literary texts.

The conversations, which constitute the first part of the book, are with a heavyweight cast: Herder, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Frei, Ricoeur, Lévinas. While a passing knowledge with at least something of the salient features of the work of these thinkers will assist in grappling with Boyle’s use of each, both the lightness with which he wears his learning, and his ability to communicate complex ideas through lucid prose, ensure that the non-specialist can still gain much from these early chapters. (I knew nothing at all of Herder, and of three of the above list only via secondary sources, and yet I was confident that most of the time I coped.)

How do we read the Scriptures? The question is crucial to Catholic theology. Boyle’s early answer, which much of the rest of the first part of the book is devoted to elaborating, and with which he meets Herder’s excessively individualized and aestheticized approach to the biblical texts, is that Scripture is to be read ‘as addressed to, or the voice of, a believing community, a church for which the issue of what constitutes revelation has already been settled.’ Dialogue with Schleiermacher (whose approach again yields excessive individualization and also risks removing the Scriptures entirely into the province of the academy), and Hegel (much more positively) results in a new and deeper understanding of what it means to say that ‘the Bible is the book of faith, written in the spirit of the church and to be read in that spirit; there is therefore no true antithesis between Scripture and tradition.’

A brilliant chapter which draws on the work of the Jewish thinker Emmanuel Lévinas illuminates the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, and there is some gripping stuff on the movement, via the Lord’s own crucified body, from the Temple at Jerusalem to the celebration of the Mass. Compelling, too, in chapter 5 (on ‘Revelation and Realism’) is Boyle’s use of Auerbach (author of Mimesis): ‘Even the life and death of Jesus is shown to matter by its relation to something other than its own story – and not just to other stories, but to the prophecies, psalms, genealogies, events, laws and liturgies which precede it…and to the events and expectations and liturgies that follow it, in virtue of all of which it is manifested as the story of the Incarnation.’ (p.61)

The middle section of the book moves the argument on from ‘sacred’ (biblical) to ‘secular’ texts. A Catholic approach to literature is grounded in the twin premises that ‘literature is language free of instrumental purpose, and it seeks to tell the truth.’ Literature shows that things, people, matter. To represent a world, or a person, is to insist that they are worth representing. Dickens demonstrates an ‘enjoyment of everybody.’ Così fan tutte points to the real possibility of forgiveness. The Tempest is not just ‘about’ things (art, age, resentment, drink, colonialism): it is a revelation of the Truth.

This theme is continued in the third part, in many ways most accessible, in which certain writers are studied in more detail, each exemplary of the way in which ‘the sacred re-enters the secular and reclaims it.’ So we meet Pascal, Goethe (specifically his Faust), Jane Austen and Melville. The chapter on Moby-Dick is the most strongly written in the whole book. The ‘appalling facelessness’ of the whale renders him ‘a God whose face has been doubly denied: the New Testament face of Christ, the image of the unseen God, has been stripped away.’

Boyle concludes with two chapters on England, Englishness, and the usurpation, since the Reformation, of the idea of the sacred in England by the very idea of England itself. The ‘fairies’ (of the poem ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’ by Bishop Richard Corbett, a High Churchman under Laud) have been lost, and with them the straightforward harmony between the non-human and human worlds of an earlier age. This theme gives Boyle the opportunity to bring in Bond and Bilbo Baggins. The decisive moment in the entire Bond corpus (in a film which is, of course, an ‘invention,’ outside Fleming’s written œuvre) is the moment in GoldenEye when Bond dispatches the villain not ‘for England,’ but ‘for me’ – for Bond’s own sense of personal satisfaction and revenge: and what is James Bond, if he is not the myth of England?

In The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits, and the Shire, represent the England of Catholic Christendom, participating in a world informed by an ancient faith and ancient wisdom, which is suggested by the half-hints of the deeper history of Middle-Earth and the rituals of its ancient peoples which pepper the central narrative of the quest to destroy the Ring. The liberation of the Shire from Saruman and his henchmen, and the planting of the fairy tree, which puts it under the special protection of an Elf Queen, is, for Boyle, something akin to the return of England, Mary’s dowry, to the Roman faith. Hence the hobbits stand for a ‘Catholic England which has resisted the temptation to secular modernity…and has accepted its place within Christendom.’

This dense, demanding, wide-ranging, and exhilarating book left me hungry for more, and sent me back to the primary texts under discussion with a fresh eye. What more could one want?

 

Jonathan Baker is

the Principal of Pusey House

Teresa of Avila

Shirley du Boulay

DLT, 300pp, pbk

0 232 52589 7, £10.95

This book is a new edition of a valuable biography. It might perhaps come with a spiritual health warning – no bad thing for those of us who had imagined they were not doing badly in their relations with God. Compared with Teresa we hardly know the Almighty. In spite of the vast differences between the present day and sixteenth century Spain there are similarities.

Teresa was a reformer. Unlike Henry VIII she reformed the religious life from within and made it better able to serve its purpose: in complete contrast to closing down the lot. Teresa found those living the religious life were having a cosy time of it; meals, shelter and companionship were guaranteed in exchange for some time in chapel. Here too there is a familiar ring. It was a situation not unlike that in some theological colleges in the early years of the last century. All such institutions are in constant need of renewal. In Teresa's day this was done through an instance that if one was to serve God full time, nothing else should get in the way.

New convents were founded with a constant stream of postulants. The rule was poverty and strict enclosure, believing that these were essential to spiritual wealth. This laid them open to opposition. The less strict orders objected to these newcomers. Even the Inquisition was, at times, opposed to Teresa.

During a period of twenty years, at the end of her life, always in very poor health, Teresa founded sixteen convents throughout the length and breadth of Spain. Transport was an unsprung cart over non-existent roads often in extreme weather conditions, yet rarely was Teresa other than serene and cheerful. Even so a tremendous work was done. That, in the opinion of your humble reviewer is the miracle. Anything else was superfluous. Thanks to Teresa the monastic life was renewed: this is her memorial.

 

Donald Bird is a retired priest

living in Yorkshire

JOHN KEBLE IN CONTEXT

Edited by Kirstie Blair

Anthem Press, 192pp, pbk

1 84331 147 X, £14.99

Of the three major founders of the Oxford Movement, John Henry Newman has far outstripped both John Keble and Edward Bouverie Pusey in the critical attention and the number of biographical studies he has received. He fascinated his contemporaries; it is little wonder that he continues to fascinate and intrigue now. As Michael Wheeler says pithily in his introduction, ‘a battalion of scholars has marched across the territory marked ‘Newman’ in modern times, and then marched back over it again.’

Dr Pusey was re-appraised in books by Perry Butler (Pusey Rediscovered 1983) and David Forrester (Young Dr Pusey 1989) and was the subject of a series of important sermons preached in Pusey House in Trinity Term 2000 to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of his birth; but, sadly, they remain unpublished. John Keble seems to have been even more neglected.

John Keble In Context sets out to redress this imbalance and is the collection of papers given at a conference in the college which was founded in his honour and which bears his name in Oxford, organized by Kirstie Blair in May 2003. They deal with his place in Tractarian politics and religion; his writings, both prose and poetry; and his influence on the writing of others. It is what is called an interdisciplinary study.

Within the Anglo-Catholic world Keble is remembered for his Assize Sermon of July 1833 (reconsidered here by Mark Chapman) which as Newman averred launched the Oxford Movement. He is also remembered for his poetry, or at least that part of it which survives as hymnody. Perhaps more especially he is remembered for the humility, kindness and gentleness of his personality. The famous drawing by Richmond which graces the cover of the book shows a kindly, gentle, wistful face, lips hovering on a sweet smile, eyes deep and penetrating: compared with some photographs rather idealised but psychologically true.

It is a romantic, even romanticised portrait certainly, but one with more than a glint of steel. Beyond the world of professional Anglo-Catholicism Keble is seen as a highly significant influence on Victorian culture and writing. His volume of poetry, The Christian Year published in 1827 was a best-seller and gave him both popularity and literary standing. This was consolidated by his lectures as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The embodiment of Christian ideals was also a literary lion and a celebrity.

He is less well regarded or remembered now and this volume, in part, seeks to reassert his influence and importance to the nineteenth century literary and cultural scene. Kirstie Blair provides in fourteen well-written and well-judged pages a miracle of compression when she outlines the facts of Keble’s life, career, literary achievement and effect on his generation and on a succeeding generation. That influence was achieved in a paradoxical way. His retreat to Hursley and to a parish ministry did not diminish his influence, rather, ‘his physical, geographical removal from the scene of the fiercest debates, and his primary concentration on parish life in the countryside, meant that he could provide a model for men and women who were not necessarily in sympathy with the aims of the movement he had helped to create.’

All the essays repay reading. You do not have to be expert in literary or cultural theory to find interest in the consideration of the Lyra Innocentium by J. R. Watson or in the excellent consideration of Keble’s prose by Robert H. Ellison, which charts the way for further serious study of the preaching of the Oxford Movement. The essays on his influence on women novelists and poets, on Arthur Hugh Clough’s Juvenalia (a tad specialised) and especially on Charlotte M. Yonge are consistently good and illuminating.

For the student of the Oxford Movement there are four searching, suggestive and significant studies. Fr James Pereiro, with characteristic elegance, discusses Keble’s contribution to the ethos of the Oxford Movement. ‘As far as Keble was concerned, moral qualities were of greater importance than intellectual ones when analysing the truth of religious propositions. The reason was his conviction that, in matters of revealed truth, the moral sense is empowered to correct the errors of the intellect, and to supply its imperfections.’ He points to his influence on the radical Froude and on Newman who ‘who would add new dimensions to it’ and to whom we ‘must turn for a fuller perception of what the Tractarians came to understand by ethos and its dynamism.’ Simon Skinner on ‘Keble, The Tractarians and Establishment’ and Mark Chapman on ‘John Keble, National Apostasy and the Myths of 14 July’ contribute powerful and well-argued articles. Dr Skinner argues that Tractarians were not devoid of interest in social questions and conditions (the ‘Condition of England’) but both their religious and political thought engaged in a critique of contemporary economic and social philosophies within the context of a religious economy.

On the vexed question of disestablishment he argues that Keble did not reject the idea of an established church but sought to redefine what had become an unsatisfactory state of affairs in which the state claimed superiority over the Church. Chapman takes a different view and argues that Keble’s sermon, initially rather indifferently received, was in effect a revolutionary clarion call which opened the debate about disestablishment, flowing from his assertion that the Church owned an independent source of sovereignty superior to that of the state. These are real and impressive scholarly contributions from a relatively new generation of historians.

The real and irritating disadvantage of this book is that all the references to works cited or quoted are incorporated into the text in brackets rather than being confined to footnotes. Given that each chapter concludes with a few footnotes and a list of works cited, it should not have been beyond the wit of the publisher to avoid this distracting barbarity in what is otherwise a beautifully presented and printed book.

 

William Davage is the Librarian

of Pusey House

His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman

Scholastic, 1300pp in all, pbks

0 590 66054 3etc, [£21 the set]

Philip Pullman claims he is just a story teller, no more than that; but as such he is in a league with the greats, especially the writers of children’s stories such as C S Lewis and J R R Tolkein. Like them, he tells tales children can enjoy but with many other layers – theological, philosophical, scientific – that can be an intriguing joy for adults to unravel.

But unlike Lewis and Tolkein he is an atheist with a deep and abiding hatred for religion in general and the Church in particular. His trilogy, His Dark Materials, which must be read as one rather than as three separate and unconnected books, traces the journey of a young girl, Lyra, destined for a unique purpose in the world. Or rather in an infinite number of parallel worlds, all dominated by the evil and all-powerful Authority, which is the Church.

There is a strong parallel here with C S Lewis’s, That Hideous Strength, in which a little group of unassuming and powerless people overcome Lewis’s equivalent of the Authority. In Pullman, Lyra and her eventual companion Will are able to take the action that destroys the evil and absolute power of the Authority, and with that destruction the god dies together with the kingdom of heaven, to be replaced by a republic of heaven with no god and no religion.

In trying to understand what the book is about, it is a temptation to look to the end of the book for clues, but one to be resisted. Early in the first book of the trilogy a throwaway remark that Pope John Calvin had moved the papacy to Geneva made me wonder if this Church was one dominated by Calvinism. If everyone is predestined either to salvation or to damnation then there is no need for a Christ to die on the Cross, and there is no mention of Jesus throughout the book. That proved like others to be an intriguing false trail, simply a strand intended by Pullman to show that it is not one church but religion in general that he despises.

Yet the same story might have been told be Lewis or Tolkein, with the same end but another intent. It could have been that these worlds were within a creation in which the result of the allegorical war in Revelation 12 between Michael’s angels and those of the devil was reversed, with the triumph of evil rather than of good, so that it was over this that Lyra and her friends were eventually victorious, releasing the myriads of the dead from a hellish afterlife of darkness and boredom.

Or could Lyra be an allegorical Christ, ‘dying’ by losing her daemon, going to the place of the dead (‘He descended into hell’ as we declare in the creed) and then being resurrected, leading them out of Hades and granting them the eternal life within the Dust permeating every universe? And is the Dust God himself?

Interestingly, Pullman claims that the linguistic riches of the Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer, in which he was immersed in childhood, have formed a ‘deep and inescapable part of [his] nature’, and the quality of his writing fills the pages with words that excite the senses – with light and darkness, sights, sounds and even smells.

The danger for the Christian is simply to dismiss this trilogy as one more attack on Christianity and the Church, from a secular world that, during human history, has more than matched the many horrors perpetrated in the name of the Church. That would be a pity, for Christians have much to learn from it. And anyway it is great literature and must rank with the best of the twentieth century.

 

George Austin

ANCIENT OFFICE HYMN BOOK

Peter Wilkinson

990 Falmouth Road, Victoria, BC, Canada V8X 3A3

00-9735204-0-X, $30

This is a product of the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada, devised for use with the BCP, but which would also be of immense use to those who wish to use, with any form of the Divine Office, the ancient Latin Office hymns of the Sarum Breviary (which are for the most part those which still appear in the modern Latin Breviary) translated into English with admirable elegance and accuracy and a feel for the patristic Latin by John Mason Neale.

Some hymns are added from the modern Roman Rite, and antiphons are provided for the Benedictus and Magnificat. The Latin texts translated are those in use throughout Western Christendom before, in the1620s, Urban V ‘improved’ them to make them sound more like pagan classical poetry. Mercifully, Vatican II required that this improvement be reversed, and so in this regard the reforms of Vatican II constituted a return to Sarum as well as to the Breviary of St Pius V, leaving the Lefebvrists (who have a bizarre fetish for the editions of 1962) in the odd position of being less traditionalist than those who use the modem Latin Breviary.

Those who say their office in English, whether they use BCP or the ICEL translation of the Roman Office or Celebrating Common Prayer, would benefit enormously from using the translations in this volume. Neale is the next best thing to the Latin.

Up-to-date clergypeople, of course, do not bother with the Office at all. But too many of those who do fulfil their obligation either do not use Office hymns (which are integral parts of the Roman and Orthodox Offices), or else let themselves be fobbed off with a selection from the hymnody of the Victorian and post-Victorian periods. This impoverishes their Office by leaving it devoid of the contribution of the Patristic and Medieval periods.

 

John Hunwicke

AN EVERLASTING GIFT

Edward Dowler & Brendan Clover

Tufton, 138pp, pbk

0 85191 052 1, £9.99

One of my favourite books is a thing called How to do just about everything. It is of course, quite useless, but I love books that tell you how to do things, even if in fact they tell you nothing at all. My wife lives in fear of my opening our handbook of DIY: drills and me should never be in the same room together, as a couple of walls could tell you. So imagine my delight on receiving this liturgical DIY manual. It is a short book, one which took only a couple of evenings to read, but within these few pages is a wealth of liturgical common sense, perhaps rather lacking these days with DIY liturgies being so popular.

The book is helpfully divided into five sections: people, words, music, things and movement and gives clear, useful guidance on virtually everything to do with a Sunday Mass in Ordinary Time. Scattered throughout the book are interesting and thought-provoking teaching points and each chapter ends with points for discussion or reflection, some of which I found very telling, illustrating clearly where masses I have either celebrated or attended have fallen short of the ideal. If you are looking for a scholarly approach to liturgical development, look elsewhere: if you are looking for a usable, easy to read ‘how to do it’ book then this is the paperback for you.

It is, in the words of the Archbishop of York in the Foreword, a ‘valuable resource for newly ordained clergy and particularly those preparing for ordination as priests.’ This however, only tells part of the story. We clergy tend to be a rather staid crowd – I even wear black socks on my day off – and because we are such a liturgically conservative bunch this book deserves a wider readership than that suggested by the Archbishop, we all need a fillip every now and again.

I found the book both comforting (some of the things they suggest are already in place in my parish) and challenging ('How can I put that idea into practice', and 'Why haven't I thought of that before'?) In fact as a direct result of finishing this book on a Saturday night, the Mass the following day was altered, and was indeed much better for that alteration. It is a book that deserves to be read by all parish priests who desire to improve the worship offered to God, and surely isn’t that all of us?

It is a book firmly grounded in Anglicanism, using the Common Worship Order One Eucharist as the basis of the liturgical points made, but if one should be using a more continental liturgy the points made are easily transferred. The authors are aiming at a simple and dignified liturgy shorn of the needless and meaningless ceremonial we Anglo-Catholics used to be so proud of in days gone by. If there is any slight grumble it is that no mention is made of con-celebration, but as this book is aimed for an Anglican readership perhaps this is not to be wondered at. There is, however, quite a lot of advice on what to do with a deacon, but I suspect more Anglican parishes have experience of con-celebration than of the diaconate, so it strikes one as an important omission. But that is a minor gripe; if we all followed (as far as we are able) the tenets of this book, the celebration of the Eucharist in the Church of England would indeed be dignified and worthy of God.

 

Simon Wakely is Parish Priest

of All Saints, Babbacombe

IMAGING LIFE AFTER DEATH

Kathleen Fischer

SPCK, 164pp, pbk

0 281 05717 6, [£10.99]

In this book, the American author offers a plethora of ideas, images and problems connected with the after-life. One of her first similes is the butterfly, paradigm of metamorphosis; it also characterizes this book: colourful, exotic, full of restless energy and unable to stay in one place for longer than a moment.

Brought up a Catholic, she is now a liberal syncretist, inspired by a semi-incarnational Jesus figure, as well as being a psychotherapist and a ‘writer’: on the face of it, not the sort of person who has anything serious to say. Yet she has collected a rich and varied bundle of material and has a sensitive grasp of the moral issues surrounding heaven and hell.

One of the more striking features of her book is the shortness of its sentences, expressing her breathless rush through the entire range of literary allusion, everything from Buddhism to quantum physics, C.S. Lewis to Jewish folklore, with lashings of personal anecdote and cryptic poetry.

Of course it is nonsense, but it is inventive and enthusiastic nonsense and full of ideas. If in the end it makes you appreciate the quieter, more solid hope of heaven offered by Our Lord Jesus Christ, Ms Fischer would not be disappointed, for she is a warm and affirming teacher.

 

Anthony Saville

FACE TO FACE

Jeffrey Heskins

SCM, 190pp, pbk

0 334 04003 5, [£14.99]

There is a slick professionalism among many on the liberal wing that is both hugely impressive and seriously frightening. The 1998 Lambeth Conference did not bow to the demands of the homosexualist lobby, but in making its statement expressed its responsibility and willingness to listen to gay men and lesbian women. And what does this mean in practice? In today’s ideological climate, listening is not enough. There must be dialogue.

Heskins is a parish priest (who may well be a bishop one day) who has developed something of a side-line in professional dialogue management, the organizing of groups to consider controversial subjects in such a manner that the right conclusion can be reached. This may sound cynical, but in the manner in which he presents it, dialogue can only be one way.

It is for the traditionalist or conservative to listen and to learn, to open up to the new moral imperative, to move from a position of fundamentalist error to an inclusive, loving acceptance of self-evident, God-blessed, faithful, same-sex relationships. Fr Heskins is married with two children, has interviewed many gay clergy (whom he quotes anonymously) and is a master of his material. Judge, prosecutor and jury; he wins his case. Believe me, he is persuasive.

 

John Turnbull

BE NOT AFRAID

George Pell

(Gracewing), 320pp, pbk

1 876631 97 X, [£12.99]

This is an Australian paperback, distributed in this country. As such it gives very little by way of introduction or background to what is an extensive collection of sermons, homilies and articles by the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney. A holy and forthright church leader, his teaching is worth listening to. This is for those who already know something of what makes his voice an important one to hear.

 

Nigel Anthony

LOVE LIES BLEEDING

Jeremy Simpson

Book Guild, 222pp, hbk

1 85776 826 4, £17.95

What an extraordinary book. It comes from the Book Guild, which is a form of self-publishing by proxy, so can mean anything from mere vanity to the eccentrically original; this falls into the later category. It is a very good story, comic and farcical, about the second master of a public school, a celibate Anglo-Catholic priest, who falls out with the new headmaster, falls in with a widow, discovers recusant treasure, flirts with the Roman Option, witnesses a miracle, and very much more.

The grammar – and a curious tendency to begin some sentences with a small f – shows lack of editing, and the dialogue is quite often stilted and unconvincing. Dame Beryl Bainbridge calls it ‘riotously eccentric’ (which is perhaps a way of avoiding saying ‘good’) and the former editor of Jeffrey Archer describes it as ‘firmly in the tradition of Muriel Spark and A.N. Wilson’ (without going on to say ‘but not half as good’).

But flying bishops, Forward-in-Faith, the lead up to Windsor, and much more besides is all here, as seen by a slightly old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic (perhaps now Roman Catholic) author. I won’t give away the ending, but those of our constituency will be entertained by this – not least by its slightly odd understanding of what it is to be an Anglo-Catholic (rolling Tudor cadences, clouds of incense).

There are some fine villains, including a Welsh Protestant clergyman, an ex-Army new headmaster and a disabled Rear-Admiral, and the heroine is delicious in a mildly raunchy way.

 

Joseph Franks

the oxford handbook of philosophy of religion

Edited by W. J. Wainwright

OUP, 550pp, hbk

0 19 513809 0, [£45]

A fascinating book. The philosophy of religion is as often as not poor quality philosophy mixed with poorer quality theology, so a collection of twenty essays (generally from American academics) was not immediately attractive. Its first achievement is to show that there are a large number of serious issues, that demand serious consideration, whatever the public perception of the broader discipline may be.

How are we to judge what is worth discussing? The answer that seems to emerge from these contributions is that the religious sensitivity or commitment can alone make the subject worthwhile, and the quality of the reasoning alone justify the claim to be philosophy.

Coakley’s essay on the problems feminism faces when making sense of any traditional theological discourse is persuasive, and yet neither the subject nor the quality of the reasoning come up to standard: inevitably it reads like an extended (albeit justified) whinge. Mavrodes’ essay on miracles is no doubt philosophically sound, but since he bases his discussion solely on David Hume’s eighteenth century essay on the subject, one cannot avoid thinking, ‘So what?’

What is worth the read? Try Brian Leftow on the Ontological Argument, a contemporary logician’s re-assessment of Anselm’s eleventh century proof for the existence of God. Complicated and demanding, but exhilarating; this is a brilliant essay on logic. I kept thinking, ‘This must be too difficult for me to understand. I ought to get back to something easier,’ but I simply could not put it down. Truly, this was reason leading an ordinary mortal towards the throne of God. The divine mystery expressed not in music or art, but in philosophical logic: wonderful.

 

Simon Richards

 

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