Book Reviews

 

UNCOMMON SENSE

God’s Wisdom for our Complex and Changing World

John Peck & Charles Strohiner

SPCK, 362pp, pbk

0 281 05428 2, £14.99

The book is written, in the first place, by evangelicals for evangelicals. John Peck is one of the founders of the Greenbelt Christian Arts’ Festival, while Charles Strohiner brings a North American input to the discussion. The authors are seeking to describe how the Wisdom of God is to be discerned in the Bible, in the words of the sub-title, ‘for a complex and changing world’. This Wisdom is broader and more generous than it is often credited with being. It embraces not only morality and churchy things, but the realms of science, technology, the law, education and politics, and also, daringly and significantly, of the media and the creative arts. The lines that have been drawn between the religious and the secular need to be erased. This is not an exclusively evangelical problem.

How then is the great gulf between the complexities of post-modern mid-Atlantic society and the relative simplicities of the world of the Bible to be bridged? It is suggested that, maybe, the present complexities of our modern world may be deconstructed to disclose the building blocks which we share with the relative simplicities of the biblical order. This may be problematical in not a few cases. What about concepts of sovereignty, for example? Here the authors introduce the ‘modal theory’ of the Dutch writer Abraham Kuyper. This appears to rest on the twin foundations of multiple parallel explanation – a number of equally acceptable explanations, at different levels may be given why something happened the way it did – and secondly of multi-aspected phenomena. The example of a wedding ring is given (p147). The ring may be described and discussed in terms of a whole range of modes or aspects, some higher, some lower.

Wisdom consists in matching the appropriate level of discourse to the aspect in question. While the lower may often be included in the higher, to attempt to describe the higher in terms of the lower would constitute a category mistake. The source of all Wisdom, mediated through his Logos (see Appendix 1) is God, who speaks the words that are appropriate to the aspect or mode under consideration. Examples of how this might work may be traced by way of the useful and sometimes amusing Subject and Name Index.

Space forbids a more nuanced discussion, but perhaps I am not alone in finding Modal Theory rather contrived – ‘scholastic’ even! Far more enlightening were the chapters on the Wisdom of Words (chs 18 and 19), dealing with Truth and Knowledge, Love and Justice, and those on Theology and Doctrine (16 and 17) as a way of learning Wisdom – Creation, the Fatherhood of God, Incarnation and Redemption. Might not the authors’ aims, one wonders, be better achieved by the renewal of the time-hallowed practice of lectio divina, a regular devout, critical and unrestricted immersion in the letter and spirit of Scripture, just for the love of it?

Hugh Bates is a retired priest, living in the Diocese of York.

CHRIST THE GOLDEN-BLOSSOM

A Treasury of Anglo-Saxon Prayer

Douglas Dales

Canterbury, 180pp, hbk

1 85311 376 X, £9.99

Daft title, but the subtitle makes sense and the presentation is excellent, with plenty of fine colour illustrations of Anglo-Saxon religious art. A welcome antidote for those overdosing on Celtic spirituality, though there is just the hint of a similar excess. The choice of prayers and readings, or more properly the presentation and editing of that selection is strongly guided by the desire to provide a ‘deep devotional resource’ and ‘a meeting ground for all who wish to connect with their spiritual roots and recover their unity with Christians of other traditions’. All admirable stuff, but it would be a pity if ‘Anglo-Saxon’ also grew into a code-word for a hidden agenda of do-it-yourself New Ageism.

The first part divides the prayers and readings according to the Christian year, the second covers the saints of the Anglo-Saxon church; the book closes with a helpful list of the principal Christian sites and churches of the period and a bibliography. What is striking about these last two lists is how brief they are – how few sites remain, how few texts have been translated and still in print. We should bewail not only the ferocity and efficiency of the Norman destruction, Christian though it may have been, but also our connivance in it, and our neglect of those whom they overcame and destroyed.

Part of this book’s contribution is its extensive use of three great prayer books of the period – the Nunnaminster Codex of the ninth-century in Winchester, the Canterbury Benedicitional, the Archbishops’ collection of blessings for use in their cathedral, and the Portiforium of St Wulfstan, the prayer book of the last great Anglo-Saxon bishop, at Worcester, who survived the Norman Conquest and died in 1095. Many of the prayers have apparently been translated for the first time, and Dales is to be commended for making them better known. As an example:

Most loving God, you brought forth from the rock a spring of living water for your thirsty people: bring forth from the hardness of our hearts sincere tears of repentance, that we may be able to weep for our sins and obtain by your mercy their forgiveness. Listen graciously to our prayers, and deliver our hearts from all temptation by evil thoughts, that we may become the dwelling-place of your Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Set for Advent and taken from the Regularis Concordia devised around 970 for the better government of the newly reformed Benedictine monasteries. AS

CELTIC SAINTS IN THEIR LANDSCAPE

Elizabeth Rees

Sutton, 224pp, hbk

0 7509 2686 4, £20

Well, all right; Celtic Christians were not really bad; and nor are all the books about them. This is a beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated, coffee-table tome offering what it calls ‘an armchair tour of the sites where some fifty Celtic saints worked and prayed’, so I ought to despise it. But it is good! A lovely book to encourage your travels, or as was suggested to me, for parents to give their clergy offspring – pious but not too pious. The many and varied and compelling saints of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Cornwall are described along with the sites related to them or to their later cult, and finally a couple chapters for Northumberland and one for the Isle of Man: I want to get in the car and leave now! Aidan and Oswald are also claimed by the previous book, so perhaps peace is breaking out. AS

THE DIVINE DRAMA

The Old Testament as Literature

John Dancy

Lutterworth, 800pp, pbk

0 7188 2987 5, [£17.50]

Browsing your way through second-hand bookshops of the sort that are large enough to have a theology section and sanguine enough to let it fill with the collected junk of years, which versions of the Bible are you most likely to encounter? The New English Bible New Testament. Bought, one may suppose, by a faithful church-going parishioner in the early sixties, after much exhortation from her vicar; there was a real sense of duty in owning a copy of that first edition, green-covered NEB, it was part of our commitment to and support for a modernizing, relevant church, based on the Prayer Book yet open to a changing world. What a shame! The translation, like the hope and expectation that accompanied it, has for many decades now been best forgotten as a mistake of former years, a fit of misplaced enthusiasm, an embarrassment of younger days. Left untouched, like an unwanted ornament from a summer holiday, it finally moves with death and house clearance to its second home on another shelf. I know, for my own, pristine copy awaits the same journey, when I take mine. Alongside it, but from an earlier age, and before my time, there is The Bible designed to be read as literature, which really meant the Old Testament, presented for sensible Englishmen who had a classical education, a clear sense of duty on what an educated person ought to read, and a proper mistrust of too much piety or spiritual enthusiasm.

On the face of it, this solid volume by a former headmaster of Lancing College and a classicist by training follows that rather old-fashioned tradition. Do not be put off; it is excellent. I think he overdoes his avowed rejection of traditional Christian hermeneutics, for he is of course far closer to the ordinary believer in his understanding of God than most of the scholars who write on and present the material he is dealing with. The Old Testament is a good deal more robust than its defenders or detractors often suppose; it may need plenty of explanation, but not too much defence.

The presentation is interesting and effective. He takes the best bits, which amounts to about 30 per cent of the Hebrew canon and 15 per cent of the Apocrypha; he divides it into short coherent sections, stories, poems, narratives, and sets out text and commentary together on each page. His notes and explanation are well thought out, clear and concise, and take full notice of Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern scholarship. This is clearly a man who knows and loves the texts he is presenting, and who has given many years’ work and commitment to understanding them and helping others to understand. Of course the stories and history feature more fully than the laws and the prophetic oracles, but I have no quarrel with his selection. As a single volume companion cum commentary for the ‘average church-goer’ who wishes to enter rather further into the text than the Sunday lectionary allows, this book can be safely commended.

He uses a number of translations, according to which he feels most appropriate for the genre in question. He would have liked to have used the Authorized Version more often for its poetry and cadence, but finds the accuracy of its translation hampers him. What he would really like to use is the New Revised Standard Version (so-called). As one who has other reasons for loathing it, I took a certain gleeful pleasure in reading his (non-religious) condemnation:

All [modern versions] have created literary problems for themselves by a resolve to avoid linguistic sexism … Locutions like ‘human beings’ or ‘humankind’ are shapeless abstractions unsuited to the concrete language of the OT. It is the NRSV which carries this principle furthest. Take for example the highly evocative picture of universal peace in Micah 4.4, where AV give a literal rendering: ‘they shall sit every man under his own vine and under his own fig tree’. REB and NJB both swallowed hard and kept ‘each man’ (though they lost the overtones of ‘Everyman’). NRSV, however, stickles – ‘they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees’ – and thus blurs the sharp pictorial focus of the Hebrew. Had it not been for this, I should have been tempted to use NRSV throughout.

Of course inclusive language is a good thing, but not necessarily a supremely good thing, nor better than the gifts of Holy Scripture. NT

WILDLIFE IN CHURCH AND CHURCHYARD

Nigel Cooper

Church House, 84pp, pbk

0 7151 7587 4, £9.95

The second edition of one of the booklets from the Council for the Care of Churches, which is a permanent commission of the Archbishops’ Council; when you see the black and white with dark green cover, and the studied ‘Home Office’ style layout, you wonder, ‘Can anything good come out of Church House?’ It is a daunting format, but the priest author is wise and experienced and no more didactic than the context requires. Wildlife is a good thing, and so are good churchyards, so really we ought to be full of enthusiasm. That is probably the point; first gain your enthusiasm, then read this book to stop yourself doing anything stupid. Much depends on your context: our own churchyard is grazed by sheep, which does rather cut down on biodiversity for they are not fussy grazers; but they do clear out much of the sentimental rubbish that can clutter recent graves; or rather they did, before foot and mouth stopped the movement of animals.

There is now a fourth edition of the more general Churchyards Handbook from the same stable. Priced at £10.95; chargeable to the PCC? Full of the sort of information someone ought to know; but in this busy, modern world full of books, would it not be nicer if that were someone else? Employ a sexton? I suppose this is the more useful volume, but the first was more fun. AS

DICTIONARY OF CHRISTIAN BIOGRAPHY

Edited by Michael Walsh

Continuum, 1250, hbk

0 8264 5263 9, [£60.00]

Brief biographies of just over 6,500 Christians, amounting to some 810,000 words. Not all may be members of the Church Triumphant, for some must surely be in another place, but all have given up their membership of the Church Militant: the date of final compilation came between the deaths of Robert Runcie, who makes it in with a generous entry, and Donald Coggan, who does not. The entries are constrained, so the editor explains, by the size of the book – which makes an interesting comment on our expectations of books: the richer our society becomes, the larger the type we come to expect and the greater the amount of space we require around it, and so in the end the fewer words an editor has to work with when planning a reference work such as this.

A bit taller and a bit thinner than, say, The English Missal (reviewed last month) or a standard version of The New Jerusalem Bible; a nicely proportioned, heavyweight reference work, still capable of being held in one hand; but note again the change of expectation: a generation ago such a work might well have been larger, or with thinner paper and more pages heavier, in other words a two-hander. The advantage is that the new constraints make the modern volume easier to open, and easier to read: because it uses much larger type with an increased line space, and the same ordered consistency throughout – no small type for bibliographical details for example.

I must be too old, or perhaps I have relied too much on Victorian handbooks bought in second hand bookshops, but I would have preferred more detail at the price of smaller print, in other words as much as possible for my money and per cubic inch of book shelf space, even if I need a magnifying glass. By contrast, this approach is, to repeat the point, much easier to read, both in layout and its uncomplicated style. You say it is more democratic and user-friendly; I say what is the value of the information without references; you say what is the point of references that most readers would not understand, and so we can continue.

A bias towards Roman Catholics and Americans? Only by comparison with those earlier dictionaries which tended towards Anglicans and the English. I see more of a bias towards writers and among them journalists, though to be fair the breadth is excellent. A fine and interesting feature is a couple of indices on the date of death and the place of death, which helps to track down those whose name one has half forgotten; or simply as another spur to adventitious juxtaposition, or browsers’ serendipity.

My own favourite discovery (hitherto unknown to me) was:

Claudius of Turin Bishop, date of birth unknown although it is believed that he was Spanish, died about 827. Master of the Royal Schools of Aquitaine. Appointed bishop of Turin in 817. Disregarding papal authority he criticized many traditional teachings of the Roman Church including the use of relics, pilgrimages and the intercession of the saints. Famous for his biblical commentaries.

A ninth century proto-protestant? Interesting. Where is a reference to track down more about the man? ‘This is the twenty-first century, old man! Try the internet.’ Which I duly did.

A site called ‘Pilgrim Church’ offered the following information. Claudius was appointed bishop by the Emperor Louis, son of Charlemagne, in order to push forward the work begun at the Council of Frankfurt, which had outlawed all veneration of images, not only of saints but even of the Virgin and Child. Going still further, he succeeded in removing from Turin’s churches all images, which he called idols, even including the crosses. ‘So many approved that no effective resistance could be made in Turin.’

More interesting was a translation of an excerpt from one of his works by an American student, Thomas Head, posted on < http://urban.hunter.cuny.edu/~thead/claudius.htm>. Taken from his Apologia, it is verbose, belligerent and not especially enlightening, although his invective against his colleague at Rome is fun. ‘Surely a man should not be called apostolic who simply sits on the apostolic throne, but who carries out the office,’ makes a good quote to throw at a wayward Ordinary. But the following is a suitably daft perspective on the objection not merely to crucifixes but even to unadorned crosses:

The answer to them is that, if they wish to adore all wood made into the shape of a cross, since Christ hung from a cross, then the same thing ought to be done for the memory of many other things which Christ did in the flesh. For he only hung from the cross for six hours, but he was in the womb of the virgin for nine lunar months and eleven more days, which is the same thing as two hundred and seventy-six solar days, that is nine months and six added days. Therefore let virgin girls be adored, since a virgin bore Christ. Let mangers be adored, since he was lain in a manger just after having been born. Let old linen be adored, since, when he was born, he was wrapped in such old linens. Let boats be adored since he frequently sailed on boats…

And so it carries on for line after line. It is wonderful how prolix such men could be when all writing and all writing materials were so much more expensive, hard to get hold of and bulkier to store. I wonder what he charged in episcopal expenses: he does not sound like a man of restraint. NT

THE VIRGIN MARY IN THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF JOHN HENRY NEWMAN

Edited by Philip Boyce

Gracewing, 440pp, hbk

0 85244 529 6, £25

After two slim books last month, a solid collection of Marian writing and devotion. Accusations of Erastianism, mockery about unbelieving bishops, revisionist histories of the sixteenth century, none of the standard, throwaway Roman objections to the Church of England carry much weight (though they may contain more serious argument hidden behind the condemnation). But one arrow does wound and shame and hit home every time – our Church’s neglect of Mary. I worship in a medieval church dedicated to Our Saviour’s mother, attending a pious, prayerful mass of a FiF congregation, and yet nowhere is there a single statue to Our Lady, no focus anywhere in that church for my devotion. Maybe that will change, and we have hopes of the new vicar, but is that answer enough? Months and years of argument, parish politics, PCC debates lie ahead; members of the congregation will leave, archdeacons and diocesan advisory boards will moan and groan and object; and all this even if we do get a statue! That is the indictment: that a parish church dedicated to Our Lady should, even now, be allowed so visibly to ignore her. What does it say to the innocent pilgrim or searcher-after-faith? If we were good hymn-singing, Bible reading Protestants, holding to the spiritual and political heritage of the national, religious settlement ,there might be an excuse, but we believe ourselves to be good Catholics. It is shaming.

In a long introduction, Boyce discusses how much and how far Newman as an Anglican could have had a true devotion and appreciation of Mary, or would the necessary objections to Roman devotional excess have prevented him entering into the full appreciation of such doctrines as the Immaculate Conception. I find such speculation arcane, and indeed much of Newman’s writing (taken from a wide range of sources) dated. But it is solid fare. AS

SHOPPING FOR GOD

Roland Howard

HarperCollins, 278pp, hbk

0 00 628173 7, £14.99

You never knew how many flavours of yoghurt there could be, until the supermarket chains kept on inventing them for you; you never realized there could be so many crazy religions until the theological supermarket of late twentieth century me-generations created them for you, and you and you and you. Here is a selection of the weirdest and maddest of the sects. If you like being able to say, ‘Aren’t other people stupid?’ or simply discovering a quality of inventive stupidity you never imagined could exist, you should find this amusing. I thought him hard on the Wee Frees of the Outer Hebrides (they do not deserve to share such company), but this is not intended to be a serious theological study; it is a form of travel writing, witty, irreverent, undemanding entertainment. AS

INTRODUCING THE GOSPELS AND ACTS

David Wenham & Steve Walton

SPCK, 310pp, pbk

0 281 05433 9, [£11.99]

The first, apparently, of a six book series of text book introductions to the study of the Bible. If the wide page format is reminiscent of the ‘Understanding’ series of about fifteen years ago originating from France, that is not by accident: this is very much in that same style, which is a commendation. Clear, straightforward and trustworthy scholarship for any biblical student, from A level upwards. Hopefully you have a fine teacher, but that can never be guaranteed, and the context of an evening class, an Open University module, part of a more general degree course, or school itself, will not necessarily provide all the notes and materials you are going to need. This book cannot teach you by itself (there is simply too much too condensed), but it will prove an invaluable reminder, prompt and source of reassurance back home or in your study. AS

SEEING BEYOND DEPRESSION

Jean Vanier

SPCK, 89pp, pbk

0 281 05411 8, £4.99

Jean Vanier, although an exponent of meditative prayer, is chiefly known for his work with the mentally handicapped, who have been an inspiration to him and for whom he founded the L'Arche communities, originally in France. Here he turns his attention to mental illness rather than disability, to the most widespread of the mental illnesses blighting the Western world.

Seeing beyond Depression is actually shorter than it looks as each pair of pages is shared between the actual text to the right and large-print aphorisms (mainly lifted from the main text) to the left. So it's even less intimidating to a sufferer than it might have been.

Not that it's intimidating at all. The reader is not swamped with medical or psychoanalytical fact or bludgeoned with ‘inspirational’ (that is, guilt-inducing) Bible texts; in fact, although there is much biblical imagery, the Bible puts in its first and only quoted appearance half-way through in the form of Song of Songs 2.10, ‘Arise, my love, my fair one…’

Vanier gently puts forward the idea that depression is the winter of the soul, a natural stage through which the sufferer will pass and which is necessary for spiritual growth. There is multum in parvo here – about the way we lick our wounds from the past and retreat into a self-absorbed world; about the need to love ourselves as part of a beautiful universe; the power of life deep within us to fight the powers of darkness which would have us give up in despair; the need for real friends who are prepared to walk with us on our journey. Much else too to underline and ponder, so that we let God's quiet voice be heard, ‘You are unique and I love you.’

This is a lovely, loving, gentle, compassionate book. Let those in the darkness read it slowly and thoughtfully and be slowly, patiently, coaxed out of the pit.

Andrew Witcombe-Small

 

Prices in square brackets are those not printed on the books themselves, but hidden within the electronic darkness of the bar code. With the ending of the net book agreement, it is perfectly possible that the price in the shop could be less. Possible, but unlikely. Is it not best-selling fiction and television tie-ins that are the items to be discounted? Not works of theology. So if the price is not written down on the cover itself, take a guess as to which direction it is likely to go in, and stay wary as a serpent.

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