Book Reviews

What we believe and how we express it

 

THE CREED

What Christians Believe and Why it Matters

Luke Timothy Johnson

DLT, 330pp, pbk

0 232 52521 8, £10.95

Before my mother might be let loose as a Sunday School teacher in a fairly ordinary and not particularly affluent city parish, her parish priest required her to complete a dissertation on the Apostles’ Creed. She was also encouraged to acquire a smattering of elementary NT Greek – but that is another story. Not bad for a shorthand typist in her late teens and early twenties. But those were the glory days of the later Anglo-Catholic Congresses when all things were possible. She and her parish priest would be entirely at one with the author in his final chapter ‘Reclaiming the Creed’. Had they ever lost it?

The Creed in question here, of course, is the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan, the only Creed used liturgically by the Roman Catholic Church. Johnson begins with a broad outline of the origin and development of the Creed arising out of the need to contradict Marcionite and Gnostic dualism and the later Arian tendency to compromise the divine nature of the Son and Spirit. No prizes for indicating the numerous modern and post-modern equivalents.

There was a slow progress over the first centuries. The Apostles’ Creed was developed as the clear profession of faith before baptism; only from the ninth century did it become a regular part of the daily office. The more complex declaratory formula of the Nicene only began as a regular part of the Eucharist from the fifth century, a practice still being resisted five centuries later.

Johnson then goes on to outline what exactly the Creed is and what it is meant to do. As in Common Worship the Creed begins with ‘We believe’, not ‘I believe’. To recite it is not to state my personal opinion, or to work myself up into believing six impossible things before breakfast. Rather, it is making a personal act of commitment of the will to belong to the community of the Church, its faith, its reading of Scripture (scriptural references come thick and fast on almost every page of the book), its hope, and, as a result, a commitment to the way that the community and its individual members are to live.

The Creed also defines the boundaries between church and world. The boundary is there not to exclude but to contain. This makes the Creed inevitably counter-cultural. It stands in judgement on the ‘cosmos’ of capitalism, competition, exploitation, consumerism, and the opiates of the mass media circus.

The main section of the book is a step by step exposition of the successive articles of the Creed. Typical of the treatment is the chapter, ‘for our salvation’. Salvation is not about being taught the right things or set a good example. It is not about moral or mystical improvement. Nor is it about social or political reconstruction, as claimed, for example by liberation theologians, but about the individual and common experience of freedom, boldness, power and, generally, the transformation of life. It was to bring this about that Christ came down from heaven and became human. Therefore all kinds of reductionist christology, not only classical arianism, are to be excluded. Johnson is particularly sensitive to the reconstructions of the sort encouraged by the Jesus Seminar, and generally to all rationalist attempts to separate the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history. Is he equally aware of the dangers of a docetic Christ?

The book does not appear to carry an imprimatur. This is hardly surprising. Besides the easy targets of liberal and liberation theology, the author has hard things to say about attempts to impose hard and fast patterns of faith and order and conduct upon the faithful. The further extremes of mariology and marian devotion are cited as examples of these attempts, and his treatment of ‘born of the virgin Mary’ may well raise some eyebrows!

More rigid traditionalists may feel somewhat uneasy after reading the chapters covering ‘who spake by the prophets’ and ‘apostolic’. ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,’ but perhaps these sections do need to be balanced by more than the passing reference to the need for discernment on page 276. Of course the Creed does not exist to define doctrine or to impose rules and patterns of devotion. It maintains a decent theological reticence. The only example of over-precision, the filioque, was a mistake!

However, the work as a whole has much to recommend it, not in spite of the lack of official endorsement, but maybe because of it. It is well written, balanced, jargon-free and lucid throughout. It will provide a fine resource for teaching, preaching and study. A further point in favour is value for money. There are many volumes which cost two or three times as much and say far less. Finally, and on a personal note, I am very much at home with it; it begins where my mother and her parish priest left off so long ago.

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

 

On Being Liked

James Alison

DLT, 150pp, pbk

0 232 52517 X, £10.95

 

Do you read books you agree with to encourage and build up your convictions? Or do you like something challenging you can argue with so that ‘iron sharpens iron’? When you pick up a book with the attractive title On Being Liked and such a pleasant rainbow cover you might think you would be in for more encouragement than challenge. If you are a traditional Christian, though, you will find this book strong meat both in its attempted demolition of the substitutionary view of the atonement and in its promotion of sex outside of marriage. Those who have experienced Anglican theological training will find nothing new in these challenges other than their current timeliness and in the wit and warmth of James Alison’s incisive presentation of them.

In his rewriting of the atonement he seeks to move the focus from remedying sin to the renewal of creation by Jesus’ ‘detoxifying’ of death. His concern is to make human beings subjective agents of atonement rather than necessary recipients of what God has provided. For Alison, Jesus lost life in his self-giving death in order to enable us to play the game of life properly, as a parent’s teaching of a child how to play tennis includes demonstrating the ability to lose in the right way.

His whole critique is of the perceived power politics of the traditional theories of sin and atonement with the usual liberal championing of a more personalistic view. Even God loving us has to become God liking us to be really attractive. Whilst he is right that there is often something very hollow about a call to loving that is detached from any possibility of liking, the reconstruction of Christianity he attempts seems over-ambitious, to say the least. One wonders where the holiness and sheer difference of God enters the equation at times.

Such thoughts flare up particularly as he builds sympathy from his readers in a skilled broadside on homophobia in Christian tradition and the perception of untruthfulness in the Church today on the issue of homosexuality. There are few writers who can lead us into these realms maintaining humour and humility as Alison does.

Despite the emphasis on the subjective and situational at the expense of objective principle throughout the book, he ends with a beautiful affirmation that the real subject of our lives should be God. Resting in ‘being known’ by God (Galatians 4.8-9) ultimately matters more than our subjective searching after him, one of many truths in the book that seem to jump out at you as a refreshing reminder of the basic Christian Gospel.

John Twisleton is Chichester diocesan mission & renewal adviser.

 

THE TRUE PRINCIPLES

Augustus Pugin

Gracewing, 160pp, pbk

0 85244 611 X, [£9.99]

 

Facsimile reprints of Victorian works are often an excuse to save money on the typesetting, but every now and then one finds a book whose original layout is so much part of what is being presented by the author that much would be lost if it were not in facsimile. This is one such book.

Augustus Welby Pugin was a great church architect, a hero of the Catholic revival in the nineteenth century. Here we have his The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture from 1841 and An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture from two years later. Both are short works, clearly written, full of tone and utterly without compromise. Pugin shows a brilliant appreciation of detail, an immediate grasp of falsehood, and a dictatorial assertiveness, even arrogance, in his judgement of the past. There is only one interpretation, and it is his.

History and commentary are always helpful, but so too are the original texts, and this is just such a text that deserves to be read again. One does not have to be an expert in architecture or the ecclesiastical gothic revival to learn a lot from this extraordinary man, who stamped his authority upon the buildings and worship of this nation. I finished his two manifestos both angry and amused. It was great fun to read, even if I wanted to grab him by the throat and shake him. 

From Pugin’s True Principles:

It is not incumbent on all men to raise vast and splendid churches; but it is incumbent on all men to render the buildings they raise for religious purposes more vast and beautiful than those in which they dwell. This is all I contend for; but this is a feeling nearly, if not altogether, extinct. Churches are now built without the least regard to tradition, to mystical reasons, or even common propriety. A room full of seats at the least possible cost is the present idea of a church; and if any ornament is indulged in, it is a mere screen to catch the eye of the passer-by, which is a most contemptible deception to hide the meanness of the real building … Nothing can be more execrable than making a church appear rich and beautiful in the eyes of men, but full of trick and falsehood, which cannot escape the all-searching eye of God, to whom churches should be built, and not to man … Let every man build to God according to his means, but not practise showy deceptions; better is it to do a little substantially and consistently with truth, than to produce a great but fictitious effect.

 

SR

A Social History of the Cloister

Daily Life in the Teaching Monasteries of the Old Regime

Elizabeth Rapley

McGill-Queen’s University, 386pp, hbk

0 7735 2222 0, £43

 

A minority of scholarly books deserve a much wider readership than academics and advanced students: Elizabeth Rapley’s A Social History of the Cloister is definitely one of them. Her subject is the extraordinary growth, within France (the sub-title might have made this clearer) in the first decades of the seventeenth century, of new teaching monastic orders for women, part of what some historians have called a ‘rush’ into religious life following the spread of Catholic Reformation values. These women acquired property in most sizeable towns across the kingdom, attracted young women with dowries as a large proportion of their recruits and used powerful protectors to keep at bay those critics who saw them as an economic burden on the local community. In fact, they offered their host towns a service most families wanted: the charitable education of young girls from perfectly undistinguished backgrounds.

Their success was remarkable. By c1670 about a quarter of all monasteries of France belonged to the female teaching orders with a membership that was astonishingly cross-sectional for, at that date, girls from good families were as likely to be nuns as to marry. They were often the daughters and sisters of lawyers, ready in principle to obey the bishop but also very capable of measured defiance, for instance when many diocesans attempted to clamp down on Jansenist sympathizers. Professor Rapley shows how the stock market crash of 1720 in France ended the era of prosperity and expansion; the number of entrants declined, some houses closed, novices increasingly originated from humbler backgrounds compared with a century earlier and, above all, the teaching orders became vulnerable to regulation from outside. In this ‘enlightened’ century, Rapley concludes, ‘the high exaltation of the early days had given way to more practical expressions’ of spirituality’ (p90).

The book is divided into two sections. The first charts the dynamism of the seventeenth century and the vicissitudes of the eighteenth down to the compulsory closure of all the convents in France in August 1792; the second takes up themes including prehistories of the nuns themselves and their day-to-day teaching duties. The book offers innumerable human stories of life and death inside the cloister: the burdens placed on the prioress, the porteress with her keys locking the community in at night, the lay sisters and their menial duties, the often harrowing conditions in the infirmary, they are all here.

These well-born women treated enclosure positively and often discovered opportunities for leadership roles that had no equivalent in the secular sphere. But it was always a gruelling world in which stubbornness and resignation were indispensable. If the first Ursulines of Quebec were urged to regard the cloister as ‘a fortress in which are housed the riches and treasures of the blood of Jesus Christ’ (quoted, p117), neither they nor sisters in other orders were in for an easy time. For many it marked the beginning of a life-long struggle to mortify mind and body.

Penance was taken very seriously and Rapley’s section on self-mortification makes clear just how far some of them were prepared to take it. Despite the scanty surviving records of the nuns in the schoolroom, she brilliantly reconstructs their teaching day. They did their work well, educating those who would be in the forefront of defying French Revolutionary republicans in the 1790s, and not a few of the sisters were themselves martyred.

Elizabeth Rapley’s fascinating and readable work is indicative of the creative reconstruction of monastic life for women now being widely undertaken by historians. The old anticlericalist clichés of the cloister have no part in this new version, as scholars turn to what religious women wrote about their experience, the thousands of acts of individual professions, monastic rulebooks and legal records. Millions of women found real fulfillment in Counter-Reformation claustral confinement, a ‘career satisfaction’ their numerous Protestant critics could not admit. Their stories are compelling, so let us hope the publishers waste no more time and issue the paperback version of this text the author well deserves.

 

Nigel Aston lives in Rutland and teaches at the University of Leicester.

 

THE UK CHURCH FUNDRAISING HANDBOOK

Maggie Durran

Canterbury, 280pp, pbk

1 85311 516 9, £17.99

 

My favourite dictionary (admittedly itself more than half a century old) defines a handbook as a ‘short treatise, manual or guidebook’. It also speaks of a manual as a ‘small book for handy use’. At 262 pages plus glossary and index this information-packed book cannot be thought of as either short in length or short in content.

The introduction offers a powerful message, highly relevant to so many churches struggling to remain financially solvent and puts in clear perspective the part finance should play in the church’s mission. Back to the introduction later!

Possibly because the congregation of which I am a member suffers the all too common challenge of making ends meet through the annual round of encouraging more sacrificial planned giving, together with routine fundraising at an established range of events, it was a disappointment that these areas did not receive more specific attention. That is to say, it was disappointing until I reached the quite exceptionally persuasive model leaflet to promote greater planned giving.

Not unreasonably, the author offers a variety of fundraising experiences of London churches with particular architectural value or with high cost challenges to counter dilapidation or to meet urgent social needs. The attention to detail, expressed in the special language of the prospective providers of funds, will present a formidable challenge to many PCCs whose members might be tempted to set the book aside in the hope they will never need to fundraise on quite that scale.

But – and it’s now back to the introduction – although the reader is advised that the first seven chapters only are essential reading, one should not fail to explore the rest of this well-written and effectively presented work. Embedded throughout are so many helpful ideas and practical suggestions which can be applied to the everyday task of maintaining the health of parish finances. Maggie Durran reveals a wealth of knowledge of and experience in the subject.

The content is absolutely up to date, with at least one reference to London’s congestion charge. Many resources and connections are listed both in the chapters themselves and in the glossary. No reservations? One does spring to mind. It would have been nice to have had an expanded index to get me back more easily to the references I had admired during my first read.

As an inveterate, albeit retired, bean counter, I found this book compulsive reading, hard to put down. Interesting, informative, comprehensive and clear it certainly is. Whether I could ever match up in practice to the standards demonstrated is quite another matter. However, I do look forward to the promised sequel.

 

Keith Wright is on the finance committee of his parish church.

 

CHURCHWARDENS: A SURVIVAL GUIDE

Martin Dudley & Virginia Rounding

SPCK, 160pp, pbk

0 281 05073 2, [£10.99]

 

Don’t give this book to anyone standing for election to the ancient office of churchwarden. Wait until he or she has been elected, and then either frighten or reassure them with this technical guide. Lawyers now rule the world and law is remorselessly corrupting every last institution of civilization. Be armed, therefore, with this ‘survival guide’.

Sober and trustworthy, it has a long chapter entitled ‘New Tasks for the twenty-first century’, which is bound to get longer still with each successive edition. It has the full Churchwardens Measure 2001, but nothing on the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003. Not exactly heart-warming, but very useful.

How useful will depend on how much you enjoy legal niceties. Take the wearing of hats by men. A judgement is quoted from 1765, ‘A church-warden may justify the pulling off of a man’s hat, and without being guilty of either an assault or trespass.’ Now turn to the present day. The highest legal authority with regard to hats is Chancellor Bursell.

[He] wisely points out that standards of acceptable behaviour change over time, and the Canons do not state what is or is not permitted. He points to the vexed question of the wearing of a hat in church and holds that it is likely to be illegal today to remove a man's hat (as it might be being worn out of respect, as by a Jew, or for medical reasons) unless it causes offence other than by the fact of its being worn. The proper test of whether some action or behaviour requires intervention is whether it causes distress or disturbance to others. So, the wearing of a hat by a man during a service might cause more laughter than distress, but it might well be very distressing to others if worn during the singing of the Passion or at the consecration during a celebration of Holy Communion.

So now you know. It all hangs on the word ‘might’. NA

 

AN A-Z GUIDE TO GETTING MARRIED

Eleanor Watkins

Mayhew, 92pp, pbk

1 84417 015 2, [£6.50]

 

What a strange little book, and how strangely encouraging. This is a very simple ‘survival handbook’, as it styles itself in a sub-title, to a whole range of different problems, hopes and fears, surrounding getting married. Addressed to late teens, in utterly simple and undemanding language, it is in the bizarre form of a dictionary – take H, for example, and you will find ‘habits, happy-ever-after, harmony, holidays, Holy Spirit, home, honeymoon, hospitality’.

I suppose you would want it lying around where worried adolescents, swept up on a wave of true love and sentimentality, could browse through the short items and pick up some good advice. What impressed me, several decades past the readership age and married long since, was how confidently Christian it was. It came the same week as a sample CofE leaflet on marriage, all commercialism and woolly liberalism; and won hands down. AS

 

FLEMISH ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS 1400–1550

British Library, 160pp, pbk

0 7123 4805 0, £9.95

 

There is at present an exhibition at the Royal Academy on the late medieval flowering of Flemish illumination. At a time when printing and Protestantism were just beginning to impinge on the cultural life of western Europe, during what were to prove the last decades of a great artistic and religious tradition, we find this glorious swansong.

This modestly priced collection of 140 reproductions from the manuscripts of the British Library is not specifically linked to the exhibition, but will appeal to those who have visited it, or been enthused by reviews. Not all are religious, but most are, and those that are entirely secular help to set the context and to emphasize the extraordinary qualities of naturalism that develops through this period.

There is a short and useful introduction, otherwise it is a simple collection of illustrated pages. The colours (saved from the light by being bound in a book) are still vivid and unrestored, even in reproduction; but what does one make of them? How does one review a book like this, I wondered, not being an art critic? What does one do with a book like this?

‘Keep it in your pew, and use it in your meditation’ was someone’s advice. It works! Just at the moment, what moves me most, almost to tears, are the last four illuminations in the book, painted in the 1540s, when printing presses and the Reformation were in full swing, and the accompanying conflict mounting by the year. They are by Simon Bening, working in Bruges, harking back to the paintings of the seasons in the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The whole of western Christian civilization is crumbling around him and he paints these calm, beautiful and richly detailed vignettes of a peaceful, vanishing world. Sentimentality or faith? I think the latter. In these seemingly secular scenes, faith in God’s presence comes through – though you may need a magnifying glass. TG

 

DWELLING IN A STRANGE LAND

John Holdsworth

Canterbury, 190pp, pbk

1 85311 563 0, £7.99

 

A Lent book treating the theme of exile in the Scriptures. Beginning with 9/11, it takes themes of direct relevance to the fears and anxieties of the moment, and puts them across in a manner easily accessible for any parish group.

If you are thinking of using it for such a group, read it thoroughly before using it. It has nine sections (rather than the more usual five), but these can easily be telescoped into however many you need. You will also need to read the suggested biblical texts, and decide exactly which ones you are going to read aloud and study. Some sections have too many suggestions, and there will be a tendency merely to refer to them obliquely if you are trying for full coverage.

What we have here is a good Bible teacher, but one who has come to presume that others have the same familiarity with the text as he has. Put simply, it takes more than the simple direction ‘Read Ephesians 2 and Hebrews 11.13–16’ to get others to do just that. You don’t believe me? If good Christian folk read the Holy Scriptures as often as they know they ought and as frequently as they like to imply, we would not need such books as this one.

Ironically, Holdsworth spends too long on questions of hermeneutics. He would no doubt reply that because the faithful do not read their Bible as often as they know they ought, they do not know how to read it. He has a good theme: he should have more confidence in it. AS

 

The 24-7 Prayer Manual

Survivor, 160pp + CDrom, pbk

1 84291 162 7, £9.99

 

If you believe a prime working of God at this time is the formation of believers who make prayer their heartbeat rather than a thing they sometimes do as Christians, 24-7 will ring bells with you.

Since Pete Greig and his youthful companions opened the first 24-7 prayer room in the shadow of Chichester Cathedral in 1999 a movement of continuous prayer contagious with Christian joy has spread all over the world linked by the web on <www.24-7prayer.com>.

24-7 prayer is evidently something taught through being caught. It can never be just another ‘diary thing’ but something passionate linking to concern for the needy and most of all those who lack purpose for living in a culture estranged from Christianity. As we read in the vision statement, ‘24-7 prayer exists to transform the world through a movement of Christ-centred and mission-minded prayer.’

What is it all about in practice? A local church or group of churches feel led to pray continually for perhaps a week or weekend in connection with a local need. They choose a room or chapel accessible day and night with a kettle and toilets and decorate it as the Spirit leads them. In the weeks before the chosen date the local churches are brought on board with the venture through teaching and testimony. After a graphic launch an on-call team backs up around 30 people who commit to praying for one hour a day for say a week, mainly on their own but some of them maybe in pairs. Among resources that might be provided are music CDs, video clips, slides or pictures to help focus on prayer needs, candles, icons etc.

If a billion Muslims are praying five times a day, is it asking too much for local churches to occasionally raise up thirty Christians to pray for an hour a day? The manual gives a powerful reminder of how unremarkable prayer vigils have been throughout the history of the Church, even if the call to prayer 24-7 represents might sound over-enthusiastic to many in the Church today.

The spread of 24-7 over the Church and the world from its Chichester base is a reminder of how contagious passionate, deep commitment to prayer can be. The stories of how spiritual momentum gathers in communities focussed regularly upon the Lord in uninterrrupted prayer are deeply encouraging and will hopefully draw more of our churches to experience for themselves the power of united, persistent prayer.

 

John Twistleton

 

MARY: A CATHOLIC–EVANGELICAL DEBATE

Dwight Longenecker & David Gustafson

Gracewing, 240pp, pbk

0 85244 582 2, [£9.99]

 

There are some debates you need like a hole in the head. This is probably one of them. Mary, Mother of Our Lord, is not a subject for debate. And yet this book is remarkably successful in covering a range of issues, without descending into arid point scoring. I turned to the chapter on the Immaculate Conception, fearing the worst, and found that I had learned some things of worth.

This is not a book to read from beginning to end in one go, but in small bite-sized portions. Of course it will annoy you, but there is gold to be mined. David, the conservative evangelical, is the more sympathetic character, but he is also a lawyer and therefore prone to wanting to win each dispute. Dwight is right, but (as an ex-Anglican priest?) sometimes patronizing, witness ‘Catholicism is not something different from Evangelicalism. It is something more than Evangelicalism.’

In a curious sense, it is because the two protagonists are not as you would have them be, one who has left the Episcopalian Church, one who has come home to it, that they offer a range of insights, passions and prejudices that are unexpected and enlightening for an English audience. I kept wanting the Roman to be less complacent, and the Protestant to be more humble; but in the end I came to respect their honesty and deep Christian conviction.

David cannot in the end let his heart soften. Christ is his rock, in every sense of the word, but he did end with this confession, ‘I will simply admit that to be out of step with Athanasius, Augustine or Irenaeus is a most unhappy feeling for someone who is trying to adhere to "the faith once for all delivered to the saints." The witness of these Christian heroes about the role of Mary speaks to me, and I’m not finished hearing them.’ TG

 

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