Book Reviews

 

The power of myths real and imagined

Secret Fire
The Spiritual Vision of JRR Tolkien

Stratford Caldecott

DLT, 144pp, pbk

0 232 52477 7, £9.95

 

JRR Tolkien was explicitly and carefully a faithful Roman Catholic Christian. Maybe the spirituality is a secret fire, but it is not that secret. The great battle of good against evil, the meaning of life and death, the balance of Providence and free will are all explicit in The Lord of the Rings and in the wider corpus of Tolkien’s work.

Stratford Caldecott draws out these and other spiritual themes in this little book. It is helpful both for those who know Tolkien’s works well, and have read deeply in the twelve posthumous volumes of stories and notes, and for those who have simply been to the pictures.

Tolkien was always concerned to reject any idea that the War of the Ring was an allegory of the Second World War. What he was about was a much wider exploration of good and evil, a consideration of the reasons for and purpose of suffering. Caldecott is excellent in showing Tolkien’s craft, subtlety and Catholic orthodoxy in the construction of the denouement of The Lord of the Rings considered as the interplay of free will with the Divine Will. Anyone who would trouble to think through these things would do well to read this.

Invalided out of the Somme in 1916, Tolkien had been in real battles enough to have looked on the horror of death. His elves are subject to a kind of physical death through the maiming of their bodies, but in that case their spirits reside in a kind of life in the ‘Halls of Mandos’. Otherwise they live on, filled with memories. In either case they are co-terminous with the creation, and as memory grows longer reality begins to fade as each new thing becomes less and less significant. Such is the tragedy of earthly life.

This ‘sub creation’ allowed Tolkien to contrast the mortal life of men. The legend of Beren and Luthien, the Hero of Men and the Princess of the Elves, and their doomed love is echoed and re-echoed throughout the myths, not least in the love of Aragorn and Arwen. She followed him into real death, and so shared in the ‘gift’ of God to men. In the Appendix on Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings Aragorn came finally to the House of the Dead and bade farewell to his elvish wife, ‘In sorrow we must go, but not despair. Behold! we are not bound to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.’

There is much more in this book: a discussion of the nature of Being and of creation; grace, sacraments and aesthetics, even of the Incarnation itself.

Famously the film has cut the last act, when the Hobbits return from their dealing with evil in the wide world, and find it has tainted and come close to destroying their home. There is a great purpose behind this epilogue, and a spiritual one. For when we leave our homes to go to church, we go not to escape from reality, but to find out what is truly real. Returning home we may see more clearly what once we did not see, and know better what we thought familiar. ‘We too,’ writes Caldecott, ‘if we have imaginatively accompanied the Hobbits on their journey from the mundane to the epic and back again, are initiated into the realities that exist behind the veils of everyday life.’

 

Luke Miller is Vicar of St Mary's, Tottenham.

 

THE ENGLISH NATION
Edwin Jones

Sutton, 180pp, pbk

0 7509 3207 4, £7.99

 

Dr Edwin Jones’ book makes instructive reading for advocates of a free province in the CofE. A former pupil of the late Sir Herbert Butterfield, his subject is the one that will always be associated with that scholar: the Whig Interpretation of History. However, according to Dr Jones, its fons et origo was not, as Butterfield argued in the seminal essay bearing that title, Lord Macaulay and his imitators, but Thomas Cromwell and his collaborators in the 1530s.

The premise of Dr Jones’ study is the same as that which was stated by the first professional medievalist to write about the Reformation. The first sentence of Sir Maurice Powicke’s The Reformation in England is, ‘The one definite thing which can be said about the Reformation is that it was an act of the State.’ Thus Dr Jones focuses on the political and legal consequences of the break with Rome. But his real subject is the impact on historical understanding of this, the real English Revolution.

In the last century we became familiar with the way that the past was among the first victims of political revolution. Jones shows how the ideology of Royal Supremacy, the claim that England was an ‘empire’, led immediately to the distortion of history, as Cromwell and his fellow propagandists sought legitimacy for their king’s revolutionary action. Thus was built the ‘official version of the past’ in which the absolute power Henry claimed for himself was retrojected.

Dr Jones provides us with a panoramic survey of this Great Myth, the founding myth of the English State, taking in poetry (Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare) and religious literature (Foxe’s Acts and Monuments obviously, but also William Prynne), as well as historical scholarship (the Society of Antiquaries under Elizabeth and James I). Whilst giving proper weight to those who dissented from erastian views, among the poets, Shakespeare, most notably in Cymbeline, and among historians, the Non-Jurors, especially Jeremy Collier, he also justifies his choice of ‘the Official Version’ to describe them. They did indeed come from the heart of the Tudor and Stuart Establishment.

Undoubtedly one of the most helpful chapters in the book is the discussion of the fate of the Common Law in this period. In the hands of Edward Coke, it became one of the chief vehicles for conveying the isolationist view of English history, but as Jones reminds us, Maitland showed at the beginning of the last century that it was already Roman and Christian, and to that extent little different from Canon Law.

Jones also includes a useful chapter on the errors in English medieval history perpetrated by purveyors of the Great Myth, chief among them William of Orange’s propaganda minister and Bishop of Salisbury, Gilbert Burnet. Here we are also introduced to some fascinating and unjustly forgotten historians from the period 1660 to 1730 who often anticipated the conclusions of modern revisionists. We meet Thomas Hearne, Non-Juror and erudite editor of Camden’s Elizabeth (1717) for which he was delated by the vice-chancellor of Oxford, and Obadiah Walker, the Roman Catholic, who was elected master of University College, Oxford, violently attacked for noting that King Alfred got on quite well with the Pope. Having been ‘turned out of University col. for being a papist’ at the Glorious Revolution (or the Dutch Invasion as Jones insists we should call it), his friends there did not forget him, but sent him ‘a dozen bottles of the richest Canary to support his drooping spirits’.

But this High Church–Catholic renaissance of historical scholarship withered as the legitimist cause represented by James II’s son and grandson foundered. Historiographical darkness fell as the Enlightenment dawned. Jones points out that, despite their political differences, Enlightenment historians such as the Tory Hume and the Whig Macaulay promoted the Great Myth in their work. Despite taking different sides in the seventeenth century quarrel between king and parliament, they were on the same side when it came to the sixteenth-century subjection of the Church to the ‘king-in-parliament’. Lining up on this side too were Southey and Turner, historians of the Romantic period. One of the many achievements of Jones’ book is to show that political and literary labels counted for little where the Great Myth was concerned.

Then, as Jones argues in his final chapter, the Victorian expansion of the ‘empire’ overseas and the growth of the reading and voting public, leant wider currency and greater political urgency to the Myth. It also acquired scholarly ballast through the archival labours of the new breed of professional historian like the Bishop of Oxford, William Stubbs. What their twentieth-century successors call ‘revisionism’, has largely been caused by the recognition that the Great Myth is not supported by the evidence, and so needs to be ‘seen again’.

That leads directly to the hero of Dr Jones’ book. In perhaps the most remarkable chapter of this outstanding book, Dr Jones shows that revisionism was well underway, indeed almost complete, in the multi-volume History of England composed by the Lancashire Catholic priest, John Lingard. As Professor Norman Davies (who has himself written a history of England significantly called The Isles) comments in the Foreword to The English Nation, these volumes provide a highly professional and detailed counterpoint to the official version’ and also ‘expose the prejudices of so much English history-writing’. Lingard was largely ignored in his day, and his importance is only now being recognized.

Dr Jones has another, more contemporary, hero: the Prime Minister. Blair meets with Jones’ approval because he supposes him to be an enthusiast for the European Union. I doubt whether, even in his more visionary moments, he would go along with Jones’ assertion that it represents the restoration of the Catholic civilization of medieval Europe. Neither will members of FiF, who fear the ecclesial consequences of the feminist agenda of the European Convention on Human Rights, enthusiastically promoted by Ms Cherie Booth QC, be entirely convinced by his claim that it embodies a modern version of medieval Canon Law. However, it is as history, and in particular that branch of the subject pioneered by Sir Herbert Butterfield, historiography, the history of History, that Dr Jones’ book should be read.

 

Simon Heans is curate of St Martin’s, Brighton.

 

The Cracked Pot
The state of today’s Anglican parish clergy

Yvonne Warren

Mayhew, 236pp, pbk

1 84003 851 9, £15.99

 

This sympathetic study of the state of the parish clergy was assembled out of sixty in-depth interviews with incumbents in two anonymous dioceses. The title picks up 2 Corinthians 4.7–12 not only with its talk of stress-filled Christian ministry as bringing ‘treasure in clay pots’ but also the phrase Paul uses about ‘carrying around in our body the death of the Lord’ – hence the ‘cracked pot’. It is a powerful image and Yvonne Warren reports fully on the things clergy are enduring and seeing transfigured to various degrees ‘so that the life of Jesus may be revealed’, to complete the scripture verse.

Five themes emerge that seem to greatly affect the life and work of parish clergy – irrelevance, isolation, despair, guilt and low self-esteem. The antagonism of the media against the Church is testing their confidence both in themselves and in the Gospel itself. If being ordained is by definition about difference and aloneness it brings an inevitable degree of isolation, which is compounded when priests are working in communities for the most part uninterested in the Gospel. Lack of money, friendships and free time coupled with the need to be always balancing family needs with the demands of parishioners is often a recipe for guilt or even despair. The painful testimony of one divorced priest captures some of this pain: ‘My wife felt she was married to a bigamist. My mistress was the Lord.’

The issue of low self-esteem is linked in the study to the diversity of opinion about the nature of the ministerial priesthood within Anglicanism and a related confusion. Warren talks of the ‘divine right’ of the priest passing away and the need to earn respect. Could it be that the loss of distinction between the person and office of a priest is part of a wider loss of a supernatural perspective able to distinguish between realities and appearances at the heart of the crisis of confidence?

The Cracked Pot has some cries from the heart about the need for affirmation, recognition of gifts and more pastoral care from the bishops. At the same time there are heartening comments such as the one from a priest convinced ‘the happiness far outweighs the unhappiness, because I’m doing the job God wanted me to do.’ Clergy interviewed recognized the need to be reminded of their call by God to a holy work.

It is surprising that this study has so little to say about the significance to clergy morale of mission strategy. Although ‘mission’ is seen by many clergy as a guilt-inducing business with its emphasis on tangible outputs, there is evidence that churches and ministers with a clear sense of direction are less stressed. Corporate discernment of something of God’s agenda for the local church has power to relieve stress upon the ordained by prioritizing what should be done for God over what could be done. Priests who have a sense of God’s agenda for themselves and their churches speak of being better able to ‘say No’ when faced with the endless expectations put upon their ministry.

Even with a brilliant mission strategy no priest or Christian can avoid the call to be generous and to bear cheerfully the ‘cracking’ evidenced in this moving study.

 

John Twisleton is Chichester diocesan mission & renewal adviser.

 

GOD IS NEAR US
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Ignatius Press, 152pp, pbk

0 89870 962 8, [£15]

 

It is a good idea to plan for retirement well in advance; to get those new interests up and running, be they golf or metaphysics. And if you’ve spent decades sifting the fashionable, boring heresies of the late twentieth century, what can you usefully do when you vacate your desk? I suspect I know what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger decided upon: liturgy. It relates intimately to dogma; yet it is not simply dogma. He thought it would be a change and a subject which would enable him still to be of service – academically and persuasively rather than juridically – to the Universal Church, because worship is so fundamental to the Church's life. And then his longed-for retirement had to be put on hold because a suffering, saintly, ageing Pontiff appealed for help.

This volume, from a publishing house far too little known this side of the Atlantic, collects liturgical pieces from Ratzinger's past oeuvre. Like most of the products of his pen, these pages sparkle with insights and information, with conclusions both orthodox and new, as a great theologian sets the Tradition beside new perceptions and approaches. Ratzinger is unpopular among those who prefer to remain mired in the heterodox certainties of some previous generation, because his theology is fun: a fun based not on heresy and negation but on seeing from a new angle what is inherited.

Would you guess that the second-century Protevangelium of James, combined with Origen's Homilies on Genesis could throw light on the layout of our Anglican Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham? Read Ratzinger's Loretto sermon, and you'll have the bonus of finding out about some of the earliest Christian pilgrim graffiti. Enjoy seeing, in a couple of elegant paragraphs, the Incarnation linked with the footwashing in St John's Gospel, a quotation from Nietzsche and the camel which has trouble with the eye of the needle.

Does the Vicar need a new theme for an Easter sermon? Let him read on from these words. 'Resurrection means quite simply that the body ceases to be a limit and that its capacity for communion remains.’ Have you ever thought about sex while approaching the communion rail? Ratzinger will tell you how to do it properly.

If you can get a sense of exhilaration from this sort of associative theology – adding two to two and getting twenty – Ratzinger is your man and this is your sort of book. If you prefer the tedium of the known, the dull, and the half-comprehensible, save your money.

 

John Hunwicke celebrates the Mass in Devon.

 

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 at first would seem to be one of them. Mary, Mother of Our Lord, is not a subject for debate, but devotion; and yet against the odds 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 a thing or two.

This is not a book to read from beginning to end in one go, but in small bite-sized portions. 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 over-eager in his desire to win each dispute. Dwight is right and more than ready to give due honour to Our Lady, 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

WONDERFUL EXCHANGE
Alexander Ryrie

Canterbury, 112pp, pbk

1 85311 557 6, £7.99

 

This book sets out to fulfill a laudable but impossible task: to introduce the activity of silent prayer to those who have little experience of it or none. It also has in mind those looking in from a non-Christian perspective. There are many good things here: there is a prayerful and careful use of language – of a real poetic quality; there is a firm scriptural foundation; and there is an intelligent use of a wide range of Orthodox and Patristic Sources.

Some of the practical advice is sound. Despite all this it cannot achieve the impossible: silent prayer challenges most concepts of religious language and is so personal that it defies even the most finely weighted generalizations. The best books about silent prayer are book about God – pure theology. This book quoting Dumitru Staniloae on ‘self as subject and God as subject’ acknowledges this essential need for refined spiritual theology. I am not a great fan of books about prayer. I remember Rowan Williams being told (after the publication of The Wound of Knowledge) that ‘most people struggle just to do it, never mind write about it.’ It is the doing it that matters; it may be that reading about it afterwards may help an individual work out what has happened and reassure him that he is not going mad.

 

Andrew Hawes

 

Invading Secular Space
Martin Robinson & Dwight Smith

Monarch, 222pp, pbk

1 85424 640 2, £7.99

 

This is a resource book from experts in church planting who have developed strategic thinking and have many good ideas to share. The main theme is about recovering the sense of movement about Christianity and with it a renewed focus upon a world hungry for the Gospel.

Dwight Smith relates how God told him his church was not ‘a warehouse which exists for the sole purpose of filling it with people to listen to you talk’ but people called to be light to the nations. The book has many illustrations of how church growth links to the attaining of this outward looking focus, notably from protestant denominations in the Ukraine whose vitality is seen to be linked to their heart for the wellbeing of their nation.

Mission, in short, is about movement and mobilization towards secular space and leadership is pivotal to this. Hierarchies need to give way to apostolic networks. The emphasis on being mission practitioners is further underlined by the practical MA Course in ‘Missional Leadership’ allied to the vision in this book. Such leaders are called to help nurture a passion and commitment towards the local community and to be skilled in discerning what God is doing or wanting to do there. It is more important to ask ‘How can I ignite a movement around here?’ than ‘How do I grow my church?’

It is a very masculine, almost militaristic, book with its inevitable focus upon strategy. As such it desperately needs a complementary emphasis on the feminine mystique traditionally associated with the Church as bride of Christ. The contemplative, feminine principle intrinsic to the ‘givenness’ of the Church is a vital spring for any effective spiritual movement. The absence of significant positive references to Catholicism or Orthodoxy is also telling.

Invading Secular Space is nevertheless a powerful reminder of the importance of mission strategy in our day. A key insight and repeated emphasis is upon the need for core church leaders to make time to prioritize the training of more leaders as part of any strategy for multiplying church membership. In this dynamic the small group or cell is shown to play a pivotal role in the maintaining of spiritual life and momentum for the growth and mission of the body of Christ as a whole. JT

 

THE MAN WHO CHANGED EVERYTHING
Basil Mahoon

Wiley, 240pp, hbk

0 470 86088 X, £18.99

 

The forgotten giant of science, James Clark Maxwell, is here given a most sympathetic and readable biography. Born in 1831, he lived only 48 years before dying of cancer, but by then had been Professor at Aberdeen, King’s College London and then Cambridge, during which time he had written world-changing papers on colour, gases, and most important of all electrodynamics. His most important contribution may as easily be the discovery of electromagnetic waves as the establishment of field equations; what matters is that he laid the groundwork for most of the physics of the twentieth century.

‘Those in the know honour Maxwell alongside Newton and Einstein, yet most of us have never heard of him. This is an injustice and a mystery but most of all it is our great loss.’ We should know of him, not only because of his extraordinary genius, the clarity of his mind in so many disparate areas of science, but also the graciousness of his person.

‘He was not only a consummate scientist but a man of extraordinary personal charm and generous spirit: inspiring, entertaining and entirely without vanity.’ This gentle and readable biography seeks to put this across, and succeeds. The descriptions of his various papers are simple and clear, and if they cannot themselves convey the astonishing achievements they represent, the reactions of his colleagues, rivals and friends help us to share the excitement of the times.

This may be an odd book for New Directions, but do read it. It is an inspiration. Maxwell, one of the truly greatest scientists of all time, was a thoughtful, prayerful and committed Christian. He is not an argument in the science–religion war, but he is an encouragement. Is this why he has never been accorded the recognition that is his due? Because he so entirely fails to fulfil the secular, crusading stereotype? He was a lovely man, a true child of God. AS

 

ANGLICANISM AND THE WESTERN CHRISTIAN TRADITION
Edited by Stephen Platten
Canterbury, 286pp, pbk

1 85311 559 2, £19.99

 

This valuable collection of essays comes from a colloquium of Anglican and Roman Catholic historians at the Gregorian University in Rome in 2002. Opening with contributions by Diarmaid MacCulloch and Eamon Duffy, it clearly contains serious scholarship. If you have not read their major works, then this offers an excellent introduction. If you already have, there is rather less on offer. Judith Maltby continues her work on the power and popularity of the Book of Common Prayer in the seventeenth century, and here concentrates on its continuing use underground during the Civil War and after, when the Directory for the Public Worship of God held sway; this will become part of her next book.

The essays vary. I found the study of the Oxford Movement’s historical revisionism closely argued, but worthy rather than interesting, and that on the development of the Anglican Communion too brief a sketch to offer more than the occasional titbit: the attempts to provide a bishop for the American colonies, long before Seabury’s Scottish consecration, was interesting, but it needed a complete essay on its own: if these early attempts to provide episcopal care failed, why was this so?

The Anglican exhibition and colloquium, centred around material from Norwich Cathedral, was a political and diplomatic enterprise. Nothing wrong in that, but it does mean there is a veneer of complacency unconnected to the less sanguine outlook of most writers and readers of New Directions. The Archdeacon of Charing Cross closes his essay with something that reads like a press release:

The Anglican Communion illustrates the dynamic effectiveness of a church ‘reformed according to the model of the primitive Church’ in establishing itself as a communion of national churches, receptive to local language and culture in their liturgies and theology, with synodical processes, including bishops, clergy and laity, with a dispersed pattern of authority, and the Archbishop of Canterbury as primes [sic] inter pares. It has not been a smooth process. Many historic tensions are still present … These tensions have always existed within the Church. In the Anglican Communion they are contained within a community of dialogue, which, in my view, stands within the traditions of the Western Church, maintaining the traditions of the ‘primitive Church’.

Would that it were so. It expresses what many hope for, but rather fewer believe in. That said, if you can cope with the spin and have not read enough of current English church history, this is an excellent and stimulating introduction. SR

 

If you have read these occasional concluding rants, you will know how much we loathe the increasing trend towards omitting the price from the cover of books. What purpose does it serve other than to make it easier to keep raising the cost? To make this clear, we place such unmarked prices in brackets, by way of warning. We feel a bit miffed, then, when we have to take the blame for this new practice.

A letter arrived the other day pointing out that one such book had cost more than we suggested it would; and should we not pay the writer of the letter the difference, by way of apology (and perhaps to discourage us from making the same mistake again). Nice try, as they say; but sorry. Since the price, even if marked, is now, with the demise of the net book agreement, only a suggestion, you will have to take it up with the bookseller himself.

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