Book Reviews

Two books on the Rosary for the month of Mary

This is your Mother
The scriptural roots of the Rosary
Ronald Walls
Gracewing, 212pp, pbk

0 85244 403 6, £9.99

Praying alone is not easy; indeed, it might even be impossible, and if not impossible, then heretical. For whenever we try to pray, we are no longer alone. We are part of ‘that greater company that no man may number’, the fellowship of the saints, and all Christian prayer is made in the Spirit, to the Father, through his Son Jesus.

For some of us, the discovery of the Rosary has been a huge step in helping us to pray. First, it is very practical, tangible, physical – the beads give us something to hang onto; but in reality they hang onto us, keep us focused on the business which is, quite literally, in hand. Then, it leads us step by step through the history of salvation, tracing the biblical events from God’s plan of redemption to its accomplishment in heaven. Best of all, it is explicitly not a method of prayer that relies on us. Throughout its recitation, we are looking at the events of salvation history through Mary’s eyes, and all the while she is praying with us and for us. The Rosary heals the isolation of our praying.

Fr Walls gives us the twenty decades of the Rosary (for he incorporates the five the present Pope has given us, the Mysteries of Light, as well as the traditional fifteen) and roots each of them in Scripture. For each of the mysteries, he gives us a selection of short biblical readings. His choice of so many from the Old Testament and from the Book of Revelation is often unexpected and delightful. As a former Protestant, a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, he will be well aware of the problems which many Christians have with some of the Marian dogmas. Perhaps because of this he avoids those dire speculative assertions of much Roman spiritual writing – ‘Of course, God will have wanted to preserve Jesus’ mother from the taint of sin, so naturally he would have …’ He simply says what the Church teaches and, where possible, gives scriptural authority for these assertions. We may demur from time to time, but this is how it is in a church which uses its teaching authority.

Ingres’ saccharine image of Our Lady on the cover may be off-putting, but any hesitations we may have are trivial, compared with the thanks we owe Fr Walls for this helpful accessory to praying the Rosary. ‘In the Rosary’, he writes, ‘we are supposed to stretch our minds beyond the words of our prayer to the episodes in the life of our Lord and his mother that we commemorate.’ There are a thousand ways of using the Rosary, sometimes running right through from start to finish at breakneck speed, sometimes simply savouring one of the events it gives us to contemplate. However we use the Rosary, Fr Walls’ book will refresh our prayer, and take us further into the mystery of our salvation.

Edwin Barnes was formerly Bishop of Richborough.

 

Meditations with the Rosary
Fr James Morrow

Humanae Vitae House, Braemar, Scotland AB35 5YT, 186pp, [£5]

Fr Morrow, through this imaginative and biblical approach, has produced an attractive and practical book which will be a persuasive aid to anyone, priest or layperson, looking to introduce people of all ages to use the Rosary as a springboard to contemplative prayer.

He includes the newly authorized Mysteries of Light, which have extended the scope of the Rosary to embrace the gospel ministry of Our Lord, and to encourage the use of scriptural texts from other New Testament writers.

Again, Fr Morrow has set out the text in full which is helpful to beginners, who find it embarrassing to stumble over the repetitive words. The Mysteries are presented in five series. Some decades are preceded by a meditation, and silence is suggested both before and at the conclusion of each decade, and a summary prayer is provided. Other decades use a scriptural text inserted after the Holy Name of Jesus. He keeps faithfully but never slavishly to the guidance given by Pope John Paul in his encyclical letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae.

Not the least of the attractions of Fr Morrow's book are the appropriately chosen illustrations for each of the Mysteries. Some like the prints from the frescoes of Fra Angelico and the mosaics from the Rosary Basilica at Lourdes will be familiar to many. Others have been drawn from the convent of the Dominican Sisters at Stone, England, and the Brade Barth Studio, Belgium. The Revised Standard Version has been used invariably for the scriptural texts. The book concludes with prayers which by custom have come to be associated with the Rosary.

Fr James Morrow has been widely known for his campaigning on behalf of unborn children; he has suffered from serious ill health in recent years and this beautiful book is the fruit of his experience of prayer as the vital foundation of a costly ministry.

Fr Anthony Bell is a retired priest and a long time member of the Ecumenical Society of Mary.

 

THE DIDACHE
Aaron Milavec
Michael Glazier, 132pp, pbk

0 8146 5831 8, [£9.99]

As readers will know, we have a special love for the BMG category of religious book. Barking mad genius. Not slightly mad or plain stupid but ‘way out in left field’ bonkers; the sort of book that just might grab you by the scruff of the neck and pull you through some hidden hole in the fence, into a whole new world of spiritual perception. It has been a poor year for the genre so far, but this classic makes up for that.

The Didache, as you know, is probably the earliest Christian text outside the New Testament, a manual of teaching for a young church community, probably near Antioch, part morality, part liturgy and discipline. Simple, direct, unpretentious, and known for centuries only in quotation or allusion, it was only discovered 120 years ago. Never fully accepted as of real importance by the German dominated world of New Testament scholarship, it evokes passionate commitment from those few scholars who have grown to love it.

None more so than Milavec, who has clearly lived and breathed the Didache for many years, singing it softly as he falls asleep (I am not joking – see his remarks on p103) communing with its long-dead writers as he hikes in the North American wilderness. This has enabled him, for example, to unearth a range of ‘women’s voices and women’s issues’ that previous scholars had not seen. From the sparse information provided he has devised an eleven stage flow chart for ‘the progression of events surrounding the baptism of a woman’ including such as ‘Novice takes solace in her new "family" fasting in solidarity with her and in a Father in heaven ready to embrace her’; how curious that the early Christians should have acted so like Californian hippies; what a coincidence that Milavec did his PhD at Berkeley, California, at the height of hippiedom.

Dating it to 50–70 ad, to prepare gentile converts for full participation in a Jewish-Christian community, his commentary has some new insights and some less convincing special pleading, but it is his translation that is most inventive. It is somewhat specialized with diachronic signs and numbers added to bring out more meaning than mere words can hold, but it has a quality of true poetry that is extraordinary. He truly can sing the text, which if nothing else argues strongly for an oral origin and purpose to this ancient training manual. If you have never encountered this work before, I would not recommend this as the place to begin, but if you have studied it and would like a new perspective, this is a wonderful book – genuinely mad and inspiring at the same time.

There is also a website where you can ‘feel the aural flow’ (that means hear it rather than read it) as well as downloading the appropriate ‘soothing colors, relaxing animation, and self-selected mood music’ <www.Didache.info>.

And finally, let him share the fierce pain of being a free spirit in a technological age. ‘For those trees whose lives were extinguished in order that this book might have pages, I offer my humble prayer. Likewise, I would be remiss if I did not ask pardon for the excessive suffering inflicted on birds, animals, and fish as a byproduct of the modern technology of forestry and paper production.’                                                       NT

 

SEEKING THE TRUTH OF CHANGE IN THE CHURCH
Reception, Communion and the Ordination of Women
Edited by Paul Avis
T&T Clark, 172pp, pbk

0 567 08884 7, [£16.99]

If you want an antidote to the persistent irrational ranting of GRAS (and who doesn’t?), this is it. Originating in a conference held at St George’s College, Windsor this is a collection of essays by those (divided on the matter of the ordination of women to the priesthood – ‘pretty evenly, I think’, says Avis) who support the 1993 Act of Synod and who have engaged seriously with the notion of ‘reception’ which undergirds it.

Inevitably they are uneven in quality. Mary Tanner and John Hind steal the show with two excellent pieces which demonstrate how much is to be said which GRAS cannot grasp. Tanner, with her unrivalled knowledge of the back-stairs of modern Anglican ecclesiology, sets the historical record straight in an essay which should be required reading for all those bishops (and there are many now) who ‘knew not Joseph’ and are inclined to rewrite the last fifteen years to suit their present prejudices. Hind takes us clearly and painlessly through some relevant patristic material with an eye (as one would expect), on modern Roman thinking.

Bill Rusch is a man who has made a career opportunity out of the Doctrine of Reception. He takes us on a Cook’s Tour of the concept, with Yves Congar as its star performer, and with mercifully less ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’ and ‘Rezeptionsgeschichte’ than one might have expected. Paul Richardson is lucid and helpful as ever.

Paul Avis, the editor and author of two of the essays, is to be congratulated in the production of a readable and timely collection which, if read, will do much to dispel misunderstandings of what the Church of England has been about for the last twelve or so years. In his concluding paper Avis makes his own position clear with regard both to the integrity of the bishop’s ministry and the coherence of the Forward in Faith Agreed Statement on Communion. This is a little too like the cobbler telling the customer that his shoes don’t hurt him, for my taste: but that is the way we live now.

To John Hind goes the prize for the most fascinating and enigmatic footnote (‘Questions about women and the episcopate are not treated in this paper. This way of stating the matter is not to prejudge whether this is a separate issue or not.’) and the most thought provoking paragraph:

What is ultimately being tested therefore might be thought to be the way in which we make decisions, and the competence of a representative synodical body to adjudicate on fundamental matters of doctrine. If the ordination women and its relation to the doctrine of holy order are first order questions, are there other first order decisions the Synod might be inhibited from making? Where stands now the traditional Anglican concern to resist innovations for which there is no clear scriptural warrant?

And so say all of us.

Geoffrey Kirk

 

PROGRESSIVE MUSLIMS
Edited by Omid Safi
Oneworld, 362pp, pbk

1 85168 316 X, £16.99

This is a collection of fourteen essays from American academics addressing the problems of justice, gender and pluralism from the perspective of western, educated Muslims. If you are able to read it through, you will be by turns moved, humbled, frustrated, fascinated, infuriated and angry beyond words.

There is a cogently argued essay by Khaled Abou El Fadl tackling head on the distortion of Islam by the rise to power and religious hegemony of Wahhadism, the puritanical version of Islam found in Saudi Arabia: he roundly condemns the horrific incident in March 2002, when the religious police prevented young girls fleeing from a fire because their heads were not properly covered. It is a horrible story, and it is humbling to watch a devout Muslim face up to implications of what was done in the name of his religion.

By contrast, there is a manifesto for ‘we progressive and feminist Muslims’ from an African-American, that is so self-indulgent and self-affirming, it is close to meaningless; but then that may be the point; if I am white, male and a Christian, perhaps she does not want either my agreement or even my understanding. It is like being spoken to by someone who does not want to speak to me. Arresting for the first two minutes, but after that wearying.

One essay, by Ahmet Karamustafa, asks, What is Islamic civilization? This, like many others, is an utterly American, post-modern approach, full of academic language, referring to a range of scholars and books and methodologies that are, frankly, from a different civilization. The reduction of a ‘world religion’ to an aspect of Anglo-Saxon pluralism is both fascinating (for the same rules apply to Catholic Christianity) and appalling, for the struggle of ideas will not be solved in the tiny, closed world of North American universities.

It is an unusual book, and not lacking in ideas and imagination, but in the end, I found it just a bit too earnest and too optimistic. Like our own liberals, there is no questioning the good intentions, but a deeper grasp of sin is needed. If the problems of the world were that simple, we would have solved them by now. DN

 

Elders in Every City
The Origin and Role of the Ordained Ministry
Roger Beckwith
Paternoster Press, 104pp, pbk

1 84227 230 6, [£6.99]

Roger Beckwith has once again brought his intellectual talents to bear on an issue of crucial significance to the Church of England. With the Ordinal currently in the synodical melting-pot (or is that ‘cauldron’?) it is timely to re-examine what we know about the origins of Christian ordination even though, given the lack of credible debate, this is perhaps something of a forlorn hope with regard to General Synod.

Beckwith regards as virtually beyond dispute the original identification of presbyter and bishop, and their separation as a late development which therefore, whilst useful, might in extremis be dispensed with. He rejects, however, the idea that the ‘institutional’ ministry was ever in competition with a ‘charismatic’ ministry. Rather, the Church naturally took over the structures of the synagogue, where the elder was an older man exercising the office of community ruler and judge. (This latter role, incidentally, must call seriously into question Professor Anthony Thiselton’s thesis, which is heavily relied on in the Synod’s work on clergy conditions of service, that the dispute in 1 Corinthians 5 is merely over the honesty of secular courts, not the principle of turning to them.)

From this Jewish background came the Christian presbyter – still a community ruler, but with more emphasis on teaching and ‘ordained’ by the laying on of hands. Only gradually, however, and in the face of various pressures rather than out of theological necessity, do the roles of presbyter and bishop separate and the sacraments become the exclusive prerogative of the ordained. And only even more gradually do the other features of late sacramental ministry emerge.

Some will be disappointed by the lack of an emphasis on ‘divine guidance’ in these later developments. Traditionalist Catholics might do well, however, to remember that Liberals are also strongly wedded to the notion of ‘development’ under the latter guidance of ‘the Spirit’. Before Beckwith is dismissed as dryly ‘Protestant’, therefore, it may be helpful to see his work as demonstrating the reasons why, consistent with Gospel principles, the ministry took the shape we have inherited. And this just might help to ensure that those same principles are still recognized today.

John P Richardson

From Faking It – an American’s anxieties about English superiority:

Those damn English, we thought. They have no anxieties on account of their Englishness. They feel unanxiously superior; with a self-confidence that others, against their own interest, confirm and defer to. They never have to fake being anything but what they are anyway, at least in front of the likes of us. We slavishly defer to them, intimidated by their self-confidence, their reserve, giving them the benefit of about thirty extra IQ points simply for having the accent they do, even when the accent is Manchester working-class.

How many Englishmen are ever embarrassed by, let alone ashamed of, being English? … So secure are Brits that they are barely embarrassed by their soccer hooligans. I suspect they are just a little prideful that they can set the standard in boorish and violent self-assertion as well as in matters of poise, tact, and reserve. Since when did any Brit mind that one of his countrymen beat the living daylights out of a Belgian or a Frenchman? There are some groups that are seen as winners no matter what, and one never hears of the problem of English self-hatred. Something about them makes others accept their mildly self-mocking self-satisfaction as utterly justifiable, something most would agree seems much less to be the case for the French, whose self-love seems indecorous, it not possessing the boisterous and generous innocence of the American version of the same.

FAKING IT
William Miller
CUP, 300pp, hbk

0 521 83018 4, [£25]

There are not many mainline philosophy books a layman can read for entertainment, but this is one of them. Take it slowly. Miller is like a vastly erudite and entertaining cousin, a wonderful house guest for a couple of days, utterly exhausting if he stays too long. Read a chapter a month, and have fun.

Miller begins with Jesus’ injunctions against hypocrisy, and from a discussion of what truthfulness means where it matters most in our relationship with God, he moves to the meaning of such ideas in our relationships with others. He has a sharp and critical nose for fakery. I particularly liked the way he disposed of the following:

Polonius, the person who utters the most quoted line in English about characterological authenticity, is a sententious fool who distinguishes himself by being especially deluded about his own psychological acuity: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ Sounds good, but what on earth does it mean?

There is plenty of such robust knock-about, but one of the most encouraging features of this book, and why it is worth commending in these pages, is the manifest intelligence of the man. He is a Harvard professor, utterly liberal and American, but he is also a Jew, although until he comes to a sudden bitter outburst against anti-Semitism (and intensely powerful for being so unexpected) he does not make that at all obvious. And yet it is so clear that he is more intelligent than the majority of his contemporaries. He does not fulminate against PC language, his serious attacks are courteous and measured, he is a fully paid-up member of the East Coast Intelligentsia, but almost despite himself he proves the superiority of a religious cultural context. The thing I gained most from reading his arguments was this implicit ‘proof’ that the Judaeo-Christian heritage is so far superior to the liberal humanism that seeks to supplant it. There is a depth to his understanding of the human condition that is rarely found in the humanities as now taught.

If I had one disappointment, it was that he did not develop his moral observation and reflection. He began with God but did not properly return to him. He never quite managed to build upon what he had established. Perhaps no structure can be built upon his foundations, but I am sorry he did not try.

Let me end with another quotation that illustrates his ability to get behind the mask of contemporary social psychologizing.

There is an honesty to cosmetics: the woman putting them on is not ashamed that she is doing so. Women in my mother’s generation would pull out a compact and reapply makeup seated in a restaurant; not to do so was bad form. In that day a woman might never be so inaccessible as when she was redoing her face in public. And cosmetics work more magically for not being disavowed, for being so open; it draws men and frightens them; it is all so mysterious.

NA

 

THE ETERNAL CROSS
John Richardson
Good Book Co, 32pp, bklt

1 904889 01 8, [£2]

Again, this does not claim to be a review, for John is ‘one of us’, but what is good still deserves commending. This is a short booklet, complete with full colour photographs of semi-abstract nature (modern production values), giving a simple, clear, Christian answer to the question or bewilderment of a young believer or confused inquirer – as it happens, the kind of searching confusion that may have been evoked by seeing Mel Gibson’s Passion.

The particular merit of John’s reflection is the clarity of his language, not merely that you can understand it but that it carries conviction as an orthodox Christian exposition. He outlines the purpose and meaning and permanence of the Cross within the redemptive work of God, and he does this most effectively by setting it within the whole context of the Scriptures. There is a depth and breadth worthy of the subject. Buy it for yourself, and then pass it on. AS

 

AN INTRODUCTION TO EARLY ENGLISH LAW
Bill Griffiths
Anglo-Saxons Books, 90pp, pbk

1 898281 14 9, £6.95

This re-issue is a valuable resource for the early Anglo-Saxon law codes, principally those of Aethelbert of Kent and Alfred the Great, but also the shorter collections from the reign of Edmund and Aethelred the Unready. Reasonably technical, it nevertheless offers the general reader access to a vital period in the development of law. What becomes clear is that these strange lists of long-forgotten crimes and their associated punishments are founded on the Christian Gospel. They may be harsh, but they are searching for the best way to establish God’s law and justice in troubled times. It is always worth remembering that the origins of law in this country are Christian.

What is still more fascinating is that here we are well over a thousand years ago and some of the dominant themes are those that are now re-emerging in the current crisis between English law and the European tradition. For want of prisons and the stable structure of a society able to impose more sophisticated sanctions, the use of compensation both for its own sake and as the principal deterrent was dominant, as it threatens to become for us. Note also, for the same lack of stable structures, that guilt was generally presumed rather than forensically proved – you are guilty, therefore you must pay so much for the offence – a feature that is gradually being re-introduced, with traffic offences giving the lead, where the burden of proof lies on you, not the DVLA. There is nothing new under the sun. RW

 

THE PRAYER BOOKS OF THE CHURCH OF IRELAND 1551–2004
Edited by Brian Mayne

Columba Press, 48pp, bklt

1 85607 446 3, [£2.99]

The Church of Ireland is to get a new prayer book on Trinity Sunday this year. This set of four essays by members of its Liturgical Advisory Committee sketches some of its pre-history. It has a little of the flavour of official history, but offers some interesting insights into a Province largely unknown in this country.

Cranmer’s First Prayer Book arrived in Dublin, in both English and Latin, in 1551 and was widely ignored, only five bishops being prepared even to consider it. The 1552 revision was never authorized. Elizabeth’s edition was permitted in Latin, but proved as unpopular as one might imagine. Astonishingly, the first Irish edition only appeared in 1608.

The Church of Ireland’s own contribution to the development of the Anglican Prayer Book had to wait until 1878, when it undertook a root and branch revision after the disestablishment of that province in 1869. A decade of furious and often acrimonious debate, testing the new synodical system to its limit, ended in an interesting if unspectacular conclusion, to change virtually nothing. The only categorical alteration was the removal of the special form of Absolution found in the Visitation of the Sick.

The new church risked tearing itself apart, for the necessary consensus could never have been found for an amended text. As the author of this essay nicely puts it,

The 1878 Prayer Book is perhaps most noted for its preface. It has to be said, however, that the Preface is, from beginning to end, an elaborate piece of evasion. It was designed to enunciate blandly the positions of all the protagonists, and to apologise to each of them in turn that they might not have got their way entirely. The fact that their positions might have been mutually exclusive was of no consequence whatsoever.

The Preface ended with these famous/infamous words, ‘what is imperfect, with peace, is often far better than what is otherwise more excellent, without it.’ The sentiments would not surprise us in 2004, but the idea that we should therefore keep to a single book of common prayer and worship, that truly is of a vanished age.

The ‘much loved 1926’ was a modest revision not dissimilar (though less Catholic) to the CofE’s 1928 Proposal. It incorporated most of the revisions, additions and alternatives that had begun to be used, with the (unexplained) exception of a ‘Form of Prayer for the Visitation of Prisoners’.

The final chapter on the process of revision leading up to their new edition of this year is the least interesting, to those of us who are not professional liturgical revisers: it follows the same bewildering process of committees, synods, experiments and outside influence as we have experienced in England. What makes the history even more difficult to follow is that thw Church of Ireland, disingenuously, calls every prayer book it ever produces (including the forthcoming baby brother of CW!) Book of Common Prayer. Its ambitions, seemingly, are less vaunted that our own General Synod’s bombastic hubris. The writer of this essay concludes, ‘How long the 2004 book will be in used is anyone’s guess but it is noted that in the preface reference is made to "this generation"!’ 

AS

 

From Without Blood:

Then she thought that however incomprehensible life is, probably we move through it with the single desire to return to the hell that created us, to live beside whoever, once, saved us from the inferno. She tried to ask herself where that absurd faithfulness to horror came from but found that she had no answers. She understood only that nothing is stronger than the instinct to return, to where they broke us, and to replicate that moment forever. Only thinking that the one who saved us once can do it forever. In a long hell identical to the one from which we came. But suddenly merciful. And without blood.

WITHOUT BLOOD
Alessandro Baricco
Canongate, 88pp, hbk

1 84195 485 3, £8.99

I came to this short novel after finishing a long nineteenth-century novel (one of Mary Braddon’s). The contrast was immediate: the spare, concise language was exhilarating, my reading speed slowed dramatically, and I relished the heightened sense of the words and their rich connotations. Some of the credit for this must go to Ann Goldstein, who has given us a fine translation from the Italian. I mention her by name, since the author is notorious for being impossibly difficult with his translators.

The time and place is vague, probably the foggy Po valley just after the war. The opening scene is a revenge cum punishment killing carried out at an isolated farmhouse. One man kills the father (justice), one kills the young son (brutality) and one saves the little girl, or rather does not betray her hiding place. The years pass and the woman plots and plans and executes her revenge. Until she comes to the man who saved her, whilst also acquiescing in the death of her brother. Is there redemption? resolution? forgiveness?

The nineteenth-century novel was histrionic and verbose, a little wearying at times, and yet the themes were powerful and persuasive. This book was sharp and clever and arresting, and yet was it about the human condition? I won’t reveal the ending, but the form of the resolution is certainly striking. Powerful and persuasive, or total nonsense? Either way, it reveals an interesting, even disturbing contemporary pessimism. NA

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