Book Reviews

Robin Eames, René Girard, Robert Hawker

 

Corpus

Michael Symmons Roberts

Cape Poetry 72pp, pbk.

0 224 07342 7, £8.00

Corpus, the fourth collection of Michael Symmons Roberts’ work to be published, has recently been awarded the 2005 Whitbread Prize for poetry. As the title suggests, the constant theme of the collection is the body: the ensouled body, defined, bordered, by physicality, yet only living and communicating through that physicality, the language of sense and touch:

Skin is border country.
Ever exiled from each other
We come here to meet.

In these edgelands, dusklands,
open but uncrossable,
we use a common tongue.

(What Divides Us)

The label, ‘religious poet,’ can be an unhelpful one, but for Symmons Roberts, a practising Roman Catholic, matter is resolutely sacramental. Food and drink – and the poems are crammed with fruits, fish, meats – possess a fullness, a richness, which feeds and more than feeds; at times, one thinks of Marvell’s Garden, its ripe apples and luscious clusters of the vine. Symmons Roberts is not the first poet of modern times to imagine an encounter with one of those who, in the Gospels, Our Lord revives from death; there is Elizabeth Jennings’ Lazarus. (‘Why did no one ask you what you saw / And found when you were dead?’). But (and quite differently from Jennings speculative approach) his poem ‘Jairus’ is a remarkable celebration of the real presence, and the sheer appetites, of existence:

So, God takes your child by the hand
and pulls her from her deathbed.
He says: ‘Feed her, she is ravenous.’
You give her fruits with thick hides
- pomegranate, cantaloupe -
food with weight, to keep her here.

 

And what is true for Jairus’ daughter is no less true for the risen Christ. The resurrected Jesus has not left the world of touch and sense behind on Easter Day; rather He is intensely alive, and all things are more keenly felt:

Now on Tiberias’ shores he grills
a carp and catfish breakfast
on a charcoal fire.
This is not hunger, this is resurrection:
he eats because he can, and wants to
taste the scales,
the moist flakes of the sea,
to rub the salt into his wounds.

(Food For Risen Bodies – II)

Six poems, each sharing this title – Food For Risen Bodies – are found within the whole collection. In the last, the resurrected (like Adam), having awoken, name what they find. They are who they were, but more than who they were. They carry in their new – spiritual – bodies, experience, felt and tasted, not lost, but transfigured:

Although these bodies were not
theirs before, there are resemblances,
and flesh retains a memory
even beyond death, so every
lover’s touch, each blow or cut
is rendered into echo on the hand,
the lips, the neck.

By no means every piece in Corpus is on an explicitly Christian theme (and it would be reductive, were it so). But we are never far from the insight that it is the body – the diver’s body, perfectly poised between heaven and earth, the sleeping body, the body of a GI on manoeuvres, even a dead body on the pathologist’s slab – which discloses something way beyond itself. This is poetry of incarnation and resurrection, spare, arresting, and strangely beautiful.

JB

NOBODY’S FOOL

The Life of Archbishop Robin Eames

Alf McCreary

Hodder & Stoughton, 366pp, hbk

0 340 86223 8, £20

Robin Eames ‘had to work hard for his exams’ and failed the 11+, but gained a 2.1 in law. He began doctoral research, broke it off to train for ordination (a ‘trauma’ not fully explained), yet somehow completed a Belfast PhD while studying theology in Dublin. Eames had become an Anglican as a teenager, with his parents; his father having resigned his Methodist ministry rather than be posted away from Belfast. Eames’s second incumbency, accepted despite the parish being ‘High-Church’ with ‘regular Eucharists and daily prayers,’ lasted a year before he became Bishop of Derry and Raphoe (1975, aged 38) and Down and Dromore (Belfast, 1980), then Archbishop of Armagh from 1986.

Eames emerges as the ethnarch – pastor, spokesman, fixer – of his small, embattled community. He buried many and cared for the grieving, and according to Patrick Mayhew was ‘widely regarded as the authentic voice’ of Northern Protestantism, but it was his facilitation of the peace process which earned Eames his place in history. John Major regarded him as ‘an effective bridge-builder’ with the Unionist politicians and people, ‘high on the list’ of ‘a handful of people’ who enabled the Downing Street Declaration to happen.

The flip-side of Eames’s Ulster role – his more questionable record as Primate of All Ireland – is only hinted at. When Eames spoke for Ulster in 1987, his Southern colleagues Samuel Poyntz and Walton Empey were left to express their members’ unease. In the 1990s (though McCreary does not explain this) the Church of Ireland was at last beginning to be perceived in the Republic as an Irish church, attractive to influential liberal elements of a population increasingly disillusioned with Roman Catholicism. Privately, the Primate’s acceptance of a British peerage was viewed as setting the Anglican cause there back a generation, but on the record Southern bishops are more diplomatic. Eames’s failure to prevent the scenes at Drumcree in his diocese further damaged his church’s image in the South; again, quoted criticism is muted, though Poyntz questions ‘whether it should have been nipped in the bud sooner.’ The Church of Ireland’s headquarters are in Dublin but its leader in Armagh; Eames’s vision of locating both the Primate and ‘a great central administration’ in Belfast speaks volumes.

As a student, Eames was expected to become a politician – and he did! Mayhew comments ‘His detractors might say that he was more of a politician than a churchman,’ Major labels him ‘a worldly cleric’ and Edward Daly notes a tendency ‘to fudge some issues.’ David Hope admits ‘there are those who say that Robin Eames is a wheeler-dealer’ but defends him as ‘a very Godly man’ with ‘a rooted spirituality.’ ‘Always happiest in pastoral situations,’ Eames advanced ecumenism in terms of good relations and co-operation, but this account records no theological insight or spiritual vision.

Such was the man Robert Runcie hoped would succeed him at Canterbury. On the surface, at least, the chapters about his three Commissions tell us little, though perhaps this is suggestive in itself. Eames’s input seems to have been in terms of process, team-building, chairing and presentational tone, rather than content. Hope comments that the first Eames report ‘went perhaps a bit further [towards traditionalists] than Robin himself might have liked.’ Presumably, the input came from Michael Nazir-Ali and Christopher Hill (the co-secretaries) and especially Mary Tanner, who ‘contributed a high percentage of the wording.’ Little wonder, then (though we are left to work this out for ourselves), that the Commission’s recommendations were ignored when Eames’s own church voted for women’s ordination, but echoed in the English arrangements. Perhaps the same phenomenon explains the marked divergence of Eames’s recently reported views from his latest Commission’s pronouncements? The Communion’s press officer James Rosenthal, who at times has ‘rolled my eyes and asked myself, ‘Where did he get that from?’,’ will not have been surprised.

Is Eames then an empathetic politician good at engineering agreements but who contributes little to, and takes little interest in, their detailed content? His famed ability to deliver high-sounding speeches which on closer inspection are devoid of substance certainly fosters this impression. Hope implies that these vacuous utterances are in fact a clever ploy: ‘They are all listening to him and he has said nothing – how does he do it?’ But why should Eames adopt the same tactic in his sermons on themes other than Ulster and the Anglican Communion (none of which McCreary judges worthy of quotation)?

McCreary is generally concerned to praise, defend, and justify, though critical quotations round the picture to a degree. Only occasionally does he descend into sycophancy, for example towards Lady Eames, ‘who is herself regarded with affection and respect all over the Anglican world.’ His account of Eames’s early life and laudable contributions to Irish peace is well worth reading, but his wider role deserves a more investigative approach. Does the ‘Irish blarney’ indicate a fixer lacking intellectual rigour with nothing of substance to say, or is it (as McCreary suggests) merely the ploy of a razor-sharp Ulster academic lawyer who is ‘Nobody’s Fool’?

JP

DISCOVERING GIRARD

Michael Kirwan

DLT, 137pp, pbk

0 232 52526 9, £10.95

Fr Kirwan packs an immense amount into this slim volume. It is a study of the major ideas of the French-American anthropologist René Girard. Born on Christmas Day 1923, the son of an atheist and a devout Catholic mother, he was, until his conversion aged 36, a thinker of the Left, an agnostic broadly hostile to the Church and Christianity. His university studies of medieval history, especially documents, culminated in a doctorate in 1947. He then immigrated to the United States, attracted by the greater sense of academic freedom there, and submitted a second doctoral thesis about contemporary American views of France in 1950. Since then he has held posts, both as a teacher of French literature and of philosophy, and was instrumental in bringing Barthes, Derrida and others to America in the Sixties.

The summary of his career hides as much as it reveals, for Girard has written about ethnology, anthropology, psychology, mythology and theology as well as literature. He has always been acutely aware of the status of outsiders, first as a southerner in Paris, then as a Frenchman in America, and a Christian in an agnostic or atheist academic establishment. The American treatment of African Americans evoked his understanding and sympathy.

The main themes of Kirwan’s book are Girard’s mimetic theory, his understanding of the scapegoat mechanism, and his discussion of the opposition between Myth and the Gospel under the Neitzschean heading of Dionysus versus the Crucified. The mimetic theory arose out of Girard’s study of five novelists, Cervantes, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust and Dostoevsky. In opposition to the idea of the Romantic hero fulfilling his (or her) desires at whatever cost, Girard argues that human desires are essentially derivative. When we see something or some status in the possession of others, we desire it, and will stop at little or nothing to acquire it. Girard illustrates this by children quarrelling over possession of a toy even though other toys are easily available.

The scapegoat is of course by origin a distinctively biblical concept. For Girard it represents a fundamental social and political need. When mimetic desire threatens stability, then the ensuing violence needs to be channelled either inwards on a scapegoat or outwards towards a common enemy. Girard makes particularly effective use of Thomas Hobbes in his discussion. Inevitably Girard’s discussion led him to consider and reject Freud’s theories in Totem and Taboo about sacrifice.

Girard notes that the scapegoat mechanism will only work if the community can disguise from itself the true nature of what it is doing. So Girard picks up the debate about how myth helps a community to achieve this, and reflects on the key biblical insight that God is on the side of the innocent victim, not the persecutors, so fundamentally condemning the process of sacrificial scapegoating. Kirwan rightly argues that Girard’s understanding of the Gospel is essentially Johannine.

Kirwan’s final chapter reviews the debate about Girard’s ideas, particularly mimetic theory. His treatment of its complexity is refreshingly accessible and positive. He quotes Jean-Marie Domenach, ‘The more I return to the work of René Girard, the more his ‘hypothesis,’ as he calls it, appears to me as the heroic apogee of modern rationality: a voyage to the end of the sciences of man which, having reached the edge of the abyss of nihilism, do an amazing about-face that leads them back in a blazing journey to the very domain they believed they had left forever: that of the Word of God.’ However Girard is no backward-moving conservative. Rather he seeks a thorough revision and renewal of the thought of the Christian West, a culture which never ceases to rework its myths and so give itself new meaning.

Consequently Girard challenges the easy and unthinking assumptions of liberals everywhere. In discussing medieval texts about the persecution of Jews or witchcraft, Girard notes, ‘Faced with Guillaume de Machaut (a fourteenth century author who discussed the persecution of Jews during an outbreak of plague) the choice is clear: one must either do violence to the text or let the text forever do violence to the victims.’ Girard is clear that in medieval witchcraft trials the accused do not reject the charges against them as impossible or absurd: they accept them. Modern critics assume their innocence; but in doing so they deny the validity of the texts they use. How profitably might this insight be applied to some current interpretations of scripture?

I thought, before I started, that I would, as one without real training in either literary theory or anthropology, find this book hard going; it is a tribute to Kirwan that I found it engagingly easy. It is also profoundly relevant to our current situation. How easily does mimetic theory help explain the campaign for the ordination of women to the priesthood as nothing to do with justice and everything to do with desire? How aptly could the scapegoat mechanism explain the current antics of GRAS? How much of current liberal thinking derives from unacknowledged absorption of Nietzsche?

But let me end with two quotations: first Hans Urs van Balthasar: the theory of Girard is ‘surely the most dramatic project to be undertaken today in the field of soteriology and in theology generally.’ Then Girard himself: ‘I hold that truth is not an empty word, or a mere ‘effect’ as people say nowadays. I hold that everything capable of diverting us from madness and death, from now on is inextricably linked with this truth [that where meaning is lost it awaits the breath of the Spirit to be reborn, as in Ezekiel 37] ... I never imagined that those texts [the Judaeo-Christian scriptures] were there for the purpose of passive enjoyment, in the same way as we look at a beautiful landscape. I always cherished the hope that meaning and life were one.’

Patrick Allsop chaplains the atheists of St Paul’s School.

 

 

In Defence of the Realm

David Conway

Ashgate, 210pp, hbk

0 7546 3969 X, £45

David Conway is Senior Research Fellow at Civitas (The Institute for the Study of Civil Society) and his book is subtitled ‘The place of nations in classical liberalism.’ At first sight it has little reason for receiving a review in an essentially theological and ecclesiological journal such as this. However the subject of Conway’s compact and challenging work is the very political context in which the Christian faith has come to maturity and from which it has spread worldwide. It is the rapidly changing nature of this long-standing social, cultural, religious home that exercises Conway, and his work inadvertently makes clear for Christians why the faith now encounters such an uphill struggle in its former heartlands. A recent example of this is the deliberate exclusion of any Christian reference from the proposed Euro-Constitution.

It is useful for modern Christians to be reminded of the difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism, if indeed they were ever taught it. Conway delineates the chasm between true liberalism and the modernist lobby-driven, intolerant, issue-obsessed, self-appointing tyrannies that are undermining Church and State, while masquerading as cultural liberalism.

Conway is good on philosophical antecedents but he is also right up to date on the issues facing the nation state in an age of imposed multiculturalism and creeping supra-nationalism. Freedom, self-determination and democratic accountability are all eroding, as any observer of Parliament over the last thirty years will attest. In a church whose leadership and very doctrines are determined by the state, there should be more than a few who would be assisted by the arguments of this book. If you cannot afford the cover price, use one of the great by-products of classical liberalism – the public library.

JE

 

SEX AND OTHER CHANGES

David Nobbs

Heinemann, 360pp, hbk

0 434 00907 5, £16.99

I must declare an interest. I have acquired a copy of the recently passed Gender Recognition Act complete with its official explanatory notes, and had followed much of our bishops’ lamentable response to its proposed provisions during the parliamentary debates in the House of Lords. I am now in the process of writing to (other) bishops about the implications for parish clergy of its Schedule 4, section 3, sub-section 1; and will write at some length in New Directions if and when I get replies. So when I heard about this new novel on the radio, I had to get a copy and read it at once.

From Sex and Other changes:

The reason for their marrying in church, incidentally. was that the vicar of Throdnall, the Reverend Simon Phillips, got in touch with them to tell them that they would be most welcome. We aren't believers,' Alan had told him. 'God understands: he had said, `He gave you free will. He hopes that by marrying in church you may he helped to became believers. I must come clean. I am a passionately liberal Christian. I would welcome not only women priests, but gay priests and lesbian priests, so long as they are good people ... You will be pawns in my political game, sending a message of tolerance to the world.

Alan and Nicola had thought it might be better to be loved than tolerated. but they hadn't quibbled. It amused them, after the simplicity of their firs( wedding, to hold their second in the Perpendicular splendour of St lames 's.

 

Coming from the author of the Reginald Perrin series, it was no surprise to find it outrageously funny; but it was a surprise to find so much compassion in the non-stop humour. The law may be an ass, the New Labour social engineering programme may be repulsive, the deliberate undermining of moral order may be deeply worrying, but the ordinary, private individuals, who swim their confused way through the emerging opportunities of this brave new world, can be very touching in their quiet and silly ways.

The first major move is made by Nick Divot, married suburbanite and hotel manager, when he tells his wife that he wants to change sex and become Nicola. She is extremely upset, as you would expect; but what makes her more than usually put out is that she had decided she wanted to become a man some years earlier, and was only holding back out of love for her husband. Confused? You will be. As each in turn must live in the gender they wish to become for a full two years before the surgical operations start, it is deliciously confusing, as no one knows who’s she or he, not in the family, not at work, and certainly not the reader.

Expressing confusion by being confusing is not an easy thing to carry off, but David Nobbs succeeds, in this literary farce, better than I could imagine in any other medium. Much of the writing cries out for transfer to television: some lovely scenes suggest themselves; yet I do not think television could evoke the same sympathy for the central characters. Imagination is crucial to compassion, and how it is nurtured has an effect upon the result. After all, from another point of view, both Nick-cum-Nicola and Alison-cum-Alan are appallingly selfish, solipsistic products of contemporary culture. Only laughter can make them human, and imaginative laughter make them likeable.

They have two children, a daughter who turns out (of course?) to be a lesbian and a son who eventually (this is the twenty-first century!) finds a wife through the internet, plus work colleagues, neighbours and members of the golf club, all of whom have to come to terms with the changes. And when at last, the husband has become a woman and the wife a man? Because they love each other, and that love has survived the complete role reversal, they find their way back to each other again, and so remarry. To live happily ever after? One must presume not – such restless souls are unlikely to find peace so easily, but the novel ends on that moment of happiness, ‘Let us disturb them no more.’ 

Nicholas Turner has been writing about the Civil Partnership Act.

 

 

I WOULD NOT BE FORGOTTEN

Patrick Hutton

Tabb House, 250pp, pbk

1 87395 149 5, £14.95

Fans of Cornwall and its Catholic Christianity will love this volume. It is a hugely enjoyable account of the famous Vicar of Morwenstow, Robert Stephen Hawker, reviver of the harvest festival, chaplain to the shipwrecked, encourager of the poor, preacher of the Presence.

Most will know Hawker, if at all, through the highly entertaining and wildly inaccurate biography by his contemporary, Baring Gould, who was deeply hostile to Hawker’s little family, shrewdly anti-catholic but knew a best seller when he wrote one. Patrick Hutton, God bless him, comes to the great man from a completely different angle – Hawker’s poetry – and what a reward it provides. Many will recall snatches of Cornwall’s ‘national anthem’ (Song of the Western Men) ‘And shall Trelawny die?’ etc. Few will know that Hawker’s Quest of the Sangraal provoked his guest, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to exclaim, ‘Hawker has beaten me on my own ground.’ At each stage this remarkable life story is informed and enlightened by Hawker’s verse and Hutton’s assured commentary on the attractive and eccentric mystic whose life’s work was the care of this obscure and dangerous coastal hamlet.

While the CofE agonized over whether vestments could be worn at all, Hawker wore the lot. Moreover he rode round his parish dressed in ‘black socks made from wool from his own merino ewe and knitted by the children of the school,’ sea boots and a wide brimmed hat, ‘brown cassock (the hue of Our Lady’s hair), blue fisherman’s jersey (fisher of men) with a small red cross woven into it to mark the entrance of the centurion’s cruel spear’ and a ‘carpenter’s pencil, indicative of the Carpenter of Nazareth, on his buttonhole.’

In his twenties he married a woman twice his age and built the glorious vicarage with chimney stacks modelled on the towers of churches he served. In his sixties, recovering from the heartbreak of widowhood, he suddenly married a woman in her twenties and produced a young family!

Set in the cliffs, gazing at the unforgiving ocean from which he rescued so many and from which he buried many others, is the smallest property in the National Trust’s care – Hawker’s Hut. He built it of driftwood as a place to sit and contemplate and pray and write.

For most of his ministry he was in regular contact with Roman Catholic bishops and priests. He constantly agonized over the shocking unbelief of many Anglican dignitaries and yet, unable to leave his living or his beloved home, only finally converted on his death bed. It is a surprisingly modern story.

We are indebted to Patrick Hutton for this marvellous account of a man who ‘walked and talked with angels’ and to Tabb House, a small independent publisher, for offering it to us. (Tabb House was also responsible for the recent splendid volume reviewed here, Rachel John on the Cornish Saints.)

The launch for Patrick Hutton’s beautifully illustrated book was held at Hawker’s old parsonage and, to my delight, I discovered you can actually stay there. Richard and Jill Wellby, who have tended the ‘shrine’ and loved living there for the last twenty years keep three of the bedrooms for paying guests (01288 331369 for a brochure). So, having read the book, my wife and I booked dinner, bed and breakfast and had a wonderful day exploring, walking, praying the sites and finished with the run of Hawker’s study, sitting room, billiard room and a sumptuous meal and grand bedroom at a very affordable rate.

Read the book. Make the pilgrimage. You won’t regret it.

RL

 

STRANGE ACTS

Rick Strelan

Walter de Gruyter, 350pp, hbk

3 11 018200 9, [88 euros]

This book elucidates the cultural elements that lie partially hidden behind much of the writing of the Acts of the Apostles, and it is a lot more interesting than this might sound. How exciting it is to read a biblical study by a serious academic scholar with real imagination. There is nothing wild nor exaggerated in his analysis, just careful quotation and cross-referencing, and yet I finished this book thinking I had never, until now, properly appreciated the coherence and purpose of Luke’s second great work in the New Testament.

Strelan begins from a vivid and sympathetic appreciation of why it is that most Christian readers of Acts are embarrassed and uncomfortable with the wealth and range of its miracles, the visions, the healings, the escapes from prison, the instant transportations, and most difficult of all perhaps, the cursing of Ananias and Sapphira. He is also aware of just how distant and different is the Graeco-Roman culture of two thousand years ago. What he achieves is to analyse and present the cultural context and perception of Luke’s writing in such a way that we can understand its difference, and yet by understanding it draw closer to the text and the people spoken of.

Perhaps his biggest achievement is to show the literary significance of beginning this work with the Ascension and Pentecost. The presentation of Christ’s triumphant vindication by God and the effect this has, bestowing power and authority upon his witnesses, gives us the context, purpose and meaning to the miracles and wonders that follow. Understand the first two chapters, and the rest follow so much more easily.

Overall his argument is quite dense. For those of us not engaged in formal biblical studies, who are realistically not going to read it from cover to cover, it offers a full discussion of several key narratives. I had to teach on Paul’s shipwreck on Malta the other day, to an audience of ordinary modern sceptics: his presentation of the miracles in the unfolding drama, and the connotations surrounding the different guises of the Apostle, leader of men, seeming demi-god, healer, was more helpful than any commentary. Serious, solid work with imagination: this man is a treasure.

NA

 

A FITTING END

Making the most of a funeral

Hugh James

Canterbury Press, 179pp, pbk

1 85311 602 5, £12.99

‘Nice funeral Vicar,’ ‘That was a lovely service,’ to ‘Ah! That was a right good send off; now for the pork pies and mushy peas.’ All clergy have experienced such sayings time and again, so that we can rarely tell if it was indeed a ‘reet guid do.’ Probably such sentiments are offered because the mourners think that it is expected of them, or they are so embarrassed they will say anything to cover the moment’s pause as they come out of the crematorium chapel or leave the graveside. But no matter how much I try to leave them discreetly, someone always feels that they have to come after me to pass such comments. This is nearly always followed by an acknowledgement in the local paper and I cringe when such a ‘thank you’ is commented on by one of my congregation the following Sunday.

So how do we know if in fact we are getting it right. The author realises that different churches have different traditions and use different liturgies, but overall he seeks to give a broad range of guidance whilst naturally not answering every possible question.

One chapter deals with the often loaded question of ‘Whose funeral is it?’ The deceased? The next of kin, or close family? The best friends? Family who have not been in touch for many years? The community in which he lived? Or even the undertakers? Please not the local congregation. So many people to say he or she wanted this or that, and all of them different. How does one deal with a family feud over the decisions about the service to be taken? James doesn’t have pat answer but makes us think and solve these issues in the cold light of day before such an occasion might occur.

He deals also with funeral directors or, in his words, ‘the Undertaking Profession’ from small part-time family firms to the massive conglomerates normally American, and also the specialist firms dealing with particular cultures and religions. He looks at social, media and cultural influences, alternative and do-it-yourself funerals, whether burial or cremation, and what is the appropriate music.

But perhaps the most important chapter is the one that deals with Difficult Funerals. Those of children, the violent death, the accidental death, sudden unexplained death, or ones within the cleric’s own family. Again no set answer but a lot of common sense. And lastly to fitting memorials for the dead.

A worthwhile little resource book for a newly licensed Reader or a newly ordained cleric.

AT

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