Book Reviews

Old fashioned men and modern women

 

Tractarians and the ‘Condition of England’

Simon Skinner

OUP, 350pp, hbk

0 19 927323 5, 2004, £55

This fine monograph reminds us that from the beginning there was another side to the Oxford Movement apart from ecclesiology: the social dimension. The slum priests of the late nineteenth Ecentury were not some innovation of later ritualism but were foreshadowed in the writings of the 1830s and 1840s, to which Simon Skinner exclusively directs his attention in this study. He is persuasively insistent that historians have grossly exaggerated the unworldliness of the Tractarians; as he presents them, virtually all the luminaries (including Pusey) and the smaller fry were not escapists watching the Middle Ages by moonlight but men willing to engage in good faith with the ‘Condition of England’ question.

To support his case Skinner looks at Tractarian journalism and the innumerable novels of forgotten novelists such as Gresley and Paget and so puts the spotlight primarily not, yet again, on Keble and Newman, Pusey and Froude, but on the rank and file. Once Newman became editor in 1838, that old mouthpiece of pre-Tractarian high churchmanship, The British Critic, was transformed into the house magazine of the Movement to become the New Directions of its day, with young and uninhibited contributors (well, perhaps one can stretch the comparison too far). This was not the only outlet for first generation polemicists: there was always the novel. William Gresley wrote no less than ten, poured out other varieties of polemic, and still managed to serve in parishes. Francis Paget, a scion of the Anglesey family, wrote fifteen and the Gladstone Diaries make it clear just how avidly the future Liberal Premier waited for their appearance, much as one might today anticipate the next Harry Potter.

These and other writers had no doubt that the Church as, in the words of Archdeacon Robert Wilberforce, ‘a divine deposit’, had no choice but to stir up the consciences of their wealthier adherents and work with the poor. The parish was the Tractarian anvil from the earliest days, the place where its values had constantly to be asserted. Skinner deals fully with the early battles against the evils of the pews system and the willingness of young priests to put their careers on the line by preaching against the materialism of the era. They deplored the willingness of the Whigs to remove the administration of charity from the parish to other units, all part of the new fashioned political economy they so deplored. Their ideal was always for the rich to offer their alms under the auspices of the Church, and be generous to their tenants and employees through the popular recreations and ‘holydays’.

This is densely textured conversion of a DPhil thesis, but anyone interested in the history of Tractarianism who wants to access the latest thinking will be richly rewarded by reading it. Such readers may well be struck by resemblances to the present. On the basis of this study, we can see how Anglican Catholics need to keep looking outwards and not to neglect the social Gospel that mattered so much to the founding fathers of the Tractarian revival. They had their eye on the long haul. In the words of Newman, quoted by Skinner (p.133), ‘We are consulting for no affair of the day; we are contemplating our fortunes five centuries to come. We are labouring for the year 2500’. As our wing of the Church of England girds its loins for the forthcoming in-house struggle over women bishops, let us not forget that the first-generation Tractarians would have wanted their descendants not to lose that battle but not at the cost of losing sight of the world outside.

 

Nigel Aston is Reader in eighteenth-century History at the University of Leicester

ST JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA and the ORIGINS of OPUS DEI

William Keenan

Gracewing, 304pp, pbk

0 85244 581 4, £14.99

I am not a great fan of hagiographies but as the present Pope has rushed through Escriva’s canonisation that is what this volume unavoidably is. More interestingly for all of us it couldn’t be more timely.

As readers of the popular press will know, Opus Dei, a secretive and sinister organisation, provides the latest shock troops of that great historical conspiracy, the Catholic Church! Its members are lay people who, outrageous as it may seem, actually believe their faith and try to live it out in their ordinary working lives in fulfilment of Escriva’s vision. Holiness is, apparently, not just for the clergy. Just how provocative and unpopular such stuff is has been evidenced over the last twelve months. A European Commissioner has been driven from office by the feministas and homosexualist lobby for being a traditional Catholic. Hollywood is lionising films and books that attack the Catholic Church and her teaching. The new Sec. of State for Education has been attacked for her association with serious Catholicism: few things could be more alarming, according to The Daily Slug, than for our children’s education to be in the hands of a committed Christian.

Well, it was in just such circumstances that Escriva began ‘The Work’. Actually more serious, for Spain was about to spiral into the hideous Civil War. The Left has never forgiven Franco’s victory. The Church has never forgotten her persecution by the Marxists, who murdered 13 bishops, 4,184 parish priests, 2,365 religious and 283 nuns. Through all this Escriva’s devotion and patient following of the vision was resolute. This is an account of those years and the harsh spirituality that kept him to the task.

It is scarcely surprising that John Paul II, himself a witness and victim of both the left-wing tyrannies of fascism and Marxism, that marked the twentieth century with their hatred of God and man, should see in Escriva a suitable saint for our time and one, no doubt, whose exalted company he will shortly join.

As persecution is likely to grow in the decadent West and attacks on the faith intensify, it would be no bad thing to bone up on an earlier and continuing response to wickedness and a glorious invitation to the laity to be in the heart of the battle for the faith. Gracewing and Keenan have done us a favour by printing the very readable and encouraging facts with which to correct the disseminators of disinformation.

RL

REVELATIONS

Canongate, 410pp, hbk

1 84195 508 6, £10

[Publication date: Easter Day]

In 1998, the Edinburgh publishing house created a ‘publishing sensation’ by reprinting books of the Bible from the Authorized Version, each with an introduction by some well-known literary or musical figure. The series was repeated abroad, sometimes with new introductions: it is these that are here reprinted in book form.

Of the serious attempts to introduce books, A S Byatt’s complaining about the traditional interpretations or re-interpretations of the Song of Solomon left me cold, whereas Ruth Rendell’s introduction to the much more demanding book of Romans impressed me greatly – clear, scrupulously fair and beautifully written, and with no heavy hand of the professional theologian.

Nick Cave is a popular musician and novelist, whose fame and youth made him a key name for the original series; his introduction to Mark is autobiographical, and refreshingly trite and dull. The popstar Bono is another person whose opinion I would not seek on anything, and yet his comments on his use of the Psalms in the context of rock music were unexpectedly fascinating and moving.

Some books have more than one introduction. Genesis has three; one by Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame is an old fashioned piece of Fifties-style archaeology, reminiscent of my evangelical Sunday School; the essay is copyrighted for 2005, which is interesting as Heyerdahl died in 2002. The one by E L Doctorow, a novelist, is much more reflective; the third by Steven Rose, a biologist, is almost wistfully angry at the sheer power of this ancient book.

These are as the subtitle says, ‘personal responses to the books of the Bible’; they vary hugely. If many are dreadful, others are vivid, if some have axes to grind, others write with real excitement and genuine insight. This is lay spirituality free of church control, containing real treasures; there is more than enough to repay the price of the book.

SR

TERTULLIAN, CYPRIAN AND ORIGEN ON THE LORD’S PRAYER

Translated and introduced by Alistair Stewart-Sykes

SVS Press, 214pp, pbk

0 88141 261 9, £11.99

‘Not another book on the Lord’s Prayer,’ some of you may cry in horror. But this one is different, very different. In this short book, Stewart-Sykes draws together the teaching of three giants of the patristic period in an easy to read and accessible book. Each one of these writers approaches the Lord’s Prayer in a different way, in Origen’s case very differently, but this means that each writer brings a new and hitherto unthought-of idea or notion to our thinking about this most well-known of prayers. Sometimes each writer simply writes down in an explicit way what we all know to be true in any case. Either way this is a valuable service.

A brief word should be mentioned about the introductions to these writers. Because of their similarity of approach, Stewart-Sykes has grouped Tertullian and Cyprian together, and Origen occupies a place on his own. These are, given the constraints of the book and its purpose, well written and informative. These two brief essays are well footnoted and referenced, so if a general reader wishes to pursue any point (or indeed the whole historical context) there is a sound basis from which to start, although a short bibliography preferably dealt with by headings would have improved this area enormously. This however is perhaps a churlish criticism of what is a book that deserves a wider readership than patristics usually gets.

This would make an ideal Lent book (if you have not already decided upon one). The last words should belong to Origen, words that as we have been thinking about prayer are good to bear in mind at all times:

It is right that we should begin with glorifying and leave off our prayer with glorifying, hymning and giving glory to the Father of all through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, to whom be glory for ever and ever.

 

Simon Wakely is Parish Priest of All Saints, Babbacombe.

DANCING GIRLS, LOOSE LADIES, AND WOMEN OF THE CLOTH

F. Scott Spencer

Continuum, 208pp, pbk

0 8264 1612 8, £14.99

As the title suggests, this book is wildly overblown. Claiming to be a study of ‘the women in Jesus’ life’, it studies only one dancing girl, the daughter of Herodias, only one loose lady, who anoints the feet of Jesus, and while there are three women of the cloth, Tabitha, Lydia and Priscilla, they all appear in Acts, after Jesus’ ascension. Moreover, it does not begin well, for the opening chapter vomits forth the whole rich excess of American, academic, feminist, biblical methodology.

It is worth persisting, for there are jewels to be found in the mud. The informal test (I speak as a man) of feminist criticism is, does it enthuse – do I come away excited that I have discovered new truths in the word of God? There are many popular expositions of feminist critique that are less strident than this (male) Baptist professor, but also a good deal duller, more worthy and often relentlessly whingeing; what I class as thanks-but-no-thanks commentary. The sheer energy and excess of Spencer makes him (surprisingly) less threatening to a traditionalist male cleric, and certainly more exciting to read.

The word of God can stand a good deal more exegesis than we often suppose. Take for example, Spencer’s study of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, washes them with her tears and wipes them with her hair. There is real energy here, the puns and sexual innuendo pour off the page, the parallels of passion to the Passion of Christ are stretched way beyond credibility. He may be wrong, but he left me with a sense of the drama of the occasion, the sheer power of the woman’s love and the response from Our Lord. I will forget this book, but my appreciation of Luke 7.36-50 will have been enhanced for ever.

It does not always work: the ‘foremothers of Jesus’ in Matthew’s genealogy – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – are analysed in terms of the seven criteria of humour, lamely. More powerful is his commentary on John the Baptist’s death (Mark 6.14-29). Popular imagination has made Salome’s dance a highly charged erotic striptease, without scriptural warrant: he makes the story even more vivid if she was truly a young girl, and there is no sexual content at all. Imagine a little girl of twelve, performing a dance of formal ballet steps, evoking an exaggerated, enthusiastic response to her childish skill and application, and then making her terrible request. It is a more troubling and believable picture than the traditional dance of the seven veils. He then, very cleverly, sets that encounter in sharp and evil contrast to Christ’s encounter with the woman with the haemorrhage in ch.6 and with the Syro-Phoenician woman in ch.7.

It may be too mad for the serious scholar (I wouldn’t know), but it offers real energy for the preacher.

DN

EUTHANASIA for DEATH DUTIES

Barry Bracewell-Milnes

Institute for Economic Affairs, 150pp, pbk, £10

Hard on the heels of the recent New Directions article, ‘Grave Robbery’, our editor’s attention was drawn to this thorough economic critique of inheritance tax, a subject which is increasingly preoccupying quite ordinary families and will divide the parties at the next election. While our article outlined some moral and theological objections to this institutional theft, Dr Bracewell-Milnes looks at the economic arguments and their social implications. The work is a thorough and detailed rehearsal of the more familiar major arguments but breaks new ground in investigating the consequences of the destruction of those ‘savings in perpetuity’ which have long provided a massive hidden loan fund to society at historically low rates.

The removal of the economic benefits of inheritance will not only undermine family life, increase welfare dependency (pensions etc.) and enhance the power of a centralising state but will cause serious long-term structural economic damage. The massive and sudden expansion of death duties is but a thin disguise for the nationalisation of capital. In short the poor will be worse off, the middle classes will be vastly less self-sufficient and less able to assist the poor, and the very rich will do what they have always done – hide behind an army of accountants and lawyers or move their capital to less rapacious fiscal regimes.

Those Christians who take stewardship seriously ought to read this. Assuming that secular government knows how to spend our already heavily taxed money better than us is moral and historic foolishness and a dereliction of duty.

JE

EXPLORING NEW TESTAMENT GREEK

Peter Kevern and Paula Gooder

SCM, 236pp, pbk

0 334 02942 2, [£10.99]

It seemed like a bargain at the time – Alford’s four-volume Greek Testament for a fiver. Of course, I didn’t know Greek but persuaded myself that in a short time I could pick up enough to make some sense of the rune-like script. Dutifully, I stuck a Greek alphabet above my desk and one on the fridge but always floundered somewhere after epsilon. I was overwhelmed with vowel changes, liquid verbs, the aorist tense, and something called the ‘middle’ voice. Mine was more muddle than middle. Even Wenham could not help.

But here is a little book that has made a real difference. It is a modest and very practical introduction. I like it because it does not fuss about the finer points of New Testament Greek. Instead, it offers a user-friendly guide to the essential basics. It is written in a lively style and deals with grammar efficiently and sensibly – no declensions or long word lists to learn. In fact, the learning is so well structured that I am starting to read some Greek for myself.

This is a manageable course that shows how the Greek of the New Testament works and how this can affect our reading. And it is a book for learners. Ten brief chapters give clear explanations, useful exercises, and reviews of learning. (There are answers, too.) There is also a website that accompanies the book and helpful guidance on using dictionaries and internet resources. The emphasis is on accessibility and relevance. You won’t have to spend hours and hours poring over a lexicon. If you can set aside a few hours every week and try to learn the skills, then you can expect to be making your own translations of passages in the New Testament.

Admittedly, this is my third time reading chapter 2 but I am starting to get the prepositions. It is a real advantage to be able to go over material again (and again). But I do miss a teacher, or even another student to moan with. Studying by myself is lonely, for there is no one to encourage or reassure me; and the authors cannot see whether I am making progress or if I am ready to move on to the next task successfully. But they have managed to sustain my interest and I am not about to give up. The Greek alphabet is back on the fridge, Alford is out of storage, and I can rhyme off my conjunctions. Subjunctives here I come!

 

Ernest Lennon begins training at St Stephen’s House in September.

PAUL FOR EVERYONE – ROMANS

Tom Wright

SPCK, 2 volumes, 190pp & 172pp, pbks

0 281 05312 X & -05706 0, £8.99 each

I remember with thankfulness and joy a dear friend and former colleague. A faithful and scholarly catholic priest, he had been born into an orthodox Jewish family. He understood his latter state as the natural (not to say inevitable) outcome of the former. He would deprecate loose talk about the old and new Israel. There is only one single Israel, he would insist. One family of Abraham, the covenant people of God. It is all a matter of election and grace. He had taken Romans very much to heart.

N T Wright has worked out the finer details, long ago, in The Climax of the Covenant. Now Tom revisits the subject in a more familiar, not to say conversational mode, in the present double volume, the latest in the series of Guides to the New Testament. One can only stand in awe both of the project, and its execution. Surely Romans will never be more accessible. We are led gently but firmly through each successive stage of the letter. Wright provides his own translation, for example, ‘Have we found Abraham to be our ancestor in a human, fleshly sense?’ Discussion of the passage follows. Key words (e.g. faith, gospel, justification) are printed in bold type, to be explained in a separate section at the end of either volume. From time to time the reader is invited to pause for a time of recollection, discussion and, possibly, prayer. The ‘tribute’ of the Associated Press on the back cover, ‘World scholarship made enjoyable for casual readers’ is somewhat misleading. ‘Enjoyable’ is hardly the right word, neither is this something that can be read ‘casually’

Neither, of course, should Romans be approached as a academic dissertation. Perhaps it is best understood, like the Letter to the Hebrews, as ‘a word of encouragement’ to the mixed Jewish/Gentile community in Rome, as far as the historical setting can be reconstructed. Contrary to all appearances and in spite of what anybody may say, they are the proper inheritors of the promises to Abraham, children of the covenant fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah and vindicated by his resurrection. The covenant is not about special privileges or exclusivity as it had previously been misunderstood. Nor is membership of it determined by ethnicity but by faith – in God who has raised Jesus from the dead. If God says you belong then you do, though this will not exempt you from judgement at the last. Fair enough, but the problems are not ignored. There are the questions of the letter and the spirit, of law and grace. There is also the considerable difficulty created by the continued existence of ‘Israel after the flesh’. Why does the great majority still appear to persist in disobedience? Has God got it wrong after all? Finally, when all this has been dealt with, there remain the practical questions of the behaviour patterns appropriate to the covenant family, both to one another as well as towards society at large.

Wright provides one nice touch at the end. Paul had his reasons for introducing himself to the Romans in this way. Did he not hope that they would set him forward on his journey to Spain? This was not to be, but had the thought not been in his mind, would Romans ever have been written?

 

Hugh Bates is a retired priest

living near York.

SECULAR LIVES, SACRED HEARTS

Alan Billings

SPCK, 134pp, pbk

0 281 05704 4, [£10.99]

This is not a long review because I do not have the energy or inclination to be that unkind. It took me an hour to read this book and it was a depressing reminder of why the CofE is in its current state.

Dr Billings is Vicar of Kendal, Director for the Centre for Religion and Ethics at Lancaster University, former Vice-Principal of Cuddesdon, former Principal West Midlands Training Course, Faith in the City Commissioner, former deputy leader of Sheffield City Council and still stout defender of David Blunkett, member of Home Office quangos, ‘Community Cohesion Panel’ and ‘Youth Justice Board’. He is a regular contributor to Thought for the Day. In short he is the modern CofE personified.

Billing’s central theme is that the Church’s role is to identify and recognize the residual faith in a culture that has no time for church. To assume this might mean popular piety or folk religion so scorned by the post 1960s new-wave clergy would be optimistic. Billings was in the new wave, as he explains, that lurched from amateur social workers to amateur politicians to amateur therapists and counsellors. (Why not professional priests?) Billings detects that the majority of people (i.e. non-attenders) see the faith in terms of praxis rather than belief, which begs a lot of very obvious questions. ‘They live Christian lives, they are Christians because their lives reflect the life and values of Jesus Christ.’ Kendal must be a very special place. They live ‘secular lives’ but have ‘sacred hearts’ – hence the title. They come to church on the odd occasion to be helped with ‘the management of change’ (i.e. births, marriages, deaths).

Baptism, we are told, is like Epiphany. Friends come to see the baby, show their love and offer gifts. It is ‘a symbolic action whose meaning is bound to change as cultural circumstances change’. On marriage Billings notes that the modern liturgies have regularly compromised with the culture and that fewer and fewer people want them, but fails to connect the two facts. The difference, we are told, between a secular funeral and a religious one is that, at the former, ‘the world is all there is’. At the latter ‘there are more things in heaven and earth …’ and, Billings enthuses, ‘how many more will vary from rite to rite, minister to minister, and in accordance with the wishes of the deceased.’

The whole exercise, ‘an extended best guess’ Billings calls it, is undergirded by evidence from Billings’ parish, but the material (what people have said to the good doctor in conversation) does not merit the definition. If you were an exceptionally lenient incumbent you might not be too hard on a new curate for writing an essay like this, though you would wonder where on earth he was trained. Billings is one of the leading Anglican teachers and this book seeks to answer the question, ‘How can the Church recover her social usefulness?’. Not like this, father, not like this.

RL

THEOLOGICAL AESTHETICS

Edited by Gesa Thiessen

SCM, 416pp, pbk

0 334 02947 3, [£25]

The current love of symbols, and the fascination for supposed Celtic and other touchy-feely liturgies, makes such a collection as this one a valuable reminder of the more solid theological roots of the greater tradition. Emotion, the senses, imagination, the sharing of beauty, the meaning of icons, the purpose of the arts – there are many reasons why a clearer grasp of theological aesthetics is of value. This is a student book, collecting a wide range of extracts on these themes from the earliest Fathers, through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and into contemporary writers. If you cannot afford a copy yourself, make sure your college library has one.

JT

DARK FIRE

C. J. Sansom

Macmillan, 504pp, hbk

1 4050 0544 0, £16.99

Crime is currently (I speak as an aficionado) the largest and most vigorous of the genres within popular fiction; within it, historical crime is developing into quite a respectable sub-genre in its own right. Sansom, with his second book, has moved to top of its particular pecking order. In style it is very like Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael, but the writing is much better.

The date is 1540 and Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, pressed into service by Thomas Cromwell, in his last days of power before imprisonment and death. Family loyalty has him investigating the accusation of murder levelled against a young girl, while his government work has him struggling to make sense of a whole series of murders surrounding the apparent rediscovery of Greek Fire, that legendary substance with which the Byzantines destroyed the Muslim ships sent against them.

Sansom’s first novel Dissolution was set in a Kentish monastery during the freezing cold of winter. This one is set in the City of London in the airless heat of summer, and it is a powerful and memorable portrayal. The plotting devices are still rather weak (though he has improved from first book to second) and I have forgotten much of the story already, but the picture of England’s capital in that turbulent Tudor crisis is still brilliantly vivid.

One must presume that he is no theologian, nor a believer. Wisely he keeps his religious references to a minimum, because they are not perceptive. Early twenty-first century cynicism, based on half-remembered school teaching from the twentieth century, is not the best context from which to appreciate the seismic divisions of the sixteenth. Many of his allusions are so weak, one might wonder why the Reformation ever happened. How many dozen readers, of this magazine alone, have enough knowledge of Tudor religious history to have been able to remove most of his more embarrassing anachronisms? Why was he not given a proper sub-editor? It may be a sad testimony to the religious ignorance of our age, that the publishers realized it would have so little effect on sales. Not enough people would even notice to make it worthwhile to improve and polish the religious allusions.

This is a quibble, because he does, as a history PhD, have a strong appreciation of the civil turmoil of the time. The physical destruction of so many great religious buildings, the re-ordering of so many more for different, more mundane uses, and the rapacious greed and self-justification of the rich and powerful who own them, is superbly portrayed. Go elsewhere for a theological understanding, but do not miss the imaginative depiction of the social and political aspects of the Tudor revolution.

This is a crime novel to be read for entertainment, but it can also be commended (since there are so many other crime novels to choose from) for its ability to convey the upheaval and destruction that accompanied the great theological and political confusion of Henry VIII’s reign. What a huge price ordinary people must pay, then as now, for the zeal of social reformers. This novel is well worth the read; and keep an eye out for the next in the series, which there must surely be.

SR

SPEAK FOR ENGLAND

James Hawes

Jonathan Cape, 340pp, hbk

0 224 07302 8, £12.99

Are there more comic novels around these days? This one is a little over-written, but it will explain why so many are needed in twenty-first century England. The hero is a divorced, forty-something father with a young son, an ineffectual, wimpish teacher going nowhere, who finds himself, some chapters later, in a lost world of Fifties Britain discovered in the Borneo jungle.

As an astute self-censor, the author introduces plenty of condemnation for these living dinosaurs, but he cannot avoid (he surely does not want to) the nostalgic longing for a world when men were more than mere feminized cyphers, from an age before they were culturally emasculated. The liberal fascination for the (illiberal?) world of the Christian public school is fascinating. That it can only be expressed as comedy is equally fascinating.

DN

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