BOOK REVIEWS

 

TOLKIEN AND THE LORD OF THE RINGS

A Guide to Middle-earth

Cohn Duriez

Azure, 296pp, pbk

1 902694 22 8, £5.99

 

The meek will inherit the earth, God makes foolish the wisdom of the wise, and his strength is made perfect in flawed weakness. All this happens through sacrifice. The Lord of the Rings tells it in a pre-modern myth for a post-modern generation which votes it the book of the century. We may blink at Hobbit enthusiasts who gather at Smials or Oxonmoots, or summaries which never do justice to original writing skills. But this kind of guidebook appeals on three levels.

One is the poignant Oxford story of Professor Tolkien, son Christopher and fellow Inklings, notably CS Lewis. Here it is in outline, with Charles Williams in passing and the ambivalent Auden escaping lightly. Then the A-Z of fictional plots, characters and chronology, hampered by inevitable selection, repetition, and disclosure of denouement. Do you like to know the score before you watch the highlights? If not, read Tolkien before Duriez’s potted names and narratives.

But the most fruitful dimension explores the theological themes in Tolkien’s work, notably his masterpiece. The underdog’s victory is not novel; but the way it is achieved by Frodo, Sam, Gandalf or Aragorn is shot through with Christian understanding and questioning. How real are the choices, how free is the will? Is violence required to ensure a non-violent triumph? Are the characters too sexless or predictable for our times? (The sales figures do not suggest so.) There is no ‘religion’ here, no cult, no ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, and (importantly) no Aslan. Yet who is unmoved by the primal Bombadil, the yearning Legolas, or Gollum ‘held back from this treachery by the rags of his lost nature’. Or, in the end, by Rosie Gamgee, née Cotton?

Sometimes the levels converge: ‘Those other than Ents were unable to learn this complex language, with the exception of Tolkien himself.’ Duriez sketches the dynamic between Ulster Protestant Lewis and Roman Catholic Tolkien, who helped his friend to faith and whose own allegiance is reflected in the lady Galadriel. The ‘sub-creators’ write of Adam and Christ, heaven, hell, angels and demons, sacramental food and drink, quite differently and both to our delight. One theme insufficiently questioned is the shared appeal of northernness. Suppose I come from the south? In Lewis and Tolkien the skin-colour, language and diet of the Southrons have moral implications.

Like Tolkien, Cohn Duriez is a conscientious reviser. This book takes further his earlier labours of literary love. With feeling he comments on Leaf by Niggle that so few can ever say ‘It is finished’. That too has an echo somewhere. CI

 

 

Christian Mysticism East and West

What the Masters Teach Us

Maria Jaoudi

Paulist Press, 166pp, pbk

0 8091 3823 9, £12.95

 

Globalization draws east and west together. The availability to western readers of Eastern religious resources is one consequence – and it often seems to challenge Christianity as to her spiritual depth. For many in England today Tibetan Buddhism seems more spiritually attractive than Anglicanism. Yet Eastern religions can be used, as Maria Jaoudi uses them in this book, as a mirror which, when held up to Christianity, reveals splendid contours of spirituality. The writer’s experience of the largely unfamiliar Eastern Christian tradition is another source of the manifold connections in this stimulating book which reveals much ‘ecumenism of the spirit’.

This is a book relating depths of Christian mysticism illuminated often from an inter-faith perspective. It reads as loyal to Christianity – to mystics like Symeon, Bonaventure and Catherine of Siena – whilst rejoicing that mystical experience has an ecumenical flavour. ‘We all have the same colour bones’ (Zen).

Contemplation gives life meaning. After contemplation ‘God’s presence is carried through the very pores of our body-emotions-mind’. Reflecting on St John’s reclining on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper St Gregory of Nyssa beautifully depicts contemplation as a form of osmosis, ‘Having placed his heart like a sponge, as it were, beside the fountain of life, he was filled by an ineffable transmission of the mysteries hidden in the heart of the Lord’. It is contemplation that energizes the saints and provides ‘the detachment and self-love to really live well’. As the Hindu scriptures express it, ‘Great is the person who, free from attachments, and with a mind ruling its powers in harmony, works on the path of consecrated action.’

Eastern Christian traditions are presented as remarkably one with many eastern religions in stressing divinization. ‘By having every area of ourselves bathed in the light of Tabor, we are made whole and Christ-like’. Western mystics like Meister Eckhart were condemned for a witness to the God-within-us now recognized as an important aspect of Christianity linked in with other religions.

There is little hesitation about the validity and richness of mystical experience in this book. It is generous and inclusive and has a warning against narrowness in religion. ‘One of the guideposts of fundamentalism, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian is a reliance on external law and ritual and an avoidance of the interior spiritual quest’. Yet, it must be observed, all spiritual experience is needful of testing and of grounding in Christ for Christians.

What is remarkable about Jaoudi’s book is its very Christocentricity. It sees Christ as the ‘deepest ground of Self’, his cross as challenge to die to ‘the false ego’ and contemplation of him as a fusion of humanity with divinity. Nowhere is this more powerfully expressed than in a quotation from Zibawi about the contemplative icon of Our Lady of Vladimir ‘woven of the transcendent features of the new creature who has been totally deified, her face full of celestial majesty, carries, nevertheless, the whole of humanity present as well.’

Maria Jaoudi provides a powerful reminder of the Christian mystical tradition. Her book encourages her readers to work to unblock Christianity’s wells so that the spiritually thirsty may find to drink.

 

John Twisleton is Chichester Diocesan Missioner.

 

 

LIVING THE EUCHARIST

Edited by Stephen Conway

DLT, 156pp, pbk

0 232 52421 1, £10.95

 

‘What you must realize,’ said an older and wiser priest to me the other day, ‘is that the Affirming Catholicism people need us. They want us to be strong. Without us, they would have nothing to affirm.’ A little exaggeration can make a point clear and vivid. His statement finds immediate confirmation in the introduction to this collection of essays by Bishop David Stancliffe, in which he defines the task as one of liberation from the chains, of movement where there had been rigidity, of process where there had been unbending tradition. What-is-wrong is never precisely defined, but what-is-right is nevertheless understood by its being not-this-thing-which-is-wrong.

This is part of what every Christian must do, reformulate what one believes and how one believes it, in part by reference to what went before. It is exactly how I saw my vocation in my late adolescence: it was vital that my parents’ world, which I was in the process of rejecting, should remain strong and visible, or else I would have had nothing against which to measure my own rethinking. That rebellious redefinition was, for me as for many others, a passing stage; for some it is a continuous way of life.

For the contributors to this volume the vocation to rethink, to renew, to affirm is a constant, which makes such a book to some extent self-fulfilling. It delivers what it intends to, and as such one can commend it; but, you begin to ask, how could it do otherwise? It puts me in mind of traditionalists who have little more to offer than the repeated statement that they are being traditional. To some extent we are all what we claim to be, and Affirming Catholics are what they are for no better reason than this is what they affirm.

It makes critical judgement of this collection difficult. Much of it is good, very good; sound, Catholic and uncontroversial. Other bits make one cringe. The overall impression? Interestingly, arriving as it does with several hundred other how-to books on the Common Worship Eucharist, it reads as straight down the line, middle of the road CofE. If it had been issued by Church House, it would not have looked out of place. NT

 

 

JOHN STOTT: a global ministry

Timothy Dudley-Smith

IVP, 538pp, hbk

0 85111 983 2, £14.99

 

Could Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith sustain into the second leg the flair and quality shown in the first? We waited for volume two of his work on John R W Stott, and the answer is a resounding yes, and more.

Start with the pictures. The black and white photos present some nicely-balanced themes but the colour cover deserves to be a frontispiece. Here is JRWS the birdwatcher (ornitheologian) with a grey sea behind him, binoculars at the ready. Even at an Adelaide Test Match his mind is on the silver gulls and dapper little Australian wagtails. Readers keen for Evangelical history should realize that this is biography. The former has already been tried by many, to the familiar background noise of grinding axes. So while this prize-winning volume charts many 20th century movements and events, it is the story of one human being, whatever labels are claimed by or for him. We are privileged to have a book which could be impossible ten years on, as key voices fade or die. Later accounts will bring varied perspectives, filled with ‘if onlys’, but none so directly personal as this, so aglow with warm friendships.

The man might have been statesman, full-time academic or bishop. Had he reached the bench (he declined this and other distractions) he would surely have been ‘unstoppable’ short of Canterbury – to quote another friend. Michael Ramsey once complained about Evangelical spinelessness, and the same day called Stott ‘intransigent’; the Archbishop was respectfully told he couldn’t have it both ways.

After the Foreword, the book is organized into four decades, with three or four chapters given to each. The 1967 Keele Congress is a major factor in the sixties, the Lausanne Covenant in the seventies, the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) in the eighties. You will need two bookmarks; to skip the end-notes would be a mistake. Like any good biography, this one raises larger questions. If evangelism is the keynote of Volume 1, here is the thinking through of current issues, often over the midnight oil in conference halls where John Stott clearly enjoyed what he excelled in – working towards an agreed statement. It helps to clear the mind, set down markers, and give participants a sense of purpose and achievement.

The downside is that conferences are full of the sort of people who attend conferences! ‘We need to meet face to face’; but who are ‘we’? No matter how graciously they listen (few better than JRWS) it is the quicker thinkers, louder voices and stronger personalities who shape the vision. Slower, smaller people are less often heard, let alone the absentees. Many able clergy missed the well-hyped Keele, the wobbly Nottingham and the lead-balloon Caister because they were busy fulfilling their ordination vows. They are accused (though not here) of burying themselves in their parishes, but conference centres also provide a kind of immolation. And from Langham Place to Lausanne, the pressure to agree can be stronger than John Stott realized, as his biographer hints; the word ‘unanimously’ has a price tag.

We are not clear quite what happened to LICC; it had global influence, but some future narrator may analyze where it stumbled. If primary evangelism is less dominant in the frame, it is still primary. But JWRS never had a ‘love for souls’.. just people, who have other moral, political and environmental concerns, which expand an already extraordinary agenda and itinerary. The ground of all decisions remains Holy Scripture. We see a pastor-teacher working on the text, changing his mind if some cherished tradition no longer seems adequate, preaching it in country after country, spelling it out in book after book. If any ministry is apostolic, this is. His letter to Singapore (page 328) could be from Paul.

So it was Stott v Spong when the errant North American bishop wished to debate sexuality in Vancouver, 1993. Nothing is told of the earlier, more violent scenes at All Souls’ when gay activists invaded the platform, assaulted Stott, seized the microphone and shouted down the prayers. Most of his opposition comes from hyper-liberals like Spong or hyper-dissenters like Malcolm Watts of Salisbury. Both are seen here through JRWS/TDS eyes; what is ultimately most convincing is not the small print of the drama but the character of the cast.

The Martyn Lloyd-Jones episode of 1966 (which means more to Free Church evangelicals than Moore and Hurst) is dealt with in a few pages. This will amaze nonconformists who are still stuck with ‘The Doctor’s’ call that year to leave the mainstream denominations. But a revealing glimpse of DMLJ finds him verbally inviting John Stott to succeed him at Westminster Chapel. Does this betray a deep misjudgement of the man, the Church of England, even the basic courtesies? It surely illuminates that public moment at Westminster, and the friendlier but wistful conversation on page 174. For some of us, a bigger problem came with a radio interview. Asked for the secret of All Souls’ ‘unusual success’, the then Rector essentially said that he simply preached Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour. Many who heard it then, or read it now without further comment, wonder what that says about the rest of us. Not that it was an easy one to answer; but he didn’t get many of those.

A body, mind and spirit able to cope with the range of interest and theme portrayed here is one we may not see again. He needed a biographer who at least in part could master the documents, grasp the issues and marshal the material with deceptive readability. He did not seek one; happily, one has found him.

Time fails to tell of the supporting cast of thousands; if the happy glimpses of Richard Bewes or the major role of Frances Whitehead are any guide, the portraits are pretty trustworthy. Each reader will have favourite pages; mine include 306, which I will not spoil except to thank God for Ascension Day. And for a choice quotation (anon): ‘Every time [my husband] was with John he returned more committed to becoming a humble, godly man. It was a gift to our family every time they went birdwatching’. CI

 

 

WHO OWNS BRITAIN

The hidden facts behind landownership

Kevin Cahill

Canongate, 450pp, hbk

0 86241 912 3, £25

 

I too have read de Soto’s brilliant book The Mystery of Capital (reviewed last month) and was glad to receive this solid text to set against it. In the new countries of the Third World, most people have no access to their own capital, because it either is or is on land to which they can claim no firm title. It is theirs but they cannot prove it, so they cannot use as a base for capita. In the old countries of the north, where landownership and title deeds have a long and legal history, we have a flourishing capitalist economy precisely because people have access to their capital in the form of mortgages, re-morgages and loans against collateral. How fortunate we are!

Now read this book. And you may come to believe that the ruthless land-grab of the conquering Normans and its cruel social divisions are with us still. Re-ordered and perpetuated by the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the further re-distribution under Cromwell, and the final comprehensive thefts under the movement for enclosure, this colonial theft of land has become a permanent blight in our society. The select members of the elite still hold vast swathes of this country, for which they pay nothing, or less than nothing if you take into consideration the many subsidies and tax breaks available. The rest of us are squeezed onto tiny, overcrowded urban plots, hemmed in on every side by the landed aristocracy.

Cahill is a journalist, who broke his teeth on the Rich List genre, now a favourite of the Sunday press. Bite-sized nuggets of anti-clerical, anti-monarchist, anti-elitist facts and figures that make you want to go out and burn down the barns of your local land owner. A vicious section on the Church of England is only to be expected. Would his argument have carried more weight if he had been able to argue a longer, fuller case? Possibly, but the scatter-gun approach has its merits.

You can take your pick as to which is the greater fault. That only a hundred years ago many country parsons were among the leading landowners and oppressors of their own parishioners. That these vast historical resources were recklessly squandered during the last century. That diocesan holdings of former glebe land are even now so secret that no proper records are available. It certainly seems that the CofE has taken the worst of all possible options: it holds too much land, it uses these resources with little social conscience and with still less business sense, it sold its estates to the lowest bidder (generally another local landowner, who just happened to be a patron or churchwarden of the parish), it still leases tracts of former glebe to members of the elite at peppercorn rents, while raising quotas from the landless majority faster and faster. It neither uses its land for social change nor for endowment. If you want to bring your own blood to the boil, browse through this heavy book. SR

 

 

FOLLOWING THE GOSPEL

Raymond Chapman

Canterbury, 310pp, pbk, 1 85311 436 7, £12.99

 

There are so many CW companion volumes to help leaders of worship in the new dispensation that one might easily miss this more valuable book. Designed for the ordinary member of a congregation, it offers reflection and exposition of the gospel readings for all Sundays and major feasts according the Revised Common Lectionary, and from a trustworthy author: to be used no later than Saturday evening. If it encourages prayerful preparation for the Sunday Mass, it will have fulfilled its task. AS

 

 

OPENING PRAYERS

Collects in Contemporary Language

Canterbury, 140pp, pbk

1 85311 428 6, £7.99

 

This is something of a review-in-reverse. I am not seeking to tell you what I think about this book, but would rather know from you what you think. Newly out in paperback, it was sent to me by the publishers. On the back there are three commendations from earlier reviews, including, ‘For collects in a worthy contemporary idiom … look no further than this volume’ Andrew Burnham New Directions. Why should we want to disagree?

These collects were prepared by the ICEL for use in the revised Roman Mass, covering Sundays and the major feasts. They have the status of unofficial Roman usage (unofficial because the English language revision has not yet been completed, or if completed not yet authorized) and they have been commended by the Joint Liturgical Group. The question is ‘Are they being used in our churches?’ They clearly could be. But what we want to know, as we seek to avoid the every-parish-doing-its-own-thing approach so widely followed by our neighbours, and as we continue to prepare for the Sacred Synod, is ‘Are these the collects we should be using in the modern-language CofE Mass to be found in Resolution C churches?’

They are certainly quite long, and relatively flowery: they are quite clearly not in the formal BCP tradition. They follow the Common Lectionary, which means that there may be a separate collect for each of three years. They include the feasts of the Sunday Missal unaltered, which means that, for example, the Assumption is the Assumption and not some middle-way ‘Feast of the BVM’, but this clearly is going to limit its usage within a Broad Church. An advantage or a disadvantage?

These collects are clearly modern and distinctive and Roman. Is that reason enough for them to be commended within our constituency? I have tried them on a few occasions, and cannot yet make up my mind: I enjoy the ideas offered for prayer, but am still very wary of the length. My Roman colleague down the road is a staunch proponent of the Latin originals (and the BCP translations), so no help there. Talk to me.

 

Nicholas Turner is the guardian of St Mary’s church and well at Thornton-in-Craven.

 

 

BEFORE WE WORSHIP

Norman Wallwork

Epworth, 120pp, pbk

0 7162 0547 5, £9.95

 

What CW shares with the BCP is a deliberate avoidance of extempore prayers or pronouncements. Where they differ is in the quantity of set prayers on offer. This little book is worthy of note as an extreme example of the current trend to write out specific date-dependent prayers for every smallest part of the Church’s worship.

This is a collection of vestry prayers, a choice of two edited from other sources or specially written to be an appropriate preparation for each Sunday and major feast in the RCL calendar. So formal is the thinking behind such prayers that it must surely require an extempore introduction or prayer to prepare for these liturgical collects. Weird. AS

 

 

BROKE THROUGH BRITAIN

One Man’s Penniless Odyssey

Peter Mortimer

Mainstream Publishing, 256 pp, pbk

1 84018 163 X, £9.99

 

If the scope for Christian pilgrimage and poverty is not what it was, their secular equivalents continue to flourish. It must be something in the feet or the pockets. Author and playwright Peter Mortimer set out to walk from Plymouth to Edinburgh with someone else’s dog but no cash or plastic cards. Did they make it? Answer, not so obvious as you think. But they did make an irresistible book, at once hilarious, scary and thought-provoking, fashioned from scraps of diary religiously compiled en route.

Religious? Walking that far, that way, you can hardly miss the churches and their clergy; here are some goodies and baddies alike. But does the author stray into judging by appearances, the very thing he dreads when others inspect him? At least he finds out what sleeping in a stable feels and smells like. He doesn’t mention cameras, but the twenty-two photos must have been taken on something.

Mortimer admits that ‘Odyssey’ may be too grand a word; a month is not ten years. But if this more-than-entertaining read persuades a few drivers to give their cars away for good it will not have been written, nor the miles walked, in vain. CI

 

 

YEAR OF WONDERS

Geraldine Brooks

Fourth Estate, 310pp, hbk

1 84115 457 1, £12.99

 

THE story of Eyam, the Derbyshire plague village, is an intensely moving one. Receiving a role of flea-infested cloth from London in the early summer of1665, some of them began to fall ill and die, so they imposed a strict quarantine upon their village, and thus prevented the spread of the plague to the neighbouring district. It is a genuinely inspiring story of self-sacrifice, and the figure of William Mompesson, the rector, is of central importance. It is a fitting subject for historical fiction, and offers many theological themes for reworking.

Brooks is not interested in theology but she does hate men. At best this novel is a Catherine Cookson style plucky-lass-triumphing-against-wicked-men romance; at worst it is a humourless manifesto for wimmin’s superiority in all things. The final character assassination of the rector is breath-taking in its cynicism; she does at least acknowledge in her notes that this ‘is entirely imagined’, but if nothing else it shows how visceral the hatred of the traditional Church can be ‘out there’. AS

 

 

A TRUST BETRAYED

Candace Robb

Heinemann, 240pp, pbk

0 434 00932 6, £10

 

One of the problems with historical novels, particularly when combined with murder mysteries, is that the author can get hooked on displaying a knowledge of the period and completely neglect the drama and suspense. A Trust Betrayed suffers from this. The inclusion of a glossary of 34 ancient Scottish words to aid understanding of the text seems affected (and unnecessary) in a book of 240 pages. A small sop to verisimilitude but of very little use to the reader.

The tale is good, however, and gripping in its own way. Margaret’s quest to find her husband – missing in the confusion of the William Wallace, Robert the Bruce uprisings – has much to recommend it. I enjoyed the twists and turns as our heroine investigated her way around thirteenth-century Edinburgh – though she was a bit too much like a medieval Germaine Greer, breaking all the taboos for women’s behaviour and causing endless trouble for her tavern-keeping uncle and deeply mixed-up brother, a Dominican friar. He himself has his own moral conflicts over obedience to an immoral abbot. But in the end, the characters are not attractive enough and you don’t much mind what happens to them.

It’s a tough job to take you back to a past era, immerse you in the atmosphere and then keep you deeply involved in the characters and their lives. Ellis Peters can do it, Trollope, Dickens of course – but Candace Robb isn’t there yet. A good read but with a little more concentration on the characters and plot, and less academic description of the period it would have been a great one.

 

Marilyn Ensor works in London.

 

 

THE COINS OF JUDAS

Scott McBain

HarperCollins, 374pp, pbk

0 00 711465 6, £9.99

 

It has all the standard ingredients, the venal cardinal, the saintly nun, the harassed priest, the Los Angeles lawyer (though in this case he is a psychiatrist, which I suppose is close enough), and miles of secret passages under what you and I think is the Vatican Museum (little do we know, poor benighted Protestants); and what is more it called itself a ‘thriller’. Holiday hokum, just the ticket, I thought. It turned out to be in the horror genre, which is not the same thing at all! Me, I prefer guns and criminals to eerie essences and fake theology. It all depends on how you like your evil-as-entertainment. One bit that tickled me was the super deadly secret, so mind-chillingly terrible that only the Pope can know it, and he must pass it on to his successor. AS

 

 

Where no price is marked on a book, we shall continue to make that clear by putting the price in square brackets, and no doubt we shall continue to fulminate against this wicked practice of sleight-of-hand, condoned deception. However, like so many others, it is a losing battle. Publishers are increasingly inclined to leave prices off, and are prepared to admit openly (and I suppose honestly) that this is to avoid the expense of applying labels when they want to put the price up. What can one do? Virtually nothing. Does it really matter? Not a lot. But it is still a beastly practice, and we will continue to dislike it.

 

 

 

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