APRIL 2002

BOOK REVIEWS

 

Old age, St George and the end of the world

GOING AGAINST THE STREAM

Ethical Aspects of Ageing and Care

Peter Jeffrey

Gracewing, 282pp, pbk

0 85244 541 5, £14.99

 

Alleluia! Sanity at last. No, I have not just resigned from parochial ministry. I have just read this book. Ageing is a universal phenomenon, it is something we all have to go through. ‘The realization of all our destinies could be the nursing home’ (p224). Pastoral care of the aged is the day-to-day experience of most pastors, so we are all affected by the issues discussed here.

A 70 year old today has the health a 60 year old had 20 years ago. The over 75s have a greater frailty and a shorter period of ill-health than in previous decades. This demographic trend cannot be denied. Economic and social implications are clear. Jeffrey asks what the solution is. Rationing of resources, or actually a complete re-assessment of care and the sharing of resources in the community? He posits the view that finite existence must be accepted and keeping-alive-at-all-costs rejected. The prime platform for pastoral care of the elderly is community responsibility and solidarity of the generations. The reader must decide if this is argued validly.

More than this, he argues, care needs ‘heart’. Disease-centred (and therefore cost-centred) care, the prevalent approach, must be altered to patient-centred care. This requires motivation and compassion – the giving of oneself. This brings into sharp focus another major issue, namely that of paternalism towards, and social control of; the aged.

So we embark upon exploring this issue of what authentic autonomy in elderly care actually means. Every individual ought to read this. We are all going to be in this position. It is sobering to be reminded that in everyday life autonomy is a myth, so what price age-impaired autonomy? But there is such a thing, it can be defined and is defined here. Jeffrey concludes that the real exercising of autonomy is making a meaningful choice, ‘being oneself’ in a known environment, So he draws attention to creative dependency. This all makes sense. It prepares the reader for the somewhat blunt realization that comes next. That in elderly care we are actually talking about quality of treatment judgements (that are scientifically defined) not quality of life judgments (that are socially defined). The former proscribes life objectively not by social values which are relative. This is really food for thought.

‘Opening the Final Door’ (Chapter 6) is a cracker. Back to familiar ground (care of the dying) but as an exciting pragmatic analysis of best practice. This should be required reading by all the caring professions. This book is an excellent exercise in arguing for a revolution in care of the ageing, from a competent and wise Catholic Professor of Moral Theology. Sometimes its pedigree is thinly veiled (research rehashed for public consumption) but the style is quite readable. It is challenging, stimulating and sometimes disturbing. Read it now. Leaving it until one is sitting in one of those high-backed chairs (probably courtesy of the CofE Pensions Board) will be too late!

 

Fr John Hervé is parish priest of St Agatha’s, Sparkbrook.

 

 

LOSING FRIENDS

Digby Anderson,

Social Affairs Unit, 206pp, pbk

0 907631 94 0, £12.95

 

Does true friendship have any future? This is the alarming question raised in a new volume from the Social Affairs Unit. Christian readers will be tempted by many aspects of Digby Anderson’s analysis, in particular the damage done to friendship by a weakening in society of virtues such as fidelity, trust, truthfulness and self-sacrifice. They will be particularly challenged by an analysis that blames Christianity with its ethic of universal love for challenging particular friendships as something subversive of that ethic.

Anderson traces society’s understanding of friendship back to Aristotle who sees the moral convergence of friends as pivotal. We need the approval or disapproval of friends to keep us on the straight and narrow. Whilst classical and Christian views of friendship see it in such a relation to virtue, the emerging secular view sentimentalizes it and makes it a means rather than an end. We are losing friends as a society, just as we are losing marriages, because ‘the virtue of fidelity is replaced by the mutual self-interest of contract’. Seeing friends for their usefulness is no recipe for building friendship.

The competition between friendship and marriage in the nuclear family is seen as a contributing factor in the loss of friends. There is no mention of the economic pressures which strain both and all relationships in the western world. The need to move from one place to another to maintain employment is surely a major reason so many of us lose friends.

In his analysis of the perceived clash between the egalitarian demands of contemporary society and the partial and preferential tendency of friendship the author notes that ‘particular good will (namely, friendship) is in fact vitally necessary for the success of universal ideals.’ He quotes Cardinal Newman who wrote that ‘the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it daily and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.’

Losing Friends provides a challenging analysis. Clearly, the health of communities links in to the health and extent of friendships. The popularity of so-called ‘friendship evangelism’ through the Alpha Course and other means shows a recognition among Christians of the vital importance of friendship. Whilst Digby Anderson’s thinking challenges the very idea of exploiting friendship, it does also speak of ‘seeing the same truth’ as being a foundation of friendship. There is encouragement for all who hold to objective moral and spiritual truth in this volume.

 

The Revd Dr John F Twisleton is Chichester Diocesan Adviser for Mission and Renewal.

 

 

A GUIDE TO THE END OF THE WORLD

Bill McGuire

OUP, 210pp, hbk

0 19 280297 6, £11.99

 

What do we mean by ‘the end of the world’? Those who discuss eschatology are most often either biblical historians, speaking about an ancient world-view which can seem plain weird, or else fundamentalists, who are plain weird. This relatively simple and entertaining book by a vulcanologist is a welcome counter-weight.

McGuire writes in an easy, conversational style and covers a whole range of ideas with great clarity; for an overview of the possible end-games, this is an excellent introduction. He is a cheerful and trustworthy guide of gloom. Global warming is the principal given, and he summarizes the issues admirably, before going on to the other options. I particularly enjoyed the climatic mechanisms behind the possible coming ice age; it used to be a great favourite in the early 70s and then disappeared from public view. I almost understood his explanation of how global warming (which I had always assumed was what killed off the hypothesis) might trigger the big freeze: it might get colder because it is getting warmer.

Another favourite of mine, simply because I have visited the place, is the moment when half of the Island of La Palma in the Canaries will crash into the sea, creating a massive tidal wave that, some nine hours later, will wipe out the eastern United States, not counting the coastal regions of West Africa, Atlantic Europe, South America and the Caribbean. Among earthquakes, he goes for Tokyo, not California, as the big one. When dealing with the coming asteroid or comet strikes, he gives a vivid description of the different results according to whether it strikes ocean or continent. As a child of the nuclear fears of the 60s, it is the volcanic winter that might follow a super-eruption which most frightens me, with its unremitting dark and cold. We all have our private fears: different horrors affect us in different ways.

We are all doomed. For one thing is certain: one day one of these events will take place. The world will end. The only question is how and when. A dispiriting subject? Possibly, but I confess I found this survey of ‘high-impact, low-frequency mega-geo-hazards’ most stimulating. It is cultural science at its best, meaning that it is good science and it offers a wide range of ideas that go beyond the science itself.

But as you muse on the fragility of life here on this planet, on the wonders of God’s creation, your own small fears of death and great fears of dying, note also the limitations of his presentation. I found this book a vivid vindication of the study of theology. Eschatology would, for example, make a worthy subject for Edward Norman’s proposed College of Sacred Learning. There is more to this subject than simply biblical interpretation. For instance:

There is more chance of being struck by an asteroid than of winning the National Lottery. Worse, there is more chance of being killed by an asteroid than of dying in a plane crash. To which one could add, ‘of being killed by a tidal wave’ (or tsunami as we now call them) or volcanic eruption, and so on. Even though you know this to be true, you are not worried, are you? You had already grasped that this is not the same as ‘the chance of you being killed by an asteroid etc.’ An understanding of time, which is what distinguishes these two calculations of the odds, is also a theological task, as St Augustine reminds us. It is not merely a matter of statistics, it is also a matter of perception. ‘What is time?’ is more than a scientific question.

There is also the whole context within which to study these frightening issues. McGuire’s only ‘solution’ is respect for the environment, greater work by scientists to predict and avoid, and (rather charmingly) hoping that we will have flown away to colonize other planets before our own meets its end. Here we are thinking about such huge ideas as the end of human existence, only to find there is nothing much that we can do with them. ‘The end of the world’ is more than mere geology and astronomy, but where and how are we going to unearth this ‘more’? Theology is a serious science, and if you want to know why it is needed read this book. NT

 

 

REVELATION: VISION AND INSIGHT

Ian Boxall

SPCK, 174pp, pbk

0 281 05362 6, [£12.99]

‘St John fell asleep at Mass, old boy,’ declared Arthur Couratin as he introduced me to the study of Christian Liturgy – a terse and vivid summary of the psychology of visionary experience. In a detached and dreamlike state the surrounding sights, sounds (and smells?) take on a deeper significance in their disclosure of the underlying reality. Boxall develops and expands the same line of thought as he interprets what John really saw and how he came to see it.

Boxall has given us a fresh, stimulating and wide ranging introduction to the Apocalypse, full of valuable reminders and observations of a kind not usually made in the average academic critical study. The best interpreters of Revelation are not the critics but rather poets, musicians, and, especially, graphic artists, notably Dürer, Cranach and Blake. We are also reminded that the book was never intended to be read in a study or library, but as a public prophetic declamation, if not from beginning to end at a single setting, at least in substantial serial episodes. We are encouraged to see the Apocalypse as a continuous tapestry and not a compilation of disjointed episodes.

In addition to the psychology and theology of visionary experience, it is also shown how Revelation stands within the tradition of Jewish prophetic mysticism, as developed from the heavenly visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel. Naturally the prophecy is also shaped by the historical and sociological conditions of the lives of the Seven Churches. He shows a welcome and healthy scepticism about a dating in the reign of Domitian which critics have treated for too long as a recycle bin for problematic NT documents. More might have been made of the year of the four Emperors (ad69), five years after the Neronian persecution, when an independent observer might not have given much for the survival of imperial Rome. The threat to the Seven Churches, however, seems to have been not so much one of violent persecution, but the more humdrum problems of tepidity, compromise and false doctrine – the Nicolaitans, Balaam, and Jezebel!

Finally, we are led on to the all important question of how the Apocalypse is to be read or heard. For John’s immediate audience it would have been a prophetic word of encouragement (paraklesis) and warning. The Epistle to the Hebrews does much the same kind of thing in its own way. But are we still entitled to be reading Revelation at all? Has it not been admitted to the canon only with some reluctance? Boxall is adamant that Revelation must still be read and heard, but with certain firm provisos. First, we may not use it as an eschatological timetable, which needs to be revised every time a train fails to arrive. Second, we are not to be too confident that we are on the side of the angels. This ‘word of encouragement’ is for the marginalized and the oppressed, for the Third World rather than the First World churches. Contemporary echoes are to be found in liberation theology. We ourselves should not be praying for justice when we need to be begging for mercy. Neither, thirdly, must we be too eager to identity Antichrist. Boxall suggests that each age produces its own antichrist. This is helpful as long as it is not allowed to open the door to a Manichaean kind of perpetual struggle between the powers of good and evil. Fourth, and last, there must be no gloating over the downfall of the wicked and the defeat of the powers of evil. Possibly Boxall and the critics are being too squeamish here. After all, we are in the world of apocalyptic. If we can tolerate the sun darkened and stars falling, why not blood reaching to the horses bridles? How else might one express the victory of the holy God whose eyes are too pure than to behold evil. People do not complain about the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings!

However, after reading Boxall, I am less rather than more comfortable than I was. When next I revisit Revelation I shall bear in mind the advice of the Desert Father to his disciple, ‘Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.’

 

Hugh Bates is a retired priest in the Archdiocese of York.

 

 

ST GEORGE

Christopher Lace

Triangle, 100pp, pbk

0 281 05415 0, £7.99

 

Meeting people where they are does not mean altering the Christian Gospel to suit what is asked for; it means taking the ideas and passing fashions that interest people and using that to present Christ’s teaching. Most English men and women do not believe in the reality of the communion of saints, or if they do, it is not a belief that does very much, but most, schoolchildren and non-churchgoers in particular, are fond of St George. As Lace notes with approval, the use of St George’s flag at sporting occasions has risen considerably in recent decades and replaced the disgraceful use of the Union Flag to signify support for England.

His grasp of the early and medieval texts is excellent, and his knowledge of the development of the legend and cult of St George is encyclopaedic; but this is not an academic study. He brings out all the colour and detail, the fascination and the absurdity, in an easy manner. He meanders through the subject, which makes it hard to pin down any precise explanation, but this does not matter, for we do not have to remember it all, only be entertained and instructed by the passing changes of the Christian centuries.

He shares the English mistrust for medieval piety, as well as the general scepticism for saintly intercession. He alludes to the sexual themes of the damsel, the dragon and sword with restrained delicacy, but lacks any insight into the tradition of celibacy. He supports the Scouting Movement and bemoans the reasons for its decline, but also gently mocks Baden-Powell for confusing St George with King Arthur. In short, he is the perfect Englishman to write about England’s patron saint.

The story I had picked up from anti-church cynics was that St George was ‘really’ an Antiochene pork butcher who had been lynched by a Muslim mob at a time of inter-racial violence during the Crusades. Lace does not mention this version, but his historical analysis makes it clear that George’s origins are many centuries earlier. This story at least cannot be true.

He shows great patience in his elaboration of all the information about this early Christian martyr, which is not very much. He takes great care as he unravels all the later accretions to his story, which are considerable. He gently brings out what is of interest from all the repetition and re-invention. Though even he can find no explanation as to why this relatively obscure martyr, probably a soldier from Lydda, grew to become one of the greatest heroes of the Christian faith, and a leading patron and intercessor for many nations and groups. At various stages of history he has been patron not only of England, but also of Venice, Genoa, Portugal, Catalonia, Georgia, Moscow and Istanbul, as well as patron of soldiers, sailors, horsemen, archers, armourers, ironworkers, saddlers, butchers, barren women, expectant mothers, farmers and labourers.

It is because he has so little history, argues Lace, and does not come from this country, and has so malleable a legend, that he makes the perfect patron for this nation. If you teach children or are associated with a St George’s institution, you will find plenty of good material in this book. RW

 

 

UNDERSTANDING ISLAM

Matthew S Gordon

Duncan Baird, 112pp, hbk

1 903296 74 9, £9.99

 

In the present climate, it is essential that we understand more about Islam than in times past, if our ministry is going to be effective, not just in the predominately Muslim areas of our inner cities, but anywhere in Britain.

This little book is a more comprehensive introduction than many on the subject. It is not a book simply about Islamic customs and culture and if that is all you require this is not for you. However, if you wish to know rudimentary Islamic beliefs and what Muhammad taught, it is a most useful starting point.

The author endeavours to explain the historical development of the religion, its main principles, its sacred places and sacred texts, illustrating each with extracts from Islamic scriptures and teachings whilst following each with a readily understandable and well balanced commentary.

Having worked in a Muslim area that has been at the centre of rioting on several occasions, I wish that this book had been available a couple of decades ago, for at least, if nothing else, I would have begun to have understood the differences between the various sects within Islam itself. PT

 

 

THE ENGLISH RITUAL

Canterbury, 260pp, hbk

0 1 85311 457 X, [£12.99]

 

A companion volume to the recently re-issued English Missal, and as such much to be commended. The printing and binding make it an excellent book to use, and the typesetting is clear and easy to follow. It contains the occasional offices from both the Western Use and the Book of Common Prayer, and a large number of blessings, with further prayers and litanies. It may be that a modern priest would not use many of the rites without some editing and alteration, but this is far more than a resource book, it can be used as it stands. It carries a sense of purpose and authority that the rather precious and pretentious production values of the CW volumes still lack.

Ironically, it shows both the limitations of the BCP and therefore the need for further material from Roman sources (which has always been such a focus of practical Anglo-Catholic theology), but also the richness of the BCP, with a pastoral sensitivity to some of the critical moments of life here on earth, that has not entirely been taken over or improved upon in the new CofE material. There is a weight to those older prayers that is more than the patina of age. AS

 

 

EVE’S GLUE

Heather Wraight

Paternoster, 230pp, pbk

1 85078 418 3, [£4.99]

 

A very readable study of the role women play in holding a church and congregation together. This is not wimmin-whingeing, nor incisive academic revisionism, but practical, middle of the road wisdom for ordinary Christians. It takes its facts, inspiration and insights from the kind of socio-theological research that makes up so many of the annual reviews and Christian handbooks which have become a distinct genre of recent years.

I am trying to put it into context, not damn it with faint praise. In the current situation, it is an excellent book, and genuinely useful and helpful. In our own constituency we are rightly worried by the feminization of the CofE, as a number of recent articles have testified. This book does not run counter to that concern, nor is it part of the feminist re-invention of the traditional faith, it is simply explaining how women live and work and how their commitment affects a congregation, and how with a bit of understanding they may affect it for the good. I was surprised and encouraged by how useful it turned out to be. SR

 

 

WORDS OF SPIRITUALITY

Enzo Bianchi

SPCK, 120pp, pbk

0 281 05456 8, [£8.99]

 

Words of Spirituality by the prior of an ecumenical monastic community in the Turin region has been translated from the Italian. The language and terminology is a little heavy at first, but do persevere, for there is much gold in this book. Once you find his rhythm you will begin to mine rich ore from his reflections. After a while, you will find the particular merit of his not being a contemporary English spiritual writer. The different sound of his language helps to bring out more ideas than at first appear.

This is a series of 45 short chapters on themes of contemplative prayer. They follow a progress of deepening faith. Indirectly each one builds on the last and enriches the overall picture. Most importantly, he himself builds on the Western, Mediterranean, Catholic tradition of prayer and the spiritual life. There is a depth here which is not often found in our popular native writing. AS

 

 

AN ALMIGHTY PASSION

Alan Hargrave

Triangle, 140pp, pbk

0 281 05451 7, £6.99

 

Anecdote theology. Sentimental tales and observations from an ‘ordinary’ CofE vicar who works in a Cambridge housing estate. He also goes from time to time to South America: these experiences provide an odd set of interlude narratives that I found out of place, but they did not detract from the rest of the book. Cheerful, no-nonsense religion. Vicars will recognize their own successes and failures in his stories; laity will find stories, when they are tired of sermons and abstraction. SR

 

 

EVERY PILGRIM’S GUIDE TO CELTIC BRITAIN

Andrew Jones

Canterbury, 240pp, pbk

1 85311 453 7, £9.99

 

Is this the first edition of a work that will grow over the coming years to become an indispensable travel guide for Christians in the British Isles? It could well be. This practical little paperback gives the history of many important early Christian sites, mainly in the west, complete with some accompanying devotions and information on opening times and services. One thing this shows is how few of these places are still sites of prayer and worship; but as parishes decline, perhaps pilgrimage shrines will flourish.

It is a first edition, and there is work to be done, by writers to fill out the material, and by editors to fit it together: seven sites are marked on the map for Scotland, only four (but not with the same names) are written up in the text. This is not the pilgrim manual most of us would want – to call Glastonbury the first centre of the ‘Marian Cult’ may betray a rather boorish Protestantism – but even church tourism must not be too churchy in these sensitive days. SR

 

 

A FLAME OF LOVE

Edited by Timothy Dudley-Smith

Triangle, 160pp, pbk

0 281 04300 0, £7.99

 

This is a revised edition of ‘A personal choice of Charles Wesley’s verse’. One should always be wary of publisher’s anthologies: it is often a lazy form of exploitation, recycling material for lazy readers. I would not normally warm to the re-presentation of hymns and verses, but this was different: all credit to the good bishop; he has edited a fine little book of deep spiritual worth, revealing that great Anglican Charles Wesley’s enduring faith and understanding, who once again challenges our own claims to be Catholic by the breadth and intensity of his own faith and devotion to the sacrament. AS

 

 

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED

Produced by St Francis of Assisi Church

92pp, spiral-bound, £3.95 from Faith House

 

From Fr Jennings ssc, ‘this has been published to raise funds towards our uninsured losses following the fire at our church on 11th January 2001’. A mixed collection of jokes and stories and puns from various actors and singers and clergy (some famous among them), on assorted religious themes. St Francis is a FiF parish in the Chelmsford Diocese, which means that God loves them and so do we. I am a sucker for parrot jokes; I have probably heard this before, but it is still a good one. NT

A lady was given two parrots. She wanted to know which was the male and which was the female. So she put a cover over their cage and studied them through a spy-hole. She watched them for several hours until one sidled along the perch and gave the other a quick peck on the cheek: the male was identified. The old lady whipped the cover off, seized the parrot and painted a white ring round its neck. The vicar called one day soon after and accepted a cup of tea. The parrot spotted his collar and called out, ‘So they caught you at it, too, did they?’

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