Book Reviews

Theodicy, ethics and something for the Jubilee

 

MAKING GOOD

Helen Oppenheimer

SCM, 144pp, pbk

0 334 2832 9, £13.95

 

Whilst this book is eminently accessible in its style, it is not one that can be scampered through in one sitting. Rather, it requires pondering over a length of time, for it forces us to re-examine, even to re-consider some of the basic tenets of the Faith. One of its possible strengths is that it is not a systematic work of apologetics nor of moral theology, but a series of recapitulations of the author’s convictions, reflections and ideas printed in earlier books and lectures. This means that the reader, should he wish, can read the book topic by topic. These topics all centre upon the difficulty and the morality of believing in a good God, whose world is so full of human tragedy and evil.

Mrs Oppenheimer first examines the nature of goodness, which in a somewhat tortuous way she concludes is not a construct but an absolute value latent within the nature of creation. God, in Genesis 1, ‘saw that it was good’. Goodness therefore exists as part of the way that things are; so alas does evil. We can account for only so much tragedy in terms of free will and of human choice, but what of that vast field of calamities for which prima facie there seems be nobody to blame but God? She is therefore sympathetic to the multitudes who, having now grown used to voting for their rulers, stop short of voting for a King of a world which is rife with so much unaccountable suffering.

She rightly declares that not one but a series of theodicies must be used to eat away at the solution of this age-old problem. A possible theodicy is one which the author calls a bold, even presumptuous, doctrine of the Incarnation. God, in taking upon himself the work of creating, took a huge risk that parts of it might go wrong; which it surely did. God thus takes responsibility for this and, in rectifying it, chooses to suffer with his creatures. God in Christ suffered not only for the sins of the world but also for the evil within it. The atonement therefore involves not only an innocent victim, who pays the human debts of sin, but also the responsible Creator, who pays the divine debts of evil. God puts matters right not as the divine monarch standing securely aloof, but by his total involvement in his creation.

A particularly engaging topic is her discussion of the nature of tragedy in literature. This we generally find more fascinating, more satisfying even, than the tale where all goes well and all live happily ever after. Happiness has a number of dimensions, one of which is that it is enriched by the knowledge of the possibility of misery. In this she makes an elegant allusion to the concept of the felix culpa, where the state of sin forgiven is fuller than an original state of innocence. This discussion almost inevitably leads on to a lengthy analysis of Shakespearian tragedy which, though interesting, is not really germane to the main thrust of the book. She admits that Shakespeare is not a notably Christian writer and though his tragedies may illuminate the problem of evil they fail to introduce any element of forgiveness. His heroes bring downfall upon their own heads, and not one of them undergoes a noble death for a good cause.

A rather more pertinent issue is whether a Christian can experience tragedy to its most bitter depth when he knows of the Resurrection and has the hope of heaven. Her answer is yes. We have not yet experienced the fullness of the Resurrection nor the joys of heaven, and as long as we cannot see heaven from earth then there is full scope for tragedy in life. The cry of dereliction from the cross is one of the hallmarks of the incarnation in that Christ also did not see beyond the barrier.

This is a deeply rewarding book, and although some of its meaning is not immediately transparent and it occasionally wanders into byways, it is one which I shall undoubtedly frequently revisit and am glad to have it upon my bookshelf.

Peter Harrington is Assistant Priest at St Francis of Assisi, Hammerfield.

 

 

WITH THE GRAIN OF THE UNIVERSE

Stanley Hauerwas

SCM Press, 249pp, pbk

0 334 02864 7, £13.95

 

This is the printed version of the Gifford Lectures of 2000–1 given at the University of St Andrews. The Giffords are a series of lectures on natural theology which have, over the years, attracted nearly all the great names in theology and philosophy. So Hauerwas begins with engaging modesty, ‘I never dreamed that I would be asked to give the Gifford Lectures. Theologians did not have a conspicuous role in the Gifford Lectures in the second half of the twentieth century. Moreover, I am not even a proper theologian but a representative of the even more disreputable field called Christian ethics, and it is not clear that I am a competent worker in that "field" because it is not clear what constitutes competence in Christian ethics.’ What follows belies nearly all of this.

Hauerwas lectures in dialogue with three of his most distinguished predecessors in the Giffords: William James, Reinhold Neibuhr and Karl Barth. His side of the dialogue is much influenced by two major figures in the field of Christian ethics, John Howard Yoder, the distinguished Mennonite, and Alasdair MacIntyre, the re-discoverer of Virtue Ethics. Hauerwas’ thesis is that natural theology is impossible if abstracted from a full doctrine of God. Yet he warns that theology must be rooted in the theologian’s own relationship with God, ‘Any theology that threatens to become a position more determinative than the Christian practice of prayer betrays its subject.’ It is splendid to find a theologian who is so clear that his subject is God.

William James’ Giffords were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience and so still hold an authoritative and useful place in modern discussion. Hauerwas recognises James’ failure to acknowledge the importance of the Trinity in Christian thought, and ultimately concludes that James’ view of the world as a liberal, educated, financially secure brotherhood can never be adequate.

Niebuhr stands as the representative of liberal Protestantism. Essentially Hauerwas argues that Niebuhr reflected a culture which is now dead, which saw Jesus as an escape from the theological absurdities of the ancient creeds (!), but still valuable because of his ethical and religious idealism (!!). But Neibuhr also fails, for Hauerwas, because he was too much a Christian believer, ‘Yet exactly because he was such a vital Christian believer, Niebuhr felt free to provide an account of our knowledge of God which seems little more than pale theism.’

Barth is the most surprising of the three partners. Yet Hauerwas is quite clear and convincing that Barth saw an essential role for natural theology (unlike Barthians whom Hauerwas dislikes). Barth struggled through the 1920s with the problems of God’s relation to human beings and the divine and human natures of Christ. These debates are reflected in his Giffords, delivered in 1937–8.

Hauerwas ends by discussing the theme of witness based on the work of Yoder and on the writings of Pope John Paul II. This is a stimulating lecture as it brings together the Mennonite and the Roman Catholic to show the essential overlap of concerns and aims.

The book is splendidly produced, with real footnotes to allow the reader a proper and usable set of references. The index however is only adequate. The contents are an exciting and challenging examination of God’s relation with and expression in his creation, and our response to him. If you only buy four theological books a year, this should be one of them.

Patrick Allsop is Chaplain of King’s School, Rochester.

 

 

Priesthood & Society

Kenneth Mason

Canterbury, 180 pp, pbk

1 85311 46 3, £12.99

 

Just as fast and furious as the first edition in 1992, this ‘revised New Edition’ is full of informative and stimulating aperçus. Anybody who doubts whether it is worth reprinting should have a look at the other volumes on the ‘new books table’. If you buy it, you will find it the sort of book which, if opened at random, will almost certainly give you something to think about, even if; like the present writer, you don’t always quite understand what Mason is talking about.

Members of the Original Integrity will be mildly irritated by the childish pedantry with which the author, having convinced himself or herself that women priests are a good thing, doggedly persists in referring to a priest as ‘he or she’. A greater cause for concern is that despite the prescriptive and now passé reference to September 11 in the new preface, the book has a rather elderly feel to it. (Perhaps, if it is a ‘classic text’, as the blurb calls it, it should simply have been reprinted as such). There is little attempt to situate a discussion of priesthood in the context of episcopacy and diaconate; indeed, the few phrases about deacons make little effort to debate with JN Collins’ Diakonia, which may have appeared in 1992 too late for a discussion in the first edition but has now been around for more than a decade.

This edition also shows few inclinations of engaging with some of the most striking books of the mid to late 1990s. One example: ‘with the development of low mass the Church was then perceived as a powerful priesthood ministering to a powerless laity.’ To readers of Duffy (The Stripping of the Altars), Pickstock (After Writing), or Bossy (Christianity in the West 1400–1700) this may seem a little oversimplified. The point about medieval sacramental practice is that it was based on the objective efficacy of the Eucharistic sacrifice. If a priest is employed by those who can pay him to do for them what they cannot do for themselves – as a shoemaker might be – the question of who has power becomes ambiguous. The medieval guilds, not to mention the endowers of chantries, might look distinctly more empowered than the ill-paid sacerdotal drudges they employed.

Mason adds, a little later, that a priest ‘cannot celebrate without the laity. That needs to be stressed, since some priests overlook it and some deliberately flout it. And if, on exceptional occasions, a priest should legitimately celebrate in solitude, it would be better to see this, not simply as the exercise of a priestly liturgy which he or she ought not to be denied, but as the co-operation of that priestly task with the layperson which he or she also is. For really it is not the priest’s function which supplies the energy of action, but the layperson’s. Also, and in the specifically priestly role, a priest can do nothing to affect the life of humankind.’ This is a fair distance from the doctrine of Vatican II, that the Eucharist is the action of Christ in his Church; that it is an act of divine power a million years before it is an act of man or woman. And it fails to dialogue with writers such as Aidan Nichols or Joseph Ratzinger, who emphasize the god-centredness of the Eucharist and suggest implications. Incidentally, it is a view neatly demolished in 1965 by Eric Mascall (Who he? Older clergy should blow the dust off their copies of Corpus Christi, and younger clergy should try to borrow it. Now there is a classic).

If you buy this book, you are unlikely to regret it, but you won’t find it at the cutting edge of the most exciting of recent writing,

John Hunwicke was formerly Head of Theology at Lancing College.

 

 

GENIUS, GRIEF AND GRACE

A Doctor Looks at Suffering and Success

Gaius Davies

Christian Focus, 380pp, pbk

1 85792 630 7, £9.95

 

Don’t let the alliteration annoy or the misprints madden you. But from Martin Luther to Martyn Lloyd-Jones (this is habit-forming), with half a dozen Anglicans and others in between, here are eleven landmark Christians whose pedestals sometimes look distinctly wobbly. Our fault, says psychiatrist Dr Davies, for putting them up there in the first place. The answer is not to smash the icons – that’s been tried – but to value what the grace of God can do with people as flawed as we are.

Being in the public eye, their failings, unlike ours, show up on history’s big screen. Somewhere beyond a whitewash and a witch-hunt is a realistic view of the saints’ strengths and weaknesses. The author helps us to value people whose obsessions and depressions could have destroyed them and those around them; sometimes they nearly did.

For William Cowper they seemed to succeed. But his story is sensitively retold here; necessarily, too, since some still imagine that John Newton’s religion drove his friend over the edge. Cowper was ill enough for an asylum long before they ever met. The Bunyan of Pilgrim’s Progress is only a fragment of his story. More surprising, perhaps, are the author’s studies of Lord Shaftesbury, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Amy Carmichael and JB Phillips, and if you thought there was nothing more to be said about CS Lewis, try this book. Dr Davies’ essential respect for his subjects is seen at its best with Christina Rossetti and Frances Havergal. Suggestions for further study conclude each chapter, but there is no index.

The unanswered question remains: how do we learn to work with people like this? Thank God, his wounded healers are still around, with as many chips on shoulders and thorns in flesh as ever, but working through their complexes and ours, the Lord being our helper. CMI

 

 

JOURNEYING WITH GOD

Malcolm Rothwell

Epworth, 144pp, pbk

0 7162 0549 1, £9.95

 

The author of this book is a Methodist minister, and he describes his experience when making a 30-day Ignatian retreat at a Roman Catholic convent. He tells us that it was due to his being laid up with a broken leg that he had the opportunity of writing, and he shares the insights that he had received through his retreat.

He gives us something of a potted biography of St Ignatius of Loyola and a brief history of the founding of the Society of Jesus. He tells us also of the disciplines which he had to accept when making this month’s retreat – he had to deny himself almost all contact with the outside world, with no radio, no television and no newspapers, though telephone calls were permitted on rest days. He had no conversation during the month, except for his daily talk with his spiritual director. He admits that it was a chastening experience to re-emerge after the month and to discover that his family and his church had been able to manage very well without him!

After the preliminaries, the author goes on to share his thoughts on the life of prayer and spirituality, which he now understood in a new light. He has a very good chapter on ‘discerning God’s will’, in which he talks of listening and responding, which is only possible if one has inner freedom and an understanding of where we are not free. The penultimate chapter gives us some very good outline meditations on passages of Scripture, illustrating the themes of listening and responding. St Ignatius of Loyola continues to inspire countless Christians. This book is a worthy attempt to re-interpret his spirituality for today’s world.

Brother Martin SSF is Mission Secretary of the Society of St Francis.

 

 

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 nice 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?’

 

 

TRAVEL WITH JOHN BUNYAN

John Pestell

Day One, 128pp, pbk

1 903037 12, [£9.99]

 

A generation is growing up in alarming ignorance of Evangelical history and biography. That is the conviction behind the first of what promises to be a fascinating series of Travel Guides, each centred round the work and personality of one spiritual achiever from the past. John Bunyan makes an excellent start, whether seen from the drama of his life, the known (or well-guessed) locations of his adventures, and his unique place in English, let alone Christian, literature.

In the hands of a writer who has long loved his subject, together with some fine photography, the well-researched narrative certainly comes alive. The real test is whether other volumes can be as good as the beginning of this open-ended series, and whether young latter-day pilgrims will be persuaded to walk where Bunyan walked or (more important) read what he wrote.

The book does not preach, but lets the narrative speak strongly for itself. Fewer exclamation marks would make it an even more eloquent little package. The guides are designed to slip into a reasonable-sized pocket or handbag, which makes for print on the small side. Directions to key sites are meticulous, down to the last bus-stop, pelican crossing, chip shop and disabled loo; will these need occasional updating?

If you flip through and wonder what St Paul’s Cathedral and a London Tube Map are doing, when you visit Bunyan’s tomb at Bunhill Fields, you may as well see what else London has to offer. The same thinking brings in Oliver Cromwell, Terry Waite and Woburn Safari Park. Maps are clear, detailed and frequent; general travel hints are as good as you will find anywhere, notably helpful to foreign visitors; with dates, mileages, grid references. opening times, phone numbers, websites. CMI

 

 

THE BIBLE SPEAKS TO THIRD AND FOURTH AGERS

Richard Morgan

BRF, 260pp, pbk

1 84101 220 3, £7.99

 

Early in my ministry, a fellow curate once remarked, ‘Jesus and his disciples were all young men, and most of those he met, and especially those who opposed him, were young and active; but I minister mostly to the elderly. What do the gospels say to them?’ It is an undervalued problem, one that needs constant attention. So the title of this book immediately caught my eye. It is answering a real need, not merely pandering to a niche market.

Morgan takes 120 short texts, going right through the Old and New Testaments, and adds a succinct comment and exposition, concluding with a prayer or reflection, each one coming to just under two pages – a simple and easy format. The biblical analysis is gentle, and I was wishing for a bit more bite (but then I am a pre-retirement second ager); however, he does know of what he speaks, and in the end the teaching and the changed perspective works its way through.

As he acknowledges, ‘if ever there were words in scripture that speak to older people, it is these words of Jesus to Peter’:

I tell you most solemnly, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.

I wish he could have given us more than his regulation two pages, but what he does write carries real conviction, the wisdom of a man who has ministered for many years in nursing homes. Although two thirds of his texts are from the Old Testament, his writing on the New Testament is the more incisive. Nice large print and an unfussy layout. AS

 

 

THE QUEEN’S GOLDEN JUBILEE

Rex Hurrell

331 Seaside, Eastbourne, BN22 7PA, 130pp

spiral bound, £9.16 post paid

 

A collection of prayers, readings, hymns, services, notes, essays and other resource material for a Christian celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee, this is a genuinely eccentric product of home grown publishing. It would never have got past even the most laid-back editor, for one thing all the text is centred (which makes paragraph divisions hard to discern and has the disorienting quality usually associated with strobe lighting), and there is far too much crammed onto each page. But praise the Lord that it saw the light of day.

Its charm and value is precisely because it has not been edited. Think of it as a little bric-a-brac cum antique shop down a back street. Take an hour or two off to browse through the piles of odds and ends. Most of it will not interest you, because you already have one or more at home, but keep poking around in the dark corners, and I guarantee you will find some gems. I found most of my bargains in the notes at the beginning and the end. I loved it.

Fr Hurrell is a retired CofE parish priest. He accumulates his material from a ‘Catholic Anglican perspective’, showing a patience with CW and CTBI material not always shared by ND readers, but above all he has spent years garnering the curious quirks and surprises of our royal history. No publishing editor could avoid tidying up his presentation; it would make it easier to read, but it would miss the cluttered richness.

I exaggerate a little. He does flag up one of his particular treasures, the Prayer over the Gifts at the Coronation Eucharist of 1953. Was there one? He quotes it as follows, relishing its ‘Catholic teaching as to the Real Presence’.

Bless, we pray, Lord, these gifts and sanctify them to this holy use that by them we may be partakers of the body and blood of your Son, Jesus Christ, and be fed unto everlasting life of soul and body; and grant that your servant Queen Elizabeth may be enabled to discharge her weighty office to which you have called and appointed her; grant this, Lord, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only mediator and advocate.

‘Did they use the ‘you’ form in 1953?’ I ask myself. Is this a genuine heirloom, or merely a clever reproduction? Does it go back to the fourteenth century as he claims? That is the joy of these little antique shops; the judgement is yours. NT

 

 

THE GOOD DOCTOR

Philip Doddridge of Northampton

Alan Clifford

Charenton, 320pp, pbk

0 9526716 3 8, £9.95

 

‘Hark the glad sound’, ‘O God of Bethel’, ‘O happy day’, ‘Ye servants of the Lord’; we can’t dispense with Doddridge, and this timely new biography engages us at many levels. Born three hundred years ago as the twentieth (and hardly breathing) child of a dissenting couple in London, he was one of only two survivors and found his vocation at Northampton. He would have made a good Anglican.

A weaker man would have conformed, to gain access to the Oxbridge which beckoned such a devoted talent. He chose the narrower but equally distinguished path of pastor-tutor to a church and academy that set its stamp on eighteenth-century nonconformity. Some would say, more distinguished; these academies worked their students hard (though there was time for football) when Oxford, according to Bishop Butler, was by comparison an unhealthy sanctuary for slouchers.

Dr Clifford’s generously illustrated and fully indexed book is a warm commendation from a self-confessed Doddridge enthusiast. But though the biographer is an Evangelical Free Churchman, he shows how warmly his hero was received by many contemporary Anglicans from curate to archbishop. Warburton and Secker were his friends and he gave scholarly support to the growing movement led by Whitefield and Wesley, even when his mentor Isaac Watts was cautious. His pastoral model was the incomparable Richard Baxter.

Other clergy were not so friendly, nor were all his fellow dissenters. He preferred not to be tied down by supposedly Calvinist confessions which defined every jot and tittle of the faith. Himself a firmly orthodox believer, as Clifford is at pains to show, he allowed the classroom discussions to flow back and forth with genuine freedom. Even his critics paid tribute to that charity, which he saw not as an adornment of the faith but as its heart. Happily, Northampton’s great parish church of All Saints has provided visible help to the refurbishment of the historic chapel which is still a lively part of the town’s life.

He wrote one best-seller which brought young William Wilberforce to active faith in Christ. He helped to found the town’s main hospital. His surviving letters sparkle with a gentle humour not always in evidence among the serious heirs of the puritans. His marriage and family life, held intact through more infant deaths, smallpox, travels and toils, is a beautiful background to his more public achievements.

And the hymns? Your vicar may not be up to writing one a week to follow the Sunday sermon. But Doddridge clearly believed that new times require new texts and tunes, and that we should not have to wait a hundred years before singing them. CMI

 

 

AN INTELLIGENT PERSON¹S GUIDE TO ATHEISM
Daniel Harbour
Duckworth, 150pp, hbk

0 7156 2915 8, £14.95

A refreshing change from the usual whingeing relativism, or as he puts it, ‘Agnosticism is the studied art of fence-sitting.’ This is the old-fashioned Enlightenment project brought up to date. Harbour’s thesis is clear: atheism is morally and intellectual superior to theism, and ought therefore to be espoused. I greatly appreciated the seriousness of his theme.
To ND readers, the title is something of an oxymoron. Not for us to give a fair judgement of its worth. Certainly it is vigorous and energetic. In the end, however, a book like this requires charm or wisdom, something other than argument with which to persuade and to carry conviction. His writing is sharp but not deep a more accurate title might be ‘a young person’s guide’.

Spelling, punctuation, layout: the former certainties of the printing world are as threatened as those of theology; talk to a printer who did his apprenticeship in the old school, if you do not believe me. For ourselves, it would be invidious to fulminate against provincial autonomy and DIY theology, and then develop our own house style without reference to the tradition received. In the English-speaking world that means Oxford.

However, the Press there has been through a major re-ordering (in response I suspect to the new, less deferential presses). That printers’ and publishers’ classic Hart’s Rules is no more, after 39 editions. At last, after a long wait, the two required volumes are, The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors and The Oxford Guide to Style, both now published in a new format.

Of course, like all good Anglicans we shall have our own local eccentricities, but in all essentials we shall follow Oxford English rules, not Chicago, nor Cambridge, and certainly not Microsoft. NT

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