Book Reviews

Youth Marriage and the Good Book

 

Youth in Exodus

Geraldine Witcher

Highland Books, 176pp, pbk

1 897913 64 8, [£7.99]

 

The absence of young people in many churches is of grave concern. In the West this absence has been called a ‘haemorrhage’. It was George Carey who said, ‘Our mission is under attack. In some sections of the Western Church we are bleeding to death.’ It is clear to any with the eyes to see, that England in particular, and Western Europe in general, is one such section.

In my work as the children and young people’s officer for Forward in Faith I have the opportunity to see the position as it really is on the ground. It is not unusual for there to be no one under 40 or 50 in church on Sunday morning. Sunday School now often means crèche and where we do find groups of children at church, they are fed a diet of ‘dumbed down’ teaching without gospel substance or challenge.

This is not to say that there are not places and churches where young people are valued and cared for. There are, and we encourage them with FORWARD teaching! and the Sheepdip and Sheep Pen weekends. However, we all know the situation is serious. Once almost every child in England attended a church activity of some sort, now but a tiny fraction of them pass through out hands.

Geraldine Witcher has written a thought provoking book. Her analysis is correct. The Church in the West is in crisis. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of children and young people present in church. Witcher’s thesis is that our acceptance of the inevitability of the teenage rebellion, and even expecting it, has been a great mistake. She rightly feels that it is neither inevitable nor desirable. Furthermore, she has some memorable quotes about how we give our young people a watered-down gospel rather than sharing with them the excitement and challenge of the real thing. How about this: ‘Jesus at twelve was discussing with the finest minds in Jerusalem. This was not a result of years spent colouring pictures in Sunday School, but years learning what the Old Testament says, and applying it.’ Music to our ears!

She is strong on covenant theology, strong on the Bible but phrases like ‘your Church’ and ‘my Church’ irritate. There are lots of statistics in the book, and they are not always enlightening. The protestant overtones of the book are obvious and the anecdotal evidence is unconvincing.

‘Church should never be the most important thing in a family’s life – God should.’ Here, the author separates Jesus from his Church, a fatal mistake. We must remember that the Church is the Body of Christ and Our Lord identifies himself totally with the Church. She is against divorce and the idea that ‘children may decide for themselves when they are old enough’, and in favour of strong family life and communities that value children.

The book begins well, but peters out the longer it continues. This is a pity for I enjoyed the opening chapters, but felt let down by what followed. However, the subject is such an important one that any youth or children’s worker will want to argue with, and agree with the author. I congratulate the author for tackling this difficult subject. The questions are the right questions, but the answers are wanting in depth. Not surprising really for the questions are big ones and this is a small book. What is clear is that faithfulness and family life are important to young people, and it is when we expect little from our young ones that they will deliver little.

The issues with which this book deals, are ones that those of us who care about, and work with, the Church’s children and young people will need to think about and discuss. We will need to do this quickly, for we already have one lost generation. How many more before it is too late?

Ronald E. Crane ssc is Vicar of Emmanuel, Wylde Green, in Sutton Coldfield.

 

 

KING DAVID

Steven L McKenzie

OUP, 232pp, pbk

0 19 514708 1, £12.99

 

I was recently tidying up some drawers at home when I came across an autograph book that I had as a boy. Flicking through it brought back the usual mixture of memories that you get on these occasions. One signature puzzled me for a while until I remembered that it was that of a boy who had been in my class when I was about ten years old. He had gone off to be a ‘child actor’. In those days BBC television ran a regular Sunday afternoon children’s religious drama slot. That tells you how long ago that was.

My friend was playing the boy David and the previous Sunday had killed Goliath! I remember him telling us on his return to school that the stream from which he got his small stones was in fact a bowl of water (artfully concealed by greengrocers’ grass) and the stones themselves a handful of glass marbles. Ah, to touch the hem of fame!

In his book King David – a biography, Steven McKenzie, who is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Rhodes College, sets out to see what we can discover about the real David, whether he in fact existed, and if so whether the Bible give an accurate picture of him?

In a very well researched book Professor McKenzie concludes that, whilst David was in fact a real person, the biblical picture is distorted. It shows someone who was in fact a well born and well connected person as well as a murdering, adulterous, political tyrant; a humble born, simple shepherd lad who through great daring and skill came to lead his nation to a greatness never known before or after.

It is true that the image of David being plucked out from being the least and smallest to be the instrument of God’s will is totally consistent with the way in which the Bible reinforces the message that, time and time again, God does use the unexpected person. Time and again in the scriptures God does ‘lift up the humble’ to do his will. It is also true that even acknowledging Professor McKenzie’s thesis that the authors of the David story in the Bible massaged the facts, we are still given a picture of a very flawed and complicated personality. I have always found that this has made him more believable and understandable. Aren’t we all a mixture of good and bad, saints and sinners?

As I read this book I also found myself asking the question, ‘What is so different about the biblical biographers of David polishing up his image? All of history is written by the victors. Not everyone is convinced, for example, that the Tudor historians account of the reign of King Richard III is totally fair and accurate!

However, when all is said and done, Professor McKenzie has written a book which invites the reader to ponder anew the life and times of this most complex and pivotal of the kings of Israel. I commend it to readers for its scholarly research and thought provoking style. And as we read about the reasons why those who wrote up the life of David in the Bible felt the need to be selective in their use of material, we can ask ourselves when do we find ourselves doing exactly the same thing in our own lives?

 

George Nairn-Briggs is Dean of Wakefield

 

 

WILDERNESS WANDERINGS

Stanley M Hauerwas

SCM, 238pp, pbk

0 334 02859 0, £14.95

 

This is a difficult book. Firstly, it is a collection of essays, articles and reviews composed over a decade. The authentic voice of Hauerwas emerges clearly from its pages, though some chapters have a co-author. But it ranges over so broad a canvas that it is hard to read at a sitting. Rather, it is a book to be taken up to occupy an odd half hour – though most of its chapters cover enough material to keep most of us thinking for a week. Secondly, the fourteen authors with whom Hauerwas engages in dialogue are predominantly American. Oliver O’Donovan and Iris Murdoch are the obvious exceptions, while Paul Ramsey is fairly widely known on this side of the Atlantic. However there are times when the context of the debates and their language seem pretty alien.

These two difficulties should not deter the prospective reader. Hauerwas’ talent for epigram and striking quotation are fully displayed. This shows on the opening page: ‘For it is no easy challenge to be a pagan in a semi-Christian world where too often Christianity has simply become another name for pagan reality.’ The interplay of orthodox Christianity and the assumptions of liberal Christianity is another clear theme identified in the Introduction: ‘Wilderness theology will prove, I hope, to be a bit wild. After all, we have nothing left to lose, inasmuch as we unsure where we are in the first place. I remain convinced that nothing is quite as uncontrolled or radically unpredictable as Christian orthodoxy … Protestant liberalism bequeaths to Christians a misguided sense that they actually know where they are. Liberals are convinced that particular knowledges are certain in a manner that Christian orthodoxy cannot be.’

No doubt his colleagues have forgiven him for, ‘I see no reason, for example, to believe that God dwelt in Jesus in a "peculiarly intimate way". That sounds too much like making the claim that Jesus had some kind of experience – which is, to be sure, a very Methodist thing to think… But then American Methodism is surely only quite incidentally related to Christianity. (That is not to say that Methodists are without any convictions. Quite the contrary. For now I am back among the Methodists, I have discovered that they do have a conviction. It is that God is nice. Moreover, since Methodists are a sanctificationist people, we have a correlative: We ought to be nice too.)’

I found the most memorable chapters those about Jeffrey Stout and Tristram Engelhardt. That on Stout addresses the dilemmas created by moral diversity. This is examined using a lot from Alasdair MacIntyre. Hauerwas identifies the usefulness of Stout’s distinction between questions of truth and of justification in ethics. He also likes Stout’s recognition of the importance of traditions in ethical thinking. Stout takes a more optimistic view than MacIntyre about the possibility of talk about morals in modern society, and separates from MacIntyre in his understanding of the intelligibility of such things as rationality-as-such or justice-as-such without reference to a narrative tradition. Given the incoherence and intellectual dishonesty of much of what passes for moral discussion in British schools today, it is important that priests who labour to correct this sloppy thinking are inspired and informed by such analysis.

SCM Press have not served Professor Hauerwas well in the English edition of this book. The notes are placed at the end of chapters. This is particularly frustrating as in many cases (notably Chapter 13 about Oliver O’Donovan) they represent a significant development of important points. The Indices are brief to the point of uselessness. The cover shows a tattooed hunk in his underwear apparently on the verge of hypothermia. As he is standing in agreeable, cultivated countryside, the connection with the title is non-existent.

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

 

 

A LIGHT ON MY PATH

David Durston

Canterbury, 270pp, hbk

1 85311 462 6, £12.99

 

The subtitle of this book is ‘Praying with the Psalms in the Contemporary world’. It is very refreshing to find a book which sets out to offer help to those who use the Psalms as vehicles for prayer, and it will be invaluable to those who daily recite the Divine Office.

Many of us regret that the Psalter seems to have been somewhat downgraded in modern liturgical revision. It is true that Eucharistic worship has been enriched by the use of responsorial psalms. But whereas at one time the Psalter was said to have been ‘the backbone of the divine office’, the Psalms now recited at Morning and Evening Prayer in Anglican worship have been considerably reduced. This book teaches us to value the Psalms, and to understand them better. Perhaps it will lead to a thirst for their use more fully.

The author begins with a brief historical introduction, and then outlines the different kinds of Psalms, for example, cries for help, penitential psalms, and songs of thanksgiving. He has a helpful section on the ‘cursing’ passages in the Psalms, and argues that Christians should remember that the Psalmist is calling upon God himself to take action against his enemies, and that this is in line with St Paul’s words in Romans 12.19.

The introduction is followed by a comprehensive glossary, an index of key themes, and a suggested daily reading plan, presumably intended for those who are not reciting the Psalms in the daily office. (The reading plan seems to have been removed from its intended position at the end of the book, since on page 233 we are directed to find it there). We then come to the commentary on each of the 150 Psalms. The author is concerned with the main themes; he does not get bogged down with too much detail, but shows how each Psalm can lead into prayer.

For the author, the Psalmist is sometimes ‘he’ and at other times ‘she’. He argues that some of them may have been written by women, but since there is no possibility of determining which ones come in this category, it would probably have been better to use the pronoun ‘he’ throughout. After all, they are traditionally called ‘the Psalms of David’, even though we accept that many of them come from a much later period of Jewish history.

This book is a real treasure, and many of those who use the Psalms will be led to a deeper knowledge of their riches.

 

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

 

 

A COMMUNICANT’S GUIDE

Robert Beakin

Tufton, Faith House, 24pp, bklt

£2.75

 

Imagine a message on your answer machine ‘The Queen is calling at your house today. Get ready.’ No doubt all of us would make special preparations to welcome our royal guest. At every Mass we welcome not the Queen but the King of Kings into our hearts and lives, and as the ASB put it, ‘careful devotional preparation is recommended for every communicant’. Never a truer word.

Robert Beakin has provided us with an admirable little help in this duty and joy of preparing ourselves to receive Jesus our God in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. He begins with a sound and concise summary of the Church’s teaching on the Mass, encouraging us to place the Eucharist at the very heart of our Christian lives, together with regular private prayer, Bible reading and stewardship of our time and money in the service of God.

Then follows a useful exhortation to prepare, Mass every Sunday and Holy Day and sometime(s) during the week, examination of conscience and regular confession to a priest, reading the collect and praying through the set readings; a paragraph on receiving holy Communion fasting, reflecting ancient (and modern) custom. Next comes a useful summary of postures used, the ‘body language’ of the Body of Christ: standing, kneeling, bowing, signing with the cross, genuflection.

After describing the forms of the Sunday Mass, there are then practical notes on receiving Communion, and a section on thanksgiving afterwards, bringing us to the ‘What next?’, on living out our faith once we are back in our daily lives, being transformed into the sort of people God wants us to be. Beakin asks the powerful question of us communicants, ‘How do your communions bear fruit?’ ‘Every celebration has the potential to be a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. Enjoy it.’ We will indeed.

 

Paul Greenwell ssc is Assistant Chaplain at Harrogate District Hospital.

 

 

SHARING SPACES

Prayer and the Counselling Relationship

Jessica Rose

DLT, l40pp, pbk

0 232 52387 8, £9.95

 

There is a view which holds that book reviews say more about the reviewer than the work reviewed. Nevertheless, here goes! I do not like this book. It is a shallow treatment of the subject; the author would appear to know a great deal about counselling (much of this will connect with current knowledge of those trained in the field) but not a lot about prayer. Further, I found the style of the book incredibly irritating.

Firstly, it seems to me to be a bandwagon or ‘flavour of the month’ book. That is, counselling is a growth industry, the panacea for all the ills of the world. It seems to claim an elitism for itself in the context of pastoral care. So let us have a book about prayer and counselling. But as early as 1979, Scally and Hopson (A Model of Helping and Counselling) were warning that it is only one of many helping strategies and ‘decidedly not the answer to all human difficulties’.

In this book, the comments on practice and theory of counselling are mainstream; I guess that most involved would agree with them. But they are not authenticated – bland assertions without justification. For example, ‘Particularly in the early stages of practice’ (p21) ‘In counselling it can sometimes seem’ (p60) ‘Again, stories abound of counsellors (p81). Where is the evidence/source for and of such assertions? Who says this and where? What is the justification for such claims? Has the author ever heard of Nelson-Jones (The Theory and Practice of Counselling Psychology 1982)?

Assertions about prayer suffer from the same treatment, except they are much less structured. Again, many assertions, none authenticated. In the entire work, only two classic writers are quoted, and they get scant attention (Basil the Great p59 and Maximos the Confessor p111). One is reduced to the impression that this is a superficial and subjective ramble through the subject of spirituality in relation to counselling. One would do better to refer to Clinebell 1966/84 (Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counselling) or the excellent short paper by the Ulanovs (both psychologists) in The Study of Spirituality 1986 (‘Prayer and personality: Prayer as Primary Speech’).

But, as if that were not enough, there is one more significant point. The really irritating aspect of this book is that all of the examples given to illustrate the assertions are anecdotal. Indeed they comprise much of the work. They begin ‘In a discussion, someone asked’, ‘A counsellor said’, ‘A client found that’. What was the context of the discussion? What was the nature of the counselling? Surely we need to know more about the client? Are these anecdotes the author’s own experience? Are they hearsay? Are they even manufactured to illustrate a point? Confidentiality (if that is the reason for this) does not preclude details of authentication; many professional journals and research use case-studies to verify findings and assertions without compromising confidentiality.

All the books reviewed are available from the bookshop at Faith House. If you find this review too outrageous you could always buy the book and make your own judgement. But if I worked at Faith House, I would throw the stock of this particular book away!

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

 

 

CELEBRATING CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE

Edited by Adrian Thatcher

Continuum, 500pp, pbk

0 567 08820 0, [£25]

 

I like Adrian Thatcher. He is a spirited, Anglican writer on marriage, full of new and vigorous ideas; what a liberal should be. True, I do not agree with him, but if our ‘opponents’ were thinkers like him, it would be a lively and energetic debate. There are some real ideas and genuine substance out there, which is not always evident in our own Church’s timid publications.

This book is a collection of some 27 papers from an international conference on marriage, covering such topics as the nature of love, the forensic character of marriage, children, betrothal, same-sex unions, and most interesting two longer sections on Roman Catholic and Church of England perspectives on the ending of marriages. The principal limitation is that by the nature of their delivery, there is very little dialogue between the writers; in particular, woolly (non-vigorous) liberalism is not called to account.

An excellent resource book and introduction to many of the issues that concern us in our own constituency. Some of the articles are of the anecdotal, this-is-how-we-do-it, isn’t-it-wonderful form, but most have solid content. They may not be what we want to hear, but they are instructive. There is much to learn.

A dispassionate account of the workings of the marriage tribunal with regard to the criteria for annulments in the Roman Archdiocese of Liverpool is extremely interesting, and not as encouraging as we would wish; it may not confirm the Protestant prejudice but it does not dispel it. Two lawyers discuss some of the implications of the divergence of church and state law for the Established Church; again the history is not quite as we would like it.

For a bit of knock-about, there is a savage analysis of the Mothers’ Union, how they came to define their support for ‘the sanctity of marriage’ as a total opposition to divorce requiring a rigid membership criterion, how the pressure for change built up as the twentieth century unfolded, until in the end, in 1973, they cracked. A salutary tale of nailing one’s colours to the wrong mast, of talking about divorce rather than marriage. NT

 

 

PREACHING WITH THE GRAIN OF SCRIPTURE

Stephen Wright

Grove Books, 24pp, pbk

1 85174 468 1, £2.50

 

Every so often the multi-faceted Grove series comes up with a gem, and this is very nearly one of them. Those who minister, not only clergy and not only Anglicans, find many ways to avoid preaching. No time – but time for everything else. No gift – but gifts can grow. No appreciation – so? Or we chat and joke and think it’s popular, shout and wave and think it’s powerful, or fill our slot with random platitudes based on last night’s TV.

This, says the Director of the College of Preachers, at least by implication and unsurprisingly, will not do. But he writes for those who want to do it better, not those who don’t want to do it at all. Going with the grain means respecting our text rather than using it as a peg, launch-pad, or background colouring. Beware the subtle pressures of lectionary, theme or structure; they may steer us and the congregation smoothly away from the word which God is speaking. The writer’s first half is brilliant.

Then of course, brave man, he puts his own sermons on the line. With Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and God (‘Used and abused’) he provides a searching model to ponder. He is very good on Jesus the Carpenter and the Body of Christ; thus law, gospel and epistle. But his fullest exposition tackles Isaiah 61.1–4, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’, which brings us to Jesus in Luke 4. As they and we are forced to ask, Who is this? ‘It can be more helpful to think of him as being the greatest in a succession of figures who have brought God’s good news to his people and the world.’ This is not what nearly got the preacher lynched at Nazareth or has been changing the world ever since. CMI

 

 

PREACHING TO A POSTMODERN WORLD

Graham Johnston

IVP, 189pp, pbk

0 85111 490 3, £9.99

 

When this Western Australian author is not sitting in the cinema, he is glued to his TV screen at home. That at least is the impression he gives over the first 60 pages and again in the last dozen. The wonder is that he has any time left for preaching, let alone preparing, such is the remorseless grind of film after film through which he drags us. But he knows enough to quote Haddon Robinson of Massachusetts (who writes an excellent foreword) to the effect that ‘Someone suffers every time you preach. Either you suffer in preparing it or the listener suffers in hearing it.’ And from the same source. ‘Much of what passes for prophetic preaching is just anger cloaked in a sermon.’

If you can take all this, or skip it; if you can cope with hundreds more quotations, mostly from the same sort of people; if you enjoy talk of female baby boomers having irreversible paradigm shifts; if you can even accept that people are like onions, ‘peel away the layers and you’ll find something concrete’; then OK, the core of the book is pretty good, and you’ll be a preacher, my son.

‘Our message is not like a drug injected into the listener to somehow overpower him or her. People may assume from the preacher’s demeanour that the preacher does not like them much and conversely, that God does not care for them much either.’ The author, who combines pastoral and college work for a living, wrote those bits himself. He rightly challenges all who underestimate the difference that post-modernism has made, or ignore the virtues of a multi-faceted approach. It remains for the slightly older, non-baby-boomers to assure him that some things have not changed that much, that we were hearing a lot of this before post-moderns walked the earth, and that a useful addition to an impressive bibliography would be Jacques Ellul’s The Humiliation of the Word (Paternoster). CMI

 

 

HOW FREE ARE YOU?

The determinist problem

Ted Honderich

OUP, 180pp, pbk

0 19 925197 5, [£8.99]

 

There are fashions in philosophy as well as theology. Thirty years ago, ‘the philosophy of action’ was at best an also-ran, an area of interest virtually reserved for the second-raters, while the leaders of the pack obsessed over logic and language. We are fortunate that at the moment the philosophy of free will is back on the main agenda.

This philosophical introduction works like an energetic work-out. It is good, vigorous stuff, stretching every muscle in the brain. The coverage of all the issues involved is excellent. The conclusion? An affirmation of the truth of determinism. Nowhere near as exciting as Robert Kane’s work (The Signficance of Free Will), but in contemporary terms more mundanely realistic, and for us as Christians probably more helpful.

It offers us a reliable philosophical context within which to develop the theological details of moral responsibility, salvation and all the other implications of what is generally known as ‘free will’. By fully accepting ‘determinism’ he has side-stepped the problems caused by the science and mechanics of the brain, and provides an encouraging context for the Christian hope. Not that he intends to, but as a professional philosopher of no mean standing his judgement is valuable.

This is a second edition, enlarged principally by a final, qualifying chapter, where he draws back a little from too easy an affirmation of scientific determinism. Interesting! His ‘sense of a life’ is close to what one might call ‘unconscious theism’. And then in one of the closing paragraphs he offers the outline of a complete new book.

Free will and determinism is an argument about causes. The problem remains: of all the myriad conditions and causes, what is it that distinguishes this one as the cause? That it is more explanatory. But what is it that makes it ‘more explanatory’ than ‘any other chosen succession of items or states’? ‘But it is more explanatory, isn’t it?’ is his conclusion. Exactly! Not unrelated to what we know as that most beautiful of theological doctrines, double causation.

If you feel strong enough, read this book; if not, be glad that it has been written; this is main stream philosophy and its conclusions are encouraging. NT

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