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Book reviews >

CHRISTIANITY: The complete guide

Continuum £35 (0-8264-5937-4); Church Times Bookshop £31.50

JOHN BOWDEN and his small band of associates deserve the highest praise for this remarkable publishing venture. It is inventive and courageous in tackling its vast subject, balanced in the opinions expressed, and readable in article after article. It is the remarkable fruit of a long career in theological publishing, writing, and translation.

The articles vary in length, but are all both substantial and yet manageable. True, if you want a factual answer to a simple question (what is a mitre? where did Athanasius live and work?) you would still get a quick fix from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, whereas here you will be led to range round and dig deep.

But there are many ingenious aids, with symbols and signs, to get you from one level or aspect of enquiry to another. This is a work to savour (the value for money is astonishingly good) rather than return quickly to the shelf.

Every aspect of Christianity that one can think of finds a place somewhere: many aspects of the Bible; the various Churches, the periods and aspects of Christian history; the themes of Christian belief and thought; styles of prayer and devotion; the Church’s relation to, and use of, the arts and sciences.

This work, in hard times, begins to restore the good name of the word “liberal”, once so virtuous but now almost verging on wickedness. You would have to be pretty stuck in the mud not to find these articles good, both for the fair, enquiring mind and for faith. Fewer than half the contributors are from the UK, rather more are from the US, some from Europe.

Many contributors are outstand-ing, especially perhaps those who write a number of articles. For ex-ample, we have David Scott, of Winchester, on “Mysticism, Poetry, Prayer and Spirituality, and Romanticism”; Martin Forward on new religious movements, global ethic, and — with particularly attractive originality — other faiths. Here the reader is invited to enter the shoes of a typical English church person who lives or works among people of other faiths, and has to make sense of their different beliefs and customs — in the midst of their common humanity.

John Bowden himself has contributed a good tally of articles, including several on the Bible, but also (with his son) on music and Christianity, on books, publishing, secularisation, and university. It is particularly good to have two memorable pieces by Maurice Wiles, perhaps the last published works of his life (he died last month), on church Fathers, and doctrinal criticism. They are full of his usual kindly balance and judicious erudition.

Such works as this often lack sparkle. They are rarely turned to for enjoyment, or in expectation of stirring the soul. But here the article on the eucharist, by Louis Weil, includes not only the information one would seek, but also, in a box, the marvellous poetic passage on the subject from Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy (1945), much beloved of an older generation.

The ample use of informative boxes is a gratifying and useful feature of this book. They give all kinds of information, from lists of the popes to statistics of the number of Christians in various parts of the world, and the dates of mission in this continent or that. Such boxes bring our feet to the ground in the midst of thoughtful discussions of whatever subject may engage us. “Leading articles” aim to take us on to subsidiary pieces on aspects of the broader topic. It is a case of helpfulness without end.

The Revd Leslie Houlden is a former Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

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