CHRISTIANITY: The complete guide
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
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
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