Ten Letters: To
be delivered in the event of my death
Darton, Longman & Todd £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90 (Use code
HAVING recently spent a bit
of a scary time as a patient in the London Heart Hospital, I was
unusually drawn to the title of this book. Chris Russell has
written ten letters to individuals, some close friends, and some he
has never met, saying the things that he wants to be heard in the
event of his death. These things, he says, "I haven't dared to say,
felt confident enough to say, or just not got round to".
Perhaps inevitably, the
style of a letter delivered once you are permanently out of the way
has a slightly "I know best" feel to it, and I began to feel how
frustrating it would be to receive one of these letters and not
have the sender still alive to argue with.
Each letter, at the end of
the day, is an attempt by a Christian apologist to appeal to
various current experiences and mentalities. Like many effective
teachers of faith at the moment, Russell steps outside the former
restricting categories of churchmanship, so that he may be heard
with fresh ears by other Christians, and avoid irritating the
sceptical with Christian clichés.
Russell has read widely, and
he appropriates it all attractively and with zest. His themes
simmer to the top: we live in a world that has replaced soul with
self; sin is misplaced praise; Jesus lived fully because he lived
freely; only God can reveal God; the Church is a good thing, but
the Kingdom is better; faith is accepting your acceptance; and
spirituality musn't make God into an app, compartment, or hobby,
because God is not about "that" but "all this". The scriptures, he
writes, "provide a map of the terrain, stories for the journey, and
a sense of thrill in our search for the destination".
The poet Mary Oliver
reflected that when death came to her she did not want to find
herself "full of argument". Chris Russell begs to differ. His is a
punchy theology, provocative, user-friendly, and something that he
wants to get out there even as the hearse pulls up. For this
reader, however, it is a little too prone to be conveniently
wrapped up, succinctly clarified, and offered with an attitude of
"It's common sense if only you could see it."
I wanted to know where the
hurt was, where the subterranean turbulence of life and faith were,
and whether he has quite made the break that he suggests he has
made from some literalisms. I wanted more human recognitions,
shadows, and edge. But that is more about me, I suppose, just out
The Revd Mark Oakley is
Canon Treasurer of St Paul's Cathedral.