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Not filling a pail, but lighting a fire

07 November 2006


Martyn Percy admires books that inspire rather than instruct

SCM Studyguide to the Sacraments
Ross Thompson
SCM Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

SCM Studyguide to Liturgy
Stephen Burns
SCM Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

SCM Studyguide to Christian Ethics
Neil Messer
SCM Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

IF IT is true that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire, then the new SCM Studyguides will almost certainly repay their investment. Aimed at “introductory level” (mostly first-year undergraduates), the guides offer an accessible but penetrating entry point for any student who wishes to become immediately acquainted with the key sources, issues, and questions that each volume focuses upon.

The first four — on sacraments, biblical hermeneutics, liturgy, and Christian ethics — tackle their subjects with energy, enthusiasm, and enterprise. The publishers have managed to develop a lively and refreshing format that will engage most readers, as well as particularly lending itself to use in group discussion.

Their use will almost certainly extend well beyond the academy, however. The volumes are laid out in such a way as to make them ideal for churches — adult confirmation classes, home groups, and other formats for learning and exploration. I suspect they will also prove to be invaluable for a variety of training schemes.

What is particularly pleasing is the detection of some sharp pedagogical assumptions that underpin the series. In Rachel Starr and David Holgate’s volume on hermeneutics, for example, we are introduced to scripture as a complex nexus of writings, the authority of scripture being posited in the totality of its testament.

Thus the authors are able to affirm that although Bible contains many things that God may want to say to humanity (and these are to be heeded and followed), it is also host to an array of opinions about God, including one or two moans, not

to mention some quite bitter complaints. Scripture contains allegory, parables, humour, histories, and debates. It offers stories and words whose meanings are not only many and varied, but also virtually inexhaustible.

So an accessible guide to hermeneutics is to be especially welcomed — and particularly one that invites the reader to join in a whole series of interpretative adventures. The Bible we encounter in Holgate and Starr’s Studyguide is, in other words, redolent and rich — and pregnant with possibilities.

The hermeneutics that the authors invite us to contemplate and practise issue an invitation: to see how the nature of scripture reflects the nature of God. The very many ways in which we encounter God are themselves open to a variety of interpretations. The Bible is not one message spoken by one voice. It is, rather, symphonic in character — a restless and inspiring chorus of testaments, whose authority rests upon its plurality.

Similar praise can be rendered for the other volumes that address sacraments, ethics, and liturgy. Each book contains sound suggestions for further reading, questions suitable for group discussion, ideas for deliberation and contemplation, and indications of how belief and practice can be reflected upon further. They encourage readers to think creatively about their experiences, and how these might relate to, and be transformed by, a fresh examination of the Christian tradition.

For those who understand that knowledge is not inert material to be banked, but is something waiting to be discovered, these Studyguides will offer a refreshing alternative to the rather larger reservoir of resources that merely wish to instruct and prescribe.

For those who have perceived that education is as much about asking questions as about finding answers, a great deal of creative stimulation will be discovered in not only reading these Studyguides, but using them as resources — to encourage deeper and more imaginative discipleship.

Canon Professor Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon

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To order these books email CTbookshop

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