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This won’t draw back the curtain

21 April 2008

David Winter admires a study of Joseph; but it’s not for the masses

Living the Dream: Joseph for today, a dramatic exposition of Genesis 37-50
Pete Wilcox

Paternoster Press £7.99 (978-1-84227-555-9)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

EVERY YEAR, about 500 schools in the UK perform the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In fact, a whole generation of under-30s have experienced this musical version of the Joseph story from Genesis — half a million people, probably. So one might assume that this book, a “dramatic exposition” of the Bible story, would have a ready readership and provide a wonderful opportunity to engage vast numbers of people who are outside our churches with the powerful message it conveys.

Pete Wilcox writes well and engagingly. He recounts the story with enthusiasm and colour. He brings a scholarly insight to bear without ever parading his scholarship. So far, so good.

But in fact, for reasons that elude this reviewer, instead of applying the message of this story to the everyday lives and concerns of those people who know something of it but have never explored its deeper meaning, he chooses to apply it instead to two internal, “churchy” questions.

What, he asks, does this story tell us about the attendance at, and financial crises in, the Church; and what does it tell us about the problems of disunity raised by such issues as women bishops and gay clergy?

Astonishingly, he provides quite persuasive answers. Perhaps, you feel, Joseph the Dreamer, with his amazing coat, does have something to say to the Lambeth Fathers, and to General Synod. But I can’t help thinking of those vast numbers of people who have sung about Joseph, about his brothers, Potiphar, his wife, and the purposes of God for his people, and who might pick up a book like this — with a particularly striking cover — and find, through someone with Wilcox’s special gifts, a truly life-changing meaning in it.

Beside that possibility, even solving the Church’s attendance and financial problems, or persuading Sydney and New Hampshire to shake hands, seem like relatively minor goals.

This is unquestionably a good book, which would provide great material for a sermon series or a home Bible-study group. But it could still be seen as a missed opportunity. On its cover, beneath Living the Dream (a perfect, utterly contemporary title) and then “Joseph for Today” are the words “a dramatic exposition of Genesis 37-50”. That may entice readers in a cathedral or church bookshop, but will probably bypass the browsers in Borders or Waterstone’s.

And that’s a pity, because reading it offers convincing evidence that this story of long-ago fallible, fallen, and ultimately forgiven human beings has the power to engage people today as effectively as it has ever done.

Canon Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford.

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