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The things of the spirit

24 March 2009

Nick Mercer assesses anintroductory textbook


SCM Studyguide: Christian Spirituality
Ross Thompson with Gareth Williams
SCM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

IN MANY WAYS, this is my sort of book: classifying, diagrams, spreadsheets, all you need to know about a mystic in two paragraphs. I can already see my PowerPoint presentation emerging. I suspect that the book will annoy others for whom its schematising and over-simplification are anathema. They might argue that it uses the very methods that are antithetical to spiritual understanding to explore that same spiritual understanding. But then you have to remember Thompson’s audience.

It is a very readable introduction for any thoughtful person, although it is obviously aimed at the undergraduate market and written to give a broad overview in just 250 pages. Also it is written with students who have no faith backgrounds in mind, sometimes stating the obvious for those of us who have grown up in confessional Christianity. The large type and classroom format help draw you through the schema of the book. The style is like a very long Grove booklet, but with a much more liberal groundswell.

Part One is a selective history of spirituality, running from the Old to the New Testament, through Patristics, the “Dark Ages” and medieval period, to the Reformation and the post-Enlightenment. It is inevitably patchy, and your particular gurus may not be selected. Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64), for instance, gets a bigger mention than Pentecostalism. It attempts an almost impossible task, which, Thompson admits, emerges as something of a “fireworks display”, designed to introduce some of the main concepts and to give a sense of the shifting understanding of spirituality over the past 3000 years.

Part Two is more substantial, and looks thematically at the intersection of spirituality with Experience, Science, Theology, the Body, the Psyche, Ethics, and Difference (Post­mod­ern­ity and Pluralism). This is more intellec­tually demanding, and the language and quotations will sometimes be a challenge to readers. It is very much a teaching text, which, in the hands of a good teacher, will open up the subject.

The bibliography is extensive, and some more restricted suggestions for further reading and a feel for some of the key texts would have been useful. For the target audience, a shorter, annotated bibliography would have avoided intimidation.

Thompson acknowledges that the book approaches the subject in a “middle way” (which is well suited to Anglicans): “self-implicating rather than confessional or detached”. In this sense, it is a contemporary approach to spirituality, although there are times when the author’s “self-implication” inevitably skews the content. A look at his website (holydust.org) explains something of the direction permeating much of the work. This is a book I will keep and browse, however, and recommend to those wanting to learn more of Christian Spirituality.

Prebendary Mercer is Vicar-General for the London College of Bishops.

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