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Needing the cross, but not ‘wretched’

28 February 2012

Today’s soteriology, says Douglas Dales

On Being Saved: The roots of redemption
Rod Garner

DLT £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

THIS is a good and interesting book, the product of much wise thought and pastoral experience. It is a serious and informed attempt to build a bridge between traditional categories of Christian theology and modern modes of experience.

It addresses the ways in which redemption through Christ impinges on people; and to interpret these, the author draws on a wide range of reading, including poetry. It is a sensitive, honest, and, above all, a hopeful book, which will bring real encouragement to many readers. For example, describing the poetry of Raymond Carver, he warms to the fact that “he points us to the potency of ordinary moments . . . that can illuminate the most remarkable things.”

If the author has one obsession, however, it is in repudiating the idea of “wretchedness” in spiritual experience and “the incalculable damage and hurt that the word ‘wretched’ has inflicted upon our religious sensibilities”. Lapses into caricatures of traditional Christian teaching are regrettable and rather shallow. The author is on surer ground, more rooted in experience, when he speaks at length and eloquently of redemption as a “complex and costly tapestry”.

“This is the language of faith and devotion. It is the hard work of prayer and silence. It is the fruit of struggle and contemplation as year by year we return to the foot of the Cross.”

There is much that is interesting and enriching in this book, and it exudes a wide sympathy as it seeks to speak to a broken society. But it is also a mirror of the times and of the modern Church, very anthro­pocentric in its conception of God, and semi-Pelagian in its under­standing of divine grace, seeking all the time to affirm the human contribution, as it were, to salvation.

As ever, there is the danger of interpreting transcendence simply in terms of experience, of a sense of God as a means of coping with life and interpreting ourselves. None the less, there is much that will be of real pastoral and spiritual help to a thoughtful and prayerful reader.

The Revd Douglas Dales is Chaplain of Marlborough College, Wiltshire.

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