The Year of Living Biblically: One man's humble quest to
follow the Bible as literally as possible
by A. J. Jacobs (Arrow, £8.99 (£8.10);
My favourite book has got to be this book by A. J. Jacobs, a
non-practising Jew, who decided to follow the Bible for a whole
year. His journey takes him through both the Old Testament and the
New Testament. He is presented as someone who is genuinely seeking
to engage with the journey he was on. He wrestled with some of the
more obscure laws, even walking around with his own seat to prevent
his coming into contact with menstruating women; and stoned a
"deserving" member of the public (using a pebble, of course).
Jacobs, by patiently addressing a variety of issues, challenges
biblical fundamentalism and all those who behave as though they
have a hotline to God. Although it is handled in a reverent manner,
I was in stitches (even while sitting on public transport)
throughout. This is a great read for anyone who may be exploring
faith. I simply loved it. It is a must-read.
The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin is the Vicar of Holy Trinity
with St Philip, Dalston, and All Saints', Haggerston, in the London
diocese, and is the Speaker's Chaplain.
The Wine of Angels (Merrily Watkins Mystery) by
Phil Rickman (Atlantic, £8.99 (£8.10);
I am astonished that I have taken until now to discover Phil
Rickman's Merrily Watkins novels, since the first was published as
long ago as 1999; it took an agnostic ex-Baptist Welshman to alert
me. They combine mystery, detection, magic, and a remarkably
accurate knowledge of the Church of England.
Watkins is Priest-in-Charge of a Herefordshire parish, and,
after a rocky start, justifies her country ministry enough to
become diocesan Deliverance Consultant - synodspeak for "Exorcist".
It is an ingenious way of spreading the murders around a
diocesan-sized area, so that fictional Ledwardine does not
single-handedly reach Midsomer Murders levels of carnage.
Read the first one, The Wine of Angels, first, for
The Revd Dr Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History
of the Church in the University of Oxford.
Betjeman by A. N. Wilson (Arrow, £8.99
A. N. Wilson's Betjeman records a life of public esteem
and personal distress. Betjeman, the most popular poet of his time,
honoured as Poet Laureate, was racked by self-doubt and
relationship problems, liable to depression, and yet capable of
exuberant pleasure. His Christian faith, fulfilled through
Anglo-Catholicism in its great years, was often disturbed, but
never left him. His poetry lives, a record of simple life made
memorable, of religious fervour seen with humour.
A good biography connects the reader with another person,
however different. I finished the book grateful for being reminded
that every life is a struggle with contradictions.
The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English
in the University of London.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Penguin, £7.99
I love this novel's insights, poignancy, and humour, and the way
in which it exposes attitudes and relationships to offer hope. Set
in Missisippi in 1962, Skeeter returns home after graduation.
Missing her beloved maid, Constantine, who has myst- eriously gone,
she turns to Aibileen, a wise, dignified, black maid who is raising
her 17th - and much-loved - white child.
Drawn into their relationship is Minnie, a brilliant black cook
who loses many jobs through "insubordination", and the three women
come together for a radical project. Opposing the ideologies and
structures that define them, their brave and surprising strategies
challenge their culture, and bring change.
Dr Elaine Storkey is a Christian academic and
Winter King: The dawn of Tudor England by
Thomas Penn (Penguin, £8.99 (£8.10);
Thomas Penn's Winter King explores the life of Henry
VII, the shadowy and ruthless founder of the Tudor monarchy. This
is first-rate historical scholarship, as readable as the best
historical novel. Fragile dynastic claims play out against a
national backdrop of ruin and death, through battle, plague, or
institutionalised crime. Woven into this is the power of the
Church, and the hold of Christianity on the imagination.
Read this book to understand the Reformation as a constitutional
accident waiting to happen, coinciding with intellectual and
economic upheavals that posed many of the challenges that we face
Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.
The Untouchable by John Banville (Picador,
£8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-330-33932-2).
I have been going back this year to books that I read some time
ago, but wanted to experience again, and the best of them was
definitely John Banville's 1997 novel The Untouchable. It
is a novel about Anthony Blunt and the Cambridge spies, but it is a
mistake to read it as history rather than art.
In his retelling of the story, Banville conflates Blunt and
Louis MacNeice into a single character. MacNeice, one of my
favourite poets, was the son of a Church of Ireland bishop, and I
particularly enjoy the way in which the author weaves elements of
the religious back story into the psychology of the
No one is better than Banville at portraying loss, and the
failure of ideals. I was moved to read it again, and I might even
give it another go some time.
The Rt Revd Richard Holloway is a former Bishop of Edinburgh
and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
The World my Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (used
copies available from some online bookshops; 978-0-86068340-7).
After a friend had drawn me back to Rose Macaulay as the last
publicly recognised Anglican intellectual, I found her penultimate
novel, The World my Wilderness (1950). It tells a dark
tale of neglectful and immoral parenting in Collioure and London,
and young people drawn into a wilderness world of deserters and
spivs in City of London bomb-sites. There is a kind of redemption,
but what struck me above all was the challenge to my inherited view
of the post-war world as one of restraint and decency. Perhaps, I
wondered, every generation sees its time as the very end.
The Very Revd John Hall is the Dean of Westminster.
Samuel Johnson: A Life by David Nokes (Faber
and Faber, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-571-22636-8).
Samuel Johnson was born in 1709, in Lichfield. He struggled
throughout his life with ill health, eye problems, and poverty.
Despite this, Johnson possessed a rich sense of humour, and I
frequently found myself laughing as I read this excellent book.
The other thing that comes across is Johnson's essential
kindliness. He detested the slave trade, and, when a nobleman gave
him a young black servant, Francis Barber, Johnson sent him to
school, treated him as a son, and bequeathed his estate to him.
Johnson was a devout High Church Anglican, and is thought to have
been sympathetic to the Jacobite cause, but this did not prevent
his taking a pension from George III.
Nokes provides a full treatment of Johnson's literary output,
including his famous dictionary, and suggests that Johnson was not
as fond of James Boswell, or of the Highlands, as Boswell later
suggested. There are many books about Dr Johnson: this one is
The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's,
Great Bardfield, and St Katharine's, Little Bardfield.
The Swerve: How the Renaissance began by
Stephen Greenblatt (Vintage, £9.99 (£9);
The Swerve is a book-lover's book. It tells the story
of how a Renaissance bibliophile tracked down Lucretius's
long-missing poem "On the Nature of Things", and manages to combine
scholarship and wit. The book's line on the charges read against
Antipope John XXIII at the Council of Constance is worth its cover
price alone: "Fearing their effect on public opinion, the council
decided to suppress the sixteen most scandalous charges - never
subsequently revealed - and accused the pontiff of simony, sodomy,
rape, incest, torture, and murder."
Nick Spencer is the director of studies at the think tank
Theos. He is the author of Freedom and Order (Hodder &
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