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Wisdom and grace

30 January 2012

Lionel Wickham reads a preacher with point


Be Not Afraid: Facing fear with faith
Samuel Wells

Brazos Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

THE Dean of Chapel and research professor of Christian ethics at Duke University, and soon to be Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, has written a good book, in some ways a very good book. I can say that all the more genuinely and credibly because I dislike his style of preaching. His doctorate is from Durham (hurrah!); his style is American, by way of Billy Graham (unhurrah!). Does the style matter? No, because what he uses it to say is always to the point, often stirs the conscience, and is sometimes profoundly wise.

“Preaching”? Yes, because whether the 31 shortish pieces here, usually five or six pages long, have actually been sermons at one time or not, they read like it. They are organised under six headings, each starting with “Be not afraid of”: Death; Weakness; Power; Difference; Faith; Life.

The usual form is simple and familiar: an observation or problem from contemporary life, an interpretative re-telling of a biblical incident or story, and some reflec­tions arising from it. Wells does not offer ethical theory or moral theology. There is only one place in the book where a public ethical conclusion is seemingly required and presupposed: in the first essay, “How to Die”, where “euthanasia” is called “a denial that God is for us and that God is with us”.

He nearly gives one in a piece under the fourth heading, entitled “Casualties of Destiny”, which presents an exceptionally thoughtful interpretation of the Sarah-Hagar episode. In it he touches very sensitively on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but (rightly, I think) draws back from a political judgement. His themes belong for the most part in the area marked “spirituality”, a term, if not the area itself, that my former academic colleagues treated sniffily. It is the area of feelings and attitudes preceding and following upon decisions and political judgements, the area marked in the older books as “personal religion”: how you feel about Jesus Christ, and how you react to him as a child of God in his Church (Wells is clear that Christ is to be known from and within the Church), where God is a felt personal presence.

Baroness Warnock said that Christian moralists might have something to offer public ethics, but only on the same terms as non-Christian moralists. I find that foolishly superficial. This book demonstrates the point. Jesus, God, and faith are not “shoehorned in”, as I heard someone complain about the BBC “Thought for the Day” slot. They are integral here. What Wells gives his readers is wisdom drawn from the Bible and theological tradition (he is a man of learning, capable of an apt citation of John Milbank). It may well be embraced, after a fashion, by non-Christians as also their own, but they could never have arrived at it without the grace of that tradition.

My advice to readers is to take these essays one at a time and let them sink in. They are not the sort of pieces that demand, or even allow of, argumentative analysis — or, at least, not before their point has gone home. I got something from each. I specially profited from “Loving Yourself” and “The Discipline of Joy”. But there is much to value, not least in the biblical expositions, particularly of Old Testament stories.

The Revd Dr Lionel Wickham is a former lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge.

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