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Making the strange familiar

by
01 May 2012

David Martin reads a broad, clear overview of Christianity for the uninformed

Christians in the 21st Century
George D. Chryssides and Margaret Z. Wilkins

Equinox £19.99
(978-1-84553-213-0)
Church Times Bookshop £18

THIS book has initially to be judged on its own terms, and with respect to its intended readership. It repre­sents material the authors assembled to provide some idea of what Chris­tianity is, and has been, about, in all its many varieties, for a very mixed group at the University of Wolver­hampton. This included students of other faiths, as well as students who were just indifferent. The book aims to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange”.

It succeeds. It is clear, compre-hensive and informed. Readers learn about Christian origins and history, Christian beliefs, Christian worship, Jesus and Paul, and the teachings and history of the different Churches. They are told about what the authors call “challenges to Christianity”; its ethical outlook; mission and ecu­menism; the expansion of Chris­tianity in the developing world; and the less well defined or marginal expressions of Christianity in folk practices, and in the various sects and New Religious movements.

The reference to “Christians” rather than to “Christianity” in the title is intentional. The authors prefer to work on a wide screen from the bottom up, in terms of broad identifications and popular percep­tions and practices, rather than to concentrate overmuch on the definitions handed down from above by institutions.

In short, this is a kind of “Insight Guide”, disseminating information; it is not a probe into the historical dynamics of Christianity, nor a sociological exploration of the way in which it interacts with different cultural formations.

If the authors had felt it worth while to grapple properly with the massive sociological and historical literature on secularisation, they could never have said baldly that the Netherlands was once a bastion of the Reformation, and now comprises a mixture of Protestant and in­dependent bodies along with a widespread secularity. The com­plexities of the Netherlands are not merely bypassed in this kind of characterisation, but are misrep­resented, because the Netherlands is an instructive case of discrete Catholic, Protestant, and “other” sectors of life in partial dissolution. This is where simplification can mislead.

Indeed, the book contains hardly any sociology or anthropology, and leaves one with packaged “know­ledge” rather than nuanced under­standing.

That leads to some surprising emphases and lacunae. The chapter on “Challenges to Christianity” is all about evolution and biblical criticism, including the bizarrre Jesus Seminar; and plays down the complex history of political and social scientific challenges to Chris­tianity.

The chapter on ethics and lifestyle is mainly about abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and contraception, and concludes with a single sentence: “The Christian Churches also have much to say on race relationships, women’s rights, work, poverty and wealth, justice, politics, and eco­logical issues.”

When it comes to music, the continuing part played by serious sacred music, and its contemporary dissemination, are bypassed in favour of popular music. But when The Cambridge Encyclopedia has heard of Dolly Parton and not of Arvo Pärt, perhaps the University of Wolverhampton can be forgiven for colluding with ignorance.

The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, and Hon. Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster.

MANY films are based on the idea of human beings searching for meaning in their lives. Roy Anker, in Of Pilgrims and Fire, provides commentary, synopses, and back­ground to 20 such films, which he hopes will contribute to increasing the pleasure of those who watch the films. He gives tips for watching, and for things to look out for; and each chapter has questions for re­flec­tion or discussion. He con­siders films that are not explicitly Christian, but that none the less have some­thing important to say about God (Eerdmans/Alban, £11.99 (£10.80); 978-0-8028-6572-4).

MANY films are based on the idea of human beings searching for meaning in their lives. Roy Anker, in Of Pilgrims and Fire, provides commentary, synopses, and back­ground to 20 such films, which he hopes will contribute to increasing the pleasure of those who watch the films. He gives tips for watching, and for things to look out for; and each chapter has questions for re­flec­tion or discussion. He con­siders films that are not explicitly Christian, but that none the less have some­thing important to say about God (Eerdmans/Alban, £11.99 (£10.80); 978-0-8028-6572-4).

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