Ten Letters: To be delivered in the event of my death
Darton, Longman & Todd £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90 (Use code CT618 )
HAVING recently spent a bit of a scary time as a patient in the London Heart Hospital, I was unusually drawn to the title of this book. Chris Russell has written ten letters to individuals, some close friends, and some he has never met, saying the things that he wants to be heard in the event of his death. These things, he says, "I haven't dared to say, felt confident enough to say, or just not got round to".
Perhaps inevitably, the style of a letter delivered once you are permanently out of the way has a slightly "I know best" feel to it, and I began to feel how frustrating it would be to receive one of these letters and not have the sender still alive to argue with.
Each letter, at the end of the day, is an attempt by a Christian apologist to appeal to various current experiences and mentalities. Like many effective teachers of faith at the moment, Russell steps outside the former restricting categories of churchmanship, so that he may be heard with fresh ears by other Christians, and avoid irritating the sceptical with Christian clichés.
Russell has read widely, and he appropriates it all attractively and with zest. His themes simmer to the top: we live in a world that has replaced soul with self; sin is misplaced praise; Jesus lived fully because he lived freely; only God can reveal God; the Church is a good thing, but the Kingdom is better; faith is accepting your acceptance; and spirituality musn't make God into an app, compartment, or hobby, because God is not about "that" but "all this". The scriptures, he writes, "provide a map of the terrain, stories for the journey, and a sense of thrill in our search for the destination".
The poet Mary Oliver reflected that when death came to her she did not want to find herself "full of argument". Chris Russell begs to differ. His is a punchy theology, provocative, user-friendly, and something that he wants to get out there even as the hearse pulls up. For this reader, however, it is a little too prone to be conveniently wrapped up, succinctly clarified, and offered with an attitude of "It's common sense if only you could see it."
I wanted to know where the hurt was, where the subterranean turbulence of life and faith were, and whether he has quite made the break that he suggests he has made from some literalisms. I wanted more human recognitions, shadows, and edge. But that is more about me, I suppose, just out of hospital.
The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Treasurer of St Paul's Cathedral.