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Lent writers take to public confession

18 January 2013

William Whyte finds a  new tendency towards 'religious misery lit'


Passion condensed: a miniature of Pilate washing his hands, Jesus carrying his cross, Peter's denial, and the cock crowing, is one of the pictures in the new (third) edition of his textbook A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrmann (OUP, £35 (£31.50); 978-0-19-986230-6), for college students. Another picture is below

Passion condensed: a miniature of Pilate washing his hands, Jesus carrying his cross, Peter's denial, and the cock crowing, is one of the pictures i...

Journeying with Jesus: Personal reflections on the Stations of the Cross and Resurrection (The Mowbray Lent Book 2013)
Lucy Russell, editor
Bloomsbury £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT264 )

Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting on the paintings of Stanley Spencer
Stephen Cottrell
SPCK £9.99 (978-0-281-06208-9)
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT264 )

Abiding (The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book 2013)
Ben Quash
Bloomsbury £10 (978-1-4411-5111-7)
Church Times Bookshop special price £8 (Use code CT264 )

The Resurrection of Peace: A gospel journey to Easter and beyond
Mary C. Grey
SPCK £7.99 (978-0-281-06637-7)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT264 )

IN LENT, as the familiar cliché of a thousand sermons has it, we all have to make our own wilderness. For some, this will mean giving up good things; for others, it will mean taking up appropriately pious activities. For authors, it is an invitation to reflect on their own particular interests, as publishers compete for a share of an unusually dynamic market for religious books.

This intensely individualistic approach to Lent is, of course, somewhat risky. When everything comes together, the author's enthusiasms carry the reader all the way to Easter. When it misfires - as it often does - 40 days can seem an awfully long time for one person to bang on about a pet subject.

Perhaps with this in mind, Lucy Russell's Journeying with Jesus consists of a polyphony of voices from a huge variety of different perspectives. Although predominantly written by and for Roman Catholics, the 28 extremely brief reflections that it contains include pieces by charity workers, scientists, and even a rabbi, as well as more familiar figures such as the Archbishop of Westminster, Sister Wendy Beckett, and Ann Widdecombe.

Almost every one of the authors is strikingly personal in his or her focus. One writes about her experiences after killing a pedestrian whilst driving her car. Others write about the deaths of their children. A campaigner for those who suffer from dementia describes his mother's battle with the condition. A former Anglican priest who has lately seceded to Roman Catholicism celebrates her own work of prayer and reconciliation.

Like the genre of Lent books as a whole, when this approach works, it works well. When it fails, it fails quite spectacularly. There are some poignant and pointed pieces here; but also some stinkers. Above all, such a disparate set of autobiographical meditations lacks cohesion. In the end, it is not really a sum of its parts.

The same could hardly be said of the latest Lent book - the fourth in as many years - by the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell. Christ in the Wilderness is no less personal, containing, as it does, vignettes on the sense of loss at his sons' leaving home, the frank admission of his failure at school, and the honesty of a bishop who admits "I don't find praying easy."

Somehow, however, this book manages to be both highly subjective and very finely focused. Its subject is a series of paintings created by the great English artist Stanley Spencer in the mid-20th century. Each offered a highly idiosyncratic interpretation of Christ's time in the wilderness. Only eight of a projected 40 were ever completed; and, of these eight, only five are discussed here.

The result is a very short book - but a very rich one, too. Skilfully juxtaposing Spencer's work with his own experiences and wider reading, Cottrell offers a series of meditations that will provoke real thought. It is a shame that the images are so small; and also that the text is so brief. But it is no small achievement for a Lent book that a reader should wish that it were longer.

For a lengthier, more sustained, and still more intellectually ambitious offering, there is the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book for 2013, Ben Quash's Abiding. Previously Dean of Peterhouse, and now the first-ever Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King's College, London, Quash is a much-published author and a deservedly popular public speaker. Perhaps as a result, not all of this book is all that new. Nor is it clear that it is actually about Lent.

Chapter Five, for example, appears to be little more than a simple reproduction of his recent Oxford University Sermon, which was, it seems, first given at some point in Peterhouse Chapel. Now intended for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, it was last delivered on the Fifth Sunday of Easter. In many respects, indeed, it could have been written for any time or place.

Strange to say, this turns out to be a strength rather than a weakness. Precisely because this is a Lent Book that is not just about Lent, Quash is able to address a whole range of issues. He is a winning writer, and a well-read one. His text is consequently a pleasure to read, as well as something really worth pondering.

Abiding is about just that: about the commitment to staying put, to remaining present, which Quash believes is now threatened by an impermanent, ersatz society. But it is also about being open to change, to relinquishing control, and learning to abide in God. Each chapter is full to the brim with challenges for the reader, and draws on a wide range of art and literature to inspire reflection.

True enough, some of this analysis seems highly questionable. His depiction of the parish church as a place open to everyone, creating heterogeneous communities of the sorts now lost in our socially segregated society, seems charmingly naïve in an England where property prices create new sorts of ghettoisation, and most churches are in fact highly homogeneous. But this is all good, thought-provoking stuff, and would certainly make for a fulfilling Lenten read.

In The Resurrection of Peace, the theologian Mary C. Grey offers a still more provocative piece of writing. Following a path from Galilee to Jerusalem, she challenges the reader to use Lent as a time of preparation for political and social activism. In particular, she is a dedicated campaigner for the rights of the Palestinian people, and brings a passionate intensity to her description of their current plight. As a consequence, this is a book that is as much about the politics of the present as it is about the theology of the past; indeed, she would argue that the two are inseparable.

This is a potent mix, sometimes too heady a brew. Take this sentence, for example: "Have we allowed ourselves to be so consumed by post-Holocaust guilt that we are unable to speak the truth about the genocidal acts that the Zionist government now inflicts on another Semitic people?" Almost every word in it is offensive - and wrong. The treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli state - not the Zionist government - is many things. It is deplorable; it is illegal; it is tragic. But it is not genocidal. By overstating her case, she undermines her argument.

It is hard not to feel that, in this instance, the author's personal commitment has actually got in the way of her work as a spiritual director for her readers. And that is a danger that all these books flirt with. Even Quash tells us about the sadness of growing up with alcoholic parents, and reflects on the breakdown of his own marriage. Whether this helps illuminate his point or acts as a diversion, a barrier to comprehension, will depend on the person reading it.

What is interesting about all these books is their common focus on subjective experience. And that raises a question: is this the result of a declining faith in objective truth, or, more probably, a product of the current fashion for confessional writing? Whatever the cause, the effect is clear. Publishers are making Lent the new season for a sort of religious misery lit. Whether this trend will continue - and whether such books will last - remains to be seen.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Tutorial Fellow in Modern History at St John's College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

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