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Christ, his cross, and the confessional

31 January 2014

Philip Welsh assesses a range of books for the Lenten journey

John Clowden

His pierced feet: detail of a 14th-century crucifix in S. Domenico, Siena, which is among 80 colour photos in Religious Poverty, Visual Riches by Joanna Cannon. More book details are given with another photo opposite  

His pierced feet: detail of a 14th-century crucifix in S. Domenico, Siena, which is among 80 colour photos in Religious Poverty, Visual Riches by Jo...

Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book 2014
Graham Tomlin
Bloomsbury £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

Sackcloth and Ashes: Penance and penitence in a self-centred world
Ann Widdecombe
Bloomsbury £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

Waymarkers: A route map through Lent to Easter
John Saxbee
KM Publishing £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

Just Love: Personal and social transformation in Christ
Angus Ritchie and Paul Hackwood
Church Urban Fund £8.99

Jesus - His Home, His Journey, His Challenge: A companion for Lent and Easter
David J. Bryan
SPCK £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

Lent with the Catholic Epistles
Graham Sawyer
The Village Digital Press £8.95

Reflections for Lent
Ian Adams, John Pritchard,and Angela Tilby
Church House Publishing £3.99
Church Times Bookshop £3.60

Who Do You Say That I Am: A Lenten journey into the world of Jesus
Annie Heppenstall
KM Publishing £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

Welcoming the Way of the Cross: A journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day
Barbara Mosse
BRF £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

Barefoot Prayers: A meditation a day for Lent and Easter
Stephen Cherry
SPCK £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

The Wilderness Within You: A Lenten journey with Jesus, deep in conversation
Penelope Wilcock
Monarch Books £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

Church Shop Bookshop link (Use code CT877 )

THE popular journalist and failed gold-miner Ambrose Bierce defined "abstainer" as "a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure". For a less dyspeptic approach to Lent, here are two Lent books, four publications suitable for weekly use by groups or individuals, and five volumes for daily use.

Looking Through the Cross is the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book. It arises from Good Friday addresses by Graham Tomlin at Holy Trinity, Brompton, and examines the cross of Christ in relation to wisdom, evil, power, identity, suffering, ambition, failure, and reconciliation, drawing both on the Gospels and the epistles.

Tomlin has a gift for writing attractively for the non-specialist, as he attends to scripture, theology, and experience. He is not theologically radical, but throughout he affirms that "the cross turns common sense on its head." He is cautious of attaching theories of atonement to the mystery of the cross, which he largely presents as the self-sacrifice of Christ understood as our representative.

He is particularly good at conveying such complex issues as the Patripassian controversy: "Why did they want to insist that Jesus suffered in his human nature? Or that the Father cannot suffer? Because it was important for them to say that while God knows what it is to suffer in Christ, suffering cannot overcome God." He elegantly characterises heresy: "an idea that is almost right, but if taken further would end up unravelling Christian faith altogether".

His summary of the modern malaise can seem stereotyped: "striving for trivial things like money, cars, political or economic power". I wondered whether his emphasis on the newness of our identity as Christians allowed for our continuity as people. His chapter on the cross and failure is about the failure of Peter, not the less manageable failure of Jesus. Nevertheless, these intelligent meditations on the cross have much to offer. His final chapter on the cross and life does not speculate on the truth-claims of the resurrection, but presents death and resurrection as the archetypal pattern for Christians both now and always.

I had been looking forward to Ann Widdecombe's book Sackcloth and Ashes as a brave Christian contribution by a prominent public figure, and as a robust critique of soft-focus spirituality - perhaps a populist equivalent of Edward Norman a generation ago.

Widdecombe is clear that her "slight volume" is "not a theological guide so much as a curious layman's [sic] exploration" of the meaning of penance; readers should still brace themselves for paragraphs beginning or ending "Eh?", "Humph", or "Rot".

But the inadequacy of this book is more serious than its faux-demotic style. First, her insistent account of all that is wrong is clichéd, tendentious, and set against an idealisation of her post-war generation: "Thus is Britain now: full of yearning for instant fame and wealth, chasing instant gratification. . . . I doubt very much if the average 15-year-old haunting the rails of Primark has a clue how to darn. . . Nor do soap jars adorn many bathroom windowsills. . . Girls have children by different men as if the babies were designer goods or meal tickets within the benefit system. . ." Never has the publisher's clause that "The moral rights of the author have been asserted" seemed more true.

Second, her championing of an unfashionable theme such as penance is undercut by an apparent lack of interest in being forgiven. When absolution is mentioned at all, it is either as the conclusion of confession or as something that might be withheld. She discusses the forgiveness of others as a requirement, but not the release of being forgiven oneself. Even the Prodigal Son is about the son's readiness to do penance. There is very little grace in this book.

Her treatment of penance in the justice system has interest in relation to the author's service as Shadow Home Secretary and as Prisons Minister. She strongly advocates educational opportunities and real paid work for prisoners, and the value of restorative justice, albeit with an insider's awareness of financial and political constraints: "There are no votes in prisons."

Turning to weekly resources: John Saxbee's Waymarkers invites us "to dig a little deeper" and "discover that there is more to Mark than meets the eye". Passages from the Gospels are followed by shrewd expositions with scholarship worn lightly, and extra commentary that is optional but worth attention. The author does not obtrude himself, but, rather than tell us what to think, periodically provides space and prompting for users to engage in the investigation themselves.

Saxbee offers a sharp and focused guide. Occasional outbursts of expositor's alliteration, and falling for the weaselly phrase "the things that really matter", are forgivable.

Just Love, written for the Church Urban Fund by Angus Ritchie and Paul Hackwood, examines love and its paradoxes - merciful and just, universal and personal, and so on. Bible passages lead into extended reflection, amplified by stories from Christian community projects. The focus is on community engagement (the Living Wage campaign features prominently), but always following the principle that "the place to start is not with action but with listening," and with a good deal about prayer.

The material originated in addresses to ordinands. It is clear and intelligent, with a stimulating range of reference to other thinkers, though it represents quite a lot of reading.

Jesus - His Home, His Journey, His Challenge developed out of two visits by the author to Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Israel. David Bryan's background is in New Testament teaching, and his emphasis on Jesus as wisdom teacher, and lack of reference to the events of Holy Week and Easter, may reflect the apparent perspective of the Jesus Seminar, of which he is a leading member.

The first part of the book is a closely argued survey of the world of Jesus's home at Nazareth and the journey with his parents to Jerusalem, and draws on geography, politics, and social customs in an original and illuminating way, not least in citing Josephus on mooning: "Thereupon, one of the soldiers, raising his robe, stooped in an indecent attitude, so as to turn his backside to the Jews, and made a noise in keeping with his posture."

The rest of the book is very different in tone. Having asserted that the command to love one's enemies is the heart of Jesus's teaching, Bryan looks at responses to this by Claude Montefiore, the Dalai Lama, and others, and goes on to discuss Gospel stories in which Jesus is challenged to cross thresholds of purity, gender, and race.

Despite its subtitle, the book makes no reference to Lent or to how its material might be used, and possibly was published under a Lenten flag of convenience. It could, however, offer an unusual option for a Bible-study group looking for a change.

Lent with the Catholic Epistles is not a title to get the pulses racing. It originated during illness, when the author "decided to make myself well again by studying the epistles . . . as a way of rediscovering my faith".

Graham Sawyer's daily commentary is well-informed, attending to the text and then drawing it out for our self-examination. As the book progresses, however, two tendencies become apparent. The first is an all-or-nothing spirituality that sets the bar a bit too high for many of us: "through our fellowship comes complete joy. . . being a Christian is a total transformation to a life of selfless generous love."

More worrying is his increasing preoccupation with bullying within the Church: "over the years I have met many 'bullying' bishops. These men . . . rather than be examples of humility and love have chosen to bully and threaten. Gossip, slander and abuse in all forms are not uncommon amongst bishops and often their abuse of power goes unchecked." This contributes a distinctly unbalanced tone to an otherwise creditable project by a priest whose somewhat exotic career is outlined at length on the book's cover.

Reflections for Lent - the amplified Lent section of the annual Reflections for Daily Prayer - is an excellent resource as well as a bargain, and also available as an app and e-book.

Samuel Wells's introduction reframes the Lenten disciplines: "To avoid the tyranny of having to make perpetual choices we develop habits. . . . that's what Lent is about." John Pritchard offers a sound guide to daily prayer, and Stephen Cottrell outlines lectio divina, which sounds quite like an old-fashioned "quiet time".

Four respected writers provide daily reflections on one of the lectionary readings. A discrepancy between the attributions of authorship in the Contents and the one entry where an author refers to himself by name is an incentive to look to the internal evidence. A calm sharpness suggests Angela Tilby. Ian Adams seems fond of the dangling question: "Do we?" The excitable final exclamation mark signals the arrival of John Pritchard. Christopher Cocksworth enjoys apposite quotes, and has a gift for mixed metaphor: it apparently takes two to tango while entangled in the briars of sin and sinking into the sand of corruption.

These daily notes are crisp, wise, and non-coercive. They conclude with a short version of Common Worship Morning Prayer - mercifully without proliferating canticles - and Compline, making this an ideal vade-mecum for the season.

Who Do You Say That I Am? is a sustained exploration of the identity of Jesus, largely based on daily passages from Mark. It particularly draws on the social geography of the Bible, sets Jesus in the context of contemporary Jewish teachers, and draws attention to less prominent actors in the story, among them women.

The author's comments are attractive and challenging, and quite often move away from the text into areas for wider reflection. Each day, Annie Heppenstall also supplies a short monologue in the voice of one of Jesus's followers. This offers an imaginative alternative in a more Ignatian register, as with Jesus's mother to Peter: "I've given up wishing he might build a home and get a job, so you offering to make him a shelter and expecting him to be grateful - don't you know him yet?"

With its optional extra Bible reading this would not be a lightweight choice, but it would certainly reward those who follow its journey - with periodic diversions - towards Jerusalem.

Barbara Mosse, in Welcoming the Way of the Cross, groups passages from across the Bible around such weekly themes as the desert experience, and openness to God in prayer. Her commentary leads readily into wider teaching on the spiritual life, and introduces figures from the tradition of prayer and beyond - on one page, Thomas de Quincey and Delia Smith find themselves unlikely bedfellows as commentators on Judas.

This is not a book for those who want to dig deeper in the Bible, but would be useful as an anthology of passages arranged for Lent, with thoughtful and personal homilies.

Stephen Cherry's daily poem-prayers in Barefoot Prayers sprang from the gift of a notebook designated "for creativity". They were not originally written for publication or for Lent, and represent an excellent example of creative imagination in the service of prayer. In a powerful introduction, he writes: "Prayer is in part the project of letting our imagination be transformed by God's Spirit," and these short prayers and meditations invite us to open our eyes wider and recall ourselves to our proper Christian vision. As an engaging journal of one man's spiritual weather, their personal character may possibly restrict how available they are to others who may be in a different climate zone.

He observes, in a poem prompted by black-and-white photographs: "Colour tells too/ much, too easily misleads. It/ closes down too soon./ Monochrome says 'colour me in,'" and sometimes his own poems are a little too highly coloured in drawing the moral.

Occasionally he reveals a habit of half-appropriating the words of others. "Although I long to understand . . . /Although I long to know" is not quite the opening of Eliot's "Ash Wednesday"; "this day was, in the end, okay" does not improve on "The Journey of the Magi"; and, when the Psalmist said, "I am poured out like water," he was not commending the gentle approach of death; and Herbert was not referring to Easter by "heaven in ordinarie".

Cherry has provided a refreshingly different Lent book - all the more if it encourages readers to exercise their own creativity in barefoot prayers.

The Wilderness Within You is another exercise of the devout imagination. Each day, Penelope Wilcock describes an imaginary conversation with Jesus, whom she bumps into while trying to cross the road outside the supermarket. He then keeps her company around St Leonard's-on-Sea as she shares with him her bewilderment - her wilderness - about many things.

Wilcock largely avoids sentimentality, and lets Jesus quietly pull the rug from under our comfortable assumptions, echoing the figure who doodled in the dust, not saying a lot. His gentleness and penetrating brown eyes come up rather frequently.

These are humane and humorous meditations, borrowing much of their tone from the classic Mister God This is Anna, with occasional homage to Mills & Boon: "As my gaze travels dumbfounded upward, adrenalin sparkles through my every cell." Now and again she is down with the kids - "I mean, honestly - is that cool or is it cool?" - but a reference to Belisha beacons gets her pegged.

The author succeeds in making you look forward to the next day's conversation, and in providing the companionship of an enigmatic, loving, unsettling Jesus.

Whether looking to this year's Lent publications for a discipline of study, or prayer, or imagination, we might recall Thomas Merton's searching criterion: "The function of penance and self-denial is . . . the 'breaking-up' of that hardness of heart which prevents us from understanding God's command to love".

The Revd Philip Welsh is a recently retired priest in the diocese of London.

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