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Resurrection begins here

31 January 2014

Angela Tilby admires a priest's passionate and poetic reflections

Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the heart of God Samuel Wells
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT877 )

SAMUEL WELLS has gained a reputation as one of the most original and profound of contemporary Anglican writers. This book is a collection of reflections from his seven years as Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, North Carolina, in the United States.

It reveals a passionate and poetic thinker, steeped in the Bible, emotionally self-aware, and formidably challenging. The reflections invite us to learn to love, live, think, read, feel, and dream again, and the lessons are offered in chunks, five or six per theme. It is emphatically not a book to be read at one sitting. But, that said, it is written at a terrific pace, and the tone is always spoken, exhortatory, urgent, which at times makes it hard to put down. Very occasionally, the drive to communicate produces something a bit flip. (I couldn't quite cope with: "It's the best news in the whole world. Isaiah's calling on a new number. The call is for you.")

But, overall, this is spiritual writing of a high quality, motivated by an intense desire that the Christian life should be lived fully and wholeheartedly with all its personal, relational, social, and political implications. The challenge is to realise that the Christian gospel leaves nothing unredeemed.

Wells insists again and again that the worst nightmares of our hearts and of humankind are where God's new creation starts. For example, a reflection on 9/11 leads to a fresh response to Ground Zero - the place of desolation from which God's recreation must begin. The dust of that tragedy (human dust mixed in with the debris) is linked to the dust of the earth from which the first human beings were created. Compassion and forgiveness are at the heart of the movement from death to resurrection which constitutes our continual conversion.

There are tough passages here.Wells taught Ethics at Duke, and is much influenced by Stanley Hauerwas. Although the tone is always welcoming and inclusive, he comes across as more conservative than many might like. His reflections on abortion are devastating: demanding that the Church look behind the wall of silence which we usually erect around the subject.

I don't think the author would want to be described as a poet, but he uses language like a poet, he approaches the Bible like a poet, and he revels in allusion and metaphor. Perhaps his way of writing is sometimes a little too self-conscious, but the lapses are brief, and the overall impression is one of an extraordinary able priest of great integrity and theological acumen striving to engage us in the Christian story as the greatest venture of our lives. We are lucky to have him and this splendid book.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

MARTIN L. SMITH's A Season for the Spirit: Readings for the days of Lent, Robert Runcie's Lent Book for 1991, with a 2004 foreword, has been reprinted (Canterbury Press, £12.99 (£11.70); 9781-84825-099-4).

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