VERY rarely, rather than be reviewed, the book reviews me. In 2012, I was so blown away by Janet Morley’s The Heart’s Time that Archbishop Barry and I hand-delivered a copy to every cleric in Llandaff. Henry Martin’s Eavesdropping is another such classic, simply journeying through Lent to Easter, exploring the motives, asides, nuances, and unsaid words behind the conversations in 49 Gospel scenes.
Each imaginative reflection, worthy of a Gerd Theissen or Jonathan Magonet, concludes with “How does this help with prayer?” Faced by Martin’s insightful, earthed, non-judgemental answers, I repeatedly found myself praying.
He is blisteringly honest, very perceptive, and has a genuine and original humour: Naaman’s servant cries “Get over yourself, Boss!” when his master baulks at bathing in the Jordan. There are gems galore: in answering prayer, Jesus does not torment us, but always displays the unexpected demonstration of costly grace; we need to dethrone any gods who delight in painful revenge; God will not sponsor any of our attempts to turn ourselves into superheroes; we shouldn’t feel guilty about unanswered prayer, as if we had fluffed up a Hogwarts incantation.
An artist as well as a writer, Martin invites us to sketch Jesus as he overturns temple tables; and the faces of our loved ones, surprised as the Risen Christ calls their name. Railing against an unhealthy obsession with confession, he suggests two modest alterations to the liturgy. That the response to “The Lord is here!” should be “But where am I?” And any Easter-morning liturgy should be led solely by women, limiting male voices to the response: “It’s an idle tale, we’re having none of it!”
Never mind buying it for every cleric; every intercessor needs either to read this book or stop.
THOUGH never intended as a Lent course, the film The Greatest Showman is creatively harnessed by Rachel Mann to recast our Christian story. Showman teems with great lines salient to our condition, such as: “Too many dead things — you need something sensational.” “It’s not like the circus, you can’t fake it.” “If only banks would take joy as collateral.” “All I want is to fly with you; all I want is to fall with you.”
Nineteen excerpts from Showman are juxtaposed with Bible-based reflection to focus on hoping and dreaming; casting in those cast out; changing the world; shunning compromise and the burden of responsibility; and daring to empty ourselves to be blessed by those we seek to bless.
With the sureness of touch and freshness of her Fierce Imaginings, Mann counters the cosy introspection typical of Lent groups with specific and challenging objectives: drawing a timeline of your dreams and epiphanies; using Ignatian exercises to abandon deadly attachments; campaigning against prejudice; becoming a Fairtrade and Eco-Church; and writing a no-holds-barred letter to the person, or even God, whom you have offended/been offended by.
“EVERYTHING has a crack in it — that’s how the light gets in,” croaked Leonard Cohen in Anthem. Justine Allain Chapman in The Resilient Disciple imaginatively draws on him and a goodly company to encourage her readers to delve into their own personal adversity, without fear or censure. Seeking flourishing by holding together the seemingly contradictory stabilitas and conversatio morum of St Benedict’s Rule, she outlines several proved strategies for embracing a resilience whose fruit is mature acceptance of one’s lot, tempered by the nerve to be bold and move on.
The six weekly themes, Follow, Flourish, Falling, Faithful, Fruitful, and Fulfil, are woven around daily Lenten study, richly seasoned with biblical imagery, wise and informed pastoral practice, and sensitively chosen prayer. Allain Chapman juxtaposes her own story with St Peter’s, ranging from a searing desert retreat to humorous tales of domesticity, spared from being jejune by perceptive analysis of mood and feeling. The writing, particularly for Holy Week, is often of remarkable exegetical quality, giving fresh depth to commonplace experiences and beckoning to new pastures, including seeing God not just in a grain of sand, but also in a toothbrush case.
THE book Following the Way of Jesus charts the impact of the back-to-basics Jesus Movement on the work of Episcopal Church in the United States. The Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, probably better heard than read, describes St Paul “having to sort out a church fight after being tipped off by the church gossip in Corinth”, and invites us to question Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Isaiah, and Esther as if they were college chums from Yale.
Curry’s three folksy introductory chapters are redeemed by six brief, cutting-edge contributions from The Episcopal Church’s brightest stars, embracing substantial hope beyond the Trump tragedy. Their focus: evangelism — “In the midst of terrible trauma you need a very big story”; multiculturalism — countering “I’d rather let my church burn than let those Mexicans in”; youth ministry — “Yearning for what the world cannot give”; racism — “Justice is what love looks like in public”; ecology — quoting Luther, “that Christ was everywhere, in the beans in your bean garden, in the rocks and even in the rope around some poor hopeless man’s neck”; and kenotic leadership — “Jesus will not rescue us from grief, because he will not rescue us from love.”
Sometimes their American needs translating into English: Nora Gallagher claims that it was the Synod of Whidbey (an island near Seattle) which dictated the demise of the world-affirming Celtic Church; either she meant Whitby, or Hild and Wilfrid beat Columbus to it by 800 years.
SPEAKING of which, David Cole’s Celtic Lent is a fascinating and refreshing Celtic tour de force, with 40 reflections, contemplations, biblical readings, and bracing Celtic-style prayers. He encourages a simple Celtic rule of life, “for our benefit not our binding”. He gives Christ many names: holy story-teller; guiding light; generous and thunderous giver of gifts; home of the planets; fertile, undulating fiery-sea. He revisits Celtic hymnody (inevitably St Patrick’s Breastplate, “Be thou my vision”, and many more), marking the whole of creation as glorious and God-given. In celebrating Celtic saints, Cole airbrushes out their more disturbing traits: his mini-hagiography of Illtyd’s journey from soldier to Religious fails to mention Illtyd’s casting the beautiful Trynihid out naked from their marital home.
Celtic Holy Week is marked by The Dream of the Rood: the Cross quivers and trembles as Christ, the young hero, clasps and hugs her, the ultimate Victor driving out the occupying army of darkness and protectively circling the children of light. In The Stowe Missal, thirsty Celts take a good swig from a chalice as a man-size loaf is broken into a 65-piece Celtic Cross, with each congregation member allotted his or her own sector. Bishops quite rightly are at the top, with the married intriguingly confined to the lower right segment. During this complex administration, the Celtic choir intone Psalms 23, 24, 25, and 43, and John 6. I guess the Stowe Mass wasn’t quick.
DAZZLED by the Russian Revolution, Anthony Bloom read St Mark’s Gospel to arm himself to be the Richard Dawkins of his day. Instead, it turned him: “By the third chapter, sitting at the other side of my desk was a presence.”
The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, catches that presence well as he explores the contemporary immediacy of Mark in York Courses’ Daring to See God Now, amplified with commentary on an accompanying CD. In five well-argued sessions, Baines frequently seasons his accessible text with personal anecdote, together with more than 60 arresting quotations, including: “There’s a point where you go with what you’ve got or you don’t go” (Joan Didion); “The man who dies rich dies disgraced” (Andrew Carnegie); “Forgiveness is a lovely idea until you have something to forgive” (C. S. Lewis); “Repentance means you change your mind so deeply that it changes you” (Bruce Wilkinson); “I hadn’t realised quite how much the discipleship of Christ would involve keeping up with email” (Richard Coles); “Miserable sinners? I’m not miserable, I’m a happy sinner!” (Keith Ward); and “If we don’t want to be changed, it is better not to look too long or too hard at Jesus” (Rowan Williams).
ANNE CALVER’s Who is the Christ? is an attractively presented, systematically set-out and very do-able six-part course for individuals or groups, focusing on Christ as Builder, Humble King, Holy King, Harvester, Risen King, and Commissioner.
Calver, a Baptist minister, who yearns for the conversion of England, is convincingly passionate about deepening faith in word and action, juxtaposing her time spent at Mother Teresa’s House of the Poor and Dying with her privileged UK lifestyle. “I want to show others that you can lose everything but have really lost nothing, because you still have Jesus,” an old woman testifies, who has lost her entire family.
Very deep discussion-starters include daring to unfurl the graveclothes that bind and restrict our lives, and identifying and honouring the servants in our midst — servant-like Calver movingly describes how she tenderly bathed her bed-ridden mother. As I immersed myself in the course, I found it humbling and converting.
AMERICAN and Fundamentalist, though surprisingly inoffensive and inclusive, Shilo Taylor’s Brand New ambitiously sets out to “teach you the basic beliefs of Christianity, the story of the Bible, what God is, and what he is like”. Forty short reflections assure us we can trust the story of the Bible; and that God never contradicts himself, and “was particularly excited about the first people he made, Adam and Eve”.
The accompanying Mentor’s Guide is a crib-sheet providing answers to all the 160 questions set at the end of each reflection. Unfettered by any intellectual wrangling, or indeed any real-time engagement with Lent, Holy Week, or Easter, Taylor majors in stating the obvious: the bland leading the bland.
THE Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, has written two sets of 40-day bite-size reflections, in the new Pilgrim Journeys series: one for Lent on eight Beatitudes and the other for Easter on eight petitions in our Lord’s Prayer (News, 25 January). Each Beatitude and petition has a five-day cycle, with a daily Bible reading, brief reflection, sensitively chosen prayers, and a challenging outcome (during Lent) or pause (during Eastertide).
The reflections all have the air of being written by someone whose soul is soaked in the scriptures, although limitations of space often make the reflection feel forced, failing to catch the immensity of the biblical passage. The courses are designed to be used at any time, unfortunately resulting in a giddy sense of disconnect with the actual seasons of Lent and Easter, as in featuring the Prodigal Son on Passion Sunday, the collect for Advent Sunday on Easter II, and the 23rd Psalm on Ascension Day. Both courses teem with memorable quotations, the best from Nelson Mandela: “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”
TIM CHESTER’s The Beauty of the Cross meditates daily on Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs, particularly Isaiah 52-53. Chester marches to a very different drumbeat from mine: he uncritically hails Isaiah as a seamless prophecy rather than a composite of several writers, cannily predicting the Exile and Christ’s crucifixion centuries before; though not case by case, sickness, menstruation, and leprosy are a sign of sin; God’s internal moral consistency demands the “bleeding surety” of penal substitution.
Though the drumbeat jarred, I admired Chester’s repeated emphasis on the folly of the Cross, a pointer to how we misunderstand God and ourselves: “He came as one of us and we despised him for it.”
Nearly every meditation concludes with striking paradoxical quotations: “Our Bread made Hunger . . . suffered undeserving things that he might free the undeserving” (Augustine); “He whom you now treat with contempt was once above you. . . he who turned water into wine is given vinegar to drink” (St Gregory of Nazianzus). Chester’s unswerving desire is that we sing the Suffering Servant’s song with our lives: “It would be good if one [Christian] would work hard to give no offence while the other would work hard to take none” (Richard Sibbes).
ALI CAMPBELL, a youth worker with 32 years’ experience, addresses a teenage audience in Follow Me. Briefly reflecting on 40 passages from the Gospels, Acts, and St Peter’s Epistles, he explores Peter’s rocky discipleship, unfolding the insights it offers for life-direction and prayer. As he darts about the New Testament, Campbell tells Peter’s story attractively and humbly, shades of Lancelot Andrewes’s “calling, recalling, further calling manifold”, with sound advice for early-teenage angst.
Having journeyed alongside many young people myself, I’m haunted by Graham Norton’s hyperactive youth chaplain in Father Ted, who singularly fails to catch teenagers’ accents and address their condition. My only gripe with Campbell is that he frequently lapses into Father-Noel-speak, including lots of stuff, stonking, stuffing it up, knocking off the music, punching your lights out, and rubber hitting the road, topped by no fewer than ten amazings! “It’s cool getting stuck into the Bible,” Campbell concludes, as his Jesus hops into Peter’s boat, and is crucified because “this stuff happens.”
I have never heard teenagers talk like this, a non-language peculiar to adult Christians trying to get down with the kids. Mind you, had my Classics teacher adopted it, it would have electrified his dreadfully dull lessons: “‘Amazing!’ shrieked Medea, punching her kids’ lights out with Colchis’s Golden Fleece. ‘Knock off the music, you whinging chorus!’ she cried, as she stuffed up Jason’s stonking chariot and the rubber hit Elysium’s road.” Cool, eh, Euripides?
The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York.
Eavesdropping: Learning to pray from those who talked to Jesus
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
From Now On: A Lent course on hope and redemption in “The Greatest Showman”
Church Times Bookshop £6.30
The Resilient Disciple: A Lenten journey from adversity to maturity
Justine Allain Chapman
Church Times Bookshop £9
Following the Way of Jesus: A clarion call to join the Jesus movement
Michael B. Curry
Hodder & Stoughton £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30
Celtic Lent: 40 days of devotions to Easter
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
Daring to See God Now: An ecumenical course in five sessions
Bishop Nick Baines
York Courses £3.75
(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript, is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516).
Who is the Christ?
Church Times Bookshop £5.40
Brand New: A 40 day guide to life in Christ
Lexham Press £12.99
Brand New: A mentor’s guide
Lexham Press £6.99
Pilgrim Journeys: The Beatitudes: 40 days of reflections for Lent 2019
Church House Publishing £2.99
Church Times Bookshop £2.70
Pilgrim Journeys: The Lord’s Prayer: 40 days of reflections for Easter 2019
Church House Publishing £2.99
Church Times Bookshop £2.70
The Beauty of the Cross
The Good Book Company £6.99
Follow Me! Transforming and shaping lives for the journey
Kevin Mayhew £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30