THE book Suddenly There is God is an unusual combination of biblical scholarship, dramatic imagination, and contemplative spirituality. Veronica Mary Rolf looks in depth at a series of biblical stories, particularly from Genesis and Exodus, places them “in tandem” with New Testament passages, and relates this to the stages in our own lives, from being created to expecting resurrection.
Her elegant writing enables us to inhabit familiar ancient stories afresh as the creation of the biblical “playwright”, and to use the resources of critical scholarship positively. She does rely heavily on several classics of Old Testament theology from some generations ago: Gunkel’s work on Genesis was published well before the First World War; Mowinckel’s pioneering work on the Psalms, in the 1920s; and von Rad’s theology of the Old Testament, in the 1950s.
These works still speak with authority, but we feel the lack of later perspectives. There is, for example, no feminist presence in the Garden of Eden, and an Exodus innocent of liberation theology. Rolf relates the Exodus to the plight of refugees, but not to a people’s struggle for freedom, and links their slavery to “bondage to an unhappy career, a destructive relationship, or our own mental demons”. The preferential option for the poor is mentioned to make the point that “we are all poor and lacking in some perfect gift or other.” Her single reference to the prophets is to highlight the motherly love of God.
There is no reason that the author should grind other people’s theological axes, but the substantial absence from the book’s field of application of the social and public dimension serves to highlight her own agenda, which is an individual spirituality underwriting personal development, and committed to daily contemplative meditation (“eyes lowered, back lengthened, hands folded”).
The author is an independent scholar, a playwright, and the author of two books on Julian of Norwich. As her book proceeds, she weaves scholarship and story together with a dramatist’s sensibility, and develops a spirituality of a strongly emotional character. “Sacred Scripture is a love story”, inviting us “to fall deeply in love with God in the person of Jesus Christ”, “full of wisdom, physical strength and virile beauty”.
This may be too intense for some, and comes at times with an assertive tone — “We must” is a favourite phrase. References to confession, the consecrated religious life, and marriage “with the ardent expectation of producing offspring” suggest a Roman Catholic background, along perhaps with a rather dour picture of confirmation as “personal commitment to obey the laws of God and the church”.
The book ends with a substantial bibliography whose purpose is unclear, as the majority of authors are not mentioned in the text.
The strength of Suddenly There is God is the way in which Rolf digs deeply into classic biblical stories, and insists that we should find our story within them. She draws us through these towards a contemplation of the love of God which owes much to her immersion in the Julian tradition: “Christ the radiant reality transforming and inflaming our universes with divine love”. Those who share her spiritual perspective will welcome the broadening of their scriptural horizons. Others may wish that the scriptural horizons were broader still.
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.
Suddenly There is God: The story of our lives in sacred scripture
Veronica Mary Rolf
Cascade Books £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50