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Lent books: a round-up of devotional reading

22 January 2021

Mark Oakley reviews the Archbishop’s Lent Book and other seasonal offerings

IF LENT is a snowfall in the soul, then a good Lent book is the spade that helps us clear a path for a needed journey. Any such book that makes us turn off auto-pilot Christianity by revitalising or reimagining an aspect of our faith is especially welcome. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book this year, Living His Story: Revealing the extraordinary love of God in ordinary ways, written by Hannah Steele, seeks to do just that by giving a “fresh perspective on evangelism” and helping us “become more confident and creative in the task of witnessing”.

Steele pursues Walter Brueggemann’s description of evangelism as “an invitation and summons to ‘switch stories’ and therefore to change lives”. To be a Christian is indeed to live in a great storydom, and Steele, fully aware of all the unappealing intimations of that loaded word “evangelism”, wants us to see the beauty and privilege of belonging within this story of God and of the goodness in inviting others through the door by a process of transformative imagination — not by some hardened monologue that often promotes the self more than God, but through an honest, attentive dialogue with similarly fallible human beings

Lent, she argues convincingly, is the right season to prepare for the Easter-morning call to “go and tell”. Steele writes with an infectious understanding of her subject, and, whereas I’d like to have read a little more on how actions as well as words can be evangelistic, I commend this to anyone who feels that their inner evangelist has nodded off. Her reminder to the Christian of the importance of being willing to be interrupted is helpful. After all, that’s what any needful conversion requires, whether of the believer or the curious searcher.

Thy Will Be Done, by Stephen Cherry, similarly sets out to resuscitate our faith by its own resources by taking a close look at the “capacious heart” of the Lord’s Prayer. Christianity is a tradition of traditions, and Cherry draws on the insights of those who have prayed the prayer through the centuries to live its challenge and learn its guidance. Words capture the author’s soul, and Cherry discovers something of Jesus’s heartland in the prayer that he taught his followers, not least “simplicity and lightness”.

The book is helpfully structured for a Lenten read and gently defamiliarises a prayer that we think we know too well. Cherry unearths what we learn about God in its 57 Greek words but also how the prayer lays out a vision of a “grateful, proportionate (or just) and non-anxious relationship” with life’s provisions. This is a book that accomplishes its aim with an understated wisdom. It deepens our understanding of the prayer that holds us together as individuals and as a Church. Cherry’s summary of Jesus’ teaching on prayer — “have fewer words, less ego and less anxiety” — is not a bad strategic plan for all of us to take on board through the forty days and beyond.

© ROGER WAGNERFor contemplation: the artist Roger Wagner’s The Bed of Sickness (1994) illustrates his fresh translation of Psalm 38, in The Book of Praises: Transla­tions from the Psalms (Canter­bury Press, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-78622-284-8): 29, with 48 of his pictures, and his introductory essayThere is probably no living author who knows the writing of Julian of Norwich better than Sheila Upjohn. The Way of Julian of Norwich: A prayer journey through Lent is a gift to us all, drawn from many years of prayerful immersion in Julian’s “showings”. This is a book with a positive and homely spirit. It is centred on Julian’s comment that “our prayer makes God glad and happy. He wants it and waits for it so that, by his grace, he can make us like him in condition as we are by creation”.

Conversational in tone and practical in intent, each of its short six chapters ends with some questions and a reflection. There is also a Way of the Cross devotion at the end, nicely shaped with Julian’s words, for personal or communal use. Many of the things that Julian was shown in her little room by God did not tally with the Church’s teaching of the day. What God showed her, however, was an “endless, continuing love, with its assurance of safekeeping and salvation”.

Julian is a good companion for any who think that the Church is still too frightened to live up to the radical love of the gospel that it preaches, making us all too defensive rather than grateful. It is a book for those who long for some barefaced integrity in the showings of the Church six centuries later. I recommend reading this short meditation to those who know Julian well and those who have yet to be enlarged by her insight that “Love was his meaning.” Both will approach Easter the better for it.

Rooted in Love: Lent reflections on life in Christ is a conventional Lent book. It is made up of 40 short chapters, each with a biblical reading, reflection, recommended “action” and prayer. The chapters are written by the seven bishops of the diocese of London. In her introduction, Sarah Mullally notes that the Letter to the Ephesians reminds the recipients of the blessings that they have received, and the consequent demands made of them. Such “energizing encouragement”, she argues, is needed now in our own time, too. The love of God makes us one family and requires us practically to behave as one.

The book’s first part aims to point us to Christ and then later explores our calling and what a maturity in Christ might look like. Covid has made us masked and distant from each other, and we have learned that we are not made to be like this for long. Christian life is to unmask ourselves and to dare to come closer — to be incarnational. The reflections here are very much an attempt to encourage us in this vocation. Inevitably, a book with several authors can sometimes feel uneven in tone or in its consistency of argument. This is, though, a good and healthy example of what our bishops are for: to teach, to reach out in encouragement, and to show imaginatively that a praying community is the antidote to indifference about justice or need.

I always look forward to reading a new book by Sam Wells and I was not, of course, disappointed by his A Cross in the Heart of God: Reflections on the death of Jesus. Neither the Bible nor the Church has any single understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus. Instead of the embracing of this as a rich and complex gift to faith, rather loud but narrow and unappealing interpretations have made the cross a tentative or avoided subject for preachers and worshippers alike. To counter this sad state of affairs, Wells wants to “put conviction and a new sense of discovery”. To do this, he takes us through the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, and the epistles with his usual attractive mixture of faithful heart and independent mind.

The cross is where we discover the secret of God’s desire for us, God’s inability not to be with us, “our cowardice and cruelty confronted by God’s wondrous love”. Two short chapters can be read each day through Lent, and there is a study guide at the back of the book to entice thought and discussion. Provoking and consoling in equal measure, occasionally irritating, but always widening our own cherished thoughts, Wells is a welcome friend on the Lenten ramble. “Jesus hangs on the cross”, he concludes, “to show us the love that hangs on. Hang on to that love. It will never let you go.”

Like Shrove Tuesday pancakes, human beings today can be quickly whisked up and tossed around by the movers and shakers of the world, ending up full of fat but pretty flat. Christians need to ensure that we don’t reduce our faith to something equally quick-fix, insubstantial and mundane. Lent is the invitation to rediscover the depths and riches that are there as our inheritance, for our dignity and human growth. I’m pleased to have read books that call us back to these without apology. I wish you a fruitful wilderness with them.


The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral. Canon Oakley will host an online discussion with some of the above authors on Monday 1 February at 6 p.m. www.facebook.com/events/420618378988391


Living His Story: Revealing the extraordinary love of God in ordinary ways (The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book 2021)
Hannah Steele
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.99


Thy Will Be Done
Stephen Cherry
Bloomsbury £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.99


The Way of Julian of Norwich: A prayer journey through Lent
Sheila Upjohn
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.99


Rooted in Love: Lent reflections on life in Christ
Sarah Mullally
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.99


A Cross in the Heart of God: Reflections on the death of Jesus
Samuel Wells
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.99

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