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Lent books round-up

19 January 2024

Philip Welsh reviews offerings for the penitential season

LENT books seem to divide into those that beguile us with their oblique approach, and those that plunge us right in.

Doyenne of the beguilers is the poet-archdeacon Rachel Mann. Previously, she has taken us through Lent with P. T. Barnum and with Elton John. This year, Jane Austen gets the treatment. “Not least among the reasons why Austen appeals as a Lenten focus is the ordinariness of her relationship with faith and religion.”

A Truth Universally Acknowledged provides a daily passage from each of the six completed novels, helpfully contextualised and thoughtfully unpacked. This acts as a springboard for wide-ranging reflections on our relationship with God as the key to our identity and our relationships with others.

As in Still Standing: A Lent course based on the Elton John movie “Rocketman” (DLT, 2021), the author often brings in her own background, specifically as a middle-aged LGTBQ+ trans-woman Remainer feminist with a past. Preachers will be familiar with the fine line between the personal touch and oversharing.

Mann offers a lively and challenging picture of Christian faith — “lives shaped by hope” — albeit sometimes with a tenuous link to her novelist. Her well-informed enthusiasm for Austen is a great incentive to go back to the novels.

The other Lenten beguiler is the Dean of Salisbury, Nicholas Papadopulos, who has discovered that even cathedrals can harbour demons.

The Infernal Word ingeniously reframes familiar biblical stories that feature mountains — six from the Old Testament, from Ararat to Carmel, and six from the New, from the Mount of Temptation to the Mount of Ascension — by telling them from the point of view of a rebel angel.

Inevitably, Screwtape seems to look over the author’s shoulder, though his strategy also recalls the short-lived Martian school of poetry, which employed an alien perspective to defamiliarise. His choice of an alternative name for God reinforces this.

As the stories unfold, Papadopulos develops a serious theology of the nature of God and of God’s revelation in Christ. He is masterly in his dismissal of commonplace understandings of the atonement, and of liberal accommodations of the resurrection, in the process setting a high bar for presenting his alternative.

He accomplishes his sustained exercise in irony with imagination and wit, intelligence and depth. Only rarely does his demon slip out of role, or lapse into vicars’ demotic (“Isaac’s own son made a right Charlie of him”). The infernal tone of weary condescension towards pathetic humanity engages our amused complicity, though it risks insulating us from getting too serious.

The short chapters, several of which originated as Holy Week addresses, would work well as daily readings in Passiontide, or as scripts for performance.

We are still up the mountain with the first of the plungers, Transfiguration. The Church’s lectionary prescribes the transfiguration for the Sunday before Lent. Rob Marshall takes this event as the keynote that governs Lent and Easter, and explores it in 50 daily meditations from Ash Wednesday into Eastertide.

Each day, he touches, to a greater or lesser extent, on some aspect of the story, brings in insights from a wide range of commentators, links it to the unfolding story of Christ’s Passion, and relates the biblical witness to our own lives.

His meditations have the brevity expected from a Thought for the Day presenter; but their character, which is at home with religious language and the habits of the Church, owes more to the author’s other sideline as a pilgrimage guide. These are the pastoral observations of a well-mannered companion along the way, keen to guide, but reluctant to startle.

This approach rightly allows the mountain-top experience to come with us to the plain, though with some danger of domestication. Writing of loneliness, Marshall moves from the “total dereliction” of the cross in one paragraph to “the offer of a cup of tea” in the next.

The transfiguration is inevitably spread a bit thin over 50 days, but, by the end, this book vindicates the author’s contention that the vision on the mountain is the proper gateway to Lent and beyond. “By being willing to accept the terrible suffering of his crucifixion, Jesus presents his passion as the way through which suffering can be transformed.”

In Loving My Neighbour, seven authors, from a range of Christian traditions, each take a week of daily Bible readings to immerse us in aspects of loving our neighbour, with Jonathan Swift’s sharp reminder that “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”

Sanjee Perera looks at loving in truth, in freewheeling theological meditations that are by turns challenging and overwrought.

John Swinton writes outstandingly about loving the vulnerable. “When we reflect upon the upside-down kingdom, we come to realise that the broken . . . are more important than anything else. We also discover that ‘they’ are in fact ‘us’.”

Esther Kuku strides into loving those who are suffering with the confidence of the saved. “We have been justified and we will be delivered out of every difficult circumstance we face.”

Sister Gemma Simmonds offers mature wisdom on the importance of loving oneself, and is sensitive to the ambivalence of love: “Knowing someone and being known by them at depth carries both grace and potential threat.” She draws helpfully on Catholic tradition: for St Ignatius, “the heart of humility is not self-denigration but gratitude.”

Inderjit Bhogal writes powerfully about loving those who are different. The Old Testament tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves once, but to love the stranger 40 times. His exposition of Gospel stories is exemplary and thought-provoking, along with the way drawing on his own experience within white groups.

andrew mayesVia Dolorosa, Third Station: “Jesus falls for the first time, then and now”, from Roads of Hurt and Hope. The Via Dolorosa is now the site of an Israeli military checkpoint, where soldiers inspect the ID of Palestinians going to Al-Aqsa Mosque

David Gregory is a climate scientist and Baptist minister. He writes attractively about loving the world around us: “Next time you see a weather forecast, give thanks for the insights of scientists that enable us to understand some of how God has shaped creation.”

During Holy Week — loving to the end — Joanna Collicutt takes a fresh approach to the last words from the Cross, as showing us how to die well, “to say our sad goodbyes to this precious and delicious earthly life, to the people we love, and to the grudges we bear; and, like him, to entrust ourselves to our heavenly Father”.

A multi-author project is likely to be a mixed bag. Loving My Neighbour scores quite well.

Lent with the Beloved Disciple plunges us into St John’s Gospel, in a devotional commentary that “should be studied, as it was written . . . the context of prayer”. It largely covers the chapters from the Last Supper to the end of the Gospel (omitting the farewell discourses); so a substantial part of the book is post-resurrection.

Michael Marshall acknowledges a debt to his predecessor as Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, with his radical contention about the priority of John. He sees the Beloved Disciple — characterised as a contemplative in contrast to the practical Peter — as the only disciple who was an eyewitness at every key event, and whose recollections, prayerfully reflected upon for many years, were later written down by his disciple John the Elder.

Marshall talks us through the Gospel narrative rather in the manner of a preacher. He does not conspicuously draw lessons for us, or prescribe questions for thought, but opens the text to resonate with our own experience, and takes the structure of the nautilus shell as an image for the unfolding nature of the Gospel and of the Christian life.

The devotional tone of the book is reflected in his reference to St Augustine: “as we travel further down the road of faith, even in this world, our eyes will begin to look heavenward in love and worship.” Its focus, within what sometimes seems a lightly peopled landscape, is on our prayerful relationship to God, and there are valuable insights to be had: “The part that love plays is central to the whole narrative, for love notices detail, and in turn is the great interpreter.”

Roads of Hurt and Hope is a five-session course by the prolific Franciscan writer Andrew D. Mayes. Structured around five biblical highways, it originated from the author’s ministry at St George’s College, Jerusalem, and was written during the current Gaza war.

Each session describes a particular road as known in biblical times and in the modern day; reflects on associated passages of scripture; adds interviews with “contemporary voices” along the way; and supplies questions for further thought, with imaginative prayer exercises.

In this way, issues for Christian life emerge from a mixture of biblical life, ancient and modern monastic life in the Holy Land, and the terrible experience of present residents.

The author supplies quite prescriptive instructions for conducting each session, though the wealth of disparate material could crowd out space for participants’ responses. His questions can be searching, if sometimes a little brave for Church of England use: “What is limiting your crazy, uncalculating response to human dilemma?” Some readers will find the story of Abraham’s prospective sacrifice of Isaac more problematic than the author does; he also perpetuates the notion that the Good Samaritan is about whom we should help, not whom we might end up getting helped by.

Unwieldy though it may be, Roads of Hurt and Hope is original in its concept, attractive in its varied material, and urgently topical, and should be adaptable without much effort.

As for your reviewer, now gorged on Lent long before the first call has gone out for palm crosses, I think it’s time to reread Pride and Prejudice, slowly.

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

“Companions on the Way: A retreat in preparation for Lent”: join us for a morning of worship and reflection Saturday 10 February  or watch at a date and time of your choosing. Find out more here.

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 40 days with Jane Austen
Rachel Mann
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.39


The Infernal Word: Notes from a rebel angel
Nicholas Papadopulos
Canterbury Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.99


Transfiguration: 50 pilgrim steps
Rob Marshall
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.39


Loving My Neighbour: A Lenten journey (BRF Lent Book)
Olivia Warburton, editor
BRF £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.99


Lent with the Beloved Disciple: The 2024 Lent Book
Michael Marshall
Bloomsbury £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.79


Roads of Hurt and Hope: Transformative journeys in the Holy Land
Andrew D. Mayes
Wipf & Stock £11

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