Reviews – November 2013
A symphony to the silence
I must admit that I struggled with this book for the first few pages. It seemed like an awfully noisy thing to do, to write about silence, and the cover didn’t help – festooned with quotes about silence. But then I hit “Playing with silence” – the chapter about music – and the book exploded. Graham Turner, a former correspondent on The Scotsman, Telegraph and Sunday Times, interviews musicians about their interplay with silence. The danger is not to “let the music breathe … it’s the spirit of the age” explains one. The music, another says, lies “between the notes … ah, that is where the art resides!” Similarly, in the chapter about acting, the book says: “Playing the silences is as important as playing the words” and that’s the essence of the “God-given” ability to “open an audience”.
We visit Trappist monks in Thomas Merton’s monastery. They’re not so hushed up as they used to be, and as for the monk who’s wired to Twitter “because I write haikus every day” – I had to wonder if it wasn’t time to confiscate his computer. There are many other amusing encounters: The old Quaker woman busily and bossily pressing Graham to buy Peace News; meditators taking off with “yogic flying” while quelling city crime rates.
As part of Graham’s exploration of “interior locutions” we hear the wonderful Richard Rohr on silence as the opening to the Holy Spirit. There’s a revealing chapter on psychotherapy and the debate around whether a patient should be helped, or only listened to. We meet mountaineers and former gunmen. There’s a murderer in a Scottish jail whose sentence has been transformed by the Prison Ashram Project.
Finally, we go to Egypt and meet a latter day St Anthony, wrestling with the devil in a desert cell where “silence strips a man naked” before God. I thought at first this was a noisy book, but soon it turned to music. Here is gem-studded wonder, both spoken and unspoken – a richly human symphony.
Alastair McIntosh is an author, Quaker and honorary fellow of the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh
Lively, detailed biography
he political commentator Andrew Marr recently chose a collection of George Herbert’s poems as his most treasured book, saying that though he is not particularly religious, he found Herbert’s poetry “refreshing and life enhancing”. John Drury’s masterly study of Herbert’s life and poetry gives plenty of new insight into the power of that work.
In effect, John Drury interweaves the story of Herbert’s life and his actual words, in the English poems he bequeathed to the world (only published after his untimely death in 1633 at the age of 39). He gives a brilliant account of the context in which Herbert wrote, evoking even the smells of the 17th Century. Commenting on Herbert’s childhood in the Charing Cross area of London, he notes the proximity of the Royal Mews and its “richly smelling accommodation”. It is a typical comment in terms of detail and liveliness. The book takes us back to the world in which Herbert and his family lived; the influence of Westminster School on him (with its emphasis on language), the faith and conventions of the time and such notable figures as John Donne and Lancelot Andrews. As the poems are examined in this context, we learn much of Herbert’s skill with language and poetic forms, as well as his spirituality and theology. The biblical under-girding of his poetry becomes clear, as does his love of music, “sweetest of sweets”.
After an initial introduction looking at “Herbert’s world”, the author follows the poet’s life through childhood, schooling, his time at Cambridge and role as an orator, then his disillusionment and withdrawal, leading onto his final three years as a country parson in Bemerton, near Salisbury. The last part of the book is devoted to his influence and legacy on his own and later generations.
All in all, this is a book to treasure and return to, allowing the reader to enter more fully into Herbert’s glorious poems. It is no surprise that the book begins with Herbert’s best loved poem “Love (III)”, with its courteous invitation: “Love bade me welcome…” The invitation continues to move people today.
Terry Hinks is a United Reformed Church minister at Romsey and Braishfield URCs, Hampshire
Optimistic review of interfaith dialogue
You can read this book of essays and lectures from the beginning and follow Dr Kessler’s assessment of Jewish/Christian/Muslim dialogue today. Or, you can choose any chapter; each stands alone. A special delight is the illustrated chapter on early Jewish and Christian artistic representations of the sacrifice of Isaac. Kessler concludes that, not only were the artists exegetes in their own right, but that there was positive interaction between Jewish and Christian artists.
The chapters are variations on the theme of reconciliation between the Abrahamic faiths. Some recurring motifs are as follows: Churches have moved recently from being part of the problem of antisemitism to being part of the solution; shared study of our sacred texts is a large part of the way forward for us as for those early artists (readers of Reform may warm to that!); Jews and Christians can share “the principle of ambiguity”, especially in interpreting difficult and violent texts, expecting more than one interpretation to arise. Intriguing for us in the Reformed tradition is his suggestion that the study of Mary as a Jewish mother provides an especially useful focus. Three chapters deal with ways people of the three faiths help each other understand Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. A call to memoria future also recurs – urging us not to be stuck in either victimhood or guilt in relation to the past, but to use religious remembrance to empower the future.
The book is in three parts: a review of Jewish/Christian relations post-Holocaust; several chapters on Jewish and Christian readings of our shared scriptures; and three concluding chapters on the current state of Jewish/Christian/Muslim relations.
It’s an optimistic read, despite Kessler’s realistic view of the difficulties of the past (the Holocaust), the present (Israel/Palestine) and the future (Islam’s sense of being under threat from the west). But then Kessler himself, the Jewish founder of the Cambridge Woolf Institute, is someone who has been “touched by the angel of interfaith dialogue”. This book is for anyone who has felt that touch, however lightly, as well as for those concerned with biblical interpretation or peace in our world.
Maggie Hindley is a United Reformed Church minister based at the London Inter Faith Centre
Charting images of God
John Butler is a retired university professor and also a guide at Canterbury cathedral. Perhaps both roles informed this book, described by the author as “a personal exploration of the God of the Christian faith”. Commencing with the gods of Canaan, he takes us on brisk tour of images of God, concluding 24 short chapters later at the beginning of this century.
The first six chapters travel from one end of the Bible to the other; another four from the early years of the church to the Middles Ages; four more take care of the Reformation and its outcomes; nine take us through picturing God in the light of scientific advance or the horrors of genocide. A concluding chapter considers God’s future prospects.
The professor’s argument combines brevity and clarity, occasionally risking caricature, as he introduces us to ways people have imagined God through the centuries. He writes with reference to a great array of thinkers – from Augustine to Barth, and from John Calvin to Bishop John Robinson – locating them within the debates and disputes of their times. Along the way, God appears as many and as one, as gracious and judgmental, as above creation and as the depth of human existence.
For those no longer content with the image of God they have inherited, this book suggests new possibilities (though mostly limited to western examples). Any one human image of God is, of course, partial, but many will want to dispute the suggestion that God is no more the image we construct, based upon our hopes and convictions about what is good. Also, one might ask, in the midst of continual rethinking, whether there is much place left for the kind of faith that leads to action.
Trevor Jamison is environmental chaplain for Eco-Congregation Scotland
The Chartists’ Hymnbook
You often hear it said that religion has kept working people in their place. Christians may have campaigned for the abolition of slavery overseas, but they fought to stop British workers getting their own freedom. It’s not as if there’s no truth in that accusation, but Liberty Is Near! gives a welcome airing to the other side of the story.
Garth Hewitt, a musician with a 40-year career, is an Anglican vicar and founder of the human rights charity Amos Trust. The idea for this present CD came when he heard of the discovery in Todmorden Library in 2011 of the only remaining copy of the National Chartist Hymn Book. He has provided tunes to the hymns and recorded them.
Chartism was a working-class political movement of the 1830s and 1840s, when even the great Reform Act, 1832, had completely excluded workers from the political nation. Their charter appealed for universal adult male suffrage, secret ballots and other rights that we consider fundamental to our society. Their petitions gained millions of signatures, many thousands attended their meetings, and in 1848 the movement was crushed by the sledgehammer of government.
It was a political movement, but their hymns give us a vivid insight into the importance of religion to the campaign. It was a movement of faith that God would intervene on behalf of the oppressed and give them their just rights. As one hymn says: “See the writing on the wall:/‘Tyranny is doomed to fall.’”
No one had told the Chartists that religion and politics don’t mix, that “personal beliefs” should be kept out of the public sphere, or that Christianity was about keeping workers in their place. God’s favour is a consolation for the miserable in the hymns, but also a promise spurring them on to courage and sacrifice in their campaign for a fairer world.
Hewitt gives the hymns a sympathetic contemporary arrangement, singing them with conviction, accompanied by guitar, fiddle and accordion, and sometimes a choir. The result is an album that pays tribute to the men and women who fought for the freedoms we now take for granted, and to the Dissenting political spirituality that drove them. If their struggle towards distant justice and equality led to the world where we enjoy the rights they hoped for, then were left with a challenge: Why cant the hopes of the worlds poorest people reach the same fulfilment?
Stephen Tomkins is editor of Reform
These reviews were published in the November edition of Reform.