Reviews – February 2014
Meeting an old friend for the first time
St Augustine, translated by Fr Benignus O’Rourke
Darton, Longman and Todd
I have a confession of my own to make: I had never actually read Augustine before. Like many of us, I was familiar with his life story (“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet,”) and with some of the doctrines for which he is usually held responsible (original sin, just war etc.), but I had never read anything he had written other than as a quotation in an erudite document.
So it was a considerable surprise to me to find Augustine’s Confessions readable and entertaining, as well as instructive. The title tells the reader what you are going to find: Much heart and soul searching, and the description of a devout man’s faith journey from paganism (in particular, Manichaeism and the neo-Platonism of Plotinus) to committed Christianity.
I was amazed at the psychological insights in the book, which one would expect post-Freud, but not from a man writing more than 1,600 years ago. Augustine writes addressing God, and his self-exposure to the reading public is sometimes a tad embarrassing in its forthrightness, but one can hardly fail to be impressed by the humility which led him to share his life so fully with others.
Father O’Rourke’s new translation is, to judge by the remarks made by Martin Laird in his introduction, revolutionary. It appears that Augustine’s original Latin is ornate, with “long, at times serpentine” sentences, but the format of this translation has short sentences and phrases, and the language is lucid and elegant, never heavy or boring. The work is divided into short chapters and beautifully presented.
It was a revelation to me that a writer whose work has such high standing should now feel like a treasured acquaintance. This translation gives the reader a splendid and heart-warming view of the real man behind the reputation.
Ruth Allen is a retired United Reformed Church minister based at Ilkeston United Reformed Church, Derbyshire
The search for a new economy
As Rob Harrison says in the introduction to this book, while the Occupy Movement got millions to express their anger “against the major economic institutions and against capitalism as an economic system”, it was not good at articulating coherent alternatives. In a readable and entertaining way, this book helps address this omission, and, while its subject matter is hardly new, its attempt to give cooperatives fresh profile is timely and sage.
The book’s origins lie in an essay competition sponsored by Ethical Consumer, a research and campaigning cooperative, on the subject: “Is there a cooperative alternative to capitalism?”, and, with the exception of two chapters by established writers, the book comprises the best of the essays received. Most of the writers are therefore unsung, “ordinary” people, drawing upon their experience of working with cooperatives in various ways, but although the style is inevitably mixed, the quality of the writing throughout is excellent – clear, concise and focused.
You don’t need to read the whole book to get something out of it, and, to the editor’s credit, a couple of essays answering “no” to the guiding question are included. Yet, its overall effect is to shake us from the complacency we’re all prone to drift into when reflecting upon the state of the world, reminding us that fairer, more inclusive economic systems are possible, and offering pointers to how they might practically be achieved.
This is not a theological book in any orthodox sense; questions like whether we are by nature selfish or co-operative, and what constitutes human fulfilment, are touched upon, but without any references to the contribution faith can make to the cooperative endeavour. Yet, if we recognise that a prominent theme in Scripture is God’s passion for economic practices that prioritise life over everything else, that nurture our interdependence and filial responsibility to one another, these essays will have much to inspire and inform us.
Andrew Bradstock is the secretary for church and society for the United Reformed Church
Real beauty in a skin-deep culture
This book is written from the heart – more precisely, from the heart of Chine Mbubaegbu, a Nigerian woman who has been on a personal quest to discover beauty in a world where the currency of beauty is pale “white” skin and westernised features. This book is not an introspective journey of learning to love ourselves, rather of discovering how God views us, his creations, with such delight.
We appreciate the unique beauty of a sunrise or a breathtaking mountain scene and exclaim the wonder of God’s creation, but we do not see the unique beauty within ourselves, also God’s creation. How we criticise God in doing that! Mbubaegbu goes on to discuss our use of makeup and cosmetic treatments, arguing that those who love us just see us as we are. They don’t see our blemishes because our beauty truly does come from within. Mbubaegbu reminds us that it can be liberating to truly be ourselves, warts and all, rather than reliant on straighteners or foundation to create the person we would like to be. Mbubaegbu points us to Jesus’ ordinary features, so ordinary that she wonders whether she would have given Jesus a second look. But, of course, it wasn’t just Jesus’ physicality that drew people to him. Mbubaegbu also challenges the promotion of positive self-esteem, insisting that our esteem should come from being loved and valued by God.
This book is a wonderfully uplifting read. It challenged me to be loved by God, as I am now, at this stage of life. I cannot change anything other than how I look at myself and understand how God sees me. There are more important things in life than my outer surface. Whether I can take the mirror challenge – going for a day, or a week, or a month without looking in the mirror – remains to be seen. I recommend this book to every woman alive today in our world full of mirrors and makeup and the high expectations that we put on ourselves and each other. Read this, and remember that we are uniquely beautiful because God chose to make us that way.
Catey Morrison is a minister within the East Cleveland group of United Reformed Churches
A Lent course for filmgoers
Being a huge fan of The West Wing and Martin Sheen, I was among the first through the doors to see the film The Way when it was released in the cinemas. Martin Sheen – or president Jed Bartlett as I know him best – on a spiritual journey? I’m there with him. So it was with great anticipation that I turned to Tim Heaton’s Lent course based on the film. What spiritual gems would I be able to share with my congregation?
In the film, Sheen plays Tom, a bereaved father who sets out along the Camino de Santiago to honour his dead son. A little like Tom’s journey, The Long Road to Heaven takes us to mountain tops and brings opportunities for soul searching, but there’s quite a bit of drudge too, almost veering into the fog in which Tom’s son, Daniel, was lost.
Course participants are asked to turn up each week having read the prelude for each session. These can be heavy going, and, often, the session plan relies on participants having digested some hefty theological arguments. But Tim Heaton’s theological accompaniers are heavyweights: Cocksworth, Macquarrie, Pannenberg and Wright to name but a few.
Each session is mapped out clearly and, although the timings are tight, requiring a jaunty pace, there are helpful questions and discussion pointers. There could be many opportunities to spend much longer exploring particular areas, along with plenty of interesting paths down which to be side-tracked. At the end of each session there are some thought-provoking and helpful meditations, although quite wordy for groups of mixed ability.
The fog sets in after the main material in the form of a short story, which I found clumsy and clichéd, though as this is not part of the course it is not a great concern.
At two hours long, the film is slow in places but beautifully directed with great cinematography; any endurance is well rewarded. The Long Road to Heaven may also require a degree of perseverance, but, ultimately, it is a useful guide along the way.
Melanie Smith is minister at Crowstone St George’s United Reformed Church, Westcliff-on-Sea
This article was published in the February 2014 edition of Reform.