Reviews – February 2015
Restoring the soul of the Psalms
Psalms Redux: Poems and prayers
Canterbury Press, Norwich
£10.99 (available from the United Reformed Church online store; visit www.urc.org.uk/store)
This book uplifted my soul. The psalms which Carla Grosch-Miller has so meaningfully restored, showed me new ways of describing the nature of God as well as giving me words to express my own feelings in prayer. I suspect that many of us would echo her struggle with the psalms, finding it difficult to agree with some of the theology and thoughts expressed there, yet also finding inspiration from and appreciation of many of the sentiments voiced by those early psalmists.
Faced with these “new” psalms, I first turned to my favourites and those that are most commonly known. I was not disappointed, especially with Psalm 23, which many of us may have tried to rewrite ourselves; the author, without giving us a paraphrase, included all the ideas of the original psalm in moving poetic form.
Some of the restored psalms might be thought of as loose paraphrases of the scriptural text, but most seem to have been triggered by one or more of the ideas included in the original and expanded from there. A few did not appear to me to have any link, but then scripture sparks off different ideas in different people at different times, and on another occasion I might have perceived a link.
Generally, the author avoids the vengeful thoughts and desires of the original psalmist to punish, if not destroy, enemies. Apart from one request to “silence my enemies” in Psalm 35, she turns these kinds of sentiments around to question the source of her own feelings. Overall, she catches the mood of the psalmist, even when the psalmist’s mood changes during the course of the psalm, by using evocative imagery and skilful alliteration.
In Psalm 62, Carla prays: “As for me, I want to be a blessing to heaven and on earth.” I believe this beautiful book will bring blessings to those who use it.
Diana Townsend is a retired church minister living in Oxford
End of life, in all its fullness
Atul Gawande is a surgeon based in Boston, Massachusetts, and a professor at Harvard Medical School; he was also the BBC Reith lecturer for 2014. This book, principally aimed at people in his own profession, or working in similar fields, starts from the viewpoint that they are not very good at dealing with the final part of life leading up to death. Medical science has been very successful in extending the length of our declining years, but its practitioners have not thought so much about the nature of those years. The book offers some physiological description of decline, but mostly Gawande makes his points by using case studies; by far the most moving of these is his description of his father’s final illness and death.
I was interested in Gawande’s suggestion that assisted life is a better option than assisted death, although for him the goal is improved quality rather than extended length. And I was encouraged by his analysis of the doctor’s role: In the past, doctors had the answers and told the patient what to do, now the practice is to ask the patient what he or she wants. A third way, Gawande says, is for the doctor to discover the patient’s life goals and then suggest how they may be reached with medical help. It is a long time since I had a GP who was interested in more than my symptoms.
The Church is sometimes as reluctant as anyone to face the fact of mortality. At death, we often prefer services of thanksgiving for life, or thanksgiving for life hereafter, rather than facing the pain and mystery of death itself. It should not be a case of one or the other. This is not a Christian book, but readers ought to be able to do their own theology of the issues raised.
In the short time that I was preparing this review, three of our long-standing friends died. Mortality is a fact for all of us. Thank God for the Gospel of Christ.
John Waller is a retired church minister living in Hythe, Kent
Everyday faith, explored in fiction
Lila has two dresses – one she wears and one she saves, and she was wearing the good one “when she got caught in the rain that Sunday and stepped into the church, just to save her dress”. Marilynne Robinson’s third novel about two aged preachers and their families living in Gilead, a US town, focuses on Lila, the young wife of the Revd John Ames, who arrives as if from nowhere and changes the course of his comfortably established, although lonely, life.
Ames lives in the same house, and ministers in the same church, as did his father and his grandfather. In contrast, Lila has no knowledge of her parenthood and was raised by Doll – a woman who “did what she could to get by,” wandering around the US wherever work was to be found.
When Lila arrives at the church she is living in a shack at the edge of town, cast out from society by her own sense of shame; she is like a wandering sheep for whom Ames is the shepherd. There is something almost Christ-like in the way he sees through her vagabond appearance to the essential goodness of her soul.
Having stolen a Bible from church, Lila begins to read from Ezekiel and Job, eschewing Ames’ advice to try the Gospel of Matthew. Certain passages in those books perplex her, but also, having lived though tornadoes in the wilderness, she finds that “Ezekiel knows what certain things feel like.”
Robinson writes about religion as an ordinary part of life, as a fount of questions for which there are no easy answers. An omniscient narrator tells the story from Lila’s point of view as she struggles with questions about, for example, existence, why certain things happen, and, if it matters that these things happened, then “how could the world go on the way it did”.
This is a beautiful novel both in the language used and in the loving way Robinson treats her characters. Although the publicity blurb on the cover promotes it as a secular love story, it offers a much more complex reading to those for whom religion is an everyday experience.
Dr Patricia Brewerton is a part-time tutor of palaeography at Birkbeck, University of London
Meda Stamper invites us to allow Mark’s Gospel to go deep into our thinking, praying and living. Embodying Mark is a manual to be used in ways that suit each reader as they seek to follow Jesus today. Eight short chapters lead us through the Gospel, enabling us to follow Jesus as: Preacher of Good News, teacher, healer, shepherd, beloved, lover and king, culminating in the mystery of the risen one. Each chapter includes a focus text as part of a larger section of the Gospel, “poetry to pray with” (from the Hebrew scriptures), supplementary passages from the New Testament and a verse to memorise and carry with us. Then, there is section “thinking about” the text, followed by “suggestions for prayer and embodiment” both for individuals and groups.
Stamper’s reflection on the Gospel is clearly influenced by her biblical scholarship, her preaching and teaching as a minster in the US and the UK, and her one-woman performances of Mark’s Gospel; all this has led to a vivid and impassioned interaction with Mark’s text. She describes her book as “a multi-dimensional experience of the story”. Her enthusiasm for the Gospel – both as text and as lived-out reality – is captivating. However, I can imagine some readers might be resistant to her invitation to “explore Mark creatively, intellectually, spiritually, physically and emotionally”. Some readers might be overwhelmed by the choice of exercises presented to them, while others dismiss the more artistic activities as “not for them”. Group leaders will need to help such members to let go of such inhibitions. Likewise, individual readers will need discipline to work with the book rather than just read it.
Mark’s Gospel is a story in a hurry, hurling us towards the passion of Jesus. Meda’s guidebook encourages us to slow down in our reading, to allow us to draw from its riches and make deeper connections, to more truly embody the Good News in our daily lives. Mark’s is the key Gospel for this lectionary year and this book will be a rich resource for group leaders, quiet day and retreat organisers, teachers and preachers and, even more importantly, individual Christians wanting new insights and challenges in their following of Jesus – God’s love embodied.
Terry Hinks is an ordained minister serving churches in Romsey and Braishfield, Hampshire
This article was published in the February 2015 edition of Reform.