Reviews – July/August 2013
What are creeds for?
For a book about creeds, Faith and the Creeds spends a long time not talking about creeds. It is only five chapters long, and chapter four is the one where the ground is finally prepared thoroughly enough for McGrath to introduce us to the documents in question. This is not an accidental oddity though; it is central to his point.
Faith and the Creeds is the first of a five-part series called “Christian Belief for Everyone”, which is intended to be McGrath’s Mere Christianity, an introduction to the core of Christianity shared by the various churches. The next three books will cover the Trinity, and then be rounded off by The Christian Life and Hope.
McGrath makes it very clear in the earlier part of the book that creeds are not what the Christian faith is fundamentally about. Christianity may be treated by atheists as a set of propositions to be disproved, but for believers it is something completely different. As McGrath puts it, it is “the ‘big picture’ – a vision of reality that the Christian faith asks us to trust, invites us to enter and encourages us to unpack and savour”.
Creeds relate to this like maps to a beautiful landscape – they are no substitute for the real thing, but help you to find your way around it. They may look legalistic, restrictive and exclusive, but instead, says McGrath, their job is to remind you of the big picture and of your role in a faith community, and they state a willingness to accept what you do not yet understand.
McGrath gives a good account of the role creeds play in believers’ lives, an explanation of what they are and are not. The problem is: if creeds are not the real thing itself but guides to it, why not make that real thing the subject of the book, instead of writing an introduction to the guides? It felt, perhaps unfairly, as if McGrath was putting off talking about the creeds, for fear they would be an anti-climax to his “big picture” of living faith. Which for me, they were rather.
Alex Nott is a freelance writer and works in church communications
An extraordinary Welsh Puritan speaks across centuries
This is a labour of love. In the mid-1960s, John Morgans wrote a postgraduate thesis on William Erbery. Now, 50 years later, in retirement, he has returned to this extraordinary, almost unknown, Welsh Puritan and allowed him to speak in his own voice. And what a voice!
Prior to Morgans’ earlier thesis, Erbery was dismissed by the Puritan scholarly industry. They concurred with (and were misled by) an anonymous polemicist of 1685 who accused him of being “taken ill of his Whimsies … [his] Disease lay in his Head, not his Heart”. Here was a dangerous, radical voice. Erbery rejected ministry in all its forms (on his journey he had been both an Anglican priest and an Independent minister), was appalled by the acrimony of churches and sects towards each other, sought unity in the mystical presence of Christ (within whose body was all the saints), rejected the Protestant shibboleth of predestination and found substitutionary atonement morally repugnant. He even advocated toleration for followers of the three great religions of his day: Jews, Christians and Muslims. This was not the way to preferment – even after the execution of Charles I in 1649. Indeed, it was a way to find oneself arraigned as a heretic, and Erbery was so charged in 1652/3 – and acquitted. After his trial, he wrote a systematic account of his beliefs, The Honest Heretique, which was published posthumously in 1658.
Erbery was one of those who “turned the world upside down” in that extraordinary decade of the 1650s, which he and so many others believed were the “last days”. But where the 17th Century perceived a heretic, we see a brave thinker who anticipated some of the major theological debates of later centuries, and it is hard not to admire him for (in his own words) “retiring into the inner world, waiting in silence, seeking the truth, walking in the light and being a wayfaring man”.
All who are interested in Puritanism and Welsh church history will be grateful to Morgans. His editorial touch is light yet scholarly. He truly allows Erbery to speak across the centuries, and in a fine introduction he places him in the context of contemporary scholarship.
The Revd Dr David Cornick is general secretary of Christians Together in England and a fellow in theology at Robinson College, Cambridge
A comic snapshot of church life
Paul Kerensa is a comedian and a script writer for the BBC, contributing to such programmes as Miranda. He is also a Christian – hence the “kneel-down stand-up” phrase in the subtitle of this book. This means he is often working on a Saturday night in different parts of the country, then making his way to a local church on Sunday morning.
Paul has no particular denominational allegiance and each chapter is a little narrative gem, linking his visit to a particular denomination with a preceding comedy gig, and revealing parallels between them; for example: “Numbers are down, innovation is difficult to find, and invariably there is some over-casual, middle class man trying to keep the attention of a half-full room of starers. Comedy circuit or church?” In the process, Kerensa provides a snapshot of current UK church life, and even seems to pick a wonderfully typical United Reformed Church, where the secretary seems determined to pair him off with their youngest female member (who is old enough to be his mother!) Another chapter describes a visit to a very evangelical Church of Scotland where, after letting rip in a somewhat un-Christian fashion at a Glaswegian heckler the night before, he finds himself discussing the show after the service with a very earnest couple who had been there. Throughout the chapters, there runs the saga of his relationship with his long-suffering girlfriend, leading to their engagement.
The writing is witty, shot through with a self-deprecating humour, and includes amusing summaries of different church traditions and practices with an obvious eye to the un-churched. I suspect that the book will be of more interest to those inside the church than out, despite warm commendations on the cover from fellow comedians such as Miranda Hart. I would file Kerensa alongside Adrian Plass.
Lance Stone is a United Reformed Church minister based at Emmanuel URC, Cambridge
The Bible as biology
There is plenty of the popular level biology that Steve Jones is well known for in The Serpent’s Promise – from a discussion of the differences between how chimpanzees and humans eat, to the fact that goldfish can taste with their whole bodies. However, as the subtitle suggests, it’s not meant simply to be a science book, but to offer a scientific reflection on the Bible.
So, taking the story of Adam, Jones explores what scientists have discovered about our genetic ancestry. With the tale of Methuselah, he explores the science of ageing and life expectancy. He compares biblical attitudes to sex to scientific understandings of our behaviour. He considers what version of the story of Noah and the flood might plausibly have happened.
What is interesting but exasperating about this is how little it has to say to anyone genuinely interested in the Bible. Jones’ intention, he says, is to help bridge the chasm between Christians and atheists. He is an atheist but hopes to find common ground and foster communication by considering the science of the Bible. Instead, the book is a frustrating case of the two parties talking past each other.
Jones’ starting point is that “Genesis was the world’s first biology text book” (on the grounds that it considers questions of human origins – questions biology has now answered). This is a terribly unhelpful approach to dialogue, because it takes so little account of how and why Christians read the Bible. No one can know the intention of Genesis’ authors, but we know that Christians read it for its insight into the human condition, not its scientific findings. We find in Adam and Eve a timeless exploration of our relationship with self, others and God, to which a discussion of the zoology of talking snakes would add little.
Treating the Bible as a primitive attempt at science is as unhelpful as treating the periodic table as a rubbish poem. Understanding between atheists and believers will not flourish so long as our conversations try to answer questions no one is asking.
Stephen Tomkins is editor of Reform magazine
The Amen Corner
Written by James Baldwin
National Theatre, London
Until 14 August
It starts with a song, a gospel hymn – one voice singing, then two and then many and there is dancing and stamping and the noise of it and the heat of it takes you over and it’s Sunday morning in Harlem, 1950, and we are all worshipping the Lord, Amen! Welcome to Rufus Norris’ production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner. Written in 1955, before the civil rights movement and before the author became good friends with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, it shows us a world of powerful Pentecostal women. Men are present as jazz players, wayward sons or weak husbands, but the women hold the community together.
It tells the story of Sister Margaret (played with steely fragility by Jean-Baptiste), an uncompromising pastor, and her relationship with her congregation. Like other heroines, Sister Margaret sets in motion her own destruction by refusing to bend in her convictions – no comics for the kids and no jobs in the liquor industry for the men. But then her sick husband appears at her door asking for help and she proves to be all too human. Where she was accepted as a single mother abandoned by her no-good, drunken, jazz-playing husband (played with gleeful mischief by Lucian Msamati) she is seen differently when it emerges that she chose to leave him. Is she unchristian? Unwomanly? Unmotherly? Can she be trusted? How did she buy that new Frigidaire?
It is hard to bring about a coup in a church where the culture is to not speak ill of others (openly). This production mines all the humour possible from this tragic but incongruous situation. Sister Moore, one of the main conspirators, a spinster who proudly calls out: “Bless your name, Jesus, for no man has ever touched me,” is a hilarious and dangerous creation, who, played by Cecilia Noble is like an overeager teacher’s pet wanting to have a go at taking the class. Norris has a great sense of musical humour, punctuating arguments with the syncopated slams of unfolding chairs or the squeak of a trumpet. He places a jazz trio at the periphery of the action, always smoking and watching, a constant reminder of the personal freedoms that are not allowed. Their melancholy strumming scores the bitter undercurrent of the play. The many moments of spontaneous gospel singing are given a joyous beauty by the cast and London Community Gospel Choir, the heartfelt love of God expressed becoming a twisted counterpoint to the vengeful judgement meted out on their pastor.
Sister Margaret is a great show-woman who can quote the Word and keep any elder in check, but Jean-Baptiste gradually she peels back the layers to show a scared vulnerable mother unsure she can trust herself to be true to the God she loves. Ultimately, she discovers the true meaning of love – but at a very high price. Watching, one can’t help but feel that we set too high a standard for our holy people who are after all only human. And do we set even higher standards upon our female church leaders?
Celia Meiras is a freelance journalist and actor
These reviews were published in the July/August 2013 issue of Reform.