Reviews – September 2013
Finding the True Self
Father Richard Rohr is a spiritual director of many years’ experience. He has a splendid reputation, holding together the wisdom of different religious traditions but claiming to remain steadfastly Christian. However, I found some of the doctrines upon which his latest book is based difficult to swallow.
The basic point of the book is that we each have a True Self that needs to be searched for, separated from the debris of ego that surrounds it, and must, like Jesus, be resurrected. All that I can easily believe. But universalism (the idea that everybody will be saved regardless of faith) underpins the book, and that runs counter to the many times Jesus says that not all will be saved.
Father Richard’s interpretation of the Cosmic Christ seems to lead him into pantheism. To put his own spin on 1 Corinthians 15: 28, he quotes with approval Bonaventure’s quotation: “[God] is supremely one and all-inclusive, God is therefore ‘all-in-all’”; then he adds: “You can either accuse St Paul and St Bonaventure… who is proclaimed a ‘Doctor of the Church’, of Pantheism, or admit that we are the ones who do not get it yet.” Confusingly, he seems to approve of this idea in the main text of the book, and deny it in an appendix.
Similarly, he espouses the Orthodox doctrine of theosis or divinisation, which describes “an actual ontological, metaphysical, objective union between humanity and God, which alone would allow Jesus to ‘take us back with him’ into the life of the Trinity”, while in an appendix he says “you are not entirely absorbed into God, and you are not the same as God.” Forgive me for becoming a little confused.
In spite of my unhappiness with some of Father Richard’s doctrines, I agreed with some of his conclusions. He gives us excellent chapters on intimacy with God, and on death, and his remarks on Christian tribalism are very apposite. Where he writes of the Holy Spirit’s transformation in a person, it struck chords with my charismatic experience; I wondered whether at times we were saying the same thing in different languages.
This book may help those who are looking for a way out of traditional legalistic religion, but it will be difficult for those who prefer scriptures quoted without spin.
Ruth Allen is a retired minister in Ilkeston, Derbyshire
Reflections on different struggles
Suffering is part of human experience. Bereavement, depression or injustice at the suffering of others, all cause us pain at one time or another. Although humankind is remarkably resilient and although we might survive this suffering, “the experience will have changed us”, making us either “more defensive” or “more compassionate”. This book explores what writers across time and space have said about suffering, our response to it and “where we encounter God” there. No one’s suffering is exactly the same as another’s, but Chapman offers us these writings as “companions whose testimony rhymes in some way with our own”.
He begins by clearing away some received ideas about suffering which might inhibit a creative, compassionate response to the difficulties we face, and replacing them with more productive lines of thinking.
He then introduces various writers – St John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyala, Julian of Norwich, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Simone Weil among them. Although many of their writings can seem opaque, he opens them up by linking them to other writings and further illuminating them with anecdotes from his own experience. Different writers will speak to different forms of suffering and appeal to different individuals: Hadewijch, the 13th-Century poet who wrote in the courtly love tradition of her time and for whom God was a “she” (Lady Love), understood that just as there are seasons in the year so there are rhythms “within the world of feelings”; Etty Hillesum struggled to come to terms with the horrors of the Nazi occupation of her homeland, and to hold on to the idea that “life remains rich and beautiful” if you can receive it as it is.
At the end of each chapter are suggestions for reflection and meditation. Read in one go, the book can feel a little repetitive, but this is not how it is intended to be read; one needs to spend time with these ideas. It was written for those experiencing suffering and those who seek to support them, offering them a wide and varied selection of writings to contemplate.
Patricia Brewerton is a member of Lumen United Reformed Church in London
A broad and refreshing view of Paul’s letters
his book is written for those who have decided they don’t like the apostle Paul, or disagree with what Paul has written. Gempf has written this book to set the record straight, challenge people to spend a little longer with Paul, and to uncover the circumstances to which Paul was responding in his letters in order to read Paul as he was meant to be read.
Firstly, Gempf acknowledges the complexity of Paul’s personality – complete with his difficult sides. Even for the church back then, Paul was a prickly person! Some of his views on gender and sexuality make him difficult for us to completely draw alongside. However, Gempf is determined that we should not write off all Paul has to say without first being prepared to walk a mile in Paul’s shoes. Gempf encourages readers to hear Paul’s words authentically, viewing the epistles as letters, each one a snapshot in a chain of communication between communities and Paul, the content being just one part of a conversation. To improve our understanding of Paul we must try to reconstruct the other parts of the conversation. What was Paul replying to?
In the central chapters of the book, Gempf shows readers how to bring to life the conversations between Paul and the church in Galatia, sheds light on Paul’s contact with the Christian community in Corinth as expressed in 1 Corinthians, and finally demonstrates how his approach helps readers understand the letter of Paul to Philemon.
Not really disliking Paul to begin with, I found this book a refreshing, easy to read, wide-angle view of Paul’s letters, providing me with fresh, easy-to-apply, methods for delving more deeply into Paul’s letters. It is an approach which enables you to look not just at what Paul is saying but why, bringing to life individuals and communities, revealing the problems encountered and challenges faced on the way.
Whether you like Paul or not, I would recommend this book to individuals as well as church study groups, and to everyone who wants to grow in their own faith by understanding more about the faithful actions of others.
Catey Morrison is a United Reformed Church minister for the East Cleveland Group of URCs
Life and death through mystery’s lens
John de Gruchy is emeritus professor of Christian studies at the University of Cape Town. His life was brought up short on 21 February 2010 when his son, Steve, lost his life in a drowning accident at the age of 48. This book is his attempt to find answers to the deep questions that any person of faith will ask in such circumstances.
The prologue describes the tragedy of Steve’s death and the feelings it aroused for his family; the epilogue tells us of some of the consequences. In between are chapters on the Bible, theology, neuroscience, resurrection and on a study of mystery itself.
The book itself is a pretty hard read. It is not simply that the author’s pain is so evidently raw; it is also because he is a widely read man who is used to developing an argument with careful theological precision. As such, I would not recommend it to anyone recently suffering the premature loss of someone very close. When the pain is acute, intellectual argument does not help at all.
But a group of ministers, or lay preachers or elders who want to develop their understanding of life and death issues from a Christian perspective will find this a very useful resource. How good it is to see a book that faces death, rather than escaping into thanksgiving for life.
I think there is not enough of mystery in much Reformed theology (maybe it is because mystery is seen as something of a theological cop-out?) so I was glad to find a book that unashamedly led me into mystery and helped me to see that human life is full of mystery, not least when an author delves into the (for me) foreign territory of neuroscience. De Gruchy is not a fan of a God of the gaps; rather he sees the mystery in what we know and in how it holds together.
I have sat where John de Gruchy sat, though in very different circumstances. Neither of us found all the answers, but he is a good companion on the journey.
The Revd John Waller is a retired United Reformed Church minister living in Hythe, Kent
Reminders of hardship
It’s grim up north” has become a joke phrase in Britain, parodied in the pages of Private Eye and used in comic sketches for years. The Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain demonstrates just how grim it was in the industrialised north in the first half of the 20th Century. Lowry shows us grimy buildings alongside desolate wastelands. His stick people crowd round a dead body on the ground, or watch as the “fever van” takes away another sick child, or attend one more funeral. This is not a happy land. The sky is grey. This is what struck me most looking around a gallery of Lowry’s compositions – the sky is always grey in every painting. There are no shadows. There is not a hint of sun.
As a child, I knew of Lowry as the man who painted stick figures. I never understood how a “serious painter” could paint people so badly, so I naively thought him a bad painter. Forty years later, the Tate’s exhibition solved the puzzle for me with a single word: impressionism. Lowry was trained by an impressionist painter, Adolphe Valette, and was an impressionist painter.
Lowry’s early work shows that he could easily handle perspective, light and shade, but these are largely missing in his later impressionistic paintings. His is not the attractive impressionism of lily ponds and cathedrals at sunset. His is a grim, grey, grimy impressionism of urban Lancashire, devastated by the depredations of the industrial revolution. It is the distillation of the industrialised Lancashire townscape: dirty, sad, poor, and hard.
The impression does not aim for realism. For example, the houses are often too far apart. No industrialist would allow the extent of wasteland shown by Lowry; he would build slums to house his workers. The people are stylised so that they do not draw the eye. Lowry needed people to populate his towns, otherwise the townscape would be sterile. But he must also have known that the viewer’s eye would be drawn inexorably to the people: it is human nature to be most interested in other humans. He said: “Natural figures would have broken the spell of my vision, so I made them half unreal.”
The Tate Britain exhibition opened my eyes to what Lowry was trying to do with his stick figures and his half-unreal townscapes. His paintings are a necessary reminder of how unremittingly grim life “up north” once was, and still is for many around the world. It is an art that challenges the way we live off the backs of others. Lowry himself said: “If art fails to confront the new world made by industry, it becomes bloodless and inward-looking, mistaking novelty for innovation.”
Neil Dodgson is professor of graphics and imaging at the University of Cambridge
Modernist expressions of struggle and resistance
El-Salahi, now aged 83, is the first African modernist to have a retrospective at the Tate, so this is an unusual exhibition, based on the works of an unusual artist. Born in Sudan, he trained in Islamic calligraphic script, before studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Here he met contemporary Western art, dominated at that time by highly abstracted and non-representational painting and sculpture coming out of cubism and surrealism. Returning to Sudan in 1957, he became a leading figure in the “Khartoum School” which aimed to establish a new visual language for the newly-independent country, linking the traditions of Africa with Western modernism. In 1975 he was arrested by the military rulers of Sudan on suspicions of anti-government activities. He spent six months in prison without trial, and after his release went into exile. Since 1998 he has lived in Oxford.
The exhibition begins with naturalistic portraits from the 1950s, and then follows him into the more difficult forms of abstraction. As with much modernism, these paintings are difficult to interpret. There are plenty of representational clues caught up in imaginative formal patterns, but it is hard to get to their meaning. Reborn sounds of childhood dreams I (1961–5) points us towards dream imagery and the modernist interest in synaesthesia – connecting different senses, such as, here, vision and sound. The abstracted surrealistic forms and calligraphic shapes hint at a meaning, but the way to it seems impenetrable. Its companion piece, Reborn sounds of childhood dreams II (1983) is scarcely more open, being filled with dark, mysterious or aggressive figures. Some later images are visually arresting, contrasting wide areas of white space with other areas of deeply intricate imagery and patterns.
The Tate bills this as modernism coloured by spirituality, but, as often, that word is loosely used. About the recent, more colourful but still highly abstracted images of trees, the curator claims: “The tree represents a complete spiritual being … The series serves as a means of healing and spiritual meditation for the artist.” But there is little if anything of the transcendent.
Although El-Salahi was brought up in an Islamic culture, the references to Islamic faith are few. The title of the triptych Day of Judgement (2008–9) might lead you to expect some kind of religious imagery, whether Islamic or Christian, but there is none. Rather it seems to be an image of universal hopelessness, with no escape for anyone.
Until the very recent tree series, the images are intriguing but joyless: a sense of sadness and struggle lies heavily over the abstract forms and sombre colours. However, because of the abstracted nature of the visual language, one does not get below this generalised sense of pain and soulful reflection. The tree series is more joyful in colour, a memory of certain trees along the Nile that dry up in the rainy season and spring to life in the drought – a symbol perhaps of resistance and hope that has sustained the artist through a long and, at times, difficult career.
Nigel Halliday is an art historian, lecturer and teacher
These reviews were published in the September 2013 edition of Reform.