Reviews – December 2015/January 2016
Introducing the forgotten Gospel
The Gospel of Thomas failed to make it into the canon of the New Testament and consists of a collection of 114 sayings or short parables. Discovered by accident in 1945 in Egypt, the Gospel, especially as provided in the translation by John Henson (Good as New: The radical retelling of the Scriptures, O Books, 2004) present a more direct, pithy and apparently authentic voice for Jesus than that to which we are accustomed – for example: “Being alive or dead has nothing to do with breathing and nothing to do with corpses,” (verse 11).
In this book, Abraham-Williams disabuses the reader of the false historic notion which identifies the disciple Thomas with doubting and skepticism: “Thomas didn’t doubt, he questioned and that’s a very different matter.” Drawing also upon John’s Gospel, the author travels with Thomas on a journey to find an alternative route between hard and dispassionate certainty and contemporary, dismissive disbelief. For this third way, he uses the term “incertainty” – an intuitive way of knowing which may not be verifiable scientifically (“seeing is believing”) but is nevertheless sufficiently true to be the basis for living honestly and well. About such knowing, he writes: “Incertainties are not aberrations … but are the signs of authenticity”. As fellow travellers on this journey, the author enlists a diverse group of companions: Pope Francis, Julian of Norwich and the actor Michael Sheen (who interestingly starred in a radical community passion play in Port Talbot). Well-judged quotes from past and contemporary authors are fascinating, helpful and prompt further thinking without ever being overwhelming.
Abraham-Williams writes simply and accessibly. As well as being a useful introduction to the Gospel of Thomas, this book assists greatly with answering the vital question: “How might we speak the Gospel into a spiritually infantile landscape which [nevertheless] longs for the God it dare not name?”
Ian Fosten is ministry team leader for United Reformed churches in the Norwich area
Interfaith exploration of God’s hospitality
This book is a treasure-house of delights from the Qur’an, the Bible, philosophers (ancient and modern), Church Fathers, Islamic belles-lettres, Sufi mysticism, and Islamic and Western feminist writings, enriched by personal narratives. It will appeal in particular to those who want to delve deeper into human living and loving before God.
In Islam, God is never far from food, earthly and heavenly, and this is closely related to the theme of hospitality. The etiquette and scope of hospitality are spelt out clearly. Host and guest are to be gracious to one another, they are sustained by their duty to God and this gives them cause for rejoicing. Where mutual obligations are violated, there will be retribution – around half the Qur’an deals with the day of judgment and the afterlife. Hospitality is an attitude to life, based on compassion – after relatives, widows, travellers and orphans are the chief beneficiaries. The concept of hospitality always involves the concept of “stranger” but there is no such distinct category in the Qur’an.
The book is charming, but it is also disconcerting. Although Siddiqui does not set out to compare attitudes to hospitality in different traditions, she does engage to some extent with the Church Fathers, who have influenced her thinking. There is no reference, however, to the Talmud or Rabbinic literature which arguably are equally influential on Islamic thought. Furthermore, in that she cites a spread of relevant philosophers, the omission of Rawls and Walzer is striking.
References are cumulative and linkages are not always immediately clear. Secondary themes often take pride of place: The lengthy account of revelation in Islam and Christianity, the descriptions of the afterlife, the narrative of Adam and Eve, for example. Exploration of gender relations is integrated rather awkwardly into the overall theme of the book. On its own terms, however, this chapter is confident and assured, and the account of the Sufi female mystics breaks new ground.
Fleur Houston is a retired church minister living in Cheshire
How to live with death
Bob Whorton, a hospice chaplain, describes his book as a “three-way conversation” between the Psalms, himself and patients and relatives. It is a wonderfully collaborative book and opens up for the reader a conversation with many voices.
It would be easy to assume that this is a book about dying. But it’s a book about living. It enables those who have lived in the hospice to teach those who have not, about how to live. It reminds us that we all need to face death, not only the final death, but the little deaths: The losses of control, the regrets and the many endings of daily life. The author skillfully and wisely connects the realities of all our lives with stories of people in a hospice.
We are invited to learn how to “stay on the train” until we get to where we need to be. Taken from a poem and a reflective piece by a patient, the train metaphor illumines the times when we are not in control of our own journey; when we have to learn to stay, with uncertainties, mysteries and doubts and without grasping for facts and reason. On a train, we are not so much on a personal journey as a shared journey, and life is always best lived in this more shared frame.
This book is written, in the best sense, out of experience, and experience yielding to reflection. It is written generously, humbly, beautifully, but without sentimentality or easy parallels. I found myself thinking I would welcome this man as a pastor, in whatever kind of day or at any stage of my life. Here is wisdom to trust.
No one should think this a book only for would-be chaplains or for those who are facing death soon. This is a book to read if you want to explore how to live, how to “stay on” whatever train you are travelling on. It’s not just about how to die – indeed, it may well persuade you that life and death are not so far apart, and that there are always genuinely new songs to sing.
Susan Durber is theology adviser for Christian Aid
Ministry in focus
Alan Sell focuses on the United Reformed Church in his discussion of the nature of the ministry of all who are called to be saints, the high calling of ordained ministry, the work of ministers in leading worship, preaching and pastoral care, and the education of ministers. Professor Sell writes with vigour, humour and conviction. He draws on a wide range of historical sources which add spice to his argument.
Sometimes though, history seems to get the better of him. Was a 12-page summary of the history of Dissenting Academies, fascinating though it is, absolutely necessary in the section on ministerial education? At other times, but always with good theological reasoning, he sounds like an old man airing his complaints about the church (I know the feeling) – about worship beginning with a “good morning” rather than a biblical “call to worship”, ministers not visiting people in their homes and the banal words of some modern hymns (songs).
In short, Professor Sell looks at contemporary issues in the light of his vast historical knowledge and is making a valuable contribution to debates which should be raging in our changing Church. A few question marks scattered throughout the text would make it clear that this is a contribution, not the final word. More attention should have been given to older candidates and the complex matter of funding.
I would like to hear how people in ministry respond to his work. For instance, he argues that an essential part of the work of ordained ministry is teaching the saints. How does a minister with three or five churches do this? The author is fierce in saying the saints should want to learn; but do they? On pages 104 and 105 Sell outlines an interesting proposal for the introduction of an examined two-year probationary period. What happens to those who fail? I would like to hear people with a different theological, scientific or sociological outlook contributing a few “Yes, but”s.
John Sutcliffe is a former president of the Partnership for Theological Education, Manchester
This article was published in the December 2015/January 2016 edition of Reform.