Reviews – November 2016
Stories to help find Jesus through John
The Gospel of John: The Gospel of relationship
Darton, Longman and Todd
Jean Vanier’s new book reminded me of the New Testament letters of John: all four works were written towards the end of long lives devoted to serving Jesus, and all contain the distilled wisdom of decades, of being led by the Holy Spirit into all truth. All, too, are deceptively simple, with a clear and straightforward message to their readers, a message which almost seems too simple to take in. It would be so much easier to be sidetracked into the minutiae of church life, risk assessments, DBS checks, meetings, than to live out the simple message of what it means fully to love other people.
Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche communities which work worldwide to support and enable people with intellectual and learning disabilities; as such, he has so much to teach us about how to love people who are significantly different. The stories he tells to illustrate his points are often intensely moving, and challenge the preconceptions of those of us who have had little contact with people with such needs.
The book consists of 14 short chapters, covering some of the events of Jesus’ life chronicled solely in John’s Gospel (eg the wedding at Cana, the conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, the raising of Lazarus) in addition to Vanier’s thoughts on the crucifixion and resurrection. In each chapter he tells the story he is dealing with, without presupposing familiarity with the text, so that the message is easily accessible for those whose Bible knowledge is sketchy. The language is delightfully jargon-free. Vanier’s Roman Catholic background gives us deeper insights into the role of Mary in John’s Gospel, and he uses his own translations, which are sometimes refreshingly different.
This is a book to read slowly and to ponder; a message to delve into deeply; a set of insights to change our attitudes until they are more like Jesus’.
Ruth Allen is a retired church minister based in Ilkeston, Derbyshire
Biography of a paradox
Kierkegaard: A single life
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a paradox. A man of prodigious industry, he never held down an ordinary job. After aborting his engagement, he continued to love intensely, long after Regine had moved on and married. He knew, it seems, half of Copenhagen, but hardly anybody really knew him. Passionate about Christianity, he came to despise the Church. In books wreathed in aliases and pseudonyms, he urged people to respond truly and honestly to Christ. His frank and forceful writing alienated almost everybody around, but reached across a century to energise and inspire Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King.
Even for the people who knew him best, Kierkegaard could be awkward to get along with and hard to make sense of. Yet, Stephen Backhouse treats him with insight and respect. This biography is meant for ‘educated non-specialists’. It is readable, well planned, and rattles along quite briskly, setting its subject in context in family, church and nation, and dealing quite sympathetically with the foibles that were an integral part of the man. By the time we get to the most controversial and chaotic of funerals, we have not only learned about Kierkegaard, but learned from him too. Those who want a precis and discussion of his copious writings can find it in an appendix.
There are big biographies of Kierkegaard to be had, but most of us would choke on them. This one has enough meat to nourish, without an impossible quantity of gristle. Interesting, informative and inspiring, it took me to Copenhagen, and taught me of Christ.
Kierkegaard drafted his own epitaph: ‘In a little while I shall have won, then the entire battle will disappear at once. Then I may rest in halls of roses and unceasingly and unceasingly speak with my Jesus.’ That’s a good way to end.
John Proctor is General Secretary of the United Reformed Church
How Terry Waite was sustained in captivity
Taken on Trust
Hodder & Stoughton
This book is a new edition of the one Terry Waite wrote 25 years ago, after he was released from nearly five years in captivity in Beirut. He has added a new foreword and a chapter reflecting on his life since release.
Almost four years of his internment were spent in solitary confinement, sometimes being treated with great brutality. Deprived of anything to write on or with, he spent his time ‘writing in his head’ the story of his life. Most of the book is taken up with a constant dialogue between what his captors were subjecting him to on a daily basis and the detailed recollection of the events which had brought him to that point. It is the story of a son of a Cheshire village policeman who becomes entranced by the rhythms of the Anglican liturgy of his parish church and ends up becoming an internationally recognised expert on conflict resolution. This then led to his appointment as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Envoy to the Middle East, and it was in that role that he was sent to Beirut to negotiate the release of captives. Instead, he became one himself.
Waite tells of the struggle to keep his faith and of being sustained by his love for the cadences of the Prayer Book and of the Authorised Version of the Bible. He manages to keep the biblical injunction not to treat his abusers with abuse, and is able to establish some degree of trust between himself and them.
This book is a fascinating account of a brave man’s incarceration towards the end of the last century. Waite’s life experience also gives him a unique qualification to reflect and comment on today’s horrendous happenings in the Middle East. It gives him the right to chide politicians who do not seem to know that to remove dictators by force only leads to the appearance of others, and worse, unleashes forces which cannot be controlled. His experience gives him the right to be listened to when he pleads for the establishment of trust between ordinary people of different races, cultures and religions.
Graham Cook is a retired church minister living in Warrington, Cheshire
Reworked Bible study classic
The Bible Makes Sense
Darton, Longman and Todd
Those familiar with the prolific output of the US scholar Walter Brueggemann will no doubt be delighted by this new volume. Brueggemann has well over 100 titles to his name, covering almost 50 years of writing books that help people understand the Old Testament. The Bible Makes Sense was first published in the US in 1997 and has been revised several times since then. That long back story suggests this volume could well be the result of much thought, prayer, preaching and reworking – a distillation of his experience and scholarship. Whether that is so or not, it deserves attention because, in the eyes of many, Brueggemann is the outstanding Old Testament scholar of our day.
The Bible Makes Sense is intended both as a tool for personal growth and for group study. Each of the nine chapters ends with questions for reflection and discussion, scripture passages for meditation and a personal reflection by the author. We are urged to see the Bible impacting on our lives now as a ‘frame of reference’ for what we decide about our world, freedom and responsibility. We are not, however, individual actors with nobody else to worry about. Brueggemann is keen to stress the importance both of our covenant relationship with God and our part within a community of faith. It is here that we both claim strength from a shared memory and accept God’s invitation to new ways of living.
Using his deep knowledge of Scripture, Brueggemann offers Old and New Testament illustrations for the major themes he covers and suggests their parallels in contemporary society. In one instance he sees parallels between the biases of modern corporate structures against those who do not meet their standards and the exploitation suffered by the Israelite slaves in the brickyards of Pharaoh.
This book contains a wealth of distilled insights for those leading worship or Bible study. The problem with ‘essence of Brueggemann’ is that it may need more dilution for most of us ordinary mortals to absorb it effectively.
Kirsty Thorpe is minister of Wilmslow United Reformed Church in Cheshire
This article was published in the November 2016 edition of Reform.