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Reform Magazine | December 5, 2023

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Reviews – November 2017

Advent reads







Advent for Everyone: A journey with the apostles / Unearthly Beauty: Through Advent with the saints
Tom Wright / Magdalen Smith
SPCK, £8.99 each, ISBNs: 9780281078387 and 9780281077182

In Touch with God: Advent meditations on biblical prayers
Michael and Rosemary Green
SPCK, £7.99, ISBN: 9780281078127

Christmas Through the Keyhole: Luke’s glimpses of Advent
Derek Tidball
BRF, £6.99, ISBN: 9780857465207

If you are a daily reader, then two of these books will help keep your Advent reading focused over the four weeks. If you are a more ‘dip in and dip out’ type reader, you might choose any of these books and read by topic or theme.

In Touch with God offers prayers from some of the most well-known Old Testament people and then offers some psalms and looks at Mary, the shepherds and angels. It takes the biblical text and makes contextual comments, followed by a thought and prayer for each day. The information shared is thought-provoking and comprehensive but some of the ‘thoughts for the day’ are simplistic.

Advent for Everyone has set readings for each day and a week each for themes of thanksgiving, patience, humility and joy over the Advent period. Each day offers a Scripture reading and a relevant reflection to 21st-century Christian living. It is relevant, full of information and easily read.

Unearthly Beauty addresses the issue of keeping faith while living in the world today, and finds answers through Christians of the past. As I work in a tradition that does not focus widely on saints, this was a refreshing and thought-provoking book. Its author writes of the lives of 25 saints but also of her life and the world in which we live. Smith also offers challenges to our thinking and a range of prayer topics.

Christmas Through the Keyhole focuses on Luke and gives a daily reading. Again, it reflects Scripture passages, this time songs. Each week one long text is broken down day by day. Derek Tidball takes the songs – of Mary and Zechariah, Simeon and the angels, then John, Paul and Hebrews – and uses them to glimpse the story of the first Christmas in all its richness, joy, pain, agony and hope. Each day ends with a short Scripture as a focus for meditation.

Jenny Mills is Minister of Newport Pagnell United Reformed Church and West End United Church in Wolverton, Milton Keynes


Art-filled analysis of Revelation

Picturing the Apocalypse: The book of Revelation in the arts over two millennia
Natasha and Anthony O’Hear
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780198779278

Martin Luther was no great fan of Revelation. In his 1522 preface to the book, he stated bluntly: ‘I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.’ But that didn’t stop his brilliant visual propagandist, Lucas Cranach, from exploiting its imagery (like the whore of Babylon) as they ratcheted up anti-papal rhetoric during the 1520s. Revelation still divides opinion. Scholars trace its apocalyptic cousins in the undergrowth of the literature of Second Temple Judaism whilst fundamentalists frighteningly incorporate it into a Baedeker’s guide to the end times.

What the O’Hears (a father daughter team: Anthony is a philosopher and Natasha a theologian; both have acute art-historical eyes) establish is that it is an intensely visual text. Visions aren’t sequential arguments. The mind’s eye can be imprinted with a veritable panorama, and artists can reproduce that in a way that eludes commentators. For example, Hans Memling’s St John’s Altarpiece holds God in glory, a woman clothed with the sun, four horsemen of the apocalypse and other images on the same picture plane. In these ways, artists become profound exegetes of John’s vision on Patmos and are allowed to be theologians on their own terms.

This sumptuously illustrated volume ranges across the centuries, from the 12th-century Lambeth Apocalypse through Turner, Blake, John Martin and on to Gordon Cheung, James Chadderton and Yolanda Lopez. The material is organised thematically around the central images of Revelation with exemplary clarity, and, as an added bonus, the authors cast insightful peripheral glances towards music, film and literature.

Picturing the Apocalypse invites the reader to ponder new perspectives, to see the familiar strangeness of Revelation through artists’ eyes. As the O’Hears do so, particularly in their exposition of Blake, they restore to the book the centrality of Christ the lamb, and therefore the paradox at the heart of the faith – that it was by sacrifice and passivity that salvation was accomplished, by the cross that God’s victory was won and the New Jerusalem fashioned.

David Cornick is General Secretary of Churches Together in England


Discover two Welsh hymnwriters

Flame in the Mountains: William Pantycelyn,
Ann Griffiths and the Welsh hymn
E Wyn James (Editor) and HA Hodges
(essays and translation)
Y Lolfa Cyf
ISBN: 9781784614546

This book is a collection of pieces by the English scholar who, with his colleague AA Allchin, did most to persuade the wider ecumenical and international Church to recognise the value of Welsh hymnody, as literature and as theology. Here are collected his reflections on two Welsh hymnwriters with Welsh texts and English translations of their work.

This might sound a rather obscure book, for the expert alone, but there is much here to draw many readers of Reform. Flame in the Mountains brings to our attention something beautiful that is in danger of being lost. In the time of William Williams and Ann Griffiths, Nonconformist chapels in Wales were flourishing. Many chapels are now closing, but they carried traditions of faith that we need to treasure – traditions carried in these hymns. In the case of these two writers, their work combines deep feeling with a biblical vision for human life, with intuitions of God and poetic language of ‘wind and water and rock’. The language, even in translation, is simply stunning and deserves to last. Both have an intensity of expression, an appreciation of the sheer ‘Godness of God’ and a love and longing for God. Both were Calvinists in the sense of celebrating the ‘infinite beauty and unquenchable love’ of God.

William Williams (1717-1791) of Pantycelyn wrote around 1,000 hymns – possibly only one is well known in most of the United Reformed Church today (‘Guide me, O thou great Jehovah’) – but his poetry and skill fed churches for decades. Ann Griffiths (1776-1805) wrote from her quiet life on the family farm, only 70 stanzas and eight letters, but with great skill and effect.

Hodges wanted the rest of the Christian world to know this deep well of faith. It is one from which we should take the opportunity to drink too, for this is our family. Hodges also wanted us to hear these distinctive voices from a place he loved: ‘Wales has a voice of its own, and has something to say.’ He has helped us to hear it.

Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset


On YHWH, God and Israel

God, Neighbour, Empire: The excess of divine fidelity and the command of the common good
Walter Brueggemann
SCM Press
ISBN: 9780334055624

This wonderful, inspirational book is vintage Brueggemann, and anyone familiar with his writings will recognise features of his work that have made him, arguably, the world’s leading Old Testament expositor. Once again, the Scripture is expounded with contemporary and prophetic urgency (a favourite Brueggemann word) and we are presented with a rich word in season.

The book begins with a chapter on the nature and mission of God, an examination of God’s relationship with Israel expressed in terms of relationship and fidelity. This creates the context for an exploration of basic biblical themes, with chapters following on justice, grace and law. In each case, we are treated to close readings of the biblical text and new perspectives on familiar terms. Over it all, there broods the liberating (though sometimes troubling) figure of Yhwh, the God of Israel, who opposes Pharaoh and his relentless and destructive Egyptian economy, and who subverts the Medes and the Persians with their immutable and binding law. In a wide-ranging exposition, Brueggemann explores trajectories in the Old Testament that point us towards new horizons. Justice is read not ‘from above’ – from the perspective of the king and those in charge – but ‘from below’, through the eyes of those whose cries summon Yhwh’s attention. Grace is expounded in all its excess, in terms of the second-chance offered to recalcitrant Israel, and beyond. Brueggemann’s account of law leaves behind the narrow, rigid confines of the quid pro quo, drawing us into uncharted realms of divine excess and generosity.

Under Brueggemann’s sure touch and with his profound insights, the Old Testament comes alive and excites, addressing us powerfully (though obliquely – as always with Brueggemann there is no rush to ‘application’ or ‘relevancy’). This is scholarship at its very best, made available to the Church at large. Read this book thoughtfully and carefully, as it requires – and then re-read the world and the mission of the Church in these deeply troubling times.

Lance Stone is a minister of the English Reformed Church in Amsterdam


This article was published in the November 2017 edition of  Reform

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