Reviews – December 2019/January 2020
Faithful Leader’s life
A Better Ambition: Confessions of a faithful liberal
Context is hugely important. It shapes the way that we engage with the world around us, and our own faith. With that in mind, it was intriguing to read the autobiography of someone inside the maelstrom of the political world of Westminster – especially as I was reading it during the weeks running up to 31 October, the date on which the UK was due to leave the European Union.
While this book tells the story of Tim Farron’s wider life, I would imagine that the story of his career as Party President and later, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, will be the part of the book that most people will want to really engage with. Farron writes compellingly, sharing insights into very important events that are currently shaping the political culture of the nation, and the future that we will be living in.
Throughout the book, Farron shares how his faith has helped to shape him, his outlook on life and his work. Farron’s theological stance may not match yours, but I found that his inclusion of this helped me to gain a better understanding of him as a person, and as a politician.
It is quite clear that one of the things the country likely knows him best for, is also the thing that frustrates him the most – his repeatedly having to answer the ‘carefully crafted question’: is gay sex a sin? I’m not sure if he fully answers that question, but Farron’s annoyance at being forced to defend his faith, instead of focussing on his job and dealing with the issues at hand, is clear. It is an annoyance I think many of us can appreciate. (Thankfully, most of us aren’t called to defend our deepest beliefs and life-giving core in full glare of the national media.)
These insights are worth a read. Whether or not you share Farron’s politics, his theological viewpoints or his stance on social issues, this glimpse behind the public face of politics, campaigning and the highs and lows of being under constant scrutiny as a public figure and a prominent Christian, is challenging and intriguing.
John Grundy is Minister of St Andrew’s United Reformed Church, Brockley, and St Michael’s United Church, New Cross, both in south east London. Tim Farron was interviewed in September’s Reform
L’Arche founder’s biography
Jean Vanier: Portrait of a free man
Written by a friend of Jean Vanier’s, this biography details the life of the founder of L’Arche. The book focuses mainly on Vanier’s foundation of a community that cares for people with intellectual disabilities. From the first household, which consisted of only Vanier and two men with learning difficulties, to a multinational organisation that provides care and support for thousands of people, Anne-Sophie Constant charts the development of a movement that was centred from the beginning on Christlike love and compassion.
Although Constant devotes the first two chapters of the biography to Vanier’s childhood and early career, there is no sense of her trying to understand how or why Vanier became the man that he did. Instead, she tells the stories of Vanier’s adult life and recounts responses from people who knew him, in order to introduce the reader to a man of dignity, laughter, compassion and humility.
Vanier was a man who dined with Popes and danced with royalty but who would hold a disabled man in his arms during evening prayers. He never delegated menial tasks but rejoiced in living life in the present moment. Constant writes that, when a journalist asked Vanier why he was washing dishes, Vanier replied: ‘Because they’re dirty.’ Like Jesus, he was unafraid to become a servant and wash another’s feet (both metaphorically and literally!)
This book is highly recommended for anybody interested in the L’Arche communities or working with people with disabilities. The biography is also a powerful story about a life without selfish ambition or a longing for recognition. It is a story of a man who emulated Jesus, and who enabled vulnerable people to live with dignity. Throughout the book, and beyond the final page, I longed to be able to meet Jean Vanier.
Diana Paulding is a writer and Old Testament graduate based in Norfolk
A Theory of Everything (that Matters): A short guide to Einstein, relativity and the future of faith
Hodder and Stoughton
This short book, with an accurately long title, is an unexpected pleasure from start to finish. It celebrates the genius of Einstein as a physicist in such clear language that the most unscientific of readers (like me) can readily understand his contribution to the creation of the post-Newtonian world.
Science occupies the first half of the book. But it is not just science, it is science in historical context. McGrath draws out themes like the championing of Einstein’s work by the Cambridge physicist (and Quaker) Sir Arthur Eddington, his shrewd use of the media, scientific politics behind Nobel prizegiving, and the increasing polarisation of German views of Einstein in the wake of the rise of antisemitism in the 1930s. Einstein talked so much about God that one of his colleagues suspected he was a theologian in disguise.
The book’s second part considers Einstein as a conversation partner in exploring the relationship between science, ethics, politics and religion. He was passionate about the big picture of life, which included science but which was so much more than science. McGrath deftly explores Einstein’s religious convictions: he was suspicious of a personal God, disliked religious institutions and found religious practice anathema; yet he wrote that ‘the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility’ and that ‘science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’
McGrath notes that the similarities to some 18th-century understandings of the ‘religion of nature’ are striking, and he then moves on to analyse the ways in which Einstein reached out for that bigger picture. That then becomes the basis for a gently thoughtful final chapter which brings Einstein into conversation with such Christian thinkers as John Calvin, CS Lewis, John Polkinghorne and Basil Mitchell, about the ways in which the bigger picture could be grounded in the Christian understanding of God.
The small county of Rutland boasts the motto, multum in parvo (much in little). The same could be said of this delightful little book.
David Cornick is a retired minister living in Cambridge
Home is Where: The journeys of a missionary child
Margaret Newbigin Beetham
Darton, Longman and Todd
In this book, Margaret Newbigin Beetham – academic, activist and daughter of famous missionary and ecumenical thinker Lesslie Newbigin – tells the story of growing up as a missionary child in India and the UK, and of the special relationship with a younger sister. The author writes in the third person, as ‘Rachel’. It is an effective device, enabling Beetham to access and expand some of her memories, and to point her story to the wider histories of generations of British missionaries, who were caught in the tensions between their calling, their family life and the colonial context in which they worked.
Framed by the stories of her parents, Rachel’s story mostly spans the period from 1946 to 1957. Their years in India are described vividly, bringing to life the warm, loving but also colonial and privileged surroundings in which Rachel grows up. The heat, colour and safety of home in India contrast sharply with boarding school years in Kent, where she and her sister are sent. There are years of separation from their parents, of feeling out of place and at times unwanted by family members to whom they are entrusted during school holidays. Often, the sisters do not know where they belong. This affects Rachel’s sister deeply, for the rest of her life.
Home is Where is an honest memoir, remembering the life of a loving family, with all its faults and failings. It paints a fascinating picture of a time and a way of life nearly forgotten. Moreover, it offers a rare insight into the lives of missionary children and the sacrifices that they were expected to make. The book left me thinking not only about belonging and identity, but also about the choices parents make, and how deeply, and often unintentionally, they affect and shape the lives of their children.
Those who have an interest in the life of Lesslie Newbigin will find lots of new information to delight them. However, the appeal of this book is much broader. Anyone who is interested in the themes of family love, loss and letting go will find this a satisfying and often deeply moving read.
Francis Brienen is Deputy General Secretary (Mission) for the United Reformed Church
This article was published in the December 2019/January 2020 edition of Reform