Royal Academy of Arts Till March, £12
Feeling rather delighted by the coincidence, I first went to this exhibition on the feast day of Saint John of Capist-rano. We should never forget how close Western Europe was, and not for the first time, to being over-run bv Muslim Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. That apparently impregnable city, built on the Bosphoros, had lived the Christian life, and played a significant part in defending Christendom, for over 1100 years. Now it is known as Istanbul, the most populous city in Muslim Turkey.
One should never bite off more than one can chew, and an 1100-year span is a challenge for any exhibition. There’s also the matter of its geographical sweep: the Eastern Empire under Justinian in the sixth century included almost the whole of the Mediterranean coast, including North Africa recaptured from the Vandals, Southern Spain recaptured from the Visigoths, and Italy recaptured from the Ostrogoths. And also what we would now call the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Jordan and Egypt. And we must be careful not to forget that, when Constantine moved the imperial capital to Constantinople in 330, that was all he was doing; the Roman empire still went as far West as Britain. No one would have thought of calling it the ‘Byzantine’ Empire. Even as Constantinople itself was about to be conquered in 1453, the Emperor was calling upon his citizens to be ‘true Romans’.
But perhaps the most important thing which distinguishes the Roman Empire in its Constantinopolitan phase from what went before is that it was a Christian Empire. Constantine was the first Christian Emperor, having tolerated the practice of Christianity from 313, and Theodosius made it the official religion in 380. Even by the time of Julian the Apostate in the 350s, Christianity was well and truly bedded in among the population.
This is an exhibition for those who like ‘things’. It is full of them. If I could have walked out with any of them, it would probably have been an exquisite eleventh century gospel-book cover (which we could make good use of at St Michael’s), with gold cloisonne enamels of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin, surrounded by roundels of the saints. As we peered through the Perspex, two delightful ladies described to me how these enamels are made, by soldering metal strips to a metal surface, which leave cloisons, enclosures, which are filled with coloured enamels and fired, with the surface then being smoothed over to leave the exquisitely delicate panels that we see here. It is also used in the surround of an absorbing icon of St Michael who stands proudly from the frame, with his sword protruding from his right hand.
Icons are an important component in this exhibition, and here I felt that the labels were a little perfunctory. This raises the question of the degree to which an exhibition like this should teach people, as opposed to merely presenting the exhibits. There is a balance to be struck and no doubt the catalogue (which I decided I couldn’t afford) has much more.
The two periods of iconoclasm perhaps needed more detailed explanation than was provided with the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’ icon in room 3. Iconoclasm is a battle set in the context of our understanding of Jesus Christ as truly incarnate, and the restoration of iconography is still seen as the triumph of true understanding of the Incarnation.
Some of the icons, displayed in the last room, have come from the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, which has a collection of over 2000, some of which predate the iconoclasts. Among the best-known is the thirteenth century ‘Ladder to Heaven’. These Sinai icons are a real treat, and it would be fascinating to know something of the politics that got them to London.
There are plenty of other icons too, and again the labelling could be better. It would surely help our understanding of the icons to be told not just that this is the Virgin ‘Hodegetria’ and that is the Virgin ‘Psychosostria’, but that the former means that Our Lady is ‘showing the way’ by pointing to the child Jesus in her arms, and that the latter calls her the ‘Saviour of Souls’, paired with the Lord ‘Psychosostis’. They are both processional icons, having on their other sides respectively the Annunciation and the Crucifixion. Both will repay a careful look, to see who is illustrated in the embossed silver plaques which surround the images (the revetment).
There are some other icons that will need a long, close look, although again you’ll wish you could get closer than the cabinets will allow; you might even wish you’d taken a torch. Spend some time with the micro-mosaics, which are, as you might expect, images made from tiny, tiny tiles of costly materials. I was delighted by the Transfiguration image, with its jolly-looking Elijah, and by a diptych in a silver frame with twelve scenes from the life of Christ and Our Lady, representing the most important feasts in the Eastern calendar.
My feeling is that this is a good exhibition, but not quite a great one, perhaps because part of the glory of Byzantine art lies in the scale of the churches and the mosaics which we appreciate by visiting, say, Ravenna or Venice. But, to get a flavour of this extraordinary extension of the life of the Roman Empire, do go and have a look. And take a torch.
British Library Till 1 March, free
This is an exhibition, and as such its focus is visual; yet there is no obvious visual merit in these documents mostly in parchment, paper and print. There is nothing much to see, and yet the visual impact is enormous. Because of the fragility of these historic documents, touch is sadly not an option, which makes the visual impact all the more important.
In a downstairs gallery, with no natural light, the darkness and oppression is increased by the somewhat didactic bru-talism of the means of display. So that one small (age-darkened) document does not merge indistinguishably into the next and the next, it has been necessary to erect large blank separators to give them the context they need. And yet the impact of the exhibition is precisely this sense of ‘all these texts’ collected together.
The documents of freedom, from the Magna Carta onwards, trace the turbulent development of political, religious, social and individual freedom, mainly in this country. There is little that is new, for most of these documents are already on display in the Library’s permanent exhibition. Everything, in other words, is about the impact of ‘all these texts’ collected and presented together.
It clearly works: when I went, the gallery was crowded and animated. It was also younger and more ethnically diverse than similar exhibitions on a weekday morning. There was a small group of angry young feminists of Indian origin rather hogging the space around the Rights of Women section. As an elderly white male, I warmed to them: these were their texts and their aggressive enthusiasm was entirely appropriate. If I represented the opposition, there was a certain truth to that; they were not being rude, they were responding to something that truly mattered.
I am only sorry the exhibition is not lasting longer. ‘All these texts’ and they are ours. The freedoms celebrated were largely relayed in individual terms (this is the twenty-first century) and yet the collecting of them all together in one place gives a better sense of our shared life, our common wealth than one generally sees in a context so political in its overall emphasis.
The accompanying book Taking Liberties: the struggle for Britain’s freedoms and rights, edited by Mike Ashley [£15.95 in paperback] is interesting. Lavishly illustrated, its coverage is extensive, and it allows more careful reflection upon so many different movements for and moments of freedom over the centuries. But what would it convey without this exhibition?
It is the visual impact that matters, and why I would urge you to go and see it. It is seeing the actual documents (most, as one comes to expect, smaller than imagined) and seeing them together that has the impact. Some are solid, confident and deeply conscious of their place in history; some are but fragile fragments whose survival is itself astonishing.
As to the presentation, it ends with a series of questions asking whether our liberties are not now being threatened, by our own government elected by universal suffrage. The answer is clearly yes, they are being grievously threatened; and this surely is why the exhibition has drawn such large crowds. As an aside, I left grateful for the work of the British Library itself, guardian of ‘all these texts’, but also worried at the diminishing financial support for it and other public libraries. Selling our freedom to save a little money seems a sad folly.
Note, finally, the exhibition name and logo – the classic clunking fist with ‘taking liberties’ inscribed on the arm in agitprop sans-serif. The freedoms being celebrated were all presented in the context of generally violent confrontation with the establishment. As the texts make clear, they are hardly wrong in the persistence of such struggle: many freedoms have had to be taken from reluctant opponents. And yet, the great genius of British liberty has rested just as much on the emergence of freedom as an idea, a product of the establishment, in a way that it has not in most of Europe. The struggle, in other words, is more subtle than it is presented; but this perhaps is for another day.
ONE OF THE FAMILY
The life and cartoons of Carl Giles The Cartoon Museum 35 Little Russell Street, London Till 8 February, £4
The Cartoon Museum is one of the less well-known small museums in London. They possess a unequalled archive of cartoons, comprising prints, drawings and original sketches. The current exhibition is devoted to the work of Ronald Giles, always known to his friends as ‘Carl’ (1916-1995). It is biographical in structure, and exceptionally well-documented, both throughout its display and in the publication One of the Family.
For fifty years Giles was one of Britain’s best-loved newspaper cartoonists, first with Reynolds News and subsequently with the Daily and Sunday Express – despite his life-long left-of-centre political inclinations – of which he never made any secret! ‘People ask how I can work for a right-wing paper,’ Giles once explained, ‘but as a cartoonist I’m looking for the best stage possible for my work.’
This exhibition contains a selection of material from Giles’ private archive and tells of his life from his birth in 1916 in Islington to his death at Ipswich in 1995.
Two of his best known creations, ‘Mr Chalk’ and ‘The Family’ figure often in this exhibition, but there are also examples of his work as animationist, and war-time correspondent. He was present at the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp, where the guards were still walking around with whips hanging by straps from their wrists. Fifty years later he said ‘I am as haunted and horrified as the day I entered those gates.’
Mr Chalk was the real name of Giles’ teacher at Barnsbury Park School. There is a photograph of him in the Exhibition (looking nothing like his cartoon depiction!). ‘He was a sarcastic bugger’ Giles recalled, adding T vowed to get my own back on him, and did’ – in the form of the cadaverous figure of Chalkie – for whom in retrospect he entertained a good deal of affection, as people often do for the tyrants of their schooldays.
It is The Family that most people associate with Giles’ artistic creations. Grandma, Father Mother, and their seven or more children, Vera, the chronically-ailing maiden aunt, Uncle George, and the animals first saw the light of day in 1945; but it wasn’t until 1951 that they assumed their final form. Paradoxically, The Family started off a being recognizably working-class, but gradually developed (despite Giles’ political convictions) into a much more upwardly-mobile one. As one critic said in 1994 ‘one wonders whether the aspirational, acquisitive working class was as much his creation as Mrs Thatcher’s.’
Be that as it may, The Family remained resolutely dysfunctional, church-going and comfortably ‘non-conforming’ in the provincial town where they lived. Grandma and Stinker (Larry, one of the Twins) could always be relied upon to be ‘agin the government’ whether at school or in their local Church. ‘My Grandma says hang everyone’ says young Larry to the assembled company at a Parish Meeting to discuss the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, voicing her sotto voce remark which he has overheard to the assembled company.
Giles never had formal art training, but there was one technique at which he naturally excelled – the mastery of perspective: the ability to represent three-dimensional objects in a two dimensional medium. Perspective is taught at art-school. However, few artists excel, as Giles did, in portraying things ‘from above’ – as seen from an upstairs window for example. Perspective ‘on the level’ is comparatively simple, and portraying objects when seen from below and looking upwards presents no great difficulty But Giles, by the time he started working as a serious cartoonist, had mastered the skill of’downward perspective’ to an extent which many famous artists have never managed to attain. Someone who can manage to portray this world as seen ‘from above’, but at the same time is aware of the absurdity of much of what humans seek after, may be closer to the mind of God the Creator than theologians realise. As seen by God ‘from above’, and with his eye of Eternal Love, we mortals must appear to our Creator as little short of ludicrous. For our God is not just a consuming fire but also, par excellence, a humourist!
EX MARIA VIRGINE
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Naxos 8.572168, £6
AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS
Gian Carol Menotti Various artists
Naxos 8.669010, £6
Advent, Christmas and Epiphany approach, and these two disks offer music appropriate to those seasons. John Tavener needs no introduction. Here he sets to music a wide range of texts associated with the Blessed Virgin, some for voices alone, others with organ accompaniment.
It is astonishing what variety Tavener can produce from his forces, considering that he employs a deliberately restricted harmonic language shaped by the music of the Orthodox Church of which he is a member. Yet this brings a refreshing, sometimes startling, but always highly personal element into his work. He can be rhythmically energetic, but it is when he is contemplative that the results are most deeply enriching. His meditative music has no vagueness about it, it is muscular and strong. There is an intensity to these works which means that this is not a disk to take at a gulp. It demands to be heard piece by piece, which is testimony to the value of the music. The choir of Clare College sings with commitment and accuracy.
The operas of Gian Carol Menotti (1911— 2007) have gone up and down in critical estimation – though that is no indication of their worth. However, Amahl and the Night Visitors, written for television production in 1951, found lasting success from the start. Menotti wrote his own libretto, and it was skilfully tailored to American religious tastes, hence its homeliness and occasional descent into sentimentality. The story of the lame boy, miraculously cured during a meeting with the Wise Men on their journey to give their gifts to the Christ child, was designed to tug at heart strings, and Amahl, though ostensibly a shepherd from the East, is clearly the ail-American child who just loves Moms apple pie.
Yet Amahl sees off all killjoys and superior highbrowsfor an obvious reason – that its music, once heard, is unforgettable. The gentle opening for strings, Amahl’s pipe tune, the chant of the approaching Wise Men (kings in the opera), the Prokofievlike march as the kings enter the shepherds’ home, the amusing questioning of the kings by the young boy, the genuinely touching quartet for the kings and Amahl’s mother, the dances of the neighbouring shepherds – these and more stick firmly in the mind. For all its surface simplicity this is a skilfully written score with many subtle touches, not least in the imaginative instrumental writing. The soloists too have rewarding, and not always easy, parts, while the chorus is kept well occupied, though their music is less interesting than that for the main characters. Sometimes the music slips into the easy cosiness of the words, and the scene of the miraculous healing of Amahl is weak, but the strengths of the work are more than enough to carry it over a few dips in inspiration.
This is an excellent recording, with confident singing and generally good diction from the main characters, good chorus work, and clear playing from the orchestra. My only hesitation is that there seems to be an air of carefulness about the approach to the opera. The 1952 recording, with the original soloists and conductor, is sprightlier. However, for a fresh modern recording of the piece one could not do better than this. What a pity, though, that to fill space on the disk it was decided to record Menotti’s My Christmas (1987) for chorus and instruments. In the thirty years since Amahl, Menotti’s musical language had not significantly deepened, though his ear for instrumental effects was as keen as ever, and there are moments when the piece sinks almost to the level of Have yourself a merry little Christmas. The words for the work were again written by the composer and the listener would be helped by having them printed, though they sound suspiciously like pure kitsch. But don’t let this put you off buying Amahl. The opera will be running in your head for days.
Barry A. Orford
The Biography of the Archbishop Rupert Shortt
Hodder & Stoughton, 466pp, hbk 978 0 340 95425 6, £20
The cover photograph is pure Gandalf: all deep, twinkly eyes and bushy eyebrows, each one a question mark, the corners of the mouth suggesting just a hint of a grin. Like Gandalf s creator, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rowan was fascinated by the Welsh language as a child; Tolkien because he saw the strange script painted on the side of coal-trucks, Rowan because his parents spoke in Welsh when they wanted to prevent their son from comprehending. Here is the first of many ironies about the Archbishop’s life and ministry: from an early age, he was determined to understand, yet has become someone so little understood: he will forever be the Archbishop whose articulation was clotted, whose meaning was opaque. He is someone who adores language, revels in words and the music of words; and yet, in the words of Richard Harries (who in this instance gets it just right) ‘Rowan reflects the silence of Christ’ In the picture, he looks happy; mischievous, even, as if he wants to cast a spell (but a benevolent one) on the reader; mischievous, and resilient. Gandalf again.
Rupert Shortt’s book is pacy, engaging, intelligent, readable. Any doubts as to whether this biography should have been published (pop singers, footballers and Tony Blair constituting the usual categories of those who have their lives chronicled long before they die) are swiftly set aside. Shortts achievement is to have written a book which offers both a compelling narrative of the life and a lucid account of the work. This is not just biography; theology keeps butting in. The early influences – Coleridge, Augustine – are helpfully sketched; the steady stream of publications carefully summarized with insight and understanding.
Shortt is to be applauded for giving so much space to discussing the poetry, and to giving a couple of pages over to the Archbishops preface to a book on the Incredible String Band – the group selected as one of his choices on his appearance on Desert Island Discs in 2003. For Rowan, the ISB is all about ‘a discovery of the holy; not the solemn, not the saintly, but the holy, which sometimes makes you silent and sometimes makes you laugh and which above all makes the landscape different once and for all.’ Tellingly, Shortt comments that it is artistic projects which allow the Archbishop to ‘blossom outside the torture chamber of church politics.’ As the book becomes – inevitably and increasingly in the final third – the depressing, ghastly, and often farcical story of Anglicans and gay sex, one cannot help but feel that, if only Archbishop Akinola had sat down to listen to the Incredible String Band with the Primate of the Mother Church of the Communion, somehow, all might have been well.
The book is good on ‘how Rowan became Rowan.’ Childhood influences are well described; one begins to understand the Archbishop in terms both of Welsh granite (throw what you will at me, I will not yield) and Welsh nonconformity (an anxiety about the Petrine ministry which has never been fully softened even in the wake of moving personal encounters with two Popes).
The sections on Rowan as the undergraduate guru, exhibiting not only an intellectual but a sexual allure are startling but entertaining. We are reminded of what a tiny world the Cambridge theology faculty in the 1960s was: only a dozen undergraduates – across the entire university – were admitted in a single year. Time as a graduate student in Oxford yields one anecdote which throws light forward fittingly, if comically, on what is to come. Rowan and his circle, Shortt records, often met for walks from the city centre to Binsey, the village across Port Meadow to the west of the city where Tewis Carroll found a treacle well. On their way home, the future Primate and friends sit down beside the Thames to read aloud extracts from Winnie the Pooh. ‘Rowan was Owl’ Even then, the Archbishop is the only one who can spell ‘Tuesday’.
Although the Anglican Communion and sexuality debate dominates the account of Rowan’s years at Lambeth, what we read in Rowan’s Rule concerning the disputed question of the ordination of women is illuminating. It is at Mirfield that the Archbishop changes his mind, from being against the development to embracing it. Why? The ad hominem argument is not particularly creditable: Rowan confides in Angela Tilby that T had to change after looking around at my own side, and seeing the company I was keeping.’
The theological argument is more interesting. Rowan becomes convinced (Shortt argues) that to deny female ordination is to assert that the ordained priest’s relation to the priesthood of Christ is different in kind from that of the baptised person; and that such a view is incompatible with Catholic orthodoxy. But surely Lumen Gentium – as trustworthy an exponent of Catholic orthodoxy as you might find – is quite clear that the ministerial priesthood is different, not in degree, but in kind, from the priesthood of all the baptised? It would be good to hear the Archbishop engage more fully on this point.
In any event, the book makes it clear that – whatever his earlier theological reflections – Rowan has become more conscious of the ecclesial and ecumenical aspects of the question, and has considerable sympathy for those who remain unconvinced about women’s ordination. The account of the debate in General Synod in July 2008 – the book is bang up-to-date – suggests that what the Archbishop wanted (but did not get) was an ecclesiologically coherent solution for loyal members of the Church of England who would be unable to accept the sacramental ministry of women in the episcopate.
But, we have noted, it is not the ordination of women in the Church of England, but the saga of the ordination of a gay man and the Anglican Communion, which dominates the story of Rowan’s Rule. How did this happen? How did the Church of England, and the wider Communion, squander the opportunities offered to it when it was given its most gifted leader for a millennium? How did Rowans enemies within the church persuade themselves that their unparalleled campaign of vilification and frankly sinister plotting could possibly be furthering the Kingdom of God? How did the liberal, secular commentators come to prefer cheap mockery to serious engagement with a serious man? Rupert Shortts first class account cannot provide all the answers: that task must wait for another day. What it does is give us a vivid, lively and largely sympathetic portrait of a man for whom we must have not only the most profound admiration, but also the most terrible pity.
HARDMAN OF BIRMINGHAM
Goldsmith and Glasspainter Michael Fisher
Landmark Publishing, 224pp, hbk 978 I 84306 326 9, £25
It may be little unfair to begin an appreciation of this excellent and beautifully produced book with an extract from a letter of William Burges complaining about the handiwork of the estimable firm, Hardman of Birmingham which this book so sumptuously memorializes. Burges writes: I am very sorry that I cannot congratulate you on the mounting of the jade cup, it is the worst and most careless work that I have ever seen turned out from Hardman & Co… I have never had a work executed so badly before… I sincerely hope that you will look a little better after the Elephant for if that is spoiled I really do not know how I shall be consoled.’ For details of the elephant you will have to read the book.
In the past few years, Fr Michael Fisher has built a considerable reputation as an historian of the architecture of the Midlands and particularly Staffordshire. He has produced a series of excellent studies and has written with particular expertise of that most advanced and seminal of Victorian architects, Pugin. All his work is based on meticulous research and presented accessibly and in stunningly illustrated books, many of the pictures for which he takes himself. In this study his access to the considerable and richly detailed archive of the Hardman Company is eased as he holds the position of consultant archivist to the company. It is based at four places, but well maintained and catalogued.
The firm was established in 1838 in Birmingham, at a time when that city was forging ahead as the leading industrial town of the manufacturing revolution sweeping the country. ‘That most detestable of places,’ according to Pugin, with its mixture of ‘Greek buildings and Smoking chimneys – radicals and disenters [sic]… blended together.’ Despite his distaste for the place, Pugin struck up both a business and a personal friendship with John Hardman Junior (1811-67). Hardman’s business was infused with the principles that animated Pugin. ‘Gothic For Ever’ was their battle cry. And those principles have continued to animate the firm in its national and international work until the present day. Wherever Pugin executed a commission, including the Houses of Parliament, Hardman supplied the metalwork and much of the stained glass. Their fortunes slipped with the decline in the popularity of Gothic, but the pendulum has swung again and their principles have proved more deeply rooted than ecclesiastical artistic modernism. This book rightly celebrates 170 years of glorious achievement.
Pugin’s vision of a Gothic England, that integration of architecture with the visual and decorative arts, and its moral imperative could not be achieved in a vacuum. It had to be achieved and effected by those who could put his ideas into tangible form, whether in glass, gold, silver, bronze, wood or silk. Skilled workmen and artists were an indispensable part of the creation of the vision. In his introduction the author sketches the extent of Hardman’s contribution, christening cups to coffin handles; from chair nails to the jewelled embellishments of the Royal Throne in the House of Lords; from a single-light panel in a front door to full sets of windows for cathedrals and major churches.’ And, luckily for us, they are amply illustrated. This is a rich treasure trove of the most exquisite objets d’art, many of which could be overlooked in the general scheme of a design, but when seen in their own right it is clear how the overall impression is so deeply reliant on the meticulous detail of individual artifacts.
The company also developed an extensive overseas trade, especially with the United States of America (and a helpful gazette of work in the States is provided in an appendix) and in Japan. It is good to know that the firm survives and thrives. There should be a growing market now that the brutal-ism of the Sixties and Seventies seems to be giving way to a startling revival of the traditional in liturgy and church architecture. There may be a degree of irony that churches which have embraced the Post-Conciliar agenda rather late in the day may have missed the tide.
Just a few favourites: the working drawing of the processional cross for St Peters Roath (p. 162); company artists at work in the studio (p. 159); Corpus Christi, Baltimore, panel and the second Station of the Cross (pp. 148 and 149); two paxbrede made for the Marquess of Bute, designed by William Burges (p. 115); the ink and watercolour drawing of the decorative scheme for St Peters, Lancaster by J.A. Pippet (p. 82) – and I could go on, there is so much to enjoy in this celebration of craftsmanship.
The text is constantly interesting, the archive material is used judiciously, the production by Landmark Publishing is beyond reproach. This is another valuable and absorbing addition to the literature and the iconography of the arts and crafts of the Catholic Revival.
Come Be My Light Brian Kolodiejch.uk
Rider, 404pp, pbk 978 1846041303, £8.99
In 1942 an Albanian nun gave God what she described as ‘something beautiful’. This was a promise ‘not to refuse Him anything’. In these her private papers we discover that though Mother Teresa called this offering ‘doing something beautiful for God’, and the phrase became her trademark, what she endured was hardly aesthetic. Nor was that beautiful thing her galvanising of service to the poorest of the world’s poor. Doing ‘something beautiful for God’ was faithfulness to a life offering that in her case espoused an astonishing interior darkness, astonishing because of her exterior radiance.
Where would Mother Teresa’s mission have been without a call from God and a faithfulness to that call lived for Jesus without interior consolation for most of her life? This is what comes out most powerfully from her private writings published by the postulator of her cause of canonisation. She had not wanted her spiritual correspondence published at all. In the event what has come to light is a fascinating and inspiring chronicle of great value in an age where questioning so undermines religious adherence.
Although some atheists commentators have crowed loudly at the revelation of Mother’s inner struggles the story has immense value in demonstrating that not even the most radiant Christian has an unqualified intimacy with God. There is always a cloud of questioning that faith must pierce with hope and love.
‘Inside it is all dark and feeling that I am totally cut off from God.’ ‘Thank God we don’t serve God with our feelings, otherwise I don’t know where I would be.’ ‘Let the poor and the people eat you up…”bite” your smile, your time.’ ‘Jesus is asking a bit too much.’
This book is a surprise of the Holy Spirit that shows radiant Christianity as both extraordinary grace and extraordinary self-offering. The media profile of Mother Teresa was enormously graced and culminated in a Nobel Peace Prize. The deeper reality was Teresa’s humility forged in a spiritual humiliation that entered the self-offering of Christ. Her interminable darkness was identified by her spiritual directors as being reparatory not purgative ‘completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church’ [Colossians 1.24b].
In the Rule of the Missionaries of Charity the sisters are called ‘to imbibe the spirit of Holy Mass, which is one of total surrender and offering.’ Mission in Mother Teresas case was fuelled by the Eucharist as offering as much as communion. Could it be blindness to this sacrificial aspect of Christian worship, our over eagerness to grab easy grace when it’s convenient, that lies behind the scarceness of radiant Christians?
Come Be My Light can be a good resource for helping the wavering to recommit, the doubtful to see more of the light and the committed to struggle on with outward looking service. Ironically given this exceptional publication of the story of her soul it seems to have been Mother Teresa’s preoccupation with God and neighbour to the exclusion of self that made her the saint we must surely honour.
The Original Story Margaret Barker
SPCK, 206pp, pbk
978 0 281 06050 4, £12.99
It is a common enough complaint that reviewers write their review of a book without having read it properly. I confess as much with this book. Somehow I missed it. Yet another Christmas paperback in the annual collection out on display in the local Christian bookshop. Only later when the author’s name registered in my brain, did I get a copy and begin reading. I have not yet finished it, but it must be commended before the Christmas season passes. It does not really have to be read in the middle of the Advent rush, but you know how these things go.
This is a completely different type of Christmas book. It is not about the social setting of first century Palestine, nor about modern day parallels to the situation of Mary and Joseph, but rather the theological context in which the incarnation would have been understood by the first Christians. Margaret Barker is one of the most original and respected biblical theologians writing today. This may not be as demanding as her more solid works, such as Temple Theology, but it is still serious reading – not because it is difficult, but because there is such an extraordinary richness to the material she brings in.
‘Temple theology’ is, I think, a little misleading; and it would be a pity if readers were put off by imagining that everything was to be subsumed to an institution with which we feel no natural affinity whatsoever. It is rather like speaking of a Church-perspective in our own day: Barker describes the revelation within the context and in the terms of the theology it expresses, as we perhaps would speak in terms of the liturgy and the sacraments, rather than sociology and anthropology.
What is the theological meaning of this great theological truth? At first you think, T can’t follow what she is on about,’ a few pages later and you are thinking, ‘Why don’t others speak in these terms.’ The excitement of reading someone who is speaking about what it’s truly about should not be underestimated. There is the hurdle to be jumped as we move into the (weird) religious world of prophecy, Qumran and messianic expectation so foreign to our own, but once there all falls into place; and trust me, you do not need any more knowledge than you will gain from a faithful reading of the Bible: of course the author ranges more widely, but you do not have to.
As one might expect, the bulk of the material focuses on Matthew and Luke, but before that Barker gives us a broader understanding of the thought of John and Paul, and by way of moving out to different horizons (this is the part I have yet to reach) tells about the understanding expressed in the later (but still early) tradition of the Protevan-gelium of James and then as a sort of final aside the (much later) Qur’an.
She speaks about the incarnation rather than the Christmas story. One way of grasping the value of her approach is this: if God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, then he must by nature be an incarnate God; not only that of course, but he must have incarnation as part of his nature. Therefore, the best place to understand more about the glorious revelation of the Lord Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary is the rest of the revelation.
What we call the Old Testament shows us the incarnate nature of God of which the incarnation of the Lord Jesus is, as he himself told us, the fulfilment. Don’t worry about theories, don’t try to master a mystery: read this book and revel in the riches that Barker lays forth. It will help your prayer, your worship, and if you are a minister maybe even your preaching.
I am about to pen the most unlikely sentence to appear in New Directions. Christopher Biggins’ autobiography [Just Biggins: My Story, John Blake Publishing, £18.99] is a must-have present for Christmas. Biggins, the universal uni-nomenclature being a sure of sign of acceptance and affection, is a national treasure. He is the luwies’ luwy and, as every cult should have its sacred text, this is the Book of Luwiedom. The book is peppered with ‘wonderful venue,’ ‘extraordinarily happy times,’ great times,’ ‘having a ball,’ my dearest showbiz pals,’ the incredibly talented Bonnie Langford,’ having fun with Cilia,’ ‘the tremendous Barbara Windsor,’ ‘the legend of stage and screen Julie Andrews,’ ‘such fun,’ ‘happy times,’ ‘so lucky,’ ‘wonderful friends,’ ‘the gorgeous Joan Collins,’ ‘the one and only Bea Arthur,’ ‘champagne flowed freely’ ‘my love of panto never deserts me.’ And that is just a random selection from the picture captions: imagine the text. As far as I can see, only someone called Janice Dickinson, whom he met in some jungle reality television programme hosted by two muppets called Ant and Dec, and Hugh Grant are given slaps on the wrist.
But this is not to sneer and denigrate. He does enjoy a happy life; he does know these people; he is the epitome of this business he calls show and he shares all that in this rather marvellous book of happy therapy. For some the relentless and remorseless happiness might prove daunting but if you bathe in the banter and the compliments there is something life-enhancing in this book. And, lest we forget, he is rather a good actor. He can play villains (remember his chilling parson in Poldark7.), as well as light comedy and is the principal pantomime dame de nos jours. For all the enjoyment he offers this benighted world it is only right and proper this Christmas to buy this book and make a contribution to his pension fund. Hail Biggins. Hurrah for Biggins.
He may be a huge tip but Biggins is only the tip of the showbiz autobiography iceberg this season. The shelves are groaning (quite le mot juste) with volume upon volume of the stuff, ready to take full advantage of our Christmas spirit of goodwill to all our television favourites. A brief scan of the bookshop shelves sees books by the Richards Branson and Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson, Sheila Hancock (a rather good book about creating a life of her own after the death of her husband John Thaw), Julie Walters (superb actress that she is), Dawn French (sadly tedious), Lorraine Kelly (her cuddly common sense persona on morning television is not always on show in the brutish populism of her newspaper columns), Cliff Richard, Richard Atten-borough (rather tougher than you might expect and no less moving as personal tragedy overwhelms him) and the list could go on but, frankly, I ran out of bother some time ago.
Christmas is the time to unload the platitudinous drivel on a gullible public. As if it is not enough to endure them on television, we have to read their tedious, flat and unprofitable prose. The odious Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross both have books out just in time to suffer the slings and arrows of their misfortune. I am not jumping on any bandwagon: I have never liked them nor enjoyed their humour which has contributed so much and so damagingly to the coarsening of the airwaves. Christmas goodwill and good cheer need not extend to boosting their egos and bank balances by buying their tawdry wares.
Paul O’Grady is a different matter. He succeeded in the remarkable feat of translating a drag act that was born and bred in the pubs and clubs of the land to prime time television. There was no mistaking the bawdy nature of his rebarbative creation Lily Savage, but it had the quality of an updated Donald Magill saucy postcard rather than the post-modern filth that rather marvellous book of happy therapy, passes for humour. Behind the genius of Dame Edna Everage lies the subtle, sensitive, intelligent and highly cultured Barry Humphries. Behind Lily Savage lies the sentimental, tea-time television populist Mr O’Grady who offers his guests and audience an undemanding wallow in mindless escapism for an hour. But in At My Mother’s Knee… andOther Low Joints [£18.99], he has written a good book about growing up in Birkenhead. School, early work, juvenile relationships (not least fatherhood), Catholicism all blend with a cast of Liverpudlian loveable eccentrics. Oh not again, you might be tempted to wail; here come the warm-hearted rogues, with ‘tongues as sharp as razors’ as the accurate blurb has it, once more. There is some of that hearts of gold worn on the sleeve prose, but to leave it at that would be to underestimate this boyhood memoir. It is engaging and has some lovely touches. Anyone who can write of a waistcoat hanging Tike a sack on a cadaver,’ or about the ‘hollow ache of homesickness’ deserves serious attention.
Sir Michael Parkinson was a good journalist before he became the star interviewer of the famous and fabulous. When his television show returned to the screens after a long pause, it was not his fault that the stars were not as bright, brilliant or big as they once were. Nor was he such an inquisitive interviewer. The latter Parkinson was more the genial chat-show host than the enquiring journalist. And make no mistake, he was and is a very good journalist and writer indeed. He writes with passion and insight on sport, and often infused with a moral sense. Few write better about cricket or football at present and he has the hinterland to see the present through the prism of the past. His autobiography [Parky: My Autobiography, £20.00] tells the tale well. There are a goodly number of stories about those whom he has met and interviewed, some well rehearsed and practiced, but none the worse for that.
Anthologized and memorialized, canonized and deified, you might think that there was nothing more to say about Oscar Wilde and that what there was to say he said it best and Richard Ellman said it all in his biography. But Thomas Wright has come up with an ingenious new angle and in Oscar’s Books [£16.99] offers a scholarly insight into Wilde’s life, attitudes and persona through the books he owned and read. It is written with some spark and wit and there is a chapter where Wright tells of the writing of the book that is full of interest. If you are looking for a slightly off-beat gift this may well be it. It is also a refreshing corrective to some of the gush that would otherwise threaten to overwhelm. Happy reading. Happy Christmas, when it comes.