Book Reviews

Some wonderful, obscure gems and three bishops

THE EPISTLE OF JUDE AS EXPOUNDED BY THE FATHERS

Clement of Alexandria, Didymus of Alexandria, The Scholia of Cramer’s Catena, Pseudo-Oecumenius, and Bede

Peter Russell Jones

The Edwin Mellen Press, 144pp, hbk

0 7734 7402 1, [£50]

This work is plainly a labour of love on the part of a scholar who does not live in an academic ivory tower, but who has been continuously engaged in the parochial ministry. To misquote Dr Johnson, ‘the wonder is that not only were it well done, but that it were done at all!’ Fr Jones has somehow found both the time and resources to produce a piece of scholarship by which the frontiers of knowledge have been advanced, albeit in a restricted sector. Many of the elaborate productions of the PhD assembly lines may scarcely be said to have achieved as much!

The contents consist of an introduction to the authors and their works, a general survey and overview of the commentaries, and finally the texts of the commentaries themselves, fully annotated and cross-referenced. The collection provides a valuable insight into the ways in which Scripture in general, and the Epistle of Jude in particular, was read and understood in patristic and early medieval times before the rise of modern criticism. At the very least we are bound to take seriously the things that mattered to people then and not dismiss it all out of hand. For example, the need to ‘contend for the faith once delivered to the saints’ is as vital now as it ever was. Equally important is the emphasis, common to all five commentaries, on the connection between right believing and right living – and the reverse!

The commentators themselves are an uneven lot. Clement of Alexandria survives only in Latin translation. The ascription to Didymus is a little dubious. The Scholiasts and PseudoOecumenius have their moments, but have borrowed rather too much from Epiphanius of Salamis’ Medicine Chest: he has much to answer for. Far and away the best, the most attractive, readable and inspirational is Bede, who, incidentally, is not beyond a judiciously critical discussion of the admissibility of a citation from the Book of Enoch. I confess that I have never taken the Epistle of Jude very seriously as a source of devotional reading and meditation. The Venerable Bede might just change my mind for me!

Hugh Bates is a retired priest living in the Archdiocese of York.

Pugin-Land

Michael Fisher

Stafford Fisher, 202pp, pbk

£14.95.

Michael Fisher’s delightful and superbly illustrated book, Pugin-Land: A W N Pugin, Lord Shrewsbury and the Gothic Revival in Staffordshire, the second of two books devoted to Pugin and the Talbots, tells the story of the professional relationship between Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and John Talbot, the sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury. It was an interesting combination of minds for both architect and patron were Roman Catholic converts: Pugin, a wealthy gentleman architect from the upper middle class. and Talbot, the richest noble in the land. It was, to all intents and purposes, a business partnership made in heaven for the furtherance of God’s kingdom here on earth.

Pugin’s God-given genius fused with the Catholic fervour and finance of the Talbots peppered Staffordshire with churches, convents and schools of medieval splendour and magnificence. Pugin, the medieval dreamer and set designer of Victorian gothic found in John Talbot not only a friend but also a collaborator. The building programme was certainly led by Talbot as patron, with Pugin as his master-craftsman. Indeed, it has overtones of the rapport between Edward III and Henry Yevele, born in Staffordshire, in the fourteenth century and of Henry VII and his master builder, John Wastell of Bury St Edmunds, in the fifteenth century.

The list of buildings erected by the Talbot–Pugin partnership in Staffordshire during the twelve years between 1836 and 1848 is formidable: St Mary’s, Uttoxeter; the Hospital of St John, Alton Castle and Alton Towers; St Giles’ Church, School and Presbytery, Cheadle; St Joseph’s Convent, also in Cheadle; St Wilfrid’s, Cotton; St Mary’s, Brewood. Fourteen buildings in all.

They both died in 1852, to be succeeded by the son, Edward Welby Pugin, aged 18, and the nephew, Bertram Arthur Talbot, aged 19. The first task that the two teenagers had to undertake was the repatriation of the sixteenth Earl’s body from Naples and the staging of an elaborate requiem at Alton Towers. This could have been the end of the Talbot–Pugin partnership, but the new Earl also possessed his late uncle’s fervour for building; furthermore there was an element of trust placed on both lads to complete the works already begun. With funds released on the Earl’s coming of age, the Great Drawing Room and the New Rooms at Alton Towers were built between 1853 and 1855, followed by the seventeenth Earl’s largest and only new commission, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Help, Shrewsbury (1853–56).

Shrewsbury Cathedral is, in effect, Bertram Talbot’s memorial, for he died in Lisbon shortly after its consecration in 1856 at the age of 23. Unmarried, and the last of his line, the title, lands and fortune devolved on a distant relative who had no interest maintaining the family connection with the Pugins. As a last act of friendship, EW Pugin designed a magnificent brass in the medieval manner, showing the Earl in his robes and wearing a coronet to go over his young noble friend’s grave to the south side of the altar at St John’s, Alton.

Over the next twenty years Edward Welby Pugin secured a number commissions in Staffordshire from his late father’s friends: Oulton Abbey; Burton Manor, Stafford; St Austin’s, Stafford; and Cotton College. Worn out with work, he died suddenly in 1875. Like his father, he was but forty years old.

Fr Fisher has an eloquent style of writing. Indeed, the flowing narrative of the Talbot–Pugin connections reads more like a novel than an architectural treatise. But that is to be expected as the connection created some of the most romantic buildings in England; of the sort that dreams are made of. Lavishly illustrated with 141 photographs in black and white and 13 colour plates, it is one of the most reasonably priced publications on the market today. With the autumn months approaching, it should be found adjacent to every parsonage study fireplace.

Dr Julian Litten FSA is an architectural historian and Principal of the Society of the Faith.

THE RECKONING OF TIME

Bede; edited by Faith Wallis

Liverpool University, 580pp, pbk

0 85323 693 3, £14.95

The principal problem Bede addresses in this text is the science of computus, the calculation of the date of Easter. To my utter astonishment, it is the most exciting book I have read this year. I laid aside the crime novel I was reading, and could not put this one down. I may be mad, but I hugely enjoyed myself.

Like all good English, post-Enlightenment Protestants, I could not but pity the bishops, clergy and holy women who assembled for the Synod of Whitby in 664, to decide upon the date of Easter. To us, it is a dead issue. To the early Church, it was first of all a calculation of extraordinary complexity, such that the study itself changed man’s understanding of time, and (ironically for a creed that envisaged the imminent end of the world) gave birth to a concept of ‘the future’.

Whole areas of intellectual challenge were opened up for me. How did they multiply and divide using Roman numerals? By devising a method of counting and calculation on one’s fingers. The method Bede passes on divides each hand into two parts, thus enabling every number up to 9,999 to be ‘written’, and in so doing introduces for the first time an approximate symbolizing of the zero. ‘It helps to remember the 59 times table’ he points out elsewhere, the easier to deal with the cycle of years that best fitted the solar and lunar calendars.

It is an awesome intellectual achievement, shared among scholars across the Christian world. The last relic we have are those tables at the beginning of the BCP for the calculation of the Golden Numbers up the year 8500 and beyond (why do you suppose they were included in every edition?) Bede takes the exercise further, and discusses the nature of time and its components, from which one discovers interesting differences from a world without clocks.

More than the fascination of a lost world of the mind, there is a serious value to this book. It must rate as one of the greatest scientific works from an English writer, not on a par with Newton’s or Darwin’s great works, but close. It may well be that the arrival of Vikings, Normans and the development of the elaborate medieval Church universities destroyed most of that early scientific tradition, but this work marks the beginning of that English empirical tradition, that sense of developing our understanding of the world not for the creation of some abstract, intellectual structure but for the solution of practical problems. It set a standard of inquiry that was probably not equalled until Francis Bacon’s experiments in the early seventeenth century.

This study of the practical problems of time is a true masterpiece. Bede’s integration of mathematics, cosmology, history and eschatology is very far from our current scientific concerns, but the manner in which he does it, his respect for the work of others, his search for corroboration, his appreciation for difficulties and anomalies are all of immense importance for scholars who followed him.

This is the first full translation of this work, and beautifully edited. Professor Wallis offers a very clear introduction and a detailed chapter by chapter commentary. This is a wonderful book. SR

THE MODERN RITE

Essays on the reform of the Liturgy

Klaus Gamber

St Michael’s Abbey Press, 88pp, pbk

0 907077 37 4, £9.95

‘After the Council in the place of the liturgy as the fruit of organic development, came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries and replaced it, as in a manufacturing process, with a fabrication, a banal, on the spot product.’ Thus Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger. If you know that Ratzinger regards Gamber as a prophet and a witness against this kind of falsification, you will get some idea of where this book is coming from. Gamber is much gentler in style than Ratzinger, but his critique is no less telling.

With essays on ‘The Sacrifice of the Mass’, ‘Mass facing the People’, ‘Liturgical Participation’ and ‘Making Worship Relevant’, he painstakingly deconstructs the superficial arguments of the modernists and reminds his readers of worship as that flow between the transcendent and the immanent which is light years from the failed human efforts at self entertainment which we currently seem condemned to endure in both Communions. These are accessible essays and, I would venture, a warm pastoral encouragement to our own devotional life. RL

A POPE AND A COUNCIL ON THE SACRED LITURGY

St Michael’s Abbey Press, 150pp, pbk

0 907077 38 2, £10.95

This fascinating volume contains two documents from historically close periods of Roman Catholic liturgical history. Pope Pius XII’s ‘Mediator Dei’ and Vatican II’s ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’ are printed in full with a helpful and predictably excellent comparative study by Fr Aidan Nichols op.

Seldom can two such nearly contiguous time zones have operated across such a cultural abyss. Nichols is a loyal son of the Church and he lives with the aftermath of Vatican II but students of the modern Catholic Church would do well to have this volume on their shelves. The contrast between the careful certainties of the earlier document and the more generous phraseology of the latter – through which earnest liberals would swiftly drive a coach and horses in practice – is eloquent of much of the current crises of Western Catholicism. The springtime of modernity, post Vatican II, is celebrated in a benevolence of language and intention whose exploitation the well-meaning reformers could not have guessed at. Somewhere between these two documents the numinous was lost.

As Rome struggles to restore her liturgy from the banalities to which the English rite has descended (and Anglicans grapple with the fuzzy datedness of Common Worship), this is a book that demonstrates the fault lines and, more importantly, where liturgical renewal in both Communions can find serious encouragement and authority. RL

Romans & Christians

Dominic Janes

Tempus, 160pp, pbk

0 7524 1954 4, £17.99

Did Constantine ruin Christianity? Imperial patronage made the Church richer and more powerful. Bishops began to have status in the secular community; Christians built public buildings in which to worship, and beautified them; more rich and important people became Christians; issues concerning the dogma of the Church became issues of public policy.

This rather confusing book seems to want to trace this process in the light of the artistic and cultural evidence and so throw new light on the way the Church was affected by her transformation from humble beginnings to imperial greatness. Sadly, Janes is not a good guide. After pages of statement and restatement of the questions the book will address, the reader is confused enough before being offered a poor exegesis to propose that Jesus taught the renunciation of ‘physicality’. Subsequent use by Christians of material things is thus ‘compromise with the mores and values of contemporary society’.

The work then tries to assess cultural attitudes to display, votive offering and conspicuous consumption in the Western Empire after Christ, before studying the history of villa communities in Gaul and Britain. Despite a last chapter seeking to draw it all together, the relationship of the Church to all this seems to have been grafted in afterwards to supply a unifying theme. The result is unhappy both stylistically and intellectually.

Janes seeks to avoid the ‘determinism’ of many Christian writers who, assuming the triumph of Christianity to have been inevitable, allow that view to skew their thinking. He seems to think Christianity was seriously compromised when it was taken into the mainstream of imperial life. If you want a book from that point of view, you might do better to spend your £18 on a copy of Gibbon. There you will find the case more clearly argued – as it was by many in the Byzantine world – that with its emphasis on love and forgiveness, and in siphoning men and wealth into unproductive and largely untaxed monastic holdings, it was Christianity that ruined the Empire.

Luke Miller is parish priest of St Mary the Virgin, Tottenham.

THE MEANING OF LIFE in the world religions

Edited by J. Runzo and N. Martin

One World, 330pp, pbk

1 85168 200 7, £14.99

In recent years there has been an increasing interest in comparative religions, and a study of other faiths forms part of the curriculum in our schools. This book makes an important contribution in this field. It is a collection of essays, written by a team of notable scholars, which includes such well known names as Keith Ward, John Hick and Ninian Smart.

The question is asked: can we compare and contrast the various world religions? It is suggested that religious belief-systems are generally comparable but usually incompatible, because they view the world and human nature in distinctly different ways. The diversity of faiths is explored at some depth, and some surprising facts emerge. For example, it is stated that in Africa, over 10,000 new religious movements synthesize Christian values with those of traditional African culture.

There is an excellent chapter on ‘Eros and Meaning in Life and Religion’, which sums up the central theme of the book. Here it is pointed out that human love reflects divine love, and that unselfish love brings liberation. Some recognition of this is to be found in all the great faiths of the world, and this is the starting point for the understanding of our common ground. It would appear that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have the most in common; adherents of all three of these religions believe in an all powerful Creator who is compassionate and just, and that God speaks through prophets and holy books; all three teach that the fundamental goal of human life is to know, love and serve God, and to share in the beatific vision in life after death.

But the book does not stop here. There is detailed analysis of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and of other faiths. However, those who will have found the book extremely valuable and full of information, when they have read all except the final chapter, will come down to earth with a shock when they go on to read of the watering down of the uniqueness of Christ, for here it is said that any such claim to uniqueness ‘is incredible and indeed absurd’. Nevertheless, those who seek a better understanding of the way in which others believe will find that this book has much to offer.

Brother Martin ssf is Missioner of the Society of St Francis.

BE NOT AFRAID

Overcoming the fear of death

Johann Christoph Arnold

Plough Publishing, 200pp, pbk

0 87486 916 1, £8.00

If a book on dying is commended by Dame Cicely Saunders, I’ll give it a go – never mind its title, or that it is ‘revised and expanded’ from six years ago with a new September 11th American orientation. I am glad I did. It is no bad thing to have to shift perspective now and then, if you can avoid becoming punch-drunk with death. Each one of course is different, from babies on either side of birth, via avoidable accidents and inexplicable cancers, to unavoidable ageing. The author’s skill is to transform what could be a depressing catalogue into an experience of love for God and our neighbour.

This is not designed as propaganda. But the human stories here, told with love, care and just enough detail, are powerful evidence against disrespect for personhood at both ends of the life-span. It’s not just abortion, infanticide and euthanasia: ‘The vast majority of terminally ill people would prefer to die at home surrounded by the love of family and friends. But the truth is that most of them spend their final days in hospital, attached to tubes and monitors, and cared for by virtual strangers.’

Or this: ‘A deathbed is no place to bring up old grievances’ (agreed; but) ‘nor is it the place to belatedly press for reconciliation’ (ah!) The author seems too gentle to probe deeply into questions of eternal judgement (which many clearly fear). But this book, offered at the right time, could help both sufferers and mourners. It is recommended reading at any time for clergy, carers, funeral directors, hospital staff, and anyone wanting to see a National Health Service rescued from performance league tables and political ambitions. CMI

PRAYING WITH ICONS OF THE VIRGIN

Rowan Williams

Canterbury, 80pp, hbk

1 85311 362 X, £7.99

It is hard to see what the fuss was about. This is a small, well-presented book, with short sections in large type, gently leading the beginner through the forms of prayer encouraged by three different types of icon of the Virgin and Child, and with an apocryphal legend added at the end.

It is patently obvious that there is no praying to the Virgin Mary, rather more a meditative pathway leading to a deeper communion with God. Williams’ language has a tendency to technicality, but is here eminently clear and simple and instructive. He seeks to ‘draw in’ those who have not yet learned to be more than mere spectators to the prayerful communication with God.

Praying with icons is not part of the western tradition. It is a new thing added on in a post-modern world, but it is an equally ancient and venerable tradition, and if Williams’ notoriety as a ‘controversial’ Archbishop of Canterbury designate encourages people to use it, who are we to complain? AS

ON FORGIVENESS

Richard Holloway

Canongate, 98pp, pbk

1 84195 358 X, £7.99

What is all the fuss about? Holloway writes well, with an easy and thought-provoking style, and offers some excellent quotations. This is a short and simple sketch of the demands of forgiveness, of what it means to ‘forgive the unforgiveable’. If forgiveness were straightforward, if it could be commanded of ourselves and others, if it fitted coherently into systems of public and private morality, then there would be no problem with it, but then there would be little forgiveness either.

If this were the presentation of a Christian theme to a secular world (and in part it is) there would be much to commend in this book. But am I alone in detecting an unforgiving anger against God and his Church, especially in the opening chapter, unnecessarily entitled ‘Religion without religion’. The middle two chapters flow much better: his writing is genuinely sharp and provocative; he offers much.

The final chapter, however, simply fails (in Christian terms); it could better be entitled ‘forgiveness without the source of forgiveness’. It may be that atheists are obliged to consider what forgiveness means without reference to God, but to be honest that is not a problem that interests me. Discussing the nature of forgiveness in human psychology and sociology is all very interesting, but the central truth (to be unwrapped and elaborated) is the act of Christ upon the cross. AS

THE CONCEPT OF NATURE

John Habgood

DLT, 200pp, pbk

0 232 52439 4, £10.95

A third episcopal book, but no controversy. This is much longer and much more demanding than the other two. It will not be as widely read, but it is surely the most important of the three. Here is a scientist and a bishop, with a brilliant mind, reflecting upon one of the most pressing philosophical issues for our century: what do we mean by nature? Or, as the cover blurb puts it, ‘What do natural behaviour, natural landscapes, natural yoghurt and natural theology have in common?’

The pulse does not race, either in anger or enthusiasm, when the former Archbishop of York speaks, but then it never did; but there is a quiet joy and respect at the sheer clarity of his thought. He shares a quality of wisdom that is all the more admirable for not resting upon traditional or logical truths. There is a graciousness in his writing that makes a more lasting impression than his particular conclusions.

The role of science, the responsibility of scientists, the care of the environment, genetic manipulation, social and sexual attitudes, animal rights, natural law. He covers a broad range of issues with orthodox common sense; and speaks cogently of the world’s relationship to God and the work of his grace. For wisdom and clarity on such issues, look no further. AS

THE HOLY SHROUD

Antonio Cassanelli

Gracewing, 140pp, pbk

0 85244 351 X, £5.99

Have you been washed in the blood of the Lamb? Do not be put off by the sober cover and the respectable publisher. This is an over-the-edge, mad/inspired piece of self-publishing, free of the usual norms of editing – the glossy paper and large print will indicate this as soon as you open it – that has somehow been wrapped in a metaphorical brown paper bag. This is the uncensored world of genuine, lurid devotion, not the respectable restraint which fills most of our church bookshops.

The bulk of the book is an almost random collection of faux-naif, hyper-realism pictures, which offer a stomach-churning commentary on what the Holy Shroud of Turin shows us of the physical suffering of Our Saviour during his Passion. It is full of that intense ‘science’ which no scientist would recognize, but which carries the force of its own devotion. What should one make, for example, of the diagrams on page 106, ‘Graphic study of the wound and the blood of the carpus of the left hand’, complete with numbered arrows, but with no accompanying explanation? It is the paucity of text, the lack of detailed elaboration of what the pictures ‘mean’ that demands a more immediate response from the reader. And as to the recent, supposed carbon dating that relegates this ‘burial shroud of Christ’ to the thirteenth century: since it is not relevant, it is not long discussed.

This is a very un-English book, a simple, powerful, devotional aid to draw us closer to the one perfect sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. It may not be to your taste, but it certainly has not been edited to conform to your taste. NT

Raised from the Dead

A 21st Century Miracle Resurrection Story

Christ for All Nations 60min video, £9.99

Here is a video with a difference. There can be few of its kind, documenting as it does a claim to the ultimate sort of physical miracle. A 45min documentary chronicles the alleged raising from the dead after two days of a Nigerian pastor. The documentary is followed by a 15min message from the German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke, indirectly associated with the event, calling viewers to commit their lives to Jesus Christ. I watched this video with a Nigerian priest friend and both of us felt there was a powerful ring of truth to the account.

On Friday November 30th 2001 Pastor Daniel Ekechukwu was fatally injured in a car crash near the town of Onitsha in Nigeria. He was pronounced dead. His body was embalmed in the local mortuary and returned to his home.

Daniel’s wife Nneka, after the initial shock, grew into a firm conviction that God would raise her husband from the dead. His coffin was transported to a Reinhard Bonnke meeting on the Sunday after his death. After an initial refusal to allow the corpse into the meeting officials allowed the body to be taken out of the coffin and carried into the basement. There a group prepared to pray as Nneka requested. It is this part of the video, capturing retrospectively the embarrassment of the authorities, that most makes the viewer most discount the natural suspicion of forged evidence.

The video relates how Pastor Daniel started to breathe again even as the prayers commenced. It documents his visits to the doctor who certified his death and the mortuary attendant. Those who met him even a day after he was restored to life are seen to comment on the smell of embalming fluid about him. Daniel recites the vision he was given of both heaven and hell, one of the most challenging aspects of the video.

My Nigerian friend explained how much African spirituality links into day to day needs in a way that is foreign to Europeans. Nneka was open to a gift of faith that ministered to her needs as a widow. The whole story was about God honouring one who deeply trusts in him and is geared to his possibilities breaking into their situation.

Raised from the Dead provides at the very least a talking point about the nature of divine intervention. Many will catch from it an affirmation of the power of God beyond this world and his readiness to intervene in human situations of need, however extreme. The challenge is there to see life after death as something absolutely real, which merits attention and decision. It is well worth an hour of any one’s time.

John Twisleton is Chichester Diocesan Mission & Renewal Adviser.

2017-09-04T16:55:24+00:00 September 2002 Articles|