Beginning with the Bishop of Durham’s new work
THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD
N. T. Wright
SPCK, 830pp, pbk
0 281 05550 5, £35
This is the third volume, perhaps the pivotal one, in the mega-series ‘Christian Origins and the People of God’. While congratulating the author on his elevation to the see of Durham – surely a worthy successor in the tradition of J. B. Lightfoot – we may still hope that the cares of office will not deflect him for the ongoing task!
The third volume picks up on the loose ends left by Jesus and the Victory of God, and continues on a grand scale with the purpose of demonstrating the historical truth of Jesus’ resurrection on the third day. We are left in no doubt that resurrection means bodily resurrection, ‘new life after a period of being dead’. It has nothing in common with (disembodied) life after death. Still less does Jesus live in the sense that ‘Che Guevara lives’: he may be dead but what he lived and died for still lives on in his followers and their aspirations.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it is not until nearly page six hundred that we reach the discussion of the Easter stories in the gospels. Before that there is first a broad and inclusive survey of attitudes to death and the hereafter (if there is one) in the classical pagan world from Homer onwards, and the Old Testament in pre- and post-exilic and the inter-testamental periods. Both are almost completely negative, and the Old Testament is unable to share the consolations of the pagan philosophers’ teachings about the immortality of the soul. Even so, cheerfulness cannot help breaking in, and the general gloom may be lit by occasional faint gleams of hope in the psalms and the prophets. But resurrection, if there might be such a thing is more to be thought of in terms of national restoration, as in Ezekiel for example.
The big change comes with the Maccabaean Revolt and the Book of Daniel. The expectation of resurrection continues to be expressed within the wider context of YHWH’s vindication of his people in the present times of persecution and oppression, but this has now come to include the vindication of individuals who will be called back to life for judgement, ‘some to everlasting life and some to shame and contempt’. Thus resurrection was linked to resistance and nationalism in (loyalist) Pharisaic circles. For the Sadducees on the other hand it was a dangerous and revolutionary notion. An important example of the developed doctrine is to be found in the Wisdom of Solomon, addressed to ‘kings and rulers of the nations’, and generally considered to be contemporary with the earlier New Testament writings. Now, in addition to the future judgement on the righteous and the wicked, there is also the idea of the souls of the righteous being in the hand of God as they await their vindication.
The earliest resurrection material in the New Testament is in the letters of St Paul written in the first generation of the Christian Church. St Paul, the Pharisee, could be said to have inherited a position something like that of Wisdom, but it would seem that this has now been overtaken by events. The resurrection is no longer the final act of judgement and vindication which initiates the age to come. The Corinthian letters (but not only they) are evidence that something has happened to necessitate the rewriting of the timetable. St Paul could never have written as he did, nor the Corinthians understood him, whether they agreed with him or not, if the actual event of resurrection could not be said to have taken place. We are now in a period of ‘inaugurated eschatology’ in which the age to come overlaps with the present age.
Before turning to the Easter stories in the gospels the survey is completed by a review of the remaining New Testament material (including the Book of Revelation) and the Apostolic Fathers of the first two or three centuries. With the exception of the gnosticising movements represented by the opponents of Irenaeus and Tertullian and the Nag Hammadi codices, the great majority are singing from the same hymn sheet – Jesus was raised bodily from the dead.
The Easter stories are a special case in several respects. Unlike the other material they contain relatively few biblical quotations or allusions. The Jesus who is encountered in these stories is not at all the same as the majestic figure in Revelation 1. He comes and goes. Now you see him, now you don’t. He eats and drinks with the disciples, and he may be touched and handled by people. ‘Trans-physical’ is an appropriate term to describe him. His appearances are accompanied by commands. Finally, the first witnesses to the resurrection in the gospels are women; the list in I Corinthians 15 is entirely male! Wright argues that these ‘meetings’ are best understood as an untheological oral tradition of a very early date. They most certainly do not derive from St Paul, though they, or something like them, may well have been the kind of thing with which he was acquainted. By their testimonies to the empty tomb the stories, like St Paul, are also affirming the truth of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
Taken as a whole, then, the historical evidence indicates that something incredibly significant (to put it mildly) happened at the Holy Sepulchre on Easter morning. The best, Wright would claim the only, explanation of the evidence is that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. This may not be the only possible explanation, but if there is a better one which does proper justice to the data as presented, we should be hearing it!
The conclusion is the result of a sustained and disciplined historical enquiry. Not that every detail is to be accepted without question. Wright’s claim that the return from exile as dominating Jewish first century consciousness has been challenged, and there are places where critical realism might have been more critical. Nevertheless, it is a refreshing and positive change from programmes which seek to demythologise resurrection so that it is reduced to a form of editing personal experience, or to deconstruct it to produce a story more accommodating to the post-modern cultured despisers of religion.
However history is not going to let traditionalists off the hook. They may indeed find themselves more painfully impaled! Resurrection is not about ‘life after death’ or ‘going to heaven when you die’. It is the act of God by which Jesus is vindicated as Messiah and Lord. If Jesus is the bearer of the promises and the hope of Israel, then this will demand a serious study and rethink of the doctrine of election. If he is vindicated as Lord then the political dimension is reawakened.
If resurrection has inaugurated the age to come overlapping with the present age, then what does it mean for us ‘to seek those things which are above’ not simply personally and individually, but corporately and as a community? If Wright’s conclusions are anything like sound then many are going to have to think seriously about how they celebrate Easter or what they should be saying or hearing in the Advent sermons. I too may need to review the hymns and music I might plan for my own funeral.
Hugh Bates is a retired priest living in the Archdiocese of York.
THE LAITY AND THE CHURCH OF IRELAND, 1000-2000
Eds. Raymond Gillespie and W. G. Neely
Four Courts Press, 368pp, hbk
1 85182 716 1, £37.50
The resemblances between the Church of Ireland at disestablishment in 1869 and the contemporary Church of England are rather too close for comfort: perhaps 7% of the population as active members and the laity in a position of strength in the organs of church government. There, however, the similarities cease. Irish lay Anglicans were set down not amidst a sea of the secularised and the indifferent but among papists and presbyterians and, according to the authors of the fine essays in this volume, have discharged their responsibilities in the Synod and other organs constructively and cautiously. This was made easier by the absence of church parties on the nineteenth century English model.
All Irish Anglicans since at least the Hanoverian accession could agree that they were protestant and that, certainly outside Dublin, as W. G. Neely puts it the ‘name of Pusey was enough to arouse anger’. Evangelicals periodically spatted with more conservative churchmen but, until very recently, the latter retained the upper hand. Thus, as Raymond Gillespie shows, attempts by evangelicals such as Lord James Butler in the 1870s to eliminate the last vestiges of Catholicism from the Irish Prayer Book were defeated. It helped that, although the laity outnumbered clergy by two-to-one in synod, voting was by house.
The content weighting of these twelve papers leans towards the last three hundred years. There is only one essay on the pre-Reformation period, by Adrian Empey on the medieval inheritance, 1169-1536, who does wonders in recreating the likely lay experience, with no Irish equivalent of parish archives comparable to those abounding in England on which to draw. Even for the early modern era, after the arrival of Protestantism and its acceptance by as many as one-third of Ireland’s urban population, it remains, as Toby Barnard notes, much easier to find evidence of lay religious practice as opposed to lay convictions which were, he concludes ‘composed of motley. Tatters of biblical and ministerial teaching, approved by the church, were stitched together with more bizarre patches.’ Plus ça change.
Beneath the Prayer Book formalism and the privileges of establishment, Irish Anglicans in the eighteenth century were not inert, as Jacqueline Hill’s essay makes clear. Voluntary societies flourished, a sign of concern for the well-being of the laity in their homes as well as the socially disadvantaged. It is easily forgotten that in the 1820s, just as O’Connell’s campaign for Catholic Emancipation was entering its decisive phase, so Irish Evangelicals were launching the ‘Second Reformation’ and this was always far more than conversion for material inducements or ‘souperism’ as Catholics critics alleged.
Then came Gladstone and the loss of state support, but the Church of Ireland actually provides an object lesson in how to cope with disestablishment. A whole generation of late Victorian clergy and laity saw in 1869 an opportunity rather than an admission of insignificance. A major church building programme was undertaken in Belfast; the first lay reader in Ireland was licensed in 1876, and the Irish Church was strong enough to cope with the trauma of partition and de Valera’s ultramontanist polity in the Free State and not be uncritical of Craigavon’s northern statelet.
Middle class and non-sectarian, its influence within the Irish Republic today is probably higher than at any time since 1922, its Protestantism representative of a wider tendency in the contemporary Anglican communion. Liberal modernists have increased in number as the Church has repositioned itself in Irish society and it was one of the first to sanction the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1990.
The Church of Ireland has always possessed an influence out of all proportion to its minority position, making a ‘massive contribution’ to intellectual life, as Kenneth Milne notes. It deserves to be much better known this side of St George’s Channel and this handsomely illustrated book would be a good way in for any curious reader.
Nigel Aston is a Reader in History at the University of Leicester.
THE LANGUAGE OF SYMBOLS
Duncan Baird, 320pp, pbk
1 904292 25 9, £4.99
I have vague memories of a seminar at college, socio-liturgical studies or something similar. We were discussing the Eucharist and its extension into the community. You could, perhaps, call the exercise one of sacramentalizing, a learned discipline of seeing models, types, echoes of the Eucharist in all kinds of shared meals, the meeting of friends in a café (not a pub as I remember), a picnic in the countryside, and so on. It was a sort of Affirming Catholicism meets Farmers’ Markets. Stimulating stuff; I enjoyed it.
Its effect waned as the realization grew (obvious enough but it still has to be learned by experience) that if everything is a sacrament then perhaps nothing is a sacrament. One might say after reading this book, if everything is a symbol, then nothing is a symbol. Full of a whole range of colour illustrations from every religion and none, this is book is very full and amazing value.
It offers an orgy of symbolic reference, so that one way or another every object, real or imaginary, symbolizes something. Its nearest equivalent might be the Victorian catalogues offering the ‘meaning’ of flowers, or (this is being catty) the commentaries on Common Worship, in which one is urged to accumulate collections of symbols to give meaning to the sharing of prayer, meditation and worship.
The symbols of our own age, most of which can be offered for sale in candle shops and have become items of interior design, are easy to mock, but what about the symbolism overload of so much sixteenth and seventeenth century painting? What is it that gives substance to a set of symbols? Coherence, for a start. There is little enough of that in this book, but it remains great fun. NA
IMAGE AND SPIRIT
DLT, 160pp, pbk
0 232 52487 4 (£12.95)
The intention of this book is to give the average person who is interested in looking at art of all types, mainly pictures, a way of increasing their understanding and enjoyment. The artistic and spiritual value of a picture is dependent both on the response of the viewer and the message of the artist.
The author has a lively and readable style, and her ideas are presented clearly and attractively. She encourages us to use our own responses – positive, negative or even casual – as a starting-point to explore not just the style and content, but the emotional and spiritual impact of what we see.
She details simple ways of increasing our awareness and knowledge which makes this a book which can be used equally by beginners and those with an established artistic background. She encourages us not to be afraid or put off by what we do not immediately understand, and makes us feel that our efforts will be well worthwhile.
Anne Gardom is Art Critic of New Directions.
LITERARY COMPANION FOR FESTIVALS
SPCK, 200pp, pbk
0 281 05560 2, (£14.99)
One could fill a library with additional material for the modern liturgy, so it is not easy to judge the merits of yet another collection. This is for the commemorations or saints’ days throughout the year, and has been modified for the Common Worship calendar, though clearly written principally for the Episcopalian and Lutheran market in the States. This explains such extras as the Feast of Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe, Disciples, on 27th January.
Does this book offer something that the others in a crowded market do not? Most of the entries are poems, and most if not contemporary are in contemporary translation. This is poetry for people who like poetry, rather than mere verse; which makes the few entries that are prose something of a waste of space – Bede’s account of the poet Caedman’s first hymn is the sort of entry that can be found in other collections, and, what is more, is only of marginal relevance to the Feast of St Hilda.
The poems, however, have been imaginatively collected from a wide diversity of sources, modern Palestinian and Ugandan among them, and many are genuinely challenging. All the same (sorry to quibble) the following does short change the reader for the Feast of Sts Timothy and Titus (and Silas, for the Lutherans): it may be very meaningful, but I would have liked more to get my teeth into than:
He knocks at the door
And listens to his heart approaching.
And that’s it. A day’s worth of reflection?
Now St Patrick, as Patron Saint of Ireland, is someone you might call a more than usually Catholic saint, so perhaps he is not a great favourite of the author of this book, but while the literary wit and satire of a poem by Dorothy Parker may be fun, it is not obviously appropriate to the prayer and devotion the faithful offer on 17th March.
He should have judged his niche market and been consistent. That said, there is much excellent material, as, for example, an interesting poem from George Eliot for the Feast of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, 1530. NA
C Humphreys & P Vitebsky
Duncan Baird, 184pp, pbk
1 904292 10 0, £9.99
Classified by the publisher under ‘Travel’, one should not expect too deep an analysis. This is a friendly, informative and beautifully illustrated tour round ancient burial sites, the great cathedrals, astonishing temples, and every other kind of sacred building one can imagine. With one interesting exception. This is an Anglo-Saxon book, and there is not a single church or chapel from the English-speaking world. Perhaps unconsciously, the authors have confirmed that traditional prejudice that religion and the sacred is what ‘other people’ do.
The book is much better on the buildings than on the liturgy and ritual going on inside them, which offers a more interesting lesson. From the breadth of its examples, one can be persuaded that buildings have more to offer in inter-faith dialogue than well-meaning shared prayers. The sheer range and skill of the architecture says far more than words.
The cathedral in Cordoba in southern Spain was originally a pagan temple to the Roman god Janus. Later dedicated by the Visigoths to St Vincent, it was replaced by a mosque in the eighth century. This in turn was consecrated by the King Ferdinand to the Assumption of the Virgin. In the early sixteenth century, those dreadful decades of Christian vandalism, the local church demolished the central part to build a new cathedral. The Emperor Charles V expressed a bitterness we too might feel for our Victorian forebears, ‘What you are doing here can be found everywhere; what you possessed previously could be found nowhere.’ DN
THE MEDIEVAL CHURCH IN MANUSCRIPTS
British Library, 64pp, pbk
0 7123 4784 4, (£7.95)
A simple idea and excellent production. It is a description of the medieval Church, with its order and sacraments, with accompanying illustrations. With a clear, textbook style this ought to be in every school library where A-level religious studies are offered. Its precise and un-nuanced information presupposes very little knowledge of the Church as an institution, and veers a little towards the tour guide style (‘Here is an extra detail with the fancy-that factor’).
But it is not the text that is so good, but the pictures! Here are no imaginative reconstructions or diagrammatic line drawings, but vivid, colour reproductions from manuscripts of the period. Marvellous material. It may need a bit more interpretation (which is given) but it is so much more vivid. My own reaction was, ‘What an excellent idea. Give us more.’ SR
THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS
Edited by Stevan Davies
DLT, 166pp, pbk
0 232 52501 3, £8.95
I have never thought of New Directions as an academic journal, so I am always glad when I have to review a book that is in the ‘barking mad’ category (see below). Rather more difficult are those in the ‘evil genius’ group, the seductive products of clever but dangerous minds: should we give them the oxygen of publicity or hope to bury them in silence?
The Gospel of Thomas was discovered among a library of papyri from Nag Hammadi in 1945. A fourth century Coptic text, it derives from a Greek original probably from the second century. A collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, it is an important text despite its obvious Gnostic additions for being close in form and content to the hypothetical sayings source Q; it is especially interesting for containing some sayings and parables in a ‘more primitive’ form than we find in the canonical gospels.
The Gospel of Thomas is an important book for New Testament scholars, and every modern synopsis or parallel text of the gospels now makes full reference to it. There are other ‘sayings gospels’ but none as valuable as this one. No student of the Bible should be unaware of it.
Interest in the text goes much further than academics. They had suggested, from the nineteenth century, that there might be a primitive collection of Jesus’ sayings, used in the creation of the canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke in particular) but now lost. What joy, therefore, when just such a ‘gospel’ is dug out of the sand. In the early days, at the height of the Cold War when conspiracy theories were at the zenith of their powers, the Gospel of Thomas represented the true teaching of Jesus, which had later been suppressed by the emerging Church. This was the simple gospel swept aside by powerful churchmen.
From the introduction to The Gospel of Thomas, encapsulating the central theme of the alternative gospel:
Thomas conveys a very positive view of human nature. People are capable of discovering hidden truth, both in the world and in themselves. Indeed, as the Kingdom is already in the world, so it is already inside of people. Accordingly, if you know yourself properly, you know the Kingdom of God. While Thomas has some sayings that point to a moral dimension for human life, its overall approach is structured in terms of self-knowledge and discovery. Significantly, there is no place in the Gospel of Thomas for the great themes of sin and salvation as they are found in the canonical New Testament.
The Gospel must be read carefully, saying by saying, and one must allow the meaning of the whole to build gradually. If one does this successfully, and if one comes to the right interpretation of the sayings in Thomas, then, the text promises, one ‘will not taste death’.
In those days, the scholarly dismissal of the Gospel of Thomas was ‘exactly what one would expect’; its hurried and sketchy nature only proved the conspiracy theory and bolstered the worth of this new-found treasure. Decades have passed and the book has slipped back into modest familiarity, interesting but not that interesting. However, its proponents have also been sharpening their tools and improving their analysis.
This presentation of an alternative gospel is simple, sophisticated and remarkably persuasive. What makes it interesting is the manner in which it encapsulates one of the current crises in contemporary theology. No, it is not Gnostic; it is not concerned with the hermetic tradition, secret knowledge or hidden magic; there is no mumbo-jumbo nor New Age nonsense; but it is not Christian either.
The heart of it is this: it presents a Jesus who has not come to change our lives but our perceptions. We are not saved from sin, but led into the light. Enlightenment is what he came to give us, not salvation. Put like this, it sounds a little crass, but I assure you it is more subtle than that. As writers in this magazine have pointed out before, this may well be the heresy of our age, not a new one so much as an old one ‘(there is no salvation’) in a sophisticated form we have not known before.
What should make one suspicious? His bibliography is taken only from American writers from the Eighties and Nineties; no Europeans and nothing from the crucial first three decades of research. His references to the canonical gospels are very sparse indeed; he is hoping that his readers do not look too closely at the New Testament texts, and so discover the weakness of his argument.
That is not to say that we cannot find much arresting material in the Gospel of Thomas, words that suggest something of the original impact of Jesus’ teaching. Saying 97 is perhaps the most vivid parable, if you have never heard it before:
Jesus said: The Kingdom of the Father is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of grain. As she walked along a handle of her jar broke off and the grain trickled out, but she did not notice. When she arrived in her house, she put the jar down and found it empty. AS
GARDENING WITH GOD
Burns & Oates, 340pp, pbk
0 8264 6102 6, (£9.99)
I should have bought this book when it first came out last autumn, but it is a bit big, so I picked it at the beginning of the gardening season in March. Naturally enough, I pray and reflect and have a little moan with God as I weed and plant and tend my patch, but being a bit of a wimp, I did not want to be terrified by too advanced a spiritual guide. Gardening spirituality, I thought, would come best, in the spring, when I was actually gardening.
Oh dear. I feel I have been picked by a female sumo wrestler and hurled out of the ring. This book, which I thought in my timidity to be too long, is in fact only part one of six. This volume covers readings only from Advent to the beginning of Lent. An ex-Anglican, Roman Catholic, this good lady goes to mass every day if she can, reads all the offices of the Breviary, if possible in her garden shed/oratory, and then has time for these meditations on plants. Every single day is covered, feast and feria. You will be glad to know that Christmas Day is a little lighter than many, only 1500 words of reading and only eleven short, biblical passages for further reading.
It is possible she is a saint, communing with God in his creation on a higher plain than you or I; but it is also possible she is quite bonkers. Impressive stuff, but not for wimps. AS
MY FIRST BOOK OF MEMORY VERSES
Christian Focus, 64pp, bklt
1 85792 783 4, (£1.99)
The New King James Version is an oddity, an absurd pretence of a modern translation, an attempt to claim a worth and a heritage for a peculiar, narrow view of God’s Word. But then again, perhaps not entirely. This appealing little booklet uses this version in an attempt to keep some of the traditional rhythm. It offers short verses from the Scriptures, collected in no particular order and presented in a form to be learned by heart by children, so that they may carry elements of God’s word within their hearts and minds.
The presentation is quirky, both too young and too old, but the intention is a good one, and perhaps presentation is not everything. If children can learn key verses of the Bible, and a pretend version of the AV offers a cadence or register that helps them do it, it is much to be commended. RW
From Literary Companion for Festivals. A poem by Geoffrey Studdard Kennedy, the great forces chaplain of the First World War.
Waste of Muscle,
waste of Brain,
Waste of Patience,
waste of Pain,
Waste of Manhood,
waste of Health,
Waste of Beauty,
waste of wealth,
Waste of Blood,
and waste of Tears,
Waste of youth’s
most precious years,
Waste of ways
the saints have trod
Waste of Glory,
waste of God, –