A Pilgrimage of Paradoxes
A Backpacker’s Encounters with God and Nature
T & T Clark, 2022
The York 2022 meeting of the General Synod had its usual varied programme ranging from care of the environment to the discussion of whether members of Parochial Church Councils should continue to be required to be communicants. Most members will not have seen any connection between these two topics, which is one reason why all those involved in the church’s legislative body should read this book. A Backpacker’s Encounters with God and Nature might suggest that this is simply a more ‘spiritual’ contribution to the world of travel writing, but this is a work of considerable depth; it didn’t surprise me to discover that the author chairs the Standing Doctrinal Commission for the Church in Wales.
Walking can be a good way to think and to talk about things. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed country walks and those strolls both cemented their friendship and drew from Lewis the sort of questions that helped him to become a Christian. There is something about the countryside, which enables many people to be more honest and to share their intimate thoughts and feelings. But the primary background to this book is the solitary walk taken by Clavier on Cadair Idris, which is the southernmost mountain of any size in the Snowdonia National Park. It is a landscape of thick peaty turf, crags and scree. For those not familiar with Welsh a helpful pronunciation guide is offered to all the places Clavier visits; something incidentally which would have delighted Tolkien with his enthusiasm for the language.
The leading premise of the book is that when we lose sight of how worship and creation fit each other, then we separate God from his creation and end up being focussed on humanity. This outlook leads to a belief that nature is primarily there to be exploited. Our society has striven to purge both God and nature from our everyday life. The institutional Church with its commitment to a net-zero carbon emission may well feel that it is not guilty of this, but Clavier has plenty of challenges for it too. He very much throws down the Catholic gauntlet to reconnect with the sacraments. The gifts of water, bread and wine connect us to the earth, but they are also the means by which God communicates Himself to us. They are divine tokens of love, which are tenderly wrapped in simple objects. ‘Megachurches awash with artificial light and amplified sounds created by miked up preachers, electrified musical instruments and multimedia presentations are to me places far more detached from the world than any monastery.’
By contrast when we gaze upon the landscape of Cadair Idris we see something that is immeasurably rooted and ancient and was there long before us and will (unless we destroy ourselves) be there in ten thousand years. In a world which is obsessed with measuring units of time we are encouraged to rediscover ‘timelessness’. Like a contemplative we need to be transported out of ourselves to begin to understand who we are and who God is. ‘Otherwise, we’re like caged birds trying to imagine what it’s like to fly.’ Clavier stresses that nature can help us encounter a personal God, but it can’t explain Him. Our Lord didn’t devise His teaching about the Father from looking at the way seeds were sown, or how sheep wandered off. But if we ask nature to point towards accepting what has been revealed to us in other ways it has plenty to offer. ‘One taste of spring was sufficient for me to know deep down that Christ has been raised from the dead.’
Timelessness is complemented by what Clavier calls ‘thick history’ which provides a social meaning for the local community, as opposed to a cosmopolitan outlook where local tradition yields to ‘progress and innovation.’ Christianity today, Clavier argues, seems reluctant to teach its children the Bible or about the saints and few religious education programmes share anything about church history. Our worship often abandons anything viewed as old-fashioned and simply leaves us with ‘the never-ending procession of fashions and fancies that so afflict the church.’ As Israel forgot her past and chased after the idols of her day, so we forget our Christian past and chase after the idols of ‘self-expression, self-affirmation and self-identity.’
Silence is an increasingly unusual phenomenon, but the silence found on Cadair Idris reminds us that noise pollution can be as bad as waste pollution. The mind requires a Sabbath day rest, so we realise that we are more than interaction with others. We need to ‘dwell in a trinity of silence: that of God, self and creation.’ This deep silence can be powerful, such as the silence shared between a mother and her new born baby that speaks more loudly than any words of endearment. We seek freedom and happiness through pursuing an individualistic approach to life, but by ignoring that inner silence we end up being estranged. Individualism estranges us from others and even from our own shared natural world and achieves a fretful and distracted existence.
But if silence is important so are words. Clavier shares some of the exciting stories surrounding Cadair Idris, such as it being the hunting ground of the fairy ruler of Anwun, or the astronomical viewing point of the giant Idris Gawr. Likewise the stories of the Bible are also rooted in the landscape. The church year and liturgical Christians spend a lot of time in an imagined landscape far removed from their own. ‘In fact, that landscape unites Christians – Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, past and present, and of every race and ethnicity – in ways that we probably don’t appreciate and celebrate enough.’
We might equally find unity through the recovery of a sense of wonder. If you have seen how light can transform an ordinary landscape it is much easier to see how everyday elements can be transformed into sacraments fit for God. It is vital that we recover a sense of wonder, since it is ‘the humus from which love grows’ and helps us to live well in this world. We need to be able to find wonder in what may seem ordinary to us; the western provision of medical care and relatively cheap food would be truly wondrous to the rest of the planet. St Paul’s hymn, in Philippians, to the humility of Christ in becoming one of us might equally be seen as a celebration that He became ordinary for us.
But our world sadly doesn’t seem to be very good at valuing the ordinary and prefers to flatten out the eternal, detach itself from its memory, crowd out the silence of God and walk away from the direction of wholeness and true well-being. The diagnosis of our problems is pretty comprehensive, so it would be good if a future volume might offer some suggestions of how to address these challenges. Clavier may reasonably argue, of course, that we need to accept that there is an issue before looking for a resolution. There is a glimmer of hope, since the book is enthusiastically commended by a wide range of Anglican bishops and other leaders within the Church of England and beyond. It would be wonderful if the next environmental debate in Synod might also be linked to the importance of the sacraments, the importance of wonder, thick-time and silence.
Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches
James Clarke and Co, 2022
Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology in the University of Nottingham. His specialism lies in the origins of Christianity and particularly in the dynamics of tradition: how the faith has been transmitted through history, and how expressions of Christianity have changed in and through that process.
This latest book – derived from an undergraduate module O’Loughlin taught some years ago – identifies some key themes of discipleship today and then considers how these relate to early Christian writings. It is not merely a historical exploration of discipleship, but the author asks what insights biblical, historical, and archaeological research can bring to Christian discipleship today. O’Loughlin includes several images to serve as ‘visual question marks’ placed in juxtaposition with the text, which was an interesting idea and would have worked well in a lecture. However, the photos were all black and white and of varied quality and usefulness in this book.
Programmes and books on discipleship have some tendency to frame ‘becoming a disciple’ as equating successful completion of a course and of meeting identified outcomes. O’Loughlin recognises the significance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his seminal book The Cost of Discipleship, where he defined discipleship not as ‘passive identification’ with the church but being prepared to take up the cross and follow Christ. O’Loughlin challenges idealistic views about discipleship in the early church – life has always been messy.
O’Loughlin’s approach therefore is innovative and lively, raising more questions than answers. He makes some challenging points, which I did not always agree with, but I found the book a stimulating read.
O’Loughlin posits the idea of discipleship being akin to an apprenticeship; a lifelong process that is not just about deepening theological knowledge and understanding, but growth coming through experience, challenge, and failure. His approach to the subject of discipleship is not one of systematically working through historical texts or topics, but more akin to an ‘historic inquiry’ into the past. This approach seeks to be honest and open-ended about what a life of Christian discipleship looks like, rather than trying to construct an historically accurate discipleship programme.
The nine chapters cover a range of topics related to Christian discipleship. Chapter 1 sets the tone of the book with the honest assertion that ‘Christianity…can be a source of discord and division in our world’, which is a necessary backdrop to a consideration of Christian discipleship. O’Loughlin counters any sense of ‘discipleship’ as blind following of someone else, as opposed to thinking for oneself. He helpfully critiques modern literalist reading of biblical texts, that would for example, suggest some of the epistles are treated as fakes if not actually written by the apostle, but rather by someone using a pseudonym. Throughout the book O’Loughlin focuses on the voice of the Church in relation to reading historic texts and warns against reading our own context into historic texts.
He explores the balance between the variety and commonality found historically in practices, beliefs and way of life and is careful not to underplay sacred tradition, formed over time by the Church deepening its understanding of God – and so practices of discipleship – through the work of the Holy Spirit.
However, O’Loughlin is clear that whilst history is important, the Word of God still speaks today and belief in him is: ‘an invitation to live with the paradox that the divine is greater than all situations, yet is to be found in particularities of place and time.’
One of the strongest dimensions of the book is grounding discipleship firmly in the corporate life of the Church, to whom biblical and historical texts speak on the whole, rather than to individuals. This extends to practice of religious devotion where the Church is not a collection of individuals who believe similar things but a School of Prayer or the very Body of Christ which has a ‘corporate personality.’
O’Loughlin asks some controversial and challenging questions, which would initiate classroom discussion effectively, but which are not always supported adequately with nuanced evidence. For example, he asks whether the word ‘church’ is now distracting and tied to a building that might better be referred to as a ‘community centre’ or is a term which ‘conjures up a power group: the clergy.’ Whilst he purports that religion is for many people a ‘nostalgic affair’, this fails to recognise the church building as a sacred space. The chapters on service and the shape of ministry raise some important issues about the exercise of power and authority but fail to assess the significance of the three-fold order of ministry and sequential ordination in relation to this.
The book ends by identifying some themes related to discipleship in the future, such as the challenge of equality. Ultimately though for O’Loughlin, Christian discipleship must have flexibility, responding to new situations through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
Plough Publishing House, 2022, ISBN 9781636080451
This latest novel by Eugene Vodolazkin, the Ukrainian-born Russian medieval scholar, would seem a very different book from his international bestseller, Laurus, a rich tapestry of stories set in 15th century Russia, with its hero’s pilgrimage across Europe to Jerusalem. Instead, Brisbane, taking its title from a real Australian city, has a very contemporary resonance, and its protagonist, Gleb Yanovsky, is a globetrotting guitarist on the international celebrity circuit whose career is cut short by the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. Yet these two very different narratives are vitally connected through Vodolazkin’s deeply Christian visionary thinking and his characteristically polyphonic method of textual construction.
As the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood remarked in Negotiations with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, ‘All writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality’ – which brings us back to Gleb Yanofsky. His story is told not as a series of fabulous tales but within the genres of fictional biography and autobiography. This is a double-voiced narrative written in diary form by Gleb from his first intimation of his disease up to his final performance, interspersed with his biographer’s version which is in a different register and told in the third person. Nestor (Sergei Nesterov) adopts a more conventional structure, recounting his subject’s evolution as a celebrity guitarist. These two narratives run parallel, but as Virginia Woolf complained about Victorian life writing, ‘They leave out the person to whom things happened,’ and here lie the disparities between the biographer’s construction and Gleb’s own subjective self-representation. Finally it is Gleb, knowing that Nestor’s book about him is nearing completion, who decides ‘that he might just add something’ (p. 342), a supplement which destabilises and realigns his official biography.
The novel opens with Gleb’s diary entry ‘April 25, 2012, Paris-Petersburg’ written on his flight home when he first meets his biographer, and it is to his autobiographical narrative that we must turn to understand the novel’s key themes: the importance of art, the fear of mortality, and the quest for spiritual enlightenment – not forgetting the novel’s title Brisbane with its special resonance as that faraway place of his mother’s dreams of paradise. This is a Kunstlerroman (like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) radically revised to become a retrospective of the artist’s entire career, where music is the integrative force of his life, binding together body, emotions, and the desire to transcend human limits. This may well have become a Faustian narrative, but it does not, for Gleb is saved by his loving grandfather Mefody and the wisdom of his grandfather’s friend, the Russian Orthodox priest:
‘Music is not eternity. But it reminds us of eternity – profound music does.’ ‘What is eternity?’ Gleb asked. ‘It is the absence of time,’ Mefody conjectured, ‘which means the absence of death.’ ‘Ultimately it is God,’ Father Pyotr said. ‘The One you are seeking’ (p.117).
Vodolazkin again explores the theme of spiritual quest, now in the context of a modern artist’s journey, combining personal and family history embedded in the framework of contemporary social history of Ukrainian-Russian relations. That pattern with its many voices and multiple perspectives endorses Gleb’s discovery that ‘the whole world is polyphonic’ (p.169).
Gleb’s career has its public triumphs when through his music the audience is transformed, united in ‘one shared ecstasy’ (p.154). But behind lurks the counter-rhythm of his increasing bodily infirmity, a condition amplified by his association with Vera, a young musical prodigy suffering from terminal cancer. At their shared concert they are overwhelmed by a ‘tsunami’ of ovations, but both walk in the shadow of death, and Vera dies shortly afterwards. For Gleb this is a double robbery of her future and his own, but he is saved by another priest who reminds him that it’s easy to steal the future because ‘It’s nothing but a dream … And it’s impossible, I’m telling you, to steal eternity’ (p. 338).
Only at the end does the magic word ‘Brisbane’ reappear, with the revelation of the truth about what actually happened with his mother, and its lifelong effect on Gleb. The physical life in time is counterpointed by his narrative of faith that transcends time, and both are equally real. That would explain Gleb’s final addition to the biography with his childhood memory of being carried by his mother down a dangerously steep slope, a memory ‘enveloped in smoke’ (p 343).
Brisbane is both a celebration of being alive and the story of a self doubly haunted by his fear of mortality and his longing for spiritual release. In this polyphonic text human life in all its complexity is mediated and transformed by the author’s visionary imagination.
Coral Ann Howells
The New Apologetics
Defending the Faith in a Post-Christian Era
Matthew Nelson, Editor
Word on Fire, 2022
In early August The New York Times published an opinion essay entitled ‘New York’s Hottest Club is the Catholic Church’. Although the title was certainly a little optimistic, it unpacked the fascinating phenomenon of the adoption of Catholicism by Gen Z urban intellectuals in trendy parts of New York, and considered the impact and motivations of prominent podcasters and others who have, quite unexpectedly, come to profess the Catholic faith: ‘By 2020, the year of lockdowns and Black Lives Matter protests, progressivism had come to feel hegemonic…traditional morality acquired a transgressive glamour.’ It may not be the ‘hottest club’ in New York quite yet, but the collision of urban trends and the subversive quality Catholicism can have in non-majority Catholic countries is having fascinating consequences in the USA among young people.
And it’s a challenge the Roman Catholic Church in America is well-placed to grasp. Building on Pope St John Paul II’s New Evangelisation and the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, a number of people and initiatives have contributed to a significant online Catholic apologetic presence and the creation of an array of resources since the ‘90s. Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire and Catholic Answers are only two prominent examples of an impressive effort to resource the Church’s evangelization and engagement with contemporary culture.
The New Apologetics: Defending the Faith in a Post-Christian Era, edited by Matthew Nelson and published by Word on Fire, is a timely collection of essays which unfolds the philosophy behind this Catholic apologetic effort and gives practical advice on specific issues we face today.
The book falls into three parts. The first seeks to prepare us for the present context, and encourages Catholic apologists to look beyond traditional Protestant and atheist audiences. The second focusses on some approaches to trends in contemporary culture (digital apologetics and beauty, for example). The third part considers as models some particular individuals in Christian history who have been outstanding apologists in their different ways (among them St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal and G. K. Chesterton). The fourth and longest section concentrates on specific issues Christians must face today, including science, anthropology, philosophy and culture.
Many of the essays take as their starting point St Peter’s injunction in his first Epistle: ‘Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you’ (I Peter 3.15). This book is not at all defensive, however. Rather it approaches the work of apologetics with profound optimism.
Some 44 theologians and apologists have contributed to this book, and their differing styles and approaches lends variety. It also means that what they offer is not entirely consistent, however. Some chapters are deeply practical, suggesting topics for discussion and strategies for building consensus with conversation partners. Some are more abstract, while others conclude that the particular topic is an area for further development. There is a comprehensive further resources list at the back of the book, where more detail can be found on many of the areas.
The writers are a mixture of lay, clergy and religious, all of whom are engaged in the work of apologetics and evangelism. Strikingly, only 7 of them are ordained, which underlines powerfully that this is the work of the whole Church, not just of the clergy. As Pope Francis has said, ‘All the baptized, whatever their position in the church or their level of instruction in the faith are agents of evangelization’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 120). As we seek to form missionary disciples, this book sets before us an ambitious vision in which the faithful take the lead in promoting the faith and sharing the Gospel.
What I have found especially interesting is Nelson’s unpacking of what apologetics must be like today: ‘sophisticated, smart, and joyful…outward-facing, both online and on the ground, to reach a more expansive public audience.’ He identifies a tendency to think of apologetics as a dry, purely intellectual discipline, and demonstrates how important it is for us to speak to peoples’ hearts as well as their intellects. Several writers also point to the breakthroughs they have made with people when they’ve ‘prepared the soil’ by spending time with them and learning about the things they’re interested in.
This is not always a ‘how to’ guide, but it is an excellent introduction to the key issues and sketches out a compelling framework for apologetics in the 2020s.
Royal Academy, London
until 16 October, 2022
This is biggest show held in Europe to date of the work of Milton Avery (1895-1965), an East Coast American of the old school. He was brought up in blue-collar Connecticut, and for twenty years from the age of 16 worked in office jobs to support his extended family. During that time he trained as an artist at night school.
Aged 40 Avery began to paint fulltime, typically beginning work at 6am, often producing a work a day.
Aged 60 he painted ‘Husband and Wife’. This was a turning point in his career and one of the many key works in this show. The painting shows the artist with his wife Sally whom he had married in 1926. Sally was an artist as was his daughter March. They, sometimes accompanied by March’s toy crocodile, are usually the women in his work.
Aged 70, six years after a serious stroke, Avery was painting his finest works, a succession of land- and seascapes. These are based on the scenery of Connecticut (for a long time visited in spring) and Vermont (autumn). He also went to Massachusetts and latterly Maine (summer), and stayed at home in Greenwich Village, latterly the Upper West Side (winter). In winter he worked up the sketches he’d made earlier in the year.
Avery and his wife visited Europe once (there’s a lovely picture of the Thames trying to be New England) but they saw new European art in New York galleries and latterly he was friends with Marcel Duchamp. In photos and self-portraits, Avery usually has a pipe. He is very much the Quiet American. And, perhaps, he is symbolic of the America so many people looked to between the 1920s and 1950s.
The show begins with early landscape sketches which eerily echo the recent Constable exhibition at the Academy’s Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries. Avery’s style rapidly developed beyond these works. He began to use thin washes of oil paint and to paint primarily landscapes and interiors with people, usually family.
There were some experiments which didn’t work. The urban scenes, notably of an Auction and Coney Island in high summer, are congested. Even the pictures of meals with fellow artists, notably Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, aren’t that interesting as pictures. However, they underline how Avery can be seen as a link between American Impressionism and Abstract Impressionism. In his lifetime that link did Avery no favours amongst the critics, though he was appreciated by the generation which followed him, notably by Rothko who spoke at his memorial service.
However, rather than treating Avery as a minor piece in the inexorable history of artistic evolution, the best thing to do with him and this show is to go along and just enjoy his work. He was a colourist like Matisse, to whom he is often compared, helpfully in that both artists seemed to want to make people feel better, unhelpfully in that Matisse always had something of the fauve about him, whereas Avery’s pipe and honest restraint feel different.
Avery’s pale colours give a real lift to the spirit, and while the flat planes in his work look more and more abstract as he got older, there is always a sense of underlying composition. And even when a painting is reduced to three bands of colour, there is a confidence in the underlying capability of the artist’s draughtsmanship.
Rothko talked about Avery’s ‘poetry and light’ and that’s a good. ‘Poetry reading’ is one of the works which shows Avery’s practised skills. The picture represents two women curled up and reading. The tones are brown and grey, which sounds boring, but their perfect balance and the precisely calculated shapes of the women and their relationship to one another create mood and feeling and a sense of calm and understated well-being.
‘Boathouse by the sea’ (1959) is the poster picture of the show, and rightly so. It is both an eye-catching design and clever and much, much more. Half the painting is a dark, monochrome quadrilateral. This is the shadow of the boathouse. The sand is golden. The sea pale blue and the sky hot. The paint is applied with the subtlety of Rothko. It’s not crude. And it has to be the Atlantic coast. Quite how Avery does it would be great to know.
The show has only a few days to run – catch it while it’s there.