Category : Books

Martin Warner reviews ‘Journey into Light: The challenge and enchantment of Catholic Christianity’ by Roderick Strange

[Roderick] Strange wants to tell us how Christianity is naturally catholic. His exposition has a simple structure: the Church’s liturgical year. He starts with reminding us that belief in God is a reasonable thing, and then offers a series of reflections that go from Advent to the following November.

Part of the didactic skill of this wise teacher is that he understands how the experience of liturgy communicates a truth beyond itself. His account of Passiontide and Holy Week is a good example of how liturgical events open up what sustained the life and teaching of St Paul. Similarly, the feast of the Immaculate Conception is used as a hook on which to hang a meditation on the theme of mercy which Jesus reveals in the Gospels.

In an age when so much has been forgotten about our Christian inheritance of faith, Strange introduces saints and theologians of the past as though they were old friends. He does not labour the point, but offers the odd soundbite to remind us how thin our own discourse is becoming.

The warmth of human sympathy, the array of interesting and original people, and the range of places, circumstances, art, and literature all indicate how Strange has been nurtured by the ease and confidence of the Catholic Church.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Church Year / Liturgical Seasons, Ecclesiology, Sacramental Theology, Theology

(TLS) Norma Clarke reviews William Leith’s ‘The Cut That Wouldn’t Heal’

Just as I’m thinking “This sounds like Holden Caulfield. Is he channelling J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye?”, William Leith mentions Karl Ove Knausgaard. Knausgaard’s series of books, My Struggle, chronicles his thoughts and feelings, beginning with his father’s death. Leith orders the series, and when it arrives in the post he is terrified – he feels “dread”, wants to put the books on a high shelf with the spines facing the wall. Then, when he begins reading the first volume, A Death in the Family, he is gripped. Leith often depicts himself having two opposed reactions. In his earlier memoir, The Hungry Years: Confessions of a food addict (2005), he writes: “I am always too empty, and yet too full. I am always too full, and yet too empty”. There’s quite a lot of that here.

Leith came early to the confessional writing game. A Guardian article published in 2005, by which time his tortured relationship to food, drink, money and drugs had become a staple of his journalism, described him as the “poster boy of binge living”. His binge living was driven by anxiety, and the writing about it, displaying his appetite for self-harm and honing his expertise in liking himself less and less, gave him a living. The Cut That Wouldn’t Heal has a present-tense immediacy, beginning ten seconds before his father’s death, but some of the material is recycled from earlier writings. The “cut” of the title is on his father’s leg, and Leith doesn’t press the obvious metaphorical application to himself. Beginning with his birth, which his father didn’t welcome, and continuing through a childhood in which his father was mostly absent, physically and emotionally, Leith charts the many ways he failed to be good enough. His father, a psychologist, apparently didn’t notice or didn’t care that his son was bleeding.

Read it all (subscription).

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Children, Marriage & Family, Psychology

(CH) Frank James–When God Came to England

In Bede’s view, English church history continued the story of the New Testament. As he did with the Jews of old and the Gentiles of apostolic times, God was redeeming the English people for himself. Like the biblical writers, Bede recounts the history of that redemption in order to remind the English of what God has done. All history is redemptive history.

As the first great historian of the church in England, Bede belongs to a world very different from our own. For him, history was never purely secular, but a temporal manifestation of the divine plan of redemption. Bede also believed that this divine plan worked through Christian kings and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Some of Bede’s Celtic contemporaries disagreed with these views. Many modern readers, too, find such a pro-establishment bias suspicious or even repressive.

Other critics have judged Bede a “second-rate scholar” because his Ecclesiastical History is largely derived from the works of previous church historians. However, this material has been carefully reshaped by a redemptive historical vision and made theologically coherent so that the sum is greater than its parts. “It takes a kind of genius to do this sort of thing well,” judges one modern medievalist—a kind of genius that Bede undeniably possessed.

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Posted in Books, Church History, England / UK

A Prayer for the Feast Day of Bede the Venerable

Heavenly Father, who didst call thy servant Bede, while still a child, to devote his life to thy service in the disciplines of religion and scholarship: Grant that as he labored in the Spirit to bring the riches of thy truth to his generation, so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make thee known in all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Posted in Books, Church History, Spirituality/Prayer

(NYT) Ada Limón Makes Poems for a Living

In her most recent book, she said, she was interested in things that can go on without her — the book has four sections, each named for a season.

The collection is dedicated to her stepfather, Brady T. Brady, who is one of her early readers, along with a small group of poets including Jennifer L. Knox and Matthew Zapruder. Brady went from high school to fighting in the infantry in Vietnam, and never studied poetry. But his guidance of her writing has been valuable since she was a child, Limón said. Once, when she was 15, she called him at work to read a poem she’d written.

“I started reading it in this very poetic voice, and he was like: ‘Wait, no,’” she said. “‘Just read it to me like you’re telling me something.’ And I read it that way, in my natural voice, and then he could hear it.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Language, Poetry & Literature

(CC) Lisa Sharon Harper’s memoir of the legacy of slavery

When Lisa Sharon Harper em­barked on a pilgrimage to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where her enslaved ancestors arrived from West Africa in the 1680s, she had been researching her family tree for decades. This was no easy task when so many earlier generations had tried to forget the past.

Her quest to understand where and who she came from was made difficult by the reality of trauma, family separation, and the deprivation of basic human rights for enslaved people and their descendants. “Previous generations did not have the luxury of memory,” Harper says. Only White births, marriages, and deaths were reliably recorded by historians and census takers. Scant information gleaned from living relatives—a few names and places and hints of Cherokee or Chickasaw ancestry, including a beautiful beaded necklace she inherited from her grandfather—were the bread crumbs she followed.

It wasn’t until Harper joined Ancestry.com in 2010 that she was able to confirm the existence of those who had seemed as myths to her, “like the Greeks spoke of Hermes and Dionysus,” traceable to a slave schedule listing the human property of a White man named Jonathan Lawrence. Black life and death were not worth recording, she emphasizes, except as property gained or lost.

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Posted in Books, History, Race/Race Relations

NYT reviews Alan Jacobs’ new book ‘The Puzzler– One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, From Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life’

Along the way we meet all manner of puzzle masters, as well as the merely possessed. There are the speedcubers, people who memorize hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of algorithms to reduce the number of turns per solve. (If you think that nothing is more boring to watch than golf, just know that speedcubing tournaments have spectators, as well as fantasy leagues where you can gamble on your favorite champions.) There is Adrian Fisher, who modestly calls himself the most prolific maze designer “in the history of humankind”: His work includes a Beatles-themed maze in Liverpool, a maze in the passenger terminal of Singapore’s Changi Airport and one on the side of a building in Dubai, “which shouldn’t be attempted unless you’re Spider-Man.” And of course there is Will Shortz himself, the NPR/New York Times editor who is to puzzles what Kim Kardashian is to buttocks: There is none finer, or more discussed among aficionados. On the walls of Shortz’s living room hangs a personal letter to him from Bill Clinton: “Even when I can’t finish them, they’re the only part of The New York Times that guarantees a good feeling.”

Jacobs’s love for puzzles is infectious, and it’s not hard to understand why. Puzzle people draw us in with their monomania. “I’m a sucker for people who are passionate about something,” Jacobs notes, “regardless of how silly that passion might seem to others.” He shows us how you can even cherish puzzles that you don’t have the patience (or skill) to solve.

The truth is, we’re all puzzlers, whether we’re trying to remember our passwords or losing sleep because we’re staying up till 12:01 a.m. to do Wordle — a simple word puzzle that ballooned from 90 daily players on Nov. 1 to 300,000 at the beginning of the year to millions now. All puzzles aren’t so innocent — think Zodiac Killer, who still has multiple websites dedicated to cracking some of his unsolved notes. But puzzles also bring us together in ways large and small. If I’m having an existential crisis at 3 a.m., there is an entire globe of people out there playing online Scrabble in real time. And I’ve actually had interesting conversations on Words With Friends with strangers. As puzzlers often say, “It’s not the puzzles you solve, it’s the people you meet.”

Read it all.

Posted in * General Interest, Books

(The Critic) Sebastian Milbank–Rod Dreher comes home: The conscience of the New World is here in the Old

According to Daniel French there is an increasingly “underground” aspect to conservative Christian life in the UK — believers have woken up to the fact that the culture is against them, and in many cases even traditional religious leaders too.

Another of his UK allies, Dr James Orr, believes that Rod Dreher is destined to have a significant impact on our conservatism. “His insights are proving more salient with every week that passes, not only for Christians but for all those who are beginning to feel the consequences of rejecting the West’s Christian inheritance.

“As hyper-progressivism continues to colonise the UK public square with neuralgic imports from the US culture wars, I predict that more and more people in the UK will start to take Dreher’s jeremiads seriously and pay attention to his constructive proposals.”

Whether or not James Orr is right, Dreher is interesting not just for who he is, but for what he represents. He stands at a newly emergent nexus of traditional European conservatism, English realism, and American romanticism and religiosity. With an increasingly sterile politics, caught between technocratic centrism and the hollow battles of the culture wars, there’s a desperate need for new ideas, and fresh approaches. This is a man worth listening to.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Books, Children, England / UK, Evangelicals, Marriage & Family, Orthodox Church, Religion & Culture, Roman Catholic, Theology

(RNS) Jesus saved Beth Moore’s life. Twitter blew it up. A new memoir will tell the story.

For the past few years, Bible teacher and best-selling author Beth Moore has been one tweet away from disaster.

Moore, perhaps the best-known ex-Southern Baptist in the country, will recount her Twitter battles, her split with her former denomination and, more importantly, her lifelong journey with Jesus, in a new memoir titled “All My Knotted-Up Life,” due out from Tyndale in April 2023.

News of the memoir was first reported by Cathy Lynn Grossman of Publishers Weekly. Tyndale publisher Karen Watson told PW that the memoir will be a “southern literary reflection on an unlikely and winsomely remarkable life.”

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Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, America/U.S.A., Baptists, Books, Church History, Evangelicals, Marriage & Family, Religion & Culture, Women

(1st Things) John Wilson–A Not-so-Secular Age

I recently received review copies of two books on the same day. The first, a galley of a book to be published by Eerdmans near the end of July, was Encountering Mystery: Religious Experience in a Secular Age, by Dale C. Allison, Jr. The second, just out from Hurst, was Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World, by Elle Hardy. The fortuitous juxtaposition was ironic, of course, but more than that, it was very close to my heart. Like you, I expect, I have seen an ever-increasing number of articles and books intimating a radical shrinkage of “religion,” ranging from Ryan Burge’s The Nones to recent provocative columns by Philip Jenkins (to mention just two examples from a vast field). And behind this, of course, we must acknowledge the enormous, though to me still unaccountable, influence of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

I will not issue any predictions. Many years ago, the admirable Joseph Ratzinger foresaw a radical shrinkage of the church, suggesting that, difficult as this passage might be, it could be purifying. I don’t know for sure what the future, even the “near future,” holds in this respect, but I do know that—for the moment, at least—we do not remotely live in a “secular age.” Imagine my surprise when, as I began to read Encountering Mystery, I discovered that Allison himself, despite the subtitle affixed to his book, also does not believe that we live in a “secular age.” On the contrary, and how strange. Whence then the framing? Perhaps that is why the superb scholar and memoirist Carlos Eire describes Encountering Mystery as a “marvelously daring book.” It is just that, describing many experiences (a few firsthand, many recounted by others) of the numinous, the mystical, the supernatural. I hope in due course that you will read it yourself. Nor, it’s important to add, are such experiences limited to Christians; see, for example, Susannah Crockford’s Ripples of the Universe: Spirituality in Sedona, Arizona.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Pentecostal, Religion & Culture, Secularism

CT Talks to Uche Anizor–Help! I’ve Stopped Caring About God.

How would you distinguish between apathy and close cousins like depression, despondency, and what might be called “dry spells”?

It’s important to note that I’m not using the term apathy in a clinical sense, but instead as it pertains to the things Christians purportedly value, the things of God. There is overlap between this kind of spiritual apathy and depression. But there are certain characteristics unique to each. Depression relates to things like suicidal ideation and a pervasive lack of energy or motivation in every area of life.

Apathy, however, tends to be more selective. With the young men I’ve mentored, they are not apathetic about everything. They might be quite excited about gaming, or their girlfriends, or the LA Lakers. Depression tends to be more pervasive, and it might require therapy or other forms of treatment that wouldn’t necessarily apply to apathy.

As for despondency, I define it as a deep sadness, or bewilderment, especially as it pertains to the things of God. If we’re dealing with despondency rather than apathy, what the despondent person needs most is to be comforted.

With dry spells, or what we might call the dark night of the soul, we’re dealing with something that is good and divinely orchestrated. God intends it for our good. The person going through the dry spell just needs help to persevere through it and press into God.

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Posted in Anthropology, Books, Pastoral Theology, Theology, Theology: Scripture

Jeremy Morris reviews Lord Carey’s memoir ‘The Truth Will Set You Free’

Given the continuing controversy over these matters, and also over the handling of the allegation against the long-dead George Bell (on which Carey also has much to say), most readers will be tempted to skim through the early chapters, which deal mostly with Carey’s involvement post-retirement with the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, and the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

That is a pity, because Carey was deeply involved in these matters, and casts an interesting light on the tensions that bedevil those who want to assert the continuing importance of faith in international relations and economic development. Given his own background as the first truly working-class archbishop in many centuries, and not a product of public school and Oxbridge, his participation in these circles is testimony to an extraordinary career — something perhaps not always appreciated by his critics. He gives little sense here of any lack of confidence.

Read it all.

Posted in Archbishop of Canterbury, Books, Church of England (CoE), Economy, Ethics / Moral Theology, Parish Ministry, Pastoral Theology, Religion & Culture, Theology

O Hallesby on Prayer as Work from yesterday morning’s sermon

“The work of the Spirit can be compared to mining. The Spirit’s work is to blast to pieces the sinner’s hardness of heart and his frivolous opposition to God. The period of the awakening can be likened to the time when the blasts are fired. The time between the awakenings corresponds, on the other hand, to the time when the deep holes are being bored with great effort into the hard rock.

To bore these holes is hard and difficult and a task which tries one’s patience. To light the fuse and fire the shot is not only easy but also very interesting work. One sees “results” from such work. It creates interest, too; shots resound, and pieces fly in every direction! It takes trained workmen to do the boring. Anybody can light a fuse.

…the Spirit calls us to do the quiet, difficult, trying work of boring holy explosive materials into the souls of people by daily and unceasing prayer. This is the real preparatory work for the next awakening. The reason why such a long period of time elapses between awakenings is simply that the Spirit cannot find believers who are willing to do the heavy part of the mining work. Everybody desires awakenings; but we prefer to let other do the boring into the hard rock.”

–Ole Hallesby, Prayer (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortess, 1994 printing of the 1931 original), [Book Three] pp.77-78

Posted in Books, Church History, Norway, Spirituality/Prayer

(Gallup) Americans are Reading Fewer Books Than in Past

Americans say they read an average of 12.6 books during the past year, a smaller number than Gallup has measured in any prior survey dating back to 1990. U.S. adults are reading roughly two or three fewer books per year than they did between 2001 and 2016.

The results are based on a Dec. 1-16 Gallup poll, which updated a trend question on book reading. The question asks Americans to say how many books they “read, either all or part of the way through” in the past year. Interviewers are instructed to include all forms of books, including printed books but also electronic books and audiobooks, when entering the respondent’s answer.

The decline in book reading is mostly a function of how many books readers are reading, as opposed to fewer Americans reading any books. The 17% of U.S. adults who say they did not read any books in the past year is similar to the 16% to 18% measured in 2002 to 2016 surveys, though it is higher than in the 1999 to 2001 polls.

The drop is fueled by a decline in the percentage of Americans reading more than 10 books in the past year. Currently, 27% report that they read more than 10 books, down eight percentage points since 2016 and lower than every prior measure by at least four points.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Books

(Guardian) Robyn Vinter–A Christmas Carol is not cosy, and its angry message should still haunt us

“A Christmas Carol isn’t just a cheery, uplifting tale that we can mimic in various modern ways,” says Mayhew. “It’s a very seriously intended work of moral fiction and, perhaps because we tend to pigeonhole it as a Christmas story, we don’t read just how serious it is.”

The message that Dickens had for Victorian Britain is increasingly pertinent, even though we may use different words to describe similar problems, [Professor Robert] Mayhew believes.

“It’s interesting because we’re living right now with unprecedented levels of homelessness and individuals needing the support of food banks. We have the binary between extreme wealth on one hand and those inured to poverty on the other.” You feel the resonance of A Christmas Carol seems to get stronger every year.”

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Christmas, England / UK, History, Poverty, Religion & Culture

(NC Register) St. Thomas Becket — A Saint for This Season?

What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research of St. Thomas?

That Thomas is a much more complicated man than often portrayed in secular and religious histories – infuriating, reckless, and yet calculating and even wise. In terms of his personality, he could be distant, officious. I was surprised at how few people loved him in life. Many respected and admired him, but it is said that only three people were known to have loved him: his mother, Henry II and Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, his mentor. Thomas is known to have loved his mother, Henry II and Henry’s son, Henry, whom he educated in his house and considered a son. Thanks to the devotion which has built up in the centuries, Thomas was and is much loved by so many, but it is heart-breaking to think that he may not have had the experience of warm human relationships and may have meant he experienced great loneliness. But then, that may have been another reason for him to find refuge in God.

What do you think is the particular holiness of this saint?

If we had known Thomas in his time, we probably would not speak of his holiness. Those who knew him would not have considered him a Saint at all; it was his death that changed people’s view of him. But he had been growing in holiness, little by little. We could say that he was a man who, for all his public persona, was “hidden with Christ in God”, as he struggled to become a better man and a good bishop. He persisted, quietly and often painfully, giving himself to God in prayer and penance, consciously aware of his mistakes and pride.

His desire to be a good bishop came from his sense of duty; in the end, that sense of duty led him to realize that only the sacrifice of his life could bring peace. And he was prepared to offer that sacrifice. Thomas’ particular holiness was the hidden, daily struggle to be what Christ wanted him to be, and that drama was at the heart of the long journey from a man of ambition, an ordinary, decent Catholic, to a man prepared to die for Christ and the Church.

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Posted in Archbishop of Canterbury, Books, Church History

(Telegraph) Evensong by Richard Morris, review: a moving study of Anglicanism’s battle for postwar survival

[Richard] Morris is a man of extraordinary learning, who can’t help digressing from the story of, say, the re-organisation of a parish structure in the 1950s to tell us about a little-known Celtic saint born nearby (Morris shares his father’s romantic attachment to the Celtic roots of Anglicanism), or how recent archaeology has proved that a “dark cloud” mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon history was actually caused by two volcanic eruptions.

The result is something extraordinarily rich, which interweaves past and present and illuminates many aspects of post-war Britain, including shifting class relations, housing and industrial policy, and the cultural tensions between conservationists and gung-ho modernisers – the latter especially important for the Church, which was torn between the two. Instead of finding a principled way forward, it often resorted to intellectually dubious fudges, which arouse Morris’s anger – at one point he describes the Church of England as “pre-eminent in faith and fraud”.

But, though the recent reforms of the Church rarely win his admiration, he loves the wisdom of the institution over time, revealed in such symbolic details as burying the dead near or under the porch of churches, so that the living and the dead were joined together in worship. They bear out his deep conviction that cherishing traditions, and in particular medieval churches (of which there’s a greater abundance in Britain than in the rest of Europe put together), is “not devotion to ashes but the transfer of fire”. One feels the heat of that fire in this wonderful book.

Read it all (registration).

Posted in Books, Church History, Church of England (CoE), England / UK, Religion & Culture

A Fantastic London Times Profile Piece on Congolese Doctor and Pentecostal Pastor Denis Mukwege

In the past seven years tens of thousands of Yazidis kept as sex slaves by Isis fighters, girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Rohingya women dragged from their huts and gang-raped by Burmese soldiers, have courageously come forward and told their stories, yet there has only been a single prosecution.

No one is better qualified to write about the situation than this astonishingly brave Congolese gynaecological surgeon. His Panzi hospital in eastern Congo has treated more than 60,000 raped women and girls over the past 20 years. Some arrive so damaged that he has carried out multiple operations to try to reconstruct them.

One of the most heroic men I have ever met, Mukwege literally risks his life to save women. After a series of threats and assassination attempts, he lives almost as a prisoner on the hospital site, guarded by UN peacekeepers.

Far from being supported by the Congolese state, he does all of this in the face of a government so craven it tried to fine him $20,000 for collecting rainwater on the hospital roof, insisting that rain belongs to the state.

Read it all (subscription).

Posted in Africa, Books, Health & Medicine, Republic of Congo, Sexuality, Terrorism, Violence, Women

(TLS) Niall Ferguson reviews ‘The Age of AI: And Our Human Future’ by by Henry A Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher

It had never occurred to me until I read The Age of AI that what differentiates AI from HI – human intelligence – is that even the most brilliant human chess player rules out ex ante certain moves that involve very high sacrifice. But AlphaZero plays chess “without reflection or volition, with strict adherence to the rules”. It is unbeatable partly because it has inferred from the rules certain tactics – and hence, cumulatively, a strategy – that HI would never consider.

The other obvious difference is that AI is much, much faster than HI. As the authors note, “An AI … scanning for targets follows its own logic, which may be inscrutable to an adversary and unsusceptible to traditional signals and feints – and which will, in most cases, proceed faster than the speed of human thought”. The idea of an AI program waging war, rather than playing chess, with the same ruthlessness and speed is deeply frightening. No doubt DeepMind is already working on AlphaHero. One imagines with a shudder the programme sacrificing entire armies or armadas as readily as its chess-playing predecessor sacrificed its queen. No doubt the reader should feel reassured that the United States has committed itself to develop only “AI-enabled weapons”, as opposed to “AI weapons … that make lethal decisions autonomously from human operators”. “Created by humans, AI should be overseen by humans”, the authors declare. But why should America’s undemocratic adversaries exercise the same restraint? Inhuman intelligence sounds like the natural ally of regimes that are openly contemptuous of human rights.

If the foe of the future is literally inhuman as well as inhumane, how shall we be able to defend ourselves? The varieties of deterrence that evolved during the first Cold War, up to and including Mutually Assured Destruction, seem unlikely to apply to AI war. Because, unlike nuclear weapons, AI will be widely used in multiple ways and at multiple scales, “the achievement of mutual strategic restraint … will be more difficult than before”. That seems an understatement. I have thought for some time that there may simply be no deterrence in the areas of cyberwar and information warfare.

We are left with only two possibilities. “For nations”, the authors note, “disconnection could become the ultimate form of defense.” This makes sense. The past five years have vividly revealed the dangers of a hyperconnected world. Without effective circuit-breakers that sever network links at the first indication of hazardous contagion, we are as vulnerable to cyberattack as we were to fake news in 2016 or a novel pathogen in 2020.

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Posted in Books, Defense, National Security, Military, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Military / Armed Forces, Science & Technology

Thomas Merton on Trusting in God on his Feast Day

“But the man who is not afraid to admit everything that he sees to be wrong with himself, and yet recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of his shortcomings, can begin to be sincere. His sincerity is based on confidence, not in his own illusions about himself, but in the endless, unfailing mercy of God.”

No Man Is an Island (New York: Houghton Mifflin 2002 paper ed. of 1953 original), p.202

Posted in Books, Church History, Theology

(Telegraph) Rowan Williams: technology has ‘disabled us intellectually – we’re forgetting how to learn’

When I meet Rowan Williams at the Southbank Centre in late October, there is much going on. The Church of England, of which he was once Archbishop of Canterbury, stands accused of trying to close churches to save cash; a famous bishop has converted to Rome; and Williams is waiting for his daughter to give birth (the boy, his first grandchild, will arrive a few days later).

Although he’s been lampooned for being wishy-washy, I find Williams’s language to be economical and exact, and though he is thoroughly loyal to his successors in the clerical hierarchy, buried beneath his metaphors is a cutting critique of where we’re at. “There was a loss of nerve in the 1960s,” he says of Anglicanism. “Like St Peter walking on the water”, the Church seemed to “look down at the wrong moment” and lose its footing.

Now, Williams believes, we are seeing the legacy of that “pervasive and paralysing anxiety about the role of the Church in society”. Amid “a general cultural tide flowing away” from Christianity, we have to ask: what if the Church “is no longer a given….”?

Information has become abundant, he says, yet “the process of acquiring that information” – ie scrolling through one’s phone – “has disabled us intellectually… We are increasingly forgetting how to learn. We assume that knowledge can be distilled and communicated and transferred just like that… a tick box approach which is found in clergy training.” What knowledge we inherit, we take for granted, yet “the absolutism of some modern social morality” – the idea that right and wrong are obvious – “did not drop from heaven. We learnt to see things this way.”

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Posted in --Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Books, Church of England (CoE), Poetry & Literature, Theology

CS Lewis on CS Lewis Day (III)–On the importance of reading old books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think – as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries – that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe – Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet – after all – so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: “An air that kills From yon far country blows.”

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

–C.S. Lewis, On the Incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), pp. 3-7

Posted in Books, Church History

Amarnath Amarasingam reviews Jytte Klausen’s new book “Western Jihadism” (OUP)

As the Cold War came to an end, political scientists began to debate what the new paradigm in global conflict might look like. Perhaps the most notorious theory was proposed by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations (1996) – “the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future” – in which he singled out Islam as likely to be particularly problematic; Huntington further expounded this argument in Who Are We? (2004), in which he argued that, in many non-Muslim societies, Muslim minorities are proving to be “indigestible”.

Jytte Klausen’s The Islamic Challenge (2005) was in many ways a direct riposte to Huntington. The book, based on interviews with Muslim parliamentarians, educators, lawyers and businesspeople, pushed back on the notion that there is a uniform “Muslim” approach to integration in the West. Klausen discovered something “shocking”: Muslims are basically like everybody else. They want to educate their children, make a decent living and find ways to live a religious life of their choosing. Critics of her book didn’t see it that way, however, and pointed out that Klausen was ignoring a significant subset of the Muslim population in the West that was committed to terrorist violence.

The quest to answer these critics turned out to be a long one. As she writes in her new book, Western Jihadism: A thirty-year history, it took “fifteen years and the work of eighty students”, each of whom scoured court records, media reports and martyrdom biographies released by terrorist groups themselves, to amass a dataset containing 5,832 men and 561 women who have acted on behalf of al-Qaeda or Islamic State in some manner. The book – which has revelatory individual chapters on the life of Osama bin Laden, the first World Trade Center bombing, 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the rise of ISIS – argues that the “Western branch” of the jihadist movement is driven by a coalescence of the “strategic objectives of Osama bin Laden and the global movement he spearheaded” and the desire of some young Muslims to take part in a transnational and revolutionary social movement, to be part of a historical moment, and to have their lives imbued with purpose.

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Posted in Books, Globalization, History, Terrorism

(CC) Luke Timothy Johnson wants us to read Paul in all his complexity

Every few years, a scholar publishes some form of a Pauline theology. In your two-volume set you resist this endeavor. Why do you think it is problematic to try to map out a theology of Paul?

The ambition to construct a theology of Paul is inherently misguided—and therefore fatally flawed—for three basic reasons.

First, it assumes that Paul is a theologian whose letters represent expressions of his theology as an individual and distinctive set of ideas. And since the expression of these ideas is dispersed through widely disparate letters, never appearing except partially and in passing, it is thought necessary to erect a systematic framework that can be seen as governing such diverse expressions.

But Paul is not a theologian. He is an apostle, a proclaimer of Jesus as Lord, a founder and pastor of communities. Responding in letters to the needs of such communities, he certainly shows himself to be a religious thinker, but there is no reason to suppose that Paul had a theology in the sense that we use the term. Paul worked out arguments in response to concrete circumstances. He certainly had deep convictions upon which he called as he thought through the implications of a commitment to a crucified and raised Messiah, but these convictions did not constitute an individual, distinctive, personal theology that was Paul’s alone.

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Posted in Books, Seminary / Theological Education, Theology: Scripture

(CT) Christiopher Benson–The Contentious Literary Family That Explains Global Anglicanism

Radner posits that “God has, until the present, been using Anglicans as a figural outworking of Christian reconciliation in a fragmented, post-Babel world.” Reconciliation of the divided church has been achieved through Anglican habits encapsulated in three Latin phrases: ecclesia semper reformanda est (ongoing reform of the church), ad fontes (retrieval of the apostolic tradition), and lex orandi, lex credendi (reciprocation of prayer and belief). Another contributor to the book, Anglican journalist and theologian Barbara Gauthier, maintains that Anglicans have wrought reconciliation through the three streams of Scripture, sacrament, and Spirit, “representing Anglicanism’s evangelical, sacramental, and charismatic traditions.”

Because Anglicanism seems to be dying, Radner suggests letting it go as “a discrete ecclesial vocation and allowing its historic and contemporary forms to be remade for some further divine purpose.” This echoes the late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey’s vision about the built-in obsolescence of Anglicanism, as summarized in the book by Stephen Bayne: “The vocation of Anglicanism is to disappear because Anglicanism does not believe in itself but believes only in the Catholic Church of Christ; therefore it is forever restless until it finds its place in that one Body.” Bray makes a similar point: “If Anglicanism is anything, it is a servant church in which every member has a ministry and in which all who believe in Christ are equally welcome.”

Indeed, a servant church may ultimately become invisible if the schisms in the worldwide church are healed, but ecclesial unity may not be possible without “Anglican essentials,” which have faded from the Global North. What other room off the hall summons the entire Christian family to the belief and practice of the undivided church during the first five centuries, as outlined by 16th-century Anglican Divine Lancelot Andrewes: “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the Fathers in that period (the three centuries before Constantine and the two after) which determines the boundaries of our faith”?

The shorthand for Anglicanism is “reformed catholicism.” That seems as relevant today as ever because Geneva, Rome, and Constantinople have not come together in the ministry of Word and sacrament. And yet, as Bray recognizes, Anglicans in the Global North have either ignored or revised the formularies of the tradition—the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Homilies, the Ordinal, and the Book of Common Prayer—which are critical to its work of reconciliation: “Can a theological tradition exist without theology? That often seems where we are heading, but if we ever get there, Anglicanism will be as good as dead. Theological renewal is essential if we are to survive.” The via media of the Anglican tradition (interpreted in various ways as a mediator between Catholicism and Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, popery and Puritanism) constitutes “the best of Anglicanism and its template for the future of Christianity after Christendom,” but also “evokes the worst aspects of Anglicanism: the spineless, muddling middle way that encourages a managerial mentality and gives rise to a false peace without principles,” avers ex-Episcopalian, Catholic theologian R. R. Reno.

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Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, Books

(WSJ) Writer Liu Cixin On How His Visions Of The Future Collide With Reality

What is the biggest technological shift we’ll see in the future?

It’s definitely going to be artificial intelligence. I don’t think AI will overtake humans in the short term, but it will have a profound impact on society. Recently, I stayed at a hotel near Beijing, and I didn’t encounter a single human worker during my stay. From checking in to ordering takeout, there wasn’t a single human interaction, everything was done on apps and with AI-powered bots.

This is more and more common in China. I used to think that AI would displace simple and repetitive jobs, but now I think the opposite: It will replace more “senior” positions like doctors, lawyers, teachers and stock analysts. On the other hand, it’s the jobs that are more labor intensive that will be harder to replace. I renovated my house recently, and needed an electrician to rewire the entire living room. I really can’t see a situation where AI can replace that kind of a job in the short term.

But AI’s effect on people will be sweeping, and an issue we will have to grapple with in the very near future. We’re past the agricultural and industrial age and firmly stepped into the era of AI.

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Posted in Books, China, Globalization, Poetry & Literature, Science & Technology

(TLS) Giles Foden on the salient ideas, elegant writing and ethical commitment of this year’s Nobel laureate, Abdulrazak Gurnah

ew announcements could give greater pleasure to followers of the broad church of African literature than that of the East African-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah as winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. We would all like to give the honorific Swahili greeting shikamoo – “I touch your feet” – but we can’t do that literally right now, and he wouldn’t like it anyway, I reckon, being a very self-effacing man, despite his great talent.

Born in 1948 on Zanzibar, then still a British colony, Gurnah came to the United Kingdom in 1968. This was the year of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech and four years after the violent Zanzibar revolution that eventually led to the union of Zanzibar and Tanganyika as present-day Tanzania – a moment later dramatized in his debut novel, Memory of Departure (1987). He studied at Canterbury Christ Church University and earned a PhD at the University of Kent in 1982, before teaching for a few years at a university in northern Nigeria. He then returned to Kent, rising through troublesome academic ranks to become Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, until his retirement in November 2018, an occasion on which I was honoured to give a valedictory lecture. At the end of that peroration, I rashly predicted the likelihood of Nobel laurels. The best bet I never made. Gurnah’s academic work during this period, like that of his fellow laureate J. M. Coetzee, focused on colonial and post-colonial writing – branching out, when the field went mainstream, into some creative-writing tuition.

All through this time – the early part of which saw post-colonial writing going against the grain of predominantly white, neocolonial establishment authority – Gurnah was writing groundbreaking fiction. To date, he has produced ten novels that grapple with the subjects of the immigrant experience, displacement, memory and colonialism. These concerns – the transnational, the trauma narrative – are very current now, but they were just a speck on the horizon when Gurnah began developing his oeuvre. He was a prime mover in this respect, and that is part of what has catalysed this award. As the chair of the Nobel committee, Anders Olsson, remarked, “Gurnah has consistently and with great compassion penetrated the effects of colonialism in East Africa, and its effects on the lives of uprooted and migrating individuals”.

This element of compassion was clearly an important factor for the Nobel committee.

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Posted in Books, England / UK, History, Tanzania

(Christian Today) Alister McGrath on faith, science and why we should be excited by theology

CT: You begin your book with this declaration: “I never expected to be a Christian theologian, mainly because I never expected to be a Christian.” What was the main thing that drew you to Christianity at Oxford in the 1970s?

AM: I was an atheist when I arrived at Oxford, although I had some growing doubts about whether atheism was really as simple and rational as I had thought. My doubts increased as it became clear that my atheist friends at Oxford couldn’t prove that their beliefs were right. I gradually came to see that atheism was a matter of faith, not something that could be proved.

These friends believed that there was no God, but could not show that this was right. I had been attracted to atheism as a teenager because of its apparent certainty, and I now began to realize that it was actually a faith. As I met and talked to lots of students and academics who were Christians, I began to realize that I had misunderstood what Christianity was all about.

One of the reasons for my teenage atheism was that I believed that God was a total irrelevance. God was in heaven; but I was on earth, in the midst of time and space. God had no connection with or presence within my world, and could say or do nothing of any relevance to me.

But my Christian friends at Oxford told me about the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. I could see that, if this was right, it was a game-changer….

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Posted in Anthropology, Apologetics, Books, Church of England (CoE), Science & Technology

(CC) Philip Jenkins reviews five new books about the lives and faith of Christians around the world

Based on years of experience as a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, Wayne Ten Harmsel presents a fascinating study of The Registered Church in China: Flourishing in a Challenging Environment (Pickwick). As conditions for Christians become harsher in that country and official pressures toward Sinicization become more aggressive, the word challenging sounds ever more like a euphemism.

The greatest contribution of Ten Harmsel’s crisp and sympathetic study is to give readers a sense of the ordinary realities of lived faith in those churches. Outsiders might be tempted to dismiss the church leaders and members as compromisers, or even sellouts, but they are nothing of the sort. Much like the “border” people Hanciles describes, these people are struggling constantly to balance two competing identities: that of a loyal Chinese citizen, subject to the control of a one-party state, and that of a Christian who has no earthly commonwealth. These believers walk a delicate path as they try to live Christian lives without compromising their faith.

Let me conclude with an introduction. Over the past quarter century, plenty of authors have offered broad surveys of the rapidly changing state of global Christianity, and some have been impressive. One new work that really stands out for its scope and accessibility is World Christianity and the Unfinished Task: A Very Short Introduction (Cascade) by F. Lionel Young III. This book does an excellent job of compression, while at the same time succeeding fully in sketching recent trends and identifying pressing issues. Part of that success lies in Young’s ability to incorporate personal observations and stories, and so effectively.

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Posted in Books, Globalization, Religion & Culture

(Bloomberg) In America’s Next War, Machines Will Do the Thinking

TH: Where do you think that the Pentagon most needs to engage these innovative companies and people? Is it AI? Unmanned systems? Communications networks?

CB: All of it, but primarily autonomy. Autonomy — enabled by artificial intelligence, edge computing and other technologies — allows you to operate at scales and speeds that you simply cannot do under the traditional model of big, expensive, heavily manned systems that, no matter how much money you throw at them, will only be able to do a limited number of things. The problem is that China has been developing very precise capabilities to disrupt, disable, degrade and destroy those limited numbers of big things. This is our strategic problem. This is why our future force needs larger numbers of cheaper, more autonomous systems.

We’re not talking about photon torpedoes and intergalactic space travel. We’re talking about systems that are already in existence; that are imminently fieldable if we move with the right sense of urgency.

TH: In your book, you wrote a bit about the ethics of this and taking the human out of the “kill chain.” Is that something that’s going to happen?

CB: Yes, in time human beings will need to rely more on intelligent machines to help them understand, decide and act in warfare.

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Posted in * Economics, Politics, America/U.S.A., Books, China, Defense, National Security, Military, Science & Technology