Pope Francis Untying the Knots. The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism

Author: Paul Vallely
ISBN: 978-1-4729-1596-2
Date: 2015
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Publisher: Bloomsbury Continuum

Playing truant from a conference in Rome I was in St Peter’s Square on 13 March 2013 when the white smoke appeared. To the excited crowd Cardinal Tauran announced habemus papam and named Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio as the new Pope. ‘Who? Who’s he?’ went round the crowd, but the new Pope was a mystery (not least because the sheer number of people present caused all the mobile networks to crash and we couldn’t google him). After the new Pope had appeared on the balcony, the first to take the name Francis, the crowds streamed away, still uncertain as to what to make of him.

Whilst it may be an exaggeration to say of Pope Francis that (as Churchill described the Kremlin) he is ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, it is no exaggeration to say he remains something of a mystery. He is capable of capturing the attention of the secular press while at the same time the attendance at the Wednesday Audiences is significantly declining. He is a ‘loyal son of the Church’ while at the same time flouting Church law on washing only men’s feet on Holy Thursday, a law which as Supreme Legislator he could easily change.

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The Fall and the Ascent of Man: How Genesis Supports Darwin

Author: Joseph Fitzpatpatrick
ISBN: 978 0761857549
Date: 2011
Price: £18.00
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Publisher: UP of America

Although this book has been published for several years, I feel moved to review it here because it continues to ‘make waves’, not least because of a bizarre attempt in 2014 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to muzzle its author.
Joe Fitzpatrick contends that Gen 2-3 is not about a fall of man but about his ascent, his hominization. It expresses in mythological language the fact that wisdom elevates an otherwise feral animal to a human level that has something of the divine about it. Human beings are, as YHWH states, ‘like God, knowing good and evil’ (Gen 3.22; cf 1.26-27 on the divine image). The biblical narrative is about ‘the passage or ascent of the species from a hominid or proto-human state on the basis of the acquisition by the hominid creation of intellectual and rational consciousness’ (p.56). Dr Fitzpatrick is correct, I think, to take the biblical story to be talking about the human condition, not about a primordial couple. (Cf 2 Baruch 54.19 ‘each of us has become our own Adam’). Fitzpatrick further notes the difficulty of squaring traditional exegesis of the text with Darwinism. It is inconceivable that evolution should throw up the first two fully human individuals from whom the whole race would descend in the same place simultaneously (individuals originally immortal, at that!).

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God Remembered Rachel. Women’s stories in the Old Testament and why they matter

Author: Jenni Williams
ISBN: 978 0281 06684 1
Date: 2014
Price: £10.99
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Publisher: SPCK

Jenni Williams, who teaches Old Testament at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, here argues that although the OT was written almost if not totally by men, at times it portrays women as more than stereotypes, and that its narratives about women have much to teach Christian readers. Her book’s ten chapters (each of which ends with a few suggestions for reflection) comprise three sections: stories about women in relation to other women (Leah and Rachel; Ruth and Naomi; Sarah and Hagar); stories about women and men (the Levite’s concubine; the woman of Shunem; Michal; Deborah); and stories about women and God (Rahab; Hagar [again]; Hannah). Although most, if not all of the narratives take patriarchal society for granted, ‘many of them also go to great lengths to give a full and often sympathetic picture of women.’

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Ethics in Ancient Israel

Author: John Barton
ISBN: 978 0 19 966043 8
Date: 2014
Price: £30.00
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Publisher: OUP

This very impressive book on ethical thinking in ancient Israel represents the culmination of a lifelong study of the subject by one of the foremost authorities in the field, an emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford. His aim is to describe Israelite moral thinking, not to justify it or to apply it today. Dr Barton holds that the common supposition that moral prescriptions in the OT are presented exclusively in terms of obedience to the declared will of God needs to be challenged. There are indeed many instances of ‘command ethics’ in the OT, but very often we find in Israel, as in Egypt and Mesopotamia, a sense that some things are moral or immoral in themselves. In other words, there was a belief in a cosmic moral order. If Gentiles are condemned in Amos for barbaric practices in war (e.g. disembowelling pregnant women, 1.13), it is not for transgressing a divine injunction but for going against natural morality. Israel, like its neighbours, clearly had a concept of war crimes which was independent of the notion of divine revelation.

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