Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene

Richard Greene
ISBN: 978-1408703977
Little, Brown 2020
Hardback 608 pp £25.00
Pastoral Review bookshop £22.50
This new biography of Greene, the first of its generation, sets out to ‘avoid the obscure details of Greene’s sexual life’, which have often been the focus of past discussions of Greene’s life. Instead, Richard Greene’s Russian Roulette gives an exhaustive, fascinating account of Greene’s life first and foremost as a writer. Delving into his journalism as well as his fiction, this biography provides insight into his travels, how they shaped Greene and his worldview, as well as, of course, his religion.
Greene’s mental health is explored throughout the book, where Richard Greene confirms he suffered from bipolar disorder, but the romantic lens with which his mental health has previously been viewed is swapped for a sobering account of the author’s battles. His infamous flirtation with the life-threatening Russian roulette ‘game’ is put into question, as several conflicting accounts from Greene himself are cited, and it becomes clear that the author is his own most unreliable narrator. Greene is a storyteller par excellence, and this unusual talent can make his own accounts of his life less than forensic.

This blurred boundary between fact and fiction is observed again when it comes to Greene’s religious conversion. The eternal question of exactly what kind of Catholic novelist Greene was is by no means answered in this biography, although it is extensively, and captivatingly, explored. The sources accounting for his initial conversion tell an unclear story. The retrospective Greene is lucid and passionate when recounting his conversion: ‘It was on the grounds of a dogmatic atheism that I fought … a fight for personal survival.’ Yet Richard Greene reminds us that ‘it is hard to know whether this was precisely true at the time, or a touch of drama added decades later’. The young Greene, infatuated with his future Catholic wife, instead describes his first experience of Church as ‘rather fun’, and Richard Greene affirms that ‘he was prepared to do almost anything to please her’.

The role which his love for a devout Catholic woman unwilling to marry a non-Catholic had in his conversion thus remains a question mark.

And yet some of Greene’s observations suggest a profound commitment to the conversations he held as part of his instruction led by Father Trollope, a priest he felt he could identify with, for whom ‘plays competed with theological works for space on his bookshelves’. It remains unclear why this theism presented itself as Catholic in nature, except for the fact of his instruction having come from a Catholic priest – and this ambiguity and ‘unwillingness’ surrounding his religious identity persists throughout his life, as it becomes clear Greene does not have a straightforward relationship with his faith.

The uneasiness of Greene’s religious conversion is an existential problem present in his life in general. From his difficult childhood as the bullied son of the school headmaster through to his marriage, affairs and extensive travels, nothing about this man appears to be settled, and Richard Greene expertly does justice to this essential quality in Greene’s life by providing a breadth of sources and accounts that paint a meticulously multifaceted picture.

Sofia Abasolo, Beckenham

Coming soon:
The Sunday Gospels for Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter and The Sunday Gospels for Ordinary Time by Fr Adrian Graffy have just been published by Darton, Longman and Todd. Fr Adrian is a frequent contributor to the Pastoral Review, and there will be a review of the books in the next issue of the journal.

Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg

Paul Vallely 
ISBN 978-1472920126 
Bloomsbury 2020 
Hardback 768 pp £30.00 
Pastoral Review bookshop £27.00 
Three years ago, the Catholic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg remarked that he thought that poor and needy families making use of foodbanks was ‘rather uplifting’. Many Christians, including many who support foodbanks, found his statement appalling. A massive new book by Paul Vallely about philanthropy helps us understand both Rees-Mogg’s comment and the critical reactions.  

Vallely’s book is the product of five years’ research; he was asked to write the book by the philanthropist Trevor Pears and supported by a generous research grant from the Pears Foundation; while there are extensive footnotes, the references, to save space in the substantial printed text, can be found at www.philanthropyatoz.com. The structure of the book, strikingly, is both chronological and thematic, so chapters cover periods and historical figures while looking at particular angles: so, for example the chapter covering the eighteenth century (‘The Philanthropist as Activist’) points to the new approach to charitable giving in the careers of John Howard (after whom the Howard League is named), William Wilberforce and Thomas Coram. The book is monumental in terms of its detail and research, and Vallely never loses sight of the moral issues surrounding giving to the poor. Such a book could from some authors become very ‘heavy weather’, but one of this book’s strengths is that Vallely breaks up his narrative with interviews at the end of every chapter with a significant writer or philanthropist – they include Bob Geldof (twice), Lenny Henry, David Sainsbury, Richard Branson, Ian Linden, Rowan Williams and the late Jonathan Sacks. 

Philanthropy is important for any study of Catholic social teaching – on such courses this book will be essential reading. Vallely devotes a lot of space to the relationship between faith and philanthropy – Judaism, Islam, early Christianity, Medieval Christianity, the Reformation and Victorian Christianity – and examines the tensions which are sometimes present now between practical charitable work and campaigning for social justice. There is a very good section on social teaching itself (‘Finding a New Balance’, pp. 400ff.) which examines clearly the concepts of solidarity and subsidiarity in relation to a discussion of the Welfare State.  

Philanthropy is such a big topic that it is easy to miss things, and this book will be an important resource because of information which the reader might not find elsewhere. So in one of the concluding chapters, ‘How Philanthropy Can Recover its Lost Soul’, Vallely examines the surprising support given by Pope Francis to ‘social impact investing’, the model of philanthropy which brings together making a profit with doing good; and the Pope organised a conference in Rome in 2014 to promote this. 
The website referred to above explains more about the book and enables the reader to raise issues directly with Vallely. This is an outstanding book and will be the authoritative guide to this complex topic for many years. And when you read it, you will know why Rees-Mogg was wrong. 

Ashley Beck, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

The Problem of War: Darwinism, Christianity, and Their Battle to Understand Human Conflict

Michael Ruse
ISBN: 978-0190867577 
Oxford University Press 2019 
Hardback 280 pp £22.99 
Pastoral Review bookshop £20.69 
The debate about human nature has raged among philosophers and theologians for centuries. For pessimists like Augustine and Hobbes, human beings are fundamentally flawed: war and conflict are therefore inevitable. Optimists like Pelagius and Rousseau, by contrast, believe that humans are innately good, having the capacity to overcome conflict and make progress through their own efforts. 

Michael Ruse examines the contributions made to this debate by Christians and Darwinians. Both, he claims, share an obsession with human nature, and this has led them to advance two opposing worldviews. Christians believe us to be tainted by original sin; for this reason, while war is to be avoided, it will always be with us. Ruse dismisses this as morbid fatalism. Darwinians, on the other hand, believe us to be primates who evolved through natural selection. Violence may be innate, but, thanks to the powerful new adaptation of culture, we are now capable of transcending our aggressive heritage. Ruse sees this as nothing more than naïve optimism. He proposes, instead, a kind of via media between the two perspectives. 

The apparent opposition between Christian and Darwinian views forms the core of Ruse’s thesis. But how convincing is it? Unfortunately, in order to substantiate his claims, his work descends into caricature. Ruse sets up two ‘straw men’: Nigel Biggar, a Protestant theologian with neo-Calvinist convictions about the total depravity of humanity, is taken as representative of ‘Christian’ views. And the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who trumpets the inexorable ‘progress’ that society has made since the Enlightenment, is said to embody ‘Darwinism’. 

However, Ruse conspicuously fails to engage with the work of those whose ideas do not fit into his schema. On the Christian side, little or no account is taken, for instance, of the fact that Catholic theology does not share Biggar’s Calvinesque notion that human nature is totally depraved. On the contrary, Catholics believe that, though we are wounded by the Fall, human beings are intrinsically good; it is therefore possible, with God’s grace, for us to overcome our concupiscence. Likewise, in Ruse’s discussion of ‘Darwinians’, there is no mention of the philosopher John Gray, whose dark, phantasmagoric anthropology leads him to dismiss the whole idea of human progress as a pernicious illusion. In contrast to Pinker’s positivism, Gray holds that original sin is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. For him, human beings are animals, whose violent and bellicose instincts will never be conquered. 

Many scholars working in the field of philosophy and ethics will hate this book. The author’s historical analysis is simplified to the point of distortion, and he makes the fundamental error of assuming that Darwinians and Christians can be neatly divided into two ideologically distinct and internally consistent camps. The fact is, however, that thinking across both groups on the issue of war and human conflict is a great deal more nuanced and variegated than Ruse seems prepared to admit. And yet The Problem of War, as well as being beautifully written, has the power that Ruse’s works have always had – the power of arresting the reader’s attention and forcing her to think and argue. For this reason alone, the book is worth wrestling with. Still, what we need now is a volume that does full justice to the complexity of the debate and eschews crude generalisations. 

Jonathan W. Chappell, St Mary’s University, Twickenham 

Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom

Ilya Somin 
ISBN 978-0190054588 
Oxford University Press 2020 
Hardback 232 pp £19.99 
Pastoral Review bookshop £18.00 
Catholic social teaching expects us to engage in dialogue both with non-theological disciplines and with other people of good will. The issue of migration has become a key concern, repeatedly raised by Pope Francis, and most of what we assert draws on the Scriptures and our theological traditions. Ilya Somin is an American academic from a Russian Jewish background. In this important new study, he looks at the issue simply from the standpoint of political philosophy and Free Market economics; he ends up in the same place as the Church. 

Somin argues that migration, or ‘foot-voting’, as he calls it, is a good thing: broadening opportunities for it enhances political liberty for many people – far more effectively than voting through the ballot box. Migration enables people to make more impact through their choices and gives them stronger incentives for action compared to voting, He looks also not only at migration from one country to another, but at migration within federal nations such as the United States, demonstrating the economic benefits which this has brought. He examines and refutes the arguments against migration advanced by nationalists. Since the churches in general assert that migration should be seen as a basic human right, we are up against the same opponents as Somin and the arguments he advances should be part of how we defend the victims of nationalistic policies. The Church’s are primarily moral; but being able to draw on political and economic considerations aid our cause. 
I have problems with some of Somin’s positions. He places a very high value on individual choice: so he extends ‘foot-voting’ in Chapter 4 to the private sector: ‘people choose among private organisations that offer services similar to those provided by local or regional governments, most notably private planned communities’ (p. 80), a phenomenon found in the US rather than Europe. This places some individuals’ freedom on a much higher level than the needs of authentic local communities; Somin’s approach here does not really accord with the notions of solidarity or subsidiarity, and favours those with economic freedom rather than the poor. I also think his negative and pessimistic view of ‘world government’ (towards the end of the book) – that is, enhanced powers for bodies like the UN – is also not consistent with Catholic teaching. Since St John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in terris, the Church has called for more powerful international structures to limit national sovereignty in the interests of peace – and now, in the teachings of Benedict XVI and Francis, to provide for justice and fairness in international economic and financial policies, and to safeguard the environment. That moves in this direction have been undermined by the populist nationalists whom Somin opposes does not mean that we should abandon the quest. 

That said, this is an impressive book which should be on the reading lists for students examining the issue of migration. 

Ashley Beck, St Mary’s University, Twickenham 

Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg 
Paul Vallely 
ISBN 978-1472920126 
Bloomsbury 2020 
Hardback 768 pp £30.00 
Pastoral Review bookshop £27.00 
Three years ago, the Catholic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg remarked that he thought that poor and needy families making use of foodbanks was ‘rather uplifting’. Many Christians, including many who support foodbanks, found his statement appalling. A massive new book by Paul Vallely about philanthropy helps us understand both Rees-Mogg’s comment and the critical reactions.  

Vallely’s book is the product of five years’ research; he was asked to write the book by the philanthropist Trevor Pears and supported by a generous research grant from the Pears Foundation; while there are extensive footnotes, the references, to save space in the substantial printed text, can be found at www.philanthropyatoz.com. The structure of the book, strikingly, is both chronological and thematic, so chapters cover periods and historical figures while looking at particular angles: so, for example the chapter covering the eighteenth century (‘The Philanthropist as Activist’) points to the new approach to charitable giving in the careers of John Howard (after whom the Howard League is named), William Wilberforce and Thomas Coram. The book is monumental in terms of its detail and research, and Vallely never loses sight of the moral issues surrounding giving to the poor. Such a book could from some authors become very ‘heavy weather’, but one of this book’s strengths is that Vallely breaks up his narrative with interviews at the end of every chapter with a significant writer or philanthropist – they include Bob Geldof (twice), Lenny Henry, David Sainsbury, Richard Branson, Ian Linden, Rowan Williams and the late Jonathan Sacks. 

Philanthropy is important for any study of Catholic social teaching – on such courses this book will be essential reading. Vallely devotes a lot of space to the relationship between faith and philanthropy – Judaism, Islam, early Christianity, Medieval Christianity, the Reformation and Victorian Christianity – and examines the tensions which are sometimes present now between practical charitable work and campaigning for social justice. There is a very good section on social teaching itself (‘Finding a New Balance’, pp. 400ff.) which examines clearly the concepts of solidarity and subsidiarity in relation to a discussion of the Welfare State.  

Philanthropy is such a big topic that it is easy to miss things, and this book will be an important resource because of information which the reader might not find elsewhere. So in one of the concluding chapters, ‘How Philanthropy Can Recover its Lost Soul’, Vallely examines the surprising support given by Pope Francis to ‘social impact investing’, the model of philanthropy which brings together making a profit with doing good; and the Pope organised a conference in Rome in 2014 to promote this. 
The website referred to above explains more about the book and enables the reader to raise issues directly with Vallely. This is an outstanding book and will be the authoritative guide to this complex topic for many years. And when you read it, you will know why Rees-Mogg was wrong. 

Ashley Beck, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene
Richard Greene
ISBN: 978-1408703977
Little, Brown 2020
Hardback 608 pp £25.00
Pastoral Review bookshop £22.50
This new biography of Greene, the first of its generation, sets out to ‘avoid the obscure details of Greene’s sexual life’, which have often been the focus of past discussions of Greene’s life. Instead, Richard Greene’s Russian Roulette gives an exhaustive, fascinating account of Greene’s life first and foremost as a writer. Delving into his journalism as well as his fiction, this biography provides insight into his travels, how they shaped Greene and his worldview, as well as, of course, his religion.
Greene’s mental health is explored throughout the book, where Richard Greene confirms he suffered from bipolar disorder, but the romantic lens with which his mental health has previously been viewed is swapped for a sobering account of the author’s battles. His infamous flirtation with the life-threatening Russian roulette ‘game’ is put into question, as several conflicting accounts from Greene himself are cited, and it becomes clear that the author is his own most unreliable narrator. Greene is a storyteller par excellence, and this unusual talent can make his own accounts of his life less than forensic.

This blurred boundary between fact and fiction is observed again when it comes to Greene’s religious conversion. The eternal question of exactly what kind of Catholic novelist Greene was is by no means answered in this biography, although it is extensively, and captivatingly, explored. The sources accounting for his initial conversion tell an unclear story. The retrospective Greene is lucid and passionate when recounting his conversion: ‘It was on the grounds of a dogmatic atheism that I fought … a fight for personal survival.’ Yet Richard Greene reminds us that ‘it is hard to know whether this was precisely true at the time, or a touch of drama added decades later’. The young Greene, infatuated with his future Catholic wife, instead describes his first experience of Church as ‘rather fun’, and Richard Greene affirms that ‘he was prepared to do almost anything to please her’.

The role which his love for a devout Catholic woman unwilling to marry a non-Catholic had in his conversion thus remains a question mark.

And yet some of Greene’s observations suggest a profound commitment to the conversations he held as part of his instruction led by Father Trollope, a priest he felt he could identify with, for whom ‘plays competed with theological works for space on his bookshelves’. It remains unclear why this theism presented itself as Catholic in nature, except for the fact of his instruction having come from a Catholic priest – and this ambiguity and ‘unwillingness’ surrounding his religious identity persists throughout his life, as it becomes clear Greene does not have a straightforward relationship with his faith.

The uneasiness of Greene’s religious conversion is an existential problem present in his life in general. From his difficult childhood as the bullied son of the school headmaster through to his marriage, affairs and extensive travels, nothing about this man appears to be settled, and Richard Greene expertly does justice to this essential quality in Greene’s life by providing a breadth of sources and accounts that paint a meticulously multifaceted picture.

Sofia Abasolo, Beckenham

Coming soon:
The Sunday Gospels for Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter and The Sunday Gospels for Ordinary Time by Fr Adrian Graffy have just been published by Darton, Longman and Todd. Fr Adrian is a frequent contributor to the Pastoral Review, and there will be a review of the books in the next issue of the journal.

The Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology

The Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology 
Edward Howells and Mark A. McIntosh (eds) 
ISBN 978-0198722380 
Oxford University Press 2020 
Hardback 720 pp £110.00 
Pastoral Review bookshop £99.00 
An examination of the contents page of this impressive volume immediately discloses that this is a collection of articles from leading experts in the field of theology, and not just mystical theology. It also reveals that there is a wealth of material in scope, depth and breadth which has been assembled to covers a wide range of topics. A review of this length cannot possibly hope to do justice to the richness of this work. One of the characteristics of this handbook is that certain themes and approaches emerge which run through the entire volume. There are overarching ideas and topics that encompass a wide range of material and this is no mean achievement. I therefore offer a review which treats this handbook as a single work, possessing a thematic unity, rather than a collection of loosely connected essays. 

This volume begins by emphasising the central role that mystical theology plays at the heart of human experience and therefore at the heart of theology itself. Mystical theology is not a ‘sub-discipline’ of theology that deals with spiritual experiences, but it is concerned to understand God’s self-disclosure in all things and in all his actions in the world. The role of mystical theology is framed by a number of binary terms, or tensions: collective-individual, human and ‘more than human’, spirit and body, presence and absence, knowing and unknowing, definable and ineffable and of course, apophatic and cataphatic. In one way or another, these pairings appear throughout the volume. 

The key images or patterns of mystical thought also exhibit these dual terms. The connection between God and Creation can be seen as one between God and humanity, but also between time and eternity, immanence and transcendence. These are not simply rhetorical flourishes but point to a dynamic sense of identity and relationship. There is also an important sense in which the goal of mystical theology is not to merge or conflate these dualities, but to embark on a process of reciprocal definition and clarification of the terms. Mystics affirm the sacramental nature of creation, but they also express respect for what cannot be known or described. The classic cataphatic/apophatic duality is not a sterile contradiction, rather it can be enriching and expand appreciation of its referent. 

A second project which seems evident is the recovery of a wider sense of the ‘mystical’ beyond the reductionist tendency of the Enlightenment to see it as an irrational, subjective discourse about spiritual or emotional experiences. This has a number of implications for an appreciation of the sources of mystical theology, such as the human sciences, as well as theological ones. Scripture, liturgy, preaching, asceticism, prayer and poetry can all be understood better when mysticism is allowed to enjoy a broader scope beyond the ‘spiritual’ in that rationalist eighteenth-century sense.

There is a strong concern to underscore the much wider concerns of mystical theology and this is superbly illustrated in the fourth part of the volume where several theological disciplines are brought into dialogue with mysticism. The theologies of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Spirit and Revelation can all be expanded and deepened when brought into dialogue with mystical theology. 

Also present in this work is the belief that mystical theology can relate to, explain and be explained by the secular world in which it operates. The social and historical context is critical for understanding the significance and importance of mysticism. The experience of the spirit is intertwined with the politics of poverty, discrimination and violence. At the heart of a Christian understanding of the world is a proclamation of human liberation and salvation. Spirituality cannot be boxed in apart from a social context. Of course, this gives a strong ethical edge to mysticism which many authors comment on. The wider understanding of mysticism is also seen in Christian life and practices. Mystical experiences are not elitist or reserved to ‘spiritual athletes’ but are instances of the ordinary call of the Holy Spirit to every Christian to be another Christ. 

There must be a special word of commendation for the quality of the bibliographies provided at the end of each article, as well as the recommendations for further reading. The essays in this volume are not only an invaluable starting point in the many aspects of mystical theology but also represent the latest scholarship and offer stimulating new perspectives. At a cover price of £110 it seems unlikely that undergraduates will buy this volume, and therefore it is vital that all university and seminary libraries invest in a copy. 

Kevin Alban O. Carm, Aylesford Priory 

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