Book reviews |July/August/September 2021

The Sunday Gospels for Ordinary Time
Adrian Graffy
ISBN: 978-0232534788
Darton, Longman & Todd 2020
Hardback 112pp £14.99
Pastoral Review bookshop £13.50

The two volumes of the Sunday Gospels (for Ordinary Time, and for Seasons) are offered as a ‘personal study to enhance understanding and appreciation of the Sunday Gospel’. Such an intention is a worthwhile project, and these small volumes should certainly encourage rather than daunt anyone seeking to become more familiar with the Gospels used across the year.

Fr Graffy tells us in his introduction that those who compiled the Lectionary after the Council had the ‘brilliant idea of dedicating a year to each of the Synoptic Gospels ... so that we are able to recognise more keenly the particular accents and interests of the separate evangelists’. Anyone who makes a little effort and ponders the Sunday Gospels in Ordinary Time across the year will indeed develop an ‘ear’ for the different voices of the evangelists, and that certainly helps to discern the thrust of each Gospel, as well as give insights into why similar passages differ in emphasis or detail. The lectionary also means that over the three-year cycle (outside of the major seasons) there is a semi-continuous reading of most of each of the Gospels. That too helps the reader/listener to develop a deeper understanding of each evangelist.

For these reasons it would have been very helpful if Fr Graffy had offered a few more obvious indicators and pointers to help the reader identify the underlying structure and ‘particular accents’ of each evangelist. In the commentary on each Gospel we are sometimes given references to earlier passages which offer associated insights, and these are very welcome, as they do allow one to recognise something of the style of each writer, and that can lead to an overall grasp of how each evangelist understands Jesus’ ministry. Obviously, this is not a work aimed at offering an academic commentary on the Gospels, but so often, such little indicators or examples can help bring a Gospel to life for any person of faith.

It is to the credit of this work that it does seek to introduce people to the practice of Lectio Divina – a way of deepening one’s understanding and insight into the Gospels. The short points for reflection and the two points of focus for prayer are most welcome, though the points for reflection could be more challenging to encourage the reader to engage more with the text and the response it might awaken, and the subjects for prayer could also be more reflective and help the reader to move deeper into the text at a spiritual as well as at an intellectual level.

Anyone who uses these two volumes carefully will undoubtedly draw more out of the Liturgy of the Word at Sunday Mass and will begin to recognise the particular emphases of each evangelist, thus helping to develop a deeper feel for the different dimensions that the Gospels present. These volumes are very accessible, and one would hope, will whet the appetite of many and encourage them to delve deeper into the inexhaustible riches of the Word of God.

Robert Draper, Sherborne Catholic Church

T&T Clark Reader in Political Theology
Elizabeth Phillips, Anna Rowlands and Amy Daughton (eds)
ISBN: 978-0567666963
T&T Clark 2021
Paperback 721pp £49.99
Pastoral Review bookshop £44.99
The T&T Clark Reader takes its place among the vastly expanding number of handbooks, guides and compendia to Political Theology, one of the most vibrant and complex sub-disciplines of contemporary theology. Despite the ‘competition’, its contribution is distinctive and worthwhile. The editors modestly describe the volume as more of a manual than a textbook: ‘field notes, postings from historical and recent outposts of Christian political praxis, which provoke and inspire readers in their own theopolitical fieldwork’ (Introduction, p. 2). And since a volume such as this is freed up from the need to be all-encompassing, it is easier for a reviewer to appreciate what is actually here, rather than draw attention to the inevitable omissions.

The volume is divided into eight sections, looking at the emergence of political theology and different approaches to it, and then specific areas of concern, such as the Church and politics, the politics of Jesus, violence and peace, oppression and marginalisation. The ‘big guns’ are all represented, from Patristic to early modern to twentieth century; liberation and feminist theologies are acknowledged. As with any good anthology, it is the mix of recognition of familiar names, and curiosity aroused by unfamiliar ones, which makes it a page-turner. Even a ‘classic’ figure like Augustine, however, is presented with attention to the huge amount of fresh scholarship on his political thought.

Each section is introduced by one of the editors and concludes with discussion questions. The volume concludes with suggestions for further reading, and a scripture index, making this an excellent resource for teachers at all academic levels. The editors helpfully suggest that the primary readings collected together in the Reader might be used in tandem with Elizabeth Phillips’ Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark 2021).

While thinkers and debates outside or critical of the theological mainstream are not excluded (there are chapters from Carl Schmitt, Jürgen Habermas, and Slavoj Žižek), the Reader does not take its cue from the contemporary political and philosophical/cultural debates but is emphatically a compendium of Christian theological sources. This is a welcome rebalancing, demonstrating how the agenda for Christian political theology can and should be set by theology, rather than by cultural and intellectual pressures from outside the tradition. Christians are often at a loss to demonstrate how ours is a social faith, especially in the face of secularism and its marginalisation of religion. Believers generally, and pastors and activists in particular, can take heart and confidence from a Reader such as this.
Aside from the intrinsic merits of this collection, its timing could not be more vital, as the political turbulence of the last few years confirms a ‘global pattern of social ferment’ (Introduction, p. 1). This will not be the last such compendium, and certainly not the last word on political theology, but it is a fine and valuable contribution.

Michael Kirwan SJ, Trinity College, Dublin

Ressourcement Theology: A Sourcebook
Patricia Kelly (ed.)
ISBN: 978-0567672490 
T&T Clark 2020 
Hardback 240pp £90.00 
Pastoral Review bookshop £81.00 

A few years ago there appeared an important volume entitled Ressourcement; a Movement for Renewal in Twentieth Century Catholic Theology, edited by Paul Murray and Gabriel Flynn (Oxford University Press USA, 2014). Along with other books over the last fifteen years this gave a comprehensive picture of the efforts by many theologians to go ‘back to the sources’ in an effort to renew theology – bringing about what their critics called nouvelle théologie – in the Catholic Church. Now Patricia Kelly, who was involved in the editing of that book, has brought out an impressive sequel – a carefully constructed collection of some short but important writings by some of the key figures which have not been available in English until now.

The first part of the collection contains five articles by some of the key figures in the movement: Chenu, Brouillard, Le Blond, de Lubac and Daniélou, together with an anonymous response to some criticisms. At the beginning of the section there are introductions to each piece explaining the context. The first essay by Chenu, originally given in 1937, gives a good flavour of the whole collection and the trouble being caused: Chenu found out it had been put on the ‘Index’ in 1942 only by listening to the radio. He writes: ‘The theologian has no choice of finding her data outside of history, outside of that hearing of faith (auditus fidei) which resounds through time, from Abraham, “whose faith was counted to him as righteousness”, until Christ, and in the Church, Christ permanently down the centuries.’ (p. 21) This extract shows not only the clarity of Chenu’s argument but the fine quality of Kelly’s translation: she can use constructively the French language’s linking of the gender of an adjective to the object being possessed rather than the possessor.

This was a polarised situation, and it is commendable that in part two space is given to some opponents of Ressourcement theologians to speak for themselves in four essays, including one by the legendary Garrigou-Lagrange. The third part of the collection helps to complete the picture of the intellectual vigour of the movement. It is not easy ever to launch a new collection of the early Fathers: we should be humbled that these scholars started the great Sources chrétiennes in wartime France, with some in the German-occupied north and others in ‘Vichy’; two essays (by Lebreton and de Lubac) explain the vision of the series. The final essay in the book is an appendix, hitherto untranslated, from Yves Congar’s 1950 book Vraie et fausse reforme dans l’Eglise, which is said to have influence the future Pope John XXIII when he was papal nuncio to France.

The battle for historical theology, rooted in attention to sources, is not over. Kelly’s outstanding book will be a great resource; hopefully there are remaining texts which can appear in a second volume.

Ashley Beck, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

Egeria, Journey to the Holy Land 
Paul F. Bradshaw 
ISBN: 978-2503592817 
Brepols Library of Christian Sources 2021 
Paperback 124pp €45.00 
Pastoral Review bookshop £40.50 

Whether they know it or not, most Pastoral Review readers will be familiar with at least some of Egeria’s travels, for, since 1955, her account of the Holy Week liturgies in fourth-century Jerusalem have formed the basis of the Latin Catholic liturgies for Holy Week and the Easter Vigil.

Egeria is one of the most fascinating Christians to emerge from Late Antiquity, and it is frustrating that we know so tantalisingly little about her and her life. At some point in (probably) the late fourth century, this – almost certainly very wealthy and well-connected – Christian lady journeyed from the Western end of the Roman Empire – Gaul or Spain – to the eastern end, travelling around the Holy Land and visiting the holy places: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Mounts Sinai and Nebo, the home of Job, and even Edessa. At each stop she faithfully recorded her journey there, what she has seen, whom she meets, and the fact that she and her party pray there and read the Scripture passages relating to that place. This series of accounts is addressed to her ‘dear sisters’ – whether they are relatives, friends, or a religious community is unknown – fellow Christians who remained at home. Somehow enough copies of these letters have survived to enable us to read them today.

We are lucky to be guided through the text by Paul Bradshaw, whose elegant and clear translation into English is here published in parallel with the Latin text, the first English-language edition to do so. Included as an appendix is the seventh-century letter from Valerius to his confreres, which identifies Egeria, like them from ‘this furthest western region’, and a devout Christian lady as the author of these letters. The scholarly notes and introduction provide the background to the text, a discussion of the manuscripts, and sufficient notes to elucidate, without confusing the reader; and Bradshaw has also helpfully included references to the biblical texts read by Egeria at each point in her journey.  

Brepols’ Library of Christian Sources series aims to supply English-speakers with high-quality translations of ancient and medieval Christian texts in parallel translations, as the French Sources Chrétienne has done for the last eighty years; if Bradshaw’s work is typical of the high standard of translation, presentation and scholarly notes, this series is to be celebrated by scholars and interested non-specialist readers alike. Brepols and Bradshaw are equally to be congratulated on their achievement.

Patricia Kelly, University of St Andrews 

Lucifer of Cagliari, Concerning Athanasius 
Ashley Beck (ed. and tr.) 
ISBN 978-2503592831 
Brepols Library of Christian Sources 2020 
Paperback 230pp £50.00 
Pastoral Review bookshop £45.00 

We are already in debt to Thomas O’Loughlin and the Brepols Library of Christian Sources for their gift to us of patristic and medieval texts in the original languages and with English translation; and here is another horse from the same stable, expertly introduced and admirably translated by Ashley Beck. The book is part of the Arian controversy, and uses alarmingly strong language to condemn the Emperor Constantius (successor to his father Constantine and his brother Constans), who had exiled Athanasius, less because of Constantius’ theological stance, more because he was determined to keep the peace in the empire. Because of the language that he uses, Lucifer (not in these days commonly used as a Christian name – though the name is not, as Fr Beck suggests, to be found in Luke 10.18, in Greek or Latin) is often dismissed as an ‘intemperate extremist’, and he is not in these days sufficiently well known.

Beck offers a very helpful introduction to Lucifer’s background, insofar as it can be reconstructed, though he is sometimes damned with faint praise: there is a splendid example on p. 18: ‘a figure of some (but not great) importance’; and Beck refers to him as having ‘signs of a rhetorical education’, and asks the question ‘Was he a saint, a champion of orthodoxy, or a schismatic who died excommunicated?’. The question remains unanswered, of course. Beck gives an admirable account of the difference that Arianism makes, and why some emperors liked it. He is also very good on the difficulties of translating what is in effect a ‘rant’; and it is instructive to know how previous generations carried on their controversies. It is hard to imagine that Constantius would have been persuaded by what Lucifer writes (he is described, for example as ‘mendax et homicida’ on p. 142 and as ‘belua’ on p. 168!). Beck makes admirable use of the sadly neglected translation of the Vulgate by Mgr Ronald Knox. As one reads Lucifer, one cannot fail to be struck by his knowledge of the Old Testament, and especially the Deuteronomic History (which makes sense, given that he wants to tell Constantius how rulers should behave), and by his sense that Scripture is alive today. Lucifer also makes sensible use of Proverbs and Psalms; it is also noticeable that his quotations from Scripture are very often taken from the same book over several pages, suggesting that he keeps one scroll open for a long time, rather than darting between several (and given the practical difficulties of reading scrolls and opening new ones, that makes admirable sense). One very charming translation (p. 143) is ‘OK’ for ‘licet’ (p. 143), which strikes me as imaginative. And, as Beck points out, Lucifer frequently offers very interesting evidence for the state of the Vetus Latina, about which we know less than we should like. So this book is warmly commended to readers of the Pastoral Review. If, as we devoutly pray, it goes to a second edition, that would be a good moment to correct some typographical errors in Latin and English (my favourite is the sudden intrusion of the phrase “Error! Hyperlink reference not valid” on p. 149), and to add the reference to Matthew 3.8 on p. 146, which would make a difference to the translation). This is a good and competent piece of work and is a very welcome addition to the Brepols Library.

Nicholas King SJ, Campion Hall, Oxford 

Miles to go before I sleep: Letters on hope, death and learning to live 
Claire Gilbert
ISBN: 978-1529359725 
Hodder and Stoughton 2021 
Hardback 288pp £16.99 
Pastoral Review bookshop £15.29  

Claire Gilbert is no stranger to cancer. She lost both her parents and three of her grandparents to cancer. Her own diagnosis of incurable myeloma came as a shock. Gilbert’s book Miles to go before I sleep is not about becoming more familiar with a life with cancer or even a survivor’s manual. Nor is this meant to be an easy book. Miles to go before I sleep is an attempt to make sense of a great many things, not merely cancer and its aggressive treatment. It is about learning to live, and even more specifically about the fundamentally social nature of human beings. Gilbert’s book takes the form of a diary of letters written to family and close friends, her ‘dear readers’, who share her journey from just after her diagnosis in January 2019 to the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown of March 2020. Her closest support and her ‘the true hero’ is her partner Sean. But Julian of Norwich also accompanies Gilbert. Before her diagnosis Gilbert says that she was too busy to pay real attention to her daily life journey. Now, borrowing from a poem from one of her ‘dear readers’, she recognises that there are miles of her life still to go, each one of them full of meaning.

In part her book aims to explore the meaning of her ‘new reality’ as a ‘different person’, a person with cancer. Gilbert sums up her hopes for this newness and her book: ‘I want it to be good and true and right and of service. And also funny, and dark and unknown.’ In part, the book is a stream of consciousness flit from observation of everyday things and people to her bodily dysfunction, to her inner musings on Christ on the Cross and how bad things happen to good people. Gilbert holds nothing back, not blood, vomit, the poison of chemotherapy, the soiling of constipation, the consolation of poetry, nature, friends, prayer. Gilbert has an eye for small detail: the look of places whether hospital or home, smells of sickness or sea, taste of medicine or chicken soup, sound of needle entering flesh or Mozart, touch of pain or gentle holding. These opposite sensations flood the book as Gilbert moves between feeling well and paradoxically spiralling into visceral sickness due to the aggressive treatment to control, not cure, her cancer. Indeed, at one point she says she writes in such explicit detail about her stem cell treatment so that medics and researchers can learn how appalling and brutal the treatment is, and so find alternatives. The diary tumbles between dark and light as Gilbert learns to ‘shoot the rapids’. Gilbert’s rollercoaster ride of experience at the hands of medics (and yes, the book is full of metaphors) offers interesting reflection on important questions for healthcare: When does treatment become too burdensome? What does ‘consent to treatment’ mean in practice? What is choice in healthcare when what everyone wants in the end is simply good care? Significantly, Gilbert, who is an advisor on medical and environmental ethics to the Church of England, finds that she has to put her trust in the clinical team. The book is peppered with poems, prayers, thanks to her ‘dear readers’ for musical play lists and book suggestions, asides to people who have helped her along the way. She speaks of the joys of life, of horse riding, the sea, and the simple delight she finds in the vagaries of her fellow human beings. As she looks at the world she concludes that ‘life wants to live’. What fills the book is the undoubted need for human companionship, love, support and prayers from her ‘community of kindness’.

Pia Matthews, St Mary’s University, Twickenham 

The Father 
97 minutes 
Lionsgate Films 
Florian Zeller (director)
UK general release 11 June 2021, also available on Amazon Prime 

Sometimes our most profound fears and our strongest desires are not as far apart as one might think. Therefore life, and particularly the life of an older person, can at times appear to be a struggle between the desire for independence and the fear of being deserted and left, be it by those closest to them or even by one’s own senses. The Father is a film about dementia. Its cast is small, and most of the action is between the protagonist Anthony and his daughter Anne. Anthony is fiercely independent, and, as dementia takes hold of him, he struggles against what he regards as interference, the arrival of carers organised by Anne and her husband. What is both captivating and disturbing in this film is that the story is told from Anthony’s point of view, and so, as the film progresses, the viewer is exposed to a dazzling array of confusion, frustration and disorientation. With great sensitivity we are drawn into the trail of destruction dementia can leave not only in the person living with it but in all who are close to them. The film raises questions about what makes us perceive ourselves as human. Perhaps it is our ability to navigate in time and to identify our own place in it. Part of Anthony’s disorientation is a loss of a sense of time, a sense of who is who in relation to him, where he is, and much of this becomes less and less clear to the viewer. And as a sense of time is lost, so is hope. No one would expect a film about dementia to have a ‘happy ending’, but what is most disturbing is the complete absence of hope not only for Anthony but for all around him, perhaps most clearly shown in the desperate attempts of a nurse to offer some reassurance if only of her own presence and essentially into the great void of not knowing whether it can even be heard by a man who describes his life as that of a tree losing all its leaves.

The Father not only reflects Anthony’s increasing struggle between the desire to be independent and the fear to be left, but we also see Anne’s equally haunting struggle not to leave her father and yet to retain her own independence. The Oscar in the Best Actor category won by Anthony Hopkins for his part in this film is well deserved, and Olivia Coleman as Anne combines beauty and sensitivity. 

Among dementia advocates there is a strong resistance against the use of the word ‘suffering’ with regard to people living with dementia. Many people living with this condition in its many different forms are only able to speak for themselves to a limited extent. Thus a film like The Father can perhaps be an attempt to engage with what are some of the most profound fears spoken or unspoken by many. 

Natalie K. Watson, theologian, Peterborough 

Echoes of a Parish Priest: Inspiring and Practical Reflections for every Christian
Fr Tom Grufferty
ISBN: 978-1527272927
Grufferty Publishing 2020
Paperback 245pp £19.54

This work is a compilation of articles written by Fr Grufferty for publication in Catholic news media and theological journals over a number of years. It also includes reminiscences of his early life in Ireland, stories from his travels as a pilgrim and pilgrimage leader, and some imaginative pastoral initiatives undertaken in the parishes in which he has served as a priest over almost half a century. As the title suggests, the book explores events and feelings which might resonate with the reader rather than teaching didactically and authoritatively.

Following the themes and feasts of the Liturgical Year, the reflections are a rich resource which pastoral practitioners and others might dip into for inspiration for a particular season or event. This means that its wisdom can be deployed readily when needed without adhering slavishly to ‘cover to cover’ reading, enriching though this undoubtedly is. Some classical resources offered for reflection are famous art works of Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Da Vinci, whose paintings are explored in a way which the non-specialist will find accessible and enticing. For example, in the Caravaggio painting of Jesus and the Breaking of Bread, Fr Grufferty speculates why the artist depicted fruits which would not have been found on the meal table in the springtime, but only in autumn, and notes the presence of a Camino shell, a sign of universal pilgrimage. In exploring modern pieces, the work of Elizabeth Wang opens a door to the Radiant Light movement which she founded to assist people to ‘grow in holiness by believing and living the Catholic faith in its fullness’ (p. 55). Ignatian reflective spirituality is evident when the reader is invited to put themselves in Beate Heinen’s The Manger and the Cross (p. 30). Again, this is achieved in a gentle and accessible manner which will not discomfit those who have never explored art in this embodied way before.

Some of the most powerful echoes of the book relate to tragedy in the families of parishioners. Not only is there a burden of grief for both the family and the community, but the priest is tasked with the role of trusted third party called upon to providing meaningful ritual at a time of unimaginable loss and sorrow. This too finds its place in Fr Grufferty’s Echoes. Also included in the account are practical pastoral challenges like the one posed by the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25.14–30) read on the thirty-third Sunday of Year A. Fr Grufferty literally gave 40 lots of £5, £2 and £1 and invited the recipients not to bury their talents. From the original £320 ‘invested’ in the parish, CAFOD benefitted to the tune of £5,063.

In terms of the book’s physical qualities, it has been published by Fr Grufferty himself via Amazon, but this in no way diminishes its quality. The paper stock is eminently suitable for the high-resolution printing of the chosen art works, and its tactile qualities match the richness of the content so, although the book trade would classify it as ‘vanity publishing’, there is no hint of vanity in its message. Rather, it is an account of a gifted pastor who, to use the metaphor of Pope Francis, knows the smell of the sheep, leads them, walks with them and makes sure that not one of them is left behind.

Bridie Stringer, Hampshire

Deacon King Kong 
James McBride 
ISBN: 978-0857527653 
Doubleday 2020 
Paperback 384pp £8.99 
Pastoral Review bookshop £8.09  

While in the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran traditions the diaconate is part of ordained ministry, in other communities it is a form of lay ministry, often very ‘practical’ and not lifelong. But across all traditions there is a lot of uncertainty about diaconal ministry. So in the new novel Deacon King Kong at one point a character (from an Italian background) says this, in answer to someone asking him what a deacon does: ‘They sing songs, maybe, or give homilies to donkeys, or sleep like snails, or slobber while they collect church money and give out the hymnals.’

That quotation gives a flavour of the writing style of this novel, which has won the New York Times National Book Award, by the prize-winning novelist and journalist James McBride. The book is set in late 1960s Brooklyn; it is about a deacon in a small African American church, Five Ends Baptist Church, who is known as Sportcoat. He combines his role as a deacon, a ‘holy handyman’, as he describes himself, with doing various jobs in the community and being almost constantly drunk on local moonshine, a potent brew known as ‘King Kong’. He has been crushed by widowhood, has a deaf son who is largely looked after by others in the community, and has in the past been a renowned baseball coach. The story is centred on Sportcoat shooting a local drug dealer who was one of his star players, injuring his ear. McBride paints a vivid and almost Dickensian picture of the characters in this community and their efforts to survive amidst great poverty and worsening crime: members of the church, Italians who have moved out of the area and the local police. It’s a warm and engaging picture.

The Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 made many of us realise how little we know about the experiences and history of African Americans. Deacon King Kong captures what life was like for first-generation black people who migrated from the South to places like New York during and after the Second World War – and for many Christianity, centred on small churches they built themselves with minimal resources, was crucial to their identity and resilience. Deacon Sportcoat is central to this community; his flaws and weaknesses are reminiscent of vulnerable priests in Graham Greene. I quoted above an Italian character called Tony Elefante, a local racketeer. In the late 1960s, Catholics would have had no experience of permanent deacons (and the Italians in the novel don’t have much to do with the Church); earlier in the novel his mother says, when he asks her what deacons do, ‘How should I know? They’re probably like priests, but make less money’. Perhaps that phrase in its uncertainty tells us something too. This is a very engaging and enjoyable novel which can dispel ignorance about Black America. 
Ashley Beck, St Mary’s University, Twickenham 

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