Book review: ‘Anglican Theology’ by Mark Chapman

13732149I enjoyed this book but found the title ‘Anglican Theology’ misleading. I recognize the validity of the author’s point that telling our story is sometimes the best way of exploring Anglican theologies, since there have been so many of them (Reformation/Tudor, High Church/Stuart etc.)! But even given this point, I thought a more honest title for the book would have been ‘Church of England Theology’.

The vast majority of the book describes theological controversies in the Church of England, most of which had to do with the nature of authority in the Church and its relationship to the British crown. A Christendom relationship between Church and State, with Anglicanism as the ‘Established Church’, was assumed in all these controversies. But for the vast majority of Anglicans around the world today this is irrelevant, as our churches have never been ‘established churches’. So how can we find a way forward toward a vibrant Anglican Christianity that does not assume a privileged position of power in society? What is our Anglican identity when we are not an established church? And what forms of episcopacy are appropriate in such contexts?

The penultimate chapter introduces the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, but rightly points out its inadequacies (it was intended as the basis for Anglican reunion with other churches, not as a definitive statement of Anglican essentials). The author points out that if the Quadrilateral is seen as definitive of Anglicanism, its omission of any mention of the Book of Common Prayer (in its many and varied editions) is very strange. Surely this is one of the most characteristic features of what Anglicans actually do: we worship together using the Book of Common Prayer and/or books based on it. For many of us, this is where we both discover and develop our theology.

I enjoyed Mark Chapman’s honest description of the way in which later generations have adopted revisionist understandings of certain defining moments in Anglican history, in service of their own theological agendas. But I have to say that I would enjoy reading a more future-oriented volume, which takes these convictions Anglicans have developed in the past and asks how we can move forward as a global family of churches, and what theological ideas can unite us and energize us in the very different situations we find ourselves in today.

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Rudy Wiebe: ‘Collected Stories 1955-2010’

8807488Some very good stories here, but overall the collection is uneven. I didn’t especially enjoy most of the stories that were originally alternative chapters from the author’s published books. As usual, Rudy Wiebe’s descriptive writing is excellent, but his long run-on sentences are often hard to follow.

I’m a fan of Rudy Wiebe’s novels, especially ‘Peace Shall Destroy Many’, ‘The Temptations of Big Bear’, and ‘Sweeter than All the World’. I would not rate this collection as highly as the novels. In fact, many of the stories feel incomplete, more like unnaturally isolated chapters from novels than real short stories. Three stars out of five.

Book Review: ‘Tolstoy Lied’, by Rachel Kadish.

1577123The starting point of this story is the famous Tolstoy quote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As the intro says, literature professor Tracy Farber disagrees with this quote, which seems to imply that only unhappiness is interesting. Happiness is boring and predictable.

This controversy is presented to us as both the theme of this book, and also a project within the book, a project which Tracy never quite gets around to beginning until the end of the story. I believe in her project and I agree with her: I think literature (and music and poetry, for that matter) does indeed have a prejudice against happiness, especially happy marriages and families.

But I’m not sure this book is going to drive the coffin nail into Tolstoy’s maxim. Yes, I found it a very interesting story, but it was the conflict and the unhappiness (actual and threatened) that was interesting. When the happiness came back in all its glory, it was within only a few dozen pages of the end of the book.

Still, I loved the book. I enjoyed the honesty of the love story. These are real people making the mistakes that real people make, and yet living to tell the tale. I loved the quality of the writing; Rachel Kadish is highly literate and I enjoy reading a book written by someone who knows how to write excellent English sentences and paragraphs. I found the characters believable and credible. I found it hard to put this book down. I’ve read Kadish’s more recent work, ‘The Wright of Ink’, which is also excellent, and look forward to more great stories from her in the years to come.

Book Review: ‘Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada’ by Roy McGregor.

34127974Marci and I read this one together. It wasn’t what we were expecting, but it was very good.

Roy MacGregor takes a close look at sixteen iconic Canadian rivers: the Columbia, the Fraser, the Bow, the North Saskatchewan, the Red, the Dumoine, the Ottawa, the Don, the Grand, the Niagara, the Muskoka, the Rideau, the Gatineau, the St. Lawrence, and the Saint John. He writes as a journalist, with an eye to current events and contemporary stories. but he is also well aware of the history behind these rivers. I actually expected more history (and would have welcomed more), but what was there was accurate and well-written, and I suspect most Canadians would learn more about the story of their country from reading it. He also writes as a keen canoeist who has paddled many of these rivers. This hands-on perspective adds what might be called a water-level view to the narrative, and I enjoyed it.

This book also tells a sad story. Most of these rivers are in difficulty because of human activity. Some of them have been brought back, but some have not. We depend on the water from these rivers, but we continue to pollute them with industrial waste, sewage, garbage, and chemicals. In the words of Jacques Courcelles (whose family have lived near the Red River in Manitoba for five generations), “Sometimes you have to think beyond your lifetime”. Some Canadians are getting this message. Many, sadly, are not. It’s ironic that many of the same people who get agitated about leaving government debt for their grandchildren to deal with seem to have no such qualms about leaving their grandchildren to deal with the consequences of their (our) environmental irresponsibility.

I would recommend this book to all Canadians who want to earn more about our country’s history and geography. I would also recommend it to newcomers to this country. If you want to find out about the soul of Canada, this is a good place to start.

Book Review: ‘The Weight of Ink’, by Rachel Kadish

35721108First, I’ll quote the blurb from Amazon, and then give my own response to this outstanding book.

Here’s the blurb:

An intellectual and emotional jigsaw puzzle of a novel for readers of A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.

As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, the elusive “Aleph.”

Electrifying and ambitious, sweeping in scope and intimate in tone, The Weight of Ink is a sophisticated work of historical fiction about women separated by centuries, and the choices and sacrifices they must make in order to reconcile the life of the heart and mind.

And now for my own response.

I have not read A.S. Byatt’s Possession, to which this book has been compared, so I don’t know whether it’s a fair comparison. But I do know that Rachel Kadish has her own distinctive voice. This is the first novel of hers I’ve read and I definitely want to read her others.

I wasn’t sure if I’d like the plot device of writing simultaneously about two women separated by over three hundred years, but I quickly got used to it and found the two parallel stories fascinating and compelling. It was rather like watching a mystery unfold from both ends, hoping that eventually the stories would meet in the middle. Of course, they did, but the ending was not predictable.

The 17th century English history seems very well done. I love history but I’m not well versed in this period; however, it seems authentic to me. And the writing style was very polished and intelligent. It required some effort from me, and I appreciated that. I’ve noticed that very few of the books I find memorable have been effortless reads.

This is only the second book I’ve finished so far this year, but I think it’s going to be one of my favourites. I highly recommend it.

Books I Read (or Re-Read) in 2018.

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2018, in the order in which they were read:

Palmer Becker, Anabaptist Essentials
Khaled Hosseini: And the Mountains Echoed
Matt Haig: Reasons to Stay Alive
Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie: The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity
Columba Stewart, OSB: Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition
Esther DeWaal: Seeking God: the Way of St. Benedict
Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility
William L. Lane: Hebrews: A Call to Commitment
Alexander McCall Smith: Emma: A Modern Retelling
Timothy Fry, Ed: The Rule of St. Benedict
James D.G. Dunn: Romans (The People’s Bible Commentary)
Jane Austen: Emma
Kate Bowler: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved
Adam Shoalts: A History of Canada in Ten Maps
Michael Bond: A Bear Called Paddington
Sarah Ruden: Paul Among the People
David Hackett Fischer: Champlain’s Dream
Karl Vaters: Small Church Essentials
Chaim Potok: The Gift of Asher Lev
Gregory Alan Thornbury: Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock
Tom Wright: Mark for Everyone
Wendell Berry: Hannah Coulter
Mark D. Baker: Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross
John Grisham: The Last Juror
Karen Swallow Prior: Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More
Ariana Huffington: The Sleep Revolution
Bruce Hindmarsh: The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World
John Goldingay: Psalms for Everyone, Part 1
Donald C. Posterski: True to You
Pat Barker: Regeneration
Winnfried Corduan: A Tapestry of Faiths
Pat Barker: The Eye in the Door
Pat Barker: The Ghost Road
Rudy Wiebe: Sweeter than All the World
Randy Ingmarson: How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method
Alexander Fullerton: Love for an Enemy
Alexander Fullerton: Submariner
Michael Frost: Keep Christianity Weird
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Jaron Lanier: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Roger Coleman: New Light and Truth: The Making of the Revised English Bible
Dante Alighieri: The Portable Dante (translated by Mark Musa)
Stephen P. Dawes: 1 & 2 Kings (People’s Bible Commentary)
C.J. Sansom: Dissolution
Katharine Welby Roberts: I Thought There Would Be Cake
Richard Bauckham: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
C.J. Sansom: Tombland
Catherine Fox: Angels and Men
Alan Kreider: The Patient Ferment of the Early Church
Susan Pitchford: Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone
Catherine Fox: Acts and Omissions
Catherine Fox: Unseen Things Above
Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol
Catherine Fox: Realms of Glory

And now, as is my custom, a few reflections.

Most enjoyable read of the year? This was a tough one to choose this year, because I read41TIyKAbOpL._SY346_ many really good books. However, if pushed to select one, I’d go with Gregory Alan Thornbury‘s ‘Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?I was a Larry Norman fan in the 1970s and 80s but lost touch with him after that. I heard stories about his failings, but was never really familiar with his story. So I was excited when I heard about this book, and it did not disappoint. Larry emerges from these pages as a real human being, one who struggles with weaknesses and failings as we all do. And yet, his influence on my life as a Christian and a musician was entirely positive, and I suspect thousands of others could say the same thing. I expected to think less highly of him after reading this book, but the opposite was the case. I now go back to the old records and listen to them again with more appreciation for the real human being who created them, and I gladly own up to being a Larry Norman fan. Five stars.

51k74TM4QqLIf I could add a second choice, I’d go with David Hackett Fischer‘s ‘Champlain’s Dream‘. I love Canadian history but my knowledge of it is heavily skewed toward the west. I knew very little about Samuel De Champlain, but this book has more than redressed the balance. Meticulously researched (there are 270 pages of appendices and notes) and beautifully written, it is one of the best historical biographies I have ever read. Also five stars.

Least enjoyable read of the year? Probably Alexander McCall Smith‘s Emma: A Modern51KGPkNsVeL Retelling. Maybe it’s asking too much of a modern writer to try to relocate a classic Jane Austen novel in the modern world. So many of Austen’s story lines depend on social conventions (regarding the roles of women, for instance) that just no longer apply today. This is one of the books in the so-called ‘Austen Project’, in which all of Austen’s novels get a modern makeover. I’ve read several of them and I have to say that only Joanna Trollope’s retake on Sense and Sensibility comes anywhere near success for me.

Important discoveries:

Catherine Fox. I didn’t enjoy her Angels and Men, and it took me a while to get into her51mdHKJtjnL Lindchester Series, but by the end of Acts and Omissions I was hooked, and I gobbled up Unseen Things Above and Realms of Glory. I would describe them as being part Barchester Towers, part Susan Howatch’s Church of England series, but much more lighthearted (though, paradoxically, there’s a real depth to them as well) and with a much broader range of brilliantly developed (and very honestly portrayed) characters. The omniscient narrator is not a style of writing I’m used to, nor is the present tense narrative, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself.

51szsJbYt-LKaren Swallow Prior is another writer I’ve never come across before but I loved her biography of Hannah More, Fierce Convictions, and am looking forward to reading her newest book On Reading Well.

Bruce Hindmarsh is not exactly new to me as I read his book about John Newton some years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. So I was 512CP34YQtLlooking forward to his book about eighteenth century evangelicalism and its interaction with the arts and sciences of its day, and I was not disappointed. I highly recommend The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism to anyone who suspects there’s a lot more to this movement than praise bands and Trumpian politics.

51TBxH8M5VLFinally, a new novel by C.J. Sansom is always a delight, and Tombland was excellent. I was not familiar with the historic incident the book is based on – the Norfolk rebellion in the reign of Edward VI – but the character of Matthew Shardlake was as compelling as ever and the historical research behind the novel is meticulous.

I was surprised to discover that the only poetry book I read this year was a re-read of The Portable Dante. It’s not that I haven’t read any poetry; I simply haven’t finished any collections! I’ll have to make a point of that this coming year, as I do find poetry hugely rewarding.

And now – on to 2019!