Monday, March 08, 2004

Some Recent Reading

One of the things I find blogging useful for is to record some impressions and initial responses to things I've read, seen, heard etc. So here's my notes on recent reading material.

1. Theo Hobson, Against Establishment: An Anglican Polemic (DLT, 2003).

I have mixed feelings about this. Everything I liked about this has a downside, but then everything I disliked has some value. It's a very in-house book for Anglicans and the question of establishment seems less important now than it once did. Hobson paints in very broad brush strokes (his little guide to past thinking is the best example of this). It's never as crass as Colin Buchanan's more extended arguments against establishment, but musters the same degree of passion. I found it too uncritical of its sources to be hugely helpful (Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton are put in the same list as Martyn Percy and John Habgood) - there's more than a little tarring-with-the-same-brush going on in this polemical tactic. At the same time, it's useful to have a summary of their positions (if you're interested in establishment, and I confess that I am).

Above all, I enjoyed the last section, which is an argument for Anglicanism (even if Hobson has to call it 'Post-Anglicanism'). I liked the notion that the via media, originally a politically imposed compromise becomes a free space (in non-established post-Anglicanism) that is offered to the wider church and society. For Hobson, post-Anglicanism is not an attempt to combine both Protestant and Catholic, but a place that is critical of both. The violence of Catholic ecclesiology and the infantile, pre-critical attitudes of Protestantism come under this criticism. Hobson writes that 'The traditional Anglican is a compromise between two flawed models of Church, held together by a desperately outmoded political ideology. Post-Anglicanism turns this around: the via media is not the solution, but the space in which the new will emerge' (p. 134) Much to think about here, particularly in relation to the 'outmoded political ideology', but it is an essentially negative vision and not one that can support a church. People come to church (Anglican, post-Anglican or whatever) to worship God, not to engage in ecclesiological criticism. There may be an element of the critical in their choice of which church to attend, but that is far from justifying the emphasis of Hobson's new structures. I suppose my questions is whether post-Anglicanism has an ecclesiology of its own at all.

2. Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (Lion, 2003).

This is a superb little book, that I simply can't record all my reflections on here. I have to work through it again with a notebook. Suffice to say that there is vast quantities that made me think and challenged me. A real work of spiritual insight, which I can't recommend highly enough.

3. David Runcorn, Holiness (Grove Spirituality No. 54, 1995).

Another excellent little book, dealing with a fascinating topic. Runcorn has a chapter on the Old Testament, a chapter on Jesus and the Gospels and a chapter on the Church. In the OT, he points to the depiction of God as wholly other, non-domesticated (hence criticism of building a Temple, although Runcorn doesn't mention this). He reflects on the wisdom tradition's statement that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. There is, therefore, almost an arbitrariness in the OT depiction of God - God is wholly other and so cannot be predicted or manipulated. Runcorn calls this 'a divine insecurity' (p. 13) although the insecurity seems to be on the human part. Perhaps divine unreliability catches it better. There is a tension that Runcorn notes in OT understandings of holiness - never reconciled to that which was unclean, holiness became a means of exclusion.

Runcorn picks this up again when looking at holiness in the Gospels. He sees that the scandal of holiness in the Gospels is that the wrong people are holy. The cross reconciles the holy God and an unclean world by opening God to the unclean. Note that reconciliation comes from the holy allowing itself to be 'defiled'. This is why holiness and scandal go together. It's the chapter on the church that is the most disappointing. Runcorn offers three aspects of the Christian understanding of holiness - holiness as God's initiative; holiness as life in the Spirit, not life according to rules and regulations; holiness as union, not separation. This is helpful but I wonder whether we can deal with how radical this is. It's impossible for me not to be thinking about the current controversy over homosexuality. If holiness is about God's initiative, life in the Spirit and union then there are important ways in which gay people can show us holiness. This is scandalous, but nevertheless a revelation of God.

One other thing. As I read the stories of Jesus in the Gospels (especially Mark) it seems to be that the key point about Jesus and unclean people is that when he encounters them it is Jesus' holiness and not their uncleanness that is contagious. The rules and regulations that exclude people are based on the contagion of uncleanness that Jesus shows to be false. There's something in this about faith in God and which offers a means of relating to people with whom we profoundly disagree.

4. Nick Hornby, 31 Songs (Penguin, 2003).

This book came free with packets of cereal, which made me feel like a child again. I like Hornby, but hadn't expected to enjoy this as much as I did. As the title suggests, this is a book of essays about songs. Hornby is a self-confessed rock music snob who has lately come to admit his love of other varieties of pop music. I am much the same. This had me thinking about my favourite music, wanting to listen to old favourites and newly discovered greats, make up tapes for in the car and so on. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and now I'm off to play some music!

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