Monday, February 10, 2014

Lent Reading

Review of:

Graham Tomlin, Looking through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014 (Bloomsbury, 2013). £9.99 in Derby Cathedral Bookshop.

Various Authors, Reflections for Lent 2014 (Church House Publishing, 2013). £3.99 in Derby Cathedral Bookshop.

Lent is traditionally a season for thinking and taking time to read a bit deeper into the Christian faith.  Each year the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a Lent Book from a writer of note, and this year is no exception.  Graham Tomlin, the Dean of St Mellitus College, London has written Looking through the Cross.  Commissioned by Rowan Williams, but introduced by Justin Welby, this is a book marking the transition between Archbishops.  That it began as talks to Holy Trinity, Brompton is perhaps appropriate.

Tomlin’s uses the action of looking as the key to his approach to the cross.  In his first two chapters, this is looking at the cross, to see what it tells us about God and about ourselves.  Then he tries to look through the cross to reflect on our world and how we are to act within it.  Looking at the cross, Tomlin finds that many of our images of God have to be discarded as idols.  To truly understand the God of the cross, is to follow the path of self-sacrificial love.  With Martin Luther, Tomlin rejects a theology of glory that claims to know all about God.  With a telling nod to the Harry Potter novels, Tomlin sees the cross as the fullest revelation of the God of love.

From here, Tomlin looks through the cross to see what impact this might have on our approach to power, identity, suffering, ambition, failure and reconciliation.  He is possibly at his best in apologetic mode, not least the chapter on suffering which offers clarity about why Christians should not expect lives without suffering.  But there is plenty of imagination in the way that he explores ambition (not a common subject for theological writing) and identity.  Here, Tomlin’s writing betrays its origins in sermons more, and each theme is rather too neatly wrapped up by the end of the chapter.  But the value of this is not just in what Tomlin has written, but more in the reflections it inspires in the reader.  Tomlin has chosen some important and imaginative areas for reflection.  They are worth reading above all for the ideas they might prompt in those of us who read it.  There is much here to benefit a reflective reading through Lent. 

Tomlin offers something for reflective reading through Lent.  The Reflections for Lent, written by a rage of authors, offer something to accompany a Lenten discipline.  If this Lent you are interested in becoming more regular in prayer, then this is a gem of a book.  Its value lies less in the reflections, which are interesting and insightful enough, but in the extra material provided.  Here you will find a two page order for Morning Prayer and a similarly simple order for Night Prayer (compline), making the liturgical beauty of those services easily available.  There is even material that enables the services to be used after Lent, which vastly increases the usefulness of the book.

If that were not enough, there are three pieces which offer an introduction to Lent, to daily prayer and to Lectio Divina (reflective reading of the Bible).  Each is written by a distinguished author.  Each would be worth the price of the book on its own.  There is more in Sam Wells’ two page introduction to Lent than in many Lent books, running to hundreds of pages.  Stephen Cottrell’s page and a half on Lectio Divina is a brilliant and hugely helpful practical summary of how to engage in that method of spiritual reading.  John Pritchard’s two pages on daily prayer is practical, wise and a really good place to start this Lent.

I highly commend this gift of a little book.  I shall spend a good deal of time, this Lent and beyond, getting to grips with the practical spiritual wisdom that it offers.  In terms of value for money, there is more insight per pound than I have come across in a long time.  I suggest you buy it for the orders for prayer and the three essays.  Then you get daily reflections for Lent thrown in for free!

Originally published in Outlook: The Magazine of Derby Cathedral (February 2014)

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