11 October 2017

Book reviews in the Autumn
edition of the journal ‘Search’

Patrick Comerford

The Autumn 2017 edition of Search, A Church of Ireland Journal (Vol 40.3) is published this week, with reflections on the legacy of the Reformation, papers by the Revd Kevin Conroy on the diaconate as an ‘inviolate’ order of ministry and Professor Steven Ellis and on how Morning Prayer came to be the favoured Sunday morning service in Church of Ireland parishes.

I supervised Kevin’s MTh dissertation research, and it is a pleasure to find that I am referenced in his footnotes in his paper.

The way we respond to developments in the world around us is another aspect of ‘Reformation,’ and articles in this area include key contributions on the challenge of Gafcon by the Revd Philip Groves, and on communal loyalty, identity and the danger of toxicity in a wide variety of settings by the Revd Lesley Carroll.

How to manage community identity in response to historical and sociological upheavals is a theme which Professor Andrew Mayes takes back to Old Testament times, showing how Israelite self-identity developed from tribal brotherhood, to monarchy, and finally to dispersed People of God, each being an essential shift in response to historical and sociological change.

Looking to the future of the Church, Jacqui Wilkinson shares the fruits of her recent Cork-based research on primary school children’s attitudes to Christianity, arguing that encouragement to prayer must be a prime value for teachers and Christian parents alike.

The issue concludes with book reviews by Professor David Hayton, Archbishop Michael Jackson, Dr Raymond Refaussé, Bishop Peter Selby and the Revd Abigail Siines.

In his review of Death and the Irish: a miscellany, edited by Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth and published last year by Wordwell, Dr Refaussé writes: ‘Church of Ireland readers may be particularly interested in … Patrick Comerford’s reflection of Henry Francis Lyte’s well known hymn, Abide with me …’

My book reviews on pp 234-236 read:

Jesus: A Very Brief History

Helen K Bond, London, SPCK, 2017, pp 88, ISBN 9780281075997

Thomas Aquinas: A Very Brief History

Brian Davies, London, SPCK, 2017, pp 137, ISBN 9780281076116

Florence Nightingale: A Very Brief History

Lynn McDonald, London, SPCK, 2017, pp 127, ISBN 9780281076451

With over two billion followers today, Jesus of Nazareth is the single most influential figure in history. Yet, a recent opinion poll shows that 25% of 18-34-year-olds in Britain think that Jesus is a mythical or fictional character.

Helen Bond is Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. She has written extensively on the Gospels, the historical Jesus and the emergence of Christianity, and has contributed to several documentaries for the BBC and the Discovery and National Geographic channels. She begins Jesus: A Very Brief History, her contribution to this new ‘Very Brief Histories’ series from SPCK by dealing with the ‘Christ Myth’ and questions about the historical existence of Jesus.

In the first part of her brief historical introduction, Helen Bond first assesses the impact of Jesus on the world of his day, and outlines the key ideas and values connected with him. She digs deep into the ancient and widespread evidence for the existence of Jesus, explores the social, political and religious factors that formed the context of his life and teaching, and asks how those factors affected the way he was initially received. She deals succinctly with Josephus’ account of Jesus, with Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees, the credibility of his miracles and the gnostic gospels, and popular questions such as: ‘Was Jesus married?’

In the second part of her book, she surveys the intellectual and cultural ‘afterlife’ of Jesus, exploring the ways he has a continuing influence in the world today and has left a lasting impact. Why does Jesus continue to be so influential? What aspects of his legacy are likely to endure beyond today?

This is the first book in a new collection from SPCK that seeks to provide short, affordable, accessible books about some key figures in world history written by world experts. These slim paperback books have in an eye-catching die-cut design covers with numbered spines. The series began in April 2017 with this title and two others: Thomas Aquinas, by Brian Davies, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York; and Florence Nightingale, by Lynn McDonald, former Professor of Sociology at the University of Guelph in Canada. Each author takes a similar approach in each book, although they vary considerably in length.

The Dominican theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas (ca 1225-1274) is perhaps the most influential philosopher of the Middle Ages and one of the greatest Western thinkers of all time. The Roman Catholic Church declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1568, and Brian Davies ranks him alongside philosophical giants such as Plato, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Lady with the lamp

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was born in Florence and is widely known as the founding figure in modern nursing and her role in the Crimean War. She was also a champion of social reforms, campaigning and lobbying on living conditions in the slums and the conditions in workhouses. She was sympathetic to Irish independence, and during a visit to Ireland with family friends in August 1852, she paid her respects at the grave of Daniel O’Connell in Dublin. In her letters, she describes how she loved Dublin but found Belfast too ‘Orange.’

She was known popularly in the Victorian era as the ‘Lady with the Lamp.’ But Lynn McDonald points out that during the Crimean War (1854-1856) the lamp was carried before her by ‘a young Irish soldier, who had enlisted at the age of 15, fell ill at Varna and was shipped out to Crimea, to be sent on to Scutari without ever seeing a day’s battle. He would carry the lamp for her so that she could take down the last letters of dying soldiers.’

Although she admired the work of David Livingstone, she was worried by the work of mission agencies, and condemned them for being more interested in numbers of conversions that the living conditions of the people they worked among. She was also a pioneer in statistical analysis and data presentation, promoting the bar and pie charts we still use today.

Mary Clare Moore of the Sisters of Mercy introduced her to the mystical writers, including Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila. She was a supporter of SPCK and its publishing work; but when her cousin, Rosalind Nash, offered them to SPCK for publication in 1937 they were declined with the excuse that better translations were available.

What next?

In this new series, the choice of Jesus as the first title is obvious, although the second two figures may seem an odd choice to set the ball rolling. Indeed, in this anniversary year it seems a pity that Martin Luther is not one of the titles for publication in 2017. On the other hand, prior to the formal start of this series, SPCK published two hardback books in a similar format: on Julian of Norwich by Janina Ramirez of Oxford University; and Thomas More by John Guy of Clare College, Cambridge.

The next planned study is of William Tyndale by the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, and there is a complementary series on movements and ideas that have shaped the world, beginning with Byzantine Christianity by Averil Cameron of Oxford and the Enlightenment by Anthony Kenny.

The Very Brief Histories series has its own Facebook page, which is being kept up-to-date on current and forthcoming titles.

Patrick Comerford

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