Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Christian Spirituality - the Classics (ed Arthur Holder)

This is a book of essays about 30 of the classic writings on Christian Spirituality over the centuries.

The Good

I want to read more classic devotional Christian books, but they don't appear in many libraries. There's a pretty good theological library near where I live, but they don't have Gregory the Great's Book of Pastoral Rule for example, and I'd like to get an idea of it before buying. This book is a good place to come to get an overview of quite a lot of material, and to get some ideas for things I might like to explore further.

It's also encouraging (and slightly amusing) to see how they pick out the good in things. For example, when discussing one of Kierkegaard's nuttier books, they dwell on the fact that he has a powerful critique of busyness. I sometimes find it hard to pick out the good in things where there's a lot of bad; many of these authors seem to find it much easier.

The Odd

The selection of writings they use is slightly odd. At times they seem to be going overboard to be diverse (including Mechthild of Magdeberg, presumably because she was a woman), but in other ways they are spectacularly undiverse. I did a quick tally of authors included by location (and later denomination).

100-451: Western Roman 1; Eastern Roman 3 (all Turkey / Egypt)
451-1054: Western Roman 2; Eastern Roman 1
1054-1517: Western Roman 7; Eastern Roman 1
1517-2000: European Catholic 6; European Protestant 5; US Protestant 2; US Catholic 1; Eastern Orthodox 1

There are only two books from further East than Alexandria, nothing from further south than Hippo. There's nothing from the Puritans or Anabaptists; the only vaguely evangelical ones are Luther, Edwards and Bonhoeffer. Utterly bizarrely, they pick one book from Britain in period the 1500-1700, and it's George Herbert's The Country Parson, which is about how to be a vicar in a way that leads to burnout and premature death. If you're going to pick Herbert over Cranmer, Hooker, Jewel, Andrewes, Bunyan, Perkins, Sibbes, Baxter, Owen, Donne, at least pick The Temple, which is more devotional...

Without giving it too much thought, I'd probably want to drop Mechthild, Marguerite Porete, George Herbert, Soren Kierkegaard and Evelyn Underhill and bring in Ephrem the Syrian, Bunyan, CS Lewis, and perhaps a South American and a Korean.

The Bad

What almost ruined the book for me is that most of the authors seem to be writing from the point of view of liberal imperialism rather than trying to understand the authors on their own terms - they assume a Hickean universalism and don't let the works they are describing critique it. For example, they criticise Bernard of Clairvaux for saying that the good news about Jesus leads to a greater love for God than any other system; they suggest that Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections could apply to other religions without even mentioning that a key component is that spiritual experiences which are from God always drive us to Jesus.

Overall, I did find it an interesting read, and a helpful one. In some of the chapters, I even found the ancient authors speaking to me, even through the medium of an unsympathetic author. But this is an academic book, not a Christian one.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Now on Twitter!

I have a confession to make. I've just (re-)joined Twitter. Couldn't find my original password, so I'm now @john_allister. Some Christian leaders seem to have interesting feeds with nuggets of wisdom, others seem to use it as an extrovert's diary in which they tell anyone who cares to listen exactly what they had for breakfast and what the cat brought in. I'm very much in the former camp, except as I'm only starting to go grey, I don't have that much wisdom yet.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Spiritual Warfare

Spiritual warfare doesn't seem to be talked about much these days outside Pentecostal circles. It's a dangerous shame.

There's a line in the Anglican baptism liturgy that goes something like this:

Fight valiantly a a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain Christ's faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life.

One church I used to be at had changed it to:

Stand firm as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful and obedient to Christ, to the end of your life.

It's linked to the fact that the Lectionary which most churches use tends to ignore the more military bits of the Bible, especially in Psalms. But I don't follow the RCL, so I've been reading them quite a bit recently. The other day, for example, I read Psalm 59.

Deliver me from my enemies, O God;
be my fortress against those who are attacking me.
Deliver me from evildoers
and save me from those who are after my blood.
See how they lie in wait for me!
Fierce men conspire against me
for no offence or sin of mine, Lord.
I have done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me.
Arise to help me; look on my plight!
You, Lord God Almighty,
you who are the God of Israel,
rouse yourself to punish all the nations;
show no mercy to wicked traitors.

They can be quite difficult to read these days, because we don't have physical enemies seeking to kill us, like David did, and if we do then on balance we'd prefer it if God changed their hearts so they became our friends.

When we try to apply those Psalms to our lives, there are several helpful routes to take. We can see them as the first stage in letting go of anger – asking God to take vengeance rather than doing it myself. We can see them as Psalms sung by Jesus, entrusting himself to God and asking God to rescue him from attack, which God does in the resurrection. But lately I've found it helpful to read them through the lens of Ephesians 6:12.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

As Christians, we are in a real battle. And it's no less real just because our opponents aren't physical people but ideas, temptations and spiritual forces, and we need to learn to fight them better. I'm finding it really helpful at the moment reading the "fighting Psalms" and thinking of the temptations I experience; the things that want to knock me off course in following God, and asking for his protection and rescue from them.

So when we get a decent hymn that is about spiritual warfare, I'm going to try to encourage folks to sing it...

Monday, July 01, 2013

What is the greatest number of English monarchs to be alive at once?

I was thinking about the Wars of the Roses the other night (partly as a result of the BBC series The White Queen, based on the Philippa Gregory novels. There are 5 English monarchs who feature in the series, and they all were alive during 1470-71:

  • Henry VI (1421-1471), Lancastrian claimant to the throne
  • Edward IV (1442-1483), Yorkist claimant to the throne
  • Edward V (1470-1483), Edward IV's son and successor
  • Richard III (1452-1485), Edward IV's brother and probable killer of Edward V
  • Henry VII Tudor (1457-1509), eventual victor of the Wars of the Roses

This set me to wondering what the greatest number of English monarchs to be alive at once is (excluding consorts like Elizabeth Woodville and so on).

I could think of a few other possible times where there were plenty alive at once. Just before Victoria's death, for example, her successors Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI were all alive, which gives us another 5. They could conceivably have all appeared in the same photograph as well!

But I suspect the winning period is from 1683-1685, where the following monarchs were all alive:

  • Charles II, king of England until his death in 1685
  • James II (1633-1701), his brother, deposed in 1688
  • Mary II (1662-1694), James' daughter
  • William III of Orange (1650-1702), Mary's husband but co-regent and continued to reign after her death
  • Anne (1665-1714), Mary's sister, who died without surviving children
  • George I of Hanover (1660-1727) was Anne's closest living Protestant relative at her death - the first 50 or so were all Catholics!
  • George II (1683-1760), George's son

That makes 7, due to one person being deposed by Parliament, a co-regency, several people dying childless and the throne passing to an older distant relative! I can't find any other points in history with even 5 or more, so I suspect 1683-5 is the winner... Any comparative results for other countries?