Category Archives: Theology

Hope Stories

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Hope Stories
By John Sentamu
Darton, Longman &Todd – £8.99

What’s that relatively well known saying: what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger?

I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by the one simple fact that that it is usually pain, or indeed, some sort of struggle, which more often, than not brings out the best in people. A rather sad indictment of human behaviour if you really care to think about it, but one that is nevertheless, fundamentally true.

It was with such thinking in mind, that I both stumbled upon and approached Hope Stories – 20 Stories of Faith Changing Lives Today.

Compiled by John Sentamu, who is the current Archbishop of York (while previously, Bishop for Birmingham and Stepney), these authentic stories by ordinary people reflect how (Christian) belief is able to shine a certain kind of light within the parameters of a certain kind of acceptance.

Acceptance, surely being the key word here, for without it, it could be argued that very little light would ever enter the fray; which is why so many of these stories are what they essentially are.

For instance, story number fifteen, which involves a fella by the name of Andy Roberts who regales the reader with the following: ”When I was a child I used to watch a cartoon called Popeye. Popeye was a sailor man and if anyone messed with his girlfriend, Olive Oyl, you’d see the anger building up inside him until he couldn’t take it anymore and he’d crack open a can of spinach, from which he’d gain all the strength he needed to sort out the situation […]. I thought about Popeye when I was in Brazil […]. It’s hard to comprehend what it feels like to be approached by a ten year who is selling her body. The first time it happened to me, it broke my heart. That was my real Popeye moment, when I knew that I couldn’t take it anymore […]. Like Popeye, I knew that I had to do something, So, I suppose you might say that I turned to my ‘spiritual spinach,’ to show me the way.”

Needless to say, most of the stories throughout this book are of a similar persuasion; where faith, or at least, belief in faith, shows ‘the so-called way.’

As such, this book will undoubtedly appeal to all those who either (already) believe, or truly want to believe.

David Marx

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Spiritual Atheist

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Spiritual Atheist –
Reunite Science & Wisdom to Thrive in Life, Love &
Leadership in the Digital Age.
By Nick Seneca Jankel
Switch On Books – £12.99

Depression is now the single greatest burden on health worldwide. Suicide kills more people than war and natural catastrophes put together, and more US troops die from killing themselves than from conflict. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine across the planet. These numbers are set to double in the next five years.

This is one of those publications that endeavours to combat life, loss and loneliness.
Described as ”a modern-day ‘bible’ for the spiritual not religious exploring how to embrace both cutting-edge science and timeless, love-fuelled wisdom without betraying reason,” it could be considered as being down to the individual as to whether or not it is a good book.

I guess it depends on the degree to which one accepts what’s written within these 246 pages (excluding Introduction, Glossary of Philosophical & Wisdom Words, Notes and Index). On the one hand, if one wants to embrace and believe, then Spiritual Atheist – Reunite Science and Wisdom to Thrive in Life, Love and Leadership in the Digital Age will most probably reach out and resonate with substance. On the other hand, if one doesn’t want to be embrace nor believe, then it won’t.

It’s as simple as that.

Rather like the author, Nick Seneca Jankel’s own words, on the opening page of the Introduction: ”[…] the words of the rabbis fell flat on my ears. The ancient rituals and writings offered in that temple to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, seemed of no use to me as a teenager. They did nothing to assuage my pain or provide me with a galvanizing sense of meaning.”

Personally, I’ve never been one that subscribes to this sort of reading.
I don’t know why.
Seems to me that the depth and clarity of such enormous subjects as spirituality and atheism, are something that one doesn’t necessarily read or write about – although there is indeed, absolutely nothing wrong with reading or writing about them. It’s just that I’ve always believed that spirituality – along with the relative private thinking and experience thereof – is best left within the domain of the self.

But hey, who am I to say?
Why not read this very readable, forthright and altogether commendable book, and decide for yourself?

David Marx

Waiting On The Word

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Waiting On The Word
By Lorraine Cavanagh
Foreword by Martyn Percy
Darton, Longman & Todd – £12.99

[…] for many people, to fall is to fail. Cities fall; so do people. It is to be reduced: to come to nothing. And yet, we also fall in love. To fall is also to let go. It is also to go with the flow; to cascade, like a river or waterfall.

          Martyn Percy

If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

          Rainer Maria Rilke (Foreword)

Both of the above quotes might be construed as an insinuation as to where we, as a society, have gone horribly wrong in so many (avoidable) ways. As mere words written on a page, there’s no denying that they need to be read and embraced for all their worth.

BUT, all too often, those doing the reading will undoubtedly already be well aware of the culpability of entangling ”ourselves in knots of our own making.” It is the vast array of brain-dead sycophants (such as most of those in Theresa May’s Cabinet or those who ever so transiently kneel at the alter of Donald Trump) who really/undoubtedly need to read and be made aware of the above.

Even if just for a smidgen of a fleeting moment.

Alas, it really is the powers that be, whom truly need to embrace an assortment of (the most prophetic and clear-sighted) writings throughout Waiting On The Word.

Indeed those who can afford, as well as both make and allow for change to happen – as Lorraine Cavanagh makes fundamentally clear in chapter five’s ‘Becoming an effective communicator:The preacher as Connector,’ wherein she writes: ”They represent the chronic loneliness which is a direct result of our indifference to the circumstances of other people, the protective self-interest so characteristic of our times, and of our busy and affluent western society. If we read […] of the refugee crisis which is being played out on the beaches of northern France and on the barbed borders of an increasing number of other European countries, it becomes a grim prophetic warning about the future of Europe itself. Turning a blind eye to suffering, by refusing to work together as nations, will ultimately cause our own fragmentation. Without compassion, and a shared duty of care ‘the centre cannot hold’ (the centre cannot hold: Y.B. Yeats, The Second Coming).”

The 143 pages of Waiting On The Word are a more than telling indictment of our most terrible of times.

Aligned with a calling to be open and sincere and to avoid the fickleness of fame, fortune and the most inane of popularity (or should that read celebrity?), it is a book that really does need to be read by anyone and everyone currently in or considering a career in politics (let alone the pulpit).

After all: ”Knowing we are loved is not a matter of knowing that we are popular. Popularity is fickle. It can vanish overnight. But healthy self-confidence is a gift […].

David Marx

Jabotinsky’s Children

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Jabotinsky’s Children –
Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism
By Daniel Kupfert Heller
Princeton University Press – £27.95

On a winter evening in 1932, Adolf Gourevitch, a young man from Kiev studying at the Sorbonne, joined Vladimir Jabotinsky and his son, Eri, at a cafe in Paris. As he sat down at the table, Jabotinsky announced that he would devote the evening to composing a new anthem for Betar. Jabotinsky had good reason to create a new hymn for his youth movement. By this point, Betar had more than forty thousand members worldwide and was quickly emerging as one of the most popular Jewish movements in Poland, where some thirty thousand Jews had joined its ranks. ‘The youth movement was also becoming one of the most controversial in the country – its’ rivals accusations that the group’s members were ”Jewish fascists’ who aspired to the same values as antisemites on the European Right only intensified with Betar’s growth. Writing an anthem provided Jabotinsky with an opportunity to offer a clear declaration of his movement’s goals and to finally put these claims to rest. He even promised Gourevitch that the poem would follow a mathematical logic. Jabotisnky wrote the following lines to open his first verse: ”Betar / from a pit of decay and dust / in blood and sweat / a new race will emerge / proud, noble and cruel.”

                                             (‘Obedient Children/Reckless Rebels’)

Reading the above quote from this book’s third chapter, does not only initiate one into thinking what took place in Poland a mere seven years later, but also what took place in the country’s capital Warszawa just last Saturday (November 11th). A day which marked the official celebration of the country’s ninety-ninth year of independence, which saw the best part of 60,000 right-wing protesters – from all over Poland – calling for ”an Islamic Holocaust.”

An ”Islamic Holocaust” no less, from countrymen, who know a thing or two about the meaning of genocide, and who, in their utmost heat of hearts, really ought to know better. The fact that the alternative American Right leader, Richard Spence, cancelled his plans to attend the march because he was deemed too extreme (by the Polish government), might go some way in substantiating a tad of Polish common sense. Although maybe not.

All things told, Jabotinsky’s Children – Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism, underlines the extent to which acute indoctrination is NEVER a good thing.

In and of itself, it has never qualified itself as a constructive mode of pristine behaviour, the absolute flip-side of which is surely evidenced in Poland’s more than brutal, heartbreakingly turbulent past. That Jabotinsky suggested that ”a new race will emerge,” one that was ”proud, noble and cruel,” isn’t that far removed from some of last Saturday’s chants of ”clean blood” and white Europe.”

So in a round-a-bout sort of way, this book really does shine something of an illuminating light on the spectre of ever increasing right-wing fundamentalism throughout Europe and the U.S. The latter especially, where Donald Trump openly promotes separatism and everything that is crass in human nature (a list far too long to mention here).

That Poland served as an inspiration and an incubator for the development of right-wing Zionist ideas, is herein brought to (unfortunate) bear, in all its myopic eventual mayhem. With reference to the inter-war years, the author Daniel Kupfert Heller writes: ”Poland […] was plagued by political corruption, factionalism, legislative gridlock, and violence. Tensions often ran high between Catholic Poles and the country’s minorities. The deep divisions pitting peasants against urban dwellers, socialists against conservatives, and liberals against radical nationalists only multiplied the staggering number of political parties clamouring for power” (Introduction – ‘Jews and the Right’).

Sound familiar?
One need look no further than current day Venezuela.
Or what took place in Zimbabwe yesterday.
Hell’s teeth, one need look no further than Downing Street.

These 254 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index) most definitely shoot from the hip. In so doing, they place particular perspective on the origins of right-wing Zionist beliefs – along with their continuing allure in today’s Israel. As such, Jabotinsky’s Children will undoubtedly trigger much debate, which, to varying degrees, can only be a good thing.

David Marx

 

The Wounded Healer

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The Wounded Healer – Ministry in Contemporary Society
By Henri J. M. Nouwen
Darton, Longman & Todd – £10.99

For a Christian, Jesus is the man in whom it has indeed become manifest that revolution and conversion cannot be separated in a man’s search for experiential transcendence. His appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross.

For a refreshingly new and perhaps radical interpretation of the modern ministry, this altogether inviting book by Dutch priest and author, Henri J. M. Nouwen, certainly tells and re-calls it as it truly ought to be told and re-called.

Indeed, The Wounded Healer – Ministry in Contemporary Society will undoubtedly make one think, if not reflect upon one’s beliefs and (and sometimes questionable) approach to everyday living. That said, what’s written within these 104 pages, absolutely isn’t as stoic and draped within a language riddled with the utmost of spirituality as one might initially think: ”[…] when man’s historical consciousness is broken, the whole Christian message seems like a lecture about the great pioneers to a boy on an acid trip.”

Such nuanced thinking and words may well partially account for Nouwen’s rather substantial back catalogue (his best selling books include The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Inner Voice of Love and Bread for the Journey), which, for all intents and overtly readable purposes, can only be a good thing.

Prime reason being, more people may be drawn, if not feel compelled to read more such books of a similar persuasion. For where else – with the exception of some of Bob Dylan’s more spiritual writing(s) – would one stumble upon such robust one liners as:

There is no reason to live if there is nobody to live for.

Love not only lasts forever, it needs only a second to come about.

In brief, Henri Nouwen always believed that ministers are essentially called upon, or at least, need to be called upon, in order to identify suffering in their own hearts.

The recent Broken drama/television series on BBC1, touched upon as much; wherein said suffering was all the more realistically brought to bear by the actor Sean Bean. The quintessential difference being, the author of The Wounded Healer got there first (this book was after all, originally published in 1994).

David Marx

Introducing Buddha

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Introducing Buddha – A Graphic Guide
By Jane Hope & Borin Van Loon
Icon Books – £4.99

To study the way of Buddha is to study oneself.
To study oneself is to forget oneself.
To forget oneself is to be enlightened by everything in the world.
To be enlightened by everything is to surrender one’s own body and mind.

Surely it is a good thing to remind oneself of Buddhist teachings from time to time, even if only to be reacquainted with occasional inner peace; for the inner sanctum of oneself – as mentioned above – is all too readily, all too often, forgotten about.

And for those who aren’t familiar with the Buddhist design, then might I recommend this delightful little book, Introducing Buddha – A Graphic Guide, which, according to The Times Educational Supplement, is: ”an exemplary introduction… persuasive and intelligently critical.”

Icon Books best-selling guides to Big Ideas, really are a most worthy investigation.

Why you may well ask?

Well not only are they snug and compact – the perfect companion for those tedious commutes – but they really enlighten the reader with what one needs to know nigh immediately: ”The early stories and teachings of the Buddha were not written down until several centuries after his death. They were not seen as the ”authorized version.” The Buddha encouraged his followers to put everything he said to the test, and therefore, through the ages, followers of the Buddha have trusted their own wisdom, rather than trying to interpret what might have been meant in old texts.”

Compared to that other mighty book that begins with the letter ‘B,’ isn’t this good practice and something a reassuring approach? Especially the words: ”trying to interpret what might have been meant in old texts.”

Augmented with countless graphics and drawings (hence the title), these 173 pages – excluding Further Reading, About the Author, About the Illustrator and Index – Introducing Buddha describes the life and teachings of the Buddha.

It also fundamentally shows that enlightenment is a matter of experiencing the truth individually, by way of inspiration being passed from teacher to student.

Or rather, giver and receiver, which is always rather special.

David Marx

Confessions – St Augustine

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Confessions – St Augustine
Translated by Benignus O’Rourke
Darton Longman & Todd – £12.99

Yet, I chose to steal.
I stole, not because of poverty or need,
unless the lack of a sense of justice
counts as a need.
I stole because I was bored of doing right,
and had a greedy love of doing wrong.
For the things I stole I already had in plenty,
and were of better quality.
I had no desire to enjoy what I stole.
What I wanted to enjoy was the actual stealing,
and the sin itself.

‘Bored Of Doing Right’

It’s not often one reads such hyper-honesty as that pronounced, or should I say, confessed above; especially the line: ”I stole because I was bored of doing right/and had a greedy love of doing wrong.”

Indeed, who in their right mind would to admit to such subliminal darkness? Other than the likes of Jack Nicholson and perhaps Johnny Cash, there aren’t many who would confide such reflective openness.

There again, St Augustine wasn’t of the sort you’d stumble across everyday, which is what partially accounts for Confessions being as disturbing yet as vibrant as it is; of which this particular rendition, published by Darton Longman & Todd, rally does need to be looked into. In the words of the author of Into The Silent Land, Martin Laird, this is ”a daringly original contribution to the history of English translations of Confessions.”

And one can understand why.

According to many, not only is the latter ”a canticle to God and full of psychological insights which might have been written yesterday, the Confessions is ”the story of a soul, and also the story of God and how he is constantly at work seeking us.”

For me personally, it’s the underlying meaning and varying text(s) to which I am fundamentally drawn, because it is nigh impossible to open almost any of these 394 pages (excluding the Foreword by Laird, Introduction and Notes) and not be touched in some literal or theological way:

Now that I had begun to understand
that what is incorruptible
is better than what is corruptible,
I tried to explore further

‘The Highest and Most Perfect Good’

So I joined a group of men who,
though calling themselves philosophers,
were mainly slick talkers,
very sensual and proud to the point of madness.

‘Closer To Me Than I Was To Myself’

Do the last two lines not sound resoundingly familiar? Do they not resonate with all the trajectory a charade of middle management at a marketing convention?
Either way, Confessions makes for top-notch, provocative and enlightened reading.

As if you didn’t already know!

David Marx