Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Advent Book Reviews I - Various

Christmas comes but once a year; and when it comes it brings in its vanguard a plethora of devotional books of somewhat varying quality. Here is this year’s selection.

David Adam has crafted a stimulating six-week course from Advent to Epiphany exploring the theme of joy. The Echo of God: A six-week course from Advent to Epiphany is designed for small groups meeting weekly, but could be adapted successfully for individual use.

Adam employs the ancient method of lectio divina, the pattern for which is “Realise, Read, Ruminate, Respond, Rest, and Recollect”. A passage of scripture is appointed for each week, and each is accompanied by an accessible and insightful commentary and guidance on reflection and meditation.

Adam frequently drops in nuggets from a treasure-house of spiritual writers, including Symeon the New Theologian, G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Traherne, Teilhard de Chardin, the CurĂ© d’Ars, and — most extensively — Julian of Norwich.

Even in church life, the tinsel and the fairy lights can crowd out the profundity of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. This course provides a welcome invitation to ponder their themes more deeply. Sadly, the book is unattractively produced with a cover that looks like a broken windscreen.

Our enquiries revealed that Adam’s central, and very powerful, quotation, “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us,” does not in fact come from “one of the Desert Fathers”, as he claims, but from Abbot Columba Marmion (1858-1923).

Insights Christmas: What the Bible tells us about the Christmas story consists of extracts from William Barclay’s commentaries, revised and republished posthumously in 2001, on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This slim volume comprises two discrete sections: the first contains a brief introduction to Matthew’s Gospel and is followed by commentary on Matthew 1.1-2.23; and the second, rather shorter, introduces Luke’s Gospel, and then includes commentary on Luke 1.1-2.20. The lack of synthesis between the two sections results in repetition, and it is left to the reader to draw out any overarching themes or conclusions.

Barclay’s distinctive theology is evident throughout his exegesis. He is conservative on matters such as gospel authorship, but liberal on the Virgin birth, about which, he claims, “the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own conclusion.” His style is occasionally clunky: “First and foremost, Luke’s Gospel is an exceedingly careful bit of work.” He is quick to appreciate beauty in the scriptures, and his reflections on the openings of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels are illustrated with anecdotes.

In his book In the Bleak Midwinter: 40 meditations and prayers for Advent and Christmas, Herbert Brokering has put together a meditation and a poetic prayer on each line of Christina Rossetti’s Christmas carol. This book is designed to be read at home, either alone or in the context of the family. Indeed, Brokering’s own family is never far from the surface in his meditations.

The winters of his upbringing in rural Nebraska, his own experiences as a parent, and the stillbirth of his grandson all contribute to his insights on the “stable place” and the holy family that lodged there. The charm and the frustration of many of the reflections is the way in which the author sacrifices structure in order to let his stream of consciousness flow.

A good number of the meditations assume a rather imaginative take on the Christmas story. According to Brokering, “Dr Luke must have wished to be personally present” at the nativity; and “Anna, Mary’s mother, must have made sure that what Mary would need was in a special bag.”

If a wistful and schmaltzy reading of this most wistful and schmaltzy of carols is really what you want to find in your stocking this Christmas, put this on your wish list. But we don’t think you’ll find it on ours. Other works by the same author include More Cat Psalms and More Dog Psalms.

David Coffey has written Joy to the World as his Baptist World Alliance President’s Advent Book. It covers the 31 days of December, and is organised as a collection of readings for five weeks, with weekly activities to be carried out in groups. The week’s readings are to be read individually in preparation for the weekly group meeting. The readings within the week are thematically linked to joy: World of Joy, Community of Joy, Songs of Joy, Saviour of Joy, and Gifts of Joy.

The book works in much the same way as other books for Advent, with a daily scripture reading and commentary, followed by a pause for thought leading on to a prayer, and finishing with a final reflection, encouraging the reader to engage actively with the outside world.

There are helpful suggestions about how to focus on the theme of the week in a small group, although forward planning would be needed if some of the suggested activities were to work effectively. The combination of daily and weekly activities makes the book suitable for use in a parish home group setting. An unattractive cover featuring what appears to be an enormous Christmas bauble does not do the book justice.

Do Nothing Christmas is Coming by Stephen Cottrell is a very short book in the format of an Advent calendar, with daily thoughts and activities for each day from 1 to 25 December. Cottrell has the evangelist’s eye for a short but provocative illustration or aphorism, and these appear on almost every page: “you learned life’s really important lessons at nursery school; sit still, share your toys and clean up after yourself. If we managed these three there would be peace in the world!”

The author’s prophetic instinct to criticise the way in which Christmas is celebrated in Western countries conflicts creatively with his pastoral instinct to make the most of the opportunities the season affords.

Pre-credit-crunch writing about people’s spending habits already feels oddly dated, and, while the author’s assumption that Christmas 2008 will be the usual orgy of consumerism is surely justified, economic circumstances will add considerable complexity to this picture, and, for some people, transform it altogether. Sentiment­ality occasionally obtrudes: pre-packaged food, for example, misses the vital ingredient of “love that only you can stir in”.

Do Nothing Christmas is Coming would be very valuable for anyone who wants something short and snappy to read each day, and especially for parents seeking practical help in sustaining Christian family life over Advent and Christmas. Wealthier parishes might consider a bulk order for general distribution. The book is particularly suitable for giving to those on the fringes of church life.

In All Senses by John Cox is a series of daily readings for Advent, with the theme of using not only our physical senses, but our other senses as well, such as those of balance, justice, and wonder. For each day there is a Bible reading followed by a reflection, in which these additional senses are employed to explore more fully the meaning of the season. Suggested responses are given to take the reflection further, and apply its insights, and a prayer concludes each section.

The readings begin on Advent Sunday, with 21 undated readings, before dated readings begin on 19 December. The author suggests that Advent should be “a time to be still amidst all the rush, and to ponder on things of God”, and the book intends that, through reading the passages and reflecting on their meaning, the reader will gain a freshness of spirit, and be able to contemplate and worship Christ with a deeper sense of intimacy.