Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH Magazine September-October 2008s


The Way the World Is

by John Polkinghorne, Westminster John Knox Press (distributed by Alban Books), 130pp, £9.99

Leaving behind twenty-five years as a theoretical physicist and Cambridge professor of mathematical physics for Christian ministry was bound to raise a few eyebrows. John Polkinghorne was ordained in 1982 in the Anglican Church and this book was originally written as an apologetic for his evidently surprised colleagues. There is also a promise to other readers of something more universally appealing: “The more we learn about the structure and history of the natural world, the more we need to ask the question of whether there is a meaning and purpose behind that fascinating story.”

Polkinghorne aims to approach Christianity with “a scientist’s articulation of his understanding of the religious side of that frontier region” (p. xi). He wants to use a scientist’s ‘bottom-up’ approach to New Testament evidence to vindicate Jesus not only to his colleagues, but also to any agnostic reader who accepts the authority of science.

The chapters move systematically from a contemporary scientific cosmology through the human ‘personal’ approach to the world to the coming of Jesus with his death, resurrection and subsequent impact. The concluding section provides a glossary of some of the scientific and theological terms to which he refers. The style is fairly conversational, almost anecdotal; this is not so much a tightly argued treatise as a personal justification of his faith.

Polkinghorne’s scientific background is everywhere evident; often he uses examples from the laboratory: the historical appearance of Jesus in the world is seen in terms of the apparently undramatic discovery of penicillin on a windowsill; the two natures in Christ find a possible parallel in the wave/ particle duality of light, and Dirac’s equation concerning quantum mechanics is used in reference to the doctrine of the Trinity. In particular he seeks to convince his readers that there is good evidence to accept the claims of the New Testament. A summary of recent biblical critical scholarship attempts to provide a similarly credible ground for accepting its authority. He then takes a sort of common-sense scientist’s view to dismiss liberal interpretations of why Jesus had to die and ofthe reality of his resurrection.

It may already have become apparent that his methodology is somewhat overstretched; a ‘bottom-up’ approach to the divinity of Christ tends easily to underplay that very divinity. This comes through frequently in his Gospel exegesis, which gives little weight to Scriptural interpretation within Tradition: “Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom of God and it is very improbable that he gave precise instruction for future ecclesiastical discipline” (p. 41). In fact, although he might aim for a certain orthodoxy, he ends up espousing liberal-protestant approaches:

“ There are times when it is hard to decide whether a word of Jesus is original or a subsequent creation. A notorious example is the extra saying to Peter at Caesarea Philippi found only in Matthew (16:18), ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.’ The Lord’s confirmation of the natural leader of his disciples, or a post facto authentification of the Petrine party in the early Church? I cant make up my mind about that one.” (p. 43, my emphasis).

A limited understanding of the foundational role of Christ’s divinity will hinder faith in the Church as divinely guided in aiding us to ‘make up our minds’ on key doctrinal issues. It is hardly a surprise that he later dismisses the idea of an infallible church (p. 101).

Beyond this, if there are one or two theological howlers, such as reference to the mingling of Christ’s two natures (p. 67), perhaps most unfortunate are the philosophical shortfalls. Evolution is described as a remarkable interplay of contingent chance and lawful necessity (p. 8). Rather than a coherent concept of the creative work through evolution of the absolute God we are offered a certain ‘God-of-the-gaps’ metaphysic: “Mankind would be so much more plausibly the work of a benign Creator if it had come into being a mere six thousand years ago in the limited arena of a garden” (p. 14). Although he tries to argue for the transcendent, there is no cogent description of the nature of the spiritual soul in man. When it comes to Original Sin, he makes a frankly quitebaffling statement at the end of the book that “Christianity cannot explain the origin of the marredness which we see around us.” (p. 111). There is no attempt to link Christ with Creation. Perhaps most striking of all is that Polkinghorne sees no point in using contemporary scientific cosmology to provide arguments for the existence of God.

A respected scientist who sees his discipline as a springboard to the ordained ministry must surely command interest amongst all contemporary believers. That Polkinghorne seems only to make use of his scientifc background for anecdotes and metaphors and then takes signifcant false turns in terms of Christian orthodoxy and coherent metaphysics is disappointing. Sadly I cannot see his agnostic colleagues going away after reading this book thinking “ah, yes, perhaps there is a link between what he believes and what we do.”

Fr Chris Findlay-Wilson

The Realm – An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England
by Rev Aidan Nichols OP, Family Publications, 160 pp, £8.95

This is a most important book. In saying this I do not in the least imply that it is worthy but dull. Worthy it most certainly is, most worthy; but dull it most certainly is not. It is gripping reading. Indeed, in places it reads like a thriller; and a thriller it is, imparting the thrill of embracing the faith wholeheartedly and wanting to spread it to all our friends and neighbours.

The subtitle, “an unfashionable essay on the conversion of England” unashamedly reveals Fr Nichol’s ecclesiastically-incorrect intentions. This prolifIc Dominican author wants England to become Catholic again. The book is an effective commentary on the statistics showing that the Church in England is in decline. Fr Nichols pinpoints the reason for that decline: “Let me begin by simply stating my conviction that… the key to the situation is not dissent but apathy.” But the trumpet of this Dominican gives no uncertain sound: “We need to recover confidence in the Catholic tradition, as corporately interpreted by the magisterium of the Church.” This book will help to recover that confidence.

First, we have a historical context, with insights into the Celtic Church and that of the Anglo Saxon, and its relationship with the English nation. Fr Nichols is fascinating on analysing the words and actions of our coronation service, still essentially Catholic in its intent and symbolism. He quotes Goethe to show how “the ultimate significance of the French Revolution to be one of politicisation.” We are certainly seeing this today where the Government is politicising every aspect of life and nationalising many institutions. To realise what is happening to Catholic schools you have to realise that they are, in effect, being nationalised.

A chapter on “The needs of the Nation” sets out the situation today. The author is critical of the European Union which is “neither liberal nor democratic”. He warns of a new dark age. Then the longest section “Critics of the Culture” analyses the writings of Christian writers who have criticised the way that society is going: T.S. Eliot; Coleridge; Matthew Arnold; Maritain; Maurras; David Jones, the Welsh poet; Christopher Dawson; Chesterton; Belloc; and Tolkien. Those readers who are none too literary may fnd this hard going, but it is the heart of the book and carries its own summaries of, and quotations from, the authors and so does not need any prior knowledge of them, though this book is likely to send its readers hastening to their works. On T.S. Eliot Fr Nichols displays greatintellectual and cultural courage by writing sensibly and approvingly about Eliot’s After Strange Gods, a book now seen as controversial because of one sentence that some have interpreted as anti-Semitic. Fr Nichols rehabilitates this book, which he shows is not at all anti-Semitic but is opposed to cosmopolitanism.

In the final chapter, Fr Nichols writes of what he calls “integral evangelisation… the aim of which is the metaphorical baptism of the cultural as well as the literal baptism of the individuals who inhabit it.” He has already identified “the single greatest social problem” as “the collapse of family structures and discipline.” He suggests remedies: “intellectual, mystical and institutional.” He is clear that the whole of our culture and society is involved. He wants Catholic religious education to concentrate again on apologetics. “Where the information media are hostile, we can bypass their hidden or not so hidden agenda by creating alternative forums for instruction and public debate.” He has a message that should be especially relevant to readers of Faith: “Might the Church domore to encourage Catholic professionals to see themselves as members of a Catholic intelligentsia with a special mission to society?” Many of us will agree with his greatest priority: “Above all, the Church must make it a priority to educate young people thoroughly and persuasively in its Creed.” Here, after years of neglect and such awful books as Weaving the Web, Icons and Here I Am all backed by the Catholic educational establishment, we have had an encouraging sign with the publication by the Bishop of Lancaster of his inspired document, spiritual and practical, on Catholic education and schools. Three Vatican Congregations have now publicly praised this document, something that I believe has never happened before in England. However, as I write this review in mid May, thismost important document is being neglected by other bishops. The website of the Catholic Education Service does not even mention it and one cannot locate it at all via the search engine (see our current editorial, Editor).

They say that people are putting money on this Dominican, Aidan Nichols, to be the next Archbishop of Westminster. Others say the smart money is going on the Bishop of Lancaster, despite his age. We should all work and pray so that, as the late Cardinal Hume said, - in a remark that the spin-doctors of Westminster tried to retract - soon we will have “the conversion of England for which we have all prayed.” If you have any spare money, send a copy of this outstanding book to your local Catholic school and diocesan leadership. Its wide dissemination might do much good.

Eric Hester

Visits to the Most Holy Sacrament and to Most Holy Mary

by Alphonsus de Liguori, Translation and Commentary by Dennis Billy, CSSR, Ave Maria Press (distributed by Alban Books), 158pp, £9.99

A tatty version of the Visits to the Most Holy Sacrament and to Most Holy Mary was for me a formative and treasured devotional companion in the frst years of my seminary training. This new translation and commentary opens the way for anyone who wants either to revisit this spiritual gem, or to discover it for the first time.

Many Catholics know St Alphonsus through his meditations on the way of the Cross. The same heartfelt Christ-centred spirituality that we find there is communicated with equal power through the ‘visits’. Before the mystery of Christ’s Eucharistic presence, St Alphonsus gives us a vocabulary with which we can open our mind and heart to the Lord in personal conversation. In the presence of Our Lady he helps us to express that filial devotion characteristic of so many great saints.

The devotion, as proposed by St Alphonsus in this book, is made up of a series of thirty-one daily visits to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle. The visits begin with a prayer to Jesus which takes the same form on each day. The main part of the devotion is made up of a short refection which is drawn from the Scriptures and the teaching of the saints. This refection flows naturally into personal expressions of contrition, thanksgiving, petition, praise and adoration. The reader is then invited to make an act of spiritual communion of which several forms are suggested. The devotion concludes with a shorter visit before an image of Our Lady which, in structure, mirrors the visit to the Blessed Sacrament. A second set of visits to our Lady are included as an appendix. Thesereplaced the original texts in the 1758 edition and draw more explicitly on the teachings of the saints, perhaps in response to some who accused Alphonsus of an exaggerated devotion to Mary.

Dennis Billy has provided the modern reader with a very accessible and faithful translation, based on the critical Italian edition of 1939. His general introduction includes a good sketch of the saint’s life and works and explains something of the background to Alphonsus’ spirituality as communicated through the visits. He has also written an introduction to each visit that highlights key aspects of the prayer and meditation which follow. In providing dates for St Alphonsus’ sources an extra element of interest is added. The points for consideration which are inserted after each visit offer an opportunity for further refection. These reflections occasionally seem to steer the reader away from the text of St Alphonsus imposing a theological and devotional emphasis that differs from that ofthe saint. For the reader who feels at home in the devotional world of St. Alphonsus this aspect of the new edition might seem unnecessary.

Despite the attractive cover, the volume does not lend itself well to the devotional use for which it is intended, on account of its size and cheap binding. This paperback of average dimensions might usefully be made available in churches and chapels of adoration but it is not the sort of volume that is conveniently carried on one’s person. This having been said, in making this devotion of St Alphonsus available and accessible to our generation this book is a significant contribution to the revitalisation of Eucharistic and Marian devotion, so evident in the new movements in the Church.

The value of this publication lies principally in the new translation of the text of St Alphonsus. A devotional pocket version of this translation would be a great asset to the spiritual life of anyone seeking to discover or deepen the art of personal conversation with Christ in the Eucharist and his blessed mother.

Fr John Cahill
Holy Souls

The Mass and the Saints

by Thomas Crean, OP, Family Publications, 208 pp, £13.50

Quoting from authors throughout the centuries who are mostly (but not exclusively) canonised saints of the Church, this book forms a continuous commentary on the various parts of the Mass as well as related questions such as the Eucharistic fast, the appropriate time for Mass to be celebrated, liturgical orientation and language.

It must be said at the outset that this concerns the traditional Mass. (There is no commentary here on offertory processions or children’s Eucharistic prayers.) However, this volume should be read by anyone nervous about Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity”. In the first place, it forms a salutary reminder that for almost 2000 years this was the form of the Mass offered and heard by the saints. It is surprising to find so many of the ‘modern’ objections anticipated and answered, by not only those engaged in Counter-Reformation apologetics, but also the patristic authors. For example, St Basil on the silent canon: “Those things may be easily despised to which we have access straightaway and constantly.” St Robert Bellarmine on the same issue: “this concerns the action ofsacrifice, which Christ suffered silently, and therefore is not a subject for prolixity”.

Fr Crean assembles an impressively Catholic array of sources from the Fathers to the Scholastics (unsurprisingly, Albert and Thomas feature large), through the Counter-Reformation to the ressourcement. In doing so, he helps us recover something too easily lost sight of: that like Scripture, the Mass has not only a literal, but also a spiritual, meaning. It signifies, of course, the sacrifice and the communion actually made present, but also, mystically, the whole of the divine economy, especially the earthly life of the Incarnate Christ. (“This sacrament embraces the entire mystery of our salvation” – St Thomas Aquinas.) In penetrating the spiritual meaning of the Mass in its entirety and its parts, the saints offer sometimes differing, but always complementary, interpretationsof the Church’s noble ceremonies.
There is strong support here for the theory of the organic development of the liturgy going back to the ninth century: “…the beauty of the Church increases over the years by new means and new rites; nor will it cease to the end of time” (Strabo). Yet our own John Fisher makes clear that the Rite of Mass is not something to be lightly changed: “Take away ceremonies from the Church and you will straightaway destroy the worship of the greater part of Christians.”

Here are profound insights into the essence of the Mass, fascinating details of liturgical history and the occasional challenge to our prejudices. Without Latin and Gregorian chant our churches would be like “an extinguished candle, which no longer gives light, or attracts the minds of men” – not Pius X, but Paul VI. “Those who hear Mass are not only present at it but also offer it, and have themselves a right to the title of priests” – not Vatican II, but St Leonard of Port Maurice.

Fr Crean makes clear this is not primarily a work of scholarship, but an aid to meditation and devotion. As such it is recommended to nourish and deepen a love of the Holy Mass for anyone offering or assisting at the sacred mysteries in either form.

Fr Mark Vickers
St Peter’s

A St Paul Prayer Book

Family Publications, 48pp, £4.50

The Greatest of these is Love. Daily Meditations on St Paul

by Bishop Michael Campbell, St Paul Publications, 80pp, £6.99

Catholic publishers have not been slow to respond to the announcement of a year dedicated to St Paul. Here are two prayer books, both pocket-sized and attractively presented, which will be a good introduction to the saint and are a realistic way to use him as a guide in prayer.

I say ‘realistic’ because St Paul is perhaps to many of us a rather stern figure, familiar through his Epistles, which we have heard read to us at Mass for as long as we can remember, and somehow not a person to whom we would go for spiritual advice. He seems more remote than, say Cardinal Newman, or Pope John Paul II, or the present Holy Father, all of whom have written much that we can use in our prayers. St Paul’s heroism, his shipwrecking, his missionary journeys, his martyrdom, and the fact that he lived such a long time ago, all make him somehow the stuff of legend rather than of daily spiritual inspiration.

But in this Year of St Paul we do need to get near to him, and in these small prayer-books he suddenly seems much nearer than in a formal reading at Mass.

Family Publications has produced a booklet which is beautifully illustrated with photographs of places visited by St Paul, and images of events from his life from stained glass. Each page, fronting on to a picture, has an extract from St Paul’s own writing, followed by a short prayer. The result would work very well either for personal use or for a small prayer-group. The book ends with a Litany of St Paul, which is rather inspiring as it recalls the events of his life – after praying it you certainly feel somehow strengthened, perhaps sensing this warrior for God interceding for us in Heaven.

Bishop Michael Campbell’s book is nicer to use and handle: it is only slightly more expensive than the Family Publications book, but is hardback, and has a ribbon marker. We get less of the writings of St Paul himself – just a short paragraph for each day, followed by a meditation written by Bishop Michael, and a short prayer. But the format is a useful one – there are 31 different sections, one for each day of the month, and the book also includes a short section with information on the saint’s life, conversion, missionary journeys, and martyrdom.

It would make an attractive gift, e.g. for Confirmation or for an adult convert. Such gifts are not easy to find, and this would be ideal for the teenager unfamiliar with the basics of the life of St Paul and unlikely to read something large and forbidding. It is pleasing to hold – pocket-sized, nicely-bound, with an icon on the front.

How good it is to be able to recommend attractive prayer-books on a theme announced by the Holy Father: somehow the presence of both these small books gives a sense of confdence in the life of the Church and indeed of modern Catholic publishing trends in Britain.

Joanna Bogle
New Malden

Faith Magazine

September - October 2008