All Things Made New, by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Second paragraph of third chapter (“The Virgin Mary and Protestant Reformers”):

The scandal of Cranmer on the Lady altar tells us a good deal about the ambiguous feelings of the Reformers for Our Lady. On the one hand they saw it as a major work of piety to demolish and demystify the cultic and devotional world of which she was the centrepiece. On the other, they needed her as a bastion to defend the Catholic faith against the more militant forces which the Reformation had unleashed. They wished her to play her part in the biblical narrative which they were proclaiming to the world, and which they felt was threatened from the two opposed forces of papistry and radicalism. But in the ambiguity of their feelings towards Mary, they were being true to what they found in the biblical text: here was a story of Mary which not only was restricted in scope but also contained elements of both praise and reserve. The Reformers’ task was one of restoration as much as destruction.

I hugely enjoyed MacCulloch’s massive History of Christianity when I read it in 2012; this is a shorter collection of essays on different aspects of the Reformation. I found most of it very interesting, though I must admit I had not heard of Richard Hooker and am little the wiser now. But in general, it’s a set of please for English Reformation history to be understood as a specifically English historical experience, but also one that was linked to developments on the European continent and which also had reverberations in America. (I wish there had been more on Scotland and Ireland, or indeed Wales, but this is a collection of pieces mainly published elsewhere so it’s unreasonable to expect global coverage.)

MacCulloch comes back to the question of English religious texts several times, and explains why on the one hand the King James Version (and he unpacks that name) is used for most of the Anglican services, but on the other the Psalms are generally Myles Coverdale’s version. There’s also an interesting short piece on the Bay Psalm Book, the first book in English known to have been published in America (in Boston, in 1640). I like that sort of thing myself, though of course we have to be aware that we tend to focus on the artefacts that survive from history which can lead to a lack of perspective on less tangible things.

Anyway, apart from Hooker I enjoyed this and learned from it, and you can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2017. Next on that pile is Recollections of Virginia Woolf by Her Contemporaries, ed. Joan Russell Noble.

One Bible Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies, by S.E. Gillingham

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Two factors determined the eventual recognition by different communities of a fixed collection of Old Testament writings. One was the crisis facing the Jewish community from outside their faith, and the other, the sects and factions which developed within it.

One of Anne’s textbooks, but a subject that I am interested in too; what is the Bible for? How did it come to be? How should we read it? There’s a very lucid explanation of what people have found in the Bible and how this particular collection of sacred writings assumed its current form. No special notes, just a general feeling of, well, this seems to make sense. It won’t really engage anyone who is not already interested in the subject, but I think it is useful for those who are. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019 which was not by H.G. Wells. Next on that pile: What Not, by Rose Macaulay.

The Popes and Sixty Years of European Integration

Second paragraph of third papal document (Paul VI’s Apostolic letter Pacis Nuntius of 1964, proclaiming St Benedict as the Principal Patron of Europe):

Sic igitur spiritualem illam unitatem Europae coagmentavit, qua quidem nationes, sermone, genere, ingenio diversae, unum populum Dei se esse sentiebant. Quae unitas, fideliter annitentibus monachis, disciplinae tanti parentis alumnis, peculiaris nota facta est mediae, quam vocant, aetatis. Illam, quae, ut ait Sanctus Augustinus, «ommis pulchritudinis forma» est, lugenda rerum vicissitudine discissam, quotquot sunt bona praediti voluntate, restituere temporibus nostris conantur. Libro, seu ingenii cultu, idem venerabilis patriarcha, a quo tot monasteria nomen vigoremque traxerunt, vetera litterarum monumenta, cum liberales disciplinae artesque obruebantur caligine, diligenti cura servavit et ad posteros transmisit, atque doctrinas studiose excoluit. Aratro demum, seu re rustica, aliisque subsidiis loca vasta et horrida in agros frugum feraces et hortos amemos mutavit; et precationibus fabrilia iungens, secundum verba illa «ora et labora», humano operi excellentiam addidit. Haud immerito ergo Pius PP. XII Sanctum Benedictum «Europae patrem» appellavit, cuius quidem terme continentis populis ille amorem et studium recti ordinis inspiravit, in quo socialis vita eorum inniteretur.It was in this way that he cemented that spiritual unity in Europe, whereby peoples divided on the level of language, ethnicity and culture, perceived that they constituted the one People of God – a unity that, thanks to the constant efforts of those monks who followed so illustrious a teacher, became the distinctive hallmark of the Middle Ages. It is this unity, which St. Augustine calls the “exemplar and model of absolute beauty”, but which regrettably has been fragmented through a maze of historical events, that all men of good will even in our own day seek to rebuild. With the book, then, i.e. with culture, the same St Benedict, – from whom so many monasteries derive their name and vigour – with provident concern, saved the classical tradition of the ancients at a time when the humanistic patrimony was being lost, by transmitting it intact to posterity, and by restoring the cult of knowledge. Lastly, it was with the plough, i.e. with the cultivation of the fields and with other similar initiatives, that he succeeded in transforming abandoned and overgrown lands into fertile fields and greaceful gardens; and by uniting prayer with manual labour, according to his famous motto “ora et labora,” he ennobled and elevated human work. Rightly, therefore, Pius XII hailed Saint Benedict XII as “the father of Europe”; for he inspired the peoples of this Continent that loving care of order and justice that forms the foundation of true society.

This is an old-fashioned little publication (108 pages), lent to me by a colleague, pulling together fifteen major statements by the popes on European integration from 1957 to 2017. It is nicely illustrated, the photograph of the EU leaders meeting the current Pope in the Sistine chapel is particularly striking.

There’s nothing very surprising here for anyone familiar with the EU and the Vatican. Successive popes have been opposed to war and to Communism, and the EU was constructed as a bulwark against both. More recent themes include an emphasis on social justice and on environmental protection, with the Church’s own particular wrinkles on those themes. There’s not much here that anyone could object to, frankly.

There was a time when the relationship looked closer. Of the six founding mamebr states of the EU, four are largely Catholic by religious tradition and the other two (the Natherlands and West Germany, as it then was) were balanced between Catholicism and Protestantism. Now things are vey different; of the 27 current member states, you’d have to put at least four in the Orthodox column, three in the firmly Protestant tradition, and anyway most of them are part of the rising tide of secularism. The European People’s Party, Europe’s largest political grouping, came from the post-war Christian Democrat tradition, but has moved firmly away from anything too church-oriented (though often gets tempted by anti-wokeness, which is not quite the same thing).

I do remember attending a conference for Northern Ireland party activists in the early 1990s, at which a Unionist participant informed us that Pope John XXIII had endorsed European integration in order to ensure Catholic domination in Europe. One of the others present snorted that not many of John XXIII’s plans for the church had worked out in the end. The EU’s two openly gay prime ministers are both from traditionally Catholic countries. Pius XII would not have approved.

Anyway, this is co-published by the EU External Action Service and L’Osservatore Romano, and you can get it from their websites, here and here.

Amsterdam church tour

We’re taking the long weekend in the metropolis to the north, and yesterday we did a walkling tour of six Amsterdam churches, following a trail laid out by Cate Desjardins in a 2019 blog post. This nicely took up an extended afternoon, from about 12 to about 5. The map on Cate’s blog post no longer works, so here’s mine (you go from south to north):

The first church on the list is De Krijtberg, a Jesuit church dedicated to St Francis Xavier, built in the 1880s to replace one of the many “hidden churches” in the city built when Catholics could not worship openly. Like a lot of buildings in Amsterdam, it is tall and narrow, and has adapted the nineteenth-century Catholic aesthetic accordingly. Its own website said it did not open until after lunch, but Cate’s blog said it opened at 12 and Cate was right.

Not for the first time, I was struck by one of the stained glass windows (probably by the studio of F. Nicolas in the early 20th century), in this case the Jesuits Doing Good in Africa, whether the Africans wanted them to or not.

Our second stop was at the Begijnhof, the former enclosed community for single women (usually Catholics, not usually nuns), which remains a residential space under the protection of St Ursula (who we would see again):

Unfortunately the ancient Begijnhof chapel itself was closed for renovations.

We went back this morning and sneaked into a service at the English Reformed Church. It has a lovely stained glass window commemorating the Pilgrim Fathers.


And the organist played “Simply the Best” at the end, as a tribute to Tina Turner, after the scheduled Buxtehude, which was a lovely touch.

But yesterday we were able to appreciate the serenity away from the bustle outside.

And there is Art.

Third up is the Nieuwe Kerk, one of the big Protestant churches of Amsterdam which is now an art gallery. Cate in her blog post feels this is somewhat skippable; we were fortunate because there is an impressive exhibition there at the moment, and that was well worth the admission price. The original fabric is also visible here and there, including the tomb of Admiral de Ruyter.

The current exhibition, World Press Photo 2023, is stunning and gut-wrenching. It starts with previous famous photos, such as fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts trying to go to school in North Carolina, and Tank Man from Tian-an-Men Square.

Of this year’s photos, I was particularly moved by this fifteen-year-old mother, her baby’s sixteen-year-old father having been killed in the Philippines’ war on drugs.

And the picture of the year is a woman being evacuated from Mariupol hospital in Ukraine, having been wounded while in labour by a deliberate Russian attack on the building. She and the baby both died.

Thoughtfully we wandered up to the red light district and the Oude Kerk, which had the highest admission price of any of the churches and frankly the least to see. It too is an exhibition space but there was nothing much on. A detailed audio guide takes you through the church fabric, including St Ursula again, partially preserved from iconoclasm, in the ceiling.

I think with both the Oude and the Nieuwe Kerk, it pays to check out the exhibitions in advance.

We skipped ahead on Cate’s list to go to the Basilica of St Nicholas next, because both she and the website said that it closed relatively early – in fact it stayed open later than we had been told. Like De Krijtberg, this is a working Catholic church built in the 1880s, but with a bit more space. An American choir was getting ready to perform Evensong.

Here we were both really grabbed by the Stations of the Cross by Jan Dunselman, which combine a realist sensitivity with an almost pre-Raphaelite balance of lighting.

Dunselman specialised in Stations of the Cross, and Dutch Wikipedia lists nine other churches where he tackled them. If we lived closer to this part of the world, I would try and check them all out.

Last but not least, we doubled back to Our Lord in the Attic, a hidden church from the time when Catholics could not worship openly, which has been preserved and restored. It is not very accessible for visitors with mobility issues.

This has very good displays explaining how and why the church was built in this way. I could not help but think of Anne Frank and her family, continuing the Amsterdam tradition of hiding up the staircase, centuries later and a little farther west. At the end we see St Nicholas again, patron saint of the city and of pawnbrokers and much else, holding onto his balls.

Anyway, this was a great way to explore a part of Amsterdam’s history. A couple more details: we paid for the three museums, but not the Begijnhof or the two active churches. Also, Amsterdam is full of places to snack or eat.

Thanks again to Cate Desjardins for inspiring us.

When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Why his followers had this experience is an interesting question. After all, many other Jews in this period followed other charismatic, prophetic figures (John the Baptizer comes readily to mind); but none of their movements outlived the death of their founder. Why was this group different?

An interesting book on the very early history of Christianity, between the time of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem, looking at what are effectively trace fossils in the records to get a sense of what the followers of Christ believed and did. The only real contemporary witness is St Paul in his letters, though Fredriksen also gives a lot of weight to Flavius Josephus.

The crucial point is that the early Christians expected the apocalypse at any moment, and structures therefore didn’t need to be established for the long term; but they gradually evolved from being dissident groups within local synagogues to becoming free-standing communities, a process partly driven by their acceptance of non-Jews among the ranks. (Fredriksen observes that Jesus himself was a bit hesitant about non-Jews.)

The destruction of the temple – and indeed Caligula’s earlier threat to desecrate it – convulsed the Jewish world and shook the Christians definitively into a separate channel. That’s a different story, but the decades leading up to that are well depicted in this book. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019; next on that pile is One Bible Many Voices, by Susan E. Gillingham.

God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, by Rupert Shortt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Howlers aside, the broader ramifications are especially worthy of note. It is not just scientists such as Dawkins, but also many philosophers (Richard Rorty being a notable example) who fail to see that secular humanism is not a neutral standpoint. It is an alternative metaphysical vision revolving around what a more searching thinker, Charles Taylor, has called ‘images of power, or untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession’.¹  We will return to this vision and its very mixed legacy more than once.
¹ Cited in Christopher J. Insole, The Realist Hope: A Critique of Anti-Realist Approaches in Contemporary Philosophical Theology (Ashgate, 2006), p. 166.

One of the religion books that I have logged on my LibraryThing catalogue, even though it’s really Anne’s. I found it a lot more to my taste than most Christian apologetic works; Shortt is arguing only that there should be space in public and private for an honest appreciation of spirituality and belief, and that the New Atheists completely and deliberately miss the point. There’s a quote from Rowan Williams referencing Doctor Who. The weakest part of the (mercifully short) book is when he gets into the specifics of Christian belief, as opposed to others, but as a general defence of religion as a concept, I felt it went to a lot of the places where I find my own sympathies engaged. You can get it here.

This was the shortest unread book on my shelves acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is The Karmic Curve, by Mary I. Williams.

The Bad Christian’s Manifesto: Reinventing God, (and other modest proposals), by Dave Tomlinson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Eventually I settled on one of the God channels, the sort my wife scorns me for watching. But, hey, she wasn’t there; I could do what I liked. The show featured a man talking about a near-death experience (he called it his ‘resurrection’ experience). He told how, after leaving his body, he travelled through a tunnel of light and arrived in heaven where an angel greeted him and escorted him into the ‘throne room’ of God for a personal audience with the Almighty.

This is a book for Christians, especially those involved in ministry, and that basically means it is not a book for me. I appreciate the author’s efforts to advocate a more open, more generous and more inclusive Christianity, but it’s not my circus and not my monkeys, and I put it aside after fifty earnest pages. You can get it here.

This came to the top of three lists simultaneously: top unread book acquired in 2015, shortest unread book acquired in 2015, and non-fiction book which had lingered longest unread on my shelves. The two remaining books in my 2015 pile are both non-fiction and both equally popular on LibraryThing (in that I am the only recorded owner of either). I will start with the shorter one, Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics, by Matthew M. Foster, and then move to the one I acquired earlier, Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Cerkez.