All in the name of God
Is the term 'modern religion' an oxymoron? no, according to reverend dave tomlinson
Every now and again, in the parish I grew up in, A Cool Priest would arrive. He'd be the kind of priest who'd come down from the altar during the homily, talking like he was chatting with us rather than preaching at us. He was the sort who knew what was going on in the world, what the popular songs were, who was the movie star of the moment.
He was, in short, like a regular person, only he had a holy job and made all the church stuff we were meant to do - singing, praying, participating in functions - much more joyful.
Rev Dave Tomlinson is A Cool Vicar. The provocative title of his book is, well, provocative, and certainly draws one into his message.
In a nutshell: that being a Christian isn't what it used to be, and perhaps never was; that the emulation of Christ had gone all skew-whiff as the church has gained power as an entity, and that the church is actually you and I, in tandem with those whose job it is to mediate the sacraments for us.
That seems like a lot to take on board, but Dave makes it easy (I feel comfortable calling him Dave.) His chapters - or sermons, if you will - start with stories about real people, weave more stories about real people within them and highlight his own crises of conscience and faith. His tone is friendly and knowledgeable, and he's not afraid to say the unsayable.
For example, he's not afraid to validate same-sex relationships, he's not afraid to baptise children whose godparents aren't Christians, he's not afraid to claim that Eve got a bum rap and that if she hadn't eaten the apple we'd never have had the chance to really embrace life.
He talks about the many ways in which we can approach God and has loads of time for atheists too. He's coming from a spiritual place, rather than a fundamentalist place - it's that fundamentalism that's wrecking God for everybody.
Dave's vocation is clear: an abiding belief in God and in the inherent goodness of humanity and a mission to allow us all to revise our image of the divine as a beardy auld fella in a big chair in the clouds. This is a thoughtful, entertaining and uplifting read.
THE CONTEMPLATIVE HEART
By James Finley
Sorin Books (2000) €10.85
I mentioned this book a couple of weeks ago in a feature I wrote in this paper about meditation. Even though it is well old, its themes are timeless.
As swift and engaging as Dave's book is, this is as engaging, but it is slow. Finley is a former Trappist monk who is bringing a Christian slant to meditation. He keeps it essentially simple, if deep, and encourages us to approach meditation and mindfulness from our own belief systems - so basically, you're not a heathen if you find yourself drawn to the practice.
It's all about stillness, really, and Finley makes it easy to work it into our modern busy lives. It's the sort of peace that one might think can only be found in a cloister, but it can be found in our sitting rooms; just reading this is an act of contemplation in and of itself.
JOAN OF ARC: A HISTORY
By Helen Castor
Faber & Faber (2014) €29.80
I don't know how many books I've read about Joan of Arc but this takes a new approach to her story which is enlightening. Castor claims that, in the main, all stories about Joan start at her first experience of hearing the voices of Saints Michael, Margaret and Catherine and don't take into consideration the political context of what came before.
She's right: I didn't know any of the history of the conflict between France and England; I also didn't know that an equally primary conflict was between two warring French factions, of Armagnac and Burgundy. The implacability of the society Joan was up against is breathtaking and makes her story even more astonishing.
Also, people from all walks of life routinely heard voices, so she wasn't particularly off-the-wall in that regard, according to Castor. The issue with her trial by inquisition was whether those voices came from heaven or hell.
Castor handles the veritable blizzard of names, dates and political reversals well. Ultimately, I learned a lot, and admire Saint Joan even more.
ZEN ENCOUNTERS WITH LONELINESS
By Terrence Keenan
Wisdom Publications (November 2014; e Book) €8.50
the general calm of the zen approach to life - the name itself having become a byword for a chilled-out perspective regarding what happens to us from day to day. This memoir is as gentle as you'd expect a book on zen to be.
The author writes openly about the essential loneliness of existence, about the challenges of the zen lifestyle (all that calm is hard-won) and about his struggles with addiction. This makes it all seem cut and dried, but it's not. It is meditative and dreamy and yet bracingly honest.
Keenan is a poet, which results in many beautiful passages and phrases. This is not rigorously constructed, however, so if you want more structure to your read, you may find this is not your cup of tea.
THE LAW OF LIGHT
The Secret Teaching of Jesus By Lars Muhl
Watkins (October 2014) €16.50
The New Testament gospels are not the only extant writings from the time of Christ - there are examples written by Thomas, Philip and Mary Magdalene.
Reading the Bible as a biography is something Dave would probably caution against, and here Muhl has created a dense tome using everything from linguistics to quantum theory to delve further into Christ's teachings.
Aramaic, which would have been the language Jesus spoke, is highly symbolic and open to interpretation; Muhl revises many of the interpretations with which we would be familiar. His insights seem to struggle to come through sometimes, but this is a deeply intriguing read if you haven't come across this type of thinking before.