Friday, March 06, 2009

Books Half Remembered

One of the challenges of serving a small, mainly elderly congregation whose outreach work is mainly to another 70 or so elderly people is that sometimes they get sick or die. In recent months they seem to have decided that at any one time no less than three of them will need to be visited in hospitals scattered across the county, hence opportunities to read are few and far between. So, what you have is more an account of ‘books half remembered’ and I crave your forgiveness and indulgence.

The brief was ‘choose a book that has made an impact on your life or thinking’ – which in itself made me think, which are these books? In the forty or so years I’ve been able to read, to which books have I returned because in some small way they inspire me? I identified a whole heap of storybooks and novels and I don’t think that’s a bad thing; after all countless theologians use fiction – film, drama, poetry and prose - in their work, and my own research has uncovered people using anything from Sleeping Beauty to Bridget Jones as resources for reflection.

My earliest recollections are the Happy Venture (Dick and Dora) and Beacon readers (Old Dog Tom and Briar Rose come to mind) and they are important because they taught me my love of reading – whole worlds waiting to be explored and ideas to be discovered. I also recall blagging my first reading lesson – a full two terms younger than the rest of my class, I had not yet done letters never mind phonics (as they’re now known) so I listened carefully to what the children ahead of me said, and casually repeated it when my turn came. I still recall my fear of being found out as illiterate and my joy at this new ability; fortunately I quickly learned to read!

The first book I read ‘over and over’ was Ladybird Sleeping Beauty. Something about love that overcame ugliness (from Beauty) and the love that would let its beloved go free (from Beast - who looked more like a chimpanzee than a monster) struck a chord I guess. Having tracked down and bought a copy of it to re-read ahead of this post, I discovered that forty years on it doesn’t work as it once did – not only have I grown (much) older but the world has changed: the language and pictures are of a bygone age. However, I like to think that my memory of the book’s significance outweighs its merits in the present.

A book to which I do return every few years is Jane Eyre and the yellowed pages of my well-thumbed Dean and Son Ltd (abridged) edition have accompanied me since I was ten. As a child I guess it was the young Jane with whom I identified, and over the years, in some ways, I probably grew up with her, reading the book through different eyes. The assumed backcloth of Christianity of this book and of others I read at the same age – Tom Brown’s Schooldays (same edition) springs to mind – undoubtedly shaped my thinking in some way but it would be as an adult revisiting these beloved tales that I spotted it.

Teen years saw me devouring Christian biography and autobiography – Corrie Ten Boom (The Hiding Place), Brother Andrew (God’s Smuggler) and Gladys Aylward (The Small Woman) stand out, and I even named my first car ‘Corrie’ in honour of the first of these! In each of these accounts was evidence of struggle as well as triumph, of human nature as well as divine calling, and, although I never seriously entertained the ideas of overseas mission or active Bible smuggling, these people’s lives impacted on my thinking.

Adult life has been filled with reading – from thermodynamics to theology, nuclear fusion to pneumatology, mathematics to missiology; along with any amount of fiction, classical and pulp. Choosing significant books is not easy but I do recall one of the oft derided ‘Kingsway paperback’ genre. Today’s Christian Woman by Ann Warren, published in 1984 and costing the princely sum of £1.60, was the book that gave me permission to explore my Christian vocation in ways the church (in many denominations) had failed to do, and showed me that it was, after all, OK for women to be ordained. I’d hesitate to re-read it in case, like my Ladybird book, later learning and more sophisticated theology break the spell, but I’m glad I read it when I did because its effects were liberating.

So, finally to books that shape my current thinking. There are too many to name, but I’m very glad to have read Paul Fiddes’ Participating in God and David Bosch’ Transforming Mission whose relational Trinity and authentic missional diversity respectively underlie so much of my understanding of ministry and mission.

I apologise again if this is mere self-indulgent waffle but I am still left wondering if, after all, the most transformative book was Dick and Dora Book 1?!

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