2018 in 9 Reviews

We’ve had a busy year at SCM Press, and we’ve been thrilled to receive so much positive feedback in journals and magazines, from individuals and via our website. Here’s just a few of our favourite comments.

To Gain at Harvest: Portraits from the English Reformation (Jonathan Dean)

“Jonathan Dean’s eloquent and enlightening portraits of ten ‘icons of faithfulness’ from the Reformation –  clerical and lay, male and female, Protestant and Catholic –  are intended to facilitate a dialogue between modern Christians and their forebears from a fractured and traumatized age. This is ecumenism of a robust and courageous kind, not looking to erase or minimize past differences, but holding out the hope that sincere efforts to understand Christian integrity in an era of conflict can help illuminate our own difficult path to unity.”

Professor Peter Marshall, Department of History, University of Warwick

The Abiding Presence: A Theological Commentary on Exodus (Mark Scarlata)

“The writer, a vicar and a lecturer at a London theological college, has written this commentary ‘to understand not how Exodus came to be but what Exodus means.’ Having reviewed other commentaries so  suffused in theological terminology that they unintentionally conceal the message of the book concerned, Scarlata instead actively reveals Exodus’s message in the contexts of the reality of God’s abiding presence with His chosen people and of His revelation to Moses at the burning bush, on Sinai and within the tabernacle. Much too is devoted to ‘the revealed God who remains hidden’, echoing the very definition of faith (Heb. 11:1) and emphasising the centrality of Exodus to the entire Old Testament (and to the New). Aside from the final, each chapter finishes with a concise summary from a New Testament perspective on the
material covered. These summaries provide not only accessible application, but also a sermon source and study guide. 

If more commentaries were written like this, more Christians would read them.

Andrew Carr in The Reader, 18.4

Undoing Theology: Life Stories from Non-Normative Christians(Chris Greenough)

“The aim of this engaging and thoughtful volume in the SCM Research Series is “to explore the content of the spiritual and religious journeys” of three non-normative Christians, in order to explore “the cumulative impact of traditional theological discourse regarding sexuality” on their lives.

… Greenough subtly defends experience as a source of theology by conceding its limitations (for instance, its shifting character and the limitations of the language by which it is articulated). Queer theory and queer theology, like experience, also require undoing. They help us “to deconstruct previously traditional dominant theologies”, but they don’t figure in the lives of people, and they don’t recognise the need to preserve what is good within master narratives.

Christians of the more “normative” kind will learn much from the book as well. Simply listening to the stories told (and thousands of others like them) is a simple act of neighbour-love and plain human respect. We need to learn the pain that we cause. This is a bold, truthful book…”

Adrian Thatcher, Church Times

Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality (JP Williams)

“The sub-title is ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality,’
and it is exactly that, an overview of the via negativa, a way to reach God by discovering what he is not rather than what he is. I found it a theological page-turner, leading on from the biblical roots starting with
Moses, the Song of Songs and John the Baptist to Jesus; these texts are revisited in succeeding chapters: an explanation of the ‘negative way’; exponents such as St John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart; a fascinating
description of related topics, Paul in Athens, Keats’ Negative Capability, the books of Narnia and Zen Buddhism; finally apophatic content in practices such as pilgrimage, liturgy and prayer. There are useful addenda such as the need for spiritual emptying and humility in the Afterword, and also further reading. You will gather that it is very wide-ranging, indeed breath-taking in its compass, but it is in direct language
and easy to read. I would say it is essential for those engaged in spiritual direction and otherwise highly recommended for all.”

John Foxlee in The Reader, 18.4

A Preacher’s Tale: 
Explorations in Narrative Preaching
  (Jon Russell)

“Russell has practised what he preaches here on training courses where preaching is taken very seriously as a theological and practical discipline. His sermons are easy to read and, one must assume, engaging to hear, offering space for dialogue and a more emotional and transformative response to the word of God which is being proclaimed. His short reflections combine practical wisdom and helpful insights from superstars of the preaching world: Barbara Brown Taylor, Thomas G. Long, Henri H. Mitchell, and Eugene Lowry, revealing the influence of the New Homiletic movement.
It would be a danger to underestimate the challenge in a book like this, but Russell gently provokes preachers to re-cast their preaching in a new light — letting their scriptural imagination run free, and reigniting their vocation.
Given the growing interest in preaching, there is a need to hear from those voices who have honed their skills on the ground. The real test of those who write, teach, and lecture about preaching is whether they are any good in the pulpit. A Preacher’s Tale suggests that Russell is, and is someone worth listening to.”

Victoria Johnson, Church Times

Broken Bodies:
The Eucharist, Mary and the Body in Trauma Theology (Karen O’Donnell)

“This extraordinarily powerful book does not retreat from the blood, loss and deathliness sewn into Christian theologies across the ages. Nonetheless, it also insists on their transformative potential and capacity to bring new light to experiences of trauma and its aftermath today. O’Donnell’s is a bold new voice in constructive theology.”

Susannah Cornwall, Exeter University, UK

Buying God: Consumerism and Theology (Eve Poole)

“Dr Poole’s work is a magnificent contribution to the church. Written by a gifted theologian and practitioner, this book is for all those wishing to gain both a richer theological understanding of capitalism and modern consumerism, and practical insights on how we can simplify our lives. This is vital work, not only for our own spiritual benefit, but also for the good of society and for the wellbeing of our planet.”

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Theology for Changing Times: John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology (edited by Christopher R. Baker and Elaine Graham)

“This all-star collection of essays strikes sparks off the valuable legacy of the late John Atherton’s social theology. It will hugely enrich our understanding of the impressive trajectory of Anglican social thought that runs from William Temple to the present. It will spur us to a more incarnational engagement with the empirical, material world and stimulate a deeper wrestling with the the unresolved theological problem of the meaning of ‘the secular’ in our contemporary pluralistic society.” 

Paul Avis, honorary professor, University of Durham.  

The Hardest Part: A Centenary Critical Edition (GA Studdert Kennedy, edited by Thomas O’Loughlin and Stuart Bell)

“A dialogue across the years since World War One about the age-old problem of how to reconcile horror and fear with the Christian message. This is a reprint of a deeply thoughtful book with modern reflections, critical comments and very exciting notes by Tom O’Loughlin and Stuart Bell. An inspiring project”

Customer review on the SCM Press website


Sharing the experience of advent

In this extract from The Preacher’s Tale: Explorations in Narrative PreachingJon Russell shares an advent sermon and discusses how to preach in a way which invites a congregation to share common experience. 

Advent Stars: A Sermon

Does it feel strange, coming to church in the dark? It means that winter is definitely here. We moan about the cold and the dark nights, especially when it’s wet. But on the other hand, isn’t there something enormously comforting, as you pull your collar around you, and snuggle your hat down around your ears, to be making your way home, where there will be warmth and welcome, a hot drink, and the curtains drawn tight shut against the gloom?

And isn’t there something wonderful, on a clear, frosty night,about simply lifting our eyes and gazing up at the stars? You can see them much more clearly at this time of the year, and you don’t have to stay up so late.There can be nights in winter when you can almost read by them, the light of the stars is so bright.

We are very lucky, living here in the Allen Valleys. Photographs of the British Isles taken from satellites by NASA show the whole country-almost- brightly lit up by street lights and motorway lights, and the lights glaring out from millions of shops and houses. The North Pennines are among the very few dark areas on these photographs. What this means is that if you live in Newcastle, for instance, you come out of your house at night, and the streetlamps douse everything in a harsh, orange glow. It means that you can see where you are walking or driving, of course; but there is a price to be paid. It is as if a great plastic dome has been placed above the city. The sky is a thick, clogged, dulled orange-black, and only the few brightest, bravest stars twinkle weakly through.

Out here, we enjoy a night sky that’s worth going out to gaze at! Sometimes you can see Mars glowing red for months at a  time. Jupiter and Saturn are clearly discs,not mere points of light. On some nights you can spot four different satellites whizzing overhead in the space of ten minutes. But even in Allendale earth-light obscures much of what we might otherwise see above us. You can’t make out the dimmest stars because of house lights and Christmas decorations and the orange glow from street lamps.

But travel west with me for a moment, and spend a night camped out by Small Water, a little tarn high up in the Lakeland fells. We’ve climbed a couple of miles from the last road, up into the very heart of the hills. If you are very lucky, you will be shaken awake at midnight, and as you are pulled from your sleeping bag, a small voice will say to you something like, ‘Daddy, you must come and look! Look at the stars!’

Up here, when the air is clear, no man-made light from anywhere pollutes the night sky. It takes a while, but your eyes adjust to the velvet darkness. Now you can make out the outline of the hills all around: black,cardboard shapes bathed only by starlight. And for the first time you can seethe Milky Way blazing down in allits glory. Multi-coloured diamonds spangle the sky: swirls and eddies of all the millions of stars. Some of this starlight began its journey 12 billion years ago. It is as though you can see into eternity.

The story of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany is shot through with starlight. If the magi, astronomers from the east, are to arrive in time to bring their gifts to the baby Jesus, they will have set off weeks ago. In terms of the age of the universe, of course, a couple of thousand years is but the blink of an eye: so as they journey they gaze up at essentially the same star-thronged sky that we behold. But they see it more clearly than we can, because as the magi make their journey the night sky is dimmed only by the flicker of the occasional camp fire. How will they know which way to go? According to the story Matthew tells us, they are guided by a star.

Does anyone remember the comet Hale-Bopp that blazed so brightly for us a few years ago? In England the weather is so often poor when you try to observe an astronomical event. Clouds regularly obscure the showers of meteors that pass, so that  we see nothing. But Hale-Bopp blazed for weeks: an awesome, beautiful arrow of light, pointing unwaveringly over the northern horizon. It was a rare privilege to live to see it. Perhaps that star of Bethlehem that led the magi to the infant Jesus was a comet like our own Hale-Bopp 2,000 years later.

Interestingly, St John in his Gospel doesn’t mention the star of Bethlehem. John speaks of Jesus himself as the light who has come into the world, a light that darkness can never overcome.

But we are impatient of heavenly light! To see stars properly, you have to move far away from all artificial illumination, and wait while your eyes adjust. We haven’t the time to hang around like this! So we make our own light. And just as the sodium glow from street lamps obscures the light of stars, so the light we produce by which to see our lives obscures the light of Christ.

We know what we want to see at Christmas: good food, lots of presents, time with the family, something entertaining on television! But in trying to illuminate all this, Christmas can easily become a morass of worry and debt and excess and rancour; so that the last thing we feel like doing is waiting for our eyes to adjust to the birth of a baby! Instead of watching the skies, we watch the television; and the glory of the Christmas story is outshone by the EastEnders omnibus. Why do we do this? So that the flickering screen in the corner of our living rooms might shield us from looking at our Christmas, and at our lives, and at who we are, and at what we have become? But, like street lights, it will cheat us out of seeing ourselves in the light of Christ.

The thing is, this light of Christ is not harsh and judgemental, like the orange glare of our towns and cities, and the car headlights that blind and dazzle. The light of Christ is as gentle as starlight, inviting us to glimpse eternity. God, who creates the heavens and flings galaxies into space, comes among us in Jesus. He risks everything as a helpless, vulnerable baby, whose gaze simply invites us to love him.

It seems almost that we can’t believe our eyes. Is that because we never give them time to adjust to his light?

A number of homileticians lament the fact that present-day congregations are much less familiar with the Bible than were earlier generations. How much less those who come only irregularly to church? This sermon was written for a carol service, which would attract many occasional visitors: parishioners who perhaps come to church only two or three times a year. They have not read the Bible, nor become knowledgeable about its interpretation. But they come, knowing that the familiar elements of the Christmas story will be rehearsed once again: the wise men, the star, the birth of the baby Jesus at Bethlehem.

The sermon starts, therefore, from an experience that everyone has just shared: that of coming to church on a winter’s evening. The sermon is essentially an argument, but one that develops around the multi-faceted image of starlight. Though alluding both to Matthew’s version of the nativity and to the prologue of John’s Gospel, both of which have been read during the service, there is no detailed exegesis or exposition.These would, I judged, have fallen very flat at the point where the Christmas gospel ought to soar. Instead, after exploring a number of differing experiences of starlight, we conclude that most people miss out on something wonderful. By analogy, the congregation is invited to reflect now on common experiences of Christmas, and led to ask whether here, too, we might be missing out on something wonderful.

The stories are all either commonplace or personal experience: they are not‘merely’ imaginary (although the phrase ‘outshone by the EastEnders omnibus’is unashamed alliteration!). The star of Bethlehem is an historical and scientific mystery. That does not make it complete fiction, but a carol service sermon was not the place to argue for its historicity or otherwise. The reference to the Hale-Bopp comet suggests that we have experienced something almost as extraordinary in our own lifetimes. As a boy, growing up in a sodium-lit town, I could never understand when astronomers on television spoke of the colours of different stars: to me there weren’t very many stars anyway, and all of them were orange. But living and working on the Isle of Wight, and  later in the North Pennines, has allowed me to see the sky much more clearly. I have indeed camped at Small Water in the Lake District, and awoken to be overawed by the night sky; but it was my sister who was awoken by my nephew, desperate to share his wonder at seeing the Milky Way properly for the first time.

I had a curate in training once who wrote two versions of the sermon she was proposing to preach. The text was the baptism of Jesus by John. In the first version, she told us about her recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in particular her visit to the River Jordan. How hot it was, how amazing to standby the very river in which Jesus received his baptism, and so on. In the second version, she instructed us to ‘step down from the cool of the air-conditioned coach into heat that hits you like a bus. Feel the glare of the sun as it narrows your eyes, while the soles of your feet heat up through your sandals.’ Come Sunday, she preached the second version. Instead of telling us what the experience had been like for her, she used her experience to help the congregation to have an experience: to feel for themselves something of what it is like to arrive at the River Jordan. Her sermon was so very much better for recreating experience, rather than leaving the congregation envious, or bored by someone else’s holiday snaps.

Such stories as that in ‘Advent Stars’ would be dull if delivered as reports. Rather, the task in writing the sermon was to enable the congregation to share the experience, and perhaps catch the excitement, and open themselves anew to the wonder of the Christmas story. David Schlafer puts it succinctly: “Don’t hand out scripts with stage directions. Produce scenes.” (David J. Schlafer, 2004, Playing with Fire: Preaching Work as Kindling Art)

Jon Russell is a parish priest in Northumberland. For the past ten years he has taught narrative preaching, firstly as part of Reader Training in the Diocese of Newcastle; then, since its inception, as part of the Lindisfarne Regional Training Partnership, training readers and ordinands in the dioceses of Newcastle and Durham. He is the author of The Preacher’s Tale

Advent Calendar of Virtue

If you follow us on Twitter, you’ll know we’ve started posting an ‘Advent Calendar of Virtue’, a question each day as an antidote to the consumerism of the season. Eve Poole, author of Buying God, introduced the idea in a past blog post. On this page, we’ll periodically add the questions we’ve posted so far, so you can catch up. 

Don’t forget to check our twitter feed @scm_press each day for more questions to ponder through Advent.