I received a copy of this book from the publisher, SPCK, in exchange for an honest review. I hope that doesn’t cloud my or your reading.
Lent starts very soon, and whether you are a veteran of the church calendar or new to it, a great way to prepare for Easter is to read and study a Lent course/book. Reconciliation, by Muthuraj Swamy, is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2019, and is published by SPCK. Focused on the theme that forms the title – Justin Welby commends it thus: “Swamy reminds us constantly that true reconciliation is a journey into otherness“, and this echoes the eschatological reality of humanity, which I have been thinking about for a number of years.
The first, and most pressing issue I have with Reconciliation is it’s treatment and handling of the Bible. As a general/structural comment, not having the passage of Scripture referred to in each reflection reproduced at the start of each daily reflection is a strange choice. It does perhaps make sense when one actually reads the passage alongside the reflection. Some of the exegetical, let alone hermeneutical, decisions are quite strange. I was particularly puzzled by the treatment of Eve in Genesis 3 – read this post for more – but this continues throughout Reconciliation. In a reflection on Genesis 13 Swamy challenges ‘Separation as a solution’ without even a nod to Song of Solom 8:3, Ecclesiastes 10:2, let alone Mark 10:40 and Matthew 20:23 from the story of Jesus. One cannot help but think that this little Lent book is doing some strange theological work, when separation is (at least in the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46) a biblical concept.
Secondly, and perhaps more seriously for other readers, is the way in which the theme of reconciliation is made so central to the Gospel, and then co-opted in a way that seems not to resonate with the wider biblical story. In the foreword Justin Welby writes that “reconciliation is the Gospel“. Swamy goes on to ground the theme of reconciliation in the doctrine of God (p. xiii), before locating the theme in the divided world we live in. It was difficult as a theologically informed reader to then read this book’s treatment of Colossians 1:19-22, particularly as Swamy introduces concepts foreign to Paul into his discussion of reconciliation. It does seem, ultimately, that both Swamy and Welby are keen to collapse a host of theological questions into the particular idea that ‘reconciliation is the Gospel’. Swamy closes his introduction by stating: “The Church is the gift of God and a visible mark of (a) God’s relationship to the world, (b) Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation, and (c) the Holy Spirit’s bringing together of God’s people in fellowship. The Church today is entrusted with the responsibility of carrying on the ministry of reconciliation within itself and with and in the wider society in which it exists.” This seems to collapse the mission of the church into something rather less than the Great Commission, and make it into some kind of social cohesion mechanism.
The above said, this Lent book may be helpful to some as it does encourage readers – either as individuals or in a group context – to ask questions about the Bible. Certainly, in my own reading-through, chapter 5’s invitation to consider ‘Humility and self-critcism’ is a helpful set of reflections rooted in the teaching of Jesus, whilst the final reflection is broadly helpful, provided readers are aware of the criticisms above. Lent starts very soon, and whether you are a veteran of the church calendar or new to it, a great way to prepare for Easter is to read and study a Lent course/book. Reconciliation, by Muthuraj Swamy, is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2019, and is published by SPCK. Every aspect of the preceding sentence should act as an encouragement to read the book, and while it does have some good aspects, I think the problems with this particular book on Reconciliation make it a bad choice for Lent. Christopher Landau, in his review for The Living Church felt similarly: “His biblical reflections are engaging, and the questions posed at the end of each chapter are often finely tuned. But questions remain about whether this broad underlying definition of reconciliation is sufficiently clear in theology.“.I offer some suggestions for alternative Lent reading below.
Whenever I review a book that I don’t recommend, I always like to offer suggestions of what to read instead. Here are a few:
- Tim Chester’s The Beauty of the Cross – a set of biblical Lent reflections on the Cross of Christ.
- Tom Wright’s Lent for Everyone: Year C – inspirational readings and reflections on the Gospel of Luke drawn from Wright’s career as a teacher, preacher and scholar.
- BBC Radio 4’s Lent Talks is a different ‘way in’ to Lent, but in my opinion a helpful ‘starter for ten’, offering six short reflections.