Thursday, June 19, 2008

Redeeming Creatures

A book review
by Charlie Leck

I've read a number of wonderful books lately, such as Patricia Hampl's extraordinary memoir, A Florist's Daughter, and I should probably be reviewing these well known, best-selling books. Frankly, however, these works don't need me and you probably don't need me to reflect on them. I should also probably be telling you about Pam Houston, a wonderful writer I've newly discovered, and the Whitefish Review in which I found her. However, she'll have to wait.

I am haunted by a very good, apparently self published book I recently read, and I want to tell you about it. This morning, I just finished my second reading of it. You may want to get your hands on this book and read it yourself. I'll send a free copy, with no strings attached, to the first three people who respond to this blog and ask me for a copy. If you're one of the three, I'll respond to you, if you give me an email address, and ask for your mailing address.

Redeeming Creatures is a gentle theological work that attempts to explain some of the little mysteries of the scriptures. You won't gag on this theology. Nor will you on its language. The author, David Williamson, is a professional journalist and wields the pen very well. His thinking is down to earth and straight-forward, and so is his language. He tells us, on his blog, that he's an Irishman who's been transplanted to Wales. He refers to his blog as "shambolic" – disorderly or chaotic! More correctly, Williamson displays great diversity. As with my own blog, the world won't end if you don't read them; yet, with Williamson's blog, you'll be missing some very kind, thoughtful and helpful thinking about a whole host of subjects. And, you'll also be missing some very intriguing and good photography. But, back to Redeeming Creatures!

"On a superficial level, Christianity can seem one of the easier of the world's religions. We're not asked to pray a set number of times each day, there's not much ceremonial washing and no obligatory pilgrimages.

"But, actually, wouldn't it be easier to travel to a shrine on the far side of the globe rather than forgive a family member or a friend who's caused us to shed tears or thump a door in anger?"

This is the general theme of Williamson's view of Christianity and the difficulty of truly becoming a follower or disciple of our Lord. The author contends that Christians can actually experience God and his powerful love in a very real way. In this lovely, very real book he'll tell you how to do it.

"Christians are not supposed to come together to talk about God. They are supposed to come together to experience God's power and forgiveness."

According to Williamson, this concept of forgiveness appears to be at the heart of, and is the central them of, the gospels and the Christian message. Those who understand this message, and the reasons behind the crucifixion of our Lord, are called upon to be serious forgivers themselves.

"God has persistently pardoned humankind. Do the angels roll their eyes when time after merciful time He spares us the punishment we really deserve?"

I'm not as keen on the importance of the institutional church as Williamson is, but he is throwing a clear and relevant challenge at that establishment.

"The work of mercy is the message the Church has been given to proclaim."

Williamson talks about God as both the "inventor" and the "founder" of the church. He and I could have a good "go-around" about this concept. The "church" was not in the plan for the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth! It seems to me he rather deplored the idea of institutionalism. Small, gathered communities of people who would consider the new commandments he was giving to them – that seems more what the game-plan was! And, perhaps, that it what Williamson means by the Church.

The institutionalized church, by and large, mucks the whole thing up with its utterly silly ritual – something Jesus seemed to disdain. The Church of England and the Roman Church, I believe, are the farthest things from what Jesus intended. It is totally unfair to blame this modern hypocrisy on the original apostles. In historical fact, Peter is no more the founder of the Roman Church than I am. And Paul certainly had no intention of establishing such meaningless, empty, heartless places.

I need to ask Williamson what he means by the church and have him explain his fervor for it.

"The church is a many splendoured thing. Its diversity is as colourful and surprising as the human beings whom the Holy Spirit has brought together."

The author's voice comes from the heart and soul of "liberation theology." He clearly recognizes the foibles and weaknesses of the institutional church that seems, instinctively, to want to bind us again and again in chains. In that respect, he sees this institution as completely "human" and subject to man's sins and errors. Would only that the great fathers of the church understand this!

Here's the surprising strength of Williamson's treatise: He has a solid understanding of the Old Testament as well as the New; and he understands that the great message of the gospels cannot be understood clearly and completely without the help of the grand stories of the Old Testament.

"The book of Samson is the Beowulf of Judeo-Christianity. Not simply because both narratives concern the adventures of a warrior who is finally beaten by a force greater than any man, but because so much of the language of the Bible and the archetypes found in its holy stories spring from these three short chapters."

I'm not sure that I would concur about the defeat or "beating" of these two "warriors" but I know where Williamson is going.

"If we don't regularly return to the story of Samson we can't spot the allusions to it in the rest of the Bible, or even claim to have an accurate understanding of the tale's key events and messages."

I attended a Lutheran Church for a few years, because it was the only church in the neighborhood. I finally gave up on it because of what Williamson is saying immediately above. The church seemed to virtually give up on the Old Testament. None of the pastors who served there, save one delightfully ancient Swedish fellow, appeared to grasp the intertwined nature of these scriptures.

"If you do return to Samson, prepare to be shocked when some of your most fondly remembered moments are missing. Samson doesn't tell the boy who leads him up to the pillars to run for his life. No, the evidence suggests that he's flattened by the destruction which follows."

Williamson's chapter on Samson (again, the chapters are unnumbered and untitled), is brilliantly done and also delightfully enjoyable to read. That's a rare combination.

"It is this faith which enables him [Samson] to answer the calling to which he was born. Like Job, his sufferings have led him to call on the name of the Lord. But more beautiful than this final submission is the hope that the Christian reader finds in this most visceral of episodes. Samson stands in the same pose as we picture a man nailed to a tree. The death of Jesus also heralded the end to one kingdom. But now, in the midst of rubble and rainbows, we can rejoice in the one which is here and yet also to come."

In theological circles, they are called Petrine Epistles; that is, those letters of the New Testament that were written by someone other than Paul. I am pleased to see that Williamson gives them serious attention. It was another of my displeasures in my brief sojourn with the Lutherans. It seems they were aware there were epistles other than Paul's.

"When you open the book of James the steam rises off the pages. The writer is a man boiling with passion."

How true! These letters from James, John, Peter are among the most exciting writings of the Bible. Frankly, they are so powerful that many parish pastors and priests tend not to deal with them. These writers are all concerned that the message of Paul is but pabulum and there is a greater depth of faith in Christ than Paul is letting on. In these very early days, following the death of Jesus, there was not agreement between Paul and the disciples and one can sense the debate going on in the Petrine Epistles.

"He [James] is convinced his readers haven't grasped the scale of transformation involved in living the Christian life.

"This drives him nuts. His readers probably don't think they are particularly bad people. They are working and shopping – leading normal lives.

"But James is determined to make them realise that when God takes hold of you, normal life stops. And if you spend too much time thinking about money, he will shake you upside down until your credit cards and coins have fallen out of your pockets."

In the closing chapter of the book, our author comes round to his title and his entire thesis becomes clear to us. He nails the truth and it's exciting for those of us who have had the scales lifted from our eyes.

"God is redeeming creation, and we will spend eternity in his presence. But he wants us to live in this world where the brambles still have thorns and the nettles still sting. It is his desire that we will know him in time and space and experience him in action. We have been given the opportunity to be part of his rescue team for creation…"

"In James 1:26 he shouts: 'Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.'

"He closes chapter four with the warning that 'whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.'"

This book reveals an author who is in touch with both the enormous miracle of grace and the awesome responsibility which that miracle places upon us. In this book he enables the lay person to understand that one (grace) is quite meaningless without the other (works). He will take you traveling through both the Old and New Testaments to explain how and why the two are so inextricably intertwined.

This is a delightful, joyful book to read. If you wish, you can purchase it on-line.

"For reasons it's impossible to fully understand, the creator has resolved to rescue and redeem men and women from their lost wanderings in the realms of sin and destruction. This great, ongoing mission involved the death of his son, Jesus. Other than his love for us, we do not know why he would go to such lengths for our sake. But now, in this era of the resurrection, we should not expect our God to take any less interest in our lives."

You should understand, that I am, apparently, much more of a humanist than Williamson; yet, I have no trouble following his language of faith and I appreciate his concept of resurrection and hope. The well-grounded humanist (Tillich) is completely able to converse successfully with those who hold more fundamental and firm beliefs (Barth). Williamson, in his book, is successful in communicating with a wide range of Christians.

Though the book's illustrations, by Gustave Doré are wonderful, any overall and consistent sense of book design is missing. Some time spent with a book designer, who could have given the work a much more attractive and comfortable layout, would have been time well spent. On the other hand, the cover design is sumptuous and, I am guessing, is probably a photograph by Williamson himself. One must remember, the purchase price of this worthwhile book comes in under $10. Obviously, I recommend it to you.


  1. You're right about the book cover - I too wondered where those trees grow and was amazed to find they are in Venice! But what a book! Moves me to tears....

  2. I've communicated with the author this morning about the review. He's pleased and clarifies that he equates "church" with community and not the institution.
    I've also received a half dozen emails about the review, from people asking questions about the author. I've sent them on to Mr. Williamson's blog.
    Chas Leck