Monday 2 March 2009

Two new books on Rowan Williams

Spending time with the work of Rowan Williams is a rare joy. It’s like the poetry of George Herbert: reading Williams, you sometimes feel as though you’re overhearing a private conversation between the author and God. Reading work like this is not merely interesting and informative; it does something to you.

So anyway, if you need a little more of Rowan in your life (and who doesn’t?) there are two excellent new books about him. Matheson Russell has edited a collection of essays engaging with some of the central themes of Williams’ theology: On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays (Cascade 2009). I think this is an important and valuable book (admittedly I’m a little biased, since the book also includes my own essay on how Williams’ theology of resurrection shapes his understanding of church history). There are some excellent essays on Williams’ view of scripture, his political theology, his understanding of “the body’s grace,” his understanding of creatureliness, and more. The book is available from Amazon, or (at a better price) from the publisher. Here’s an excerpt from my own essay:

“While [Kathryn] Tanner views Christian history as devoid of any criteria by which some meanings and interpretations may legitimately be privileged over others, Williams’ account suggests that there is indeed a fundamental criterion by which the faithfulness and legitimacy of doctrinal formulations can be measured: for Williams, this criterion is not some stable core or grammar which inheres in the community itself, but it is rather the event through which the community was created. This radical singularity, this shattering disruption which occurred in the resurrection of Jesus – this is the criterion which stands in judgment over all Christian speech. And since this is the only ultimate criterion, the church can never rest assured in its own possession of ‘orthodoxy’: it must be unceasingly disturbed and unsettled and brought to judgment. The purpose of doctrine is to facilitate this process of judgment, to teach Christian speech the discipline of remaining open to the reality of its own strange past” (p. 63).

Secondly, Rupert Shortt has now released his big biography of the Archbishop, entitled Rowan’s Rule (Eerdmans 2009). This is a lovely book, packed with intelligent analysis of Williams’ theology and with surprising insights into his life and career. (I’m especially grateful for the valuable discussions of some of the young Rowan’s unpublished writings.) I’m reading this book slowly in order to savour it; but so far, here are some of the interesting new things I’ve learned about Rowan Williams:

  • As a Cambridge student, he once expressed his contempt for the historical-critical reading of the Gospels by composing a source-critical version of Winnie the Pooh.
  • As a student in the early 70s, he edited and contributed to three volumes of student poetry.
  • As a student, he had an annoying habit of causing numerous women to fall in love with him. (I reckon it’s the eyebrows.)
  • In New York 1974, he delivered a (still unpublished) series of lectures on the theology of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. (If anyone out there knows Rowan personally, please, for God’s sake, beg and entreat him to publish these! Implore him as Farel implored Calvin!)
  • Throughout most of his twenties, he took a traditional stance against both women’s ordination and same-sex relationships.
  • In 1983, he applied unsuccessfully to be Professor of Christian Doctrine at King’s College London; the job went instead to – you guessed it – Colin Gunton!
  • He finished work on his great book on Arius during a sabbatical in Chicago in 1985; but the whole manuscript was nearly lost forever when his luggage went astray in transit to England! (Thus proving what we have all long suspected: that airports are secretly trying at all times to do the devil’s work.)
So far, my only mild disappointment is that Shortt doesn’t offer more details about the exotic and enigmatic personality of Donald Mackinnon. (He does, however, quote a former colleague: “Donald would even tell you the time of day with the angst of Auschwitz.”) But on a very happy note, I saw Murray Rae on the weekend, and I was thrilled to hear that one of his doctoral students has nearly completed a full intellectual biography of Mackinnon.

So anyway, do something good for yourself this year: spend a little more time with Rowan Williams.


Jon said...

A couple of addenda:

1 - I'm doing a review of "On Rowan Williams" and have very much enjoyed it. It is most interesting as a productive piece of ecclesiological work - struggling through the problems of affirming a theologian within a particular denomination. (And Ben's essay is well worth a read!)

2 - re. Williams' inexorable attractiveness to the lady-world - most disturbing for a humble student is the revelation that a number of my own lecturers and supervisors were positively falling over the be-eyebrowed Archbishop - try sitting in a supervision with that image in your mind!

3 - re. Donnie Mac (Mackinnon) - I was sitting at a formal dinner with William Horbury in Corpus Christi College (Cam - of course, Oxford is a complete dump!) and he recounted a number of tales about the old Prof. i.e. the 'taking supervisions whilst sitting under his desk eating Chelsea buns' story and the fact that he used to constantly fidget with a cut-throat razor! I felt truly institutionalised at this moment and promptly repented of my sinfulness!

Unknown said...

Wrt Pooh - have you seen this:?

Unknown said...

Speaking of Williams and so also speaking of Dostoevsky does any one know if a 'complete works' of Dostoevsky in English has ever been attempted or will be attempted?
I'm tired of trying to patch everything together buy buying the same short stories in order to get a new one.

Erin said...

Hurray! I just got my copy of Wrestling with Angels. Ordered the day before the post. I'd chalk it up to synchronicity, but really I'm just scouring your reading list posts :)

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