We at ReadTheSpiritmagazine sometimes overlook great new books, until colleagues reach out to us and urge us to recommend them. Such is the case with John Philip Newell's new The Rebirthing of God: Christianity's Struggle for New Beginnings, which was released some months ago.
Of course we can heartily recommend this book! ReadTheSpirit editor David Crumm and publisher John Hile have made multiple pilgrimages to the centuries-old Christian community on the island of Iona, which defines John Philip’s life and is a cornerstone of the stories in this slim new volume. And, we have recommended his other books in recent years, including A New Harmony as well as Praying with the Earth.
This new book inspires us especially, because John Philip includes inspirational profiles of men and women who we also celebrate in Interfaith Peacemakers,including Aung San Suu Kyi, Thomas Merton, Mahatma Gandhi and Simone Weil. (If you’ve enjoyed our stories about these heroic saints, then you’ll definitely want to read John Philip’s stories about them in this new book, as well.)
Duncan Newcomer’s Perspective
Long-time contributing writer, scholar and author Duncan Newcomer prompted today’s column, recommending The Rebirthing of God. Last week, Duncan wrote to our home office that he had just used an illustration from the new book in a sermon he preached. Duncan wrote:
I read John Philip’s book and was so astonished that I read it a second time. Then, I outlined the book, because I know I’m going to be discussing it as I travel and speak to groups around the country.
Recently, I told John Philip: "While I will always most highly favor your 2003 book, Shakespeare and the Human Mystery, this new one may be your best in that it has such an intense and clear focus, incredibly condensed and urgent. It’s a unique and remarkable collection of sources and resources all dramatically presented in their essence. What seems most remarkable is that you have collected a cohort of strong, originally and courageously involved people to quoteand you give us cameo images of their lives."
As I read the book, I thought: Imagine a round-table discussion of all the people we meet in these pages!
John Philip Newell’s Perspective
Then, here’s a page from John Philip’s new book to give you a feeling for his style in these inspirational stories. Many passages are, indeed, about the lives of interfaith heroes. But, again and again, John Philip brings these ideas home to his native Scotland and frequently tells us about experiences on Iona itself. After describing the compassion that defines the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, he writes:
Many years ago when my wife and I were hiking in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland we had just reached one of the highest peaks, Sgoran Dubh, when a thick cloud descended on s. It covered the mountain. The mist was so thick that we could barely see our outstretched hands. Climbing in the Cairngorms can be dangerous. Every year hikers die in such circumstances, slipping off precipitous cliffs. Sgoran Dubh can be particularly treacherous because a few yards from its summit there is a sheer drop of over 2,000 feet to the next glen. In this 13th-century illumination, a Divine compass is used to measure and connect points in the creation of the universe.
We knew where we were and we had a compass and a map. So we took a reading and, one step at a time, followed our readings of the map and compass down the mountain. There were moments when we could barely believe the compass was right. At times our senses were telling us something entirely different. But we knew that we had to place our faith in the compass. In the end we emerged safely from the cloud down the mountainside.
Notice the similarity between the word "compass" and the word “compassion.” They share an etymological root.
The earliest use of the word compass does not, of course, refer to the modern hiking compass as we know it, the one I had in hand as we descended the mountain. The word is first used to refer to the mathematical compass, that simple two-pronged device that many of us remember using in grade school to measure the distance between two points and to draw arcs and circles.
A compass, then, is used to determine the relationship between two points. The related word compassion is about honoring the relationship between two people or between one group and another, and remembering those who suffer. It is about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours, and following that connectionjust as we followed the compass in descending the mist-covered mountaineven when we are filled with doubts as to whether we are moving in the right direction.
- See more at: http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/iona-meets-interfaith-peacemakers-in-john-philip-newells-rebirthing-of-god/#sthash.8Zp0TQ1h.dpuf.
Iwant to catch you up on a book that came out a year ago but that I've just had a chance to readThe Rebirthing of God: Christianity's Struggle for New Beginnings,by John Philip Newell.
It's excellent and, beyond that, it's not quite what you might expector at least what I expected.
But before I get into details, I want to disclose that Philip is a friend whom I've gotten to know throughGhost Ranch, the national Presbyterian education and retreat center in northern New Mexico, where both of us teach regularly -- he more often than I. He and his wife Ali are both pastors in the Church of Scotland and are simply terrific people. I turn toPhilip's workwhenever I want to know or learn something about Celtic spirituality....
The subtitle might lead you to believe that Philip is going to offer yet another recipe for saving declining Christian denominations in the U.S. or Europe or elsewhere in the world. Well, yes and no. This is not a book full of cogent advice about what kind of new evangelism might work with the religiously unaffiliated (now about 23 percent of adult Americans). And it's not a volume full of programmatic ideas for how to turn moribund Protestant churches into thriving centers of activity, as they had been in the post-World War II years.
It's deeper and broaderand, in the end, more importantthan all that.
It's about what those of us who are Christian must do to rediscover the deepest, most transformative truths at the heart of faith found within the Christian household, as he likes to call it. It's about taking a deep breath and reconnecting with what Christianity wants to say about our home, the Earth, about the vital place of compassion, about what it might mean to be back in touch with the light of God and the light within us, about how to travel the road of faith as pilgrims, about what effective spiritual practices look like, about what nonviolence might teach us about our connection to the Prince of Peace, about how we can mine the deep wells of our imagination and even our unconscious and about what in the world it would look like if we took the idea of divine and human love seriously.
Philip draws heavily on his experience as the former warden of theIona Communityin Scotland, which means bringing to our attention many of the lessons of Celtic spirituality, which understands that the world was not simply made by God but also is madeofGod and which, therefore, is attuned to those "thin places" where the human and the divine nearly touch.
I have made a list of 25 pages of this 135-page book from which I want to quote, but I will limit myself to just a few to give you a taste of his inviting imagery and his persuasive insights.
Christianity today, he says, "is like a great giant who has fallen into the stupor of deep sleep. Its mighty energies for good often lie dormant. When it does stir, as if half remembering the enormity of its strengths, it too often stumbles into irrelevancies and half-truths that are more like a nightmare than a real awakening. Perhaps it is truer to say that Christianity as we have known it is not simply slumbering, it is dying and will be no more. But whether it is a deep slumber, from which we need to awaken, or a death, from which we need the radicalness of resurrection, there is a desperate yearning among us for new beginnings."
To think about what Christianity might be for the rest of the 21st Century and beyond, he writes, it's important to understand the radical nature of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and to think about what that might mean for the church, of which he is the head:"The story is not about resuscitation. It is about resurrection. It is not about reviving the old form. It is about something new, something we could never have imagined, emerging from death."
As Christianity finds its new way in a religiously pluralistic nation, such as the U.S., and a world full of vibrant and often ancient religious ideas and traditions, what might it have to give to the world? Philip writes this:
"What is it that a grown-up Christianity has to freely offer the world? There is so much treasure in our household that we could generously distribute. We hold within our Scripture an awareness of earth's sacredness that could more deeply serve today's environmental movements. We have inherited from Jesus a vision of nonviolence that could profoundly redirect our nations from conflict to peace. We have been taught practices of compassion for those who are poor and hungry and sick that could play a foundational role in the well-being of any society. There is no shortage of treasure in our household."
Some of what Philip writes will challenge traditional Christianity and those Christians who identify themselves as conservative or evangelical. But even they can find insight and direction here that can give new life to those branches of the faith, if they are willing to listen deeply.