Book Review – Peter Tyler
The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings
Author: John Philip Newell
Publisher: Skylight Paths Publishing
pp 133 hbk
The imagery of birthing pervades John Philip Newell’s new book – not only the joy but the travails, and frankly, the messiness of it all. It is Philip Newell’s conceit that we presently lie as a church and a spiritual community in a time of birth – with all its attendant excitements, dangers and mess. This, of course, will strike a deep chord with some readers and put off others. I gave a chapter of the book to one of my classes to discuss and a lively debate ensued – not least on the striking image Newell uses at the beginning of the book from Jung’s memoirs (I won’t spoil this for you – sufficient to say it will stay in your mind for some time to come!). As always though with Newell he takes a serious topic – the crisis in contemporary Christianity – and addresses it both with seriousness and humour in a very approachable fashion. There is an awful lot of erudite research and theology behind this book but the author wears it lightly. Faced with this crisis Newell suggests we have three alternatives: the first is denial, let’s pretend nothing is happening and carry on ‘business as usual’. The second is to shore up the old foundations of ‘fortress Christianity’ against the dark forces that threaten it. The third, and the one Newell preferences, is to embrace the challenge, accept that the Holy Spirit is sweeping through dusty and moribund institutions and look forward to what he calls ‘the rebirthing’ of Christianity. In the pages that follow we have Newell’s map of discovering this rebirthing through a series of reflections on the earth, compassion, light, journey, spiritual practice, non-violence, the unconscious and love. As well as being an accomplished academic Newell is a great story-teller in the Celtic tradition (he was Warden of the Iona Community in Scotland for many years). Thus as we wander (and wonder) through the eight themes we also wander with Philip around his beloved Iona, each stage of the book reflecting for him a stage in his journey around the island itself. As with all the best Celtic spirituality, it is a narrative rooted in a specific time and place. Yet this is no parochial spirituality, through the book we journey with Philip to ‘his other home’ at the Ghost Ranch Community in New Mexico, we share his love of art and poetry, his exposition of the Gospel of John, his knowledge of the early Celtic writers such as John Scot Eriugena and throughout it all his own humour and love for his family and friends. Many of these themes have been explored in his earlier books but this one reads like a distillation of so many themes from these earlier books – a ‘summa’, if you like, of his thought. At the beginning of the book Newell states that if we begin to provide the right spiritual food in our churches, homes and parishes then many who have left the Christian family will return. From his base in family, home and the Celtic seas Philip is doing exactly that in this book – a book that provides necessary spiritual nourishment not just for Christians but for all humanity. It is I think a book that will inspire great love and freedom to those ‘in search of a way’. A message of love from Iona to the world.