Book Review – Peter Tyler
Taboo or to do? Is Christianity complementary with yoga, martial arts, Hallowe’en, mindfulness and other alternative practices?
Authors: Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson
Publisher: Darton, Longman and Todd
pp 224 pbk
Successive waves of non-Christian belief and practice have been hitting the shores of Christianity in the past few decades. Following in the footsteps of the Beatles, the ‘West’ has become fascinated with, successively, Transcendental Meditation (TM – remember that?), yoga, Tai Chi, and latterly, mindfulness. Each in its way has held up the promise of spiritual and emotional wellbeing, usually through the pursuance of certain programmes, courses, and nowadays, apps or online interaction. The authors of this new book – two Australian Baptists – round up all these with many of the usual suspects in the battle to keep Christianity untainted by such distractions: astrology, tarot, and even aromatherapy, crystals and angels. The result is an interesting and diverting book, not least in the insights it throws on the unease these practices have caused in some quarters of Christendom. From a Catholic perspective, and to give the authors their due they respect this, this of course is nothing new. We are reminded (p.206) that during the re-evangelisation of Britain by St Mellitus he was advised by Pope St Gregory the Great not to destroy pagan temples but to ritually purify them and re-consecrate them back to Christ. This is largely the position the authors adopt in their survey. Taking each practice in turn they examine the case for and against the adoption of the practice and offer what they call ‘case studies’ for discernment of each. I get the sense that this will be enormously helpful for the readership to which the book is intended (probably not this reviewer) and will help many Christians who are unacquainted with such practices to feel less threatened by them. The weakness in the book lies in the potted biographies of each practice. For a book of this size one cannot expect in-depth academic analysis however some of the summaries do appear on the facile side and any practitioner of Buddhism, Hinduism or Taoism reading the book would probably be shocked by some of the trite generalisations made. Not to mention the Roman Catholic reader – one of the few RC’s mentioned, Dom Bede Griffiths OSB, is considered ‘out there’ and the text has several odd statements such as suggesting All Saints’ Day might be celebrated in a church the evening before (isn’t that the whole point of All Hallows Eve?) and the even more startling: ‘we know of churches where angels are taboo’! That said I applaud the open-mindedness of the authors which is probably not so easy considering the milieu from which they are operating. However the authors might profitably have learnt more from Christians living in societies such as India who have had to deal with these interactions for millennia and have made a fine art of sifting the helpful from the unhelpful amongst the spiritual practices within which they find themselves immersed. Generally the presentation is fine, apart from some annoying typos and the continuing DLT trend not to include an index – which really should be curtailed – and in this instance no bibliography either. Douglas Adams is quoted on p.208 and to quote the master again, in the view of the authors the practices discussed are ‘mostly harmless’. However in expressing ‘the need for the Christian community to show maturity and take a lead’, to accept that we live in ‘a syncretistic world’ and realise that we must carefully discern how to ‘exercise Christ-honouring discipleship without “demonizing” other ways of approaching life’ the authors are to be commended.