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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finding the focus
Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote the book 'Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement' while he was Archbishop of Wales, primate of a national church in the Anglican Communion outside of England. In his preface, he states that he was working on this book for the greater part of a decade: 'There have been times when I thought this book might...
Published on 4 Jan 2006 by Kurt Messick

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ponderous, pedantic, pessimistic - but not without wisdom
"Icons" are used in the Eastern Orthodox Churches but the term connotes a media celebrity or a computer symbol these days. Rowan Williams recognises this, but defends using "icon" as the dominant motif in this collection of essays, redefining it as a concept that helps us to look afresh at ourselves, and our society, with some sort of objectivity or detachment, or at...
Published on 10 Oct 2010 by Jonathan Rowe


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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finding the focus, 4 Jan 2006
By 
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Lost Icons (Paperback)
Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote the book 'Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement' while he was Archbishop of Wales, primate of a national church in the Anglican Communion outside of England. In his preface, he states that he was working on this book for the greater part of a decade: 'There have been times when I thought this book might more honestly have been presented as a sort of journal of the 1990s.' Of course, during this time, Williams wasn't even Archbishop of Wales; he spent much of the decade of the 1990s as Bishop of Monmouth.
This was the era of the Spice Girls, of the death of Prince Diana, of Madonna (the singer, not the Blessed Virgin Mary) and of other media sensations that came to be called 'icons'. An icon used to be used in terms almost exclusively for those images that Eastern Orthodox (among selected others) hold for veneration and prayer. Now it is more likely referring to a computer graphic image; even the media 'icons' have fallen. Williams resists the urge to set out a complex theological and aesthetic theory of iconography, but rather, more accessibly, looks at areas that are more particularly associated with everyday life and ways of thinking.
Williams looks at issues of identity, choice and will, society encroachments upon these aspects as well as the recognition of the other, that part of the world and society (including pieces of ourselves) that are outside of us and our own control. Finally, Williams looks at the issue of the soul, hoping to recover a 'lost language of the soul', taking secular language construction to task in theological as well as historical and psychological terms.
'So, this is an essay about the erosions of selfhood in North Atlantic modernity.' This involves issues in politics, economics, and philosophy as well as religion and theology. Williams' grasp of the fundament issues is strong, and his breadth of knowledge to draw these disciplines together in a useful and thoughtful way is impressive. Williams calls for a kind of cultural discourse that goes beyond the modern slogan and sound bite; this may seem radical, but in fact is what the true founders of modern society were calling for against the backdrop of medievalism. Who are we? Do we as individuals each have a self?
This is an important consideration - just what does our self consist of? Quoting Joseph Needleman, Williams states that 'Christian doctrine and exhortation are meaningless in our present context so long as we have no idea of what sense of self such teaching is address to.' We are called by Williams to build a new self different from that which media-saturated, postmodern society imposes upon us. Williams finally relates his argument back to the Eastern-style icon and what that means for us today. We have lost focus, lost a luminosity that these icons embody and demonstrate.
How can one not love a book in whose index Madonna, John Major, David Mamet, Thomas Merton and the Muppet Workshop appear virtually side by side (not to mention Roald Dahl, Jacques Derrida, and Diana, Princess of Wales)? Despite the references to Hegel and Derrida (among others), Williams text remains accessible and inviting to the general reader, and a real gift to those who have an interest in theology, spirituality, and culture.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ponderous, pedantic, pessimistic - but not without wisdom, 10 Oct 2010
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This review is from: Lost Icons (Paperback)
"Icons" are used in the Eastern Orthodox Churches but the term connotes a media celebrity or a computer symbol these days. Rowan Williams recognises this, but defends using "icon" as the dominant motif in this collection of essays, redefining it as a concept that helps us to look afresh at ourselves, and our society, with some sort of objectivity or detachment, or at least moral coherence. An icon casts "fresh light" on personal or social problems made murky by self-interest, conflict or even over-familiarity.

So far so good. The book's subtitle (Reflections on Cultural Bereavement) gives us a clue about the specific direction this fresh look at ourselves will take. Williams sees contemporary North Atlantic society as moribund. Our "bereavement" consists in the loss of these icons that helped our ancestors "make sense" of themselves and their societies. Later in the book, Williams goes on to liken these lost icons to skill-sets, bundles of social cognitions and cultural perceptions that promoted healthy and harmonious social living. In the space left by the lost icons, dark forces multiply. The author deplores "the sheer unsafety of the child today" [p58] and the constant "struggle for precedence" [p104] that typifies Capitalist lifestyles. Child abuse, domestic violence, lawlessness and greed: Williams sums it up as "the barbarising and trivialising of social experience in the acquisitive-competitive mode, caused by the corruption of our awareness of ourselves" [pp114-5].

Right, everything's going to the dogs, then; just like the Daily Mail's been telling us. With the Babylonians pressing on hard, Rowan Williams casts himself as Jeremiah, trying to recall this faithless generation to covenantal living. Except no, not really. Though Williams may share a tabloid diagnosis of how `Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be', he's no traditionalist and will not be offering traditional panaceas, the 3-C's of cold showers, corporal punishment and conscription.

"Ponderous" is the adjective here, in every sense. Nevertheless, Williams wears this as a badge of pride, explaining that the book has its genesis in a sequence of independent essays, each tentatively exploring related issues, offering ideas and touchstones. "Come," the author seems to be saying, "Let us reason together". For some readers this tone, both intimate and yet exacting, will feel nuanced and empathetic. For others, it will just be meandering and monotonous.

Williams' first topic is childhood. The icon here is notion of `play' which is, according to the Archbishop, in danger of vanishing from children's lives. In its place, children are early on becoming consumers which in turn, he argues, places them in the unsafe position of being both economic and erotic competitors for adults who, unsure of the boundaries of both childhood and play, are increasingly incapable of acting as nurturing parents or gatekeepers. Williams draws for examples on the depiction of childhood and children's choice in fiction. However, the most recent book mentioned is Alan Garner's Red Shift, first published in 1973. Now, the Archbishop would perhaps have been prescient if, submitting this book for publication in 1999, he could have foreseen the immense significance of J.K. Rowling for a generation of children, but what about Jacqueline Wilson, Sue Townsend and R.L. Stine's Goosebumps horror novellas, all of which dominated children's reading in the 1990s? This is an essay on childhood and if it's not about the childhood actually being enjoyed by actual 1990s children, then whose childhood is it about?

One is tempted to reply: Archbishop Williams' own childhood. The sacred space of play and the innocent literature that inducted more fortunate children into the adult space of choices and consequences are to be found in the late `50s and 1960s - by no coincidence, when the Archbishop himself was growing up. The happy decades following the Second World War are, in A.E. Housman's memorable phrase, the "land of lost content". The Archbishop shows little awareness of or interest in the childhood icons of the 1990s: the Playstation, Disney Singalong, Teletubbies, Tamagotchis, Pokemon, Take That, the Spice Girls and the Apple Mac. Why should we trust the judgement of a 50something cleric on children, whose notion of childhood experience seems to end in 1973?

The same problem occurs in the next essay, which looks at "Charity", redefined by Williams as "a sense of integration, of belonging with an entire social body extending far beyond one's choice or one's affiliations of interest and `natural' loyalty" [p67]. To illustrate this, Williams makes free use of John Bossy's 1985 study of medieval urban guilds and rural communes. These institutions secured civil peace by formalising confession, mutual forgiveness, sharing resources and organising corporate festivals. But now the "land of lost content" has been pushed back to the 12th century.

The good news is that, as tempers begin to fray, Williams' third essay is his best: well-written, trenchant and incisive. The topic is "Remorse" and, perhaps because we are now straying into more explicitly Christian territory, Williams is able to rally his arguments. He sifts through various strategies by which individuals and communities try to assert control over or reclaim their sense of Self, and deny complicity in the voices of injured others, into whose self-representations we become ineradicable but unwelcome lodgers. There is much wisdom here, whether it's in Williams' analysis of the flaws of nationalist or Fascist discourse or the successes and failures of the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Williams' final essay, "Lost Souls", draws together arguments that have been hitherto embryonic. For Williams, as for Aristotle, "soul" is something we do. We do not have souls but instead we become souls through meaningful interaction with others. The Archbishop has many criticisms of a mischievous popular notion of a "transcendent" and "unchanging" Self, a Self "outside space and time" that is free to adopt and discard identities as disguises in its self-representation to others. He concludes in the psychological need for a supreme other, the "absent Other", in whose gaze one can honestly self-represent without rivalry or fear. Ex hoc dicemus Deus.

Frankly, we've waited a long time for God to make an appearance. The result is, if I'm honest, bathetic. Williams' "absent Other" is essentially mystical, however much it might be clothed in the language of psychoanalysis. This ideal life, lived in unqualified acknowledgement of the "moral other" that is each other person and the "absent Other" that is God, is a programme for spiritual gymnasts of Olympic standard. Moreover, the "absent Other" is a far cry from the God of mainstream Christianity, the creating, commanding, judging and intervening God of the Bible. The whole point of the "absent Other" is that it doesn't DO anything. What we've arrived at with Williams is somehow less than the God we were looking for. In effect, Rowan Williams has discovered a God that only archbishops can believe in.
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54 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A life changing book..., 12 Oct 2000
By 
This review is from: Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (Paperback)
I think this is one of the most invigorating books I have ever read. It is totally uncompromising and incredibly impressive in its breadth and depth of thought. It presents an intellectual and moral structure that goes further than any other I know in explaining personal identity, amongst a host of other things. I very much like its humanity - this is a world view that allows the possibility of remorse that has real meaning, of change and redemption. I don't think it's possible to read this book intelligently without measuring yourself against what it says, but falling short of its high standards does not leave one without hope - the roadmarks are there. This is an honest, kind, and above all brave book. It's also delightful to be given, along the way, a bibliography of other interesting titles. I shall be rereading many times, I suspect, and finding new depths each time.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finding the focus..., 23 Nov 2005
By 
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Lost Icons (Paperback)
Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote the book 'Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement' while he was Archbishop of Wales, primate of a national church in the Anglican Communion outside of England. In his preface, he states that he was working on this book for the greater part of a decade: 'There have been times when I thought this book might more honestly have been presented as a sort of journal of the 1990s.' Of course, during this time, Williams wasn't even Archbishop of Wales; he spent much of the decade of the 1990s as Bishop of Monmouth.
This was the era of the Spice Girls, of the death of Prince Diana, of Madonna (the singer, not the Blessed Virgin Mary) and of other media sensations that came to be called 'icons'. An icon used to be used in terms almost exclusively for those images that Eastern Orthodox (among selected others) hold for veneration and prayer. Now it is more likely referring to a computer graphic image; even the media 'icons' have fallen. Williams resists the urge to set out a complex theological and aesthetic theory of iconography, but rather, more accessibly, looks at areas that are more particularly associated with everyday life and ways of thinking.
Williams looks at issues of identity, choice and will, society encroachments upon these aspects as well as the recognition of the other, that part of the world and society (including pieces of ourselves) that are outside of us and our own control. Finally, Williams looks at the issue of the soul, hoping to recover a 'lost language of the soul', taking secular language construction to task in theological as well as historical and psychological terms.
'So, this is an essay about the erosions of selfhood in North Atlantic modernity.' This involves issues in politics, economics, and philosophy as well as religion and theology. Williams' grasp of the fundament issues is strong, and his breadth of knowledge to draw these disciplines together in a useful and thoughtful way is impressive. Williams calls for a kind of cultural discourse that goes beyond the modern slogan and sound bite; this may seem radical, but in fact is what the true founders of modern society were calling for against the backdrop of medievalism. Who are we? Do we as individuals each have a self?
This is an important consideration - just what does our self consist of? Quoting Joseph Needleman, Williams states that 'Christian doctrine and exhortation are meaningless in our present context so long as we have no idea of what sense of self such teaching is address to.' We are called by Williams to build a new self different from that which media-saturated, postmodern society imposes upon us. Williams finally relates his argument back to the Eastern-style icon and what that means for us today. We have lost focus, lost a luminosity that these icons embody and demonstrate.
How can one not love a book in whose index Madonna, John Major, David Mamet, Thomas Merton and the Muppet Workshop appear virtually side by side (not to mention Roald Dahl, Jacques Derrida, and Diana, Princess of Wales)? Despite the references to Hegel and Derrida (among others), Williams text remains accessible and inviting to the general reader, and a real gift to those who have an interest in theology, spirituality, and culture.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An indepth consideration of cultural loss, 26 Sep 2000
This review is from: Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (Paperback)
Lost Icons - Reflections on Cultural Bereavement Rowan Williams
It is wholly appropriate that at the beginning of the twenty-first century we are invited to reflect on crisis and cultural loss. The Archbishop of Wales, in his new book offers us an enlightening and disturbing journey through human experience.
In this closely argued book, Rowan Williams considers the many aspects of cultural loss and crisis that afflict us; not only through the concepts and constructions that affect the way we live, but also the language that we use to describe our lived experiences. The importance of how we perceive and exercise choice is drawn out, and examined. The involvement of our own 'good' or 'interest' with that of others is a theme that runs through the book.
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4.0 out of 5 stars modern soul searching, 23 Aug 2010
This review is from: Lost Icons (Paperback)
A book worth reading, containing many gems of wisdom. Can be a little dense at times, but very thought-provoking. Addresses some profound questions and spiritual dilemmas that sit, often uncomfortably, beneath the surface of our daily lives.
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13 of 31 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A tedious and disappointing book, 7 Jan 2003
By 
J. Mann - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (Paperback)
I would make three points about this book.
1. Each chapter roams about its subject making numerous references to other ideas and thinkers but without clearly bringing together the point it is trying to make. The writing style is dull and the arguments lack urgency. The points Williams makes are feeble and difficult to agree with. For example the chapter on childhood argues that children don't have a childhood anymore, they are forced to grow up too quickly and lose the opportunity for enriching their imaginations in free play. I just don't think this is true and Williams doesn't provide any evidence for this contentious claim.
2. The logic of William's position appears to be a wistful romanticism for a lost golden age, but he appears to be too intelligent a thinker for such a shallow position. However if he is arguing for changes to our existing lifestyles there are no examples of what he thinks the alternatives are or where he thinks change will come from. The title reference to "cultural bereavement" gives the image of something lost forever, not something that has been taken away but which can be reclaimed. If Williams has his roots in progressive politics I can see no evidence of it here - there is no link in with anti-corporate activism, green movements, anti-capitalist or anti-war groups. Instead all we get is the mourning of our loss of cultural depth.
3. There is little if any reference to God, Jesus or the Bible. At the start of the book William's says his argument can be followed by both Christians and non-Christians, but you might expect the occasional reference to Christianity from an archbishop. The fact that he is an archbishop yet just doesn't mention God just makes the book more of a muddle - its like a philosopher trying to make his point without any logical arguments, you just keep thinking "why is he saying this?"
The articles I have read more recently by Williams opposing the planned US attack on Iraq are better written than this book. They make their argument clearly and Williams appears to be arguing for a realistic alternative not just bewailing the possibility of war. However there still appears to be a lack of references to God and Christianity in these articles.
These articles open up the possibility that Williams is capable of writing better than this, but after reading this book I don't have a great urge to read his other writings just yet.
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Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement
Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement by Rowan Williams (Paperback - 2 Mar 2000)
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