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Being Christian
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on 16 March 2014
'Being Christian' deserves to take over from 'Tokens of Trust' as Rowan Williams’ most popular and accessible book. It has a similar origin, as edited transcripts of Holy Week talks at Canterbury Cathedral (the year is not given). It is more focused, concentrating on the most obvious things that ‘make you realise that you are part of a Christian community’: baptism, Bible, Eucharist and prayer. In each case a pithy but deeply insightful core understanding is identified and developed.

Baptism is ‘being led to where Jesus is’, which, in apparent contradiction, places you both ‘in the middle of human suffering and muddle’ (not marked out as a member of a superior group) and in the heart of God.

The Bible is like ‘God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables’. It is the word of God because it is what God wants us to hear, not because everything it contains, including a call to genocide, is his direct word. God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made… Where are you in this?’

The heart of the Eucharist is illustrated in the story of Zacchaeus, when Jesus says to him, ‘Aren’t you going to ask me to your home?’ In the Eucharist, Jesus not only exercises hospitality, he draws hospitality out from others, makes people open to God, open to each other, and able to see all things as ‘demanding reverent attention, even contemplation’.

Prayer is something to grow into, which is always about growing in Christian humanity. Essentially, to pray is to let Jesus pray in you. It’s not so much about chatting to Jesus, still less about trying to persuade God to listen. We make room, we say ‘Our Father’, and Jesus prays in us. All this is considered with help from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian.

New readers of Rowan Williams will be introduced to his thinking more gently than in most of his other works, though even here, because it is so distilled, it will need to be taken slowly, or re-read. Being so short, that is made easy - don’t measure value for money by the number of pages.

Those familiar with Rowan Williams will find the most novelty in chapter 2 on the Bible, especially the helpful analogy of parable. It is here where I also have a minor quibble. I fear it is possible to come away with the impression that only in the Old Testament do we sometimes find internal tension, historical inaccuracy, God portrayed as acting in a morally questionable way, or a risk of the text being used to justify ‘violence, enslavement, abuse and suppression of women, murderous prejudice against gay people’. Or, to put it crudely, we can be fundamentalist about the New Testament but not the Old. This is absolutely not what Rowan Williams believes or intends, but it would have helped to say so.

Bishop Richard Harries wrote in 'Art and the Beauty of God' (p.11): ‘People sometimes ask for simple gospel truths. Too often, however, what they have in mind are the pious platitudes of a previous generation. True simplicity is indeed a highly prized virtue. But it does not come by opening a packet. After a lifetime of thinking, struggling, loving and praying we might, through the grace of God, have achieved true simplicity.' 'Being Christian' is a model of such profound simplicity.
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on 23 April 2014
I loved Rowan Williams' book 'Silence and Honey Cakes', which explored the lives and wisdom of the early desert fathers and mothers. I bought several copies for family and friends (as Amazon can attest!) and was delighted to discover that 'Being Christian' was newly published. It's a wonderfully insightful, interesting and elegantly written exploration of what it means to be Christian. Reviewers have mentioned the accessibility of the writing despite the complexity of the subject - and I would agree wholeheartedly. It's the sort of book which enlightens, inspires and gently educates and I know it is one to which I will return.

I plan to give it to my nephew, confirmed tomorrow, but I'd also recommend it to anyone who is searching for the bigger picture.
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on 20 November 2015
Rowan Williams is such an interesting person - so rational in outlook and yet so committed to a faith that cannot be proved rationally. His powers of logic are, therefore, used here to explore many of the internal lines of reasoning within Christianity. He looks at why, for example, baptism takes you "towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own humanity". He explains the role of some of the more disturbing Bible stories; they are there, he says, so that we can ask ourselves "Who are you in this story?". (So, are you the prodigal son or the elder brother standing at the door?) My favourite piece of his logic is his examination of the idea that when we say "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us", we are saying "Forgive me my sins. Look, I have forgiven the people who sinned against me." It had never quite clicked with me that such a (presumptuous but courageous) proposition was being put in those words. Having read the book, I can also see why the Church is saying now that Europe should be so open to refugees. The Bible's recounting of the flight of the Israelites from Egypt suggests that all Christians are refugees and should do their best to welcome one another. I have friends who are not so keen on 'Being Christian' but it is a very illuminating book for me.
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on 3 June 2016
We studied this as a small group and I can honestly say this is the best material we've ever used. I felt like dots were being joined between ideas and confusions all the time. The group found it an accessible and quick read that gave us huge amounts of space for reflection. I found Williams' writing style accessible and his content helpful without being prescriptive. Excellent resource.
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on 4 January 2016
A very simple guide about four of the key elements of Christianity, superbly written. I was a bit surprised at how well it reads as I always thought Rowan Williams was very academic. Not so with this book - anyone interested in the topic will find this a very enlightening read. It is also nicely published. Strongly recommended for Christians old and new.
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on 17 June 2014
Any work of art, including a book, that seems simple but is also very attractive, is very difficult to create. This apparently simple explanation of some essential Christian concepts has behind it the full power of one of the greatest theological minds of our age. That is why it should find a wide audience. People do not want to plough through forests of jargon words; they want concepts explained so that they can continue to think about them and grow in their appreciation. Being Christian does that wonderfully well. But it also gives professional theologians a lot to think about, as well. Simple isn't, really.
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on 23 November 2017
This is a wonderful little book, by one of the leading Christian thinkers of our time. For me, it ticks all the boxes: it's short (just four chapters and 82 pages), it's easy to read, and it offers profound Christian insights. It is one of the very few books that I read repeatedly, and always find something new and thought-provoking. Really superb.
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on 13 June 2014
You can always rely on Rowan Williams to challenge the way you think.
In this short book he takes the basics of the Christian faith and using the rich heritage of thought and reflection scouts out the territory of their meaning. Any mature Christian is going to find points to dispute with Williams or aspects that aren't covered but it needs to be remembered that this is intended to be the beginning of a discussion not the final word.
Williams provides questions at the end of each chapter to help the reader carry on the process of thinking. My only criticism was how short the further reading list was.
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on 12 November 2015
Rowan Williams' recognition that the whole bible in its many parts can be read as "parable", can help the Christian to by pass questions of objective material truth. This helps us in the whole book to grow living faith together, without questioning indiviual beliefs. But as with all Rowan's books, I need to read slowly, in small portions. Then there is a chance that I can go along with the company of some of the wealth of meaning that runs deep in his writing..
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on 6 June 2014
This is a superb little book,easy to overlook in its apparent simplicity and suggestion of an easy read. Don't be deceived. It is profound, especially the chapter on prayer, which could be used daily for weeks as part of a meditative discipline. It goes without saying that it is sound but that doesn't make it dull. It will have an appeal to those new to faith but is I think a must for any Christian library. Highly recommended.
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