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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 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 5 November 2014
This book on Christian basics is simple, clear and deep. It will serve to guide seekers into the way of Christ or lead Christians to see afresh the profundity of their faith. The author, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written many books mainly accessible to theologians but this one is one of his best shots at the wider public.

His choice of Christian basics is typically imaginative. To prayer, bible reading and eucharist many would add service and reflection but he deals with the latter under baptism and prayer respectively. He actually starts with service through his Christocentric interpretation of baptism as 'openness to human need (and) the Holy Spirit'.

To Rowan Williams Christianity is 'a certain way of being human'. It's humanity in its right mind as God intended it which Jesus came to restore. To be baptised is to live close to painful chaos around us and within us. It is 'to be where Jesus is', just as prayer and eucharist are to enter his passion for God and humanity.

I liked his invitation to 'Christ-centred reading of the Bible that tells you exactly how to relate all the different bits to the centre... how that bit in Leviticus and that bit in Ezekiel come alive when you relate it to Jesus... the whole massive history of Christian commentary on the Bible is just an ever-expanding exercise in that reality: that of relating different bits to the centre'. The Bible offers law, history and poetry and we must respect that diversity avoiding both over poetic (Cavalier) interpretation and literalism.

The section on prayer reiterates the Christian invitation to growth in humanity and his examples of miracles - forgiving others and giving away your possessions - have the same human emphasis which runs throughout the book. Christians have solidarity with humanity, not status above it, just like Jesus. Ours like his is to be a listening and insightful life. The eucharist schools us in seeing God in creation, the best clue to a healthy service of the environment, and takes us with the Lord's Prayer into his passion for cosmic transformation.

Some memorable quotes: 'Prayer... is like... sneezing - there comes a point where you can't not do it'. 'The diversity of the Bible is as great as if you had within the same two covers, for example, Shakespeare's sonnets, the law reports of 1910, the introduction to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, the letters of St Anselm and a fragment of the Canterbury Tales. All within the same two covers.' 'Queen Victoria did not like going to Holy Communion on Easter Sunday, because, she said, she could not understand why you had to interrupt a joyful day with such a sad service.'

It's said the best teachers can put awesome things in ordinary words for the unschooled. I think this book captures that gift in Rowan Williams by his provision in it of a simple, clear yet profound taster of Christianity.
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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 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 8 August 2014
This Book is a brief, but in depth exploration of Christianity, from Baptism through the Bible, the Sacraments to Spirituality. I can't recommend it strongly enough. Over 30 copies purchased for distribution to a variety of individuals coming to faith, preparing for confirmation or just refresher for peoples knowledge of their own faith.
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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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on 23 September 2014
This little book, subtitled Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, is based on a series of sermons he gave in the final week running up to Easter. Williams has identified what he sees as 4 characteristics of the christian life (a point for discussion may be whether these 4 are the best choice, though I wouldn't say they are bad at all). This isn't a deep theological treatise, but it has hints of depths for us all to explore. As an example, I might cite a single sentence where he sums up the entirety of liberation theology: "For many people in the 1970s and 1980s it was surprising to realize [sic] what the story of the exodus, for example, meant to people in deprived communities in Latin America." The book is suffused with such sentences that hint that there is more to things than are shown here, even if it's like walking down a corridor, being shown doors that are slightly ajar. We are given a fair impression of what may lay behind these doors, but we are left to explore them by ourselves.

This is aided by a number of questions at the end of each chapter which may be used either by oneself or as part of a group study.

It is worth noting the title carefully, or rather, what the title isn't. One other review I read of it made a criticism that Williams said nothing about how to become a christian, particularly noting that there was nothing about repentance. This is not a fair representation. For starters, Williams does talk about repentance, even though it's not a section in its own right. More than that, though, the book is not called Becoming Christian. This is not a piece of apologetics nor does it describe the ways by which one might come to faith. There is an assumption here already that the reader has some idea of what the 4 headers are about and of who Jesus is.

Overall, I got the impression that the book *tried* to be a spiritual classic. There wasn't an awful lot to tie it to the time and place in which it was composed. It didn't speak to a particular demographic, but had a feeling of timelessness to it. However, that's not universally true and a few hints here and there could become dated in years to come, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

At less than a hundred pages, I thought I was going slowly to eek it out at one chapter per day. It isn't a work of theology, but it should hold a mirror up to our theology and praxis and remind us of some of the basics of christian living that distinguish us from the rest of the world at large. Such reminders are no new thing in christian literature, yet I have a feeling that this will be read more times and recommended in years to come than many a more plain effort.

There is far more in this small volume than I could cover here, for to do it justice might require a page of writing to unpack each paragraph. So while it may not take you long to read, it will be hard to resist turning back to it and noting the quotes that the publishers highlight for the reader to ponder. If what I've touched on sounds interesting, then this is definitely a book for you.
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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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