Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014, Bloomsbury Academic (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.
Good stocks at St John’s Books, Fremantle. $19.95
Kindle edition available from Amazon for $10.88
Reviewed by Ted Witham. First published in Anglican Messenger, February 2014
Being a Christian requires personal engagement – with God, with Jesus Christ, with neighbour and stranger, with truth, with good and evil. For most of us, being a Christian can be complex and demanding, but we remain committed because we believe that God is eternally committed to us.
A good Lent book refreshes this sense of personal engagement with Christian living. It should encourage, inspire and inform by taking readers both back to when they fell in love with the faith and forward by challenging readers to grow spiritually. Good Lent books are often about the Cross and Resurrection clueing us into the liturgical movement of Lent and the Paschal mystery at its climax.
Graham Tomlin’s Looking through the Cross is a very good Lent book. It is about the Cross. Tomlin tells us that his early chapters are looking at the cross, trying to understand more deeply its meaning for us, and the later chapters are looking through the cross, using the cross as a lens on the world.
In the chapter headings, ‘The Cross and Wisdom’, ‘The Cross and Evil’, ‘The Cross and Power’, ‘The Cross and Identity’, ‘The Cross and Suffering’, ‘The Cross and Ambition’, ‘The Cross and Failure’, ‘The Cross and Reconciliation’, and ‘The Cross and Life’, it is not entirely clear when we change from looking at to looking through. I am sure that ambiguity is deliberate: the cross always both teaches us about itself and reveals how it has changed God’s world.
Graham Tomlin writes clearly. Reading his book is like sitting with the most patient teacher, sharing with us his understanding of how the cross comes alive for him. His explanation of the connection between the cross of Christ and our personal sin is the clearest I’ve encountered in 40 years of reading books about Christianity. ‘Those who have perpetrated evil must be held to account,’ he writes. ‘The evil that has disrupted the world cannot simply be ignored or glossed over: it must be banished, dealt with, put right. Restoration is possible, but only when sin is somehow atoned for.’
Archbishop Rowan Williams commissioned The Reverend Dr Graham Tomlin to write this year’s Lent book. His successor in Canterbury, Justin Welby, ‘could not be more pleased’ with the choice. Centred in scripture, scholarship and pastoral experience, this book seems to me to bridge some of the divides in contemporary Anglican thinking.
The cross demands that we clearly separate Christian faith from the surrounding culture. In the powerful chapter on identity, Tomlin describes how our experience of family christenings obscures the radical change God makes in us in baptism when God gives us a new identity. Using the image of a protected witness or juvenile criminal with a new identity, he reminds us how hard it is to live out of a new identity, and how the old identity will continue to exert a pull on our lives.
But the cross is ultimately the path to life. We are made not to end in death, but in life. Tomlin reminds us of the leap in imagination we need in order to lay hold of this reality, but also rallies us with the knowledge that the new life of the cross and resurrection is ultimately God’s work and not only ours.
It is helpful if a Lent book has some guidance for its use: questions to provoke reflection or small group discussion, suggestions for art response, even a reading program. Looking through the Cross has none. This is a significant drawback in a book promoted for Lenten reading. Even without this, individual laity, clergy and groups will find Dr Tomlin’s book refreshing, challenging and clear. At the end of Lent, the book will help readers emerge at Eastertide re-engaged with their Christian faith.