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26 February 2016

The February book club

The February book club


By Abigail Santamaria (SPCK) 

The story of Joy Davidman Gresham, the woman with terminal cancer who married C.S. Lewis, is already well known from biographies of Lewis and from the various stage and screen versions of Shadowlands. This new biography, however, draws on recently discovered letters and papers and tells Joy's story in much greater detail than before.

Born in 1915 to a non-practising Jewish family, Joy experienced a troubled relationship with her parents before embarking on academic studies in New York educational establishments. The realities of the 1930s depression caused Joy to embrace Communism at an early stage. After a brief career as a school teacher, she became a writer and activist with left-wing organisations. For a brief period she left New York to work as an apprentice screenwriter in Hollywood, but enjoyed little success.

Joy's disillusionment with the Marxist creed began when Stalin signed a pact with Hitler, but some years were to pass before her final departure from the Communist Party. Her eventual conversion to Christianity arose partly from reading books by C.S. Lewis, and partly from a spiritual experience during a time of personal crisis.

The biography yields a number of facts that may not be familiar to readers of earlier accounts of Joy's life. Joy's first husband, Bill Gresham, worked variously as a writer, stage magician and Greenwich Village folk singer who met the young Pete Seeger and shared a concert stage with Woody Guthrie. For some years after her conversion Joy was a practitioner of Dianetics, a pseudo-scientific technique pioneered by the founder of the Scientology movement, but eventually abandoned the practice.

The biography documents Joy's difficult first  marriage to an alcoholic husband and the financial difficulties that often plagued their relationship. The author doesn't hesitate to highlight some of the morally questionable aspects of Joy's story. There is clear evidence that she became infatuated with Lewis after reading his books, and that she made her first visit to England with the intention of winning his affections, even though she was still married to Gresham at the time.

Joy's outspoken nature and abrasive personality didn't always endear her to Lewis' friends, and J.R.R. Tolkien is said to have been "almost disgusted" when first meeting her.

Joy will make fascinating reading for Lewis enthusiasts and deserves its place on the shortlist  for the 2016 UK Christian Book Awards. Less committed readers may feel that the book provides more information about Joy's life than they really want to know, but the book repays a careful reading.


By Ronald Rolheiser (Hodder and Stoughton)

This new book by Ronald Rolheiser, theologian and member of a Catholic religious order, provides brief meditations on the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Starting with the accounts of Jesus' agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the author reflects on many of the characters and stories in the gospel accounts, and considers their contemporary relevance. There are brief sections on the role of Simon of Cyrene in carrying the cross, and on the significance of women being the first witnesses of the resurrection. There are images and metaphors to help readers understand the meaning of the atonement, although evangelicals might prefer more emphasis on the doctrine of penal substitution. There are many welcome emphases, for example on the Christian hope for a new heaven and earth as well as  personal salvation for individuals. The book shows that God can bring new life even in a fallen, broken and suffering  world. As Leonard Cohen once put it: "There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."



By Peter Lyne (Malcolm Down Publishing)

This brief study in the Old Testament book of Ruth includes questions for discussion and is suitable for use in house groups. The author unpacks many of the great themes of the Bible, as reflected in the story of Ruth, and provides anecdotes from his many years as a church leader. He indicates the subversive nature of Ruth's story. Moses had refused to accept Moabites as members of the community of Israel, but Ruth was a Moabite woman who eventually became an ancestor of King David and of Jesus himself. The Book of Ruth reflects a culture very different to our own, but the author skilfully indicates the part it plays in preparing for the coming of the Kingdom of God.



By Andrew Sach and Tim Hiorns (Inter-Varsity Press)

This study guide to the second Gospel isn't meant to be read in isolation, but in conjunction with a careful reading of the biblical text. The writers, both staff members of St. Helen's Church, Bishopsgate, encourage their readers to look beneath the surface of the gospel. They propose various tools to help establish the author's purpose, the context of various stories, and references and allusions back to the Old Testament. The authors show how Jesus' claim  to forgive sins, his teaching on Sabbath observance, and his attitude to fasting, are all pointers to his true divine identity. They aren't afraid to raise difficult questions. For example, why are miraculous healings much less common today than they were at the time of Jesus? Answer: the miracles were intended as a foretaste of how life would be in the not-yet-inaugurated Kingdom of God. A section on the purpose of the parables calls into question  a simplistic definition of the genre. Jesus often told parables to conceal rather than reveal the truth, and usually used this method of teaching when his enemies, the Scribes and Pharisees, were around, reserving more direct teaching for private sessions with his disciples. There are useful discussions on the apocalyptic discourse of Mark 13 and on the abrupt ending to the gospel found in many ancient manuscripts. The book concludes in apologetic mode with a discussion on the historical reliability of Mark.

Reviewed by Graham Hedges