Thursday, 29 November 2012

Keyword Mythology

Philip Harvey
In recent years literary criticism talks about everything “outside the text” or says that, in fact, there is nothing “outside the text”. This is a means to reading that has met with a mixed press. But I would say we have to start seriously thinking again in our study and in our library work about everything that is “outside the internet”.  Because, for too many years now we have permitted people to live under the delusion that there is nothing “outside the internet”.

I cannot count the number of times I have found what I am searching for online by resorting to a printed book. Not that I’m counting.

And I have lost count, not that I started, of the number of learned articles in recent years published online and in print on the weaknesses and pitfalls of keyword searching.

What started out as a reference librarian’s dream, one-stop online information from every imaginable source, has turned into a quagmire of endless return pages, unmediated and undifferentiated links, too much information and often none of it immediately helpful.

Over ten years ago a common view took hold that the only search strategy you needed for a database was the keyword search. This view, some would still say this opinion, was augmented by the internet search engines of the time, where keyword was your one option for getting at the zillions of word hits online. Even the concept of search limiting, a byword of library catalogues, was news to many in the world of IT. Keyword was not so much an option as gospel, fitted onto every imaginable computer object as the failsafe way to the data.

Simultaneously a second myth about the internet emerged: it’s all out there and this is the End of the Book. Even though educated and informed web travellers knew this was not the case, and I include librarians in that number by definition, nevertheless we saw the easy takeover of the keyword as search of choice (there was never a choice) and the relegation of the book to some secondary and curious extra when it came to searching. Either/Or won the day over Both/And. But only for now.

My colleague in the Library Susan Southall is completing her thesis on the Rich in the Gospel of Luke. This means rigorously verifying all citations in the text for the footnotes. One quote was proving a particular challenge to re-locate, the first use of the expression “The very wage they receive is the pledge of their slavery.” This quote concerns the idea in the Roman Empire that a free person is no better than a slave when he receives a wage. It is Cicero, in his De Officiis, but where in De Officiis? A Google search delivered plenty of hits, in fact too many hits and not one of them able to take Susan to the quote itself or the precise Book and Paragraph and Line in the Cicero. It may be down there on page 17 of the thousands of hits, but then it mayn’t. Her solution was to check the classical dictionaries and books of quotations lining the Reference Section of the Carmelite Library. She found the reference first time: De Officiis Book 1, Para. 159. Where was that information? The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition. Thus armed, Susan returned to the screen to find a classical database that had the full text of the work. Thanks to Google (thankyou Google) Susan found the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University. This is recommended. There she found lots of Cicero, and after careful self-tuition in how to search for author, title, and word, confirmed via Perseus the exact place where this wage slavery quote is employed in Cicero.

By mistake she also discovered that by putting an ess on ‘wage’ in Google she found a link to the phrase “Wages of Sin” in Cicero. Amazing, but that’s another story.

The idea that print books are one of the best tools for searching the internet is not news to a real reference librarian, or scholar. That standard reference tools continue to deliver ready information in-depth should not be a surprise, it’s why they were devised in the first place. But why doesn’t everybody appreciate this basic reality? The issue and the challenge is in educating our users in how to manage what looks like, to them, a stack of dated volumes that couldn’t possibly contain a jottle of what they’re on about. Some of our users only believe the answer exists if there is an app for it.  

All of this huge generation of research activity is premised on the governing power in our lives of the Keyword. In order to get what you want and to go where you want to go, you have to ‘make friends’ with the keyword search. Manoeuvre around it if you can, if that is possible, but the Keyword is the decisive mover in our study and reading. While it is the locus of our literary lives, the keyword to all mythologies, then we have to get creative with its centrifugal reality. Our relationship with the keyword search is not going away anytime soon.  

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Church of Google

 Philip Harvey
A sure sign of a church’s credibility, as with any visible social organization, is that we can find out who belongs in that church. We can name the members and thereafter reach our own conclusions. This thought crossed by mind when online I came across an entity calling itself The Church of Google. Although stacked with information for the convert on how to join and what to believe, the website of this church (and it may only be a website) gives no names. Presumably only a signed-up Googlist (their word) can find out who else belongs to this Gnostic sect, but then only once he starts sending messages on the Church’s list. There is something disconcerting about being converted to a belief by someone you don’t even know.

The Church of Google gives nine proofs for why Google is a replacement god. In brief they are: 1. Google is the closest thing to an Omniscient (all-knowing) entity in existence, which can be scientifically verified. 2. Google is everywhere at once (Omnipresent). 3. Google answers prayers. 4. Google is potentially immortal. 5. Google is infinite. The internet can theoretically grow forever, and Google will forever index its infinite growth. 6. Google remembers all. 7. Google can “do no evil” (Omnibenevolent). 8. According to Google Trends, the term “Google” is searched far more than the terms “God”, “Jesus”, “Allah”, “Buddha”, “Christianity”, “Islam”, “Buddhism” and “Judaism” combined. 9. Evidence of Google’s existence is abundant. There is more evidence for the existence of Google than any other God worshiped today. ‘Worshipped’ is spelt with one P.

Turning Google into an idol is child’s play, if you are a Googlist. But while the Googlist’s appeal to scientific logic for any of his beliefs is to be respected, it is worth applying the equally scientific and logical Not Test to these nine proofs: 1. Google is not the closest thing to an Omniscient (all-knowing) entity in existence, which can be scientifically verified. 2. Google is not everywhere at once (Omnipresent). 3. Google does not answers prayers. 4. Google is not potentially immortal. 5. Google is not infinite. The internet cannot theoretically grow forever, and Google will not forever index its infinite growth. 6. Google does not remember all. 7. Google can “do evil” in the wrong hands and is not omnibenevolent. 8. According to Google Trends, the term “Google” is searched far more than the terms “God”, “Jesus”, “Allah”, “Buddha”, “Christianity”, “Islam”, “Buddhism” and “Judaism” combined. Hardly proof that these other terms are not searched far more often by people in general in this and other sources. And isn’t Google the main portal for such searches? Which mathematically means that all searches of any nature have to made via Google. 9. Evidence of Google’s existence is circumstantially abundant. There is not more evidence for the existence of Google than any other God worshipped today.

As a logician once put it, opposites cancel. If the world you live in sees Google every day, you may arrive at the conclusion that Google is at the centre of existence, rather as earth dwellers once knew with certainty that the earth was the centre of the universe. You may well think that Google made all of this up, when in fact Google wouldn’t exist were it not for the pre-existing information for which Google is no more than a biblical index. ‘Google is my Bible’ is a claim that is only meaningful to someone who knows what a Bible might be.

Even the small print in these proofs reveals that your average Googlist has not read very deeply. “Google is virtually everywhere on earth at the same time,” we are told, as though computers were a form of life matter, like leaves of grass. “With the proliferation of wi-fi networks, one will eventually be able to access Google from anywhere on earth, truly making Her an omnipresent entity.” Truly not. And how come an IT It has become Her? This seems to betray dangerous mythological tendencies in the author of these rational proofs.

Nor is your Googlist conversant with basic religious language, as if that wasn’t obvious already. For example, we are told that “Google answers prayers. One can pray to Google by doing a search for whatever question or problem is plaguing them. As an example, you can quickly find information on alternative cancer treatments, ways to improve your health, new and innovative medical discoveries and generally anything that resembles a typical prayer.” Although some readers may think this definition of prayer not worth taking seriously, I will observe that the Googlist seems to think that prayer is all about asking for something with the absolute certainty that it will be given to him, pronto. There seems to be an awful lot of take with very little give in the world of the Googlist.

Other small print reveals the Googlist’s innate humour. For example, Google is potentially immortal because “She cannot be considered a physical being such as ourselves. Her Algorithms are spread out across many servers; if any of which were taken down of damaged, another would undoubtedly take its place. Google can theoretically last forever.” A poetic vision of sorts, though there is something to worry about in a proof that is still, and possibly can only ever be, at the theoretical stage.

California gives itself permission to let one hundred religions bloom, so I suppose the Church of Google is kind of inevitable. Perhaps the strangest piece of theology from these Googlists is the belief that “Google is the closest humankind has ever come to directly explaining an actual God”. No explanation for this assertion is provided. They go so far as to say that “She exhibits a great many of the characteristics traditionally associated with Deities … in a scientifically provable manner.” This Borgesian form of Gnosticism is probably what inspires the Googlists to believe that Google will eventually contain all knowledge. One guesses that the hidden and supreme deity in all of this is science itself, albeit science as defined by a Googlist.

At the end of the Church of Google site is the firm and reassuring statement that “We are not affiliated with Google Inc.” (it is still not disclosed who ‘we’ are) as well as a special link to a site called How To Get Your Ex Girlfriend Back. Neither of these signs of the times give me any confidence that the Church of Google is the way to go.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

“Spiritual infancy” and Thérèse’s sisters

Paul Chandler O.Carm. writes today:
Thérèse of Lisieux is almost always associated with the idea of "spiritual childhood" and the Gospel texts which speak of becoming like a little child. It's rarely said -- though a glance at the concordance to her works will prove it -- that in her writings she never used this phrase and never quoted these Gospel texts. Nevertheless, even some of the best books on her are organised around this idea; e.g., Conrad De Meester, The Power of Confidence: Genesis and Structure of the "Way of Spiritual Childhood" of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1998). Gianni Gennari has recently published a new study of Thérèse documenting how the idea of spiritual childhood came to be so closely associated with her and clearing the way for a re-examination of her spirituality:
A documented volume by Italian theologian and writer, Gianni Gennari, shows how the saint's sisters gave a reductive image of her and her "doctrine" and even managed to mislead four Popes

It is a story of true holiness and manipulated documents that is told by Gianni Gennari in his new book Teresa di Lisieux, il fascino della santità. I segreti di una “dottrina” ritrovata (Thérèse of Lisieux, The appeal of Sainthood. The secrets of a rediscovered “doctrine” – Lindau publishers, 616 pages, 38 Euros). And one recounted in meticulous detail and inspired by documents that remained unpublished until now. The volume reconstructs the life of an extraordinary woman. Saint Thérèse of the Child of Jesus is remembered by faithful as the “little saint” and is identified with the “spiritual infancy” described in Matthew’s Gospel: “If you do not change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

And yet Thérèse Françoise Marie Martin who died in the Carmel of Lisieux at the tender age of 24 in September 1897 and was canonised by Pius XI in 1925, never used the expression “spiritual infancy” in her original writings.

The book demonstrates very clearly that the doctrine of “spiritual infancy” was the brainchild of Thérèse’s sisters who were disciples of the Jesuit, Almire Pichon. Gennari writes that for fifty years, the sisters led everyone, including the Popes, to see in her the perfect embodiment of the teachings of their spiritual director. And they managed this on their own.” They did so by spreading their faith, by presenting Thérèse’s writings, which were often altered and manipulated, and also through their testimonies and the correspondence they exchanged with the Holy See when Popes needed to prepare speeches on the saint.

The book’s author was able to meet with a key figure who was involved in all of this: Fr. André Combes. In 1946, Fr. Combes went to Lisieux to study Thérèse’s texts. After four years of work, he discovered as many as seven thousand alterations and asked for these to be amended so that faithful could be presented with what the saint really wrote. But when he suggested a comprehensive publication of the manuscripts, he was shown the door.

It is this initial manipulation of an image that did not correspond to reality that Pius XI was presented with. In 1932 the Pope reacted negatively to the proposal of proclaiming Thérèse as doctor of the Church. It was not until 1997 that she was proclaimed as such by John Paul II, thus becoming the Church’s third female doctor. On 6 April 2011 Benedict XVI said that the saint was “a guide, especially for theologians.”

Gennari explains that Thérèse’s true doctrine is not “spiritual infancy” in a minimalist sense: according to her thinking, “Enfant de Dieu”, the Son of God, is the only model, which by divine grace, “deifies” humans by invading them with the love of his Spirit, transforming them into himself, just as Thérèse had explicitly written in a letter to her sister Celine: “we are called to become divine ourselves.”
This message was first placed on the Google Groups "Carmelite Librarians' Association" group.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

& then we vanish to become the book

Philip Harvey

This is the sixth in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.

The French seem to have a relationship to language and books that others think enclosed. Whether you are an 18th century encyclopaedist striving to enclose all knowledge in a line of tomes, a 19th century academician pronouncing on what is not real enough French for dictionary inclusion, or a 20th century theorist fixated with the perpetual postponement of ‘closure’ in texts, you seem determined to treat books, and by extension libraries, as an end in themselves. This thinking, with its belief in rules and culturally correct style, has had a heavy influence on French word use, including French poetry. The symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, for example, is renowned in France for saying, “all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book.”

This saying was made by someone living in a society surrounded by, educated by, determined even by books. It couldn’t be any other way. Such a saying would not occur to anyone living in a non-book culture. Translations of the Mallarmé saying differ, with another asserting even more outlandishly, ‘everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book.”  The truth of this saying will always be open to discredit; it makes one wonder about the exact extent of French irony. Are the French simply too ironic for their own good?

There are those who would get annoyed at my simple empirical dismissal of Stéphane Mallarmé’s saying. He is being rhetorical, not literal. He is concerned about our fix with the text, not anything outside the text. Certainly the saying raises powerfully in our minds the human desire to have the last word. Much of the written word is propelled by our interest in making definitive statements, in setting everything straight. So much of literature (and here I include science and medicine and psychology and all the disciplines) is about one author capping the work of previous authors, of being the person who gets it all down most accurately. A task of librarians is to keep up with the books that say it new, while preserving all the other ones that were doing the same thing. Even in theological libraries, where we have already been well warned that this is a “weariness of the flesh” of which there is no end, daily we have to be ready to spot the book that best contains “all earthly existence”, if only for the next seven days. There is the seven day wonder and there is the Sabbath to consider.

Stéphane Mallarmé himself confessed in his essay ‘The Book : A Spiritual Instrument’ of his saying that “I am the author of a statement to which there have been varying reactions, including praise and blame.” Nothing has changed in this respect, indeed whole conferences continue to be dedicated to the Mallarméan effect. If, as I think is right, we treat his proposition as a poetic springboard rather than a classical inscription on a plinth, let alone a rod to beat ourselves, or a call to bibliographical absolutism, then it may occasion linguistic and imaginative possibilities as yet undreamt.

The entire influence of modern French thought on American poetry will never find its way into print. Stéphane Mallarmé’s saying, though, seems to be an influence on the following untitled poem by David Meltzer, found in his collection ‘When I was a Poet’:

& then we vanish to become the book
which is our tomb

& then we vanish not within but beyond
all those photographs others remember
time with

the “we” is of course me

here in Ragas typeface

here sensing Death
the send of seeing
the book the page
the letter the word

easy enough
“tomb” & “womb”
no immortal
needs the Ouija
for that ah ha
clotted by layers
of wrong fuel & foods
building death within

yes, death
yes, da’ath
yes, the dot that
hits center
to unfold
& explode


The dot is very explicitly placed in the centre (Australian spelling) of the verse column, drawing attention to the unnamed cause of the poet’s death.

Meltzer himself was still alive when his poem was published by City Lights Books of San Francisco in 2011. He is staying calm about the stressful issue that confronts authors, and in particular poets, namely that the words chosen for remembering will become all that is remembered after the author has died. He wants to speak freely, knowing that this is his only chance. Accepting death, he still wants to be remembered for what he said. He even shakes the cage of words he has constructed, a cage made out of Ragas typeface, as though the font itself could speak to the future of the one and very especial David Meltzer. That he is actually speaking for all of us when he says “we” is reason enough to catalogue his book and place it at 811 (Dewey) on our shelves.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Certain Individuals Meet a Stranger on the Road

A review article by Philip Harvey of Ben Myers' book ‘Christ the Stranger: the Theology of Rowan Williams’. Ben Myers' blog is also recommended:

Life is life and all our encounters with humans teach us something about humanity and our life on earth. That is a general truth. Or a truism, it may not even be completely true.

Then, on reflection, we think about those throughout our life who have taught us faith, hope, and charity. This focuses the attention mightily on those we have encountered in our life. Who are we really learning from? Who shows by example that which we are asked to believe? Who has increased our understanding, deepened our experience?

I could name many many people in my fortunate life who have shown me faith, hope, and charity: family, clergy, teachers, friends, brief acquaintances (sometimes the most intense and interesting), characters in stories, writers never met, strangers.

One such person is high profile in almost anyone’s language, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. His arrival in my life, before he was Cantuar, came at a time when I needed more thought, a different kind of poetry, a serious recall to why we must work at faith, hope, and charity. Rowan Williams is simpatico. He is an Anglican who draws from the deep wells of Anglican tradition. Yet he is also a searcher and researcher in other traditions, notably Benedictinism, Russian Orthodoxy, and the main streams of Western empirical philosophy. In his search and research these are all treated as necessarily part of an Anglican approach to faith, distinctive traditions that we learn from and live by.

Visits to Melbourne by Rowan Williams in 1998 (Bishop of Monmouth) and 2002 (he knew he had been made Cantuar but had to keep mum) meant seeing and hearing him in person, which is why the term ‘high profile’ is almost comically absurd in his case. Anyone could see that along with a remarkable intellect and prodigious store of knowledge, here was a man with a humility, reverence and self-effacement we might equate with holiness. These things were not a contradiction but seemed the product one of the other. Virtually everything he said seemed to come from a place of prayer, as much as from the processes of recondite thought and extensive reading. He could talk equally well and meaningfully to a child as to the most abstruse academic.

In thanks at the conclusion to one 2002 talk, Bishop John Bayton of Melbourne described Rowan Williams as a ‘living icon’, in the proper Christian sense of showing forth the sacred. Williams visibly bent his head and slumped slightly at this description, as though this was not a grand representation of himself, not a mantle he would take on by his own admission. Bishop Bayton was clearly enlivened and inspired by Rowan William’s words and presence, and justly so, but for Rowan the talk was simply part of his duty, part of the role he has chosen, or that has chosen him. That he would be embarrassed to be called a ‘living icon’ is an insight into Rowan Williams to keep in mind when reading him, and reading what others write or say about him.

As  a result of those brief encounters I began to read his publications in some detail. At St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill in Melbourne this coincided with a reading group called the Canterbury Readers, started up by the Vicar Fr John Davis and Robert Whalley, the sole purpose of which was at each session to read in preparation one book, article, or other piece by Rowan Williams. The Canterbury Readers brought together an extended, lively group of parishioners who were able to talk about their faith through the prompts of Rowan’s words. We would sit around the Vicarage table talking about Rowan on first name terms, as though we had known him for years: sometimes it felt like that. The group itself followed the difficult times that he experienced at Lambeth Palace after 2002, usually in solidarity, though the original leaders of the group became a little disaffected after the Archbishop made statements and decisions that went counter to their understanding of his earlier exciting teachings on gay issues. Disputes around sexuality were to be one of the main fields of conflict during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, both in England but more stressfully within the Anglican Communion itself. The priority of keeping the Communion cohesive and communicating would have been one of his main responsibilities. Such considerations played out the challenge he understood well himself, between the call of the Gospel and the exigencies of church politics both global and local.
As well as the pure output of words from Williams himself, there are ongoing biographies, subject theses, and already a number of short introductions to his work. One of the best is ‘Christ the Stranger : the Theology of Rowan Williams’, by Benjamin Myers (T. & T. Clark, 2012. ISBN 978-0-567-59971-1). Originally planned as a longer academic-style book, its concentration on key ideas is helpful both for the novice and the old hand. Myers himself is a theological polymath, hence the appearance of ease with which he meets Rowan Williams on the page. Refreshingly, the book is a gift from Sydney, a city where due to an ideology that has become dangerously political, the Anglican hierarchy there actually boycott Rowan Williams when he visits. There are few other places in the world where we would expect such ungracious conduct. Ben Myers teaches at the Uniting Church theological school in Sydney.

Rowan Williams’ theology of the church is “a theology of growth. For him, the gospel itself is at stake in the question whether the church is the venue of a continuing movement of human persons towards God and towards one another.” Myers shows how Williams wishes to get at the source of the teaching and work with it, using here scripture but also a well-known favourite Father of the Church. “Like Augustine, Williams places limited trust in sudden conversions and quick resolutions; one cannot live by such experiences. It is not the quick transformation of the self but the slow growth into maturity that really matters. The Christian life is compatible to nothing so much as an education, in which we progress by small daily increments.” Like Myers, I find this view not only attractive but true to life. It is the view of someone who has lived long inside the church, long enough to know that conversion is a continuing process. Quick fixes do not serve us for the actualities of day-to-day life, let alone the crises that test and change us as humans, whoever we may be or believe. Christian spirituality is defined by Williams as “an education in the new humanity.” And perhaps it is Myers’ own Pentecostal upbringing that informs his opinion that “there is a sober realism in this picture of the church as a social order whose members represent vastly different stages of understanding, maturity, and responsiveness.” For me, this is the only reality that can allow for all possibilities. All of us are open to the possibility of being church, which is why I relate so strongly to Rowan Williams. He is interested in true catholicity and in real individual involvement, whoever we might be, wherever we might be coming from.

In light of Bishop Bayton’s words, I find Myers’ chapter on ‘Saints’ especially insightful.  Put at its simplest, “For [Rowan Williams], the saints occupy the same normative position that hierarchy occupies in Catholic ecclesiology or that practice occupies in much contemporary theology.” This comes from seeing the church as the Orthodox do, “not primarily in terms of form or ritual, but in terms of its saints.” Holy living is a distinct way of being human, available to anyone. The saint stands “closer to the source of what it means to be a full human being.” The church contains believers and it contains “the startling presence of holy lives.” This for Williams is what the church is actually about, how it is constituted. Although drawing from Russian Orthodoxy, I notice that Williams is identifying the example of living that is also presented most forcefully by the Anglican Divines. (It informs his selection of passages in the outstanding anthology of Anglican spirituality, ‘Love’s Redeeming Work’) It is as though he finds in Orthodoxy a sympathetic description of Anglican spiritual life, as though he needed to go outside the Anglicanism of his own contemporaries to rediscover or redefine holiness as understood by his own tradition. Saints live among us, we are made aware of their actions and prayers. The people we live amongst in church are doing this, and often it is not the expected people who prove to be the ones who teach us most about Christ and holy living. Williams calls it “the hiddenness of Christ in the Church’; this is something that I too have been taught about from an early age.

But he goes further. Far from reassuring itself by its successes, the church needs to be open to its failures. Myers argues that Williams thinks “it is often our failures that bring us closest to the well of life.” It is only when the ego is dethroned that we can start to be drawn to “the real source of our being in Christ.” (This is one of the main themes of the sermon we heard him give at St Peter’s on Pentecost Sunday in 2002.) Williams has even said that the lives of the saints “might be the only legitimate apologetics, the only persuasive argument for the existence of God.” Their lives are unintelligible, weird even, defying explanation – unless the explanation is God.    

This catholic, but not Roman Catholic, understanding of sainthood is strongly tied to Williams’ views on prayer. As Myers so eloquently puts it, “We are inclined to think of Christianity as a tradition of ideas, an elaborate system of beliefs stretched out across time. But Christian tradition is primarily and essentially a tradition of prayer. It is a millennia-long experiment in listening to God and replying to God while looking at the crucified Jesus” Again, Williams is completely orthodox in his unconventional way of talking about the life of faith. He does not appeal primarily to the main doctrines of the church as the explanation for what is going on, but to the practice that everyone is asked to do who is trying to follow Jesus.

Also, just as saints are meaningful through their failures as much or more than their successes, so prayer “subverts the hidden power operations of our language.” Myers asks the question that Williams is asking through his writing: “For what is prayer except a confession of our own failure, our hunger, our incompleteness before God?” Prayer is the crucial thing, Myers says, or as Williams says, it is the means by which our speech “articulates its own incompleteness before God.” It is by conversing with God in this state of humility that we can begin to converse with others likewise. “The inefficient language of prayer both nourishes and judges our religious speech.” This forwarding of prayer as essential to our lives of faith, as more important than any theology or other talk that we may engage in, explains where Rowan Williams is coming from and going to. It also shows that for him prayer is at the centre of Anglicanism, the centre of Christian life.

Myers charts the progress of Williams’ theology by identifying thinkers who significantly changed the course of his own thinking. Growing up in Wales it was Wittgenstein who taught Williams about language being a product of social interaction. Language is determined by sociality, which means that ideas only become meaningful or useful once we ask “how they operate within wider social environments.” At Cambridge he meets Donald MacKinnon. MacKinnon was a figure at odds with the euphoric even utopian optimism of the 1960s; he gives to Williams a view of existence as inherently tragic. Tragedy, hope and redemption are the theme of Williams’s subsequent lectures on T.S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, a poem that Myers identifies as essential to the intellectual and spiritual growth of the writer. Sigmund Freud’s theories are the start, but not the answer, to his own questions about original sin and our relationship with God. Then, at a stage where he is trying to argue with French theory of differance, it is Gillian Rose who introduces Williams to Hegel.

Rowan Williams bears witness to the catholicity of the gospel. Myers sees Williams as engaged in genuine theological endeavour, which is about being “drawn into a collective struggle for truthful speech.” (p. xi) His work all has the same starting point, according to Myers, “a trust that God’s activity is intimately accessible, available right here in the midst of ordinary embodied life with others.” (p. 4)

Ben Myers does not claim to be comprehensive, that is impossible anyway. He offers “no more than a record of my curiosity, my fascination with the way Williams thinks and writes and reads.” This simple admission comes close to many people’s first experience with Rowan Williams, my own included. It is the fascination that comes from meeting someone who is prodigiously learned and yet shares that learning as though it really does belong to everyone. Unlike other intellects we could name from English universities, Williams nearly always leaves open a space for doubt or further exploration in his theology. I find this everywhere in his writing in his use of indefinite words like ‘perhaps’ and provisional clauses like “We may want to think of this question in this way, if we wish.” It is the curiosity that comes from hearing complex things said in an noncomplex manner. We are aware that Williams is offering things of immense preciousness. We are made conscious that this preciousness that cannot have a value placed on it. Myers’ record helps this way to understanding with practical illuminations and a keen attention to the growth of his mind.

That said, I wish to raise one necessary quibble. When he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams played to the media by self-styling himself “a gloomy Celt”. We can argue that this was a way of fending off those who would complain that he was too serious, or not English enough, or not good-humoured enough to sit on the chair of Augustine of Canterbury. I see it as more of his Benedictine self-deprecation, but Ben Myers concludes his record of Williams’s theology with the view that it is, in fact, well, more than perhaps, rather gloomy. While Williams has “recovered the meaning of the word ‘love’ … the price … is tragedy.” He likens his theology to a tightrope walker moving precariously between two points, tragedy and love. He calls it a “theology of Lent”, even adding the disconcerting claim, “one cannot live by ash alone.” I have to say I do not find this a satisfactory summary of Rowan Williams or his thought, at all, just as I disagree with Myers’ view that “the deepest patterns of his thought … are drawn from the piety of Russian Orthodoxy”, that Williams is “Orthodox in Anglican form.”

My impression of Rowan Williams is of an Anglican Divine who not only believes entirely in the catholicity of Christianity but demonstrates it every day in word and deed. This means seeing every expression of Gospel as having the potential to teach us something of the ways of God. Not all of these expressions will be productive, some may be false leads, but whether it is Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism in its many manifestations, or some other means to the same end, what is of interest is its use in revealing in new ways the how and who and what and why of the Trinity. I would say that this sort of broad embrace of traditions is not typical generally in other forms of Christianity, but it is very much a part of Anglican practice and tradition. It is because of Anglicanism that Rowan Williams can go out to these places and bring back new things. Permission is given and the results deepen our own understanding both of Christianity and of Anglicanism. A larger book may well have brought in more of the Anglican thinking from all ages that is, undoubtedly in my view, is what informs “the deepest patterns of his thought.” I know that when I visit the Lambeth website today to read his latest lecture or statement or sermon, the first thing I hear is Anglican language, with all its care and particularities. Reasons for this blind spot, if I dare to cal it that, may have to do with Myers’ own religious growth; the life of the sacraments, for example, is not a strong subject in this book.

The thread of a thesis in the book is highlighted by the title. Rowan Williams presents us repeatedly with Christ as the stranger, not as the person we know but as the person we must come to know, the person we don’t even recognise as Christ because he is a stranger. Ben Myers has found a very helpful message and meaning at the centre of Williams’ thought. In the Prologue, he quotes poems by Williams about two artworks depicting Christ (Piero della Francesca’s ‘Resurrection’ and the Pantokrator at Daphni in Greece) as examples of how, far from being familiar, as we might hope and think, we are confronted with the face of a stranger. The Interlude in the centre of the book looks at the icon of ‘Our Lady of Vladimir’, where the Christ child pushes insistently for warmth from his mother. In all of these works there is a shock. We must face up to the fact that that there is “something frightening about redemption, something alarming abut the relentless intensity of God’s love.”  When talking about the saints he says that often we do not recognise saints when we see them because their behaviour is so “knocked off balance”, they are strangers to us until we start to learn from their “weirdness”, the strange geometry that reveals how much it is our own world that is knocked off balance.  And the book’s Epilogue recounts the story of Emmaus, that moving testimony of certain individuals who meet a stranger on the road whom they do not recognise until the bread is broken at their simple meal. This is the same stranger that we meet again each time we partake of the meal that he first shared. Myers keeps bringing to our attention that which Williams also wishes to present to us: in Christ “we see one another clearly”. This stranger who is “completely out of step with our familiar world” meets us and in that sharing we are never the same as we were before. Certainly that waking-up sensation, which we may hear in a sermon and know in the eucharist, is something I also encounter frequently in the words of Rowan Williams. That there is till more to hear and learn is itself cause for hope.