The Shape of God’s Affection (CD Review)

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James Alison, Laurence Freeman & Denis McAuliffe. The Shape of God’s Affection (6 CDs). Details | Available from Contemplative Life and MedioMedia

This is a remarkable collection of six compact discs, remarkable not just for the fact that the listener is treated to more than five hours of talks by James Alison – always a great pleasure in my opinion – but that one disc, the fifth, is solely devoted to issues related to being gay and Christian. The final disc is a dialogue between James and Laurence Freeman, moderated by Denis McAuliffe. The talks were given at the John Main Seminar held at Canterbury in August 2010, an annual event sponsored by the World Community for Christian Meditation. The seminar is invariably led by a presenter of global stature, bringing Christian meditators together with other groups and communities.

In the 2010 seminar James speaks to the essential mysteries of the Christian faith following the theme of creation, death and resurrection and the Eucharist in refreshing and stimulating ways. Each talk is divided into easily digested segments, allowing the listener/meditator to pause and reflect at the end of each section; invaluable to anyone who has had the experience of either reading James’s many published works or who has heard him ‘live’.

With his customary humorous illustrations (describing the period of the First Temple as the “real Coke” compared with the “Pepsi” of the Second Temple) and peppering his talks with scripture references, James begins by mentioning the many Old Testament references to polytheism, later refined to the belief and worship of a single god alongside the existence of other deities (henotheism) to the point of the great Hebrew breakthrough of God who is nothing at all like any of the gods, God who is not in rivalry with anything at all (monotheism).

On the second disc he points out that a God who is not in rivalry poses a question: what point of incidence is there with anything that is? The answer is twofold: 1) God has spoken through text, law, words – this is common ground we share with Judaism and Islam, and 2) the distinctive Christian belief that God has spoken through a person – Jesus. How can we know that we are not chasing after delusions? If the incidence of God is a human being, then we can relate to that person. Listeners are then invited to imagine themselves as Hebrews at the time of King Solomon’s First Temple and to consider the rite of atonement (Yom Kippur). Then, turning to Luke’s Gospel, he draws parallels between Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary, John’s baptism, and the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple and the ritual of the First Temple. He also draws upon the letter to the Hebrews and Paul’s letters to the Philippians, Romans and Corinthians to drive home the comparison.

Moving on to the third disc (the Gentleness of God) James draws out the parallels between the creation story in Genesis and Luke’s account of Jesus in Gethsemane and John’s account of Mary of Magdala at the empty tomb. The opening of John’s gospel contains echoes of Genesis and is central to this gospel. For example: towards the end of the gospel Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd and declares, “Behiold the man”, and James informs us that this is the equivalent to the creation of man on the sixth day in Genesis.

The fourth CD did not on a first hearing impart as much information as the preceding three, so it was necessary for me to replay it in order to grasp the full meaning of the post-resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus. Here the living dead One speaks creatively; we are witnessing in this encounter the beginnings of Church structure and a lesson on how we should read scripture.

Matters Gay is the title given to the fifth CD, much of which I had heard or read in previous encounters with James. The audience on this occasion, however, was not specifically composed of gay men and lesbians, it therefore presents, in succinct form, a valuable evangelical seminar on how the Church can come to a more enlightened understanding of homosexuality. If I had the means at my disposal to make every Catholic bishop listen to this CD and absorb its wisdom, I would do so at the drop of a hat.

Questions covered in the dialogue between Fr Freeman and James include poverty, sin (by far the most popular subject!), power, gayness and inter-religious dialogue.

James’ obvious scholarship shines through all the CDs.  If I have one criticism of his style it is his constant questioning of his audience along the lines of: “Do you remember that?” After a while it began to irritate, but this is a small criticism compared with the wealth of detail and wisdom that permeate this collection.

 This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 64 (Autumn 2012)
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