52 Original Wisdom Stories: Short Lively Pieces For The Christian Year, by Penelope Wilcock
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Kregel Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.]
This book suffers in at least two ways from a poor title. On the one hand, its title is immensely dull and uninteresting, as there are few ways to drive away a wide reading audience that are more effective than claiming that one is providing wisdom stories in the absence of a more original title. The second and more serious problem with the title is that it is inaccurate, in that these stories are not particularly original at all, and certainly do not manifest any sort of godly wisdom. A more accurate title for this book would be 52 Contrived Tales Of Syncretism, or something along those lines, although a word like syncretism would make sure that even fewer people read it than with its current title. The author, in the introduction (and even on the title page) states that this book is ideal for talks to churches and groups, though one wonders how this is to be the case, since the book’s contents, told through the discussions and internal monologues of two divorced and remarried elderly people named Sid and Rosie, two Brits who have largely abandoned regular church attendance, one of whom is a calm and milquetoast conservative Quaker from a Catholic background, and the other a heavily New Age-inspired woman with a taste for Eastern religion that is incongruous with her fretful and anxious ways. The two of them deal with the issues of elderly life, trying to get to know their spouses, deal with their sensitivities and quirks, and talk about matters of practical Christianity as well as their desires for self-justification and esoteric matters of religious history as well as contemporary pandering to Neopaganism in its Mother Earth guise with the praise of the life of scarcity (though still involving the purchase of various tchotchkes) in the face of alleged coming environmental collapse because of global warming. Whatever other flaws this book has, it panders like a champ to various heathen ways both old and new, involving druidic and Celtic roots and pagan customs and expressions and supposed wisdom from far-off lands, especially China and Japan.
In terms of its contents, there are a series of related latent contradictions inherent in the structure of this book. For one, the stories are contrived, but the author seeks to use them to promote a particular view of Christianity as an essentially pietistic faith that lacks any sort of moral challenge to either oneself or to an increasingly corrupt world. Indeed, the characters in this book show moral hostility only to people who hold to any sort of moral lines whatsoever, making them totally ineffective Christians, who rarely seem to interact with others or set any kind of positive example—their wishy-washy naval-gazing is for themselves alone and the rare visit of a grandchild. Another contradiction is between the author’s apparent knowledge that Jesus Christ was born in the autumn (p. 31), but with the alarming and entirely inaccurate statement that the book follows a Christian year, when much of its calendar instead follows various Celtic and other European pagan festivals like Yule, Lent, Easter, Beltane, Lammas, and All Hallows, among many others. The only genuine biblical festival at all included on the list is Pentecost, and this is done without any reflection on its biblical roots as the Feast of Weeks. For a book that spends so much time seeking to ground its superficially Christian reflections in the heathen harvest festivals as well as with exotic-sounding Taoist and Buddhist language to make the author seem clever and knowledgeable, the book is not, properly speaking, Christian at all, given its complete avoidance of the importance of the biblical harvest season and the weekly pattern of Sabbath to Sabbath. This is a book that claims to know the truth about biblical time, but really is more concerned with getting in touch with the mother church, joining the pagan and mystical strands that flow directly from Babylon.
Unintentionally, this book shows wisdom best by its nearly complete absence in the main characters. In the poor communication, continual mood swings, and frequent self-contradiction of the husband and wife whose dialogues and monologues make up this immensely tedious book, only slightly redeemed by the fact that it includes a recipe for Lemon Cheesecake that is far more worthwhile (if one likes lemons, that is) than the lemon of a book that it is found in, an oddly symbolic and appropriate choice of recipe, albeit probably an unintentional one. The fact that the characters in the book know so much about heathen rituals and so little about genuine biblical practices, are so interested in avoiding being judgmental to the massive evil that now exists that they fail to meaningfully show any example of Christian virtue in a world that sorely needs examples that are based on deeds rather than words, and are immense hypocrites in every aspect of the word, in every part of their lives, and yet who cling to their knowledge as a way of justifying their desire to avoid the formality of organized religion and to lay claim to a higher spirituality is a sign that one can take people out of church far more easily than taking religious matters out of people. Far from presenting people worth emulating, these two people are largely an object lesson of the sort of life and behavior that believers are to avoid and overcome. The best wisdom this book provides is the fervent desire of any perceptive reader of the book to live better and more godly and more integrated lives than Sid and Rosie—more integrated with spouses, family members, brethren, God, and one’s local communities along with the body of Christ as a whole. We can all do so much better than this book shows as a model for Christians to follow. It would be difficult to do worse in showing how to live as genuine Christians in our contemporary age than the author accomplishes here.