WE at ReadTheSpirit magazine sometimes overlook great new books, until colleagues reach out to us and urge us to recommend them. Such is the case with John Philip Newell’s new The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, which was released some months ago.
Of course we can heartily recommend this book! ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Publisher John Hile have made multiple pilgrimages to the centuries-old Christian community on the island of Iona, which defines John Philip’s life and is a cornerstone of the stories in this slim new volume. And, we have recommended his other books in recent years, including A New Harmony as well as Praying with the Earth.
This new book inspires us especially, because John Philip includes inspirational profiles of men and women who we also celebrate in Interfaith Peacemakers, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Thomas Merton, Mahatma Gandhi and Simone Weil. (If you’ve enjoyed our stories about these heroic saints, then you’ll definitely want to read John Philip’s stories about them in this new book, as well.)
DUNCAN NEWCOMER’S PERSPECTIVE
Long-time contributing writer, scholar and author Duncan Newcomer prompted today’s column, recommending The Rebirthing of God. Last week, Duncan wrote to our home office that he had just used an illustration from the new book in a sermon he preached. Duncan wrote:
I read John Philip’s book and was so astonished that I read it a second time. Then, I outlined the book, because I know I’m going to be discussing it as I travel and speak to groups around the country.
Recently, I told John Philip: “While I will always most highly favor your 2003 book, Shakespeare and the Human Mystery, this new one may be your best in that it has such an intense and clear focus, incredibly condensed and urgent. It’s a unique and remarkable collection of sources and resources all dramatically presented in their essence. What seems most remarkable is that you have collected a cohort of strong, originally and courageously involved people to quote—and you give us cameo images of their lives.”
As I read the book, I thought: Imagine a round-table discussion of all the people we meet in these pages!
JOHN PHILIP NEWELL’S PERSPECTIVE
Then, here’s a page from John Philip’s new book to give you a feeling for his style in these inspirational stories. Many passages are, indeed, about the lives of interfaith heroes. But, again and again, John Philip brings these ideas home to his native Scotland and frequently tells us about experiences on Iona itself. After describing the compassion that defines the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, he writes:
Many years ago when my wife and I were hiking in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland we had just reached one of the highest peaks, Sgoran Dubh, when a thick cloud descended on s. It covered the mountain. The mist was so thick that we could barely see our outstretched hands. Climbing in the Cairngorms can be dangerous. Every year hikers die in such circumstances, slipping off precipitous cliffs. Sgoran Dubh can be particularly treacherous because a few yards from its summit there is a sheer drop of over 2,000 feet to the next glen.
We knew where we were and we had a compass and a map. So we took a reading and, one step at a time, followed our readings of the map and compass down the mountain. There were moments when we could barely believe the compass was right. At times our senses were telling us something entirely different. But we knew that we had to place our faith in the compass. In the end we emerged safely from the cloud down the mountainside.
Notice the similarity between the word “compass” and the word “compassion.” They share an etymological root.
The earliest use of the word compass does not, of course, refer to the modern hiking compass as we know it, the one I had in hand as we descended the mountain. The word is first used to refer to the mathematical compass, that simple two-pronged device that many of us remember using in grade school to measure the distance between two points and to draw arcs and circles.
A compass, then, is used to determine the relationship between two points. The related word compassion is about honoring the relationship between two people or between one group and another, and remembering those who suffer. It is about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours, and following that connection—just as we followed the compass in descending the mist-covered mountain—even when we are filled with doubts as to whether we are moving in the right direction.