The world of books: words seeking to be made flesh

By Simon Barrow
March 6, 2014

World Book Day is 6 March in 2014 throughout Britain and Ireland. In other parts of there world it is sometimes marked in April.

Book learning and its transmission is still foundational for advanced historical and contemporary cultures. Digital technology is changing the way we appropriate knowledge, data and thought, but books will continue to be important in the emerging future – with e-book and printed forms offering different but complementary ways of interacting with extended, reflective thought, from novels and poetry to the whole panoply of arts, humanities, philosophy and religion.

What has most changed our appropriation of information and our response to it (both absorptive and reflective) is social media and interactive visual culture. The quantity and speed of data transmission is extraordinary. I hugely value platforms such as Twitter, but the temptation to react and retweet rather than stop and think can be compulsive. The number of people giving up social media for Lent, wholly and partially, seems to be increasing. I am seeking to ration it too, because trying for a healthy, balanced reading diet is as important as achieving that in terms of food and physical exercise.

Lent, which is best understood as a period of reorientation and persona/social transformation, is an opportunity to let go of some things – but also to choose to pick up or pursue others. Personally, more book reading, listening and thinking (and less social media, reacting and retweeting) will be part of my own discipline up until Easter, with the hope and intention that this will be part of a longer process of change.

Our culture has made massive gains through digital communications, but is also in danger of becoming more instant, emotive, confrontational and forgetful. We need a counter-tend and counterbalance. Books can help with this. They demand time and attention. They are repositories and signs of both conservation and change.

But which books? We will all have our own choices and favourites. There are four titles which have been on my mind recently, and which I would immediately like to mention. Three of them have already been profiled on Ekklesia, and one needs further attention.

First, there are two remarkable little volumes from Rachel Mann, the enormously creative and honest Anglican priest, poet, writer, theologian/philosopher and musician who is based at Manchester Cathedral. Her book Dazzling Darkness: Gender, sexuality, illness and God (Wild Goose) was reviewed by my colleague Jill Segger here: I have a review copy of Rachel's latest, The Risen Dust: Poems and stories of passion and resurrection ( and will be enjoying dipping into it over Lent and beyond. More to follow on that title, for sure.

In a different key, but just as imaginative in its own way, political economist Ann Pettifor's fine and important little book Just Money: How Society Can Break the Despotic Power of Finance has been an Ekklesia book tip for the past two months. It challenges myths around austerity, neoliberalism and the delinking of finance from democratic engagement – and shows how we can reclaim control of economics for productive, humane and ecological ends. You can purchase it online for from Prime Economics ( I wrote a kind of prolegomena for it on Ekklesia here ( and we have been featuring it on our daily e-bulletin.

Last but not least, I have been especially inspired, provoked and moved by a key new title published in November 2013 by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist and Daniel P. Umbel, entitled Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the myth, recovering his call to peacemaking (Baker Academic, USA). It does what its says on the tin, and much more. Again I have written an introductory piece about the book here (, entitled 'Bonhoeffer on the path of transformation and peace'.

I would especially draw attention to the middle chapters on Discipleship, Ethics and Bonhoeffer's developing theological and intellectual method for approaching what get labelled as 'ethical issues'. They are among the best treatments I have read, and pose a huge challenge to emaciated modern trends in both conservative and liberal Christianity, both of which, in different ways, are in danger of losing their focus on the central, transformative features of the gospel message in relation to politics, power and purpose.

These, then, are just four books which have been challenging and changing me lately. But there is more to come. Hot on my reading list is John Gillibrand's Disabled Church - Disabled Society: The Implications of Autism for Philosophy, Theology and Politics (, with a foreword by Rowan Williams, published by Jessica Kingsley, and shortlisted for the Michael Ramsey Prize in 2013. I had a wonderful phone conversation with John recently. His work and projects, based in Wales and stretching beyond, are among those that resonate very strongly with Ekklesia's ethos.

That indeed is one of the joys about books. Not just the ideas they introduce us to, but the living stories and people that make the words flesh and become part of what moves us towards embrace and incarnation, if we will allow.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. The last book he edited was Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change. You can find him on Twitter (@simonbarrow) and Rebel Mouse:

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.