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A review of the book 'A Companion in Crisis' by Philip Yancey

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A review of the book 'A Companion in Crisis' by Philip Yancey
Alan Mordue reviews A Companion in CrisisA Modern Paraphrase of John Donne’s Devotions by Philip Yancey 

I have been an avid reader of both John Donne and Philip Yancey for a long time, and I have to say that this book that combines both authors is a pleasure to read and review. Philip Yancey is a great writer and John Donne is one of the greatest writers in the English language. It has been interesting to discover how much I had forgotten about the wisdom in Donne’s devotions and how Yancey makes them so applicable to the times we are living in. The similarity of a time of plague and the present pandemic are astonishing and to be honest I had totally forgotten that Donne’s devotions were born into that kind of situation, but it makes them more understandable for that.

In the year 1623, as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Donne lay in his sick bed for a whole month wondering whether he would live or die and seeing his friends and neighbours succumb to the plague. These are the circumstances into which the devotions were born, a type of writing that is usually focused on hope, suffering and the consolation found in Christ. This book shows that all of these are linked in Donne via a biblical spirituality that’s grounded and deeply philosophical without having any opaque qualities. It’s a timely book and is a particularly apt theme for Yancey to write about as he has focused much of his work on pain and suffering over the years; this is not a Christian vision with an easy grace.

Although the tone of the book is contemplative there is also a strong thread of hope going through it. I would say hope through adversity. There is much about sickness here, but a robust reflection, facing reality with unrelenting clarity. Both Yancey and Donne find meaning in suffering through the twin anchors of biblical reflection and literary inspiration, there is much wisdom and broad meaning in the phrase ‘death de-fanged’ in this context, through the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. I am very impressed that all of this doesn’t overwhelm the reader and I was particularly taken with the incredibly creative way of understanding scriptural passages in this framework, as an example the understanding of the psalmist saying, ‘The Lord sustained them on their sickbed and restores them from their bed of illness’ (Psalm 41:3).

Donne’s Devotions are full of some of the greatest quotes in English literature including ‘No man is an Island’ and ‘For whom the bell tolls’. The textuality is essentially ‘prayer as poesy’, both the immediacy and the style are graceful and lyrical. The content of the poetic prayers and Yancey’s fantasia-like reflections on them are direct and come straight from a deep well of biblical allegory. Each day brings fresh insights within the framework and Yancey adds to this by showing direct biblical passages that are in harmony. Admittedly some people will be disappointed that Donne’s archaic language has been modernised and many of the quotations, whether classical or obscure biblical ones, have been omitted. I admit to having misgivings about that at first, but they were quickly dispelled by the execution, where an immediate understanding of the text more than makes up for some literary archaism.

The other thing that Donne himself has been accused of is being too obsessed with death and Yancey ably comes to his defence and points out that it’s perfectly normal in a society where death was commonplace and faced up to rather than in our day when it is one of the greatest taboos in our society and is a subject that is deliberately avoided. The motto of the day was, ‘in the midst of life there is death’. Also, in his great contemporary poem Hymn to God the Father we see where Donne sees comfort in the afterlife, as he approaches the Son’s life and death shining evermore as a true consolation. Yancey makes the very astute observation that there is little concern with the afterlife today and we are more interested in the here and now, which is the opposite of the people of Donne’s time.

What a wonderful book this is, as an enormous admirer of Donne’s verse and theological inclinations I am drawn to it anyway, but the insights from Yancey make this a very special book. One of the greatest movements today that I cherish is the combination of spirituality and philosophy through entirely biblical roots which Yancey is part of in all his writings. There is a very unusual quality in this book that is hard to put into words but really boils down to a special creative relationship, centuries apart, between Philip Yancey and John Donne.

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Companion in Crisis, A (Hard Cover)
Philip Yancey
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