Book Review

Stephen Cottrell, The Nail

by Alan Wolfe

from Signs of the Times, No. 44 - Jan 2012

The author is Bishop of Chelmsford, who has provided the basis for a Lent study course for groups, but which could also be used by individuals at any time as basis for meditation.

It is subtitled "Being part of the Passion", and has been based on a dramatic liturgy he developed for Good Friday, whereby a large wooden Cross was brought into Church, nails were banged in and one large nail left spare. Members of the congregation were asked to come forward, pick up the nail, and take the role of one of the participants (a Roman soldier, Caiaphas, Pilate, Judas). They gave their personal feelings about the event they would have been participating in, and reflected on the theologically "crucial" question: who was really responsible for the killing of Christ?. It appeared that almost all would pass the blame to others (upwards, downwards or sideways) for what seemed to be good reasons: being under orders, keeping the peace, pleasing the crowd, forcing Jesus' hand.

This book is a written-up version of these earlier improvisations, expanded to include: Peter, the Roman Centurion, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, Mary Magdalene, and Pilate's wife. It is short enough to be read in a single sitting, and is a very good stimulus to the imagination.

It must be said that as these characters all speak in 21st-century demotic English, because the author is (quite rightly) not trying to write history, they do not come across as the people in the Gospels who faced the situation in 1st-Century Palestine. For example, compare Cottrell's Pontius Pilate with Ann Wroe's (Random House,1999) - either her historical or medieval apocryphal versions. After all, Palestine was a very small part of the enormous Roman Empire whose economic engine was slavery, its political system was hereditary elitism and cronyism, justice was enforced by the military using torture and draconian punishments as routine, and tax-collecting was farmed-out to corrupt quislings. I am not sure that today we can easily comprehend what life would have been like, or how it would have affected our attitude to the hideous capital punishment inflicted on all who showed resistance to the government of the day.

But the book is an excellent guide to help us realise how we duck taking responsibility for our sins and failures to live as God wishes. Cottrell suggests that at the end of a session we should pray:

Lord Jesus Christ,
We confess that just like your first disciples we have failed you,
We have run away when we should have stayed,
We have blamed others and excused ourselves,
We have stored up treasure on earth
and ignored the treasure of your way:
Lord forgive us, Christ have mercy.

Amen to that!