The reviewer as gate-keeper

By and large, I enjoy reading and writing book reviews. And I’ve mentioned before about my chat with a friend about the purpose of book reviews wherein he offered the following description of the reviewer’s task:

To help the writers know they are understood and appreciated without too much attention to their mistakes, to help the readers know whether or not it is for them, to identify one or two critical issues worth discussing along the way, and to ease the conscience of the reviewer about all the free books s/he has acquired through this means, not all of which were ever read.

I still like my friend’s ‘reviewer job description’ and, as a rule, it represents what I hope to do when I’m reviewing a book. During a recent binge with Updike (now there’s a reviewer!), my antennae were re-alerted to my responsibility as a reviewer to engage critically with the text/s under my surveillance, to dwell longer – though not for too long – in those somewhat less salutary spaces (whether they be factual or editorial) within the book’s covers, particularly when the book is otherwise especially praiseworthy, or when the author is a friend. By neglecting such a task, it seems to me that reviewer’s are doing neither the author nor the reader a favour, are abrogating an important responsibility, and are left feeling like the bookseller’s unpaid serf who has sold short the book’s author, publisher (good publishers and editors do care about this kind of thing), readers, and the reviewer’s own academic credibility (not that I hold the latter too tightly anyway).

One of my favourite bloggers, Mary Beard (professor in classics at Cambridge), recently had this to say about reviewing:

If reviewing doesn’t act as a gate-keeper of sorts, the success of a book will come down only to the size of its publicity budget and the enthusiasm of its publishers’ tweets.

Of course, gate-keepers worthy of hire will be those who are cognisant of, and honest about, the limits of their knowledge; but they will endeavour to humbly keep gate, which is, I’m assuming, a somewhat different job to being a tourist guide, or to being an author’s, publisher’s, or bookseller’s hooker. Gate-keepers worthy of hire will certainly be those who, in Stephen Burn‘s words, talk less ‘about themselves, spinning reviews out of their charming memories or using the book under review as little more than a platform to promote themselves and their agendas’. They will also be those who will, and that as best they can, tell the truth like Presbyterians; i.e., decently and in order.

Candour reviews

I recently accepted the illustrious mantle of reviews editor for Candour, a magazine for ministers and leaders of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. The aim is that each edition of Candour will include a medium-length review of some kind, mostly of books but hopefully also of plays, music, dance and film. Consequently, I’m now on the hunt for possible reviewers, i.e., for those who would be willing to do the occasional review, and pick up a ‘free’ book in the process. If you’d like your name added to the list of reviewers that I can call on from time to time, then please let me know via email, indicating the kind of areas (e.g., missiology, history, fiction, prayer, etc.) that you are most interested in writing about, and any relevant qualifications you may have.

John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works: a wee review

Richard G. Kyle and Dale W. Johnson, John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2009). xi + 208 pages. ISBN: 978-1606080900. Review copy courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

This volume, co-penned by two scholars well published on the book’s subject, traces the life and thought of John Knox. It does so not via an attempt at what we might call ‘straight biography’ but rather through a chronological examination and interpretation of his writings. The interpretation of Knox offered here is sympathetic but fair, helpfully introduces some secondary literature on Knox, avoids an over-romanticised reading of the preacher whom Stewart Lamont described as ‘a cross between Ian Paisley and the Ayatollah Khomeini’, and avoids the temptation succumbed to by many contemporaries biographers of judging too harshly the personalities of the past against the values of the present.

A very accessible and (apart from some editorial oversights and typos, for e.g., an incomplete bibliography, and who is T.F. ‘Torrence’?, on p. 21) well-researched introduction to a complicated yet decisive period in Scottish history, and that via the life and thought of one of its great saints. John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works is an easy book to commend, and those looking for a genuine entrée on the life and thought of a volcanic prophet with ‘the courage of a lion’ could do little better. Those hungry enough to also want a main course would be well served in the devouring of John Knox by Rosalind K. Marshall too.

Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations: A Review

Anthony B. Robinson, Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 199 pp; ISBN 978-0-8028-0759-5.

Changing the Conversation is a sequel to Anthony Robinson‘s most recent books Transforming Congregational Culture (2003) and What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church (2006). It builds upon and complements work done by Diana Butler Bass, Darrell Guder, Michael Foss, Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren and others in their quest for the Church to find ‘a third way’ of being that moves beyond stereotyped polarities all-too-typical of its life and seeks a redefinition from a new centre which finds its pulse in its defining narrative – that is, in the divine economy. Robinson invites congregations to walk upon a way paved by the rediscovery of fresh language (which includes a rediscovery of ‘older words and concepts of the living tradition of our faith’ (p. 2)), the development of new conceptual frameworks, the formulation of new agendas and imaginings for being and doing church, and the fostering of new ways of framing both internal and external challenges and relations.

Robinson (who has served as an ordained Minister of the United Church of Christ and has remained in touch with the realities of congregational life), understands that change is an inevitable and indispensable part of congregational life, that good leaders know and embrace this, and that a significant part of healthy change involves ceasing the typically dead-end conversations that congregations engage in, embracing reality accurately, and framing the challenges adequately. Drawing upon Ron Heifetz’s distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges, and rehearsing Peter Drucker’s two simple questions – ‘What business are you in?’ and ‘How’s business?’ – this book identifies and is shaped around ten conversations that Robinson believes are requisite in order to initiate, deepen, sustain and grow congregational and denominational life.

The opening chapter is concerned to map in broad outline some of the important historical and cultural shifts that have shaped, and been shaped by, the Church’s baptism of and in Christendom, and how the emergence of a post-Christendom North America is impacting historically mainline Protestant congregations and their ministry from one of chaplaincy to one of mission. One feature of Church that he believes will need to undergo a significant shift in both conceptuality and praxis concerns the role of pastors: ‘Instead of being chaplains to church and community, they will be congregational leaders and spiritual directors. They will not do most or all of their ministry on behalf of the larger church. They will support that ministry through preaching and teaching, mentoring and guiding’ (p. 29).

William Stringfellow once observed, ‘These are harsh days for Protestants in America. American Protestants suffer the pathetic anxieties of a people once ascendant and reigning, but now defensive and in retreat’. How congregations might respond creatively (and in ways that move beyond lament and complaint, bewilderment and apathy) to the challenges and opportunities of this post-Christendom situation is the subject of Chapter Two. Rather than denying or bemoaning the sea change, Robinson asks if congregations might find a way to discern God at work among them and to respond by birthing new and more productive conversations and hopeful, engaged responses. He reminds us that ‘the word “Protestant” does not mean perpetual protest’ but rather derives from pro (‘for’) and testari (‘to testify). So, he asks, ‘what testimony do we offer about God and about God’s work in our midst?’ (p. 44).

The third conversation, ‘A New Heart’, is an invitation to think about how the renewal of hearts and minds is at the centre of mainline Protestant congregations, is not reducible to a formula or recipe, and is always more important than any technique or program.

In Chapter Four, Robinson turns to the issue of leadership, arguing that the work of leadership in the post-Christendom period is to assist congregations to face their own most important challenges and make progress on them. He defines pastoral leadership as ‘mobilizing a congregation … to engage its own most pressing problems and deepest challenges’ (p. 84). Part of the task of leadership (not necessarily of the ‘ordained’) is to read the context and congregation, to name and describe the challenges accurately, and to ‘remind a congregation (or other group) of its theologically and biblically informed purpose and core values. In other words, leadership should keep before the congregation the issues of “who are we?” (core values) and “why are we here?” (purpose)’ (pp. 85–6). Robinson observes that many congregations suffer a ‘leadership vacuum’, that instead of pastoral leaders and governing boards, they have chaplains and a group that is either ‘listening to endless reports or trying to micro-manage the operational administration of the congregation. The future’, he continues, ‘belongs to congregations that call and empower pastors who are leaders, and then also call and prepare governing boards that provide effective policy direction and leadership’ (p. 96).

This directly raises the question of purpose, which is the concern of Chapter Five. The ‘Why are we here?’ question is, according to Robinson, always the most important question to begin with. He avers that congregations need reasonable clarity about their core purpose if they are to foster any new vitality and to shift, as Foss believes, from ‘a culture of membership to a culture of discipleship’ (p. 101). In making the important distinction between purpose and vision, Robinson, following C. Kirk Hadaway, contends that purpose is more important than vision, the former both precedes and shapes the latter: ‘Without a fairly clear sense of purpose, congregations can get caught up in the game of cultural catch-up or what’s newest and latest’ (p. 105).

Robinson continues to labour this distinction and its logic of priority in chapters six to eight, drawing upon Heifetz’s notions on ‘adaptive challenges’. In Chapter Six, the concern is to explore the relationship between vision and purpose, on how congregations move from naming their raison d’être, to identifying the key challenges and then authoring a vision statement or strategic plan that serves their ministry. One vital emphasis here is that the work of the congregation does not fall to experts or authorities, nor to the pastor, or a consultant, or a small group designated to solve their problems for them. Rather, Robinson insists that ‘it is the people with the problem themselves, the people facing the challenge, who do the work. If the work is “discovering again God’s purpose (mission) for our church,” we can’t simply assign that to a mission committee’ (p. 122). While he acknowledges that most congregations face a combination of technical problems and adaptive challenges, to the extent that they understand those challenges as technical problems only, they will fail. Moreover, they would have ‘missed important, God-given opportunities to experience new hearts and minds’ (p. 123).

In some ways Chapter Seven represents the book’s thesis most clearly: that the governance and organisation that many congregations are working with are outmoded and incompetent because designed for, and assuming of, a Christendom rapidly passing away. Here’s his basic point:

Underlying the Christendom-era structures of church life are two notions: (1) the best way to involve people in Christian life and church participation is to get them serving on a board or committee of the church; and (2) the job of laity is to manage the church. If your church assumes that the best way to involve people in Christian life and the church is to get them on a board or committee, there’s a good chance that your congregation will have a lot of boards and committees to accommodate them. The result is often structures that are either Byzantine in complexity or Catch-22-like in absurdity. The second unhelpful assumption is that the really important job of lay Christians is to manage the church, its buildings, finances, property, and personnel. This effectively takes the team off the playing field and gives it the task of managing the clubhouse. Instead of inviting people to do ministry, current systems invite them to manage the ministry. You put these two assumptions together and let the whole thing settle for some decades, and the result would make for a good Monty Python skit … Could it be that the real job of dedicated Christians is not to manage the work of the ordained or the operational administration of the church facility, but to represent Christ to the world? I suspect that many would affirm this in theory, yet our church structures tend not to support the theory (pp. 137–8, 140).

The eighth conversation attends to another arena of adaptive work facing mainline congregations; namely, public theology. It asks what shape and what voice the Church might embody in the public square in an age of redefined relations. ‘Death and Resurrection’ is the title of Chapter Nine. Here Robinson suggests that while, for some situations, congregational renewal is possible, sometimes a death – or something that looks and feels very much like death – is required before a resurrection is possible. The final conversation is a bit of a ‘Where to from now?’ chapter.

Changing the Conversation will be read with profit by denominational staff, seminarians studying congregational life, and leaders of congregations. It offers a clear vocalization of some important theses and synthesises some valuable material on mission and vision. That said, some readers will want to question whether Robinson himself offers a decisive enough severing from the Christendom mindset that he is so properly concerned about. At the very least, the book’s pages frequently require some translation from a North American congregational context into other local dialects. Finally, how one assesses this book depends largely on whether one is seeking a handbook of tools or nutrition for a renewing of ecclesiological imagination. While there are indications that Robinson is seeking to offer both, it is more of the former rather than the latter that is to be found in this book.

Scott Cairns: ‘The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain’

End of SufferingScott Cairns’ most recent publication – The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2009) – invites a play on the word end. Cairns recalls that while we can believe that a day will come when suffering will be no more, we live now in ‘our puzzling meantime’, aware both that suffering is no end in itself but also that we sense something of ‘suffering’s purpose’, that ‘our own descents into suffering may turn out to be the occasions in which we – imitating [Christ’s] unique and appalling descent – come to know Him all the more intimately’ (p. 99). Here’s a further snippert:

Saint Isaac counsels, “Blessed is the person who knows his own weakness, because awareness of this becomes for him the foundation and the beginning of all that is good and beautiful.” Affliction appears to be our only reliable access to this kind of knowledge, this necessary confrontation with our own weaknesses, and this advantageous mitigation of our pride. And it seems to be the only way we come against self-esteem to glimpse and thereafter to know our condition, to appreciate our vulnerability, and to live according to this new and chastening light. (pp. 18–19)

Throughout this book, Cairns draws not only upon Saint Isaac, but also upon work by George Steiner, W.H. Auden, G.K. Chesterton, Dostoevsky (mainly his The Brothers Karamazov), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Theophan the Recluse, Kallistos Ware, Alexander Schmemann, Simone Weil, and others. This essay serves as not only an accessible reflection on suffering (it would be a good book to work through in small groups), but also as a nuanced entrée into the Christian tradition (particularly into its Orthodox branch), and into a way of doing theology that invites us to embrace – or, rather, to be embraced by – a new vision of life via the ‘puzzlement’ of our afflictions. Those already familiar with Cairns’ poetry (and if you’re not, shame on you!) will want to go back and re-read it. Those unfamiliar with Cairns the poet, will (hopefully) get enough of a taste of it in this essay that they will want to ‘take up and read’ [it].

The book concludes – appropriately – by recalling Alexander Schmemann’s reflection on Lent:

For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of formal, predominantly negative, rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that it is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent – something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning. This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit, which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the what is lacking purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

Cairns recalls how that for Schmemann, ‘a “quiet sadness” permeates the Lenten services themselves; “vestments are dark, the services are longer than usual and more monotonous, there is almost no movement.” He observes that despite the alternating readings and chants, “nothing seems to happen.” And so, he acknowledges, we stand for a very long time in this quiet, this sadness, this monotony. “But then we begin to realize that this very length and monotony are needed if we are to experience the secret and at first unnoticeable ‘action’ of the service in us. Little by little, we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed ‘bright,’ that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us.” Moving through the sadness’, Cairns writes, ‘we glimpse the joy. We feel its effects on us and feel how it changes us. We are thereby led to a place where noises, distractions, and false importance of the street – of our dissipated lives – finally “have no access – a place where they have no power.” Similarly, then, in those seasons of our afflictions – those trials in our lives that we do not choose but press through – a stillness, a calm, and a hope become available to us; they are a stillness, a calm, and a hope that must be acquired slowly, because – as Father Schmemann says of our joy in Lent – “our fallen nature has lost the ability to accede there naturally.”’ We are obliged, Cairns insists, to ‘recover this wisdom slowly, bit by bit’. (pp. 112–14)

‘The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune’: A Review

the-double-rainbowJohn Newton, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009). 224 pages. ISBN: 9780864736031. Review copy courtesy of Victoria University Press.

John Newton’s engaging book, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune, examines the Ngāti Hau community that Aotearoa’s best-known poet James K. Baxter was instrumental in establishing at Hiruhārama, on the Whanganui River – ‘the country’s first and most influential experiment in “hippie” communalism’ (p. 38). As Newton notes in his Introduction:

The double rainbow is Baxter’s symbol for a mutually regenerative bicultural relationship. He recognised that the Pākehā majority ignored Māori culture, not just to the cost of Māori … but also to its own detriment. Pākehā, he wrote in 1969, a few months before he first moved to Jerusalem, ‘have lived alongside a psychologically rich and varied minority culture for a hundred years and have taken nothing from it but a few place-names and a great deal of plunder’. Pākehā culture’s material dominance was accompanied by an arrogance and ethnocentrism which left it spiritually impoverished.

He cites Baxter:

‘Ko te Maori te tuakna. Ko te Pakeha te teina …’ The Maori [sic] is indeed the elder brother and the Pakeha [sic] the younger brother. But the teina has refused to learn from the tuakana. He has sat sullenly among his machines and account books, and wondered why his soul was full of bitter dust …

And then offers the following commentary:

The cost was everywhere to be seen, but nowhere more plainly than among urban youth. For Baxter, their wholesale disaffection was a realistic verdict on the society they had inherited, a mainstream culture whose spiritlessness and meanness – to say nothing of its arrogance towards its neighbours – deserved no better. In the Māori world, by contrast, and particularly in Māori communalism, he believed he could see an alternative to this atomised majority culture – a system of values that answered to the longings and frustrations that he recognised, both in himself and in the young people around him. To establish an alternative Pākehā community that could ‘learn from the Maori side of the fence’ was to help restore, symbolically, the mana of the tangata whenua and to begin to resuscitate a Pākehā culture that was choking to death on its own materialism. (pp. 11–12)

Such constitutes the earth from which a functioning intentional community at Hiruhārama budded, a community made up largely of those for whom mainstream Aotearoan society meant fatherlessness.

While concerned to not diminish Baxter’s part in the formation of the Ngā Mōkai community but rather to place it in the context of a larger ‘utopian experiment’ (p. 88) he initiated, Newton seeks to ‘offer a stronger account of what Baxter achieved at Jerusalem by bringing into focus its collaborative dimension’ (p. 16). He properly contends that what the 41-year-old Baxter set in motion, and towards which the baby-boomer ‘orphanage’ of the damaged which was his living poetry bore witness to, was something considerably bigger than Baxter himself, and that the unique cohabitation and set of cultural negotiations which was embodied in the Whanganui River communities (particularly Ngāti Hau, Ngā Mōkai, the church – which was ‘threaded through the life of the river’ (p. 59) – and the Sisters of Compassion) draw attention to implications far beyond both Baxter or to the communities themselves. This, of course, is of the essence of Baxter himself, that before he was a hippie, he was ‘a Catholic, a Christian humanist, and an aspiring Pākehā-Māori’ (p. 36), he was a poet-prophet charged not simply with interpreting the social environment which he inhabited, but of actively improving it, of giving material shape to it. The book is loosely divided into three main sections: an introductory phase that addresses the pre-history of the community and Baxter’s first year of residence; a middle section that covers its heyday; and a downstream phase that describes the community’s various offshoots, and considers its legacy. The result – for the reader prepared to follow the narrative – is the stripping away of ‘cultural safety’.

Newton details further upon what we know of Baxter from other places while eloquently introducing us to a host of other equally-fascinating characters – Father Wiremu Te Awhitu, pā women Dolly, Alice, Lizzie and Wehe (who are often remembered as ‘substitute’ mothers (p. 89)), Aggie Nahona, and Denis O’Reilly among them. He also highlights Baxter’s visionary kinship with French-born nun Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert with whom he shared ‘a staunch commitment to Māori, and to spiritual love as the first principle of a hands-on social mission’ (p. 45). Newton argues that this part of Baxter’s history ‘doesn’t get acknowledged in Baxter’s rhetorical point-scoring at the expense of the mainstream church. Without it, however, his own Jerusalem “orphanage” would never have eventuated. In one sense the debt is symbolic or poetic: the presence of the church at Jerusalem draws te taha Māori into dialogue with the other key spiritual driver of his later career, namely his Catholic faith … Baxter brought his showmanship, and his personal (some might argue, narcissistic) sense of mission. But he also brought with him – embodied, or enacted – the self-interrogation and social radicalisation that had seized hold of the Catholic Church globally in the wake of Vatican II. After the Berrigans and the draft card burnings, after liberation theology, what did the Christian mission imply in the context of ongoing colonial injustice?’ (pp. 46, 47)

Jerusalem was Baxter’s riposte to all those Pākehā institutions – the churches, the university, the nuclear family and so on – whose lack of heart and small-minded materialism were now failing Pākehā youth in the same way that Pākehā culture had always failed Maori. In looking for a remedy for the failings of Pākehā society, he found his prime inspiration in the communitarian virtues that he saw among Māori: aroha, mahi, kōrero, manuhiritanga. This was ‘learn[ingJ from the Maori side of the fence’: his community was to be modelled on the marae. Of course, in offering this open door the commune depended entirely on the hospitality of Ngāti Hau … But the commune was not just a place to live – a material shelter for whomever happened to be there … it was also a piece of political theatre. And the commune’s significance as a political intervention depended for its fullest expression on publicity: it was intended, at least in part, to be a spectacle, a City on a Hill! At the same time, it was integral to the kaupapa that it be open to all comers. This was the paradox that Baxter was confronted by: the more effectively this vision was communicated, the more would it lead to a pressure of numbers that would overwhelm the commune’s own capacity to provide for itself, and which eventually must wear out the patience of the local community. (p. 65)

Yet Newton is at pains to point out throughout his study that Hiruhārama is bigger than Baxter. Indeed, the bulk of the book is given to defending and illustrating this thesis, that Hiruhārama after Baxter entered into a period of unforeseen maturity, and particularly the maturity of its relationship with the pā. Community life under Greg Chalmers’ leadership may have been less eventful, but those years from 1972 do more to fulfil Baxter hopes of regenerative partnerships than those prior.

Two chapters are concerned with articulating the events birthed following the final closure of the community at Hiruhārama, and to highlighting that while a distinctive phase of the Ngā Mōkai narrative had reached its end, its impulse didn’t die with the community itself. Newton draws attention to a network of loosely affiliated houses – from flats and private homes, to crashpads and urban shelters, to far-flung intentional communities – which functioned as homes-away-from-home for a diasporic Ngā Mōkai whānau, a ‘network of initiatives which imported the Jerusalem kaupapa back into urban contexts’ (p. 154), and there ‘offering a dispersed community the chance of reconnection, reaffirmation and renewal’ (p. 164). He recalls Hiruhārama’s various germinations at Reef Point, Wharemanuka and Whenuakura. ‘With the shutting of the original commune, these “shoots of the kumara vine” [became] the focus of the Ngā Mōkai story. It’s here, in this ramshackle archipelago, that those who had been touched by Jerusalem attempted to keep alive the kaupapa’ (p. 131).

The penultimate chapter, ‘Baxter’s Wake’, re-spotlights Baxter, and is given to argue that Baxter’s literary legacy and his social legacy are ‘shoots of the same vine’ (p. 169):

‘Jerusalem’ was never an alternative to the poetry; it was part of it, its logical destination, even its most vivid accomplishment. In his burial on the river we find Baxter the poet and the Baxter the activist inextricably entwined. This integration was precisely his ambition, and the fact he achieved it is what makes these events still resonate. (p. 171)

So Newton appropriately accentuates Baxter’s formulation of the poet’s ethical task to be no mere interpreter of society but one who endeavours to make society more just. ‘It is this sense of embodied ethics … which leaps into focus when we think about Jerusalem’ (p. 179).

The Double Rainbow is the fruit of an incredibly-impressive amount of extensive and laborious research. Newton commendably resists romanticising Baxter, Baxter’s vision, or the Ngāti Hau ‘classroom’ itself. Those engaged in Baxter’s work and who want to better understand his Jerusalem Daybook or are interested in his biography, those seeking to understand, assess and inform Aotearoa’s multi-cultural, historical and spiritual landscape, those wanting to listen and to speak intelligently into contemporary debates about the relationship between government authorities and badge-wearing gangs carving out their own neo-tribal identity, and, more broadly, to a nation fascinated with re-carving a new national identity which buries settler mono-culturalism in its wake, and those devoted to the challenging work of inspiring, creating, leading, building, replanting and closing local and grassroots communities will be well-served to have Newton’s essay in hand. An invaluable and timely record, it is also certain to inform, impress and inspire.

Malcolm Gordon – ‘One Voice’ – A Review

one-voice-1‘People remember what they sing. Ultimately, they believe what they sing’. So believes Malcolm Gordon – a Presbyterian minister who writes songs, good songs, even songs ‘decently and in order’. In 2001, he toured with Y-One, and between 2002-2006 with the band Somebody’s Cousin, with whom he recorded two albums – ‘Brighter Day’ (2004) and ‘Here We Are (2006). Since then, this Kiwi has written and directed his first musical, and released his debut solo album, As I Am.

2008 witnessed the release of his latest album – One Voice – and the One Voice Project dedicated to ‘exploring contemporary expressions of Christian worship’ and to ‘rally song writers and lyricists to produce a resource of contextual and contemporary worship music every couple of years’. He writes that ‘the guiding principal throughout this has been to create music that is “Theologically authentic and culturally credible”. Too often music that is sung in churches tends to excel in one of those areas at the expense of the other’.


One Voice betrays the witness of a gifted artist with a theologically-astute nose, of one who believes that what we sing matters and whose heart joins those for whom ‘aching for the dawn’ defines the way of true being. The prayerful songs on this beautifully-produced album take up themes of hope, justice-making, and of identity – that ‘our stories might find their meaning’, rhyme and reason in God. Gordon recognises that however one chooses to express eschatological hope, the ultimate theological foundation remains a basic conviction concerning the faithfulness of the God whose relationship with this world is secured in one who – though one with God – did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but who made himself nothing. Believers bear witness to this ground of hope every time we break bread and drink wine together – an act, of prolepsis as well as of obedience, undertaken by the Church in hope for a time when every tongue might taste the goodness of the Lord, when friends and enemies, victim and perpetrators, sit at the same table and find their healing in its host who has borne the pain, shame, isolation and fear of all. It is to this that the Church’s songs, including Gordon’s, bear witness. I recall words from one of Halden Doerge‘s sermons on ‘Holy Saturday‘:

In the face of hopelessness and death we [the church] are called to be conduits of hope that dare to speak and listen on the day of silence. We are to dare to continue to give of ourselves, even to the point of death even when all hope seems to have vanished. When foundations dissolve, when brothers betray and God seems silent, we are called to buy fields of hope, to stand between our betrayer and his noose and to break bread together in senseless hope that we serve a God who abounds in surprises that follow the day of silence. We are bound to remember Holy Saturday and to live in it in senseless, glorious hope. Let us be a church that lives in Holy Saturday, longing to see the surprises of the self-giving God who transforms fields of blood into fields of hope. We are called this day to continue in the form of the self-giving that is the very life of God. On this day, this cold and silent yet gloriously beautiful day, let us remember the brokenness and the senselessness that we face as followers of Christ. And then let us gather up our courage in the Spirit and continue to give ourselves away without ceasing. In the deathly quiet of Holy Saturday, let us interrupt it with songs of hope, bread broken and lives poured out.

malcolm-gordonThe invitation to such interruption is taken up by Gordon in his powerful song ‘Break the Bread’ (sample):

Let’s break the bread,
with the broken hearted.
Break the bread,
in broken homes and in broken lives.
Spill the wine, for all the tears they’ll cry
Spill the wine, wherever innocents die.

Let’s break the bread,
with the ragged stranger.
Break the bread,
with the friendless child.
Spill the wine, with those who spill our blood
Spill the wine, Lord, as we remember you.

I’m praying I’ll live to see the day
When the Table is open
I’m praying a time will come around
When Your hope isn’t wasted.

Let’s break the bread,
with the unclean before the Unseen.
Break the bread,
inside these cold prison walls.
Spill the wine; let it run rich and red across this land
Spill the wine, Lord, as we remember you.

I’m praying I’ll live to see the day
When peace is more than a ceasefire.

Let’s break the bread …

‘People remember what they sing. Ultimately, they believe what they sing’.

John Wilson’s Introduction to Modern Theology: A Review

John E. Wilson, Introduction to Modern Theology: Trajectories in the German Tradition (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). x+286 pages. ISBN: 978-0-664-22862-0

The work of the eighteenth-century Königsberg-born philosopher Immanuel Kant set a new direction for philosophical and theological enquiry up until our day. Because of Kant, theological behemoths like Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher were able to propose new form to the increasingly important conversations between religion and reason, and revelation and experience. So attractive and dominating were these new forms that no Protestant theologian in nineteenth-century Germany could think without them. Moreover, late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany witnessed one of the most creative and prodigious outputs in theological work in any period before or since.

In this introduction, Professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary John E. Wilson invites us on a survey of the German theological tradition beginning with Kant, and proceeding via Hegel, the Mediating Theologians and the Ritschlians, through to Bonhoeffer, the Niebuhr’s and Rahner, among others, purposing to demonstrate lines of continuity and trajectories in the German Protestant traditions since Kant.

Commencing with a useful historical overview of the political and social context from the French Revolution until those fertile decades following WWII, Wilson proceeds to devote chapters to many of the leading shapers of the German schools. Each chapter mostly stands alone and is given to introducing readers to the key writings, grammar (Wilson helpfully attends to key German words and explains them) and contributions of various theologians in an accessible though learned way. The chapter on post-liberal American theologian Paul Tillich was particularly helpful, not least because Tillich represents a revival in the basic pattern of nineteenth-century mediation theology (both in its method and in a return to its sources in German Idealism) but in a radically new context, but also because Tillich’s writing does not represent theological literature in its most reader-friendly form. One who provides help with reading Tillich’s map is never unwelcome.

While Wilson’s grasp of the literature is encyclopaedic in its scope, in not a few places the work is (over)dominated by questions of epistemology and on the relationship between religion and science. Other equally-important features of the tradition are all but ignored. For example, apart from the briefest of mentions in the context of Moltmann’s christology, there is an absence of discussion on nineteenth-century kenoticism. Another disappointment for this reviewer is that while Wilson traces the tradition’s tributary from Germany to the USA, the German tradition’s influence throughout other parts of the world is ignored. A concluding chapter which recapitulates the sweep undertaken, offers some critical reflection on the tradition and some suggestions for possible direction is also sadly lacking from this study (as is a bibliography). Consequently, the reader is left with the clear sense that while Hegel is (deservedly) no doubt the titan whose voice refuses to be silenced, she holds in her hands an unfinished manuscript.

These reservations aside, this volume is a valuable introduction to the theological landscape of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology, not least for that burgeoning array of scholars undertaking work on Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Ebeling, Bonhoeffer, or on those German theologians who emerged in the 1960’s and whose theological output remains underappreciated – Sölle, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Heidegger, Ott and Jüngel, in whom the tradition reaches its most satisfying evolution.

‘Toward a Culture of Freedom’: A Review

Thorwald Lorenzen, Toward a Culture of Freedom: Reflections on the Ten Commandments Today (Eugene: Cascade, 2008), viii + 253 pages. ISBN: 978 1 55635 296 6. Review copy courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

Some years ago I took a fascinating (for many reasons) course on resurrection. One of the principle teachers was Thorwald Lorenzen, who was at that time a Baptist pastor serving in Canberra but now serves as Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dr Lorenzen is an erudite and [com]passionate NT scholar and theologian who brings to the task of doing theology a wide horizon of international experiences which inform his particular concern for human rights, expressed in a deep respect for the United Nations bill on The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A key text for the resurrection course was Lorenzen’s Resurrection and Discipleship, a book deserving of a wide readership and one which helped to open at least one undergraduates eyes to a plethora of issues about the nature and role of NT narrative, about the value (and over-value) of tradition, and particularly about the relationship between resurrection faith and justice.

While nowhere near as carefully researched as Resurrection and Discipleship, and even at times offering surprisingly sloppy and unfair caricatures [eg. ‘Calvinist Christians expect God to plan and enact every detail in life’ (p. 1)], Lorenzen’s latest book continues to bring together his passions for justice, human rights, ethics and biblical exegesis in the service of the people of God and their witness to God’s good news in the world. Lorenzen properly resists interpreting the Ten Words moralistically or in abstraction from their deep rootedness in the covenant life and history of a people in communion (however seemingly fragile at times) with their God. He is also concerned at every point to let these Words speak to our world – and address our questions – in light of the wider sweep of the Scriptures’ metanarrative, and particularly in light of the final Word of God’s revelation – Jesus Christ. The chapter on adultery is a case in point, wherein Lorenzen does not shy away from the complex issues that continue to challenge the Church in its faithfulness to the Word of God and to compassionate witness to that Word in the world. On the question of gay and lesbian marriages, for example, he proffers the following:

‘Civil contracts in which gay and lesbian couples make a legal pledge to each other before the law are in order. They provide security and fairness for a committed and long-term relationship. Marriage, however, is another matter because it entails the desire for family. I think that every child has the right to experience the life-shaping presence of a mother and a father. The rights of a child precede the rights of gays and lesbians because the child is the more vulnerable part in the relationship’. (p, 129)

For those looking to rethink some implications of the Decalogue in a contemporary and increasingly politically-aware context, for those looking for helpful ideas for pulpit ministry, or for those looking for a book to work through in small study groups, Towards and Culture of Freedom might be a good place to consider stopping awhile. Not all will agree will every conclusion Lorenzen reaches, or even with the way he gets there; but to my mind, that’s one more reason why reading the book is worthwhile.

Here’s a few more tasters:

‘Each of us has, or rather is, a conscience. Conscience is the centre of our personhood. It makes us who we are. It shapes our identity. It is worth understanding and caring for’. (p. 20)

‘Deeds of liberation call for structures of liberation. God does not liberate people so that they can fall into the hands of false gods. Freedom therefore needs discipline and structures to ensure that it remains grounded in its author. The “ten words”, but also the statutes and ordinances, the cult and the prophets were all intended to preserve, protect and guide the ongoing journey of freedom’. (p. 24)

‘When some reformers in the sixteenth century took down the pictures and removed the statues from the churches, they wanted to make room for the living voice of the gospel. They wanted to celebrate Jesus as the one word that we need to hear, trust and obey in life and in death. But soon others, lesser minds and lesser hearts, came along and put a book where the pictures had been. So for many Christians the living voice of the gospel has been frozen into a book, the Bible. And around the world there are many Christians who spend more time and energy fighting about the Bible than in worshipping and obeying the Christ to whom the Bible points’. (p. 52)

‘A generation that ignores the wisdom and errors, achievements and failures of its predecessors is ill-prepared to face the future. Would the revolutions of Germany’s youth in the 1960s and of America’s youth in the 1970s have happened if their parents had talked about their war experiences and the associated horror and guilt and doubts?’ (p. 86)

The Theology of the Cross in Historical Perspective: A Review

Anna Madsen, The Theology of the Cross in Historical Perspective (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2007. ix + 269 pages. ISBN: 978-1-59752-835-1. Review copy courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

It is encouraging to see a growing stream of books dedicated to engaging with the work of Jürgen Moltmann. I have just finished reading Anna Madsen’s ambitious study The Theology of the Cross in Historical Perspective (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2007), part of the young ‘Distinguished Dissertations in Christian Theology’ series that Wipf and Stock are co-sponsoring with the journal Word and World: Theology for Christian Ministry and with the Christian Theological Research Fellowship (CTRF). In this book, this Assistant Professor of Religion at Augustana College in South Dakota (USA) traces the currents of a theology of the cross in St Paul, Luther, von Loewenich, Kitamori and Moltmann, before turning our gaze towards Feminist and Liberationist evaluations and applications of a theologia crucis.

On Luther, the author reminds us that we miss the whole catalyst for the German monks’ revolutionary theological advance when we divorce his theologia crucis from the context of the Church’s appeal for alms in the form of indulgences. The issue, she claims, is that God can not be ‘bought off’.

She explores the twentieth century’s witnessing of a variety of theologies of the cross, some of which, ironically, actually call for the cross itself to be discarded on the grounds that it symbolises (and glorifies) not hope but only violence. The tired divine child-abuse paradigms are briefly discussed. Conversely, Madsen observes that there remain those who insist that in the face of unparalleled and devastating poverty, destruction, abuse, exploitation and suffering, the cross provides the only interpretive tool which theology can offer. Specifically, the cross becomes the symbol to announce God’s full identification with the sufferers and God’s condemnation of the privileged. An adequate critique of this liberationist reading is not forthcoming in this volume.

The section on Moltmann (pp. 181-207) serves as a particularly helpful introduction to Moltmann’s theology as a whole, especially for those unfamiliar with the work of this creative and Reformed theologian. That it is explored in the context of a theological tradition from Paul through Luther et al makes it all the more helpful, for, as Madsen notes, no matter how much Moltmann’s theology of the cross consciously attends to life post-Auschwitz and more consciously extends justification as that which leads to justice-seeking, it remains fundamentally dependent upon Luther’s.

Madsen’s study argues that while there is no uniform theology of the cross, ‘Paul’s approach provides the soundest and most comprehensive’ vista, not least because his is a theology most elucidated not in isolation from but rather vis-à-vis the resurrection. Paul’s theology of the cross is, therefore, (while its various tones and emphases were always determined by its context) that which always concerns the removal of boundaries – both horizontal and vertical. Still, Madsen concludes, the theology of the cross remains that which announces that ‘God is found in death … in the death of sin, of suffering, of uncertainty’, and is marked by service, and is that which assures the people of God that God is present. It is therefore a theology of grace, of freedom and trust. Moreover, without a theology of the cross, she insists, it is unclear what the Church is called to be and to preach.

I warmly commend Madsen’s study as an accessible contribution to a topic at the heart of Christian good news, and as a valuable introduction to work by von Loewenich and Forde (On Being a Theologian of the Cross remains, to my mind, one of the best introductions to Luther’s theology available, alongside Randall Zachman’s The Assurance of Faith, with which, oddly, Madsen fails to engage), Moltmann and Sölle, Sobrino and Gutierrez. It is a clearly-written and pastorally-aware study … and it’s got a beautiful cover!

Back to Moltmann studies: Alongside Madsen’s study, I also have on my desk another book that engages with Moltmann’s thought: Tim Chester’s, Mission and the Coming of God: Eschatology, the Trinity and Mission in the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006). I’m hoping to read and post a review of it sometime soon(ish). Also, Ashgate recently announced that 2009 will witness the arrival of Timothy Harvie’s book, Jürgen Moltmann’s Ethics of Hope: Eschatological Possibilities for Moral Action (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009). Paternoster too are planning to publish Nik Ansell’s insightful study, The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann.

Again, it’s encouraging to see these studies appearing. Moltmann’s work deserves the attention, and critical evaluation.

Reviews … et al

Richard Maegraith Band, Free Running: A Review

The great Canadian jazz pianist and vocalist Oscar Peterson once observed about jazz, ‘It’s the group sound that’s important, even when you’re playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That’s jazz’.

He is right, of course; and that is one of the reasons why I’ve really enjoyed listening to Richard Maegraith‘s debut album, Free Running. Richard is a Sydney-based jazz musician – a gifted tenor saxophonist – who has pulled together a small group of equally talented artists – Gary Daley (keyboards), Kristin Berardi (vocals), Jonathon Zwartz (bass) and Tim Firth (drums) – to produce not just a bunch of great songs but, more impressively, a whole story which is, powerfully, an echo of the Story and in which no voice is drowned in the crowd.

The opening track, ‘Whisper’, is a playful, unencumbered explosion of colour, and a fitting prelude to the second track, ‘Eden’s Story’, with which one is invited, even thrown, into a story that will carry the listener through the whole album, Kristin Berardi’s haunting vocals promising that this is only the beginning, and that there’s something more significant to come.

By the time we get mid-way through the album – with tracks ‘The Journey’, ‘Propitiation’, and ‘Duet For Tenor Sax and Double Bass’ – we’ve all warmed up and we are given to see not just the boldness of a talented saxophonist, but a sensitivity to, and respect for, each other among all the players. You don’t get the sense that anyone is trying to show off unduly, and there’s certainly no sense of competing egos at work here.

The final two tracks, ‘Expectantly Waiting For You’, and ‘Highland Cathedral’, betray the joy and release of those who have been taken into and through the Propitiation, those ‘felons not to hopelessness’ and ‘free to love’. There is playfulness … at last.

Returning again to Oscar Peterson. He once suggested that ‘Some people try to get very philosophical and cerebral about what they’re trying to say with jazz. You don’t need any prologues, you just play. If you have something to say of any worth then people will listen to you’. Free Running deserves to be listened to not just because it plays but because of what it says. You can check out more about the album here or on Richard’s Myspace page.

‘SCM Core Text: Christian Doctrine’: A Review

Mike Higton, SCM Core Text: Christian Doctrine. London: SCM Press, 2008. xi + 413pp. £22.99.

While the finest of Christian dogmatics employs the grammar of praxis, proposition and imagination, much of what passes for ‘orthodoxy’ privileges proposition and is (to varying degrees) suspicious of those attempts to faithfully make sense of life encountered and interpreted in a specific time and space biography, drawing upon God’s action corporately experienced, and upon the narratives and metaphors that inform Christian imagination. As invaluable as propositions are, they ought not be, according to Mike Higton, ‘extricated from the Christian lives and imaginations’ (p. 73) that provide the context for comprehending and evaluating all things in light of that one determining Word of God who has taken on flesh and who, in the Spirit, is dancing created humanity into participation in God’s life in the world. It is this grand narrative that stirs Higton’s theological project in Christian Doctrine (part of the SCM Core Text series), and provides the matrix through which he seeks to assist readers to make sense of life as individuals and communities in relation to each other, and in relation to God.

Knowing and loving God, Higton presses, is more akin to knowing, loving and sharing identity with a piece of music – it is to resonate with, and to participate in, even to become an aspect of, God’s eternally-playing melody – than it is to ‘grasp fully, define and explain’ (p. 57) the otherwise unknowable God. Such knowledge is interruptive, transformative and self-involving, drawing a responsive participant into – to be ‘caught up … grasped by’ (p. 57) – the same love and justice that is God’s life and which God has revealed to the world in Jesus of Nazareth and made real by the invading, transforming and overwhelming Spirit who draws human persons to Christ, ‘impels and enables participation’ in God’s kingdom, and who produces a response ‘consistent with the claim that God is love’ (p. 255). While ‘imagining how the immanent life of God functions is not our business’ (p. 99), Higton is confident that what God makes known in the economy is the ‘dance’ of God’s own immanent life – God’s one endless threefold way; that is why, according to the author, God can be trusted and known. ‘The economy is enough‘ (p. 102). As Higton repeatedly reminds, the triune God who is love ‘all the way down’ is ‘immanently Christlike’ (p. 71):

[To] learn to speak appropriately about God’s immanent life is to learn to see the human being Jesus – a graspable, knowable, historical, economic reality – as the coming to the world of the ineffable, eternal Son; it is to learn to see the Father who appears in one’s economic imaginations and words as the coming to the world of the eternal, ineffable Father; it is to learn to see the shakings and stirrings of the Spirit’s historical, economic work as the coming to the world of the ineffable Spirit. It is to learn to see the whole patterned drama of the economy, into which Christians believe all are called, as the opening up to the world of God’s own immanent life’. (pp. 101-2)

Christian Doctrine emerges out of a certificate course in theology that Higton teaches at Exeter, and is targeted at second- and third-year undergraduate students. Resisting all attempts to merely download the tradition, Higton seeks to encourage the critical making, breaking and remaking of sense that is all around us, and to do so with careful attentiveness to the transforming light of the Christian story – at the heart of which is God’s love and justice.

The book consists of two parts: The first, ‘Life in God’ (pp. 1-166), explores with startling clarity questions of epistemology, the indivisible relationship between knowing and loving (here he draws upon Exodus 3:13-17 and 1 John 4:7-21), God-talk, God’s trinitarian economy, and God’s human life. On the latter, Higton draws upon depictions of Jesus in painting and film, contrasting Piero della Francesca’s Baptism with Antonello da Messina’s Le Christ à la colonne, and two parts of Matthias Grünewald’s Eisenheim Altarpiece. The author presses that triune love made flesh – that is, one ‘utterly human, unreservedly and unadulteratedly human’ (p. 130) – is ‘God’s way of loving the world’ (p. 124), and belief in which occasions rearrangement and transformation of every area of one’s life and every aspect of one’s world. The book’s first part concludes with a chapter on pneumatology, on the enlivening Spirit who sustains, animates and enlivens all life, who draws out and nurtures skills, wisdom and justice, who erupts against idolatry, injustice, darkness, estrangement and oppression, and who patterns human persons for their deeper share in ‘unfragmented communion’ (p. 161) in God’s life through a ‘journey of learning and unlearning’ (p. 152) while working to complete and perfect creation. ‘It is the Spirit’s work to draw what might otherwise be a cacophonic disunity into symphony. The Spirit worked to transcribe God’s music for playing on the human instrument of Jesus of Nazareth; the Spirit now works to orchestrate that theme for an ensemble of billions’ (p. 161)).

Part Two, ‘Life in the World’ (pp. 167-404), seeks to unpack the implications of God’s threefold action for our assessment of creation, providence and freedom, eschatology, suffering, love, theodicy, harmartiology and soteriology, and the four traditional ecclesiological marks. The discussion on the Church’s sacramental activities (pp. 314-24) deserves careful reading. Higton presses that the two sacraments ‘don’t simply say something about what the Church is, but are part of the process by which the Church actually becomes what it should be’ (p. 316), and is ‘redescribed’ (p. 321). In the two final chapters, Higton identifies some popular lenses – ‘settlements’ – that are often employed to interpret the Bible’s message(s), before offering his own proposal, what he names ‘trinitarian settlement’ which, he suggests, understands the core narrative of Holy Scripture as concerned with a journey into the triune life itself; the Bible being read not as a ‘moral handbook’ (p. 379), but ‘around Jesus’, ‘in the Spirit’ (which means at least read ecumenically, in conversation with the tradition, in openness to previously excluded voices, and in hope), and ‘on the way to the Father’ (pp. 376-400). Throughout, Higton is concerned to relate central Christian doctrines to the experienced realities of human being, resolute to show how such doctrines affect how one conceives, interprets and lives with everything else, all the while pressing that the ‘world is called to the fulfilment of its creatureliness, not the abandonment of it’ (p. 182).

There are a number of underlying commitments that find expression in Christian Doctrine. I will name four: (i) a deep commitment to Trinitarian theology: ‘The word “God” simply refers to the reality that Christians come to know, and whose life they come to share, as they find themselves, in the Spirit, caught up in the Son’s love of the Father and the Father’s sending of the Son’ (p. 90). Higton is suspicious of those attempts to describe the triune life along social trinitarian lines (see pp. 96-101) because, he argues, such steer too close to positing ‘three realities that share the same defining characteristics’ (p. 97). He suggests that such attempts threaten (at least temporarily) to lose sight of the particularity of the persons and that if trinitarian theologians are serious about the nature of community, they must ground their theology not in a general account of personhood and relationality, but in reflection of the life specifically of the three Persons. ‘Talk about the Trinity’, he insists, ‘should not ever be something different from the Bible’s talk about the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (p. 100). Moreover, Higton rightly rejects throughout all attempts to think about, talk about or imagine God by way of going behind the economy and beginning with a set of abstract propositions (see pp. 97-9); (ii) that the goal of human life is theosis – being drawn in time and space to share in the love and justice which is God’s life; (iii) an unashamed commitment to helping those within and without the Church to value and ‘do’ theology; and (iv) that theological realities ought to inform all aspects of life in the world.

Presumably, because of the classroom context out of which this material arose, it is at times unnecessarily repetitious. This makes the volume longer than it needs to be. Also, the chapters are qualitatively uneven; I found chapters 1, 2, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 13 to be the strongest. Another reservation is that whereas Higton situates his theology in a covenantal context, there is very little discussion of the place of law in his exploration of central Christian doctrines. Moreover, while the ‘not-yet’ of holiness is properly explored, the author’s discussion on the Church’s mark of holiness inadequately explores the Church’s faithful confession of its ontological life as the ‘set-apart’ of God, and the divine election by virtue of which the Church is already holy. Also, occasionally (e.g. p. 177) Higton expresses a somewhat more panentheistic vision of reality that some readers may feel moves beyond that witnessed to in Scripture, even though he is careful throughout to distinguish – while not separating – divine transcendence from divine immanence, and to not conflate creation into divinity.

These shortcomings aside, Christian Doctrine is a lucid introduction to the subject, and it is encouraging to see a work targeted at mid-level undergraduate students. Pastorally sensitive, receptive of the tradition, accessibly written, and inviting of conversation, Higton attractively resists over-presuming on his claims and he models an unashamed agnosticism on matters where less sober minds might push for sight (see, for example, his treatment on the parousia on pages 218-21). Exegetically informed, Higton patterns a theological commitment which requires that one approach Scripture expectantly and vulnerably, prepared to be ‘unsettled, overthrown and remade’ (p. 400). The book’s structure, and that of each chapter, serves the reiteration of key teaching points, each of which are also helpfully illustrated with well-chosen examples from life, Scripture and/or the arts. The inclusion throughout of carefully-chosen exercises, discussion starters and suggestions for additional reading well compliments each section. A useful complement to recent introductions by Migliore, McGrath, Ford and Gunton, Christian Doctrine is a constructive introductory volume for the student, and a helpful model for the teacher – an all-too-rare combination.

[NB: A version of this review has been submitted to IJST]

‘Reflections on Grace’: A Review

Thomas A. Langford, Reflections on Grace (ed. Philip A. Rolnick, Jonathan R. Wilson; Eugene: Cascade Books, 2007. xi + 113 pages. ISBN: 978 1 55635 058 0. Review copy courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

‘God present is grace’. So begins this collection of brief, but rich, reflections on the most precious of realities – the inexhaustible grace of God. In under 100 pages, Langford shares with us his reflections – penned during the last years of his life and published posthumously – of what he has learnt over a lifetime of learning about grace as gift, as truth, and as the converse of disgrace. Ever interpreted christologically, and never divorced from its enfleshment in the realities of creation and in the nurturing and interpretation within the community of God’s people, Langford gently – graciously – invites us to catch glimpses of nothing less than the Triune God, and to believe that this God not only speaks in ‘the tongue of our time’ (p. 22), but that he holds nothing of himself back as he throws himself into the most despicable and hopeless of human situations in order to bring transformation. This is grace’s self-giving and cruciform ‘edge’; it is ‘as real as the conditions in which life must be lived’ (p. 29).

Grace, Langford argues, is not only God’s ‘way of being’, but – precisely because it is such – it establishes our way of being, and makes possible ‘the integrity of the faithful responder’ (p. 105). Rejection of this grace, therefore, issues in the malformation of life. This United Methodist minister reminds us that our attempts to live as though God were absent atrophies human possibility and being.

While not convincing at every point (he over-presses, at times, a strained disjunction between God’s love and his law, for example), this is a beautifully-written book and deserves to be read slowly. It would be a great book to work through in a small group.

Scottish Journal of Theology (61/3) is out

The latest Scottish Journal of Theology (Volume 61, Issue 03) is out and includes the following articles and reviews:

‘Resurrection as surplus and possibility: Moltmann and Ricoeur’, by Devin Singh.

Though Moltmann and Ricoeur have a history of interaction, little attention has been paid to this relationship and its implications for their respective programmes. These thinkers have much in common, however, and the Ricoeurian categories of surplus and possibility elucidate critical aspects of a theology of hope, serving to strengthen its contemporary implications. Nuance is provided for the resurrection’s role in redemption, and an existential mode of hope is delineated. Focusing on Moltmann’s interactions with Ricoeur concerning the resurrection elevates these latent themes and demonstrates the fruitfulness of a continued conversation between these two thinkers. Furthermore, examining Moltmann’s thought in Ricoeurian perspective opens new directions for conceptualising resurrection hope and praxis in a postmodern context.

‘Maimonides, Aquinas and Ghazali: distinguishing God from world’, by David Burrell

This exploration focuses on Moses ben Maimon’s attempt to give philosophical voice to the revelation of the Torah to offer a window into the comparative (though not actually collaborative) efforts of Jewish, Christian and Muslim medieval thinkers to adapt the metaphysical strategies available to them to the hitherto inconceivable task of articulating a creation utterly free, with nothing presupposed to it. Short of a divine revelation, nothing could have suggested such an affirmation, so crafting the adaptations demanded of familiar philosophical categories would require exploiting the illumination inherent in those distinct revelations. Far from being a merely historical exercise, these efforts are presented as object lessons for philosophical theologians today, as we move to show how Aquinas and Ghazali complement Maimonides’ way of negotiating recondite regions where reason and faith interact. In that sense, this exercise inspired by medieval thinkers may be dubbed , since the deliverances of faith can be seen to be interwoven with rational inquiry and indispensable to its execution. Moreover, their witness can also challenge current who may all too easily presume their categories to be adequate to the task of probing the reaches of religious faith. In this way, the call to transform philosophical strategies in ways not unlike that undertaken by our medieval thinkers can suggest a benign reading of the situation in which we admittedly live.

‘From Hilary of Poitiers to Peter of Blois: a Transfiguration journey of biblical interpretation’, by Kenneth Stevenson

The Transfiguration narratives have received considerable attention from New Testament scholars, but so far very little has been written about them from the point of view of their reception-history. The purpose of this article is to examine the ways in which they have been interpreted in the Latin West from the time of Hilary of Poitiers in the fourth century to Peter of Blois in the early thirteenth. Among these writers, from the big names like Jerome to the lesser known figures like Peter of Celle, a varied tapestry emerges where light allegory plays an important part, whether in the symbolisms given to the choice of the three disciples, Peter, James and John, or to the dazzling clothes of Christ as baptismal glory before cross ), or as a festival in its own right, the Transfiguration emerges as an unusually rich source of biblical interpretation that poses real challenges to the use of the religious imagination today. And it provides a significant contribution to the development of a balanced view of reception-history in our own time.

‘The Barthian heritage of Hans W. Frei’, by John Allan Knight

Hans Frei and the of narrative theology are often understood to be Barthian in orientation, but only rarely have the origins and contours of Frei’s engagement with Barth been treated in the secondary literature. Frei’s dissertation itself remains unpublished, with the exception of an oddly edited abridgement that appeared ten years after Frei’s untimely death. This lacuna is unfortunate, because Frei’s dissertation on Barth, and especially his treatment of Barth’s method, are of signal importance in that they set the agenda and orientation for much, if not all, of Frei’s later work. Consequently, in this article I analyse Frei’s dissertation on Barth, focusing primarily on his treatment of Barth’s protest against . On Frei’s reading, three moves constitute Barth’s break with relationalism: the primacy of ontology over epistemology, the subordination of method to positive affirmations about God, and the conformance of interpretative method both to Barth’s methodological commitments and to his affirmations about God. In his dissertation, Frei argues that Barth believed that, without these moves, theology would be vulnerable to Feuerbach’s critique. Frei’s construal of Barth’s break with relationalism sets the agenda for Frei’s own later work, in which he appropriates these Barthian moves by insisting on the primacy of biblical narratives in theological method. Similar to Barth, Frei takes twentieth-century hermeneutic theology to be vulnerable to deconstructionist critique. His insistence on the primacy of a literal reading of the biblical narratives is his attempt to rectify this vulnerability.

‘The struggle between the “image of God” and Satan in the Greek Life of Adam and Eve’, by Rivka Nir

According to a tradition in the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (GLAE), Seth and his mother Eve were confronted by a wild beast that attacked Seth. This article asserts that Seth’s battle with the beast should be understood as a struggle between the and Satan, and viewed in a Christian context. The claim is based on three aspects of the story: how the beast is described, why it attacked Seth and only he could control it, and why the beast was confined to its dwelling place until the Day of Judgement. The struggle between Seth and the beast/Satan should be seen as a link in the chain of struggle between the image of God and Satan. It begins in Paradise between Adam, the image of God, and Satan, as recounted in the story of Satan’s fall from heaven, continues on earth between Seth, Adam’s descendant, and Satan, and will culminate with the final victory of Jesus, the ultimate image of God, over Satan at the end of times.

‘Torture and the Christian conscience: a response to Jeremy Waldron’, by Jean Porter

In remarks offered in 2006 at a conference at Princeton Theological Seminary, inaugurating a National Religious Campaign against Torture, the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron observed that Christian leaders have contributed relatively little to the recent debate over the use of torture. This is regrettable, in his view, because secular morality does not have resources sufficient to address the question of torture, and a Christian perspective emphasising the absoluteness and divine character of the relevant moral norms would represent an important contribution to our reflections on this question. This article offers a response to Waldron’s timely and important challenge, setting forth a Christian theological argument that the practice of torture is categorically prohibited. The basis for this prohibition does not rest, however, on the absoluteness of moral norms as such rather, it rests on the distinctive character of torture as an egregious assault on the human person regarded as image of God.

Book Reviews include:

  • ‘Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth and the Pietists: The Young Karl Barth’s Critique of Pietism and Its Response‘, by Cherith Fee Nordling
  • ‘Donald G. Bloesch, The Last Things: Resurrection, Judgment, Glory‘, by Ray S. Anderson
  • D. Stephen Long, John Wesley’s Moral Theology: The Quest for God and Goodness‘, by Todd C. Ream and Kevin K. Wright
  • ‘James Bernauer and Jeremy Carrette, eds, Michel Foucault and Theology: The Politics of Religious Experience‘, by Matthew Halteman
  • ‘I. Howard Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology‘, by Steven J. Koskie
  • ‘Jeffrey Stout and Robert MacSwain, eds, Grammar and Grace: Reformulations of Wittgenstein and Aquinas‘, by Harold E. Ernst
  • ‘Stanley E. Porter, ed, Reading the Gospels Today‘, by Edward W. Klink
  • ‘Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics‘, by Mark Douglas
  • ‘Bruce D. Chilton and Jacob Neusner, Classical Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: Comparing Theologies‘, by Brad Embry

Commending Jesus Ascended

An enthusiastic plug: I’ve just finished reading Gerrit Scott Dawson’s Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (London/Phillipsburg: T&T Clark/P&R Publishing, 2004). While I don’t have time to write up a review of it at the moment (though I hope to at some stage) I want to highly commend this excellent and very accessible study.

This is theology as it should be done: formed by scripture, with gratitude for the best of the tradition, and with eyes directed towards the church’s praxis in the world. A must read for pastors, worship leaders, missiologists, and anyone who prays – or wishes they did … and theologians! A taster:

Rejecting the story of Jesus at any point after his crucifixion completely skews the understanding of the church … A Christ who did not ascend has not established our primary identity in heaven, and he is not returning to bring in the new heavens and the new earth. (p. 149)

[Those interested may also like to read my review of a collection of papers edited by Dawson entitled An Introduction to Torrance Theology: Discovering the Incarnate Saviour]