Church: there and back again

Recommending a book is a tricky business. No more so than when it comes to Christian books – especially the ones aimed at a more popular market. Recommend something and there can often be the assumption that the recommendation also means endorsement and agreement. That always seems to me to be a lazy approach to anything, let alone something so personal as a book; but there we have it. Algorithms increasingly tell us what we should read, watch, listen to next based on what we’ve liked before, and we expect people to do the same – so we get funnelled deeper into an echo chamber we may not have been aware we were making.

I value Rachel Held Evans. I don’t always agree with her; sometimes her writing on blogs or in books annoys or angers me. Which is all the more reason I need to listen to voices like hers. She is one of those who voices what many who love Jesus increasingly feel and experience. As such, whether I agree with her or not is in many senses irrelevant. I need to hear her, and through her hear those who feel she speaks for them. Her last book, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, has been for me a key plank in establishing my own feminism. Her new book, Searching For Sunday, has challenged and enriched me deeply. Through a series of reflections around each of the Orthodox church’s sacraments, she tells her story of struggling with doubt; of leaving, trying to remake, and eventually reconnecting with church. Sometimes people who write or speak on these subjects put people like me (church leaders) on the back foot; we’re made to feel guilty, failures. It’s our fault, you see. Sometimes it is, of course, but such blame shifting doesn’t open dialogue or encourage learning. Searching For Sunday I found to be rather different. It was truthful, open, compassionate, humble. It spoke as much for the experience and concerns of someone in my role as it does for the skeptical and occasional pew-sitter.

It eschews easy judgements and blanket assertions; the book – and the author – is both vulnerable, but confident in her own incompleteness. It’s also her best piece of writing – some of the metaphors and imagery are startling or refreshing; I especially appreciated how the conscious use of voices, stories and metaphors associated with women opened up different perspectives.

It seems so reductive to ask myself if I agreed with everything she said. I don’t know how to answer that, or quantify it. I needed the book, and continue to need it. It speaks to me, and for me. It challenges me and refreshes me and encourages me and heals me. It sheds fresh light and depth on aspects of both my life as a disciple of Jesus and as one tasked with public ordained ministry, performing some of the sacraments on which she touches in the book.

It’s neither the first, nor the last, word on any of the issues it raises. It’s not trying to be either of those things. It’s more than that – it’s a beautiful, touching, and eloquent chapter in the story.

 I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads

Stuff Of The Year 2014, 2: Books

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014.  This post’s about the books I’ve read in 2014 that have most improved the year. They’re in the order I finished reading them, if you’re interested, ending with the most recent. The year in brackets is the year of publishing.

Stillness and Speed: My Story by Dennis Bergkamp and David Winner (2013)

A great sports book, that transcends its subject. Thematic rather than strictly chronological, this is the anatomy of genius; it does justice to one of the greatest exponents on his art and it’s hard to imagine a genuine football fan or anyone interested in what goes into making greatness not enjoying this. (Click here for a longer post on the book)

Tresspass by Rose Tremain (2010)

An elegantly written, finely tuned novel by way of Ian McEwen, this exerts a vice like grip on the attention and never fails to develop its big themes of family, expats and greed. Rose Tremain at her understated and gripping best.

The Circle by Dave Eggars (2013)

Contemporary literary fiction of the most urgent, relevant kind; a convincing portrait of a near-future nightmare at the hands of omnipresent corporations and social media; never less than accessible or fun, too. (Click here for a longer post on the book)

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You by Jon McGregor (2012)

One of my favourite writers, McGregor is the great painter of contemporary urban Britain, spinning beauty out of the mundane and everyday. This is a collection of short stories, poems and bits and pieces around the broad theme the lenses we view life through and how they shift over time. Sometimes accessible, sometimes odd; always brilliant.

How God Became King by N T Wright (2012)

NT Wright is the era’s defining theologian, and this is one of his more popular level works, aiming to make his take on the Gospels accessible to the everyday reader. It’s pretty much essential reading for the Christian looking to really get to grips with the scope of what Jesus came to do.

Red Letter Christianity by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo (2012)

The authors are at the forefront of a movement seeking to transform how Biblically faithful Christians are viewed. It’s an American-centred book, but still vital reading if you say you care about Christian faith and social justice.

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery (2013)

Absolution was one of my favourite books of the last few years; the follow-up isn’t quite that good, but nearly. It’s a literary thriller with some dazzlingly good touches; it’s thematically about truth, lies and the security we crave. It entertains and feeds the brain.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

A bona fide masterpiece of sinuous prose, bravura characters and hallucinogenic portrayals. Every bit as good as you’ve heard.

Winter of The World by Ken Follett (2012)

The middle volume of 20th century spanning trilogy of  historical fiction, setting the trials of families from various nations against the backdrop of World War 2. Brilliantly executed, crowd-pleasing and no small achievement.

Dominion by C J Sansom (2012)

I love the Shardlake novels, but his may be his best; an alternate history novel set in a Britain which sought peace in 1940; it’s thrilling and chilling in its portrayal of how history turns on a sixpence. Characters are rich and deep, and not just the main ones – even the bit parts are richly textured.

Also In This Series

1: Movies

The God Of Intimacy And Action by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling

If you’re both a teenager and a Christian, it’s likely that there are some far-off Christians who have a big impact on you. They may be speakers, writers, singers or something else … but these are the people whose very existence convinces you that there’s something in this, that it’s going to be worth sticking with it. American preacher (and, I discovered later, sociologist – even though for a while I didn’t know what one of those was) Tony Campolo was one of these. He wrote a handful of books aimed at young Christians which were funny, to the point and world shaking. His books invited you to imagine and way of following Jesus which was both fun as well as challenging and changing the world in which you lived. It was quite some time later – when I reached a semblance of adulthood – that I finally heard him speak. I was delighted to discover that he was even better in person – funnier, even more intelligent, even more intent on actually doing something about the problems of the world, and remarkably self-effacing. When I  met Bev, whom I would later marry, in the course of jobs at hostel for young people who found themselves homeless in London, I discovered she’d first felt the stirring of a call to this type of work on hearing Tony Campolo speak about the rather alarming parable of the sheep and the goats. 

We’ve been married nearly 14 years now, and Tony Camplo is still going strong. The more Christians I meet with a concern for social justice, the more I find his fingerprints are all over the souls of Jesus’ people labouring hard in the trenches. People who live and work in these draining contexts can often burn out. That burn-out can take any number of forms … be it physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, theological or some combination thereof. This book, written by Campolo alongside spiritual director and Communications professor Mary Darling, is the sort of lifeline which will provide a way to stop such burn-out from occurring.

The book seeks to connect ancient spiritual disciplines  – such as the prayer of examen, ‘divine reading’ and centering (meditative) prayer – with social action and evangelism. I read it in a season of personal tiredness. I lead a church in a country which is not the country of my birth; I’m surrounded both by the need which most pastors find around them in every church, as well as the immense social need of a country and a local context with severe social problems. I needed fresh energy; I needed a shot of hope. This book helped me find it.

It’s structured simply and well, and is aimed at anyone who wants a deeper Christian faith – and/or one which actually enables them to make a difference in the world around. It establishes what the sometimes scary sounding Christian mysticism is and isn’t, the link between this and both evangelism and justice and the need for an understanding of the gospel which can truly be called holistic. There then follows a journey which seeks to take us closer to God, to deepening our understanding and experience of His love for us; and how that then fuels our evangelism and work for justice; concluding with three simple approaches to deepening our walk with God and examples of how these have been expressed by other Christians in today’s world.

There’s no shortage of books about the practice of Christian spirituality – especially where that concerns people like St Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and Catherine of Siena. Such books are usually ends in themselves. Which is not a bad thing – but it can inadvertently encourage a spirituality which spins continually in on itself. This book is one of the very few I’ve come across to seek to link the classic spiritual practices with the service of the last and the least. It put me in mind of writers like Shane Claiborne and Richard Foster – whose work I was unsurprised to find referenced in this book’s conclusion. It’s a book which is not excessively long, and neither is it hard to read. Not is it shallow. It’s started me on a journey; as I continue, I shall revisit its pages and wish there were more of them.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes

I finished reading this in the week of the Boston Marathon, a week which highlighted that for all the shock and outrage which following an attack, terror has become everyday. There were other bomb explosions around the globe  that day – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The Boston bomb, as outrageous and disturbing as it was, remained the least effectual terror attack of the day … if you measure these things with the awful and simple matrix of lives lost. The shock of so many at one attack when terrorism remains a daily reality for so many suggests we’ve lost perspective, that fear and cruelty have numbed us. We have to shut it out; when it comes close to home, we allow it fill our consciousness for a few days, for as long as the news channels keep it front and centre.

This is another effect of what charity fundraisers can call ‘compassion fatigue’; you grow tired and immune to the suffering of those who aren’t right in front of you. It’s only when suffering gets right in our faces that we’re forced to pay it closer attention; the logic goes that it’s the job of the fundraiser to keep the suffering front and centre and thus to ensure the funds keep flowing.

The Compassion Quest, the wonderful new book from Trystan Owain Hughes, suggests an alternative, a way to keep compassion alive. The reason is not so much to raise more funds for charity, though if we all paid attention to the book’s suggestion that may be a positive side-effect, so much as to awake us all to life as we are meant to live it. In his first book – the concise, brilliant Finding Hope And Meaning In Suffering, Trystan Owain Hughes didn’t seek to explain suffering, but to offer us a map through it. If you we’re to summarise its endpoint – and you really shouldn’t settle for just a summary – you’d say that the book called for mindfulness. Mindfulness of who we are and the world God’s placed us in, and a resultant thankfulness and appreciation; these are things which equip us to live through suffering. This book builds on that; to take us beyond ‘just’ surviving difficulties and pain, to living well in the world around us, building good and life-giving relationships with other people, the world and the things in the world.

This, like the first book, is brilliant and accessible theology for real people. Owain Hughes, in little over 100 pages peppered with insights from all manner of books and films and music, suggests seeking and embracing a sense of our mutual interconnectedness. Relationship – with people, with the created order – leads to stability and a recognition of yourself in the other. There’s something important to grasp here – some will see in this pseudo-spiritual new age inflected tree-hugging. That would be to do this a grave disservice. The author’s orthodox (in the best sense of that word) theology of creation and the incarnation of Jesus rescues us from those to skewed theologies which sees men (humans) and men (males) as there to lord themselves over the rest. This is a theology of humble awe at the breadth of what God has made; a theology which invites us to love with a thankful awareness of everything that’s around us; a theology which sees God-reflecting life everywhere; a theology that recognises the thin margins separating us, against which we are usually more wont to build draw-bridges and moats.

There’s much more to be said about this deep and rich book, but really you should read it for yourself. Like my favourite spiritual theologian, Eugene Peterson, reading this book you feel in the company of quietly content, confident, humble wisdom grounded in good scholarship and expressed in beautiful, accessible prose. When’s all said and done, this is theology for the everyday.

I rated this book 5/5 on GoodReads.com

Lost Church by Alan Billings

For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, I am a Christian called to worship in and minister in the Anglican church. I was bought up in one, I have worshipped in several, and have committed myself before God and people to ordained ministry in that context. I am also someone whose own tradition within that context is as charismatic evangelical. I am committed to the theology and practice of that; I value other traditions greatly, but that is mine. That doesn’t mean that I sign up to everything which some people associate with that label – I interpret my tradition in the may that fits and works and makes sense for me. But it is the label which fits most naturally – if imperfectly. I am also deeply committed and passionate about a movement within Anglicanism and other denominations known as Fresh Expressions (more of that later). I see none of these things as in conflict with one another. Which is not the impression I was left with after reading Lost Church by Alan Billings.

It’s an accesible and clearly constructed book calling Anglican churches and their clergy to reconsider ministry to those who may not be fully professing Christians, but have a vague sense of belonging to the established Church of England. They may not ‘believe’ as many would understand that concept, but they have a sense of attachment, loyalty and belonging to a type of religious expression which they understand the Church Of England as providing.

In essence, that’s Billings’ call. There’s a lot that’s helpful here. He speaks as an experienced parish priest and trainer of clergy, so this is coming from a position of first hand experience. His variety of ministry contexts and  engagement with research leaves him well placed to analyse societal trends. There’s much that’s helpful and challenging for me and for people like me – I need to own the fact, as he does suggest, that evangelical Anglicans can put as many barriers as we think we are taking down for people. It’s just that we’re keeping out, sometimes, a different sort of person. There’s also a tendency amongst some in our tradition to cut ourselves off from our historical moorings and fellowship within the broader church. All of that is true, and the book was a helpful reminder and corrective to me  – even now, serving a long way from England, but still an Anglican. Societal trends in South Africa are likely to follow a similar path to that seen over recent times in the UK, so these are apposite warnings.

I had problems with the book, though. First is that I was struck by what felt to me a certain meanness of spirit. I own some of these criticisms of the traditions of which I am a part; but some of the language and tone felt at times snide and at others unfair. As a former priest in Sheffield he criticises, for instance, the high profile St Thomas’ Crookes church in that city. In the late 1980s/early 90s the church experimented with an usunaual form of worship which came out of nightclub culture. This met with initial success, before a very public moral failure, the fall of the leader and accusations (almost certainly justified) of cult-like behaviour. Billings criticises St Thomas’ for sitting outside normal Anglican structures – without mentioning the reality of the the church having been a joint Anglican and Baptist project since 1982. So of course it was going to sit outside normal structures; that’s not to excuse the failures or mistakes, but he’d have done well to point out that it wasn’t fully Anglican because that would have been to deny the essence of what that church was meant to be.  He suggests that ‘perhaps’ lessons have been learned at St Thomas’ and in similar contexts – the reality is that if you read books to emerge from St Thomas, listen to the leaders and speak to people in the Fresh Expressions movement, then they manifestly have. In the case of St Thomas’, the church has continued to grow and move into innovative, exciting models of leadership, mission and discipleship – without a hint of moral failure. That tragic series of mistakes has been learned from, but will remain fallen Churches are led for sinners by sinners so failures will still occur, but you can’t move far in these circles without hearing these lessons rehearsed.

There is the problem. For all his no doubt deep experience and valuable, committed ministry Alan Billings seems to spend time lobbing criticisms at something he doesn’t show he’s engaged with. Evangelicals do not all try to argue people through reason into a propositional set of ideas, as he suggests. Many evangelical churches are profoundly, deeply, prophetically tolerant and welcoming; not all are cold and unfriendly. Some are not, of course. Some are, though. Fresh Expressions is not ‘about meeting in any sort of building other than a church, as if a church building could only be of interest to the already committed‘; it’s about creating a ‘mixed economy’ church (to use former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ phrase in his support of the movement) which uses BOTH traditional and new models of church. It takes inspiration from the vows all priests ordained in England take ‘to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation’; it’s rooted in Anglicanism and committed to ecumenism – so naturally it will contain elements that are not Anglican so much as reflective of other approaches. Many within the movement – as the aformentioned sinners we all are – will come across as arrogant or dismissive or loaners. Many, though, are humble, Godly people who love the church and their fellow ministers. Which is why they want to see the church grow, and even more invited into the variety of her beauty.

Lost Church blessed, challenged, encouraged, saddened and angered me. I liked it. It has an urgent message. Many who love the church should read it; I fear though that a lack of thought and understanding in places will lead to offence and regression rather than the forward movement Allan Billings clearly longs to see in the church he loves.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com

What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

It’s tempting and probably a little lazy to suggest that the digital era discourages nuanced thinking. It is, though, at least partly true. Certainly there’s enough evidence in social media and comment sections of (some) blogs to lead us to that conclusion – it’s easy to take a tweet out of context because there is so little context to read it in. When it’s straightforward to publish an opinion to a broad audience, it’s easy to publish that opinion without really thinking it through – and then find yourself defending something out of pride rather than because you really think that way after giving due consideration.

It seems to me that mega-church pastors are lightening rods for precisely such unguarded thinking. Infamously, Rob Bell had been dismissed by some as no longer part of the evangelical movement by many based on the pre-publicity for his book Love Wins (in fairness some maintained that viewpoint after reading the book). There were all sorts of implications to that – not least that there exists a set of guardians who get to say who’s an evangelical and who isn’t; and that Bell himself wanted to be understood as part of that camp.

In the case of Rob Bell, or more precisely opinions held about him, we see this lack of nuanced thinking writ large. The implication of much of the debate around his work seems to be that either you accept his whole body of work or you don’t. In the heat of debate it can seem as if there’s no space to agree with some of his points but not the rest; no space to be open to the idea that Bell himself may actually change his opinion on some issues over time (don’t we all?); no space for those who just find the fact that he airs certain questions helpful even if we end up with different answers as a result of the same process.

Context isn’t everything, but is important. The church of which Bell was founding pastor was established with a mission, as I understand, to reach seekers – specifically those with a vague sense of spirituality but uncomfortable with established forms of religion. These are he sort of people who would have been very at home in 1st century Athens. Bell’s written and verbal communication style reflects that – he’s not trying to reach established Christians who like church as it is; while some of them may benefit from what he’s doing, he’s after those who are searching in different places.

What’s beyond doubt is that he is a supremely skilled verbal communicator – I’ve heard him live on a few occasions and he’s in that rare category of speakers who can hold comfortably your attention for well over an hour; I was also struck by how much he deconstructs any notion of his own popularity or celebrity; he showed willingness to talk about his failings and inadequacies.

So to his first book since leaving full time church leadership to concentrate on writing and developing other projects. What We Talk About When We Talk About God bears many of the hallmarks of his written work. It’s short; it’s clearly aimed at those who are spiritually seeking or struggling; and in the introductory sections he’s very clear that this is a book which has arisen from his own struggles and issues. He’s had a profound experience of doubt and this book is the product of an attempt to re-express his faith in a way which doesn’t give up but simultaneously does justice to the reality of the doubts.

I admit that once the book really got underway I wondered where some of it was going. He takes some really interesting and easy to read byways into areas like quantum physics – at comparatively great length in a short book – to try to help us connect with how awesomely strange the universe can be. It’s great stuff and I learned a lot, but I found myself a little skeptical of someone drifting into an area which, however well researched, is not his area of specialism. There was also too much of it – he could have achieved the same with less. When he finally takes it to where he wants to get us – awe at what God has put in motion – I was right there with him. I just could have done with taking him less time to get there.

Much of the rest of the book is Bell trying to get us to see that God is fundamentally for us, with us and ahead of us – beckoning us deeper and inviting us on. It’s warm-hearted, generous spirited stuff. It raises questions too – theologically we are left to wonder how he understands the authority of Scripture, and if there is such a thing for him as a fixed morality. Those are questions I’d like to hear him address some time. What this book isn’t, though, is marshmallow centred liberalism with nothing solid at the centre. It’s a hard-bitten, bought with blood wrestle with the reality of trying to understand the unseen and the seen together.

To answer questions which I do get asked – no, I don’t agree with everything in the book. I don’t always agree with what I read myself as having written, so how could I possibly agree with everything somebody else says? I’m suspicious of anyone agreeing with everything any one person says. No, it’s not his best work – for my money that’s Jesus Wants To Save Christians. However I want to say a big, emphatic yes – to the asking of the questions, to dealing with the reality of doubt but refusing to give up on faith, to the fact that on more than one occasion in the course of reading this latest book I put it down and said prayers of thanks and sung songs of worship. Which, at end of it all, is what the book is aiming for.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

A Year Of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Like The Cross In The Closet, this book represents an experiment. For Timothy Kurek, that was consciously pretending to be something he wasn’t in order to better understand. That’s a version of what happens in A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, but it’s not the whole story.

The author – Rachel Held Evans, a blogger, evangelical in the Dayton, Tennessee and author of  this and Evolving In Monkey Town – is a woman who takes on a year-long project to take what the Bible says to and about women as literally as possible. She does this as one who is happy to wear the feminist label, so this was always going to be an uncomfortable journey, if one that naturally fits a book. All of this presupposes that it’s possible to distill what the Bible says to and out women into list of things to do and be. Which is, to a certain extent the point of the project.

The sometimes bizarre sub-sub-culture of evangelical Christianity is not short of opinion when it comes to gender. We’ll be tackling different aspects of that opinion on the blog over the next while. Gender and sexuality are increasingly issues of fracture for churches and individuals – they are straws which break the proverbial camels’ backs. This is the stuff which causes people to leave churches; it’s important, and goes to the core of our personal identity. Books like this and The Cross In The Closet represent, for me, an inevitably imperfect but ultimately hopeful attempt to reframe the debate and provide something solid to stand on for those of us who feel increasingly alienated by each wing of the arguments.

In the case of Rachel Held Evans her project has her focus on a different theme every month: October (month 1) is gentleness, November is domesticity, March is modesty, June is submission. Naturally division by title makes things seems more tidy than they are in reality; there’s overflow and blurred edges all the way. Rachel is married to Dan, and they are people who approach marriage as a mutual, equal partnership; so inevitably there’s going to be some bumpy places along the way. There’s also a good deal of interesting conversation with people and exploration of texts to discover what the Bible may actually be saying or not saying. Take, for instance, Proverbs chapter 31:10-31, a section often titled ‘A Wife Of Noble Character’. So often this has been seen as a list of what women in general should aspire to be as wives, or should be working towards. Held Evans, tellingly, suggests that Jewish tradition sees the passage in a quite different way: it’s aimed at husbands, as a list of general strengths and achievements to honour and celebrate when they are seen and demonstrated in a woman. She reframes this as, for her culture, ‘woman of valour’, a blessing for a man or woman to speak over a woman. A throw-away example: her husband Dan greeting her tired arrival home,  bearing take-away having not been able to cook that day, with ‘Pizza? Woman Of Valour!’. Burden becomes blessing. Who could possibly thought men could have got it so (wilfully?) wrong?

It’s at moments like that, and in describing the unlikely friendships she forms over year, that the book is at its strongest points. I got a little frustrated by not hearing more from her husband – there are excerpts from his journal, but for me not enough. I’d love to hear his view of his wife’s journey in parallel detail. Necessarily it’s a personal book, but given the profound impact such a journey is likely to have on a significant relationship, it would have been instructive to hear more from him. None of us, ever, exist in a vacuum; the conclusion of the book handles this well. I just would have liked a little more from Dan peppered throughout. Bizarrely, I was also a little annoyed by the photographs. Rachel’s usually pictured holding something she’s just described herself making; often that process has featured frustration, tears, anger. Yet in the photos she’s almost always smiling. Maybe there’s a cultural thing going on here, but to me the photos of a smiling Rachel near a passage where she describes sobbing on the kitchen floor seem a little incongruous.

I and my wife Bev have long been people who have held ‘traditional’ Christian interpretations of gender roles and characteristics at arm’s length. We don’t find ourselves as isolated from the evangelical community as Rachel Held Evans does, but we do often feel like we’re swimming upstream. Books like this give people like me hope .I don’t agree with everything she writes, but certainly I do with most of it. It’s oxygen  – proof that we’re not mad, that there are other people who want to be faithful to the Bible but don’t want to assume that a ‘Biblical’ view of some issues is always what the vocally dominant say it is. The book shed light on some things and confirmed as viable what I had often suspected may be the case but hadn’t gone to the trouble of exploring. I’m humbled by Held Evans reaching the end of her year and finding herself confronting her sense of judgement and grudge-holding against those who feel differently. Given how suffocating it can be to hold views which aren’t recognised by the majority, that’s admirable. Experience suggests that the majority may not always be the majority – that when oxygen is offered, there are plenty there ready to breathe more deeply. May we do so – and speak. There’s more to people than a 2,000+ year-old list culled from carelessly applied texts.

You can find Rachel Held Evans’ excellent blog by clicking here. I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com