Monday, 30 April 2012

Happy 65th Birthday To Paul Fiddes

Together with others I would like to wish Professor Paul Fiddes a happy 65th birthday.  Unlike some of my fellow Baptist bloggers my own personal contact with Paul has been limited and rather intermittent.  My loss.   

Paul reminds me of one of my school friends, Martyn Moxon. I used to play cricket with Martyn.  I took a few wickets in the Barnsley schools league.  He went on to captain Yorkshire and play for England.  Thing about Martyn was he was so good he could afford to be modest.  Same goes for Paul.

In the spirit of this particular festblog here's a couple of quotes from Paul's Past Event And Present Salvation, the first of his books to find its way across my desk and deep into my head.
In creation God gives freedom to something over against himself; he limits himself by the freedom of others, his creatures, and becomes vulnerable to their decisions.  In the very act of creation then, he must preserve it from wilfully drifting away into nothingness and the void.  From the act of creation onwards he faces the tragedy of death, and seeks to win his own creatures into free and joyous fellowship with himself. (22)
Since he has identified himself with Jesus in both act and being, we may say that the Father himself embarks upon the agonising journey of discovery that forgiveness entails.  Far from simply forgetting about the sins of the world he journeys deeply into the heart of the human tragedy.  It is as if the Father is not content to go out on the road to await the return of the prodigal son, but actually takes the path into the far country to fetch the wayward son from the pigsty. (178)
Past Event And Present Salvation (1989) London: Darton, Longman and Todd

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Longing For Home - Review

Buechner Frederick, The Longing For Home, Harper Collins, 1996, 180pp.

I've decided to stick a few book reviews up on the blog.  Some of them were written a while ago.  
The Longing For Home is the kind of Christian book that only America seems to produce.  Would that we had an Annie Dillard or a Eugene Peterson. 

If I tell you that this is a collection of essays, meditations, poems and mini, sermon-type, reflections, it will probably put you off.  Don’t let it, please.  This is a book to do your soul good.  Deeply personal and acutely spiritual, it will move your heart and open your eyes.

The Author, Frederick Buechner (pronounced Beekner), is a Presbyterian Minister in his 70’s.  Taking as his theme the concept of home, the home that we remember and the home to which we are heading, he explores issues of family relationships, the inner-connections of community life, death, birth, the spirituality of creation, grace, hope, faith and love. 

Inevitably with such a collection some pieces have more merit than others but the overall standard is very high.  At times you can detect the odd bit of desperate editorial work to make previously existing, independent pieces fit into the theme but that’s the most minor of irritations.

I read the book in two sittings while on holiday.  I plan to read it again - for the sake of my soul.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Mission Implausible - Book Review

I've decided to stick a few book reviews up on the blog.  Some of them were written a while ago.  This one relates to a book that is now sadly out of print.  Shame.  It's a good 'un.  Still might be possible to pick one up second hand.  Anyhow, here's the review.

Duncan MacLaren, Mission Implausible: Restoring Credibility to the Church (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2004)

The latest edition of Religious Trends from Peter Brierley’s organisation, Christian Research, catalogues the ongoing, dismal decline of the UK church.  Brierley predicts that if current trends continue 1.3 million (net) members will leave between the years 2000 and 2020, a loss of 23%.  This is the context for Duncan MacLaren’s very helpful contribution to the growing literature on mission in western societies.   Specifically he offers insights from The Sociology of Knowledge a field pioneered in the 60’s and 70’s by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman.  His hope is to discover strategies that the church might adopt to recover credibility for itself and its message.

MacLaren is sympathetic to Grace Davie’s contention that the dramatic decline of the fortunes of Christianity in Europe is something of an oddity when compared to the remarkable resilience of religion elsewhere.  In accounting for this decline  he allows for influences arising from the history of ideas since the enlightenment.  However, more weight is given to sociological factors.  Here MacLaren lines up with classic secularisation theorists such as Bryan Wilson and Steve Bruce, attributing the decline of the church to the inhospitality of modernity (at least in its European form) towards institutional Christianity.  His analysis of the impact of such issues as urbanisation, industrialisation, and privatisation covers familiar ground with commendable clarity and lightness of touch.  Similarly we are offered a very useful introduction to Berger’s notion of plausibility structures – those aspects of any given society that bolster the credibility of  certain beliefs. 

Next, Maclaren identifies various forms of religion that seem to buck the secularisation trend.  For instance sectarian forms of religion such as Pentecostalism or the latent religion associated with high profile tragedies such as the death Diana.  He then goes on to suggest various reasons for such resilience.  This thinking is cashed out in terms of five “imperatives for practical action for restoring credibility to the church”.  Very stimulating stuff this.

With echoes of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture we then get MacLaren’s consideration of the positioning of the church viz a viz the rest of society.  He identifies three promising strategies: tension (the sectarian option which maximises internal coherence and maintains distinctives); momentum (making the most of favourable societal trends by going with the flow) and the middle way of significance (engaging in public issues in ways that maximise the visibility of the church).  The suggestion is that a missionary-minded church needs to find ways of simultaneously becoming distinctive, inculturated and engaged.  Interesting, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the suggestion that the Columban mission of the Celtic church is an example of how this might be achieved.

All in all I found Mission Implausible a very helpful and worthwhile read; so much so that I now use it as one of the core text-books for my course on Mission In Contemporary Britain.  Its value lies in the combination of sociology and missiology.  While there is little here that is brand new, MacLaren is a well-informed and reliable guide to both fields and his handling of the conversation between the two is very stimulating.

The Ethics of Evangelism - A Review

Thiessen, E. (2011). The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Ethical Proselytising and Persuasion. Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

Thank God someone is addressing this issue.  The very fact that so little has been written on the theme of the ethics of evangelism is itself an indication that we’ve got evangelism wrong.  The first priority of evangelism is to bear faithful witness, to communicate the message of Christ in a Christlike way; our primary concern is not results, success, effectiveness.  When we get these priorities wrong evangelism itself gets screwed up.

What we have in The Ethics of Evangelism is a careful and thorough if at times rather plodding attempt to address those critics who claim that proselytising is inherently unethical, that it is, among other things, disrespectful to seek to persuade people to convert.  The author is convinced of two things: that too often evangelism is in fact unethical and that it absolutely need not be.  It is desirable to seek conversions and it is possible to do so in an ethical way.

After a careful definition of terms Thiessen offers us a survey of motivations for proselytising followed by a reflection on the reasons why evangelism has become an increasingly controversial activity.  We are then given a number of examples of unethical proselytising before the author draws on the likes of Kant, Kung, Rorty and Rawls in an attempt to inform an approach to constructing a pragmatic ethic of proselytising.  Thiessen hopes this approach will win respect from people of all faiths and those of no faith – a bit optimistic this, I reckon.

The next section seeks to refute a range of objections to proselytising.  Thiessen takes on issues of epistemology, freedom, integrity, the individual and social nature of human being along with a range of broadly liberal misapprehensions as a way of clearing the ground for a set of positive proposals.  It is these proposals, a list of fifteen criteria for evaluating proselytising, that are the heart of the book and probably the most useful section for those engaged in evangelism including church leaders seeking to encourage their own congregations.

The book has many strengths.  I appreciate the exposure of special pleading and question-begging on the part of some critics of evangelism and the discussions of persuasion and interfaith dialogue were especially helpful.  Thiessen’s critique is consistently even-handed and carefully nuanced.  However, I am not convinced that The Ethics of Evangelism will have the impact that I would like it to have.  Unfortunately the style is hardly gripping and it falls between the stools of a genuinely rigorous academic treatment of the subject and one that seeks to have a broader appeal. 

Despite these reservations I welcome this book enthusiastically,  I hope that it will receive a wide readership, not least amongst church leaders.  I am convinced that the evangelistic malaise that has descended on our churches is due in no small measure to a loss of nerve on the part of Christians who are not comfortable with the very idea of evangelism let alone some of the approaches that were once popular.  We need to expose and eschew deceptive, manipulative, high pressure techniques and recover confidence in speaking of Christ in a Christlike way.  May this book help us along the way.

This review was originally written for Regent's Reviews and is reproduced here with permission of the editor.  Check out the web site to get a free pdf of a whole bunch of reviews.