Adrian Alker, currently Chair of the Progressive Christianity Network, has written an excellent book which I'm rather glad I hadn't read before I wrote mine or I could have been accused of plagiarism! In a much more elegant and comprehensive way, he surveys the potential landscape for a radical Church and comes to a gloriously hopeful conclusion.
He knows what he's talking about. In over 35 years of Anglican priesthood he has put it all into practice and repeatedly evidenced that a Jesus-shaped Church is both possible and essential. He's clearly read many of the same books as me and gives an extremely helpful and readable overview of the literature, with many suggestions of further follow-up reading, to demonstrate how a modern faith and compassionate action can be sustained today. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to see a Church that is not dominated by doctrines and tradition but open to the newness of a journey full of discoveries about ourselves and our world, with the person of Jesus at its heart.
Interestingly, he only gets to 'God'-talk in the final chapter. Because the classic Creeds start there, I started there, which may be a mistake. What matters of course is deeds, not Creeds. If 'Christians', of all persuasions, can recognise that it's all about outcomes, not process; about what we do with our statements of 'faith', not the content of the statements themselves, we might be able to worry less about what you 'have' to believe to belong and reverse the otherwise inevitable decline into irrelevance. Maybe focus more on the seeds of 'Kingdom' growing quietly among and within us? That would indeed be grounds for hope.
Adrian Alker, 'Is a Radical Church Possible? Reshaping its life for Jesus' sake'. Christian Alternative Books, 2016.
This is a challenging book for those who don't want to go as far as Spong or Holloway but who are willing to embrace a more questioning approach to Christianity. I hadn't realised that I had stolen my own subtitle from him, for which I can only apologise and recognise his much greater right to it. The book may only be available second-hand, but I had no trouble getting it through Amazon recently.
Ward, a Professor of Divinity, recognises that there are many 'Christianities' and, crucially, that there always have been. Combining thoughtful scholarship and academic rigour, he basically charts the history of the Jesus story, recognising that it has constantly changed over the centuries. From its Jewish Messianic roots to a modern world of plurality and multi-culturalism, he shows how the message has been adapted to suit ever-changing contexts in the light of new knowledge at the time. There is no one 'original' and therefore most authentic or 'true' version still on offer. Being a Christian is ' an invitation to enter into a community of diverse and continuing interpretations'. I couldn't have put it better myself! I'd like to think it is true but I'm not sure it is.
It's not always an easy read, especially in the second half where he particularly addresses the German 'liberal' tradition and a series of complex theologians and philosophers. My advice is to take it slowly. It's not called 'Rethinking' for nothing! Maybe even just read the final chapter which summarises the whole book! Ward is basically 'mainstream' in the sense that he, unlike me, still believes in a Divine purposeful reality as a 'fact', if one that needs to be constantly re-expressed and redefined. But if you have started to wonder whether what you have always assumed, or been told, is actually true, and are prepared to recognise that 'faith' is not an unchanging inheritance from the past but a constant journey of discovery into the future, this may be a helpful look at more 'liberal' ways of thinking, especially about the Bible and how we got to here.
Keith Ward, 'Rethinking Christianity', OneWorld, 2007. See also his website: https://www.keithward.org.uk for more recent publications.
The Common Lectionary invites us to spend the next year in reading, and preaching on, John's gospel. This can be a problem for many on the more radical end of the Christian spectrum. This version of the life and death of Jesus is clearly very different from the other three. You only have to look at it to see that. Instead of pithy sayings and parables about daily life, Jesus gives lengthy speeches,(written in Greek which he did not speak), containing very complex ideas and images. Much of the content is about himself, none of which appears elsewhere.
If Jesus said all this, how come the other writers knew nothing about it? How can his exact words possibly have been remembered in such detail? It is the latest of the gospels, written perhaps 70 or more years after Jesus' death. (As Ward writes in the book above, it is best to read John as 'Jesus is the Bread of Life' etc., 'not 'I am' etc., in order to catch the sense that these are not Jesus' own words but a later belief about him). Even the other gospels were seen as versions 'according to' the writers, and they don't always agree with each other about what 'actually' happened. That is essential when it comes to John.
Spong has written what I find an immensely helpful way to approach it. Forget 'facts'. Forget 'literalism'. Embrace the craft of the writer in weaving together a tapestry of symbolism, 'signs' and hidden meanings which tell us what this community now believed. Nothing is there by chance. It all makes sense once you understand why it is there. The people in the story are not real people but representatives of something else. The events are not real events but they provide a deeper understanding of the context, which Spong sees as not dominated by the Greek world but deeply engrained in a Jewish one. (The Prologue, which is Greek in context, may have been added later along with the final chapter. Jesus is never again referred to as the 'Word').
The book works through the gospel in sequence in a series of mostly short reflections so is best used alongside the text. It would make a fascinating structure for a daily discipline, a study course, or a series of sermons. I honestly believe that you would never look at John in the same way again and that your understanding of this amazing piece of literature will have been deeply enhanced by giving his approach a try. Mine certainly was.
John Shelby Spong, 'The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic', HarperOne, (2013)
Just before the first lockdown, over dinner with some friends who are Christians, we got to talking about the gospels. Almost in passing I mentioned that they were of course written after Paul's letters, not before. They are stories about Jesus looking back, reflecting the believers' contexts 50 or more years later, not just verbatim reports written down at the time. My friend put down his knife and fork and said, 'In over 60 years of going to Church and having an active faith, no-one has ever told me that before. Why not?'
He was genuinely interested to find out more and not at all threatened. The answer to his question seems to be that in many churches it is considered too risky to encourage people to think about faith and where it comes from. You won't get that kind of information on an Alpha course! It's 'what the Bible says' and that's the end of it, with no attention at all given to what the Bible actually is and how it came about.
Richard Holloway has spent years on a journey to dissect and explain. Of course it risks losing a simple trust in what we have always thought was true. Of course it can be considered controversial. But there will be nothing of Christianity left in our culture in future except the literal fundamentalist fringe unless we change our perspective on what we mean by 'truth'.
This book is a staggeringly good read. He has the happy knack of saying what I am already thinking, but so much better, clearer and with so much more kindness and depth. As always he draws on a range of sources to help us to see that 'religious' insights do not come from some 'Other' who tells us what to think and believe, but from us. They are our insights, but we have to be prepared to change them, not regard them as set in stone, scriptures or creeds.
There is no 'given' meaning to it all. Throughout human history we have told ourselves stories to try and create some sense of our lives. Science, philosophy, mysticism, drama, poetry, literature and film can all inform our thinking. Christianity cannot exist in a vacuum as if its claims trump all others because we have had nothing to do with creating them. So what is the story of Jesus all about today? Mere repetition of the way it was defined hundreds of years ago? Or, as has actually always been true, a new story for our time, with new content to help us live well now? In what sense do our own original contemporary 'stories' contain 'truths' (plural) that can still guide us in his Way?
If you don't want to stay where you are, or where you have always been, I cannot commend this book too highly. I look forward to resuming my conversation with my friend in future!
Richard Holloway, 'Stories We Tell Ourselves', Canongate Books, (2020)
Can Christianity and its central human figure still mean anything to those who are not convinced by the usual ideas of a 'God'? This website offers a range of ways to explore this question.
On this page you'll find details of how to purchase my book 'The Apostate's Creed'. PLUS a link to a page that explains why I am not 'a Christian' and another which sums up my approach to the Way of Jesus. Is there another way to engage with the Jesus story that doesn't require you to take it all literally or sign up to the religion that bears his name?
In Study Resources you'll find a PowerPoint (with audio) on 'Who wrote the Bible'? PLUS discussion notes on the classic book from the 1960s, ''Honest to God' which still raises so many key questions that have never been answered. And my own first book: humanist reflections on the Psalms from 2011: 'Walking without God'. These are all free.
Book Reviews suggests some reading which I've found helpful.
Friendly Feedback is always very welcome. Please let me know if you have found my ideas interesting.
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