Here's another excellent book that challenges my prejudice against US writers! The Bible story is not about answers but questions. The journey of 'faith' is about travelling, not arriving. Jesus asked far more questions than he gave answers, according to those who wrote about him later.
Taking the reader through the Bible, the meaning of 'faith' and on to issues of justice, morality and a vision of doing things differently, the writers lay out the key elements of how to avoid the kind of fundamentalist literalism that has otherwise condemned the Church to irrelevant obscurity. In short, most people are not stupid! They know in their Monday to Saturday lives that Christianity cannot be taken as an indisputable world-view based on the assumptions of thousands of years ago. The Bible has authors and a history; doctrines were defined and redefined; science has changed our perspective. And being 'literal' was never what was intended in the first place! It's poetry, myth, wrestling with human uncertainties; seeking a living truth, not burying it in a box like a dead thing.
Why is it that at least some US Christians can handle all this, and their churches and minsters can still have a voice and continue to attract significant numbers of followers, while here we can't even openly encourage the kind of exploration that these ideas require? We seem to think it's all too threatening. So we talk about 'discipling'; pressing home the basics; keeping people 'on message', upholding 'the' faith. So no wonder only about 4% of people want to join in, while many more sit on the sidelines, disenfranchised and unwelcome with their awkward questions and 'secular' approaches. When did 'liberal' become such a dirty word? This book certainly encourages us, and provides a very valuable resource to counter the usual claims, but it also depresses because so much of its evident wisdom is simply not up for discussion.
'Living the Questions; The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity'; David M Felton and Jeff Procter-Murphy; Harper One, 2012
If you're looking for a timely book about why Christianity is struggling in the West and even whether any 'religion' is good for us, this one is wide-ranging, readable and coherent and ticks all the boxes. It is 450 pages long but is in 51 short chapters, exploring the history chronologically and saying just about everything I would ever hope to say myself. Like me, the author is not a professional priest, theologian or academic (and rarely refers to them) but that in no way diminishes his knowledge or his ability to communicate. Perhaps it enhances it!
This book amply demonstrates that 'Christianity' has never been one unchanging or unique set of beliefs but an evolving and entirely human story reflecting the contexts at the time. The sections on the Bible should be essential reading for all those who claim its final authority. Some of the sections on the Church can only make the reader weep with shame. We can yet do better, but only if we focus on what we know of the real Jesus and his message of the 'kingdom' among us. Only by putting this at the centre will we halt the race to either virtual oblivion or meaningless sectarianism. Personally, I am not overly-hopeful!
I don't agree with everything of course: I'm not sure that the word 'God', even if heavily redefined, is still helpful and Hunt still seems to want to cling onto a 'force/power' behind it all which I am happy to let go. But there is much to admire here and, for anyone who genuinely wants to understand why the old literal beliefs are no longer tenable, plenty of convincing arguments. In particular Hunt is far more critical of the evangelical perspective than most UK writers seem willing to be. LIke Spong, he sees them as a genuine threat to our well-being, not just as an alternative approach. This is based mainly on the effect they have already had in the USA, but where they go we usually follow. Such an influence on this side of the water would be a disaster and I only wish more UK writers and Church leaders were prepared to say so.
John Hunt, 'Bringing God up to date', Christian Alternative Books, 2021
Bishop Jack Spong died on 12th September 2021 aged 90. He was an inspiration to those of us on the radical end of the Christian spectrum. This book is a masterpiece. John's 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 does not appear elsewhere. It is unique to its author.
It is the latest of the gospels, written perhaps 70 or more years after Jesus' death. (As Ward writes in the book below, 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'. Use your imagination. 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 more 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)
Other than Spong, I don't usually much like books that are too American in style, but this one is a glorious exception. If you want a book that will change almost everything you thought was true about what it means to be 'a Christian', this is it. Radical, open minded, very readable and, at the end both prophetic and hopeful. I think I too am beginning to see that the only hope for the Church is to focus on community, not creed. This is perhaps why I cannot entirely let it go. It's the people, stupid! To see the relationships with each other as central, not to seek a common 'faith'. Or that's what needs to happen if we are to get remotely close to being a follower of Jesus. I tried to say this, very inexpertly, in Chapter 6 of my own book.
Churches, on the other hand, since at least the C4th, have usually wanted us to focus on obedience and conformity; right believing not right being. When Meyer talks about 'God' as filling the spaces between us, and between us and our planet, I see how my own thinking can be developed. Not to believe in a 'God'; he is with Tillich on that one. But recognising the radical alternative way of living together that picks up on Martin Buber's writings about 'I-Thou' rather than 'I-It'. Religion as a welcoming relationship with each other, not about 'salvation' as an exclusive 'thing' to be desired.
I was in a church like this yesterday, thinking about this book. A poor inner-city area, a building in need of repair, white people in the minority, parts of the service in Kurdish or Farsi because there are so many refugees and asylum-seekers. I think Meyer would recognise it. The table is open to anyone including children and those of any sexuality; the language is generally inclusive. I can enjoy the friendly company, light a candle, listen to a song, Bible reading or sermon, sometimes in a language I don't understand and share in the Peace and the Eucharist to remember Jesus. Of course there is talk of 'God' but none about what must be believed to belong, beyond a commitment to our common humanity, justice and compassion. Then, for the first time in a long while, an open-air Iranian barbecue, in many ways just as important as the service!
'In the emerging church, faith will not be a transaction (benefits for beliefs) but a beloved community in which the rewards of I-Thou relationships are intrinsic. Love will be its own reward, and the church will stand by its most sacred duty - to slay the self in service to Something More'. If that rings true, I suggest you will find the rest of the book irresistable.
Robin R Meyers, 'Saving Jesus from the church: How to stop worshipping Christ and start following Jesus', Harper One, 2010
Just for a change, a book that I didn't find at all helpful or convincing. As a philosopher, not a believer, Baggini has attempted to extract the sayings of Jesus from the gospels, including even John. But then removing any reference to a God or anything supernatural, and turning them into a handbook of advice for living. It's Jesus as a moral teacher, (in the Authorised Version!), except of course that it isn't. Either he is ill-informed having strayed way out of his normal area of expertise, or he hasn't bothered to make himself aware of NT scholarship over the last 200 years.
These are not 'the words of Jesus' but the words of the gospel authors about Jesus generations later. Whatever sources may lie behind the gospels, and we don't have any examples of them, it is clear that the writers ordered, changed and even created their material with a specific purpose, looking back in the light of what they now believed. They are not newspaper reports, tape recordings or even biographies. He even tries to make a point here and there about a particular Greek word - which Jesus did not speak.
This is not the first attempt to uncover what Jesus 'really' said, which is largely impossible. Even those of us who reject traditional Theism and look to Jesus as some kind of human exemplar, know we have to be much more sophisticated than this. Any book by Alain de Botton would be much more useful. I suspect that if this book was by anyone else it would never have gained a publisher. Stick to the day job Julian!
Julian Baggini, 'The Godless Gospel', Granta, 2020
There is much in this little book to admire for those who are looking for an alternative to traditional Christian believing. Like me, the author deplores the failure of the Church to engage in serious debate about the content of Christianity, not just its presentation. What's the point of 'Fresh Expressions' if it's just about restating the same things? I recognise many of the guides who have directed my own (and my father's) journey: Harry Williams, John Robinson, Denis Nineham etc.
Robert Reiss, formerly a Canon at Westminster Abbey, (never perhaps orthodox enough to have been made a bishop?), retains a sense of the Divine, if not in the way it is usually understood. We can agree that what he sees as underpinning everything, I see as an element of our shared humanity - a quality of 'Godness' rather than 'a Being'. He is helpfully clear about the Bible and what it is (and is not); he recognises the difficulty in identifying the 'real' Jesus behind all the later layers of interpretation and he addresses head on the way our understandings need to change in the light of science, psychology etc.
Reiss is surely right to point out that this more reflective and questioning approach is not heard often enough from the pulpit or in open discussion for fear of upsetting the faithful. I don't agree with everything of course; and I would love to be a fly on the wall during his conversations with his atheist wife! Most of the time he presents a range of views from which the reader can choose, while making clear his own 'liberal' preference. I absolutely agree that if Christianity is to be anything more than a marginal sect in future, it must speak in ways that make sense to modern minds. Whether this leads to non-Theism or to a new understanding of 'God' doesn't really matter. As long as it leads somewhere other than what looks like becoming virtual disappearance or complete irrelevance.
I would recommend this very readable book to anyone who is prepared to open themselves up to modern thinking. It might help some to re-engage with the Christian story who have given it all up as a lost cause. If it makes you lose your current faith, then great: you're on the way to finding a better one!
Robert Reiss, 'Sceptical Christianity: Exploring Credible Belief', Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2016
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.
Richard Holloway has spent years on a journey to dissect and explain religion. He retains his identity as a Christian, but only just! Of course asking questions 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 stimulating read, focusing primarily on the Jewish stories of creation, fall and the later Christian interpretation of them, but not tied to them alone. Finding a meaning to suffering is a recurring theme, though I did feel it got a bit lost in the middle sections about modern mysticism. But generally 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, traditions 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, drama, art, poetry, literature and film can all inform our thinking, not just faith systems. 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? This is the key question raised for me by the end. 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 commend this book as well worth exploring.
Richard Holloway, 'Stories We Tell Ourselves', Canongate Books, (2020)
There are those who argue that support for Ukraine is misplaced. Of course NATO, including the UK, has been far from innocent or consistent in its response to other injustices and in its choice of friends. The talk of escalation on both sides is very worrying. Some refugees are clearly more welcome than others. I accept all that. But Putin created this crisis. He has dangerously raised the stakes by his invasion. The suffering he is causing is immense, including clear crimes against civilians. Calls for ''peace"' are meaningless when there is no genuine willingness to draw back. So I stand with Ukraine and its people, but with a sad and heavy heart. Yet there are also many stories of generosity, courage and simple human kindness: these are surely evidence of the 'Kingdom', or as I would put it, the 'God-ness' within and around us. But a 'God' will not intervene to solve this disaster for us. We can only try to find at least some encouragement in these human signs of hope. And keep Jesus, himself the victim of murder, at the heart of our thinking.
Make a loan. Change a life.
Support small businesses in developing countries with microloans. Then, when the loan is repaid, you can lend the same money again!
The Jesus story is a 'myth' for our times which, if looked at differently, can still tell us a deeper truth about life and how to live it well. The Christian 'religion', however, is a set of doctrinal claims based on pre-scientific assumptions that no longer fit with modern knowledge. No wonder most people have rejected it. It may be best to leave a 'God' out of it and move on.
In Study Resources you'll find a PowerPoint (with audio) on 'Who Wrote the Bible'? This is so important and so often ignored. And some Discussion Notes on the classic book from the 1960s, ''Honest to God' which still raises so many key questions that have never been answered.
Book Reviews suggests some reading which I've found helpful.
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