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Reviews – March 2013

The cult of Newbigin

newbiginFrom Crisis to Creation: Lesslie Newbigin and the Reinvention of Christian Mission
Mark TB Laing
Wipf & Stock (Pickwick Publications) $35

The second half of the 20th Century saw the emergence of the global ecumenical movement, which focused on the mission of God and the participation of the church in that mission. Lesslie Newbigin was a major figure in the ferment of those years, as a mission practitioner and theologian. This book comes as the latest product of the cult of Newbigin, aiming to trace the impact he made ñ as a missionary, executive, theologian and prophet ñ on the global debates about mission in those times.

Laing sees Newbigin as the architect of lasting ecumenical and theological ideas that helped global Christianity traverse a then-new landscape scarred by war, the emergence of postcolonial/non-Western ideologies and the breakdown of Christendom. Laing explores the abiding passions of Newbigin (the Gospel, culture, mission and church unity) from a historical perspective. He sets Newbiginís work in the context of emerging ecumenical structures such as the International Missionary Council (IMC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC), as well as his years as a missionary and bishop in South India, and, in retirement, as a United Reformed Church minister in Winson Green, Birmingham. Newbigin was a passionate believer in the church, in mission and in unity, and, as Laing traces, was therefore an essential bridge-builder between the two separate global ecumenical movements, one focused on mission (IMC) and the other on church (WCC).

Newbigin’s years in South India spurred a belief in the local church as a missionary congregation, a model of church life the URC still employs; this made Newbigin evangelical for the church as much as for the Gospel, and has always been my main problem with Newbigin – he applied his critique in one direction only, against culture, without really seeing the need for the Gospel (and therefore church) to be under the same scrutiny.

Laing goes some way to explore some of Newbigin’s dichotomies and is to be commended for that. Well written and well reviewed, this book is of more interest to scholarship than to general readership, but is valuable nonetheless.

Peter Cruchley-Jones is a United Reformed Church minister based at Rhiwbina URC in Cardiff

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Personal story from an honest “pillock”

dazzling_darknessDazzling Darkness: Gender, Sexuality, Illness and God
Rachel Mann
Wild Goose Publications
£11.50

This book is startling for its honesty and courage. Rachel Mann is an Anglican parish priest and resident poet at Manchester Cathedral. Her poems and prayers have been widely published. This latest book tells of her spiritual journey through the experiences of transgender and chronic illness.

The book integrates autobiographical narrative, theological reflection, philosophy and poetry. Rachel Mann’s personal story is interwoven with her struggles to find God in despair, brokenness and pain; her vocation to ordination and the church’s initial rejection of it; and her finding of her voice as a poet.

This is a book which challenges our presuppositions about identity, gender and sexuality. In describing her transition from male to female, Rachel Mann talks of a God who meets us in the other, and walks with us in the inbetween places. Speaking of her conversion and her call, she takes us to a place of hard questions and the desperate cost of vocation. She does not mince words; for example: “Surely you have to be a pillock to be a priest. But God has always used pillocks and fools. Who else would be stupid enough to open their hearts to the world and find love therein?”

Whilst Rachel Mann confronts pain and loss with honesty, this is not a depressing book, but one that resonates with faith, humour, and a love of life. It is a book to be read slowly, as food for your own prayer and reflection, and would make good reading through Lent.

Probably few of us will share Rachel Mann’s experience of transgender, but many of us will share her struggles with identity, pain, vocation and with the church. As a member of the United Reformed Church, I can echo her words when, writing of the Anglican church’s ordination of her as a trans woman, she says: “There is quiet hope within the institution.”

Jan Berry is principal of Open College, Luther King House, Manchester

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Whose phobia:
 theirs or ours?

christianophobiaChristianophobia: A Faith Under Attack
Rupert Shortt
Rider
£20 (hardback)

Christianophobia is a book about the persecution of Christians around the world. It takes individual stories from a variety of conflict-ridden countries and catalogues and discusses the treatment of Christians facing violence or discrimination specifically on account of their faith.

The author, Rupert Shortt, a journalist, argues that the media generally plays persecution of Christians down, and yet, he says, they “are oppressed in greater numbers than those of any other faith”. After a tightly-argued introduction, there follow 13 chapters, each dedicated to places where the treatment of Christians is a worrying trend: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, Burma, China, Vietnam and North Korea, The Holy Land, and a chapter covering six countries “at a glance”.

I am uneasy about this publication, particularly Shortt’s assertion that Christians “are oppressed in greater number than those of any other faith”. There are more Christians in the world than members of other faiths, so it is not surprising that they are oppressed in greater numbers. Also, it is unfortunate that Shortt suggests oppression of other faiths is somehow less important because there are fewer victims.

A brief look at the countries highlighted suggests these are areas where all kinds of groups are marginalised and where there has been political involvement by the US (which is seen very much as a Christian state). The book paints on a broad canvas; it appears well researched with plenty of footnotes and statistics, yet I found my suspicions raised on a number of occasions. The stories he tells, which are truly unsettling, go from specifics to generalisations with too much ease and, despite the assurances of the author to the contrary, I felt an implied antagonism to other faiths, particularly Islam. Religious freedom is more complex and less clear-cut than some of Shortt’s arguments imply.

Nevertheless, I find the book an important contribution to a debate that needs to happen. The role and nature of faith as a force in the politics of individual states is an important issue, and not just for Christianity.

Martin Hazell is director of communications for the United Reformed Church

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An inspiring spiritual journey

pippas_progressPippa’s Progress: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Heaven
Simon Parke
Darton, Longman & Todd
£9.99

Simon Parke places his book in the tradition of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, using the metaphor of a journey to explore the search for truth, its joys and challenges, in contemporary culture. Parke invites the reader to join the protagonist, Pippa, saying: “[Her] story may not be yours, but her search is.”

Pippa is an ordinary woman, living an ordinary life; when she slips on top of the stairs in her house, she finds herself in freefall and is (highly unexpectedly) gently caught by a visiting stranger named Will Good. He reminds Pippa of her deepest, unacknowledged, wish – to embark on a journey …to heaven! And so, rather bewildered, and with no route to follow other than Will Good’s encouragement to “trust the path”, Pippa sets out, bearing a new name – Pilgrim.

As she journeys through different landscapes (places like the Garden of Sadness and the Rock of Hidden Self), people and animals cross her path, including Mr Breathless and Terrified, Pointy, Dee Straction, a child, and a mighty eagle that circles the skies over Pilgrim; she increasingly learns to discern who aids her journey and who hinders it, mindful of a piece of advice from Pointy: “Remember, every step is a kiss.”

At the end of an arduous journey, full of surprises, joy and deep suffering, Pilgrim finds the eternal city. There, embraced by the eagle, Pilgrim experiences how to love and receive love more fully than ever before.

Once I had reached the end of this book I wanted to read it again! It is insightful, sad and funny, allowing for new aspects of meaning to emerge on second reading. It provides inspiration on many levels – thoughts, emotions, imagination – and therefore offers a connection with one’s own experiences on the spiritual journey towards greater love. I found this book particularly attractive in its use of universally human, rather than specifically Christian, images and symbols in order to express deeply Christian truth.

Pippa’s Progress is a multi-layered, multi facetted book written for anybody who is interested in the inner journey within the spiritual life and open to meet Christ in unexpected ways.

Birgit Ewald is a United Reformed Church minister, therapist and spiritual director

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I book I will remember

Unlocking the Bible: A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible by David J Pawson, first published 
in separate volumes by HarperCollins between 1999 and 2001

A common question when reading the Bible is: “What has all this got to do with us?” The Revd David J Pawson, a RAF chaplain, gave a series of talks about this whilst stationed in Aden (a seaport city in Yemen). The talks, entitled Generation to Revolution, helped the soldiers understand what an exciting book the Bible is and how relevant it is for today’s world; they are also the basis of this book, Unlocking the Bible, which gives an easily understood overview of both Old and New Testaments. The book is written in a scholarly manner, but with humour running through it.

I thoroughly recommend this book to those who want to understand the culture, customs and circumstances of God’s people and learn the relevance of God’s Word for our society today. I purchased it several years ago, but find great pleasure reading it over and over again. It really is a “key to unlock the Bible”, giving fresh insights into cultures somewhat alien to our own. I only wished it had been written when I was a teenager trying to understand the Scriptures. I warmly recommend it as it is easily read, very informative and also amusing. A gem of a book!

Cynthia B Lambert is the church secretary for Lord Street West United Church (Methodist and United Reformed Church) in Southport, Merseyside

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This article was published in the March 2013 edition of  Reform.

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