Reviews – March 2014
Theologies in Asia
D Preman Niles, a Sri Lankan Christian, has served in theological education and mission leadership at the Christian Council of Asia (CCA), the World Council of Churches, and latterly, as general secretary of the Council for World Mission. His book narrates developments of Asian ecumenical theologies from before the 1910 Edinburgh Conference. It treats Catholic and Protestant situations, and decribes theological developments and challenges, referencing structures such as the CCA and the Catholic Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, as well the thinking of theologians. Dr Niles re-examines ancient Christian traditions in Asia, and concludes with a forward-looking discussion of how Christianity in Asia might achieve a more creative approach to religious diversity.
The twin realities of Asian “poverty” and “religiosity” (advanced by the Sri Lankan Jesuit Aloysius Peiris as the unavoidable realities with which any Asian theology must engage) lie behind the concepts of plurality and power in the subtitle. “Asia is the world”, says Dr Niles, therefore, reflection on the place of Christianity in contemporary Asian life – especially as it relates to economic justice and political power – is important for world Christianity, not only because of economic change and globalisation, but also because the variation of that vast and beloved continent provide us with reflection and action.
The Lotus and the Sun is a personal book, drawing on the author’s work and theological commitment. It will primarily be of interest to those with some background in the history and “social biography” of Asian theologies. Dr Niles describes his book as “a retelling of history” and “a recovery of earlier resources”. In this, it unquestionably succeeds.
This book is a first part of a greater project. Dr Niles promises a sequel, which will expand on those methods in Asian theology that affirm and celebrate plurality. On the questions of plurality and power, this is a work in progress, and I look forward to the sequel with anticipation.
The Revd John McNeil Scott is a United Reformed Church chaplain to higher education in London
What Christianity means
Our supreme authority is the gospel, witnessed to in Scripture and brought home to us by the Spirit. On the other hand, we witness today a considerable eruption of spirituality, some of it self-serving; some of it amorphous, some of it confessedly, even pugnaciously non-doctrinal.” How do you feel about that statement?
If you don’t care one way or the other, this book is probably not for you. If, like me, you want to give it at least two cheers, then it probably is. If you feel your spiritual hackles rise in irritation or anger, it still might be worth engaging with this collection of 11 essays.
The essays are written with clarity, though, the author asumes highly literate readers with some theological and historical knowledge. The essays reflect Sell’s commitments, convinced that “Christ alone is head of the Church, that the Church comprises Christians, and the only way to be a member of the Church catholic is to be a locally-anchored saint.” Consequently, readers are taken on a tour of 17th and 18th Century English dissenters and nonconformists, engage (sometimes critically) with John Calvin, confront contemporary ecumenical challenges concerning access to the Lord’s Table, and reflect upon written confessions of faith in church life.
Some themes recur (and there is some repetition of material). At centre stage, “the locus of God’s supreme revelation is the redemptive act accomplished at the cross of Christ by the God of holy love” as the basis for the Christian life. This focus tends to mute the voice of Jesus the teacher; yet, a detached, otherworldly faith is not the result. God acts through the Cross to save the world and so is committed to its ecological health; God welcomes and reconciles people through the Cross, setting the tone for church life, where peoples and personalities are tempted to clash.
Drawing upon the past, Sell challenges us, both positively and provocatively, to think and live as Christians today.
Trevor Jamison is environmental chaplain for Eco-Congregation Scotland
Two books on ageing
Septuagenarian Arnold – senior pastor and one-time leader of the Bruderhof community (as were his father and grandfather, who founded the community) – writes from the perspective of a Christian pacifist community where goods are held in common. With cameos of real-life oldies, Arnold presents a range of human experiences of growing old – sometimes very old. Despite glimpses of grief and loss, this book does seem a rather benevolent romp through longevity.
Arnold’s non-inclusive language is consistent with his paternalistic references to “my church”, but his cameos do include lots of women. There’s a little too much about the asserted wisdom of the old, and he invokes “famous people” he’s met, as if their celebrity confirms his narrative. Arnold states: “Without faith, we fear the end of our earthly life; with faith, this fear is removed. Without faith, we see death as loss; with faith, death is joyful, even triumphant.” Is it quite so clear cut?
This book might sometimes annoy, but it can be a friendly companion with charming anecdotes and not a little encouragement. Arnold himself has yet to attain serious old age!
Octogenarian Winter – an author, former head of BBC religious broadcasting and an Anglican priest – presents, humbly, a wealth of experience and a warmth of humanity that is authentic and attractive. He brings well-honed skills as a communicator to his writing.
Winter takes us on an exploration of living into old age – he glimpses a reflection of an old man in a shop window and realises it’s him! Winter’s biblical examples would make good study group material for exploring ageing – Sarah and Abraham, Moses, Anna and Simeon, and the intergenerational Samuel and Eli.
This spiritually satisfying, humorous and honest book is a good read – and not just for the old.
From both books, some key insights emerge. Seeing life as gift affects the way we live. Seniors have a responsibility to encourage, nurture and enthuse the next generation. A sense of humour matters. Growing old can be an adventure, embracing a childlike spirit, learning to accept God’s grace and saying “thank you” often.
Jackie Marsh is a serving United Reformed Church elder, and John Marsh is a retired URC minister
Humanity and Catholicism
This is an honest, insightful and challenging book from the founder of the learning disability charity, L’Arche. Vanier is a French Roman Catholic who writes from within that tradition in a way that also helps non-Catholics reflect on “paths of hope for a troubled world”.
Each chapter opens with an outline of where the Church is in relation to the chapter’s theme, followed by an exposition of where it should be. Vanier takes a triangular approach, referring to Scripture, Catholic Church teaching and psychological insights gained from his experience with L’Arche.
His honesty impressed me. He writes that the recent scandals in the Catholic Church mean that the it is in a situation of humiliation. Reflecting on this, he offers a path towards “the strength that lies in humility”.
Thanks to Vanier’s vast experience, the book is full of insights into human relationships and interactions, as well as into the state of the Church and the world. “An encounter is not an exercise in power,” he says: “… it demands real humility and deep vulnerability.” Herein lies the challenge Vanier presents: “humility doesn’t come easily; vulnerability is threatening”.
Although I appreciated this book, I felt like an onlooker. Vanier represents those who welcomed Vatican II’s wind of change. Some of the changes he longs for in the Catholic Church, nonconformists may feel are already part of our life. Perhaps it is a reminder of where we think we are, and therefore a challenge: Are we really there, as we claim to be?
For me, the appeal lies in an insight into the teaching of a very important Christian advocate of spiritual values and social justice. It is also a useful window into progressive Catholicism.
Robert Draycott is a Baptist minister serving as interim minister of Eltham United Reformed Church in London
This article was published in the March 2014 edition of Reform.