Thursday, 16 August 2007

2 excellent books

Total Church, by Chester & Timmis, isn't a one-stop book on church. It doesn't treat church history, nor give a comprehensive theology of Church. Thankfully, in the plethora of books recently issued on the topic, neither is it a Use This Programme To Transform Your Church (TM), nor a How all that's been called church before is wrong and I'm going to whine about it, write it off and wheeee there goes the baby with a splosh-thud. Ahem. Also thankfully, it's not a Thank God Our Church is Sorted: Now Copy Us (halo enclosed, polish can be purchased from all good supermarkets). What it is, is an exploration-cum-exhortation of church as gospel community. Or, in my prefered words (or those of the Reformers?) a community of the Word.

This is something I've been thinking about and increasingly challenged about for a while. The challenge has come most recently in the form of my church in Bournville, who are being community in a way which is most, well, challenging to me. There's the challenge of the odd hours I work. There's the challenge of being involved in community as a single just moved to the area when I've never really done it before. There's the challenge which accompanies my conviction that much as I love mulling over theology, it is actually a church activity: i.e. to be done as a community of the word. Underlying it all (or undermining it, perhaps), there's the challenge of being in church as a community of the word when naturally my heart is selfish with its time and energy, proud of its own knowledge and seeking to be served ('have my needs met') rather than to serve. To this, Total Church honed the challenge I was pondering regarding sharing the gospel - not just to be involved in communities outside of church (work, other activities, sports) individually seeking to witness, but actually witnessing as a community. Not so much putting on programmes and activities, but living as a gospel community and inviting others to join in as we hang out together, talk about Jesus, study the Bible, meet for worship...

I didn't agree with everything in Total Church. [Edit: I had written that the authors may need to engage with a wider constituency, but that is perhaps unfair - it's not a one-stop book on church and I need to continue my study in a wider constituency!] I thought they were overly denigrating of Christian theologians in theological institutions, seemingly presuming that none of them could possibly be doing theology with a love for the church and in service of her, engaging with church-building, gospel-furthering issues. Having said that, all too often I meet young men who are studying theology perhaps more to satisfy their own potential idol of knowledge than to serve God's people (I know I have the same temptation with knowledge in general). But as Coffey also says, where you don't agree with the authors, you are made to engage with them, and even answer back out loud. And overall, I reached the end and cried to our Father in heaven for grace to be a part of his church more honouring to him.

Highly recommended - get it from IVP.

Married for God, by Christopher Ash, is an excellent new book, again IVP, on marriage. I had a quicker read through this than the above, as I've a friend in Belgium to send it to, and happily it seems excellent. Ash's practical theology means it's just as helpful a read for those currently single as for those married or engaged, and he also deals pastorally with those who are married and childless. For those who've read Pure, I'd say it's the next thing to read. Where Pure leaves some things up to the course to flesh out, Ash talks through them, and generally spends the greater amount of time and pastoral input that you'd expect from the larger book. Also provides questions at the end of each chapter which I'd think would be especially helpful for an engaged couple - but are generally helpful. Pity about the cheesy cover (have IVP employed an American in the design department?) but there have been worse! Albeit from a speed read, recommended!


Anonymous said...

Hi Rosemary. Thanks for the review of TC. Intrigued by your suggestion that the authors should 'get out more'. Just wondering who you might suggest they should be spending time with?

étrangère said...

Anon, I prefer to engage with people owning their names in comments, so please do drop by again and mention who you are :) But for your comment, briefly, I suppose it's a little presumptuous of me to say that, because I don't know who the authors have hung around with. I said it however in the context of my criticism of what they say about theology and theologians. I'm all for exhorting the church to care about doing theology and theology being done in community. But they give the impression by their emphasis on "practical" theology, that most theologians are wasting their time on... fill in the blanks. What springs to mind as unpractical or non-missional? Forumlating a doctrine of the Trinity? Variant readings in early manuscripts of a few verses in 2 Kings? I suspect that they wouldn't want to write off such things: in fact, they do say at the end of the chapter that they do not "despise theology per se" - but the impression they give is that theologians are not gospel minded, fired by mission and determined to serve the church, which could have been avoided possibly by engaging with more of those who are (e.g. see post above). Now perhaps they have indeed engaged with some of those, and their emphasis still remains, in which case the presumption of my remark is shown up and I merely say that I find this one emphasis in their book unfair. I suppose some of the other engagement with wider constituancy I'd have liked to have is to have an impression they'd wrestled more with historical ecclesiology, especially that of the (admittedly varied) Reformers. There again is the impression given by the book, which doesn't seek to be exhaustive and has to pick & choose. I'd imagine that they have in fact engaged with this: I'd have liked to read it. Perhaps mostly because I find the current fashion is to decry all previous generations of church in a most teenager-rebellion-like fashion. They do not do this by any means(!), but I'd have liked more engagement/evidence to the contrary as a corrective in this day, than a brief mention of the anabaptists who seem always rather hard to pin down (but perhaps that's my ignorance). I'll stop because a) this has got ridiculously long, b) my comment was based on impression not knowledge and c) I don't know with whom I have the pleasure of discussing.

Steve Timmis said...

fafodHello Rosemary. Your post and the ensuing discussion have been interesting. Thank you for engaging with TC, and giving such a positive review.
I was intrigued by Coffey's original comment when he made it, and also by yours. We did not intend to be scathing of academic theologians per se, but of self-referential academic theology, and theology that is "removed from the furnace of life and not hammered into shape on the anvil of the local church" (p.157). As for 'getting out more', the chapter in question alone refernces Kahler, Bavink, David Smith, John Howard Yoder, the Anabaptists, Hans Denk, Augustine, Calvin and even Don Cupitt. That seems to be a fairly wide engagement, and we only had 50,000 words to play with! Thanks again though for your critical engagment. very stimulating.

Steve Timmis said...

Sorry for the fafod preface to the salutation. Utterly meaningless. I was meant to be filling in the verification box!!!

étrangère said...

Hi Steve, thanks for taking time to correspond. I regret that the conversation has pursued these lines because really I much enjoyed the book - and was challenged by it, as I've said!

I appreciate that you do reference many theologians in that chapter. Perhaps what I felt was lacking was not so much lacking from your book, given (as you said) the limitations of its length and target readership, but merely that it does not in my opinion serve as a one-stop book on church. My use of Coffey's words was probably influenced by him and flippant: I'm sorry, and I'll change what I've written. I guess that what I feel is lacking is actually that I need to continue my study of the church, reading more widely... while seeking grace to live out church in as far as God has given me understanding - and that has been greatly helped by your book.

On the chapter on theology, as I said, I do really appreciate your call to every Christian to be doing theology, and that in community. I've been impressing the same upon students for a while now :) I did note your caveats at the end of the chapter, of how you're not putting down theologians but theology done unrelated to the context of the local church. Perhaps it's a question of perceived readership. You may be thinking of those (few, surely?) who hold up obscure and impractical theology and its acolades as an ultimate goal and object of admiration. I think of the majority of my students who say of the most fundamental doctrines, "That's not truth; it's just theology", and who need no encouragement to be scathing of theology nor to think that most theology is 'impractical'. And so for their sakes, no matter how good what you wrote was (with encouragement that doing theology is a task for every Christian church, that you're not dismissing academic theologians, etc.), I was disappointed at the impression the chapter would leave on these students - since I am otherwise rather excited about recommending the book to them. Sadly, they'll read 'the only theology that matters is practical theology', they'll be thinking, "Yes, all that stuff about the cross is just people playing with impractical ideas - we'll ignore it and get on with life and witness!"

Thanks for your helping me think through this more.

thebluefish said...

When we arrive in Exeter and I once more have a postal address I shall be swiftly sending of my priviledge purchase order for Total Church. Gutted that I couldn't do so earlier in the summer really.