In her famous and controversial book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ the political philosopher Hannah Arendt reflected on the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, noting that to a great extent the philosophy of National Socialism was accepted by the population. Few Germans are singled out by Arendt as having stood up against the Nazis, one is Heinrich Gruber, the protestant theologian of whom Arendt is somewhat dismissive in terms of his impact. Arendt reserves her only real words of praise for the actions of Sophie and Hans Scholl, two students at the University of Munich who along with their friends, Willi Graff, Alexander Schmorrell and Christoph Probst led a leaflet campaign against the rise of Nazism. The White Rose conspirators were captured and put to death by guillotine in 1943.
In his Graphic Novel, Freiheit! Italian artist and animator Andrea Grosso Giponte tells the story of the Scholls and their friends, revolving around the production of their fateful leaflets, and the eventual capture of Hans and Sophie as they distributed the sixth and final publication in their series. Grosso employs a subdued colour palette throughout, reflecting both the sombre nature of the story and the times that it represents. A very skilled artist, Grosso moves from impressionistic watercolour type imagery to stark photo-realist style with the ebb and flow of the story. At times the art is almost brutalist – but never quite so brutal as what took place in Germany, or what happened to the Scholls.
In form the book is effectively a short biography, making it ideal as an introduction for anyone who has never heard about the White Rose before, but it’s also an extended meditation on courage and fortitude and the moral imperative in the face of incredible odds.
Those who ‘did their duty’ and followed the rule of law in Germany at the time sometimes turned to the work of Immanuel Kant to justify their actions, claiming that they were doing their duty as citizens. Arendt and others returned to Kant to point out that the real duty of all German citizens at the time was to turn their backs on duty, and to rebel against the regime. This is a story of a small group of ordinary-extraordinary people who had the rare moral and physical courage to listen to their conscience and act accordingly.
“Offer passive resistance – resistance – wherever you may be…” urged the White Rose conspirators in their first leaflet, the text of which is reproduced at the end of the book. That these words should have had to come from a group of young people – some of the very few who managed to put up any kind of meaningful resistance to the Nazis is haunting. It’s a stark reminder to us all that the young offer more than naivete when it comes to political discourse.
“Every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure…” the group say in that same first leaflet – a message that we all do well to consider carefully.
One of the things that make Brian McLaren such a great writer is his tremendous fluidity with words – he is the kind of author who draws you along with the flow of his prose while others seem determined to trip you up with theirs. There’s a risk though, with authors who have this persuasive and easy going prose style, that their content doesn’t hit the sort of heights you might want it to. At first I was concerned this might be the case here – I’ve read many books about spiritual development and I was worried that McLaren was going to present a simplified version of other schemas. I shouldn’t have worried – not only is this a deliciously good read, it is also full of quality ingredients.
McLaren, a pastor and an educator, presents a gentle and hopeful picture of the direction in which doubt can lead us. Rather than presenting a simplified version of ideas by the likes of Fowler and Rohr, he actually improves on them – and demonstrates convincingly why those who spend a lot of time in theological reflection often find it particularly hard to find a home in the church to which they belong.
He correctly (I think) identifies key moments of crisis that precipitate movement from one stage of spiritual development to another and speaks insightfully of the ever-present split between conservative and progressive ‘wings’ of Christianity.
It feels like a very timely book – one which sets out to explain the problem that a lot of people are currently facing as the faith ‘journey’ seems to accelerate so that the kind of experiences that were once commonly faced towards the end of life are now often faced in middle age or even earlier. It is written through the lens of someone who has walked the path and has emerged with the sort of acceptance which characterises the truly spiritually mature. “I do not regret my journey of faith and doubt, because I do not regret who I have become.” He notes. Not enough of us are able or willing to talk about doubt and the part it has to play in our lives – but without it we remain stuck, for we must learn to lose if we wish to gain anything of great value. If you want that pearl of great price, after all, you must first sell all you have.
The book begins with a Paul Tillich quote which seems to serve as a touchstone for McLaren: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith… Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”
I’ve read a number of Brian’s books – and his early work was important at a formative time in my own spiritual development. This, I think, may be his best work yet.
Tripp Fuller, the American founder and host of the Homebrewed Theology Podcast can take credit for advancing the understanding of more than just open and relational theologies among a portion of the Church. He should, however, surely be particularly recognised for his work popularising the work of amazing Process theologians such as John Cobb and Catherine Keller among his contemporaries. He is currently working in Edinburgh University on a project which addresses the apparently conflicting worlds of science and faith.
In this book Fuller demonstrates his own theological prowess, cleverly drawing out the theologies of others to develop a holistic Christology of his own. Fuller has an impressively broad frame of reference, having developed a deep understanding of and respect for the work of a range of theological thinkers and ideas. He pings off names both familiar and perhaps less familiar to progressive Christians on both sides of the Atlantic, and places them into discussion with their interlocutors. His writing is in places passionate, but remains clear and well expressed. At points he executes a really neat turn of phrase that will leave you wanting more.
Much like the rest of his work, which seems to be aimed at bringing together apparently diverse strands of thinking, the book is primarily developed around the dialogue between pairings of theologians. Throughout Fuller seeks to extend apparently contrasting approaches to develop something which he says is lacking from much contemporary theological discourse, a clear answer to the Christological question from the perspective of an informed ‘liberal’ Christianity. I agree that this is a live issue.
Where there are problems in the book, they are not due to his theology – unless that is you take ‘open and relational’ to mean something other than broadly process oriented, a mistake few serious theology scholars are likely to make. Even if that were the case, it’s unlikely that one would have room to take meaningful issue with the quality of his thought or the accuracy of his representation of the work of others.
At times though I felt there were terms which would have benefitted from some clarity of definition: I’ve already mentioned the word ‘liberal’ for instance, and I found it to be used generously but without clarity of definition. My view is that it is not so clear in its definition (at least not in the UK) as to pass entirely without comment. One might argue that in this case the meaning becomes clear in its context, but I think that some clarity on it from the start would have been an advantage. A smart editor should perhaps have picked this up. My other criticism is linked: I also found that the occasional textual editing error crept into the book – a minor issue perhaps, and maybe not even worthy of a complaint, but these errors of formatting and grammar were enough to occasionally catch my eye and thereby my attention.
That leads me to my main point about the book – this is serious theology, it’s not a book from which you particularly want your attention to be distracted. However, it’s also readable, Fuller sweeps the reader along very well, and through some reasonably complex territory. He does this partly by flicking back occasionally to short and pacey sentences, in places as short as just one word, and repeated mantra type phrases such as: “Christology is a disciple’s discipline” or “Christology is a disciple’s dogma”.
Ultimately, in his own development of an articulated and articulatable open and relational Christology, Fuller reiterates his initial challenge: that such an endeavour must be able to take into account the historical Jesus, the existential register of faith and the metaphysical ‘referent’ to God. In doing this the reader comes to realise that of course Fuller has already given them the answer they seek in his title, his Christology concerns the idea that God invests God’s self in the world. As this ‘divine self-investment’ occurs God receives back into God’s self “all that the world becomes” – ‘so far, so Cobb…’ one might say. Fuller expands on this however, developing on the idea that God shares in the travails of the world such that God too needs salvation. Here Fuller answers not just the question of what it means to call Jesus the Christ, but also Joan Osborne’s more personal and experiential question: ‘what if God was one of us?’
There is a lot to love about this book, Fuller has a beautiful way with phrasing and his comprehension of and elucidation of the work of some brilliant theologians is superb. I think I will be returning to it quite often. It isn’t necessarily a book that evangelicals will love, I feel, but for those drawn to an open and relational approach to Christianity, this may well provide the answer they need to the Christological conundrum.
In his feature length film ‘Hosea’, writer director Ryan Daniel Dobson adapts the ancient story of Hosea, an axial age Jewish prophet, for the twenty first century. The original story is one of destruction and redemption, and this new take follows a similar path, but with added complexities. Crucially, rather than foreground the ‘usual’ principal character, Dobson has placed at the centre of his story the complex and meaning-laden existence of Cate a woman whose story is intended to parallel that of Gomer in the original.
Where the book of Hosea is more interested in the prophet than his troubled wife, this film is really Cate’s story rather than that of her husband. Replete with stark and disturbing themes of abuse, exploitation, self harm, addiction, and intimate partner violence, Hosea as a film and Cate as a character hold up a cracked mirror to contemporary society. Pleasingly, Dobson deliberately pulls back from offering the usual easy answers that one might expect in this sort of story, without allowing spoilers into the review I can still say that even the ending defies the conventional narrative expectations.
Cate, played by Camille Rowe, is sensitively cast and played, with some strong supporting actors in Josh Pence (particularly good) and Avi Nash among others. Her strength and fragility are at the core of the story. There is always the danger in a film like this of ending up in cliche territory at least once or twice, but my feeling was that Dobson’s script steered clear of this. There’s perhaps only the vaguest hint of polemic in his writing, although some messages come through clearly – particularly around mental illness and exploitation. The intent though seems to be to spark discussion rather than offer predigested answers, and there’s a lot to draw upon in the film: issues of religion and culture, sex and intimacy, substance abuse and mental health all spring readily to mind. Beyond that though the story explores what it really means to reconstruct, and what it means to be damaged (and indeed to damage). It asks us why we are so desperate to save things in a particular way, what is it that gives us the right and the privilege to tell others how their lives should be lived.
Hosea – the film – is really a parable, a story which lends itself to considerable amounts of unpacking and discussion. It’s a religious story for a post secular world, which turns a gentle but unflinching eye back toward the viewer.
Due to the themes and content, it’s rated 18+, and it does contain triggers and scenes which some viewers may find disturbing. Recommended.
Thomas Jay Oord is a serious philosophical theologian with a common touch. He’s able to articulate complicated ideas and subtle concepts in simple language which scratch where the average reader itches.
God Can’t, published in 2019, proved to be popular with readers precisely because it put into accessible terms the kind of ideas that Oord has been expounding for some time, namely that God does not sit idly by while the planet burns and humans kill one another refusing to act except by occasional whim. Rather than refusing to act “God can’t”, Oord insists.
God Can’t, and its now companion piece God Can’t, Q&A (published in 2020) are aimed at readers who want to reconcile their conviction that somehow God is “real” with a growing body of experience that says things aren’t the way they should be. Tellingly Oord foregrounds the experience of real people, using small case studies in the former, and reflecting on readers’ questions in the follow up. He does this to great effect, and does his very best to avoid the usual dodges employed by confessional theologians – taking aim particularly at the “it’s a mystery” trope favoured by those who struggle to articulate or justify why a good God might allow or even ‘ordain’ suffering.
In 2015 Stephen Fry launched in to a blistering televised critique of the interventionist God who chooses not to intervene. The video went viral, Fry had articulated the basic problem with so much of popular Christian thinking – effectively that the God who allows unspeakable torment of blameless creatures is some sort of monster.
What Oord exposes is that there is an alternative view of God which takes seriously this critique and offers a plausible alternative. Along the way he also points out other problems with the idea of an omnipotent deity. “Its hard to feel motivated to solve problems an allegedly omnipotent God could solve alone…” he muses, putting his finger on the reason why so many Christians smile blithely in the face of climate catastrophe and political despotism.
At times the writing is almost preacherly, reflecting the pastoral vocation that competes for time with Oord’s academic work. Indeed it is perhaps this vocation which has caused problems for Oord in the past, he has previously fallen foul of institutional powers that be which objected (unjustly) to his deeply pastoral theology. He falls foul too of those who think that he is saying that God is entirely powerless – but that’s a shallow reading of his thought. God, according to Oord, is still ‘al-mighty’ but needs our cooperation in order to effect change. Love never coerces, he argues. Here he is squarely in the realm of neo Whiteheadian Process theology as he begins to talk about ‘indispensable love synergy’ and even refers sparingly to the ‘lure’ of God among other less technical metaphors. Perhaps this area exposes one of the potential weaknesses in his theology (shared by some other process theologians) the insistence that at times even individual cells in the body might respond to God’s loving lure. This kind of explanation is given here and in other similar literature to explain some ‘healing miracles’ and other unexplained answers to prayer. Personally I find this panpsychist explanation not to be entirely convincing, and worry that it verges too closely to the ‘mystery’ argument which Oord does so well to dispense with.
Confessing Christians, particularly those who take a ‘high’ approach to the Bible, will appreciate his approach. Those who take a more literary approach to Biblical texts might find his reading of certain passages a little over worked. This does however make him an excellent interlocutor for evangelicals looking for a better way to understand the God of their upbringing, and crucially it doesn’t spoil the great thinking or writing.
In “Q&A” Oord tackles some of the obvious questions which arise from his first – If God can’t, then ‘why pray?’ for instance, and questions about the afterlife among a variety of others. Here again some readers will struggle with his adherence to what I would term ‘Biblicism’ (his apparently literal approach to the virgin birth for example) but he remains entirely coherent in his argument, and sticks closely to his brand of Christianity without ever making exclusive claims to truth. Perhaps at times the conversational tone he employs, which makes the books so readable, isn’t quite adequate to the task of unpacking complex ideas, the nature of God for instance would perhaps be better tackled in more technical language. This might have assuaged some of his critics, but it would also have defeated the point of the exercise.
Throughout the books he advances an idea of God which is panentheist and kenotic, but he does this in a personal and personable way which manages not to alienate or confuse the average reader. His tight prose keeps the reader moving through the books and his consistent recourse to ‘every-man’ stories from his friends and readers means the whole thing remains firmly rooted in the day to day realities of life.
I would have liked him to reject some of the problematic approaches to the Bible which lead many to adopt the erroneous view of God which he spends so much of the book addressing, but perhaps it’s more powerful for his not doing so. Again his pastoral heart is evident as he takes the beliefs and concerns of the reader seriously, and addresses them from a place of love and respect.
Steve Aisthorpe’s new book ’Rewilding the Church’ takes as it’s starting point the enduring fascination in contemporary society for rewilding, a process of returning large tracts of countryside to a more ‘natural’ state in an effort to bring back lost bio-diversity and species rich habitats. Aisthorpe lives in the Scottish Highlands, the Shangri-la of many rewilding devotees who see the mountains and glens as an ideal locus for their efforts. He also works for the Church of Scotland, a historic denomination which faces many of the problems that other denominations do – declining church attendance and challenging issues to do with ministerial recruitment and elderly buildings. An accomplished researcher, Aisthorpe has done fieldwork among those who, while professing Christianity, no longer attend church. This provided the material for his first book ‘The Invisible Church’ and further research has been added to contribute to this one. Aisthorpe has found favour within the Fresh Expressions movement, which in some cases seems to me to serve as a thinly veiled attempt to get people ‘back to church’ – that’s not his approach though: ‘I am certainly not suggesting that anyone should chase after people with the intention of corralling them into homogenised congregations!’ He declares. Aisthorpe as a thoughtful and creative missiologist seems to recognise the opportunities posed by the changes in society that are reflected in this shift away from ‘how things have always been done’ as well as facing the challenges they present.
His book is a good read for those who like me are keen for Christianity to move away from it’s religious trappings and to return to a more fundamental focus on the teachings of Jesus, Steve and I may disagree on points of Christian doctrine, but we’re in full agreement there. He is what some would call a ‘loyal radical’ speaking uncomfortable truths from within the fold of his historical church home. This is recalled throughout the book, not least when he remarks that the church has many unloving critics, and many uncritical lovers, what it can always use, he remarks ‘is some loving critique’. Among other things, Aisthorpe calls for an approach that values simplicity over complexity, he also calls for a place to be found for doubt, questioning and journey ‘Churches perceived as standing for certainty, dogma and fixed practises are no place for pilgrims’ he notes. A lifelong adventurer and outdoorsman, he calls for an ecclesial outlook which values adventure, innovation and exploration.
One of the things that rewilding is famous for as an ideology for its call to re-introduce apex predators as a way of dealing with pests. Aisthorpe stops short of this, but does call for the culling of invasive species like busyness and fear – perhaps this is where he could have gone further, there are other invasive species I’d like to see culled that are much more human than this. My feeling is that he has pulled his punches here a little, however his call for a more contemplative, inclusive and welcoming spirituality is certainly deeply welcome. The book is peppered with quotes which demonstrate the breadth of what I think is his own inclusive and open small ‘e’ evangelical Christianity. As well as frequent Bible references he draws upon a range of popular authors, from Henri Nouwen to Rob Bell, as well as new pieces of field research to make his point. He wants to see a church that is more Jesus shaped and effectively says that unless we loosen our grip on it and allow ourselves to be guided (or lured?) in a spirited direction we will continue to see catastrophic collapse in the church as in our natural environment. “If you want to rewild the Church” he says, “don’t promote mission strategy and teach church-planting tactics. Instead foster a trust in Jesus and nurture a deeper love for those he brings across our path.” Ultimately Aisthorpe believes that God is rewilding the church, the question is whether we try to resist this, or fall in step.
Steve graciously agreed to answer a couple of questions I had about the book – or rather about the concept of rewilding as it applies to the church…
Q: One of the most enduring critiques of rewilding is that it fails to take account of lives and livelihoods in the current landscape. What do you say to those who like ‘church as it is’ and don’t want to see it change?
Authentic Church arises out of our responding to the call of Jesus, ‘follow me’. No blueprint or road map exists. Yes, we can discern certain trajectories and get fleeting glimpses of the destination, but his call is an invitation to join a holy adventure. So the Church is always ‘an interim Church, a Church in transition’ as Hans Kung put it. To go back to the rewilding metaphor, if something carries the label ‘church’ but is committed to remain unchanging I would suggest that it is time for a radical reintroduction programme! Just as the reintroduction of a keystone species impacts the whole ecosystem, individual disciples and any expression of the Church need to allow the one C.S. Lewis called ‘The Great Interferer’ to transform and regenerate the landscape.
Q: A significant barrier to rewilding is the question of ownership, which resolves to ‘money and power’. The church is home to the same issues, how do we tackle that? And how do you approach that personally from your position within a historic denomination?
I live in a valley where the owners on one side manage the land as traditional sporting estates. The land there is managed to ensure that optimum numbers of a very small number of species (deer and grouse) are available at key times of the year. In contrast, the landowners on the opposite side of the valley have entered into a shared commitment to a 200 year plan to rewild the landscape. Ownership makes a huge difference, but it can work in different ways. There are real choices and occasionally owners make courageous, personally sacrificial and radical choices. When it comes to the Church, this is the time for such courageous choices.
Having said that, whether in land or church, I am convinced that ‘small is beautiful’. See below! In my first book, The Invisible Church, there is a cartoon by Dave Walker which pictures a huge ship named ‘The Church Unchanging’. It is sinking and surrounded by a haphazard host of small vessels, life rafts etc. To me, this sums up the current situation. Where ‘ownership’, power and money are centralised in large institutions, this is the time for divesting, decentralising, refocusing resources on the emerging etc.. Personally, working in ‘a historic denomination’ I want to be part of God’s rewilding: subverting traditionalism (not to be confused with tradition, as explained in the book), fear of change and the veneration of things that have ‘always been this way’ wherever I find em – and encouraging and celebrating the faithful rhythm of listening and responding to the one we follow – whether that looks ‘traditional’, innovative or whatever.
Q: Rewilding really requires scale in order to take hold. Just making a hole in your garden fence may encourage biodiversity but it isn’t the same as ‘rewilding’ – how do you address the problem of scale when you’re encouraging people to think ‘small’?
The question of scale is an interesting one. My observation is that God’s rewilding of the Church is reflected in a simplification, a flourishing of the small and simple and the rapid decline of the large and the complex. While the increasing interest in cathedral worship is one of many indicators that large institutions will continue to be part of the overall biodiversity that is the Church, there is no doubt that the overall balance is shifting towards the small and the simple. Rewilding the Church will involve a revolution of small things. The Church (and that includes us, because we are the church) needs to recapture a sense of its identity as the global body of Christ, but also foster the small and local, where Christian community can be sufficiently agile to respond to the Spirit’s life. If all you are able to do is the ecclesiastical equivalent of making a hole in your garden fence, do it! Who knows where it’ll lead!