Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Thursday, 27 February 2014

and a couple of recent book reviews

Between a Rock and a Hard Place; Public Theology in a Post-secular Age
Author(s): Elaine Graham

ISBN-13: 9780334045984 ISBN-10: 0334045983 Publisher: SCM Press Published: 31/07/2013 Format: Paperback RRP: £55.00

Between a Rock and a Hard Place; Public Theology in a Post-secular Age
Author(s): Elaine Graham ISBN-13: 9780334045984 ISBN-10: 0334045983 Publisher: SCM Press Published: 31/07/2013 Format: Paperback RRP: £55.00

Review by Greg Smith

Elaine Graham has produced this important and unique book which should become essential reading for anyone who wants to think deeply about how Christians can speak effectively and with integrity, truth and grace into contemporary public debates. It is a well researched and fully referenced academic text, yet easily readable by the non-specialist. She draws on an an amazingly wide knowledge of the theological literature but is able to ground her thinking in the realities of everyday politics and church life.

The first part of the book is a survey of how we have arrived where we are in terms of the relationship between religion and politics. Graham describes two contradictory trends, on the one hand the revival of faith-based engagement in public sphere, while on the other there is the continuing - perhaps intensifying - questioning of the legitimacy of religion in public life. She discusses how this shapes the environment which she and other scholars describe as post-secularity, a space where there are new opportunities and new challenges for people of faith to be involved in public life and social welfare. Yet for Christians to navigate their way through the rapidly changing currents, in a globally connected but locally diverse environment is far from easy – and this is the basis for her title suggesting we are caught between a rock and a hard place. However, she applies this metaphor in a variety of different contexts, which makes it somewhat frustrating to define what the rock and the hard place actually are. It might be more appropriate, to talk about being between Scylla and Charibdys (if only we all still had a classical education, though at least one can google it!) as public life today can seem more like the churning of breakers on the rocks on the one side and the vortex of a whirlpool on the other.

It's impossible in a short review to pick up on many of the theological themes and issues. Broadly speaking Graham critiques both liberal theology and radical orthodoxy as failing to provide a meeting place between the Scriptures and the Christian world-view with the political and public culture of our times. She advocates Christian realism, which draws on the Anglican social theology associated with William Temple as a more fruitful approach. She adds to this insights from Catholic Social Teaching, and Protestant thinkers such as Max Stackhouse and Luke Bretherton As a feminist theologian, Graham points out many areas where a gendered perspective offers insights and challenges to public theology, though I think she manages to steer clear of post-modernist approaches which would offer so many diverse perspectives on life, and so many idiosyncratic readings of the Bible that the whole notion of a public sphere would disintegrate.

Though Elaine Graham does not “come out” as an Evangelical she expresses some sympathies for those who she labels, “Classically Evangelical, World-Affirming”, and draws on our recent Evangelical Alliance research programme to present a balanced view of the depth, diversity and political spectrum of British evangelicalism. However, the chapter on evangelicalism starts off in the wrong place, with the title of “Crusades and Culture Wars”. This approach buys into the popular stereotypical narrative, that fails to distinguish fundamentalism from evangelicalism, and paints all Biblical Christians as clones of the American “moral majority”. In a book such as this it is appropriate, even essential, to describe and analyse the recent court cases and campaigns on marriage and sexuality . It is fair enough to critique the practice of “evangelical identity politics” and the evangelical tendency to “address culture – but not to listen to it” as ineffective, negative sounding, and perhaps counter productive. Indeed we need as evangelicals to grapple in depth with the issues raised here, if we are to speak both faithfully, prophetically and at the same time constructively in public debates. It would be too easy for example to continue as we did a few decades back when Monty Python's “Life of Brian” was dismissed by most Church spokesmen in the media as blasphemous, when perhaps what we should have been doing was enjoying the humour and laughing along with Cleese, Palin and co., exploring why their satire of false religion was so well targeted, and suggesting what a true Messiah could do for people in the present day.
The final chapters are hopeful ones as Elaine Graham sketches out a scenario whereby a commitment by Christians to public theology can become an effective form of apologetics. She draws on the New Testament, especially 1 Peter, and early church history to show how the first Christians spoke into the public realm. She then suggests that today's apologetics need to move on from defending propositional truths about God, the Bible and Christian doctrines to showing by debate and practice that Christian values, and the theological understandings behind them, are a solid foundation for community, economic and political life. To do this effectively across the many diverse areas of life, politics, the law, business, education, health, international relations etc. will demand not just a few church leaders who are media savvy, but a whole cadre of believers, who are theologically literate and able to apply faith-based thought, and make it explicit publicly in their own specialist fields. This I would suggest is what public leadership is all about. What may be more difficult, and I think Elaine Graham has not spelled it out in sufficient depth in the book, is to do this in a world of instant global communication. How do we as Christians counter the dominant narratives of the public media, which frame and circumscribe what we are able to say, and favour knockabout arguments to measured debate? Furthermore with multiple broadcast channels, and the rise of personally networked social media, how can we speak our public theology into a truly public space rather than just to our own friends, or within our own Church institutions. Another book on the public communication of public theology in a networked society of virtually or physically gated communities would be a worthwhile sequel.

I'd encourage you to read “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”. However, one has to say it is scandalous, and an inexplicable practice of the academic publishing industry to price this volume at £55, especially when the text could have been posted online and made available to a much wider audience at almost zero cost. So I can't encourage you to buy the book – if you have that sort of money to spare in these austere times it would be better to donate it to TEAR fund or your local food bank.

Military Chaplaincy in Contention

Edited by Andrew Todd; published by Ashgate ISBN 978-1-4094-3158-9) joint review with Anthony Riley.. published in Crucible autumn 201

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