Two Critically Acclaimed Books on the Apostle Paul

Amongst the gems in our Winter Sale this year are two critically acclaimed books on Paul…

Paul on Baptism:
Theology, Mission and Ministry in Context

“This book is a brilliant example of the best scholarship offered at the service of the church. Anyone who wants to think deeply about their own theology of baptism, inspired by the Pauline texts, will find this an invaluable source of lucid and thoughtful insight. I highly recommend it.”

Paula Gooder

Drawing on recent scholarship on the Pauline tradition within early Christianity, Nicholas Taylor examines Paul’s theology of baptism and highlights its practical application in ministry today.

It considers what the rite represented and effected, in the light of the social and cultural milieu in which his letters were written, and of his strategies for mission and the formation and nurture of new Christian communities. The need to integrate recent scholarship with contemporary pastoral issues, and to do so in a theologically reflective way, is acute.

Using a wide range of social scientific approaches to the ancient world and Christian origins, including identity, religious conversion, and ritual, the book explores the implications of this reconstruction for contemporary issues of baptismal practice, pastoral care and mission, aiming to bring the insights of specialists to those working on the frontline of pastoral practice.

35% off RRP in our Winter Sale (save £7)

Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought

“There is no better introduction to Paul, for the simple reason that nobody has approached the task with greater mastery of sources, greater clarity of mind, and greater keenness of insight than E.P. Sanders. This is that rare textbook that will educate both beginning and lifelong students”

Craig C. Hill, Duke Divinity School

The Apostle Paul is the author of almost half of the New Testament and one of Christianity’s key theologians. In this new and ground-breaking book, E. P. Sanders offers an expansive introduction to the apostle, navigating some of the thorniest issues in scholarship using language accessible to the novice and seasoned scholar alike.  

As well as giving a detailed study of the life of Paul and an close reading of Paul’s letters he offers profound and wide-ranging insights into the legacy of the man without whom Christianity would not be what it is today.

E. P. Sanders has for many years been one of the leading scholars of Paul’s life and work. His book is a key text for scholars and students alike.

50% off RRP in our winter sale (save £20)


God in an Age of Empire

Featured in our Winter Sale, God, Neighbour, Empire by Walter Brueggeman (with a foreword by Jane Williams) demonstrates how the Old Testament offers an alternative to the imperial narrative that dominates ordinary imagination both in ancient times and in the present. Here is an extract from the introduction.

Biblical texts always emerged in a context. We often cannot determine with any precision the exact historical moment or circumstance of such emergence of any particular text. But we can determine, very often, the macro-context of political economy for such emergence, for the patterns of political economy in the ancient world are recurring.

Specifically, much of the Old Testament text emerged in contexts of empire amid great concentrations of wealth and power. Thus, we are able to trace a sequence of empires and their impact in the Old Testament from the paradigmatic empire of Pharaoh in Egypt to the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, to the global power of Alexander the Great and his Hellenistic successors, and finally to the Roman Empire. This sequence, in large sweep, was interrupted in ancient Israel only by the modest empire of Solomon (the Davidic dynasty) that presided over the Jerusalem establishment for a long period of time.

Given some particularities, it is fair to say that ancient empires, like contemporary empires, can be identified by recurring markers. For our purposes we may identify three characteristic marks of imperial policy and practice.

First, empires existed to extract wealth in order to transfer wealth from the vulnerable to the powerful. (Solomon’s practice of extraction featured an imposing taxation system. See 1 Kings 4:7-19 and the revolt against his taxation system in 1 Kings 12:1-19.)

Second, empires pursued a policy of commoditization in which everything and everyone was reduced to a dispensable commodity that could be bought and sold and traded and possessed and consumed. (Solomon’s practice of commoditization is evident in his policy of forced labor [1 Kgs 5:13; 9:20-22] and his expansive trade policies that produced seemingly limitless wealth for his entourage [1 Kgs 10:13-25].)

Third, empires that practiced extraction and commoditization were fully prepared to undertake violence on whatever scale was required for the success of extraction and commoditization. (For Solomon, the combination of taxation, slavery, and confiscatory trade constituted a state policy in readiness for violence.) All such policies and practices could be justified as they secured the expansive wealth of the empire.

These policies and practices, moreover, were regularly legitimated by liturgical enactment of myths that allied the power of God to the power of the state. Such an understanding of god (gods) was perforce top-down, so that the claims of empire were theologically imposed by the empire of force.

The gods whom the liturgy attested were champions of extraction and commoditization in the service of a coherent social order. That social order eventually came to be accepted as normal and normative by the populace, so that extraction and commoditization came to be viewed as routine.

Such hegemony, performed as normative liturgy, becomes the “common sense limit” of ordinary life beyond which it is not possible to imagine. The god (gods) celebrated in the imperial liturgy assured the legitimacy, normalcy, and ordinariness of such policy and practice.

It is in that recurring, almost constant context of empire that the Old Testament became the countertext of ancient Israel. The Old Testament is offered as an alternative to the imperial narrative that dominates ordinary imagination. That countertext intends to subvert the dominant imperial text and so is rightly seen as a “sub-version.” The trajectory of texts that the synagogue and the church entertain as “good news” bears witness to an emancipatory God who stands apart from

and over against the mythic claims of imperial religion.  The God attested in the Exodus narrative, the covenantal tradition of Deuteronomy, and the prophetic corpus stands over against the ideology of empire. The paradigmatic narrative of Exodus–sojourn–Sinai, presided over by Moses, yields an alternative narrative that is occupied by an alternative God:

  • The Exodus narrative (Exod 1–15) exhibits Yhwh—in the service of emancipation and the end of economic extraction—as more powerful than the Egyptian gods (see Exod 12:12).
  •  The narrative of wilderness sojourn (Exod 16–18)— with the surprising gifts of abundant water, bread, and meat—witnesses against the usurpatious ideology of scarcity that propels Pharaoh. The wilderness narrative teems with abundance for all for all.
  • The meeting at Sinai yields a covenantal relationship wherein Yhwh and the people of Yhwh pledge abiding fidelity to each other (Exod 19–24):

This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God, and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame, and in honor; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised. (Deut 26:16-19)

In sum we are able to see that the emancipatory narrative of Exodus, the abundance attested in the wilderness, and the covenant of Sinai provide a very different account of lived reality in the world due to the decisive agency of Yhwh. In each of these episodes in the narrative, it is the newly engaged God, Yhwh, who makes the decisive difference. Yhwh is unlike the gods of the empire; Yhwh has no interest in extraction:

Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine. (Ps 50:8-11)

Yhwh values human community and human persons, and refuses the reduction of even the vulnerable to the status of dispensable commodity:

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. (Deut 24:17)

This God, as given in the narrative, is not immune to the practice of violence, but the narrative of this God is on a trajectory that critiques the practice of violence in the interest of neighbourliness.

 Thus, the issue is joined in the narrative between the imperial practice of extraction, commodity, and violence legitimated by the imperial gods, and the practice of neighbourly reality and fidelity legitimated by the emancipatory, covenant-making God of Israelite tradition. It is conventional to assign to the imperial gods the qualities of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. And Yhwh, to be sure, is seen as well to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present. These marks that are common among the gods, however, are not the most characteristic marking of Yhwh. In contrast to the gods of empire, Yhwh is praised and celebrated most characteristically for an eager capacity for fidelity. This turns out to be the tenacious, long-term commitment of Yhwh to Yhwh’s covenant partners, Israel and all creation. It is fidelity that marks the good news of Israel’s texts and that speaks broadly and passionately against extraction and commoditization.

The decisive difference in this God yields, derivatively, a decisively different notion of world history and of human persons in human community. When the gods are presented as legitimators of extraction and commoditization, then the mark of effective humanness is to be competent extractors who can reduce all else to dispensable commodity. When, however, the legitimating God is an agent of reliable, big-time fidelity, then the quintessence of humanness is the practice of such fidelity that embraces neighbourliness and that eventuates in a society of public justice. Thus, in the emancipatory-covenantal tradition of the Old Testament, human agents are, in replication of the emancipatory, covenant-making God, charged with neighbourly fidelity. Whereas imperial accounts of reality specialize in static order and the maintenance of preferred arrangements in the political economy, the tradition of emancipatory covenant-making, by contrast, affirms human agents who have the capacity and responsibility to act transformatively for the well-being of the human community and the ecology of creation.

All of that pertains to the ancient context wherein the subversive narrative of Israel lived in ongoing tension with imperial accounts of reality, and amid that tension resisted imperial accounts while proposing alternatives. Our reading of these ancient texts is, characteristically, by way of analogue. We are drawn to trace out analogues between the “original” context of the text and our contemporary reading context. And when we do that, we find that we ourselves also read the biblical texts in contexts of imperial power.

While we can, in global context, identify other empires or would-be empires, closest to us are the imperial pretensions of the United States, for globalization is primarily a project of political economy propelled by the United States.6 It is easy enough to see that the United States, with its inexhaustible consumerism, its unrivalled military power, and its growing economic gap between haves and have-nots, is a forceful, willful practitioner of extraction and commoditization.

In that context, our contemporary reading of the Bible, in its emancipatory, covenant-making trajectory, invites to sub-version, resistance, and alternative. In our present social circumstance of willful extraction and commoditization, the practice of neighbourly fidelity, in replication of the neighbourly fidelity of the God of the gospel, is a crucial mandate for the well-being of our society.

God Neighbour Empire: The Excess of Fidelity and the Command of the Common Good, is available for £12.00 in our Winter Sale.

Why we Still Need Catholic Social Teaching in an Age of Brexit

An exclusive guest post by Simon Cuff , tutor and lecturer in Theology at St Mellitus College

I don’t envy the Prime Minister. We’ve all seen just how difficult a task it has been to get a deal through Parliament, following the vote of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. If the referendum result was clear about anything, it was that the United Kingdom is a divided society. 52 to 48 speaks loudly of the division within our society over the future direction of our nation.

Subsequent opinion polls, debates, and the difficulty of finding a means to leave the European Union that garners widespread support continue to demonstrate that if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that we are a nation divided.

Brexit is not the only division in society. We are divided by wealth, geography, opportunity, colour, gender, age and more besides. Leave and Remain, rich and poor, north and south. We are divided even within our divisions. Division between generations appears on the rise. Calls for intergenerational fairness have gathered pace, as millennials and succeeding generations struggle to buy homes and appear to be the first cohort to earn less than the parents at the same age[1].

Within Scripture, S. Mark’s Gospel reminds us: ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand’ (Mark 3.24-5). Divided communities, divided nations, divided churches are not able to stand. Divided communities, divided nations, divided churches are not able to flourish and be those cradles of human flourishing God calls them to be. A deeply divided society is not a society living life in all its fullness. A deeply divided society is not a society in communion with God and with neighbour, practising that love which overcomes divisions and tears down the walls we put between ourselves.

In the midst of such divisions, Catholic Social Teaching has much to offer to all Christian communities seeking to play their part in overcoming divisions and putting the Christian faith into action. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching derive from more than a century of thought and praxis within the Roman Catholic Church about how to overcome such divisions and social ills.

Division in society is not new. Widely recognised as the foundational document of Catholic Social Teaching, Rerum Novarum, the 1891 letter of Pope Leo XIII knownwas written in part in response to such divisions, and to offer practical solutions to the worsening living conditions of the urban poor at the end of the 19th Century.

Less well-known is his letter Aeterni Patrisof 1879, in which the Pope observes and rejects the various solutions from communism to authoritarianism being proposed to these worsening social situations. Instead, he writes: ‘Domestic and civil society even, which, as all see, is exposed to great danger from this plague of perverse opinions, would certainly enjoy a far more peaceful and secure existence if a more wholesome doctrine were taught in the universities and high schools – one more in conformity with the teaching of the Church, such as is contained in the works of Thomas Aquinas’ (§28).

Observing a divided and broken society, he recommends a healthy dose of St Thomas.

I’ve always thought Pope Leo was a little optimistic to think that society would be more peaceably ordered if everybody was reading medieval theology. (From my limited experience trying to teach the thought of St Thomas, it initially raises the level of discontent rather than soothes it, as students grapple with the question and answer method he adopts in his great theological text book, the Summa Theologica.)

Once you begin that grappling, however, you start to see the truth in what Pope Leo had to say, because central to the thought of St Thomas is justice. Justice is what will put an end to the social ills and divisions that ravaged society then, and continue to ravage society now.

For St Thomas Aquinas, justice is a kind of relationship. A relationship which brings with it certain rights and duties, which preserve this right relationship. Herbert McCabe, the Dominican theologian, puts this simply: ‘Justice, for Aquinas is the stable disposition to give everyone his or her due; it is concerned with maintaining an equality between people. Justice, then, is essentiality about a relation to another and its criteria are objective’.[2]

Justice, for Aquinas, is the restoration of a relationship that has broken down, the restoration of someone to their rightful place in society.

This is precisely the justice we hear proclaimed by our Lord in St Luke’s Gospel (4.16-20): good news to the poor; release to the captives; recovery of sight to the blind; the oppressed go free, the year of the Lord’s favour – the year of jubilee and the release from debt which jubilee brings. These are the contours of justice, the return to right relationship willed by the Lord.

This is the justice we hear about in Mary’s song (Luke 1.46-55), the Magnificat, too – the proud humbled, the mighty brought down, the lowly exalted, the hungry filled, the rich – those who rest content with excess, whilst others remain in poverty – sent away empty; right relationship restored.

This is the justice we see Jesus bringing about throughout the Gospels. The outcast and the marginalised are brought back into their proper relationship in society, the poor, the widow, the leper, the sick, the women, the divorcee at the well, the adulterer – all encounter Jesus and are restored to right relationship, with God and with their neighbour.

This is how Jesus always brings about justice. Jesus is God’s means of bringing about justice for the entire human race. God becomes one of us to restore us to right relationship with him, to take humanity to himself, to reconcile us in Christ.

This justice, this restoration of relationship, is at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching. Catholic Social Teaching, as Archbishop Welby has reminded us, is nothing other than an ‘applied outworking of the good news of Jesus Christ in terms of social structures and social justice’.[3]

Catholic Social Teaching offers a set of principles which help us to live out the justice of the Gospel as we seek to restore the broken relationships of injustice, and overcome the divisions in society which are a violation of this right relationship God intends.

The principles derived ultimately from Scripture and which Catholic Social Teaching has distilled are: the inalienable dignity of the human person, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity and the preferential option of the poor.

These principles teach us that an action will be in keeping with the demands of justice if it recognises each human being as created in God’s image and as being chosen by God in Christ. Any action which instrumentalises a person is rejected as a violation of the principle of inalienable dignity. Any action which benefits one group whilst harming another is rejected as a violation of that group’s dignity and the solidarity between individuals which arises out of our shared humanity and relationship in Christ. Christian action must seek that which benefits the whole of society, the genuinely common good. The principle of the common good also asks difficult questions about how we use our property to benefit not just ourselves but our community and society at large.

The principle of subsidiarity encourages decision-making to be made as close to the person impacted by a decision as possible. It also encourages a vibrant society with healthy small and medium-sized institutions, faith-groups, charities and trade unions, where individuals can grow in the confidence and skills needed to participate fully in society and enjoy a life of truly human flourishing and relationship.

Finally, and most importantly, the preferential option for the poor requires an awareness of how each and every action will effect the poorest and most marginalised in our society. It remembers God’s special concern for the poor not only as objects of charity, but as an indictment on human society. The preferential option for the poor calls upon every Christian community to be alert to the mechanisms of marginalisation and poverty which give rise to human impoverishment.

Living according to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching restores relationships across society, and helps to bring about the justice which will overcome the most entrenched divisions between us.

Finally, it is obvious that division is as rife in the Church as in society at large. Christian unity sadly remains a distant, if often prayed-for dream. The Roman Catholic Church too has its own divisions and tensions between liberals and conservatives, progressives and reactionaries, traditionalists and social reformers.

The principles of Catholic Social Teaching have emerged in the context of such division, out of the Catholic Church’s experience of seeking consensus across the range of opinion which is included in such a large and diverse organisation. John Carr calls this process of finding consensus and discerning truth between extremes in ‘often ideological and polarised’ debates “the Catholic AND”, which ‘brings together complementary ideas and values into a more coherent and integrated framework’[4]. He gives the examples of Catholic Social Teaching’s emphasis that private property exists as a right, but one that brings with it responsibility; and that human work is a duty, but a duty that must be properly remunerated with decent wages and working conditions.

As the divisions in our society seem no closer to being overcome in the course of the Brexit debate, and consensus on what sort of future we want for our nation seems no closer to being achieved, this might be the most valuable contribution that Catholic Social Teaching has to make. It is a lesson in consensus according to red lines which safeguard the dignity and image of God in each and every human being, and brings together opposing groups around a hopeful vision of the common good.

Whatever Brexit means for the future of our society, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching might be a good set of red lines to build a more just and harmonious society. A society which is shaped according to this ‘applied outworking of the good news of Jesus Christ’. A society which has come together to overcome division, to live in right relationship with God and with each other, to put that love into action which is the heart of the Gospel according to which we as Christians order our lives.

Published in February, Fr Simon Cuff’s book Love in Action: Catholic Social Teaching for Every Church offers an accessible introduction for Christians of all denominations to Catholic Social Teaching and its importance well beyond the Catholic Church. Pre-order now and get 20% off.

[1] See Cuff, S., ‘Prodigal Daughters and Sons: Millennials and Generational Fairness’ in Crucible (forthcoming)

[2] McCabe, H. On Aquinas (London: Continuum 2008) 150

[3] Welby, J. Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope (London: Bloomsbury 2018) 35

[4] Carr, J., ‘Moving from Research to Action: Some Lessons and Directions (from a Catholic Social Ministry Bureaucrat)’ in Finn, D. (ed.) The True Wealth of Nations: Catholic Social Thought and Economic Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010) 341 – 349, 346

Homiletics Symposium 2019

Liz Shercliff brings us news of the Homiletics Symposium 2019, which SCM Press will be supporting.

The Homiletics Symposium 2019 follows on from the very successful symposium held in 2016, also organised by the College of Preachers. This year we bring together researchers and teachers of preaching from across a range of church traditions to talk about their work. Whether you are looking for ways to teach new preachers, or are keen to find out about some of the latest research in the field, this is the symposium for you. If you preach regularly and wonder how to involve your congregation in sermons, come to hear how one preacher did it. If you are new to preaching, or are a student of homiletics, come to hear some new thinking. The morning will focus on research in homiletics, while the afternoon session will concentrate on teaching.

Speakers will include Rev Dr Kate Bruce (Igniting the Heart); and Rev Dr Jason Boyd (The Naked Preacher),

The Symposium will take place on 22nd February 2019 at The Nazarene College, Didsbury, Manchester, which can be reached by public transport or car.

You can register here.

Love Makes No Sense: An Invitation to Christian Theology

We asked Jarred Mercer, co-author, along with Jenn Strawbridge and Peter Groves, of Love Makes No Sense: An Invitation to Christian Theology, to tell us more about the book

Tell us about the aims of the book

The main aim of the book is primarily to do what it says on the tin: invite people into Christian theology. We want the Church at large, and not just scholars and professionals, to be engaged in the conversation. And this begins with initiation—with the gift of a foundation. We hope this book can be a springboard for the Christian imagination and a bedrock for people to build upon with a lifetime of doing theology.

“The aim is not to answer theological questions or help someone ace a seminary exam, but to draw people into the depths of God’s love “

I think at this point it is important to say something about what we mean by doing theology. The invitation is not for people to become scholastics weighing the finer points of doctrine and starting theological debate clubs, but an invitation to cultivate a life of the mind that is also the life of the heart; to think toward God in such a way as to move in God’s direction. The aim is not to answer theological questions or help someone ace a seminary exam, but to draw people into the depths of God’s love through an exploration of what that love might look like—of how that love has been received and cultivated in the Christian faith.

And so it is an introduction, we hope, not primarily of concepts or ideas, but introduction by way of invitation: introducing people into thinking theologically, thinking faithfully. For some this is an invitation into something new and wonderful, for others who are more seasoned in the faith, something warm and familiar, in either case we want to offer a way deeper into the conversation, deeper into this transformative ‘thinking toward God’.

What motivated you and your fellow authors to write it?

We all find ourselves in one way or another between the two worlds of academia and the Church, and in these two worlds you can generally find certain things as appropriate points of discourse and others sworn off as only seen fit for the ‘other world’.

This disconnect of ‘academic theology’ (the impractical university stuff) and ‘practical theology’ (the useful Church stuff), while historically having a fairly traceable story, theologically is tiresome, inexplicable, and quite frankly often forced or pressured by those involved in the separate worlds.

We simply think it is time to stop putting the pressure on—to step out of the pretence of the academic and ecclesial theological cold war and bring rigorous, up-to-date, faithful scholarship to bear on the real lives of people (including our own, of course).

This is not something grand and new. In fact, it is extremely traditional and old-fashioned. Theologians down through the centuries have found themselves not only at critical points of intellectual precision, but crucial moments of proclamation: God is love, and God is here—right here, right now, wherever the here and now might be.

“…theology is a lived, practised reality—something performed.”

This is in no way to deride theological thinking in universities (which, again, most of us are directly part of and we all find extremely important, and in fact, people are often surprised to find that many in academia want their thinking to be done in service to the Church and the struggle is often not academia pushing the Church out but the other way around), it is rather to say that theology is a lived, practised reality—something performed.

And it is performed in the lives of people; in the life of the Church for the benefit of all. Theology is something alive, a lived phenomenon in the community of faith, which theologians then seek to flesh out. Christians pray, worship, care for those in need, liberate the oppressed, share the good news of Jesus, celebrate the sacraments, and theology begins there, from the phenomenon of a lived community and then works to offer a framework of what it all means.

And we begin, primarily of course, with the presence of God among us in Christ: How are we to make sense of the reality of Emmanuel—God is with us—in our world? So the book begins from this practised, lived, reality of Christian faith and attempts to encourage it forward.

This is really a start to an answer to the questions of why the St Mary Magdalen School of Theology was formed in the first place, and we wanted to write this book in particular to lay a foundation. There is absolutely no claim to ingenuity or genius, but to, we hope, faithful theology as proclamation—presenting the faith of the Church as received down through the centuries and today in a way that is elevated by content and the depth and weight of thinking toward God, but not elevated so as to be inaccessible to non-specialists.

This doesn’t mean it will be a particularly easy read for those exploring the Christian faith, or who are Christians who have not studied theology themselves before. It should be challenging, but a challenge to our lives and minds toward transformation. It is marked as an ‘invitation’ to theology, because it is not meant to provide answers or ‘solve’ the great questions about God, ourselves, and the world around us, but to invite people into the great conversation. We hope the reader will indeed feel warmly welcomed.

Can you explain the book’s unusual title for us?

The title Love Makes No Sense: An Invitation to Christian Theology tries to make two points about theology. One of which I’ve talked about above—the reader is invited to join in on the task of thinking and moving toward God. The other is the sheer senselessness of God’s love.

“Beauty is not shown in poverty and brokenness, power is not demonstrated through weakness, life does not come from death—this is simply not the way the world works! But with God in Christ, well, it does. “

Christians do not have a preconceived notion of who God is, really. There is no sense of ‘God-ness’ which can be defined in the abstract. Instead, we have a God who shows up; a God who comes among us in a person and shows us what God is like. Christians then look to Jesus to see who God is—what divine love, power, grace, and mercy really look like. But the vision of God we get when looking to Christ is extraordinary—shocking, even.

God’s power does not look like ours. God’s love does not have boundaries like ours. God’s glory does not show itself in prestige and extravagance but in brokenness and the depths of human weakness and suffering. In Christ we see that the whole world as we know it, the very logic of the universe as we perceive it, is entirely subverted, and to be honest makes absolutely no sense. Beauty is not shown in poverty and brokenness, power is not demonstrated through weakness, life does not come from death—this is simply not the way the world works! But with God in Christ, well, it does.

Christian theology reshapes our vision of the world, our faith gives us an entirely new framework for how the world works. God’s love, displayed most fully in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is shown to be entirely upside down and senseless according to everything we think we know about the world (it is foolishness according to 1 Corinthians 1.18). God’s love is absurd, quite literally. It breaks open the borders of our logic, and this is the love into which we are invited.

And theology only can begin to ‘make sense’ when we realise that God’s love is not something we can make sense of; it is not something to be comprehended or figured out, but something to be welcomed into. It is the place where we find ourselves and our world made whole.

You mentioned the St Mary Magdalen School of Theology – can you tell us more about that?

The St Mary Magdalen School of Theology has a few main avenues to carry out its mission ‘to provide people . . . with the theological resources for an active Christian life’. One is the publication of books, and we have a few more in the pipeline now. One being a follow-up on this book.

Whereas Love Makes No Sense seeks to provide an introduction to the core doctrines of Christianity (Trinity, Scripture, Incarnation, and so on), the follow-up will be more of an introduction/invitation to core practices of Christianity (prayer, worship, mission, and the like). And we have a few others in the queue as well (and individuals involved in the School are of course also writing books of their own—details of which are on the website).

Another main avenue is the website (, which regularly has new content, primarily brief articles on aspects of theology, book reviews and recommendations for further study, and some teaching aids and materials for individuals and discussion groups (such as our ‘Christianity the Basics’ course). We hope that the books and web material can be useful both for individuals and for catechetical purposes in churches.

And the third main avenue is providing study days and conferences, such as the day conference this past June on the subject of catechesis (teaching the faith) run jointly with the American organisation ‘Living Church’. So for now we will continue to build up these areas of our work: writing through book publications and the website and offering study days and conferences. For the latter, people are welcome to contact us if they would like to host something.

Dr Jarred Mercer is Associate Chaplain and Career Development Researcher at Merton College, Oxford

Love Makes No Sense: An Invitation to Christian Theology is published later this month. Order before 30th January and get £2 off the cover price.

Don’t miss the Theology Slam Live Final

“All of us are theologians. The minute we say something about God, we are speaking theology. Young voices, unheard voices, need to be nurtured in the practice of reflecting on faith and the wider world, and this event will do just that.
Archbishop Justin Welby

In September we launched Theology Slam, a new competition to find engaging young theologians organised by SCM Press along with Church Times, LICC and the Community of St Anselm, at Lambeth Palace. We were inundated with entries skilfully connecting theological thinking with the preoccupations of our society. We’ve now selected 3 finalists for the Theology Slam Final, which will be held on 7th March at St John’s Hoxton at 7pm. The finalists are:

Sara Prats, 23, from Spain, a Master’s student at the University of Birmingham. She will speak on Theology and Mental Health

Hannah Barr, 27, a first-year ordinand and Ph.D. student at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. She’ll be speaking on Theology and #MeToo.

Hannah Malcolm, 26, project co-ordinator at God and the Big Bang, an organisation that runs workshops for young people on science and religion. She’ll be speaking on Theology and the Environment.

Each finalist will speak for 7-10 minutes on their chosen topic. There will also be an opportunity to hear short TED talks from two top UK theologians Professor John Swinton (Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies), and Dr Eve Poole (Third Church Estates Commissioner). Alongside them on the judging panel will be Mark Greene, Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) and Isabelle Hamley, Old Testament scholar and chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Then at the culmination of the night one of our finalists will be crowned Theology Slam Champion, 2019.

If you’d like to join us for what will be an inspiring and fascinating evening, you can buy tickets here.

Could a rural Tanzanian diocese hold the key to Church renewal in the UK?

Visiting a rural diocese in Tanzania, Stephen Spencer was intrigued to discover that the church was full of freshness, vibrancy, and growth.

The road from the town descends through some rocky hills on to the plain. Fresh green vegetation, that has sprung up after first rains, soon disappears behind us. The land here is bone dry, the earth parched and cracked. Gusts of wind whip up sand into small whirlwinds. Bedraggled herds of cattle with protruding ribs are cajoled by their young herdsmen. It is not clear where they are going as there is no green grass in sight and the herdsmen are not allowed to move their cattle out of the immediate area.

Once we are in the village, an extended series of homesteads spread over a wide area, shapes can be seen lying on the ground in the distance. As we draw near the dreadful reality of the situation becomes clear: these are the bodies of dead cattle, lying in the sun and beginning to decompose. Further on the number of bodies multiplies, some now  mauled by local dogs. There are too many for the villagers to bury. The stench of death hangs around the homesteads. My companion, from the local diocese, says that he has never seen this before in this region. The drought that began three years ago is now taking its toll. If it continues, how will the people themselves survive?

The scene is very depressing. It is my third visit to this village; I already knew that it was a drought-prone area and that help was needed from outside. Over the previous couple of years I had encouraged fundraising at home for the drilling of a borehole, so that the villagers would not need to walk 5km to the shores of Lake Victoria for water. The fundraising had gone well, with a number of people giving sacrificially. Thousands of pounds was sent and a drilling company paid to do a survey and sink the borehole. The first attempt, down to 122 metres, failed to yield water. So a second attempt was made, a little further away, down to a similar depth. The devastating news was that this had also failed to yield enough water, and now the drought was taking hold with a vengeance.

Why could not something more be done? Why would the Tanzanian government not come and save the cattle, or at least bury them? Why did the people have to lose the animals in which their livelihoods were invested? Why did those who have so little have to lose even the little they have? Questions and frustration mounted up.

But then we arrive at the small mud-brick, tin-roof church. As we get out of the car we can hear singing and when we go inside the church we find a crowd of people caught up in dance and song, led by a choir of young people smartly dressed in matching brightly coloured batik material and filling the place with life and movement. It is enthralling and humbling. Then, during the service, it becomes clear that some of the older people are caught up in the intercessions, adding their own affirmations, raising their hands, being transported by the worship. Even if desperation brings them to church they are not dwelling on their misfortunes but lifting their minds and hearts to something greater than the hard land they live on.

They are caught up in a grace and joy that somehow transforms this little church into a kind of gateway to something greater. The contrast with what is outside is stark. It stops my dejection and frustration in its tracks. It does not remove the need for drought relief but places the whole situation within a bigger and more hopeful context. This bears fruit after the service when the congregation has a community meeting to discuss the drought and decide on what should be done next. Through the discussion a consensus emerges on the need to work with the local government in seeking resources to find a different solution. It is clear that both the worship and the meeting have helped to energize and inspire the people to work together to try to overcome the effects of the drought.

This is not an isolated example. Over the seven years I visited Mara I found a number of other churches where there was a similar combination of acute need and irrepressible Christian life. On top of this were the simple facts of church growth in this region. Over 25 years Mara Diocese had grown by over a hundredfold. At its creation in 1985, as already mentioned, the diocese had 12 parishes plus a large section of the Serengeti national park (including one million wildebeest on their annual migration!). Following the division of the diocese into three in 2010, growth continued, with four or five new parishes established most years. And this church growth has not just been about congregational enlargement: it has gone hand in hand with a range of development projects at parish and diocesan level, from weekday children’s nurseries to digging wells for drinking water to pastoral and medical support for victims of HIV/AIDS. Church schools have been started and extended, agricultural development work has taken place and theological education enhanced.

If such growth was possible in Tanzania then maybe it could happen in Britain? It has certainly happened here in the past, through the Evangelical revival of the eighteenth century, the Catholic revival of the nineteenth century and the growth of ecumenism in the twentieth. Why not a fresh revival in our own century? Given the lack of overall progress in renewing and  growing churches in Britain in the last decade, Tanzania could provide an example that offers clues to a promising way forward.

To find out if this might be the case I needed to explore the causes and development of this flourishing expression of church life. I decided I would turn to church growth in Mara and explore its dynamics. I would begin with the personal reasons why people had become Christians and joined their local church, because ultimately church growth is about actual people deciding to commit to Christ and become his disciples. Beginning at the local level, then, with the experience of new Christians, the question would be this: what was drawing these people into an active Christian faith? Only after answering this would I then explore the steps the church leadership had taken to enable this to happen and look at how the new Christians were being supported by clergy and lay ministers. Finally, Mwita Akiri, as one of the bishops of the region, would add his thoughts on the causes and dynamics of this growth at different points in the narrative, so helping to identify the key themes of this remarkable story.

This is an extract from Growing and Flourishing: The Ecology of Church Growth, which is published later this month. You can order a copy of the book at a special pre-publication price, via our website.

Stephen Spencer is Director for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion.