Christianity Rediscovered and Me: Janet Lees

In the third in our series of personal reflections on Christianity Rediscovered Janet Lees, Chaplain of Silcoates School, Wakefield reflects on how the book influenced her answer to the question ‘can I be baptised?’

Don’t forget, to celebrate the book’s 40th anniversary you can buy a copy of Christianity Rediscovered at a special discount price via our website. 


In Poperinge, Belgium, a young man aged 16 stands in a Chapel used by soldiers during WW1, about 100 years after that conflict began. He is surrounded by about 45 of his peers, part of a group studying that war to end all wars. He starts to speak ‘My favourite part of the gospel is…’ I hold my breath. What will he say? Now in front of all of them, this ordinary young man, claims to have a favourite part of the gospel. What will it be?

Let me tell you that the first part of my remembered bible, that is to say the bible in me, not a written down one but an oral one, is of the Ascension of Jesus, on a hill in Galilee where he has called the disciples together and he tells them ‘Go and baptise everyone’.

It’s also the first part of my remembered Vincent Donovan. When I first thought to write this piece I went to look for my copy of ‘Rediscovering Christianity’ and in the mess that passes for my office could not of course locate it. That’s when I had to return to my remembered version of the book that is now 40 years old. So just as I usually use a remembered bible so I’m using my remembered version of that text as I reflect on its meaning for me and the ministry I practice. A remembered, oral, bible and a remembered, oral, Donovan, which given his context and mine seems very fitting. Donovan worked with oral people and so have I.

I go straight away to that part of Donovan’s narrative, where having decided to tell the gospel story to local villagers over several visits, he returns one day to ask if they have decided on baptism. ‘Yes we have’, the leader of the village confirms: ‘Baptise all of us’. At that Vincent seems to hesitate. He begins to find challenges in their response. He points out that this one did not attend all the sessions and this other fell asleep, this one is too young, this one did not understand. The leader interrupts him: ‘Baptise all of us’ he repeats. And so Donovan does.

This is for me both the core of the gospel and the core of my remembered Donovan, and has informed the twenty or so years of my ordained ministry. For five years I worked on a housing estate in Sheffield. Many folks of all ages came to the community project that the local United Reformed Church ran there everyday: lunch clubs, after school clubs, adult education, mentoring support for young people excluded from school, sessions about health and well being, craft sessions, toddler group, and worship. Some of those people began to ask about baptism, both adults asking for their children and young people asking for themselves. ‘Can I be baptised?’ Well we have water and you’ve heard the story so the answer is of course, ‘Yes’.

About eight years ago I moved to be chaplain of a school in West Yorkshire that was affiliated to the United Reformed Church. There are few such schools in the country, each springing from an age when providing education for the children of ministers and missionaries seemed the right thing for our forebears to do. Dissent was significant in Yorkshire but of course has dwindled in our day. So this small outpost was the last remaining sign that children and young people could be introduced to the radical nature of the gospel on a daily basis. I took with me the remembered bible and we have practised it together for eight years. I also took my remembered Donovan, mindful of his description of an isolated mission that failed to touch the lives of ordinary people. The school became involved with a community development project in Tanzania, the Livingstone Trust, and by their own efforts several groups of students have transformed rural schools there, and learnt about community development in the process. It seems to me that it we can equip young people to face such challenges in the twenty first century then we are not irrelevant.

And then there were the requests for baptism. Sometimes parents would ask for their infants. But sometimes young people and even adults would ask for themselves. We have a swimming pool at school and those who could stand up in it were baptised there – one child was baptised just before he had surgery to correct a congenital heart defect, making sure he could stand on tip toe in the shallow end so as not to miss out on this special experience. One of the most moving was my middle aged colleague who said ‘This is not a testimony’ and then proceeded to tell us how his faith and love had grown over the 25 years of his life in the school.

And the young man in the Chapel of Talbot House in Poperinge: what was his favourite part of the gospel? ‘My favourite part of the gospel is at the beginning when John baptises Jesus in the river Jordan, and the Holy Spirit comes down on him. A voice says “This is my son and I’m pleased with him”.’

We call it ‘Living Wet’, wet from the waters of baptism breaking over us and that’s why we sing ‘We’ll have a wet, wet, wet, wet, wet time!’


 

 

 

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Christianity Rediscovered and Me: Al Barrett

In the second of our series of reflections on the legacy of Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, Al Barrett, Vicar of Hodge Hill, rereads the book 20 years after he first encountered it. 


I first encountered Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered in 1998 (20 years after its first publication). I was 22 myself, recently graduated from Cambridge (in Maths and Astrophysics – that’s a whole different story), living in a small Christian community in inner-city Salford, and preparing for a selection conference for ordained ministry in the Church of England. In the neighbourhood in which I was living, I was sharply aware of the multiple differences between me and my neighbours, of my own multiply privileged background, and – despite years of academic education – of my inability to articulate the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel in ways that mattered here, and weren’t merely the cultural and spiritual baggage of a patronising outsider. And that’s where Donovan’s experience, when questioned by a member of the Masai tribe among whom he was living, resonated profoundly with my own:

I finally spoke out again, and I marvelled at how small my voice sounded. I said something I had no intention of saying when I had come to speak to the Masai that morning: “No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with us. Let us search for him together. Maybe, together, we will find him.” (pp.37-38)

With Donovan, I realised I was a searcher. My own journey, that had thus far taken me to Cambridge and then to Salford, was a journey of searching for God with those around me – needed companions on the way. And yet I was also reminded, as Donovan was by his Masai teachers, that God always beats us to it: “We have not searched for him. … He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.” (p.51) The ‘small’ and ‘mysterious’ part of the messenger is simply to point to the one who has already found us, who was here and at work long before I got here.

If Christianity Rediscovered helped me make some sense of ‘mission’, it also profoundly enlarged my understanding of eucharist. As Donovan described in detail ‘the simple celebration’ of the Masai village ‘returning their whole life to God’ (p.97), I got a taste of eucharistic possibility which, even now, 20 years on, still teases, beckons.

It was a strange kind of Mass. No church building, not even any special, fixed spot where it took place. As a matter of fact it moved around all over the village. It started in the spot where several elders had lighted a fire from two sticks of wood, even before I arrived.

An important act, on my part, before I entered the village, was to stoop down, scoop up a handful of grass, and present it to the first elders who greeted me. Grass was … a vital and a holy sign to [the Masai], a sign of peace and happiness and well-being.

During stormy and angry arguments that might arise in their lives, a tuft of grass, offered by one Masai and accepted by the second, was an assurance that no violence would erupt because of the differences and arguments. No Masai would violate that sacred sign of peace offered, because it was not only a sign of peace; it was peace…

So, as the Mass began, I picked up a tuft of grass and passed it on to the elder who met me, and greeted him with “the peace of Christ.” He accepted it and passed it on to his family, and they passed it on to neighbouring elders and their families. It had to pass all through the village…

And if the life in the village had been less than human or holy, then there was no Mass. If there had been selfishness and forgetfulness and hatefulness and lack of forgiveness in the work that had been done, in the life that had been led here, let them not make a sacrilege out of it by calling it the Body of Christ. And the leaders did decide occasionally that, despite the prayers and readings and discussions, if the grass had stopped, if someone, or some group, in the village had refused to accept the grass as the sign of the peace of Christ, there would be no eucharist at this time.

At other times the will was there to override the weaknesses in the community, the will to ask the Spirit to come on this community to change it into the Body of Christ, so that we could say together, “This – not just the bread and wine, but the whole life of the village, its work, play, joy, sorrow, the homes, the grazing fields, the flocks, the people – all this is my Body.” (pp.101-4)

What a thought: that there might be no Mass in the village today, if the process of passing peace, of making eucharist, had been ruptured along the way. That there might be no true celebration of eucharist, until no one in the world goes hungry – as Sri Lankan Roman Catholic theologian Tissa Balasuriya once proposed. This intertwining of eucharist, community and justice has stuck with me since then – and remains a profound challenge.

20 years on – 40 years after Christianity Rediscovered was first published – I find myself vicar of a  large, multicultural ‘outer estate’ parish, Hodge Hill, on the eastern edge of Birmingham, deeply embedded in my neighbourhood and, with friends and neighbours, in a joyful journey of community-building here. Donovan’s vibrant sense of the missio dei – that ‘[g]oodness and kindness and holiness and grace and divine presence and creating power and salvation were here before I got here’ (p.52) – remains a theological fundamental for me. His description of that mission as the establishing of ‘shalom’ – ‘peace, integrity, community, harmony, and justice’ (p.156) – is also still central to my theological lexicon, and I can witness, with deep gratitude, to the many and varied ways I have seen and continue to see that ‘shalom’ springing up, and putting down roots, and spreading, around me and in spite of me in the neighbourhood I have called home for the last eight years.

It’s an exciting journey, with my neighbours here in Hodge Hill – one that demands the kind of ‘courage’ once urged on Donovan by a young American student: “to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before” (p. xix). And re-reading Christianity Rediscovered in 2018 I find myself wondering, how might eucharist – deep, peace-making eucharist that catches up the entirety of our shared life and offers it in gratitude back to God – truly ‘take flesh’ in my neighbourhood? How might it work its way, house-to-house, neighbour-to-neighbour, group-to-group, around our estate – what, locally, we’re beginning to call ‘Firs and Bromford village’?

And one further wondering sparked by my most recent re-reading of Donovan’s reflections. In his 1970s America, ‘community’ was so ‘fractured’ and ‘temporary’ – people were so indifferent to each other, unaffected by each other – that he was unsure that Christianity, as ‘a living community’, was even possible (pp.69-70). From 21st Century America, Paul Sparks of the New Parish movement asked a remarkably similar question:

In Jesus’ day, everyone lived in a walkable community… but the problem was, who got excluded from that life? And so for us, it’s a huge question: have we even lost the very foundation from which we can become people who include those who are without place? If we’ve lost the very ground, the very place … from which we can invite others in, from which we can become hospitable, from which we can include?[1]

From the not-so-new parish of Hodge Hill, I might put the question like this: in our divided, fragmented, indifferent society, how much community-building work is needed before the ‘good news’ of the gospel makes any sense at all?

NOTES

[1] Paul Sparks was speaking at an exploration of ‘Parish, a gift for the future?’, organised by Church of England – Birmingham and ForMission college.


Has Christianity Rediscovered had an impact on your work and thinking? Join the conversation on Twitter, using the hashtag #ChristianityRediscovered.

Buy a copy of the book on our website at the special offer price of £10. 

 

Christianity Rediscovered and Me: Tom Wilson

Since its publication 40 years ago, Vincent Donovan’s seminal Christianity Rediscovered has reshaped our understanding of what we mean by mission. To mark 40 years since it was first published, today we’re embarking on a new blog series ‘Christianity Rediscovered and Me’. Each contributor will reflect on how the book has shaped how they view their own mission and ministry. As the series continues, feel free to offer your own thoughts on the book via the comments section – and join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #ChristianityRediscovered .

We start with a reflection from Tom Wilson, Director of the St Philips Centre , an interfaith centre in Leicester. 


I own a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Vincent Donovan’s classic Christianity Rediscovered. My memory is that I bought it to help me think through the distinction between authentic Christian faith and the cultural trappings and personal preferences that we add on to our faith. At the time I bought it, I had two reasons for wanting to make this distinction. First, I was a curate in Toxteth, Liverpool. I really enjoyed the five years I spent in this role, and I learnt a huge amount.

Many of the models and modes of discipleship I had been taught over the years were completely useless in this particular context. How would you explain the Christian faith to a woman in her fifties who could neither read nor tell the time and whose life was somewhat chaotic, to put it mildly? The standard middle class evangelical “let’s schedule a mutually convenient time in our diaries for a one-to-one Bible study” was really not going to work here. In all honesty I did not do a particularly good job with her, but I learnt a lot about what I assumed was Christianity and what are the essential, irreducible aspects of Christian faith.

My second reason for buying Christianity Rediscovered was that during this period of my life I also led a number of visits to Kumi Diocese in Uganda. In all, between 2004 and 2010, I participated in nine visits to the Diocese, working in partnership with the Archdeacon for mission, helping him run training conferences for clergy, several youth camps, a number of missions and a Diocesan conference with over five thousand in attendance. Anglican Christianity in Kumi Diocese was both familiar and strange. Some of their worship was very shaped by the Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service, while at other times it involved exuberant singing and impressively long sermons. I vividly remember one of my teammates having her ever first go at preaching at an informal fellowship gathering. Speaking with the aid of a translator, she managed to talk for about ten or fifteen minutes. Her translator asked if she had finished, and when she indicated she had, requested permission to summarize. She gladly consented, and sat down with relief. He then took a further hour to reiterate and reinforce what she said.

What is the essence of Christian faith? These incidents, and many others like them, forced me to think very carefully about my way of following the Way, how I learn from Jesus and how much of that is just about me and how much of it is essential to being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. All of this thinking has proved a valuable foundation for the past decade spent in different types of inter-faith and inter-cultural exchange. Often conversations with those of other faiths force me to think very carefully about what are the essential aspects of Christianity and about what are cultural trappings. What makes Christianity distinct, what is unique about my faith?

When I engage in inter-faith work, I am sometimes asked questions I have never thought about before. One of the more striking ones came in casual conversation with a member of the Hare Krishna branch of Hinduism while we were queuing for lunch in their mandir (temple). He explained that from his perspective, Hare Krishnas have found the fastest route to enlightenment and full relationship with the divine. As a Christian, he told me, I might make some progress, “but it’s like we’re in the high speed elevator to the top and you’re taking the stairs.” Then he added something to the effect that, “and I don’t see how you can make much spiritual progress if you eat meat. After all, how can anyone who benefits from killing become more like God?” It is an interesting question to ponder. It made me re-read the opening chapters of Genesis and consider whether actually God commends a vegetarian lifestyle to Adam and Eve, and that our current carnivorous habit is another indication of the fall.

Within Judaism, the seven Noahide laws (that is, the commands given to Noah that Judaism teaches are incumbent on all humanity, see https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-noahide-laws/) include two relevant commands: do not participate in bloodshed and do not eat flesh from a living animal. These could commend vegetarianism, although many rabbis interpret them as indicating the importance of ritual slaughter of animals. This exchange with a devout Hindu forced me to ask, is eating meat inimical to Christianity? Jesus certainly declared all foods clean, and Peter is commanded in Acts 10 to eat food that Judaism would consider unclean. So perhaps as a Christian I can eat whatever I like. But does that mean, as a Christian, I should eat whatever I like? Possession of freedom to eat what I want is different from exercising freedom to eat what I want, as Paul argues in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. Any food at inter-faith activities I organize would satisfy most who have religious scruples about diet; it is always vegetarian, and we avoid onions, garlic and other foods that more devout Hindus would not eat. Reflecting on this question as a Christian has led me to conclude that living lightly on the earth by reducing consumption of meat (as I have done) or becoming fully vegetarian (as I cannot quite bring myself to) may arguably be a better way of stewarding creation as we are commanded to in Genesis 1:28-30.

One distinction between my area of work and that described in Christianity Rediscovered is that I am not trying to persuade people to leave their own faith community and adopt Christian faith. Sometimes it can be helpful to begin an inter-faith discussion by using the categories of one faith community to explain the activities of another. But such comparisons are always inadequate and can generate more misunderstanding than understanding. Thus, for example, the festival of Eid really is not the Muslim Christmas. Granted, Eid al-Fitr does come at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, just as Christmas comes at the end of the Christian period of penitence and fasting known as Advent. The problem is, of course, that it is quite hard to find a Western Christian whose behaviour during December is that of someone engaged in fasting and penitence. The fact that Muslims exchange presents at Eid al-Fitr does have an equivalent in the giving of Christmas presents, but since the giving of presents is not an essential Christian part of the celebration this does not really work. Most people in Britain, including some Muslims, give presents to each other on December 25th, but only Christians also go to Church to celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God.

So, for those engaged in inter-faith dialogue and discussion, the distinction Christianity Rediscovered makes between the essence and the periphery of Christianity can be helpful when trying to explain one’s own faith to those who do not understand it (chocolate Easter eggs have nothing to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, after all). But the fundamental purpose of distinguishing the essence from the periphery is very different. Donovan sought to translate Christianity into a language his audience could speak; I am trying to translate it into a language my audience can understand. I am grateful for the pioneering work of Christianity Rediscovered and do still recommend it to Christians who come on our training courses and want to learn how to explain the essence of their faith. There is, of course, nothing wrong in proclaiming faith in Jesus Christ but one of the other lessons that Vincent Donovan is keen we learn is that our proclamation must be heard as a genuine free offer, with no power imbalance or hint of coercion or manipulation. When in church on a Sunday morning, I strive to preach Christ crucified as the way to relationship to the Father. But when I sit down with my friends of other faiths my intention is to learn and grow in my understanding of what they, and I believe. As Christianity Rediscovered reminds us, a self-reflexive understanding of context and intention are everything when it comes to building and maintaining relationships.


 

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Christianity Rediscovered is available via our website at a special discount price of £10. 

“The Challenge of the Present Crisis” (1917)

In 1917, Henry Emerson Fosdick, the American pastor served as an army chaplain in France. That year, he wrote The Challenge of the Present Crisis, amongst other things a defence of Christianity in an age when significant questions were being asked about whether the mass slaughter of the Great War was a failure of the faith. The book was published in 1917 by SCM Press in the UK. Here’s an extract.


Image result for ruined church in great war“Even a little observation of popular reactions to the Great War reveals many men inwardly looking at the catastrophe in unrelieved dismay. It means to them despair, not challenge. One of the most important battles of this generation is being fought behind closed doors, where men are making up their minds whether this war is to leave them social pessimists or not. While many voices, therefore, are speaking of the significance of the War for political, diplomatic, financial, and military interests, something more ought to be said about the meaning of the War to our personal attitude and faith.

All constructive agencies after the war is over will depend for their success upon the vision and energy of those who have not been driven by the present catastrophe into cynicism. That many are becoming cynical, are growing dubious of social possibilities, are surrendering to practical scepticism the faith which they never would have surrendered to speculative doubt, is clear ti anyone who talks much with men.

Materialism as a theory never would have convinced them. But the horrors of Verdun, the mutilated bodies of Belgian boys, the bleaching bones of countless children left b the Russian retreat along the military roads of Poland, and after, sixty generations of Christian opportunity, some five million wounded men in the hospitals of Europe-how shall we keep heart in the face of this?

One natural consequence of such a reaction to the War is a lavish accusation of failure against the ideal agencies on which men had counted to improve the world. As in nervous prostration a man becomes most fretful against those whom in normal health he loves best, so, many people.in the collapse of nerve which the War has caused, bring the accusation of futility against the best loved of their faiths. What most we have relied upon, seeing that it has not saved us from the very evil its purpose was to cure, we now in exasperated disillusionment throw upon the scrap heap…

[But] if for this reason Christianity is a failure, so too is education. War may be wicked from the standpoint of religion but just as surely is it foolish from the standpoint of intelligence, and the universities of Europe and America have been established long enough to have taught man before this the futility of war. If Christianity is a failure because it has not prevented the present disaster, so too is commerce. The economic bonds are torn asunder; they have proved to be causes of strife, not barriers against it.

If anything is a failure, surely that social idealism is, on which we have been priding ourselves these recent decades past…all of us had counted on the international socialist brotherhood, uniting so many million workmen of so many nations in a league pledged explicitly and absolutely against war. Great confidence for the future was begotten when in Berlin’s public square 100,000 Socialists at the time of the Agadir incident lifted their hands unanimously against war with France. And yet, in spite of brave attempts, the voice of the Socialists against this cataclysm has been pitiably weak.

Christianity a failure? Then surely international law is. The international conventions, guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium, had expended on them the best brains that statesmanship could supply, but they are scraps of paper now.

Education, fraternalized commerce, social idealism, international law, and Christianity – these are not ready for the discard. They are humanity’s great hope. This war is not so much an occasion for despair concerning them as it is a challenge to a better understanding and a finer use of them.”


Written a year later in  1918, in large part from within the trenches, Studdert Kennedy’s The Hardest Part wrestles in a similar way with how to reconcile the horror of the front line with a Christianity which speaks of a God of love. The book has just been re-published in a new critical edition. More information here

10 Ways to Let Stories Shape Your Leadership

Our latest guest post is from Vaughan Roberts, co-author of Leading by Story 


On the final page of his book Alive At Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do (2018) Professor Dan Cable of the London Business School writes: ‘leaders have duties that are similar to religious figures. This is because they have such a direct effect on the purpose that people feel about their work and their lives’ (p 173). Religion has not played a part in his analysis of organizational leadership up to this point and this is a tantalising idea to trail as a conclusion.

Retail, Library, Shelving, Market, Volumes, BooksWhat religious figures does he have in mind – priests or shamans? Faith healers or witch doctors? Local imams or mega-church pastors? The range of people that could fall into the category of ‘religious figures’ is vast. And those who work in such places as churches, departments of theology and religious studies, organizations which are faith-based or faith-linked will be aware that people of faith are no more or less ‘magicians’ when it comes to organizational leadership than those of no faith. So what is Cable driving at here?

The point he seems to be underscoring is that a vital aspect in leadership is providing people with purpose and this is what religious figures and religions provide their followers. In addition, it is clear from Cable’s approach that narrative and story are fundamental to this process. Thus, he observes, the stories ‘we generate and tell ourselves can have huge effects on our behaviors and the results we create’ (p 161).

The place of story in Christianity and other faiths has long been recognised, such that it is often taken for granted. Narrative has come to prominence more recently in the world of organization studies as academics and practitioners seek to understand what role human storytelling and story-sharing play in providing meaning and purpose in our manifold social activities. This is a much more fertile area for interaction between church and leadership, than some of the stale ideas culled from older scientific management methods.

In Leading by Story: Rethinking Church Leadership (SCM Press, 2017) David Sims and I have sought to map out some of this recent thinking about organizational narrative and explore how it applies to churches. We have examined how viewing people as both storytellers and stories themselves has a great deal to offer in understanding both how our churches work and how our churches are being led. We analyse in detail some of the different types of story that churches tell – interpretive narratives, Identity narrative and improvised narratives.

Then, in our conclusion we share ten ideas for developing a storied understanding of ourselves and churches.

  1. Know your story – who you are, how it is that you are where you are and serving in your present role.
  2. Know the story of Christianity – how do you understand the story of Jesus’ life and ministry? And the story of the early church? And how do you relate to those who tell a different story?
  3. Know the story of your Church – although the future of denominations is open to debate, we’ll not be able to work out where we’re going to if we do not know the story of where we have come from.
  4. Know the story of your church – stories we tell about the local churches that we serve will be shaped by big and small stories alike.
  5. Listen to the stories told about the past – which reveal a church’s self-identity and some of the different self-perceptions that are in play.
  6. Listen to the stories being told in the present – these may compliment and/or contradict each other and be a source of communal cohesion or division.
  7. Listen to stories of the future – these will reveal hopes and aspirations, some of which will be more practical than others.
  8. Use traditional opportunities to tell the story of what is happening – church council meetings and AGMs; church magazine and noticesheets; local newspapers, personal contacts and more.
  9. Use every social media opportunity to tell the story of what is happening
  10. Encourage others to share in the narrative – trust others with the sensemaking and storysharing. We all like to tell stories of what is happening and nothing spreads like a good story.

Here we are using sensemaking in a way that is similar to Cable’s use of purpose. It’s important to keep in mind we’re not arguing that sensemaking and purpose, along with story and narrative are some kind of philosopher’s stone for leadership in churches and other organizations. In other words, understanding the place of storytelling doesn’t automatically turn leadership into gold (to paraphrase George Herbert.) But having a perception of how such things work not only helps enormously in leading organizations and churches but also greatly assists in the theological reflection which underpins the action of Christ’s Body in the world.



The Revd Dr Vaughan S Roberts is Team Rector of Warwick and co-author with David Sims of Leading by Story: Rethinking Church Leadership (SCM Press, 2017)

For James Cone, poverty had a colour

 

James Cone, widely regarded as the founder of black liberation theology, died on Saturday at the age of 79. 

Anthony Reddie, Professor Extraordinarius in the Department of Philosophy, Practical and Systemic Theology at the University of South Africa discusses Cone in the SCM Core Text: Black TheologyHere’s an edited extract. 


JamesHalCone.jpgJames Cone would not describe himself as a Marxist, nor could his work be seen as an expression of Marxist ideology. There is no doubt, however, that his early work saw in Marxism a helpful tool for constructing his Black Theology of liberation. Cone argued that Black Theology, as a theology of liberation, was committed to challenging and overturning the vicious White power structure that had long imprisoned Black people – both literally and figuratively.[i]

Cone’s approach to Black Theology is informed by his continued commitment to the biblical revelation of God. He is arguing for a clear difference between the Kingdom of God and that of the world economic system.[ii] While Cone’s early work used aspects of Marxist frameworks as a way of critiquing the socio-economic system of America, his preferred approach to undertaking Black Theology, and its resultant attack on White power, has come from the Bible.

Cone’s biblical theology provides a robust theological rationale for outlining the essential difference between the characteristics of the Kingdom of  God and that of the world economic system. His Jesus-centred approach to liberation for Black people is one that seeks to use Black history and experience, and to link these to biblical models of justice. His aim is to create a theological model that critiques the structures of the present world order, one based on White privilege.[iii] Cone does not engage in the analysis of class and how class distinctions between wealthy people who own capital and the poor at the bottom of society constitute the basis for how most societies are run. This latter perspective is one that is more commonly found in Latin American liberation theology. [iv]

For Cone, it is no coincidence that the people most likely to be poor in a world of global capitalism run by White people with power are poor Black people and other non Euro-Americans.[v] For Cone, poverty has a colour. It is his contextualized and particular reading of oppression that separates him from the more generic, class-based approaches to the subject that one often finds in Latin American liberation theologians, for example.[vi] Cone’s analysis of people most likely to be in Person 1 will be that they are Black.

One weakness of Cone’s analysis is that, in failing to engage with issues of gender in his early work, his default position regarding the identity of those in Person 1 is one that assumes a male subject. In actual fact, any serious analysis of global poverty will show that gender is a major contributory factor in the workings of world economic systems. In such systems, the more likely identity of an individual in Person 1 is that of a Black woman and not a Black male. As we will see, when looking at the work of Womanist theologians, if poverty has a colour, then it also has a gender.

Cone notes that the ‘free market’ proponents of the world economic system will assert the goodness, generosity and the efficiency of choice that is gained for all people across the globe from this mode of economic activity. Cone, however, is clear that this is a smokescreen, not unlike the kinds of ‘diversionary tactics’ I have illustrated previously in this chapter.[vii]

The proponents of ‘free trade’ would like it to be believed that this system is for the benefit of ordinary people in the world, but the evidence from the peoples themselves tells another story.[viii] Cone’s approach to analysing why people are poor is one that is very much drawn from his commitment to anti-racism. While he has focused attention on the ways in which American capitalism has impoverished the poor, across the globe,[ix] the  bulk of his work has been directed at the historical experiences of African Americans.

While some Black theologians have critiqued Cone and other African American Black theologians for their short-sightedness in looking only at their own experiences, I would argue that, on the contrary, Cone and his ilk are simply being true to the basic tenets of ‘contextual theology’.

As a contextual theologian, the immediacy of Cone’s view is the United States. For him, the individual in Person 1 would be an African American. This would be the case, not because other peoples do not suffer, but because the impact on his own experience and consciousness has been shaped by being born and socialized within the United States of America. Cone’s racialized, theological reflections illustrate the gap between the world economic system of White privilege and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The latter is one of equity, justice and liberation for all marginalized and economically dispossessed people, most of whom have non-European backgrounds.[x]

As the dominant voice in Black Theology, since its inception as an academic discipline, James Cone has set the tempo for the movement, in which the analysis of ‘race’-based oppression has largely been the norm. The strength of this approach to understanding the nature of world poverty is that it has ‘put a face’ to the individual crouched in Person 1. That person is most likely to be a Black person. The inequities of racism and the notion and practice of White supremacy have impacted on Black people.

This has occurred within many White-majority societies (and Black-majority ones in Africa also). In such contexts, little account has been taken of the dignity and rights of Black people. Black  Theology under the aegis of James Cone has attacked the privileging of White concerns, particularly as it arises from White people with power. He has shown that a Black retelling of the story, and the accompanying reinterpretation of the gospel, is critical for the development of a Black Theology of liberation.[xi]


[i] Cone, God of the Oppressed (1975), p. 156.

[ii] Cone, God of the Oppressed, pp. 39–114.j

[iii] See Cone, ‘Theology’s Great Sin’ (Black Theology 2:2) pp. 139–52.

[iv] Cone’s work does include some aspects of class analysis, where he looks at economic structures and shows how they impact on poor Black people. See Cone, God of the Oppressed, pp. 108–37. For a better understanding of Latin American liberation theology, see Christopher Rowland (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[v] See Cone, ‘Theology’s Great Sin’, pp. 142–5.

[vi] See James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back  (1986), pp. 114–38.

[vii] See James H. Cone ‘Looking Back, Going Forward: Black Theology as Public Theology’,in Dwight N. Hopkins (ed.) Black Faith and Public Talk: Critical Essays on James H. Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power (1999), pp. 246–59.

[viii] See the excellent Christian Aid video Life and Debt, New Yorker Films, 2001, for the differing accounts on the impact of free trade on poor neo-colonial countries like Jamaica. Black Theology sides with the first-hand accounts of the poor themselves and not with the free-market apologists like the officers from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

[ix] See Cone, My Soul Looks Back, pp. 93–113.

[x] Hopkins and Lewis, Another World is Possible: Spiritualities and Religions of Global Darker Peoples (2009).

[xi] See James H. Cone, Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation and Black Theology (1986).

 

Publishing your thesis as a book – 6 Dos and 2 Don’ts

A person writing with a pencil in a notebook with pencil shavings on itSo you’ve finished your PhD, and now you’re starting to think about what’s next. To celebrate Academic Book Week, here are a few tips if you’re thinking of publishing your work as a monograph:


DO give yourself a break once you’ve handed in the thesis before turning to the book. Take a few months to do other things. Go and find your cat. Visit your gran. And then come back fresh to the thesis a while later.

DO your research. Make sure you know what subjects different publishers specialise in. Are there particular markets they are especially able to reach? Do they have a global reach? Are they small or large?

DON’T be afraid to befriend an academic book editor and ask them their advice. They generally don’t bite, and they want to help you turn your thesis into the best book it can be.

DO make sure book publication is the best route to take. Ask yourself whether your thesis might be better presented as a series of journal articles, or submitted as a paper for a conference.

DON’T use the phrase ‘general readers’ when outlining the readership of the book in a book proposal. Be specific. What level are you writing at? Who do you imagine your reader to be? Undergraduates? Postgraduates? Researchers?

DO be realistic. Your re-written thesis is unlikely to be a top bestseller on the shelves of your local Waterstones. But it might play a vital role in filling a gap in the scholarship. And that’s probably  more important!

DO expect it to take a while – a year or so – to re-work the thesis so it makes for a good scholarly monograph. It won’t happen overnight. Remember you’re writing for a much wider audience than your original (which was read by examiners, supervisers, one or two others and your mum).

DO ask different groups of people to read sample chapters of the book. Do you know scholars in other related scholarly disciplines who might be interested in being guinea pigs. They will help you weed out jargon where necessary, and give you an outside perspective.