What does mission look like in turbulent times?

At the end of Missional Conversations: A Dialogue between Theory and Praxis in World Mission – edited by Cathy Ross and Colin Smith, and published later this month – Ian Adams reflects on what mission looks like in a turbulent world:

We live in a period of great turbulence.

Such turbulence is characterised in part by mass migrations as a response to war, to persecution, to tensions within and between faiths, to shocking economic disparity and to climate chaos. Such migrations have in turn fuelled increasing urbanisation producing ‘a planet of slums’ (see Barker / de Beer’s chapter in Missional Conversations) leaving many of the most vulnerable ‘living on the edge of human consciousness’ (see Roche’s chapter).

A sense of such turbulence is, of course, only unusual for those of us who happen to have lived in relatively peaceful times and places. Turbulence has always been around, a common human experience. It just so happens, for many of us, to be a growing fact of life in our current contexts.

Mission in the way of Jesus the Christ always happens in context. Turbulence calls for mission to embody particular characteristics and expressions that will keep us grounded and hopeful. Whilst holding to the core nature of faith, such mission must always be shaped by and for the times.

The conversations in this Missional Conversations open up some of the many imaginative ways in which such mission is happening now. Mission rooted in the gift of community. Mission enabling new forms of church to emerge, accessible to people with little or no previous church story. Mission characterised by innovation producing ‘social liturgy – the practice of public commitment to the other that is explicitly rooted in and shaped by love of God’ (Bickley’s chapter).  Mission shaped through creative imagination as ‘a posture or a way of being in the world’ (Baker’s chapter).  Mission of local character, shaped by and for specific context, and offering particular learning from mission movements of the South. All with a desire to see a ‘journey from no-body to some-body  towards a renewed humanity for every-body‘ (Groody’s chapter).

To be sustained for life and mission in a turbulent world we need to nurture a particularly resilient form of spiritual life. In this epilogue I will suggest that if the way of Jesus the Christ is to be shared in our demanding and fast-evolving contexts then such a spiritual life needs to be one of attention and presence, of love and devotion. I will suggest that such a mission spirituality does not just happen, but needs to be engaged as a life of practice that enables us in some way to become what we seek. And that life and mission must not – and actually cannot – become separated.

In the language of the great missionary Saint Paul this is the way of faith through the practice of trust in the goodness of God, of hope through discerning longer, wider, deeper patterns at work, and of love, the greatest of these – the beginning and ending of it all.

A mission spirituality for our turbulent times will invite us to imagine such great themes, and to find ways to access them on a daily basis, enabling them to take shape within us, that we might become some small gift to the world in the name of Jesus.

This kind of practice takes practice. But it is important to remember that the practice is not the thing! The thing is always what the practice reveals. Practice will be demanding. It will also increasingly feel natural. Think of this as a falling as much as an ascent. A falling into the love of God. A kind of home-coming. A gift to us, and a gift to the world around us.

Ian Bell is a poet, writer, photographer and retreat leader. He is Mission Spirituality Adviser to Church Mission Society, and a Fresh Expressions Associate. He is the creator of the daily Morning Bell on social media, partner in the Beloved Life project and co-director of StillPoint.


Introducing ‘Theology Slam’

theology slam

We’ve teamed up with the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace, the Church Times, and London Institute of Contemporary Christianity to launch a new competition – Theology Slam.  

“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. I encourage applications, and look forward to reading the winning entries.”

Archbishop Justin Welby


“As public affairs take unexpected and often unwelcome turns, Christians in all traditions need to re-learn the art of a prayerful, scriptural wisdom – in other words, a theology – that will address our current dilemmas and point to creative and healing ways forward. I am excited at the thought of the fresh work that will be stimulated and encouraged by this event.”

Professor NT (Tom) Wright


Since I participated in a TEDx myself, it has been a dream of mine to see a theology TED event, because it’s such a great format. I am delighted that the Theology Slam will give so many budding theologians the opportunity to showcase their thinking in this way. I hope it will also make their work accessible to a far wider audience than is often possible, so that we can all raise our collective theological literacy. 

Dr Eve Poole, Third Church Estates Commissioner

Theology Slam is a competition searching for the most engaging voices thinking theologically about the contemporary world. 

The competition is open to anyone aged 18-30. It doesn’t matter whether you are a theology graduate and now doing a PhD or whether you’ve never been to university, if you are interested in thinking about God, and using that thinking to try to get to grips with some of the most important issues of our times, then we’d love you to participate.

For the first round, we’re asking you to write 500 words choosing from any one of 12 themes:

  • Theology and Mental Health
  • Theology and #MeToo/Time’s Up
  • Theology and the Environment
  • Theology and Artificial Intelligence
  • Theology and the Gig-economy
  • Theology and Social Media
  • Theology and Migration
  • Theology and Political Tribalism
  • Theology and Netflix
  • Theology and Good Disagreement
  • Theology and Disability
  • Theology and Consumerism

There are a few things we’d like you to consider in your piece, so do check the web page for more details – but importantly you’ll need to be able to expand it into a 7-10 minute talk, should you be one of the three shortlisted Theology Slam finalists.

But this isn’t just about writing – we think that theology is at its best when its communicated well, so in this first round we also want you to send us a brief introductory video (no more than 90 seconds filmed on your smartphone) with an introduction to who you are, and an explanation of why you’ve chosen your topic.

The closing date for entries to round 1 is 7th December. The three best entries will then be given a chance for tuition from a public speaking trainer and invited to refine their piece into a punchy, provocative 7-10 minute talk, in front of a live audience and a panel of judges at the second and final round, the Theology Slam Final, to be held in March. The judging panel will consist of

Mark Greene, Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

Dr Eve Poole, Third Church Estates Commissioner and author

Professor John Swinton, Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at Aberdeen University

Dr Isabelle Hamley, Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury

For more information, and to enter, visit https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/theology-slam

Autumn News

With the new academic year beginning, it’s high time to let you know what’s coming up this autumn…


Missional ConversationsGiven the essentially practical nature of mission, it is surprising that there has often been such a disconnect between those studying mission theoretically, and those involved in it practically.

In October, we’re publishing Missional Conversations edited by Cathy Ross and Colin Smith. The book introduces reader sto key themes in contemporary mission through global conversations between theory and praxis.

Exploring emergent themes in missiology, the book takes the form of a conversation between reflective practitioners – both those in academia and with those who are practically engaged.

Contributions include:

Andrea Campanale and Michael Moynagh on new forms of church

Ric Scott and Jonny Baker on the place of imagination and creativity for mission

David Bookless and Amy Ross on mission and the environment

Daniel G. Groody CSC and Amy Roche on mission and migration

To conclude, Ian Adams reflects on Luke’s account of Simeon and Anna as a lens through which to view what mission spirituality might look like in our turbulent times.


Also in October, we’re launching Theology for Changing Times: John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology. The launch takes place at Manchester Cathedral on 1st October, with evensong at 5:30 followed by the launch reception at 6:30. There will be input from some of the contributors to the volume. This will be followed by refreshments, as well as the opportunity to meet the editors, buy a copy of the book and mingle with the many people who knew John Atherton and valued his work. Tickets are available here.

SCM Press Pop Ups

If you’re training at theological college, the SCM Press Pop-up bookshop gives you the chance to browse a range of SCM Press titles, along with titles from our friends at Canterbury Press and Church House Publishing. We have a range of titles relevant to your course available at good discounts and a wide selection of supplementary reading in biblical studies, ecclesiology, practical and pastoral theology, ethics and doctrine. Have a look below to see if we’re coming to your institution, and if we are then come along on the day and see what we’ve got on display. If your institution isn’t listed, why not encourage your tutors or lecturers to invite us?

9th October – Cambridge Theological Federation, Westcott House (open to all students within the federation, including Ridley Hall and Westminster College)

6th November – Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham

20th November – Trinity College Bristol


November will be busy! That month the arrival of four new books. Firstly, there’s the latest publication in our SCM Research strand. Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary and the Body in Trauma Theology explores the nature of that trauma and examines the implications of identifying the trauma of this body.

Constructing new ways of thinking about the narratives at the heart of the Christian faith, the author Karen O’Donnell offers a fresh perspective on Christian theology, in particular the Eucharist, and presents a call to love the body in all its guises.

It offers new pathways for considering what it means to`be Christian’ and explores the impact that the experience of trauma has on Christian doctrine.

Susannah Cornwall, Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at Exeter University says of the book “This extraordinarily powerful book does not retreat from the blood, loss and deathliness sewn into Christian theologies across the ages. Nonetheless, it also insists on their transformative potential and capacity to bring new light to experiences of trauma and its aftermath today. O’Donnell’s is a bold new voice in constructive theology”


The newest SCM Studyguide, the Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith is written by Ben Pugh, who also wrote the Studyguide to Theology in the Contemporary World Much like that latter volume, the book is designed to be a companion to be used throughout theological study to equip theology students to understand the culture-shaping beliefs that are driving the kinds of questions that western culture brings to faith.

It offers an historical overview of the key stages in the history of Western philosophy with each section carefully tracing the genealogical line of ideas and the Christian responses to them, right up to the present day. Throughout the studyguide students are encouraged to reflect on the ways in which what has been learned might be applied in both explicitly theological and wider cultural contexts – for example, they might be asked to think of a film or book that seems to express elements of existentialism or postmodernism, or to describe how something very like the extreme subjectivity of idealism can sometimes shows itself in Sunday morning worship. This bridging of the practical and the theoretical will prove a invaluable aid for those studying theology particularly if they are doing so with a view to going into different forms of Christian ministry.


Helen D. Cameron‘s book Living in the Gaze of God offers an accessible and timely exploration of the theme of ministerial accountability through the lens of one reflective tool – that of formal supervision of ministerial practice. Bold and far-reaching, the book addresses the key presenting issues around a need for a change of culture in the church as regards accountability for Sministerial practice.

The book outlines a theological and practical model of 1-to-1 supervision, arguing that such an approach enables the development of greater attentiveness to God, the self and others and thus enhances accountability. Laying aside the need to offer a ‘how-to’ approach, Helen Cameron instead brings us a rigorous and dynamic consideration of the interface between supervision, accountability and ministerial practice, and offers a theological underpinning for the issues.


SCM Press has a considerable pedigree in publishing titles around the theme of theological reflection aimed both at students and educators, and many of our titles in the area are now core reading for practical or pastoral theology modules and ministry training both in the UK and abroad. In that vein, Straw for the Bricks: Theological

Straw for the BricksReflection in Practice (edited by Gary O’Neill with Liz Shercliff) explores theological reflection as a tool for ministerial training and development.

Set to become an important resource for those within theological education institutions, adult theological educators and anybody with responsibility for initial or continuing ministerial development, the book breaks new ground in exploring how a model of conversation can be used to lay a foundation for learning which provides a new architecture for both academic curriculum and personal formation. It offers a practical guide to good practice supported by the lived experience of educators from All Saints Centre for Mission and Ministry working across several disciplines.

Kate Bruce, Visiting Fellow at St Johns College, homiletician and RAF chaplain says that the book “will nourish practical theologians, preachers and teachers as we refine our various approaches. It will feed poets, enable facilitators of parish debate, and offer sustenance to all who seek God in the earth of the everyday.”


If November wasn’t busy enough it’s also the month when religious scholars, theologians and biblical scholars from around the world congregate for the AAR/SBL Annual Meetings, held this year in Denver, Colorado. As always, SCM Press will be hosted by our friends at Westminster John Knox Press, and at their booth in the exhibit hall you’ll find a host of our newest publications as well as some important books in our backlist. The Senior Commissioning Editor, David Shervington, will be there – do get in touch if you’d like to meet and discuss any book project you might be developing. He’d be pleased to meet you. You can email him at David.Shervington@hymnsam.co.uk





Material Wealth And Wellbeing – Where’s the Link?

Image result for punch cartoon wealthThe work of John Atherton journeyed through involvement with issues of poverty in the 1960s–1980s, to engagement with economic systems as a cause of poverty from the 1980s – late 1990, leading to engagement with the wider subject of economics, its relationship with not only Christianity, but global religion and belief and its growing involvement with wellbeing studies. He was widely considered one of the leading public theologians of his generation who truly understood the power of the Market and globalisation, and its ongoing impact on the way we live. His was a tireless quest to the extract the hopeful and progressive potential of these epochal changes without sacrificing a commitment to empirical and critical thought.  In the following extract from his last published article, Atherton considers the question of whether wellbeing has anything to do with material wealth.


Standards of living and health lie at the centre of our understanding of human wellbeing. Their story is the account of ‘the world of daily life’ (Bellah, 2011, p. 2); of the struggle to survive and improve life, the history of how people have managed ‘to make their lives better’ (Deaton, 2013, p. xiv). This is everybody’s agenda. It certainly should be at the heart of Christianity with the gospel’s aspiration, ‘that they might have life, and
have it more abundantly’ (John 10.10, kjv). Historically, its record of promoting greater wellbeing has been mixed in practice and even more in theory, particularly since 1800 when the Industrial and then Mortality Revolutions began spreading their beneficial consequences across the world. So much of Christianity’s theory and practice was framed before 1800 that it lacked tools to engage such progressive change, especially economic change and economics.

The account of the sudden growth of income and therefore of living standards
from 1800 for Deaton represents ‘perhaps the greatest escape in all of human history, and certainly the most rapid one’. The economics of such material wellbeing is measured by incomes, with money as reasonable indicator of ‘people’s ability to buy the things on which material wellbeing depends’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 16). Income is therefore central to greater wellbeing as key component of food, clothing and housing, but also as facilitator of other aspects of wellbeing, including education, healthcare, participatory governance, welfare and society. Economists measure such progress across nations by increases in per capita income (the Gross National Product – GNP – divided by population). Such a
consideration of increasing incomes is related to decreasing poverty but also increasing inequality.

First, the historic increase of income resulted from the Industrial Revolution’s ‘long-term and continuing economic growth’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 34). From 1820 to 1992 the world’s inhabitants’ average income grew between seven and eight times, constituting a ‘historically unprecedented increase in living standards’ (Deaton, 2013, pp. 4–5, 167). In the USA, leader of this revolution, per capita income rose from $8,000 in 1929 to $43,238 in 2012, an amazing fourfold increase in only 80 years and the result of economic growth of 1.9% per annum, astonishing to our ancestors, but not to us (Deaton, 2013, p. 170).

Second, decreasing poverty was one of the greatest consequences of increasing incomes. So between 1820 and 1992 the fraction of the world’s population in extreme poverty dropped from 84% to 24% (Deaton, 2013, p. 167). This achievement was nothing to do with liberation theology!

Third, increasing inequality, the classic indicator of great divergences, of paradoxes of development, accompanied these progressive changes in incomes and poverty. Such income inequality since the Industrial Revolution has occurred particularly between nations. The wealthiest countries are 256 times richer than the poorest (Deaton, 2013, p. 20). Inequalities within nations, like the USA, have returned to rapidly accelerating processes since the 1970s. In the USA, the bottom 90% is ‘barely holding onto the living standards of its parents’ (Deaton, 2013, pp. 189, 205). The real gains have been made particularly by the top 1%. Nobel economist Stiglitz has summarized these developments in Vanity Fair: ‘Of the 1%, for the 1%, by the 1%’ (Stiglitz, 2012, p. xxxix).

To grasp the nature and extent of these transformations it is best to locate them in historical contexts. In 1798, Thomas Malthus published the Essay on the Principle of Population with its thesis that expanding populations increasingly outstrip the growth in food, shelter and clothing necessary to resource them. That gap could only be closed by education or morality (meaning marrying later, so having fewer children), or by starvation, war, disease. This Malthusian Trap operated throughout history from 14000 BC to AD 1800. So the world of daily life was shaped by one factor, ‘in the long run births had to equal deaths’ (Clark, 2007, p. 19). Before 1800, rates of technological advance were so low that incomes could not escape the Malthusian equilibrium. The only way to improve living standards was to lower population levels by reducing fertility or increasing mortality. Average living standards meant living ‘a pinched and straightened existence’ (Clark, 2007, p. 38), working every hour God sent you, with a poor diet so low in calories as to produce short people, often unable to work, with poor clothing, and living in crowded insanitary housing. That was the world before 1800, throughout secular and Christian history. That was what was changed by the Industrial Revolution breaking the Malthusian Trap, changing ‘forever the possibilities for
material consumption’ with all that brings for wellbeing (Clark, 2007, p. 2). So income per person began its inexorable rise, delivering billions out of poverty.

Importantly, this growth in income was not an isolated achievement in wellbeing. It related to Deaton’s other two features of wellbeing, health and subjective wellbeing, in that, generally speaking, higher incomes were associated with better health and subjective wellbeing. So better incomes and health over generations are reflected in increasing population heights. Before 1800, people were smaller, indicating calorific nutritional deficiencies, especially in childhood. The European male’s average height
in the mid-nineteenth century was 166.7cm; by 1980, it was 178.6cm (Deaton, 2013, pp. 158, 160). For Fogel, in eighteenth-century Britain, low calorific intakes meant meagre energy for work, low stature and high mortality rates. The Industrial Revolution brought higher incomes, and so higher calorific food intakes, greater wellbeing and stronger economic growth – what is referred to as the thermodynamic factor, constituting
30% of British economic growth since 1790 (Fogel, 2004, p. 33). It is these links between income, food, health and economic growth that illustrate the interaction between these central features of progressive human wellbeing.

Because of this centrality of material wellbeing to wellbeing in general, it is worth exploring debates in economics questioning this significance of increasing income for increasing wellbeing. These arguments are particularly relevant to conversations between Christianity and economics, with the former’s long history of critical suspicion of material wellbeing, money and consumption. Whatever wellbeing is about, it’s not about that at all for much of Christianity! There are two arguments over these matters in contemporary economics, relating to post-materialism and whether greater incomes make us happier.

First, arguments by economists over the emerging significance of a post-materialist age began in the mid-nineteenth century with J. S. Mill, founder of mainstream classical economics, and were repeated by reformer of the following neoclassical economics, J. M. Keynes, looking forward, in 1931, to the day when the ‘economic problem will take the
back seat where it belongs’ (Keynes, 1932, p. vi). Fogel argued more recently that ‘The touchstone of wellbeing … will be measured … in terms of the quality of health and the opportunity for self-realisation’, what he terms ‘spiritual rather than material resources’ (Fogel, 1997, p. 1905). But it was American political scientist Inglehart who argued that empirical evidence demonstrated the emergence of increasingly post-materialist societies in the USA and Europe. For him, post-materialist values have ‘tended to neutralise the emphasis on economic accumulation’ (Inglehart, 1988, p. 1203). This is obviously an appealing argument to the religious, being pro-spiritual and anti-economics/materialist. Yet on examining surveys from 1975–94 Easterlin found quite different trends reflecting the significance of the materialist in relation to social concerns: ‘the percentage of people naming the materialist response as part of the good life exceeded that of people giving the non-materialist response’ (the difference rose from 7 to 21% – suggesting clear shifts towards materialist values, not away from them) (Easterlin, 2004, p. 51). Deaton and Easterlin conclude, therefore, that the material remains of decisive importance for human wellbeing, as it always has been. Christianity needs to come to terms with that, but is not very good at it.

Second, economists like Easterlin and Layard have argued that subjective wellbeing as happiness does not increase with higher incomes, using surveys of nations with higher economic growth and income per capita. Again, this reinforces Christian opinion that happiness is not about higher incomes primarily. Yet research now points the other way in this highly contested relationship between income and subjective wellbeing. Within nations, richer people experience greater subjective wellbeing than poorer people. This is particularly the case with life satisfaction, indicating the relationship between higher incomes and life satisfaction as ‘remarkably similar’, ‘both at higher levels of incomes as at lower levels’ (Sacks, Stevenson and Wolfers, 2012, p. 67). This overturns the orthodoxy
of Layard that increasing happiness only benefits lower incomes, say about $10,000, so above that increasing incomes does not produce increasing happiness (Easterlin, 2004, pp. 23–31; Layard, 2005, p. 33). This new evidence also contradicts mainstream economic assumptions that the marginal wellbeing impact of ‘a dollar of income diminishes as
income increases’ (Sacks, Stevenson and Wolfers, 2012, p. 61).

Similarly, emotional wellbeing measures of happiness also indicate rises with nations’ average incomes, but the relationship is much weaker and less uniform than with life satisfaction. So Pakistanis and Kenyans experience greater such happiness than Danes and Italians. This limited relationship between income and experienced happiness also holds within rich economies like the USA. So beyond an income of $70,000 per annum,
‘additional money does nothing to improve happiness’, even though those
with more money report they have better lives (life evaluation) (Deaton, 2013, pp. 52–3). So money matters only up to a point for improving such happiness, leading Graham to talk of the ‘paradox of happy peasants and miserable millionaires’ (Graham, 2009). Higher incomes improve evaluations of life but not emotional wellbeing.

Given this new evidence that higher incomes are very significant for wellbeing, it is worth finally summarizing the nature and role of incomes in material wellbeing both in contemporary and historical contexts. Material wellbeing is ‘typically measured by income, the amount of money people have to spend or save’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 16). What Americans spend their money on can be divided between goods and services, income spent on goods constituting a third of the total in 2012, divided between durable goods, a third, say on cars, furniture, clothes, and non-durable goods, say on food (7.5% rising to 13% when you include food consumed away from home). In terms of services, the two largest items were housing and utilities, representing 18% of consumer expenditure,
and healthcare at 16%. These income-resourced expenditures represent ‘the stuff of material wellbeing’ (Deaton, 2013, pp. 171–2). Yet many often criticize such bedrocks of life. ‘Spending more, we are often told, does not bring us better lives, and religious authorities regularly warn against materialism’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 172). Yet such opinions
neglect the enormous benefit for human wellbeing of the escape from the Malthusian Trap which dominated and scarred most lives for most of human history.

The French historian Braudel’s three-volumed Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century, traces the evolution of such material wellbeing up to the Industrial Revolution. The first volume engages The Structures of Everyday Life, classically centred on the historically continuing bases of material wellbeing, food, clothing and housing, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century (and for most of history) (Braudel, 1981, 1982, 1984). It was these material essentials for wellbeing that were transformed by the Industrial Revolution, even though they still form the basis of current income expenditure. It is this story of dramatic contemporary change in material wellbeing, say from 1870 to the present, that has been charted in US history by Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War. Life in 1870 was closer to the Malthusian Trap. What happened after turned the whole world of material wellbeing upside down profoundly for the better. In 1870, Boston had 250,000 citizens sharing the streets with 50,000 horses (Gordon, 2016, p. 48)! Women carried water and fuel into the house and took sewage and ashes out. The labour extended to cooking on fires, hand washing clothes, making clothes, and was immense. Then came two revolutions in 1879, Edison’s electric light and Benz’s internal combustion engine, transforming life for ever, along with the production of nutritious safe food and drink and good cheap clothing (the rise of mail catalogues and department stores) and the connectivity of housing in terms of piped clean water, sanitation systems, electricity and electrical appliances, central heating and then air conditioning, and telephones representing continuing advances in communications. And from the house, the car and then the aeroplane opened the world to all with incomes. It is an astonishing story of the development of material wellbeing.

Material wellbeing is intimately linked to incomes or money. It is the former that dominates economic understandings, but the undue focus on the latter has led Christians, especially theologians and church leaders, to at best profound misunderstandings of material wellbeing and income.

The full version of this article can be found in Theology for Changing Times: John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology, published later this month. Edited by Christopher Baker and Elaine Graham, the book includes contributions from Hilary Russell, Peter Sedgwick and Anna Ruddick, as well as from Atherton himself. 

There’s still time to book on to the launch of the book from 5:30pm on Monday October 1st at Manchester Cathedral. Tickets are free. To find out more and book your ticket, click here. 

The Stories we Tell

Photo: The Office of Rabbi Sacks.

What are the stories we tell ourselves? And how does an understanding of these narratives offer us a foundation to confront the religious violence in our world? In an extract from his co-edited volume Confronting Religious Violence: A Counternarrative, philosopher, theologian, author and politician Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs reflects on these questions. 


I begin with a simple proposition: we are the story we tell ourselves. There is an intrinsic, perhaps necessary, link between narrative and identity. In the words of the thinker who did more than most to place this idea at the center of contemporary thought, Alasdair MacIntyre, “man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.” We come to know who we are by discovering the story or stories of which we are a part.

Jerome Bruner has persuasively argued that narrative is central to the construction of meaning and that meaning is what makes the human condition human. No computer needs to be persuaded of its purpose in life before it does what it is supposed to do. Genes need no motivational encouragement. No virus needs a coach. We do not have to enter their mindset to understand what they do and how they do it, because they do not have a mindset to enter. But humans do. We act in the present because of things that we did or that happened to us in the past and in order to realize a sought-for future. To explain even minimally what we are doing is already to tell a story. Take three people eating salad in a restaurant, one because he needs to lose weight, the second because she’s a principled vegetarian, the third because of religious dietary laws.
These are three outwardly similar acts, but they belong to different stories, and they have different meanings for the people involved.

Cultures are in no small measure defined by the range of stories to which they give rise or for which they make space. Some of these have a special role in shaping the self-understanding of those who inhabit them. We call such stories master narratives. They are about large, ongoing groups of people: the tribe, the nation, the empire, or the civilization. They hold the group together, horizontally across space, vertically across time, by giving it a shared identity handed on across the generations. Often, in the past, they were provided by religions: recorded in sacred texts, transmitted through education, and recounted ritually at specific times. It was these stories, about founders
and followers and their encounters with God, that gave the great religions—the
Abrahamic monotheisms in particular—their unrivaled power to bind vast numbers of people in a common purpose, dedicated to collective ideals.

One of the most striking features of modernity as it emerged in the West is that it sought to do away with master narratives—at least as an explanation of the human condition. Truth was no longer to be located in texts. Society was no longer to be regulated by religious rules. Other institutions could do the work once done by the church or its
counterparts in other faiths. Narratives might still exist—though by now they were seen as “stories” bearing the same relationship to truth as myth did to science. Ironically, though, this entire process gave rise to metanarratives of its own.[…]

The first was what has become known as the secularization thesis, that religion would eventually vacate the public square, though it might still have a place in the private life of the human imagination. The second was the accommodation thesis, that the forms of religion that would survive would be those that made their peace with secular society and its values. Rather than shaping public culture, religion would be
shaped by it. The third was the end-of-history thesis, that with the end mof the Cold War in the late 1980s, liberal democracy and the market economy would eventually spread throughout the world, replacing national and ideological struggles (“history”) with the pursuit of private happiness and individual choice. The fourth was the Westernization
thesis, that any country or culture seeking to enter the modern world would have to do so the Western way.

These metanarratives worked as accounts of modernity for several centuries. History seemed to confirm the explanation they gave of the processes operating on societies as they entered a post-traditional age. Yet in recent years, each has begun to falter. None can be told with the same confidence that they commanded a half century ago.

The full version of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack’s chapter ‘The Stories We Tell’, can be found in Confronting Religious Violence: A Counternarrative, published later this month and edited by Richard Burridge and Jonathan Sacks. In the book twelve international experts from a variety of theological, philosophical, and scientific fields address the issue of religious violence in today’s world. Contributors include Miroslav Volf, David Sloan Wilson and Guy Stroumsa. 

What does it mean to be saved?

Today’s guest post is from Joshua Farris, Marc Cortez and S. Mark Hamilton, co-editors of Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation


Am I saved? This is a question many of us have grown up asking ourselves. If you were raised in evangelical circles, then you know what we mean. Images of conversion come to mind like images of walking down the aisle to say a prayer to accept Jesus into one’s heart.

But what does it mean to be saved? The contributors in Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation give the reader some access to the variety of answers to this question and a host of other related questions on the nature of salvation in Christian dogmatics.

The nature of salvation is typically a topic of discussion not only in revivalist churches, but is the proper subject of dogmatic theology. A discipline of study often perceived as out of fashion, dogmatic theology is the disciplined study of theology by attending to the definitive utterances of the universal church and particular traditions—in this case the Reformed catholic tradition.

In an attempt to revive this important discipline, the authors give expression to Reformed dogmatic theology as it bears on questions of soteriology (i.e., the doctrine of salvation). But don’t let the name throw you, this is not a cold restatement of historical truths disseminated from dusty old books. Rather, the theologians express the truth for a contemporary audience, thus making relevant the truth claims of the past in the ongoing process of proclamation for today.

The proclamation of the gospel truths of salvation requires the hard work of understanding the language of the day and the needs of the church. Giving ear to these concerns, the authors express the gospel truth of salvation from varied perspectives, backgrounds, and disciplines. In what has become a popular word in contemporary theology, polyphonic expression of the faith is found in the pages of Being Saved. That is not to say that there is not one harmonious melody with several notes, in many cases there is one harmony, but not in all cases. With any collection that attempts to give some access to the lay of the land on one topic, there will be voices that sing out of step with the rest or, in other cases, it may be hard to hear how it is that the new notes are in tune with the old notes. Take for example the development of panpsychism (see Joanna Leidenhag), a relatively new personal ontology, newly adapted to the doctrines found in the Christian faith. Does it fit? That is a question worth exploring.

Other voices are playing notes that are not necessarily doctrinally distinct in nature, but the manner in which they approach the topic of soteriology is methodologically distinct. Consider for example, some of the greatest violinists. Each has certain control on the violin. Each bear the mark of excellence. But it can’t be said that each plays the violin in the same way or sounds the same. Some theologians are more acutely attuned to the tools found in analytic philosophy (e.g., Greg Trickett and Tyler Taber, Jonathan Rutledge, R.T. Mullins), others are sensitive to historical development within dogmatics (e.g., Daniel Houck, Katherine Kirkpatrick, Paul Helm), others are attentive to theological readings that are in concert with the tradition (e.g., Carl Mosser, Adonis Vidu, Myk Habits), and others are attracted to doing explicit constructive systematic theology that is motivated by traditional concerns (e.g., Marc Cortez, Joshua Farris and Mark Hamilton). And still others are led by finer denominational distinctives (e.g., J.V. Fesko, Paul Helm). Others, still, have more explicit contemporary concerns in view (e.g., Ben Arbour, Hans Madueme).

In this way, Being Saved gives expression to the polyvalent voice found within Reformed dogmatics. This will of course raise questions about the extent to which each proposal neatly fits into the broader Reformed tradition and which expressions are out of tune with the tradition, but as suggested earlier these discussions need to be had. If for no other reason than the message once received continues to deliver to the saints. Interrogating our faith is a part of the process of faith seeking understanding as we continue to take every thought captive to Christ. And, the present volume aids in that important endeavor.


Marc Cortez is (PhD, University of St. Andrews) Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College.

Joshua R. Farris (PhD, University of Bristol, UK) is Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University.

S. Mark Hamilton is a PhD candidate at the Free University of Amsterdam.

Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation is available to order from our website. 

What is the Future of Lay Ministry?

Image result for lay reader scarfIn 50 years’ time, what might we say about reader ministry in the Church of England? In the following extract from Instruments of Christ’s Love, Sally Buck, Graham Dodds and Phillip Tovey imagine themselves into the future and offer a vision for the future of lay ministry.

Sally Buck:

From my point of view the best thing we did when we were reconsidering ministry throughout the Church of England 50 years ago was to acknowledge the leadership potential already contained in the body of theologically educated licensed lay ministers who we called Readers. So many people, we discovered, had professional skills that were not being utilized by the Church. Our network of local churches meeting for prayer and  fellowship and sharing food and possessions together in a way that has proven to be so powerfully countercultural would not have existed without the acknowledgment of those Readers who were natural leaders. Readers, alongside their priest colleagues
in their newly configured oversight roles, have brought the teaching of faith through actions and words back to life in the country as well as in our cities. They have been unafraid of the challenges involved in combining their deep spirituality and theological understanding with their embeddedness in the world of work and social action. It was Readers who turned the Church inside out and who have given much in the service of their communities in the name of Jesus Christ.

Graham Dodds

I am so pleased that what we did, 50 years ago now, was to release Readers from their Sunday duties and encourage them in their chaplaincy-type roles. They have become the leaders of mission for many local churches. The lay worship leaders are doing a great job in devising creative and imaginative worship. As well as that it was a real insight of theirs to concentrate their work on the partnership of the Church with church and community schools. Fewer people would know what the good news of Jesus Christ is if they hadn’t spent the long hours working with young people and children in after-school
clubs and fellowship groups. And our decision as a Church to give them permission to celebrate Holy Communion with their local Christian communities in homes has meant that the priestly ministry has rightly found its proper episcopal role and the Church now truly embraces a eucharistic theology.

Philip Tovey

When we ceased to see Readers as a problem and looked at trained laity as an opportunity, things began to change. The stressing of the role of vocation development and training other laypeople led to a release to work with laypeople the church and in the community. Some took this up with in particular the vision of mission and pioneering and developed churches in particular niches. Vocational work led to more
people becoming Readers but also a greater diversity of what they were doing. Much of the local mission in terms of nurture groups and outreach to particular areas became conducted by the ministry team with Readers taking an equal part in that work. Their role in mission increasingly became central to the Church.


Sally Buck is Director of Reader Formation in the Lincoln School of Theology and Diocesan Warden of Readers in the Diocese of Lincoln.

Graham Dodds is Canon Treasurer, Wells Cathedral and Director of Learning Communities for the Diocese of Bath & Wells

Phillip Tovey is Director of Training and Warden of Readers in the Diocese of Oxford and a part-time lecturer at Ripon College Cuddesdon where he teaches liturgy


Instruments of Christ’s Love: Celebrating Reader Ministry is included in our Summer Sale. Click here to find out what else is on offer