Developing Conversations

9780334054016We’ve just published the latest in the Learning Church series Conversations with the Old Testament’. Both this, and one of the previous titles in the series ‘Conversations with the New Testament’, are written by John Holdsworth. Here he tells the story of how both books came about.

The seeds of the Conversations books were planted in the most unlikely circumstances. On a September evening in 2011, I found myself at St George’s Church Baghdad as a member of a Question Time-style panel answering questions put by an audience of around forty people aged between about fifteen and thirty. I was asked to respond first to the opening question. It was put by a girl in her mid-teens, and was simply this: what can you tell us that will give us hope?

My immediate response was cliché- ridden and inadequate, but it did at least prompt me to deeper reflection about the meaning of Gospel. Here was someone whose life prospects were poor. A clearly intelligent young person, she had little hope of escaping the legacy of an invasion that had left what was effectively a failed state that could offer people like her very little. What good news was there for her in our holy books? But more than that I was struck by the inadequacy of our often formulaic and sterile responses to the question: what is our Gospel? Should I tell this young person who had suffered so much, that at least I could assure her that her sins were forgiven? Should I wax lyrical about the hope of Heaven? Should I smile a reassuring smile as I might have heard myself say that actually Jesus loves her?

261112_onversations%20with%20the%20new%20testamentAll of this set me thinking about the Gospels themselves and why Jesus’s ministry was actually experienced as good news, and why, in circumstances often actually quite similar to those in Baghdad, the early church thrived because of the good news it conveyed. I began to imagine a new kind of New Testament (NT) introduction that began with the experience of real people, and then sought resources within the NT that might speak to that experience.

So my first question was what counts as good news to people, and I came up with a list that certainly included being forgiven, and having assurance that life has a purpose and destiny, but also dealt with issues around health, aspiration and community. I decided to present this new approach within a disarmingly simple narrative structure which might be recognizable to readers of all kinds, but might be especially helpful to those studying the book as a course textbook for a group. It does not look like a textbook. It could easily be dismissed by the academic elite who write essentially for each other, but I wanted something more democratic and real, but of course with academic integrity.

The title ‘Conversations’ fits well with my wider Practical Theology approach. Traditionally, scholars have wanted to start conversations, but have assumed that the place to start is the text, and their aim has been to make that speak as the first act in a conversation. This is what exegesis amounts to, hermeneutically. My approach, consistent with Practical theology in most of its manifestations, is to make the text the second speaker, the responder, in that conversation. Also, I like the idea of presenting a narrative that describes a conversation in a book that may mirror that setting. As someone who has been involved in ministerial training for the past twenty years I recognize that such training involves three elements: education, practical training and formation – the process of becoming ministerial. The holy grail is to find a way of combining education and formation, and I have written in a way that tries to make that more possible.

Having had good responses to the publication of Conversations with the New Testament, I was pleased to be asked to consider a sister publication on the Old Testament (OT). I felt the narrative style with the group had probably run its course, but wanted to retain the essential ethos and taxonomy of the original. So I settled on the idea of a series of questioners. I wanted them to be real, recognizable and contemporary. I wanted them to ask difficult, even hostile questions that might ‘bring out the best’ in the answers. In all that, I had to cover the normal ‘introduction’ brief.

I have a real passion for the OT, and a real sense of frustration about its neglect. Although the questions could not involve several takes on the idea of Gospel, I believe there is Gospel in the OT, summed up for me in the words: do not be afraid, for I will be with you, repeated in many circumstances and carried into the opening chapters of the NT.

Rather than follow that, I wanted to tackle the reasons why people don’t read the OT. The past thirty years or so have actually been exciting and adventurous times in OT study and I wanted to convey something of that. May the conversations continue.

You can find out more about all the titles in our Learning Church series on our website



Honey from the Lion

In a post-Brexit Europe, and with the world waiting to find out what sort of UK the new Prime Minister has in mind, nationalism is firmly back on the agenda and a second referendum on Scottish independence is a distinct possibility. A good time, perhaps, to revisit Doug Gay’s 2014 book ‘Honey From the Lion’. Here’s an extract from the introduction.

“Honey From the Lion” looks at the ethics of nationalism from a Christian theological perspective. Some readers, perhaps many religious ones, will baulk at the suggestion that there could be such a thing as an ethical nationalism, being fully convinced that nationalism is in principle unethical.

I’m aware of the wide range of reactions that the ‘n’ word can cause; the ‘honey’ of the title, which has been with me from the start of my work on the book, has been my own way in to the ambivalence of the word ‘nationalism’.

There is a story in the Old Testament book of Judges which lies behind both my title and the iconic Tate & Lyle syrup tins that have graced the kitchen tables of Scottish homes since the 1880s.

In the Old Testament book of Judges, Samson the Israelite hero is operating on the cultural and geographical boundaries of Israel and in a context in which we are told ‘the Philistines had dominion over Israel’ (14.4). Samson’s eye roves beyond the women of Israel to ‘a Philistine woman’ (14.1), and he asks his parents to get her for him as his wife. Their exasperated reply reflects a view held deeply in many cultures through history, that women and men should marry their own kind: ‘Is there not a woman among your kin, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?’

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann says of the Samson cycle of stories: ‘The primary motif in this narrative … is Samson’s complex relationship to the Philistines, Israel’s paradigmatic enemy, the quintessential “other” whose narrative function is to serve and enhance Israel’s own peculiar identity’ (An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, 2003, p. 125). At the boundary place of Timnah, where Samson has seen the woman, he is attacked by a lion, and kills it with his bare hands. Returning later to the lion’s corpse he finds a swarm of bees have colonized it and made honey. He scrapes it out to eat and to share with his parents. He then makes up a riddle which he uses in a contest with the Philistines. Unable to solve it, they play on the loyalties of his Philistine bride, who cajoles the answer from Samson and relays it to them.

The riddle travels well from Hebrew into English – ‘out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong came something sweet’. The relationship between lions and honey I read (freely) as a metaphor for the central question of political theology and political ethics – the relationship between power and virtue. In the discussion that follows, that question will be explored in relation to questions of identity, legitimacy, sovereignty and representation.

While a good many of my readers will have theological or religious interests, I hope Honey From the Lion will find a wider readership among those involved in the current constitutional and public policy debates in Scotland and the UK and those who follow these questions in other countries. One reason for holding out such hopes is the influence, more than two decades ago, of Will Storrar’s Scottish Identity: A Christian Vision (1990), which was cited by a wide range of commentators in Scottish civil society and further afield. Will was my main doctoral supervisor and is a much valued friend. I hope my book can find as wide and generous a readership as his did, although I fear that public and civic discourse in Scotland and the UK is becoming less hospitable to books that address public policy questions from an explicitly theological angle.

I hope that readers not used to theology who do persist with the book will find that though the theological perspective is unapologetic, the book reflects a desire to find common ethical and political ground between my Reformed and ecumenical Christian humanism on the one hand, and a spectrum of different secular and religious humanisms. Although public discourse has become less hospitable to theology, anyone who has made a serious attempt to read and understand Scottish and British history and the history of political theory will have had to engage with theological themes and concerns as a sine qua non of achieving their historical literacy.

For those who are disinclined to read the book as a historical–theoretical document and who read through a more literary critical lens, I hope it will provide a set of colourful metaphors whose sense and reach they can appreciate, even if they have doubts about their provenance. Either way, debates about the place of religious discourse in public life are now moving beyond the era of John Rawls and the ‘hard secularist’ implications many drew from his proposals. The simplest and best response to Rawls has always been the insistence that when people sit down together to discuss public policy, they are not only allowed to bring their political proposals to the table, they are also allowed to bring their reasons for making them (Wolterstorff and Audi, 1997, p. 112). The fact that those reasons may be incommensurable does not mean that the political work of coming to judgement and decision cannot go ahead, although it does, as my Mennonite friends remind me, place the work of peacemaking at the heart of the political process. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists will often be capable of reaching substantive agreement on political questions, even after travelling to that agreement from different starting points.

One premise of this book is that those starting places do not only provide historical context, they also offer sources of inspiration and imagination as well as practical modes of ethical reasoning. My location within the Christian tradition and the Christian Church is decisive for me. It determines my sense of who I am and who others are, and it shapes my perception of and interpretation of the world, as well as providing a context for action. The increasing ‘strangeness’ of a Christian theological perspective within contemporary public discourse will, I think, often just have to be borne and risked, if it is not to be abandoned or sacrificed. In saying this, I do not dismiss the desire for ‘translation’ of religious perspectives, which Jürgen Habermas has expressed, but nor do I accept it as a condition of participation in public discourse. The risk of ‘sounding strange’ is worth taking because it attests to a belief that Christian theological language is not capable of being converted without remainder into some neutral version of public reasoning. I stand with those, therefore, who argue that the excess of meaning and reference carried by theological, liturgical and scriptural language and conceptuality offers a range of possibilities for reading contemporary culture and politics which might otherwise be lost. While there are times and places for the detailed work of justifying and defending the Christian doctrines in play here, my approach will be to deploy them unapologetically in the service of a Christian political imagination.

In the practice of doing this, I believe that the ‘thickness’ of Christian doctrine enables a deep hermeneutics and a deep poetics, that is to say that it allows more to be read and heard and it allows more to be written and said. Because I covet a readership beyond my own discipline, I have to hope even for those who struggle to accept theological premises that something of a hermeneutical and poetic ‘more’ may still be engaging. If they, like Habermas, respond to the affective and motivational power of religious concepts with acts of wary translation, that is something we can go on talking about. Hopefully we’ll have a better conversation in part because the ‘strange talk’ has been thought-provoking.8 People within my own discipline may ask if this is really ‘practical theology’. The book, like my earlier book on ecclesiology, is not focused on empirical work or field work. However, both books are reflections on practice and both attempt to reframe practice by clarifying key concepts and testing them theologically. In a 1982 essay on ‘Ethics and the Pastoral Task’, Stanley Hauerwas quotes Iris Murdoch’s claim that ‘we can only act in the world we see’ (quoted in McGrath, 2008, p. 308). We see the world not by aiming our minds and pressing the shutter once, but by looking again and again. The process of trying to say what we have seen, of trying to describe practice, as Pierre Bourdieu points out in his discussion of the ‘logic of practice’ (1990; cf. Smith, 2009, p. 67), places us within a hermeneutical circle or spiral in which the saying affects the seeing. Our scope for action can be restricted or broadened by the ‘saying’. How we produce a ‘sayable’ world, how we voice and name the world, is a practice in itself; it also creates a context that enables or disables other practices.

Many of my key concerns in this book are related to questions I have asked myself about my own practice of voting for a nationalist party in Scotland over a number of decades. I am reflecting on the political practice of that party and other parties both in opposition and in government. I am reflecting on the often vehement opposition to any kind of political nationalism among Christian friends and in wider conversation. I’m engaging the prospect of the referendum on Scottish independence scheduled for the Autumn of 2014 and reflecting on the role that churches, including my own Church of Scotland, might play, in clarifying the ethical dimensions of the referendum choices.

Practices of political debate, of voting, of representation and governance are all in view, as is the consensus among most practical theologians that our discipline is always, somehow, aimed at ‘transforming practice’ (see Graham [1996] 2002). That the practice in view is ‘political’ is something that is unremarkable in respect of the last few decades of the Scottish tradition of practical theology. Duncan Forrester, former Professor of Practical Theology and Christian Ethics at New College, Edinburgh, did much of his work in this area,10 as have his successors in that chair, Will Storrar and Oliver O’Donovan. Each of these theologians has worked in their different ways to produce ‘contextual theology’ – attentive to the surrounding political culture and context.

One factor in the current context, which has so far been little discussed by theologians, but which is clearly of major importance, is the prospect of preparing a written constitution for an independent Scotland. I return to this in Chapter 9, where I offer my own suggestions about how religion should be recognized within any new constitutional settlement.

The aim in what follows therefore is to write practical, political, poetic, public theology, which speaks directly to its context and which readers interested in Scotland’s and the UK’s constitutional future, or in questions of nationalism, ethics and politics, can be persuaded to engage with, even if they find its theological accent strange.

Doug Gay is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow. You can buy a copy of Honey from the Lion from our website here.

SCM Research

scm research logo cropWe’ve just launched SCM research. David Shervington, Senior Commissioning Editor, explains more.

As the academic publishing world consolidates, options for publishing research monographs are diminishing. Publishers are good at accepting proposals for textbooks, course books and the like, but the economics of publishing research-level monographs make them much harder to justify. If you are an early-career researcher, desperately trying to publish your first book, it is especially hard to get your work noticed. In the UK, the REF exercise adds to the pressure on scholars to produce research-level publications, but there are fewer and fewer specialist theology publishers prepared to take on these kinds of projects. As one of the UK’s leading theology publishers, SCM is hoping to play a part in redressing the balance.

The result is something we’re calling SCM Research. We’re actively seeking proposals for research-level monographs in the area of theology. We’re happy to consider proposals from researchers at any stage in their career, and that includes proposals which draw on research from PhD thesis (I’ll be offering some advice on how to go about developing a monograph from your thesis on this blog at a later date – watch this space).

All SCM Research titles go through a rigorous peer review process at proposal stage. This helps us to be sure of the scholarly rigour of what we publish, and helps our prospective authors to be certain that they are publishing with a respected academic theology publisher.

We’re keen that authors publishing under the SCM Research programme have the same experience of publishing with us as with all SCM authors. Like all SCM Press publications, books going down the SCM Research route benefit from access to worldwide distribution channels. We know the academic library market well and work closely with suppliers to make sure our books reach the markets where they are most needed. We take great pride in the quality of our publications, whether they are under the SCM Research banner, or the wider SCM Press list, and we work closely with our authors to help them develop their book projects into the best publications they can be.

Our hope is that SCM Research will enable SCM to work even closer with the academic community it serves. The first SCM Research volumes will be published in 2017, so stay tuned for more details. And of course, if you have any questions about SCM Research, or would like to submit a book proposal, please don’t hesitate to get in touch (