Theology Slam: Meet the Finalists

Ahead of the Theology Slam Live Final on 7th March, Ed Thornton of the Church Times caught up with the three finalists.

Hannah Barr

Hannah Barr, 27, is a first-year ordinand and Ph.D. student at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Before training for ordination, she worked for an international children’s charity and was a non-resident member of the Community of St Anselm. She has an undergraduate theology degree from the University of Exeter, and an M.Phil. in theology from the University of Oxford.

She was encouraged by friends to enter the competition, she says, and chose “Theology and the #MeToo Movement”. “I’m really passionate about the #MeToo movement, and I really want the Church to take its response to the movement seriously, even though it’s going to be uncomfortable.”

It is a subject that she knows well. “I’ve been looking at the issue of sexual consent since my Master’s, and watching what has happened in our cultural and societal conscience with #MeToo. . . I’m keen that we keep #MeToo on the agenda.”

She senses among her generation “a real enthusiasm to have God made real to everyday life. My generation isn’t content with being told statements about God and the world and taking them at face value. Actually, it really wants to grapple with them. In sharing the message of Jesus with our friends around us, really grounding it in the questions that people have today — that’s a real priority for this generation.”

Sara Prats

Sara Prats, 23, from Spain, is studying for a Bachelor degree in divinity at the University of London, part-time, and for a Master’s at the University of Birmingham. Her talk will be on “Theology and Mental Health”.

She found out about the competition from her BA director of studies. She was very excited to be chosen as a finalist. “I have never spoken about theology in front of an audience; so that makes me feel very nervous.”

She says that the support of Mr Williams has made her feel “much more calm and confident with what I am going to do”, however.

Her talk will examine “‘How the rise in mental-health issues among millennials is related, somehow, with the loss of the reference of our identity in God’ — by that I mean the way God looks at us, and the context in which God created us.”

She is familiar with the territory, having studied psychology. “Theology Slam has given to me an opportunity to show a new perspective, from theology, about the mental-health issues that adolescents are facing nowadays.”

Hannah Malcolm

Hannah Malcolm, 26, works as project co-ordinator at God and the Big Bang, an organisation that runs workshops for young people on science and religion.

She studied theology as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, followed by a Master’s degree in World Christianities at Yale Divinity School.

She found out about the competition on Twitter. “It was such an interesting idea to have spoken theology, and to challenge people to think about how communicating theology out loud has to be different from the way that you write it,” she says. “That really appealed to me.”

Ms Malcolm’s presentation will be on “Theology and the Environment”, although she says that she wants to avoid referring too much to “the environment”, which is “quite a clinical and alienating and scientific-sounding word. It doesn’t trigger any emotional response or sense of attachment.

“I’m going to be looking at the idea that watching the world around us go through climate breakdown, and watching other members of the community of creation suffer and die, produces in us a feeling of grief and sorrow. That is something worth exploring theologically.”

She has enjoyed honing both the content of her presentation and its delivery style with Samuel P.S. Williams (the ‘narrative consultant’ who has been preparing all three finalists for the final). “It’s been really interesting to have an outsider perspective on my topic. . . It is a new idea that theology is something you can have in a public and slightly less formal setting. I hope that will challenge people on the night — that doing theology doesn’t just mean doing it in a university setting.”

Excerpt from an article first published in the Church Times. Click here for the full article. 

For more information and details of how to buy tickets for the live final, see 



What Comes After Post-Christendom?

Last year, we published the 2nd edition of Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World. The author is Stuart Murray,Tutor in Mission at Bristol Baptist College. He contributed a guest post to our blog. 

For the past thirty years I have been reflecting on the implications of the demise of the Christendom era – the long period of European history in which church and state were partners in a sacral society and the Christian story shaped western culture.

I have tried to differentiate between the undoubted achievements and glorious legacy of that era and its follies, cruelties, compromises and collusions that have so damaged the church’s witness to Jesus Christ.

My inclination is to celebrate the end of this era and welcome the fresh opportunities that are emerging, alongside many challenges, but I have learned that many in our churches need first to grieve what they sense we have lost.

In hundreds of contexts in many nations I have attempted to offer some interpretation of what is happening and some guidance as to how we might respond. And I have insisted that the term ‘post-Christendom’ refers to a period of transition, not to whatever will emerge after Christendom.

For several years what I brought was clearly new to most people. They recognised what I was describing but they did not have an interpretive framework for it. They had many of the jigsaw pieces but needed the big picture. It has been exciting to watch lights going on all over the room. Some were troubled by what they learned, but many more were excited and energised by this new understanding.

In more recent years, though, the responses and questions have changed. The term ‘post-Christendom’ is much more widely understood (and not so often unhelpfully conflated with ‘post-modernity’), so conversations tend to move on more quickly to exploring the implications for mission, discipleship, church life and social engagement.

Indeed, for many young adults the term is largely meaningless – their perception is that they have never experienced the Christendom era (although they are affected by its legacy even if they don’t realise this). And more often the question arises – what might come next after the transitional period that ‘post-Christendom’ represents? What might be the features of ‘post-post-Christendom’?

I have responded to this question in three main ways.

First, I have suggested that the transitional period will be lengthy and complex. Rather than peering ahead and trying to discern the features of whatever might come next, our priority is to negotiate the turbulence of this transition as creatively and courageously as we can.

Second, I have focused on one significant feature of the transition that is almost certain to persist for the foreseeable future: the Christian community will be a minority in a culture it no longer dominates.

In my book, A Vast Minority, I have explored the implications of this. It is not just that we are a minority (as many Christian communities are across the world) but we are an ‘ex-majority minority’, which presents very different theological, psychological and logistical challenges. I’m very interested in what kind of minority we choose to be.

Third, in some contexts I have offered five possible scenarios of what might come after post-Christendom. I have prefaced this presentation by insisting that I don’t know which of these, or which combination, is more likely:

  • Europe after Christendom might be predominantly Muslim. Continuing growth in this community through its higher than average birth rate, conversions and limited further migration might at some point result in a Muslim majority in Europe.
  • Europe after Christendom might be predominantly secular. Continuing decline in religious belief and practice and the pervasive impact of secularisation on all faith groups might result in religion being further marginalised but tolerated because it is not worth persecuting.
  • Europe after Christendom might experience a resurgence of Christian faithas Christians from other parts of the world learn to engage effectively in ‘reverse mission’ and join forces with a chastened and renewed indigenous church.
  • Europe after Christendom might be a post-modern smorgasbord of philosophies, beliefs, subcultures and interest groups with no one of these persuasive enough to form a new basis for social cohesion to replace a discredited Christendom. This may result in a brutalist culture dominated by military consumerism.
  • Europe after Christendom might face civilizational collapse as multiple threats to health, the environment, economics and social stability combine with a vacuum in the realm of values and the absence of political vision.

As the revised and updated version of my book, Post-Christendom, is published, my hope is that the book will continue to stimulate debate. In this transitional period we are likely to have many more questions than answers, and any answers are likely to be provisional. I find inspiration and insights in the long-marginalised Anabaptist tradition, which challenged the Christendom synthesis nearly 500 years ago, but we will need each other and the contributions of many different traditions if we are to chart a course into this strange new world.

Post-Christendom is included in our Winter Sale. Click here to see other titles on offer

Two Critically Acclaimed Books on the Apostle Paul

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

Paul on Baptism:
Theology, Mission and Ministry in Context

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

Paula Gooder

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

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

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

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

Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought

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

Craig C. Hill, Duke Divinity School

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

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

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

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

God in an Age of Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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