New Life: Rediscovering Faith
Stories from Progressive Christians
Compiled and Edited by John W H Smith and Rex A E Hunt.
Morning Star Publishing, 2013. P/Back.
Reviewed by Rev Dr Lorraine Parkinson
One of the joys of reading John Smith and Rex Hunt’s new book New Life is ‘hearing’ the authentic voices of fellow-travellers describing their experiences of church and faith. John and Rex have shown great discernment in gathering first-person stories from lay people around Australia and New Zealand. It is always a privilege to be taken into the confidence of anyone who opens up their own story, with its highs and lows and triumphs and vulnerabilities. The contributors have invited the reader into a private space, where each has offered memories, precious experiences of faith and struggles to understand and belong. Each has made himself or herself, vulnerable to criticism or misunderstanding. Thanks are due to all of them for sharing a vital and private area of life. Readers can only be better equipped to understand their own faith journey and richer in empathy for others going through changes and transformation.
The Introduction outlines the purpose of the book as:
We have asked lay women and men who have been active in the progressive Christian movements in Australia and New Zealand, to record their spiritual journey and the personal impact of their newly acquired knowledge of the human or historical Jesus of Nazareth. We asked them to describe their faith development and to share the forces that impacted on their current understanding.
Given that the book consists (after the introduction) of twenty five separate stories, each around 2,500 words, the editors have helpfully divided the stories into sub-categories.
The first is ‘Progressive Christianity – an Evolutionary Approach’. Seven contributors explain how they experienced a gradual dissatisfaction with what was being taught in their churches and a need to ‘move on’ to discover answers to important questions. For some it meant freeing themselves from the disapproval of holders of dogmatic beliefs. Some began to find what they were looking for by reading books by (for example) John Shelby Spong or Marcus Borg and joining discussion groups. For most it meant seeking a worshipping congregation of like-minded people. Some felt a need to distance themselves from the life of the church. For all, the move toward seeking a faith that could sustain them for life has been a gradual process, over a period of many years.
The second sub-category is ‘Progressive Christianity – Searching for Self’. The six writers in this section tell of their efforts to maintain faith in the midst of life’s challenges. For some that meant discarding a traditional faith which did not help them through traumatic life situations. The need for a faith to sustain and undergird a very stressful working life led another to find a new congregation characterized by “openness, passion, creativity and a willingness to explore”. For yet another, the experience of joining a progressive congregation has meant finding a faith that enables her to be a “fully human person”.
One contributor offered these challenging words:
As the progressive movement grows, its pastoral care ministry needs to grow in line with its intellectual endeavour. People will not be argued into a new way of thinking. They will come to that themselves when they feel safe enough.
The third sub-category is ‘Progressive Christianity – Seeking Integrity’. The writers explained how their need for an intellectual foundation for their faith (as well as a deep spiritual basis) has drawn them into explorations from scientific, literary and theological perspectives. Each describes how embracing a progressive approach to their faith has enabled them to re-imagine their understandings of God and Jesus (and in one case) traditional Christian doctrine.
Last is the sub-category ‘Progressive Christianity – Embracing a Faith in Action’. Five writers trace the movement they have experienced to practising faith which is deeply satisfying and exciting. Each is involved in in teaching and leadership of worship, or of discussion groups. Their experience of transformation has not been an ‘overnight’ process, but, as one writes:
I have come to accept doubt as part of faith. These matters I find difficult. I am but paddling in the shallows… This then, is the life of a former orthodox, very conservative Bible believing Christian, now in the process of being transformed into something else.
As the editors acknowledge in the conclusion, “the process of ‘deconstruction’ can be a painful one for many”, but this is a book which will give heart and impetus to people going through similar struggles in their own faith journey. The contributors have given priceless encouragement to growing numbers looking for faith which resonates with their own life experience and with faith in a God of love.