Why Weren't We Told?3

Book Review: A Goldmine of Progressive Resources

Reviewed by Alan Coles
Free to Believe, Britain)

Why Weren’t We Told? A Handbook on ‘progressive’ Christianity
Compiled & edited by Rex A E Hunt & John W H Smith,
Polebridge Press, 2013

I’m usually turned off by extravagant and often inappropriate hyperbole used widely as a sales tool to sell almost everything. However, ‘excellent, inspiring, informative, encouraging and fascinating’ is an accurate description of this richly packed 266-page paperback. Since I bought it in July, hardly a day has passed when I have not picked it up.

The majority of the content and its contributors are from New Zealand, Australia and the USA. The purpose of the book is to provide material for further study and to stimulate readers into clarifying their thinking on a great variety of issues. It provides examples of ‘work in progress’ as well as concise cameos written mainly by ordained scholars on a host of topics. Most contributors are fellows of the Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar.

The Foreword is by the remarkable Revd. Professor Sir Lloyd Geering in New Zealand who, at the age of 93, is still lecturing. He refers to the controversy that spilled out of the churches when he wrote an Easter article for his church journal headed, ‘What does the Resurrection of Jesus mean?’, and went on to suggest, as many scholars had already done, that the story of the empty tomb was a pious legend and not to be taken as evidence of a supernatural miracle.

In the course of the public debate that followed, a lawyer complained to him saying he had been a loyal churchman all his life and that he was reasonably intelligent. Why had he not been told all this before? Geering goes on to speak of the ‘great gulf’ opening up between thinking theologians and biblical scholars, and what was still being preached in the churches.

The book is divided up into five sections with the first headed “‘Progressive’ Cameos”. There are 60 of these written by a variety of contributors with titles such as: Autonomy, Christology in an Evolutionary World, Dubious Doctrines & Suspicious Scriptures, Earliest Christianities, The ‘Fallen’ World, Holy Communion, Queer Spirituality, Science and Religion, and so on.

The second section is “Reclaiming the Faith’s Free Thinkers”, with Heretics & Heroes as the first of three sub-sections. Paul Laughlin provides thumbnail sketches of ‘heretics’ such as Marcion (a Radical Rationalist), Valentinus (an Unorthodox Unitist), Arius (a Debunker of Doctrines), Origen (an Eccentric Exegete), Melchior Hoffmann (a Rebellious Re-Baptizer), etc. He goes on to link these with the more modern ‘heretics’, for instance, Schleiermacher, Darwin, de Chardin, Bultmann, Tillich, Funk, and Crossan.

“‘Progressive’ Christianity Alive – Some encouragement....because we are not alone!” This heading sums up the contents of section three with 21 cameos dealing with some of the matters of faith and belief that are often very differently interpreted by ‘progressives’ from those held by the ‘average’ churchgoer. Keith Rowe summarises this section by saying: ‘....rethinking Christian belief in the light of the insights.......not available to earlier generations and to the renewal of Christian living through recapturing the radical social implications of the way of life embodied in Jesus.’ Articles with titles such as - Pushing Boundaries, Biblical and Modern Worldviews of the History of the World & Human Life, Why I Can No Longer Say ‘The Nicene Creed’, What They Told Us In Seminary but We Never Got To Preach About!, The Healing Narratives: The Importance of a ‘progressive’ Theological Approach - provide a flavour of this enriching section.

“Living the ‘progressive’ Dream” is the title of the fourth section, giving the stories and experiences of twenty four congregations/ groups self-styled as ‘progressives’. Some of the ‘grassroots’ responses by very different groups in New Zealand & Australia are absolutely fascinating to read.

The final section “Resources Toolbox” contains Progressive Hymns, Responsive Prayers/Reflections, A Liturgy for Holy Communion, A Liturgy for the Celebration of Birth/Life and Non-Theistic Prayers. The imbalance between Europe and The New World in this book is compensated for by the inclusion of hymns and ‘Singing the Theology that Can Shape ‘Progressive’ Christianity’ by our own Revd. Dr. Andrew Pratt, a Methodist minister and former Lecturer at Luther King House – an ecumenical theological college in Manchester. He is recognized as one of Great Britain’s foremost contemporary hymn-writers.

I cannot commend this book highly enough.