How Then Shall We Live?: Christian Engagement with Contemporary Issues

Wells, Sam
Canterbury Press (2016)
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It was initially Sam Wells' bad luck - and mine too - that I opened his book on the fateful morning of 9th November 2016 when the Presidency of Donald J. Trump was declared. I wanted quick, sharp, answers to a myriad of urgent questions and began to read the book as rapidly as an airport page-turner to see what I could grasp, but I steadily slowed down as I read and had not got to the end before I decided to start again.

The book is divided into three, characterised by Wells: Engaging with The World: "probing and exploratory", Being Human "pastoral) and Mortality "passionate".

I will list the topics and either summarise or quote to provide the essence of the argument which I hope will intrigue rather than being a substitute for reading the whole set of essays.

Introduction - play the long game (scripture); keep perspective (Jesus); be a team player (church); don't imperialise  your faith (kingdom). "This book is written for those who find themselves in the wilderness today ...".

Islam - "... there's always a question of whether Jesus' (and even Saint Paul's) more strident and demanding injunctions assume an interim period only, or whether they are truly applicable for long-term embodiment. Islam doesn't have that problem.' The problem is Islam's inability to distinguish between religion and society; and, as the Qur'an is Islam's equivalent of Jesus, it finds it hard to take criticism.

Migration - The Church has so far been unable to articulate a policy it can be proud of. Ruth shows that receiving immigrants is not a duty but a source of renewal.

Israel - The holocaust was the result of 1000 years of anti Semitism: "... it remains a challenge for ... the European Christian churches ... to accept responsibility for creating the conditions that made the existence of Israel necessary."

International Development - Complicity in colonial history, The Western Church should not abandon the rest of the Church; scarcity: creation is not insufficient. WE are closest to God in despair; seeing the hungry and looking into the face of God.

Ecology - "Resurrection means the promise that earth will come to heaven and heaven will come to earth. ... the last day:  the marriage of heaven and earth."

Inequality - Inequality is bad for the poor and rich; the primacy of fraternity.

Europe - Pragmatic technocracy and romanticism. The heart of Europe is Auschwitz.

Ecumenism -  In the Prodigal Son the one who ran away was Protestantism, the one who stayed at home was Catholicism.

Social Media - "... if social media pushes Christians, reluctantly, grudgingly and tentatively to recognize the uncontrollable, ever-more-unmanageable, and yet thrillingly redemptive nature of the Holy Spirit, it will indeed have proved a blessing beyond measure to the church."

The Family - Family can become idolatry.

Disability - John 9; disability as a window onto the glory of God.

Childhood - Children as a "foretaste of heaven"; the Bulger case; either the murderers were not children (criminal justice approach ) or evil (tabloid approach); children are largely ignored.

Marriage - Face-to-face, side by side and back-to-back (careers). No couple perfect in all three; "it's not  supposed to be perfect. It's supposed to be good." We interact with God in the three ways.

Domestic Violence - "... Christianity has much too often been invoked to under-write and legitimize the psychological, economic, social and physical domination of women by men."

LGBT Identity - Burden or gift? Christian identity a five-act play: 1. Creation; 2. Covenant; 3. Christ; 4. Church; 5. Consummation. sexuality is part of what we are not what we do; embodiment critical to 5. not 1. LGBT is an added social dimension, corresponding to 2. Look back to 3. to live properly in 4.

Obesity - The symbol that in life there's nothing for us to be ready for. Society unsure of what it's for.

Retirement - Must be read through the lens of the Ascension of Jesus.

Vocation - Living in the triangle of Bethlehem (danger), Egypt (safety) and Nazareth (slow nurture).

Bereavement - The Church's two stories of All Saints and All souls. Love is stronger than death.

Chronic Illness - "Jesus will come to meet us before we've finished. ... In the kingdom of God, nothing  bad lasts forever."

Disappointment - Emmaus: Resurrection's response to disappointment.

Shame - God's stories begin in shame (Mary and Joseph). Faith will ruin your life; but we've ruined  God's life.

Old Age - To escape the idea that "... ageing is a euphemism for dying. ... Ageing becomes the most apt symbol of the doomed human desire to keep control of our lives. ... To grow old is to realize that folly of the Temple ... the turning of the Covenant from the Temple into Jesus." Our greatest privilege is to witness salvation.

Dementia - Deficit, decline  and death; "...  the path of Resurrection lies in letting go."

Terminal Illness - Jesus walked towards the storm towards us; and so must we.

Assisted Dying - The ownership of life transferred from God to us. True compassion is free of solutions.

Death - Jesus is more interested in cricket than moralistic fables. Whatever we go through, nobody will snatch us out of Christ's hands.

Let me start with the essay on LGBT identity not just because it is the most topical but because it is more than three times as long as any of the others. To me the theology is compelling but it won't change any minds. Christianity is entering the 'post truth' era in parallel with politics. It doesn't matter a jot that, theologically as well as scientifically, sexuality is part of what we are and not a lifestyle choice. We have lost the capacity to discuss the issue. The next most topical subject is assisted dying where, again, Wells adopts a fundamentally theological position, that the problem with the proposition is that it is trying to find a solution instead of simply letting God and his creature be; and in doing so he rejects the 'thin end of the wedge' arguments as weaker than the dignity and choice arguments of advocates of assisted dying. And I could say the same for all the essays on the third part of the book which are by far the most coherent because, with few exceptions, they are not dealing with issues with strong political overtones.

And for me that is the point: the nearer Wells gets to politics the less convincing he is, not  because he does not have many good things to say but because one knows that none of them are going to be heeded. It isn't the book that is wrong but it is that it might have been written for a different age. To read its gentle, reasoned, pastoral pages is to induce a deep sense of melancholy for things past. That is why I love the book and why I was so unsympathetic when I first opened it.

For, in truth, I am becoming as bad as those I disagree with: I want words to be ammunition; I want to destroy the opposition; I want my conclusion to be irresistible and yes, devastating. Thus, in approaching a book like this, it is important to use it as a way of finding one's way back towards dialogue.

But, to return to the essentials. Wells is in no doubt of his central thesis, that the Resurrection changed everything and that everything must be seen in its light. In other words, there really is no point in evading the central issue; only proclaiming the Good News is any match for narcissistic materialism and, one must add after 9th November, 2016, Narcissistic politicians.