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A twist of faith

Books that will challenge and maybe change

By Various Writers

With or Without God: The Way We Live
Is More Important Than What We Believe
By Gretta Vosper
(HarperCollins Canada) $29.95
Reviewed by Sheryl Spencer

It is seldom that my heart begins to race as I set in to reading a book. I had other things to do the afternoon I began With or Without God, but I continued reading.

Rev. Gretta Vosper, founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, and a United Church minister in east Toronto, believes that the church has “outlived its viability.” In With or Without God, she proposes a new way forward, where every aspect of Christianity is to be examined through the lens of whether it supports life-enhancing values. Practices or beliefs found wanting, Vosper believes, must go.

Vosper’s ultimate challenge is for Christians to live a “radically ethical life,” believing that liberal Christians must “clear their desks of what they no longer believe of the Christian message.” Everything is up for grabs: the authority of the Bible; the divinity of Jesus; the validity of the sacraments; the nature of God. Over seven chapters, Vosper deconstructs Christianity as we know it, and suggests how it can be challenged, liberated and reconstructed.

Many people, Vosper asserts, have left the church because of its lack of integrity in the face of recent scientific, historical and scriptural scholarship. Those who remain are often troubled by questions. Vosper wishes to replace the enforced thinking of the collective with the critical thinking of the individual. Drawing on the scholarship of Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and others, Vosper maintains a direct yet conversational style, often spiced with humour. Her sources are wide-ranging and the endnotes are filled with highly informative tidbits.
Even though Vosper advises progressive Christians to proceed with respect, her dismissiveness of traditional beliefs is painful for me, and I’m sure for others, too.
The confrontational nature of Vosper’s ideas is apparent even in the title of the book.

John Shelby Spong’s foreword ups the ante, predicting that, “with the publication of this book, nothing will ever be the same, not for Gretta, nor for The United Church of Canada, perhaps not even for Christianity.” By the sixth chapter, Vosper admits, “There’s going to be trouble.”

Will this pain be worth it? Over and over, Vosper presents her hope that a church freed from the “absolute and supernatural” is a church that can lend itself to creating the sustainability the planet needs. The trajectory from one to the other is not clear.
She writes that she is largely focused on “dropping you into the fast-flowing waters of dis-belief.” Indeed, reading With or Without God is like setting out in a canoe across a big lake. You may encounter sunny spots, only to be
blindsided by sudden gusts of wind and rain that threaten to blow you into uncharted waters. My highlighter ran out before the pages did. The margins of my review copy are scribbled with comments that end in indignant exclamation marks or very large question marks.

This is Vosper’s intent. On the last page, she writes, “I extend the confrontation that is this book. May it irritate us all into the growth we so disturbingly need.”
Yes, I see a storm on the horizon.

Sheryl Spencer lives in Guelph, Ont., and attends Dublin Street United. She recently began a master’s of divinity program at Emmanuel College in Toronto.

The Christian World: A Global History
By Martin Marty
(Random House) $28
Reviewed by Lee Simpson

Why isn’t the faith family to which we belong known
as “Yeshuanity” or “Jesusanity”?
Martin Marty poses the question early in The Christian World. And it, as it turns out, is the question. Within the response is found the inspiration for Christianity and the key to understanding the tie that (however loosely) binds the 2.2 billion citizens of the world who are Christian. There may be, as Marty claims, 38,000 denominations. But at some point they were all drawn by something that happened 2,000 years ago. What was this thing? It is the story of Jesus the Christ that inspired followers in Palestine, Asian Antioch, northern Africa and the Mediterranean.

“What they held in common could be reduced to a minimalist formula which admits to numberless variations,” writes Marty. “The human Jesus is the exulted Lord.”

Marty traces the church’s progress from the origins of the Gospels through to today. So much writing uses only the theatre of Western Europe as the backdrop for the story of contemporary Christianity. Marty introduces the reader to the other stages. His chapter headings are indicative: “The Jewish Beginnings” gives way to the Asian and African episodes, then the European episodes and Latin and North American episodes. Marty invites us to broaden our understanding of the future by re-examining the larger past.
He completes his journey with a chapter entitled: “Unfinished Episodes.” Marty challenges us by asking the provocative questions: “So what?” and “[W]hat understandings and actions among Christians and non-Christians alike might follow . . . ?”

While he writes from the distance of a skeptic, as is appropriate for a historian, we are nonetheless certain of his faith, in God, but also in us, the believers. This book provides a quietly hopeful “Yes” to the pivotal issue: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Marty is an acclaimed historian with 75 honorary doctorates. You might be picturing a long, dense volume. In fact, the book is less than 260 pages. Because it’s so accessible, The Christian World should prove fascinating to any reader with a yen to know more about how we got to be the church we are today.

Rev. Lee Simpson is a member of The Observer staff in Toronto.

Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighbourhood Church is Transforming the Faith
By Diana Butler Bass
(HarperCollins) $23.95
Reviewed by Mark MacLean

In a promotional quote on the cover, Marcus Borg suggests that Christianity for the Rest of Us is perhaps one of the most important books of the decade about the renewal of mainline congregations. High praise, and he is not far from wrong. Diana Butler Bass has produced a liturgical and theological autobiographical pilgrimage. Now there is a mouthful, but in this work she really gives the reader something to chew on.

Her message for the mainline, albeit very American, Protestant church is simply that the neighbourhood church remains at the forefront of congregational and spiritual renewal. She openly and rightly challenges the wrongheaded vision of the theologically “lite” programs that have dominated the church renewal landscape in recentdecades. Hers is a story of a three-year journey to congregations and faith
communities that
you will recognize, empathize with and learn from. She unashamedly reaches back to the foundational elements of the community church and demonstrates that congregations honouring tradition (not traditionalism), practice (not purity) and wisdom (not certainty) are turning the great ark around.

“Authentic spiritual community is a journey of becoming God’s church.” She outlines 10 signposts on the pilgrimage to authentic church renewal: hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection and beauty. Some of these you’ve heard before, but not in this context. Her refreshing framework emerges from sometimes painfully honest personal and congregational experiences.

Butler Bass offers the reassurance and vision that “Transformation is the promise at the heart of the Christian life.” She explores the fallout from change for those in congregational leadership. Much of the anxiety about change, she says, will define the nature of ministry in the near future as spiritual transformation crashes headlong into our lives, our congregations and our world.

The concise chapter-by-chapter study guide that comes with the book makes it an invaluable tool for reflection on congregational renewal. Butler Bass has produced a solid and innovative resource for faithful pilgrims who take seriously the challenge of ministry with a new generation.

Rev. Mark MacLean is minister of St. Andrew’s United in Toronto.

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