Brownfield sites — fertile ground?

03 May 2011

Don’t claim too much for urban theology, says Richard Cheetham

Voices from the Borderland: Re-imagining cross-cultural urban theology in the twenty-first century
Chris Shannahan
Equinox £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

THIS book starts with an excellent idea — that “cross-cultural urban Britain” is a very fertile place to do theology for the 21st century — and then claims too much for it.

The good idea is rooted in Shannahan’s many years of direct involve­ment, as a Methodist minister, with the inner city (mostly London and Birmingham). This is inter­woven with his reflections on that experience — partly articulated in a doctoral thesis. The book is the out­come of both. It is divided into three main sections — Experience and Analysis, Reflection, and Response — helpfully using the fam­iliar idea of the hermeneutical circle.

In the first section, Shannahan provides a thoughtful description and analysis of the “new urban world” that has developed in the past 20 years. In particular, he focuses on those living on the “borderland”, who, in different ways, have been left on the edge of life in the city. A critique of this urban development is offered in a “top-down” manner using some prominent social theorists, including Sassen, Castells, and others. This is then balanced with a “bottom-up” perspective, which draws interestingly on examples of urban pop music.

He then proceeds in the second section to give a useful critique of five current models of British urban theology which have been influential in the past 20 or so years, including ideas from Black and liberation theology, and the part played by the report Faith in the City. Not surprisingly, he finds all of them wanting in some way or other. He concludes by arguing that we need a new, holistic, cross-cultural urban theology that is “intra­contextual” and “inter­personal” and provides a “new dialogical liberative paradigm”.

This is developed in the final section, in which Shannahan offers the “seeds of a cross-cultural urban theology of liberation” that draws on the current reality of urban experience. This last part is offered in a tentative way, and includes many thought-provoking ideas.

I was left, however, with three main problems. First, there is far too much jargon for my liking — often phrase after phrase, which might work in a doctoral thesis, but not in a publication aimed at a wider audience. Second, although Shannahan was at pains to emphasise that his new paradigm was largely inductive in method, I found the links with core Christian doctrines to be weak and in need of further explication.

Third, although the city is a vitally important and fruitful context for 21st-century theology, it is not the only one: half the world still lives outside cities. The extent to which the British urban experi­ence can be extrapolated across the globe needs substan­tiating, even in a globalised, inter-connected world.

Dr Cheetham is the Area Bishop of Kingston in Southwark diocese.

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