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Theology where it always must be

24 January 2014

Anthony Cane on two people who want to talk openly of God

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public theology in a post-secular age
Elaine Graham
SCM Press £55
Church Times Bookshop £49.50 (Use code CT639 )

Using the Bible in Practical Theology: Historical and contemporary perspectives
Zoë Bennett
Ashgate £55
Church Times Bookshop £49.50 (Use code CT639 )

FOR John Ruskin, the heart of the Bible was about justice and servanthood, and the farewell discourses in St John's Gospel were "the most useless nonsense I have ever read". Readers of Zoë Bennett's fine book will be left in no doubt about her strong personal affinity with Ruskin (though not necessarily his views on the Fourth Gospel), partly because both moved away from a strongly Evangelical upbringing while retaining a commitment to engaging with the Bible. Such biographical detail is central rather than incidental in a work championing the importance of self-reflexivity anda "turn to the subject" in biblical exegesis.

Bennett teaches pastoral theology in Cambridge, and Elaine Graham is Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Chester. Their rather different but overlapping books offer a magisterial exploration and account of the state of practical and public theology today. It is a sign of our times that "theology" now needs qualifiers to make clear that it is of more than "academic" interest. As Ellen Charry has pointed out, for much of Christian history it would have been assumed that the purpose of theology was "practical" and "public" in enabling human flourishing.

The relative brevity of Using the Bible is a consequence of Bennett's precise, spare, and yet impassioned use of language. Few words are wasted as she sets out to demonstrate both the revelatory power of the Bible to show us the truth about ourselves, others, the world, and God, and the need to ask radical unsettling questions, while living with doubt and complexity. At times she is unapologetically autobiographical. Her exemplar is John Ruskin, who daily read the Bible in Greek, and used this engagement to address and persuade his audience in the public square.

For him, the key thing was to see clearly, and tell what he saw - and the heart of Bennett's book is three short chapters on seeing clearly, seeing with the heart, and prophetic

seeing. She uses her work on Ruskin to explore the tension that she has identified in the opening part ofher book between those who insist that the first requirement of a proper hermeneutics is reflection on the "text of life", and those who insist on the priority of the biblical text.

The final part of Bennett's book discusses two deliberately contrasting contemporary examples of "seeing" and "telling": Canon Giles Fraser's interview with The Guardian after his resignation from St Paul's Cathedral (pointing out that this was over the potential use of violence to clear the Occupy protesters, not the cathedral's relation to the financial industry), and the Palestinian Kairos document. These, for all their inevitable imperfections, are both texts that do useful work in the public square.

While Bennett is a practical theologian, seeing the theologian as both reflector and actor, she wishes to "claim the public nature of most practical theology . . . and the practical nature of most public theology". Graham, arguably the finest exponent of public theology we have, would agree with this. Her excellent book, which has the feel of an instant classic, focuses on the future of public theology, both in theory and in practice.

She considers our current context to be characterised by the extraordinary convergence of two apparently contradictory trends: increased secularisation, and a new visibility of religion in politics and public affairs. Her title reflects the need that she identifies to negotiate between the "rock" of religious revival and the "hard place" of secularism.

Graham is not persuaded by those who see nurturing a "pristine ecclesial identity" as the way forward, but is, none the less, alert to the difficulty of finding a theological language that is both publicly accessible and yet authentically distinctive. She proposes an "imaginative apologetics" that is notso much a straightforward appeal to "believe" certain propositionsas, rather, an invitation to embracea transformative view of theworld.

Graham wants to see an "apologetics of presence", in which Christians contribute both in word and action in the public square (not just in relation to the arts and sciences, but also the media, politics, economics, and civil society), particularly in a commitment to the marginalised. Her book makes a powerfully persuasive case that the imperative to "give an account of the hope which is within you" must continue to "underpin the vocation of the public Church as it is called to speak truth to power and seekthe welfare of the city, and as its people venture into the contested spaces of public deliberation as articulate and faithful ambassadors for Christ".

Whether or not we accept Ruskin's conclusion that the farewell discourses in John's Gospel are "useless", Ruskin is one with Bennett and Graham in seeing that hermeneutics and theology must be active and "useful" - in enabling Christian disciples to see clearly, to speak of what they see in the public square, and to act for the world's transformation.

It is a great shame that boththese books are so expensive; for they deserve a wide audience. I can only urge Ashgate to bring out a soft-cover version of Bennett's book, and SCM Press to consider how it can possibly charge £55 for a (however well-produced) paperback.

Canon Anthony Cane is the Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral.

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