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The importance of a preposition  

13 May 2016

John Inge has nothing but praise for this reflection on ‘with’


A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God
Sam Wells
Wiley-Blackwell £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

SAM WELLS has written many very fine books. They have been consistently imaginative and insightful, while being orthodox and inspiring. This book, however, I found exceptional. Its ground-breaking character reminded me of The Foolishness of God by John Austin Baker, which had a profound effect upon me as a young man.

It is academic and intelligent while being accessible. It is, at the same time, highly original, and devotional and inspiring.

Wells begins with the sentence “God is with us,” the four words of which, he tells us, “express the character of God, the identity of Jesus, the work of the Spirit. They are the Christian testimony about the past, witness in the present and hope in the future. Each word offers itself as the heart of the gospel.”

Wells points out that of the words that constitute this sentence the preposition “with” does not receive the attention it deserves, either in relation to what it tells us about God’s perfect inner relationship or God’s relationship with humanity. He proposes that the word “with” is the most important word in theology, and that the task of theology “is to describe that ‘with’. The task of theological ethics is to inhabit and imitate it.” The book is an extended investigation into and reflection on the significance of “with”.

With characteristic Wellsian order and clarity, the author divides the ways in which we think about God’s relation to humanity into four categories: God working for us, God working with us, God being for us, and God being with us. Without diminishing or discounting the importance of the first three, he suggests that they are all “ways of preparing and redeeming the ground for the fundamental purpose of creation, salvation, and final redemption: God being with us”.

Asking what is the theological significance of the hidden 90 per cent of Jesus’s life spent at Nazareth until he was 30, he suggests that “‘being with’ says positively that Nazareth is an apt name for what has been neglected in exegesis, theology and ethics.” Hence the title.

The above four categories apply, he maintains, to the way in which we approach one another as human beings. I was stung by the realisation that I prefer so often to working for or with, or being for, others to being with them, particularly if they are challenging to be with. Yet, if Wells is right that the fundamental problem we face is not mortality but isolation, and I believe he is, that is what we all need most. He provides moving case-studies of the manner in which people have been “with” others at cost to themselves, including, poignantly, George Bell with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

There is so much in this book that it is difficult to write briefly about it. I conclude by observing that in applying his “with” argument to intercessory prayer in the face of suffering in the final chapter, Wells suggests that our prayer should, most of all, be for those for whom we pray to be transfigured through their suffering, just as Jesus was transfigured. The prayer of transfiguration, he says, is something like: “Make my friend’s trial and tragedy, her problem and pain, a glimpse of your glory, a window into your world, when she can see your face, sense the mystery in all things, and walk with angels and saints. Bring her closer to you in this crisis than she has ever been in calmer times. Make this a moment of truth, and when she cowers in fear and feels alone, touch her, raise her and make her alive like never before.”

This book did those things in varying measures for me. It has the potential to do so for very many people: I hope and pray that it will, and thus play a significant part in the transfiguration of the Church and the world.

The Rt Revd Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

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