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Talking of ethics

29 January 2016

Duncan Dormor finds an interview format less than helpful

Captive to Christ, Open to the World: On doing Christian ethics in public
Brian Brock
Kenneth Oakes, editor
The Lutterworth Press £17.50


AT THE heart of this book lies the question: how do we do Christian ethics? In attempting to give an answer, Brian Brock ranges far and wide, and touches on a whole set of important questions, especially those generated by our engagement with technology, urbanism, and the environment. This engagement is refracted through his experience as an American working in a university (Aberdeen), which, courtesy of North Sea oil, is located in one of the UK’s richest cities.

I doubt, however, that I will be the only reader who finds the genre — a collection of eight edited interviews — challenging. In his introduction, Kenneth Oakes anticipates some concerns, suggesting that interviews “may seem lightweight” compared with more traditional forms. But “lightweight” doesn’t adequately represent the challenges posed by such transcription: namely, that the interview format does not allow for sustained argument, embeds assumptions from the original context, and inevitably tends towards the biographical.

So, comments that make sense in a face-to-face context hit a more discordant note on the page, such as Brock’s concern that he might come to be “saddled with the expectation that I should be the next Hauerwas” because he is a bald Texan man, or his assertion that his approach to ethics, which he also describes as “intellectually and existentially coherent”, is “rare, to put it mildly”, a statement that sits a little uneasily alongside discussions of the problems of self-aggrandisement among Christians.

He is not helped by the overly long interview questions, which seem designed less to probe than to prompt the next discourse, reinforcing the didactic timbre of the volume.

All of this is unfortunate, as I strongly suspect that Brock has some interesting things to say.


The Revd Duncan Dormor is the Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.

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