Liberating the Gospel: Translating the message of Jesus in a globalised world
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
“DO NOT judge a book by its cover,” and, in the case of David Smith’s Liberating the Gospel, nor by its print. This is a serious piece of work and needs to look so. Smith has offered us a contextually fresh approach to reading the New Testament in the light of the challenges faced by the contemporary Western Church, but it could be easily overlooked.
“What’s the problem?” Smith asks, and he sets out to address the challenge that faces mission today in our failure to read scripture “with first century eyes and with twenty first century questions”, as N. T. Wright whose advice he seeks to take, has put it. Beginning with the “Galilean Jesus”, he recalls the radical nature of the gospel that liberates. He criticises Western theology as moving “far too quickly from the cradle to the cross”, ignoring the populations whom Jesus saw as “hungry and thirsty”, who “suffered chronic undernourishment”, and experienced oppression from the Roman Empire and religious elites.
Perhaps with an Evangelical readership in mind, Smith’s section on “Paul and his Gospel in Context” has something of the feel of an apologetic about it. It is, nevertheless, a thoroughgoing piece of work on the impact of power and politics on Paul’s interpretation of the gospel. In context, Smith says, this gospel “is very far from being an innocuous religious message designed simply to meet the needs of individual persons, since it contradicts and challenges the ideology of the Empire”. This “ideology of Empire”, he argues, is the antithesis of “true freedom in Christ” and the “worship of the living God”.
The reluctance of today’s Church to view Revelation in context is tackled in the “John of Patmos: Imagining another World”. Smith’s contextual analysis here is particularly thought-provoking. He sees John predicting the collapse of Rome as an “idolatrous, unjust and corrupt system”. Referring to the practice of the Latin American Church, he reminds readers that Revelation was designed to be read and interpreted in a group, and as a basis for worship.
The final section, “Liberating the Gospel”, I found least satisfying. The “Twenty First Century Questions” it seeks to address are rather too hidden in the text. The book would have been strengthened by a more didactic approach, building on the contextual studies. That said, this a work that demands study, and, even if the questions are a little opaque, they require attention.
The Rt Revd Peter Price is a former Bishop of Bath & Wells.