Critically examined lives  

by
17 February 2017

Anthony Phillips finds a welcome honesty here

In a Glass Darkly: The Bible, reflection and everyday life
Zoë Bennett and Christopher Rowland
SCM Press £25
(978-0-334-05422-1)
Church House Bookshop £22.50

 

THIS innovative and arresting work deriving from the personal experiences of two theologians deserves a wide readership, not least in the challenges its poses to church authorities historically reluctant to allow the implementation of critical reflection on the Bible in an ever-changing world, as recently seen in the debates on both women’s ministry and issues of sexuality. Though they never discuss such specific matters, the authors do assert that the “wrong” interpretation of the Bible is one that promotes inhumane behaviour largely as a result of not being critically reflective enough.

For both Zoë Bennett (a practical theologian) and Christopher Rowland (a biblical scholar) the Bible has been central in shaping their lives. In this unique work, each asks searching questions of the other. Their thesis is that “criticism is central to our humanity”. Twice Socrates is quoted: “For a human being the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The authors’ starting point is the Revelation of St John, which witnesses to the unjust state of this present world and how it could be different. For them, an eschatological mind-set pervades every page of the New Testament. The present order is passing away, and a new order is breaking in.

For Bennett, feminist theology led her to recognise that the biblical text itself could be used as a tool for oppression. Through encountering liberation theology in Brazil, Rowland discovered that his understanding of the Bible would never be the same again. For both, personal experiences force them to try to understand the Bible from their lives. This insight is obvious enough from scripture itself, as, for instance, in reactions to the exile in Babylon or the disappointed expectation of Christ’s immediate return.

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Examination of both John Ruskin (Bennett) and William Blake (Rowland) is crucial in their journey of self-discovery. As Rowland puts it: “Blake’s work . . . has given me a way of learning to be critical about myself and also about the shortcomings of the Bible, as well as finding in the Bible a word of life.”

The authors recognise through their study of apocalyptic that “it doesn’t always have to be like this.” The Bible itself acts as a critique of contemporary society. So they quote with approval Jürgen Moltmann’s description of the theology of hope as “a thorn in the side of the present”. The assumption of academic theology that knowledge about what is professed is what counts rather than experience in one’s personal life is robustly challenged. “Self-reflexivity is always a crucial part of Christian tradition.”

The authors conclude that the Bible remains indispensable in enabling people to be “critical humans in the everyday world”. It is a means to an end. What is essential, though, is that we find a space for reflection about ourselves and our society. Historical criticism on its own is inadequate if it keeps the interpreting self out of the process, even if, like St Paul, we see in a glass darkly.

In a concluding chapter, Bennett and Rowland, despite their differences of approach, emphasise the value of joint authorship. They both recognise that theory and practice must inform each other. Earlier, in a letter he composes to Ruskin, Rowland describes him as “not only revealing so much of yourself but also your honesty in the way you understood the Bible”. He could be writing of his collaborator and himself.

 

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

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