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Engaging the Word: Biblical literacy and Christian discipleship by Peter M. Phillips

20 April 2018

David Winter reads an argument about using or misusing scripture

PETER PHILLIPS is the Director of CODEC, a group of academics who research contemporary responses to the Bible. He uses this research to recall the Church to take the Bible seriously in a culture that has largely marginalised it, and to provide a tool to promote what he calls “biblical literacy”. It is a wide-ranging book (perhaps excessively so), offering and evaluating a wide range of approaches, among them Alpha, small Bible-study groups, the social-media use of the Bible (sharing a favourite verse, and so on), and, of course, preaching.

The cover design of the book includes a picture of Spaghetti Junction, the notorious motorway interchange near Birmingham; and there is a bit of Spaghetti Junction about the book. It feels like a maze when you go into it, but if you persevere and follow the signs, with any luck you’ll emerge on the right route. Phillips is clear what that is: the Bible as the engine of Christian discipleship. For it to be that, however, it must be used reverently, as the word of God, but contextually, as part of an ongoing “story” of God’s interaction with humankind.

CODEC’s research, bearing out anecdotal evidence, suggests that much contemporary use of the Bible is to provide “proof texts” or as a self-help way to the good life. The move is away from a propositional Christianity to a religion of personal fulfilment. He quotes Jeremiah 29.11 as the archetypal verse for this kind of thinking (“I know the plans I have for you. . .”) — doled out as an answer to all problems, but taken totally out of its historic context. It is hard, he agrees, to go against the flow, but the survival of genuine Christianity, Phillips believes, depends on it.

The book is not an easy read, mainly because of its strange organisation and endless tendency to cite references to other authors or the Bible (15 biblical references in brackets in one short paragraph). But there is a great deal here for serious reflection by those who lead our churches.

Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.

Engaging the Word: Biblical literacy and Christian discipleship
Peter M. Phillips
BRF £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

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