THE MOVING TEXT is a compendium of papers given at a colloquium at St Mary’s College in St Andrews University. The colloquium was intended to invite an inter-disciplinary response, particularly from biblical scholars, to the work of David Brown, an Anglican priest who has taught in Oxford, Durham, and St Andrews universities.
Brown’s work embraces philosophy, systematic theology, biblical study, and the arts. The most sustained account of his thinking is in five volumes published by Oxford University Press between 1999 and 2008. These give wide-ranging consideration to the issues of revelation and change, tradition and truth, human experience, sacraments, and experience through metaphor and drama.
Although The Moving Text has some really excellent contributions from the biblical scholars, especially from Ian Boxall, one is left feeling that those who would be most challenged by Brown’s work have not yet joined the conversation.
And the challenge is issued in a number of directions. It challenges those who take an archaeological approach to texts that are fixed expressions of inspiration, as much as those who fix the authority of scripture in divine acts or interventions in place and time.
Brown’s approach is to see scripture as an expression of God’s dialogue with us, revealing a disclosure of truth which indicates the divine accommodation to our humanity in its freedom and limitation. He sees the language of this communication as always freighted with something more, trajectories “that almost demand further development”.
It is in this sense that the texts are described as moving. This does not mean imprecise or unreliable: it means that they live, expand, and mature as conversation and experience use and re-use them.
Examples of this are discussed in the papers that relate to the biblical text and then in two further sections, “The Visual Imagination” and “The Literary Imagination”. The compendium concludes with an appendix that follows Brown’s response to all the contributions, and a few worked examples of his methodology in four sermons.
In some respects, the sections on visual and literary imagination offer the more interesting contributions to this book. They seek to engage with, and develop, Brown’s interests in areas that resonate with an increasing number of people today within the Church and beyond it.
Taylor Worley introduces the question of race and exclusion in the depiction of creation; Aaron Rosen offers corrective and interfaith reading of the sacrifice of Isaac, and Jon Greenaway asks us to take Frankenstein more seriously, in a paper that has its own trajectory for those who are working on the implications of artificial intelligence.
The papers collected in this book are an example of how the work of one theologian can invite others to assess their own thinking and teaching. They are, in some respects, a worked example of precisely the divine conversation with humankind which Brown is asking us to imagine. Out of the discussion of his work by these varied authors, Brown shifts his thinking in some areas to accommodate the creative engagement that he himself has prompted.
For this reviewer, The Moving Word leaves us with at least two challenges. The first is to pick up Brown’s concession to art by contemporary agnostics and to push further in that direction for the Church’s engagement with them. An award-winning example of this is the installation of HS, by Maciej Urbanek, in St Michael’s, Camden.
The second is to ask preachers to think more creatively and theologically about how to engage with contemporary culture, as Brown does.
In the discussion about Frankenstein, Brown observes that every schoolchild knows that Mary Shelley’s brother, the poet, was sent down from Oxford for “atheism”. I am not sure that every schoolchild does, but I do think that it could introduce an imaginative discussion about belief and what it means to be human.
Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.
The Moving Text: Interdisciplinary perspectives on David Brown and the Bible
Garrick V. Allen, Christopher R. Brewer, Dennis F. Kinlaw III, editors
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop special price £28