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Living God’s Future Now: Conversations with contemporary prophets, Samuel Wells in conversation

by
21 April 2023

Peter Selby finds not so much prophecy as wisdom in essays

BOOKS do not often have front covers like this, where a collection of essays is presented with the names of all the contributors, 18 in this case, in bold colour. And this is for good reason: most who see the book lying on a bookstall will be drawn to it as an opportunity to read, even if only as a “taster”, the distinctive contributions of leading figures in the realm of theology and practice, of whom some they will not have encountered before, and others of whom they wish to read more and in particular to learn more of the passion and thought that animates them.

Inside that cover is a collection of reflections on the Christian life and the nature of Christian witness in the context created and revealed by the Covid pandemic. While we read Wells’s own words in an introduction and epilogue, and in the longer conversation with Stanley Hauerwas, his principal task was to enable a series of virtual conversations under the auspices of the HeartEdge movement, when the pandemic had made their usual face-to-face conversations impossible.

It is these “conversations” that are edited and gathered into this volume, each with a one-word title, with no attempt to harmonise, and, indeed, a real delight in the energy and diversity of perceptions from theologians, practitioners, and bishops, from both sides of the Atlantic. Such are the new possibilities enabled by the world of Zoom.

With one exception, Wells’s own voice is not recorded, and so the experience is rather like listening to one side of phone calls and having to reconstruct what the question or comment was. The great exceptions are the two conversations in which Wells engages with his longstanding mentor and friend, Stanley Hauerwas. They are by turns deep and chatty, prolix, repetitive, and provocative; much is owed to Wells’s North Carolina sojourn, in which many of the relationships were forged.

Those two conversations, so different in style and content from the others that we read, are, in a sense, the heart of the book, providing in the midst of such a varied collection of insights the underlying theological agenda that animates Hauerwas, and Wells as author, enabler, and editor.

This disparate and invigorating collection is gathered under a title and subtitle both of which are problematic. Particularly on racial injustice and the quest for justice, probably the single most frequently addressed theme in the book, we are not Living God’s Future Now but a far more intractable, disturbing, and, in some ways, reactionary time, one when the experiences of the United States and the UK are markedly different, and the notable speakers who are persons of colour address us with particular force and authority.

More important, perhaps, is the question raised by the subtitle. There are prophetic insights in this book, but designating the contributors as “prophets” is a highly questionable ploy. I suspect that those in this list personally known to me would feel a considerable discomfort about that designation. More to the point, however, is that the greatest merit of this book is that it is, to connect it with the Hebrew Scriptures, wisdom literature.

We do need the Greta Thunbergs and Nelson Mandelas of this period to confront us as prophets; but what this book offers, and what is also a profound need of our time, is the collected insights of people who have been working at the intellectual, practical, and pastoral coalface where a more just world is created. But, even if there are questions about the book’s self-description, that does not diminish its value.
 

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester, Bishop to HM Prisons, and President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards.

 

Living God’s Future Now: Conversations with contemporary prophets
Samuel Wells in conversation with Walter Brueggemann, Kelly Brown Douglas, Barbara Brown Taylor, Steve Chalke, Sarah Coakley, Stephen Cottrell, Michael Curry, Maggi Dawn, Stanley Hauerwas, et al.
Canterbury Press £17.99
(978-1-78622-415-6)
Church Times Bookshop £16.19

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