Hey Church, Can We Talk? a book review

Despite the fact that we live in an age where we are technologically tethered, many of us feel disconnected. Collectively, we have lost the requisite skill to carry on a conversation, particularly with people who are different than us. Online, we mute the voices that challenge us. Offline we flock with birds of a feather. We are a fragmented people,simultaneously more connected than previous ages, and yet typified by a profound sense of alienation.

C. Christopher Smith is at the forefront of helping the church recover the art of conversation. He is a part of Englewood Christian Church, in the Englewood neighborhood of Indianapolis, which has hosted weekly congregational conversations for over 2 decades. Smith also has enriched conversation in the wider Church around the themes of community, reading and the common good. He is the author of Slow Church (with John Pattison), Reading for the Common Good,and as the editor of the Englewood Review of Books—a print and online journal that reviews books which they flag as valuable for the people of God. His newest book, How the Body of Christ Talks, is designed as a practical guide to help the church recover the art of conversation.

In chapter 1, Smith begins by laying out ‘the theological roots for conversation,’ (e.g. the mutual indwelling of the Trinity, a culture of reciprocity, the Christian practice of hospitality and the biblical vision of unity in diversity, the church’s role in incarnating Christ, and need for intentionality). These ‘big ideas’ cast a vision for a Christian dialogue and conversation.

In part 1, Smith gets practical, describing how churches can delve into the practice of conversation. In chapter 2, he desribes the dynamics of conversation (e.g. the size of the group, the degree of homogeneity, and the virtues and challenges of formal and informal conversations). In Chapter 3, Smith discusses what topics we should talk about as we convene a conversation. He suggests that when churches start practicing conversation, they don’t start with ‘abstract matters or highly charged topics,’ even if these are things that are worthwhile to discuss down the road. Instead Smith suggests that one possible starting point for conversation ‘might need to be about why we should talk together, thus creating a space for listening carefully to those who are hesitant, confused, resistant to the idea of conversation.’ In Chapter 4, Smith turns to the healing potential of conversation and reviews three models for structuring the conversation (Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Cafe).

In part 2, Smith discusses the ‘spirituality of conversation’ highlighting practices which will nurture our conversations. Chapter 5 explores conversation as ‘a prayerful way of being’ and describes how the prayer practices of corporate prayer, silence, listening prayer, binding, praying without ceasing and expectancy prepare us to be able to engage well with one another. Chapter 6 explores how we can abide with others through the messiness of life. Chapter 7 invites us to prepare our whole selves for conversation (hearts, minds, body).

Part 3 describes ways we can sustain the conversation, mindful of our church’s mission and identity (chapter 8), how to stay engaged and engage well through conflicts and disagreements (chapter 9), and how to emesh ourselves in the dance of community (chapter 10). A conclusion invites the church to bear witness through conversation and communion in the midst of our fragmented age.

Throughout the book, Smith weaves together stories of his church and other churches who are practicing conversation. Granview Calvary Baptist in Vancouver is highlighted as a church that engaged this conversation around LGBTQIA community with some members affirming and others taking the traditional stance (and their denomination’s stance). While the differences between ‘the sides’ remained important, through their conversation they were able to make a statement on human sexuality which both sides could affirm. Other churches and intentional communities share their wisdom in setting ground rules and framing conversation (these are included in an appendix).

One of the things I really appreciate about Smith’s work, is how he weaves together thoughtfulness and practicality. We are at a culture moment where we are ideologically and politically divided. Smith describes the nature of conversation and gives good suggestions for pursuing an ecclesially rooted conversation which will enrich both our churches and our wider communities. This book will be fruitful for churches and intentional communities as they seek to listen and speak well together.

Notice of material consent: I reviewed this book with an electronic advanced review copy provided by Net Galley. The book is good and I am also procuring my own physical copy.

Tracing the Trinity: a book review.

Peter Leithart is a fun theologian. As professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College, contributing editor for Touchstone and president of Theopolis Institute, his books often wed theology with cultural, literary or historical connections. Traces of the Trinity showcases the kind of creative theological thinking I’ve come to expect from Leithart as he probes creation and the human experience to see signs of the Triune God.

Leithart picks up on the tradition of looking for vestiga Trinitatis–traces of the Trinity–clues to the Triune life, the imprint of perichoresis (vii). He is not trying to  argue compelling evidence for the Christian concept of God apart from special revelation. Leithart takes special revelation as his starting point, affirming that the God revealed in scripture is revealed as Trinity. He then works backwards, and seeks to trace God’s presence in His creation.

The themes of perichoresis and mutual interpenetration runs straight through this book. In chapter one, Leithart picks up on the Cartesian distinction between the Self and the outside world and shows how though these realms are distinct, they overlap and penetrate one another (i.e. our bodies are outside our mind but part of the self, we need to consume matter and eliminate to remain alive in ourself, etc).  Chapter two describes the individual and her relationship to society. As with Cartesian dualism, Leithart affirms the distinction between individuals and society but shows how each domain contributes to and defines the other.  Chapter three discusses the visceral interpenetration of sex and the accompanying physical, spiritual and psychological intermingling. Chapter four examines the way the past and the future inhabit the present (the past through memory, through structures and culture making, the future through possibility and the telos of things).  The inter-textual nature of words and languages also evidences an interplay between shared language and individual expression (chapter  five), as does music (chapter six). Chapter seven implies an ethic of hospitality–making room for the other–which underlies human community and chapter eight probes concepts, logic and relationship further. Chapter nine is where Leithart speaks specifically about Trinity and also the perechoretic unity in the thing called church.

This brief summary points at the breadth of Leithart’s survey (all within about 150 pages) but the beauty of this book is in the details:

The world is not patterned by mutually opposing things that need to be kept in “balance.” Things are much more intricately interlaced. The world is designed according to a pattern I’ve called “mutual indwelling” “reciprocal habitation” “interpenetration.” I’ve used words like “intertwining” and “interleaving” and “twists” and “swirls, whirls, curves and curls.” I’ve written of how things circle back on themselves, of Mõbius strip and Celtic knots. I claim to see the pattern everywhere–in physical reality, in language, sounds, sex, personal relations, ethics, and the concepts we form to understand the world. (129).

This romp through philosophy, politics, culture, music, sex and ethics highlights the interconnection between the alleged poles. This is poetic theology and an enjoyable read. Leithart is at times concrete and in other places abstract, which makes this book somewhat complex in its execution, but it is tightly argued and well thought through. It is worth tracing Leithart’s argument all the way through.

Leithart is careful to call these instances of perichoresis ‘traces.’  Leithart’s project doesn’t appear to be another Thomist attempt at ‘analogy of being’ (at least how I understand it). This seems far less ambitious than that. Leithart starts with the Divine life (as described in the Bible and the theological tradition) and argues that the inter-relationship between Father, Son and Spirit gives us a window into the nature of creation.  That creation images God is discernible only to those who know the God whom they seek.  I give this book four-and-a-half-stars and recommend it for anyone interested in the nature of revelation.

Notice of material connection, I received this book from Brazos Press in exchange for my honest review.