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.

Beyond the Battle: Another Approach to Apologetics (a book review)

The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and other Apologetic Rabbit Trails by Randal Rauser

The evangelicalism I grew up in placed a high premium on apologetics–being able to give a reasoned answer to the hope we have within us.  For us, that meant defending the faith against any and all challengers. I had trite-answers-for-tough-questions which were silver bullets designed to shoot down any objection. I knew enough logic to explain to the heathen when they had committed various fallacies and I could tell you why the scientific worldview was wrong, The funny thing was whenever I engaged in apologetics I would sometimes win arguments but I didn’t win converts.

Theologian and apologist, Randal Rauser also grew up where the basic understanding of apologetics was  a battle against non-Christian belief systems. However he  now understands apologetics as ‘the rigorous pursuit of truth in conversation. (12)’ Thus when he gets into an apologetic argument. . .er, I mean discussion, he and his dialogue partner are mutual seekers of truth and not opponents engaged in spiritual and intellectual turf warfare.

In The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails Rauser presents a fictional dialogue which demonstrates his approach. He takes us (the Reader) to the local coffee shop, the Beatnik Bean, where he engages one of the spry young atheists into the ‘grand conversation.’ He does this by strategically placing a copy of Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion on the table. A guy named Sheridan (sporting a ‘there is a sucker born again every minute’ T-shirt) spots the book and is reeled in. And so the conversation begins.

Sheridan has issues with religion in general and Christianity in particular. He is firmly convinced that science has dispensed with the need for the God-hypothesis and he thinks that there is no more basis for belief in Jesus Christ than there is in Zeus the thunder God. As the conversation unfolds, you discover that Sheridan has had his run-ins with Christian types before (included a step-dad who came on a little strong) and is bothered by the hypocrisy he’s experienced.  The conversation which unfolds between Rauser and Sheridan is far ranging, covering the geographical particularity of religious beliefs (i.e. the experience of Swedish atheists and scuba divers are both governed by significant environmental factors),  God’s sovereignty and human freedom, the hypocrisy of those in the church (and outside), heaven and hell,  evaluating competing religious beliefs and what ‘signposts of the divine’ can be seen in the world. Like most conversations, the topics unfold in a somewhat circular way, and Rauser and Sheridan often come back to cover the same (or similar) ground.

Rauser’s major contribution to the discussion is his insistance that Sheridan judge Atheism by the same standard  and intellectual rigor that he judges Christianity and religious belief.  The converse is also true. Rauser isn’t looking for special treatment for Christians and does at various points also scrutize the Christian tradition.

You may be suspicious, as I was, about whether a Christian apologist’s fictional conversation with an atheist was merely setting up a straw-man; however, the conversation that unfolds between the two men seems thoroughly plausible ( and based in actual conversations).  Neither Rauser or his atheist counterpart leave this conversation converted. If any change is brought to the character of Sheridan, he is a little less dismissive of religious belief and more thoughtful about what he actually believes about God and the world.

I really like Rauser’s writing. Admittedly I may be biased. Rauser teaches at a seminary in the city I was born in (Edmonton), got a masters at the same graduate school I got mine at (Regent College) and he got a Ph.D. under one of my favorite theologians (Colin Gunton). He is witty and good humored throughout this fictional interchange and the conversational tone allows him to talk some hardcore theology and philosophy without talking over his readers head.   This is not a book of apologetic answers to various philosophical and theological problems (read Peter Kreeft’s classic Handbook of Christian Apologetics if that is what you are looking for). Rather it is an example of a mode of apologetics which isn’t about trumping the competition  but engaging them in a quest for truth. Not that Rauser doesn’t have good answers and ask some great questions along the way, but this is much more than an apologetic answer book

If you have an interest in apologetics or wonder how to share your faith with those who do not share your faith or religious tradition, this is a great book with some great food for thought. You need not agree with Rauser on every point (I don’t) to find him a helpful resource. This also would be an okay book to give to your atheist friend (or read it with them).  Sheridan and Rauser’s conversation could be good fodder for deeper dialogue and can help believers and unbelievers alike clarify what they really believe about God and the universe.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.