by Alan Jones, John Wiley and Sons, 2005, 245 pages.
In this book, the Dean of the Episcopal Grace Church in San Francisco challenges his readers to rethink Christianity as it is generally believed and experienced around the world. Indeed, it is his ability to help readers step back from small religious enclaves to see what Christianity looks like to the many looking in on it that makes Jones’ writing so compelling. What we see from that perspective, argues Jones, should motivate us to re-imagine what Christianity could and should look like today.
Central to the author’s argument is the notion that we must get past a literalistic approach to the biblical text that interprets faith and life through the myopic vision of one’s own personal experience. If we don’t, he argues, the Christian faith will be nothing more than a tribal religion which continues to perpetuate violence against those who don’t share similar beliefs and practices. Literalism must be replaced with an appreciation for the poetic, mythical and metaphorical in sacred writings – a perspective that will enliven our imaginations. When all is literally revealed and all questions answered we become spiritually infantile because there is nothing more to learn.
But many Christians, claims Jones, are comfortable living with a crippled imagination. It gives them an illusion of intelligence, power and mastery with respect to issues of faith and life. To them it seems appropriate that Christianity should be a “chaplain” of the status quo, preserving life as it is – no matter how skewed it may appear to those looking in from the outside. But this approach, according to Jones, leaves us open to a fundamentalism that rushes to simplistic conclusions when the complexities of the human experience make us anxious and uncertain about our foundations.
By contrast, Jones suggests that a mark of a mature religion is to have the ability and grace to live with ambiguities. This is so because the deeper we go the more we become aware of our own ignorance – of the mystery that lies beyond our comprehension and experience. That is the place where faith is needed – when you see only in part. If all is known with certainty faith is not required. And it is true faith that will push us into the untried and the unknown. It will help us understand that God is continually at work in an ever-changing world and that the genuinely new is possible. It will also allow us to create from scratch, a freely chosen faith (that) liberates us from tyrannies of family, tribe, and tradition, yet without losing valuable connections to…primordial roots.(48)
Throughout the book, Jones explores three basic images of Christianity (Mary, Jesus, and Trinity). These images illuminate three basic longings: our struggle with the new (pregnancy); our enduring past, present and future (suffering); and our desire for love (communion). (13) He believes that if we search for relevance and meaning within this construct we will inevitably be drawn into a mysticism that is not escapism and we will begin to see dogma, not as the last word, but the first word that helps us move into mystery. And so we will be able to authentically revise the Christian story we live in to make it understandable and relevant in our contemporary world. This will mean however, argues Jones, that we will have to keep reading three books simultaneously: The Book of the Bible, the Book of Nature, and the Book of Experience.
This book was seminal for me because it articulated clearly many of the thoughts that have been attempting birth in my heart and mind. While easy to read, it is not a book for the faint-hearted or those wishing to remain undisturbed. You may end up not agreeing with Jones on every point, but reading this book will challenge you to imagine Christianity as it might be lived in the 21st century.