Jonny Baker, director of Mission Education at Church Mission Society, recently reviewed the first two books of the Mission in Marginal Places series, The Theory & The Praxis for Anvil, a journal of theology and mission.

RS40062_United_Kingdom_Staff_98434-scr-300x300These two books are the first in a series of six books exploring mission in marginal places. It is an ambitious and welcome project and has real bite to it. That comes from a number of things that combine together well.

It is practical theology driven by real questions arising from a struggle to live out a life of faith and mission at the margins in challenging contexts in communities that seek to bring challenge to the powers and hope in the midst of struggle. What does it means to be a community of Christ followers that live out of an alternative imagination in such places? In other words it is not simply a theoretical exercise – it cuts much deeper than that and the stakes for the writers are much higher, they are about how to live life itself. But the theory engaged with is plentiful, at depth and is informed like nearly all the best missiology from a number of disciplines – theology, biblical studies, mission studies and the social sciences. These are set in conversation with one another and with the lived experience and it is this mix that is energizing. The engagement with the social sciences draws on very current ideas and conversations in a very helpful way. As you might expect with a range of views from the edges there is plenty of critique offered of current ways of framing mission, theology, ecclesiology with its tendencies to create binary oppositions and obsession with growth and sustainability.

Language makes the world in particular ways and one of things I found particularly interesting is how at pains the writers are to speak appropriately about and within the places that are marginal. Tone and posture counts for so much. Power and domination and how they are handled are a huge part of mission. This concern for speech leads to some delightful insights and theologizing. For example in the second book the way of speaking about Christ, mission and church in relation to the environment and making church on brownfield land is creative and profound. I also appreciated that this is a British series and the places and practice do not come from the USA or elsewhere. It’s grit Brit mission which is refreshing!

The titles of the two books are actually somewhat misleading as both engage significantly with both theory and praxis.  But the first is in three sections exploring mission and marginality, mission and neighbor, and mission and God (though I thought it was as much about how to live, how Christian faith is practiced) with a range of authors and then the editors discussing that section by way of a reflection on it. The second tackles five realms in which mission praxis is considered – ecomonic, political, social, environmental and creative/artistic. Each section has a more theoretical chapter followed by a couple of case studies and then a reflection from the editors.

It is clear that there is beneath this series a learning community who are researching and reflecting seriously on an area of mission practice together. There is huge energy and insight here for those with ears to ear and I hope it is not simply read by those living in marginal spaces because it is as much a book that is relevant to the wider  changing landscape of post welfare, austerity, post truth, challenges around immigration and so on that affects us all seeking to follow Christ whatever church and place we are part of. I am looking forward to the rest of the series which engages with stories, spiritual landscapes, the powers and living the peaceful way. In a word brilliant!

More info on how you can purchase these two books can be found here.

Book Review: Eating Heaven: Spirituality at the Table

9780987428639Helen Pears from Bristol reviews Eating Heaven – Spirituality at the Table by Simon Carey Holt. (Victoria, Australia: Acorn press, 2013)

As many small Christian communities, including ours in south Bristol, gather around the table as a central feature of life together, I was intrigued by the title of this book and what it might have to offer in terms of helping our understanding of some of the dynamics at work around those tables.

Carey Holt speaks of his motivation for writing the book as arising from the conviction that “it is important that we value what takes place at our tables, finding ways to embrace them more intentionally and intelligently than we presently do”. He wants to encourage us to live with more awareness of the sacred in the everyday and to note the connections between what we eat, the way we eat it and who we eat with, and what we value.

To help explore these themes, Carey Holt invites us to spend time thinking about what he terms, the various “tables of daily life” that “play host” to our eating. He identifies eight common places of eating: the kitchen table, backyard or garden table, café table, 5-star restaurant table, the work table, and the festive, multi-cultural and communion tables.

The author, based in Melbourne, Australia, is both a trained chef and a theologian – a combination which, for an enthusiastic cook such as myself, sounds wonderful to start with! Although his professional interest in food and the kitchen is evident, this is not a book specifically aimed at those for whom cooking is a passion and food a primary interest. Nor is it a book with a romantic view, unaware of the complexities and tensions that exist around the subject of food. Under each ‘table’ heading, Carey Holt tries to tease out some of the questions that each setting might ask about identity, cultural values and human behaviour, as well as acknowledging the role these tables also often play in terms of power, injustice and exclusionary practices. Asking us to be mindful as to who is not at the table is a recurring and important theme of the chapters too.

It is a book that wants to remind us that eating is not just a functional or biologically necessary act, incidental to the ‘important’ bits of living, but how we practise it is a way of grounding, or fleshing out, “some of the most important aspects of what it means to be human and what it means to live a grace-filled life in communion with each other and the earth”. Carey Holt employs many lovely turns of phrase which act as encouragements that within the small and normal actions of everyday life we can find possibilities for transformation. He speaks, for example, of vegetables harvested from a back yard as helping “to overcome the environmental challenges of the world table one meal at a time”. Or of a café table acting as a “place that tames the city”, a way of finding orientation and focus within the complex flows of the large urban sprawl.

It is not as deeply theological as I had perhaps expected, and there are a couple of weak chapters where the opportunity to press the questions are not followed through as well as I would have hoped. Sadly, this included the chapter on the communion table where the idea of connection was well made and then, I felt, somewhat undermined by the story of two cafés which seemed to epitomise disconnection and separation instead of embrace. Similarly, many of the issues raised are probably ones that many of us are already aware of and might like the discussion to go further as to the sort of ways in which we might approach them.

However, the book is very accessible and the idea of tables is an imaginative way of inviting us to take a good look at our own neighbourhoods and communities, and their ‘performances’ around food; to think about where our ‘tables’ might be, and to keep our eyes open enough within the familiarity of our eating to question the “seating arrangements”; and to rise to the challenge of living creatively with the shadowy side of table life that speaks, for example, of inequality, self-indulgence, painful relationships with food and drink, or contested time and spaces. The chapter on feasting is particularly interesting in this respect.

Eating Heaven is definitely an interesting read and as a little food for thought, I’ll end with a quote from page 133:

A life-giving spirituality of the table flourishes best when my life at one table is connected with my life at all tables, and when the way I sit at each table flows out of my deepest commitments, whatever they may be.


Take This Bread

For an inspiring story of the transformative nature of the communion table and of how generous and radical welcome there spilled out into wider community engagement, I would also highly recommend the book by Sara Miles, Take This Bread ( New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).

Sara Miles has spoken quite widely across the UK and at events such as Greenbelt, so this may already be a familiar story to many of you. The book is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking account of her first, and very literal, ‘taste’ of Jesus and the subsequent disruption this caused to the course of her life. A well-written, good read!

Book Review: Blessed are the Poor?

image001Andy Delmege reviews Blessed Are the Poor? – Urban Poverty and the Church by Laurie Green.

Laurie Green has long been at the forefront of urban ministry in Britain as parish priest, bishop, theologian and practitioner. I was really looking forward to reading Blessed are the Poor? and can wholeheartedly recommend it as a resource for anyone engaged in urban ministry, and particularly for those involved in outer housing estates.

It is the fruit of several years Bishop Laurie had spent visiting, being in and listening to estate people and their churches since his retirement and is a practical working out of the method he describes in Let’s Do Theology. The first part of the book explores what poverty is and the context of British housing estates. This is not just theoretical, it is interwoven with the stories and words of the people who live on them; something that those who minister in them know to be of vital importance.

The book then looks at two of Jesus’ key teachings, The Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes through the lens of people living in urban poverty and estate churches. This breaks open the Gospel, allowing us to understand deeply some of Jesus’ key insights. It then returns to the stories of estate people to reflect on what this all means for the Church. This section contains a wealth of imaginative, hopeful and sensible ideas and reflection for estate churches. It is also profoundly challenging for the wider Church which is often in a suburban captivity.

If you are engaged in estate ministry, this book will give you hope, comfort, energy and challenge; it will certainly make me a better estate priest. If you want to make deep sense of the heart of Jesus’ teaching, you will find much to live with. I pray it leads to estate churches being ever more alive and flourishing.

This review was orignally published by Andy on his blog which he kindly allowed us to republish.