Archive for September, 2015

Book Review: The Wisdom of the Spirit

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 by Mark Cartledge

Martyn Percy and Pete Ward, eds., The Wisdom of the Spirit: Gospel, Church and Culture, Contemporary Ecclesiology series (Farnham, UK, and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing, 2014). xii + 216 pp. Hardback, $104.95, ISBN: 9781472435651.

Only a close reading of the back-cover endorsements, the inside-front-cover-flap description, or the table of contents will make clear what the title of the book does not: that this is a festschrift for Andrew Walker, Emeritus Professor of Theology, Culture & Education at King’s College London and Ecumenical Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Walker burst on the theological scene thirty years ago with his sociological and theological study, Restoring the Kingdom: The Radical Christianity of the House Church Movement (Hodder & Stoughtoon, 1985), which by now has gone into multiple reprintings and editions, and since then he has been at the forefront of the sociology of religion in general and the sociology of Christianity in particular, engaged in ongoing exploration of new forms of the Christian faith especially in Western Europe in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and guiding and directing doctoral researchers in these and related areas. The contributors to this honorary volume include a few former students and a who’s who of those working on contemporary ecclesiological trends, broadly understood, particularly in the United Kingdom (besides the editors: Alister McGrath, Keith Chappell, William Kay, James Heard, Kirstin Aune, Robert Warner, Dave Tomlinson, Nigel Wright, David Martin, and American Methodist theologian and philosopher, William Abraham). The volume concludes with an interview of Walker by David Hilborn, although unfortunately it lacks the honoree’s bibliography of published writings.

Readers of this blog will not be motivated to purchase the book for their personal library because of the exorbitant prices of Ashgate hardback monographs, but those working in the arena of renewal studies will want at some point, sooner better than later, to look at it carefully. If Walker’s primary, even if by no means singular, contribution emerged at what might he understood in historical hindsight as one of the crests of renewalist waves on the British scene in the mid-1980s – he may have been led down this scholarly path in part as a recovering pentecostal preacher’s kid and adult convert to Orthodoxy – then the scholarship that seeks to build on and extend his reach since has been able not only to apply the tools he so expertly deployed (Walker being one of the first to foray in an interdisciplinary manner, combining sociology and theology primarily, into the contemporary study of the church, what is now known as congregational studies), but to also track the sociological unfolding – or ebbing and flowing – of trajectories charted over the last three decades. Scholars of renewalism will especially appreciate two related aspects of this book: that various case studies update the whence from and perhaps where to of church movements barely incipient at or (some slightly) antedating Walker’s groundbreaking study (including Roman Catholic charismatic renewal, classical Pentecostal denominations, the Alpha program, the house churches, etc.), and that of more sociologically informed but nevertheless non-reductionist assessments of evangelical Christianity in its various permutations looking into the latter part of the second decade of this third millennium (e.g., the post-evangelicalism phenomenon, current trends in evangelical theology, fatherhood in evangelical Christianity). In a number of instances, the tone of analysis is sober: the heyday of Evangelicalism in the British world lies in the past, and movements of renewal, revival, and restoration will need to creatively and courageously engage in and with an uncertain future.

Scholars of global renewal ought not to minimize the relevance of a book focused on renewalism in the British context as if to believe that majority world and other globalization dynamics will prove these nay-sayers wrong like they currently appear to have promoters of the secularization thesis half a century ago. Most if not all of the contributors to this volume, like Walker, are committed to the church and in that respect, are not heralds of Evangelicalism’s (which is inclusive for the varied and many movements discussed in the volume) demise for the sake of wanting to conduct a quick burial, but seek through their analyses to probe about the nature of Christian faith and what that might look like precisely through the transnational and postmodern flows that characterize our contemporary global village. In the end, then, there is something subtly at work in the title of the book that gestures to its quest – the path of inquiry precipitated by Walker and now pursued upon by those who have written appreciatively in his wake – for a fresh breeze of the divine wind that might enable the church to emerge anew from out of the present malaise. Readers of The Wisdom of the Spirit may thus be in a better position than others to innovate forms of the gospel for the next generation.

Amos Yong

Professor of Theology & Mission

Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California