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Review of Liberating the Gospel by David Smith, Dartman Longman Todd, 2016 for 2021

 — This book by David Smith is not a book about healing per se, unless we extend the scope of healing to mean healing the world and its troubles; troubles that derive from its philosophies and its politics. But it is nonetheless a remarkable book that is of interest to any Christian; and there is much in it that Quakers specifically will find useful, helpful, enabling and most of all challenging. And it is worth mentioning too that the circumstances of the book's composition seem to be under conditions very familiar to Quaker healers: namely, the frailties of old age and the loss of a beloved and supportive partner. It is a triumph of the spirit that David Smith has written so well, so fluently and persuasively about the world zeitgeist and the failure of Western (and Northern) Christianity, given his personal situation.

David Smith, then, makes a number of central contentions about Christianity today. First, that the Western churches have signally failed to represent and embody the message of true Christianity to the world. Second, that Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere has come to understand the meaning of Christianity at a deeper level than we do. Third, that instead of attempting to continue to exercise our complacent and hegemonic domination of what Christianity means, we need to practice a 'deep listening' to what the South has to teach us. Fourth, that part of our problem is our failure to understand what Jesus really wants from us; we have turned salvation into our own private access to God and ignored the wider community dimensions. On this issue Smith is very clear: so many modern Christians in the West are really trying to have their cake and eat it too. Whereas Jesus explicitly states that man cannot serve God and Mammon, we here do precisely that. And fifth, David Smith is concerned to establish what Christianity 'really' looks like, and for me this is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole book.

For what Smith does is to examine the latest findings of the Gospel in its original context and then ask how that context bears on society today. Where are the similarities, and where the differences? Where clearly and unequivocally can the Gospel speak to our condition, and where are we inappropriately manipulating texts to suit our own ends, which are often ends which compromise the original message? As Smith puts it: "Western Churches have generally read Paul's letters to urban churches with distorting lenses that have concealed the true character of the emerging first-century Jesus movement".

One vital aspect of this distortion which I find fascinating is, as he says, the fact that the Western Churches seem to have a picture of Jesus that starts at the Incarnation, fast forwards, and then focuses on the Crucifixion/Resurrection bit. But as Smith observes, these two ends are connected by the bit in the middle: the life, as lived, by Christ! As I write this review having returned from a short break in the South of France, I am struck here by just how many churches are almost wholly preoccupied by Mary and the infant Jesus. Indeed, outside Avignon Cathedral we see Christ on the Cross, but up above Mary looking down on Him - yes, down, not up! Then I remember, that as a Protestant we did away with all that - and yes, the Protestants became obsessed with the one sufficient sacrifice at the other end! But the connection is the life lived: for we cannot choose how we are born, and most of us cannot choose how we die, but it is in the example of how Christ lived his life - the bit in the middle - from which we can draw strength, courage and inspiration that is truly transformative. Quakers, of course, will especially enjoy this aspect of the book precisely because they are more interested in the life lived than they are in what can sometimes seem 'abstract' theology.

But Smith goes further, deeper. There is running through his book a penetrating critique of modern society, indeed the modern world. We have in his opinion - and I share it - lost our way. Two points here are really trenchant: first, that there are ominous parallels between our society now and the Roman Empire that began and was established shortly before Christ was born and flourished in the West for another 400 years or so after Christ died. Just as the Roman Empire benefitted the fortunate few at the expense of the downtrodden many, so now we have a similar situation in the West with globalisation. I love his description of the beneficiaries of this process as 'tourists' - feeding off and travelling round but contributing nothing substantial to the world - while the losers of the process he calls 'vagabonds', and they have to move where they can and make shift where they can, usually in desperate straits. Then, he aims directly at perhaps the biggest idol of Western philosophy. Quoting Zygmunt Bauman: " Indirectly... science cleared the way to genocide through sapping the authority and questioning the binding force, of all normative authority, particularly that of religion and ethics... Science wanted to be value free and took pride in being such. By institutional pressure and by ridicule, it silenced the preachers of morality. In the process it made itself morally blind and speechless. It dismantled all the barriers that could stop it from co-operating, with enthusiasm and abandon, in designing the most effective and rapid methods of mass sterilisation or mass killing; or from conceiving of the concentration camps' slavery as unique and wonderful opportunity to conduct medical research for the advancement of scholarship and - of course - mankind".

Perhaps the final point to make in this short review of this powerful book is to quote David Smith (who is himself quoting Justo Gonzalez from the Southern tradition) about what he sees as being Jesus's central concern when He was alive: "... the first believers recognise that the core of the human predicament is neither a debt to God nor a lack of spirituality but an enslavement to the powers of evil." That is very strong stuff: paradoxically, whilst we focus on the lived 'life' of Christ, we are also reminded of that supernatural dimension that is ever present, and ever real. Christ did not die by accident; evil willed that it be so, and that truth be suppressed. We ignore this - especially when we pretend or act as if humans can solve all human problems - at our peril.

It should come as no surprise then that I strongly recommend you buy this book and experience its remarkable cogency and force for yourself. It will repay many readings and challenge you to address your personal version of being a 'Christian'; I certainly felt and continue to feel its critique of my life.

Also read: Book Review of Choice Cut Book 3 of the Cut Series