BOOK REVIEW: "Will There Be Faith?" by Thomas Groome

Thomas H. Groome, Will There Be Faith? A New Vision for Educating and Growing Disciples (HarperOne 2011), 367 pages.

When I last met Thomas Groome (metaphorically speaking), his book Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision was the core textbook of my seminary Christian Education class. So, I was pleased to be invited to review his latest book to see how his ideas have matured almost a decade after I first encountered his work.

A major strength of Groome’s new book is his many concrete suggestions, especially the final chapter, “Life to Faith to Life: The Movements: Putting the Approach to Work.” However, a weakness, at least for my Protestant church setting, is that Groome’s book is primarily targeted for a Roman Catholic parish — although many of his ideas are applicable with minor theological modifications.

As an example of this theological difference, the title of Groome’s book comes from Luke 18:8, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (1). From a more liberal theological orientation, I would echo a quote from John Dominic Crossan’s book God and Empire:

The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soonviolently, or literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence.

The “Kingdom of God” or “Reign of God,”  to which Jesus constantly pointed, is as fully available now (and always) as it was 2,000 years ago. The question that remains each day is whether we will choose to live as if the one who reigns is not Caesar, but God. The explicit admission that there will be no literal Second Coming, and the substitute emphasis on embodying the kingdom of God now is an example of what I mean by the modifications necessary to apply Groome’s ideas in a more progressive Christian setting.

In many ways, Groome seems to be a fairly progressive, open-minded Roman Catholic. He tells a story in the introduction about a conversation he had with a young woman who was raised Catholic, but who had chosen not to have her daughter baptized because of the lack of “women priests, respect for gay people, birth control, clergy sex abuse, lack of lay voice, etc.” Groome asks, “So how will you raise her instead? What faith will you share with her?” She responds at first with only silent reflection.

As the conversation eventually continues, Groome writes, it emerges that,

[S]he still has a deep Catholic faith. She believes in a God who is Love and in love with us; in Jesus, who was God among us to save and liberate us for the fullness of life, both here and hereafter; in his gospel, which is the “good news” of God’s unconditional love as the very ground of our lives, calling us to live with love and compassion, peace, and justice in the world; that the Holy Spirit is ever present to prompt and sustain our efforts to live “life to the full” (John 10:10 JB) for ourselves and for others; and that the Eucharist is indeed the Real Presence of the Risen Christ…. She still experiences receiving Holy Communion as a time of personal encounter and deep friendship with Jesus. (3)

While I admire Groome’s emphasis on the many positive aspects of Christianity in his conversation with this young mother, I question his assertion that she still has a deep “Catholic” faith — at least if by “Catholic” he means “Roman Catholic” and not, more generally, a “universal” or “ecumenical” faith. Given her desire for women priests, equality for lesbian and gay Christians, birth control, and lay leadership, she would perhaps be more comfortable in an Episcopal or Lutheran church than in most Roman Catholic parishes.

Another instance in which many progressive Christians may have to modify Groome’s work is another place in which Groome appears to be somewhat of a crypto-liberal. At the beginning of Chapter One, Groome claims that, “the heart of Christian faith is Jesus Christ. It is not the scriptures, or the dogmas and doctrines, or the commandments, or the sacraments, or the Church, or any other one ‘thing’ — important and vital as all these are” (20). Groome quotes the Catechism to support his point, but for many progressive Christians, the emphasis on the person of Jesus is one place that Christianity has tragically veered of course from the way of Jesus. The historical Jesus did not ask his disciples to worship him; instead, he pointed beyond himself to the kingdom (or reign) or God — what Martin Luther King, Jr. called building the Beloved Community. After all, in Mark, the earliest of the canonical Gospels, Jesus himself says in Mark 10:18, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Indeed, Groome names two pages later that, “the reign of God was the focus of Jesus’s ministry” (22). Groome further admits that Mark is his favorite Gospel (26) — so surely he is aware of this quote, as well as that Mark tends to be favored by the theologically progressive, which is a factor that leads me to believe he at least somewhat i the progressive camp, not that there’s anything wrong with that! Perhaps I am reading too much between the lines since I’m always eager to welcome another member into the world of open-minded, progressive religion. At minimum, Groome is clearly a supporter of the Social Gospel (136-137), which is a major plank in what it means be a progressive Christian, although certainly there are many Social Gospelers, who are also more evangelical or orthodox theologically, as Groome notes.

I will close with a teaser. I said at the beginning that Groome offers many practical tips for Christian Education. One of the best examples is his multi-pronged response — which is by far the most theoretically-nuanced and eminently-practical answer I have ever heard — to the statement from his nine-year-old son, “Hey, Dad, I think I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore” (300-301). If you want to read his ingenius response, I invite you to buy the book. Whatever his true theological orientation, Groome is clearly, from this book and his many other books, a master Christian educator.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. He frequently reviews book for Patheos.

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