New Handbooks on Progressive Christianity: Book Reviews

WHY WEREN’T WE TOLD? A Handbook on ‘progressive’ Christianity, edited by Rex Hunt and John Smith (Polebridge Press, Westar Institute) and LIVING THE QUESTIONS: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, by David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy (Harper One)

WHY WEREN’T WE TOLD? - that you don’t have to take the Bible literally in order to be a serious, faithful Christian?  That’s the question engaged in this book edited by progressive Christian leaders from “Down Under”. WHY WEREN’T WE TOLD? comprises a richly eclectic introduction to theologically and socially progressive Christianity. Australia and New Zealand have many lively progressive churches and lay groups, from which much creative liturgy, music, and theology have emerged.  Rex Hunt and John Smith, both of them pastors of the Uniting Church of Australia and Associates of the Jesus Seminar/Westar Institute, gathered writings of biblical scholars and progressive church leaders from around the world.  It’s an anthology of writings about the development of progressive Christianity, its current manifestations, and creative ways of interpreting scripture and tradition.

Thirteen of my “musings” – poems, prose-poems, hymns, and liturgical materials – are scattered throughout the book.  WHY WEREN”T WE TOLD?  reveals the wide range of thinking and practice in the progressive Christian world, from process theology to religious naturalism to post-theism.  Some excellent articles on biblical history and interpretation, from Jesus Seminar scholars from “Down Under” and beyond, are included.  A particularly engaging part of the book is entitled “Reclaiming the Faith’s Freethinkers”.  Paul Laughlin, professor of religion at Otterbein College in Ohio, offers short, fascinating sketches of notable “heretics” from throughout the history of the church, from whom we can gain inspiration and insight today.  The book includes inspiring descriptions of experimental worship and study communities, several from “Down Under” and others from elsewhere in the world.  The end of the book offers new lyrics to old hymns and other creative liturgical materials – it’s a miniature “book of common prayer” for progressives.  It’s a delight to get glimpses of how progressive Christianity looks from the viewpoint of the Southern Hemisphere.  In the book, John Thornley, of the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust, which has produced beautiful works used in churches worldwide, quotes Bill Bennett, one of the group’s members who wrote an Easter hymn:  “On a cool and autumn eve, in the fading light when you seemed lost, in the tomb we laid your mortal bones, waiting for God’s Pentecost – on a cool and autumn eve.”  The hymn’s globalocal expression of the season of the Easter narrative reminds us that the story is not fixed in a place and time, but is felt and shaped anew by us now, regardless of which side of the equator we occupy.

LIVING THE QUESTIONS: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity is the product of the long and fruitful teamwork of two Methodist pastors from Phoenix, Arizona.  Dave Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy created the Living the Questions DVD-web series that has become the progressive alternative to the evangelical “Alpha Series”.  Living the Questions videos have been used in thousands of churches and study groups.   Like the video series, the book is an introduction to Christianity.  It explores non-literalistic modes of biblical interpretation, key theological concepts, and the social and personal implications of faith.  Their new book puts the condensed wisdom of the LTQ series into print.  Much of it is drawn from the LTQ study guide, salted with quotes from scholars and pastors who appear in the videos:  John Dominic Crosson, Sister Helen Prejean, Diana Butler Bass, Tex Sample, John Shelby Spong, Walter Brueggeman, Brian McLaren, Marcus Borg, and others. The text is punctuated with the thoughtful, soulful poetry of Rev. Cynthia Langston Kirk.

JIM BURKLO
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM     Weblog: MUSINGS    Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See my GUIDE to my books, “musings”, and other writings
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

About Jim Burklo

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. An ordained United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of three books in print, OPEN CHRISTIANITY (2000), BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS (2008), and HITCH-HIKING TO ALASKA: THE WAY OF SOULFUL SERVICE (2013). See more about him at jimburklo.com .


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