I have retired from a pastoral ministry and slimmed down my library. Most of it is now scattered to various places in this country and beyond. A recent questionnaire from Andy Goodliff asked me which book had influenced my ministry most. I found it an impossible question to answer. But I could think of a couple of influential books (limited for the time being to explicitly theological texts) for each decade of my ministry. It has proved to be an intriguing exercise and so I thought I would write a series of posts explaining which books I choose and why.
In the mid 1960s I moved to Oxford to study theology and prepare to be a Baptist minister. It was a time of great adjustment from a settled Christian background into a period of change for my values and convictions. The focus of my church had been on the need for conversion to Christ. It was shock to discover that was not the end of the story. My choice of books describes this, at times tortured journey to a different understanding of what being a follower of Jesus meant. Indeed much of my Christian journey has been about changing insights into Jesus and who he is. They were both published in 1962 and both tell a similar story of Christian engagement with the slums of New York. They are
- The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson
- Come Out the Wilderness by Bruce Kenrick
The Cross and the Switchblade
David Wilkerson was a Pentecostal minister who moved into the Bronx in New York. His book describes how he met and helped members of the knife gangs. Here’s a quote from an early encounter with one of the gang leaders, Nicky Cruz:Nicky Cruz: You come near me and I’ll kill you. David: Yeah, you could do that. You could cut me up into a thousand pieces and lay them in the street, and every piece will still love you.
This sums up the atmosphere of the book. It is a book about personal transformation. Its message is simple: what people need is to know that God loves them personally and can change their life for good. The book has since gone into many editions and has become a stage play and even a Hollywood film starring Pat Boone. And David Wilkerson went on to found the Times Square Church in New York. He died aged 79 in a car crash in April 2011 in Texas.
The Cross and the Switchblade was passed around my church in Brixham – a small coastal town in Devon. I was 14. There were – and still are – few similarities between the two locations however Wilkerson’s text stirred my young faith with its depiction of holy courage and conviction.
Come Out the Wilderness
If God isn’t interested in the state my gutters, I’m not interested in him he said trying to warm himself on the radiator.
By the time I read Come Out the Wilderness I had moved from Brixham to college at Oxford. It told a very different story – though as with The Cross and the Switchblade it was one grounded in the same experience of certain areas of New York.
Bruce Kenrick, a Church of Scotland minister, journeyed to the USA in the mid-1950s where he joined the East Harlem Protestant Parish. His book details the shop-front churches he encountered. And, in particular. of local churches and lay people taking on corrupt landlords and trying to change the social welfare of the slum living conditions.
This was a life-changing read for me. It introduced me to a totally different way of considering the relationship of the Christian to the world. It was not just about the call to personal salvation and a relationship with God. It is about changing the world in line with the justice of God. He wrote:
“The Church must suffer and be crucified with those it seeks to serve, it must keep on being crucified even though the nails bite deep and the hope of resurrection is obscure”.
I cannot begin to describe the impact of these words on my immature faith. They were more than novel. They placed me in a different universe of belief. Now I know he was echoing Dietrich Bonheoffer who spoke in similar terms as he witnessed the collapse of Christian identity in Nazi Germany. But they challenged me more than any sceptical argument for non-existence of God in my philosophy course.
Some years later, after he had returned to London, he started the Notting Hill Housing Trust and eventually founded the homeless charity Shelter in 1966. He finished his days – aged 87 in 2007 – living on Iona – a small island community just off the coast of Mull in Scotland.
The book is very difficult to obtain now. But for me it was the most influential of all the books I read during all my college days. I say this without embarrassment. Together these books describe the two poles of Christian mission: personal transformation and social justice. The encounter of the two within my young faith was a deep shock at the time. But they have stayed with me throughout my ministry. Kenrick’s book planted a seed which came to fruit in my involvement with the Open House Centre in Bath and later in my membership of the Iona Community. It was then that I discovered that he was a member too and we met on a walk down on the shore near the Abbey. I confess I was too shocked in discovering who he was to say much. I wish now I had been more forthcoming. After all, one does not often meet someone who had ‘authored’ your own life.
My selection from the 1970s will follow shortly.