A Library of Life – the 1990s

IMG_0966I have chosen two books for the 1990s. One made me radically re-examine my ideas about Jesus. The other gave me a deeper understanding of what sort of community a church might become.


Jesus – the new vision

By the 1990s I had been a minister for just under 20 years. I had moved to my fourth church in Bath. I asked a lecturer from one of our Baptist colleges which Christian writers he thought I might need to read and ‘follow’ during the next couple decades of my ministry. He suggested among others, the New Testament historian Marcus Borg. What Borg wrote then and since has helped me re-address my relationship with Jesus and re-align my own Christian convictions.

Borg argues that we must examine Jesus through two lenses: the pre-Easter Jesus and the Christ of faith. This was not novel. Others have deemed it too simplistic but it captured my attention and became a challenge to my understanding of ‘what Jesus really was like’.

Borg concluded that Jesus was a …

  • Jewish Mystic / Spirit Person: One of those figures in human history who had frequent and vivid experiences of the sacred.
  • Jewish Healer: The historical evidence that Jesus performed paranormal healings is very strong; he must have been a remarkable healer.
  • Jewish Wisdom Teacher: He taught a subversive and alternative wisdom.
  • Jewish Social Prophet: Jesus stands in the tradition of the great social prophets of ancient Israel who challenged social systems.
  • Jewish Movement Founder / Initiator: A movement came into existence around him which embodied his alternative wisdom.

In successive books he has kept to that fundamental analysis. It provides me with a foundation on which to build the content of discipleship and an explanation of why a person might consider becoming a Christian.

Borg has spread his wings into many other areas of Christian belief for at heart he wants to present Christian faith as contemporary and a viable alternative to current destructive Western cultural trends.

Borg took part in an interview for PBS (see here) and in its course gave this summary of his convictions about Jesus:

I have learned that the message of Jesus was not about requirements, was not about here is what you must do or believe in order to go to heaven. It was about entering into a relationship to God now in the present–I see in that–wisdom teacher and a social father. And for me as a Christian what Jesus was like as a figure of history is a powerful testimony to the reality of the sacred or the reality of God.

I agree. The Jesus I believe in is the one who grew up in Nazareth 2000 years ago. I will never know all the detail of his life. I cannot ignore what those of two millennia of faith have made of him. But if my faith leads me to believe that he is the human face of God I cannot ignore what he did in his lifetime.

Community and Growth

In Community and Growth, Jean Vanier writes:

Christian communities continue the work of Jesus. They are sent to be a presence to people who are in living in darkness and despair. The people who enter into these communities also respond to the call and the cry of the weak and oppressed. They enter into the covenant with Jesus and the poor. They meet Jesus in them

Vanier could be described in the same way as Marcus Borg summed the characteristics of Jesus. He is part mystic, healer, wisdom teacher and social prophet. His book, Community and Growth, could be read as a handbook in how to set up a self-help group (see further here). However that would ignore its meditative style.

It is a collection of short thoughtful paragraphs which arise from a very honest appraisal of what it means for people to live together in a chosen community.

I found impossible to read the reflections consecutively. Yet this collection of musings has been an essential part of my reflection on what it means to think of a local church as a community. So for instance he discusses why people want to belong to a community and warns against people who are more in love with the notion of community that what that community might exist to do. He ponders the meaning of offering welcome and what place authority plays in a community based on equality of significance. As he writes:

One of the marvellous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.

Community and Growth was first published in 1979, completely revised in 1989 and has gone on to numerous reprints. But its origins are in the 1960s when Jean Vanier brought together a group of able and disabled people and helped them live together. This has gone on to become a worldwide phenomenon – the L’Arche communities.

Vanier has hardly changed his core theme in all the years from those early beginnings summed up by the title of one of his more recent books: Becoming Human. For me, this sums up the purpose of the Church.

The Church is a community of people who are prepared to go beyond the barriers created by difference and find the shape of their future in the life of the one they call the Son of God. Sorry for that rather over-blown rhetoric.   It’s just what I believe Jesus is all about. How far have his followers fallen short.

Yet people like Vanier actually live that dream, inspire hope and create prophetic communities. The material in this book is often re-assuring and would make a great difference to any human community, including a church which wanted to be an expression of what is the best in human beings. Yet it can be sharply critical of the times we are living through in the West:

…Individualistic material progress and the desire to gain prestige by coming out on top have taken over from the sense of fellowship, compassion and community. Now people live more or less on their own in a small house, jealously guarding their goods and planning to acquire more, with a notice on the gate that says, ‘Beware of the Dog’.

In their different ways both Borg and Vanier challenge both contemporary Western Church and society. They are still very influential in my own faith journey edging me away from the comfort of the tried and familiar.


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