The concept of this book is a simple and potentially profound one. Based upon the seven letters from Christ to the Church in Revelation, the authors invited a range of people to write an ‘eighth letter’, what they prayerfully though God might be saying to the church today.
There is something very intimate about letter, especially a hand-written letter as opposed to a hastily typed email. The act of writing with a pen, personally, to someone you know and care about, is an act of self-giving, and the very existence of the letter communicates to the recipient that you communication with them was important enough for you to take the time to do it in this way. There is a level of vulnerability in writing a letter. In this age of electronic expression, it is rare to reveal our own handwriting to others.
I wanted to love this book. The idea behind it was one that intrigued me – in fact I’ve tried to encourage folk in our church to give it a go, aware that if a number of letters are received, it may be possible with care to discern trends in them through which God may be saying something to us. Of course all letters are written with a specific recipient in mind. What they have to say addresses them, speaks into their situation and into your relationship with them, whatever that might be. This is their power. It is also possibly for me the weakness of this book. These letters are addressed to the Church of North America. Whilst there are many similarities between England and the USA, both in general and in the church, there are also many differences. Inevitably these differences will lead to a different level of engagement between me and this letter and a North American Christian. On the whole, although I found many of the letters interesting, I didn’t find that they spoke directly to me or grabbed my imagination. I would love to know how my North American sisters and brothers find it.
This is not to say that there weren’t images and ideas here that challenged me. We have recently started a Foodbank and are providing those in crisis with food from our church. Peter Rollins’ letter (‘The Sin of Abstraction’) challenged me to not provide food for the hungry but to think about what I can do to change the situation so that people aren’t hungry in the first place. A number of letters, Shane Claiborne’s springs to mind (‘A Dozen (or So) Flags and Seven Piles of Poop’), reinforced the growing conviction that I have about the importance of developing relationships with the poor and needy, not just having a theology concerning their plight. Both Jesus’ teaching and lifestyle radically related to those in need and those who are rejected. It is very easy for us to acknowledge this from the pulpit, but another thing entirely to actually live it out. There were a few letters concerning the importance of embracing art and artists in the church. Too often we have preferred clear cut teaching to open ended imagination; a bizarre start of affairs when our founder spoke so playfully in parable, the prophets challenged in poetry and the heart of the Bible is a book of songs! I was reminded of a desire I have to allow creativity and art to be freed to express God and his Kingdom within and even without our church.
One final letter I want to mention, that by Nathan Colquhoun titled ‘On Self-Justification’. Like many other letters in this book, he talks about the gap between the life Jesus modelled and taught and the life that we lead and teach. He points out how we often attempt to close this gap through justifying the difference, explaining it away and finding approaches that can make us feel more at ease with it. He uses the example of Jesus instructing the Rich, Young, Ruler to go away and sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, and how we so frequently devise ways of working around this so that his instruction is not our command. Such self-justification enables us to live a lie without feeling guilty. Rather than using so much energy attempting to find peace through justifying our actions, Colquhoun suggests we would be far better off simply admitting and living with the difference between our beliefs and our actions. At first this sounds like an enormous cop out, but the truth is that we will never be able. Sure we should seek to, striving to be open to the Spirit’s guidance and enabling as we take on Jesus’ yoke (as in Aileen Van Ginkel’s letter ‘Real Rest’), but we will never be able to achieve this fully, just as we were unable to live out the Law of the Old Testament. That’s why Jesus had to come, as he and he alone could fulfil that Law, live out that life. The act of admitting that we are unable to, that we live a lie, leads in fact to liberation and a greater chance of being obedient, as being humble and admitting our frailty frees us to be open to the Spirit’s transforming power. In many way’s this letter is one of the most important in the book. Without it, such a collection could leave us feeling impotent and guilty. With it we are able to listen to the challenges contained within and aspire to them, without the worry of having to count our successes.
I’ve given this book 3 Stars (‘I liked it’ rating). I didn’t find it an unputdownable book (does such a word exist – it should do as such books certainly exist!) possibly as it doesn’t directly speak into my culture, both in general and in the church. That said, it was certainly worth reading and as my unusually long review demonstrates, it has provoked thought, helped and crystallised through writing this.