Monday 24 June 2024

Doing Theology in the Reformed Tradition, by Cameron D. Clausing (Grove Doctrine D12)

Cameron D. Clausing, Doing Theology in the Reformed Tradition. Grove Doctrine D12 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2024)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published.

In my experience, people often suppose the Reformed tradition is a stern and inflexible system designed primarily by John Calvin to discipline, control, and punish. But, as Cameron D. Clausing shows in Doing Theology in the Reformed Tradition, this is a caricature and far from the truth. Doing Reformed theology is fundamentally a conversation between Scripture (chapter 2), church tradition (chapter 3), and the given context in which people live (chapter 4). The conversation is ongoing; it never ends; and so the Reformed tradition has ‘a dynamic character’—it is ‘“reformed always reforming”’ (p. 5). Clausing concludes,

Doing theology in the Reformed tradition is not some dull and boring activity, for it is life-giving. For a theologian, God is not a problem to be solved but the reality to worship. Consequently, doing theology in the Reformed tradition is a practice of learning to sing the praises of God (p. 22).

Doing Theology in the Reformed Tradition is available for £4.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

Thinking Theologically About Children, by Robyn Boeré (Grove Doctrine D11)

Robyn Boeré, Thinking Theologically About Children. Grove Doctrine D11 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2024)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published.

Children are made in God’s image, but all too often the body of Christ does not know what this means or looks like in practice. There is a lack of theological reflection on who the child is and on what the child offers, especially in terms of Christian discipleship. ‘In churches’, Robyn Boeré observes,

children are excluded from places of power and decision-making, and often from the most liturgically important parts of our church services. They are part of Messy Church or Sunday school in some other space, while adults reside in the sanctuary. As a consequence, churches disregard and dismiss children’s value, spiritual development, insights, knowledge and moral agency. As in broader society, children in churches are often treated merely in terms of care, protection and formation or education. Of course, these things are important, but they miss what children can offer to everyone in who they are as children (p. 4).

These last two words—as children—are important because even though childhood is an early stage in human development, it has much to say about what it means to be human and, indeed, children of God. Boeré contends, ‘We can only understand human childhood properly in light of what it means to be children of God, and we can only understand what it means to be children of God through human childhood’ (p. 6). In the Bible, and in the New Testament especially, children are presented as models of discipleship adults would do well to consider for themselves, and Boeré uses the ideas of Karl Rahner and Kathryn Tanner to tease out the implications.

Thinking Theologically About Children is available for £4.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops.

Friday 1 September 2023

Book Review: Confounding the Mighty, edited by Luke Larner

Confounding the Mighty: Stories of Church, Social Class and Solidarity, edited by Luke Larner (London: SCM Press, 2023)

Class’, as I presently understand it, is a social category primarily addressing the human person’s economic standing, both perceived and actual, within given communities and cultures even as that standing necessarily intersects with other identifiers such as ‘race’, ethnicity, sex, gender, and religion. Other factors also contribute to class: family, housing, education, healthcare, leisure pursuits, and geographical location, for example, all coincide to shape a person within a community and how that person embodies that community’s attending, often stereotyped, culture – and vice versa, with the community and its resources determining the available options and thus choices its constituents can make. This unveils a mutually reinforcing dynamic at play within class. While people are ascribed value according to whichever class they ‘belong’ to, the value they are ascribed as part of a particular community determines both the level and the quality of socio-economic attention they and their community receive from government, local authorities, and other institutions. People regarded as being of a ‘higher’ (and therefore ‘better’) class have access to resources denied to the majority of the people said to occupy the classes beneath them; resources which, however nobly utilised, nonetheless maintain the status quo when deployed. Thus class is hierarchical, almost inevitably ideological, and irreducibly complex.

Even my most casual, least observant reader will have noticed that, apart from including the requisite bibliographical details, I am yet to mention the book purportedly under scrutiny – namely, Confounding the Mighty: Stories of Church, Social Class and Solidarity. Using a review as a guise to smuggle one’s own thoughts on any given topic through customs is undoubtedly poor form, but there is, I hope, an acceptable reason to humour me. In recent months, I have begun to realise more clinically, more cynically, how my class (according to my understanding) has shaped me and my dealings with other people. On the basis of my education and household income, I am (lower?) middle class. But I claim (white) working-class, even ‘underclass’, heritage and keenly feel the dissonance between then and now, not least because I cannot discern whether, according to sociological classifications, I am truly (lower?) middle class or actually part of the so-called precariat. Self-employment, working-class roots, and daily involvement in traditionally higher-class environments (academia; the Church of England) make for a cocktail with a lingering, not entirely pleasant, aftertaste. As one of the contributors to Confounding the Mighty, Ruth Harley, puts it, ‘ “I speak ‘middle-class’ . . . but it is not, and never will be, my mother tongue”’ (p. 23).

I will admit to some disappointment when I saw that none of the essayists in Confounding the Mighty claims anything other than a working-class background. When I first set eyes on the title, I had presumed, self-righteously had hoped, that while the book would be worthy, all the chapters were likely to have been written by people from the middle (or higher) classes, church ministers or charity workers with pasts in public schools and Oxbridge, ecclesiastical pioneers (a loaded word) carefully selected to machete their way through cables and wiring to penetrate Britain’s concrete jungles. Thankfully, I was wrong. The contributors are wary of imposing ‘outside’ missiological strategies on communities that best know themselves; some are Oxbridge educated, though not through birthright; and still others look fondly – a tad nostalgically, perhaps – on their formative years in (shall we say?) traditional (white?) working-class communities. Confounding the Mighty is most definitely a worthy book, not because it is a repository of good, practicable ideas or a trove of sharp analysis (though it is both of these in places), but because its content rings true and has good and true things to say.

And what is its content? Anthony Reddie’s foreword quickly passes into two chapters by the editor, the first a largely autobiographical prelude, the second a call to counter the ‘feckless [i.e., ineffective, useless] faith’ he first mentions in the prelude. Charting his life experiences to date, Luke Larner recognises a need ‘to learn how to build solidarity and join others in organizing for justice’ (p. xix); indeed, he argues that ‘the struggle for solidarity and justice is at the heart of the mission of God’ (p. xx, emphasis original), and failure to acknowledge ‘this drive towards solidarity and justice’ regarding class issues amounts to ‘feckless faith’ (p. xx). Larner’s prelude successfully sets the tone for the rest of the book. His chapter on ‘feckless faith’ explores the conceptuality underlying class distinctions and why these distinctions are pernicious for everybody, including the people who recline atop the class pyramid. Channelling the Magnificat (and especially Luke 1:52), Larner envisions a society in which ‘the casting down of some and the lifting up of others allows for the possibility of meeting in the middle’ (p. 11). Yes, absolutely; but in a publication so mindful of unjust social stratifications, I read this as expressing not simply a desire for equality but almost – almost! – as a call to middle-class existence. I am sure my reading is wrong here; I hope my reading is wrong here.

Ruth Harley tackles the attitudes that depict working-class communities as places of need and dearth and thus as something to escape from, primarily by pursuing a good education. But this narrative champions individualism and neglects the good within these communities, including and especially the good God’s grace and abundance brings. Harley queries the logic of social mobility, for this ‘rests on an assumption of scarcity and competition’, whereas the solidarity she favours ‘rests on an assumption of collaboration’ (p. 34). She sees Pauline ecclesiology as a model for true solidarity, for ‘Paul’s emphasis on mutuality and interdependence within a diverse body [acts] as a strong corrective to individualism’ (p. 32). Much of Harley’s chapter engages with the ideas and feelings generated by social dislocation, and it was not too difficult for me to connect her observations to my own educational background. But whereas for Harley, education was spread as the tarmac on freedom’s road, a way to ‘get out’, leaving home and going to university was less aspirational for me. It was just something to do.

In his chapter, Rajiv Sidhu discusses caste, class, and colour within a Church of England context. The Church of England admits its need to work on racial justice, but ‘much of this focuses upon what could be crudely described as colour-lines: “Black Versus White”’ (p. 39), where ‘Black’ incorporates anyone who is ‘other’ (here, in presumably a racialised sense). ‘But what of the differences within the labels?’ (p. 39); does the Church of England recognise, for example, the ‘interplay between Brahmanism and fascism in India and Indian politics’ (p. 40) and how this affects Indian diaspora communities in Britain? No; for Sidhu, in the Church of England, ‘culture and identity are brushed into broader criteria that are unable to engage with differences’ (pp. 40–41): Hello, BAME; greetings, UKME; how’s it goin’, POC? I found Sidhu’s chapter to be enormously helpful in its analysis, but his conclusion less so. He writes, ‘When the church truly learns to see Christ present in all people and active in all the world, then it will find the light of Christ through whatever darkness it encounters’ (p. 45). Quite so; I agree. But is that all that can be said?

Katherine Long’s essay looks at the Church of England and working-class vocations. As I did with Ruth Harley’s chapter, I felt some resonance here, for I have been through the Church of England’s discernment process. Long summarises her master’s dissertation, which looked into how people from working-class communities experience the discernment process. The results are, frankly, shocking: assumptions and prejudices abound, all held and perpetuated by bishops and members of theological education institutes. ‘Most of the experiences and prejudice,’ Long comments, ‘were unconscious and were from a deeply ingrained attitude and expectation of who they [presumably the aforementioned bishops and institutes; Long does not clarify who ‘they’ are] would expect to be training as a vicar’ (p. 64). I need not comment further on this chapter: its observations speak for itself, and if I had the power to do so, I would require everyone involved in the Church of England’s discernment and selection process – and, indeed, anyone involved in the equivalents of other Christian denominations – to accept Long’s research, which is truly eye-opening, capable of both empowering working-class (as well as less-socially confident) people, and shaming the authorities.

Selina Stone considers how leadership functions in Pentecostal churches, which are predominantly working class and Black. There are lessons to be learnt from the Black Pentecostal experience, Stone advises, for the emphasis in training leaders falls not so much on a candidate’s educational ability or management skills, but on character and spirituality and the Holy Spirit’s anointing. Ministerial training, at least in the English experience, remains ensnared in the webs spun by the capitalism and racism of the Atlantic slave trade, and ‘learning from the leadership of “the least of these”, exemplified in this case by early Pentecostals’ (p. 71), can help the Church of England and other denominations to eschew its classism. After all, Stone muses, ‘who could have imagined that a group of working-class black people praying to encounter the Spirit would ignite a spiritual movement that would continue to reverberate around the world today, and that the son of ex-slaves [William Seymour; p. 76] would be its leader?’ (p. 79). Stone’s is a particularly elegant contribution to Confounding the Mighty.

Traditionally, stereotypically, English (British?; I cannot say) society has been divided into working-, middle-, and upper-class people, but its ever-changing shape means newer labels are available to categorise people. Enter the precariat: dwellers of a gig-working world, holders of zero-hour contracts, people who lunge from one sort of work to another to pay the bills; the precariat is too diversified to be classified a community. There is also the salariat, people who earn a salary through performing ‘bullshit jobs’ (David Graeber) with similarly little chance of career progression and satisfaction. In this context, Sally Mann suggests Christian churches can become ‘“contrast communities” embodying hope to those caught in the worst repercussions of the changing class landscape in Britain today’ (p. 85). Christian churches and communities have ‘the wealth of scriptural visions of shalom . . .  to reimagine economic justice’ (p. 94). Churches are not just about Sunday worship; they are communities which can ‘articulate the struggles and hopes for identity and meaning and offer opportunities to work for justice at the local level – whether by providing volunteering opportunities or through setting up social enterprises and charities that model other ways to value and define work’ (p. 95). Mann takes the ‘local level’ seriously; this is where God’s Holy Spirit is noticeably at work, and she describes some of her own (Baptist) church community’s initiatives as examples. I also note a comment, almost an aside, perhaps: ‘Some churches have moved to multi-service patterns to allow for more variation in work patterns and other commitments, but usually there is the assumption that “membership” is characterized by being reliably present and available to participate in the programmes, which are an addition to a person’s “regular” life’ (pp. 93–94). So many things that happen in a local church are done by the same regularly attending people precisely because these are people whose commitments allow them to do things at the designated times. But if both precariat and salariat are to be included within the life of a local church, then change must happen, and the implications of what Mann has pinpointed here are potentially huge. Assuming by ‘multi-service’ Mann means something like ‘many church services at different times, on different days, to accommodate different people’, then not only could this mean holding daily services, but it could also mark the end of publicising home or small groups as the main way, or a significant way, of doing discipleship, because there is every chance that a significant proportion of a church’s membership is unable to participate in such groups due to irregular work commitments. Moreover, holding extra services, or ‘setting up social enterprises or charities’, requires additional hands – an opportunity, perhaps, for more people from a variety of backgrounds to become, in Church of England terms, licensed lay ministers? Or would this be simply another ‘programme’? The value of Mann’s chapter lies in the questions it prompts.

Victoria Turner finds inspiration for today’s church in the founding and development of the Iona Community, which arose from a mission initially to working-class people in Govan. While crafting her account of the Iona Community, Turner scores some very palpable hits about the need for mission actually to transform the social structures within which and under which working-class people live; this requires political action and true solidarity rather than charity and sympathy. She concludes, ‘If we are only protesting for, and not protesting with the working classes, if we are only doing to and not organizing with the working classes, we are slipping back into paternalistic patterns’ (p. 111, emphasis original). I accept this; but surely protesting with and organising with presuppose and retain elements of distinction between the helpers and the helped, thus maintaining, albeit in diminished form, the paternalistic patterns Turner decries. This makes me wonder how far empathetic action (or activist empathy) actually can or does equate to true solidarity.

Confounding the Mighty’s penultimate chapter is another one tackling class and theological education. Eve Parker charges – and with good reason, too, judging by some of the experiences cited both here and in Katherine Long’s earlier essay – that theological education institutes fail to recognise the particular pressures, especially of family commitments and employment, working-class people experience, pressures which then impact on how well working-class learners are perceived to be managing their studies. Parker requires theology courses to incorporate class consciousness teaching and assesses how the aims and development of the Socialist Sunday School movement can instruct theological education institutes in this respect. ‘Just as the Socialist Sunday Schools came about as organized acts of resistance against the injustices of capitalist greed,’ she writes, ‘today theological education must become conscious of what it means to educate for formation during a cost-of-living crisis that is pushing millions more people into poverty, in a context of soaring levels of wealth inequality, child poverty, austerity and in a nation where the privileged political elites are choosing to bring about the collapse of the National Health Service and failing to adequately support schools, councils and basic services. There is no choice for the working class,’ she challenges, ‘but to educate, agitate and organize’ (p. 130).

The editor returns to provide a concluding chapter (Joerg Rieger provides a simple afterword) further addressing the need for solidarity and the Holy Spirit’s active presence. For Luke Larner, the Spirit ensures the Eucharist demonstrates the incarnate Son’s solidarity with humans, and ours with the world; the Spirit raises prophets to speak truth to power; and organised action, where people work together to change society for the better, is best portrayed as instances of the Spirit’s mission (missio Spiritus). While solidarity can be expressed in many ways, Larner particularly urges his readers to fight for fair wages, to join trade unions, and to develop cooperatives and ‘other democratized structures’ (p. 153). ‘My hope,’ he explains, ‘is that churches, Christian organizations and Christian people will allow the Spirit of God and the voices of the prophets to expand our imagination for what it possible, leading us into movements of greater solidarity with allies of all faiths and none in the class struggle’ (p. 154). Certainly this is a hope to cherish, if not actually to promote and implement.

The strengths of Confounding the Mighty are many, and I commend the book unreservedly, especially to church ministers, church workers, and anyone seeking to become one or the other. I should like to have seen chapters on how churches (could) address class and LGBTQIA+ matters, class and housing, class and health (including nutrition), class and ableism, and class and climate change; but it is quite possible to formulate a take on these by extrapolating from the discussions already included, or by reading Victoria Turner’s edited volume Young, Woke and Christian (SCM Press, 2022) as a accompaniment to this one. And while not each of its contributors is Anglican, Confounding the Mighty has a very ‘Church of England’ feel; but again, readers from the spectrum of denominations should be able to plant its seeds into the soil of their own traditions with just a little spadework.

There are, however, two further comments I wish to make, and both relate to more conventional doctrinal loci. First, I should like to ask how the authors conceive of sin. Of course, the whole book, in its pursuit of class justice, is about sin, confronting sin, and doing away with sin. But when sin qua sin is mentioned or implied, my overwhelming impression is that only structural, systemic sin is a problem for the authors. I am likely wrong here, but, putting it bluntly (and perhaps a little pietistically), I just cannot see how structural sin can be overcome without also addressing the individual sins each of us, no matter our class, commits daily, sins which often consolidate the harms class distinctions inflict on so many. By focussing on communities and the class dynamics shaping them, do the authors neglect the reality that communities are constituted by particular, fallen, sinful people who both uphold and are held down by structural sin?
My second comment is related but concerns the place of Christian eschatology in the fight for class justice. I note Confounding the Mighty does not include any chapters by theologians or activists who would claim middle- or even upper-class heritage. The book’s focus is undoubtedly on establishing class justice for working-class people. But this gives the book an agenda – an agenda I approve of, lest I be misunderstood – that makes a manifesto of its reflections and stories. This is no bad thing, of course, but Confounding the Mighty is too-strongly flavoured with politically left-tasting spices for my palate (again, lest misunderstanding take root and flourish, I do not consider myself to be on the political right; if anything, I am centre-left), and this raises my question about eschatology: What is the fight for class justice hoping to achieve, ultimately? Notwithstanding that the gospel message of Jesus Christ and New Testament teachings entail, I believe, caring and fighting for the rights of the defenceless, speaking truth to power, discerning where God’s Spirit is at work at the local level, and so on; notwithstanding these things, many of the chapters in this book ostensibly imagine the church striving for and even expecting an inevitable this-worldly utopia rather than anticipating and awaiting God’s eschatological kingdom (or ‘kin-dom’, as Ruth Harley prefers; pp. 26, 36n2). These ideals are principled and praiseworthy, to be sure; but perhaps they also suggest a sort of social progressivism that sin, both structural and personal, surely renders implausible. Even if current visions of class justice come to fruition, classism itself will surely mutate into a new form of injustice and have its time. Luke Larner perhaps appears to acknowledge something like this, because in his concluding chapter, he recognises that socially just practices, while ‘a means to achieve change’ (p. 155, emphasis original), are limited in what they can do, even though they do ‘win short-term justice gains for the working classes’ and ‘create spaces to build intersectional solidarity between the labouring classes’ to ‘win justice’ and ‘cultivate’ hope (p. 155). Is there a hint of resignation here? Regardless, Larner calls for ‘a revolution of solidarity and a shifting of the balance of power’ (p. 155), a call I fully appreciate and will fight for in my own, hopefully Spirit-infused and -enthused, way as part of my church community. ¡Viva la revolución escatológica!

Saturday 1 July 2023

Jesus Christ in the Theology of Justin Martyr, by Andrew Hayes (Grove Doctrine D10)

Andrew Hayes, Jesus Christ in the Theology of Justin Martyr. Grove Doctrine D10 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2023)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published.

Justin was an early Christian apologist martyred around ad 165 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. His surviving writings—Dialogue with Trypho the Jew and the Apologies—are supreme examples of how Christian thought was developing during the second century. In this Grove Book, Andrew Hayes focuses on Justin’s articulation of Jesus as messiah, as teacher, and especially as the incarnate logos of God, a concept that traces back to the Jewish scriptures and resonates with certain philosophies of Justin’s time. ‘Presenting Jesus as logos needs to be justified to his Jewish brethren, as [Justin] calls them, and the presence of truth and wisdom in the world, via the logos, needs to be communicated with reference to the uniqueness of Christ to a pagan audience’ (p. 25). Hayes makes it clear how Justin’s defence of his faith in Christ as logos generated concepts that helped shape later Christian orthodoxy.

Jesus Christ in the Theology of Justin Martyr is available for £4.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

Book Review: Michael A. Tapper, Canadian Pentecostals, the Trinity, and Contemporary Worship Music

Michael A. Tapper, Canadian Pentecostals, the Trinity, and Contemporary Worship Music: The Things We Sing, Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies 23 (Leiden: Brill, 2017)

One book which makes great use of Colin Gunton’s theology and may have flown under the radar for researchers (I only recall one fleeting mention of it in The T&T Clark Handbook of Colin Gunton, for example) is Michael Tapper’s Canadian Pentecostals, the Trinity, and Contemporary Worship Music. Tapper writes,

The overall objective of this book is to consider how, or if, a Christian worship practice of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (paoc) is informed by a trinitarian approach to God, personhood, and the created world. . . . While a sound trinitarian statement . . . is clearly embedded at the forefront of formal paoc documentation, an important question remains: Does the doctrine of the Trinity actually form the paoc in substantial and meaningful ways? (p. 293, emphasis original)

Tapper draws from Gunton’s writings to develop a framework in which to analyse the lyrical content of the most commonly sung hymns and worship songs in PAOC churches between 1 October 2007 and 30 September 2015. The framework asks:

Do the songs, explicitly and/or implicitly, name and identify all the persons of the Trinity?

Do the songs speak of the actions of the triune God with reference to salvation history as recorded in biblical scripture?

Do the songs acknowledge the perichoretic relationality that exists among the persons of the immanent Trinity?

Is human self-identification in the songs depicted as singular, plural, or neutral?

Do the actions of the worshipper in the songs acknowledge the horizontal-orientation of human relationality?

Do the songs reinforce the mediatorial worship of the worshipper as to, in, and through the different persons of the Trinity?

What is the perception of time in relation to the action of the worshipper in the songs?

Is there a balance between material and immaterial objects in the songs? (pp. 7–8, amended)

While the focus on PAOC churches is somewhat niche, most of the songs Tapper assesses (e.g., 10,000 Reasons; I Could Sing of Your Love Forever; In Christ Alone; Shout to the Lord) are globally known, thus making his findings (I won’t say what they are!) relevant to numerous denominations.

Canadian Pentecostals, the Trinity, and Contemporary Worship Music contains statistical analysis (mostly confined to the appendices) and commentary on lyrics, but the earlier chapters chart the development of the PAOC and its understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity before outlining and critiquing Gunton’s theology and its appropriateness for Tapper’s project. Even if one is not favourably disposed towards Gunton’s take on trinitarian doctrine, Tapper’s study at least demonstrates that Gunton’s desire to show how the doctrine makes a genuine difference in the life of the church is commendable and not misplaced; and although Tapper engages Gunton’s material to compose his eight questions, the questions themselves largely do not require Gunton’s content specifically to be acceptable.

I commend Canadian Pentecostals, the Trinity, and Contemporary Worship Music to people who are involved in musical worship and/or the PAOC, as well as to anyone interested in finding a helpful summary, critique, and (most importantly) application of Gunton’s theology to a prominent aspect of church life. The book is fairly expensive (Tapper himself sent me the copy I read for free on the understanding that I would take it to the library at King’s College London once I had finished with it) but is definitely worth tracking down.

Monday 3 April 2023

Theology for Beginners: Napkin Theology

As my work sometimes involves teaching theology in non-university settings and marking higher education essays at UK qualification levels four to six, I’m always on the lookout for helpful introductions to theology that may benefit students new to the discipline – see here for some recommendations. I’ve just come across a newly published book that should prove worthwhile reading not only for students, but also for ‘ordinary churchgoers’ (define that as you will), including teenagers, who want to wade towards the deeper end of the theology pool.

Tyler Hansen and Emily Lund, Napkin Theology: Small Drawings about Big Ideas, illus. Jodie Londono (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2023)

The uniqueness of Napkin Theology lies in its use of simple drawings to illustrate doctrines and theological ideas; the chapter on the Trinity, for example, features one not dissimilar to the shield of Athanasius and another depicting a chord on a stave. Napkin Theology shows effectively how even basic scribbles* on a napkin can supplement theological discussion. Thus the book communicates complex theological ideas well and is likely the first one I’d recommend to people who want to know what theology tastes like without committing themselves to a full course.

* I should make it clear that Jodie Londono’s pictures typically transcend the ‘basic scribbles’ category!

Friday 3 March 2023

Book Review: Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life

Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016)

I am grateful to Zondervan for sending this book to me, presumably for review.

photo of Stephen Backhouse, 'Kierkegaard: A Single Life', and tote bag / © Terry J. Wright, 2016

© Terry J. Wright, 2016

Back in August 2016, Zondervan sent me a copy of Kierkegaard: A Single Life (as well as an accompanying tote bag!), Stephen Backhouse’s biography-cum-introduction to the Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard. I supposed at the time that I was sent the book to review on my blog – and now, almost seven years later, and after a recent trip to Copenhagen where I snapped some photos of various things relating to Kierkegaard, including a lock of his hair in the Museum of Copenhagen, I believe the time is right to make good on my promise.

Statue of Søren Kierkegaard / © Terry J. Wright, 2023
© Terry J. Wright, 2023

I described K:ASL as a ‘biography-cum-introduction’ rather than a biography or an introduction because Backhouse’s book straddles the distance between the two genres. Naturally, the majority of the work focuses on the life story of Kierkegaard the man in all his glorious complexity. Backhouse begins with scenes from Kierkegaard’s funeral and an account of his school life before delivering a more conventional chronological presentation of his life. Kierkegaard’s attacks on the Danish Lutheran Church were explosive and frequent, many establishment figures found him inscrutable and not a little irksome (as well as someone to mock), and his love life was complicated to say the least – Backhouse’s portrait vividly captures something of Kierkegaard’s witty, introspective persona, his ambitions often disclosed through pseudonymous works, his intense devotion to God. The final chapter sees Backhouse moving beyond the purely biographical to outline Kierkegaard’s impact on subsequent scholars and authors, including, among others, Karls Jaspers and Barth, Hannah Arendt, Richard Wright, and even the band Arcade Fire, showing how the Dane’s thought – which centres on the human subject before God – resonates deeply with people across the disciplinary and religious spectra. In a final section, Backhouse summarises each of Kierkegaard’s writings; I found these overviews especially welcome and interesting, and undoubtedly will return to them if ever I study Kierkegaard in more depth or, in my role as a proofreader and indexer, work on monographs relating to him.

A lock of Kierkegaard's hair
A lock of Kierkegaard's hair / © Terry J. Wright, 2023

K:ASL is an engrossing read, though, as one might expect, any book that has a figure like Søren Kierkegaard as its subject is not going to avoid complicated and challenging concepts that take time to digest. Backhouse’s prose is lively and engaging, though occasionally his present-tense narration (e.g., ‘May 5, 1838. Søren celebrates his birthday’, p. 85) jars – this approach seems slightly too informal to me. That said, Backhouse makes clear this is not ‘another academic biography’ but one intended for ‘educated nonspecialists who do not need to know, and do not care, about the depths of Kierkegaard’s intellectual development or the minutiae of his cultural context in Golden Age Denmark’ (pp. 12–13). With this in mind, I say Backhouse successfully achieves his goal.