Book Review: Otherways by Andrew Perriman
In many ways, this is an unusual book, at the same time as being rich, thought-provoking, unsettling and encouraging. Perriman has essentially selected posts from http://www.opensourcetheology.net/, and so to understand this book one needs to understand that webpage. As he explains on his webpage, 'The purpose of this site is to assist the development of an emerging theology for the emerging church'. It is an interactive discussion-based webpage which preferences 'openness, intellectual integrity, grassroots collaboration, and contextual relevance with respect to theological method' (7).
The 59 essays selected for publication in this book have, for the most part, been left in their original form. They are ranged according to 'a loose thematic development from an initial consideration of what constitutes "emerging church" or "emerging theology" through matters of hermeneutics and explorations of the biblical narrative ..., to a more general considerations of theology, community and mission' (7).
This makes the book rather difficult to review as it consists in so many mini essays. However, what I can do here is to give an impression of the sort of material one encounters and the trajectory and starting point of the thought as it is presented in the essays.
The first thing to appreciate about Perriman's style in these essays is that, although it is not documented with footnotes as one would expect in a normal equivalent book, it is an incredibly rich depository of living and creative thought. I found myself having to put the book down regularly as I tried to digest the content of just a couple of pages. There is more material in this book to provoke thought that in almost any other book on emergent theology simply because of its form as a collection of mini essays, each with its own succinctly put (and often provocative) theses. So, for example, in essays seven ('Cracking the code') Perriman discusses the nature and effect of social discourse in modern Evangelicalism (what he calls 'the Code'), and examines what it does, how it works, and what is wrong with it. That particular essay can be found under http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/63. Quite a lot discussed in such a short space and in everyday language! I regularly found myself, while reading the various essays, enjoying those precious 'ah-ha!' moments, as I once mentioned here.
There is much more in the book that I could not possibly summarise in this short book review. It contains a number of its own book reviews, critical interaction with N.T. Wright, debate concerning the meaning of 'gospel', homosexuality, atonement, hermeneutics, debate about certain statements of faith, much that concerns Perriman's own eschatological convictions, etc. Again and again one is confronted with crisp, provocative and insightful thinking. It is a tremendously rich book. The Christmas Pudding of Emerging Theology books! Eat too much at once and you'll get indigestion.
Plenty will wonder, of course, whether it is worth buying a book that is simply a collection of short essays that one can find online. All I can say is that I personally prefer to have a book in front of me that I can underline and write in the margins of, and this is why I believe the electronic age will never replace a good old book! What is more, much of the best material, Perriman notes in his introduction, is actually found in the comments of the essays and not in the essays themselves. This means that if one stuck to the webpage, one could get lost in the details without obtaining the general overview and scope of thought that the book offers.
Given the nature of the book I cannot interact with every point of potential disagreement in this review, but I can at least share one thought that occurred to me more than once. The very first of his essays, Paths in the forest, is a parable. He starts off:
'Scripture is like a forest. As people explore the forest, they tend after a while to follow the paths that others have taken, simply because it's easier. So the paths get well-worn and eventually become the definitive and orthodox way of getting around the forest. In fact the paths have become so well established that people have produced maps, which has led to the phenomenon of people staying at home with their maps and never feeling the need to venture into the forest at all ... It would be nice, in a way, if we could leave the forest alone for a while, let the undergrowth regrow, let the old paths disappear, and then start again, so that we come to know the forest for the first time' (9)
This desire is rather symptomatic of Perriman's project, one which seeks to vigorously critique received beliefs. However, it is here that I am not convinced Perriman is at his most nuanced. We simply have paths in a forest and cannot let them overgrow anymore, and I think there should be a respect for these paths, and a hope that God has helped create them as he has guided his people through the Spirit. Tradition, I dare to hope, deserves our 'respect and deference', even if not 'our slavish adherence' (cf. Reformed and Always Reforming, by Roger Olson, p. 45). Perriman's expressed desire is perhaps necessary for those who need to blaze trails of reformation (through re-engagement with Scripture), but eventually, if a robust and historically 'thick' theology is to emerge, these paths need to be lovingly navigated, and not left to the tide of undergrowths regrowth. They are there to stay, thanks to, I hope in part, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is precisely the Wirkungsgeschichte of the biblical texts that may provide a way forward in this present time of confusion about the bible, its place in theological dialogue, and the future of both (cf. the first couple of chapters of Markus Bockmuehl's brilliant, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study)
His, for want of a better word, brash dealing of traditional Christian beliefs comes to the fore from time to time. In a friendly critique of the Evangelical Alliance Statement of Faith, he writes in response to '1. The one true God who lives eternally in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit':
'I still have problems with explicitly trinitarian statements of the being of God. No doubt they are theologically justified and necessary, but should they really be made normative in this way, given such prominence in a statement of faith? They are hard to account for biblically and if nothing else, we lose something of the narrative dynamism of Father, Son and Spirit as they are encountered in the Bible. If we make this sort of abstract and theoretical statement normative for faith in God, what sort of faith will result?' (42-43)
Theologically justified and necessary but not normative? Perhaps he has kept the appropriate tension. Perhaps things are not lopsided. But this makes me feel like Perriman's project runs the risk of neglecting the interpretive tradition of the church, and its central creedal statements. Sure he refers to explicit statements in the bible, but I find this EA formulation a crisp expression of historic Christian faith, and one I would argue is consistent with, even if not explicit in, the scriptures. Perriman's boldness here, as well as his rather 'thin' and church-tradition-distrusting set of '(tentative) beliefs' in chapter 9 (http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/309), makes me wonder if he is keeping the necessary tensions in balance.
But these points are simply to provoke discussion, not to wave a condemning conservative finger at Perriman's project. Points like this in Perriman's work give me the most to chew on, and I for one always enjoy chewing (and learning in the process). This book is a great introduction to the sort of questions being raised in the emerging movement, and of one strand of emerging theological thinking's answers to these questions. Of course, it is an 'open source' theology, which can only be properly appreciated by reading through the webpage itself, and the offerings of its various contributors.
As always, Perriman is unsettling, deeply thought provoking, encouraging and controversial all in one!
Labels: Book Review