Generally I don’t read a lot of theology. Perhaps not as much as I should. But I’ve been reading an excellent new book [published this year] by David Smith: Stumbling towards Zion: Recovering the Biblical Tradition of Lament in the era of World Christianity. It’s quite a long title, but the book itself is a manageable 130 pages plus two appendices and a wide-ranging bibliography. The book comes from Langham Global Library in a sombre cover, which reflects a part of the content.
Before going further, I should declare an interest: I have known and appreciated David for some three decades, since the time when he was Principal of Northumbria Bible College, in Berwick on Tweed, and we were along the road at Christ Church, Duns. During that time he has encouraged me to do some serious reading, and to think more widely and more creatively about ministry and the Christian faith. He encouraged me to sign up for the MTh course on Mission in an Urban World at ICC, Glasgow, 2006-09, on which he was the lead tutor. During that course he led the cohort study visit to Nairobi, which was an eye-opener for several of us coming from a very different church culture here in the UK. David preached for us at Duns and then again at the Lyon Anglican Church, always offering us a new and different perspective. He has written several challenging books, including Mission after Christendom, which I found immensely helpful. And he and Joyce were good friends to Susie and me; before Joyce’s untimely death in 2014.
As the title suggests, the new book is about the way in which we present ourselves and our lives to God in worship and prayer. David has a gift for bringing together biblical exegesis, a wide variety of theological writings, many from outside Europe, and his own personal experience. In the preface, David recounts how his wife Joyce’s suffering and death from a brain tumour brought him a renewed appreciation of the biblical tradition of lament. Too often the contemporary emphasis on celebration in worship ignores the real suffering and struggles of people within the congregation, and also the crises that threaten the future of our world,. This seeming indifference to many of the serious issues that threaten our planet undermines the credibility of our faith.
Back in 1981 Robert Davidson wrote a book called The Courage to Doubt: Exploring an Old Testament Theme, which highlighted the tradition of lament in the Old Testament. The book resonated with David at a time when he was experiencing reverse culture-shock after years of teaching in Eastern Nigeria. “How could the Christian community be so relentlessly happy and untroubled in a world filled with injustice, oppression and violence ?” In the university world of Aberdeen, David met people who were alienated from institutional Christianity but keen to ask profound questions about the meaning of human existence. Claus Westermann wrote in his work on the Psalms: “Praise can retain its authenticity and naturalness only in polarity with lamentation.”
The disappearance of lament was particularly strange at a time when historians, looking at two World Wars and the Holocaust, were labelling the twentieth century as ‘the age of catastrophe’.
When David travelled to Pakistan in 2017 to lead studies for poor pastors from the Sindh, he was guided to offer reflections on the story of Job; “the clearest expression of the counter-testimony of Israel” The book of Job first describes the external events which devastated Job’s life, and then the internal anguish which followed. Alienated from his dogmatic friends, Job reveals an awareness of other human beings whose lives have been marked by oppression and injustice [24: 1-22]. And he also recognises that much of this evil and injustice has human causes. In his response [42:7-8], God seems to reject the theology of the ‘comforters’; and hints at God’s own struggle to restrain the powers and evil and to bring about the promised healing of a broken world.
Where Job reveals the depths of spiritual crisis in the life of an individual, Lamentations reflects the impact of catastrophe on an entire community. The repeated cry of the desolate survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem is that ‘there is no-one to comfort them’ [Lam 1:9, 16, 21; 2:9; 3:8, 44]. This is a very contemporary message. Kathleen O’Connor notes “for the survivors of civil wars, destroyed cities and genocides, for refugees, and for those who subsist in famine and destitute poverty, the poetry mirrors reality with frightening exactitude”. A sentiment echoed by the Filipino scholar Federico Villanueva. Ironically Lamentations is best known to many for the verses that mark the sudden appearance of hope in chapter 3 [Lam 3: 22-24]. Verses wrenched inappropriately from their context. But David acknowledges that light can break through at the darkest moments; close encounters with death or wickedness can provide the soil in which faith comes to birth.
It is sometimes assumed that lament has no further place after the coming of Jesus. Not so. Commenting on the birth narrative, Ulrich Mauser contrasts the peace of God with the Pax Romana, in the name of which Jesus was executed. Mauser insists that peace on earth is initiated by Jesus, but it has not yet conquered the world. Salvation is both now and not yet. The gospels are “not fairy stories in which a paradise restored is offered without regard to competing and hostile realities”. The public horror of the Cross left Jesus’s supporters weeping and wailing [Luke 23:27]. David argues that “there is a danger that we move too quickly from the cross to the empty tomb with the result that theology becomes associated with abstract theories of atonement which are invariably divorced from the harsh reality of the historical death of Jesus at Calvary”.
David draws attention to Easter Saturday, to the reality of “that long, desolate Sabbath” which bisects death and resurrection; which is too often ignored as a meaningless hyphen. He sees the Grunewald altar-piece in Colmar as a visual aid for the Easter story. Contemporary, western culture is often marked by despair and a sense of abandonment. So, So, David concludes, “the gospel … must be shared, not with a triumphalistic spirit, but with humility, compassion, and a transparent honesty concerning faith’s own struggles with the tragedies that persist in an Easter Saturday culture”.
In the latter chapters, the book encourages us in our prayers to go beyond a passive acceptance of what the world gives us. And to ask questions which demands answers. When Christianity comes to be influenced by Greek philosophy, we come to Aristotle’s concept of God as “the unmoved Mover”. Jewish writers complain that this is a betrayal of the Hebrew scriptures. And their complaints are echoed by Third World theologians whose thinking owes nothing to the Graeco-Roman culture. The Japanese theologian Kitamori, writing after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is critical of a theology that emphasises God’s transcendent glory, but which is “deaf to the cries for justice in a world where power is often used in ways that are oppressive and destructive”.
Bonhoeffer, awaiting execution in his prison cell, wrote that rather than looking for the intervention of a supremely powerful deity, “the gospel directs us to the powerlessness of God”. Subsequently, Moltmann’s writings have placed the cross of Jesus at the heart and foundation of the knowledge of God.Hisemphasison the crucified God has struck a chord with many uprooted people in the Majority World. Christianity is ceasing to be a western religion. Slavery was a cause of trauma for many, deeply religious African peoples. African-American spirituals frequently return to the crucifixion; for Calvary resonates with their own lives.
In the final chapter, David sees a convergence between the Biblical tradition of lament and the emergence of a world Christianity. He suggests that Orthodoxy and Catholicism and Protestantism are all essentially local forms [inculturations] of the Christian faith. And that the emergence of new forms of faith in the global South will mean an end to the [old] Christendom model. As Kenneth Cragg wrote [back in 1968]: “As the Christ of Galilee and Jerusalem in New Testament times become the Christ of the Mediterranean, of Athens and Rome, so the Christ of the West must become more evidently the Christ of the world …”. The hope is that this emerging world Christianity will grow into a multicultural community in which the interaction of praise and lament sustains the hope of shalom and healing for a broken world.
David’s experience of church in the Majority world makes him hopeful. He cites Emmanuel Katangole, who believes that the public expression of pain and loss throughout Africa can give birth to an alternative vision for the future of that continent. But the church in the West must both share in that and learn from it; “the refusal of lament at such a time as this would be a symbol of apostasy on the part of the comfortable and wealthy church of the Western world”; and all the more because the example of Christianity in the Majority world offers a new and deeper grasp of the gospel.
Stumbling towards Zion is a challenging book. Not because it is difficult to read. It isn’t. But because it challenges some of the things we too often take for granted in our faith journey. And in our comfortable [middle class] church life. Our tacit acceptance of things as they are. And our ignorance of what God may be doing elsewhere in the world. On a personal note, I was immensely grateful to spend more than a decade in a gathered, multi-cultural, multi-confessional church in the Diocese of Europe. With a significant proportion of Africans, nearly all of whom were refugees. Many of whom had painful stories to tell. But I am embarrassed to recall that we were criticised by one of our bishops for “not being sufficiently Anglican” in our church culture !