Courtesy of Seabury Publishing
Del Brown Book
Retha, the unofficial spokesperson and treasurer for the Open Door Sunday School Class, had told me that they would soon be finishing the book they were studying and would need some recommendations. They were the one truly liberal Sunday School class at First United Methodist in Wichita Falls, Texas. I could have given them a list of Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, or John Shelby Spong books that they had not yet discussed. Nothing against any of them, but I really wanted them to get a slightly different perspective even if it was saying similar things with different words and insights. Yet, I hadn’t read much of anything in awhile other than those authors myself. The few different things I had read would not interest them.
Amazon.com had often given me recommendations of books I should buy, but there for awhile, they recommended anything with the label “Christian.” Many of those I was not going to read or recommend, so I was skeptical when I saw a recommendation for What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? A Guide for the Searching, the Open, and the Curious by Delwin Brown. I was not familiar with Brown or his work, and I didn’t really know anything about the publisher, Seabury Books (which is an Episcopal publishing house). The title sounded intriguing to me, but for the Open Door Class who were suspect of anything sounding creedal, there was one word in that title that I knew would turn them off: believe. I couldn’t recommend it and say I hadn’t read it if I wanted them to read it. I was going to have to be able to talk it up and give insights into how Brown used that word, believe. So, I ordered it and read it as fast as I could.
In trying to talk it up, I told the class that the book did something that I’d been saying mainline / progressive Christians should do – be black and white about the fact that there is gray in the world. Since then, I’ve changed that to say that we should be black and white about the fact that there is a full spectrum of diverse colors between the extremes of black and white. This book does that as well for me.
Brown begins by talking about what progressive Christianity is NOT. In doing so, he gives a short but solid history of the development of theology over the past 200 years, highlighting the dominant theological movements from that time period. He shows aspects of each that progressive Christians should not adhere to while also pointing out positive elements of each that can inform a progressive Christian’s journey of faith.
Next he looks at how to more properly interpret and be informed by both Scripture and tradition. A major part of this discussion involves what it means to say that each has “authority” while also showing unhealthy ways that we attribute authority to these sources of our faith. He also graciously points out ways in which both cannot be considered “inerrant” while affirming their incalculable worth to our spiritual foundation and growth.
In the next chapter, Brown sets up a concept that will run through the rest of the book as he considers the incarnation. Surprisingly, to guide and inform this discussion, he suggests “that we take as our guide the Christian councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, those gatherings of bishops and theologians at Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon called to clarify and define the nature and content of the Christian faith over and against all rival interpretations.” (pg. 32)
At this point, on my first reading, I almost put the book down to write it off for use in the Open Door Class given their disdain for creeds. Had it not been for this next sentence, I probably would have, “To many progressive Christians, this way of addressing the question will seem unpromising, if not utterly shocking.” (pg. 32) That made me read on, and I’m glad I did, for he succinctly describes the outcome of each of those councils in how they chose to interpret the incarnation of Jesus and then takes these affirmations to the next level. The incarnation isn’t just about the incarnation of God in Jesus; it is about God being incarnated in all of humanity. Then, alluding to passages like Ephesians 4:6 (God is above all, through all, and in all), Psalm 139 (there is nowhere we can go to escape God’s presence), and Acts 17:28 (it is in God that we live, move, and have our being) he takes the incarnation one step further – to all of creation. Quoting Gregory of Nyssa (“What God has not assumed, God has not saved”) and looking to Romans 8:19-23 (in particular vs. 21 where Paul writes that all of creation will be saved), Brown brilliantly affirms these points: the incarnation isn’t just about Jesus or humanity but all of creation, too.
This way of looking at the incarnation is the theme that connects the rest of the book as he considers these chapter topics:
- God: Exploring the Depth
- Humanity: Continuing the Creation
- Sin: Failing and Hiding
- Salvation: Seeking and Finding
- Church: Serving and Being Served
- Rightly Mixing Religion with Politics
All the while, Brown leaves space for disagreement and alternate ways of thinking along the way while encouraging all (including himself) to having an open mind.
One feature of the book that I really appreciated were the “Points for Reflection” found at the end of each chapter. Here he succinctly reminds us, in bullet-point fashion, of the primary points he wanted to get across in the chapter. Thus, he helps the reader contemplate the chapter as a whole before moving on to the next chapter and topic for development and discussion.
If you hadn’t guessed it already, I highly recommend this book. It helps us develop a theology that can easily lead to action as God takes on our flesh and guides us into the ministry of loving God and our neighbors as ourselves.
Delwin Brown was a United Methodist layperson and dean emeritus of Pacific School of Religion. He was also Professor of Christian Theology at Illiff School of Theology. Sadly, he passed away Sept. 12, 2009 after battling cancer.
The Rev. Troy Sims is a Christian Educator and ordained deacon in the North Texas Annual Conference currently on leave. He welcomes suggestions, questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org