The topic of Discipleship is one that I’ve been passionate about throughout my whole Christian life – no wonder, in fact, as it is the paradigm that Jesus calls us to. More recently, I’ve come to appreciate the work and writings/sermons of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, with a particular soft spot for God With Us. Before that book, though, Rowan wrote many others, including the book I’m reviewing today, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life. With some overlap with his previous book Being Christian, Being Disciples is a short, readable and provocative book, coming at a time when some (like Linda Woodhead, as Ian Paul notes) are looking to ignore or discard the language of discipleship. It is notable, then, that Rowan deliberately chooses this word to describe and shape his book.
The ‘Essentials’ that Rowan focuses on are interesting. Echoing themes from Being Human, he opens each chapter with an extended biblical quotation, which he then unpacks and moves on with. With this framing in mind, we are invited to consider ‘Being Disciples’, ‘Faith, Hope and Love’, ‘Forgiveness’, Holiness, ‘Faith in Society’, and ‘Life in the Spirit’. Each of these is a profound meditation on a biblical theme – resonating with wider and deeper Christian teaching than can fit in this book. This is echoed by the enthusiastic endorsements from very ‘un-Rowan’ figures like Justin Welby, Kate Bottley, Eleanor Mumford and Nicky Gumbel, among others.
The vision of the Christian life that Rowan sketches in this book is rooted in his abiding belief in the Easter Story – which is explored in God With Us, another short book Rowan recently published. Echoing the meaning of the Resurrection – tying together years of expectation, brutal violence, glorious life, and the intimacy of hope, Rowan invites the reader into a Christian life that must be lived, as well as being understood, experienced, stepped into, and done in community. This last is a theme that runs particularly powerfully through the book – this is not a way of life that is done alone. This, to me at least, is a great strength of the book – particularly in the age we find ourselves in.
The book starts drawing to a close with a chapter on ‘Faith in society’. In an age where political and public questions are vexing, stretching and challenging Christians across the world, this is a particularly helpful piece of writing. Rowan grounds his opinion in the richness of Christian tradition, the teaching of Jesus, and an inspiringly biblical view:
“The Christian vision is not therefore one in which the person’s choice is overridden by a religiously backed public authority. History tells us that when churches try directly to exercise political authority they often compromise their real character as communities of free mutual giving and service; equally, when they retreat in the face of power, they risk betraying their Christian distinctiveness. Christian discipleship, it seems, means living out the vision of relationships in the body of Christ without being afraid of conflict with the rest of society; because sometimes that living out of these relationships can be unpopular with society”
This is, as with much of this book, something that deeply resonates with me. Coming from a former Archbishop of Canterbury, this is a surprising, Spirit-Filled and provocative perspective that I think should have a wide effect.
In closing, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Detached from controversy, focused on Jesus, rooted in the bible, and eminently readable, this is a book for anyone considering what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I can see myself using this in a small group or reading group – and would recommend it both for that purpose and for personal reading. I’m looking forward to Rowan’s next book in this unintentional ‘Being’ trilogy, but that is for another blog post…