This review originally appeared in Third Way, a magazine focusing on Christian Comment on culture. Sadly Third Way has folded (read here), but I am grateful to them for sending me a review copy and publishing my review. Readers may remember a mini-Twitter-storm last year as a result of my one and only ‘open letter‘ on this blog. This review is, thus, a belated fulfilment of an intent over a year old.
Chalke needs little introduction. A prophetic voice in and around the church for many years, his various challenges to evangelicalism have made him a newsworthy figure. His latest book is no exception. Exploring no less a topic than what it is to be human is an admirable and important task. Recent Evangelical Ministry Assembly conferences, Roman Catholic encyclicals and the vibrancy of academic discussion of theological anthropology demand a popularisation, an engagement, a mass-market version. This, unfortunately, is not exactly what Chalke provides.
Chalke is a divisive figure, and this cannot be put to one side when he casts a vision such as the one set forth in Being Human. Evangelical Christianity and other parts of the church have long been in disagreement over exactly what a ‘five-fold’ ministry is. I would contend that, in this book, Chalke arguably takes on the mantle of a prophet (with some particularly incisive observations and reflections challenging the core of what many believe) but unfortunately does so outside of an apostolic authority, an evangelist’s zeal, or a pastoral or teacher’s emphases. In short, Chalke is high on rhetoric and low on listening to the counsel of others. This is the trajectory I will take in this review – that Chalke writes directly out of the heart of God in some areas, whilst ignoring it in others.
I have mentioned the unity of the church and the focus on what it is to be human from different wings of the people of God. That the Evangelical Ministry Assembly (a reformed evangelical gathering) and a recent Pope would have similar concerns is theologically fascinating. So is Chalke bang on trend? This may be the case – and it is at this stage that the sheer lack of engagement with theological accounts of being human is particularly hard to fathom. There is an interesting chapter, ‘The Indelible Image’, which discusses the language of the Imago Dei, is in this reviewer’s opinion helpful in grounding human dignity and inclusivity in the notion of the Image of God, but Chalke’s answer to the key question of his book simply begs a deeper question. He closes this chapter: ‘What is it to be human? It is to be made in the image of the God of love!’, to which I would respond: yes, amen, so what does it mean to be made in the Image of God?
In amongst some occasionally provocative and entertaining observations on ‘being human’, ‘doing life’ and exploring faith, there are a few points where it seems Chalke might be commenting on various controversies and disagreements he has been involved in. In particular, it is difficult to read chapter 25, ‘Better Together’, in isolation from the fact that the Evangelical Alliance has this exact phrase as its slogan. That is by way of aside, admittedly. This reviewer, though, was consistently puzzled by the emphasis solely on the ‘social’ nature of human being as understood by Chalke. Whilst this is undeniably the case, I can’t help but wonder if a discussion of ’embodiment’ might aid much of his discussion, as well as providing a grounding for ethics and community. Certainly the New Testament is rich on a discussion of the body, and whilst evangelicals have not been known for their treatment of this topic, the impact of Pope John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body’ lecture series, and Christopher Wests’ popularisation of this, has to be taken seriously.
It will be clear to readers of this review that I was relatively unimpressed by Chalke’s book in general. Whilst I don’t want to say that Being Human fails to answer its own key question, I would argue that Chalke’s overall vision is unconvincing, and ultimately flawed. At a practical level, one symptom of the problems inherent in this book is the Author’s usage of the work of John Howard Yoder. Chapter 15 of Being Human, ‘A Counterrevolutionary life’ begins with a recounting of a story about Yoder, labelling him as ‘best known for his pacifism’. So far, so unremarkable, except that at no point in this chapter or its notes does Chalke acknowledge the large scale sexual abuse perpetrated by Yoder, and essentially ignores this in favour of using the story. This is a silencing of victims’ voices that goes against the much heralded thrust towards inclusion and honesty that Chalke is seeking to write a narrative of.
Overall, then, this was a book that I read rapidly, disagreed with firmly, and mostly enjoyed interacting with. The editorial and authorial oversight regarding Yoder leaves a slightly sour taste in my mouth, at least, and the general theological engagement seems to me to be relatively unaware of what theologians (in all sorts of disciplines, contexts and movements) are saying about what it means to be human. For readers who enjoy Chalke’s style, and the theological trajectories he focuses on, this may be an interesting read, but for those of us unconvinced by some of Chalke’s theological claims, and wanting a book that practices what it preaches in terms of inclusion and relationship, we might want to look elsewhere.