Today I’m reviewing a book by a former lecturer and friend, Peter Phillips, known by many as the Director of CODEC in Durham. This book blends two passions of Pete’s that I share – biblical literacy and Christian discipleship. Engaging the Word: Biblical Literacy and Christian Discipleship is a hidden gem of a book, bringing together Pete’s wide learning, statistics, and a fierce commitment to the Bible. This is a book well worth reading – and spending time with. This book helpfully does three things – gives us a potted understanding of what the Bible is, who is reading it, and why it matters. Let me start with a quote, slightly shortened:
“The Bible, Webster said, is ‘the vessel which bears God’s majestic presence’. Recall too that Augustine had used a similar image: Scripture is the vehicle that God provides for us to travel to our true home along the road established by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In the Bible, God comes to address us, to invite us into relationship with him”
Pete begins with a couple of great chapters – The Bible and the word of God and Biblical literacy – that serve as a sort of roadmap for where he’s coming from. Throughout both of these chapters, there is a real excitement about the Bible, and the possibilities that come in the Christian life from reading and engaging with it. Pete calls the Bible ‘the engine for Christian discipleship’, and this is a really helpful image in my mind. Of course, the Bible is more than this (but surely not less than this), and Pete walks us through this and three other understandings of what the Bible ‘is’. Having given us a sense of what the Bible is, we turn to the tricky concept of biblical literacy, and without spoiling the book his suggestions are thoroughgoingly Trinitarian, church-oriented and dynamic. This is not just head knowledge – the Bible challenges Christian disciples to be transformed – and this is made clear throughout. Having set the scene with two very helpful chapters (the first is a brilliant explanation in reasonably normal English as to what the Bible is, the latter distilling a complex discussion into a simple output), Pete moves on to two chapters about the way we use the Bible.
Chapter three, The mediated Bible is a careful look at how Christians (and others) have engaged with the Bible over time. Pete walks us through a sort of print time machine, looking at key folk in church history and how they engaged with the Bible. We think about The Didache (an early Christian text), Augustine, Aldred, the mystery plays, Erasmus, and Wesley. This chapter makes for an intriguing overview, helping today’s reader to root practices of Bible engagement in the past, and also providing food for thought in the way we might approach the Bible today. Chapter four, Discipleship and the Bible, is one of the best bits of recent writing on that topic that I’ve read. Rooted in the words of the Bible, and taking the imagery of the Disciples on the way to Emmaus, Pete makes a strong and passionate case for not just having the Bible as a central part of our discipleship, but thinking about soaking ourselves in it, marinating in it like meat before cooking. With helpful lessons from von Balthasar and Bonhoeffer, Pete encourages us to move from passive to active faith, with the Bible as a key part of that. With this in mind, we readers approach the final part of the book.
The final three chapters of Engaging the Word cover the three aspects of discipleship that Pete wants to bring the Bible to bear on: reaching up (spirituality), reaching in (congregational well-being) and reaching out (engaging the world). Key to all of this – and a theme that comes through throughout the book – is community. Or, as Pete puts it, quoting Stanley Hauerwas; “‘A place where God is forming a family out of strangers’. That language resonates with the models of discipleship from Bonhoeffer and von Balthasar: the sense that we become disciples by sharing together in small groups, in communities, learning from one another, becoming friends and family, as we eat and drink and be together. Learning through open commensality, by opening ourselves up to one another and allowing God’s word to soak us in his presence“. From this place – this Bible-drenched community – flows the outpouring of discipleship. Woven in amongst these final three chapters is a deeply biblical emphasis on community and doing the stuff of the Kingdom of God – with some helpful practical suggestions.
Overall, then, this is a brilliant book. Pete wears his learning lightly, brings together statistics and concepts in a way that makes a lot of sense, and offers us some excellent practical suggestions. If, like me, you are about to start (or do already) leading a small group, this is a great book to read to shape your thinking. If you are interested in Biblical literacy, or what Christians think of the Bible, then this is a book that is well worth reading. For those involved in church leadership of any kind, even if it feels more practical and less Bible-y than you might like, this is a helpful book to remind us where the engine is, how it works, and why we need to use it.
I should note that I recieved a free copy of this book from BRF to review. I hope that hasn’t clouded my thinking.