Book Review: Young, Woke and Christian

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I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher. I don’t think this clouded my review. Readers can judge.

There are a number of ways that I could have tackled this book review. I could have challenged ‘young’, ‘woke’ or ‘Christian’ as both concepts generally, and their relation to this book specifically. I could have engaged with the ‘words from a missing generation’ subtitle, which is an important and interesting idea, and one that didn’t really get much sustained attention in the book. However, as this is an edited collection, my first read-through showed that this is a book to be reviewed chapter by chapter, as whilst there are some key themes, they aren’t perhaps the obvious ones. It’s worth saying that I love edited collections. I’ve published one – in fact the first book I worked on to end up being published – the first thing I commissioned is one, and I’ve contributed to one. I hope that the publisher I work for, the publisher that published Young, Woke and Christian, and publishers generally won’t stop doing them. But that’s an aside. This review will go through, chapter by chapter, offering some thoughts. On some but not all, I offer a summary of the chapter.

The introduction by the book’s editor, Victoria Turner, is revealing as to the scope and posture of the book. It’s a fascinating premise – this idea of ‘words from a missing generation’ – but what is even more interesting is the relatively limited pool, denominationally speaking, that this book represents. With just four denominations represented (notable absences in the UK include Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran historical denominations, and nearly all the ‘new churches’) it is perhaps symptomatic of the appeal of ‘woke-ness’ that it isn’t a particularly broad spread. On page 3 the editor admits she ‘broke friendships’ over some of the issues discussed – and this is a theme that runs, sadly, through many of the contributions. There is an interesting examination of the ‘historic’ pedigree of the language of ‘woke’, but again it’s sort of assumed that the reader knows what’s going on. Annoyingly, the lack of definition around ‘woke’ here is mostly consistent through the book – meaning that chapters like this that aren’t individually useful or coherent, slightly beg the question as to what they are ‘doing’.  Summary: push through the intro, there are some helpful bits, but mostly it sets the tone.

Liz Marsh offers a chapter on the Climate Crisis, something I’m particularly interested in, and something that is an issue or area of issues that can be a bridge between the ‘woke’ and the ‘not-woke’. Marsh is surely right to say that Christians must “recognize our care for creation as central to our faith and its expression rather than additional to it” – as has been argued by folk like John Stott for a while, and more recently by Bible scholars like Sandra Richter and others. As I alluded to, “Neither should issues of climate justice be falsely dismissed as the concerns of a ‘woke’ generation“. What is slightly frustrating, then, is the complete lack of engagement with the tradition of the Church here, let alone the recent work of mainstream evangelical leaders like John Stott, or even the Papacy! Summary: a short and under-developed challenge to the church to care for creation. Not sure what’s ‘woke’ about it.

Nosayaba Idehen’s chapter on Racial Inclusion is another ‘issue’ where the label of ‘woke’ doesn’t necessarily stick. Idehen, writing as a black Christian woman, rightly notes that she can’t speak for all – but her personal testimony is moving, and she offers some practical steps for churches and Christians to move towards racial inclusion. What’s interesting is that a significant number of the named examples – Ben Lindsay, Owen Hylton and Kate Coleman – are from an explicitly evangelical stable, which slightly jars with some of the anti-evangelical sentiments in other chapters. Summary: a moving personal testimony with some helpful practical suggestions. Again, not sure what’s ‘woke’ about it, even by the standards/definition of the book.

Josh Mock’s chapter, ‘Queer, Christian and Tired: Why I’m No Longer Talking to Cishet Christians about Sexuality’ frustrated me from the title – clearly ripping off Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book title about race [it’s notable, and pretty much the opposite of just, that Mock doesn’t acknowledge this – the only references to Eddo-Lodge’s book are in Idehen’s chapter. This is ironically the opposite of intersectionality, as well as being rude] – and this frustration continued. Objectively, this is a really honest chapter: Mock thinks that queer Christians and theology needs to ‘re-radicalize’, and his thoughts here are indebted to Marcella Althaus-Reid. It’s difficult to engage with someone who has such a radically different view of Christianity – but one thing that demonstrated that it might be a more rhetorical than factual chapter was a basic error regarding the ‘Beautiful Story’ video. One thought that occurred to me was that if you can’t accurately name your oppressors, are you really being oppressed? Another fundamental flaw in this chapter, which popped up elsewhere, is what I could call a ‘hermeneutic of convenience’, particularly around the words of Jesus: alluding to the turning over of tables to justify radical action, but ignoring his teaching about sexual ethics. We can’t just pick and choose texts, I think. Summary: some interesting ideas and genuine honesty, but some basic errors let it down. This isn’t going to convince anyone, but that seems to be the assumption of the chapter’s author.

Molly Boot’s chapter has a really important range of topics (body, purity culture, identity) that intersect with my interests. However, it starts really poorly, by (as one friend put it privately) ‘erasing breastfeeding mothers’: “When we are small, our bodies are watched carefully for signs of growth: how our mouths latch on to our parents’ bodies as they feed us“. My wife and I now have two children, and neither of them came from me or can be naturally nourished by my body. And that is fine and good, and part of the beautiful mystery of marriage and biology. Boot’s chapter de-sexes human bodies and so misses the point. It continues with unjustifiably blurred lines in seeming to conflate eroticism with intimacy, and passion with sexual passion. The particular thought that recurred in my reading is that ‘one individual’s discomfort is not a good ground for theology’. I’d encourage interested readers to check out the work and testimony of Andrew Bunt for an alternate take on some of these issues. Summary: a coherent chapter but arguing from and for something that seems at odds with reality. Boot argues that we should live ‘with’ our bodies, I wonder if we are called to live ‘as’ our bodies.

Kirsty Borthwick’s chapter ‘Comfortable Feminism is not enough’ is a fairly standard and solid experience-based but biblically-aware discussion of feminism. A highlight was seeing significant interaction with the reality of the laity – for the traditions mentioned in this book, this is not always the case. Borthwick’s line “I dream of a church in which all gatekeeping is modelled on Christ for the flourishing of all (because a church which denies gatekeeping at all is danger-ously naive of its power)” is one that I’ve stored away for another day, as it balances dependence on Christ with a healthy appreciation of our fallen world.

Jack Woodruff’s chapter, ‘Trans and Christian?’ is a sobering read. Sobering because we must engage with this subject and the image-bearers therein carefully, and also because it was heartbreaking to see Scripture and language bent to justify one person’s experience. The handling of the Bible was poor, in my view, and the analogy of marshland and dusk as being instructive for talking about sex and gender was strange; particularly given Genesis 2 and humanity’s role in creation. We are not swamp creatures but images of the king. It’s worth stressing, again, that those of us who don’t think transition is wise are not denying the humanity of image of God in trans* people – we are rather wondering aloud if any one person has a full understanding of all things. The notion of a true self is complex – Graham Tomlin’s recent book is helpful in unpacking that. Summary: a heartbreaking chapter, though I do hope and pray that people will not be forced by it to choose between ‘being trans*’ and ‘being Christian’. Reality, as ever, is richer and more complex.

Chrissie Thwaites’ chapter ‘Waking Up to Ableism in Christian Communities’ brings the book back to an ‘issue’ which isn’t simply ‘woke’. Thwaites writes “What makes disability an issue of justice? Legal protection for the rights of disabled people has not yet translated into equal- ity in practice.” She goes on to unpack this, in a way which I could see as being of utility to church leaders and those wondering about what to do and where to seek to help. This was arguably the least contentious chapter, not least as it was laser-focused, and probably the most theologically robust, in my view. Summary: Ableism is real, and the Church should reflect on that, and act in the light of that reflection.

Anna Twomlow’s chapter ‘Food Poverty’ is another frustrating one. This is an issue that could be a bridging one, but the way that the chapter ‘works’ means it burns bridges rather than builds them. Twomlow alludes to ‘some conservative theology’, but doesn’t dignify it with engagement or even basic referencing – this is not the only place in the book where there is a bogeyman rather than something engaged with. This methodological weakness is compounded by theological weakness, possibly in Christology (p. 105) but also quite clearly in this frankly baffling statement: “Our God is just. But this doesn’t mean that God is a judge“. See, as just a brief list of example, 1 Samuel 2:10 Isaiah 33:22, Psalm 75:7 and 96:13, John 5:22 and Romans 2:1 6 as texts which at least imply if not directly state the exact opposite. Summary: this chapter shows the need, but then proceeds to distract from the issue. A missed opportunity.

Annika Matthew’s chapter on mental health is one of the calmer, more measured chapters. As a long term ‘wrestler-with-my-thoughts’, I was glad to see it in the book. I was also encouraged by a positive Christian Union story – in healthy contrast to the image painted in some other chapters. This is a worthy chapter, but I’d encourage readers to check out Sharon Hasting’s Wrestling With My Thoughts for a fuller and robust Christian engagement with Mental Health, or if you are a Christian leader, then Mark Meynell’s When Darkness Seems my Closest Friend is well worth a read.

Shermara J. J. Fletcher’s chapter on homelessness is one of the most challenging pieces of writing I’ve read this year. I often think that as well as a ‘top books of the year’, I should write a ‘top chapters’ – this would be a strong contender. Fletcher offers a genuinely fascinating chapter, rooted in meaningful theological reflection and practical experience, that opens a door for something that I think a vast majority of Christians simply haven’t thought through. For example: “The Church should practise Christian diakonia, which is a deeper type of koinonia that describes a community that ‘works for the welfare of all its members as well as helping to build the reign of God throughout the entire world’. This implies that homeless and hungry people should be wholly inside the structures of established churches.” Summary: this is a strong chapter on an issue and question that needs to be engaged with.

Sophie Mitchell’s chapter on interfaith engagement is another interesting one, which overall I might describe as ‘workmanlike and calm’. It reminds me of a friend and former housemate at university – very involved in the CU, whose initial evangelistic attempts with Islamic students didn’t go according to plan. And so he became their friend, played football with them, and went to their events and gatherings. What slightly jarred with Mitchell’s chapter, for me, was the lack of evangelistic language. She redefines interfaith engagement as a form of social action – including the interesting notion that “since no one is expected to change their views, there should be no fear of syncretism, the merging of different religious or spiritual traditions“. I’ll freely admit that this is not a specialist subject for me, but Mitchell’s chapter is one I’ll probably revisit when reading and thinking about other religions. Summary: an imaginative and thoughtful chapter, which even for those of us who might disagree, makes a careful and coherent case.

Annie Sharples’ chapter ‘Our Call to Real Peace’ closes out the book. In some ways this chapter is indicative of some of the major flaws of the worse chapters of Young, Woke and Christian – an uncritical quotation of the Dalai Llama cements the impression of a certain form of materialistic individualism being a driving philosophy in these pages. In my working review notes (When reading a book I plan to review, or quote from in another piece of writing, I make fairly extensive notes) I wrote ‘nice but mostly platitudinous’ – one example would be the unsubstantiated claim that “much of reconciliation is about being alongside others”, which is scattered amongst a range of bible verses and snippets from recent history, without an overarching narrative. There are brief glimpses of the chapter it could have been, but overall I was left wanting more integration – this was nearly a stirring call to peacemaking, but for me it kept missing the mark.

As well as the chapters there are a couple of poems (not really my thing or area of interest), a Prologue by Anthony Reddie (I’m not sure we read the same book), and the usual list of contributors (I was slightly surprised to see a couple of contributors are ‘Tearfund Young Theologians’, though I’m not sure what that means). Young, Woke and Christian is a book that overall frustrated me, and like the less-good edited collections that give edited collections a bad name, it’s a mix of helpful and unhelpful chapters. Unfortunately I can’t recommend this book at all – the helpful chapters (Marsh, Idehen, Thwaites and Fletcher) are outnumbered by the ones that really didn’t do anything new, helpful, true or beautiful in my view.

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