Last semester, I taught Introduction to Theology at my seminary with a soon-to-be ordained Episcopalian (the American 'flavour' for Anglican), and we used as the final book for the semester Rowan Williams' text 'Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel'. This relatively short text proved to be one of the more popular choices we've selected in the several years of teaching together. In its latest version, this book has a forward by Paul Minear, who writes of the difficulty about addressing a topic like the resurrection. Minear warns that 'resurrection language' can end up being meaningless, circular, self-reflective and idolatrous. Williams, at least in Minear's estimation, avoids these pitfalls.
Much of the language of Jewish and Christian scripture is metaphor, some of it explicitly so (parables, for instance), but other parts not so easily discerned (is the Genesis creation account metaphor or to be taken literally). Williams takes the resurrection as the ultimate metaphor that has the power to make things real. This reality is not just something that happened once upon a time, in a land far far away, but something that is real for us today, something present in our own lives and spiritual beings.
There are aspects Williams does not specifically address. This is not a Jesus Seminar text, in search of the 'real' Jesus -- it is not looking for a newspaper-ish reporting of events during a particular week in early first century surrounding the execution of religious subversive. Williams is not creating a new exegesis, scientific or otherwise. However, Williams does not discount modern scholarship, and is willing to engage both the substance and methods of scholarship as it relates to his main thesis.
Williams is a careful scholar, but this is not the extent of his writing, and this particular text, while decidedly theological, involves much more personal reflection and contemplation than research and exposition. Williams borrows a term from Karl Barth -- irregular dogmatics -- to describe some of his methodology. This is a style that comes closer to preaching than to lecturing; it is way of theologising that is closer to mystical experience than to rational construction. However, it is not to be seen as a way of leaving aside the need for a careful and responsible approach to the subject.
Williams uses modern situations and issues such as racism, sexism, war and violence to demonstrate the need for resurrection presence in our lives. He also draws the examples directly back to the biblical texts and witnesses, to highlight the enduring qualities of such stories. Drawing on literary references such as the Brothers Karamazov and Iris Murdoch, historical events such as the Holocaust, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and thinkers from all spectrums of theological thought, Williams traces out the importance of resurrection in modern times through the impact it had on ancient communities such as Jerusalem and Galilee. Recalling the theme of forgiveness and penitence, particularly in the experience of Paul, a former persecutor of the Church, he reflects of the importance of forgiveness and penitence today. Williams believes that all Christians are called to help their brothers and sisters to hope, to creativity, and find the most fulfilling way penitence can create resurrection in their own lives.
Williams opens up the church as an institution and a community of individuals to criticism and fallibility, something incredibly important in the face of continuing oppressive potential hierarchical institutions like the church possess. Just how this plays out in his personal actions as the new Archbishop of Canterbury and symbolic head of the Anglican communion, it will be interesting to watch. The inclusion of marginal characters in the gospel -- Williams points out that the first to experience the realisation of the resurrection were women, not part of the apostolic band, not generally respected as powerful or valid witnesses in society -- bodes well for his own ministry in the church, and he calls upon the rest of us to do the same.
There is also a great respect for silence in Williams' writing. He write about the lack of detail given about the actual resurrection event, even in elaborate gospels such as Matthew. Resurrection is in many ways indescribable, and early gospel witnesses were confronted with an ultimate event that defied ultimate expression in many ways, and in so doing became the ultimate metaphor.
Despite being a relatively short book (about 120 pages of text), this is not a quick read. It is the kind of book that begs for careful pondering, drawing the reader back to pages and sections over and over again for deeper thoughts and insights. Just as the resurrection is central to the Christian story, and has been recast and recalled countless times in 2000 years of history, so too will this book provide fresh approaches and insights to a familiar, yet strangely different, story.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the Christian story, particularly Christians, but also others who want to better understand how one of the key leaders of Christianity today thinks about the relationship of Christianity to the rest of society and the rest of the world.