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on 24 August 2012
Fond childhood memories of Blue Peter's proverbial "Here's one I made earlier" bid any would-be reader of this brave new volume to have go, or another go, at theological reflection. The authors' intention to give an interwoven set of fully worked examples, and their joint conviction that the messiness of life ought naturally to dispel our dreams of perfectly crystallised theology is heartening because of its sheer honesty. The well known `pastoral cycle' is simply introduced and courageously adapted in a real-time project amongst Christians from every walk of life. The lessons learnt, both the solidarities to be celebrated and the tensions to held, are helpfully laid out. John Reader's introduction of `blurred encounters' contributes a great deal to the appeal of the book, as does Chris Rowland's chapter on engaging with biblical themes; there is enough of each of these contributions to keep both evangelicals and liberals on board. Perhaps the most challenging lessons, which need to learnt over and over again, through practice, by Christians of every persuasion are those in the area of hermeneutics or interpretation; on this point the authors offer both simplicity and profundity with economy, and enough leads to keep the determined reflector well fed for a long time.

When the pastoral cycle turns from `thick' contextual description to input from the Christian `tradition' surely other sources as well as the bible should be welcomed: the lives of the Saints, patristic texts, and event modern systematic theology. This book would have been even richer had it offered an accessible `starter for ten' on other texts. And was the expert contribution from the Oxford Professor actually the source of a self-fulfilling prophecy? If would-be theological reflectors find themselves lacking in their knowledge of how best to engage the riches of the Christian tradition without recourse to a clericalised phase in the pastoral cycle, then perhaps more accessible methods `from below', such a John Vincent's urban reading of St. Mark might be helpful. Meanwhile clerics who preach faithfully from the lectionary (or otherwise) are implicitly challenged to focus their expertise on opening up overarching biblical themes, such as Rowland introduces, alongside more obvious hermeneutic methods, in such a way that enables the laity to claim the riches of the tradition for the enrichment, integrity and faithfulness of their own blurred encounters.
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on 1 November 2012
I was grateful for the opportunity to participate (as scribe for one of the small groups) in the event which provides the practical evidence for this book. I am delighted to have been sent a copy of the book and to submit the review which follows.
The authors courageously gathered a group of professional people who are also people of faith and invited them to explore the unfamiliar, dangerous, liminal space they enter when faith and love lead them out of the 'safe' professional area into the 'blurred encounters' of risky human contact. It 'can be diorientating and may even feel disempowering,' they say. Real issues were thrown up and the authors are willing to struggle with these, allowing the actual experience of the participants to come directly onto the page and become the source material for reflection.
They frame the key question thus: 'how can we negotiate being in unfamiliar or liminal spaces such that the experience is not ultimately one of powerlessness and meaninglessness but one that becomes a creative place that may yield new insight and may be transformative in practice?' They go on to suggest that in such a blurred encounter are found the dichotomies of control v. risk, individual v. community, and structure v. freedom. Facing such choices may lead practitioners to take 'calculated risks and transgress boundaries to fasciliate healing' which may be impossible if they stay within the risk-averse professional boundary. Through carefully laid out case studies, the authors explore this.
I found the section on the use of the Bible particularly interesting. This is bold and important, for it faces head-on the participants' experience that they find it difficult to use the Bible as a resource to enable their theological reflection on what they are faced with; so they don't use it. The authors attempt to find a way of rehabilitiating the Bible for use by people of faith facing blurred encounters. They long for biblical themes to be used to throw light upon and be used as a touchstone in a world where they acknowledge the Bible no longer has authority, often even for people of faith. They spell out key biblical themes, which would be of value to the participants: hope to be found in the counter-cultural priorities of the kingdom of God; bringing the marginalised to the centre; unmasking the powerful forces in the world. I beleive that if the Church taught these themes and applied them in its own life and in its interaction with the world, those facing blurred encounters in their professional life would have a model which they could then apply when facing hard choices and decisions. Perhaps the next project for these authors could be a work-book to help people such as those who participated in this event to engage in the biblical part of the Pastoral Cycle in a way that could prove meaningful and relevant for them.
Chris Rowland, in his comment in chapter five, makes the key point that the important thing is that 'the words of the Bible [can] become less an authoritative guide to life than a gateway to communion with the Divine Word through the Spirit, and that communion enables new types of understanding which are socially and contextually meaningful.' When we cease to use the Bible as a source for rules of 21st century conduct and instead seek to hear the people of the Bible speaking and engage in dialogue with them, it becomes more possible to uncover the truth they discovered and lived by and apply it to our lives in the complex society of today.
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