Thursday, August 04, 2005


One of my favourite books is undoubtedly David E. Jenkins' The Contradiction of Christianity, originally published by SCM Press in 1976, and re-issued twice since then. Jenkins, a creatively traditional theologian who gained a high degree of largely undeserved notority during his years as Bishop of Durham, when press ignorance and his own predeliction for colourful overstatement got him accused of all manner of heresy, wrote the book as a 'social' counterpoint to The Glory of Man - one of the most compelling, personalist statements of the dynamics of early Christology you are likely to come across.

In Contradiction, David Jenkins honestly explores the clash between the credibility of what Christianity claims to stand for and the often depressing behaviour of Christian individuals and Christian institutions. At the same time he specifically asks how belief in a universal Gospel is to be worked out from within a 'tribal' (white, Western, bourgeois) Christianity which almost - but not quite - suffocates it.

His answer is the trinitarian and incarnational paradox of the God who 'stands out' by 'standing in' through and as Jesus, and in the suasions of the Spirit. It is this unexpected 'transcendence-in-the-midst' that captures the essence of the Gospel's understanding of God and the world, as distinct from the over-easy resolution of contradiction in, say, Marxian dialectic, or its abandonment in disbelief. A truly compelling account.

I was reminded of this book by a rather different (but not wholly disconnected) 'Christian paradox' noted by ecologist and author Bill McKibben in the US Harpers magazine, of all places, recently. McKibben writes:

Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that 'God helps those who help themselves.' That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor.

This is clearly one dimension of the 'suffocation' Jenkins warned us about. Thanks for the tip-off from the indispensible SojoMail.

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