Living Belief: Being Christian – Being Human

John Barton. Continium, London. 93 pp, 2005. £6.99. ISBN 082648851X. This review by Hugh Dawes first appeared in the newsletter of the Progressive Christianity Network—Britain.

John Barton might not at first encounter be everyone’s idea of a typical PCN author, whatever precisely that might be. His approach is gentle, irenic and measured, and rather different from the more in your face approach of some which many value, but can seem harsh to others.

Oriel and Lang Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford since 1991, he writes out of a long tradition of liberal Anglican study of scripture. And like others in that school (one thinks of Leslie Houlden, John Drury, and Austin Farrer before them) he has always had a desire to translate scholarship in a practical way to make it not only accessible but also useful for ordinary believers. His Love Unknown, published a good few years ago now, began as a series of Holy Week addresses in the parish where he himself worships and also assists, and is one of the finest reflections on the death of Jesus that I know.

This new book, Living Belief: Being Christian – Being Human, derives from addresses given first to clergy or those preparing to be clergy. But that ought not to be read as suggesting any sort of underwriting of clerical superiority by Barton. First because, as he says, many of its ideas were first tested with congregations with whom he has preached. But also, and more tellingly, because the book is in a sense a warning to clergy and the over-religious more generally of the perils of defining beliefs, and of thinking that if you have done that, all is well. “Strangely enough,” he says in his introduction, “the beliefs to which the creeds bear witness are not always the beliefs by which Christians actually live from day to day…. On the other hand, there are many beliefs that animate the much Christian life but are not found in the creeds at all. For many Christians the heart of their faith is to do with making sense of the world, relating to the Christ known in prayer and action, living constructively with others, fostering certain kinds of attitude and relationship.” These things, for Barton, are what make up ‘Living Belief’.

The book has eight short chapters exploring four areas of this: Suffering with Christ; a divine plan for life; ministering to others; and Joy. The first chapter in each case starts from what has been received from scripture and the Christian tradition, whilst the second is more focussed on working with that and making some sense of it today. Barton is well read, and draws on a rich vein of literary resources, but he also writes movingly and illuminatingly of people he knows. He can be sharp about the harm well-meaning religious people so often cause. Wendy, a hairdresser who suffers from depression, says “that the majority of comments made to her by religious people made the depression rather worse. Some diagnose her problem as a lack of trust in God, and this simply endorses one of the elements in her own distorted thinking and helps her to feel she doesn’t deserve to get better… The idea that she was sharing Christ’s sufferings struck her as pretty incomprehensible, but she could get somewhere with the idea that everyone has a cross to bear, including Jesus, including herself, perhaps even including God, whatever that could possibly mean.”

Barton is suspicious of naïve statements about meaning, and the whole idea of ‘the meaning of life’. He stands with Freud rather than Jung, so beloved by many Christians. “The healthy person, for Freud, is not someone who has pondered the question of meaning and won through to a correct interpretation of the world, but someone who finds such satisfaction and meaningfulness in their daily life that such agonised questions do not arise in their mind in the first place.”

I have found Living Belief pure delight. Its shortness, its simplicity and clarity of style, should not cause us to miss out on the insights there are on just about every page. It is designed to be used as a Lent Book. If there are PCN groups wanting to keep Lent together, this would be the ideal book to use. But don’t underplay it that way! Get it onto the agendas of your Church Councils, elders meetings or whatever, and try and have everyone in your local Christian community reading it and talking about it. That way it will help, I feel sure, to draw out the open believer in many people who might not immediately see themselves in those terms.