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Imagining Mission with John V. Taylor

Book Review: Imagining Mission with John V. Taylor

Steve Taylor —

Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross. London: SCM, 2020. xiv +160pp. ISBN: 978-0-334-05950 $41.79

Imagining Mission is the work of New Zealander and former Laidlaw lecturer Dr Cathy Ross. Now serving as Head of Pioneer Mission Leadership Training for the Church Missionary Society (UK), Dr Cathy Ross skilfully combines with the Director of Education at Church Missionary Society, Jonny Baker. Together, they return to archives, in particular the writings of John V Taylor, an English Christian leader (1914-2001). Ordained by the Church of England as a priest in 1938, Taylor spent nine years serving as a missionary in theological education. He later became General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, then Bishop of Winchester. Taylor wrote eleven books, the most notable being The Go-Between God (SCM, 1972) and The Christlike God (SCM, 1992). Both remain in print, with SCM releasing a new edition of The Go-Between God in 2021.

However, Imagining Mission is not a systematic summary of Taylor’s ideas or probing of his theology. A systematic treatise would be straightforward, seeking to clarify Taylor’s understandings of God in mission. Instead, Baker and Ross probe Taylor’s less systematic, yet equally missiological, writings. As General Secretary of CMS for eleven years, Taylor travelled the globe. Committed to engaging popular culture, his diaries describe watching current Pakistani films and visiting trendy cafes in Japan. Committed to communicating mission, his newsletters apply the best of his thinking to the rapid changes society was undergoing through the tumult of the 1960s. It is Taylor’s diaries and newsletters that become the focus of Imagining Mission.

The technical term is “grey literature,” a phrase used to describe materials from organisations where publishing books is not their primary activity (Schöpfel and Farace, 2010. “Grey Literature.” Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences. Bates, M.J. and M.N. Maack (eds.); (3rd ed.). CRC Press, 2029–2039). “Grey literature” commonly includes reports, working papers, government documents, white papers and evaluations. While the academy and theological college can privilege books, the grey literature produced by organisations equally articulates theology, or in the case of Taylor, missiology. Hence Imagining Mission is divided into sections on the church, mission and society. The titles are a delightfully playful nod to John V Taylor’s role as General Secretary of Church Mission Society. Equally, they organise the theological work evident in the “grey literature” that is Taylor’s diaries and newsletters.

Archives, including diaries and newsletters, can often be seen as dusty and old-fashioned. In the skilled hands of Baker and Ross, these archives are mined to generate missiological wisdom. Key phrases coined by Taylor become chapter headings and grist for theological wrestling. “An Adventure of the Imagination” is applied to mission, while “Enough is Enough” to the environmental challenges of climate change. “Jesus the great disturber” is considered in relation to interfaith dialogue, and Taylors’ greeting in the name of “Christ the innovator” is applied to theological education.

The way we used to do things can become a conserving force, with the good old days deployed to promote nostalgia. In the hands of Baker and Ross, the past is utilised to encourage greater risks and bigger dreams. Their work leaves them open to the accusation that they have cherry-picked certain phrases. It also leaves them using Taylor’s gendered language. For example, mission is “seeing what God is doing in a situation and trying to do it with him.” It could so easily have become “joining in with what God is doing” or “seeing what God is doing in a situation and doing it with God.”

Despite these shortcomings, this book is a delight, as two creative contemporary missiologists engage with another equally creative missiologist. The book is practical, with chapters end with hands-on exercises. For example, “Wander your neighbourhood … notice the signs and symbols … Choose one … Is there a Gospel story?” Or “Taylor says that metaphor is all we have to help us express our understanding of God … write a parable of the kingdom that begins “The kingdom of God is like …” These practical exercises ground Taylor’s missiology in contemporary practice.

Given the commitment of Baker and Ross to the imagination in mission, what is intriguing is the release, alongside Imagining Mission, of “JVT quotes.” The JVT quotes are a visual mission resource, consisting of thirty printed cards, each 6 cm by 9 cm. On one side are the words “JVT quotes”, white letters on a black background. On the other side is a quote taken from John V. Taylor, positioned creatively in relation to a photograph taken by Jonny Baker. The thirty cards are attractively presented in a folded cardboard box and distributed through Out of the Box Cards (www.outofthebox.cards). These cards offer an accessible and imaginative missiology, provoking curiosity and showcasing Taylor’s skill with a well-turned phrase.

Inviting people to think visually opens up different ways of thinking than requiring people to work with words. Pictures make mission accessible to those without formal theological training. Given a picture is worth a thousand words, rich conversations are possible.

At a personal level, I used “JVT quotes” during Lent. Each day, in the spirit of Taylor’s “Adventure of the Imagination,” I would invite the Spirit’s leading and randomly choose a card. This became a focus for prayer as I worked with the image and the Taylor quote. Phrases like “look to the fringes,” “dangerous openness,” and “the magnetism of Jesus Christ” opened up for me new imaginative spaces. At an organisational level, the “JVT quotes” could be used to invite creative conversations about mission at a leadership retreat. Hence Imagining Mission is worth reading and “JVT quotes” worth contemplating. Both succeed in presenting afresh the insights of a fine mission mind.

Steve Taylor is a public scholar working from Ōtepoti (Dunedin) for AngelWings Ltd in research consultancy, writing, teaching and speaking.