Book Review: Practicing Faith: Theology and Social Vocation in Conversation
Each word of the reasonably long title is an important key to the contents. Framed as a question it could read “How do we put our faith into practice during conversations?” This readable collection has suggestions to answer the question. The editors, both based at Laidlaw College, have divided the contributions into five parts each with a final response. The writers of these responses have also contributed chapters of their own. Of the fifteen contributors more than half are based in New Zealand, four in Australia with one each from Canada and the United States. In his Foreword, Marty Folsom, himself a therapist as well as an author and an academic, describes the book as “a gathering around a campfire” (p. xiv). Prepare to be warmed up!
Part One, headed Wellbeing, has three chapters, starting with one adapted by Anne-Marie Ellithorpe from part of her doctoral dissertation. Her topic is “Friendship, social vocations and communities of practice”. The title of Chapter Two caught my attention. Ryan Lang’s commentary on singing in Scripture is interesting and original, his many sources clearly annotated for those who would like to dig deeper. Woven into his account are references to his own interest in slavery. Being born in Pakistan, where his parents were relief workers, and having worked internationally himself in countries not named here, in anti-slavery projects, makes him well qualified to speak of the place of music in lifting the spirits. Lex McMillan, in his chapter on “Found by love” has some interesting comparisons, such as the one likening a person’s loss of connections with others to the effect of osteoporosis on the bones.
Part Two, Formation, has two chapters plus the Response. Neil Pembroke from the University of Queensland and Lisa Spriggens from Laidlaw College address counsellors in their chapters. Pembroke reflects on five qualities which he believes “span the domains of spiritual character, moral character, and positive psychology” (63). These are vulnerability, compassion, availability, integrity, and wholeness. Anyone wanting to read more could turn to his earlier book (2007) where he wrote about spiritual formation for a wider readership. Spriggens’ essay draws on her own “journey of integration” (78) of theology and counselling.
The title of Part Three is Hospitality. We learn from Theresa Lau two terms that most of us may never have heard of. “Foodology” is about the deeper philosophical meaning of anything to do with edibles and “tableism” refers to “the attitudes and style of eating a meal”. The book of Luke is the basis of her ideas. Then in Chapter Seven it’s the turn of the book of Mark. Here Jonathan Rivett Robinson from Dunedin leads us through the importance of hospitality. His many sources include some beyond the field of theology, such as the work of Derrida, the French Algerian philosopher. In his final reflection on these chapters, Art Wouters of Melbourne reminds readers who are also counsellors that they “are invited to notice and participate in what God is already doing in [their clients’] lives” (139).
Wouters also contributes the opening chapter in Part Four, Therapy, which is a case study of counselling support in the Solomon Islands. Although some readers may associate that place with battles in World War Two, the more recent conflicts between 1999 and 2003 are the cause of current concerns. Wouters speaks from his experience of visiting Honiara in 2015 to speak with Christians there. As with many of the other contributions to this book, it is the writer’s own experience that brings the topic alive. Chapter 9, by Sarah Penwarden, is the one to turn to if your counselling includes responding to grief. After reviewing some of the patterns of grief which readers will already be familiar with, such as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages, Penwarden highlights the problems that exist with these patterns and reports ways in which she has responded to client’s grief. It occurred to me that the two poems quoted here could well be useful with people other than the two widows whose experiences prompted the poems.
As this review has aimed to show, words used by the four people quoted at the start of the book are well chosen and to the point. The book is described by reviewers on its opening page as “not daunting”, “most helpful”, “impressive” and “beautifully written” (1). Who might the book’s readers be? A friend who has taught social work in more than one country admired its content for its sense of understanding the need to address local knowledge. Of course the majority of readers will be those whose lives bring together therapy and theology, but for other Christians too there are messages to be learned. We never know when people with emotional needs will cross our paths through friendships, professional contacts or church groups.
Marilyn Lewis is a retired academic from the University of Auckland where she taught courses in language teaching and learning. Her qualifications include a Diploma in Theological studies from Bryntirion College in Wales and a degree from a French university. She enjoys writing, especially co-writing, articles and books as well as doing book reviews.