Magazine article The Christian Century

The Rebirthing of God: Christianity's Struggle for New Beginnings

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Rebirthing of God: Christianity's Struggle for New Beginnings

Article excerpt

The Rebirthing of God: Christianity's Struggle for New Beginnings By John Philip Newell Skylight Paths, 160 pp., $19.99

Christianity in the West is undergoing a "seismic collapse," author John Philip Newell declares in The Rebirthing of God. Only "a radical reemergence of the Divine" can save it. We must "rebirth God" in the world.

The language is dramatic (and the theology of the image is dubious--more on that in a bit). However, the ways in which Newell suggests that this "rebirthing of soul-force" could happen are hardly sensational. Creation spirituality, social justice, contemplative prayer, interreligious dialogue, and nonviolence are all directions to which many voices have been urging us for decades.

The Rebirthing of God is structured as an imagined pilgrimage walk around the Isle of Iona, where Newell was formerly the warden of the abbey. Each chapter is linked with a particular place on the island's map: the ruins of the 13th-century nunnery, open to the sky, remind us of our connection to the earth, for example; the tenth-century standing stone cross of St. Martin in front of the abbey invites us to remember the primacy of love.

Newell quotes from many wise and venerable sources: Julian of Norwich, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Simone Weil. He relies heavily as well on Gandhi, Carl Jung, the poetry of Mary Oliver, and remembrances of George MacLeod of Iona. And he refers extensively to his own experience and writing; many of the stories and illustrations here will be familiar to readers of his previous work.

Newell's style is rambling, anecdotal, personal--as is fitting, perhaps, for a pilgrimage on a holy island. But an island is isolated. Newell does not seem to have engaged or connected with Christian writers currently at work in this vineyard. N. T. Wright is doing strong, creative biblical exegesis that reframes and makes new the hope that is in us. Sarah Coakley is redigging the fields of systematic theology. And Francis Spufford is reframing Christian apologetics for the rising generation.

What Newell offers in this book is not an original remedy for or even definition of the "collapse" of Christianity. Rather, it is a conventional admonition to strengthen our inner lives by reconnecting with nature, remembering our dreams, and practicing contemplative prayer.

Despite the initial announcement of the imminent demise of Christianity and the urgent need for "the rebirth of the Sacred," the book is oddly passionless and unfocused. Newell doesn't really seem to care much about Christianity. Little in these pages indicates awareness or exploration of current problems facing the church at any level. …

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