Straw for the Bricks: Theological Reflection in Practice by Gary O’Neill (Ed.) and Liz Shercliff
Those familiar with the concept ‘theological reflection’ tend to divide into two camps: for and against. I count myself blessed to be in the ‘for’ camp: it was my privilege to be trained in theological reflection by the editor of this material, to the point where I too consider theological reflection to be habitus (p.177), an integral reflexive element of my daily life. In the ‘against’ camp are those, including many of my fellow colleagues in ministry, whose introduction to theological reflection has been scant, hasty, unduly mechanistic, or, in the UK, overly reliant on the much-cited but limited pastoral cycle model. It was clearly time to hold the topic up to scrutiny, and that is what this work does.
For those who have yet to come to love theological reflection, this book may help. It is primarily an argument for a particular ‘4-source’ model, one which incorporates the use of an image as central to the process. The material offers a rich source of information, ideas and questions for further exploration, particularly for those involved in formally acknowledged Christian ministry and/or the formation of those training for ministry.
It is a book of two halves. Part One is a disarmingly honest, detailed and labyrinthine account of decades of collegial development of the afore-mentioned 4-source model. A large portion of the text is given over to a description of a complex international action research project - a theological reflection into theological reflection! – which successfully tested out the robustness of the model. There are gems of insight to be harvested. A generous reader will find in the format a parallel to well-facilitated theological reflection, and the unconstrained conversation it mirrors: ‘trains of thought and contributions are not always sequential or ordered. Voices can retrace their steps, interrupt one another and even go off at a tangent’ (p.13).
Part Two offers worked examples of ways in which theological reflection can be used to very positive, even transformational effect. The chapters on its application to biblical studies, exegesis, preaching and sermon preparation will be of especial interest to readers of The Preacher. The chapter on poetry offers a helpful reminder that all art forms, and particularly those crafting those slippery things, ‘words’, may serve as deeply rewarding departure points for forays into the appreciation and communication of meaning.
Readers looking for a simple ‘how to’ handbook may be a mite baffled, the material detailing the shape of the model would have benefited from rigorous editing by the publisher. However, the sermon examples included are a gift to be cherished and, for those in the ‘against’ camp, may serve as an encouraging stimulus to give theological reflection in general - and the 4-source model in particular – another chance. And towards the end of the book, the account of the outcomes of theological reflection skilfully practised among lay people as part of parochial ministry lifts the spirits and endorses theological reflection in practice as an indispensable tool for all who genuinely seek to live as children of God in this world.
Review by Dr Anne Davidson Lund, Reader in the Diocese of Chester
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