Thinking about a new method for doing practical theology

by Ben Pugh.

David Tracey, Seward Hiltner, Don Browning and Gordon Lynch, between them, addressed the deficiencies in Paul Tillich’s ‘correlational’ approach to relating theology to culture. They replaced Correlation with ‘Revised Correlation,’ the method that facilitates a two-way, mutually critical conversation between a particular cultural phenomenon and the Christian tradition. The one-way conversation of Tillich in which the culture asks all the questions and theology must give the answers, is here counter-balanced.

However, within Revised Correlation there seems to be a reluctance to pin down what aspects of culture qualify for theological reflection and what aspects of Christian tradition ought to be selected for dialogue. Don Browning unapologetically described Revised Correlation as a dialogue between the ‘Christian classics’ and “‘all other answers” from wherever they come.’[1] There is a problem at both ends of the process: the culture end and the theology end: a lack of criteria by which we are supposed to choose the thing to reflect upon, and a similar carte blanche as to what aspect of Christian tradition is best selected.

What I’m proposing tries to address both ends of the problem by offering clearer selection criteria. I am calling my new approach ‘Correlative Retrieval.’ This approach looks for actual vestiges of the gospel within contemporary Western culture that are selected for retrieval. Genealogical links to the original source for the phenomenon are traced historically as a first step. But, of course, even the original will be found to be flawed or otherwise not straightforwardly translatable back into contemporary culture. So, as a second step, the methods of biblical theology are used to help clarify or even correct the historically Christian thing that was discovered to be the source of the modern vestige. However, even once the biblical renovation work is done, a third step will be needed. Humility requires me to acknowledge the way the modern vestige has kept much better pace with developments than many of its Christian counterparts. So I make full use of these modern adaptations wherever they might be found to chime with the findings of biblical theology. In this way, the two-way mutually critical dialogue between culture and faith still happens, but it happens within clearer methodological parameters.

For example, an early experiment of mine was in the area of addiction recovery programmes. 12-Step recovery programmes are a classic example of a gospel vestige. The de-Christianisation process is not yet complete, so many of the signs of AA’s originally Christian impetus still lie close to the surface. Indeed, they are so obvious that Rick Warren’s team have already gone down the route of simply naming the ‘Higher Power’ and the ‘God of your own understanding’ as ‘Jesus.’ Thus their Celebrate Recovery is a straightforward reclaiming of AA for Jesus. But what I wanted to do was a bit more subtle. Historically, 12-step approaches are traceable to the Oxford Group of the 1930s. This was a Christian discipleship programme aimed at all Christians, founded by Frank Buchman, a Lutheran. The core concept of turning your life over to the care of God, of ‘letting go and letting God,’ was certainly influenced by the Keswick teachers whom he loved but was probably also deeply embedded in the Lutheran tradition from which Buchman originally came. Luther’s theologia crucis centred upon the importance of casting ourselves in faith upon the mercy of God, humbling ourselves profoundly before him, and then receiving the free gift of grace. But perhaps the genealogy does not stop there, since Luther’s main inspiration was Galatians and Romans. Indeed, the best place to go to reflect further on that core concept of, if you like, defeat-overcome-by-surrender, is Romans. There, the world of endlessly repeated defeat at the hands of ‘the flesh’ in chapter 7 gives way to the sunny Spirit-led life of chapter 8, with chapter 6 already having given the key to walking in this newness of life: present yourself to the new master, to God. However, even with the core ideas biblically renewed and clarified, I also needed to acknowledge that newer recovery programmes have kept pace with new developments in addictionology which the founders of AA could not have known about. Indeed, new programmes such as SMART Recovery and Rational Recovery are now beginning to supplement the 12-step approach and are proving effective. So, a new faith-based programme would need to not only biblically renovate 12-step recovery but also incorporate the newer insights that have been gained by secular research wherever this can be found to chime with the biblical insights – and I found some very exciting resonances.

So, with the help of two experienced practitioners in the field, a new faith-based programme was developed. It took the form of a book: Beyond this Darkness,[2] which was published in 2017. Since then, my friends and I have not exactly revolutionised recovery, but hopefully some people have been helped. As I further refine my method I hope it will be useful as a way of connecting gospel and culture in many other ways too.


[1] Don Browning, A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1991), p. 46.

[2] Ben Pugh, Jason Glover and Daniel Thompson, Beyond this Darkness: A Faith-Based Pathway to Recovery from Addictive Behaviors (Eugene: Resource, 2017).

It seems that marriage and relationships have always been complicated.

by Sheryl Anderson.

In May this year, as part of my sabbatical I travelled to Savannah in Georgia, USA. I wanted to find out what happened to John Wesley when he was there 284 years ago, and especially the curious matter of his relationship with Sophia Hopkey. What follows is a little of what I discovered.

On 14th October 1735, John Wesley sailed for Savannah in the Province of Georgia in the American colonies. He went, with his brother Charles, at the request of James Oglethorpe, who had founded the colony in 1733. Oglethorpe wanted Wesley to be the minister of the newly formed Savannah parish.

The sea voyage took four months. Among his fellow passengers was one Sophia Hopkey, whose mother employed John to teach her daughter French. A friendship arose between the couple and, after arriving in Savannah, their affection for one another grew. It appears that Sophia believed Wesley’s intentions were honourable and would lead marriage.

The brothers reached Savannah on February 8th 1736. Charles was appointed ‘Secretary for Indian Affairs’ and his duties included being chaplain at Fort Frederica, which was a small settlement full of gossips and people contending for position and power. Charles became caught up in various quarrels and disputes and lost the trust of Oglethorpe. After less than four months in the colony, Charles sent his resignation to Oglethorpe stating that his duties conflicted with his clerical functions. Oglethorpe persuaded him to stay a little longer, but in July 1736, Charles was sent to England to deliver dispatches to the Trustees of the Colony, and never returned.

Meanwhile, John and Sophia’s relationship continued, although Wesley was ambivalent about matrimony and, in the absence of Charles, sought guidance from a trusted friend, Bishop Spangenberg of the Moravians. Spangenberg counselled him that female admirers should be avoided, as they would interfere with his calling. Wesley took this advice and, without any explanation to Sophia, stopped seeing her.

The local Chief Magistrate for Savannah was Thomas Causton. He was smart, had a little education, and a keen eye for business. As he prospered in his position, he gained political power and threatened Oglethorpe’s authority as governor. The Moravians, who had befriended Wesley on the voyage from England, provided work in Savannah in exchange for their supplies. As chief magistrate, Causton oversaw these arrangements, but applied the credit of the Moravian’s work to his plantation and did not credit their account with the Trustees. Wesley discovered Causton’s dishonesty and reported it. He was subsequently removed from office. Causton was Sophia’s uncle.

In March,1737, Sophia Hopkey, tired of waiting for John, married William Williamson, a clerk in her uncle’s store. Williamson subsequently forbade his wife to have anything to do with Mr Wesley, including attending church. When she did eventually return Wesley refused to give her holy communion. The following day, a warrant was issued against Wesley by Williamson alleging that he had defamed Sophia by refusing to administer her the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in a public congregation, without due cause.

According to the “Court of Savannah, Grand Jury Record”, on August 22, 1737, a Grand Jury was called in the Court of Savannah by Thomas Causton, Recorder and Magistrate, to investigate charges against John Wesley. The allegations intended to show that Wesley “deviated from the principles and regulations of the Established Church.” They included such charges as: changing the liturgy; altering passages of the psalms; introducing hymns “not inspected or authorized;” baptizing infants by total immersion, denying communion, confessions, and other sacraments to those “who will not conform to a grievous set of penances, confessions, [and] mortifications;” administering the sacraments to “boys ignorant and unqualified;” “venting sundry uncharitable expressions of all who differ from him;” “teaching wives and servants that they ought absolutely to follow the course of mortifications, fastings, and diets; […] searching into and meddling with the affairs of private families.” Wesley asserted that these were ecclesial matters and outside the jurisdiction of the secular court. The outcome was recorded as a mis-trial.

Nevertheless, Wesley’s reputation was ruined and he could no longer exercise ministry in the colony. On December 22, 1737, he escaped in secret and fled back to England. Wesley was 34 years old and this was his first experience as a parish priest. He lasted less than two years. The good news is that Wesley did get better at it. Although his relationships with women were always complicated, he did learn from the experience and became significantly less highhanded, interfering and judgemental in his dealings with others.

In the preface to the report ‘God in Love Unites Us’ we read the words, ‘Relationships, sex and marriage are important issues for everyone. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. As part of its calling and mission the Methodist Church must engage with the reality of how people are living today.’ If we are to benefit from the experience of Mr Wesley, we too must learn to do this with humility, sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

The Bible is a Library

by Clive Marsh.

Over the next 9 months or so there are to be lots of conversations happening within the Methodist Church in Great Britain about marriage and relationships. Spurred on (required!) by the decisions of the 2019 Methodist Conference, local churches and groups of churches are to talk together about the recommendations that the Conference made.

In the middle of all this, the place of the Bible in Christian reflection will keep cropping up as an issue. Positions taken up about issues of human relationships and sexuality obviously have to relate to the Bible in some way. For some Christians it is clear: the Bible condemns all forms of homosexuality (and so we should too). The voice of God is heard plainly in Genesis 1-2 and the model of human partnership is a marriage between one man and one woman. For others it is equally clear: the Bible is of its time, and some of its views are a bit opaque anyway. Better to acknowledge the fact that the Bible is essentially a record of the dealings of a God of love with humanity and work out from there. Things change. Get over it.

British Methodism is not alone is wrestling with ‘use of the Bible’ issues. But its own recent history has found it recognising that there are seven ways in which the Bible’s authority can be understood. The 1998 Conference report A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path presents these, acknowledging that they ‘are not precise definitions’ and ‘are intended to illustrate briefly the range of views which are held, and the reasons for holding them’ (7.9).[1] The report also recognises that ‘most, if not all, of these positions are compatible with’ the Deed of Union’s ambiguous statement about the Holy Scriptures (7.10). There are also those who would disagree that the Deed of Union’s statement was ambiguous, and therefore with the Faith and Order Committee’s report, as received/adopted by the Conference!

The Bible is a very rich book. More accurately, it is, of course, a rich collection of books. The Bible is a library and we forget this at our peril. There may have been sifting and sorting (weeding out texts which didn’t make it into the canon) but there wasn’t a single, structured process by which this happened. Despite this, and despite the emerging authority of smaller collections within the collection at different stages in history, and in relation to two related, but distinct, religions (Torah and Prophets relating to Judaism, Torah, Prophets, Gospels, Letters, relating to Christianity) the Bible is a very diverse collection indeed. Different genres of writing, different levels of authorial authority, different historical settings, different scales of historical reliability all come into play as we wrestle with the texts before us. Women are under-represented, political biases abound, cultures clash. It is representative of life – warts and all – even as it has become a decisive text (in its Two Testament form) for the Christian Church. But it is a library, and so we should not expect it to be able to deliver the single knock-down rules, regulations or opinions that we might sometimes wish for. Better, then, not to hope for such knock-down verdicts and to carry on wrestling responsibly, as a community, with this motley collection of texts.

For some readers this verdict will amount to the usual liberal ‘cave-in’ to worldly ways of reading. Biblical authority has been given up. God’s Word has been reduced to human words. Such a view is one, though, that I simply don’t accept, both on experiential and intellectual grounds. Experientially I want to vouch for the personal discovery of just how exciting and enriching the Bible becomes when read analytically and critically (more so, in fact, than when it is read uniformly and all too narrowly as containing words which are all seen as equally ‘God’s words’). To read the Bible ‘critically’ doesn’t mean being straightforwardly critical of any of its contents. Nor does it mean idolizing the powers of human reason. It means acknowledging what can be done with the God-given gift of reason. Intellectually, recognising the need to sift and analyse what the Bible contains, so that it be read better, here, now, in multiple contexts, by Christian communities in different public locations, addressing many and diverse ethical and political issues, is a matter of simple honesty. We are more likely to be taken seriously as a church in wider society if we accept what the Bible actually contains, how it has been used and misused, and which bits of it really are better than others (and why). Churches have always worked, in practice, with ‘canons within the canon’ (chunks which are seen as more significant than others). Let’s not pretend otherwise. The practice continues, and will continue. It’s why different denominations need each other. It’s why Christian readers need Jewish (and even atheist) readers, so that we are challenged in our thinking.

So let’s hear it for the Bible: as a divine, authoritative, rich, compelling, influential, and still hugely important collection of texts. And let’s read it critically, creatively, constructively and with rigour and wisdom together. It really will enhance all our faiths, whatever detractors may say.



[PS. sorry for late post everyone – an am/pm mix up occurred! George]

[1] A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path: The Nature of Authority and the Place of the Bible in the Methodist Church (Methodist Publishing House 1998); accessible at:

Harvest Hands

by Elaine Lindridge.

When he (Jesus) looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd. “What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples. “How few workers!   On your knees and pray for harvest hands!
Matthew 9:36-38

I wonder when you read this passage what kind of harvest scene comes to mind? Perhaps you see rolling, yellow fields with full crops ready to be gathered in by the farmer.  In my mind’s eye I don’t see that calming, picture postcard scene –I see people. Lots and lots of people. Crowds like one might expect to see in the city centre High Street on the Saturday before Christmas. Fields of people, people who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

In this passage recorded in Matthew we read that when Jesus saw the crowds he was heartbroken, or as most translations put it, he had compassion on them. These people are important to Jesus and his love for them is evident in his reaction.

We know that the decline in membership, attendance and new disciples that we see – for most of us, it’s all we’ve ever known. Therefore it can be tempting to pray for a harvest of new people. But note the specific call from Jesus to pray not for the harvest, the harvest is already there, but to pray for harvest hands, to pray for missionaries.

When I visit churches and circuits, so many times I see that the problems they have are not so much about a lack of money, or the rule book (CPD), or opportunities or good ideas.  Rather, it’s about people, namely not having enough people to be involved in the mission activities – the labourers are few. (Note I’m not talking about having people just to fill the many vacant jobs ‘needed’ in each local church).

So, I find myself asking, am I, are we, praying for more harvest hands, for more missionaries?

Throughout my District (Newcastle upon Tyne) I’ve been making a plea that we join in prayer for more harvest hands and at 10am on Mondays many of us pause to pray this prayer;

Lord of the Harvest, we pray for more Harvest Hands.
We come to you knowing that the Harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.
We pray for willing Harvest Hands to join in your work in our communities so that all may come to know they are loved and cherished.
As we commit ourselves to pray, renew our hope and restore our passion so that we might welcome your guidance and influence.
May your kingdom come and your will be done. Amen.

Percentage wise, there are less and less people in Britain today involved in church or professing Jesus as Lord. We can see that as a huge problem, or we can see it as a wonderful opportunity. The mission/harvest field is literally on our doorstep, in our supermarkets, in the gym, the pub and the coffee shop. It’s at the bus stop and at the sport event. The mission field even walks through the doors of our church buildings and pays us to book our hall. We are not overwhelmed with problems but with opportunities.

When we pray for the Lord of the Harvest to send missionaries, more Harvest Hands, we ought to consider listening very carefully. It may well be that God is calling us to respond, maybe we are to be part of the answer to our own prayers.

If you want to connect with this more ‘like’ the Harvest Hands Facebook page via this link.

The Story and the Road

by Jonathan Pye.

Amongst this year’s holiday reading for me was the novel, The Beekeeper or Aleppo by Christy Lefteri[1]. In the book (and don’t worry, there won’t be any ‘spoilers’ if you’ve not read it yet…), we share the journey of Nuri, a beekeeper, and his wife, Afra, as they flee the war-torn ruins of their life in the Syrian city of Aleppo, to an uncertain future in Britain. It is a story that resonates with the reality of pain and loss, as well as the hope, that is experienced by so many. As we travel with Nuri and Afra, and share in their story, in all its tenderness and horror, the less they remain anonymous ‘refugees’ and the more we come to see them as people, individuals, each with their own story to tell. We are invited into their story as we travel with them on the perilous journey, by land and sea, from a ruined home and shattered past to an unknown and as yet uncertain future in a foreign country. It is a book that deals with two themes – of journeys and of stories, and about the way in which they intersect. The more we travel with people, the more we get to know them. As conversations unfold, and relationships are built, preconceptions are dispelled, labels are confounded and we begin to see people as they are, to see them as individuals to be known and loved.

One of the chapters in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World is titled, ‘The Practice of Walking on the Earth’[2]. This chapter is all about ‘intentional’ walking – walking that focuses on the journey and not simply on the destination. One of the dangers of the busy-ness of ministry is that our eyes can all too easily become focussed on destinations, on the next thing in an over full diary, the next meeting, the next place we need to be, and so we fail to recognise the importance and the insights of the journey itself and the encounters, with self or others, which it brings.

There is a phrase attributed to St. Augustine – solvitur ambulando (‘it is solved by walking…’). It is a curious phrase that refers to the way in which some things are only truly worked out when you apply them practically. Augustine got the phrase from the philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope (or Diogenes the Cynic, as he is sometimes called) who was said to have answered Zeno’s paradox of the reality of motion simply by getting up and walking about – the best proof, he was saying, is often the practical one.

Bruce Chatwin’s book, The Songlines[3], is a book that reflects on aboriginal culture and about the way in which the first nation people of Australia navigate the landscape without the use of maps but find their way, sometimes across great distances, by ‘singing’ the stories of the land that have been passed down from generation to generation. In just the same way, we learn to navigate the communities which we serve as we walk them and as we listen to the stories of others and as we sing and share our own stories on our common journey.

The Methodist Presidential and Vice-Presidential theme this year is, ‘So, what’s the story?’. This theme starts from the premise that life is a tapestry of stories that help us better to understand the world around us, our relationships with other people, and even ourselves. In life and in ministry we constantly use stories to reach out to others and those stories enrich our knowledge of God and help us grow in faith.

The Austrian philosopher and priest, Ivan Illich, was once asked what he thought was the most effective way to change society[4]. Was it revolution or was it reformation? His answer was, ‘Neither’. If you want to change society, he said, then you have to tell an alternative story.

The challenge for the Church is, How do we learn to tell the story of God in a world in which talk about God is unfamiliar and strange? This, of course, is not a new question. It was also faced by Isaiah and the exiles and they phrased it like this… ‘How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ What that meant for them was, How do we worship God when we no longer have all those things that make faith safe – the Temple, the altar, the priesthood… ?

If we are going to speak of God effectively in the world and tell the stories of faith we cannot use the church as a place to hide because what we see happening ‘in the world’ is frightening, whether it is the chaos of Brexit, food poverty, the demands of the Nuris and the Afras and countless other refugees who seek sanctuary from the destructiveness of war or poverty or persecution, or the global crisis that is climate change and the degradation of our fragile environment.

If we are going to tell our transformative, alternative story, we need to be alongside others, to share their lives and their stories and, as part of that sharing, to have the courage and the confidence to tell our own story: the story of God’s love, God’s concern, God’s compassion. Ultimately, the Church is not an idea or a doctrine or an organization but, what Professor Dan Hardy calls ‘the practice of shared faith.’[5]

In his Booker Prize winning novel, The Famished Road[6], Ben Okri has one of his characters say, ‘the story is the road’ – as our stories and journeys intersect, the opportunity for humans to flourish grows and lives are changed.


[1] Christy Lefteri, The Beekeeper of Aleppo. London: Zaffre, 2019

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World. Norwich: Canterbury Press (2nd Impression), 2019

[3] Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines. Picador Books, 1988.

[4] Ivan Illich, ‘Storytelling or Myth-Making? Frank Viola and Ivan Illich’, Proclamation, Invitation, & Warning, July, 2007.

[5]Daniel W. Hardy, Finding the Church. London: SCM, 2001.

[6] Ben Okri, The Famished Road. London: Vintage, 1991.

Crossing divides with Jesus

by Tom Greggs.

I have a terrible habit. Well, I have several; ask my wife for details! But the terrible habit I have which is relevant to this context is that every morning before anything else that I do I take my phone and press the BBC app to read the news. Before praying, before a coffee, before telling my wife I love her, before getting a shower, my addiction to the news has to be satisfied.

Part of this addiction stems from what seems to be an ever-increasing changed reality in the world: we are divided, and we are entrenching ourselves in our divides. Brexit is the pressing example, but there are so many. And globally, there are increased tensions between nations, and there is a tide of populism which sets one group at odds with another and intensifies differences.

Having grown up in what seem to be (for me at least) the halcyon days of the 1990’s with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the Good Friday Agreement, and Third Way Politics, it is easy to see this new ‘glocalism’ as it is termed with all of its potential for vicious cycles of divisive politics as a new phenomena. Perhaps some of us feel a little like we are reliving past global periods from the previous century—whether the 1910’s or 1930’s. But the capacity for humans to create divisions among ourselves is as old as time. And it is an issue to which the gospel addresses itself directly.

I cannot help but think of Jesus’ engagement with the Samaritans when faced with the divisions we see in our contemporary world. It’s difficult for us to understand the level of hostility, stretching back many centuries, that existed between Jews and Samaritans.[i] The Samaritans were the descendants of the Jews who did not go into exile and were hostile to the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. Their purity as a people was called into question, and, although they recognized only the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, they did follow Jewish ritual. These themes were focused on the establishment of a rival temple at Mt Gerezim, and the recognition of a different line of priestly descent. Their proximity to and alienation from the Jewish people led to fierce rivalry between the peoples.[ii] Perhaps we hear this most clearly of all in Jesus’ interaction with the woman of Samaria: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)” (Jn 4:9). Even the basics of water seem to be an impossible offering for these two so different people—divided by religious grouping and by gender.

When we read stories of Jesus engaging with these groups, we are wise to recall his capacity to cross divisions and divides with grace and with truth because Jesus never leaves the divisions there without interrupting, traversing and disturbing the divides. He doesn’t blur the lines, or falsely claim that “we all agree really”. He doesn’t sacrifice truth for grace any more than he sacrifices grace for truth. He is after all clear: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22). But this doesn’t stop him affirming, ministering to and loving the member of the other ‘tribe’ as one of God’s children.

Jesus, after all, repeatedly attends to the needs of the Samaritans he meets. As well as the role of needs in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, in the story of Jesus cleansing the ten lepers in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus attends to the Samaritan’s physical needs by curing him of his leprosy (Lk. 17.16-19).  Human needs are also pointed to in the famous story of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). Feeling pity for the injured man, the Samaritan tends to his needs (v.33), and the Christian is charged in her relation with the other from whom she is divided to respond with mercy, and to recognize the mercy with which others may attend to her.

Jesus acknowledges who these people are before God—as God’s children despite the tribal differences that exist. He does not villainise them, but makes them heroes and examples of God’s mercy (the Good Samaritan), or those who give thanks to God (the Samaritan Leper), or one who will worship in spirit and in truth (the Samaritan woman). He does not see them first as Samaritans, but first—even in all their divisions from Jesus—as the children of the One God.

What are we, in so divided a nation and so divided a world, to learn from the one who crossed the most difficult socio-political divides of his own age with truth and with grace?



[i] Relations between the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel following the period of the united monarchy of Saul, David and Solomon were never particularly good. When the northern kingdom fell in 722-721BCE, the Assyrians deported the Israelites and brought in pagans from neighbouring nations who worshipped Yahweh alongside other gods. This was a practice that 2 Kings 17.41 suggests was carried out by the descendents of these new inhabitants, thus polluting the purity of the theology and ritual of the northern nation. Moreover, in the years 589 and 587BCE the ancient Jewish people were disrupted by the most cataclysmic disaster of their history to that point. Having been brought to the promised land, having built the temple and centralised the cult upon it, the people were sent into exile by Nebuchadnezzar. The effects of this were enormous, and most significant among them was the loss of the temple in 587BCE. The people who returned following the exile began to understand themselves as superior to the people who had remained in the land, and to their neighbours to the north who lived around the city of Samaria. The root of this antagonism seems to be the opposition of the authorities in Samaria to the rebuilding of the temple and the city walls of Jerusalem. The Samaritans had their own rival priesthood and temple at Mount Gerezim, and opposed the Jerusalem cult, even enacting violence towards pilgrims travelling through Samaria.

[ii] For more on the Samaritans, see Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 378f. & 499-501; and Richard Bauckham, ‘The Scrupulous Priest and the Good Samaritan: Jesus’ Parabolic Interpretation of the Law of Moses’, New Testament Studies, 44:4 (1998), 475-489.


Who represents?

by Raj Bharat Patta.

As a child I remember the ‘parable of the ten virgins’ (Matthew 25: 1-13) enacted as a musical play by the moms in our local Bethany Lutheran Church in India. Ten women dressed in white, holding lanterns in their hands journeyed to meet the bridegroom. Tired and lowering the flame of their lanterns, they all fell asleep. Suddenly at repeated loud shouts, they woke one after the other, and started adjusting the flame for more light. Five carried a bottle of oil and filled their lanterns, but the others did not have sufficient oil and were struggling to trim their lanterns. These five women requested their friends to lend some oil; but the others did not have sufficient to share and directed them to a dealer to buy more. The groom arrives and enters the wedding banquet with the five women whose lanterns are burning. When the other five knock, calling him, ‘Lord, Lord,’ the reply comes that he does not know them. The facial expressions of the five women who made it inside are gloomy that their five other friends could not join them. The woman narrator of the play concludes: ‘Keep awake, be prepared to meet the returning groom, for he can come at any time of the day or night.’ The play was written, directed, sung and performed by the moms of the Women’s Fellowship in our local Church. This enacted parable has stayed in my memory, and now when I am reading Matthew 25: 1-13, it comes alive, making me nostalgic for my local congregation.

The role of women in parables provides a political hermeneutical key in understanding this gospel passage. Nicola Slee observes the male dominance in New Testament parables with the preponderance of male characters and roles.[i] She notes that in the Gospel of Matthew alone out of a total of 85 characters, as mentioned in 104 parables and sayings, 73 are men and 12 are women. Even among the 12 women, 10 are these bridesmaids, which makes only 3 instances where women are mentioned in the whole 104 parables. We are called to recognise the under-representation of women and their ‘invisibility’ in the Scriptures, challenging readers to ‘hear to speech’ the voices of women in the text. This example exposes the politics of recording a parable; not only do male writers and narrators hardly mention any women, when they do, they use male dominant language. In v.2, he introduces five as ‘foolish’ and five as ‘wise.’ The male writer begins with a prejudice against the first five by calling them ‘foolish.’ In our mom’s church play, all ten women entered the stage as friends with lanterns in their hands, all of them were dressed in white. The first five were trying to help the other five by directing them to oil dealers, and they had gloomy faces when their friends did not make it to the banquet. This enactment demonstrates that if women were recording their own stories, representing their own experience and narrating it in their own language, the parable would have had a totally different perspective. This therefore calls us to confess the politics of patriarchy in the text, and such a confession invites us to a subversive reading of the narratives of the parables from the context of invisible, colonised and under-represented communities. The politics of re-presentation must be addressed in any hermeneutical engagement of Biblical texts – this parable of the ten women challenges us towards that.

This is a parable of the ten unnamed women. Most translations have recorded the women in this parable as virgins, some others as bridesmaids; however, the politics of re-presentation challenges us not to define any one’s identity by their role or status or occupation. The caste system in India and elsewhere has been operating on the notions of purity and pollution, for people are divided into dominant castes and outcastes based on descent and occupation. To recognise people as people and not through any of their roles or status or occupation is an important marker for a just and equal society.

The parable then is a recognition of the fact that the divine in Jesus communicates the eschatological message of last judgement through these unnamed, under-represented women, who at times in Christian history and, from some perspectives still in the Christian present, are seen as incapable of being the bearers of the Gospel. This parable therefore is an affirmation of the strength of women as bearers, instruments, agencies, and resources of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In our moms’ play, when it was written and performed by all women, one could feel the dancing of the Gospel coming alive, for the Spirit of God through our moms gripped us all to turn towards God, and made a lasting impact and impression in the lives of the audience there.

This parable challenges us to discuss who represents whom today in our churches and societies. It is time that the Church starts hearing to speech those on the margins and giving a listening ear to the voice of the divine which has been groaning to be heard. Representation is aligned deeply with identity, and identity is a sum total of who we are as a person and the groups to which we belong to. In the multicultural post-secular British context today, the identity of those on the margins matters, and their representation is imperative in nurturing faith for our times.


[i] Slee, Nicola, “Parables and women’s experience,” in Modern Churchman, 26 no 2 1984, p 20-31.