Telling, Leading, Discerning
- ISBN: 9780334059028
- Published By: SCM Press
- Published: April 2020
The value of narrative as a way of doing theology is well established. Storytelling is recognized as an effective genre for exploring the truth and meaning of the Christian faith, not least because stories are central to the teachings of Jesus. In this latest book by Vaughan Roberts, Kingdom Stories: Telling, Leading, Discerning, he takes several of the “kingdom stories” found in the Gospels and sets out to interweave these with cultural and contemporary parallels that enable us to identify the significance and potency of Jesus’ words for today. Roberts is a strong advocate for the ways in which stories are crucial in enabling us to “make sense of our world and our experiences” (3) and the book certainly helps us to do just that.
There are different ways of categorizing Jesus’ kingdom stories. Roberts draws attention to what he calls their “engaged eschatology”: the way they look for glimpses of God’s activity in the midst of personal and corporate lives. This shapes the author’s approach and helps root the book in the practical, active ministry of the church; so while there is a depth of theological and biblical understanding to be found in the book, it is also very accessible. A major part of the book looks at eight kingdom stories in turn, each accompanied by a prayer and questions for reflection, making it one that study groups within churches could use.
There is another layer to what is going on in the book. Building on his earlier work with David Sims (Leading by Story: Rethinking Church Leadership, SCM Press, 2017), Roberts wants us to consider the nature of Christian leadership; indeed, the book grew out of addresses given at an ordination retreat for those called to lead within the church. This theme emerges at a number of different points as Roberts draws on his study of organizational theory, management, and leadership, with short sections discussing what kind of power lies behind talk of God’s kingdom, what being a follower looks like, how the idea of host might be a good model for leadership, and the ways leading is about enabling people to tell their stories and to be heard. There is rich material here, though with a fairly light touch. We need to look towards the author’s other writings to see these ideas more fully developed.
The latter part of the book concentrates on eschatology as a reference to the end times and culminates in a detailed exploration of one story: that of the Warwick Poppies project in 2018. This project was designed to mark the centenary anniversary of the First World War, and Roberts carefully explains the background to the idea of inviting people to knit poppies to commemorate each of the 11,610 fallen soldiers who were part of the regiment that has a chapel within St Mary’s Church, Warwick. In the end, over 65,000 poppies were collected from all over the world and vast numbers visited the church to share in the commemorations.
This becomes the basis for understanding the importance of storytelling for ministry and leadership, but also for naming some of the complexities that emerge when stories are told. After all, narratives can compete and contradict as people interpret in different ways. This is properly acknowledged in the book, though the recent debates about contested history linked with the legacy of racism make this an issue deserving of deeper reflection.
Inevitably, in a book that deliberately draws on a variety of forms of storytelling, ranging from modern sculpture and TV programs such as “Game of Thrones”, to medieval art and the poetry of Henry Scott Holland, each reader will find some forms work better than others. But the Warwick Poppies project is one that has wide resonance and that is why its careful telling and analysis is so worthwhile. It is a fitting climax to the book, not least in allowing Roberts to draw attention to how life-giving stories have an openness about them that always allow for development and improvisation. It is, as suggested, a fine example of “seeking the signs of God’s kingdom in the world around us and in people’s daily lives” (127).
For those of us who believe that the arts are a crucial means of encountering God, here is a book that is more than welcome. It crosses disciplines in creative ways, yet always returns us to those stories that are at the heart of our Christian faith that we may know them in new ways. Perceptive yet also accessible, it deserves to be well used. This is good contextual theology, inviting us to find the signs of the kingdom that are embedded in our ordinary lives.
Graham R. Sparkes is the president of Luther King Centre for Theology and Ministry, Manchester, England.Graham SparkesDate Of Review:July 26, 2021