Stumbling toward Zion by David Smith
Smith's exploration of recovering the biblical tradition of lament in the era of world Christianity is a vital and wise invitation to rediscover the honesty of faith, the validity of doubt and the struggle for a more just world
Stumbling toward Zion: Recovering the Biblical Tradition of Lament in the Era of World Christianity
By David Smith
Langham Global Library
Reviewed by Michael Manning
It seems strange to suggest that one could be consoled by a book on lament, but that was very much my response upon reading Stumbling toward Zion.
David Smith has spent a lifetime exploring and inspiring mission in a variety of contexts, particularly in the Minority World. In this book he grapples with some of the most difficult questions regarding suffering and faith. He does so with great courage, humility and a raw, personal honesty that lends credibility to his work.
Smith contends that somehow the church in the Minority World has lost the view of lament. Faith – public and private – can only ever be expressed in terms of praise or deference to the divine will. He thinks that this has shrivelled the integrity of our witness and rendered us unable to face with honesty the appalling suffering of the world. As a response he mines the scriptures to rediscover the extraordinary presence and power of lament.
'The depiction of the struggles of faith in the Bible is so persistent and frequent as to create a dialectic between the confession of belief in the living and faithful God...and the doubts which arise from circumstances which call that faith into question.' Smith lays out with his usual learning and clarity the existence of lament throughout scripture. His perceptive readings of Job and Lamentations – lament both private and public – shed light on the tradition of crying out to God in honesty and anger.
Many may think that the yearning lament of the Old Testament is all well and good but surely a new day has dawned in the New Testament? Smith explores the witness of the Jesus movement and argues that it is precisely because of the high claims made about the Messiah that the necessity for lament in the face of continued brokenness is vital. He lays bear the darkness and death of our current 'Easter Saturday' culture and identifies the hunger for a better world of shalom.
The figure of Paul is followed as he struggles with his vocation bringing the gospel to the nations. The centrality of Paul's desire for unity is seen in his immense efforts on the Collection: an event that ended in failure and imprisonment. Smith sensitively explores the wider imperial Roman context to suggest the presence of the great lament as 'all creation groans'.
It is in his concluding chapters on Speaking of God and the Future of World Christianity that Smith brings the sharpest questions to us. It is one thing to recognise lament throughout scripture; it is quite another to allow this to inform our view of God. With unerring honesty Smith challenges the monolithic concepts of an unchanging, impassible, omnipotent divinity. What does it mean to follow a God who chooses to revel himself most fully in the downward movement into slavery, weakness, humiliation and death? He is unflinching in confronting the horror of our own context: a world of extreme poverty and suffering for millions of people. Often Christianity has been silent or complicit in these horrors, as seen in the nationalism of the 1930s (and increasingly today?) and the Rwandan genocide.
Smith writes, 'How could it have come about that the dialectical pattern of praise and lament, which we have seen to be embedded within the very structure of biblical faith, went missing in Christendom? And is this distortion of Christianity, so that it becomes unremittingly affirmative, positive and celebratory, a significant contributory element to its vulnerability to alien ideologies and movements?'
Hope is found in the chorus of new songs rising from the Global South. On the margins of our globalised world Smith finds ample evidence of lament that actively seeks to create the new realities it longs for. It is a World Christianity centred on the figure of Jesus and embedded within the poor majorities struggling for existence across the globe. Theirs are the voices that will increasingly shape the future of Christianity, and it is there that we can learn from our brothers and sisters about how to join in the honest cries of praise and lament as we seek a world transformed into the kingdom. ‘The whole catholic church must recover...a practice of worship, rejoicing in the faithfulness and love of...God, while weeping over the still unredeemed-ness of the present, and continuing to pray that the kingdom may soon come in all its fullness.’
Smith has an extraordinarily broad range of conversation partners across a multitude of disciplines. He engages with central Western figures and philosophies just as much as paying serious attention to the Global South. He takes in the visual and musical arts as much as theology, sociology and urban studies.
I have spent my adult life engaging with those on the margins of the Minority World. Often the lives of the marginal seem divorced from the life and faith of the church. The poverty found on our doorsteps and in our world should lead us to lament a whole lot more. This book is a vital and wise invitation to rediscover the honesty of faith, the validity of doubt and the struggle for a more just world as we follow the one who became poor so that many might become rich.
Michael Manning is a co-ordinator of Graih (www.graih.org.im), a charity serving those who are homeless and in insecure accommodation on the Isle of Man. He lives with his family in a shared household and belongs to Broadway Baptist Church in Douglas. He is the author of No King, But God - Walking as Jesus Walked
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