Reading Romans in a globalised, urban world (David W. Smith)

My sense is that in the emerging globalised world we are seeing more and more urban poverty issues. For example, as I highlighted in the past, there are a lot of elderly people living in poverty in Hong Kong, despite the enormous amount of wealth among the rich in the city. (Click here to see the post.)

In his book, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2013), David W. Smith insightfully talks about how we may read Romans in our globalised urban world. Here are a few excerpts.

The collapse of Christendom, and the resulting crisis for the churches of the West, the massive growth of Christianity across the Global South, especially . . . in contexts of urban poverty and suffering, and the accelerating expansion of cities, driven by economic and ideological forces which pose similar questions to those we have seen Paul expressing with regard to the Roman imperium, all of these developments in our world presage a new epoch in Christian history. The Hispanic theologian Justo González comments that we are living ‘in time of vast changes in the church’s self-understanding’, and that the consequences of the shifts taking place today ‘will be more drastic than those which took place in the sixteenth century’. The loss of Christendom, González says, should not be lamented since it opens up the possibility that the meaning of Scripture may become clearer to us as truth is seen to consist not in abstract, intellectual concepts, but rather as ‘closely bound with bread and wine, with justice and peace, with a coming Reign of God . . .

González points out that one of the features of the transformation taking place around us is that whole swathes of the human population, taught of their superiors and betters, are today finding their voices. Ethnic minorities, women and children, people who ‘for reasons of class, nationality, sex, . . . , will no longer be silent’. What this suggests is that the most significant insights into Paul’s message are likely to come from below, from people whose socio-economic situations in a globalized world corresponds closely to that of the majority of the original recipients of this letter [that is, Paul’s letter to the Romans] in the slums of the megacity of Rome.

This fact is highlighted by Peter Oakes’ use of archaeological evidence in the ruins of Pompeii to construct an imagined ’house church’ in first-century Rome. Such a group certainly included slaves, including women who were almost routinely subjected to sexual exploitation. How would such followers of Jesus have heard Paul’s letter?

Indeed, in the twenty-first century we must do more than think about this, we must ask our brothers and sisters in the slums of Sao Paulo, Nairobi and Mumbai how they hear this ancient letter and what following Jesus means in practice in their daily lives.

 

Sources: The references to González above are from Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 48, 50. The excerpts from David Smith’s The Kindness of God are from location 1443–1478 in the Kindle version of the book.

Advertisements

Book review: David W. Smith, The Kindness of God

Book review: David W. Smith, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2013).

In his book, The Kindness of God, David Smith asks some penetrating questions about how to bear witness in a trouble world. Smith turns his readers’ attention to two things at the beginning of the book. First, he talks about his experience as a speaker at a conference in Jos, Nigeria. Jos is described as a post-colonial city that owes its existence to the expansion of European colonial power, and it sits on the fault line between African Christianity and Islam. Second, Smith refers to the foresight of the well-known missionary and scholar, Leslie Newbigin, that in the coming century there would be three factors that would compete for people’s allegiance: the gospel, the free market, and Islam.

The book then proceeds to discuss many issues concerning the world today: globalisation, urbanisation, market economy, suffering, poverty, violence, and religious tension. Smith argues that we need to translate the gospel for the globalised world in the twenty-first century. He challenges Christians to critique their own understanding of the gospel in light of the Scripture. He skilfully proposes an informed reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans for the urban world. Smith concludes by bringing his readers back to his experience in Jos, Nigeria, as well as Newbigin’s insightful comments about the gospel, the free market, and Islam.

David Smith's The Kindness of God

David Smith is well versed in the history of mission, missiology, and the Bible. This is demonstrated by his familiarity with the works of Justo González, Walter Brueggemann, Kevin Vanhoozer, Robert Jewett, and Leslie Newbigin. His competence in these areas allows him to provide a lucid, insightful, and informed discussion on Christian witness in a world of racial conflicts and religious tensions. His book helps its readers to understand the historical and present inter-relationships between faith, the free market, globalisation, and urbanisation. This, in turn, assists Christians to assess the way they face the challenges that lie ahead of them.

The book contains many perceptive uses of Scripture. Smith refers to the Bible frequently, with one chapter focussing on Romans and its implications for the urban churches today. He argues that in church history there were times when Christians interpreted the same Scripture in opposite manners. He then suggests that in our troubled world nowadays Christians still read the Bible differently, resulting in opposing interpretations and applications for the same issues. Smith calls for a faithful reading of Scripture in our troubled world—one that is in line with our allegiance to the crucified and risen Christ rather than human idolatrous desires.

The book is not for those looking for a self-help book that simply tells people what to believe in. But if you want to read a book that invites you to think carefully and respond thoughtfully about Christian witness in the world, then The Kindness of God is for you. Smith does not go into convoluted theological arguments. He is, however, a passionate and persuasive writer. The book is engaging, full of insights, and challenging. It will leave the reader with plenty to ponder.

Finally, it is worth citing an excerpt of the endorsement by Jonathan Lamb, Director, Langham Preaching.

[The book provokes] us to think freshly not only about the missiological challenges out there . . . but also the challenges at home that we so easily neglect — a church shaped by materialism, a gospel distorted by secular culture, a proclamation of the cross without the experience of its weakness and power. In this troubled world, he urges us to rediscover the fullness of the gospel . . . and to listen to the voices of compassion from the underside of globalisation . . . this book provokes reflection on the hope which flows from the kindness of God. It is an urgent, prophetic and compassionate book that is rooted in our broken world but lifts our eyes to see God’s purposes for his global church.