Book Review: Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan

I picked this up because I do judge a book by its cover; or to be more specific, by its publisher. Of the christian books I own and have read, I tend to find the ones I like the best come from either SPCK Publishing or SCM Press. Christianity Rediscovered is part of the SCM Classics collection, a range which includes Letters & Papers from Prison, The Crucified God and The Early Church.

When I read the spiel on the back, however, something caught my eye: Vincent Donovan is a catholic. His catholic bias is evident, with references to Vatican II, the Council of Trent and of the sacraments as being functional rather than symbolic. However, he has a few comments which one would not expect from the typical papist.

For starters he states,

“…every theology or theory must be based on previous missionary experience, and that any theory or theology which is not based on previous experience is empty words, of use to no one.”

I would strongly deny this. If taken seriously, it would imply that unless you have spent time as a missionary (which would probably exclude most christians) then any amount of bible study, wider academic theology or experience learned through everyday life is useless. One might wonder if Donovan was familiar with any theologians, though he does quote Augustine, Tillich and Aquinas, none of whom were particularly noted for being missionaries.

He also says,

“I would like to invite the reader to go on that journey with me. But before commencing it, one would want to have the same open-mindedness toward it, with no convictions beyond the one that Christianity is something of value; no preconceived notions about God, salvation, Christ, the meaning of being a Christian, the church…or anything traditionally associated with Christianity.”

This is a particularly bizarre statement, as it would require that the reader hold a belief in the value of something completely unknown to them. However, the reasons do become clear, as I shall expand upon below.

Those criticisms aside, I want to move to the main substance of the book. This is a story, as much of the best of christian writings are. It’s the story of different cultures and how the gospel is above being defined within a culture, but also how it percolates through cultures. In this reading of it, there are 3 cultures at play: the Masai tribes of Tanzania, the American catholicism of the author and the English non-conformism of myself, the reader. The reader cannot but help be drawn in by Donovan’s writing, asking yourself the same questions that he asked. I could not say that I wholly agreed with his answers, though it would be even more wrong to say I rejected them.

Christianity Rediscovered was first published in 1978 and there are references to political situations which existed at the time which are no longer relevant; in particular, to the Cold War and to Apartheid. The portrait of missions that is presented is one that is completely alien to me. He talks of mission “compounds” where education and healthcare was provided first, before starting to introduce the gospel.

Of all the missions I have ever supported, this sounds like none of them. Instead, they are much more along the lines of the conclusions that Donovan eventually reaches. Whether this is because of any impact the book may have had is hard to say; I think it is more likely because the whole idea of missions that Donovan begins with is a very narrowly-focused, catholic idea.

With that in mind, the book is very much a diary of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, he is discovering christianity for the first time, learning the principles that are well known to those who think in line with apostolic/reformed/nonconformist viewpoints. On the other hand, he’s trying to reconcile this to his catholicism and the unhelpful baggage that comes with that. He’s conscious that trying to teach a particular way of doing christianity is not the best method of being evangelical, but rather that communicating the gospel, so that it is understood, is then available to be either accepted or rejected (see my thoughts along these lines here).

In some ways it is quite a sad read, as Donovan gets close to some great ideas, yet refrains from these due to his catholic background. Nowhere is this more evident when he uses much of the same reasoning I did when discussing the nature of priesthood yet he fails to draw the logical conclusion and instead falls back on traditionalism.

At a little over 150 pages, it’s a short read, written in a simple, readable manner. It wouldn’t take long to get through if you just wanted to sit down on a wet afternoon and read a little about life in sunny east Africa, but I wouldn’t recommend it be read that way. Often without asking them explicitly, Donovan asks us questions about our churches (although I think his intention was more about American catholicism), how we approach mission and also fundamental questions about we understand the gospel. Questions we would do well to think long and hard about.

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2 responses to “Book Review: Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan

  1. I nominated you for the Booker Award, if you’d like to accept you can read about it here mittenskittens.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/the-booker-award/

  2. Pingback: 2012 in books | The Alethiophile