Book review: Doing Theology in the New Normal

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Jione Havea, Doing Theology in the New Normal: Global Perspectives (London: SCM Press, 2021)

by John Wheatley, CMS MA graduate and Frontier Youth Trust

A friend of mine, with no connection to church, recently had a wayward son return to the family home. Her eldest was not best pleased. In discussing this I was able to share the story of the prodigal son. For me this is when theology is most alive: when our lived experience sheds light on old stories in a way that opens new possibilities. Doing Theology in the New Normal is a book that explores global experiences of COVID-19, using them to uncover how theology has, or should have, changed for the post-pandemic world.

Jione Havea has curated this collection of essays from theologians around the world and interspersed them with poetry. Published in 2021, these pieces were written at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, reflecting on the impact of lockdowns and public health interventions, and seeking connections with historical and theological themes. The 350-page volume contains a diverse range of perspectives – some that clicked, and some that didn’t. I was particularly moved by Sung Uk Lim’s essay on the Korean idea of Untact. In this piece Lim draws a connection between Jesus’ healing touch and the public health regimes of the pandemic era. In this contrast we explore boundary crossing in Mark’s Gospel. It brings fresh perspective on the call for the church to align itself with the hurting, outcast and untouchables. This piece related well to my own context as a youth worker on a UK council estate. Likewise, in their chapter, Angelica Tostes and Delana Corazza explore a mission spirituality built on shared, communal values. They look to the Latin American concepts of Buen Vivir (good living) as models and inspiration for transforming the whole community through solidarity. What I valued so much in these chapters was the theological exploration of a cultural idea that came to the surface during COVID-19, but that has actual real-world application in our communities now – this is local theology at its best!

However, despite these notable exceptions, it would be fair to say that I found the book hard going. It may be that looking back from the summer of ‘22 makes the subject matter unrelatable as a time that we’d rather forget. More depressingly, the collection presents a hopeful new dawn beyond COVID-19, which – given the Ukrainian war, a cost-of-living crisis and other painful realities – feels rather misplaced. The hardest part for me is that some of the authors seem to be doing their theology outside of an immediate ministry context, which makes much of the work feel academic rather than practical. In this way, the book pulls together grand overarching narratives around COVID-19, but fails to relate to either the lived experience of the pandemic, nor the less-than-hoped-for “new normal”.

At its best, the contributors of this book show us how the church can pioneer new ideas and new ways of doing theology built on the cultural resources of the day. For us ordinary do-it-yourself pioneers, who are doing our best to find meaningful connection between cultural context and the wisdom of the Christian story, there are some selected pieces of brilliance among the essays that represent good local theology. These could have significant application in our practice. But for the most part, this is a book for those studying the discipline of contextual theology, and probably those looking back with interest at the COVID-19 2020–21 pandemic years. For sure, it is a book best borrowed from the library. Still, doing theology is always an act of hope – hope that a new normal is possible even in trying times. This book is a manifesto of hope from within the darkest moments of recent history.

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