Reading Rev. Dr. Sam Wells

With anticipation building for Sam Wells’ visit to Toronto, we thought that a brief overview of some of his (many!) works would be a helpful use of our usual “What Are They Reading” space. I’ll — as briefly as I can — touch on the books that I’ve read, or at least dipped into to some depth.

Power & Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection (Zondervan, 2007) was the basis of a parish Lenten study group last year, and it complemented earlier engagements with works by Amy-Jill Levine. Wells explores Pilate, Barabbas, Joseph of Arimathea, ‘Mrs. Pilate,’ Peter, and Mary Magdalene, by starting with the Biblical texts themselves and helpful considerations related to historical context. Each chapter then transitions into reflections that rub up against our experience in contemporary times. For instance, the chapter on Pilate’s wife goes into several interesting directions: the possibility of receiving guidance in dreams; the dynamics of power and (sometimes behind-the-scenes) influence; and consideration of Mrs. Pilate’s fate, and whether or not it aligned with the several other women supporters of the Jesus movement and early Church. Each chapter then concludes with several ‘wonderings,’ which I found ultimately more stimulating and useful than the usual ‘discussion questions.’

Also useful in the Lenten season are A Cross in the Heart of God: Reflections on the Death of Jesus (Canterbury Press, 2020) and The Moment of Truth: Reflections on Incarnation and Resurrection (Canterbury Press, 2023). The former would make an excellent group resource, with its helpful schedule and study guide provided at the back. Here you will find a stimulating and readable overview of what are usually (overly dryly) referred to as the ‘theories of atonement,’ but in Wells’ hands, they are more engagingly treated as motifs and metaphors found throughout the Old Testament, Epistles, and Gospels, such as: covenant; sacrifice; passover; forgiveness; reconciliation; betrayed; pierced; mocked.

The Moment of Truth is a concise book that delves theologically into Christmas and Easter, and how they show us most clearly how God yearns to be intimately united with us — even, theoretically, if there hadn’t been a ‘fall.’ “Jesus isn’t just a solution to a problem. Jesus isn’t simply a piece of divine technology that backs up our hard drive when we crash. Jesus is the embodiment of there being nothing in God that is not committed to be in relationship to us, whatever the cost, and there being nothing in us that isn’t made for relationship with God” (p. 67).

If you are looking for something with an immediate applicability to the Sunday morning experience, I recommend Shaping the Prayers of the People: The Art of Intercession (William B. Eerdmans, 2014, co-written alongside Abigail Kocher) and How to Preach: Times, Seasons, Texts and Contexts (Canterbury Press, 2023). The book on prayer has been particularly helpful in teaching and mentoring lay leaders and seminarians in crafting the intercessions. Wells helps readers understand the purpose of the prayers of the people, and its place within the Sunday liturgy. It is incredibly detailed, packed with useful and wise guidance. I can see a committed team of parish intercessors taking it on as a multi-week study resource, or perhaps more pragmatically, distilled into notes or a workshop format.

How to Preach is similarly brilliant in balancing applicability and thoroughness. Wells lays a solid foundation for how to approach the task of preaching with prayerfulness and sensitivity, understanding the challenges of preaching in polarized and difficult societal contexts. With theological rigour and wisdom that could only come from someone with years of direct experience, Wells presents how one can, with confidence and sensitivity, approach the different seasons of the church year, the diverse inheritance of scriptural genres, and the various seasons of life reflected in baptism, marriage, and funerals.

I read A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God (Wiley Blackwell, 2015) alongside a few others in a small group setting at Renison University College. Just as Wells wrote about ‘God with us’ as reflected in our celebrations of Christmas and Easter in The Moment of Truth, here he follows the same trajectory in a way that would have particular significance and impact on parish leaders seeking to reorient and deepen their ministry in the neighbourhood context. The starting point here — and something that the Church may not have fully appreciated for much of its history — is that Jesus lived and worked amongst his neighbours in Nazareth for a full thirty years before embarking on his mission, and this relationality was at the core of that mission. Thus it is crucial for us to engage with our neighbours and with wider society from such a position of familiarity and grassroots relationship-building.

Recently, and of relevance to our upcoming public lecture, Sam Wells has published Humbler Faith, Bigger God: Finding a Story to Live By (William B. Eerdmans, 2022). I have not had time to dip too deeply into it (yet), but, similarly to Timothy Radcliffe in the wonderfully-readable Alive in God: A Christian Imagination, Wells seeks to present the Christian way of living and thinking as deep, encouraging, and attractional, and something altogether different from, and more fulfilling than, the rival narratives of cynical skeptics and defensive literalists.

There are many, many other books by Sam Wells that are sitting on my book shelf, waiting to be read! We are indeed privileged to have this prolific author and profound yet accessible theological thinker with us on May 23rd.

– Matthew Kieswetter

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