Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Notes: God's Unwelcome Recovery by Sean Oliver-Dee

Sean Oliver-Dee has a central contention behind his book, "God's Unwelcome Recovery", and that is that the death of the church in UK has been predicted and proclaimed for ideological; not observational reasons. The book is short, and wide ranging and contains the following sections: (i) Statistics; in which the author shows that while the popular perception is of relentless decline, the actual figures are more complex. His analysis shows that  there are both areas of decline, but also areas of significant growth too, which more than offset the death-of-the-church narrative. (ii) Ideology; in which Oliver-Dee lines up the various forces making up the contemporary elites, from liberals to new atheists, and explains why they perpetuate the myth of inexorable church decline. (iii) Apologetics, in which Oliver-Dee rehearses some of the counter-arguments to the ideology driving his opponents (such as the secular view of progress, and science; and (iv) proposals for a Christian future.

The book is constantly, and deliberately counter-intuitive, which is what makes it interesting. It is though, a book of varied consistency and one which asks as many questions as it answers. The thing which had attracted me to the title initially was the statistical re-evaluation of the church in the UK, which I had heard it contained. I am far from being a competent statistician, but Oliver-Dee's claims here, probably need further exploration before they can be accepted as er... gospel. They do at least show good evidence for the wide variety in growth/decline patterns across the country, and the way in which the negative side of that picture is the only one to gain popular traction. The ideological section is interesting but perhaps is only the starting point for the discussion which seemed to me to leave a lot of powerful forces, such as consumer hyper-individualism, and cultural and religious pluralism, the loss of confidence in the 'west', and era of post-modern ascendancy undeveloped. The apologetic section was fair enough, but is far from being the best treatment of these issues, and so seemed a bit odd in the context of the flow of the book's argument. What was oddest of all however were the suggestions which Oliver-Dee seeks to draw from his analysis. Firstly he got sidetracked into a very esoteric discussion about disestablishment of the Church of England, and its relationship to church growth in the UK (more esoteric for those of us in Scotland, than down South, I suspect); this was then compounded by an obscure suggestion about adopting the German/Lutheran taxation system for church funding for its social role in communities. I was left wondering if the central contention of the book was lost behind such idiosyncratic discussions and suggestions. 

A full book-length treatment of the statistical patterns of church decline/health/growth across the UK, mapped by region, age, denomination, (etc), and a rigorous comparison of that reality with media coverage and popular perceptions of the church would be probably a more helpful way to develop Oliver-Dee's starting approach. The further he tracked away from his central thesis, the less useful his book became. If a future work were to take his research in that direction, it could be extremely valuable. As it stands, this book reads a little like a plea to turn a backward gaze to the last vestiges of Christendom. That though, I think, is a ship which has well and truly sailed.

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