At our ministry summer school last month I asked, our new students the question: Who is your desert island theologian? Without reservation or hesitation one replied loudly and firmly: Mark Oakley. There was some agreement about this in the lecture room and others, thankfully, wrote down the name. This understandable desire to enter into conversation with Mark and to know a little of how and why he explores faith in the way that he does has been stimulated by his book, The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry, which takes his reader into all kinds of new spaces in the exploration of words and belief and practice. As one of our visiting scholars here at Sarum College we were delighted that this book won the Michael Ramsey prize this year at the Hay Festival.
This new book is a collection of sermons preached in various contexts for a range of occasions and peoples. Mark is characteristically self-deprecating (‘I’m not sure I like books of sermons’ ) which sets the tone of tentative self-awareness that characterises the shape of these glorious pieces of narrative.
In this book Mark makes himself vulnerable, the source of any emotional intelligence, and a rare quality in today’s anxious ecclesiastical culture. I am reminded of my Gran’s understandable protection of privacy when on a Monday washing day she was careful about what was put on the line to dry with the amusing quip – ‘ I do not want to put that on the outside washing line – I don’t want the neighbours to see them!’ What we show people and why is a fundamental ‘given’ in the strand of these 50 chapters. In and through them Mark demonstrates an understanding of the nature of the sermon and what such an art – and perhaps a lost art at that – can do and cannot do. Gently but firmly he offers advice and sets out in the introduction how he goes about the crafting of each piece. In this process there is energy and adventure but above all – always theology.
There is a reverence for words and a fundamental belief in the importance of language and what it is in our hinterland (if we have one at all) that shapes, excites, illuminates, perplexes, frustrates and causes us to lose sleep. There is an intentional commitment to mission – though I think Mark perhaps would not want to express this in this way – he wants to play his part in changing the world for good as the kingdom is explored and people are invited in to the way of Christ. To do this we must turn around, look at life differently and be prepared for every fibre of our being to be changed and charged. We need to recover our anger and our lament. We need to show how best individuals, families, communities and churches can flourish in their being saved from a smaller world and a fearful church.
Marks hinterland is shaped by poetry, politics and a faith that refuses to be limited by the narrowness of so many of the well defended idiosyncrasies of modern church life! Put rather crudely Mark invites us to get over ourselves, to put on a different pair of glasses, to abandon or contain our cynicism and be excited by the possibilities of a different story and a better journey. What I found most moving in all of this was Marks vulnerability – he is unafraid to open his heart and to explore what is good, more loving and wildly more adventurous.
You will not be disappointed by this book – I guarantee that its fluency, intelligence and gritty edge will excite, enlarge and enliven.
Reviewed by James Woodward, Principal of Sarum CollegeI j