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March 11, 2013

If only I’d thought of saying that: Chris Russell’s TEN LETTERS

by Mark Meynell
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We’ve all had that frustration of suddenly realising the mot juste to clinch an argument … long after it has been lost and forgotten. ‘If only I’d thought of saying …’ or words to that effect. (And as Don Carson once pointed out, we never lose arguments during their mental rerun.) Well, this is essential what Chris Russell has done in his Ten Letters: to be delivered in the event of my death (DLT, 2012). Though I’m being harsh – to reduce this extraordinary book to argument-clinching zingers after the event is very unfair. These letters are more like deep pastoral meditations after encounters, events, conversations which subsequently required extended reflection and heart-searching

But I couldn’t help thinking that for the letters that are a little more confrontational than others (and by all accounts, it seems they needed to be) the emotional pressure on the recipient to read them if indeed they had been delivered after Chris’ demise is not inconsiderable! Thankfully, he has not died. But the merits of these letters far outweigh the need to add the ‘in the event of my death’ heartstrings-yank. Still that is a totally minor gripe.

Chris Russell - TEN LETTERSChris and I were at the same theological college (though we’ve not seen each other since) – and remember him as a great guy, full of life and humour but also theological depths and compassion. Both elements shine out from the book. It manages to be at once intellectually stretching and pastorally empathetic. Some of the situations that the letters speak into are heart-rending – the death of a parent despite expectant faith in God’s healing power, or the sudden accidental death of an infant. Others are for people on the fringes of church or who have grown into positions of responsibility within it. One is a challenge to someone we both knew (I suspect) to be prepared to explore beyond the confines of his theological framework – though if Chris does mean the person I think he does, this individual does in fact do that now, even if he didn’t seem to back in our college days.

What I most appreciated, though, about this book is that it doesn’t fit into any particular categories or niches, is beautifully written (oh, how I’m getting increasingly jaundiced about the quality of so much Christian writing) and is consistently sympathetic even when provocative. It is at times cleverly apologetic (especially the Everything and Sin chapters), at others quite involved theologically (he frequently quotes from the highest echelons of Cambridge academia). So I suspect it is not going to be the sort of book to put in the hands of the casual inquirer. But for someone who is a thinker, it might be just the job.Throughout, I found myself thinking of specific chapters to give to different people. So this book is a rare combination indeed.

Thoughts from the 10

Here’s my very potted summary of each letter

  1. Everything: about religion and spirituality and the revolution brought about by the Incarnation and revelation of God as Trinity
  2. Faith: about true biblical faith only understood when contrasted with fear and/or magic (e.g. it endures even when our faithful prayers are not answered).
  3. Belonging: you can’t really a lone-ranger Christian – we are called to be part of a community
  4. Sin: written to a sceptic who objected to the statements of John Newton’s Amazing Grace. But who are we really, and why is the world in the mess that it is in?
  5. Seamless: God is involved in every part of life, not just in the spectacular but in the main, not God of the gaps but God of the centre.
  6. Ask: a whole chapter of questions (most of them difficult and searching) probing and exposing the potential dangers of frameworks that are too tight and narrow.
  7. Why?: an agonising letter written to and about his recently killed one year old nephew.
  8. Worship: the simple but all-too-often radical notion that God must be the centre of life and worship, nothing else.
  9. Limelight: a trenchant critique of Christian sub-cultural fads for names & celebrities, power and numbers; the most important ingredient for faithful ministry is character.
  10. Identity: an inspiring letter to a recently baptised child about the identity into which he is being called to grow

As will be clear from this cursory glance, there is much profit in here. It didn’t satisfy my every itch, inevitably, and there were times when I didn’t always go along with him. It could have done with a tad more biblical moorings and less systematic theological extrapolation (from the neo-orthodox stable) – but then this is precisely what biblical theologians always say about systematicians! But why on earth should it dot my every ‘i’? There’s absolutely no point reading only writing that buttress your own point of view. And there is so much treasure here that I felt my heart warmed as much as my mind was stretched. And it is a joy to be reminded of the wisdom of the likes of Miroslav Volf and Eugene Peterson. Here are a few of Chris’s gems.

  • I loved his revisiting of Peter walking on water (in harmony with both Calvin’s and Barth’s interpretation): if he’d had faith, Peter would have stayed in the boat!
  • “Faith isn’t seen in ducking death, but in facing it. Death is the litmus test for hope. In death faith comes alive.” (p37)
  • “Sins are actions that have no future, that having nothing redeeming latent within them. Lust is sexual desire without commitment; lies have no future in the light of truth, gossip turns back to bite the gossiper, violence spirals into further violence, amassing wealth creates an insatiable thirst for more.” (p72)

  • “There are no height charts for gaining entry into the kingdom. You can never be too young to be part of the family of God.” (p163)

Thoughts from the real

All of this is derived from his experiences of genuine, personal and committed ministry. And that is what makes these letters so authentic. There is no ‘I told you so’ about them (as so easily could have been the case in letters to be read in the event of a death). They are more like marker posts for where Chris had reached on his faith journey at the time of writing. Hence:

… a couple of years ago one of the teenagers at church was having such a hard time at home she came to live in our house. On her first night I nearly sent her packing, as she said that what she was most interested to see was whether I was a different person at home from who I was at church. I didn’t want that level of scrutiny. I didn’t want to be found out. I didn’t want the glaring contradictions that my wife and children could justifiably raise against me to be seen by anyone who wasn’t my flesh.

My philosopher friend, the seventeen-year old Michael Lynch, poses a question we all struggle with when he asks, ‘why is it harder to be real than to be fake.’ (p90)

Why indeed?

So all in all, highly recommended food for thought, prayer and life. If only I’d thought of writing this…

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