Stephen B. BEVANS and Roger P. SCHROEDER, Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011. pp. 194. $35.00. ISBN 978-1-57075-911-6 (pbk.).
Reviewed by Robert E. WRIGHT, Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, TX 78216

In this volume, the authors ably explain and defend their use of “prophetic dialogue” as “the key to understanding mission theology and practice today” (5). They jointly reworked previous individual essays and added new material; thus there is some acknowledged repetition throughout the work. Their explanations and arguments are drawn from theology, church history, recent church teaching, and the use of various images or metaphors.

The first four chapters deal with the underlying theological themes: God’s mission and the Church as a servant of that mission, dialogue, prophecy, and contextual theology. The first chapter, on God as mission – that is, as self-diffusive – insists that the church is thus secondary (“the mission has a church”) and its institutional structures should not “bog down” God’s mission. The second chapter roots dialogue in the Trinity, as never imposition or conquest, and gives metaphorical images and historical examples of mission as dialogue. The next chapter lays out different types of prophecy and gives metaphorical images and historical examples of mission as prophecy. The fourth chapter adds to a summary of the preceding chapters the necessity of paying attention to context.

These basic themes are then concretized in six chapters dealing with standard questions in a theology of Christian mission: the elements or dimensions of mission, transcultural dynamics, missionary spirituality, biblical foundations of mission, the history of missionary endeavors, and recent Roman Catholic teachings on mission. The six elements of mission are explained as witness and proclamation; liturgy, prayer, and contemplation; justice, peace, and the integrity of creation; interreligious and secular dialogue; inculturation; and reconciliation. The chapter subtitled “intercultural mission/ministry” uses the metaphor of entering someone else’s garden to describe the attitudinal requirements (respectful openness) and hoped-for outcomes (mutually enriching change) of what others usually call transcultural ministry, that is, serving within a culture not originally one’s own. That chapter, and in important respects the book itself, do not directly address intercultural mission, understood as mission among two or more cultural groups inhabiting the same area (or parish) and frequently interacting, although much of what is presented is certainly applicable to intercultural situations. Rather the perspective remains that of a missionary serving in the “territory” or context of a group that is not his or her own.

The next chapter makes the same points as the previous one by using the more direct notions of “letting go” of one’s own “outsider” viewpoint and “speaking out” to the extent that one is an “insider” together with those of the culture in question. To this reader, the author(s) emphasize “letting go” to such an extent, quoting Vincent Donovan about preaching “a ‘naked gospel’ shorn of as many of the preacher’s presuppositions as possible” (92), that real dialogue almost gets lost through the apparent discarding of one’s own cultural moorings. That it is possible to preach an almost “naked gospel,” bereft of one’s own culturally situated faith, is certainly not their position, but that is the impression given in this section.

The authors’ biblical reflections on mission occur principally in the chapter on mission as table fellowship. As stated more clearly in the first chapter and in the chapter on the history of mission, Jesus’ purposeful boundary-breaking meal practice within Judaism is explained as intentionally expanded beyond Judaism by the apostolic church to all of humanity through the Spirit’s prompting. Inexplicably, however, in examining the practice of table fellowship, the authors speak of “dispensations” from dietary laws by the Council of Jerusalem (107), which on the contrary upheld those rules, and do not address at all Paul’s injunctions in this regard – all of which provide important principles of discernment for Christian life and mission.

The chapter on the history of Christian mission deals mostly with geographic expansion and the changing nature of missionary organization, but the authors do briefly note cultural dialogue/adaptation in certain cases: the Alexandrian school, the Cappadocians, the early Syrians in China, Cyril and Methodius among the Slavs, some Jesuit pioneers in several Asian countries, and Ajayi Crowther in Nigeria. The authors also note the protests of some of the first missionaries in the Caribbean against oppressive colonial systems, while stressing the alliance of the missionaries in the Philippines with such systems. Unfortunately, they slip into unwarranted generalization in alleging that “the Spanish friars in the Americas disparaged culture and preached a Christianity that destroyed it” (137). They see the missionaries in the great 19th-century expansion of European colonialism as often pawns of the colonial powers. These latter missionaries, Protestant and Catholic alike, are said to have considered local [non-Christian] cultures and religions basically evil. The 20th century saw a steadily increasing challenge to this European self-certainty, a momentary questioning of missionary activity around the 1960s, and the emergence of a new mission theology and movement. The authors note recent Vatican cautions about losing the essential centrality of Christ in interreligious dialogue. They also properly point out the impact of global migration and shifting vocation patterns that are erasing the former clear distinctions between “sending” churches and “receiving” churches.

The last few pages of the history chapter and the final chapter itself deal with the new mission theology in Roman Catholic declarations since Vatican Council II, principally Vatican II’s Ad gentes (1965), Paul VI’s Evangelii nuntiandi (1975), John Paul II’s Redemptoris missio (1990), and Dialogue and Proclamation (1991) by two Vatican departments. The focus is upon the new aspects raised in each document and their correspondence with the notion of prophetic dialogue: the entire church as servant of the mission of the Son and the Spirit, mission as about a particular cultural group rather than a territory, appropriate respect for and participation in cultures as bearing divine treasures, the church itself as in constant need of evangelization, the many dimensions or elements of mission including social justice and ecological responsibility, other religions as participated forms of Christ’s universal mediation, and interreligious dialogue as mutual religious growth. But the authors would be hard pressed to demonstrate their assertion that Evangelii nuntiandi “implies in [its] call to evangelize cultures the dialogical dimension of all evangelizing activity” (147): that document is all about what the church does to cultures, not about what it learns from them. Although not noted by the authors, this latter point – learning from cultures – is one of the major explicit teachings of Redemptoris missio, which indeed is “the closest the Roman Magisterium has ever gotten to articulating a comprehensive and systematic reflection on mission, and . . . represents a major step forward. . . .” (147).

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