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The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
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87 of 90 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 22, 2002
When I initially picked up this book, I thought, "oh, another one of these books." There seems to be a new book on pluralism and postmodernism coming out every day. I had read bits of Newbiggin before, and knew that a missionary in India for forty years would have something to say worthwhile. I was not mistaken. Newbiggin's clear voice and wise, yet succinct, observations make this an extremely valuable book to read. I was greatly influenced by this book, and found new insights and confirmation of my own undeveloped thoughts which encouraged and challenged my thinking.
Newbiggin develops his thoughts by showing why and how a Christian message can be conveyed and understood in a pluralist society. He first shows how a pluralistic understanding views religion in general. Coming from an Indian perspective he has an excellent understanding of this. Pluralist societies tend to be religious, accepting the transcendent as something which is greater than one single philosophy can grasp hold of. Yet, Newbiggin approaches this directly, asking "why?" What makes a person know that the transcendent is greater than one religion? He challenges the view by showing that those who claim this are asserting a source of knowledge on their own, establishing for themselves a point of reference which they deny to others. In addition, Newbiggin shows the now common fallacies which are involved in a true pluralistic view. A person can not be a pluralist in a math class. Thus, there are accepted areas in which Truth can be established. The role now before us is to show, and proclaim, that religion can be this area, and that Christianity is this truth.
Along with the claims of truth that must be continually asserted, Newbiggin has several chapters on missions and evangelism which I found very interesting. He points out that the New Testament epistles are virtually devoid of references, exhortations, or instructions to evangelism and missions. This is an unusual observation in respect to the modern emphasis on such activities. Newbiggin points out that these were not referred to for one main reason. It is that the role of evangelism was never thought of as the responsibility for the believer. Rather, evangelism was a result of the power of the Holy Spirit acting in such a way that people were drawn to see and inquire what this new power was. "The mission of the Church in the pages of the New Testament is more like the fallout from a vast explosion, a radioactive fallout which is not lethal but life-giving." Thus, we understand why Paul exhorted his churches to mature, growing in their faith and understanding of the Triune God. It would be through this maturity that the Spirit would naturally move in the lives of believers to reach out to the community around them. When a church loses this focus, ministry becomes difficult and impossible, especially in an age of pluralism.
Overall this is a tremendously valuable book, which continues to spark new thought and approaches to how exactly Christianity can speak to this current era.
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2000
Lesslie Newbigin has written a penetrating analysis of the gospel in our western, pluralistic society. Although this book is over a decade old, it will remain a standard on issues of gospel, culture, contextualization, and postmodernism for quite some time. Newbigin presents with such clarity the pitfalls of many assumptions from Enlightenment and contemporary postmodern thought. With a "baptized" postmodern approach, Newbigin urges for the harmony of private and public life and thought. The church's application of this in faith and practice will be her most effective apologetic for the 21st century. The author makes a strong case that no one (including scientists or historians) can completely stand outside the influences of their particular culture and tradition. All understanding,whether religious/moral values or scientific information, involves faith and tradition. Other helpful aspects of the book reveal that we need a more wholistic approach to understand ourselves and the goal of history. Christ is the Truth embodied who is the universal clue for all men and women from every culture and age to break through this subjectivity to find their destiny and hope in this life and beyond. Newbigin beckons the church to continually reshape the unchanging gospel message in a culturally relevant way in order to most effectively impact the unreached locally and globally. We must clear away all stumbling blocks to Christ, except for one. The stumbling block of the cross. This attitude demands a willingness to reform traditions to connect with changing perspectives in society. My copy of this book is well marked and is an oft used resource for my ministry.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2002
I first read this book for my History and Theology of Mission class in college. Leslie Newbigin's book was a treat to read. He offers a very good look into the Gospel and modern culture and tries to offer a solution to the question of where Christianity fits in a pluralistic world. In an age where no one can claim to know the whole truth anymore, how can Christians go around proclaiming that we know the only way? In modern culture, this makes us seem arrogant and prideful and causes more and more modern people to view the Church in an increasingly harsh light.
However, evangelism can best be served, he argues, by the living witness of a community of Christians and by the activism of ordained ministers to help guide and teach this community. Jesus formed a community, he says, and the best way to witness is simply by being an active part of a flourishing community that praises, has truth, is involved with the neighborhood, where people are sustained to minister to the world, that is responsible, and that has hope. We are not called to defend the faith but instead to simply witness.
Another answer to the increasingly hostile view of many towards Christianity can be found in dialogue. New begin argues that true dialogue serves as a "starting point in our relation to people of other faiths." (180) All humans share the same need to answer the question "Why?" and he believes that dialogue can open the doors to a renewed sense of spirituality because it involves the telling of the story of Jesus. Of course to have true dialogue we must also listen to those we are conversing with, but instead of seeing this as something fearful that could possibly cause us to lose faith we should instead look upon it as an opportunity to check our own biases. No one is completely outside some kind of cultural background, he says, and to keep us from thinking that our own way is the only correct way and to keep us from truly becoming arrogant, he suggests that true dialogue can be used as a sort of diagnostic tool with which to clean the coloring from our lenses.
This book is an excellent apologetic for the twenty-first century; however it does have a few flaws. The first is his use of circular arguments. For example, in an early part of the book Newbigin's response to the attack on Christianity is to ask the unbeliever how he or she can know for sure that we are wrong because they have no outside frame of reference. No one can know the whole truth. However, what is stopping that from turning back on us? Can't one claim that we cannot know the whole truth either? It also raises some questions that it does not answer sufficiently, such as how we should deal with the problem of syncretism. Newbigin agrees with Rolland Allen that once a new church has a Bible, sacraments and apostolic tradition they should be left on their own to develop the gospel themselves. Yet earlier, on p. 96 he says, "...Jesus has been painlessly incorporated into the Hindu worldview. The foreign missionary knows that this is not the conversion of India but the co-option of Jesus, the domestication of the gospel into the Hindu worldview." How do we deal with problems like this? We had to discuss this in class because Newbigin does not provide a satisfactory answer.
This book is definitely a worthwhile buy for anyone interested in modern missiology. Newbigin lays out many good points and suggestions for how modern Christians can deal with witnessing their faith in the pluralistic world we inhabit. It does have several drawbacks, though, in that some parts of it are not fully developed or thought out. It would probably be best to read this at the same time with someone else you know in order to formulate a discussion on some of the issues Newbigin does not cover satisfactorily.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2006
Lesslie Newbigin was (and is, through his writings) a celebrated missiologist. While on the surface of it, this book gives the impression of being an eclectic mix of ideas, there is a fundamental cohesion to the book. In fact it represents a fundamentally new approach to missiology.

The book may arguably be said to have one underlying theme: epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. That is, how can we know? How can we have confidence in the gospel "in the midst of a plurality of cultures and religions"? Newbigin, in his own words, has "relied heavily on the work of Michael Polanyi." Polanyi's epic work "Personal Knowledge" was published nearly fifty years ago, and reveals what might be said to be a coherence theory of truth. That is, if one's beliefs should cohere as a whole, this should be a good indication of truth. Polanyi, however, adds a radical twist to this. He writes about "the coherence of commitment". That is, once one has formed a responsible opinion about "truth", one needs to commit to it passionately, and publish. Only in this way can one both display integrity, and submit one's "truth" to the scrutiny of others -- to be affirmed, modified, or perhaps even overturned. It is not hard to see how this relates to missiology. In terms of this view, the gospel requires commitment and proclamation. This in turn leads to a confirmation of its truth in various ways -- or it may lead to a revision of Christian beliefs and practices.

Newbigin further applies Polanyi's epistemology to virtually every aspect of Christianity. He undertakes a broad task of synthesis, or reconciliation, within the Church. He suggests "a third way of understanding Christian belief" -- a method which seeks to take Scripture on its own terms, and which (he hopes) would be acceptable to Christians of virtually every persuasion. This represents, arguably, much of the drawing power of Newbigin's ideas.

However, Newbigin's epistemology is not without its problems. Not least, Polanyi himself considered that there would be "absurdly remote chances" of successfully applying his philosophy to Christianity, and that even a witch doctor "may gain a limited justification within a society" (p. 318, Second Impression 1962). Further, it seems doubtful that Newbigin gives adequate account of how a living God might find a place within an (apparently) closed theory of truth.

All having been said, Newbigin is intellectually agile, he writes with conviction, and his ideas have a considerable reach. He also shares many interesting insights gained in missions over nearly forty years, as well as important observations on the Church in the West.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2002
Lesslie Newbigin offers an insightful look at Christianity today in his book, Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Serving as a Christian missionary in India for almost 40 years has given this author a unique and authoritative perspective on the Christian's response to a society full of so many different faith systems. He is ready and willing to ask the tough questions that Christians are afraid to ask. He turns the reader to the logic of mission and election, the authority of the gospel, the difference between knowing and believing, and finally the call of the church to be the vessel of the Christian mission. Understanding that Christians today have lost their confidence to boldly proclaim the uniqueness and authority of Christ, he calls the Church to remember its calling in light of a pluralistic culture. Rather than focusing on apologetics or forcing adherents of other faiths to "see the light," Newbigin calls for open dialogue between Christians and people who work within other faith systems or have no religion at all. The focus, then, is not on evangelism, but on developing open, trusting conversation where the Christian can boldly and lovingly proclaim the gospel. Once engaged in such conversation, the Christian can follow Newbigin's example of looking at Christianity in history. On the premise that God exists, He has revealed himself through creation and history. Christ is the unique revelation of God in history, and it is faith in this revelation, which lays the foundation for Christianity. This is a book, which requires slow and steady reading to grasp the depth and insight within it. But, even in a quick reading, it is both challenging and encouraging for the Christian living in a society full of so many other religions.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2002
The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society is a highly relevant book for any modern student of missions. Newbigin's numerous theological and sociological insights have made this a work of frequent citation in missiological texts by other authors.
In the first five chapters of his book Newbigin draws from Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge to critique many of the fallacies of a rationalistic worldview - a worldview which is steadily losing ground to postmodern systems of thought in the present era. He unapologetically asserts that "dogma," long critiqued by proponents of rationalism and positivism as a backward and inferior belief system which characterizes religion, is just as much a part of the modern scientific worldview. All cultures adhere to certain "plausibility structures" or ways of thinking which are unanimously accepted by the members of society. Truth claims are then tested against these plausibility structures to determine their validity. But the plausibility structures themselves are based on unproven, dogmatic assumptions. Newbigin asserts that Christians adhere to a different plausibility structure than society at large - one which is no less certain than the prevalent worldview which so esteems reason and scientific knowledge. He believes Christians should not feel compelled to defend their beliefs according to a popular secular plausibility structure.
Newbigin believes that the Bible is unique in that it relates a universal history of mankind. Although the context of this history lies within a particular group of people in a particular part of the world, its message is applicable to all peoples. This history offers a unique message of hope for all peoples, something which is lacking in many cultures, especially in the modern West. Many Europeans and Americans have no hope at all in the future and therefore have lost all incentive to invest in it. Christ is the center of this history, and his story, as related in the New Testament ultimately envisions a goal which we can work toward - the creation of a better society as we progress in our lives and await the hereafter. Newbigin does not limit Christ's message to a this-worldly social gospel, but nevertheless believes that Christians who focus exclusively on saving souls are missing an important dimension of his teaching. He gives an insightful interpretation of Biblical passages such as Ephesians 3:10 and Colossians 1:15-17, claiming that the "principalities and powers" mentioned in these texts are not demonic beings but rather unjust social structures which can become demonic. Christians have a responsibility to change these structures for the good of all.
Newbigin addresses the issue of how Christians should view those who practice other religions by emphasizing that in the past people have frequently been asking the wrong question, "Who can be saved?" He believes that Christians should approach adherents of other faiths with respect, acknowledging the ways God has worked in their lives, being willing to cooperate with them in worthwhile projects for the benefit of society, and ultimately to share with them the unique story of Jesus.
Newbigin's book is profound and thought-provoking. Although not everyone will agree with all of his insights, they nonetheless merit careful consideration and reflection.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 1999
This is an incisive response to the problems we feel when trying to evangelise. How can I claim to know the truth? Why should I make a stand? I have been going to Church all my life (and am now 18) and I have found this book very helpful in explaining my feelings when trying to evangelise in terms of the culture I have been brought up in. This book allows you to grasp the arguments behind the practical steps that we as Christians should take to spread the word. This is in fact (contrary to the shallow one star review) a very 'change the world' book.
Absolutely brilliant
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 1998
As part of our Doctor of Ministry program at Asbury Theological Seminary, we were assigned this book to read. In my view,it was the best on the Gospel as it relates to Western culture. It speaks to some of the deeper issues of epistemology (how you know something is true) and culture. I highly recommend it!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 1998
Newbigin was a British missionary to India for 40 years. As he traveled between India, with its many religions, and the West, with the increasing number of personal religions of non-religion, he had an excellent perspective on how Christianity fit into the cacophanous jumble of religious diversity. Newbigin deals head-on with many issues that American and other Western Christians have trouble with, the greatest being, "How can we claim that Jesus is THE way, THE truth, and THE life when we see so many good people who have alternative belief systems?" This is a book that will challenge Christians to take courage.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2009
Years ago I was privileged to take part in a Christian College Coalition "think tank" in Washington, D.C., where some of us spent a weekend interacting with Duke University's Stanley Hauerwas, a noted theologian. One of the writers he stressed we should read was Lesslie Newbigin. Six months later, a good friend, ENC's Academic Dean, Maxine Walker said she'd read Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1989) and insisted I should read it. So I took two scholars' advice and read, to my profit, this British missionary, who (though he claims not to be a scholar but simply a "pastor and preacher") insightfully addresses some critical issues.
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society puts in print the lectures Newbigin delivered in Glasgow University in 1988. It calls us, as Christopher Duraisingh states in the book's foreword, "to renewed confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is an attempt to see 'how as Christians we can more confidently affirm our faith in the kind of intellectual climate" in which we find ourselves" (p. vii). As Duraisingh continues: "It leads Newbigin to suggest that 'the Christian story provides us with a set of lenses, not something for us to look at but to look through" (p. viii).
Most of us realize how our pluralistic society demands appropriate thinking and preaching if we're to reach it with the truth of the Gospel. So Newbigin explores the roots and tenets of religious pluralism, a weltanschauung which insists each person be free to establish his or her own beliefs, asking only that one sincerely hold fast to whatever one values.
Religious pluralism allows no dogma, for "beliefs" reside only in a person's mind; they're not true or false, correct or incorrect. As Allen Bloom insisted, in The Closing of the American Mind, relativism and subjectivism flourish wherever "the language of 'values' has replaced the language of 'right' and 'wrong'" (p. 17). Consequently, religious pluralists frequently talk more about "doubt" than "faith." In the academic world, which has been my milieu for more than 30 years, "doubters" are usually considered more thoughtful, more honest, more admirable than "believers." To Newbigin, however, the notion that "doubt is somehow more honest than faith, is an entirely irrational prejudice. It is a form of dogmatism which is entirely destructive" (p. 20). And it's largely absent in the scientific community, which resolutely insists that "facts" can be "known" and publicly tested. Such scientific knowledge, however, is not without its presuppositions, preliminary faith-rooted assumptions con¬cerning the nature of the cosmos and our ability to know it. In fact, as Michael Polanyi (whom New¬bigin frequently cites) insists, there is a deeply personal dimension to all knowledge. Thus, Newbigin says, "There are not two separate avenues to understanding, one marked 'knowledge' and the other marked 'faith.' There is no knowing without believing, and believing is the way to knowing" (p. 33).
This means there is certainty--not absolute certainty, but still certainty--in both scientific and religious knowledge, for both find tradition authoritative. Scientific progress takes place only within the context of an established and re¬spected tradition. It may be challenged and revised, but the tradition clearly stands and exerts considerable authority over scientists. No reputable scientist operates "autonomously." Careful scientists discount "subjective" views--scientific truth is replicable! In training, good scientists follow Augustine's phrase, "Credo ut intelligam"--"I believe in order to understand." So do good theologians. "When we are received into the Christian community . . . we enter into a tradition which claims authority. It is embodied in the Holy Scriptures and in the continuous history of the interpretation of these Scriptures as they have been translated into 1500 languages and lived out under myriad different circumstances in different ages and places. This tradition, like the scientific tradition, embodies and carries forward certain ways of looking at things, certain models for interpreting experience" (p. 49).
Newbigin insists that Christian theology deals with objective "truth," not subjective "values." As such it needs public declaration, discourse, debate. But it must be asserted and defended as "knowledge" dealing with life's meaning and pur¬pose, with God's revelation in history. For the Bible, and the Christian faith, deals with history. Much else is included in Scripture, but essentially it makes clear God's working out His plan for us and our world in the processes of history. "What is unique about the Bible is the story which it tells, with its climax in the story of the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. If that story is true, then it is unique and also universal in its implications for all human history. It is in fact the true outline of world history . . . " (p. 97). And we Christians have the privilege of making known to the world God's ways. For in Christ we find the final "clue to history."
With a message for mankind one may develop a certain "logic of mission." In one of the book's most insightful passages, Newbigin says: ". . . the great missionary proclamations in Acts are not given on the unilateral initiative of the apostles but in response to questions asked by others, questions prompted by the presence of something which calls for explanation. In discussions about the contemporary mission of the Church it is often said that the Church ought to address itself to the real questions which people are asking. That is to misunderstand the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church. The world's questions are not the questions which lead to life. What really needs to be said is that where the Church is faithful to its Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the question to which the gospel is the answer" (p. 119). By being God's people we will be asked the right questions, questions which demand that we answer them wisely. So living and speaking are part of the mission of the Church--and Newbigin regards "the congregation as hermeneutic of the Gospel." This raises issues such as contexualization, the singularity of "no other name" as believers encounter other religions, and related topics which Newbigin skillfully addresses.
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society will reward anyone who reads it attentively. It both illuminates some aspects of our allegedly "secular society" (which Newbigin things is largely mythical) and challenges us to take seriously the Gospel's missionary mandate.
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