Murray Milner Jr.
Wipf & Stock, Eugene, 134 pages
Reviewed by David K. Garth
Explanations and antidotes for the decline of mainline church membership abound, although few of them attack the problem frontally on theological grounds. Murray Milner starts with the premise that some modern Christians have given up on church simply because they cannot believe basic doctrines. “Understanding the Sacred” is his attempt to give classical Christian doctrines – such as the Nicene Creed – the kind of understandable language current in today’s world.
Three things make his effort attractive to pastors, congregations and theologians.
First, he writes as an insider, a lifelong lay Christian personally committed to the church’s worship and culture. Almost incidentally, he reveals his stance as a progressive in social causes. References to God move casually between male, female and neuter. This book is neither an attack nor a replacement for the language of the last 2000 years, merely an alternative, another option. It’s dedicated to his Sunday school class where many of his ideas were chewed over and refined.
Second, although the author is a retired professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, he also demonstrates a keen grasp of the historical development of Christian doctrine, betraying a careful acquaintance with the nexus of liberal theology and modern culture. His pithy summaries of topics such as incarnation, providence and prayer are alone worth the modest price of the book. For instance, on God and tragedy, he writes, “All of this is to say that instead of omnipotent, we should think of God as supremely powerful, but limited because of past decisions and commitments — such as establishing natural laws and giving humans a certain kind of freedom.”
Third, the language is a model of clarity and precision. Especially for pastors challenged every week to put into words the examples adequate to tradition and still relevant to 21st century culture, Milner offers intriguing possibilities for reflection and preaching.
The lack of interest in doctrine among many of today’s Christians often frustrates me because so many pastoral concerns are rooted in the old questions that have plagued humanity forever: How do we relieve guilt? Can we be reconciled to God and each other? Why do we suffer? What happens after death? What makes Jesus special among the world’s religions? Can God really intervene in the world? Such issues give work to theologians whose task Milner says is essential to evaluating the various answers we develop. “Meaningful doctrines are not the core of the church’s life – but they are essential,” he writes. Without adequate doctrine, we lose the tools to face up to any popular response to life’s critical concerns.
Some readers will not agree with the urgency of the problem addressed here. It’s quite possible, as the author admits, that modern, educated Christians will go on repeating the Nicene Creed with little worry about the ancient philosophies behind that language. Popular fantasies such as the TV show “Game of Thrones” make liberal use of “kings” and “lords” although the civilized world has reduced those titles to tame honorifics. Milner only glances at the role of biblical language in general but makes no attempt to suggest why its usefulness endures in worship, nor does he ask whether it should endure.
One cannot do everything, and part of this book’s virtue is its brevity. Those of us concerned for the future of Christian faith will find it a trusted resource for better understanding the sacred and perhaps a provocative text for discussion of the future church.
David K. Garth is a retired Presbyterian pastor living in Charlottesville, Virginia.