Samuel Wells, The Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 328pp.
The Nazareth Manifesto took a fairly long time to write. Its first origins are back when Wells was ministering in Norwich in the late 1990s and read a book which introduced the language of working for, working with and being with. However it wasn't until he arrived as Dean of Duke Chapel in 2005 and beginning to understand the mission of the church (in the context where mission was almost entirely as working for) that the book began to be developed. He delivered a lecture in 2008 called 'The Nazareth Manifesto' in which the key argument of the book was outlined and this eventually became the first chapter in Living With Enemies, a small book which was part of the series called Resources for Reconciliation. Alongside this came sermons, two of which bookend The Nazareth Manifesto, which showed the importance of being with in scripture. The Nazareth Manifesto is the expanded argument explored theologically and ethically, written in first few years as vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which itself has its own particular mission.
The simple argument is this is Wells' attempt to argue for the importance of being with over working for for theology and the way the church lives out its mission. Like his earlier work God's Companion's, Wells uses the tactic of overwhelming the reader with his argument, both in theory and practice, so that you are left finding it very hard to disagree with him. The Nazareth Manifesto even has two chapters at the end in which Wells seeks to deal with his critics before they even get a chance to write their reviews. Wells wants to show the impoverishment of a theology and ethics of working for and as such the argument of the book is in some ways an 'exaggeration', but he says (in a footnote), that 'if I thought there was the remotest chance of my proposals being widely adopted I might speak differently' (p.19).
Wells grounds the importance of 'with' in the gospel, in fact, he says 'God with us' is the gospel. The story of scripture is the story of God's desire to be with us, and only within this 'with' can we speak of a 'for.' The book offers a re-reading of the doctrines of the Trinity, creation, incarnation, atonement, pneumatology, ecclesiology and eschatology through the lens of 'with'. The book also seeks to re-read the Bible's narrative - creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, and church - with with as the central concept.
Wells writes in usual style, which is both academic and sermon, theology and example. He uses the story of The English Patient as a means of making an early point that what is wrong with the world is not mortality but isolation, in other words, we are too busy trying to overcome death, that we miss the importance of being present: Laszlo leaves Elizabeth to try and save her, instead of being with her at the moment of her greatest need. Later he uses the stories of God's Hotel, the lives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and George Bell, and story of Stuart and Alexander in Stuart: A Life Backwards. Each of these stories is a means of Wells exploring what being with looks like not as an abstract idea, but as the story of a life.
At the centre of the book is the parable of the Good Samaritan (ch.6) and the doctrine of the Trinity (ch.8). These are the most important chapters. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Wells re-reads the parable not as one about how we help those in need, but as one in which we are the person lying in the ditch needing help, and the unexpected stranger saves us. Everything about Christian mission says we go to help others, Wells suggests that Christian mission is about finding out we need to receive the mercy of others. Later he speaks of the way that those deemed poor are also rich and those deemed rich are also poor, being with another person is about discovering both the poverty and riches that make up our lives. The chapter on the Trinity outline eight aspects that God is with God: presence, attention, mystery, delight, participation, partnership, enjoyment and glory. This is fullest description of being with without sin and it is this that Jesus invites us to discover (so ch.9).
The book leaves you examining your own life and the life of the church in which you belong - am I shaped by for or with, is our church shaped by for or with - and the book is a means of offering the means of discovering how we might transition from for to with. It also asks the question of overseas mission agencies/societies, are they too heavily about working for and working with and do they take seriously simply being with? When the church is full of different kinds of community mission through night shelters, food banks, toddler groups, cafes, parish nursing, street pastors, etc, The Nazareth Manifesto offers a means of examining what we are about, both in terms of theology and in practice. Wells believes that at the heart of God and the gospel is with and to be the church we must learn to be with God, with one another and with our neighbours and the stranger - this where the kingdom, this is where the glory of God is found.
Every minister in training should read it. Every church considering a new, or reviewing a current, project should read it.