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God of the Depths
by Michael Howard
London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1999 (available to North Americans through Amazon.co.uk)
(160 pages; £9.99, paper)
by Richard Kew
When my seminary contemporary, Michael Howard, said in his family Christmas letter that 1999 had seen the publication of his book God of the Depths, I decided that it was something I wanted to get hold of and to read. I am so glad that I did, because it is a book that has edified me enormously. Not long, 132 pages, it is well-written, pastoral, and above all, thoroughly theological.
In his foreword, Bishop Michael Marshall writes, “In an age when spirituality is the buzz word and is frequently marketed as the ‘feel good factor’ inviting us to escape from the hard realities of a universe compiled of conflicting and dark forces, here is a timely book in the midst of millennium hysteria that encourages a journey into God, inevitably involving a passage through the deep waters of our human crises.” Having read those words of endorsement of one old friend’s work by another, I plunged in with deepening interest.
Michael Howard is someone I haven’t seen for years. We talk on the phone occasionally and have kept in touch through writing. He was in the same class as me at seminary, a large, enthusiastic, intelligent man, with a love for fine music (especially Haydn), good literature, and geology—his discipline before heading off into the ordained life. All these interests, and others, are to be found in God of the Depths, used by him to interpret, in a mature and carefully reflective manner, the ways in which our humanness encounters the dark places.
Bishop Marshall also says in his foreword that Canon Howard introduces us to a multidimensional understanding of Christian discipleship “based not on the idolatry of slick certainties, but rather on a living faith, which is prepared to go through the deep waters of life with its problems, crises and challenges,” which is right on the button. The man who wrote this book is also prone to episodes of depression, which means the depths that he is seeking to understand have an inner component that makes them regular companions on his own journey.
Like so many clergy, I tend toward the depressive end of the spectrum myself, so I was eager to get into the book and see if he could help me get a better grasp of myself through thoughtful theological reflection on similar personal realities. I did not realize it at the time, but when I read Howard’s book, I was about to tumble into a period of inner turmoil, heart-searching, and despair. In the midst of all this, my mother died very suddenly and unexpectedly. Notions that this short book opened up have helped me maintain a modicum of equilibrium through disorienting times.
Over the last few years, Michael Howard, who pastors a small parish and is Bishop’s Officer for Mission, Ecumenism, and Parish Development in the Diocese of Rochester, England, has been involved with the churches in Estonia as they have emerged from what he calls “the Soviet deluge.” In his opening chapter he retells the story of the sinking of the Estline ferry, the Estonia, as it sailed with 989 people on board across the Gulf of Finland from Tallinn to Stockholm in September 1994, and the impact this disaster had upon Estonia and Sweden. This image of the depths breaking in upon the lives of hundreds of people, taking all but 137 of them, lingers in the background throughout the book, although its presence is more covert than overt.
This is Howard’s way of introducing us to the Hebrew perception of the sea, a perception that he then begins to unpack and interpret within its biblical context. He draws forth the manner in which biblical imagery speaks to the human condition and the topsy-turvy circumstances that have a habit of overwhelming our lives. He makes the point that the Scriptures, far from encouraging a gnostic avoidance of “the Deep,” beckon us on to discover how to walk with God and chart a way through the depths. “The implication is that chaos, emptiness and darkness are intimately linked in human experience with what we have identified as the depths. They are ‘non-being’ out of which, in God’s hands, things ‘become’” (page 31).
This book was written by a man who has immersed himself for much of his adult life in the message of the Scriptures and who, through them, has asked God the searching questions that come with the human experience, intensified by the call to pastoral ministry. As you read, you can hear him preaching, teaching, and counseling members of his congregation. As I read this book, I could see the full fruit of perceptions that had their beginning in his mind in the same classes and conversations we experienced together as seminarians in the 1960s.
Living as we do in a culture that has turned avoidance into an art form, I found myself being graciously challenged as I was asked to face up to the Deep and its consequences within my life. “If we are willing to live ‘on the edge,’ to accept challenges, to honestly face the murky deep within our innermost souls, we shall grow in character and maturity. Our lives will bear fruit and we may find God at the heart of all the upheaval” (page 45). Yes, life is punctuated, sometimes frequently, by chaotic waters, barren deserts, and periods of deep darkness, but far from characterizing them as disasters, Howard encourages us to see them as places of discovery and moments of adventure as we journey along with “the three-mile-an-hour God.”
Woven through the book are references by Howard to his own struggles with depression and the concomitant sense of worthlessness that all depressives know so well. Yet this is neither glorified nor dwelt upon, but is used with an integrity that adds immediacy to what he is saying—it accentuates the fact that, to the writer, this is not merely theory and nice theological ideas.
It is as he relates all this to the significance of the Cross that I found him most connecting with me and my own experiences. He talks about the manner in which the crucified God ministers to spirits in hell, that divine absence that seems to accompany being in the depths, and how by his crucifixion Jesus accompanied us into the depths that they might be redeemed. The risen-again-God delivers us through the wounds inflicted, and this message of redemption is not just for us as individuals, but for all people.
Howard talks of the way in which the depths are there within the Church. Drawing upon the insights of Walter Wink, there is, he writes, a pernicious Domination System deeply embedded within every facet of human culture. The constant presence of “principalities and powers” is systemic to being human—it is integrally tangled with sarx, that fleshly part of us. Its siren call is insidious, romancing us through the television screen, in the office, and in the classroom, as well as in the life of the Church. This poison of fallenness is perpetuated in every human being and institution across the generations. “No one grows up unscathed. Most end up as casualties of the ‘System,’ damaged in health and scarred in personal relationships” (page 109).
Let me add a caveat at this point. While I appreciate the manner in which Howard brings out the implication of Wink’s insight that powers of darkness affix themselves “to the elements and structures of the world and to human personalities as social and political beings” (Stephen Noll, Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998], p. 25), he does at times tend to unnecessarily depersonalize them. While Wink does well to draw our attention to the constant presence of the depths, certain of his theological presuppositions are, to my mind at least, inadequate. Darkness is not just a vague entity, it has a personal nature that seeks to dominate and rule the world and every facet of its life.
We do ourselves a disservice if we ignore the presence of the Domination System in the life of the Church, where it is incarnated in a number of ways. Michael Howard warns of just some of the ways we stumble into the grasp of principalities and powers without necessarily being aware of it.
The temptation is to take faith on board and simply make it part of the success story which will improve our overall image. And so media hype comes to church—where conversions are dramatic, healings are spectacular, and people making something of life are flocking to churches that preach what they want to hear. Nothing succeeds like success in Christian circles. Unfortunately there is no room for casualties in this religious version of the Domination System. After all, it crucified our Lord! (page 109)
Of course, there are plenty of other ways that the depths can envelop the people of God.
The book concludes by encouraging us to embrace the depths, and in the process to be found afresh by Christ as part of a lifelong and ongoing process. Its author challenges us to step back from feel-good vacuousness and to wrestle with often-ignored realities.
God of the Depths is immensely satisfying reading, not always comfortable to the sensitive soul, but graciously edifying. It is a book that enables us to interpret and live with life’s realities within the ambit of the sovereign God. Much of what passes for theology today, alas, is anthropology and psychology with a lick or two of God talk—this book is definitely not that. This is a pastor and human being attempting to understand the vicissitudes of life through the manner in which God has revealed himself to us. There are no cheap answers, and neither is there anything trite in his grappling with reality and Scripture.
As he writes, Michael Howard shows us how we can use the written word to make sense of our life as it is lived. I found his exposition both faithful and creative, and came away from reading the book with a fresh wonder at and respect for the Scriptures. This is a book, too, that transcends party and personal Christian preference, much as the writings of Henri Nouwen and Eugene Peterson do—and like both of them, Howard is a gifted writer.
What are its shortcomings? I suppose there are shortcomings, but I didn’t find them—maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. I came to this book curious to see what was making a friend from my distant past tick these days, and came away from it immensely enriched, gratified, and challenged.
I hope this is not the last piece of writing that Michael Howard does. There are a host of themes in God of the Depths that I would love to see him open up and pursue. Meanwhile, I am grateful that a new year and a new century began for me in the company of someone who was a companion of my youth.
The Reverend Richard Kew serves as an associate priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He coauthored New Millennium, New Church and Toward 2015: A Church Odyssey, and moderates the Toward2015 Listserve, an interactive on-line magazine about ministry and the future. He is married and has two daughters.