by John Colwell
In his Why Have you Forsaken me?,John Colwell offers a personal reading of Psalm 22. In so doing, he has produced a book which, both in form and content, brings the reader to the heart of theology. As a whole, the book is lively, short, easy to read, and keeps the subject matter close at hand.
It begins with a personal story in which the author traces the contours and history of his own experience of depression, as a particular example of how the absence of God feels. More intriguingly, how that divine absence is experienced alongside the call to be the pastor of a church and lecturer in a theological college.
Although the author concedes that readers may wish to skip the first couple of chapters to get to the real theology, humility prevents him from stating that to do so would miss the point of the entire book. There is a uniqueness to this little volume which makes it read almost like a novel. The end of the book will read entirely differently had you not followed the path beaten by the earlier chapters. One has the sense that we are not being taught theology, so much as led out of the lecture room and into the storms of the real world, in order that we might glimpse, and more importantly, feel, something of the desolation felt by Jesus.
From the cross, Jesus cried out with words that any right-minded, clear-thinking, second-person-of-the-Trinity would never choose. But as Colwell leads us ever nearer to the cross to hear those words for ourselves, he has already slowly and skilfully shaped the way that we will hear them. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
By the time Colwell brings these words from the lips of Jesus to contemporary questions of our day, we can already feel what is coming. And yet we are forced to read on, in the same way that we want to see the villains in a Dickens novel receive their comeuppance. Those questions include: the nature of contemporary worship habits, especially in Baptist circles; the legitimacy of ‘penal substitution’ as a way of understanding the atonement; the impassibility and the suffering of God; the presence and absence of God. These questions are properly explored with Colwell’s usual competence and critical tone.
But the greater theological engagement within this volume is woven through the manner in which it is written. The author’s style seems to suggest that, just as the Israelites emerged from Egypt and Jesus from the tomb, so good theology emerges from the experience of hardship and suffering. For sure, the experience of reading this book leaves the indelible impression that other, drier, more objective and less personal engagements with theological ethics, are secondary and derivative by comparison.
We need more of this kind of communication, in both our libraries and our pulpits.