Review of The Goldilocks Zone (Collected Writings of Mike Ovey)

If you ever find yourself standing on Platform 14 at Manchester Piccadilly station and you look down to the streets below, you’ll see the old frontage of Mayfield Station, where the locomotives used to run from in days gone by. And you’ll likely notice that on the ageing brickwork three words have been affixed in bold lettering, made up of eye-catching lightbulbs and powder-coated steel: ‘Everything is Connected’. It’s actually an art installation by British artist Peter Liversidge, celebrating the regeneration under way in the city’s Mayfield area, but it would also make a fitting sub-title to The Goldilocks Zone (TGZ), a collection of essays, articles and addresses by the late Mike Ovey and recently published by IVP. Up until Mike’s untimely death in January 2017, he was the Principal of Oak Hill College, one of the UK’s foremost evangelical theological seminaries. And though there’s much that could and has been said about Mike’s gifts and legacy, he was a master of showing the significance of theology: of drawing connections between the realities of life and theological thinking, and demonstrating how all theology was inevitably intertwined, not least with our doctrine of God. A Banquet to Return To As you’d imagine, like most ‘collected works’, this isn’t a tome to blitz through, as you might do with a topical book. Instead TGZ is best treated as a banquet to which one can repeatedly return, letting Mike’s approach, method and worked-through thinking slowly diffuse into one’s mind, as we meander through the various articles and essays. Indeed, the subject matter is, in typical Ovey-fashion, hugely varied. That in itself underlines how remarkable Mike was as a thinker, able to turn his mind to any particular issue – be it from the Bible, the Church, or the World – before then showing how the issue in question was actually relevant to all three areas. Indeed, everything is connected. Editor Chris Green has collected these writings into four main sections. We begin with fifteen of Mike’s short ‘Off the Record’ columns for online reformed journal Themelios. These were highly-anticipated with each edition, providing bitesize yet incisive reflections on contemporary issues. Whether it’s his proposal that – following the psalmist – we might better serve our culture by using the language of theft to describe sin, or his reflections on the way we can covertly ‘gag’ God as we introduce our own readings of a text, each piece is stimulating, self-aware and actually ends up raising more piercing questions than it gives answers. In the second section we get seven of Mike’s contributions to the Cambridge Papers, a series birthed from a gathering of Christian academics – convened by Michael Schluter – which began meeting regularly in Cambridge in 1988. The group would take it in turns to consider a contemporary issue and address it in light of God’s revelation. The aim was, as Mike put it, to “think Christianly”. These are slightly longer pieces and include Mike’s perceptive and timely comments on the rhetoric of victimhood; a consideration of the biblical category of idolatry as a tool to understand religion; and a gentle but deft exploration of the presupposition that God could never conceivably establish asymmetry between the sexes. Deepwater Diving Brings Home the Pearls In section three, Green selects two of Mike’s longer theses, both concerning the doctrine of the atonement and both published previously in different publications. Of course, Mike also co-wrote the renowned Pierced for our Transgressions, a colossal defence of Jesus’ death being both punitive and substitionary, which has become a ‘go-to’ resource on the subject. And yet even with all that is said in that tome, these two essays are a welcome contribution to the defence and proclamation of an orthodox understanding of the atonement. In both the reader is given a lesson in deep-sea diving – very deep! – and you find yourself being introduced to characters who may have otherwise been unfamiliar. For example, the first piece sees Mike riffing on the work of twentieth-century historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, whilst the second is a nuanced engagement with Gustav Aulen, a regular name-drop for many an undergraduate theologian, but perhaps not always with the most nuance. And yet in both, despite the depth, you still return to the surface with many pearls that bring value to the challenges of being ministers of the gospel in 2018, such as an exploration of the tendency within some denominations to speak of the validity of different ‘gospels’ for different people, or the question of how we might speak of God’s victory alongside or in contrast to God’s justice. The final section is made up of three addresses/lectures Mike gave at the Global Anglican Future Conferences (GAFCON), an international assembly of Anglican leaders that first took place in Jerusalem in 2008, before Nairobi in 2013 (and with a third conference scheduled again for Jerusalem this coming June, 2018). Two of the essays (2008) see Mike essentially unpack some of the theological convictions undergirding his approach to theological education. These are a helpful ‘under-the-bonnet’ introduction to what Mike understood as a gospel-shaped approach to the Scriptures, in a sense giving his methodology behind Oak Hill. But it is the final essay that is the stand-out, entitled The Grace of God Or the World of The West. Those who had the privilege of witnessing this delivered in person  describe the electric atmosphere that prevailed amidst All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi as Mike spoke. He essentially argues that in much of Western Christianity there abounds a ‘cheap grace’, to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase, being a message that is lacking in biblical notions of repentance and that is more in tune with what the prevailing culture demands and expects. There is no doubting that this is a tour de force, with numerous diverse cultural reference points enriching a message that is both blistering in its critique but also heartfelt in its personal tone. By the way, if you hadn’t guessed, the fairy-tale inspired title of this collection is a reference to Mike’s conviction, expressed in one of the opening articles, that just like Goldilocks’ porridge, theology needed to be ‘just right’. He’d often explain this by speaking of the … Continue reading Review of The Goldilocks Zone (Collected Writings of Mike Ovey)