Entry Point Towards Child Theology with Matthew 18 by Haddon Willmer, Keith J White
South Woodford: WTL Publications 2013 pb 234pp £12.99
This is a journey in a book as two wise and experienced UK based theologians explore one of those light bulb moments that sometimes come to us. Thus Willmer and White spent twelve years reflecting in dialogue on what theology looks like if you put a child in the midst (cf Matthew 18.1-14). Although they are both part of the Child Theology Movement (http://www.childtheology.org/) and have drawn on the encouragement and wisdom of that community of scholars, they make it clear that this book presents their own views.
The structure of the book involves seven chapters, each one taking a key word drawn from the story: child, kingdom, temptation, disciple, humility, reception, father, and then a conclusion. While not a traditional exegesis, the book enables one to explore the passage at depth from a range of perspectives and the detailed end notes for each chapter did not spoil the flow of the text but enabled me to see where there thinking had come from and potentially to follow up threads of interest. I also appreciated interchangeable pronouns for the child. Willmer has largely been an academic theologian and White runs (with his wife Ruth) a Christian residential community which was started by his family in 1899 and where over 1000 children have spent some or all of their childhood over the years (http://www.millgrove.org.uk/). I am not a completely unbiased reviewer having known Keith White for many years and having spent time at Mill Grove as part of my ordination training. What this does mean is that I am aware that this book is rooted in experience and practice and as such is an exercise in practical theology while also being well referenced, thoughtful and provocative.
One of their core premises is that our reception of the “vulnerable” Word of God “may be partial and distorting” and does not always find the “reception” it might hope for (p.21). This is an acknowledgement that the church needs to enter into critical dialogue with the word of God as the disciples did with Jesus and be willing to recognize where she has misheard the word and be willing to unclutter some of the “accrued baggage” brought to the hermeneutical endeavour (p.21-2).
My notes for this book review are littered with quotations that are emblematic of the perspicacity of the book although I would have appreciated more stories illustrating the points being made. So a sentence such as “They [the good] must venture the kind of action which imagines possibilities, discerns options and discovers identity. God’s calling of human being involves the whole person – or community – in an unfinished pilgrimage” (p.87) for me would be enriched by a practical example. As a theological educator I would also have appreciated some discussion questions at the end of each chapter as that would have facilitated students applying the learning.
A potential disappointment is that because of the perceived subject matter the book may have a niche following yet there are insights for all of us who seek to do theology or live their life as Christians. One example from the Kingdom chapter drawing on the story where the mother of James and John pushes their claim to honour (Matthew 20:20-28) discusses how ambition and anxiety can drive us to pursue the Kingdom in a way incompatible with how Jesus intended it to be. Thus “they expected, impatiently, a kingdom that would satisfy their dreams, rooted in personal and national self-interestedness” (p.62). The history of the church is littered with such examples.
This is a book with rich insight for those who work with children in a variety of sectors. Theologically inclined parents may also benefit from reading it and certainly the caution that even loving parents “nurture the child they envision rather than the child they have actually been given” (p22) is one which I have observed. For me this is a book where wisdom drips off the page and it pushes me to think and rethink various long-held beliefs and assumptions. While the book took over ten years to write it is one that probably takes more than one reading through to mine the riches within.
 I wrote this up as Lessons on love and family from Mill Grove for an ordinand and theological educator. Journal of Adult Theological Education 9.1/2, 2011.