Thursday Review: Michael Emlet on cross talk

A review of Michael R. Emlet, CrossTalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet, New Growth Press, 2009.

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Rick tell you his wife is divorcing him after 22 years of marriage. How do you bring the words of Scripture to Rick? How do you counsel him with the word? CrossTalk is an attempt to answer this question. It’s a book on the use of Scripture in pastoral counselling.

It opens with a chapter outlining a number of scenarios to highlight both the challenges in applying Scripture to life and some of our preconceptions about how this should be done. The Bible is not, says Emlet, primarily a book of do’s and don’ts, nor a book of timeless principles for the problems of life, nor a casebook of characters to imitate or avoid, nor a system of doctrines. Instead the Bible is a story: the story of redemption with Christ as the centre. This means we need to look back to where we have come from and forward to where we are going, all the time remembering that this is God’s story, not ours.

To apply the Bible life, however, requires not only reading the Bible as a story, but being able to read people. Strikingly here Emlet’s approach parallels that of his approach to the Bible. He’s moving us away from proof-texting to seeing the Bible as an integrated narrative. In the same way he moves us away from trying to understand people through disconnected words or actions. Instead he proposes that we look for the “narrative skeleton” running through the person’s life. ‘In this sense, everyone has a story. Not simply a story to tell but a story (or stories) to live, a plotline that is going somewhere.’ (66) Emlet suggests using basic worldview questions (Where are we? Who are we? What’s wrong? What’s the remedy?, 69) to plot a person’s story in a way that parallels the Bible plotline of creation, fall and redemption. This allows us to ‘answer the fundamental questions of life with the biblical story’ (71).

Emlet suggests that we should view people in the categories of saints, sufferers and sinners (all of which will simultaneously be a reality for most people). He suggests that it is important to highlight these particular aspects of our identity as believers because “they describe our experience before Jesus returns to consummate his kingdom. How we live in our ‘roles’ as saints, sufferers, and sinners reveals how aligned we really are with God’s Word.” (74) (I’ve included below the main questions Emlet suggests for analysing people in this way.) “In ministry we are reading two ‘texts’ simultaneously, the story of Scripture and the story of the person we serve. In ministry we must always have one eye on the biblical text and one eye on the individual. Or better, our gaze constantly shifts between the two.” (90) Chapters 8-10 explore these principles through an extended case study.

In the final chapter Emlet emphasizes that the use of Scripture is a process, not a one-time event. Personal ministry is a dialogue, and that conversation occurs over time. He concludes by reminding us of the need to immerse ourselves in the word and rely on the Spirit rather than trusting a methodology. ‘The more we immerse ourselves in Scripture and the more self-conscious we are in our approach to people, the more natural and spontaneous these connections will be’. (173) ‘Real-life ministry requires wise creativity and Spirit-dependent flexibility, not slavish adherence to a set of rules’. (174)

If these ideas do not strike you as new then you may not gain much from reading CrossTalk. But if they are then CrossTalk would be a great place to start, to start learning how to use Scripture rightly in pastoring one another.

One final comment: There are a couple of pages on the role of the community in pastoral care (60-61, 175), but they are very brief and it would have been good to see this developed more.

Questions to help you understand a person

Questions for the Saint (95)

1. What evidence of God’s grace do you see in the person’s life?

2. In what ways do you see the individual already living true to her identity in Christ?

Questions for the sufferer (97)

1. What significant situational stressors is he currently facing? Consider things like body/health issues, relationship pressures and circumstantial and social/cultural influences

2. What were the significant shaping events of his life?

3. How has he been sinned against?

4. How is the person experiencing his problems?

Questions for the sinner (98)

1. What desires, thoughts, emotions, and actions are out of line with gospel/kingdom values?

2. What motives, themes and interpretations of life “compete” with the biblical story?