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Geography of Grace:

Doing Theology from Below

Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke

Prepare to be astonished and challenged when you read Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below (Street Psalms Press, 2012) by Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke. Keep your box of tissues close by, too. This history and methodology of an ongoing, gritty street ministry is as beautiful as it is shocking. Geography of Grace was written by two friends who are members of a religious order called Street Psalms. “Teaching and preaching good news in hard places,” is how they describe their calling. As Rocke and Van Dyke tell it in the introduction, Geography of Grace was written “from the crucible of deep personal struggle among a community of leaders that has spent many years “doing” grass roots theology. So, we are not writing in isolation as “keepers of truth” or “insightful innovators”; rather, we are attempting to give voice to a conversation we have been engaged in for 20 plus years. A conversation rooted in our growing love for the Word and the world.”

The title, Geography of Grace, refers to the idea that “grace, like water, flows downhill and pools up in the lowest places,” and therefore occupies a location, a geography of sorts. Rocke and Van Dyke ask, “Could it be that the deepest reservoirs of God’s grace are located in the lowest places?… Do the people and places most marginalized and ostracized by the mainstream society and the church actually hold a prophetic vision for us all?”

The second half of the title, Theology from Below, as practiced by Rocke and Van Dyke is defined by them in this way: “We are talking about reading Scripture with and for vulnerable people and vulnerable places.” The Street Psalms website also says this: “We practice spirituality from below, together learning to see and celebrate good news in hard places. We share a spirituality of imperfection that delights in the Spirit’s dance among awkwardness and disarray.” As a part of Street Psalms, Rocke and Van Dyke not only minister in hard places, but they introduce others to their method of ministry and train and support grassroots leaders who are already serving those who live in the lowest places.

Geography of Grace is divided into four sections. I will highlight parts of two sections, “Descending” and “Hovering” in this review.

The section called “Descending” is about how Christians can learn to face the down and dirty parts of our lives, our communities and our cities, and not run away in horror but gaze steadfastly at the situation in order to truly see what is happening. According to the authors, one can learn to deal with the realities of life by using the guidance of gospel insight. A most remarkable part of this section of Geography of Grace is the retelling of the story of the Levite and his nameless concubine from The Book of Judges, Chapter 19. Rocke and Van Dyke consider this text to be possibly the most repellant part of scripture, second only to the crucifixion of Christ. The way in which the authors enfold this horrific story in Judges into the glorious salvation work of Jesus on the cross is nothing short of breathtaking, and worth the price of the book. It also is an illustration of what it means to look at true wretchedness, the kind of suffering that is faced by many on the margins of society, with gospel insight.

“Hovering” focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit. A chapter called “A Study in Acts” shows how the early Christians had to catch up to the Holy Spirit, who, after Pentecost, was moving far ahead of them, “dancing across” boundaries of culture, race, gender and generational divides. Rocke and Van Dyke say, “The activity of the Holy Spirit in mission [in the book of Acts] creates shock waves among the people of God, forcing them time and time again to re-imagine God in light of the new realities created.” This un-fettered moving of the Holy Spirit continues to this day, say the authors. Rocke and Van Dyke particularly emphasize that in their work through Street Psalms they have learned that it is not they who bring Jesus into a new mission field; it is the Holy Spirit who goes ahead of them and begins the work first. Their mission is to be alert to the Spirit’s activity and no matter how inhospitable or unseemly the site may seem to them, they must follow the Spirit’s lead into the new area.

In their involvement with the people and difficult locations they serve, Rocke and Van Dyke have found it very important to learn how to ask “beautiful questions.” The authors say that early in their ministry they had been following the well-established evangelical church pattern of praying and asking God to show them what to do, writing up their strategies and having “God sign off on their plans” by praying for his blessing and approval. The next step was to go somewhere in the world to find out how to implement the work they felt compelled to do. Now, they reverse this model — they go to the place God has called them and then ask beautiful questions of the residents in the area so that they can learn what the people of the neighborhood may need. Rocke and Van Dyke write that this is what Jesus did — often he asked beautiful questions of those he helped: “What would you like me to do?” or “Do you want to be healed?”

One beautiful question asked by Van Dyke of a gang member in a much feared locale in Guatemala called “The Badlands” was, “If you had my job as a pastor in this community, what would you do to reach yourself?” Answer: Organize a neighborhood handball tournament. The handball event that was arranged by Van Dyke and his team was the beginning of many good, long lasting changes in “The Badlands.”

Where questions are asked is also important say the authors, and they point out that the most beautiful question Jesus asked his disciples was put before them in a place where their answers would be free from the powerful influence of Jerusalem and the temple, the center of their spiritual lives. It was in Caesarea Phillipi, the most northern edge of Jesus’ ministry, a kind of Jewish “Badlands,” that Jesus posed his beautiful question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Rocke and Van Dyke say, “[We] have come to realize that the central aspect of our calling as Jesus’ disciples is to pursue the pools of God’s grace in hard places far north of familiar life and experience. We find that our [Street Psalms] conversations guide us far from the “sacred centers” of our personal Jerusalems where the questions tend to be answered for us. The question of ‘Who do you say that I am?’ sounds very different when asked in the middle of a cemetery overlooking 3,000 people who work in a garbage dump to scratch out a meager existence that it does from the comfort of a Sunday school classroom.”

Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below by Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke is a profoundly affecting book. Take it with you to a place that is meaningful to you and read it there. Geography of Grace could inspire you, your friends and your church to ask some beautiful questions in your neighborhood; be prepared for some amazing answers.

Special thanks to Terri Baas, friend and fellow reader, who met Joel Van Dyke on a vision trip to Guatemala, recommended Geography of Grace for The Open Table, and trusted me with her copy of the book: Your love for Jesus and the people of Guatemala shines like the sun.