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Friday, February 13, 2015

"From Tablet to Table" (Leonard Sweet)

TITLE: From Tablet to Table: Where Community Is Found and Identity Is Formed
AUTHOR: Leonard Sweet
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2015, (192 pages).

What is the biggest problem facing families and churches today? Answer: the inability to reproduce our faith. Riding on this inability is a host of other concerns such as the loss of identity; the adoption of non-Christian worldviews as "cure-alls"; simplistic silver-bullet faith; and a lack of rootedness in Christ. Leonard Sweet believes that our self-concept and discovery of identity must go back to the fundamentals of life: Story like what Sweet terms: Narraphor.

A "Narraphor" is a combination of narrative and metaphor that makes up our table talk. He critiques modern Christianity as becoming some form of a "fast-paced, word-based, verse backed, principles driven template for truth" and a "handy tablet of rules and regulations." The Truths of Christianity cannot be reduced to such a tablet or template. It is a Person. Christianity cannot be lived by rules, regulations, or regurgitation of information passed from pulpit to people. It has to be lived with living stories over a simple table. Whether it is family eating, inter-generational gathering, or fellowship meals, a tabled faith makes for a stable faith. Like the benefits of home-cooked food over fast-food, a tabled faith has the following benefits based on the study of Cody C. Delistraty:
  • Frequent family dinners raise good kids
  • Frequent family dinners improve children's vocabulary
  • Frequent family dinners enable future academic success
  • Frequent family dinners prevent childhood obesity  
  • Frequent family dinners indirectly treat depression and suicidal thoughts

Like the communal relationship of the Triune Godhead, whenever we break bread and have a meal together at the table, we invite Jesus into our midst. Sweet's key idea is: "Narraphor precedes principles, and stories and images are the crucibles of thought. Metaphors are the primary path to perceive reality, including the reality of God. To testify to truth is not to versify but to storify." Tablet is about how we reduce biblical story into concepts, principles, and pointers. Table is about a conversation of stories and storying people. Sweet says it well that disciples have "storied" identities. He goes on to state his case for the place of community over the table. He takes a leaf from Martin Luther's famous "table talks" to argue that Christian fellowship and theology is very much over the table. Over the table, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the elements to his disciples. The metaphor of a table is then applied to three areas.

The first area is the home where he warns the perils of TV dinners where one allows children to eat alone, missing the precious opportunity for family bonding together. This contrasts with images of meals in the Bible are mostly community based.  At the family table, members come out of "hiding" in their individual world to interact openly with one another. They acquire taste of food present. They do not rush. They wait for one another. They learn table manners. They share truth. Sweet makes an interesting inside into the way we use "seeker-sensitive" in some church services. In fact, seekers are not "seekers" but "hiders." It is God who is the real Seeker.

The second area is Church where the Presence of Jesus is crucial to meals. In fact, each time we give thanks, we are inviting Jesus to come among us. Particularly interesting was Sweet's take on theology being taught over the table by Jesus. It was noted in Luke's gospel that almost 70% of teachings happened over the table. At the table, liturgy guides us as we are formed into a community. Church is a community of people, both saints and sinners. Over the table, community is being formed as people do things together and influence one another.

The third area is the world and Sweet continues to hammer home the importance of table where relationships are cultivated. Reaching out to neighbours through meals. I am particularly struck by the different levels of food offered in a "hierarchy of hospitality" in the old days. Workers get the burnt parts of the bread. Family gets the middle while guests receive the "upper crust." Gospel hospitality is about offering the best to our guests.

Leonard Sweet is E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew Theological School, also known for books like The Gospel According to Starbucks, Jesus Manifesto, Real Church in a Social Network World, and many more. He is passionate about outreach and this book basically shows us why. The emphasis throughout the book is about table talk and table activities. As a metaphor, the table is a place where relationships are built and where life stories are shared. As an outreach, the table is where believers can practise gospel hospitality to share with strangers and guests the beauty of Christ. As Church, the table is a place where theology is taught, friendships are strengthened, and community bonds are renewed. As family, the table is an important opportunity to build family ties. It is hard not to be convinced by Sweet's relentless focus on the benefits of the table. Sometimes, it may seem that he is overdoing it. In a way it reflects the conviction on the author's part. At the same time, there is a risk that readers may start to wonder is there anything else other than a table that we can do family, Church, and outreach. On a practical scale, Sweet's ideas are very relevant and make practical sense. In our busy lifestyle, mealtimes are probably one of the best, if not the best ways to take a break from our daily busyness and to simply chill out with loved ones.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of NavPress, Tyndale House Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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