Book Review by Helen Yeung
Wong, Maria Liu. On Becoming Wise Together: Learning and Leading in the City. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2023.

Summary

In this newest volume of the Theological Education between the Times series, Maria Liu Wong brings her readers on a reflective journey of what theological education can be in the urban city through her own narrative as a British-born Asian diaspora woman in North America, a missionary kid, a wife and mother, a Christian volunteer teacher in other parts of the world, and an urban theological educator. Unlike many books on theological education, Liu Wong’s volume uses critical autoethnography as a method to trace how God shapes her theological formation as her own story intertwines with others’ stories. These “others” are not only her colleagues and students at City Seminary of New York, where she serves as a provost. These “others” are also her family, friends, and even strangers on the street. Liu Wong is convinced that “how and where we come to know and with whom we come to know are as important as what we know” (5, emphasis original). This statement summarizes her proposal to understand theological education not as individualistic and rational, as in the traditional Euro-North American way, but as “intercultural and communal,” encompassing both formal and informal settings (5).

Liu Wong traces how the Spirit has been shaping her theological formation, beginning from her biological family’s roots in Asia to her own family with three children, to various chapters in her life that took place on different continents, and finally, to her present home in New York City. She invites her readers to “pause and reflect” with guided questions throughout the book. As God’s people gather at la mesa (the table), learning to discern how the Spirit moves and shapes one’s life as a member of various communities in “both chronos in its sequential sense and kairos as the opportune moment” (18), God’s people can become wise together. Liu Wong proposes that this critical theological reflection is a necessary process for God’s people to “become God’s peace in the city together” (21).

Time (in the sense of chronos and kairos) is a crucial thread that runs throughout this book. Liu Wong begins by reflecting on the formative power of “waiting” (ch. 1). In waiting, God’s people learn to make time to ask, reflect, and discern: “It is a process of becoming wise…to the ways of the Holy Spirit” (4). Chapters 2 through 5 all start with a simple question: “Do you have time to…?” This question invites readers to consider whether they have the time to remember, see, listen, and be – with each chapter focusing on a different facet of life that shapes our theological formation. In chapter 2, Liu Wong reflects on how her “family” (spanning multiple generations) “shapes spiritual and theological thinking as well as life practices” (25). Chapter 3 delves into the diversity in “friendship,” which holds the power to shape the ways we understand ourselves, God, and the world, and creates opportunities to practice faith together. In Chapter 4, Liu Wong shares how her lived experiences inside and outside formal theological education continue to shape who she is. Chapter 5 focuses on how she understands “leading” as dancing with others, as who might be in the “center” of influence or who might be at the “margins” is constantly in flux. In Chapter 6, Liu Wong closes by reflecting on how “becoming as a process involves family, friends, learning, and leading” (17). She maintains that all of God’s people are on the pilgrim journey, learning to be witnesses of the “living mystery” together in the world.

Assessment

This book is unlike many other, more traditional theological education books in two ways . First, the autoethnographic nature of this work is like Liu Wong’s invitation to the readers to join her in reflecting on her journey of theological formation. However, this reflection is not a self-seeking or self-actualizing memoir. As the author says, this work is filled with “struggle, lament, hope, celebration, and lessons of humility” (8), yet it remains grounded in God’s unfailing grace despite people’s brokenness. Reading this book is like sitting at the table and listening to a good friend share both her joyful and painful tears as she recounts how God has been shaping her as a person who commits to be a witness of the “living mystery” in the world. Her story resonates with me, as if she is whispering my own lived experiences as someone who also lives on the “margins” as an Asian North American woman with multiple identities as pastor, missionary, church planter, and wife and mother. As she admits her risk in “embracing the tension of writing out of the margin…[and offering this work as] an alternative, aesthetic, oppositional act of becoming, of creating space to see differently and make meaning” (6), her testimony serves as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to people who might be considered as belonging to the “margins.”

Second, this theological education book at times reads like a devotional book. For instance, Liu Wong lives up to her promise of creating the necessary space for her readers to enter “the cycles of action-reflection-celebration” by ending each chapter with a “Pause and Reflect” section that shares questions for consideration. As a reader sitting at the la mesa with her, I gratefully and joyfully accepted Liu Wong’s genuine invitation to seek “transformative possibilities” empowered by the Spirit in my life and in the part of the world where God has placed me (11).

As one of this book’s core concepts is the “intercultural and communal understanding of theological teaching and learning” (4), perhaps it would have been more beneficial to read this book in a community. This book could be used as a resource for faculty retreats, trainings, or other group sessions for reimaging theological education in one’s context. After all, “faculty is the curriculum” (Ferris, Lillis, and Enlow Jr 2018). As faculty reflect together as individuals coming to know themselves, God, and others, they may begin to recognize how God has put them together to form the curriculum of theological education at that particular time and space. Essentially, theological education is not about the transfer of knowledge but rests upon educators who can model and embody the kind of discernment of the works of the Spirit in individuals and in communities that Liu Wong discusses. The labour of theologizing does not rest on any individual’s shoulder but on the body of Christ as a whole.

This book is written “out of the margin” by a North American diaspora woman leader, challenging the traditional Euro-North American conceptions of theological education that emphasize individualistic rational habits of knowing. However, I wonder if Liu Wong assumes too much that Christians from communal backgrounds automatically know how to theologize together. As much as theologizing together could pose a great challenge to Christians who embrace individualism, this challenge may not be any smaller to Christians from collective cultures. The ability to discern has been paralyzed by sinful human nature. No culture, whether individualistic or collective, has healed that wound. Rather, the capacity to “pause and reflect” on the work of God in our lives and in our communities has to be intentional and ongoing for all people of God. While Liu Wong demonstrates well the much-needed “pause and reflect” rhythm for theological educators and Christian leaders, the intercultural and communal understandings of theological teaching and learning need further exploration for their particular expression in various cultural communities.

Another area for improvement in the book is the lack of a clear definition of “theological formation.” This term is used frequently throughout the book, yet Liu Wong does not define it, which could cause some confusion for readers. I found myself repeatedly searching for Liu Wong’s own interpretation of this foundational concept. Perhaps the term “theological formation” was Liu Wong’s intentional effort to denote a lifelong theological education, as distinguished from the usual connotations of formal theological education. If that is the case, Liu Wong could consider specifying this fact explicitly.

To Liu Wong, this book is a “joy-work,” helping her remember and recount God’s works in her life. To me, this book is a “joy-read” that does not rest merely on the cognitive aspect of knowing theology but also the embodied understanding of knowing God. I highly recommend this book to Christians from both individualistic and collective cultures who believe that “we are living theology as a verb” (5).

Reference

Ferris, Robert W., John R. Lillis, and Ralph E. Enlow Jr. Ministry Education That Transforms: Modeling and Teaching the Transformed Life. Cumbria, CA: Langham Global Library. Adobe Digital Editions PDF., 2018.

Helen Yeung

Helen Yeung is a PhD candidate in Educational Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Her dissertation research focuses on the formational experiences of North American theological educators who seek to cultivate student formation. She strongly believes in teaching for formation and is passionate about empowering other theological educators and church teachers to do the same. Upon graduation, Helen desires to serve as a theological educator in East Asia.