Homelessness, Recommended books & reviews

‘Stories from the Street: A Theology of Homelessness’ by David Nixon [Review]

stories-from-street-theology-homelessness-david-nixon-paperback-cover-artAs a Christian who has been working with homeless people over the last 20 years, I was very excited to see the publication of this book.   Christians working and volunteering in this field need a strong theology to inform, guide and nourish their activism.

Despite the fact that the majority of homelessness organisations and projects started in churches, the integration of Christian faith and spirituality within the practical work has been a major weakness.  Many homelessness projects have gone down the well-worn path of ‘dis-integrating’ faith from their work – either by abandoning it overtly or quietly allowing it to recede into history.  But despite this trend in homelessness charities, the Church continues to sprout new responses, such as the rapidly growing Night Shelter initiatives where seven different churches work together to offer hospitality to the homeless every night of the week.

So a ‘theology of homelessness’ should help define what the Church has to say about justice, hope and transformation.  Disappointingly, Stories from the Street does not achieve this.

Real life stories

The structure of the book promises much.  David Nixon, an Anglican Priest in Plymouth, constructed the book around interviews with eleven people who have experienced homelessness – these are the ‘stories from the street’.  Their centrality to the book gives a prominence and weight to the real life stories of actual homeless people.

Part One of the book outlines a theological and sociological basis of the use of stories and Part Two introduces the results of the eleven interviews. A summary of each of their life histories gives a flavour of what their lives have been like and the difficulties they have faced.  Then the themes from their lives are analysed and threads are drawn out such as health, relationships, childhood experiences and substance abuse.  Part Three draws out conclusions towards constructing a theology of homelessness.

Part Two is the most helpful part of the book because having the experiences of real homeless people establishes a raw human reality at the heart of the book.  But unfortunately the analysis and theological reflections which surround the stories are very disappointing.

Theological jargon

Firstly, like many books drawn from a PhD thesis, I found much of it a turgid read.  Outside of the stories of the homeless people it is densely packed full of theological and academic jargon.  This means that the defining narratives of the book are obscured by a density of theory relating to the story telling process.  Take this sentence as an example:

‘The intersection of writer and those written about, together with issues of voice, point also to the influence of postmodern thinking and, as in a mathematical problem, the desire to show workings; what Jagose calls in relation to Queer Theory a display of exoskeletal support. This translates here to a recapitulation of the story in which we find ourselves, and in particular to a wish to isolate moments where previously held theory may be challenged by such empirical data that conversations and interviews have provided. A theology of homelessness is the destination to which these markers point.’ (p.140)

Sentences like this might work within academia but they will serve to blind most readers rather than illuminate. Ironically, it is a quote from one of the homeless people, ‘Julie’ which best highlights this point:

‘God made life so simple. It was people who complicate it.  We’re losing each other with lots of big words that people don’t understand.  Jesus spoke in parables and things like that and made it so simple.  He took something from life to explain something. They don’t do that here. They explain things with things people don’t understand.  With jargon, people don’t understand jargon. They don’t need jargon.’ (p.130)

The complexity and chaos of homeless people’s lives offer enough variables and challenges to coherent analysis.  It would have served the aim of the book better to have a more straight-forward approach using concepts such as human worth, shalom, sin, injustice, salvation and hope. As Julie’s quote illustrates, the power of the faith of many homeless people lies in their straightforward understanding of the challenges of life and their genuine sense of hope in God.

Broader context

Secondly, there is a thinness of the base from which Nixon is drawing his reflections.  Eleven people in one city are not a large sample so these stories needed to be assessed within a broader context.  Nixon does not draw significantly enough on the important research with homeless people over years (for example by Lemos & Crane) or on the perspectives of staff within the centres.  It reads as the theological musings of someone who visits homeless centres rather than someone whose ministry has been embedded within them.  This contributes to a perceptible lack of confidence to probe and grapple with the harder questions.

Thirdly, the book displays the weaknesses of much liberal-left social theology because it tends towards presenting homeless people as simply victims of a degenerate economy. There is little counter-balance to this perspective and consequently very few hard questions grappled with about personal responsibility and the role of self-sabotage.  It shows the classic danger of middle class liberal social analysis which tends to minimise the role of personal agency as a component of social problems.  Although these perspectives appear sympathetic and compassionate, and win applause from Bishops and academics, those on the front line know all too well how imbalanced this perspective is.  At one point the author refers to the ‘lack of theological literacy’ in the local homeless projects. But sadly it is theology like this that contributes to this disconnection.

Important times

These are important times for Christian work with homeless people.  Rough sleeping increased in the UK by 42% last year and churches have a critical role, especially through the growth of the churches Night Shelter initiatives. Also the recent report Lost & Found: Faith and Spirituality among Homeless People gives a trenchant critique of the prevailing secular orthodoxy in homeless services.  One factor which has brought about this reality is inaccessible and incoherent theology.  More than ever, Christian social action needs a theology which draws on the best transformational work and which expresses confidently the relevance of Christian thinking, the hope of the gospel and the practice of Christian spirituality.  This is the kind of theology which will excite activists and be able to really help Christians make a difference to homeless people.

Stories from the Street: A Theology of Homelessness by David Nixon (Ashgate, 2013)

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