Featured Reviews, VOLUME 7

Samuel Wells – Learning to Dream Again [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0802868711″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41jAw%2B3kgML.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Samuel Wells” ]Re-Imagine

A Feature Review of

Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God

Samuel Wells

Paperback: Eerdmans, 2013
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Reviewed by Joseph Krall


On a cold October Saturday morning last fall, I walked from my hall across the quiet campus of the University of Indianapolis to hear Sam Wells speak. The buzz of conversation met me as I walked into a lobby full of graduate students, teachers, and administrators, up and about and talking. I found a seat in the auditorium a little before 8:30, not quite as wide awake.


But Sam Wells took to the podium, and for the next hour he had my attention and that of everyone in the room. Later published as “Rethinking Service,” Wells’s talk was both adroit in its argument and convicting in its implications. As he contrasted two ways of understanding our basic human problem (mortality or isolation?), gave a theological rejoinder (God is not only for us, but with us), and challenged us with a question regarding our own service to others (“Are we going to love or search for solutions?”), I knew I was in the presence of a remarkable storyteller, one who enabled his listeners to re-imagine both dominant cultural narratives and their own personal histories.

Now Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, Sam Wells continues a ministry of re-imagination. As he invited the Lilly Fellows Conference to “rethink” what service will look like in the 21st-century academy, so Wells invites us, in Learning to Dream Again (Eerdmans, 2013) to “rediscover.” Seasoned with humor and leavened with Scripture, this collection of short essays was written during Wells’s seven years of teaching and working as Dean of Duke University Chapel. As such, they not only range widely in scope and subject, but also have a strong pastoral and homiletic character.


“This book sets out,” Wells writes in the introduction, “to stimulate its readers to inspire and cultivate good passions, and help them discover ways to turn their transitory desires into lifelong loves” (5). This is a matter of shaping minds and imaginations – a matter of finding the shape of wisdom. For Wells, Christian wisdom is embodied in Jesus. In his incarnation, cross, and resurrection, we see “earthy humility, shameful suffering, effervescent joy” – “Jesus’ life is the shape of wisdom” (9-10). Moreover, writes Wells, we have been given this wisdom; finding the shape of wisdom means affirming that we already have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). Indeed, Rediscovering the Mind of Christ may have a more apt subtitle for these wisdom-focused and Christ-centered reflections, which Wells has grouped into chapters, all sharing a common form: “learning to  . . . again.”


In these meditations, Wells seeks to re-engage how we interact with those we love, with our vocation and recreation, with the world’s problems, with Scripture, with our deepest hurts and rooted hopes, and with God Himself. He explores the “contracts” and “covenants” that distinguish our relationships and our difficulties with knowing each other and ourselves, making a beautiful observation in “Searched and Known”: “With us, knowing and loving are separate . . . God’s knowing and loving are indistinguishable” (36). He writes potent reflections on food, hunger, abortion, and medicine. He engages Scripture in acute and agile readings: “David became king. And gradually the terrible irony began to kick in. David became Goliath” (143). Indeed, Wells’s exegesis throughout is excellent: having read “Food is Politics,” the aforementioned essay on the food industry, I will never be able to read Luke’s Gospel without seeing the profound symbolism of Jesus’ meals. Well’s experience as a minister also consistently emerges in these pieces, from an early mistake as a young pastor (introducing Pringles to the youth group) to the book’s closing anecdote, when, after a painful experience in ministry, Wells is reminded by his bishop that “you need to learn to dream again.” One particularly poignant memory occurs in a reflection on the power of art, “Turning All into Alleluia”: Wells visits a road-sweeper, whose mother has just passed away. The man shows Wells a huge collection of opera videos: “‘This is my glory,’ he said, with tears falling down his cheeks” (76).

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