IN PRISM'S BOOK BAG: Two books that take a searching look at today's church
reviewed by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
MAKING SENSE OF CHURCH by Spencer Burke with Colleen Pepper (Emergent/YS, Zondervan)
HOPE AMONG THE FRAGMENTS by Ephraim Radner (Brazos Press)
It was amidst the rubble of the little chapel called St. Damiano that St. Francis heard God's call: "Rebuild my church which is in ruins." To obey meant both to acknowledge that the church was fragmented (not the sort of thing good church people ever want to hear) and to accept the task of staying put in the broken body of Christ. MAKING SENSE OF CHURCH and HOPE AMONG THE FRAGMENTS are testimonies from two American Christians who have heard a similar call in the fragmentation of our own time. Their separate locations in a divided church and differing responses in word and action are an instructive introduction to the contemporary conversation about the future of the church in postmodern America.
Spencer Burke, a member of the Emergent Fellowship who worked in evangelical ministries for 22 years, quit his job at a prominent megachurch in the late '90s to start TheOoze.com, an online message board for discussions about the emerging church in postmodern culture. MAKING SENSE OF CHURCH: EAVESDROPPING IN EMERGING CONVERSATIONS ABOUT GOD, COMMUNITY, AND CULTURE is Burke's "letter, of sorts, back to…the established church," making sense of his own experience in evangelical America while also making an appeal for others to consider how the church might need to change in rapidly changing times. The need for change, Burke insists, does not arise from a simple attempt to be relevant (that ever-present evangelical temptation), but from the realization that "in many ways, the church is the last bastion of modernism in our culture." Taking a cue from postmodern deconstructionists (while resisting the urge to tear everything down), Burke wants to "unwrap" the gospel from its church-growth packaging and ask again what it means to be church in this time and place called America.
Resisting the modern temptation to give answers in a single, authoritative voice, Burke invites his friends from TheOoze.com into the pages of MAKING SENSE and lets a polyphony of voices ask questions, from "Why do evangelical churches look so much like lecture halls?" to "Where is the church in the AIDS crisis?" Burke doesn't have all the answers, though he does offer metaphors for new ways of doing church, asserting that "metaphor has the power to help us identify ourselves in new, boundary-breaking ways – ways that facilitate conversation and help us relate to each other as individuals, not stereotypes." Just as questions far outweigh answers, metaphor trumps definition in this postmodern attempt to make sense of church in a postmodern culture.
Ephraim Radner's HOPE AMONG THE FRAGMENTS: THE BROKEN CHURCH AND ITS ENGAGEMENT OF SCRIPTURE is an effort to resist the same modern illusions that Burke warns against through serious theological reflection on how the church reads Scripture (and finds herself in its narrative). Though Radner's presentation demands a degree of familiarity with the language of theology (perhaps a degree in theology!), his critique of modernity's handle upon the church is more radical than the debates between left and right usually allow. HOPE AMONG THE FRAGMENTS strikes at the very root of the church's captivity to modernity by re-engaging, as Peter Maurin said, "ideas that are so old they seem new."
"Despair over the Church is the great vice of modern Christianity," Radner observes, "even (and perhaps especially) when harnessed to strategies of calculated and frustrated renewal." To hope in the midst of the present crisis, then, is to be countercultural in the most fundamental sense. As an Episcopal priest, Radner sees the brokenness of the church manifested in debates about bad bishops, church marketing, and the definition of marriage. His focus on Anglican problems, though, serves as a window into the predicament of the broader church: "We now stand in the same condition as that of the first Christians after the resurrection. We have no articulated theology, we have no proven structures of authority, no experienced framework for the reading of Scripture that is common to us as a church."
Yet we have hope. And hope, Radner insists, is not our blind refusal of reality but, instead, our chief means of resisting the ethos of modernity. "The providence of God rules the church," Christians confess, "and its travails are given to us as justice and mission to be received in humility and repentance." Radner displays how a figural reading of Scripture, such as we may learn from the church fathers, teaches us just this sort of perspective because it trains us to think of ourselves as Israel – sometimes in exile and sometimes in Zion, but always in the providential care of God. The "emerging church," then, whatever metaphor we use to describe it, will be faithful to the extent that it patiently remembers the good news that God has reconciled the world to himself in the "one new man," Jesus Christ. Ultimately, to reject the hubris of modernity is to confess that the church's only hope is that, in the end, God will resurrect us from the dead.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove lives at the Rutba House in Durham, N.C., and directs the New Monasticism Project (www.newmonasticism.org). He is the author of TO BAGHDAD AND BEYOND: HOW I GOT BORN AGAIN IN BABYLON (Cascade Books, forthcoming).