Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Prodigal Christianity (a NuDunker Review)

The NuDunkers are at it again. Our next Hangout is planned for Friday, May 3, at 11am EST. We'll be joined by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, authors of Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier. Join us, won't ya? 

These are my initial thoughts on the book:

A few weeks ago, friend and fellow NuDunker Laura Stone summed up one of the particularities of Brethren theological understanding this way:

“…we are committed to our principles and committed to denouncing evil practices and life-denying policies, but we will throw all that out in favor of taking the most loving action toward a child of God.”  

That line struck me immediately as true, and also as the reason why neither the current trends in systematic theology nor the popular descriptions of Christian practice ever seem to sit right. In true Anabaptist+Pietist or Believer’s Church tradition, the theology that we’ve inherited is filled with inherent tensions: faith + practice, doctrine + ethics, ideas + relationships.

It’s that Anabaptist familiarity with ambiguity that shines through Prodigal Christianity, David Fitch & Geoff Holsclaw’s attempt at making a way forward between what they see as the extremes of “emergent” and “neo-reformed” thought. In so doing, they land in a third way that they call “evangelical Anabaptist,” or “radical evangelical.”

Much of Fitch and Holsclaw’s book sounds familiar. What’s most striking and most Anabaptist (if I can claim some authority for a minute on that one) about their arguments is the ways in which they seem to be borne out of their communal practices of witness and discernment with their own congregation in suburban Chicago.

Fitch and Holsclaw use particular situations from the life of their congregation from the very beginning to the very end of the book, describing disagreements about sexuality, conversation about justice, and discernment of mission that they’ve walked through together. This writing from experience as theological method is not an unfamiliar tactic. What makes this particular perspective different is that Fitch and Holsclaw write not as experts or even as individuals, but as members of a community committed to discerning God’s movement, together.

I’m not sure how to make that distinction as clear as it ought to be. This is not situational theology, doctrine dependent on circumstantial happenings. It is informed, intentional, and consistent. But it is also deeply contextual. In each chapter, Fitch and Holsclaw emphasize the relational nature of Prodigal Christianity, the primacy of living life rooted in place and committed to those neighbors who make up a life.

Discernment is the key to prodigal Christianity: “We are not arguing for one approach,” they say in their chapter on justice, “…just that we do not know how God might work until we are in the middle of discerning it.” (144).

Given their insistence on community, context and discernment, I find it interesting that Fitch and Holsclaw would choose to outline their book – and their thought – in a posture of opposition. Following their own personal journeys into and away from neo-reformed and emergent thought, each chapter critique of both camps and proposes an alternative, “third-way” forward. I’m not sure what to make of this set up, other than that it feels natural and comfortable for the authors to write in the style of their own thought progression.

Anabaptism was born of opposition, it’s true. But it is a way of thinking and living that has sought to avoid doing violence – both physical and intellectual – to any other. That does not mean conflict avoidance, of course, and perhaps Fitch and Holsclaw are attempting dialogue with the likely conversation partners they name and critique in the book.

Still, I am left wondering what a book like Prodigal Christianity would look and sound like if, instead of offering a theology in opposition to “emergent” thought or in the shadow of neo-reformed theology, it began from a positive posture of revelation, experience, joy. Certainly, we would lose some of the marketable element of disenchantment with the modern church, with which many, many people identify. And perhaps it would have to be written by others, whose journey has not led them through those communities of thought.

I am tired – bone-weary, really – of bickering over theological labeling and minutiae. I am much more interested in reports of God at work, of people being transformed, places being reclaimed, situations being made new. I’d much rather hear a life-giving gospel spoken in a life-giving way. I think Fitch and Holsclaw want this, too. Theirs is  a book full of stories just like this.

But the conversation partners with whom they are attempting to engage – Tony Jones, Scott McKnight, James K.A. Smith, among others – seem to be more interested in the bickering than in the practice and discovery. (That is probably a bit unfair. I actually think these guys who find themselves in both theological camps, emergent as well as neo-reformed, are struggling mightily with their theories to make them wider and more generous. But that is for another post.)

Anabaptists have never been particularly good at evangelism – who really wants to join a group famous for getting killed and martyred? Instead, we have a history of being a quiet people, content to live out a faith that makes its mark in humble service, attempting to remain more committed to the painfully slow movement of Kingdom transformation than we are co-opted by the lure of popularity, power, money. How do you live this way AND be in conversation with those enjoying the biggest book sales, most blog hits, and popular theological influence?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I DO think it will become more and more relevant as Anabaptism intrigues more and more Christians fed up with the structures of Christendom. I’m grateful to Fitch and Holsclaw, both for their theology AND for their attempts at humble, faithful conversation in its wake. May it continue.

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