To Change the World: Essay 3, Reflections, Part 1

[This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.]

Liminality

“Liminal” is used by anthropologists and others to speak of the state of mind of an individual or community when they transition from one reality to another. As the Wikipedia says,

The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives.

We go through this state after a marriage, divorce, or the death of a spouse. We Alabama football fans went through this when Coach Bryant died. Southern Cal fans are going through this now that their team is on probation (I’ve been there).

The American church has been in liminality ever since the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools and it became clear that the old Constantinian consensus — the alliance of church, culture, and state  — was ending. Of course, the blows to the church’s sense of normality have been continuous ever since.

The result has been ambiguity, indeterminacy, and disorientation. The church has spent 1,500 years in league with the government and, perhaps more importantly, the prevailing culture. As a result, the church has struggled to find its footing. Do we seek a return to the alliance of church and state? Do we classify the government as the church’s enemy? How do we even do church in this new world?

This has led to the Church Growth Movement, which often devolved into American marketing — branding of churches, turning pastors into celebrities, and efforts to meet “felt needs,” such as the felt need for a mocha latte on the way to hear the alternative rock Christian band next to the church-league basketball court and free weight room and yoga clinic.

Then there’s the house church and new monastic movements seeking to flee the institutional church. And the missional movement, seeking to send the church out into the world to do not only evangelism but also good works in the form of soup kitchens and halfway houses.

Indeed, in last 30 years or so, there’s been a succession of “how to” books on how to do church in the new world, with each effort seeking a truer, better Christianity. And, in fact, a lot of good work has been done as we vacillate toward a new, better consensus through a slow process of successive approximation.

Each book, each seminar, and each movement adds an element of truth that had been missing. And so it would be foolish to claim that To Change the World is the end of the process. We don’t have the perspective to make such a judgment — and surely there are truths yet to be added. But it’s clearly a major step forward — and a bigger step the most of the others. Why?

What’s right about the book

* To Change the World is built on a solid theology. It’s not just the Great Commission, but the Great Commission re-envisioned to see “all the world” in more than geographic terms. We must go not only into the slums but also the graduate schools, not only to homeless shelters but art museums. We have to grow up and stop being scared of the cultural elite and reclaim Christianity’s place at the cutting edge of art, music, science, architecture, philosophy, etc.

Christianity thus must be both conservative and progressive (neither term being used in the Church of Christ senses). Christianity is conservative in that it preserves the Biblical teachings, including the scriptural understanding of man and right relationships. Christianity is progressive in that there is no better framing story or metanarrative in which to find solutions to the problems of all men.

Christianity offers much more than a ticket to heaven at death. It offers a better way of being and relating right here and now, and thus a better understanding of the human condition. And a better understanding of the human condition leads to better sociology, better art, better science, better everything.

* To Change the World gives a better understanding of how to live as a Christian. The traditional evangelical view of how to live is (a) be moral and (b) tell your neighbors about Jesus. And those are true but incomplete. The Church Growth Movement and many other “how to” teachings of the last several years work within that narrow framework — friendship evangelism, Barnabas parties, meeting felt needs, slicker marketing, etc. — some good ideas, some not so good, but all taught within that framework.

The missional perspective correctly adds to the mix the necessity of doing good for the weak through food programs, Celebrate Recovery, and many other excellent and much needed initiatives, showing the love of Jesus in practical ways that go far beyond “come worship with me.” The change is toward going into the world to lift up Jesus through works of service. But the missional approach offers little guidance on how to live outside the church-world. What is our mission in our spare time, on weekends and holidays. What about 8 to 5?

Just so, the neo-Anabaptist perspective correctly urges to us work hard to build the church into the community God intends for us to be, and to so offer the world a preview of heaven. If the church really lived the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Cor 13 internally, it would offer an alternative community showing what Jesus offers. And this is right and good, but says nothing about 8 to 5.

The Christian Right and Left pursue holy ends through governmental means, and so take us in entirely the wrong direction. We have to reject their methods while retaining many of their goals. Both are right to call us to be active in standing up for the defenseless: the unborn, the poor, and the discriminated against. And yet neither addresses how to live — only how to vote. They share a sadly narrow perspective on what Christianity is about.

As long-term readers know, I’m a big advocate for the missional approach to Christianity and for building up the church as the neo-Anabaptists envision — and for fleeing the search for political power. But the “faithful presence” perspective adds some much needed thoughts —

1. While it’s not much taught in the churches, the Bible is clear that part of God’s goal for his church is for us to become like God.

(Eph 4:24 ESV)  [P]ut on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

(Eph 5:1 ESV) Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.

To be like God has profound implications.

2. It means sharing in his generous common grace, doing good for the just and the unjust.

(Mat 5:44-45 ESV)  44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

(Luk 6:27-28 ESV) “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

But “doing good” is more than evangelism and traditional acts of benevolence. It could be as simple as serving on the board of education and doing good for all the students, not just the baseball team your son plays on or the honors classes where you daughter attends. Or running a business for the good of the employees and the community, as well as the customers.

We so want to compartmentalize our lives that we can’t even imagine how being a Christian businessman or professor would be different from a secular businessman or professor. At least part of the difference is the call to use all your gifts to bless others — lost and saved.

3. It means being creative — in everything — and recognizing the image of God even among non-Christians, indeed, even in the enemies of Christianity. God is creative, and therefore we draw others closer to God as we exercise our own creativity in constructive ways.

4. It means sacrifice. This is the essential theme of the Cruciform God series. Theosis (becoming like God) is kenosis (imitating the self-emptying of Jesus on the cross). Indeed, one of the most common errors in contemporary “how to” Christianity is the omission of sacrifice from our theology. There is no suffering in voting for the right candidate or lobbying for the right bill. There is little sacrifice in building up the perfect community of Christians.

But to be like God, you have to be willing to submit to the cross for people who hate you. And this means, at least, that we should be willing to be faithful no matter the cost — and that we don’t market Jesus as having a low, low cost available, on sale now, with interest-free financing, all for the price of an immersion in water!!! No, Jesus was a terrible marketer —

(Luk 14:26 ESV) “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

You’d think the Son of God, possessor the Spirit without measure, would be a better salesman than that! You see, sacrifice and service are very nearly the definition of what it means to live for Jesus.

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