With regards to the church of God on this planet we are in an era, like many others beforehand, where the up-and-coming generations of leaders are wrestling with age-old questions of “What is church?” It is not a self-serving question – in the end it bottles down to, “What’s the point?” – which brings us to Jesus, and that is good.

This wrestle is often marked by debate about the essential nature of the church, how spirituality is to be expressed, and what mission is to be achieved by whom in what way. As a supposedly mildly-postmodern Gen-Xer I have been caught up in this debate. I have felt and articulated angst against the mainstream, I have been left confused and nauseatingly abandoned by the vacuous left and the experientially pentecostal and hammered by the hardcore conservative rightwing. New Calvinism excites me but I am wary, Rob Bell annoys me but I like to be generous.

You can see from the title of this book, DeYoung and Kluck’s Why We’re Not Emergent subtitled with “by two guys who should be”, how it is a part of this ongoing churn. It’s a valuable part.

The book is a critique of the “emergent church” movement – a movement which resists the term, is wrapped around the personalities and writings of the likes of Rob Bell (of nooma fame) and Brian McLaren, and is characterised by a postmodern spirituality of journey, narrative and discovery. And like it’s subject, the critique is messy and somewhat nebulous. Kevin DeYoung brings a theological mind, handling concepts and issues academically, pastorally. Ted Kluck shares anecdotes and reflections like an opinion page in a newspaper (he’s a journalist). It sort of works. Enough.

They are certainly not playing with straw men. They understand the emergent church culture, the personalities, the catchcries (“EPIC: experiential, participatory, image driven, and connected” (page 18) is one I have used myself), and the inconsistencies. The rhetorical section entitled “Are You Emergent?” was immensely enjoyable:

“After reading nearly five thousand pages of emerging-church literature, I have no doubt that the emerging church, while loosely defined and far from uniform, can be described and critiqued as a diverse but recognizable, movement. You might be an emergent Christian: if you listen to U2, Moby, and Johnny Cash’s Hurt (sometimes in church), use sermon illustrations from The Sopranos, drink lattes in the afternoon and Guinness in the evenings, and always use a Mac… [a page later]… if you’ve ever been to a church with prayer labyrinths, candles, Play-Doh, chalk-drawings, couches or beanbags (your youth group doesn’t count); if you loathe words like linear, propositional, rational, machine, and hierarchy and use words like ancient-future, jazz, mosaic, matrix, missional, vintrage, and dance;… [etc.]” (page 20ff)

Despite the necessary lack of precision they handle the critique well, bottling it down to some useful key issues. DeYoung’s theological training is obvious and I found his chapters more useful. A precis would not be valuable, but two key concepts they tackle are worth a mention.

The first is the concept of whether or not we can grasp God. In the face of a movement in which “It’s really cool to search for God. It’s not very cool to find him.” (page 32) they wish to assert that God, in revealing himself, has made himself knowable (page 35ff). The doctrine of revelation and epistemological angst is at the heart of engagement with postmodernity. They do it well.

Of even greater value, however, is their engagement towards the end of the book with the uniqueness of Christ. Here they tackle the well-worn yet bleedingly-arrogant accusations of the liberal left that would relegate atonement to “cosmic child abuse” (page 194) and cry for self-actualised social justice while scorning any concept that God might actually love humanity so much that injustice suffers his wrath.

“The emergent emphasis of justice and compassion would be more of a helpful corrective if it went hand in hand with a firm, unashamed belief, made central and upfront, in the reality of everlasting punishment and everlasting reward, the resurrection of all men either to life or judgement, and the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ.” (page 187)

Their demonstration of the ultimate gracelessness of the social gospel is helpful and the strongest critique in the book. Their related consideration of overrealised eschatology (page 184ff) highlights the danger of overstepping “incarnational” or “contextualised” mission and moving to the place where we make the church itself, or some social cause, or some self-actualising journey inherently messianic in which Jesus is nothing but a visual aide.

And so it’s a good pushback into this generational, ecclesiastical wrestle. It’s good that it’s written by a couple of young guns which means it never comes near to reading like some pietistic elder-guru intoning dogma.

It has some flaws. I think they should stick with “emerging” or “emergent” rather than interchange these labels which are becoming more concretely used to demarcate between those that want to share a journey (emergent) and those that want to share a gospel (emerging).

And I am surprised that there is only one mention of Mark Driscoll (page 165). That’s a nice surprise for me actually as it shows that you can talk about this stuff without talking about Mars Hill Seattle. But it’s interesting that for a very recent book (2008) they haven’t considered reflecting on things in the light of New Calvinism and the Driscoll brand of emerging (not emergent) church.

In the end, and from the broad vibe of the book, my greatest appreciation comes from a resonance with my own feelings of the moment. I’m really quite sick of all the “missional” gumph. I’m tired of jumping through cultural hoops that never seem to work and are usually just shots in the dark by a few know-it-alls. I’m not smart enough to figure out which way the Holy Spirit is blowing and my heart is not big enough to contain the burden of those around me who need Jesus so much. Right now I just want to keep it simple, preach the gospel, defend the poor, and rest in God. I see that here:

“…my hope is that we could be marked by grace and truth, logical precision and warmhearted passion, careful thinking and compassionate feeling, strong theology and tender love, Christian liberty and spiritual discipline, congregational care and committed outreach, diversity without doctrinal infidelity, ambition without arrogance, and contentment without complacency.” (page 251)

Pastor DeYoung, Amen.

Metavista, written by Colin Greene & Martin Robinson is a socio-philosophical, cultural, ecclesiological and missiological commentary. “Our context in the twenty-first century… is radically different,” they say in the introduction (page xiv), and continue:

We shall argue that it is post-Christendom, post-secular, post-colonial and post-individualistic, in no particular order of priority, and therefore post-postmodern. And that “postist” reality requires an entirely new mission agenda that will not be adequately understood through adherence solely to church-planting strategies.

Those who know me will understand my engagement with this book. I share a frustration with typical church-plant/growth/renewal strategies. I resonate with the authors’ premise which is later on expressed thusly: “the technology of mission… we are dealing here [is] art, not science” (page 187)… “an organic process rather than a ready-to-go formula” (page 197) and of “tension” between “a more sophisticated recalibration of the church” to “a deeply postmodern context” and those who look, rather, for a “fundamental reimagining.” (page 180)

I’m one of those seeking a reimagining. But what are the whys and wherefores, where is the framework, what gives it life, how is it found? The value of this book is that it helps to remove the blinkers to the Holy Spirit at work.

Greene spends the first part of the book considering the cultural and sociological landscape. He unpacks the powerful narrative of modernity and secularisation from the 19th century – looking at it not just in philosophical academic terms but with regard to how it all engaged with the people’s imagination.

At this moment in history… these creative ideas came together to form a stirring emancipation narrative that caught the public imagination and led irrevocably to fundamental changes in the way people experienced the world. To “indwell the world” no longer meant to be bound inevitably to the accepted social order instituted by God and maintained by the authority of the aristocracy. Neither did it mean to accept one’s appointed lot in life which, for most, was one of grueling poverty, hardship and suffering. Nor did it mean to view religion and the church as the only safe refuge from a harsh and mercurial world that did not appear to operate according to any particular inbuilt order… The sociological achievement of the Enlightenment was the rise of the new bourgeoisie, and it was among this new class of rich merchants, bankers and industrialists that the narrative of emancipation was most venerated. (page 14)

He then unpacks postmodernity in the normal terms – touching on the “incredulity towards metanarratives,” the rejection of absolutes and “fiduciary frameworks”, and the “preference for individualized spirituality over and against organized religion” (page 42).

Greene wants “a way out of the postmodern impasse of no legitimating foundations to knowledge, ethical and political practice and, indeed, religious belief.” (page 42). Indeed:

To date postmodernity has been unable to provide us with a satisfying or legitimating account of why local stories are any more credible and authentic than the universal theories and archetypal myths we once found determinative of human existence and therefore believable. (page 50)

And so the “cultural transition we are presently experiencing, that which we have called ‘metavista,’ the age of imagination” is introduced. And at it’s heart lies not just subjective postmodern mininarrative, or imposed modernistic metanarrative, but the “power of retold stories.” (page 51)

This framework imperative to “retell the story” resonates with current experience. The ills of the First World can be seen in the loss of a defining story. What does it mean to be Australian, or British, for instance? Modernity reduces us to economic units, postmodernity reduces us to individual characters in our own self-centred fantasy. How do I fit in the larger whole, what gives me purpose and reason-for-being?

I watched the inauguration of President Obama last night and recognised within his speech the ability to retell the American Story – spinning phrases such as “Yes, we can” that are not mere words but reimaginings, calls, echoes of longing that seems to be speaking to Americans and giving them a metanarrative that is not imposed but to which they run. Similarly, the church story, the Jesus story needs retelling.

And so Greene tackles the main locus of that story – the Bible. He critiques the historical-critical hermeneutical and exegetical approach that modernistically asserts that the Word of God is reserved to the domain of the educated and academic. He suggests a return towards allegorical or typological reading – certainly not to the level of medieval excess but, dare I say it, with the same heart as biblical theologians such as Goldsworthy, and in the same vein as “many of the biblical writers [who] linked the two testaments into one unified story” (page 106):

Now it is very interesting that while the typological and the allegorical meaning was what the Reformers must distrusted… it is precisely this convention… figuration, that allows the Bible to be perceived as a unified narrative. (page 105)

And so Greene and Robinson place the Bible at the heart of the story that needs retelling in a metavista age. They identify, in particular, the “four subplots” of the Bible – The creation story, The Israel story, The Jesus story, and The church’s story. The gospel as theological assertion – you sinned, Jesus died – is replaced by gospel with flesh and bones – no less centred on the death and resurrection of the Messiah – but well-rooted, flourishing, bearing fruit in the reality of history and the imagination of today – a perichoresis of narratives that reveals Christ to us.

A crucial aspect of this perichoresis is the story of God at work in the church. The Church is no longer relegated to the epilogue of Christ’s passion but is caught up in the gospel dance itself. This is no heresy, and no surprise. After all, even Bill Hybels holds to the vision of “The local church is the hope of the world”!

Greene finishes his contribution by considering the church in this respect, retelling the church story particularly in terms of political engagement against the modernistic relegation of the church to the merely private.

Here, at times amidst the fleshpots of Babylon, at others under the oppressive strictures and tyranny of empires, where the mission of the church is curtailed or controlled, the church must, nevertheless, fulfill her task to image the kingdom of God, proclaim judgment, and actively resist the idolatry of the oppressors. (page 149)

Robinson then completes the book delivering one of the best overviews of nineteenth and twentieth century church history I have ever read.

In recent year
s, observing my own church – Anglican in Tasmania – I have noted how the vigour (and orthodoxy) of nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism seemed to have collapsed across the world wars to a generation who ended up retaining the tradition but not its content. Having ministered in congregations defined by this generation I can testify to the contemporary echoes of the death-throes of Christendom which crescended, as Robinson states, in the 1960’s.

Robinson continues the story through the 70’s, considering the Lausanne evangelical resurgence of mission. He helpfully notes what many often ignore – the transition in Pentecostal churches from sect to mainstream, and, in the 80’s from what I call “classical pentecostalism” focussing on the work of the Holy Spirit to “new-style pentecostalism” focussing on entertainment techniques and management programs.

It had become apparent by the 1980s that the revivalist hopes of the charismatic movement were misplaced. However much some individual charismatic and Pentecostal congregations had grown, the hoped for scenario in which a renewed church would see hundreds of thousands clamoring to become Christians in the context of signs and wonders came to be seen as a false hope… New solutions would need to be found. The 1980s and 1990s saw a succession of solutions presented… programs of one kind or another. (pages 176-177)

All of this provides the background for the necessity of a “fundamental reimagining” of the church. Robinson picks up on contemporary concepts of Emerging Church and offers some critique and balance while working towards a presentation of a “Missional Community” at the heart of his reimagining. He tells a counter-cultural story of church “constituted not for itself, nor even for the world in an abstract sense, but towards the remaking of human communities as deeply incarnational expressions of the church in mission.” (pages 188-189).

His comments provide a helpful balance that has been missing in contemporary urgings to be more missional. We don’t always realise that the dying Christendom story can express itself outwardly ad well as inwardly in activities that look like mission but are no longer missional. In my own experience I have heard a call to mission answered by yet another round of people volunteering for charitable programs or “doing their bit” for the “work of the church.” Why did I find such goodness frustrating? Because such “mission” would not retell the story or reimagine the church and live out the gospel. Robinson provides an excellent quote from Robert Jenson:

All that talk a few years ago about the world setting the agenda, about seeing where God was at work in the world and jumping in to help, etc., was just a last gasp of the church’s establishment in the West, of its erstwhile ability to suppose that what the culture nurtured as good had to be congruent with the good the church had to bring. (page 189)

Even the best intentions can fail to resonate when they either merge with culture, or find no point of connection. Robinson, rather, calls for a reimagination of a counter-cultural life. “To live counter-culturally will mean to confront rival ideologies and not to be subverted by them.” (page 189).

Again, I find this resonates with my own kerygma in recent times to bring to the church the eschatological impetus to actively, passionately, “do life well” all the more as the Day approaches – for each to know their place in the story so that they can retell it in their living.

This lies at the heart of the difference between “attractional” models of church and missional models of church that happen to be “attractive.” Such attractive communities “are that way partly because they have a high threshold of expectation in terms of what members will do” (page 195). Participation is expected – but not a simple volunteerism for programs, rather a participation in counter-cultural life itself.

There are many other gems in Robinson’s thoughts – comments on leadership for instance and citations of a book by Alan Roxburgh that I have bought and will review at some point.

I will finish with one final quotation. Like most of the book it gives voice to my heart that I hear echoing in others. In this case let me note a congruence with Mark Driscoll’s theory of “reformission” in the collision of the three “narratives” of Gospel, Church and Culture where the church has to “live adventurously”:

To live this kind of counter-cultural life the church has to “risk” living at the interface of the collision of all three narratives… It has never been a safe option to live a genuinely counter-cultural Christian life, because such a life deconstructs old cultural verities and ignites new habits of the heart. It invites old men to dream dreams and young men to have visions. (pages 226-227)