The Church in Exile, Lee Beach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
Summary: Accepting the premise that we are in a post-Christendom world, the book explores how the biblical theme of exile can be helpful for how the church conceives of its life and presence in the world.
Lee Beach contends that we live in a post-Christendom world, one in which the church is not in a position of power with regard to government or shaping the character of the culture. Rather than commending strategies to regain this lost influence, Beach contends that the church would do well to consider the motif of exile that runs through scripture and to see how this helped shape exilic and post-exilic Israel and the church in its self-understanding and its presence in society.
Following a foreword by Walter Brueggemann and an introduction in which he establishes his premise that exile is a motif that should be embraced by a post-Christendom church, the book divides into two parts. The first develops a biblical theology of exile. Beach provides background on Israel’s experience of exile and Israel’s challenge to understand that God was present in their exilic situation, to grasp how practically to embody a set apart lifestyle as God’s people in a foreign land, and to pursue their mission as “servant Israel” among the nations in which they were dispersed. This is followed by the stories of Esther, Daniel, and Jonah as advice for exiles. Particularly striking is his candid dealing with the Esther narrative, a woman in a seemingly powerless and compromised situation who courageously lives in solidarity with her people, implicitly trusting in God. He then turns to Jesus and the early church, set in Second Temple Judaism. He observes that both Jews and Christians shared a sense of being on the margins in a Roman dominated world, that their hope for a future “return” from exile may not be accomplished in their lifetimes, and that they nevertheless were the true people of God in whom God was working his purposes in the world. The section concludes by considering 1 Peter for its exilic wisdom applied to the church as the people of God, living out gospel-transformed marriages, embodying holiness, and pursuing mission.
The second part of the book then seeks to draw lessons from this exilic material for a post-Christendom church. He commends the use of prophetic imagination in instilling hope that new creative ways of conceiving being the people of God can be consistent with pursuing the church’s mission when old structures fail. He calls for a responsive approach that emphasizes practice, recognizing that people may first belong, then behave, and finally believe. He challenges us to a non-conformist holiness that embodies love and grace. He speaks of mission through relationships rather than attractional events.
The challenge, it seems with Beach’s book, is getting it into the hands of those who might most benefit from it. Although Beach does give a number of real life applications, the language of the book is more academic, and in fact, the book is published by the publisher’s “academic” line. It may be that this is intended as a seminary text that focuses on the nature of the church and its mission, and for this use, it works well in integrating biblical and practical theological concerns. I do think this could be of benefit to a church leadership group recognizing the shift taking place culturally and trying to re-imagine its existence. There may be some translation work needed at some points that a theologically acute pastor may provide.
Knowing God and his purposes, knowing who we are and how then we should live, and understanding our present time all are vital. It seems that part of the challenge for many churches is that they may still think they are living in a time of Christendom, and have an influence, that in fact is no longer theirs. To re-conceive of themselves as exiles, to re-think their presence and their mission in the world in light of this, and to understand both the presence of and hope that they have in Christ can transform the lives of congregations coming aware of the fact that they are slowly dying, and shape the life of newly birthed communities seeking to live as God’s aliens and exiles in the world.