Review: Faith for This Moment

Faith for this Moment

Faith for This MomentRick McKinley. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: Explores what it means to live as a Christian in a polarized and secularized society, drawing on the idea of exile in scripture and proposing practices that sustain faithfulness in exile.

Rick McKinley, like many Christians, wrestles with what Christian faithfulness looks like for the church he pastors in Portland, Oregon, amid a secular and highly polarized American society. We can look for who to blame, resort to denial and despair, or recover an idea of understanding our situation upon which Jews and Christians have drawn through the centuries–the idea of exile.

McKinley traces the idea of exile through scripture, from the first exiles from the garden, down through Abraham and Sarah, Israel in Egypt, the Jews in Babylon, and the church scattered through the Roman empire. McKinley lays out the alternatives of how exiles live:

“[T]he way in which the people of God navigated their faithfulness to God in exile was not to burn Babylon or to baptize Babylon but to find distinct ways to bless and resist Babylon.”

He argues that our calling as exiles is both to bless and resist our “Babylons.” We need to recognize both windows of redemption, places where we can engage the culture around issues of shared concern such as the arts or the environment, and windows of opposition, such as our consumer culture. To be people who know where to bless and resist, we need two critical skills–the discipline of repentance and the practice of discernment. In repentance, we acknowledge our indifference to God and to our society and are converted by God to people who begin caring about the things God cares about. Discernment helps us know what faithfulness looks like in particular situations such as becoming a reconciling presence in a polarized society.

McKinley contends faithfulness is empowered and lived out through five critical practices:

  1. Hearing and obeying–the centering practice that holds the others together.
  2. Hospitality: overcoming fear to welcome the stranger
  3. Generosity: repenting consumerism to recognize money and time are gifts and not possessions.
  4. Sabbath: turning from busyness to embrace rest and relationships
  5. Vocation: moving from the drudgery of jobs to the holy joy of living out a calling.

McKinley’s vision is for the church as a healing presence in a divided society. He writes:

“The move I am suggesting is what Miroslav Volf called a move from exclusion to embrace. What if we began to envision a nation in which we didn’t simply tolerate our differences but engaged one another around those deeply held convictions? What if we moved beyond polite disagreement to demanding safety for those with whom we disagree and defending the rights of those who hold convictions other than our own? What if we truly believed that each of us bears the image of God and has something to offer the other? What new types of civility might emerge among us? This new kind of relating could create new possibilities of understanding, out of which relationships could be born and change could become tangible.”

Oh, that it were so! Beyond this healing vision, what I like about McKinley’s book is that it both reflects insights of the likes of Volf and Newbigin (I also wonder if he has read Charles Taylor, James K. A. Smith, and other who have wrestled with secularity), and distills the best of these into a readable and practicable book for the rest of us. Others have written about Christians as exiles, and about formative practices, but I have not often seen all this thinking summarized so succinctly and translated into the real-life practice of a church.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: The Church in Exile

the-church-in-exile

The Church in ExileLee 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.

 

 

You Lost Me, the Conversation: Nomads, Prodigals, and Exiles

You Lost Me

In previous posts, Ben and I have discussed some of the generational distinctives Kinnaman notes between “Mosaics” and earlier generations. Kinnaman goes on to describe three kinds of people “lost” to the church. The first are nomads, who have left the church but not the faith, The second are prodigals, who have left the faith and its practices more or less altogether. I’m not going to say much here about these first two–maybe more as we get into the disconnectedness these people feel and reasons for it that Kinnaman explores in the second part of the book.

The third group are the exiles, who find themselves in tension with certain beliefs and practices of the church as well as the surrounding culture, feeling themselves “between a rock and a hard place.” This last I found the most interesting because they have neither abandoned the church nor the faith, but do have a feeling of estrangement. Perhaps the reason I most connected with this is that through a good part of adult life, I’ve probably felt something of this and lived with this tension. I also find that many of the believing people I work with in the university context experience something of this as well.

First some personal experience. I’ve often wrestled with the fact that Christian communities seem to be so preoccupied with everything but being the church in the world. Rather than seeking to be scripture-shaped communities we often prefer inspirational thoughts and five “how-to’s” to make my life run more smoothly. Or we go to the other extreme and fight about minutiae of doctrine and ignore the hungry and needy among us. Often it has seemed we are caught up in power games, both within the church and through trying to obtain power in the culture by pursuing a particular political agenda and thinking we might have influence over the politicians (I once had to threaten to resign a church board position because a church leader wanted to place voting guides in the church and didn’t see how this would convey that you had to believe in “Jesus and…” to be part of our church instead of Jesus alone). Often, it seems, all we want to do is talk about “the unbelievers” and how disagreeable their beliefs and lifestyles are to us, rather than take time to really engage with them.

I say “we” here for two reasons. One is simply a sense of identification. I am part of the body of Christ. Whether or not I personally am guilty of all of these things, I’m part of a community which is. The other is that it is the case that while I find myself in tension with these things, I’ve gone along with many of them at many points. What is hard about being an exile is that you don’t always want to be disagreeing with those around you, even if you do internally.

Then why have I stayed? It’s actually a good deal like family–you don’t get to choose. To be baptized into Christ is to be a part of his people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together helped me in this regard. He talks about how we meet each other “in Christ”, never directly. He observes that the problem comes when we don’t accept that we are already one with those we might feel tension with but try to resolve that by trying to make them into our ideal of the Christian, or Christian community. Truth is, what I would make the church into if I could would be equally disastrous. And so the tension of living in exile seems to me, as it was for some of those Kinnaman wrote about, a space that can become creative. In this season, I find myself living toward a vision that seeks to bring the love of goodness, truth, and beauty together in both my work in collegiate ministry and in my personal life. At the same time, my community reminds me of the things I miss, the people I might overlook, and the truths I might forget. (And I must say how grateful I am for a pastor who seeks to be both faithful to scripture and to help us hear it in fresh ways.)

Most of those I work with also feel themselves exiles within the church but also with the surrounding culture of the university. They cannot accept either the pervasive naturalism and materialism of the academy nor the simplistic apologetics, or even a lack of a reasoned response they often encounter in the church. They long to bring love of God and learning together rather than make them enemies and find opposition to this project from both academy and the church. Once again, for some of these friends at least, this has become a place of creative tension, though not without pain as they draw deep connections between their faith and their intellectual work that may only be understood by fellow exiles.

Perhaps this is as it should be in some ways. I think about how the apostle Peter opens his first letter: “To the elect, exiles…” In some crucial way, the identity of being an exile seems to be part of our identity in this life. It makes me long all the more for the new creation where we will truly be at home. But I also wonder if we could do a better job in our Christian communities particularly in valuing those who seem “different”, who “don’t fit in” and to recognize that we desperately need their gifts and perspective?

Ben, what do you think?