Prodigal Christianity: The God Who Kneels

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The NuDunkers are discussing the new book Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Join us for our Hangout discussion on Friday at 11 AM eastern here . If you can’t make the live discussion, don’t worry. We will share the link to the recording on YouTube.

As the church lived into its new status both legally and socially in the fourth and fifth century, the artistic presentation of Jesus began to reflect the its ascension to imperial power. This is no place more clear than in the majestic mosaics of Hagia Sophia. The basilica was built to match the grandeur of the imperial city of Constantinople. The mosaic in the large dome, called Christ the Pantocrator (Christ the Ruler of All) drew the attention of worshipers to the elevated ruler, Jesus Christ. Gilded in the richness of gold and hovering above even the mosaic images of emperors and rules, they set the Christ to be worshiped within the imperial context. Now, as the official of the empire, Jesus Christ must also be shown as the emperor, only ruling over all of creation.

In many ways, the images we present of Jesus reflect the social position of the church. By the Middle Ages the images of Jesus shifted from the grand imperial mosaics to crucifixion images- often mirroring the death so common in the ages of the Black Plague. Even prior to the Christendom shift of the fourth century, the sketches in the catacombs presented Jesus as the rising savior, standing at the mouth of a whale (echoing the imagery of the book of Jonah) or on the bow of a boat (as in the gospel narratives of calming the sea). These images reflected the ultimate triumph of resurrection, unlike the imperial ruler or the crucifix. We not only depict Jesus in the ways we understand the church in our day, but we depict him in the place that most reflects our imagination of the salvation event itself.

In their new book, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier, Geoff Holsclaw and David Fitch, follow this pattern of presenting Jesus and our soteriological imagination within the context of the North American church. It is no surprise that American Christianity is losing its footing as the defining religion of the culture. Survey after survey, performed by the likes of the Pew Forum and even the Barna group, are showing just how far Christianity has moved from the center of American society to the edges. More and more people are self-reporting that they have no religious affiliation or consider themselves “Spiritual but not Religious.”

There are often two ways of responding to this cultural shift. First, the church can work to exercise its cultural privileged and claw its way back into influence. The other, is to celebrate this shift and view it as an opportunity to explore faithfulness in new terms. Fitch and Holsclaw follow the trajectory of the latter.

While it is true that this new Post-Christendom culture has yet to reach the whole of American culture (see my conversation with Isaac Villegas), it is clear that the new day offers us much to consider as followers of Christ. Rather than try to reclaim the place of Christ as emperor (or even president) Fitch and Holsclaw present God as the one who bows, reaches out, even kneels into world, and enters as the prodigal one who ventures into the far country.

There are those in the publishing world who have tried to rethink christianity and define what a “New Kind of Christianity” is to look like today. Often, in this mode, these writers venture to deconstruct doctrines of the tradition and present new emerging ideas. Still others, venture to reclaim more radical teachings of the church, in effect elevating the Evangelical roots to dogma. Thankfully, Fitch and Holsclaw take the more Anabaptist rode. It is not the reconsidering of doctrine or the entrenchment of dogma that is required today, but the exploring of how the church itself needs to more closely reflect the nature of God. Like the early Anabaptists, rethinking the Trinity or Grace does nothing. Rather, reassessing the role of the church in world that offers us new ground to cover as disciples.

In reflecting Jesus- the God who kneels- the church is more like itself when we take root in nitty gritty of the day to day. Instead of trying to leverage our influence (by numbers or by wealth) the question presented in Prodigal Christianity is simple- How can we more fully embody the Christ who lived, ate, breathed, died, and rose again in the world. Real people, real needs, and actual neighborhoods are then the context in which the church can more fully live into its name- the Body of Christ.

Fitch and Holsclaw offer us a breath of fresh air in this new day of Post-Christendom. While we spin our wheels in trying to prop up the church as we have received it in the heights of American cultural Christendom, they offer us a new vision of faithfulness- of being willing to follow the prodigal God into the far country, of letting go of our desires for privilege and power, and seeking to embody more fully the redemption we proclaim.

Maybe it is time to paint some new pictures of Jesus. Maybe it is time for the church to take the mosaics off the wall and be like Christ,  “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

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20 Comments

Filed under Book Discussion, NuDunkers

20 responses to “Prodigal Christianity: The God Who Kneels

  1. I love your imagery of “the God who kneels” but it feels like a bit of a stretch based on my reading of Prodigal Christianity. I’m about 70% done and I’ve read a lot more Lord and King imagery than servanthood, but maybe that’s yet to come.

    I’m hoping to finish before tomorrow morning, might even get a blog post written.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Matt,

      I think that is a good question to press in the conversation. “How does the language of Lord, King, and Kingdom impact the kenotic christology of a prodigal God?”

      I have some thoughts on that in general, but maybe we can circle that topic in the conversation.

      Josh

      • Scott Holland

        Yes, the metaphorical theology we choose is no small thing. We must take care in how we name God, world, self and others because they become THAT as language functions as a house of being. I read “Prodigal Christianity” and found it a useful and inviting theological bridge for recovering fundamentalists and an engaging theology for Evangelical Anabaptists and Emergents. The paradigm of the prodigal throughout the text is especially fine. As such, it is a successful piece of theological writing and the authors are to be commended for creative and constructive theological work. It will, however, miss several audiences of spiritual seekers and postmodern or post-ecclesial Christians because it is engaging traditional American evangelical questions, concerns and complaints by pouring new wine back into the old wineskins of theology.

        Many years ago in a conversation with the distinguished New Testament scholar Raymond Brown (a Catholic teaching at Union), he remarked, “You Anabaptists are pretty damn harsh about faith and following or discipleship! Some of your scholars need to write about the scandal of the Prodigal Son and also of the love of a prodigal God who offers not only grace without discipleship, but also forgiveness without repentance.” I think Brown would be cheered by the gracious genre of Naked Anabaptism and Evangelicalism in Fitch and Holsclow. I am.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Thanks Scott,

        Though I imagine some within Brown’s own tradition might cringe at such an assertion.

        I am already working up a follow up based on these comments. We will see how this conversation goes in the Hangout.

        Josh

  2. Josh and Matt,
    I too appreciate that image. What I find especially intriguing is the creative dissonance that occurs as a result of the context of Jesus’ “Lordship.” One of the key (in my humble opinion) implications of using such language is that it subversively deconstructs the contemporary power systems. Much like Paul’s use of “Jesus is Lord,” as means of saying that Caesar is not, in our context it moves beyond mere language of “servant leadership” to an incarnational manifestation of it. This all said I’m pretty comfortable with the language, but I’m also cognizant of how it has been misused and abused in other arenas. I look forward to hearing David and Geoff’s response.

    • Scott Holland

      Andrew, I understand, respect and appreciate the rules of this particular cultural-linguistic theology. It can be a useful epistemological therapeutic move on the long journey of spiritual and intellectual formation.

      However, with deep democracy and cultural pluralism values many of us happily embrace on this road to the divine, the common good and the project of meaning-making, we are not jazzed by replacing Caesar as Lord, King or Emperor with Jesus as a kinder, gentler Ruler over lowly slaves of a Heavenly Empire manifested on earth as it is in heaven. Such a metaphorical theology worked well in first century Rome but many of us living after Christendom and after the old time religion inhabit a different anthropology, soteriology, theology and politics. We would suggest that we dare not totemize either the vocabulary of the Empire or the early constructive, contextual Christian linguistic response.

      I write this not to be contentious but to help explain why some of us dissent from this new and improved Imperial vocabulary. Some of my students have asked, “Do these NuDunkers even ‘get’ this argument or do they ‘get it’ and reject it?” I don’t know.

      • Scott, thanks for the response. First, let me clarify something. NuDunkers are not monolithic but diverse in their beliefs. I would say that the primary commonality is the commitment to be in conversation about the Christian faith from an Anabaptist/Pietist perspective. So while I can’t speak for everyone I can say that I get your argument, I just disagree. Secondly, while we are certainly living in a growing post-Christendom world, we are equally living in a world ruled by multiple empires. For those I have been in conversation with (including some of my students) kingdom language (especially when embedded within loving Christian community) has offered hopeful liberation from the tyrannical powers of this world. The key, in my humble opinion, is in the quality of the believing community’s witness as embedded in its life. I know that this is not an adequate response to your concerns, but I think our differences lie in our theological starting points. It often seems like we talk past each other.

  3. The more I think about this larger conversation between evangelicalism and anabaptism, the more I wonder how much of a role our (unspoken) soteriologies are playing.

    I think the Lordship/Kingdom language shapes a particular kind of Christology that may be less servant-oriented that we might want. But maybe it also reflects a commitment to subsitutionary/individual atonement – and I’m starting to suspect that THAT is what keeps nagging at me.

    (Maybe tangential to your post, brother. Comments got me thinking.)

    • Joshua Brockway

      Keen insight there sister.

      I struggle though coming up with a clear “Brethren Christology”. I know the Servant Jesus is huge in the Brethren language game, yet it seems like there are many christologies working at the same time, few of which are really examined but just adopted. I imagine, that being the case, there would be some dissonance between some christologies and other parts of Brethren thought.

      • Agreed. It’s near impossible for me to invoke a “Brethren” anything these days. Maybe it’s better just to claim my own thinking, as influenced by Brethren belief and practice…except, well, that’s exactly the kind of individualism I want to argue against…

        More relevant to the thread: In their chapter on Gospel, Geoff and Dave talk about a theology that includes BOTH cross AND kingdom. Interesting direction.

      • Scott Holland

        Josh, I suppose I continue to enter this NuDunker conversation because although Andrew claims there is no monolith or NuDunker metanarrative you all do seem to be composing a somewhat unified proposal or constructive theology for Brethren life, thought and practice, no? I think I am only seeking to complicate the temptation to such a unified claim.

        I like most Dana’s tentative suggestion that perhaps it is best to claim and confess one’s own thinking in communion or concert with the polyphony of Brethren movements. Even as some Anabaptists claimed that every man is his own priest cannot we claim, like some Radical Pietist, that every woman is her own theologian? The specters of old Roman priests and Swiss [but not South German] Anabaptists seek to demonize such “individualism” rather than celebrate it as some Romantic Brethren might as manifesting echoes of the divine voice and traces of the light of Sophia’s wisdom.

        For some of us, the only religious community worthy of our affection in this late modern, postmodern, post-religious and post-secular era is the one that guards the solitude of the individual and provides hospitable space for the strong souls of poets, prophets and others who freely dissent from the religion of the super-ego, that collective soul.

      • Joshua Brockway

        If there is a “monolithic proposal” to NuDunkers it is because we all started as friends in the social media world talking the theology. So as Dana and Andy have said it is the facilitating of the conversation that is primary to the group. So, for those who want to ask about “what about these NuDunkers” the only thing I can say is- jump in.

        Also, as I have said repeatedly, your logical conclusion is not the necessary one. As we can see, the Brethren held both the mysticism of Pietism and the communal discernment of the Anabaptist. DId that take on (is it still expressed in) patriarchal forms- of course! Is that that the necessary conclusion about the intersection of Anabaptism and Pietism- of course not! As Sian and Stuart Murray Williams have recently argued- the Priesthood of All is better expressed as the Multi-voiced church. To me that hits the better synthesis of Pietism- the contribution of all believers to the understanding of the Spirit’s work.

        So to echo Andy here- I get the arguments. I even value the post-colonial and feminist/womanist contributions. I just don’t follow the conclusion.

  4. Scott Holland

    No quarrels here. I’m only adding another voice or two from the polyphonic Brethren movement to the multi-voiced church celebrated by the NuDunkers.

  5. Joshua Brockway

    Maybe one question for the NuDunkers to wrestle with in the future is the nature, role, and function of the church. Maybe that will draw out more of the voices.

  6. I’m a little late in catching up with this conversation, but just wanted to chime in against the notion that these conversations are attempt at any unified single theology or school of thought. You give us far too much credit with that thought, Scott!

    Really, I’ve just enjoyed having people and places with whom and in which I can be curious about theology. We have enough shared background in the CoB and its thought&practice to dig deeply into theological questions together – a rare thing. I have no desire to construct a systematic NuDunkerian theology, but have found welcome and fertile ground in these spaces for exploring these things, together.

    The similarities you may notice in the hangouts, blogs, comments, etc. are borne out of a continued conversation & relationship. Despite my reluctance to claim “a Brethren anything,” there is a shared sensibility and a communal formation that keeps me from going rogue as a radical individual (poet, prophet, whatever).

    I keep coming back to that Philip Clayton article, Josh, Theology After Google – where he says that theologians today are expected to act as scouts and hostesses, keeping an eye out on the realities of the world around and creating/curating spaces where people can get together and do the work of theology.

  7. Scott Holland

    Thanks, Dana. You perhaps should be aware that some who look in on the NuDunker blogs do discern a rather unified theological agenda, much like the general unitas fratrum found in BRF, BMC, B4BA or the so-called Progressive Brethren, formerly known as VOS.

    This is fine, but with these diverse CoB special interest groups in view, in your search for “a Brethren anything,” can you really claim there is a shared sensibility and a common communal formation? If so, perhaps the NuDunkers can help other Dunkers understand just what this shared sensibility might look like?

    As late as the 300th anniversary of the Brethren movement I too thought a general sensibility or at least some shared sensibilities might be identified and celebrated. As a seminary professor I was invited to give a number of talks on this topic during the anniversary year.

    The Banquet Address at the Believers Church Conference in Winnipeg serves as an example. The Believers Church guild was founded by John Howard Yoder and Don Durnbaugh as an Anabaptist-Pietist and Free Church community of common theological conversations.

    My banquet address on the Brethren movement’s birthday was well received by the large Winnipeg audience of scholars and peer reviewed by a circle of established scholars in the BCC for publication in both Conrad Grebel Review and Brethren Life and Thought. Soon after publication, however, I began hearing from a number of CoB historians, sociologists, theologians and pastors informing me in cutting tones that this was not the story of the Brethren they would tell and that I therefore did not speak for them. Yikes!

    Oh! blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
    The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
    Words of fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
    And of ourselves and of our origins,
    In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

    (from Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”)

  8. What, exactly, does an agenda entail?

    The other groups you mention have clearly stated their purpose as shaping the life of the institutional and denominational church in some way: calling the church back to biblical authority, advocating for rights of particular groups, working at changing the structures of institution or power, even campaigning for particular candidates for particular ecclesial offices. That sounds like an agenda, yes, a political and even a theological one. Nowhere that I’m aware of has the NuDunker conversation claimed any such purpose or intent.

    I do not care what theological stripe or label you claim – if you want to talk with curiosity and kindness about the theological and practical realities of the life of the church, I’d like to talk with you. This conversation is OPEN: blog comments, twitter feeds, hangout events, facebook threads are all radically accessible. We’re working on hospitality in terms of video-chat inclusion. We’re having conversations about what language we use, welcoming and engaging critique. If someone has a thought – well-considered or on-the-fly, they are welcome to join in, in any one of these myriad platforms. If wanting to have substantive conversation with lots of people is an agenda, then, okay. If you’re implying some other attempt at political, ecclesial, even theological power-grabbing machinations – which it seems you are – then I just have to (kindly and with a good deal of curiosity) strongly disagree.

  9. Scott Holland

    Agendas are fine. They are perhaps unavoidable in a theological conversation that hopes to be not only descriptive but prescriptive and thus seeks to provide some regulative, if not normative, language for naming God, world, self and others. Those who look in on the conversations of NuDunker core card carrying contributors discern an identifiable cultural-linguistic style and substance of God-talk which would separate your collective from the conservative theology of BRF or the progressive discourses of BMC or the liberal spirituality in the informal reorganization of the former VOS community. This is a good thing in a free church and free society. However, any regulative experiment in ecclesiology, even if provisional, is not void of powerful political implications, whether explicit or implicit. To insist that your collective has no designs on the ecclesial contours or theological content of a denomination in crisis seems to contradict many of the NuDunker posts and conversations. Curiosity is a good thing and I will happily sign on to your call to return to poetry.

  10. Joshua Brockway

    Apparently we can’t say it enough, so let me try a different tactic, in two moves. First, I want to say something about NuDunkers within the larger landscape of the Church of the Brethren. Second I want to say something about my perspective within the NuDunker conversation.

    First, as has been said repeatedly, the agenda is to hold open a space for constructive, practical, and non-antagonistic theological conversation. As I said in comments above, if there is a single voice to NuDunkers, it is because it started as friends talking theology in the digital communications culture. So of course, some of us shared theological perspectives- but the aim, desire, and intention (agenda) is to hold open the space for conversation rather than advocacy. Unlike the other groups you have mentioned, whose theological position places them in a place of advocacy within the politics of the church, NuDunkers doesn’t start there but rather recognizes the plurality of voices within the church and simply asks that persons own their voice within the conversation- honoring two aspects of the Brethren (through Pietism mind you); Respect for Conscience and No Force in Religion.

    As for my voice within the NuDunkers, of course I have a perspective and theological agenda. I am decidedly Post-Liberal. I find that the number of problems we have as a denomination stem back to the fact that we have imbibed the polarization and tactics of modern liberalism. I find rich meaning and challenge in the language of orthodoxy, and (gasp) believe that the Holy Spirit was active within the church DESPITE Christendom. On the liberal spectrum that makes me sound conservative. I also believe that same Spirit that descended at Pentecost is working in the church and in the world despite the church. To others, this makes me sound progressive. That to me confirms that I am doing theology in a trajectory out side of the modern liberalism with its polarities of progressive and conservative.

    From where I sit, it seems that the desire to hear a partisan advocacy position from the NuDunker conversation is a clear sign of the liberal imaginary that has become part of the denomination. People want to know where the collective stands on issues before taking part. It seems to me that people have assumed that to gather in a group means that there is some sort of position that we will take in the exhibits and on the floor of Annual Conference. And because we have been infected by liberalism (even hyper-liberalism) it is assumed that groups within the church are ecclesial lobbying firms.

    To then place myself within the theological streams of the day- I find deep resonance with Missional thinking, Neo-Anabaptism, and even in the linguistic and materialist turn within my field of Patristics. That is my voice, and not the NuDunkers.

    Lastly, I find some of this conversation to be frustrating. I enjoy engaging your ideas Scott, but I am not interested in the Brethren Triangulation. There are those that find resonance with your thoughts, perspective, and agenda- but I cannot and will not engage an ethreal “some”. To me it is the Brethren pathology that says Priesthood of All means radical inclusivity- so the ultimate trump card is to say that “some” are not included. I then come back to the fact that we are apart of a Believers’ Church tradition. As such there is the expectation that there be some assent to and ownership of participation within the community. My aim then, as a NuDunker, is to hold open the space for persons to decide for themselves to participate. I can make it as hospitable as possible, but I also find the passive agressive triangulation to be a Brethren way of rejecting or closing down the space. I’ve seen it too many times in congregations. So that said, I will keep the conversation going with you Scott, but won’t take on the burden of seeking out those who resonate with your voice. I simply assume that persons commenting speak the mind of many others- that is the reality of the Social Media landscape (a range of participation from observing, to commenting, to creating the conversations).

  11. Pingback: Sect or Community | Collationes

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