I can’t wait to head up the hill to my local B & N in a few days and find this stately book sitting right there on the display table, waiting to let me feel its heft and delight in its platonic form and take it home (Tony was kind enough to share the PDF file several months ago, and I’ve been excitedly awaiting its release ever since).
TNC is a really good book, and a huge contribution to the conversation about the new ways of doing church and the new ways of being Christian that are all around us, as well as an insightful look at the impending collapse of liberal vs. conservative polarities in politics, religion, and society in general. Part sociological study, part theological exploration, part peripatetic travelogue, part exegetical exploration, part personal observation, and part fresh hermeneutical method, it is one of the best books I’ve read in years. In particular, it provides a wonderfully helpful history of the group of thinking practitioners now known as ‘emergent village‘, and will no doubt give great confidence to those who are beginning to explore new methods, philosophies, and theologies of living in the way of Jesus.
Among many other highlights, Tony brings to light Sheryl Fullerton’s brilliant insight that such expressions of Christianity are feral, as those freed from the strictures of conventionality explore new ways of being followers of Jesus in our ever-changing world. And, to prove the point, he offers several insightful looks at individuals and groups who are embodying these ideas. Best of all, a heartrending feature of the amazing and unbelievable Brett Watson, a friend I made a few years back as he hid my favorite Fat Tire Ales in the bottom of the vegetable drawer of a communal refrigerator, so that I could enjoy them without anxiety (and quietly toast him from across the room). Brett’s story of catastrophic injury, depression, and continuing recovery is told by Tony in a way that gave me tears, and new hope.
One of my favorite features of the book is one that I’m afraid might be detrimental to its reception: it is wonderfully blustery. Tony writes with a friendly swagger that is not unlike another favorite author of mine, Tony Bourdain. Interestingly, it is an opinionatedness that is– quite paradoxically– borne out of a profound sense of humility. When one is sure that one cannot be too certain, that one is too limited in wisdom and intelligence to be right about everything, one finds a new freedom to pursue understanding of a few things, and a willingness to be appended and corrected. Tony does this, and does it well, but I’m afraid some of those who are unfavorably disposed toward this project won’t see the nuance.
Too, I wish it included a little gem that I found buried in a random podcast recently: in the early days of this generative friendship now called emergent village, Tony was a lonely voice for renewal of the larger church. Where most of these upstart entrepreneurs were pronouncing the death of the mainstream church and advocating pioneering efforts of church planting, Tony was arguing for patience and reinvestment in the larger structures– he thought the giant ocean liner could be steered in a different direction. All of which sheds a world of light onto Tony’s current impatience with conventional expressions of church, and which fact would endear him to many mainliners who find resonance with this idea of renewal, and who seem to be generally frustrated with Tony’s cynicism.
But in the end, I think I’m most excited for how this volume fits into a whole set of new books from Josey-Bass. Tony’s solid masterwork is bookended by two pieces of even more personal, embodied theology/practice: Mark Scandrette’s Soul Grafitti, and Doug Pagitt’s forthcoming A Christianity Worth Believing. All three make a lot of room for others to engage with these larger ideas of emergence and to live out these ideals in real communities of real people. Even better, Jossey-Bass is smart and generous enough to sponsor a bona-fide RV tour, which will bring these three (plus their esteemed driver, Michael Toy) to church basements all around the country this summer. So, until that hurricane comes to town, I’ll just have to keep enjoying their books, and working with my friends in our quest for a Christianity that works for us, in our time and in our place.