We’ve embarked on a new adventure in church– reading through the book of Romans with no sermons, discussions, or comment– and that, along with some recent reading, has gotten me thinking about the church and the Empire. Brian Walsh’s book Subversive Christianity was published in 1992, but it’s one I hadn’t heard of, and still can’t find except at Byron’s place. In it, Walsh suggests that most Christians’ radically different founding narrative hasn’t resulted in a life which looks much different than anyone else’s.
“Cultural captivity” is a term I’ve heard for many years, and from many perspectives. What follows that refrain is usually a call to greater engagement with (what are commonly considered) church practices– more Bible study, more worship, more personal prayer time, more learning, etc.. So that, in a well-intentioned effort to be more distinctive, Christians head deeper into their ghetto. Even within ‘emerging church’ circles, many folks tend to isolate themselves (e.g., my buddy iPete‘s sad example of folks moving ‘postmodern theology’ from the wikipedia entry on ‘emergence’ and giving it it’s own category– ghettoization at its finest!), not only from the wider culture, but from the wider stream of Christianity.
What I’m longing for is a way to be distinctive and peculiar, but not removed from the larger culture and the larger life. To free ourselves from the assumptions of the majority culture, but to still operate within that culture as we have a wide-ranging, pervasive effect of spreading goodness and grace and love all around. (Ultimately, I’m looking for a way to be freed from the dualism present in the paragraph I just wrote.) To my eye, JfP does a nice job of this, shifting from meta-issues and large-scale critique to commending the personal and painfully small efforts of a few real people.
What I’m longing for is churches and organizations that exist not for themselves, but for the sake of the world. Who, though they may feel energized by the most truthy and powerful metanarrative, also see that that same narrative is a repeated call to servanthood. I’d like to see groups which work in the world without employing the same tools of power that are often used in the world: money, untruth, exploitation, false binaries, and impersonal engagement. I’m yearning for people to employ some radically different rules of engagement: love, mercy, partnership, and empathy. To be for ‘the other’, not to marginalize ‘the other’.
Walsh’s book is a nice way forward, if a little dated. He’s more than a little obsessed with Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn, setting him next to historic prophets, and pitting him agains all kinds of political powers. It seemed like one of those techniques whereby a hardcore academic tries to show their more artistic side. Which some professors can pull off, but which didn’t seem to work here– it seemed a little forced, and a little stalkerish.
But even more, it was shocking to see how much has changed since 1992. Walsh’s careful critique of U.S. State Department diplomat Francis Fukuyama‘s 1989 article ‘The End of History’ was brilliant, but the whole conversation was eclipsed ten years later when our President suggested we defeat terrorism by ‘going shopping’. So maybe it’s easier to be subversive now than it was 16 years ago. All I need to do is stop shopping, and try to find a way to avoid spending my IRS economic stimulus refund on myself.