Thursday, July 09, 2009

Viral Blogging: Frost and Hirsch: Part One

A few months ago I was invited to join “Viral Bloggers” (VB). A group of bloggers who are supposed to blog about some books. Since I'm always open to free books, I agreed. I liked this format better than getting books from publishers or PR firms who stop sending books if you write a bad review (which I learned the hard way). VB just want me to write about the books. They want to get a conversation started. So don't expect a traditional book review. Just random thoughts on what I read.

Here's my first post for VB. I'm supposed to discuss these two books together:

Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture
by Michael Frost & The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century by Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch.

I don't like self-styled and self-proclaimed revolutionaries, which Frost and Hirsch are. Right out of the gate they warn that then reader will “encounter revolutionary ideas that will sometimes unnerve you” (Shaping, p.ix). Really. I almost put the book down right there. They assume much.

Yes. In both books, they challenge current church practices and provide examples of people creating missional communities. But so do countless other books. Books they quote.

From that beginning they launch into a tirade about the collapse of “Christendom” or the decline of the cultural dominance of Christianity in the west, as if this were new information. Frost and Hirsch aren't the first to discover that Christianity is in decline in west (paging Soren Kierkegaard) or the first to celebrate the shift (Douglas John Hall, Lesslie Newbigin, et al).

This is the kind of intellectual sloppiness and, dare I say, dishonesty, that I often find among evangelicals. Not that we mainline folks are exempt from intellectual ethics violations. But I find it more among evangelicals.

Also, both these books are shallow theologically, but attempt to go deep. Like most evangelical thinkers, they see the world, church, and mission through Calvin's penal substitution atonement theology. Their gospel is mainly about saving people from their sins, rather than seeing God active in redeeming the whole creation.

Furthermore, they use a fundamentalistic biblical hermeneutic, but don't realize it. For example, they came up with the acrostic “APEPT” to describe what ministry needs to look like in 21st century. “[APEPT is] the term we use to describe the fivefold ministry formula found in Ephesians 4. APEPT is an acrostic for Apostles, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, Teacher.” Other than the fact that this “formula” has been used by the charismatic movement for almost a century, and notwithstanding their self-professed “genius” of their model, a close reading of the Ephesians passage does not provide a “formula”for organization. It simply describes what was happening in the Ephesian church.

But they DO try to broaden the Christian response to what God has done for us in Jesus. They talk about mission as action, and they critique the consumerist takeover of Christianity by business-savvy pastors. Those are excellent chapters. But, again, they present the material as if they're the first ones to say it.

However, for me, the most glaring problem with this book is that they assume the problems of Christendom are simply problems of organization, structure, and strategy. They don't ask whether their theology was shaped by Christendom, since it emerged from that paradigm. They assume that theology is eternal, untouched by social forces. As much as they talk about being “contextual” they try to pour old theological wine into new contextual wineskins. Much of what they describe as their missional goal is really a return to Christendom.

For example, they whine about the fact that people in Sweden no longer have a “Christian worldview.” A term they don't define, and assume that the reader will be on board with this concern. Once we get into issues of “worldview” we get into meta narratives, which falls into questions of power (my metanarrative can beat up your metanarrative), it gets weighed down by all sorts of philosophical baggage, baggage that the authors fail to consider.

The greatest weakness of these books is that the authors can't break out of their theological shell, although they seem to want to – and think they are. A broader theological reading might be in order for Frost and Hirsch. Good places to start would be Douglas John Hall's trilogy, and Jurgen Moltmann's The Crucified God and Church in the Power of the Spirit. Not easy reads, but will help them think more deeply about God's activity in the world and how Christians can faithfully respond.

I'll share what I liked about the books in Part Two.

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