Book Review: Giving Church Another Chance by Todd Hunter (and a chance to win the book for FREE)

Giving Church Another Chance by Todd Hunter is at once autobiographical, confessional, and even a little theological. Hunter’s story is in some ways not unlike my own. Both he and I grew up in evangelicalism and have had similar experiences with losing connection with the ‘story’ that evangelicalism narrated. As Hunter says, he went from being churched, to dechurched (but yet still ‘sneaking’ off, in his words, to the closest Episcopal church), to rechurched (finding himself a home in the Anglican Mission in the Americas fellowship).

While I have not become an Anglican like Hunter, his narrative of being churched, dechurched, and then rechurched resonates with me. And like Hunter, central to finding a deeper and fresh expression of faith for me was the recovery of spiritual practices that in some quarters of the church have been long forgotten. In Hunter’s opinion these practices need to be recovered and repracticed. Hunter discusses nine practices that he terms as follows: going to church and being sent, quiet prelude and reflection, singing and living the doxology, Scripture reading and embodying the story, hearing the sermon and obedience, following the liturgy, giving an offering and simplicity, taking communion and thankfulness,  and finally receiving the benediction and blessing others.

I pretty much never agree with anyone I read 100 percent and this book is no exception (and very much the nature of reading what others have written). But while I sense some tension at some points with Hunter my biggest frustration was that I felt a few times he was set to drive his point home and failed to do so completely. [I feel that Hunter’s book is probably worth a more in depth interaction, and maybe some of this could be covered at that point.] Despite this I believe that Hunter’s book will serve well those for whom it seems intended – those who might be open to giving church another chance and those who may have never had any substantial exposure to church practices. Briefly, I find the following to be the most positive aspects of Hunters book.

First, Hunter does not sugarcoat his frustrations with the church but he does not bash the church either. It is clear that Hunter loves the church and his tone is firm yet gentle.

Second, Hunter emphasizes throughout that the ‘repracticing’ of church practices is to be done in community with others. Hunter’s thoughts here offer us, I feel, a fresh perspective on being the church together.

Third, throughout the book Hunter displays holistic thinking. Though he calls us to move from mere cognitive assertion to actions he does not set beliefs against actions. He sees our beliefs, actions, and spiritual formation as intimately related to each other.

Fourth, for Hunter the spiritual practices are, like beliefs, not ends in themselves. One does the spiritual practices not merely for oneself, but for others as well. The practices are intended to shape and propel us into the narrative and mission of God. The practices themselves are missional!

Todd has graciously given me an extra copy of his book to give away to one of my blog readers. To be entered to win, leave a comment on this blog post. To get a 2nd, 3rd, &/or 4th entry to win, link to this blog post on your Facebook, Twitter, or blog, & then come back here & comment again for each place you’ve shared the link & include a link to where you shared it. Please make each entry a separate comment so that it will be easier to pick a winner. Each comment will be counted as 1 entry, so make sure you follow the instructions carefully to make sure you get the most entries possible. I will be drawing for the winner Monday, June 14th at 5:00pm CST, so please get your entries in before then. This book would make some good summer reading.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Todd Hunter to read and post a review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Pomo 101 [1]: Introduction

I have a confession to make…but you may already know this. But I still feel like I need to get this off my chest.

Here goes: I’m…a…postmodern.

OK, I feel better now and that wasn’t so bad but I understand the reader may have some questions. For instance, why would anyone, much less myself (someone who claims to be a historically orthodox Christian of the Baptist family), claim the label ‘postmodern’. A common conception is that postmodernism does not mix well at all with Baptist identity and can having nothing to do with a biblical, historically orthodox faith. Those who are of this opinion can tend to get wildly apologetic concerning postmodernism and I have more than one of these types of conversations. But then there are also those who see that perhaps…maybe…postmodernism is not the anti-gospel and are willing to listen for a bit. However, as commonly occurs, having been reared in modern, Western Christianity (in my context some part of evangelicalism) the hearing is limited and there remains a sort of mild to moderate allergic reaction to postmodernism (call it epistemic sneezing and coughing). And then there are those who might think with Moe, from the Simpsons, as he explains to Homer that being postmodern simply means “weird for the sake of weird.”

Given the general conceptions (or misconceptions) of postmodernism in the church, especially that of evangelicalism, I can see why some would be concerned about not only me calling myself ‘postmodern’ but also my use of postmodern insights and ideas in theology.  I know for a fact that (sadly) some have seen the study and use of postmodernism as a reason to break fellowship with me. (Just recently I became aware that a facebook friend of mine from my days at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary saw it as reason enough to ‘defriend’ me. And it’s possible that many church ministerial search committees may see this and mark me off their list as well.) Still others out there may be wondering what’s up with me, why am I playing with fire, so to speak? Still others (though far more rare perhaps) might inquire in sincerity about what positives a postmodern perspective might offer. I don’t know where whoever is reading this at this point in time falls in this spectrum, but whatever your present opinions about postmodernism, if you are one of the sincere ones, you have my thanks. But even if you are inclined to write postmodernism off from the start I would ask that you be willing to entertain the possibility that all may not be as it seems (or as you may have been told). My aim here is to embark on series of posts concerning the subject of postmodernism and what possibilities it may offer the church in its incarnational presence in the world.

This post is intended as a simple introduction to the series. Thus we won’t get into anything too deep right now. Before I give a general, tentative outline of how I have the series outlined at this point let’s visit some points about the discussion over postmodernism that Myron Penner notes in his introductory chapter to Christianity and the Postmodern Turn. Penner suggests that in the discussion over the pros and cons and the good and bad of postmodernism there are some things that become evident. The first of these is that there are generally two polar opposite positions when it comes to postmodernism. There are those for it and see value in the postmodern turn for articulating a more robust gospel. And there are those (as I already mentioned) against it who see the postmodern turn as a clear and present danger to the integrity of the Christian faith. Penner notes that the first group (those for pomo) tend to believe that the detractors just don’t get it and are too blinded by their modern prejudices to engage postmodernism meaningfully. The critics of pomo, however, tend to suggest that the champions of postmodernism are sliding down the slippery slope of heresy and relativism with even the mere mention of so called postmodern ‘insights’.

The second thing that becomes clear is that Penner says both sides are like ships passing in the night – they do not seem to refer to the same thing as postmodernism. What this means of course is that what is rejected as postmodern and anathema to the gospel may not be at all what those described as postmodern actually subscribe too.  A third and final thing that becomes clear is that despite the fact that Christian responses to postmodernism occurs in the form of a dichotomy (one is either for or against it) the actual reality is actually more complex than the dichotomy of opinions does justice too. The fact of the matter is that the postmodern turn itself is varied and complex such that it defies any sort of reductionist description. In fact, just as N.T. Wright notes (for example in The New Testament and the People of God, pg 244) that in terms of the historical context of the New Testament and first century Judaism, that there really wasn’t a monolithic first century Judaism, but ‘Judaisms’ (pl)…it may more correct to speak not of postmodernism as a singular monolith, but of ‘postmodernisms’ (pl) in many different expressions and dimensions (and indeed, as we may discover, some of these varieties may actually be more hyper-modern than properly post-modern).

A major discussion partner on the way will be James K. A. Smith and his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? I highly recommend this book as a very accessible introduction to postmodernism that isn’t too long (only 152 pages). Smith describes the book as “French lessons” for the church in which he discusses three of the major postmodern philosophers – Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. One of the positives (I think) is that Smith approaches postmodernism critically, but yet as an opportunity to rethink the shape of the church as well as recover many of the ancient sources lost in modernity. However, I want to extend the conversation beyond Smith’s discussion of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. Therefore, I am also including discussions of Martin Heideger, Emmanuel Levinas, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur to broaden out the conversation.

Here is a tentative outline of how the posts are scheduled at this point:

Pomo 101 [1]: Introduction (this post)

Pomo 101 [2]: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Smith chapter 1)

Pomo 101 [3]: As the (Postmodern) World Turns (a discussion of the general philosophical ‘turns’ of postmodernism along with the premodern and modern philosophical backdrop – if I’m brave enough I’ll attempt a ‘definition’ of postmodernism)

Pomo 101 [4]: Postmodernism, Science, and Biblical Truth

Pomo 101 [5]: Heideger and Ontotheology

Pomo 101 [6]: Derrida and Deconstruction (Smith chapter 2)

Pomo 101 [7]: Lyotard and Metanarratives (Smith chapter 3)

Pomo 101 [8]: Foucault and Power (Smith chapter 4)

Pomo 101 [9]: Levinas and the Other

Pomo 101 [10]: Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Hermeneutics

Pomo 101 [11]: Postmodernism and the Church – part 1 (Smith chapter 5)

Pomo 101 [12]: Postmodernism and the Church – part 2

You might think that postmodernism is just weird, but maybe it also holds some potential…some possibilities…some promise. My invitation is to all who are willing to make the journey together and see what happens and where this will take us.

Why DesperateTheologian – Part 3

This is the third part in a three part series exploring I why call myself the DesperateTheologian. Parts one and two can be found by clicking on the links. I am probably the world’s most sporadic blogger, so this series has been extended over quite some time. A large reason for my blogging unreliability I think has come from not really knowing what I wanted to do with this blog. I do aim to start posting regularly. However, I don’t make any definitive promises and I hesitate to specify what ‘regularly’ means – life does tend to happen you know. In this post I have three main aims. The first is to pick up where I left off with the “Concluding Theological Primer” in part two and to share some more thoughts about how I see theology and my general theological agenda (this makes up the bulk of the post). The second is to give some ideas as to what I want to do with this blog. And the third is to give the reader some idea what they may find here.

[Note: Some of this a repeat from post two. My plan is to edit all three parts together into a single piece and post it in the ‘WhyDesperateTheologian’ page to the right and tab up above.]

Captured by the Triune God – Theology as Spirituality

In part two of ‘Why DesperateTheogian’ I shared about the deep struggle with doubt and grief in the wake and midst of Christie and I losing three of our babies to miscarriage (there were also a couple of devastating failed adoptions during this time – long stories I won’t go into here). It was in the midst of this journey through doubt and grief that I sensed within me a growing desperation. To be honest this sense of desperation is hard to pin down and describe. The best way I can describe it is that I was desperate in the same way that a suffocating or drowning person is desperate for air or in the same way that a starving person is desperate for food. The only thing was, at the time, in the midst and depth of the grief and doubt, I had a very hard time specifying what I was desperate for (I gave a list in part two but it’s important to note that this list is the product of subsequent reflection over time). What I did know was that my formerly propositionalist theology was not really much of a help. I see it as an act of divine providence then that I came across Stanley Grenz, who remains my favorite theologian.

Grenz presents us with a theology that is intentionally structured and shaped by the triune reality of God in which trinitarian concerns are not relegated to a footnote or single section in a systematic theology but instead permeates all areas of theology. It is in Grenz’s writings that I discovered the idea of perichoresis, or (all too briefly defined here) our participation in the divine trinitarian life of God, articulated first by the church fathers but seemingly lost in modern theology. I found that trinitarian theology (and the reality of participation in the triune life) spoke directly to my grief and doubt. I found trinitarian theology to be immensely practical while at the same time not sacrificing, well, the theological. In fact, through my study of trinitarian theology I became convinced more than ever of the overwhelming majesty, beauty, and sovereignty of God even in the midst of my doubt and grief. In the process I found a desperation for God (as triune) I had not known previously. In fact, it was if my desperation was being transformed – from that of the loss of hope to that of the finding of the ultimate ground of hope and the longing for deeper participation in the divine life. Though hurting, grieving, and doubting I was like a moth led the flame. In essence I went in search of a theology, and a way of doing theology that would give me some answers and alleviate my desperation, only to have my desperation transformed in the (re)discovered of the triune God.

In this sense trinitarian theology has also played a large role in the shaping of my spirituality into what is a trinitarian spirituality that is bound up within and can not be separated from trinitarian theology. I make no claim to have captured all of who God is; instead quite the opposite. I have been captured by the triune God. Some may feel that captured is too strong of a word here, perhaps to Calvinistic even. However, in my experience it fits perfectly. You see, in the depth of my grief, doubt, and despair I was quite helpless and powerless. I had no strength left to hold on to God on my own. I had to give up any pretense I ever may have had about ‘holding on to God’ in my own strength, capturing God, or making sense of things through a theological system alone. No, as I look back the only thing that held me (us really, myself and Christie) together and in place, as it were, was the grace and triune love (perichoresis) of God. I found that despite my lack of strength, this was a love that would not let me go.

The Nature of Theology

Theology and spirituality must be interwoven into the same fabric. Theology happens not through the mere systemization of propositions but when one ceases trying to capture God and is instead, having been drawn in by inexhaustible love and grace, captured by God. Apart from its divine source theology is really a rather weak thing. The would be theologian should be aware that theology is not something to be used to control God. Much of modern theology has been concerned with formulating doctrines through rationalistic methods, boiled down into the form of propositional statements, which are then formally systematized. Theology done (up)rightly should recognize that doctrines are not and can never become an end unto themselves without significant theological distortion and reduction. While, negatively, we can certainly avoid saying false things about God, as well as positively saying many true things, what we say will always have a sense of inadequacy. The triune reality of God is more grand and mysterious than any proposition can communicate. This is not a Sherlock Holmes type mystery that we solve by the use of our rational powers alone. God is not a puzzle that we find the answer too. In reference to the triune mystery the key words are not ‘problem solving’ or ‘sytematics’ but drawing, relational participation, and indwelling. We speak of God, not in the pretense of having God figured out, but because we can not remain silent about the triune God revealed to us ‘in Christ’ and through the Spirit. What must be understood is that what we call doctrines only function properly if the would be theologian is willing to hear from God. One should never confuse doctrinal formulation for either theological or spiritual depth. The intertwining of theology and spirituality ought to lead us to the intertwining of deepening knowledge of God with deepening communion of God which is expressed in a holistically embodied theological existence.

In contrast to the rationalistic, propositional, and systematic expression of theology found throughout much of modern theology I find it helpful to speak of the nature of theology in other terms as well. It is important to note here that rationality (or the use of reason), systematics, nor propositions are bad in and of themselves. They only become problematic when theology is reduced to these things as theology’s sum and substance instead of viewing them in a more holistic manner. Thus, contra the reductionism of rationalistic, propositional, and systematic modern theology I prefer to see theology as:

Not merely rational but…

  • relational – flowing from and embodied in communion with God and others, conversational in nature.
  • reverential – theology done under God’s sovereignty for God’s glory alone.
  • reserved – recognizing our own limits and the irreducible nature of God’s truth, epistemic and theological humility.

Not merely propositional but…

  • phronetic – practical wisdom expressed in ‘fitting’ theological virtues enabling us to make ‘fitting’ theological judgements about the true, the good, and beautiful.
  • prosaic – practical wisdom that is incarnated in everyday life, theology that can move from the prose of Scripture to the prose of contemporary culture.
  • perichoretic – theology that above all else finds it ground, grammar, and goal in the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Not merely systematic but…

  • situational – the recognition that all theology arises within and must be ‘situated’ in particular forms of life and cultural contexts.
  • systemic – each aspect of theology is interrelated, intertwined, and interwoven with all the others and can not be neatly separated but must be considered in relation to each other.
  • story centered – realizing the importance of narrative context and situatedness for the theological task, the central narrative being the narrative of Christ.

The Shape of the Theological Task

Here I repeat something that I’ve said often in other contexts: we are all theologians. In one sense we are all theologians because we all believe something about God (“theo-logy” literally means “words about God” or “teaching about God”). But we are also all theologians in how we live (our narratives), not just what we say (our propositions). Our lives are inherently theological! The question is what kind of theologians we are going to be. This brings us back, I believe, to the interdependent and interwoven character of theology and spirituality. Theology is about making us into a particular kind of people…or if you will; a particular kind of theologian – the kind that love (up)rightly, as well as know (up)rightly and do (up)rightly. The task of theology itself is a kind of spiritual discipline that is just as much an art (if not more) as it is Wissenschaft. The task of theology is a kind of spiritual discipline involving just as much prayer and contemplation (again, if not more) as academic study, a discipline that weaves these things together into the tapestry of life. The kind of spiritual formation resulting from such discipline is, then, our continued response to the reality of being captured in and by God’s triune love and grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world and God’s mission in the world. Such formation involves the transformation of the whole person for the purpose of embracing one’s role in the grand theo-dramatic narrative of redemption and has its source in the divine life of God. As such it can be nothing other than wholly theo-logical!

To this end of forming and shaping us into ‘particular kinds of theologians’ are the development of theological virtues such as humility, trust, receptivity, and patience (and we could name others), but the one that stands out to me the most (perhaps because it seems to be in such short supply these days) is the virtue of wisdom. These theological virtues not only work to shape us into ‘particular kinds of theologians’ but in turn also shape the way we carry out the theological task. Theology is not just about producing really smart people. Rather it is a discipline of wise discernment which leads to wise living as well as the development of what I like to call fitting ‘theological instincts’ which contribute to what I referred to above as a ‘holistically embodied theological existence’ lived to the glory of the triune God.

Such a theological vision will necessarily emphasize the interdependency of theology and praxis. The dominate model it seems in modern theology has been to split or divide theology per se (which is viewed as a kind of theory that is usually propositional) and praxis (as represented by ministerial or ecclesial practice). In this, the theory and praxis are treated as rather distant cousins that one must choose between. However, I do not believe this should be the case. Theory and praxis should never be divorced, dichotomized, or bifurcated from each other, for while they are both distinct expressions, theory and praxis are both endemic to the theological task and intertwined with each other. Ultimately, the interplay of (up)right loving (orthokardia, being), (up)right knowing (orthodoxy, thinking), and (up)right practice (orthopraxis, doing) contribute a holistic theological hermeneutic for life itself. In view of this I have taken to theologian Miroslav Volf’s view of seeing the task of theology as involving a whole way of life. Most specifically I have come to see theology as my/our participation in the divine, trinitarian life of God that is trinitarian, narrative, and missional in nature.

The shape this theological praxis takes is first of all trinitarian. Though it may seem a rather obvious thing, the triune God must be the center of theological discourse. However, God as Trinity went conspicuously absent in much of modern theology. One of the most important theological tasks I believe is the re-discovery, re-embracing, and re-living of a robustly trinitarian faith. In particular, a theology of participation is a trinitarian undertaking flowing from the triune identity of God as the ground, grammar, and goal of all theology. It is connected to the divine life (the perichoresis of which Father, Son, and Spirit are all communal participants) having been drawn into this participation in the divine, triune life ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is nothing other than participation in the trinitarian praxis of God.

Second, this theological praxis takes on a narrative shape. Such a participation in God can only be expressed in narrative form by participating with God in the grand, triune theo-dramatic narrative in the world. An important theological task here is to re-member, re-connect, and re-flect on the narrative dimension of theology. Here theology is not so much about the systematization of propositions but instead involves the interplay of the biblical narrative as the norming norm of theology, church tradition as the hermeneutical trajectory of theology, and culture as the embedding context of theology. A theology of dramatic, participative narrative theological praxis works to connect us with God’s very life as well as draw us, within our own particular narrative and cultural contexts, into the wider triune theo-dramatic narrative revealed to us within the biblical narrative ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, this theological praxis takes on a missional shape. Trinitarian praxis and narrative praxis find further expression in missional praxis. As God is active in the world, He is shown to be the missional God who calls His people into not only dramatic participation in His narrative but into missional participation and praxis, which must be grounded in the divine life (perichoresis) of the missional God. Theology as a way of life then is participation in the triune life and praxis of God that brings us into participation in God’s triune narrative and sends us outward in missional praxis to the world ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit. It is here, in the area of missional praxis (connected to and flowing from trinitarian and narrative praxis), that the church is faced with the need for wise contextualization. An important theological task here is for the church to re-think, re-form, and re-imagine its ecclesial, missional, and (flowing from this) incarnational presence. As a result we can not divorce the theological task from the ecclesial context. As such theology should never be done in the ‘ivory tower,’ but must always be ‘ecclesial’ in nature, contributing to the trinitarian, narrative and missional praxis of the church. The church, in my view, should be a missional community of missional theologians who worship the one, true missional God.

To summarize then, I have come to see theology as both personal and corporate (ecclesial) participation in the divine triune life of God that is characterized by trinitarian praxis (our participation in the triune, communal life of God), narrative praxis (our participation in the grand triune, theo-dramatic narrative revealed within the biblical narrative and person of Christ), and missional praxis (our participation in the triune mission of God). In this I envision a distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional theology that gives rise to a distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional spirituality and way of living. This is what I see as the thrust of the theological task: theology as participation in the divine life; exhibited and lived out in trinitarian praxis, narrative praxis, and missional praxis.

My purpose and Agenda

So…why a blog? This is a question that I have been thinking about for awhile and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to do with this blog. With the question of why I refer to myself as the DesperateTheologain explained, the next question is why do I want a blog? Here are a few of the reasons that should give you an idea as to what to expect here at DesperateTheologian.

  • To share about the intersections between my story and theology. I realize that there is a widespread aversion to ‘theology’ among many and that the mere thought causes the eyes of many to roll back into their heads. At the root level I think that many who have this reaction simply don’t see in theology any relevance or import for living in the ‘real world.’ I will admit; this conception may have been well deserved in a host of theological expressions. But in my opinion, theology should never be divorced from the rest of life. I have found theology to be not only immensely practical but crucial. I want to explore the interwoven nature of story and theology (what we might call a storied theology).
  • To help me organize my thoughts. Some will be more organized while some will be me “thinking out loud” and perhaps even incomplete at the time. As a part of this, I do a lot of reading, mainly theological in nature. I am hoping this blog can provide a creative outlet for me, theologically speaking, that will help me process the thoughts from my reading.
  • To develop my ideas and hopefully maybe even get some constructive feedback from others – but only if you promise to be nice.
  • To keep myself in practice as far as writing is concerned. I don’t envision this being strictly academic in nature (I don’t plan on footnoting everything, who has the time) but I don’t want it to be non-academic either – if that makes sense.

Research Interests: Finally, these are some of my interests in my theological research that just may find their way into a blog post at some point.

  • Developing a theology of community that can find application within the church in the postmodern context.
  • Postmodern theology.
  • Post-foundationalist theology.
  • Gender issues, sexuality, and marriage from a trinitarian perspective.
  • The relationship between Trinity and scripture.
  • Philosophical/theological hermeneutics and hermeneutical philosophy/theology.
  • Theological ethics.
  • The ‘self’, theological anthropology, and the imago dei.
  • The contemporary emerging and missional conversations.
  • The intersections of trinitarian theology (my main area of interest), narrative theology, and missional theology.
  • And I’m sure Stanley Grenz will warrant a few posts as well. 🙂