Friday, January 29, 2010

Contemporary Christianity - what might this look like for us? Here is a fresh approach which deserves some conversation.

This is a fascinating review by Gladys Ganiel -- a Lecturer and Coordinator of the Reconciliation Studies Programme at the Belfast campus of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. Please see her blog at

Dave Tomlinson is one of the keynote speakers at the Belfast Re-Emergence Conference, ‘The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church,’ scheduled for March 16-18, 2010, at the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College Dublin at Belfast). In his most recent book, Re-Enchanting Christianity: Faith in an Emerging Culture, (Canterbury Press, 2008) Tomlinson dissects all that is unattractive and downright revolting about contemporary Christianity in the West. From there, he offers some insights on how Christians can engage more wholesomely (I deliberately do not say ‘effectively’) with the challenges of post-modernity.

As I read the book I couldn’t help thinking of the American Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who once said something to the effect:

‘The church in the West isn’t dying, God is killing it.’

Hauerwas’ remark casts ‘secularization’ and Christianity in the West in quite a different spiritual light than they are usually seen. Christians usually feel a deep unease about declining church attendance, and all that secularization is supposed to entail. Among the faithful remnant, there has been some mourning for the ‘death’ of church institutions, and lament over the fact that the great and the good don’t seem to listen to the churches anymore.

But Hauerwas’ comment – and much of Tomlinson’s book – force Christians to ask whether the church institutions to which they cling are really worth saving in their present form. Could it be that the ‘religion’ of Christianity that has been constructed in the West is something that ‘God’ might quite like casting away?

For Tomlinson, aspects of contemporary Christianity that we would be better off without are what he sees as damaging and inhumane beliefs about how the bible should be read, the meaning of the atonement, whether or not the resurrection actually happened (and if it matters!), the uniqueness of Christ, the efficacy of prayer, and the existence of hell.

The debates and questions that Tomlinson raises around these and other issues will be especially familiar to people from evangelical and charismatic traditions. Most of his critiques are aimed at debunking the common answers to such questions offered within conservative evangelicalism.

This is not surprising, given that Tomlinson himself is the original ‘Post-Evangelical,’ the man who gave us that very term in his 1995 book of the same name. He is a former charismatic house church leader and is part of the wider ‘emerging church’ movement, which itself is a child of the discontented daughters and sons of modern North Atlantic evangelicalism.

Tomlinson offers alternative perspectives on these issues which reflect his genuine engagement with people in the culture around him (through his work now as a parish priest in North London) and a wide reading of major theologians and philosophers of the past generation, including Thomas Merton, Walter Wink, C.S. Lewis, Paul Ricoeur, Walter Brueggemann, Marcus Borg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rene Girard, and more.

Tomlinson handles these thinkers with a confident and light touch that is appropriate for a popular audience. But in a relatively slight book (148 pages) with 15 slim chapters, the reader is often left longing for more meat from the bones of their works. Here, an annotated bibliography would have been helpful for those who are new to some of these theologians and philosophers, or seeking further directions for reading.

In the 15th and final chapter of the book, ‘Mission Statement,’ Tomlinson identifies five areas that he thinks should ‘really matter’ to Christians in the 21st Century. When I began to read this chapter I was disgruntled about this exercise, as it seemed to me too formulaic considering the relatively free-flowing approach to faith that Tomlinson advocates throughout.

But once I got over that, I did recognise value in Tomlinson’s five observations:

Christian mission in the 21st century requires a kingdom orientation, rather than a church orientation
Christian mission in the 21st century needs to be focused on spirituality, rather than apologetics
Christian mission in the 21st century needs to be holistic rather than dualistic
Christian mission in the 21st century needs to be dialogical rather than monological
Christian mission in the 21st century needs to find expression through open, empowering church communities
These five points of course draw on themes Tomlinson develops in the earlier chapters, and include examples of and ideas about what holistic and welcoming groups of Christians might look like.

Tomlinson’s choice of the word ‘mission’, and the ways in which he thinks it should be exercised, also resonate with the international conference my school is hosting in Dublin, June 16-18, 2010, ‘From World Mission to Interreligious Witness: Visioning Ecumenism in the 21st Century.’

Like this conference, Tomlinson urges us to push beyond the easy association of mission with evangelism or proselytization, and to replace the negative association of mission with something empowering (page 130):

‘… for me, mission is not about trying to get people ‘saved’, or trying to get them to join the Church, or even about trying to get them to convert to Christianity. Mission is about making God’s liberating love and peace and justice a flesh-and-blood reality in ways that can potentially transform people’s lives, or potentially transform a neighbourhood, or potentially transform the world.’

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