Postmodern. Postliberal. Post-Christendom. Postchristian. Although we debate the aptness of these terms and their illuminating power, they reveal something significant about our culturethe times, they are a-changin'. Add to this cultural flux the difficulty of developing an ecclesiology for evangelicalsPresbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Independents, parachurch organizations.
Addressing the current cultural situation and applying it to evangelicals is what David Fitch takes on in The Great Giveaway. It is a daunting task: to make the case for a particular interpretation of our culture and at the same time develop an evangelical ecclesiology. Fitch is well-prepared for this dual task by his Ph.D. (Northwestern) and his years in pastoral ministry in the greater Chicago area. His aim is appropriate and admirable. It provides many moments of illumination and passages of sustained analysis and direction for "reclaiming the mission of the church" (as the subtitle promises). Overall, the book is a mixture of strengths and weaknesses that reflects the complexity of our times, the topic of the book, and the task of faithfully fulfilling the church's mission.
The Postmodern Milieu
For Fitch, we live in postmodern times. Fitch makes the case for this interpretation of our culture not by arguing it but by presuming the postmodern condition and by using it as a hermeneutical key and guide for the church's mission. Thus, as he addresses various aspects of the church's life, he demonstrates how, under the influence of modernity, the church has "given away" its mission. Modernity has infected our definition of success, and our practices of evangelism, worship, preaching, moral education, and more, so that we are no longer faithful to our mission. Postmodernity illuminates this giveaway and guides us back to faithfulness.
In his exposition, Fitch regards postmodernity as more than a cultural shift that illuminates our cultural captivity. It is also more than the cultural milieu in which the church pursues its mission. Postmodernity for Fitch is the cultural wave that we should ride for the foreseeable future as it illuminates the past, the present, and the future.
This is not to say that Fitch gets everything or even a majority of things wrong. His cultural analysis is usually quite insightful. He understands the nuances of complex social analyses and moves deftly from those analyses to church life.
For example, Fitch's fundamental and pervasive critique of the "great giveaway" to modernity is the church's adoption of a modernist and unbiblical understanding of success. From this general critique he moves to instances of this captivity in several areas of church life. If we had a more biblical understanding of success, wouldn't we "count" baptisms more significant than membership. And wouldn't we regard baptism as an act integral to a life of discipleship?
Fitch has many insights into the church's complicity with modernity. What concerns me is that he does not match this critique with any significant recognition that postmodernity might pose the same kind of threat. He wants us to recognize how the church gave away its mission under the spell of modernity. But then he seems to fall under the spell of postmodernity. If this is a bit too harsh, it is at least a threat against which Fitch does not sufficiently warn.
Reconstructing the Mission
And yet, his ecclesiologythat is, his constructive account of the life of the church in fulfilling its missionhits most of the right notes. He retrieves, reclaims, reconstructs, redefines, and returns the church to its mission. To do this he draws on the same teachers from whom I have learned so much: Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, William Cavanaugh, and Stephen Fowl, among others.
His use of these works flows from his critique of the captivity of the evangelical church to modernity and from the hermeneutical key that he finds in postmodernity. His use of these works also flows from his own rootedness in ministry. Many teachers of the church who are rooted in the academy struggle to make their writing concrete and particular. Many pastors of the church struggle to make their writing and practices more than pragmatic survival techniques or programs for success (usually defined by modernity, as Fitch demonstrates).
For Fitch, the thinkers on whom he draws give him critical perspective on the church. The practices of ministry in which he is constantly immersed allow him to be concrete, particular, and practical. One side guards him from floating abstractly above the practices of ministry, the other side guards him from captivity to pragmatism and the tyranny of the immediate.
Thus, Fitch not only offers a stringent critique, he also immediately answers the "so what?" question. And he does so with specificity and realism. If the doctrine of the church is rooted in the practices of the church as those practices are rooted in the grace of God in Christ, then Fitch's book provides an ecclesiology that is responsive to evangelicalism and to the modern and postmodern condition.
The Wrong Benchmark
But here, once again, a significant weakness remains, one that replays the problem with Fitch's dependence on postmodernity as hermeneutical key and ecclesiological guide. In Fitch's constructive ecclesiology, as in his critique of the cultural captivity of the church, he depends too much and in the wrongs ways on postmodernity. Even as he describes reclaiming the church's mission, I long for him to say "the gospel calls us to " or "the gospel illuminates " or "the gospel guides us to a recovery of" faithful evangelism, preaching, moral education, or some other practice. But too often "the postmodern" appears to be the benchmark.
This weakness is evident in his discussion of the movement from "modern" preaching to "postmodern" preaching. Here postmodernity is the critic of modernist preaching and initiates the correction. Does not the gospel provide an even more trenchant critique of modern maladies than does postmodernity? To Fitch's credit, he moves quickly from postmodernity to theological corrections of modernist approaches to Scripture and preaching. But again that turn does not include any warnings about postmodern maladies that may co-opt the church's preaching.
Because Fitch is rooted in faithful ministry and learns from teachers who are faithful to the gospel, his ecclesiology is not as dangerous as I may have made it sound. Nor does it verge on unfaithfulness. However, one responsibility of theology is not only to avoid heresy in one's own theology, but also to know where that theology may be misread by others and to guard against such misreading. I am concerned that Fitch does not guard his way of working sufficiently. Today's postmodern evangelical could become tomorrow's postmodern liberal. Let us take care to prevent that insofar as it lies within our power to do so.
One of the strengths of the evangelical tradition is its passion for the Great Commission that flows from its passion for Christ and the world. Fitch embodies an evangelical passion for the postmodern world with insight into the culture and concrete direction for the church. None of us ever gets the balance between Christ and the world quite right, and so we give mutual support and correction to one another in the body of Christ. Fitch is right in his reading of the cultural situation, in his critique of the church's giveaway, and in the practices to which we are called. But his account does not sufficiently proclaim that it is the gospel and not postmodernity that provides the hermeneutical key to culture and guides faithful practices of the church
Jonathan R. Wilson is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Acadia Divinity College. In June 2006 he will become Pioneer McDonald Professor of Theology at Carey Theological College.
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The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Also posted today is an excerpt from the book.
David Fitch blogs on the themes he dealt with in The Great Giveaway.
Fitch is pastor of Life on the Vine.