As it turns out, reviewing Becky Garrison’s book, Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church, is not a simple straightforward matter. It doesn’t really have a plot or a single argument to put forward that one could assess and say, “She convinced me” or, “She didn’t.” The book is a collection of interviews she conducted in person, over the phone, by email, and by instant messenger chat sessions — with a few excerpted blog posts thrown in for good measure. It’s a bit like reviewing an entire table of hors-d’ouvres and attempting to render a single opinion. Or better perhaps, it’s like wandering around a wild cocktail party filled with every emerging church personality you could think of and a few besides. As you wander, you eavesdrop on a myriad of conversations… you grab some ideas from one, move onto the next, and another, and another. You wander by the first one again to find the subject has changed, then move along to yet another discussion. The conversation are all very diverse, but if there’s a single theme it would be the subtitle of the book: “Rethinking Church,” which is a broad enough summary that the pages of the book still cover a wide array of topics.
As she has set up the various interview transcripts, she notes how the exchange took place — in person, by email, whatever. At some points there appear to be typos or slightly unusual language, just like a real conversation would exhibit. In part, this maintains the feeling of actually witnessing real exchanges. Sadly, it isn’t possible to jump in and make an observation or pose a question of your own. Like any roomful of good conversation by insightful people, the transcripts have their share of witty and quotable ideas. As a sampler, I’ve picked out a few that I liked for one reason or another. There are many more of course, but these give a sense of what’s going on in the conversations of our mythical room. Counter-conventionally, the bolded lines below are Becky’s interview questions quoted from the book, with the block quotes representing the response to each.
Explain how you came up with the name for your community.
Isaac Everett: Well, Transmission is who we are, but it’s also what we do. Sometimes we call our gatherings “rituals,” sometimes we call them “services,” but most often we call them “transmissions.” A transmission is “the act of passing something on,” and this reminds us to make worship active, engaging, and participatory. Tom Driver makes the case that “in a Christian sacrament the way of God’s becoming present to us is for one human being to become radically present to another. The mysterious One who is sacramentally present in worship is not one but two—both neighbor and God.” We take this seriously and strive to encounter and engage each other a consistent part of worship. We don’t just transmit to each other, however—we see ourselves in continuity with the Christian tradition that has been transmitted through history. As Paul says, “I transmitted (paradosis) to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” which is very important because good communication is at the heart of good relationships.
…DO ask “is our worship service culturally appropriate to our context?” and “does the language we use in our community reflect our core values?” and “are we noticing where God is already at work in our lives and in our neighborhoods, and are we willing to join in that work?” This is what you can take form [sic] the EC: a renewed focus on mission, context and praxis. But seriously, I have no starter kit with candles, a glue on goatee and an icon for $49.95 which will attract young adults like flies on sh*t, and if anyone else claims to, please never stop smacking them.
This [authority of Scripture] phrase is one of the many Scripture quotes that have been misused throughout history by those religious leaders who want to justify their stance on a given sociopolitical position.
N.T. Wright: In Christian theology, such phrases regularly act as “portable stories”—that is, ways of packing up longer narratives about God, Jesus, the church, and the world, folding them away into convenient suitcases, and then carrying them about with us. Shorthand enable [sic] us to pick up lots of complicated things and carry them around all together. But we should never forget that the point in doing so, like the point of carrying belongings in a suitcase, is that what has been packed away can then be unpacked and put to use in the new location. Too much debate about scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases. It is time to unpack our shorthand doctrines, to lay them out and inspect them. Long years in a suitcase may have made some of the contents go moldy. They will benefit from fresh air, and perhaps a hot iron.
How do you see emerging church as a venue that can encourage a more horizontal form of leadership that encourages lay involvement?
Brian McLaren: The medieval church expressed itself in hierarchies, while modern church was expressed in institutions and organizations. Now, we see the emerging church as an expression of faith in a world of networks. This network becomes more like a gravitational field than a machine. It’s a web of relationships where power and information are disseminated very broadly. What I think will happen in this emerging church phenomenon is that we’ll find a blurring of boundaries so that old hierarchies and institutions are actually part of emerging networks—they’re networked in. As a result, everybody has the capacity to learn from, influence, and enrich everybody.
[At ROCKHarbor, we] asked what was that one single decision that we made that turned this church into our parents’ church? I realized, it wasn’t a decision but rather the system it was built on.
How do you respond to the conventional wisdom that the mainline churches are dying?
Phyllis Tickle: They are and they aren’t. As Bishop Mark Dwyer has noted, about every five hundred years, the church feels compelled to have a rummage sale. During the last Reformation five hundred years ago, Protestantism took over hegemony. But Roman Catholicism did not die. It just had to drop back and reconfigure. Each time a rummage sale has happened, whatever was in place simply gets cracked into smaller pieces, and then it picks itself up and reconfigures. I think Diana Butler Bass is absolutely right-on when she says that progressive Christianity is that part of the established institutions presently in place that’s going to remain in the center or circle around the emerging church.
The topics vary so that a lot of ground is covered. As with a lot of “Q&A” or panel discussions, the conversation can sometimes go quickly to the heart of a matter or to a summary statement. In this sense, the book makes a good introductory overview, and includes a list of resources at the end should people wish to follow up. The ideas presented, as with the quotes above, don’t go into great detail to support their theses, but this is not the point of the book. I enjoyed it as a conversationally-light or easy read about theologically heavy or difficult subjects, and at several points I found things to make me go “hmmm.” The viewpoints cover a wide range of backgrounds and contexts; besides the above, interviewees include Diana Butler Bass, Jonny Baker, Kevin Bean, Kester Brewin, Shane Claiborne, Ian Mobsby, Peter Rollins, Karen Ward, and others.
Disclosure: This review is part of the “Ooze Select Bloggers Reviews” — a review copy of the book was provided to me without cost, but no fee was paid to me for this review.