Archives For James Davidson Hunter

Here’s a review I wrote for my friend David Fitch’s new book Faithful Presence.

On Ash Wednesday I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo. During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer. I wrote a book called Cancer is Funny but it didn’t feel very funny looking at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got until I make good on the promise that begins every Lenten season: ‘To dust you shall return.”

Leaving my oncologist’s office, I drove to the hospital to visit a parishioner. He’s about my age with a boy about my boy’s age. He got cancer a bit before I did. He thought he was in the clear and now it doesn’t look like it will end well. The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill-in-the-blank sort that he can use to insure that his boy knows who his dad was. We were interrupted again only moments after she left by the chaplain, dressed like an old school undertaker,  offering ashes to us without explanation. It was easier for both of us to nod our heads and receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross. “Remember,” he whispered, “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if the truth that none of us is getting out of life alive wasn’t already palpably felt between us.

The chaplain stepped over the tubes draped off the bed and left as quickly as he’d come. I sat next to the bed. I know from both from my training as a pastor and my experience as a patient, my job was neither to fix his feelings of despair nor to protect God from them. It certainly wasn’t to dump on to him the baggage I’d brought from my doctor’s office.

My job, I knew, as both a Christian and a clergyman, wasn’t to do anything for him, to bring to him my preconceived agenda but, simply, to be with him.

I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears welling in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we were adoring the host.

I was present to him, with him, buoyed in the confidence that in this discipline of being present with him, naked and afraid- certainly one of whom Jesus calls the least among us, Christ was with us too, present in an almost tangible way that augers a permanent presence God will perfect in the fullness of time.

Here’s a question for the clergy types out there and, even, for ordinary non-pensioned Christians:

The confidence I have in the practice of being present in a hospital room, the trust I have that through the practice of presence Christ is present, why does it not extend to the other disciplines Jesus has given us?

Why is it that in the hospital room I’m content to be present, faithfully, and trust Jesus to show, yet everywhere else in my ministry I run (until I drop) on the unexamined assumption that it’s up to me to change my parishioners’ lives and then, with them, to change the world?

I trust Jesus not to be AWOL in the cancer ward but otherwise I typically operate as if God is the object of a curriculum program (for which I’m always scrambling to find the latest, shiniest product in the Cokesbury catalog) rather than the active agent in the world who calls us to participate with him and to do so not through the latest thematic teaching series but through the concrete practices he gave to us. It’s an assumption that in trying to conform people to Christ leaves them consumers instead and leaves me exhausted.

Taking his title from the coda of James Davidson Hunter’s significant book To Change the World, in Faithful Presence David Fitch unpacks the communal Christian disciplines by which God changes the world.

The grammar of that sentence is key to understanding Fitch’s work and how it connects with his preceding book Prodigal Christianity.

Whereas Fitch worries that James Davidson Hunter’s faithful presence proposal too easily becomes a prescription for individuals embodying the faith in the hopes of transforming culture, thereby underwriting the privatization and loneliness of the culture, Fitch notes how Hunter also misses, as perhaps a sociologist must, that we are not the active agents of mission.

In Faithful Presence, Fitch makes explicit that God is the subject of Christian speech; mission and transformation- they’re what God does.

Faithful presence then names a set of practices of the community but, more foundational, it names a participation in what the Living God is doing antecedent to us. Continuing the premise of Prodigal Christianity, where God the Son forsakes his inheritance to venture out into the Far Country that we call the sinful world in order to return all that belongs to the Father back to the Father, Fitch exposes the anthropological assumptions lurking behind how we conceive of the practices of the Church. They are not our means to God, for, in good Barthian fashion, scripture does not narrate our journey to God but God’s relentless journey to us. Nor do the practices simply equip us to engage in mission as though the mission was our mission. Rather the practices of the Church are the means God in Christ has given to us to locate God at work in the world and to join with God in what God is doing in the world. As Fitch writes, the practice of faithful presence is only intelligible because “God is present in the world and God uses a People faithful to his presence to make himself concrete.” God’s presence in the world, Fitch adds, cannot be apprehended generally or without mediation.

Only God can reveal God.

Therefore, we require the disciplines Jesus gave us.

Fitch’s emphasis on the disciplines echoes a bit with James KA Smith’s You Are What You Love. in that both authors lament the degree to which God in the Enlightenment got relegated to an idea or a belief in the individual’s head. Smith attempts a recovery of the practices of the faith because our formation comes through habituation not information. While Fitch would no doubt concur with Smith about the Enlightenment’s reductionism of discipleship to belief, the practices for Fitch are not merely habits to form us in our faith. They are the promised locations in which Christ is present with us and through which Christ changes the world. As Fitch notes, the Great Commission itself not only promises that Christ will be present to his people (“I am with you always”) the charge to make disciples of all nations assumes disciplines by which will be present to form disciples. The disciplines, as Fitch identifies them, bear resonances with the Catholic sacraments:

The Discipline of the Lord’s Table

The Discipline of Reconciliation

The Discipline of Proclaiming the Gospel

The Discipline of Being with the ‘Least of These’

The Discipline of Being with Children

The Discipline of the Fivefold Gifting

The Discipline of Kingdom Prayer

If Faithful Presence stopped there it would be a helpful theological corrective to how we treat the disciplines, reminding us they’re vessels of God’s activity not our mediums to God, but it would not enliven Christian imagination to broaden what we mean by engaging in God’s mission.

The unique contribution Fitch makes in Faithful Presence is arguing that each of these disciplines given to us by Christ have three interrelated and complimentary manifestations in the social spaces of our lives.

Precisely because God is the active agent of mission, on the move in the world, these disciplines should likewise force us to be on the move in a dynamic that avoids the familiar Sunday to Monday, in here-out there connection that bedevils Christians. Fitch denotes these spaces by illustrating three circles: a closed circle. a dotted circle, and a semi-circle. The closed circles represents the social space of the church. The dotted circle is an extension of the church, our friends and neighbors; like the closed circle, committed Christians still comprise the dotted circle but the dots show how this social space makes room for strangers and seekers too. The semi-circle meanwhile is what we might refer to as a third space where Christians go into the world, into their community, as a guest.

In the case of the Eucharist, for example, the closed circle is obviously the celebration of the sacrament during gathered worship.Because God is on the move, the presence of Christ in the sacramental table extends into the community so that, in the dotted circle, a Christian leader hosts friends, committed and curious, at a table in their home and, over food and wine, they pray together, make themselves vulnerable to one another, discern God’s word, and submit aspects of their lives to the lordship of Christ. Finally, in the semi-circle, the mutual vulnerability at table gets extended out into the community where the Christian is not the host but risks being the guest of neighbors and unbelievers. As Christ is present at the ornate lacquered table in the sanctuary, Christ is present at this ‘profane’ table too, at work to nurture all that is the Father’s back to him.

I taught a PDF version of Faithful Presence to a group of local pastors at Wesley Seminary last summer for a two week course on mission.

The way Fitch extends the disciplines across these social spaces to show how and where the church can engage in God’s mission shifted the entire paradigm for their thinking.

In my own United Methodist tradition, ‘mission’ has gotten redefined as good (social justice) work someone else does, be it the denominational apparatus or the credentialed missionaries funded by it. Not only does this demote our denominational connection to a funding relationship, it disempowers local churches from discerning where God is at work in their local communities. Rather than three increasingly widened circles through which we extend presence, it assumes only two closed circles, the local church celebrating the sacraments and the global church doing good works. Its an arrangement that encourages maintenance mode ministry, which in a post-Christian culture necessarily leads to exhaustion. What’s more, it leaves pastors ill-equipped to extend the disciplines into their homes and community.

Every pair of eyes in the classroom popped open as they begin to revision their ministry, asking what it would be like for them to gather neighbors and community members around the dotted circle of their table, trusting that Christ will be there to call people over time into submission to him. The possibilities multiplied for them as they applied these three social spaces to the other disciplines in Fitch’s book. And, it should be noted, these local pastors all served small congregations. The conventional way of construing mission had only disempowered and discouraged them that churches their size could not meaningfully do mission. They could neither send lots of money to the denomination nor could they execute expensive, volunteer-heavy mission projects for the less fortunate.

In the same way the limitations of a small canvas can provoke the most creative art, Fitch’s explication of these particular disciplines extended across the ordinary social spaces of their lives exploded imaginative possibilities for their ministries.

As much as Christ is present in and through a funded missionary in Cambodia, they realized, Christ is present when they sit with someone like me in the hospital room. If God is the active agent of mission and not us, then it’s silly to distinguish between ‘real’ mission and ordinary practices like breaking bread and forgiving sin.

As a preacher, I think Faithful Presence is worth the read just for the theological framework. Our Christian speech needs reminding always that God is the agent not us.

As a pastor, I believe Faithful Presence is exactly the sort of manual that maintenance modeled mainline churches need in order to learn how to engage with Christ in their post-Christian contexts. In many ways, Faithful Presence is the handbook for how resident aliens live. It offers the praxis Stanley Hauerwas’ sequel to Resident Aliens never quite managed to flesh out.

As a closet Anabaptist, however, I’m left with a question.

I’d like to see Fitch engage how Faithful Presence interacts with John Nugent’s equally good book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. While agreeing with Fitch that God is prodigally at work in the world, my reading of Nugent makes me wonder if Fitch has made the Church too instrumental and not a good and an end in and of itself; that is, is the Church the means through which God is changing the world or, as Nugent argues, is the Church the change, the better place, God has already made in the world?

While I hope to see future engagement between Fitch’s and Nugent’s complementary work, I suspect Fitch’s Faithful Presence is a needed companion to another book in everyone’s queue at present, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option.

Dreher sees Western culture as lost and, in the wake of the Obergefell decision, antithetical to it. In the light of this development, Dreher recommends Christians imitate the witness of St. Benedict of Nursia, retreating into disciplined enclaves of like-minded, like-valued Christians in order to weather a new dark age.

Despite my sympathies for Dreher’s proposal, I think the Benedict Option may be a curious option to commend to Christians in this moment because, in fact, St. Benedict was not retreating from culture. Rather, he was also safeguarding the best contributions of elite and secular culture during the dark ages. Benedict helped change the world not simply by retreating from it, as Dreher suggests, but by preserving the best contributions of culture-makers. St. Benedict, then, corroborates James Davidson Hunter’s thesis that culture is changed only from the top down, from the culture-makers outward to the culture-consumers.

I believe Fitch’s Faithful Presence offers a middle way between the concerns of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option about Christians now living as strangers in a strange land, on the one hand, and Hunter’s argument, on the other, about how cultures undergo transformation through its culture makers. In particular, Fitch’s 3 Circles of faithful presence provide Christians with a more balanced rhythm of gathering in disciplined, intentional community with other Christians, for the sort of formation and preservation Dreher seeks, but also venturing out into networks of friendships and neighborhoods to join in what God is already doing among them.

What Fitch helps us remember, even Dreher, is that discipleship is not only about practices, which can be preserved and practiced apart from culture, it is as much about participation too.

With God.

It all comes back to God’s agency.

The agency of God is perhaps the fatal flaw in Dreher’s book for he forgets, or neglects to make clear, that God is active in the world (a world Dreher would characterize as ‘lost’ to the Church) apart from the Church and God is waiting for the Church, who are God’s sent People, to join him in his work.

Because so many now are discussing the latter book, I cannot recommend the former with heartier enthusiasm.




Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Jason Micheli —  February 18, 2013 — 4 Comments

1223-Jump-Elie-01-popupJames Davidson Hunter, a sociologist at UVA, writes convincingly about the causes of Christianity’s rise in the ancient world. The faith spread, Hunter argues, not by being a religion promulgated by the poor, as the popular myth tells it. The faith spread by being, almost from the beginning (think of the wealthy women mentioned in the Gospels as ‘sponsors’ of Jesus’ movement), a religion of the elite.

Christianity was from the get-go a religion of the culture-makers. Christianity changed the world because it so quickly changed the hearts, minds and worldview of artists and intellectuals who shape and change culture.

That is why Constantine was able to convert to Christianity. It was politically expedient to do so because the cultural elite of Rome were already largely Christianized.

For Christians to change the world anew, to influence culture and not just retreat from it, they need to reengage the arts and intellectual disciplines as Christians- and I’m not talking about those terrible looking Amish romance books you see in the ‘Christian fiction’ section at Barnes and Noble.

I’ve brought this up before and I bring it up again because of Paul Ellie’s article in the NY Times Book Review: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? 

Ellie points out that fifty years ago writers like Flannery O’ Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Reynolds Price and even John Updike wrote ground-breaking, lauded fiction that was suffused with their Christian convictions. Today, Ellie observes:

A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House”: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new ­occupants.

To Ellie’s reckoning, only Marilyne Robinson’s Gilead (click and buy it now!) counts as an analogous, contemporary novel with equal parts Christian sensibility and aesthetic quality. It’s a beautiful book in case you haven’t read it.

Following the contours of Hunter’s argument above, you could see the loss of faith in fiction as something of a harbinger. As art goes so goes popular culture. The absence of a credible Christianity in contemporary literature could portend a popular culture in which Christianity plays an even more marginal role:

In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land no less than the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Soviet Jews and Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from elsewhere. But few people see it that way. People of faith see decline and fall.

Ellie’s use of the world ‘frontier’ is a wise one for Hunter’s argument can point the other way too. Christianity finding itself on the margins, almost as immigrants in a strange new land, can be seen as an opportunity to reengage the faith in new, creative ways, to rediscover the ‘core’ of our story and convictions and to reemphasize the importance of training Christians to enter their fields of study as Christians.

This opportunity then is one not limited to the world of art and literature. It’s the opportunity which God, in God’s infinite sense of humor, has laid open to the whole Church.

LUXEMBOURG ? Boy Scouts from Troop 69 Kaiserslautern, Germany, salute as the Star-Spangled Banner is played during a Veterans Da

In 2005, Matthew Fox, a disaffected Dominican, posted his own, new 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany- the same door Martin Luther famously nailed 95 Theses of his own, an act of defiance against Mother Church which supposedly ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Casting himself in Luther’s role (talk about self-important ego), Fox declared that it was time for ‘a New Reformation.’

And then with his theses in the church door and the media’s eye upon him…

Nothing happened. 

In fact, unless you have a remarkable memory for minor, two-bit media stories, the only Matthew Fox you’ve ever heard of is the dude who played Jack, the hero in Lost.

This is my point. Christians, Protestants at least, imagine the Protestant Reformation happened in a vacuum. We have an Idealist assumption that Great Men and/or Great Ideas change the tide of history. And so, Luther, armed with hammer, nail and his individual conscience made the world something it would not have been without him.

But, as anyone who didn’t sleep through every minute of AP European History in high school knows, that just isn’t the case. The Protestant story was but one component of a much larger cultural shift.

The Reformation wasn’t sparked by Luther’s 95 Theses; Luther’s Theses were a product of the cultural phenomenon of reformation.

During this same period, Western Europe experienced massive political change as it transitioned from feudalism to nation-states. That shift was occasioned by the rise of a new economic system, mercantilism, which was made possible by vastly more efficient means of travel. The period we call ‘the Reformation’ with our in-house church lingo was actually the first Information Age, sparked by the advent of the printing press. What was happening in the church was only a small part of what was happening culturally.

Rather than Luther changing the tide of history, as Protestants like to imagine, Luther was swept up by the tide of history, taking the shifts and discoveries of the culture and applying them to his religious context. 

What’s this have to do with Emergence Christianity? Or the Boys Scouts’ policy on homosexuality?

Last week, in response to a post I wrote about the Boy Scouts’ possible change in policy, in which I noted that the culture is rapidly moving away from the Church and BSA on this issue, a friend pushed back that perhaps the Church should be wary of accommodating to the culture.

I understand that caution. As a post-liberal, I have an affinity for the argument that the Church should be a distinct, alternative to the culture. And yet, I think that profoundly misunderstands (or at least misstates) how culture functions.

Culture isn’t an ‘other’ to which the Church or Christians can determine to be set apart from or independent of. It doesn’t work that way, even if we wish it did. As James Davidson Hunter puts it, culture is a thick web of structures and networks that shape all of us. It’s unavoidable. You can’t retreat from culture or out of culture; you can only contribute more culture.

So, when it comes to issues like the BSA’s looming decision, we can talk about how the Church should be an alternative to the culture and not accommodate changing trends but to do so is to live in a fantasy world. ‘Church’ isn’t an institution. It’s a movement of people and, like it or not, those people have been shaped as much- if not more- by the culture of Will and Grace as they have been by the culture of traditional (whatever that really is in the end) Christianity.

We can’t pretend to be independent of and an alternative to culture. We can only contribute more culture (Christian culture) and choose the spots, topics, issues and idols from which we call people to repentance. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, I personally don’t see homosexuality as the most urgent Kingdom witness Christians can offer our culture.

And that brings me to Emergence Christianity.

In case you’ve been living in a cave (or just aren’t a pastor or youth director) Emergence Christianity names a movement/trend/shift in the traditional Church as it reacts to postmodernity. As with the seismic cultural shift that marked the Reformation, Emergence Christians see postmodernity as an analogous paradigm shift that’s only just begun and will be long-lasting.

In mainline seminaries all across the country, in typical late-to-the-party fashion professors are breathlessly trying to inculcate future pastors in the “techniques” and “aesthetic sensibilities” of Emergence. But rendering Emergence Christianity into a technique that can be taught, I think is a mistake akin to crediting Luther the author of what we call the Reformation.

The real offering Emergence Christianity has made the larger Church isn’t in techniques, aesthetics, fads or rebellious counter-theology.

It’s in their recognition that the Church finds herself in a new cultural situation. As was so with Luther, our challenge is to determine how best to incarnate the Gospel in our time and place.