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The Church Between Gospel And Culture

The Church Between Gospel And Culture | Book Review

Reviewed by Thomas Scarborough

This book represents a compilation of sixteen authors. Its focus is Emerging Church missiology in North America, and it is written against the backdrop of declining membership in mainline Churches. Having read it from cover to cover — and allowing myself a little poetic licence — I imagine that the publishers might have given the authors instructions along these lines (IN CAPITALS):


Wilbert R. Shenk suggests that there is “a doleful story” in the Church — then, as if distracted by a sudden thought, jumps into issues of modernism and Christendom. William A. Dryness writes vaguely of “a period of crisis” that one should not be too “particular” about. David Scotchmer writes vaguely about “the failures of the contemporary church”, then launches into the subject of symbols — while editors George R. Hunsberger and Craig van Gelder refer to “deep uncertainty, malaise, and despair in the Churches . . . a certain dis-ease in our congregations”. What is missing, they note astutely, is a certain “something more”. Being a non-American myself (the book is written for the American situation), I wondered how even an American might understand what the particular characteristics of the “crisis” might be.


While there are indeed suggestions that the Church might be at fault (whatever the fault might be), the emphasis of the book is undoubtedly on its circumstances. Paul G. Hiebert rolls up his sleeves and jumps straight into cultural analysis. Craig van Gelder puts the trouble down to a “crisis of paradigms”, out there in “the world that we encounter”. James V. Brownson casts his eye over history, stating that “our own crisis is, in many respects, a legacy of the enlightenment” and “the dynamics of postmodernism” — while Alan J. Roxburgh considers that we may essentially put it down to “the form and place of religious life in North American society”. While it would be unfair to claim that the authors are completely focused on the Church’s circumstances, the book does leave one with the uneasy sense that it might be turning a blind eye to specifics of its internal malaise — if not the very theology that launched this book.


Assuming that the authors were briefed NOT to define their terms, no one can doubt that they did a particularly splendid job in this department. The following is a short selection of terms deposited without definition:

kingdom categories

forces that bring death

the core of the gospel

God’s coming shalom

eschatological imperative

universal salvific purpose

new life possibilities

I would defy any theologian (let alone reader) to proffer concise definitions for these terms. While they might not pose a particular problem to those living within a particular universe of discourse, for anyone outside it, such terms would be close to meaningless. However, having debated this with fellow postgraduate students, one suggested that I really shouldn’t be so hung up on definitions. They are all subject to deconstruction anyway — we are “in a postmodern era” after all. It really doesn’t matter, she wrote, so long as the terms have definition for ME.


Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary who took over, virtually in toto, the epistemology (theory of knowledge) of Michael Polanyi. Polanyi himself, however, suggested that if a missiologist should ever try this, there would be “absurdly remote chances” for the enterprise to succeed (Polanyi 1962:318). No matter, Newbigin attempted the absurd. In his own words, his project was “necessarily circular” (Newbigin 1989:63). However, like an aircraft that has the power to fly continually in circles, this would seem preferable to spiralling into the abyss of historical criticism, or landing on the rocky runway of fundamentalism. With this in mind, George R. Hunsberger kicks off by “applying Newbigin’s thesis to North America”, while Craig van Gelder considers that Newbigin’s epistemology gives us “access to God’s truthfulness” (whatever this might mean). David Lowes Watson, on the other hand, quite rightly recognising the circularity of it all, suggests that Newbigin’s “hermeneutical circle” might be a wider circle still.


Missiologists of the past would frequently use the H-words with reference to missiology — that is, the “eternal dwelling places” of humankind — and Jesus Himself was not too shy of them. Considering therefore that this is a book on missiology, the authors surely did admirably to exclude them completely. However, a few authors would seem to come perilously close. David Lowes Watson refers to “eternity” in the context of a “new creation” — yet would seem to rescue himself with the rejection of “personal salvation”. Inagrace T. Dietterich refers tantalisingly to “the eschaton” — though who might inhabit it would seem obscure. In her words, “the distinction between world and church . . . is transcended”. Not to disappoint anyone, the term “God’s reign” is scattered throughout the book, and one can only suppose that this might have some bearing on eternal destinies — or perhaps, destiny.


Aspiring authors would do well to note the conclusions to the chapters of this book. Douglas John Hall notes astutely, at the end of his chapter, that “the gospel may again speak to us . . . if we appear before that One with empty hands — with the questions of those whom we represent, which are also our questions”. Charles C. West, in his concluding paragraphs, considers that “now we must create new models that are both novel and practical. What form should they take? . . . The church has no pat answer.” In contrast, John R. “Pete” Hendrick clearly means business, closing with the memorable line: “Models are urgently needed.” And finally, editor George R. Hunsberger considers that “the mental crisis we are facing is . . . a theological crisis, one of great magnitude and consequence.” In this he surely is quite right.


This has hardly represented an impartial or dispassionate review, and the reader would rightly suspect that this book does have its strengths. The review was the result of a reviewer finally exasperated by sixteen authors who all seemed too much of a muchness — if not by chapter five, then at least by chapter ten or fifteen. For those who wonder what the book is really all about, its main thrust is that the Church finds itself today in “a new social location”, and therefore needs to view its own culture as a mission field.

The chapter which most gripped my attention was one by Christopher B. Kaiser: “From Biblical Secularity to Modern Secularism: Historical Aspects and Stages”. He brilliantly and concisely traced the development of secularisation through a thousand years of history — concluding that “modern secularism is at the same time massive and contingent” — “contingent” referring to its highly precarious nature in our present time. His chapter closed with a reference — Dn. 5:26. Intrigued, I looked it up. It reads: “MENE. God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.”


Hunsberger, George R. & Van Gelder, Craig, eds.

1996 The Church Between Gospel & Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Publisher Price: US$35. ISBN 0-8028-4109-0.

Newbigin, Lesslie

1989 The Gospel In A Pluralist Society. Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications. Publisher Price: US$20. ISBN 2-8254-0971-5.

Polanyi, Michael.

1962 Personal Knowledge: Towards A Post-Critical Philosophy (Second Impression). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


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