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A call for community: Charles Fensham's book is richly informed and insightful.

Emerging from the Dark Age Ahead: The Future of the North American Church

By Charles Fensham.

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Charles Fensham has given us a rich volume of theological reflection on the future of the North American church. In the introduction, he makes it clear the book is firmly based in the poiesis of the Bible, read according to a Christ-centered, liberationist method of interpretation. It is also deeply Trinitarian, drawing from the tradition of social trinity, going back to John of Damascus (8 CE), and associated today with Juergen Moltmann. He argues that if God, as Trinity, is not "one heavenly monarch," but a "community in loving relationship," this has profound implications both for the church as community, and for society as a whole. Besides deep roots in scripture and tradition, Fensham is also in dialogue here with many contemporary sociologists, philosophers, cultural critics, as well as biblical scholars and theologians. Fensham is professor of systematic theology at Knox College, Toronto.

The title borrows from Jane Jacobs's book Dark Age Ahead, which laments the loss of traditions of knowledge and wisdom in our time and place. While Jacobs has little to say about the loss of Christian heritage, the "dark age" for Fensham "refers fundamentally to the loss of memory, wisdom, meaning and moral ethic related to the reign of God" and the loss not so much of prosperity as of "more basic things that make us human."

Part I, Where Do We Come From?, is about reading the Bible for the present church. In conversation especially with David Bosch, South African missiologist and Fensham's teacher and mentor, his interpretive method (hermeneutical position) is rigorously Christ-centered and calls for an "expanded rationality," beyond the limits of both Enlightenment and postmodernist thought. Giving special attention to people on the margins, Fensham's hermeneutical approach is also clearly liberationist and pro-feminist.

Part II asks Where Are We? Here three chapters offer a socio-cultural analysis of our present time and place. Out of his own South African experience, Fensham speaks of a postcolonial world, acknowledging and valuing a global plurality of cultures and faiths. Christian mission must then be a "non-triumphalist" witness, respecting difference, and emphasizing justice and solidarity with those on the margins. He recognizes that we live in a post-Christendom time of declining members and influence, and of church institutions in crisis, combined with threatening ecological and economic circumstances. He is critical of the easy confidence in human technological mastery that characterizes North American culture. We see here the influence of Canadian theologian Douglas Hall. While this is a hopeful book, it is certainly not an optimistic one. In conversation with cultural commentators like Jacques Ellul, George Grant, Walter Ong, etc., Fensham is deeply suspicious of the worship of "technique," extending itself today to "mastery by measurement and digitization." We live today, he argues, in a "techno-expert manipulated future perfect," where we are called by our culture to "Master It!," as well as Measure It, Manage It, Market It, View It, Observe It, Digitize It! Drawing richly upon fiction and poetry, he evokes the ways in which our consciousness is being transformed through television and the computer, and the way the values of efficiency, productivity, measurement and consumer demand marginalize ethical concerns..

Over against this striving for mastery of our dominant culture, Part Ill, Where Are We Going?, offers a vision of an emerging church, grounded in the social trinity. This theology "redefines glory as constant self-giving, and turns the power of the creative Spirit into the power of mutual indwelling arid mutual love, a [perichoretic] power always seeking power for the other."

Since the Christian faith and the church's life and mission must be rethought and renewed in every generation, Fensham seeks a new vision of church in a dark age unlike any other in past history. The pace of change in technology and global context calls for a new inculturation and inter-culturation, not simply to adapt or conform to our changing culture, .but to challenge it as well. He notes that, in spite of declining membership and budgets, the once-established churches of North America are holding their own and even growing in some places. Yet a focus on measurable growth is a temptation to conform to the mastery of our time and its love of technique. We have to be suspicious of the goal of becoming a merely efficient, successful megachurch, for the dark age in which we seek to serve in a critical spirit is precisely an age of managing and marketing success, and the church must not mimic this. Rather, a church of the social trinity must see church growth and evangelism not as proselytizing, but as gracious welcoming and hospitality. And, must treasure relationships of mutual self-giving and dialogue. Such a community is essentially eucharistic, for "the Eucharist suggests a radical ethic and hospitality. This unconditional welcoming and embrace of the stranger is our call to be monastic pilgrim communities of evangelists-stewards."

What does our author mean by monastic church? Certainly he is not proposing a celibate community, or a replica of Benedictine or Franciscan orders. There are, however, elements of the monastic movements that served well in other dark ages. For example, Celtic monasticism was a dynamic missional movement in northern Europe, with monks as protectors of knowledge in times of chaos and pillage. Generally, the monastic disposition of taking vows, forming communities, commitment to discipline, the balance of worship and prayer with labour, and radical hospitality, are all patterns that we could well emulate in our own time of human loss.

What does he mean by pilgrim church? Pilgrim people are on a journey. While the institutional church has, for a long time, thought of itself as being in a state and "ensconced in real estate," the church today, as in the early days, is invited to rediscover its pilgrim character and to travel with Christ on a way. We can find a "counter-cultural disposition" and be released from worry about long-term investments. "We can become lighter, mote flexible and creative."

And what is a steward church? Stewardship is the opposite of mastery and technique. A post-Christendom and postcolonial church grounded in the perichoretic Trinity in our time will relate gently and respectfully to creation, linking, as Paul does, the suffering of creation and the redemption of humankind. The ethical demand of the "face of the other" (in the concept of Emmanuel Levinas) now includes the demand for the care of the earth, so that the Christian mission now includes the stewardship of creation.

Fensham, for all of this, is not anti-institutional. He recognizes the need for church order and structures. Seeing the need for well-educated Christian leadership and life-long scholarship, he writes insightfully about these dimensions of church life.

Altogether, the word to describe this book is rich--richly informed by broad and deep scholarship, richly alert to what is happening in the society and culture around us.

Harold Wells is professor emeritus in systematic theology at Emmanuel College, Toronto.
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Author:Wells, Harold
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Nov 1, 2008
Words:1166
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