Several years ago I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the American Society of Missiology (a gathering of smart folks who try to study and name the mission that God is up to in the world.) The Society had asked me to bring a report about the new monastic movement that I and others are part of. While I was there, I also got to hear several other good reports on the Emergent church conversation and the “missional church” movement. For the latter, Al Hirsh was the presenter. He was, as always, provocative.
The great gift of listening to a series of reports to academics is that you get to hear not only what people think they are doing, but also how thoughtful people understand what people are doing in the broader contexts of church history, cultural shifts, and the particular challenges of the time. Those couple of days that I spent with the ASM gave me a deep appreciation for the gift that the missional church movement is to American Christianity. Across the spectrum, from Mainline to evangelical, local congregations have inherited assumptions about what it means to be Christian and do church in the North American context. We’ve passed these assumptions onto our children and we have exported them through “foreign missions” to the rest of the world. But a lot of those assumptions have more to do with American culture in the mid-20th century than they do with the mission of God. The missional church movement is helping all of us to come to terms with this reality. For that, I am grateful.
But people who question assumptions are iconoclasts. Like Al, Hugh Halter writes to provoke. His title, Sacrilege, puts his tenor front and center. He opens with a story about how his neighbor joined his church after he flipped him off in the back yard. Nothing is sacred, Halter says—or, at least, the rituals and phrases and structures that we’ve assumed to be “Christian” are not. Sacrilege aims to deconstruct all sorts of things that, while they may have once been helpful, probably aren’t any longer. Like the contractor who comes to your house and says, “Listen, this ain’t going to be pretty and things will be messy for a while, but I think you’ll like the finished product,” Halter asks us to trust him. And he seems like the kind of guy we can trust.
But I do have to say, I’m uneasy with one of Halter’s assumptions. And since he’s so adamant about questioning our easy assumptions, I have to mention it here. From the very beginning of Sacrilege, Halter says that he wants to show us the real Jesus—the Jesus who walked in Nazareth, who comes alive when we read the Scriptures aright. He wants to give us Jesus without tradition. The assumptions of American Christendom, (assumptions, I should repeat, that deserve to be questioned) get lumped into a category called “tradition.” But my worry is this: I’m afraid it’s actually a deeply American assumption to think that we can get back to “the real Jesus” without tradition. We love to jump from the New Testament to now. But a plethora of Jesus scholarship has shown us that when we make that leap, we almost always end up creating Jesus in our own image.
And, so, here’s a word in favor of re-claiming “tradition.” Yes, let’s be as sacrilegious as we need to be with all the false religion of a Christendom that needs to pass away. Let’s get our bodies outside the church walls and our minds outside the box. But let’s also acknowledge that we can’t get outside the great tradition. Jesus came to fulfill the tradition of Israel, and people have been stumbling to follow his Way through every generation. Let’s toss out anything that trips us up—no matter how “holy” it might seem. But let’s not cut ourselves off from the source. Without tradition, however muddied it may be, we’re left with little to check an individualism that undergirds so many of our false assumptions.
The Patheos Book Club is featuring Halter’s Sacrilege this week. You can read what others are saying and hear more from Halter there.