Review: Prodigal Christianity, Part 1

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[graphic: Andres Jasso]

Some books show up at just the right time.

In a recent review of Creating a Missional Culture by J.R. Woodward, I wrote about how the practical stories and ecclesial exhortations in the book felt like the timely, comforting voice of God to me in the midst of fresh heartache from closing our church plant, Dwell, last August.

Prodigal Christianity by my two friends David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw has been a well-timed book, to be sure.

But in a different sort of way.

It hasn’t been a personal comfort in the midst of heartache or crisis or transition, so much as an affirmation of a much bigger web of belief and life that has been forming around me and my family over the last ten years. Through Bible college and marriage and beginning in ministry and planting a church and writing a book and closing a church, we have been on a journey, a journey into what Fitch and Holsclaw call the “far country” of our post-Christendom culture in need of a prodigal God and a prodigal church. And our passion for our friends and neighbors experiencing the love of Jesus and life in the kingdom of God has continually drawn us beyond the typical options of conservative/reformed or emergence/liberal Christianities. Because those options just don’t seem to be working.

To sum up a ten year journey and the missional cry of our heart for another way to be Christian is no small feat – and yet, this, and nothing less, is what Prodigal Christianity accomplishes.

And I’m exceedingly grateful for that.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a respectable book review if there wasn’t some kind of critique :). And, as it happens, I have three minor gripes to get out of the way here in Part 1, before getting to all the major glow in Part 2. So let’s get on with the gripes…

First, an obvious fundamental premise of the book is the fact that North America has transitioned into straight-up post-Christendom cultural status. I live in the least religious city in the least religious state in the U.S. – so I enthusiastically concur! There is no doubt that the church is no longer operating from a position of power in the broader society of the U.S. and Canada. But the authors’ presentation of this in Chapter 1 and throughout didn’t go far enough, in my opinion. Specifically, there is a tendency in missional literature in general to talk about “post-Christendom” or “post-Christian” as referencing bygone better days, days when Judeo-Christian belief, worship, and morality held sway in society and nasty secularism and pluralism had not yet messed things up. This then tips dangerously close to the moralistic power-narrative of the religious right, that America is a “Christian nation” and we must take the nation back for God (via church influence and American political power)!

I am 100% sure that Dave and Geoff do not take that position (quite the contrary), but there seemed to be a lack of clarity around this, especially in Chapter 1. I would like to have seen the authors present a more anabaptist definition of Christendom – that is, Christendom = Christ + (worldly) kingdoms, the ungodly merging of the church’s politic with the corrupt, violent, and unjust political powers that be. This is, of course, part of the story of the church in North America. Political corruption has been a huge part of the decline and decay of the church’s witness, right up to the present moment. Thus, the church is no longer prominent and powerful in society – which opens up the door for an amazing opportunity to regain true witness and be transformative salt and light without seizing worldly power. (Btw, Chapter 10 on pluralism redeems some of this quite nicely.)

Second, the sexuality chapter, Chapter 8, for all of its wonderful exhortation towards an “open and mutually transforming” church community, made a key misstep in opening with the illustration of a Christian with pedophiliac urges. I’m particularly sensitive to issues of sexual orientation/civil rights in the church since my state was the first to legalize gay marriage via the legislative process; and it seemed unnecessary/awkward to compare a sexual urge (like pedophilia) that, if acted on, leads to harmful and illegal sexual abuse, with other sexual behaviors (like homosexuality) that don’t entail abuse at all. This kind of flattening of “sexual struggles” or “sexual brokenness” hinders rather than helps our discernment process, in my opinion.

Third, I COULD NOT BELIEVE THAT DAVE AND GEOFF SUGGESTED THAT TONY JONES REPRESENTS A NEWER FORM OF MAINLINE CHRISTIANITY. SERIOUSLY. HOW DARE THEY.

Of course, I’m joking.

This third gripe is not a gripe at all but a reinforcing WELL DONE to the authors for being willing to say some hard things about a much-applauded progressive movement in the church – emergence Christianity. Though Dave and Geoff are clearly passionate about missionally engaging progressive culture, they are highlighting a boundary: the church’s gospel does not need to be reframed as a “progressive gospel” but must rather become an embodiment of the same hope of incarnation, resurrection, rescue, and renewal present in the early church. This is the kind of gospel that has “the substance on which we can live,” and the gospel our culture – and all cultures – desperately need in rooted, contextual expressions.

Indeed, the first two gripes are well solved by this one principle. Personal and even cultural transformation are possible when this substantial gospel is in view. The Introduction sets up the warp and woof of the book’s prodigal gospel message quite well:

To be Christian is to learn to become prodigal.

Such a prodigal Christianity will be generous. It may be so generous and welcoming that it will seem scandalous. Yet it compromises nothing of the transformative nature of the gospel. A prodigal Christianity will not rely on pronouncements given from a seat of authority. But we will enter humbly and vulnerably, bringing God’s hospitality to the places of mission. A prodigal Christianity will not rely on the basic foundations of Christendom because it always journeys far beyond these places into the missional far country, where there is no prior witness. Yet prodigal Christianity will not merely accommodate the new cultures it meets because it comes bearing a story, our story, the good news (gospel) of the prodigal God.

We’ll look at this prodigal message in more detail over the weekend…But for now, what do you think? Have you read the book? Do you agree with the gripes – and the praise? Does the subject matter trigger anything for you? I’d love to hear!

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ tristaanogre

    hrm… good thing I ordered this book on Amazon yesterday, otherwise I’d have to get really upset that I haven’t read it yet. :-)

  • http://www.wordhavering.wordpress.com/ Mike Freeman

    Zach, stop giving me more books to read! Geez. :o)

  • Pingback: Review: Prodigal Christianity, Part 2 | The Nuance

  • http://www.joytpaul.blogspot.com/ Eric

    Zach, I couldn’t agree more about the ‘wanting’ nature of their description of Christendom.  And this counts as just a minor gripe.  I would have liked further clarification on the three “posts.”  For instance, I’m not sure Post-Christendom points toward post-positional.  On one hand, the church has moved from a position of power, authority, and prominence.  We have witnessed a migration from the center and toward the periphery, but the peripheral nature of the church is still a position, and I believe a more nuanced account of post-Christendom would allow us to see the way the church now postures itself in our society and culture, especially as a position “with” the marginalized voices of our communities.  This is where Fitch’s anabaptism could have played a key role.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      @Eric definitely Eric, I’m with you there. i felt they redeemed it somewhat in the final Signpost on pluralism though. but that clarity would have been helpful in the beginning.

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