Review of Seeking a Lasting City

Well, saw my first snowflakes of the season on Thursday! How exciting. Dropped Clark off at Mom and Dad’s for the weekend, so Mary Beth and I had a weekend to ourselves. Very nice. We went and saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Beginning. Very nice – if you’re in to watching people blugeoned over and over – with a chainsaw – and cannibalism – nice. Definitely one of the goriest movies I’ve ever seen. Buckeyes keep on winning. Cool. We’re headed to Chicago in a couple of weekends to watch them take on Northwestern. That one could get ugly. Then the Michigan game here in Columbus. That’s going to be kind of a big game. Anyone got a ticket for me? Anyway . . . I wrote a long entry today. It’s a review of a cool book I just finished. Sorry it’s so long, but I’m too frazzled to try and make a coherent post, so I just rambled. Hope you find something of interest here.

For the past few years, faculty members at Abilene Christian University have been releasing volumes of their Heart of the Restoration Series looking introspectively at our churches (that is Churches of Christ) – where we’ve come from, where we are, where we may be headed. The first volume, The Crux of the Matter, got the series off to a roaring start as members throughout the country were challenged and forced to think regarding the status of Churches of Christ in the new millenium introducing many to the identity crisis currently plaguing Churches of Christ. The volumes that followed, God’s Holy Fire (a Churches of Christ manifesto on the Bible) and Unveiling Glory (an attempt to lay out a Church of Christ Christology), were beneficial volumes to be sure. These volumes try to take thelogical discussions happening in broader theological circles and connect them with ideology more particular to Churches of Christ. This is a much overdue concept. For the average member in the pew, these volumes are very beneficial. However, for those with theological training and exposure to the broader theological world, they offer little new. The most recent volume, however, Seeking a Lasting City, has once again struck a very challenging chord in a timely manner. In my opinion, the value of this book surpasses all three previous volumes in the series.

In this fourth installment of the Heart of the Restoration Series, the authors tackle the ecclesiology (study of the church) of Churches of Christ. Their approach is open, honest, critical at times, but always gracious and stays true to restoration ideology. Many members of Churches of Christ may have been suprised that the volume about the church followed the volume on Christ. Crassly, I have heard many members joke that we are the Church of christ, or even the CHURCH of christ. We have emphasized church for so long, it goes without saying that our ecclesiology is one of our stronger suits. In that regard, I am grateful that this fourth volume is written from the momentum of Unveiling Glory.

There are several strong points which this book emphasizes. Foremost, like the initial volume in the series The Crux of the Matter, the authors do a great job of connecting the history of Churches of Christ in the context of the larger community of CHristian faith. For many years, Churches of Christ thought of themselves as being immune to the potential flaws of traditions and history. In summarizing this thought, the authors conclude the fourth chapter with these words,

“A church that sees itself in perspective – as a small chapter in a much greater, on-going story – is less likely to succumb to provincialism or to view itself as the only acceptable form of Chrisitanity, an attitude that clearly conflicts with the spirit of GOd in the early churches.” (96)

It is refreshing to see such a view so succintly written. Anyone who has had much interaction with our good ole acappella churches of Christ knows that this “provincialism” that they speak of is never very far away.

The authors begin the book by highlightin the great diversity that existed in the very earliest churches – churches evidenced in the pages of the New Testament. They follow that up and highlight the diversity that has existed through the history of the churches. They discuss how at important transition points, revolutionaries and reformers arose to bring the church back into focus on a point, or several, where they had gone askew. Churches of Christ fall indisputibly in that category.

The authors offer a chapter on the Stone-Campbell Movement (the Restoration vein wherein we trace our recent history in Churches of Christ). For members of Churches of Christ, especially those of us who were born into it, this may be the most important chapter. They paint the picture of the differences in the Movement’s two founding members Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. It is their contention that Alexander Campbell’s theology, a more austere intellectualism over his counteparts more spiritualistic and, at times, even charismatic leanings. This is a significant difference that has been present within Churches of Christ since their inception. If our members can grasp the distinction between these two men, and the implications wrought from following Campbell’s methodology primarily, we would be much better off.

In this same chapter, the authors highlight some of the temptations that Churches of Christ face, and have often succumb to in regards to their ideological foci. The subtitles summarize their temptations in “Anti-Denominationalism”, “Our Emphasis on Scripture”, “Our Understanding of Worship”, and “Our Understanding of Faithful Leaders”. In summary of these introspective looks, the authors conclude, “Admitting our imperfection and understanding how we have been shaped both positively and negatively by our heritage and context reminds us of our need to remain humble” – and remaining theologically humble has not been one of our most evident qualities.

The final chapters of the book offers something that can contribute to the wider audience of Christians. The stength in this book is its emphasis on the power of the metanarrative. While the book’s focus is not on hermeneutics, it is a valuable side point (leading me to wonder if a forthcoming volume may examine the current hermenteutical impasse in Churches of Christ – the most needed work still to be done in our academic circles.) Churches of Christ, following the lead of modernist Alexander Campbell, have been thoroughly rooted in a modernistic interpretive scheme of Scripture. Represented by our command, example, and inference, we have treated the Holy Bible as a Holy Dictum from the finger of God. This methodology perhaps served us well in the past, but in the midst of a postmodern age, this no longer is a legitimate option. It is critical that Christians rediscover the story. That is the point put forth by Love, Foster, and Harris – the book’s author.

Though they never say as much, the book ends with a great ironic twist. Churches of Christ developed, and have for the most part, lived on the outskirts of society. In recent years they have been fighting for prominence among evangelical churches, political forums, etc., but the road ahead is one of diversity and marginality – just where we came from! If ever a group was poised to move forward into unsettled and difficult times, it is us! But, just as we say that, we are growing more and more unhappy with that!

How then shall we live? This is the question posed by the eighth chapter of the book. Where do we go from here? Their basic point is that we should live lives ethically distinct from the world around us. We have something unique and powerful to offer and our lives should reflect this. Too many Christians look no different from the world around them. Especially poignant is the remark, “The thorniest issue for the church that resists the spirit of the age is wealth . . . Material simplicity will be one of the marks of the church that is living out the story.” (182) Wow. They look at several areas of life where churches can be a light in the new world, and then offer some practical examples of churches they know of that are addressing these issues.

For me, this was the second book that I’ve read from within my tradition that has wrestled with alot of the issues emergent-type writers are bringing to the public through writing and conventions (the first was C. Leonard Allen’s Things Unseen ). Much work still needs to be done, but this is a great move in the right direction. In many ways, Seeking a Lasting City is in the same vein as Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy, though probably not quite as generous.

At the end of the book, there is included a study guide which is a very helpful small group resource. Since I was just reading this on my own, I didn’t use the study guide, but skimmed through it. The very last case study entitled, “Where is the Real Disease?” (238 – 251), is worth the price of the book. It was such a great illustration of what the authors try to convey in this book, I am suprised they never use it in the actual text. It is a story about a man who took his family and moved out of Nashville during 1873 during a serious cholera outbreak. He moves away seeking protection of his family. Through a series of exchanges with Gospel Advocate editor David Lipscomb, he is lambasted for moving out seeking safety and security of his family while many in Nashville suffered from a horrible disease. David Lipscomb stayed behind to care for the hurting and minister to the many wounded. What a great illustration of what it means to seek a lasting city. Here it is, right in our own history, a great example of how we are to make a difference for Christ in this new world we live in.

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