NuDunkers and a Pilgrimage into Prodigality

Posted: May 1, 2013 in Theology

Come join the conversation as the NuDunkers chat with Authors, David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw: http://t.co/l3fD8AvX7k

Having recently finished reading the joint project by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity, I have been pondering their argument that the post-Christendom church must be about the prodigal of faith the Lord Jesus, the Messiah. While I won’t spend the time reviewing the whole text here, I will primarily focus upon what they termed the “seventh signpost, Church: the Journey as the Body of Christ into the World.”

The whole idea of prodigality and faith is fascinating to me on a number of levels. First, the traditional interpretation of “prodigal” is negative as it is descriptively associated with the rebellious and deviant behavior of the younger son in Jesus’ parable of the lost son. What Fitch and Holsclaw do with this adjective stems from Karl Barth’s reinterpretation of the parable in which he attributes God, the Father and Jesus with prodigality in a positive sense. This particular interpretation sees in the parable not only the negative attribute of prodigality with the disobedient son who wastefully squanders the inheritance he prematurely demanded. But it is also inclusive of the extravagant and even undeservedly wasteful grace given to the disobedient son upon his return. This particular reading with specific focus upon the father prodigally giving grace to the son, Barth retells the parable replacing the father with the heavenly Father and the disobedient son with Jesus the obedient son. Continuing this thought the Father then sends the obedient prodigal out to the far country to retrieve the many prodigally disobedient children. Admittedly this is but a brief and not so thorough explanation of the parable and Barth’s interpretation. However, it particularly raises the question as to how this affects what it means to be a church community.

Secondly, what I particularly appreciated about their argument was that it moves the foundation of understanding “church” from the gathering of believing individuals to an incarnational understanding of the church as conduit for the manifestation and in-breaking of God’s kingdom. A fundamental assumption of this is not that the church does work to bring in the kingdom. Rather God’s Spirit is working in the world and that it is the church’s obligation to discern where it is occurring and then openly participate. It is in this way that God establishes his kingdom through the church in the contemporary world. While it may appear to be a difference in semantics, it is ontologically different as to posture and approach. The former is a “doing” approach and the latter a “being” (communion) approach.

What is refreshing is the use and understanding of incarnation. Too often the term “incarnation” is used as a synonym of “embodiment.” This is unfortunate usage ignores the deep Trinitarian and especially pneumatological undertones “incarnation” denotes. When referring to the church as the “social incarnation” of Jesus in the world it explicitly implies the nature of the church being imbued with the Spirit kenotically in a manner not unlike the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus at his baptism. Moreover the giving of the Spirit is essentially God’s work of establishing his kingdom under the lordship of Jesus as incarnated in the gathering disciples. It is, however, not enough to speak of incarnation ideologically. Incarnation theology especially assumes the embbedness of the church in community. As described in the creation account of Genesis, human beings were not created to be alone, but to be in community.  The entire trajectory of God’s redeeming work of restoring justice and establishing his righteousness is by means of reconciling the seminal broken relationships which have affected every aspect of creation since. In pragmatic terms, this implies is that Christians are to discern to discern God’s presence and work in whatever context they find themselves and when revealed to openly bear witness to the gospel of God’s kingdom breaking in through loving acts of hospitality and mercy. Fitch and Holsclaw do not simply provide ideological arguments, but practical illustrations demonstrating what it looks like. Moreover, the pragmatic argument for a church that isn’t about programs but practices was significant in a world where More times than not I found myself saying, “Yes.” And yet some uncertainty regarding the framework of their argument remained.

Having affirmed this book, I’m particularly curious as to some of the surrounding conversation regarding author’s they engage (e.g., http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/me-and-mr-tony-jones-we-got-a-thing-goin-on/). The very nature of theological conversation requires engagement with others, especially from differing perspectives. The danger in taking on a task in this way is that some will interpret it within the framework of a Hegelian dialectic rather than relational conversation. Necessarily I must admit I’m not clear as to whether or not it was intended to place the Emergent church and Neo-Reformed on opposing ends of a spectrum (thesis – antithesis). However, seeing that the entire text elevates relational community led me to read this as a way of engaging in conversation. Once again the irony of the western mind getting in the way of the text’s message illustrates the real need for prodigal community.

Additionally, as Fitch and Holsclaw argue for a faith that demonstrates the same prodigality as demonstrated by God, I think that further reflection and study needs to be done regarding missiological approaches especially in regards to benevolent giving. One thing I would suggest is that when giving is divorced from relationship it opens the door for corruption. What I mean by corruption is not necessarily criminal in nature but that which adversely places both parties within a dysfunctional power structure which creates a system of injustice for both the beneficiary and benefactor. In a recent conversation I had with a missionary we discussed the negative effects of patron – client relationships which create cultures of dependency leaving the beneficiaries subservient (and dependent upon) to the generosity of the benefactor. These effects have serious implications which lead churches down paths that exclude the opportunity to exhibit and share in God’s prodigal grace through embedded relationships. Instead they become a self-serving means of making the benefactor feel good by giving monetary charity without ever having to vulnerably enter into real relationships with the recipients. Moreover with the institutionalization of the dysfunction, it becomes necessary for the institution to both keep the beneficiary dependent within this system in order to maintain the giving outlet for the benefactors. Prodigal Christianity seems to provide a way to Christian practices and away from church programs. In doing so it may just correct some of the wrong turns in the field of missions.

This Friday, May 3, 2013, the NuDunkers group will be spending some time chatting via Google hangout at 11:00 a.m. I look forward to asking some questions about these thoughts and I’m sure that between now and then I’ll have a number of other questions as well. Come join the conversation at: http://t.co/1Kt5Ewmngj.

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