This project has been sitting on my desk for a while, wagging its finger at me, demanding to know when it would be finished. But for quite some time, I have tried my best to ignore it, simply because I didn’t know how to complete it. And really, I’m not sure if I do.
Friends of mine, and formerly co-students at Tyndale University College, wrote a book (now, unfortunately, a while back) about the unique church plant they began in Sarnia, Ontario. I must say at this point that I have never been to this plant in person, though I’ve heard much about it through my friends and other channels. Whether this aids or harms me in my ability to helpfully discuss the book, I will leave those people who have both visited the church and read the book to decide.
One of the reasons I struggled with this review was that, in many ways, the book reflects real people, and not only that, but real people I know. It’s a book about a vision of a growing congregation for its own common life. Therefore, to be critical of the book may in some ways be a critical of real people. Yet, the reader can’t do much else, given the nature of the book.
Composed of various forms of art, quotations from writers from the fields of biblical studies, theology, philosophy, autobiography, and pop culture (if one can call that a field), the book works more like a cascade of thoughts and images than a carefully reasoned manifesto or proclamation.
And no doubt that was intentional. The community of The Story has taken various streams of postmodern philosophy and theology as helpful and correct, and the work they’ve produced here reflects that. We live in an age captivated by images and sounds engineered to produce certain types of feeling; this contrasts with past ages, like those around and after the Reformation, where a congregation might on some occasions stand to listen to a 5 hour sermon, or expect their preacher’s exposition to follow a logically structured outline. There is of course a structure to this book, and the author explains it in the introduction. But beyond that larger structure, the smaller parts are linked, it seems to me, more in the way people in a crowd are, than dominoes in a row. All of this to say, the book often is more aesthetically experienced than logically followed.
My assignment as a co-contributor to this blog was for the sections “Intro”, “Happy Ending”, and “Out of Order”. The latter two titles reflect a clever way of referring to the eschaton, and the eschaton as inaugurated in the visible communities of Christians. Because of the structure of the book, and perhaps also because I lacked the artistic perception to recognize deeper links within the material, my reflections on these chapters will be more thematic than systematic. Three themes jumped out at me as constant undercurrents: compassionate practice, uncertainty, and unconditional divine acceptance. I certainly am willing to receive correction at this point, but it seems to me the kind of vision the story holds out for itself is one where (a) deep questions can remain unanswered in community, where (b) the people of Christ focus significantly on helping to resolve the material problems of others, and where (c) followers of this vision are convinced of the universality of God’s love. The format of the book itself highlights, perhaps, a fourth value of the community: (d) creativity.
I would be misleading if I suggested I agreed with the vision at every point. Treating the last value first: I can’t say I have a problem with the use of artistic expression per se. And there are indeed many fine examples of artistic craft depicted in the book. Returning to the other three values in the order I listed them, I don’t have much problem with trying to establish economic and political justice both in the community of the church and in the wider commonwealth. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to abandon the traditional evangelical calling of seeking for the conversion of individuals so as to save them from the wrath of God. I also recognize the importance of allowing space for people to be uncertain and ask questions; yet, I have seen individuals and communities twist this intention for open space into a cover for changing the direction of a community. “Doubt” can really become a code-word for certainty that the old beliefs of the community are wrong. (This is not to say the Story suffers from this problem; but it is a danger their vision is open to when applied by any community.) I agree that God’s call goes out to all people, but for me this is consistent with a historic Reformed view of God’s sovereignty and providence, and with a non-universalistic eschatology.
(I am conscious as I look at the previous paragraph that I may sound exactly like the kind of thing the Story is trying to get away from. I’m not sure that that’s the case, but I could see an outsider looking at me that way. I’m responding to what is clearly a deeply personal and emotional expression by evaluating whether that experience is correct. Nevertheless, I don’t think I ultimately respect the content of this book if I treat it as merely art for art’s sake. The book really does make claims about reality, and so to treat it as it asks to be treated, I must engage with its ideas as well as its format.)
I don’t have much else to say about the book, except that I believe it’s an excellent living expression of the kind of faith that seems to attract many of the Millennial generation. That’s worth pondering, whether one thinks that means other churches ultimately ought to follow their lead, or not.