Reading the intellectual property of a fine English gentleman somehow causes my mind to travel back to one of my favorite British punk themes from the 1980’s. The Clash somehow speaks to our present day western Evangelical milieu. How should Evangelicals relate to consumer culture, should we stay or should we go?
This week’s reading for our DMin GML cohort has us digging into the working dissertation for Dr. Jason Clark. Dr. Clark is a reflective practitioner in every sense of the term. His thinking and writing digs deep into the rigors of theology, history, cultural studies and epistemological nuances. His approach of attacking the great Evangelical questions of our time with this kind of breadth is indicative of his ongoing classical educational pursuits. On the flip side of his academic research is his missional praxis. With the heart of a pastor/church planter, his concern is people and the culture they live in. He called us to be organic intellectuals where our churches were centered around mission. This is the flavor he brings to his dissertation writing.
Dr. Clark wrestles with the barriers that keep his people from living a shared story and identity in the Kingdom of God together, most notably the modern giant known as consumerism. I can still hear his haunting question to us during our first gathering together in Oxford: “Jesus, is your Gospel big enough to defeat consumerism?” This is surely my own question in my place of missional praxis. It is hard to separate modern day Evangelicalism from the phenomenal rise of capitalistic markets. It is hard to distinguish if it was the Protestant work ethic that created the capitalistic boom or if it was the capitalist boom that propelled Protestant Evangelicalism. They seemed to be boats tightly linked together traveling down the same raging river and in the same direction. Thomas Taylor remarked that “evangelical religion spread best where trade was growing.” (3) Fast forward a couple hundred years and Dan Kimball states that the modern Protestant Evangelical Church has become about the “dispensing of religious good and services to Christian consumers.” (4) As ekklesia, what is our relationship to be within the modern capitalist markets: isolation or accomodation? Do we run in or run away? Do we enter or do we exit? Should we stay or should we go?
Dr. Clark lays out what seems to be the present two Evangelical paradigms in terms of its relationship to the modern capitalistic markets. One way is to despise the culture we find ourselves in and seek isolation, whilst the opposing way is “extreme accomodation” (12) where one finds its center and identity in the consumer culture as opposed to being unfettered from it. It is in the midst of this proposed dichotomy where Dr. Clark asks a very big question: Might there be a middle way for Evangelicalism? Within his dissertation abstract, he asks: “Can we then reimagine theologically an Evangelicalism that is more robust within its institutional habitation of capitalism? Does Evangelicalsm intramurally have the resources for a reparative response to the pathologies of social relationships of late capitalist market societies?” Implicating that not only could Evangelicalism seek a ‘tertium quid‘, but that within it’s history and ethos, Evangelicalism has the resources it needs within itself to find that middle way. “It is suggested that Evangelicalism within this possibility, can be comprehended as a ‘double movement’, both symbiotic to capitalism and modern market societies and at the same time a counter movement to them.”
What could be the different way, the middle way? Dr. Clark suggests a symbiotic relationship with capitalist society and as well a movement and a critique against. The difference is your center and identity. Our identity is in a Kingdom that has come and Kingdom that is coming. Our faith is built and anchored in the mysteries of and tensions of dichotomies. Jesus as both God and man, Yahweh as a Holy Trinity, blessing enemies, beauty in suffering, grace and law, these are all a part of our Scriptural identity as a people. Dr. Clark seeks a way that is neither isolationist nor accomodating, but a church that embraces the culture it finds itself in without being fettered to its trappings, therefore remaining free.
In the modern western Evangelical context, the Emerging Church seeks to be a critique of modernity and its trappings to today’s capitalits markets. However, can they ever truly be free from the system and constructs they live in? Whilst the Mega Church appears to be working so within the grain of the capitalist milieu that it is criticized for having lost its ekklesia center. Could they not also just simply be working within their missional context with a savy understanding of communication processes so that the message they so deeply are committed to reaches the hearts of their adherents? Do they have to be opposing viewpoints? Dr. Clark states: “Emerging Church and Mega Church are not enemies: they are two sides of the same thing.” (29) To that I say a hearty ‘Amen’. The reality is we need each other, it will be together, around the same table that we collaborate on the biggest questions of our day under the power of the Cross. If we want to be missional, then we need a way forward and through, not a way out or a way in.
Should we stay or should we go? We should do both, whilst understanding that our narrative center is a Kingdom that has come and a Kingdom that is coming.