Fitch and Holsclaw seek to describe reality today in North America. One term they talk about a lot is Postmodernity. For 500 years, the West has been fascinated with science and ideas. Logic, proof, and argument have ruled the day. But somewhere along the way people began to tire of this. As I read the early part of the book my memory was jogged. I realized there had been a day I discovered postmodernism. Nobody had ever used that term in my presence. I had never read a book by anyone who knew the term. It was the Spring of 1986 and I was finishing up my freshman philosophy class at the University of Iowa. I was a religion major with vague ministry goals. My own faith was growing quickly after a detour in my middle teen years. Jesus was tremendously real to me. We had to write a final position paper for this philosophy class. Of course, I wrote mine on the “proofs” for the existence of God. I eagerly headed to the Graduate Assistant’s office to pick up my paper and receive my final grade. I was sure I had nailed the paper. Terry smiled and handed me my paper with a B- on it. I frowned. “B-? Why did you give me a B-?”
He said, “I gave you a B- because you didn’t take the other position seriously enough.”
I said, “I don’t take it that seriously because I don’t believe it. I believe God truly exists.”
He said, “Yes, but for the assignment it’s about whether that could be proved.”
“I think I did prove it,” I said. So he took the paper back and looked it over again. He told me that I did as good of a job as anyone has at defending the viewpoint but that the consensus has been that you can’t prove God’s existence. I couldn’t resist, so I asked him if he believed in God. He said, “Not really. I’m sort of an agnostic.” Snappy young fellow as I was, I asked him if his bias might be causing him to downplay my position. Maybe he wasn’t taking ME seriously enough!
Terry smiled again. He said, “I have to admit, I’ve never had a student with such a strong conviction about this before.” And then I knew that our conversation was not an accident. I looked at the clock on the wall. In exactly five minutes the parking meter was going to read: EXPIRED. I also was going to be cutting it close to make it to work on time. But something told me not to go.
Terry, said, “Tim, you have my attention. You seem to have a very deep and personal conviction about God. In the philosophy department they tell us to check our theological hats at the door. (I’ll never forget that phrase.) It’s actually refreshing. Since I haven’t met many people like you, I’d like to hear your story. How are you so certain? How is God so real to you?”
I went down the logical arguments I had covered in the paper. But for each one he was able to come up with some sort of logic that could challenge it. I realized that these answers weren’t all that satisfying to me either. Logic just wasn’t cutting it, but it was mostly what I had heard from others. My mind raced backwards. Although Terry was probably 10 years older than me, just a couple years before I also had been doubting like him. I began to tell him about how things were then.
“Nothing could get through to me for over a year. But along the way I met a girl who had a lot of spiritual questions. Frankly, I found those questions quite irritating at first. She was seeking what I was running away from. But she was so beautiful I wasn’t going anywhere… (Um, shallow, I know but I was 16) Eventually, her seeking awakened my own spiritual center. Something so pure was at work in her. And through her, something began to soften my heart. (By the way she is now my wife!) One night in February 1985, I became aware of a holy presence, something completely “other”. Whatever the past had been, this was the present. I was aware of this holy presence and my own sinful, selfish ways. This holy presence was offering me a fresh start.” I looked Terry right in the eye and said, “I had a personal confrontation with the holiness of God that required a choice.” I could see a path leading toward light if I said yes, but out into darkness if I said, no. I said, yes and my life began to change.
At this point in talking with Terry, I felt like I was on fire. I hadn’t felt so alive since the moment that I was telling him about had first happened. I was now officially late for work but I didn’t care. Terry leaned back and said, “I guess that’s what you’d have to say…”
“Terry, it’s real. Can you feel it? I feel God here just like I did that day.”
He said, “Tim, I actually believe you. Now that I understand how firmly you believe this I understand what you were saying in the paper. I’m changing your grade to a B+. But more than that you’ve affected me. I shared with you that I’m an agnostic. But I do actually wonder about God. If God is real I’d like to be able to know it like you feel you do. Whenever I get the chance to watch a sunset with my girlfriend, I take a bottle of wine and we think and talk together about ultimate things. I open my heart to the possibility of faith. I promise you that the next time I do that, I’ll be thinking of your story and considering all that you said to me.”
I told him not to wait until then, but to reflect on it anytime it came to mind. He thanked me for taking the time to share my story.
I floated back to my car… I now had two parking tickets and was already 45minutes late for work. I called and explained the odd situation. Miraculously they understood. I couldn’t believe I didn’t lose my job. I was still on fire. At age 18, I knew the purpose of the rest of my life. I also understood that the world had shifted. I wouldn’t know the word postmodern for several years. But I knew people were much more interested in my story than in logical arguments. And I loved hearing more about Terry’s story. Those were precious moments spent with him. I was transformed a bit by the process and Terry was, too. God was at work in a way I hadn’t realized before. And it was more compelling than any religious idea or argument could fully capture. Make no mistake I believe there is truth that will set you free. But from that moment on I knew the truth had to be lived and shared before I could fully know it or be completely free.
This is the cultural landscape I believe Fitch and Holsclaw are talking about in their book- Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier. This post-Christendom Far Country is logically frustrating for Christians. But we can navigate through this territory without losing our way. In fact, as Fitch says, God has already gone before us as we travel. He is already there, already at work in others’ lives. It was good to be reminded of these events as I read these compelling early chapters…
The new book by Fitch & Holsclaw is called Prodigal Christianity. It uses Luke’s Prodigal Parables (Luke 15) as a metaphor for Christian ministry in a postmodern world. I attended a conversation about the book at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. The authors presented a brief outline of the text and then took questions from those present. (Yes, I asked a question…)
The book presents 10 Signposts for the Missional Frontier and shares 7 Behaviors the church should engage in as we navigate these signposts. Certain chapters look like they will be very exciting. David Fitch has been part of the missional church conversation for a long time. Like me, he found some really good energy in the early Emergent conversations as well. However, the last several years have seen the Emergent group head off in directions which are no longer satisfying. In so many of those models, the church and the gospel seem to collapse into Postmodernism. There’s no good news and no reason for the church to gather. So Fitch has come back to the Missional term as more descriptive. He believes strongly in the church as the place where the Spirit is most active. The community formed there is God’s agent of change in our world. I couldn’t agree more. Fitch also rejects the extreme neo-reformed overreaction to Emergent and other groups. These folks have locked down the gospel so tightly, they’ve reduced it to a particular view of the atonement which is a fairly recent arrival in church history. The gospel is bigger than this. It’s more than a set of religious beliefs to be argued. It is an experience, a way of life, a vision of justice, an agent of healing, and a transforming journey. For Fitch, this is a journey into what he calls the Far Country. As best I can tell the Far Country is a metaphor for this postmodern, post-Christendom world many North Americans find ourselves in. A world where fewer and fewer people give automatic authority to the Bible, to the Church, or to Christian positions on social issues. Christians have tended to just get absorbed into the Far Country, leaving the gospel behind, or have built enclaves where we hide out from the world until Jesus shows up to beam us up.
I like how Fitch doesn’t want us to accept either one of those. Like the Prodigal God who leaves the 99 sheep, sweeps the whole house, and looks longingly for the return of his son, we can choose to “Go” like Jesus taught us to. But our “going” will look differently since we’re in the Far Country and not 1957 Churched America. I like the questions Fitch is asking at the beginning of this book. I like that Ecclesiology (what we think about the Church) is at the forefront of how he’s doing theology. It’s the lens through which he understands the gospel and how to live it out. So, preaching and the sacraments are central to his theology and missional outlook. I love great theological conversations. But this is a piece that has been absent for some time… I’m excited to dive in, with no imagination that I won’t find lots to disagree with along the way. But the Holy Spirit spoke to me at that gathering that there are some important things in this conversation which will speak directly to me and my church community as we also navigate uncharted territory in our culture…
Fitch is a CMA pastor (Wesleyan denomination similar to my own Nazarenes) teaching at a Baptist Seminary, who has Anabaptist leanings in how he views community, justice, and discernment. Now that’s a lively mix. I’m also a pastor who teaches at a Christian university and enjoys dialogue. I’m intrigued to read on…