Colin Greene and Martin Robinson, Metavista: Bible, Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination (Colorado Springs: Authentic Media, 2008), pp. 278.
In Metavista: Bible, Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination, Colin Greene and Martin Robinson “propose a new way of doing mission which [they] call radical cultural engagement” (p. xi). Andrew Perriman calls it “an intriguing and ambitious book” (for Perriman’s review, see: http://www.andrewperriman.com/node/1570); to the apt words “intriguing” and “ambitious” I will add “provocative”—provocative in the sense of provoking many questions. These questions are of three kinds—questions about context, questions about Scripture, and questions about politics.
Questions about Context
Greene (who wrote the book’s introduction, first two parts, and conclusion) begins by anticipating an objection: “Cultural engagement is nothing new in the history of the church, and unfortunately most of those agendas have eventuated in cultural assimilation or accommodation” (p. xii). He offers Karl Barth and—especially—Tertullian as theologians who shared this concern; Tertullian, Greene writes, “had no place for cultural engagement in any shape or form” (p. xiii). The support for this claim, as well as Greene’s overall assessment of Tertullian, appears to come from just one of the early Christian’s writings. Ultimately, Greene sets aside Tertullian’s witness, explaining, “Our context in the twenty-first century in the First World…is radically different” (p. xiv).
At least two questions arise. First, did Tertullian and the church of his day in fact have “no place for cultural engagement” of any kind? Second, is the context of the contemporary Western church in fact “radically different” from that of the early church?
To the first of these questions, Tertullian scholar Robert Sider offers a different response than does Greene. Sider notes that in his Apology, Tertullian used “the image of the trial…to address pagans on their own ground and from their own presuppositions.”[i] Not only did Tertullian write to non-Christians (a form of cultural engagement), but he also contextualized his message; and his message is even radical, both in the sense of “going to the root” (it is rooted in the ethics taught and practiced by Jesus) and in the sense of “extreme” (it rules out all violence[ii]). Sider concludes, “This account of the decisive way in which Tertullian adopted pagan assumptions to address pagans, affirming thereby the value of pagan intellectual achievements, challenges attempts like that of Richard Niebuhr in his Christ and Culture…to make Tertullian representative of those who see the Christian in unqualified conflict with secular culture.”[iii]
To the second question, a nuanced response seems in order. Undoubtedly, the context of the contemporary Western church is different than that of the early church—and in a number of ways. As Greene notes, one of these differences is that contemporary Western Christians rarely suffer violent persecution. However, there are also some similarities between the premodern context and the postmodern (or, as Greene prefers, “post-postmodern”) context; for example, while Christendom society was not especially pluralist, pluralism was faced by pre-Christendom Christians and is faced by post-Christendom Christians. As for violence, while it is true that few contemporary Western Christians suffer violent persecution, Western Christians arguably have been victimized by violence since the Constantinian shift; since the beginning of the partnership between church and state early in the 4th century, Christians have been made complicit in state-sponsored violence. (I am aware of and in agreement with William Stringfellow’s observation that all people are complicit in the world’s violence;[iv] here I am focusing specifically on state-sponsored violence.) This complicity has arguably had a dehumanizing effect. As Stringfellow puts it, “[A] person killed is a victim, but the killer is so dehumanized in the action that he is a victim too.”[v] The sad irony (and the reason I dwell on an introduction) of Greene’s decision to leave Tertullian behind at the outset of the journey is that, by consigning Tertullian to the wastebasket of history, Greene loses an ally against violence—an evil about which he shows consistent concern throughout his book.
Part II: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2008/12/20th-century-political-theology-for_30.html
Part III: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2008/12/20th-century-political-theology-for_677.html
[i] Robert D. Sider (ed.), Christian and Pagan in the Roman Empire: The Witness of Tertullian, 3.
[ii] Ibid., 24.
[iii] Ibid., 4.
[iv] William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 128-131.
[v] Ibid., 131.