Martin B. Copenhaver, Anthony B. Robinson, William H. Willimon, Good News in Exile: Three Pastors Offer a Hopeful Vision for the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), xi + 116pp, ISBN 9780802846044.
[This is a lightly edited version of a review which was written in October 1999, and first published on London School of Theology’s website.]
A relatively slim volume, but with challenge and insight on every page, this book could have an effect out of all proportion to its size. Reading it raises the intriguing question of where it should be shelved. Pastoral theology? Preaching? Doctrine of the church? It embraces all of these and more. Christians should read it, and pastors should discuss it.
The title of the book arises from the recognition that North American churches today are without privilege, in an environment which is indifferent or hostile, and so find themselves in a situation akin to an ‘exile’. But, as the authors remind us, God has considerable experience in working powerfully among those in exile. ‘As the history of Israel demonstrates, a time of exile can be particularly rich and fertile. There is opportunity in relinquishment.’
Although the book’s three writers represent different backgrounds, all admit to having been nursed in the arms of ‘liberalism’ and to being subsequently influenced by the theological proposals of George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas, which call for a move beyond liberalism into a new ‘postliberal’ situation. Liberalism assumed a basic continuity between the best of human thought and the Christian message, with the church as the centre of civic life, where the gospel was adjusted to the perceived needs of people. In postliberalism, however, the church is to be a counter culture. Instead of the gospel being adjusted to the needs of people, people are challenged to be transformed in the light of the gospel. Instead of speaking the language of culture, we speak the peculiar language of the church into the culture.
The book helpfully begins with each of the three writers writing an autobiographical preface, tracing these changes in their own lives and the life of the church; and the volume breaks some new ground in seeking to relate postliberal theology to different facets of the life of the church. So, the autobiographical reflections are followed by a series of chapters dealing successively with Scripture, preaching, sacraments, Christian formation, and social action.
Scripture, according to the authors, is ‘our home in exile’, which reshapes experience. Its authority has to do ‘not only from how the words got on the page, but also from how the words get off the page’. Scripture is to be acted out in the life of the congregation: we immerse ourselves in the biblical story and the world it creates, and when we do so, we find it makes sense of our lives. Sermons should be based on lectionary texts so that both preacher and congregation can hear what God says through Scripture, rather than what the preacher thinks congregations need to hear.
In liberalism, the preacher begins with some aspect of the human condition (we feel empty, we lack self-esteem), and then moves to Scripture to find a relevant text to address the contemporary concern. Against this, following George Lindbeck, they advocate a ‘cultural-linguistic’ approach.
‘To become a Christian is to enter a “culture,” a complex system of rituals, words, signs, symbols, habits, and practices that make us who we are… You cannot get Christianity by having the Christian faith translated into some other philosophical framework like liberalism, or existentialism, or Marxism, or the language of self-esteem. Rather, to be a Christian is to be someone who has learned the language, someone for whom the “grammar” of the Christian faith has become part of your life.’
On sacraments, they remind us that rituals sustain in situations of exile. Sacraments are particularising, and emphasise difference and separation. Sacraments place us in a vulnerable position, where we surrender to, and receive from, an ‘Other’. They are also acts of imagination, which defy the rational and allow space for us to rediscover the power of symbol and story.
On ‘Christian formation and the teaching ministry’, they argue that pastors pastor by teaching and teach by pastoring. Ministers must not be institutional managers or helping professionals, but community-based teachers of the faith. Theology is necessary for the life of the believer, and the teaching ministry of the church ‘has less to do with information than with formation’. In Christian formation, as in sports, crafts, and the arts, ‘there is a set of skills, a language, a history or tradition, a master teacher or teachers, and a community of those committed to the practice’.
When it comes to ‘mission and social action’, whereas liberalism sought to transform the world through political action, they argue that ‘the primary political role of the church is to be the church’. We gather in worship to get the gospel straight, to speak our native tongue, to make sure we do not forget the unique dimensions of our story. Encounter with God in worship may lead to conventional political activities, but not because of some ‘universal impulse’ to do the right thing. In fact, beginning with the gospel may redraw ethical debate.
For instance, on the nuclear weapons debate, both sides (whether to arm or not to arm) agree that the fundamental issue is our survival. But Christians follow one for whom survival was not the issue. Similarly with abortion, those who advocate a ‘right to choose’ and those who advocate a ‘right to life’ at least agree on the notion of ‘rights’. But the language of rights is not the language of Scripture – which speaks not of rights but of duties, which reminds us that life is a gift, which speaks of relationship with, and responsibilities towards, others. It may well be that the church best serves the world not by entering into debates on the world’s terms, but by recasting debates in ways that reflect the distinctiveness of the gospel.
They conclude with an emphasis on conversion. Although exile is a time of loss, it may also be a prelude to reconstruction and recreation. Our task is to point people to the new world of the gospel and to embody that world in our lives.
All in all, there is much on which to reflect, much by which to be challenged, and much in which to take encouragement. There ought to disagreement too. Those outside the North American context will want to ask how far the authors’ description of the church is accurate in their own situations. Although there is much here for evangelicals to agree with, they will have to realise that the authors are not advocating a return to the ‘conservative’ fold, and that there are things in the postliberal agenda to be critical of, even if it provides substantially more resources for life and ministry than other alternatives. For all of us who own the label ‘Christian’, the book sets an agenda which shouldn’t be ignored, as we seek to allow the gospel itself to set the agenda in discipleship and church life.
As the authors write: ‘In exile Israel had dared to name its national disaster as a time of judgment on its past fidelity and as a time of promise for a new God-given future. Might this be a similar time for my church?’