The Deconstructed Church at the American Academy of Religion – Report on Authors Meet Critics Session

deconstructed-cover.jpgI was delighted that my book, co-authored with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014) was selected for an Authors meet Critics panel at the conference of the American Academy of Religion, 19-22 November in San Antonio.

The panel included: Chair: Melissa Snarr (Vanderbilt), and Discussants: Douglas Gay (Glasgow), Matthew Guest (Durham), and Wendy Cage (Brandeis).

I was all set to travel to the conference, but fell ill a couple of days before I was due to travel so I opted to stay in Belfast. Even so, the panel of ‘critics’ kindly forwarded me comments before the panel, and I was able to participate in the response alongside Gerardo by preparing a written response (see aar-response-gladys-ganiel),  which was read out on the day.

Matthew Guest is an expert on evangelicalism. Some of his most recent work includes a co-authored book with Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Rob Warner, Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith (Bloomsbury 2013). Guest had already reviewed the book in The Journal of Contemporary Religion, summing it up this way:

Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel’s The Deconstructed Church is by no means the first sociological analysis of the ‘Emerging Church Movement’ (ECM) but, building on a now significant secondary literature and fresh empirical research in a range of contexts, it is the most expansive, the most recent, and, in my view, the most impressive.

Guest had some specific questions which I attempted to address in my remarks (aar-response-gladys-ganiel).

Doug Gay, whose excellent Remixing the Church (SCM Press 2011) I reviewed previously on this blog, offered fascinating comments based on his personal and academic experience. He has allowed me to post an abridged version of his comments here (doug-gay-edited-response-to-gladys-ganiel-and-gerardo-marti-book). He had this to say:

What Gladys and Gerardo have done, bringing a different academic methodology to bear on the topic and reporting on ethnographic studies of emerging groups and networks, is to add very significantly to the depth and detail of our understanding of ‘emerging Christianity’ – and to offer perceptive and provocative new lines of interpretation, drawing on theoretical frameworks from the sociology and psychology of religion.

Gay also asked some important questions about how we use the term ‘deconstructed’ in the book – pointing out that because we use the term in the title of the book, we might have written more extensively about why!

My understanding of the series of questions that Gay asked about deconstruction (see pages 4-5 of his edited remarks) is that we were using it ‘ethnographically’, as a term used by people themselves (some of those we interviewed, for example). They tended to use it in a ‘commonsense’ rather than philosophical way, if that’s possible. But he’s right, we could have written more about this!

Wendy Cage researches religion in the contemporary United States, especially as related to healthcare, immigration and sexuality.

She asked six specific questions about the book, which I tried to answer in detail in my written response (aar-response-gladys-ganiel).

In his in-person response to the comments, Gerardo Marti said that our commitment to study the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) was a risky endeavour, given that there was much discouragement within Emerging Christianity, that historians saw this as a repetition of older groups, and that sociologists saw this as another instance of phenomena they believed they already understood. He argued that social change requires new conceptual resources, ones that take into account changed circumstances for unexpected dynamics.

Gerardo said that our work is an invitation to consider societal changes affecting religion, and that we had come up with a number of concepts, some only briefly developed, in order to attempt to heuristically draw out patterns and consider striking new patterns which are hard to discern without the use of theory — especially since the ECM refuses to be reduced to mere labels, since the groups are small, marginal even if diffuse, and since the groups themselves may have little long-term sustainability.

Then Gerardo briefly named and defined many of our core concepts: individualization, pluralist congregations, strategic religiosity, institutional entrepreneurialism, religious cosmopolitanism, etc.

This was Gerardo’s attempt to indicate that the book uses the ECM as a strategic opportunity to grasp changing dynamics, and that those dynamics, while exemplified in the ECM, are found in a more ubiquitous fashion nearly everywhere.

Gerardo provided a few examples, like the fact that clergy recognize they cannot assume their monolithic authority over congregations or homogeneity of belief but must ongoingly negotiate the claims they make amidst the inevitable diversity of interests and convictions among members of their congregations. If pastors insisted on absolute agreement to a long list of absolutes to sustain membership in a congregation, few congregations would be able to exist. All clergy must strive to motivate and create a congregational coherence that acknowledges the inevitable diversity of their people.

I’m sorry that I missed the opportunity to hear more feedback from those who attended the panel, but grateful to all the readers for their keen attention in reading the book and offering us such constructive feedback.



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