The Deconstructed Church Reviewed by James Spickard in American Journal of Sociology

deconstructed-cover.jpgMy latest book, co-authored with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford 2014) has been reviewed by James Spickard in the American Journal of Sociology.

You can read the full review on my profile. There are selected excerpts below.

Review by James Spickard, American Journal of Sociology

What should a relevant Christianity look like? Can Christianity overcome centuries of institutional torpor and once again challenge the powers and dominions that rule this all-too-human world? Can Evangelical Christianity, in particular, shake off its social conservatism and its repressive conformity to present a liberatory Christian vision for a new age? Such questions, more prosaically expressed, drive Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel’s new book on “Emerging Church Movement” (ECM), The Deconstructed Church. The ECM participants they interviewed and observed speak the more vivid language. They wish to create a world where religion is not dry, cold, heartless, or dead but vibrant, relevant, and alive.

The book starts with a problem of definition: How does one identify a diverse, internally fractious, ever-shifting “movement,” many of whose members reject the term that one seeks to apply to them? Can one umbrella cover everything from Ikon, a Northern Irish pub-church, to the Church of England’s experiments with in-the-fold “Fresh Expressions” (Ganiel works in the United Kingdom)? Can that umbrella stretch to include neomonastics like Philadelphia’s Simple Way community, which Marti visited, or quasirevivalist churches like Mosaic, in Los Angeles, about which he has previously written? What, other than their vibrancy, do such groups have in common? Marti and Ganiel do not shy from presenting this conceptual disharmony. Indeed, they quote it at length, from both participants and other scholars. They argue, though, that the movement possesses several identifiable themes, not all of which are found in each of its congregations. In sum, they say, the ECM presents a recognizable challenge to mainstream Christianity in its Evangelical, mainline, and Catholic forms.

That challenge, say ECM members, is to become the kind of Christians of whom Jesus would approve.

The first theme is religious pluralism. This concept involves more than mere tolerance of other Christian (and non-Christian) streams. …

The second theme is that Emerging Christians actively deconstruct their former religious lives—and they do it in community. These deconstructions are not just standard stories, though, ironically, they follow the “I once was lost, now I’m found” conversion rhetoric common in Evangelical circles. …

The third theme is that, for Emerging Christians, faith is a conversation. It is not just that “people in the ECM can’t stop talking” (p. 78) or that deep conversations are as important to many ECM congregations as is corporate prayer. Marti and Ganiel argue that “ECM talk” is strategic, because it maintains the pluralism and personalism noted above. …

Finally, ECM congregations try to follow Jesus into the real world. For some, this means social activism, being God’s hands in difficult times. For others, it involves political protest, work for social reconciliation, and so on, “outside what Emerging Christians see as corrupt and oppressive political, economic, and, in some cases, ecclesial systems” (p. 160). In a final chapter, Marti and Ganiel connect this movement to various sociologists’ predictions about the possible shape of religion in the latemodern era. They cite many scholars: Giddens, Alexander, Bauman, Castells, Turner, Heelas and Woodhead, Bellah, and Eagleton among them. In the end, they draw the most from Beck. They see the ECM as exemplifying his notion of “cooperative egoism”: an individualization of religion that can only happen in a supportive community. Despite its small footprint, they see the ECM as a sign of things to come.

Really? As I read this book, I became increasingly troubled by the extent to which the authors’ concrete examples fell away and their generalizations grew ever more abundant. Their methodological appendix outlines how they got their data: a combination of extensive congregational visits, interviewing, reading works by movement leaders, and participating in movement conferences and Twitter feeds. Though they stay close to this data early on, the later chapters too often characterize the whole movement by what a subset of their interviewees tell them. The authors ably collect people’s discourses, but they then present these discourses as if they were accurate descriptions. By the end, the ECM appears to be much more homogenous than in their early chapters. Perhaps this is what happens when scholars identify something as “a movement.” I wonder what got edited out in the effort to portray that movement’s core.

… Still, the book introduces us to a new part of the religious landscape in a readable and intriguing way, and its wider connections provoke thought. I found it very worthwhile.

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