Book Review - Exploring the Politics of Christian Mission

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November 30, 2010

Nathan R. Kerr, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (Cascade, 2008)

While the release date of Nate Kerr’s first work is barely over a year old I feel quite late in offering a review.  Kerr has had a significant web presence himself while this book has also experienced substantial engagement (see here, here and here).  This first virtual wave of comment has now settled down into ripples.  The work will, hopefully, continue a slow trickling outward to new audiences.

Kerr’s interest comes at the intersection of Christ’s inbreaking into history.  Kerr proposes that it is an apocalyptic theology that best addresses this event as well as its implications.  In order to clarify and expound on this understanding Kerr spends the bulk of the book working through the contributions and limitations of Ernest Troeltsch, Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Howard Yoder before offering his own account.

The initial target of Kerr’s work is the modern conception of history.  History is often evoked as a type of sovereign in which we are said to be historically determined or conditioned.  Kerr maintains that this view was always operative within the work of Troeltsch’s theology.  Blended with his view of ethics this led Troeltsch to a type of ‘emancipated individualism’ (35) that seeks to form and ‘master’ the particularities of his or her existence in light of a universal vision of history, the eschaton.  Troeltsch then views the work and mission of the church and of Christians as an ongoing synthesis and compromise with the powers operative in nature and society.  History, in the end, determines the individual and the church.

Shifting to Karl Barth, Kerr notes the introduction of an apocalyptic Christology that radically prioritizes and differentiates the work of Christ from the contingencies of the world and its history.  The trouble Kerr notes with this view is the manner in which it does not develop into an apocalyptic historicism.  For Barth, it seems, all of history even Jesus’s own life is placed under and determined by the non-historical event of the resurrection.  This theological mode makes it difficult to engage with particularities and implications of both Jesus’s history and our own.  Here the resurrection event determines history and the church.

With Stanley Hauewas the apocalyptic emphasis is moved from Christology to ecclesiology.  Hauerwas attempts to develop a theological model that enables or envisions the church as a counter society or polis to its surrounding culture.  And it is this relation to ‘surrounding culture’ that Kerr takes issue with.  Kerr charges Hauerwas of a deterministic or controlling (i.e. Constantinian) posture for the church because so much of its content seems to flow from a reaction to liberalism which guides individuals and communities by abstract constructs divorced from lived contexts.  Here the church determines the world and individuals.

The move forward for Kerr in Barth’s de-valuation of history and Hauerwas’ over-determination of the church appears to come out basically as a synthesis of the perceived positives of these two approaches.  This begins with an exploration of the relevant work of John Howard Yoder.  Yoder maintains a strong particularity when it comes to our understanding of Jesus but this understanding is irreducible and so cannot be abstracted as a template for the church though it remains the church’s orientation for engaging with her own histories.  Apocalyptic emerges then as an idiom, a posture of engagement characterized by moral independence which rejects the structuring of instrumental power that characterizes what I guess has to be called non-apocalyptic orientations (the world).  In this way the concrete history and the radical otherness of Jesus are maintained.  It is for the church then to identify and engage that logic in the particularities of her existence.  In this paradigm our “various contingencies are bound by God’s perfect agape through the work of the Spirit and by which we are interwoven into the single cosmic fabric that is ‘cross and resurrection’, and by which we ourselves are inscribed into the action of the ‘original revolution’” (159).  The final move that will transition to Kerr’s own constructive chapter is one of ‘doxological action’ which names the move from ideological closure (determining others through history, event or church) to participation in the now and eventual Kingdom of God.

Kerr begins his final chapter with a simple assertion that “our own participation in the politics of Jesus emerges as a missionary politics of liturgical encounter with the world” (161).  The primacy of mission is set against his earlier criticisms of a sort of ‘ecclesio-centric’ approach to theology in which the church can exist prior to and in distinction from an encounter with the world; the church-as-polis.  Kerr claims that despite being advocated for by the likes of Hauerwas, Yoder and others this approach is still contaminated by a Constantian logic that seeks to establish the ontological status of the church as well as intrusmentalize the effectiveness of its practices.  In response Kerr offers an image of the church as functioning in an exilic or dispossessive mode.  The church then exists or is embodied in its missionary encounter with the world.  This encounter however is preformed as a type of non-territorial action in that it remains fundamentally open to conversion and encountering Jesus as other.  Before Kerr goes into a full blown account of the church as always different and deferred he moves into a more constructive account of the church as exilic or diaspora.  This approach maintains and demands concrete social presence and decisions though always holding out and open for the final city to come and be established.  Tied implicitly with this posture is a preferential option for the poor.  The church does not exist and then act of behalf of the poor but the church “happens as that very option” (192).  This is all expressed within the doxological refrain which hopes to participate in the decisive and secure Kingdom established and being established by God.

If this review came off a little heavy it is because Kerr’s work is a surprisingly dense piece of theology that I found difficult to simplify.  Kerr advocates for a church not invested in its own preservation but in its continual abandoning of itself in its engagement with the world as it follows Jesus.  The question remains as to the witness that might arise from it.  Many recognize the danger of institutional entrenchment and call for a non-colonizing expression of Christianity based on the life of Jesus.  Few seem to offer examples and witness of that narrow way which asks for all of our life and trusts that all is still gift, grace from God.  In addition it is becoming more and more precarious to speak of one's moral 'independence' from the structures of this world.  It seems that more work in articulating and conceptualizing what that looks like is needed. 

It will be interesting to see in the future how the apocalyptic shift in theology continues to engage not only with the ecclesio-centric crowd (Hauerwas & co.) but also with expressions like Peter Dula’s fugitive ecclesiology, Agamben’s messianic time or some variety of Pauline universalism.  The future of church theology is legitimately up for grabs (poor term perhaps) as accounts reflecting the earlier postmodern (Derridean) shift begin to jockey with new accounts and demands for universalism as necessary to dismantle contemporary political and economic forces facing our world.

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