The Church in Emerging Culture The Church in Emerging Culture
Five Perspectives

Leonard Sweet (Editor) with Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian D McLaren and Erwin Raphael McManus
ISBN 9780310254874 (0310254876)
Zondervan, 2003
£13.99

Category: Emerging Church & Postmodern Faith

We have a fig tree growing outside our church, just by the the main entrance. I like to think that it's a direct descendant of the fig tree that Jesus cursed more than two millennia ago - from before the time Jesus cursed it, of course: it probably doesn't know what happened to its ancient ancestor, otherwise it would probably refuse to grow anywhere near a church doorway. Unless, of course, it knows what happened to Jesus, realises that Jesus came off the worse for the encounter, and has forgiven him. Carpenters shouldn't go around cursing trees, even trees as unruly as fig trees.

It really is unruly, our fig tree. It emerges from the ground at the base of the church wall at an almost impossible angle, leaning hungrily towards the light. Nothing leaning at that angle should remain upright, but it does. Its branches go every which way, up, down and around one another in total chaos, twisting and turning and sprouting new shoots in unexpected places.

But here's the critical thing — the reason why, if Jesus walked by today, this tree wouldn't get cursed: it bears fruit. Lots of it. Every year I've known it, without fail, regardless of how harshly we've pruned it or how tough a winter it's faced.

This book is like our fig tree: its chapters are alive, emerging at impossible angles, roots in the church's foundations but branches reaching out, twisting and turning, disagreeing with one another but all seeking the same thing: the light of Christ. And for all their disagreements, not competing against one another but working together to ensure that the tree produces its fruit.

And it does: a lively and interactive discussion the like of which you're unlikely to have encountered in book form before. Leonard Sweet acts as compere, introducing the show not so much as a book but as an adventure in botany, likening his contributors' perspectives to garden, park, glen and meadow, ranging from a carefully controlled "preserving message/preserving method" approach (Andy Crouch) through to an open-ended "evolving message/evolving methods" approach (Brian McLaren).

My response was: hey, it's a jungle out there! And it made my day when, on reaching the last but one page, I found McManus echoing my thoughts: "Don't give me a park. Give me a jungle instead. My position is all about thriving on the dangerous edge." (p.262; see McManus' The Barbarian Way to find out more).

Each article is peppered with comments from the other contributors reacting to the things said, sometimes just a few words, sometimes the best part of a page before the original writer gets to continue; then a more coherent response is offered by the contributor most at odds with the position taken, followed by a final rejoinder from the article's author. This disjointed style will either inspire or frustrate you, but one thing it won't do is leave you feeling indifferent to the topics raised: you'll want to join in the debate — and you'll leave the book wanting, one way or another, to ensure that the Church in emerging culture either emerges with that culture or without it but certainly isn't submerged by it.

Horton draws attention to Isaiah 59:15b-21 "where Yahweh himself dresses for battle" (p.138). It's a powerful image — but how does our God dress for battle? Stripped naked and wearing a crown of thorns. Our culture — constantly questioning What is truth? — doesn't like messiahs. But three days later it's the Messiah who emerges and two thousand years later we're still faced by the same emergency he came to tackle.

Whatever form the church takes, it's Christ's church, not ours. Whether you support or oppose the emerging church movement, this is a book that will help you keep the issues in sight and in perspective.

Phil Groom, June 2005

Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.

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