On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times: A Review

Joe R. Jones, ON BEING THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST IN TUMULTUOUS TIMES (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2005). Pp. xxx + 239. $27.00, ISBN: 9781597522762. A review.

Joe R. Jones, author of the massive The Grammar of Christian Faith and Doctrine, and who Stanley Hauerwas names ‘the best unknown theologian in America’ (how would Hauerwas know?), is well aware of at least two important realities that inform good theology. First, that theology is a discipline not of the academy but of the believing community which is ever to be that ‘sort of community that sustains a vigorous and continuing conversation within itself as to who has called it into being, to whom it is responsible, and what it is called to be and to do’ (p. xiii). Second, that Christian theology has its ground and end in the redeeming economy of the Triune God. These two convictions inform this collection of essays, sermons, and prayers composed over four decades.

The volume is made up of three sections. In the first, he addresses what it means to be the Church, that ‘broken body [which] must strive, in the midst of its brokenness in tumultuous times, to remember its calling and mission as an alternative community living an alternative way of life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ‘ (p. xiv). He repeatedly posits (pp. xvi, 6, 21, 35-6, 51, passim) his working definition of the Church:

The church is that liberative and redemptive
community of persons
called into being
by the Gospel of Jesus Christ
through the Holy Spirit
to witness in word and deed
to the living triune God
for the benefit of the world
to the glory of God.

Jones, a confessing pacifist ‘with many questions about how to be a pacifist’ (p. xxiv), contends that wherever Jesus’ body lives in the world, there the Church is properly a political entity with a distinct theology and ethic, and whose political witness is never for itself but is for the benefit of the world. Thus with definition above before him, Jones, in the tradition of that prisoner on Patmos, pens ‘A letter to the Churches After 9/11′ in which he reminds the church that it is ‘not called into existence by the American way of life, not called into existence in order to punish evildoers, not called into existence to endorse any given political regime, and not called into existence to protect Christians and wreak vengeance on nonchristians. But it does exist for the “benefit of the world,” though not on the world’s own terms regarding what it finds beneficial as an endorsement of the way it prefers to live’. When the Church, either ecumenically or as a particular congregation, is unclear about how to answer the key questions of its own identity ‘then its life will be a miasma of disarray and confusion’ (p. 6). Jones consistently names nationalism for the destructive and deceitful idol that it is, calling the Church to allegiance to its Lord alone, rather than serve two masters.

Jones turns in the second, third and fourth essays to a reflection on the Church’s illiteracy wherein he argues that the Christian community whose ‘language of faith has too often become hallow and empty’ has become ‘illiterate’ and ‘uneducated’ (p. 11). The Church needs to recover its ‘distinctive language’ (p. xv), its own voice – or that of her Lord’s – lest it be repeatedly ‘overwhelmed and held hostage by the nation-state and its political discourses and practices’ (p. xxiv), and whose discourse and practice form a necessary purlieus for doing theology. The witnessing Church requires a literacy in the Gospel: ‘The Gospel is not willy-nilly whatever people choose it to be. It is not just any presumably good or comforting news. But to be able to hear well and to witness well, the church must incessantly cultivate an understanding of the Gospel and the light it throws on the world. Whenever the church has neglected this cultivation, this education, it has itself become a wandering nomad, bedeviled by the mirages of passing fancies and fads’ (p. 14). He calls for a recovery of the Church’s educational processes that accentuate learning the Gospel’s content and giving it intelligent expression for the world. This doing of theology is not a luxury (or responsibility) for a few but for all the people of God. That said, the Church also needs to recover, he argues, a sense of the pastor as teacher and theologian for the community, to equip the community of theologians for ek-static movement towards and in the world as witness to God’s loving life (see pp. 21-34).

In the second of the three sections, ‘Theological Baselines for Doing Church Theology’, Jones explores, among other themes, notions of faith, soteriology, trinity, and Jewish-Christian dialogue. The essay on salvation (chapter 7) outlines the basis upon which believers have good reason to hope in an apokastasis panton. He argues that ‘the logic of a radical incarnation/atonement view centred in Jesus Christ moves resolutely to the final conclusion that all we be ultimately saved by God’s sovereign grace’ (p. 119). It is of little surprise, therefore, to read that Jones lists among his most significant influences and conversation partners, Karl Barth, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

Also, not a few of the essays betray Jones’ indebtedness to Søren Kierkegaard and to that Dane’s insistence that ‘to be a Christian is to learn how to be a Christian’ (p. 51). This American nonconformist does not, however, share Kierkegaard’s despairing thoughts on the Church more generally, or the latter’s over-subjectivism. Instead, Jones persuasively posits that learning how to be a Christian ‘involves being a member of a community that has characteristic discourses and practices about the narrative of God’s grace’ (p. 67). Little doubt, if Kierkegaard had a different model of Church in mind when he made his bold criticisms, he would agree with Jones here. Jones’ collection includes two fine chapters on Kierkegaard: one on Kierkegaard’s thoughts on authority and revelation; the other on Kierkegaard as ‘Spy, Judge, and Friend’ in which he outlines the basic life, contributions and contours of Kierkegaard’s thought. He laments that while Kierkegaard ‘was one of the most influential intellectuals for the twentieth century’ today ‘I find few entering divinity students that can spell his name, fewer still who have read anything of his, fewer yet that have benefited from his friendship’. He describes Kierkegaard as ‘a Spy who will push you into inward places of hiddenness you are reluctant to explore, a Judge who will indict your vagaries of life with inescapable and relentless precision and vivacity, but finally a Friend who might spiritually edify you on the multifaceted journey of becoming a Christian‘ (p. 154). He proceeds:

‘With uncanny prescience, Kierkegaard knew he would someday be famous but feared and loathed the prospect that he would fall into the hands of the professors, who would analyze and reduce his life and writings to a thumbnail sketch or footnote, or even to a voluminous narrative, but would never realize that the whole of his literature was directed even to the professor as an existing person who still had to exist somehow. He criticized professors, philosophers, and theologians unmercifully for building grand mansions of theory and thought only to live their actual, existing lives in the barnyard, feeding daily out of the pig trough. The point here is this: intellectuals are given to the pursuit and development of thought, concepts, and ideas, and they can easily fool themselves into supposing that if they have thought the thought they have also lived the thought. No, says Kierkegaard; to live the thought means to have one’s living passions and decisions shaped by the thought. Intellectuals are inclined to forget the actual passions and concrete decisions that shape their daily living, and therefore are forgetful of their actual existing. Their theories cannot – of themselves – encompass and shape the theorist’s existential reality without decision and persistence in passions’ (p. 155).

The final section is made up largely of pastoral prayers and some moving sermons, including those preached by Jones at ordination and funeral services.

While few will be convinced of all Jones’ claims, this an engaging and at times provocative miscellany properly written with one eye on the Church (and not least his own Disciples of Christ denomination the focus on which, at times, gives the reader a sense that she is reading an in-house review) and one on God as both God and Church direct their engaging gaze to the world. The reader would have been better served with the inclusion of an index and a little more editing out of repetitious material. That said, this book will assist the Church to better understand, celebrate and practice the good and missional news of Jesus Christ in tumultuous times.


3 thoughts on “On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times: A Review

  1. I couldn’t agree more that Church needs to develop a distinctive language. But we don’t have to make one up. The words and stories of Scriptures speak with power and relevance to people of all ages. If we can just translate it something other than theological jargon, we’d be doing the world a great service.

    Like

  2. The review of the book is very good and the definition of Church given in the blog is fabulous and I like the words of the post and thanks for the blog information.

    Like

  3. Pingback: It’s time to name the gods: some reflections on some reactions to Rowan Williams’ recent lecture « Per Crucem ad Lucem

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