Monday, February 8, 2010

Just a pilgrim in search of that city

The subtitle for Barry Harvey's, Another City, states that the book is “an ecclesiological primer for a Post-Christian World.” Perhaps a better subtitle would have run something like “a mini theological-historical-philosophical education.” This book's diminutive size betrays a great density and scope of material. The book is essentially a crash course on postmodernism, a millenium-spanning church history survey, a critique of the Enlightenment and Western societies since, and a recapitulation of how the Church can be faithfully be Church in today's world. All this in an introduction and five chapters, and 165 pages!

The purpose of this book, Harvey makes clear near the end of the introduction, in that is is intended “to help the church speak again in a self-consciously authoritative way and thus let it reclaim itself as a distinct people who enact a different story in the midst of the world, not for its own benefits, but for the sake of the world.” (pp. 19-20) The thesis underlying his purpose for the book is hinted at in the title, “Another City,” the Latin equivalent of which, altera civitas, he uses throughout the book. The Church is this altera civitas, or at least it should be, argues Harvey. In the introduction, Harvey spends some time describing the postmodern world we find ourselves in, using lyrics from a Toni Morrison song about “the city” and using this image to represent the postmodern world, or “the world” of Scripture, which Jesus spent some time talking and warning about in the Gospels.

Read on after the break for my survey and conclusions from this jam-packed book on radical ecclesiology!

Before starting chapter 1, Harvey defines terminology that he will use throughout the rest of the book, often using Greek words and concepts, such as polis (group of people, Classical Greek city-state), oikos (household), koinonia (“patterns of relatedness that characterized the classical polis, p. 15), ekklesia (often translated “church” from NT texts, but also an “assembly of citizens in a city, p. 15), and finally politeia (politics). Since most contemporary Americans in our allegedly divided political climate equate “politics” to “the stuff that goes on in Washington,” I found Harvey's definition quite refreshing: politics as “the art and science of not simply statecraft, but of everything that has to do with both the actuality and the possibility of human life, which according to the Christian tradition is realized only through participation in the divine life of the triune God.” This “premodern conception of politics,” which he gives distinct Christian dimensions is “crucial” to his argument throughout, and stands in stark contrast with what most people think of as politics. (p. 17) Finally, Harvey offers hints to where he's going, saying that the Church is some respects is similar to, but not equal to the polis or oikos, and that the mission of the Church in the postmodern age should not include the separatist/quietist option, since 1) “there is literally no place for the church to go” and 2) such moves would be “in effect a denial of its mission.” (p. 14)

In chapter 1, Harvey builds his case for the apostolic and near-post-apostolic era of the Christian movement as being just the kind of altera civitas that we should look to, without advocating replicating it wholesale. One important element that Harvey notes about the early church was its “consistent description of itself as an eschatological fellowship.” (p. 31) Chapter 2 moves down history's path to the post-Apostolic but pre-Constantinian church. Right off the bat, Harvey names the polygenesis view of early Christianity, yet identifies some broad characterizations, such as the continued eschatological understanding of the church seeing itself “as living in a period of time in which two ages and two social orders overlapped.” (p. 33)

Harvey seems to do some interesting narrative overlap in this chapter. While he is speaking of the pre-Constantinian church, he spends quite a bit of time talking about the pre-New Testament story of the people of Israel. Exploring the early church by naming its self-identification to the people of Israel and then going there to further explore is an interesting technique. Harvey then moves the biblical narrative up to the emergence eschatological literature in post-Exilic Judaism, before finally moving to the appearance of Jesus in the history, where Harvey discusses the re-interpretive work that Jesus and the early church engaged within Judaism, and the worship/practice distinctives that emerged out of that. Coming back to the early church movement, Harvey again holds up this era as one with distinctly positive qualities in its expression as the altera civitas, but also concludes that “there is no golden age of purity” in the early church movement, another warning to not wax nostalgic to excess.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with church history after Constantine to the present, and try to make sense of what happened to the church as it became enmeshed with the systems of government and found itself granted new and different power. The church began to re-interpret itself and its Scripture in light of these new realities. Harvey states, for instance, that the 4th century bishop and historian, Eusebius, “re-narrated several Old Testament passages, traditionally interpreted as messianic prophecies, as allusions to the emperor.” (p. 73) The nature of what “kingdom of God” meant began to shift. As Harvey moves into the late-medieval period, he notes the rise of the modern political nation-state and emerging mercantile markets, the forerunners to capitalist markets, as having profound impacts on a church already accustomed to its now long-held position of privilege. Impacts that could be seen deeply at work in the Protestant Reformation and the “erroneously called...Wars of Religion” (p. 85) the century after.

Chapter 4 shifts to a much more philosophical lens while focusing on the historical period of the Enlightenment on toward modernity and postmodernity in the present. The geographical focus also broadens to include the New World, eventually the Unites States. Harvey goes about poking at the weak spots in Enlightenment thought systems, starting with Descartes, and assessing that the general aim of the Enlightenment project seems to be “to liberate humankind as much as possible from the unpredictable and seemingly indifferent hand of fortune.” (p. 98) Harvey also assesses Enlightenment thinking to be ahistorical and acultural, with a sort of “self-inflicted amnesia.” (p. 98) In respect to the church, Harvey marks the distinctions between the “Constantinian shift” and now, in the Enlightenment, the “Cartesian shift.” The former seeing the church give up its “spiritual freedom and eschatological identity” for world-power, where the latter “jettisoned the eschatological framework of Christianity altogether, along with the ecclesial practices and relationships.” (p. 104) With a novel new modern dichotomy of “religious-secular,” the church saw itself being further and further marginalized in the world of power politics, in a modern world attempting, as Harvey states, “to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.” (p. 103) Here, Harvey also has many thoughts on emerging capitalism, eventual consumerism, and the construction of a highly stratified, technical/professional environments which further expand on this Enlightenment value of removing risk, that have had the net effect of “an atrophying sense of how to make substantive moral judgments.” (p. 123)

Finally, in Chapter 5, after covering all this ground in the study of ecclesiological history-theology and shifts in cultural consciousness in the West, Harvey makes a constructive appeal to how the church can get back to being the kind of altera civitas it needs to be, in a non-culture/world-sponsoring/sponsored way. To be in the world, but not of it. And to Harvey, it looks quite Jewish in a post-Exilic way. It is also a church that's good with stories. Its own long story and the stories of people in its midst. It is also a church that is “not finally conceptual but performative.” (p. 139, emphasis mine) Indeed, as Harvey strongly states, “the biblical narrative and the traditions of both Judaism and Christianity” demand that “the truth can never be distilled down into an abstract system of thought or elegant set of propositions.” (p. 140) Lastly, Harvey references Jeremiah 29:7, in which the prophet encourages the diasporic Jews in Babylon to “seek the welfare of that city,” (p. 151) so are we to seek the welfare of the postmodern city, from our city as Christians, the altera civitas. Not for its own sake or our sake, but Harvey makes clear that “as an outpost of heaven...[the church's] primary task is to glorify God in the world.” (P. 151)

For what this book set out to do, I would say it accomplished quite well, especially in the small space allotted. I am inspired by the approach Harvey took in this book. The linear format is broadly historical, yet he jumps back and forth from contemporary to biblical throughout this trajectory. It is theological throughout and richly philosophical in places. He pays attention to history quite well, and considers social, economic, and political realities as they swirled around the church through the ages. His assessment of contemporary consumerist/risk-averse culture rings so clearly in my ears. Finally, Harvey's “back to basics” positive recapitulation of what church should be is thrilling to me. What I started learning about while reading postmodern literature in my English undergrad has been taken up here and given significant theological reflection by Harvey. And for that, I am deeply grateful for having read this book. I do feel sorry for someone who does not have patience and/or capacity for this approach, because it is a headache waiting to happen. In the hands of a wise leader committed in the church, however, this material could be foundational for eye-opening experiences to the broader church body, hopefully producing a yearning for the altera civitas, the New Jerusalem, the kingdom of God.

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