For The Someday Book

Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2008, 240 pp.

block_communityThis book is the more technical, less practical prequel to The Abundant Community. Most people who write about community are touchy-feely types who want to share stories, espouse big ideas, and inspire mutual affection. Not Peter Block. Block writes like an engineer, drawing a blue print for load-bearing walls and structural soundness for communities. He writes like a pathologist, dissecting the body of a community to determine sources of health and sickness, identifying the systems and structures that bring it to life. This analytical approach is novel and insightful, if a bit dry at times. Peter Block is clearly passionate about the importance of communities, and this book is a call to action in the work of building stronger, more integrated neighborhoods and communities.

After an introduction and a literature review, Block states the imperative for building community in an age of increased isolation. He then gives his first insight into what creates community–one that holds up for me in my lived experience.

Community building requires that we engage in new conversation, one that we have not had before, one that can create an experience of aliveness and belonging. It is the act of engaging citizens in a new conversation that allows us to act in concert with and actually creates the conditions for a new context. …

We must begin by naming the existing context and evolving to a way of thinking that leads to new conversations that produce a new context. It is the shift in conversation that increases social capital. Every time we gather becomes a model of the future we want to create. (32)

I could not agree more. When I work with a group or committee, the most difficult aspect is to change the conversation to something that creates new energy and opportunity, rather than rehearsing old patterns. And–even more–we have to model that future in every small way when we gather, from the arrangement of the room to the role of leaders to the nature of the questions.

Block then names common but ineffective strategies to move beyond stuck or stagnant community: seeing people as problems, believing that increased laws or oversight will fix problems, waiting for a stronger leader, and undervaluing associational life. By contrast, Block describes a “restorative community,” one with the power to act and engage, the power to hold one another accountable and create a new future together. Restorative communities are not about entitlement, and they do not expect others to fix our problems for us.

Block, following his future collaborator McKnight, addresses the problem and isolation caused by current social services systems, and the way they destabilize community.

To continue, as a community, to focus on the needs and deficiencies of the most vulnerable is not an act of hospitality. It substitutes labeling for welcoming. It is isolating in that they become a special category of people, defined by what they cannot do. This isolates the most vulnerable. Despite our care for them, we do not welcome them into our midst, we service them. They become objects. (58-59)

By contrast, what Block identifies as the “transforming community” as the one capable of changing individual lives and the community. Transforming communities “focus on the structure of how we gather and the context in which the gathering takes place, working hard on getting the questions right, and depth over speed and relatedness over scale.” (73) When I was involved in both community organizing and church revitalization, this proved the right strategy and focus for building transforming communities. Block’s next several chapters address the important elements of building transforming communities: leaders are conveners, small groups are the units of transformation, questions are more important than answers, six conversations materialize belonging (each gets its own chapter: invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, gifts), hospitality and welcoming strangers is central, physical and social space support belonging.

Block’s concluding chapter argues that creating these kinds of structures of belonging in transforming communities can eliminate unnecessary suffering, which is often caused by isolation. He especially identifies youth, health care, social services, local economies and public safety as areas that could be dramatically changed and improved by the presence of transforming communities. The book then adds an extensive overview of its contents, and a lengthy lists of organizations and individuals that are role models for this process.

Block’s book is a helpful contribution for those of us doing the work of community building. His analysis felt to me like taking someone who cooks freestyle, and measuring and recording everything they do to concoct a recipe for others. I’m not sure anyone could create community experience simply by following the recipe, nor does any recipe for a complex dish adequately convey every nuance. Yet, it’s helpful, and even insightful for those of us always tossing things together to make sure we’re not leaving anything out. I’m not sure how helpful it would be to someone not already actively, thoughtfully engaged in community building efforts.




Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers) by Eric Elnes, Abingdon Press, 2015, 189 pp.

Dark WoodThis book reached out and called to me. I just knew that there was something here I needed to read–a companion on my journey through a wilderness time in my own spirituality, relationship with God and sense of call. I went from ordering it to completing it in less than two weeks. I did not expect to find answers to my questions about “Where is God and what does all of this mean?” What I sought was reassurance that taking the path through the “Dark Wood,” as Elnes calls it, will eventually set me closer to God, not farther away. I hoped for guidance and companionship on that journey, a shared sense that being lost and in the dark is a gift rather than a liability. The title implied I would find all of those things, and I did. This book was a great sense of encouragement to trust the journey as it unfolds, even though the light is not clear.

Elnes begins with the reassurance that each one of us has a place and a purpose in this world, and Gifts of the Dark Wood is

about finding your place in this world at the very point where you feel furthest from it. It’s about recognizing the fierce beauty and astonishing blessing that exists within experiences that most of us fear but none of us can avoid. Ultimately this book is about seeing life through new eyes, recognizing that experiences of failure, emptiness and uncertainty are as critical for finding our way through life as they are unavoidable. (2)

The book lifts up the power of the Dark Wood as the place where God can find us and claim us.

How nice to know that you don’t have to be a saint to find your place in this world! You don’t even have to be “above average.” All you really need to be is struggling. Incidentally, even the great saints of old experienced significant doubts and struggled with imperfections. They did not become saints by moving from uncertainty to clarity. They moved, rather, from uncertainty to trust, which requires the ongoing presence of uncertainty. Likewise, while many saints experienced small and large victories over the course of their lives, they moved not from failure to success, but from failure to faithfulness, which requires the ongoing possibility of failure. (8)

This feels like just the affirmation I am learning to make right now, just the bit of wisdom I am beginning to understand and claim for my own life.

Elnes enumerates seven gifts found in the Dark Wood journey: uncertainty, emptiness, being thunderstruck, getting lost, temptation, disappearing, and misfits. On first glance, these may sound more like burdens than gifts, but I recognized them immediately as blessed elements of my journey into the unknown. Each gift gets its own chapter, where Elnes explores that gift deeply, using both personal stories and stories from the scriptures to illuminate how that gift presents itself and points us toward God.

One story he shares under “The Gift of Uncertainty” rang especially true for me. It’s a conversation between David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, and David Whyte, a successful non-profit executive about to become poet, who is struggling with exhaustion. Brother David says,

You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest? … The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness… You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after awhile. You need something to which you can give your full powers. (29-30)

I tried to articulate this very thing in my sermon on Sunday. Sometimes, rest is not what we need to overcome exhaustion–it is a deeper, fuller, more consuming engagement in that which gives life meaning.

Another section I appreciated, in a related way, was his chapter on temptation. Elnes sees temptation in the Dark Wood not as the usual suspects of various indulgences, but as the temptation to do the wrong good–the good we are not called to do. Again using David Whyte as an example, he shows how his move from non-profit leader to poet moved him from doing good to doing his good, making his unique contribution to the world. Jesus’ temptation is the model. Satan (whom Elnes calls the Adversary) tempts Jesus not toward self-indulgence, but toward good things. They are simply not the right good things for him. I find myself in this bind of temptation regularly, and one of the lessons I am learning in my journey through the Dark Wood right now is how to let some good things go undone because they are not mine to do.

Having read this book on the heels of The Abundant Community, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels, especially in the chapters on temptation and “The Gift of Misfits.” The Dark Wood is not the consumer path. It shapes us in ways too unique for systems and markets. After a fascinating story from his wife’s work developing a frozen macaroni and cheese product, Elnes says,

Countless are the processes that seek to tame the wild energy inside you, just as they seek to tame the wild energies of the world. While this energy inside you is a direct gift from the Spirit, there are a number of processes governing everything about you, from your vocation to your vacation, that will attempt to shape your life until it is as palatable to the masses as that macaroni and cheese product. … Far better to consume you this way. (155)

The Dark Wood makes us misfits, unable to consume and be consumed by the systems of the world because we are shaped by the gifts of God.

From beginning to end, this book is an affirmation that God will find us. When we get lost, get empty, grow uncertain, those are just the openings God needs to find us and use us. Whether you call it the Dark Wood, the wilderness, “the dark night of the soul,” or “the cloud of unknowing,” this book is an excellent companion for anyone journeying through that difficult terrain. It has blessed me and it will bless you too.

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2010, 173 pp.

Abundant CommunityI have been feeling a great sense of discontent in recent years about the engagement of churches in traditional mission endeavors. My own congregation houses a thriving community meal, which has served 75-100 people every Saturday for more than 20 years. It’s important to those who come for food, and even more important to those in our congregation and many others who find a venue there for Christian service. However, I wonder exactly what we are doing. Are we actually ending hunger in our community, or are we making it easier for the community to allow poverty to persist? Are we enabling forces of poor wages, corporate greed and negligent government to stand unchecked by softening the consequences of their action? Feeding people who are hungry feels like a basic good, something that ought to be clean and true and good. But are we ending hunger, or just perpetuating it? Especially because it makes us feel so good to be a part of it?

This book is the first of a series I am reading to help address this topic. I have a background in congregation-based community organizing, and read Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton last year to begin to address these issues. This book, along with several upcoming, will continue that conversation.

The Abundant Community draws a sharp contrast between consumerism and citizenship, and the kinds of community that are possible within each conception of human life and connection. In the introductory chapter, beautifully titled “Welcome,” McKnight and Block draw the distinction.

Our culture tells us that a satisfying life can only be purchased. It tells us that in the place where we live, we don’t have the resources to create a good life. That we must find the expertise from marketers and professionals. This book reminds us that a neighborhood can raise a child, provide security, sustain our health, secure our income, and care for our vulnerable people. Each of these is within the power of our community. (xiii)

We have replaced the functions of family and neighborhood–caring for children and vulnerable people, providing security and income, sustaining health–with marketable goods, which has diminished the meaning of family and neighborhood while leaving us ultimately dissatisfied by the market’s inability to adequately provide what we seek (and have always found) in community. The first two chapters outline in detail the difference between consumerist attempts to provide those goods and community ones, and the history of how we moved from one to the other in the last century. The market mentality builds impersonal systems, with predictable ways to meet stated needs. However, those systems are predicated on perpetual need, commodified responses and predictable outcomes—none of which are capable of giving us the true intimacy, community and care we desire. The market relies on this ongoing dissatisfaction to ensure our continued engagement as consumers. Systems are designed to produce cures, but the human condition is not a problem to be solved. (38) McKnight and Block point to examples from education, law enforcement, grief care and health care to demonstrate how our consumer model of dealing with these concerns fails repeatedly, when a community approach could succeed.

One interesting observation they make is around privacy, professionalization and its impact on community.

This privacy is the enemy of community because it takes the personal away. It hides and removes our secrets from relationship building among families and neighbors. Secrets are the raw materials for good community. … Making secrets private also deprives the community of the capacity to deal with troubles. … (40)

Instead of dealing with problems together as a community, they argue, we send away everyone with a problem to a professional, which diminishes the community’s capacity to deal with problems.

The capacity has atrophied in the community. You do know what to do about it, but the professionalization of care has made you feel that you don’t. (40)

The third chapter enumerates the true costs of living in a consumer world–to the environment, to our sense of self worth, to relationships in the family and neighborhood, to the possibility of satisfaction. Because we have ceded so many responsibilities to the marketplace, neighborhoods, families and communities have become incompetent to deal with them. We must rebuild capable communities in order to reclaim those responsibilities.

One interesting observation throughout the book is the way that the consumer way strangles personality and individuality. The authors write, “A community is a place where you can be yourself. The institution causes me to lose myself–to be replaceable or to be called a ‘case.'” (55) I wonder at churches in this assessment. One of the best, most beautiful things about some churches is the way quirky people can find a way to serve and love and care for one another in true community. Yet sometimes, we in those quirky churches full of quirky people wish we could be more like the big, institutional, well-resourced churches who didn’t have to mess around with such troublesome uniqueness. Perhaps that instead is our greatest gift. The authors instead suggest that valuing idiosyncracy is key to community. The people in communities are not replicable–it’s Dr. Jack, the church usher that always carries Lifesavers in his pocket for the kids; it’s Horace’s unique artistry that graces the sanctuary; it’s Norma’s special brand of prayer and friendship. These things are unique and cannot persist beyond their lifetime, and that’s what makes the community.

The second half of the book points toward strategies for reclaiming community over consumerism and rebuilding competent communities. McKnight and Block name the abundance already present in communities–the collection of gifts, skills and competencies shared by any group of people. We must organize to help people share their unique gifts, rather than depend on impersonal systems.

A community based on scarcity, dependent on systems, with citizens competing and living in isolation from one another, threatens democracy. That is why consumerism threatens democracy. Because it is organized around scarcity and dependency by design. (110)

The way out of incompetent communities and consumerism is to claim our abundance, celebrate unique gifts, and decide to be satisfied with what we have.

There is much wisdom for pastors and churches in this book, and much to consider on my original question about church mission projects. Does our community meal foster community? Does it identify gifts and abundance? How can we do better?


Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life by Glennon Doyle Melton, Scribner, 2013, 300 pp.

Carry On WarriorI have a significant number of friends, drawn from both clergy circles and mom circles, who are huge fans of Glennon Doyle Melton and her Momastery blog, almost like fangirls with their level of devotion and *squee*. Although I’ve been reading Momastery for a long time, I’m not in that camp. I’m not generally one to go fangirl anyway, and Momastery never tempted me. I admire Glennon Doyle Melton and her mission of connecting people together. Her blog regularly makes me draw in a sharp breath in recognition, or moves me to tears, or makes me feel heard and understood, or says something I want to say in a way that is much more clever. To be honest, even though I know Melton sees a much more inclusive vision, it sometimes felt too much like #whitepeopleproblems, a place for suburban, white and wealthy moms absorbed in their own struggles. Her writing annoys me sometimes, so much so that I can’t even make it through a blog post because of ALL THE CAPITAL LETTERS.

So, I didn’t reach for Carry On, Warrior right away. I knew it was important to read it, that I would find some great things inside, but I also felt like it might give me a headache.

I was wrong. Because it’s a book and not a blog, Carry On, Warrior is edited. That means it’s all the best, most wonderful stuff from Momastery, refined and honed into greater beauty. Glennon Doyle Melton is a good writer, and I suspect she had a good editor, because what emerges here is a stronger, clearer and more compelling voice for Melton, but one that remains uniquely hers. It’s still raw, not polished; authentic, not packaged. She’s become a much better writer, and what I found in Carry On, Warrior is a beautiful memoir of faith and hope. It’s only fitting that Melton, whose best appeal is her vulnerability about her own struggles, lives that story again as a writer. This isn’t a mess, it’s a beautiful, humorous collection of essays on life and love that reveals the holy in all our mess.

Melton tells stories from her brutiful life (beautiful + brutal, a term she coined), and invites us to see where God is present in them and in our brutiful lives. She covers her journey through addiction recovery and an eating disorder, the ups and downs of marriage and parenting, and finding faith and family. She has a straightforward way of explaining things using everyday metaphors that is deceptively simple. Her observations seem obvious, until you consider them for just a moment and realize their power. It’s a skill like Jesus, taking ordinary stuff and imbuing it with holy meaning. Also like Jesus, at every turn she offers glimpses of beauty and hope. I guess I probably sound like a fangirl now, against my will.

Below are some of my favorite examples, to get a sense of the power of Carry On, Warrior.

I like to compare God’s love to the sunrise. That sun shows up every morning, no matter how bad you’ve been the night before. It shines without judgment. It never withholds. It warms the sinners, the saints, the druggies, the cheerleaders–the saved and the heathens alike. You can hide from the sun, but it won’t take that personally. It’ll never, ever punish you for hiding. You can stay in the dark for years or decades, and when you finally step outside, it’ll be there. It was there the whole time, shining and shining. It’ll still be there, steady and bright as ever, just waiting for you to notice, to come out, to be warmed. … The sunrise was my daily invitation from God to come back to life. (19)

Here, in an open letter to her son, she tackles two of the most divisive questions among Christians today, the interpretation of scripture and what it means to be born again. Suddenly, all those divisions seem to fall away.

Much of the Bible is confusing, but the most important parts aren’t. Sometimes I wonder if folks keep arguing about the confusing parts so they don’t have to get started doing the simple parts. … If a certain scripture turns our judgment outward instead of inward, if it requires us to worry about changing others instead of ourselves, if it doesn’t help us become better lovers of God and life and others, if it distracts us from what we are supposed to be doing down here–finding God in everyone, feeding hungry people, comforting the sick and the sad, giving whatever we have to give, and laying down our lives for our friends–then we assume we don’t understand it yet, and we get back to what we do understand. Chase, what we do understand is that we are reborn.

The first time you’re born, you identify the people in the room as your family. The second time you’re born, you identify the whole world as your family. Christianity is not about joining a particular club; it’s about waking up to the fact that we’re all in the same club. (141)

She comes head-on at one of my favorite topics, the importance of church in Christian life.

Any faith worth a damn is a faith worked out over a lifetime of relationships with other people. Church is just a commitment to try to live a life of a certain quality–a life of love, of humility, of service–alongside others for whom you care and allow to care for you, even when that’s difficult. It’s a group of regular old humans trying to love each other and the world in superhuman ways. And so it’s a hard way of life, but to me, it’s the only way of life that makes any sense. When people ask me if faith, if church, is comforting to me, I say, “Sort of.” But mostly it’s challenging. (219)

With this book, Glennon Doyle Melton has moved well past the title of “mommy blogger,” and become a writer whose truth-telling cuts through the noise and gives voice to the presence of God in the midst of our everyday lives. I have flags in three pages already, with plans to use quotations for upcoming sermons. This is after already developing an entire sermon on her principles (We Can Do Hard Things) just a few weeks ago. I look forward to reading much more from her in the future.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 477 pp.

AmericanahThis book defies category. It is an epic novel, across continents and decades. It is a political commentary, full of astute observations and cultural critique, especially around issues of race and immigration. It is a good story, beautifully written, compelling and challenging. The quality of the writing and fiction are not diminished by the insertion of straight cultural commentary, nor does the narrative serve to lighten the impact of the author’s searing observations. It is masterful, and an important read both as a novel and cultural critique. All the better: it’s a great story, a love story. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a book that shows us all the power of the novel as a genre, the way an extended perspective and intimate connection with a character can create new forms of empathy, understanding and a window on the human condition.

The two at the center of the story are Ifemelu and Obinze. They seem destined for one another, made perfectly suited to match one another’s wits and habits, and they fall in love while in secondary school in Nigeria. Adichie tells the story of their individual upbringings and their school years against the backdrop of military uprisings in Nigeria. After graduation, Ifemelu departs to study in the United States. Her experience of immigration changes her, and she separates from Obinze, a heartbreak to them both. The novel explores how, and if, their relationship can be recovered. Obinze may have stayed in Nigeria, but he has changed as well. Will their love persist? Can it? Should it? This is no starry-eyed romance. This is a real and deep exploration about what it means to love, to grow with another imperfect human being, and the power of conflicting commitments.

One of the central themes is the question of home and exile. To be an “Americanah” is to be a Nigerian that has spent so much time abroad that they no longer fit well in Nigeria. The novel is set after Ifemelu has spent 15 years in the U.S. before deciding to move back, and she wonders if she will be able to readjust.

One of the key experiences is Ifemelu’s introduction to the American concept of race, and the necessity for her to learn how to navigate the unspoken, subtle and not-so-subtle privilege and discrimination that attend it. She eventually begins to write a blog about it, entitled, “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” The novel contains several complete blog entries, but those are not the only sources of cultural critique. The story itself navigates Ifemelu’s difficult relationships with American men, both black and white, as she learns the social cues and racial dynamics. The novel is peppered with these observations, and they are powerful.

For example, after her blog becomes popular, Ifemelu is hired to lead diversity training workshops. After one workshop in which she is honest about the reality of racism and its unshakable hold, she receives an angry e-mail and observes:

The point of diversity workshops, or multicultural talks, was not to inspire any real change but to leave people feeling good about themselves. They did not want the content of her ideas; they merely wanted to gesture of her presence. … During her talks, she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” In her blog she wrote: “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”

The italics are original, but I love that line.

There is a self-referential playfulness in the novel’s conversations about race. For example, Ifemelu is engaged in a conversation with a group of academics from Princeton, and the conversation goes like this:

“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t eve know it’s about race.” …

“Or just find a white writer. White writers can be blunt about race and get all activist because their anger isn’t threatening.” (337)

Of course, Americanah is just that kind of work of literary fiction. I hope people pay attention.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, William Morrow of HarperCollins, 2013, 278 pp.

Orphan TrainAfter pushing through the last seven books on Jesus, orthodoxy and theology for work, I was in desperate need of a good novel. I discovered I was more desperate than I realized–or at least this novel was better than I anticipated. I sat down to read it at 9:00 p.m. on a Monday night, and never closed it until it was finished.

Orphan Train is the fictionalized account of a young girl, Molly, at the end of her journey through the foster care system after having lost her parents, and Vivian Daly, an orphan with an heartbreaking tale of her own. Vivian Daly was a child of the “orphan trains,” which ran from major East Coast cities into the Midwest, sending children out to be adopted by families across the country. The novel unfolds the story of Vivian’s extraordinary journey, which began in Ireland, continued through Ellis Island into a New York tenement, collapsed with the loss of her family in a fire, and then sent her on a train to unknown places in the Midwest. Even once she reached her destination, she still moved through several homes. Vivian’s childhood was brutal and unkind, as she was treated more as hired help than as anyone’s child, but her story is one of hope and triumph.

Parallel to Vivian’s story, the author gives us the redemption of Molly Ayer, whose own betrayal by the foster system has brought her close to juvenile hall. Befriending Vivian Daly is part of her community service, but they discover a connection to the harsh reality of growing up with no one who loves you or calls you “family.” Together, they trace their stories, find kinship, and help one another move into a surprising and beautiful future.

I read this too fast to set aside beautiful passages, but it’s the story that makes this most compelling. The characters are engaging and the history and plot are absolutely fascinating. It’s a joy to read.

Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath, HarperOne, 2009, 282 pp.

This follows a series of five book reviews on the Christian creeds, which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

HeresyAlongside reading five books and preparing six sermons on the Christian creeds, I had to read up on the controversies that sparked many of the creedal formulations—the debates among early followers of Jesus trying to sort out the basic beliefs required to remain within the Christian fold, tracking the groups labeled “orthodox” against the groups labeled “heretics.” It was one of the most interesting and helpful things I read.

McGrath begins with a sense of eye-rolling impatience with the current fascination with heresy. He blames scholar Walter Bauer for the idea that heresy is nothing more than “suppressed orthodoxy,” the evidence of historical losers who may offer more radical or inclusive ideas. He eschews the contemporary claim that “heresy is radical and innovative, whereas orthodoxy is pedestrian and reactionary.” (2) Instead, he offers his own definition:

Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of Christian faith. … Heresy represents certain ways of formulating the core themes of the Christian faith—ways that are sooner or later recognized by the church to be dangerously inadequate or even destructive. (10-11)

Having been influenced by Bauer’s ideas about heresy and subject to the intrigue McGrath criticizes, I found his position compelling. Orthodoxy, he argues, is not about exercising power over one’s detractors—it is about protecting Christianity from easy answers and demystification. He uses the metaphor of dead ends. Heresies are theologies that do not lead anywhere, that result in pat conclusions and a God that can too easily be known and understood. This angle made a progressive, mystic Christian like me sit up and take notice.

[One point, out of order: McGrath makes it clear, especially toward the end of the book, that his definition applies only to theological sects during the patristic period. Once Christianity reached the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church turned to heresy as a tool to punish any individual or group that sought to subvert its power. These groups were not necessarily heretics by McGrath’s definition, and should not be seen as problematic because of their views of the Christian faith. McGrath’s understanding of heresy requires that it is a threat to the whole of the Christian faith–not to individuals or institutions. (208)]

McGrath’s opening chapter on “Faith, Creeds and the Christian Gospel” was one of the most helpful things I read in preaching about the historic creeds of the church. He frames the creeds after William James, as the church’s “working hypotheses” about how to see and comprehend the world. (17) They represent the “consensus of the faithful, rather than the private beliefs of individuals.” (28)

An intellectual scaffolding needed to be developed to preserve the mystery, to safeguard what the church had discovered to be true–a process that entails both discernment and construction. (28)

Doctrine, then, preserves the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life. … But what happens if a particular doctrine turns out not to protect such mystery but in fact undermines it? What if the theoretical framework intended to shield and shelter a central insight of faith is found to erode or distort it? These questions point us to the essence of heresy. A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. (30-31, italics original)

I found this insight into heresy made orthodoxy far more compelling that it had been since I stepped away from conservative, evangelical faith. When the creeds are guardians of mystery, their goal is not to explain and codify, but make sure that each new generation is provoked into questions and engagement. Heresy is not unbelief, but unbelief can be the outcome of heresy because it undoes the need to believe in the mystery. (33) Heresy is also not an attack from outside. It emerges from within the church itself. (83)

McGrath continues this line of thinking in his chapter on “The Early Development of Heresy,” where he argues that innovation is required for orthodoxy. It is heresy that wishes to limit or calcify Christian doctrine. He traces this theological claim back to Athanasius in the third century, and follows its progress through a series of orthodox theologians who all emphasize the need for Christianity to evolve.

Yesterday’s attempts to conceptualize the essence of faith need improvement, the need perhaps arising through their being too closely tied to the prevailing assumptions of the day, or perhaps through their focusing excessively on one aspect of a complex question. Doctrinal development is the inevitable and proper outcome of the theological watchfulness demanded by the church. There is thus a sense in which Christian orthodoxy is something that is made as succeeding generations inherit ways of speaking about God and Christ that they rightly respect yet equally rightly wish to subject to examination. … This is most emphatically not being disrespectful toward the past; rather, it is about maintaining the dialogue that began in the past, continues today, and will not end until the close of history. (70)

This accords easily with our United Church of Christ Constitution, which “claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and …affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own.” However, I did not expect this to be defined as the practice of orthodoxy for all Christians. It raises serious questions for contemporary fundamentalist traditions that demand an unchanging, unquestioning faith.

The remainder of the book offers a deeper look into several prominent heresies, including Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism, Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. Other heresies, such as Montanism and Marcionism, make brief appearances from time to time. McGrath does not offer an exhaustive catalog of heretical thought, but takes representative examples.

One chapter explores what motivates heresy, then and now, which McGrath places into a typology of “pressures” that pull against orthodoxy:

Cultural norms: A perception that Christianity is significantly out of touch with contemporary cultural values…

Rational norms: The belief that certain Christian ideas are contrary to “right reason”…

Social identity: A means of religious self-identification of marginalized social groupings

Religious accommodation: Pressure to modify certain aspects of the Christian faith in order to facilitate coexistence

Ethical concerns: The perception that religious orthodoxy is excessively morally permissive or anarchic on the one hand, or restrictive or oppressive on the other. (180)

One of the most interesting things I had not previously recognized was the extent to which heresies are more, rather than less, morally demanding and restrictive than orthodoxy. The Donatists are a chief example, but I am also reminded of movements such as the Shakers.

The concluding chapters address the rise of Protestantism and Islam, and how both movements relate to both orthodoxy and heresy. McGrath then ends with a final plea for the beauty of orthodoxy:

The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity. The relentless attempt to find the best formulations of Christian truth claims reflects the insight that Christianity is capable of stating and understanding its ideas inadequately and inauthentically. … Defective and damaging forms of the Christian faith–in other words, heresies–will limit its survival prospects. The quest for orthodoxy is above all a search for authenticity. (232)

I found McGrath’s defense of orthodoxy very compelling, because it offers a breathable, evolving faith that preserves mysteries rather than forcing them closed. It offered me a much different approach to the historic creeds of the church that unlocked them in new and compelling ways, and engaged my often-skeptical faith in a richer conversation with orthodox ideas.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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