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Church in the Inventive Age, by Doug Pagitt, Sparkhouse Press, 2010, 114 pp.

A few months ago, I wrote that Doug Pagitt’s book A Christianity Worth Believing was the book I had been looking for to help people facing a spiritual crisis over theological issues. Church in the Inventive Age is the book to recommend for people facing a church crisis over a changing culture.

Pagitt outlines the rapid cultural and technological shifts that have happened over the last 200 years. He marks four eras. For most of human history, we lived in the Agrarian Age, where we lived precariously dependent on the land in tight-knit communities and rarely traveled. The church in the Agrarian Age worked on the parish model, where people bonded together for survival. Early in the 19th century, the Industrial Age began, with migration and immigration to cities, lives and communities built around factories, and the drive to mass production and efficiency. The church in the Industrial Age mirrored factory life, with standardization and development of particular brands based on ethnicity (the German church, the Italian church) or denomination (Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational). Post-war 20th century America saw the dawn of the Information Age, when knowledge and expertise became the currency of the day. Just as suburban neighborhoods centered on schools, churches became education-centered institutions as well, building educational wings and emphasizing an increase in knowledge and expertise in the faith. (I wish I had read this before my four-part series on Adult Christian Education, because it would have added a great additional perspective.)

Pagitt argues we are now living in the Inventive Age, “one in which inclusion, participation, collaboration and beauty are essential values.” (30)  People are yearning for meaning, for spiritual experiences, for community. Pagitt spends the rest of the book outlining the contours of this new era, and how the church might change and respond. What might churches be like in the Inventive Age? He offers multiple approaches, for churches that can be for the Inventive Age (churches that are both traditional and vital who want to welcome the new), with the Inventive Age (a “church-within-a-church” that speaks to the Inventive Age) and as the Inventive Age (creating completely new ways of being/doing church).

A Look Inside

Pagitt announces in bold print in the opening chapter, “I’m going to throw out big ideas and move fast.” (2) That’s exactly what he does—and it’s what makes the book so handy. This book is a perfect starting place for anyone interested in exploring new ideas of church for the changing culture. The design of the book itself invites a fast-paced read, with multiple pull quotes, bold headlines and logos to guide you along the basic points. It would make an excellent book for discussion with a church leadership board, visioning team, adult class or clergy group. I have read many books on similar topics, but they are usually loaded with statistics, historical analysis or a tone of desperation. Pagitt not only portrays the Inventive Age and the church’s role in it in ways that are simple and easy to grasp, he does it with a glee and gusto that are contagious. It leaves me excited to launch into this new era, whether my church is “for,” “with,” or “as” the Inventive Age.

Spend two hours with this book, and you’ll not only be able to explain the Inventive Age, you will get excited about becoming the church in it.

A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-filled, Open-armed, Alive-and-Well Faith for the Left-out, Left-behind and Let Down in Us All, by Doug Pagitt, Jossey-Bass, 2008, 242 pp.

I think I have finally found what I’ve been looking for. Not the faith that Pagitt describes—I found my way to a Christianity worth believing a long time ago, and have been living it for close to 20 years. But I finally found a book that describes it in a concise, approachable, passionate, inviting way.

I had my spiritual crisis with Bible, God and church when I started college. The things I had always believed about the inerrancy of the Bible, the demands of God for Jesus’ blood sacrifice, strictures of gender and sexuality (including the gender of God) no longer made any sense. After years of struggle, I found a faith rooted in the earthly, embodied Jesus who calls us to build the real life kingdom of God by using our bodies in earthly work of peace, justice and service, welcoming all.

In my ministry, I frequently talk with people facing a similar spiritual crisis to my own—they are questioning long-held beliefs about atonement, salvation, scripture, Christology and more. For years, I have been searching for a book to share with them to help them see that there is another way, that to reject much of that theology is not to reject Christianity or a life lived with the God of Jesus Christ. I have bought and read all kinds of books in this arena—John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Peter Gomes, Diana Butler Bass. While many of them are great books, none quite fit. They were either too intellectual, too theological, too angry, to directed at church professionals or not enough about the personal life of faith.

A Christianity Worth Believing has finally given me the book I’ve been looking for. Pagitt intertwines his personal story in and out of faith with theological questions and concerns. That transforms the book from being a theological treatise trying to make an intellectual argument into a spiritual journey that connects with anyone who has ever questioned their beliefs while still trying to hold on to faith and Christian community.

Pagitt addresses almost all the same theological concerns as the other authors (with the exception of a section on gender and sexuality). Instead of emphasizing history and biblical scholarship, he talks about how he experiences God as loving and living, and how he tries to practice loving and living with God. It changes the entire tone from one of intellectual speculation about faith to an account of a real, living relationship with God and with other people trying to follow God. Pagitt does offer some history and scholarship, mostly around the influence of Greek culture on the Jewish Jesus. I thought the way he traced the most troubling issues back to the Greco-Roman dualistic world view a little bit too simple to account for everything, but it was accurate and insightful. I wouldn’t have liked the book nearly so much if he had tried to make an exhaustive Christian intellectual history. He gives a brief explanation about the roots of a particular belief to show us it is culturally bound and we can let it go.  Then he tackles the far more important task of explaining the good news of Jesus in a way we can understand.

God on one side, humanity on the other, separated by sin and death. Christ is the bridge--add another line to make it a cross and the drawing is complete.

One of my favorite sections in the book was the chapter called, “Down and In.” After describing the classic drawing about the gap between God and humanity, and the accompanying theology that the sin and death that can be overcome only by Christ’s sacrifice, he labels that image of God as “up and out.” The “up and out” God is perfect and removed, and unable to love us fully because of our imperfection. Pagitt replaces that theology with a God that is “down and in,” a God who is engaged in the world and loves us even in our sinful condition. He describes people who give up their faith in response to a life crisis because they have only known an “up and out” God: “They haven’t been given a picture of God as one who cares, who listens, sustains, cradles, cries and is right there with them all the time.” (p. 110)

Pagitt’s book connects us with the “down and in” God because his writing itself is down and in. It does not remove theology from context, but places the questions about belief squarely in the center of an earthly life seeking to be lived with God. He confesses to the struggles and mishaps of his own life, and invites us to join with God in partnering to live and love and work together to build the real-life kingdom of God right here and now.

Pagitt’s book is a great starting place for those facing a crisis of faith with the “up and out” God, or any of the traditional “fundamentals” of Christianity. Rather than just presenting an alternative theology and assuring us that there are other Christians who believe this way or think this way, Pagitt shows us that there are other Christians who actually live this new faith with passion and love for God. When you read it, you can’t help but want to be part of that exciting Christianity worth believing in. I think I’ve finally found the book I’ve been looking for. I can’t wait to start sharing it.

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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