Christian Faith in Our Time

Rethinking the Church's Theology

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Paul Jersild
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , December
     2016.
     152 pages.
     $16.80.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498295864.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Ministerial literature is awash with books of varying genres analyzing, prescribing, and decrying the decline of the traditional church. The diminishing purview of Christendom is now such an established reality that it cannot even muster the interest, or ire, of a modern-day Martin Luther to nail a new ninety-five cauterizing, therapeutic theses to its metaphorical doors. The church in North America is not seen as corrupt, but rather as impotent—a curious artifact of the boomer generation, where ministry is not unfairly characterized as theological hospice care.

The common assumption is that the church’s message is no longer relevant to the masses of “nones” and “dones” and other twenty- and thirty-somethings. Or rather, that the church has failed to speak the language of these generations, which accounts for their general lack of representation in traditional churches, or any recognizably Christian community for that matter. The response has been to change the idiom in which the church speaks. The church has attempted to avoid critical analysis of its foundational conceptions of faith, foregoing development in favor of the easier and cheaper work of translating a worn-thin ideology into the hipster grammar and aesthetic of emerging generations. Paul Jersild’s recent book, Christian Faith in Our Time: Rethinking the Church’s Theology offers a better, though more difficult, avenue for overhauling the church’s language.

Anyone who has participated in traditional church life in recent years can witness to the fact that the theology commonly expressed by the people and frequently the ministry staff is only a shadow of the rich and prolific world of Christian theology today. Even among the more notoriously progressive or liberal denominations, the predominant grammar of faith among a typical local congregation reflects trends and nuances of the Christian theology of 1917 rather than 2017. The problem, Jersild suggests, is not that the church fails to use cool slang or brew organic fair-trade coffee during the coffee hour, but that the church struggles to keep up with the intellectual concerns and dogmas of the modern world, much less the postmodern world. In that respect Christian Faith in Our Time finds its place among other notable attempts—such as Peter Rollins’ How Not to Speak of God (Paraclete Press, 2006) and Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (Riverhead Books, 1999)—to not just update the translation of a captured, timeless gospel into modern vernacular, but to do the painful work of challenging traditional notions and conceptualizations of faith by listening to and learning from the most compelling and influential intellectual developments of the last century.

The central conviction of Jersild’s book is that “a vital need of the church in every generation is a laity that is theologically literate, and particularly in this postmodern age that need is magnified” (x). So Jersild makes it his mission to “address the impact of our postmodern consciousness on the way we have traditionally understood some primary Christian teachings, and to lift up alternative ways of understanding those teachings” (xii). The first four chapters do the conceptual leg work of Jersild’s project, establishing his contextual analysis of the church in the (post)modern world, the major thematic concepts of postmodernism, and working out his notion of a “modest theology” characterized primarily by an overarching epistemic humility grounded in the critical and postcritical milieu of postmodern philosophy and theology. The next four chapters work out with more attention and detail this imaginative “modest theology” in terms of our language of and about God. Jersild takes up in these chapters the task of making plain sense of major theological debates in both liberal theology and postmodern theology over the last century. The final two chapters speculate, with particular attention to emergent/emerging church movements, about the promise, need, and desire even among Christian laypeople of all generations for a reinvigorating theological update (chapter 9) and particular theological challenges that churches will need to address (chapter 10).

The strength of Jersild’s book is the fluidity and discernment in which he reframes Christian faith in light of the compelling challenges and developments of our postmodern age. Particularly noteworthy in the first grouping of four chapters is Jersild’s deft summary of postmodern themes and his preliminary speculation on the broad strokes of the way these themes might change the language of Christian faith (chapters 2 and 3). The major methodological shift, for Jersild, is a linguistic shift from the language of sure, established, and universal “reason” to playful, metaphorical “imagination.” This methodological shift is reflected in his treatment of theology proper in the next four chapters. What emerges in this book is not the adolescent rebellious angst that is so common amongst theological postmodern commentators, but rather a tempered and reflective transfiguration of the church’s traditional gospel into a language that still witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The book’s weaknesses are minor. Some readers might find his partitioning of history into modern and postmodern ages passé. Others might come to different conclusions on certain points especially in chapters 4 through 8 as Jersild engages in all-too-brief, and therefore sometimes shallow, expositions on a wide number of issues in theology proper. The final two chapters are something of a curiosity insofar as their scope seems broad, but their focus is narrow and incomplete. The “new directions in the life of the church” is reduced to the direction of Emergent/Emerging Christianity, and the “challenges to church and faith” addressed in the final chapter come down to a few issues which, however important in their own right, do not adequately address the gamut of challenges that a new, postmodern language could or should address. Notable among the challenges left unaddressed are vital social issues such as race, sexuality, or socio-economic disparity. Hardly a word is spoken on these issues. The book simply doesn’t do everything one would like it to do. At only 152 pages, one wishes Jersild had written a longer book, or will write one in the future.

The central conviction and promise of this book remains vital for anyone concerned with what faithful Christian community will look like in the years to come. Jersild writes theology to and for laypersons in the church. Too often what we think of theology suitable for the average church member is watered-down, self-defeating dribble that treats laity like intellectual toddlers. Jersild’s book is unapologetically intellectual. While he avoids excessive technical language or footnotes, he makes good on his aim to “rethink the church’s theology” by both constructive theological engagement with postmodern issues, and challenging the average Christian to update the grammar of their faith to something mature and credible.

This book will be of interest to theologians and ministers as they seek to cross the divide between the academy and the church. More importantly, it will be of interest to Christians and the postmodern heirs of the Christian faith disaffected by the church’s failure to come to terms with the challenges of the postmodern age, or simply the church’s failure to engage in imaginative and compelling intellectual exposition. Chief among the factors for renewal in the church is a new language that is ideologically relevant and intellectually credible. Christian Faith in Our Time is an important step in that direction.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brandon Pierce is an independent scholar and the senior minister at the Stamford Church of Christ in Stamford, Connecticut.

Date of Review: 
November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Jersild is Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. Among his published works are Spirit Ethics: Scripture and the Moral Life (2000) and The Nature of Our Humanity (2010).

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