A Sociology of Mystic Practices

Use and Adaptation in the Emergent Church

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Dann Wigner
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , June
     2018.
     298 pages.
     $36.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532636875.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Emergent Church (EC) is similar to most other churches, but when Dann Wigner—upon discovering some local churches were appropriating mystic practices—interests piqued, he began a journey. With over a decade of research, Wigner developed the contacts and understanding that made it possible for him to not only research the EC from a textual perspective, but also allowed him to visit a number of churches to document, in their own words, the experiences of the church leaders and practitioners. Wigner’s goal in writing A Sociology of Mystic Practices: Use and Adaptation in the Emergent Church is to examine the practice of spiritual borrowing in the EC during the course of its (still ongoing) rapid evolution. The greatest strength of Wigner’s analysis lies in the thickly textured descriptions of how the borrowed practices are performed and understood in the EC’s theological context.

The EC is “appropriating Christian mystical practices by investing these practices with their own theological content” (20), suggesting that this localized and fluid movement actively seeks to create an evangelical style church of their own. The author refers to the EC as utilizing a collective leaning towards experimentation with mystic practice. This, in turn, attends practitioners to contribute, and leads to the development of theology of community. Expanding further, the EC values community, rather than dogmatism, as a primary theology in any and all aspects of practice, worship, and structure.

When it came to describing what the EC was, Wigner writes of the church as being a transcendental movement, a social movement, a theological school, and, overall, profoundly fluid, coming to this conclusion when the EC proved unusually difficult to define—due, in part, to his own mislabeling and presuppositions extant in literature about the EC when he began his research. In order to correct for mislabeling, Wigner makes an important distinction in his analysis of the connection of the borrowed mystic practices to theological practices by labeling the connected theological anchors based on the connections that leaders and practitioners claim. 

In the author’s own words: “the process of appropriation and reinterpretation displays that a change in interpretive framework leads to a change in the practice itself” (253). Some of the practices within this book are familiar (for example communion, silence, or meditation), yet, as Wigner suggests, the theological framework for what these practices do has a markedly differentiating characteristic. This is often shown through the quotes from research participants where Wigner discusses the ethnographic results: “[t]he ‘whether you believe a little, a lot, or not’ used to be ‘whether you believe a little or a lot’ … we had members of the church who talked about being agnostic or atheist, and we were also reading Take This Bread at that time, which was just about being this radically welcoming community. And, we decided that if we wanted to be radically welcoming, then that meant everybody” (134).

One of the things that struck this reviewer was how well organized this book was, considering the breadth of information and analysis that it contains. On the other hand, A Sociology of Mystic Practices can be used as a one-stop-shop for understanding the mystic practices of the Emergent Church: creating dense academic material. Wigner’s work stands as an illustration of how the EC is currently expressing itself, in its practitioner’s own words, and side-by-side with his analysis. Where he discusses the significant changes in patterns associated with practices, such as communion, Wigner also utilizes grounded theory to discuss the change in understanding of the practice—sometimes even having research participants discuss the direct cause of the fundamental change.

Wigner’s study provides the groundwork for revealing how and why mystic practices are being appropriated in the EC and, importantly, the intrigue-provoking theology underlining these communal decisions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Tyler Odle is the Program Assistant and Researcher for the Humanities Institute at the University of South Florida.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dann Wigner is Adjunct Professor at Middle Tennessee State University, Wayland Baptist University, and the University of the South. He teaches religious studies classes at the university level and has offered workshops, seminars, and one-on-one direction in Christian contemplation for several years. He also has an extensive background in theological librarianship, and he is currently Instruction and Information Literacy Librarian at the University of the South. This is his first book.

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