A few weeks ago on this blog, I wrote about how a disproportionate number of religious books are written by men. In response, I was flooded with suggestions of female religious writers, more than 70 authors in all, to help correct the imbalance on my own bookshelf.
After taking some time to learn about each author, I narrowed down the list down to ten books I plan to read by the end of the year.
Earlier this week, I finished the first book on my list, Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt. My choice of where to start was driven partly by a pragmatic consideration: I’m starting with the books I already have. Carol was generous enough to send me a copy of Reframing Hope. (She also sent copies of her other books, Tribal Church and Fighting for Peace, which look equally intriguing.)
My plan over the coming weeks is to share some of my takeaways from each book. I’m not planning to review each book, per se. I don’t see it as my place to judge which voices are worthy of a hearing. Instead, I want to adopt the posture of a learner. My primary hope is to learn the art of listening to voices I haven’t always been very good at hearing.
Now, on with the show…
The premise of Reframing Hope is to help churches to thrive in a constantly shifting world so they can meaningfully connect with their communities—and, in particular, with new generations. Carol argues for churches doing what they’ve have always had to do: contextualize the “hope within us” for the world in which we find ourselves, not the one that existed 50 years ago.
Some of the things I appreciated most about Carol’s book…
The way she transcends the extremes of stubborn resistance to change on the one hand and, on the other hand, a reactionary tendency to throw everything old out the window.
The way she expertly diagnoses recent trends in three distinct streams: mainline, evangelical, and emergent—and relates them to the larger cultural and technological shifts taking place. She connects the dots in ways I hadn’t considered before.
The wisdom she shares on using technology as a tool for ministry. On the one hand, Carol unpacks some of the dangers of relying too much on faceless digital technology. One danger I hadn’t thought much about until reading Carol’s book is how all this technology, if not carefully used, can reinforce inequality between the economically privileged and the disadvantaged, who have less access to technology. Yet Carol also shows how social media can be a tool for nurturing community, alongside (not in place of) more traditional means.
She practices what she preaches, too. Case in point: Carol and I have never met in person. Our interaction to date has been confined to a few tweets and maybe the occasional blog comment. Yet she saw my post about wanting to expand my reading list so I could start listening to more female voices, and she offered to send me some of her books. That may not sound like much, but look at it this way. She made a meaningful investment in my spiritual formation. It required the gift of her time, a certain amount of money to send me her books, and genuine concern on her part for someone she’s never even met. All made possible by Twitter and her willingness to use her platform for community-building rather than empire-building.
I also appreciated how relatable some aspects of Carol’s journey were. We both grew up in evangelical churches, we both intersected (to varying degrees) with the emergent movement, and we both wound up finding a home in the mainline church. I’m especially grateful to Carol because she gave me new language to help make sense of my own journey. She writes about “loyal radicals” who possess many of the same proclivities as their emergent counterparts, yet find themselves drawn to more “institutional” expressions of the church.
Carol makes a powerful case for the importance of these institutions, too. Some in the emergent stream like to think of denominations as a thing of the past, having long outlived their usefulness. Tony Jones, for example, talks about the “denouement of denominations.” To him, this is not a tragedy but something to celebrate. Elsewhere, he writes, “Few things piss me off as much as the sinful bureaucratic systems of denominational Christianity.”
Emergent Christianity imagines itself breaking the shackles of organized religion in the name of inclusivity and progressive values. Yet the leadership of emergent is almost entirely white and male. And if some of the more explosive charges made recently are true (see the comment thread on David Hayward’s recent post), then the emerging church has a long way to go before it can claim to have put sexism and misogyny behind it.
It was the mainline church—for all its bureaucratic inefficiencies (and oh there are many) that gave Carol a platform for ministry, that affirmed her calling and made room for her and others like her to lead. As she writes:
The organic leadership model, where pastors are raised up through the community without the shackles of a denomination, did not work for me—and I daresay that model probably fails to work for countless other women, as well as some historically disadvantaged minorities…. Although many emergent church leaders point to the denominational church as an unredeemable bureaucratic structure that stifles innovation and is inseparably bound to modernism, I have a different experience. I have found denominational congregations to be less hierarchical because they encourage leadership of women more and have a longevity that allows the community to thrive long after the pastor is gone.
Carol makes a crucial distinction between the empire-building so pervasive in some corners of the church and the community-building she advocates. She offers a prophetic critique of the “bigger-is-always-better” mentality that has shaped much of evangelicalism—and the broader culture—for the past 50 years:
From our produce to our political power to our pulpits, we decided that bigger is better. We opted for less personal contact. We began to lose sight of what is good for our communities and began to focus on the individual. However, the bigger-is-always-better attitude left us empty, anxious, and depressed.
Denominations, for all their faults, offer a means of accountability and stability. It’s harder to build your own empire within the confines of a denomination. There’s a reason why there are fewer “celebrity pastors” in mainline churches. We understand that, as Carol writes, “When a church rises up around a charismatic leader, the congregation tends to dissolve when that leader leaves.” Outside of a denomination, there’s nothing to hold someone like Mark Driscoll accountable to charges of abuse, because he is an empire unto himself. Denominations value continuity, accountability, and inclusion. And as Carol can attest, there is often more follow-through on these commitments within denominational structures than outside them.
“Words create reality.”
Carol’s book is not about helping aging mainliners come to grips with modern technology. (Though for anyone who’s wondering how to bring their church into the digital age, she has lots of great advice to share.)
Reframing Hope envisions something bigger. It calls for a renewal of both the medium and the message. Carol understands the power of narrative for igniting change. And, dang, she can preach. One of my favorite extended passages in the book comes from the chapter on retelling the message:
Scripture reminds us that we have the power to bless and to curse (Gen. 12:3). This may seem like a foreign concept, but any father who hears the words “I love you” from his child knows the power of a blessing. The words create a reality. Parents also often have the power to bless and curse, and indeed we parents are typically the first ones to create our children’s realities. Our answers to their question of “Who do you say that I am?” have a lasting effect on them, for better or worse… We are a storied people. Our lives are formed by the truths and lies we’ve been told throughout the years.
In the same way, as people of the Word, Christians are connected through words to a larger history and tradition. In the story of creation, we recall how God created out of nothing, through the use of words… The Word then became the history of a people. As the story unfolds, we read of the fiery and comforting words of the prophets. Words are eaten. Words blacken the mouth. Words become as sweet as honey. Words are set in stone and carried around in a dramatic covenantal ark. They are lost and they are found.
Then we read how Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, dwelt among us. Over the centuries, as the church formed and continues to form, the Word becomes central to our lives. We say and hear, “This cup is the new covenant,” and we know these words signify a new reality, a new relationship of promise, forgiveness, and reconciliation…
All of these words bind us to a story, a purpose, a community; they form as they inform us.
What we need, Carol writes, is to recover a narrative understanding of the Bible. We need people “who can present the facts [of our story] within a context and with an emotional impact.” We need to recover the art of sharing the good news—that is, sharing our story.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing mainline churches is that we are too easily fixated on what Carol calls a message of deprivation: “Come to our church because we need more people, money, and energy (which doesn’t sound like good news at all).”
If churches can develop and communicate a narrative that invites people to enter—if they are places where a person can slip into the pew for an hour of internal wrestling, where she can mentally question everything that happens, and at the end of it, she knows that such questioning is okay—then people will attend again… It’s an extensive, tough, and beautiful process. And it is one of the great things about being the church.
That’s one of the most important things that I took from Carol’s book. She reminded me of some of the genuinely good things that are still true about the church, while prophetically inviting us into a new era of ministry.
Next up: the other book already on my shelf, The Gospel of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James