Reframing Hope, Part 2

History Matters

Steven P. Miller
Carol Howard Merritt (not Steven P. Miller :)

At the risk of being self-centered, here are a few autobiographical disclaimers: I read this book as a student of recent American evangelical history, not as someone much invested in postmodern missionality.  By way of laying my non-scholarly cards on the table, I am a Mennonite by upbringing and affiliation but readily confess to having the kind of tepid spirituality stereotypically associated with mainline Protestantism.  Since I came to the book with very little background knowledge about Carol Howard Merritt, I incorrectly assumed that her remarkable book was an effort to save American evangelicalism from itself.  It is not; but the evangelical moment in recent American history does give Reframing Hope life.  Below are a few thoughts on the book’s relationship to that history.
Merritt positions Reframing Hope as a contribution to the supposedly lukewarm mainline tradition.  However, the recent hegemony of evangelicalism means that “mainline” now sometimes means little more than “non-evangelical.”  Merritt is able to use this contrast to her advantage.  She writes with candid ambivalence of efforts “to create a Christianity that makes sense in a new generation” (5).  The evangelical version of doing so usually comes down to marketing.  The liberal Protestant approach often has more to do with re-mythologizing.  Merritt is aware of the pitfalls of both aspirations for relevance.  At the same time, she is not a primitivist.  She consciously departs from those “who hope to ‘begin at the beginning’” (5).  Reframing Hope offers no paeans to first-century Christianity and little in the way of biblical proof-texting. 

When encountering materials from the broader emergent world, I am struck by how “postmodernism”/“postmodern”/“postmodernity” functions both as a challenge and a solution.  Postmodernity, as Merritt uses it, appears to refer to a crisis of intellectual authority brought on, first, by the philosophical awareness that language and reality are indivisible and, second, by the technological achievement of mass access to knowledge.  Like the Internet itself, postmodernity contains both centripetal and centrifugal forces; but the center clearly has shifted. 

Importantly, Merritt’s use of postmodern is not purely clinical.  Rather, the challenge of postmodernism for Christians is more like an invitation or opportunity.  Postmodernism seems to be the Darwinism or higher criticism of the early twenty-first century.  In good liberal Protestant fashion, Merritt perceives not a threat, but rather “the breath of the Holy Spirit” (11).  At the risk of over-analysis, I detected in the book a comic, somewhat celebratory stance toward postmodernity, an acceptance of messy outcomes because nothing is ever quite so clear.  Hope is the new progress.  Embracing postmodernity helps us to live in a fragmented world.  In Merritt’s reimagining of practical pastoring, “[t]ime on the computer is real ministry” (52). 

Embracing the postmodern is, at heart, a historical move.  The word itself suggests a point of departure.  This is where Merritt’s book is embedded in an evangelical moment.  The sunset of that moment is her point of departure for a fully functional postmodern Christianity.  What Merritt advocates is as much a reaction against the suburban megachurch as it is a solution for the empty downtown church.  The megachurch represents suburbia, a frontier of new construction.  Merritt writes for the church in the post-industrial city, a repurposing of those old sanctuaries that have not already been converted to advertising agencies or craft breweries.  Here is a theology to ring out the evangelical renaissance and ring in an urban one.  The latter is postmodernism as it should be, even if (as Merritt no doubt would concede) few things seem more generically postmodern than Rick Warren at a TED conference. 

In the broad swath of recent American history, Reframing Hope can be seen as a response to a time “when our country was in the passionate throes of evangelicalism” (110).  The assumption is that the evangelical moment has spent itself.  But Merritt’s approach to history is more nuanced than that.  She is one of what I imagine to be millions of non-evangelical Christians in the United States who have vaguely evangelical backgrounds.  To her great credit, Merritt does not excessively milk that background, even though it obviously informs her critique of megachurches. 

Merritt’s fidelity to the mainline tradition shapes her sense of history.  In emergent circles there is sometimes an almost glib celebration of the collapse of American Christendom, because it allows the remnant church to be more prophetic.  Good riddance, Constantine.  Hello, Anabaptism, where have you been all our lives?  In contrast, Merritt recognizes the importance of custodial Protestantism (and not only because, even if she does not put it quite this way, it remains a gateway to institutions, endowments, and urban real estate).  One thing the mainline tradition has going for it these days is its eminently reasonable posture toward the rest of the world.  This posture involves being at peace with the fact that one does not need Christianity or religion in general to arrive at a social vision that features 99% of what most liberal Protestants think the “reign of God” might entail.  The twentieth century’s examples of secular ideological excess made the missing 1% look comparatively good.  However, in the present century, as Merritt concedes, it is hard to fault the late Christopher Hitchens or anyone else for believing that “[r]eligion poisons everything” (7). 

This is where being a “loyal radical” in the mainline tradition can be a Protestant way of saying that history matters.  Merritt’s term captures a number of admirably mixed motivations pretty well.  To be sure, it is a convenient way to avoid being grouped with the less theologically liberal “postevangelical emergents” (37).  But it also is a nod to Christianity’s status as something that extends across modernity, postmodernity, and all other such frames.


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