Evangelism After Christendom (Part 3)

We left Stone as he was questioning the assumptions that underpin much of the modern shifts in Christian evangelism – namely that success can be judged on whether or not the result attracts more people. Rather, Stone’s premise declared that only with the proper telos can evangelism truly be said to be successful. In other words, Christian evangelism isn’t primarily about attracting people to Christ – rather it’s about living lives that are a virtuous witness to God’s reign of peace, and any attraction people have to that is simply a by product.

Stone ends Part 1 with the following statement:

My conviction is that plurality, historicity, and difference, while naturally producing feelings of insecurity, are nonetheless central to the task of telling the story of the people of God.  For that story is itself the story of an encounter with difference (including God’s difference!) and a record of how that encounter makes a people distinctive in the world.  The store of the people of God is the story of a people who encounter other stories in a variety of ways, sometimes in the form of a gift and an offer while at other times in the form of a confrontation and a scandal. We need not be paralyzed in making decisions about our own story or frightened about allowing it to interact with other stories, provided we do so with appropriate discipline, suspicion, self-criticism, and humility. After all, our story is not entirely rosy. It is a story of detours and dead ends, reversals and failure. It is a record of faithlessness, stubbornness, and rebellion as much as it is a story of obedience and hope. We need the whole of the Bible, because as a whole it does not shrink from narrating both sides of the story.

Stone’s basic conviction is that “conversion” has much less to do with accepting a few core propositions (e.g. God exists, Jesus is the Son of God, etc.) as much as it is a complete change of worlds – participation in a new reign, a new story, a new reality. Just as the Bible is presented not as a list of facts or a historical document, but as a story, Stone’s view is that the bottom line to Christian practice and living is fundamentally participation in that story. As he quotes MacIntyre, “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself apart?'”

As a result, Stone spends Part 2 looking at Israel, Jesus, and the early church to provide a foundation for the overarching story of God, which will in turn provide a foundation for his later movements in our participation in the continuing story of God.

Stone begins by looking at the people of Israel. He starts with, what for many Christians is a point commonly overlooked – that the Bible is an entirely Jewish production. As he points out, most Christians, when asked what the most discussed topic in the Bible is, are unlikely to answer “Israel”. Rather, “we have been trained to think of the Bible as handing over information about important beliefs (sin, death, salvation, faith, God, etc.).” As Stone points out, there are interesting peculiarities about Israel’s formation. The story of the Old Testament is not a story about a god or gods as much as it is a story of a particular people, chosen and set apart as a community with a completely different identity and purpose, “chosen, called, liberated and led by God”. Israel’s identity, whether Abraham’s trust in God or Moses’s attack on contemporary social, political, and economic standards, performs as a contrast story to the prevailing norms of the day.

The idea of God’s free choice, of election, is powerful in the consciousness of Israel. Stone writes that our tendency is to universalize this and try to make Israel stand as a symbol for all God’s people past and future, but that the Bible doesn’t really lend itself to this interpretation. There is, however, an ambiguity in the meaning of election – that Israel is both chosen by and chosen for. Because of this, Israel has a “double relationship” of sorts, with God and the nations. The prophets call the people of Israel to remembrance both with terms of intimacy with God (beloved, firstborn) and warning as idolatry crept in (adulterer, prostitute). Stone:

Remembering turns out to be one of the central and defining activities of the people of Israel. It is the basis for both their cultic and their moral life. It funds prophetic reform and liberative praxis and is never to be simply equated with a “conservative” as over against a “progressive” outlook. Remembering likewise gives this people’s existence its narrative quality – God’s dealings with them in the past are decisive for making sense out of the present and guiding them into the future.

But where does this call to remembrance lead, exactly? Stone again:

As Micah’s vision makes clear, the “ways” of God embodied in this particular people (for the nations) are ways of justice and peace, the very substance of what Israel will come to understand as holiness.  The prophets critique any understanding of holiness that is purely formal, ceremonial, and positional, and that does not include the transformation of human hearts (Jer. 31:27-34) along with social and economic arrangements. … God’s purpose in history is not just the creation of holy individuals but the creation of a holy people, a people whose very existence in the world is a living testimony to the rule of God. Holiness, therefore, is unreservedly social, political, and economic.

Stone terms this way of living, God’s character and God’s ways “shalom”. But there is something surprising about the prophet’s vision:

What we learn from the Hebrew prophets, therefore, is that to live  toward and out of shalom, as the beginning and the end of the story of the people of God, is to be eminently realistic. It is not shalom but the present order that lacks legitimacy.  It is not hope but complacency that has no firm basis in reality. … [M]uch of God’s rule of shalom may still be coming, but it is no less “real”.

Because of this hope and this realistic confidence in God’s presence and activity in history, the people of God are released from the burden of needing to control history, “to make things come out right”. To be the people of God is not a matter of presuming that our plans coincide with God’s; it is a matter of trusting, being open, and being guided and led into an uncontrollable future.

You don’t have to know much about modern fundamental or mainline evangelical Christianity to realize this vision is a sharp contrast to that presented in most churches today. While it may be popular to talk about a “Christian worldview”, often that worldview looks suspiciously similar to the capitalist, democratic worldviews that also came out of enlightenment liberalism. He will critique this in detail later, but even from this point, Stone levels a rather scathing (and unfortunately all too accurate) criticism at modern Christianity: namely that serves more as a perpetrator of the status quo than an alternative community founded on the principles of God.  From the time of Constantine on, he argues, the church has been so “in bed” as it were with the “powers and principalities” of the world that it has no hope of offering a substantive critique of their practices. When churches are structured like corporations, when their leaders are elected by democratic ballot, and when their economic structures treat individuals as spiritual consumers (and we must pause here to reflect a moment and acknowledge these things to be true), it has effectively adopted the idolatrous practices of its surrounding culture, rather than remaining true – remembering – its true calling.

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