Signs of Emergence - Kester Brewin, B- (Book Review) ~ BitterSweetLife

Monday, September 24, 2007

Signs of Emergence - Kester Brewin, B- (Book Review)

Review: Grassroots Change & Semantic Haze

Kester Brewin is a theological instigator, well-read, and an original thinker. He belongs to that persuasion of writer who thinks it best to put as many buzzwords as possible on his book cover (Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Always Organic/ Networked/Decentralized/ Bottom-Up /Communal /Flexible /Always Evolving)—and, to be fair, Signs of Emergence leaves the reader with multiple new perspectives to test and consider. However, Brewin’s penchant for writing ambiguously provocative prose—while concealing his own position—creates some troubling holes in his writing.

In his introduction, Brewin states that Signs is “a book about change…for an organism to show signs of life, it must show it can respond to its environment, and for the church to retain a vibrancy about its faith, it must ‘adapt and survive’” (11).

Brewin argues that in a systemic way, the church should live “on the edge of chaos.”

He suggests that the 21st century church will remain viable not by “an upsurge in personal holiness” but by “a radical transformation of our corporate practice” (23). Kester argues that such ecclesiological evolution will be a grassroots movement. His fundamental goal, then, is to provoke such organic change by taking on the role of a “trickster” to challenge the church as an institution and goad it toward progress: “We should not fear this trickster work…its apparent contamination of our faith may actually hold its renewal and reformation within it” (13).

To the extent that Brewin seeks to question existing models of church while catalyzing unspecified action, he accomplishes his goal. However, the book suffers from confusingly broad brush strokes. Whether this is intentional or a symptom of Brewin’s trickery, the result is semantic ambiguity to the point of doctrinal and ecclesiological haziness. For better or worse, Signs shares a more than token similarity to the writing of Brian McLaren. (See my flash review of A Generous Orthodoxy).

Often, this provocative ambiguity makes Brewin’s perspective interesting. A strong theme is the assertion that God’s work is subversive and often mysterious to us, and therefore we need to be humble and give the latest incarnation of church room to grow among us—whatever it may look like, however it may evolve. Brewin argues that in a systemic way, the church should live “on the edge of chaos,” constantly changing to mirror emerging cultures and new opportunities. He also describes the mingled grandeur and tragedy of urbanity to great effect, calling Christians to embrace cities as their homes, finding glimpses of God amid graffiti and vandalism, and bringing hope and healing to the exploited. Come take the risky urban ride, he says in effect. In light of the kingdom, whatever happens, it will be worth it.

However, Brewin’s role of shotgun provocateur raises troubling questions about exactly what he is blasting away at. Sometimes, he seems to lapse into Process Theology: “God’s attitude toward the city…clearly must have evolved, for between Genesis and Revelation, God somehow becomes city-positive" (126). He presents God as a Great Experimenter, learning and changing along with his creation. Confusingly, he also presents Jesus as a pacifist, citing his “refusal to fight the system”—despite the fact that Christ did, in fact, challenge the entire world system on the cross and will return as a warrior to inaugurate his eternal reign. Should Brewin’s statements be understood as hyperbole or heresy? The gloss of his writing makes it hard to say.

Quantitatively, Brewin cites more poets, psychologists, and sociologists than scripture (Darwin’s presence permeates the book), and his prescriptions for the church, when he does offer them, seem potentially narcissistic. On the topic of worship, he suggests that unless people worship God in ways that reflect their individual talents and gifts (painting, sculpture, multimedia, labyrinth-building) it might not be worship at all. Should we understand this as an exhortation to incorporate art in our churches and welcome artists to worship with their work?—or is Brewin saying that preaching, prayer and song are not suitable worship elements for everyone? As the church evolves, should we dismiss the New Testament elements of church? Again, it’s hard to say.

Ultimately, Brewin’s work falls into a category similar to the writing of McLaren and Doug Pagitt, Emergent Village comrades; all three avoid overt discussion of doctrine and embrace semantic blurriness, justifying their means by a lofty end: We see more clearly than the rest of you, and so we’re playing trickster to shove the church in the right direction. In sharp contrast to this genre is the writing of theologian-missiologists like Roger Greenway and Timothy Monsma (Cities: Mission’s New Frontier) and Mark Driscoll (Radical Reformission), who use statistics and scripture deliberately to support their reasoning and guide their conclusions, rooting the reader in a biblical context.

I came away from Signs of Emergence with my perspective challenged, with food for thought, but also with a feeling of vague unease. Brewin’s picture of gospel entering urban centers is engaging. The momentum he creates for grassroots rethinking and reinventing is needed. But his depictions of God and scripture are slippery and unclear. I find myself wondering if we’re playing on the same team.

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John said...

That sounds very similar to my reaction toward Bell's "Velvet Elvis" - great food for thought, but the intentional ambiguity on really, really important questions bugged me to no end.

Now maybe that's just my own modernity peeking through, needing definitions I can tackle and clearly drawn lines and nice little boxes and categories for everything.

Jesus, as C.S. Lewis said in "Reflections on the Psalms", only seldomly gave straight answers to straight questions, and maybe these authors are trying to imitate that.

But Jesus did give answers and statements that were at the very least clear enough to create some enemies. It seems that's what I'm missing, it's like these guys are trying to please everyone.

Kester said...

Thanks for reading the book and taking time to review it. Someone just sent me a link...

I think your comment that those "who use statistics and scripture deliberately to support their reasoning" is perhaps a good summary of your position.

Actually, I very deliberately didn't try to set out to convince people intellectually. I think doing so can lead away from action, rather than toward it. And in fact, I think we see Jesus doing this very little.

Scot McKnight had a similar criticism: "give me something concrete brother" was his way of putting it. But the whole point of an emergent system is that it is locally grown. There is no model to buy into, and thus the temptation to set out concrete examples needs to be resisted, as people often follow them, rather than the underlying principle.

I'm sorry if you're not sure if we're playing on the same team, or if you consider my view of God and Scripture slippery. The book is clearly for those of robust faith, whose knowledge of Scripture I felt didn't need patronising with footnotes on every nod to a passage... And for those who I felt could handle some different perspectives on faith, from some very different sources. Hopefully that doesn't mean we're on different sides, or I'm just trying to please everyone ;-)


Tyler said...

It's only for those of a "robust faith," folks. Keep that in mind.

Anonymous said...

You accuse Brewin of throwing out "buzzwords" and yet you yourself use the term "Process Theology". The fact is that the Bible starts in a Garden and ends in a city. I don't call that a lapse into Process Theology, I call that Biblical.

Ariel said...

Kester, I appreciate your comments, and made a brief response here. Thanks for taking the time to dialogue a little.

You accuse Brewin of throwing out "buzzwords" and yet you yourself use the term "Process Theology". The fact is that the Bible starts in a Garden and ends in a city. I don't call that a lapse into Process Theology, I call that Biblical.

Process Theology is a formal title for the theological/philosophical system that posits an evolving, non-sovereign God--which is exactly what I was referring to.

That Eden is a precursor to the New Jerusalem is a chronological fact and has no relevance to Process Theology.


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife