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Andrew Root – The Church After Innovation [Feature Review]

The Church After InnovationHow Innovation (Nearly) Got Away With Murder

A Feature Review of

The Church After Innovation: Questioning Our Obsession with Work, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship
Andrew Root

Paperback: Baker Academic, 2022
Buy Now: [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield

Andrew Root likes television. He makes that clear as a kind of running joke throughout his latest book The Church After Innovation. I don’t think he’d mind, then, if I compare his book to a good season of the crime show Bosch. The series, featuring the eponymous LA detective Harry Bosch, always centers on unraveling a murder. And following the formulas of the crime genre, the first episode begins with the discovery of the body. Then, through twists and turns, we follow the detective as he uncovers the truth of who did it, bringing some resolution and hopefully some justice, for the grieving family in the end. This is pretty much the arch of Root’s book, which grapples with serious theology and social analysis, yet keeps up the pace of any good who-done-it. And as with any mystery worth reading, it ends with a surprising twist. 

The body, in this case, is the church’s obsession with innovation—one that could well prove deadly for ministry. The initial crime scene is a Lutheran synod meeting at which Root was a speaker. That meeting contained the characters who carry along the narrative of the book, especially a young pastor who introduced Root’s keynote with a call for innovation, borrowing from a business magazine article about the decline of Applebee’s. The pastor compared the church to the neighborhood restaurant chain, and said that like Applebee’s, the church faces a stark choice: “Can we find the creativity to design new ways of being the church? Can we innovate? Like Applebee’s, if we don’t, we will die.” Root, not remembering the young pastor’s name, takes a cue from Seinfeld and dubs him Applebee’s Boy. 

 

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Before we get to the crime itself, a good detective has to unravel the story of what came before. How did the church think innovation is the answer to our woes?  How did Applebee’s Boy come to think that a restaurant chain is anything like a church? Root follows these questions by exploring how the world of work became central to the Protestant understanding of how one lives faithfully in the world. This was sustainable as long as the sacred remained central, but soon enough this emphasis on work became unmoored from its theological anchors. From there, work was transformed into a need for constant growth and thus innovation. These ideas from the world of business then backwashed into the church. As Root puts it, this might not be a bad thing, but “we should…be acutely aware (more aware than Applebee’s Boy and his synod are) that if we’re not careful what comes with it are the norms and goods of late modernity… This creativity has no need for a living God. It is creativity that is severed from the beauty of God—which is what makes it so advantageous for making money and winning market share.”

Root follows the clues into a deeper read of how we got to the crime scene, focusing on the contradictions of capitalism and how they have changed from the Keynesian economics of the post-WWII period and into the “creative economy” of our age. This contradiction has played out in a variety of ways, but in our time, it has become centered in the self. “We are no longer guilty before a righteous God, as the early Calvinist Protestant would have claimed;” writes Root, “we are guilty before ourselves. We are guilty for not being the self we could or should be…Our freedom to be a self, and yet the way that freedom judges us for not taking full advantage of our freedom, is the newly imposed cultural contradiction of late capitalism.”

With this contradiction in play, we now see the story that will end with a crime, at least a crime against the life of the church. When churches believe that the solution to their woes is more creativity and innovation, more entrepreneurship of the spirit, then they are often following the logic of late capitalism, not the ways of God. And in the introduction of capitalist logics, we are beginning to dose a poison that if not recognized for what it is, could end in death. “Though entrepreneurship and innovation may be able to motivate a certain kind of creative action, they will in turn overinflate the self,” writes Root (emphasis his). “If we are not very careful, this inflation of the self will get smuggled in, which is a pastoral and theological problem! The overinflation of the self must be dealt with, never overlooked.”

Root draws in several other investigators along the way, all of whom help unravel the complex case he’s working. Key among these is Eva Illouz, whose Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism serves as a guide for how Freudian ideas about the self led to new ideas about management; ideas whose fruit has been a flexible economy of unattached workers, all focused on projects and teams, rather than the long-term stability of common purpose that was once the hallmark of the old-form corporation. Illouz’s insights are brought to life in another running example that Root adds to the story of Applebee’s Boy, one that centers on a pastor friend of Root’s he names Russ. 

Russ is a pastor who is invited by his former seminary to gather a group of young adults in a grant program that is aimed at fostering innovation in the church. Through the story of this group of young adults, Root explores the heavy burden of management that innovation involves, as well as the way in which initial excitement can quickly dissipate as the risk of a self that must always be exceptional gets bogged down. This is another aspect of our late capitalist era—the quest for singularity.

Singularity is a concept from Root’s primary conversation partner in this book, the German social theorist Andreas Reckwitz. In Reckwitz’s books The Invention of Creativity and The Society of Singularities, Root finds a helpful guide for the nature of our innovation obsessed culture, one that fosters an obsession with the cultivation of the self. The drive for creativity embedded in the contradictions of capitalism results in a burden of the self that makes fidelity to the mundane realities of a community like a church difficult. Everything becomes focused on the exceptional and such exceptionality becomes a heavy weight to bear. In a passage that sheds light into the reality many are seeing among young people today, Root writes that, “Despite efforts to embed [this exceptional] imagination in our children through schools and sports, we have not lowered depression, anxiety, self-harm, mental illness, or medication use; rather, rates have actually increased. In practice, this idea of universal exceptionality has not produced a greater sense of self-acceptance and confidence in society.”

An obsession with the self and its own exceptionality is poison for the life of faith. So it is that creativity and innovation often lead not to a fresh outpouring of the Spirit in our churches, but rather a deepening of our captivity to late capitalism. Root is clear that creativity has its place, but it must be a cruciform creativity—beauty that turns us toward God rather than the self, innovation that does not celebrate our exceptionality but rather helps us recognize our belovedness. 

This leads to the twist at the end. Christian faith is a place where dead bodies get raised to life and so through a faithful transformation, innovation and creativity are offered a different kind of life. This life is rooted first of all in a kind of mysticism that overcomes the destructive reality that money plays in our life. Drawing on the German mystic monk Meister Eckhart and two students of his insights that significantly influenced Martin Luther, Root finds a cruciform path that draws the self from its mirrored (or selfied) focus and into “The weakness of God in the crucified Christ [which] bears the ultimate power to bring the self from death to life.” It is in this way that “The self is given true life not by curating itself but by receiving that which is bound outside the self but fulling includes the self.” 

Root concludes that what we need is a life ready for the kinds of epiphanies that are drawn from poetry and prayer rather than the creative productions of an economy of innovation. “We need more Eugene Petersons than Rick Warrens, more Kendrick Lamars than Mark Zuckerbergs. We need poets who seek the epiphanic, losing their self in the beauty of the event of God’s arrival, recognizing that their poems are prayers. Their prayer is poetry.” 

I don’t want to completely spoil the plot of the mystery, so I won’t tell you the final concrete example of how all this plays out. I’ll just say it’s a beautiful image of how creativity directed through prayer and away from the self can lead us into a different reality than the one offered by capitalism. In a world overburdened by the curated self and the contradictory demands of the market, it’s a breath of the Spirit.

All through reading this book, I kept interrupting my wife, Emily, with various quotes and insights from Root. When I finished The Church After Innovation, Emily jokingly asked if it is a book I’d recommend as a “must read for every church leader,” playing off the book blurb cliché. And I had to say, yes, yes it is. And more than just church leaders, The Church After Innovation is an important book for all faithful Christians who want to understand the cultural realities in which we live and how tempting they are as “solutions” to our lives of faith in a secular age. Creativity is a gift, but we must be careful in its practice, ensuring that it is following the example of the God whose beauty was made manifest on the cross rather than the self-expression of a “creative” who is interested only in the increase of personal market share. Andrew Root’s The Church After Innovation is a necessary guide for how to live into that difference.

Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is an Episcopal priest working in his native Arkansas. He is currently at work on a book exploring the intersection of humus and humility, compost and creation care. To get in contact with Ragan or learn more about his work visit ragansutterfield.com.

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