“Defining Emerging Christianity”
A Review of
An Emerging Dictionary for
The Gospel and Culture
By Leonard Hjalmarson.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
An Emerging Dictionary for
The Gospel and Culture
Paperback: Resource Publications/Wipf and Stock, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Len Hjalmarson has been in the middle of conversations about emerging forms of church for many years now. His blog, NextReformation.com , has been not only a place for him to post his keen insights, but also a place for conversation and exploration. Thus, I was excited to hear that he had recently published a book rooted in his experience in these conversations. An Emerging Dictionary for the Gospel and Culture is indeed as it sets out to be “a roving, eclectic dictionary that is both ridiculously current and particular, and at the same time broadly inclusive, reaching back to Augustine and St. Benedict … the ABC’s of the emerging and missional conversations.” Hjalmarson does a superb job introducing the topics that he has included here, which basically fall into the two categories of biographical entries and conceptual entries. All entries here are brief (rarely more than 2 or 3 pages), engaging and helpful in their introducing the person or concept at hand. I imagine that most readers, even those who have been deeply invested in the emerging and missional church conversations for many years will find at least a few entries here that are surprising or unknown. For instance, the philosopher of science in me was delighted to see the entry on Thomas Kuhn here, as his work is essential to our work of understanding the times in which we live, and yet his name does not pop up often in church conversations. There are also a number of terms here that are essential to understanding postmodern criticism – e.g., difference and L’avenir. Hjalmarson also does a wonderful job at interweaving the entries here; one does not typically think of a dictionary as a book to sit down and read from cover to cover, but this engaging and well-written work flows along nicely and is certainly an exception to that rule!
Many of the names included here – either as entries or as recurring themes – are ones that we here at Englewood Christian Church have found essential to navigating the contemporary theological terrain (and whose names regularly pop up in The Englewood Review): Dietrich Bonhoeffer, David Bosch, Walter Brueggemann, William Cavanaugh, Henri Nouwen, etc. Furthermore, from my occasional readings of Hjalmarson’s blog over the past decade, I would say that what he offers in this slim volume is generally a good reflection of the sorts of conversations about church and culture in which he is deeply invested. However, despite Hjalmarson’s superb handling of the material he presents here, one finds that which is absent from this volume to be almost as striking as that which is included. First, Hjalmarson refers to himself, in the book’s preface, as a neo-Anabaptist, a claim that is well-supported by a perusal of his blog. Hjalmarson also mentions David Fitch as a fellow neo-Anabaptist – and Fitch indeed is perhaps the most vocal neo-Anabaptist in the sorts of emerging conversations in which the author is involved – and he makes a number of fine references to Fitch throughout the work. However, beyond Fitch, there seems to be very little in this book that is distinctive of anything that I would recognize as neo-Anabaptism, or even of the Anabaptist tradition in which one would assume such neo-Anabaptism would be rooted. Granted there are a handful of very brief references to the works of Stuart Murray (author of The Naked Anabaptist, among other books), and a brief and rather indirect mention of John Howard Yoder’s work. Given the author’s neo-Anabaptist proclivities, I was particularly surprised by the omission of an entry on Yoder, whose name at least in my experience does arise fairly regularly in emerging and missional conversations. Similarly, although his entry on “ecology” is a suitable but brief introduction to that topic, the key themes of place and land do not seem to recur throughout the work as some others do and there is no mention of the work of some of thinkers whose work is essential to conversations about the contemporary intersections of ecology and theology – e.g., Norman Wirzba and Wendell Berry.
There is a deeper issue with this dictionary, however, and one which makes the questions about neo-Anabaptism and ecology, seem rather trifling. It is difficult for me to say this as a white male, but I was astounded by the whiteness and the maleness of Hjalmarson’s depiction of the emerging church conversations that unfolds over the course of this book. Every single person that merits an entry here is a white (or in the case of the historical figures to which racial terminology might be anachronistic, Western) male. Soong Chan Rah recently posed the question in SOJOURNERS magazine, “Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?” My initial inclination upon reading Rah’s article was to reply, as Julie Clawson did, in the negative. However, after reading Hjalmarson’s book, I have been forced to rethink this assessment; apparently there are some perspectives on the emerging church movement that are glaringly white and male (or at least one perspective anyway). My intent here is only to make an observation about the book’s content and not to defame Hjalmarson, as he certainly demonstrates a sensitivity to matters of gender and racial reconciliation. As stated above, however, the book does seem to be representative of the sorts of conversations in which the author has been involved, the key figures of which are, apparently, predominantly white and predominantly male. From my perspective, the conversation about emerging forms of church – while it includes basically all the terrain that Hjalmarson explores in this volume – is much broader and, despite Hjalmarson’s use of the term, much more “eclectic” that what he depicts here. We need the sorts of cultural, philosophical and spiritual re-formations that Hjalmarson describes here, but we also need the deep perception of female writers like Annie Dillard and Kathleen Norris, as well as theological work like that of Richard Twiss and Willie Jennings which is deeply rooted in the experience of Native peoples and especially wisdom like that which J. Kameron Carter expresses in his key work Race: A Theological Account:
[A]s a twenty-first-century discourse, Christian theology must take its bearings from the Christian theological languages and practices that arise from the lived Christian worlds of dark peoples in modernity and how such peoples reclaimed (and in their own ways salvaged) the language of Christianity, and thus Christian theology, from being a discourse of death.
An Emerging Dictionary for the Gospel and Culture offers us an excellent start in the direction it intends to go. However, it does leave one longing for a broader perspective on emerging forms of Christianity in the early years of the twenty-first century. Perhaps it could be supplemented by similar volumes written or edited by others with different, more diverse perspectives on the radical shifts in church and culture that are now underway.