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A Review of
The Church in Exile: Live in Hope after Christendom
Paperback: IVP Books, 2015
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Reviewed by Ben Simpson
The 2015 season of HBO’s Hard Knocks featured the NFL’s Houston Texans. During an episode, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, a man of enormous size, strolled into the Texans’ locker room wearing only a pair of cutoff overalls, boots, and a cowboy hat. His teammates noticed, and laughed. Why? Wilfork’s appearance was remarkable, garnering immediate attention. Wilfork’s message, “Make sure we compete today. It’s all about competing.”
The claim that the church of today is in exile, particularly in the North American context, has an effect like Wilfork’s choice of wardrobe. Lee Beach has made just such a claim. The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom (IVPAcademic, 2015) argues that those in North America now exist in a post-Christian world, and faithfulness to Christ must now take on a new shape. Beach is a member of the faculty at McMaster Divinity College, a pastor, and Canadian resident, offering lessons learned in his context which he believes will increasingly apply to those ministering in the United States.
When someone asserts that the church must now accept an exilic state, people pay attention. Some find it absurd. Others ask for a justification. Beach’s message, which differs from Wilfork’s plea for competition, does demand a response. If, as Beach claims, the church in America has existed until now in an age where Christian beliefs and assumptions have been taken for granted, and that age is now passing away, then a new motif for faithfulness within our world is needed. Beach offers an alternative paradigm, outlining the exilic vision theologically and practically, informing and equipping the church.
Assessing the Present: Christendom and Beyond
The exilic claim is not new. But neither is it normative. Christendom, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a general description of the prevailing cultural worldview the church in the West has held since the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the official, state-sponsored religion of the Roman Empire.
Following this move, the lines between church and state became blurred, and the burden of discipleship became displaced from that of parish life to that of the public square. As Western culture has shifted toward secularism, Christendom has been disenfranchised, and has decayed. As the rubble continues to mount, Christian pastors, scholars, and theologians have offered critiques of the Christendom model, as well as alternative ways to respond.
Beach extends the argument for the exilic motif, agreeing with those who have said that Christendom is passing away. The church in North America is now in exile, Beach claims, whether it acknowledges itself as such or not. In his strongest claim, Beach says, “Perhaps exile is the way that the people of God should understand themselves at all times in their history” (20).
Christendom, flawed construct that it is, has failed the church and subverted her true identity. The trap has been exposed. Therefore, the church should maintain an exilic mindset, resourced by narratives within Scripture that record the exilic experiences of Israel, Second Temple Jews, and early Christians. According to Beach, the exilic experience has the power to inspire creativity and fresh expressions of faithfulness to God if it is richly informed by the biblical accounts of exile.
Taking Direction from Ancient Sources
To construct a theology of Christian faithfulness while in exile, Beach provides an overview of the Old Testament, and then narrows his focus to the books of Esther, Daniel, and Jonah. He also offers selections from the Gospel accounts and epistolary literature in the New Testament, particularly 1 Peter, as formative for the church today.
Beach presents Esther, Daniel, and Jonah as diasporic advice tales, narratives that provides Israelites with a theological wisdom concerning how to make sense of their displacement. These books assure readers of the presence of God in exile, encourage embodied holiness, and focus the people on God’s mission during a period of disorientation.
While Beach chooses these three books as exemplary resources for the church today, he notes that the Old Testament records other instances where the people of God experienced exile and were called to return to covenant-faithfulness. The Babylonian captivity is cited as formative for Israel, particularly evidenced in the prophets, and their theological responses to experience on the margins are presented as exemplary.
In his presentation of 1 Peter, Beach demonstrates how this epistle draws upon the experiences of Israel and Second Temple Jews, applying them to a first-century context. 1 Peter offers an eschatological hope with present applications, providing the church with resources to live as a community set apart. Beach argues that exilic holiness is not a retreat from the world, but loving engagement with the world. Holiness is presented as missional and relational, and includes ministry in word and deed, catalyzed by the gospel, which contains both present and future hope. The church is to remain engaged with the world because of what Christ has done in the past, and what he will establish in the future.
Choosing a Primary Narrative
Beach believes that exile is the way forward, now and always. And in the final pages of his book, he applies the exilic construct to the contemporary North American context. The final four chapters contain Beach’s best insights, and range in application from church leadership to holiness to mission. He also encourages greater attentiveness to the Holy Spirit, which I believe is essential for communities who wish to remain sensitive to God’s leading and direction in a post-Christian world.
But while I find many of these insights worthwhile, I disagree with Beach’s suggestion that exile is the way the people of God should understand themselves in all times, and in all places. Rather, I would argue that exile is one of many motifs found within Scripture that the church can draw upon when needed. In fact, the church may at times be wise to consider existing simultaneously in exile and safely within the land of promise. Within the same week, the church may experience both feasting and fasting, lows and highs, as seen liturgically in the space between Palm Sunday and Easter.
While choosing one theological motif for all times and places as a master template might appear to simplify matters in a helpful way, maintaining complexity and mystery regarding God’s purposes and our location within redemptive history has greater advantages. Maintaining a kind of eschatological tension, I believe, increases our dependency on the Spirit of God to lead us, and discourages grandiose claims regarding exactly how God is at work in our historical moment.
Christ came as the embodiment of the kingdom he proclaimed. To be claimed by him is to enter his rest, and to dwell in his realm. While we might temporary experience a kind of exile in our own lives, his temporary exile made possible our eternal embrace. Eschatology, we give thanks in the present while eagerly anticipating the day we experience God’s fullness in the new heavens and the new earth.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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