- Emerging from the Dark Age Ahead: The Future of the North American Churchby Charles Fensham
Charles Fensham, professor of theology at Knox College, Toronto, offers a volume on the future of the North American church. The book is based in the ‘‘poiesis’’ of the Bible, read according to a Christ-centred, liberationist method of interpretation. It is deeply trinitarian, drawing from the tradition of Social Trinity. He argues that if God, as Trinity, is not ‘‘one heavenly monarch,’’ but a ‘‘community in loving relationship,’’ this has profound implications for the church and society. Fensham is also in dialogue with numerous sociologists, philosophers, cultural critics, as well as biblical scholars and theologians.
The title borrows from Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead, which laments the loss of traditions of knowledge and wisdom in our time and place. While Jacobs has little to say about the loss of Christian heritage, the ‘‘dark age’’ for Fensham ‘‘refers fundamentally to the loss of memory, wisdom, meaning and moral ethic related to the reign of God’’ (8).
Part One, ‘‘Where Do We Come From?,’’ spells out a ‘‘missional hermeneutic’’ for a contemporary theology of mission and church. In conversation especially with South African missiologist David Bosch, Fensham’s Christ-centred hermeneutic calls for an ‘‘expanded rationality,’’ beyond the limits of both Enlightenment and postmodernist thought. Giving special attention to people on the margins, his approach is also liberationist and pro-feminist. Part Two asks, ‘‘Where Are We?’’ Three chapters present a socio-cultural analysis of our present time and place. Fensham speaks of a post-colonial world, acknowledging and valuing a global plurality of cultures and faiths. Christian faith, then, must be non-triumphalist witness, respecting difference, and emphasizing justice and solidarity with those on the margins. We live in a post-Christendom time of declining numbers and influence, and of church institutions in crisis, combined with [End Page 294]threatening ecological and economic circumstances. He is critical of the easy confidence in human technological mastery that characterizes North American culture.
While this is a hopeful book, it is certainly not an optimistic one. Borrowing from cultural commentators like Jacques Ellul, George Grant, Water Ong, etc., Fensham is suspicious of the worship of ‘‘technique,’’ extending itself today to ‘‘mastery by measurement and digitization.’’ We live in a ‘‘techno-expert manipulated future perfect,’’ where we are called by our culture to ‘‘Master It!’’ Drawing upon fiction and poetry, he evokes the ways in which our consciousness is being transformed through television and the computer; the values of efficiency, productivity, measurement, and consumer demand marginalize ethical concerns. In contrast to this striving for mastery of our dominant culture, Part Three asks, ‘‘Where Are We Going?’’ and offers a vision of an emerging church, grounded in the Social Trinity. Critical of a monarchical theology of glory, which emphasizes ‘‘God the Father Almighty,’’ this theology redefines glory as constant self-giving, and turns the power of the creative Spirit into the perichoretic power of mutual indwelling and mutual love.
Since the Christian faith and the church’s life and mission must be rethought in every generation, Fensham seeks a new vision of church in a dark age unlike any other in past history. A focus on measurable church growth is a temptation to conform to the mastery of our time and its love of technique. We have to be suspicious of the goal of becoming a merely efficient, successful mega-church, for the dark age in which we seek to serve is precisely an age of managing and marketing success, and the church must not mimic this approach. Rather, a church of the Social Trinity must seek church growth and evangelism not as proselytizing, but as gracious welcoming and hospitality, must treasure relationships of mutual self-giving and dialogue, above all things. Such a community is essentially eucharistic, for ‘‘the Eucharist suggests a radical ethic and hospitality. This unconditional welcoming and embrace of the stranger is our call to be monastic pilgrim communities of evangelists-stewards’’ (168).