Monday, October 18, 2010

Breaking Barriers

I picked up Breaking Barriers: The Possibilities of Christian Community in a Lonely World at a library book sale. I think it was a real steal.

In the introduction, Vander Broek first visits the oft-noted "crisis of community" that is a hallmark (so people say) of contermporary America, and he suggests that the same crisis is reflected within the church. "'Christians without community' has become the hallmark of the American church." (p.12)

The author goes on to describe the causes of this "declining social capital" within the wider culture. He pinpoints individualism, materialism, and post-modernism as the driving forces that tend to undermine community. This should be familiar ground to most of us, but Vander Broek covers the material adroitly and then moves on to his key point, which has to do with the alternative community in Christ, which is presumably specially equipped to resist these undermining cultural forces.

Every community is defined by what its members share and how they share it. Vander Broek proceeds to ask, what is it that Christians share and how do they share it? He writes,
It is impossible to understand how Christians share without also understanding what they share, and both the how and the what of this commonality are radically different from what we see in society's definition of community. (p.18)
There are many passages of the NT that indicate what is shared among Christians, but they all essentially derive from our shared salvation. Community originates in God's saving work.
Christian community is, first and foremost, a corporate experience of God's grace. What we share has its source in God and is a transformative movement from death to life. (p.20)
This may be so, but it is a truth that is not experienced apart from what Vander Broek calls "temporal dissonance." This is the tension between the now and the not yet aspects of Christian community.
If "angst" is perhaps too negative a way of describing our reaction to being a redeemed people in an unredeemed world, the experience of "temporal dissonance" is not. We share with other Christians the dilemma of striving to be in actuality what God says we already are in Jesus Christ. (p.21)
So we have this shared salvation and all that follows from that (including the indwelling Spirit of God), but we have also the experiential reality of indwelling sin, which always works against unity, community, relationship. Sin divides. We form cliques, tribes, interest groups, exclusive clubs, etc. We define who's in and who's out. In other words, even as we desire community, recognizing its great worth (as a reflection of the very nature of the life of God, Frank Viola would remind us), there is something in us that sets up an alternative desire for autonomy, the one warring against the other.

This is the human predicament, and the community of the saved in Christ is God's foretaste of his repair of creation, his solution to the human dilemma. What we share, what we hold in common, is salvation, and the way we share it is by loving one another.
Together as Christians we recognize what God has done for us and respond in a worship that permeates all of life. In short, what we share as community is our new relationship with God, a relationship that so shapes our reality that it forever changes who we are. It is this love relationship with God that determines what our relationship with our fellow community members will be, or how we share with one another. (p.23)
Love, such as Paul describes famously in 1 Cor 13:4-7, is how we share that which we have in common. It is love that marks us as ambassadors of the kingdom of God. Barriers are broken down. "Christians love one another with a love that is blind to the distinctions so common in society."

Again, this seems an idealized vision, for our experience is not nearly so wholesome. We have barrier-making tendencies within ourselves. We have community-rejecting tendencies. We draw back from what we know to be essentially good. To illustrate this point, Vander Broek concludes with a description of Scott Cairns' poem, The Entrance of Sin (read it here).

Cairns' poem is an apt finish to Vander Broek's introduction. In the poem, Adam refuses Eve's proffered hand, and the sense of autonomy that follows is beguiling, even in some way "irresistible." This "new taste for turning away," becomes our burden and our curse, and the cause for which, from the very beginning, the Godhead planned to sunder its own beloved "community" in an act of self-giving that would be the essential centerpiece of His plan to restore all things.

That's a summary of Vander Broek's introduction. The book, again, is Breaking Barriers: The Possibilities of Christian Community in a Lonely World.

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