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Christianity’s Third Divorce

A Review

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

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Finding the Balm in Gilead

A Review

The Gilead of Marilynne Robinson’s novel is a fictional Iowa town described as “a dogged little outpost.” It’s a humble setting for the playing out of great themes.…

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  • Nicole Solomon

    I may be completely wrong, but l don't think God's word can even be neatly boxed into one book to the exclusion of anything else (don't misunderstand me--the Bible is a vital key to OUR ability to comprehend an all-powerful, omnipotent, and Eternal God of the universe). But l cannot say that while in thought and prayer to God l haven't heard a song play with a direct response, or that in passing l haven't seen a billboard screaming out an answer, or a coworker describing the last football game detailing the next moves one needs to make, and most favorite of all, l can't say that the "crack-head" pan handling for change doesn't speak directly to you as if God's angels themselves are not in disguise. If l can experience this, then maybe l can comprehend what is meant in Psalms 19:1-4 and Romans 10:15-21. If only l can experience God in the way HE wants me to, then l might experience verse 10:18 in its entirety...

Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry (Cascade, 194 pages)

For a modestly sized book, Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry’s Deep Church Rising surprises with its broad historical imagination. The authors pose an urgent question: how is Christianity to cope with a world increasingly hostile to its message and mission? They suggest that Christians’ polarized responses to that question will lead to schism, the third in a series of schisms to have divided the Christian world. The first was the “Great Schism,” the splitting of East and West that divided the church into its Greek and Latin branches. Then came the Protestant Reformation, further fracturing Western Christianity. And while these two divorces are still keenly felt, Walker and Parry argue that a third is on the way – one that positions apostasy against orthodoxy, and in so doing cuts within branches and denominations rather than between them.

Walker and Parry – both seasoned theologians – detect the early symptoms of this third schism among Christians who have fallen under the influence of “versions of modern Christianity which, although modern, are not Christian.” These weakened strains of Christianity, they contend, undercut a trinity of truths without which the faith can’t endure: right belief, right worship, and right action. The result? They see a growing tendency within all Christian denominations to view religion as basically private and personal, a matter of individual therapeutic preferences rather than a response to objective truths. There’s a corresponding quickness to re-imagine Christian ethics in ways that force the faith into compliance with a utilitarian world. For example, Walker and Parry note that “more than a few liberal Christians take it as obvious that a pregnant woman has a straightforward right to choose whether or not to carry her child to term.” And this is only one of many disturbing shifts away from historical Christianity – the authors do not meditate long on others, but they are not hard to imagine.

Taken together, these developments have sowed confusion as to what it is that Christianity teaches. The “family resemblance” left over by the first two schisms is therefore seriously threatened by this third.

Deftly tracing the roots of the cultural context that has produced the third schism, Walter and Parry take the reader on a whirlwind jaunt through early Christianity, the medieval period, the Enlightenment, and through to modernity. Though this excursion might leave some readers dizzy, it serves a necessary purpose. By drawing on thinkers ranging from Augustine, Tertullian, and Anselm to Locke, Kierkegaard, and Kant, the authors are actually modelling their suggested solution to the third schism: a return to tradition.

It’s the care with which Walker and Parry issue their call that makes Deep Church Rising so persuasive. “Deep church,” a phrase borrowed from C.S. Lewis, refers in part to “a common historical tradition of belief and practice that was normative for Christian experience.” That is, “deep church” means a set of truths about belief, worship, and action which remains constant for all Christians, everywhere and always. These truths, the authors argue, are the stars by which we can set our course, regardless of where we find ourselves in human history. It so happens that much of Christianity’s best charting was laid out before the modern era, by Augustine, Aquinas, Gregory, Irenaeus, and other teachers. Walker and Parry point out that the reasoning of ancient and pre-modern Christians was not (as is now often suggested) rooted in superstitions and cultural norms long past their use-by date. Far from being a product of sociological accidents, tradition is the fruit of the apostolic church’s journey through history.

While the authors admit to being “traditionalists or primitivists of sorts,” Deep Church Rising is not anti-modern. Rather, it declines to accept modernity as the standard by which Christians should define their faith at all, whether pro or con. “It should go without saying,” they write, “that [a Deep Church sensibility] is no threat to science, only to scientism, the ideology that all truth claims about the world can be assessed by the sciences.” The answer to modernity isn’t to collapse backwards into the lifestyle of a bygone time, but rather to develop a robust Christianity that is both orthodox and capable of grappling with today’s problems.

In true traditional fashion, this begins for Walker and Parry within the church herself. Their concluding two chapters suggest how this might look: through renewed attention to teaching the faith (“Recovery of Catechesis”), and through a deepened reverence for the Lord’s Supper (“A Eucharistic Community”). They describe the “Eucharistic community” as the hub that gathers all Christian doctrine together; here we gather to share in “a meal for the time between times; to taste the life of the age to come.” Reflecting on the Eucharist allows Walker and Parry to do three things: to expose the “gospel amnesia” that has corroded Christian orthodoxy; to remind us of the strong, elegant theology that modern Christianity has largely forgotten; and to sketch out the ecumenical project they have in mind for the future. This chapter beautifully illustrates the authors’ vision of belief, worship, and action as indivisible.

Walker and Parry don’t hold out the false hope that the trajectory of secular thought will be interrupted anytime soon. Yet they refuse to give up any ground, even when that means taking deeply unpopular positions – it’s difficult to imagine a harder sell to the average millennial Christian than Saint Augustine on sexual morality. Like the ministry of Christ itself, the quest to recover a deep church is demanding but not violent, hard but not merciless – its essential purpose is the achievement of unity. For the authors, this means a unity with multiple layers: of the present church with the tradi­tion that precedes her; of today’s schismatics with orthodox believers; and of the whole body of Christ brought into communion through the Eucharist.

Readers interested in a renewal of orthodoxy and a clear-eyed vision of what a deep church might look like will be grateful for this thickly argued and rewarding book. It includes two helpful appendices: an essay on the Nicene Creed and a critique of fundamentalism. The authors do not hold to a literalist reading of the Bible, nor do they believe that such a “neutral” or “obvious” interpretation is even possible. But their defense of a broader-minded interpretation is compelling, and – thanks to the authors’ commitment to taking scripture seriously and traditionally – may pleasantly surprise readers with more literalist convictions.

With its richness of detail and wide-ranging theological vision, Deep Church is a fine book to read slowly. It’s also well suited for reading in discussion groups – there’s plenty here to fuel much-needed conversations.

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Contributed By Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is a writer and blogger born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas.

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