Islands of Misfts?

April 3, 2011 — 3 Comments

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This week I’ve been reading through the opening chapters of Dr. Jason Clark’s PhD not-yet-published dissertation. A much more technical treatment of the chapters he contributed to Church in the Present Tense (see my previous post on those), Clark’s dissertation is at once profound and troubling. His quest is for a tertium quid, a third way, between the predominant modes of current Evangelical responses to social relationships in late capitalist market societies. On the one hand are those who would abandon Evangelicalism altogether, concluding that it is too deeply entrenched indebted and entwined in capitalism to have any effective counter movement (Clark turns to the work of John Milbank and William Connolly for support). On the other hand are those who would argue that Evangelicalism’s problem is that it is not entrenched enough, needing to seek more and better undertakings of commodification of capitalism, thereby proving once again the adaptability and relevance of Evangelicalism (Pete Ward is his primary source here).

Clark’s argument is that neither Milbank/Connolly’s nor Ward’s treatments are, in the end, helpful for the future Evangelicalism. Instead he seeks to build a third alternative, utilizing the framework and methodology of Peter Ochs and Luke Bretherton. Instead of simply despising (a la Milbank/Connolly) or unabashedly accommodating to (Ward) the culture of late-capitalist market societies, Clark argues that the very history of Evangelicalism demands that her adherents must do the hard work of both reparation and redemption, what he calls a “‘double movement’ reinvigorating old social forms whilst reinforcing emerging ones” (Introduction, 21).

The first chapter surveys the history of Evangelicalism alongside the emergence of capitalism. Clark notes that early in the development of both, Evangelical Christians were attempting to find ways of living that allowed them to be both in the world, yet not wholly of the world. A heavy emphasis on the ability of the individual agent to form identity and create one’s future issued forth from both Evangelicals and capitalists. Chapter two focuses more closely on this emphasis on identity creation. While (or whilst) Christianity was able, in the beginning of the emergence of the capitalistic self-regulating market and Evangelicalism, to have the upper hand in disciplining and shaping identity creation, it lost its grasp and has been relegated to playing second fiddle in the formation orchestra. 

Throughout the work, Clark explores the creation of “islands of social care.” He is observing the Evangelical penchant for responding to economic stress and/or social challenges by providing safe places for the formation of identity and relationship. Part of what seems to be missing from current Evangelical responses to culture are the creation of new “islands of social care.” Whereas once Evangelicals created thriving Gospel-centered organizations like the YMCA and the Salvation Army, examples of culture-creating countermovements are few and far between today. As Clark posits, “can Evangelical Christianity evidence itself as such a countermove . . . what is it currently doing with regard to late-capitalist markets, where are its ongoing ‘islands of social care’ a la David Martin?” (ch. 2, 74).

Instead, our “islands of social care” have been turned into “islands of misfit toys.” It is a common assumption that only the weak need “religion.” In weak moments it is not uncommon for otherwise a-religious people to seek the advice, counsel, and help of a religious institution. Yet once resolved, once restored, these people leave the island and return to their “normal” lives, relatively unchanged. Clark opens his Introduction with a heart-wrenching story of such a family who, upon having a miracle visited upon them via the prayers of a congregation they did not attend, spent exactly one Sunday in the midst of the people who’d sought God’s intervention in their lives. Having thanked them for their faith and intercession, the family then returned to life “as usual.” Those who stay part of the church are looked upon as the truly “misfit,” too weak act as their own agents of identity construction, needing to lean on the primitive myth of a higher power to find meaning and solace in life. 

When all avenues of social care are assumed to be equal, when assistance from the government, the church, the NGO, or the pub are all seen as different options on the same consumer-care buffet, it is no wonder that there is no allegiance to one over the other. They all make relatively identical claims and all have similar track records of proven results. The self-regulating market has created an environment in which a multiplicity of agencies can provide overlapping care, with the assumption that the best providers will, in the end, win out. The Evangelical church has, unfortunately, bought into that ordering of things and become subservient to the market’s evaluation of effectiveness and legitimacy.

What is needed is a new uprising of Evangelicals that are neither content with abandoning involvement in a market-ordered society nor content with letting the market call all the shots. The hard work of this new uprising will be the nearly unending need for countermove upon countermove. The creation of new “islands of social care” that aren’t trying to do what the world is already doing, only with Brand Jesus on it; rather, they will name the ways that consumerism (that bastard child of capitalism and individual agency) misshapes identity and perverts relationships. More than naming, however, this misfit uprising will offer new ways forming identity and healthy relationships, ways that are centered on the cross and draw upon the Evangelical history of adaptation and interpretation, bringing culture to bear on the church and the church to bear on culture.

This is, in my opinion, the tertium quid Clark seeks.

Anderson Campbell

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  • Chris Marshall

    “bringing culture to bear on the church and the church to bear on culture”.I love this. Can you think of any examples of places you’ve seen this?

  • Anderson Campbell

    There is a church in the Oxford Circle section of urban Philadelphia who is doing this well: Oxford Circle Mennonite Church (http://www.ocmcphilly.org). They breathe deeply the Spirit of God as they exhale their lives into the community of which they are a part. Amazing, unsung stuff going on there. Also there is a place in suburban Sterling, VA called Restore who are doing some neat things. Having adopted a familiar “movie theater church” model, they are breaking most known molds through their community-oriented micro-churches and heavy emphasis on being on mission together (http://www.restorenova.com). Oh, and I’ve heard rumors that a ragamuffin band of suburbanites in Cincinnati are also living this out well. They are called Ordinary Community (http://ordinarycommunity.com/).

  • Chris Marshall

    wow, those groups seem to have their act together far more than we do. I wonder how they finance a staff with small communities, it appears their leadership is paid. always good to read what others are doing, thanks.