Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"The Promise of Despair"

Jake Bouma responds to "The Promise of Despair," by Root:
...One weekday afternoon I was sitting across from Kathy, an incredibly helpful volunteer and parent of one of the students in my ministry. Our lunch meeting agenda was to discuss some details of an upcoming fundraiser, but I had recently received some rather despairing news about Kathy’s family situation. Kathy’s husband, I was told, had been sober for years but had just recently returned to the drink that nearly tore their family apart years ago. Now that her son was old enough to realize something is off with his father, Kathy wanted to provide him with an emotional outlet should he need it. After finishing both our meal and the agenda, I asked her how her and her son were holding up. Throughout the next forty-five minutes, I learned how Kathy’s marital life was on the brink of collapse – it wasn’t a matter of if, but when, she told me. She talked about how she’s very good at projecting a carefree, everything’s-under-control façade, but that underneath it she’s a mess. She was broken, weak.

As I listened to Kathy, I found myself with a peculiar urge to talk about Martin Luther’s theologia crucis, or “theology of the cross,” which is one of the foundations upon which Root builds the arguments in his book. My usual instinct is to reach down into my deep pocket of pseudo-comforting platitudes and hand them out, one after another. “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” I would say, or, “God makes all things work together for good.” Or better yet, “I’ll be praying for you.” But there was no way I could say any of that after reading The Promise of Despair. To both my and Kathy’s surprise, I started talking about how in Christ, God is found in the broken places, the places of despair. He is made known next to nothingness and death. I talked about how during this extremely traumatic life experience, although she wonders why God has abandoned her, this is precisely the moment he is closest to her. “This really, really sucks,” I said. “But our God is right there with you, suckiness and all.”

Had I not read and internalized the theological insights in Root’s book, I suspect our conversation would have been very different. It would have been less real, less beautiful. A few weeks later she thanked me via email for the conversation: “I go back to our conversation in my head quite a bit,” she said.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Root wants to know what it would look like if the whole church were built upon this promise of despair. How would the church come to embody despair? And would we really want it to? Before these questions can be answered, Root nimbly walks us through four symbolic “deaths” which are manifesting themselves in late modernity: The deaths of meaning, authority, belonging, and identity. This first half of the book is engaging and illuminating to be sure, but its merely a primer to get one ready for the main thrust of the book: building the life of the church from communities of death and despair.

There has been no shortage of books in the last half decade about how to “do church” differently – either more or less postmodern, liturgical, relevant, ancient-future, whatever. Major structural changes are called for. Conferences are organized. Clergy are encouraged to be bold for the sake of the church. In fact, in a bold move, Root claims outright that this book sides with the opponents of the emerging church, claiming the movement hasn’t pushed far enough. But what of those of us who are not in positions of sufficient authority to make significant structural or programmatic changes in our local contexts? What about those of us who are simply content with changing lives, willing to leave the business of changing the church to others? Root wants to answer what the entire church would look like if it took the shape of the cross, but I fear that in doing so he unwittingly forces a major demographic to connect the dots between the book and their ministries.

To be fair, The Promise of Despair is at its core a work of theology and ecclesiology. It never claims to have a five-step process for ministry transformation, and to Andy’s credit, he has set up The Despair Project to demonstrate what a cross-shaped church might look like....

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Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!