by: Carol Howard Merritt
©2010 The Alban Institute
In a world where we so often hear words of doom and gloom it is nice to be offered a chance to think about hope for a change. And in Reframing Hope Carol Howard Merritt invites us to do just that. But, as the title suggests, she also pushes us to see the world a little bit differently in order to see the hope.
Merritt starts out by asking “what is the substance of our hope?” and ends with a reflection on finding “hope in the desert” (this concluding reflection is worth reading even if you don't touch the rest of the book). In between she leads us through a series of “Re”s. She looks at Redistributing Authority, Re-forming Community, Reexamining the Medium, Retelling the Message, Reinventing Activism, Renewing Creation and Retraditioning Spirituality always asking how a post-modern view of society might interact with these things.
It may seem passe to talk about the move from modernism to post-modernism in Western culture (especially since some suggest that the Millenials and the generation that follows them are really post-post-modern) but is so many ways the denominational church has not, on the ground, in the pews, wrestled with that change. And so much of the writing out there on the Emerging Church seems virulently anti-denominational, or at least sees the denominational church as a last gasp of dying Christendom (which sometimes feels true to be honest) that it is helpful and enlivening to have a writer describe how these changes can work within a continuing denominational mindset. At any rate, many readers will likely have met with explanations of how post-modern thought differs from modern thought and will find these passages either repetitious or a helpful refresher.
One of the great gifts I got from this book came in the second chapter. This was Merritt's concept of the “loyal radicals” – people
“who mingle the sensitivities of the emergent movement with their own long-standing denominational traditions...Unless we are kicked out of our denominations, most of us have no intention of leaving—yet we fully realize we are a part of a shift in ecclesial thinking.” (p.36).As a person who has great attachment to the church and the traditions of the faith, as a person who has a strong understanding of some of the gifts offered by a denominational culture (and the weaknesses of a wholly congregational structure), and as a person who finds that many people throw out the good with the bad as they trash-talk denominations I found Merritt describing me in this section. Make no mistake, denominations have issues, the church is in constant need of re-forming (remember ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda?) but there is a place for the denominational church. It is where many, if not most, people of faith find a home and support. What I found challenging in this is the idea that we in the denominational church need to re-discover what gifts we have to share with people who do not see the world or the faith or the church in the same way as those who built the denomination.
Of course any book that has hope in the title has to be about looking forward, not just describing where we are at now. And Merritt does this well. As she describes the current context she pushes us to look where that may lead us. Thankfully she does so with a sense of realism that, in my mind, is absent in so much discussion of technology and the church (Merritt finds a helpful middle ground to my mind) or in so much discussion of what makes a “successful” church. So how does the church of the future use social networking while not losing the face-to-face that is also so important? How do we continue to tell the old old stories and continue to be agents of change? How do we link our faith lives and communities to an understanding of living with respect in creation? How do we re-connect the personal faith and morality that is a strength of “evangelicalism” with the social justice and activism that is a strength of many denominations (remembering that the fullness of Christian faith calls for both of these things)? The reader may not fully agree with Merritt on all these points but at least she opens up for discussion – as discussion, not as a “this is how it should happen” instruction.
Is there hope for the church? I find myself asking that on a regular basis. And sometimes my soul gets heavy with a doubt that there is. But, in the end, we are people of hope. And this volume, which pushes us to see the world and the church more clearly – which is the prime purpose of re-framing anything – allows me to feel that there is hope. It is hope for a church that will be changed. But it is hope nonetheless. And for that gift I say thank-you.