The Theolocal Imagination

This post was born out of a typo. Responding to a friend on Facebook, I tried to type on my tablet the word theological but my fat fingers produced instead theolocal, evidently too anarchic for an autocorrect fix. I did fix it before pressing send but it got me thinking, “Theolocal—what a lovely way to say God came near!” I was set on a path imagining what it means to reveal the theolocal God in my everyday life.

Incarnation vs. Bearing Witness

John tells us in the introduction to his gospel that the Word, who was with and is God (John 1:1), became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), or as every missional preacher, church planter or Christian community development organization reminds us, ““The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. (The Message). In Jesus, God was theolocal—he moved into the neighborhood. God was not watching us from a distance, but entered into our humanity, completely and fully. He suffered and was tempted by everything we suffer from and are tempted by (Hebrews 4:15). He was hungry and thirsty and experienced, for the first time in an eternity, what it meant for Him to be weak. The Incarnate One—Our Theolocal God.

Jesus’ Incarnation is an important clue as to how we ought to engage in mission. Certainly, we want to be Christ’s hands and feet, and incarnate Christ’s presence wherever we go. But unfortunately this is some people’s entire missional strategy: imitate Christ by trying to incarnate him wherever we are. In a significant way, the Incarnation has already happened and if this is the only we can imagine making the theolocal vividthen we will be pretty patronizing in our mission.

Jesus is theolocal in a way we will never be. If we incarnate his presence it is because our soul has been mystically united to Him through the cross. Incarnation is a once and for all event which we participate in,  but it isn’t something we make happen through block parties, neighborhood outreaches, church planting or bringing your neighbor a plate of chocolate chip cookies.  When we think about revealing the theolocal-ness of God, Incarnation cannot be our primary approach. God is still near, but not incarnated in the way  Jesus was. Instead, the Spirit of God goes before us and is already active wherever we go.

At Jesus’s Ascension, he said these words to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). These words come to fruition in the next chapter, a rushing wind, tongues of fire and Peter’s testimony that the ‘Spirit was being poured out on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). On that day the disciples were empowered for mission and their mission was to bear witness to what God was doing and had done.

Like the first disciples, our mission is to “be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  However, if we see ourselves primarily as the incarnation of Christ coming to the neighborhood we are likely to reach out in paternalistic, condescending and ethnocentric ways (see the history of Western Christian mission). If our job is simply to be witnesses we can imagine new theolocal possibilities.

Instead of us bringing Christ and his kingdom, we arrive and discover that the Spirit of God is already at work, that there are already signs of the Kingdom and Resurrection. Because we have eyes to see, we bear witness to what we see God doing in the neighborhood, city or place. We also bear witness to where we have seen God at work in our own life but we are primarily witnesses—observers who tell others what we see.

If we are to be missional people, then we need to cultivate our theolocal imagination. In some later posts I want to press into this a little more and explore what kind of practices help us make vivid our Theolocal God, but mostly this is about cultivating our spiritual senses so that we can see which way the Wind blows, and know that wherever we are the Lord is working, long before we got there. 

Reading Well for the Sake of Others: a ★★★★★ book review

 C. Christopher Smith is the editor of The Englewood Review of Booksan online and print journal  which  showcasess valuable resources for the people of God. Another site Smith, curates is Thrifty Christian Reader, a website which catalogs quality sale books—mostly Kindle, mostly Christian—which explore culture, theology, sociology, justice, ecology, poetry and literature. His own books also promote the kind of thoughtful Christian engagement he highlights online. Notably, Slow Church (IVP, 2014), which he co-authored with John Pattison, is a prophetic challenge to the way churches are sometimes co-opted by the dominant cult of speed and efficiency. Smith and Pattison point us instead to honor the terroir of place, cultivate community, and ways for the church to be a faithful presence and witness to God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

44491For a church to transform a community it is imperative we learn to read well. Earlier generations of Christians were sometimes called ‘the people of the Book.’ A good part of Smith’s influence has been about helping us to, again, be the people of the Book. In Reading for the Common Good: How Books Can Help Churches and Neighborhoods FlourishSmith points out the crucial place reading (in community) has for shaping our identity and practice of God’s people.

In his introduction, Smith helps us to conceive of church as a ‘learning organization,’ with learning and action as central components of our identity. We can have a significant impact on our communities as we understand our context and discern effective ways to act and then act(16). Learning and acting form a cycle which helps us live out the compassionate way of Jesus for our neighborhoods and communities (18-20). But this sort of reading is a communal, rather than individual activity.

Smith’s first couple of chapters orient us to the practice of reading. Chapter one points us away from our modern, technologically infused reading (where we read a lot but not deeply) towards ‘Slow Reading.’ The ancient practice of lectio divina and preaching which attends to the words of Scripture provides the church with counter-cultural habits of mind. Chapter two illustrates how reading and conversation help shape the social imagination. Smith observes:

The practices of reading and conversation are vital for the process of transforming our social imagination. Part of human experience is imaging how the world should function. The question is what stories are feeding and shaping the imagination? Reading renews and energizes our social imagination. For our churches, reading and embodying Scripture is the foremost source of renewal, but renewal comes from reading reflecting on and discussing a broad range of works in the life and teaching of Jesus (51-52).

The next six chapters explore the way reading shapes our social imagination and paves the way for communities to flourish. Chapter three explores how reading the Bible in communion with other believers helps shape us into “the image of Christ, the Word incarnate” (55). While the Bible remains central, reading other books communally (and in a cruciform way!) is also beneficial for making sense of the world and our place in it (59-61). Chapter four discusses the role of reading in helping communities and individuals understand their vocation. Chapters five and six discuss how churches can read with their neighbors and neighborhoods. Churches can be (or support) libraries which preserve the shared memory of place and provide resources for the community. Churches can also become centers of education which promote literacy and understanding. The telos of this is a greater civic literacy and engagement in the community. Our reading also promotes a better understanding of our neighborhood place in the economic, environmental, educational and civic realms (103-107). Chapter seven discusses how reading connects us to our world, creation and other churches and chapter eight discusses how reading can support our faithful engagement in the realms of politics and economics.

Smith’s final chapter discusses ways to help congregations become reading congregations, with examples from Englewood Christian Church (the faith community that Smith is a part of). The book closes with two reading lists: Recommended Reading for Going Deeper and Englewood Christian Church Reading List. 

Smith is an avid reader and this is a book about how reading well (in community) can help churches and neighborhoods flourish. So this book will make you want to read other books. Lots of them. Smith promotes helpful books throughout and he himself has been shaped by his reading of such luminaries as: Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, Peter Senge, Marva Dawn, Gerhard Lohfink, Mary Oliver, and more. I think it is impossible to read through this book without discovering new literary treasures (or at least places to dig). My wish list grew exponentially from reading this.

More significantly, this book touches a hunger I have for thoughtful engagement. I have been a part of churches which felt like the theological equivalent of a ‘food desert.’ Sometimes the  reading theology (or biology, philosophy, or whatever) is criticized for being disconnected from ‘real life.’ Smith rejects the binary between academia and activism, thinking well and living well. His chapter on the social imaginary (with a generous nod to Charles Taylor) should be required reading for pastors and leaders. I give this five stars and highly recommend it. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.