Shift Happens: a book review

Contemporary Churches (2015) is a short booklet by Louis Kavar, Ph.D. designed to aid churches in transition and in need of revitalization. Kavar is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ with thirty-five years of experience in pastoral ministry, a psychologist, and pastoral counselor, and spiritual director. He brings his wealth of ministry experience to bear on helping churches shift from traditional congregational gatherings to something more life-giving and sustainable in our postmodern context.

51u1nyx759lThere are five chapters of Kavar’s book. Chapter 1 describes the cultural shift we are in, where the wider culture is not responsive to the church’s traditional and institutional structure. Kavar describes our need to move from where we are, to begin to configure and conceptualize church in new ways. Chapter 2 describes the movement from death to life, as congregations move through the stages of grief, a spirituality of bereavement, toward resurrection and new vitality. Chapters 3 and 4 moves toward a new model for the local church. Finally, Chapter 5 describes the spiritual practices and rituals that will sustain a church in transition. Kavar writes, “The vitality of the Christian life is not dying. Instead, structures that no longer represent the way of life our culture embraces are fading away.  In this transformation, the words of Isaiah 43 is true for us today, ‘Look I am doing a new thing. It’s emerging don’t you perceive it?'”(94).

I knew that Kavar was a clergy person, a spiritual director, and a psychologist when I picked the book up. I somehow got in my head that this book was about ‘contemplative church transformation.’ It took me waaay too long to realize I read that it was called Contemporary Churches, and not Contemplative Churches. But Kavar draws more heavily on psychologists than mystics. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t deal with spiritual transformation ( he employs Brueggemann’s orientation/disorientation/reorientation framework, the rhythms of death and resurrection, the example of Jesus, spiritual practices, discernment and the operations of the Holy Spirit. And he incorporates insights he’s gained as a psychologist and a church strategist.

Resources abound for church revitalization and congregational transformation. This isn’t the first resource of this kind I’ve read, though it is perhaps the most mainline one I’ve read. Kavar does reference mainstay evangelical authors like Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, George Barna, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons and even Willow Creek Association resources (but not Ed Stetzer, sorry Lifeway). The changing dynamics of culture effects evangelical and mainline congregations alike, though all anecdotes and illustrative material here are of Mainline congregations and contexts. Some of his examples of shifts (e.g. the move to LGBTQ inclusion and social justice awareness) will be contested in more conservative contexts, but the principles hold true across the theological spectrum. Kavar has some interesting things to say about how for postmodern people, there is a shift in our understanding of church membership from adherence to historic dogma first toward the primacy of communal belonging (members first,  dogma later). I’m confessional enough that this makes me uncomfortable, though I recognize he is right about the broader cultural shift.

Fellow clergy (and congregational leaders) will benefit from reading this whether or not you buy all of Kavar’s theological assumptions and conclusions. He is a good dialogue partner. I give this book four stars (Contemplative Churches, would have been an awesome book).

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review

A PostHope Hope: a book review

Can Hope survive  with the collapse of epistemology certainty? Is God necessarily existent for spiritual experience? Can the nihilism of our age open us up to the possibility of grace? Phenomenologist and deconstructionist John D. Caputo wrestles with these questions and more in his intellectual memoir, Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim). The book is a spiritual autobiography of sorts, but it only reveals the broad contours of Caputo’s life, focusing on the development (or deconstruction?) of his thoughts on God, faith and certainty.

Hoping Against Hope by John D. “Jackie” “Brother Paul” Caputo

Caputo was raised in a devout Catholic family. He spent four years as a De LaSalle monk,  before his illustrious career as a philosopher and theologians (thirty-six years as professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and professor of philosophy of religion at Syracuse University for seven years). In Hoping Against Hope he gives voice and personality to these various stages of his intellectual development. As a child Caputo was an altar boy in pre-Vatican II Catholicism who had memorized the Baltimore Catechism. Caputo refers to this younger self  as “Jackie.” “Brother Paul,” is the monk Caputo who grew callouses on his knees in an attempt to learn prayer and had a love for the mystics. The professor, “John D.,” is the the philosopher who’s tongue was loosed by Jacques Derrida (the other Jackie) and the French Postmodernists.

Caputo writes:

My life as a philosopher gas taken place in the distance between theology and philosophy. Like everyone else, however far forward I thought I moved, I was always circling around my origins. I soon found that the audacity of the philosophers who “dare to think” according to the Enlightenment motto, fails them when it comes to theology. There they panic, in fear of contamination. They treat the name of God like a terrible computer virus that will corrupt all their files, or like a real one, like the Ebola virus, where the odds of recovering are against you. So, mostly at the beginning of my professional life, when “John D.” stepped forth and responded to the title “professor,” while telling Jackie to stay at home, I was worried that they would say, “This is not philosophy, this is just his religion.” But my religion is between me and Brother Paul and Jackie and several others. How can they know anything about that? (104-105).

With the Continental Philosophers, Heidigger, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotoard, Levinas, and others, Caputo thoroughly rejects the narrative of the Christian tradition and the official line of the Roman Catholic church. He dismantles dogma, expresses his antagonism toward  the afterlife and a God that is either ‘ the Prime Punisher and the Royal Rewarder (64). He also regards the arguement between atheism and theism to be wrong-headed. With a Zen-Koan-like-air he proclaims, “God does not exist. God insists” (114). He gives fresh and unique interpretations of scripture and imagines the textual variants he wishes to one day uncover. Caputo’s thoughts run far a field from classic Christian orthodoxy.

But his project isn’t wholly negative. Caputo upholds active service to the poor and marginalized and the non-religious religion of love. He says his idea of nihilism is stolen from the mystics and he employs insights from Miester Eckhardt and Marguerite Porete (both mystics ran a foul from official church teaching). What Caputo proposes is a religion of the Rose–“The rose is without why; it blossoms because it blossoms; It cares not for itself, asks not if it’s seen” (27). He brings this verse from Angelus Silesius into conversation wiht Lyotard’s religion of the smile and posits a nihilism where all of life is received as a gift  (with or without a giver), where all of life is received without condition (181).

As an intellectual memoir/spiritual autobiography I give this three stars and thought it was an interesting read. I especially loved the ‘short nocturnal dialogue’ where Caputo imagines a dialogue with himself at his different stages of faith and intellectual development. I appreciate how Caputo’s postmodernity leads him to pluralism and relativism without the need to posit an underlying universal faith in God.  However, I am unconvinced by Caputo’s theological vision and see his radical (or weakness) theology as incompatible with the Christian gospel of grace. I was aware of Caputo before reading this book, so wasn’t particularly surprised by what he says here.  I have read him before and have seen him lecture. I find him fascinating. I also find it ironic that I received this book from Cross Focused reviews. If Caputo mentions the cross at all (and I don’t remember that he does in this book), it is clearly not his focus. Anyway, I received this book in exchange for my honest review. ★★★