Suburban Captivity of the Church
There is so much to like about this concise book by Tim Foster. It is written by an Evangelical for Evangelicals as a critique of suburban Evangelicalism. But it has a lot to offer to those who do not count themselves as part of the Evangelical camp.
Foster’s analyses of cultures and various constructions of the ‘Gospel’ are well expressed. His challenge to the church is an important one. Yet, I was left feeling that, while Foster was prosecuting a strong case, he did not take his recasting of the gospel and its implications far (or deep) enough.
The book begins with an effort to clarify the Gospel. Foster contrasts the angry God story (referred to as the ‘Punitive Gospel’) with a fulfillment oriented restatement (referred to as the ‘Telic Gospel’). This is a helpful place to start, as it highlights how the narrative we are responding to shapes our life.
There is some very rich material about cultural narratives. Foster knows his stuff and explains it well. His descriptions here are helpful, clear and not too wordy (a significant achievement).
The Telic (fulfillment/completion) oriented Gospel is more purposeful than the Punitive Gospel. But Foster’s critique falls well short of debunking the violence of God that exists in most Gospel outlines. The need for God to commit violence to satisfy the requirements of justice does not get directly addressed but it lurks behind the assumptions that are being worked with.
There is some very rich material about cultural narratives. Foster knows his stuff and explains it well. His descriptions here are helpful, clear and not too wordy (a significant achievement). The section describing the historical and theo-cultural process by which suburbs came into being is a real eye-opener and it explicates many of the assumptions that can be observed to be at work in suburban culture (and churches) today. The book is worth the read for this section alone.
I wish Foster had gone further with his reworking of the gospel. When it comes to describing the Good News that arrived in Jesus there is a lot of helpful material offered. Jesus is the divine exemplar of a new way that touches every aspect of the way a person lives. Jesus points to a new way to be human. There is not so much in the text about how we as broken humans manage to live this new way.
This is part of the frustration I experienced as I read. Foster appears to fall back to the magic that transacts on the cross without any pointers regarding how we practically apprehend this new humanity. There is reference to the transformative power of believing we are forgiven (and I agree this is critical). But I think Evangelicalism lets believers down when it comes to the fulness of just how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection helps us live a new life.
Foster does good work around the gospel’s capacity to critique our culture. Yet It was not clear regarding the degree to which he appreciated the gospel as a dynamic working within but also counter-to-all-cultures – including so-called Christian cultures. His critique of suburban Evangelicalism might be understood as an example of the gospel critique of apparently Christian culture. But it seems Foster is offering a fresh worldview to replace whatever existing worldview might have been held rather than offering a counter-to-the-culture way of engaging whatever worldview one might hold.
In my opinion Foster’s task might have been more fruitfully aimed at the suburban captivity of the gospel. Despite very helpful analytical work, the Gospel offered falls back on well established Evangelical ideology based on the premise of a violent God. Much of Foster’s material does its best to undermine theological support for violence based religion, yet his ideas don’t quite escape this very well ingrained way of thinking.
That said, I found the book stimulating and insightful – particularly in its cultural analysis. If it had included a recasting of the Gospel as the exposé of our scapegoating violence and the call (in the context of grace) to take responsibility for our violence, then I would have said it was a must read text!
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