Two influences obviously shaped my experience of reading this book: for one, as I wrote in my post “On the Death of Facebook Friends” in April, I read this book as the posthumous work of an Internet personality I’d come to enjoy as a friend in the pursuit of Christian excellence. As for the other, as readers here are aware, I reviewed a book, Jesus Manifesto, not long ago that purported to be about the same work as this text. As to the first question, the sort of friendship that pursues excellence together does not fear criticism and mutual exhortation, so I’ll proceed here as I have proceeded with other books, not for Michael’s sake but for the sake of those of us still waiting to join the cloud of witnesses. As to the second, Jesus Manifesto had me wondering whether popular theology in book form was even a good idea. Mere Churchianity, despite its puerile title (that, according to Spencer’s podcast, the publisher foisted on him), restores some of my confidence in the genre.
The first thing to note is that the word “church” in the neologism “churchianity” as well as in most of the text of the book is not anything approaching the construct that the theological sub-discipline ecclesiology treats. (And before any Orthodox converts protest, “church” as ecclesiology treats it is in fact a construct; the particularities of all of those dioceses mean that any discussion of church that’s not at the same time a full local history of every local gathering–that is to say, an impossibly long book–will necessarily deal with constructs.) Instead, Spencer seems to have in mind at every turn the Baptist, Pentecostal, small-town Methodist, and other traditions that call themselves “Evangelical.” Spencer notes on a couple occasions that Catholic and Orthodox traditions are often places people flee to when they leave “church,” and even mainline Protestants for the most part avoid the (silly) label “churchianity” in Spencer’s treatment. As folks who have interacted with me online know, I would normally call for more precision of terminology in such cases, but since Spencer probably isn’t in any mood right now to quibble over terminology, I’ll extend that little exhortation to those still breathing air.
Spencer’s book begins in ways too similar to Sweet’s and Viola’s book to avoid comment: like that book, the first fifty pages of Mere Churchianity seems to be the self-indulgence of a preacher who’s been told a few times how clever he is. Those first couple chapters sacrifice precision of thought for cleverness over and over, and by the time I got to the quarter-mark, I could not tell whether Spencer was criticizing the moralism of the “church” or its lack of morals; its fall into “religion” or that it did not bind a community together (Latin religare). But unlike Jesus Manifesto, Spencer does turn his treatment around, and he does so by turning to the historical. He begins around page 52 with an account of the “Jesus community” (he’s already poisoned the word “church”) as aliens in the historical shifts of power and domination, and he really gets into high gear about thirty pages later with a summary of what it would have meant for Jesus to be a Palestinian Jew in the first century. Spencer brings in the content of historical-Jesus scholarship without outstripping the expectations of popular theology writing (no perichoresis here), and he articulates a careful conservative picture of Jesus in his historical particularity.
This is where Mere Churchianity decidedly rises above Jesus Manifesto: where the latter book, for the sake of avoiding the appearance of Republican or Democrat partisanship, declares that Christians can have any “politics” they want and still be “Christ-centered,” Spencer insists that the historical particularities of Jesus of Nazareth, not least his social class and provincial political standing, have some claims upon the Christian life. As Spencer was writing his first and last book, the right wing of the United States had begun to rally behind the Minuteman Project and other groups dedicated to driving undocumented immigrants away from America, and although Spencer at no point can be confused with a Democrat, liberal, socialist, or whatever else Glenn Beck fans are calling people like me today, he will not allow Christians too easily to forget that Jesus himself was a non-citizen, a provincial in a violent region, and he insists that “the least of these” are cosmically identifiable with the King of all Kings. Remaining in preacherly mode for this book, Spencer does not lay out foreign policy positions, but he also does not throw his hands up and allow Christians’ imaginations to stand unconfronted by these Scriptural realities.
Spencer’s most important point, one to which he returns in all the best parts of the book, is that Jesus is not an abstract conception of “humanity” appended onto a basically Plotinian unmoved mover-deity but stands as the Christian’s primary moment of divine revelation, logically prior to all other theological data. In other words, unlike some Jesus-books (I’m tired of naming the other one I read recently) that treat Jesus basically as a cipher, a negative space that can only be left empty or supplanted by other “things,” Spencer sees Christ as a starting point for genuine human thought, not stopping the process for fear of idolatry but always in need of proclamation and liturgy to remind us Christians not to become right-wingers with plastic Jesus statues on our dashboards but to return always to followers of the first-century Palestinian Jew who is also the Son of God.
Spencer’s book reminds me that some writers I just like better in essay format than in long-form prose. Spencer’s Internet Monk blog (you can link to it in our right margin, and the current editors still post “greatest of” essays regularly) were ad-hoc investigations of interesting questions, and Spencer in those contexts can get to the heart of a question with a skill that rightly earned him thousands of admiring readers (myself among them). But in a book-length project (and with an editor that wants to use “churchianity” in the title), Spencer presents a handful of good essay-length passages throughout the book, to be sure, but much of the rest of the book consists of bad bifurcations (either following Jesus or being part of “church” but not both, either liked by “church people” or faithful to Jesus but not both) and clever phrases without argument and other bad writing habits. Perhaps with a better editor (who would have pushed him to put more of the good essay material in there and cut some of the shallow cleverness) this could have been a better book, but the historical matter makes it a worthwhile read anyway. So long as a reader goes in looking for pearls in a field rather than thinking that there’s no dirt there, it could be a good experience.