on May 2, 2000
Hall's starting point is the assertion that Christianity, identified since Constantine with dominant social values, is now in a state of confusion because it has lost its "imperial status." After criticizing various attempts of the Church to recover its ascendancy, Hall proposes that it abandon these efforts and view what seems a loss as a providential opportunity to recover its true mission. Noting that today's Christians are ignorant of their religion's basic teachings, he urges the Church to make the Scriptures familiar again and to allow them to speak to the existential dilemmas of our time. This conclusion seems uncontroversial, and there would be little in this book to trouble or inspire readers if Hall did not cite specific details of how churches err. On one hand are liberal or "mainstream" churches that neglect theological concerns in favor of fellowship- "friendly churches" (which may also engage in laudatory but bland social service). On the other, are conservatives who mouth ready-made theological and ethical answers in a language that fails to address contemporary questions. One of this book's strengths is that it identifies errors from across the spectrum. It's greatest shortcoming is that it seems incomplete. Its four chapters originated as independent lectures on a theme Hall has continued to elaborate. As a result these pages read more like a work in progress than a definitive treatise. (This is particularly true for anyone familiar with some of Hall's recent lectures on related topics.) Nor are all of the author's arguments entirely convincing. A case in point is his attributing the Church's imperial vocation to its becoming the official religion of Rome. This claim ignores such Scriptural passages as Philippians 2:10-11, which states "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and . . . and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" Nevertheless, this book provides a thought-provoking introduction to an important nexus of questions.
on December 18, 2005
This small book is one of a series in missiology. The basic question is how the Church ought to address "developments integral to modernity" -- most importantly how "the role of religion in culture" has recently been redefined. While religion played an authoritative role in the culture of Christendom, modern Western culture is "highly critical", and "increasingly secular in its assumptions".
Looking back to Constantine, Hall states simply: "What was born in that distant century, namely, the imperial church, now comes to an end. That beginning and this ending are the two great social transitions in the course of Christianity in the world." His central theme is that of "disestablishment". The Christendom which was established through Constantine now needs to be disestablished -- and this needs to be done with the active participation of the Church. With this in mind, his comments on the "intentional disengagement from the dominant culture" didn't seem to lend themselves to clear interpretation. In societies in turmoil, where the Church is already largely "disestablished", it may be crucial for the Church to remain "engaged" with the dominant culture, out of simple prudence.
Hall seems rather sketchy with regard to what a "disengaged" or "disestablished" Church might look like. However, he suggests that Christians should shift their emphasis from fellowship towards discipleship, from behaviour towards confession. Further, he suggests that Christians should "engage their society from the perspective of faith and hope". This, he writes, would include four aspects in particular: a quest for authentic rather than conventional morality, a quest for meaningful community rather than individualism or "oppressive forms of communality", a quest for "the transcendent within the imminent [sic]" rather than "old forms of spirituality", and a quest for meaning which is not invented by ourselves -- whatever these may mean.
On the positive side, Hall develops his broader themes clearly, and lucidly describes what Christendom has become in contradistinction to Christianity. From this point of view, the book contains several strong passages. Less satisfying is the use of theological jargon which is ill defined (e.g. "the evolving of God's creation", or "the tradition of Jerusalem"), and the author's own apparent captivity to culture. While he speaks of the need to "disentangle our authentic tradition of belief from its cultural wrapping", he seems to be well wrapped in the same -- particularly from the point of view that he seems fixated with culture, and does not appear to reveal a clear sense of a living God. I myself might have preferred a greater emphasis on the shift in the Church's conception of the Triune God, rather than shifts in social or cultural relations.