The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community: The Posture and Practices of Ancient Church Now by Hugh Halter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Reading entirely through The Tangible Kingdom is like eating toast smothered in strawberry-habanero jam. It’s sweet enough to hold your interest to the last bite, yet hot enough to make people regret it the next morning. The Tangible Kingdom claims to be a book about re-creating the mission of Jesus, his apostles, and the early Christian churches, when, in fact, it’s really about creating an intuitively dreamy fad for those who have been disappointed with organized Christian religion in America. This is not to say it doesn’t make many valid points about, or provide any helpful insights for, reforming ugly habits of American evangelicalism. What I am saying is that the “incarnational presence” portrayed throughout this book is more anecdotal than ancient in its presentation.
This book can be divided roughly into four sections. The first section (chs. 1-5) is about identifying the church’s negative impact in society, and it begins with the author’s own life experiences, focusing especially upon God’s call for him to lead potential God-seekers into something new, but not something entirely new:
“This type of new is about a returning. Returning to something ancient, something tried, something true and trustworthy. Something that has rerouted the legacies of families, nations, kings, and peasants. ….What we’re returning to has always been and must still be revolutionary. What we need to dig up, recover, and find again is the life of the Kingdom of Jesus’ community… the church.” (p. 10)
The claim is made that there is a culture war brewing between two camps of Christians, and this book is admittedly bias toward one side (p. 20). In order to recover the life of churches today, Christians need to start doing things which the Church has not been doing, and stop doing things they have been doing (p. 12). For example, churches need to stop being like “Jerusalem Christians” (p. 19) who view Jesus “through their traditions and the literal interpretation of doctrine.” These types rely too much on sermons that focus on behavior (e.g. sin) and programs to transform people (e.g. Billy Graham crusades, Promise Keepers, Alpha, etc.). Instead of holding “doctrine so tightly that …the life of Jesus gets obscured” (p. 19), they need to be more like the “Galilean Christians” who engaged the world and “interpret[ed] the Bible through the life of Jesus,” focusing especially on the atonement, justice, mercy, love, benevolence, and advocacy for the poor, oppressed, and sinners. This, allegedly, will keep people from becoming “idolaters of the Bible” who “prioritize head knowledge over heart life” (p. 20). Church, doctrine, “Bible,” and keeping hostile people out of the Church must not be the goal of the gospel anymore. Instead the goal of the gospel should be to “start identifying ourselves with [hostiles], and allow Christ’s redemption to flow over all.” (p. 31).
The second section (chs. 6-12) is about removing traditional obstacles that get in the way of this healthy “reemergence” of ancient faith (p. 38), especially the problematic “postures” which offend the status quo of potential god-seekers in the world. Instead of focusing on “communicating a message of truth to the world” (p. 41), the “most important thing” is whether or not unbelievers are attracted to embodied truth first, so they can become more willing to receive the truth later. (p. 41). Christians need to go back to the “fringe movement” of the “pre-institutional church” (i.e. before Constantine; p. 50) which followed the ways of Jesus and practiced the “art” of not feeling any compulsion to feed people spiritually while still being willing to look after their spiritual formation (pp. 53-55). “Church” needs to become what it allegedly once was: a people you belonged with instead of a place you went to (p. 55), a place that “was unique, intriguing, and attractive primarily because it called for inclusion of all people” (p. 70), advocating “love of all people regardless of past mistakes, sexual orientation, or political bias.” (p. 88). Instead of arguing philosophy or debating alternative religious viewpoints, Christians should simply “live a different story” and invite people to observe (p. 76) so “sojourners” can feel or see aspects of the gospel lived out (p. 95-96). The truly “missional” way is to look like a church on the outside, yet be a place that “anyone can come to and not feel any pressure at any level.” (p. 116)
The third section (chs. 13-17) is about implementing “incarnational habits” to live by once the basic obstacles to “incarnational mission” have been removed. The authors offer four neatly alliterated points: leaving, listening, living among, and loving without strings. Leaving involves replacing Christian activities with time spent building relationships with the surrounding secular culture. Listening means regarding no one from a worldly point of view and showing sincere regard toward an individual’s experience, background, heritage, through which they process faith and belief. Living among means integrating one’s self and family into the fabric of society while “participating in the natural activities of the culture around you, with whimsical holiness.” (p. 136). Loving without strings means blessing others without any coercion, and helping the unlovable feel loved without any catch.
The fourth section (chs. 18-21) describes what “incarnational community” looks like so it can be duplicated successfully throughout future generations. It covers the “primary spheres of Incarnational Community” (Communion, Community, and Mission; p. 148) and some general barriers (like mandating a “tithe” or encouraging weekly corporate worship, p. 168) that hinder these spheres from working properly together.
I think the “sweet” aspects of the book expose Church-life as having a genuine crisis on its hands. Secularism does not take the Church seriously, and a significant reason for this is because Christians are often not compassionate and forgiving “friends of sinners” like Jesus or his apostles. Much of their “friendship” is programmatic at best. Even worse, many are obnoxious for God, lording their doctrine over others because in their minds the truth is obnoxious and sinners need their nose stuck in it to remember it well. Their benevolence often has strings attached too. Christians are often not invested in their own neighbor’s welfare, or integrated into the fabric of their own local community, and therefore are not salt and light within it. More care is given to believing what is right than doing what is good, which I believe is a soul-damning dichotomy; this book exposes that.
However, I’m not convinced that the program espoused in this book truly represents an “ancient” tradition, which is what really “burns” the next morning. With a mere 42 passing references from Scripture, more than half of which are anecdotal or attached to some sloganized eisegesis (the most notable one being from John 8; pp. 44-45), the biblical arguments actually seem subversive of some ancient foundation stones, possibly without even knowing it. Most subversive, in my mind, was the extremely casual approach toward corporate institutional worship, as though it’s really less important to God than sipping a signature coffee blend while listening to a porn-addicted “sojourner” talk about the good old days of high school football. Although it is true that Christians ought to embody a deep and sincere sacrificial love for their porn-addicted neighbor—especially on the Lord’s Day—they must not forget that corporate institutional worship is a public expression that they are His Body and Bride, and they cheapen His Supper if they exchange it for a pumpkin spice latte and cranberry scone. It is wishful thinking to believe, as the book claims, that without ever encouraging “sojourners” to obey truth, you will usually get them to obey truth (p. 67).