Reclaiming the Church – John Cobb

1 02 2009

Recently I was sent a copy of John Cobb’s book by Trip Fuller of “Transforming Theology Blog” fame. Cobb, a united methodist, shares some of his concerns the growing “sickness” of mainstream and oldline denominational churches. Having read a few books of this nature, (e.g The Courage to be Protestant – David Wells & The myth of a Christian nation – Greg Boyd), I had very low expectations for this book.

The book is a short one. Five chapters and 110 pages.
For Cobb, the biggest symptom of the problem is the radical shift of Christianity from America and Europe to South America and Africa. Christianity is flourishing in the third world, and “decaying” in the 1st world.  The Church has not responded to cultural trends with a thoroughly Christian worldview. So far so good, but from then on it all seems to go down hill.

 Cobb states that “Our task…is not to adapt ourselves to what is going on in the society around us, but to be faithful to Jesus Christ” (page 40). While I agree, Cobb does little to tell us how to be faithful to Jesus Christ when the culture changes. He says similar things about femmenism, “Renewal views femmenist ideas from a biblical perspective” (page 50). What exactly is a biblical perspective, and how is it formed? He doesn’t go far enough with his ideas. “Although sola scriptura exaggerates, it rightly points to the insistence on justifying each decision from the Bible in a relatively direct way” (page 52). Cobb spends no time explaining why Sola Scriptura is an exaggeration, nor does he explain why it is also “right”. 

“Movements flourish when their members are passionately committed. Christianity has flourished when Christians have been convinced that their faith is of supreme importance to them individually and collectively and also for the world.” (page 2). Cobb opens with this statementt but ironically does not take his own ideas far enough. How on earth does the Bible relate to renewal? What is the place of sound doctrine? What is a Christian worldview? What is a biblical perspective on culture? What am I supposed to do as a Christian?

But the most bizarre of his statements is this one “…no one is in a position to make universalitic statements. Our Christian concern is to live out our own world of meanings, not to impose them on anyone else…Jews cannot be accused of rejecting the one who was to be their saviour and the saviour of the whole world. Judaism and Christianity are simply different systems of meaning.” (page 62) In other words, Judaism and Christianity are just simply different expressions of the same truth. Sadly more than 1/3 of Americans think this way. George Barna’s research confirms that most Americans believe the Bible, Koran and Book of Mormon and three expressions of the same truth.  Even more disturbing is this quote :”Jesus is Lord…clearly Lord is relational term and only for those who follow Jesus is he actually Lord.” (page 63) I could not believe what I was reading. For all his talk about renewal and transformation he seems to have wholly swallowed post-modern relativity.  As a Christian I know Jesus is Lord whether someone follows him or not. He’s not just my Lord, He is Lord of the whole world. The world was made by him, through him and for him. At no point is the Lordship of Jesus so intensely personalised like Cobb would have us believe.

The book is fraught with problems and from then on he lost me. If you want to transform culture, and reclaim your church from it, then don’t buy this book. Spend time in Scripture and meditate on the person and work of Jesus Christ on the cross. He is Lord of the world, He is the King of Kings, and he calls everyone everywhere to submit to his rule. If we don’t acknowledge that as Christians we have nothing to offer the world.  What the Church needs is a generation of believers who will faithfully proclaim the Lorship of Jesus Christ to the world in fresh and new ways without compromising on Biblical Truth. My low expectations of this book were confirmed and I couldn’t in good faith reccommend it to anyone.

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6 responses

2 02 2009
Mason

Grant,
Thanks for the review. I’m awaiting a book from Transforming Theology as well, though I am unsure which one. Sorry to hear that this book did not live up to your expectations, since what sounds like the basic topic of it (that the Western church is doing some things terribly wrong) is true enough at least from what I can see in my own American context.

However, like you some of the statements you quoted here strike me as quite unsupportable on any type of historical/grammatical/theological study of the Scriptures, especially the line,
“Jesus is Lord…clearly Lord is relational term and only for those who follow Jesus is he actually Lord.”
That is not at all how the New Testament or the ancient Roman world understood Lordship. The lordship of Caesar for example was not presented as “there is this guy Caesar, and if you’d like to personally connect with something bigger than yourself you can follow him if you feel like it”, no, they said “Caesar is lord, so get in line and bow”.
I’m by no means saying we should approach the lordship of Christ like that, lining people up and telling them to submit. Nevertheless the lordship of Christ is no less (and indeed much more) universal, it is just implemented in a different way.

2 02 2009
aworthydiscussion

Yeah unfortunately I should have read the blurb about this ministry. They are a group of emergent liberal & progressive theologians. I’m happy for diversity in theological opinion, just not around the essentials.

NZ is such a different place to America that its hard to relate to many of these writers. Wells and Boyd’s analysis had very little practical value here in NZ because people are not denominationally focused or religously patriotic. I guess you could say that the Pilgrims fled to America to have freedom FOR religion, the settlers in NZ came here to have freeedom FROM religion.

I guess you could say the Church that I’m in is Emergent. We are not affiliated with any denomination or ism, but we certainly hold to the essentials of Christianity.

3 02 2009
Mason

From your description I would say that, at least here in the states, your church would be seen as Emergent. If there are a wide variety of traditions represented (ranging from Pentecostal to Roman Catholic) and the approach is not “well you are all welcome to be here, but you need to understand we think you should become Baptist/Methodist/Orthodox etc” but rather embracing all involved, that would be a rare sight indeed here and definitely on the emerging side.

“Wells and Boyd’s analysis had very little practical value here in NZ because people are not denominationally focused or religiously patriotic.”

Though denominationalism is starting to weaken here, it still has a great deal of impact, especially in certain areas. To the point where many conservative evangelicals are just now getting over the automatic assumption that being Roman Catholic must imply you are an unsaved pagan.
Likewise, there is still a tendency with many to assume things like, for example “We are Baptist, and so I guess those Reformed people are probably real Christians, but they clearly don’t read the Bible correctly and they let their traditions control them, because if they didn’t they would be Baptist too”.

Now, this is fading, in the younger evangelicals especially, but also in thinking believers throughout the church and the scholarly realm. Still, there are lingering effects of all this (and an unsettling level of ‘religious patriotism’) which Boyd and others are reacting to. That probably is at least part of why “Myth of a Christian Nation” didn’t really resonate with you.

4 02 2009
aworthydiscussion

Yeah well if thats the case then we’re definately emergent. LOL !! We are still pretty conservative and evangelical in our doctrine and interpretation of scripture I might add though. I think you’re right on Boyd’s book. While I liked the idea – there is no such thing as a Christian nation – his use of the end justifies the means type methodology didn’t square with me. I think he swung the pendulum back quite far the other way. His open theist stance, pacifism, and simple pat answers to complex issues were among the things that didn’t resonate well with me.

4 02 2009
Mason

I’ve not read that book yet, but I’ve read some other works on open theism, and I’ll second your distaste for it. I get the point they are trying to make, and agree that we might be leaning a little bit too much on Greek philosophy for our idea of God’s attributes, but think their conclusions are quite unbiblical.

6 02 2009
Transforming Theology Blog is LIVE | Homebrewed Christianity

[…] Bloggers are starting to take notice of this ambitious project.  Like Justin, Tony, Mike, and even the disappointed but clearly thought about it Grant. […]

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