Sunday, January 13, 2013

Book Review: Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace & Community

Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and CommunityReframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and Community by Mark Strom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most interesting part of this book is the survey of the Greco-Roman world which formed the context of the letters written by St Paul found in the Christian New Testament of the Bible. The author discusses what he calls the social, historical and personal frames of the ancient world and compares these to Paul's. The essential point of the book is that St Paul has been misappropriated by the Christian evangelical movement in developing a structure that is controlling, ideological, and self-perpetuating. At the heart of the social fabric of evangelicalism is a resistance to genuine conversation that is open, creative, radical and subversive in positive ways. An actual analysis of Paul's writings in the context of the thought and experience world of his day shows that there is no biblical authority for what evangelicalism takes for granted as being "determined by God". What the average Christian experiences when they attend church is worlds away from the freedom St Paul envisaged for the Christian. Instead, evangelicalism is all about conformity. The author describes the stifling power of evangelical structures and processes in the following paragraph:

Conformity requires ideals, ideals require persuasive oratory, the orator needs to feel he knows the truth; persuading others of the truth is the basis of conformity. The conventions of preaching establish boundaries for the comgregation's thought, feelings and behaviour. The effect is to make the whole system seem self-evidently true and to pull people back from the storms of their questions and doubts into the shelters of authorised explanations and ideals. They must be calmed before they find grief, anger and freedom.
For the author, the key to Christan freedom in community is "grace-full comversation". 'Conversations marked by grace. Conversations full of grace. Conversations that bring grace. For the author, the rhetoric of grace abounds in the church but the structures and processes of the evangelical community are inherently resistant to its being experienced in everyday life. This situation leads to many people leaving (or being jettisoned from) the traditional church. If only we could recover grace-full conversation the Christian community might have a chance.

The last section of the book provides a sense of what grace-full conversation might look like in practice and the challenges of implementing such conversations within the evangelical system. The negative effects of traditional preaching, absolutist theologies, idealism and authority are explored leading to the breakdown of meaning experienced by contemporary believers. In the last chapter of the book the author shares his own personal journey attempting to nurture a grace-full community - including the warts and disappointing outcome. The second-to-last paragraph on the power of grace to subvert is excellent and a good place to finish this brief review:

Grace is subversive. It undermines the ideals and standards of those of us who cannot tolerate weakness in others (or in ourselves). It undermines the pride of those of us who search out every vestige of unbiblical belief and practice. It undermines the presumption of those of us who preach the pure gospel to cure all ills. It undermines the safety of those of us who throw off the shackles of abusive and codependent relationships only to exclude grace from those who have hurt us. It undermines our need to find the ideal, the answer, the method, the cure. We ate left with the weakness of grace-full comversation.
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