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Congregation: Stories and Structures by James F. Hopewell


At the time of his death in 1984, James F. Hopewell was Professor of Religion and the Church and Director of the Rollins Center for Church Ministries at the Candler School of theology, Emory University. Published by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1987. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 11: Christ and Eros


Membership in a local church implies both identification with the plot of its corporate activity and also an attraction, through that history, to the Other whom the congregation proclaims its Lord. Accepting the sticky consequences of a particular social commitment and covenant, a church member participates also in narrative reflection and storied praxis. Through their members, congregations consider their own story. At certain moments, most often in their worship and acts of mission, congregations intensify their own search for the meaning of their corporate lives. It is in these events, which often seem to be parenthetical moments in church life, that the local church represents its participation not only in its own story but also in that of God.

Recently a pastor invited members to develop a "time line," in order to deepen the congregation’s consciousness of its plot. Assembled one evening in the church basement after eating, the members adjusted their chairs toward a wall on which was tacked a long strip of butcher paper with a horizontal line drawn a third of the way down from the top. The years through which the church had lived were marked on the line, earlier years ticked closer together than those more proximate to the present. The pastor encouraged members to talk about what had happened in each year, and, as they talked, a scribe noted key phrases in the stories at the appropriate place on the paper: "great music festival," "administrative mess," "Mrs. Chairperson dies," "young people ask for a different type of worship," "new kitchen." Over the line were written events important to the larger community and world: "recession," "Vietnam," "new highway." As the evening passed, the pace of storytelling quickened, and more difficult and embarrassing tales began to emerge. At the end, people signed the chart at the point they themselves had entered the church’s life.

Throughout the following week, members kept adding other events important to the story. By the following Sunday the record had so enlarged in significance that it was moved from the basement to the rear wall of the sanctuary, where it still hangs. Occasionally someone adds further elaboration or comment.

Thus members of one church posed graphically the fundamental issue of their worship. The story of the congregation, they demonstrated, is not an activity separate from and subordinate to the story of God; the stories of congregation and God belong in the same room, united though in tension, the first reflecting human history, the latter the definition, acceptance, and evaluation of that history by the Being within, yet beyond, history’s comprehension. The stories are blended in worship. The congregation’s members, as God’s household, stand between the symbols of the two stories, one figured on the rear wall, the other sounded and signed from the chancel. In the crossfire of symbols, the members represent Christ’s body, the manifestation of God within signs of their flesh and culture.

To speak of this conjoining I shall first tell about Christ, the incarnation of God, and then Eros, the personification of culture, as they embody the life of the parish.

The Character of Christ

It is now much more difficult for the local church to give an account of Christ than in former centuries. As I conducted world view interviews I was surprised how infrequently, in even conservative Protestant congregations, the name of Christ was mentioned in response to questions about crises such as death, family instability, or world catastrophes. Although the name of Christ is regularly used by church members in the intensive, self-identifying acts of worship and evangelism, it seems now to be infrequently employed to fathom situations that challenge personal or corporate identity. The formidable pedagogy developed by the church to inculcate the person of Christ into the total world view and ethos of Christian life has today largely failed, the house of authority, to use Edward Farley’s image, having collapsed.1

Structures within which the congregational household has for millennia made its home have lost an earlier power both to explain the world in Christian terms and to form behavior by norms readily acknowledged as those of Christ. The authority of Scripture, dogma, organization, and theological reasoning that once constituted the church, the ekklesia, has waned to the point of inconsequentiality for most Christians trying to make sense of their existence.

Can paroikia with its thick culture built from direct human interaction survive the cave-in of its surrounding ekklesia? If the congregation is nothing more than a division of the larger church, the local unit of a national and international apparatus, then its future is grim indeed. Little in the activity of the overarching organizations of the church today provides compelling reasons for belonging to a congregation. If the foundering of denominational and ecumenical offices and the quandaries of theological faculties are current indications of a loss of coherence that will in time debilitate all congregations, then church membership is hardly worth the effort.

But consider the tenacity of the local church. Congregational structures appeared before the time of Jesus but became the primary social expression of his presence. The congregation then abided the growth of ecclesial apparatus and the establishment of canon and dogma; it endured councils and conventicles; it persisted through reform, counter reform, and enlightenment. As Christianity spread throughout the world, the local church has taken root in cultures more readily disposed to other social forms -- kinship, for instance, or civil association. The congregation continues today in the face of criticism and announcements of its recent or impending death. But conventionally shaped congregations, a third of a million of them in the United States, still serve Christians as the principal forum for their faith. Even redundant congregations of the elderly may (to the puzzlement of church executives) defy extinction, because such churches often assimilate still other aged persons who replace the members who die.

Ernst Troeltsch proposed reasons for the persistence of the local church. Troeltsch sought to accept the critical methods of modern thought and to acknowledge their devastating consequences for the structures of ekklesia but also "to preserve Christianity as redemption through faith’s constantly renewed personal knowledge of God."2 Seeking the essence of Christianity, Troeltsch threaded his way between arguments for the knowledge of God by linguistic formulation and other arguments that discovered the path in mystical encounter.3 He located the bond between humanity and God in the cultic life of the community. He did not specifically cite the congregation as the locus of the worshipping Christian community, nor was he sanguine about the long continuation of any institutional form of the church, but his acuity in aligning the essential faith of Christianity with its cultic expression in specific communities provides an explanation for the present strength of the local church. Christ, he proposed, is the "support, center and symbol" of the worshipping Christian community:4

For as long as the peculiarly Christian-prophetic religion bearing within itself the Stoa, Platonism and various other elements continues, all possibilities of a community and cult, and so all real power and extension of belief, will be tied to the central position of Christ for faith.5

The Christ made manifest by the worshipping community is not, in Troeltsch’s argument, primarily a principle or a contemplative symbol but the historical personality who actually began the church and focused its intersubjectivity:

It was the requirement of community and cult which gave to the personality of Christ its central position. They continue to give it this central position. Where community is dissolved into free and isolated religious convictions of individuals and the cult is transformed into mood and reflexion, there too the link with Jesus is less prominent. Even where it is apparently preserved intact, we have instead of Jesus the inner Christ or the free mystical presence of God in the soul. Where on the other hand this weakness and dispersion is abandoned in favour of a return to community and cult, this brings with it a renewed emphasis upon the significance of Jesus’ historical personality.6

The person of Jesus drawn from New Testament accounts is the Christ represented in worshipping communities. The biography of the founder thus in a peculiar way nourishes the plot of the congregation. The historical fact of Jesus, who lived, taught, died, and triumphed not only stands at the remote beginning of any congregation but also concretizes the hope that the congregation finds in its present existence.

Although Christ is central to the congregation, his effective presence in its corporate life is elusive. Today the grace of Christ is guaranteed neither by the traditional certainties of the church nor by the contemporary designations of social sciences. There are at best tentative intimations of Christ in the life of the congregation, and his presence is hardly captured by what current observers wrongly label a congregation’s sacred time and sacred space. A congregation given to the cultivation of sacred "hot spots" in its life, whether liturgical or emotional in form, may amplify the linking action of congregational plot -- the association of events for the purpose of identity -- but the vivid occurrences do not in themselves qualify as sacred moments. The nuance of Christ is more likely to appear when expressions of congregational culture are summarized. As the Other, Christ is there defined by the whole but not derived from it. The Christ of faith nuances the extensive whole of corporate experience rather than any one intensive congregational event.

The Eucharist, far from representing the sacred isolation of Christ from the fullness of plot, is the sign of their association. Nowhere else is the relationship of Christ and a local church’s total culture more succinctly presented, displaying the variety of plot actions and evoking the presence of Christ. "The absolute invariable nucleus of every eucharistic rite known to us," according to Dom Gregory Dix, is its fourfold action:

(1) The offertory; bread and wine are "taken" and placed on the table together.

(2) The prayer; the president gives thanks to God over bread and wine together.

(3) The fraction; the bread is broken.

(4) The communion; the bread and wine are distributed together.7

In Holy Communion the fact of Christ is proclaimed in conjunction with the elements of cultured grain and grape, in conjunction with humanly formed words, vessels, and gestures. As (1) an offering worthy of God and God’s people, the goods of Eros are linked to Christ. By their presence over which (2) prayer is uttered they are unfolded in their divine significance. In (3) fraction their meaning is thickened to show their brokenness. And through (4) Communion their intention is twisted, transformed into the eternal banquet for all peoples. Essential in itself to the worshipping congregation, the Eucharist also symbolizes a larger liturgy played throughout the whole life of the local church. The Eucharist is the underlying paradigm for recognizing the actions of Christ and Eros throughout the life of the parish. To understand their mutual working, the nature of Eros must first be defined.

The Character of Eros

The myth of Eros attributed a human urgency to the cosmos, an interpersonal passion to seize form and meaning, thousands of years before our current understanding of the social construction of reality. Eros is popularly characterized today as little cupid, who instigates love affairs among gods and mortals. Behind the mischief, however, lives an earlier and considerably more formidable deity whose nature incites both ancient philosophers and contemporary theologians to recognize humanity’s creative force.

On the whole, theologians are more likely than philosophers to be suspicious of Eros. In Agape and Eros, Anders Nygren sharply distinguishes Christian faith from Eros piety, which he considers the early church’s "most dangerous rival"8 and today the seducer of the human soul toward impossible attainment. Eros represents the striving of people for an ideal world, an acquisitive love of the beautiful and the good. Eros promises a salvation gained by human initiative. Erotic desire signifies the possibility of a self-generated fulfillment that satisfies personal need and rewards worldly accomplishment.9 Against this urge of the world Nygren pits the agape of Christ through whom God by divine initiative offers the free gift of salvation. Eros builds from the ground up, seeking to realize for himself the beautiful and the good;10 Christ by contrast reaches down, sacrificing himself, redeeming by uncalculating love the undeserving world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a similar estimation of Eros. In Life Together, his stirring essay on Christian fellowship, he just as sharply differentiates the society of Eros from the community of Jesus Christ.11 Although human reality, the realm of Eros, generates notable creativity, aspires to "the highest and the best," and lovingly seeks "human ties, suggestions, and bonds," such erotic practice for Bonhoeffer is self-serving and basically untruthful about life. Christian society lives instead according to a spiritual reality that discloses the truth of God and the occasion of agape, "the bright love of brotherly service."

In distinction from Nygren and Bonhoeffer, Troeltsch’s interpreter H. Richard Niebuhr defines the relationship between Christ and Eros as more subtly interwoven. Christ for Niebuhr actually focuses and mediates both the agapaic movement of God toward the world and the erotic press of the world toward God.12 Niebuhr’s analysis seems to me to explain what actually happens in a congregation’s plot. The toil of Eros is essential to congregational story because, as Niebuhr perceived, Eros signifies far more than the contradiction of agape love: Eros is an image of culture itself, the expressive stuff without which the proclamation or incarnation of the Christian story is inconceivable.

So basic is Eros to the composition of the universe that Hesiod names him third in the order of creation:

First of all, chaos came into being, next broad-bosomed Earth, the solid and eternal home of all, and Eros, the most beautiful of the immortal gods, who in every man and every god softens the sinews and overpowers the prudent purpose of the mind.13

Primordial Eros couples the cosmos, creating its forms, firing its process, constituting its harmony. Eros is the overpowering, softening, possessive energy that gives things their shape and linked significance.

In today’s view, culture gives the cosmos its shape and linked significance.14 We no longer believe that our perceptions stem from something innate. Left to themselves, our sight and senses would be like those of newborn children not yet taught the figure and meaning of things. It is only through our initiation into the web of culture, into the intricacy of our language, that chaos becomes the images, sequences, and ideas that compose the world we know. Culture gives the world its understood nature. Culture is not just the human representation and manipulation of nature; it is, for its human fabricators, the underlying order of the cosmos itself.

Eros is thus a narrative symbol of our creative, grasping culture. His story posits the settings, characterizations, and plots by which all people find their way in a world that without story would recede into the formlessness of chaos.15 Eros is our narrative struggle to signify the value and consequence of our existence.

In the Symposium, Plato recalls another tradition, one that identified Poverty and Plenty as the parents of Eros, thus emphasizing the daimon’s double nature that, on the one hand, is "always in distress," yet, on the other, is "bold, enterprising and strong." This apposite joining of necessity and resource, of want and power, generates for Plato the erotic transaction.16 A similar union characterizes our present understanding of the creation of culture.

Culture, on the one hand, is the child of Poverty. Culture is the scenario, Ernest Becker writes, that humans construct in the face of death to counter the final deprivation that causes their obliteration.17 Whether the ultimate deficiency of death threatens my own life, or the integrity of a political system, or the future of people born and living in hopelessness and squalor, the collective response of death’s subjects demands their constant weaving and repair of webs of significance that constitute a shared culture and common story. I noted how the plot of common story deals with the threats of cultural amnesia, oppression, alienation, and death. Similarly, story’s setting fights against the menace of absurdity, which is the denial of ordered scene. And the character of a group’s story represents a reaction to anomie, social decay that evokes both the Latin sense of "no name" and its Greek cognate of "no norm." Thus the terror of want spawns Eros. An ultimate poverty compounded of absurdity, amnesia, and the rest provokes an erotic quest for intimate community, the thirst for goodness and beauty, and the desire for meaning.

Nygren and Bonhoeffer nevertheless mistrusted this acquisitive grasp of Eros, and even Plato found him "terrible as an enchanter." Should we shy away from Eros? If we do, we avoid certain dangers. But unless we also engage him in a certain way, acknowledging the struggle that society consistently wages against chaos, we are left with a lonely need to address the absurdity in private. Without the passion of society for meaning, the search for significance becomes a desperate private quest. As long as one disregards the culture’s own imperative to remember, to give things their shape, to assign their purpose and importance, one labors for these ends in terrifying isolation. I wrote these words shortly after my first operation for cancer:

I learned last week how I will probably die -- with a bit of luck, some time from now, but now a particular tiger in a pack has been pointed out to me as the one that will run me down. What has been most helpful in my distress has not been, as I would have expected, the counsel and concern of those friends who dared approach me person-to-person, providing talking therapy ("How do you feel about it?") or sure gospel formula. What has proved most comforting has been my sense, conveyed also by friends, of being part of a body -- my seminary, my church, my family -- that itself seeks meaning in distress. Anxiety recedes.

Eros offers the good news that none of us strives alone for meaning. My individual distress is also the distress out of which culture emerges. My own distress is not resolved, but it enlists the relentless struggle of the whole community.

But Eros is also parented by Plenty. His engendering also depends upon a resourceful counterpart: the rich human imagination that creates the forms and links and sequences by which we recognize the universe. Out of the fertile plenitude of Eros comes the opulent language of word, mark, and gesture. The narrative nature of erotic culture, moreover, is displayed in myths so compelling that they shape society’s sense of itself. It is the symbolic capacity of culture that creates works of literary expression, drama, music, dance, and the fine arts. By Eros are made the world’s tools and artifacts, the disciplines of inquiry, the events of human development and association. In its imaginative action, culture gives some attributes even to our understanding of God, because the concepts of creation, redemption, sanctification, Lord, grace, and salvation reflect society’s metaphorical labor. Whatever objective reality our various views profess by such terms, that reality is signified by images compounded in culture. Eros expresses in part the nature and being of God.

The Congregational Setting

Congregations are the church’s erotically capacious households. Other organizations are specialized for particular ends. Seldom do other social organizations include both children and the aged; seldom do they rely upon members with diverse careers and educational preparations. Once joined, the noncongregational bodies of the church often gently pressure members into uniform patterns of behavior or attitudes. Among the structures of the church, only the congregation persistently addresses the diverse personal goals of its members.

Two stories, one of Eros and one of Christ, occur in the local church. This book has examined primarily the narrative that the congregation historically enacts through its day-to-day behavior and by its particular views and values. Comparable attention has not been given to the Christian story upon which the local church by its local story stakes its ultimate identity. Several recent books provide an opposite imbalance, emphasizing the congregation’s normative relationship to Christian narrative.18 "The social-ethical task of the church," says one, ". . . is to be the kind of community that tells and tells rightly the story of Jesus."19 It is the contention of this book, however, that persistently and seriously as a congregation may present as its own the Christian story, it nevertheless enacts a cultural narrative identified by myths quite distinct from the story of Jesus.

No local church escapes Eros and, therefore, a narrative structure that draws upon the world’s stories. It is no more reasonable to expect a Christian community to lose its peculiar erotic nature than it is to anticipate that Christian individuals will discard their own unique identities in following Christ. But the good news of Christ does not require that one’s culture be obliterated in redemption. H. Richard Niebuhr exposed the inadequacy of attempts to free Christianity from culture:

Christ claims no man purely as a natural being, but always as one who has become human in a culture; who is not only in culture, but into whom culture has penetrated. Man not only speaks but thinks with the aid of the language of culture. Not only has the objective world about him been modified by human achievement; but the forms and attitudes of his mind which allow him to make sense of the objective world have been given him by culture.20

In his typology of approaches to the Christ and culture problem, Niebuhr repudiates the contention of groups identified by his "Christ against culture" category who feel they can withdraw from their secular environment:

When they meet Christ they do so as heirs of a culture which they cannot reject because it is part of them. They can withdraw from its more obvious institutions and expressions; but for the most part they can only select -- and modify under Christ’s authority -- something they have received through the mediation of society.21

The plot that tracks the connection between Christ and Eros in congregational story will be one that reflects not Niebuhr’s "Christ against culture" category but his four other types of interaction between the two powers in human life. Rejecting the possibility of isolating Christian experience from a cultural matrix, Niebuhr cites four different motifs by which the relation between Christ and culture has been perceived:

a. The "Christ of Culture" approach sees no essential conflict between Christ and Eros. Christ is the comprehensive fulfillment of culture, and culture the given expression of Christ. Culture is accepted as the present representation of God’s grace and kingdom.

b. "Christ Above Culture" recognizes present culture as a stage in the development toward divine perfection of a world that is now both holy and sinful. Eros is acknowledged as the necessary synthesis of divine and human activity that leads, by both revelation and human reason, to a full future salvation.

c. "Christ and Culture in Paradox" proposes an inevitable dialectic between the sinfulness of culture and the graceful action of God within the world. Eros is tolerated as the inescapable, evil stuff of human life through which divine wrath and mercy must nevertheless occur.

d. "Christ the Transformer of Culture" expresses the hope that even fallen culture can by the power of God be redirected to regain the kingdom that the Fall contradicts. Eros in all his activities is interpreted as the object of conversion that by radical transfiguration fulfills the intention of God for the world.

Niebuhr treats these contradictory understandings of Christ’s association with culture as motifs advanced by different theologians and schools of thought through Christian history. Although he recognizes strands of the other approaches present in each theological position, he argues that a particular interpretation emerges in most situations as the most prominent,22 and he enjoins Christians to reach their own "final" choice.23 The study of the struggle of congregations to grasp the relationship of Christ to their own culture suggests, however, that all four motifs are constantly in play: it is difficult to find one theme dominating the others. Niebuhr’s several motifs of Christ and culture are also the several actions of a Christian congregation’s plot and, like those actions, are required for a coherent story. In the plot of the local church the story of Christ weaves itself throughout the erotic narrative, sometimes accepting and affirming the church’s story as it stands (thus linking Christ and Eros), sometimes teasing (or unfolding) the congregational narrative toward the promise of the kingdom, sometimes prophetically contradicting the erotic story by disputing (thus thickening) its development, and sometimes actually transforming congregational culture by twisting its plot.

The Plot

Consider the relationship of Christ and Eros in the plot of young Smithtown Church.

Urgent Eros, striving for shape and meaning, stirred the minds of those who first thought about creating Smithtown Church. The early phone calls among potential members and the initial conversations in the shopping malls and around dinner tables conjured up a variety of churchly images. The planners worked from models in their heads that erotically joined images of fellowship, piety, work, and various loyalties to form a congregation they felt would be worthy of God. Although some disputes developed and a few initial planners fell away, ideas and images meshed sufficiently for the founders to begin, a half year later, their first services and other activities. They gained approval from their denomination, gave themselves a name, and announced to the community that they constituted a church. Eros linked them, unfolded their practice, thickened their collective life with frustration and challenge, and twisted a loose aggregate of individuals into a local church.

Eros linked them. So far in this book I have concentrated upon the temporal and ideational aspects of this linkage. Let me here focus upon its spatial and operational dimensions, the manner in which the people of the congregation took space and energy and, by the imaginative working of Eros, forged the links that helped to compose their household.

From the very first, participants grouped their borrowed chairs in a Sunday arrangement that suggested their intention of becoming a church, and they stood, bowed, and mingled in spatial relation to one another. Much of their attention centered upon their first building. Despite the fact that they did not have much money, their intended church structure had to be distinctive from other dwellings, proclaiming both to themselves and to their community that they were a Christian congregation. They and their architect accomplished the distinction by special roof lines, windows, and doors. A cross and a large sign further announced their purpose. Their mutual bond to faith became even more obvious in the new sanctuary. There another cross was placed in a central position, along with a pulpit and altar furniture. An open Bible, candles, stained glass, and tracts in the rear further surrounded them with an identity as people of God.

So did certain modal members of the young congregation. Carl Dudley speaks of the "saints" of a congregation, a few members whom the rest of the household may not emulate but nevertheless appreciate for the authentic way they exemplify the common faith. The saints helped to undergird Smithtown Church’s new identity. A distinguished gentleman, prominent in the denomination, sat up front and typified the influence of the larger communion on this congregation. The ordained minister of the congregation, Sarah Peters, also filled linkage roles, especially priestly functions that presented and explained the symbols of the faith.

When they gathered each Sunday, the members performed further operations fashioned from the craft of Eros. They sang music, they assumed pious and attentive attitudes, they listened with appreciation to the complex exposition of Scripture, they responded with signs of warmth to moving parts of the service. Their common identity was further reinforced by church school classes held before the service, in which both children and some adults were knit together as much by their personal interaction as by the lesson material they studied.

Eros not only links the behavior of Smithtown Church to its identity, Eros also unfolds its action in relation to its goals. Once again Eros uses space, roles, and repetitive processes to further the plot. Smithtown sanctuary’s primary erotic function was linkage; other areas of the building contributed more directly to the congregation’s unfolding. Its office, corridors, and administrative rooms existed to promote the goals of the church, because it was within them rather than in the sanctuary that decisions about the future of the parish were made and directives enacted. Artifacts greatly different from those in the sanctuary developed the unfolding: telephones, office equipment, a plethora of paper products, bulletin boards, and other signs, including those that say "directory" and "exit."

Modal persons were again instrumental for Smithtown’s unfolding. Most typical was the benefactor, whose support was required for any major physical or programmatic development in the congregation. Dudley identifies in this vein a group of members who are as important to the church’s unfolding as his "saints" are to its linkage: the "organizers," people whose participation promotes the accomplishment of goals. Various processes of the church likewise enabled the unfolding of its plot: campaigns, committee meetings, elections, as well as the less conscious political and socializing actions of the parish. Pastor Peters functioned more as ruler than as priest in the unfolding process, the resourcer and executor of many of the church’s programs.

Further, Eros thickened the plot of Smithtown Church, introducing both the complications that prevent its smooth unfolding and the means for integrating these differences within the church’s story. Though they jointly resolved to begin a church, Smithtown’s first members were a heterogeneous group, diverse in age, background, and status, and at variance with one another about the nature of the church they all were committed to develop. The resulting conflicts thickened Smithtown’s plot. No rational administrative unfolding resolved fundamental disparities; nor did linking the plot to God in prayer bring solutions. Eros thus provided another set of cultural actions designated by the term of thickening.

Space, roles, and repetitive processes played a role in the thickening. Kitchen, fellowship hall, and group and counseling rooms served the purpose of integrating Smithtown’s diverse members, bringing them from their sometimes dissonant private lives to a sense of shared community. The erotic artifacts in these areas were again distinctive. Food assumed a central place. So did furniture more comfortable than the pews that link and the straight chairs that seat the unfolding of administration. Lighting softened; how things feel and touch became a paramount concern.

Certain types of people and processes served the thickening. One modal person was the cook, a member seldom seen outside the kitchen, present for every gathering, welcoming all sorts and conditions of hungry parishioners without regard to their beliefs or their capacity to contribute to the accomplishment of the church’s program. Dudley’s third group of distinctive church members are the "socializers," the people who come to life in organizing the games, dinners, and other gatherings that enable heterogeneous people to unite in common fellowship.

Thickening involves cultural processes that attend both the tension within the church and the tension between the church and its environment. Within the church were not only social gatherings but also the various sorts of care groups and age-defined fellowships that collected persons otherwise alienated from the ongoing functions of the congregation. But in its thickening, the church also addressed the dissonant world beyond the congregation: there it undertook a variety of mission and evangelistic programs and continued as well its sometimes discordant relationship to its denomination. In the thickening aspect of Smithtown’s plot, Ms. Peters fulfilled a pastoral office, gathering and healing the flock while also urging that the church direct itself to the healing of the world.

The Twist

Is the planting and nurturing of a church such as Smithtown a fundamentally Christian activity? Every act and image mentioned has its counterparts in other religions. The graceful and loving presence of Christ may well be active within the kinds of events just reported, but both faith in Christ and appreciation of the abundant fertility of Eros resist the facile equation of specific parish events with the activity of Christ. A reluctance to identify, say, Smithtown’s campaign for building funds or its development of a church school as peculiarly Christian work springs from convictions about the elusive otherness of even an incarnate savior. To lock Christ into particular actions of the congregation runs the risk of idolatry and just plain folly. This tentativeness springs not from an absence of faith but from faith’s opposition to the guarantee of God in any concrete human construction, even those widely identified as most sacred.

Christ may not be presumed within each of the actions of plot, but Christ may, indeed must, be sought there. How Christ is present in and to the erotic culture of Smithtown Church must be the overriding ethical concern of its ministry. Sermons are suspect that do not wrestle with the topic of Christ’s presentation within the specific plot of the listening congregation. Administrative and counseling sessions that do not labor to understand the association of their action to Christ are likewise misguided. But to cultivate Christ as a numinous moment in the outworking of church activities would miss the point. The purpose of discerning Christ in relation to Eros is the ethical one made by H. Richard Niebuhr. Christian ministry must constantly and publicly ask of its congregation’s plot:

—Does this parish activity reflect a linkage that permits the recognition of the "Christ of Culture," in which the person of Christ is reflected in and through what occurs?

—Or is this a congregational activity that must unfold toward the goal perceived in the designation "Christ Above Culture," the understanding that the action’s present nature, while acceptable, nevertheless requires development toward a more adequate realization of the kingdom?

—Or is this church activity deep in the thickening that represents "Christ and Culture in Paradox," dangerously but inextricably caught in evil and endured because even in its situation Christ is witnessed?

—Or does this parish activity require twisting, in obedience to "Christ the Transformer of Culture," radically converting its nature to conform to the person of Christ?

The last question is the most difficult. The most important twist in congregational life is its mission. Mission for a congregation means the crossing over of the boundaries of its cultural matrix into a world where the congregation’s household webs of significance no longer obtain and the household is threatened by different discourses, stories, and social forces. In mission, the congregation meets its own erotic death, but the crucified Christ, outside the wall that encloses the familiar, also awaits the encounter:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.

(Heb. 13:12-14, RSV)

With mortal consequences for its own erotic structure, the congregation in mission seeks the Christ who on his cross marks the oikoumene beyond the parochial boundary. The congregation does not in mission propel outward the Christ it already knows from its internal history. Rather in hope, seeking the city which is to come, the congregation exits from its own structures and safeties to find the Christ who appears in societies whose histories repudiate the local church’s unfolding plot.24 How a congregation that currently avoids the quest might twist itself outward to Christ is the topic of the next chapter.

Notes

1. Edward Farley, Ecclesial Reflection: An Anatomy of Theological Method (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 3-168.

2. Ernst Troeltsch, Die Bedeutung der Geschichtlichkeit Jesu für den Glauben (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1911), translated by Robert Morgan and Michael Pye, Ernst Troeltsch: Writings on Theology and Religion (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1977), 191.

3. George Rupp, Culture Protestantisin: German Liberal Theology at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1977), 30.

4. Morgan and Pye, Ernst Troeltsch, 202.

5. Ibid., 205.

6. Ibid., 203.

7. Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Dacre Press, 1945), 48.

8. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), 162.

9. Ibid., 170.

10. Ibid., 175.

11. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954), 3139.

12. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), 27-29.

13. Hesiod, Theogony, 56.

14. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1966). "The basic form of social objectivation is language. Language analyzes, recombines and ‘fixes’ biologically based subjective consciousness and forms it into intersubjective, typical and communicable experiences. The metaphorical and analogical potential of language facilitates the crystallization of social values and norms by which experience is interpreted. It is this edifice of semantic fields, categories and norms which structures the subjective perceptions of reality into a meaningful, cohesive and objective’ universe. This universe, ‘reality as seen’ in a culture, is taken for granted in any particular society or collectivity. For the members of a society or collectivity it constitutes the ‘natural’ way of interpreting, remembering, and communicating individual experience. In this sense it is internal to the individual, as his way of experiencing the world. At the same time it is external to him as that universe in which he and his fellow-men exist and act" ("Sociology of Religion and Sociology of Knowledge," Sociology and Social Research 47 [1963]: 421).

15. "Not to have a story to live out is to experience nothingness: the primal formlessness of human life below the threshold of narrative structuring" (Michael Novak, Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove: An Introduction to Religious Studies [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1971l, 52).

16. The Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 1927), 223.

17. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973).

18. Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, 1-52. George W. Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology: Recovering the Gospel in the Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 132-69.

19. Hauerwas, Community of Character, 52.

20. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 69.

21. Ibid., 70.

22. Ibid., 44.

23. Ibid., 253.

24. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology (London: SCM Press, 1967), 304-38.

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