Monday, July 14, 2008

Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for A New Day

Called to Be Church (Eerdmans, 2006) is co-written by New Testament scholar, Robert W. Wall, and his good friend Anthony B. Robinson who, according to the back cover, "is a pastor in the United Church of Christ, the executive director of the Columbia Leadership Network, and the author of four books, including Transforming Congregational Culture."

I ordered a copy hoping it would help me think about the contemporary significance of Acts as I prepare to teach a course on the book. My tendency is to get so excited about what Luke is saying that I forget to reflect on its implications for believers today. On the other hand, I am allergic to approaches that ransack Acts for answers to contemporary questions in total disregard for the context and concerns of the author. I want my students to emerge from a course on Acts equipped to read and respond to Biblical narrative in a way that is more faithful to Scripture than the moralizing approach of a Chuck Swindoll or the "principlizing bridge." F. Scott Spencer's glowing blurb makes it sound as though Robinson's and Wall's book will help my students (and me) do just that:
"Never settling for easy modern applications based on thin biblical analysis, the authors wrestle seriously with the book of Acts as living Scripture for today's church and a prime resource for ecclesial renewal."
Wall's chapter on method is promising, and his exegetical comments on Acts 1 are engaging and often insightful. Unfortunately, there seems to be a disconnect between Wall's exegesis and programmatic statements about method, and Robinson's attempts at application. We learn from Robinson, for example, that Acts 1:1-14 is a succession narrative that teaches about "the perils and prospects involved in changing leadership." Jesus' ascension is reduced to an exemplary model of leadership transition:
Finally, the departing leader does need to actually depart. Jesus ascends in a cloud, disappearing from their sight (v. 9). Too many leadership transitions fail because the outgoing leaders, pastors, CEOs, presidents, or directors do not actually leave. Too often they hang around, which inevitably sends mixed signals about who really is in leadership. . . . The final act of leadership is to leave.
Give me a break! The whole point of the ascension is to show that Jesus really is in leadership. He is, after all, the Lord. Surely, leadership transition is not a subject about which Acts 1 speaks authoritatively. If it did, one would need to explain where casting lots fits in (Acts 1:26), something about which Robinson (and Wall) are strangely silent.

So much for Acts 1. I'll keep reading. The book asks the right questions, and it may work well as a way to get students thinking critically about good and bad ways of applying narratives.


Isaac said...

That's really interesting. I've been thinking about Moses and his encounters with God. I've heard people say that they are waiting for their "burning bush moment." In the same way as these two have in your book, we tend to make one scene programmatic for ourselves.
I think one step (not the only) is to think more community wide. Even this has it's poor attempts (your example?). Offhand the passage seems to promote worship.

Isaac said...

In some notes I wrote this:

I am interested in devotional use of these figures for the Christian in their day to day life. I certainly don’t want to say that we can’t learn anything from Moses. But the fact is for every Moses there are millions of nameless Hebrews. It doesn’t seem fair to either the text or our contemporary church to be searching for our personal “burning bush” moment.The same could be said about other scenes in the Bible that are often used in this way.