Review: Seeing-Remembering-Connecting: Subversive Practices of Being Church

[1] There are signs that all is not well with the Christian Church in North America. Among the signs often mentioned are these. First, institutional strength is in decline. Virtually all mainline denominations are experiencing membership loss and financial struggle. Second, the influence of the church seems to be less robust. Congregations were once often the center of community life and their voice a significant force in social discourse. This appears to be less true today. Third, a declining percentage of people identify with the Christian faith tradition. Polls suggest that an increasingly large portion of the population does not see much purpose in the church or has become disillusioned.

[2] A frequent response of congregations is that of initiating programs and actions designed to make the church ‘more relevant.’ To this end a panoply of actions are developed with the hope that they will catch the fancy of disaffected people. There may be little wrong with any of this, except for the failure of going to the heart of what the church needs to do in order to be truly faithful in its mission in society.

[3] Karen Bloomquist, a parish pastor, theological professor, scholar and church leader, in Seeing-Remembering-Connecting, offers an extremely helpful analysis and proposal for any congregation wishing to be faithfully engaged in the social order, which is to say, the place we live out our lives. The first chapter opens with these questions.

  1. Why are churches in North America not more forthrightly speaking out and acting to transform today’s blatant realities of injustice, illusion and amnesia that fly in the face of the faith they confess?
  2. How are competing gods, faiths and hopes at stake?
  3. How might churches become places where “subversions” of reality are nurtured and alternative public visions held forth and pursued by the people of God for the sake of the world?

[4] It is indisputable that the church in North America can point to many things it does for the purpose of contributing to the wellbeing of people and society. Counselling, provision of shelter and food, coordination of adoption services, sponsorship of educational opportunities and creation of communities all assist a variety of people, including some who are very vulnerable. But Bloomquist argues that faithfulness to the teachings and actions of Jesus requires that the church address the heart of what inhibits fullness of life for all people. The call is to challenge values, ideologies, principles and structures that create social and economic inequalities and that feed and sustain arrogance and greed. Provocatively, Bloomquist says the church needs to exercise a subversive voice that undermines all that threatens God’s vision for the world. Too often the church legitimizes dominant American values and actions even when they are clearly contrary to biblical faith. None of this is to suggest that making ethical judgments with regard to public policy is easy. Even actions most carefully considered in the light of our faith can have unintended consequences. The risk in speaking and acting in truthful ways is real in terms of loss of reputation, position and perhaps more. This is part of the cost of discipleship and living within the church of the cross.

[5] How can the church nurture a subversive voice? This is Bloomquist’s primary concern. Her proposal involves engagement in three linked practices: seeing, remembering and connecting – practices that are said to be consistent with those of Martin Luther. A starting point for the discussion of “seeing” is in John’s gospel which is addressed to people involved in the struggle to live within the Roman Empire and yet remain faithful to God. The gospel tells the story of the actions, words and parables of Jesus that had the effect of challenging people to see the world and life in ways other than in terms of the prevailing “religious, social and political categories and powers of that day.” To see what is true is always subversive in a world where untruth, manipulation and exploitation abound. Little imagination is required to envision the implications of seeing and truth-telling in 21st century United States. The instruments for spreading falsehood, illusions, fake news, demoniac and self-serving ideologies have dramatically multiplied. It is as important today as in biblical times that people of faith be equipped to exercise the kind of “seeing” that can cut through the many attempts to mislead and deceive. To see and embrace what is true, good and just is part of the calling that all people of faith share.

[6] Bloomquist writes that “remembering is a present activity that derives from the past for the sake of the future.” Of course remembering involves interpretation and for Christian people this is rooted in the biblical witness. By remembering the message of the prophets, for example, we can more fully and accurately evaluate what we see in the world’s life. If we remember the manner in which Jesus reached out to embrace and include all manner of people, including the most vulnerable, we can more clearly discern the immorality of policies that reject strangers and ignore the poor. If we remember the experiences of Israel, we shall confront the fact that even in times of failure and deep darkness, hope need not be overwhelmed. Out of darkness can come life. The biblical story of hope can fundamentally shape the manner in which we live, both individually and corporately.

[7] Finally, there is connecting, subversive connecting. The exploration of this action may well be the strongest element in the book. Seeing and remembering “motivates and empowers” and equips us to become part of something larger than ourselves. We bring our understandings and abilities and allow them to become part of community efforts. This is the way in which injustice and corruption embedded in institutional structures can be effectively addressed. This emphasis on connecting is not limited to like-minded people. It needs to cross all manner of religious, economic, social, racial and ideological boundary.

[8] There is much in the church that is in transition. Many congregations are realizing that new vision and methods are needed. Seminaries are in the process of restructuring institutional life and teaching methodologies. This may be a propitious time to move toward creating faith communities that more forthrightly engage in the seeing, remembering and connecting functions Bloomquist describes. A sign of movement in this direction would be preaching and teaching that bring a theological critique to bear upon the fundamental assumptions and substance of public policy. This would help assure the emergence of what could be viewed by many as a subversive voice. There are times when it is necessary to undermine things in order to enable something new; something closer to a representation of God’s desire for justice and reconciliation.

[9] The final chapter is titled “Ecclesia for the Sake of the World.” In this section Bloomquist suggests that if the Christian community of faith is to be fully faithful in its mission, it may begin to look rather different. “Institutional trappings and supports” may need to fade. There may be a wider variety in terms of Church life and the Church may be more worldly, more engaged in what is transpiring in the total context of human life. There is much here to ponder. Seeing-Remembering-Connecting is a worthwhile read for the whole people of faith – pastors, bishops and laypersons. Transformation of the Church and community presupposes a full partnership that includes the widest range of people who are open to the promptings of God’s spirit. Seeing-Remembering-Connecting could well be a vehicle for such promptings.

Ronald K. Johnson

Rev. Ronald K. Johnson is a retired parish pastor.