books, Missional, Missional Church, Plato, Roman Catholicism, tradition

The Strange Platonism of the Church-Planting Mind: A Review of On the Verge

Perhaps, at their roots, all church planters have to be Platonists.

I’ve been aware of the church-planting movement since I started seminary in 1999: while the “cool kids” were all about striking out into promising urban and suburban areas, gathering a core of dedicated go-getters to be the nucleus of the Next Big Thing, the old-school traditionalists like me tried to make a case for the humility of moving into an established congregation (perhaps even in rural and poor urban areas) and earning one’s place therein.  It wasn’t really a fair fight back then: as students and some faculty spoke with derision about “maintenance ministries” and waxed eloquent about “vision casting,” all my kind had to fall back on was the nuanced and difficult language of theology and history, languages that we hadn’t really grown into yet.  In the face of marketing slogans, we really didn’t stand a chance.

All of this came back to me as I read through Alan Hirsch’s and Dave Ferguson’s On the Verge. Within forty pages of starting the book, I realized that I was going to drown in the MBA lingo, that the writers had a tenuous grasp (at best) of Church history, and that I had three hundred pages of both to go.  As I’ve noted before in other book reviews, I’m probably one of the worst people to review a book like this: I’ve spent the last fifteen years drifting from one small, poor congregation to another (though I did do a brief stint as a Sunday school teacher in a would-be megachurch before they chased me and my wife away), and even a decade away from seminary, my first reaction to church-planters is to be suspicious of their ego rather than to fawn over their go-getter demeanor.  But once again I’ll note that those things might just make my review one that spots things that other people overlook.

Now back to Plato.

As I plowed through the neologisms and the slogans, I actually never would have thought of old Flat-Head while reading this book, except that one of Alan Hirsch’s chapters (he wrote the first run of chapters and Ferguson the last run of chapters, though each chapter ends with an “amen” response from the other writer) he makes the common Emergent/Missional move of attempting to establish credibility by being a “Hebraic” thinker rather than a “Hellenistic” thinker (and completely botching both, but more on that later), and with the Greeks in mind, the next few chapters made me realize that church planting, in its structure, is not unlike what Plato proposes in Republic: rather than attempting to reform cities, the best way to establish the real form of civic dikaiosyne is to start over, with a clean slate, so that the laws and the culture and the overall workings of the new polis were not at the mercy of tradition and history and other accidents not as illuminated as the philosopher-king but were part of the palette of the city’s grand artist.  A generation later, of course, Aristotle articulated what I call the great conservative vision, looking not to abstract ideals for the measure of goodness but to the embodied virtues that the best citizens of one’s polis already exhibit and examining what already makes them excellent.

I note this bit of ethical history to say that, although I wasn’t literate enough to grasp this as a young seminarian, the debate between church-planters and congregation-sustainers was, and remains, a reiteration of that old Greek dispute.  And in Hirsch and Ferguson’s book, the Platonic moves are obvious ones: both authors encourage teaching an elite core of leaders to imagine reality differently (54-55) on a philosophical level (a concept for which Hirsch appropriates, in good MBA fashion, Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm” language) while setting forth practice (178) and stories (152-153) and even modern hero-stories (153-154) for the rest of the community in order to “act our way into a new way of thinking” (179).  Those who demonstrate that they are the “innovators” (a group that, for Hirsch’s Malcolm-Gladwell imagination, consists of 2% of the population) can become paradigm-people, but for the most part, people enter into the “ethos” of the community by means of the programmatic practices set up by the ideas-people.

Of course, such things are not insidious: the nature of communities is that some people have the ideas, some people defend the ideas that the founders establish, and most people go about their lives producing and consuming for the sakes of family and comfort, sustaining the life of the community by means of their daily work and contributing to the complex culture of the community in their better forms of leisure.  That much one can find in the Torah and in Plato and in Confucius.  What makes Hirsch and Ferguson think of their project as a departure is that they, in the spirit of the corporate consultant, encourage a culture of saying “yes” (218-219) to ideas from the rank and file rather than insisting that all ideas come from the “professionals” (which do not seem to include the consultant-types who write church-planting books, but I’ve already gotten in trouble casting suspicion on consultants, so I’ll stop there).  As long as the new ideas operate in the spirit of the Missional Paradigm (what Hirsch brands as mDNA, ignoring perhaps that the letters in DNA stand for biological words), they’re good to go.

Of course, folks who know the Greek philosophical tradition know that Plato has anticipated this as well: the abandonment of the patriarchal family in favor of the city-household in Republic means that leaders can come from any class so long as they’re educated within the system that the good city sets up, and once Plato has established the central ideas and educational system of Callipolis, he reads like a Ron Paul Libertarian when he finally gets to the operations of the marketplace.  On the Verge‘s call for flexibility within the paradigm-determined culture is only an extension of the same.  I mention all of these points of continuity first to note that Hirsch’s call for an abandonment of “Hellenistic, specifically Platonic” conceptions of learning (177) in favor of “a Hebraic understanding” (177) of things rings strange to anyone who’s actually read any Plato, Aristotle, or really much Greek writing at all.  Hirsch attributes to Plato the classroom model of education (something that really doesn’t make sense until the advent of the printing press) and the conception that education needs to begin with the impartation of facts from lecturer to student (something that Plato opposes in the Meno among other places) among other things, and along with his loose grasp on the Roman office of Pontifex Maximus (on page 33 he implies at least that said office began with Emperor Constantine), he damages his credibility with anyone whose education has included any exposure to actual translations of actual ancient texts.  I think that at some point I might need to start offering myself as a consultant when Emergent and Missional folks write their books: for a small fee I can make sure that they don’t alienate people with liberal educations.  Yes, I think that might work.  But more on that later.

My main concern with this book is neither its shaky grasp on classical philosophy (that’s all too common) or its reliance upon corporate slogans and neologisms like “chillax” (93) and “simplexity” (186) and “movementum” (255) but that it exhibits at all points a pervasive anti-Catholicism that, if taken seriously, would alienate Christians in 2011 from a rich tradition and a political imagination that extends beyond the world of advertising consultants.  As a wannabe Hauerwasian, certainly I can’t deny a certain tendency to lay the evils of the Christian era at the door of Constantine, even if I use his name more as a figure than as a historical claim.  But when I say “Constantine,” because the tradition of Yoder and Hauerwas has shaped me, I have in mind the strange coupling of military cultus (whether from warrior-cultures or from soldier-societies) with the Way of the one who died on the Empire’s cross.  When Hirsch says “Constantine,” he means the local Catholic parish.

Among the things that Hirsch and Ferguson cannot see because they imagine the Catholic Church as always “cultural” are the Catholic hierarchy’s resistance to the Pinochet regime when the Capitalists were singing the torture-regime’s praises (as detailed in William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist and as ignored in Hirsch’s first chapter), the invention of modern global missions by the Jesuits (as told in any respectable Church history and as ignored in chapter nine, a Ferguson chapter), and the fact that Patrick’s mission to Ireland was in fact not the first Christian mission to venture outside of the Roman Empire (as Ferguson claims, and knocks me out of my chair, in chapter ten).  Their assessments of “traditional” churches such as the Presbyterians and the Baptists are not much more flattering, and their scorn for the “institutional” megachurches is not hard to detect, but their special place in the outer darkness always seems reserved for the Catholics.

Although that’s about the extent of the open anti-Catholicism, the ethos of the book (I’m trying to use this in the Aristotelian sense rather than the MBA-lingo sense) suffers because nothing from Church history before 1990 seems worth talking about.  There are no martyr stories in the book, but there are plenty of stories from the Hallmark, Google, and Starbucks corporations.  The rich traditions of medieval philosophy and Reformation Biblical commentary make no extended appearances, but there are plenty of quotes from late-twentieth-century CEO’s and management gurus to be had.  And there are no mentions of Dante or Dostoevsky, but Dave Ferguson does write in praise of James Patterson (208).  I won’t say that Hirsch and Ferguson have anything but the best motives for putting forth their blend of management theory and self-help philosophy, but to misappropriate Gertrude Stein when she talked about Oakland, when I finished the book, I felt like there hadn’t been much there there.

To be fair to them, both writers insist that Jesus must be the center of what they’re doing, and they criticize those movements for whom “mission” has taken the central place that Jesus alone deserves.  Moreover, when they do slow down to write about Jesus (rather than about paradigm shifts and chillaxing and movementum), they do note that the biggest challenge to discipleship in the twenty-first century West is consumerism.  My concern, I repeat, is not that they fail to name Jesus but that there’s little sense of how the calling of Jesus upon the Church translates into their MBA lingo.  I see the former in some passages, and I see the latter in many more passages, but the logical connections between the two I simply do not see.  Perhaps someone with a business or advertising background could help me here, but I just don’t get it.  And if I’m the worst sort of person to be reviewing this book, perhaps my failure, as a non-specialist in the vocabularies of management theory, to comprehend their project should be a sign that their call for a flight from “the professionals” might in fact be a call for a shift in power from one sort of professional (the theological scholar) to another (the management guru).

The good news, for those of you who are mad at me for writing bad things about these church-planting gurus, is that, in their words, folks like me will “self-select out” (265) of where the action is and consign ourselves to irrelevance while the great “people-movement” that they’re spearheading is taking on the world.  And I think that’s great.  I suppose my comfort comes from the fact that, when those folks who find themselves burnt out by the go-getter culture of church planting, where nobody is allowed to get old or to slack in their “kingdom productivity” (207), my office door will always be open to hear their stories, and I’ll always try to have copies of Julian of Norwich and St. John of the Cross and Dante to lend to them.


About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


One thought on “The Strange Platonism of the Church-Planting Mind: A Review of On the Verge

  1. But of course even Julian of Norwich was providing management advice that was contemporary for her time, as was Dante and he got in trouble. Is there no place for anything new or is the canon of theological literature and church establishmentarianism set in stone for all time?

    Posted by Chris Enstad | September 20, 2011, 1:59 pm

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