I've just begun reading Scot McKnight's Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (published this Fall by Brazos Press). I thought as I got about half-way into the opening chapter that this was a book I might want to journal through, keeping track of the main lines of argument. Part of the reason for this is that McKnight is one of our most rewarding authors, whose work is always engaging and challenging. In this first chapter, for example, McKnight challenges some of my own presuppositions with regard to the kingdom of God.
Another reason is more general. I read a fair amount, but sometimes it seems the books just kind of flow by, and a week or month later I couldn't tell you much about them. That's on me, of course. Perhaps it would be helpful to map the argument of the book, to engage the ideas, in a deeper and more consistent way. So that's what I'm going to try to do with McKnight's book.
McKnight opens the book with a series of quotes: one form the Bible, one from poet Christian Wiman, and still others from novelist Marilynne Robinson,theologians Hauerwas and Willimon (from their book, Resident Aliens--one of my favorites), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Andy Crouch. What you quickly realize, reading these quotes, is that there are apparently two conceptions of kingdom ministry, one that involves the pursuit of justice, redeeming the culture, and another that involves sharing the message of redemption, otherwise known as evangelism.
To start the book McKnight defines this dichotomy and names the two sides according to their sartorial preferences: there is the "skinny jeans" crowd, for whom kingdom jeans social justice, feeding the hungry, or generally changing the world in a vaguely Jesus-y way.
This skinny jeans view has little room for the church. In short, kingdom work = social activism. It has nothing to do with the church. Atonement-talk, salvation-talk, these things are reduced to nearly nothing. Kingdom work is simply good deeds. But, as McKnight points out, the word kingdom never has this meaning in the Bible.
So McKnight is not advocating the skinny jeans view. Using Jane Addams as his example, he warns that the moral vision of the New Testament can quickly be drained of its spiritual content.
Christ becomes a symbol of a way of life, which for Addams was democracy; the ethic of Jesus is reduced to secular analogies, and so doing everything central to Jesus--the cross, the resurrection, atonement, new birth, the church, or judgment--evaporates into happened-also-to-believe-or-not-believe tenets; and culture can be redeemed by the efforts of humans and the political process apart from, and even against, the Christian theology of salvation and new birth. Kingdom work becomes altogether the act of humans. Furthermore, the church plays absolutely no role except insofar as it supports... social activism. The location of God's work is in the world. In essence, the church gets replaced by Washington, DC, and the ethic of Jesus is translated into Western liberalism's noble ideals. Kingdom work, then, is when good people do good deeds in the public sector for the common good.
So much for the skinny jeans view. But the other side of this dichotomy, what McKnight calls the pleated pants view, is also in for a thoughtful critique. That's chapter 2, which I'll try to summarize in my next post.