The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus

By Madsen, Anna | The Christian Century, February 20, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus


Madsen, Anna, The Christian Century


The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus

By Robin Meyers

Jossey-Bass, 288 pp., $24.95

The whole time I was reading Robin Meyers's The Underground Church, I couldn't shake the presence of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, and I kept trying to figure out why I kept writing "WB" (Walter Brueggemann) as often as "NB" (note bene).

The goal of The Underground Church is to wake up the church to its primal calling to be radical and therefore dangerous, to be edgy, powerful love-in-motion. Meyers's prose helps him achieve his objective, for it is itself dangerous and edgy and powerful. In the book, Meyers faces off against trammeling myths of and within the Christian tradition, against the suffocating security of a safely played faith, and against the "pleasantification" of what is, at root, a movement of protest. The effect, Meyers hopes, is that a religion of recited creeds will become instead--or rather, become again--a religion of impassioned trust in the way of Jesus.

This way, believes Meyers, invites people into a habit of radical encouragement, love, patience and boundary breaking, habits of mind and heart that bear upon the church, upon the family and upon the affairs in the world at large.

Perhaps most disorienting for many be his proposition that liberal and conservative Christians partner in mutual ministries that have political and social consequence. Under the provocative heading "If the Church Were Christian," Meyers sets up a long litany of rhetorical jabs at a church that prefers protecting its turf, defined by narrowly defined moral precepts, over finding common ground and engaging in wide-sweeping prophetic speech and action.

Meyers, a theologian in the United Church of Christ, has a Brueggemannian knack for placing phrases on the plate of the page as if they simply belong there, like basil and mozzarella and tomatoes with a splash of balsamic vinegar and olive oil and a side of crusty bread to help the reader savor the point.

Listen to this effective account of fourth-century ecclesial fornication:

   So when conservatives hail the gravitas
   of the early church's fourth-century
   "conquest" of the imperial city, they
   betray their own long-standing belief
   that the church and state should not
   sleep together. But when liberals
   assume that at Nicaea, a hitherto undefiled
   movement of spiritual seekers
   was raped by the sword of patriarchy,
   they neglect the evidence that in the
   absence of a Second Coming and with
   thousands of new converts, the church
   had for decades been moving,
   metaphorically speaking, from folding
   chairs to pews. If Rome did indeed
   seduce the church at Nicaea, the bishops
   went dressed for the occasion.

That's nicely vivid. But it isn't only Meyers's piquant rhetoric that brings Brueggemann to mind. So does his impulse to return to the texts. The texts include scripture, to be sure, but also those of tradition and of popular assumption. Meyers takes the reader back in time for another look-see and then another one, and perhaps one more, and then gives us not only a new view but the stunning realization that a re-vision quite probably means a new vision.

Not least of all, Meyers is convinced that the early church was itself fundamentally underground by way of conviction and practice, set against the powers that be. Meyers wants people committed to "a God of nonviolent distributive justice," not to a God "of violent partisan favoritism." He is convinced that by and large the church is kneeling at the wrong altar to egregiously bad ends.

In a beautiful section reconsidering the Eucharist, Meyers bends our minds both backward and forward:

   Let us also never forget that communion
   is a subversive act. When Jesus
   prayed to heaven to bless the food he
   offered, he stood against the Roman
   Empire, whose rulers maintained their
   power by controlling the distribution of
   bread to the poor. … 

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