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Graham Ward’s The Politics of Discipleship, reviewed by Amos Yong

Similarly, when Ward talks about the “politics of discipleship,” he is also reacting to two trends. On the one hand, he is decrying the liberal experiment of the secular modern state which has erected an artificial barrier between the religious and political domains. Many renewalists who are also fed-up with liberal and secular politics (as are Muslims around the world, Ward reminds us) might then think we ought to move toward some form of a religious state instead. But this is, on the other hand, also what Ward rejects as contrary to the politics of Jesus. Rather than prescribing some form of alliance between the religious and the political, the embodied/ecclesial manifestation of the body of Christ living amidst the eschatological remainder calls forth a postliberal and postsecular posture that both challenges the messianic pretenses of any state and yet also, as did Jesus, embraces the contested nature of the political and public square. Such a postmaterialist attitude thus contests – with the many other voices, both religious and not – the depoliticization of public life (which leads to social atomism and hyper-individualism), the dehumanization of social life (which leads to classism and other forms of injustice), and the simultaneous commodification and dematerialization of economic life (which leads to the distortion of human desires and values).

More pointedly, political discipleship is vigilant against the soteriological myth of the capitalist system, backed up with the state in various ways, which promises infinite freedom to those who would worship at its altars. If capitalism’s insistence of laissez faire brings with it a concomitant drive toward apoliticism and depoliticization – because “bigger government” will undermine the “invisible hand of the market” and its automatic capacity to generate wealth for all (so the story goes) – Christian discipleship will challenge such individualism and atomism with the good news of (the body of) Christ instead. And if capitalism promises the freedoms of spending, consumption, leisure, and even the salvation of all, the politics of discipleship emphasizes instead the paradoxical nature of sharing, reciprocity, and work in Christ, while prophetically warning against the false idols that will destroy and damn human lives within an unchecked capitalist regime.

Without the requisite background or interest, the chapters in part I on “the world,” discussing the crises and transformations of democracy in our time, globalization trends, and the dynamics of a postsecular re-emergence, even explosion, of religion in the public domain, will be ponderous. The argument in this first part, though, is important in showing how even modern democracy and late modern globalization are fundamentally bound to religious visions informed by deformations of the Christian theological tradition. Readers who persevere through this material will be rewarded by periodic glimpses of the whole that will, hopefully, motivate them to persist. But then, turning to the more theological analyses of the volume, even the first three chapters of part II on “the church” will be, by and large, heady for many, focused as they are on a theological metaphysics of embodied agency in the city and of the ecclesial body in dialogue with a range of philosophers and theologians ancient and modern. It is not until about the last sixth of the book’s 300 pages that renewalists looking for more biblically informed arguments will begin to appreciate how the argument holds together scripturally, especially the illumination he sheds on St. Paul’s thinking about the body of Christ, and St. Luke’s parable of the prodigal son, and how all this relates to Christian discipleship in the body politic today.

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Category: In Depth, Pneuma Review, Spring 2011

About the Author: Amos Yong is Professor of Theology & Mission and director of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena. His graduate education includes degrees in theology, history, and religious studies from Western Evangelical Seminary and Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, and Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, and an undergraduate degree from Bethany University of the Assemblies of God. He is the author of numerous papers and over 30 books. Facebook

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