A Review of
Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier
David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw
Reviewed by Christian J. Amondson
It was the winter of their discontent. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw (co-pastors of a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago) found themselves left out in the cold, disappointed with the “third-way” paths beyond the conservative-liberal theology wars of North American Evangelicals. The Emergent path (McLaren, Pagitt, Jones, Bell) initially offered a sense of hope for conversations that “challenged existing assumptions and sought new ways of moving forward” (xxi). Yet, as helpful as those conversations were, they ultimately left participants feeling uneasy, unable “to enter confidently into God’s living presence” (xxii). The Neo-Reformed path (Piper, DeYoung, Mohler, Carson, Keller) offered a necessary corrective to this disquiet, reminding Evangelicals that one can be missional and committed to gospel proclamation. But these commitments were often articulated dogmatically, focusing more on being “right” than being in right relationship. Was there an alternative to these dead-end options? Was there a path that could be both thoroughly committed to the proclamation of the gospel and radically sensitive to the cultural realities of real people in our post-Christian world? Fitch and Holsclaw believed there was, so they collected their notes, blog posts, and essays in an effort to articulate a new way by which Evangelicals could move out of the patterns that kept them “trapped within a bygone cultural consensus of Christian dominance that no longer exists” (xxiv). Prodigal Christianity is what emerged from their reflections.
It was Holsclaw who made the connection between the vision he and Fitch had been developing and the story of the Prodigal Son. Following the lead of both Tim Keller and Karl Barth, Fitch and Holsclaw interpret the story not merely as one of a God who is graciously receiving the wayward back into the fold, but of a God who is radically sending his own son, across all boundaries of sin and death, into the far country of the world in order to bring back all who are lost. But where Keller focused on the extravagant nature of God the Father, and Barth on the obedience of the sent Son, Fitch and Holsclaw bring this parable to bear upon the life of the missional church, which participates in God’s mission by extending the incarnated Christ here on earth.
Prodigal Christianity comprises ten chapters (“signposts”) that chart the journey into this prodigal way of living. After the first sign post, which marks the context of the post-Christian far country in which we now find ourselves, the remaining nine chapters can roughly be grouped into three categories: Systematic Theology (the missional God, the incarnate Christ, the witness of the Spirit), Practical Theology (Scripture interpretation, Gospel proclamation, and the practice of the Church), and Theological Ethics (sexuality, justice, diversity). Each chapter moves from the position of establishment (Neo-Reformed/Conservative), to non-establishment (Emergent), and then to a more fully “prodigal” account of the specific topic under consideration. The reason for this structure is to demonstrate how these other paths fail to take us into the far country in obedience to God’s mission, and how in turn, the path Fitch and Holsclaw outline does exactly that. In fact, in their opening material, Fitch and Holsclaw make it quite clear that they are not taking the position of a centrist middle ground, what they call “a third way.” Rather, Prodigal Christianity clears out an altogether new space: one that is “evangelical Anabaptist.” That is, Prodigal Christianity is hedged upon the rather audacious claim that, in distinction from both Emergent and Neo-Reformed theologies, “[T]his book is both markedly evangelical and intensely radical . . . [it] will focus on leading Christians into living under God’s reign in our everyday lives together for God’s mission in the world” (xvi).
Prodigal Christianity would have been a very fascinating book had Fitch and Holsclaw delivered on these claims. But they don’t. While it is true that their book offers a counterpoint to both conservatives who value the Truth at the expense of hospitality and progressives who value openness at the expense of confidence in the Gospel, it is also true that Fitch and Holsclaw are ultimately unable to break out of the Procrustean bed fit for their adversaries. On this score Prodigal Christianity fails in at least three ways: First, it fails to offer an account that substantially differs from those against whom they measure themselves, especially Emergent theologians. Second, its account of the church as the extension of the incarnation short-circuits its ability to truly and consistently differentiate between the work of God and the work of our own hands. Third, it is inattentive to the ways that its articulation of mission is rooted in the colonialism of a bygone Christendom, thereby reducing friendship to a technology for conversion. In short, the claim of Prodigal Christianity to offer a radical alternative to the right and left of Evangelicalism turns out to be little more than a centrist re-branding of this very same status quo.