Book Review: KS Moody’s Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity – A Must-Read

If you are interested in the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) and haven’t yet had a chance to read Katharine Sarah Moody’s Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practices (Ashgate, 2015), you should definitely add it to your summer reading list.

It is a ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in the ECM.

The book has just been published in paperback, which means you can now purchase it for £35. While that’s more than you’ll pay for a popular trade book by the likes of Peter Rollins or Kester Brewin – the two practitioner-theologians Moody profiles in her book – it is a significant discount from the original £75 hardback.

Unfortunately, high prices remain the bane of academic publishing! But as Tad DeLay wrote in his review of the book: ‘When you consider this book encompasses material normally taking 10 books to adequately cover, I say it’s a bargain.’

Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity is the first book I’ve read that so capably engages with the philosophical ideas that lurk behind the broader practices of the ECM; namely, John D Caputo’s deconstructive theology and Slavoj Žižek’s materialist theology.

As Gerardo Marti and I discovered in our sociological study of the ECM (The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity), most Emerging Christians don’t have copies of Caputo and Zizek beside their Bibles. But to the extent that the ECM can be considered a late modern, even post-modern phenomenon, its practices in many ways reflect the theological turn in continental philosophy and the ‘turn to Paul’ in political philosophy.

These ‘turns’ are explored in the first part of the book, where Moody establishes a dialogue between the work of Caputo and Žižek.

While readers who are not already familiar with these philosophers may struggle to absorb all the terminology, perseverance grants valuable insight. She links Caputo’s deconstructive approach and ‘weak’ theology of ‘a God who may be’, to Žižek’s materialist conception of a ‘fighting collective’ concerned with political justice. Moody uses these philosophers to guide us through ‘the event of God’ or ‘the death of God’ to a place where materialist communities fight the good fight for a more just world.

Ultimately, this philosophical journey raises questions about the possibility of religion without religion, or ‘religionless Christianity’ (to use Bonhoeffer’s term). Moody explores such possibilities in the second part of the book, where she compares the work of Peter Rollins and the ikon collective; and Kester Brewin and the Vaux community.

It is worth reading the book for the lucid descriptions and analyses of the practices of ikon and Vaux, two collectives/communities that actually no longer exist. The dissolution of ikon and Vaux in some ways neatly illustrates the inherently – and at times purposefully – transitory nature of the ECM: it is not about establishing new religious institutions, it is rather about cultivating a religious orientation that is more concerned with justice in this world rather than repose in the next.

Or at least that’s what I think Rollins and Brewin communicate when pressed. And Moody also does plenty of pressing is this book, raising questions about the extent that the full radicalism of their ideas and practices are appreciated in the wider ECM. As Tad DeLay wrote in his review of Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity:

Moody acknowledges the potential downside of all this, namely, that these critiques and re-readings may become an apologetic for a dulled appropriation of materialism for a veiled defense of traditional theism: “While I will argue against a reading of Caputo’s radical theology of the event as simply a way to resurrect God, I also acknowledge that radical theology can be (mis)read within emerging Christian discourse as a form of negative theology designed to enable us to discover the God beyond the ‘God’ of idolatry and ideology.” (8) As you can see, her critique is not an apology for those misreadings but instead a confrontation with those who are reading more complex material as a way to secure clandestine theism.

Especially in the second part of the book, Moody argues for a full embrace of the most radical of ideas and practices, arguing that such expressions of religion have the greatest potential to promote justice. Yet she recognizes that this potential was not fully realized in ikon or Vaux. The task of real-world implementation remains a challenge.

I had the privilege of writing an endorsement for the back cover of this book, so I’ll conclude by reproducing it:

This book is a must-read for those who want to understand the relationship between the theological turn in continental philosophy and the radical liturgical practices of emerging Christianity. Katharine Sarah Moody’s creative analysis of the work of two important thinkers and practitioners – Peter Rollins and Kester Brewin – also helps us see how it is possible for emerging ‘collectives’ to have a wider, socio-political impact. By exposing the radicalism that lies behind Rollins and Brewin’s discourses, while at the same time asking if they go far enough, Moody makes an original contribution to debates about how Christianity could be a force for change in the 21st century.

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