Lee BEACH, The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2015. pp. 240. ISBN 978-0-8308-4066-3.
Reviewed by Marc TUMEINSKI, Anna Maria College, Paxton, MA 01612
Beach has written a highly readable book on exile, a key theological topic for today’s Church. Drawing on Scriptural interpretation, theological reflection, and cultural analysis, the author adds relevant pastoral examples and questions to his analysis. These examples and questions make the book useful for a parish study group, or for an academic course in ecclesiology or pastoral theology, for example.
In light of his topic, clearly laid out in the title, the author writes consciously for and to a minority or marginalized Church. He proposes exile as a useful motif; although for what he ultimately describes throughout the whole book, motif seems perhaps too weak of a word to encapsulate his full meaning.
The book opens with Beach’s analysis of today’s Church in Western society, describing it as exilic in at least two senses: demographic and theological. Demographically, the author highlights the increasingly marginal status of the Church in terms of shrinking political, economic, cultural and social power (17-19). Theologically, Beach examines the inherent nature of the Church as strangers and aliens in the world (21). Indeed, he recommends exile as an appropriate paradigm for the Church’s self-understanding (25). Beach wisely points out that appropriating the paradigm of exile must be done cautiously and respectfully, in light of the suffering which exile and displacement has brought to so many (23).
The book is divided into two main parts. The first part looks at exile in Scripture, including a reading and interpretation of Esther, Daniel, Jonah and 1 Peter. In the second part, the author asks, what practices, patterns and habits will help the Church to remain faithful to tradition and to serve God’s purposes while in exile (230)? In response, he examines five exilic practices: leading the Church in exile; thinking like exiles; living a life of holiness, in relationship and in engaged nonconformity with the culture; mission and proclamation in and to the surrounding culture; and living faithfully in light of the eschatological hope of restoration.
In his discussion of leading the Church in exile, Beach gives a helpful emphasis to the importance of prophetic imagination in response to exile (24-25, 140 ff.). He addresses the question, how can the Church imaginatively live out the Gospel, and remain faithful, in the face of exile and diaspora? Joseph Ratzinger borrowed a helpful phrase from the historian Arnold Toynbee, and called on the Church to act as a “creative minority,” an emphasis which corresponds nicely with Beach’s text.
I concur with a comment from Walter Brueggemann’s Foreword that, in significant ways, what Beach is discussing might better be understood as a theology of diaspora, more than of exile (11-12). A similar emphasis on diaspora is visible in the writings of theologians such as Brueggemann himself, Daniel Smith-Christopher and John Howard Yoder.
Beach’s use of examples is illustrative and instructive. I do not always draw the same conclusions as he does, nor do I see all of his examples in the same light, but nonetheless, they set the stage for the reader to consider the author’s ideas against the backdrop of contemporary questions facing Christians and the Church.
Beach proposes that in today’s post-Christian cultures, orthopraxy must be emphasized over orthodoxy. Though I appreciate his points, and the way he framed this assertion with qualifiers, I did find myself wondering about the degree to which this dichotomy is useful. Might it be better thought about in terms of ‘and … and’?
Readers from a different ecclesial background than Beach likely will want to consider his text in light of their own theological traditions. For example, I am interested in exploring the paradigm of diaspora further in terms of Catholic sacramental theology and practice.
A low-level observation: the author, subject and Scripture indices are in a much smaller font size than the main text, which might cause a bit of eyestrain for some readers.
This text makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing theological dialogue around diaspora and exile, which is rapidly growing beyond what any one author or reader can realistically manage. Hopefully, Beach’s book will inspire readers to continue thinking theologically about diaspora and the Church, to read other authors on this theological topic, particularly in light of today’s world and the signs of the times, and to join in the dialogue.