Book Review: The Church Event

Book Review of The Church Event - Call and Challenge of a Church Protestant. By Vitor Westhelle. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010. 181 Pages. Paperback. Review by Mark D. Menacher.

Vitor Westhelle, Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, has produced a curious work. The back cover quotes Nancy Elizabeth Bedford, describing Westhelle’s “inimitably poetic and theologically incisive way” of presenting “the paradoxes and the promises of the Church event.” She praises the “beauty of the book’s language” to appeal “to our senses, and the acuity of the analysis.” Contrary to her sentiments, at least in this case, poetic language does not seem to be best suited to attempt either theological incisiveness or acuity of analysis.

An introduction (1-10), ten chapters (11-168), acknowledgements (169-170), and an index (171-181) comprise this volume. In his acknowledgements, perhaps placed deliberately towards the end of the book, Westhelle mentions that Chapter Four, part of Eight, and most of Nine have been published elsewhere. Having read the acknowledgements first helped this reviewer understand why the book actually reads like a collection of essays of varying quality pressed into one volume, with obligatory but less than satisfactory cross-referencing.

The book’s introduction sounds promising with its goal to “address ecclesiological disputes that have assailed the church and are symptoms of its infirmities” (1). The “[c]hurch is an event that takes place,” which like subatomic particles can be located either in time or in space but not in both simultaneously. In seeking spaces of security, however, the church falls into captivity, a preoccupation with either “its inner institutional formation or its integration into the politico-cultural order” of society (2). Because the church is beset by territorialism, it seeks to protect itself, even from the kingdom of God (3). In contrast, for Westhelle, church happens on the margins (5). Thus, to be daring, Westhelle seeks to use metaphors other than Matthew 16 and Pentecost “for the sake of destabilizing an ecclesiological discourse that has been held captive by images of the church” reflecting such territorialism (5). Those goals sound exciting. Unfortunately, the general “instability” of the rest of the book undermines its ability to approach its goals.

Westhelle believes himself to be following Luther’s lead when employing a dichotomous analysis of the church based on two institutions mandated by God, the household (oeconomia) and the street (politia), with the church falling somewhere in-between and characterized by a “marginal existence” (8). Variations on the metaphors of house and street provide the guiding construct for Westhelle’s discussions of the church as it gravitates toward dysfunctional existence in one or the other place. Unfortunately, Westhelle’s exuberant use of other metaphors calls the Lutheran foundations of his analysis of the church into question. For example, by employing the orchid figuratively, Westhelle says that “the living church is to the forms of its self-representation what a parasite is to its host...In theological jargon, the host is the law, but the bud and its blossoming are the gospel” (10). This representation of law and gospel seems not only disproportional but also contrary to scripture and the Lutheran confessions.

This book, however, is not without its value with regard to presentation of thought. Westhelle discusses the impact of the Enlightenment on theological and ecclesial reality (17). He touches on interpretation of scripture in relation to fundamentalism and foundationalism (60-62), scripture’s interpretation of itself (63-64), the sufficiency and overabundance of scripture (65-66), and scripture as that which interprets over against that which is interpreted (67-68). Westhelle likes to stress the Reformers’ notion of scripture having an “open canon” (27-28, 49). He seems to derive considerable strength from his use of etymological analysis to define and refine his thought. His use of varied imagery is extensive. Although seeming to favor Bonhoeffer as well as certain liberation theologians, Westhelle’s continual quotation of a broad spectrum of authors and thinkers across many centuries both within and without the Christian tradition demonstrates a respectable breadth of knowledge. Whereas Westhelle supports Article VII of the Augsburg Confession as a principle for defining the church and its unity, he prefers Luther’s seven notae ecclesiae of the church (On the Councils and the Church) due to their inclusion of the cross and suffering (84-87).

That said, Westhelle’s ever extending development of the dichotomy of house and street, with the church marginalized in-between, could be held together more coherently. Apart from Chapter Four, his use of Lutheran content seems to be diluted by the breadth of his quotation of various thinkers. This relentless quoting presumably supports his own thesis, but unfortunately it lends the impression that his own argument is partially dependent upon the varied thoughts of an eclectic selection of individuals. This, unfortunately, causes Westhelle’s argumentation to meander. Westhelle’s use of certain aspects of liberation theology with its inherent biases seems not only outmoded but is analytically more stifling than liberating. The considerable work embodied in this book seems very well intentioned but, like his favored depiction of the church as a tapestry (137-139, 141, 143), the weaving of Westhelle’s material is not only too loose, but it also has too many loose ends. To cite one example, in reference to John 3:16, Westhelle writes without qualification or clarification, “The Giver gave herself in the gift as the Gift itself; God became spacious in surrendering Godself up to the emptiness of a space” (138). That sounds more like Westhelle misinterpreting scripture than scripture interpreting human reality.

As the book moves towards its end, Westhelle hopes to “offer” the power of the truth as a tour de force. The book’s concluding thoughts are “not a closure but an opening for the truth lying beyond this text or in its interstices to come forth as a flaming power” (155). Whereas this “flaming power” sounds ominous, in reality Westhelle’s text is a damp squib. There is no doubt that the power of the truth can devastate all obstacles in its path, as is demonstrated negatively by sinful humanity’s relentless attempts to suppress the truth. In Westhelle’s case, except for a few autobiographical “liberation theologian moments” (reviewer’s terminology) drawn from his life in South America, the author fails to unleash the truth over against any specific or concrete maladies and fallacies or injustices and injuries in the church, especially the one at his doorstep, namely the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). For example, instead of boldly stating that the so-called Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) was not signed in Augsburg, Germany in October 1999, as the ELCA routinely claims, and likewise instead of pointing out the “grand deception” and ecclesial idolatry involved in the ELCA’s adoption of Called to Common Mission (CCM), the ELCA’s ecumenical accord with the Episcopal Church, Westhelle uncritically describes both these documents and others like them as “landmark bilateral (sometimes plurilateral) agreements...that have been celebrated as accomplishments.” (15). Furthermore, because CCM puts sixteenth- and seventeenth-century, Episcopalian, religious intolerance (historically responsible for all manner of persecution, torture, and death) at the heart of the ELCA’s ordained ministry, one would expect a theologian with liberationist tendencies to be holding the ELCA’s feet to the fire of the truth. Instead, Westhelle’s “text” smolders away silently on such matters.

Although one can write theology creatively, theology is not an exercise in creative writing. If the flowery language and the majority of extraneous quotations were removed, this book would probably be reduced by half. Furthermore, if the bulk of Westhelle’s circuitous redevelopment of the house and street metaphors was curbed within constructive parameters, then little of the book would remain but Chapter Four. Since Chapter Four has already been published as “On the Authority of the Scriptures: More than Enough” (Lutheran Quarterly 19 no. 4 [Winter 2005], 373-392 [see Acknowledgements, 169]), then perhaps obtaining a copy of this essay from the local library via interlibrary loan would be the most efficient and cost-effective way for this book’s potential readership to become acquainted with the Lutheran aspects of Westhelle’s thought.

Mark D. Menacher