October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
April 23, 2008
Mark McKim approaches systematic theology with the same ecclesial and scholastic concerns that have driven nearly two decades of pastoral ministry.
His work is both careful and precise as it attempts to navigate a systematic approach to theology as contextualized in a secular post-Christendom West. While it takes more than a little while to really delve into the heart of his work—the first eighty-three pages are reserved for three thorough prologues—McKim builds his theology toward his vision of ecclesiology and ethics that are rooted in Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God. It is to this end that he moves through doctrines of God, Creation, Sin, Christology, and Redemption. Upon this theological base, he envisions the Church as an expression of God’s Kingdom in the world. He sees the lives of believers as communally and ethically moving to express this work of Christ in the middle of the secular society within which Western Christianity finds itself. He concludes with a vision of the eschatological fulfillment of the Kingdom of God that is both coming and at hand.
Throughout this work, McKim devotes himself to the task of developing a theological system that works to support and guide the life of the church. He begins by defining the secular context of a Western church that finds itself shaped by and saturated in a culture that functions outside of a Christian understanding of the world. He notes that churches in the West often operate out of a secular framework, seeing themselves in terms of business growth models, social structures, or organizations. McKim attempts, through his theological framework, to recast the church from within the Christian understanding of the Kingdom of God.
To achieve this goal, McKim draws on a wide range of theological sources. He generally includes a variety of voices within each particular section of the book. At times, however, due to his aim of making theology accessible for those in the church, McKim leans a bit heavy-handedly on the works of C.S. Lewis for appropriating theological ideas in common vernacular. Beyond this, he weaves together many streams of Christianity in order to build a foundational worldview that addresses the church and the world through a distinctly Christian set of lenses.
McKim distinguishes early on that his work is not concerned with apologetics, but instead articulates a Christian perspective as understood in terms of the revelatory knowledge of God. From this presupposition of revelatory knowledge at work through Scripture, the world, and the life of the church, he strives to build a theological foundation that will allow his readers to conceive of the world in the perspective of the life and actions of God in and among creation. He sees this as dynamically different from seeing life through the secular lenses which cast the church as a social construct that brings little or nothing to bear in the real life situations and relationships of those who are surrounded by a secular cultural context. It is toward this goal—reorienting the church to “Sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” that McKim strives to articulate a contextualized theology for the West.
At the same time, McKim is careful to observe that there are many Christians within the West who think of themselves as a part of a “Christian Society.” Many are caught up in a Christian sub-culture, while others still believe and expect that the state does and should support their Christian agendas. McKim calls Christians to responsibly understand their relationship within an increasingly post-Christian Western society. He argues that this position will demand a more nuanced, articulate, and careful church membership that is able and ready to confess a faith which shapes their understanding of the world around them. For this reason, while his theology is distinct from apologetics, it has a particular apologetic appeal in that it is concerned with establishing a distinctive framework out of which grows a uniquely Christian set of relational values and ethics to guide our interactions with society.
One of the real strengths of McKim’s approach lies in his ability to move fluidly through a great deal of theological debate, terminology, and historical development without becoming bogged down in a way that would make his work difficult for some non-academic readers. Instead, he offers both a lucid argument why Christians ought to engage in theology and a wonderfully concise guide into many areas that deserve further reflection and nuanced discussion within the context of the Western church to which he writes. Birthed out of his years of service to the local church, McKim’s theology offers a reciprocally informed dialogue between the academy and the church.
An area that deserves more development in the book is McKim’s treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity. While he gives an overview of Trinitarian roles, barely more than a page is devoted to the inter-Trinitarian relationship and only a few pages within his doctrine of God section explore the practical implications of the Trinity within the life of the church. Why he leaves this area so underdeveloped within his section on the church is unclear. While his understanding of Ethics is built solidly on an eschatological vision of the Kingdom of God, his treatment of the kind of community that produces such ethics leaves much to be desired. By developing his understanding of the relationship of God within the Trinity and exploring the implications on his model of ecclesiology, McKim might be able to expand his vision of how the church is to function in the midst of a secular society.
Beyond merely offering a systematic theology that is easily accessible to lay people, he attempts to deal carefully with the question of the Western context in a post-Christendom era. He deals extensively with the secularized nature of the particular context of the West. He recognizes that the Church in the West has so married itself to the culture that it now finds itself struggling to establish where and what it will look like in a society that has moved beyond acceptance of Christian perspectives and worldviews. Describing this state he says, “So pervasive is this secularized understanding of the church that the desperately impoverished ecclesiology with which many Christians function is simply regarded as normal. We are unable to see the disjunction between our understanding of the church and that which is pictured for us in Scripture.” Out of his desire to see the church break free from its entrenchment in a secular society, McKim articulates classic doctrines in a way that encourages Christians to enter their faith with careful study in order to live out the faith in our secular society through nuanced engagement and ethical faithfulness to the Gospel message. He offers a prophetic vision of the church as a part of the Kingdom of God at work in the world as it moves toward the eschatological hope of denouement.
Ultimately, out of his concern for a Church in the West that can reflect orthodox Christianity in the middle of a secular society, McKim enters the fray of systematic theologies to offer a careful and contextualized summation of Christian thought in a volume that is easy to understand and engage. His voice offers pastoral and theological direction to the Western Church at a time when it is crucial for the Church to emerge from its entrenchment in a society that reflects a set of values and ethics that are at odds with Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom of God at work in the world.
 Mark McKim, Christian Theology for a Secular Society: Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2008) 335.
Daniel Tidwell and his wife Jocelyn recently moved to Seattle where Daniel is a first year MDiv student at Mars Hill Graduate School. Daniel enjoys writing, literature, music, and painting. In the midst of writing papers, working, drinking tea, and enjoying life in the middle of Seattle, he is an occasional contributing blogger on www.jesusmanifesto.com.