I just finished a really interesting book yesterday. It’s by Roger Wolsey and it’s called Kissing Fish. The book is somewhat of a spiritual manifesto on a movement that is taking shape in America: Progressive Christianity. Notice I didn’t say liberal Christianity or modern or postmodern. I said progressive. Roger is an extremely approachable guy. He’s ordained Methodist and ministers at the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado – a place not exactly known as a bastion for conservative Christianity. And that’s what I like about this book: it gives real and practical thoughts about ministering to a generation where they are, not where we think they should be.
Roger puts it this way in his opening chapter: “I discovered the disappointing gap between idealistic notions of what the Church can and could be – and the decidedly non-ideal, petty, political, conflicted, dysfunctional beautiful messes that most of them are” (45). Hopefully, that doesn’t put you off…particularly since Paul Tillich voiced similar sentiments in his History of Christian Thought: “…the gap between its claim and its reality.” Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski has said the same about primitive religions. So, Roger is in good company.
Progressive Christianity seeks to develop a something other than a religion about Jesus. It focuses on the religion of Jesus: “his actual beliefs, practices, and lifestyle” (58). Sanctification is at its core: the slow gradual growth towards Christ-likeness in individual piety and social justice. Not one of the other. Both. Progressive Christianity is more tolerant for the sake of inclusion, reconciliation, and healing. Along with that is a level of inclusivism for other religions and alternative lifestyles and a blending of religious traditions that may make conservative evangelicals nervous. That’s okay. The label “progressive” appeals to a different demographic. And as a wise woman told me a few weeks ago, “alternative” is quickly becoming “mainstream” where religious preference is concerned.
For the first half of the book, Roger works his way through a loosely knit systematic theology, tweaking it as he goes. He says gems like “…what Jesus talked about most wasn’t himself…”(161) or “”[Progressives] concern is more upon living and loving in God’s Kingdom right now and faithfully helping to manifest it all the more” (177). These quotes don’t sound progressive to me – they sound like accurate notions of biblical Christianity. Even in the deep South (where I live), people are whispering similar phrases in dark alleys where it’s safe.
The second half of the book is a more practical outworking of these ideas. Roger starts off this way:
As the old Swing era hit put it, “‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” and brother-sister, love is that swing. You can meditate and pray, go to church, get baptized and take communion, light candles and burn incense, read sacred texts, chant, fast and do yoga, and even help out at soup kitchens, but if you aren’t doing them with love, it’s all a bunch of vapid, empty horse apples. I know what I’m talking about. I’ve got a shed full of them (250).
See why I like this guy?! He then spends several chapters unpacking the practical nature of love in action. He covers everything from practical acts of kindness to the spiritual discipline of “centering prayer.” Now, what’s great about that is usually we lean to one side of the other: we focus on Christianity as meeting the needs of others or meeting our own needs. Roger holds them in tandem…just like God probably designed to begin with.
This is good book. Particularly if you’ve never read something from this paradigm before. I have one drawback: it could’ve been shorter and had the same impact. The word “redaction criticism” should’ve never made it in this work simply because those concerned with hermeneutics won’t be reading it. Still, it’s a fun, personal and engaging book. I liked it. Roger tells you in the postlude that’s he’s not saying anything new…and that’s true. I would add the names, Richard Rohr, Dallas Willard, Henri Nouwen, John Wesley, and (my theological hero) Horace Bushnell to the list. But what Kissing Fish does represent is a growing ensemble of voices originating in places other than what some would call “left field.” There was very little I disagreed with in this book and I consider myself to be a “post-conservative” evangelical. Roger may use the word “progressive” but what he is describing is very quickly becoming the norm. And for that, Kissing Fish is worth the read.