January 20, 2019

Review: Static by Ron Martoia

staticcover160.jpgBooks that translate the insights of N.T. Wright into the language of non-scholars are proliferating. Ron Martoia’s Static joins that conversation with one of the most readable books you’ll find on the intersection of recent New Testament backgrounds, the meaning of key Biblical concepts and the missional, evangelistic ministry of Christians in a world where fewer and fewer westerners are listening to the claims of Christianity at all.

For someone not aware that there is a serious conversation going on about how to “re-lexicon” and “re-vocalize” the Christian vocabulary, Martoia may sound like heresy 101. For those who know that the work of Wright and other contemporary scholars is exposing the weaknesses in contemporary popular understandings of key Biblical concepts, Martoia won’t be saying a lot new, but he says it very well. In fact, as a beginning book for a person ready to move into some fairly radical examinations of the way we describe Christianity, Static is excellent.

Each exploration builds off of a narrative. Unlike many books that use this form, Martoia’s narratives and conversations are believable and appropriate. He then discusses key terms in the faith- gospel, repentance, salvation, sin- and explores how a better Biblical understanding can help with a more accurate and more effective application. Martoia believes that the terminology and assumptions/ignorance behind the terminology are a major issue in turning people off from considering the gospel. Just reading Martoia’s bio tells you he believes in re-articulating the familiar. Not the pastor of a church, he’s the facilitator of an “experiential learning community” called “Vortex.” (That has to look very cool on a church softball uniform.)

As a missionary to the culture, Martoia writes with a view to bridging and equipping. His stories and expositions seek to be truly radical- return to the sources- and experientially relevant by speaking to the real lives of the people Jesus came to renew and recreate. Static contains solid Biblical study expressed in simple language. Martoia doesn’t pretend to be the scholar, but he’s like the fellow who’s had the class and can translate the content into something you can grasp easily.

At times, I wondered if Martoia understood what a fundamental upheaval it causes when you begin de-emphasizing a gospel about going to heaven, and emphasizing a gospel with social and political meaning alongside its personal eschatology. Does he realize how many of these Wrightian insights sound to fundamentalists and the truly reformed? Do these renovations of traditional concepts bring more light and truth, or do they, as critics claim, sell out the truth for a bowl of cultural relevance?

I appreciated his frequent references to his own struggles with these changes in understanding, because I’m still having them, and expect to have them for as long as I’m reading outside of the “safe and approved” box.

While Martoia often talks about how this emphasis on something other than the “Four Spiritual Laws” can be disorienting and confusing, I’m not sure he is accurately forthcoming about the extent to which many conservative and reformed evangelicals will see this kind of redefinition as rank heresy and a denial of the faith. His illustrations of the reaction of audiences he’s spoken to let the reader know that much of this background and redefinition will be new and troubling, but a book advocating a renovation of our evangelistic vocabulary this sweeping is going to do more than cause momentary vertigo. It’s going to make some people angry, even though that’s not Martoia’s agenda at all. Some will pull a three alarm fire bell and name the emerging church as the arsonists.

In fact, as I am writing this post, a vigorous discussion is developing around accusations that N.T. Wright denies the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity itself. This is a ridiculous claim, but the merits of the claim are relatively unimportant to those who fear scholars like Wright gaining loyalty and influence among younger evangelicals. More and more defenders of traditionalism are categorizing emerging scholars as enemies of the very faith they are so concerned to defend and pass on.

Martoia does a superb job introducing these controversial ideas to interested, open laypersons. He writes for the same kind of audience as Brian Mclaren and many other emerging writers: intelligent, spiritually open, Biblically curious, ecclesiastically innovative young people willing to think for themselves. Unfortunately, the majority of evangelicals today aren’t asking the questions or moving past traditional formulations. They are listening to teachers and ministries that would find Martoia’s whole project unacceptable.

As a Bible teacher with high school students (sorry for the arrogant boasting there Frank), I regularly introduce ideas similar to Martoia’s and to those put forward by other contemporary Bible teachers and scholars. Many of my students value these new insights, but there is a strong segment that repeats what they have heard from their preachers back home. They are loyal to what we call “Bible belt traditionalism,” and they are not curious or open. I am not ridiculing their commitment to the Bible, but I believe many sincere emerging teachers write books that conservative evangelicals simply can’t relate to without feeling they’ve departed from the truth.

This is why so many critics of the emerging church focus on Brian Mclaren as the Satan himself. Mclaren regularly underestimates his critics, and many other advocates of the emerging church broadcast a kind of hurt and surprise at the depth of their critic’s disdain and rejection. “How can you say such terrible things about us,” they ask, “when we love Jesus and the Bible like you do, and want to make that faith possible for those who have rejected it in traditional terms?”

I found myself wondering, at times, if some of the approach I read in Static was as fully developed as it should be. In one place, Martoia talks about looking at new claims and either approving them or postponing a decision till he can think and consider more. He never said that he considers a claim and judges it wrong, though he obviously does so frequently. It’s a small thing, but many conservatives will feel that is representative of the emerging church: they are rejecting traditional Christianity and are open to almost anything else.

If you have an audience ready to consider how to re-present the gospel of Jesus to emerging, postmodern people, Static is an excellent introduction. If, however, you want to give a book to a traditionalist already biased against what they see as the invasion of evangelicalism by a compromised gospel, Martoia’s skill as a writer may not be matched by awareness of the vigor of the response against Wright and other scholars seeking to steer evangelicals into a less individualistic direction.

This is the first of three books Martoia envisions in a series. Perhaps future books will give a strong response to the kind of criticism that would question whether what Martoia envisions as a missional necessity isn’t really an abandonment of the gospel at a time when its critical to be faithful. Martoia’s contention that faithfulness requires re-verbalizing and re-translation is true, but it’s a contention that isn’t just opposed- it’s condemned in the strongest possible terms. Emerging Christians need a strong, more polemically comfortable voice to respond to the claim that projects like Martoia’s are a surrender of the Gospel.

In the next few years, I expect the lines to be drawn even more boldly. For those making an apologia for the emerging church, the model of a civil conversation won’t always work. For those for whom a civil, reasonable, open conversation is a possibility, Martoia’s book is outstanding.

Two notes: This is published by Tyndale, which I find to be somewhat interesting, but maybe I need to revise my impression of that publisher.

Also, the book is endorsed by Chuck Smith, Jr. Smith, Jr’s problems with his father’s evaluation of the emerging church are well known, and they express very well what kinds of problems I feel Martoia’s book needs to more assertively answer.

I did receive a free copy of this book, but no food was included, so it made no difference.

Comments

  1. What this points to is not differences in theology, but differences in culture. I’ve been out of seminary for 25 years and the major changes in my faith are not theological, but cultural. And one of the subtexts of this culture struggle is money. The fact that Tyndale decide to publish Static suggests that they see a viable market for emerging church authors. Young people will flock to them because they are offering a fresh, different articulation of the Christian faith. So much of what is published by the traditionalist is the same stuff we were reading in college and seminary three or four decades ago. I believe Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is instructive here. We have here a small group of Innovators who are speaking, writing and establishing church communities that is as new as the computer was new to people twenty years ago. Already a much larger cohort of Early Adopters have begun to apply these new ideas in the context of traditional church structures. They are creating a new level of dynamism that I haven’t seen in thirty years. Time will tell whether there will be any Late Adopters or Laggards who adopt these new ideas and methods. Because cultures are very difficult change, these last groups will be passionately resistant to adopting emerging church ideas. If a culture war results, I don’t think it will last long, as the money will follow the Innovators and Early Adopters. What an interesting time we live in!

  2. As I read all the talk of struggling to make the Gospel relevant to a new generation and culture, I can’t help but think of Vatican II. The Roman Church Fathers felt the need to re-present the Gospel, to return to the sources. They had no suppossed intent to deny any traditional truths, and you can read the VII documents and find no outright ‘heresies’ within the hundreds of pages. And the progressives insisted they were mitigating for cultural changes versus changes in substance. Well, I do not know anyone who visits a typical Catholic parish today who wouldn’t suspect something more substantial than ‘culture’ has changed. The connection between mode and message is not as distinct as we necessarily assume, I’d posit.

  3. Wow, interesting post. I had no idea that this conversation was going on. It should be interesting to view.

  4. jmanning says:

    Michael,

    Is it possible for those who have rejected the faith in “traditional terms” as you say, to have also rejected the faith in its essential components. They may argue about the package…but they really don’t like the product either.
    Then they find a lot of people who are also discontent about the packaging, and they feign that they are in agreement, when they really just don’t like the product deep down.

    To be literal, not everyone who rejects fundamentalism does so because they don’t like the “fundamental” aspect of it. They reject it at times because they just reject Jesus, even the skewed portrayal of him. Their re-packaging of his message becomes then an idol of His essential components, and they have altered Christianity.

    Not all, but some authors, do this quite well. They say “I believe in the central points of Christianity, they need to be re-articulated”. And what they mean is “I believe them according to my own definitions of them”. Wright may be among these….his restatement of justification and hell….sigh….its not a restatement, its a reinventing

  5. I’ll pick up a copy of this.

    Just a question about the subtitle – is this critter “anti-church”? ‘Cause I’m just about sick of that…!

  6. HI
    just wondering
    i’ve read the mclaren trillogy, and velvet elvis
    i’m not new to the new ideas about what the gospel of jesus was and is
    and redefining christianity
    however i do feel often confused about how i would then, sum up what i know/believe, how to live to that the how to offer it to others.

    Myself and my wife are in the process of begining a missional work in a estate in england doing something organic and christ focused
    i feel like i need a reall brushing up on the message of jesus and an opurtunity to get deep into the story of jesus.

    Also i’d like to have something to read with my wife to bring us on the same page (it needs then be not to accedemic and a good read) as she’s from a more down the line church/gospel understanding (although both of us grew up in charismatic churches i was naughtier and asked naughty questions) she came out on the wrong end of a penticostal mega church and is fed up of the church culture but not revised the story

    mabey this all to much to ask of one book
    but
    in your opinion would this book be a good book to help us understand what we’re living for and inviting people to

    cheers
    matt

  7. matt: for missional church basics, Driscoll’s Radical Reformission is very good. Statis a fairly narrow discussion of Biblical issues, i.e. do we understand the Gospel correctly?

  8. the thing is personanly i’ve done bit of missional reading
    and to be honest am not to bothered about what i’ve heard written by driscoll already. and my wife not to keen on him because of his haggard blunder. also i think he’s very much in a entirly different cultural context to me and so i’m not sure how much relevance will hold.

    what i really want is, What Jesus said and what it meant to those who heard it (probably in the line of what NT wright has done but not as technical as i would like to read it with my wife, although he’s out local bishop and i’ve heard him speak and find him incredible he sends my wife to sleep cos she can’t hold onto the depths and widths to which he goes to make his points) with a bit of modernism did this to our understanding of that postmodernism showed this about our understanding of that

    have been recomended some scott mcknight by some freinds

  9. Wow! Excellent review. I wish I had written it. I wrote my own review, but will likely send people your way, as it is excellent. Thanks for the great work here.

    Peace,
    Jamie

  10. jmanning–thought-provoking comment. I’ve wondered sometimes if my own attraction for things emergent comes from my unwillingness to go down the narrow road.

    As far as the book review, hey, readable works for me. I’ve been trying to struggle through Colossians Remixed for weeks now.

  11. Oops–I didn’t mean to make it sound as though I don’t believe those embracing the emergent stuff aren’t going down the narrow road. That’s their own business.

    I was only speaking for myself.

  12. chris synesael says:

    one of the questions that i kept asking myself as i read this book was, ‘did everyone else before us have this wrong?’ i mean spurgeon, edwards, other preachers, were they preaching the ‘wrong’ gospel? i mean theres was certainly one centred on repentance, forgiveness, etc…

    the other question was this, ron only refers to scriptures from the Gospels, what about Pauls writings, he was clearly interested fall-redemption.

    i realize i am late on this one, but i just read it and wanted to get my thoughts out there…

  13. Chris Brown is a good person he does not have a history of violence..cant wait til this is over and he is with a new love.