Book Review: Viral Hope | JR Woodward

Woodward, JR, editor. Viral Hope:  Good News from the Urbs to the Burbs (and everything in between). forward by Scot McKnight. Los Angeles:  Ecclesia Press, 2010

The hip way to do conferences these days is to ditch the big entrée speeches (along with those big entrée egos) and make a sushi roll of what used to be the keynote. One session becomes many—five-minute slices in rapid succession—and the time is devoted to as many innovative voices that can be rolled and packed on the plate (wasabi on the side).

This is the format of Viral Hope , the new collection that gathers 40 contributors in quick slices to answer one question: "What is the gospel for your city?" Begun as a series of guest posts for missional-church blogger JR Woodward (www.jrwoodward.com), they now jump from the screen to the page in the first effort by Ecclesia Press, a non-profit offshoot of the young Ecclesia Network. The result is a TED-like presentation that gives us a fresh face at every turn of the page—pastors and church planters and Christian thinkers that (refreshingly) aren’t generally part of the Christian conference circuit.

And it gets a bit more clever. Each short article is introduced not only by bio and ministry focus, but identifies the writer’s local newspaper. From the NY Times to the Caviler Daily (that’d be the student paper at the University of Virgina), we are offered a definition of the gospel for each of forty fifty local neighborhoods—or as Woodward puts it, the “from the Urbs to the Burbs—and everything in between.”

These days, the simple topic like the “Good News” is an increasingly murky target regardless of the audience—churchy or not at all. For the former (and particularly evangelicals), the definition of the gospel can be the subject of some real angst as conversations have recently found people (wittingly or not) in two camps. Bloggers wryly noted last week (April 2010) that each faction appeared to host their own rally gathering. The Together For the Gospel (TG4) conference with John Piper and friends defines the group that is concerned the center of the gospel is being lost. The emphasis here is on justification by faith in the cross. Meanwhile, Wheaton College (WTC) gathered the followers of Biblical scholar “rock star” NT Wright, who has been a champion of the gospel focused on the kingdom of God and “the renewal of all things.” Theologically astute readers will quickly notice that Viral Hope largely represents the second crowd: representative quotations are from Frederick Beuchner, Stanley Haurwaas, Mirsolof Volf and Leslie Newbigin. Greg Larson (Los Angeles) directly mentions the divide as he writes, “"For many of us who rejoice in the classic gospel of 'grace, not works,' we have largely ignored the implications of the gospel that have to do with the renewal of all things."

Yet, while this crew is well-read, they’d clearly prefer that the theological dialogue rise from the streets rather than the library. Christine Sine speaks of her Seattle-green compost pile; Dustin James laughs with his Hispanic friends at Los Angeles IHOP; and Jon Tyson in New York deftly identifies his multi-layered city, including “the poor and marginalized,” the “struggling artist,” or even the “hipster… tight black jeans, trust fund and all.”

A few take the cultural description to deeper waters, addressing the gospel directly to the sin issues of their local culture. Jason Clark challenges the fear and greed emanating from London’s hard-hit financial district. David Fitch says the “well-kept lawns” and high-achieving schools of the Chicago suburbs “disguise the brokenness of life.” These and similar moments resonate as poster examples of the missional gospel, retaining (if its still possible) the efficacy of the word.

And while a few of the articles miss the incarnational impulse, submitting contributions that don’t carry any distinguishing local features beyond their title—maybe this just reminds us that the gospel itself is both contingent and coherent. Or said with less high-brow: the gospel is locally unique yet wonderfully the same, no matter where we land in the wide world of God’s coming Kingdom.

Congrats to other friends who participated in this project, including: JR Rozko, Noel Heikkinen, Jim Pace, Matt Rogers, Ben Sternke, Dave Fitch, Chris Backert.