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Bryan Stone. Evangelism after Pluralism: The Ethics of Christian Witness. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018. 151 pp. Paperback. $14.65.
You might not have heard the good news: we have reached the moment after pluralism. That, at least, is the provocative possibility that Bryan Stone’s new book Evangelism after Pluralism: The Ethics of Christian Witness entertains. Stone, who continues to write at the cutting edge of evangelism studies, unfurls an exciting argument. The new volume recapitulates and extends his Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness. In addition to being more accessible than the previous work, Evangelism after Pluralism focuses more sharply by framing major dimensions of the post-Christendom context—Western imperialism, nationalistic militarism, violent politics, consumerism, and religious relativism—in terms of the metanarrative of pluralism. Furthermore, Stone foregrounds the extent to which the Christian practice of evangelism calls for an ethics shaped by a social imagination that moves beyond pluralism:
My ultimate hope is to identify a conterimagination that habituates the practice of evangelism in rather different directions and refuses the temptation to secure a space in the world for the good news. Within that alternative imagination, evangelism is the noncompetitive practice of bearing faithful and embodied witness in a particular context rather than an attempt to produce converts by first safeguarding the credibility or helpfulness of the good news. Shaped ecclesially through distinctive social practices, evangelism is the offer of beauty rather than an exercise in positioning the good news within a crowded marketplace in an attempt to fight off the competition. (13)
The problem that Stone takes up, then, is not simply how best to evangelize in a pluralistic or post-pluralistic context but how to free evangelism from the ethical limits of pluralism.
Stone launches the argument in ch. 2 by contrasting evangelism and proselytism ethically, identifying the latter with the competitive logic of pluralism. “Our evangelism is our ethics” (17), contends Stone, indicating that by standing in contrast (competition?!) to the ethics of pluralism, the way that the church bears witness to, embodies, and performs the gospel is itself the gospel. One might say that the communication of the gospel is compromised when the ethics of pluralism reigns, but that claim risks essentializing the gospel in abstraction from the life of the church in the way of Jesus. The gospel is not merely communicated by means of but, more profoundly, is manifest as the church’s alternative ethics. Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, “The medium is the message,” seems to echo from the pages of Evangelism after Pluralism.
Chapters 3 and 4 finish framing the discussion by addressing notions of empire and salvation respectively. The book’s key concept is that pluralism, “the story we tell about plurality,” is actually “about how we are to comprehensively comprehend and make sense of the many” (10). The question remains: Whose comprehensive logic plots the story of pluralism? Stone’s answer is the piercingly insightful twist at the heart of the book. He first reaches for a postcolonial trope, reminding us that “empires expand and maintain their power by the homogenization of place through the imposition of a unified and totalizing ‘order’ that erases difference” (30). Then he identifies this imposition of unity as the plot of pluralism’s story! Thus, one of the shackles from which Stone would loose evangelism is the naïve postmodern imagination in which the logic of imperialism is only at work in Christianity’s religio-political acquisitiveness (read: “evangelistic” fervor), which pluralism purportedly subverts. The truth, rather, is that contemporary empire is “far less interested in securing and defending a single official religious sponsor or chaplain and more adept at domesticating all religions equally as purveyors and administrators of essentially private experiences” (32). By imposing the unifying category “religion” on diverse experiences and then defining religion as “private,” empire operates another mechanism of control. Therefore, following theological ethicists such as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, Stone contends that the answer is not to beat empire at its own totalizing game but to understand the church as a “rival” politics (34). This leads directly into his brief discussion of “the ecclesiality of salvation” (ch. 4), whose premise is that the church’s alternative political, economic, ethical life is the embodiment of the gospel and, therefore, is not an optional instrument for or accompaniment to some other, churchless “salvation.” Indeed, “salvation is a way of naming our life together as Christians” (44).
With these basic claims established, Stone moves on to the meat of the book in chs. 5 to 8. These chapters thicken the ideas already introduced, now systematically addressing key themes: the civil religion of the nation-state, the utilitarian violence of empire, the competitive practice of consumerism, and the globalizing gaze of shallow religious pluralism versus the political imagination, pacifist ethics, and alternative economics of Christ’s way and the theological vision of God’s universal grace. In all of these discussions, Stone’s framework of pluralism, ethics, empire, and salvation holds the argument together, generating a variety of incisive insights. The final chapter, “Evangelism and Beauty,” takes an unexpected turn toward the aesthetic dimensions of the ethics of evangelism: “An ethics of evangelism for which beauty is central is not an ethics that identifies ahead of time some end at which we aim (the conversion of our neighbor or church growth, for instance). . . . The ethics of evangelism is instead an ethics of response and witness to a beauty that interrupts and lays claim on us, inviting us outward. It is an ethics of participation in a beauty that sanctifies and transforms” (122). Here as well, Stone gestures toward significant insights, if only in germinal form. The chapter ends appropriately with a discussion of beauty’s plurality. The book concludes with a Barthian epilogue on the meaninglessness of apologetics in view of a post-pluralistic ethics of evangelism. A reference list and index round out the volume.
Evangelism after Pluralism is a vital, innovative contribution to the study of ecclesiology, evangelism, and ethics alike. It is well-written and concise and will likely prove indispensable to teachers of evangelism in the American context for the foreseeable future. A few critical issues are especially noteworthy, however. First, Stone needs to address the tension that arises from the fact that his non-competitive ethics is in competition (“rivalry”) with the plurality of alternatives. Second, the argument needs to deal more thoroughly with the dimensions of the gospel that touch upon personal reconciliation with God. Stone’s critique of individualistic, spiritualized notions of salvation treads near caricature, but more importantly it subdues elements of evangelism that are in need of ethical mediation, not least the prophetic call to personal repentance that is ineradicably part of Jesus’s way. Finally, the reader may naturally wonder whether Stone’s ethics itself becomes a totalizing story about the way the church’s embodiment of the gospel relates to the politics, economics, and religions of the pluralistic empire. Can the practice of evangelism be contextualized in a variety of ways, or does Stone’s understanding of the way of Christ exclude other possibilities? Granting that, in the absence of competitiveness or coercion, the logic of Stone’s ethics is not totalizing in the proper sense, nonetheless the postliberal sensibilities that underlie the argument suggest that his ethics is potentially insular—bound to an internal logic that is not subject to extra-systemic influences and therefore resistant to contextualization. While Stone addresses some of these matters in other writings, and he need not say everything here, the book’s modest page count leaves room to expand on these important points in a second edition. Then again, perhaps the ability to provoke readers’ plural answers to such questions commends the volume more than would a single attempt to answer them.
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena, CA, USA