Book Review: The Church after Innovation

The Church after Innovation:
Questioning Our Obsession with Work, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship
By Andrew Root

Andrew Root is an indefatigable student of the church, the faith, and ministry in the secular age. This just the latest in a series of provocative studies in these areas. I have reviewed The Pastor in a Secular Age, and The Congregation in a Secular Age for this blog. Having done his PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary, Root is Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. He has also written decisive and honest books on youth ministry, so much so that there is a meme around quoting him as saying the future of the church is not youth, rather Jesus Christ!

Many of the really laudable characteristics of his earlier works appear again here. Root immediately narrates his presence as main speaker at synodical/diocesan event. There he encounters Synod Executive Guy (read bishop or president) who is pushing mission and innovation as the only way forward for the institutional church. He also encounters individuals named “Applebee’s Boy” and “Bearded Brown Turtleneck,” pastors who are respectively, pro and contra innovation as the promoted, even mandated modality in church life. But this all too human contextualizing soon gives way to Root’s as usual careful inspection of the historical array of factors involved in the transition to modernity, the secular world in which Charles Taylor, his guide, argues we are inextricably embedded.

Innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship—none of these could have happened in the ancient world nor in the medieval period: not until the start of modernity. And there, from the Reformation onwards, Root follows Max Weber’s effort to link the Protestant ethic of work to the emerging capitalist system and its worldview. He also takes us through the post WWII years, when like “leave it to Beaver,” America and much of the world left it to management, namely the emergence of management as an enormous control mechanism across the society—the economy, academy, government and of course, eventually in the churches. Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship heralded a new turn, namely the era of permanent innovation and of every worker as entrepreneur, not just an elite few. With the old faith supported sense of duty and calling gone, permanent innovation could not tolerate the tendencies toward routine and security. The idea of a private world, at home with family, friends separate from the political sector of work also faded. The hours of work kept expanding and eventually technology made it 24/7, with workers enculturated to keep thinking of greater “opportunities” when downsized, outsourced, or asked to do more for less pay. Root further digs into the refashioning of the self, giving a nod to the Viennese “worm” of Freud’s vision. The product is not just the need to keep creating, innovating, but defining oneself in terms of this, fulfillment being in terms of constant accomplishment and personal exceptionality.

Bonds that used to connect companies to employees, institutions to staff, eroded in the neoliberal refashioning of economy and society. Pensions became one’s own entrepreneurial opportunity, and so on. It’s no surprise that since this book’s publication, the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting” have emerged. Yet even the upturning of the economy by the pandemic has not slowed the push toward innovation and entrepreneurial self-fulfillment. There is neither the space nor time here to catalogue the many other aspects of contemporary culture Root deftly analyzes. His treatment of the rise and the crucial importance of “design” as solver of all problems is just one marvelous example, another being the emergence of the “star system” or more recently, celebrity influencers. There is as well, a fascinating look at the shrinking of the old middle class and the appearance of a highly culturized, singular in spending patterns middle class. The distancing affect of this on those not sharing educational, occupational and financial privileges is behind political polarization and has had significant impact of religious identification in America. In addition to Charles Taylor, in this volume, as in others, Root has us listen again to well known figures like Foucault but also introduces us to a lesser-known student of creativity and singularity, Andreas Reckwitz. Encountering new takes on familiar issues is one of the recurring gifts of Root’s series of books, a real contribution to us all.

For Root, the wholehearted adoption of these by the church goes against everything the church is. As in his other books, there is Root’s own 21st century version of a “return to the sources.” In the book previous to this one, Churches and the Crisis of Decline, it was the vision of Barth and all that could mean for a community of faith struggling with shrinkage and closure. Here, the alternative vision or “epiphany” is even more unexpected. First there is a detour through the history and the meaning and the power of money in society, culture and the church. This sets the scene for a pivot that is surprising but understandable. Think of the reforms brought by Francis of Assisi and Dominic and the Cistercians, in particular their rejection of money and its power. Then think further of the mysticism of Dominicans Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler and the Frankfurt priest author of Theologia Germanica, all influential shapers of Martin Luther. We appear to be a long way from Karl Barth. Yet the “thin” or minority position these three took, albeit independently would later be revered by Jürgen Moltmann. Seeking God where God seemingly cannot be found, glorying in the weak, suffering, crucified God, and in the cross—these are the visions that these sources offer. From them Root identifies, “the negative way of nothingness” and “letting go to find the ground” as what the church can appropriate as the alternative to innovation and the entrepreneurship that was previously described. It may seem paradoxical, but these are the right paths for the church and pastors to be going, not those of innovation. While challenging, given what passes for theological writing these days, Root again does not disappoint but gifts us with this latest effort.

Root, Andrew. The Church after Innovation: Questioning Our Obsession with Work, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022. xiv + 242 pages. $ 27.99. ISBN: 9781540964823.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.

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