Thursday, February 19, 2004

The Emergent Church, part II 

Well, let that be a lesson to me. I foolishly thought that my post on the Emergent Church would reach only the relatively small circle of people who regularly read my blog. In particular, I never suspected that the sites I quoted would read this. It was of course quite foolish of me to think that. I always look at the sites who link to me, so there's no reason to think that others wouldn't do the same. That's the great thing about the Internet- even a pipsqueak like me can get heard, even if he doesn't always mean to. :)

Now, don't let this fool you into thinking I don't stand by the substance of my post. As of right now, I do, though I wouldn't want to paint myself into a rhetorical corner from which I could not later escape. But if I had intended to write a post that would set off a conversation with the folks I was disagreeing with, I probably would have used a little different tone. So let me take this opportunity to apologize to a few people, in particular Steve from Emergent Kiwi.

Steve has responded to me here. I appreciate the gracious tone of your response, Steve, and have taken it as a rebuke of my tone. So I don't think we're in any danger of a flame war. I am excited to learn more about your perspective.

Before I get to the substance, however, I'd like to clear up a few possible misconceptions. First, Steve still insists on saying I flamed him. I did not, since I did not personally name him or discuss anything personal about him. I had strong criticisms of the movement, so if you want to say I flamed the Emergent Church concept, fine. I suppose I did that. This is, I suppose a minor point, but the reason I quoted Steve's site as much as I did, was because I found it one of the more well-spoken representations of the position I was discussing (or flaming).

Secondly, Steve refers to me as "Mr. Wheat" and himself as the chaff that I flamed. This is not the intention of the name of this site. I am not wheat to everyone else's chaff. It refers to the wide variety of subject matter on which I blog, some of which is serious and some not. So, I hope that clears that up. Steve, in the future you can just call me Mr. Powell. Or even, if it makes you more comfortable, just Matt. I know it would make me more comfortable.

OK, so preliminaries aside. Apparently I was mistaken in applying the Gen-X label to this movement, as they claim that they eschew that label. I think this was an understandable mistake, however, given the volume of references to Gen-X on Steve's site and others that I looked at. But nevermind. The label's gone.

We also have a great deal in common. Like them, I am very interested in Christ. Like them, I am very interested in impacting the society in which I live, in a way that is relevant to that society and not to a society that may or may not have existed a hundred or a thousand years ago. Like them, I believe it's important to speak to people in a language they can understand. Like them, I value relationships far more than structure; people far more than programs; truth far more than marketing.

It's clear though that even once we clear up some of the more superficial matters and establish some common ground, the EC movement and I have serious differences. The fact is, the common ground I established above would be agreed to, at least in name, by virtually any ministry worker of any stripe anywhere at all. Nobody would say that they'd rather watch a commercial than have a conversation with a friend. So if this is the heart of the movement, I think it's a straw man. If we're going to meaningfully engage the issues that separate us, we have to define what those issues are. So I want to take a step back a little bit, and see if I can really understand in more detail exactly what those differences are.

I have seen more than a few things to indicate that the Emergent Church in general has a more liberal view of doctrine than I myself would be comfortable with. As evidence, I'd cite this from The Emergent Village. The author says:
"Emergent is intentionally cross-confessional. We hope to bring together Christians from varied confessions and traditions (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox). We believe that beyond the postmodern transition, many existing polarities (between evangelical and liberal, for example) will yield to new collaboration."
Now perhaps Steve would endorse such a statement; perhaps not; my guess is he would. I can support this by pointing to this post of Steve's in which he encourages what I'd call a pretty loose reading of Scripture. The concepts of sacramental or social inspiration are pretty far out of the traditional Reformed views of inspiration; yet it's clear that Steve at least thinks these are options. And given the aforementioned exegesis of 1 Peter, I'm guessing these are methods Steve actively uses, or even prefers, to a more historical-grammatical exegesis. This puts him at least a little on the liberal side of things, and liberals are usually all for inclusion of all kinds of perspectives, while conservatives typically are not so open to that. The reason being, liberals don't value doctrinal rigidity much, and so they don't care what positions you take on a lot of issues, they feel they can still collaborate. Conservatives, on the other hand, think doctrine is really important, and that certain levels of doctrinal disagreements preclude fellowship.

Hopefully I'm being fair so far.

So the problem is, when liberals (or postmoderns) talk about liberals and conservatives getting together to collaborate, the liberals get to keep being liberals, but the conservatives have to stop being conservatives. Now perhaps the Postmoderns would prefer to think of themselves as being beyond the Liberal / Conservative dichotomy. I expect they'd view that as a Premodern / Modern dichotomy. And to take a look at that, let's do a little more thinking about Postmodernism itself.

The first book on Steve's reading list for postmodernism is WT Anderson's book, Reality Isn't What It Used To Be. I know it's the first book for alphabetical reasons, but the fact that Steve included it must mean that he thinks it's a good definition, if not the defition. As I recall, Anderson's book was basically opposed to all structures and formulations of reality or truth that would be said to be universally applicable. This would certainly be consistent with a modern liberal view of Christianity. But I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth. Maybe Steve can help me out here- what exactly does he mean by Postmodernism, and what does it mean to be a postmodern church? I don't want to know what that means the worship service looks like, or what music he listens to. But on a basic level, what is Postmodernism?

Now I have read about a postmodern monastery, and a postmodern missiology, and I found this quote from Emergent Village:
Second, the term missional implies a narrative way of looking at the Scriptures. In other words, for us, the Bible is not primarily the repository of abstractions or propositions which need to be extracted and systematized from its stories and poetry; rather, we see the Bible as the record of the story of God’s emerging mission in human history. This record conveys the trajectory of God’s work -- with which we seek to align and into which we seek to invest our lives.

So what I am coming together with is that the Emergent Church movement's view of postmodernism is a deep skepticism regarding any all-encompassing system of truth, any systematic theology if you will. Instead, postmodernism is more interested in "mini-narrative"- bits and pieces from here and there that the individual uses to produce a kind of "ad-hoc" truth- that will serve the needs of the time and situation. Steve refers to this as "sampling"- DJ-ing Salvation.

Help me out, Steve. Am I on the right track?

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