Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Some good reasons to click away from this blog

Scot McKnight discusses the various "impulses" driving the emerging movement, which functions for me as a (finally!) much-needed explanation of what it's all about. It probably helps that he acknowledges not speaking for anyone else - he can let the cat out of the bag, but it's only his "opinion." Oh, and he discusses the relationship between the emerging movement and creedal orthodoxy.

In related news, Earl Creps takes a look at whether EmChurch is a sectarian movement or the Reformational movement that was hoped for a few years ago. Among other things, Earl discusses "the drag of the practical" - that it's harder to implement ideas than it is to theorize in the abstract. So "postmodern vs. modern" may largely boil down to "youthful idealism vs. mature realism." I remember my days of thinking I was going to reform the Church as well.

Just in case there's someone here who doesn'talready read Pastor Bob's blog, he's currently doing a series on the will of God. So far it's been mainly Bible, Bible, Bible, but I'm hoping at some point he'll give us Seven Surefire Steps, which will include donating to his ministry for a blessed Magic 8 Ball.

Also, for those of you who use blog services (like Blogger) that don't use trackback, there's a Manual Trackback Pinger that will let you leave trackbacks on sites that do use trackback. I use this frequently.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Emerging Creedalism?

Scot McKnight makes an appeal for use of the historic creeds of Christendom as a means of defining the faith. The purpose is ecumenical--to unite behind what the church has always believed and what all Christians can affirm, rather than to make a more narrow sectarian definition that defines other believers out. He compares the Nicene Creed, a fundamentalist church statement of faith, an evangelical church statement of faith, and the statement of faith of the church founded by Brian McLaren.

I applaud the impulse behind this appeal. It is good for us to find something in our history which we can agree on and by which we can identify other Christians, regardless of theological differences. On an individual level, and even in informal community life, this may be positive and even sufficient. Unfortunately, I think Scot ignores the realities of creedal development, of subsequent history, and of the purpose and use of church statements of faith.

Scot puts forward the Nicene Creed as a model of simplicity and a statement of basic orthodoxy. He also acknowledges that it is the earliest of the classical creeds he would choose, others being Chalcedon or Nicean-Constantinopolitan. This implicitly acknowledges that even in the church of that time, the Nicene creed was not felt to be sufficient. Creedal development could and did go on, because the impetus behind all the creeds--theological developments that were felt by some to be outside the bounds of scriptural warrant--continued to occur. The creeds were always about "defining others out," whether those others were Docetists or Arians or Monophysites or whatever. Even the choice of which creed to use is a choice regarding

The attempt to go back to a historic creed also seems to ignore or deny all further theological development. If issues have not yet been raised in the church, then of course they need not be addressed in our statements of faith. Once they have been raised, however, there is a tendency to want to bury our heads in the sand and ignore them. Can't we all just get along? We need to be clear about what we are doing here. If we are saying, "This is the core of the faith. I hold this in common with all other believers," then I am in full agreement. But if we are saying, "This is what I believe and all I believe; everything else is irrelevant," then I can't buy it. We all hold opinions about theological issues that have divided Christians throughout history (even if we hold them unconsciously, having been only exposed to one view). Leaving opinions unarticulated leads to a lack of self-awareness at best and dishonesty at worst.

This also touches on the purpose and use of local church and denominational statements of faith. Most of these statements do not presume to say, "One must believe this in order to be a Christian." Most of them, rather, exist to make clear the position and reason for existence of a particular body of believers. "This is who we are, this is where we are at, this is why we worship the way we worship and teach the way we teach." The splintering of the Church Universal is, of course, a Bad Thing, but it is a fait accompli at this point, and the one positive element in it is allowing Christians of differing points of view to coexist as Christians - albeit with much less unity than one would like - rather than the earlier case of excommunicating one another when we understand scripture differently. So differerent groups should be able to explain what their differences are - in fact, I'd argue, have a duty to do so, so that someone coming into the group can avoid being blindsided by hidden presuppositions.

So, again, the creeds are good to identify how we can accept one another in the Faith, but not good as an expression of full 21st century theological understanding. Some have argued that we shouldn't be wedded to a 16th century theology; it doesn't help to be wedded to a 4th century theology instead.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Bono and Bill Hybels on RedBlueChristian

RedBlueChristian has an interesting post containing part of an interview of Bono by Bill Hybels.

Emerging Pentecostalism?

Earl Creps weighs in on why Pentecostals haven't been much a part of the emerging "conversation," and whether they can be, in this interesting post.

At least as interesting, however, is the response he invited from sociologist Adam Long. Long appears to be somewhat skeptical of the EmChurch movement, or at least the claims of some of its leaders regarding its origins and purpose. His point #4 is particularly interesting--in this day and age, is pretending not to market the best marketing tool of all?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Is There Any There There?
Modernism and Postmodernism

[There was a time when] the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and when it was proved they really believed it. . . . But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. . . . Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous--that it is the philosophy of the future.


I first came across the terms modernism and postmodernism while in pursuit of a degree in English literature at a secular university. That, it seems to me, should have been a reasonably good introduction, considering the fact that these terms originated in the study of literature, and one of the major proponents of a postmodern approach to the church--Brian McLaren--appeals to his literature background in his views and interpretations of Scripture. I write "should have been," because in reencountering these terms twenty years later in the context of the emerging church movement, I barely recognize them.

In literature, "modernism" was a literary movement characterized by people like James Joyce, T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and later, William Faulkner. It was characterized by experimentation with literary forms and conventions, multiple points of view, nonchronological development, and lack of transitional or explanatory matter to clarify what is going on. Some of these are among my favorite writers; I love this kind of literary experimentation--finding a way to tell a story in a new and fresh way. There are, of course, other points of view; I believe it was Graham Greene who simply thought that James Joyce had gone stark raving mad halfway through Ulysses.

Postmodernism was simply a catch-all term for the writers who had come after the Modernists, most of whom in some way responded to or built upon what the Modernists had done. Some like John Barth went further and abandoned any sort of pretense to narrative storytelling at all. Many were influenced by French Existentialism, with its rejection of objective truth--meaning is something for individuals to construct for themselves out of an absurd universe. Other, more philosophical issues entered into the study of literature (this is distinct from the production of literature itself), culminating with Jacques Derrida and deconstruction theory, which in a nutshell, meant that there could be no inherent meaning to any text, only the meanings that arose from the encounter of the reader's matrix of understanding with the text. (It may be argued here that I have only a superficial and faulty understanding of the issues involved with literary postmodernism. This may be so--I am much more interested in literature itself than in various theories on its interpretation--but as will be seen, that actually should not matter in the discussion of the emerging church.)

When I read these terms in the context of the emerging church, they take on entirely different meanings. Modernism and postmodernism are supposed to be two different cultures, the first waning, the second taking shape in reaction to the first. Those who identify with postmodern culture are resolutely against defining the characteristics of that culture (the attempt to do so being dismissed as "modern"). They don't appear to have any problem defining the culture they are rejecting, however. "Modernism" is used synonymously with "modernity" and appears to be associated with rational and logical thought; it's sometimes characterized as "Enlightenment thinking," as though Aristotle knew nothing of logic and Plato's dialogues had nothing to do with reason. This is not to say that postmodern thought is irrational, but there is much more focus on understanding through narrative, as opposed to understanding through propositions and syllogistic reasoning. "Modernism" is also viewed as individualistic and associated with a consumer mentality. Postmodernism, by contrast, is supposed to be more relational, more interested in community, and opposed to consumerism. It has some relationship to youth culture, which is why it shouldn't matter whether I have a perfect understanding of Derrida, literary postmodernism, or deconstruction: most of those who identify with the postmodern movement don't, either.

What is my point? (How modernist of you to ask!) Only this: I think there is something going on among those who view themselves as emerging or postmodern, but I don't know if it's anything nearly so earth-shattering as its proponents want to make out. As a matter of fact, I think we've seen something like this before. Wasn't the '60s counterculture supposed to be a new way of life, emerging from the ashes of the surrounding larger culture? Wasn't it supposed to be a rejection of the money grubbing rat race? A new Age of Aquarius, full of peace and harmony? While the '60s have had a significant impact on culture--largely in terms of music and social/sexual mores--much of the more radical aspects of the movement petered out. So let's be careful before we abandon too much in the race to be "relevant" to the brave new postmodern world. Especially, let's be careful in the area of Biblical interpretation. Liberal theology was predicated on the perceived necessity to make the Bible "relevant to modern man." The result: the denominations that adopted that theological approach have withered. Let's not make that mistake again.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Turtles All the Way Down
Scot McKnight's Critique of Heretic's Guide to Eternity

I knew I loved Scot McKnight for a reason.

Scot has been doing one of his many book review series, this one on A Heretic's Guide to Eternity by Spencer Burke of The series is worth reading throughout. My own reason for linking to it and commenting at this time has less to do with the actual critique of the book than what Scot writes about the emerging movement as a whole. Scot is associated with the movement, links to many of its leaders, and has a "friend of Emergent" button on his blog, so he's anything but a knee-jerk, uncomprehending rejector of the movement. I have wanted to write about postmodernism and the emerging movement for a while, but haven't felt that I understood it enough to comment. Scot is, however, not in that position. This is what he says--and it's worth noting that he prefaces his comments in this way he does:
I have to say the following — and I don’t do so with anything but sadness.

The emerging movement is proud of creating a safe environment for people to think and to express their doubts. Partly because of what I do for a living (teach college students), I am sympathetic to the need for such safe environments. But, having said that, the emerging movement has also been criticized over and over for not having any boundaries. Frankly, some of the criticism is justified. I want to express my dismay today over what I think is crossing the boundaries.
What Scot means by "boundaries" is a defining limit to how far one can go and still remain within Christianity. Burke rejects the personhood of God and the necessity of coming to God through Christ; he also argues essentially that everyone is born saved, although it is possible to "opt out" and send yourself to hell. People whose native culture is centered on another religion do not have to convert to Christianity to be saved. (Burke told Scot on the phone that he believes that it is because of Jesus' death and resurrection that people are included in God's grace from birth, but he doesn't say so in the book.)

The issue here is simply, how far may one go in expressing one's doubts, and still claim to be a Christian? Is there a "bottom line" to what it means to be a Christian, or, as the old joke goes, is it "turtles all the way down"? It seems to me to be self-evident that if there is no basic core of belief that is necessary to orthodoxy, then there is no such thing as Christianity at all.

Andrew Jackson on correctly observes that "No one should use Burke to condemn everyone in the Emergent movement." However, I don't see Scot as doing that. One of the problems that outsiders like me have in trying to comprehend the movement is that people who critique the movement (e.g., Donald Carson) are dismissed as not understanding it; when people ask questions to try to understand it, people in the movement refuse to "define themselves"; and when individuals within the movement are quoted in order to discuss their ideas, it is responded that "they don't speak for the whole movement." So how is one supposed to grasp or interact with it?

The emerging "conversation" is said to be a "safe environment for people to think and to express their doubts." All well and good; my own experience tells me that if you are free to doubt--honestly doubt--you can come back with a stronger faith than ever. But my suspicion is that "doubt" is all too often merely a code-word to mean rejection. Is the emerging conversation also a safe environment for people to think and express their beliefs? Is there any positive content to the emerging conversation? Or is it all simply rejection? Enquiring minds want to know.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Individualism Redux

My original post about individualism was largely a response to David Fitch's first post on Out of Ur regarding expository preaching. Fitch has since published parts two and three of that series. In my post, I wrote:
I await his next installment to find out how he believes some other type of preaching would fare better, or how any type of preaching at all can be received by anyone other than individuals.
Fitch makes a reasonable attempt to provide a positive alternative, but it seems to me that he makes a distinction without a meaningful difference.

In part two, Fitch argues for imaginative proclamation as opposed to exegesis. Why these two things need be opposed is anyone's guess. Fitch disparages the work of the pastor exegeting the Greek text, calling it "hubris," and writes that the pastor should recognize that his own "brilliance" should not be substituted for the work of "thousands that have gone before." But how the pastor should choose from among the streams of traditions that exist, Fitch doesn't say. Where the imaginative proclamation, the "alternative interpretation of the way things are," comes from, Fitch doesn't tell us. He seems to assume that there is an already-agreed-upon reality to which we can appeal for our proclamation. With regard to some passages and issues, that may be true; with regard to some, it isn't. But if the proclamation isn't drawn out (exegeted) from the Word, then where is it coming from, and why should the congregation view it as authoritative? One of the reasons Fitch denigrates expository preaching is because the listener (or the pastor) hear (or read) their own meanings into the text; but if they do not even attempt to exegete the text, how can they possibly avoid this pitfall? One may as well argue, "It's dangerous to walk this path if you don't have good vision; better to shut your eyes altogether."

I come from a church tradition that favors emotional preaching over expository teaching. I get the impression that Fitch comes from the opposite: one in which dry exposition of the text is the norm. Both extremes are bad: emotional preaching has no anchor and dry exposition cannot sail. There's nothing wrong with imaginative proclamation with solid exegetical study to ground it.

In part three, Fitch attempts to argue for liturgical response as opposed to individual application. I have no problem with liturgical response, although in my experience it tends to become dead formalism for those who have practiced it for a long time. It reminds me of my wife's story of how, growing up Catholic, she asked her catechism instructor, "Why do we put ashes on our heads on Ash Wednesday?" "Because we're Catholic!" was the response she was given. She had to come into another church tradition and read scripture about repenting in sackcloth and ashes before she had any more understanding.

The problem with liturgical response is that it only lasts as long as the service lasts. Yes, it gives the appearance of responding as a community rather than as individuals, but when we leave church, we need to live out the gospel. Individual application points have their own problem: there's a pressure on the pastor to "be relevant"; i.e., to reach for applications that are "practical," that touch on people's perceived needs. The end result is to "use" the gospel to repair one's marriage, get one's finances in order, do one's work more efficiently, and raise one's children more effectively. The challenge--and this is where Fitch is right--is to reorient one's life to be centered on Christ. It's not to make the gospel relevant to our lives; it's to make our lives relevant to the gospel. Imaginative proclamation--being able to see oneself in another type of existence--is certainly valuable here; but I don't see why it needs to be opposed to exposition.