A semi-regular attempt (in other words, as I have time) to explore the interaction between God and the adolescent world, especially the connection between theory and praxis (otherwise known as practical theology). Primary emphasis will be given to the role of the church (and especially the emerging church) in this process.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


I read the following post today. As someone who is a friend of Emergent (and wholeheartedly embraces their core philosophy), I am also quite willing to critique some of the aspects/practices which some (certainly not all) emerging churches engage in (and have done so in other places). However, the article I linked to above is not just a critique. It is first and foremost an interpretation of Scripture.

I understand fully the problem that many folk have with the emergent movement--namely, that they believe we are doing things contrary to accepted Scriptural truths. This is obviously the perspective of the author of that article.

Of course, the issue is how one interprets Scripture. Our hermeneutic plays a huge role in this. I abhor labels, and thus won't stoop to trying to label where I think this person is coming from. We recognize that all throughout history many well-meaning folk have tended to interpret Scripture to suit their needs. The most obvious example in our recent history in the United States is the number of Christians who used Scripture to support the pratice of slavery.

This may well be what this person believes Emergent is doing. So, is the emerging movement twisting Scripture to suit their needs? Far from it. I think the leaders of Emergent (e.g. Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, etc.) are doing a superb job of showing how Scripture addresses the current culture in which we live.

Instead, I would argue that sometimes those who embrace a modern interpretation of Scripture are simply fearful of postmodern interpretations. When we in Emergent start making interpretations that move beyond foundationalism, moderns become concerned that we are trying to destroy the foundation upon which their lives have been built. And truthfully (here comes my critique of some emerging folk), these moderns have a right to feel this way.

Imagine this scenario for a moment. You’re ready to build your dream house. You work with a realtor to secure a piece of land that will serve as a solid foundation for your new home. The realtor identifies a parcel that she says has bedrock just a few feet under the surface, an ideal piece of land. You build your home, secure in the belief that nothing can ever sway it. However, after living in the home for 20 years, you begin noticing some cracks in the walls. Soon the foundation itself has cracks, and they appear to be growing larger. Concerned, you have an inspector come and check things out. His report is not good—the “bedrock” upon which you built your house was really just a limestone deposit that has shifted, and your home is soon going to wind up being sucked down into a sink hole. How would you feel? Confused? Angry? Of course! You’d immediately want to take legal action against the realtor for not doing her job properly. You would check out what options you had for shoring up the house, work to repair the foundation, and anything else in order to keep intact the beautiful house you worked so long to create.

Now imagine if someone told you that everything that you believed, everything upon which you had built your life, was false. How would you feel? Confused? Angry? Well, that’s how most moderns feel when they are told by us postmoderns that the principles which have served as the foundation of their lives are now considered either antiquated or irrelevant.

We have to remember that postmodern ideas are largely terrifying to moderns. It is incumbent on us to make the ideas palatable to them. Unfortunately, rather than extolling the virtues of postmodern ideas and gently helping our modern friends understand the implications of some of their modern ideas, because we are convinced that our postmodern ideas are correct, we have attempted to force-feed them to our friends.

One of the ways we have done this is by dichotomizing the two philosophies, pitting them as opposites radically opposed to one another, and therefore forcing folk to choose one way or the other.

I have been guilty of this. There are ideas associated with postmodernism that I personally find fulfilling and honestly believe to be the truest expressions of Christianity as revealed in Scripture and theology. Because I believe so strongly in the postmodern expression of these ideas, I have found myself dichotomizing the two positions, subjecting modernism to intense critical analysis while basically giving postmodernism a free pass, thus making it difficult for anyone to reject these ideas. As a friend of mine recently stated, “Those who advocate postmodernism by and large present it in such a way that any mature Christian would have difficulty not embracing it.” And yet my friend, who holds a Ph.D. in history, reminds me that dichotomizing modern and postmodern values inevitably leads to oversimplification and distortion of the actual ideas and feelings being investigated. It is important for us to remember that in real life people do not divide on modern and postmodern issues as clearly as we would like to think.

A second way we make postmodern ideas unpalatable to our modern friend is by making statements regarding modernism or postmodernism that are simply indefensible. For instance, one of the cool things to do is to contrast the individualism of moderns with the community of postmoderns. In our efforts to draw a distinction between the two, we make it black and white—moderns are autonomous individuals who never gave a thought to community and sought only to serve there own selfish needs, while postmoderns are reaffirming the bonds of family, the wider community, and even tradition, as they seek the best for others.

However, truth be told, the notion that modernism was devoid of any belief in the importance of community is patently false. The human rights identified in the Declaration of Independence were explicitly associated with a “decent respect for the opinion of mankind” and the “modern” Declaration of Human Rights assumes that a human community is a necessary aspect of ensuring human rights. Conversely, the “community” that postmoderns participate in may not look anything at all like the biblical concept of community. In his insightful book, Postmodern Youth Ministry, my friend Tony Jones states that community for postmoderns may be expressed in untraditional ways such as cohabitation, or in TV shows like MTV’s Road Rules, Big Brother or Survivor. Jones is right. However, is it just me, or do you also see a strong hint of narcissistic hedonism in this expression of community?

I don’t know if it is an issue of some folk wanting to prove their point by making a straw man out of modernism, or if they simply aren’t doing their homework. However, when postmoderns make statements like these, they only contribute to the stereotype moderns have of us—as folk who reject reason and logic entirely and base every decision on our emotions. When we fail to engage moderns in honest discourse on why we think a postmodern characteristic is preferable to a modern value, preferring instead to dismiss those who disagree with us, we only prove the modern person’s assumption that postmodernism is nothing more than some hocus-pocus that we’ve dreamed up in order to play fast and loose with the rules.

Like any philosophy, postmodernism, especially deconstructive postmodernism, has some ideas that are wonderful expressions of Christianity as well as some ideas that are simply incompatible with Christian beliefs. [NOTE: I am NOT talking about the philsophies/beliefs of the Emergent movement here, but rather postmodernism as a philosphical construct in general.] If we are really interested in hastening along this transition from modernism to postmodernism, we need to take seriously the objections that our modern friends raise about postmodernism and dialog intelligently with them about the issues. For instance, many of my modern friends greatly appreciate how deconstruction has led us to consider marginal voices that need to be heard in the church. However, they find it quite difficult to accept the idea that many postmoderns don’t believe in absolute truth (as a modern would define it).

When faced with such circumstances, we have two choices. We can label our friends as “modern” and simply dismiss their criticism, thus ensuring that we will continue to speak past one another. Or, preferably, we can recognize that their critique of our postmodern beliefs may be just what is needed to help us critically analyze those beliefs, weed out the junk, and come away with a stronger, more cogent postmodern worldview, one that can carry us forward.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"However, the article I linked to above is not just a critique. It is first and foremost an interpretation of Scripture."

Isn't this what we are dealing with on a mass scale anyway. The question that arises, at least in my mind, is by what foundation do we now begin to interpret scripture? Your example of the house built on a foundation moving is correct, but I'm not sure what "new" foundation that we are beginning to build upon. Like you, I embrace the philosophy of emergent, however, I find myself battling the perceived need for experience based religion over knowledge based and why the two cannot work together. It seems that the emerging church is trying to negate the validity of the modern church of which both you and I grew up in and found our relationship with Christ in. This is what you are talking about as we have seen people pitting the two against each other as one being right and the other wrong.

As you mentioned the "labels" that are being thrown around seem to be one of the ways in which the emergent church creates indefensible statements. It appears that many in the movement claim they abhor labels and want to remove them, but consistently point out the groups that are different from them. They do this by not labeling them but pointing out those who are apparant leaders of these groups and demean them and those who do listen to them. The respect that I have for the emergent church is greatly hampered becausee they can seem to only point out the mistakes that seem to be made rather than point out the positive things they accomplished.

Anyway, I have to head out and thus cannot continue here, but maybe I can later.


Scott Williams

3:06 PM

Blogger Kyle said...

Very well said, Jim. I appreciate your points. And really have nothing to add...

1:30 PM

Blogger StorminNormin said...

What is Emergent's view of scripture? How does it square with Luther's, Zwingli's, the Radical Reformers, Calvin, and the English reformers' sola scriptura and scriptural hermenutics? Or the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church's for that matter?

On what criterion, or authority, does the postmodern emergent interpret scripture?

I am very curious to learn what EXACTLY emergent is. Finally it seems as though I've found someone who seems to know a thing or two. Furthermore, who is Brian mclare and tony jones?

curiously awaiting your guidance....

thank you so much for taking the time to write - I appreciate it

2:38 AM

Blogger StorminNormin said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:38 AM


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