A humorous description of emergent Christians, part Two

I’ve been tied up for the last three weeks, rushing to meet a publisher’s deadline for a book I wrote on postmodern Christian faith. So, three weeks ago I said I’d post the second half to a humorous, but mostly accurate, description of “You might be emergent if…”  It’s from Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck’s Why We’re Not Emergent (Moody, 2008). I have already said in other places that their book is my favorite anti-Emergent book, written without aggressive name-calling. My conclusions are different than theirs, because we come from different branches of theology on the family tree. But this description is classic. I put up the first part in my previous post, here’s the second half:

You might be emergent if…

“…if you grew up in a very conservative Christian home that in retrospect seems legalistic, naïve, and rigid; if you support women in all levels of ministry, prioritize urban over suburban, and like your theology narrative instead of systematic; if you disbelieve in any sacred-secular divide; if you want to be a church and not just go to church; if you long for a community that is relational, tribal, and primal like a river or a garden; if you believe doctrine gets in the way of an interactive relationship with Jesus; if you believe who goes to hell is no one’s business and no one may be there anyway; if you believe salvation has little to do with atoning for guilt and a lot to do with bringing the whole creation back into shalom with its Maker; if you believe following Jesus is not believing the right things but living the right way; if it really bugs you when people talk about going to heaven instead of heaven coming to us; if you disdain monological, didactic preaching; if you use the word “story” in all your propositions about postmodernism – if all or most of this tortuously long sentence describes you, then you might be an emergent Christian.”

Priceless.

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Why this blog?

The reason for this blog is because I believe that Christianity is once again moving through a phase change, shifting, morphing, as it has many times in the past 20 centuries. At this intersection of the modern and postmodern ages, many people are trying to reassemble a Christian theology that makes sense to them and takes into account the new things we are learning (as happens in every century of rapid discovery). They are trying to hold onto (or find for the first time) a Christian faith that has new answers because the answers we inherited from modern evangelicalism do not actually work satisfactorily. Doctrines like original sin, hell, the Bible, other world religions, predestination, Greek ideas about omniscience, what the Gospel IS, atonement, eschatology and many more are all in play. And they need to be, because this is what Christianity does, it responds in new ways of faithfulness to the time in which that group of Christians is living.

The idea that Christian theology has always been this beleaguered set of doctrines, now under attack from liberals is simply untrue to history. Christian theology has morphed and changed dramatically down through the centuries, always integrating new insights, new things learned by experience, in symbiotic relationship with the culture around us or the new ones we enter, just like Jewish theology was doing before and after the time of Jesus.  An easy example is atonement theory. Western Christianity has cycled through at least six major atonement theologies in the past 20 centuries. Each of them made plenty of use of Scripture and each of them made sense in the culture of their time. Old ones gave way to new ones when the old ones no longer made sense in the culture of the day. Wherever Christian theology ends up in 50 or 100 years, it is of course not the end of the process. We are simply swimming in the part of the stream we are in at this time in history.

And that’s the point of this blog. To be part of that process, part of the conversation, give people a chance to read and think through some of the things that friends and colleagues of mine are talking about these days. It’s part of loving God with all our mind.

Some Christians will refuse. They will plant stakes in the ground and hold to whatever theology was last compiled in their tradition, as if it were the finale, the sin qua non, the age-old perfect expression of True gospel (even though it was compiled 500, 200 or 100 years ago!)  That’s ok, no use fussing with them all day. In the mean time, there’s work to do.

Cheers

 

The Shift to Postmodern Christianity

Down through the centuries, Christianity has been very good at adapting to various changes and shifts in worldview and culture. At the hinge-era of what we usually call the modern/post-modern area, we are in the sometimes volatile thinking-phase of this adaption.

Eddie Bibbs and Ryan Bolger, in their extensive examination of emerging churches have written:

“Because of this essential dismantling work, some outside the (emergent/emerging) movement have said that those in emerging churches do not love the church or that they are full of negativity because of their propensity for dismantling church structures. This is to misread the movement entirely. What to some may appear to be pointless complaining is a part of a larger process of dismantling ideas of church that simply are not viable in postmodern culture. Neither the gospel nor the culture demands these expressions of the faith. Emerging churches remove modern practices of Christianity, not the faith itself. Western Christianity has wed itself to a culture, the modern culture, which is now in decline. Many of us do not know what a postmodern or post-Christendom expression of faith looks like. Perhaps nobody does. But we need to give these leaders space to have this conversation, for this dismantling needs to occur if we are to see the gospel translated for and embodied in twenty-first-century Western culture…” (Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 28-29)

George Hunter III has said, more than once, that many churches are poised to be effective if 1952 ever rolls around again. Surely we don’t want North American Christianity in the 21st Century to end up having been “islands filled with modernist Christians while surrounded by a sea of postmodern people”, do we?  I am indebted to Dustin Metcalf (Akkerman, Oord & Peterson, Postmodern and Wesleyan? 63) for this picturesque image.

A Now-Oriented Salvation, Part Two

I’ve noticed among emergent/postmodern Christian authors a consensus for a now-oriented salvation. Part One of this subject is here:  https://toddrisser.com/2013/11/06/a-now-oriented-salvation-part-one/

Last time I ended with these two questions that Nazarene pastor Dana Hicks finds more useful today than asking if someone died tonight would they go to heaven?

1”If you knew you were going to live another forty years, what kind of person would you want to become?”

2. “If you could know what God is doing in the world, would you want to be part of it?”

Regarding this second question, Dana says “I like this question, because it focuses evangelism on God’s agenda instead of our tendency to get God to focus on our agenda. I also like this question because it opens the door to talk about what Jesus talked about the most –the Kingdom of God breaking in to our world right now” (Dana Hicks, Postmodern and Wesleyan, 77).  Rob Bell’s ‘Nooma’ video called Trees highlights this postmodern search for a faith for today, not just my eventual salvation after death. My perception is that it would be accurate to say that, theologically, most emerging/Emergent/postmodern pastors have bought into the idea that the Kingdom of God was the thrust of Jesus’ message… rather than a judicial, legal approach to forgiveness.

When the 2004 Tsunami hit, I heard a Christian speaker on national television say “It doesn’t matter that they died, what matters is: did they know Christ?” The sheer lack of human compassion it portrayed, (ignoring, among other things, the thousands of children left utterly orphaned), the hyper-focus -as if the entire message of the Christian faith was just get to heaven when you die- horrified me, and most postmodern Christians share that sentiment.

I think this turn in the orientation of salvation to the here and now is a good thing.  It’s high time we made sure we aren’t making Christianity out to be just another gnosticism designed to help us escape the physical world of woe. Seeing salvation as akin to God’s shalom restoration is a return to biblical orthodoxy. While the emerging church needs to make sure they don’t under-emphasize what the Scriptures say about salvation after this life, they are, I believe, reacting to what they’ve experienced in many modern churches as an under-emphasis on salvation in this life. While you may feel that your particular church has achieved a good, solid, biblical balance of this dynamic, it is the obvious impression of the postmoderns that there’s been (in far too many churches) an overemphasis on heaven and a neglect of the call of Jesus to work for Kingdom realities here and now, as in the parable of the sheep and the goats.

Environmentalism: A Significant Theological and Ethical Concern

Because Earth is not detention hall, because postmodern Christians are abandoning End-times theories of abandonment, because this world is the world of God’s redemptive activity, because man is steward, not owner, of Creation (the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it); because this earth is the one being renewed and restored (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3: 21, Romans 8: 19-25 etc), because this earth is where the resurrection will occur – a trait of postmodern/emerging Christianity is a concern for the Creation, the environment, this place. Recycling is an ethical issue for  postmoderns. Endangered species are part of a theology of creation, an issue of biblical proportions for them. This may sound ludicrous to some modern Christians. If it does sound ludicrous then we are at a point of departure between modern and postmodern Christianity, and I suspect future generations of Christians will look back and consider those modern Christians to be the ludicrous ones.  Postmoderns do not walk around with the primary view of Christian faith being getting me to heaven when I die. The world around them, the Creation here and now, figure large. In fact, if push comes to theological shove, some modern Christians may want to call ‘hippie tree-hugger’ but the postmodern Christian will respond that they are embracing a Hebraic biblical worldview while the modern Christian is a dualistic Gnostic, denying this world and focused on blasting off to a purely spiritual one, implicitly denying resurrection.

Some may not believe modern evangelicalism has been outright anti-environment. It may be that the impression comes from particular political positions evangelicals have been known for. However, pop modern evangelical theology has factored in: an inventor friend of mine, when asked about the environmental safety of his invention, actually said “well, it’s all gonna burn, so who cares?”

When postmodern Christians hear evangelical leaders decry this concern for Creation and the environment it sounds to their ears suspiciously like a Republican defense of big business or Left Behind theology or both. While it is true that this environmental concern is a reflection of societal awakenings that began in the early 1900s with individuals like outdoorsman/ nature lover President Teddy Roosevelt and his crowd, what the postmodern Christians have done is take that concern for the environment and look into the Bible and come to realize “hey! this is part of our mandate!” So while movements in the broader culture may well have sparked the most recent Christian look at the issue, what’s been discovered is that our Scriptures indeed have a direction for us on this subject, and our history has many resources as well.

Bloggers and other de-criers of the Emergent boogeyman hear postmodern Christians speaking about their profound concern over creation and their deep interest in being good stewards of the world God made, and accuse them of being New Age Earth Mother worshippers.  In reality, this is the ‘greening of the evangelical conscience’. It isn’t going away. And it’s in line with a biblical theology of creation. A creation God cares about, evidenced in his discussion of birds, mammals and plant life throughout the Scriptures, especially the Wisdom literature. So: good.

 

Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy

For those of you still trying to sort out the “Emergent Church” or “Postmodern Christians,” here’s a piece I wrote a couple years ago:

        A nearly universal commonality “Emergent/postmodern” congregations share is that the Gospel is more lived by the life than believed in the head. Emergents believe that living the way of Jesus is better than having all kinds of accurate doctrines about him stuffed in your brain. They value the accurate living of a Jesus-formed life a greater good than accurate parsing of sectarian doctrine. Postmodern Christians feel that an over-emphasis on doctrine (and proving my church is right – not yours) took up too much of the modern’s church’s time in the twentieth century – at the cost of teaching people to actually live out the way of Jesus.

 “…believing that healthy theology cannot be separated from healthy spirituality” is a characteristic thought from EmergentVillage’s website.

Perhaps Dean Blevins sums this up well:

“Modern churches embrace a set of propositional statements (e.g., articles of faith, a confession, or a creed) that serves as the main gateway into the church. One must “believe” before “becoming” and “behaving” as a Christian.  Emerging churches seem more interested in Christian community and daily living as the beginning point. These churches do not oppose theological or biblical guidance. Often these churches openly discuss core Christian convictions… and engage in open theological reflection. However, established doctrines do not define them as much as Christian living does. ….Emerging church practice seems to model the message, ‘Religion is not what you say you are, but how you live your life.’  “ (Dean Blevins, Postmodern and Wesleyan,103).

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren contends that orthopraxy is the POINT of orthodoxy. (Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 31)

This might be a good place to draw attention to a distinct emphasis in postmodern, emerging Christianity: an emphasis on the teachings of Jesus rather than doctrines about Jesus. Modern Christianity, born in the fires and debates of the Protestant Reformation and the scientific revolution, focused a lot of energy in getting the right answers nailed down, science style, to every doctrinal issue they thought might pertain to individual salvation. In the modern framework, since everything is built in a logical framework like a scientific experiment, you have to get all the doctrines correct or the whole contraption starts leaning over, eventually falling down.

Postmoderns, leery of claiming to perfectly understand overly much, replace Correct Understanding with Correct Relationship as the key issue. This is blisteringly upsetting to some evangelicals, who demand a list of correct doctrines before they will admit you are among the saved.

Nevertheless, postmoderns do not believe a mistaken point of theology is going to keep people out of salvation. That is because they believe that it’s not the accurate answers on a theology exam that saves, it’s Jesus. Therefore you will find a strong emphasis on the living of the Christian faith, rather than whether you have all the right doctrinal points nailed down.

I’ve already stated that trying to argue your denomination’s historical theological distinctives to postmoderns  is most likely going to fall on deaf ears. They’d rather serve in a soup kitchen or talk with their heroine-addicted neighbor than sit and argue with another Christian. They wonder: If you believe all the ‘right things’ (according to your church, of course) but aren’t doing anyone any good, aren’t you missing the point?

Postmodern/emerging/Emergent Christians also wonder: can a community so focus on maintaining its orthodoxy that it stops reflecting the character of God? Can love, justice, mercy and humility get left behind somewhere in the iron-grip of maintaining a theological grip on something? This seems to be just what the Pharisees did.

 

 

Why SOME older, Modern Christians are encouraged by Postmodernism or ‘Why Postmodernism is a good culture for the church to evangelize in’

  Quite a few Christian leaders are actually encouraged, seeing the postmodern world as one where Christianity will fit in much better than it did in the modern, rationalistic, science-as-god worldview. No one needs to prove that the dominant modern secular worldview was utterly skeptical of ‘spiritual experiences,’ or ‘religion’ for that matter. While spirituality fell out of vogue in the modern world, except as sort of an upscale hobby for people into that sort of thing, the postmodern world is unapologetically spiritual. Have you noticed? Name a type of spirituality  and it’s probably growing.

My favorite summary of why postmodernism could be a good thing for Christianity comes from Baptist Reggie McNeal in his book The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. If I can sum up his description, drawing from some of his colorful turns of phrase, it is this:  ‘God took a beating in the modern world’, relegated more and more  to the edges of the universe. Church leadership migrated from being about otherworldy insight and spiritual rites to being a scholar of antiquities and eventually a CEO with organizational science being the chief qualifications. Science and technology increasingly  shifted the modern practice of Christian faith to focus around head-knowledge. As a result ‘the North American church is largely on a head trip’. ‘We have a rational faith. The test for orthodoxy typically focuses on doctrinal stances, not character and spiritual connectedness to God and others.’ Consequently, most modern discipleship is heavily unbalanced: revolving around acquiring facts rather than following Jesus.

Just about the time the (evangelical, in this case) church had thoroughly imbibed everything modern, the culture went looking for God. We scrubbed sanctuaries of religious symbolism while the culture started searching for sacred space. About the time we adopted business models the culture is searching for spiritual communities. After we erased the mysticism that was at the heart of most of Christian history for a head-oriented fact finding mission, the culture rediscovered the deep human thirst for spirituality. And so, McNeal contends, much of the modern church is less spiritual than the culture around it! We need to get back out in the culture, he says, because room for God is growing in, (and increasingly even central to), the postmodern worldview. We no longer have to argue that there might be value to spiritual life. Postmoderns already get that.

One of the laments of the church in the modern world was that people were obsessed with materialism and consumerism and not interested in matters of the spirit. But in postmodern culture we find a renewed desire for meaning and purpose beyond materialism and consumerism. Methodist Robber Webber saw these shifts as well suited to Christianity and welcomed the responses emerging from the church (see his books The Younger Evangelicals and Ancient-Future Faith).

So some older evangelicals are heartened that the ancient Christian faith finds itself once more in a cultural milieu where it thrives: surrounded by other gods and competing faith claims, Christian spirituality can point people already interested in ‘spirit’ to the one who made their spirits:  Jesus.

New Testament Scholar NT Wright has said it like this:

“We Western Christians mostly bought a bit  too heavily into modernism, and we are shocked to discover that it has been dying for a while… the answer to the challenge of postmodernity is not to run back tearfully into the arms of modernism. It is to hear in postmodernity God’s judgment on the follies and failings, the sheer selfish arrogance, of modernity and to look and pray and work for …  Christian mission in the postmodern world… and enabling our world to turn the corner in the right direction.” (NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 168).

In the postmodern worldview which deconstructed, and no longer buys into, the meta-narratives modernism had sold, Wright (one of e/E/p folk’s favorite theologians) calls us to living out the true metanarrative of Scripture’s story of God, Israel, Jesus and the world.

Part of the point of postmodernity under the strange providence of God is to preach the Fall to arrogant modernity. What we are faced with in our culture is the post-Christian version of the doctrine of original sin: all human endeavor is radically flawed…. And our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to the world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to the world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to the world that knows only exploitation, fear, and suspicion. (NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 183-184).

Many Christians believe the cultural milieu of postmodernity is fertile ground for people to hear the gospel – more fertile, in fact, than the modern era was.  Which brings us to the subject of what street-level postmodernism is NOT.