Monday, May 24, 2004

Casualties of Emergent

It's been said by people far smarter than me, but I can see it as well -- postmodernism is no more faith-friendly than modernism. The problems with (the uncritical, wholesale capitulation to) a modernistic version of Christianity are different than the problems of (the uncritical, wholesale capitulation to) a postmodern version of Christianity, but one thing they have in common is that both are ultimately foreign territory to Christianity.

The first casualty of emergent approach could be evangelism. This is not meant as a sweeping generalization -- it's meant to be a caution of a potential trap. The generally admirable sense of rediscovering the depth of a personal walk with Jesus, as found in many web & blog sites' inclusion of "vespers" and "lauds", and ancient creeds as theological markers, could just as easily indicate of a self-absorbed, individualistic approach to the faith.

Community is important, no question there, but there is a potential trap when our focus is on creating authentic community, with emphasis on the spiritual disciplines and the ancient/future nature of our faith walk. Unintentionally, to be sure, this could become 'busy-work' that we immerse ourselves in, and fail to notice that outside of our little Christian communities, we haven't had much impact or possibly even much interaction.

This would make us acceptable in a postmodern society, where "tolerance" is held as one of the highest values (ie. no-one can claim that their way is the 'right' way -- Francois Lyotard's oft-quoted  'incredulity towards metanarratives'). Something that many emergent Christians have in common with the modernistic Christians is that both want to be 'cool' in the eyes of everyone -- so any claims to a metanarrative as being Truth (with a capital "T") are avoided.

Generally, I think it's good that we all avoid the attitude of some smug, self-righteous, know-it-all Christians; such an attitude is, and has always been, foreign to the Gospel. However, if emergent people and communities are unwilling to state that they believe that the Bible holds a true metanarrative -- that God is actually in control and it matters how we relate to Him -- it would be a fair question to ask, as Jesus does in Matthew 5:13, "...if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?".

It's potentially a problem for all of us, and while our individual answers and reactions to this will vary, the question the Jesus asks is one emergent people dare not avoid grappling with.

Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Tethered to what?

In this increasingly post-modern era, there has been a lot of talk about "post-evangelical" and "emerging" theology. Several people have even suggested that I do some writing on "post-charismatic theology" (which I am planning to do, but only after much more research from a wide variety of sources).

Some people are horrified that postmodern, emergent people (or "pomergent" as Mitch has suggested -- which is a tongue-in-cheek label that I rather enjoy) are even thinking of deconstructing theology. As Justin pointed out in several conversations and over on his blog: "If a religion/church is to evolve and adapt offering furthering interpretations of doctrine, wouldn't that just dilute their doctrine?"

That's exactly the risk that we face. How do we communicate to an emerging (and yet undefined) culture, without watering down the Message?

Charles Kraft offers a helpful suggestion in his classic missiological work, "Christianity in Culture: that we need to approach any cross-cultural contextualization of theology using the analogy of a "tether" -- a stake that is driven into the ground, which provides us with an anchor.

We are free to roam around the perimeter of area that the tether allows, but at some point, we reach the end of our theological chain which is a "thus far and no farther" marker, preventing us from falling into what Justin warns about.

So, not unlike the original fundamentalists, we have to nail down what constitutes the tether. Fundamentalists became known as such because of their insistence on "The Fundamentals" of the Christian faith. Whatever their cultural expression may have devolved into, their original intent was to define what was truly orthodox, historically in line with the traditions and teachings of the church, and would therefore represent the "thus far and no farther" of Christian theology.

So, keeping in mind from my last two posts that I'm not advocating Fundamentalism as we see it today, the question I am advancing for discussion is:
  1. What are the 'fundamentals' today that will constitute the tether that will keep any postmodern deconstruction from wandering into error, irrelevance, or even rank heresy?

  2. What are the absolute essentials of our faith, which transcend both modern and postmodern thinking (since neither is actually a friend of faith)?

  3. What is the tether that allows us to re-imagine how we communicate beliefs that we hold as timeless in our current cultural milieu?

Monday, May 3, 2004

Brain-Washing á la Carte

"There is no such thing as 'Christian' rock!"

She is sitting forward in her chair, glaring in self-righteous anger at me. Her boyfriend, who had been friendly to me until just now, was suddenly silent and watching me through narrowed eyes.

All I had done was answer her question "what kind of band do you play in", and suddenly I was faced with the fundamentalist version of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I was almost expecting her head to spin around.

Somewhat taken aback, as their other friends began circling like sharks anticipating a feeding frenzy, I tried reasoning with them.

"Is God the Creator of everything?"

They agreed.

"Can the devil create anything?"

Vehement disagreement. So far, so good.

"So, is God the Creator of music and the ability to play, write and enjoy music?"

Absolutely, they affirmed, heads nodding.

"Did St. Paul really say 'becoming all things to all people', and is that a reasonable approach for us for follow?"

Of course, they shrug impatiently.

"So, if the devil can't create anything (including musical styles), and God is the Creator of all (including music and our ability to write, perform & appreciate it), and St. Paul's example of 'becoming all things to all people' is one we should follow -- does it make sense that we can use rock music to reach people for the sake of Jesus?"

Absolutely, no question, whatever it takes to spread the Word.

"So, then it's okay to use Christian rock, after all."

She stiffens and bolts forward in her chair once more, eyes narrowing and expression contorting. Her boyfriend, and their shark-circle of friends, who had begun to relax during our dialogue, suddenly look all tense and judgmental once more. "There is no such thing as 'Christian' rock!!" she snarls, as her friends nod vigorously and triumphantly, as if they've just proven something.

Wow. Pavlov would've loved this pre-programmed reaction to the catch-phrase 'Christian rock'. I can't be entirely certain, but I'm reasonably sure I heard the sound of a lynch mob forming, possibly ready to burn a heretic at the stake.

Two questions were foremost in my mind that night:
(A) Why is it that I keep running into these kind of people, and
(B) will I get out of here alive?
 I still don't know the answer to the first question, but the fact that I'm writing this -- 22 years later -- is proof of the answer to the second.

Saturday, May 1, 2004

Night of the Living Fundamentalists

It was mid-March, and I was in grade twelve (twelfth grade, for any American visitors). I had been attending an Alliance church for most of that year, and would often have to take a bus or hitchhike (if I didn't have busfare) to get there.

On this particular night, it was cold and windy, and nobody seemed inclined to pick up a long-haired teenager with his thumb out. I was hoping to get to the evening service, but my watch alerted me to the reality that the service was just starting, and I was less than half-way there.

Then the rain started to fall.

Looking across Brant Street, I saw the tiny church building that had at one time been home to my parent's church. It was now a Baptist church -- "Miracle Baptist: the friendly church that cares!" the sign said. I reasoned to myself, "Baptists are Christians. Why don't I just drop in there for tonight, since I'm late for the Alliance and I'm nowhere near it anyway?" So I did.

WARNING: Culture shock ahead.

The interior of the church looked pretty much like I remembered it, but the people all looked like they'd parachuted in from early 1970's polyester world. The guys all had brylcreamed hairstyles straight out of the 50's, and they all seemed to have that wild-eyed, slightly inbred look.


It was hell-fire and brimstone night, complete with songs that threatened damnation for all, and a sermon that would have smoked just about anybody. Pretty intense. After the service, at the door, the pastor shook hands with everybody as they left. When my turn came (small doorway, I couldn't really sneak past and make a break for it), the pastor caught my hand in a death-grip, and asked my name.

When I told him, he continued to grasp my hand like some sort of ecclesiastical pit bull, and said, "Robby, are you SAAAY-ved?"

My brain translated: "He's asking if you're a follower of Jesus." So I replied, "Yes."

"Oh, but Robby," he said, continuing to crush my increasingly-numb hand, "are you REALLY SAY-ved?" (Interesting how he always got two syllables out of the word "saved" each time...)

"As opposed to what? Being partially saved?" I asked, bewildered.

He sighed. "I'll be blunt, Robby. No real Christian man has long hair. You have long hair. So, Biblically speaking, you're not a Christian. But you could become one tonight, if you're willing."

In the earnestness of his plea, he forgot to concentrate on crushing my hand, and I was able to pry it away from him. I don't remember what I said to him, but somehow I managed to escape.

As I started to walk home, I saw again the sign on the outside of the building: "Miracle Baptist: the friendly church that cares!"

Suddenly, the cold, the wind, and the rain didn't seem all that bad.