Monday, December 26, 2005

Exploring the EM Part 3 - What are they reacting to?

At this point, we need to look deeper, seeking to understand the deeper structures, attitudes, and “-isms” to which the EM is reacting. Only by understanding the EM at this level will we be able to identify some of the reefs that lurks beneath these attractive waters. These categories are somewhat subjective (and certainly not exhaustive), but they should be representative. At the highest level, I see the EM reacting against two major movements: the first cultural/philosophical (modernism), the second religious (evangelicalism).

These two categories are closely connected. In many cases, the reason the EM has rejected the evangelical expression of the church is because they feel that evangelicalism has imbibed too heavily in modernity; if you reject the modern worldview, then it only makes sense (if you desire to be both authentic and consistent) that you will also reject the religious systems which are built upon it.26 The EM is one attempt to salvage the Christian faith for postmoderns who still want to believe in Jesus.

Interestingly, the EM is almost exclusively an evangelical movement.27 Carson notes that “Many of them come from conservative, traditional, evangelical churches, sometimes with a fundamentalist streak.”28 This makes sense, when we consider that the hallmarks of twentieth century evangelicalism rest in its commitment to a rigid understanding of inerrancy, and its insistence on a simple gospel that demands an immediate response.29

The rise of American postmodernity in the last part of the twentieth century has clearly undermined the first commitment, as archaeological discoveries and text critical developments have revealed that the history of the biblical texts is much more complicated than we might have first believed; if premoderns focused on the divine hand in Scripture, moderns found there the human element there as well, and postmoderns have recognized that the author's own perspective inevitably colors and shapes his message. Inerrancy as formulated and required by evangelicalism (and fundamentalism before that) seems out of step with the character of Scripture itself; attempting to locate inerrancy in the original autographs seems like something of an intellectual dodge – after all, we don't have the originals, and the closer we get to the originals the more evidence we discover for a complex textual history.30 Worse, many who take such a position often seem to equate their interpretation of those texts to be equally inerrant. An evangelical understanding of rigid inerrancy is a hard sell these days.

Evangelicalism's second commitment – to a simple gospel – has likewise been undermined, not so much by the culture, but rather by the church being influenced by the culture. Far too often, those who profess belief in this “simple gospel” fail to live any differently than those who do not believe. American evangelicals are notorious for their compartmentalism (where one's religious commitments and one's daily life run on parallel tracks, and “ne'er the twain shall meet”). This dichotomy is clearly revealed by demographic research concerning sexuality, divorce, spending, etc. – in terms of behavior, evangelicals are virtually indistinguishable from their unbelieving neighbors.

Emergent pastor Spencer Burke puts it like this: “I've come to realize that my discontent was never with Mariners as a church, but contemporary Christianity as an institution.”31 Burke goes on to describe his discontent with evangelicalism using three basic categories. First, he rejects the atmosphere of “spiritual McCarthyism,”32 where any disagreement with those in the church power structure is met with forceful opposition and intolerance: the only options are to submit or leave. Those who stay often find their identity in the fact that they agree with the leaders, and in the affirmation that often accompanies that. Burke tells us clearly how he sees this: “Spiritual McCarthyism is about idolatry – about finding righteousness in something other than Christ. Every time I put on a mask for the sake of my reputation or career, I'm guilty of a sin far more serious than not believing whatever I'm supposed to believe.”33 Second, Burke reacts against an increasing “spiritual isolationism”34 in the church – abandoning the messiness of the cities to move to the upper-middle class sterility of the suburbs: clean, neat, tidy on the outside, but behind the facade there is spiritual and relational deadness. Third, he finds he can no longer stomach “spiritual Darwinism,”35 the trend in which the church adopts a corporate mentality: bigger is better, grow or die, success is measured by having more in your flock than your fellow pastors do.

Jeffrey Jue looks at Burke's protest as a reaction against the fundamentalism and dispensationalism inherent within evangelicalism.36 EM types might be more apt to see themselves as rejecting incipient 'legalism' to embrace a more tolerant inclusivism. We can probably think of other less technical descriptions: emergents are often unhappy with unchecked authoritarianism, rampant individualism and consumerism, the unabashed corporatization and secularization of the church. Most people acknowledge that these characteristics are becoming increasingly common common in the evangelical church, especially in churches that have embraced the “church growth” model of ministry. Wickipedia picks up on this theme, suggesting that “the Emerging Church may be seen both as a reaction to and a continuation of the Saddleback/Willow Creek movement which achieved great success in the 1990s using a 'seeker-friendly' approach.”37 Many emergents have experienced the disconnects firsthand, and are finally getting to the point where they no longer feel honest in a typical evangelical setting. It is worth noting that many of these criticisms correspond remarkably well to how non-Christians view the church; Carson points out that whether we agree with the EM or not, at the very least we should acknowledge that they read the culture well.38

Of course, the EM is also reacting against modernism. The nature of this reaction, however, is slightly different. The heart of postmodernism lies in the rejection of enlightenment certainty. For McKnight, “this means the Emerging Movement's embrace of a 'proper confidence' or a 'chastened epistemology' is the embrace of our human condition, of our need for humility in what we say ... only by trusting in God, and living in the way of Jesus, and by living out as a community of faith, do we strike home in truth.”39 This sounds commendable; the EM (along with many postmoderns) seems to be rejecting the modern intellectual arrogance that has often permeated both the academy and the church.

Some in the EM go further, however, rejecting any claims that we can know absolute truth: the quest for certainty is viewed as a fruit of the Enlightenment; absolutism is blamed for nearly every evil in the past 300 years.40 Carson notes, however, that while postmodernism originated as a scholarly movement in the European intellectual circles,41 many of those embracing postmodernism here in America (particularly in the EM), display a rather shallow intellectual understanding of the movement: “The one 'ism' about which some appear to find it almost impossible to say anything positive, especially in the publications of emerging leaders, is modernism (as they understand it).”42 Similarly, “Of all the Christian writers who explore postmodernism, none is quite so modernist – so absolutist – as the emerging church leaders in their defense of postmodern approaches.”43 In the words of one observer: “The Emerging Church is obsessed with itself.”44

Carson's point is that many emergents seem to be postmodern more from convenience than from intellectual conviction – he grounds this charge squarely in their fundamentalist roots, which have often been decidedly anti-intellectual. I believe he may have a point here. For all its flaws, modernity is intellectually rigorous – it requires a tremendous amount of work to understand western philosophy and theology; once we become convinced that truth is unattainable, how many of us are truly willing to “pay our dues” to understand and evaluate the products of modern thinking? Perhaps this is why postmoderns in general seem intellectually sloppy at times – not only with their handling of epistemology45 and history,46 but also with their understanding of scripture and theology.47 At times the EM (and American postmodernism, for that matter) feels like just another savvy ad campaign, counter-cultural pop theology for desensitized moderns who are looking for the next big thing.

(note: if you want to see the footnotes, please refer to the full .pdf version)

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