Archive for November 9th, 2006

Hail the Conquering Heroes!

November 9, 2006

I’ve been absent for a while, but some of you may remember me. I’m the grouchy old retired guy who dabbles in history and long convoluted sentences.

I ‘d just like to echo Juvenal in sending out Congrats and Condolences to all concerned. Our election process has gotten so brutal that anyone who is willing to enter the public arena, whatever their motivation, deserves a little respect. Politicians being what they are, however, I’m sure that some of those on the short side will see their defeat as the final straw that ushers in a new “Dark Ages” of chaos and tyranny, while some of the winners will see their victory as the well deserved vindication of their morally and rationally superior character and philosophy. As usual, both will be mistaken.

More than anything, however, I’d like to congratulate us, the American electorate, for having peacefully completed the 109th election cycle under our present Constitution. The first assembly of Senators and Representatives convened in New York City on March 4, 1789, and it’s been pretty much business as usual ever since – except for two cycles during the Civil War (or, as some of my un-reconstructed friends call it “The War of Northern Aggression”). During that time, there were actually two congresses sitting – one in Washington and one in Richmond – resulting, I’m sure, in twice the bickering, back stabbing, name calling, and general all around “politicking” we’ve all come to know and love. Some of those election cycles were calm and uneventful, and some would make even our modern mud slinging contests look like church socials. Through it all, our country has survived and prospered beyond the wildest dreams of those men who first took office back in 1789. Hurray for the average American!

So much for the good news. For those of us who are sick to death of political hog wash from either side, the bad news is that the 110th election cycle has already started.

In 2008, it will have been 56 years since we’ve had a presidential election without either an incumbent president or vice-president on the ticket for either party. The last time this happened, we were in the middle of a confusing and not very popular war with American boys dying every day in some far off place; there were accusations of scandal; and the party in power’s approval ratings had sunk like a stone. The opposition nominated a very popular figure who ran on the platform of cleaning up the government, ending the war, and bringing the troops home. Does any of this sound familiar?

Fifty-six years ago, the opposition party candidate won 55.2% of the popular vote and 83% of the electoral vote. Running as an incumbent four years later, he received 57.5% of the popular vote and 86% of the electoral vote. History doesn’t always repeat itself, but, in this case, it has to make the current party holding the White House very nervous. Two years from now, it may be a different lady ordering new drapes for the Oval Office – again. For those of us who enjoyed watching the “Bill and Hil” show in the ‘90s, we might wake up some morning now long from now and hear some TV pundit saying

They’re Baaaaaaaaaack!

Fasten your seat belts.

The Emerging Movement

November 9, 2006

(Since you guys wouldn’t read the 30 page document I linked in a previous post, try my 4 1/2 page summary instead! I needed to do this anyway. I’d really like a conversation about this – yes, I’m begging.)

I’ll begin by admitting that, as a non-academic, I prefer the lectures I read from the Westminster Theological Seminary to be funny. So Scot McKnight is my hero. In his lecture, you’ll find terms like suck and lookee here alongside dictionary-searching words such as orthopraxy and epistemology. And an awful lot of Mark Twain.

McKnight begins by laying some groundwork:
* First, denying that the emerging church can be defined by the popular stereotypes such as… folks who deny truth exists, folks who are simply enamored with using candles and incense in worship, and folks who are Brian McLaren.
* Second, he denies any such thing as the emerging “church” even exists, calling it instead more of a movement or conversation.
* Third, specifically for Terry Austin, he clarifies the difference between the terms “emerging” and “emergent.” The latter refers to Emergent Village, as directed by Tony Jones. The former is “bigger, broader, and deeper.” A movement, not a place.
* Fourth, he agrees to the premise that the “emerging movement” is a protest movement, but not in the ways some characterize it to be: instead of denying “truth” per se (my understanding of his use of the term, epistemology here), it is more a protest about, or maybe against, “church” as we know it (ecclesiology).

And just before he develops his metaphor that grabbed me, he summed up his groundwork this way: “…if you narrow the emerging movement to Emergent Village, and especially to the postmodernist impulse therein, you can probably dismiss this movement as a small fissure in the evangelical movement. But, if you are serious enough to contemplate major trends in the Church today, at an international level, and if you define emerging as many of us do – in missional, or ecclesiological terms, rather than eptistemological ones – then you will learn quickly enough that there is a giant elephant in the middle of the Church’s living room. It is the emerging church movement and it is a definite threat to traditional evangelical ecclesiology.”

I found the lecture both scary and exhilarating, and for the same reason: I discovered that I am not alone in the world after all.

(Melodramatic? Maybe, but I’m not so sure…)

McKnight’s metaphor employed to describe the emerging movement is a lake (Lake Emerging) with four rivers flowing in (postmodern, praxis, postevangelical, and politics). Some folks are on one river near the point it flows into Lake Emerging. Some are in the lake, but near one of the specific rivers. Still others are splashing around in a confluence of all the rivers in this theoretical lake.

#1: THE POSTMODERN RIVER

It is in this river from whence the accusation of denying the existence of truth comes. Yet McKnight argues that this is a mistaken accusation. Instead, in this river, emerging thinkers “embrace…a chastened epistemology.” He goes on to explain, “LeRon Shults claims ‘from a theological perspective, this fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces all finite reality… The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping…and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.’ Flaubert once remarked, when trying to express his love for his mistress, that the ‘language to do so was inept.’ That, my friends, is [what] some emerging postmodern Christians are trying to say. Language is inept to talk absolutely about God. I must confess that I am smitten with the potential adoration and awe that derives from such apophatic approaches to Christian theologizing, and I’m inclined to say Shults is right.”

McKnight concludes, “What I’m suggesting in this first point is that postmodernity, at various levels, is a recognizable river flowing into Lake Emerging: it is conscious, it is intentional, and it is desirable. Someone who eschews or bad-mouths – or who curses, as the Lutherans sometimes do – postmodernity cannot be emerging.”

#2: THE PRAXIS RIVER

To McKnight, this is the heart of the movement. He had suggested earlier a book by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger (Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures) as the best description of the movement, and he quotes it here: “Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures.”

My first impression of the “emerging movement” was that of candles and incense, and for many this remains the picture. McKnight inserts this aspect on the Praxis River, but wonders if this is really that big a deal to emerging folks after all. Instead, there is a definite feeling that “the way we do worship” is obviously not the end-all, be-all to Christianity. So they wonder – and practice – other ways to physically express worship.

But this is not the major current on the Praxis River. Instead, McKnight explains: “To be straight up about it, the emerging movement thinks how a person lives is more important than what they believe… And that the power of a life forms the best apologetic for the way of Jesus.”

Before the tomatoes start flying, McKnight goes on to say “I know of no one in the emerging movement who thinks one’s relationship to God is established by how one lives, nor do I know anyone who really thinks it doesn’t matter what one believes about Jesus Christ…” But… “emerging folk are quite proud to remind us that we will be judged according to the parable of the sheep and goats on how we treat the least of these, and that the wise man is one who practices the words of Jesus. On top of this, some are quite fond of reminding us that Jesus didn’t offer a doctrinal statement but a way of life, and that he called people to follow him and not just to get their theology right.”

Emerging folks notice that no one has ever got it all “right” when it comes to theology, which (McKnight concludes), “leads them to concentrate on living the way of Jesus. We may not get it right when it comes to theology, so what we are called to do is live right…”

As a result, emerging folks are interested in social justice. McKnight argues that the approach to social justice, however, is not related to the Religious Right’s emphases on the issues of abortion and militarism, but the historical approach of Walter Rauschenbusch (architect of the social gospel) and Jane Addams.

Finally, the Praxis River is missional. McKnight writes, “…the missional impulse of the emerging movement finds its perfect expression in the ministry of Jesus – who went about doing good – to bodies and to spirits and to souls and to families and to societies. He swept up the marginalized from the floor and put them back on their seats at the table, and he attracted harlots and tax collectors, and wiped the lame clean and opened the ears of the deaf. He cared, in other words, about bodies and whole persons. He attacked the vicious injustices of the Herods and the Caesars and the religious elite of Israel, and he declared in tones even more strident than Jim Wallis that what they were doing was flat-out wrong and it had to change. The central element of this missional praxis is that the emerging movement is not attractional in its model of the church but is instead missional: that is, it does not invite people to church but instead wanders into the world as the church. It asks its community, ‘How can we help you?’ instead of knocking on doors to increase membership. In other words, it becomes a community with open windows and open doors and sees Sunday morning as the opportunity to prepare for a week of service to the community, asking not how many are attending the services but what redemptive traits are we seeing in our community. It wants to embody a life that is other-oriented rather than self-oriented, that is community-directed rather than church-oriented.”

(It is here that I’m prepared to come forward as we stand and sing.)

#3: THE POST-EVANGELICAL RIVER:

The emerging movement is a protest against evangelicalism.

McKnight begins with this simple explanation: “The gospel is more than Jesus coming to die for my sins so I can get to heaven.” He explains that this reduction of the gospel is rejected by the emerging movement. “Not in the sense of abandonment, not in the sense of rendering obsolete, but in the sense of taking up and moving beyond…”

McKnight guesses that the emerging movement is not necessarily post-evangelical in basic theology, but very much so when it comes to the Christian life and theology. (My gross simplification: “God, Jesus, Bible, Church, Spirit, etc. – okay, that’s not the argument. But how do we live?”)

First, “the emerging movement is perhaps annoyed more by Bible thumpers and Christians who are obsessed with being biblical than anything else – not because they disparage the Bible but because they know too many Christians whose theology is all that matters to them, who render judgment on everything and everyone – with Bible verses to back it up – but who don’t live compassionately…” He goes on, “When I wrote Jesus Creed to show how central loving God and loving others was to his ethics, I didn’t know my idea was emerging. Whether it is or not, it is biblical: Jesus said the whole Law hangs from these two commandments… The emerging movement thinks love defines Christian existence. Which means reading about love and exegeting agapao and the likes are not enough.”

Second, the emerging movement is suspicious of systematic theology. After offering several reasons why, McKnight writes, “Frankly, the emerging movement loves ideas and theology; sometime sit down with its leaders and its participants and you’ll find that they love theology – they just don’t “have” a theology and don’t “subscribe to” a theology or “confess” a theology. They believe the Great Traditions offers us ways of telling the truth about God’s redemption in Christ, but they don’t believe any one theology gets it absolutely right.

Third, the emerging movement is skeptical of the “in vs. out” mentality that comes with evangelicalism. McKnight explains, “Let’s get the foil for the emergents on the table: evangelicals render judgment on who is and who isn’t a Christian… The emerging movement is skeptical of our ability to know such things.” McKnight goes on to show the negative implications this has toward evangelism and challenges the movement in this regard, but this strand of protest is against a movement defined by evangelism, even if it hasn’t articulated a coherent alternative to its traditional practice.

#4: THE POLITICAL RIVER

Quoting yet again, “Lake Emerging also receives a river called political, and here I’m talking now only about the USA. Tony Jones is regularly told that the emerging movement is a latte-drinking, backpack-lugging, Birkenstock-wearing, group of 21st Century left-wing hippie wannabes. Put directly, they are Democrats. And that spells ‘doomed’ for conservative evangelicals.”

Later, “…although emerging leaders often speak of the bi-partisan or non-partisan nature of emergent, I don’t see it. I think they are mostly political left. Brian McLaren called for a ‘purple’ politics. I’ll believe the emerging movement is ‘purple’ in politics when I see a politics that is genuinely moderate, genuinely independent, and genuinely willing to criticize both the Republicans for their godless emphasis on money and the Democrats for their godless emphasis on amorality.”

McKnight believes that Jim Wallis is Walter Rauschenbusch a century later and argues that Wallis’ solitary message to the evangelical church is that justice in the world matters to God. McKnight agrees, but raises the question of how justice is defined. He goes on to say that when he reads emerging folks write about justice, he thinks he is hearing the Democratic platform. He concludes, “I could be wrong. But this is what I see.”

CONCLUSION

McKnight concludes with his thesis that the emerging movement is more about ecclesiology than epistemology – more about “how to do church by practicing the way of Jesus in postmodernity” than a theological statement.

I conclude by saying that I was both frightened and exhilarated to read about myself in light of a “movement.” Frightened because I haven’t been subscribing to the company newsletters (my initial impression of emerging led me to avoid the literature), and exhilarated because I’m a lonely person (although I find encouragement from the houseflies from time to time, I feel very much alone in the world as to my worldview).

I guess I am not alone after all. I do not know the implications of being able to say that aloud.