Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Emerging to Where? From What?

I often look at Relevant Magazine with a slanted eye, but the article, For Change’s Sake, caught my attention. In it, Brett McCracken poses a small set of crucial-but as of yet unanswered-questions to the emergent church movement. What he really wants to know is, why? and, where to? The emergent movement has been clear that they are reacting to the infiltration of Modernism in the American church, but that has been shown to be mostly a canard comprised of a handful of bad experiences and overreactions. The substantive criticisms the emergent movement level at Modernism are typically philosophically and historically under-informed. Where they are strong is when they note the captivity many in our culture are in with regard to consumerism and the consequent thinning of life. But is postmodernism the answer?

McCracken notes:

Before we push on and proclaim an emerging new church, perhaps we ought to first think hard and fast about where we’ve come from and why we need to leave it behind.

It is the tendency of many enamored with Postmodernism and the emergent movement to not think deeply about Modernism and its pros and cons. Typically, straw men are erected the summarily torn down. For example, it is common for postmodern Christians to decry the failure of Cartesian Foundationalism. If Descartes failed, the conclusion is that Modernism is a failure. Never mind the general consensus of Christian philosophers that Cartesian Foundationalism is a general failure, but that some form of modest foundationalism is not. It is a stereotypical case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater without even investigating the baby.

Then there is the penchant of the emergent movement to embrace uncertainty. McCracken writes:

There are many things we can talk about regarding the “emerging church,” which is good because the movement itself is all about conversation. Talking about what the emerging church is or could be is the emerging church: An ongoing ontological conversation. But that is both a good and bad thing, because putting “conversation/dialogue” on too high a pedestal can be problematic. The emerging church has reacted against its former self, which unfortunately didn’t allow for all that much open dialogue or meta-critique. But the reaction—at least to me—has gone too far, frequently embracing postmodern uncertainty and conversational ambiguity to the point of absurdity.

Add to that the tendency to side-step direct questions and the avoidance of direct answers even on topics Scripture speaks to clearly.

Controversy is routinely avoided at all cost, and identity often comes more from what "emerging" isn’t than what it is....The Church, before it can really emerge into a new significance, must continually check itself: Where have we come from, where are we going, how will be get there, and most importantly—why? If we don’t understand this, we are in serious trouble.

A movement claiming the future of evangelical Christianity will not get far if it is infiltrated with postmodern relativism, deconstructionism, obscurantism, and ambiguity. At least, I hope it doesn’t.


Nick Steffen said...

It seems as though many are using different terms when it comes to 'postmodern'. When I first heard about the postmodern trends, I thought of the degradation of truth claims and living in the realm of utter subjectivity (whatever that could mean). However, I came to find that my friends would use the same word to describe the current culture. Basically, when they used it, they really meant honest, reflective, thoughtful, compassionate, able to recognize their own limits, etc... As such, some have pointed to the difference between postmodernism and postmodernity. Though I'm still sceptical, it might make sense of some of the difficulties.

Nathan said...

Phil -

Here's a review of a new book on the emerging church by someone who seems to be a fairly popular voice in the "conversation."

Phil Steiger said...

Nick-thanks for your thoughts. I didn't do it in this post, but I often make a disctinction using capital "P" Postmodernism to dennote the philosophy and small "p" postmodernism to dennote the "culture on the street" if you will.

While there are many individuals who are not at all versed in Postmodernism and who are postmodern in a relatively unharmful way, my growing conviction is that an individual cannot be postmodern for too long without becoming Postmodern in some significant way.

As a case in point, the Emergent movement has made exactly that leap. For a while many of its leaders were enamored with the "tolerance" and dialogue engendered by postmodernism, but as they settled in, they became more and more Postmodern while maintaining they had never done so. Thus they still directly deny certain aspects of Postmodernism and then simultaneously affirm those same tennants in an indirect fashion.

Phil Steiger said...


Thanks for that link. I am always looking for the latest characters in this 'conversation' and I had not run across Rollins yet. I might actually pick up his book-it sounds to me from the excerpts in the review that it could use some critical interaction.