Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Theology Stupid (chapter 4): But Not Quite Yet

A post on chapter four of Tony's book is on its way. But before we go there, I wanted to make an observation. I discovered this past week that there are people out there in the blogosphere who don't just think emerging Christians are wrong about this, that or the other thing, but think too that they are a bunch of people with various sorts of character flaws. I for example have been identified as a slothful, sophmoric half-wit by some of emergent's critics. Now, there's no doubt that emerging Christians have character flaws. We all do.

To see me taken to the mat (quite unfairly, I think) go here. That link will take you to a blog of someone whose name we do not know and whose identity remains safely hidden behind the blog handle "dissidens". Dissidens' prose is crisp and easy on the eye. He's a good writer. The problem (to my mind anyway; certainly not to his) is that he has no desire to listen, to try to understand or to engage in a discussion. Well, actually, that wouldn't be a problem if that was a place he came to after an earnest attempt or two at engaging and listening.

Here's a difference between what I hope can go on here (on this blog) and what (apparently) goes on over at his. Here I hope there can be disagreement, even spirited disagreement, without impugning the character of someone who disagrees with you. For example, I have voiced pointed disagreement with Pete Rollins and John Caputo and worried over some things Tony J has said. So far as I know I have never engaged in ad hominem attacks against anyone and neither Pete nor Tony has ever said to me with guerilla-like rhetorical flourishes "What? You disagree with me? Well obviously you're an idiot then, because if you were an honest and sincere truth-seeker, you'd agree with me; since you don't agree with me, you're not just mistaken, but there's something wrong with you."

Over at "dissidens" blog, it's pretty clear that since he and I don't see eye to eye about semantic plasticity or biblical interpretation, I'm an idiot or if not an idiot at least a half-wit. Apparently he doesn't like the way I used the English word "sexed" or the Latin word "secare" in a previous post. Forget for the moment that he attributes claims to me that a close reading would reveal I didn't make, still it's obvious that we disagree about what words can mean and about how to interpret the scriptures. (We do actually agree on how to spell half-witted, but on typing my comment at his blog I apparently misspelled it only to discover that that was sufficient for showing that I was, in fact, a half-wit, as if there wasn't enough evidence already.)

Now, you'll recall from my previous post on Stanley Fish that I am not immune to dishing out pointed criticism clothed in equally pointed and colorful rhetoric (minus the ad hominem). And some commenters on this blog rightfully and respectfully pushed back. The tone from all interlocutors in the discussion that ensued struck me as civil and respectful even if the passions of many of us were not always packaged in tame words.

I thought perhaps dissidens might actually be interested in engagement, the kind I'd like to think goes on here when what goes on here is at its best. So, I asked him a couple of questions on his blog, which he published. He answered those questions and in so doing made it quite clear that respectful engagement was not among his interests. So I left him a curt and pointed reply to that effect. He removed that comment, and has continued to add to the scorn. That's fine. It is very much in keeping with his handle dissidens. He apparently enjoys sitting apart and disagreeing from a distance and not from a position of engagement. That's fine, too. But in that case why invite comments?

Maybe it's because I've been in the academic world for a decade now that I've gotten used to spirited disagreement sans the character assassination. (How a half-wit like myself was ever allowed into the academy and into the society of analytic philosophy I can only guess remains an utter mystery to dissidens.)

If given the choice (and I guess all of us are) between a fox-news style of "engagement" (replete with caricatures and sniper-fire) and the style of engagement we aim for here on this blog, I'll stick with this style. It seems to me more productive, more fruitful and, quite frankly, more Christ-like.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Emergent or emergent? Do You Care?

Last week there was a bit of discussion around the blogosphere concerning the labels Emergent and emergent (or, as I like to put it, "E(e)mergent", because I feel so "postmodern" when I throw parentheses in the middle of a word like that). Anywho, one discussion took place on this side of the ocean, over at Tony Jones' place and another on the other side of the ocean over at Jonny Baker's place.

Two weeks ago I spoke to a religion class at Calvin on emergent and people (including the professor whose class I was guest-lecturing in) wanted to know if I consider myself emergent. (But maybe he or they meant Emergent or E(e)mergent.)

So what's the issue? Well, there are several issues. For one, there are people who are a part of a very large movement/conversation that quite literally spans the globe concerning how to do church in a postmodern, globalized context. This movement/conversation is very grass-rootsy, too. Not everyone who is a part of this movement/conversation is a part of the Organizaton/Institution in the U.S. known as Emergent (i.e., Emergent Village with spokespeople Tony Jones and Brian McLaren). Some who are a part of the larger movement, in fact, want to distance themselves from some of what the likes of Brian and Tony are up to. Anyway, these folks might like to say that they are part of emergent, but not Emergent. Problem is, outside of contexts like this one (i.e., this blog, where those reading are likely to have an inkling of the difference) there's just one word--emergent--and the average person who hears it is likely to hear it as Emergent, i.e., as everything-Brian-McLaren-says or everything-Tony-Jones-says and so dismiss the whole movement/conversation as a result. In so doing, however, they may be throwing the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bath water, insofar as the baby (emergent in this case) might just contain some things the thrower-outers highly value.

I myself don't like the question "Do you see yourself as part of emergent?". But unlike many, I'm not allergic to categories and labels, as such. So that's not the issue for me. Yet when it comes to the label "emergent" I bristle. And this is so for two reasons. First, I am a Christian. That's a label. It is, in fact, a label I am happy to apply (with fear and trembling) to myself. The issue for me--and one we can add to the above--is that I am aware that the first Christians were called Christians. In other words, they didn't call themselves Christians. Others applied that label to them. My view is this: I will simply
say what I say, do what I do and participate in the conversations I participate in and allow others to label and categorize me as they see fit. I feel there's too much work to be done to take time trying to figure out whether I'm emergent or Emergent or whatever. I have enough trouble trying to be and become a Christian. And that's what I really care about; not whether I'm emergent or Emergent.

The second reason I bristle constitutes the third issue in the Emergent vs. emergent discussion. There are a good many people (including Jonny Baker) who feel that Emergent has become a brand. And to them this smacks of the very stuff of consumerism and (dare I say it?) the worst of American pop culture. In other words, the Organization employs paid merchants of Christian cool and hip who are in the business of commodifying elements of the larger movement/conversation (plus some other stuff that has nothing to do with the larger conversation like where you buy your latte, where you wear your facial hair, if you're a guy, and other such stuff), packaging them, selling them in books, seminars and bus tours and calling the product "Emergent". And, well, not everyone is down with that, as commodification and merchandising tends to kill whatever it infects.

So to recap: emergent is the larger movement of which Emergent is a part. Just as all Volkswagens are cars, but all cars are not Volkwagens, so all Emergents are emergent even if all emergents are not Emergent. Got it?

You know, whatever else you may think of Rob Bell, he assiduously and wisely avoids this whole business of labeling by refusing to be commodified by the Emerchants of cool. So too Shane Claiborne. Everyone who takes him or herself to be a part of emergent or Emergent reads whatever either one of these guys say, and would I think, point to both of them as people who are living out the animating impulses of emergent. Yet neither of them self-identifies as emergent or Emergent. And I say, good for them.

How about you? Are you Emergent, emergent, neither? Do you care?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Festival of Friends (and Sex)

Smiles and laughter and pleasant times
There's love in the world but it's hard to find
I'm so glad I found you -- I'd just like to extend
An invitation to the festival of friends

--Bruce Cockburn
Festival of Friends
from the album In the Falling Dark

The glue of emergent is relationship, says Tony (p.56). It's not a shared set of doctrine or a community built around membership. Emergent is a festival of friends. The conversations that are the stuff of emergent take place within what Tony calls an envelope of friendship.

Emergent types seem pretty self-conscious of living in a world in which they are both at home and not at home. They are not at home in the sense that they feel the world pressing in on them and inviting them to find themselves in its story of consumption, greed, fear, exclusion and self-reliance. They are at home in the world in the sense that they feel made for this time, this place, this earthly realm.

In a world characterized by consumption, greed, fear, exclusion, self-reliance and easy-to-prepare, prepackaged answers to life's difficult questions, emergents are finding each other, they're investing in each other, and they are orienting their lives
around each other--from where they live and work to how they get there and whether or not they take the big promotion and move away. And if emergents don't feel wholly at home in the world, they don't feel anymore at home in traditional evangelical churches, and for some of the very same reasons they don't feel at home in the world. So, says Tony, emergents are "largely people who feel great disappointment with modern American Christianity" (p.70).

Where earlier generations of Christian dreamers dropped-out of society and dropped-in to communes, emergents are a new generation of dreamers, but they're not dropping out of society, they're staying put, gathering together in urban and suburban locales, in virtual digs like blogs, myspaces, facebooks, etc. and, as I've so often heard it said, they're doing life together. What are they doing together? They're thinking, dreaming, questioning, longing, worshipping, and seeking to be agents of reconciliation and God's shalom at this particular time in history and in the particular places and spaces they live, work and play.

Emergents have also abandoned a one-dimensional view of human beings they believe the Enlightenment bequeathed them, a view which sees us as primarily cognitive, rational, computing-machines, and they're embracing instead a more holistic view of human beings, a view which validates "emotions, experience, relationships, creativity, nature and the many other aspects of being human" (p.79). And all of this in a thick soup of friendship.

My friend Dan Brennan has a blog dedicated entirely to friendship. Like a lot of emergents, he's an adventurer and one of the frontiers he explores on his blog would scandalize garden variety evangelicals, i.e., cross-gender friendships --
friendships between men and women who are not married to each other, but may (or may not) be married to someone else. These are deep, emotional, affectionate and intimate bonds, too; but they are bonds that don't have genital union as their natural end. You'll notice by the way that I didn't say sexual union. That's because the sort of intimacy Dan thinks can and should exist between cross-gender friends is sexual. How can it not be when the friends are themselves sexual beings?

And this leads to another feature of emergents, what Tony refers to as "a
hope-filled orientation" (p.72). Emergents live eschatologically, i.e., in light of God's future, a glorious future that has come and is coming still. They're convinced that Jesus came with good news and that God has a program of all-inclusive love, wholeness and restoration for the world and they're eager to get on board with God's agenda. Their view of heaven, therefore, like my own, is not that of a disembodied place in the great by-and-by, but an embodied future where things--earthly things like relationships, drinking water, economic systems, eco-systems, all things--are the way God ultimately intends them to be. That future, they believe, is something to get excited about and to start actively anticipating.

Did you notice that when I ended the brief paragraph on friendship and sex I began the very next paragraph with
[A]nd this leads to another feature of emergents, and then I went on to talk about eschatology? If so you may have wondered what those two things have to do with each other, sexuality and eschatology. Permit me to stray from Tony's book for just a minute in order to say, very briefly, how I see the two being connected.

The English word
sex comes from the Latin secare which literally means to cut-off or to sever. To be "sexed" is, in a very meaningful sense, to be cut-off, disconnected from a whole or severed from it. And that, I think, is part of the human condition, to find yourself self-aware, aware of a kind of loneliness, incompleteness or un-wholeness. Sexuality is nothing more and nothing less than that drive or energy in all of us for communion, relationship, connection, affection and wholeness. "It is not good for man to be alone." That is sexuality. And what is the eschaton if not community, connection and wholeness? Communion with God and each other. If sexuality is the question, the eschaton is its answer. So, sexuality and eschatology are actually deeply connected. In fact the one (sexuality) is aimed at the other (the eschaton).

enitality, by the way, or "sexual intercourse", is but one aspect of this larger phenomenon of sexuality. It's a really important aspect, but it oughtn't to be confused (the way it so often is) with the larger creational reality (i.e., sexuality) of which it is but a part.

Anyway, back to Tony's book. Is emergent perfect? Does it always live up to its own ideals? I think what Fredericka Mathewews-Green says about culture applies to emergent itself, it's a
"fleeting human creation, a spontaneous uncontrolled collaboration, and we shouldn't expect it ever to be perfect or even to be very good" (p.74). Like a flash-mob that converges for a brief time and then disperses, emergent is a sort of spontaneous uncontrolled collaboration of Christian dreamers. They're converging in real and virtual spaces and doing some wild and crazy things. Who knows how long the collaborative experiment will last. But when its time is up and the crowd disperses, you can bet its DNA will be passed on and turn up in some future gene pools. Right now, though, it's here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pomo footnote: Stanley Fish at it Again

*Alright, since I screwed up and published this for about an hour earlier today, and since people were interested in responding, I'll throw it up now and not wait until Tuesday which is when this is stamped and when it was scheduled to go up. (Today is Sunday 13 April.) Thanks to a comment made by Keith DeRose during its brief, earlier life, it's been modified to reflect his input. Thanks also to Lori Wilson for talking me down off the ledge and encouraging me to tone it down a bit. Which I hope to have done.

Last week Stanley Fish published another essay on deconstruction. Here are two sequential paragraphs taken from it.

Instead (and this is the killer), both the “I” or the knower, and the world that is to be known, are themselves not themselves, but the unstable products of mediation, of the very discursive, linguistic forms that in the rationalist tradition are regarded as merely secondary and instrumental. The “I” or subject, rather than being the free-standing originator and master of its own thoughts and perceptions, is a space traversed and constituted — given a transitory, ever-shifting shape — by ideas, vocabularies, schemes, models, distinctions that precede it, fill it and give it (textual) being.

The Cartesian trick of starting from the beginning and thinking things down to the ground can’t be managed because the engine of thought, consciousness itself, is inscribed (written) by discursive forms which “it” (in quotation marks because consciousness absent inscription is empty and therefore non-existent) did not originate and cannot step to the side of no matter how minimalist it goes. In short (and this is the kind of formulation that drives the enemies of French theory crazy), what we think with thinks us.

John Searle said it first, but it applies here: it’s stuff like this that gives bullshit a bad name. This sure gives deconstruction a bad name. Is there one coherent thought contained in the gobbelygook of those two paragraphs? Honestly. Isn't it just so much nonsense? Literally? If not, would someone please express the sense or meaning of these sentences in English I can understand.

You see, there's a difference between not understanding a physics or engineering paper or textbook and not understanding nonsense. Nonsense can't be understood because it's nonsense. Physics can be understood, it is understand-able even if you or I can't understand it. Not so with nonsense. It's not understandable. It's nonsense. Faulting someone for not understanding nonsense is like faulting a quadrapalegic for failing to jump into a pool to save a drowning child.

And here's the thing: not all philosophy done in the deconstructive mode is nonsense. Some is perfectly sensible, helpful and useful even. I have a colleague who is a card-carrying Continental philosopher, a former student of Caputo and something of an expert on Derrida. Never have I read anything by him that is nonsense. Sometimes I haven't understood him, but not because what he said wasn't understandable, but was instead nonsense. No. Usually it's because I lack knowledge of some sort. And after he educates me, I understand perfectly well. This bit of Fish's strikes me as a fish of a different color. Seems to me that it's either nonsense or an exercise in verbal or intellectual masturbation.

Context is an important consideration, however. I understand that. I understand that there are contexts in which the written word isn't offered in the spirit of communicating or conveying a point and to fault it for failing in this regard is a mistake. Within some contexts the aim of the written word may be to inspire, agitate, play, provoke or something else entirely (think of some types of poetry, for example). But the context of this essay of Fish's is the bloody NY Times. And an editorial at that (I think). Alright. I'm done. Have at it/me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What is Postmodernism? More Tony Jones

I’ve decided to focus this installment of our series on Tony Jones' new book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, on a single issue. I have done so because the issue is rather large and unusually squishy. What I want to talk about is postmodernism.

To begin, there’s this from chapter two, p.37:

At its essence, emergent Christianity is an effort by a particular people in a particular time and place to respond to the gospel as it (once again) breaks through the age-old crusts. And it’s the shifting tectonics of postmodernism that caused the initial fissure.

Postmodernism (pomo for short) figures pretty heavily in this chapter and pretty heavily in emergent. Emergent authors and practitioners talk a lot about pomo. But what is it they're talking about? What is this 'thing' that caused the initial fissure within which emergent Christianity has taken root and is beginning to flower?

We get several characterizations in chapter two. According to one characterization, it’s a “cultural watershed” (p.38). According to another it marks an “age of enlightened mystcism” (p.43—Tony quoting Brad Cecil, an important voice at the beginning of emergent back in the late 90’s; italics Tony’s).

Well, I dunno what Tony or Brad might mean by enlightened mystcism, and that's because I don't know what they mean by mysticism. And I must confess to being a wee bit skeptical of the "watershed" view of postmodernism. The idea, as Tony presents Brad presenting it in chapter two, and as the annoying know-it-all "Neo" presents it in Brian Mclaren's A Generous Orthodoxy, is that some sort of cataclysmic, epochal shift occurred in the fairly recent past, when we moved from 'modernism', or a modernist way of viewing the world, to 'postmodernism', or a postmodernist way of viewing the world.

I'm not sure what to make of that claim either. It's the putatively "epic" nature of the shift that I have problems with. I have no doubt about there being differences, and significant differences at that, between this generation and previous generations. But I'm inclined to think that those differences are largely cultural and have little to do with the philosophical ruminations of the patron saints of so-called deconstructive philosophy, with whom postmodernism is often associated, such as Derrida and Lyotard.

So what do people mean by 'postmodernism'? Here's how John Caputo puts it in a quote that Tony uses as an epigraph at the beginning of the book, and refers to in this chapter: not relativism or skepticism, as its uncomprehending critics almost daily charge, but minutely close attention to detail, a sense for the complexity and multiplicity of things, for close readings, for detailed histories, for sensitivity to differences. The postmodernists think the devil is in the details, but they also have reason to hope that none of this will antagonize God.

Tony doesn't tell us where that comes from, but there it is. I like the John Caputo behind that quote. (It's the other John Caputo, the one who is in fact a pretty thoroughgoing epistemological, and so religious, skeptic that I don't like nearly as much! But that's a topic for another day.) For one thing, I understand what the Caputo behind this quote says here. (That's not always the case with the other Caputo.) And for another, I'm rather favorably disposed to postmodernism if this is what it is.

Let me offer my own definition of postmodernism. I begin by first distinguishing between cultural pomo and philosophical pomo. Some of the features of the former include new technologies, new forms of connectivity (cell phones, the internet w/its ubiquitous social networks, like Facebook and Myspace, etc), decentralization and globalization. These features of pomo are, I think, very significant. Epic? Maybe. I dunno, though.

Philosophical postmodernism, on the other hand, involves calling into question “meta-narratives” or grand stories of the world and our place in it, like Marxism, atheistic naturalism, consumerism and Christianity itself. What gets called into question by philosophical postmodernism is our ability to float free of the grand narratives we find ourselves in and to view things from a “God’s eye view.”

Those sensitive to this sort of postmodernism recognize that our grasp of reality is always partial, incomplete, and fragmentary. And this recognition can engender humility, tolerance, and an opening for dialogue with others. Those who really appreciate our human finitude and situatedness are more inclined to say, “Here’s how I see things and here’s why. But, I recognize that I am a finite and frail human being; so I could certainly be the one with blind spots. How do you see things?’ as opposed to saying “I’m right. You’re wrong, and going to hell. End of story.”

This flavor of pomo resonates very deeply with me and, if I read Tony and other of the "new" Christians right, it resonates very deeply with them, too.

And yet. And yet there is another element some people (including some emergents) often add to this plausible rendering of postmodernism. And that is what I will call, following Alvin Plantinga, creative anti-realism or social constructivism. I think this is what people often have in mind when they say such things as that there is no objective truth and the like. Those who add this element to pomo do so, it seems to me, because they believe (mistakenly in my view) that either the epistemic humility characteristic of the plausible strain of pomo requires it or they believe (also mistakenly I would say) that the plausible form of pomo leads to it. In any case, it's this element that seems to me utterly implausible. Let me explain.

I am inclined to think that there is (say) God and our various understandings of God (e.g., that God is loving and merciful and gracious, etc.). I'm also inclined to think that there are the objects that populate the world (like stars and mountains and mollusks) and our concepts of those objects. Well, so far as I can tell, the less than plausible brand of pomo (i.e. social constructivism) rejects this commonsense view of things. According to it it is our concepts and language that actually create God and the objects that populate the world. We don't discover objects in the world or their properties and then use language and concepts to refer to them and describe them, we create them with our words and concepts. It sounds crazy, I know, but the view really is that we create what we find, be it God, stars, mountains or mollusks. And, as I say, this sounds utterly implausible to me. (Though I should also add that very smart people who are not French philosophers have said these very same things. For example, the American philosopher Nelson Goodman embraced this very view.)

Here's a slightly tamer variation of the social-constructive sort of pomo. It's the view that while there may be a world independent of our concepts and language we are incapable of ever coming to know it as it is independent of us. As this relates to God the idea seems to be something like this. God is so big, so wholly other, and we are so small (or finite), that to name God as loving or merciful or gracious (or whatever) is really to create an idol, it's really an attempt to domesticate or tame the un-tameable, to name the un-nameable. Those attracted to this view are thus very attracted to what is called apaphatic or negative theology, the view that no words can legitimately be used to describe God, that none of the properties we ascribe to God actually apply, and so the proper but difficult task of theology is to rid our minds of its idols (i.e., our names for and descriptions of God). For this will make way for the event of God.

It's these latter two elements, often layered over the plausible form of pomo, that lead some emergents to call for a Christianity beyond belief. The idea is that committing oneself to concrete Christian beliefs is to place oneself in the primordial waters of modernism. The postmodern turn for Christians is a turn away from Christianity as believing certain things and a turn toward Chrisitanity as being fundamentally about opening oneself to a transformative event. As I read them, Spencer Burke and Pete Rollins advocate this view.

Maybe an example will help. My friend Pete (Rollins) seems to think that realist claims don't apply to the religious realm. Did Jesus literally and really rise from the dead? I want to say "Look, if he didn't, then those who claim to have been transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ are mistaken." People who say they've had such an experience may in fact have experienced a transformative event, but if Christ is not risen, then their transformation does not owe to an event involving the resurrected Christ. Pete, on the other hand, seems to think that Christianity is a subjective, transformative event that is detachable from historical realist claims. He seems to think that it’s possible to undergo a transformative event of the resurrected Christ even if Christ hasn't really risen. And that doesn't make sense to me. Mind you, I'm all for Christianity as subjecive, transfomative event. I’m even open to the possibility of people participating in such an event without realizing that it is an encounter with the risen Christ. But if the event has anything to do with a risen Christ, then Christ must be risen. (You can view an exchange Pete and I had about this issue on his blog by going here.)

Let me bring all this back down to earth with a bit of autobiography. When I think of a biblical story that parallels my own life experience, I think of the story of Peter out in the boat and Jesus calling him to himself, calling him to get out of the boat and come toward him. Peter must have been scared feces-less. I feel like Peter a lot of the time, in the sense that I feel like I’ve received a call (from Jesus) but between me and him is a raging storm, or to switch metaphors, between me and him is a thick woods. I can’t see clearly most of the time. So I’m doing my best (and sometimes less than my best) to make my way toward that voice, toward the one issuing the call.

So, as I understand it, mine is not a faith that is a groping toward an I-know-no-what. Mine is a faith that is a groping, but a groping toward God, a God of all-inclusive love, compassion and mercy who was, I believe, in Christ reconciling the world to himself and bringing about a new reality, a new society. A robust recognition that I am a finite creature, frail and given to self-deception, and that my knowledge of God and the world is thus always partial, fragmentary and incomplete, does not lead me to religious skepticism (which I think it does lead to in Caputo and Rollins). What it leads to in me, I’d like to think, is epistemic humility. But epistemic humility is perfectly compatible with concrete Christian beliefs and commitments.

All of this having been said, let me add that I still like to read Pete and Caputo. Why? Mainly because I learn from them. I believe that deconstructive philosophy can function as a kind of therapy and can be profoundly helpful. There is a very real sense in which it is true to say that the past three years of my life have been one long deconstructive event. And in the midst of my own disorientation and confusion a space was broken wide open and in that space God appeared and I was re-oriented and re-constructed.

Okay, 'nuff said. I do think it’s important that we get as clear as we can about what it is we’re talking about when we talk about pomo. If the pomo of emergent is the more plausible version of philosophical pomo I described above, then I’m on board. If it’s the less plausible or implausible pomo of creative anti-realism, I’m not. And what of of apaphaticism? Well, I guess I think our language can apply quite literally to God. Which is not to say that I think human language can ever exhaustively describe God. I believe God really is loving and compassionate and just. And I'm sure I cannot plumb the depths of God's love and compassion and justice with words or concepts. But I also don't think that when we get to heaven (or heaven in all its fullness gets to us) we will discover that God was so wholly other, and our language so impotent, that it turns out God is really a self-absorbed, hateful, wicked, unjust and apathetic sonofabitch.

Next time, friendship and eschatology.

Friday, April 4, 2008

40 Years Past/Future

Tony Jones: You’ve Got to Leave it Behind (?)

A busy week for this sack of skin and bone, so my apologies for not getting this up sooner. I’m going to begin at the very beginning of Tony’s book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, since I’m told that’s a very good place to start. This whole series of posts will not consist in detailed reviews; instead, we’ll go for the highlights, a sort of ESPN-like “week in review” that seeks to capture the diving catches, impressive dunks and soon forgotten bloopers that make for good audio-visual consumption. We may not go chapter by chapter either. To get us started though we’ll begin with chapter one, Leaving the Old Country. I’ll make a few observations and then leave you with a question or two (or four).

The story with which this chapter opens is beautiful. It’s beauty lies in its likeness to God’s kingdom—surprising, unexpected, shocking. Tony recounts a recent airplane experience he’s had. He gets bumped up to first-class and sits next to a pregnant woman he is quite sure did not get bumped but instead seems to him the sort that would fly first-class regularly. He judges this woman to be a paragon of New York chic, based on what she’s wearing, and where she’s sitting. She strikes him as hip, urban and probably something like a NYC magazine Editor. She sets about working on her stylish MacBook Pro while poor Tony pulls out his less than flashy Dell. The kingdom comes when midway through the flight the woman closes her sleek, silver MBP, takes out a very traditional rosary, drapes it upon her pregnant belly, closes her eyes and begins silently to pray a prayer that’s been prayed by such paragons of un-chic and un-hip as Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

I love that! Tony thought he had her pegged, figured out and then—BAM—his preconceptions are turned on their head. Tony doesn’t use the story to make this kingdom point (but it makes it very nicely, I think), he uses it to underwrite his contention that contrary to what many expected at the beginning of the century—that the more educated and secular we become the less religious we become—we are actually only becoming differently religious not less religious. And while there are many Americans—some 225 million by his count—who lay claim to church membership the level of their commitment to denominations and particular doctrines is growing weaker. Increasing numbers of self-confessed Christians do not care very much about denominations nor for the specific doctrines that define them. And even though the vast majority of self-confessing Christians (some 90%) can tell you what church they belong to there are, out on the fringes, out on the frontier Tony would say, another 10% who are leaving the homeland—the churches of their parents—and heading into the far country.

God may not be dead, but church as usual Tony thinks is. The old style churches still exist—like pay phones still exist—but they’ve outlived their usefulness. As evidence that something is rotten in the Denmark of the Church, Tony points to recent riffs within Anglicanism, the Southern Baptist Convention and other sadnesses within the more left leaning churches as evidence. But probably the most telling piece of evidence are the stats of Barna and boys, who report that some twenty million evangelical Christians have forsaken their church pews for home groups, house churches or no church at all.

Yes, the times they are a changin’ and while emergents are not so much interested in rejecting the past they are even less interested in preserving it. What they’re not interested in preserving is institutional bureaucracy and the supplemental trappings that keep the institutions alive while simultaneously sucking the life out of the very people they’re intended to serve. That’s the story on the left. On the right, the evangelical church, in its desire for cultural influence, has gotten into bed with politicians hoping that by so doing the church might act as some sort of moral yeast or leaven in what is perceived to be a thoroughly immoral society. But if there’s anything to be learned from Elliot Spitzer it’s that when it comes to prostitution and politics, neither politics nor the whore that services him, usually wakes up in the morning feeling very good about themselves. And Tony’s point is that, here we are, we’ve awakened 10, 20, 30 years after Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson’s forays into politics and the moral landscape of contemporary American life is virtually unchanged.

And there’s more bad news. Old school evangelicalism of the sort espoused by Falwell, Robertson and Dobson believes that saving individual souls will translate into moral, communal and societal change, usually thought of in terms of a single issue—abortion. This was/is the single moral issue whose solution—making abortion illegal—was believed to be the key to our nation's favor with God. Thankfully, evangelicalism now sees that there are other issues that are moral issues. Well okay maybe one more anyway—homosexuality. Ridding our nation of homosexuals and abortion is bound to find favor with God.

But it’s this sort of thinking that “the new Christians” are leaving behind. As Tony sees it (and as I see it too) there’s a seriously mutilated, one-dimensional, monochrome-colored gospel at work here. It’s not the gospel of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus, the gospel that is Jesus, is a gospel that sees salvation as much, much larger, grander and all-encompassing than the gospel of individualism. Poverty, the environment, factory farming, education, racism, sexism—the gospel concerns them all. Salvation, reconciliation, redemption, the New Jerusalem is about all these worldly (horizontal) matters as much as about getting one’s soul right with God (what is usually thought of as a vertical matter).

A few more items, then a couple of questions. First, the new Christians have little patience for the classic polarities that have defined life inside and outside church—like the perpetual conservative vs. liberal boxing matches played out on cable television, talk radio and denominational witch trials. Here’a great image from the book:

Meanwhile, a [new] generation of Christians aren’t even boxing anymore. They’re out flying kites.

I love that image because it gets at a sort of playfulness that is characteristic of emergents and perhaps best exemplified in the whimsical, jesting antics of social activist Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way.

To my mind, these are the diving catches and powerful dunks delivered in the first chapter. And I’ll want to say more later about the emphasis within emergent on relationships and deep friendships. For now, though, let’s look at a blooper. And I’ll just mention this point without belaboring it because I’ll take it up in a later post. As a philosopher, and an analytic philosopher at that, I get a little jittery when Tony or Brian Mclaren or anyone else writing on or from within emergent starts talking about philosophy. In this chapter, Tony brings up what he says philosophers call “foundationalism” and the inherent infinite regression supposedly inherent in all foundationalist systems. What I get jittery about is that when Tony talks about philosophy it is usually so-called postmodern philosophy he has in mind. And there are several mistakes I think emergents often make in their discussions of philosophy. But, as I say, I’m not going to press the point here. I’ll take it up later (maybe even next time, since philosophy and postmodernism does put in an appearance in chapter two).

Okay, a few questions for you to chew on.
1. From your own experience or observations, is Tony right that lots of people with emergent sensibilities are leaving behind institutional churches? I ask this because my experience in the UK at least suggests that emergent functions just as much, if not more, as a supplement to traditional church (i.e., Anglicanism in England) and not as a replacement of it
2. From your own experience or observations, do doctrines and beliefs seem less important to you and your generation than they seemed to your parents generation?
3. Do you agree with Tony that traditional, institutional churches are becoming relics, like payphones and phonebooths?
4. Where do churches like Mars Hill, which seem to me to embody many characteristic features of emergent, fit within Tony's taxonomy of contemporary church? I'm sure he'd say it's a megachurch (since it is), but is it emergent?