Thursday, July 06, 2006

Watch out - the Church is Emerging!!!

After Bob DeWaay published a thorough review of Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy, this Twin Cities minister became something of a lightening rod in the going debate about the emergent church movement. A group of friends and I attended a public debate between DeWaay and Doug Pagitt, who is a pastor of a local emergent church and also a major coordinator citywide for the movement. DeWaay's position might be summed up in the following statement he writes about McClaren's method:

"His purpose is not to tell us what is true or false about propositional statements regarding God, man, salvation, and eternity; but to stimulate our thinking by purposely promoting obscurity."

And sure enough, McClaren states:

"Shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity."

Unfortunately, up until this point, I have only read bits and pieces of writers (goodness knows how much out of context) from both sides of the issue. Here's a couple more, on one of the touchier subjects - the epistemolgical question of certainty of knowledge:

"How do "I" know the Bible is always right? And if "I" am sophisticated enough to realize that I know nothing of the Bible without my own involvement via interpretation, I’ll also ask how I know which school, method, or technique of biblical interpretation is right. What makes a "good" interpretation good? And if an appeal is made to a written standard (book, doctrinal statement, etc.) or to common sense or to "scholarly principles of interpretation," the same pesky "I" who liberated us from the authority of the church will ask, "Who sets the standard? Whose common sense? Which scholars and why? Don’t all these appeals to authorities and principles outside the Bible actually undermine the claim of ultimate biblical authority? Aren’t they just the new pope?"

DeWaay might counter with the following type of repartee:

"God holds us accountable for the knowledge we have. The postmodern view of the hopelessness of knowing the truth flies in the face of the Biblical claims that God will judge us and hold us accountable if we suppress the truth."

Simple, straightforward, to the point, and biblical. Kind of simplistic, though. This was his main fallback position during the debate- simply to emphasize propositional logic, which wore thin pretty fast, given what was at stake. It's not the (however useful) tool of logic that we ought to be ultimately defending. There is more at stake her - i.e. ABSOLUTE TRUTH. The propositional system of logic may reflect the nature of the One True God and also be a useful conveyor of truth to a human mind. But it is not the most profound truth - the "deepest magic", as Aslan might say. Our thoughts are not His thoughts, nor our ways His ways, as Isaiah says. At any rate, it's about time that I stop quoting these things out of context and swallow something whole. To that end, I am borrowing a friend's copy of McClaren's "A New Kind of Christian" and I will be reading it over the next few weeks. This will perhaps give me something more solid to contribute to the conversation.

Being in the French Department of the U, I wrestle with the interaction between current cultural trends and my Christianity on a daily basis. For me, the tenets of deconstructionism are nauseating and stimulating by turns. While it is true that we need to build bridges in order to talk intelligently with others about how our faith interacts with postmodernity, Bible-believing Christians must guard against crossing those bridges. Foucault, Derrida, and other French thinkers have sent out their roots into many areas, and it is my conviction that the emergent church might be fertile ground for them - to its detriment.

My initial reaction to the emergent church (and I am happy to be wrong, if I discover something different along the way) that it is a textbook postmodern modification of Christian hedonism. That is, you can rejoice in the beauties of God, but you are not bound to believe in the absolute truths corresponding to those beauties. This is no new heresy to combat against but (true to form) a piecemeal collection of various and sundry fringe items from early Christianity to the present day. You have the extreme universalism reminiscent of the great novelist Madeleine L'Engle, the social gospel from many eras, and certainly an exaggerated emphasis on mysticism. It really amused me when I found out that Mclaren equated his open-mindedness towards poets with that of Chesterton's. I can't help but imagine that G.K.C. would find this idea nothing but pure silliness.

On the other hand, we have nervous clergy like DeWaay who are struck with a severe case of
mystiphobia; some of McClaren's descriptions of God's creation that I find imaginative yet orthodox creep him out as heretical. Who with a poet soul has not had exhilirating spiritual experiences? Of course, placing such experiences IN PLACE OF the written word offers a very seductive theology for those who love beauty. For this reason, DeWaay dismisses anyone remotely in the mystical tradition - Richard Foster, for example, whose book "Celebration of Discipline" offers a joyous and balanced view of the classic Christian disciplines - including Bible reading, memorizing, and meditation-in the Quaker tradition. Dear me! Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Bob DeWaay's review of McClaren:


Sara said...

great thoughts, i am very curious what you think of the book, I have been hearing rumblings on the "emergent church and have read a little of (snippets really) McClarens writing. It feels a bit like listening to the deputy director to me. But like you I feel like I should read something in the whole.I haven't been able to find a copy of a new kind of christian but have thought about ordering it online. FYI Mark Driscoll pastor at "Mars Hill Church" will be speaking at the DGM annual conference. He makes a distinction between the "emerging church" and emergent church. There are portions of it on the dg website.

abbey said...

Thanks, Sar, for pointing me to the DG website. Last time I looked there for related material was quite a while ago, and there were just a few brief meditations on the issue by Pastor John. I'm really glad that the annual Desiring God ministry conference includes someone from Mars Hill - that's the seminary that Em and Lud want to attend (both of them!) someday.

Yes, the Deputy Director is similarly ambiguous, but I'll talk lots more about that in my long-winded followup post, which I'll probably be puttin' up here today.

I'd send you my copy, but it's my friend's. Should I ask him?

Love you oh so much,