A Story About An Emerging Future
July 12, 2004
By Terry L. Pruitt
Introduction: Predicting The Future Of The Church
Futurology is a study of current trends in technology or society and how those trends will play out. Writer's like Alvin and Heidi Toffler in Future Shock and Power Shift take an academic look at the possibilities of what is the logical conclusions to certain trends that currently exist. The trend is usually predicted to continue when it comes to technology and social change. Some futurologists would predict that technology like the bar code and scanner system in grocery stores will expand to be included in you future kitchen so that the grocery list can be automated. You could keep an accurate inventory of your refrigerator and cupboard contents in a object-oriented database which would tie into you budget software, create a grocery list, perhaps order the groceries for pick or delivery and finally create a health index report based on the diet you have eaten the past week, month or year. Or talking about a social trend, the success of Internet dating services has inspired attempt to build other social networks on the Internet. And of course we are talking in this case about the success of the social trend of meeting people on-line, not the technology that creates the social opportunity. When the trend involves the environment or natural resources the analysis is usually pessimistic. Equations are used to show the current or the predicted exponential rate of consumption and the known amount of that particular resource which yields the date that the resource will be depleted. The obvious example of this is our modern dependence on fossil fuels. In general, predictions about technology and social trends tend to be optimistic while predictions about the environment tend to be pessimistic. The most notable exception to this is the Y2K problem that created an artificial resource problem, the lack of a large enough date field. While the equation to describe the similar limits to social trends and technological advancement would be more complex and perhaps defy quantization, these limits are often overlooked. The reason for optimism is not so much the facts and equations but motivation of the speaker to put forth a new idea. In a sense the speaker can speak positively so that his prediction is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are at least three types of self-fulfilling prophecy, the ancient Greeks thought of self fulfilling prophecy as a prophecy spoken which caused people to react to the prophecy in order to defeat the prophecy. The classic example is the story of Oedipus who is sent away to be killed because of a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. His parents Laius and Jocasta avoid this great evil their very actions set the stage for the event prophesied. The servant cannot bear to kill the child and gives him to a shepherd. The child is eventually adopted by Polybus. When Oedipus hears another prophecy that he would kill his father he leaves the town so as to avoid the evil of killing Polybus and ends up meeting his biological father, Laius, on the road and kills him. This type of self-fulfilling prophecy is capricious and ironic; the product of fate. There is a type of self-fulfilling prophecy in the scripture where a prophet makes a prediction and the people of God respond to that prophecy. For instance, when Abram was promised the land, it caused generations after him to keep their focus on their possession of that land. The prophecy kept the people of God looking to the divine promise and its fulfillment. The third type of prophecy is the more modern type. A business leader or a social activist can talk about a vision and the shifting of paradigms. They declare that a trend is going to happen and people respond, if they see validity in the claim by adopting the trend. Sometimes people understand their vision and that they are shaping the market place of ideas by their declarations, at other times the person is unaware of the process they are spawning. The Emerging Church was one theme of this year's National Pastors Convention in San Diego, CA. While the ideas of the Emerging Church are as varied as the players, the basic premise is that the post-modern church is re-inventing itself into a new form. The movement declares that its communication style, church structure and theology are quite different from the modern church of the 20th century. However, no one knows whether the Emerging Church will continue to grow. There are limiting factors to which are likely undiscovered about the movement and of course equations by social scientist who study religion are premature at this point. On the other hand, a forum as large as the National Pastors conference is really too big to allow the church to be dismissive of the trend even if the declaration that a new form of the church is emerging smacks of a type of certainty that is usually avoided by the movement as a whole. Certain criticism of modernity has merit, and where the modern church adopted unbiblical positions from the philosophy of modernism, we are to repent of the error. The Emerging Church emphasizes being authentic, organic and genuine, which are all fine qualities, but these all speak about a theology of revelation and sometimes as applied by the movement is in contradiction to that of scripture.
Nature Of The Emerging Church
The Emerging Church defines its self as a new form. An oft used phrase is that they want to unpackage the message of the gospel. The idea is that they want to not have everything boiled down to three points and in an outline form. The means of gaining this desired freshness and genuine proclamation of the gospel is through the use of artistic _expression, digital media, creative gathering times and an understanding of the postmodern mindset.
The artistic _expression comes in the form of film making, theater, music, and visual arts. The idea is that these expressions make the message more accessible. The sermons tend to be story telling. Story telling is sometimes brought to a new height, not just as a communication technique, but an actual theological position. (This will be addressed as a theological issue later in this paper.) The idea is that the Bible is made up of narratives and the three-point sermon is foreign to the thinking in the Bible. In the 1970s, the testimony was a well-developed communication form in the church that re-enforced the preaching; Billy Graham's preaching was re-enforced by the testimony of Terry Bradshaw. Story telling, illustrations, and parables have always been a part of the communication of the church. It would be a false distinction to say that the Emerging Church is the church that appreciates the narrative. The Emerging Church has a set of creative personalities who are expressing the gospel, with the favored form of _expression being the story.
The Emerging Church does not have a corner on the digital media market in the church. The so-called modern church has websites and Power Point slide presentation, but the modern church's websites are more like electronic brochures. The Emerging Church is much more artistically sophisticated, technically proficient, and interactive. By digital media being interactive, the websites have multimedia Flash media presentations and the audience can post comments or questions on the site. The Emerging Church has affection for the cooperative and collaborative organizational styles of the programming and movie industry artists. A flat organization in which the artists are recognized for their merit, not a formal position held.
The Emerging Church will gather in new ways and in new places. A small group may gather at a restaurant for a meal and have a Bible Study right at the table. At other events, the atmosphere attempts to imitate a Starbucks; chic music, soft chairs, trendy decor, and rich coffee. (It is funny that in the 1980s church plants all gave up the steeple type architecture in favor of elementary school lunch rooms because real estate did not matter as much as people.) The Sunday morning worship service may be replaced by a Thursday night gathering. The main event may be a once year conference rather than a weekly gathering.
Addressing The Postmodern Mind
There are basically two approaches to the postmodern mind, one is to recognize it as a force in the culture which is dealt with using the same tools that a missiologist uses to address a foreign culture, the other approach is to embrace much or most of the postmodern philosophy. The first approach looks at the postmodern culture as an opportunity to understand people where they are. Where the postmodern culture is in agreement with the message of scripture, the gospel messenger attempts to contextualize the message, that is, describe and explain the gospel in culturally relevant terms. Where the postmodern culture strays from the truth of scripture, avoid syncretistic teaching. Syncretistic teaching is when one looses the essence of the message of truth by incorporating elements from the culture that are not in agreement with the faith. The first approach to the postmodern culture does not attempt to paint the picture too dim, but sees the challenge and embraces the task at hand; preach the truth of the gospel with language and metaphors which address the hearts of the people. The second approach by the Emerging Church is to actually adopt, for the most part, the postmodern paradigms. While neither those who hold the philosophy of modernism nor those who hold the philosophy of postmodernism can claim theirs is the Biblical point of view, there are some in the Emerging Church which would in essence adopt the postmodern position as the Biblical framework.
Theological Positions Of Postmodernism Lack Examination
Recent History Of Religious Strife In America
In the early half of the 1900s, the church in America had a number of denominations. The ideas of liberal Christianity were in many if not most mainline denominations. Labels to describe those inside and outside the movement developed. The more liberal camp(s) were called modernist, liberal or later neo-orthodox. Those in the more conservative camps are divided into the fundamentalists or evangelicals. At the risk of oversimplification, this paper will NOT attempt to distinguish between all the variants but simple generalize into two segments; liberal and conservative. By conservative I do not mean political conservatives, but those who would attempt to retain the basics of the faith. This new liberal type of Christianity did not attempt to establish new denominations or congregations, but mostly grew within the mainline denominations. The ensuing debate between liberal Christianity with more conservative Christianity was over the basics of the faith and it was the conservatives who instigated the debate by and large. Those who were a part of liberal Christianity were careful to not express their ideas directly to the wrong crowd so as to keep their employment and were content to patiently teach their doctrines from within the church. Its not that they did not teach their doctrines, its that they kept their cards close to their chest so as to be able to play the best hand. Bold moves were made when the risk was low, more moderate positions were expressed when risk was higher. The conservatives were the ones framing the debate and attempting to bring out the issues, often in strident tones that disenfranchised people with a disposition that embraced politeness and civility. The debate was about the basics of the faith; the authority of scripture, the deity of Christ, the existence of hell, and the origins of the human race. The result was that the conservatives by and large left the existing institutions to the liberal competitors and formed their own conservative denominations, conservative seminaries, conservative mission agencies and conservative congregations. While these debates developed over a number of years, conservatives eventually felt forced to draw attention to the issues and act. Few today are debating whether liberal Christianity is right or wrong, for the most part; liberals are kept in their corner and conservatives in theirs. However, in conservative denominations there developed an examination at the beginning of a pastor's ministry to ensure the candidate for ministry adheres to the basics of the faith. Apparently, prior to the liberal versus conservative debate the examination for the ministry focused on an internal sense of call. Both liberal and conservative leaning candidates for ministry could express a sense of call.
In a separate story line, small groups of Christians arose who had no denominational affiliation. These groups were sometimes evangelical and at other times fundamentalists, but they wanted to follow God. Strong leaders who had no accountability to an outside denomination usually led these groups. The idea was to not get sucked into a denomination. In the seventies, any small splinter groups that were controlling or had doctrinal error were labeled a cult. Apologists who specialized in examining a splinter group's teaching and exposing their draconian practices arose to counter the many small sects. By and large the method of countering their teaching was to focus on the basics of the faith like the deity of Christ and the Trinity. (This also was used against larger sects like the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses who did not stick to the basics of the faith.) In essence there was an unofficial list of those who were a part of some other broad umbrella label and those who were not. There are/were a number of broad umbrella labels used; the evangelical church, orthodox Christianity, or historic Christianity.
Recent Nullification Of The Means of Accountability
The Emerging Church is an outgrowth of a wide variety of churches. If the ministry is the result of splintering, it is often an issue of style or an issue regarding power. But the most of the time, splinter would be an overstatement. A quiet leaving for a different venue is the most common description of the event. Many in the Emerging Church, like the web site Vintage Faith (www.vintagefaith.com) affirm the traditional theology while expressing it through new media, thus the name “Vintage Faith”. They seem to be an intentional church plant with the blessing of their sending church. Again, we are taking into account the wide spectrum of ministries under the heading of Emerging Church. The web site The Ooze (www.theooze.com), established by Spencer Burke, purports to “affirm traditional teachers and new artists”. Spencer seems to be of the quiet leaving type. Others are quite quick to affirm the Apostle's Creed.
In contrast with the previous debate over the basics of the faith in liberal versus conservative brands of Christianity, those in the Emerging Church want to affirm the basics so they can move on and address issues of life. To discuss doctrine is to be too up tight; to share your own story is to be authentic. The Emerging Church as a whole avoids the trap of not affirming the basics of the faith. After a cursory affirmation, they move on to the more important issues of life. To say that the movement has no doctrinal position is exactly what they would like to say, however, doctrine simply means teaching and they do have teachings. Attempting to pin down a unified position of the movement is exactly what they want to avoid. Their attempt seems to be to transcend doctrinal issues with authentic life. While the liberals of the past avoided stating their true beliefs if the environment was not welcoming, the Emerging Church seems to quickly agree with their would be opponents on issues of the authority of the Bible, the deity of Christ, etc.. and move quickly to new, more important issues like a persons person’s struggles with doubt. The mechanisms conservatives developed to counter the liberal infiltration are ineffective in holding individuals from the Emerging Church accountable. By and large it is not an infiltration of existing structures. In fact, the technique of building a separate institutional infrastructure used by the conservative Christian community is also the means for the rise of the Emerging Church. The new congregations, or should I say communities, which are being developed are affirming the basics of the faith, thus avoiding being put on the unofficial list. They are also avoiding accountability and debate. Note: I'm NOT calling the Emerging Church a cult, however it is clear that the plain examination which holds a group accountable to the larger body of Christ is missing. In order to address the issues pertaining to the Emerging Church, one must examine issues that they raise. Just because someone affirms The Apostle's Creed does not mean that his or her other teachings are okay. Throughout the ages of the church, creeds were developed to respond to movements, individuals and teachings. So creeds addressed different issues in different periods of history. While it is good we can agree that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, it is also important to discern what is meant by that statement. On an Evangelism Explosion visit my wife met a couple that had visited our church. The wife was a believer who had just given birth to twins. The husband was an officer in the Coast Guard. The husband expressed and an interest in becoming a Christian. When the team started to clarify the commitment, the wife started to clarify for the team what her husband meant. He believed religion was merely a social institution that aided society in passing down morals. He did not want to actually accept Christ; he wanted to become a Christian so that his wife did not have an “unbelieving spouse”. In other words, he wanted to be nice to his wife and become a Christian for her sake, though he thought the whole issue of accepting Christ was a non-issue. If assent to a belief becomes something other than what everyone understands it to be, clarification must be made. Assent to The Apostle's Creed, or any other Creed, if it is the test of accountability to a larger Christian community, must not be usurped by a different understanding of the nature of truth. In the next few paragraphs we will examine the doctrinal issues surrounding the Emerging Churches understanding of truth and revelation. The issues of style and form that are by and large the identity markers of the movement, we will leave as matters of preference. Where style is merely a matter of artistic form we will leave it alone, but where it is transformed to become an actual part of the theology, we will examine its merits as theology. In other words, regarding the characteristics of showing enthusiasm for the arts, being digitally savvy, and being fond of creative gatherings, we will leave those to a discussion on how to be culturally relevant.
Part of the Emerging Church has adopting the postmodern mindset by not embracing foundationalism but instead seeking to find meaning in story. In so many words, they abandon the idea that it is useful to build systemic thinking by establishing key foundational facts and definitions and reasoning a whole system of thought. In the postmodern idea, it is against a systemic way of thinking in general; in the Emerging Church it does not embrace systematic theology. Some seem be not against systemic thinking but that they choose to dwell on the story rather than system. One particular strength to their position is that narrative is a part of how God has revealed himself to his people. While Emerging Church adherents like Todd Hunter are cordial with past academic work of systemic theologians, others are not as generous. Rather than claiming that narrative is a good communication technique, effective especially with the postmodern crowd, they talk as though God communicates exclusively in narrative. It is understandable that many people are confused by systemic thinking because they have not had to master this discipline. Other than the exposure to this sort of discipline in high school geometry, most people never have to work through a coherent way of thinking in an entire system. Additionally, systemic thinking is not a discipline that is universal in the academic world; many linguists, writers, and scientists do not focus on reasoning from a few principles and definitions. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were two scientists who did focus on this type of academic pursuits. It is not uncommon to hear people talk about the great experiments of Einstein. However, his work was usually theoretical which involved spending time creating coherent syllogism about physics. He spent hours writing these out on yellow legal pads at Princeton. Other scientists did the experiments that proved his work empirically. Not all scientists focus on the empirical nor do they all focus on deductive reasoning work like Einstein. So with the study of God, theology, not everyone will focus on systemics, some should focus on systemic thinking while others should spend their talents explaining the simple meaning of the text, pursuing linguistic investigation, textual criticism, archeology, and a host of other things. While there is more to study and thinking than systemic thinking and deductive reasoning, avoiding the discipline all together can have dire consequences. In order to test ideas and think critically, one must be able to see inconsistencies either in yourself or your opponents in a debate. We may embrace a beautiful story like that of Joseph and his brothers, how evil in Joseph's life God used it for good. When the Christian is watching a movie at the theater, he is not compelled to find some application to his own life, especially if the movie is a comedy. One cannot take the same approach with the story of Joseph; it is God's Word. There is nothing about you or me in the story of Joseph. If it is to mean something other than the dry facts, it must be interpreted. One way to do that is to see the whole counsel of scripture and ensure that we are consistent in interpreting a particular passage in light of all others. The Westminster Confession (I;VI) says that, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture:” The idea of the quote is that not everything revealed in scripture is explicitly so, it might be something that can be logically deduced. However, unlike a geometry book, the scripture does not use definitions and axioms to build an entire system. (Which is one of the points of the Emerging Church.) That is not to say that there are primary principles and that some truths are more relevant than others. Jesus said that there was a greatest commandment. Not all commandments are equal. Not all scripture is equal in importance. God in His Word does not deny himself and does not contradict himself. The Emerging Church's willingness to reject foundationalism may be in part due to the fact that most of the American church has not thought through systematic theology in the first place. Most of American Christianity is actually a-systematic. There is proof texting of pet doctrines, but a lot of doctrinal teaching has not actually developed a robust clarity of definitions and prime axioms of the faith. Instead the emphasis is on what one must do. How is one to behave is primary. So leaving foundations is not a big stretch. While narratives are a big part of God's Word, that does not mean there are not foundational truths in scripture. There are even foundational stories; Adam, Abraham, and Jesus. The discipline of articulating clearly a definition is an important skill for the sake of clarity; clarity in thought as well as clarity in communication. Being able to recognize basic principles in the scripture is basic to reading, studying and interpreting the scripture. While it is possible to read a passage without commenting on it; possible to read it artistically, re-tell the story artistically, it is impossible not to attempt to interpret the passage. The passage selected implies interpretation, tones used to read is a form of interpretation. There is a point to letting the passage of scripture speak for itself by merely reading the passage to a congregation, however, that is very different from saying there no way to state the point of that passage. A preference to be more artistic rather than analytic in preaching the gospel is no sin. However the preaching must retain the authority of the message and also retain its content. But still there is no way to get around the idea that there is actual message to be articulated, that the one idea has precedence over another. The organization of one idea over another and insuring that one has not contradicted oneself is impossible to escape. By assuming that the whole idea of systemic thinking is not foundational to explaining the Christian faith, one has set a foundation of non-foundationalism. The postmodern philosophers attempt to discuss in depth issues and leave behind the trappings of systemic thought. This enables the speaker to deal with complexity and explore issues without giving a final analysis every time. A position or worldview assumed at the beginning of a discussion can limit the discussion. While these are strengths in public discourse and personal exploration of an issue, to dwell too long on the questioning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth is harmful society and the individual. While there is a minority of academically minded scholars who can endlessly discuss issues and be genuine seekers of the truth, the vast majority of society will see the point sooner than later and conclude that it is an insurmountable question for which there is no answer. The postmodern position can not be the mark of the same community that John was talking about in 2 John where he said, “To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth – and not I only, but also all who know the truth – because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father's Son, will be with us in truth and love. I has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in truth, just as the Father commanded us.” (2 John 1-4 NIV) In the community that is mentioned in 2 John, the community is built on truth. This is not merely a dry doctrinal document that is merely assented to but instead the people “walk in the truth”. The early Christian community loved the truth, embraced the truth, walked in the truth and built their community on the truth. This does not mean that they were all systematic theologians, but it does mean that truth was agreed upon, that truth was definable. If it was definable, then it was able to put into a system. Deductive reasoning in the classical sense was a Greek discipline. Jesus and the Apostles did not use this type of classic logic, but they did deduced conclusions from principles. Being against foundationalism, especially in an over summarized layman's form of the idea, is not helpful to teaching or understanding the scripture.
Chris Seay in Stories of Emergence juxtapositions prepositional thinking and other ways of thinking, like web thinking or circular thinking. He is right in thinking that there are other ways that people thinking about truth. He points out that Ecclesiastes is circular in its line of thinking and he says that Proverbs is web thinking. It is fairly unarguable that there is a level of literary sophistication in those books which is not easily caught in simple one liner summaries and that the techniques of flash back are used. While that has merit, that is not the same thing as saying the book of Proverbs does not have linear thinking. There are topics that flow from proverb to proverb. And perhaps Chris Seay would observe the same flow from proverb to proverb. Perhaps more than any book, Proverbs explains the purpose of the book and builds a foundation of thought, precludes objects and gives motivational statements up front. (Proverbs 1:1-19) Many of the proverbs stand on their own, but they also relate to the surrounding material. For instance in the proverb “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth,” (Proverbs 10: 4 NIV) it is placed between a proverb about the Lord's provision for the righteous and a proverb about the importance of working during the harvest. No the book of Proverbs in not arranged as a systematic theology, but its arrangement is not arbitrary.
Linear thinking is an aid in expressing clarity of thought. Web and circular thinking are about complex relationships and gaining the interest of an audience. The attribute of complexity is essential in communicating the gospel. People often test truth by seeing if it will hold up to the complexity of real-life. It is sort of like the difference between a laboratory test and testing something by using it in the real world. The second attribute of gaining the interest of the audience, if used as a stand-alone function, amounts to tickling the ears of the audience. Story telling, proverbs, pithy sayings, and other communication techniques are good. But placing the techniques ahead of truth is dangerous. A story can be used to support many different points of view. It all depends upon the details put in or left out. A reason to affirm web thinking and circular thinking is to leave behind one-dimensional Christianity. The goal is noble, however, one reason for shallow, one-dimensional Christianity in America though is the creed that 'truth must always be boiled down to its minimums'. The lowest common denominator is helpful if one is simply looking for a starting point for beginning to cooperate. One-dimensional Christianity is not the result of systemic theology, just the opposite. Perhaps emphasizing circular thinking and web thinking is a reaction to the a-systematic, proof texting approach to doctrine that prevails in the American church rather than actual systematic theology. These simplistic answers do not match the complexity of real life and are a poor way to convince people that the scriptures have answers to life's problems. Chris would not be an advocate of simplistic answers. But his affirmation of the Apostle's Creed alone does seem to be simplistic. Perhaps he is making an effort to minimize flack from the traditional church and maintain connection with it. He actually says almost everything else is up for grabs. Does he mean to say that the inerrancy of scripture is up for grabs? That the Trinity is up for grabs? That the doctrine that God is good is up for grabs? These are fairly basic teaching that he probably would whole-heartedly agree with, however he has clearly stated they are up for grabs. If a person is sincerely exploring the doctrine of the Trinity, that is fine, it is a doctrine most Christians have to work through. But if a pastor has failed to work through this doctrine and his doubts are serious and grave, he may need to take a sabbatical from ministry. Chris Seay probably is not questioning the Trinity, but merely wants to state that he is taking the approach that is exploring truth and feels free to leave loose ends flapping. The Myers-Briggs personality profile describes a personality type who is always exploring and comfortable not necessarily systematizing everything, this is attribute is perceiving. Myers-Briggs contrasts perceiving with judgmental. This almost sounds like an insult if one is thinking of the scripture which say “judge not, let ye be judged”. However, that is not the emphasis, it means that the person has an affinity for being decisive, making judgments so that the matter is settled. My leaning is perceiving however, I have learned to be more decisive. A balance of course is desirable. Open-minded and decisive are the two virtues that are the prize. Flexibility to the point of indecision and rigidity to the point of being a stick in the mud are both to be avoided. Merely being open-minded is a virtue but the scripture warns against “ever learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7 KJV) Recognizing the complexity of truth, both natural revelation and special revelation, the faithful student of the Word should not give up on finding simplicity in the scriptures.
Again borrowing from the cognitive sciences, Chris Seay is right, most people do not think linearly strictly. However, when you look at your bank statement, you do not expect the bank to almost get the right amount as your balance. You want access to every penny you own. The process of accounting is not a natural one, it has to be learned. But the discipline of finding the exact amount is not just useful; it is imperative for the survival of the modern economy. When we don't do this, it is called cooking the books, or fudging the books. We all know this is bad. By way of illustration, how do we let the preachers get away with sloppy thinking? Are the things eternal less important than the things temporal? Circular thinking and web thinking are important to explore and comprehend the whole of something. Attempting to preclude accountability by emphasizing web or circular thinking above linear thinking is not helpful to knowing the truth as a community and slows down any discussion. It means that one is not open to the counsel of the brethren. Perhaps this is an intentional power play, but even if it is not, it breaks down community and the communities grasping of the truth.
The common way of understanding literature and scripture is to identify the main idea. In the scripture there are overarching ideas that are told and retold. These narratives explain the salvation that comes from the sovereign hand of God. That he helps the weak and helpless. That he is the judge. It is not enough to understand themes of a passage, a chapter, a book, since the Word of God has one author divinely speaking, the reader must find the themes woven through out the entire text. The redemptive-historical method of hermeneutics attempts to ensure the interpreter of scripture takes into account the overarching them themes of redemption when looking at a particular passage.
Some in the Emerging Church have rejected metanarratives in interpreting scripture. According to the Wikipedia, the following is the definition of metanarrative:
A metanarrative is a term used in postmodern discourse to refer to a narrative about narratives. It is a story that determines which other stories are "central" and acceptable, and which are "marginal". Metanarratives are thought to prevent narratives deemed "marginal" from upsetting or subverting the cultural order. Postmodernism, which represents an openness to the authority of "marginal" narratives, has been described as an "incredulity toward metanarratives" (Lyotard 1984).
While authors like Chuck Colson have attempted to discuss the idea of transcending themes in Western culture and the scripture, he choose to defend his idea by using a term which has been defined by his opponents as metanarrative. It is sort of like trying to use the word propaganda and in the process separating out the connotations associated. Commonly, there is a world of difference between publishing a message and publishing propaganda. The use of the word metanarrative by postmodern philosophers has come to mean that common themes in stories, histories, sermons, songs and other communication forms are a part of the power base of the incumbents to power. The oft-repeated phrase in recent years is that the victors write the history. The author Brian McLaren in an open letter to Mr. Colson explains how the postmodernist defines the Meta-narrative as a tool of propaganda. In his discussion with Chuck Colson about postmodernity, he states that most people who criticize the postmodernity improperly because they don't understand that metanarrative is rightly understood to have a negative connotation. It is the tool of Nazis, Communists, and other totalitarians. If a metanarrative is always a means something negative, not simply an overarching theme, but a subtle mechanism for power, then we must find different words to describe the way we recognize the overarching themes and paradigms of scripture. Of course, a tool is more often than not thought to be neutral, used for evil or good. A torture chamber of course is normally considered a tool exclusively of evil. Is the use of metanarrative merely a tool for evil, corralling the masses into a decision? It seems we cannot separate out those negative connotations for the postmodern. There is such a thing a propaganda. People can be manipulated by messages and media, but simply saying we should not use a metanarrative will not take away this type of evil. Evil people in power are much too smart to let the little trick do them in. But people who are good hearted and naïve can be manipulated into abdicating their power to those who would bully them with such language. Which of course, the discourse on metanarrative is a form of metanarrative which is aimed at deposing the incumbent. This is sophisticated and self-defeating. Since the point of the discussion is to usurp power, even in an egalitarian sense, and in the end gain for the speaker power that was once held by his opponent.
The Christian life is all about power. Not gaining power for self, but submitting to the power of God. Understanding that we are powerless to save ourselves that we are in need of the saving power of Christ on the cross. That we are stewards of responsibility, not rulers with a selfish will. We should not seek to avoid power but seek to use it as a responsible steward. We should seek to use the authority God has given us, whether great or small, for His glory. As mothers and fathers, we should rule our household responsibly seeing that God is the basis of our authority. As citizens we should be responsibly participate in our government. As businessmen and businesswomen, we should seek to be examples of virtues to both our employees and customers. As employees of business or government, we should seek to serve with faithfulness and enthusiasm. As the church, we should seek to know God and make Him known. Whether an athlete, a musician, a gardener, a scholar, or an artist; each Christian must be a good steward of the gifts God has given him. Being a steward means we have authority and we are accountable to the one whom we serve. A balanced approach of holding and submitting to authority is the basic teaching of scripture. The postmodern teaching is that holding power is to be avoided. While on the surface that may seem very egalitarian, in the end it is just another system of power. Those who are smooth about articulating their desire with an egalitarian flare are the power holders. This system of power is a faulty system of checks and balances. Faulty because it does not rightly identify legitimate power, instead it appoints generally speaking, those who have advocated the system and who are making the new set of rules. There is no checks and balances against them.
While it is impossible to summarize the movement as whole, there is a metanarrative of the Emerging Church. That is not to say these are the same ones who competently and truly believe there should be no metanarrative. The Emerging Church does have some basic overarching themes that are repeated. It is a part of their message. It is not that they should not advocate their ideas, but just pointing out that it is almost impossible to feel passionate about justice, righteousness and goodness without developing a metanarrative. One Emerging Church teacher said that there is no metanarrative, just narrative. If by that he means merely that they are trying to avoid the use of strong arming propaganda and manipulation, all churches should avoid that. However if it means that there should be no emphasis on one message over another it would be a practical impossibility. The movement does have a metanarrative of their own. Perhaps since the movement attaches a negative connotation to the word metanarrative, we could say that they have a body of teaching that they advocate. Their common themes in preaching and teaching are as follows:
One story after another speaks of disenfranchisement with the established church, that they could not be themselves. Usually after committing some action which was a little too worldly for the offending institutional church, the Emerging Church leader found he or she had to leave in order to find a genuine walk with God.
Another teaching advocated by the movement is that there is a change in the church. Of course this could be seen as a modern type of self-fulfilling prophecy. They seem to use the same types of organization, change mechanisms as Silicon Valley. There are conscious efforts to capture the same kind of open source collaboration as the GNU Linux software and the free software movement have used. Much of the language of this message of change shows similarity to the business literature that emphasizes paradigm shifts in order to out maneuver the business competition. In the case of the Emerging Church, adapting to cultural change in order to reach this new and very pained generation. It is not surprising to find on the website Emerging Church (www.emergingchurch.org) that largest concentration of Emerging Churches are in California, and in particular, near Silicon Valley.
Many of the authors mention the fact that they watch popular media that might be considered off color or have morally controversial content. The speakers or writers are not actually trying to advocate the messages of that content. Instead they are attempting to say that on their list of do's and don'ts they were not as narrow as most other churches. It was ambiguous as to why, more of a declaration of identity than a well thought out stand. There is some apologetic of the practice of watching MTV and R rated movies that says that it helps when discussing and thinking about issues.
An emphasis on identity of the speaker or writer is mentioned over and over again. In fact, much of the success of the movement may be more because of the issue of identity more than any other. In other words, the movement is tailoring to the style and preferences of the postmodern generation. While any of these issues might be something that members of the movement might disagree about, they are in fact things advocated repeatedly by people at the core of the movement. The focus on demographics and marketing are, strangely enough, disciplines developed by modernist. However, of course companies like Zondervan are tailoring their emergent product line to a generation who are sick of such marketing techniques.
The Emerging Church is a mixed bag of refreshing stories of transformation by God and stories of disenfranchisement by a whole lot of people in the church. There are stories of the Spirit and stories of the flesh. Their dissatisfaction is to be embraced when it is in line with the saying of the reformation: “Always Reforming”. When they have rightly identified one-dimensional messages and seek to transcend them, their message should be applauded. Many are simply looking for respect and love. Sloppy thinking and sloppy messages require a kind hand of accountability. Terms like “new kind of Christian” and Emerging Church will only divide the movement from other parts of the church. Getting too wrapped up in issues of style could crash the positive aspects of the movement. The theological leanings are diverse, but the segment of the movement that embraces postmodern philosophy non-critically will probably cause that part of the movement to error into full-fledged heresy by undermining the doctrines of revelation and inerrancy. The response of the American church should be to not engage the movement as a whole but engage the issues raised by the movement one at a time. To black list the movement as a cult, and it is not, would be destructive because it would over summarize the issues. It would group those walking in error with those who are not. Older brothers and sisters in the faith should be willing the engage the movement. The best possible future is that this movement matures theologically. It would be a future that affirms their dissatisfaction with proof texting and teach glib Bible lessons. That future would be to see the movement learn to exegete the Word with competence.
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Copywrite by Terry L. Pruitt September 10, 2004