Saturday, January 21, 2006

An Emerging Fundamentalism

Cathy asked a wonderful question in the other thread about how to teach kids in the postmodern era. I didn't want my answer to get lost in that thread, so I decided to give it its own.


That is a great question. Modernism had its five fundamentals. Those are irrelevant to the postmodern mind. Our grandfather would have died for the Virgin Birth. Our kids will shrug and say, "What's the big deal?" Each era has its own fundamentals (Luther's justification by grace through faith didn't make modernity's list, by the way).

I think in the postmodern ethos, we need to organize our teaching around five new foci. Each of these takes a distinctive of postmodernism and connects it well with the orthodox Christian faith.

The Community - God is a community. (The Trinity is simply THE most important doctrinal affirmation we can make in the postmodern age!) We were meant to live in community. Sin breaks community. The church is a community of the redeemed. Eternity will be community like we never dreamed. Community is the "integrative motif" (Stan Grenz's wonderful phrase) of theology and life.

The Story - Jesus is God come to restore community through his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This is an old, old story that needs to be told over and over again because it connects with all people everywhere. It is the metanarrative. It is the "story we find ourselves in." (Thank you, Brian McLaren).

The Truth - Postmoderns need truth. *gulp* and *gasp* But truth is not absolutely known, as moderns suggested. Truth is found in Jesus, to whom the Bible testifies. But truth is not a science project we dissect. It is a mystery, an ocean into which we dive. Therefore, we need to approach the Bible with great reverence, not like an encyclopedia. It is more of a scrapbook, sharing the story of how our ancient family members came to know truth in Jesus and his Father.

The Makeover - I used to call this "the transformation," but now, it's the makeover. Finding truth in the story of Jesus and joining his band of followers is not about acquiring head knowledge. It is about living by his ethic and lifestyle, an extreme makeover of the greatest kind. Postmoderns don't care about people being right. They want people to be good. And there is no better way to be good than to live like Jesus did - loving, serving, sharing, and helping people. I am becoming convinced, too, that the truest sign of being madeover by God is not some personal and private purity (though that is important.) I think it is growing in love for people, or, to put it in emerging lingo, to become more missional.

The Hope - There is hope. Hope for me. Hope for you. Hope for this world. Hope is an optimistic view of the future. So many Christians are so pessimistic. The world is coming to an end in a blaze of glory. Fear mongering is the pathway to Christian fiction success. I am not convinced that this is the picture painted by Jesus who says in the Revelation, "Take a look, I am making all things new." Hope. Here is how I have come to express this hope:

We dream of a day that is to come, a day
in which all things will be made new,
in which all things will be the way they are supposed to be,
in which nations live at peace and creation is unpolluted and thriving.

We dream of a day that is to come, a day
in which abuse, aggression, and arrogance are a distant memory,
in which all people depend on their God and each other,
in which sin is judged justly and grace is received lavishly.

We dream of a day that is to come, a day
in which Jesus Christ extends his rule to be Lord of all,
in which the Spirit of truth, peace, and love dwells within all,
in which the Father says to all, “You are my people, and I am your God.”

We long for and live for this day.

So, those are my thoughts. What do you think?


A said...

I like it.

kingsjoy said...

This is very helpful. I'm not married to any label (i.e., postmodern, emerging, modern, etc.), but what you've written makes sense to me.

Calling you soon to plan for our visit.

ness said...

This made me cry...I don't know why...probably because it says what we are so clearly. We're not crazy, are we?

hey kingsjoy...what can i bring?

Cathy said...

I like it too. And I think after reading that, that we are on the right track.

I just want to be sure that what I am working on is not a disservice to the kids that I am serving.

Andrew said...

This is helpful. Thanks for laying things out the way that you did. It helps me to be able to think and analize and keep up with how you are thinking.

I am glad to see that you are dealing with foundational issues and distinguishing between approaches that would simply attempt an attractive new presentation with the same foundation.

I am awaiting an answer to Aaron's question: does emergent = postmodern? I'm looking at it like this: is the emergent approach timeless? If it is tied to postmodernity then it will run its course, until the next worldview develops.

Cultural relevance is the something of a holy grail. Awfully hard to grip tightly.

Robb said...


I am sorry. I answered A's question in person ... at his house ... over laughs and other things.

Here goes:

I am not sure if I have posted this before, but it is the heart of an article-yet-to-be-written that still is in rattling around in my head.

Modernity and postmodernity are cultural developments. They are vast oceans in which all people in a time period and geographical location swim. There is no escaping them, and Christians who *misunderestimate* their undertow will either drown in expediency or irrelevance.

Modernity lasted, as Tom Oden has noted, from the fall of the Bastille to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Postmodernity has grown since then and 10-20 years from now will be the only cultural ocean in which Americans "swim."

Different cultural contexts provide the church with different challenges and opportunities. There are new theological struggles to wrestle with. And there are new ministry methods to employ.

A wise church will recognize this and be prepared to ride the waves as they arrive. Modernity had several:

The Great Awakenings
Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism
Tent Revival Meetings
Billy Graham Crusades
Bus Ministries
Seeker Sensitive Services

And there's more, but you get the picture. Each of these were distincitively modern in their approach because they were birthed out of the modern era. Hopefully, they did something to connect the Christian gospel to modern people.

All of this is to say that I think that "the emerging church" is simply the first wave in the postmodern ocean. I think postmodernity as our cultural milleu will be here for a long, long time. I think, however, that 10 years from now some really smart and creative and godly person is going to come up with another fresh way to connect the gospel well to the lives of postmodern people. Hopefully we who are riding the emergent wave will be wise and humble enough to ride that one too.

Does that make sense?

Andrew said...

Thanks again, Robb. That does make sense. The methodology that the church employs certainly is in flux. Right now, I'm trying to identify the theological basis of things.

Here are the issues that I'm trying to keep in perspective as I look for answers:

For a long time I heard the approach that said "postmodernity is destined to collapse under its own weight - people live in a reality that requires absolutes (gravity and time, for example). While postmodernity may survive in academia, and seem attractive in the real world, it lacks absolutes, and without that, it can't offer hope."

Yet, there is no denying the increasing influence of postmodernity on western culture. My calling to missions has also increased my awareness: Western Europe appears to be decades ahead of the US is becoming postmodern. Eastern Europe (and particularly Romania, where we are involved) was insulated from it until the 1990's when the Iron Curtain fell. All this to say, that I'm making every attempt to keep my bearings and avaid irrelevance.

I find myself agreeing with you mostly, but I have some serious reservations about embracing Uncertainty. I've always been a bit analytical. And while I don't approve of wielding "big T Truth" like a club to beat people up, and I don't like the way that systematic theology occasionally puts God in a box, I have kinda gotten used to the idea of truth and I am not quick to let it go.

I am comfortable with tension and mystery in the pursuit of understanding God. But I do think that we can really know some things and that God has revealed himself in an objective manner.

So maybe I'm struggling to embrace the postmodern understanding of knowledge. Perhaps in a later article you can address the postmodern/emergent epistemology.

A said...

Andrew, have you read Velvet Elvis? I am curious, because reading it challenged and informed my thinking quite a bit about what we know for sure and what we might not know for sure from the Scriptures. It deals with the issue pretty well. I'd highly recommend it.

Andrew said...

I'm still looking forward to the Christmas when I get cool books from a friend who works at a local Christian bookstore . . .

Seriously, I'll check it out.

Robb said...


I have had several thoughts rolling around in my head since I read your post. Hopefully, I'll be able to remember them all now.

First, I don't buy the presupposition that "postmodernity doesn't have any absolutes." This seems to me to be a straw man that moderns have used to bash postmodernity. It is both logically inconsistent and simply incorrect to assert it.

Postmodernity does not reject "absolute truth." It rejects the idea that truth can be absolutely known. This is an important distinction, especially for postmodern Christians.

Take the TV show X-Files as an example. Many have observed that Moulder and Scully were a personification of the shift from modernity to postmodernity. Scully, the scientist would retreat to her lab to perform objective tests and would thereby arrive at "truth." Moulder, on the other hand, didn't trust science. He would go out and interview people who had experienced supernatural phenomena, and in thereby in the context of community, would continue his journey toward "truth." The driving premise of X-Files was that "the truth is out there."

Truth exists, but can we know, and how fully can we known it?

On the question of a postmodern epistimology, I get very excited because I think that this is one of the major advantages of postmodernity over modernity for Christians.

Modernity knew as a result of the scientific method - one scientist objectively performing his experiments and coming to a true (and absolute) conclusion.

Postmodernity rejects the myth of objectivity, claiming that everyone - scientists, pastors, Bible interpreters - come with both blinders and colored glasses. Therefore, we need each other as we do experiments and test hypotheses. Others can inform our blind spots. In the postmodern era, things are known in community.

This is good for Christians because we ought to be so community-oriented. Rather than me coming up with some hair-brained Bible interpretation that the Spirit taught me while I was doing my personal devotions, I have to submit myself to the Christian tradition - even those outside of my own tradition - because other believers in other eras on other continents will have insights that I do not have. We need each other.

This is a gross oversimplification, but in the postmodern age, truth is known by the community.

Andrew said...

Thanks for your reply, Robb. Your explanation makes these ideas much more palitable. I've still got more thinking to do, and lots of other things keeping me busy right now.

A said...

I'll chime in an addition as well. I struggled a little at first, several months ago, with the postmodern approach to truth. It finally clicked while reading Velvet Elvis what is meant when discussing the concepts.

Modernism, quite boastfully, asserted that absolute truth could be absolutely grasped by using scientific methods.

This manifests itself, for instance, in the hermeneutic we were taught. I have even said many times from the pulpit or teaching podium that a proper hermeneutic (grammatical, historical, literal) employed objectively would lead to the "true meaning" of any passage of Scripture. Ie. use the correct scientific method and the truth is yours.

Postmodernism would affirm that absolute truth exists in God, the incarnation of Jesus, the created universe, and the recorded breath of God in the original autographs of the Scriptures. However, due to our cultural "distance" and human "biases" and impact of sin on our minds, we are incapable of truly grasping or comprehending once and for all the absolute truth that exists. We can get close, we can get the gist, we can have a pretty good idea, but if we're honest and humble, we cannot be dogmatic about much.

Here's how this works out practically. Have you ever been frustrated in studying a passage after doing all the "right" things because you still aren't "sure" what it meant or what it means for today? I sure have. And in those instances I usually went with my gut and hoped I was right, but would never admit that because it would mean that the "precious hermeneutic" didn't work like we were told it would.

There is so much that we don't know, don't understand, and can't grasp that we need to be more realistic and humble about it. Does it mean we give up and live shallow, wishy-washy lives? No, we do our best to understand truth and convince others of it. But it does mean we are more realistic about our ability to be dogmatic, and our dependance on others in community to struggle toward the truth together.

I've begun to see this in the pages of Scripture as well. The predominant position of the gospels and epistles is that we are dogmatic about the gospel. It all boils down to the gospel. It is the good news that all can grasp and transcends culture and time. There are a few other concepts that we are pretty certain about, but the level of certainty goes down pretty quickly.

Does this help at all?

Robb said...

well said.