So, the first thing I want to tackle is some semblance of a definition. What on earth are we talking about when we say “postmodern” and “emergent.”
The simple answer is that there isn’t a simple answer.
In The Emerging Church, Dan Kimball describes the post modern world as:
An emerging and developing worldview and culture pursuing what is beyond modernity. It holds there is no single universal worldview. Therefore, truth is not absolute and many of the qualities embraced by modernism no longer hold the value or influence they once did. It can still be defined as we like, since it is still forming and developing. (The Emerging Church, 58)
Fundamentally, postmodernism is a reaction to the modern world. And the modern world was itself a response to a premodern world (something we quickly forget). The main thing we want to consider is the idea that the modern person believes that reason leads to universal truths and that power and faith can be placed in both reason and science. Now, the words reason and science don’t sound like terms we throw around a lot in rural congregations… but the fact that we organize our thoughts into universal truths absolutely appears.
The main way that modern people do this is through metanarratives, a term coined by Jean-Francois Lyotard. These are overarching stories that make sense of the world and place everything in context. Whether this is the notion of Progress or Communism, Democracy or Christianity, these narratives claim to be objectively true for all people.
That sounds mighty nice. But the problem, as Heath White points out is:
Modernism, with its emphasis on reason, insists on resolving or eliminating the differences between people. But this leads eventually to coercion, oppression, domination, cruelty, and abuse of one form or another. Anyone who believes in One True Culture – one right way of doing things – is, knowingly or not, a closet tyrant. (Postmodernism 101 , 43.)
The postmodern person is someone who has lost faith and trust in reason and these metanarratives precisely because they have failed. They have become aware that these conflicting metanarratives cannot all be “True” (note, that was with a capital “T”) and they recognize that other narratives, cultures and peoples have been suppressed by them. Thus, postmodernism is the rejection of absolute, objective moral, social and political claims.
A great example of this is the theory that claims if we spread democracy abroad, then conflicts in areas like the Middle East will be solved. However, we fail to take into account that democracy evolved out of a specific Western religious and cultural context. Simply implanting that metanarrative onto another context has proved to be next to impossible. And that doesn’t even get into the question of whether it is moral or ethical to impose one way of doing government onto another people.
While, in the modern world, symbols pointed to exactly what they represented and had one meaning, in a postmodern worldview symbols, language, and culture are all deconstructed. Postmoderns are comfortable with paradox and look for inherent contradictions, something Heath White describes as irony. Or as Dave Tomlinson puts it:
image and reality are so deeply intertwined that it is difficult to draw the line between the two. (The Post Evangelical, 75 )
What is symbolic? What is reality? Can we change the symbols and convey the same truth? In another culture will the same symbol carry a completely different meaning? And with this slew of questions, we look around and find Santa on a cross, Garth Brooks doing pop music, and Buddhist-Christians. Or perhaps, in the more common manifestations, we have a lack of denominational loyalty, church shopping, spiritual but not religious folks, and self-help preaching masquerading as the gospel.
In this postmodern and post-Christian climate, it is no wonder people are confused. As he describes the effects of such cafeteria style choices, White writes:
All this borrowing, stealing, adding, subtracting, grafting, and splicing of traditions leave postmoderns without ‘roots’ in the sense that anyone raised in a premodern culture might have had them. There is no all-embracing, unquestioned and unquestionable cultural envelope that keeps them secure in one way of doing things. They have traded roots for freedom and choice because, after all, deep roots keep you stuck in one place. (White, 129)
Diana Butler Bass also describes this sense of rootlessness, using phrases like “spiritual nomads” or “strangers in a strange land.” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, 22-23.)
Okay, so we have this background of metanarratives being dismantled and people feeling rootless and not knowing quite where to turn… and we have (I fear) a church that is still stuck in a modern mindset. We are still trying to fit people into molds, we are still proclaiming metanarratives, we have five-point plans of salvation. EEEK!
This might be where some many most churches are… but this is also where the “emergent church” movement comes in. There are so many books and blogs and youtube videos out there, but one resource that really stuck out to me was the book Christianity for the Rest of Us. In it, Diana Butler Bass points us toward the reclaimed role of the church.
Rather than proclaim a new metanarrative, she believes we are to invite one another into the life of the Christian faith. For White, we can do so through sharing and experiencing the promises we have received from God – not hoping that things will get better through natural progress (aha – there science and reason poke their heads in again), but trusting that “in the face of death, we have the promise of resurrection” (White, 155).
I stumbled across a blog post today (after this had been up for a bit) by Tom Sherwood about the postmodern critique of Christianity, which is entirely fascinating. This section in particular caught my eye:
One of the distinct differences between the Bible and the other metanarratives mentioned that Lyotard rejects, is that the Bible is based on faith, not universal reason… It is this appeal to faith, along with the liberative character of the narrative that allows the Bible and Christianity to rise above the critique of incredulity toward metanarratives. When the Bible and Christianity become oppressive, or rely too heavily on universal reason, Lyotard’s incredulity towards metanarratives applies…
Correctly understood, the Bible is not a metanarrative. Lyotard would not reject it as a metanarrative, as it is neither inherently oppressive or self-legitimating using universal reason. Instead it is the story of how God works in communities and the history of the Christian story. The Biblical narrative is extremely important to Christianity, but Christians need to take a step back from modernism and look at what can be learned from the ancient Christians. The Bible is a story of faith, it does not rely on universal reason to prove what it says. Instead, the stories are proven true by the people that live out the continuation of the story.
For Bass, that is exactly the role of the church: to transform lost spiritual nomads into Christian pilgrims.
In order to do so, the church must hold together tradition, practices and wisdom with a keen self-awareness. It must remember Barth’s claim that the church takes no one social form and that “every institution is affected by the culture in which it lives and especially the culture in which it was born” (White, 14). The church must allow its style, practices and doctrines to change as it attempts to be faithful to God in particular contexts and among particular peoples.
Doug Pagitt has a new book out called Church in the Inventive Age that I need to get my hands on.
He would change that list I made above of style, practices and doctrine and talk instead about our cognitive beliefs, our values, our tools/structures, and our aesthetics. He rightly points out that when you start to mess with any one of those, folks get downright uncomfortable. But I think in some ways, he is pointing to the fact that our doctrines, our values, our styles and our structures themselves become idols.
What I am interested in are the congregations that have discovered ways to acknowledge this postmodern shift within their churches and by doing so they are not only thriving, but are transforming lives as they attempt to be faithful to the gospel. In part 3, we will look at some of what we can learn from some of the churches that “get it.”