Sunday, March 18, 2007

An emerging church webliography - initial, half-formed thoughts

Some quick, loosely connected thoughts on the “emerging church”. If you’ve skimmed through some of the material in the previous post, you probably won’t find much new here. The following assumes some familiarity with the emerging conversation.

Much is made of the fact that the “emerging church” is diverse. Really, truthfully, this is true of any movement. I mean, you wouldn’t lump Benny Hinn, Peter Wagner and Gordon Fee under the same banner if you were talking about the charismatic movement; John MacArthur, R.C Sproul and Karl Barth if you were talking about those in Reformed circles, or for that matter, Abdullah Badawi, Shahrir Samad, and Tengku Razaleigh when talking about UMNO!

[To give you an idea of the diversity, surf any of these 6 blogs below, and I’m sure you’ll be surprised that they are quite different:
Emergent Voyageurs
Stephen Shields
Bob Robinson
TSK
Scot McKnight
Tony Jones ]

I think, though, that one of the reasons why this had to be stressed by both sides has a sociological side to it. One of the emphases of the EC has been on networking and dialogue, and a lot of it is done on the Web, especially what is known as Web 2.0. In a previous age, a lot of ideas would have been explored in books, which were by definition “closed”, since once you print a book you can’t change the words just like that, nor can you actually literally talk to books. Contrast this with a blog, where it is easy to edit material, and not only that, but it is possible to actually comment on them and begin a conversation. This is what linguists call secondary orality (The link will explain this in more detail).

What this does, however, I think, is merge the particular with the general, since a specific conversation is now a matter of public record. So it becomes easier to conflate a specific individual’s musings with a whole doctrine of the EC. Now I don’t want to let the EC off the hook here :-p and give some of them the excuse of “X said this, but that’s not what I said!” but I think the sociological dimension is worth thinking about and I hope those more able than I will pick up on this and see if they can expand this in a more fruitful direction.

Which ties in to my next point - Contextualisation. I guess one of the implied things from what I just said is that we need to look at things in context, which in one way is a very “emerging” thing to say. (Although I would contest that surely this point has been made in countless Bible studies!) This is what a lot of the talk is about. So the terms “modernity” and “postmodernity” abound, and the point is that for the Westerners engaged in this project, they’re trying to think through how to communicate the gospel for today. Now it certainly can be said that some might go about this in unhelpful ways or in ways which might actually compromise or undermine Christianity.

But with the appropriate controls, this is surely a commendable aim, and if we understand this is a main thrust of the EC than I think more productive dialogue will follow. In some ways, some of the emerging people are just trying to work through what missiologists have talked about for a long time. After all, no less than Don Carson, certainly no hero of many within the movement, has written this: “to have Rwandans and Singaporeans and Japanese and Bolivians thinking through the Bible for themselves, learning from the history of the church, while nevertheless learning to be faithful and learning to read the Bible in their own contexts, [is] surely a good thing.”

And this insight is gleaned from interestingly enough, postmodernism. I think like it or not, the EC is certainly more sympathetic to postmodernism than evangelicals in general. Even in the field of academic postcolonial studies, most people there are influenced by postmodern philosophy in general. Now here I am more out of my depth, but my own thinking goes along the lines of the fact that firstly, critics need to realise that postmodernism is not the same thing as relativism, a trap that many fall into, and secondly, like with many things, it is possible to glean many useful insights from postmoderns. For the emerging folk, it is certainly worth thinking about whether this is a well one should drink from consistently, even when we make the distinctions between hard and soft postmodernism. Surely certainty and mystery can be held in tension?

One of the most interesting books I read in the past few years was a history of the charismatic movement (which admittedly was looking more at the British side of things, but always with an eye on the global). It was quite interesting to read a lot of the intense debates that went on which those of us who are in our 20s and below have no idea of! What emerged was a renewed clarity on the role of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts for today, a proper recognition of the experiential dimension of the Christian life and other things. That some convergence has happened is reflected in the grouping of churches such as Sovereign Grace in the US and newfrontiers in the UK.

So, time for my completely random guess: in 20-30 years time something similar will happen with the emerging church. They will help us recover forgotten emphases – I suspect a correction to individualistic tendencies is one of them. Some things will get thrown out along the way – the more mainstream element of the emerging church were not afraid to tell one of their own he had most definitely overstepped.

Anyway, I think that’s the last I’ll formally address anything “emerging” for a while. Jesus, the Bible, the gospel: to my shame I don’t talk about or allow my life to be shaped enough by them, and these are the things that really matter!
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Anonymous sk said...

In speaking of contextualisation, there are (rather simplistically) two trends of thought:

1) The gospel consists of a "static universal core", a series of articulations which is time insensitive and perennially unchanging. The contextualisation project is simply about enfleshing this core with a cultural facade for the facilitation of communication and understanding. The core, essentially, does not change.

2) The gospel consists of a "dynamic universal core", a series of articulations which is time sensitive and perennially changing with the development of our theological understanding. The contextualisation project, whilst being about the cultural expression of this "dynamic universal core", is also about allowing the enfleshment process to provoke us to re-examine the legitimacy and relevance of the universal core. This means that the universal core, by its sheer dynamic nature, is vulnerable to being modified, changed, eradicated, retained, or reaffirmed in accordance with that deemed necessary.

I suspect that the "emerging" people are those who are more ready to embrace the second of the two approaches, and not anyone is willing to sit well with this methodological vulnerability.

But anyone who is seriously going to engage his/her context authentically would almost immediately see that the second of the two is probably the only way by which one can be authentically contextual in his/her theological methodology.

10:43 am  
Anonymous sk said...

On second thought (several hours after), I think I'll be posting this comment as a whole new post on my blog. :)

5:43 pm  
Blogger BK said...

For anyone interested, I left a comment for sk here and he has kindly responded. I think the interchange helps make things clearer!

4:12 pm  

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