Friday, October 29, 2004

Emerging contentions

Looks like Christianity Today has caught up with the emergent church movement. At the recently concluded Billy Graham Center's 2004 Evangelism Roundtable Presentations Brian McLaren submitted a paper outlining a ‘broadened’ approach to evangelism, calling for a timely evaluation of method and emphasis in our postmodern times. In particular, the apologetic of good works, though costly, is potentially a more fruitful approach than the appeal to absolute objective truth. On that score, McLaren shares the same sentiment as Francis of Assisi who said, "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words."

Pointing to the problems of making truth claims to a culture cynical of adjectives like objective or absolute the church will only find its good intentions rejected. “…arguments that pit absolutism versus relativism, and objectivism versus subjectivism, prove meaningless or absurd to postmodern people: They're wonderful modern arguments that backfire with people from the emerging culture," said McLaren.

The alternative as every emergent reader would know, is not to ditch our allegiance to Christ or Scripture, but build authentic communities that draw people the way Jesus himself drew the masses, especially the marginalised, to himself. I think we can all agree with that. There is no question about the need to live authentically as a vibrant community expressing kingdom values in all its demands. But the niggling question is, is that all, and if not, in what way do we have to think about being 'relevant'?

I think John 6 is instructive. John reported that when Jesus’ teachings became ‘hard’ many disciples began to leave. Jesus himself persisted and up the ante: "Does this offend you,?” he asked. That his uncompromising stance showed up the intentions of the human heart is telling: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (v62)

Duane Lifkin who responded to McLaren’s paper admitted that an epistemology that relies too much on enlightenment construct would undermine our witness. But this is where Lifkin put his foot down. Argument by reason should not be dismissed as a child of the modern age (and typecast as somehow mistaken), because the New Testament is full of it eg, Paul’s letters which make strident objective truth claims with no apology. I know, the present conversation smells like law vs grace all over again, although in different dress, perhaps.

This is the bone of contention, I think, and evangelicals will need to talk through it in the days ahead. Charles Colson himself expressed discomfort at suggestions to mute (well, not exactly) our claim to propositional truth in the present context. Consider the transitions: From learned to learning; knowledge to mystery; certainty to I don’t know. All this is fine where they genuinely express the limits of reasoning, and where they help us bridge the postmodern gulf. Yet, is this where the proverbial camel gets its foot into the tent?

The cover story by Andy Crouch is as informative as it is nuanced. He quotes Mark Talbot who questioned the hoo-hah over categories of modern and postmodern, and its impact on objective truth claims. Talbot says, "The great irony is that by giving us these sharp categories of 'modern' and 'postmodern' ways of thinking, McLaren is doing the very sort of categorization he describes, and implicitly condemns, as modern."

Crouch ended his piece with a reference to Luther, whose dissatisfaction with the decadent church of his day led to the Reformation. The analogy is interesting, but to at least one noted scholar, it is misplaced. Don Carson’s lectures on the emergent movement made the comment that there is a world of difference in the two movements: Luther in kicking off the reformation sought to align the drifting church and her worldly pursuits with Scripture; the emergent movement seeks to align the church to the culture of our day and renew its relevance in a postmodern context.

The conversation continues and I’m all ears.

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