Home > Christianity, Emergent Movement > The emergent movement & postmodernism: Part III

The emergent movement & postmodernism: Part III

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments


Postmodern background

From what I can gather, the emergent movement is part of a conversation that asks how Christians can minister in a postmodern (largely, secular) world.

Postmodernism developed as a reaction to the modernist movement. According to Wikipedia’s entry on the modernist movement, the term modernism “encompasses the activities and output of those who felt the ‘traditional’ forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated in the new economic, social and political conditions of an emerging fully industrialized world.” Interestingly, the wiki entry also notes that modernism rejected “the existence of a compassionate, all-powerful Creator.”

So postmodernism gets past all that modernist stuff, right? Not necessarily. In fact, some people see modernism and postmodernism as two sides of the same coin. Here are two definitions:

(1) A style and concept in the arts characterized by distrust of theories and ideologies and by the drawing of attention to conventions. (The Compact Oxford English Dictionary)

(2) Of, relating to, or being any of various movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature), or

of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language. (Merriam-Webster)

Merriam-Webster’s latter definition (as opposed to its former) seems most appropriate to when referring to the Emergent Church.

At the risk of beating my readers over the head with more definitions, I’ll also refer to a Wikipedia entry that defines postmodern philosophy:

Postmodern philosophy is skeptical or nihilistic toward many of the values and assumptions of philosophy that derive from modernity, such as humanity having an essence which distinguishes humans from animals, or the assumption that one form of government is demonstrably better than another.

The wiki entry adds:

Postmodern philosophy has strong relations with the substantial literature of critical theory.

When you boil it down, the essence of postmodernism and its philosophy is rooted in criticism and critique. Question everything; take nothing at face value. Postmodern thought also moves away from superiority and toward equality (eg, humans aren’t superior to animals, capitalism isn’t better than communism). Postmodern thought has its place in society (eg, whites are not superior to blacks) but like all things, can be bad if taken too far.

So when I stumbled onto the Wikipedia entry about Postmodern Christianity, I found it interesting to read the following:

Many people eschew the label “postmodern Christianity” because the idea of postmodernity has almost no determinate meaning and, in the United States, serves largely to symbolize an emotionally charged battle of ideologies.

Today’s Emergent Church stresses a friendly conversation and an amiable exchange of ideas. But the identical foundations of secular postmodernism and the Emergent Church cannot be overlooked.

Criticism and critique. For example, consider how the Emergent Church began: by a group of friends who felt “disillusioned and disenfranchised” by 20th century Christianity. In other words, they became critical and sought to challenge the status quo. (Which I don’t have an issue with.) The critique of 20th century Christianity, however, never rose above just that—a critique. The critiques merely evolved into conversation, which leaders of the emergent stream want to keep amiable so as not to offend anybody within all sects and denominations of the Christian realm. My issue here is that constant talk doesn’t rectify wrongs or things that need to desperately be addressed in 21st century Christianity. There is a time for talk and a time for action. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

No determinate meaning. Like postmodernism, the emergent movement also has “no determinate meaning.” As I mentioned earlier, its leaders want it kept that way. One will find varying definitions of the Emergent Church (aka the emergent movement aka the Emerging Church aka the emergent stream, etc.) all over the Internet. I can’t help but think of Challies’s earlier reference of trying to nail Jello to the wall when trying to define the Emergent Church. My attempt here is only as skewed as my personal view. Perhaps the Emergent Church leaders also intended that as well—a lack of objectivity to define the emergent movement only fuels further discussion and conversation.

Deconstructionism. Also very much like postmodernism, the Emergent Church seeks deconstruction. Where postmodernism was deconstructivist in the sense that it sought to undermine the foundations of the subjects it would challenge, the Emergent Church seeks to deconstruct the organized and institutionalized church. The three main areas of deconstruction the Emergent Church addresses are:

  1. modern Christian worship,
  2. modern evangelism, and
  3. the nature of modern Christian community

Followers of the emergent movement can be found worshiping with others in homes rather than a church building and talking openly about their faith with others in a non-traditional setting such as a bar.

(L-R) Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Donald Miller

Leading emergent voices also stress that Christianity is just one big story that’s unfolding. Bell spoke about this in his books Velvet Elvis and Jesus Wants to Save Christians and discussed it in an April 2009 Christianity Today interview. Brian McLaren, during the Washington National Cathedral’s Sunday Forum in February 2008, declared that “the Christian faith is [best] understood as a story by a postmodern generation that sees itself as part of the developing storyline,” according to the Christian Post. McLaren also went on to say that postmodern believers viewed Bible stories as part of a “bigger picture and larger story.” And finally, a close friend of mine has been challenged by Don Miller’s latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, to write a better story in her own life. A story, I can only assume, that is a small part of a bigger picture within the large framework of Christianity.

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