Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Ministry is...

Today I randomly remembered a quote from Bill Pannell, Professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. When I was a student there, years ago, we occasionally went out to lunch, and one time he said:

"Ministry is the joining of spirit and practice for liberative transformation."

I think that's beautiful.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Christian Century: "The Emergent matrix"

In a cost-cutting move, I cancelled all my magazine subscriptions, so thanks to Will for the heads-up that the long-awaited Christian Century article on the emerging church is in the November 30 edition. It's written by Scott Bader-Saye a theology professor at the University of Scranton.

(CC is stingy about putting their articles online. The piece may be up next week, and they'll only leave it up for a couple weeks; then it won't be archived. In short, you may have to buy a copy of the mag, or copy it if they put it online.)

[UPDATE: the article is now available, for a limited time, here.]

In any case, Bader-Saye attended the Emergent Convention last year (and kudos to him for also attending the Emerging Women Leaders' Breakfast there), and he interviewed Brian McLaren, Bob Webber, and Holly Rankin Zaher and her husband, Jim. (In my estimation, Brian and Jim come across as wise, and Bob comes across (again) as overly cynical.) For only that amount of contact, the piece is surprisingly insightful.

The article is also fair and even generous towards Emergent. Bader-Saye rightfully portrays Emergent as a movement (a.k.a., conversation) of postevangelicals who from the beginning were in conversation with post-liberals and with theologians more palatable to the mainline.

But best of all, Bader-Saye improves the oft-cited "ancient-future" paradox to "relevant-resistant": "I am encouraged by the vision of a truly missional church," he writes, "both relevant and resistant, that incarnates a real alternative to mainline 'maintenance' churches and evangelical 'megachurches.'"

He concludes the piece: "So often the church is renewed 'from the edges, not from the center,' as Rowan Williams has pointed out. As we attend to what is emerging at the edges of the American scene, we would do well to keep that lesson in mind and to heed Williams's further advice: "Be grateful for new things happening, even if they are not easily digestible.'"

Thursday, November 25, 2004


family trumps blog.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Central Jersey Emergent Cohort

Adam (a.k.a. "Sweet Cheeks" blogs about our first cohort meeting here. He's got pics and thoughts. Check it out, and join us in December if you're in the area.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Without Author|ity 4: Tray Tables Up

OK, time to bring this plane in for a landing.

First of all, I have no truck with those who say that postmodernism never happened or that it's already done or that it's passé. And to those who say that postmodernism has lost its credibility in the academy, let me just say that I am neck-deep in the academy, and postmodernism the problem. That is, every field of study is attempting at some level to forge a way ahead after the "postmodern turn."

To drastically oversimplify, the postmodern philosophers have been trying to do philosophy after Auschwitz (Derrida and Levinas say as much). That is, the grand, unifying, utopian vision of the Enlightenment evaporated into the mist that it always was in the death camps of WWII, the oppressions of Apartheid, and the mess of Vietnam. The Enlightenment ideal led to a century of blood and horror.

So along came the postmodernists, attempting to hang on to philosophy but unwilling to resurrect Platonic metaphysics. That is, big, overarching, totalizing schemes for knowledge only lead to The Final Solution. So their response has been to problematize concepts like truth and knowledge.

One of the most compelling responses (for Christians at least) comes from Stanley Fish. Although people like Chuck Colson accuse him of total relativism, Fish is adamant that he does in fact believe in authority, but it is the authority of "interpretive communities." Persons do speak (and write) authoritatively, as I am doing right now; that authority comes not from "on high," not from a bishop or a judge or an elected official, synod, dictator, president, supreme court, or pope. It comes, instead, from the community in which the speaker/author has embedded herself. Here's Fish:

"We see that (1) communication does occur, despite the absence of an independent and context-free system of meanings, that (2) those who participate in this communication do so confidently rather than provisionally (they are not relativists), and that (3) while their confidence has its source in a set of beliefs, those beliefs are not individual-specific or idiosyncratic but communal and conventional (they are not solipsists)."

Fish is being both descriptive and prescriptive: this is actually how meaning is formed (in contextual, interpretive communities), and this is how we are to be sure that it is formed in the future (rather than letting it rest in the hands of a dictator or oligarchy). Here's how Steve Bush put it in a comment from an earlier post:

"My community exercises authority not through an appeal to the objectivity of a tradition or denomination nor through a solipsistic "take matters into your own hands" approach which would destroy community, but through a process of dialogue and discussion, in which we process together the decisions that need to be made, present suggestions, give reasons for our suggestions, and critique the reasons that we give. This is "authority from below" which is neither hierarchical nor individualistic."

Implication #1: The emerging church will deliberately practice a communal hermeneutic "from below."

Sub-implication: We will find ways to continually root out authoritarian tendencies, to unmask power structures (they grow like weeds, but we cannot quit weeding the garden). (If this can happen in denominational churches, in established and institutional churches, in "conservative" or "liberal" churches, then to God be the glory. I am not ruling that out (for God's Spirit is capable of all things), but I am skeptical -- I invite anyone to prove my skepticism unfounded.)

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Moltmann 5: Oh, Jurgen, I just love it when you do that

You may be wondering why I'm so fond of Moltmann. Well, check out these comments from the preface to his The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God:

"Always using the same methods leads to rigidity on the part of the author and weariness in the reader."

"I know and accept the limits of my own existence and my own context. I do not claim to say everything, as earlier dogmatic and systematic theologians once did, in their summas and systems. What I should like to do, however, is to participate in the great theological dialogue with theologians past and present."

"These contributions are not offered in the form of a dogma or a system; they are suggestions. They are not intended to conclude discussions; they are meant to open new conversations."

And I could go one from there. For about ten pages, Moltmann goes on about a new way to do theology, one that is humble, open, and provocative.

Now, notice that last adjective: provocative. One can be humble yet provocative. Indeed, one can be humble and angry. So, don't let anyone marginalize you as an "angry emerger" if your anger is 1) provoking Christ's church to be better than it currently is, and 2) from a spirit of humility -- that is, with an understanding that we all stand in judgment under the cross.


The first-ever meeting of the Emergent Cohort of Central Jersey, tonight at 9p.m. at Charlie Brown's on Route 1 in Lawrenceville. Stop on by!

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Since I don't have time to post till tomorrow...

Excellent post here.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Without Author|ity 3: A Taxonomy of Institutions

As you might have guessed from the titles of these posts, the most substantive issue raised in the comments on my earlier rant was the question of authority. That is, from whence will authority come in the emerging church? And why are we to think that this authority will be any less corrupt than the authority under which our churches now suffer? I'll do my best to speak to these questions. First, however, I want to explicate the issues I have with the church structures as we now have them.

Modern denominations are just that, modern. I don't mean that in some sort of "modern:bad::postmodern:good" analogy. I mean that they grew up in a time of rapid insitutional growth in the West (that is, Europe and the U.S. (I'm not referring to cowboy churches)). During the Industrial Revolution and following, institutional growth was dramatic: corporations, nation-state governments, and universities are just three of the categories of organizational growth during that time.

Protestant denominations also multiplied like bunnies during the Modern Epoch. Some of this, of course, was good -- it allowed for theological diversity in the shadow of the monolithic and theologically stultifying Roman Catholic Church. But, let's be honest, it got a little out of control -- someone should have neutered the rabbit after it had a few dozen (instead of a few hundred) children.

And it doesn't take much scratching beneath the surface to see that the modern denominations mimicked their secular peers in their structures: by-laws, constitutions, democratic voting procedures, courts of (canon) law(!), business meetings, Robert's Rule of Order, etc., etc., etc. Our education model was an unadulterated copy of education literature in public schools (don't even think of arguing with me on this one); our Sunday school classes are broken up along the same lines as public school demarcations.

In short, whether they are hierarchical (Episcopalian, etc.), presbyterian (PC(USA), etc.), or congregational (U.C.C., etc.) in polity, all of these Protestant denominations merely mirrored the surrounding culture in their organizational structure. Now this, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad. No matter what a Baptist tells you, the Bible has very little to say about polity. It does make sense to organize in a way that seems familiar to the people who are attending the church.

The rise of Evangelicalism in the final quarter of the 20th century saw an even more insidious marriage of church and culture. Evangelical leaders in the U.S. overtly copied corporate marketing strategies for their churches, parachurch organizations, and denominations/associations. Books, conferences, and websites touted strategies by which a church could grow and grow -- growth suddenly becoming the measure of gospel success. 'Nuff said on that account, right?

And theological education was no better, simply adopting the prevalent model of higher education, the liberal German university: publish or perish, residential students, tenure, endowed chairs, examinations, and layers and layers of administration (trust me on this one).

All that to say, organizations started for the best of intentions reify and homogenize over time(called "Institutional Isomorphism" by sociologists). My contention is that the organizations by which we connect churches have done just that; and, in fact, most of our churches have done that, too.

So, what do I propose that emerging churches do differently so as not to fall into these traps? Patience, my friend. I've got to study now.

PS: One more thing. Even if you are a strict pragmatist, Robert Wuthnow has conclusively shown in The Restructuring of American Religion that Americans care less and less about denominational affiliation all the time -- and that goes for liberals, moderates, and conservatives. So who's keeping these things going if the people who go to churches don't care about them? I'll give you one guess.

R.I.P., O.D.B.

Now that he's gone, it seems that Ol' Dirty Bastard won't get to fulfill his destiny.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

the pagitt blog: "And Another Thing"

I just love it when Doug gets mad.

And, yes, he's talking about you. (Maybe me too, if you read it closely.)

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Without Author|ity 2: Clearing the Table

Now I'll try to respond to some of the issues raised in the comments following my rant. I'll deal with these fairly briefly, because I don't consider them the substantive issue at hand -- we'll deal with that once we've cleared the table.

1) To those who say there is no emerging church:

Then why do you keep blogging about it? Your statements of non-existence do not in any way really refute the existence of these communities of faith. That's a nice way to try and preempt some fruitful conversation about the future of the church, but it simply doesn't work. Nihilism is so 19th century.

2) To those who say emerging church is just a evangelical-fundamentalist phenomenon:

a) To even use the term "evangelical" is highly problematic. Sociologists as prominent as Robert Wuthnow and Christian Smith, and a polling organization like Gallup dramatically disagree on what constitutes "evangelical." Smith says evangelicals are 7% of the U.S. population, Gallup says they're 38%. Who are evangelicals?

b) That's just the sociological; it's more problematic when you get theological. Stan Grenz wrote a book in 2000 called Renewing the Center, and just days ago a group of more conservative scholars came out with their response (read: attack), Reclaiming the Center. Each is battling over who gets to use the term "evangelical." What is evangelicalism? Who gets to define it?

c) To those who conflate evangelicals and fundamentalists by accusing emergent of being "evangelical-fundamentalist" (or using the pithy but ultimately meaningless term "fundagelical"), you're making an even bigger mistake. Friendships were broken, books were written, and new seminaries and magazines were launched in the middle of the 20th century in an effort to differentiate evangelicalism from fundamentalism (see, for instance, George Marsden's excellent history of Fuller Seminary, Reforming Fundamentalism; see also Mark Noll's The Rise of Evangelicalism for an excellent account of the origins of the word "evangelical"). The conflation of the two in popular parlance is the result of journalistic haste and laxity.

d) QED, it is virtually meaningless to accuse someone or some group of being evangelical.

3) To those who accuse us of using the machinery of evangelical publishing to disseminate our work:

Can you believe that Charles Wesley had his hymns published? What a sellout! What was Martin Luther thinking to let people reprint his treatises on a moveable type press? Loser! And how about all those bloggers? Don't they know that much of the technology of the Internet has been pioneered by pornographers!?!

4) To those who think that I am inconsistent with the inclusive nature of Emergent:

While, at first glance, it may seem that I am standing in contradiction to Brian McLaren's recent Emergent/C email and to Jason Clark and Emergent-UK's "Inclusive Church" event, in fact I am not. All of us in Emergent want to 1) stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us (more on this in a coming post), and 2) be open and inclusive to those from many (all?) Christian theological traditions. However, this does not mean that we include or embrace sinful and dysfunctional ecclesiastical/denominational structures. You'd better go back and reread Brian's A Generous Orthodoxy, for he promotes the broad theological heritage of Christianity, not the many super-structures that have grown like weeds around those theologies.

5) To those who say that it's just about Jesus and we should quit arguing about theology, philosophy and the church:

The philosophy that "It's just about loving Jesus -- let's all just go out and serve the poor" is just that, a philosophy. More importantly, it's a theology, and the problem is, it's a very reductionistic theology. The idea that one can take two thousand pages of holy scripture and two thousand years of interpretation and Christian action and boil it down to "just" this or "just" that is offensive to the gospel and to those saints who spent their lives trying to better understand and live out the gospel. Let's all stop pretending that Christianity is simple. God gave us minds capable of incredible things, so ideas matter.

6) To those who promote leaving the church altogether:

By doing so, you have just separated yourself from orthodox, biblical Christianity.

Without Author|ity 1: Prolegomena

Well, my earlier rant has provoked some good and thoughtful discussion (and, of course, some not good and not thoughtful discussion). I'm sorry that I haven't responded yet, but, as Chris noted, I've been buried in work this week. I also make a habit of not getting involved in the comment section of my blog, for that seems to cause either lots of comments like "Thanks, I really like what you had to say, too" (which no one likes to read), or else it makes me come off looking defensive (cuz I'm tempted to defend my earlier post).

(N.b.: I also have another rule: will not edit or delete a post of mine, that is, unless it turns out to be horribly offensive. If it's just stupid, I'll let it stand as a permanent record of my stupidity.)

Now, let me say a couple things about dialogue. (Isn't it interesting that I chose to use "say" in that last sentence instead of "write"?) In my first book, the publisher and I thought it would be good to have others write comments for the margins. The reason for this was twofold: 1) Neither Marko nor I thought that I should have the only word on what it postmodern youth ministry, thus many of the comments in the margin directly disagree with my text, while other comments agree with me, and still others push my ideas further; 2) We thought that having multiple "voices" in the book would embody the postmodern fondness for discourse. In both of these I think we were successful; I still get comments from people saying they think it was very brave of me to let others write comments in my book, so let me say it plainly: there was no bravery involved.

I firmly believe that dialogue is all there is. There is no finality, no perfect answer, no ultimate authority on an issue. Discourse is the answer. A great reason to get involved in blogging (and bulletin boards and the like) is that HTML allows for an active (i.e., not static) exchange of ideas. It is, of course, much more fluid than a book, but still less fluid than a face-to-face conversation.

None of this is original with me -- there's been lots of commentary on this very thing (some of the best from Andrew Jones). I simply want to say again that, though each of us here talks with an amount of certainty in our attempt to persuade others, the event of dialogue is the only thing that approaches certainty.

So, thanks for commenting. Multiple posts on the issues raised in you commentary will be written this weekend.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

What Is Postmodern Biblical Criticism?

In What Is Postmodern Biblical Criticism?, A.K.M. Adam lays out some very helpful (and readable) content on postmodern hermeneutics. For instance, in Chapter One, he uses a three-part typology from Cornel West to explain postmodernism:

Antifoundational: PM “resolutely refuses to posit any one premise as the privileged and unassailable starting point for establishing claims to truth.”

Antitotalizing: PM “suspects that any theory that claims to account for everything is suppressing counterexamples, or is applying warped criteria so that it can include recalcitrant cases.

Demystifying: PM “attends to claims that certain assumptions are ‘natural’ and tries to show that these are in fact ideological projections.”

I am most interested in the new "Disseminary" that he promotes on his blog. Do you think they give tenure?

Moltmann 4.1: Marks of the Church

Woe to us, American churchgoers, for this is what the Great Moltmann decrees:

"The church participates in the glorifying of God in creation's liberation. Wherever this takes place through the workings of the Spirit, there is the church. The true church is the song of thanksgiving of those who have been liberated.

"The church participates in the uniting of men [and women] with one another, in the uniting of society with nature and in the uniting of creation with God. Wherever unions like this take place, however fragmentary and fragile they may be, there is the church. The true church is the fellowship of love.

"Love participates in the history of God's suffering. Wherever men [and women] take up their cross and in their self-giving are made like the one who was crucified, wherever the sightings of the Spirit are heard in the cry for freedom, there is the church. The true church is the 'church under the cross'.

"But in suffering and under the cross the church also participates in the history of the divine joy. It rejoices over every conversion and liberation, because it is itself the fellowship of the converted and the liberated. Wherever the joy of God can be heard, there is the church. The true church is joy in the Spirit.

"Thus the whole being of the church is marked by participation in the history of God's dealings with the world. The Apostles' Creed expresses this truth by integrating credo ecclesiam [I believe in the church] in the credo in deum triunum [I believe in the triune God]. And no ecclesiology can sink below this level"(The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 65).

Monday, November 08, 2004

Moltmann 4

Moltmann wrote the third, and final, book in his 'programmatic' cycle in 1975; it's called The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology. In 1990, when it went to paperback, he wrote a new preface, a paragraph of which has serious implications for the debate currently taking place over my last post:

"While I was writing The Church in the Power of the Spirit, my intention was to argue for church reform, and today this concerns me more than ever. By reform I mean teh transformation of the church from a religious institution that looks after people into a congregational or community church in the midst of the people, through the people and with the people. This means moving away from an impenetrable, large-scale organization to an accessible small-scale community. It is a path that can only be followed if we are prepared to break away from passive church membership and to make a new beginning by entering into active participation in the life of the congregation. In our society, affiliations that are imposed are losing their power to shape people's lives and lend them significance. Forms of community that are accepted personally and entered into voluntarily are becoming more important...Free decision of faith, voluntary sociality, mutual recognition and accpetance of one another and a common effort for justice and peace in this violent society of ours: these are the guidlines for the future of the church"(xiii-xiv, emphasis added).

Moltmann, in his context, is writing specfically about the state churches of northern Europe, but the denominational scene in the US, while not connected with the national government, are almost as monolithic.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

OK, I'm sticking my head out the window and yelling, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." Well, I'm not really that mad, but I am a little irked. In the last week, I have read or heard these statements:

"What emergent is discovering is stuff Lutherans have known for 500 years."

"Anabaptists don't have to become postmodern because we were never modern."

"Emergent is trying to marry liturgical tradition to evangelical impulse, and Episcopalians have been doing that for centuries."

"Baptists have always been anti-institutional."

"I was emergent when I planted a church in the early 1970's."

"Emergent leaders need to adopt the posture of humble learners at the feet of those who were the emerging church leaders of their day."

No, no, no, no, no!

Emergent is trying to do something else, something new. We are not trying to get back to what Luther and Calvin were doing. We are not attempting to recover primitivist views of scripture, like the Anabaptists. We are not trying to plant churches that are relevant to GenXers and GenYers.

Why are we trying to do something new?

Because your denominations, though formed to provide safety and security for ordained persons to follow God's call with integrity, are now controlled by principalities and powers that demand ordination candidates to ignore the revolutionary aspects of the Bible in order to pass examinations. (Similarly, the electoral college system was developed with good reason; it now serves merely to devalue the votes of those in the minority in the "uncontested states.")

Because the tenure process at your theological insitutions, though developed to demand the same level of scholarship that is required at secular insitutions based on the German university model, is now demonic; it requires scholars to write not for the church but for the academy, and to in other (but related) ways ignore the revolutionary call of the gospel.

More and more of us are now convinced that something new cannot happen within the existing organizations and institutions. They are irredeemably reified into patterns of institutional conservatism and survival; they are irredeemably sold out to market forces and have thus commodified the radical, liberating message of the gospel.

Thus I am becoming more convinced that the emerging church movement has more in common with liberationist thought than it does with the Reformation. That is, we are on a quest to unmask how the gospel has been used to serve the (often oppressive) interests of those who are already in charge. Comments from those in comfortable positions of power, like those above, are to be expected, for they show the subtle ways in which we will be marginalized. But we will not allow ourselves to be marginalized, to be labeled as "left," "right," "angry," or "immature." No, we have been disenfranchized. We have taken the blue pill, and there's no going back.

We must now work at the next level, building a web of support for those few women and men who are courageous enough to stand up at a presbytery meeting and walk out...and not look back.

[UPDATE: Don't stop now. Follow the conversation here, here, and here.]

Moltmann 3

The Crucified God (1974) is the second of Moltmann's three 'programmatic' works. It is mind-bendingly good. Moltmann does his best to dismantle several modern theological missteps, including radical monotheism, christomonism (the over-emphasis on Christ (over against the other two members of the Trinity)), and the radical doctrine of the two natures. For instance, he argues that the Early Church developed the doctrine of the two natures so as to protect their Platonic ideal that God cannot suffer; thus they emphasized that Jesus' humanity suffered on the cross, but the logos' divinity did not. This is docetism.

Instead, Moltmann argues that the crucifixion is the identity of all Christian theology. In the event of the cross, God bound himself to time, to this planet, and to humanity. God chose this instead of protecting his timelessness, his immutability, his absolute perfection. By binding himself to time, God also takes the crucifixion into himself, and the crucifixion becomes an event within the Trinity: the Son experiences godforsakenness (God experiences godforsakenness!), and the Father experiences the grief of his Son's death. In this, all of us in our godforsakennes find new life within the Trinity as the Spirit brings forth resurrection and healing.

Here is a quote:

"A shattering expression of the theologia crucis [theology of the cross] which is suggested in the rabbinic theology of God's humiliation of himself is to be found in Night, a book written by E. Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz:

"The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. 'Where is God? Where is he?' someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, 'Where is God now?' And I heard a voice in myself answer: 'Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows...'

"Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would make condemn men to indifference"(273-74).

Monday, November 01, 2004

Faith and Technology

I spent part of last week at Yale Divinity School where I serve on the National Working Group of the Faith as a Way of Life, a Lilly Endowment-funded initiative of Yale's Center for Faith and Culture. It's a group of pastors, youth pastors, theologian, business persons, and artists who are meeting over the course of three years. Our task is to collectively reflect on faith, not as some ad hoc application to life's issues and problems, but as a thoroughgoing enterprise. Chris Scharen, who directs the project, blogs here.

So we were talking about family life this time, and on Friday afternoon we had a conversation that caught the first real traction since we've started meeting. There was, it seemed to me, a growing consensus in the group (and catalyzed by the book we had read) that modern technology is, on the whole, bad for the practice of the Christian faith -- that it keeps people from practicing our faith.

Well, there was also a minority (of which I was one) which claimed that it's not that simple. Someone noted that pew Bibles in churches were once a new technology, and I suggested that microphones may have been the biggest technological change to the church (enabling congregations of more than a few hundred). Someone else said, no, it was electricity.

So why did the church allow these technological innovations, but we now decry cell phones and laptops as dictating our days? Probably because these earlier decisions -- to use electricity, microphones, overhead projectors, etc. -- were not made theologically. There were most likely made based on practical concerns. They slipped into our sanctuaries under the dark of night.

So our group tried to start thinking theologically about technology and the life of the family. However, what was a little surprising was how quickly we devolved into personal and pragmatic arguments for our positions. Turns out it's really hard to think theologically, even for professionals.

So I'm starting to think that the key to developing "faith as a way of life" is to inculcate in people the ability to think theologically, and that this ability would become second nature for followers of Jesus.