Emergent/Emerging Church – You can’t understand it unless you’re well versed in postmodernism.
When I was in seminary, postmodernism was all the rage. It seemed like almost every professor in every class had something to say about it. To be sure, not every professor was entirely sold on it although some definitely were. A great many students, however, were what I would describe as “postmodern zealots.” For them, the death of modernity was hailed with great aplomb, ala Nietszche’s Zarathrusthra hailing the death of god to a generation that wasn’t prepared for it. They were the enlightened having foreseen the future. And the future was postmodern.
I was never quite sold.
But I couldn’t quite place my finger on why. I prided myself on being the ultimate postmodern, skeptical of postmodernism itself! But I couldn’t quite explain it. Perhaps it was my Eastern way of thinking. The Western pendulum had swung to the other extreme, from the robust optimism of modernity to the feeble skepticism of postmodernity. And, contrary to the zealots, it wasn’t the final swing.
Then one day, in a class on immigration of all things, I had a conversation with the professor about postmodernity during the break. He was African from Sierra Leone, with a Ph.D. from a major European University. It seemed odd to me back then, but he confessed his ignorance on the subject. He was really more interested in theories of globalization and all the “stuff” about the shift from modernity to postmodernity just didn’t hold much interest for him. Again, I found that odd, but I couldn’t quite place my finger on why.
I think I am beginning to understand why.
Postmodernity, I now believe, is a particularly European malady. To put it bluntly, it is a white disease, a “dis-ease” with the past sins of colonization, exploitation, domination, slavery, and war. It is Europe in a funk after centuries of global dominance. It is atonement for the sins of the past. So, yeah, if you ask me, it is a good thing. But there’s a caveat.
It doesn’t resonate with me because I am not of European descent. I suspect the same for my professor from Sierra Leone. It is not my story. To be sure, I was educated in the West, and I do appreciate my education, but it was always from the perspective of the outsider. This led me to question all the basic postmodern presuppositions (and made me a few enemies among some students). I didn’t take the postmodern spiel hook, line, and sinker, and I thought it was appalling that my seminary education was so dominated by it.
And that’s the problem in a nutshell: dominance.
One would think that postmodernism should have cured the West of its desire for dominance. But a hangover is not a cure for alcoholism. And postmodernism is the hangover from the binge of modernism. Repentance while spilling one’s guts at the edge of the toilet seat is not really repentance unless the vow to never take another drink again is kept. And here is where postmodernism veers off into the bizarre. While rightly critiquing the past, has it really learned its lesson?
Well, yes and no.
So here’s where I’d like to distinguish between two postmodernists. If there is a critique at all then it is really against one type of postmodernist. I’ve already labeled them postmodern zealots.
“It is inconceivable that a Christian should think otherwise,” someone once said in a class on culture. I remember squirming. Here was your poster boy for the emergent church, white male, vegetarian, social justice advocate, communal, hip and hairy.
Now don’t get me wrong. I actually liked the guy. And I thought he was very sincere. And I do share the same concerns for justice and community. But the conversation (Emergents think of their movement as a conversation) is limited when other voices are ruled out of hand. This may not even be intentional, it seems to me that it is not. After all, isn’t it supposed to be a conversation?
Sojourners recently published an article by a Korean seminary professor entitled, “Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?” because the vast majority of their leaders are white males. (Note: you can read the article on Sojourners by registering there for free). The question is provocative, suggesting there may be a bit of racism involved. So, are they? Check out another opinion. Or check out the blog of an African-American woman who identifies herself as an ethnic emergent.
As I see it, they are no more racist (if less so) than any other church. Granted the movement is mostly composed of “whites,” but so are other churches; that is, composed of a particular ethnicity: the African-American, the Arminian, the Korean, the Hispanic church, etc. And I want to affirm the beauty of ethnic forms of worship without always having to pull out the race card. Incidentally, I spent about a year playing guitar in a predominantly African-American church. I’ve also worshipped at my friend’s Arminian church, as well as visited several Hispanic congregations, and am currently pastoring a predominantly 2nd-gen Korean congregation. I was even once considering pastoring a Brazilian church in Toluca Lake!
Church’s are not super-spiritual, other-worldly entities. Church occurs in the real world, within local communities that are unabashedly cultural. The local church IS church. I think this is where the Emergent Church often gets lost by failing to recognize its own “locality.” It still speaks in a universal tone, a dominant tone which puts off a lot of outsiders.
It is not racism. It is the contextual, localized, postmodern European metanarrative (big story) that contributes to its racial makeup. The story doesn’t resonate with outsiders. We can study it, we can even know the cast of characters (mostly European males) and the plot (Christendom, Modernity, Postmodernity) better than many white folks, but it is not “my” story.
The Emerging Church is deeply grounded in a postmodern worldview. Moreover, it is mostly composed of the children of the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists, Mennonites, Quakers, etc.) and derives its theology from that perspective. Not that they continue the exact, same theological perspective as their fathers, but that it is birthed there, taking many of its prerogatives from Radical Reformation ideals, discarding, however, its tendency toward separatism.
The “big story” told by the Emerging Church is that Christendom (Western European Christianity) has failed, and deservedly so. The 16th Century Reformation was a step in the right direction but did not go far enough. It became hopelessly aligned with the culture of Modernity. What is happening now is the “Great Emergence” as Phyllis Tickle calls it.
(You can read her book, but I don’t recommend it. To me, it’s another example of the universalizing tendency of the Emerging Church. It makes their story the grand story.)
Never mind that in a little over a decade, many people have abandoned the ship called Emergent (Mark Driscoll, Rob Bell, to name a few). Never mind that numbers-wise, it continues to be a blip on the Christian radar. Never mind that it has experienced its own schism (Emergent Village/Emerging Church). The movement that began with a vociferous bang seems to be fizzling away.
But hold on a second.
I think the ship called Emergent carries some valuable cargo. I’m not ready to discard it. Nor do I think in terms of a salvage operation; as if we should rescue the cargo and appropriate it into our various contexts while discarding the ship itself. I like this ship. Indeed, I think it tells a very compelling story. But rather than think of it as one ship, it is better to think of it as a flotilla, especially since the schism. Some of the ships (Emergent Village) appear to be not only post-Christendom and post-Modern, but also post-Christian. Others have decided to sail a bit more closer to Evangelicalism. These, I think, are open to dialogue with other Evangelicals. They might be the ones who are not so tied-in to a postmodern paradigm so that dialogue with European outsiders (the ¾ world majority) is actually feasible.