These are some thoughts on the Emergent Church and American Christianity.
I wrote this after my cousin wrote me asking about her church and things being taught. She and her husband were having some concerns over the direction the pastor was taking the church that seemed to her to be in the flavor of the Emergent Church movement. The structure and topics are basically dictated by my cousins questions. It does though give my general sense of both where I believe we have come from in terms of American Christianity and how I think we should navigate some of what is current in the American Christian landscape. My cousin encouraged me to post this on my blog so here it is. (Note: in terms of modern church history and theology I have written in broad strokes and entirely from memory of my studies in seminary. I imagine there are some overstatements and some inaccuracy in the finer points, though I stand by the general outline)
I Narrative Theology: meta-narrative and the Bible:
I will begin with the Meta-narrative: This use to be called Salvation History. That grand narrative that tells us how God has interacted with the world beginning with creation and then after the fall how God has in various ways culminating and being fulfilled in Christ brought salvation to the world, leading to the consummation of all things when everything is subjected under Christ’s feet. I don’t know about you but it was this story that was told through the various retelling of Bible stories in Sunday school growing up. In Episcopal, Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox Church’s this story is recounted every Sunday as part of what is prayed and said during the service of communion.
All that said, certainly an emphasis on story or the story of God’s work in the world throughout history as recorded in the Bible and shown in the lives of those who have lived the faith since the time of Christ is necessary. Scripturally speaking the basis of our knowledge of God is story, that is what God has done in history. So, in some sense I am a narrative theologian, I do not believe we can know God in the abstract or apart from what God has revealed about God’s self in history and ultimately in Jesus Christ.
However, That grand story, this Metanarative, has some important details. Scripture itself is fairly detailed at points, the church in history has been fairly particular about these details and grounding them in Scripture. So, I would argue that the “metanartive” makes no sense apart from Scripture in its particular detail and the reverse is true, one can have portions of Scripture memorized, even every book of the bible memorized but if one doesn’t understand the grand story and its general meaning one’s knowledge of the details will make no real sense. It is a both/and proposition not an either/or proposition.
II The problem of Narrative Theology in a time of Biblical illiteracy:
Unfortunately we live in a time when it is generally admitted that knowledge of the Scriptures is at a very low ebb.
Although I am fairly positive on the Emergent Church movement (EC) there is a danger that in reacting to some of the overly doctrinaire and abstract theological foci of some conservative evangelicals that it will simply play out the old controversies that have plagued American Christianity for the past 150 years or so. As I see it the emphasis on narrative and the meta-narative stems from a sense that evangelicals have been caught up in fairly abstract theological controversies, like do we have to define the bible as “inerrant” if we are to affirm the Bible to be inspired, or bickering over when exactly their will be the tribulation and when does the Rapture occur (a particularly obtuse argument given that Scripture itself only alludes to such an event twice: once in one of Paul’s Epistles, most specifically and then again in Revelation, depending on how one interprets such a highly symbolic book.) But to in response to this obtuse use of Scripture and theology to swing to the other extreme and simply emphasize story and not seek to also teach the details and the theological nuances of the story would be a failure in leadership and teaching.
I do not see this reactionary tendency in the EC folk I know here in Chicago, in fact they are very concerned with recapturing the mind of the church and thus of telling the story in its details and particular theological truth as found in Scripture. In fact they see this dual emphasis on narrative and the details of Scripture and traditional Christian teaching as essential for preaching the Gospel to our time.
I believe that to rightly tell the story and to help people know the Scriptures, there is the need of emersion in the Scriptures (through reading from the Old Testament, psalms, Epistles and Gospels in each and every Sunday worship service, for example) and seeking to know how the church in the past has interpreted the Scriptures. In some sense this also means recognizing that although for much of the past 150 to 200 years it has seemed that there is this battle between “conservative/fundamentalist” and “liberal” Christians, that in fact it has always been a question of accommodating the Gospel to our time, both “conservatives” and “liberals” do this in differing ways, or seeking to live into the faith that was “once delivered to the Saints.” In as much as the EC movement transcends the “conservative/liberal” controversy and immerses itself in the deep tradition of Christian faith as passed on through the centuries since Christ and the birth of the church at Pentecost, I find in the EC a very positive movement.
However, I am aware that portions of the EC might be simply covering the tune of this old controversy according to contemporary styles. And so in the name of being good evangelicals and being faithful to the Gospel they take up what many consider to be “liberal” themes such as narrative theology and social justice, but with out the denial of the Resurrection, or virgin birth or the Trinity. (I assume, at least I do not know of any EC folk who deny any of these orthodox teachings and formulas of the faith).
III A brief history of “consrvative/fundametalist” and “liberal” Christianity.
Unfortunately, “liberal” and “conservative” are very abused and almost meaningless terms today; they are labels of derision or affirmation and not of description. In the 1800’s to be a liberal Christian was to believe that the essence of Christianity was simply the teaching that all humanity was a unity; Love your neighbor was all one needed to follow to be a Christian. The Divinity of Jesus, and thus Jesus’ death and resurrection were unnecessary metaphors for what God intended for all humanity as one “brotherhood”. Christianity was the highest form of human morality and that was it. Conservatives naturally objected to this but did so upon modern rationalist grounds. That is they made Christianity a series of propositions that could be proved or disproved, and then tacked on to these propositions the pietistic emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. (This is a very brief summarization of a very long and drawn out history and controversy so I apologize for the distortion here in the details). When this controversy was transferred from Europe to the United States about the turn of the century the “Mainline” churches took a moderating stance, they continued to affirm the traditional and biblical teachings of the church, such as Trinity, virgin birth, resurrection, etc., but allowed a great deal of theological diverse opinions among their theologians and clergy. Along with this theological diversity these churches came to emphasize that the Gospel had social and political consequences. This emphasis came to be known as the “Social Gospel”. In reaction the “conservatives/fundamentalists” fled the “Mainline” churches and formed their own denominations or took over whole denominations, much of this did not find its completion until the 80’s when for example the Southern Baptist Convention became fundamentalist in its entirety. The ultimate result was that conservatives or fundamentalists saw themselves as preserving the truth against those who accepted the scientific theory of evolution and taught that Jesus’ teaching had social and political implications, and liberals saw themselves as protecting the essence of the Gospel against those who myopically focused on petty doctrines and evolution at the expense of Jesus actual teachings and life. The irony is that both those labeled “fundamentalists” and those labeled “liberal” believed themselves to be defending the true Jesus and the true essence of the Gospel. The further irony in my opinion is that the “fundamentalists/conservatives” and the “liberals” were/are both wrong and both correct. The traditional teachings of the Church are absolutely essential and the church has always believed that the Gospel has social and political meaning as well as personal and individual meaning. Evolution doesn’t necessarily deny God as Creator (though some will use the theory to attempt to disprove the existence of God but such a use of the theory is a misuse of science) nor does teaching some scientific creationism guarantee that you are teaching the truth about God as creator. The Creation story is just that a story, a true story to be sure, but not a scientific statement or theory nor even something that can be submitted as scientific evidence for a theory.
IV Clasical liberal Christianity and Barth et al.:
In Europe this form of debate and division never took hold largely due to the work of Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Tillich and Brunner. In Europe the division remained between those who were classically liberal: Christianity is a superior morality of the brotherhood of all humanity and Jesus is God’s prophet of that morality, everything else is just metaphor used to describe this morality and those who in varying degrees of success attempted to defend traditional Christian faith. Ultimately a group of theologians defected after WWI from the ranks of their liberal teachers and attempted a less modernist and rationalistic return to traditional Christian faith. The above five theologians rejected liberal Christianity in its classical and not American form and in their own way each tried to side neither with the rationalistic conservative defenders nor the moralistic liberal reformers of the faith. Barth did so by emphasizing the radical claim that the Bible is the Word of God, and showing that inerantists actually limit the power of the Bible as God’s Word, by attempting to define the relationship between the Word which is God, and the written word in human and rational categories. Anything that is God including God’s Word breaks through all human categories and renders them meaningless. The point is to encounter the Word of God in the Scriptures not to attempt to coral the Word of God by strict human categories or formula. Bultmann in good reformation pietist and evangelical form wanted to open people up to the radical encounter with Jesus. For Bultmann the Gospels were the place of this encounter, but to debate the historicity of the Gospels or to insist on their literal historical character was to miss the point. The Gospels were to lead one to encounter the person of Jesus Christ and to lead to a radical transformation of the self and ultimately society. Unfortunately that meant for him that the Gospels were purely mythological and thus it was unimportant to affirm that the miracles actually happened and ultimately lead many of Bultmann’s disciples to even say that it was unimportant to affirm the actuality of the Resurrection. In this sense Bultmann ended up repeating certain themes of Classical liberalism while keeping to the particularism of Christian faith by insisting that the point of Christianity was encounter with Christ. I will not elaborate the theologies of Tillich, Brunner or Bonhoeffer, except to say that each in their own way sought both to affirm this aspect of radical transforming encounter with God in Christ and ended up at some point in their theology succumbing to either the pitfalls of Protestant conservative rationalism or of classical liberal Christianity.
V. N. T Wright and our debt to Barth and Bultmann
However, any current Protestant theologian worth his or her salt owes a great debt to these theologians. Thus I would say that N. T. Wright in his scholarship owes a great deal to Barth and Bultmann, though I believe that N. T. Wright is one of the few current theologians and Biblical Scholars that actually transcends the old liberal/conservative debate and recaptures the balance of the historic faith of the Church. Not to say that I always agree with the good bishop and scholar, but in general his teaching is soundly Scriptural and in keeping with historic Christian faith. He aims to speak to our time the truth of Jesus Christ and the story of salvation in its particularity and grand narrative. I would say that if you can only read one current theologian and Biblical scholar one cannot go wrong choosing to read only N. T. Wright. (Though I would recommend supplementing Wright with some good Roman Catholic and Orthodox scholars and theologians).
VI. McLaren and an evaluation of the Emergent Church:
I have to admit I find Brian McLaren uninteresting, primarily because I have already taken the journey he is on and I believe it simply leads to seeking to find where the fullness of the Body of Christ is and seeking to bring together divided Christians: that is Brian is simply telling evangelicals that they are to be ecumenical. The thing is that most protestant churches excepting the American evangelical and those influenced by American Evangelicalism have been doing what McLaren is talking about in Generous Orthodoxy for fifty years in the World Council of Churches. McLaren sounds new to evangelical ears because they never actually paid attention to what the Ecumenical movement was actually doing and saying, because they had incorrectly and unfairly labeled it “liberal”(not to say that there aren’t “liberals” in the WCC but the WCC has always affirmed and continues to affirm the traditional and Biblical faith of the church.)
It is my opinion that if the EC movement follows this ecumenical path it will be a lively movement and will escape the old “liberal/conservative” falsities. However, if it remains within that debate it will in differing ways simply repeat the history of the past 150 years.