27 April 2011

church in the present tense 1/4

Scot McKnight, Peter Rollins, Kevin J. Corcoran, Jason Clark.Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What's Emerging. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011.

What has been missing from the emerging church movement is a solid academic presentation and critique of its trends and ideals. I have often found myself frustrated in finding a coherent and comprehensive system of thought in much of what has been said and written about the movement. In fact, it often feels as though the concept of 'emergent' might be a breath of fresh airstylistically in the worship of the church, but theologically (or philosophically) it is a bit of a mess.

This is why I am interested in the current book, and want to spend some time interacting with it. Brazos Press has produced a volume that appears to have helped the conversation along quite nicely. The method of review and discussion here will be in four parts (one for each section of the book): Philosophy, Theology, Worship, Bible and Doctrine.

Part One: Philosophy

Chapter One is on the question, "Who's Afraid of Philosophical Realism? Taking Emerging Christianity to Task" by Kevin Corcoran. Admittedly, some of the upfront material is a bit philosophical in its writing style and will undoubtedly be a challenge to many readers, specifically many pastors who have not engaged in a philosophy course for some time. Nevertheless it is a good chapter.

One of the foundational points that Corcoran makes is that there is a role-reversal in the divine-human relationship: "Instead of recognizing God as our Creator and responding to him as such, we keep fashioning him into whatever role we need him to be playing at the moment" (7). Thus, approaching a real and living faith needs to be reevaluated.

Also in play in this essay is the question of postmodernity. I wholeheartedly agree with the author that this is one of the most overused and least understood terms in modern discussions of philosophy and (especially) theology (cf. 13). Hence, Corcoran goes on to establish a viable definition of postmodernism (which I was already tired of about ten years ago!). I remember my philosophy instructor (William Hasker) explaining that we cannot adequately define postmodernism as a philosophical movement because we do not have the ability to see it for what it is - beginning to end. The actual term only implies that we are now moving out of modernity into something else. So it would be wise to be patient and see what happens.

In this same tenor, Corcoran arrives at the following, "The postmodern turn for Christians is, therefore, a turn away from Christianity as believing or knowing certain things and a turn toward Christianity as opening oneself up to a transformative event" (14). He thus sees Christian faith in the postmodern understanding as a movement fundamentally built upon spiritual formation and connected to the long traditions of spiritual practices (cf. 15). The reality of the Christian journey is, therefore, the process of becoming (sort of a Kierkegaardian idea, I think), which leads the author here to say that he is constantly at the beginning of his faith (cf. 17).

Chapter Two is offered by Peter Rollins on "The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity." It is a solid discussion on the uniqueness of the Christian message, utilizing much Pauline thought to get his point across. Central to the argument is the notion that the church is a group that is completely distinct from all others. He puts it in a great perspective: "Instead of writing about both Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women, he writes of a new identity in Christ, one that cuts across political, cultural, and biological divisions, one that involves the laying down of such identities" (23). That is to say, it is no longer a both-and of personal identification and Christian belief, it is an either-or of belonging to the world or to the kingdom narrative.

Turning this thought further on its head, Rollins asks what Paul's thought would look like if the gospel was able to transform (or call into question) the social distinctions that encompass us (cf. 25). In this line of thought he includes an interpretive semi-translation of Paul's famous Galatians 3 statement, which is interesting but makes me wonder about some of the categories listed. On a logical level why would there be both theist and atheist who have faith in Christ Jesus? I think he is going for a rather Inclusivist position here, but it reads awkwardly.

Further on this is the inclusion of his statement, "[neither] gay nor straight" which is a difficult button to push here. How far can we take such inclusion? This is not to condemn any who are homosexual, nor is it to say that it should be considered more of a sin than any other. But, on the other hand, homosexuality should not be considered more acceptable than any other behavior. Where are we allowed to draw the lines of this community if it is automatically all-inclusive without a call to leave one's sin? (Nor do I think this as a matter of God's special preference for those who are marginalized by society.)

With this piece out the way, I must say that the remainder of the essay raises some great points. One of Rollins' central points is that, ". . . to identify with Christ means to acknowledge that it is not the ultimate horizon" (25). Certainly this is a key point to understanding the faith. Salvation, after all, is not the end . . . it is the means to an end within God's kingdom-coming. And, yes, Rollins is correct in saying that identification with Christ means shaking ourselves free from the socio-cultural baggage we carry with us (cf. 26).

Even though I don't see all of the proposals following through, there is a strong philosophical foundation set here for approaching postmodern and/or emerging Christianity in a thoughtful way. It will be interesting to see how the theological perspectives (Part Two) continue to build on this.

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