November 23, 2005

The Church in Emerging Culture 1

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Permalink

Yesterday, I read a good portion of The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, edited by Leonard Sweet. The five perspectives are provided by Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian McLaren, and Erwin Raphael McManus.

Sweet’s introduction includes a few helpful (though not detailed) criticisms of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture and (somewhat helpfully) discusses various approaches to change and various views of what problems we face in the modern world.

But then Sweet discusses the five perspectives in this book in terms of an extended metaphor, where participants in this discussion are described as Gardens, Parks, Glens, or Meadows. Maybe it was just that I’m still battling my fever but I can’t say that his metaphor made things a lot clearer for me. Just the opposite, in fact. More than that, having read Andy Crouch’s essay, I’m not at all sure whether he’s a Garden, Park, Glen, or Meadow.

Before I go further, a couple of comments about the formatting of the book. For some reason, the publishers choose to print this with wide pages, which makes it hard to read quickly. The print is also large: my arms aren’t long enough to hold the book far enough away. But then, interspersed with the black text of a participant’s essay are comments by the other participants in much smaller grey text. All of which together is a recipe for eye-strain.

Crouch’s chapter was, on the whole, disappointing, in part because it wasn’t clear exactly whose views he was interacting with and in part, too, because his approach was predominantly negative. Perhaps his chapter would have seemed stronger were it not for the comments interspersed throughout from McLaren and others. McLaren’s comments, in particular, were very helpful.

Crouch seems to be arguing that postmodernity is actually ultramodernity. Far from being (as McLaren and others have suggests) postindividualistic and postconsumeristic, Crouch says, postmodernity is extremely individualistic and extremely consumeristic. He presents the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral as an architectural symbol of modernism and the Mall of America as a corresponding symbol of “postmodernism,” which turns out to be more modernism taken to the extreme.

But, as McLaren points out, what Crouch calls “postmodernism” isn’t what he and many others mean by that term. McLaren grants that the Mall of America may be a symbol of ultramodernism, but that doesn’t make it a symbol of postmodernism.

My own sense is that Crouch tried to approach things this way: Many people talk about us moving into a postmodern culture, so Crouch simply looked at the culture he sees around him and concluded that this was what McLaren, et al., have in mind when they talk about “postmodern culture.” Well, no. That’s not it at all. And so Crouch’s bad methodology bred bad results in his essay.

Much of his essay, in fact, targets things that McLaren and other postmodernists of that stripe also target, namely individualism and consumerism, though McLaren at least, in one comment in response to Crouch, adds an important caution with regard to consumerism:

Buying and selling aren’t evil. They’re part of God’s world, and Scripture gives us moral guidelines to protect us from letting these good parts of life (a.k.a. “good work”) go bad (don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, do unto others, for starters). Andy himself makes and sells a magazine, and I’m sure he hopes to sell more copies of it. I would add that if you make canes, you are probably going to market them to older people and those who have been injured, not to parents of infants, to whom you will market diapers and rattles, which you will not market to teenagers, and so on. Andy’s magazine, I’m sure, has something like a target audience, and I’ll bet some demographic discussions take place in his office, or at least in his head at times…. So just as Andy is careful to warn “postmodern prophets” about oversimplifying or overstating their case, I want to join Andy in condeming the greed that seems to be one of the prime engines of our culture (post, ultra, or whatever), but I would also take care not to paint all commerce(creating, crafting, announcing, selling) as consumerism (p. 95).

That caution strikes me as something people need to hear right around this time of year when so many Christian voices are raised in response to the “consumerism” at Christmas time. While there may be some problems in the way things are done, the fact that people want to buy gifts and that stores want to sell gifts and even want to persuade you to buy their gifts isn’t wrong in itself.

One of the stronger features of Crouch’s essay was his emphasis on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, though that emphasis, too, was marred by Crouch’s insistence on believer baptism and his dismissive comments about infant baptism (for which Michael Horton rightly takes him to task).

Furthermore, the discussion of baptism and the Lord’s Supper was almost the only positive thing that Crouch included in his essay. It almost seemed as if he was saying that they were the cure to all the church’s ills in this era and the next (for which McManus and others rightly took him to task: What about churches which have practiced all these things and still ended up dead or wicked or compromised with the culture or whatever?).

Still, Crouch’s essay was a reminder that all who wrestle with what the church should look like would do well to take seriously what baptism and the Lord’s Supper say about the church and what they effect. All of us who are baptized leave behind our old stories and enter the church, a new community with a new story, where we are one body and where we eat together at one table. And so the church must not become divided into various demographic groups but must be united as one new community, defined, not by our own personal experiences and tastes, but by Jesus Christ.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:30 pm | Discuss (0)

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