November 23, 2005

The Church in Emerging Culture 2

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Permalink

Michael Horton has the second essay in The Church in Emerging Culture. He starts by presenting a number of different things that “postmodernism” means, citing a plethora of names, to which Frederica Mathewes-Green responds amusingly, until the point when Horton cites both Walter Lippman and Steinar Kavale, prompting this comment from Mathewes-Green:

Man, it’s getting crowded in here! Hauerwas, maybe you can get on top of that bookcase over there. Steinar, you’re going to have to sit on Walter’s lap. And if any more intellectuals ring the doorbell, we’re going to turn out the lights and pretend nobody’s home (p. 115). 

In particular, Horton says, postmodernism has an academic and a popular side to it although in each side there is great variety. He seems to find what he calls academic postmodernism fairly congenial, but he doesn’t spend any time on it. Instead, he focuses on what he calls popular postmodernism, which he sees as either incoherent or not clearly distinct from modernism. He writes:

Postmodernism — or whatever one wishes to designate our brief moment in history — is the culture in which Sesame Street is considered educational; sexy is the term of approbation for everything from jeans to doctoral theses; watching sitcoms together at dinner is called family time; abortion is considered choice; films sell products; and a barrage of images and sound-bites selected for their entertainment and commercial value is called news. This general trend in culture translates into hipper-than-thou clubs passing for youth ministry, informal chats passing for sermons, and brazen marketing passing for evangelism, where busyness equals holiness, and expository preaching is considered too intellectual (p. 109). 

But what Horton seems to be describing here is not postmodernism but simply the way a lot of people in our society today act and think. As the opening of this paragraph reveals, Horton simply identifies the two. But why? I can well imagine postmodernists or those who share some sympathies with them opposing the trend of having sound bites pass for news. In fact, I can imagine postmodernists critiquing many of the things that Horton himself is critiquing. Horton appears to have overlooked the fact that no postmodernist is claiming that postmodernism equals the way things are today.

As the essay develops, more problems arise. Horton suggests that instead of speaking of modernity and postmodernity we would be better off following the New Testament distinction between “this present evil age” and “the age to come,” or life in the flesh and life in the Spirit (p. 113).

But as McLaren points out (and sometimes these first two essays read as if they were deliberately crafted to make McLaren stand out particularly well), Horton isn’t so much refining the discussion as changing the subject:

In answer to Michael’s rhetorical question, I would say, “We’re talking about two different things.” Those of us grappling with the need for change in the church are seeking to proclaim, in the power of the Spirit, the good news of the age to come in this present evil age, in which people live lives of quiet desperation in the flesh. Medieval, modern, postmodern, or whatever all occur in the present evil age — which is also, by the way, the age Jesus promised to be with us to the end of — in a world God created and still loves (p. 112). 

If Horton’s point is that the gospel creates its own culture and stands in critique of all other cultures, be they modern, postmodern, or whatever, then I heartily concur. If his point is that the gospel must not be accommodated to postmodern culture anymore than to modern culture, then I also agree wholeheartedly. But if Horton’s point is that all these other distinctions are essentially irrelevant and that the only distinction we really need in this discussion that between “this present age” and “the age to come” or “life in the flesh” and “life in the Spirit,” then I think he’s missed the point.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:32 pm | Discuss (0)

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