December 4, 2005

The Church in Emerging Culture 5

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Permalink

The final essay in The Church in Emerging Culture is by Erwin Rafael McManus, who is the contributor about whom I know the least. One thing I do know about him, and it’s plain from the very beginning of his chapter, is that he loves the city of Los Angeles where he pastors and that love is inspiring. How many of us as pastors could look out at the cities in which we live and say that we love them and in that love desire them to glorify God? As I read McManus’s chapter I was struck that he has a passion for the place where he lives that has often been lacking in my ministry.

I also very much appreciated his insistence that the church doesn’t just reflect the culture in which it exists, a culture created by the world, nor is the church simply to try to relate to the culture or be relevant to the culture (“When a church starts working toward relevance, it admits that somehow it was left behind”: p. 239), but rather that the church (also) creates culture and is a culture:

For the last several years I have been asked, “What do you think is coming after the postmodern era?” For the longest time my answer was simply, “I have no idea.” But if September 11th has reminded me of anything, it is that the future is shaped by the decisions of men under the sovereignty of God. My answer today is quite different. Now I answer, “Whatever we choose.” 

I think this answer is important when we consider the theological passivity of contemporary Christianity. Without realizing it we have slipped into the view that the world creates culture and that the church reacts to it. In our most innovative moments we analyze culture trends and project historical movements. Then like a twig determined to stop a tsunami, we brace ourselves for the future. But is it possible that the church was intended to be the cultural epicenter from which a new community emerges, astonishing and transforming cultures through the power of forgiveness, freedom, and creativity? (pp. 245-246).

Incidentally, several times during the reading of these essays and of McLaren’s books, I keep thinking, “Someone ought to send these guys a copy of Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity.”

With Michael Horton, I also appreciate McManus’s emphasis on God’s speaking:

The act of God speaking is the basis of faith. If God does not speak, then we believe in vain. True religion is not our desperate search to make God intelligible. It is a response to what God has spoken. And the words of God are far more than divine information — they are life to the listener (p. 250). 

Still, there also parts of McManus’s essay that are troubling. At times, as Horton points out, McManus presents false dichotomies (e.g., “The power of the gospel is the result of a person — Jesus Christ — not a message. The gospel is an event to be proclaimed, not a doctrine to be preserved”: p. 248).

Rather strangely, McManus contrasts what he calls “a European church and its sacramental essence” with what he would like to see: “a primal church with an elemental essence” (p. 245). I don’t have a clue what he means by “primal” (though with Frederica Mathewes-Green, I’d want to point out that the “primal church,” that is, the early church, was sacramental).

I also don’t know what he means by speaking of an “elemental essence,” though I note that a bit earlier in the essay he talks about “such expressions of faith as using five elemental metaphors — wind, water, earth, fire, and wood — to express our critical environments for discipleship” (pp. 244-245).

In that same paragraph, he uses the word “primal” again: “We use art, sculpture, and dance not as entertainment but as primal expressions of our faith” (p. 245). Here “primal” doesn’t seem to refer to something in the early church (where no such practices occurred in the liturgy) but to … well, I’m not sure. Could he be saying that these practices are like the practices of “primal” societies as opposed to societies that are more rational, ordered, structured, civilized, and so forth?

Now I have no idea what McManus’s church’s liturgy looks like. But what Scriptural warrant is there for using art, sculpture, and dance in the liturgy? More than that, what Scriptural warrant is there for whatever it is that his church does with wind, water, earth, fire, and wood? Not to be offensive, but these things sound like something that McManus and his congregation dreamed up themselves, something less like biblically informed liturgy than like paganism.

McManus is right: The church needs to be its own culture and thereby to shape and create culture rather than simply to react to or seek to be “relevant” to the cultures around it. And the church needs to listen to God’s Word in order to carry out this calling. But, as with the other essays in this book, McManus doesn’t present much of a positive program and what he does present is sometimes marred by false dilemmas or worse by a departure from what God’s Word says.

If we love our cities, as McManus does, and we want the gospel to transform them, we need to give them more than McManus does. But, to be fair, we also need to give them more than the rest of this books offers. There are some good and inspiring moments in this book, but on the whole it’s disappointing.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:43 pm | Discuss (0)

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