Monday, April 16, 2007

The EC and Postmodernism

This Postmodernism thing is very important to a lot of folks in the Emerging Church. As Assistant Village Idiot, it is my job to point out the obvious. In all my reading about the EC, I was puzzled by how frequently it came up. We’re postmodern. We minister to postmoderns. This is a postmodern world. The traditional church is stuck in modernity. This is puzzling because postmodernism as a philosophical approach is unnecessary to what most of them want to do.

It took awhile to figure this out: many of the folks in the Emerging Church use the word “postmodern” so loosely as to escape the meaning of the term. Postmodernism Lite might even be too strong a term. While there are certainly thoroughgoing postmodernists in the EC, most people using the term seem to mean nothing more than “not the old way of doing things.”

They want to have church authority that is less hierarchical and more distributed. Well, that’s the current business model, isn’t it? It’s not an abandonment of order, but a different type of order. They want do be less dogmatic, and appreciate that there are different perspectives. We used to call that “humility.” It’s not postmodernism unless you want to torture that term by including Montaigne. Heck, even Plato with his shadows on the cave wall would qualify for that. They want worship to be less text-based and less linear. Okay, maybe that’s starting to edge into postmodernism, but it’s still a stretch. It’s hard to tell with current philosophical terms like poststructuralist or deconstructionist, because part of the attraction to these ideas is their elusiveness. Nonetheless, people praying to a definite Jesus, just doing it at prayer stations instead of right after the Welcome and Announcements, would not generally be regarded at places like Smith or Occidental as remotely approaching postmodernism.

The confusion comes because many of the movers and shakers in the EC grew up or came up in very hierarchical, even oppressively hierarchical, church structures. The Emerging Church is basically fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who Have Had It Up To Here. They are particularly drawn from my Arts & Humanities Tribe. When they were exposed to postmodern thinkers, especially if those kept elements of Christian belief in their writings, they were entranced. Postmodernists make their livings by kicking modernists, a group they define for their own convenience, which represents everything they want to get away from. They paint western culture from the time of the Enlightenment as obsessed with order, control, printed word, and rationalism. To the postmodernist, these are not simply useful approaches that other people took up to improve their own lot and that of humankind, but emblems of a deep psychological pathology to control others and cast heretics into the Abyss. How satisfying to oppose cartoons like that.

To people who have been brought up by or working under those folks in the church who really do dig being in control and describing who is being cast into the abyss, this postmodernism thing must have seemed like the voice of prophecy.

I’m wandering off into telling you how it is that the postmodernists are vacuous and self-deceiving. They are, but that wasn’t supposed to be my point here. I’ll take that up another time. No, let me kick them one more time before I move on. When I hear the word “postmodernist,” I think of a person saying “I never much liked math in school.” Also, they think corporations are icky and must be ripping people off.

There are postmodernists in the church who are trying to make converts to their POV. Gibbs and Bolger, Brian McLaren – and these are certainly influential. But I think they oversell their point. They believe in the artificial modern/postmodern dichotomy, many emerging Christians agree with them on some points, bingo- they claim the EC is postmodern. Instant converts. Wishful thinking.

The Emerging Church believes the world has changed/is changing in a postmodernist direction, and with a surety reminiscent of marxist historicism believe that the full transformation in their direction is inexorable and inevitable. It's not. Their particular culture of Arts & Humanities in western culture, not coincidentally tied to blue-state urbanism, is postmodern. That's not the whole world. They are in danger of becoming a niche market. As it is a niche the church has pretty much given up on, I'm all for it.

1 comment:

terri said...

Postmodernism, as a term, usuallly describes a general movement in art, literature, and philosophy. It does not have a really hard and fast definition, but is more a vague rejection of everything else that had come up to its particular point.

That being said. I would have to say that the western world is decidely post-modern. That is evidenced by the rejection of absolutes, relativistic thinking, and a rejection of any sort of "valid" authority.

It has seeped into western culture very silently and subtly.

The Emergent Church could accomplish some major things, but will only be able to go so far.