September 9, 2010

Postmodern Church and the Farmlands of Iowa... Part 2

So, the first thing I want to tackle is some semblance of a definition.  What on earth are we talking about when we say "postmodern" and "emergent."

The simple answer is that there isn't a simple answer.

In The Emerging Church, Dan Kimball describes the post modern world as:

An emerging and developing worldview and culture pursuing what is beyond modernity. It holds there is no single universal worldview. Therefore, truth is not absolute and many of the qualities embraced by modernism no longer hold the value or influence they once did. It can still be defined as we like, since it is still forming and developing. (The Emerging Church, 58)
Fundamentally, postmodernism is a reaction to the modern world.  And the modern world was itself a response to a premodern world (something we quickly forget). The main thing we want to consider is the idea that the modern person believes that reason leads to universal truths and that power and faith can be placed in both reason and science. Now, the words reason and science don't sound like terms we throw around a lot in rural congregations... but the fact that we organize our thoughts into universal truths absolutely appears.

The main way that modern people do this is through metanarratives, a term coined by Jean-Francois Lyotard. These are overarching stories that make sense of the world and place everything in context. Whether this is the notion of Progress or Communism, Democracy or Christianity, these narratives claim to be objectively true for all people.

That sounds mighty nice.  But the problem, as Heath White points out is:
Modernism, with its emphasis on reason, insists on resolving or eliminating the differences between people. But this leads eventually to coercion, oppression, domination, cruelty, and abuse of one form or another. Anyone who believes in One True Culture – one right way of doing things – is, knowingly or not, a closet tyrant. (Postmodernism 101 , 43.)
The postmodern person is someone who has lost faith and trust in reason and these metanarratives precisely because they have failed. They have become aware that these conflicting metanarratives cannot all be “True” (note, that was with a capital "T") and they recognize that other narratives, cultures and peoples have been suppressed by them. Thus, postmodernism is the rejection of absolute, objective moral, social and political claims.

A great example of this is the theory that claims if we spread democracy abroad, then conflicts in areas like the Middle East will be solved.  However, we fail to take into account that democracy evolved out of a specific Western religious and cultural context.  Simply implanting that metanarrative onto another context has proved to be next to impossible. And that doesn't even get into the question of whether it is moral or ethical to impose one way of doing government onto another people.

The problem for people of faith is that the Judeo-Christian worldview is precisely one of the metanarratives that is called into question through this deconstruction of modern thought. And here the church folk run screaming away from anything labeled "post-."  What we have to remember, however,  is that this critique of metanarratives does not mean that we are flat out rejecting God or the faith that we have carried.  Instead, what the postmodern Christian is aware of is that their narrative is not alone in the world, nor does it have a monopoly on the truth, nor is there a single, universal way of being Christian in the world.  

Of course, the first obstacle that pops up into my mind, and the first response of my folks in the pews is: What about Jesus - doesn't he say he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life? 

Yes, Jesus does.  But what it means for Christ to be "the truth"... that's exactly what we are trying to figure out. Is it capital "T" Truth?  Is it truth for me?  Is it a rational truth that I must assent to or a truth about a way to live my life? Is it the only truth? Are there other truths? And if so, is Jesus a part of them, also?  (If you have ever heard the story of the five blind men and the elephant... you get the idea of where this can go)

While, in the modern world, symbols pointed to exactly what they represented and had one meaning, in a postmodern worldview symbols, language, and culture are all deconstructed. Postmoderns are comfortable with paradox and look for inherent contradictions, something Heath White describes as irony. Or as Dave Tomlinson puts it:
image and reality are so deeply intertwined that it is difficult to draw the line between the two. (The Post Evangelical, 75 )
What is symbolic?  What is reality?  Can we change the symbols and convey the same truth? In another culture will the same symbol carry a completely different meaning? And with this slew of questions, we look around and find Santa on a cross, Garth Brooks doing pop music, and Buddhist-Christians. Or perhaps, in the more common manifestations, we have a lack of denominational loyalty, church shopping, spiritual but not religious folks, and self-help preaching masquerading as the gospel.

In this postmodern and post-Christian climate, it is no wonder people are confused.  As he describes the effects of such cafeteria style choices, White writes:
All this borrowing, stealing, adding, subtracting, grafting, and splicing of traditions leave postmoderns without ‘roots’ in the sense that anyone raised in a premodern culture might have had them. There is no all-embracing, unquestioned and unquestionable cultural envelope that keeps them secure in one way of doing things. They have traded roots for freedom and choice because, after all, deep roots keep you stuck in one place. (White, 129) 
Diana Butler Bass also describes this sense of rootlessness, using phrases like “spiritual nomads” or “strangers in a strange land.” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, 22-23.)

Okay, so we have this background of metanarratives being dismantled and people feeling rootless and not knowing quite where to turn... and we have (I fear) a church that is still stuck in a modern mindset. We are still trying to fit people into molds, we are still proclaiming metanarratives, we have five-point plans of salvation. EEEK!

This might be where some many most churches are... but this is also where the "emergent church" movement comes in. There are so many books and blogs and youtube videos out there, but one resource that really stuck out to me was the book Christianity for the Rest of Us.  In it, Diana Butler Bass points us toward the reclaimed role of the church.

Rather than proclaim a new metanarrative, she believes we are to invite one another into the life of the Christian faith. For White, we can do so through sharing and experiencing the promises we have received from God – not hoping that things will get better through natural progress (aha - there science and reason poke their heads in again), but trusting that “in the face of death, we have the promise of resurrection” (White, 155).

I stumbled across a blog post today (after this had been up for a bit) by Tom Sherwood about the postmodern critique of Christianity, which is entirely fascinating.  This section in particular caught my eye:
One of the distinct differences between the Bible and the other metanarratives mentioned that Lyotard rejects, is that the Bible is based on faith, not universal reason... It is this appeal to faith, along with the liberative character of the narrative that allows the Bible and Christianity to rise above the critique of incredulity toward metanarratives. When the Bible and Christianity become oppressive, or rely too heavily on universal reason, Lyotard’s incredulity towards metanarratives applies...

Correctly understood, the Bible is not a metanarrative. Lyotard would not reject it as a metanarrative, as it is neither inherently oppressive or self-legitimating using universal reason. Instead it is the story of how God works in communities and the history of the Christian story. The Biblical narrative is extremely important to Christianity, but Christians need to take a step back from modernism and look at what can be learned from the ancient Christians. The Bible is a story of faith, it does not rely on universal reason to prove what it says. Instead, the stories are proven true by the people that live out the continuation of the story.

For Bass, that is exactly the role of the church: to transform lost spiritual nomads into Christian pilgrims.

In order to do so, the church must hold together tradition, practices and wisdom with a keen self-awareness. It must remember Barth’s claim that the church takes no one social form and that “every institution is affected by the culture in which it lives and especially the culture in which it was born” (White, 14). The church must allow its style, practices and doctrines to change as it attempts to be faithful to God in particular contexts and  among particular peoples.

Doug Pagitt has a new book out called Church in the Inventive Age that I need to get my hands on. 

He would change that list I made above of style, practices and doctrine and talk instead about our cognitive beliefs, our values, our tools/structures, and our aesthetics. He rightly points out that when you start to mess with any one of those, folks get downright uncomfortable.  But I think in some ways, he is pointing to the fact that our doctrines, our values, our styles and our structures themselves become idols.

What I am interested in are the congregations that have discovered ways to acknowledge this postmodern shift within their churches and by doing so they are not only thriving, but are transforming lives as they attempt to be faithful to the gospel. In part 3, we will look at some of what we can learn from some of the churches that "get it."


  1. Katie! Thanks for saying hello on my blog the other day. I didn't know how to contact you directly, but I found your blog while putting some clues together. You can email me at if you like and we can chat a bit more. Peace, Heather

  2. Nice summary of post-modernism.

    Here's my first question. I realize that it is a post-modern conviction that all theology is shaped by the intellectual context of its day, but are you at all uncomfortable that a philosophical system (post-modernism) is setting the terms of debate and definition for theology and revelation?

    I think of the way neo-Platonism gave us a non-biblical God. The Enlightenment gave us Deism. Doesn't post-modernism run the same risk of using Thomas Jefferson's razor to excise and remove the parts of the biblical God that we find in conflict with our philosophical convictions about who God is?

    I suppose at its base this is a question about the relationship between philosophy and theology.

  3. That's a really good question.

    I don't claim to be a postmodern philospher and my take is that postmodernism is what helps us to realize that neo-Platonism gave us a non-biblical God and the Enlightenment gave us Deism. It asks us to question why we believe what we believe... not necessarily supplanting those ideas of God with a new set way, but always reminding us to be aware of the context - whether it is cultural or philosophical or whatever - that we come out of. And to realize that, hey, we might need to listen to what folks different than us are saying to get a better picture.

    I don't think we can ever know God fully... and perhaps there might be as many ways to know God as there are ways to know.

    My use of postmodernism philosophy helps me to draw back all the curtains of the idols I have created (I think that metaphor is from Barbara Brown Taylor) and to actually go back to the text. What does the Bible say? What is our best understanding of what the authors were trying to say? What are the limitations of our ability to know?

    While some might take that to mean adopt whatever new fangled philosophy comes along... I take that to mean that I need to search for where God has revealed Godself... and that is certainly in the Bible, but also through the lives of historical men and women and the churches best faithfulness, and also in the current and future life stories and experiences of people in my backyard and on the other side of the world. It asks us to take seriously that our God is a Living God and the Holy Spirit is active and present in our lives today.

    This is going to come around in a later post, but I think that is what the heart of Christian conferencing is all about and why Methodists might make really good postmodern Christians if we let ourselves be.