Monday, July 02, 2007

Emerging Church – Yet again

I have just received Reachout Trust’s, (the Christian ministry to the cults) latest newsletter containing their second article on Emerging Church. Not unexpectedly they are concerned that Emerging Church’s experiments with very different cultural containers for worship may lead to unorthodoxy. Although Reachout doesn’t automatically equate these experiments with unorthodoxy, it is very suspicious. It quotes from Pages 52-53 of the book “Emergingchurch.intro” by Michael Moynagh, where a call is made for “new interpretations of the Bible”. It is conceivable that our current interpretations are wrong and in need of reappraisal, but for Reachout, who don’t make the vital distinction between what the Bible really means and our interpretations of it, this is tantamount to a serious drift in theology, a drift they crudely identify with “man’s ideas and not God’s”. Having had long experience of Christians using that kind of phraseology, I read that to mean “man’s ideas and not my ideas (which of course are God’s ideas)”. Reachout also notes Rick Warren’s links with Emerging Church. Once again Warren’s willingness to share platforms sets him up for accusations of “guilt by association”. Reachout goes on to publish a quote by Rick Warren where he claims that “fundamentalism” is a very narrow and legalistic view of Christianity. Reachout do not comment on this quote as if it is condemning enough by itself.

However, this reference to fundamentalism is, I believe, a vital clue to the emergence of Emerging Church. As I have suggested before Christian fundamentalism has a propensity to slide into intellectual and cultural bankruptcy and it is apt to compensate with an irrational noisy vehemence and arrogated claims. This has lead to some ugly parodies of the faith which have not only alienated potential Christains, but also many Christians themselves – the latter have been forced to review their faith because they are loathe to identify with Christian fundamentalists with whom they have very little in common. As Christains have reacted against affected displays of contrariness the search for authentic worship has partly driven the emergence of EC. If this revisionism does lead to a loss of faith, the run-down state of Christian fundamentalism will bear much of the responsibility for this loss.

Frankly Reachout seem rather out of their depth on this subject. EC is not a conventional cult phenomenon but is rather an issue internal to Christianity. Take for example Rick Warren. As the confluence of a variety of Christian influences from Southern Baptist, through Charismatic, to Emerging Church, Rick Warren is the de-facto symbol of Christian evangelicalism in all its contradictions. He himself is difficult to back into an unorthodox corner, and yet his teaching is cryptically subversive of both charismatic and dispensationalist Christianity. For some evangelicalism’s dissonant muddle is just too much to bear and their solution is to attempt to purify evangelicalism by bowdlerizing their doctrines and disowning one another with screams of blasphemy. This has simply had the effect of adding to the apparent incoherence of evangelicalism. Out of this seething caldron of contention Emerging Church has emerged. It is the eye of the storm.

EC is a product not just of postmodern anti-foundationalism but is also a reaction to the excesses of Christian fundamentalism. To understand EC it is therefore to necessary to turn the spot light onto Christianity itself as well as postmodernism. After all (and this is ironic), Christian fundamentalism with its gothic expressions of faith and denial of reason is itself a very postmodern phenomenon.

As I have already remarked new interpretations of the Bible are acceptable provided it can be shown why the old interpretations are wrong and why the new one’s are right. But if EC takes postmodernism to its illogical conclusion then it will be in danger of rejecting the categories of ‘right and wrong’ as being themselves ‘wrong’. Moreover, although Reachout’s consideration of EC is not very penetrating they do, toward the end of their article, touch on concerns that I myself share, namely the gnostic logic of EC: if we lose the notion of ‘truth’ (and by implication its opposite of ‘error’) faith collapses in on itself as it searches for gnosis in the mysterious inner depths of the soul.

But that’s hardly new – in fact it is closely related to the anti-physicalism and fideism one finds already abroad in Christian fundamentalism. Although I support much of EC’s project of reviewing evangelicalism, I cannot support irrationalism if it merely changes its name.

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