Thursday, January 4, 2007

Twenty-first Century American Evangelicalism

I have recently started thinking again about what American evangelicalism is going to look like in the near future. Two events have spurred these thoughts, (1) I recently finished reading Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis, and (2) I preached for the second time at my church in Gig Harbor, Washington.

I liked Velvet Elvis, but it raised more questions than it answered for me. (That was probably Rob Bell's intention in writing the book.) That book, Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian and A Generous Orthodoxy, Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, Leonard Sweet's Out of the Question . . . Into the Mystery, and The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (edited by Leonard Sweet) have given me many thoughts about the future of Christianity in America. I think they effectively challenge the Modernist assumptions of mainstream American evangelicalism. The old style of Christianity will likely die out in the near future, and a newer style will emerge.

In addition to the thoughts of the emerging church, my own preaching and teaching has caused me to think. I like to challenge people in their beliefs. I strongly believe that you should know why you believe what you believe--you shouldn't just accept it because your pastor told you it is true. I frequently tackle issues such as the problem of evil, prosperity passages in the Old Testament, the imprecatory psalms, spiritual gifts, legalism, and gender roles. I find that young people like this. They appreciate the fact that I tackle difficult questions and I don't give easy answers. However, I also find that a lot of older, more conservative people really dislike me. I think it is because they appreciate an air-tight, modernist, we-have-everything-figured-out-and-we're-right, kind of faith.

So here is my dilemma--most people would consider me an "emerging" teacher. I can't help it. I was raised in a postmodern culture. It's who I am. But when I read the writings of most emerging church leaders, I get very uncomfortable. The assumption that a lot of them make (that I disagree with) is that the Gospel is acultural, that is, the Gospel is not bound to culture and can be expressed differently at different times and places. They argue that Christianity looked one way during the time of the Fathers, one way in medeival times, another way in the Rennaisance, another way in the Enlightenment, and still another way in postmodernity. You might also add that Christianity takes on a different flavor globally in the post-colonial world. And while all of this is true, I question whether that is proof that our theology should evolve over time. Isn't it more appropriate to say that it has (for better or for worse) evolved over time.

I do not think that the Gospel is acultural. There are cetain cultural practices that are incompatible with the Gospel. Take human slavery, for example. In the Book of Philemon, Paul implied to Philemon that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. Because he and his slave Onesimus were brothers in Christ, they should be brothers on earth. Granted, the practice of human slavery continued for centuries (and continues today) even in so-called "Christian nations." Granted also, many in the church supported human slavery and justified it with biblical teaching. Today, most Christians do not believe that human slavery is acceptable. But does that mean that our theology evolved in the sense that we changed what was "Christian," or that it evolved in the sense that we discovered what was always "Christian"? I think the latter is the case.

What will the church look like in twenty-first century postmodern America? I think we need to be careful about which tenets of postmodernism that we allow into our theology. Just as the church needed to rise above culture on issues such as human slavery and women's rights, it needs to rise above the culture on issues such as egocentricity and materialism. In fact, I don't think the changing landscape of our culture is due to widespread acceptance of postmodernism. (After all, you still get fired for consistantly showing up to work late, even if you argue that time is relative. You still get a ticket for running a red light, even if you argue that there is no 1-to-1 correspondance between "red" and "stop" and that you interpreted the red light to mean "go.") I think we use postmodernism as an excuse for egocentrism because we have problems with authority. Americans don't want to be told what to do, and postmodern philosophy provides an easy excuse to live the way we want to live.

I think the reason that the emerging church has been so successful is because it is not as authoritarian as modernist evangelical churches. Whereas modernist evangelical preachers say "thus saith the Lord," emerging preachers say "thus saith the Lord, I think." This is music to the ears of egocentric Americans because they can choose whether or not to agree with you. In that sense, emerging churches are successful for the same reason that charismatic churches have been so successful--they elevate the individual to judge their own spiritual reality.

Despite how this all might sound, I think the emerging church is a good thing. I think we need to have humility in our interpretation. But you don't have to be a postmodernist to be humble in your interpretation. Critical realists do the same thing. Absolute truth exists, but absolute knowledge of absolute truth does not exist. However, that does not mean that we cannot have pratical knowledge of absolute truth. We can have practical knowledge of Jesus and His teaching in the same way that we can have practical knowledge of other things in life. After all, I don't have absolute certainty that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge isn't going to collapse the next time I drive over it, but I have reason to believe that it won't. I have enough knowledge to make a reasonable knowledge claim--the Narrows Bridge is safe to drive on. But then again, maybe I'm wrong.

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