You’ve probably heard the word “postmodernism” before, but have probably wondered what it meant. Or perhaps you’ve heard of this thing called the emerging church. Ring a bell? A lot is being written these days about how to reach postmodern people, but are the conclusions actually biblical?
James A.K. Smith, author of Who’s Afraid Of Postmodernism, takes a stab at identifying what postmodernism is actually about, and makes some recommendations for the church.
But first let’s take a step back.
Postmodernism, generally speaking, is a philosophical idea that says that there is no such thing as absolute truth. It’s a reaction to the modern age that was fueled by the philosophies of Rene Descartes in the 1600’s and later in the French revolution, that taught that everything should be examined through the filter of reason. If you can prove it through observation and empirical study, then it exists.
Around the time of the 1960’s or so, some French philosophers began to articulate a new worldview. A worldview that was aversive to this modernistic approach. Specifically, these philosophers were Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault.
Let me take them one at a time to briefly explain what they taught, and then elaborate on what James Smith recommends for the church as a result.
Jacques Derrida taught that there is no such thing as “objective truth” because everything that we learn and experience passes through the filter of interpretation. Furthermore, something must be interpreted through a community. For example, I can see a blue cup, but I can only know that it’s blue because people have agreed and taught me that that is what the color blue looks like. And so even the color blue, in a sense, is an interpretation based upon a community that helps me to understand it’s color.
I know this probably seems confusing. It does to me as well. But hang in there. Let me cover the other two guys briefly and then I’ll share what Smith’s bottom line is concerning our reaction to postmodernism.
The second major philosopher that Smith engages is Jean-Francois Lyotard. Lyotard said, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narrative.” He opposed any large scale theories and opposed that we can definitively prove everything through science and reason. Scripture, of course, would fall under that category of a meta-narrative.
Thirdly, James Smith analyzed the writings of Michel Foucault. We’ve all heard the phrase that “knowledge is power,” meaning that when you have knowledge, you are empowered, in a sense. Foucalt taught that “power is knowledge.” In other words, Foucalt taught that all claims of truth (knowledge) come from a want of power. Foucalt felt that his task was to “uncover the secret, submerged biases and prejudices that go into shaping what is called the truth” (86). Every proclamation of truth, he taught, was actually a covert motivation to control and to exert power.
Ok….if you’ve made it this far, take a few moments to just breathe. Ten…nine…eight…seven…..breathe. This stuff is a little heavy, I know.
So now let me end (I’ll end quickly) by just listing and dialoguing just a little bit with how Smith says the Christian church should react to these postmodern times in which we live, based upon the writings of these philosophers.
According to Smith, the postmodern church…
1. Uses the lectionary. From Derrida, Smith points to the lectionary as something that will help expose us to the whole of Scripture. In and of itself, this is a great suggestion. Anything that will help the church to be exposed to the totality of Scripture is a good thing. However, he also recommends the lectionary because it helps to root us, in an ecumenical way, to “a holy catholic church.” By this he doesn’t mean the Roman Catholic church, per se, but the whole of churches. So it’s the idea that as churches we’re all in this together. We’re all in the same place. We’re all in this brotherhood going at the same pace to the same place.
2. Relies upon the writings of the early church fathers. The early church fathers and reformers should be considered as “co-interpreters” (57). In other words, because there is really no such thing as “objective truth,” Scripture has to be understood upon the basis of a community of interpreters. It’s the idea that, since everyone agrees that something is truth and is such, it must be so.
3. Takes a socially prophetic stance. These churches will minimize “apologetics” and proclamations of truth that may divide, and will focus instead on engaging culture (58).
4. Focuses on narrative. Every week people would be reminded of where they fit in the larger narrative of whatever story or epistle is being taught. This church would also take communion every week, because communion helps to remind people of the great narrative of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
5. Places a high value on the arts. This kind of church is not afraid of symbols or drama, and places a high value on aesthetics, realizing that these help to tell a story, in and of themselves.
6. Resists the “tendency to dumb-down” Scripture. Smith says, “Rather than trying to translate the biblical story into a contemporary, more ‘acceptable’ narrative (which usually ends up compromising the narrative to culture), the postmodern church seeks to initiate the listeners into the narrative” (78).
7. Places a high value on spiritual disciplines. This kind of church realizes that society is already trying to mold and form us, and so through the spiritual disciplines is mounting a counter-formation (105).
So what does this all mean and what in the world are emerging/emergent churches? These are churches that are intentionally trying to target the postmodern mindset by applying these kinds of principles.
Overall, I thought it was an interesting, if not disturbing, read on some levels. I agree with many of these principles, sure. We should focus on spiritual disciplines. We should be incarnational and make a difference living out Christian values in the community. We should use elements of drama and symbols in our church services that draw people to Christ. We should resist the tendency of many contemporary churches to dumb-down Scripture. But beyond all that, I sensed something that made me quite uncomfortable.
There was an underlying theme of applying the lowest-common denominator–let’s forget about unique doctrine. Let’s identify ourselves with the brotherhood of churches. Let’s minimize any differences we may have. I’m all for doing what must be done to reach people. But at the end of the day, I suppose, I can’t shake the thought that the book of Revelation shows a picture of two churches. One that is part of Babylon and is following the beast, and one that is following Christ in purity. And what do we do with that?
So if I’m being completely honest, I’m a little suspicious of what’s called the emergent church movement. We’ll have to see where it goes. But so far there were several things that I was not impressed with.
So what about you? What do you think? What has been your experience with the emergent church movement? What are your thoughts?
[image by finallyiamnoone]