Church as Counterpublic? (Emergent Reactions)

For the past couple of days I’ve been listening to Phyllis Tickle and her friends explore the landscape of Emergence Christianity.  There was much provocation, a lot of questions asked and answered, and some deep and meaningful insights that I’ll be carrying with me for at least the coming weeks, if not longer.  For the next few days I’ll be unpacking some of my thoughts in response to the conference as I work through them.  Today’s post, then, is sort of the first in a series.

I’m not an Emergent native.  I’ve never read Brian McLaren, or any “Emergent” thinker for that matter, beyond a smattering of blog posts.  The Emergent folk, I’ve always thought, were some kind of kin of mine, but I was too busy reading the likes of Milbank and Hauerwas to bother with their books.  But as my understanding of Emergent has deepened so has my respect and my sense that a lot of my imaginings and frustrations would put me in their camp.  I have been slow to jump on the “Emergent” bandwagon,  but I’m getting the sense that I’ll either be run over it or run behind it if I don’t just go ahead and get on.  So I come into all of this Emergent stuff with lots of questions, plenty of ignorance and a good bit of hope.  

As I’ve tried to parse out my long ambivalence about the Emergent movement one thing I keep coming to is the question of counter public.  Many minorities that are excluded from the dominant culture try to answer the conditions of their time by seeking integration.  This is the gay rights movement, a movement that has worked hard and long to make homosexuality relevant and normal, creating a space for equal rights and things like marriage equality.  But there is another way to answer the exclusion.  Some gay activists have questioned the  need to be accepted within heterosexual categories and life.  They have tried instead to embrace their “queerness” and create a kind of “queer” counterpublic.

I’m attracted to this same kind of strategy within the church.  I am happy to see the church as a social norm fall to the wayside; the death of Christendom is a welcome reality.  But I do not want to respond to this death by making a new form of church that is simply more relevant to the dominant culture–a culture that lives in the unreality of an oil economy and global capitalism.  I want a church that works as a counterpublic–a way of carving out a kind of life that critiques, rather than simply assimilates into, the dominant forms.

For my many hours hearing from over twenty speakers at this Emergence gathering I heard very little about the church as counter public.  There was a great deal of criticism of the church itself–of the dying off of old forms and the need to embrace an “Emergent” Christianity that was relevant to the new kinds of people and questions that are arising in our age.  But there was virtually no critique of that age and the larger culture.  No questioning of its forms of life.  More than a couple of abstract mentions of the need for social justice, equality, yada, yada, yada, there was no real engagement with parsing out the troubled unrealities to which our culture is beholden.

I realized this evening that it was this lack of critique of the culture that I found so lacking as I listened in those pews.  Christendom is dead.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  What is critical now, as Phyllis Tickle pointed out, is what is the church going to be?  To simply be a church that exists on YouTube with iPhone apps and answering every consumerist desire of a public that likes to live in the fuzzy, easily manipulable world of perpetual teenage doubt is nothing more than joining the new Empire–no longer that of Constantine, but of global capitalism.

If Emergent Christianity is going to be meaningful it must critique not only the church, but also the culture.  If Emergent Christianity is going to create something that survives in its mission and truly becomes a force in history for the good of the church, it must create a counterpublic.  Otherwise, it will just go the way of the Protestant Reformation, co-opted by the powers that be and deflated of energy by the establishment of state churches.  If Emergent Christianity wants to be transformative, or at least more faithful, Menno Simmons should be their model more than Martin Luther.

Perhaps all of this is just a critique from ignorance, but I got no sense from my quick and deep immersion in this world that I am wrong.

 

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About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey Into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith (Convergent/Random House 2015).


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