Whaddya Say We Get Honest about Labels?

This morning on Marketplace Morning Report, Krissy Clark filed a story entitled, “What Does ‘Welfare’ Mean to You?“:

Once upon a time, the word welfare simply meant, faring well. That’s how the framers of the U.S. Constitution used it in the preamble. Right after the part about “forming a more perfect union” and before the part about “securing the blessings of liberty”, there’s a charge to “promote the general welfare.”

And yet, if you go out on to the street and ask people how they feel about the word welfare today, the feelings are, to put it mildly, fairly negative.

“It’s for people who sit on their butt all day and don’t do anything and then say ‘give me your money,’” is how John Frazer, a car service driver from San Diego, put it.

“It’s kind of associated with failure,” added Suncana Laketa, a graduate student from Arizona who said she had received welfare in the past herself.

She goes on to explain how the word has changed — how it has been demonized. The label “gay” has undergone a similar change, as many parents have had to explain during the annual reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” And here’s a telling book title about how labels are used: Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.

You see, calling someone a “liberal” isn’t just a forensic exercise in academic differentiation. It’s a political act. And leaders who claim a theological tradition that’s particularly attuned to the political should stop acting naive about the politics of labels.

This post and the hullaballoo that surrounds it has the potential to be seen as internecine sniping, so I’m going to try to draw some larger lessons.

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Where Is the Emerging Church?

photo by Steve Knight

No one knows more about the ECM, especially in the UK, than Jonny Baker. He’s been around since before the beginning, and he’s published on it as well. Recently, he received an email asking what happened to the emerging church, and he posted his response on his blog:

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Can Postmodern Theology Live in Our Churches? #STN2

That is the overarching question at Subverting the Norm 2, a conference that I’m attending this weekend in Springfield, Missouri. Honestly, not many people addressed the question yesterday, at least not in the sessions I attended. So far this morning, the presenters have pivoted to talking about it.

Last night, I responded to John Caputo‘s plenary address. Some here accused me of failing to actually respond to Caputo, others have wondered if I made a Derridian move, and still others have thanked me for speaking plainly and forthrightly. Some requested that I post my response, so I will do so here. But before that, some prolegomena:

First, Caputo is the rock star of this conference. Several people here are his former PhD students, and many are his acolytes. I, too, am a big fan of Caputo — I think his Weakness of God is a brilliant text — and I had no desire to present a deep critique of his work in this context.

Second, due to no fault of his own, Caputo did not provide me with his manuscript in advance. In academic conferences, respondents are usually able to see the paper in advance so as to write a prepared response.

Third, Caputo is a philosopher of the first order. I am not. I’m a (practical) theologian, well-versed in postmodern philosophy, to be sure, but not at the level of going nose-to-nose with someone of Jack’s caliber. To do so would have been stupid of me and disrespectful of Caputo.

For all of these reasons, to attempt an on-the-fly response to Caputo would have been nigh on suicidal — or at least would have held the potential for a massive trainwreck. So, instead, I composed 13 points of challenge and exhortation for those in the crowd — particularly clergy — who are really trying to answer the question, “Can postmodern theology live in our churches?” Some of these points I prepared before Jack’s talk, and some are a direct result of and response to it:

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The Ongoing Witness of the Emerging Church

Emergent is dead. Long live Emergent.

Like me, you may occasionally hear comments like this: “The emerging church is dead, and it had no long-lasting impact.” It’s similar to people telling you that no one is doing postmodern philosophy at universities anymore.

Both are patently false. Things have changed, to be sure. Philosophical and ecclesial fashions change, and others take a run at making headlines. But the excitement building around this week’s Subverting the Norm conference just goes to show that both postmodern philosophy and emergent church still have traction.

Two recently released books show more than anything else that the emerging church movement has an ongoing legacy in today’s church:

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