We Can’t Un-Open the Postmodern Box

We Can’t Un-Open the Postmodern Box October 25, 2011

Adam, a friend on Facebook, sent a couple of questions to me via chat yesterday that I thought could be more easily answered in a blog than in shorts bursts on instant messaging. I’ve written about my thoughts on postmodernism, its effects on theology and the church before, but it’s an important enough subject to revisit from time to time.

Adam’s first question was (and I’m paraphrasing):

What do you think about the emerging church movement?

First, I think he rightly identifies it as a movement, more viral in nature than any particular institution would tend to propagate a set of ideals. I told him that I felt that emerging church, as an idea, is a natural byproduct of postmodern culture. In short, postmodernism challenges the more dichotomous, black-and-white, either-or thinking of modernism. Postmodernism suggests that the dualistic attitudes of modernism that began as early as the Enlightenment paint an overly simplistic picture of reality. In the United States in particular, postmodernism has found voice as our culture becomes increasingly pluralistic and those lines we believed were clear before begin to blur.

As for the emerging church movement, I told him that I see this as a natural response to postmodern thought. Though our understanding of what exactly emerging church is varies by individual (typically postmodern, isn’t it?), there are a handful of general attributes that I see as defining what emerging church is:

A value of community over institutional membership.

An emphasis on service-based ministry over traditional evangelism for the sake of conversion.

A call to live out ministry in the cultural context where you find yourself, rather than expecting the community to come to you through the institutional church.

A focus on trying to live as Christ lived and taught, rather than propping up church dogma, doctrine or any one particular statement of faith.

As for defining emerging church beyond this, I find it hard to do. Some claim it’s a predominantly liberal movement, and in so much as one defines “liberal” as downplaying the importance of institutional and doctrinal authority, I suppose that’s accurate. But I know social conservatives and progressives who identify as part of the emerging church movement, along with agnostics and evangelicals. Emerging church does not promote a specific Christology or set of theological ideals, as this would be contrary to the very concept from which it came. This doesn’t mean that, on occasion, some folks won’t try to co-opt the emerging church label on behalf of their own particular agenda, but such labels end up falling away.

Adam’s second question was:

Isn’t postmodernism giving way to a kind of hyper-modernism?

I think this is an astute observation, especially with the growing visibility of such people as John Piper and Mark Driscoll. However, my short answer to his question would be “no.”

I think that, any time a new worldview begins to take hold, there will be some degree of push-back from those entrenched in the prior way of seeing things. This is especially true for individuals and institutions that stand to benefit from things staying the way they are. In this case, religious fundamentalism – whether from the right or left – depends on a more dichotomous, either-or way of thinking. So any alternative to this understanding of the world is considered a threat.

Although more fundamentalist, doctrinal and/or dogmatic approaches to religion may be more vocal in their reaction to postmodernism and the emerging church, this does not necessarily mean that they are gaining popular momentum. On the contrary, as a more people understand the world in pluralistic, fluid (some might argue relativistic) terms, such vocal opposition seems increasingly out of step with reality. As technology allows us to exchange ideas and experiences more easily and rapidly, and as our communities reflect an increasingly heterogeneous face, efforts to draw clear lines and define life with absolute, monolithic clarity simply begin to lose credibility.

So in short, though there are “hyper-modern” advocates who would have us believe that postmodernism and the emerging church are merely the passing fad of the moment, a longer-term, broader perspective reinforces the idea that we cannot simply go back to old ways of thinking when the world around us is so much more integrated, fluid and diverse than ever before in history.

Such changes simply can’t be undone, despite the vocal cries for a return to the ways of the past. You can’t un-open the box.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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    Well, I thought it was a good question, and I read the answer through three times, but I still don’t know what you mean…not everyone understands “theology talk.”  Even educated people (I have a masters degree!) need things spelled out for us in plain words!  lol!

    • Sorry about that. Big concepts to unpack in such a small space. I’ll try to be mindful of this in future posts. Always good to be called on it when I’m being too much of a God Nerd!

      • Sounds like a comment I would make, doesn’t it. But it wasn’t me! I thought it was a good post (as always), and I even understood most of it. 🙂 One thing I’m not sure a lot of postmodernists understand is that the fundamentalists are changing along with the culture in a lot of respects. The long-time institutions are opening their doors to invite the community in and encouraging their members to go out into the community and the world in many of the same ways as the emerging church. There is an emphasis on service, know that “people won’t care what you know until they know that you care.” There are still some points of belief on which fundamentalists feel there can be no negotiation, but as I listen to and read about the emerging church, I sometimes feel we’re arguing semantics.