Both insiders and critics of the Emergent church note the movement’s relationship to postmodernism. 1 Admittedly, postmodernism is a hefty term that has been subject to trenchant debate within evangelical circles. As I discuss below, many in the Emergent movement readily acknowledge that Christians must critically engage, and in many cases adopt, postures of postmodernism; faithful articulation of the Christian gospel, they argue, demands intimate interaction with and analysis of contemporary culture. The culturally creative element within the Emerging movement adopts and appropriates familiar cultural signs, symbols, and other elements and uses these as a way to engage conversation. Generally this does not result in a mere “Christianization” of “secular” cultural elements, but a rigorous (i.e., theoretical) use of culture as a bridge to friendship and conversation through visual, personal, and relational (i.e., practical) ways. For more on these points, visit the current book blog A New Kind of Conversation.
In what follows I will address the issue of postmodernism and its relation to the Emergent movement and then describe the practical ways Emergent churches engage, adopt, and appropriate aspects of postmodernism.
Postmodernism is a contemporary frame of reference for many in the West, the current context in which individuals create meaning and self understanding, though as Sherman Kuek brilliantly explains in a six-part series from August 2005, postcolonialism is of more significance for the global South. Postmodernism, the ideas of which receive attention in academic disciplines like art, history, literature, philosophy, sociology, economics, theology, linguistics, technology, and even architecture, interrogates received structural notions of human knowledge and meaning. The aim of postmodernism, therefore, is to question or subvert structural modes of knowledge and discover the ways in which meaning exists and is created in these institutional structures. Thus interrogated and dismantled, local and contextual knowledge replaces institutional modes of knowing; meaning emerges at an individualized level and through a multiplicity of refractions.
For some time now many in the evangelical world have defined postmodernism, outlined its parameters, sketched its implications, and assessed the ways in which postmodernism compares and contrasts to Christian knowledge found in the scriptures. Some commentators are critically dismissive, some skeptically reserved, and others discriminatingly welcoming. 2 And while it is beyond the scope of these posts to offer full coverage of evangelical interaction with postmodernism, it is important to point out that Emergent church leaders and those sympathetic to Emergent perspectives acknowledge this cultural climate and seek to interact and engage. Several examples demonstrate this posture of critical engagement.
The next post will show how the work of Leonard Sweet, Robert Webber, and Carl Raschke thoughtfully, though not uncritically, interacts with postmodernism.
1 For insider accounts and opinions, see Chris Seay and others in Leadership Journal.Net and Christianity Today. For trenchant criticism, see especially the work of Albert Mohler, D.A. Carson, the EmergentNo Blog, and the essayists in Millard J. Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Justin Taylor, eds., Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005).
2 See, among many others, Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994); Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds., Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995); Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996); Jerry L. Summers, “Teaching History, the Gospel, and the Postmodern Self,” in Ronald A. Wells, ed., History and the Christian Historian (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); Merold Westphal, ed., Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); Richard B. Davis, “Can There Be an “Orthodox” Postmodern Theology?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45/1 (March 2002): 111-123; Brad J. Kallenberg, Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002); J.P. Moreland, “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48/1 (March 2005): 77-88; Millard J. Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Justin Taylor, eds., Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005); Myron B. Penner, ed., Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).