Leonard Sweet offers an extend discussion about engagement with postmodern culture in Postmodern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century (2000). Sweet advocates what he calls an “EPIC” approach to postmodern culture and argues that Christian leaders must create worship that is “[e]xperiential, [p]articipatory, [i]mage-driven, [and] [c]onnected.” This approach to the postmodern moment in which Christians live, Sweet argues, creates space to contemplate “creativity” and display “imagination.” In other words, some Christians part of a postmodern context, or even those interested in spiritual things for whose worldviews postmodernism forms the structure, often seek to visually participate in a communal experience with something transcendent. According to Sweet, a visual religious experience augmented by oral communication and participation, serves as something of an entrée, even a metaphor, for a deeper relationship with God and a more authentic connection to community. To contextualize the EPIC approach, Sweet marshals scores of examples from popular culture, from corporate and business literature, from politics, from music, from art, from communications theory, and from economics. Resident in every imaginable corner of today’s culture, Sweet contends that in order to have an acknowledged voice Christian churches must study and engage postmodern culture or risk atrophy or irrelevance. Put another way, Sweet asserts that Christian communities must learn to “do church” in ways that are “biblically absolute but culturally relative.”1
In a similar vein, Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism in a Postmodern World (1999) crafts an “ancient-future” lens through which Christians might see the postmodern world. The phrase “ancient-future,” according to Webber, attempts “to find points of contact between classical Christianity and postmodern thought.” Webber chronicles and defines the differences between modern and postmodern conceptions of Christ, the church, spirituality, and missions. Webber contends that the cultural context of “classical” (ancient) Christianity has some parallels with the postmodern world and thus intends to “interface historic Christian truths into the dawning of a new era.” This is done, Webber insists, by seeing Christ as the ultimate victor over sin and evil and the church as the incarnational extension of Christ into the world. Furthermore, Webber contends, the incarnational embodiment of Christians is best fostered in a church that is consciously holy, catholic, and apostolic. The worship in such a historically conscious church, Webber argues, revolutionizes “experience” such that communication, ritual, and spiritual discipline become “the vehicle through which the story of the work of Christ is proclaimed and enacted” as well as “the rehearsal of the Christ event through which one’s experience with God is established, maintained, and repaired.” Thus, for Webber, like Sweet, the interplay of present and past defines the ancient-future thrust of evangelical faith in a postmodern context.2
While thinkers like Sweet and Webber aim to situate and equip evangelical faith and worship in a postmodern setting, Carl Raschke’s The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (2004) seeks to orient evangelicals to postmodern culture through the lens of philosophy. Raschke carefully details the roots of postmodern philosophy, which he dates to “deconstruction” championed in the 1960s and 1970s by the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), and explains the dynamics of postmodern philosophy as it appeared and continues to appear in philosophical, literary, artistic, historical, and religious studies circles. 3 Most important for the current discussion, Raschke sets his argument for the compatibility of postmodernism and evangelicalism against the postmodern critique of many evangelical scholars. “The postmodernism preoccupation with popular culture, which many evangelical theologians disdain,” Raschke points out, “[is] but a form of cultural sensitivity and intellectual humility that ultimately offers an evangelical opportunity that hard-core Christian rationalists overlook.”4
So, how do postmodernism and evangelicalism actually comport and how will they usher in what he calls a “new reformation”? First, Raschke argues that three dimensions of postmodernism create the possibility for this new reformation: its egalitarian nature; its animus of interconnectivity (both electronic and physical); and its dynamism and pliability. In Raschke’s view, these dimensions of postmodernism will merge with evangelicalism to create a new reformation that prizes relational Christianity, displays a winsome revival spirit that embraces radical, often ascetic living, and in turn allows a kind of Charismatic, even Pentecostal worship experience. “Postmodernity is the exposure of the flux that engulf us,” Raschke describes, “but it is also the realization that this vast panorama of fragmentation, instability, and discontinuity can be an opening to redemption.”5 For Raschke, then, a relational, Pentecostal evangelicalism most accurately reflects the postmodern sensibilities of the contemporary world and ultimately makes possible a new reformation.6
Many in the Emergent church acknowledge the postmodern moment of which humanity is a part, accept the challenges of its major claims, and seek to articulate a faith that is biblically rooted yet culturally sensitive. And while scholars like Leonard Sweet, Robert Webber, and Carl Raschke offer a kind of theoretical framework for Emergent engagement with postmodernism, practitioners and pastors demonstrate how, in such a cultural context, the Emergent church might think about history, tradition, preaching, worship, spiritual formation, artistic expression, and cultural engagement (i.e., evangelism).
These are the topics I will address in subsequent posts.
1Leonard Sweet, Postmodern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), xxi. Sweet further describes the EPIC approach as a “double ring” or what John Stott calls “double listening” (xvi). Sweet’s double ring “ ‘reaches out’ for a back-to-the-future methodology of movement that is simultaneously backward and forward,” while Stott’s double listening, though very similar, has “one ear listening to God’s Word and the other to God’s World” (xvi). In starkly philosophical terms, Sweet contends that “[a]n E-P-I-C epistemology does not negate objectivism with subjectivism in another recurring dualism. Rather, it encompasses both in a wider enfoldment that bring together organism and environment. In an E-P-I-C epistemology rationality is expanded to include experience. The E-P-I-C perspective moves beyond objective and subjective “groundings” to an experiential accounting of truth where presence and participation play literally a “critical” role in history” (156).
2 Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 7, 14, 104-06 (italics his). This section on Webber is adopted from my article “Embracing the Early Church.” Such a short summary does not do justice to the breadth or depth of Webber’s analysis of contemporary culture in light of the church’s ancient past. As such, readers might consult Webber’s application of his ancient-future paradigm in Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003) and Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality Through the Christian Year (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004). Also relevant is Webber’s sociological analysis of today’s postmodern evangelicals often interested in (ancient) spiritual things, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002). Also important on this score is Colleen Carroll’s study of postmodern Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Chicago: Loyola, 2002).
3 Carl Raschke, The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004). For an accessible, understandable introduction to deconstruction, see John D. Caputo, ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997).
4 Ibid., 20.
5 Ibid., 145-205, quote from 174.
6 In a book that is both highly philosophical and transparently personal, not only does The Next Reformation detail Raschke’s devotion to and penchant for postmodernism, but it reveals that relational, communal, and a highly experiential (Pentecostal) Christianity grounds this philosophical devotion. Referencing his important contribution to the field of theology – “the end of theology” – Raschke remarks: “The end of theology is say an adieu to theology in the most literal sense of the word. To say adieu to theology is to “say it like it is” (in French) – literally, to God. It is the power of God liberating evangelical, if not the whole of Christian thought and theology from its long captivity in the Egypt of metaphysics and the Babylon of modernism and drawing it back “to God,” of “letting God be God,” in the face-to-face relationship of faith and worship. After theology we must all get on our faces” (215).