Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Emergent Church & the Theology of Isolationism

In my previous post "Matter/Spirit Dualism", I suggested that the implied dualism between mission and vocation or between gospel ministry and creation ministry closely parallels the matter/spirit disjunction that Dorothy Sayers' opposed. Mission and gospel relate to the “spiritual” end of saving souls, while our vocation and work with creation have only temporal value since such tasks are occupied only with the material world. In this post I want to suggest that there are ecclesiological consequences that have followed a similar trajectory within the contemporary evangelical project, especially within that cluster of evangelicalism that has self-styled itself as “emergent.”

 The “Emerging” Quest for the Invisible

Just as classical Gnosticism was self-consciously anti-establishment (a point I discuss in my review of Against the Protestant Gnostics), so those who have embraced the “emergent” or “liquid” paradigm have imbibed many emblems of anti-institutionalism in a move to self-consciously separate themselves from “religion” and in some cases from the structural connotations of the very term “Christianity.” The "emergent" sub-culture has largely formed its identity through its assault on the institutional church, as seen in recent bestselling publications like The Shack and So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore. By following the postmodern paradigm of relocating the nexus of true religion in private experience as well as informal relationships that are deliberately and self-consciously outside the context of a visible church setting, these books have given a huge impetus to the groundswell of anti-ecclesiological assumptions that, more than anything else, echo Gnosticism‟s obsession with the invisible.
These books are discussed further in the following blog posts:

The Dualisms of William Young (insights from Stuart Bryan)

Of course, things are rarely ever that black and white, and there are an infinite array of variations within that cluster of evangelicalism that is popularly referred to as „emergent. Yet for all its complexity and even self-conscious theological ambiguity, it is hard to deny that the dualism between matter and spirit, between the visible and the invisible, between institutions and relationships, between religion and Jesus, functions as an operating assumption in large swaths of contemporary evangelicalism, at least on the level of praxis where such assumptions usually remain unconscious.
The Eschatology of Isolation

Both the obsession with the invisible and the posture of cultural retreat have been enormously charged by the eschatology of dispensational premillennialism and the industry of end-time speculation that it is spawned. Dispensationalism comes in many varieties, all involving the idea that God‟s dealings with man can be divided up into different compartments. Each dispensation represents a time of testing for human beings, ending in judgment.

Dispensationalism originated in the 1820s in Ireland from the teachings of John Nelson Darby, who founded the Plymouth Brethren. As his movement expanded, Darby visited the United States and Canada seven times between 1859 and 1874. His teachings were not very well received there, particularly his strong antagonism to the institutional Church and his pessimism about modern society. However, his systematic unfolding of prophetic events, soon known as dispensationalism, did make a lasting impact. Many evangelical leaders of the late nineteenth century jumped on the dispensationalist bandwagon, including Dwight Moody and A. J. Gordon. From there dispensationalism took off through four main avenues: the Bible conference movement, Bible colleges, the Scofield Reference Bible (published in 1909), and the Dallas Theological Seminary (founded in 1924). Dispensationalism eventually combined itself with premillennialism, so that now the two normally go together, as in Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' popular Left Behind books.
By making a distinction between the physical promises to Israel in the old covenant and the spiritual promises to the Church in the new covenant, dispensationalism has perhaps done more to entrench the evangelical community in matter/spirit dualism. Moreover, it has contributed to the sense of cultural retreat among modern evangelicals. This is because dispensationalism, at least in its premillennial variety, affirms that unbelief and apostasy will increase, the gospel will be preached to all nations unsuccessfully, the Church will eventually lose influence, fail its mission and become corrupt. At some point, the narrative maintains, the anti-Christ will appear in the temple of Jerusalem, and he will become ruler of the world and persecute Jews and Christians. He will try to put the mark of the beast on everyone‟s foreheads, and many Christians will be deceived into letting him do this. Then, when no one expects it, the, so-called, “rapture” will happen, in which Christians go to heaven while the rest of the world endures a seven-year period of tribulation. (In the older historic non-dispensational premillennialism, the Church went through the tribulation.) God eventually pours out His wrath on the earth until the battle of Armageddon, when Jesus returns physically to the earth and then the Millennium finally gets underway. When that happens, the literal Jewish temple will be rebuilt and the sacrificial system reinstated.
Such a theology not only fail to provide an incentive for Christian cultural involvement, but has the odd affect of enlisting Christians in the ranks of those who are actually hoping the world will get worse.

For the consistent dispensational premillennialist, the purpose of the Christian's mission is essentially negative: the best we can hope to do is avoid the mark of the beast, keep ourselves from the corruption and apostasy that will take over the world and the Church, and bide our time until the rapture. Moreover, by presenting the present physical earth as beyond God's saving power, it solidifies the assumption that earthly culture is “secular.” The dispensationalist belief that the Church and culture are beyond reform this side of the rapture also breeds an isolationism reminiscent of the “Christ against culture” paradigm. Though evangelicals with this mentality may be involved in the political right (especially in America), their vision is necessarily truncated precisely because they do not, and indeed cannot, have a long-term vision for the Church and culture. The cultural consequences of exchanging the visible present for the invisible future, the everyday life for the apocalyptic, are legion. As one popular critic of dispensationalism put it in the mid 90's, “When the house is on fire, life is worth more than books and precious objects. When the end times are on the slipway, such cultural pursuits as art and music are frivolous. Where earlier Christians fell into dualism by placing the spiritual above the secular, contemplation above actions, „full-time Christian service‟ above ordinary life, and „soul saving‟ above study, many dispensationalists have followed the course of „end times‟ events with the consuming fascination of a betting man at a race track. In doing so they have virtually turned their backs on the world in which they live.”

Cultural Consequences

These disjunctions have not come without the types of cultural consequences identified by Niebuhr. A corollary to colluding with the Gnostic notion that what happens in this world is unimportant to God is the all too familiar polarity between those who, on the one hand, have uncritically embraced the life and presuppositions of the surrounding culture, vs. those who have isolated themselves from it, on the other. For the former, culture is a matter of spiritual indifference, leading to an uncritical accommodation rather than thoughtful engagement. But while culture may have some functional value (for example, it may provide fodder for evangelistic marketing techniques), it remains itself spiritually neutral. That the Christian message can easily will morph under the weight of such cultural compromise is illustrated by Leonard Sweet in his book Soul Tsunami. Sweet presents the church‟s survival as being entirely dependent on accommodation with 21st century culture:
The wonder is that churches are not in more disarray. ... They are standing pat, opting to uphold the status quo rather than undergo the upheaval.… Postmodern culture is a change-or-be-changed world. The word is out: Reinvent yourself for the 21st century or die."

On the other hand, the notion that culture is spiritually unimportant is equally capable of invoking a Tertullian-like pessimism. Though this seems at first to represent the opposite polarity to accommodation, it arises from the same basic impulse. Both polarities hinge on the axis of a dualistic spirituality that has mitigated the scope of Christ‟s redeeming work to the realm of the invisible and the spiritual, where the latter is taken to exclude, at some important level, the world and culture in which we find ourselves. Both extremes are symptoms of the double-faceted impotents that is at root a failure of nerve to take seriously the “Christ transforming culture” paradigm.
The most obvious consequence of this mindset is that it truncates the work of missions to the immediate task of getting people saved, while neglecting the larger work of bringing Christian renewal to the wider culture. Whether one adopts the posture of accommodation or that of retreat, the work of redemption has essentially become privatized, a matter of saving souls but not of redeeming the society and institutions of our world for Christ. The arenas of art, politics, drama, film, economics, literature, education, architecture and the media are by default "secular", while the primary work of the church is reduced to getting as many people saved as possible. If this truncated idea of mission is carried to its consistent consequence, only those who are in “full time ministry” can see their day job as being spiritually infused and dynamic. The work of a garbage collector, a car salesman, administrator, artist or accountant achieves value only derivatively by the opportunities it gives us to witness for Christ.


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