The Dream of Resurrecting the First Century
At the core of the Protestant ethos is the dream that the root vine of the church of Jesus Christ can be tapped by a direct, fresh and honest reading of the Bible. This dream has been launching churches and church reformation movements long before the Protestant Reformation. We long for the Holy Spirit to come with tongues of fire and blow like a mighty wind, or at least we think we do. We fixate on the success of the honeymoon passages early in the book of Acts but suppress the stonings, beatings, imprisonments, failures, conflicts and martyrdoms of the rest of the story, and the rest of church history.
Part of what this dream is blind to the fact that every fresh reading of the Bible is undertaken from a fixed point in history, just like the events of the Bible happened in their own fixed point in history. The core of the incarnation, that God takes on particularity, Jewish flesh, a labored occupation, a first century religion, Roman occupation politics with its own culture war, is also conveniently suppressed. Every fresh wind of the Spirit will also bear a world of its own particularity. There were no generic prophets and there can be no generic Christians. We all have fingerprints, DNA, context and history.
The Baby Boomers with their parents rode the post-war church balloon high into the sky, but by the 80s it was clear that although the balloon hadn’t burst, it was losing altitude quickly. Bill Hybels created a safe place to hear a dangerous message. Rick Warren, a master communicator of folksy simplicity taught pastors how to run their disciples around the baseball diamond.
The seeker movement tried to reassert the church’s credibility among a population that was losing ground to addiction, debt, and the weary hustle of suburban life by offering programmatic relief. Modernity’s therapeutic tools wrapped in Biblely language packed in “how to” sermons accompanied by churchified popular music helped the faithful bring unchurched Harry and Mary to a familiar mall like space so that older modern evangelistic tools like the four spiritual laws and the Roman road could do their work. If the golf course in the movie “The Sunshine State” was “nature, on a leash” then the seeker movement was a modern missiological way of putting American suburban sprawl on a Christian leash.
The Seeker movement in the 80s and 90s did little to challenge NT Wright’s paradigm of the shape of modern Christianity in North America
Much would-be Christian thought (including much would-be “biblical” Christian thought) in the last two hundred years has tacitly conceded these huge claims, turning “Kingdom of God” into “the hope for heaven after death” and treating Jesus’s death, at the most, as the mechanism whereby individual sinners can receive forgiveness and hope for an otherworldly future—leaving the politicians and economists of the Enlightenment to take over the running, and as it turns out the ruining, of the world. (This political agenda, by the way, was of course a vital part of the Enlightenment project: kick “God” upstairs, make religion a matter of private piety, and then you can organize the world to your own advantage. That has been the leitmotif of the Western world ever since, the new philosophy which has so far sustained several great empires, launched huge and horribly flawed totalitarian projects, and left the contemporary world thoroughly confused. But all this must wait for another day.) Scripture itself, meanwhile, is muzzled equally by both sides. It is squelched into silence by the “secularists” who dismiss it as irrelevant, historically inaccurate, and so on—as you would expect, since it might otherwise challenge their imperial dreams. Equally worrying, if not more so, it is squashed out of shape by many of the devout, who ignore its global, cosmic, and justice-laden message and treat it only as the instrument of personal piety and the source of true doctrine about eternal salvation. Secular and sacred readings—and the scholarship that has jostled between the two—have connived to produce the shallow readings which, as we saw in the prologue, constitute our immediate problem.
Wright, N. T. (2011-03-01). Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (pp. 89-90). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The Emergent Movement: Ecclesiastical Generational Differentiation
While the boomers were working out their stuff in the churches created to retake their generation, younger generations were having none of it. Employing modern marketing methods to lure people in to hear a modernistic “dangerous message” sounded all too familiar. Their generation had been the target of the Merchants of Cool and could were nearly allergic to anything that might feel “inauthentic”.
Jim Belcher in his book “Deep Church” answers the question “What is the Emergent Church Protesting?”
1. Captivity to Enlightenment rationalism
2. A narrow view of salvation
3. Belief before belonging
4. Uncontextualized worship
5. Ineffective preaching
6. Weak ecclesiology
The recommendation blurbs on the book are a who’s who of the early Emergent movement:
Tim Keller: “This is an important book”
Scot McKnight: “Deep church is the book we need…”
Mark Driscoll: “Deep church is a thoughtful, helpful and practical addition…”
Dan Kimball: “Deep church takes us beyond just the surface…”
Rob Bell: “This is the Jim Belcher I used to hang out with…”
Living on Htrae
“In the Bizarro world of “Htrae” society is ruled by the Bizarro Code which states “Us do opposite of all Earthly things!” Bizarro twins are the same, but opposite.
Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll were born 49 days apart in 1970, that’s seven weeks exactly for you numerological readers of Daniel 9. Both of them established large growing churches named “Mars Hill” and echo church plants around the country. Both pastors have produced significant controversy and at this point in time followers of one would likely have suspicions about the followers of the other. Both would come from the Emergent response to the traditional church and the seeker movement. Both would wind up taking it in entirely different directions.
Mars Hill Grand Rapids (Rob Bell) grew in one of the most Christian and reformed cities in the United States. Mars Hill Seattle (Mark Driscoll) grew in one of the most resistant cities in America to Christianity. Both would methods shaped and suited to a postmodern context. In the city with deep Reformed roots the message would be more accommodationist. In the city resistant to church growth the message would be more antithetical and reactive to the pervasive local culture.
Rob Bell: Using Narrative to Respond to Postmodernity
Rob Bell would make a name for himself by trying to help people hear and live a better story. It seems ironic that a movement that is suspicious of meta narratives would be so enthralled by narrative but that seems to be the way it is. Stories have within themselves their own logic and justification. Stories create within themselves their own discrete universes that to one degree or another ask us to not worry about the structure and plumbing beneath. Rob Bell through his preaching, teaching, writing and video work created attractive worlds for us to live within. As a skilled subcreator he was able to connect his created worlds sufficiently to our worlds so that the two could inform each other. This is essentially what the Biblical narrative does for us.
The job of the preacher is through the sermon or sermonic story is to take from our context and the Biblical context and create a small third derivative story between them that makes sense of the two foundational worlds. Bell follows the Seeker movement by attempting to create a safer, better, derivative world which lends credibility to the Biblical world by showing it to improve on the listener’s contextual world. If you look at Rob Bell’s most famous book “Love Wins” the contours of the approach are clear. Bell wants to help make Jesus and the Bible credible by showing how it improves on impulses already found and accepted within the culture. Justification for opening postmoderns to considering a metanarrative is found in the accumulation of self-justifying smaller narratives.
From the west coast one might reasonably ask “How postmodern is Grandville Michigan really?” Late in 2011 Rob Bell announced that he was leaving suburban Grand Rapids for California to write books, speak and continue his video work. There is a sense among some church leaders in creative, urban, postmodern hotspots that this type of accommodationist approach only gets traction among skeptical Christians looking for something fresh from remnant puddles of Christendom. If you look enough like everyone else no one has any reason to make time to hear what you really have to say. There may be something to the fact that the next two Christian leaders are striving to create alternative Christian communities in post-christian contexts while embracing positions antithetical to the flow around them.
Mark Driscoll: Will the Whining Never End? Who can save us from this misery?
If Rob Bell is a therapist-story teller who wants to help you live a better story, Mark Driscoll is a drill sergeant that is going to yell and even cuss at you until you get your spiritually rebellious ass off the sofa of eternal destruction.
Cultural projects among real people (as opposed to the ones in our imaginations) have a way of bringing about what they were designed to avoid. Modernity was supposed to eliminate religion (as a subset of superstition) giving us a world of reasonable peace and prosperity. It gave us two World Wars. It gave us the lesson that if your neighbor has something you want (like the rest of the planet) and is opposed to giving it to you and your countrymen it seems reasonable to take it and dispose of your neighbor and her progeny.
Postmodernity was supposed to eliminate metanarratives by exposing the truth beneath them that all were conveniently deployed by the powerful of history to oppress the weak. If postmodernity itself is a metanarrative… you get the picture. Power ought not to be used to advantage oneself over the weak, but we find that use of power by its very definition disadvantages the other by virtue of their weakness.
We imagine that a newly empowered formerly weak person would wield their new power in a more moral way, but when we imagine this we conveniently forget the reason we coined the word “reprisal”. Any good therapist will tell you “hurt people hurt people.”
Playing the weak victim in a meta-narrative where victims are afforded rights to free themselves from tyranny creates a race for the status of “more victim than thou”. The old ways of obvious and clear power grabs are replaced by the drama of trying to out whine your adversary in the theater of victim entitlement. Into this morass of self pity and sycophancy the unreconstructured male takes the stage and shouts “I can’t fucking stand it anymore!” and he is not alone.
If power structures can’t be trusted, and all metanarratives by their nature are corrupt, and we learn that we ought to be suspicious of our leaders, our parents, and even our own moral and religious selves, what person in the universe is there left to turn to? When our institutions are so thoroughly compromised by human corruption, and our hearts themselves can deliver no earthly good, we need a deliverer who is powerful enough to deliver us from our sin and misery and yet human enough to be one of us.
Wait a minute, I’ve heard something like this before.
Antithetical in all the right ways
Church growth experts have long known that conservative churches grow larger and faster than accommodationist churches. Conservative church leaders like to repeat the point. They seldom fess up to the fact that the same dynamic holds true for other counter-cultural groups that they regard as heterodox. The key is learning to be antithetical in all the right ways.
The logic of accommodation is that you must remove barriers so that your neighbors can come in, but why should they take the time? You must be antithetical enough to be interesting enough to warrant a first and second look by your neighbors, while accessible and attractive enough to make it possible for them to join you and sacrifice to continue to follow you.
Every religious group that grows has figured out an equation to fit this paradox whether or not they know how they are doing it. Once we find a formula that works, however conscious we are of the particulars, we tend to keep doing it. Next we write a book about how others can do it too. Reward begets repetition.
Suspicious of everything we see? Offplanet the choosing!
The logic of emergent Calvinism like Driscoll’s offshores our choosing with God. If all human choosers are suspect then God must do the choosing and by our alignment with his revelation we can see that he has chosen us.
The dance of antithesis and alignment brings us many ironies. Conservatives who may be suspicious of science while embracing a worldview whose determinism doesn’t look out of step with determinisms found in science. People who are more comfortable with choosing their God and their beliefs ironically embrace a science that is rapidly undermining the ontology of human choice. Human choice may merely be an experience of the consciousness after the subconscious has already made the decision. (Read Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain) If our brains themselves are doing the choosing apart from us, we need a chooser with no such limitation.
Emergent Calvinism leans hard on predestination, insists on what is viewed as traditional community structures and Biblical readings while in their suspicions finding alignment with a suspicious context. If certainty cannot be found in humanity, it can only be found in God.
Only an affluent, powerful, prosperous civilization can support skepticism as a lifestyle. Real world choices require action and in a scientistic age action and repeated expected response invite the chooser into certainty. Driscoll’s church is made up of people who work for a living, people who have been knocked around by this world and have had to make choices. This isn’t the first time Calvinism has taken root in areas of immigrants from cultural exile.
If Driscoll is attracting a population seeking certainty in an age of whining, how is emergent Calvinism also making inroads into communities of the cosmopolitan elite?
Next: Stalking Tim Keller