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Not Tickled: The Emergents and Postmodernism

Maybe you’ve heard talk about “emergent” or “emerging” or “emergence” Christianity. What exactly do these terms mean? Well, it depends on who you talk to.

For some, emergent Christianity simply means removing unnecessary cultural trappings from the church and Christian witness that obscures outsiders’ view of Christ. That’s a critical and valid point.

But others who claim the title of “emergence Christianity” mean a lot more. In response to earlier generations who linked faith too closely with political power, they have done the same thing with the amorphous “cultural mood” called postmodernism.

Now defining postmodernism is kind of like nailing Jell-O to the wall. But basically, postmodernism is the rejection of any “dominant narratives” that attempt to explain how the world works. Truth is a matter of perspective, not claims that can be investigated. The pursuit of absolute truth, postmodernists say, is really nothing but a raw assertion of power. Therefore no single perspective or explanation should receive pride of place, or be considered better than any other.

Those Emergent Christians who have imbibed deeply at the well of postmodernism say that the Christian faith needs to do less declaring and more dialoguing, and that the Church needs to get off its “Constantinian” kick and take a more humble approach to the world.

While Christians should foster a desire to listen and to ask “why” before just accepting an answer, the rejection of propositional truth is unacceptable. But just as Christians in the mainline who embraced modernism in the last century eventually found themselves irrelevant when modernism fell out of fashion, Christians who embrace postmodernism face the same risk.

For example, author and speaker Phyllis Tickle recently told a gathering of emergent Christians that the advent of the Pill and new opportunities for women to work outside the home changed our culture in huge and unexpected ways. This, of course, is clearly true. But then Tickle added that not all of these changes were good, and that didn’t — excuse the pun — tickle her emerging audience at all.

She observed that the spread of birth control and workplace freedom undermined the transmission of religious values in families, because moms were no longer at home to do this. Again, the sociological truth — yes, truth — of this statement is well understood and documented by academics such as Mary Eberstadt.

But apparently, in postmodern gatherings like this one, even simple truth is unacceptable if it smacks of what is considered to be a “traditional narrative.”

As an emerging blogger complained, “I think many of us at the Emergence Christianity Gathering were shocked that … stories of hope were ignored in favor of one that piled on the same stale guilt that we have come to expect from traditional religion.”

In other words, if it smacks of “traditional religion,” it’s simply bad; even if it’s true. Look, I freely admit that the era when moms generally stayed home while dads earned the bread was far from the Ozzie and Harriet ideal, but to dismiss it and pretend that the massive changes that have happened to the family in recent decades had no negative consequences is bizarre.

Hitching Christianity’s wagon to any passing spirit of the age is a one-way ticket to irrelevance. Postmodernism’s denial of dominant narratives is in itself a dominant narrative. Plus, like it or not, the Bible claims a dominant narrative that sin has infected the entire world and requires the redemption of Jesus Christ. Postmodern Christianity, rather than being a new way forward, will just lead to another theological dead end.

During Christianity’s struggle with modernism a generation ago, Dr. Carl F.H. Henry offered a balanced way forward in his classic book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. “The Christian life,” he wrote, "must be lived out among the regenerate, in every area of activity, until even the unregenerate are moved by Christian standards, acknowledging their force.”

All who call themselves Christians — emerging or not — can readily agree on that.

John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: February 1, 2013

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