Monday, January 30, 2012

Emerging Conversations

A friend suggested that I read Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging. Published in conjunction with the Emergent Village, the book attempts to participate in the “emerging conversation” within the church.   

I reluctantly agreed.

It was my own fault because I had recommended Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church to himAnd my reluctance was not because I doubted my friend’s book recommending abilities. It was due more to the fact that the whole “emergent church” discussion has becoming somewhat frustrating to me. I don’t have a lot of appreciation for the movement and didn’t want to wade through a lot of essays championing it.

And if that weren’t enough, the subject has become passé in many ways. I don’t know any church in our area that currently labels itself “emergent.” My hope has been that the movement will die off and the good parts of it will endure and the other, far more-concerning elements will fade away.

But two things struck me as I skimmed through a preview of the book. First, strands of emergent church philosophy—if the movement is cohesive enough for such a thing to exist—are prevalent even in churches that wouldn’t consider themselves emergent. Second, the book offers a valuable perspective. It is written by those within the emergent community to describe where they see the movement currently at and where it is headed.

I finished the book this past week and found it engrossing. It’s well written and some of the authors are trying to address the concerns that others have expressed about the emergent church. Some of their responses gave me hope for a continued dialogue and other responses caused me to wonder in what sense their theology could even be called “Christian.”

Here are just a few scattered thoughts.

Philosophical Realism

According to Kevin Corcoran, the philosophical realist is one who believes that things really exist. You might think that everyone would be a philosophical realist, but you would be wrong.  The antirealist believes that we simply create things like God and the world around us.  But the philosophical realist believes that “objects exist quite apart from and independent of the conceptual contributions of minded beings like us” (8).

Corcoran addresses here one of the critiques I have often expressed about the epistemology (theory of knowledge) of emergent churches. There is a tendency within the movement to question our ability to “know” things. Even those who might admit that there are real things in the world sometimes believe “we are simply constitutionally incapable of ever coming to know [the world] as it is, independent of us” (9).

This impacts Christianity in the following way: “As this relates to God, the idea is something like this: God is so big, so wholly other, and we are so small (or finite), that to name God as loving or merciful or gracious (or whatever) is really to create an idol; it always results in an unsuccessful attempt to domesticate or tame the untameable, to name the unnameable God” (9).

This postmodern take on knowledge leads “many emerging Christians to call for a Christianity beyond belief. The idea is that committing oneself to concrete Christian beliefs places oneself in the primoridal waters of modernism.”

To his credit, in this chapter Corcoran rejects this and advocates philsophical realism.

What is the relationshp between philosophical realism and religious experience? One might think that the relation is a loose one at best. The problem is that the relation might indeed be a loose one on one level but not so loose on another. For example, one might think that what is important is not that the resurrection occurred as a historical event but that Jesus rises as a subjective, transformative event or experience in the lives of his followers.

At the level of reflective theorizing, if Jesus did not rise, then those who claim to have been transformed by an encounter with the rise Christ are mistaken…. The point is this: if the event has anything to do with a rise Christ, then Christ must be risen.
I commend Corcoran for advocating this viewpoint, but it should raise real concerns that such a defense is necessary. When he writes, “one might think” that whether or not the resurrection really happened might not be important, of whom is he talking? Who wouldn’t find that important?

What is striking to me is that this isn’t someone outside the movement claiming that emergent Christians struggle with making assertions about the character of God and the historicity. This is someone within the movement.

What Can Be Affirmed

By far the worst chapter in the book was by Peter Rollins as he discussed the “worldly theology” of emergent Christianity.

Trying to contemporize Galatians 3:28 where we read that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Rollins writes:

You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither high church nor low church, Fox nor CNN, citizen nor alien, capitalist nor communist, gay nor straight, beautiful nor ugly, East nor West, theist nor atheist, Israeli nor Palestinian, hawk nor dove, American nor Iraqi, maried nor divorced, uptown nor downtown, terrorist nor freedom fighter, priest nor prophet, fame nor obscurity, Christian nor non-Christian, for all are made on in Christ Jesus (24).
It’s hard to know how to describe this paragraph, but the word “absurd” keeps coming to mind. Rollins takes elements that truly are consumed by unity (ideologies, appearances, culture) and combining them with things that Christ can have no part of (homosexuality, atheism, denial of His Lordship).  While touting humity, he is actually betraying arrogance in rejecting God's understanding of unity. 


In contrast, the best chapter was on the religious aspects of our consumer culture. Jason Clark provides an excellent example of how our culture has it's own religious demands:

Recently my teenage daughter wrestled with taking part in a dance club on a Sunday that would require missing out on the regular worship life of our church community. Her dance teacher felt no restrain in “evangelizing” her, telling her that surely she could speak to God in private; why did she need church? Wouldn’t church always be there in the future? Isn’t the dance club what’s really important? Her teacher, knowing that becoming a dancer requires learning the traditions of dance and regular practice with others, didn’t realize that the logic of her argument extends to Christanity as a way of life. How often do we become captive to this consumer training and liturgy, organizing our lives around the consumer imagination of what life is really about, relegating Christianity and church to a mere supplement, a cultural accessory? Indeed, church has become nothing more than a meaningless expression of private religious association or a private club. But what if church were not just one choice among many but an ultimate and final choice (43)?
Clark is right and there are important implications for the Christian to think through as we pursue Christ in a culture awash in a different type of worship.

Two More Thoughts
There are pages and pages on which I've scribbled notes on in the book, but two concluding thoughts come to mind.  First, there is no cohesive emergent movement.  There is a great deal of diversity and, as my friend and I discussed, it's hard to critique the movement because people can quickly claim "that's not me" as you level your criticism.

But, second, if you're part of a movement where you have to defend the idea of truth...why bother?  What does it say if large segments of the movement with which you self identify believe the resurrection didn't really happen, or it doesn't matter if it did or not?  Does 1 Corinthians 15 still matter?

Is a movement worth saving if one of the central issues it is grappling with is whether or not it one make assertive statements about the nature and character of God?

Book Reviews

Monday, January 23, 2012

Will Gender-Based Abortions Change the Debate?

In an article last week, Al Mohler offered a depressing analysis of how far apart the positions of the pro-life and pro-choice movements remain. The article was entitled, “'Abortion is as American as Apple Pie’—The Culture of Death finds a Voice.”

Describing attempts to find a moderating position in the abortion debate, Mohler notes:

With predictable regularity, cultural authorities call for the emergence of a moderating position between the pro-life and pro-abortion positions. But efforts to achieve a stable compromise on the abortion issue are doomed to failure. The two positions hold irreconcilable views of reality. The pro-life movement holds that the central issue is the unborn child’s right to live. Abortion activists have staked their entire case on the claim that the only determinative issue is the woman’s unrestricted right to choose.
The viewpoints represented have such differing views of reality, compromise is almost impossible. Will a pro-life person change their minds regarding the value of life? Speaking for  

But will a pro-choice person waver in their commitment that “the only determinative issue is the woman’s unrestricted right to choose”? I hold out hope that the answer may yet be “yes” for many pro-choice advocates.

On the one hand, the case seems bleak. Consider the assertions made by Merle Hoffman in her recent memoir, Intimate Wars. Mohler writes:

Just recently, Merle Hoffman, a major voice in the abortion rights movement and founder of Choices, a major center for abortions in New York City, has written a memoir, Intimate Wars. In telling her story, Hoffman calls for her colleagues in the abortion industrial complex to defend abortion as a moral choice.

Abortion is the ultimate act of empowering women, she argues. “The act of abortion positions women at their most powerful, and that is why it is so strongly opposed by many in society,” she asserts.

A central portion of her memoir deals with the abortion rights movement’s attempt to defend abortion in the face of pro-life arguments that the fetus has a right to life.

“The pro-choice movement had to find a way to navigate these narratives,” she explains. “The simplest option was to negate the claims of the opposition. And so many pro-choice advocates claimed that the fetus was not alive, and that abortion was not the act of terminating it. They chose to de-personalize the fetus, to see it as amorphous residue, to say that it was only ‘blood and tissue.’”

As she explains, the pro-life movement thought that, if women really knew what abortion was — the killing of an unborn human being — they would decide to keep their babies. She rejects the argument.

Hoffman argues that women do know what an abortion is. Abortion does stop a beating heart and that it is not “just like an appendectomy.” Her conclusion is that women know that abortion is “the termination of potential life.”

She then makes this statement:

“They knew it, but my patients who made the choice to have an abortion also knew they were making the right one, a decision so vital it was worth stopping that heart. Sometimes they felt a great sense of loss of possibility. In the majority of cases, they felt a great sense of relief and the power that comes from taking responsibility for one’s own life.”

Rarely do we see abortion defended in such unvarnished terms — “a decision so vital it was worth stopping that heart.” Merle Hoffman goes on to explain how she can speak of abortion so directly. She has, she tells us, no conception that life is sacred.
Common ground with such extremism seems impossible.

But I have hope that the pro-choice movement is not monolithic and some in its ranks may waver in their belief that the right to choose is the ultimate issue at stake in this debate. Evidence of this is seen in the gender-based abortion debate.

On January 20, 2012, Canada’s National Post ran an article entitled, “Sex-based abortion divides pro-choicers on rights.” In the article, Danielle VanDerSchans describes the quandary the radical pro-choice person is in.

Mara Hvistendahl is pro-choice, except when she is not.

She believes a woman should have the right to terminate a pregnancy. Except if she is in China or India and wants to abort a female fetus because she was hoping it was a male. In those countries, the toll of “missing” girls is in the millions, despite existing bans on sex-based abortions.

While she said a ban in the Asian context “makes complete sense,” she is solidly against a U.S. bill that would criminalize the practice in America — the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act introduced by anti-abortion Republican Trent Franks last November. [. . .]

And Ms. Hvistendahl supports reproductive rights for women, but not necessarily when it comes to knowing the sex of the fetus she is carrying. A woman should have the choice of whether or not to abort, but not to know all the details about it.

“There’s no real need to know the [sex], and that could be an effective way to fight sex-selective abortion,” she said. She summed up her stance by saying: “You can believe in a right but still believe it has limits.”
But why? Why limit on the basis of gender?  VanDerSchans continues:

In pro-choice, feminist circles the idea of limiting a woman’s rights has long been condemned. But the idea of aborting female fetuses strictly because they are female, of discriminating against them because of their sex, may have presented feminist pro-choicers with a new and rather difficult challenge — a philosophical issue where a well-founded rejection of patriarchal cultural attitudes conflicts with an instinct to beat back any limits at all on a woman’s right to choose abortion.

The pro-choice movement is anything but unanimously or easily decided on sex-based abortion. It is divided, whether publicly or behind closed doors, between the pro-choice absolutists who fear any concession marks a slippery slope, the feminists who loathe too much the idea of fewer females being born, and all those who carve out what several pro-choice activists called a “nuanced” position somewhere in the middle.

The hypocrisy of taking a "nuanced" position is not lost on many within the pro-choice movement.  Many recognize how people like, well, me would react.
Joyce Arthur, executive director of Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said it would, indeed, be hypocritical for a pro-choice group to support restrictions on a woman’s right to choose or even to information about her fetus. She said the coalition does not support a ban on sex-based abortions, nor does it support concealing the fetus’ sex until 30 weeks.
“As soon as you put any kind of restriction on abortion, it really is a slippery slope,” she said, adding that education is the key to reducing sex-based abortions around the world and in Canada, where the medical journal said hundreds of girls are aborted in favour of boys each year, mostly by immigrant women. “If you can restrict sex-based abortions, then why can’t you restrict abortions for genetic abnormalities?”
Indeed, why not?

Arthur is exactly right.  Those of us who are pro-life do hope that restrictions on gender-based abortion "rights" would prove to be a slippery sloope.  We hope that as people recognize the value of life little girls, it would lead to a recognition of the value of all life.  

Monday, January 9, 2012

What Does it Mean to be Evangelical? A Review of Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism

On September 17, 1915, while speaking at Princeton Theological Seminary, B.B. Warfield lamented the confusion regarding the term “evangelical”:
"The religious terrain is full of the graves of good words which have died from lack of care—they stand as close in it as do the graves today in the flats of Flanders or among the hills of northern France. And these good words are still dying all around us. There is that good word “Evangelical.” It is certainly moribund, if not already dead. Nobody any longer seems to know what it means."
Nearly 100 years later, Warfield’s dilemma has worsened. The diversity of those who would claim to be “evangelical Christians" has increased to the point that the label seems meaningless.  If one disagrees with the historic understanding of the gospel or evangelicalism, one simply redefines the term to make it mean what they want it to mean.  As one pastor, when asked if he was an Evangelical, put it:
I embrace the term evangelical,” he remarked, “if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.
Unfortuantley, that's not what we mean, at least not historically.  While those sentiments are nice, that definition can just as easily be applied to a Peace Corp volunteer as an evangelical.

Complicating the problem, the term evangelical is sometimes used as a pejorative in the public sphere. For example, evangelicals are caricatured in the political realm as anti-intellectual and anti-freedom; individuals who want to impose their religious beliefs on others while failing to meet their physical needs.

Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, edited by Stanley Gundry, provides a valuable resource for those who want to understand how those who identify themselves as evangelical define the term.

Kevin Bauder provides a Fundamentalist perspective on what it means to be evangelical. He doesn't defend hyper-fundamentalism but instead the idea that the gospel “draws the boundary of Christian fellowship” and believes that Christians should also separate from those who fail to draw those boundaries (but he's really nice about it).  

Al Mohler argues for something Confessional evangelicalism. He maintains that adherence to certain beliefs define an evangelical.  To deny those core beliefs places one outside the boundaries of evangelicalism.

John Stackhouse considers himself a Generic evangelical.  He maintains that there are distinctive features to evangelicalism but wants the tent to be large enough so that we can “all feel we are authentic evangelicals.”

Roger Olson, promoting a position called Post-Conservative evangelicalism, believes that there are not boundaries to the evangelical movement but rather a center. In other words, there are core beliefs that can be considered "evangelicalism", but no one who desires to be considered part of the movement can be excluded.

This book will not solve the dilemma of what it means to be evangelical. In fact, it sheds far more light on the theological perspective of the individual authors than the issue of what it means to be evangelical.

While I had expected to be irritated by Bauder's fundamentalims, I found myself largely in agreement with much of what he wrote.  Unfortunatley, his insistence on "secondary separation" (the idea that we must separate from those who refuse to separate from those who undermine the gospel) is a bridge too far for me. 

I found Stackhouse an interesting read but extremely confusing. He seemed confused himself on what he was willing to call evangelical and what he must be forced to admit fell outside the boundaries of evangelicalism.

I disagree with Olson in terms of what ought to be true of evangelicals, but I found myself admitting that he was at least correct in a practical sense. As much as I believe that the term evangelical should be reserved for those who profess the evangel, the gospel, it is hard to deny that the term has grown to include those who deny significant truths related to the gospel. In this sense, Olson is right. Evangelicalism is not an institution but a movement.

But Olson arrives at an understanding of evangelicalism that empties the word of any real meaning. As he admits:
So, how…do I define evangelical and evangelicalism? I’m tempted to say, paraphrasing a Supreme Court justice, that while I can’t define who is an evangelical, I know one when I meet one. . . . I refuse to talk about evangelical boundaries or about anything approaching an evangelical magisterium. I value its movement character and its diversity as well as its unity (182).
This will not do. For a term to have meaning, sometimes it must have both positive and negative value. When we classify something, we are not only saying what it is, we are simultaneously saying what it is not. A chair is not a window. A book is not car. Defining something necessitates limitations.

Like Bauder, Mohler argue for a definition that is more theological than sociological.  I agree with him when he writes: “Evangelicalism is coherent as movement only if it is also known for what it is not. Attention to the boundaries is as requisite as devotion to the center. . . . Our task is to be clear about what the gospel is and is not” (210).

The hope I have is not that we will preserve some arbitrary term.  My prayer is that we will rightly define evangelical so that we will maintain clarity in our presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ.