In these postmodern times there is a transition that has taken place in the world around us. With the advancement of technology has also come an increase in global awareness. No longer can we live life in isolation from our global neighbors. As the world grows smaller, our own country’s idea of what it means to live in community must enlarge, as must the Church’s capacity for loving the “Other”. Not since the time of the New Testament Church has there been such an opportunity for the Church to engage other cultures with the gospel message, and never has that message been so needed. However, just as the distances between nations and cultures have decreased due to our virtual connectivity, so must the divide between Conservative and Progressive Evangelicals. These two movements must find a way to unite, without sacrificing the integrity of the gospel message, so that the Church can be an effective witness in our postmodern culture. What are some of the perceived obstacles, as well as challenges we must face directly, but with greater humility?

Ideology and Idolatry. The word ideology carries different nuances depending on who is using the word, but generally, it means a system of thought. In its original use however, ideology means, “an entire system of values, conceptions, convictions and norms used as a set of tools for reaching a single, concrete, all-encompassing societal end”.The French enlightenment was an ideology of revolution, with the overthrow of church and the upper class as their focus. In order for a revolution to be legitimized it must appeal to the populace’s need for freedom from oppression, and it always promises a new order that will bring a new sense of solidarity, or brotherhood. According to economist and former Dutch Parliamentary member Bob Goudzwaard in his book Idols of Our Time, “Existing norms and values were therefore emptied, refilled, tainted and warped until they became instruments of the all-embracing goal. ‘No God, no master’ was the slogan of this ideology”. Ideologies do not simply come into existence out of thin air, ”THEY NEED DEEP (capitalization his) injustice or threat to take hold. The ideology of nation, which aims for the preservation of a people’s identity, is a case in point” (Goudzwaard). What I am submitting to the reader is that these two ideologies, revolution and nation, now manifest themselves among the fringes of Progressive and Conservative Evangelicalism.Within the Postmodern Progressive Church, one can often hear criticism of The Enlightenment, and the legacy that it left the West: an inordinate reliance on Rationalism – a philosophy that has placed the intellect as the final arbiter of what is good and true. This criticism is understandable. Nevertheless, many within the movement do not recognize that their iconoclastic zeal, and appeals to tear down and “set fire” to the existing church paradigms, bears more than a slight resemblance to the spirit that ignites all revolutions. Fire of a different sort is needed. Fire of a different “Spirit”.In Conservative circles, the ideology of nation is very much alive. What makes it even more deadly is that it is now married to religion. An American brand of Constantinian religion has arisen from the ashes of the Two Towers of 9/11, and has taken flight like a Phoenix. What one must ask is, when do legitimate desires and virtuous ideals become ideologies, and God forbid, morph into full blown idols? Here are four components that energize ideologies and can possibly give birth to idolatry. They’re given by Bob Goudzwaard in his book, Idols of Our Time:1. The resistance of all exploiting and oppressive powers in order to create a better society. 2. The survival of one’s people or nation: the preservation of one’s hard-fought freedoms and/or cultural identity.3. The preservation of one’s wealth or prosperity and the opportunity for continued material progress.4. Guaranteed security: the protection of oneself, one’s children and one’s fellow human- beings.Though Goudzwaard made these observations in the early eighties, one can see how these ideals presently describe the political discourse in our country and influence our Christian communities in one way or another. By any other name or philosophy, such ideals are timeless, and are not in and of themselves evil or harmful. In fact, they are viewed as virtues until incensed by certain threatening conditions. As one might imagine, the more legitimate a goal appears, the more likely ideologies will take root in our political systems, communities, Churches, and in our very minds and souls. As one faction fights for the “Church on the Other Side”, the other camps out singing, “Gimme That Ole’ Time Religion”. If we are not careful, ideals can become ideologies that may mature into full-blown idols with a life of their own.

Religious di-sub-versity. One critical issue facing the church today is Religious Diversity. Our nation is the most religiously diverse nation in the world, and yet I’ve read that ”the percentage of Christians is currently dropping by about one percentage point per year”, and some place that figure higher, with many choosing to simply self-identify as being “spiritual”. Progressives understand this data and welcome it. They are more inclusive, and many accept pluralistic concepts of God (there are many Ways). They understand the importance of respecting other people of other faith traditions, and willing to learn from other religions. Their openness, however, appear to some conservatives to be an accommodation to the culture, and renders certain truth claims of scripture null and void. Conservatives are generally more exclusive in their concept of God (only one Way) and tend to be wary of religious diversity. As I understand it, the theological method of the more postmodern progressive Christian is rooted in the concept that truth is culturally mediated through the community, and that no language can communicate any universal truth, or meta-narrative. A key aspect of this method is a cultural-linguistic approach to theology that was promoted by the late Stanley Grenz. Although rationalistic modernism worked in the past, Grenz believed that the Christian community should now accept the postmodern ethos that “seeks to live in a realm of chastened rationality”, but contrary to post-modernism he believed in an over-arching meta-narrative that best explained reality, and that narrative was to be found in the Christian faith. Grenz was a professor of mine, and I welcomed some aspects of his approach and the promise it held for cultivating greater sensitivity and diversity within Christian communities, as well as the dialogue it promoted between other religions and cultures. However, placing the community as the mediating center of theological truth, along with his emphasis on cultural-linguistics is problematic. It has enabled the more radical among the progressives to go places theologically that has strained the credibility of the movement. Replacing the individualism of the moderns with the communalism of post-modernism might result in communities that are more accountable to one another and model a unity that is faithful to the Christian ethos, but only if dialogue centers around the canon of scripture and care for one another. If the progressives misuse linguistic theory, then we have the same problem as the moderns, only multiplied: Man is still at the center, but with no common agreed upon grammar for talk about God, resulting in a postmodern Tower of Babel, and like in the book of Judges, each “Tribe” will do what is best in their own eyes. Language may not embody absolute truth about God, but it can, and does communicate revealed truths adequately, so that we can communicate with others the revelation God has given us. The conservatives, however, must admit that because of language and cultural barriers, even though there are universal truths, how we use language is a social construct, so how and when we speak of God and other faith traditions, or interact with different cultures, we should do so with humility. I remember the story of a missionary who was trying to translate the Bible for a tribe for whom the term “Lamb” of God, had no meaning because they had no word for, or concept of “lamb”. However, their pigs were very dear to them and the closest he could come to helping them understand the concept of love and and sacrifice. But somehow the “pig” of God seems to lose something in the translation and is strange indeed to our ears. This illustrates the problem in communication. In day to day interaction and talk about God, much may be lost in translation. The elusiveness of our words to adequately convey our experience of God, our world and the “other” means that conservatives must guard against pride. We cannot arrogantly speak into the lives of others without first entering the world of the Other. This has been a difficult lesson for me to learn, but in that struggle, Grenz’s idea of chastened rationality has become more meaningful to me.

All the World’s a Stage. These are real challenges facing the church, but I have hope for what the future holds. I believe that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has set the stage for us to play a role in the drama. I have hope because, though I do not have all of the answers, I am learning to trust the Author, Director and Lead Actor of this eschatological epic – Jesus. Given my background as an actor, I like kevin J. Vanhoozer’s approach; to unite around the script(ure) that has been given to us as we portray to the world what he calls “The Drama of Redemption”. Christianity has a rich, diverse, heritage to draw from, and around which we can commune. Ultimately, bearing witness to the truth is not about abstractions. I do believe that we should have a thorough understanding of the background story (the Biblical narratives). Understanding how we as characters, originated in the heart and mind of the Author, even if our understanding of text and the translators aren’t perfect, still helps us to better interpret how the director may be calling us to interact with others or improvise in any given moment. Good actors know that when they are close to the director, understand the background story, have spent time discussing, debating, clarifying, and connecting with the other actors – he is freed to improvise, but safeguarded from the fringe, because of healthy boundaries. Honoring the original intent of the author, does not limit the freedom of good actors, because good directors are always helping them find inspiration in the most unlikely places. The context for the drama can change. It can be set in different cultures, different time periods, and performed in different styles, and yet, know matter what new stuff the good actors find, the directors vision is never corrupted when they trust and obey him. Sometimes it is difficult because we want to place ourselves at the center of the story, forgetting that the story is not primarily about us. When we place ourselve in the center, we end up on the fringes of God’s purpose. But if we keep Jesus at the center, then he becomes the unifying force in our lives, making us to live in one accord. If we commit to our roles, and embody the life The Author/Creator has given us, we soon learn that there are no small parts, only small actors when we are constantly lobbying for a bigger piece of the pie. I know that this analogy is not perfect, so I’ll leave you with the words of Jesus himself, who has reconciled us to God the Father, and who alone can reconciled the fringes: “If any of you really determines to do God’s will, then you will know whether my doctrine is from God or is merely my own. Anyone presenting his own ideas is looking for praise for himself, but anyone seeking to honor the one who sent him is a good and true person” (John 7:17-18).

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