Saturday, May 06, 2006

Attractive Incoherence

"When in doubt, obfuscate" was a humorous phrase my father taught me. When pushed by some bristly church member about a fine point in theology that I might be weak on, use some German words, peppered with academic jargon with a serious frown on your face. If need be, appeal to Aramaic origins and use terms like "philology" and "hueristic." This is the same method that the giant squids use when being attacked; they let loose a bunch of dark ink into the water to obscure their presence and vulnerability and shoot off into safety.
When I read LeRon Shults' letter in the most recent www.emergent.com newsletter by Tony Jones, I couldn't help but smile; looks like ink to me, dark, light-obscuring and quite profound. I could only imagine LeRon's impish smile as he wrote these words defending the lack (read; avoidance?) of anny sort of a doctrinal statement coming from the emerging conversation. It was a linguistic cul de sac that was quite fun to read, but disappointing to see.
I guess this could be part and parcel with current cultural trends. My wife is a printmaker and formerly taught art history at a Christian college. There she was beseiged with this type of obscuring language: who dares to qualify and judge art? where does the artist end and the audience begin? why should one culture's notion of beauty have primacy over another's? who dares to call something skilled and well-done? there is no difference between an installation of found trash and a carefully drawn portrait.
I am neither Luddite nor alarmist. But come on. Jesus was not quite so reticent of definition: "I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me." Now there is a legitimate place for the adiaphora, the ambiguous and the less-than-clearly stated. But the emergent conversation will do itself harm if its leaders and thinkers avoid what Jesus embraces and instead opt for a posture of linguistic gymnastics. It is fun to play with words. But when someone is on their deathbed with cancer or the son of a friend commits suicide and turns to a pastor/beleiver for help, don't turn the water dark with ink, tell them about who Jesus is now and offer the words of promise he gives.
LeRon's argument against definition is that it cuts off conversation by becoming absolutist. I disagree with that. Because I have a belief does not make me necessarily a belligerent bully. My sense of theological clarity is not a barrier but a bridge; an inviting bridge to further conversations with the hungry and seeking world.


At 11:55 AM , Blogger Dan said...

I'll have to look up LeRon's letter, but based on your response to it I would recomend to you "The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World" Edt. C.E. Braaten and R.W. Jenson. I'm just finishing Philip Turner's essay and something he wrote strikes me as significant in light of what you say, "The first step of 're-evangelization in a postmodern world involves not only the proclamation of God's secert (Turner gives the content to 'God's secret' earlier in his essay) made known in Christ but also the presence withen the body of the church of a way of life that runs counter to the 'decentered' (here is where I connect what you say with what Turner says) and so finally empty mind of the postmodern era."

It seems that what you are picking up on with the darkening of the water with ink is something to be aware of and avoided if we are to remain a refuge to those who find they need a refuge form the final emptiness of yet another human turning away for the Tiune God.

At 12:23 PM , Anonymous same ol' Kent said...

I read the letter, it is seems to me that they, the emerget cadre, are still in a defensive posture. The lack of definition is going to hurt them, because if they do not define themselves, someone else will. Jesus made many self defining statements, which is one of the reason he was in conflict with the leadership of his day. Clarity is not a hallmark of moderity alone, it has to be a part of the emergent conversation as well.

At 4:33 PM , Blogger Scot McKnight said...

I have my own disagreements with LeRon, but Emergent is not defined by LeRon but by Emergent and there is an Order at emergentvillage.com where there is adherence to the classical creeds and a way of life. LeRon loves to overstate, and he wants to provoke, but this is not an issue of defining theology for a denomination but of whether or not Emergent, a facilitator for conversation, needs to have a doctrinal statement.

I posted on this last Friday at my site (www.jesuscreed.org), and I think Emergent would do well to avoid framing a doctrinal statement for its conversation. Local churches do that, denominations do that, and Emergent is a cross-denominational conversation. Whaddayathinkaaboutdat?

At 2:46 AM , Blogger Ryan said...

I could not find the newsletter so I don't want to comment uninformed, but I do want to agree with Scot said. I also think that emergent is not simply independent movement but also reactionary. So I think the emergent discussion avoids the whole doctrinal statement as part of its reaction to the traditional church- you have to have a doctrinal statement before you have anything. I mean as a missionary (not doing church planting) I still have to agree with my organizations doctrinal statement. i think emergent wants to avoid this sort of thing. There are my two cents


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