David Fitch offers an interesting analysis of why the winds of popular theology in North America have changed direction so dramatically in the last two or three years. In his view—though this is not his metaphor—the weather system is driven by the Christian publishing business. Over the last decade “publishing superstars” such as Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, blowing from the warm south (this is a northern hemisphere metaphor), have dared to “ask questions that have been avoided or shut down within evangelical church culture the past fifty years”. But having asked the questions, having raised the issues, they have failed to deliver on their promise. So the wind has veered round to the north, sweeping in from the chill wastes of the neo-Reformed movement. Or as Fitch puts it, the “wandering herd heads for the monster wave of the Neo Reformed”—and the paragraph sinks finally into metaphorical chaos.
The attraction of the neo-Reformed movement is that it has provided thousands of young leaders with “theological substance sufficient for the formation of church life”. That makes sense. Church is “big business” in the US—not just in the literal sense—and you can’t run a business on good questions alone. So either we accept the prevailing weather conditions and prepare ourselves for a long cold spell (this is, I admit, a highly prejudicial controlling motif) or we have to build a viable “alternative theological coalition”. Fitch suggests a coalition of “Neo-Anabaptist, Centrist-communal-wholistic-Baptist, Holiness/Charismatic oriented, Kingdom minded, evangelical Missionals”. He concludes:
the “Rob Bell HarperOne” episode speaks to the growing need for another place to do theology from whence the emerging church (the church emerging in this generation – not to be confused with the Emergent church) can find direction for the challenges of the new post Christendom landscape we find ourselves living in.
This seems to me to be right. The emerging church, appropriately qualified, needs to find a place to do theology. My concern with Fitch’s proposed coalition is that the labels sound too cautious, too conservative, too traditional, too familiar. This may be a good place to start; it may constitute a necessary accommodation to the realities of modern church in the US and in different terms elsewhere. But I would question whether such a grouping, framed in this way, really has the boldness of theological vision necessary not merely to provide a counterweight to the neo-Reformed movement but to break from the Christendom mindset, to dismantle the tedious antitheses that characterize the modern Protestant paradigm, to forge a credible evangelicalism for the age to come. We will not deal with the challenges of the post-Christendom context on the basis of Christendom assumptions.
This is why I think that the New Perspective is so important: it offers a reading of the New Testament that is both a radical departure from the modalities of Christendom thought and radically loyal to the text. My suspicion is that Fitch’s coalition of “Neo-Anabaptist, Centrist-communal-wholistic-Baptist, Holiness/Charismatic oriented, Kingdom minded, evangelical Missionals” would find some of its cherished convictions seriously challenged by a consistently applied New Perspective hermeneutic.
A nice post by Roger Olson about British postconservative evangelical scholarship (“N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham and others”) provides a different perspective on the task of shaping a new theological landscape. Americans need to be reminded from time to time that their construction of reality, their take on the world, is not the only one out there—no matter how powerful the American Christian-commercial complex may imagine itself to be. The thrust of the post is that British evangelicals “for the most part, agree to disagree among themselves and do their work for the Kingdom of God without fear of someone who agrees with them watching over their shoulders to censore or punish them JUST BECAUSE some ultra-conservative person with a following puts pressure on them”.
That is just one aspect of a much broader problem. The post-Christendom church is struggling to redefine itself both practically and theologically under extremely detrimental conditions, many of which are self-inflicted. We should certainly not delude ourselves with the thought that there are quick publishable solutions blowing from the north or south or even from the east. The church—the whole church as it is descended from European Christendom—is called to the hard and painful task of re-establishing its raison d’être, and the sooner we realize that this is something we have to do together rather than by perpetuating old historical conflicts, the better.