I have always been somewhat in awe of the feisty visual and verbal rhetoric of the Pyromaniacs blog. I don’t go there very often – it’s the other side of town, it’s unfamiliar territory, I sense that I don’t belong there, I don’t understand the language, and frankly I’m afraid of being mugged. But this theological separationism disturbs me. Why do I feel so uncomfortable there? Why is it so hard to be understood? How are we to make sense of the mutual incomprehension expressed between, for example, those who believe that the church must re-engage with the culture and those who insist that the task is always and simply to preach the gospel to the lost – between those who are inclined to treat the world as a friend and those who view it as an enemy?
I have been following a lively conversation provoked by a post entitled ‘Engaging the culture’ by Phil Johnson on the Pyromaniacs site. Johnson complains in characteristically forthright fashion that evangelicals spend too much time and energy looking for new ways to be ‘hip and trendy’ – a more recently posted excerpt from one of Spurgeon’s sermons makes the same point though in rather more cultured English. Johnson’s critique is directed primarily against the evangelical mainstream – the seeker movement in particular. But it clearly raises important questions about the purpose of cultural engagement that have a bearing more broadly on post-evangelical or post-modern or emerging endeavours to recover cultural relevance.
What follows is a rough attempt, on the one hand, to account for – to justify – the quite widespread move to reduce the cultural distance between the church and the world; and on the other, to highlight the shortcomings and short-sightedness of the just-preach-it position. This will be a one-sided response: it should not be taken to mean that I think that Johnson’s critique misses the mark entirely or that we no longer need to preach a gospel of personal salvation.
It’s possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about
The problem may be, of course, that I simply have no idea just how inane and puerile the church in the US can be. One contributor to the conversation wrote about a large church planters conference at which ‘each main session includes a “Guitar Hero” contest to see which church planter is the best at the video game’. If that’s really what cultural engagement looks like in America, if that is genuinely representative, then I can understand why the Pyromaniacs (I use the name as a synecdoche for a broad swathe of belligerent Reformed opinion) are so opposed to it. But I suspect that there is much more at stake here than this anecdote suggests.
Emerging cultural engagement is an attempt to remedy the cultural stagnation of the modern evangelical movement
There are other reasons than vanity or insecurity why many in the church today feel the need, as Phil Johnson puts it, to ‘get in step with the values, trends, and dominant worldviews of our culture’. Perhaps the most important is the realization that modern evangelicalism, whether seeker-sensitive or not, is blind to the extent of its own captivity to cultural and intellectual forces that compromise its witness to – and indeed its understanding of – the gospel. The distinctive cultural engagement of the emerging church is in the first place a sign of disengagement from the stifling culture of a particular form of religious modernity, precisely for the sake of the integrity and credibility of the gospel. At least, this is how it looks from my side of town.
We are living in the present not the past
The insistence that the evangelical church needs only to proclaim and defend the gospel in imitation of the New Testament church or of the Reformers fails to take account of the radically different historical context of the church today. The state of affairs that the early church anticipated and which the Reformers sought in limited ways to overhaul is now behind us. Any attempt to proclaim good news to post-Christian Western secularism must somehow and at some level take account of this development and the bad cultural memories that accompany it. The emerging church’s admittedly chaotic and confusing quest for a new self-understanding is just one type of response to the crisis.
Uncultured subcultures and the marginalization of the church
The fact that the emerging movement is drawn to what Johnson calls the ‘language and fashions of a culture’s most uncultured subcultures’ is also theologically significant. On the one hand, it is part of the repudiation of a mainstream, affluent, middle-class evangelical culture. On the other, it is indicative of a broad and largely instinctive attempt to understand and accept the growing marginalization of the church in the West. Arguably this constitutes a very sound biblical strategy, for surely Jesus associated himself with an uncultured subculture of Israel – and, moreover, identified with them in practice sufficiently for the Pharisees to think that he had transgressed some significant cultural boundaries. Cultural engagement is not merely cosmetic: it is an attempt to reposition the church in order to be seen, trusted and heard – indeed, there is an important sense in which the position of the church is the gospel.
The gospel is not an absolute or single thing
What the Pyromaniacs appear not to appreciate is that the theology and praxis of both the New Testament church and the Reformers was a reaction to a specific set of historical circumstances. Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God was a response to the looming crisis of Judaism; Paul’s gospel of the resurrected Son of God was a gauntlet thrown down to the dominant pagan culture; the Reformers’ gospel rescued the people of God from the corrupt self-serving institutionalism of the Roman church. We cannot proclaim and defend a gospel in a way that is true to these illustrious antecedents without taking account of the historical crisis that the church faces at the tail-end of the Christendom era. I would argue that the current highly diversified, variously motivated engagement with culture forms the necessary backdrop to the pressing task of restating what good news means today.
Gospel is about community and therefore about culture
One of the fundamental questions here has to do with the purpose of the gospel. Is it to save individuals or to create community? If the story at the heart of the New Testament is the essentially dualistic, quasi-Gnostic one that God sent his Son into the world to save people from their sins so that they might eventually go to heaven, then the Pyromaniacs’ argument about resisting culture makes sense. If, however, the story is that God saved his people from destruction through the death and resurrection of Jesus, that this provided the basis for a transformation of the people, and that this storyline culminated in the eventual vindication of those communities of Christ-followers who had the trust in God to defy first Judaism and secondly paganism, then the question we have to ask is: What sort of community has the gospel created?
This is a question not about salvation only or even personal sanctification, but about culture, about the manner of corporate self-expression. What sort of culture is consistent with the new-created existence of the church? And how is that culture to be formed and articulated in the midst of the various cultures of the world? These questions have to be answered through the exploration of cultural identity, through the testing of cultural resources, under shifting social and religious conditions.
We are a very long way from good theological dialogue
What finally frustrates me is the difficulty of pursuing good theological dialogue between the two broad positions represented by the Pyromaniacs on the one side and the Emergents on the other. The following comment by Frank Turk illustrates my point.
The problem is that we’re talking about whether or not to see genesis as a historical account of the faith; we’re talking about whether or not substitionary atonement is actually important as a weekly teaching in the church; we’re talking about whether or not foul language is a vehicle for the Gospel; we’re talking about whether to adopt the current pop trend as the most valuable cultural language in which to frame worship and community.
What is so disturbing is that these issues are put forward not as areas of important and legitimate discussion but as foregone conclusions to be defended at all costs. I happen to see no problem with reading the creation stories non-literally; I think the staunch defence of the teaching of substitutionary atonement is pretty worthless without some understanding of narrative context; I think there may be, in principle, good rhetorical and contextual reasons for using foul language as a vehicle for the gospel; and I don’t see the problem with adopting contemporary musical idioms for worship. But if my views are dismissed out of hand as evidence of a need to ‘impress or flatter people’, there seems little prospect of furthering mutual understanding.
When I rashly introduced the term ‘narrative’ into the conversation, I got a rather scornful response, but I fail to see why the Pyromaniacs are so ‘twitchy’ about the word. The New Testament tells a story, it presupposes a story, it interprets a story, and ‘gospel’ is a key word used in the telling of that story. I understand that narrative-historical approaches to theology are at odds, methodologically speaking, with the more systematic, thematic, dogmatic, propositional, apologetic modes of thought that modern evangelicalism adopted in an attempt to shore up its defences against the inrushing tide of secular rationalism. But we all have to get beyond the easy caricaturing and start talking seriously and respectfully about how we are going to deal with the massive theological crevice that has opened up between traditional Reformed and emerging theologies.