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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

the metanarrative of the kingdom...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Finally, I'm actually getting around to reading Gibbs and Bolger's 'Emerging Churches', after it's been sitting on my desk waiting to be read since it was published in the UK (yes, I know it's been featured for weeks in my 'currently reading...' on the side bar of this very blog, but that's been an expression of wishful intent up to now!) . That said, I thought I'd break off from the reading to share a very helpful quote from that book that adds something significant to the discussion around last week's post.

Gibbs and Bolger spend some time discussing the place of deconstruction in the emerging church, both in terms of ecclesiology and theology. Terms like 'post-protestant' and 'post-evangelical' indicate this process of deconstruction - a moving away from previously held positions to reconsider what following Christ is really all about in a new cultural context. Of course, this is a 'post-modern' thing - a pulling down of the propositional metanarrative approach to epistemology. I haven't got time (because I want to get back to the book!) to blog here about postmodernity, but you've only got to 'google' the term to get to a range of descriptions and explanations (for better or worse!).

The journey of deconstruction can be an unsettling one but also a liberating one - a journey that leads you into a fuller appreciation of following Jesus as opposed to simply following the package about Jesus. However, it's the reconstruction that is the most significant issue - what kind of faith and discipleship do we rebuild after the inherited 'modern' one (be it evangelical, charismatic, liberal or whatever) has been deconstructed. Is it an 'anything goes' faith, valued simply because it resonates with an individual, or are there some givens which should form the basis of the faith journey? Does genuine engagement with postmodernity require a jettisoning of all metanarratives?

This is where the 'helpful quote' from Gibbs and Bolger comes in...

We share common cause with the postmodern philosophers who revealed the oppressive nature of the master stories (metanarratives) of modernity. But our shared journey ends once the deconstruction is complete, for we do believe there is one metanarrative, one master story that redeems our material reality, welcomes the stranger, shares generously, empowers, listens, gives space, and offers true freedom. This metanarrative, even thought it manifests in a myriad of local expressions, remains the singular missio Dei, the kingdom of God, the gospel.
('Emerging Churches', p 46)

The beauty of this quote for me is in the final sentence - the explicit recognition that we can share a metanarrative but express it in 'a myriad' of different (culturally determined) ways. I like this quote - now back to reading the book...!!

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 1:08 PM


Good quote Malcolm, and certainly appreciate the sentiment you begin to express in this post - especially connected with:

"The journey of deconstruction can be an unsettling one but also a liberating one - a journey that leads you into a fuller appreciation of following Jesus as opposed to simply following the package about Jesus..."

commented by Blogger Paul Fromont, 11:25 PM  

Of all the quotes in Emerging Churches, this is the one that, when I read it in March, set my alarm bells ringing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but can I attempt to explain why?

As I've mentioned before, my special concern is evangelism - a good, sound, evangelical calling which was rather blown out of the water when I broke with Church in 1995 (I'm back now, of course... in a way). I've since come to believe that evangelism is about communicating the Story by any and every means possible, and therefore by living incarnationally. There'll be a bit of speaking, a bit of community, a bit of care and a lot of parties.

The emerging church is currently tentative about discussing evangelism. I suspect it's because it is sensitive that it'll be tarred with the 'modernist' brush if it tries to communicate a 'master story' [master story? how hierarchical and patrician a phrase is that?].

So the question becomes, what should it communicate? What is the metanarrative?

In my comment to the May 5th post I suggested that what might separate the emerging church from its surrounding culture, ultimately, is the presence of an interior life. I hinted that in an age where 'no logo' (to use Naomi Klein's phrase) is required to define someone, the outward appearance of a person with that interior life might be indistinguishable from anyone in the surrounding culture. For example, am I a Christian? - Yes, but only if I choose to wear the logo given to me first by those surrounding me (Acts 11.26).

Gibbs and Bolger define the metanarrative of the Gospel as the 'missio Dei' - serving and forgiving as Jesus did, whatever the cost. It occurs to me that this can be reduced further to a single word, Love. I don't say Jesus didn't die and rise again, but I do say that before, during and after, his message, his motivation and his identity are Love. Understand Love, and you understand the Gospel.

I've capitalised 'Love'. Love doesn't demand to be capitalised - love gives away that right in return for saving even one person (Phil 2. 6-8). Love doesn't even demand to be spoken of (1 Cor 13.8). In other words, scripture confirms that if my interior life is Love, there need be no outward evidence of it at all. Don't get me wrong, there could be, if I choose. But not if I don't want there to be. The metanarrative might choose to go unannounced.

I'm labouring this. I'm sorry. But it is so, so important. We've an opportunity at the turning point of two cultures to pause for a moment and consider whether we need to be trapped by culture (be it modern or postmodern) at all. And I submit that we don't, and actually that is the true meaning of emergence (and hence the fulfilment of postmodernism). I also suspect some people are going about postmodernism in a very modern way, both outside and inside the emerging church.

Why is this important for evangelism? Because if we carry in our interior life a true understanding of the sheer selflessness of love, who is, after all, God himself, we might find the challenge of communicating our metanarrative much, much less daunting. We might realise that we do not need to communicate it at all. It might in fact already be out there, just silent, in the lives of the Pagans, Wiccans, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, even Fundamentalist Christians.

I believe it is. I also believe that this is the evangelical Gospel in all its resurrection power and glory. And we need that power, in an age of global warming, terrorist states, and catastrophes identified and lined up by science that are just waiting to strike. (Also an age of kindness and new-born babies and great technological and natural beauty).

There's more to be said, but I'll shut up now.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 12:26 PM  

I find myself in need of responding to Steve's comments about Love etc.

Steve I note that you refer to love with links to the NT and hence your use of capitalising the term. It at least indicates you do want a definition or reference point, which presumably means the "agape" love of God. The first Johannine epistle also places much emphasis on God's love and the love commandments therein.

I wonder, however, about the sufficiency of "Love" as you put it in the context of living, expressing and communicating the Word made flesh (or agape made flesh to follow your thoughts). Is "Love" alone without verbal discourse on the Christ and good news sufficient? You seem to suggest there may occasions for speech, but propose that it is all embodied incarnationally (or should be) in those who follow Christ.

The serious issue I would pose to you is how are folks who know not Christ going to make the connection between Love and Christ and the call to discipleship? It is very easy for the word "love" to operate independently of any reference point. And without a clear reference point "love" can appear not merely inexplicable but also can proceed in such a way as to be framed in many contexts that are not linked to Christ at all.

If one rhetorically says well love is found in Jesus' example and his teachings, it still needs to be manifestly clear what the content of Jesus' actions and words comprise. Mahatma Gandhi admired Jesus but did not become a disciple. Gandhi operated with some commendable principles concerning the harijan/outcasts and trying to peacefully and passively resist the Hindu caste system. When he was shot his last words were the name of the deity "Rama" and not Christ or Yahweh. To many people Gandhi was loving and caring, but does that mean he was expressing what Christ did and calls for by way of faith and repentance?

Back in the 1960s the theologian-ethicist Joseph Fletcher offered "situation ethics" which was grounded on the principle of love. However Fletcher never defined "love" even though he suggested it referred to Jesus' example. Yet Fletcher's ethical understanding of love and morality was very often at odds with Biblical teaching generally and with Christ's teaching specifically. Fletcher's maxim "love wills the neighbor's good whether we like him or not" might initially sound wonderful and in the spirit of Christ. But Fletcher's approach offered a utilitarian approach and begged the questions: "which neighbour's good?" and "what constitutes my neighbour's good?"

I might act in a very loving way which approximates biblical teaching to my neo-pagan neighbour, but unless I make it clear I serve Christ how is the neo-pagan going to choose between polytheism and trinitarian monotheism unless there is verbal discourse about the gospel and with it the summons to repent?

Also I am not quite sure about your invoking of Naomi Klein's "no logo". She specifically uses this to disavow the gross side of globalised multinational corporations exploiting workers in impoverished countries (and hence agitates for resistance towards McDonald's, Nike etc). However she is also clear that logos are not inherently bad nor advocates their abolition.

When I interact with Wiccans and neo-pagans they often have their logo - the pentacle as a necklace or other form of jewellery. Others have the Tao symbol, celtic symbols, magickal icons, little Buddhas, little Shiva lingams (phallus) and so on. I do not intuit among them a sense that they are aware of the gospel or biblical stories; or that they necessarily have a positive view of Jesus as Lord.

Fiona Horne the popular witch writer/actor says in her first book that "she digs Jesus" but then makes it clear she does not relate to the figure found in the Bible or Church, but rather the one who emerges in Barbara Thiering's writings on "Jesus the Man" (the Dead Sea Scrolls). As Fiona states she is an atheist witch and one burned by rigid Catholic childhood, I can understand her journey and difficulties with Christianity. However where she stands it is clear she is not a follower of Jesus. (By the way one of my essays appears in her book "Pop Goes the Witch", so I have some acquaintanceship with her as a person as well as her books).

I therefore struggle with your thoughts about Love and evangelism. I realise that you have not set out a systematic case of what you fully mean, but it seems to me to be vague and somewhat at odds with the verbal announcement of the gospel found in the synoptic gospels and again in the Acts of the Apostles.

And quite apart from whether one opts to wear a cross or a crucifix, the logo of "Christian" surely needs articulation and context. I well recall when operating an exhibitor's booth at the Mind Body Spirit festival a young woman visited the stall and she was wearing a Celtic Cross. In the course of conversation I commented on her Celtic Cross and she indicated it had nothing to do with Christianity, that she was not interested in Jesus, but simply liked the pretty patterns. So again context and logo need to be clearly articulated.

In the absence of articulated speech and if I'm indistinguishable from my peers, then how is a silent gospel different from no gospel at all? The very essence of gospel is announcing "good news" (Isaiah 61:1ff; Luke 4:18ff). Sure non-verbal communication occurs along with tone, facial expressions, gestures etc.

The early church resisted many immoral practices in the Roman empire -- like retrieving babies left to die and were known for loving acts; but at the same time verbally and bodily refused idol-worship of the Emperor's image and led to martyrdom. The martyrdom of Polycarp the disciple of the apostle John (as reported by Irenaeus) shows that he spoke against the "atheism" of the Roman pantheon and was executed on the spot.

Again, while you do link Love to a biblical context, I am not persuaded that a non-verbal demonstration alone is coterminous with the message of the Kingdom. Surely it involves the need to be non-hypocritical by speaking and living the kingdom.

Although you have not suggested this, I feel the following point is pertinent. A non-verbal apologetic seems to me to be akin to a "square circle" -- it just does not compute. If I meet people who are persuaded by the precepts of The Da Vinci Code, The Dalai Lama, reincarnation, communicating with dead spirits, that Jesus studied in Tibet and then taught Buddhist faith in the gospels, I cannot simply hope to be "Love" and be silent. Some reply to the precepts that deny the gospel or foster spiritual deception are warranted, and that forms part of the wider framework in which contextual missions, contextual theology and contextual apologetics occurs inside the western world.

commented by Blogger philjohnson, 2:26 AM  

These are all very good points Phil has raised. Without presenting a full and systematic case for my thoughts about Love and Evangelism (I should tease that out in my own blog rather than land it all on Malcolm), maybe I can briefly respond.

First then, why I believe Love is the Gospel metanarrative in its essence; second, how I believe it can be communicated, and third, why, even if I run the chance of being mistaken, I believe this is a risk worth taking.

1. The Gospel is Love

(I do capitalise here. It indicates my respect for Love and is a pretty surefire way of communicating with people from similar church backgrounds to myself that we are talking about God’s love “agape”. Though I note that when spoken, you cannot tell if there is a capital in the word or not – it is a convention arising in a literate culture. Isn’t postmodernism post-literate?)

I, like Phil, am inspired by John’s letters and gospel. ‘Is “Love” alone sufficient for us?’ – well, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16), so one might ask, ‘Is God sufficient?’ And I would simply say, ‘By definition, how can He not be?’ We as Christians know in our heart of hearts the lengths to which God was prepared to go to communicate the nature of Love. It is utterly self-giving and utterly at the heart of things and Spirit made flesh. Saying God is Love is not vagueness as Phil wonders: it is a distillation of the truth and as sharp and rich as it gets.

2. The question then becomes, ‘Do you need words to understand the content and meaning of Love/God?’

Three possible arguments why not: one, if Love is a presence and not just a principle, then understanding is about a meeting before it is about hearing a story or proposition; two, if God really can do anything, He can win over without a sound; three, a negative, if God demands comprehension before He judges those who lack the ability to comprehend through disability, infant mortality or cultural isolation, can he really be a God of love in the first place?

Put these together and I believe there is a case for saying that Love can be known without explication. It is because this is the very nature of Love, which we are asked as Christians to incarnate so that if we choose, we can speak about it whilst knowing what we are talking about. And though there is much in the Bible about speaking, there is also much about silence – for example, 1 Kings 19:11-13, Isaiah 29:18, Luke 5:14 and 9:21. I don’t disagree for a moment that a model which places weight on direct verbal (and non-verbal, including symbolic) communication will work. I just want to say that there are other biblical models too.

3. Why explore these models?

Positively, because if they exist and work, our armoury is bigger than we thought it was. That is God’s hope at work – a reason for joy, not worry. New wine bursts old wineskins (though you can always soften the old wineskins in new wine, I guess – which is what God is doing to me).

And negatively, because if we do not admit to them, we are the ones putting barriers up between people and God. Isaiah 29:13-24, referenced in part above, is salutary in this regard. Though if I am right, and there are Pagans and Muslims and Atheists who are in the Kingdom already who do not fit our old wineskin preconceptions, who are the people missing out? Us or them?

I am taking a risk to bring more people into the Kingdom. I believe it is worth it. Today I was able to speak for two hours with a man who will not go near organised religion and I believe Jesus, triune God incarnate and resurrected, was right there with us and blessing us both. Paul said he became all things to all men so that by all possible means he might reach some (1 Cor:9.22). If I’m wrong then it would never have been worth knowing me anyway! But the Love I am banking on hasn’t let me down yet.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 3:10 AM  

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