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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!

who's afraid of postmodernism?...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I've just finished reading James K A Smith's Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, and would say that it's essential reading for anyone who is engaged in the emerging church 'conversation' or is concerned about being missional in the culture(s) of postmodernity. Smith takes a fresh look at what he refers to as the 'bumper sticker' quotes of Derrida ("There is nothing outside the text"), Lyotard ("incredulity towards metanarratives") and Foucault ("power is knowledge"), arguing that by pulling these popular quotes out of the context from which they originate (the original texts of the respective writers) we have largely misunderstood the authors' intentions. As such, these insights, and those of postmodernism as a whole, far from being opposed to Christian theology, may act as timely catalysts for the Church to rediscover in practise what it means to be the church.

Smith resists popular calls for the Church to be 'relevant' and non-confessional, seeing such trends as merely extensions of the modernist world view. Instead, he argues that in order to be fully post-modern we must reclaim pre-modern practices and insights (especially those of Augustine and Aquinas) and take up the invitation, given by postmodernism, to articulate a robust confessional theology (the unapologetic telling of our 'story'). Further, he envisions a postmodern church that is rooted in history and tradition, and which fully affirms the physical body, temporal space and place, and the community, all of which have been sidelined or neglected by modernity (and, consequently, the evangelical church). At the heart of all of this, he argues, is the centrality of the Incarnation.

Smith writes in a pacey and thoroughly accessible style, drawing on the stories of recent movies to illustrate the points being made by postmodern philosophers. He is clearly sympathetic of the emerging church, but also raises a useful critique asking if even the emerging church is still unwittingly too tied to modernity. As you might expect of such a book, there is no shortage of quotable passages, but here's one illustrating how incarnation shapes ecclesiology, which has certain resonances with current trends in alternative worship and the emerging church...

"The story of God-become-flesh is best rendered by the poetry and painting of affective worship rather than the narrowly cognitive didacticism of Power-Pointed "messages." Properly postmodern worship resists such reductionism by reclaiming the holistic, full-orbed materiality of liturgical worship that activates all the senses: hearing (not just "messages" but the poetry of the preached Word), sight (with a renewed appreciation for the visual arts, iconicity, and the architectural space of worship), touch (in communal engagement, but also toughing the bread that is Christ's body), taste (the body and blood), and even smell (of wine in the cup of the new covenant but also the fragrance of worship in candles and incense). God's taking on a human body also takes up our bodies into worship and participation in the divine." (p140)

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 4:34 PM


Thanks for this and the the last post highlighting Pete Rollins' question.

Put the two of them together and what do you get?

My guess is that Pete's insight, if 'true', places an intentional questionmark over any attempt by the (postmodern) church to be church at all.

Let me expand: if we are on any journey with a destination in mind and a starting point behind us, even the trajectory is some form of identity. So however we define the movement from pre-modern, through modern, to postmodern, even in terms of negatives, or syntheses of negatives and positives, we possess an identity perceived by others, or (more accurately) multiple identities depending on the different perspectives of the perceivers. Pete is (I think) taking this argument one stage further, and questioning whether it can even be stated with certainty that perceivers and perceived exist. And if they don't, can we say we have any identity, of any kind, at all?

Take C.S.Lewis's classic apologetic - that in defining whether we believe Jesus' words to be mad, bad or true we are placing ourselves in one of two camps upon which our future happiness depends. Notwithstanding the question of whether we are all 'mad' in some way or at some time or other (which Foucault addresses in 'Madness and Civilisation'), by which token Jesus must have tasted the experience of madness at least once, there is the deeper question of whether categories of madness and sanity, good and evil, exist in any meaningful sense anyway. We think we know we exist; we think we know the past; we think we can anticipate the future (some of us think we know it): we think we can make moral distinctions within this framework. But the Bible hints otherwise: Job cannot utter a word before God; Paul defines his future as 'life, which is Christ (by implication good), or death, which is better'. How can anyone perform an immoral act against him, if its result is at worst increased Christlikeness? So the question for Paul is not one of morality or immorality, but of disabusing people of the notion that they can act immorally against him.

Ultimately all we can say (I believe) is that what is, is - but what the nature of that isness is, is up for grabs. Actually this is a very powerful position from which to start acting in the world: it is a rock from which it is impossible to throw oneself off, which far from paralysing ourselves in a sea of indecision, empowers us to draw on what we have learnt already about the world (such as, it is nicer to be nice; more fun to be fun; more natural to be natural - by which I also mean spiritual - by which I also mean loving), unafraid of potential consequences. That is what I believe Jesus meant by the truth, and why I have no fear for the future of the Church, or my place in it.

Off to change the world.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 11:29 AM  

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