Vision, Voice, and Vocation

Vision, Voice, and Vocation_ Arts and Theology in a Climate for Change

I am very excited to announce that Art/s and Theology Australia will hold its first conference on 16–19 July next year.

This four-day event will provide a unique conversation space for artists, performers, creatives, academics, and activists, to consider the vital role of the imagination in today’s complex climates – social, cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc.

It will also invite conversation around further questions: What kinds of change? What are the grounds and manner of hope, transformation, and resilience? What might the arts and theology have to contribute to such discourse and action, if anything? How do we attend to the margins of this discussion, and speak and act more holistically as communities of change?

More details here.


  1. save the date
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  3. get in touch if you would like to offer an academic paper or creative presentation

Chris Ellis on short-term mission trips

‘I would have thought those who have shared the bread and cup with, or worked alongside, brothers and sisters from Latin America would be pushing back against the dehumanization of people labeled in high places as “animals” and “invaders.” I would have thought they would be generously supporting groups that are helping to provide for the needs of those in the “caravan.” I would have thought they would be advocating for more judges and translators to be sent to the border to process asylum claims.

Sadly, these things, by and large, have not been happening. That leads me to wonder what this says about the role of STM [short-term mission trips] trips in helping to change lives and produce disciples who care about the plight of those whom they served. And what it says about the state of the Church in America’.

– Chris Ellis, ‘Have all our short-term mission trips to Latin America shaped our response to the migrant “caravan”?’

Patrick Deneen on the three pillars of liberal anticulture

Yesterday, I started on a book that’s been on my ‘must read’ pile for most of this year – Patrick Deneen’s gripping and highly-readable Why Liberalism Failed. While Deneen appears to read some of the most significant historical shifts in the West’s cultural and political imaginary in ways that are markedly less contested than do I, there is no doubt that, at least to where I’ve read up to so far, his book offers a stimulating and broadly-compelling diagnosis of liberalism, its vacuous promises, its parasitic nature, and its self-defeating vision.

Here’s a taster:

‘Liberal anticulture rests on three pillars: first, the wholesale conquest of nature, which consequently makes nature into an independent object requiring salvation by the notional elimination of humanity; second, a new experience of time as a pastless present in which the future is a foreign land; and third, an order that renders place fungible and bereft of definitional meaning. These three cornerstones of human experience—nature, time and place—form the basis of culture, and liberalism’s success is premised upon their uprooting and replacement with facsimiles that bear the same names.

The advance of this anticulture takes two primary forms. Anticulture is the consequence of a regime of standardizing law replacing widely observed informal norms that come to be discarded as forms of oppression; and it is the simultaneous consequence of a universal and homogenous market, resulting in a monoculture that, like its agricultural analogue, colonizes and destroys actual cultures rooted in experience, history, and place. These two visages of the liberal anticulture thus free us from other specific people and embedded relationships, replacing custom with abstract and depersonalized law, liberating us from personal obligations and debts, replacing what have come to be perceived as burdens on our individual autonomous freedom with pervasive legal threat and generalized financial indebtedness. In the effort to secure the radical autonomy of individuals, liberal law and the liberal market replace actual culture with an encompassing anticulture.

This anticulture is the arena of our liberty—yet increasingly, it is rightly perceived as the locus of our bondage and even a threat to our continued existence. The simultaneous heady joy and gnawing anxieties of a liberated humanity, shorn of the compass of tradition and inheritance that were the hallmarks of embedded culture, are indicators of liberalism’s waxing success and accumulating failure. The paradox is our growing belief that we are thralls to the very sources of our liberation—pervasive legal surveillance and control of people alongside technological control of nature. As the empire of liberty grows, the reality of liberty recedes. The anticulture of liberalism—supposedly the source of our liberation—accelerates liberalism’s success and demise’.

– Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 65–67.

On ‘high culture’


‘Like you, Professore, I cannot abide Rock music. My stomach turns at most television, at the plastic and porn, fast food and illiteracy that pours out of what you call “California”. But I wonder whether even these things are inflicting on men a fraction of the pain, of the despair which all our Athens, all our high culture have inflicted. They rocked around the clock not long ago to raise millions for charity. They lectured on Kant and played Schubert and went off the same day to stuff millions into gas ovens’.

– Father Carlo, in George Steiner’s Proofs and Three Parables.

[Image: Mary Queen Bernardo]

‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’

The latest issue of Mission Studies is now available online, and includes a little article I wrote on ‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’. The Abstract reads:

This essay attends to the relationship between our ethnic, social, and cultural identities, and the creation of the new communal identity embodied in the Christian community. Drawing upon six New Testament texts – Ephesians 2:11–22; Galatians 3:27–28; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 and 10:17; 1 Peter 2:9–11; and Revelation 21:24–26 – it is argued that the creation of a new and prime identity in Christ does not abrogate other creaturely identities, even as it calls for the removal of such as boundary markers. Catholicity, in other words, is intrinsically related to the most radical particularity, and demands an ongoing work of discernment and of judgement vis-à-vis the gospel itself. Those baptized into Christ are now to live in the reality of Christ who is both the boundary and center of their existence, a boundary which includes all humanity in its cultural, ethnic, gendered, social and historical particularities.

[Image: Jean Marais, ‘Le Passe-Muraille’, Montmartre (1989). Source.]

Some Recent Watering Holes


Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source


I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:


Zadie SmithZadie Smith’s recent piece on Brexit is one of the best-of-its-kind analyses I’ve read on what’s happening in the West – around us, in us, because of us, in spite of us. It is also an invitation to do some seriously-uncomfortable work around dismantling those fences which have become symbols of the end of the risk we must learn to embrace again if the days in front of us are to be less dark than are those behind us. There are echoes here of calls that have been made by others – Jonathan Sacks’s outstanding book The Dignity of Difference comes to mind – but Smith’s is grounded in a more explicitly local context and is illustrated with some powerful domestic examples that work to underscore that the challenges before us are more proximate than most of us dare imagine. (Read through Christian eyes, Smith’s piece also functions as a call to take seriously the profound political and cultural implications of venturing to believe that God is a community of difference, of otherness, and of extraordinary risk vis-à-vis the world.)

Tolle, lege.

[Image: Derrick Santini]

A few thoughts on that Hillsong piece …

Sausage & bacon nativity scene… in the previous post:

  1. Yes, the musos are fabulous! While I certainly could do without the singers and the dancers, that music is a gift from a place that is very familiar to God. That it is apparently quite unfamiliar to many who profess to like and practice the kind of stuff that God likes and practices is something very near tragic. A spirit of celebration and praise is near the heart of all worship characterised by the gifts and promises of one literally pushed into the world kicking, farting, and screaming.
  2. Of course, every good thing has its ape, but apes are only apes and it seems only fair that they be allowed to have some fun too.
  3. But I concur with those who note the incongruence between the message and the medium. It’s like seeing an athletic woman selling ‘health drinks’ or muesli bars; you suspect that you’re being sold bullshit. More on this in a moment (see #6).
  4. However, far from seeing this performance as something that I ought to therefore dismiss out of hand, which may be an understandable first reaction, I feel drawn to ask further questions. I want to know, for example, what happens before, and after, this song. How am I to interpret this single performance in the context of a larger event and story and witness, and of a culture largely foreign to me? Maybe it’s simply – whether partly or mostly – a piece of shallow and money-making glitz and that’s all. But I can’t even begin to form that judgement unless I have some broader context – and some other stories – in which to evaluate it, lest my judgement be held hostage to simply another set of cultural manifestations. (Some, of course, might well argue that much of that context is already provided for us in other stories that we have heard and/or experienced first hand about Hillsong’s modus operandi. But I want to know more, and I’ve long learnt that the truth ain’t the facts.)
  5. That the piece doesn’t work in the cultures with which I identify and am most familiar and conversant doesn’t mean that it’s necessary discordant with the actions of God. After all, God isn’t a Christian, let alone a male Aussie with wog parents. Hell, I’m not even sure God speaks English. Indeed, one might make the argument that the stranger and more unfamiliar and more difficult it is to understand and interpret, the closer it may be to the stuff of God. (I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is Hillsong’s motivation here.) Nathanael’s observation about the Caribbean context, and that GQ article too, raise some perennial questions for me about the relationship between gospel and culture, of the temptations to make an ideology out of the former and of making indiscriminate familiarity with the latter the precondition for the gospel’s reception.
  6. Watching the performance of this single song, online, nearly 17,000 kilometres from where it was performed, I have the same kind of confusion I experience whenever I worship in a building with a national flag in it; or an Honour Roll commemorating those who gave their lives in ‘the service of freedom’ and ‘for God, King and Country’, some of whom, it is noted (sometimes with the sign of a little cross!), ‘paid the supreme sacrifice’; or whenever I see a reference, in my ecclesiological territory, to ‘senior pastor’; or when I hear that a qualification for being a bishop (in some other ecclesiological territories) is proof of a penis; or whenever I see an innocent bunch of carnations perched on a baptismal font; or whenever congregations celebrate the Lord’s Supper not with a common cup but with those hideous little shot glasses; or when I see a funeral casket draped with the flag of a football team; or when I see church children get shuffled off out of ‘adult church’ so that they can engage in some more ‘age-appropriate’ activites; or when I visit a church worship centre in rural Thailand that is, visually speaking, entirely indistinguishable from the Buddhist temple down the road save for a presence of a small crucifix. I could go on …
  7. A hearty thank you to all who have taken up my invitation. If to embark on theology is to be unstable bearers of live questions (as Mike Higton puts it), then I welcome the invitations that this clip offers, and the conversations that it has encouraged. May both continue.

[Image: source]

Migration, cultural diversity, and the church in Aotearoa New Zealand

?????My colleague, Kevin Ward, has posted a wee reflection on a recent conference that he co-organised around the themes of migration, cultural diversity, and the church in Aotearoa New Zealand. His observations have implications not only for church life in NZ but also for that in other places in the world, as these words from Phillip Jenkins suggest:

Let me suggest to you that in 30 years, there will be two sorts of church in the world. There’ll be the ones that are multi-ethnic, transnational, and multi-continental. They are constantly battling over issues of culture, lifestyle, worship, and constantly in conflict, debate and controversy. And those are the good ones. The other churches will have decided to let all these trends pass them by. They’ll live just like they’ve always done with an average age in their congregations of 80. Personally, I’d much rather be in one of the ones that is recognizing, taking account of the expansion with all the debates and controversies.

You can read the rest here.

Yanks and Kiwis

In his recent book Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies – New Zealand and the United States – which I’m yet to read (a fact which doesn’t always give me reason to pause from offering comment) – David Hackett Fischer observes that whereas public discourse and public policy in America is dominated by the rhetoric of freedom and liberty, here in New Zealand the same are organised around the principles of fairness and social justice. Throwing Australia into this mix would make a fascinating study and, I think, challenge some of Fischer’s conclusions. Still, Fischer’s sounds like an attractive thesis (nicely summarised in this article), and I look forward to checking out the book. (Just as good, however, might be reading a review of the book by American ex-pat Kim Fabricius.)

Christianity is Empire

Over at The Jesus Manifesto, Mark Van Steenwyk is beginning a four-part series examining the ‘intrinisically oppressive nature of much of traditional Christianity’. Here’s a snippert from his first post – Christianity is Empire, Part 1:

‘The argument that Christianity is intrinsically oppressive is nothing new, but it persists. That’s because it is true. Christianity, at least as it is understood by the majority of Christians throughout the ages is inherently oppressive and will inevitably lead to Empire. A Christianity that is willing to use the Sword will always nurture Empire.

This may not always be the case with all Christians everywhere, and it certainly wasn’t true for the earliest followers of Jesus, but it is such a well-worn pattern of Christian practice that it would be foolish to simply dismiss those who argue that Christianity is inherently oppressive.

Traditional readings of Genesis (about subduing the land) mixed with traditional views of the Lordship of Christ (which gives his followers socio-religious superiority) mixed with the evangelistic impulse of the Great Commission (which gives us a mandate to extend Christ’s rule to the ends of the earth) are problematic enough as they stand. But if you add the willingness to use violence to accomplish these ends, you are creating the perfect empire cocktail.

If we are going to have a faith that resists domination, we need to re-examine our willingness to use the Sword to accomplish any Gospel-inspired goals. If a Christianity that is willing to use the Sword will always nurture Empire, we need to put away the sword’.

Material to evoke some good conversation, not least for those in my part of the world thinking about stuff to do with Anzac Day (a subject which birthed this post of mine last year on Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society).

Walter Brueggemann on biblical theology and skillful hermeneutical moves

‘… the discipline of biblical theology needs no “case” to be made for it, and certainly not by me. There is deep and wide ferment in the field, indicating that scholars and interpreters across the theological spectrum are ready to be engaged in work that is fresh and suggestive. It is possible that such an interpretive enterprise may be primarily historical, that is, reading old texts to see what they “meant.”

My own interest is much more “confessional,” as I am a church person who reads for the sake of the faith and life of my community. I suppose, without great intentionality, that I read according to Ricoeur’s nice pairing of “suspicion and retrieval.” The “suspicion” is an awareness that every text and every reading, including my own, is laden with ideological interest. This is true of skeptics, minimalists, and fideists of all kinds. The “retrieval” is to see what may be said after one has done rigorous criticism. What one finds, after criticism, is that there is still this character “God,” who continues to haunt and evoke and summon and address. No sort of criticism, so it seems to me, finally disposes of that character. Now it may be that the character is an act of literary imagination; or it may be that the character is indeed an agent who is in, with, and under the text. Either way, one cannot dispose of that character. I find myself moving back and forth between a literary character and an active agent. Either way, that character haunts and causes everything to be redefined.

But being haunted by this character is not just a confessional act for “believers.” I believe the best exposition of this testimony for “non-believers” is by Terry Eagleton in his Terry Lectures at Yale. Eagleton is not a “believer,” but he takes seriously the claims of this text that are more than “literary.” Eagleton shows that the claims are not merely cognitive and so readily dismissed by “silly atheists.” Rather, Eagleton sees that the claims of the tradition are that this holy character is linked to the valuing of “the scum” of the earth. The point is a practical one, not an intellectual one …

Given the current frailty of the capitalist system and the fact that the “big money” continues to grow while ordinary people increasingly become poor and homeless, I suspect that this character, embedded in this tradition, is a wake-up call for contemporary social-political thought. It is not difficult to imagine that dominant ideologies and narrative explanations of reality have reached a dead end. For that reason I judge that it is a worth-while effort, regardless of one’s “faith commitments,” to continue to pay attention to and exposit this character and the tradition that clusters around the character. I understand that to be the work of biblical theology. Such a perspective refuses to be boxed in by the critical categories of Enlightenment rationality, for it is a reach behind that rationality to see about the haunting that cannot be so readily dismissed. I take that to be an important task. And if some judge it not to be important, it is at least interesting …

The capacity to find an alternative to biblicism or historical criticism requires skillful hermeneutical moves, whether made intentionally or intuitively. If one begins with the assumption of neighborly covenant—the outcome of Sinai—then neighborliness becomes the test for policy and practice. Such a focus does not resolve all of the complexities of real-life decisions, but it does preclude from consideration some possibilities that are anti-neighborly and anti-covenantal. Such an approach does not just find a specific text, as is so often done, but participates, as we are able, in the “world” that is constructed by the text. It is odd and disappointing that some of the loudest citers of texts love to refer to specific texts but have no interest in or awareness of the broad claims of the text or the way in which the dots are connected to provide an alternative vision of social reality and derivatively, an alternative mandate about social reality. Thus I believe that the clue to fruitful connections is a practice of imagination that is self-aware and well-informed about the complexity of the issues. There is no reason for biblical interpreters to be simplistic or to imagine that easy or ready connections can be made …

As I have gotten older and as our social scene has become more dysfunctional, I have become more aware of the ways in which the central claims of the Bible contradict the practices of our culture. This means, in my judgment, that now as never in my lifetime the full and bold articulation of biblical claims is urgent as a serious offer in our pluralistic society. There are no easy accommodations between those claims and the dominant modes of our culture, even though the old model in which I was nurtured—“Christ transforming culture”—mostly imagined an easier connect. My practical hope is not very great. I do think that the younger generation in our society is not so boxed in on the hard questions as are many older people. I think, moreover, that the growing diversity in our society may offer openness for genuinely human options, as I do not think that our diverse and younger population will settle easily for the old answers of the privileged. After all of that, of course, our hope is not a pragmatic one; it is an evangelical one, that God is faithful and that God’s purposes will out. The wonder of the Biblical tradition is that the holy purposes of God cohere readily with the pain of the vulnerable. It is entirely possible that the convergence of holy purpose and vulnerable pain may “change the wind,” as Jim Wallis voices it. Since the old resolutions of our problems are clearly now failed, there may be an openness to initiatives that are more humane. That of course depends on courageous, sustained testimony… and it is a fearful time’. – An interview with Walter Brueggemann.

Things to read while eating your Saturday toast …

Adorno on dismantling the affirmative lie of culture

adornoA delightful morning spent meditating on two related thoughts from Theodor Adorno:

‘The eclipse of art which is being propagated by people who are either just plain thoughtless or resentful of art would be false and would play into the hands of conformism. Desublimation – the instantaneous, immediate gratification which art is supposedly able to furnish – is of course beneath art in terms of intra-aesthetic standards. But even in terms of real libidinal gratification, desublimation has little to offer …  The impoverished aestheticism that accompanies the sort of panting politics of the student movement is a complement of the general exhaustion of aesthetic vigour. To recommend the acceptance of jazz and rock-and-roll over Beethoven does nothing to dismantle the affirmative lie of culture. All it does is give the culture industry an excuse for more profit-taking and barbarity. The allegedly vigorous and uncorrupted essence of such products is in reality synthetically put together by the very powers that are the target of this supposed Great Refusal. They are worse than anything else’. – Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann; trans. C. Lenhardt; London/Boston/Melbourne/Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 440–1.

‘The appeal to order alone, without concrete specificity, is futile; the appeal to the dissemination of norms, without these ever proving themselves in reality or before consciousness, is equally futile. The idea of an objectively binding order, huckstered to people because it is so lacking for them, has no claims if it does not prove itself internally and in confrontation with human beings. But this is precisely what no product of the culture industry would engage in. The concepts of order which it hammers into human beings are always those of the status quo. They remain unquestioned, unanalyzed and undialectically presupposed, even if they no longer have any substance for those who accept them. In contrast to the Kantian, the categorical imperative of the culture industry no longer has anything in common with freedom. It proclaims: you shall conform, without instruction as to what; conform to that which exists anyway, and to that which everyone thinks anyway as a reflex of its power and omnipresence. The power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness. The order that springs from it is never confronted with what it claims to be or with the real interests of human beings. Order, however, is not good in itself. It would be so only as a good order. The fact that the culture industry is oblivious to this and extols order in abstracto, bears witness to the impotence and untruth of the messages it conveys. While it claims to lead the perplexed, it deludes them with false conflicts which they are to exchange for their own. It solves conflicts for them only in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives. In the products of the culture industry human beings get into trouble only so that they can be rescued unharmed, usually by representatives of a benevolent collective; and then in empty harmony, they are reconciled with the general, whose demands they had experienced at the outset as irreconcilable with their interests. For this purpose the culture industry has developed formulas which even reach into such non-conceptual areas as light musical entertainment. Here too one gets into a ‘jam’, into rhythmic problems, which can be instantly disentangled by the triumph of the basic beat. Even its defenders, however, would hardly contradict Plato openly who maintained that what is objectively and intrinsically untrue cannot also be subjectively good and true for human beings. The concoctions of the culture industry are neither guides for a blissful life, nor a new art of moral responsibility, but rather exhortations to toe the line, behind which stand the most powerful interests. The consensus which it propagates strengthens blind, opaque authority. If the culture industry is measured not by its own substance and logic, but by its efficacy, by its position in reality and its explicit pretensions; if the focus of serious concern is with the efficacy to which it always appeals, the potential of its effect becomes twice as weighty. This potential, however, lies in the promotion and exploitation of the ego-weakness to which the powerless members of contemporary society, with its concentration of power, are condemned. Their consciousness is further developed retrogressively. It is no coincidence that cynical American film producers are heard to say that their pictures must take into consideration the level of eleven-year-olds. In doing so they would very much like to make adults into eleven-year-olds’. – Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’.

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 1 – Creeds, Scripture, Niebuhr and the Preposition between Christ and Culture

robert-jensonThis afternoon, I was priviledged to hear a lecture by Robert W. Jenson who is visiting the University of Otago to deliver this year’s Burns Lectures on the theme of ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’. I’ve heard Professor Jenson lecture on a number of occassions, and on three different continents, and he is always enormously stimulating. In his opening lecture today entitled ‘Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation’, Jenson argued that the relationship between Holy Scripture and the ecumenical Creeds determines the whole life of the Church because together they witness to the Church being the same community yesterday, today and forever. He defined the Church as ‘the community of a message of the God of Israel who raised Christ from the dead’. Those already familiar with Jenson’s work would have heard here themes discussed and argued elsewhere in his writings.

Jenson proceeded to note that whereas the Christian community in the first century lived in the orbit of, and was defined in the light of, as it were, a first-hand history of Jesus and with little regard for its future, the second-century Church had to think through the community’s ‘future history’ and the shape which it would take as the institution of the future. It is to this end that both Scripture and the Regula Fidei bear witness to the one history of God with his people. Creeds are, he insisted, ‘a sort of communal linguistic awareness’  – a ‘gift of the Spirit’ who guides the church in every generation. On the relationship between the Regula Fidei and Church tradition more generally Jenson had little to say, at least in this lecture. [One hopes that this might get some teasing out in subsequent lectures].

Where more breath was expired, however, was over the question of Modernity and the demise of Regula Fidei. Modernity, Jenson repeated, sponsored a shift whereby Scripture and Creed came to be seen as alien to one another rather than as co-witnesses to the one Word of God and of the abiding presence of God with his people. Describing himself as an ‘unreliable Lutheran’, Jenson argued that the modern biblical studies movement began as a movement to redeem itself from creeds.

One fundamental conviction that drove Jenson’s entire presentation was his confidence that ‘Christ does not fit into other narratives. Other narratives have to fit into Christ’. I wish Jenson had unpacked this further (again, perhaps he will in the remaining lectures), but I did find one place where he does do such unpacking:

I have long thought that Niebuhr’s book, for all its individual insights, was based on a false setting of the question. Whatever preposition you put between Christ and culture, its mere presence there marks and enforces the supposition that Christ and culture are entities different in kind. But it is of course only the risen Christ who can now have a relation to a culture, and this living Christ’s body is the church. And the church – with its scriptures, odd rituals and peculiar forms of government – is plainly itself a culture.

Therefore the real question is always about the relation of the church culture to some other culture with which the church’s mission involves it at a time and place. And I do not think the relation can be the same in every case. During the time of “Christendom,” the culture of the church and the culture of the West were barely distinguishable. I do not think this “Constantinian settlement” was avoidable. When the empire said, “Come over and help us hold civilization together,” should the bishops have just refused?

As to Christendom’s consequences for faith, some were beneficial and some were malign, as is usual with great historical configurations. During the present collapse of Christendom and its replacement by an antinomian and would-be pagan culture, confrontation must of course be more the style.

Next lectures:

Bruce Hamill: ‘Response to Kevin Ward’s Inaugural Lecture’

hamill-1Rev Dr Kevin Ward’s recent lecture – ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’ – has sparked a good deal of constructive conversation, a conversation that was kicked off by a brief public response to the lecture by one who had enquired after one of Kevin’s earlier lectures – ‘So where’s the theology in all this? – the Rev Dr Bruce Hamill. Here’s Bruce’s gracious and insightful response to Kevin’s paper:


Thanks for the privilege of responding to today very briefly, in just 10 minutes… Kevin, those who know you expect nothing less than a broad-visioned, scholarly, insightful, pastoral, provocative but conciliatory lecture, grounded in your passion for the church and the gospel. You have not disappointed us…

Since I am expected to ask theological questions I will try not to disappoint.

Right Question?

I particularly liked the provocative title… however, as I have thought about the relation between the title and the concluding answer, I reached the conclusion that, for all its provocation this question is not quite right. Not that I want to avoid your question, but perhaps to narrow down the scope of my response…a better question might be: Does this movement within the church (or among the churches) point the way forward for reform of the body of Christ? Does this movement with its 3 foci of (1) alignment with postmodernism (2) relevance (3) incarnationalism have the theological resources for a missional church in our time? Now my suspicion is that your answer to this question would be a nuanced one, but probably, like mine, a ‘no’. Indeed the last half of your paper demonstrates how the emergent church consistently shows a conflict with the classical marks of the church – a strong indicator that its theological principles and direction is fundamentally flawed. In this respect my response is, I suspect in basic agreement with your view (particularly in the latter half of your paper)

Incarnation and Mission

However, if this is the case, then I fear that the framework you inherit from Niebuhr and others in the missiology movement is too close to that used by the emergent church itself, to really expose its flaws. In what remains of my few minutes response I want to indicate some of the tensions within your argument.

To begin with I would note that your adoption of the term incarnation, as an adjective (‘incarnational’) to represent a stance which is neither isolationist nor accomodationist, raises my theological antennae. This appears to me to be a sociologising of the language of theology – of incarnation – which trades on its theological background.

So to a more directly theological question: What is the incarnation? (in just 5 minutes!) And how does it relate to the church’s cultural existence and mission?

David Congdon, a Princeton theologian who has influenced my response to this, says:

‘the incarnation is sui generis, i.e., it is wholly unique and unrepeatable. In short, the incarnation is an event, not an idea that can be applied or a process that can be completed or a reality that can be replicated.’

What I believe lies behind this is the whole doctrine of divine grace emerging from the church’s experience of salvation in the raising of the crucified Jesus. Namely, that the life of Jesus originated unnecessarily (contingently) and freely from God’s transcendent act and being. In the incarnation God’s freedom from us is the basis for God’s freedom for us in the life of Jesus.

hamill-2In this sense Jesus life represents a break in the fabric of culture and tradition and original sin. It introduces a radical newness from the Word of God. In this sense the church came to talk of him as being born of a virgin and also suggest that the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowed’ even the maternal contribution to Jesus existence. God enters into the physical conditions of human life, adopting, as it were, the human condition, however this is not an accommodation to or adaption to culture, but rather human culture is here accommodated to the Word of God.

So as Congdon argues, the incarnation cannot be a model for us. However, it does transform and con-form our life. As already enfleshed and enculturated, fallen human beings, we are, because of the incarnation and the form and history it took, reculturated (that’s my word) by God.

In Christ we are not made ‘incarnational’, but a given a history that conforms to his history culminating in death and resurrection. It is here that we see the weakness of the link so often made between ‘incarnation’ and ‘adaptation to human culture’. ‘As the Father sent me…’ refers not to his incarnation but to the form of his life culminating in crucifixion and resurrection – a transformative, salvific encounter with culture.

Other Missional Language in Tension

Let me mention some further places where I think the language of the earlier half of your paper leads you closer to the framework of the ’emerging church’ than the latter half of your paper should allow. You suggest that the aim of missional thinking is a ‘culturally indigenous church’. According to my dictionary “indigenous” means: “born in or originating from where it is found”. If however, the church is created by the crucifixion and resurrection of the incarnate Word it may look like its surrounding culture (like Paul sought to in 1 Cor 9 in order to serve those cultures) but it will not originate from where it is found. The cultural processes that we rely on in the creation of the church are not indigenous processes of human meaning-making. They are the processes whereby God “crunches” from the old order, in all its indigenous and alienated diversity  and constant change, a new social order. Jesus very definitely did take the human context in all its particularity seriously, seriously enough to get crucified by it (as you point out). Seriously enough to spend most of his time with those who functioned as essentially non-representative of the culture – the culturally marginalised. I contend that to take culture seriously as Jesus did, is not to conform to its agenda.

As you say ‘there are limits to how far the culture can set the agenda and determine the shape’. My contention is that the issue is not the presence of a limit, but how that limit is set (and who determines it). I believe it is not by the balancing of principles, especially if one of those principles is Andrew Walls’ rather cosy ‘the gospel is at home in every culture and every culture is at home in the gospel’. Such a principle, even if balanced by the pilgrim principle which says that ‘the gospel is never fully at home’, makes the cross the exception rather than the culmination of Christ’s life. One cannot serve two masters, Christ and Culture (as Walls’s balancing act suggests). Cultural processes must have their limits set for them by Christ in the formation of his body, or our enlightenment culture becomes the default determiner of this process.

Church is not people who ‘have the gospel’ (like some ideal) and then apply it, enlightenment style, to the world’s forms. They are worldly people being re-formed by Spirit and Word and re-culturated into a new creation and an anticipation of the kingdom.

Barth, Form and Content

Which brings me to Karl Barth’s problem. He says that there is no ‘sacred sociology’, however I feel he needs to be challenged, by those like John Milbank, to understand the need of a theological sociology – a fuller ecclesiology.

Quoting Barth you say, “If then the church has been, and indeed should (the should is your addition) have its forms determined by whatever the current “political, economic and cultural models” of “its situation in world history” are, does that mean that anything goes?” [loaded question!] Barth has no “should”. I suspect he does not see such accomodation as an ecclesiological virtue – just an inevitability. However, I want to go beyond Barth and challenge the easy separation between form and content. Not only is it not true that anything goes (as you also clearly argue), but it is true that the form as well as the content should be subject to Christ and the Spirit (as you hinted at in places in your paper). This claim does not, as many seem to fear, imply that it will be a fixed form, or that to believe this requires identifying the form that Christ gives the church with a human form from the post. On the contrary it simply requires a formative process, by which enculturated people attend to Word and Sacrament, not just in their private spiritualities but also in their social habits and structures. This is in my view what it means to be a Reformed Church – constantly being re-formed socially.

Thanks again for the chance to respond to your stimulating lecture.

Kevin Ward: ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’

kevin-ward-08-2A week or so ago, I posted some reflections on the emerging church. I offered these in anticipation of Rev Dr Kevin Ward‘s then forthcoming inaugural lecture at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership entitled ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’ Kevin delivered his lecture on Monday, which was followed by a brief response by Rev Dr Bruce Hamill. Bruce’s response can be read here. Here’s Kevin’s paper:

‘IT MIGHT BE EMERGING: BUT IS IT CHURCH?’, a guest post by Kevin Ward

At a recent theological conference I was attending, one of the presenters outlining some of the factors in the changing context for theological education, referred to “fresh expressions” which he said was a more appropriate term than the previously favoured descriptor for experimental faith communities, “emerging church”, since as it turned out most of what they were emerging from was not church. He was Anglican and the term “fresh expressions” is a phrase developed by the C of E for some of its new developments, but the term “emerging church’ is still widespread and gains much attention from younger church leaders in NZ, including many of those accepted for ministry training by the PCANZ and coming to the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. One of our courses here is now titled “Missional and Emerging Churches.” At the VisionNZ Conference last year one of the major presentations was “A Kiwi Emerging Kiwi Church: Yeah Right!” by Steve Taylor, who has emerged as the leading spokesperson for emerging church in NZ, and a significant global voice. Indeed it is interesting in reading on the movement globally how much NZ comes up in the material as being, along with, Australia and the UK initiators in it. Mike Riddel and Mark Pierson from NZ, and Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch from Australia are seen as pioneers. I might add that as well as being from down under, they along with Taylor are Baptists, a heritage of course I share myself, and something I will come back to.

A google search of “emerging church” came up with about 1,530,000 entries. So what are we to make of what Scot McKnight calls “the most controversial and misunderstood movement in the church today”. One article I read was titled “Emerging Churches – Heroes or Heretics.” Clearly unambivalent about the answer a brochure I received at the beginning of the year blazed out. “The last days Apostacy. Coming to a church near you. The emergent church.” It warns that “With the move of the Church back to Rome through organisations like evangelicals and Catholics together, Alpha, Promise Keepers and Interfaith dialogue… Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven and now the postmodern Emergent wave… believe that today’s post modern culture needs a more relevant and experiential approach to God, Church and Worship. Eg. Playing u2 as an expression of worship using multi-sensory stimulation, candles, icons, art, images, stained glass etc.” And it warns “The Emergent Church has taken hold in NZ and its teachings have been aired on Radio Rhema and also being taught in the BCNZ.” I must point out that the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership you’ll be pleased to know was not listed among those who have fallen into “the last days deception.”

We need of course to ask the question why has this movement arisen? The broad answer is fairly simple: it is part of a number of responses over the past half century to the increasingly obvious fact that the church in particular and Christian faith in general has been having a rather difficult time of it in western societies like NZ. I have written in a number of places on this, as have many others, and have no intention of rehearsing that fact. It is simply a given, whatever figures one uses and however positive the spin one tries to put on them. There have been many responses to this post Christian, or perhaps more correctly post Christendom reality, from the God is Dead theologies of the 60s, through the Church Growth movement of the 70s and Cell Churches of the 80s, to the Seeker Sensitive Churches of the 90s. Despite all these grand initiatives the rot continues.

What emerged in the 1990s was the realisation among some that not only were our western societies post Christendom, but they were also postmodern in at least some ways. That term is rather problematic, and again it is not my intention to explore all the issues around it. However in the broadest sense it is helpful to identify the fact that the cultural, social and intellectual world we live in today is very different from that which existed in 1960, even if there may well be more continuities than discontinuities. In this world all sorts of institutions that have existed for centuries have increasingly struggled. A number of Christian thinkers and leaders began arguing that the problem with all the recent efforts to reorganise church for our postChristendom world, was that they were still based on the assumptions and thinking of a modern society and culture. As that was rapidly diminishing and being replaced by postmodern forms so these attempts were simply short term arrangements, much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Something more fundamental was needed.

There are many attempts, some helpful others not, to define the emerging church movement, but perhaps the simplest and most widely used is that by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, in their study of the phenomenon, which they titled Emerging Churches¸ “communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures.” Brian McLaren, who has emerged as its main spokesperson wrote in 1998 in the first of his many books:

You see, if we have a new world, we will need a new church. We don’t need a new religion per se, but a new framework for out theology. Not a new Spirit, but a new spirituality. Not a new Christ, but a new kind of Christian. Not a new denomination, but a new kind of church… The point is … you have a new world.

Now I want to say at this point that overall I would agree with the broad parameters of this argument. As Randall Prior summarised it at the Presbyterian General Assembly last year, “The form of the church which evolved in the era of Christendom and which served us well in that period is no longer sustainable. It is dying. It will die.” However I do want to add at least one cautionary note. Often the people involved use rather hyperbolic language, as if the church has only ever existed in one form or shape, at least since the inception of Christendom, often referred to as inherited church.  Now that old form needs to be discarded and a brand new form developed. This is of course quite misleading. The form and shape of the church has constantly changed throughout its 2000 years of history. We see this even in the NT, and writers such as Hans Kung, David Bosch and Andrew Walls have provided helpful ways of understanding this.

Andrew Walls invites us to imagine a long living, scholarly visitor from space, a Professor of Comparative Inter Planetary Religions, able to get periodic study grants to visit planet earth every few centuries, to study earth religion, Christianity, on principles of Baconian induction. He visits a group of Jerusalem Jewish Christians about 37 CE; his next visit is in about 325 CE to a Church Council in Nicea; then in about 650 CE he visits a group of monks on a rocky outcrop in Ireland; in the 1840s he visits a Christian assembly in Exeter Hall London promoting mission to Africa; finally in 1980 he visits Lagos Nigeria where a white robed group is dancing and chanting through the streets on the way to church. At first glance they might appear to have nothing in common, or be part of the same religious community at all, but on deeper analysis he finds an essential continuity about the significance of Jesus, the use of scriptures, of bread and wine and water. But writes Walls, he recognises that these continuities are “cloaked with such heavy veils belonging to their environment that Christians of different times and places must often be unrecognizable to others, or even to themselves, as manifestations of a single phenomenon.”

At the heart of this debate about these emerging new forms of church life is the question of just what is the relationship between the historic faith and the environment in which it presently finds itself, between Christ and culture, of theology to context . This question is actually at the heart of many of the disputes that go on in the church, and I am aware were fought with some intensity and lasting consequences around a variety of issues in these hallowed halls for some considerable time.

When it comes to the relationship between the church and the culture that surrounds it there are a number of different models used to explain the various orientations. The classic work, which has formed the basis for all following discussions, is that of Richard Niebuhr, in Christ and Culture. He identifies five basic models: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ the transformer of culture. It seems, though, that the alternatives can be more simply discussed by reducing these to three.

(i) An “anticultural” response, “Christ against culture”. The attitude where the church sets itself up in opposition to the prevailing culture. The difficulty with this position is that there is no such thing as a culture free articulation of theology or understanding of the church. Consequently this position while opposing contemporary culture is in fact usually holding on to some culture of the past. The Amish, for example, hold on to the culture of early nineteenth century German settlers in Pennsylvania, traditional Anglicans to 1950s England and many fundamentalists to the pre 1960s American south.

(ii) An “accommodationist” response, “Christ of culture”. This is the opposite, where the church is so anxious to fit into the world that it becomes merely an extension of the culture and has lost any distinguishing particularity as a culture of its own. This response assumes the congruence of church and culture. It is assumed that the primary symbols of the church and of the culture are identical. The church sees itself in some way as representative of the culture at large and prides itself on its shaping, transforming role. Churches in nations where the two grew up together often exhibit the most radical forms of this. This has been a strong tendency in liberalism in western countries and can be seen as a major factor in the decline of mainstream denominations. The view fails to recognise that there is a basic incompatibility between the church and whatever time in which it lives.

(iii) An “incarnational” response. This response recognises some kind of tension between Christ and culture, as is found in all of Niebuhr’s final three categories. There is both continuity and discontinuity. Lesslie Newbigin rightly insists that the gospel only retains “its proper strangeness, its power to question us… when we are faithful to its universal suprarational, supranational, supracultural nature.” Yet the gospel travels through time not in some ideal form, but from one inculturated form to another.  Consequently what missiologists call the “culturally indigenous church” is the aim of the incarnational approach.

A number of different terms are used to describe this approach to culture. The one that I find most helpful is “contextualisation”, although heated debate over its precise meaning continues, with Ecumenical and Evangelical interpretations differing considerably. At the core though is a recognition that many aspects of what humans believe, think, and do are contextually shaped. William Reiser defines it as “the process of a deep, sympathetic adaptation to, and appropriation of, a local culture in which the Church finds itself, in a way that does not compromise its faith.”

At the heart of the process is the model of the incarnation. In Jesus God took the human context in all its particularity seriously. Jesus was a historical person and so he was chronologically, geographically, religiously and culturally a first-century Jew. He neither repudiated his humanity or his Jewishness. The early church continued the principle as the gospel moved out of the language and culture of Jesus and his disciples into that of Graeco-Roman culture. Ever since those most effective in mission have “assumed that any culture can be host to Jesus Christ.”

However the critical point to note in an authentic contextual or incarnational approach is that there are limits to how far culture can set the agenda or determine the shape. Andrew Walls reminds us there are two important principles. On the one hand there is the ‘indigenzing’ principle, which affirms that the gospel is at home in every culture and every culture is at home with the gospel. But then there is the ‘pilgrim’ principle, which warns us that the gospel is never fully at home in any culture and will put us out of step with every society.

So there are two critical dimensions, which Max Stackhouse defines as the “textuality’ of the church – its faithfulness to the gospel – and its “contextuality” – its faithfulness to the world in which it finds itself. Hans Kung contends that we should aim for a “critical correlation” between the biblical message and the paradigm of the culture” and that “the task today is to come to terms with a postmodern paradigm”. The emerging church movement is endeavouring to take that task seriously and is to be commended for that.

If I can engage in a bit of personal narrative at this point, because, in a sense this lecture is part of an ongoing and unfinished conversation with myself. This is the second time I have given the inaugural lecture here. My earlier title was “Is New Zealand’s Future Churchless?” I outlined the paradox of countries like NZ where the data showed an ongoing resilience of relatively high levels of religious, and mainly Christian, believing and relatively low and declining levels of religious belonging. In light of this while it seemed religion was destined to continue rather than die out, as had been previously postulated in various forms of secularisation theory, the church itself may face a somewhat tenuous and uncertain future. I suggested that it would continue but needed to develop many more diverse forms, and these in essence would be “less church” in the sense of being much looser, less institutionalised, more eclectic, fluid rather than solid. Sounds much like emerging church!

After the address, Bruce Hammil, who through fate or destiny has been asked to be the respondent today, came up to me and asked “Where’s the theology in all of this?” A somewhat surprising question from Bruce! It was though a healthy rejoinder to me and a reminder that, central to my own thesis was the proposition that churches which had thrived had not only shown an ability to adapt their life and message to their rapidly changing cultural and social situation, but had also held a strong commitment to the central tenets of orthodox Christian belief. My major focus has been on the first half of that proposition, endeavouring to help churches realise the forms their life and message have taken have been wedded to a cultural and social context that has not existed for some time, and while they continue in their current form they indeed have a rather limited future. They are no longer incarnating the gospel in their context. To quote the new leader of the Labour Party, they have “lost touch with their electorate” and “need to reconnect”. Change is the essential challenge for the church, and I continue to be invited to help a broad range of churches understand the context they are in and how they might change to become culturally connected.

Now this is an essential task. While in some realms of theology we might be able to argue for some pure theology of the word, although I am somewhat sceptical of both the possibility and worth of that, even that great theologian Karl Barth, so often used to buttress the case for disregarding context when it comes to constructing theology, that it must be based solely on the self revelation of God in Christ, argued when it came to the church:

… in every age and place its constitution and order have been broadly determined and conditioned by political, economic, and cultural models more or less imperatively forced on it by its situation in world history… It has had and still has to adapt or approximate itself to these in order to maintain itself… in respect of the form of its existence… there is no sacred sociology [of the church].

There are then no sacred forms of church, however sacrosant these might appear to some. Of course we in the reformed tradition have always held this to be so, holding central to our understanding the reformation principle, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. If then the church has its forms determined by whatever the current “political, economic and cultural models” of “its situation in world history” are does that mean that anything goes? That the answer to Bruce’s question is that “theology does not have a place in determining the form of church life.” That in fact ecclesiology is a pointless discipline. There is not a theology of the church, merely a praxis.

It is interesting to review literature on the church, from a historical perspective. It used to be for centuries that the basic questions these endeavoured to answer was “What are the marks of a true church?” From the 1970s on the nature of the question most writing was endeavouring to answer had changed, by one word. Instead of “What are the marks of a true church?” it was “What are the marks of a successful church?” – the word ‘successful’ some times being interchanged with the word ‘growing’, since to be successful was equated with growing. Probably two things lay behind this: as the decline of churches in the west became increasingly evident the overwhelming preoccupation became with turning decline into growth; and as the church splintered into greater and greater variety as the culture became more and more diverse, it became seen as a hopeless task to try and presume there was any true form. It was reinforced by a developing culture that became suspicious of any insistence on adherence to one particular form or expression in any area of life. Indeed ideology became the enemy, grammar was fascist, theory was irrelevant, praxis was what mattered. I might add that in NZ, which has always had a bent toward pragmatism and suspicion of intellectualism, all of this found fertile ground.

And so in the emerging church movement there is a sense of anything goes. For those for whom tradition or inherited forms are in fact the obstacle to being effective churches and a barrier to the mission of Jesus, it is a waste of time to listen to what it might have to say us about how the church should form its life. Graham Redding may have asked the question did Calvin have any place in the Café Church? in his 2005 inaugural lecture, but café church is relatively mild fare and rather orthodox when church can apparently be a bunch of kids at a skate board park or bmx track, a group of students gathering in pub or dance club, or some mid life couples sharing a few wines and a movie together.

So when is a gathering of followers of Jesus actually a church?

Many of those engaged in experimental forms of church argue that because Jesus promised that “wherever two or three come together in my name, there am I with them”, any such gathering is church. Within the Baptist tradition this is the primary definition that is used, as in the Pentecostal and Charismatic streams. The presence of Jesus by the Spirit is all that matters. It is thus no coincidence that many of the initiators of the emerging church movement in NZ and Australia have been Baptist. Such a simple definition leaves them much freer to experiment with a diversity of forms. I would hasten to add that for some quite some time I would also have held that as sufficient. It is interesting to observe though that the Baptist movement in NZ, after being driven by sheer pragmatism for the past couple of decades, is now acknowledging it has significant problems and challenges. The current leader of the movement in conversation with me in December said “our first task is to get our ecclesiology sorted out”. Interesting for me in that this drift was a significant factor in my leaving to become Presbyterian.

Further reflection though has made me realise I was still more Baptist than I imagined. As I mentioned one half of my thesis argued that effective churches had  maintained a strong commitment to the central tenets of orthodox Christian beliefs. I identified these as being beliefs about Jesus Christ, about God, about scripture and about conversion, and used the Nicene Creed to define these. Nothing about the church though. No ecclesiology. And of course the Nicene Creed does include among its statements “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church”.  So if we use this as a measure how does the emerging movement measure up? Is it in fact church?

1. One. Everybody affirms the unity or the oneness of the church, but ever since the Schism of 1054 that oneness has been somewhat difficult to locate, and since the splintering of the Reformation even more so. Daniel Migliore helpfully defines it as “a distinctive unity rooted in communion with God through Christ in the Spirit. The unity of the church is a fragmentary and provisional participation in the costly love of the triune God.” Recent trinitarian theology with its focus on a plurality within an essential oneness is helpful for us in understanding how the Christian gospel embraces both diversity and unity. Much of the NT is written dealing with this issue. The unity of the church does not lie in either a controlling doctrinal conformity or a formal institutional structure, and I would eschew all endeavours to impose either of those kinds of unity on the church. Within the diversity of our expressions it is in the life we participate in together with the triune God, and as Hans Kung expresses it, “It is one and the same God who gathers the scattered from all places and all ages and makes them into one people of God.”

However ever since the Reformers placed the focus on seeing the unity of the church in the invisible church rather than the visible church, that understanding has been used as a way of enabling churches and their leaders to do nothing about working to see unity as an actual  mark of the church in its present reality. We have continued to be happily schismatic, tearing apart the fabric of church it seems whenever we have something on which we differ. What has been called the “creeping congregationalism”, which afflicts all varieties of church life in contemporary societies, heightens the tendency to focus on the local and the particular, as if that is all there was to being church. Jesus left behind a visible community not an invisible concept. A community he called to be one, and so it is incumbent on we who are the church to continually work hard to find ways to express in our increasingly diverse culture that this is a reality, not merely some ethereal and mystical entity. If the life of the trinity is the model of our unity then it does involved the diverse members working synergistically together for the glory of the one. One of my criticisms of the emerging church movement, is that with its brisk  dismissal of inherited forms of church life, its distancing itself from tradition, its reluctance to work with the church as it is, it magnifies the image of a divided church and fails to put energy into working hard at ways to give expression to and so maintain the unity of the church. While I would admire its willingness to engage with our cultures and seek to find new ways of incarnating gospel and church within those, I believe it would be more true to being the church of Jesus Christ in the world today if it sought to do that working with the church as it already is. Brian McLaren says we need “a new church”. There is only one church, and it already is. The challenge is to continue to work within that church so it might better faithfully be the presence of God in Christ through the Spirit in the diverse communities it inhabits.

2. Holy. The word holy and the concept of holiness is hardly a popular word in our contemporary context, either inside or outside the church. It raises images of a “holier than thou” judgmentalism and an isolationist separatism fearful of contamination by an evil world. A preoccupation with holiness it is suggested has been a major hindrance to the mission of the church in the world. Identification and engagement with the world is what the creator God is about. The word holy is of course the primary word used to name the essence of the nature of God. It is if you like what marks out God as God, as distinctly different from everything else in creation. It is something that belongs essentially to God. For other things or persons to be described as holy therefore is to claim that they also are marked by the essence of the character of God, and in this way are to some extent different from the rest of creation. But how do we know what God is like if we are to share in that character. The central claim of the NT and of Christian thought is that the fullest revelation of God is to be found in the human person Jesus Christ. By looking at the life of Jesus we see what it is like to live a human life marked by the character, or holiness, of God. But more than that the NT claims that by his death, resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit Christ mediates to us the very life of God so we can share in the fellowship of the trinity. Here is the essence of the holiness of the church. It can be identified by the degree to which it lives a life reflecting the glory of God seen in Christ and this is made possible by the presence of the Spirit in its midst. When we do this we will demonstrate a distinctive quality to our life that will indeed mark us out as different, distinct from others, as Peter put it a “peculiar people”. While this quality of holiness will be demonstrated in the church in an imperfect way, as Calvin put it, it is the “measure toward which it is daily advancing”.

grad-1As suggested in my overview of the relationship of church and culture, the church lives in a relationship of some tension with whatever culture it lives in. It needs to both incarnate the gospel into that culture but also allow the gospel to transcend and judge every culture in which it is present. Part of the problem with Christendom and the way of being church that developed in that context, is that it ended up identifying the culture of those societies as being Christian, and simply became a reflection of the societies in which they existed. They no longer were a distinct or holy people. As the society and the culture in which they existed changed rapidly in the post war era they ended up with nothing left to offer the new societies which emerged and were seen as antiquarian reminders of a world that once was. Dean Inge once said that “If you marry the spirit of the age you will find yourself a widow in the next.” Sadly that has come to be true of much of mainline Protestantism in the West, including many of its evangelical expressions, shaped more by the values of the consumer market and business models than the gospel. The emerging church movement has been quite right in much of the critique it has offered of the way in which traditional church life had been simply an expression of modern western life and values.

But while some of its analysis of what has been problematic for the church is invaluable, in its headlong rush to become relevant to the emerging culture of a postmodern world, it runs the risk of making the same mistake and may end up wedding itself to the spirit of this age, just as firmly as the church it critiques may have to a previous age. When the wonders of this age begin to wind down, and I might suggest it might be a phase in history that is much more short lived than the previous, where will it be then? What will it have to offer and to say when all its flaws have been laid bare. The emerging church articulates strongly an incarnational theology and understands Jesus almost solely in these terms. Yet any serious reading of the life and ministry of Jesus will identify that while he did live incarnationally within the culture of first century Judaism, he also lived in considerable tension with most in that culture, at times spoke judgement on it, and ended up being rejected by it. If he was simply concerned with relevance why was he strung up on a cross. At times it is difficult to distinguish an emerging café or night club church from any other café or night club down the street. Postmodern culture is neither any better nor any worse than modern culture. So emerging leaders celebrate the death of modernity and raise three cheers for the arrival of postmodernity, without recognising the need to provide a proper critique of that which is problematic for living a Christ shaped life. On the other hand some critics of the emerging movement such as Don Carson and David Wells see only a culture antithetical to Christ in postmoderrnity, and fail to recognise they are just as closely wedded to the culture of modernity. Whatever culture we happen to be in as the church of Jesus Christ, we need first to allow Christ by the Spirit to form us into a distinctive culture of its own that preaches in the language of the time and place in which it is set the unique holy life of our Trinitarian God.

3. Catholic. The affirmation of the catholicity of the church refers to its universality and inclusivity. It is the church that has existed everywhere, always and for all. It guards the church against parochialism, sectarianism, racism and conceit chronology, among other things. It is clear that both the unity and the catholicity of the church go together, they are two interwoven dimensions of the one church. However as with oneness we need to guard against it being understood merely as an abstract kind of universalism hovering over the particularities of culture and history. Again it is a mark that needs to be demonstrated in the life of the visible church, its expression in the life of local congregations. Avery Dulles claims that catholicity “is not the accomplished fact of having many members or a wide geographical distribution, but rather the dynamic catholicity of a love reaching out to all and excluding no one.” I would agree with Daniel Migliore that the “church today needs to interpret the meaning of catholic as inclusive of all kinds of people”. What might this mean for us today?

One of the major trends of a post 60s world of the global village, has been a growing pluralism of our societies. Not just through the coming to societies such as NZ of markedly different cultural groups from overseas, but also by the breakup of the dominant white European culture into a multiplicity of subcultures. Not only is this across generations, but also within generations, so much so that since the beginning of the 90s it has been pointless to talk even about youth culture. This pluralisation has been heightened by the fact that increasingly people do not live their life in one geographical place where they might mix with people of a wide variety of ages and cultures, but rather are mobile and live their life with communities of choice, usually consisting of people of the same culture as me. Often these subgroups are quite exclusive, having their own distinctive language, symbols and lifestyles. At a time in the past when people in a community lived their lives in that particular community, when generations shared many of the activities of life together, the local church embraced within its community members from every walk and stage of life within that community. It was catholic, inclusive, in that sense. This was the parish or family church, an increasingly rare bird in our pluralistic society. How do we reach people today within all these different cultural subgroups, when the culture of church as it is, represents that culture of a bygone age?

The answer of much of the emerging church is that we need separate churches to incarnate the gospel into all those cultural subgroups. And so we have youth church, student church, young adults church, young marrieds church, breakfast church, café church, biker church – and so on and so on. These churches become quite age or culture specific. One practical question to ponder is what happens to these churches when their particular niche finishes? But there is a bigger issue. Murray Robertson retires this month after 40 years as Pastor of Spreydon Baptist Church during which he has had significant influence on the church in NZ. Last year he served as President of the Baptist Church, and wrote a series of columns in the Baptist Magazine on his observations as he visited churches around NZ. In one of these he noted that churches now “tend to divide along shared interest lines” and there is “an age based apartheid”. He writes “Maybe this is part of the phenomenon of people looking for a church in which they will feel comfortable, but… something quite precious is lost when you only meet and share with people who are pretty much identical to yourself.” Indeed is it a church when its membership is so exclusively limited to some subgroup that others are in fact shut out? The emerging church movement is again to be commended for its recognition that in our multicultural world there is no one expression of the gospel that will incarnate it for “all” those, even within one community in NZ. They draw correctly on the missional principle Paul spells out in 1 Corinthians 9 of becoming “all things to all peoples so that I might by all possible means save some”. But that needs to be balanced by the ecclesial principle he spells out in Ephesians 2, talking about the major cultural divide of his world, that “Christ…. Has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall… to create in himself one new humanity.” Maybe what is a legitimate mission group is not in fact a church. It needs to see itself as part of the church catholic, and commit itself to being part of that church, and share its life with the greater whole in its lived practices, so that in this fractured divided tribalised world people may see that the gospel makes a difference, that estranged groups can be reconciled, that in Christ cultural separation might be transcended and that the new community of God’s people is inclusive of people of every race and every tribe and every tongue, even here now on earth. Might these questions also be asked of ethnic specific churches? To quote David Bosch

The new fellowship transcends every limit imposed by family, class or culture. We are not winning people like ourselves to ourselves but sharing the good news that in Christ God has shattered the barriers that divide the human race and has created a new community. The new people of God has no analogy; it is a “sociological impossibility” that has become possible.

4. Apostolic. Randall Prior at the Presbyterian Assembly defined the Apostolicity of the church as its essential missional nature. That before it is anything else it is missional, a view expressed by the missional church movement. While it is true the word apostle does have in it the idea of one who is sent, and while I agree fully with the sentiment being expressed, I do not believe that interpretation of apostolic as a mark of church is how it was understood by those who created the Nicence Creed or historically within the church. In confessing the apostolicity of the church we are acknowledging that the true church is founded on the apostles. The faith and life of the church must stand in continuity with their enduring witness. This continuity is ensured not by some physical continuity through the sacramental laying on of hands, but by our faithfulness to and reaffirmation of the gospel they gave witness to in the writings of the NT. As Jurgen Moltmann puts it: “The apostolic succession is in fact and in truth the evangelical succession, the continuing and unadulterated proclamation of the gospel of the risen Christ.”

It is of course one thing to affirm that “our supreme rule of faith is the Word of God” as the Presbyterian Church does or that “the Bible is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice”, as a Baptist church might. It is quite another to interpret what those words actually mean for us today. One of the things postmodern hermeneutics has made us aware of is there is no such thing as an un-interpreted word or act. There are two things this raises in relation to our engagement with emerging church. Being faithful to the apostolic witness is not just mere repetition of those words, or repeating the way in which they might have been interpreted as being appropriate to another place and another time. The apostolic word must be interpreted anew for every generation and every context. The emerging church is to be commended for its willingness, by and large, to take scripture seriously, and to seek to interpret afresh what it might mean for us today in our particular context rather than just repeat unthinkingly the formulas and answers of the past.

But secondly how do we know that new appropriation or interpretation is faithful to the witness of the apostles. Calvin argued that interpretation of scripture must take place within the hermeneutical community of the church. Too often in protestant and evangelical circles the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has been understood within the culture of enlightenment individualism, to mean the right of every individual to interpret scripture for them self, a tendency heightened in the radical individualism of late modernity. So much so that Kevin van Hoozer asks in his hermeneutical tour de force, Is there a meaning in this text? or is there in fact just a never ending possibility of meanings. Listening to the voice of the church, the hermeneutical community, is one of the significant factors to take account of in discovering what this text means for us today. And by the church we mean the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church”, the church throughout time historically and throughout the world geographically. This means giving due, but not stifling, weight to the voice of tradition. GK Chesterton wrote: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes – our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to walking around.” With its ditching of traditional church, its giving up on traditions that might have developed and been passed on for centuries, apart from occasionally ransacking them and tearing out of any meaningful context some token that seems cute in the eclecticism of postmodern culture, the emerging church runs the risk of missing the wisdom that has developed over the centuries, of listening to the caution that might come from previous misinterpretations, and thus in the end  run outside the boundaries of where the Spirit might be willing to venture with them. Sadly this is a pattern that has happened all too often in the history of well intentioned new movements. There is a use of scripture which is false teaching. There is heresy that is full of proof texts. Less dramatically there are also representations of the gospel that are unbalanced and therefore unhelpful, and maintaining conversation and community with the whole church so interpretation occurs within the checks and balances of that will help ensure an ongoing yet presently meaningful faithfulness to the gospel within the emerging movement.

Two further marks of the church have also been identified, particularly among Protestants. As Calvin put it, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” Holding this definition central to our understanding of the church, the Presbyterian Church has sent to Knox another group of students this year, to hopefully complete the final stage of their training so they can be ordained as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. So that we will have communities of believers where the “Word of God is purely preached” and as other definitions put it “the sacraments are rightly administered”. The former is in some ways easier to assess than the latter. What does it mean to ensure the sacraments are rightly administered? Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas argued it is the presence of the bishop that makes it so. Obviously a problematic definition for many churches. For Catholics and Anglicans it is someone rightly appointed by the bishop who ensures it is in faithful continuity with the apostolic tradition. We have argued here that being apostolic means faithfulness to the witness of the apostles as contained in the NT. Hence for Calvin, “as instituted by Christ”. Here is why the Reformed tradition has held word and sacrament together, because it is not just receiving the bread and the wine but doing so in the context of hearing the gospel story of what they mean that makes them a sacrament, a means of grace. So a theologically informed and properly recognised ministry is important to ensure that the church remains apostolic, faithful to the scriptures, in all aspects of its life, including the preaching and sacraments.

Parts of emerging church, as well as other experimental forms of church life, have often been critical of and resistant to theological training, often preferring to have leaders and pastors who are more entrepreneurial and creative. Too much theology kills those. Many Baptist churches in NZ have followed this also. And I have to say that at times I have been in churches and listened to sermons or seen communion or baptisms, that at best have not been faithful to the Scriptures and at times even heretical. An entertaining event but scarcely a sacrament. Sometimes they are missing completely. Which of course raises the question, is it church? A central reformation principle is ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, “the church reformed is always being reformed”. This phrase is often quoted by those who want to change and reform and do church in different ways . We are being true to our tradition in doing this. In some senses yes, but it is a misunderstanding of the reformers intent to see it as giving carte blanche to try whatever we want. The reformers reformed the church in the light of the Scriptures. Luther did not just way “Here I stand I can do no other”, but “My conscience is bound to the word of God, here I stand…” It is why ministers were teaching elders, and now ministers of word and sacrament, so that by placing the role of scripture central in life of the church and office of ministry the church will be continually reformed in the light of scripture. As the Church of Scotland statement on ministry in 2000 puts it, they are “to represent Christ in the faithful proclaiming of the Word and right administration of the Sacraments and so ensure the possibility of such reform and renewal.” The emerging church movement would do well to seek to ensure a theologically formed leadership so that it too will experience the renewing presence of Christ that come from faithful preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments.

I want to finish briefly by drawing from a sociological insight. Some of you might be surprised that it has taken me this long to mention one. Many of the grand theories of the earlier sociologists are now viewed with much suspicion. However there is one theory I think continues to provide invaluable insight. Max Weber’s theory of the routinisation of charisma. He argues that what happens in the evolution of religion is that a new group gathers around a charismatic leader and is a dynamic, free, loose charismatic movement. Over time it rationalises, routinises and systemises its life and so looses its charisma. Some people become frustrated with this and break away around the edges to form a new charismatic group with new energy and dynamism. It is this that ensures the ongoing renewal of the religion. Looking at the history of Christianity in the west there is much that can be helpfully explained by Weber. There is no question that much of church life in the west has become routinised and rationalised, there is little dynamism and charisma. The Spirit has been routinised out. I believe the emerging church movement can be understood in these terms, as can the charismatic movement of the 1960s and 70s. What has happened often in the past is that the established religious institution dechurches the new movement and the action is reciprocated by the movement. My hope is that in this instance we can avoid repeating history and that by remaining in communion and continuing in conversation, the emerging church may be part of the movement for renewal and reformation of the church in the west, and that the emerging church movement may gain from the wisdom and catholicity of the church to grow into a more faithful and dynamic communion of the triune God in our challenging western context.

When is a church a church? I would probably in the end agree with Miroslav Volf’s conclusion, that “where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, not only is Christ present among them, but a Christian church is there as well, perhaps a bad church, a church that may well transgress against love and truth, but a church nonetheless.” Many in the emerging movement prefer to talk about the emerging conversation than emerging church. My plea would be for those within the movement to include in the conversation all of those who with them are members of the “one holy catholic apostolic church”, so they might come to more adequately share those marks.  And to those sure they are members of that church, but  suspicious as to whether these new comers qualify, to reach out in conversation with them and so help us all to more fully demonstrate the transforming presence of the risen Christ in our life together.

Brian McLaren, Reinventing Your Church, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998, 13-14.

Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996, 3-7.

H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, New York: Harper Brothers, 1953.

Lesslie Newbigin, “The Enduring Validity of Cross-Cultural Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 12, 1988 50.

As quoted in L. Sweet, Aquachurch. Loveland: Group Publishing, 1999. 81.

D. R. Jacobs, “Contextualization in Mission.” In Toward the Twenty First Century in Christian Mission, J.M. Phillips and R.T. Coote eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. 236.

Max Stackhouse, “Contextualization, Contextuality and Contextualization.” In One Faith, Many Cultures: Inculturation, Indigenization, and Contextualization, R.O. Costas ed. New York: Orbis Books, 1988, 6.

Hans Kung, Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumencial View, New York: Doubleday, 1998, 166, 211.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/ 3/2: The Doctrine of Revelation, transl. G. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1962, 739.

Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991, 201.

Hans Kung, The Church, New York: Image Books, 1967, 353.

Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, New York: Doubleday, 1974, 122.

Migliore, 1991, 203.

David Bosch, Transforming Mission, Maryknoll: New York, 1991, 389.

Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit¸ New York: Harper & Row, 177, 359.

Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion,  Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity¸Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, 136.

Faith, law and democracy

In light of Rowan Williams’ recent lecture – and the reaction it brought to the surface – there’s an interesting piece in today’s Economist on ‘Defining the Limits of Exceptionalism’. Here’s a taste:

In every democratic and more-or-less secular country, similar questions arise about the precise extent to which religious sub-cultures should be allowed to live by their own rules and “laws”. One set of questions emerges when believers demand, and often get, an opt-out from the law of the land … What has upset the old equilibrium, say law pundits in several countries, is the emergence all over the world of Muslim minorities who, regardless of what they actually want, are suspected by the rest of society of preparing to establish a “state within a state” in which the writ of secular legislation hardly runs at all. The very word sharia … is now political dynamite.

Full article here. And I have written more on this here.

Also, NT Wright offers a helpful contribution to the post-lecture here in this Washington Post article.