updated: 10-Jan-06
Brad Boydston.
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The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives
Edited by Leonard Sweet
2003, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 263 pages
ISBN 0-310-25487-6 Link

Reviewed by Brad Boydston  15 November 2003

Evangelicalism's latest craze has been an emerging genre of books that tries to explain the role of the church in the postmodern era. Leonard Sweet opened the flow which became a flood when he introduced his book SoulTsunami two years ago.

In many ways this has quickly become a fruitless and predictable genre as everyone and his brother has taken to deconstructing the "modern" church ("modern" meaning anything someone doesn't like about it) but which has offered very little constructive. However, Sweet is raising the bar with The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives.

This is an attempt to define how the church fits into culture, and in particular, the so-called postmodern culture, as understood by five Christian thinkers­Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian McLaren, and Erwin McManus.

The introduction by editor Sweet is particularly stimulating. He uses four geographical metaphors to describe how different Christians think we should relate to culture ­- the garden, the park, the glen, and the meadow. Sweet is attempting to refine H. Richard Niebuhr's classic Christ and Culture (1951) categories and apply them to the current situation.

The five contributors exemplify the four metaphors. Mathewes-Green and Horton are both examples of the garden approach. McManus represents the park. Crouch is the glen. And McClaren is the man of the meadow.

While the metaphors are strong, as each writer gives his or her own perspective, it appears that they break down pretty quickly.

Crouch suggests that postmodernism is really ultramodernism ­ the emergence of an extreme form of individualism. "Perhaps the best way to resolve this conundrum is to see that postmodernity is not a departure from modernity but a development within it. And postmodernity­the cultural phenomenon­is most neatly summed up as the outworking (in both philosophy and lifestyle) of the consumer economy that modernity has made possible, just as postmodernism­the intellectual phenomenon­is the intensifying and completion of a modern project that began hundreds of years ago. Postmodernism is, in fact, the product of prosperity. It is the way that modernity, whose still-humming infrastructure is the greatest productivity engine ever created, spends its cash. Sitting on history's greatest pile of riches, the surplus of a century of modernity's disciplined efforts to improve the human condition, the postmodern generation is analogous to the heirs of a vast fortune who (in a manner of speaking) no longer have to work for a living." (p. 71)

Horton goes for the jugular, too. "Call me dismissive, but I cannot get beyond the notion that postmodernism in the popular sense is little more than the triumph of popular culture, with its obsessions with technology, mass communications, mass marketing, the therapeutic orientation, and consumption." (p. 108)

The solution, according to Horton, is the revitalization of reformation theology.

Like Horton and Crouch, Mathewes-Green doesn't see postmodernism as merely a new culture to be embraced. The wife of an Eastern Orthodox priest, she does a phenomenal and creative job of presenting a question and answer catechism that starts out addressing the weaknesses of postmodern culture and ends up with an introduction to Orthodox mysticism and thinking.

Responding to the emerging church movement which has selectively embraced a few ancient church elements to enhance their spirituality and worship experience, she asks "Is nothing to be gained by choosing and implementing ancient elements we like?"

Her response is, "Elements plucked out according to taste are like flowers in a vase. They are more lovely than no flowers at all, but they have no roots and will wither. It is like sewing an old patch on a new garment. It is a better solution than having a hole in your pants, but it is not a lasting solution. It will not bring you to the goal." (pp. 165-167)

At times McLaren makes me nervous with his suggestion that the presentation of the gospel doesn't just need to adapt to new cultural settings but that the message itself also needs to actually evolve. "...and so the message itself changes because the message changes its context, which is to say that the message itself changes by addressing new situations and problems and opportunities in new ways­because the message keeps changing the situation, the world, the context wherever it is proclaimed and practiced." (p. 210)

McManus sees the role of the church as going beyond the engagement of culture, "Our intention is not simply to relate to culture but to create culture.

"When we work from this framework, relevance can never be equated with pragmatism. Relevance isn't about what works best or gets the job done fastest... Relevant engagement of culture, when borne out of the heart of God, is less about marketing and more about passion." (pp. 240-241)

Coming from a Southern Baptist background McManus is suspicious of anything that smacks of sacramentalism. But on the plus side he is probably the one most aware of the global angle of this story.

The book itself is an interesting presentation. Each author was allowed to tack comments directly into the text of the other presenters. Unfortunately, the type style that Zondervan used with the comments is nearly unreadable to my middle-age eyes -- and it's not a matter of size! The layout of the book with grainy black and white pictures of the participants and abstract logos is a bit detracting. It all gives the book the appearance of a trendy Sunday School publication and less serious than it actually is.

Of all the "postmodern" books I've read in the past year (and I've probably read or skimmed over 20 or so) The Church in the Emerging Culture is the most engaging. It's definitely worth a read.