In 2005, Matthew Fox, a disaffected Dominican, posted his own, new 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany- the same door Martin Luther famously nailed 95 Theses of his own, an act of defiance against Mother Church which supposedly ignited the Protestant Reformation.
Casting himself in Luther’s role (talk about self-important ego), Fox declared that it was time for ‘a New Reformation.’
And then with his theses in the church door and the media’s eye upon him…
In fact, unless you have a remarkable memory for minor, two-bit media stories, the only Matthew Fox you’ve ever heard of is the dude who played Jack, the hero in Lost.
This is my point. Christians, Protestants at least, imagine the Protestant Reformation happened in a vacuum. We have an Idealist assumption that Great Men and/or Great Ideas change the tide of history. And so, Luther, armed with hammer, nail and his individual conscience made the world something it would not have been without him.
But, as anyone who didn’t sleep through every minute of AP European History in high school knows, that just isn’t the case. The Protestant story was but one component of a much larger cultural shift.
The Reformation wasn’t sparked by Luther’s 95 Theses; Luther’s Theses were a product of the cultural phenomenon of reformation.
During this same period, Western Europe experienced massive political change as it transitioned from feudalism to nation-states. That shift was occasioned by the rise of a new economic system, mercantilism, which was made possible by vastly more efficient means of travel. The period we call ‘the Reformation’ with our in-house church lingo was actually the first Information Age, sparked by the advent of the printing press. What was happening in the church was only a small part of what was happening culturally.
Rather than Luther changing the tide of history, as Protestants like to imagine, Luther was swept up by the tide of history, taking the shifts and discoveries of the culture and applying them to his religious context.
What’s this have to do with Emergence Christianity? Or the Boys Scouts’ policy on homosexuality?
Last week, in response to a post I wrote about the Boy Scouts’ possible change in policy, in which I noted that the culture is rapidly moving away from the Church and BSA on this issue, a friend pushed back that perhaps the Church should be wary of accommodating to the culture.
I understand that caution. As a post-liberal, I have an affinity for the argument that the Church should be a distinct, alternative to the culture. And yet, I think that profoundly misunderstands (or at least misstates) how culture functions.
Culture isn’t an ‘other’ to which the Church or Christians can determine to be set apart from or independent of. It doesn’t work that way, even if we wish it did. As James Davidson Hunter puts it, culture is a thick web of structures and networks that shape all of us. It’s unavoidable. You can’t retreat from culture or out of culture; you can only contribute more culture.
So, when it comes to issues like the BSA’s looming decision, we can talk about how the Church should be an alternative to the culture and not accommodate changing trends but to do so is to live in a fantasy world. ‘Church’ isn’t an institution. It’s a movement of people and, like it or not, those people have been shaped as much- if not more- by the culture of Will and Grace as they have been by the culture of traditional (whatever that really is in the end) Christianity.
We can’t pretend to be independent of and an alternative to culture. We can only contribute more culture (Christian culture) and choose the spots, topics, issues and idols from which we call people to repentance. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, I personally don’t see homosexuality as the most urgent Kingdom witness Christians can offer our culture.
And that brings me to Emergence Christianity.
In case you’ve been living in a cave (or just aren’t a pastor or youth director) Emergence Christianity names a movement/trend/shift in the traditional Church as it reacts to postmodernity. As with the seismic cultural shift that marked the Reformation, Emergence Christians see postmodernity as an analogous paradigm shift that’s only just begun and will be long-lasting.
In mainline seminaries all across the country, in typical late-to-the-party fashion professors are breathlessly trying to inculcate future pastors in the “techniques” and “aesthetic sensibilities” of Emergence. But rendering Emergence Christianity into a technique that can be taught, I think is a mistake akin to crediting Luther the author of what we call the Reformation.
The real offering Emergence Christianity has made the larger Church isn’t in techniques, aesthetics, fads or rebellious counter-theology.
It’s in their recognition that the Church finds herself in a new cultural situation. As was so with Luther, our challenge is to determine how best to incarnate the Gospel in our time and place.