Fence-Sitters and Boundary-Pushers: A Postmodern Reflection

A squash caught in a fence. Image courtesy Mr. Green/
A squash caught in a fence. Image courtesy Mr. Green/

The modern era is marked by a tendency to worship such fences, such rules, institutions, doctrines and traditions, simply because they already exist. And oftentimes, the very things we are preserving are products of those with privilege and power—so in sustaining, or even not actively challenging, such systems, we’re actually contributing to the holding-back of those with less of a voice.

The Problem Isn’t God; It’s Certainty

Boy covering his ears,  3445128471 /
Boy covering his ears, 3445128471 /

Uncertainty about the existence of God is not the same thing as certainty about the non-existence of God.

I’ve enjoyed taking part in the “Subverting the Norm” conference this weekend with many of the forefront thinkers in what has been called “Radical Theology.” Although the word “radical” has sensationalist connotations for lots of people, it really just means a theology that isn’t firmly rooted. I know that in itself sounds scary to some folks, but the radical theology camp might suggest that fear stems from an addiction to certainty.

Does Postmodern Theology Risk Becoming What It 'Hates?'

Modern stained glass, Chris Howey/
Modern stained glass, Chris Howey/

I’m no postmodern theology expert, so I’ll leave it to the pros to explicate more about what’s what in postmodern thought. But for me, the exciting work revolves around supplanting things like binary, propositional “truths” about God with more inductive, open-ended notions of the Divine that transcend religious doctrine or even our own mental constructs of God. This is both a necessary and a liberating process, I think, that indeed can lead the Church (big C Church, that is) toward something far more reconciling and healing for humanity than the modernist approach to faith we’ve employed for many decades now, if not some centuries.

It’s helpful to look back a little bit at where we’ve come from in our religious and theological evolution of thought and practice. At the risk of geeking out on something that puts everyone to sleep, I’ll try to make this quick and fairly painless. Interestingly, it can be argued that the more fundamentalist strain of Christianity can trace its origins back to the “liberal” thinking following the Enlightenment that suggested all things – faith, God, and religious thought included – could be explained by rational means. This hyper-rationalism sought to build up rhetorical constructs that made a case for God, so to speak, as well as buttressing the doctrines of the Church.

Everything Old is New Again

I was raised Plymouth Brethren in the 1950s and 1960s, a group that has taken some pride in skipping over the centuries of church history between about 63 C.E. and about 1835, seeking to be “New Testament Christians” who are freed from “traditions of men,” whether they be Catholic men or Protestant men. (The gender-specific language was intentional and unambiguous.)

Not only that, but in the 1970s I had experienced a powerful conversion in my teenage years through the Jesus Movement. It was a movement known for being hip, not ancient; contemporary, not contemplative; and oriented around evangelistic practicalities, not spiritual practices. In the ’80s I was involved in the house-church movement. In the 1990s, it was the church-growth movement.

At each stage, we focused on how to “be” the church and “do” evangelism in the rough waters of late modernity and early post-modernity. We looked around and ahead, but not necessarily back. We were so busy trying to escape the tyranny of the recent past that we had little reason to explore the resources of the ancient past.

Beginning in the mid-90s, the modernist categories of my faith had deconstructed, and something new began to emerge. My dualisms began to fade away. I began integrating the polarities of liberal vs. conservative, pastoral vs. prophetic, contemplative vs. activist, and so on.

But to understand what was happening, I had to understand what had happened.

Dualism has had a long history in the Christian religion. It springs from the belief that ultimate reality exists in two incompatible airtight zones. The distinction begins with a dualism that pits matter against spirit or body versus soul. Eventually there are many dualisms: the contemplative versus the active, the individual versus the communal, the church versus world, the political versus the religious, and so on.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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Shattered Truths

The transition of today’s churches from modernism to postmodernism dominates many discussions in Christian and secular media. While mainline denominations are experiencing dwindling memberships, evangelicals are witnessing explosive growth. But even within mega-churches that court thousands of members, some evangelicals point to a growing malaise among their members.

The novel Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale, by Ian Morgan Cron, addresses this post-evangelical dilemma. What happens when the truth, typically defined as the Bible’s black-and-white answers to all moral questions, begins to take on shades of gray? And what about the paradox of taking the Bible literally but driving fancy SUVs, shopping upscale stores, and supporting war and violence to achieve certain ends? Morgan Cron explores these questions through the life of St. Francis, who lived in a time of extreme wealth for the few, rampant church corruption, and the Crusades.

Morgan Cron’s story begins with the main character, Chase Falson, doubting his deeply held evangelical beliefs. His life becomes meaningless as his pre-programmed idea of “Truth” begins to shatter. This type of crisis is serious for any Christian, but it’s especially troublesome for Falson, who is head pastor of an evangelical mega-church in New England.

Falson finds himself in Assisi on a forced leave of absence while visiting his uncle, a semi-retired Franciscan priest and spiritual director. Uncle Kenny suggests a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis, promising that the physical pilgrimage will mitigate Chase’s internal struggles by showing him the way of St. Francis. Kenny gives Chase a journal to document his internal pilgrimage.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2008
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A 'Relevant' Conspiracy

A few years ago, the “postmodern memoir” or “autobiographic novel” was all the rage among critics anxious to define new literary genres. In these books, writers mingle personal experiences with flamboyant experimentation in form; the results are edgy, funny, and confusing.

This trend is one starting point for Russell Rathbun’s Post-Rapture Radio, in which a narrator, also named Russell Rathbun, edits the sermons and extensive rants of Rev. Richard Lamblove. Within this odd framework, Rathbun thoughtfully explores the relationship between the church and mainstream culture, the implications of the great commission, and the nature of pastoral leadership.

Rathbun the character—a pastor, like his namesake—comes across a box of Lamblove’s papers and immerses himself in the intriguing sermons, journal entries, and notes of a man he enthusiastically classifies as an “unknown-crazy-preacher.” Lamblove’s actual title is “Vice President for Preaching and Biblical Study”—he’s an associate pastor at a church obsessed with being culturally relevant.

From his first staff meeting (the church calls it “NextLeader: A Gathering”), Lamblove finds others’ interest in his sermons to be nominal and steadily waning. He sees this as a sign of the church’s dilution of the gospel, its ongoing assimilation of a worldly culture of consumption, celebrity, and easy answers. He responds by withdrawing from church life. Lamblove avoids conversations with colleagues and churchgoers. He declines to participate in an “Emergent: See Gathering,” explaining that he feels he “can no longer emerge.” Convinced of a “Contemporary Christian Culture Conspiracy,” he comes to view himself as a dangerous, exegesis-wielding revolutionary. Eventually, he loses his job.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2006
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