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Sweet, Leonard (ed.) 2003, The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (Grand Rapids, Zondervan)

Review by Dr Alex Tang

As the title suggested, this is a book about five different perspectives as viewed by five different people on the Church in emerging culture. These five contributors are Andy Crouch (editor of Regeneration Quarterly, author and a “specialist on spirituality and campus life”), Michael Holton (editor of Modern Reformation and associate professor of apologetics and historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California), Frederica Mathewes-Green (author, from episcopalism who became an Orthodox), Brian McLaren and Erwin Raphael McManus (self proclaimed “cultural revolutionary” which lead a tribe of “spiritual warrior” called mosaic, centered in Los Angeles). Leonard Sweet is the editor of this interesting mix of people.

The book is set forth as a conversation. Each contributor was given a chapter but in the chapter, comments from other contributors were printed so within the limitations of a printed book, a sort of conversation was going on.

Leonard Sweet gave a good introduction to the book in which he laid the background for the discussion- how should the Church respond in a post modern world. He started with H. Richard Niebuhr’s book, Christ and Culture (1951) which was described as one of the most influential book of the twentieth century. Niebuhr delineates five areas in which the Church respond to culture: “Christ against culture; Christ of (or within culture; Christ above culture; Christ transforming culture and Christ and culture in paradox.”

Leonard felt that while it was true when the book was written more than 50 years ago, it may be time to review Niebuhr’s concepts of Christ and culture which were based on modernism. He suggested that we move beyond Niebuhr to another area where we can examine the post modern church response to change in the message/context/substance and in method/form/style.

To this there are four possibilities (low change in method, high change in message; low change in method, low change in message, high change method, low change in message and high change in method, high change in message). Leonard gave an excellent metaphor in describing these areas by likening it in agricultural terms: glen (low change in method, high change in message); garden (low change in method, low change in message), park (high change method, low change in message) and meadow (high change in method, high change in message). Unfortunately the metaphors like garden, park, glen and meadow is less meaningful to guys like me who do not have a green thumb. My cactus died of neglect!

Andy Crouch started off by likening NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (the world highest building) to modernism and the 4.2 million square feet of Mall of America to postmodernism. He also likened the megachurch movement to the Mall of America. Though he did differentiate modernity as a cultural phenomenon and postmodernism as an intellectual phenomenon, he failed to define what he meant by postmodernism. He also failed to explain why he indicated the megachurches as post modern churches. He did however identified two features that are threatening the church today- individualism and consumerism. He then suggested that the sacrament of baptism can be used as the way to combat individualism and move believers into post-individualism and the Eucharist as the way into post-consumerism.

Michael Horton tried to define postmodernism but ended with a description of its characteristics rather than what it is. He then commented that in scholarship (academia), the discussion on postmodernism and modernity has been abandoned and he wondered why the church is still stuck on it. Michael suggested however we should approach the subject following the New Testament definition of “this present evil age” and “the age to come” or the “life in the flesh” and “life in the Spirit”. He drew upon the reformed tradition in his discussion, saying there is a difference between renovations and restoring a historical building and tearing it down to build a trip mall. He likened his stand to being a garden and reminded us that the reformed tradition’s motto is “always reforming”

Federica Mathewes-Green’s chapter was written in a question and answer format similar to the Westminster Catechecism. It was well written and gave us an excellent understanding on the Eastern Orthodox standing of the Incarnation. According to her, there is no need for discussion because the incarnation incorporates culture so it does not matter if it is modern or post modern. Using the example of an icon painter, she showed us that instead of discussing on sociology and techniques, we should focus on the Person.

Brian McLaren’s wrote in length about the biblical narratives, showing how the biblical story changes in different social and religious situations (Jesus, Paul, the early church) and how the method of story telling changed too. He put forward four ideas:
(1) the gospel as story
(2) the gospel as many versioned, many faceted, many layered, and Christ-centered.
(3) the gospel as cumulative ( include OT stories and subsequent church stories
(4) the gospel as performative and catalytic (inspire and produce actions)
Unfortunately, Brian’s writing was sometimes difficult to decipher and he mixed up the message and the method in his arguments. In the end, I am not too sure what he was trying to convey.

The “spiritual warrior” Erwin Raphael McManus concentrated on the relevance of the gospel in a multicultural and pluralism environment. He drew on his experiences in working with the people in Los Angeles. He mentioned that in the past when he was asked, “What do you think is coming after the post modern era?” he would answer. “I have no idea”. Now (post 9/11), he said he would answer. “Whatever we choose.” By that he meant that instead of being passively resisting the cultural tsunami, the church should be the cultural epicentre from which a new community emerges.

This is an interesting book and I have enjoyed the various comments interspersed within the chapter. Initially, I find it difficult to read the original contributor with the comments of other contributors appearing between the lines. I am more used to comments at the end of the chapter. However, I began to enjoy it as I continued to read because it feels like being in the same room with these guys as they dialogue with one another. The photographs of them in a living room also help to maintain this illusion. There are a few comments I would like to make about this book.

First, the comments and writings are very North American centered. The whole discussion seems to be centered on the church in North America. Vehicle Assembly Building, Mall of America and Los Angeles may not have much meaning to people living outside the USA. I am still lost in a glen and in a meadow.

Second, there seem to be not common agreement on what each contributor meant when they used the term postmodernism and modernity. There is also no consensus on whether the church being discussed is pre modern, modern or post modern. This leads to confusion when reading the various contributions.

Third, there is no reference to biblical ecclesiology. Different contributors define the church in different ways and I get the impression that some contributors are rather elastic in their ecclesiology.

Four, many contributors referred to other people in their chapters. There are a lot of names dropping. Unfortunately, except for Leonard, there are no footnotes to indicate who they are quoting and from which sources. It will also be helpful to have a bibliography at the end of the book and an index for reference.

Finally, I have enjoyed the way the contributors interact and even disagree with each other. Unfortunately in the book format, it is not possible to hear their replies. The book does give some different perspectives, some very different from others. However when I have finished the book, I felt I have been invited to a dinner and was offered only the appetizer. Where is the main course? It is good to know the different perspectives but what I will like to know is 'what next?' What shall or can we do?

Soli Deo Gloria

|posted 13 January 2007|


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