Tag Archives: Culture

Book Review: Theology and Culture

Book Review 21

Long, Stephen D.  Theology and Culture: A Guide to the Discussion (Cascade Companions).  Eugene: Cascade, 2008.  124 pgs

In this short work Stephen Long provides a helpful introduction to the important issue of theology and culture.  In keeping with the spirit of brevity of Long’s work, only a couple salient points will be touched on.

One of Long’s central concerns in this work is language.  In particular, Long addresses the pitfalls surrounding metaphors in general and in particular the metaphor of “culture.”  He wants to help the reader see the problems language causes, particularly as it relates to talk about God, since all language is culturally embedded.  How can one escape the prison of the “linguistic turn?”

Rather than provide firm answers to this and other related concerns (although at times his preference for a Christological explanation is evident), instead Long provides a survey of how people have tried to deal with the dilemmas inherent in understanding theology and culture.  Long’s survey is a model of “concise breadth,” dealing with thinkers like Troeltsch, Niebuhr, Tillich, Milbank, Balthasar, Tanner, and McClendon, as well as movements and events like Radical Orthodoxy, Vatican II, Communio Catholicism, Reformed thought, liberal protestantism and more, all within less than 60 pages!  The explanations are accessible for the novice and thorough enough to see the issues they raise.

This is a fantastic guide to the complex issues surrounding this topic for the beginner.  Further, Long is a clear, concise writer who strikes a nice balance between charity and ascerbic wit, making it a pleasant read.  I highly recommend it for those who want to look into the issue, or need a refresher.


Defining “Culture”

In my Theology of Culture class a few predominant issues keep pushing their way into the forefront of my mind.  One of these is the fundamental problem of defining what we mean by “culture.” 

One of the reasons this is a major issue is due to the influence of H. Richard Niebuhr’s sweeping definition, in which the term draws a net wide enough to catch every human activity.  This “monolithic” definition has been aptly critisized by John Howard Yoder, who believes the term is defined so broadly in part to highlight the inadequacy of certain Niebuhrian types (not coincidentally, the type that Yoder is closest to, the “Christ Against Culture” type) and the superiority of the “Christ Transofrms Culture,” the type that Niebuhr favors.  In fact, Yoder believes that this problematic understanding of culture, when set against Niebuhr’s equally polarizing definition of Christ, sets the discussion on an inevitable course towards Niebuhr’s preference.  The terms as so defined give Niebuhr rhetorical leverage over the opinions of his readers, leaving any conclusion but his inescapable  if his understandings of culture and Christ are correct.

While Yoder’s critique is a powerful one, it seems in most of my research the issue of how to conceptualize culture is a perennially difficult task.  The struggle appears to avoid being overly vague, lest the term become vacuous, to simply be filled in with the author’s presuppositions, or to define culture too narrowly, degenerating into sectarianism and ironically falling into the same trap as “monolithic” understandings.

In the face of such complexity, how can an adequate definition be found?  To be able to define the term in a way that is anthropologically sensitive while being fundamentally theological is one of my hopes for this course.

Ecclesiology in a Globalized World, Part 1

As promised about a week ago, i want to recap a couple of my favorite presentations from our conference last week (If this is the first time you’ve heard about it, click here for more background).  Without a doubt, one of my favorite presentations was done by Rev. Andrew Grosso, who currently is a rector at an episcopal church.  His talk was titled “Ecclesiology in a Globalized World: Revisiting One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.”  I really enjoyed his presentation, and since there was much quality material (which i hope i can do justice to), i’m going to break up my reflections on his session into 2-3 posts.  WIthout further ado:

According to Grosso, there are two major ways experts view the process and factors behind globalization.  Rather than trying to tease out which one is more correct, Grosso assumes a level of validity to each and applies each model to the church.

Following the ideas of Philip Jenkins, Grosso labels one approach as the “bottom-up approach.”  Globalization is understood as to follow on the heels of the collapse of western colonialism, and with that, the emergence of indigenous churches.  In this view particularity and the unique embodiment of the faith are valued, thus many will seek to find the essentials of the faith in order to have the freedom to express their “individuality.”  

I believe that this approach is inadequate.  As Grosso points out, this model pushes toward increasingly narrow forms of the faith.  Further, these unique forms are highly enculturated, making true dialogue and interdependence on the church difficult, if not impossible.  In my view, if the “bottom-up model” were to become too dominant, churches in the world would find themselves to be increasingly isolated, turning into individual artifacts dispersed all over the more integrated and interconnected global world. 

Grosso articulates the other major model through the work of Fukuyama.  Grosso calls this the “top-down” approach to globalization.  In this model, globalization occurs primarily due to the dominance of the free market and the consequent imbalance of power that it engenders.  While the side effects of this are tragic, it is hard to deny that the free market is the primary means of cross-cultural communication.  This goes hand in hand with the spread of liberal democracy and the economic model of capatilism.  Add to these factors the instant access to information through technological means and you have the tools to become a global culture.     

This model, in contrast to the other one discussed, takes seriously universality.  It tends to view things as very interconnected.  However, as Grosso pointed out in the session, this alone isn’t a great thing.  This model if left unchecked tends to favor utility to the point where there becomes a genuine need for the explication of what Grosso calls “universal parameters of the faith.”  

While one can debate the merits of these two models (false dichotomy?), I believe that we can see evidence of both.  According to Grosso, we must neither wholly embrace or reject one approach.  In the next post, we will begin to unpack how Grosso believes we can meet this challenge of “the one and the many.”

At this point, i would love to hear feedback on his initial “two models” approach.  Do you agree or not, and why?  Is this a helpful way to start thinking about the issues for the church that surround globalization?

Dobson on Obama: Deliberately Distorting the Bible

I thought that this was interesting.  Thoughts? 

Question of the Day

Right now I’m engrossed in my theology of culture class.  This Thursday my 1st paper is due.  My task is to write a paper that attempts to answer the question “what challenges does the emerging postmodern worldview pose to the church?”  I thought that it would be interesting to see what all of my faithful readers thought about this.

So, what challenges do you think postmodernism brings to the church today?  What say you! 

Ray Anderson: An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches

Anderson, Ray S.  An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).  220 pgs.

One of the most common objections to the “emerging church” movement is that it lacks any substantial theological outlook.  Emergent church leaders often fall prey to the cirticism that “eventually have to move past deconstruction.”  This work by Ray Anderson attempts to meet this need.  Anderson knows that his work won’t be definitive for the emerging church, since it is still in the process of coming into being, but hopes that his work can be a part of the “ongoing conversation.”

Anderson’s approach is to look to the scriptures to for a theology that is emergent, which he defines, following Dan Kimball, as a theology that has changed from its predecessor.  Anderson is seeking to discern what the scriptures say about a new movement in the church, and what we can take from that today.  However, Anderson’s approach isn’t to merely look for abstract principles from scripture, but to view the scriptures narratively, seeking to discern what is going on as the church changes.

It is here that Anderson’s basic thesis comes into view:

“The Christian community that emerged out of Antioch constitutes the original form and theology of the emerging church as contrasted with the believing community (20).” 

The rest of the book seeks to read the book of Acts and Galatians, among others, to discern key differences between the two churches and what we can learn from them to apply to what we see happening today.  While Anderson’s approach is provocative, it occasionally falls short of its goal.  It does seem that other reviews have rightly criticized Anderson’s strained views of the two churches.  Jerusalem is often painted with too negative a brush, and i’m skeptical that all of the contrasts between Antioch and Jerusalem were that polarized.  Anderson freely admits that at points he has outran the evidence and “caricatured the Jerusalem church.”  Furthermore, in certain chapters it seems that Anderson abandons this method all together, hardly referencing either church.  Anderson tells the reader upfront that this is an exercise in “creative narrative theology,” so don’t come expecting a purely biblical theological approach.  How can such a method be successful?  In Anderson own words:

It may appear that i’m overgeneralizing at points and overstating certain assumptions to make my point.  However, i believe that a fair reading of the New Testament documents will support my basic thesis (25).

The occasional over-reaching aside, this book is packed with great insights that should be taken seriously by all, not just emeging church leaders.  What follows are several of his main theses.  Italics indicate the implications of what Anderson is saying.

  1. The church at Antioch was based on a theology of revelation, given directly to Paul by Christ Himself, while Jerusalem was too rooted in the past, and developed a fortress mentality based on its location and it’s continuity with Judaism.  The emerging church is a move of God that doesn’t overly rely on heirarchical structures or continuity with tradition.  Christ is the “cornerstone of continuity” for the church (28-30). 
  2. Following on chapter 1 above, Anderson argues, following Karl Barth that “all ecclesiology is grounded, critically limited, but also positively determined by Christology.”  Anderson writes that “the Christ of the emerging church at Antioch is, in Paul’s experience, a Christ who emerges in the present out of the future (57).”  The emerging church is rightfully concerned with the contemporary presence of the historical Christ in their midst.  We all must learn to take this insight seriously, or we will fall into the criticism Anderson has for the Jerusalem church in chapter 1.  Incidentally, in this chapter Anderson relates the Son to the Spirit quite a bit, and here is a post i did on his views. 
  3. In chapter 3 Anderson writes on the relationship between spirituality and the Spirit.  Anderson’s basic point is that not all spirituality is of the Spirit, and that since the Spirit is the presence of the historical Christ here and now, all such spiritual exercises or experiences without “relation to Jesus Christ is liable to be only a human form of spirituality (70).”  Anderson’s point here is that we shouldn’t kill ourselves trying to be “spirit-filled” Christians, but to allow the Spirit who is inside us already to produce His fruit.  Spiritual growth occurs only when we surrender to the Spirit who causes the growth (see 75-76). 
  4. Regarding church polity, Anderson argues that the acceptance of the emerging church in the long run will depend more on the type of polity it embraces, or the lack there of.  Anderson believes that ultimately it isn’t about the right polity but the right gospel.  Right polity will follow right gospel, not the other way around.  Keep the Gospel pure, and don’t make relevance god (85-86)
  5. The emerging church must focus on Kingdom living, not what Anderson calls “Kingdom building.”  The church shouldn’t exist for its own improvement.  Rather, the church “finds it’s being in its Kingdom mission, under the guidance and the power of the Spirit (99).”  The church is the divine reign’s “sign, foretaste, agent, and instrument (99).”  “The ministry of the church should always be undstood as being grounded in the mission of God in Christ to reconcile to Himself.  When mission leads, ministry follows (185). 
  6. “It’s about the final century, not the first century.  When Christ returns to bring to consummation his apostolic work now taking place by the gift of the Holy Spirit, it will be the final century.  An emergent theology looks toward the ‘final century’ in which Christ can be expected to return, as normative and apostolic (211).”  Anderson advocates a Trinitarian, eschatologically focused theology.  Such a focus may move us into new and uncharted terrain, and can be frightening.  Like Anderson points out, we need to feel the pull of the future so that fascination with what has been does not become an altar at which we worship (202). 

There are numerous other thoughts in this book, but this review is getting lengthy.  In sum, this book Anderson advocates a theological vision rooted in the past and present redemptive actions of the Triune God with an eye toward the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises.  His ecclesiology is Christologically-grounded and Kingdom-centered.  This is Anderson’s view of the theology that the emerging church should embrace.  It is a breath-taking vision, one that makes one wonder if new movements of God would be needed if never lost this focus. 

For those looking for another great (and more concise!) review, click here.    




Five (Initial) Theses on Theology and Culture

Next week my 6 week summer course “Theology of Culture” starts.  i thought that i might post a brief sketch of my initial thoughts on this subject:

  1. Theology (understanding of God) that is interpreted solely through our experience (like the special interest groups), inevitably falls prey to the minimalizing God, making an idol in our own image.   Christians must resist merely capitulating to the culture around them.
  2. That said, there is no theology that can completely avoid this “contextualization of God.”  The gift (or curse if you prefer) of postmodern theory, and the emerging church, is the insight that we are born, eat, sleep, breathe, and live within a multitude of complexs (world, country, state, town, son, daughter, dad, country club, denomination, etc), all of which to varying degrees influence us to the point that they help shape all of our views of reality, for better or worse.  None of us, regardless of our exegetical skill, can stand outside ourselves and know everything 100% accurately.   All our theologies are partially our own little buffet lines, where we tend emphasis or downplay sections of the faith to our tastes. 
  3. That said, our environment does not determine us to the point where we can’t change.  I can’t follow the pomos that far.  The fact that they were able to realize pt #2 above proves that we can partially step outside our interpretative lens.  From a Chrstian persepctive, there is a second solution, a better one; Someone can intervene, step into our world, and refashion our interpretative grid for us. 
  4. This brings me to what i think the thesis of my professor will be: Jesus Christ, is our best launching pad for understanding both God, ourselves, and our world as speaks about it.  This is b/c he was (and is still) fully God and fully man, and thus is authoritative in all respects.    
  5. One further point of clarification.  What i’m saying doesn’t amount to a return to simply appealing to “just be biblical.”  I think that point 2 above is accurate.  When i speak of Jesus Christ as the center, i’m not referring to just a person that is contained solely within a set of texts, a mere abstraction.  I’m thinking that our theology must be relationally grounded in the Christ who lived the life proclaimed in Scripture but also is risen, alive, and who may have some words for us today. How we can have a relational center, moving away from modernity’s preoccupation with “timeless principles,” and still live God-honoring lives (eg engage culture) is the task that i suspect will continue to engage biblical scholars and theologians for quite awhile, maybe even after i’m dead. 

I’m hopeful that this class will help me sort through these issues more deeply.