Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Emergent conversation- good or bad? or perhaps in the middle

It isn't uncommon today to hear the word "conversation" or the phrase "having a conversation" in emergent circles in regard to talking about doctrine or methods of doing church or missiology.

Now what has struck me about this word conversation is how it was previously spoken of by Neil Postman in 'Amusing ourselves to death', a book he published back in 1985. Well before many of the emerging or emergent crowd were out of nappies.

First of all, I need to reject the objection that I am lumping emergents and emerging together, that I am taking them as synonymous. While I do see them as able to be distinguished, they do at times overlap and as pyromaniacs pointed out over at their blogspot, emergent can be treated as "a major influential element in the emerging conversation".

Secondly, so as not to fall prey to accusations of 'the genetic fallacy', that some may take what I say here to be saying that something is dubious because of its origin ( although it is at times proper to speak of such bad origins when satan is the source of something! ) I want to reject that notion up front. I am not saying that emergents picked up anything from Postman. Indeed I think he has some very valuable things to offer us to reflect upon and we and emergents could have learnt something valuable from Postman. While the terminology of "conversation" as some emergents use it seems to have strong similarities with Postman, the similarities have more to do with what Postman was countering. Listen to what Postman actually said back in 1985.

Postman used the word "conversation:" metaphorically to "refer not only to speech but to all techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages." pg 6. Further "in this sense all culture is a conversation or more precisely , a corporation of conversations , conducted in a variety of symbolic modes."

He then goes on "our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms"

Sounds difficult doesn't it but it really isn't.

Consider his example of smoke signals by American Indians. They would not have been able to include philosphical discourse since they are insufficiently complex to do that. You wouldn't be able to have two indians conversing about the nature of existence using smoke signals. He said they'd run out of wood and blankets before the second axiom. The media just doesn't allow for philosophical argument.

I just love what Neil Postman says. It's so thought provoking. He seems to be describing exacty the situation of "conversation" that we find so prevalent today among emergents.
The trouble is, I think the emergents in many cases are settling for smoke signals.

Here I agree I need to carefully set out how I see emergents connection to the notion of "conversation" as Postman uses it.

I am not refering to the common notion of emergents as part of an "emerging conversation" which refers to a continued dialogue with others that the evangelical movement would have seperated from due to their unorthodox beliefs. I am using "conversation" to address the characteristics of an "emergent church service" such as Dr Sam Harbin described as follows: ( and has been described in magazines and newspaper articles about the emergent church )

"A place where ancient christian art decorates the walls, meditative activities at different stations around the room, ..." or there's prayer labyrinths, and someone writing in a worship journal, and or perhaps a stool on which sits at "pastor" having a discussion about christian things instead of a sermon and people mold playdoh into some model to represent the talk. A video screen off to one side of the room showing a plethora of images covering many subjects flashing by rapidly, and so on.

What we have going on here is the younger generations enthusiasm and predilection towards the media tools of the 20th and 21st century. Using different media to put across the gospel message as well as to teach the bible.

Now it's in that regard that what Postman was talking about has major ramifications in relation to Preaching. There are those who love to roll out the statement that "it doesn't matter what media you use, you just have to be faithful and true regarding the content", whereas the method they insist, can change, they declare they are faithfully keeping the message the same.

What they fail to understand is that the medium can distort, and even negate the message or be totally inadequte to convey the message.

They need to think more about Marshall McLuhan who said "the medium is the message".

Let me say that some emergents in their conversations about doctrine are so reliant on sound bites and unsubstantiated opinion and lacking any depth of argument that they are just like Indians, sending up smoke signals. If I permit myself a sound bite, as the saying goes, "one ought to be aware of smoke and mirrors". What is being "discussed" lacks just what Postman saw as missing in Public Discourse, any real depth of argument.

Now please don't accuse me of similar lack of depth of argument. I will readily admit there's much more to be argued, I just think it's been adequately said by Postman and lately by T. David Gordon.

In the meantime, just reflect on secular media and their impact. Video hits today predominantly visualise sexual themes and the music seems to not be the focus. Indeed sometimes the music is trash and the video is the only artistic part! What's happening is that instead of reflecting upon the words of the music and the message, often the message is visualised in a particular direction. What becomes the focus is the video, not the music. Indeed the music sometimes becomes secondary.

Now what we have among some in the Church is the notion that we shouldn't have to rely just on preaching, since that is so cognitive and word oriented but rather we should be able to include dance and drama and visual art to get the message across. I acknowledge this isn't just a problem found in emergent circles because it is clearly evident in those seeker services of the 90's and in some earlier church services. The point I want to highlight is how we need to think through the whole issue of how different media can detract, distort, or negate the message.

Apart from Scripture itself telling preachers to preach the Word, to declare the Scriptures and explain the sense of the teachings, eg Neh 8 they have also forgotten that other forms can easily distort and even negate the message. Not just that but the form can be inadequate to get the message across anyway, just like the Indians smoke signals. To argue that in the bible the prophets used drama, so therefore we can also use drama, or that Jesus told stories so we also can use the story form, is to confuse us and our calling to edify and equip the saints through the Word with the fact that they are used by God the father to declare exactly what He wanted communicated. We are not prophets in that sense. We are teachers of God's already delivered Word. We are to contend for the faith ( Scriptures ) once for all delivered. Jude 3. We don't make up or bring our own ideas to God's people.

Consider drama - if we think that it's a clear substitute for the preached Word of God we are mistaken. First of all the actors tend to interpret things not written. Certainly they need to thoroughly understand the Biblical or theological point of some story or parable or acted drama in the bible if they are to "act it out." Sadly we see how easy it is to get this wrong, just consider how many books used in teaching children through stories get the point of the passage so totally wrong. Yet even if they get it right, those listening can focus on the wrong thing, firstly because the context of the acted drama has not been given, and it needs to be seen in the biblical context in which it is given. In many cases those we get to do drama are not the pastor-teachers but usually actors in the body who are not often biblically astute about what they are doing. But secondly, our visual sense can take over and override our intellectual assessment, thinking through what is going on. We are so prone to being entertained in our culture that we switch off our mind in the presense of such stimulation.

I am not denying that people can interpret a preacher wrongly. And certainly there are many bad preachers out there - a subject for the next post. Yet it is the Word of God that is a two edged sword, which the Holy Spirit takes and convicts people with. Scripture does not say the Spirit takes drama and uses it that way. The Bereans are lauded because they checked out everything that the apostle Paul said against the Scriptures, the written word. Acts 17. It keeps on coming back to God's Word. Once for all delivered.

We need a bit of thoughtful reflection. Many pastors lament the Biblical illiteracy of many of their flock. But are we encouraging that because of the media we are using? We need to hear "Preach the Word, in season and out of season." We are not there to entertain, or "amuse" but to edify with the Word.

Have a read of Postman's book and reflect on what you are doing.

In Christ,


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