Church as Prophet or Church as Mouthpiece of Democratic “Progressive” Socialism?

There’s a lot out there about the “new evangelical left,” the “emerging church,” and new missional communities that are seeking to embody the gospel in new ways and live out the mission of Jesus in the world. I’m painting in hugely broad strokes, but many of these churches share in common a skepticism / critique of church as it has been practiced and especially of the political activism of the religious right. It is an easy to blog surf and find some church, group, preacher, or random know-it-all with a laptop (guilty!!) spouting off about how the church has ceased to be relevant, how abortion and gay marriage are important but not really, how the church needs to apologize for so many things, and on and on. There is a good deal out there about how the church needs to deal with issues of poverty, social justice, and oppression and complaint that the church hasn’t done enough. And again there is usually a call for the church to apologize.

Theologically speaking, there is ample room for the emerging dialogue to take place under the umbrella of orthodox evangelicalism, defined broadly as belief that: 1) the Bible is true, and authoritative and we ought to follow it, 2) Jesus is the only Son of God and Savior, 3) return of Christ in judgment, 4) umm something else that I’m probably forgetting. The current movement though is often self described as being “prophetic” because of the ways that the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus himself spoke about the poor and the marginalized. They see themselves as standing in that stream seeking to “be the church” in a prophetic kind of way rather than just “proclaiming” the gospel in a way that is disconnected from the day to day lives of the average person.

Socially speaking the movement seems to be dominated by White middle class, college educated people who wear black rimmed glasses and use Macs instead of PC’s. They tend to hang out in coffee shops and have churches with one or two word names like “Quest” or “Missio Dei” that obscure more than they reveal. They care about multiethnicity and try to actively pursue it. They have “creative class” jobs and live in gentrifying neighborhoods that have local food markets. They know what arugula is.

In other words, they fit neatly the typical demographic of liberal Democrats except for their pesky clinging to evangelical religion. But honestly, much of what is discussed in the blogosphere and bandied about in circles of these new evangelicals is hardly distinguishable from the Democratic Party platform. Without intending to, their prophetic voice on issues like abortion is suspiciously reminiscent of the bumper sticker, “Against abortion? Don’t have one!” Of course, it much more nuanced than I am portraying it, but there is a distinctive unwillingness to be notably and publicly FOR anything typically associated with recent evangelical politics and a concomitant willingness to be AGAINST anything championed by the Republican Party.

How prophetic though is it to align oneself with the prevailing currents of social and political thought? Has the Christian right spoken only a “negative and condemning message,” and if even they have, isn’t that also in the prophetic tradition? John the Baptist was not exactly sitting down for a conversation with those he preached repentance to, and Jeremiah would likely have been treated for clinical depression based on his frequent weeping and lament over the sinful state of his nation. Does being a faithful follower of Jesus mean that you support the notion of Universal Health Care Coverage?

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10 thoughts on “Church as Prophet or Church as Mouthpiece of Democratic “Progressive” Socialism?

  1. Hi there! (I followed you over from Eugene’s site, because you have a lot of interesting things to say!) This was a very good, very insightful, very true post. The thing that struck me the most was your comment that people involved in the “emergent” church tend to be members of the creative class–and I wonder, maybe, is that putting the cart before the horse??? Does the emergent movement attract members of the creative class, or is the emergent church just what church looks like when the creative class gets ahold of it?

    I tend to think the latter. It will be interesting to see how things shake out over the next several years, as a younger, very different demographic moves into a position of greater influence. Things will change, that’s for sure, for better or for worse, and probably both.

  2. Guilty! Except, I’m not white and I don’t wear those funny glasses…but I am of that ilk. Good food for thought for us left leaning evangelicals.

  3. man, this is a great point and one worthy of asking. i guess the question is really about power and its embeddedness in the institutions. i heard recently that while the postmodern critique is often associated with deconstruction and a hermeneutic of suspicion, that it might be more helpful that we look at our social structures with a hermeneutic lens of “recollection” and “imagination”. in that sense we have the possibility to be more prophetic, but i agree with you, not to address the theological nuances and simply promote political positions as corrective to the system is hardly being prophetic.

    but let’s be honest, if the “right” had a confessing sense of self-awareness, would this conversation of the evangelical left have arisen? don’t you think that the brashness of the moral majority beginning in the late 80’s really began to push really hard, perhaps too hard, in the arena of politics without a posture of compassion (in the mold of mother teresa or a contemporary shane claiborne)? i think the discussion would be very different if our posture/presentation was different. my sense is that both sides tend to oversimplify their solutions, but it would be more helpful to me and others, if we could see an honest wrestling with the reality and complexity of these problems in light of Scripture.

  4. @elderJ man you’re goin to town on this one brother…

    I like what David is saying above. The “hermeneutic of suspicion” is definitely the postmoderns’ response / reaction and we might play into it indiscriminatingly. But there’s nothing like being intrinsically suspicious that really elevates all of our urge to power. We want a share of the pie, so we get suspicious. Perhaps then the hermeneutic of recollection is better…

    And I can’t help but to agree, for while the left has its characters and heterodoxy, the right has some bigwigs that give the faith a bad name as well. Don’t have to mention any names, I’m sure we all agree there are characters…

  5. Ditto. But where does this put students like me?

    I know what arugula is, I want to be a linguistics professor, and I look like an electrical engineering and computer science major. Creative class, yes?

    But what if you’re traditional and not hip? There’s nothing hip about enjoying things written by the Pope and “Spengler” the Asia Times columnist. On the other hand, people like Benedict XVI, N.T. Wright, Tim Keller et al. are hardly the religious right, either. But the pomo thing tires me easily, and it’s same old, same old most of the time.

  6. @Jenny – thanks for the visit. I would tend to agree with you and while I believe there needs to be place for creative class types to create and innovate church, the challenge is to do that without succumbing to a different kind of elitism

    @Daniel – thanks for stopping by. Come by and visit more often

    @Donte – I’m glad to provide some food for thought. I think left leaning folks (as well as right leaning folks) need to continually make themselves aware of the possibility of cultural captivity that constrains their thinking.

    @David – I don’t know if the “right” intended the results they produced in terms of political divisiveness, and having long seen compassion ministry as something outside the political sphere probably simply didn’t think in those terms. Most would agree that compassion is the purview of the Christian community and that governments primary role is very limited.

    @Wayne – Yes, the right has ample characters, but I believe it is important to begin discussions of public engagement from a place of agreement rather than from a posture of critique, which both left and right assume when dealing with the “world” and all too often with each other. Sometimes it seems that the left is more concerned with being seen as “cool” in the eyes of the “world” and so is quite willing to let other Christians be publicly vilified while if we were honest, we would admit that we agree on almost everything.

    @Tsang Lue-Yee – you are the rare and blessed person that is lacking in status and sometimes in numbers in academia; a conservative intellectual. It is not that such persons are lacking, but they usually find the academic environment to be very hostile to actual serious debate and inquiry and so generations of students are educated by professors with a distinctively leftist bias. And yes, the pomo thing is a little bit played out.

  7. “Sometimes it seems that the left is more concerned with being seen as “cool” in the eyes of the “world””

    I think this is a scathing critique with much truth in it. Reminds me of a movie – think it was Men in Black – somebody says “the difference is… I make this look good / cool”. Cept maybe that’s not the point.

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