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The current installment of the COEC began meeting in 2007.

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7.19.2008

What is the Emergent Movement? An analogy....

Alright, I've offered analogies before, and you have all been kind enough to offer critiques. I know the question "what is emergent" is going to come up at this little breakout session at Xenos on Thurs., and I want to be able to offer a better answer than a chuckle, a smile, and something like, "No one really knows..."

I'm not sure why I thought of it, but I was thinking about this crazy optical illusion that my dad sent to me one time. Please take a look at it here before you read on.

So the idea is that if you stare at the small cross in the middle, the blinking dot turns green, then eventually all the other dots go away and all you see is the green dot moving around the circle. It is such a clear example that what we see is not always what is there...but then when you *blink* or look away for a second, the other pink dots show up again.

So here is my analogy: The emergent movement is like *blinking* - When we are so focused, so set in our theological ways and opinions, so consumed with the absolute truth we see before our eyes, we may very well be missing something else that is also there. Doug Pagitt in his new book, "A Christianity Worth Believing" (which is surprisingly good, by the way, and you should read it) says there are 31,103 verse in the Bible. So if we memorized 300 of them (which is a lot), we'd only have 1% of the Bible. What about the other 99% What are we missing when we only focus on what we are so certain we can see, and don't step back, *blink*, and take a look around the rest of the Bible.

For me, the emergent movement is about getting a fresh look at the Bible and correcting my vision a little bit. It's being willing to admit that what I think I see may not be what is actually there. It's about allowing other verses, other perspectives, other voices to speak and to inform so I can get a better overall picture. Admittedly, after several years of looking at it this way, I'll have to blink again, and get a fresh view again. But what the optical illusion tells me is that my human nature if prone to block out what I'm not focusing on, or what I don't want to see. So sometimes I have to step back and getter a broader view, even if it messes with what I thought was really there.

Alright, what do you think? How would someone who is not favorable toward emergent respond to this analogy? Obviously it isn't the whole thing, but for me, it hints at the core - any thoughts?

16 comments:

Jane Johnson said...

Jesse,

I like the idea of using an optical illusion, because it's a real-life analogy rather than something entirely theoretical. No one can deny the effect that it has on him/her after experiencing it. Could you explain why you think that Emergent is The Blink? What makes Emergent so special that it can claim to fulfill this role, and how does it do it? It might sound a little presumptuous to someone who doesn't already consider Emergent a good thing.

Nick Johnson said...

Hey Jesse. I also like the analogy, and I enjoy watching the dots move around. I also echo Jane's comment, though, that why are we the blink? Hasn't pretty much every movement thus far claimed to be a blink? I suppose one answer might be that we don't claim that the blink you take in our company is going to give you the right answer and the right perspective, but rather we offer a place to continually blink and refresh (speaking of which - is clicking the refresh button on a poor performing web browser a possible analogy?)

One issue related to this that I have been thinking about is if we come to a better understanding of God as we age. Younger people tend to be (but not always) more idealistic, charitiable, short-sighted, and impulsive than those with more years. Which is correct? Many older people have basically told me that since I am young I do not yet understand God. It seems to me that I just have a different understanding. To use your analogy, just because I blink doesn't mean I see the world any better, I just focus on new things and enjoy a different aspect of God for awhile.

I don't know, that probably didn't make any sense.

Clark said...

Nick, I think you're right that that's where Jesse is going with the analogy- we are more likely to not focus on one interpretation of one particular verse in our group. We offer each other different views from different sources, thereby making the pink dots visible to each other when we've been focused (fixated?) on our target. Your web browser idea also makes sense to me. The site is updated when new information is available, and hitting refresh will give you unfettered access to that info. We try to bring new information to our meetings and refresh each other. More dogmatic institutions might be less likely to want that new view getting around.
Jane, I don't think it will come off as presumptuous if humbly offered as a new opinion, not an absolute 'Truth'. I think your concern relates to our discussion Sunday of relating to post-modern non-believers. We don't have that authority figure at the top dictating where everyone's focus must be; our forum style of discussion offers more opportunity to bring the dots to everyone's attention.

As to the aging and understanding question, I think the blinking analogy addresses our group's impact on both general society and our individual participants in a moment of time, not over a period of time. As for your personal growth, try this analogy on for a better fit:

Paraphrasing from a movie without taking the time to check for word-for-word accuracy, a character talking about a seminary student she used to date,
"He told me that faith is like a glass of water. When you're young, the glass is small, it doesn't take much to fill it up. But as you get older, the glass gets bigger, the same amount of liquid doesn't fill it anymore. But periodically you need to get your glass refilled."
I don't know if that is what we're promising to do for people- that might cross the line of presumption- but the opportunity is certainly there, for those who are looking for it, to find something in our discussion that might top them off a bit. But don't let them tell you having a bigger glass is the important thing; it doesn't mean theirs are more full than yours. The Kingdom belongs to those who accept with the full-glass view of a little child which, I think, belies 'understanding'.

Clark said...

*blink**blink*
"... more likely to not focus..."?

Make that, "less likely to focus".

No 'edit' button.

NancyJ said...

These analogies are quite creative and I especially like the refresh button idea.

On the subject of whether we come to a better understanding of God as we age, my understanding of God has more depth than when I was younger and it is no longer stagnant. I have learned from those older and more experienced than myself as well as those younger than me.

But I think the last line of Clark’s post says it so well…that the Kingdom of God belongs to those who accept with the full-glass view of a little child…

That is a very accurate depiction of how I see myself coming to God, with an open heart, an open mind and thirsty.

Jesse said...

Thanks everyone for your comments and suggestions. A few thoughts -

Jane: I don't think Emergent is the one and only by any means, especially throughout history. Phyllis Tickle mentions this in the Mars Hill podcast that Greg referred to a few weeks ago. There have always been renewal movements and times when a change and a refocus was necessary. What I think Emergent has going for it is an admission to past mistakes, recognizing we often get our ideas of God and church wrong, and a willingness to get a new picture for a new time and culture. I don't want to say that Emergent is the only movement that is able to reinterpret Christianity.

Nick: I like the "refresh" idea. I think it's very similar and adds a different dimension to it. The info has changed; more people have contributed; you need to be updated.

Perhaps this is where many people would say, "The medium changes but not the message." Or in other words, sure the church has to change with the culture, but we always preach Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, I think that is naive and idealistic. The message always changes along with a changed medium (like we talked about on Sunday with a pastor preaching from the pulpit vs. a community of leaders).

Clark - great thoughts. The bigger/smaller glass that is still full is a cool idea.

Clark said...

yeah, "we always preach Jesus Christ", but what exactly is preached about Jesus has changed over the milenia with the desires of the audience or the intentions of the presenter. A change in popular medium is coincident with these changes in the views of the culture. I suspect that historically it hasn't been a change in the medium that changed the message, but a desire to change the message that was facilitated by a new style to set it appart.
So, the culture, either the audience or the presenter or both, get fixated on a particular issue and are able to see a particular interpretation of scripture aplied to that issue that fits their new ideals, ignoring other sources of information. I think, then, that you want to use this illusion analogy to tell people that the emergent movement is trying to avoid reading things the Bible doesn't actually say by making ourselves aware of many different sources and references on a subject? By seeing the gaps where the Bible doesn't specifically address a particular issue at all? Perhaps the response you will get is to point out what others see Emergent fixating on. Or what they think is important that they think we are ignoring by choosing to not see it.
What exactly?
I don't know.
What are you aticipating being told you are wrong about by people not favorable toward Emergent? I think the best you can do is to offer to open a dialogue on specific issues. Some will accept.

Jeremiah Ramsey said...

I liked the optical illusion. I'll have to check out that website to see what else they have.

I like your analogy. Unfortunately I think you're using it backwards.

What is a blink? Simply put, it's a three part process beginning and ending with open eyes. The middle part is when the eye closes. How much can be figured out during that time the eye is closed?

In the original post, you write "...what we see is not always what is there." I agree. I do not agree that What we see is always what is not there. How do you differentiate between seeing what is NOT there and not seeing what IS there? To continue your analogy, which part of that illusion is the optical illusion? You wouldn't see the fake green dot if there weren't any real pink dots with which to see it.

I am also curious what you mean when you say "When we are...so consumed with the absolute truth we see before our eyes, we may very well be missing something else that is also there."

I wonder if you consider this statement absolute truth or relative truth. Or is this just your opinion?

That really is an interesting point about the number of verses in the Bible- over 30,000! I am concerned with your conclusion though, which seems to be saying that the only part of the Bible a person "knows" is the part they have memorized, thus if you haven't memorized the whole Bible you can't lay claim to knowing any of it since it is an "incomplete" picture.

Upon reading several of the comments I see there is some very deep and heady feedback.

My thoughts on a couple of them.

As far as God wanting us to have an open mind... I see where you're going with this but I don't agree that God wants us to be open minded about everything. If he did, he wouldn't have given us things like the ten commandments.

(This aside from the fact that having a completely open mind is a logical, empirical and experiential impossibility.)

The analogy with the glass is interesting. I would like to know the movie from which the quote is taken. I almost agreed with it, then I came to the word "refilled."

Then I wasn't sure if faith was the glass or the water, or the glass and the water together.

Anyway here end my thoughts. I am looking forward to interacting with this blog and I hope my comments are not seen as inappropriate or rude. That is not my intent. I have a direct way of asking questions and if I have said something here that causes offense I am sorry.

Jesse said...

Hey Jeremiah -

Thanks so much for your comments, critiques, and questions. They are certainly not taken as rude, and I'm glad you took the time to read the post and the other comments. Here are a few thoughts about what you said:

The point of the analogy is that there is something about human nature that when we focus so intently, our perception may be distorted - and drastically. An optical illusion proves the point easily, but I also think many people have had the experience where they always thought they knew something about God or the Bible, only to find out there was more to the story. Or perhaps another look helped to clear up a prior distortion.

Certainly I am not saying that we always see something that is not there, or that we never see what is truly there. That'd be taking the analogy too far. Rather, if we are unwilling to adopt a significant epistemic humility, or a willingness to admit that even though I think I'm right I also may be wrong, than we are prone to make very serious mistakes - in life and theology.

I agree that a person can know and learn from the Bible without having a verse memorized. However, as I like to say, we all read the Bible with our own highlighter. There are certain verses we emphasize more than others, and these verses dictate how we read the others. The best current example of this in theological studies is with the letters of Paul. If we emphasize Paul's writings and understand the gospels through Paul, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus take on a certain theological tint. But if we emphasize the gospels and read Paul through that different lens, suddenly things look very different.

I am not arguing that one is better than the other, or that one view is absolutely true or false, or even that we must absolutely always change our view point. Rather, I've learned that we are all prone to mistakes, and rather than staunchly defend the truths that we are so certain are absolute, it can be helpful to hear an opposing opinion in order to learn and grow more.

Admittedly, there are some things we return to again and again, continuing to believe that they are true. Just because we often make mistakes doesn't mean we always make do. Nevertheless, a differing perspective may not contradict or negate my viewpoint, but it may augment my understanding in a helpful way.

Your comment regarding the 10 commandments is challenging to me right now. I hope to put up a longer post soon about how/why we read the Bible, but for right now I'll just say I don't think the 10 commandments, or any of the Levitical code for that matter, were meant to keep God's people from having an open mind, but rather to establish a relationship between God and humanity.

Ok, I think my answers here are kinda weak, so hopefully some others will chime in and do better than I. Thanks again for your comments and questions - very good stuff!

Nick Johnson said...

Jeremiah,

I also do not think your comment is rude at all. Rather, we greatly appreciate and respect kind, well-thought out, and calm discussion on these issues. I firmly believe this is the sort of dialogue Christ desires his followers to have. (also, let me say that my wife and I are both commenting right now, so there may be some overlap – we haven’t read each other’s post). Okay, on to the topic at hand:

You say, “How much can be figured out during that time the eye is closed?” I would answer - a great deal. It is at times when you close your eye in meditation that the Spirit speaks to you. I understand that I am stretching the analogy too far, and I also know that this is not how you meant it, but I will say in my own life I have learned far more from and about God when I put the bible away and just started living with an attentive ear to the Holy Spirit. I think the thing that bothers me about extended periods of word-study or systematic analysis is that there is no time to do God’s work. Yes, I believe he wants us to try and understand the bible texts, but I think no understanding truly comes until one actually starts to live. As a friend of mine from D.C. once said (to a very legalistic woman) “Girl, just put that bible down, get out of this church, and get out there and start doing God’s work.” Only when you close your eyes, I believe at least, do you realize how little of the world you are actually seeing.

This might not be related, but there is one thing that Dennis said during the conversation that I have been thinking about that might as well be brought up here. At the point when Jesse said something like “I don’t want to get into a bible verse contest,” (sorry Jesse, I can’t recall your actual words) Dennis replied “Well, that’s all I know.” There was a little bit of smug laughter in the room I remember, but I couldn’t help just feeling really sad. Does God really just want us to only know Bible verses? Does that really lead to a complete life? Why did he give us the Holy Spirit if everything we are supposed to know is in an old book? Personally, I always learn far more from experience and talking with other people. I often wonder if when Paul wrote his letters he intended them to be read over and over, every night, with an intense focus on each word, by a culture 2,000 years removed.

Well, I really feel like I need to say more, but I’ve got a softball game to get ready for. I realize that last comment opens up an entirely different conversation, but I will wait and see where it goes before I comment further.

Jane Johnson said...

I think I have a verse that is a good example of me reading the Bible with a certain lens. It's amazing to me that after two years of change in the way I read and understand the Bible there are still several passages to which I attribute a flawed meaning simply because that's how I learned it.

"You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give up his life as a ransom for many." (Mk 10:42b-45)

Certainly in this verse Jesus talks about his death as a substitution for someone else. Thus it can be used in defense of penal substitutionary atonement. But I always hear the final verse separated from the sentences that follow it and it seems that at least in most English translations this verse is explicitly connected with the previous thought, because it begins "For..." What Jesus says right before it really changes the tone of this famous verse. Sure it implicates the idea of substitutionary death, but the reason Jesus calls his death a "ransom for many" is to illustrate to his disciples how he wants them to live. What I love about his command to them is that he notes that this is a different world order, which I would read as the Kingdom of God: in the kingdoms of man the ruler is at the top, but in the Kingdom of God that principle flips on its head.

So was my earlier reading of this verse, that it means Jesus died for my sins, wrong? Sort of, because I plainly didn't understand the verse grammatically, but it is true that Jesus uses the word ransom. I would argue that the new understanding of the verse is much richer and vibrant.

My discipline, musicology, is essentially cultural history. What I have learned from four years in this field is that even among European cultures from the same point in time there is great variance in cultural fixation. For instance, in c. 1900 there was a sharp difference between French and German aesthetics. Therefore, a French music critic and a German music critique would evaluate the same piece of music entirely differently. They would even disagree as to what the music objectively consisted of (music versus noise, compositional technique). The French were labeling German music of the time as unhealthy, perverted, and even noise rather than music. Because nationalism, which is extreme cultural fixation, had reached such fervor by this time, the two cultures really couldn't understand each other at this point in history, leading both to point wagging fingers across the border. The finger-wagging proliferated through all areas of culture and soon became machines of war and long lines of soldiers.

Jeremiah Ramsey said...

I am thankful for these responses and the chance to interact with you on these points.

Just to be clear- When I say God doesn't want us to be completely "open-minded" I mean he wants us to acknowledge the boundaries he has set in terms of truth and deceit.

My personal epistemic springs forth only from using the truth in Scripture as a guide, measuring and weighing each idea with which I am confronted because "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." (Psalm 119:105)

Thus I am enabled by the truth therein to say to myself "Here is an idea which contradicts the truth of the Bible." I start by believing that what the Bible says is, IS what IS.

Do not also think I am saying that all belief systems, ideologies, philosophies etc. only have lies in them. Some may have truth mixed with lies. But using Scripture as my guide enables me to discover where the faults are and, perhaps more importantly, what my response should be.

Concerning the result of understanding the Gospel through Paul’s “theological tint”- I would ask myself “Is Paul’s theology right or is it wrong?” Only saying that his theology colors the Gospel in a certain light isn’t really an excuse in and of itself to say we shouldn’t heed his words, unless you think it is wrong that the Gospel is colored by anything at all

If this is the case, I would then ask the emergent church why they assume the color with which they will paint the Gospel is the correct one- is it correct only by virtue of the different way? Then I think you really risk ending up with a bad epistemology- “The same thing is bad, the different thing is good, and this is how we know what we know is what we actually know- because it is different from what the old way told us we know what we know is what we actually know.”

To address the emergent concern about “staunchly defending truths we are so certain are absolute”- The only thing I have ever staunchly defended is absolute truth. I do not try to defend things like foods I prefer.

One of my favorite bands (called Demon Hunter) articulates this in an especially poignant way when they say “The foundation that we used to uphold, now regarded as the madness of old. Every alteration made to the standard of truth is a nail in the coffin we hold.”

To address Nick’s concern of extended periods of word analysis not leaving time to put the Word of God into action- I agree with you completely on this point, and it is one reason I do not see things like monasteries as biblical. If all you do is study, you learn. However, you do not understand to the fullest. But be cautious in coming to the conclusion that the only solution is to throw out study altogether. If you don’t know what the Bible says, you won’t know what to learn. My point might be best understood with an analogy.

If you want to be a mechanical engineer, the best way to do it is not to just go start being one. Go to school, learn the way to be it, then go be it. Could you learn about mechanical engineering without going to school? Absolutely. But you wouldn’t really know what was applicable to your desire to be a mechanical engineer. And even if you go to school for mechanical engineering, do you really ever stop learning about your profession outside of experience? I hope!

Experience is a great way to learn, but it isn’t the only way to learn.

Jane- I am not sure what you mean when you say “…I attribute a flawed meaning simply because that’s how I learned it.” Do you mean your teacher was a bad teacher and taught you the wrong thing? I wonder what your old understanding of this verse was.

I think your current understanding of the verse is the same as my understanding, although I am willing to say that Jesus does more than “implicate” the idea of his death on the cross. Christians are not called to give up their lives as a ransom for many. They are only called to live for one person- Christ. They are told that the way to DO this is to serve others.

I apologize for the length of this response, there were a lot of things I wanted to respond to and did not, and had to choose some of the more vital points. Thank you for allowing me to continue posting.

jeremiah ramsey said...

I see that I made a typographical error at the end of my paragraph which contains the analogy- I meant it to say "Do you ever really stop learning about your profession outside of experience? I hope NOT."

Anonymous said...

"in c. 1900 there was a sharp difference between French and German aesthetics." How do you know this? You read it as Truth. Why is the Bible differnt? I am just trying to get an idea of this. It is all very new to me. Have just been browsing sorry if i interupt this flow.

Jane Johnson said...

Sorry that it took me awhile to see your question, anonymous. I would say that my statement about French and German aesthetics is a statement that is strongly supported by the large amount of evidence that I have seen as a result of multiple years of study of the subject. I suppose I think of truth as many academics would, that you go out and gather material evidence and after awhile try to make some theories based on that evidence. But every time one puts up a theory, such as the one that I gave, he/she realizes that some other scholar may come along with evidence to refute that theory. Any scholar has to be ok with this kind of process.

I approach truth in my life in the same way. I go out into the world, I experience things, I reflect on those things, I read things, I talk to other people, I pray, and after awhile I feel ready to posit a theory or two. I'm not that old, and already I've held theories that I was rock-solid certain of and they just turned out to be dead wrong. Some of the things I thought were beyond-a-doubt true were shattered when I was met with evidence to the contrary.

It might be useful to clarify here what I mean when I talk about truth. I don't believe that it isn't possible to make a true statement. On the contrary, I think people of all faiths make true statements very often. What I do believe is that no one can be absolutely certain that something is true. It is only possible to go through the process of gathering evidence and then eventually a decision must be made about what the truth appears to be. Emergents tend to be big on dialogue because we believe that the more we talk with other people, the more certain our "truths" become.

As to the Bible, I hope I have not communicated disrespect for it in my post. It is an amazing book that speaks to humans in a desperately-needed way. In my opinion it is rather narrow to read Mark 10:42-45 as merely a verse that tells us what Christ's death on the cross means. To me, in context, it is a truly revolutionary verse because Jesus himself is going to overturn social and governmental order and his disciples soon followed in this new way of living after his death and resurrection. In the verse Jesus talks about the cross and at the same time alludes to the far-reaching consequences, both in time and distance, that his sacrificial act would have. The way I read the verse now makes the cross even more powerful than I used to give it credit for.

I might also add that I do not think there is one truth behind this verse, at least not an absolute truth that all humans can grasp. Based on my point of view the verse seems to certainly have the meaning I have given to it. But I know other people who would completely disagree with me. These kind of disagreements reflect the power of the Bible to me. If we compare it to a living creature, and I don't think this is at all outlandish, this might make better sense. Would one person say the same thing to all of the people he or she came into contact with? Of course not. For instance, this person might have very different things to say to a child versus an adult regarding the death of a pet. I believe that the Bible speaks to people with the same ability, because the Holy Spirit is alive and active.

Greg Lyons said...

Beautifully stated Jane.

Renewing the idea that Scripture is alive allows for a multiplicity of readings. Expound on what you mean in saying that disagreements over the Bible actually reflects the power of the Bible. I agree with this concept on one level. However, on another level it could then be surmised that there is no such thing as bad theology, since one could claim (as has been the case) that Scripture supports slavery. I recently learned that the Anglican Church views Scripture, Reason, and Tradition as informing each other, perhaps in order to curtail such occurrences.

It has also been mentioned that the Spirit is not limited to the Bible. Therefore, one could say that any other text/medium is also living, and therefore open to a host of interpretations. I keep hearing and reading emergents say the Bible is powerful to them; but do they really mean it, or are they just sugarcoating out of respect for the Bible's place in church history? I'll never stop reading the Bible because it's part of who I am. But the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita are speaking to volumes of Muslims and Hindus. Are the words of the Bible even relevant for them? It is too simple to say that a missionary's work ends after merely translating the words of what happens to be OUR culture's sacred text (however we view it), but it's also important to remember that it wasn't our text originally in the first place. Thinking about culture, here's what the Fijian Department of Culture had to say: "Culture is not a product like any other. But rather, expresses the identity, values, and soul of a country. It is not to be traded or forgotten."