Friends 2007: “Further along the conversation…”

[David BC Tan & Alwyn Lau in conversation!]

My friend David BC Tan nudges “Further along the conversation…” while I left a comment at the end ūüôā

The recently concluded QROH seminar with Brian McLaren made me look back through my own archive of writings on emergence. A post dated 29 Oct 04 had this to say:

Pointing to the problems of making truth claims to a culture cynical of adjectives like objective or absolute the church will only find its good intentions rejected. “…arguments that pit absolutism versus relativism, and objectivism versus subjectivism, prove meaningless or absurd to postmodern people: They’re wonderful modern arguments that backfire with people from the emerging culture,” said McLaren.

The alternative as every emergent reader would know is not to ditch our allegiance to Christ or Scripture, but build authentic communities that draw people the way Jesus himself drew the masses, especially the marginalised, to himself. I think we can all agree with that. There is no question about the need to live authentically as a vibrant community expressing kingdom values in all its demands. But the niggling question is, is that all, and if not, in what way do we have to think about being ‘relevant’?

The seminar certainly succeeded in avoiding touchy theological points but instead focused on the larger issue of Kingdom imperatives. No argument there. The Church needs to hear a lot more about being a community contributing to Godís Kingdom within our social reality – without resorting to triumphalism or tokenism. In recent years men like Mark Noll, David Wells, and Ronald Sider have also lamented the scandal of our evangelical digression. On this score Brian is on the same page. Where they differ however is the coherence of a theological mandate founded upon a ‘fixed centre’ (Pascal), which seems the least important in Brianís dialectic.

Some of Dr Alex Tang’s 9-point observation squares with quite a few evangelicals who fear Brianís deconstruction of truth (after Grenz) and his emphasis on a less precise notion which is described simply as ďbeing in sync with GodĒ (NKOC) Ė which arguably sits better with a postmodern sense of spirituality. A whole bunch of people are understandably disturbed, some of whom have articulated their concerns in a hard hitting compendium titled, Reclaiming the Center. It’s not a boxing ring for the timid, this book. While Brian claims not to have denied the basic tenets of faith (i.e., Nicene Creed) they may unfortunately be diminished due to the emergent worldview (is there one?) he professes, and because of what appears to be waffling on his part. However Scott Mcknight in an excellent piece attributes the misunderstanding to prophetic rhetoric (or ‘exaggeration’ as Brian admits). It would be assuring if Brian’s considerable literate skills clarify the specifics, as theologian John Frame reminds us, God and the devil are in the details.

I was amused when at the forum Dr Voon Choon Khing to everyoneís delight said she couldn’t understand the flak Brian was getting: “Give the man some respect; heís not stupid.” I too believe Brian to be a sensitive and intelligent man whose soul-searching over real issues has ignited our imagination. As a creative thinker, Brianís vision can be infectious. Where he gets it right about the church in community, I sense compassion and a genuine desire to loose the church into a world that badly needs salt and light. The ongoing argument is tiresome, but I also happen to believe that serious real estate is at stake in the long term. So what price relevance? Theological reflection demands a rigorous and robust engagement, therefore this part of the conversation is just as needful. Well. As Pas Fong Yang said, the church is reformed and reforming.

Nevertheless I belong to the ‘old’ school. As much as I subscribe to aspects of Brianís perspectives on the new kind of Christian and his articulation of Jesusí secret message, it is my conviction that knowledge is not the main or only cause of the Churchís present complacency: it is loving Jesus by obeying Him, which is the crux of true discipleship. It is loving God by loving our neighbour, which is the heart of servanthood. Sadly, obedience, that act of dying to self which is so antithetical to every generation (perhaps more so in this present one) has been bartered for personal fulfilment and heaven on earth. Similarly, old-fashioned holiness is no longer a virtue to pursue while God Himself has been domesticated and no longer feared. Thatís a hard message for a world more inclined towards soft options and multiple choices. Perhaps thatís whatís missing. Brianís ‘nemesis’ D.A. Carson notes:

“People do not drift toward Holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”

We need to dream the dream of God, as much as we need to have the mind of Christ. We need to reform the way we do church as much as we need to reaffirm the authority of Godís unchanging Word. We need men like Brian as much as we need scholars like Carson. As long as weíre talking, Iím hopeful.

posted by David BC Tan @ 2:38 AM

At 8:22 AM, Sivin Kit said…

I agree with you different people play different roles in whether in visionary and/or scholarly ways. I think in the coming days we will see more people working on the details perhaps more sympathetic to Brian’s imperfect but “seeking to be holistic and integrated” vision. I think the late Dr. Grenz has been a little too under-rated in the English speaking evangelical circles (like how most people in the pew in Malaysia have under-rated Dr. John Stott or Dr. Alister Mcgrath both whom I find more helpful to me than Dr. D.A. Carson matters of theological engagement)

I think your last statement is noteworthy .. “As long as weíre talking, Iím hopeful.” but this requires critics to be slower with their “anathema-like” approach.

There are those who are working in the details (or have already talked about these issues but have not been popular writers or scholars within English speaking evangelicalism). For example, Reading a older book “The Soul of Ministry” by Ray Anderson totally blew me away by the similarity in methodology but with more theological precision. Of course, now names like Miroslav Volf and Le ron Shultz is gaining some hearing. Scot McKnight will be coming out with a book later this year.

As someone who’s been trained and are on friendly terms with “old schools” (never fully at home with it and yet appreciative) and “new schools” (trying to be part of the construction of it), I find myself looking for models/examples of people whether older or younger who can model can work on these manners closer to our Asian & Malaysian sensibilities (without being ignorant of global realities – whether it’s culture or crisises) I confess, it’s only natural to be drawn to some and not others. More when we meet face to face again.

At 1:09 AM, David BC Tan said…

Thanks for expanding the horizon here. Like you I believe in theological engagement although admittedly the tone of voice varies from person to person. Thanks also for pointing me to new names to follow up on, some I’ve heard and read of, but whose books I have yet to read (or own!). I know there’s talk about a statement of faith (Shults)but I don’t think my idea of precision means one – unless of course emergent is going the institutional route which would be a misstep.

Your mention about Asian and Malaysian ‘sensibilities’ is interesting. It’s easier for me to locate these ideas geographically
than culturally, having grown up and studied almost exclusively in a western frame of mind. Seriously, what’s a Malaysian model? ūüôā

At 12:38 AM, Sivin Kit said…

Malaysian model is doing theology with “Makan” ūüôā

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