Skip to content

Why I Still Consider Myself a “Postmodern” and Not an “Emerging” Christian

The bookmark to
go with my book.

In the 90s and early 00s “postmodern” was the buzzword for cutting-edge theological thought and practice. Somewhere in the midst of that the Emerging Church appeared with it’s online hub, Emergent Village. It represented another shift in evangelicalism, and I recall one conservative instructor in seminary saying that he heard that it was going to be the next wave of Christianity. I disagreed with him at the time, saying that while they were doing cool things, they were also missing the actual social conversation.

In 2004(?) in the cold of March, I went to an Emerging Church conference in sunny San Diego (and I kind of want to move there as a result of it). I had a great time, and some of the speakers were spot on in their insights. In an effort to duplicate an online forum conversation, they used sticky name tags in a comment-response format on a wall. What I found fascinating was that the the most controversial issue seemed to be what to do with women. Really? “Should women be ordained” was their biggest question? As I left, I felt justified in my assessment of their social positioning.

The next year I went to another Emergent conference in Atlanta to see Walter Bruggeman (whom I thoroughly enjoyed). Part of the event included a local Presbyterian seminary professor being in dialogue with the attendants. He confessed that he wasn’t really sure what “Emergent Christianity” was, and asked for a synopsis. One of the hosts relayed that their churches had encountered different, non-traditional ways of looking at the Bible (like using historical criticism) and that they were starting to wrestle with new issues (like the standing of women, gays, and lesbians in their communities). To this, the professor said, “So, basically, you’re going through the same thing the Presbyterian Church did in the 70s?” Blunt and right to the point. Yes, the cutting edge is relative. The Emergent conversation was cutting edge for their evangelical communities. But, the extent to which they were behind the times (by about 30 years) should clearly signal the extent of the disconnect with the questions of our increasingly secular society.

While writing my new book, I reflexively used the word “postmodern” to describe what I was doing. Then I realized, “emerging” is much more in vogue. Should I change it? I made a very intentional decision not to. Both words have connotations that I think are important.

Those who use the language of emergence seem to do so because of its connotations to complex systems. That which is new is emerging from the old, not unlike evolution. My issue with the label is not with the label itself. Indeed, we are seeing emergence happen within Christian circles. My issue is with the way that it seems to have become a code word within Evangelicalism to identify their “new” thing as if it is cutting edge for a larger culture. In their context, it’s about the movement from Evangelicalism 1.0 to Evangelicalism 2.0. In the wider cultural context, it really isn’t dealing with the “new,” but actually has a lot of catching up to do. It’s about Evangelical communities wresting with and responding mostly to distinctly modern questions.

The issue is in the questions. Those in the Emerging Church do well to identify themselves as being part of a conversation, rather than being a movement. Because they have shared questions, they can have a productive conversation with one another. Their questions, however, are not the same as mine. Sure, some overlap, such as the issue of war. But while they are questioning whether women, gays, or lesbians should be ordained or married, I’m more interested in asking about the significance of polyamorous relationships and what things might look like if several people were wed as a family. Different questions mean different conversations; we’re not having the same one.

I prefer to talk about what I do as postmodern. For the most part, postmodern and emerging can be considered synonyms. But, the “post” in the term evokes a break from the modern worldview that “emergence” does not. I am still emphasizing the complexity that comes with emergence when I’m talking about postmodern. It’s just that the language of postmodernity allows me to emphasize that the old is no more and that we need to orient ourselves toward the future. History remains an important dialogue partner, but our concerns and questions are about where we are going, not where we’ve been. It also allows me to distance myself from the Emerging Church conversation, which I see as being as much (if not more) a modern experiment (or even pre-modern) as it is a postmodern one.