Friday, August 07, 2009

Postmodern or Counter-modern?

This post by Stray has been on my mind. This is what he says:

Something felt like it was missing. The something I refer to is at the end of 1 Cor 4: "For the kingdom does not consist of talk but of
power". Now, again, I'm not criticising anyone in particular now - I'm just saying that, even amongst emerging church people in general I see a real lack of talk about power and, quite frankly, the supernatural

He has hit the nail on the head and has crystallised some of my thoughts. Many people who are postmodern in outlook would also see themselves as countermodern - in other words they don't like some of the stuff that modernism has done to us and to Christianity. But others have continued down the 'modern road' and become postmodern in another sense. They have embraced the logic and rationalism of modernism almost to the exclusion of any sense of deity and of God's involvement in history. But somehow we are all riding on the same emerging train. Maybe the time is coming for that train to break up.


John van de Laar said...

Interesting quote, Jenny.

What I'm always fascinated by is the pre-occupation with "power" in Christianity - especially as it pertains to the supernatural.

I guess I have three questions:

1. Why must the supernatural always be "powerful" (and who gets to decide what "powerful" is?)? It's like unless things knock our socks off or do something extra-ordinary (which is how "powerful" has usually been described to me in my church experience), then they can't be "supernatural". Perhaps my problem is with the word - do we know enough of what is "natural" to really know what "superceedes" it? Why can't the "supernatural" - i.e. God - work in quite, gentle, weak and ordinary ways? Why is this view of God's work somehow inadequate?

2. Why must "power" always be "supernatural"? This is the other side of the above coin. It's like when we speak of power, we expect something "supernatural" to happen - which usually means someone falling down, someone speaking in tongues and hopefully someone testiying to being healed. I'm not knocking these things - they're good experiences to have - but this doesn't seem all that "powerful" to me in the face of the great challenges of AIDS and economic crises. Surely the ability to get leaders to talk to one another, the ability to move people who hate each other to begin to try and understand each other, the ability to get big business to become socially, ecologically and ethically responsible is power? But it's not "supernatural" (or is it?).

3. Why is power even important in Christianity - especially in the light of (a) the cross and (b) Paul's experience of "God's strength made perfect in weakness"? I remember a criticism that was once levelled at John Wimber's book "Power Healing". The critic mentioned that in this book John Wimber spoke a lot about God's power and the power of the devil being in conflict, and that the role of believers was to overcome the devil's power with God's greater power. The question he raised was how that the Gospel and God's power cannot really be framed in these aggressive, power-dominance terms, in the light of Christ's modus operandi - suffering, sacrifice and weakness. Can we really frame the world's reality as a cosmic power-struggle between God and the devil? I don't think so - this God is too small for me.

Sorry for the long comment - I hope it just adds something to think about. It's not that I'm anti-spiritual gifts or experiences and phenomena that go beyond the rational - in fact, I embrace them - but I'm a little concerned for the language we use to frame these things. Our words are important in my view.

For what it's worth...

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi John
I'm glad someone wants to engage on this! I think points two and three we would agree on: power isn't always supernatural. And we talk about power in Christianity because it is spoken about in the Bible. (If there's more that I didn't get, please tell me!)
But your first point is where you saw things differently to me. For some reason I didn't think of supernatural power as meaning something spectacular - and I don't know what Stray had in mind. But for me it meant the power beyond myself that I experience in my everyday Christian life. Just two examples: I have almost completed a masters degree, beyond all expectations. The work on my masters has kept me sane through the pain of being away from my family and in an uncomfortable work context. Was it just chance that I was posted to Grahamstown which has Rhodes University with a very nice theology library and a very hospitable attitude? Was it God? Or would I have found something to make the best of, out of my own resources, even if I had been posted to Uitenhage or Jeffries Bay? Maybe it is a matter of faith, but I believe it was God. Another thing: I have to preach because it is my calling. Sometimes my preaching has an impact on people that overwhelms me. I have worked hard on my preaching, but I don't believe those occasions are my natural brilliance coming out. For me it is God working in power. Out of my brokenness and availability. But you could argue that I am a showman (person?). My faith says that it's God. And I believe that God could inspire the Bible and send his Son to die and rise again and even get Jonah swallowed by a fish if necessary. Just because the God I know is a God of power. I know there are people that feel differently, and I am struggling to understand . . .

John van de Laar said...

Jenny, the power you describe in your life is the kind of power that I believe in - it's the kind of power that I believe is most important. So, we're on the same page that it doesn't have to be spectacular.

On the thing that the Bible speaks about power, I agree, it does. But, I think the way the Bible speaks about power is so different from what we usually use the word to mean, that I almost feel we should find a different word to describe it.

Bottom line: the power you speak of - doing your Master's, preaching - that's the power I believe in and it's the power that I believe really can change the world if we'll let it.

Keep up the great work and keep the great thoughts coming!

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

This is a very important post. It touches on a core difference between "North and South", not to speak of other things. Reading the comments above, I'm not convinced they fall on "the same page". This is why: John seems to make a separation between God and not-God, while I'm not sure that Jenny does.

Steve Hayes said...

When I read your post the words came to my mind: not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit.

I was also reminded of a message someone wrote once urging people to go and look at their "very dynamic" web site.

And I think that is the kind of thing Stray was saying St Paul was talking about. If your website (or whatever) is "dynamic", then you don't have to tell me that it is, I'll see that for myself. Describing something as "dynamic" is pretty empty and meaningless (the only epithet I find worse than "dynamic" is "vibrant" - makes me think of a car with unbalanced wheels).

"Dynamic" of course omes from the Greek word "dynamis", which in the New Testament is usually translated "power". And when I see posters advertising preachers with a "dynamic" or "powerful" message I think that if they have to talk about it, it probably isn't. The words are a substitute for the absent power.

And I think that is the kind of thing St Paul was talkinmg about when he contrasted "words" and "power" -- it's hype, rather than the real thing.

As for "supernatural" -- I'm not sure what that means. Does it mean that it's invisible? So is electric power. Does it mean that it can't be measured by physical instruments? Neither can political power. Is political power "supernatural"? Well, yes, read Ephesians 6:10-12. If not, what do you mean by "supernatural"?

Jenny Hillebrand said...

John - yes, I think we are together. I am glad!
Thomas - please won't you explain? You've obviously done the research on that?
Steve - yes I agree with you. Power should be God working in and through us, not us doing our best and pretending or hoping that it is God!

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I think that everything in the Church refers back to God. So when one speaks of power, one would typically be referring back to God's power. If one is speaking of some other kind of power, what does this have to do with the Church? In other words, mere human responsibility is not power. That's a non-academic answer. There is also a tendency to limit God's power to what He works within us. That is a partial view of God's power. A Church that has power believes in God's power, and does not limit God's power. That is my view, and it is my belief that this sustains my Church in a largely unsustaining environment. Are you familiar with the so-called (theological, not philosophical) excluded middle? It is a concept introduced into theology by the Christian anthropologist Paul Hiebert. It says, basically, that Western Christianity tends to recognise the God of the cosmos, and the God in my heart, but not the God we find portrayed in the Bible, who occupies the "middle" areas.

John van de Laar said...

John seems to make a separation between God and not-God, while I'm not sure that Jenny does.

Perhaps I'm not communicating well on this, Thomas, but my intention is actually the opposite of what you said above. What I have been trying to do with my participation in this disucssion is to erase the line between "God" and "not-God", not speak from that distinction.

My concern is that when we speak of God's power only in terms of the supernatural (which is how I interpreted Jenny's original post -a point on which she corrected me), then we create exactly the division between "God" and "not-God" that you speak of. But, I'm arguing against this - calling for a more embracing, all-encompassing view of God and God's power which erases this division.

I'm sorry if I didn't communicate this clearly.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thanks, John.

I had an interesting discussion with a well known minister over lunch, who was discouraged because he felt that God was doing nothing in his Church. I asked him to describe the situation. There were no "miracles", he said (as he had in mind) -- yet I myself saw God's work written all over his Church. In other words, one may, by wanting to see "miracles", be missing the gracious power of God in all things. Perhaps that is what you are saying, too.

There is a trend in theology which troubles me personally, and that is that God is thought not to be in certain events of the universe. Without going into the theology here, it is a popular view. I am preaching on the book of Job at the moment: “It is unthinkable that God would do wrong -- that the Almighty would pervert justice” (34:12). That is the hope of many who have no other hope.


John van de Laar said...

What you've described is exactly what I'm also trying to say, Thomas - thank you.

I get frustrated at the language of the "miraculous" (read: "supernatural" / read: "dramatic") which denies or ignores God's influence in the "ordinary". I get frustrated at the language which says God is "here" (where the Spirit moves - read: where lots of "miracles" happen / read: where dramatic manifestations are seen) but not "there", or involved in "this event" but not "that event".

I like Richard Rohr's statement - "God is either everywhere or nowhere".

Thanks for a great conversation!