One of the trend stories right now in hip evangelicalism centers on what is called the "emerging church," a concept that is rooted in postmodernism and is just as hard to define.
Wait a minute. Can something be "rooted" in postmodernism?
Anyway, you might be wondering: What, precisely, is an emerging church? Is this a kind of megachurch for people who know "The Matrix" by heart? Are these churches for evangelicals with NPR coffee mugs on their desks?
I need to admit right up front that I have not been able to grasp this concept, in part because I am a premodern church kind of guy. Still, I am fascinated by the people involved in this post-contemporary church, post-suburban megachurch movement. I think they are searching for something real in our media-saturated culture.
One aspect of this movement that troubles me is its emphasis on taking pieces of ancient Christian art and worship and then, blender style, combining them into something that is brand new and very Protestant, yet the people involved in the service think that what they are doing is very old and even catholic, with a small or a large "c." Here is a glimpse into one such church from a column I did not so long ago.
The first thing people do after entering the quiet sanctuary is pause at a table to light prayer candles for friends and loved ones, the tiny flames adding to the glow of nearby candle trees.
The ministers wear oat-colored, hooded robes tied at the waist with ropes and guide their flock through ancient prayers, a litany of confession and silent meditations marked by a series of bells. Hymns are accompanied by an ensemble that includes fiddle, acoustic guitar, wind chimes, pennywhistles, a Bodhran and even bagpipes. . . .
This is not your typical Southern Baptist service. Nevertheless, this Celtic service is held every Sunday at this historic church in Lynchburg, Va.
This is not, needless to say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell's church in that fair city. This is a "moderate" Baptist church with gender-neutral liturgies, progressive politics and lots of other, well, NPR-coffee-mug traits. It is trying to embrace symbols, but not sacraments, ancient traditions, but not the ancient doctrines. It's a postmodern thing. For another glimpse of this movement, click here.
For some time now, I have been wondering when this trend might swing over to the true religious left. Now, I realize -- believe me, I realize -- that all kinds of experimental, even syncretistic things are already happening over there. That's not what I am talking about. I am not talking about taking pieces of non-Christian faiths and splicing them into Christian life and worship.
If you want to see this kind of liberalism in full flight, check out the website of the St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in, where else, San Francisco. This is the congregation that has made headlines with its elaborate, dance-driven Eucharists and its giant Eastern Orthodox-style iconography of "dancing saints" -- which when finished will include Charles Darwin, Cesar Chavez, John Coltrane, Martha Graham (naturally), Eleanor Roosevelt and many, many others. Some people consider this church's approach brilliant. Others see it as heresy and, to boot, a deeply offensive warping of the traditions of other believers. But, hey, it is free speech.
As you might guess, all of this is prologue to an interesting religion-news article from the mainstream press (seeing as how that is the purpose of this blog). The Chicago Tribune recently dug into what happened when a United Methodist congregation decided -- with a nod to its Hispanic members -- to bring a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe into its sanctuary. On top of that, the congregation actually decided to use some elements of Catholic spirituality.
Well, it was hard to mix Methodists and the rosary. Reporter Manya A. Brachear noted that some of the charter members of the Amor de Dios United Methodist Church immediately hit the doors -- headed out.
Pastors of other Hispanic Methodist congregations objected too. They said praying to the Virgin equaled idolatry. And Roman Catholics in the neighborhood worried that the church might be selling itself as something it was not.
Still, Rev. Jose Landaverde allowed the statue to stay. He says he sees no harm in embracing a tradition -- the Virgin is an unofficial national symbol of Mexico -- that might bring people closer to God.
"It's coming from the people, which is the real presence of the Holy Spirit," said Landaverde, 31, a student pastor from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. "You cannot bring theological debates to the people when they need spiritual assistance."
Ah, but there is the question. Did this well-meaning mainline Protestant pioneer bring Catholic theology into his sanctuary, or merely a comforting statue with powerful cultural symbolism? This is not an insignificant question for mainline Protestants, who have seen their churches age and fade in an era of increasingly cultural diversity.
So what does it really mean, when a Protestant congregation celebrates a novena in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, parading a "2-foot-high statue around the neighborhood, singing songs and reciting the rosary"?
Other United Methodists -- including Hispanics, as well as Anglos -- believe that this is going too far. They told the Tribune the statue might even be seen as a sign of oppression, meaning the oppression of Protestants by Catholics in Mexico. The local Catholic pastor feared that the Methodists were merely pretending to be something they are not. Might some Hispanics be confused, not unlike the Jews who respond to High Holy Day ads for "Messianic Jewish" churches? Or is Our Lady of Guadalupe "merely" a cultural or even political symbol?
The article raised more questions than it answered. I hope the Tribune keeps an eye on this trend and, in the future, even asks doctrinal, as well as cultural, questions.